It's been around 9 long months since the United States spiraled into chaos due to a cascading systems failure. The die-off everyone predicted has begun and after a hard winter nearly every other house sits empty with the owners dead or unaccounted for. Lately the power has flickered on and off a few times, raising hopes that power restoration is coming soon.
But how do you put the genie back in the bottle? Violence is everywhere. Disease is rampant. Hundreds of thousands are dead. Insurance can never pay for the damage and loss that has occurred. The economy will take years to restore if it can be restored at all.
From the recesses of a fractured government comes a plan to restore order and rescue what remains of the population. The first step comes with restoring power. But what if having access to electricity came at such a price that many -- like Jim Powell, his friends, and his neighbors -- would rather face a future in the dark.
Release date: June 27, 2018
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 300
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For Jim Powell, the collapse began on a routine business trip. Jim's job at a local government agency required frequent travel from his home in southwestern Virginia to the state capital in Richmond, a distance of several hundred miles. He’d made this trip twice a month for over a decade without a hitch. Then the country was hit with a devastating coordinated terror attack.
Terrorists hit infrastructure targets around the country causing disruption and chaos. Most of the attacks were not mass casualty events but they ended life as Americans were accustomed to living it. Within hours the grid collapsed, followed eventually by cellular connectivity. Like Americans saw in natural disasters, such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, looting began immediately.
Jim and his group of coworkers were not friends. Some were not even on friendly terms, so there was some disagreement on how to proceed. Jim made it clear that he was heading for home immediately, with or without them. There was a vote and the group decided to leave, though there was still tension.
On the trip home they encountered lawlessness, struggling drug addicts, and a government response fully unprepared for the scale of the events unfolding. As millions of travelers were stranded on the highways FEMA established emergency camps, but were ultimately unable to support them in the long term. Eventually, people who went there seeking shelter realized there was no plan for getting them home. Many struck out on their own but had lost critical days thinking the government was going to fix this for them.
Jim Powell had no such delusion. Although he was what some people referred to as a prepper, Jim didn't see himself that way. He was from the Appalachian, or hillbilly, part of the state. He came from a line of people who had weathered economic hardship and deprivation. They believed in taking care of themselves and their families with little regard for the way outsiders and the government conducted their business. It was the way he had been raised.
Jim had long suspected there would be a collapse of some type and had prepared his family. They knew how to run the home in his absence. He left them well-equipped with guns, ammunition, and a long-term supply of food and water. While they did not live a fully sustainable lifestyle, raising all of their own food, they did live in the country with access to clean water and property for growing food.
Jim's trek home was not an easy one. They lost a member of their group in the chaos that soon ensued. Eventually, the group split in half over a disagreement on the best way to get home. Jim, his friend Gary, and his coworker Randi set out on their own. Alice and Rebecca chose the FEMA route, trusting that the government would house them in a camp, then bus them home. It did not work out as promised. Alice would eventually make it home but Rebecca did not, dying at the hands of a mentally-ill traveler named Boyd.
After a brutal struggle to get home, Jim found his family engaged in a conflict with desperate neighbors who saw no problem with stealing from those who had resources they did not. While Jim had to kill on his journey, so did his wife at home. Even his young son was not spared from pulling the trigger on a neighbor.
He had no time to appreciate being home, finding himself immediately embroiled in the chaos of having to rescue his mother and son from neighbors who had taken them. When he resolved that, again having to kill, he hoped the worst was over. He was home now. He and his family were together. They could hunker down, bury their heads, and weather the hard times.
If only it were so easy.
No one in Jim's original group found their return home to be as idyllic as expected. While Jim tried to get settled back into life in his valley, his friend and traveling companion Gary was dealing with his own issues in the town where he lived. Gary was also prepared for hard times, though the location where his family built their home was not defensible. Living on the edge of a densely-populated town, they were vulnerable to attack.
When Gary communicated with Jim and found that there were empty homes in the secluded valley where Jim lived, Gary made the tough call to pack up his family and leave their home. He was not able to do so before he lost a son-in-law in a violent episode that left Gary's daughter depressed and catatonic. In their rattled state, they made the journey and moved into an empty house not far from Jim’s.
Randi lived with her two daughters and her grandchildren miles from any town. They lived near her father's farm, a thirty minute drive from Jim's house. Randi's family could have survived indefinitely on the resources of their farm and the knowledge in the heads of her parents. Instead, they fell victim to a long-standing feud that boiled over with a neighboring family. One bad decision by Randi’s brother led to a vicious outpouring of violence that resulted in Randi’s parents being murdered and her family home burned to the ground. Despite her earlier assurance to Jim that she would be fine, she ultimately took Jim up on his offer to join him in the valley where he lived.
Inevitably, those things that made Jim's valley attractive to him also made it attractive to outsiders looking for a place to weather the storm. Several times Jim, his neighbors, and his friends found themselves fighting off outsiders intent on stealing their homes and their resources. With each encounter Jim was finding diplomacy had little place in this new world. Discussion only seemed to buy you time until the guns came out.
He struggled to keep his family and friends safe, but he also struggled with an underlying guilt because there had been times when he’d wished for this—that the world would reset, that the government would collapse and reveal itself for the fraud he knew it was.
The thing he had not bargained for, the thing he had not anticipated, was how much violence, heartache, and hardship would come with the collapse. He was tired of killing and tired of seeing people he knew die.
Most recently, his coworker Alice, with whom he had a difficult relationship during their working career, had decided to come join them in the valley. She'd lost her husband and her mother. She saw the valley as a way to provide her son with greater protection.
She did not even have the opportunity to settle in before she got herself killed helping save Jim's life. For Jim, that was just new guilt on top of the old.
Jim didn't know what he was going to do. He did not want to be in charge but found himself as the de facto leader of this group more often than not. He just wanted to be left alone, but it had been easier to hide in the world before the collapse. Now, those that hid would find all that they worked to preserve stolen from under their noses.
Could Jim continue to shun responsibility or was it time to step forward? Was it time to own the blood he’d spilled?
Three Months Earlier
The coal-fired power plant at Carbo, Virginia, had never looked so desolate in its seventy year history. Until the world stumbled, the power plant was constantly busy. There were coal cars delivering fuel, operators monitoring gauges and switchgear, and heavy equipment zipping around. Sitting idle now for months, the facility was covered with a fine layer of gritty fly ash, oily coal dust, and soot. Perhaps that patina would never go away.
Cecil Hughes had worked at the plant for nearly forty years, the last thirty of those years in the machine shop. The machine shop was a medium-sized steel building, roughly the size of a fast food restaurant. Its outer skin was pea green metal of the type often found on industrial buildings in coal country. The inside of the steel structure had thick insulation that was covered in seventy years of dust and grime.
The building had that particular character that only old shops have. The floor was oil-stained and worn smooth by many decades of boots. The walls were lined with vintage lathes, milling machines, drill presses, and racks of metal stock. The smell of cutting oil still hung in the air despite the fact that no machining operations had taken place in months. This was Cecil’s domain. He was the shop foreman and most of his waking hours for the last thirty years had been spent in this windowless, poorly-lit building.
Cecil worked at the plant up until the day they sent him home. The plant was still able to produce power but it was no longer able to get that power where it was needed. After the grid was damaged in the initial attacks, no one followed the urgent plea to throttle back their power usage. Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia wanted more power, and plants tried to make that happen. The cost was that components were fried trying to meet demand. With the roads blocked by disabled vehicles and fuel becoming difficult to obtain, the power companies couldn't dispatch workers to replace the substation and power transmission components. So the operators at the Carbo plant did something they rarely did; they let all the fires in the boilers burn out. Coal suppliers had already warned them they were experiencing difficulty getting fuel, so the shutdown was inevitable.
Cecil lived in a nearby hollow. A lot of his family lived close by on his property. Both his son and his daughter had mobile homes in the same hollow and Cecil enjoyed that. It kept his grandchildren close by so that he could be a part of their daily lives. Cecil’s mother was still living and she lived in the family’s old home place at the mouth of the hollow. Cecil had grown up poor, so he was not as concerned as some might have been when the power went out. He knew how to get by with very little but his children and grandchildren did not.
When the weather got cold, they had trouble heating their homes because they had not followed Cecil’s advice to install a woodstove in their homes for backup heat. They didn’t want the mess, didn’t want to cut firewood. They all ended up at Cecil’s home, where he had a woodstove, but it was less than ideal. His mobile home was overcrowded to the point of misery.
Desperate for options, Cecil decided to move them all to the machine shop. It was basically his second home anyway. He had keys to get through the gates and into the shop. The machine shop also had an enormous coal stove and while there was not enough coal stockpiled to keep the power plant itself going indefinitely, there was more than enough coal lying around to keep that coal stove going for several winters. Over the course of several days, Cecil's wife, mother, kids, and their families moved into the shop, taking beds, cots, sleeping bags, and everything else that mattered to them.
When the weather permitted, they fished the river for largemouth and smallmouth bass, catfish, pike, muskie, and even alligator gar. They trapped turtles and beavers, and hunted the slopes around the plant for deer, possum, rabbits, coons, and black bear. Cecil's wife always grew a big garden and she brought her canning and cellar vegetables with her. While the family wasn’t thriving, they weren’t starving either. They were already planning on a much bigger garden the following summer and had been stockpiling seeds.
It was not quite winter yet but fall was on the way out. The nights and mornings were getting colder. Soon winter would be fully upon them. There was a lot of variation in how severe central Appalachian winters could be. Some were mild but others were utterly arctic in nature. Cecil wondered what this winter would bring. He hoped he was ready.
On one particular morning, he was the first to wake. He lit a Coleman lantern and shook the ash and clinkers from the stove grate, then added more coal. The shop would be warm for his family when they woke up. He never slept well anymore. He worried too much. His bladder was also determined to wake him up early each day.
From within the windowless shop, Cecil and his family had no way to know that an eight-man team was converging on their location. The team of top tier operators were led by a civilian known simply as Boss. Despite his lack of rank, he was as armed and lethal as any of his team members. Perhaps he was even more lethal since he lacked the discipline and structure a military background might have instilled in him. Yet his team had all seen him in action and had forged a bond of trust despite the difference in their backgrounds. They all trusted him.
Boss also had a special position of trust with the group currently running the government. Although he was separated from their most powerful placeholders by several layers of insulation, everyone knew his name and they knew his work. A certain level of government official knew there were jobs only Boss was perfectly suited for, and this particular assignment was one of them. He had been hand-selected. He had been briefed by someone near the top and had anything he required at his disposal. In this period of deprivation and scarcity, he had choppers, fuel, rations, ammunition, and anything he asked for.
Boss’s team wore mil-spec uniforms in a Realtree camo pattern that blended perfectly with the Appalachian terrain. Except for a designated marksman, all of the men carried suppressed bullpup rifles and .45 caliber Sig 227 pistols. There were no rules of engagement for this operation. Whatever Boss asked, they had clearance to do. If they left a wide trail of bodies and debris, no one cared.
As long as they succeeded.
The team watched the machine shop for an hour. Their intel, derived from the most powerful satellite images available, told them there was a small force residing here. Perhaps a dozen folks. Those satellite images placed most of them in the machine shop, but Boss took nothing for granted. After watching the facility, after seeing that smoke only rose from the chimney at the machine shop, he was more comfortable in accepting that this entire facility was abandoned except for those folks living in the shop. That made now as good a time as any to make their move.
“I want Group Two on overwatch. Group One will breach,” Boss said. The team wore wireless throat mikes and earpieces. It was state of the art, with encryption that left him with no concerns anyone would overhear their conversations.
The two group leaders confirmed their instructions and Boss raised his binoculars to watch what unfolded. He was pretty certain he knew how this would turn out, but you never knew how crazy hillbillies would act. He’d worked with a few over the years and they could be full of bluster or they could cut you. You never knew which one you were getting.
The breaching team approached the machine shop, taking advantage of the clutter around the property to conceal themselves. They flattened out against other structures, against rusting front-end loaders, and run-down forklifts. The lead man carried a battering ram.
They were perhaps ten seconds from piling into the structure when Boss’s urgent warning came across their earpieces. “Group One! Take cover! Take cover!”
Each man in the entry team took cover where he could find it, hoping his camo did its job. The entry door to the machine shop had just opened and a man emerged in partially-laced boots with his hair sticking out in all directions. He’d obviously just woken up and he did not appear to have a weapon.
"Hold steady. See what he’s up to,” Boss instructed.
Everyone on the team remained in their cover, not moving a muscle, even their respiration slowing to the bare minimum. The man who’d come from the shop staggered over to a pickup truck and yanked down his zipper. He threw back his head and peed on the tire like a dog who’d been stuck in the car for a long road trip.
“Have I got someone near this guy? Give me some clicks.”
There were two distinct clicks, their signal for an affirmative response.
“Okay. Whoever responded, take the whizzer out. Use a blade,” Boss instructed.
There was no hesitation. Immediately, a figure rose from near invisibility at the front of a forklift. In a fluid movement, he was on the peeing man, clamping his gloved left hand over his mouth and drawing his head back to expose the neck. With his right, he unsheathed a custom Bowie from its holster behind his Sig. It was a single, flawless movement that came faster than the blink of an eye—covering the mouth, jacking the head back, and slicing completely through the subclavian artery as easily as if he were gutting a fish.
Cutting the throat was never as efficient as they made it in the movies. It was not an instant death. The first reaction was a wet, drowning cough as blood ran down the exposed windpipe of the still living body. That provoked a cough reaction, which sprayed the blood from the wound. From there it was a race as to what was going to kill you faster, the blood loss or the blood filling the lungs, drowning you.
Boss witnessed the whole thing, pleased with the cool efficiency of the kill. "Good job, T.J. Group One move forward. Prepare to breach. And check that damn door. No sense using a battering ram if you don't need to."
T.J. moved to the door and twisted the handle. It was indeed unlocked. He raised a high thumbs up, hoping everyone on the team caught the gesture.
“You’re clear to breach,” Boss announced.
The team stacked up, their weapons held ready and selectors set to burst fire. When everyone nodded that they were ready, T.J. triggered his light and slipped inside.
Unlike the drug raids seen on TV, where officers ran in announcing themselves, this raid was executed in near silence. That was, until the gunfire started. Boss was pleased to hear that all of the gunfire was suppressed weapons. No shotguns, no deer rifles. He took that to mean there was no return fire. This was his men cleaning house.
Boss said nothing. He did not want to distract his men even though he was curious how it was going. When they were done, they would let him know.
"We’re clear," came T.J.'s announcement. It was less than a minute later but seemed much longer.
"Roger that,” Boss said. “Any injuries?”
“That’s a negative.”
“Group One, clear the buildings. Group Two, secure the perimeter.”
When the groups acknowledged their orders, Boss went to see the scene in the workshop for himself.
“It looks like some kind of family group,” T.J. said. “They didn’t put up a fight.”
Boss nodded. “After we’ve cleared the facility, toss the bodies in the river. The snapping turtles will clean up the mess.”
Present Day: Winter
The scene in Jim Powell's living room made it almost seem like a typical winter power outage. It could have been the aftermath of an ice storm or a heavy snow, but it wasn’t. The United States had been shaken to its core and his family, like many others, was struggling to keep their heads above water. Jim, his wife, his two kids, and his parents were sitting around the room trying to stay occupied. Jim’s mom had taken to crocheting, something she hadn’t done in nearly twenty years. Pops was reading a nine year old issue of Outdoor Life, learning how to snag springtime lunkers. The rest were playing a game of Sorry.
Except for Jim. He was pacing the house restlessly, feeling like a caged animal. He was not an inside person.
The impression that the lack of power could be attributed to a winter storm was compounded by the fact there actually was deep snow outside the French doors. It was nearly two feet deep in the drifts. It was the type of storm this region usually only got once every ten years or so. That it came in a winter already brimming with hardship was par for the course. Nothing had been easy for them, a trend that apparently would continue.
Were this a typical winter storm, the kids would be rejoicing in the school closures. They would be outside riding sleds and snowboards, enjoying the novelty of feeling like they were camping in their own home. But now, after seven months with no power, the novelty was long gone. Everyone was tired of camping in the house. Everyone was tired of the struggle. They all wanted life to go back to the way it was a year ago.
Everyone, even Jim, dreamed of power being restored. As a lifelong survivalist, Jim had to admit that there were moments over the years where he wished the country would collapse just to wake people up. He imagined a good dose of hardship might bring some reality into the lives of people that seemed totally oblivious. He felt like people had gotten too dependent on the government and too used to lives of relative ease. They’d forgotten the lessons of previous generations. They’d forgotten that no one would ever care about the safety of your family as much as you would. They’d forgotten that, ultimately, your fate and your survival was in your own hands.
Though everyone in Jim's family was still alive they'd all been touched by hardship. There was chaos and violence everywhere, even in small town America. They’d all had to make hard decisions. Some had been forced to kill another human and none had been spared the anguish of having to bury people they knew and cared about. With survival came suffering, but it was the only option. This was not a family that gave up. This was not a family of sheep that would lay down for slaughter.
Jim knew his family was faring better than many around him. They had resources accumulated from Jim’s years of obsessive preparations. On this cold winter day they had warmth from the fireplace, light when they needed it, spring-fed running water, and they would eat a hot dinner. Though Jim carefully rationed food, they had not known deprivation or starvation. He would do his best to make sure that remained the case.
Despite their comfort, Jim was starting to experience cabin fever. He was used to being active during the day. He’d already done a lot of shoveling and there were paths to nearly everywhere on his farm that he might need to go. He and his son were also taking turns maintaining watch at the various observation posts around the valley. He just didn’t like being inside so much. He went to the group of tall windows that looked out over the yard. The view hadn’t changed since he looked out this same window just a few minutes ago. It was a beautiful view despite the circumstances, with billowing clumps of snow clinging to cedars and a pristine overlay of white that almost made one forget what a dirty, gritty, and violent place the world had become.
“This reminds me of the big snows we had when I was a kid,” Jim said.
“Were they really bigger or are we just getting older?” Ellen asked.
“They were bigger,” Nana said. “It seems like every winter we had at least one really bad one. Now you may go an entire winter with just a dusting of snow that melts right off.”
“What was it, ’77 or ’78, that we had that really big one and missed two months of school?” Jim asked.
“I think it was 1978,” Nana said. “The snow just kept coming. Every time it melted down a little, more came.”
“I was four. I don’t remember it,” Ellen said. There was about eight years difference between her and Jim.
“The sledding was great,” Jim said. “We didn’t have any close neighbors really but I met up with other kids that lived on the same road. We would find a good spot and sled there all day. We’d find a cedar tree and build a fire under it. They had dense foliage that the snow couldn’t get through. You could strip the bark off for getting the fire going.”
It was yet one more of those things that kids these days probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience. Parents couldn’t let their kids be gone like that all day. Things could happen. Freaks could steal them. Social Services would come investigate that they were unsupervised.
“You remember that day you went sledding with Mr. Fairlane?” Nana asked. “It was during that same storm.”
Jim smiled. “I’d forgotten about that. He was a nice man.”
Nana smiled. “A wonderful man.”
“Who was Mr. Fairlane?” Ellen asked.
“He was a retired teacher that was one of our closest neighbors,” Jim replied. “I guess he was going stir-crazy too. We heard a knock at the door and were kind of surprised because our road was impassable. We went to the door and there was old Mr. Fairlane in a snowsuit.”
“It was funny,” Nana said. “He was like a kid asking if Jim could come out and play.”
“We went sledding there by the house,” Jim said. “Rode for hours and then he went back home.”
“That’s cool,” Ellen said.
“It was,” Jim agreed. “I hadn’t thought about him in years. What happened to him?”
“He died when you were away at college,” Nana said. “His wife stayed on in the house by herself. They had two kids but the daughter died when she was a teenager. The son moved to California and rarely came back.”
“What happened to Mrs. Fairlane?” Jim asked.
“She’s still alive as far as I know,” Nana said. “I saw her out in town sometimes. She had friends from church who came by and took her out shopping.”
“Wouldn’t she be over a hundred years old by now? They were old when I was a kid.”
“Kids aren’t good judges of age,” Nana said. “But anyway, she was twenty years younger than him. She was fresh out of the state teacher’s college when he scooped her up. Age differences meant less then. People weren’t as concerned with marrying a peer.”
Jim thought about it. Even with the age difference, that would put Rosa Fairlane in her mid-eighties. He couldn’t imagine that she’d survived to this point. The elderly were the hardest hit. They weren’t able to get medications. Their pantries didn’t have the padding that working families might have due to limited income or outliving their savings.
He walked over to the bookcase and picked up a pointed rock from a shelf. It was a Native American relic, a digging tool of some sort. Mr. Fairlane had given it to him when he was a kid. The man had started collecting relics in the 1930s, long before most people had any interest in them. He had an extensive collection and had given Jim many small items over the years.
The man had been something of a relic himself, of a time when men, when people in general, were different. He’d been born around 1910 best as Jim remembered and had come up poor. He’d worked and saved, putting himself through Virginia Tech at a time when they were only handing out a couple of dozen degrees each year. He was genteel and intelligent while remaining as homespun and country as anyone around him. It was the kind of thing that educated people from the area tried to erase within themselves anymore. They wanted the country gone. The wanted the hillbilly gone.
Jim put the relic back on the shelf. “I’m going to do some work in the shop.” The place was well-insulated and had a woodstove. It wouldn’t take long to get it warmed up. There were always things in there that needed tinkering with, experiments and things he never got around to finishing.
As he dressed, Jim thought of the impish Mr. Fairlane with his thick white hair and bushy white eyebrows. He could almost remember his voice, although he found it strange that it was the most difficult detail to recall. His face, his clothes, and his gait were not difficult but Jim struggled with the voice.
When he got his coat and boots on, he grabbed a handgun and a rifle from hooks by the door then stepped out into the cold. Perhaps that served to focus things for him. Then it came to him. He heard the laugh, then the voice came with it. When it came to him, he heard it clear as the crisp day that lay before him.
“Would you mind to check on Rosa for me?”
There’s no way she’s still alive, Jim thought. She seemed in frail health thirty years ago, at least to his child’s mind. But he would check out of respect for someone who helped make him who he was. He would check in honor of a world that he missed.
The door opened behind Jim.
“Dad?” It was Pete. “You forgot your radio.”
Jim checked his empty radio pouch. “I didn’t notice.”
“I wouldn’t have noticed either, but Hugh was calling you on it,” Pete said.
“Thanks,” Jim said, patting his son on the shoulder. He raised the radio to his mouth. “Hugh, you still there?”
“Yes sir,” Hugh replied.
Hugh was an old friend. They had worked together at Jim’s first job. They hadn’t crossed paths for years but made contact again when Jim found out Hugh was working as a radio operator for a group of rogue cops who had taken over the local superstore. When those folks took Jim prisoner, Hugh played a role in his escape, and ended up moving into the valley with Jim’s group. He was an amateur radio operator and spent the cold months of winter getting his radio equipment operational. He was now scouring the airwaves for any information about the state of the world. He radioed Jim with an update every day.
“How are things up on the mountain?”
“Any better and I wouldn’t be able to stand it,” Hugh replied.
“So what’s going on?”
“I’ve been logging contacts ever since I got this equipment up. There’s been chatter all winter about helicopters, trains carrying troops, occupying foreign armies—all the usual conspiracy-type bullshit. It’s all so fragmented that none of it makes any sense. But the feds started blasting a message everywhere last night.”
“What do you mean by blasting?”
“They’ve got a loop repeating on all kinds of frequencies—ham frequencies, commercial VHF, AM, FM, weather—all over the damn place.”
“Saying power restoration will begin next week.”
Jim was so shocked he had to sit down on the steps. “Next week?”
“That’s what they said. No details but to continue listening for updates next week.”
“Jesus,” Jim mumbled, uncertain if he’d even keyed the mike or not.
“This explains all those flickers of power over the winter,” Hugh went on. “They were working on shit, testing. Maybe we’re at the end of this.”
Other families in the valley who were monitoring the same frequency began bombarding Hugh with questions. He did his best to answer them with what little information he had. As word spread over the next couple of days, each person would struggle to make sense of this crazy chapter of their lives. They would hope that, as Hugh said, they were at the end of it.
What would be ending would not be what any of them expected.
Jim shoved his radio in the pouch on his vest. He went back in the house and stood on the rug by the door allowing his eyes to adjust to the light.
“Back so soon?” Nana asked.
Jim didn’t immediately answer, still processing Hugh’s information.
“You okay?” Ellen asked.
“Did you guys hear Hugh on the radio?” Jim asked.
Ellen looked around. “I think I left my radio in the bedroom.” It was something Jim fussed at her about. The radio did no good in an emergency if you couldn’t hear it. She prepared herself for a lecture but it didn’t come.
“Hugh says there’s been an official transmission about the power,” Jim said. “Restoration is supposed to begin next week.”
All eyes turned to him, questioning. When they saw he wasn’t joking, Ariel jumped to her feet and began cheering. Everyone else soon joined her. They were lost in their reverie and didn’t notice Jim slip back out the door.
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