When the Clock Strikes Ten

Submitted for Contest #58 in response to: Write about someone who purposefully causes a power outage.... view prompt

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Submitted on 09/12/2020

Categories: Thriller Mystery

Kingpin Arthur is what they called him. Nobody knew what he looked like or how old he was, but everybody cowered when his name was spoken. His shadow loomed over New York City in the form of a sinister tower, one that stood menacingly at the center of the Manhattan skyline as a symbol of power and influence. While much of his life was shrouded in mystery, many speculated he had inherited his media empire from family ties. Perhaps he was related to the Dreiden Family, or the Napier Family. No wonder the man named himself after Arthurian legend: he claimed his power over the city as a birthright, and Kingpin Tower was his Excalibur, rooted deeply in stone and concrete, only for him to control.

           Every year, the Movement organized the Hour Without Power, an event meant to raise awareness about the toll of energy consumption. On the night of the summer solstice, when the clock struck ten, every building in the skyline would go dark for sixty minutes. During one hour of peaceful electric slumber, the Earth was given the chance to breathe in the unpolluted moonlight, the weight of human activity lifted from its shoulders. Every building observed it, save for one: Kingpin Tower.

Arthur’s spokespeople repeated the same tired discourse, insisting the event was insignificant and meaningless, and so the Tower’s lights still shone bright solstice after solstice. Of course, his empire had money invested in fossil fuels, but nobody spoke about it. The magnate disrespected the cause and was therefore the enemy of the Movement.

           “We must do something to stop him,” I pleaded with the Leader. “If Kingpin Tower doesn’t go dark tomorrow, we’ll be a laughingstock again. What’s the point if we can’t hold the rich and powerful accountable?”

           “Your intentions are noble Callista,” replied the Leader. “I wish all Green Movement seniors had your drive and ambition. You’re a gifted young woman, my most trusted lieutenant. Unfortunately, I can’t condone what you’re suggesting.”

           “Why not?” I asked, my voice betraying bitter disappointment. “You always claim the world can’t be saved without draconian measures. This is the draconian measure. If we can topple him, we can topple all of them.”

           I stood motionless, leaning against the banister of Bow Bridge, staring at my reflection in the starry water pond. Central Park was deserted. The Leader and I were the only souls in the vicinity. It was a clandestine meeting, off Movement records. I did not dare to look at him in the eyes, for this was the first time I questioned his judgement, yet I felt his emerald stare directed at my back. I was waiting for an answer but did not get the one I was hoping for.

           “Many folks have agreed to join our fight,” he said. “Nearly everyone in the city. Let’s not jeopardize the faith of a thousand Davids to go after one Goliath.”

           “I’m sure they would understand,” I interjected. “They hate Arthur just as much as we hate him.”

           “Our actions would be twisted as an assault,” he explained. “We got the city’s big names to participate in the Hour by choice. If they feel this choice is being taken away from them, we risk losing everything. I’m sorry Callista, but this is my final word. The Movement can’t back you up on this. If you choose to proceed, you’re on your own.”

           His footsteps echoed away towards the far end of the bridge. I was now alone with my reflection in the cold evening air. My spirit was torn. Through all the protests and peaceful actions we had taken to fight against climate change, I had never once disagreed with the Leader. He was the Movement’s torch-bearer, the one who blazed the path for us to succeed. How could I go against his command? Despite the great respect I had for him, the burning fire of revolution in my heart could not be contained. We were not being taken seriously. As inspiring as our individual actions were, the rich and powerful did not cooperate, and I had to stand up to power for progress to be made.

           I looked up. The skyline was indeed beautiful at night. Still, I couldn’t wait to see it go dark, especially that tower in the distance. I would pull the plug on Excalibur, whether they liked it or not.

           I tossed and turned in my bed all night, trying to come up with a plan. It wouldn’t be easy. The tower was well guarded, and one does not simply orchestrate a blackout in a single day. Moreover, I would have to confront Arthur after the deed was done. I had to see his face and speak the truth in his presence. What if I managed to make him see the error of his ways?

           Daylight broke. First, I messaged Paris. He went by this codename to avoid capture ever since he managed to hack into the Eiffel Tower and make it go dark on New Year’s Eve. “You only ever message me when you need something,” he wrote back. “I might be a hacker, but I have a heart. Sometimes it feels good when people reach out just to say hi.” Nonetheless, he agreed to help me. Two hours later, he had managed to infiltrate the Tower’s security system and sent me the blueprints of the building. The electrical room was in the basement and had a number of built-in protections, including a mandatory retinal scan. Paris provided me with a digital record of Arthur’s eyes, taken straight from the building’s database. I 3d-printed it. There was something oddly familiar about it, I reckoned as I held the fake eyeball between my fingers. This reflection would have to wait, time was running out.

           Arthur’s office was at the very top of the Tower. According to Paris, digital records showed the big man always stayed up there late at night, leaving on average between eleven and midnight. Another rich workaholic, I thought. This meant I had a shot at cornering him, although another layer of complexity had to be considered: it would be impossible to get to the top of the building in time before the end of the blackout without using the elevators. This meant I would have to get there first before the power went out. It was time to pay Mech a visit.

           Mech was the Movement’s resident technological expert. Photovoltaic cell developer by day, he furthered his aspiration to save the world from climate change at night by creating all sorts of gadgets used by Senior members during rallies. His proudest achievement was certainly the Green Watch, a wristband capable of calculating the detailed statistics of a human’s daily carbon footprint. The watch even yelled “SHAME” in public when the number reached unacceptable levels.

           “So you want an electromagnetic pulse generator?” he asked, leaving me speechless. As I already felt out of place in his basement filled with high-tech gear, I didn’t dare to admit I had no idea what he was talking about.

           “Sure… if it does what I think it does,” I replied hesitantly. He handed over a small device that looked like a digital timer.

           “Stick this to the switchboard panel,” he methodically explained. “Then program the amount of time you need to go up on the timer, and the device will send a pulse through the board when the time runs out. That should be enough to take out the building’s power for an hour.”

           “Brilliant!” I shouted gleefully, grabbing the gadget and kissing him on the cheek. We both felt a discharge of static electricity as my lips pressed against his skin, making us blush in tandem. Mech was ever the gentleman: one could always count on him to protect his partners in crime.

           “You shouldn’t go alone into this mess,” he somberly proclaimed, his eyes down. “We’ve always been in this together and—”

           “—And yet the Leader made it clear I was on my own,” I concluded. “I’m not dragging you into this, Mech. You’re well respected in the Movement. Don’t sacrifice your reputation for me.”

           A shameful thought came to both of us simultaneously. I suppressed it instantly in a fit of guilt, but Mech defiantly dared to speak it out loud.

           “Maybe it’s time for a new Leader.”

           “Don’t go there!” I replied. “My intention is not to start a mutiny, and it better not be yours either.”

           “I just care about you, that’s all. Here, take this.”

           He snuck a small cylindrical device with a red button in the left pocket of my jeans.

           “Just press the button if things go awry,” he said. “You’re never on your own. We’re a family.”

           I was moved by the intention, but time was running against me. I dashed out of his house, heading for the tower as sunset drew near.

***

           It was 9:30PM. I waited for the security guard in the reception area to leave for his hourly patrol, as instructed by Paris. As soon as he left, I sneaked through the building doors and went straight for the staircase, my heart pounding increasingly fast against my sternum. Once in the basement, I searched for the imposing metallic door indicated by the blueprints. Turns out it was no easy task, as the underground tunnels twisted themselves into a wild labyrinthine network. Even with the map in hand, venturing into the concrete maze was a nightmarish endeavour.

Like a modern Ariadne, I took out a ball of yarn and proceeded to tie it to the staircase, unraveling it as I made my way into the tunnels. Left, right. Right, left. I became more disoriented with every turn. After what felt like an eternity of meandering, I glanced at my watch. 9:45PM. Blood cascaded into my veins like a waterfall. With every tick of the clock, my goal became more distant. I wouldn’t make it. It was simply too tight. Just as I was about to give up, I turned around one last corner and elation suddenly chased despair out of my body. There it was: the cold, glistening, silvery door to the electrical room.

I held the fake eyeball against the retina scanner and it flung open. The switchboard was now right in front of me, behind a row of transformers. I taped the pulse generator to the panel. It was now 9:50PM. Ten minutes would have to suffice. My hands typed the digits into the timer in less time than it took to blink. I rushed out, followed the thread in the reverse direction, and dashed upstairs towards the elevators.

“Freeze!”

The word sent a powerful chill through my bones. My index finger suspended itself in mid-air, inches away from the elevator button. I slowly pivoted to face the man who had spoken. It was the security guard. He was now frantically dialing a number on his mobile.

“It’s not what you think,” I clumsily tried to explain. “I just want to talk to him.”

“Save your breath,” he replied indifferently.

He brought his cellphone to his ear. The person on the other side picked up. I knew I was done. The plan had been thwarted by my own carelessness. Why had I thrown myself into the lobby without carefully inspecting it first?

“She’s here,” he said. “Just like you expected.”

Like you expected? Nonsense. My presence could not have been expected. I had only confided in Paris and Mech, and I trusted them with my life. To my surprise, I witnessed a drastic change in the security guard’s facial expression. His satisfaction shifted to a frown of disbelief, mixed with the red flush of contained frustration.

“Are you sure about this?” he whispered.

I knew this reaction too well. It was clearly the first time the guard questioned an order given by the person he was speaking to. With reluctance, he lowered the phone and stared right into my eyes.

“You may go up.”

Defeated, he swivelled on his feet and walked back to the reception desk in complete silence. Something was off. There was no way he could let me go so easily. I was now hesitant. Why was I expected? On one hand, the possibility that a trap might be waiting for me was now very tangible. On the other, I hadn’t come all this way for nothing. I caught a glimpse of my watch again. 9:57PM. It was now or never. My finger pressed the elevator button, and I hurried in as soon as the door opened.

I reached the top floor two minutes later. Two heavy wooden doors stood before me, locked by a retinal scan system. I pressed the fake eyeball against the electronic reader, and the doors opened, just as the pulse was going off downstairs. The far end of the Kingpin’s office consisted of a floor-to-ceiling window. Through it, I saw the whole skyline go dark in a beautiful waltz of flickering lights. The office lamps went out. Any sign of electrical activity vanished. I had succeeded. The plug had been pulled on Excalibur; the Hour Without Power was now city-wide. My eyes fixated on the leather chair behind the wooden desk, its back turned towards me. I heard Arthur’s hands clap in a cold, calculated manner. The showdown was imminent. The Kingpin and I were about to come face to face.

“You have outdone yourself, Callista.”

I took a step back, incredulous. That voice. It couldn’t be. The chair swivelled, and there he was, his emerald stare piercing through my skin: the Leader.

“I… I don’t understand…” I blurted out.

“Of course you don’t,” he calmly stated. “You were never meant to understand. The pawns don’t need to understand their role in the game.”

“You can’t be Arthur,” I said, speaking mostly to myself. “Arthur is a selfish corporate monster with ties to fossil fuels. You’re a beacon of hope, the selfless figurehead of the Green Movement.”

“The best leaders are the ones who can play both sides,” he continued, still perfectly composed. “Successful people get along with everybody. Being the Leader, I can keep running my Empire in peace while swaying the activists off my back. I can even unleash them on the competition if I want to.”

“You told me I was your most trusted lieutenant!” I cried out, quaking from the rage building up inside me.

“Like I said, you’re a pawn,” he coldly replied. “You always have been, and always will be.”

He pulled a dark object from underneath his desk and pointed it towards me. It took me several seconds to realize it was a revolver. My heart came to a stop, making it hard to believe that same organ had been pumping so fast before.

“Pawns are useful, but there comes a time when they must be sacrificed.”

I saw his finger hover over the trigger. There I was, on my own, about to be murdered by the very man I admired the most.

You’re never on your own. We’re a family.

The words resonated in my mind. I reached for the device in my pocket and pressed the red button. Instantly, a deafening sound wave echoed through the room, shattering the window. The Leader collapsed to his knees, dropping the gun. Dozens of men and women in black hoods poured through the hole where the glass previously stood, lowering themselves from the roof with cables. Two of them pulled their hoods down: they were Paris and Mech. The latter quickly tossed the revolver aside and pressed the Leader against the floor. They had been waiting on the roof all evening. For me. They were loyal to me.

Mech quickly cuffed the Leader to his desk with a carbon footprint wristband, which proceeded to yell “SHAME” deafeningly.

“See,” Paris said mockingly. “Always in need of something.”

“Why are you here?” I muttered, shaken by the presence of my peers. “You defied the Leader. He explicitly said…”

“This man is no leader of ours,” proclaimed Mech.

To my bafflement, they all took a knee before me, taking off their hoods and beaming with pride.

“It’s time for a new Leader. A fearless one. A revolutionary one.”

My eyes welled up. There before me were the prettiest of sights I ever had the chance to come across. A team of exceptional warriors ready to fight for a better future, and a dark skyline that united every New Yorker through their desire for change. For the next hour, the Earth would breathe peacefully in the unpolluted moonlight, the weight of human activity lifted from its shoulders. And I would breathe peacefully as well, the strength of the Movement anchoring mine.

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