It seemed everyone else was as astonished as she was. She just stood there, uncomprehending that such a thing could happen here. On the streets and footpaths all the other cars and pedestrians had stopped to stare, agape, similarly stunned. How could this be?
Inaction lasted only seconds, though it felt like it stretched for minutes. People began to move; some running. Cars started driving again. There was no screaming like in the movies. Though it might be different nearer the destroyed buildings.
She ran inside, up the stairs to her room, and started packing her things.
She could imagine how these things went. This was a major city. It would be high on the list of places to control, for any potential invader. And that had her frowning. Who could possibly want to make war? She couldn't believe it somehow. It must be some kind of mistake. But what kind of mistake blows up several multistorey buildings in a capitol city? She hadn't got a proper look in the fraction of a second available and the dark, but they'd seemed to be military jets flying in formation. Blowing up one building could conceivably be some kind of terrible mistake, but several? She couldn't see it being terrorists either. Terrorists might possibly steal one jet... perhaps even a couple... but several??
The suitcase was now full of clothes.
The lights went out. Oh great. She turned and looked out her single window. Outside, the city of light was a dark shadow. Perhaps the power station had been hit.
Carefully, she felt her way to her wind-up torch on her bedside table, clicked it on, and went to the kitchenette, got some candles, lit them, and pocketed the matches.
By candlelight she went to her desk, unplugged the computer, folded it up and slid it between the layers of clothing for protection, then closed the suitcase. The computer was her pride and joy. It had set her back a couple of month's pay -- even more expensive than her car -- and was less than a year old.
She filled her backpack with things that would be useful during the long drive -- snacks (biscuits, nuts, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruit), a 2 litre bottle of water, her wind-up torch, and on impulse, a large packet of powdered milk and a bottle of instant coffee powder. It was hundreds of kilometers to her parents' place, well out of the city, on a farm in the country. She should be safe there for as long as it took for this, whatever it was, to blow over.
Next she grabbed a shopping bag and put a couple of folders of mass-storage backups of her work in it. She pulled the feather doona from her small bed and tried to stuff it into the shopping bag. It wouldn't fit, so she crammed it into the backpack, leaving the top unzippered. Her handheld was still at her hip.
It made sense to go to the toilet before a long journey. She came back out with a roll of toilet paper and her toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and a cake of soap in a small bag. The small bag got forced down the side of the doona in her pack and the roll of toilet paper dropped in the shopping bag.
It occurred to her she hadn't called her parents, so she pulled the handheld from its pouch and tried to contact them. The cell network was down (of course -- power was out) so she tried the peer-to-peer, but it was so clogged she simply sent a text message saying she was OK and she was leaving tonight, that she'd see them tomorrow night or the following morning.
Angie was not tall, even for a woman. She was thick-set, but without any fat. Her physique was almost masculine and she didn't improve matters with her short black hair and tendency to wear t-shirts, jeans, and boots. Her face might have been nice, but for a habitual frown which thinned her mouth, darkened her eyes, and made her look intimidating. She didn't make friends easily because she was painfully shy and the falsely grumpy appearance tended to ward people off. In truth she was a sweet, straightforward, deeply romantic woman. Most people would never have suspected it though. Most people think they are experts at assessing people easily, when really all they do is prejudge based the shallowest of impressions. Angie was a long-term casualty of that.
She stood in the middle of the room and looked around. White walls with rainforest poster, grey carpet, imitation woodgrain desk, gooseneck lamp, bright little single bed which she'd never got to share (she felt a pang at that). Goodbye room... for how long? she wondered. Her eyes fell on the plants on the windowsill. Sorry plants.
The wind-up torch's neck strap went over her head, so that the torch hung in front of her, shining down at her feet. She blew out the candles. Then she slung the backpack over her shoulders, and taking the suitcase in one hand, pillow under one arm, and shopping bag in the other hand, she left her little apartment, letting the door click shut behind her.
She hurried down the corridor to the stairwell, then down to her little white car in the small apartment block garage. There were several people loading kids and suitcases into their cars too. Angie dropped the suitcase on her back seat along with the shopping bag of mass-storage, shrugged off the backpack and put it on the passenger seat for easy access to the nibbles, got into the car, started it up, and drove out onto the street.
The street was full of cars. In spite of the number of vehicles, traffic was moving well. It was strange to see the city like this: nighttime, but no street lights, the car LEDlights the only source of illumination. The roads were full of cars. There were almost no pedestrians at all. It gave everything a strange air of unreality, as if it was all a dream. Angie suspected the full realisation hadn't yet hit her. She felt like she was coping perfectly well, and that was good. Now was not the time to be paralysed with emotion. So she negotiated the traffic and dealt with the situation at hand, letting the car handle the fine points of driving, leaving her free to simply direct it.
On her way out of the city she saw a few examples of people who had brashly taken full manual override on their cars and had managed to crash them in their headlong flight, sometimes into other people's cars. She shook her head to herself each time. How could people be so foolhardy? It was because most people left their cars in control that the traffic moved so well. Traffic merged and parted like a mechanical ballet, cross-currents flowed seamlessly through each other at intersections, cars knowing when to speed up, slow down, give way, move ahead. And it was all done quietly in sleek, brightly colored electric cars, most of them wheeled, but a few legged.
It took Angie some hours to finally get beyond the sprawling suburbs, to the treed hills far to the west of the city. Out here cars were much fewer. It was almost midnight. She'd asked the car to check the net for news, with no luck. That puzzled her. Perhaps it was too early, she thought. The car had enough power to last it well into tomorrow so she'd had some biscuits and fruit, covered herself with the doona, and reclined her seat to try to catch some sleep.
She lay there inside her little car hurtling along through the night. Her mind wouldn't stop. She kept going over and over the evening's events. What happened tonight? Was our country invaded? Who would do such a thing?
Eventually she must have slept because she awoke to the grey predawn feebly lighting the dark land around her. The car had found its way across the hills and now flat plains stretched out before her. She had a drink of water from her bottle and a snack of biscuits. Checking the net maps of the area she realised her full bladder wouldn't wait for civilisation so she pulled the car over to the side of the road. After relieving herself, she stretched her legs a bit, walking back and forth in the cool, early morning. Birds were chorusing as if nothing was wrong with the world. The air was sharp and bracing, misting her breath, though she knew it would be quite hot out here later today. She turned to stride back to her little car when she heard that shrieking roar of jets in the distance. She searched the sky in the direction of the sound. Nothing. She found she was standing tensely, shaking, fists balled, teeth clenched, eyes wide.
She clambered back into her car and resumed the journey.
Somehow she'd felt the invaders would only attack the city, but there was no reason for them to concentrate their efforts solely there. Of course there was another possibility: this second lot of jets could have been defense forces. Her dread wouldn't let her believe that though. It was the bad guys. She felt sure of it.
The sun rose behind her as she drove on westward. She passed the time with psyk music tinkling and folding in intricate patterns while she did some work using the car's computer. She tried watching the scenery, but her mind kept rehashing events to no good purpose, and that seemed a quick path to neurosis. Work seemed to be the only way she could focus her mind enough to keep it clean and alert and free of trauma.
Towards midday she was approaching, but still some miles from, the turnoff to a medium large town. The main road bypassed the center of town. Angie debating with herself stopping for refreshments. It was still miles ahead, just visible, when a few of the dark jets flashed across the sky, low over the town. They dropped some faint cloud over the town, as if they were crop-dusting it. She decided she wouldn't be stopping in there after all. She made sure the car was sealed tight, with air on recirculate, and all the windows closed. When almost up to the turnoff, with the town buildings clearly visible only a couple of miles away, the town erupted in multiple explosions. Even after she had passed and was some distance away she continued to hear a staccato of cracks and booms from the town.
She wondered what the hell the jets had dropped on the town.
Angie was getting a bit tired of working. She sat back, pulled out her handheld, and decided to read a book. It had been days since she'd read anything for pleasure so she looked through the library of about 100,000 books in her handheld's memory card and selected a nice romance -- Karin Kallmaker's latest. Something light and happy would nicely counter the nightmare that was emerging around her.
By late afternoon she was getting fidgety. This was the downside to exercising regularly. She needed to stop the car, get out, and exercise or she'd go nuts. She pulled the car over to the side, zipped the backpack, and slung it over her back for added weight. She gave the car instructions to follow, and she ran along the side of the road with the car like an obedient dog at her heels. She continued like this for the best part of an hour, when she felt like she'd used up enough nervous energy. The car stopped when she did, she took the water bottle out of the pack, had a drink, wet her head down, threw the pack into the passenger seat, and got back into the car feeling much better.
Many miles further on, the sun was low, casting long shadows and painting everything orange, and she came across a roadside restaurant that was open! She pulled in and plugged her car in for a quick recharge, then walked into the cool restaurant. There were five people in the restaurant. Everybody looked up when she entered. An older woman looked rather drawn and worried. She asked Angie, "Do you know anything about what's happened?"
Angie shook her head, "Not much." She told them what had happened in the city, and what she'd seen happen at the town she'd passed. From the look of horror on their faces it was clear that she knew far more than they did.
Nobody spoke for a while.
Angie asked, "How come you've got power?"
The older woman answered, "Our own generator. Need one with the regular blackouts around here. We thought it was just a really bad blackout. There's nothing on the news or anywhere on the net about this."
Angie frowned. "I've noticed that too. I don't understand how that can be. I haven't tried blogging yet, myself." She held up her water bottle. Can I get some water?"
The woman indicated a tap behind the counter. "Help yourself. It's tank water."
Angie had just filled the bottle when she heard the ear-splitting thunder of jets roar overhead. She glanced at the other people. Their eyes were goggling in shock, mouths wide. Then there was the sound of hailstones hitting the roof. Angie looked outside to see metal balls raining down all around. Horrified, she bolted outside to her car. There were metal balls bouncing and rolling along everywhere. They were egg-shaped. By the time she reached her car almost all of them had rolled to a halt. Then something really strange happened. All the little eggs suddenly opened with a ka-chink! sound. Two comical little legs stuck out the bottom and the middle parted to have a round cap on top, a dark, gleaming midsection, and the round bottom of the egg with the two legs protruding. Now all the eggs started walking -- first, in random directions, then toward the restaurant building. One of the men from the restaurant had run to his car in the parking lot over the other side. Angie noticed that many of the eggs turned toward him as he moved, and even more turned when he backed the car. She saw that he avoided hitting the eggs with the wheels, but one was squarely under the car as he backed. It exploded, punching a hole through the car and blowing the windows outward.
Angie looked around her. There were no eggs immediately near her, but the road was covered with them in both directions. Doubtless the roadside would be too. She reached into the car, grabbed the pack, dropped the water bottle into it, zipped the top shut, and gently eased the pack over her shoulders. Now she tiptoed around the side of the building, clambered over a low fence into a paddock behind the restaurant, and ran.
She hadn't got far when the loud explosion behind her and the shock wave indicated the eggs had detonated around the restaurant. Pieces of wood and metal and stone whizzed past her. She looked over her shoulder just in time to see her car blown to bits in another explosion. Dismay stopped her. My lovely little car. Oh no! My computer! My work! She stood for a moment, then turned and walked briskly away from the area wondering how she was going to get to her parents now.