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Declined

"It started with the banks."
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Author's Notes

"Things start to go bad."

“It’s declined.”

“What?” Erik asked. He had been thinking about how he was going to fit all of the groceries into his car.

“Your credit card is declined,” the young woman at the cash register said disdainfully. “Do you have anything else?”

“That one should be good,” Erik replied taking the card out and reinserting it. “Can you try it again?”

“It says it’s declined. Do you have any other cards?” She looked like she was getting frustrated with him for holding up the line. The other customers were starting to look around to see if another lane was open.

“Here, try this one,” Erik said, inserting another card.

After a couple of seconds, she said, “That one is declined too.”

Erik was getting frustrated. Maybe it was a glitch at the bank, but the other card was from a different bank, so there must be something wrong with the store’s system. Figures.

“Ok, how much is it again?”

“$258.37”

Erik counted out thirteen twenty-dollar bills from his wallet. Luckily he had just been to the bank. He would have to go to the bank again to get some more cash. Maybe he could stop by on his way home. He packed his groceries into the cart. On the way out of the store, Erik noticed all the grocery lanes had stalled. The store’s computer system must be down. Hopefully, that was all that was wrong. Erik hated the idea of having to get a new credit card and setting up all of his autopay accounts. He always seemed to forget one of them.

On the way out of the store, Erik had to maneuver around a robot pushing a bunch of carts toward the store entrance. Those things were popping up everywhere. They even had a robotic waiter at one of his favorite restaurants. He put the groceries into the car and called his wife.

“Honey, both of my credit cards were declined,” Erik said.

“You should never pay at the pump,” Laura scolded him. “They probably got skimmed.”

“Are yours working?” 

“I haven’t had to use a credit card today.”

“Did the bank call?”

“No, not that I know of. I was out in the garden for a while.”

“OK, maybe I will stop at the bank on my way home. I need to get some cash.”

“Don’t take too long. I don’t want the frozen stuff to get…”

The phone cut out.

“Honey?”

She didn’t answer. Erik tried calling her back again but it didn't even ring. He looked at his phone. There was no signal. Why did we have to get these stupid cheap cell phones?

Erik pulled into the parking lot at the bank. There were people milling about outside. What the heck was going on? It was midweek so probably not a holiday. Even the bank employees were outside.

Erik saw Laura’s younger sister, Katy. Katy worked as a teller at the bank. She had a great personality for the job. She not only knew all of her customers by name but also knew where they worked and the names of their children. She had even been a bit flirty with Erik when he had first started dating Laura. Erik figured she had probably just done that to make her sister angry. She was a bit too religious for Erik anyway.

Katy saw Erik and motioned for him to come over to her behind the bank by the dumpsters. Erik walked over there.

“F**k, f**k, f**k, f**k!” she said.

That was the last thing he expected to come out of her mouth. He had never heard her swear before.

“Katy, what’s the matter? What’s going on?”

“Listen,” she said confidentially. “I’m not technically supposed to say anything.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t then.”

“We got hacked. Big time.” She lit up a cigarette. She had quit smoking over ten years ago.

“What… you mean some hackers accessed your customer’s personal information?”

“No, it’s worse. Much worse.”

“Is it a ransomware attack?” There had been a ransomware attack at the college where Erik taught. It had taken quite a few weeks to get all of the systems running again.

“No, it’s strange. Everything is still working. It’s just all the balances. They are all zero.”

“What do you mean the balances are zero?”

“The money is all gone. All of the accounts are reading zero balances.”

“You must have a backup though, don’t you? On paper, or tape?” Erik realized he wasn’t sure just what type of backup system they might use at the bank.

“Right. The first thing we tried was the backup files. They are all corrupted too. Then we started getting calls from other banks. They were all having the same problem. We contacted the state office. The same thing. All of the money in all of the accounts is gone.”

“Don’t you have cash? Doesn’t the bank have insurance to cover something like this?”

“Look, there is no way to prove how much money anyone had. The computers all say zero. The money supply has been wiped out. The relatively small amount of cash we had on hand has been locked in the vault, but that only represents a small fraction of the money supply.”

Erik remembered his credit cards. “Hey, my credit cards quit working. Do you think that has something to do with it?”

“Oh, that’s the other thing. Everyone’s credit rating is zero! The credit bureau quit working. Technically it works, it just returns a zero. For everyone. So, yes, that’s why your credit cards quit working.”

“So how long until they get it fixed?”

“I don’t know if it can be fixed. In order for things to keep working bills need to get paid. There are no electronic transactions, no checks getting cashed, and no direct deposit. It’s like the money supply has been wiped out. God! The stock market must have collapsed!”

“Wait… do you think it goes… all over? I mean all over the country.”

“It just seems big. Really big. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”

“I better call Laura,” Erik said. “Can I borrow your phone? Mine seems to have died.”

“Mine won’t work either,” Kathy said. “I think it might be related. Think about it. Your phone company charges you for transactions on your phone.”

“I’m actually paid through the end of the year.”

“Really? Prove it. If your account was wiped clean there is no record of that. And it’s not just individuals. It hit companies too. The phone companies can’t pay their bills. Christ, even the bank doesn’t show any assets on the books!”

Erik looked around. The other people at the bank were messing around with their phones. None of them seemed to be working.

“I better get home,” he said.

Erik got into his car. The ice cream was starting to get soft. Who could have done this? It must have been the Russians… or the Chinese? For some reason, his friend Daniel came to mind. He wondered what Daniel would have made of this. He would have had a theory or two.

Erik pulled onto Pine Falls’ main thoroughfare. This was turning into a bad day… a really bad day. There was something going on up ahead with traffic. Everyone was stopping. He really did not need this today. Then his car died.

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