It had been two weeks since the Big-Shut-Down, or BSD as people were calling it, had taken out anything connected to the internet or satellite systems including cell phones, about half of the cars, and most computers. The banks, electrical power, and phones were all down. Money had been rendered effectively worthless.
Erik and Laura lived on a cul-de-sac on the edge of town. It had always been a quiet neighborhood because most of the neighbors were elderly. Normally there would have been the sounds of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and traffic. That was all gone. It was eerily quiet.
The only communication had been from the town government, a truck driving through the neighborhood with someone on a bullhorn announcing the curfew. Erik and Laura had not considered going out at night anyway. The electricity was still off. They had installed solar panels on their house a few years back, but they had not gotten a battery backup. It hadn’t seemed cost-effective. Erik was frustrated knowing that the panels were producing power he had no way to access.
The first week had seemed like they were feasting every day as they tried to eat the meat before it went bad. By the second week, all the meat had either been eaten or had spoiled. They had burned all the propane on their grill and had resorted to cooking food over a wood fire in the backyard or eating food raw. A can of baked beans could be shared between them and eaten cold. They had wrapped the freezer in quilts but eventually, most of the food had gone bad and Erik was forced to dig a hole in the backyard and bury what they couldn’t eat.
Erik had finally taken Bessy, the green pickup, over to get the car. Many of the shops had their windows broken appearing to have been looted. Erik chained the car to Bessy and towed it, while Laura rode in the car and steered. When they finally got the car home, they unloaded the canned goods and other food Erik had left in the car. It felt familiar in a way. Like coming home from the grocery store. That seemed so long ago. When they added the food from the car to what they had in their pantry Erik thought they had enough food to last for at least a month, probably two months if they were careful. For some reason, the water was still working, but Erik had filled a five-gallon tank with water just in case.
Erik had turned over about half of their lawn with a shovel to convert it to additional garden space. They had found some seeds left over from last season and planted them. He thought they might need to put in a fence to keep the rabbits from eating the plants. He would need more fencing. I wonder if rabbits eat beans, Erik thought.
Erik saw a woman riding a bike around the neighborhood stapling flyers to power poles. She came up to the house.
“Hi, I’m Hope,” the woman said. “Hope Lokken. We are having a town meeting at the community center the day after tomorrow at noon. We are trying to put together a plan for our community.” Hope handed Erik a handwritten flier. “Are you doing alright? Is there anything you need?” she asked a little hesitantly. It wasn’t like there was anything she could do about it.
“Right now, we mainly need electricity,” Erik replied.
“The power is going to be out for a while longer, but they are working on it. They should have an update at the meeting.”
“Do you know what happened? Is there any news from the government, or other cities?”
“They’re going to be covering that at the meeting,” she seemed a little anxious for the conversation to come to an end. “I have to get these out to the neighborhoods,” she said as she rode off.
Erik had ridden his bicycle to the meeting while Laura stayed home to keep an eye on the house. The town meeting was at the community center, a utilitarian building with a large kitchen and an exhibition hall. The room was dimly lit from the windows, and the stench of a hundred sweaty unbathed people hung in the hot humid air. There was a small stage at one end of the hall where Mayor King sat with several others. The police were making a show of force with a row of officers armed with rifles in front of the stage. Just in case things get out of hand. The meeting had already started. A man was speaking whom Erik thought must be the CEO of the hospital.
“I am telling you we only have one week left before the generators run out of fuel,” Dr. Gupta said. “We are able to still save people’s lives, but more will die if we do not have fuel.”
“We have been able to pump diesel fuel from some of the gas stations,” Mayor King said, “and we should be able to access the tank farm eventually. I think we will be able to get you the fuel you need until we can get the electricity running. Roger Gray is from the electric company and has been doing some innovative work to get the power on again.”
“I think we will be able to get at least some of the hydroelectric system producing by the end of the week,” Roger said. “We had to disable most of the highly automated systems, basically anything that was accessing the internet. Now that those systems have been taken off-line, we have been able to patch together something that should work.”
Erik looked over the crowd. These were good people. They came from strong stock. Their parents or grandparents had survived the depression and the dust bowl. The people looked worried but determined.
Roger said something that caught Erik’s attention. “I know some of you have solar panels. If you have an electric car or hybrid, we may be able to help you hook up a battery backup system using your car battery.” Erik planned on talking to Roger after the meeting. Maybe he could get his solar panels producing electricity again.
Someone shouted from the back of the room. “What is going on? Why is everything shut down? I’m a taxpayer and I demand some answers!” Erik did not recognize the angry man.
“We have found out a few things,” Mayor King said. “George, can you enlighten us please?”
“I’ll try,” said George. Erik happened to know George because Erik had been experimenting with electronics a few years ago and George ran an electronics store. It turned out George had been into ham radio back in the day and still had some working equipment. “It’s been a while since I used any of my old gear but when the internet went down, I thought I would get it running. You may not know it but with shortwave radio signals we can bounce off the ionosphere to send signals thousands of miles. The ionosphere is an electrically charged part of the earth’s atmosphere, basically a very low-density plasma.”
“We don’t need to need a physics lesson, George,” Mayor King interrupted. “Just tell us what you were able to find out.”
“Just be patient now, I was about to get to that,” George said. “Anyway, I had my portable generator from back when the windstorm came through and took out a whole neighborhood. It took about five days to get the power back on. So, I plugged it in and got everything running after a couple of repairs to the radio. I was able to get some operators out of Missouri and Kansas. They are experiencing about the same thing as here. Then I talked to someone who had heard from the UK. They were down as well. As far as I can tell most parts of the world are experiencing the same outage including Russia. The only strange thing is California. No one has heard anything from California. It’s like they are under radio silence.”
“I think we should put together some trucks and some fuel and send someone to Ames or maybe even Chicago,” someone called out.
“We thought about that too,” Mayor King said. “Saud here has just come from Chicago with his family. Will you please tell everyone what you told me?”
“The city is a hellscape,” Saud said. “They are letting people out, but they are not allowing anyone back in. But you do not want to go back in. There is looting everywhere. The people are fleeing the city. The city is burning, and the fires are spreading.”
“I have a family to feed,” a young woman said. “We are running out of food.”
“We are opening up a community table,” Hope Lokken said. “We will be offering a hot meal every day at noon. Ed Johnson has been working with some of the local farmers so that we will have enough food.”
Ed Johnson was a farmer who was also on the board of directors of the bank. For the first time in two weeks, Erik was beginning to have a good feeling about things. It felt better just knowing a little more about what was going on. If they could get a hot meal every day, then maybe they could survive. Things were looking up.
Suddenly the door burst open, and a man pushed his way into the crowded hall.
“Ed Johnson’s been murdered,” he said.