He was disconnected, cut adrift, left alone, lost, all of this happening so quickly he was not even frightened at first.
He heard the motors spooling up, rising to a shriek, and arcs of electricity erupted from the machine behind him in blue flashes; the crowd pressed and shoved its way toward daylight. He jabbed at the useless phone in his hand, an expensive model, equipped with everything he ever needed, sex, transport, shopping, drugs, entertainment, but found that all these things had been cut off from him without warning.
His hand was shaking by the time he went through the security points; still none of the technology was working, still he was completely blind and mute and alone. Daylight and noise met him headlong, and all of the enormity of the city hung over him, but still nothing worked. How could he be in the middle of these giant corporate buildings, and all these electronic adverts, and the mass of electric cars and hydrogen-fuelled buses and information terminals and air-conditioned cafes, how could he be in the centre of it all and not be connected?
He, Harold Knight, had been unpersoned.
He didn’t exist. Couldn’t make calls, couldn’t send messages, couldn’t see the map, see where he was, listen to his music, call cabs. He was above ground—it should be working again by now—but all of the signals had stopped.
And then he realised it wasn’t just him.
People around him were beginning to panic. There was quiet horror at the fact that everyone had lost the internet, had lost mobile phone signal, that all these premium tablets and phones had just turned into colourful bricks.
Everyone had been cut adrift, left standing lost on the streets among the towers of the Square Mile. Taxis were pulling over to readjust global positioning systems, for these had all failed too.
It was the end. Russia had finally got to them, or the hacktivists, or the North Koreans, or the Chinese. How? How, when he had just been relaxing on the express train to Euston, how, when he had been reclining, first class, fully connected to the news to people to friends to frenemies to colleagues and now fresh off the tube all of this was happening? And why? What had any of them done to deserve this? Twenty minutes ago he’d sending Snapchats to Bianca and trying to decide what they were (boyfriend and girlfriend? Two people on verge of deciding whether they were boyfriend and girlfriend? Two people on the verge of the verge of deciding?)
And now they were all under attack.
He rooted a Pall Mall, crushed the menthol capsule in the filter, and tried with his sweaty hands to light it.
He checked again. Still none of his social media apps were updating, or sending any of his messages. His feeds and timelines were frozen.
Harold was pouring sweat and sucking on the cigarette to calm himself. How could he stay in touch with the movements of the world now? How could he know what Bianca might be thinking?
And this was just the latest event. A few months ago, March, the landline phones had failed. First he’d known, at his desk in the council offices, had been an unwelcome email from an administrator, named Annie, in the social care department of the council where he worked: there had been a four minute loss of landline phones and could he send a message to organisation to notify people that there had been a four minute loss of landline phones. When he didn’t do this, Annie gave him hell.
Then everyone realised it had happened all over the world.
Five emergency planning meetings followed, at which nothing of consequence was planned at all. Afterwards, experts decided that it had likely been caused by a solar flare, while the alternative right said that it was part of a shadowy stratagem thought up by Russia.
Then April: electrical interference scrambling airliners all over the world. Solar flares, again, and mumblings of a terror attack on a massive scale.
May: a strange occurrence at SETI. The radio receivers had spontaneously ‘transmitted’ a short, deafening, and incoherent burst of radio waves into the sky. Such a thing was meant to be impossible. Scientists spoke of it being caused by the ongoing solar flare activity, of the dishes somehow acting as conductors for the radiation and in general of this activity affecting Earth in such a way as had never been seen before and that needed urgently to be addressed.
It wasn’t like Harold had been hoarding tinned food or preparing the council for whatever doom these events presaged. How could he, when all the talk had been of Referendum and him promoting electoral registration to all and sundry?
But now there was this. And now it was real.
Almost an hour passed. He tried to concentrate on reaching the conference, which was… where was it… Leadenhall Street, maybe? The skyscrapers and neoclassical banks and guilds looked so secure, still. He was drenched in sweat. Everywhere there were worried conversations about the internet and solar flares and North Korea. People’s Twitters and Facebooks taken off them like toys off naughty kids.
He smoked cigarette after cigarette, trying to find the venue for the conference, trying to concentrate on this search and not the unfolding disaster. He had never felt so alone or so frightened and was convinced the lights in those soaring towers were about to go out.
Then it ended. The internet came back, Harold heaved a sigh of relief that felt as good as a nicotine hit, and the fear ebbed away.
And everyone carried on as normal.
Samuel Buckley was born in Leicester; lived and worked since then in Liverpool, Bedfordshire and London. Worried parents by writing weird stories from age 9 onwards. Graduated from Liverpool University with B.A. in English and unhealthy fascination with T.S. Eliot. From then, plied trade as an author, hotel porter, cleaner, cold-caller, museum guidebook writer, press officer, survey designer and charity worker. As of 2017, also a super-commuter who reads too much J.G. Ballard and annoys Londoners by acting like a tourist. Published in Yellow Mama Magazine, Bewildering Stories, Brilliant Flash Fiction and more.