When the power went out, Melissa Clark’s first thought was that she hadn’t saved the changes to her PowerPoint presentation before her computer had abruptly shut off. The presentation was due at the end of the day and it was already two-thirty. How was she going to get it done now? Groaning in frustration, she realized how dark it was. With her cubicle in the basement of the building in downtown Salt Lake City and no window in her cube, the darkness was nearly absolute.
Like a moth drawn to a porch light, when Melissa noticed sunshine trickling in through a high but small window in her co-worker’s cubicle across the way, she pushed back from her desk and headed directly there. “Hey,” she said to Tamara before sitting in an empty chair beside her friend’s desk.
Tamara was frantically writing something on a notepad in the dim light. “Hang on a sec.” After a few moments, she set the pen down and turned to Melissa. “Sorry. I was in the middle of writing a great email response when the power went out.” She grinned. “I didn’t want to forget my brilliant reply.”
Melissa chuckled, until she remembered her PowerPoint. “Yeah, I lost some of my brilliant work.”
Tamara grimaced in reply, then she smiled. “Maybe we can go home early.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Melissa said, “except I have to finish that presentation.” She softly sighed. “Guess I can do it from home. I’m sure the power’s on there.” Craning her head to see a strip of blue sky out of the high basement window in Tamara’s cubicle, Melissa smiled. “In the meantime, maybe we can enjoy the rest of this beautiful day. I mean, even though it’s March, it’s not too cold out.”
Tamara nodded. “True. It’s at least forty degrees.”
Another one of Melissa’s co-workers, Rob, stepped into the space. “Hey, let’s go into the hallway. There should be emergency lights on out there.”
The women agreed and followed Rob through the dark office space toward the door that led to the hallway. Rob opened the door, which was when they saw that the hallway was just as dark as their office.
“That’s weird,” Rob said. “The emergency lights should be on.”
“Maybe they don’t come on right away,” Tamara suggested.
Melissa reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell. “Let me turn on my flashlight app.” She pressed the button to wake her phone, but nothing happened. “Huh.”
“What’s wrong?” Tamara asked.
Continuing to press the button, Melissa frowned. “My phone won’t turn on.”
In the darkness, she could barely make out Tamara and Rob trying their phones.
“Mine’s not working either,” Rob said.
“What the heck?” Tamara said. “Mine’s dead too.”
Melissa turned back the way they’d come and squinted in the direction of the main part of the office where there was a bit of light coming in through a pair of small, high windows. Though she couldn’t see a whole lot, she could see there were people there and she could hear them talking. “Let’s see what everyone else is doing.”
The three of them began to make their way toward the voices, careful not to run into anything in the weak light. They joined the larger group who stood near the windows. Light seeped into the space, but it was less than adequate. One of the men was tapping at his cell phone. “Hey, Colin,” he said to another man in the group, “is your cell phone working? Mine won’t turn on.”
Colin pressed a few buttons. “Nope. Mine’s dead too.”
“So are ours,” Melissa said to the group as a sense of foreboding washed over her.
“That’s really odd,” Colin said. “I mean, even if all the cell towers were disabled somehow, that wouldn’t kill the phones completely.”
“What about some sort of power surge?” someone else asked.
“What kind of power surge would be strong enough to take out cell phones that aren’t even plugged into a wall outlet?” Colin asked.
The more she mulled it over, the more Melissa thought she knew what might have occurred. As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, she’d read about this kind of thing, although she’d never imagined it would actually happen. Shoving aside images of all the horrible things that might be on the horizon, she softly exhaled before speaking. “An EMP would do it.” Her voice was soft, but all eyes swiveled in her direction.
“An EMP?” a man in a suit asked, his voice filled with incredulity.
Wondering how many of her co-workers knew what an EMP was, she said, “An Electromagnetic Pulse could take out the power grid and our cell phones.”
“Holy crap,” someone muttered.
“What would cause an EMP?” a woman asked.
“I can think of two things,” Melissa said. “One, a nuclear explosion detonating miles above us in the atmosphere. Or two, a really big solar flare called a Coronal Mass Ejection.”
“A solar flare wouldn’t cause this,” a man said, disbelief thick in his voice.
“Actually,” Rob said, “it already has. Ever heard of the Carrington Event?”
Melissa was grateful to have someone else back up her claim. Not that it really mattered. Something terrible had happened whether people wanted to believe it or not.
“No,” the man said in reply to Rob. “What’s that?”
“Back in 1859 there was a CME,” he nodded toward Melissa, “a Coronal Mass Ejection. It was called the Carrington Event. It wreaked havoc on the telegraph system, in some cases sending sparks through the lines and setting paper on fire.”
“That doesn’t sound like that big of a deal,” the man said.
Rob chuckled. “Not if your biggest technology is a telegraph system. But nowadays, with everything computerized, imagine everything being hit by something that powerful.” He did a chin lift toward the space where they stood and all the desks with computer monitors on them. “Now it would be a big deal. A very big deal. Like, catastrophic.”
“So, you think it was a CME?” someone asked.
He nodded toward Melissa again. “Or a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere like Melissa said. That would take out all the electronics.”
“I think it’s time to go home,” Tamara said.
“If our cars work,” Rob said.
Oh crap. Melissa had forgotten that an EMP would kill most of the cars.
“Our cars?” Tamara asked.
“Yeah,” Rob said. “Unless it’s a really old car. Like, pre-1970’s old. Anything newer has electronic components. An EMP would take those out which means those cars won’t work.”
“Are you sure?” Tamara asked with hope lighting her voice.
Desperately hoping that she and Rob were wrong, Melissa said, “Only one way to find out.”
The group began moving toward a nearby stairwell that would take them up to the ground floor. Following them, Melissa didn’t bother to stop and get her car keys from her purse stashed in her cubicle. The usefulness of her nearly new car would be obvious soon enough when her coworkers tried to start theirs.
Feeling her way up the stairs, she eventually reached the first floor along with everyone else. With large glass doors at both ends of the hallway, plenty of light filled the space. A few people were standing around talking in small groups.
“Where are you guys going?” one man called to Melissa’s group.
“To see if our cars will start,” Rob answered.
“Why wouldn’t they start?” the man asked in obvious confusion.
“We think there’s been an EMP,” Rob answered.
Everyone who had been standing around in the hallway was listening to the exchange.
“Are you kidding?” someone asked.
Rob shook his head, then moved toward the door that led to the parking lot. Melissa and everyone else followed. Those who had their car keys went to their cars. Melissa watched as they climbed in.
Tamara stopped next to Melissa. “Do you really think they won’t start?” she asked.
Still hoping she was wrong, when Melissa saw someone get out of a car wearing an expression of both fear and disbelief, she knew she was right. Heart clenching with the realization that this was the beginning of something unimaginable, Melissa bit her lip and glanced at Tamara but didn’t reply.
One by one, each person who had tried to start their car stepped out of their vehicle wearing the same shell-shocked look.
“This is crazy,” Tamara murmured.
Pushing aside her concerns, Melissa turned to Tamara with a grimace. “Now I wish I’d worn more comfortable shoes.”
“Why do you say that?” Tamara asked.
“Unless you have a bicycle stashed somewhere around here, you and the rest of us will be walking home.”
“Oh my gosh,” Tamara said. “That’s, like, fifteen miles.”
Melissa glanced at her own three-inch-heel boots that she wore with her slacks. They were comfortable enough to wear at work but walking home in them would be a challenge. “I know, Tamara. I live twenty miles from here.” As she thought about the time it would take to walk that distance, she knew there was no way she would be able to make it home before dark. As she imagined the dangers she might face on her trek home, panic surged within her.
Watching the people walk away from their useless vehicles and back toward where she and Tamara were standing with a group of other observers, Melissa thought about her husband and children. Her husband, Alex, worked several miles south of Melissa’s office—on the way home. But she had no idea what his next move would be. They had never discussed what to do in this kind of emergency. Why would they? Who could have imagined something like this actually happening? She’d always believed that the fiction she’d read was just that. Now though, she regretted not taking the idea of this happening seriously.
Shaking away the thought, she pictured her three children. All of them were at school, but both schools were less than a mile from home. Both seventeen-year-old Jason and fifteen-year-old Emily were at the high school. Thirteen-year-old Steven was at the middle school, which was only a few blocks from home. Melissa fervently hoped they would all head straight home and not go off to friends’ houses. Even so, the thought of them being at home completely on their own until she or Alex could get there was unsettling. Not because they were irresponsible—in fact, they were all really good kids—but because of the chaos that would inevitably ensue when people realized that society was in the midst of a collapse.