The Power That Be
At 3 a.m. Lisa Wainright’s water broke, so she and Tom knew it was time to head for the hospital. This was their first child, but now that it was about to happen, they were remarkably calm. The car was right out front, and the drive from their Brooklyn Heights apartment to the Beekman Downtown Hospital at this hour would take less than fifteen minutes. Just a quick shot through the Battery Tunnel.
“How about that?” said Lisa as she waddled down the stairs ahead of Tom. “Laura’s already being considerate of her parents. She could’ve picked rush hour to start doing this.”
“Our little girl’s got great timing,” Tom agreed, holding the building’s entrance door open for her as they stepped out onto the quiet street. He clicked his remote key and the Camry lit up.
Eight minutes later they were in the tunnel. “How’re you doing?” Tom asked, glancing over at her as the fluorescent lights streamed by on both sides.
Lisa gritted her teeth and grimaced though another contraction. “Never better,” she said.
His eyes took in the road, a straightaway now that they were near the midpoint of the tunnel. There was no one ahead of them and no one behind. In fact, there’d been almost no cars on the streets. They’d been the only ones at the toll booth.
“When else could you drive in New York City and have it be this way?” he said in wonder.
“You’re right, honey,” said Lisa, “our little girl’s got great timing.”
Then everything went black.
The lights in the tunnel, their headlights, their interior lights, all went off in the same instant, as the engine died.
The car hurtled on silently through the inky dark. Lisa screamed.
Tom gripped the steering wheel, now a dead weight in his hands, as the car plunged blindly ahead. His foot instinctively found the brake, also without power but still working on a rudimentary level. He jammed it down and the squeal of tires echoed Lisa’s screams.
Through an eternity that actually lasted three seconds, the car slowed and finally came to a stop.
They sat in total blackness. The only sound was their ragged breathing. Tom reached for the ignition and tried to start the car, but it was totally dead. The headlights would not come on either.
“Oh, God, Tom,” Lisa sobbed, “what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said, hearing his own panic. “Even if we could see, we can’t just get out and walk, not in your condition. They’ve got to know this is happening. If we sit tight, someone’s bound to come.”
Even as he said it, he couldn’t help thinking, How long will that take? He knew she was thinking the same.
His hand reached out and found hers. Their fingers, slick with perspiration, intertwined and desperately held on to each other.
An eternity of ten more seconds went by as they waited. “Tom,” Lisa whispered, “I don’t think I can…”
The lights came back on. So did the car’s engine.
An enormous sigh of relief burst out of both of them. Tom’s foot was still jammed down on the brake. He’d been unaware of it, but he released it now.
They carefully drove the rest of the way through the tunnel, holding their breath and afraid to say a word. A few minutes later they were at the hospital. At 3:47 a.m. Laura Marie Wainright came into the world with no complications.
To Tom and Lisa, as they held their child, the memory of those horrifying moments felt almost dreamlike. But it had been real, all right. The tunnel blackout was all over the news the next morning. Port Authority officials, so far, had not been able to determine the cause. They said it was fortunate no one had been killed or injured, and they expressed concern that the tunnel’s emergency generator had failed as well, a highly unlikely coincidence. Terrorism had not been ruled out.
This was only background noise to Tom and Lisa, who just felt blessed. Not until later did they think about the car and wonder why it died at the exact same moment the lights went out. And how it could start up again when the lights came on. All by itself.
Two weeks later, at Wembley Stadium, the ’80s punk-rock band Whale Foreskin was in the process of kicking off its twenty-fifth anniversary reunion tour by kicking ass! The near sell-out crowd in front of them was a huge, frenzied blur. The stacks of Marshall amps behind them blasted out shrieking mega-decibels of rock ’n roll.
Riding above it, on the crest of this tsunami, was the clear, super-high, androgynous tenor voice of their lead singer, Brash Torrington. His chin jutting out, his emaciated-looking body covered in tattoos, he stood center stage, bare-chested in a snakeskin vest. The white spotlight sent crazy reflections off the piercings in his face and torso.
“Rip my heart out!” he sang to the moonlit sky. “Come on and rip my heart out!”
They were doing an early hit, “Torture Device.” It was midway through, leading into the first guitar solo, when all the amps and the sound system cut off in mid-note.
The stage lights and the lights around the stadium went out, and the place was plunged into darkness.
The drummer played on for a few seconds, the dead microphones no longer picking him up. He finally dribbled off to nothing as his band mates looked at each other.
“Bloody fook!” screamed Brash Torrington, heard by only a few down front.
The crowd’s almost-nuclear energy of a moment before became mumbling confusion, with some scattered booing. Torrington squinted his eyes toward their manager off stage, barely making him out in the darkness. The manager was talking heatedly to the sound engineer, who was shrugging.
“What’ll we do?” asked Bones Sarcophagus, the bass player. “Shall we try something acoustic, then?”
“With no bloody mics?” Torrington yelled at him. “Are you a fookin’ moron?”
He was about to pull the band off the stage when he saw some people down front taking out their butane lighters. A sudden vision came to him.
“Yes! Yes!” he shouted, moving toward them, maniacally waving and gesticulating with his thumbs. He pictured thousands and thousands of lighters burning at his command. “Light ’em up! We don’t need electricity. Light up this whole bloody stadium!”
Those within earshot cheered. The people who’d taken out their lighters flicked them with a vengeance. Then they flicked them again. And again. Not a single lighter worked. Not even the tiniest spark.
The mumbling confusion in the crowd was beginning to grow in volume, with an edge of anxiety to it.
“What the fook is happening?” said Torrington.
The anxiety suddenly stepped it up a notch, dramatically. With a tinge of fear underneath. Whatever this is, Torrington decided, he didn’t want to be here in the middle of it.
“That’s it, we’re gone, ” he said, dropping the mic and heading for off stage.
The power came back on.
He froze in his tracks as the stadium erupted in cheers. Then he reversed himself with a sharp pivot, swooped up the mic from the floor, and the show resumed. Later it was reported that the blackout had lasted a little over a minute and a half. As in the Battery Tunnel, the emergency generator had mysteriously failed as well. At this point no one had put the two events together.
The strange behavior of the butane lighters didn’t get as much attention as the simultaneous failure of all cell phones and personal communication devices, which was what suddenly spooked the crowd. This also included the walkie-talkies of security personnel. Indeed, even their flashlights did not work for those ninety seconds. Law-enforcement officials, including the British intelligence agency MI5, had no explanation for it. Pacemaker implants failed as well, and twenty-three people in the crowd suffered attacks of arrhythmia. One man died.
Brash Torrington, in a crystal meth-enhanced interview later, expressed condolences on behalf of the band and offered the man’s family free tickets to their next concert. After the interviewer left, he remarked to his mates, “Pacemakers, Jesus Christ! Soon we’ll be playing for people with fookin’ Alzheimer’s!”
The Northvale, Missouri, annual town picnic was something Polly Gaines never looked forward to, even when she was little. Now that she was fourteen, it was excruciating.
She sat at the farthest table at the very end of the bench, hunched over and texting furiously to her friend Janet about how mortifying it was to watch her father ordering everyone around. It was like when they made him the stupid chairman this year, they gave him an official license to be a total asshole. It made her want to puke.
She looked up, and it was that dork from her art class, Fletcher Branyon. He was wearing his usual Cardinals cap, turned backward, and the same LMFAO tee shirt he always wore. Either he had a drawer full of them or he never washed this one. She did not care to ever get close enough to smell him and find out. He gave her a snaggle-toothed smile.
“This really sucks, doesn’t it?” he said amicably.
She shrugged and went back to her texting, telling Janet about this new pain in the ass that was sitting across from her and adding to her misery.
“My parents always make me come to this,” said Fletcher. “I hate it.”
She shrugged again, concentrating on what Janet had just texted her about Justin Bieber’s latest rumored girlfriend.
“Is that your dad?” he asked, pointing to a large, sweaty man who was lugging a massive ice chest toward one of the other tables.
“Yeah,” Polly murmured. “So?”
“So, nothing. I just wondered, that’s all.” He gazed across the field at the sky, which was rapidly darkening in the west. “Looks like we’re gonna get some rain.”
“Hmmf,” she said, still looking at her iPhone.
“I’d love to see all these jerks trying to grab their stuff and run for the clubhouse with everything blowing around. That’d be neat, don’t you think?”
Actually, she did. She looked up at the sky and saw that the clouds were thickening and getting closer. Lightning flashed, followed by the rumble of thunder.
“It’s less than a mile away,” Fletcher said. “You can tell by how long it is between the lightning and the thunder. They’re actually happening at the same time, but light travels faster than sound. As a matter of fact, light travels faster than anything.”
She rolled her eyes. The last thing she needed was a science lecture from this geek. He didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ll bet you probably knew that already,” he said.
The wind suddenly picked up, and some paper plates blew off the table. A few drops of rain spattered down. Polly’s mother, at the other end, began gathering up as much of the food and drinks as she could and stuffing them back in the picnic hampers.
“Polly!” she shouted. “Don’t just sit there like a lump. Help out here!”
With a massive sigh, Polly switched off the iPhone and hauled herself to her feet. Fletcher just sat there, grinning at her. She wanted to punch him in the face.
A tremendous clap of thunder boomed directly above them as the sky lit up. It startled everyone, but not as much as they were about to be, as the thunder abruptly switched off. No rumbling finish. Not even an echo. Just sudden silence.
“Holy geez, look at that!” Fletcher pointed across the field.
Sticking out of the clouds was a jagged bolt of lightning, hanging motionless above the ground. It looked like a 3-D snapshot but, of course, it wasn’t.
The wind had stopped. The rain continued to fall, heavier now, drenching the picnic. Nobody moved. They gaped in stunned silence at what they were seeing.
“This is freakin’ unbelievable!”
Fletcher came around to Polly’s side of the table. “Come on, let’s get a closer look.”
“Are you nuts?” she said.
“No, really. This is amazing.” He began to walk out into the field, toward the lightning bolt hanging above it.
“What are you doing!” she screamed at him.
“I’ve gotta see this,” he said, his voice distant, dreamlike, as he kept walking toward the middle of the field.
“Fletcher, what’s the matter with you?” shouted a woman who must have been his mother. “Get back here right now, you hear me?” He paid no attention.
No one dared to go after him. They watched as he arrived at the spot and looked up at the bolt.
“Wow!” he said. “This is beautiful.”
People started to find their voices now. They yelled at him, some in anger, some beseechingly, telling him to move, to get back here. It did no good. He stood transfixed.
One man finally got up the courage and sprinted at him. Fletcher didn’t even see him coming. He grabbed Fletcher’s arm, spun him around, and pulled him back toward the others.
Fletcher allowed himself to be dragged along. The man, muttering about stupid, crazy teenagers, deposited him next to Polly.
“That was so awesome!” he said, shaking his head and trying to catch his breath as she stared at him in astonishment.
Then, just the way it had stopped, it resumed. The clap of thunder exploded at the very height of its percussiveness, scaring everyone out of their minds again. At the same moment the bolt of lightning struck the field, right in the spot Fletcher had just occupied.
The wind picked up. The rain was still pouring down, dousing the small grass fire that had been started. People grabbed what they could and headed for the clubhouse, soaking wet and talking to each other in a daze about what they’d just witnessed.
Fletcher could not stop telling Polly how he was probably the only human being in history to ever see a bolt of lightning from the bottom.
Polly still thought he was a dork.
Cell phone videos of the frozen lightning flash, taken by hundreds of people for miles around, went viral on YouTube. It would have been the top story on the national news that night, but it was supplanted by a bigger one: a power failure at the Civaux nuclear reactor in France.
For six tense hours, operators of the plant worked by candlelight, the only means of illumination possible (and only if lit by match, not by a lighter), as they vainly tried to restart the cooling systems.
When the power finally and suddenly came back, they immediately checked the gauges. What they saw was the last thing they ever expected to see. The fuel rods hadn’t overheated, but that wasn’t the attention-grabber. It was that they’d produced no heat at all. The temperature of the coolant water was actually lower now, which meant only one thing: during those six hours, nuclear fission itself had somehow stopped.
Things happened quickly after that. The next day there were failures at the Atucha reactor in Argentina, the Tianwan nuclear power plant in China, and the Balakovo nuclear facility in Russia. Failure times ranged from five to ten hours, with the same result as at the French reactor.
Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta experienced blackouts simultaneously. They happened during daylight hours and only lasted twelve seconds, but every motor vehicle on the roads stalled out, then found themselves restarting.
Planes in the sky above those cities were affected as well. Miraculously, all of them were able to recover from their stalls in time, except for one. It crashed, killing everyone on board and three people on the ground.
That night the president addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He urged calm and assured the country that the best scientific minds on Earth were working night and day to find the answer. In the meantime he encouraged everyone to exercise simple precautions, such as stocking up on food and medical supplies, as well as matches and candles. Otherwise, they should go on with their lives as they normally would. Other world leaders went on TV and did the same after similar events in their own countries. India, for one, was not as lucky as the US, suffering five plane disasters.
The power outages continued, around the globe and around the clock. Over the next three months, the airline industry was forced to cancel nearly 70% of its flights for lack of customers. Layoffs were massive.
Church, mosque, and synagogue attendance soared. Doomsday religious cults enjoyed boom times. World economies slowed to a crawl, as all forms of production suffered crippling delays.
After a year of the New Uncertainty, as it became known, a sort of fatalism set in. People got tired of being afraid, and they began to regard the events as part of daily life, random interruptions they had to endure and tolerate.
They didn’t need to store up food, medicine, and candles, for one thing, because the blackouts were brief for the most part, lasting only a few seconds or minutes. The exceptions were the nuclear power plants. They still went out for several hours at a time, but no one feared a meltdown anymore. It was no longer news when one happened.
Ultimately, even airline travel began to come back for those who could afford it and were willing to sign waivers. Life went on.
At the William Street Tavern in New York City, just up the block from Beekman Downtown Hospital, where little Laura Wainright was the first baby born into this not-so-brave new world, Alfred Peters sipped his Johnny Walker Red and frowned at the conversation he was overhearing by the two men in suits sitting next to him at the bar.
Alfred Peters was an unemployed physics professor. Both his twenty-year marriage and his six-year tenure track at NYU had gone off the rails from too many Sidecars. Since then he’d moved beyond cocktails and other fancy drinks and concentrated on the basics, such as Johnny Walker Red. What he was listening to now made him want to bolt down the one he was working on and get to the next one.
“It’s God speaking to us,” the man beside him was saying to his companion. “How else can you explain it? Science certainly can’t. In fact, that’s the very message God is sending. Don’t listen to science, listen to faith. Technology is what led us astray. God is demonstrating that he can take it away from us anytime he chooses. We’ve got to regain our faith, that’s what he’s saying.” The other man nodded.
“Excuse me,” said Alfred, as the two looked over at him, “but I’m a particle physicist, and, with all due respect, you’re full of shit.”
“Excuse me,” said the man who’d been doing the talking, “but you’re the one who’s full of shit. You guys have no explanation at all for what’s been happening. You’ve got your telescopes working overtime, looking all over the universe for cosmic ray bursts, solar flares, supernovas, and all that other crap nobody understands, and what have you come up with? Zippo!” He nodded for emphasis, as if agreeing with himself. “And what about the nuclear reactors? I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer. I know when laws are being broken, and every time those rods stop producing heat, they break all your precious laws of physics. If that’s not proof of God, I don’t know what is.”
Alfred forced himself to remain calm as he lifted his glass and slugged back the rest of it.
“That’s correct,” he said. “You don’t know what is. You have absolutely no idea of what is. Did you ever notice that whenever people come across something they can’t explain, they immediately explain it? And it’s always God. I don’t do that. If I don’t know something, I admit it. Then I try to find the answer.”
“Yeah?” said the second man. “And what if you can’t find the answer?”
“Maybe I have,” Alfred said, signaling the bartender for a refill.
The first man gave him a sardonic smile. “In that case,” he said, “maybe you’ll share it with us mere mortals.”
Alfred waited until his drink was placed before him. He didn’t pick it up; he just needed to know it was there.
“What if our power is being diverted into another dimension?” he said.
Both men scoffed. “Come on!” said the lawyer.
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss it,” said Alfred. “Bear with me here.” He fondled the glass but still didn’t pick it up. “We’re aware of only three dimensions,” he began, “plus a fourth, which we call ‘time.’ That doesn’t mean there aren’t more dimensions, just that we can perceive only three of them; are you with me so far?”
The two men nodded.
“Now, I’m what’s known as a string theorist, and there are quite a few of us. In fact, it’s the predominant theory in physics today. It says that the very foundations of existence, the electrons and quarks within an atom, are actually oscillating lines, or strings. Picture a clump of vibrating spaghetti.”
“Yuck,” said the second man. “Sounds like something I wouldn’t want to touch with a fork.” The first man laughed.
“The fork itself would be made up of those same clumps of vibrating spaghetti,” said Alfred. “Now, picture one of them. Can we see every string in it? No, not nearly. Because they’re all wound around each other and constantly oscillating. You still with me?”
They nodded again.
“So if these are the building blocks of the universe, and we perceive only small parts of them, the only way to see other parts would be to somehow go beyond our three dimensions, to move sideways, but a different kind of sideways, into another one. Okay?”
They both nodded, but more slowly.
“Anyone or anything living in one of those other dimensions would also perceive only three dimensions, like we do. So they wouldn’t be aware of us, and we wouldn’t be aware of them. But we’d all be right there beside each other, virtually sharing the same atoms. Now, hold on to that while I tell you about dark matter.” He took a slow sip of the scotch.
“Dark matter doesn’t emit light or any other electromagnetic radiation. We can’t prove it exists, but it would account for all our discrepancies in calculating the mass of galaxies if it did. So let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that it does.” He took another sip.
“Dark matter acts as a portal through which energy can flow. Maybe we’re not the only ones who are on to it. It could also be perceptible to one of our other-dimensional neighbors. Maybe even more so than it is to us, who knows? If they ever figured out how to harness it, they could draw away our energy, which they’d use and not be aware they were taking it from anyone. Because they don’t even know we exist. And since that energy is going into another dimension, we wouldn’t be aware of a measurable loss. We’d experience it as an interruption, like someone hitting a ‘Pause’ button. Sound familiar?”
He finished the glass.
“That’s what I think is happening, gentlemen; that’s my explanation for it. You can accept it or not, but I assure you, the universe will not give a damn one way or the other.”
Both men shook their heads in amusement.
“Sounds like pure, unadulterated loony tunes to me,” said the lawyer, “but it’s certainly worth us buying you a drink. For the entertainment value, if nothing else.” He signaled the bartender.
“Ah, very good, I appreciate it,” said Alfred. “A drink was all I ever expected out of this conversation anyway.”
Since it exists in a “different kind of sideways,” let’s call it planet Erth. Its World Council president, an entity that would look something like a beige cloud if we could perceive him, is speaking via thought wave to a vast global audience.
“It is my great pleasure to present the Millennial Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award to Doctor Zrtyl Xcrtvy,” he says as he proudly indicates another beige cloud hovering beside him. “The remarkable new energy source he’s discovered will continue to benefit us for ages and ages, into an unlimited future.” He pauses for the equivalent of applause.
“And now that the exploration phase is complete, we can step up the process. We will now be able to extract energy from this bountiful new source in unprecedented amounts, many, many times more than we have so far. In other words, my fellow citizens, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
His final words are all but lost in the cacophony of a billion entities, cheering their virtual hearts out.