Thing a Week 20: Power Struggle

Cid and Sierra Desmond were sitting on opposite sites of a big, oak table in the middle of an old dining hall in the middle of a pirate ship half-buried in the middle of the desert.

The room was huge: aged, ornate woodworking lined the walls and adornments crept into every little nook and cranny, with rusted reds and golds making the room look like one large — very large — painting. Over the years, Sierra had augmented the space with all kinds of electronic fixtures, control panels, pipes, and gauges; and colored wires crawled along every wall connecting each clump of jutting metal into a cohesive yet chaotic brain of sorts.

In a sense, the dining hall did serve as a kind of central nervous system for the house. Along one wall, underneath the only windows in the room — three, oblong metal-framed windows that had weeks of sandstorm caked on the outside, making them useless for all but diffusing the smallest amount of light into the room — a giant Goldbergian contraption stood six feet tall and ran the whole length of the wall, lining up perfectly with the underside of the windows. Wires stretched out all over the room and throughout the house, but they all fed back to this one steel rig for power.

The other walls’ mechanical aesthetics matched the first. Digital picture frames hung around the room, presently powered off to save power but capable of lighting the room with photos from Sierra’s travels at a moment’s notice. Sensors, gauges, and readouts of all sorts were haphazardly installed around the room as-needed and wherever was needed, and the exposed plumbing and piping running every-which-way told a similar story.

Under the soft, yellow glow of vacuum tube lighting and red-hot copper filaments, the two Desmonds sat perched at their dining table, as they often did in the evenings after the day’s work was over.

“Did you finish your homework?” Sierra looked across the table at Cid, who was furiously scribbling away in a leather-bound notebook just barely out of eyesight.

“Nope,” he responded, maintaining eye contact with whatever it was he was working so diligently on.

“Is that what you’re working on?”

“Nope.”

Sierra put down her book and shifted over to get a better view of what the notebook contained, but all she could tell was that it was a page full of writing with a couple doodles in the margins.

“Do you need help with it?”

“Nope,” Cid responded, still just as apathetic to the conversation as most boys his age typically were. He subtly scooted the notebook closer to himself to keep his thoughts away from Sierra’s prying eyes.

Sierra bit her lip. The boy had moved in months ago after his parents’ terrible accident, but she could still regularly see their memories haunting his eyes. She could hear his nightmares in the night and knew the desert’s isolation — and her own lack of social skills — must be devastating to the boy’s mental state.

If only I could just connect with him, she wished, and just understand what’s going on inside that head.

“Don’t forget to do it,” she warned, taking an authoritative tone. She couldn’t sympathize with the life of a homeschooled kid either; she was mostly self-taught but all of her official education was courtesy of public academies.

“I won’t forget,” the kid said, unconvincingly. He’d already made it a habit of forgetting. Or maybe he just hadn’t formed the habit of not forgetting, yet — Sierra wasn’t sure.

At that moment, the lights in the house all went out at once. Filaments glowed and LEDs faded eerily for a few seconds afterward, and then the only light in the large dining hall was that faint, yellow light coming in from the sand-caked windows.

“What happened?” Cid’s voice asked quietly. Nervously?

“Power’s out,” Sierra said, standing, squinting. “Stay there, I’ll get us a light.”

She cautiously crossed the dining hall to one of the shelving units on a far wall and felt with her hands to find the second-to-leftmost one. Inside, she creaked open a chest and felt around for the glowsticks she had on hand for blackouts. She grabbed a couple and brought them back to Cid.

“Here, take one of these. Glowsticks: you know how they work? Take it and crack it in half, like this. There’s a plastic tube inside with Cyalume; bend it enough to break that tube so it mixes with the catalyst in the rest of the stick. There’s a chemical reaction when they mix, and they’ll start to glow. See?”

In the dark, two sources of dark green light emerged and then brightened, slowly, until Sierra and Cid could see each other again.

Cid was smiling, looking at the glowstick with a look of wonder.

“Chemiluminescence,” Sierra remarked. “It’s basically magic.”

“How long does it last?”

“For hours; no battery needed! Long enough for us to figure out what’s wrong with the power, at least. Come on, it’s time to investigate!”

The two navigated over to the Goldbergian machine along the wall and the woman got to work.

“Don’t worry,” she said, lifting a panel up to expose a board of circuitry underneath. “Our transformer’s complex and fickle; occasionally it dies for one reason or another, but it always hums on in the end. We’ve just gotta figure out why it’s down and fix it — easy enough!”

“I’m not worried,” Cid said defensively. “I just can’t do any homework in the dark, you know?”

Sierra smirked, then shuffled over to a chest on the side of the machine and rummaged through the tools inside, basked in dim, green light. She retrieved a multimeter, then grabbed a long piece of wood — about as long as Cid was tall — from beside the machine.

While she geared up, Cid asked, “Why do we need this big thing with the solar panels outside anyway? Can’t we just hook up to them?”

“Good question,” Sierra answered, handing Cid the piece of wood. “That actually is where all our power comes from. We store it in those low-voltage battery stations out near the panels, but this big ol’ home-made transformer here” — she stopped and slapped the roof of the contraption for emphasis — “converts the electricity into a voltage we can use in the house. That way we can store a ton of energy outside in containers that probably won’t explode, and then we can siphon off from them little by little whenever we need a normal voltage in the house.”

Cid nodded, pondering the machine. Some of the words made sense, but he mostly took what she said as truth due to the matter-of-fact nature she explained it in. “Makes sense to me. What’s this wood for?”

“Saving my life,” she continued just as matter-of-factly. “If I get electrocuted, I need you to push me away from the transformer with that. As fast as you can, okay?”

“I will,” Cid said seriously. Then asked, “Why wood?”

“The reason we can get electrocuted is that our bodies conduct electricity. When we touch something with our skin — or even thin clothes, if the current is strong enough to pass through it — the electricity makes a circuit through our body. That flow of electricity — the current, like with flowing water —is what causes problems for us. Enough current through the heart can stop it, but even a little current through other organs can be trouble too.

“Wood, on the other hand, doesn’t conduct electricity. If you tried to push me away with your hands when I was getting electrocuted, it’d just jump to your body and electrocute you, too. The wood stops that and lets you push me away safely. So, if you see me shaking, please just get me away from the transformer, okay?”

“Okay,” Cid reaffirmed, holding the long rod of wood at the ready. “What’d you do before I… got here? When you were alone?”

“The more you know about each risk, the less risky it is,” Sierra smiled. “Our home wouldn’t exist without some risks here and there, but I know what I’m doing. I promise. Educated risks are the key to success in everything you do.”

“Okay,” Cid repeated.

“Okay. So, the first thing we want to do is check the input voltage: we want to make sure we’re still getting power from outside, which should tell us whether there’s a problem with the transformer here or a problem somewhere out there.”

The woman readied her multimeter and glanced at the wooden two-by-four before detaching the transformer’s input lines from outside and measured the incoming voltage.

“Thank Lester, the power’s coming in just fine. It’s reading a little low, but it’s there.”

“So that means it’s a problem with the, uh, the machine, uh, the transformer, then?”

“Probably,” Sierra said, smiling. “The power’s coming in, but we still need to check whether power’s going out, too. If it’s flowing out just fine, then the problem must further on down the line.” She gulped, picturing the web of wires lining every wall.

With Cid holding his glowstick up high, Sierra replaced the input lines and then walked over to a giant, black box full of cords on the other side of the machine. She flipped a safety switch and then detached the box, exposing two metal prongs that she carefully held the multimeter to.

“Aha! See, there’s no voltage reading here, so there’s gotta be a short somewhere in the transformer. Or another problem, I guess, but it’s here.”

“Is that bad?”

“Not as bad as it’d be if the problem were somewhere else! Now we know where to look, instead of running all over the house testing things. It works at that end and doesn’t work over here, so something in the middle needs fixing. Come on, back over to the input!”

Cid followed. What little light that was filtering in through the dirty windows was beginning to subside as the sun started falling in the sky. It was only a little light, but with so little in the room already, it felt like the room got significantly darker with every passing minute.

Sierra looked back at Cid, who looked interested but was standing off, unsure what to do. He didn’t share the same ecstatic puzzle-solving smile she was wearing, but she could tell — or at least hoped — it wasn’t too far away, just hidden just under a layer of curiosity or unfamiliarity.

“There’s probably a short in the circuits somewhere, but it’s mostly a game of just hunting it down; if you segment the machine into smaller and smaller pieces, you can check the inputs and outputs of each of those segments to make sure electricity is flowing through each one. That just takes this multimeter here and I’d be happy to show you how to do it, but there are a few other things you could check on your own also — if you’re up to help, that is.”

“I can help,” Cid said quietly, eyeing the machine nervously. It was sufficiently complex to the point where it might as well be wizardry to him, but he was ready to learn what it took to tame it and become a magician like Sierra. “Like magic, right?”

“Like magic,” Sierra nodded, smiling. She lifted her glowstick up to make sure Cid could see her pointing across the room and said, “There’s a can of oil in the middle cabinet over there — I think it’s on the second or third shelf. It should say Motili on the front: transformer oil.

“The conservator’s probably fine but it doesn’t hurt to top up the reservoir. The machine gets pretty hot — especially on hot days — and the oil helps insulate and keep the transformer cool. It overheated once and I lost power for a week before I figured out how to fix it, so I try to stay on top of it now. Can you grab the can and come back?”

The dim light of Cid’s glowstick cast his silhouette as a faint shadow behind him as he walked toward the cabinet without a word.

Instantly, Sierra worried whether her not-so-hidden mechanics’ lesson was interesting to the boy or just boring. She knew she could probably get the power back on significantly faster if she just got down to it, but so far Cid seemed to respond favorably to learning new things.

To steer her thoughts to a more productive place, Sierra got to work finding the short in the machine. As she was attaching the multimeter’s terminals to somewhere approximately half-way through the machine’s circuitry, Cid returned with the can of transformer oil.

“How do you find it? The short, you called it?”

No voltage. She detached the multimeter and reattached the wires that were originally connected as her thoughts raced back to a worrying place, but she reigned it in with the reassurance that he was asking questions now, rather than her just lecturing at him.

“The short, yeah. It’s short for ‘short circuit’, which is basically short — ha — for electricity trying to take a shortcut through the circuit instead of the path you expect it to. Or, in this case, the path you designed it to take.

“Finding it is really just a process of elimination. If there’s power there and no power here, it has to be between these two places. I could just start at the beginning and keep measuring piece by piece until I find the point where the voltage drops off and we lose power, but believe it or not, it’s actually faster to jump around and bisect the circuit. That means I measure first halfway between here and there, and if there’s power I know the short is on that half, and if there’s no power then I know the short is on the other half. No matter what happens, I cut the number of measurements I need to do in half. And then I just keep doing that until there are only one or two places left the short could even be. Make sense?”

“Yeah. What causes a short?”

“A lot of stuff can,” Sierra continued. “Most of the time, here, it’s just sand buildup. Sand doesn’t conduct electricity — unless it’s wet — but the salt on it does, so if too much of it builds up on a circuit it can create new paths for the electricity to pass through. It could be a bunch of other reasons too, though: bugs crawling in — they conduct electricity just like you and me — and frying themselves, conductive gas building up inside the case, something leaking in, electrical arcs, overheating, the circuit boards physically failing, or even rarer things like corona discharge where the air itself becomes electric and you just get a gigantic box of electricity that fries the whole system. The oil helps prevent that, though; got it?”

“Right here; it’s open.”

“Great, I’ll let you fill the reservoir up then. That pipe-looking thing there is the Buchholz relay, which is what monitors how conductive the air is around it — so try hard not to bump it, it’s very sensitive. Right underneath it though is the conservator, which you should be able to screw the lid off of. It’ll have a dipper stick attached to it that you can pull out that’ll read out how much oil is in the reservoir. If you flip it over, it’ll say how much you should add. You can use the cap to measure how much you’re adding; I forget how much it holds but it says on the inside. You might need a little light to read it. Then just put the dipper back in and read it again to make sure we’re full up! Got that? I’ll race you!”

The two worked quickly — Sierra puzzling out where the short must be and deftly detaching and reattaching makeshift terminals for the multimeter to measure from while Cid tentatively took each little step of his task thoughtfully and with measure.

“When you’re done with the reservoir, you can also check the fuses along those two panels there. They intentionally break whenever there’s a short to protect the rest of the electronics from unpredictable electrical paths, so it’s possible one of them might’ve broken; if so, we’ll have to replace it.”

“I can do that,” Cid affirmed. “What does a broken fuse look like? Just… broken?”

“The glass will probably be burnt, or look filled with black stuff. The rest of them should all be clear; just make sure no one stands out from the others. There are replacement fuses in the bottom drawer on your right; you can just pop them in and out.”

As Cid scrutinized each individual fuse, he found one filled with cloudy, black smoke. He paused for a moment to consider asking for help removing it, but decided to take a risk and popped the bad fuse out. He used it as a reference to find a new fuse in the drawer and popped that one in just as easily.

“Aha!” Sierra exclaimed, detaching the multimeter from a couple of leads not too far away. “Found you, you pesky little short.”

Cid scrambled in to hold his light steady over the electronics, but didn’t notice anything visibly different about the short — or even where or what the short was. Sierra fumbled through her chest of tools again and returned with a few coils of wire, a soldering gun, and some scraps of brass.

“How do you fix it?”

“It looks like the board is corroding away here, which ain’t great. See this silver path here? That’s where electricity is supposed to pass through, but the path is damaged. I’m going to run a new path around it and we’ll be back to normal in no time.” As she reached for a big, red lever on the side of the machine, she added, “I’m cutting the power manually before soldering a new path in, but mistakes are always possible. Where’s the wood?”

“Right here,” Cid said, readying the two-by-four again. “Got it.”

With the power to the transformer cut, Sierra heated up her soldering gun and found a spot for the first brass scrap — a bolt that’d come off another nameless machine — against the circuit board’s crowding plastic surface. She directed Cid to hold it in place — which he did, after leaning the wood beam against the machine to free up the hand not holding their light source — and then unraveled some copper wire to run from the good side of the short to the brass bolt. She strung it through, using the hole inside to keep it in place, and then ran it to the other side of the short. With it in a satisfactory spot, she switched spools and unraveled some solder to press against the wire’s contact point, then used the soldering iron to quickly melt it around the wire. Just as quickly, the solder dried, holding the wire in place.

“That should do it,” Sierra said, satisfied. “I’ll just check it with the multimeter real quick to make sure we’re got the right voltage and… well, uh oh. No voltage at all. That’s not right…”

It took a moment of retracing through the circuit before Sierra realized her mistake. She chuckled, seizing Cid’s bewildered interest.

“Do you know what’s wrong?” she asked, grinning. “Why we still don’t have any power, even though we fixed the short?”

Cid stared at the machine.

The machine. The complex machine, built piece by piece over years of use from an experienced mechanic who’d learned from hundreds of years of experts’ electronics advancements made possible by thousands of years of mathematics and physics breakthroughs, among countless other innovations and breakthroughs at millions of countries around the world.

The transformer that, while complicated in its own right, was merely a cog in an overall power system where each piece — from the solar panels in the fields, to the battery stations they charge to, to this transformer, and finally to the individual appliances and electronics in the house that consume that power — was equally as complex as any other piece, and where all pieces were effectively magic in the eyes of someone who didn’t understand how they worked. Someone like Cid.

The machine: powered by electricity, a force that could just as easily kill a bug as it could a hundred men, yet still be entirely invisible to the naked eye. A force that single-handedly could be used to sustain life: keeping food sanitary, lights on, houses warm, water clean, and civilizations happy. A force, all on its own, more powerful than Cid could ever hope to be, yet simultaneously also a force he could harness for himself as a tool if only he understood how to work with it.

“I don’t know,” he said finally, still staring at the machine. “We didn’t fix it, maybe? Is there another short? Another problem? I replaced one of the fuses too; maybe I didn’t get it in right?”

Sierra moved back over to the input leads and attached the multimeter again like she had done originally. “Good thinking,” she said, “but the answer’s a bit more obvious. Too common, too. I think you can guess! I’ll give you a hint: we don’t have any voltage at the input leads anymore either.”

Cid thought about it for a moment, but was still at a loss for the answer. Finally, he thought he’d at least guess but caught himself when a lightbulb went off in his mind. “We broke the — oh, right.”

Sierra smiled and stepped back — clearing a path to the machine — and held her glowstick up for the boy. With a little nod, he stepped over and flipped the big, red lever again — back to the “on” position.

The machine whirred and hummed, coming back to life, and moments later the lights around the large dining hall began to return: dimly, at first, but then just as bright as any other day.

“We did it,” Cid announced proudly, looking around the room.

“We did it,” Sierra repeated. “Thanks for the help.”

“Thanks for explaining how it all worked. That was fun.”

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