Tech by VICE

Big Rural

In the not-so-distant future, rural America contends with the arrival of Big Solar.

by Cat Rambo
Mar 26 2019, 3:49pm

Brian Miller

Today, I'm pleased to share part of an intriguing project from Arizona State University and some top science fiction writers focused on examining the future of solar power—The Weight of Light. Per ASU, it's a "collection of science fiction stories, art, and essays exploring human futures powered by solar energy... What will it be like to live in the photon societies of tomorrow? How will a transition to clean, plentiful energy transform our values, markets, and politics?" The ebook is free, and you can check it out here. The story we're running today, about the incoming clash of Big Solar and small town America, comes courtesy of the great Cat Rambo—the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and acclaimed speculative scribe in her own right. Enjoy. -the ed


Trish almost didn’t take the turnoff from Interstate 8. She was tired and anxious and it was easy to miss, particularly in the evening blast of last-gasp sunlight. A headache was building in the back of her neck, ratcheted up by lack of sleep. Should have picked a self-driving car rather than this one.

But when she glimpsed it, the decision to swing down the unnamed pebble-and-dust road that led to Ojos de Amistad Lookout seemed so natural that it was almost automatic, happening between one breath and the next. She switched off the AC and thumbed all four windows open. Almost as though she were back in high school, she and Jeff Garcia out driving his ancient Jeep in the early evening, when the blue ebbed from the Arizona sky and a faint scent of creosote rode the cooling wind.

If she got to the lookout point before the sun began to dip below the horizon, she’d see one of the best things about the valley. Because of the coal plant, Tierra del Rey had beautiful sunsets, and she wanted her return home to start with that image.

The road was barely car-width, even for her small rental. The car bounced and jittered along the road, sending pale dust and pebbles flying amid scruffs of agave and prickly pear. Tires crunching over rocks, the rumble outside battling the tinny sound from the dashboard radio as the DJ segued into yet another country song. It was the third time she’d heard this one since pulling the rental away from the airport, a few hours ago.

You city people fill your lives with chatter,

Thinking that us country folk don’t matter …

The road narrowed and dwindled before widening out into four cars’ worth of parking, unoccupied. She pulled the parking brake and reached to the radio.

But listen out here in the big rural, the big land,

Something’s echoing here, maybe you can understand …

She clicked the music off and grabbed her purse and water bottle before taking the footpath up to the point. The path had once been set off with railroad ties, which still bordered the sunbaked mountainside, but the cedar chips were gone now, not even crumbles left. Every step was a memory jabbing at her. How many times had she walked up this way, angry at something, someone, usually the town itself, full of resolution to get out, no matter what?

The sign at the fork was sun-faded into unintelligibility, but she knew what it said. Marcos de Niza, Spanish conqueror, had paused here, looked out, and claimed the valley in the name of his king. Also: no trash, no alcohol, no fires.

By the time she reached the ledge overlooking the valley, sweat covered her, and the evening breeze flickering across her skin was welcome, even if it was barely cooler. She went to the gym three times a week, but she wasn’t in anything like the shape she’d been in as a teen, when she was running track, knowing it the best chance she had for a scholarship. Running her way out of Tierra del Rey and into a better life.

One that had led her straight back here. Anxiety and guilt flared at that. What sort of welcome would she get? She hadn’t thought she’d ever be back. Hadn’t bothered to maintain ties. More efficient that way. More effective that way.

And easier. So much easier.

She gulped down the last of the water and stuck the bottle into her purse. The tomato-red sun rolled on the horizon, sending long black shadows walking across the land, towards the enormous black square that was Phase I of the Sol Dominion power plant, glittering in the last of the sunlight. You could barely see the storage structures scattered among the solar panels like enormous alien flowers, many-petalled and made of dark carbonized plastic with an oily undersheen of cobalt and purple.

Arms folded, she looked towards the town bordering that square to the east, where lights were flickering alive. She could name most of them. The gas station. The diner. The tiny grocery/hardware/drugstore locals just called “the store.” The two-block strip that was Main Street, the grade school on one end, the high school on the other, linked by shared sports fields: baseball, soccer. Still no football stadium. The coal plant, unlit now.

When you came home again, even to “the big rural,” as the song called it, things were supposed to have changed. Here the only change was that black square. Between the town lights and the scattered but symmetrical lights surrounding the plant, a dark strip, perhaps a mile wide, stretched, unlit. As though town and plant had turned their backs on each other.

Not all of them, though, given the vandalism she’d been called to investigate.

A mourning dove called, a lonesome whirra-hu-hu somewhere to her left where the cliff face stretched upward. She and Jeff had climbed further up dozens of times, but this spot had been their favorite.

She ran her thumb between her shoulder and the purse strap, feeling the leather cling to her sweaty skin. East Coast life’s made me soft. She turned back to the trail and descended in the half-light while the dove called behind her. Halfway down, another dove answered it, and their solemn call-and-response accompanied her all the way back to the car.

By the time she was halfway back to the highway, full dark had descended. She switched on her brights, pressing the confirm button at the car’s query. There were no other cars on the road, and she didn’t bother to dim the lights until she hit the outskirts of town.

Two cars in the parking lot of the store. She didn’t expect to recognize them, and didn’t. The bell jingled the way it had a thousand times before as she stepped into the store’s sallow fluorescent lights. Two customers talking to the clerk up front, one of those lazy shoot-the-shit conversations. Their backs turned. But then one shifted and the light hit his shoulder as he shrugged, showed the muscles along the back of his neck and she froze. Jeff.

She could have kept moving, but the customers looked around at the sound of the bell. Jeff recognized her immediately, she could read that in the way his expression shifted: surprise welcome then hardening into anger and a more defensive stance. Beside him, Aaron Paulsen. Of course, who else would I least want to see the night I arrived? Aaron flippin’ Paulsen.

Behind the counter, a sleepy-eyed girl, high school age, unimpressed and bored by all of them, stared down at her phone. Her name tag read Zoe Z, tilted at a careless 30-degree angle on the blue nylon uniform shirt. Trish remembered how scratchy that fabric was, how it seemed to gather heat in all the most uncomfortable places.

Jeff and Trish locked eyes. Aaron was the first to speak. “Beatrice!” he exclaimed, a little too hearty, a little too smiling.

She forced an answering smile, looking away from Jeff’s accusing eyes to meet Aaron’s chilly blue gaze. “Aaron. Jeff.” Hefting a plastic basket from the pile slumped near the door, she stepped towards the back cooler cases. She was tired, and she was hungry. Get in, get the food, get out.

She expected them to say something more, but they were silent. Trying to rattle me, that’s Paulsen’s style. She felt that they must be watching, but when she swung around with her armload of milk, thaw-dinners, and a sleeve of eggs, Aaron was sliding money across the counter to the clerk and taking two packs of cigarettes along with a red, white, and blue striped lighter while Jeff stared at the lottery ticket display.

Aaron scooped up his change as she came up behind them. Turning, he said, “So, come back to check out what your company’s been doing here?”

Of course they know who I work for, she thought. Small towns, everyone knows what everyone else does.

“Troubleshooting,” she said briefly. She looked him in the eyes, watching his body language. “There’s been vandalism. More than petty stuff.” Jeff looked up at that, his face a careful blank.

Was that guilt flickering in the watery depths of the smile Aaron showed her?

“Yeah, I heard about that. People don’t like the power plant. They don’t know what to expect. They know my family’s coal plant built this town.”

“They’re saying a lot, seems like,” she said.

He shrugged. “Small town, word gets around.”

“Word of who’s been doing it too, maybe?”

He shrugged. Behind him, Jeff’s face still blank as an unlit screen.

They stood there in silence while she paid for her groceries and gathered up the bag.

“See you, Beatrice,” Aaron said to her back as she left.

“I go by Trish now.” On the door as she swung it open, a poster from Sol Dominion. The alien flowers dark and ominous against the blue and yellow of Sol Dominion, golden words above it: Sol Dominion Phase II Coming Soon. Underneath the picture in a more sober, shadowy blue: Building Today For a Brighter Tomorrow.

The bells jingled again as the door closed behind her.

*

She kept the windows open to the cooler night air as she headed to the solar plant. On its eastern side was the housing for the workers that had built it, mostly empty now but kept ready for the workforce that would return in three months for Phase II.

The moonlight washed out Sol Dominion’s trademark sunshine yellow and sky blue, leached them of life until the trailers formed a symmetrical, boxy plastic ghost town. Their blank faces flickered past as she drove to the gate, a glass box, lit from the inside, housing a sleepy-looking woman nursing a coffee cup, reading a paperback. She glanced up as Trish rolled to a stop. Booted heels crunched over gravel; Trish turned off the car and proffered her ID. “Evening, Anita,” she said.

Anita Luz, who had babysat Beatrice Soledad from the ages of three to seven, didn’t acknowledge the greeting. She studied the plastic card before flipping it back towards Trish. “Any trailer’s open except the first three in Row G.” She made her way back to the booth and pushed a button. The chain-link gate shuddered open.

“Nice to see you too,” Trish muttered under her breath.

Close up, the trailers in their identical rows seemed even spookier. They were all yellow with blue trim, the number beside each doorway the same color. She opted for Row F—one over but still close to the plant’s other occupants, a skeleton crew of gate guards and technicians, totaling eight.

She settled in, unpacking her groceries. The trailer smelled of staleness and disuse and she opened all the windows, letting the desert breeze wash in and sweeten the air. There were no bed linens. She unfolded a t-shirt and dressed the foam pillow in it, then laid down on the crackling plastic film that covered the bed, listening. She could hear two owls hunting, calling to each other huhu huhu in a stuttering rhythm that overlapped then died away into silence then started again.

Quiet here. One of those nights when the wind sang in the telephone wires. Outside, the field of solar panels was silent and unmoving even as electricity flowed out of it, feeding needs far beyond Tierra del Rey. Sol Dominion’s model project. Almost ready for Phase II. Whoever helped make that happen would be lavished with glory and bonuses and, most importantly, allowed a leap two or three rungs up the corporate ladder.

And if you leaped and fell? There were plenty of other young MBAs with gleaming degrees from Wharton and Harvard, ready to fall into line and begin their own journeys upward.

She fell asleep dreaming of ladders, reaching up out of dark water.

*

When she woke, the day was already starting to heat up. As she filled the coffee maker with water, she glanced out the window, then froze. One of the enormous solar storage devices was askew, canted at an impossible angle that threatened the arrays of black tempered glass beneath its long shadow.

One of the most important parts of the plant, the batteries stored the gigawatts then sent them out to power businesses and homes, so many lives dependent on that invisible flow.

Water ran over her hand as the carafe overfilled. She set it down, turned off the tap, and went out to investigate. The tower was one of the ones furthest from the worker housing and it took her a while to walk there. This close to the panels, she could see weeds growing in the shadows and spiny lizards lying in the sun, soaking up heat.

Machinery, hacked apart, the base of the alien flower chopped as though it were a tree. Beneath it, dropped as though the attacker had been scared away mid-swing, a long-handled axe. She knelt to examine it.

Most of the red paint had peeled away from the head, and someone had wrapped the handle first in string, then black electrical tape, so it could be gripped away. The pattern reminded her of how Jeff and the other boys had wrapped their baseball bats, emulating one of the older kids that year.

The security cameras yielded nothing; black hoods cloaked the faces of the three intruders, who registered only as collections of jerky motion in the infrared system. They’d disabled the lights beforehand; Anita had left a note saying she hadn’t heard anything. Hadn’t even bothered to wait to talk to Trish.

*

Bill Larson had been sheriff of Tierra del Rey for as long as Trish could remember. Stolid to the point of dourness, the lanky, balding man oversaw a single deputy, the pair based in a cinderblock construction on the main road into town. It was a tradition for the schoolchildren to paint murals on it. The current one was fresh, showing town buildings on one side, the solar plant on the other. They met around the central door, where the alien flowers shrunk, brightened, became marigolds, poppies, and roses.

She took a breath, squared her shoulders, and opened the door.

The air inside was crisply cold, hitting her bare skin the minute she stepped through. Lawson sat at his desk, facing the door, leaning back with his boots on the desk, coffee in hand as he studied some form. He scowled at the sight of her.

She shoved down all the feelings he roused in her of having done wrong. A fatherless teen with a mother working too many hours to watch over her children, she’d had her share of run-ins. Now she was here as Sol Dominion’s representative; she stepped forward with the assurance that having a multinational corporation behind her in the face of a small-town sheriff gave her.

“There’s been more vandalism, one of the storage towers,” she said. “I need to see the other reports on it when you come to investigate.”

Larson returned his attention to the form he’d been studying. “No reports. Company property, not town.”

“You’re supposed to oversee the whole valley!”

“Except for Sol Dominion holdings,” he said flatly. “A pleasure to see you, Miss Soledad. Enjoy your stay here in Tierra del Rey.”

*

Her head churned as she drove away. Aaron must be the ringleader. No one was more upset about the coal plant being shut down than the family that owned it, that had commanded a special spot in Tierra del Rey society as a result. She’d found plenty of Aaron’s type in college and then Sol Dominion: born into wealth and unused to losing. They would do anything to avoid it, thinking themselves more deserving of victory than lesser souls.

She stopped at the store to pick up more water. The clerk didn’t even look at her, too intent on her phone to care about any customer. On the way out, Trish saw the poster again. Someone had taken black felt-tip and scribbled all over it, tangles of dark ink, like weeds around the flower bases: “get the fuck out Sol we love coal” and “where’s our water?”

Aaron, behind her again.

I forget that about small-town-in-the-big-rural. Every time you turn around, you’re seeing someone you don’t want to. His smirk, angled down at her as though to remind her of the height discrepancy.

“Come back to see what your company’s done?” he asked, knife sharp. “Or to scavenge the corpse?”

“Corpse is an odd choice of word,” she said, neutral. “The project’s brought in jobs and money, with more on the way. What’s dead, precisely?”

“Take your pick.” Black felt-tip pen riding in his front shirt pocket, she noted. “Maybe the town. Maybe your friendships. Jeff everything you thought he’d be?”

He was, she thought, thinking of that expressionless face when he’d seen her. Still familiar, same stance.

She tried to steer them back to something closer to friendship. “Did he become a volunteer firefighter like he’d always said?” The firefighters had denied him as a teen because of asthma difficulties; nowadays with gene therapy she didn’t think that would be such an issue, but who knew?

Aaron froze as though he was trying to figure out what she meant by the question, eyes narrowing. Finally he spat, “What do you care?” Pushed past and was gone.

She followed him though, at a distance. Trailed him back to the lookout. He’d lead her to the other vandals, sooner or later.

An unfamiliar car. She ghosted along, activating her net link—if she was discovered, she’d be broadcasting whatever happened, in livetime, deterrent enough for most criminals. And if not? Something to think about when and if.

She paused on the bend under the lookout to listen.

Aaron’s voice, and Jeff’s.

“Like a black hole,” Jeff said. “Remember that from sixth grade science? That one always stuck with me, I don’t know why. Big black hole, sucking up everything. Welcome to Sol Dominion.”

She could see what he was talking about: the great glittering black puddle that was the project, the distant alien blooms, one of them askew. Inhuman. Swallowing life and giving nothing, a trickle at best, back to the town clinging to its edge.

But it was realization, not the vista, that froze her. Aaron’s not the leader.

She thought of the long-handled axe. The sort a volunteer firefighter might carry.

Jeff is.

*

Walking back and forth that night, trying to figure out what to do. Every time she went near the guard shack, she could hear the radio. That big rural song again, twice.

You city people fill your lives with chatter,

Thinking that us country folk don’t matter …

To Sol Dominion, the townsfolk hadn’t mattered. She remembered the presentation, the way they’d worded it. Out in the middle of nowhere. And her looking at the map, seeing the crossroads and realizing. Tierra del Rey.

Images flickered through her head as she paced. The poster, the angry black scrawls across it. The glittering black sea of the panels—there’d be so many more of them in Phase II.

But listen out here in the big rural, the big land,

Something’s echoing here, maybe you can understand …

The children’s mural outside the sheriff’s office.

The air chilled as she walked and the tears on her cheeks glittered as she paced.

*

She’d made a lot of calls by the time she invited Jeff to walk with her up to the lookout point. Cashed in all her social capital, maybe overdrawn some of it. That remained to be seen.

Jeff’s expression was wary. He didn’t say much as they walked side by side up the trail.

“Beatrice,” he started once.

“That’s not who I am. I call myself Trish now.”

“That’s not who I fell in love with.”

After that, silence until they reached the point. Still a little cool, but sweat rode her forehead when they arrived.

She could smell dust and creosote bush on the wind. A red-tailed hawk swung far above in lazy spirals, getting an early morning jump on rodents and sluggish reptiles.

Jeff said, “I guess you know.”

“I guess I do.” She took out a bottle of water, took a swig, passed it over to him.

He drank and wiped his lips on the back of his arm before passing the bottle back. There were fine lines in the corners of his eyes now, years of sun she’d avoided. “So, what now?”

“Imagine if we made it something other than a black hole,” she said.

He frowned.

“Ever hear of agro-voltaics?”

At his headshake, she continued. “Imagine crops growing between the panels, sheltered from some of the heat. Strawberries, melons.” She searched her mind for the children’s mural. “Marigolds, poppies. Even roses. The company took the water rights but hasn’t done anything with them. I’ve confirmed that we can get most back.”

She gestured at the expanse. “Yes, more space, but we’ve got plenty of that. And the infrastructure to ship the produce out at the same time. Send the power out to the state but feed it as well.”

“That’s a big change,” he said.

She shrugged. “Some things are big enough to work toward.”

The bottle was dry and sunrise well past by the time they finished talking.

“What made you change your mind, overall?” he asked as they started towards her car.

She shrugged. “Thought about what would piss off Aaron most, so that meant nothing to do with coal.”

“No, really.”

“That’s as good a reason as any,” she said, but kept her smile tilted away from him as they walked away from the sunset and down the path.