The comet – pt. 2

“You know, human nature is a remarkable thing.

“During the days when the world first learned of the comet, there was, understandably, chaos, Martha,” Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick addressed the anchor from CNN. “But what’s truly amazing, is how quickly society has returned to a recognizable order.”

“One-third of essential service workers still have not reported back to work.” Martha O’Neill was citing statistics widely touted by the Network. “Almost half of the US workforce have elected to stay home, rather than go to work, giving reasons such as ‘need to protect my home from looters’ and ‘want to spend more time with family.’ How do you respond to this, Doctor?”

“Well, Martha, more people are returning to work every day. In the first few days, those numbers were far more dismal. Frankly, I’m encouraged.”

“There you have it. Leading sociologist, Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick, is encouraged. Thank you Doctor. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of you here on CNN.”

“Thank you for having me.”

The screen fades briefly to black before the Network is on to its next story — certainly another angle on the comet — really the only story these days.

“And we’re out!” a producer yells from off camera.

“Neil, you don’t really believe society is returning to normal. Marshall Law still is in effect in every country. Looting is a nightly occurrence. Daily even. There are abuses and brutalities being reported almost nonstop. Yes, maybe there are some slight pockets of ‘normalcy,’ but come on, as we near the end, there will be increasing lawlessness. Some say anarchy.” Martha O’Neill was the top rated news anchor with the top rated news show on the top rated news network. She was pleading with Dr. Fitzpatrick to see the reality of the situation.

“Martha, you have dozens of ‘experts’ willing to come on air and cite doom and gloom statistics for your Network. I’m your ray of sunshine. That’s why you call me. Just accept it!”

“But Neil, you don’t really believe what you’re saying…”

“Martha, I believe what I believe, and I say what I say. Shall never the twain meet,” mangling Sam Clemens. “I’ll see you tonight, Martha.”

“Yes, my producers can’t get enough of you. They keep yelling at me not to be too hard on you. On air.”

“We’re fine, Martha,” the doctor smiled, “be as hard on me as you like.”

“Bye, Neil.” Martha shook her head. No matter how deluded he seemed, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe he knew something he wasn’t saying.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in.” Sgt. Jackson sneered.

“Officer Barnes reporting for duty, Sir.”

“After twenty-six days? I believe you told me, when I called you, and I quote, ‘Go f—yourself.’ Now, is that any way to talk to your superior?”

Officer Kenneth Barnes stood at attention, willingly accepting the verbal punishment. “Sir, I was under a lot of stress. I apologize. It won’t happen again.”

“Damned right it won’t happen again. I’ll kick your a–.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Tell me why I should take you back on my police force?”

“Because I love my job, Sir. I was born to protect and serve. And if our City ever needed police, we are needed now, more than ever.”

“We’re working doubles. That doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean. It means don’t expect to be going home anytime soon. I haven’t been home. And I mean since the news. We’re sleeping here, Officer. My wife brings me my meals, and that’s the only time I see her. You figure it out. Any questions?”

“No, Sir.”

“Welcome home. Damned glad to have you, Officer Barnes.” The corners of his mouth upturned slightly, making the sneer look somehow even meaner.

A calm had descended over the City of Sacramento. Downtown looked like a ghost town. Windows broken. Debris strewn on the streets. Stores emptied of their valuables. It wasn’t rioting, so much as lawlessness. The police had stood down. The National Guard were holding the major intersections, as checkpoints. There was no law in the City, but in order to pass from one part of the City to the next, you were expected to pass through a checkpoint. Of course, all the locals used surface streets to go around the barriers. The only real borders in the City were formed by its two rivers. Between them, gangs had free reign.

But it didn’t take long for the people to organize. Small bands. Vigilantes. It was largely these vigilantes who restored order, first in their own neighborhoods.

“You can go down the street and do that. Down the street and around the corner,” Jack said. “But not here.” Jack Dwyer had organized ten armed men in his neighborhood to keep watch.

He addressed the leader of a dozen or so young Hispanic men, a nascent gang. “If I can see you do it, I will stop you. I’m not telling you to be good. I’m telling you, ‘Not here.'”

The young men groused. They were stirring for a fight. But their leader had already seen men with rifles hiding behind fences and curtained windows. Jack had promised him he was willing to die today, and the young leader would be the second one dead.

Jack didn’t blink. He was calm and resolved. He didn’t want to fight these boys. But he was unwilling to give up his home to them. If he had to kill, or be killed, if that was the price, then that’s what he was willing to pay. For peace.

“We will go.” The young chieftain was defiant. But also wise. He turned and led his troop away.

Jack stood silently and watched them go, thankful to have avoided a fight.

Food was a major issue. Water. Then electricity. In that order.

Peace and order were hard enough. And hospitals and healthcare. And firefighting. All things Americans, and much of the world, take for granted everyday. In some parts of the world, these were always daily struggles. And now, in America, they were, too.

As a basic human needs, water comes well before food. Humans can live for weeks without food. But after only a few days without water, vital bodily systems begin to shut down. After a week without water, most people will die.

As a practical matter, water is more easily maintained, or restored, via the infrastructure in place. It only takes a few workers to keep the water system running, at least to above a survival level. Same with electricity. The electric grid works. And so long as there are enough workers to keep it running, electricity can be maintained in people’s homes and businesses. Major manufacturing plants may have some difficulties, but basic survival level electricity was not too difficult to maintain.

Food was a different question. In the grocery store shelves is only about a three day supply of food. The food supply depends upon a huge network, from farmers, to truck drivers, to storehouses, to supermarkets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The food supply chain is complex, and easily broken. For more than a week there was no food in America. You can’t depend on the Red Cross, when everyone is in need. There simply was no food chain. Until there was.

About two weeks in, the trucks started moving again. Shipments were received by local markets. Food was purchased. At first, food couldn’t even be placed on shelves. Customers bought the goods right off the pallet, or out of the back of the truck.

It was spontaneous, and nothing short of a miracle, that the food supply suddenly started working again. Nobody really knew the story of how it had happened. It should have been the subject of much speculation and wonder. In a calmer time, with room for theorization, economists would no doubt be debating exactly the process by which the supply train was restarted, like a stopped heart, and restored. But, for now, most people didn’t think twice about it, or even remember to be thankful.

Though their very lives depended on it.