Hot Summer Read: 'The Burning Wire' by Tom Bower

The supervisor didn't know who it was; everybody was staring at their screens, heads down, transfixed. "What?" he raged. "I don't want to keep hearing that kind of thing. Tell me!"

"The breaker settings in Manhattan-Ten! Look! The breakers!"

Oh, no. No. . . .

The circuit breakers in MH-10 had been reset. They would now allow through their portal ten times the safe load. If the Algonquin control center couldn't reduce the pressure of the voltage assaulting the substation soon, the lines and switchgear inside the place would allow through a lethally high flood of electricity. The sub-station would explode. But before that happened the juice would race through the distribution feeder lines into belowground transformer boxes throughout the blocks south of Lincoln Center and into the spot networks in office buildings and big high-rises. Some breakers would cut the cir¬cuit but some older transformers and service panels would just melt into a lump of conductive metal and let the current continue on its way, setting fires and exploding in arc flashes that could burn to death anybody near an appliance or wall outlet.

For the first time the supervisor thought: Terrorists. It's a terror attack. He shouted, "Call Homeland Security and the NYPD. And reset them, goddamn it. Reset the breakers."

"They're not responding. I'm locked out of MH-Ten."

"How can you be fucking locked out?"

"I don't—"

"Is anybody inside? Jesus, if they are, get them out now!" Substations were unmanned, but workers occasionally went inside for routine main¬tenance and repairs.

"Sure, okay."

The indicator bars were now into the red.

"Sir, should we shed load?"

Grinding his teeth, the supervisor was considering this. Also known as a rolling blackout, shedding load was an extreme mea sure in the power business. "Load" was the amount of juice that customers were using. Shedding was a manual, controlled shutdown of certain parts of the grid to prevent a larger crash of the system.

It was a power company's last resort in the battle to keep the grid up and would have disastrous consequences in the densely populated portion of Manhattan that was at risk. The damage to computers alone would be in the tens of millions, and it was possible that people would be injured or even lose their lives. Nine-one-one calls wouldn't get through. Ambu¬lances and police cars would be stuck in traffic, with stoplights out. Eleva¬tors would be frozen. There'd be panic. Muggings and looting and rapes invariably rose during a blackout, even in daylight.

Electricity keeps people honest.

"Sir?" the technician asked desperately.

The supervisor stared at the moving voltage indicator bars. He grabbed his own phone and called his superior, a senior vice president at Algon¬quin. "Herb, we have a situation." He briefed the man.

"How'd this happen?"

"We don't know. I'm thinking terrorists."

"God. You called Homeland Security?"

"Yeah, just now. Mostly we're trying to get more power into the affected areas. We're not having much luck."

He watched the indicator bars continue to rise through the red.

The vice president asked, "Okay. Recommendations?"

"We don't have much choice. Shed load."

"A good chunk of the city'll go black for at least a day."

"But I don't see any other options. With that much juice flowing in, the station'll blow if we don't do something."

His boss thought for a moment. "There's a second transmission line running through Manhattan-Ten, right?"

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