My life, my software, and everything else
It came in the night, defying gravity, changing the laws of physics, hurling heavy chunks of metal into the air. It melted glass and steel like the hot July sun melts snow. It danced and lit up the sky in a blazing inferno, and then it died down, gone, leaving a cold, dead city behind, whispering with thousands of lost voices, covered in ash like snow.
Liam couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed, moving his head into one position and then another, routinely getting up to go to the bathroom. It was around 3:30 in the morning, during one of his trips, when he realized that everything was suddenly very quiet, as if nature was waiting for some spectacle to reveal itself.
Silly me, he thought. The air conditioner isn't working. No wonder it's so hot. He pressed the POWER button on the window unit but nothing happened. The power was out.
Groggily he went downstairs, then down into the basement, looking for the breaker panel in the darkness, using his cell phone as a source of illumination. The display read "No Service". He found the panel, and to his astonishment found that every single breaker had been tripped. He cursed under his breath and began flipping breakers.
It was then that the ground suddenly gave way, his field of vision being filled with red and orange and yellow and black. He scrambled to get up, only to find himself pinned down by something big. And then he blacked out.
The noonday sun shone down on the sleeping form of a young man. He rolled over, coughed, and sat up, shaking the dust off of his clothes. What am I doing here? What's that smell? he thought.
He shakily got up and surveyed his surroundings. He was standing on a heap of rubble, and he could recognize the outline of what used to be a two-story house. His two-story house. Across the dusty street, his neighbors' three-story mansion burned brightly, but he heard no sirens, no rush of water from a fire truck.
The house next to him suddenly exploded in a huge fireball, and with a shock, he realized that the smell he had smelled when he woke up had been natural gas. He began moving down the street, towards the downtown area of the city.
Several bodies littered the street, some with missing members, all burned in some way. He was lucky to have gone down to the basement when he did – otherwise, he would have been tossed up in the explosion and burned like the rest of them.
Then it hit him. His parents. They both slept upstairs in the room next to his...
They were dead too.
He made his way downtown, through the ash-covered streets, until he came upon a small group of people, all talking excitedly. He could hear bits of their conversation. "...burned down....", "I think we're under attack!", "not getting any phone service, damn..."
His phone was somewhere in the remains of his house. No, he wouldn't go back for it.
"Hey you!" Liam turned to see the speaker – a middle-aged man, holding his phone out. "What's your name?"
"Listen, Liam. Nobody here can get any phone service. The power works in some buildings. We need to find the survivors and get them to shelter. Looks like we've been hit pretty hard. I don't think there are very many survivors."
"Sure can do. Where are we going to put them?"
"I think one of the downtown office buildings would be nice... you know, get everyone together. We'll organize a search party and look for other survivors. I'm Dan, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Dan."
With that, they headed off further downtown.
Much of the city had been destroyed. A few office buildings were more or less intact, save for a few broken windows, and a few even had lights burning inside. Nobody showed up for work that day. Dan and some of the others had found a building in which they could all stay for the night.
Search parties were organized for finding survivors, food, water, and other supplies. By the end of the day, they had a sizable group of about 150 people – men, women, and even a few children. They ate in silence together.
They had tried communication with the outside world, but it was impossible. The computers that still worked were unable to access the internet, and since the office telephones were connected to the same data lines that carried internet traffic, it was impossible to call. Not a single cellular phone was able to pick up a signal. And the one FM radio that the group could find – after all, most people now listened to music on their computers – would only give them static. The radio towers were down.
For days, the search for survivors and supplies continued. Different teams, each headed by a self-proclaimed leader, searched far and wide. On the fifth day, one team discovered a destroyed supermarket, packed with food and medical supplies, which were in dire need.
They all slept on the floor in the few buildings that they had gained access to. Some had electrical power, others did not. Their water came from a water tower in one of the buildings – the city water mains were ruptured and the most they could get out of a faucet was a fine trickle.
A week had passed. Several of the group had died of injuries. Still others were sick, and with no doctor available to help them, they had to go on their own. That was when Liam got the idea.
The Qwest building was in ruins, but the first floor was in decent condition. The internet backbone lines were buried deep underground, and since there were so many of them, there was a chance of getting some sort of connection to the outside world.
Liam, Dan, and Peter – one of the people who had been found the first day – went inside. Racks of silent servers lined the walls. A few indicator lights blinked red, green, yellow, amber, and blue. Some of the equipment still had power.
They traveled down a corridor until they ran into a dead end – part of the building had caved in, blocking their way. But one door stood slightly ajar, and they entered.
The room was full of switches, wires, routers, and servers, but unlike the racks of servers they had seen earlier, many of these had screens attached. One of them was quietly humming, another was beeping incessantly. The rest seemed dead.
"I gotta admit... I don't know anything about computers except how to turn them on. You'll have to do this." Dan pointed to one of the servers. "I'd better get going, they probably need me out there. Take care, kid."
Liam got on all fours and climbed behind the box. Fiber optic cable snaked behind it, feeding into a switch and then into a server.
All day long, he climbed from room to room, pulling cables, connecting the few working computers he could find – many of them had been fried by some sort of power surge, it seemed. Minutes turned into hours as he tried to get a connection to the outside world. There was a ridiculous amount of wiring involved. This building provided internet service to a town of 20,000 people... that was a lot of cable.
He set up a sleeping area for himself, on the floor of the control room. No use going in and out – he had a job to do. He was in charge of communications. He was the only one in the group who even knew how networks were set up, but even then, this large-scale internet provider was a bit too much.
Three days later, he had found a working line – he was able to connect it to one of the routers (after adding a good length of cable to get it to reach) and thus was able to connect to the internet. He was online.
Most websites were inaccessible. Google's home page loaded, but timed out whenever he tried performing a search. But CNN.com's page loaded up, ever so slowly, full of missing images.
"Imminent attack! All are advised to seek shelter!"
"Thousands killed in bombing!"
"Is the end upon us?"
The few images he could load up showed death, destruction, and desolation. All around the country, north and south, east and west, cities were being destroyed, people killed.
E-mails bounced. The building he was in provided a good deal of email service to its customers, but most of the mail servers were dead. Accessing other mail servers was difficult – there was only one working data line, and it only allowed access to a few web sites. People wouldn't even check their email at a time like this.
Hope was gone.
In the wee hours of morning, a young man was seen pulling a thick cable through the door and across the silent street. And when everybody woke up, they crowded around the computer terminals on the first floor of an office building, eagerly anticipating news. About 15 working computers had been salvaged and were set up so that people could easily get access.
"I could only find a few sites that worked. A lot of the stuff is down."
Twitter was up intermittently. People were posting updates, but none of them carried any bright prospects. CNN showed occasional news coverage, but not much else – it was mangled beyond recognition due to parts of the site still being down. Very few images loaded. Speed was comparable to dial-up.
Ethernet cables were stretched through windows, across buildings, giving people a rudimentary communications network. Each building – which had been given power via extension cords strung through windows – had at least one working computer. Liam had set up a chat server, allowing the survivors to communicate with each other, although to his regret, he was unable to connect with anyone outside their town.
The news headlines were grim. It seemed as if the whole country was under attack. The world was at war, enemy troops from too many countries to name were invading each other's lands. Innocent people were taking the blow. And to top it off, it was clear that there would be no effort to look for survivors due to a lack of resources.
The 250 or so survivors of the 20,000-person town of Appledale were mourning their lost loved ones, mourning the fate of the world. They had food, water, and shelter for now, but there wasn't exactly enough of it to satisfy everyone. Every day, someone was either sick or dying.
But they continued on. Days turned into weeks. By the end of the first month, several buildings had toppled, electricity was going out, much of the city continued to smolder, food was running scarce.
Liam sat in the control room, patrolling the net, looking for the few live sites that still existed, gleaning as much information as possible. It was all he could do now. His parents and friends were gone, and all he had was a glowing computer screen attached to a server that more or less ran the only communication channel that the survivors owned.
Tempers grew restless. The news wasn't exactly uplifting, and every single survivor had lost someone dear to them. Their homes had been destroyed, at least partially, and some were not able to cope with the change of circumstances at all.
People argued about food. They argued about sleeping quarters. They argued about bedding, computer access, electricity, lights, water, air, medicine, and nearly anything else under the sky.
Teams scoured the landscape for food, sometimes camping out due to the sheer distance they had to walk. They had not found a single working car – and even if they had, they wouldn't be able to start it without the appropriate key. So they had to make do with carrying large bags of groceries.
The abandoned supermarket loomed in front of him. He cautiously made his way around the rubble, climbing over damaged cars and parts of the building structure. Once inside, he climbed over toppled shelves.
A stench of rotting meat and produce filled the air; flies were everywhere. But at the end of the first aisle, he could see boxes of non-perishables. He made his way towards them.
Suddenly, a shot rang through the air. He heard the bullet whiz past his ear.
"Hey! You! Don't you ever come back in here or..."
Liam stopped to face the speaker. She was a young woman, holding a gun. He only saw the gun. He raised his hands into the air.
"Oh. Who are you?"
She cautiously lowered the gun. "What do you want?"
"I want some food. I've been more or less starving out there."
"What's your job?"
He noticed the computer in the corner, next to what he presumed was her sleeping bag
"I'm the guy who singlehandedly got all of you guys internet access. So I think you should put the gun down and let me get some food.".
She came closer to him, and he saw her in more detail. Black hair, gray eyes, about 5 foot 5. And the gun. The gun she kept pointing at him.
"You have 1 minute to get your food before I blow your head off. Go!"
Liam ran down the aisle, grabbed a few bags, and ran out the door for his life. He was that desperate.
Day 42. The Twitter channels were all but silent, except for the spam messages that somehow kept getting through. CNN was taking forever to load. And the only other sites that they were able to load were personal sites that hadn't been updated for 42 days or more.
"Maybe you people should stop trying to load the same bloody site from every single computer..." Josh, a tall, lean, black-haired man, unshaven for weeks, glared disapprovingly at the five people staring blankly at their computer screens. "It's slow enough as it is."
"Fine. Not like it's gonna work anyways. OK, then, umm..."
"Yeah, you, Josh. Why don't you get on the computer and do it yourself then, huh?"
"Fine." Still glaring, Josh walked over to a computer and sat down.
Ten minutes later, CNN had loaded sans the images. But something was different. The latest headline read "US Military Intelligence Locates Main Enemy Base, Sends Rescue Crews To Find Survivors"
There was a shocked silence in the room, as the people reading over Josh's shoulder. A faint glimmer of hope went through the crowd. Maybe someone would come, after all. Maybe they'd get out of this desolate, communication-less place.
That day, there was a bit less arguing and a bit more work done. This was the first bit of good news they had heard. A unanimous decision was made to build a bonfire in the street (far away from the network and power cables, of course), for warmth and company.
A second server had been salvaged, set up. This one was outfitted with an e-mail program that sent messages to any address it could find – but this wasn't for purposes of marketing. It was a call for help.
The e-mail specified their latitude, longitude (as determined by the city's records back in the day), a vague description of appearance, and further instructions to forward the message to anyone they knew, and whom to contact in the event of any help possibility.
The machine sat in the basement of the main office building, where many of the computers for public use had been set up. Any responses would be visible on its screen.
Exactly 217 people gathered around the fire that night, warming their hands, talking, smiling, even laughing. The night was cool, but the fire warmed their hearts and souls. Someone brought out a bottle of wine and pronounced a toast for the sake of them all, and every last drop was relished.
Liam stood alone, watching the fire from a short distance.
He turned around to look at the girl standing next to him. Black hair, gray eyes, about 5 foot 5. "You... you're the girl from the supermarket?"
"Yeah. Name's Mary." She shook his hand. "Sorry about the gun back there... I was just, you know... edgy. This one guy used to come in there and steal booze."
"It's fine... we've all been edgy the past few weeks. Guess I'm lucky nobody comes into my place and raids it... not like they'd have a use for an old broken server though." He chuckled, and Mary smiled.
"I'm Liam, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, dude. I think I remember seeing you at school or something, back before... you know..."
"Yeah, you do look a bit familiar." He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
They stood next to each other, watching the fire, listening to the crackle and pop of the burning wood. This was a fire that gave warmth and energy. The same fire could also be used for destruction. It was an interesting thought.
Days later, their work in setting up the mailer had paid off.
A response had arrived. A non-spam response, from a .gov address – they'd received plenty of spam in the day, as well as some pointless replies to the email (like "Delivery failure notification"), and that's why Josh had been appointed to sift through any junk they received on a daily basis.
"This is Sgt. Malcolm, head of rescue team 3B. I got a couple forwards of your message. GPS isn't working right, but we should be able to find our way to you guys in a few days. Hang in there."
This was the best news they had heard in ages. A real, personal response. They would be saved.
The last of the remaining food was split up. They saved some for later – just in case help was delayed a bit – but there was a celebratory note in the air and everybody finally got at least one good meal out of the remaining rations.
Liam and Mary stood chatting about what had happened, and what they hoped was going to happen.
"So how'd you manage to survive the first bombing?" Liam asked.
"Oh. I was in my car, early in the morning, when I see this bright light in front of me. Then I heard a loud rumble, like something was exploding. So I drove into the ditch, and that's when a bunch of stuff flew past me, flipped my car over a couple times."
Liam nodded in agreement.
"I blacked out. I woke up in the middle of the store, car next to me... don't know how I didn't break an arm or leg or anything."
"Yeah, you're really lucky."
"So what's your story, Mr. Computer Guy?" She playfully punched him in the shoulder.
"Oh, I couldn't sleep. I was making trips to the bathroom like every 15 minutes... then I noticed that my AC was off. I tried turning it on but it wouldn't work. Power was out.
"So I went down to the basement. Every single friggin' breaker was tripped. I mean, how does something like that happen?" He chuckled.
"Then what happened?"
"Oh. Something blew up. I woke up in the middle of what used to be my house. Guess whatever tripped those breakers also saved my life. My parents... they weren't so lucky, sleeping upstairs..."
He was at a loss for words. Mary put her arm around his shoulder, and he turned to face her. "Thanks."
"My parents were in another city on a business trip. No idea what happened to them. My phone won't pick up a signal."
"Yeah. All the cell towers must be down."
Mary pulled out her phone. "Here. I don't need this thing anymore; maybe you can take it apart and use the parts for something."
That night, everybody went to bed happy.
A phone was ringing incessantly. Dan was jarred awake by the sound, which was coming from upstairs. He hadn't heard a phone ring for well over a month.
He reluctantly got up and made his way up the stairs, through the corridor, and into an office that had once belonged to some executive. Now, the windows were shattered and paper littered the floor. The glossy oak desk had been smashed into a wall by the force of the bomb that had shattered the windows.
The ringing was coming from a device on the floor. He picked it up.
A satellite phone.
A phone that did not rely on cellular towers. Something that wealthy travelers and businessmen would use.
He picked it up.
"Mayday! They're coming your way!"
"Who is this? Who are they?"
"Eric, dammit! Took me ages to find a fucking sat phone around here! Enemy EXTERMINATORS, who else?"
"Who the hell are you then?"
"I'm Dan... from Appledale... we survived a bombing but the news says that help is on our way. We even got an email from a Sgt. Malcolm."
"This a joke? There's no... 'help'! Haven't you heard? President said there won't be any help cause there are too few survivors."
"Don't 'huh' me. Where's the captain?"
"I don't know! I heard the phone ringing and came into his old office... "
"Dammit! I told him to keep his fucking phone on hi—"
The voice crackled out and went silent. The phone's battery was dead.
Dan ran down the street, face writhing in agony. "Hey... hey!"
"I... I just got a phone call..."
"Phone call? How!?"
Dan held up the phone. "Satellite phone. Doesn't need any cell towers. But the battery died on me. I heard it ringing this morning so I picked it up. It says we're... I can't. I just can't." Dan stared at the ground.
"Give him some room." Josh was there, commanding the crowd that had formed.
Dan looked toward them, with a face of a man who had lost all hope. "I got a phone call. On someone's sat phone. Guy named Eric. Told me to get out of here. He said that the government never sent any help. That enemy exterminators – whatever that means – were coming." He sat down on the ground, breathless.
"Does this mean the government is lying to us?" A middle-aged woman with red hair was speaking. "Does it mean that they infiltrated the CNN site? Does it mean that they made the REPORTERS think they're going to be saved?"
"They didn't send any help because they said there weren't enough survivors. There are only, what, 200-some of us? Out of a city of 20,000?"
"But that means that 1 percent of the population survived. What do you mean, 'not enough'?"
"Guys... any of you ever been to the top of this here office building?" They turned to face the speaker, a teenager named Andrew.
"Because it's like the only part of the country that's still standing it seems. Everything on the horizon is, like, completely flat. No buildings. They must have missed us."
The realization of what had happened sank in.
That night, they stood around the bonfire as usual, but they weren't happy. There was no singing, dancing, storytelling. There was only murmuring, muttering, the occasional curse word. People were shocked, saddened, horrified. Some understood the implications of the phone call. Some thought the phone call was a joke – Dan made the whole thing up, or the guy on the phone made the whole thing up. Hadn't CNN been up for far longer? Hadn't the few other sites they had found more or less agreed with that?
Liam stood staring at the ground.
"Mary. There's something I need to tell you."
"What would that be?" She looked quizzically into Liam's eyes.
"Come with me." He led her to the Qwest building, through the hallways, and through the door to the control room, and then he sat her down in front of his server's monitor.
"Look. Do you want to know why the satellite transmission didn't agree with what everyone reads on CNN?" He pulled up a basic news aggregator, displaying headlines more along the lines of what the transmission stated.
"I don't understand..."
"Mary, none of this is real. CNN.com isn't even up any more. It went down a few days after I got the connection going."
"Yes. I looked all over the net. I hacked into anything I could. Then I wrote all of those articles myself."
She jumped up and stared at him, mouth agape, eyes wide, reeling back in shock as the significance of this statement permeated her brain. "You... you... w-w-w-wh.... why?" she sobbed. "Why did you do this? Why did you LIE to everyone like this?"
"No!" She kicked at the servers on the bottom shelf. "NO!"
She was raging now, throwing down computer monitors, yanking at cables, kicking at anything in sight. "You fucking LIAR!" Then she fell on the floor, sobbing.
"Why...!?" she wailed, her sobs shaking her whole body.
Liam knelt down and took her hand in his. He dried her tears with his shirt and opened his mouth to whisper something in her ear. "Hope, Mary. I gave the people hope. I made them get together, stop fighting each other."
She continued sobbing silently, but she turned to face him. "I... I... "
"Remember us? Remember when you almost killed me that day?"
She smiled. A wan, painful smile of one remembering a fond but sad memory.
"Yeah. I do remember." A pause. "I'm sorry, Liam. I really am. So sorry. You're..." She hugged him, held him close, tears forming in her eyes again. He reciprocated her gesture.
"There, there... it's going to – "
And the words were scarcely out of his mouth when he found himself surrounded by a cloud of fierce yellow fire. Mary was torn away from him. The room disappeared. And his vision went blank. They had come, just as Eric, the guy on the phone, had predicted.
The early rays of the morning sun shone upon a desolate landscape. The light glinted off the ash as the sun glints off of a snowy mountain peak. It settled upon the form of a young man, lying motionless, face down, his clothes charred, a coat of white ash atop of him. All was perfectly silent.
Several feet away, an old, battered commercial-grade router lay upside down, a cable snaking its way through a gaping hole in the ground. It, too, lay there motionless. The sun paid it no attention. But as the sun went down and the stars came up, a faint red light winked the world a silent goodbye.
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This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblances of names, locations, or persons (living or deceased) is purely coincidental. Additionally, the beliefs held by any of the characters in this story do not necessarily reflect those of the author, Lyosha Blinnikov.
Copyright © Lyosha Blinnikov (Nookkin).