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CHARGES: The Day After The Lights Went Out On Broadway

In my upcoming novel Charges, Tony Vincenzo is a TV producer with the Midas Touch who has left Los Angeles to return to his native New York City. Setting himself up there before his family joins him in the coming weeks, Vincenzo is caught in the Big Apple when a corona mass discharge–CMD–strikes the Earth, frying pretty much every bit of electrical equipment on the planet and turning the clock back about 150 years. In this extract, Vincenzo is finding out that New York City probably isn’t the best place to be in…even though the lights have only been off for about twelve hours.

I can empathize with the character. I was caught in lower Manhattan when the Northeast Blackout of 2003 occurred, and while the news reports congratulated New Yorkers for rallying and helping each other out, I saw fights, $25 bottles of water, and $15 flip-flops, not to mention incredible traffic congestion from non-functioning signals (resulting in many a fight as motorists slammed into each other). I don’t know who these reporters were talking about, because I walked from lower Manhattan to midtown south, and all I saw was chaos, gouging, and violence. It reinforced in me the notion that civilization is but a thin veneer, and once you take away the conveniences that keep most of us occupied, patience and understanding tend to be the first casualties.

As always, the following extract is first-draft stuff, and may not make it into publication in its current form.

<CHARGES

As he drew nearer to Central Park, he heard the sounds of civilization—or, more specifically, the noises of many citizens. And he heard something he hadn’t realized he’d ever wanted to hear again: an electronically amplified voice. The sound drew him like a magnet, and Vincenzo hurried up Sixth Avenue, passing by West 57th and West 58th, until he finally made it to the extra-tony boulevard known as West 59th Street, which ran crosswise across the city at the base of Central Park. Real estate here was at its most prime, and consistently fetched some of the highest prices in New York City—and the world. He was joined by dozens of other people who poured out of the condo and co-op buildings on the street, all just as hungry for news as he was. In moments, Vincenzo found that we was in the nucleus of a jostling crowd. No one was being too pushy, avoiding confrontation for the moment, but he had an uncomfortable flashback to his walk uptown yesterday. The pall of dread was still in the air, but it didn’t seem as desperate as it had been before. Now, there was a sense of expectancy. Someone was broadcasting over a loudspeaker, which meant someone had news, and news meant everyone would soon know who was in charge, and who would be solving their problems.

There was a sizeable crowd on 59th Street, milling around, facing the park. Vincenzo saw a full contingent of mounted police there, their horses stomping and snorting behind blue barricades that blocked off Park Drive North, the road that cut through the vast park that formed the heart of New York City. The cops sat on their steeds and looked over the swelling crowd with nervous eyes. Vincenzo caught glimpses of more police spread throughout the area, many of them possessing what looked like riot gear: clear shields, helmets, small assault rifles, and shotguns. Missing were the police vehicles, a conspicuous absence. Vincenzo looked around, but other than some patrol cars which had been sitting in the same place overnight, there was no large concentration of police vans, buses, or trucks. While some might have celebrated such a lack of presence, it only deepened Vincenzo’s worry. Without speedy transportation, there was no way for the police to respond to crimes in progress…and judging by the areas of distress he had already seen, there was a lot of crime waiting to happen. Especially at night.

One of the officers, a senior-looking man in a white shirt, held up a loudspeaker. “Once again, there is a dusk to dawn curfew throughout Manhattan and all boroughs of New York City. Anyone out after dusk will be subject to arrest. The NYPD had been instructed by the mayor to show zero tolerance. If you’re out after dark, you’re going to jail. It’s that simple,” he officer said, to a chorus of boos.

“Tell us what’s happening!” a man shouted. “When are the lights coming back on? What about the subways and the cars?”

“There’s no food in the grocery stores, man!” another added. Similar cries were taken up by the crowd, and Vincenzo turned to look at those gathered around the police presence. Many were like him—well-heeled and probably well-to-do, sweaty from a lack of air conditioning, expressions of quiet desperation etched into their faces, flavored with liberal doses of fear. Others were more blue collar than blue blood, and they were the confrontational ones, the ones with a lot on the line, probably with more mouths to feed than food in their homes. It was from this second group that Vincenzo felt an undercurrent of simmering violence. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since the power failed, and already they were starting to get riled up.

“From what we know, from what Con Edison has told the mayor’s emergency management people, the lights aren’t going to come on for a while,” the officer in the white shirt said. “The power grid has been fried. I mean totally fried, people—it’s going to take months, if not years, to restore it. Everything we’ve heard from the rest of the state and surrounding communities says exactly the same thing. Long Island Power, Connecticut Light and Power, Northeast Utilities, Jersey Central Power and Light, everybody is saying all the infrastructure’s history. Same thing for mass transit, people—the only way you’re going to get around now is by foot, bike, or horse, until things get straightened out.”

“What about the food!” someone shouted.

“Aid stations are being set up throughout the city,” the cop said. “In fact, one will be positioned right where I’m standing in a couple of hours. It takes time because we have to haul everything on our backs, or by horses. If you want to help out with the distribution, see this group of officers behind me.” The cop pointed to another collection of white-shirted police officers, standing in a rough line behind him. From where he stood, Vincenzo saw they didn’t have happy faces on. No one wanted to deal with angry New Yorkers, especially when they were asking those pissed off people to man up and do something for themselves. Vincenzo considered that for a moment. In times of crisis, everyone said New Yorkers came together. The vibe he got from the crowd around him was that it was just a hair’s breadth from every man for himself.

“My kids are sick!” a woman near him yelled. Vincenzo turned, and saw a frazzled lady in black jeans and a white top, holding an infant in one of those chest slings. The child’s head lolled against her big breasts. Her hair was already frizzed out from the growing humidity, and her tanned face was a study in anxiety. A slight man with a scruffy beard stood next to her, and he put an arm around her shoulder. Beside him stood a girl of about four or five, dressed in red jeans and a wrinkled blue top. Her eyes were hollow and downcast, and she listlessly held her father’s hand. She looked dehydrated, and Vincenzo thought to offer her some water.

Then, he thought the act might make him a target.

Jesus, I’m already worried about that?

“Medicine and water and all types of supplies will be made available at the aid stations,” the officer said. “Like I said, it’s taking us time to get them set up, but believe me, the city has a lot of stock to offer you. No one’s going to without what they need. Bring a list to the aid stations, as soon as they’ve been set up, and we’ll get you what you need.”

“I want the God damn lights and telephones back!” a distant voice hollered. “Last night, the apartment below mine was busted into, and the woman there was raped!”

“The NYPD is going to remain active throughout the day and night,” the officer said, but the crowd booed him loudly, drowning him out despite his loudspeaker. It appeared the NYPD’s cachet had dropped significantly since the day before.

“Listen, the best thing for you to do is to make lists of what you need! Those who work for the city need to go to their job sites, where you’ll be assigned duties to support the city. Police, fire, sanitation, emergency medical services are all still available to you. Mounted police and bike patrols will be accessible to those who need to report a crime, and all precincts, fire houses, and hospitals are open. Things are moving slowly, but everything is still available. Be patient, everything is going to be pulled together. The City of New York is responding as quickly as it can—”

More boos rose, along with angry shouts. Vincenzo saw the line of mounted cops stir, and the posture of patrolmen in riot gear changed. Face shields came down, and their ranks tightened a bit as they quickly organized themselves. A tremor ran through the crowd, so strong it was almost palpable. Vincenzo’s guts began to tighten, and for an instant, he thought his bowels felt loose and watery as he looked around the crowd that was pressing in on him from all sides. He had heard what he needed to hear—modern transportation, such as cars, airplanes, and trains, were practically instruments of dreams now. Instant communication with other parts of the nation, so long taken for granted, was ancient history. Electricity, which had first come to Manhattan in 1882 and had formed the heart of not just the city but the entire planet, was no more. No one in any of the fancy condos and coops that rose up behind Vincenzo and on either side of Central Park would be able to get their gourmet coffee from Keurig coffeemakers or the Starbucks on the corner. Refrigerators, washers and dryers, even the vast sprawl of the internet, had been obliterated by the sun’s daylong tantrum. Things had changed, and the scope of that change was becoming known to the crowd.

And it didn’t like it.

Time to go. Vincenzo turned and tried to wend his way through the mass of people behind him, repeating “excuse me” as often as he could. He had gotten perhaps ten feet before the first roar went up, and he heard the clash of bodies and steel and wood and plastic as the crowd slammed into the police.

Look for Charges to come out sometime in October. I’ll be posting updates fairly regularly, going forward. I have to say, it’s kind of fun writing about the end of the world as we know it, even after driving through the territory before with Earthfall and The Last Run.

Oh, one last commercial message: Did you read The Last Run? If so, please leave a review! (Even if you hated it.)

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