Short Stories

Solar Storm

Disaster struck Earth at the beginning of winter. Satiates plummeted, eliminating nearly all forms of communication. The conspiracy theorists blamed aliens or a massive explosion from the sun, and the uncreative blamed Russia and China. However, the tech failures also affected everyone.

The big cities failed first. Many didn’t heed the evacuation warning. Instead, their inhabitants raided the stores. Stealing high-priced electronics, designer clothes, and other ridiculous items. They believed they would restore the power in a few weeks. There was no way the world could run without the internet or cell phones. Once the weeks passed, the looters attacked the few individuals who had snagged nonperishable foods. Eventually, word from the cities went dark. The government closed the borders, leaving them to die in the dead of winter.

I wanted to say I was shocked. But a year before, an alphabet soup agency approached me. It was the agency that didn’t broadcast its existence with a website, but they definitely had the credentials and knew all about me. The agent explained how the government was gathering instructors, high school students, and professionals who knew how to work with their hands. They needed out-of-the-box thinkers who solved problems on the go.

I laughed at the agent standing on my patio. “Sir, I teach TV production. Not sure what you want us to do if the world ends.”

He fidgeted with his suit. Wherever he was from wasn’t as hot and humid as South Florida. “Ma’am, you’re old enough to remember using technology without computers.”

“Okay, that’s rude. I am not that old.” I interrupted him.

“9th grade, your teacher showed you how to edit tape to tape.” He brought out his phone and showed me a picture of my now co-teacher, W.

“And you expect me to remember something that I learned for a week twenty years ago?” I was laughing harder. “Since you know so much about me, you probably know. I’m running off of coffee, little sleep, and can’t remember what I ate for dinner less than 10 hours ago.”

Irritation was clearly written etched into his brow. “Ma’am, you can relearn this skill. You can provide a team of bright minds ready for the challenge. Most of your students are dual-enrolled in biology, construction, ROTC, and automotive. Your students are more qualified to handle a national threat than most.”

“Fucking spooks,” I groaned. “Dude, they are high school students. Are we done with this nonsense? I have a 45-minute drive to work. I now have to do in twenty.”

He stepped out of the way. “We’ve already contacted your principal about the matter. He seemed keen to be a part of the program.”

“Cool, I hope you brought me coffee,” I said, locking the door to my house. “And what about the other teachers? To be honest, they’d be more useful than me.”

He held my car door open. “I have read them into the project. You were our last stop.”

I stood between my car and the sweaty man. ” Look, I spent years trying to work for one of your agencies, and now I’m being ‘read into’ a project. I should tell you to fuck off, but I’m too damn curious.”

“It’s in your blood, ma’am.”

“Then, can I make a request?” I asked as he was about to shut my door.

His jaw clenched. “You’re not really in the position to make them.”

“If you want to use my students for your stupid project. That I’m fairly certain is far more necessary than you’re letting on,” I smiled sweetly at him. “I want you to grab two of my previous students, Dj and Bh.”

“Is that all?” He asked, shutting my door. I nodded quickly, and he walked to his car at the end of the drive.

“What the fuck ever,” I muttered to myself, turning on the radio, only to hear what I was trying to avoid. Traffic on the turnpike, accidents on the local roads, and my commute had just hit over an hour.

Four blacked-out SUVs were parked directly up front when I pulled onto campus. So it seemed the Spook wasn’t lying. I did not know what the government thought we could offer them. We’re a strange school in the country filled with rich kids and those whose parents work their asses off to ensure none stand out. The student body liked to pretend to be country or hood, even though most of their houses cost a million dollars or more.

I signed in at the front office. Nobody joked or made a comment about being a half-hour late.

The front desk receptionist smiled and said, “Mr. W has your students. He’s waiting for you.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound ominous,” I sighed.

“Pretty sure you’re going to be super busy. He had a handcart filled with boxes and all these weird things. I think I saw a dial-up modem hanging out of a box.” She called after me.

Jesus Christ, I thought. Tape-to-tape editing and dial-up internet. What kind of nightmare did I step into? Who did I piss off to be tortured like this?

The campus was oddly quiet. Students weren’t wandering around pretending to go to the bathroom, meeting up with each other for clandestine meetings, or smoking. I saw a few adults in black power suits with earpieces talking to each other across the courtyard. It was strange; I wasn’t used to this. I wasn’t used to being at a high school again, but here I was.

I opened my co-teacher’s door, and instead of greeting all my students, the classroom was empty. I made my way into the control room. The handcart of Doom was empty, and so was the control room. Through the soundproof glass, I could see them all staring at the ancient technology. One student held up a mini DV tape, not understanding how to insert it. Then again, I had just spent the last three years pulling SD cards out because he still couldn’t figure out how to insert that correctly. These spooks were in for a rude awakening if they thought high school students would be their saving grace.

Then the sound came. A crackling followed by a few beeps and then finally a very long tone. It was a thing of nightmares. A sound I thought I would never have to hear again unless it was in somebody’s reel making fun of how old millennials were. Dial-up internet attached to a computer I didn’t even know could turn on.

“Mrs. J.” One of my students burst in from the studio. “Mr. W said these were the same computers you worked on when he had you as a student. How did you guys get any work done? The computer takes 15 minutes to turn on.”

I smiled. “Patience, something you don’t have.”

In the studio, I came face to face with five cameras. I had asked my previous IT person at the middle school I had just left to e-waste them. He had never done it, which was apparently a good thing. Then I saw a beast of a machine hooked up to an old TV.

“Do you remember this?” Mr. W asked.

“You know I don’t.” I waved him over. “Did you apply for some grant or something that was just meant to torture me while giving funding to a program? Is this payback for me being the moody teenager in high school?”

He shook his head. “No, I thought you did. The government is kind of your specialty.”

“I gave up on those guys long ago. Once I figured out what, I didn’t have the grades to be considered a legacy, and apparently, my search history was a little too risky for their taste. I thought being a bloodthirsty writer would be something that would interest them.”

Our students were playing with the technology, trying to figure out how to attach the cameras to the computers. They waited for programs to open, sitting in earnest, watching how tapes were fed to one another. I thought our little ADHD monsters would be bored, but it entranced them. However, I was fighting the urge to backhand the next one, who called me an elder millennial. They weren’t wrong. It was just disrespectful to hear it over and over again.

Before the rang, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. “Tv, biotech, medical, automotive, construction, and JROTC students. Please make your way to the auditorium. All other students, please head to your normal class.”

There was a collective groan from the students. A few cheered because they had not studied for the test they would be missing. But my co-teacher and I looked at each other. Things were going to get interesting.

The spook that blocked my door stood center stage behind the podium. Our principal stood next to him, just as thrilled as the teachers about the assembly. With no authority taking control, the students chatted among each other, only growing louder.

“Hawks,” Principal H spoke clearly into the microphone. “Please give your undivided attention to our guest, Special Agent K.”

“Like Men in Black?” I giggled to myself. I did it at the wrong time because the entire auditorium had gone silent. Agent K shook his head at me while taking his position at the microphone.

“Thank you very much for having me here, Principal H.” The principal didn’t smile or look even halfway enthused about this intrusion. “Your school was one of ten selected for a very special pilot program. We are challenging all the academy students to perform their normal academic test with limited technology.”

The entire student body was in an uproar. Shouts about what they were supposed to do without laptops or cell phones. How were they supposed to compete with everyone entering college without having the same experiences? More than once, I heard someone say that they could not function without being able to Google an answer. This was all cruel and unusual punishment.

Special Agent K tried to regain control of the student body. It took the principal stepping forward and lashing out with unveiled threats about how if they did not participate, they could not go to homecoming or any sports activities and would lose their parking spot. All the teachers laughed. This man in a suit may intimidate the adults; however, he had nothing to threaten these teenagers with. The United States government was in for a real treat.

Six months passed, and all the students had acclimated to their limited technology. We were coming up to winter break, and a few told me how much they enjoyed not being pressured to study for the certification exams. I lost count of how many of them enjoyed the challenge of learning how to create transitions with their film.

“Mrs. J,” a tiny goth girl approached me. “This entire experiment is ridiculous. I don’t know what to do without a computer. I can’t figure out how to make things look good. Everything I do is absolute garbage.”

“Well, Mb, your projects aren’t garbage. You might not be the best editor. You have been able to pick up cameras and work just the same as you always have. And something else that you haven’t thought about is how well you have taken control. You’ve been able to delegate tasks and solve problems that your other classmates cannot. Just because you don’t have a laptop in your face doesn’t mean you aren’t excelling. I think that was the point of the experiment.”

She rolled her eyes at the praise. “Why do they care if we can operate without technology? It’s not like it’s going anywhere. They’ll probably just start embedding chips into our heads, and we won’t even have a piece of technology in front of us. It’ll be inside of us.”

“I’d rather not think about becoming a cyborg, but thank you for the post-apocalyptic depression trip. Are you done taking up my oxygen, or do you need help with something?”

“No, I’m good.” Mb smiled. “I feel better when I bitch. I mean, complain to you.”

“Well, I’m always here to be a soundboard if you need me.” I looked at the clock, and the bell was about to ring. ” All right, monsters, pack up your things. It is time for you all to go to your next class and torture another adult.”

Students picked up their backpacks, dropping pens and pencils in their zipper pouches. Others unlocked the cell phone jail, pulled out their phones, and checked to see who sent the messages while they were busy in class being sequestered from technology. But more and more, my students would forget that their phones were in jail and eventually have to come back to my class and pick them back up before they left for the day.

When we left for Christmas break, everybody had expected to return. But just like COVID, the world came to a stop. Sudden bursts of energy could be seen across the sky on Christmas Day. “The end is here,” the occultists screamed in the streets. “The end is here! Repent, and your soul will be saved.” Teslas weren’t driving. In fact, any car that was made after the 1980s was dead on the road. Planes fell from the skies, and trains simply stopped. Telephone lines were jammed. Cell service was nonexistent, leaving only those with landlines with corded phones to communicate. They dropped news newspapers off in front of every home two days after the event. That was the only way that information was being spread. I’m not entirely sure how they got the information; probably radios and other forms of “ancient technology.”

Then, right before New Year’s Eve, Agent K showed up at my door.

“It’s time to get to work, Mrs. J.” He didn’t wait for me before he headed back to a heavily armored truck that looked straight out of World War II, only with modern upgrades.

I rolled my eyes. “You asshat,” I shouted. “You knew this was coming. What the fuck is wrong with all of you up in Washington?”

“That is why we had contingency plans, ma’am.” He said, holding the door open for me.

I climbed into the back of the truck and was met with the grumpiest group of high school students. The only thing positive about this whole event was it happened in December, and while it may not have been the coldest month for Florida, it sure as hell wasn’t the hottest.

“Mrs. J,” whined a female student with auburn hair. “Is this why they made us do all the stupid work?”

I shook my head. I hadn’t had coffee yet, and I didn’t have an answer for her or the other twenty-something teens searching for answers. I scanned the crowd, looking for my co-teacher. But he was nowhere to be found. The windows were blacked out. Students complained it wasn’t necessary or fair for them not to know where we were going. A few mutter things about how the government didn’t have the right to force them to do anything.

“The government can do what it wants.” snapped Cs, a blonde male whose twin sat next to him.

Ms, the class clam of the two, had his face plastered against the window. “Just like they made the satellites fall from the sky, and they control the weather.”

After what felt like an eternity, we pulled up to a gate. I only knew this because we stopped, and I could hear it being moved over the rumbling of the diesel engine. Everyone got quiet as we crossed over the track, and the gate closed.

“Are they going to kill us?” asked a nervous brunette.

“No, Pt, I don’t think they would have wasted all that time training you just to murder us.” I shrugged. “Then again, this is the government, so who knows?”

The Auburn student sitting next to Pt squealed. “That’s not funny!”

“You’re right, but we know nothing, so let’s not waste our time trying to think what if.” The truck rolled to a stop, and heavy boots were marching up to the back of the truck. “Ag, I think you’re about to get our answer.”

The doors opened, and I knew exactly where I was. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

The government had transported me and my students to the news station I left for teaching. Standing in front of the glass door were my former boss C and my co-teacher, W. They had worked together during their news career before W took a different direction.

“Not happening,” I muttered, sitting back down.

“If she’s not going, I’m not going,” Ag said, folding her arms across her chest and joining me. Pt nodded and returned to her seat as well.

Agent K walked up to C and W and shook hands. All three men must have been on it from the beginning. I shouldn’t be mad. I knew the station still had ancient tech. They never removed any equipment; many employees still knew how to work with it. I wasn’t one of them, but I guess I was good at wrangling cats.

“Nope, let’s go, ladies. They have coffee here.” I jumped out of the truck and right passed the three conspirators.

I said hi to a few of my former co-workers and ignored those I didn’t know. I walked by my old desk, stole back my blanket, and robbed CD of her coffee cup. If she wasn’t here yet, I knew she would be soon after I poured a cup of dark, caffeine-fueled goodness. I re-entered the newsroom, waiting for the station meeting. JB was still in charge, and I saw him sitting in his office, giving himself the pep talk.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming in to help during this unprecedented time,” he said once all the staff and students gathered.

“We didn’t have a choice,” called out Ms.

I did my best not to snicker, but these people highly underestimated the teens.

“All of you have been trained on the technology to survive the sun blast. While some of you have been working in this field for years, others of you are very green. We will pair up students and professionals together. Those who show they can handle the responsibility will be in the field while the rest of you will work in-house. All jobs are important. They have assigned our station to broadcast the news covering the entire southeast. That means from Key West until wherever singles reach. I believe the last test reached North Carolina, though the single was weak.”

“It was twenty minutes down the road. How is this possible?” I asked WW, a director friend I used to work with.

“I don’t know, but sat trucks are still feeding things in.” He pointed to the least favorite thing I trained him on. “Guess what you get to do?”

“You suck.” I groaned.

Ag and Pt stood next to me. They were equally unamused as I was about the situation we were in. However, I knew these girls would work their asses off with whatever task I handed them. Even though they were responsible enough to go out in the field, I wanted them where I could watch them. I had read about those who were attacking reporters and military officials. I knew the girls’ moms; they scared me more than any spook.

“Mrs. J, nice to see you back,” was the sly remark from C, my former boss. “You ready to pick up that morning shift again?”

“I pick my team, and you guys leave me alone. You know I’m fine.” I smiled at him.

He nodded. “I figured. That’s why I asked for you students specifically.”

“Who is going to watch this? None of the TVs are working?” I asked with genuine curiosity.

“Remember rabbit ears and those brown box TVs?” He asked. “The government has been stockpiling them since the scientists predicted the sun bursts were coming sooner rather than later.”

“You know, you could have called. Give me a heads-up. I could have brought my shit because, let me guess, we’re working hurricane hours, aren’t we?” He just nodded. “So, high school students? You think this was the best option?”

“Why not? College kids are too arrogant, and you know the field is short-staffed. Besides, W has a reputation for what students come out of his program.” C looked over at JB talking with W and was waved over. “Good luck, J. You better wrangle your kids.”

“I hate you,” I hissed under my breath before putting on my happy face.

It took about twenty minutes for me to pick which students would work under me. Most were strong editors, a few were decent at directing, and we could train the rest on how to use a camera. But the thing that I knew all of them could do well was work under pressure. They didn’t break when things went wrong. They may whine, bitch, and moan, but they would complete the task. It wasn’t easy to convince them they needed to go to bed before ten pm so they would be rested for the 2:30 am wake-up call. Even though it was a battle, I knew this group would be the best to work at such ungodly hours.

An old bell alarm rang at 2:15. Even I, the queen of staying asleep after setting fifteen alarms, could sleep through that noise. My team shuffled past the night crew, replacing the first set of zombies. None of the high schoolers looked ready to function.

“Mrs. J,” Ag and Pt whined when I saw them. “There’s no Celsius. They only have coffee.”

“There hasn’t been Celsius for months. Did your moms stockpile it before the burst?” I asked, pouring my cup of go-go juice. They both poured their own cup and dumped an obscene amount of sugar and cream into their coffees. “You realize that’s more of a dessert than coffee, right?”

“So what’s the plan?” Ag asked.

“You’re partnering up with a photographer and reporter, and you’ll be editing or shooting.” I smiled as her mouth dropped open. “And Pt will be in the control room learning how to old school direct.”

“No,” Ag groaned. “That’s not fair.”

Pt laughed. “You have to edit.”

“I shouldn’t have to edit. I edited all your projects for three years.” Ag tried to smack Pt’s cup from her hands. “You should have to edit everything.”

“Is this for a grade?” Pt asked as we left the cafe.

Ag rolled her eyes at Pt. “There aren’t grades anymore. School is over. The world has changed. Forget about grades. We aren’t going to college.”

“First, there are going to be grades.” Ag’s mouth dropped open. “Second, there have been colleges for centuries. Just because the world has shifted doesn’t mean things won’t return to a new normal.”

Both of the girls sighed.

C came in, his hair disheveled, looking like he detested his high school employees. “Look, whoever creates the best news package or directs the best show will earn a prize.”

The girls stopped. He piqued their interest.

“What’s the prize?” Ag asked.

“There is a rumor that electrical rations will go to theme parks.” He told them.

“That’s stupid,” Pt said.

Ag hit her arm. “Shut up. He’s talking about Disney, the happiest place on earth.”

“Disney didn’t win the bid, but Universal did,” C corrected them.

“Whatever, I’m still winning this,” Ag announced to the room.

Three weeks went by. I wish I could say things were interesting, but they weren’t. I swore I would never return vampire hours or work in the news again. But then again, no one ever thought we’d be going through another world-altering catastrophic event again.

The world was the same when it came down to the nuts and bolts of things. People were still robbing each other. They exploited the naïve, and the news cycle kept spinning.. We never had a chance to really breathe. There were press conferences held in our spare newsrooms. Politicians came by at all hours to address the ongoing situation.

At first, the students were star-struck at who walked through our doors. But that quickly faded as life at 3 am became routine. They truly fell into line. I couldn’t imagine that less than a year ago, I would have had to fight tooth and nail for some of these kids to complete a simple editing challenge, but now with little handle holding, they were in lockstep and key with seasoned professionals. It was by far the easiest transition, be it the sassiest and sometimes the whiniest transition I had ever experienced.

I wondered how students from the other academies were fairing. Had their instructors prepared them for a world with “ancient tech?” I had suggested that maybe we should do some fluff pieces on them. But Agent K turned down the idea. No one at the station liked the government having the final say in our news stories. However, they kept the power on. Without them, we’d be like the others in the outside world, where people were getting shot over farmland. It was the wild wild west, and we at least got to pretend it was the 1980s, just with more equality in the control room.

“Mrs. J!” Ag came bounding into the newsroom far too perky at 3 am. “Who won?”

“Who won what?” I asked, trying not to shout at a truck that refused to come into focus.

“The competition! Who’s going to ride roller coasters?!” Pt squealed.

“Oh, my god? Really. I’m trying to do actual work, and you two are making my coffee cold.” Ag stole my cup and came running back with fresh warm happiness. “Thanks, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to C.”

“We were just in his office. He wasn’t there.” Pt flopped down in the chair next to me.

“We’ve been playing the ‘Where’s C Game’ for years. He just vanishes and shows up when you least expect it.” WW told them as he walked out of the control room. “Whoever finds him first will probably be the winner.”

The girls immediately left the newsroom in search of C.

That meant I had about fifteen minutes of peace before there would be shouts from ten students complaining about the results. I finally got the shot from the twins’ truck online, and the moment they were live, I heard my favorite photographer chastity them about how they couldn’t tie each other up with mic cables.

I sighed. I guess some things never changed.

After the morning show, my team gathered in C’s office, waiting for him to announce who had earned a family group passes to Universal. He tried to do his typical ghost routine; however, Ag and Pt had blocked the two exits he liked to use.

C fidgeted with the passes in his hand. “I would like to say you all have done an amazing job. If things were different, I’m not sure I would have thought about having a group of 16 and 17 years running my morning show. However, this has been one of the hardest working group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That is why this decision is so hard.”

The girls crept closer to him. Looking like lions ready to kill their prey. C didn’t falter. He had a survived his only child, a girl who graduated from college a few years prior, and her mother. The man was used to being outnumbered by women.

“I have decided the student has taken the most initiative in learning how to operate not only all the cameras in the studio, out in the field and edit, all while driving everyone around her slightly insane, is Ms. Ag.” C handed her the passes while Pt’s mouth hung open. “She has even crossed over into learning more about producing and directing. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does when she puts more energy into her work with this whining.” He winked at her.

Ag jumped around, waving the passes in Pt’s face. “You better watch out, C. I’m going to take your job.”