Short Story: “Cascade”

When you have the world’s attention, make the most of it. [You can have this story read to you. This is part 1 of “Cascade”, and this is part 2 of “Cascade”.]

by P. Orin Zack

It had all come down to Irwin’s own testimony. Five nightmarish months of a high-profile court case in which his life was laid bare like a laboratory exhibit and washed with stain that allowed only one interpretation: terrorist. And all because he’d suggested a use for some cash left over at the end of a tech conference.

He looked up from the bible beneath his hand, and then over at the judge. His throat was dry from sitting for so long beside his court-appointed lawyer, agape at the fabricated version of his life that had been reeled out by the prosecution. “I do.”

“You may take the stand.”

The state’s attorney, a white-haired man named Ralph Glendon, who had the bearing of a general and the guile of a used car salesmen, rose and started towards him. “Mr. Forrester,” he said calmly, “the court has heard a great many expert witnesses in this case. Some of them have spoken to your character… or lack of it.”

Irwin’s lawyer, a petite fireball named Susan Wright, rose partway out of her chair. “Objection. Conclusionary.”

“Sustained.” The judge cast a weary glance at Glendon.

“Others,” he continued, unabated, “have described the horrendous result of your actions. They have laid out, clearly and unambiguously, the details of how the river surge that you caused to be set in motion was responsible for the destruction of a major coastal city, a shipping port that suffered damage which was measured, not just in dollars, but in lives. What we haven’t heard, to this point, is why you did it.”

Irwin pounced. In the scant pause, he came alert and said, “Thank you for asking.”

Susan Wright might not have had the years of experience that informed the prosecutor’s judgment, but she more than made up for it in her grasp of psychology, and in particular, the psychology of a certain high-profile prosecutor. When they’d discussed today’s testimony, she told him to listen carefully to Glendon’s phrasing, because he had a tendency to make sloppy linguistic mistakes. If Irwin could interpret a preparatory remark as a request for information, and immediately started replying, the prosecutor wouldn’t get the chance to finish framing his question, and couldn’t lay a trap. Judge Hu had allowed it before, and she was certain he’d do it again.

Glendon, who had just drawn breath to continue, closed his eyes in painful realization of the error. He wasn’t likely to repeat the mistake any time soon.

“In order for me to explain why I made that suggestion,” Irwin said, “you have to understand what the conference was really all about. The way your experts described it was completely wrong. We’re not a bunch of hackers ‘getting drunk and hatching violent schemes’ as it was put recently. The purpose of the conference is to provide a venue, a context, for a group of technically educated analysts to look at the nation’s infrastructure as if it were a machine. The piecemeal way that it was designed and constructed hides a great deal of the way it behaves as a whole. We prefer to call ourselves Civil Ecologists.”

“Okay,” the prosecutor said. “I’ll accept that characterization. It’s certainly a lot easier to grasp what a ‘civil ecologist’ is than the long-winded titles we have heard bandied about here. Go on.”

Irwin glanced at his lawyer. Happily, she did not appear to be suppressing panic. “Well, sir, because we intentionally look at the infrastructure as a machine, we notice the interactions that are possible where they intersect with one another. In some cases, these interactions form what could be described as a cascade of events, much like the seemingly chaotic behavior of a Rube Goldberg device.”

Glendon nodded. “Yes. I don’t think we need to revisit the disastrous demonstration of how Healy dam shattered Constongo Gas’s main pipeline when it failed. We’re well aware of how that slow-motion train wreck proceeded. But you were a thousand miles north of there.”

“I was. But when we are looking at the interactions among bits of the national infrastructure, distances can be deceiving. It’s not as important where a thing is physically, as how they are connected through social structures, communications networks and so forth. It’s really quite complex. We take it as a challenge to understand how these systems of systems behave. One way to describe such causal cascades is by sketching out a path of probable outcomes. Those sketches frequently look startlingly like the contraptions that Goldberg drew, or like the ones which students from all over the world spend their time either building for real, or in simulation.”

“And these Rube Goldberg contraptions,” Glendon said, “the ones designed by students… do they ever have destructive purposes?”

“Not to my knowledge, sir.”

“But the event cascades, as you call them, that you sketch out, Mr. Forrester. They do have potentially destructive results?”

“That is true. But you see, sir, unlike those students, we don’t construct anything. What we do is to identify them as they occur in the world. We just point them out.”

A murmur swept the room. One of the claims that had been made against Irwin was that he was the organizer of a terror cell.

“I must interrupt you there, Mr. Forrester,” the prosecutor said, one hand raised theatrically. He was standing beside his table, looking down at some notes. “What you have just admitted to… that you don’t personally set these causal cascades in motion… supports the accusation that you were, in fact one of the ring-leaders, and that you directed others to carry out your destructive plans.”

Irwin’s lawyer paled. “Objection, your honor. My client did not admit to conspiracy. Move to strike.”

“I didn’t accuse him of it. I merely noted that his statement supports the —.”

Judge Hu spoke over Clendon. “Both counsel please approach the bench.”

The prosecutor had his back to the witness stand, so Irwin couldn’t make out what he said to the judge. But when the whispering was finished, and the attorneys returned to their places, the defense counsel looked like she’d gotten the better of the deal.

Glendon asked him to continue.

“As I was saying, we don’t create these event cascades, we don’t set them in motion. All we do is point them out. It’s like noticing that your teacup would fly across the room if something fell on the spoon, only on a much larger scale.”

“To whom, then, do your colleagues typically point these cascades out?”

Irwin took a breath and relaxed. This was a point that his lawyer had been unsuccessful in raising in the way she wanted. Having the prosecutor ask this question, however, had certain advantages. He was intent on proving culpability, and would therefore want to let him speak, hoping that he’d inadvertently reveal something important. But there were other directions the question might be taken.

“That, sir, is the very crux of the problem which had been posed to the participants of the conference. Who do we tell? As you might expect, the discussion explored not just the immediate benefit or risks in telling a given person, business or government agency, but also the long-range implications. In other words, we were interested in the social causal cascade which would be triggered by reporting a physical causal cascade.”

“So you’re saying,” Glendon said slowly, “that you assessed the potential value of reporting your findings to the Corps of Engineers, for example, as opposed to your congressman?”

“Yes, sir. That is correct. In the past, when situations such as this had been reported, the press portrayed the act as crazy, and the person reporting it as a conspiracy theorist, or worse. Not only did that not accomplish the goal of reporting the situation, which has always been to defuse the causal chain, the person lost their job.” He glanced around the courtroom. “Speaking up can pose a serious risk.”

“Let’s return to your specific situation, then, Mr. Forrester. What did you do?”

This was a question he had prepared for. Susan Wright was certain that it would be the most damning part of his testimony. In order to minimize the chance of the truth being twisted, they had practiced his answer.

“What did I do?” he repeated, playing for time. “Well, I knew that the event cascade that I’d identified would involve people and organizations in a number of jurisdictions, because of what it was. The problem was that none of them had the responsibility, or the authority, to consider the situation globally. I couldn’t simply have alerted the Metro Bureau of Water Resources, because all they were concerned with was whether the lock on the river operated properly, not what might happen if the top few feet of the lake were to suddenly go downstream. Besides, unless something was to make the lock inoperable — and even the drainage failure below it a few years ago didn’t do that — it was purely conjecture. It’s not something they’re really interested in.”

“Fine,” Glendon said. “So we know what you didn’t do. What did you do instead?”

“I told the others at the conference. After all of the scheduled events have finished, there is usually an informal gathering where the folks that are still around can discuss how it all went, and make suggestions for the next conference. Well, one subject under discussion was what to do with a few thousand dollars left in the organization’s account after all of the expenses were paid. It was presented as a challenge: how to get the most use out of the money. Quite a number of suggestions were offered. As you might imagine, with a group like that, the value derived from spending the money was achieved through applying it, like a lever, to an event cascade which required a bit of priming, sort of like a pump.”

The courtroom was very still. After all of the testimony regarding the details of what happened at the other end of that river, of the damage caused by all of the water surging through the system, his narrative was a bit like playing a few bars of the theme after the concerto’s rousing climax had subsided. He thought for a moment, and then continued.

“I wanted as many people as possible thinking about the potential results of a failure of that lock. And I thought that the best way to do that was to pose the question, what would happen if that money was spent on enough explosives to destroy the lock? My expectation was that once the others realized what might happen, a number of people would independently report it to a variety of different places. I never expected that any of them would conduct the experiment.”

“And yet someone did,” the prosecutor said calmly. “Someone took your suggestion as a challenge, or perhaps as a request for action, and destroyed the lock. Someone followed your directions, Mr. Forrester, and a lot of people died.”

“But it never should have happened. Not the destruction of a city a thousand miles away. What I saw, the potential event cascade that I saw was that all of that water would create a storm surge along the river. A surge like that ought to have scoured the riverbed, and improved the river’s navigation channels. The Corp of Engineers had dredged those channels, and would have been spared the time and expense of clearing them for another ten years. That surge should have been a net benefit to cities and industries up and down the river.”

“I guess you were wrong,” Clendon said lightly.

“I guess I was. But that’s because the condition reports filed by the Corps of Engineers all these years have been falsified. The flood control dams hit by that surge should have withstood the pressure, according to the reports they filed. They shouldn’t have failed, yet they did. The navigation channels they dredged should have guided the extra current down the center of the riverbed, but instead, they collapsed, and that released all of the toxic waste that has been hidden beneath the riverbed while they took kickbacks and looked the other way. Healy dam was designed to protect the Constongo Gas pipeline, not to collapse on it. Every step along the way, that surge exposed the results of decades of graft and corruption on the part of government contractors, intended to enrich the companies at the cost of our environment. And that, sir, is why I have subjected myself to five months of being called a terrorist. I knew that the only way for the people of this country to see what has been done in their name, and with their money, was for it to be exposed in a court case that could not be swept under the rug, because the public execution of an accused terrorist sells the most ads of anything on any channel or in any newspaper.

“That cascade I saw, Mr. Clenden, led right to this moment, and I was determined to ride that wave all the way to the beach. That, sir, is why I did it.”

The reporters had already bolted by the time the prosecutor found his voice.

Susan Wright sat back and grinned. Winning isn’t always about winning.

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack


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