Trouble erupts in NW Wyoming, and things will never be the same.
|Ashes to ashes|
All the volcanologists and seismologists had been right: "Yellowstone is going to be a disaster!" Thankfully, they'd also been wrong. Thousands had been spared a more-or-less instant death, but... Ah, yes - but. Yellowstone Park was still on all the maps, but it was now marked as an 'Entry Restricted' zone in all the online versions, as well as the newest print editions; it even had its own restricted airspace. The only visitors permitted within the old park's boundaries were specially-outfitted science teams, and even they faced numerous restrictions, not to mention the obstacles now common to everyone east of Casper; there wasn't anyone west of Casper anymore, at least not in Wyoming.
Instead of the much-hyped übereruption, several vents had opened within the caldera, spewing gases and ash miles into the atmosphere. There had been a flurry of smaller quakes that had disrupted transportation and communication, and hindered rescue efforts, too, but the vents were the real problem. They'd been going for nearly two months now and, although the overall volume of ash and other contaminants being spewed into the atmosphere had abated somewhat, the eruptions themselves showed no signs of stopping. They had created a mostly cone-shaped ashfall zone that not only stretched almost to the Tennessee Valley, but continuously frustrated cleanup efforts.
* * *
It's 'Death by a 1000 cuts' written in ash, Randy thought as he swept the latest accumulation off his roof. His 6'1" height gave him a little extra reach from the ladder, but it was still a pain. The ashfall wasn't all that deep yet, but rain was expected later on and wet ash was a much bigger problem, possibly even for roofs with a decent pitch like his. The job finished, he examined the old broom. The bristles were discolored and worn, although it was still serviceable.
"Man! Is there anything this stuff won't ruin?" he muttered. "I'll have to make a run into Kadoka before too much longer, see if the General Store got in a supply shipment." An ironic smile creased his face as he thought about the town a dozen miles or so to the west of his little house. A small town along Interstate 90 and basically in the middle of nowhere, most folks outside of South Dakota had never heard of the place until Armageddon came out. How appropriate is that title now?, he mused. First, my own; now, maybe, the country's.
His beloved wife of twenty years, Sarah, had been killed in an auto accident the summer before last, a victim of a Utah tourist's succumbing to highway hypnosis. The driver and one of his chldren had also died in the crash and, while Randy had been sad about the child and sorry for the survivors, it hadn't helped him feel any better. At her funeral service, the minister had spoken of forgiveness as a major step in the healing process. Intellectually, Randy understood that it was probably a good idea. Realistically, though, he figured it would be a long, long time before he made any progress down that trail.
"I miss you so much, babe," he whispered through tears that were never far away when he thought of her, which was often, "maybe even more than when they covered you up for the last time. At least you don't have to deal with this, and I don't have to worry about leaving you alone at home. It's bad, sweetie, real bad, and it's probably gonna get worse." Randy wiped his eyes, the light brown orbs surrounded by a trace of ash, and returned the handkerchief to the ziplocked bag; it was about the only way to keep it reasonably clean these days. He stowed the broom with the other tools and headed for the well.
Besides the solitude, one of the benefits of rural living was learning how to do things for oneself. When news about the ash's effect on equipment started circulating, a few ideas had popped into his head and he'd gotten to work. He'd purchased some Mylar and rigged covers for his well and generator, then installed an adjustable speed orbital shaker within each enclosure and connected each to one of the supports. The shakers imparted enough motion to keep the ash from building up on the top surfaces, thereby protecting his equipment. He'd also made covers for his solar panels, although the material made them less effective. Better a reduced capacity than having no electricity at all, he'd told himself.
* * *
Citing a pressing need to conserve resources in the face of this national disaster, California's State Legislature overturned laws regarding multilanguage government materials, pointing to election materials as prime examples of wastefulness. "Twenty-six languages for San Francisco editions? That's crazy! Voter information packets for major elections look like phone books, for crying out loud!" People would either have to improve their English reading comprehension, find someone to help them, or use their best multiple-choice test-taking strategies. The only people happy about this were members of the Sierra Club, thrilled their favorite flora and fauna now "had a real chance at survival", since tree harvesting would slow down tremendously. The fact that the ash cloud would continue to circle the planet and contaminate the habitats of those selfsame flora and fauna was apparently lost on them. Citizens up and down the state wondered whether the situation at Yellowstone had somehow relieved pressure along their state's major fault lines, or just accelerated the timetable for the next major quake—and worried that the latter might prove to be the case. These concerns didn't get nearly as much airtime as the "Yellowstone Situation", but they were never far from anyone's mind.
Legislators, pundits and other talking heads in other states—most notably those heavily involved in the oil and gas drilling industry—wondered why FEMA wasn't working with their top drillers to make holes in the caldera and relieve the pressure. Variations on "That's how we do it for oil and gas!" and "How hard can it be to figure out?" played regularly on radio and television as the networks cranked out Special Reports one after the other. FEMA officials repeatedly pointed to authoritative reports prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey, stating that "...depressurization is one of the factors that drives magma toward the surface to erupt. So attempts at cooling and depressurizing magma systems would have many unintended, negative consequences, including making an eruption more likely."1
Naturally, the "know-it-alls" pooh-poohed any notion they might be wrong and listed all manner of ludicrous reasons why the government wasn't taking action. The more level-headed segment of the population figured the group was just as terrified as they were and, therefore, liable to say almost anything. Unfortunately, that bit of understanding didn't extend to a cessation of all the name-calling, and so the debates continued. So did the ashfall.
* * *
"Okay, Milt, that's got it. Come on down!"
The lineman secured his tools in his belt, then cautiously made his way back to the ground. "How's it look, Ed?" he asked his supervisor.
Ed Hanratty checked the laptop's display and smiled. "Sensor connection status is well within normal parameters, and that's sayin' somethin' these days. Let's power the line back up and head to the next one."
Replacing a blown insulator due to flashover wasn't a huge deal, but it took a fair amount of time. Milt stowed his gear in the truck while Ed passed the power-up request up the maintenance chain. The line status indicator flipped to ONLINE as Milt put the truck in gear.
"We'd better get a move on, Milt. There's only three hours to curfew and those Guard boys are dead serious about that."
"You're right about that, Ed!"
Martial law had been declared a month into the disaster—eight months ago, now—with various requirements and limitations added as time went on and, with only a very few rare exceptions, all were enforced exactly by the book. No deviation, no excuses. If you were found in violation, punishment was swift and unforgiving. Ed and Milt were both deemed Mission Critical Personnel, but even that status didn't grant them carte blanche. It was far, far better to be done with whatever task needed doing and be safely back inside the encampment before curfew, rather than trust that some by-the-book Guardsman wouldn't just look at his watch and then open fire instead of verifying their authorization. It had happened too many times in too many places to think that it was just one or two guys drunk with power and too wedded to "the book" to see even one inch past it. There were a lot of them—and they all had guns.
Ed kept an eye on the power lines along the highway as Milt paid attention to the road. At times, the ash made the surface slick and the thought of getting stuck way out here was not a pleasant one. On the plus side, if there was such a thing, the near-constant wind kept the ash load fairly light on the power transmission lines, although flashovers could sometimes be an issue. With the wind farms in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and most of Kansas out of commission, keeping the lines operational was critical to the country and the men and women tasked with maintaining the system took great pride in doing their part to protect their Nation.
"Better step on it, Milt," Ed advised after checking his watch. "There're two checkpoints between here and the encampment and we don't have a lotta time to spare."
"Got it, boss."
The truck sped down the highway leaving clouds of disturbed ash in its wake.
* * *
"...along with DHS Secretary Natividad, I would like to express my deepest thanks to the thousands of men and women, those in uniform as well as civilian workers and volunteers, who have labored so tirelessly over the last eleven months to maintain and repair the infrastructure vital to our Nation's security. You are heroes, every one of you. I also offer my most heartfelt condolences to the countless families who lost homes, loved ones and close friends during this unprecedented disaster. As you heard from Secretary of the Interior Waller and her right-hand man during this crisis, U.S. Geological Survey Director Eversharp, scientists have repeatedly combed through all the seismological data available and can now confirm that the vents at Yellowstone have virtually shut down and are now deemed no more of a threat than any of the hundreds of similar phenomena found at the Park.
"There is, therefore, every reason to be optimistic that this period of hyperactivity has passed. Still, dealing with the consequences will engage and challenge us all for years to come; in some cases, it will be decades before there can be a return to 'normal'. Nonetheless,–"
"And that was FEMA Director Annaliese Carston speaking earlier today from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Elsewhere in Washington, Congressional leaders are meeting in preparation for discussions with the President regarding the termination of certain aspects of martial law. More in a moment, after these words."
Prompt and Other Notes ▼