Light, Big City
by Greg Costikyan
Originally published in the February, 1991 issue of
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
[This strikes uncomfortably close to
home, now, but there are some flagrant oversights or
assumptions in the article. 1. The main
character/hero did not have his own personal, portable
radio, so he had no source of continuing information
once he left the office. 2. He carried
enough cash to get out of the city, but we are not told
how much, nor did he have even a rudimentary emergency
pack. 3. There is an assumption his
wife had money to escape, had sufficient fuel in
the vehicle, etc. 4. Another assumption was
that the hotel in Philadelphia would take their
"plastic" and be able to feed them forever. You
will find more mistakes: I just highlighted a few.]
IBM was down a point. Not unusual, but I wondered why.
Rumor had it that their profits would be up next
quarter. I stared at the Quotron screen and
Something zipped past on the news line. I caught
"terrorists," "New York," and ".. ton device."
I pulled up Hot News. "AT&T Sues IBM," aha, but
where...? Dammit. They put newsflashes on the news line
instanter. Sometimes it takes a minute or two to key a
story in to Hot News. They didn't have it up yet. I
bashed the keyboard frantically.
Steve came into the office. I looked up from the
monitor. "Have you heard?" he said.
"Come on," he said. "Mary's got a radio."
So I left the office and went down to Mary's cubicle.
Half a dozen people were clustered around -- most of
the department. Mary had a newsradio station on. "...
demanding one-hundred million dollars, the freeing of a
list of 43 imprisoned terrorists world wide, and a
formal apology from the United States government for
last month's Djibouti incident," it said. "Mayor
Cardinale has appealed for calm." And it cut to a
scratchy tape of the mayor saying some damnfool
"What's going on?" I asked.
"A nuke...," said Mary. She looked a little wan.
"A bunch of wackos claim they've got a hundred kiloton
nuke somewhere in Manhattan," said Dave.
I looked around at them. A joke? No. Mary didn't have
the imagination for anything this elaborate. And there
was the radio: "... twenty-two minutes, we'll give you
the world. The top story this afternoon: nuclear
terrorism in New York. In other news..."
I looked at the group again. Here they were, hanging on
the radio's every word. They must be shell-shocked.
I picked up the phone. 1-201-659... Damn. Busy signal.
I tried again. Again. Again. I got a recording this
time. "We're sorry, but all long-distance lines..."
It took ten tries before I got through to Debbie. "Have
you heard?" I said.
"Mike?" she said. "What's up?"
"Listen to me," I said. "Terrorists claim to have a
nuclear bomb somewhere in New York."
Debbie and I have an odd relationship. She's usually
the one that calls the shots in the family. I don't
mind. My ego is invested in other things. It was
atypical of me to issue orders. Atypical enough, I
hoped, that she wouldn't question them.
"Don't talk. Listen. Grab clothes for a couple of days.
And baby stuff. If you can find the insurance papers
for the house in a minute or less, take them. Get a
recent statement for the money market account. Get the
cat. Get in the car. Get on the Turnpike. Head south.
Do it quickly. Do it now."
[No emergency kit ready for any type
of event requiring an evacuation, not a clue as to what
to take! "Evacuation and Relocation" http://www.endtimesreport.com/booklets.html
"What about you?" she said.
"I'll meet you in Philadelphia."
"What? No, I'll wait for..."
"Debbie, ten minutes from now, Wall Street can be
radioactive slag. You, me, and the baby can all be
dead. It will take me at least forty minutes to get to
you. In forty minutes, you can be well out of danger.
Get in the car. Do it fast, and you just might beat the
traffic that's going to come boiling out of the city in
"Okay," she said rapidly. "Where will we meet?"
"When you get to Philly, find a
hotel room. Then call your parents in Chicago and tell
them where you are. I'll call them to find out."
"Good," she said. "I love you."
"I love you too. Bye."
When I left the office again, they were still clustered
around the radio. All except Steve. Takes a while for
some people to react, I guess. Mary saw me head for the
elevators. I guess something penetrated, because she
said, "My God! Ben!" and she picked up a phone.
[He did not have his own tiny
portable radio, so he had no source of continuing
information once he left the office. www.endtimesreport.com/survival_shop.html
- GP-4L radio]
It took forever for the elevators to come. I'd have
taken the stairs, but I was thirty floors up. Probably
faster by elevator, even with the delay.
I was surprised there weren't more people on the
street. There were a lot more than you'd expect for the
late afternoon, though. A lot of them looked pretty
panicky. I wondered what I looked like.
I walked for the subway. I walked fast. I headed for
the Fifth Avenue stop on the F train. There was already
a solid flow of people through the turnstiles. After
the turnstiles, you take a long escalator down. The F
line is way down there; I don't know why, exactly. Most
stations aren't so deep.
I got to the platform and waited. It was already pretty
crowded when I got there. The platform rapidly began to
fill up with people. I went to the front to make sure I
got on the first train; that may have been a mistake.
The escalator kept on dumping more and more people on
the platform. We were cheek by jowl, now. Some short
bearded guy in a business suit had his elbows in my
The train came. I tried to squeeze on, but I guess I'm
not as aggressive as some folks. The hell with it. I
waited for the next one.
The train had relieved the crowding for a moment, but
people kept on coming down that escalator. Suddenly, I
realized this was actively dangerous. The people at the
top of the escalator had no idea how crowded it was
down here. They just got on, and then got dumped on the
platform. If this went on, people would soon be forced
off the platform and onto the tracks.
I wondered what genius had designed this station. I
guess he had never expected so quick and so massive a
flux of passengers.
Another train came. This time, I was a little more
desperate. I got on.
I thought commuting was bad. If 5 PM on the subway is
sardines, we were anchovies. I was in the middle of the
car and couldn't reach anything to hang onto; it didn't
matter. The press of bodies was so tight that I doubt I
could have fallen under any circumstances.
The train trundled forward. I think it was slower than
normal. Overloaded, maybe. Rockefeller Center.
Forty-Second Street. Thirty- Fourth. Finally.
Thirty-Fourth was as much of a madhouse. Getting out of
the train in the teeth of the people who wanted in was
like facing the Jets' line of scrimmage. I lost my
briefcase somewhere in there. Hell with it; my credit
cards were in my wallet, which I still had.
The PATH train, amazingly, wasn't so bad. I guess when
people think of routes out of the city, they
automatically think of commuter trains, cars, the
airports. The PATH -- Port Authority Trans-Hudson line,
the old Hudson-Manhattan Tube -- was really just a
glorified subway. Except that it goes to Newark.
Newark ought to be out of the blast radius. And the
Newark PATH station is also the Newark train station,
smack on the northeast corridor. There'd be trains from
Newark to Philadelphia.
I got on a Journal Square train. I'd have to change
there for Newark. The train was jammed, God knows, but
I didn't have any trouble getting on the first one that
I was lucky, I suppose. Or maybe not; maybe it was
because I'd acted fast.
It was inevitable, when you think about it. Maybe as
inevitable as the California quake. Everyone seems to
think a nuke is a big deal; it isn't. I mean, they
could build them in the 1940's, for God's sake. When
they still had Packards. And television was just a blip
on the horizon. When Roosevelt was President. This is
Building a nuke isn't tough. Hell, I could build one
myself, given enough plutonium. That's the rub, of
course; you can't just pick up the stuff at the corner
store. But there are enough nuclear plants in some of
the world's wackier countries... Sooner or later, some
unpleasant group of crazies was bound to get one.
And where were they going to plant it? Tel Aviv, maybe,
but Mossad is pretty sharp. (In contrast, I suspect, to
the CIA.) And who wants to nuke London? Munich? Tokyo?
A pretty inoffensive bunch of countries, really.
Nope, if you're a terrorist with a bomb, you've really
only got two choices: New York and Washington.
If I'd thought it through, I'd have plugged for
Washington. A city of slums, monuments, and
bureaucrats. Nuking D. C. would probably be a net plus
for the country. Bad for the tourist industry, maybe,
but you can't have everything.
In Washington, you get the government; but in New York,
you get the financial capital of the world, the
nation's biggest city, the U. N., six and a half
million people, and lots and lots of Jews. A
consideration, for some terrorist groups.
The train scritched around a curve. There was a
Christmas tree in the tunnel. Some PATH employee put it
up every year. It was strange, watching the little red
and green lights appear and disappear in the darkness
of the tunnel.
The PATH runs on electrified track. I wondered what the
electromagnetic pulse would do to it. There wasn't a
lot of point in worrying.
The bomb wouldn't take out that much of the city,
really. The radio had said it was a hundred kiloton
device. It would do a number on a chunk of Manhattan,
but most of the rest of the city would just suffer
Of course, the blast would blow out a lot of windows.
And there are a lot of windows in town. I envisioned
midtown under six feet of broken glass. And there
aren't any quake-resistant buildings in the city; no
active faults around, you see. The blast would produce
an earth tremor, of course. That would have interesting
effects on the skyline.
I wondered if my house would survive. It's on the
Hudson River floodplain on the Jersey side.
Unreinforced brick masonry structure, Victorian in age.
A major quake, hell, a minor quake would probably
reduce it to rubble. And if the bomb actually went off
in the Harbor, tsunamis would probably turn half of
Hudson County back into the swamp it used to be.
Burn victims. Radiation sickness. Blindness. The
hospitals would be swamped. A lot more people would
survive than in a nuclear war, of course; the rest of
the country would mobilize its medical resources. But
still; a pretty grim prospect. [And he did not even
have an emergency medical kit! www.endtimesreport.com/medical.html
I hoped the government was stalling those bastards,
whoever they were. Every minute meant more people out
The train broke out of the tunnel and into daylight.
The tracks run above ground after they pass through the
Palisades. Next stop was Journal Square.
The Newark PATH runs from the World Trade Center, in
downtown Manhattan, through Journal Square, to Newark.
I had a hell of a time switching to the Newark train.
When it pulled into Journal Square, it was already
packed to the gills.
I figured the next trains wouldn't be any better. So I
squeezed between two cars and stood on the metal
platform there. You're not supposed to do that. It's
dangerous. There were already two people between the
cars where I was.
But I got to Newark.
I got in line to buy a ticket for the train to
Philadelphia. I'd have gone straight to the track, but
they didn't have any trains posted for some reason.
It was a mob scene at the ticket window. It took me a
good fifteen minutes before I could get to the front.
"One way to Philly," I screamed through the glass. I
had to scream; the station was jammed and noisy.
"No trains south," the attendant yelled back.
What? "Why not?"
"All available rolling stock is evacuating people from
New York," he yelled. "We aren't picking up passengers
anywhere else on the line."
Damn. Damn! Now what? What was I going to do now?
I wandered away from the window in a daze. I'd been
operating on momentum up to here. I'd had a plan: get
to Newark, get on the train. And now, there was
I pushed my way to the phones. They weren't as crowded
as one might expect. I soon found out why.
I tried to call Debbie's parents collect: I couldn't
get an operator. I tried calling the local MCI access
number and using my credit card -- nothing but a busy
signal. I tried calling direct, over AT&T
long-lines, in the hope that I could plead some
operator out of requiring me to stick in $32 in small
change -- no dice. The call just died.
Figures. The Eastern Seaboard must have been swamped
with calls from desperate people.
My God, the terminal looked like something out of World
War II: families with piles of possessions, bags and
bags stacked on top of one another, one step ahead of
the Nazi advance. Woebegone faces. And the Nazis are
closing in, ma cherie, they say that Sedan has
Stuck in Newark. Stuck. Stuck. What was I going to
I could get on the Newark subway. But it doesn't go
that far. And it heads mostly north -- I didn't want
north. I wanted south and west.
A car! I could steal a car, and...
I could? The hell I could. Who did I think I was,
Macgyver or something? I know about as much about
automobiles as I do about Pluto. You turn the key, it
goes. Hotwiring was beyond my capacities.
Besides which, all routes south were probably
bumper-to-bumper by now.
Some ill-shaven guy stopped me. "No trains, huh?" he
shouted. I shook my head. "Guess that's okay," he said.
"It's just a Hiroshima bomb. Newark should be all
right." He turned away.
I thought I'd been so smart getting on the PATH. I
should have gone to Penn Station, dammit. I could have
gotten on a train there. He said they were picking up
passengers in New York...
Maybe. I bet the place was mobbed.
That jerk thought we were okay here. Sure, pal, I
thought. He might be right. But Newark isn't that far
away. There was fallout to worry about, if nothing
else. I wanted out of here...
Wait a minute.
I plunged after the guy, jostling past a black family.
"Hey!" I shouted. "Hey buddy!"
He turned. "Whaddaya want," he said, a little
"Want to sell me your clothes?" He was dressed in
dungarees and a heavy shirt.
"What?" he said.
"I'll swap clothes with you," I shouted over the crowd.
We weren't that far apart in size. "And I'll throw in
"Deal," he said, and began stripping right there.
Several bystanders gave us a dirty look.
Well, what the hell.
It was a good deal. For him. I was wearing a Brooks
Ever wander the streets of downtown Newark after dark
in a Brooks Brothers suit? Neither have I. I don't
It was cold out. Must have been low forties. Getting on
toward dusk. Night comes around 5 o'clock in late
November. I walked briskly down Market, westward and
away from the station. Market was pretty busy. It's
what passes for a shopping street in Newark.
What was I going to do? Walk to Philadelphia?
If that's what it took. Every step I took was a step
farther way from New York. Every hour was three miles
distance -- four, if I pushed it. Three miles could
make all the difference in the world...
I heard the tinkle of broken glass. A little later, a
Puerto Rican guy ran past me with a VCR and a big grin.
To be expected, I suppose; the authorities had bigger
problems to worry about than a little looting.
And there, on Market Street, heading west, I saw this
store. Downtown Cycles. I stopped in front of it. I
stood there for a full minute, peering in.
There were lots of other people on the street -- but
--none of them looked like a cop.
The store was closed. The last vestiges of sunlight
were dissipating. And I debated morality. For fifteen
seconds, or so, anyway. Then, I found a brick and
heaved it through the plate glass.
Sorry bastard didn't even have a metal grate on his
store. Wrong neighborhood to be trusting.
Did I want a mountain cycle? A touring cycle? What the
hell did I know from bikes? I grabbed one, yanked it
through the broken glass, perched on it, and pedaled
There must have been twenty witnesses. But who cares? I
bet the store was cleaned out within the hour.
I had no real idea where I was going, but I knew that
the setting sun was roughly south and west. I'm no
astronomer, but I can find the Big Dipper -- and it was
getting on toward winter. Orion would be in the sky. I
could recognize Orion. From either the Dipper or Orion,
I could find the North star.
I pedaled fast, trying to keep warm. Also trying to
avoid trouble. This was not exactly Forest Hills.
Nobody in his right mind would nuke Newark. If someone
did, he'd probably get a medal. Or an urban renewal
Burnt-out buildings. Empty lots. Surly-looking black
guys standing around on the stoops of decrepit
brownstones. What was left of the housing stock looked
good. Anywhere else, the neighborhood would have been a
gentrifier's heaven. But not in Newark.
They stared at me as I cycled madly past, but nobody
stopped me. I was glad I wasn't wearing a suit.
[And we are supposed to believe that
nobody had a gun and no shots were being fired?]
Did I want to get on a highway? Sure, why not? It would
probably be bumper-to-bumper, but a bicycle ought to
Then, I thought: maybe not. I envisioned some desperate
bastard with a handgun in his glove compartment,
spotting me on the cycle and murdering me for it. It
didn't seem worth the risk.
Backroads, that was the ticket. There probably wouldn't
be much traffic.
Of course, my knowledge of New Jersey's road net was
limited to the Turnpike and the Garden State. I'd
probably get hopelessly lost. But as long as I kept on
south and west, I should be all right.
The street split. The southern branch was named South
Orange Avenue. In Jersey, they often name streets after
nearby towns. South Orange is west of Newark. It looked
promising, so I took it.
Damn, it was cold.
In South Orange, I passed a bar. I went it, partly to
get warm, but mostly to use the payphone. I had to get
through to Debbie's parents. When she got to Philly,
she'd be desperate about me. They needed to know...
I called again from a gas station in Short Hills...
I called in Summit, in Murray Hill, in Watchung...
EHNNT, EHNNT, EHNNT... I got awfully tired of that busy
Four hours later I was in some damn placed called
Skillman, New Jersey. I was half frozen to death,
exhausted, lost, and my ass hurt like hell. I don't
think I'd been on a bike in fifteen years. And I was
badly out of shape. [Four hours on a bicycle, no dogs
or people attacking him, no food or water for four
The road seemed to be going in more or less the right
direction. I kept on hoping I'd pass someplace where I
could steal a coat. But this was a country road. No
shopping along here.
Aha! An Exxon station. It was after ten now. The
station was closed. And there wasn't much traffic on
I broke in, punching my way through the glass on the
They had maps! I stole one. Candy bars. Soda.
Cigarettes... I even found a mechanic's jacket. It said
"Randy" on the lapel. I guess I could be a Randy. It
was tight, but I shrugged into it.
No point in hanging around the scene of a burglary. I
took off down the road.
A quarter mile later, I wheeled the
bike into the side of the woods and stood, sheltered
from the highway. I was on a little rise, an overgrown
meadow before me, probably grazeland at one time. I
dined on my repast of Snickers and warm Coke, then lit
a cigarette. I hadn't smoked in years, but cancer
seemed pretty remote just then.
Funny how we were always afraid of the Russians. In
retrospect, there probably never was much threat of a
full-scale nuclear exchange. At least, not after Stalin
died. You'd have to be nuts to fight a nuclear war.
But nuclear terrorism... that makes sense. With
six-and-a-half million lives at stake, I'd bet the
President would fold pretty quick. A hard line against
terrorism is one thing, but this...
The wind was cold. I lit another cigarette off my old
one. I cupped my hand around the tip; a cigarette
doesn't put out enough heat to keep a deer tick warm,
but somehow the little glowing coal is comforting.
There was a big mother@#% peal of thunder. I
There was a glow on the horizon to the north. North and
east. It hung there for ten seconds -- twenty --
thirty... I must have missed the flash; it would have
been below the horizon. I was looking at the mushroom
cloud, miles above the city. A firestorm, the very air
Dead people. Dying people. Probably made Auschwitz look
like summer camp.
Should have nuked Washington. The f@#kers.
The phones didn't even work after that. The EMP must
have blown the crap out of something.
Dawn found me wearily cycling over the Benjamin
Franklin Bridge. Commuter traffic was already
beginning. Normal, everyday people driving to their
normal, everyday Philadelphia jobs. As if nothing had
happened. Terrorists blew up New York, Martha, pass the
sugar. Oh, look, Oprah Winfrey's got a new
I found a payphone. Son of a bitch, the damn thing
worked. Thank God for Pennsylvania Bell.
6:30 AM here, 5:30 in Chicago. I expected my in-laws to
take a while to drag themselves out of bed. But this is
how it was: Rrr... Snatch. "Hello?"
"Mike! My God! Are you all right?"
The phone didn't even get a chance to make a full ring.
They'd been up all night, worrying.
Debbie was at the Mark Plaza. I called her. After the
usual emotional exchange, she told me that everything
had gone okay. The traffic had been bad, but she'd
beaten the worst of it. The baby was okay, the
insurance papers were gone... but what the hell.
"Mike?" she said.
"I couldn't find Trevor."
I chuckled. "Hell, Debbie," I said. "I'm sorry about
the cat, but you're alive. I'm alive. The baby's alive.
And I'll see you in a just a few minutes."
[The hotel in Philadelphia would
take their "plastic" and be able to feed them
And for a while, I felt relieved. I was exhausted and
cold and I might never be able to sit down again, but
that was all over. The house might be gone, and my job,
and our savings... but we'd survived...
Trevor. I pictured him, the house smashed down around
his ears, his bedraggled corpse atop the splintered
remains of the bookcase he liked to sit on, red brick
dust across his fur -- wet from the Harbor tsunami,
charred from the firestorm. Voices screaming, burn
victims in agony, people buried alive in the
But mostly, I pictured Trevor, dead in a fashion he
could not begin to fathom, his protectors vanished
And that's when I began to cry.