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Though there are still holdouts, the world’s economy is rapidly becoming completely digitized. Money takes on more of an abstract concept with every passing day as credit cards, electronic transfers and digital payment systems become ubiquitious in our daily lives. Some countries have embraced this change, believing 100% digital money to be the wave of the future. Others aren’t so sure, and are fearful for the known—and unknown—negative implications this will have on our future.
The unasked—and unanswered—question that lurks at the back of some minds is simple: what if this all vanishes? Without something solid like gold, silver or even scraps of paper, our wealth feels all the more ephemeral and fleeting. So what would happen if someone were to turn off the lights on those 1’s and 0’s and all of our money was gone overnight?
As our economy moves from the physical to the digital, so too do all other aspects of our lives. Refrigerators, beds and even thermostats are now connected to the Internet in what’s collectively referred to as the “Internet of Things.” These devices have been pushed onto the market by corporations at a rapid pace, before proper security testing can be performed, and exploits are routinely found in home appliances and gadgets that render them vulnerable to attack.
With this in mind, that nagging question becomes more complicated. What if our money—and our very lives—were turned off in the blink of an eye? Not by an EMP or a nuclear war but by an act of aggression, either war or terrorism or something even more insidious.
What if—overnight—every single internet-connected device you interact with stopped working? The economy—driven more each year by the Internet than ever before—would be in shambles. Bank accounts would be wiped out. Phones, computers, power plants, military defense systems, transportation systems and more would all be rendered inoperable. Anything containing fuel or a battery could be remotely turned into a bomb and used to maim or injure those nearby. It would be, in a word, chaos.
In a world such as this, only the most prepared and resourceful could survive.
In this world, only the most prepared will survive the long night.
“…and welcome to Los Angeles!”
The woman’s voice on the loudspeaker was far too cheerful for the day that Rick Waters was having. After several delays across three airports, he had finally arrived at his destination. Instead of having a night to rest before his big presentation, the flight delays had cost him his entire night’s sleep. It was now only a few hours before his meeting was scheduled to start, and he would be lucky if he managed to get there on time.
“Come on already…” Rick grumbled to himself as he trudged through the crowd of people around him. Though the air conditioners in the Los Angeles airport were running full blast, the summer sun was sweltering through the large glass windows on the side of the terminal. As Rick walked along, he had the sudden feeling of knowing exactly what it was like to be a chicken inside on a roasting rack in a grocery store. After a half hour of walking, the crowd thinned out enough that he could start running to try and make up for lost time. His dress shoes ticked against the hard floor, and he winced at the blisters he could feel building up on the backs of his feet and on his toes.
Originally from the rural southern areas of Virginia, Rick grew up on a farm where learning how to care for chickens and grow crops came as naturally as learning how to read and write. By the time he graduated high school, though, he had been overcome with a rebellious streak, and set out for Virginia Tech to learn all he could about computers, rather than staying on with the family farm. A few years of partying and average grades led to a job offer from the local branch of a national car manufacturer and he went to work as a computer jockey, fixing everything from network problems and virus infections to chewed-up cables.
It didn’t take long for Rick’s skills to become evident to the higher-ups in the company, and he soon found himself going through yearly promotions as he took part in larger and more important initiatives. Like the rest of society, car manufacturers were trying to adapt to the rapid integration of technology into every aspect of life, both through new self-driving technologies and through changing regular cars, too. Rick wasn’t too keen on many of the ideas the company had, but he worked diligently and faithfully for his employer, helping them figure out how to make their vehicles talk to each other through the Internet, automatically call emergency services if they were involved in a wreck and a whole host of other things.
He never left the area he had grown up in, and as time passed and he worked his way up the ladder in the company, he began to miss his childhood. Reconciliation with his parents came easily enough, and he soon found himself with a small plot of land on the outskirts of town. He, his wife—whom he had met through the strangest of coincidences—and their three kids spent every weekend working to make their plot of land self-sustaining. They grew a good third of their own food, ran nearly all of their appliances off of solar panels and practiced the basics of survival and self-sufficiency. Though Rick’s job robbed him of his soul Monday through Friday, it was restored every weekend, and every moment of those two days made him happy. An absence of technology at home was something Rick had insisted of—he already got too much of it at work and was disturbed by how much people were depending on computers for basic tasks, so he made it a point to keep things at home as simple and basic as possible.
It was for this reason that Rick stopped and sighed as he looked over the vast parking lot where the rental car salesman had assured him his car was waiting. He hated pavement, glass and steel more than anything, but the presentation he had to give would be the deciding factor in whether or not his company receiving a contract that would result in him receiving the mother of all promotions.
“It’s not natural for it to be this hot.” Rick talked to himself again as he jogged across the parking lot. He could feel the sweat pouring down the back of his neck and into his dress shirt. He hoped that the car’s air conditioner worked well enough to dry him out by the time he got to his meeting.
After ten minutes of wandering around pushing buttons on his key fob, he finally heard the distant beeping of a horn and located the small SUV he had rented. Rick threw his luggage in the trunk and hopped in the front seat. He glanced at his phone as he turned on the car and saw a new message waiting for him.
Sorry flights were delayed! 🙁 LMK when u get there?
Rick smiled at the picture above the message and typed out a fast reply to his wife.
Safe n sound. Just got car. Will call after mtg. <3
As Rick pulled out of the parking lot, he tried to relax a bit as he thought over the presentation. It wasn’t complicated—in fact it was going to be one of the easiest he had ever given—but a car company moving into providing general IT services was a risky move. Still, he thought, everybody’s innovating these days.
Rick was glancing at a 3×5 card as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the spaghetti’s nest of roads leading out to the city, repeating the names of the executives he was going to meet when a loud noise from behind him caught his attention. He glanced in the rearview mirror, only to find it filled with billowing orange flames and black smoke. Startled, he turned around just as the sound wave from the massive secondary explosion caught up to his car.
The safety glass in Rick’s SUV cracked and shattered into thousands of tiny pieces from the force of the explosion. All around him, every car nearby experienced the same thing, and their horns all began blowing simultaneously. Rick turned and removed the key, but the horn on his SUV continued to blast, so he tried to start it up again. Instead of turning over, though, the engine didn’t respond, though the radio turned itself on and began cycling through the local stations.
“What on earth?” Rick looked at the indicators on the console of the car, watching the needles and numbers spin around as they random changed to different positions and values. As Rick tried to make sense of what was going on, he noticed that there was a peculiar smell begin to punctuate the air.
“Is that…gasoline?” Rick wondered aloud. He quickly jumped out of the car and knelt down. Underneath his car—and all the other cars next to his—was a trickle of fuel flowing from somewhere in the undercarriage. Having worked on more than a few control systems for the cars his company manufactured, Rick suspected that the computer in the vehicle had gone haywire and opened a valve that should never have been opened under normal circumstances.
As he stood up, Rick suddenly felt the grip of fear begin to grab hold of his gut. All around him, the cars that were running shut off, and all he could hear were their radios playing and their horns blowing. Something was terribly, terribly wrong, and he had the strongest urge to get away from the vehicles while he could.
Rick threw open the door to the trunk of the SUV and pulled out his luggage, then ran back to the front door and grabbed his phone through the window. He began heading back towards the terminal, in the general direction of the thick plume of black smoke that was still rising in the distance, when a distant whine drew his attention. He looked up into the sky behind the terminal, shielding his eyes from the sun, and saw a white speck growing larger with each passing second.
The whine grew larger as the speck did, and Rick quickly made out the shape of a large aircraft hurtling toward the ground. He stared, slack-jawed, as the aircraft impacted with back side of the terminal, sending another fireball into the sky. Flaming pieces of wreckage from the impact hurtled through the air, and as Rick watched them begin to descend toward the rows of noisy cars, he realized what was about to happen.
“Run! Get out of here!” Rick screamed at the people around him, but no one paid him any mind as they stared at their non-functional phones and tried to talk to each other over the din. Rick shouted at a few of the people closest to him once again, but they merely looked at him like he was insane.
Not willing to wait any longer, Rick took off running, cutting laterally across the vehicles as he made for a small patch of grass that separated two roads from each other. As a piece of the wreckage from the terminal and the planes landed a few dozen feet behind him, he could feel the heat on his back. The heat was accompanied by a faint whoosh as the fire from the wreckage ignited the gasoline fumes gathering under the cars, and the whoosh was followed a few seconds later by the sound of multiple explosions and the feel of even more intense heat on his hands, neck and head.
Rick didn’t look back as he ran, pushing his feet to go even faster, until he finally made it to the grass. He continued running along the grassy area until he saw a larger patch with a few benches and pieces of art carved into large boulders. He dove into the area and curled up next to the closest boulder, putting his luggage in front of his face and chest to shield himself from any nearby blasts. The explosions continued, growing louder as the fire spread from vehicle to vehicle, drowning out the screams of those burned alive, each of them the first victims of a battle that would engulf the world.