Dr. Ross sat quietly on the steps with the other K Lab staff members waiting to resurface. He was contemplating the fact that he was already nearly accustomed to the smell of burning materials—clothing, paper, and other combustibles scavenged and lit to provide a temporary light source and to spare the few lighters in their possession. It was amazing how quickly humans could adapt.
They sat on steps leading up to a set of double security doors and they were waiting for those nearest the doors to get them opened. Dr. Ross estimated their group to consist of about thirty people, though it was difficult to know the real number in the semi-darkness. A metal trashcan had been requisitioned for burning their combustibles, and it was placed near the doors where the work was occurring. This left the lower portion of the stairwell in a dim and flickering light. With adjusted eyes, though, Dr. Ross could clearly discern the look of betrayal on Michael’s face.
“I still can’t believe the power failed,” Michael said. “The security and stability of K Lab’s power grid was one of their major selling points. How much work do you think has been lost? How much money is this costing?”
“Nothing’s perfect,” Dr. Ross said.
“I mean, what really could have happened?” Michael said, not acknowledging Dr. Ross’s comment. “The entire lab is down, at least the subterranean section is. And why didn’t the emergency power kick on?”
“We’ll know more when we get through those doors,” Dr. Ross said.
“And my cell’s dead, your watch is dead, even flashlights aren’t working. What’s going on?”
A young woman sitting on the steps below them turned to conspire with Michael. “I heard it was a terrorist attack,” she said.
“A terrorist attack? Really? That would explain the outage. I didn’t hear an explosion, though. How deep are we again? Would we have noticed it?”
“It wouldn’t require an explosion,” the young woman said. “Someone could introduce a bug into the computer system governing the power production plant and bring it offline indefinitely.”
“That must be it, then. Who do you think it was? I mean, China’s been hacking us for years, you know? Plus, there’s so many of those activist groups now. It could be any one of them.”
“It would have to be someone or some group with access,” the young woman said. “Power generation is on a closed system. You can’t logon to it remotely. Someone would have to physically plugin to the system to transfer the bug.”
“So someone here is working with them!” Michael said. The look on his face acted as a window into his imagination, and Dr. Ross could tell he was envisioning some masterful plot to overthrow K Lab’s research facilities by destabilizing the power grid. He had to put a stop to this.
“Please be quiet,” he said to both Michael and the young woman. “The fact is we don’t know anything yet. We don’t know if there was a failure and, if so, what failed. And as for your terrorist theory, you realize that whoever you ‘heard’ that from could only have been surmising.” He didn’t bother to mention that the terrorist theory didn’t account for their watches, cell phones, and flashlights not working.
“We’re all locked down here,” he went on. “No one has had any communication with the surface. We don’t know anything. All you’re doing is spreading rumors and inviting panic, so please be quiet. Hopefully we’ll be out of here in a few minutes and then maybe we can find some real answers.”
Michael and the young woman shared a dejected look as they realized the immaturity of their discussion.
Dr. Ross was glad for the ensuing silence but anxious, nonetheless. The fuel feeding their paranoia was rich in speculation. What could have caused the outage? So much money, time, and effort had been spent on ensuring a stable power grid that failure seemed unfathomable barring some grand-scaled event. He was more than anxious to exit this underground purgatory and discover the cause of the failure.
A short time later, he heard the utterly undramatic sound of doors opening above and the stairwell was suddenly filled with blinding light from the surface. A moderate cheer of victory erupted from many of the staff sitting on the stairs. Dr. Ross squinted against the light while he and everyone else stood and began climbing the steps.
He passed through the doors and into the large lobby of K Lab’s central hub and was immediately blasted by a wave of hot air. The towering south wall of and entryway to the lobby was composed of towering windows. The increasing temperature was most likely resulting from the greenhouse effect working through those windows and the climate control systems not working, so the power was evidently out up here, too. Through the windows, Dr. Ross could see the heatwaves hovering over the desert landscape and threatening to invade every space with nearly unbearable heat.
Being in the lobby was like being at a county fair. Hundreds of people milled about in groups while others squeezed through in transit from one place to another. Body odor and the din of conversation permeated the air as Dr. Ross pushed his way through the crowd in an attempt to reach the administrative offices on the far side of the lobby. Most of the small groups, especially those consisting of the younger staff members, were so engrossed in their conversations that they failed to notice him, but some who did recognize him squeezed their groups to the side so he could pass.
“What’s this all about, Dr. Ross?” asked one young woman. She was a machinist in the Engineering Department and often machined parts for Dr. Ross’s equipment.
“I’m not certain, Miss Bloom, but I’m going to find out. In the meantime, why don’t you track down HR and get some water in here. It’s heating up fast and we’re going to need it if the power is out for long.”
“Okay,” she said and turned to work her way through the crowd toward the HR corridor. She was a responsible person and Dr. Ross was confident she would get it done.
“Excuse me, Dr. Ross,” a young man hailed him when he was a little farther across the lobby. Dr. Ross remembered having him as an intern the year before last.
“Do you know if we’re done for the day? Are the busses coming or do they expect to restore power soon? I haven’t been able to call my wife and I don’t want her to worry. She’s pregnant, you know, and our due date is next week. Are any phones working?”
Dr. Ross could see that the young man was concerned. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s still early in the afternoon and I’m sure the situation will be resolved quickly.” He continued on before the young man could respond.
When he arrived at the doors to the administrative offices, he reached for his access card automatically even though the power was out and the hallway doors were propped open. For security purposes in lieu of the card reader, two beefy security guards stood flanking the doorway. One of them stepped in front of Dr. Ross barring his entry.
Dr. Ross handed it to him. The security guard checked the information against a list he produced from his pocket. It was handwritten, Dr. Ross noticed. He also noticed that the guards wore holstered handguns on their hips. Had they always been armed?
“Name?” the guard asked.
“Dr. Neil Ross.”
“He’s cleared through,” the guard said, looking at the adjacent guard. He returned Dr. Ross’s access card and stepped aside.
Dr. Ross proceeded down the hallway past the empty offices and cubicles along both sides. At the far end of the hall, he could see ten or twelve people through the glass walls of the conference room. He made eye contact with the Director, Dr. John Seimetz, who waved him in.
He realized at once that the group was high-level staff only. Besides the Director, the Chief of Staff, four of the Assistant Directors—Programs, Policy, Operations, and the Chief Technical Officer—and several of his fellow Department Heads were present. No one else.
“Neil, I’m glad we got you back above ground,” the Director said, grasping his hand and motioning toward an empty seat.
Dr. Ross took the seat and looked around the room. Dr. Seimetz’s enthusiasm hadn’t seemed to wear off onto any of the others present. “What’s the status of the power grid?” he asked the Director.
Dr. Perry Proctor, the head of Plant Engineering Services, looked up from a large three-ringed binder. “It’s gone,” he said.
“Gone. Just a network of wires and circuitry with nothing to transmit. The plant is completely offline.”
Dr. Proctor shook his head. “Nothing, as far as we can tell. There’s just no electricity, no current.”
That didn’t make sense. Dr. Ross waited for more of an explanation.
“There’s no current. That’s part of it,” Dr. Lillian Sheshefski said. She was the Chief Technical Officer. She held up her cell phone in one hand and a flashlight in the other. “We can’t create a voltage to produce current chemically,” she said, demonstrating that neither the batteries in her cell phone nor in the flashlight were working. “And then there’s this.” She tossed something small and flat across the table and it landed in front of Dr. Ross.
He picked it up and realized it was a refrigerator magnet, rectangular with a round yellow smiley face and the censored phrase “Sh*t happens” printed across the bottom. He directed a questioning look at Dr. Sheshefski.
“Try it,” she said, pointing at a mini fridge in the corner of the room which was usually full of bottled water for staff meetings.
Dr. Ross stood and walked to the small refrigerator, and when he pressed the magnet to the surface and let go, the magnet fell to the floor. Dr. Ross furrowed his brow, retrieved the magnet, and tried again. It fell to the floor again. He tried it on the metal frames bordering the glass wall panels. It fell to the floor. He was about to say, “Faulty magnet,” when he noticed a small stack of refrigerator magnets beside the coffee machine on the table next to the mini fridge. He examined a couple of them, and none of them stuck to each other or anything, metal or not.
“As you can see,” Dr. Sheshefski said, “no magnetism. No magnetism, no electromagnetic induction. No induction, no current. The generators are useless.”
“So are the wind turbines,” Dr. Proctor added. “And the solar farm.”
“The solar farm?” Dr. Ross said. “So we can’t create current chemically, electromagnetically, or from solar panels?”
“Piezoelectricity?” Dr. Sheshefski said. “It doesn’t work either. We tried the gas grill in the courtyard. No spark.”
She was referring to the push-button igniter present on most gas grills. When the button is pushed, a small spring-loaded hammer strikes a piece of quartz and the impact creates enough current through the piezoelectric effect to create a spark and ignite the gas.
Dr. Ross was at a loss. “It’s like current itself is broken, but what about our bodies? Our brains are still working. They’re still sending signals throughout our bodies.”
Dr. Sheshefski shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“And magnets?” Dr. Ross said. “What would cause magnets to stop working? I know we can demagnetize a magnet, but what could demagnetize all magnets?”
“We have a more immediate problem,” Dr. Seimetz said. “We have nearly three hundred people on site. With the power out, it’s going to get hot. Our water supply is limited to whatever bottled water we have on hand.”
“Send them home,” Dr. Ross said. “A day lost is a day lost either way.”
“You don’t understand,” Ms. Lindsey Bauer said. She was the National Security Analysis Department Head. She had access to all the contacts that no one else had. “We can’t send them home. We think this is more extensive than just a problem at K Lab. We haven’t heard a peep from anyone anywhere by any means. Vehicles don’t work—they won’t start or even turn over. The busses are out, the landing strip is out. We haven’t seen any aircraft in the sky. Hell, I’m not even sure our guards’ weapons will fire!”
“We have two options,” Dr. Seimetz said. “Stay here and wait it out…or walk.”
Dr. Ross sat back in his chair, the full weight of the situation finally hitting him. With no electricity, it was dire. Miles and miles in the middle of nowhere in a southern California desert with no air conditioning, limited food and water, and no means of getting more of either. Oh, and on top of that, they had no idea why electricity and magnetism were failing, where they were failing, or how long the failure would last.
He looked up and met the Director’s eyes. “I guess we have to plan for the worst,” he said. “How do we get out of here?”