Category Archives: Pengel’s Universe

Pengel’s Universe (part 15)

“…Rocklin 245, Stanford Quad East. Florin 412, Stanford Law. Davis 913, Stanford East Residences. Penryn 361, Stanford Row Residences. Penryn 768, Stanford South Residences…”

I stood at attention next to Gabe as the assignments went on. Our unit would be checking foundations and building integrity in the residences in the southern part of the former university’s expansive campus; Annilea’s would be doing the same in the residences on the fraternity row. The university had already taken everything of historical or scientific importance with them when they moved underground, so all we needed to do was check the buildings themselves. The rain had stopped, but most of the streets were flooded—we’d be slogging around knee-deep in water all day.

The southern part of campus, which borders on the row, is uphill from the rest of campus, and the water damage was minimal. Annilea’s unit stopped for lunch at the same time as mine did, strained by the monotonous work. Annilea found me at the old lakebed, a huge depression in the ground just like Gus Pengel described it. A soggy mess of grasses bordered the small lake that had gathered in the middle of it from the rain.

“Hey,” said Annilea gently as she came up behind me.

“Hi,” I replied, turning to look at her. Her tone was soft, too soft.

She bit her lip, something she only does when she’s struggling between two conflicting emotions. “It’s not there.”

I turned to face her. “What isn’t?”

Her jaw clenched. “Jigsaw. It’s not where he said it would be.”

Frowning, I reached out to touch her elbow. “Maybe we just missed something. I mean, look. The lakebed is here.”

She nodded slowly. “When we’re done, will you look with me?”

I slung my arm over her shoulders. “Of course.”

Our units finished the rest of the buildings before sunset, so Annilea and I stayed behind to embark on our own quest. The air got colder as the sun slipped closer to the horizon, and with it the rain began falling again—a light mist at first, but soon beat down in earnest. Annilea and I pulled on ponchos and shone our flashlights around at the buildings that lined the street. Soon the shadows began playing tricks on our eyes, the darkened lampposts turning into ghosts of students who once roamed this campus, of Gus Pengel and his friends. Finally the rain and cold were too much, and we decided to return to the command center.

Later that night, I sat staring out the window at the rain, absently peeling an orange and letting the citrus smell surround me. I saw Annilea’s reflection approach before I heard her footsteps.

“It’s not there, Xan,” she said.

I didn’t say anything.

“We looked everywhere. And I checked the maps, the SSF Digital Archives, the University’s logbook—it’s not there. It never was.”

I swallowed hard. “But Pengel…”

“Xan. It’s not there.”

Her words drifted out of comprehension. I just kept staring out the window, letting my eyes follow the weary paths of raindrops on the glass.

What if none of it was true?

Pengel’s Universe (part 14)

In Spanish, lagunita means little lake, so really when we refer to the lake on Stanford’s campus as Lake Lagunita, we’re being redundant. But we like that irony, just as we like the fact that eight months out of the year, Lake Lag is nothing more than a grassy, dry depression in the ground.

The legend goes that Leland Stanford dug out the whole thing, about a mile in circumference, and ran a herd of cattle through the bottom to compact the dirt—only the have the lake start leaking a hundred years later. For years they filled the lake by bringing in water from elsewhere, fighting a losing battle with an increasingly porous lakebed; and supposedly some biologists realized that filling the lake with water interfered with the mating patterns of a particular species of salamander. I’m pretty sure the salamanders have their own designated crossing under the main road that runs along Stanford’s southern end, so really it’s just the lakebed leaking that keeps the university from using our tuition on trying to fill a lake faster than it empties itself.

We had a big Jigsaw reunion in the Lake Lag last summer. Deanna packed a picnic for sixty, and we all ate in the California sunshine on blankets and beach towels laid over the dry, prickly grasses in the lakebed. A couple of us started a game of Ultimate Frisbee—and while I pitied Leland Stanford and his herd of cattle for their futile pursuit of a lake, I was glad for the meadow they’d created for just such an occasion.

Pengel’s Universe (part 13)

The ride to the surface is always a little anticlimactic. Basically it’s me and the twelve others in my unit crammed into an elevator with all our gear, twiddling our thumbs as we ascend. But emerging from the tunnel and stepping out into the blinding sunlight makes that ride worth it.

Today’s was extra pathetic—we re-routed from the station nearest the barracks to a station on the peninsula with an ancient elevator that crept upwards like the lift at the old people’s home where my grandparents live. We were deployed from standby to assist with flooding control along the San Francisco Bay—not nearly as dangerous as the last standby, but we still don’t know our complete orders.

Captain Aarons, our unit commander, went up the tunnel first to check conditions while we unloaded the lift. “Rain gear, kiddos,” he said, shaking his head as he came back down the tunnel. “We’re not rainwalkers for nothing.”

We donned ponchos and shouldered our packs, trudging up the tunnel in single file. The tunnel sloped up gently, lined on both sides by garish yellow lights that confused our shadows into shattered triangles on the pavement. I could smell the rain as we neared the exit, could feel the fresh draft of rainfall. The thirteen of us plus extra equipment had been crammed into the rail transport for longer than usual—the clear air put energy back in our footsteps.

We surfaced under pouring rain. It beat at our hoods and within seconds a rivulet of rainwater started dripping off the tip of my nose. We were next to an old railroad track that crossed a major road a few hundred meters from the tunnel entrance. Low buildings and warehouses blocked any view of more cross streets along the road, which had flooded and led water over the curbs to the glass storefronts. Across the tracks, a heavy line of trees and shrubs stood over the water, extending in both directions. A unit captain I didn’t recognize greeted Aarons and motioned for us to follow over a walkway made from sandbags and boards, and up the stairs to an old office building they’d turned into a makeshift command center.

The moment we stepped through the doors out of the rain, Gabe and I were jumped in such a flurry it took me a moment to realize it was Annilea.

“You’re here!” she exclaimed, not caring how wet our ponchos were as she smothered us both in a relieved hug.

“Anni,” managed Gabe, “I’m carrying around thirty kilos of gear here.”


She released us and helped us carry our gear inside. We piled the restock bags in the designated area, and dumped our own bags in our assigned corner. The rest of our unit settled in, but Annilea pulled me aside.

“Xan. Do you know where we are?”

I shrugged. “The peninsula?”

She shook her head. “Palo Alto. Across the tracks from Stanford.”

I couldn’t say anything for a moment. Stanford. Gus Pengel. This is where it all happened… I stood within a two-kilometer radius of everything in his book. Close enough to touch. To see with my own eyes.

Pengel’s Universe (part 12)

When I was sixteen, my dad and I went on a road trip seeking as many forms of energy production as we could find. Driving through a good portion of Arizona, Nevada, and California, we hit most of the major forms of power plants that exist: huge smokestacks of the traditional fossil-fuel burning plant; sweeping hillsides of pointy windmills in the Tehachapi Pass; gallons and gallons of water pressing up against concrete, just waiting to rush past turbines at the Hoover Dam; fields of blank, staring solar panels sunbathing in the desert of north of Las Vegas; and even a small plant growing algae in long glass tubes for biofuel.

But our most mind-bending stop was in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At sixteen I’d learned about the Manhattan Project and the research they’d done here while racing Russia to the nuclear bomb. I’d also learned the mechanisms of nuclear fission and fusion, but until we started touring the visitor center, I never fully appreciated the elegant and dangerous power of a nuclear reactor. Somehow I doubt that anyone on a wind farm ever accidentally dropped one compound into another to inadvertently create an unshielded mass of raw power—and in the case of a few unfortunate individuals, so powerful that they died of radiation poisoning not two weeks later.

All in the name of science. I hope to God I won’t injure myself in making my groundbreaking discovery.