Frank quickened his stride and took a leaping jump onto the waist-high brick wall separating the sidewalk from the field. Kathy rolled her eyes at him. None of the other students busily hurrying to or from their classes registered a response at all.

“You know, this isn’t the playground at kindergarten,” Kathy teased Frank.

“Yeah, I know,” Frank responded. “If it was, I wouldn’t have made that jump.” He cracked what he hoped was his most winning smile. Arms spread wide, he balanced carefully as he continued walking along the brick wall. Kathy walked along beside him.

Kathy turned away and grunted, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. On the other side of the wall, a large group of students – too many on the field at once for a real match – was kicking a soccer ball around on the patchy field. They didn’t look especially coordinated, nor was there even a clear delineation between teams, but at least they looked to be having fun.

The two walked awkwardly in silence for awhile, avoiding each other’s gaze, until Frank grew bored of the novelty of walking along the wall and jumped back onto the sidewalk, nearly tripping in the process. He hoped Kathy hadn’t seen that, but of course, she had.

After several more moments of silence, Frank turned to look at Kathy. “Ready for the exam next Monday?” he asked.

“Not at all,” Kathy said mock-indignantly. “And that was a complete waste,” she continued, gesturing behind her. “How come we’re already learning new material that won’t even be on the exam?”

“He’s trying to teach sadism.” Frank paused for a few instants for effect. “By example.”

Kathy smirked. Then, she quickly side-stepped to the left to avoid an oncoming bicyclist on the sidewalk, bumping into Frank in the process.

“Idiot,” she said angrily, looking over her shoulder at the bicyclist. “The sidewalk is for people.”

A car whizzed by on the road to their right, braking and honking angrily at an absent-minded student who had just started jay-walking across the road.

“So, do you want to study for the exam together?” Frank asked. A slight tremble in his left hand would have betrayed his growing nervousness, had anyone noticed it.

“Oh, come on, you ace all the tests,” Kathy said with a tone of feigned annoyance.

“Well, I could help you.”

“Come on, you have better things to do with your time,” she said, smiling.

“Nope, I really don’t,” he said half-jokingly.

“All right, well I hope you don’t expect you’re getting anything out of this,” she said, her smile widening. Frank felt his heartbeat quickening.

They reached a group of students anxiously waiting on a patchy piece of grass between the sidewalk and street for a break in the steady stream of cars. The real crosswalk was a hundred feet up the road, but it didn’t lead directly to the walkway leading between the Mathematics and Physics buildings back to the dorms.

“So, when do you want to meet up?” Frank asked hopefully. A gap in the cars arrived and the group pushed out into the streeth. Frank stepped off the curb and followed them, Kathy closely behind him.

“How about toni-”

The world turned red in an instant.

Jagged loping arcs of pure white electricity lept between the power lines leading to the Physics building.

The red afterglow faded just as soon as it had come.

Everyone stopped in their tracks. One man fell over himself.

An oncoming car plowed into the students in the road behind Frank at low speed, the panicked driver stomping on the brakes to little effect.

Frank pulled Kathy up onto the opposite sidewalk.

People witnessing the carnage behind them began screaming for help. Others just began screaming.

“What the-” Kathy began saying. A loud boom from elsewhere on campus cut her off. The assembled crowd whipped around and looked in the direction of the presumed explosion, but saw nothing. The screaming ceased as people strained to hear anything further.

More out-of-control cars collided into each other on the roads, followed by bewildered motorists stepping out and staring at their vehicles in exasperation.

“Something happened,” Frank said softly. He was still holding Kathy’s hand, but he was no longer thinking at all about how he could turn a study session into something more. The traffic light up the street was dead.

Frank glanced at his watch. It was blank. “Something big happened.”

Kathy fumbled with her cell phone, but it wouldn’t turn on.

One of the students that had been struck by the car unsteadily got to his feet, clutching his leg. He started yelling at the driver of the car, unaware that larger problems were afoot.

“Nothing works!” Kathy said with increasing exasperation. She threw the cell phone down in disgust. The other students were collecting themselves.

“What happened?” Kathy asked Frank. The silence was deafening, punctuated only by curious and frightened whispers. He didn’t answer her right away. He was staring up in the sky, transfixed. Slowly, Kathy followed his gaze, and was frozen in horror too.

“Remember this moment. The moment that everything changed.”

They stared at the jetliner in the sky several miles out. It continued on its steep downwards trajectory, trailing a contrail of smoke that was too gray to be just water vapor. It developed a list to the left, and then with a chorus of shocked gasps from the attentive crowd, it rolled over entirely, and quickened its meeting with the ground. In the distance, in the direction of the airport, two more jetliners sought a similar fate.

The exam that would now never happen was the last thing on their minds.

4 Responses to “Pulse”

  1. William (green) Says:

    “Have you considered writing something that didn’t end in doom?” was my first response to this, but I really like. It doesn’t really feel like it stands on its own, though. The last line is a little too obvious for its own good, and it needs a stronger conclusion, maybe. Alternate, you’ve got a good introduction for a slightly longer short story if you wanted to write one.

    It didn’t really leave me with any serious questions. Here’s what I want to know, in the order they came to me:
    1) What caused the EMP? Was it a hostile overhead nuclear detonation or something connected to the Physics building?
    2) Will he score with Kathy?
    3) Why is the world red? Is that a metaphor? Is it a clue to the cause of the EMP?

    But as you know, I’m no critic, so take that all with a grain of salt.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    You may not be a professional critic, but then again I’m not a professional writer, so it evens out :-) Your comments are very helpful.

    Regarding the ending, a lot of the weaknesses in these short stories is that I’m still writing them more like blog posts than proper short stories, which is to say in one or two sessions, and rather quickly at that. If you’re going to be doing this properly, you generally take longer to write it, and revise it many more times. The last sentence wouldn’t have survived a proper editing intact.

    And yes, I know that this is only the first part of a multi-part series that I may or may not get around to writing. This is just the EMP hitting – the question is, what happens afterwards?

    And even though it risks spoiling possible future installments, here are the answers to the questions. I’ll put a spoiler warning here just in case.
    1) I was thinking along the lines of an astronomical event that wiped out anything electrical on the entire half of the Earth facing the source. As to what could cause an EMP wave to propagate through space without any other associated EM radiation, who knows – maybe a partially shielded supernova? Maybe I should have just added a bright light in the sky to cover my ass.
    2) To be honest, the whole Kathy thing was kind of written as a throw-away introduction to what I wanted to get to. What happens with Kathy is irrelevant – society as we know it is ending here!
    3) I have no idea what the physiological effects of a massive EMP burst would be, so seeing blood red was my best guess.

  3. knacker Says:

    Make it something lovecraftian

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    Klaatu barada nikto