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The Fall. Part 1.

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    “Don’t look at me, that’s your problem set. I called it quits after calculus,” Julian said. He nudged his glasses up his nose, though they hadn’t slipped.

    “Come to the dark side, Cole,” Keith said. “We have cookies, and actual applications.”

Math is purer, Cole thought, but didn’t bother sharing. They’d debated it before, while far less sober. He’d lost. “Contour integrals are making me rethink my major.”

    “You just can’t handle the abstract nature of math without applications,” Keith answered.  “We use these things all the time.”

    “You’re a double major.” Cole shrugged the massive shoulders of a linebacker. “You’re not allowed to say that.”

    “Only an extra three courses.”

    Sam elbowed Keith in the ribs from where she slouched in her chair, a tablet resting on her lap. “I’m with Julian on this one, biology is where it’s at, boys. Practical lab work, no nonsense, no complex analysis class.”

    “Practicality,” Julian said pointing at his laptop and nudging his glasses up again.

Cole, Keith, Julian, Sam and Jordan had taken over a place setting meant for ten, three hours, eight over-brewed coffees, and two shared plates of fries ago. Notebooks and computers sprawled between crumpled napkins and empty plates.

    A flat screen TV two inches too thick for the modern era clung to a wall by metal clamps, and spit out occasional bouts of audio static and black bands that traveled up and down the screen.

    “Professor Mitchell just cancelled class,” Sam said, tapping at her phone. She sat up, leveraging herself off Keith’s chest.

    “He say why?” Keith asked.

    “Fourth class cancelled in two days,” Cole said. “Jameson cancelled class yesterday, too.”

    “Why, you guys can do math on a white board, no electronics required.”

    “Probably can’t get their cars to start,” Sam said.

    “Mine wouldn’t start yesterday.” Julian added. He reached up absently from his typing, to an empty plate for a non-existent fry, and then gave their favorite server a gentle wave and a smile. The server threw up his pointer finger as he swapped coffee pots about.

    “You’re lucky yours ever starts,” Sam said.

    “Be nice to Betty,” Jordan said. “I have a lot of fond memories of that car.”

    “Let’s not bury her just yet, I’m sure whatever this is will be done soon.”

    “It’s not a virus,” Sam said insistently. “Its terrifying. Its like everything made since last century is on the fritz. What about people and pacemakers and medicine?”

    “What else could be going on to impact so much stuff?” Julian asked. “AI written; I’d bet my hidden drive files on it. Probably China or the Middle East.”

    “He’s right,” Keith said. “James’s smart watch died a few days ago, just after an update. Same for Amanda’s computer.” 

  “Don’t you prefer to bike everywhere anyway?” Cole said.

    Cole didn’t feel like going back down this conversation again. Keith thought everything going on was some worldwide cyber-attack from a hidden hacker cabal because everything still worked for him. Cole’s damn toaster wouldn’t toast his Pop Tarts that morning, and it didn’t have a lick of software in it. Why would China hack it if it did?

    “It’s good for us,” Jordan said. “You’re just jealous.”

    Sam poked at Keith’s midsection from the side, squishing into his love handle. “I like every inch of him.”

    “It’s like a throwback to the nineteen nineties.” Everyone gawked at Julian. He pointed to the TV by way of explanation. “Someone should go outside and check the antenna.”

    “Antenna issues would be black and white snow from receipt of ambient background RF signals. Failure mode is a line running up and down the screen. Probably the TV itself, not a feed issue.”

    “I was gonna set up a joke but, sure, we can do physics instead.”

    “It’s always physics,” Sam said. She rolled her eyes, but the irritation was offset by her smile.  

    Poor Sam. Keith didn’t even notice the double meaning. Cole didn’t want to wish ill to either of his friends, but they needed time apart, for him to see her value and her to assert it. He hoped graduate school would give it to them.

“Show off,” Cole added. “I’m heading outside to have another.” He stood and pushed back his chair, drawing a stuttering squeak along the questionably clean linoleum floor.

“Another?” Julian said. “You just had one. I thought you were down to half a pack a day.”

    “That was an hour ago. I have to keep up with physics man somehow.” Cole acquiesced to the friends’ hard stares, and sat again. “Fine.” He put hands up in surrender.

    “Hey guys.” The waiter came over and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching at an itch before he looked over the rim of his glasses at his fingernails as if he would he would find the offending source. “So, I can’t do credit. Something is up with the scanner. Won’t connect to the system. Yesterday the coffee pot wouldn’t even turn on.” As he spoke the TV flicked to complete blackness, then back on to the news interrupted by repeating black lines.


    They each checked their pockets and phone wallets for payments, but, even in conglomerate, they came up short.

    “You could have Keith stand next to it,” Cole said. “Maybe his utter confidence in all things will make the scanner work too?”

    “I’ll have a blue cheese burger, fries and mayo,” Keith said. “I have enough for everyone.”

    “We said we would try to lose together,” Sam said.

    “I thought you just said you loved every inch.” He stared into her brown eyes mimicking a wide-eyed kitten begging for a head scratch. “Okay.” He pecked her on the lips and looked back to their waiter. “House salad instead of the fries.”

    “Hold his mayo too,” Sam added.

    “The world really is coming to an end,” the server said. “For the rest?”

    “Nothing for me,” Cole said.

    “You’ll split my burger?” Julian asked, and Jordan nodded. “I’ll have what he’s having but I want fries. What? We run,” he said in response to Keith’s look.

    “I’ll be back with that in a few. Give me a holler if anyone else comes in.”

    “Where’s Seff?”

    “Didn’t show to work today. I’m running the front and back. Thankfully it’s been dead like this all day.” The server waved around the room. Empty except for the circle of friends.

    Cole and Keith returned to their notebook scribbling, Julian returned to his typing, pecking at keys here and there as he reviewed code, and Sam and Jordan settled back to their reading. Jordan, as always with a dead tree in hand. Sounds of dry beef hitting oil on the griddle in the back hissed out from the door to the kitchen. Cole scratched out his third homework attempt and looked up.

    “You still reading the same book?”

    “Brothers Karamazov isn’t exactly a book you rush through.” Sam leaned forward and put her finger in the pages, letting it slip closed around her hand. “The level of hyper-rational rhetoric that the whole world can be explained by a single idea, and that nothing matters, is just so… so perfectly espoused to make clear how absurd it is.”

    “That’s exactly what physics is,” Keith complained.

    “I guess we’re not working anymore then?” Julian said.

    “Physics is a single set of rational unified ideas that explain how the world works, and shows very clearly nothing really matters in the long run. Not that we can do anything about it anyway.”

    “No, Cole. Physics is a collection of rational ideas supported by empiricisms. That’s the point. You can’t lose touch with reality all together. You need tests to ground you.”

“Whoa, whoa, guys!” Julian tapped Cole next to him on the shoulder and pointed up to the TV. “Turn that up.”

    Keith stood and walked to the unmanned counter where the remote, with its little red buttons, waited and turned up the TV. As he approached, the lines on the screen disappeared and the static in the audio faded.

    “Behind me, a line of national guards have just started their first serious show of force in downtown.” Behind the reporter, dozens of fatigue-wearing soldiers with shields and riot gear marched in hurried but unpanicked lines to surround a marble building. In the foreground, the Wall Street Bull stood in its bronze glory. “I am at the New York Stock Exchange, where the terrorist organization which calls itself The New Earth Front has declared the recent technological trouble a sign of the end of times, demanding repentance by all of mankind to alleviate the suffering to come. Calls to abandon the use of…Jesus!”

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    “What the hell was that?” Cole asked.

    He found himself out of his chair, and despite the events unfolding sixty miles to the west, an overwhelming feeling of being trapped rolled over him. Living on Long Island for school, with only New York City and its bridges as egress, while civilization tilted toward unbridled panic hadn’t been taken into account when he chose his school. He wanted cheap with reliable education, not apocalypse-proof.

    On screen, a ball of white and blue flashed, and the camera man dropped the camera as the reporter ducked. The feed cut off as legs ran across the frame, and returned to the studio news anchor.

    “Forget that, check this out,” Julian said. “Keith, get over here. Look, there’s a ton of live feeds.”

    Someone streamed the events from a second story window, while another had an instant replay on a loop. The same flash of white played over and over again, flashing brilliantly like a bursting lightbulb against the riot shield. Lines of blue licked out in every direction like fire made of crystal ice.

    “Did someone throw a snowball the size of a person or something?” Julian shoved his glass up his nose again and leaned forward toward the screen; his glasses slipped right back down.

    “This is some kind of hacking trick,” Keith said, standing behind Cole now, having muted the TV which returned to displaying black lines walking up and down the pixels. “See. Here and here.”

    One of the feeds died out, and Julian found another to takes its place just in time to watch two fireballs erupt off riot shields, and Sam to clasp her mouth, in fear or perhaps worry.

    Cole pulled out his cell and searched for the same hits, and found them trending in a heartbeat. He swiped in to zoom and watched the same few seconds over and over again. “Guys, look at this.”

    He placed his phone in the center of the table and everyone leaned over to watch, except Keith, who watched from a normal upright stance, his arms crossed over his chest. A small baseball-sized flicker of light tracked across the screen, pixelated and red, until it hit the shield, and exploded, rolling over the Plexiglas to the soldier beyond. He played it again and then a third time.

    “What?” Julian said.

    “I’m not seeing it,” Jordan said.

    Sam remained silent.

    “No bottle. That’s not a Molotov or anything. What the hell did they throw?”

    “Forget that.” Julian turned his computer around dramatically and pointed. Police fired back into the protesters.

    “Turn it off,” Sam said.

    “Maybe,” Keith began.

    “No. Right there, look.”

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    The handgun of a military policeman exploded in his palm. Red splattered across the clear shields, followed by a crazing across their surfaces as bullets erupted from the handle of the gun in every direction. Two more soldiers crumpled to the asphalt while others were saved by their vests and riot gear. Bystanders bolted in every directing, sprinting down alleyways.  Videos filmed from overhead views showed the dark undersides of terraces and hissed out whispers of prayer.

    “Why would a gun do that?” Sam asked. “Just… just turn it off!”

    “Something must have hit it.”

    Keith’s statement was meant to sound like a proclamation but sounded to Cole like a halfhearted question. Nothing had hit it. Had the bullets spontaneously gone off all at once? “I’m with Sam, let’s just turn it off, ok?”

    “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Keith said, and nodded to them all as he started off.

    “Shit.” Julian’s computer shut itself down after Keith walked more than ten feet away. A long moment of silence.

    “At least you autosave unfailingly,” Jordan said.

    “Your good luck charm walked off,” Cole offered. “I really need a smoke now. I’ll be back.”

    “I need some air,” Sam said.

    “Keep me company. If I’m talking, I’m not smoking.” He pointed back at the remaining couple, and then to the empty plates. “Don’t eat all the fries.”

    “We’ll save you some to steal.”

    He pulled the door open and walked through the vestibule, bracing himself for the blast of late-fall air. He lit up, enjoying the feeling of the lighter scratching along the strike plate, and the warmth of the flame. The first drag did nothing to calm his nerves. Sam was at his side a half minute later, having slung on a coat and tucked her long purple-black hair down into it to guard her neck from wind.

    He nodded at her but said nothing as they both studied the lines of cars stalled along the side of the road. Three people pushed as their vehicles into the parking lot of the diner to join the other automobiles that had started the car graveyard. He tapped open his phone to post a picture, but he had no signal.

    “Must be the tower?” Sam offered.

    Cole shook his head in agreement, but he doubted it. Two men argued over a speed-of-walking fender bender while they tried to both push and steer. He took small comfort in the fact that his nerves weren’t the only ones on edge.

    “What do you really think it is, Sam?”

    A nearby traffic light had died days ago, and a pair of police officers directed traffic and helped another stalling vehicle forward so it didn’t clog the road entirely.


    “The internet didn’t work at all yesterday. Every site threw up error messages.”

    “For me too.” He studied the practiced silence she which had developed the last few weeks. “What?”

    “Unless, Keith was in the room. Then some of them worked.”

    “Yeah.” He stopped watching the car fiasco and studied her. “I told you he was special.” He didn’t feel like pretending with his closest friends today, and if Keith wasn’t going to take whatever was happening seriously, maybe Samantha would. “I’m getting scared.”

    “Me too.” Car horns blared. Men screamed. A cop screamed back. “I think everyone is. I couldn’t reach mom and dad yesterday. It just rang. I’m glad the last thing I said was I loved them.”

    “Don’t think that way. You’ll go home and visit them when this all blows over. Whatever it is.”

    “There’re people in the city talking about magic, Cole. What we just saw, was…”

    “Keith’s right. It’s got to all be some kind of trick.”

    “Those feeds looked pretty convincing.”

    They looked convincing to Cole too.

    “I saw a video a day ago of soldiers firing on civilians in India. They were trying to steal food from a train or something.”

    “We’re a long way off from that.”

    “Are we, though?” Sam pointed at the cars on the road. “What if trucks stop working like that too? Half of them don’t even have drivers to call for help. They would just sit there on the side of the road with food. Rotting. Planes stopped already. What about trains or ships?”

    “They’ll figure out the source. Everything that’s failing is a cyber-attack.” He said the words but remembered his room-temperature Pop Tarts. “It’s new cars failing, not the old ones.” Julian’s car wasn’t exactly new, but Sam knew that. “Throw a rock up, it still falls down. Physics didn’t change, and the chemistry of this beautiful death stick still keeps me awake and alert.”

    He focused on the next drag. He hadn’t taken but one puff since they came out and the thing had half burned down. He drew hard, and the tip glowed red, and then a flame erupted around the tip of the cigarette, riding up the length of white in a flash to catch the tips of his fingers like tinsel too near a Christmas fireplace. The flame danced there on the ends of his fingernails but his skin didn’t char, and he stood dumbfounded while time ticked by, soaking in the reality. Sam grabbed his hand smacked at it with gloved hands, and snuffed out the flame. Cole had already dropped the cigarette to the ground.

    Fear, elation, confusion, and adrenaline surged through him and his unburned fingers shook, but not from the cold.

    “Jesus, what the hell was that, Cole?”

    What was that? He coughed, trying to expel the smoke from his lungs as though some part of what had happened might linger there.


    “I…. I don’t know.”

    “Hey guys, food’s here, you coming back?” Keith leaned out the door.

    Cole nodded as Keith went back inside.

    “Do we tell them?”

    Cole didn’t know. What could they say that Keith wouldn’t mock, or that would just scare Jordan worse, or make everything worse? How could he deny what just happened? He had just wanted fire to warm his hands when he drew on the lit cigarette, but never expected… that.

    He nodded in ignorance and shrugged. The cigarette still smoldered down its length on the ground.

    She rested her hand on his shoulder briefly and then headed back inside. Letting the decision stay with him.

    Around him the world ticked on, down the strange road they all walked. An owner of a stalled-out car yelled at a cop in the middle of the intersection. Traffic backed up to a standstill in every direction. Several cars had already clogged the right lane entirely, and their owners had surrendered all hope of moving them and abandoned them. The stores in the adjacent strip mall were all closed, and over his head the red neon light of the café sign, buzzed, sputtered and then died.

    People called it the New Earth. The Rise. The Fall, maybe of all civilization. The beginning of the end. He looked down at his unburned hand, uncertain what to call it, and went back into the diner. 

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