The Wandering Island Factory (4 page)

BOOK: The Wandering Island Factory
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[Chapter 6]

At the end of his shift, he watched the news unfold live from the deck. It looked like two thin pencil-like tubes were slowly inflating in the distance. But scale was everything. On the two hundred acre floating island, they could easily be longer than blimps with the diameter of at least ten or twenty feet. The inflating tubes slowly carried the giant parasails a thousand feet into the sky as the island inched from view on what seemed like a windless day.

He never would have believed it, but it seemed the most fitting way for an infant island to leave Hawaii, like the hundreds of teens who did the same things with surfboards strapped to their feet. The paper even linked the idea to one of its old stories about a local teen who parasailed to Mexico for spring break.

The behemoth, on the other hand, remained stationary and was busy cranking out solid slabs again. Riding a different kind of wave, that of free publicity, they were getting flooded with orders, and it was looking like he could stay there indefinitely.

If Gina would have him, that was.

He watched it slip past the horizon, yet the sails remained visible (with binoculars) for an hour longer.

When it was gone, he returned to his small room and checked his email.

Two messages from his brother, one from his mom.

His mom wanted him to come home.

He couldn't afford the trip. In the states, what he made would be a small fortune, but Hawaii was very expensive, and he wasn't saving up as much as he should.

He answered her last.

Since he had it off and was so far away from home, Gina's family asked him over for Thanksgiving, and left Christmas open, if he could attend. The behemoth couldn't be shut down, not for a minute, without lava hardening in the tubes. It worked 24/7/365, and that probably meant that he would be scheduled for Christmas. Someone would, and he was still the lowest on the totem pole. It was a miraculous fluke that he had this week off.

He got out of the cab and walked up the steps to the small apartment where Gina's family was staying. Protocol suggested he should have brought a fine bottle of wine, but he brought a huge pecan pie and a strawberry cheesecake. The wine probably would have cost him less.

Gina's mother put an enormous amount of effort into the dinner, and it showed. The mashed potatoes were even put back into the oven for an extra ten minutes, just to brown the buttered tops before being covered in shredded cheese. The yams and cranberry sauce were the only things that came pre-prepared, from a can. It was all much better than he could have done, and Thanksgiving just wasn't Thanksgiving without those touches of home.

The after-dinner conversation naturally settled on the floating island, with Nathan peppering Jason with questions.

". . . Buck, the engineer in my section, could answer that question better than me," Jason answered.

Nathan elbowed Gina, "I told you to date Buck instead—"

"But," Jason continued, "I asked the same kind of question. 'How do you anchor two hundred acres of drifting boat?' Well, the only answer I got, that I understood, was that it had something to do with the thermal generator, which I also don't understand all that well.

I get how the behemoth makes power from lava, that's easy, it makes steam and shoots it past a couple of turbines. But somehow, the island's design makes hundreds of megawatts off of the small temperature difference between warm surface water and the frigid water hundreds of feet below. Anyhow, to get that much power from lower temperature differences requires moving large sums of surface water. Moving large sums of water is just what you need to keep an island stationary. It stays anchored as a side effect of how it makes electricity."

"I don't know," Nathan said, "that sounds a little far fetched. I believe the internet stories about it being the first civilian ship with a nuclear reactor."

Jason laughed, but had second thoughts. "You might be right, for all I know. If a billionaire can't buy a nuke, who can?"

Gina returned from the kitchen with her mom, each balancing plates of pie and cups of coffee.

Everything was going great, until the mother suggested, to the horror of everyone, that they move the table and play twister.

A month later, Gina spent the holiday with her family, as only seemed right. And though they were very gracious and invited him to stay, he felt like a fifth wheel the whole time. The apartment was small for a family of four, plus him, and it always felt like he was crowding them. But he stayed and got to know the people Gina grew up with.

He watched the late night news with Nathan.

The floating island was still front and center.

He would think that its ultra-green pedigree would have saved it from hippie protests. It didn't. It was made from lava and sand, yet because they altered its chemistry ever so slightly so that it didn't decompose into dirt after a few years, it was deemed a mortal sin against nature.

Next on the protest list was its chosen source of power. The thermal generator. It was a banned technology for generating power because it artificially cooled the surface of the ocean. Ironically, the loudest protests came from global-warming advocates who claimed that the world was going to end because, "greenhouse gasses were WARMING the surface of the ocean TOO much!" As a ship intended for international waters, they could use whatever source of power they could afford, and neither had to ask for permission nor care about complaints. The company was even petitioning the UN, most likely for publicity reasons, for official country status for the island.

The thermal generators seemed to make an enormous amount of sense. Anyone who owned a mobile island would naturally keep moving it to chase the seventy-degree weather, all year round, which was perfect for just such a machine. Besides that, refueling with oil or anything like it would be insanely expensive and complicated to say the least. Most of the vehicles planned for transportation on or within the island were some form of electric.

Windmills and solar, what the protesters wanted, would have covered every inch of the island and would have destroyed its aesthetically pleasing appearance. Windmills would have added another complication by acting like giant sails.

It seemed environmental protesters would protest anything that got their faces in front of a camera or in the local paper. Their beliefs didn't seem to extend much further than publicity and fundraising, same as the average politicians.

Had they truly believed in global warming, they would have supported ANY technology that cooled the ocean; that it made a hundred fold the free energy of a windmill with the reliability of a nuclear plant, as the thermal design promised, should have been seen as a bonus. In a rational world, it should have looked like an answer to every environmentalist's prayer. But it wasn't. They only seemed interested in plans for cooling the oceans that CONSUMED large amounts of energy or closed businesses and punished people with lowered standards of living, all while paying more for energy and taxes.

He wasn't an engineer guy, changing oil and the occasional brake job was about the limit of his usefulness. The news anchor lost him a little, but it made sense the way Buck explained it. Steam was the expanding gas used in turbines; the thermal generator simply used a different gas, or working fluid as he called it, and used pistons instead of turbines. Steam depended on temperature differences too. If a steam turbine vented into a planet filled with steam, like Venus, it wouldn't work. It only works on Earth because the cooler ambient temperature and lower pressure of this planet gives the steam somewhere to go. He still didn't understand the thermal design enough to build one or fix one if it ever got broken, but that was true of cars, too. He understood the standard combustion engine in the most general ways. Yet, even without holding such in-depth understanding, cars continued to work despite his ignorance. The thermal engine probably would work as well.

Nathan, on the other hand, was fascinated and researched every aspect of it, and was confounded by Jason's ignorance of the intricacies of his own supposed occupation. But the reality was, Jason just sat and watched gauges, and rarely got a chance to do more.

Or learn more.

When he got the job, he had hoped that he would be intimately involved with every aspect of— but who was he kidding? He was just a high school graduate, nothing more. He was a laborer. He did grunt work. Low pay, by comparison, and low skilled.

He learned more from late-night conversations with Nathan than he did from the job. But then, he only took the job because of Gina. Knowledge of anything else was an extra.

To get back in the swing of nightshift, he returned to the ship a day early, with a new bottle of melatonin.

Over Easter, he was scheduled to work. A part of him was glad to not be a burden on Gina's family. The rest of him sorely missed them, quirky mother and all.

[Chapter 7]

He kissed her on the lips as they lay in bed, late into the morning. They had yet to consummate anything, and probably wouldn't still for months to come. But he was strangely ok with all of that. She no longer stiffened when he hugged her. She didn't reflexively recoil at every touch. He had stopped telegraphing his kisses, and she was reacting more naturally to unexpected pecks on the cheek.

He was liking all of this. He was enjoying the simple pleasures of spending time with someone.

It was nice to have conversations during the commercials instead of mindlessly getting something out of the fridge. Without her, even in Hawaii, the week off would have been more boring than his job.

He didn't even mind when Nathan dropped by the rented room from time to time, and it felt perfectly natural to let him have a key or crash whenever he liked. Nathan wasn't likely to find them doing anything sneaky or inappropriate. And after many, many lessons and stings from jellyfish, Jason was finally able to stand on a board without immediately falling off. He still couldn't surf, though. But just standing was a major accomplishment.

His problems now involved not having a 'feel' for the wave. Get up too soon or too late and the wave would slip from his grip and he would only ride a few feet, unlike Gina who could almost ride the wave all the way to shore.

The room was a primo location for surfing, it turned out.

He looked at her face, yet to fully wake. He wasn't that interested in surfing anyway; the only reason he went out was because of her. He liked watching her ride them. He liked seeing that smile.

He hadn't even seen her naked yet, just shorts and a T-shirt. She was the longest relationship he had ever been in, and by far the longest he had ever gone without having sex. The two had to be related.

He hadn't even felt her up yet. He kissed her as she smiled.

He was looking forward to a lot of firsts with her.

But for right now, he would settle for breakfast.

The hotel's free breakfast bar was still open, but just for the next twenty minutes. Reluctantly, he kissed her out of bed. This was the first time that he could remember when she went out into public in shorts.

He sat outside the motel room, alone at the café, and pondered the week that was nearly at an end.

Gina worked as a waitress, one of the few jobs that didn't interfere with classes. She was studying to be a bartender, but had yet to complete her training, which should never be confused with 'classes'. She studied computer programming, creative writing, business, economics, and shared a gene with her brother with an interest in mechanical engineering. She read monthly, and understood, Science and Technology review from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as a dozen other publications freely available on the web. She could probably excel in that field better than he could; she understood the textbooks with far fewer problems, except she felt out of place in the classroom. Something that didn't intimidate her online.

Half of her classes were online anyway, for practical reasons.

She could never afford the 'caliber' of colleges that came with name recognition; she struggled to afford the few community college classes as it was. So, the logic went, if she couldn't afford prestigious anything anyway, she might as well get as many classes and as much knowledge as she could for what little money she did have. Quantity verses quality, breadth verses depth. If you can't afford a Mercedes, get a Ford. The Ford still has a five-year warranty, gets her where she wants to go, and is infinitely better than riding the bus; it's just not a Mercedes.

Plus, online classes worked around her schedule. She even had enough money leftover to afford a personal online tutor, from India, who went by Jimmy. And she could take her laptop/classroom anywhere and truly enjoyed the broadband at his motel. She was taking classes right now, and he was 'distracting'.

It was his room, yet he found himself outside at the café, watching the action on the beach. He didn't even complain about it, if memory served. He was overwhelmed with a weird compulsion to talk to her when the room was filled with so much silence. Every time he did, she would answer, but only after a pause. He would notice he was distracting her, apologize, and say, 'sorry' or 'never mind', but the interruption had already occurred. After the tenth of eleventh time, he apologized and left her alone the only way he could, by leaving the room.

He caught himself getting up to go back and ask her a question six times already, but always stopped himself before getting to the room. She would come down when she was done. They had agreed.

Why would it be so, he thought? He wasn't flooded with this kind of compulsion on the behemoth. He never flooded her with emails or phone calls. It must have something to do with proximity.

He ordered another ice water with a lemon wedge and changed seats for one with more shade.

He watched her drain a can of chickpeas at the mini sink in the room, then emptied it and some canola oil into a wok and stir it over their tiny burner. The oil started to sizzle.

"Ten minutes until the movie," he said.

"It's alright. It'll be done by then, promise." She sprinkled in the popcorn kernels, a few shakes of Creole seasoning, a pinch of salt, and put a lid on it. Giving it an occasional shake of the handle to keep it from burning.

"Eight minutes," he teased.

"Patience," she teased back.

Pop. . . pop pop. . . pop!

As she opened the lid a crack, a puff of steam emerged. Quickly returning the lid, she resumed the shaking, sloshing motion across the burner. "Just a few minutes more. It'll be worth it. Promise. It's like nothing you've ever had before." Then she hesitated with its delay. "I've never tried it with one of these before. I wonder if there's any difference between burner—"

The wok exploded in pops for a full two minutes or more, then trailed off.

She turned the heat off, poured it all into their biggest bowl, then drizzled a tiny bit of olive oil across the top before returning to the bed to watch their last movie before tomorrow's checkout.

He reached in, more than a little dubious of what chickpeas had to offer to popcorn. The Creole seasoning gave the popcorn a little spicy kick of heat while drastically dropping the sodium count. He gathered his courage and sampled a chickpea. It was still warm in his fingers, a little hard like the flaky crust of a deep-fried fish, but it melted in his mouth like a cheesy puff. "Wow!" he said, skipping the popcorn and fishing for more chickpeas. "Oh my God! Why don't they serve these at theaters?"

"Shhhh!!!" she said, "The movie's on."

He turned out the light as they snuggled closer and prepared for their last night together. Chickpeas. . . who would have known how perfect they could be?

BOOK: The Wandering Island Factory
7.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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