Dragonfly Library

Power in the Age of Lies: A Political Thriller

Author: © M Verant
Publisher: Acerbic Press
Publication Date: October 3, 2018
Ordering: Mverant.com
Social Media: Twitter, Facebook

13: SV1

Reno, Nevada
Saturday, three days later

Madison shivered outside her Reno motel as the sun edged over the horizon. She’d agreed to meet Conrad at the SV1 solar array at 7 a.m. They’d be tramping through the desert, so she was wearing jeans and a light blouse. Light, because the day was supposed to be hot. That was hard to believe. She rubbed her bare arms and wished she had a jacket.

And she was nervous again. She thought she’d beaten that to death on the plane—she even had spreadsheets to prove it. Apparently, rigorous analysis only provided a few hours of calm.

At least she was traveling alone. The APFA tour had been a massive entourage of press, Secret Service, expensive flights, and fancy meals, every motion choreographed by The Woman’s staff. This time, she flew coach and talked with a young woman, a Dreamer returning from a protest in Washington. The woman was finishing college, looking for a job in civil engineering, and facing deportation in a few months. It was not Madison’s industry, but she offered an introduction to a Texas energy firm. The woman obviously didn’t recognize her. Probably Dreamers didn’t watch Fox & Friends.

Her ride arrived, and they began the hour-long drive to SV1, winding south and west through hills of dusty, broken rock studded with scrubby trees. Her driver chatted about how beautiful the landscape was. She made polite responses, but mostly it felt weirdly different from home.

SV1 came into view in a wide valley of gentle, rolling desert. Several modern administrative buildings bordered a large substation where power was fed into the national power grid. The solar array itself was hundreds of panels, each about eight feet tall and twice as wide, a field of tilted rectangles suspended a few feet above the ground. As they drove, illusory patterns flickered across the rows. It was impressive if a bit repetitive. The substation was much more interesting. SV1 was a test site for advanced long-distance power transmission.

Madison’s ride dropped her off a few minutes before seven. The sun was blocked by low hills to the east, but already it was warmer than when she left. She texted Conrad, then wandered. It really was desert, like something out of a movie. She was looking at some weird plant—sagebrush, perhaps?—when Conrad emerged from one of the buildings. He was in light pants and a white short-sleeve shirt, looking very desert-chic himself. Not a suit, so she had guessed correctly on clothes. A minor hurdle cleared.

That left other questions. Like whether this would be as stiffly formal as their conversations in Washington. She gave him a nice smile and got a nice smile back. So there’s that. She felt another flutter of nerves. That was becoming irritating.

There was a slight pause before he said, “Good morning. Did you have a good flight?”

“Fine, thanks.” Then she figured out the pause—he never used her first name. They dodged names completely in their Washington meetings. It was strange, really. “Madison, please? I get enough Ms. Padgett in Washington.”

“Madison.” He said her name with a shade of emphasis, like an unfamiliar word. There was a much longer pause before he added, “Call me Conrad, please.”

She felt she’d missed something. Were first names not okay? No, he looked happy enough. This was ridiculous—the day would be hopeless if she analyzed every sentence. “Conrad, then. So, what’s first?” She knew perfectly well, of course.

“Solar array. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk.”

“I thought this was it?” She looked back at the panels.

“That’s just the… signpost, I guess. So people know they’re at the right place. This way, please.” He made a slightly elaborate gesture—maybe to be funny?—toward a concrete path that wound up the hill. She surveyed the climb while she thought about it. He was probably being funny. She turned back, smiling, only to find he had already set off so quickly she had to scramble to catch up. Now she was certain she was being utterly clueless. It had been two minutes, and already she wanted to call Hannah for advice.

Walking was simpler, though. She caught up beside him, which earned her another smile with a touch of wait-till-you-see-this. Like she was following a boy to his secret fort. This was certainly friendlier than Washington.

She shouldn’t be so nervous. Get on with it. “I read some of your papers while I was at the airport. NOAA work—flood risk estimates from sea level rise.” He looked surprised, which she expected. “I downloaded the NASA data on sea level also. First time I really drilled into it, I suppose.” Now he stopped, so she did the same, determined not to lose momentum. “The data is very good. I don’t know why people argue about the surface temperature data, it’s so noisy. Sea level is obviously a better metric. Really, it convinced me.”[1] He was staring, and she began to feel self-conscious. “I mean, it’s naturally integrated. The pauses match surface temperature spikes, which makes perfect sense. You know, if there’s chaotic heat transfer… ocean current changes…” She was babbling, so she took a breath. “So, I, um, thought it was best if I brought it up right away. So we didn’t dance around it all day.”

“It convinced you? You mean… of climate change?”

“Yes. Of course. Well, I don’t want to make it sound trivial. It was a difficult decision. I’ve been looking at it for a few weeks. Even before we talked,” argued, “in the working group. It was a bit hard to believe, you know.” He just stared at her silently. “Hard to believe because of how consistent it all was, I mean. It’s a bit incredible to realize you’ve been surrounded by biased information. I suppose it’s because of where I grew up.” He still hadn’t moved. Maybe she should try being funny, too. “There’s a particular textbook I’m curious to look at again. I think it must have just flat-out fabricated data. When I get back, I guess.” She gave a little laugh.

“When did you decide this? This… difficult decision?”

“On the plane. It was the first time I could really get into the data, you know. No interruptions. I needed to compare other sources, too. The Chinese are really stepping up their data collection—” His eyes were so intent that she stopped rather abruptly.

“You changed your mind,” he said, slowly. “The APFA celebrity advocate for coal power changed her mind about climate change while on the plane from Washington.”

“Well, you’re trying to make it dramatic. Climate change has nothing to do with my positions on the coal industry.”

Conrad lifted both hands to his hair, then slid them down, clasped behind his neck. “You can’t pretend this isn’t a big deal.”

“No, you’re right. If I’m making it sound casual, it’s just a bit embarrassing. We’ve fought about it, after all. It would have been dishonest not to say something.”

“Nobody changes their mind about climate change. Ever. You realize that, don’t you?”

She was feeling extremely uncomfortable. “Would you mind if we walked again, while we talk? It’s just… it’s a bit intense, you staring at me the way you are.”

He looked away. “I’m sorry. I’m just… it’s very surprising.” He gave a soft breath of a laugh.

“Let’s just walk for a minute, all right?” she said. They started climbing slowly, just strolling this time. Conrad watched the path, seemingly lost in thought.

The intensity of her reaction was confusing. She had argued this with him in Washington—in her first working group session, when she should have been petrified—and it was easy. She had been completely calm. Focused. Now, her hands were shaking when they hadn’t fought at all. She rubbed her palms against her jeans, trying for control. Some of this was the way he had just stared at her. That was disconcerting. But it had more to do with her. Her own beliefs. Articulating her thoughts, explaining them to another person, made it hard to just wake up tomorrow and reconsider.

Relief was kicking in, though. That clarity she felt when she chose a path. Having decided for herself. Having told him. The strange thing was there was nobody else to tell. Nobody inside the White House discussed climate change, just regulations and politics. There was only the occasional public tirade when Trump tweeted gibberish from the ridiculous administration talking points.

They reached a turn in the path, and Conrad said carefully, “I’d like to say something. If you’re… ready, I mean.” He was probably struggling with how to handle her fainting damsel act.

“I’m all right now. Thanks for giving me a break.” Her hands had stopped shaking. Instead, she had that slightly giddy, relieved-happy you get after doing something you were dreading. Perhaps that was a physical thing. Something to do with adrenaline.

He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable. I just… Nobody ever changes their mind on this. It’s religious faith. I’ve watched arguments on both sides for more than fifteen years. Whatever new data piles up against their position, people just rationalize it away.”

“Nobody even argues about it where I grew up. It’s religious faith there, but there’s only one religion.” She looked up the path. They were about a hundred yards from the top of the hill. “But I’ve seen the same thing you’re talking about. How people don’t change their minds. On all kinds of issues. Immigration policy. Gun control. Vaccination. I’ve seen it my whole life, but it’s much worse in Washington. You should hear the discussions in the White House. Ignoring data they don’t like. Inventing facts to support their positions.”

“Well, that’s politics.” He sounded bitter. “It’s the new normal. Win at any cost. You watch your opponent do it, and that makes you angry, then you do it yourself because otherwise you just lose, which is worse.”

She stopped to face him. “It’s not just politicians, though. Don’t you see it going on everywhere? It’s not even hidden. It’s like objective truth doesn’t exist. People decide to believe what makes them comfortable, and then reject data that conflicts. I hate it. It’s lazy.”[2] She couldn’t stand still, so she started up the hill. “I made it sound like there’s something wrong with where I grew up. But that was one specific issue. A weird, deliberate, consensual blind spot. You can even see why there would be bias. But those same people, when their job is the engineering, the planning of a mine, they are… impressive. I admire them. I’ve looked up to people who do that my entire life. That is hard work. Intellectually rigorous. Most people,” she was climbing too fast, so she stopped, talking while he caught up, “—you, probably—wouldn’t think so. But you can’t engineer at that scale by believing what you want to believe. You can’t ignore facts because they’re inconvenient. So there’s a discrepancy, an inconsistent behavior, which makes it worse. It’s deliberate intellectual dishonesty because it’s not an inability to think. It’s a choice. Not like a child covering their eyes because they’re afraid. It’s choosing to be blind so you can never be frightened at all.”

She turned back to the path, but he said, “Madison, wait a minute. You know, I wondered whether we’d argue about climate change again today.” He gave a soft laugh. “I was a bit obsessed with it.”

She smiled. “I noticed.”

“But I didn’t understand what bothered me until now. It was this bigger thing. That self-delusion bubble people do. I couldn’t believe you would do that.”

Something about that disturbed her. “Why not me?”

He seemed surprised. “Because you’re…” He stopped.

“What? Too smart? You’re smart. You think you don’t have blind spots? You’re in a bubble too. The difference is yours is moral. You’d rather keep your abstract principles clean and simple than care about people.” She noticed she had her hands on her hips, which usually meant she was angry. But she wasn’t angry, just focused again. That felt great. She was a lousy damsel. “You push so hard on climate change. If you had your way, you’d close every coal mine in the country. That’s true, right?”

He was watching her seriously. “Yes. Probably true.”

“All for the sake of… what, exactly? Future generations. People you don’t know, maybe who aren’t even born. Abstractions. You don’t know their world, what problems they can solve. But you’ll fight for them. Not just fight, you go to battle for them. Scorched earth. Wipe out the evil carbon industry. But what about the real people you hurt right now? I know, personally, hundreds of people whose lives are ruined because of the anti-coal crusade you’re on. I don’t even mean your party. You, personally. There are tens of thousands more. Do you think about them?”

His shoulders moved through a long breath before he answered. “I could tell you the usual answers to that. You know them. The people affected should be retrained. The government should give job assistance.”

“Of course I know them. They’re talking points so you can ignore the damage. It’s your little guilt-free bubble. Do you spend a lot of time fighting to make those things happen? Do you really think a man who lost a job he was good at—something he worked at for thirty years to earn a living, raise a family—will be okay just because he sits in some lousy government retraining school? To do what? Start writing software? Make lattes?”

He rubbed his jaw, hard enough that the muscles in his forearm worked. “Damn it. Madison, I’m standing here like… I don’t even know what. Five minutes ago, I was in shock because you were the fantasy person who changed their mind on climate change.” He opened his hand, staring at it like it might have answers. “I hear what you’re saying. I admit I don’t fight for those things. Fighting one battle at a time is hard enough. But, other people fight for that. People like you.”

“You think we win? The families I grew up with are being destroyed.”

“You’re winning now, though,” he said. “Look at the power your party has. That you, personally, have.”

“Says the man who single-handedly blocks the APFA passage.”

“You can’t defend the APFA as a whole. Look what it does. It was not created because someone wants to help those people you care about. It’s about artificially tipping economics, so coal companies make money, while taking political potshots at competing solutions. How long do you think the APFA will keep coal power competitive? Ten years? Five? And what about Rebuilding American Values in the Heartland? Do you defend that?”

“You can’t think I’d defend that Values legislation. I hate it,” she said. “But you can’t just argue economics. What’s the purpose of government if it just sits back and watches?”

He gave a dry laugh. “How did we end up with me arguing for laissez-faire economics against the White House fossil fuel energy advocate?”

“It’s because you use economics as a shield, to shirk moral responsibility.”

He looked at her for a few seconds. “It was a rhetorical question. But thank you for being so clear.”

“Oh.” Damn it. “I didn’t mean to turn this into a fight. It’s not a fight, because it’s not about you. Honestly. I just care so much because I’m starting to understand it. It’s clearer since I came to Washington, but not because it’s a political problem. It’s everywhere. It’s like a poison.” She couldn’t stand still anymore, so she stepped off the path. Another of those stupid plants was right in front of her. Well, that was dramatic. She turned back to him. “I like your morals. You stand for something. You just… you’ve made a bad moral judgment on this.” She paused. “That was an apology.” He started to laugh. “I wasn’t sure it sounded like one.” He laughed harder. She sighed. “Damn.” She looked around the valley, fighting a smile while he laughed.

“Madison. Look… we’re both getting very intense. I hear what you’re saying. I want to think about it. But we can’t solve the world’s problems standing here. How about we take another break. Let me show you the array.” He was smiling again, a nice, relaxed, after-laugh smile. It still felt intense somehow. “You’ll like it. I promise.”

She raised her hands and breathed deep through them, feeling her breath catch at her fingers. “Sure. You know what? That sounds great.” She turned slowly, looking around. It was getting brighter. Long shadows were appearing as the sun began to clear the hills. It was pretty, in a dusty kind of way. “Yes. Let’s go.”

And she’d thought that was the easy topic.

[1] Climate change metrics have been unambiguous to an impartial observer for decades, hence the overwhelming scientific consensus. But climate change deniers got a lot of mileage from cherry-picking surface temperature samples that included the 1997 El Niño outlier data. Check out https://climate.nasa.gov/ while you can, as Trump is trying to cut NASA funding for climate change research. / Karlis, Nicole. “Trump’s proposed federal budget will slash climate change–related NASA missions.” Salon, 11 Dec. 2017.

[2] “People decide to believe what makes them comfortable” — I believe the hyper-personalized, addictive platforms of social media are intrinsically dangerous. Xenophobia is hardwired into our brains, and the mob anonymity of the internet magnifies it through confirmation bias and echo chambers. / Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble. Penguin Books, 2012.

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