First Night: The Conflict Between Hope and Cynicism
Story by Dr. Lee Brazil
Foreword and Epilogue by:
Written by Ron Breazeale, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
30 Miles South of Bangor, Maine
December 30, 2019, 2:27 P.M.
Liz and Lee had gotten a late start north. Eastport was at least four hours from Winterpool, and with the roads as bad as they were, the going would be slow. It had finally snowed on Christmas Day, and then it hadn’t stopped. Two feet on the ground in most places.
The pilgrimage to Eastport had become a tradition for the family and for Mike and June. They usually drove up together the day before New Year’s Eve. But not this year. Mike, the Fire Chief of Winterpool, was tied up with some end-of-the-year fire department business. They would join them the next day. And Dru and her boyfriend wouldn’t be up either until that afternoon. So it was just Lee and Liz.
Driving to Bangor in the late afternoon winter sun was relaxing, but as the light faded and the wind picked up, the driving became anything but relaxing. The sun was gone by four o’clock.
It was the end of the last day of the Festival of Lights. Yesterday, they had celebrated the last night of Hanukkah. As the candles had burned down and flickered out they both had felt a strange sense of foreboding. Now, as the winter darkness gathered in and around them, they felt it again.
The two took turns at the wheel. Liz tried to read or thumbed through a magazine when not driving. But as it got darker, she decided to try the radio.
“What’s wrong with this thing, Lee? When are you getting rid of this car?”
“In a couple of years, Liz . . . and there’s nothing wrong with the radio.”
“Well, what’s going on with it?” She ran the scanner across the channels. Only static.
“The same thing that’s going on with the cell phones and the Internet. They say it’s because of increased solar activity, although I read something in the Almanac that solar activity was supposed to decrease, not increase, in the next few years.”
Liz finally gave up and turned the radio off.
Lee volunteered, “They say it’s getting worse. It was on the front page of the paper this morning.”
There was a pause in the conversation.
“If this keeps up, newspapers may make a comeback.” Lee smiled. He would certainly like that.
“What else could be causing it, Lee?” asked Liz, with concern. “I don’t really know, Liz. If you read the Internet, when it’s up, you can take your pick. Secret military experiments gone awry or aliens.”
“Ooo…okay,” said Liz. “I guess I’ll take increased solar activity.” The two drove on. There was little conversation. Lee concentrated on his driving.
Lee and Liz had not talked much during the previous week. Lee had refused to talk about his time in Paris, and when Liz had asked questions, he had been evasive. She had finally given up. She noticed that Lee had spent most of his time on the Internet, when it worked, reading about UFO sightings and alien encounters. She thought all of this was very strange, even for Lee, who had always expressed some interest in this area of “pseudo-science.” But what she had thought was even stranger was his failure to react that strongly to the news that his only daughter would be getting married. She thought about bringing these things up again, but decided not to. The difficult driving had created enough tension. She didn’t want to try to discuss something that would only create more.
They stopped in Machias for supper at Helen’s. Helen’s, a mom-and-pop diner, had been there for God knows how long. The food was good, but the pies were out of this world. As Liz would say, their strawberry pie was “to die for.”
From the diner they called Winton House, the bed and breakfast where they would be staying, explaining that they would be later than they had planned.
“No problem,” said the owner, Jane Giroux. “Just drive safe.” Jane’s face always reminded Lee of those that they put on boxes of breakfast cereal, like ‘Heartland-Good For You In Every Way Organic Oatmeal.’ Jane was just a couple of years older than Liz and Lee, but she mothered them just like she mothered everyone else.
She and her husband, Bill, were waiting up and ready to assist when the two finally arrived. Bill was ready with a small glass of sherry. “Cold night,” said Bill. “A small nip on a night like this is good for the circulation.” Lee agreed and didn’t refuse the sherry. Maybe he should have, but he told himself he didn’t want to hurt Bill’s feelings.
The bed and breakfast was small. Just four guestrooms and two shared baths. Fireplaces in each room. Two that had been converted to wood stoves. The house was filled with antiques that Jane had collected over the years. An “eclectic mix” as Liz referred to it. She liked Jane and her taste. Liz and Lee’s room had one of the wood stoves. The colors of the room were a warm dark green. But Liz still complained that the room was cold. About all that could be done was to add more cover and there were plenty of blankets and quilts already on the large Queen Anne bed. There was also a small writing desk, two or three chairs — one that was comfortable, and a TV that didn’t work most of the time.
As Jane and Liz caught up, Lee and Bill hauled the luggage up to the same room they had been staying in for the last four years.
“You know,” said Bill, “we bought this place forty years ago, at least it will be forty this summer.” Bill surveyed the room. “I had just been discharged from the Navy after two tours in ‘Nam.” He straightened one of the wildlife paintings on the wall. “I really needed a place to get away from everything.” He looked at Lee.
“And I would assume that Eastport has been the right place for that.”
Bill smiled. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Good therapy.”
In the seventies, property values were dropping in Eastport, the city known as America’s Eastern-most City. But so were the prices, so the old house the Giroux’s would convert into a B&B was a bargain. Bill needed to occupy his mind and his hands and the old sea captain’s home provided both.
Downstairs Liz was admiring a new painting of Eastport that Jane had purchased from a local artist. Eastport had been an active deep-water port in its day. But by the early eighties, much of the shipping was gone, moving to ports farther south, and many of the sardine canneries that had employed so many people had closed. The few canneries that remained would close in the nineties. Unemployment grew, and the population shrank to fourteen hundred by 2010.
“I assume this painting was done from a photograph taken sometime after World War II,” asked Liz.
“Yes. It was a busy place in those days,” she sighed, “but Eastport began to lose ground in the late forties and early fifties. When the military left, the money left.”
Jane decided to change the subject. “So what brings you folks back every year to our little part of the world?”
“Lee and I were talking about that on the way up.” She looked around the room again.
“It’s the spirit of the county, I guess. Aroostook is one of the largest but one of the least populated counties in the state.”
“In the nation,” Jane added.
“What we love about this place is that people know each other and seem to take care of each other. And nothing I think reflects that better, at least for us, than what you folks do on New Year’s Eve.” Jane smiled.
The ‘dropping’ of an eight-foot wooden sardine had begun about twenty years ago. The maple leaf drop had been added at 11 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, midnight Atlantic Time, a few years later to symbolize the close relationship between the people of Eastport and of Canada, which you could literally see from your front porch.
“Well, most people think that the sardine is just a symbol of Eastport’s past, when it was a thriving port and factory town. But it’s more than that.”
“CNN is covering it again this year, aren’t they?” asked Liz.
“Yes, they are, and I assume they will miss the main point again.”
“So, what is the main point, Jane? I think I know.”
“The real story is community, a community that has been on hard times for awhile but comes together with pride and with hope for the future each New Year’s Eve.”
“And if you kiss the sardine on the lips, you will have good luck for the next year,” said Liz with a chuckle.
“Yes, that’s what they say,” agreed Jane. “I don’t know. For a lot of people that hasn’t worked.”
It was late, so Liz excused herself. Breakfast would be at eight o’clock in the morning, as it usually was. A “full breakfast.”
Lee and Liz slept late, well, as late as they could without missing breakfast. Winton House was known for its breakfasts. This morning, it was New Orleans-style French toast, with Cajun sausage and wonderful coffee. Lee loved the coffee.
Since it was still early for shopping, Lee and Liz drove to the mustard factory. Yes, Eastport was the home of the only stone-ground mustard factory left in the United States. They would have their annual tour and tasting. Their tour guide, a local woman, who they had seen on previous tours, explained proudly that mustard had been made in Eastport since the turn of the 20th century. The mustard had won a number of awards and blue ribbons, both nationally and internationally. They were proudly displayed in the factory’s trophy case.
“The mustard was used first in the canning of sardines. Ray’s still uses the original equipment and millstones,” she pointed to them, “that were installed in this factory when it was built in 1903.” Last of all, she said with pride, “It’s the flavor that modern technology left behind.”
Lee had heard her say this before, but it had a different meaning for him today. Perhaps modern technology has left a lot more behind than just the flavor of mustard, thought Lee.
Lee and Liz finally arrived on Water Street, Eastport’s main street. Public works plows were busy doing snow removal. Most of the shops were just opening. After making her initial rounds with Lee in tow, Liz was ready for something else. She had read in the local paper that morning that the Passamaquoddy were having a week-long forgiveness ceremony for the New Year. The ceremony was being held at the Community Center on the reservation. In the ceremony, the Passamaquoddy, the People of the Dawn, as they called themselves, asked for forgiveness from other community members and humbled themselves before the animals and spirits of the forest. Lee thought it odd that a native people should be asking for forgiveness given the treatment that they had received at the hands of nonnative peoples.
The village was only a few miles from Eastport. Lee and Liz arrived just as the late afternoon ceremony was beginning. The director of the center addressed the forty or so people who were in attendance. “This year,” she explained, “our elders were told in a dream to extend this ceremony to a week and open it to all people. There will be prayers and singing in our language. I will interpret these to you as best I can, and there will be much drumming and dancing.”
Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, she said, “We believe that something very important is about to happen in our world. The people of the world must approach these events with humility.”
When questioned about what she was talking about, she became more emotional and finally left the room. The tribe members who remained seemed even less willing to answer questions.
The sun was setting as Lee and Liz drove back to Eastport.
“What was she referring to, Lee?”
“I really don’t know, Liz. But I have a similar feeling.”
Liz didn’t ask, which was not her nature, and Lee didn’t volunteer more, which was his nature.
When they arrived back at Winton House, it was almost four-thirty. They decided to take a short nap before dinner. Lee couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking about the old mill and the flavor that modern technology had left behind. He smiled. But most of all, he was thinking about the People of the Dawn, concerned that something important was about to happen to the world and that humanity must approach it with humility and ask for forgiveness.
At seven they were up. They had reservations at the Happy Clam for eight o’clock. June and Mike would meet them there. They decided to take the car, which was definitely a mistake.
United Flight 4502
PORTLAND AIR SPACE, PORTLAND, MAINE
December 31, 2019, 7:38 P.M. E S T
The night was clear and cold. In the crisp air the stars appeared like cut glass, close enough to touch.
“This is your Captain speaking. We are making our final approach. We should be on the ground in Portland in approximately fifteen minutes.”
Captain Art Rogers clicked off the intercom and turned to his First Officer, Jeff Standish.
“So what are you doing for New Year’s Eve, Jeff?”
Jeff smiled. “Spending it with you, unless the company has other ideas.” As always, New Year’s Eve being no exception, they would do a quick turnaround in Portland and fly back to Chicago, arriving at O’Hare a few minutes before eleven Central Time. Art Rogers had been flying for twenty-five years, and First Officer Standish for fifteen. They moved meticulously through their checklists, their steady hands passing silently over the cockpit instrument console.
“What a night,” said Standish. “Visibility is unbelievable.” Indeed, headlights beacon could be seen off the right wing of the aircraft. The lights of Biddeford and Saco were directly below them. Portland Harbor and the city to the northeast.
Suddenly their attention was drawn away from their checklists and their instruments. They both saw it. Directly in their path of flight. A bright blue light.
First Officer Standish, “Portland Control, this is Flight 4502. Please confirm we are the only flight on this approach.”
“Roger. Confirm Flight 4502. You are the only show in town. Nothing else on your approach or our screen.”
“We have a visual, an unidentified . . . about ten miles out, closing fast on us.”
“Repeat, Flight 4502. You’re breaking up . . . Go ahead, 4502.” As the flight controller continued to speak, a very bright circular object streaked silently past the cockpit of Flight 4502, only a few hundred feet above the plane.
“What the hell was that, Art?”
“Portland Control, did you see that?” asked Rogers, his voice climbing. “Whatever it was . . . just . . . just missed us.”
“This is Portland Control. Flight 4502, we have nothing in your area on our screen . . . Do you wish to make a report?”
There was silence in the cockpit.
“Flight 4502, do you wish to make a report?”
Captain Rogers responded. “Negative, Portland Control. We’ll pass on that.”
The two men resumed their final checks before landing. Their hands returned to the instrument console. Nothing was said. Both had seen other strange lights in the night sky. They had learned that the less said about it, the better. They had done the paperwork and tried to answer the questions that came with reporting a sighting. Once had been enough.
December 31, 2019, 7:34 P.M.
Do good . . . be rich in good works, generous and ready to share . . . so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.
~1 Timothy 6:18-19
“There’s a parking spot over there, Lee. Lee . . . Lee!”
“Do you want to drive, Liz? If you do, I will pull over and let you,” he said, raising his voice.
“I was trying to,” she sounded exasperated. “There’s one right there. Between those two cars.”
Lee stopped the car and started to back up. Parallel parking had become more difficult for Lee because of the arthritis in his neck.
“I don’t know if you’re . . . going to make it,” said Liz, sounding anxious. “I’m not going to if you continue to try and help me.” Lee was starting to flush.
Lee pulled the car out and tried again. This time Liz restrained herself, and Lee managed to maneuver his old Subaru into the space. He sighed with relief and turned off the engine.
Liz’s cell phone buzzed. She answered it.
“Sure, honey, we’ll meet you and Rob in front of the museum. We just got here. You know your father. He was trying to find the right parking space.” Lee grimaced.
“Okay, okay. See you soon.” She hung up.
“Mike and June are going to meet us at the restaurant, Lee?”
“Yeah, he’s the smart one. He and June are walking over from the Inn.” “We could have walked.” She bent over and tried to make eye contact, but Lee resisted.
“I didn’t say no.”
“I know, I know. It’s all right.”
Lee finally looked at her. “I know your knee has been bothering you.”
“Not that much,” she protested.
“Well, be that as it is or may. We’re here.”
The restaurant was near the end of Water Street. It had a good view of the harbor, as did each restaurant on the street. There were only four. The locals in the know had reserved the tables on the harbor side. The table they were seated at wasn’t the greatest. It was near the door. Normally, Liz would be complaining about being cold, but she didn’t, which surprised Lee. Maybe she knew it wouldn’t do much good, since every table was taken.
Mike and June were late.
“Sorry,” said Mike. “I went by the fire station to get Bobby. Bobby Sanford meet Dr. Brazil and his wife, Liz.”
Bobby extended his hand and Lee shook it. Bobby looked to be in his early twenties. Red hair, a little overweight with a bad case of acne. “Have a seat, guys,” said Lee. “This was the best table we could get.” Lee had called late. In fact, he had almost not called at all. He thought about cancelling the whole trip, but tradition was important to Lee, even when things had been as crazy as they had been in the last few weeks.
“You’re welcome to join us, Bob. We have a couple of extra places at the table since my daughter and her fiancé haven’t arrived yet and won’t be here for a couple of more hours.”
The waiter came and took their orders. Everyone ordered seafood, two fried clams, one scallops, one haddock, and one Maine shrimp, since it was the specialty of the house. A bottle of champagne came with the dinner which Mike quickly opened and started serving.
“So you’re a fireman?” asked Liz.
“Yes . . . a trainee. The Chief helped me get the job.”
The conversation was interrupted by a call to Bobby from the dispatcher.
“Excuse me,” he said. He bounded out the door to respond to the call.
Lee guessed it was good they were by the door.
“Seems like a nice kid,” said Lee.
Mike nodded. The waiter brought the drinks.
“Things are really busy tonight . . . and crazy,” said Mike, smiling. “Tell me about it,” groaned Lee. “They have been for the last few weeks.”
Mike looked at Lee. “These crazy lights in the sky. People have been seeing more of them in the last few weeks. And tonight, they’re all over the place. I bet the call Bobby got from dispatch is another one.”
“So what’s going on, Mike?” asked Lee. “You’re more the expert on this stuff than I am.”
Mike was known in Winterpool for his interest in space and astronomy.
“You got me, Lee. I guess like most people I’ve always dismissed all this hooey about UFOs. But that business at White’s Bridge a couple of weeks ago . . . I don’t know. And all of these sightings in the last few days and tonight.”
At that moment, Bobby burst through the door. “Chief, you should have seen it,” he said excitedly. “There’s a guy who lives in the apartment over the Pickled Cod. You know, the restaurant around the corner. He’s got a telescope.”
Bobby was trying to tell the story and catch his breath at the same time.
“He’s been watching the tidal wave power station. It’s just a couple of miles out in the harbor, you know.”
The station was a new success story for Eastport. The University and a private company had placed tidal wave turbines on the bottom of the bay that were beginning to generate most of the power needed by Eastport and some of the surrounding towns. They were even able to sell some of the excess power to the Canadian power grid.
Bobby continued. “Tonight, he says there have been these bright lights around the station all night. He thought at first it was a search light from a ship near the station. But these lights have been zipping around the station. He showed me. They were so bright you couldn’t see what they were. I was looking at them and they just took off. I checked with the tech at the University monitoring the station. The station is unmanned. But she says everything is fine. Nothing we should do, is there, Chief?”
Mike responded, “Just make a report of what you were told, what you observed and what you did.”
“Yes, sir. That is what I will do.”
There was a pause in the conversation.
Lee broke the silence. “So maybe we’re being visited by . . . aliens. For some reason tonight they have an interest in the tidal wave power station and apparently a lot of other things. Why is it so difficult to believe that other worlds like ours might exist and there might be other life forms in our universe? Perhaps these life forms are a good deal smarter than we are.” “Oh, Lee. Do you have to talk about this again? That’s all you’ve been
interested in talking about since you got back from our trip.”
June spoke up. “Well, it gives me the creeps.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lee. “I don’t want to give you the creeps, but I think you just answered part of my question.”
In Lee’s work, he had learned early on to never underestimate the ability of human beings to avoid and deny the existence of something they did not understand and of which they were frightened.
“I think June is right. People can’t get their head around it. It scares us,” said Mike.
“But, Mike, isn’t this the decade of the commercial space age? TransSea recently unveiled elaborate plans to mine for precious metals on asteroids in our solar system? Didn’t they launch a robotic mining unit that will be landing on that large asteroid that is scheduled to pass close to Earth next week?”
“Yes. Beta-17,” said Mike. “Economics spurred exploration on Earth. It will fuel space exploration.”
“And possible exploitation,” added Liz.
Lee looked down at his place setting. The meal had not arrived.
“Well, I think humanity still sees itself as being alone and at the center of the universe. Maybe we aren’t. Maybe we have neighbors who are concerned about what we are doing?”
Lee smiled and stopped himself. He felt like he was lecturing his friends, and he didn’t like that. Maybe he should be talking to himself. He certainly felt he had become more self-obsessed since his retirement. Of course, self-centeredness is part of the human condition, but hopefully most humans grow out of it at some point in their life. Lee had thought he had, but his colleague, Dr. Wagner, had certainly been able to pull up a lot of feelings that Lee believed he had worked through. The anger and the cynicism seemed stronger tonight than it had been for a long time. And all of this other stuff that was going on. Lee just felt more confused as he thought about it. Lee didn’t feel like talking anymore. The place was getting noisier and conversation would be difficult.
The waiter finally came with the orders. The seafood was a great distraction. Lee had ordered the haddock, which he remembered, was always prepared with lemon and garlic, just the way he liked it.
Before dinner ended, Bobby was called out again. A fire alarm had gone off in a building downtown, but there was no fire. The power flickered on and off a couple of times during dinner. Mike explained that sometimes alarms are set off by power surges.
Condominium of Joann Lawrence
December 31, 2019, 7:10 P.M.
Joann had spent part of Christmas Eve in Boston. She’d had a nice lunch at one of her favorite restaurants and shopped until the stores started to close. She picked up her rental and arrived back in Portland late in the evening. She had taken a quick look at her mail, taken a hot shower and went to bed. She slept late on Christmas morning, visited with friends in the afternoon and had dinner with an old girlfriend.
The days before New Year’s Eve had passed slowly for her. She was bored with Portland and thought about flying back to Florida early. She was glad when New Year’s Eve finally came because it meant that in another day all the hoopla associated with the holidays would be over.
She decided to stay in that evening and turned down an invitation from some old friends to go out. She made herself a nice Caesar salad. She didn’t like cooking. She had never been very good at it. She had even bought a small bottle of champagne.
She spent the early part of the evening reading — well, rereading an old James Patterson novel that she liked. She decided to skip the evening news. She turned the television on at about 11:40. She enjoyed watching the people in Times Square.
WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, DC
December 31, 2019, 8:30 P.M.
There must be virtue in frailty, for man is frail and man is a creation of God.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
President Bryant was entertaining. He was most comfortable hosting a party at his golf resort in Florida and conducting government business at a dinner table with his friends. Bryant, who had run as a Republican, was not favored to win, but managed to win the election of 2016 after a scandal came to light in the closing days of the campaign involving the Democratic nominee’s husband’s extramarital affair with a Russian ambassador’s wife.
To say the least, the public and Bryant himself was surprised—some would say stunned—when he won the election The Russians apparently had assisted his (Bryant’s) campaign. Although there had been an investigation, collusion, some would say was never proved. In the 2018 midterm elections, his party lost seats in both Houses and the resulting control of one of the Houses. This was enough to allow the other party to block his efforts at what he and his base called “a populous agenda.” Repealing healthcare legislation, passed by the previous president, and rolling back environmental regulations. The latter he succeeded in doing through primarily executive orders.
Bryant prided himself on not being a politician, but a successful—very successful he would say—businessman, a billionaire. Although no one had ever seen his tax returns. He had never held any elective office prior to the presidency. He had no really strong opinions on anything but was very responsive to his base, to people who had elected him, predominantly white male right-wing Americans. His party soon learned that he could not be controlled, that he had problems controlling himself, and tended to do so only when it benefited him and his ego. Many thought he was a narcissist and an equal number were worried about him plunging the world into World War III.
In the three years he had been in office, the Middle East had continued to simmer, the economy had continued improving slowly, largely due to the actions of the previous administer. Conflicts with Iran and the North Korean’s “little rocket man,” as the president referred to him, had intensified due, in part, to his provocative tweets.
Mass shootings had continued to occur in Florida, Las Vegas and other states. The list was long. Efforts were made in Congress at passing gun legislation, but little really changed. Bryant’s agenda had not succeeded, but neither had the other party’s.
President Bryant was trying to finish a conversation with one of his financial backers when his Chief of Staff, Jim Ramsey, a retired general, entered the room and moved quickly through the crowd to the President.
“Mr. President, may I speak with you?”
“You may,” said the President, “if these kind people will excuse me.” They smiled and nodded, and the President followed his Chief of Staff into a private office. Ramsey closed the door.
“Thank God, you saved me from that conversation.”
“Mr. President . . .”
“The stories I could tell you about that guy.”
“Mr. President . . . ”
“Mr. Chief of Staff.” I was composing a tweet. That SOB from Tennessee, he supposedly retired from politics, but he . . .” For the third time, Ramsay repeated, “Mr. President . . .”
For the third time, Ramsey repeated, “Mr. President . . . ”
“General Mitchell is here. He needs to speak with you.”
“Right now?” the President complained. “It’s bad enough I have to spend the holiday in Washington. If Congress could make up its mind about what it’s doing, I could get out of this God-forsaken town.”
President Bryant, like George W., was known for his long vacations, but not to a ranch but to his golf resort in Florida.
“He says it’s urgent. I put him in your office.”
“Okay, okay. Let’s get it over with.”
They walked down the hall to the West Wing, “What’s Air & Space Command upset about now? Those damned lights in the sky that no one can explain? If he’s going to talk to me again about alien life forms . . . my people aren’t ready for that, and neither am I.”
They entered the Oval Office. General Mitchell rose and extended his hand. The President quickly shook his hand and smiled.
“So what brings you to see me on New Year’s Eve?”
It was obvious that General Mitchell had important news, but it was equally obvious that he didn’t know how to present it to the President.
“As you know, we have been observing an asteroid, Beta-17, that has been drawing closer to the Earth over the past few months.” The President didn’t know. He had never bothered to read the briefing report, not even the summary. “My staff now believes that it is the source of the electromagnetic storms that have been causing the disruption in our communication systems.”
“You mean the phone, TV and Internet? I won’t be able to tweet? Yes, all of those connections have been lousy. I missed a Fox & Friends show last week because of it.”
Mitchell almost lost his patience with the President. “Tonight there has been an increase in electrical activity from Beta-17 which may be connected to many of the sightings across the globe during the last twenty-four hours.”
“Sightings of what?” the President chuckled, but Mitchell didn’t respond.
“Oh, Lord, Mark, you came all the way over here to tell me this? As I told Ramsey, the American people are not ready to hear about ET, and neither am I.”
“Mr. President,” Ramsey interrupted, “the British and the Europeans are taking this pretty seriously.”
“Well . . . then let them deal with it.” The President walked over to the window. He turned. “Gentlemen, if it will make the two of you happy, move the alert status to up.”
The President moved toward the door. He looked back. “You haven’t caught one of those little fellas, have you?”
Mitchell rolled his eyes. “No, sir.”
“Well, when you do, that’s when we’ll talk about it.”
The President walked out of the office and headed back to the reception hall to continue his duties. Chief of Staff Ramsey and General Mitchell stared blankly at each other.
EASTPORT, MAINE, USA
December 31, 2019, 9:38 P.M.
What distinguishes man from the rest of animals is his ability to do artificial things.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
Dinner was over by 9:30, just in time for the two couples to make the 9:45 production at the Arts Center. Tonight there would be two short plays, both comedies, focusing on, to quote the playbill, “The Funny Things that Can Happen when Modern Technology has a Mind of its Own.”
The four found seats near the front of the auditorium. Lee looked at the playbill and shook his head.
“What’s wrong, Lee?” asked Liz.
“I just can’t believe they’re doing these two pieces of comedy tonight.”
“I don’t know . . . I just find it strange that this is what they’re doing.”
Liz looked puzzled. Lee shrugged and said nothing more. He couldn’t explain what he was thinking or feeling without getting into a much longer conversation that he really didn’t want to have with Liz.
The first was “The Not-So-Smart Smartphone” that apparently loved pizza and kept crank ordering it for everyone on its owner’s Facebook friends list, repeatedly. The second, “The Tornado” about a weather center computer that apparently enjoyed scaring the bejesus out of people by issuing emergency weather alerts even when there was no emergency weather. In a variation on the boy who cried wolf, the human forecasters began to ignore these weather alerts and failed to warn the public of a tornado that almost destroyed the community.
True to the history of television sitcoms, the problem was created in half an hour and resolved in half an hour even with two unplanned intermissions due to electrical problems in the theater.
When the last play ended at 10:45, Lee and Liz and Mike and June, along with the rest of the crowd were off to Bank Square and the dropping of the Maple Leaf, which went off without a hitch. O Canada was sung, but as the crowd was ready to disperse into the cafés and shops to wait for midnight, drumming and chanting erupted suddenly from those in the back of the crowd. The People of the Dawn were joining other native people in protesting a Canadian government decision to ignore treaties with their native citizens and allow major corporations to drill for natural gas and mine for precious metals on — or, more correctly — under Indian land. That’s what the signs that they carried said. “Protect Native Rights.” “Honor Treaties with your Native Citizens.” But both Lee and Liz recognized the chanting and the drumming from the afternoon ceremony. The prayer of forgiveness. The Humble Song. What else was being communicated in their dancing and chanting tonight? And to whom? Most of the crowd watched. Some joined in as the Passamaquoddy circled the square chanting and drumming.
“Boy, you can understand why that sound sent fear through the hearts of the early white settlers,” said Liz. Lee nodded.
The protest was peaceful, although the two Canadian Mounties imported for the Maple Leaf ceremony in their bright red uniforms chose to withdraw into the lobby of the museum. The CNN reporters covering the Sardine Drop didn’t seem that interested in the protest. Native people being screwed once again wasn’t really new news. And besides, tonight was First Night, New Year’s Eve. News needed to be good, not filled with conflict and protest.
After about twenty minutes, the crowd dispersed, some to have one last drink before midnight and some just to get warm. Lee and Liz took in some free entertainment on the second floor of the museum. A young man from a nearby town, Lubec, ten minutes by boat and fifty miles or an hour and fifteen minutes by car. He sang about the people of the County who stood together in good and bad times and took care of their own. The crowd loved it.
Lee and Liz had lost track of Mike and June.
WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, DC
December 31, 2019, 11:10 P.M.
President Bryant was sitting on a couch watching the FOX news affiliate. Chief of Staff Ramsey knocked on the door of his private quarters and entered. The President looked up.
“Jim, give me some good news. It’s a beautiful night. Clear, warm, a nice breeze.” Bryant hated the cold, wet and dark days of early winter in DC.
“Okay, sir. Mitchell says the transmissions from Beta-17 have slowed and the number of sightings in the last hour or two has dropped to almost zero. And the Europeans seem to have calmed down and gone to bed.” “Well, then, stand down. Drop the alert status. I’m looking forward to sitting right here with my beautiful wife and watching the ball drop in Times Square. I missed it last year.” “I remember, sir,” said Ramsey.
“Yes. That crazy stuff that was going on in Egypt, I think. But I think we handled it.”
“Actually, sir, it kind of handled itself.”
The President nodded and continued to watch the FOX news broadcast. FOX gave little airtime to the UFO story. Instead, it focused on Senator Clayton and what they labeled as her “anti-tech movement” which the Heritage Foundation spokeswoman warned could “undermine our economy and hinder job development.”
EASTPORT, MAINE, USA
December 31, 2019, 11:15 P.M.
The crowd in Bank Square was starting to gather again. The midnight hour was just a few minutes away. Mike and June were there already. They were talking to someone Lee didn’t know. He assumed it might be the new fire chief. June looked bored. Her eyes caught Liz’s. They both smiled and dove into a passionate conversation about a new shop on Water Street that had just opened this season.
Lee wandered over and stood next to Mike waiting, a bit nervously, to be introduced.
Lee was nervous. He also had a sense that something was going to happen and soon. He hadn’t slept well at all since his return. The same dream, again very vivid and lifelike, had come every night and ended his sleep.
In the dream, Lee was in a crowd of people. There was movement but no sound. Their features and gestures were distorted and slowed, as was time and space. Lee tried to speak, to scream, but no words would come. He tried to move, to run away, but his feet were frozen in place Lee felt like he was trapped in a Salvador Dali painting. He usually woke in a cold sweat. “Dr. Brazil,” Mike said a second time, “I would like for you to meet Chief Cutler.”
Lee continued to appear distracted, but he extended his hand.
“Joe,” the stranger responded, and took Lee’s hand. He had a firm grip. He looked Lee in the eye as he talked. He appeared sure of himself. He was a man in his mid- to late forties. The old chief, whom Lee had met before, had retired and, according to the new chief, was at home watching it all on Community Cable.
“So, Joe tells me things are really hopping tonight, Lee,” said Mike.
Joe joined in. “Oh, yeah. Lights in the sky. UFOs. But nobody wants to make a formal report. Paperwork is part of it, I guess.” He chuckled.
Chief Cutler continued, “Earlier tonight I was listening to the traffic at the Jetport. One of the — whatever you want to call them nearly hit a United from Chicago. Homeland Security has increased the alert status.”
“Well, I talked with Robert, our police chief in Winterpool, and he says everything down there is calm. But, you know, a few weeks ago . . .” Mike’s voice faded.
Lee’s face began to flush. “It’s starting,” said Lee under his breath. Breathe, he told himself. And he did. What was starting, he did not know. “Well, I never saw anything like that before,” said Mike as he finished his story about the UFO in Winterpool two weeks before.
“Hang on, Mike,” Chief Cutler said, pulling his phone from his jacket. “Let me take this . . . Go ahead.”
“Chief, have you been following what’s happening in DC?” said the dispatcher excitedly. “They scrambled jets from Andrews. Turn on 6, the 11 o’clock news . . . I got it on.” His voice continued to rise. “Mother of God, look at that. An array of lights — four, five, six of ‘em. What the hell is that? Took off like a bat out of hell to the northeast. Coming our way.”
“Who knows what’s going on?” said Mike, shaking his head but smiling. “Maybe our friends from another world are finally going to pay the President a visit.” Mike looked at Lee. All three men smiled nervously. They pushed their way through the crowd herding the two women who were still talking about the shop on Water Street, toward a huge monitor that had been set up in front of the museum. The NBC affiliate was just starting their coverage of Times Square. It was 11:35.
“It’s an amazing night here in New York,” said the host. “The sky is clear and the crowd seems to be enjoying the weather and the entertainment. So, Karen, who are you talking with down there?”
The camera panned the crowd. People were waving and screaming. Karen was attempting to interview a mildly inebriated couple from Indianapolis who had just gotten married.
Mike turned to Lee. “In New York they don’t seem too concerned about the lights in the sky or the UFOs in DC.”
Chief Cutler broke in. “And I don’t think we should be either . . . No. It’s 11:38, so on with our show.” Chief Cutler turned off the audio on the monitor. The crowd outside the museum was continuing to grow. People were streaming out of the bars and restaurants on Water Street. The chief took his position on the podium. He attempted to do a sound check, but his words could hardly be heard over the noise of the crowd, which continued to increase as the clock ticked toward midnight.
Lee had not said anything for the last few minutes, even when Liz told him Dru had texted her saying she and Rob were not going to make it in time for the Sardine Drop and would watch it from their room on cable.
Mike punched Lee’s arm. “Robert just texted me from home. The fighters in DC have returned to Andrews. Homeland Security has sounded an all clear.”
Lee didn’t speak.
Mike tried again. “Sounds like we’re going to have a New Year’s Eve with no more interruptions.”
Lee still didn’t respond.
“Are you okay, Lee?” asked Mike.
Lee sighed and nodded his head yes. He smiled. He realized he had been holding his breath. He smiled again and found Liz in the crowd. “Are you okay, Lee? You look a little pale. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing but — everything is okay, I think.”
Liz now looked concerned. “What do you mean, you think?” Lee attempted a reassuring smile, but Liz wasn’t buying it.
“Lee,” she said sternly.
“Relax, relax, we’re fine.” Lee smiled again. I hope, he thought. “I can’t hear you,” said Liz, as the two large speakers near the podium came alive and boomed out Chief Cutler’s voice.
“Are you ready for the new year? 2020?” Cutler asked the crowd. The crowd screamed a mixture of “Yes” and “Hell, yes,” peppered with other obscenities.
The chief continued to work the crowd. “Are you ready for 2019 to be over?” This drew a similar response from the crowd with more obscenities.
“Okay. Are you folks ready up there?” The spotlight found two people hanging out of a third-story window of the museum. They were preparing to lower the eight-foot sardine. They waved. The crowd cheered.
“Are you ready for the Sardine Drop?” asked the Chief.
The crowd went wild again. Lee glanced at the digital clock set up in the window of the museum. It was 11:59:06.
The crowd waited with anticipation as the remaining seconds of the old year ticked away. The sardine was starting its descent, as was the giant glass ball in Times Square as the crowd picked up the count at “Ten, nine, eight . . . ”
There was a gust of warm wind, yet no one seemed to notice. Lee scanned the crowd and his eyes came to rest on Liz.
“Four, three, two, one.”
The crystal ball in Times Square and the Sardine in Eastport seemed to have been perfectly synchronized, at least this year. They reached their mark just as the clock on the town hall struck midnight.
As the clock continued to strike, the sardine, the giant television, and the town of Eastport went dark. For a few moments, the only light was starlight. Orion and the winter constellations were rising in the sky. It was a moonless night.
At first, the crowd seemed to ignore what was happening. Power outages were a common occurrence. People continued shouting, “Happy New Year.” Couples were embracing and kissing. People were blowing horns.
And then people waited. When it became evident that the lights were not going to click back on immediately, lighters began flicking on, matches were being struck. Even a couple of candles appeared. People could be heard searching for their cellphones and then complaining when they wouldn’t turn on.
Lee turned to kiss Liz, but just as their lips met, Chief Cutler and his assistant shoved them out of the way.
“Make way. Make way,” he said. “Randy, give me that cord.” They were trying to get the emergency generators started. As the crowd settled down some and began to accept what had happened, a few in the crowd began to sing Auld Lang Syne. They were joined by others.
The Chief finally got the emergency generators started, and a bank of lights popped on, as did the large TV monitor. The crystal ball and Times Square were dark, except for an occasional flashlight and hundreds of glow sticks.
“Well, folks,” Brian, the host, was saying, “I am not sure what is happening right now, but the authorities assure me that the power will be restored momentarily.”
The CNN crew in Eastport scrambled to get their cameras back on, but couldn’t. People began to tell stories about previous power outages. As people realized that the power was also out in New York City, they began to assemble in front of the television monitor. The NBC news cameras panned the buildings in Times Square. Emergency lighting was beginning to come on. The police and fire officers were setting up emergency light banks. The hum of generators could be heard across Times Square.
Brian continued on. “It’s an amazingly warm night in New York City. There is a gentle breeze blowing out of the west. The sky is clear, and I assume this is the first time that the stars have been seen in Times Square since the power outages of the 1960s. People seem amazingly calm and are in good spirits. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the utilities folks here in the city to do their job. I’m sure they will. I’m sure the power will be back…”
Mike and Chief Cutler were talking. Mike motioned for Lee to join them. Liz grabbed Lee’s hand. “I’m coming too,” she said. She had never been comfortable in a crowd, especially in the dark. She motioned for June to follow, which she did.
“Well, folks,” said Chief Cutler, “we got a situation. The power’s out everywhere.”
“In the state?” asked Liz.
“It looks like it’s out in the U.S. and in Canada.”
“And in other countries?” asked Lee.
“That’s what they’re saying,” said Cutler. He gave Lee a strange look.
“You don’t seem surprised by that, Dr. Brazil.”
Lee was aware of the blood rushing to his head and his face flushing.
He was sure he looked guilty of something.
“Well, I . . . I don’t know what to say. I’m sure I’m just as surprised as everyone else.”
“You . . .” Mike cut Cutler off.
“I know Brazil. He’s okay, Chief.”
“Well.” Chief Cutler hesitated for a second, but continued on with what he was saying.
“The only place with power in this town is the aid station and the fire hall. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I know,” said Mike. “The power company can’t explain what is going on. The power is out all the way down the coast, and no one’s phones seem to be working except ours and the 9-1-1 number which seems to be the only number that people can dial.”
A young man pushed his way into the circle. “Chief, our battery’s dead and what the heck is going on with the phones?”
“Look, son,” said the Chief, with considerable irritation, “I got more to worry about than your damned battery and phone. Ask Jim if he can help you. He’s over there trying to jump-start a car.”
Around the Square and in the adjoining parking areas, car hoods were up. People were trying various methods to get their automobiles going. But nothing seemed to work. Jim was having no success at jump-starting a car from his truck. Other emergency vehicles had pulled into the Square and were making similar efforts. But nothing was working. Lee watched a young woman try to recharge her phone off an electrical outlet from a fire truck. But the phone didn’t respond.
“Ours is dead, too,” said another woman in tears. “No one can get their car started.”
At that moment a groan of disbelief swept over the crowd assembled in front of the big-screen television. The Chief’s assistant pushed his way through the crowd, yelling for the Chief. “Chief, you’ve got to see this.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll be there in a second.”
His assistant insisted. “Come right now, Chief.”
Lee and Liz followed the Chief through the crowd. The Chief’s assistant cleared the way, shoving people aside.
“Look Lee,” said Liz.
“What the hell,” said the Chief.
The cameras in Times Square had focused on the Jumbotron. It was the only lighted sign visible in Times Square. But instead of carrying the usual advertisements for a cola or a camera, the Jumbotron was repeating the same short message over and over again.
DO JUSTICE. LOVE MERCY.
WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD.
People were muttering to themselves. “Some religious nut must be behind this whole thing,” one man shouted.
“I told you, Margaret. It’s the end of times,” said another.
“Who’s running the show down there?” asked Cutler.
Liz turned to Lee, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I do know that that is from the Bible and perhaps even the Torah and the Koran.”
“It’s in Revelations,” said another man in the crowd.
“No,” Lee spoke up. “The Book of Micah, I think. I believe it’s called ‘The Great Requirement.’”
There was a gust of warm wind that felt like the one that had occurred just before the lights went out. It blew from the west, tossing dried leaves and scraps of paper into the air. It seemed to have a calming effect on the crowd. Lee took a deep breath. He noticed other people were doing the same.
People began making arrangements for where they might stay or what they might do for the rest of the night. Emergency Services personnel gave up trying to start cars or power up cellphones. Instead, they began ferrying people to their homes and the homes of friends. Some people decided to walk. Lee noticed that they seemed to be walking very slowly. Indeed, it seemed that everyone and everything had slowed down. The chanting and drumming had stopped, at least for now. The Square was relatively quiet. Some people milled around the edges, appearing uncertain of what to do next.
Lee began to think about The Carol Deering. His dream about the schooner and the story that David had told him. Some kind of acceptance of what was happening seemed to have swept over the crowd. There was no panic. And just like in his Dali-esque dream, time had slowed down. In the distance over the hum of the generators, Lee could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The tide was coming in.
January 1, 2020, 12:05 A.M.
People are crazy. Times are strange.
I’m locked in tight. I’m out of range.
I used to care, but things have changed.
~ Bob Dylan, Things Have Changed.
Jeff had been at the bar since late afternoon. He wasn’t sure what day it was. He guessed it was the first of January 2020. The noisy crowd had sent most of the last half hour wishing each other a Happy New Year. He doubted this year would be any better than the last. The money TransSea paid “up front” was already spent. The mortgage. The doctor bills for the kids.
Jeff had spent most of the last week tied to a chair somewhere in Bermuda. His captors, Hollocore Security, had not fed him the first day and then only stale sandwiches on the second and third day. They seemed unsure what to do with him. After five days they decided that a good beating would be sufficient. Jeff didn’t remember much about the beating. He just remembered waking up in a ditch near the airport yesterday morning.
Jeff had found a pay phone and called Judy collect. She wired him enough money for a room for the night. She had been worried sick, but did not know what to do but wait and pray. She had also sent along enough money for food and for a ticket home. All flights out, though, were booked until New Year’s Day.
Jeff’s ribs ached, as did his head. Some of the swelling had started to go down. He missed Judy and the kids. He missed them so much. Unfortunately, he had used most of the money she had wired to buy alcohol.
Jeff focused on the television hanging over the bar. He wanted to see the ball drop in Times Square. He remembered the time that he and his wife had been there. Years ago. Before the children. He couldn’t hear what was going on. But he watched the ball’s slow descent. He counted with it . . . four, three, two, one. And then nothing. The lights in the bar flickered and went off. But for some reason the television stayed on. The ball was dark. The power was out in New York. He wondered what was happening. Were Judy and the kids okay? He was sure she would be up. They had always watched the ball drop on television.
Jeff decided that like with everything else there was little he could do. He ordered another beer and tried not to think about the past week. Or what he would do next. A few people in the bar complained about their cell phones not working, but most people seemed to not care that the power was out.
St. Paul’s Church Courtyard ST. GEORGES, BERMUDA
January 1, 2020, 12:06 A.M.
Father Allen had just concluded midnight mass. He had walked out into the courtyard to visit with his old friend, David, before returning to his quarters.
“So what did you think of my message?”
“You called it the Great Requirement. Kindness, justice and humility.
That’s a tall order for humanity. I don’t know.” He shook his head.
“You sound very skeptical, David. As I was preparing the message, I noticed I was not alone. It seems this is a theme that has been part of many of the messages that are being conveyed to congregations across the world tonight.”
“But, Father, do you think the human race will ever change without being forced to?”
“I don’t know. We certainly seem to be creating smarter machines.” He sighed, “But I would agree, unfortunately, we seem to be no better as a race at mastering anger, greed or jealousy than we ever have been.” Father Allen paused and stared out at the lights of St. Georges. “But I have a feeling that something is going to happen tonight to change the world for the better.”
“Father, you are not alone. I can feel it, too. There have been more sightings of the lights tonight than I can ever remember. Something is happening.”
“David,” said Father Allen, “I believe in some way we and our visitors a week ago are playing a role in what is about to happen.”
“Father, you are certainly more of a believer and an optimist than I am.”
“Maybe so, David. Maybe so. I guess we will see.”
There was a pause in the conversation. They both stared at the lights of St. Georges. It was a clear night. A gentle, warm wind blew through the tall pines in the courtyard. They could see the lights of Hamilton in the distance. Father Allen looked at his watch. “Well, David, in a few seconds it will be the New Year in New York. I hope it will be a good one.”
“I . . .” As David started to speak, the lights of the island started going off. First Hamilton, then St. Georges and then the rest. Neither David nor Father Allen seemed alarmed.
“It’s starting to happen, isn’t it, Father?”
“Yes, David, I believe it is.”
Exactly what was starting to happen they did not know.
Condominium of Joann Lawrence
January 1, 2020, 12:07 A.M. EST
When the power went off, Joann waited for the emergency lighting in her condo to pop on. And it did. She picked up the large flashlight she had placed by her chair for just such an emergency. She prided herself on being prepared. She tried to turn it on but couldn’t. I must have forgotten to change the batteries, she thought. I’ll put that on my list.
She decided not to wait for the lights to come back on, which she assumed would happen within an hour. They always had. She was tired. She checked the doors to the condo and the windows and trudged upstairs. She turned the heat down just in case the power came back on but threw a couple of extra blankets on the bed in case it didn’t. True to being a Mainer, she opened a window in her bedroom and was surprised that it had gotten warmer rather than colder outside. That’s odd, she thought, as she tucked herself in. She drifted off to sleep, imagining the sound and feel of a warm gentle breeze blowing through the large palm that stood outside her bedroom window in Florida.
The White House, Washington, DC
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
January 1, 2020, 1:07 A.M.
There must be virtue in imperfection for man is imperfect and man is a creation of God.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
The President was seated at his desk in the Situation Room. He appeared dazed and befuddled by the events of the last hour. General Mitchell and the Secretary of Defense, as well as the Secretary of State, were seated around him.
General Mitchell spoke. “The power outages are selective, sir. The military, public safety and healthcare are operating as usual. But the general public and the corporations have no power.”
The Secretary of Transportation arrived and took his seat in the circle forming around the President. The President acknowledged him. “So, Jeff, what good news do you bring me?”
The Secretary of Transportation, Jeff O’Donnell, was out of breath. “I don’t know, sir. I guess the good news is that all commercial and civil flights are landing without problems. We’ve ordered them all down. Only medical and military flights have the ability to take off. Trains and subway cars are arriving at their stations, but lose power and are unable to leave. My people tell me that ships at sea are reporting no problems, but once they make port, they lose power and the ability to unload their cargo.” O’Donnell looked down at his hands. “Sir, I have no explanation for any of this. As I heard General Mitchell saying as I entered the room, this is selective. But how and why . . . I don’t know.”
President Bryant looked at his Secretary of Defense who acknowledged in a perplexed and almost apologetic tone that the armed forces were experiencing no problems. The Secretary of Health and Human Services reported the same. She added that there have been no reported fatalities or injuries related to the communication and power outages.
The President shook his head and raised his voice. “How is that possible? That’s ridiculous. Maybe they just haven’t been reported. This must be a cyber-attack of some kind. The Iranians…the Chinese must be up to something…the North Koreans? Yes, it must be ‘little rocket man’.
“No, Mr. President,” said the Secretary of Defense. “Our sources say it is not a cyber-attack. Our enemies are not capable of doing this.”
“So what does the weather service have to say about what’s happening tonight?”
“Well, in the last few hours, there has been a significant warming of the earth’s atmosphere across the globe. We’ve never recorded this before and really have no idea as to what is causing it. Sudden changes like this could be related to global warming.”
The president cut him off. He and his base did not believe in global warming. He turned to the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeff Fram, who was on his Q-pad? He looked up.
“Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure what I should report. 9-1-1 and emergency numbers are all operating. The lines were initially swamped with calls, but now the frequency seems to have decreased. Our folks are in position and ready to respond and coordinate our efforts with local police departments and fire and rescue services. But we haven’t had to. The mass hysteria that we thought would occur with such an event hasn’t. I can’t explain why.” He paused. “A good percentage of the country went to bed before this even occurred . . . and most people appear to be assuming that the lights will come back on. And the weather is amazingly warm for this time of year. And another factor I should mention which is quite controversial is the research on the repeated exposure of human beings to microwaves and electromagnetic field which have been suddenly significantly reduced by this power outage.”
He looked up at the president. He was rolling his eyes. He stopped.
“So I guess all I have to report is good news.”
“Well, as you say, perhaps they haven’t realized what is happening. Well . . . well, I can’t believe all this . . . is possible,” said the President.
“And what about that Bible verse plastered across the Jumbotron in Times Square?”
The Secretary of State responded, “There are reports that similar verses from the Koran and other religious texts have appeared on electronic bulletin boards and signs across the world.”
“Well,” said the president. “Shut the damn thing down. At least the one in Times Square.” The president stood up and ran his right hand through his dyed, reddish-blond hair.
“I mean, I think it’s a great Bible verse. I memorized it in Sunday school. But the left-wingers like Clayton will . . . I don’t know what they will do. But do something about it.”
Chief of Staff Ramsey responded, “We’ve tried, sir, to turn it off. But it seems to be being controlled by . . . well, we don’t know what or who is controlling it.”
General Mitchell started to speak, but President Bryant cut him off.
“Don’t start with me again about aliens.”
Chief of Staff Ramsey broke in again. “Sir, we have to assume that these events are not random and that some force . . . some form of intelligence is orchestrating all of this.”
“Well . . . well…” The President who had sat down again pulled himself out of his chair and stood erect facing his Cabinet. He took a deep breath. “I’m not ready to accept any of this . . . not yet. I want to stand for reelection and if I try to tell the American people that aliens are shutting off their power and their Q-Pads and trying to hold a tent revival in Times Square . . . well?”
He looked at his Chief of Staff. “Jim, I need to talk with you. Thank you, gentlemen. Please excuse us.”
Jim and the President moved quickly to a private office. President Bryant who remained standing began to pace.
“Jim, I’m thinking.”
“I can see that, sir.”
“I…” He stopped. There was silence.
“Sir, the media is demanding a statement from you. You need to tell the American people something very soon. Now, here’s what I’ve done.” The president hated the media, and the feeling was mutual. But he had finally taken Jim’s advice and let him deal with the media. The president still tweeted, but less.
The President showed some relief and sat down to listen to the man who had pulled him through a number of difficult times in the past. “Mr. President, two hours ago I took the liberty of asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin setting up viewing and listening areas across the country.”
“Good, good.” said the President. “They’ve been wanting to use their new toys. Here’s a perfect opportunity.” Jim smiled and nodded.
The President was referring to large generator-powered projection screens and amplifiers that could be used by the Emergency Broadcasting System to reach the citizens of the country in the event of a massive power failure.
Through a government contract Hollocore had created the system that was an expensive piece of technology that had never been tested in a real emergency.
“They can’t accuse me of being slow to respond like they did with Puerto Rico,” said the President.
Jim nodded and smiled again. He continued.
“Mr. President, here’s what I would suggest you say to the American people.”
Hollocore Global Operations Center
UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, DALLAS, TEXAS
January 1, 2020, 1:33 A.M.
So it goes . . .
~ Kurt Vonnegut
Dick Chambers was angry. He burst through the door of the Operations Center. Activity and conversation ceased. Everyone focused on Chambers.
“Where the hell is Reggie Brown?”
Brown popped up from his chair.
“Here, sir,” he said.
“I want to see you in my office now.”
Chambers, with his head down like a bull charging, started for his office just off the main control room. Brown quickly followed.
Chambers slammed the door.
“What is going on? I thought you told me two months ago that you and your staff had determined that the problems in data transmission were the result of solar activity. I believed you.”
Brown was speechless.
“So what is going on tonight? The President tells me his people believe that the source of our electronic transmission problems and the global power failure we are experiencing tonight is a giant rock.”
Brown spoke. “An asteroid.”
“An asteroid that you told me was just a giant rock.”
“Yes, I did, sir. But in the last twenty-four hours it appears to be the source of a variety of transmissions.”
Chambers didn’t appear to be listening. He was mumbling something about the SOB’s at TransSea.
“Where the hell is Dr. Carter? I want to see Carter right now.”
“I’ll get him, sir.”
Brown picked up the intercom. “Connie, tell Dr. Carter to join us . . . right now.”
It only took a few seconds before Carter was in the room.
Chambers turned to Dr. Carter.
“This giant rock causing all the problems has a name, doesn‘t it, Dr. Carter?”
“Yes, sir. 1992 Beta-17.”
“This is the asteroid,” his voice rose, “that TransSea has sent a number of probes to in the last two years.”
“Yes, sir. It will be passing very close to Earth in the next few days. As you know, TransSea has launched a robotic mining unit that will land on Beta-17 and take core samples.”
“You and your staff advised us not to proceed with our plans for such a mission.”
“Yes, we did.” Carter was beginning to perspire.
“You advised myself and the Board that such a mission as TransSea is now executing would be too risky. You said ‘a fool’s errand,’ as I recall.” He waited.
“And you and your staff said we should focus on getting the contract to develop the supercomputer.”
Carter nodded, but didn’t speak. He looked down at the floor.
“So how do you feel about that decision tonight, Dr. Carter?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, I do,” said Chambers. “It would appear that TransSea was right. That giant rock is worth exploring. The electronic transmissions that Beta-17 is emitting tonight are off the chart.”
“Yes, I know, sir. How and from what source this energy is derived, we don’t know.” His face was getting redder by the second.
“And we won’t know because we chose not to go there. TransSea is there and we aren’t, right, Dr. Carter? And what we do know is those who control the sources of energy will control our world.”
Chambers was now pacing around the room. He glared at Brown and then at Carter.
“Do you two realize how much money we are losing every hour our network is down? This could bankrupt the company.”
Carter nodded and Brown responded, “Yes, I know, sir.”
“Well, then, what are we doing about this mess?”
Neither Carter nor Brown responded.
Suddenly Chambers seemed unsteady on his feet. He sat down. Carter and Brown waited. Finally, Dr. Carter asked, “Sir, are you okay?”
There was no response from Chambers. After a minute.
“I don’t know.” A usual response for Chambers.
“Please.” Another unusual response for Chambers . . . “Please open that window over there and turn off that damn filtration unit. I could use some fresh air.”
The two complied and waited.
“I feel warm . . . all over,” said Chambers.
“Sir,” said Carter, “I really think we should call medical.”
“No, no,” objected Chambers. “It actually feels good.” He smiled.
Carter and Brown looked puzzled.
“I’m okay. I think,” said Chambers. “Gentlemen, go home to your families.”
They had never heard Chambers acknowledge that employees had families, much less suggest that an employee should leave work to be with family. Brown and Carter hesitated.
“Go! Go!” he said again. And they complied.
January 1, 2020, 1:17 A.M.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
~ Hebrews 11:1
The next hour passed quickly. People were continuing to exchange stories and ask each other what was happening. NBC was reporting power failures across the globe. Not just in Eastport and New York City. People were expressing disbelief. But a strange thing was starting to happen. People were focusing on the same screen, hearing the same news coverage, and they were starting to talk to each other, not through a machine, but face to face. And there was no panic
People were leaving and then returning to the square. They were asking the chief for help. His small department was overwhelmed.
“Lee, honey,” whispered Liz, “I don’t know what’s going on, but my feet are awfully cold.”
“We can go back to Jane’s.” Lee wasn’t sure there was anything more that he could do to assist Mike and the chief. In fact, all agreed there was little to be done other than to help people find a place for the night.
“We’ll have to walk.”
“I think we should try the car. You just replaced the battery.”
“Liz, honey, trust me,” Lee said with visible irritation. “It won’t work.” Liz started to object, but she stopped herself. Liz, like most of the people in the Square that night, did not seem to be as upset as Lee thought they would be. Lee had spent most of the last hour helping Mike and observing what was going on. He had heard Chief Cutler comment on how people were taking all this much better than he expected. He pointed out that some of the people that he thought would be raising a ruckus and threatening to sue his department and the power company hadn’t. Lee had watched a young man the Chief told Lee was a troublemaker try to recharge his cellphone in the Chief’s truck without success. Instead of complaining, he had thanked the Chief and asked if he could do anything to assist. Most people seemed to be accepting what was happening and their inability to make it different.
Indeed, it seemed that some of the hurry sickness that our society is afflicted with had abated, at least for a few hours. The I-got-to-have-it-now syndrome had weakened.
As they started to leave Bank Square, Lee saw Mike standing with Chief Cutler and the Eastport Police Chief, Roger Dutro.
“Come on, Liz, let’s talk with them before we leave.”
They had to make their way through the crowd, which appeared to be growing in size. Chanting and drumming had begun again. As they approached the trio, Cutler, who had served in military intelligence for many years, was saying something about the reasons why the military system might still be functioning.
Mike was objecting.
“Joe, I think they could have knocked out the military systems if they or it wanted to, but that hasn’t happened . . . at least not yet. We know that hospitals and public safety units have power, as do the major television networks. EMS vehicles are running. 9-1-1 is working, but everything else isn’t. It’s very selective, Joe. Whoever or whatever is behind this must know if they took away our weapons systems or guns, they would create total panic.”
“Well, maybe you’re right, Mike,” said Cutler begrudgingly.
Mike turned to Lee and Liz who had been standing, silently listening. “What do the two of you think? You’ve got the doctorate.” “I agree with you, Mike, it is selective,” said Lee. “I don’t think what’s going on is being caused by nature or the sun. There is some form of intelligence controlling what is happening.” Cutler broke in. “That’s ridiculous.”
Mike, coming to Lee’s defense, “Well, I don’t know about that, Joe. Can you explain it any other way?” Cutler was silent. “I just know I need to keep in touch with Chief Moore and, if need be, drive back to Winterpool tonight. Excuse me.”
Cutler again eyed Lee with suspicion. Lee and Liz waited for Mike to be off the radio. The call was short. Chief Moore had nothing to report. In most ways, it was a typical New Year’s Eve in Winterpool. Quiet. “Well, Mike, I think Liz and I are going to go back to Winton House.” Mike started to walk with them. “Lee, you’re the psychologist. Tell me why we aren’t seeing the mass panic that everyone predicted would occur if something like this happened. Why aren’t more people upset? Why are things so damn calm? It gives me a chill.”
They walked past the big-screen television.
“Look at those folks in Times Square, Lee. Most of them are just standing there. They seem to be waiting for something to happen. And look around you. The dancing and the drumming. They seem to be enjoying themselves . . . and this weird weather.” He shook his head. “You even look more relaxed now than you did earlier in the evening.”
Lee did feel more relaxed. He wasn’t sure exactly why. He guessed it was because what was happening was happening and he didn’t have to anticipate or wait for it.
“Well, Mike, I guess you could give the usual explanation. People may still be in a state of shock.”
“And a lot of folks aren’t even aware of what’s happening. And what’s happening isn’t anything like what people might expect,” said Liz. “That’s right, Mike. There are no flying saucers landing, or death rays or screaming people or exploding buildings. There’s no violence or hysteria.” Lee paused. “I don’t know about the other . . . side, but those two things are wired into our DNA. Why they haven’t started to come out yet, I’m not sure. But if the power isn’t restored in a few hours . . . I don’t know what will happen.”
Lee grimaced and shrugged. “I assume we may revert back to our old selves.”
They walked on.
“Well, I hope not,” said Mike. “I’ve been thinking about an article I read recently about the effects on the human brain of repeated exposure to microwaves. I know you know what I’m talking about.” Lee nodded. He remembered the article in Science.
“Maybe our electrical systems have been affected by all of this tonight, just like the power grid. Maybe something has changed in us.
Maybe the human race has been powered down.” He looked at Lee.
Lee nodded. “You may be right. You know, this may sound crazy, but I’ve had some strange dreams in the last few weeks about something like this . . . happening. I was . . .”
Mike’s radio went off. It was just as well. Lee wasn’t sure he was ready to talk to Mike about the dreams. People, even Mike, were always expecting the folks in Lee’s profession to be just a little . . . strange themselves.
“Well, I guess I need to stay and help Cutler and Dutro. I think June will want to stay with me.”
“Well, she’s welcome to walk back to the B&B with us,” said Liz.
“No, I think she’d prefer to be with me, given what’s going on.” They looked back at the giant television setup in the square. It appeared the news services hadn’t found anyone to blame yet. There were no apparent villains to be found. This was very strange and quite frustrating for those who needed a scapegoat.
Lee and Liz continued their walk back to the B&B. They found the old Subaru in the dark. Lee dug out a hand crank radio and flashlight; they walked on slowly and carefully. The whine of emergency generators could be heard across the town. Lights were on in some homes with generators or oil lanterns. Others were dark; their residents had apparently given up and gone to bed, assuming the power would be back on by morning.
“So that thing about justice and mercy and humility.”
Lee didn’t respond. Lee had learned that bit of scripture as a child from his grandfather. His grandfather had lived his life by those words. Lee remembered his Uncle Tommy and Aunt Jean and Aunt Jane, twins, talking about his grandfather during the first Great Depression. He had owned a number of houses and rented them out to tenants. But during the Depression, they were unable to pay. He let them stay in their homes, rather than evicting them. During those days, he had also owned a general store and allowed customers to charge their groceries when they had no money, which was often the case. Most were never able to pay their bill. Lee’s grandfather went bankrupt during the Depression. He lost his store and his home was later sold for taxes. The Depression had destroyed him financially like it had so many others, but his acts of kindness and his sense of what was just created a level of respect and gratitude in his community that would outlive him.
“Lee, you seem to know something about all of this,” Liz persisted.
“Maybe someone’s trying to tell the human race something.”
“What are you talking about, Lee?” said Liz with irritation. “You know something about this you’re not telling me?” Desperation was back in her voice.
Lee looked away.
“Tell me,” Liz insisted. She grabbed Lee’s arm.
“Liz,” Lee said with force, “a lot of weird things happened to me while I was away.” He sounded apologetic. He avoided her eyes.
“What do you mean? Does this have anything to do with those strange dreams you’ve been having?”
Lee avoided her eyes again. He wasn’t sure what to say. “The problem is I didn’t know how much was and is real and how much I imagined or dreamed.”
“The dreams told you this was going to happen, didn’t they?” “No, no.” At first Lee insisted. “Not exactly,” he said finally.
“Oh,” she said. She stopped and faced Lee. But she didn’t know what to say. There was silence between them.
Lee led them as they climbed the steps to the porch of Winton House. Lee put his arms around Liz.
“Honey,” he said, “I don’t know that I can explain this right now. I hope . . . things will be . . . okay.” Lee felt some relief. “We’re home anyway.”
Jane Giroux met them at the door. She was full of questions. “So tell me, what’s the news from town?” She smiled nervously.
“EMS is working. We’re all safe,” said Lee. “But no one’s vehicle will run unless you work for public safety or the hospital, and no one’s cell phone will work except to call 9-1-1. Land lines are out too.” Lee paused and smiled.
“Other than that, everything is A-okay.” He chuckled.
“Lee,” Liz said in a scolding tone.
“I think people may be scared and confused, but they‘re talking to each other about what’s happening,” said Liz, trying very hard to sound positive.
“And the human race has yet to find anyone to blame,” Lee added with a smirk.
“Well, come in and get warm. I made some hot chocolate and a little hot toddy for those who indulge,” looking at Lee, “which is most of the group that’s here tonight. I think we could all probably use a drink on a night like this.
Where are Mike and June and your daughter?”
“Dru and Rob are staying at the Williams B&B,” said Liz.
“Mike and June are going to stay with Chief Cutler for a while,” said Lee, pulling off his coat and starting to help Liz with hers. “Not much to do except give people rides home.”
Jane agreed. “Lucky most people are staying in town. Joe sent a few over here. We’re going to put them up in the living room for the night.”
It was 1:45 A.M., New Year’s Day.
“The President is going to speak in a few minutes,” said Jane, clearly confused as to whether this was a good thing or not.
“This New Year is certainly coming in with a bang,” said Liz, making a weak effort at humor.
“Or a whimper,” added Lee under his breath.
It was hard, but Lee chose the hot chocolate. Liz and Lee took their drinks over to the wood stove. Other guests were scattered around the living room of the B&B. One couple was talking. One sat silently. Most seemed not to know what to do.
They each were given an oil lamp by Mrs. Giroux. The walls and the furniture of the B&B seemed to emit a soft yellowish-brown glow. Perhaps that was it or maybe it was the hot chocolate or being away from the crowd. But Lee began to relax some and feel more confident. He thought he was beginning to put some of the pieces together.
Jane rushed into the room. “He’s about to speak,” she said excitedly.
“We’ve got the generator going. The TV is working.”
Lee and Liz and two other couples followed her into the library, just as he was introduced.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . The President of the United States.” President Bryant was seated behind a desk in the Situation Room. He looked composed and presidential. He began to speak. “My fellow Americans, in the last few hours, the people of the world have experienced an unprecedented electrical power failure. At this time, we do not know its source or how long it may last. But, believe me, I can assure you that no effort will be spared in rectifying this situation.”
Lee turned to Liz. “Oh, God. I don’t know if I can listen to this guy.”
Liz tried to shush Lee.
He continued, “Bryant is best at creating a crisis, not of fixing one. He will probably use this one as justification for an attack on North Korea or Iran. I’m sure he believes they are somehow behind all of this.”
The president continued. “The Good Lord has provided us with mild weather. Again, I would stress that we are in no immediate danger. I would urge calm. I have not yet determined the source of the problem, but I can assure you that I will . . .”
“He’s going to ‘find’ the source of the problem?” said Lee, who was no fan of President Bryant. “This guy couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a map.”
“Lee, please!” said Liz.
“Liz, I don’t care. I need to talk to you now. I think I understand something that I didn’t understand.”
“Lee, let’s wait until he’s finished.”
“I’m going upstairs now, Liz.” He whispered to Liz, “just maybe I am beginning to understand.”
CONDOMINIUM OF SENATOR NANCY CLAYTON
January 1, 2020, 1:49 A.M.
Senator Clayton had finally gotten to sleep when there was a knock on her bedroom door. It was her Chief of Staff, Fred Bolin.
“Senator,” he shouted through the door. He stopped himself and attempted to lower his voice and to focus, trying to not sound as frightened as he was.
“You must get up. They’re here.”
Senator Clayton rubbed her eyes, pushing back her blond hair, which was now starting to show gray. She sat up in bed. “Who is here, Fred?” She grabbed for her robe and finally found it at the foot of the bed. She started toward the door.
“The capitol police. They say they are here to take you to a safe location. They are beginning the evacuation of the senators and representatives who are in DC.”
Senator Clayton had flown back to DC the day after Christmas. She wanted to get an early start on the New Year. She had spent Christmas with her daughter and her daughter’s family and gotten a chance to spend some time with her granddaughter. That was good. But in general, Senator Clayton had little interest in holidays since her divorce. In the last few years, she had found herself spending more time in DC. And, in general, more time working.
When the lights had gone out at midnight, she assumed it was just another power outage that would be fixed by morning. She had gone to bed and left orders not to be disturbed. Fred, who tended to overreact to most things, said he would sleep in the guest room and wake her if he felt it necessary.
He had not disturbed her when the President made his address to the nation. Fred now thought he should have. Something was certainly happening. But she was so tired. He worried about her.
“Fred, what is going on?”
“I don’t know, Senator. All I know is that the President has ordered an evacuation and they say we need to leave immediately.”
The Senator walked back into her bedroom and looked out the window. Two black SUVs were parked in front of her condo with their emergency flashers on. Senator Clayton groaned, “What has that moron gotten us into?” and headed for her bathroom.
EASTPORT, MAINE, USA
January 1, 2020, 1:50 A.M.
And God will delight when we are creators of justice.
~ Methodist Hymn
Jane gave them their oil lamp. Liz followed Lee, and they found their way up the stairs. The room was warm. They had started a fire in the woodstove in their room and banked it before going downtown.
Lee took a seat in one of the chairs by the window looking out on the bay and the square. Liz opened the window. The outside air was amazingly warm. Lee offered the more comfortable chair to Liz. She sat down and immediately faced Lee.
“Now will you tell me what’s going on, Lee?” she demanded.
“I think the human race may have finally met its match.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I think there is some force at work tonight in our world. A force in our universe that we have tried the patience of, and they’re saying to us,
“Oh, Lee, are you going to go off on that again? I think you’ve been watching too many X File reruns.”
“Liz, I’m very serious about this. Don’t try to deny what’s happening,” he snapped. “I don’t know any other way to explain this. As I said walking over here, I haven’t told you very much about what happened in Bermuda, because I didn’t know how much I had imagined and how much was real.”
“You were in Bermuda?”
“Yes, Liz. I was in Bermuda. It’s a long story. But the point is, what has happened tonight is not random. And it’s not being caused by solar flares or electromagnetic storms.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that, Lee. I heard what Mike said. They could have shut everything down if they had wanted to, but they didn’t. Maybe they’re giving us a demonstration of what practicing justice, kindness, and humility looks like. Like you said to Mike, no death rays or exploding buildings or demands for surrender.”
“I think that’s the point,” said Lee, his voice rising. “They could have destroyed us tonight or set us up to destroy ourselves, but they didn’t.” Lee looked out again at the square.
“I don’t think this will last for very long. I don’t see how it can.” He shook his head. “There will be riots in the streets. Our economy and our whole social system will collapse if the world’s power grids stay down.” He stopped.
“But they could have started that process tonight and they chose not to,” said Liz.
Lee and Liz continued to watch the crowd in Bank Square. The drumming was getting louder and more people were joining the dancers.
“What happened to the package that we picked up in London? You delivered it to someone in Paris, didn’t you?”
“No. I ended up having to carry it to Bermuda. I finally delivered a package to Jennings in Boston.”
“Did you ever figure out what was in it?”
“It had something to do with this ultra-intelligent machine that is being built. Whoever is behind what is happening tonight doesn’t want that computer to be built.”
“When you say you delivered ‘a package’ to Boston, was it the package we picked up?”
“I’m not sure. In the process of getting to Boston, I believe the packages were switched. The one I delivered may be infected with viruses that will only frustrate those trying to build the computer.”
Lee shook his head again. “I’m really not completely sure what happened. I was drugged on the ship.”
“You were what? On what ship?”
“Honey, I’ve got a lot more to tell you. You won’t believe what happened in just a few days. But that’s not what’s important right now.” “So, what is important right now?” asked Liz, feeling increasingly irritated as Lee only partially answered her questions. Why hadn’t he told her this a week ago?
“I think what is important now is what will happen today. The first day of the New Year.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“Maybe people will decide that the universe doesn’t revolve around them.” He looked at Liz. “Maybe we’ll decide that justice, kindness and humility are important to our survival and are not just something nice to do when making money doesn’t get in the way.”
Lee continued. “I still don’t understand who or what is behind this.” “Well, I don’t know either, but they sure know how to make an entrance,” said Liz.
They both laughed. They needed the release and the distraction.
“I think they have taken their cue from the old movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
“Maybe they’ll look like Michael Rennie,” said Lee.
“Or Keanu Reeves. I like the remake better.”
“Well, one of the things that I learned in Bermuda was that they are definitely tired of being ignored and discounted and made only the stuff of science fiction.”
They sat for a while and said nothing. They drank in the warm night air. They focused on the present and not the past or the future. They put away the hurry sickness, the ‘I-can-have-it-all’ syndrome. They were grateful for what they had and for the hope that they felt about what might be. Maybe something had changed with them and with the world. And maybe the change would only be temporary. But it felt good on this first day of the New Year.
“What time is it, Lee?”
“It’s getting close to three. We’ve got a few more hours before dawn arrives. I think we should join the People of the Dawn in the square and give a proper welcome to the first day of our New Year. Like the travel brochure says, ‘Morning in America begins in Eastport, Maine.’ Agreed?”
“But first, let’s try to get some sleep.”
“I thought you would never ask.”
The two dressed for bed. Liz crawled into bed first. “I’m tired and cold, and my feet are really cold.”
“Your feet are always cold. I’m coming.” Lee climbed in and pulled the cover up.
“I think we’re going to find out tomorrow,” Lee groaned, “what capacity the human race has to continue to deny reality.”
“Did you say something?” Liz said as she put her feet under his legs. “Oh, no-o-o-o,” he said. “Jesum Crow, your feet are cold.” “Remember that cabin we stayed in at Loon Lake?” asked Liz. “This does remind me of that. No power, just an oil lamp and a woodstove.”
Liz yawned and stretched.
“Well, if you want to make human beings humble, just take away their electronics.”
“It wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked again.
“No. I really liked it,” agreed Liz.
Lee put his arm around Liz. They snuggled closer.
“Well, maybe we’ll have to get used to life without our gadgets,” said Lee. “I think that’s going to be a very hard one for most of us.”
“I’m sure you’re right about that.”
Lee and Liz finally drifted off to sleep. It took a while. They, like much of the human race that night, weren’t sure what was happening. But they tried to have faith that the force that appeared to be now in control of their world was a benevolent one. That what was happening was for good, not evil. Maybe humanity would grow up without destroying itself and the rest of the universe. Perhaps the first night of darkness would usher in a new age of light. Lee was sure that the sun would rise again and that the power outage would end soon. But for Lee, the most important unanswered question was who or what the human race might encounter on the first day of the New Year and, to quote Matthew and Mark, would we finally ‘Love our neighbors as ourselves’?
Outside, the early winter sky was clear and bright. There was no moon. Orion and the winter constellations were now high in the sky. The evening star, the planet Mars, was rising. Earth was a small blue speck in a sea of stars.