94

Madison awoke suddenly when the car hit a pothole. It took her a moment to get her bearings and figure out where she was. “Oh my God,” she said. “I had the most realistic dream.”

Judy glanced over at her. “I didn’t notice you were sleeping.”

“I dreamt that the HEMP went off and we had to walk the last couple hours to HQ,” Madison said. “It felt so real.”

“We’ve been driving all night. I’m not surprised you dozed off. We should be there soon.”

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper,” Madison said. “Do you know that poem?”

“Not the whole poem,” Judy said. “But I know that line. Eliot, right?”

“Yes,” Madison said. “We studied it in English last year. It’s his attempt to reconcile the devastation of the first world war, and the flu pandemic, and all that. It’s about how hard it is to hold on to faith when things are tragic.”

“Sounds like you had a good teacher,” Judy said.

“Yeah, she’s pretty good. I wonder if it’ll be like that now. If all the death and suffering and just the… the way everything is going to change all at once. I wonder if that is going to be more trauma than people can handle.”

“In my experience,” Judy said, “people in war-torn countries focus entirely on survival. I suspect it will be like that here. People won’t have time to be upset about the things they lost—their lack of creature comforts. The adults will be too focused on making sure their families have food to eat. And the children… imagine what it would be like to be a child with no TV, no phones, no internet. Children will be able to play again.”

“You’re optimistic,” Madison said.

“I guess,” Judy replied.

“But people are going to die. A lot of them. All at once. That’s a lot of grief,” Madison said.

“Our projections are that there will be a million or fewer extra deaths,” Judy said.

“Extra deaths?”

“Well, yes. People die every day. Several thousand of them. A lot of them die in car accidents or industrial accidents. Those won’t happen anymore. But we expect higher mortality from chronic diseases. And in the very short term, there will be deaths caused by panic.”

“Crazies with guns trying to protect their stuff,” Madison said.

“Probably a little of that, yes. So when you add the extra deaths the HEMP leads to, and you subtract the deaths that the HEMP prevents, our projections are about a million extra deaths. In this country.”

“That’s grim,” Madison said.

“Just the first year. Once people figure out how to survive and basic social systems get working again, things will improve quite a bit. Nobody knows how many people die because of pollution every year, but it’s a lot. Hundreds of thousands a year, probably. Asthma is out of control in this country. And who knows what all those plastics are doing to us.”

“So that’s why you set up the warehouses?” Madison asked.

“It is. The projections without them were much, much worse. The concern was that the panic phase was going to be extremely deadly. But having a system in place where people can immediately get food and water for free, that will help them to feel they are being taken care of… CLP will step out of the way and give all the credit to the government. That will help build trust and reduce panic.”

“Nothing to fear but fear itself,” Madison said.

“Precisely,” Judy agreed.

“In my dream, everyone was walking toward the city. Like they were in a trance. It was actually quite peaceful.”

“That’s the best-case scenario for sure,” Judy said. “The more people are able to stay calm, the easier this transition will be.”

Judy took an exit and started winding her way down a series of quiet city roads. It was still quite early. The sun was up, but there was no traffic at all. They pulled into a parking lot of a tall, unmarked office building.

“HQ?” Madison asked.

“HQ,” Judy replied.

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