“What happened?” Jenny asked. “My screen went blank before I was able to finish reading.”
“This is the way the world ends,” Judy said.
“Not with a bang but a whimper,” Madison replied.
The room took on a faint green glow as people cracked chemical lights. The screens were all blank. The fans on the computers had stopped spinning and the room was silent.
“But we are not the hollow men,” Mr. Black said. “The hollow men failed to act. They were neither good nor evil. They stood at the river unable to cross to death’s other domains because they did nothing. They were nothing.”
“Are we good or evil?” Madison asked.
“Time will tell. But we are undeniably one or the other,” he said. “We are not hollow.”
“What on earth are you people talking about?” Jenny asked. “Why did the lights go out? And this tablet runs on batteries, why would it turn off when we lose power?”
“We haven’t lost power, Mom,” Madison explained. “Look,” she said, pointing out the door to the lit hallway.
Jenny looked into the hall and then back at her daughter.
“We’ll lose power in a minute. E3 takes a while.”
“I don’t—” Jenny was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. The hallway light blinked out. “What was that?” she yelled.
“Transformer outside, probably,” Madison said. “We should go. We’ll have to take the stairs.” She headed for the door and turned left. She glanced back and saw everyone was following her. The group made it to the stairwell and descended many flights, finally exiting in the parking lot. The transformer on a nearby telephone pole was on fire and the air was thick with a sweet-smelling smoke. Madison pulled her tee shirt over her nose.
She found Mr. Black in the crowd and gave him a hug. She hugged Judy as well and apologized for the bump on her head. She shook the hand of the NASA administrator and then gathered her parents and led them out of the parking lot to the street. Cars were scattered around, and people were standing next to them looking confused.
“Where are we going?” Jenny asked. “What is going on?”
“East,” Madison said. She looked around and pointed at a bright spot in the clouds. “That way.” She started leading her group down the street.
“Are you going to explain what happened?” Jenny asked.
“We have lots of time for that,” Madison replied. “We’re going to be walking for a month unless we get lucky. Springfield is like five hundred miles from here.”
Jenny grabbed her arm and stopped abruptly. “You think we are walking five hundred miles? You tell me what’s happening right this minute.”
“Better do as she says,” Lucas said. “That’s her serious tone.”
“Yeah,” Phil agreed.
Madison rolled her eyes. “Fine. The people in that building are the same people who run the warehouse outside town. They have thousands of those warehouses, and they are going to use them to provide food, water, and medicine to people. They hope that will prevent mass hysteria when people realize that the power is never coming back on. These cars—” Madison kicked the car they were standing next to. “They are never going to run again. My phone,” she pulled her phone out of her pocket and pressed the power button. Nothing happened. “Is fried and will never be repaired.” She threw it down the street. “Which doesn’t matter because the internet is gone.”
Jenny stared at her with her jaw slack.
“Whoa,” Phil said. “For real?”
“Welcome to the eighteen hundreds, Philster,” Madison said. “Unless one of you has a horse in your pocket, we’re walking.” Madison resumed pacing down the street.
“Why isn’t the power coming back on?” Jenny asked, jogging to catch up.
“HEMP,” Madison said. “Those people you just met set off a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse. A HEMP. It goes in three phases. The first one fries computer chips. The second one is like lightning. And the third is like the biggest solar flare ever—it takes out the grid.”
“Can’t they just fix the grid?” Lucas asked.
“With what? The factory in China that makes the transformers doesn’t have power either. The grid is history. It’s never coming back. From now on, power is going to be locally produced with wind or solar, probably.”
“So the power is coming back?” Jenny asked.
“Eventually. That’s the hope anyway. Could take years, though.”
“This is a lot to absorb,” Phil said. “I’m starving. We should get breakfast.”
“Get used to that feeling,” Madison said. “I suspect we all are going to lose some weight before we get back to some kind of normal. If we see a diner or something, we can try to convince them to sell us some food. Hopefully they won’t have figured out that money is worthless now.”
“Money is worthless? What do you mean?” Jenny asked.
Madison sighed. “Like I said, Mom, we are walking for a month. There will be plenty of time to explain.”