Page 112 of Overload


A high-pitched buzzer, connected to the respirator and powered by a small nickel cadmium cell, sounded a warning that the respirator was about to stop. Karen, her consciousness already diminishing, heard it dimly, as if from a long distance away.

As she began to gasp, helplessly craving air she could not take in unaided, her skin turned red, then blue as she became cyanotic. Her eyes bulged. Her mouth worked wildly. Then, as air ceased coming entirely, she choked; intense pain gripped her chest.

Soon, mercifully, the battery died and, with it, Karen.

Just before her death, her bead slumped sideways and, as it touched the telephone microswitch, a voice responded. "Operator. May I help you?"

19

In some ways, Nim thought, it was like the rerun of an old movie as be explained to the assembled press group, including TV and radio crews, what had happened at La Mission plant to cause the latest blackout. He reflected: Was it really just ten months ago that Walter Talbot and the others died, and Big Lil suffered bomb damage which caused last summer's blackout? So much had happened since, that the gap in time seemed wider.

Nim was aware of one difference, today. It was the attitude of the media people, compared with ten months earlier. Today, there seemed a genuine awareness of the problems GSP & L faced, and a sympathy which had previously been lacking.

"Mr. Goldman," Oakland Tribune asked, "if you get green lights to build the plants you need, bow long will it take to catch up?"

"Ten years," Nim answered. "Oh, if we had a real crash program, maybe eight. But we need a lot of permits and licenses before we can even begin. So far there isn't any sign of them."

He had come here, to a press conference in the observation gallery of the Energy Control Center, at Teresa Van Buren's request, shortly after the shutdown of all La Mission's remaining generators and the resultant blackout. Nim's first intimation that anything was wrong was when the lights in his office went briefly off and on. That was because special circuitry was protecting the utility's headquarters, and vital installations like the Energy Control Center, from loss of power.

Nim, guessing that something was wrong, had gone to Energy Control at once where Ray Paulsen, who had arrived a few minutes earlier, filled him in on what had happened.

"Ostrander did the right thing, and I'll back him up on it," Paulsen said. "If I'd been there, I'd have done the same."

"Okay, Ray," Nim acknowledged. "When I talk with the press I'll take that line."

"Something else you can tell them," Paulsen said, "is that we'll have all power back on in three hours or less. And by tomorrow, La Mission 1, 2, 3, and 4 will be on line again, and all geothermal units."

"Thanks. I will."

It was noticeable, Nim thought, that, in the press of events, the antagonism between him and Paulsen seemed to have evaporated. Perhaps it was because both of them were too busy for it.

Now, in the press conference, Nancy Molineaux asked, "Does this change any of the scheduled blackouts?"

"No," Nim responded. “They'll have to begin tomorrow, as planned, and continue every day after that."

Sacramento Bee inquired, "Will you be able to restrict them to three hours only?"

"It's unlikely," Nim said. "As our oil supplies diminish, the blackouts will have to be longer-probably six hours a day."

Someone whistled softly.

A TV newsman asked, "Have you heard there's been some rioting-demonstrations against the 'anti's?"

"Yes, I have. And in my opinion it doesn't help anybody, including US."

The demonstrations had happened last night. Nim read about them this morning. Stones were hurled through windows of the Sequoia Club and headquarters of the Anti-Nuclear League. Demonstrators at both places, who described themselves as "Ordinary Joe Citizens," had. clashed with police and several demonstrators were arrested. Later they were released without being charged. It was being freely predicted that there would be more demonstrations and rioting, presumably across the country, as unemployment increased because of power cuts. Amid it all, GSP & L's former critics and opponents were strangely silent.

Finally at the press conference, somebody asked, "What's your advice to people, Mr. Goldman?"

Nim grinned weakly. "Switch off everything you don't need to survive."

It was about two hours later, shortly after 6 pm., when Nim returned to his office.

He told Vicki, who was working late-it was getting to be a habit" Call Redwood Grove Hospital and ask to speak to Miss Sloan."

She buzzed him a few minutes later. “The hospital says they have no Miss Sloan registered."

Surprised, he queried, "Are they sure?"

"I asked them to make sure, and they checked twice for me."

“Then try her home number." He knew that Vicki had it, though he found it hard to believe that Karen would not have left her apartment for the hospital. This time, instead of buzzing, Vicki opened his office door and came in. Her face was serious.

"Mr. Goldman," she said, "I think you'd better take this call."

Puzzled, be picked up the phone. "Is that you, Karen?"

A choked voice said, "Nimrod, this is Cynthia. Karen is dead."

* * *

"Can't we go any faster?" Nim asked the driver.

"I'm doing my best, Mr. Goldman." the man's voice was reproachful.

“There's a lot of traffic, and more people than usual on the streets."

Nim had ordered a company car and chauffeur to be at the main doorway, rather than lose time getting his Fiat and driving himself. He arrived on the run and had given the address of Karen's apartment building. They were on the way there.

Nim's thoughts were in turmoil. He had obtained no details from Cynthia, only the bare fact that the power cut had been responsible for Karen's death. Nim already blamed himself-for failing to follow through, for not checking sooner to be sure Karen had gone to Redwood Grove.

Though knowing it was too late, he burned with impatience to arrive.

As a diversion, looking through the car's windows at the streets in gathering dusk, he considered what the driver had just said. There were many more people out than usual. Nim recalled reading about New York City during blackouts-people came out-of-doors in droves but, when asked, few knew why. Perhaps they were seeking instinctively to share adversity with their neighbors.

Others, of course, had taken to the New York streets to break the law, and burn, and plunder. Maybe, as time went on, both things would happen here.

Whether they did or didn't, Nim thought, one thing was certain: Patterns of life were changing significantly, and would change still more.

The city's lights were either on or coming on. Soon, the few remaining pockets without power would have theirs restored too.

Until tomorrow.

And the day after.

And, after that, who knew how prolonged or drastic the departure from normal life would be?

"Here you are, Mr. Goldman," the driver announced. They were at Karen's apartment building.

Nim said, "Please wait."

* * *

"You can't come in," Cynthia said. "Not now. It's too awful."

She had come out into the corridor when Nim arrived at the apartment, closing the door behind her. While the door was briefly open, Nim could hear someone inside having hysterics-it sounded like Henrietta Sloan-and a wailing which he thought was from Josie. Cynthia's eyes were red.

She told him as much as she knew about the series of misfortunes which added up to Karen's terrible, lonely death. Nim started to say what he had already thought, about blaming himself, when Cynthia stopped him.

"No! Whatever the rest of us did or didn't do, Nimrod, no one in a long time did as much for Karen as you. She wouldn't want you to feel guilt or blame yourself. She even left something for you. Wait!"

Cynthia went back inside and returned with a single sheet of blue stationery. "This was in Karen's typewriter. She always took a long time with anything like this and was probably working on it before . . . before. . ." Her voice choked; she shook her head, unable to finish.

"Thank you." Nim folded the sheet and put it in an inside pocket. "Is there anything at all I can do?"

Cynthia shook her head. "Not now." then, as he started to leave, she asked,

"Nimrod, will I see you again?"

He stopped. It was a clear and obvious invitation, just as be remembered the same invitation once before.

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