Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 2

Mike Harris stood in a yellow rain suit and orange life vest on the edge of the Wolf Creek Dam as white water roared beneath him. He’d worked on the eastern Kentucky dam for four years and had never seen it flowing this fast. Over the last half hour he’d gone to each of the ten gates to inspect them for visible damage or obstruction, but found nothing unusual.
With his radio near his mouth he shouted “Control, this is Harris. I’ve got nothing. What’s going on there, over?”
Control came back smartly with “Gates are still non-responsive, Chief.”
Mike could barely hear the crackle of the radio over the roar of the waters. He was standing hundreds of feet above the Cumberland River, and looking across a mile long concrete structure with water flowing recklessly over the spillways. The rumble was incredible.
Mike snapped back, “Repeat that last, over.” He had a habit of using military radio slang when he was stressed, rather than civilian radio speak. His Marine days in Iraq had imprinted on him, and though he loved his civilian engineer job, he had to admit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a shoddy operation at times compared to The Corps, the U.S.M.C.
From Control came a new, recognizable voice, that of Jim Potter, a veteran operator and engineer. He spoke into the radio with his smooth Kentucky accent, saying “Mike, we’ve done everything. We reset the system, powered it off, rebooted it. Same deal every time. No response. Repeat. No Response.”
“Roger that, Jim. No response.” Mike didn’t like that he sounded a bit defeated. What was going on here?
Mike walked back to the white Corps of Engineers-marked Tahoe. Once inside the SUV he did a quick calculation on his laptop. Approximately an hour ago the gates had, without warning, opened full throttle, and the water was gushing down from Cumberland Lake at breakneck speed, endangering the lives and homes of hundreds of thousands of people downstream. Wolf Creek usually held a “pool” at a 90 to 100 foot depth. The word “pool” seemed to him such a silly technical term for a lake with a shoreline longer than Florida. However, pool level was crucial. Once the dam had released all its water in the “pool” down to 65 feet, the dam would be “dead.” No power generation, no controls. The whole region would be in blackout.
That in turn meant the power grid for the Northeast Region would have to compensate for Wolf Creek going off-line. This in term would draw down reserve capacity everywhere else, stressing every grid system to pick up the slack, or casting all of Wolf Creek’s customers into darkness. He’d seen the rolling blackouts before . . . and the chaos they had caused.
Mike put the Tahoe into drive, cruised smartly down US 127 which ran atop the dam, and then exited onto the service road and began working his way along the switchbacks and curves toward the Corps office. The view was breathtaking, even in the rain and late evening sun. He could see the autumn colors spread across the hills and valleys, all cloaked in dramatically moving wisps of fog and mist.
He punched on the speakerphone and called William Nudally, emergency manager for the Great Lakes and Ohio River division of the Corps. The call went through on the third try.
“Go ahead, Mike, what have you got?” Nudally answered in a clipped manner, obviously tense.
Mike was surprised that Bill was already on the ball. He was a competent manager, but he wasn’t telepathic.
“Bill, listen, I don’t have a lot of time, not sure who’s told you what, but we’ve lost control of Wolf Creek.”
Nudally cut in. “Mike, I understand. We’ve also lost Philpott, Kinzua, and Smith Mountain. We are fighting to hang on to a half dozen others”
That news hit Mike like a ton of bricks. “What?”
Nudally paused a second. “Didn’t you know?”
Mike stammered back, “No. I mean, know what, exactly, Bill?”
“Mike, we’ve been hit. Infrastructure attack, broad spectrum. Dams, power plants, the whole works. My board is lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Mike struggled to fully understand what he’d heard. Nudally, a retired Air Force colonel, was popping it out fast, as if he was back in his Air Force days, calling out bogeys as an air intercept officer.
“Hackers? Bill, is that it? Kids or something?”
“No, Mike, it’s an inside job of some sort. They were all keyed to go down simultaneously, here and across the country. Word is that Northwestern and South Pacific Division are hit, too. I hear the Canadians got hit as well. The whole grid’s starting to fall as we speak. You better pull out the whole emergency plan . . . and I mean the whole thing. I’m working federal forces from this angle right now, but get on the horn at the state level and see if the Guard is being called up. We’re going to need all hands on this thing. All hands, Mike. Somebody has declared war on us. Gotta run.”
Mike hung up the phone, left to his thoughts. An infrastructure attack was something they had planned for. The Corps control systems, like everything else in industrialized America, had long since moved to totally computerized controls. Nobody pulled a lever anymore; everything was done remotely, via the internet. It saved time, reduced man-hours, saved money on injuries, pensions, sick leave, and so on. Virtually every system was now run by a programmable logic controller (PLC), a computer box that determined when to open, shut, or otherwise initiate or operate some type of electromechanical infrastructure system. At the heart of the process was the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems which monitored and controlled the PLCs across a site. With a single computer console a single person could operate a whole site – a whole dam, power plant, or pipeline.
The argument in favor of this was not only efficiency, but, ironically, security. By removing so many hands from the operating levers, it was argued that it would be easier to control security to the various critical systems. It was easier to watch one man than fifty. In addition, the initial wave of SCADA and PLC systems were proprietary systems developed by companies that most no one had any reason to target. Thus, obscurity was a key means of security. It was too hard for would-be hackers to get access to the very specific computer code and diagrams which had been written for each site. However, in the last decade the industry had begun to use off-the-shelf SCADA and PLC units. Everyone went to a standard system. This eased uniformity of training, operation, and replacement, and saved a bundle in the process, but also meant that a successful attack on one SCADA system was a dry run for possible attacks on any other system, anywhere.
Industry experts were concerned, but mostly swept the issue under the rug. They had safety protocols: turn the systems off, reboot, re-install code, and you were back in business. In addition, they had worked to make each system tougher to crack, using the latest security software. But what infrastructure protection teams had learned was that any system could be penetrated by cyberattacks – often these were hackers trained by and working for Chinese, Russian, even Israeli military organizations. Every year there had been probing attacks against U.S. targets. Usually they did nothing more than test security, but occasionally they managed to break into a system. The big fear for several years had been that an attack would be launched with the intent of causing real havoc.
It was hard for the average citizen to imagine the pain and suffering such attacks could cause. A simple example was the control of valves at a water treatment plant. If the sewage pipes were controlled so that raw sewage flowed into the clean water inlet, the whole plant would be contaminated. Raw sewage would be carried into the filters and treatment tanks. It might take weeks, even months, to completely clean the system of the sewage and bring the clean water treatment back online. The costs would be astronomical, and a whole city would lose access to clean water. More sinister plans might include shutting down the cooling water pumps on a nuclear reactor, causing a nuclear accident, or the opening of service or relief valves on an oil pipeline, causing its contents to spill out and create an ecological disaster. Any single event would be terrible, but a broad spectrum and coordinated attack, as Bill was describing, was beyond imagination. It could cause trillions of dollars in ecological and economic damage. Put simply, if a single attack was the equivalent of a cybernetic Pearl Harbor, what Bill was describing was the equivalent of a thousand cybernetic Hiroshimas, all across the country. Bill’s last statement, “Somebody has declared war on us,” echoed in his head.
Mike tried to keep himself from panicking. Work the problem. Work the problem. He guided the Tahoe into his parking slot in front of his neatly landscaped Corps office, then he pulled out his cell phone and started punching his contacts, calling in his emergency management team, all off-duty people, and his counterparts in the Forest Service, the state parks, state police, and so forth.
The message for his folks was simple: he was calling a meeting in one hour. Everybody in, right now. They were going to fight this thing.
His mind was spinning. If the whole grid was going down simultaneously, they might never bring it back online. It was a war.
He punched one last number on his phone as he walked into his office and began riffling through the file cabinets, looking for the hard copies of Wolf Creek’s SCADA diagrams.
“Hey, sweetie,” said a female voice from the other end.
“Laura, listen. There’s a problem here. I don’t have time –”
“What’s wrong?” Laura cut in.
“Laura, listen. Where are the kids?”
“At my mothers. Mike, what’s wrong?”
“Laura, get in the truck now. Get the kids, your parents, and get home. Wolf Creek is in trouble and I’m not sure how long we have. Head up to Russell Springs and get all the beans and rice. Hard beans. All of it. Get home and sit tight.”
“Okay, Mike, okay. Beans and rice?”
“Honey, just do it.”
“Mike, you are scaring me. I don’t understand--”
His words were coming fast now. “Just do it. Go now. Go right now. We don’t have time.”
“Okay, okay. I love you.”
Mike exhaled and slowed himself down. He was allowing himself to get panicked. He forced the feeling back. “I love you, too,” he said more slowly. “Just get the kids, get your parents, and get all the food you can. I need you to do this.”
“I will Mike. I will. I’m in the truck now.”
“Laura, one more thing.”
“Yes, sweetie?”
“Look in the glove compartment. Is it there?”
Laura’s end paused for a second. “The revolver? Yes, it’s there.”
Mike stopped to look out of his office window. As he watched, the lights in the valley below him -- homes, streetlights, parking lot lighting -- began to slowly go out.

Go to part 3 here.

    Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter at @liamkfisher. Please leave comments below and tell me what you think. I'd love to hear from you!


  1. OK, now it's getting interesting in a different way. The characters from part 1 aren't in the mix, so I know there's a lot more coming from that initial direction. But now we're looking at a whole new disaster scenario (and survival fiction readers *love* a good disaster scenario, much less multiple disaster scenarios!), and it looks like you've done some good research here too, to make it realistic. So now I'm hooked even more. The other thing that's common and fun in survival fiction, IMO, is the "you have advanced notice, now go shopping!" scenario, and it looks like that's coming. I'm ready for more! :-)

    1. Thanks Andrew! I'm trying to keep the tension cranked up to the max.

  2. Oooh. I really like it. You don't waste any time cranking up the tension, do ya? Good job. :)

    1. I'm trying to keep this as seat of the pants as I can.

  3. Interesting stuff. I love the multiple points of view and the many stories going on simultaneously. Your style reminds me of Under the Dome by Steven King, one of my favorite books. I gotta keep reading!

  4. ok I'm screaming....don't stop now!!! You've got me! This is good...and I mean good!

  5. Wow jump right into the fire here! And from part 12 we know its gotta get even worse. Bring on part 3!

  6. I like the inside-out premise, instead of some over-arching issue like EMP (which at this point might be redundant) and level of detail. I'll find out if I spoke too soon.

  7. I didn't know the USA dams have totally gone computerized and further more now use a standard system. I always imagined guys pulling levels and looking at gauges inside the dams whenever we go buy one I mean by one.

    This is like Pearl Harbor where all the defense forces were moved to one spot to be a sitting duck and the same thing has happened today.

    All the West Coast defense systems have been relocated to Bremerton WA so all someone needs to do is launch a IBCM over there from an offshore ship then rig that ship to blow up and the West Coast is helpless from day one.