Jimmy Smith stepped out of the lineman’s shelter into the early afternoon sun of the Nebraska Panhandle. Cumulus clouds, flat on the bottom and fluffy white on top, were starting to move in from the west promising at least a chance for some relief from the sun in the afternoon. Off to the south one of the clouds was trying, and failing dismally, to work itself up into a small thunderstorm. The short-grass prairie covering the surrounding hills was a dozen shades of brown without a hint of green. The records from the small weather station on the roof of the shelter said it had been more than three weeks since there had been any rain.
A quarter-mile to the east was the nearest pylon for the high-voltage line Jimmy was surveying. This line brought power from several large wind farms scattered across Montana and the Dakotas south to Ogallala. There, power was transferred to the massive high-voltage DC transmission line that followed Interstate 80 east across Nebraska. Some of that power would end up in Lincoln or Omaha, but most of it would continue on across Iowa and Illinois for use in the large Midwestern cities. The Great Plains population had started shrinking a hundred years earlier and the losses continued unabated. Jimmy’s route would follow almost two hundred miles of transmission line by the time he reached Ogallala, and in all likelihood he wouldn’t see another soul.
Jimmy unplugged his buggy’s charging cable from the shelter’s electric outlet. He gave the cable a sharp tug and walked the end back to the ugly vehicle while the spring-driven mechanism reeled it in. Ninety minutes of charging time while he had eaten his lunch wasn’t going to make a lot of difference, but topping off the battery pack in the buggy was an ingrained habit. The alcohol-fueled generator and fifteen gallons of ethanol in the fuel tank were an insurance policy to make sure he didn’t get stranded. Jimmy took a certain degree of pride in not dipping into that reserve unless it was a real emergency. If the underground news he read on the ‘Net were accurate, fuel shortages had become a matter of routine on the East Coast, but Rapid City seemed to have enough. Heck, prices had actually been falling for the past several weeks.
The buggy hummed quietly along the track from the shelter towards the pylon, where Jimmy turned south along the one-lane dirt road. The twin ruts had originally been cut by the big trucks hauling in the materials for the pylons, and the hundreds of miles of cable they supported. Semi-regular use by inspectors, combined with the arid climate, kept the tracks clear of all but the hardiest weeds. The buggy’s oversized tires kicked up a pretty good cloud of dust the breeze carried off. Well, it was a “breeze” for this part of the country. If you’re going to live or work out here, thought Jimmy, you darned well better not mind the wind blowing. And harvesting wind with the big turbines was a whole lot easier than trying to raise cattle like his uncle.
Jimmy and the buggy topped the little ridge. He always liked the view from this particular spot, where you could see the next twenty or so towers for the power lines marching off into the distance. This time, though, there were two pick-up trucks parked across the track a hundred yards down the slope. Beat-up old trucks, with twenty years or more worth of little dings and dents accumulated in the sheet metal. They were parked in a V, one slightly in advance of the other, both pointed in the direction from which Jimmy was approaching, and right at a point where the ground sloped off fairly sharply on each side of the track. Four people leaned against the side of one of the trucks.
Jimmy stopped the buggy short of the two trucks and stuck his head out the drivers’ side window. “You folks broke down?” he called.
One of the men stepped forward. “No, nothing like that,” he answered Jimmy’s question. “This is more a matter of public safety. The next stretch of this road is going to be a bit dangerous for a little while.”
“You’re kidding,” said Jimmy. Dangerous road conditions along this particular track meant flash floods or blizzard white-outs, neither of which was a threat today.
“Afraid not,” replied the man. “Why don’t you just step out of the truck for a few minutes?”
Jimmy glanced back over at the trio still leaning on the truck. One was a woman, he noticed. She was carrying a pump-action shotgun. It was pointed down at the ground, but there wasn’t anything around where they were standing that she might have legally hunted with a shotgun, at least not at this time of year.
“No one’s going to hurt you,” the man continued, reading the concerned look on Jimmy’s face. “Just wait here for a few minutes, watch the show, and then you can turn around and head back to Rapid City.”
“I’m headed to Ogallala,” said Jimmy.
“Think you’ll want to head back to Rapid City,” said the man. “Ogallala is going to be concerned about anyone arriving from this direction. Rapid City will be much more relaxed.”
The man held up a metal box about the size of a brick, with a short antenna sticking out one end and a key inserted into one side. “This is a radio transmitter. When I turn the key, it sends an encrypted digital signal. The receivers that go with it are down there,” and he gestured along the row of pylons. “Along with a modest amount of explosives.”
“You can’t do that!” exclaimed Jimmy as he started to step forward. The man stepped back quickly and the woman’s shotgun snapped up. Jimmy froze.
“Actually, we can. None of the materials are particularly hard to get, you know. And we put a fair amount of effort into planning this. Most of the group wanted to do this at night, when there weren’t going to be any witnesses around. Me, I held out for having someone from Xcel here. Just so there wouldn’t be any confusion about why this was happening.”
The man raised his voice. “Some of us are tired of being treated like colonies by the Easterners. ‘Dig the coal,’ they used to say. Then it was ‘Pump the natural gas.’ Now it’s ‘Put up the wind turbines,’ and always ‘Send energy back East instead of using it for yourselves.’ We can live within our resources and have a comfortable life here. Not like eighty million people living between Boston and Washington, or fifty million in Florida and Georgia: people who can’t survive without stripping us of our energy resources because they don’t have any, or won’t use what they have!” He paused and visibly calmed himself. “Well, some of us decided it wasn’t right, and it was time to do something about it.”
He took another couple of steps back. Jimmy stared at him, could feel his own eyes widening, shocked by the idea of what was about to happen. “Without further ado, then,” the man said, and twisted the key.
Fireballs bloomed simultaneously at the base of a dozen of the tall pylons. Each of the towers began to settle and then tip in a random direction. The sound of the detonations arrived in sequence, the first one deafening and each successive one not quite so loud, delayed and reduced in volume and by the increasing distance from where the group stood. The heavy transmission lines stretched, pulling loose from the towers and snapping in some places. Within several seconds the towers finished their collapse. The wind began to quickly dissipate the smoke and dust.
“You see?” said the man. “Long distance energy transport systems are remarkably fragile. Now get back in your buggy, turn around, and head back for Rapid City. Well, one thing first…” The man walked past Jimmy to the buggy’s driver side. He opened the door, reached in, and removed the radio from its bracket. “We do want you to tell everyone what you saw, but not too soon. Best give me your phone as well — no coverage out here any more, but pictures might be a problem.”
Jimmy fished his phone out of his pocket and handed it over. “You’re just letting me go? But I’ve seen your faces!” Memories from video crime dramas popped into Jimmy’s head. The bad guys never let you go if you could identify them.
“Doesn’t matter,” the man said. “There will be a dozen witnesses that will place each of us at different locations, all at least a hundred miles from here. It’ll be your word against theirs. Assuming it ever becomes a matter of you pointing us out. Tell everyone we were wearing masks if it makes you feel any safer.”
The man passed Jimmy again, carrying the radio and phone back to the group by the trucks. The woman with the shotgun was pointing it at the ground again. Jimmy stepped back, banging into the buggy’s front bumper and almost falling, then scrambling to the door the man had left open.
He jumped in, threw the electric drive into reverse, and started backing away. Jimmy had learned to drive on his uncle’s ranch, long before he was old enough to get a license, and on a ranch you spent a lot of time backing a truck along a track like this one. His older cousins had insisted you were a sissy unless you drove backwards as fast as you did forwards. Still, he was shaking, and between that and trying to look over his shoulder at the track and out the windshield at the group by the trucks at the same time, nearly lost control twice in the first fifty yards. The group of four stood quietly by their trucks, watching. After what seemed like forever, Jimmy reached a point where there was enough reasonably level space on the sides of the road. It took a couple of passes, but he got the buggy turned around and continued up the hill.
He could see the group in the rear view mirror, still standing there, as he topped the ridge headed north.