“She pretty much drives herself,” the sales associate had said. Erik had been impressed by how the car was able to steer around corners, slow down for traffic, pass other cars, and even parallel park by itself. The car had been a bit of an extravagance considering his teaching salary. He was getting close to retirement and had convinced Laura that it was worth the extra expense and the wait to get it. The car was amazing!
Now it was dead. Erik used the car's remaining momentum to get as far to the side of the road as possible. He nearly succeeded. He opened the front door and pushed on the frame and the steering wheel to maneuver onto the shoulder. He took out his phone and tried dialing 911. The call didn’t go through. Weren’t emergency calls supposed to work even without service?
Erik started observing his surroundings. About half of the vehicles on the road had stalled. Some had been pushed to the side of the road, while others were blocking the lanes of traffic. A pileup of vehicles was stuck at a traffic light a short distance ahead, effectively blocking the intersection. The drivers in the running cars were laying on their horns and starting to yell and wave angrily at the other drivers. Erik noticed something unusual. It was mostly the newer cars that had stalled, the newer or more expensive cars. The older, more run-down vehicles seemed to be running. No one was getting any cell service here either. Erik knew that even if someone did manage to call a tow truck, this mess was going to take a long time to clean up. He hated to abandon his car, but something told him he should get home.
Erik decided he would have to leave the car and walk home. It was about a twenty-minute drive, but it would take him two hours to walk the distance. How was he going to get all those groceries home? The ice cream was already getting soft. Laura was not going to be happy if he came home without the groceries. He decided to leave behind the canned items since they were heavy and could stay in the car. He also left some of the bulkier items. He filled two grocery bags to take with him. He decided to take the meat since he had paid so much for it, packing it with frozen vegetables in the hopes that it would survive the walk home. He reluctantly abandoned the milk considering it too heavy to carry.
Erik rummaged through the car and found an emergency kit he had put together last winter. It had two bottles of water and three granola bars in it. His granddaughter had left her old backpack in the car. It was hot pink with cartoon animals on it. He stuffed it with the water, granola bars, and a blanket. He went through the glove box and found an old Swiss Army knife and a small flashlight. The knife was rather bulky. He put the flashlight in the backpack and the knife in his pocket. He picked up the grocery bags and started walking.
The scene on the road was getting more chaotic. The traffic lights blinked red and yellow as people milled about restlessly. Erik decided to get off the main drag. He cut across the verge to reach some side streets. An old pickup truck with a pair of flags billowing off the back barreled past him cutting muddy ruts in the grass and spraying rooster tails in its wake. Why did the newer cars shut down? Could this be related to the banks getting hacked?
It was warm for this early in spring, and he started to sweat after walking for half an hour. He stopped to rest, drank some water, and ate one of the granola bars. There was something odd about the ambiance he couldn’t quite figure out at first. Something was missing. Then he thought of it. Sirens. There were no sirens. The world had gone eerily quiet. Maybe the first responder’s vehicles had been disabled too? Erik walked past a strip mall where the shops had all closed down. People were standing around outside.
Erik called out to one of the men standing around. “What’s going on?”
“I have no idea,” the man replied. “Power outage, I guess. Phones won’t work either.”
Erik started trying to put it all together. Something had happened. Something bad. Maybe we were under attack. Someone must have hacked the banks, the credit cards, the phones, the power grid, and the cars. The banks and the credit cards were probably related. Maybe the phones too. Why would the power go out? How do you hack a car?
Once when Erik was a child, he had been swimming in the lake. The wind had taken his ball and blown it out to the middle of the lake. Erik swam after it, but he was not a strong swimmer at that age. By the time he had abandoned the ball and started making his way toward the shore, he realized he wasn’t going to make it back. Erik had felt the water getting higher and higher until his mouth was barely above the water. He had a similar feeling now. A panic rose in him that was hard to suppress. There were too many things going wrong. His brother, Lars, had swum out to help him that day on the lake. If he hadn’t, Erik probably would have drowned.
Lars ran an auto repair shop in town. It wouldn’t add much time to Erik’s trip to swing by his brother’s shop. He could also arrange to have his car towed while he was there. Erik’s arms were aching by the time he reached his brother’s shop thirty minutes later. Old and new cars were parked front to back across the lot. Lars always had quite a few cars on the lot but there seemed to be more than usual.
Lars was siphoning gasoline from other vehicles on the lot into some tanks. His wife was filling up jugs with water and loading them into their camper. Their boat was on a trailer attached to the back.
“Going camping?” Erik asked.
Lars looked up. “Oh, hey Erik,” he said. “Yeah, we thought we would head up north for a while. Get out of town.”
“That might be a good idea. Are you going up to the cabin?” The cabin had been built by their father. It was in a very secluded forest on a lake.
“Yeah, that’s right. What are you going to do?”
“My car died. I don’t suppose I could get a tow?”
“Sorry, but that’s not happening. I can let you have a loaner though. Bessy over there still has gas in her.” He indicated an old dark green pickup truck. “The key is in the ignition.”
“Does it run?”
“Yeah, it’s still running. It’s too old to have a satellite link.”
Erik remembered hearing about a car getting shut down by satellite after a thief had stolen it. His car had a similar system.
“So that’s what’s wrong with the cars? The satellite?”
His brother looked at him seriously and then spoke in a soft tone. “All of the cars with satellite links have been disabled. It started a few hours ago. I can pull the satellite system out of the cars, but I can’t make them run. The credit cards stopped working a bit before that. The power cut out shortly after. The way I figure, it’s time to get out of town.”
Erik told Lars what Katy had told him about the bank.
“Who do you think is behind it?” Lars asked.
“I think it’s too big for some random hacker. It must be someone with lots of resources.”
Erik and his brother hugged each other, even though they weren’t typically huggers. “Be careful up there,” Erik said. “I’ll see you when this thing blows over.”
Erik put his groceries and pack into the pickup and climbed in. He had gotten used to cars that start at the push of a button. He pushed in the clutch and turned the key. He found he had to pump the gas pedal to get it to start and feather it to keep it running. He shoved the shifter into first, released the clutch, and the truck lurched forward. By the time he got home, he had gotten good at using the clutch. He had also gotten good at driving over the curb to find a way around a stalled vehicle.
Laura was waiting for him in front of the house when he parked the truck in the driveway. He got out and took her in his arms and held her so tightly she couldn’t see the tears streaming down his face. He was home.
“The power is out,” Laura said.
“I know,” Erik responded. “I think we should have a big garden this year.”