To a Sudden Halt
by Tessa Bennett
Emily Jackson was listening to the world news on the radio, not because she actually enjoyed listening to it but because she liked to imagine herself as the type of person who would. She was only one year out of college and still trying to decide just what type of woman she would be. She collected aspects of identity like overcoats, throwing them on when the mood or weather suited her then casting them into the back of the closet when she found they no longer met her expectations. With the radio recounting the day’s events, she decided she had become a worldly adult, the type of woman who knew the countries and leaders being described.
Leaning back into the driver’s seat, letting one hand rest at the bottom of the wheel while the other lay casually in her lap, Emily’s mind began to wander. She had an active imagination but a rather unexciting life. Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas she had traveled only thirty minutes away for college and back again after graduation.
She did menial office work, which was really all an English degree had qualified her for anyway. But in her mind, she saw herself so much grander than her reality. She was not just a petite blonde from the Midwest. No, she was a sophisticated twenty-something, a woman of the world just coming into her prime.
As Emily imagined herself discussing the latest events in the Middle East at a cocktail party — in a little black dress with a frosted martini glass in one hand while the other gestured emphatically about views she had not yet formed — the newscaster’s voice faded into white noise. She was too busy designing this new person in her mind to hear the warning.
* * *
If Emily had been paying attention to the radio, she would have heard that the most popular news story of the day was the recent failed invasion of North Korea. Within a few days of Kim Jung Il’s death, the dear leader and deranged despot of North Korea, the South Korean government formulated a plan to reunite the two countries under unified democratic rule. South Korean officials were convinced that the dear leader’s death would leave the government and military of North Korea in chaos as they struggled to fill the power vacuum. This left them vulnerable to an invasion.
However, the plan had many faults, not the least of which was that there was no power vacuum. While most of the world imagined a nation in a state of frantic desperation, North Korea had actually been preparing for the dear leader’s death for months. When his illness was determined to be fatal and he had been given only a short time to live, he transferred power to his son, Kim Jung Un.
The nation had hailed their new leader before it had mourned the former’s passing. Of course, no one else in the world knew that. The North Korean government had feared news of the dear leader’s illness would inspire other nations to move against them, which was surprisingly accurate foresight given subsequent events. So all news of the change in power was completely censored.
* * *
Emily had volunteered to make the drive for an opportunity to get out of the office. It was about five hours round-trip from the office in Topeka to the conference in Wichita. Five hours of pay with travel reimbursements and no co-workers, just her on an open stretch of sun-drenched road in an air-conditioned rental car. She couldn’t imagine a better Wednesday. All she had to do was drive to the convention hall, pick up the conference information packets, and drive back to the County Legal Assistance office.
Emily had started working for County Legal Assistance shortly after college. There had been a couple of desperate months of unemployment when she was afraid she would never find work. When County Legal Assistance offered her an office position she had leapt at the opportunity for the paycheck and also to make a difference in the world.
County Legal Assistance provided low-cost law services to the indigent and the disabled. She couldn’t wait to smile and nod when people told her how much better the world was with humanitarians like her in it, always with a downcast eye to give the impression of modesty.
But it quickly became apparent that she was the only one still clinging to charitable ideals. The attorneys had been there so long they had all given up any hope that their work made any kind of real difference in the world. So they spent the day shuffling papers, making half-hearted phone calls, and finding ways to torture each other with arguments over an empty coffee pot or a misplaced file.
Emily spent her day shuffling papers, answering phone calls from angry clients and angrier clerks, and trying to avoid the endless feuds between the attorneys. This trip was a chance at respite.
* * *
Kim Jung Un’s transition into power was not the only important information South Korea and the rest of the world had failed to realize. For the last several years, world powers had been monitoring North Korea’s nuclear development. There had been sanctions, embargos, and roundtable talks all based on a collective fear of what would happen if Kim Jung Il ever got his finger on the button. But no one had ever considered that this preoccupation was nothing more than a diversion.
The real terror of a nuclear attack is not necessarily the bomb itself. Most deaths associated with a nuclear weapon do not come from the initial explosion.
Fifty percent of the blast comes from the initial explosion’s causing a sudden change in air pressure and high winds. Within about a two-mile radius, such an explosion will destroy all but the sturdiest buildings and have an approximate fatality rate of 98 percent. But as little as five miles away, fatalities drop to 5 percent.
Dropping the bomb is not about destroying a city or a country; it is about laying waste to a civilization and salting the earth with radiation so nothing will ever grow there again.
With this in mind, North Korea turned its attention away from nuclear warheads. Oh sure, they still continued to develop nuclear technology to keep up the pretense. But mostly, the nation’s leading military and scientific minds focused on new technologies designed not to destroy people but rather to destroy the societies in which those people lived.
* * *
About an hour before she would arrive in Wichita, Emily noticed that the radio was static. She had been so busy daydreaming she couldn’t be sure how long she had been listening to the crackling and hissing coming from the speakers. Keeping her left hand on the wheel, her right fingers fiddled with the unfamiliar dials, searching for a station, but she found nothing but more static. With a sigh of frustration, she hit the power button and turned her attention back to the road.
Of course the radio didn’t work, that was just the type of thing that would happen to her. All she wanted was a day away from the snipping and backstabbing of cynical attorneys, a day free from demanding clients who always took their frustrations out on her, and a day free from...
Her mental list of daily injustices was cut short as she noticed the car was slowing down. Emily pumped the gas pedal, but nothing happened. She slammed her foot down on the pedal, feeling the weight of her shoe push through the pedal and press into the floor, but still no effect.
Starting to panic, she looked to the speedometer and saw the needle plummeting steadily downward. She guided the car to the side of the road as the car slowly came to a stop. The engine was still. She tried to turn the key in the ignition, but nothing happened. In a panic, she started pressing buttons on the control panel but not even a flicker of power. It was dead.
Emily took a deep breath in, trying not to panic. She pulled her cell phone out of her purse that had been resting on the passenger seat. It was also dead, even though she was sure she had charged it the night before in preparation for the trip.
She looked around and saw the turnpike was deserted; no hope of rescue. Alone on an empty stretch of highway in an unfamiliar place with a broken-down car, all she could think was, “This is how bad horror movies start.”
* * *
North Korea’s greatest success had come with the development of new electromagnetic pulse technology, or EMP. While EMP has no effect on living people or animals, it functions more as an electronic kill switch by temporarily or permanently disabling electrical equipment. In 1962, nuclear tests showed a bomb detonated 250 miles over its target would have EMP effects up to 800 miles away. North Korea was confronted by two problems: how to control the blast and keep it localized precisely and how to make the blast as effective and destructive as possible over a large area.
It had taken years of experimentation by the most brilliant minds of North Korea and a few other minds that had been surreptitiously borrowed from other nations against their will. But finally North Korea developed an EMP weapon that, when detonated, could permanently short-circuit a single radio on the other side of the planet or plummet an entire country into darkness.
* * *
Emily pounded her hands on the steering wheel, shouting and swearing at the molded plastic for betraying her. Having exhausted her impotent fury, she slumped back into the driver’s seat and started to calm down. She took a deep breath in through her mouth and slowly exhaled through her nose. She could only think of two options: sit in the car and wait for someone to come help her or get out of the car and start walking until she found help for herself.
On the empty turnpike it was unlikely anyone would come along for hours, but it was equally unlikely that she would stumble upon a garage in the middle of the Flint Hills. Taking in a final deep breath, she opened the car door. It was better to keep moving than wait.
* * *
When South Korea invaded North Korea, it was with good intentions, as every conquering nation has. They believed that Kim Jung Il was a deranged dictator who had sacrificed the well-being of his people for luxury and power, only to leave instability and famine in the wake of his passing. These beliefs were good and in many ways accurate: he had been a tyrant more concerned with himself than his people. But noble intentions are no protection against poor intelligence information and a weapon of mass destruction.
After the invasion had begun, North Korea did not hesitate to launch the EMP weapon. Within minutes of the initial strike, South Korea went dark.
* * *
Emily felt as though she had been walking for hours, although in reality it was only about twenty minutes. She had started in the direction of Wichita, because she had not passed a town for miles; with nothing behind her she could only hope there might be something in front of her.
The day was fortunately mild, a relief from the usual humidity of the Kansas summer, but in Emily’s mind it was the worst day of the season. The high sun was beating down on her bare shoulders and beads of sweat ran down her spine, pooling uncomfortably just below the waist of her jeans. She imagined how she would tell this story back at work. Letting all her co-workers see her sunburned face and shoulders, she would dramatize her toils until they all knew just how much she had suffered for their silly little errand while they sat comfortably in their air-conditioned offices.
But the more she walked, the less she cared about her co-workers. With every step Emily took, she began to see this latest problem as just one incident in many that she had allowed to happen to her. When she graduated from high school, she went to college and studied English because they were the classes she had found the easiest.
When she graduated from college, she had taken the job at County Legal Assistance because it was the first one she had found. Her whole life had been a series of opportunities and challenges. She had taken each one as it came but never really grasped it, doing only just enough to get by and never more.
This time would be different. Emily decided that as soon as the car was fixed, she was going to drive straight to the office in Topeka and quit. She was done with menial office work for petty people who spent their days fighting meaningless little battles with each other.
In fact, she was done with Kansas. Her friend Julie had been talking about moving to Chicago. That’s what she would do. She would quit her job, pack up everything she owned, and move with Julie to Chicago. As she made her decision, she knew it was rash and even irresponsible, but she didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, she felt as though she were finally making a decision that mattered.
After a while, she came to Exit 92 where a short ramp led off the turnpike to a two-lane road. To the left, there was only a vast expanse of hills and green fields: nothingness. But the right promised hope. She was sure she could see buildings in the distance, the first she had seen since she had begun walking. With a fresh burst of energy and conviction, she started walking towards the small town of Cassidy, Kansas.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Tessa Bennett