“What If?”

The following essay is speculative fiction that I wrote a decade ago during the process of tutoring an ESL Student through the TOEFL tests for entry to University.  I hope you find it thought provoking and entertaining.


Would you survive? What if God tears asunder the thin veneer of our modern North American technological civilization? If all the modern conveniences that man has created over the last century and a half were made to disappear tomorrow would you be able to survive? Would you even know how to try? “Whatever” you say, “Nothing’s going to happen in my lifetime.” That might not be true.


The Bible tells us that the first time was by flood and the second time will be by fire. Our scientists tell us that a solar flare will one day reach out and lick the surface of the earth clean. There’s no point in worrying about that because everything will be incinerated and all life annihilated, There is no way to stay on this planet and survive, so let’s ignore that scenario and examine something more plausible.


During the life of any healthy star there are many types of occurrences that could affect us here on earth. One of those is a Geomagnetic Solar Flare, a giant radiation fountain that our sun produces. These fountains contain the entire spectrum of radiation from UV to infrared, X-Rays, microwaves and magnetic flux. They extend hundreds of millions of miles out from the sun in an invisible (to the human eye) fountain. Consider it a cosmic belch or fart from the sun.  Scientists have observed this phenomenon from our sun on several occasions. So far each magnetic eruption has taken a path tangential to the earth’s orbit. Let’s look at what will happen when one of these eruptions coincides with our orbital path.


Levels of radiation wouldn’t be sufficient to cause death but every electrical device in the world would stop working virtually simultaneously. Such storms can be over in minutes, but some have lasted as long as 3 to 5 years. It is difficult to conceive of the chaos that would cause on a global basis, so let’s just examine what would take place locally. First, let’s set the parameters. It is evening rush hour, mid week in mid to late January. There is snow on the ground but temperatures have risen into the low 40s Fahrenheit. It is raining. Now, unannounced, the magnetic storm hits at the speed of light.


The first thing that happens is that the magnetic disruption shuts down all of the communications satellites. Cellular phones stop working. Satellite TV & radio signals cease. The earth’s normal magnetic field is overwhelmed and compasses stop working, a minor inconvenience in comparison to what’s coming. A split second later the wave front hits the atmosphere at 186000 miles per second. Magnetic flux immediately totally disrupts the electronic controls of every airplane in the sky. There are over 100 airplanes in the air over Vancouver during evening rush hour. Their electronically controlled & fuel pumped engines go off-line. The hydraulic avionics stop working and the airplanes assume the glide trajectory of a brick.


A moment later, hundreds of thousands of commuters on the ground are affected. The alternators on their cars fail. Simultaneously every power station, generator or other source of power goes off. Every traffic light, street lamp, elevator and light source in the entire city goes out at once. Sky Train loses power and the trains grind to a halt. Every car in the city that has an alternator, generator or electronic ignition stalls out and coasts to a stop. They will not restart.


At first, people are merely confused. There is some grumbling on the Sky Train stalled between stations but it happens frequently enough that most people aren’t too concerned, just irritated by the delay. People with pacemakers go into cardiac arrest as the microwaves disrupt their proper function. Concerned security rush to assist those struck by this medical emergency.


One by one, passengers begin to notice that lights have gone out all over the city. They may be here a while. It is shortly thereafter that the airplanes start dropping to the ground at terminal velocity, exploding in a ravaging ball of fire as they hit the ground. The devastation is stunning to behold. Memories of the World Trade Center destruction are fresh enough in people’s minds to send the commuters into a panic.


Further back down the line where the trains go under the downtown core, the situation is worse. Train lights are out, tunnel lights are out and backup generators don’t work. There is a total absence of light. Those with claustrophobia are paralyzed with fear. Even people who are not normally claustrophobic are sent into uncontrolled panic confined in the crowded Sky Train cars in total darkness deep under ground. They jostle each other for position as they scramble to break out of the car and escape the darkness. A few people with cigarette lighters provide the only source of light.


On the streets the frustration of the stranded commuters in their stalled cars is turning to terror as motorists gather in groups to speculate on the cause of the power outages. The death and devastation caused by the falling planes sends speculation running rampant. Was it Al Quida? Is this a repeat of 9/11? Is it part of an attack by Communist China or is it part of some Alien invasion? Radios and television aren’t working and neither are cellular phones or computers, so nobody actually knows anything.


It is nearly closing time in the little bicycle shop and the lights are out and the cash register isn’t working, so the store owner decides to lock up and go home. Before he can do that the first stranded motorist to decide that he absolutely has to get home comes in to buy a bike.  The owner protests that his cash register and phones aren’t working, so he can’t process a credit card purchase. The motorist doesn’t have enough cash to pay for a bike. As they argue several more people press into the store, some waving cash at the owner. Everyone wants to get home to their family, their tribe.


The shop owner sells bikes. Soon the store is packed with people all yelling and screaming at the hapless owner at once, demanding bikes. Someone grabs a bike and flees the scene. Fights ensue. Shortly thereafter the owner is laying dead on the floor, beaten to death in the struggle as every bike in his shop is gone with the exception of the ones destroyed as the mob fought for possession of them.


Meanwhile, the fires caused by the crashed airplanes and the ruptured gas lines that ensued rage unabated since fire alarm systems are not working nor are the fire vehicles running. In the Hospitals all patients who were on life support have succumbed due to failure of their respirators and the failure of backup generators to function. They die quickly. They are the lucky ones.


The streets are full of people walking or riding bikes to get home. The only light in the city is provided by the flames from the crashed planes reflecting off of the low rain clouds that block out moon and stars alike. Opportunistic thieves are looting unprotected stores under cover of darkness. The police can’t stop crimes they don’t know about. A few police try to stop looters who are near where their patrol cruisers stalled out but they soon give up in the face of overwhelming numbers and larger problems. Their focus shifts to surviving. At least they are armed and can protect themselves. Not so the cyclists who are hauled off their bikes by other commuters anxious to get their hands on the bikes for their own use.


At home there is no power. Temperatures will drop below freezing during the night changing the rain into freezing rain and then snow. Furnaces fail due to lack of power to fire their electronic ignition systems. Gas fireplaces cease to function as the flow is cut off from ruptures and fires caused when the planes crashed. Those with wood burning fireplaces fare better. Others huddle together for warmth or huddle around oil burning heaters. Nine months after the great power outage of the 80s in New York City there was a mini baby boom. Vancouver will have it’s own baby boom as a result of activities over the next week as body parts commingle for warmth, comfort and entertainment.


As temperatures drop below freezing pipes burst flooding basements and damaging kitchens and bathrooms. Families start considering fleeing their homes. Those who live close to grocery stores and restaurants start looting them for food. Nobody goes to work. The human body can live between 30 & 90 days without food depending on the size and fat content of the person’s body before their food source runs out. The human body can’t go more than a few days without water or it dies. Those with gravity fed water sources that haven’t frozen are OK but those located in highlands requiring electric pumps to deliver water are without. When they run out of milk, pop, bottled water and juice they raid the stores for more. When that is all gone thirst will drive them from their highland homes in search of drinking water. People start drinking stream and lake water but their bodies can’t adapt to untreated water. Crippling dysentery ensues. More people die. They starve to death, freeze to death, die of dysentery or are murdered by their neighbors for their food or water.


Contagious disease starts to spread next. Without power the manufacturers are not capable of making the medications that cure the ills. Those already on life sustaining medications die off as their supply runs out and they are unable to obtain more. As those who contract contagious diseases fleeing their homes contact others they spread it to others. Can you imagine what would have happened if SARS or the Avian flu was allowed to spread unchecked? That’s exactly what starts to happen now. The ill take to their beds unable to call for help because their phones don’t work. It doesn’t matter because the ambulances don’t run and the Hospitals have no power and run out of drugs quickly. The staff leaves to look after their own families. The sick lay in their beds and if the flu doesn’t kill them they will freeze to death, starve to death or dehydrate.


Hundreds of thousands of people will hunker down and wait for the government to send help to rescue them. Most of them will die. More hundreds of thousands will flee the cities in a vain attempt to escape the disease, starvation and violence. They will head for farm country seeking food. Family pets are long since barbequed for sustenance. Everything of value that they can carry is with them. Unscrupulous opportunists rob the refugees of what they have as they flee. What we once recognized as the pinnacle of social development descends into “kill or be killed”


By the end of the first year of the magnetic event more than half of the lower mainland’s 3 million inhabitants will be dead. If the event runs for a full five years, 95% of the people will die. When the event ends all of the devices we have made would work again if only there was someone around who knew how to start it all back up and repair the damage. What would you do? Would you be one of the 5% to survive or would you have expired with the 95%, not with a bang but with a whimper? What would you do?


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