The Bottleneck Years by H. E. Taylor - Chapter 34

The Bottleneck Years

by H.E. Taylor
Chapter 33 Table of Contents Chapter 35

Chapter 34

Group 2 Disaster, February 17, 2056

At the next UNGETF conference, we were given an interim report on Corella Corporation activities on behalf of Group 2. They were using balloons to hoist tons of sulphur pellets for release in the stratosphere. It was fully automated. No people went aloft. The cargo was dispersed from a series of vents along the bottom of a V-shaped gondola. When the drop was complete, the balloon turned on a transponder and vented hydrogen to drop lower in the atmosphere.

The system had originally been designed by DCS, Dynamic Carbon Solutions, a subsidiary of Corella, in order to take advantage of the old Global Carbon Trading System. It seemed workable enough. Cooling due to stratospheric sulphates was a well known side effect of major tropical volcanoes. The idea had been discussed and debated since the late twentieth century, but nobody had ever seriously implemented it.

The first intimation of any problem came by public radio a week later, although I didn't recognize it at the time. When I got up in the morning, there was a report of a chemical spill in Chile. I heard the report but didn't connect it. It was just another tragedy in the daily news stream. I went about my normal day. In late morning, I had just finished one class and was in my office organizing my notes for the next when Rhamaposa called.

"Luc. Glad I caught you." He was on a train somewhere. I could see people sitting and standing behind him swaying as the train moved.


"We have an unscheduled meeting at 21:00 Zulu. Can you be there?"

"Sure, no problem. What's up?"

"Chile. Watch for an infopack. Gotta go."

"Okay. Catch you later."

I logged unto the UNGETF website, but there was nothing there. I used an offline tool, WebShot, and examined every file on the site that had changed in the preceding 24 and 48 hours. There was nothing about Chile. I was wondering where to look next when Rhamaposa's infopack arrived.

Something had happened to make a DCS balloon lose altitude. They didn't know what. The gondola had released its pellets into a thunderstorm where the sulphur dioxide was catalytically converted to sulphur trioxide and then combined with water to form sulphuric acid. Theories about the release ranged from lightning through computer or mechanical failure to poorly designed software, with the always convenient sabotage waiting in the wings.

The result was a swath of land 2 kilometers wide and 5 kilometers long that was burnt black. All plant animal and human life had been dissolved. One village was gone, 125 people at least. There were links to the firmware used by DCS to control the gondola and to video shot by a first responder hazmat team. The edge of the mountain where the village had been was burnt clean. No buildings, no animals, no people ... just half melted stone.

How would this affect Group 2 and UNGETF? I didn't care what happened to DCS.

I quickly surfed a couple of the major news aggregators. It was still being treated as a low interest chemical spill in a remote region story. How long would that last?

An hour before the meeting was to take place, I received another infopack, this time from Makeba in Johannesburg. She had completed an analysis of the DCS firmware in record time. The original source code was missing in action and all she had to work with was a dump of the firmware. It was for a custom chipset, but in a family of devices she knew, so she had been able to quickly cobble together a disassembler to do her analysis.

According to her, when the altitude unexpectedly fell, the processor would jump into an error handling routine where a message would be printed to a serial port and then the system would reset -- causing the whole sequence to repeat endlessly.

As I entered the MacDonald building, a local vlogger came running up to me.

"Dr. Fontaine, Dr. Fontaine. Is it true? Has there been a geoengineering disaster in Chile?"

"There has been an incident, but I don't know the details. If you will excuse me..." I pushed past ground floor security leaving him and his newseyes outside.

This meeting felt different. I wasn't late, but Rhamaposa and Makeba were already talking when I arrived. He was grilling her about the DCS firmware. Over the next 5 minutes, the other Group 7 members popped into sight around the table.

When Rhamaposa started the meeting proper, he began with a new video. "I assume you have all seen the hazmat video, but this just arrived."

It was the balloon crash site in the mountains. The front end of the gondola had been blown apart. The USSA Aero Safety Board was doing forensic tests for explosive residue, but they didn't have any results yet.

"I spoke with the DCS scientists in Brasilia." Peter put a padd on the table in front of himself. We couldn't see the video, but we could hear the audio.

"We are at a loss to explain this. As far as we know, nobody has ever modelled dumping tons of sulphates into an active thunderhead. And nobody has done the experiment."

Peter shut off the padd with a sudden jab, then turned to Makeba and asked her to summarize her findings.

She basically just pointed to her infopack, described the disassembly and then started in on a rant. "This is exactly the kind of thing I see all the time in the industry. Who would write such ill designed, poorly constructed software? Some schlemiel who didn't know any better or who had a boss standing over him telling him to deliver by Friday, or else. If creative people..."

"Stick to Chile." Rhamaposa cut her off.

"That's it then," said Makeba and sat down looking miffed.

"Okay," said Rhamaposa. "I will pass your analysis up to the Ecological Council. Good work. We all appreciate the extraordinary effort you expended in achieving this understanding so quickly."

Dr. Makeba bowed her head, but did not reply. At that point, I couldn't tell what she was feeling. She had been angry, but I couldn't see how she reacted to the praise.

"In closing, I want to caution you all against unguarded statements to the media."

"I have already been button-holed by a local vlogger," I said.

Rhamaposa nodded. "I expect the next few days will be hectic and I don't know how quickly the Secretary General's office will react. This has the potential to be very damaging. So be careful."

He paused a few seconds.

"Does anybody else have anything to add?"

Heads were shaking around the table when all the holograms winked out. It was strangely disquieting to find oneself suddenly sitting in an empty room. Behind the glass, the same technician stared at me without emotion. I felt somehow numbed.

Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor

For further information see:
A Gentle Introduction.

Last modified April 3, 2013

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