(Fiction) Blackout!

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When I wrote Episode Four of THE MINUS FACTION back in 2015, I wondered whether a breakdown in the normal order, like a blackout, would create suspense — whether readers, who seem to live most days with an expectation of safety, would accept that we were really as close to disorder as John and the team worry. I think I got it right.


 

“Shit!” Ian threw the video game controller across the floor, crossed his arms, and retreated to the back of the couch, sulking.

“Woohoo!” Wink jumped, controller in hand, over and over in front of him. She waggled her butt as she danced. “That’s eighty-six to ZEE-ROH.” She pointed and mockingly rolled her finger back and forth.

“Whatever.”

Xana was sitting next to Ian with a stack of six pizza boxes on her lap. She swallowed a bite and scowled at the screens on the wall. “What’s the point of that game?”

“To humiliate me,” Ian fumed.

John rolled to a stop and Xana handed him a piece of pizza. Everyone knew he’d left to replace his colostomy bag, but no one said anything.

“What’s our status?” he asked the girl.

Wink was mimicking an athlete’s victory dance. “Virus is loaded and running.” She shook a finger at Ian and moved her hips back and forth with each word. “We-should-be-live-after-dinner.”

“Good.” John took nearly half the slice in his mouth and turned his chair toward the kitchen.

The lights went off.

Everyone waited for a moment, expecting them to come back on. But they didn’t.

“Wink?” Ian asked.

The little girl looked at the ceiling.

“Were we supposed to lose power out here?”

The little girl didn’t move. Everyone waited.

Nothing.

“Wink?” John asked.

Still she was silent.

Still nothing happened.

Ian stood. He looked to the girl. He looked to the TVs. He looked back to the girl.

She was worried.

“Oh shit . . .” Ian had both his hands on his head. “Did we just do what I think we just did?”

“What happened?” Xana asked.

“Holy fuck.” Ian walked in a circle. “We just blacked out the city.”

“Wink!” Xana chided.

The little girl ran to her computer workstation on the other side of the hall. “It’s not my fault!”

“What happened?” John was trying to keep everyone calm.

Wink sat and started typing. Her computer screens, running on battery power, clicked on.

“Wink?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then how do you know it’s not your fault?” Xana asked.

“Because you guys rushed me! If we’d just stuck to the plan like Prophet wanted us to, then—”

“Wink,” John interrupted calmly. “Keep looking. Find out what happened.” He turned to the others. “Shut up and let her work.”

“I can’t. Everything is down. The Internet. Wireless. Servers. Everything.”

“All right. Then what do you think happ—”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

“Guess,” John urged.

The little girl bit her lip. “I dunno. Maybe if their security was like five years old or something, then it wouldn’t have caught the kind of replicating subroutine I was using. But no one important uses anything that old!”

Ian shrugged. “I worked for a lot of companies with legacy tech.” Five years probably seemed like an eternity to an eleven year-old. “We are talking about the utility infrastructure after all.”

“I didn’t have time to do a full analysis! This is what I was talking about. This is why Prophet said.” Wink turned and leaned into her words. Her little hands made fists. “You all were rushing me and—”

“No one’s accusing anybody of anything.” John rolled between them and raised his hands in the dim light, even his left, burnt and shriveled and shaking. “Okay? This is an accident. We changed the plan”—he looked at Ian—“and this is what happens.” Back to Wink.

“I’m sorry.” Ian was contrite. “I wasn’t trying to blame you.”

“How bad is it?” Xana asked.

“It’s bad!” Wink objected. “Everything’s down. The whole city. At least up to Stamford.”

“Connecticut?”

“Turn on the police radio.” John tried to stay calm.

Ian walked to the Mast and tuned the police scanner. Everyone gathered around. They listened in silence as the entire NYPD was mobilized. Plans were being made to drive by the homes of those who were off duty. Everyone had to come in. The subway was down. Phones were down. So were most cell towers. Overwhelming traffic crashed the remainder.

Without power, traffic lights were blinking. Huge chunks of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs were immediately, immovably gridlocked. Buses and taxis were trapped. Experts at headquarters were warning the precincts that without public transportation, commuters would soon flood the streets and bridges in order to walk home. Most people with cars would stay with them and wait for traffic to clear (hours hence), but some would abandon their vehicles, particularly in places with a high fear factor like tunnels and bridges. The stationary cars would act as barricades and create choke points, exacerbating the gridlock.

Without power, ventilation systems would stop, buildings and apartment towers would get stuffy, and people would gather on the roads and sidewalks. With nothing to do, many would smoke and drink, and in such close quarters, arguments would break out. Some would turn violent. A few would escalate.

Most banks had back-up systems and would be secure, but jewelry and grocery stores, large retail outlets, or any place with a lot of cash on hand would be vulnerable to looting.

“And somewhere out there,” a gruff female captain warned, “is a pregnant woman trying to get to a hos—”

John waved and Ian turned it off.

Cap turned to Wink. “How long until they can get things up and running?”

She chewed her lip. “The virus corrupts their command code, but it hides in their OS. They’re going to have to do a complete system wipe—”

“Wink,” John interrupted patiently. “How long?”

The little girl’s eyes flicked back and forth as her mind ran a simulation. An hour to diagnose the problem. Three hours to wipe and reinstall. Then configuration and several waves of high-level system tests, each with a twenty- to forty-minute cycle time.

“Twelve hours.”

“Jesus . . .” Ian turned and took a step back.

“But that’s only if everything goes as planned.”

“And if not?” John asked.

“Maybe a day.” The girl was sheepish. She looked like she wanted to cry. “This is bad, isn’t it?” Her voice was soft. Her next question was barely a whisper. “Will people get hurt?”

“Hey!” John called her to attention. “This isn’t your fault. You did what you were asked to do. This is my mission. It was my decision. It’s my responsibility. Understand?”

Wink nodded, but without conviction.

Ian was antsy. “Cap, we gotta do something.”

John looked at Xana. The big woman was staring out the windows near the ceiling.

“You okay, Xan?”

She didn’t meet his gaze. “We have brownouts in my country. Always in the afternoon, if they can help it, when it’s hot and people stay indoors. But sometimes there is a problem and the power goes out at night, when it’s late. They try to enforce a curfew but . . .” She turned to John. “People are always worse in the dark.”

Ian looked at the clock on the wall. “It’ll be dark in three hours.”

“Ian is right, Captain. We must do something.”

John had seen enough of the world to have a sense of how it would go. At first nothing much would happen. People would expect the power back shortly. When that didn’t happen, some of them would test the waters, see what they could get away with. If they met enough resistance, they’d back down and order would more or less hold.

But, if they broke free, others would join them, and whole neighborhoods would riot. Under the arch of darkness, without street lamps and lighted buildings, all manner of depravity could surface. The weak and defenseless would be victimized first.

Everyone looked at John. They waited.

“Hospitals and emergency services all have back-up generators,” he said. “The police band will be active. We can listen in.”

“But how will they even know?” Ian asked. “Landline phones need power, and the cell towers are jammed. How can anyone call for help?”

Wink’s mind ran with the spark. “The Faction has the best hackers in the world. They’ve spoofed every kind of telephony software ever made. I can reconfigure the drones to act as mini cell towers, but taking only 911 calls. We can park them at key points in the city and route incoming calls to the police using the radio in the Mast. Not only will people with cell phones be able to get calls to the police, but we’ll be able to monitor all the traffic.”

John sat back. “Pretty clever, kid.”

“And I’ll run it all through Prophet. We can target the cases where the police won’t make it in time.”

Ian was skeptical. “Can he really see the future?”

Wink nodded, wide-eyed. “But not that far. And not perfectly. Just, like, probabilities for the immediate future. After that there’s too much uncertainty.”

“How long?” John asked.

“Depends. A few seconds usually, up to a minute or two in some cases.”

“No. How long to configure the drones?”

“Right!” Wink jumped up to get the parts she needed. She yelled as she ran. “If Moron drives I can do it on the way!”

John nodded to the team. “Everybody grab your gear. We’ll suit up en route.”

§ § §

 

“No, Brad, I won’t be quiet.” Jennifer Torgerrin pointed to the brand-new diesel generator, a twenty-foot, gray-and-white rectangular block wrapped in plastic and resting on pallets at the far end of the parking lot. The orange light of the setting sun cast long shadows on the pavement. “This is exactly why I wanted to do this last year.”

“This is a freak occurrence.” Bradford McRae was a tall black man with a goatee and a fitted suit. “The old generator is still within its depre—”

“Don’t you dare say depreciation window!”

Brad ran a hand over his shaved head.

“Depreciation is a tax concept. You understand that, right?” Jenn was a big woman with a round face, little makeup, and graying brown hair. “Whether the old generator had legally depreciated or not doesn’t change its—”

“I understand that, Jenn, but we replaced a lot of other equipment last year, including the MRI machine. This hospital has a budget.”

“This hospital makes money.”

“This hospital is the least profitable in the network. I was brought on—”

“But it still makes money. We all don’t come in to work everyday to make a profit. On sick people.”

“Yes.” Bradford was stoic. “We do.”

Jenn shut her lips before saying something that would get her fired.

“We are a for-profit company. That’s exactly what we do.” Brad had seen this coming. This was the problem with internal promotions. Jenn was a former social worker who had moved into upper administration. He needed someone from corporate in that role. “I don’t love the idea, but you know I don’t make the rules.”

“Said every bureaucrat ever.”

“Insulting me isn’t going to change anything.”

A milling crowd had gathered outside to escape the dark halls of the hospital. An ambulance chirped; people moved out of the way as it pulled into the lot and parked on the far side of the generator. It was a new model, a wide-bodied search-and-rescue variant. It was huge.

Bradford scowled. It wasn’t one of theirs. And if they were dropping off, they would have pulled into the ER. He pointed at the vehicle and turned to his assistant, Jayne. “All units are supposed to be on the streets. Get them out of here.”

Jenn stepped into his line of view. “Are you listening to me?”

Bradford ignored her. “Jayne.”

“But what do you want me to do?” the young woman asked.

“Go tell them they can’t park here.”

“Brad!” Jenn insisted.

The tall man turned back to her. “There’s nothing I can do! For Christ’s sake, Jenn.” He pointed to the distant New York skyline.

Jenn pointed in retaliation to the dark windows of the eight-story tower behind him. “Go upstairs and tell that to our dialysis patients.” She already had. She’d walked the halls with the head of nursing while Brad—following company protocol—backed up his files before his computer battery died. When Jenn reached the cafeteria, she’d ordered the staff to clean out the ice cream and give it to the patients. Kids first.

“We have time. We can get them to other hospitals.”

“How?” Jenn stepped forward. She wanted to punch him. “The stoplights are out. The city is a parking lot.”

Bradford raised his hands to stop the encroaching woman. “I can’t wave my magic wand and make the power come back. I can’t miraculously move a gridlocked load lifter from the interstate to our parking lot. And I for damn sure can’t pick up a one-and-a-half-ton generator and carry it—” He stopped.

Bradford stared, mouth agape.

Jenn turned and jumped with a yelp.

A giant in a suit of segmented gray body armor had lifted the generator off the ground. The plastic hung off the side as the heavy machinery tottered on the man’s back. Everyone stepped away.

The faceplate of the giant’s helmet was painted in a flower-cheeked, blue and white skull, like the Day of the Dead. He was struggling, with wobbling knees, to carry the heavy contraption toward the fence-lined machine park at the back of the hospital’s central building.

One step. Two steps. Three. The hunched giant gripped the machine with massive, armor-covered hands. His pace quickened with each step, as if his body responded to the strain by growing even stronger.

Jenn’s eyeballs bulged. Her eyelids felt like they were about to twist back into her head. Her heart beat faster. She’d never seen anything like it.

“Dave!” she yelled at the hospital’s chief engineer, who stood motionless in shock.

The man turned instinctively and looked at her without recognition. Then he understood. “Right!” He ran across the gravel to the far wall of the fenced yard. He pointed to the space next to the old, dead generator. “Just put it right here in the middle.” He motioned. “We can get a temporary connection going and move it later.” He waved to his staff, who were all watching in amazement. “Move!”

The milling crowd was silent as the giant went down on one knee, shaking. Then the other. The big man placed the brand-new generator on the gravel-covered ground with a thud. The fence rattled. Tiny rocks flew. Jenn had tears.

The silent giant never said a word, nor did anyone challenge him, not even Brad. Jenn watched as he walked away. In the middle of his back, just below the stiff collar that protected his neck, was a stencil in white: Halo Armor v2.1.

§ § §

 

Dan Ping, a roofer from Jersey, awoke on the sidewalk with a crowd standing over him. He sat up. There were tiny specks of red on his white work shirt and his cargo pants were torn on one side. “What happened?”

“Dude,” a round Hispanic man with long curly hair stared at him, wide-eyed. He wore a black, skull-covered heavy-metal T-shirt. “Teach me.”

Dan looked at his hands. They were sore. It felt like someone had run his knuckles over a cheese grater. “Teach you? Roofing?” He grimaced.

“Naw, man! Where’d you learn to fight like that, brah?”

“What do you mean?”

“Yo!” The Hispanic man pointed to the overturned backhoe in the city street. It had crushed a parked sedan.

Dan ran his eyes down the devastation in the road. He remembered. Men were driving the tracked construction vehicle like a tank over the cars in an attempt to escape through gridlock. A cable was attached to the rear-facing hoe. At the other end was a dismantled ATM. The thieves had yanked it from its mount and driven away, hoping to crack it open later. The police, who now swarmed over the scene, had first given chase on foot, but had to retreat after the thieves started shooting. Apparently their plan hadn’t worked as well as they’d anticipated.

But how had he gotten here?

Dan squinted in confusion. He remembered watching the bulky teller machine bounce and spark as it trailed the backhoe. It was loud. And there were gunshots.

He touched his knuckles gingerly.

A skinny woman helped Dan to his feet.

The metalhead was excited. “Man, I saw you on the sidewalk like you were gonna run, and then you went around the corner when the ATM was bouncing all over breaking shit, and then it almost plowed into that guy on the corner, right? And I thought I should bail too, and then next thing you know, you jumped down from the second floor.” He pointed up. “Which was so cool, ’cuz, like, the thieves totally didn’t see you. And then you landed on the roof of the cab and you were all like Bruce Lee dodging bullets and kicking ass and shit. I got fucking goosebumps, man. It was so hard core! You’re like a straight-up muthafuckin’ bad ass.”

Dan looked at his hands again. They certainly looked like he’d been fighting. They were red and throbbing. “I am?”

“You don’t remember?” the woman asked.

Dan shook his head as a small crowd gathered around him.

“What’s the last thing you recall?” She was worried.

“I saw the backhoe plowing over those cars in the street, and the ATM was bouncing around like a wrecking ball, and the guys on the side were shooting at the cops and . . . I ran. But I wasn’t looking where I was going. I didn’t want to get hurt. I had my head turned, and I ran down that alley.” He pointed. “And I tripped over a guy.”

“Who?”

Dan thought for a second. He heard a whirring noise and looked up to see something like a bird, but not, fly over the roof of the building.

He squinted. “Some guy in a wheelchair. Like one of those ones with a motor?” Dan was so confused. He turned to look at the alley, then back to the wreckage on the street. The man in the wheelchair was gone. “His eyes . . .” It was like they were a thousand miles away, like he was staring right into Dan. Into his soul. It was surreal.

Dan Ping shuddered.

“Hii-ya!” The heavy Hispanic man was doing karate moves on the sidewalk. “Imma fuckin’ killa, biatch!”

Dan could only scowl as the pedestrians on the street crowded around and patted him on the shoulder in praise. In the distance, he heard the retreating wail of an ambulance siren.


From THE MINUS FACTION, Episode Four: Blackout.