This Is Only a Test
Had this been an actual emergency, the attention signal you just heard would have been followed by sirens, screams, explosions, bright flashes, clouds of smoke, rumbles underfoot, and the roar of fighter jets directly overhead. There would be no official news, no government bulletins, no repetitious blather from ignorant announcers. Your radio would have gone dead.
A cascade of failures would follow. Electric lights would blink off, telephone service would be disrupted, and computer screens would darken. Magnetically activated door locks, fingerprint scanners, body sensors, and coded security devices would freeze. You might be stuck in an elevator cab. You might be trapped on a high floor of a large building. Sheets of glass instead of solid walls might strike you as fragile, inappropriate to the current situation.
Domestic water pressure would drop, as municipal pumps ceased and supply lines emptied. Taps would run dry, flush tanks would not refill, and lawn irrigation would trickle down. Fans and ventilation systems would sputter to a stop, and interior spaces would become stuffy. The smoke would infiltrate, and after an hour or so, you would gasp and cough, unable to breathe. Exit signs would glow ghastly red, and a very loud horn would threaten to drive you mad.
You would struggle and scheme to escape from a home that was now a prison, an office seen as a toxic environment. You would remember a door latch that never closed properly. In a willful act of property destruction, in violation of the lease, you would seize a metal object such as a heavy-duty stapler and break a sealed window, from sheer vexation or to provide an exit for yourself and a family member, or anxious coworkers huddled nearby. They might raise a cheer. Then how would you reach ground level?
If you were on the road, far away from the disaster, your vehicle would continue to run as though nothing had happened, but dashboard directional aids would be sullen. You would speak, and they would not respond. They depend on the internet, which would crash with the loss of power. Silence would fill the vehicle, along with unbearable tension. Sooner or later, you would be forced to slow to a crawl, as traffic snarled at intersections no longer governed by red and green lights.
Collisions would compound the confusion, as angry drivers leaned on their horns. They would shout, unable to move. You would be blocked, unless you were out in the country, where you could go for miles until you ran out of fuel, or the battery was drained. You would pull over and stare through the spattered windshield, hopelessly lost. You would abandon your vehicle and take the keys with you, unable to admit it was now useless, and you might never see it again.
Public transport would be overcrowded, and stations would be scenes of chaos. You would be lucky to board a train—until you saw it was going nowhere. Abruptly transformed to a refugee, you would push through a crowd of desperate people. Clutching a briefcase or a shopping bag, you might trudge in the dark of a fetid tunnel, or plod on a road littered with ash and lost shoes. Tired and thirsty, you might wonder if it was pointless to proceed. You might join those who collapsed along the way, weeping quietly and staring hollow-eyed.
But the emergency never happened. The radio is playing a mindless jingle. The terror and nausea dissipate. All that’s left is heartburn and a tremor, which might be from too many cups of coffee. It was only a test.
By Robert Boucheron
- Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. You can find more of Robert’s work on his website.