It began in a grocery store. Jennifer Oster needed another ham for Thanksgiving dinner, because her ham-fisted husband had ruined the first one. It was their first Thanksgiving together, and it had gone from just a few friends to include half the neighborhood street, her husband Nathan's parents, her lonely middle-aged boss, and one of her sisters. It was with sore feet, a plasticky-sweet Pumpkin Spice Latte and weary irritation that Jennifer swiped her card over the reader. Why Jennifer wondered, do we even bother with all of this? The card reader beeped CARD NOT READ.
"Please try it again, ma'am," the cashier said with forced politeness at Jennifer's exaggerated sighing. Privately, the young cashier had just about had it with all the fat, idiotic, customers like this woman expecting her to be the solution to their miserable holiday problems or at the very least a punching bag to aim at.
Jennifer swiped her card again; APPROVED the reader announced chirpily. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
Not very likely, Jennifer thought with a tight smile to the cashier. She walked out of the store as quickly as her pregnant body would allow her. The baby was lying heavily on her bladder, compounding her general malaise. If Nathan hadn't finished the sides when she got home, she would kill him. She was too tired, and too fat to bustle around the kitchen for another two hours. As it was, the ten minute drive back to her new house out in the pristine gated community that she was growing to loathe, would just about kill her.
Forgetting the ham in the front seat, she ran into the house, past Nathan standing in front of the television, and into the downstairs bathroom. Her bladder relieved, she shouted from the toilet seat, "Nathan! You better not be watching TV or I swear to god I'll deep fry your XBox!"
No reply. Idiot, Jennifer thought irately.
In the living room, Nathan stood dumbstruck, watching the enormous curved screen, his phone hanging limply in his hand.
"Jen, oh my god, thank god you're home — Jen, look at this," Nathan said.
The split screen was turned on; all four major networks were reporting the same breaking news.
"Reports that this began less than hour ago —"
"Sources telling us that nearly all major U.S. financial institutions, retailers, companies are reporting massive security breaches—"
"We are unaware at this time how wide the scope of this attack is, but the United States Treasury is currently urging the President to announce a nationwide State of Emergency —"
"Trillions of dollars, tens of trillions of dollars here — the world markets are in freefall right now—"
"We're talking about a near collapse of the United States economy as we know it—"
"This unprecedented —
"I mean is this China? Russia? Iran? North Korea? Rogue cyber terrorists —"
"President Paul will be appearing shortly but White House sources are telling us that nationwide martial law may be declared for the first time in U.S. history —"
"Right now J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citi Bank, Wells Fargo and Capital One are shutting down all services, as reports of runs on the banks growing increasingly violent—"
"We don't know what we're seeing here—"
Jennifer felt the ground beneath her grow unsteady; Nathan helped her to the couch, neither of their eyes leaving the television screen. The visibly shaken anchors struggled to stay in control; on CNN, the reporter outside a bank stopped in the middle of the report, his hands on his head as the desperate masses of people trying to enter grew violent. Some of the networks had broken into chaos, people weaving in and out of the live report, new information coming in every few seconds. Many were rendered speechless.
"H-how Nathan — I was just — I was just at the store, I just bought the...oh my god Nathan, how?" Jennifer repeated, stunned.
"It took less than five minutes they said, simultaneous cyber attacks on just about every financial system in the country," Nathan said dumbly, reciting the words burned into his brain.
"The phone — we need to call, we need to call someone," Jennifer said, because it seemed like the only thing they could do, the most sensible thing to do.
"The phones aren't working — all networks are down," Nathan said, tapping the screen of his iPhone uselessly. "I tried to call you at the grocery store."
No one came to their beautiful, new house that night. The turkey burnt in the oven, setting off the smoke detector. New York itself was burning, who could even think about a turkey? Nathan and Jennifer had all the televisions in the house on. Every room announced more and more ominous news. The US military had been deployed to all major cities. Martial law was in full effect, coast to coast. The European Union had suspended all economic activity. Hundreds of thousands of arrests. Law enforcement unable to contain looting, rioting and destruction of bank property.
As the night wore on, the tired couple lay on the couch together under a blanket, unable to move, to eat or to sleep.
"Jen, you need to eat, and drink some water," Nathan said at about 4am. He made her a sandwich and got out two bottles of water. His heart sank when he saw they only had a few left.
The White House had been evacuated, and the President was in a secure, undisclosed location. He still hadn't addressed the nation, after more than twelve hours.
They were calling it the worst attack in U.S. history.
The damage hit the financial and telecommunications systems the worst. The airlines had cancelled all flights. The internet had been down intermittently throughout the night. Open speculation on what would be next had began: water supply? the power grid?
Jennifer wrapped her hands around her belly protectively, as the baby boy inside kicked fiercely. Like he could sense his parents distress at the world collapsing around them.
Three days later, the country was still under a State of Emergency. President Paul appeared on television, pale and drawn, almost sickly urging civility, restraint and calm. It was too late for that, though. Cities were already burning. With a trembling fist, he promised the full force of the United States government would find whoever was responsible and bring down terrifying consequences. Many questioned if there was even a US government to speak of. The Treasury had lost more than two trillion dollars. Whole industries had collapsed.
Anchors who had been wearing the same clothes for days reported food rotting in abandoned trucks on the side of the highways. Many gas stations had ran out of fuel. The price of oil tripled to $320 a barrel as all US trade came to a standstill. The dollar was no longer being accepted in foreign transactions. Entire countries that used the dollar as it's reserve currency saw their financial systems fail.
Google was down.
Nathan looked out of the window onto their street. Many people had spilled out onto their manicured lawns the previous nights, huddling with their neighbors, offering help and exchanging information. There had been a sudden shift in the last few hours, as shortages began in earnest. Cars being locked in garages. Emergency reinforced steel gates went up. No one was in the street. There was still tap water, mercifully. He saved the bottled water for Jennifer, who had finally succumbed to sleep on the couch. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, wishing he had picked up his contact prescription. He had been wishing he had done something or the other for the last three days. In the last few minutes, he had been wishing he bought that gun his father recommended. He had a family to protect now.
It was the third night, and the phone networks still weren't working. The news reports said that telecommunications had been restored but the system was quickly overwhelmed by the volume of calls and messages. Only emergency numbers were getting through — sometimes. Nathan felt his stomach clench at the thought of Jennifer going into labor. It was too early, of course, but what if? What if something went wrong? Who knows if an ambulance would come.
He tapped his phone screen again: nothing. His work email had crashed too. It was no surprise; he was investment banker and Goldman Sachs was one of the first to go under. There was almost no way to communicate with anyone. Facebook crashed the day before. Twitter was somehow still working but had degenerated into a mass-frenzy of panic and hysteria where no meaningful communication was possible.
Rather pathetically, he hoped someone would think to drive to their house and check on Jennifer, at least. His parents. Her parents. Either of their siblings. Someone, anyone. Perhaps he could drive them to his parents house. But that was almost four hours away. Would they have enough gas? He kicked himself again for not filling up the tank.
He slumped on the floor next to the couch, exhausted. Jennifer's long braids fell on his shoulders and he kissed her forehead. Her eyes flew open, and she sat up.
"I didn't mean to wake you, I'm sorry — go back to sleep," he whispered.
"What—what's happened?" She asked, her hands around her stomach.
"Nothing, nothing new. Go back to sleep, Jen," Nathan said. But once her eyes fell on the news, there was no going back to sleep.
"Top intelligence sources believe Russian hackers were responsible for the attacks, possibly using embedded sleeper cells within the companies—"
"We're getting information that the U.S. Air Force and Navy are currently mobilizing in Black Sea, just off the Turkish coast—"
"Russia denies any involvement in the attacks but defense officials in the country say it will defend itself if necessary—"
"The UN emergency meeting was thrown into chaos a few minutes ago as Russian diplomats walked out amid allegations that the cyber attacks on U.S. industries—"
"China urges both countries to seek diplomatic resolution—"
"Hundreds of Russian citizens on U.S. soil have been arrested in the last few hours, we are expecting officials from the FBI and Department of Justice to release information —"
"Talk of war is already — "
"War is beginning to seem likely, if not inevitable —"
"The situation is escalating towards war —"
"President Paul has virtually no choice but to prepare for war —"
"Oh my god, Nathan...war?" Jennifer asked her husband in disbelief. The little color left on his face drained. A war? They were expecting a baby in a matter of weeks, there couldn't possibly be a war, not now.
Nathan ran his hands through his dark blonde hair, and turned his head to look up at her.
"It's going to be fine, we're going to be fine. We have food for weeks, and the electricity has held up so far. When the baby comes, things will have calmed down. We're going to be fine, Jen," he said trying to be calm and reassuring.
"What if the hospitals aren't even — what if we can't get there or what if there is actually war here or something happens to one of us, nothing...nothing is going to be fine," Jennifer was hyperventilating, her hands shaking. Nathan moved up onto the couch beside her and wrapped his arms around her tightly, her tears soaking his shirt sleeve.
In an underground complex, outside of Deadhorse, Alaska, a group of anonymous hackers watched as the world tore itself apart. The last steps towards the purity of anarchy were finally complete. The superpowers of the world would annihilate each other, and we would all be free once more. On the walls, behind the quantum supercomputers and above the pasty, tired faces, banners that shouted CAPITALISM IS SLAVERY, FEAR NOTHING BUT THE LOSS OF FREEDOM, and DEATH IS THE ONLY PEACE.
Six weeks and two days later, Jennifer gave birth to a healthy baby boy as a war began halfway around the world. They named him Thomas, after Nathan's father who died two weeks earlier from a heart attack. Little Thomas would never know a world that was not at war. The hour he was born, a missile strike brought down the Empire State Building.
A short story that may become a novel about the boy, Thomas Oster and his special life amid a World War. We'll see. Open to critiques and rotten tomatoes.