SEED | Chapter Two | Friday
n interesting turn of events, to put it mildly. Craig Harper turned up the radio in his Corolla. Every channel was streaming live coverage of the president’s press conference. The voice of the president of the United States filled the car, as rough as usual but betraying more than a trace of anxiety. Craig stared ahead as he listened, trying to give at least a token amount of attention to the traffic, which was barely crawling along. Evidently the financial shit was hitting the fan now. He doubted the fan could survive the onslaught.
“My fellow Americans, by this time you have seen the emergency measures that went into effect this afternoon. America is not under physical attack by terrorists or a foreign country. You are in no immediate physical danger,” the president said.
“Over the past week, our banks began noticing what we thought was a coordinated bank run. Last night, we discovered the real problem. Our entire banking system has been penetrated by a team of hackers.
“The criminals have been removing funds from bank accounts across our country and depositing them in offshore accounts. Last night our counter-terrorism team attempted to stop the hack, tried to stop the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars an hour.” The president’s voice paused.
Craig gave up driving and pulled the Corolla off the road into a Shell gas station. He sat, gripping the wheel and staring intently at his dashboard. The traffic continued to inch past him, many of the people apparently oblivious to the president’s announcement.
“Unfortunately, the countermeasures taken by the Department of Defense triggered a sleeper virus, which spread through the Internet, jumping to airlines, brokers and credit card companies.
“We don’t know what this virus can or will do. It has resisted all our efforts to isolate or destroy it. As of 2 a.m. last night, the virus was replicating itself thousands upon thousands of times.” The president cleared his throat.
“As of now, I am declaring a national state of emergency, including a national banking holiday. Until we understand how airlines have been affected, planes have been grounded. Fortunately, we believe that our Pentagon, Department of Defense, and CIA systems are still secure. Our people, the best people in the world, are working around the clock to keep Americans safe and crush this attack. Believe me, American territory is secure. Our military has detected no incoming attacks. You are in no physical danger,” the president repeated. This time, his voice was firm.
“And now, the Secretary of Defense will let you know what to expect in the days to come. God bless us all.”
A short series of shuffling noises, the whine of an adjusting microphone, and then a new voice began. “All utility services, including water and sewage, electricity, telecommunications, and natural gas will remain active for U.S. residents, regardless of the payment status, until the emergency has passed. Public transport systems, including buses, will continue operations. We anticipate that gasoline supplies will run low. Therefore, critical services will have priority over personal vehicles.
“The United States is prepared to weather several weeks of emergency status. Listen for a situation update at this time tomorrow. In the meantime, we advise citizens to remain at home as much as possible, help your neighbors, and stay safe.”
Craig thought for a moment then noticed the sign displaying fuel prices had just increased by forty cents per gallon. Ten cars had pulled into the gas station since the end of the president’s announcement, and the line waiting behind the pumps was now several cars long. He maneuvered his Corolla to the end of one of the lines and sent a brief text to Skye.
After refueling—paying in cash, since the banking holiday had apparently taken effect immediately—Craig turned his ancient but steady car in the opposite direction. He had planned to spend some time at the firing range this evening after work to burn off some of his fury from yesterday’s incident before he arrived home. Some Glock therapy. But that would have to wait.
A few minutes later, Craig found Skye and Katie finishing burritos at their apartment. Even in his haste, he took a second to appreciate the sight of his wife. Skye had grown more beautiful as she edged toward thirty, despite her minimalist makeup. Her softness had melted away, leaving her with the features of a fey elf: clear grey eyes, sharp cheekbones, loose braid of night-black hair. Only her scrubs and lack of pointed ears ruined the effect.
He greeted the two of them briefly, kissing the top of Katie’s head, then headed directly for the kitchen pantry and pushed through the assorted boxes until he reached the very bottom and back. There, an emptied can of baked beans hid a bundle of twenty-dollar bills. Craig reluctantly counted out four hundred dollars. The remaining few twenties looked lonely curled in the fetal position at the bottom of the can.
He stood up to find his wife waiting behind him. Skye pressed a burrito into his hands and flashed a handwritten list at him. “We listened to the announcement. Let’s get groceries before the stores empty out.” She took the keys from his hands, spun him around, and hauled Katie with her out the door.
The drive to Buy for Less was short, but it took ten minutes to navigate through the parking lot already crowded with cars, people, and overflowing carts. Though the lot was crammed, there was a notable lack of panic—people were hustling, but not rioting. At the orderly sight, Craig breathed easier. He usually feared the worst. In this case, zombie apocalypse movie reels had played through his head as they had driven to the store, while he formulated back-up plans in case of fire and chaos.
Craig divided their supply list in half, giving Skye the perishable and food items and a thick wad of cash.
“Thanks, sugar daddy,” Skye said, as she tucked the roll of twenties into her purse.
Craig snorted as she got out of the car and called, “Be careful!” He exited the parking lot and headed to the nearest sporting goods store to purchase the rest of the items.
Skye and Katie held hands and skipped through the parking lot. After yesterday, Skye was determined to keep Katie’s anxiety level low no matter what happened. It was important to stay cheerful. Make the disaster-preparedness shopping expedition into fun family time, maybe even slip in a teachable moment or two. How hard could that be?
Inside the store, shelves were already beginning to empty. Skye and Katie hurried to snatch the high-demand items like milk, bread, and yogurt, skipped the meat and cheese areas as too expensive, then slowed to look at prices throughout the rest of the store. People rushed past them, tossing items in carts, not even glancing at the labels. Cans rolled off the tops of brimming carts, ignored by shoppers hustling to get to the lines already ten people deep.
Although the quickly emptying shelves lent the scene a surreal aura, shoppers were behaving in an orderly, though rushed, fashion. It seemed safe enough, so as their cart began to fill, Skye sent Katie back to the front of the store to get a miniature cart, one small enough for her to push. Katie darted around the larger shoppers traversing the aisles, returning in a few minutes with a slim-line cart already stacked with some of her favorites: peanut butter, jelly, pickles, and chocolate brownie mix. Skye raised an eyebrow but nodded. They filled the rest of the cart with oats, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, canned corn and green beans, canned pineapples, applesauce, and beans, all items with shelf lives of numerous years.
“That’s a lot of beans, Mom,” Katie said dubiously, eyeing their carts.
“I know, but we don’t have a lot of freezer space for meat, and peanut butter and beans stay good for a long time on the shelf. Plus they’re so nutritious, they have protein, fiber, potassium, et cetera, et cetera. And they’re cheap.” Katie wrinkled her nose but didn’t protest.
On their way to the front, they passed through the baby food section, then halted in front of the infant formula. What was left of it.
“Crap,” Skye said, under her breath. Their next-door neighbor had a formula-fed infant. Had Benicia been able to get to the store? A can of the powder was twenty dollars—a lot for their cash budget, but a baby that young could not eat anything but formula or breastmilk, and surely Benicia’s milk had dried up long ago. With the food in their cart, they would have enough for weeks, even months, if their harvest from the Earth Magic community garden tomorrow was abundant. But a baby might not survive longer than a few days without formula. And who knew how long this banking holiday might last? Stores might be out of formula for weeks.
Skye took four cans—enough for a few weeks—and showed them to Katie, saying, “Put these at the back of your cart. We’ll buy them if we have enough money left over after we buy everything else. OK?”
Katie nodded solemnly, and they kept pushing toward the front through the corridors that were now beginning to look as if they had been ravaged by locusts. On every aisle, there were empty sections on the shelves wide enough for a grown man to climb in and take a nap, if he were inclined to do so. Bare metal showed scuff marks from years of cans rotating in and out.
Skye snatched a few toothpastes and an extra-large package of toilet paper as they approached the checkout lines. Activity in the back of the store was starting to die as latecomers picked through what was left of the canned goods. All the staples were gone, piled somewhere in the carts now winding into lines at the front. Her fellow shoppers checked the news on their phones and settled in for the wait.
“Hey!” Skye turned to see her husband’s bright copper hair as he called to her from across the store. Craig was not an inconspicuous man. He was soon at their side.
Hugging Katie, Craig said, “I had some cash left after I picked up ammo and supplies, and thought you might need it.”
“Thanks, darling,” Skye said, standing on the tips of her toes and stretching her neck to peck him on the cheek. He obligingly leaned down for her kiss. Craig stood nearly a foot taller than Skye, especially since she rarely—never?—wore high heels.
Craig straightened and glanced away to study the lines of people standing placidly, staring at whichever screen was closest at hand. He suspected thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of housewives and businessmen and retirees and single mothers and families and bachelors were standing in lines like these across the country, all bracing themselves for life without credit.
What would they do without it? In the past decade, credit and electronic money had almost completely replaced paper cash and checks. As Craig had walked into Buy For Less he had heard cashiers explaining patiently that no, debit cards were not actually cash, they still had to be authorized by a bank. And the banks were all closed.
This store, like every store in the city, was only accepting cash. Not checks. Not credit cards. Not debit cards. Just cash—physical, foldable paper dollar bills and hard, round, shiny coins.
A few carts still stood at the end of the checkout line where shoppers had abandoned them after leaving the store without their goods, having not understood this simple fact. Other shoppers quickly descended upon the forlorn carts, liberating whatever cartons and boxes remained before returning to their spot in line.
Craig knew the store’s registers would be overflowing with cash by the end of the day, but unlike every other day, the cash from today’s receipts had nowhere to go. All banks were closed, so the cash would be locked in a flimsy safe somewhere in the manager’s office. Good luck with securing that box.
He scanned the faces in the crowd, alert for signs of danger or unrest, for any threat to Skye and Katie. His weapon was concealed in its holster, as usual, but a weapon would not protect them from a riot if one began to brew. Neither would jiu-jitsu. Around him, Craig read minor irritation, fatigue, the boredom triggered by queuing up in any line, even glimpses of occasional excitement at the change in pace from their normally predictable, though busy, lives. No signs of overt anger or fear, nothing that might ignite a stampede.
These people were not hungry yet. What had driven them here was simply instinct, the same instinct that drove a squirrel to bury a yard full of pecans or a bear to stuff its body full of calories before hibernation. But what would happen when the pecans were gone, when the pounds were melted away? Every store in the city was in the process of being scraped bare. Without digital cash to lubricate trade, the stores would stay that way.
Katie began to fidget, so Skye gave her a mission: find and return with the salt they had forgotten. Katie grabbed Craig’s hand, towing her father behind her through the barren aisles. Between the time they had first arrived and now, about forty-five minutes, the store’s inventory had dwindled to essentially nothing. All the goods were in transit, contained in shopping carts aimed at the cashiers.
They passed a woman staring dully at the milk section, now empty. Her two toddlers tugged futilely at her hands. Katie stopped, having caught sight of the mother’s expression, and looked up at her father. She could sense something was wrong. Craig halted.
“Try the powdered milk. I think it’s in aisle ten,” he told her.
The mother glanced at him, dazed, then understanding lit her eyes. She flashed him a grateful grin and strode away, keeping a firm grip on the kids. Katie hugged Craig’s arm, happy again. They found the salt, grabbed a canister, and returned to Skye, who had moved only two feet forward during their search.
The irritation level of the crowd was growing as people at the tail end of the lines were beginning to realize they might be standing in line for more than an hour. They were shifting, murmuring, but no one was yet pushing to get ahead in line; no one was making a bee-line for the doors. Craig narrowed his eyes, resolving that he would send Skye and Katie to the car and stay in the store with the cart if the crowd grew more restless.
“What happens next?” Skye leaned over and whispered. Craig took her hand and squeezed it, knowing it was a rhetorical question.
This was only the beginning. These people, though irritated by the waiting involved in purchasing groceries on this particular day, were the lucky ones—the ones who had heard the president’s announcement as it was being read, who had the presence of mind to make a quick decision, and possessed actual physical cash on hand. He and Skye were even luckier; they had prepared somewhat for emergencies. They still had some cash left over after this trip, plus bikes for everyone in their family when the gas ran dry, and the assorted preparations that any sensible family living in tornado alley might make.
But what would come next? These supplies would run out eventually. What would they do if the financial system was not restored within a few days, a couple of weeks? Craig didn’t believe they’d be dining on human flesh anytime soon, but…well, he just hoped there were some other options.
He supposed the government E-SWAT Team could, theoretically, restore the financial world to a state of normalcy. They had in the past. On the other hand, the majority of people were completely unprepared for any type of crisis. What was the statistic? In some parts of Oklahoma City, something like sixty percent of kids lived in poverty. They had to rely on the government to take care of them in an emergency. They couldn’t even care for themselves during the best of times. How could they possibly deal with something like this?
As his family inched closer to the cash registers, Craig wondered what it would take for people to realize that trillions of dollars of virtual money had vanished, forever, into a black hole of nothingness. No more retirement funds. No investment or savings or checking accounts. No college funds of stocks and bonds. No pensions or paychecks. On the other hand, no mortgages or debt, either. With all the complexity, could anyone figure out the real implications of the situation?
“Have a blessed day, y’all,” the cashier said, automatically, as they paid for their purchases. Katie handed over the twenty-dollar bills to her and grinned.