When King Coal Lost His Merry Soul

This story was written for the Australian Security Nightmares Short Story Competition in 2012. It is entirely a work of fiction.

I reckon it was the coal dust.

If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have been sitting in a bar when Dave Lisle (sparky) had pulled up his caravan outside and come in for a drink.

She didn't smoke at all.

And when Dave talked about how easy it was to get work if you pulled up in a mining town with a sparky's kit and your own place to sleep, I wouldn't have thought about it.

Not even one puff.

I still would have called the ambulance when he had a heart attack. I still would have checked his wallet to find out his name and I still would have looked at his phone to figure out who to call.

So how else did she get lung cancer?

But I think I wouldn't have put my wallet in his pocket and put his in mine.

Her green-is-good thing hadn't quite rubbed off on me before the end, but crikey his ute -- my ute -- drank fuel dragging that '70s Milard.

He was half right. You could get a job all right, but if you didn't really know anything electrical it was dangerous and you got fired pretty quick. And then they start asking questions about why a young bloke like me had a license which said I was 58.

It was the power plants where it worked out. You'd hear through the grapevine where they were going to do maintenance, and you'd turn up early afternoon on the first day when the supervisors were going spare because they didn't have the manpower they needed. They'd laugh and say you looked young for your age, and sometimes they'd want to see some paperwork to show what you were rated to work on.

I lucked out. The first place I went they needed data cabling drawn. I found out later that you'd normally give this to an apprentice but who would pay for an apprentice's accommodation and take up a bed when you could hire someone more experienced with his own caravan? The work ran over time and I spent the whole week unwinding coils of Cat-5.

From then on, I'd told everyone I specialised in data cabling. There was always something to do. Eight months of rorting every coal plant maintenance in the country.

I reckon it was the coal dust. Yeah, I do.

I was on the other side of the country on what would have been her birthday. And still there a year after she died. So I decided to do something truly good that she would have approved of. A plan. I found out that all the software in the computers that control the power plants is the same -- it was all made by the same company. And it was all written long before anyone thought that you'd connect a power station to the internet. Long before anyone thought that you'd run an electricity market over the internet. Long before the internet was big. "Safe to deploy in non-networked environments." That's how they made it.

I searched and found a website where you can buy exploits. When I posted what sort of operating systems you find in a plant, the geeks on the forum got all funny. They said that it was like shooting fish in a fishtank and too easy. They didn't even want to take my money... because cracking that sort of thing wasn't cool or something. Script kiddie stuff, they said. Not even a real hack. Just a denial of service that a smart pre-teen could make.

In the end I payed some bloke in India to load it on to some tiny computers -- each the size of a packet of cigarettes, but not as expensive. Just a couple of dozen. It's all I needed and all up it didn't cost even a week's pay. And then I put them out at job after job.

I hope she would have liked how it turned out.

When I ran the command to turn them on nothing happened. I swore and screamed and I was about to pick up the phone and get my money back but then I realised I didn't even have his phone number. I kicked open the door of the caravan, angry at myself.

But then all the lights in the town went out. And came back on. And went off again. And browned out. And then glowed too bright until suddenly the world was filled with pops and buzzes and fizzes.

The grid was unstable. And it took out countless numbers of unprotected electronics as the voltage wobbled around and the load kept changing. Across the country operators must have been fighting their consoles blind as their control servers bounced up and down and looked for their pair and got interrupted and restarted and failed and...

A tiny toy computer plugged into each of the control networks of Australia's coal power plants -- I had just broken the grid and it would be days before anyone would know what they were looking for or why.

There was no danger -- they weren't going to blow up or anything. But it's a very delicate balance, keeping all the different power plants going at just the right level. And you can't do that fast enough any more just pulling levers and pressing buttons. It's all got to be computerised, and if those computers can't do their job because another tiny cigarette- sized box is sending random garbage... well then, you either overload the grid, or you underload the grid and you get into big trouble. So they all shut down. They couldn't do much else and still be safe.

I saw the video later of what happened to the prime minister, and I guess it explained part of the government's reaction. It was just an ordinary event, announcing something that no-one would remember the next day, when suddenly the speakers went boom like a bomb went off as the amplifier blew out. The police escort jumped and got everyone on the ground and had weapons out and bundling the prime minister back to "safety".

So I wasn't surprised when there was a state of emergency declared and the army was called out. It was pretty funny when the investigation into the "coordinated nation-wide terrorist attack" was announced, but I felt bad the way the police swooped down to arrest so many people that had had nothing to do with it. I guess the police must have been in a panic when one after another none of their suspects knew anything about it.

I was thinking of ringing up the hotline they set up and telling them straight what was going on.

Parliament was recalled and all sorts of laws were passed but everyone was too busy to really think through it all. Laws about congregating with suspected terrorists. Laws about using electricity when you weren't supposed to. Laws about preserving sunlight on solar panels. Laws about not interfering with wind turbines. Some made sense, but when you could get arrested for walking past a window and letting your shadow block the sun which was heating the building... well, that got a bit silly.

Snowy stayed on, and so did all the solar and wind farms. I didn't put any units there anyway because they have different systems. But all the coal plants -- they had to shut off because they couldn't be controlled.

So power had to be rationed. The army was out in force, but there really wasn't much for the army to do. You can't really arrest people for helping out their neighbours. And it wasn't like there was a lot of debris to move, or things to rebuild. Just a lot of burned-out fuses to replace, and lots of electrical appliances that would never work again. And not much power to run anything.

They enforced the rationing rules. You could keep a radio on, as long as it didn't use external speakers. You could keep anything medical on. If you had a really efficient fridge and you kept fresh food in it that was OK. You could keep anything you liked on as long as it wasn't connected to the grid. You could keep your mobile phone charged around the evening when the wind farms were going gangbusters, but the congestion was so bad that half the time you couldn't do voice calls. SMS worked but it was really unreliable and slow.

It was an odd time. It wasn't like it was super quiet. It's just that all the things you normally hear in a suburban street -- watching sport on big plasma TVs, washing machines running, tumble dryers -- just weren't happening. And all the radio stations were playing happy songs interspersed with announcements about every minute detail of what was and wasn't allowed that day.

I was surprised that there wasn't more theft of solar panels. I guess people just knew that you'd never get an electrician with enough spare time to help you fit it. And having solar panels on your house wasn't exactly a blessing. Every neighbour and relative and friend would be over at your house wanting to watch your TV or print something out or charge their shaver or do all those things that they used to take for granted.

There had been a spare generator in the van when I took it. I rented it out. I made heaps.

Everyone still had their money, and everyone's pensions still got through all right -- all the big datacentres had their own power generators -- but with almost all the ATMs not running, you could only do funny sorts of transactions. I saw this bloke -- I swear he had a propeller on his head -- go into a shop and try to pay for some groceries by showing an internet banking transfer on his phone.

The supermarkets were busy and had long, long queues because the checkout kids had to look up everything on big hand-written lists and add it all up on little calculators they'd got from the stationery section. And then there was always some other kid behind them filling in clipboards trying to work out how much of everything you'd bought so that the store managers could place their orders with their warehouse.

She'd been a store manager once.

It was funny what you could and couldn't buy. If it came in a can, you could get it. If you could fly it in from overseas -- I ate a lot of Indonesian bread and drank a lot of New Zealand milk -- it was usually in stock even though it was quite expensive. Every petrol station had signs up about how much diesel they had, but you couldn't buy a jerry can anywhere. You should have seen the things people used for refueling their generators!

It was lucky it wasn't winter. There might have been more deaths from the cold. Or heatstroke if it had been summer. But it was early spring, so in the first few days when all

the fresh meat was on special every second household just held a BBQ. I reckon it's the only time you'll ever see someone clutching a pair of tongs under an umbrella in the rain.

A couple of days later they found one of the little computers I had hidden at Gladstone. That started a hunt and they had most of them sniffed out pretty quickly. And one by one they brought the plants back on line and stablised the grid again. The bloke in India got nabbed, and the federal police started saying how they really wanted to talk to a middle- aged electrician who might be able to help them in their investigation. But it couldn't be me -- I'm too young to be that bloke.

A couple of percent less greenhouse gases this year, they say. Major cost to the coal plant generators that might make them uneconomic in the future, they say.

A tribute she would have been proud of. Or maybe it was just me enjoying my revenge. One or the other. Something to remember her by.

Nobody really got hurt, and I don't think anyone died, except maybe in a few extra fires that got started when everything blew out. But everyone pretends that it was a big deal. Like it was the end of the world. It's like they had a nightmare in an afternoon nap. Wake up, everyone. You had to survive on very little electricity for a few days. It happens in other countries all the time.

But they are making a fuss out of it because nobody knows who did it or how they did it or why they did it and there's nothing stopping it from happening again. I know they didn't find all the units I placed -- especially the ones I kept in reserve -- so I could keep it going still if I wanted to.

Would I do it again? Take out every coal plant in the country for a few more days? Yeah, I would.

Because I reckon it was the coal dust that got her.

Greg Baker ([email protected]), 29th September 2012