It was mesmerizing when it happened; an eye, like that of God’s, formed on the edge of the heavens. Despite it being mid-day, the scene was clearly visible. For a Texan, the only atmospheric anomalies we’d see were airplane contrails, puffs of water vapor whipped up into linear clouds. This was different. I watched as the shape bloomed widely above the horizon like some stratospheric flower. I could’ve sworn the gentlest boom sound accompanied it. Those around me gasped and awed at the sight. In their voices, I could detect hints of amazement and fear.

I kept my eyes trained upward, using my hand to shield out the bright summer sun. I tried to keep my eyes from watering by squinting, but it was no use. I didn’t mind. This was phenomenal. The colors and forms were like something out of a distant galaxy, exotic collections of gasses swarming in a brilliant display. It was as if I was being treated to some once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event.

“My phone’s dead,” I heard someone say behind me. I didn’t budge. The ‘bloom’ had slowed to a stop and now hung frozen in the sky. “Mine, too,” someone else said. I was still enraptured with the sight, ignoring the technological overdependence to fully appreciate the scene. “My Apple Watch is dead, too,” the first voice said. Annoyed, I turned my attention towards the group. Each person was trying to summon their devices back to life to no avail. I reached into my pocket and withdrew my phone. I thumbed the side button in hopes of seeing the screen light up. Nothing. “The hell?” I said, agitated. My own over-dependence was showing itself. Unsure of what to do, I walked back up the street to my house. My dog, Aldous was napping in his bed when “Gah!” I heard a muffled cry from down the hall. Jennifer, my wife, came stomping out in frustration. Aldous sprang from his bed on alert and trotted over. “What the–everything just shut off. Even my laptop! I can’t even text the client,” she moaned. The power’s out? I thought as Jennifer continued venting. I stepped over to the light switch in the hallway and gave it a couple of flicks. Nothing. The fixture on the ceiling remained dark. “Let me check the breaker box,” I said. I walked into the kitchen and saw that the always glowing time indicators on our appliances were dark. Turning left from them, I went to the wall that housed the beaker box and lifted off the art print that covered it. I studied each switch, one by one. “Everything should be on, Jennifer,” I said, a hint perplexed. What is happening? The thing in the sky and now this? How does a power outage knock out our power and unplugged devices?

I heard the sound of the front door closing and peeked my head around the corner. Jennifer had gone outside where many neighbors, too, were fanning out on their lawns. Some were looking up at the sky, looking back at the eye of God. Others were conversing, showing each other their lifeless phones. I went outside and joined her. Dozens of neighbors were now in the street, commiserating that their power went out all of a sudden and that none of their electronics worked either. Jennifer was conversing with our neighbors from a few doors down. She had just pulled away from a conversation as I walked up to her. “What’d they say?” I asked. “Same thing,” she said, “their power just cut out suddenly. John, from down the street, said his breakers weren’t tripped either.” “So weird. Hopefully, the city is aware,” I added. “Who knows? No one can call them,” Jennifer replied. “I wonder if Miguel has power? He lives pretty close to the hospital,” I said the thought aloud. Miguel was our neighbor we had met when we first moved to Austin. We met at a dog park where our dogs soon became good friends. Soon after we did, too. “Wanna swing by?” I said. “Yeah, OK,” Jennifer answered. She went to the truck and I went inside to grab my keys. As I stepped inside, I couldn’t help but notice the deafening silence. I had taken for granted the gentle hum of the AC or the whir of the fan offering themselves as background noise. All was quiet. I grabbed my keys from the wicker basket on the entryway table, stepped outside, locked the door, and then went to the truck. The Tacoma was not by any means a nice vehicle. I had to unlock it with a key turn, unlike Jennifer’s car which could be started remotely. I gave the key two turns in the door to unlock both sides of the car and we piled in. I placed the key into the ignition and gave it a turn. Nothing. “The fuck?” I said, confused. “What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked. I tried again. “The engine’s not turning over. I don’t even hear the ignition working,” I replied, placing my ear down towards the ignition. “Let me try,” Jennifer said, eager to get to Miguel’s. I withdrew my hands. Jennifer tried the ignition five times before giving up, nearly punching the dash in frustration. “Gah, this sucks! That was an important call,” she lamented. “Let’s just walk there,” I said, “Miguel’s isn’t too far.”

The walk was punishing. What was usually a quick drive was today a smoldering walk. The Texas sun hung high above the clouds along with the bloom, though the latter looked like high-altitude winds were beginning to dissipate it. What we encountered on the walk, we’d never seen before. It seemed that everyone was outside, a total rarity on a working Tuesday in summer. “Isn’t this crazy? This is the most people I’ve seen outside ever,” I said. “Yeah, and listen…,” Jennifer said, holding up her index finger in the air. “What?” I asked. Jennifer pointed to her ear. “It’s so quiet out,” she answered. She was right. The only sounds were coming from the once hushed cicada, now more pronounced without the noises of the city quieting them. I was beginning to sweat now and dabbed the forming beads on my forehead. We turned out onto South Lamar to head up the last few blocks to Miguel’s. As we did, a sea of stalled cars clogged the roadway. It was as if everyone simultaneously decided to throw their cars in park mid-street. The scene continued for as long as the eye could see. Many of those who, moments earlier driving, had their hoods up and inspecting their engines. “This is wild,” I said to Jennifer. “Yeah. It’s creepy,” she replied with a tinge of fear in her voice. She was right. It was creepy. This road was constantly experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life but was now dead quiet like the life was suddenly sucked out of it.

We continued onwards, turned off on Miguel’s street, and his house soon came into view. It sat nestled back in a small enclave of old Austin homes. Their limestone facades stood in contrast to the surrounding modern apartment buildings that had sprouted up all around Austin in recent years. Miguel and his wife, Arita, loved living here. It was a locals’ last holdout in a city that used to be their own. The towering nearby condos stood as a reminder of that era of the city being lost to the past. The couple were sitting on their small, shaded porch with their dog, Sola. “Yo! You should’ve brought Aldous,” Miguel said when he spotted us. He donned a big grin as he came out to greet us. We exchanged loving hugs and gave pets to Sola who trotted back to the comfort of shade after greeting us. “Power’s out. It’s weird,” Miguel said before I even asked. “Us, too. Bunch of stalled cars on Lamar, too,” I replied. “Everything electronic is dead. The whole house just shut off at once,” Miguel added, shaking his head. “It’s unnerving,” Jennifer said. “At least during the Icepocalypse did we have working phones and you could start your car to stay warm,” she added. Everyone nodded in agreement. “Have y’all heard anything?” she added. “Nothing,” Arita answered, palming sweat from her forehead, “but I hope it comes back on soon. It’s hot as hell today.” “Maybe the grid finally snapped to the heat,” Miguel said. “Remember last summer when it was on the brink? Maybe it finally gave?” he added.

“It was a HANE,” a gravelly voice said behind us. It had the indelible hint of years of tobacco use. When we turned, a small man, in his 80s by his appearance, was examining the sky from his porch. “Sorry?” Miguel asked, unsure if the man was addressing us. “A HANE,” the old man repeated more loudly, not caring to look at Miguel. “Excuse me, sir, but what do you mean by that?” Jennifer asked politely after a moment. “A High Altitude Nuclear Explosion,” the man said, accentuating each word. Arita snickered. “A what?” she asked. The man raised a can of beer to his lips and took a long sip, then turned his attention towards Arita. “You kids don’t know how serious this is, do you?” he asked. Jennifer looked at me, showing concern. “Sorry, sir, but it’s just a power outage, right? The heat gets too much and the city has to conduct rolling blackouts to protect the grid sort of thing, right? Like a couple of summers ago?” I asked feebly, pointing to Mike to reinforce his earlier point. “There is no grid anymore,” he said coldly. I looked at Miguel who reciprocated with speculation in his eyes. “And how do you know this?” Miguel said, clearly growing agitated with the man’s nonsubstantive answers. “Because I helped design those fucking things,” the man said crisply. Miguel donned a look of surprise. Not every day you hear an elderly man say ‘fuck’, I guessed.

The man took another long sip of his beer, finished it, then began to rise from his chair. As he stood, I could see he was wearing a wife beater, pajama pants, and slippers. He must’ve been enjoying a nap or relaxing when he noticed everything go silent. He came out from under the shade and walked towards us. “I used to work on, shall we say, secret programs for the United States Military back in the 60s,” he said as he slowly made his way. “All I can say is I helped design delivery systems specifically made for high altitude detonations. Missile barometry, mostly. What you’re seeing up there right now are ionized gasses responding to the detonation of a nuclear device, and because of it,” he paused and drew in a breath, “an EMP has just occurred.” We all turned and looked up at the ring in the sky.

No one said a thing as we processed what the man just said. “An electromagnetic pulse?” I asked. I loosely remembered the acronym from my days playing Call of Duty with some college buddies after we graduated. Since we had all moved to different cities after school, we opted to hang out remotely over rounds of battle royale. “Yes, exactly,” the man answered with a cough. “When the nuke detonated, it caused a mass of gamma rays to rain through the Earth, blowing out every electrical circuit in its wake,” the man said. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about, like, radiation or something?” Arita asked. “No, fortunately. There was nothing to blow up that high in the atmosphere except the thinnest pieces of air. Oh, and the missile, obviously, but that was vaporized, so no radiation will spread,” he answered, Arita heaved a sigh of relief. “Well that’s good,” she said. “But an EMP is worse in this case,” the man stated. I could feel the sentiment of the group moving towards unease. This man seemed to know what he was talking about. “Ok, so what do we do now,” Jennifer asked. The man turned to look at her. His expression was solemn and held the slightest bit of pity as if he knew our fate but didn’t divulge it. “There’s nothing anyone can do,” he said softly. He looked again at the sky, back at the ground for a second, then at us with the faintest smile. With that, he turned and started walking towards his house a few doors down. We stood there bewildered as he shuffled away.

The next moment, I saw Miguel fly past us and run before the old man. “Hey, what the hell do you mean by that? You said you built these things, so you should know what to do, right?” Miguel said with a raised voice. “Miguel!” Arita yelled. He held a palm up in her direction, then spoke to her without looking away from the man. “If what he said is true, then we need to know as much as we possibly can,” he said. He has a point, I thought. “Look, kid,” the old man said, rubbing his hand over his face, “you and your friends need to gather as many supplies as you can and get out of town. In a week–and that’s being charitable–things are going to get bad.” Miguel paused to take that in. “What do you mean by ‘bad’? The grid will be back in a few days at most,” he said, more calmly now. The man looked at Miguel, then back at us. “There is no more grid,” the man said loud enough for us to hear. “We’ve all just been sent back to the 18th century. The power won’t come on for months; most likely, years,” he said solemnly. We looked at each other in disbelief. Years? “What’s he talking about: years?” Jennifer said panicked. Arita came over and threw her arms around her, sensing her stress. “You two hang here. Miguel and I will see what’s up,” I said, then walked over to Miguel and the old man. “So what happens in a week?” I asked him as I approached. He sighed and looked down at the ground.

“Here’s the skinny of it, because I want to go back inside and enjoy another beer,” the man said. The man heaved a big breath, collecting his thoughts. Miguel and I stood at ease. “Back in the 60s and 70s, at the height of the Cold War, we were looking at every way to deter the Commies from taking a first nuclear strike, one that would take us out before we could take them out. See? Since they got a hold of nuclear technology from a leak at Los Alamos and started their own weapons development, we entered a race to build the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. We made nearly seventy thousand bombs. The Commies made a ton, too, which ultimately led to Mutually Assured Destruction–something you probably learned about in grade school,” We nodded as he continued. “However, that would be incredibly costly for both sides. There’d be no winner. We wipe them off the face of the Earth, and they do the same. Civilization would be kicked back to the Stone Age, and likely everyone else on Earth would die from the fallout in just a few years. So, we decided that M.A.D.,” the man emphasized ‘MAD’ with his hands, “was not the ultimate solution after all, it was just a deterrent. So, the bigwigs at the Pentagon thought, ‘How can we defeat the enemy with the least amount of destruction on both sides?’ After all, if we irradiated Russia, what good would that be for us? No human could step foot on their soil for years, and their amount of natural resources would make us rich.” Miguel and I were locked in to what the man was saying. He continued:

“Back then, the military was blowing those bombs up wherever they could. From inside of mountains to deep in the ocean, they were blowing these nukes up. They wanted to see what the effects would be on everything from people to sidewalks. In case an attack ever happened, they wanted to be prepared. Then one day, someone had the bright idea to test them in the atmosphere. What would an explosion do in a place with such little air? How would the radiation spread? Etc. So they did these things in the middle of the Pacific Ocean way up in the upper atmosphere. A couple of tests almost blew a hole in the ozone layer. The Teak and Orange tests were so damn big, the scientists who built the bombs were spooked by how close they were to catastrophe. But what would happen when they blew these things up, they noticed ship systems went offline. They weren’t as advanced as the ones today, but had some electronics. Thank God ships back then still had mechanical engines, otherwise, they would’ve been stuck up shit creek without a paddle,” the man said. “That’s when they discovered the EMP?” Miguel asked. “Exactly. Of course, back then, our technology was not nearly as electronic as it is today, but moments after the detonations happened, electronic equipment ceased to work. It puzzled scientists for a while that an explosion, hundreds of miles above the surface, could render equipment down here useless. Eventually, someone discovered that it was the gamma rays, caused by the explosion, that fried electronics. Then, some nifty desk jockey at the Pentagon realized the potential: send a nuke up to space, blow it up, and BANG!” The man clapped his hands to emphasize the sound effect. 

“You send entire civilizations back centuries. No communications, no water treatment, no more vehicles to transport food–that was the big discovery,” the man said. He then paused and leaned in towards us. “And you know why that excited the military brass so much?” he asked. Miguel and I shook our heads no. “Because,” the man said, holding up his right index finger,” you only need one to do it.”

A chill went down my spine. Though I couldn’t know, I sensed one had gone down Miguel’s, too. “Just one?” Miguel said in disbelief, his words soft. “Just one. Think about it, the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki back in ‘45 had an explosive power of about twenty kilotons. The bombs we have now are measured in megatons. In fact, we have some that are hundreds of megatons. That one up there,” the man pointed to the sky without looking away from us, “that one was probably one hundred kilotons; five thousand times more devastating than what we dropped on Nagasaki.” “Jesus Christ,” I said. My vision began to blur and I withdrew into myself. The old man and Miguel faded away. Five thousand times the power? For a moment, I was able to internalize the horrible, awesome power the bomb would’ve had. I then remembered the black and white photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki from grade school. The cities had looked like god himself had dragged his knuckles across the Earth, then spit upon it a black ash that clung to everything. 

I felt a hand on my shoulder and came to. Miguel had placed his hand on me and was gently squeezing my shoulder, coaxing me back from the daze. Seconds began to feel like they, too, were blasted out of some bomb, ripping by at an unfathomable speed. The man was still rambling about something, but his words sounded like they originated beneath the ocean, bubbling up in incoherent bursts. I could feel my feet feel grounded again and the sensation moved up my body until it finally reached my head. I knew I was again lucid when I could make out the old man’s words again. “See, commercial planes fly at about six to seven miles above sea level. Whatever blew up up there was probably twenty-five to thirty miles up, making that atmospheric display pretty massiv–”

“How are you so calm?” I interrupted. The man stopped speaking and looked at me, cooly. Miguel, a bit taken aback by the curt interruption looked at me as well and withdrew his hand. “Young man, it may not seem like it, but I’m just as terrified as you. Mind you this was my world for years. This is the first time you’re hearing this, but not for me. I know what this means,” he said. His words, though devoid of empathy were true. This was the first time I processed this reality. How had he done it for years, working with these things, these demons that were built by the tens of thousands? I supposed it was the result of being too close to anything for too long: you just get used to it. I could a new sensation welling up inside me–fear; fear of the unknown, fear of that bomb, fear of what’s to come. 

“Ok, but then who did it? Who would do this, or even have the ability to?” I asked, trying to act my way out of my increasing panic. The man looked past me with a thousand-yard stare. I could see in his eyes he was chewing on the question, going down the list of potential enemies that could’ve done this. “I’m not really sure it matters, to be honest,” the man said after a moment, heaving a defeated sigh. “The damage has been done. Whoever did it won. If they detonated that thing over the middle of the country, then the entire nation is in the same shit situation we are now. Probably a lot of Mexico, too,” he added. “Fucking hell,” Miguel said, placing his hands on his head. The entire country was experiencing this? He squatted down and breathed deeply to try to calm himself. “What’s wrong?” Arita asked loudly. She and Jennifer had retreated to the shade of Arita’s porch. “Nothing. It’s just hot. We’ll be back over in a sec,” I said, trying to delay sharing the news. “Like I said, you fellas and your women need to get out of here. You’ll have a head start. Doubtful anyone, outside of a few people, knows what’s really going on,” the man said. “And what will you do?” I asked. The man grinned. “The fridge is still cold, got some more beers left to enjoy. Then I’ll probably just wait on my porch with my gun,” he answered ominously. “But y’all are young and athletic. You’ve got a chance. You just need to get out of the city because—what’s that saying?—‘Every society is three meals away from chaos’? Food won’t last long. It’ll be like Stalingrad,” the man said. 

If what he said was true, then this was sound advice. Leaving sooner was better. The thought made me recall back in the covid pandemic when Jennifer and I went to H.E.B. to stock up on groceries. Despite learning late of the impending city lockdown, we figured we could just stroll in and grab a few things to keep us comfortable for a few days. What we encountered in the store shocked us: shelves, once packed neatly with food, were nearly empty. Boxes and bags of this and that were strewn all over like a roaring wind had raged through. Toilet paper–toilet paper!–was nearly gone, save for the cheap stuff that feels like cardboard. Other shoppers were frantically running around the store, grabbing what they could off the shelves and hurriedly stuffing their carts full. I wasn’t even sure they knew what they were buying but were purely operating off an instinct to get ‘supplies’. We were only able to grab a few things that people ignored like some perishables and a couple of hard-to-reach bags of rice the panicked mass had missed. Though, if we were just attacked with an EMP strike, then we’d need a lot more than some toilet paper and rice.

I looked over to see Miguel still in his squatted position. He had placed his hands together, as if he was praying, and used them to hold up his chin. He seemed to be meditating, controlling his breathing, and keeping his eyes closed. I could tell he was collecting himself. The man looked down at him pitifully. He then looked at me and extended his hand. “Good luck, gentleman,” he said sincerely. “You, too,” I replied as I extended my hand. Despite his age, his grip was firm and determined. He let go, turned, and began walking back towards his home. This time, Miguel didn’t run after him. 

“What was that about?” Arita asked as we walked back up towards the porch where she, Jennifer, and Sola were sitting. Miguel and I looked at each other, unsure of how to unpack what we had just heard. “We need to get home and gather our things,” I blurted out. “Um, what are you talking about?” Jennifer said. A look of confusion showed on her face. Miguel, with his cooler head, raised his hand just in front of me as if he was saying ‘Let me say it’. “He’s right, Arita. We all need to get somewhere safe,” he said, surprisingly calmly. “Somewhere safe? What the hell are you guys talking about?” Jennifer asked. “We’re already home,” Arita said like she was asking a rhetorical question. “Exactly,” Jennifer added, clearly perplexed by my words. “OK, OK,” I began, trying to collect my thoughts, “the power is out because something really bad happened. This isn’t an accident. This is an attack. The power is not coming back on for a long time. The old man, he said he knew exactly what was happening. It’s a long story, but we can tell you more on the way.” “Attack?” Arita asked. The consideration caused her to drop her head and ponder the thought. “It’s not just a normal power outage. Our phones, our cars–everything that’s electronic is down,” I answered. I could feel sweat beading on my forehead. The Texas heat, coupled with the task of divulging the horrible news, had me feeling smothered. “We just need to get out of Austin, OK? It will be like the Icepocalypse, but much worse. We can go to the Hill Country or east where it’s more rural,” Miguel interjected. “Plus, we have no idea if more attacks are coming. This could just be the first wave,” he reasoned. “More attacks?” Arita asked anxiously. Miguel could sense the fear welling up inside Arita and he walked up to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, squeezing them gently as he did mine. “What the old man said is the truth,” Miguel added. The timbre in his voice changed to be more comforting and assured. I looked at Jennifer. Her head was hung high, staring towards the horizon. The bloom stretched much wider now and was thinning. I could see her grappling with the thought of its origin in her mind. “That was an explosion,” she said softly. “Yes,” I said. Everyone turned and looked up at the phenomena for a second. It no longer had beauty, but a horror; like some rare, exotic flower that was beautiful to the eye, but fatal to the touch.

The four of us sat there for some time, using it to grapple with the undeniable fact that our lives were going to change forever. The world stood still with the sounds of civilization gone. The silence felt permanent, a realization that nearly made me dizzy. “Ok,” Jennifer said nodding, breaking her gaze from the sky. “Ok,” she repeated, using the word to gather herself. “Things will start falling apart,” she concluded. “Yes,” I said softly. “Jesus, what about our parents?” Arita exclaimed as tears began to well in her eyes. “I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do for them,” I surrendered. Mom, Dad, my brother, my aunts and uncles, my grandmother, and my friends across the country were now on their own, too, I realized. “Then we know what we should do,” Jennifer said. “Yes–y’all go home, get Aldous, pack supplies you can carry, then come back here? We can pool our resources and talk about what to do next,” Miguel said. “Sounds good,” I said with a vacant voice. Jennifer could instantly tell the weight of the situation was bearing down on me, and knew I was struggling with it. “We’re still here. We’re together. We’re going to be OK,” she assured. I nodded slightly. Then, without a sound, the two of us nodded to Miguel and Arita and headed back home. The walk back home proved less thrilling than it did on the way from it. The cars, frozen on the road, were no longer novel, but like carcasses from a dead world. People were still outside, milling about, unsure of what to do. I wanted to tell them to go home and get what they could to live, but I knew it would spur panic, or they’d just think I was crazy. Instead, I kept mum and placed one foot in front of the other understanding that we were now walking in a new, silent world.