These highlights are from the Kindle version of One Second After by William R. Forstchen.
Growing up in a working-class suburb of Newark in the sixties and seventies he had learned survival. He was only seven when the big riots hit Newark in ‘67, dividing off for a generation any thought of what some called diversity. Italians stuck to their neighborhoods, Poles and the Irish to theirs, Hispanics to theirs, blacks to theirs, and God save you if you got caught in the wrong neighborhood after dark, and usually in daylight as well. The interstate, at this instant, had become the wrong neighborhood.
“I taught you and your mom to shoot. And remember what I said about what was most dangerous.” “A woman with a gun who doesn’t have the guts to use it,” she recited.
“Picture an EMP as something like a lightning bolt striking your electrical line or phone line during a thunderstorm.” John said between quick sips of his coffee. “Boom, and everything electronic in your house is fried, especially delicate stuff with microcircuitry in it. That bolt is maybe packing thousands of amps the microchip in your computer runs on hundredths of an amp. It just cooks it off.”
“Back in the 1940s, when we started firing off atomic bombs to test them, this pulse wave was first noticed. Not much back then with those primitive weapons, but it was there. And here’s the key thing: there were no solid-state electronics back in the 1940s, everything was still vacuum tubes, so it was rare for the small pulses set off by those first bombs to damage anything.
“We finally figured out that when you set off a nuke in space, that’s when the EMP effect really kicks in, as the energy burst hits the upper atmosphere. It becomes like a pebble triggering an avalanche, the electrical disturbances magnifying. It’s in the report. It’s called the “Compton Effect.”
Every administration since Reagan’s has placed hardening of our electronics on the back shelf. Meanwhile the equipment kept getting more delicate and thus susceptible and the potential power of the burst kept getting one helluva lot stronger. Remember how we were all wowed by the high-tech stuff back in 1991. That equipment is now as primitive as a steam engine compared to what we got now. And in constantly making computers and electronics faster and better we made them smaller, more compact, and more and more vulnerable to an EMP strike.”
Until the federal government truly gets things stitched back together, and with that records retrieved and the same for financial institutions, what little paper money there is floating around out there is worthless. Our entire economy is built now on electronic money. It’s all faith, and if a crack appears in that faith, then what?”
I think the most coveted item yesterday was a supermarket shopping cart. Every last one has been looted and people were just walking up and down the street pushing their loads home.”
“That old Twilight Zone episode,” Kate said. “The one where a bunch of polite middle-class types are having a friendly social, the radio announces nuclear war, and by the end of the half hour they were killing each other trying to get into the shelter one had in his basement.”
The Twilight Zone. Last evening he’d been dwelling on the episode where the aliens started flicking lights on and off in different people’s houses and soon everyone was in a panic, ready to kill one another, the aliens sitting back and laughing.
“Gandhi and Stalin.” “What?” John asked. “I used to tell Monica that when we’d get into politics. She’d always talk about how great Gandhi was. I’d tell her the only reason Gandhi survived after his first protest was that he was dealing with the Brits. If Stalin had been running India, he’d of been dead in a second, his name forgotten.”
John sighed. Scale of social order, he thought. The larger the group, the more likely it was that it would fragment under stress, with a few in power looking out for themselves first.
The line of refugees they had passed earlier was actually larger now, more people on foot, some on bicycles, others having already learned the old refugee trick that a bicycle can be a packhorse; loaded it down, properly balanced, it could be pushed along with a couple of hundred pounds.
“Maybe in private,” Kate ventured. “Maybe in private. I don’t like the thought of public execution.” “I don’t either,” John said slowly, “but we have to do it. There’s fear in this town. I’m hearing people say that the refugees from the highway are ‘outsiders.’ We’re already beginning to divide ourselves off from each other. We do private executions and I guarantee you, within a day there’ll be rumors flying from those who don’t live here that we are doing Stalinist courts and executing people in the basement of the police station. If we are forced to do this, we do it in public.” “Besides,” Tom interjected, “it’s a statement to anyone else who might be thinking about stealing.”
“Just aim straight at the chest, sir,” Washington said. “You try for the head and you’re shaking at all you’ll miss. First shot to the chest, he’ll collapse. They don’t go flying around like in the movies; usually they just fall over or sag down to the ground. Once he’s on the ground, then empty the clip; just empty it. If you have your wits about you put the last shot into the head. Do you understand me, sir?”
“You ever seen cholera?” Kellor asked. No one spoke. “I did thirty years back. A mission trip to Africa. It makes salmonella look tame. People in those regions, most of them were exposed to it at some point in their lives and survived. We’re wide open to it. We are six, seven generations removed from it and we have no natural immunity. America is like an exotic hothouse plant. It can only live now in the artificial environment of vaccinations, sterilization, and antibiotics we started creating a hundred or more years ago.
“Thank God our elevation is high enough, our climate cool enough, that I’m not worrying about mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, West Nile, and others. And don’t even get me started on how we better start looking out for parasitic worms, lice …”
Uniforms, and the white hazmat suits were like uniforms, had always been one of the means throughout history to control crowds, including those being herded to death camps.
The attack is now believed to have been three missiles, fired from a containership in the Gulf of Mexico. Our forces overseas are engaged in heavy combat in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Korea. There is progress on all fronts. Responsibility for the attack rests upon an alliance of forces in the Middle East and North Korea. Reports now confirm that a weapon similar to the ones that struck the United States has also been detonated over the western Pacific, creating the same widespread outages in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. A similar missile is also reported to have been detonated over Eastern Europe.
“I don’t think we are in a revolution,” John said. “We’re trying to survive until such time as some order is restored. Communications up, enough vehicles put back on the road to link us together again as a nation.” “But suppose that never happens,” Dan said quietly. “What?” “Just that, John. Suppose it never happens. Suppose the old America, so wonderful, the country we so loved, suppose at four fifty P.M. eighteen days ago, it died. It died from complacency, from blindness, from not being willing to face the harsh realities of the world. Died from complacent self-centeredness. Suppose America died that day.”
“The Mongols hitting Eastern Europe in 1241,” John said softly. “The Teutonic Knights, when they first saw the Mongols at the Battle of Leignitz, supposedly laughed hysterically at the sight of their opponents on horses so small they were the size of ponies. Ponies that would be crushed under the first charge of lancers. They lowered their lances, charged, and at a hundred and fifty yards the Mongols decimated them with their compound bows, unheard of in Europe, each bolt hitting at fifty yards with the kinetic energy of a .38. Thirty thousand Mongols annihilated tens of thousands of Europe’s finest that day.”
The French knights at Crecy mocking the English longbowmen. The British mocking us at Monmouth and Cowpens. The Germans disdainful of the Russians in 1941,” John said.
“Professor Sonnenberg tells me that in our school library are back issues of Scientific American all the way back to the 1850s. Also Popular Mechanics. In those golden pages are plans from eighty years ago, a hundred years ago, to build radios, telegraphs, steam engines, batteries, internal combustion engines, formulas for nearly every advance in chemistry.
“Well, that was a disorganized mob. Word is starting to filter in that groups are starting to come together. Most are just scared people banding together for survival and mutual protection, exactly what we are doing here. But some, John, there’s rumors about cults. A family that was allowed to pass through here yesterday, actually heading east, coming out of Tennessee, said that over by Knoxville there’s a guy claiming this is the start of a holy war.”
“Malthus is finally being proven right,” Charlie said. “Our population here is three, four times higher than the carrying capacity. It was all about infrastructure. Out in Southern California right now I bet hundreds of thousands of tons of vegetables are rotting. The Midwest will be up to their eyeballs in unpicked corn in another six weeks. But there is no way to get that from there to here.”
America, the breadbasket of the world, which could feed a billion people without even breaking a sweat, was dying now of starvation. The two frequencies of Voice of America were talking daily about the first harvests coming in from the southern Midwest, of cattle being driven, and it all sounded to him like the old Chinese and Soviet broadcasts of the Cold War when they boasted daily about their great strides even while people lived in squalor and indeed did die of starvation.
What did 9/11 do in the coldest sense? It killed three thousand. Did the economy collapse the next day? Did John’s Jennifer miss an insulin shot? Did the workers in a factory that made insulin scatter in panic on 9/11? No. And in spite of outrage, people’s tears of empathy, unless it was a friend or one of their own blood lost that day, their world really did not change other than the annoyance of getting through an airport.
The web of our society, John thought, was like the beautiful spiderwebs he’d find as a boy in the back lot after dawn on summer days, dew making them visible. Vast, beautiful intricate things. And at the single touch of a match the web just collapsed and all that was left for the spider to do, if it survived that day, was to rebuild the web entirely from scratch. And our enemies knew that and planned for it… and succeeded.
Three children were out on the lawn, all of them skinny as rails, except that their stomachs were bloating, a neighbor clinging to them. That had started to appear over the last couple of weeks, kids with stomachs bloating out, even as they starved. Kellor told John it was edema, fluid buildup as their bodies inside began to shut down. It was the type of images he would always turn off when an infomercial ran for some save-the-kids type charity. Always it was kids in Africa or some disaster-stricken area in Asia with the bloated stomachs. He wondered if now, at this very moment, in a place in the world where electricity still flowed, such images were on their screens: “Give now to save the starving children in America.”
“They had something like a gallows set up. Bodies were hanging from it….” Don shook and started to cry. “They were cut open, some without legs and arms. Ten or more like that. Like hogs hung up to be butchered. My God.”
“Satan’s taken over. Maybe whoever’s leading them is preaching that. God has turned his back on America, Satan has won, so anything goes. I doubt if all of them are doing it; I want to think most of them are as terrified of whoever is running their crew as we are. But I’m willing to bet whoever is running it is shouting that he has the inside dope from God, Satan, whomever.”
John raised his Glock, muzzle touching the man’s forehead. “Go on, you bastard,” he whispered. “Be like me; drink my blood once I am dead as I would have drunk yours. I know you are hungry. You do it, and all who follow you will join in, for they are hungry, too.”
A minute later, another ten were shot, their deaths greeted with angry shouts of approval. And it was as if at that moment a film was winding through John’s memory. Old grainy film, Russians hanging from makeshift gallows in that cold winter of 1941; the etchings of Goya, Spanish prisoners pleading, holding up their hands as French soldiers of Napoleon gunned them down; naked prisoners being led to a pit by the SS, kneeling down, shot, bodies tumbling forward. It was the face of war, of all wars, and now it was here and it was us against ourselves, John thought, as we fought for the last scrap of bread and now even for the bodies of the dead.
A battlefield, he thought. Memories of photos of the dead at Gettysburg, bodies lying in the surf at Tarawa, the dead and wounded marines aboard a tank at Hue. Always photos, but never in a photograph was there the stench. The battlefield stank not just of cordite but also the coppery smell of blood, feces, urine, vomit, the smell of open raw meat, but this raw meat was human, or once human. Mixed in, the smell of vehicles burning, gasoline, rubber, oil, and, horrifying, burning bodies, roasting, bloating, bursting open as they fried.
The few elderly in the community still alive were pressed into service to teach the now all but forgotten art of canning. The problem was, there were hardly any proper canning jars and gaskets, which sealed them, to be found.
Black Mountain had lost close to eighty percent of its population in exactly one year, the college just over sixty percent, including the casualties from the war.
“What percentage survived here?” “Around twenty percent, maybe a bit less if we count those who came in after it happened.” Wright shook his head. “Is that bad?” John asked nervously, wondering now if he had failed. “Bad. Christ, it’s incredible up here. Places like the Midwest, with lots of farmland and low populations, more than half survived, but the East Coast?” He sighed.
“They say in all of New York City there’s not much more than twenty-five thousand people now and those are either savages or people hiding and living off scraps of garbage. A thermonuclear bomb hitting it directly would have been more humane.
“We had our asses handed to us, that’s the truth. Just several bombs, and we had our asses handed to us. With luck there might be thirty million people still alive in what was the United States.” “What do you mean, was?” The general shook his head. “Course you wouldn’t know; we’re not talking about it on Voice of America. You can write off the Southwest, including Texas, unless we can dig up another Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. During the winter, Mexico moved in. Claimed it was a protectorate to counter the Chinese.”
“China. Oh, they came with aid, plenty of aid for the few survivors after sixty days of anarchy and disease. And now there’s five hundred thousand of them on the West Coast, California to Washington State, clear up to the Rockies.” “Who?” “Chinese troops. Here to help us of course,” Wright said, his voice bitter. “Oh, they’re giving out aid, even helping with some rebuilding, but there’s no sign they ever plan to leave.” “So it was them?” The general shrugged. “We’ll never know, most likely.”
“John, three missiles total. One launched from a containership out in the Gulf of Mexico and burst over Kansas, Utah, and Ohio. The cargo ship, typical, had Liberian registry and had docked at half a dozen places, including Oman. We think the weapons might have been loaded aboard there, a medium-range missile capped with a nuke inside an oversized container. That ship, by the way, blew up right after the launch, no one survived, so it fits the terrorist model. Another over Russia, launched from another containership from near Iceland, same scenario, the ship blew up right after the launch. We don’t know why over Russia rather than over Central Europe. Maybe its guidance was screwy, but that did mean England and parts of Spain were spared. Last one burst lower, but still high enough to knock out Japan and Korea.
“Oh, we might of gotten even, John, but America a world power? They won; we’re finished. We’ve retreated from around the world, trying to save what’s left, and for those that hated us that’s victory even if we flattened their country in retaliation, and John, frankly, we might never know who really did it to start with. “There were no red meatballs, swastikas, or red stars on planes dropping bombs this time. Just three missiles launched from freighters out in the ocean, which then were blown up.
A well-designed nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude over Kansas could have damaging effects over virtually all of the continental United States. Our technologically oriented society and its heavy dependence on advanced electronics systems could be brought to its knees with cascading failures of our critical infrastructure. Our vulnerability increases daily as our use and dependence on electronics continues to accelerate.
As former Speaker Newt Gingrich describes the potential catastrophic consequences of an EMP attack over the United States, he notes that “this is not idle speculation but taken from the consensus findings of nine distinguished American scientists who authored the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack.”