In a desperate situation, would you kill? Could you not only accept, but knowingly cause the death of another human being to prevent your own death, or that of someone you love? Well? Anyone?
What does this have to do with class, Professor Connelly?
Everything, Jesse. Tell me—would you make that choice? Would you keep choosing, again and again with each second, every second it took to squeeze the life from the body of your attacker with your own hands? Don’t look so shocked.
Professor Connelly, this is obscene.
It’s the worst kind of obscenity, yes.
So why are we talking about it? You’re upsetting people.
Some of your grandfathers, and many of your great-grandfathers, shot, bayoneted, strangled, gassed, and clubbed to death other men so that you could have the freedom to sit in your chair and be upset by the idea that they did so, Mr. Stephens. Some of your peers are still doing so, right at this very moment.
I still don’t see the point.
You still didn’t answer my question.
I really shouldn’t have to.
None of us should. But so many must.
You want me to decide right now if I would kill to defend myself?
How could anyone know that until they’re faced with the choice?
Excellent question. Let’s try anyway.
Professor, I understand what you’re trying to do. But we’re college students in 21st century America—some of the most protected people within the most powerful nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth. The question is sort of irrelevant.
Nothing could be more relevant. We’re here in class today to talk about the rise and fall of other empires, all of which have previously held the title of “the most powerful nation ever to exist.” Every empire falls, Mr. Stephens. No one is exempt from violence.
Maybe. But why dwell on it? Violence isn’t the only thing that’s shaped human history. It’s not even the biggest.
No? Tell me one human tendency that has had a larger impact on the course of civilization than the use of deadly force.
Ah. We have a romantic in the class.
Laugh all you want. It’s true.
Did Alexander raze Tyre because he loved the Tyrians? Did the Romans invent crucifixion out of affection for their subjects? Did Ghengis Khan practice the decimation of cities out of his bleeding heart for the conquered?
You could argue they did.
Please enlighten us as to how this could be so.
Alexander, and the Romans, and the Mongols, they—they all believed they were bringing order and civilization to a fractured, dark world that didn’t understand yet why it needed them. The conquerors all understood that the careful application of violence to the few would save the many, by pre-empting resistance to a new and better world order.
Out of fear.
Yes, but, don’t we all do that? Isn’t that what society still does? Isn’t that what we do as citizens, as parents, as—as lovers? Love when the loving is good, but when you don’t agree, follow the rules and behave, or face the threat of punishment. Jail time, being grounded, severance of a relationship. All of our relationships, even with the people we love most, are based on the threat of some kind of force. Aren’t they.
Wisdom stirs in the mind of the man.
I don’t want to look at history that way.
History doesn’t particularly care how you want to look at it.
I think—I think you can see it that way. If you want to think the world is cruel, and dark, and human beings are fundamentally evil. Maybe it’s even valid to think like that. But it’s not the only way.
You can look at the world as being in a constant state of entropy. You can say that everything is always falling apart. That love is an exception, and not the rule. But what if it was the opposite, and violence was the exception? What if love was the rule, and the moments of incredible cruelty in human history that everyone remembers—what if those were the flukes, the times when the system broke down?
You’d have a hard time convincing many people that there is a system at all.
There is. And it’s a good one. Look, professor, you can choose to see human history as chaos and death and suffering, or you can choose to look at the story of humanity as order and life and love. How you look at it doesn’t change reality, sure. But it does change you. A loving world is my reality.
And what will you do if, say, the American Empire were to fall in your lifetime, and you were faced with some Chinese, or Russian, or Iranian Alexander at your doorstep, demanding you change your perception of reality? What if, in the collapse of civilization as you know it, your own neighbors decide to adopt the Roman idea of love?
Well shit, professor. I guess I’d learn to love like Ghengis Khan.
Jesse’s mind raced with his feet on the pedals. He’d been disconnected from the world for just one day. One day had been enough. As he sped away from the supermarket it was obvious that he’d arrived at the critical moment. The cars and crowds thinned out in a radius from Wegmans. The breakdown had just begun. Food, water, and gasoline were at the epicenter. The pattern was simple enough. People hit the corner stores in their neighborhoods first. When those were empty, they moved on to the mom and pop grocery stores. Even the largest of those carried next to nothing compared with Wegmans. Wegmans was big enough not to feel the squeeze for the first few days. It could absorb the impact of its regular clientele demanding more water, more beer, more canned goods. But once the network of outlying stores emptied, collapsing like the outer walls of a sandcastle under a rising tide—that was it. The levees broke, releasing a flood of city residents into the main hub of urban sustenance, far more people than the store was ever designed to support. The castle would be quickly destroyed.
Jesse swallowed hard. If it was happening on East Avenue, it was certainly happening all over the city. What would be next? Where do 200,000 desperate, frightened people go when there’s no supermarket? No gas? No water?
Forget about them. Where would he go?
Jesse rounded the corner onto his block and raced the rest of the way to his house. It was dark and quiet here. Not for long.
“Caz!” Jesse yelled, bursting inside. “Caz, get out here!”
Caz came running. “Pizza!” He did a double take when his phone’s flashlight landed on Jesse’s heaving, sweat-soaked chest.
“What the hell happened to you? Don’t tell me you ate it already.”
“Wegmans is being mobbed.”
“Did you hear me?”
“What are they running a special or something? Did you get the beer?”
“Caz, people are fighting in the aisles. There’s no gas, there’s no water, and in hours there will be no food anywhere in the city.”
“What the hell are you talking about.”
“The blackout is worse than we thought. Or at least, everybody seems to think it is. I think we need to get out of here.”
Caz held up his hands. “Woah-woah-hey buddy, hold on there. You’re jumping to some serious conclusions. This is America. Things like that don’t happen in America.”
“But they do. Remember Hurricane Katrina? There were gunfights. What about the ice storm our freshman year? There was no power for two weeks. Everything was cleaned out. People were ready to start stealing.”
“But they didn’t. The power came back on.”
Jesse was getting frustrated. “I know what I saw! Haven’t you heard anything?”
“On the news, dammit! You’re a political science major. Aren’t you supposed to know what’s going on?”
“It’s the last week of school, bud. Ever. I haven’t checked Twitter in days.”
Jesse almost screamed in frustration. He paced the dark kitchen and took a deep breath.
“Alright. Let’s check now. There’s gotta be something out there. Some kind of PSA put out. Look for ‘Rochester blackout,’ or ‘Rochester riots.’”
Jesse pulled out his phone and punched the unlock button. Nothing happened. Dead. He bit his lip. A thought occurred to him.
Kate. Does she know?
This was all happening so quickly. Nobody expected it. If he’d missed the signs from his apartment in the city, there was every chance she had no idea what was going on, secluded as she was across the river on the UR campus. Jesse looked at Caz.
“No service. It was working an hour ago.”
“What were you doing an hour ago?”
Jesse did scream this time.
“Don’t get mad at me,” Caz retorted. “What were you doing?”
Jesse kicked the fridge. It hurt.
“I was on the Xbox too.”
“So there it is.”
“Ok, ok. I get it.”
Caz leaned on the kitchen counter, eminently unconcerned. “I’m sure we’ll hear something tomorrow.”
“Hear it how? We have no TV. My phone is dead. Yours will probably be dead by tomorrow. And even if it’s not, there’s no service.”
That bothered Jesse. He understood why a whole city could have no power. But why was there no cell service?
“You’re still not worried.”
“You didn’t see what I just saw.”
“I’m not saying you’re lying. But come on. There’s a billion cops in Rochester. It’ll be fine.”
Caz was right. Rochester had a huge and very active police force. Jesse had seen a cop on the way to the grocery store, hadn’t he? But—only one. And there weren’t any at the supermarket. You’d think they’d be prepared for something like this during any power outage. The cops at least, should know better.
Something clicked in his mind. His gut twisted. Of course the cops knew better.
“The police are gone.”
“Jesse, that’s ridiculous.”
“I saw only one cop car the whole time I was out, with a woman and a couple kids in the back.”
“So? This is a rough town. That’s not exactly surprising.”
“That’s what I thought at first, too. But he was headed south, away from the city’s center. I didn’t realize it then but the kids—they looked just like him.”
Caz was quiet a minute. “You think it’s his family.”
“You think he’s taking them out of the city.”
“They know. There are no cops around because they got wind that something awful has happened, something completely beyond their control to contain, and they’re already gone. This guy wasn’t one of the first on the draw for the disaster—he was one of the slowest to leave.”
“What you’re talking about is impossible. It would mean something much bigger is happening. Way bigger than just Rochester.”
“Probably bigger than the whole state. Maybe even—”
“The whole country.”
Three hundred and twenty-five million Americans simultaneously without power, without basic utilities, without communication. And possibly, without law enforcement. The implications were unpleasant to imagine.
Understanding flickered across Caz’s face. He shifted. “This could really suck.”
Jesse met his eyes as best he could in the dark apartment. “This could really, really suck.”
“What do we do?”
A few seconds ticked by before the question registered on Jesse’s mind. How should he know what to do? This wasn’t supposed to be happening. It couldn’t be happening. All communications were gone, so he couldn’t even call home to ask his parents. They did have one consistent source of neighborhood intel, though. Jesse mentally kicked himself for not thinking of it earlier.
“Maybe Boone will know what’s up.”
“Good idea. You check with the cranky old bastard, I’ll talk to Sylvia.”
Jesse felt a twang of regret. He hadn’t given a second thought to their upstairs neighbor, Sylvia Hernandez, her husband, or any of her three children before now. Or Boone. He’d been focused on himself.
“Ok. Meet back here in fifteen?”
“Roger that, buddy.”