Episode Six ♦ Standstill 

Ordering up Claude Debussy’s La mer on his Informateur, Luis waited for his train on the platform of Unity Plaza Station. He moved with the crowd and boarded the train. Finding an available window seat was a pleasant surprise. He sat, rested his head against the glass, and closed his eyes. That Willem had not contacted him with departure information left Luis wondering if he had offended his friend.

The train glided out of the station while the music salved his conscience. The first movement finished, he thought “repeat,” and the symphony returned to the initial deep, sustained notes of strings and harp. As violins and woodwinds joined, he recalled the mystery of the sea: his only contact with it a couple childhood shore visits. He had been reluctant to get more than his ankles wet.

For Luis La mer was a perfect musical painting: the symphonic motives conjuring up images, not of quiet seaside retreats with his family, but of an ocean capable of a full range of emotions. His favorite passage came about five minutes into the piece and ignited fantasies of traveling across storm tossed waves. Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave came to his mind. Flashing back to his dream of the prior evening — strange with images of an enraged, catastrophic sea — it seemed so opposed to the music drifting through his head and more akin to the sea of Turner’s The Slave Ship or maybe even Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Screech! He lurched forward in his seat. He blinked his eyes to ensure they were open but saw nothing. The train is stopped. We must still be in the tunnel. The train has never halted without lights.

He thought, “train status.” Silence. “Information on this train.” No reply came.

“News!”

Nothing.

He tapped the spot on his skull and said aloud, “Emergency alert. Status. Information. Help.”

Still nothing.

Disembodied voices vomited out similar commands. He guessed they also received no response. I am not alone.

A woman called out, “Anyone got an idea what’s going on?”

“No!” another answered.

“Stay calm,” a deep, masculine voice ordered. “Must be some sort of system malfunction.”

Another man responded, “Yeah? So? Why hasn’t anything like this happened before?”

Lots of mumbling and finally someone shrilled, “It has. Just not here.”

Luis tuned out the chatter. It was not helping. I want real information, not guesses and half-baked explanations. Afraid to move hand or foot for fear of making contact with someone near him, he sat perfectly still.

Is the entire world similarly paralyzed?

Time passed and he re-queried his Informateur. No response.

The point of someone’s shoe found his shin. “Excuse me. Did I hurt you?” It was a woman’s voice.

Is a woman sitting across from me? I did not notice.

“No, not at all,” Luis fibbed. “I wonder how long we will be here. It is getting rather warm.”

No one responded.

Are they feeling this nervous? Has it been five minutes? Maybe ten? Or only two?

Small conversations took place throughout the dark train car. No one cried out in terror. His mind drifted to the world outside the tunnel, coming to an end while they sat inside the train quietly awaiting their fate.

We just sit here, polite, waiting.

A nearby voice offered, “Hi. I’m Stefán. I teach classics at Humana College in Hartfield. I just married and we moved into a one-and-a-half bedroom flat in Wharton Grove. I feel kind of foolish it takes something like this to get me to introduce myself to people I ride the train with every day.”

A woman, the proximity of her voice suggesting she probably had bumped Luis’ shin, took up the introduction, “Nice to meet you, Stefán. I’d shake your hand but know I couldn’t find it.” She giggled. “And I haven’t played ‘touchy-feely’ since middle school.” The laughter caught on. “I’m Margot and graduated from university in Hartfield last winter. I had an interview today.”

“How did it go?” Luis recognized Stefán’s voice.

“Fine. I think.”

Another woman spoke up, “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about. You know they only invite people to interviews they are thinking of hiring.”

“I’ve heard that,” Margot replied. “It was just my first. It all feels so new to me.”

“Even if something happens and they don’t hire you,” this voice was new, “at least you’ve had your first interview. The first is always the hardest. Now you know what to expect.”

OUCH! A blinding flash replaced the darkness. Luis slammed his eyes closed. Cries and gasps popped all around but nothing else happened.

“It’s okay, the lights just came back on,” someone shouted. A few people clapped.

Luis pried his eyelids open and closed them again, repeating the maneuver a number of times growing more accustomed to the piercing light. He turned his head to the window, bashful, not wanting to look at Margot until he was in control.

The air conditioning kicked in and a voice came from the ceiling of the train, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience ladies and gentlemen. There has been a problem with railroad operations. Rest assured transit operations engineers are investigating and working diligently to return the system to normal working order. We will share any further information the moment we have it. Please relax. You’ll be home as soon as it is safe. Thank you for your patience.”

Luis flashed Margot a brief, closed-lipped smile. She returned it warmly. He looked out of the window at the blackness of the subway tunnel wall.

♦ ♦ ♦

The commute home usually happened at the same time of day and rarely took more than thirty-five minutes. This time of year Luis usually arrived home before sunset, but today his first sense of how long they had sat motionless in the subway only came as he exited Roseville Station. It was completely dark; the walkway lamps were out. Without the faintest glimmer in the west, he was unable to guess how long it had been since sundown.

Luis started to walk home enjoying the cool, night air. He neared a group immersed in private conversation.

“Excuse me,” he interrupted. “Is anyone getting an Informateur signal?” A couple people shook their heads. “Thanks.” He continued the walk home admiring the brightness of the newly waning moon.

How odd the Informateur is still silent. I wonder if that is related to the train stopping? He walked along the concrete path past buildings, the sports complex, and the faux Asiatic garden. Wow! That is really odd. He is urinating on a bush... and that guy is going on a tree. How uncouth.

Luis entered his building and walked up a flight of stairs. The second floor lobby and the dining hall were both packed with other residents. Luis recognized a face as a neighbor and raised his eyebrows, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing’s working. Seems this stuff all depends on the same whatever that powers the Informateur. Even the elevators are stopped.”

“People are trapped?”

“Not now. When the lights came back on, they went to the ground floor. You’ll have to use the stairs. I hope you don’t need a toilet…”

Luis shook his head. “Thanks.”

Climbing thirty-four flights of stairs will be useless if I cannot open the door. Why don’t I ever take a book to read on the train?

Luis walked around the dining room until he found a small table where no one was seated. As time passed he grew weary. He folded his arms on the table and rested his brow on his forearm just behind his wrist. His eyelids grew heavy.

“May I have your attention?” An unknown voice projected across the dining hall. Luis sat up. “Thank you. I’m Karl, vice-chair of the building council. I accompanied the chair to the main constabulary office for Roseville and have been asked to share some information with you.

“Today around 5:30 local time, the communication infrastructure of the Middle Atlantic District suffered a severe disruption in service — but I don’t have to explain that to those of you who were stuck on trains and in elevators. Information is still very limited and all we have been told is system engineers are working on restoring communications. I was sent back here to tell you that service is expected within an hour or two. This should allow you to use the elevators, toilets, and enter your rooms and apartments. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to other systems – food, climate control, laundry – as the system recovers.

“We will have periodic updates here until your Informateurs return to service. That’s all the information I have at present. Thank you for your patience.”

Others started talking in small groups. Luis sighed and returned to his resting position on the table top.

This is so strange — no food and I cannot even go to bed. I wish I had had a vitamin drink today. Wait. No I don’t. The idea of exposing himself in public, even at the need of urination, was about as humiliating an experience as Luis could imagine. I should have stopped at the Local Produce Market tonight, an apple or pear or something would help.

Time passed and someone announced the elevators were working. The crowd moved towards the elevators, but Luis decided to wait until the rush passed. Why hurry? Are the doors working? Besides, maybe the food formatters are.

BAM! An intense pressure exploded inside his head. He bolted upright and looked around. The remaining people grasped and prodded and massaged their own skulls in seeming solidarity with Luis’ pain.

A minute passed and the “Ode to Joy” started playing. “Blech. Beethoven,” Luis exclaimed. He blushed, embarrassed by this vocalization. Still, it was a sign the Informateur was again working... and De Authoriteit was still in control.

“Citizens,” the officious voice addressed the Confederation through the implanted receivers. “The following is a statement released by the office of Presiding Minister Diedrich Brandt.

“This afternoon terrorists sabotaged key communication installations in the Middle District of the Northwest Atlantic Sector of the Industrial Confederation. Disruption of communications has been widespread throughout the sector but most systems have returned or are returning to normal operations.

“While we are still investigating the circumstances of today’s disruption, we reassure citizens we will bring to justice anyone involved in this or any terrorist act against the Confederation. At this time we are unable to rule out the involvement of the Islamic League or the Union of South and East Asia, but, as always, maintain a vigilant stance against international aggression. It is our sincere intent...”

Luis stood and walked towards the elevators wishing he could turn off rather than just tune out the rest of the statement.

The last thing we need is a new wave of violence.

♦ ♦ ♦