The older version of the first chapter of Billion Man Rapture. Why has China seemingly gone to communications silence mode? What the hell is going on in China?
“And that was built in ninety days? How was that even possible? Is it safe?” Nicole was feeling a mixture of awe, skepticism, and not a little bit of fear as she contemplated the sight that her boyfriend was streaming to her from his smartphone. Her knowledge of construction techniques was next to zero, but it didn’t take a genius to figure that ninety days for the construction of an 838 meter structure could very well equal sloppy workmanship.
“Well the majority of it was built as modules in the factory and then the parts were assembled on-site. So technically it took more than ninety days. As for whether it’s safe, I wouldn’t bet my life on it. The thought doesn’t sit well with me either. But you have to admit, there’s some serious boasting rights that come with successfully building the world’s tallest skyscraper in ninety days, safety be damned.” Jake’s feelings towards Sky City were skewed more towards awe and curiosity; he intended to go inside the build so that he could secretly feel good about doing something against his better judgment. And what was the likelihood of something happening just as he entered the building anyway!
There was a few seconds pause as realization dawned on Nicole. “Oh wait no Jake! You intend to go in there don’t you!” He laughed. “Jake! Look at me! Why do you want to go in there? Isn’t seeing it from the outside good enough for you?”
“Oh come on babe! What are the chances of something happening just when I decide to go in?” He tried to put on his most reasoning tone and facial expression but he could see that she wasn’t having any of it. He had to appease her somehow. “Tell you what. I’m not even going to go any further than the first floor. I’m going in, have a look around, then I’m out of there. I’m keeping the video on so you can see too! Okay?”
“Fine Jake,” she sighed. “Not like anything I say would change your mind anyway.” She knew she probably was being quite irrational but that didn’t give her much relief from worrying about the building collapsing just as Jake stepped inside. She watched nervously as he quickly approached the towering structure, all the time talking to her to try to distract her.
“Okay so here goes! I should be in and out in no time, unless I’m like one of those cartoon feathers that just cause everything to collapse!” She didn’t laugh, just watched as he showed her the view of his approach to the front of the building. He craned his neck to show her the top of the building from where he stood. “Wow you can barely see-” The blue and white of the sky and the steel gray of the building gave way to a flurry of color and motion and then black accompanied by the sound of something hitting the ground.
“Oh my god! Jake? Jake? This is not funny!” No answer. “Jake answer me!” The video window closed. Nicole screamed.
‘Okay this should be her,’ she thought as she hurried to answer the Skype Video call request. She was right; the video window opened to reveal the face of her 23 year old daughter. “Hello darling! I was wondering if you forgot our little date! Let me guess. You and your dad are building something that will destroy the house, which will cause me to be a homeless woman when I return,” she said, her voice betraying a mixture of bemusement and mock exasperation.
Ashley managed to look a tad bit ashamed as she explained. “Sorry about that mom. Dad wanted to make a quick run to the hardware store and I followed him. Shoulda known really. It’s never a ‘quick run to the hardware store’ with him,” she gave the air quotes gesture as she repeated her father’s words.
Julia snorted in amusement partly because of her daughter’s mocking of her father’s ubiquitous and misleading catchphrase, and partly because she knew Ashley secretly loved to be in the mix when David was experimenting. David had had several accidents when Ashley was present and she never had managed to look as dismayed as she pretended to be. “Where is he now?”
“He should be outside in the workshop. Did you want to speak to him?”
“Oh no no. Just wanted to know where he was. I hope to God that workshop is far enough from the house! Remember you’re to be keeping an eye on him not encouraging him!”
“Oh you know me mom! I’m like the adult in our research team!” she managed to say this with a deadpan expression on her face. There were a few seconds of silence as mother and daughter stared at each other willing the other to break first; they both burst out laughing at Ashley’s blatant lie.
“Anyway how do I look?” Julia changed the topic, giving a little twirl as she asked the question.
“Wooooooooooooow mom! You look stunning! Dad’s gotta watch out there!”
“Shhhhhh! Don’t tell him anything, you know he knows his way around explosives…” she let that statement hang. “Anyway I’ll be back, I have to put on the finishing touches. ‘Stunning’ is not enough! I’m going for MILF!”
“MOM!” Ashley gasped. “Just wait until I tell dad!” Julia simply laughed as she moved out of sight.
She was away for 15 minutes, during which time David had returned from the workshop. “So. Ashley. Introduce me to your friend.”
Julia laughed and then pinned her husband with a steely glare. “David? Hun? What are you up to this time?”
“Well dahlin’, if I told you I’d have to rough dat-”
“Um, GUYS? I’m right here you know! I’m gonna make myself scarce now!” Ashley got up amidst her parents’ laughter and was turning to leave when a flicker of movement drew her attention back to the computer screen. Julia was gone and her laughter was replaced by silence; David noticed too because he had stopped laughing just as abruptly.
David watched the screen, his thoughts racing, while Ashley tried in vain to call Julia back to the computer. Then he sprang into action. “Honey, I’m going to disconnect the call okay?” he informed Ashley as he swiftly moved past her and hung up. “I’ll be right back, I’m going to make some calls.” He headed off towards his study after reassuring Ashley that he was working on getting some answers as to what just happened with the usual lines about it probably being nothing to worry about.
David closed and locked his study door and then went to his desk phone. He punched in a number from memory and a female operator answered after two rings. “Yes this is David Stokes. We have a potential situation.”
The system was simple; it was harder to determine how effective it was, but so far there had been no mission compromises that could be clearly linked to it. The system involved a method of obscuring data using a process called steganography; basically one could hide messages within a body of data and only the sender and recipient would have access to it with predetermined patterns. For extra security the message was fragmented and sent piecewise to several recipients. Of course, this method was used only for low level intelligence collection missions.
A field agent in China was making contact. Right now, he was conversing with several monitors; the conversation logs were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that would reveal intelligence data when assembled. None of the monitors knew who the others were that were involved in any one conversation. They had no idea where to look in the conversations to start deciphering the messages; these intel drops were, for all intents and purposes, simple conversations to each operative. In fact, the only reason the monitors knew when they were speaking to an asset is that, if asked to identify the individual behind the other computer, they wouldn’t be able to answer definitively.
The monitor and his contact carried on their conversation as if they were longtime friends with many shared experiences and inside jokes. After doing this type of operation for a while, most monitors stopped trying to figure out what the messages were about and began to see the operation as what it ostensibly was; two friends catching up on each others’ doings. Since the purpose of these conversations was to give intel, they were by necessity controlled by the field agents; the monitors merely went with the flow.
Something was not going according to the usual script; the field agent had gone silent for a while and the monitor’s queries were going unanswered. It was possible that he had gotten up from his computer, but the standard operating procedure was that either party would be informed when the other was moving from the computer for a while or when he or she was leaving the conversation. The monitor wasn’t required to report the issue; the conversation logs were analyzed in real-time so the higher echelons already knew the situation. Instead he waited for the field agent to reply or, very unlikely, a call. The contact never replied, but the monitor got the call.
Social networks try to fuel their growth by exploiting aspects of human psychology. Humans tend to be social creatures by nature. In addition to enjoying access to the latest happenings with our friends and people we may not know personally, we generally want to feel included, important, wanted. So we tweet, post, update statuses, etc. with the aim – whether consciously or not – of being acknowledged by others. The lengths to which each person may go to receive this acknowledgment varies, but the universal effect is that social networks are vast repositories for the ever-present thoughts and feelings of billions of humans; many treat social networks like diaries or psychiatrist couches. Social networks also inadvertently become disseminators of – not always accurate – news. They also make excellent intel sources for espionage agencies.
China was the hot topic on the social networks; none of the witnesses knew exactly what happened so the content and tone of each social update was determined by the individual’s biases and current state of mind. There were many frantic and bewildered descriptions of what was seen by those who had been having video chats with their contacts in China; they just knew their loved ones were in danger. Others made updates of a more lighthearted nature; China was at it again.
It quickly became obvious that all of these events were linked as more social updates found their way to individuals who had already posted about China. A second wave of updates started. Some speculated that China suffered an EMP blast, although this theory wouldn’t explain why communications channels were still open and why China alone seemed to have been affected. Others speculated about kidnappings and killings. Tempers were rising. The social networks had become verbal combat zones. China would be at the top of the world’s Intelligence agencies’ interest lists.
President Amos Kern disconnected the call, his brows furrowed in perplexed thought; he had spent the past few minutes repeatedly trying to reach the most important political figures in the People’s Republic of China, none of whom had responded to his calls. He stared at the table for a few seconds and then looked up at the persons present, both physically and by video camera, in the Situation Room. General Hayden Callahan, the Director of the NSA, who was attending by video, had recommended the participation of one of his analysts by the name of Anthony Abrams. Abrams had a very promising career; known for his unorthodox theories, he nevertheless proved himself to be a highly credible analyst. He was often one of the first who was consulted in matters concerning technology. This appearance in a National Security meeting was his second.
“So I see two possibilities here. Either the Chinese are responsible for this phenomenon we are seeing or they were attacked,” the President began.
General Hector Barnwell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke up, “One would have to wonder why the Chinese would even bother to ignore us if they were responsible given the nature of the phenomenon we’re seeing here. They’d pretty much have us by the…sensitive areas if it was them. We have no clue on the fate of our assets in China.”
“If I may, Sir?” Abrams joined in the conversation.
“Go ahead Agent Abrams. That’s what you’re here for.”
“I’d suggest that instead of first trying to determine who is responsible for the situation, we try to narrow down what could’ve caused it. From there we could figure out what level of technological advancement we’re dealing with.”
“Okay, what do you have for us?”
“Well, it seems to be the popular opinion on the Internet that an EMP attack was responsible for this. But…an EMP burst does not explain the fact that communications are still up in China. So what I would propose is that the…attack?…either simultaneously robbed every human of control of his or her body, or it is intercepting outgoing communications from China. I am leaning towards the former because the latter does not explain some of the eyewitness descriptions where it seems like people were dropping whatever device they were using to communicate.”
There was a visible and audible stirring in the room in response to Abrams’ spoken thoughts. The Secretary of Defense spoke up, making no attempt to hide the incredulity in his voice. “So what could possibly do something like that? Are you telling us the Chinese…or…someone else has a device that can just shut people down? The only thing we know of that could simultaneously stop a heck of a lot of humans at the same time is nuclear weaponry…and we’re obviously not dealing with that kind of situation!”
Abrams gave a weak smile; he himself was not sure of what he said but he was just trying to follow the logic of the situation, for what it was worth. “Unfortunately Sir, I see no other possibility. If I ignore the eyewitness accounts and make my second scenario a possibility again, we are left with one certainty: whatever did this, it had to have been widespread and simultaneous. And it came without warning.”
The tension in the room lightened a bit; Abrams had managed to postpone his roasting by pulling back from his assertion and focusing everybody on the fact that whatever they were up against, it had a sudden, widespread, simultaneous reach. The side of the President’s mouth twitched in the beginnings of a smile. He was intrigued and wanted to hear more, but he decided not to put Abrams on the spot; instead he would test him to see if he had the balls to utter ‘foolishness’ in front of this group that had ‘seen it all’. “Any other thoughts on what we’re up against?” he asked, looking around the room at his staff.
The NSA Director weighed in, “The evidence suggests that only persons within China’s borders were affected by this communications phenomenon, so this suggests a sophisticated level of control. The only thing we know that could provide such control is a cyberweapon. A virus or worm or whatever that is programmed to shut down all communications within China. It would have to be programmed with information about China’s borders etc.”
Abrams spoke up again, causing the President to smile. “I have to agree with Director Callahan. Neither of my theories accounted for the fact that only China was affected by the communications blockage. There are no reports of the same happening to a device even a few feet outside of China. However, unless we ignore the eyewitness accounts, we can’t ignore the suggestion that this phenomenon had a direct effect on humans. And I’m not inclined to ignore the accounts because similar things were described by quite a few totally unrelated persons. The other thing I could think of to add to the Director’s theory is that the cyberweapon is programmed with these additional antics to mislead eyewitnesses. But the question then would have to be why go to these lengths?”
“Agent Abrams, humor me. Let’s hear more about the first of your two theories.” The President was aware of the glances from his staff, but didn’t care. He was the President after all. And the unspoken question he had in his mind about the latest theory was ‘Why not just shut down communications? Why leave them open?’
The young agent looked around the room, his mouth half-open, hesitant to say anything. But he had been given the President’s blessing. “Sir even I am uncomfortable with what I’m about to say because they don’t explain everything we’ve observed. But a bomb comes to mind. Of course, one that we don’t know anything about how it works. It’s blast wave and effect propagation from ground zero would have to be traveling very fast, I’m talking relativistic speeds. And that doesn’t explain why the effect stayed within China’s borders. My other thought was a paralytic agent that was activated simultaneously, but that’s just too farfetched to even pursue. I think bottom line, we don’t have enough data to work with. We are speculating about almost everything.”
“All right. Well it just so happens that we will be getting satellite imagery in the next few minutes. There are squadrons of drones heading towards the major cities also, so we’ll soon be getting a more complete picture of what went on in China.”
The assembly watched the screens as the satellite began to pass over China. The satellite imagery painted an interesting picture. The rural areas were devoid of any human activity. Livestock could be seen roaming free. Some buildings were burning, possibly because of unmaintained fires.
The cities painted an even more devastating and terrifying picture. Satellite and drone imagery showed the streets filled with abandoned cars in many different states of disrepair. Many of the vehicles had their lights still on, quite a few had crashed into each other. Drones flew low through the streets to get visuals inside of the buildings. There was no sign of human activity and quite a few fires had broken out. Squadrons flew through Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou…no matter which city, the same images came back.
The White Situation Room was in a state of disbelief and confusion. What they were seeing could not be real. The President managed to ask his staff for their thoughts on what they were seeing.
Agent Abrams spoke. He wondered if the others could hear the ringing in his ears and the sound of his accelerated heartbeat. “Sir, there are no human shaped burn marks on the streets or in the buildings. In fact, the buildings look quite fine, there doesn’t seem to be any of signs of a conflict having occurred.”
“So what are you saying Agent?”
“It’s as if one billion plus hands came out of the sky and plucked everybody in China off the Earth. Nowhere is littered with bodies, nor is there any signs of struggle. Sir. It’s as if everybody just disappeared into thin air!”
Update: In speaking to a friend, I was informed of a detail that somehow escaped my consideration totally. So I’m going to rewrite this first chapter and post it. This chapter will remain posted however. Stay tuned!