Boulder - January 20, 2038 7:00 am MST/2:00 pm UTC

The rising sun was gradually lighting the east from under the horizon, but Marie was absorbed in her study of networks on the computer monitor. The computer clock has just ticked over to 7:00 am and another update occurred in the graphs and text on the screen. Pink light filtered in, the sun still hidden by the horizon, and Marie yawned. She had slept for a couple of hours, woke up and then tossed and turned for a few hours. Her mind kept running through possibilities for the power and network outage but no answers felt right. Around 5:00 am she had finally gotten up to see if she there was new information about the outages. The main network was down, but her skill with workarounds let her connect to others who also had power. Bits and pieces of data were gathering in her data collection software and she had been looking through the consolidated reports. The problem was the information didn’t form a pattern yet or a pattern she could recognize.  

People walking between homes and shops on dirt road

She leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms. Another yawn came out, which she tried to stifle, with no success. She stood up, touched her toes and did some more stretching. After stretching, she pulled back the curtains, glad to see the sky was clear. It would be a good solar day for charging the batteries for the house. After another yawn, she decided a cup of coffee was in order if she was going to try to make sense of the data she was seeing.

Moving through the house, she heard her husband Joseph flushing the toilet in the master bathroom. She was glad to hear water filling it up, that meant the water pump for their cistern was still working. With the snow around the house, they had plenty of water and a lot of work if they needed to melt it for water. She frowned, thinking about the things that worked and those that didn’t. Most of the electronics worked, but not all of them. While she was awake, she had wandered around the house and noticed that some of the LED lamps with energy saving electronics weren’t working and an extra table computer would not turn on. A thought about those devices started to form, then she yawned and lost it. As she walked into the kitchen, Joseph joined her and pulled eggs out of the refrigerator while she prepared a pot of coffee to brew.

“Eggs or just coffee this morning?” he asked her.

“Scrambled eggs would help, I need something to munch on. Coffee will be ready soon.”

“Get the bread out and the sausage, I’ll make us a quick breakfast. Or should we use up some of the vegetables in an omelet?” he asked, frowning a bit as he got a bowl and fork out for mixing the eggs.

“The vegetables should be good and we have a natural deep freeze, if we need it. Just a piece of toast for me, no sausage, I don’t want to eat too much. I want to stay alert, not fall asleep from eating too much.” She had poured in coffee and now added water to the brewer. It was an old style pot, still working after twenty years. After turning on the switch, water started to drip into the pot. Joseph was making breakfast so she decided to use the bathroom herself and stay out of his way.

A few minutes later, they were both sitting at the table, looking at the forest around them and the Rockies in the distance. With daylight, Marie couldn’t tell if lights were back on, but she suspected they weren’t. Normally she would read the news on her reader but with no main  internet there was no news to download. There probably hadn’t been any news generated if the newspapers were also without power.

“Did you find anything last night?” Joseph asked her, stabbing a piece of sausage for his next bite. Before he ate it, he continued, “Did you get any sleep or were you up all night?”

Marie ate a piece of her toast, thinking while she munched away. “I slept for a couple of hours, then I couldn’t get back to sleep. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided to get up and see if I could connect with alternate networks. I didn’t find anything that made sense. I know of several alternate DNS servers for internet offshoots and I was able to connect to two of them. When I tried to connect to the others, I couldn’t get past the first router out, never mind the backbone connections. I pulled out a cham1 and it read nothing going in or out for connections I tried to make to the main internet. The problem is that those networks are designed for low bandwidth data so it was slow downloading. They weren’t connecting to any of the main sites either so I was collecting information about active connections but not much else.”

“How can that happen? There are always backups, backup power, backup connections, especially after the cyberwars,” Joseph responded while continuing to eat his breakfast.

Marie picked up her coffee cup and took a sip, brows furrowed as she thought. “I know, there should be something but the data is showing a pattern that make sense, yet. I’ve been banging my head against the lack of information all night, I’m going to check in and see if I can find out something from one of the ham operators.”

She pushed back in the chair and stood up. Joseph was scooping up the last bit of eggs but before taking a bite, he asked her, “Do you want company? Or would I be in the way?” He then scooped up the last bite of eggs, pushed back and carried his plate and Marie’s over to the sink for cleaning.

“You wouldn’t be in the way, but you would be bored, I think.” She walked to the office with the ham radio, taking another sip of coffee along the way. She was relieved she wasn’t yawning but suspected she would be soon enough.

“I’d be in the way, I’ll take care of the morning chores while you see what you can find out. I know how you are when you have an unanswered question.” He shook his head as she walked out, already lost in the world of her mind as she puzzled over the current mystery.  Then he shrugged, fortunately she didn’t disappear into her own world too often. He stood at the sink and wiped off the plates before putting them in the dishwasher. He thought he’d check over the furnace and supplies so he could verify what they had and what worked.

Marie heard the last bit but her mind was already juggling all of the bits and pieces floating around, trying to make sense of things. There shouldn’t be a problem, there should be power, yet there wasn’t. As she thought about it, the connection floated through, something to do with the electronics and who had produced them, but the thought floated away again. The last twenty years had been focused on reliability, safety and security for electronics, especially after the outages and deaths during the cyber wars. In addition, everyone had planned for the Year 2038 bug and countries around the world had worked together to make sure the bug would be fixed. Testing had occurred, new hardware developed, new software written and all of it test multiple times in multiple scenarios to make sure it all worked. Yet, when the clock ticked over, the power was out and the backup systems failed in most cases.

She sat down in front of the ham radio, still thoughtful, trying to piece together the common connection. She sat the coffee cup down and then flipped on the power for the radio. The power hummed and she created a checklist in her mind of what to check. As she yawned again, she decided to write it down so she wouldn’t lose any important information. First, check and see if power had been restored for anyone. Next, check to see if there reports from official channels on when the power would be restored and where.

Diorama of Temple, with figures placed around it

She picked up the microphone and activated, asking for a general call from the other radio operators who could hear her. For the next fifteen to twenty minutes, she jotted down reports from the US and parts of the world. None of the location reported restoration of power, only that some homes had power due to solar and the electronics worked. Her mind was getting foggy due to the lack of sleep, she felt there was another question she should ask, but couldn’t think of it.

She took a deep breath to calm herself, she and Joseph had made it through attacks in the 20’s, they would get through this too. She stifled a yawn and decided to try and raise Brian in Tulsa again. She thought that he worked with Homeland Security, he might have information from formal channels that could help. Establishing communications was a prime focus for all emergency plans around the world, she hoped she there was someone who knew more about the big picture.  

“This is W6MWV, waiting for a call,” she said. “W0FGP, are your listening, W6MWV, checking in for status.”

There was a pause and she waited but no response. She tuned the antenna and repeated her call. On the third time, she heard, “W6MWV this is W0FGP in Tulsa returning. My name is Brian. Back to you. W0FGP”

“W0FGP, this is W6MWV, my name is Marie, Any power at your location? W6MWV out.”

“W6MWV, this is W0FGP, I have power at my home but no ma’am, no power in the general area. Working to establish communication with home base, over.”

“Any luck,” she asked, leaning forward as she waited for the answer.

There was a pause and then, “Unable to reach home base in Dallas, have made contact with San Jose for support information.”

Before answering, she thought about his answer. San Jose, that made sense, they had reserve units for military and cyber, they would work together on this problem. However, it implied that this was an attack, not just a bug. “W0FGP, any data on how long power will be out?”

“W6MWV, unable to supply, this is an open channel. Information is classified, over.”

That was ominous sounding, it sounded like a cause might be known but couldn’t be released at this time. “W0FGP, is there an alternate secure channel I can use for contact? I have active clearance.”

After a longer pause, she heard “W6MWV, negative, no alternate channels at this time. Will check on situation and provide an update in 4 hours on this channel, over.”

“W0FGP, copy that, will check again in 4 hours, 6:56 PM UTC, over.”

“W6MWV, W0FGP copies that, will be here, over and out.”

Marie placed the microphone back in the hook, looking thoughtful. This was looking like an attack not a bug, but who would break the treaties? After the Cleansing of 2032, there weren’t many criminal hackers left. The few who were practicing would have wanted to lay low and not risk the wrath of world law on their heads.

Picture of a crowd, with food truck in background

Suddenly, she felt exhausted and wiped out, her lack of sleep was catching up with her in spite of her cup of coffee. She reminded herself that she was not longer a young developer who could code all night with caffeine and a glance at a bed. She decided to take a nap on the couch and ask Joseph to make sure she was up by 11:15. That would allow her time to have some more coffee and to be ready for her call with Brian in Tulsa. Maybe a nap would allow her mind to make the connection that kept slipping away in her thoughts. She went to find Joseph to let him know he should wake her up, yawning as she stumbled slightly when walking out of the room.

1A cham is short for chameleon, a small computer that can blend in with its surroundings and appear transparent. It is often used as a tool for reading information, magnifying and analyzing data from other equipment. In this case, a cham was used to read data and electrical flows from the computer through the house and to the outside.

Pictures by J.T. Harpster