Check out The Rule of Three by Eric Walters, available January 21st, 2014 from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux!
One shocking afternoon, computers around the globe shut down in a viral catastrophe. At sixteen-year-old Adam Daley’s high school, the problem first seems to be a typical electrical outage, until students discover that cell phones are down, municipal utilities are failing, and a few computer-free cars like Adam’s are the only vehicles that function. Driving home, Adam encounters a storm tide of anger and fear as the region becomes paralyzed.
Soon—as resources dwindle, crises mount, and chaos descends—he will see his suburban neighborhood band together for protection. And Adam will understand that having a police captain for a mother and a retired government spy living next door are not just the facts of his life but the keys to his survival.
“Can’t you keyboard a little bit faster?” Todd asked.
We were in the computer room during study hall, our second-to-last class of the day. Not exactly where I wanted to be, but there were worse places to be than hanging with my best friend—even if we were working on his essay.
“It’s not the speed of my fingers that’s slowing us down. I can only type what you say. And you’re not saying anything,” I answered.
“Come on, Adam, I’m counting on you to fill in the blanks on this thing.”
“It’s your essay.”
“Don’t you want me to pass?” Todd cajoled.
“Of course I want you to pass.”
“Then you’d better get busy, because that whole passing thing isn’t likely to happen if you don’t contribute.”
“You wouldn’t need my help if you didn’t wait until the last minute to do your homework, you slacker,” I said.
“It is not the last minute. This isn’t due until final period.”
“Which is in forty minutes,” I replied.
“That’s my point. It won’t be the last minute until thirty-nine minutes from now. If I handed it in now, technically it would be early.”
This was Todd logic at its finest. He was almost impossible to reason with but totally impossible not to have a laugh with. The freshman girls seated on either side of us in the computer lab seemed to agree as they started giggling.
“Please don’t encourage him,” I said.
“And now you don’t want me to be encouraged. What sort of best friend are you?” Todd demanded. “If you ladies want to offer me encouragement, please feel free.”
They giggled again. This was obviously becoming more about him trying to impress them and less about helping me help him avoid flunking another assignment.
“Why didn’t you just do this last night?” I asked.
“I was worn out from football practice. Physically and mentally. You’d have been worn out, too, if you hadn’t quit the team.”
I snorted. “I didn’t quit. I just didn’t try out this year.”
“It’s not the same thing. I chose flying lessons over football.”
“What kind of normal sixteen-year-old chooses flying lessons over anything?”
“One who wants to be a pilot.”
“Just like Daddy.”
“Sure.” My father was a commercial pilot for Delta. He had been in uniform at the breakfast table and said he was heading to O’Hare this morning. I knew he would be taking off on his return flight soon, so he’d be home in time to read with the twins before they went to bed.
“Personally, I’d rather be like your mother,” Todd said.
“My mother is a woman,” I pointed out. “And I gotta tell you that picturing you in a dress, heels, and makeup is a bit unnerving.”
“First off, I want to be a police officer, like your mother. Second, the idea that you are picturing me in a dress, makeup, and heels is more than a bit unnerving,” he replied. “Just how long have you been fantasizing about me as a woman?”
Once Todd got started it was hard to turn him off.
“Excuse me!” Todd called out. Everybody in the lab turned to face him. “How many people find it disturbing that Adam has been picturing me as a woman?”
Lots of hands went up.
“Ignore him, please!” I protested.
“Adam, don’t be ashamed, embrace your feelings!”
“Let me know when you’re done, Todd.”
“In this day and age it’s important that all of us accept you for what you are and how you feel. In fact, I take it as a compliment that you fantasize about me.”
“I don’t fantasize about you!”
“Don’t be embarrassed. I’m sure you’re not the only one who fantasizes about me.” He turned to the girl on one side. “Right? You must admit I’ve entered your dream world at least once or twice.”
She stopped laughing and looked like she was choking on something.
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “Embrace your feelings, too. Live the fantasy and you could become part of the total Todd experience.”
She turned beet red, gathered up her things, and practically ran away. The other two girls beside us pretended to ignore us now.
“Nice,” I said.
“Mean, possibly. Fun, tremendously. That’s why God created high school—so kids in older grades could torment kids in younger grades.”
I knew that Todd could be neither embarrassed nor contained. He was as relentless as an avalanche. All I could do was redirect him.
“Since when did you decide you wanted to be a police officer?”
“Recently. I decided it would be cool to run around with a gun,” he said.
“The fact that you don’t have a gun right now is at least a small blessing for all of us.”
“I’ll ignore that crack—but if I had a gun I would force you to play football.”
“Like I said, I have no time.”
“You could have time for both football and flying lessons if you didn’t waste so much time on school. That’s my solution.”
“And just how is that working out for you?” I asked.
“It would be going extremely well if somebody would stop giving me a hard time and help me finish up this essay.”
“Let’s just get it finished. I have to get out of here right after school. I have a flight lesson.”
“Okay, Orville Wright,” he said.
“Hey, better Orville Wright than Orville Redenbacher. Three more lessons and then I solo.”
“When you get your license, do you know who I want to be the very first person up in the air with you?”
“I was thinking anybody except me!”
The two girls to my left started giggling again—as well as a couple of other people in the lab.
“You better not insult the man who has your future at his fingertips or—”
The lights suddenly went out, the computer screen went blank, and everybody in the lab collectively groaned as we were thrown into darkness.
“What happened?” I wondered.
“Power failure or something. More important, did you at least save my essay?” Todd questioned.
“I saved it… a few minutes ago. It’s almost all there.”
“But I need all of it there! What am I going to tell Mr. Dixon?”
“You’ll tell him about the power failure.”
“He won’t believe me!”
“Of course he’ll believe you. The lights are out everywhere, so I think he might have noticed.” I gestured to the darkened hall. “This isn’t just a power failure in the computer lab. Besides, I’m sure everything will be back on soon,” I said.
“Soon may not be soon enough, and he won’t believe me that it was almost done. You have to tell him!”
“He’ll believe you! You hand in your assignments on time, you never skip class, you do your reading, and you’re always polite to teachers. You are such a suck-up!”
“It’s called being responsible.”
“Suck-up… responsible… different words for basically the same—”
“Hey, my computer is down, too,” the girl beside us said.
“Everybody’s computer went off,” Todd said. “Computers need a magical substance called electricity.” He turned to me. “Today’s younger generation doesn’t understand much.”
“I understand that this is my laptop and it has a battery,” she said.
“The battery must be dead.”
“But mine went down as well,” another boy said.
“Mine, too,” a girl at the other end of the lab added. All of them were on laptops.
“Well, that’s because…” Todd turned to me. “Well, Adam?”
“How should I know?”
“Didn’t you win the science fair last year?”
“That was for designing a two-seated ultralight, not because I know everything about electricity.”
“Come on, you know everything about everything. I wouldn’t let you do my homework if you didn’t. Can we go and find Mr. Dixon and explain to him about my paper?”
I wasn’t going to do that. But I did want to see what was going on. I gave a big sigh and got to my feet.
The halls were filling with kids. The only light was coming from classroom windows and scattered emergency lights running on batteries. Classes had ended unexpectedly, and everyone was streaming out. There was a lot of laughing and loud conversation as kids enjoyed an early break.
“Can I have your attention, please!” a deep voice boomed. “Please, everybody, stop where you are!” It was our vice principal yelling through a handheld bullhorn. “We need everybody in the gym for a brief assembly!”
There were groans from the crowd.
“I say we head for the doors,” Todd said. “In this commotion there’s no way they’re going to be able to stop us from leaving.”
“What about the assembly?”
“And you wonder why I call you a suck-up?”
We headed down the stairs, only to find two teachers at the exit deflecting the river of students toward the gym.
“So much for leaving,” I said. I knew Todd was disappointed, but I really did want to hear what they had to tell us.
We went with the flow. The gym was dimly lit with just a few emergency lights. It was already crowded, and I felt a little claustrophobic as we pushed in. The bleachers were filled to capacity and we were herded onto the court, shoulder to shoulder. I was grateful to be taller than most everybody else. Did they really think they could cram fifteen hundred kids into this space?
“My phone isn’t working,” Todd said.
“You know there are lots of dead spots in this school.”
“No, I mean it’s as blank as the computer screens.” He showed it to me.
“Your battery is dead. Your phone needs that magical substance called electricity to—”
“My phone is dead, too,” a girl said.
“Same here,” somebody else added.
All around us people who had overheard were pulling out their phones. There was a chorus of disbelief and upset. It was strange how they seemed more upset about their phones not working than there being no electricity.
I pulled out my phone, just to confirm things. It was off—as per the school rules—but when I pushed the button to turn it on, it remained blank. I knew my phone was fully charged. The cell phone towers probably needed electricity to work. Is that why we weren’t even getting a screen? No, that didn’t make sense. Even without the towers there should have been power to run other apps.
“Can I have your attention!” Our principal was on the stage with a bullhorn. “Please!” he called out. “We need everybody to listen carefully… Please stop talking!”
There was a murmur of conversation that faded to a semi-silence, an acceptable level of cooperation.
“As you are all aware, we have a power failure,” he started. “We’re assuming that it’s probably countywide, as there is a complete breakdown in telephone service, both landlines and cell phones, which must be related to the power failure.”
The crowd noise went up as those who hadn’t noticed previously all pulled out their cell phones to confirm what he’d said.
“Quiet down, people! The sooner we can finish here, the sooner you can all go home!”
A cheer went up from the crowd and then applause.
“Silence, please!” The noise faded. “Whatever the issue is, I’m confident it is being addressed and will be corrected shortly.”
For some reason I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be so simple. I was still thinking about why the batteries in the laptops had gone dead.
“We’ve decided to cancel final period today and let you all go home early.”
A cheer went up from the audience once again.
He raised a hand to quiet everyone. “You can stay here in the gym to wait for the buses. If you’re driving or walking, keep in mind there will probably be no functioning traffic lights, so please be careful. Dismissed.”
There was an even bigger cheer as we all started for the exits.
The flood of students spilled out through every available door of the gym. With my dad away, I guess this meant I was picking up the twins at the elementary school, as I knew my mother would be asked to stay on duty with the power out. They’d be keeping all officers on duty, and as captain of the precinct she would be tied up completely until this was resolved. And since no power meant no flying lesson, my afternoon was pretty much shot anyway.
“Do you need to get anything from your locker?” I asked Todd.
“Nope. I guess that essay for Dixon will be due tomorrow, but we have study hall beforehand to finish it up.”
“I have to give you marks for being consistent.”
“All I need is a ride home. Hey, do you see her?”
“Keep your voice down,” I hissed. “I see her.”
Just exiting the building ahead of us was Lori—holding hands with Chad. I felt myself cringe. Something that nice shouldn’t be touching something that bad. I didn’t dislike many people, but Chad was in that group. A rich, snobby, squinty-eyed lacrosse player two grades ahead, he didn’t like me either. As Todd had pointed out more than once, it didn’t take a genius to figure out I had a thing for Lori. So far she hadn’t noticed, or if she had, she pretended that she hadn’t.
“I don’t know what she sees in him,” I said.
“Let’s ask her. Hey, Lori!” Todd screamed.
Lori and Chad turned around, and I wanted to find a rock to crawl under.
“I was wondering,” Todd called out as we caught them. “We were both wondering—”
“What you got on the history test!” I exclaimed, cutting him off. Lori, Todd, and I had the same third-period class. “An eighty-nine,” she said, and flashed us a smile. I felt my feet get mushy.
“That’s great,” Todd said, “but I was really wondering—”
“If you wanted to join our study group for the finals,” I broke in again. Todd laughed but I ignored him. “I know it’s early, but it’s important to get these things sorted out.”
“Umm, that would be great,” she said.
Chad shot me a dirty look. He was neither impressed nor deceived.
“Good. See you tomorrow. Come on, Todd, we better go now.”
“If we don’t leave now, somebody is going to be walking home, if you understand what I’m saying.”
“I understand. Okay, then, let’s get going. See you two ladies tomorrow.”
Lori smiled, and Chad scowled but was smart enough not to say anything back. Todd was younger but bigger, and he had a well-earned reputation for being quick-tempered, tough, and willing to fight just about anybody. It wouldn’t have helped Chad’s cool to be beaten up by a guy two years younger. They walked off.
“I think that’s part of the answer to your question,” Todd said, gesturing to Chad’s BMW.
“I don’t think so. She’s got too much going for her to be impressed by somebody’s car. You’d have to be pretty shallow to let something like that influence you.”
“Hey, watch what you’re saying. If he wasn’t such a complete tool, I’d become his friend just to ride in that car. Look at the piece of junk you drive.”
“It’s not junk, it’s a classic.” I unlocked the door.
“A classic is a ’57 Corvette, not an ’81 Omega,” he said.
I reached over and unlocked his door. “It’s a ’70-something Omega and it is a classic. By definition, any car that’s older than twenty-five years is a classic. Do the math.”
“I won’t be doing any math until next semester, when I have to take it as a subject.”
I turned the key and the car groaned but didn’t want to start. “Come on, come on.”
“I bet you Chad’s car will start,” Todd said.
“So will mine.”
“She’d better or I’m going to have to try and hail down Chad and get a—”
The engine roared to life. I adjusted the rearview mirror, got ready to back out, and… saw only people standing by their cars. I eased out and for once wasn’t fighting to edge my way through other cars. No vehicle was moving. Not one. Kids were opening car hoods all over the place. What was happening? I stopped and rolled down my window. There were voices, but no engines racing other than mine.
“This is weird,” Todd said. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure.”
I put the Omega into park, and Todd and I climbed out.
All of the cars were dead except mine. Then I saw an old beatup minivan slowly inching through the crowd.
“This can’t be happening,” Todd said. “It’s not possible that all the vehicles in the parking lot stopped working at once except for two old wrecks.”
A thought jolted me. “It’s the computers.”
“What have the computers got to do with the cars not working?”
“A modern car has more computers on it than the space shuttle. If something has shut down the computers in the school, they must have shut them down out here in the parking lot.”
“And your car, because it’s as old as the car Fred Flintstone drove, doesn’t have any computers,” Todd said.
“Exactly.” I had a brief flash of what all this meant. This was bad. Really bad. “We have to roll. We need to pick up my brother and sister. Get back in the car.”
“Hold on—that still leaves you one empty seat,” Todd said. “Lori!” he screamed, his voice cutting through the rising tide of voices that filled the parking lot. She was standing next to Chad’s car and turned to face us.
“Can we give you a ride?” he yelled.
She smiled, nodded, and came toward us—but not before giving Chad a little kiss goodbye. That made my skin crawl.
Todd held open the passenger door, she climbed in, and he got into the back. This was great, I thought, that she was right here and—
But then my head snapped back to the present. Whatever was happening might be kind of serious—at least more serious than the principal was letting on. Either he was trying to downplay things or he didn’t know… Wait… He didn’t know about the cars or he wouldn’t have mentioned us all driving home or getting on the buses.
“We’ve got to make one stop to pick up my brother and sister.”
“Of course. I just don’t understand what’s happening,” Lori said. “This is all so unreal.”
“I think it has to do with computer systems,” Todd said. “Cars have lots of computers in them. Well, except for old cars like this one.”
I shot Todd a look in the mirror.
“That’s what Adam thinks, anyway,” he said.
I nodded. “The computers control everything. Fuel pump, transmission, electrical system, power brakes and steering, locks, windows.” We started moving, and everybody stared at us as we rolled by. They looked confused, amused, and worried. At the exit, there were no other cars waiting to turn out.
And then the three of us looked beyond the school lot. “What a sight,” Todd said.
The entire road had become a long parking lot. There were clusters of cars at lights—lights that weren’t working. Standing around the cars were more people—equally confused, but also angry-looking. An old truck—again almost as old as my car—rumbled along slowly, weaving past the stalled cars like they were pylons. The driver looked at me and waved. I gave a little wave back as if we were members of some secret club. I moved over to the far side of the road to get around cars that had clumped together blocking the way. This was eerie.
“So you think this is some sort of computer problem,” Lori said, “like a virus?”
“Yeah, a virus of some kind. A bad virus.”
“But how was it spread so that it infected the cars?” Todd asked.
“I have no idea. Maybe through the airwaves.”
“You mean like Wi-Fi and the Internet?” he asked.
“Well, maybe that’s how the computers at school got infected. But the car computers aren’t hooked to the net. Maybe it spread through the GPS, or satellite radio, maybe even OnStar systems,” I suggested.
“That makes sense. Almost every car has one of those,” Todd agreed.
“But not all of them. It has to be something else as well.” And then the answer came to me. “Every car has a radio. It could be through AM or FM radio signals. That could be how the virus arrived and then infected the computer systems.”
“Do you know what this reminds me of?” Todd asked.
I had no idea. This was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard about.
“What?” Lori asked.
“This is going to sound stupid.”
“Look around,” I said. “Compared to what’s happening, nothing could sound stupid.”
“It reminds me of one of those movies where the only human beings in the world drive around in a car with zombies chasing them.” He paused. “Okay, now tell me if that isn’t stupid?”
I shook my head. “Not stupid. I think I even understand.”
I came up to an intersection, easing through the stalled vehicles, my progress marked by looks of awe or surprise from those standing beside their disabled rides. I’d gone from driving an old piece of crap to piloting an object of wonder.
Rule of Three © Eric Walters, 2014