Revising Renegade

by Richard Perkins

This week I’ve been working on a few revisions to my NaNoWriMo manuscript, The Renegade’s Door. I had a few friends read through my pre-read copy and give me some feedback, which was great. I’m adding three new scenes to the story to help develop some of the character relationships in the second half of the book. I’m also rearranging some of the scene order to make the main story line/flashback model more consistent throughout. And I posted one more scene in the Writer’s Lair for my online readers. Enjoy.

Next week I plan to work on the third installment of my Renewable Tech series. So if you have any requests for the next topic, leave a comment!

Renegade Scene 4

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series The Renegade's Door

283 SC, five days earlier, Starseekers Gathering, in the Great Desert

The late afternoon sun was baking the desert air, quickly evaporating the sweat that stuck Mikel’s coarse tunic to his broad back as he worked. Hemp rope handles creaked against heavy wooden crates as he and another teamster loaded the new cargo into the back of wagon number three.

“Careful Dustin, that one is fragile! Mikel, that’s enough in number three. Put the rest in number two.”

Mikel nodded to the burly Master Merchant. He watched the young teamster with the fragile crate out of the corner of one eye. Dustin stepped gingerly up onto the reinforced bed of the third of four heavy cargo wagons. As Mikel hefted a wicker basket onto one hip, he heard the inevitable crash he had expected from wagon three.

“I said be careful, you ham handed hack!” Jak stormed after Dustin with murder in his eyes. Mikel shook his head wordlessly as he stepped to the back of his own wagon, number two in the line. He eyed the contents which were carefully organized, stacked, and sorted. Mentally gauging the size and weight of the basket on his hip and the remaining packages waiting to be loaded, he visualized the available space in his wagon.

Visual imagery had always been one of his strengths. He cocked his head slightly as he considered. Yes. If he shifted that package to the other side, he could fit this basket there. That would leave room along the floor for the padded roll, and he could wedge the final crate into the gap left there. He set the basket carefully on the tail of the wagon before stepping into the interior. Mikel wasn’t tall, so he could stand fully upright in the wagon’s interior. He made a few rapid adjustments to the stacked goods, removing the lashing that held them in place and re-optimizing the wagon’s loading. He considered both accessibility and proper weight distribution, making sure that the heavier gear was on the left side to offset the wagon’s more heavily armored wall on the right. Like most long range traders, the Nadori only armored one wall of their wagons to save weight. The armored wall would face outward when the wagons were circled to make camp. This left the wagons more vulnerable on the trail, raiders rarely attacked moving targets in broad daylight. Too easy for them to be driven away at speed. Night was the most dangerous time. So the merchants sacrificed a little daytime security for speed of travel. It made a difference, saving two or even three days off a full circuit of the migrations like this one.

When Mikel was satisfied with his repacking efforts, he hopped out of the wagon to retrieve the last two packages. Jak was still giving Dustin an earful as he inspected the dropped crate for damage. “…in this one crate are worth more than your wage for this entire…”

Mikel set the long padded roll on his right shoulder as he dangled the small crate from his left hand. He stowed away the remaining goods, careful to stay out of Jak’s line of fire. When he was with a client, Jak was as jovial as his colorful clothing and robust physique suggested. And he was positively effusive in his role as head cook of the wagon train. But you didn’t want to get in his way when he was angry. The same keen perception that made him such a formidable trader enabled him to eviscerate an enemy with his shrewd wit. Mikel doubted that Jak had ever met the man who could outmaneuver him in an argument. Sparks would fly on the day that he did.
Mikel carefully positioned the basket in the nook he had just opened for it. Then he laid the padded roll along the floor beside it and tucked the small crate at the foot of the roll. He relashed the gear, making sure all of the cargo was secure and stable by giving the wagon bed a slight shake. He closed the large loading door, leaving the small entry door open. You never knew when a trader would have a last minute addition to make, as Mikel had learned the hard way. He turned and leaned against the heavy wooden tailgate, looking out over the gathering. They had spent the last two days here while Jak and his three fellow merchants traded with the eclectic Starseeker tribe.

It was impressive enough, for a desert tribe city. The tribes were nomads for the most part. They called their cities gatherings, because their people didn’t really live there. They met there to exchange goods on their way from one hunting or foraging foray to the next. Sometimes they would trade with merchants from far away. But they would decline to trade with outsiders on principle alone more often than not. Trading with deep desert tribespeople was a risky financial venture. It was also a physically dangerous one, even if the merchant could afford a large wagon train with hired guards, like the Nadori clan that had hired Mikel.

So Mikel was more than a little surprised to see a lone woman in a white tunic and leggings. She walked purposefully toward the wagon train, leaving behind the safety of the sandstone buildings that huddled under the overhanging cliff ledge. She was small, with nut brown, shoulder length hair, an apple shaped face, and large eyes. Her face was the palest shade of white Mikel had ever seen. She couldn’t have been a tribesperson, with skin like that. Mikel tried not to stare as she approached.

“Master Merchant Jak, I see you haven’t gotten underway yet. Whatever could be keeping you?”

Mikel saw the merchant tense his shoulders as he turned away from dressing down Dustin. “Ahh. Eliza wasn’t it? What is it you want? I told you before that the Nadori do not take passengers!”

Mikel busied himself checking and rechecking to make sure all of his lashings were secure. But he glanced surreptitiously at Jak. Something about this pint sized woman had piqued the merchant’s curiosity.

“Oh yes. You made that quite clear. I came to offer you a chance to reconsider.”

“Me reconsider? And why would I do that?”

“Desert crossings are a dangerous business, Master Merchant. You never know when you might need a medicine woman. I could be an invaluable asset.”

“More like an outlandishly expensive one. One thing I don’t need… excuse me a moment.” Jak interrupted the conversation as Tobias, one of the junior merchants appeared at his elbow with a clipboard. Jak flipped through the tally sheets, mumbling under his breath. When he reached the end of the sheets his eyebrows lowered like storm clouds. He flipped back through the papers a second time, shaking his head.
Mikel watched the merchant’s antics furtively. With a start, he realized that Eliza was doing the same. He watched her as she stared at the merchants lips. Almost too late, he turned back and reached out with a touch of elemental air power to snatch the merchant’s whispered words back to his ears. He only caught the end of the exchange.

“…get the stones?”

“No Master Merchant. They wouldn’t…”

“Never mind! Go make yourself useful and ready the crew carrier!” With the last sentence, Jak slapped the clipboard against Tobias’s unprotected chest. Even without his elementally boosted hearing, the meaty thwack of impact would have reached Mikel’s ears clearly. Jak was not pleased. The junior merchant fumbled at the clipboard, barely managing not to drop it as he darted away.

“Now then… I believe you were just leaving Eliza?”

“Oh quite. Shame about those gemstones though…” Eliza batted her eyes innocently as she turned to go. Mikel’s eyes narrowed. How had she overheard Jak’s whispered conversation? Was she a mage too?

“Wait! What did you say?”

“Oh did I say that out loud? I was just thinking to myself… it was nothing.”

“What does a medicine woman know about gemstones?”

“Nothing in particular. Just that the amethysts of the Starseeker tribe are the most sought after gems from Thayer all the way to Velton. Second to none, if you believe the stories.” Eliza had turned back to the merchant.

Mikel couldn’t believe his eyes. Was this healer trying to sell a Master Merchant? More importantly, was he buying?

“You said it was a shame. What’s a shame?” Jak’s tone sounded indifferent. But Mikel heard the hidden interest it masked.

Eliza must have heard it too. She grinned as she played her trump card. “The Starseekers don’t sell their amethysts. Especially not to plainsmen. But I’m sure you knew that already, Master Merchant.”

Disdain wrinkled Jak’s features. “Then how have such gems ended up in the hands of crafters from Thayer to Velton, as you point out?”

“Second hand, Master Merchant. How else?”
Jak’s jaw worked slowly, his eyes never leaving the pale healer’s face. Eliza smiled her sparkling smile and then continued.

“Here’s the deal. I’ll get you something you want. A pouch of real, uncut, Starseeker amethysts, for example. In return, you give me something I want.”

“Hah. You’ll never get the stones!”
Eliza smiled sweetly. “Maybe you’re right. You’re out nothing if I fail.”

“And if you succeed? What is it that you want, medicine woman?”

“I told you… passage to Stoneburners Gathering with your wagon train.”

“I told you. The Nadori don’t take passengers.”

“Then consider me crew. You really don’t have anything to complain about, Master Merchant. If I succeed, you’ll get the best medicine woman north of Mystic Springs on retainer.”

“And refreshingly modest, I can see.”

“Are you in or out?” Eliza stared the merchant in the eye and didn’t bat a lash. Mikel had to grin. This woman was something else.

“Even if you could make good on your offer, I don’t have time for you to find a seller. We leave at dawn.”

“I wouldn’t dream of delaying you Master Merchant. Surely you wouldn’t turn away an innocent traveler who only asks to share your long journey?”

“Suit yourself. If you can get me even five good stones, you ride with us.”

“Done.” Eliza nodded curtly, turned on her heel and sauntered back into the Gathering.

Jak watched her go, standing with his hands on his hips, fuming. He caught Mikel staring at him as he worked. The portly merchant rolled his eyes and gave a theatric sigh. “Stop pretending to tighten those straps and ask already Mikel.”

Mikel chuckled under his breath. The merchant was sharp. Hopefully not too sharp for his own good. It wasn’t healthy to be too observant around Mikel. “What’s the story with the gems?”

“Ahh… Starseeker amethysts. Legendary clarity and brilliance. Renowned all across the Fertile Plains. Famous over the length and breadth of the Great Desert. Coveted even in the foothills of the Barrier Mountains.” Jak stalked over to the wagon as he spoke and settled his bulk onto the tailgate next to Mikel, a wistful look in his eye.

“But they’re just gemstones, right?”

Jak snorted in exasperation. “Try telling that to my wife!”

Mikel’s eyes widened. “You’re married?”

Jak tipped Mikel a conspiratorial wink. “Of course I am! Why do you think I travel so much?”

Caught off guard, Mikel chuckled in spite of himself. This was a side of the Master Merchant he had rarely seen these past ten days on the dusty road.

“My Carina has had her heart set on a Starseeker amethyst necklace for ‘turns. I know a Master Crafter in Thayer who owes me a favor. He’ll make the settings for me.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t get my hands on the flaming stones! Three ‘turns I’ve been searching for the right set. I know the traders here have some. But they won’t trade them, no matter what I bring to barter. These tribesmen… they can be so…”

“Primitive?”

Jak looked sideways at Mikel. “Far from it. I was thinking mysterious.”

“Unh.” Mikel kept his thoughts to himself. Such opinions were the reason the Council of Doormakers was keeping such a close eye on deep desert traders like Jak.

“Take a look at the Gathering here and tell me what you see.” Jak turned his round face toward the city, where glittering lights were just beginning to wink back toward the setting sun from a handful of square adobe windows.

“Shelters thatched out of mud and sand beneath a large natural cliff ledge.”

“Is that all? You should look deeper. Always a lot more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye, you know.”

Mikel shrugged noncommittally. He also saw a moderately defensible fortification with a highly exposed approach, but he kept those observations to himself. They weren’t the kind of thing a teamster would be expected to notice.

“What the…” Jak stood abruptly as a two figures left the Gathering through the high entrance gate. The first was Eliza, except now she wore a calf length traveling cloak of light gray wool over her white tunic and breeches. She carried a long staff of polished birch as well. The second figure was much shorter, more heavily laden, and furrier. It was a sturdy pack goat. Mikel had heard of them before but never seen one. The animal stood waist tall on Eliza, with a black face, a white and black tuft of beard beneath her chin, and long curving horns that sprouted from her triangular head. Her forelegs were black as well, but she had flanks of mixed white and tan. She carried two heavily loaded wool bags draped across her withers, held in place by a web of leather straps. If the weight bothered the creature she showed no sign of caring, as she walked gamely along beside the petite healer.

“Master Merchant, I believe Sasha here has something you’re looking for.” Eliza and the goat came to a stop a few paces in front of the glowering Jak.

“What is the meaning…”

Eliza interrupted Jak by pulling a small pouch out of the goat’s pack and spilling its contents into her palm. The amethysts glittered like cold purple stars in the last of the fading sunlight. She rolled them around on her palm for a moment before sliding them back into the pouch and tying the drawstrings tightly. “Now about our agreement…”

“What… how did you… where…” Jak’s eyes were large and luminous behind his crystal spectacles.

“I believe the terms were the amethysts in exchange for passage to Stoneburners Gathering with your wagon train, right?” Eliza dangled the pouch between her fingers, swinging it back and forth in front of the amazed merchant’s eyes.

Jak crossed his arms across his chest. “How did you get those?”

Eliza smiled sweetly and wagged her finger. “Not part of the deal, remember?”

Jak blew a frustrated breath out through his nose into his goatee. “Neither was that pack animal.”

Eliza shrugged and started to turn away. “Oh well. I suppose I can find someone else who will take these stones off my hands.”

“Wait!” Jak glared furiously.

“So. Do you want the stones or not?”

Jak held out his palm. “All right. You win. We leave at first light, and you’d better not slow us down.”

Eliza dropped the pouch into the merchant’s fist. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Mikel couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Jak turned his glare in the teamster’s direction.

“So you think it’s funny? She’ll be riding with you!” Jak shook his head and stomped away to see that the crew carrier was ready for their departure.

Eliza offered Mikel a petite hand. “I’m Eliza, healer and medicine woman from Guardian Village.”

Mikel took her pale hand in his dark almond one and nodded politely. “I’m Mikel, one of Jak’s teamsters.”

Eliza looked at Mikel’s hand and raised an eyebrow marginally. “Is that so?”

“If you have any gear you can stow it in the back.”

She nodded amiably before hopping up onto the wagon’s raised bed. She cast an admiring eye over Mikel’s handiwork as she searched for a suitable place for her gear. She tucked her staff, cloak, and one small satchel under the bench near the front of the cargo space. She reached for Mikel’s hand as she stepped back out through the small door.

“So. Why wouldn’t the Starseekers sell those stones to the Master Merchant?”

Eliza looked up into Mikel’s dark brown eyes with a discerning look. “He had nothing they wanted.”

“And what did they want from you?”

Eliza paused for a moment before answering. “We all have our secrets to keep, now don’t we Mikel?”

Mikel suffered a moment of doubt as he wondered what she meant. But then she smiled at him guilelessly and the moment passed. This assignment just got more interesting. Or maybe he was getting paranoid. “Welcome to the Nadori Wagon Train.”

New traffic… new posts

by Richard Perkins

During the past few weeks the traffic on my blog has doubled. Evidently word is getting out. So if you’re a new reader, welcome to Richard-Rowland-Perkins.com :D . Here’s what I’ve been up to in the last week:

Renegade’s Door revisions – My 2008 NaNoWriMo novel is currently out with my hand chosen pre-readers for feedback. I’ve started incorporating their comments into my next revision. I’ve also started framing a few new scenes that I plan to add to the novel for the revision that I will send out to potential publishers in February. (“framing” is a polite way of saying procrastinating… I’ve been thinking about the scenes, but haven’t started outlining or written anything down yet ;-) )

Renewable tech – I’ve written the second installment in my Renewable Technology series. This entry is a layman’s description of how wind power works. Be sure to check it out.

Job search – I’ve sent out a couple of resumes this week to renewable energy development companies in the Bay area, including an engineering program manager role that looks very interesting. I also got back in touch with some contacts that may have some technical writing or consulting requirements in the next couple of months. And by all means, if you hear of something interesting in the field of renewable energy tech, drop me a comment! ;-)

Renewable Tech: wind power

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Renewable Tech

In my first post in this series, I talked about hydropower, specifically hydroelectricity. I mentioned that hydropower was one of the oldest forms of renewable energy, but wind power is arguably older. People have been using wind power to propel ships (yes this counts as wind power) for over 5000 years. There are historical references to wind driven irrigation systems dating back over 3000 years. And the first practical windmills were used in Afghanistan to power mills and pump water over 1300 years ago.

Both technologies were first used to generate electricity within the same decade: hydroelectricity in the early 1880′s, and wind generated electricity in the late 1880′s. (I suppose you could call that aeroelectricity, though no one does ;-) ) The image to the left shows the Charles Brush windmill in Ohio, completed in 1888. It is often cited as the first wind powered electric generator, though James Blyth of Scotland actually beat him to the punch by about six months. So how does wind power generate electricity exactly?

Wind power simplified

Wind power works in much the same way that hydropower does, in fact. Wind turns the turbine blades, which are connected through a gear box to a generator. The generator is, as mentioned in the previous post, a loop of conductive wire spinning in the presence of a magnetic field. The movement of the electrons getting pushed around by the magnetic field is AC electric current! Victory!

Now it’s time for a trickier question. How does the wind turn the turbine blade? To understand that, it helps to know a little bit about something called Bernoulli’s Principle.  Simply put, the idea is that as a fluid or gas increases its speed, it must decrease its pressure. One simple way to demonstrate this concept is to think about an inflated balloon. As long as the neck of the balloon is pinched closed, the air inside it is trapped (stationary) at high pressure. You know it’s at high pressure because the walls of the balloon are stretched out, right? But what happens when you open the neck of the balloon? The compressed air jets out through the opening at high speed. The air has expanded from the area of high pressure (the balloon) into the area of low pressure (the room), exchanging pressure for velocity.

Alternatively you can think about traffic on the freeway. Packing cars closer together is analogous to increasing the pressure of an air flow. The closer the cars pack together, the slower everyone must drive to avoid collisions. Conversely, the fewer cars there are on the road, the faster everyone can drive safely. :D

How does this apply to a wind turbine? The magic is in the shape of the individual turbine blades, which are a type of airfoil, like an airplane wing. A turbine blade splits the wind that passes by it into two streams. The wind traveling over one side of the blade has farther to travel than the wind passing over the other. So it has to speed up to make the trip, and the pressure on one side of the blade drops below the pressure on the other. The result is a force called lift. Mounting the blades in a circle around a central hub turns that lift into a rotational force or torque, which spins the turbine’s rotor. Isn’t science neat? (Sorry, my geek is showing…  )

The hub spins pretty slowly in modern wind turbines: 10-20 revolutions per minute is a typical number. Given that the electric current used on most utility grids oscillates at 50 or 60 cycles per second, a mechanical gear box is used to increase shaft speed before connecting to the generator. As with the hydropower post, the caveats about simplification apply, both to the generator and the turbine technology. And as with hydropower, wind power comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT)

Though most people think of windmills when they think of wind power, VAWT systems have a longer history. And vertical axis turbines, like the one in the picture to the left by Mariah Power,  are enjoying a resurgence in the small scale wind market. Why? VAWT systems allow installers to keep the generator close to the ground, where it can be easily serviced. They also can be installed without too much heavy equipment, which is an advantage to do it yourself home installers as well as medium scale enterprise customers. Systems of this type commonly have capacities ranging from 1kW to 5kW. They work well in low wind speeds, and don’t have to be turned to face into the wind. These features make them well suited for close to ground applications, where wind speed and direction varies greatly. The trade-off is that they generally have lower efficiency than their horizontal axis counterparts: for the same wind speed you can generate less electricity with a VAWT than you could with a HAWT. For these reasons, you probably wouldn’t consider using a VAWT in a location where the wind speeds were strong enough to support a HAWT.

Horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWT)

There are small scale HAWT devices on the market. Small wind turbines like those manufactured by Skystream are usually rated at 1kW-3kW capacity, and are designed for home users or small enterprise installations. But big, three bladed, horizontal axis turbines with capacities from 1MW-5MW, like the ones at left from Vestas, are the real workhorses of the wind power boom. It’s fairly common to see large farms of these towers planted in rural locations with strong, steady winds. Large is the operative word here. The towers are 200-300 feet tall and each blade may be 100 feet or more long. Transporting components to remote construction sites can be challenging, expensive, and energy intensive (tons of CO2 intensive concrete and diesel fuel for large trucks and heavy equipment). But despite the embodied energy of wind farm construction, most well designed wind farms become greenhouse gas neutral within a year of operation. Offshore wind farms tend to have lower construction related greenhouse gas footprints because it takes less energy to transport large components by boat than by truck or plane. And some of the best wind resources are located offshore as well, both for wind speed and wind consistency.

For land based and offshore wind farms like these, each tower is its own independent generator. Each turbine delivers the power it generates to a central electrical substation, where it is combined and conditioned to match high voltage transmission standards before being pumped onto the electric utility grid. Why the conditioning? Unfortunately even for large scale wind installations like this, wind speed is still much more variable than water pressure at the bottom of a giant dam. So the output of an electricity generating wind farm varies a lot faster than the output of a typical hydroelectric storage project. This is one of the reasons electric utilities don’t always jump at the chance to build more wind farms. They have to account for the variability of all of the sources they connect to their grid.

And this is where energy storage techniques like the pumped storage hydro systems I mentioned in the last post come in handy. Though it’s clean, renewable, and greenhouse gas free, wind power is a variable or intermittent source. Sometimes utilities respond to an increase in the variability of their electricity sources by installing additional dispatchable power to smooth out the supply curve. Unfortunately, if the dispatchable power is a greenhouse gas emitter, like natural gas or coal (yikes!), then much of the greenhouse gas benefit of the renewable power is lost. But pumped hydro storage combined with wind turns the variable wind power into dispatchable power, without significantly increasing its greenhouse gas footprint.

That’s a real win for the environment. But as I’ve said before, you never get something for nothing. Pumped storage hydro is a net energy consumer. So combining it with wind results in a lower overall efficency of conversion from wind to usable electrons than direct connection to the grid. And with the increased capital costs of building pumped sotrage reservoirs, you get a double hit on the cost per kWh of electricity. That’s why you don’t see too many wind farm developers building their own on-site pumped storage facailites. But one day, that might change. The market for energy is evolving as people educate themselves about the effects of how we generate and consume power. Perhaps with a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme that places an appropriate value on so-called externalities, an approach like this may become cost competitive. After all, we probably should place a higher value on keeping the planet hospitable for human life. It’s the only one we’ve got.

Two steps forward… two steps back

by Richard Perkins

Since my last post, I’ve made some promising progress… and suffered a few setbacks. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? (If you answered that question by claiming to be a realist… you and I have something in common ;-) )

I’ll start out with the bad news. I got the final verdict on my pending job offer. You may recall from my earlier post that I was in line for a program manager position at a promising bay area solar PV company. You may also have read about the delays the hiring manager faced before he could make me an official offer. This week he wrote the words I had been dreading (but expecting given my earlier claim to be a realist). It seems they’ve put hiring on hold indefinitely, and have even had to lay off a few people in recent weeks. My own interpretation: I won’t be getting a job offer from them within the next six months, even if the hiring manager believed I could do everything but walk on water. :-(

Now on to the good news. Since I am the one who wrote that sometimes even a class four hurricane can have a silver lining: more time to write! Too bad writing doesn’t pay my bills.

I finished my edits and sent The Renegade’s Door, my NaNo 2008 manuscript, out to three pre-readers. Early feedback has been good. People like the pacing, find the characters compelling, and were excited about the story. Dan provided some great suggestions for strengthening the character development and heightening conflict in the later scenes of the book. His ideas will really help me get the story length up to publishers’ expectations. At 57,000 words it’s a little too brief for most publishers to consider right now. If I can get it up to 80,000 or 90,000 without diluting the story too much, I’ll have a much better chance of being taken seriously.

For those of you who want your own pre-screening, visit my Writer’s Lair. Check out The Renegade’s Door, my latest fiction series. I’ve updated and revised Scene 1 and Scene 2 with the latest changes from the pre-read manuscript. I’ve also added Scene 3 in case you’ve read the first two installments already. If you want to read more about the world of the Doormakers, be sure to read my two earlier works, Doormaker’s Fall, and Voices of the Deep. Neither of them is quite as polished as Renegade’s Door, but I do hope to publish a couple of books based on the events in Doormaker’s Fall at some point.

Next week I’ll be continuing my series on renewable energy technology, with a new post on wind power. If you have any requests for the next topic after wind, post a comment or two. Enjoy.

Renegade Scene 3

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series The Renegade's Door

283 SC, The northern migration three days east of Stoneburners Gathering, in the Great Desert

Arrows continued to whistle past overhead intermittently, but Mikel was out the line of fire as long as he stayed beneath the wagon. Of course, keeping him under the wagon was the archers’ objective. It would make the ground force’s job that much easier. Mikel had no intention of cooperating though. Closing his eyes, he found his inner door to the elemental plane. It hung in a curtain of air as always. Nudging the door open with his thoughts, he drew elemental air energy into himself again. He savored the familiar tingle that the elemental caress always gave him for a moment before opening his eyes. He exhaled streamers of power through his nose and reached out to the hot, dry air currents that eddied in the desert canyon.

First he needed to do something about those arrows. He visualized an invisible vortex growing around him. As it picked up speed, he slid out from under the wagon but did not stray too far from cover. Now he could see far enough up the canyon walls to spot the figures descending toward the canyon floor. He sent feelers climbing the thermal currents that rose out of the canyon, listening for the scrabble of footsteps, or a telltale indrawn breath of preparation. He heard harsh breathing, whispered commands, and muttered curses. Then he heard the tightening creak of a drawn bow and the thrum of a released bow string. He tracked it back to its source even as he intensified the swirling wind in its path. The arrow streaked toward him in a blur. But he was ready. He deftly stroked the fletching with a practiced needle of wind, deflecting the arrow harmlessly as it passed through his invisible vortex. He was in no danger, but ducked his head just to put on a convincing show. There was no sense in attracting too much attention.

Now he had the archer’s position fixed. He waited until the man leaned out to prepare a second shot, as he slowly exhaled a silvery streamer of pure elemental energy up toward the ledge where he crouched. When the raider was at his fullest extension, Mikel huffed, forging the air behind the archer into a cold gust, short but sharp. It caught the man full in the back, knocking him off balance and sending him tumbling down the canyon wall. Mikel nudged the man’s headlong descent with another well timed puff of air, insuring that he tumbled into one of the climbers who was making a precarious descent. Both cries were cut short by a viscerally satisfying crunch as they reached the canyon floor. Two down.

Mikel reached out to the air currents again, listening as he tried to count his attackers. He counted at least three more high on his side of the canyon, probably archers. There were even more on the far side. While he searched with his heightened hearing, he deflected two more arrows that streaked toward him. He had his hunting crossbow ready in his hand, but no targets in range. He was crouched down as he cast his eyes and his thoughts upward, and unknowingly circling away from the protection of the damaged wagon. Too late, he heard a scrabble of loose stones and a puff of dry sand behind him. Someone had reached the canyon floor nearby. Mikel began to turn toward this new threat, readying a blast of air as he opened the silver gilt door in his mind a fraction further.

“Mikel! Look out!”

Eliza exploded out of the wagon behind him. She threw herself toward Mikel’s assailant. Desperation blazed in her hazel eyes as she swung her birch staff into the path of the raider’s sword. The blow had been aimed at Mikel’s unprotected back. It never would have connected of course, but Eliza couldn’t have known that. Her vehemence surprised the attacker as his killing stroke glanced off of her staff. She followed up with a quick counter at his unprotected right leg. Mikel heard a crunch as the end of Eliza’s staff connected with the dark skinned man’s knee cap. A splash of crimson bloomed through the dun colored cloth of his coarse breeches. He grunted in pain as he dodged to the side, but Eliza had paused after her initial attack, settling into a defensive position. The raider tried to take advantage of her hesitance with a rapid diagonal slash of his blade, but Mikel didn’t give him the chance.

He redirected the energy he had funneled into his aborted blast of air into an enlarged defensive wind screen that would also protect Eliza from the archers overhead. Then he fired his crossbow, exhaling a tightly focused stream that hammered the deadly bolt under Eliza’s raised staff and straight through the raider’s eye. Before the look of surprise could fade from the man’s face, Mikel grabbed the back of Eliza’s white linen tunic and pulled her back out of the line of fire. Arrows rained into the space they had just vacated as the pair collapsed back against the shattered wheel of the wagon.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“Me? What about you?” Mikel looked at her pale, freckled face, flushed with exertion, and didn’t know what to think about this little spitfire. She certainly didn’t behave like any other healer he had ever known.

“I wasn’t the one mooning around so that slicer could sneak up on me, now was I?”

“I wasn’t…” Mikel gritted his teeth. Of course Eliza wouldn’t have understood what he had done to the archer, or how his defensive vortex had just saved both of their skins, or that he had never been in any real danger from the raider with the blade. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to. He let out a frustrated breath between clenched teeth. He loosened his grip on the elemental air energy that swirled around them, leaving just enough in place to warn him if anyone approached the wagon. Although he could hear several raiders on the canyon floor now, no one was coming any closer. Evidently Eliza’s ferocity had given them pause. Good.

“Sorry.” Mikel felt the tension flow out of his shoulders with that single word.

“Just… be more careful. I don’t need you getting hurt. I’ve got my hands full with Jak as it is.” Eliza glanced up at one of the feathered arrows that were stuck into the side of the wagon overhead. She carefully reached up and levered it out of the wood.

Mikel let his head thump against the wooden wall of the wagon. “How is our Master Merchant?”

Eliza paused before answering, while she examined the arrow in her hand. Not a good sign. “In trouble. The arrow is too deep. It needs to come out before we move him. And I can’t do it alone.” She turned her eyes to Mikel and now they were calm and professional. The eyes of someone who knows she holds life and death in her hands, and doesn’t flinch.

“All right. I think we’ve bought some time. What do you need me to do?”

“Hold him.”

Mikel nodded grimly. Eliza put her small hand on Mikel’s gloved wrist in a display of gratitude. She peered out around the side of the wagon and then scrambled into the door in the back quickly. An arrow thudded into the wood moments after she ducked safely inside. Mikel sent a bit more energy into the swirling winds just to make the archers’ lives difficult. Then he scrambled after the petite healer into the wagon’s crowded interior.

Jak was lying on a raised platform, cobbled together from oversized crates and shipping containers. It kept him up off the floor of the wagon, but was a far cry from the opulent travel cot the merchant was accustomed to. Jak did not look good. His dark brown mop of ringlets were plastered to his head with sweat. His usually coppery skin was pale, probably from blood loss. His breathing was shallow, pained. Mikel looked at the merchant’s loose flowing tunic and expensively tailored breeches. Their vivid patterns seemed dim now, when compared with the scarlet stain that seeped through the pale fabric that wrapped Jak’s left thigh. An armspan’s worth of evil feathered shaft had sprouted from that vivid splash, a sight jarringly at odds with the heavy merchant’s typically jovial appearance.

“Took you long enough. Sight seeing?” Jak offered a tepid smile that looked more like a grimace.

“Negotiating with the natives.” Mikel kept his eyes away from the splash of red while Eliza rummaged through the her satchel for supplies.

“Any prospects?”

“I think you’d call it a real buyer’s market.”

Jak belted out a laugh that was cut short with a wince.

“I wouldn’t be moving if I were you.” Eliza returned to the makeshift operating table with her hands full.

“Well it’s impossible to get comfortable on these beastly boxes. It’s not as though I’m going to try to walk anywhere. I’m sure a little wiggling around won’t kill me!” Jak lifted his hands as though to shift the weight of his upper body, but Eliza’s voice stopped him.

“Actually it might. The arrow didn’t go all the way through, but you might have been better off if it did.”

“Are you mad? Better off how?” Jak’s eyes locked on Eliza’s face, but at least the argument had brought some of the color back to his cheeks.

“There is a large channel that runs down the inside of your thigh. It carries blood. Lots of blood. If the arrow had gone clean through, the head wouldn’t still be buried a scant finger’s breadth away from that channel. Now every time you move, the arrowhead cuts a little deeper, a little closer. If it severs the channel, you’ll bleed out and there won’t be anything anyone can do to save you.”

The color slowly drained away from Jak’s prominent cheeks. Mikel could see him holding himself rigidly still as he digested Eliza’s grim news. “What do you suggest?”

“The arrow has to come out.” Eliza continued laying out supplies as she answered. She carefully set a bundle of clean white linen, a small ceramic pot, a fine pair of pliers, and a small wooden rod on the platform near Jak’s left side.

“All right then, let’s pull the damned thing out already.” Jak gritted his teeth in preparation.

“Can’t.”

“What? But you just said…” Jak spluttered in confusion.

Eliza held the arrow she had retrieved up in front of Jak’s spectacled eyes. The head was a broad flake of crystal that tapered to a wicked point. It was much wider at the base where it attached to the wooden shaft, and had long trailing splinters that protruded back toward the fletching. “It’s a tribal broadhead, designed to do as much damage on the way out as it did on the way in. If I pull this arrow back out of your leg, you might live. But you’ll never walk again.”

“Never walk…?”

Mikel looked Eliza in the eye, seeing what must be coming next, and realizing why she had needed his help. He nodded to her, to show he understood what was necessary.

“There’s an alternative. But it will hurt. A lot.” The petite healer glanced once at Mikel, waited for Jak to open his mouth, and then pressed the wooden rod between his teeth before he could speak.

“No more questions Jak. This has to be done quickly. Bite down hard now.”

Jak struggled, but Mikel threw his weight across the merchant’s chest and pressed the wooden block between his teeth so he would not spit it out. Eliza ran her fingers over the wound, probing and measuring delicately as she checked the arrowhead’s orientation. Now Jak bit down on the block without Mikel’s insistence as he grunted in pain. Mikel felt the merchant’s muscles tense as he tried not to jerk, but the worst was still to come.

Eliza lifted Jak’s left knee very slowly, and propped a small package under it, giving her access to the back of his thigh. She wrapped both hands around the shaft of the arrow, closed her eyes, and pushed with one quick fluid motion. Jak bellowed aloud and all his muscles lurched against Mikel’s weight but he did not break free. The arrowhead now protruded from the back of Jak’s thigh. Eliza gripped the wooden shaft in her pliers and snapped it neatly near the skin, eliciting a fresh groan from the wounded merchant.

Mikel felt Jak tense again and heard the scraping sound of his teeth grinding into the wooden rod. Eliza worked with quick and efficient motions. She set the crimson stained broadhead aside as she shifted her pliers to the shaft above the entry wound. She pulled the shaft straight out, dripping with gore. With a final grunt, Mikel felt the tension melt away as Jak passed out. Eliza packed both sides of the wound with a dark sticky salve from the ceramic pot. Then she wadded fresh linen into the entry and exit wounds before wrapping Jak’s broad thigh with what was left of the gauze.

She took a steadying breath when she was done. She touched Mikel on the shoulder, and he gently released his hold. Eliza retrieved the wooden rod, inspecting the fresh bite marks before setting it aside.

“Well, that’s all I can do for now.” She looked dissatisfied.

“Should we wake him?”

Eliza shook her head, frowning. “Sleep is the best thing for him.”

“Will he live?”

Eliza shrugged. “If he doesn’t get blood poisoning. One of us should probably get back outside… to keep those raiders from surprising us again.”

Mikel knew she was right. He lifted his head, listening to the sounds carried to him on the desert breeze. The raiders were still holding back. Mikel wasn’t sure why. “You were amazing.”

Eliza flushed. “He’s not saved yet. And I couldn’t have done it without your help.”

“Still. He’s lucky you were here. We all are.” Now it was Mikel’s turn to flush. What was getting into him? Luckily, Eliza didn’t seem to notice.

“Hah. Don’t expect the old bastard to admit it. He still thinks I cheated him into letting me join the wagon train.”

Mikel looked at her, a little of their mischievous roadside banter resurfacing despite their situation. “But you didn’t. Did you?”

Eliza looked back at him, and he saw the slightest glimmer of a smile in return.

Editing out the crap

by Richard Perkins

The first few days of the new year have been busy ones for me. I’ve lined up three volunteer readers for my first manuscript revisions: a big thanks to April, Dan, and Margot for that. Yesterday afternoon I had transcribed about 80% of my red-line revisions onto my computer. That means I should be able to finish all of them this week. Go me!

I also wrote the first installment in my series on renewable energy technology today. It’s a layman’s description of how hydroelectric generators work. You can find it on my Professional page or under the Renewable Tech series menu on the right. Let me know what you think. Too technical? Not technical enough? Every comment will improve the content, so let your fingers do the walking.

Cheers!

Renewable Tech: hydropower

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Renewable Tech

I’ve decided to start my primer on renewable power technology with one of the oldest forms of renewable energy: hydropower. Water wheels have been used for centuries to run mills, providing mechanical power directly to heavy machinery through rotating shafts.

The leap from mechanical power to hydroelectricity was a small one, once the relationship between electricity and magnetism was understood. It’s estimated that around 20% of the world’s electricity comes from hydroelectric generators. So how does a hydroelectric generator work?

Hydroelectricity simplified

In its simplest form, moving water turns a wheel. The wheel is connected by a shaft or belt to a generator, which is really just a fancy term for a loop of conductive wire in the field of a strong magnet. As the loop of wire rotates, the magnetic field pushes the electrons in the loop of wire first in one direction and then the other. And viola, you have alternating current! Easy right?

This is a dramatic simplification of the process, to be sure. Modern generators have a lot more copper wire than one simple loop, and there are usually multiple magnets with special housings to concentrate the magnetic field in the windings where it will have the strongest effect. There are also control loops with speed sensors, current and voltage detectors, and countless other gadgets designed to insure that the electricity coming out of the generator conforms to the standards of the local utility grid. This is all so that people like you and I can plug in our laptops and our televisions without fear of them blowing up. ;-)

Storage projects

water_turbineAs I said at the beginning of this post, we’ve been using hydropower for centuries. And we’ve come a long way from the water wheel. Most utility scale hydroelectric projects use dams to impound water in a reservoir, which is why they are sometimes called storage projects. Large scale hydro turbines are driven by the high head pressures built up behind these enormous dams. Note the representative size of the tiny human figure in the picture to the left. Hydroelectricity generators this size have capacities numbering in the hundreds of megawatts. They can be dispatched quickly in response to spikes in demand: just open the control gates to let water from the dam into the turbine. Since they store large volumes of water in their dams, their output is relatively insensitive to river level changes caused by storms or run-off. But they are sensitive to extended precipitation irregularities, like year long droughts.

Pumped storage projects

To understand the difference between traditional storage and pumped storage hydroelectric systems, you first have to know a little about how the electric utility grid functions. At any given time, there are energy producers and energy consumers attached to the grid. When your laptop is plugged into the outlet in your home, it is a consumer of electricity, or a load. When a generator is connected to the other end of the grid, it is (usually) a producer of electricity, or a source.

The goal of the electric utility companies that own and operate the grid is to keep producers and consumers in balance at all times. It’s a real juggling act. On hot summer afternoons when people come home from work and crank up their air conditioning, there is a spike in demand. The utility grid must be able to respond to this sudden surge by turning on more generators. Or they might buy energy from other regions that have more than they need. Likewise, when all the lights and appliances are turned off after everyone goes to bed, there is a drop in demand. Then the electric utilities have to idle the generators they brought online to respond to the surge. On top of these relatively predictable daily and seasonal variations in demand, there are also short duration spikes. They can be caused by sudden local weather changes, damage to transmission systems, fluctuation in generator production, you name it. It’s enough to have a utility manager pulling their hair out.

Though the cost of generating electricity doesn’t vary throughout the day, the price that an energy producer can sell their power for does. It goes up during peak demand and drops during low demand. This is what people are referring to when they talk about peak power, or peaking capacity plants. Since hydroelectric generators can be turned on or off fairly quickly in response to surges in demand, they make very good peaking plants. Hydroelectric power stations are arguably the most dispatchable of the renewable energy technologies available.

pumpedstoragePumped storage projects are specialized hydroelectric peaking plants. In addition to the standard reservoir above the turbines, a pumped storage project will have a second storage reservoir or a lake below the turbines. When electricity prices are low, like at night, electricity is taken from the grid to pump water from the lower reservoir into the upper one. When prices are high again, the upper reservoir drains into the lower reservoir through the turbines, supplying electricity back to the grid.

Of course you don’t get something for nothing. Pumped storage projects are net energy consumers: It takes more energy to pump the water uphill than you get from letting it flow back down again. But utility companies can use pumped storage projects to displace peak demand. And if you combine pumped storage with a non-dispatchable renewable energy source like wind, it can be a winning combination.

Run-of-river projects

microhydro At the other end of the spectrum you can find so called “run-of-river” hydro. Small scale installations, like the sketch at left from Electravent, don’t require construction of dams that restrict water flow. The capacities for systems like this are closer to a few hundred watts, enough to power household lights, a radio or a television. Since they don’t have the storage inherent in dammed hydro systems, their output is tied to how much water is flowing in the river at any given time. But for locations with reliable water levels, run of river hydro can make clean renewable electrification of remote locations very affordable. Run-of-river projects also avoid most of the environmental impacts that dams can have on river habitat, including water temperature, sediment flow, water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, gas saturation. They tend to have a smaller greenhouse gas footprint as well, given the high greenhouse gas intensity of the concrete used in most large dams.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, you can find hydroelectric systems of all shapes and sizes. Water power had been around almost as long as the wheel, and looks like it will remain a part of our world energy solutions for a long time to come. What goes around, comes around, after all. ;-)

Happy New Year

by Richard Perkins

Happy 2009 to one and all. I know I’ve been a bit delinquent in posts recently. After NaNo finished up at the beginning of the month, it’s just been kind of hectic. Margot’s family came out to visit for Christmas and we celebrated her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary a few months early. Two of Margot’s sisters, one aunt and one uncle made it into town for the party. And we managed to keep the secret right up until the guests of honor arrived (a real achievement, let me tell you).

On the professional front, the economy has not been doing me any favors. No new job offers, no new interviews, no new leads. I didn’t really expect much for December, with most companies ramping down for the holidays and evaluating their end of year budgets. But hopefully things will pick up in January, with the incoming administration’s avowed support for renewable energy investment.

In the interim, I’m thinking about writing a series of short articles on various renewable energy technologies. I’m not certain about the format yet, but I’ll probably try to keep the language suitable for the average reader. I’ll probably write a separate post for each generation type, with descriptions of the energy source, the way the technology converts the energy to electricity, maturity, scale, advantages and disadvantages. So if you’ve always wondered how a windmill can turn on your laptop… keep an eye out for a new series in my Professional Page starting in January.

The Renegade’s Door, my November NaNoWriMo novel, has just emerged from it’s month long intervention with my red pen. I plan to spend the first part of January getting all the revisions into electronic form. Then I’ll send the manuscript out to a few readers for feedback. I may post an excerpt or two in the series on my writing page if you want to take a peek. But I probably won’t be posting the entire manuscript for this story the way I did with Doormaker’s Fall and Voices of the Deep. By February I plan to have the book shipped out to potential publishers. Wish me luck!

The complete exhaustion of success

by Richard Perkins

December is here at last. One of the gifts December brought me in its big red sack of goodies was the end of National Novel Writing Month 2008. I spent the month of November tied to my keyboard, fingers numbly toiling against my first actual writing deadline: to generate an original 50,000 word novel from start to finish in 30 days. Drum roll please…

Tada! I’m proud to say I did it. The first draft of the Renegade’s Door is now finished with 52,058 words. It comes in at a slim 104 pages when printed on letter size paper, and would probably be about 175 pages in small format paperback. I spent 92 hours writing this draft, not counting the prep work during October: character descriptions, scene descriptions, plot outline, etc. And to think, this story was nothing more than a bunch of note-cards on a whiteboard a month ago!

In addition to the excitement of actually crossing the finish line, I have definitely felt a little bit of a letdown. Now that the immediate hurdle of the first draft is behind me, I’m now faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of revision. A 52k word draft is a far cry from the readily salable 90k-120k page turner that typical publishers expect in a non series adult fiction manuscript. Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo says it takes him about a year of night and weekend work to turn a 50k first draft into a 90k second draft. Uggh.

I’m thinking I may give author Holly Lisle’s One Pass Manuscript Revision Method a try. I work better to a near term deadline, so maybe this method will work for me. It goes without saying that I’m definitely not looking forward to this part of the noveling process though. I’ve heard the novel writing process likened to a marathon, and NaNoWriMo compared to a sprint that just happens to be a bit over twenty-six miles. Now I’m feeling it’s a bit more like a triathlon. I’ve just finished the first stage, and though I’m exhausted, there’s still two more stages to go… :-o

My final stats chart is below, for those of you who like to see trend-lines and graphs. ;-)