The Devil’s in the Cloud, Part III: The New Dark Ages

You can find the first part of this series here

Ruins of French Opera House, New Orleans, public domain/Rembrandt Studios, courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsWhen the New Year’s Day sun rose in Europe and the United States, the reality of what had happened was hidden to almost all. Only a hundred or so targets had been struck, and the smoke from the ruins that remained was already dissipating. What people did immediately realize was that certain things that they were used to working now did not.

The things that no longer functioned included anything that relied on electricity to operate. Which was, of course, virtually everything except automobiles. This was necessarily the case, because all of the elements that coordinated and controlled the power grid had been destroyed. Even many battery powered devices were silent – the cell phones had no dial tones, and the radios generated only static, because the management software and servers that enabled telecommunications had also been annihilated. Perhaps most discomfiting of all, there was no Internet, nor any of the services that relied upon the Internet.

For the first few hours, the effect was unusually peaceful, the way a power outage can sometimes be, with neighbors remarking upon how nice it was to simply sit on the porch and talk, just like the old days.

But by mid day, the novelty was replaced with consternation, because there was virtually no information available about what had happened, and how it would be made right. True, some emergency broadcast radio channels were operating, but because those that controlled them had so little knowledge about what had happened, or the extent of the damage, there was little they could say. Worse, if they had shared what information they did have – that those ostensibly in control had no idea how they would go about restoring the power grid, let alone the Internet, in any reasonable amount of time – mass panic would certainly ensue. Have YOU Discovered the Alexandria Project?

A Tale of Treachery and Technology

There was little to prevent the arrival of that state of affairs in any event. For those that were fortunate, it was a matter of days. For others, it arrived before the night of the first day had fallen. Riots and looting broke out in many cities, fueled in part by fear and in part by opportunism.

By the second day, the true severity of the situation began to penetrate the consciousness of more and more people. The gas in the tanks of their cars was the last gas they would have until who knew when, because gas stations had no generators.  And if they did, there would be no more deliveries of new fuel to the stations, because there was no more Internet to support inventory and shipping controls, or to monitor supply or demand.

Needless to say, the banks did not open. Nor did ATMs operate, although in truth the relevance of paper money was rapidly becoming less and less evident. The capital markets stayed closed as well, as did every element of the transportation system, dependent as it was on computerized management, and as workers became less and less willing to use precious gasoline driving to work.

As the fuel ran out in cars and trucks, the delivery of essential items – food, heating oil, medicines, clothing, replacement parts – speedily came to an end.

As had always been the case in the past when a natural or man-made disaster had struck, police, firemen, EMTs and other first responders sprang into action. But this time, everything was different. For one thing, they lacked reliable communications. For another, they lacked information.

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Databases that used to live on local servers had long ago been moved to distant data farms, and now those data farms – both the primary locations as well as their back up sites – had been reduced to rubble. Data as basic as the addresses and phone numbers of a police department’s own personnel were suddenly unavailable. Desk sergeants were reduced to rummaging through desk drawers, hoping that someone had printed out a copy of one piece of information or another for temporary reference.

The same crisis developed quickly in almost every other setting. Most hospitals had power from backup generators until their fuel supplies gave out, but their patients no long had a medical history to consult, because paper records had all been replaced with electronic medical records. All of those records – of course – were remotely hosted, or at least had been, prior to the attack. Now they had ceased to exist. Nor could doctors order medical tests, because the servers that hosted the diagnostic software also no longer existed. Doctors that had never been trained to diagnose through personal observation found that they suddenly were scarcely more able to treat their patients than the patients themselves.

So also at airports, where suddenly air traffic controllers and pilots were reduced to line of site navigation. But every airline shut down operations immediately, because they had no way to know who had paid for a ticket and how had not, or whether planes would be full or empty, or whether there would be sufficient fuel at any given airport to refuel once a plane had arrived. Railways were only a little better off, because their signaling systems no longer functioned. That hardly mattered, though, because the trunk lines that long ago carried rail freight from main lines to factories and small towns had long ago been abandoned. There was little point to moving items from one transhipment point to another, since there were no longer any trucks to complete the shipment to its final destination. Buses, of course, needed fuel. And soon they had none.

First responders did the best they could at the local level for as long as they could. But as time went on, what they could do became less and less. They had no food to dole out, nor any way to bring heat to the emergency shelters that had always served their appointed purposes in the past. As the reality of the situation began to sink in, police, fireman and eventually even the National Guard did what could be expected – they left their posts and returned to their families, to do what they could to protect them instead.

Meanwhile, supplies of medications at pharmacies and hospitals rapidly dwindled. When stocks of insulin and other urgently needed medications gave out, the results were both tragic and predictable.

The shock of realizing that vital information had been lost – perhaps forever – played out over and over in millions of businesses, universities and government agencies in the days that followed. The impact was numbing and immobilizing. Theoretically, millions of new servers could be ordered, built, bought, shipped and installed over a great deal of time, and those servers could be reloaded with software and that software could be reconfigured, over another very long time. But how could those servers be ordered, paid for, shipped and installed without access to the data, software and computing power that had been destroyed? Over time, perhaps, yes, but how to accomplish anything until that had occurred? Or survive until it had?

So also with the power grid. The days were long gone when every town had its own generation facility. Instead, the grid had become like an ocean of power into which producers poured electricity and from which users pulled it out, matching up accounts between buyers and sellers through highly complex software. Maintaining that grid had become an almost infinitely complex balancing act. Take down one part, and the impact could cascade through a wider and wider area. Bringing it back up was a vastly intricate job, predicated on the assumption that virtually all generating capacity would be available to once more be linked together.

True, wind turbines continued to turn and the dynamos deep inside hydroelectric dams still spun. But renewable energy constituted only a very minor part of total energy needs. The coal-powered facilities that remained continued to produce, but only for a few days, until their on-site coal supplies ran out, because the transportation system was down. Gas-fired plants had already shut down, as had all nuclear facilities, out of fear that could be the next targets of attack.

Every way that those in charge sought to turn, there were missing pieces – missing pieces in everything and everywhere. It was if in an instant all of the modern infrastructure of two continents had in a matter of hours been turned into confetti and blown to the four corners of the earth. Here there was still a bit and over there another, but too much of what should have been in between was unavailable to allow anyone to start to repair anything at all. And there was no place to start, because your communications were down, as were your analytical tools.

In the best of times, perhaps it could all have been put back together again. But these times were anything but fortunate. To rebuild required vast amounts of coordination and communication. But chaos increasingly prevailed in the streets as food and fuel ran out. Soon, only armored vehicles could safely move about, when they had the fuel to do so. Those charged with maintaining order and with restoring normalcy became first, demoralized, and then desperate.

It was not long before they realized that action of any sort was no longer possible, and gave up. And who could blame them?

It was both cruel and deliberate that the attack had been planned for midwinter. Those who relied on natural gas for heat were immediately at risk of freezing to death, while those with oil furnaces were able to keep the cold at bay only until their tanks ran dry.  Those that had full tanks stayed warm while they starved; it did not take long to consume their last can goods. Assuming that they had not been attacked by those that sought to steal them.

By the time that spring arrived, most of the population of northern Europe and the Northern United States had starved to death, been killed, or (in some cases) killed themselves. Many of those that lived farther south were not much better off. There were no seeds; there was no fuel for the tractors; they could not hold out until what few crops they could plant and hoe had matured.

Except for isolated pockets of elected leaders sheltering at military bases that could do little but preserve their own safety, all federal, state and local governments had utterly collapsed. Soon, well-armed, but hardly well-ordered, militias began to spring up. In most cases, they brought more fear than safety to the territories that they staked out.

The often imagined cinematic scenario of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic nightmare world had been made real. Not by means of thousands of nuclear weapons delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles, but by flights of simple, but well-targeted drones bearing conventional weapons, launched from a a tiny fleet of out of date cargo ships.

In the face of such enormous need, the rest of the world did what it could, which was not much. A few nations sent relief efforts to coastal cities, but so many of those efforts were met in the United States by armed mobs intent on getting as much as possible for their starving families, these efforts soon ceased. And indeed, with more than 800 million people in Europe and the United States in the worst need imaginable, and with no means to distribute what they so urgently required, what could a poor or a small nation do to make a dent, in any event?

And then, of course, there was the danger that whoever had attacked the West could also attack anyone that came to its aid.

Tomorrow:  What – if anything – about this scenario couldn’t happen tomorrow?

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