By Mark Lawrence
Ancient night. A cold place that has never known the sun. In the years that took man from the trees and gave him speech, this trench, this deep wound, has remained undisturbed. Nothing but slow currents and slower still, the grind of continental plates. Seven miles of dark water stand above these rocks. Seven empty miles.
“Careful now, you're getting close.”
“Like I'm going to crash it.”
The Pandora rides the gentlest of ocean swells. Occasionally the waters slap against her iron hull, the only sound on a midnight ocean, starlit and calm.
“Yeah right. Because I'm really going to drive my baby into the seabed after seven fucking hours getting her down there”
In a small cabin crowded with PCs, printers, spare propulsion units, power cells and a robotic arm that has never worked, two men peer at a monitor showing live video feed.
“OK, I can see the rocks now. Going neutral.” Kim Green looks too young for the beard sprouting from his chin.
Seven miles of fiber-optic sheathed in buoyant polyester joins his terminal to Prometheus. A delicate umbilicus pulsing with images and other less tangible data. The robotic mini-sub maneuvers a yard above the floor of the ocean trench.
“Registering good telemetry.” Daniel McKay is older, a solid thirty. Earnest, reliable.
In the ancient night the Prometheus glides over a sterile landscape of black rock. The narrow beam of the nav-lamp scans the seabed.
“We should try the flood lights.” Kim thinks his beard makes him look like a young Cat Stevens. It doesn't.
“Main lights are charged for go.” Daniel flicks two red switches on the console before him.
The Prometheus moves through cold still waters. Its electric engines whirr. In the deep places there are things older than man, things that cannot be forgotten and so are better left unknown. In a street at the heart of Prague's old town a witch-woman moans in her sleep. An old woman in the East End of London turns over tarot cards, Death, Tower Struck By Lightning, The Fool. A mystic in New York bleeds from her tear ducts and starts to scream.
The Prometheus chugs along its course. In the ship above, Kim reaches for his coffee. He sips from a bitter cup.
“Lights are go.” He types the code.
In the darkest place a thousand watt bulb explodes with a white blindness of photons. Capacitor banks sigh as they release their charge. The shadows race away and a new day is brought to the depths. The first day.
“Neat.” Kim is pleased.
Over a forest in the Ukraine a vast flock of starlings starts to die. Their bodies fall in a light rain, by the hundred, and then by thousands in a deluge that paints the ground black.
“Keep recording.” Daniel stands and stretches his back. “Gotta go to the head.” He's learned the nautical phrases already. Two weeks at sea and he's Mister Sailor.
Kim watches his monitor whilst Daniel sets off along the central corridor to answer nature's call. At the helm the Pandora's captain smokes a cigarette and watches the compass spin.
The harsh light from the floods paints the seabed in stark shadows. Prometheus glides on, past a yawning sink hole.
Kim reaches for the joystick. In Berlin twin sisters, blonde and twelve years old, go into epileptic fits. Neither will recover. In Vatican City father Alphonse Riticio notices the holy water boiling in the fonts at the Basilica.
Kim steers Prometheus toward the hole, a rocky gullet several yards across.
Across the world babies wake screaming. Many will never sleep again. Others lie quiet and grow cold.
Daniel returns from the head. He feels a sharp sense of unease. The corridor to the operations room seems to stretch away from him. His footfalls make no sound.
A black thread links the Pandora to the heart of darkness seven miles below.
Daniel reaches the comms room door. He doesn't have to knock, but he pauses, he raises his hand.
“Kim?” His voice sounds too loud.
He reaches out to touch the door, tentative, as if he expects a static shock.
“Kim?” He can't do it, he can't bring himself to touch the door.
One by one the corridor lights go out.
“The fuse has gone,” Alan said It seemed a likely explanation.
“You kids okay?” he called out loud enough for them to hear him in their bedrooms.
“The Nintendo isn't working, Dad!” Sarah shouted back.
“I'm getting the flashlight,” Ben hollered.
“No!” Jane from the kitchen. “Stay exactly where you are and let Daddy fix the lights. I don't want to be cleaning up the mess after you blunder into everything.”
Alan felt his way along the hall wall. The kids should have been asleep, not playing video games. “Shit!” He banged his knee on the phone table.
“You alright, dear?” Jane sounded closer. Not following her own advice.
Alan's fingers found the catch on the basement door. “I had a fight with the table,” he said.
He opened the door. The smell of damp earth hit him. They'd had the basement fully finished five years before, plastered walls and a concrete floor, but it still stank like a root cellar. The flashlight above the door came on with a feeble glow that died away within seconds.
The wooden stairs creaked as he went down. It seemed to get colder with each step. He found the fuse cupboard by touch, on the wall at the bottom of the steps. He counted along the switches. If it wasn't the damn fuses he'd have to get an electrician in, and he wouldn't be seeing much change from $200 just to get one of those guys across the doormat.
The last switch was down. Alan flicked it up. Nothing happened.
He'd spent three years at the University of Boston studying earth sciences, and his college education took him as far as flicking a switch. After that he was fresh out of ideas.
“Thanks Dear.” Jane's voice from up above. “I'm going up to bed now.”
He noticed the glow illuminating the first few steps up by the door. He patted the wall beside him for the basement light switch.
Click. “Let there be light.” If one switch fails ...try two.
Alan scanned the crowded basement, cardboard boxes left over from the move six years back, some yet to be fully excavated, the shelves against the far wall. He needed some batteries for the flashlight.
He shivered. It didn't feel like autumn upstairs, but down here it felt like time to fire up the furnace. He checked the toolbox under the fuse cupboard. Sometimes he left spare batteries there. He spiked his finger on a loose staple.
Alan lifted the box onto the stairs. The basement's light was just a bare forty watt bulb and his own shadow kept getting in the way of his search.
He stopped rummaging. Slowly he turned his head back toward the center of the basement. He'd seen it when he lifted the toolbox, but the image didn't sink in for several seconds.
Between two of the house-moving boxes, a black puddle. If they'd had an oil furnace he might have thought it a leak, but its surface returned no light, no gleam.
Alan walked across, his head bent so as not to scrape the beams.
A black puddle. Or a stain?
He didn't want to touch it. No reason, but he didn't want to put his fingers into that blackness.
He tore a cardboard strip from the flap of the box closest to him. A chill of revulsion crawled up his arms as he reached out to brush at the puddle ...stain?
The cardboard came away clean. Just old gray cardboard. No stain, no oil, no dirt. He let it fall.
“A trick of the light . . .” Alan didn't sound convincing, even to himself.
Jane would be upstairs by now, cleaning her teeth. The kids' lights would be off. It was late. He felt tired. He yawned. He told himself he felt tired, that it was late, that he could check it out in the morning. Deep down though, he just didn't want to be alone in the basement a moment longer. Forgetting all about batteries Alan went back up. He took the stairs three at a time.
“Seeya!” The front door slammed. Alan glimpsed Sarah as she sprinted out the front gate toward the school bus on the corner.
He folded his paper and reached for his coffee. Across the table Ben looked up from his bowl of cornflakes, his red hair still in sleep shapes. “Do I haveta go to school after the dentist, Dad?”
Alan resisted the urge to ruffle Ben's head. “See what your mom says, Benny-Boy.” Privately he thought any six year old should get as many days off school as possible. But then again he didn't have to supervise if Ben stayed home.
He laid his paper down and went into the hall. The black pool kept swimming back into his mind. He was being ridiculous and he knew it. The lounge window caught the morning sun, bright squares on the carpet. He could hear birdsong outside.
It might be some kind of leak.
You have to check it out.
You're being silly.
He opened the basement door and went down on unwilling feet.
In the space between the two boxes the concrete looked a darker gray. Nothing of last night's black pool remained, just a shadow. He nudged at the patch with the toe of his shoe. The top layer of concrete fragmented, leaving a dusty scrape.
Damp. Rising damp.
Alan shrugged and turned to go. He took the steps one by one. Did damp do that to concrete? The phrase 'concrete cancer' echoed in the back of his mind—he'd heard it some place and it sounded kind of right.
The phrase returned to Alan as he drove back that night. He edged his Corolla forward, the beams of his headlights hard on the trunk of the Lexus in front. Traffic out of Midport was always hell. Once again he congratulated himself on convincing Jane they really didn't need to live on the coast. Ten miles inland and the real-estate got cheap enough to give you some elbow room. The lights changed in the distance. Nothing seemed to move. The traffic really was hell tonight.
His cell phone buzzed.
“Hi, Jane. Speak up will you, darling, it's a bad line.”
“Soon. Well soon if I can ever get off route seven! It's mad out here.”
“Put it in the oven for me will you, darling.”
“He did? Good. Great.” No cavities for Benny-Boy.
“No, no, just tired. Had a hell of a day. All kinds of wierd shit.”
“Okay, love you too.”
Alan clicked the phone shut. He switched the radio over from the tunes on 908 to the news on WAFM, both stations seemed to be suffering from the same static. He'd been hoping for some word on the traffic but the reports were full of the mining disaster at the pits out past Stafford, and some story about the ferry to Getchen Island getting itself sunk in calm waters.
“Concrete cancer.” He should take another look . . .
“Is it still good?”
“Great.” Actually an hour in the oven had left the cod bake rather dry, but ten years of marriage is an education on when to employ a truthful answer and when not.
“You alright?” Jane took the chair opposite and sat at the table. She smiled. She looked tired but very beautiful.
“I'm good,” Alan said. “Just a bit distracted. Two cop cars shot past me just out on Elm Lane. Must have been doing ninety, blue and reds flashing. Never seen that round here before.”
“It'll be in the Chronicle for the next month!” Jane grinned. “They can milk a parking offense for a front page story.”
“And I saw Jim out front,” Alan said. “I said 'hi'. Gave me an odd look.”
“I dunno, it was just odd.” He chewed another dry mouthful. “I'll go over and see him later. See how he's getting on with his latest project.”
“Daddy?” Sarah was standing at the doorway. She looked pale.
“Honey?” Alan got up. She calls me 'Dad', not 'Daddy'. Ever since she turned nine.
“Daddy.” Sarah hugged herself. Dark hair across her face. Dark eyes. “I don't like the noise.”
Alan crossed over to her. She was trembling. She pointed to the basement door. A coldness crept over him. The skin on his cheeks tingled. But he went, because his daughter needed him to.
The stink of wet earth hit him before he reached the door. Wet earth and rot, and worse. He pulled the catch and reached in for the light switch before his courage failed him.
The light showed the first three steps down. After that the blackness swallowed them, utterly. It was a sea of liquid soot, or a black fog, and it rippled with a slow undulation as though it breathed.
Alan stepped back and closed the door. “Get the kids outside, Jane.”
She put her head around the corner. “Why? What's wrong?”
What could he say? “Just get them out, now!”
“What is it? Alan, you're scaring me.” She stepped into the corridor.
“Now!” He screamed it at her. “Get them out.”
Jane pulled Sarah from the kitchen and pushed her to the front door.
“Ben!” Alan shouted up the stairs.
“Ben!” He shouted it hard enough to hurt his throat.
A clunk from behind the basement door, deep and hollow, like a boat jostling against its moorings.
On the porch Jane turned, her face strained. “He was looking for some batteries . . “
“God no.” Alan felt the strength run from him. The beat of his pounding heart seemed to fall like slow footsteps. The basement door drew his gaze but his feet would not take him to it.
“Hi Daddy!” Ben ambled down the last few stairs. “Look! I got my Gameboy working!”
The cold wave of relief made Alan tremble, made him want to cry. Relief for his baby boy, but more than that, relief for not being asked the hard question. A small voice deep inside told him that he would not have walked into the black sea, no matter what the need, no matter what the cost.
“Get in the car.” He dragged Ben into the street. “Get in the car, all of you.”
“What the hell is going on?” Tears sparkled in Jane's eyes, and she was furious.
“I don't know.” Alan shook his head. “I don't know.”
“What's in the basement?” Scared, angry, hugging two kids to her waist, but God she looked good.
“I don't know.” He could feel himself getting angry too, as the fear ebbed. “Something. Oil maybe.” He knew it wasn't. “It could explode.”
“Oil?” Jane pushed Sarah into the back of their old Volvo Estate. “Oil?”
Out in the street with the lights of the houses all around it all seemed silly. If he went back in the basement would be empty. Madness started like this.
On next door's lawn a ghost flashed on and off, a spook made of Christmas lights on a wooden frame. The Jensen's always got ready for Halloween a week too early.
“Oil?” Jane stared at him, her hand on the car door, the kids peering through the window. Sarah still with her haunted look. Ben clutching his Gameboy and frowning.
“I…I don't know.” He turned in a slow circle. The houses, the lights, the trees, some bare, with black fingers rubbing over each other in the breeze. “Look, wait in the car. I need to ask Jim about this.”
Alan started across the street before Jane could object. He looked back. “Don't go back in. Not yet. It isn't safe.”
He hurried up the path to Jim's front door and knocked hard, then rang the bell. Jim Sanders. Jim would know about the oil. Jim knew about plumbing, about warped shingles on the roof, how to seal a deck, how to wire up a Scalelectix so the cars would spark all the way around and speed like they were on nitro. Jim would know.
“Alan. You look all flustered up.” Marge opened the door to him, frumpy in her apron and iron gray curls, slight disapproval behind those half moon glasses.
“Marge, sorry, is Jim in, I've got a problem. Is he in?”
“Slow down, Alan, you'll do yourself a mischief.” She pressed a smile between tight lips.
“Oh he's in of course. Where would that old man go? Who'd have him? He's working on some project of his.” Marge pointed the bead curtain down the hall. “Go ahead. And tell him I want him up here soon. He hasn't had his supper yet.”
Alan hurried past her. He swept the curtain aside before he registered the smell. Earth and rot, and something older than both.
The light from the hall revealed the first three steps down before the undulating darkness swallowed it.
He stood frozen.
“Anything the matter, dear?” Marge came up beside him. “I expect he-?
She fell silent.
“Jim's down there?” Alan whispered. Something in him was afraid of what might hear.
“My Lord!” Marge found her voice. “Jim! James Sanders you come up here this minute!”
“Jim! Jim!” The first hint of terror entered her voice.
A silence, and then in the darkness, a scrape, the dry scrape of sandpaper on stone, and the noise of nails on a chalkboard. Not close, but down there in the depths of the basement workshop. Down amongst the blades, the chisels, the soldering irons, the wire.
“Jim?” Alan still didn't raise his voice. He couldn't.
Nothing, and then, so close that it might come from immediately below that skin of blackness, a chuckle. A nightmare chuckle.
Alan ran. He pushed past Marge, leaving her staggering and bewildered in her own hall, and he ran.
“Just keep driving. I need to think.”
The roads were neither more crowded than normal for the time of night, nor less, but the traffic was different. From time to time a police car or ambulance sped out of the rear view mirror and dwindled in the distance with indecent haste. But it was the regular cars that worried Alan. Too many of them packed with a whole family. White faced kids at the windows. Up too late.
“We're going to be in Edmont soon!” Jane's knuckles showed pale on the wheel.
“Tell me again,” she said.
It sounded stupid. With each mile they put behind them it sounded more stupid. “I'm trying the cell again.” He clicked it open.
“Still no signal?”
“Damned satellites.” He peered at the sky. Inky and featureless. He heard the chuckle again, and cold fingers touched his spine.
“There. Pull in there,” he said. A roadside eatery, ?Mable's ? steaks and fries', bright lights and stainless steel, a dozen cars in the lot. “We'll call on a landline.” And tell them about a chuckle in the dark?
Jane huddled behind him with the kids while Alan tried the payphone. He started with the numbers for the local police. They were busy.
“I'm going to try 911,” he said.
He glanced across the restaurant, feeling suddenly guilty. He had never rung 911 and now he was doing it to tell them it was dark in his basement. He jabbed the numbers.
The engaged tone.
Alan hit redial.
The engaged tone.
“It's fucking engaged!”
“Alan, Benny's listening.” Jane said it without conviction.
He dialed three times more then slammed the phone down. “Crazy!”
The waitress scowled at him from her order.
“C'mon.” He led the way to the car. “I'll drive.”
“Where are we going, Alan?” Jane had her 'adult' voice on, but he could hear the tremor under the surety.
“My mother's,” he said.
“That's ninety miles!”
“Ninety miles sounds good.” He turned the ignition and pulled out onto the highway.
Alan pushed the Volvo to seventy, foot on the floor. If a cop got him for speeding, well at least he'd get to speak to the police.
He turned the radio on. Static. Nine-oh-Eight FM appeared to have closed up shop. No hot tunes, no cheaply made commercials, just a harsh static roar. He hunted for WAFM and the news.
“? word out of Midport. And additional disturbances in Highton, Maytown, and Deal. I repeat, police advise against any unnecessary travel. The coast road is closed from Eastham as far west as we have reports. More on the problems for folk wanting to get into Midport as we get it.
Bob, I'm thinking it sounds like some kind of toxic spill. What're your thoughts?”
Bob's thoughts, if any, were drowned out by an unearthly howling.
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” Jane screamed.
Alan twisted the volume to zero then rubbed at his ear.
“What the hell was that?” Jane asked.
“Interference.” He hoped it was interference. It did have an electronic quality to it. He overtook a four-by-four. The speedometer read eighty-five.
Seconds later an old blue Beemer shot past them, boxes crowding out the rear window and a lone teddy bear stuffed between them.
The road crested a rise and started on down a long incline. Alan could still see the Beemer's tail lights several hundred yards ahead.
“We should call your mother,” Jane said. “Let her know we're coming.”
The tail lights winked out.
The squeal of brakes cut her off. The wheel tried to twist out of Alan's hands, but he kept his foot on the brake pedal. Jane screamed. The kids screamed. Alan couldn't tell if he were screaming too.
They ground to a halt on the gritty margins of the road.
“Jesus fuck!” Jane spat and pulled the seatbelt from her neck. Benny could listen all he liked.
“Are you kids alright?” she asked, turning in her seat. A raw red line ran below her throat.
“Alan! What the hell-” And then she saw it too.
The road ahead vanished into a black lake. The headlights made no impression of its surface. The slow swell rose and fell, and waves of pitch washed the asphalt five yards in front of them.
Dawn found them, Alan at the wheel of the car, parked by the roadside on the ridge they had followed the Beemer over, Jane in the passenger seat, her head back against the rest, a line of dried saliva flaking at the corner of her mouth. The kids had cuddled together on the back seat.
At the first gray hints of morning, the black lake had begun to retreat. Alan watched it draw in like a slow breath. By the time the sun's rim rose burning over the eastern hills, the retreating lake had revealed the Beemer. All four doors stood open. More cars emerged, two, three, a dozen. Half of them formed a single twisted wreck.
The sun cleared the horizon, fanning a skein of red clouds out before it. The lake had sunk to a narrow band, a river running through the valley, overwriting whatever river might truly run there. Alan couldn't tell how deep the blackness stood, but it overtopped any bridge that might have been down there to span the water.
He turned the volume knob on the radio, just a fraction. Beneath the faint pulsing howl, a voice, fainter still. He could make out the words 'Emergency Broadcast' and something about looters to be shot on sight.
The car door made a loud click as he opened it, but the kids didn't move. Jane lolled her head to one side and went on sleeping. Alan eased himself out onto the shoulder. He stretched, never taking his eyes from the dark river a quarter mile down the slope. A long piss into the bushes at the roadside and then he set off down the shoulder, his work shoes slipping on the gravel, sending stones into the dry ditch to his left.
The morning chill raised goose bumps on Alan's arms. He rubbed them through the thin cloth of his shirt. He could smell the rot, the basement stink, rising from the valley. No part of him wanted to walk this road, but he had to see. And more, he had to prove to himself that he could. His hesitation at the house, when he thought Ben might be down there in the basement, had sown a seed, and the shame had grown all night, until with the coming of the dawn it outweighed his fear.
The Volvo had laid down two thick lines of rubber leading to the point where Alan finally brought it to a halt. Five yards on and he came to where the lake had reached. The high-tide mark.
The road surface became more gray. It looked scoured, and potholes showed further along. The scrub to either side appeared dead, the leaves ash gray or black. In the ditch, bramble coiled like dark razor wire. Alan kept away from the ditch, walking on the road now. The hardtop crumbled under his shoes as though it were rotten snow.
He slowed as he drew nearer to the Beemer. It had been old, but this car looked as though it had spent ten years at the dump. Blue? He thought it had been blue. As he got closer he began to spot small patches of paint amongst the bubbled rust. The boxes had fallen from the rear window. The teddy still lay there, eyeless, gray stuffing drawn from its stomach.
One foot in front of the other. He needed to pee again. The silence felt fathoms deep, pressing on him from all sides. Another step.
The car lay empty, the insides torn, rusted springs jutting from perished seat covers. Alan looked toward the black river. Canal might be a better word. It gave no hint at currents or flow. All the cars would be empty. He knew where the people were.
Walking back to Jane and the kids, with his back to the valley, Alan could imagine it an ordinary day. The sun felt warm on his neck. Birds sang.
“A-Alan?” Jane woke up as he climbed back into the Volvo.
“Hey Baby.” He gave her those moments of innocence.
She looked around the car, confused, then memory hardened on her face. “God Alan, what should we do?”
“This stuff is all over everywhere,” he said. “It's on the coast, it's back at home, it's in this valley. It's gonna be at Mom's too. We can't get past the river, and I don't know where we'd go to if we could.”
“We can't get across?” Jane asked.
“Not unless you've got some kind of magic boat.” Fear made his voice harsh. “What the hell is going to float on that? It's just darkness.”
Jane peered into the valley, registering the black river for the first time. She swiveled in the car seat to look at the children. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Ben sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Hope floats.”
Alan was used to Ben's sleep talk. He seldom woke up without the tail-end of some dream or other spilling from him. This one sounded like one of Jim Sanders' little gems. “Hey, kiddo.” He forced a smile for the boy.
“It might not be so bad though,” Alan said. “Look, the dark has sunk back. It was half way to us last night. Now it's way down there.”
“You think it's going away?”
“I think it might, and I think we're worse off here than we were at home,” Alan said.
“We should go back?” He could see she liked the idea.
“Maybe. Back to town in any case.” Alan could still hear that chuckle from the Sanders' basement. v
“Maybe not back to the house yet.”
The roads which last night had been home only to the emergency services and a scattering of terrified families, were now jammed with every vehicle imaginable. They made the three miles to Ashton in six hours. At Ashton the gridlock became total.
“We've got to walk,” Alan told them.
“Walk?” Usually Jane liked to walk but today she had the expression of a woman asked to swim the Atlantic.
“We walk, or we stay here until it gets dark,” Alan said. He had the same reluctance to leave the safety of their metal box, but the safety was a lie. He remembered the Beemer and those open doors. He didn't want that.
“But it's twenty miles home,” Jane said.
“We can do it, Mom,” Sarah spoke from the back of the car, her first words since they left the house.
“I can walk it,” Ben chimed in.
“We'll walk into Ashton,” Alan said. “Can't be more than two miles. We'll find a place for the night.”
The traffic queues ran right through downtown Ashton. Alan carried Ben on sore shoulders. His throat burned with thirst and car fumes. They passed three fights, frustration boiling over into tire irons and baseball bats. Once they heard shots way behind them.
An old woman, gray hair in a bun, leaned out of her beat-up truck. “Mister, hey Mister, you know what's going on up there?” She reminded Alan of Marge.
“I don't know.” He thought of Jim down in his black cellar. “I'm sorry.”
A quarter mile on and the road dipped into an underpass. Alan led them off the first exit before the tunnel mouth.
“Holiday Inn!” Jane pointed along the street to their left.
Alan shook his head. “There.”
“That's an office block!”
Jane didn't object when he broke the glass doors with a chunk of paving slab. She did step in when Ben cheered and tried to wrestle up one of the paper stands to join in the destruction.
They went up three flights of stairs and found a corner office with a view of the street.
Ben and Sarah installed themselves in the most comfortable of the swivel chairs and began to spin.
“Now what?” Jane asked.
“We wait and hope the army comes or something.” Alan had no idea. What do you do when the world goes mad? Stopping to think too much about would definitely be a bad move.
Alan watched the streets. For the most part they were empty. A few groups of people passed, six or eight strong. It seemed like no-one wanted to be alone. A police car with a megaphone attachment sped by. He couldn't hear the message through the double glazing. In the distance, as the evening gloom began to gather, he saw a column of black smoke and the lick of fire above a roof.
By five the street below lay in deep shadow.
“There's somebody outside.” Jane tugged Alan's sleeve.
He heard a door slam. A sudden panic rose from his guts. The kids watched him with big eyes. He crept to the door and peered out. A man and woman were walking along the corridor, both laden with hold-alls and heavy coats.
“Hello there!” The man spotted Alan almost at once. He looked to be about fifty, balding and running to fat.
“Hi.” Alan stepped out from behind the door. He realised he had a stapler in one hand, clutched like a gun.
“Fred.” The man held out his hand. “This is my wife Lucy.”
Alan took the hand, still nervous. Lucy smiled at him. She looked younger, though not young enough for her red lipstick and blonde bleach.
“We saw the front door had been 'opened' and thought we'd stop over,” Fred said.
“For the night.” Lucy looked over her shoulder at the stairwell.
“Sure. Join us.” Alan straightened. He'd been hunched for action. “Come on in.”
The Robins, Fred and Lucy, came well equipped. They settled in a corner and started to brew coffee on a small camping stove. They had food too. A good thing, because the kids were hungry.
“So what the hell is going on?” Alan sat back in an office chair, a hot coffee in one hand, a cookie that he really didn't want in the other.
“It's the end of days.” Fred nodded as if agreeing with himself. “Better hope you're straight with Jesus, Alan.”
Lucy looked up from her bowl. “Hell is rising.” She gave the rehydrated stew a nervous poke.
“You might be right . . .” A day ago Alan would have the couple down as crazies.
“No 'might' about it, Alan.” Fred slapped his leg. “That out there is the second flood.”
“It's dark out.” Sarah stood by the window, watching.
“At least the lights are holding,” Fred said.
Ben paled at that and hugged closer to Jane. Alan could cheerfully have throttled the older man. He stared up at the fluorescents. Don't shoot the messenger. The lights were holding.
The Robbins snuggled down into four seasons sleeping bags at around nine. Like two blue slugs on the red and orange of the carpet. Fred had three heavy duty flashlights laid out beside him. Jane slept with the kids under two coats they had brought up from the car.
Alan sat and tried not to think. He watched the clock. He listened to the tick, tick, tick beneath the slow breathing and Fred's muffled snore. It's the end of days. Better hope you're straight with Jesus. Hope floats. A dark tide.
His head jerked up. Had he slept? He tried to make sense of the clock. What woke him?
Alan leaned forward in his chair and hugged himself with cold arms.
In a quick pulse a black circle appeared on the carpet, grew to an oval two feet across, and then shrank to nothing.
For a moment sleep held him.
Another touch of darkness, across the room.
A convulsion ran through his legs, jerking him back into the chair, nearly toppling it. He leapt up. Two strides took him to Jane and he hauled both children from her, lifting them by their collars.
“Get up! Now! It's here!”
And as he shouted the orange on red of the carpet turned black. The dark sea rose through the floor as if it weren't there.
“Get up!” A scream holding only fear.
Alan ran, holding his children under his arms. Fred and Lucy writhed, trapped in their sleeping bags. The darkness lapped around them, an inch deep. Through his shoes it felt like maggots crawling.
At the door Alan spared a glance back. Jane staggered after him. She stepped over Lucy. Alan caught a glimpse of the woman as she reached an arm out of her bag. The darkness stained one side of her face. A blood-red eye stared from that side, without iris or white.
“Jesus!” Better be straight with Jesus. “Oh God!”
Alan ran for the stairwell, almost dropping Sarah after two strides.
He barged through the door to the stairs. A small voice at the back of his mind gave thanks to whoever had chosen to let it swing both ways.
It took two flights of stairs to make him draw breath, and when he did his legs turned to jelly. He collapsed on the seventh floor landing, gasping. Jane fell beside him. For several minutes they said nothing, all four holding tight whilst Alan recovered from the climb.
From the narrow window that ran the outer length of the stairwell, the town appeared as a scattering of islands. The tallest buildings stood alone in an ocean of night. To the west the ground sloped upward towards the expensive side of Ashton, homes in James Hill sold for a million or more, and they remained untouched.
A faint howling reached them, echoing up the stairwell. A thin retching howl and the sound of breaking glass.
“Oh God.” Jane moaned and held the children close.
The lights failed as one. For a moment Alan thought the dark tide had reached the power station, but through the window the distant lights of James Hill still burned.
At least we still have the lights . . .
Jane screamed. And then, a click and the beam of a flashlight stabbed out. Her white face looked at him over the blinding light. Somehow she had swiped one of Fred's flashlights as she escaped the room.
“I knew I loved you for a reason.” Alan found a grin.
“Let's go.” Alan stood up. His feet burned, as though circulation were returning after near frostbite.
No-one had to ask where. They slept on the roof.
By ten o'clock the morning sun drove the darkness from the foyer. Alan leaned over the low wall at the edge of the offices' roof-space and watched the blackness retreat along the street. By noon it appeared to have gone as far as it would go. Half of Ashton lay submerged in the night-stuff. Alan imagined who might walk there. Lucy, with her blonde hair and red lips, leaving the building as the tide ebbed, haunting the dark streets by the underpass, her red eyes watchful.
“I have to go down.”
“You're insane!” Jane held his arm. Ben seized his leg. “No! Daddy! Don't leave us.
“We've got to get to a higher place,” Alan said. “The dark could reach us if it comes in higher tonight. I need to go down and check if it's safe. I need to find us a route to James Hill.”
“That building is closer.” Jane pointed to a tower three blocks over. It looked to be thirty stories.
“Maybe. But there might be a way out from James Hill. A way to the mountains. If we get to the mountains we can put thousands of feet under us, not just a couple of hundred.”
“I want you to say,” she said.
“We have to go.”
“I know.” Jane pushed the flashlight into his hands. “Be careful. Come back.”
She unhooked Ben's arms from Alan's leg and held him while he cried.
The dark tide had almost reached the roof. Alan found the mark just below the 'roof access' sign. The paint remained only in shreds. The plaster looked blistered. The stairwell stank of rot, the sulphurous reek of moldering seaweed.
Alan paused at the door to the top floor. The image of the Fred and Lucy writhing in their sleep sacks rose in his mind. He saw them twisting as the darkness washed over.
A dull thud. From past the doors, from down the corridor. A noise.
“Oh Christ.” He felt hollow. Terror had cored him.
For an age Alan stood without motion, waiting for the sound to come again.
“I have to check.” He said it out loud in the hope it might not be true.
If he went past without checking ...something might go up the stairs while he looked for a path to higher ground.
His hand trembled as he pushed the door open. He eased it, not wanting to make a sound. The thing squealed like a bastard on corroded hinges.
Alan crept up to the door of the office they had slept in. Black handprints marked it, and a dent below the handle looked to have been put there with a sledgehammer. The daylight from the stairwell window made little impression in the corridor. Alan turned the flashlight on.
He pushed the door.
Desks lay overturned, chairs scattered, filing cabinets pulled down. He scanned the beam of his flashlight across the room. In places the decayed carpet had been rucked up into folded piles to expose the concrete beneath. Smears of black sludge scored the walls and coated the windows, holding back the day.
In the center, one of the sleeping bags was hunched up, like an inch-worm, as if the occupant were praying to Mecca. The surface, black and glistening, reminded Alan of a chrysalis he'd dug up as a child.
It's going to move. The words sounded in his mind, cold and certain.
It's going to move.
Move? The chuckle from the Sanders basement echoed through him. Hell, it's going to eat you.
Alan took a step back. He took another. Was that motion? Did it just shiver? His nerve snapped and he spun around to run.
“Going somewhere?” Fred stood in the corridor immediately behind him. Close enough to touch. Not the kindly well-fed and well-equipped Fred of the night before. Not the Fred that was right with Jesus.
Alan screamed. He leapt away, back into the office. Nothing would come from his mouth except an animal noise, half sob, half shout.
“Did you think we'd left, neighbor?” Fred asked. He looked like one of those bodies hauled from peat bogs after seven hundred years, the flesh stained and shrunken.
“Stay back.” Alan managed. A pleading without authority.
Fred advanced with slow steps, his hands wide. The nails on several fingers were torn off or hanging on a hinge of skin.
“We're driftwood, Alan. The next tide will draw us in. This is the flood.” Fred's voice bubbled from corrupt lungs, full of mirth and malice.
“Back!” Alan raised his arms, and discovered the flashlight. Fred, or whatever creature lived inside Fred's flesh, drew away as the light fell across him. His eyes narrowed to crimson slits.
“Don't fight it, Alan.” Fred smiled. A black tongue passed over stained teeth. “This isn't the first dark tide. You've lived your entire life beneath dark waters. The oldest world was as different from today as today is from tomorrow when the dark tide swallows this town whole.”
Alan listened and words almost mesmerized him. He almost didn't hear the tearing of rotten fabric behind him.
As Lucy rose from the remains of the sleeping bag, Alan lunged forward. He clubbed Fred aside with the flashlight and ran from the room. Her nails raked across his back, nearly snagging his shirt, but he tore free and reached the stairwell door. When he pulled it closed behind him, he caught a glimpse of her charging down the corridor. Blonde hair still clung to her scalp in bushy tufts. He clung to the door handle, hauling to keep the door closed.
“Jane! Jane!” he shouted as loud as he could. “Jane!”
“Get the kids out. Do it now.”
The door shook with awful force. He knew he couldn't hold it.
Jane and the children hurried past, clattering down the bare steps.
The door shuddered. It threw him back and opened a good twelve inches before he slammed back into it, pushing it to.
“Alan?” Jane looked back at him, horrified.
A splintering sound reached him through the fire door.
“Just go.” He gasped for breath. “Into the street. Don't stop.”
The noise of footsteps faded as Jane descended.
“Run Alan.” Fred's voice bubbled behind the door, tender, almost seductive. It turned his stomach. “Run. We won't chase you. The dark wants you for itself. It's a high tide tonight.”
And Alan ran. With sick laughter echoing behind him, he ran, taking the stairs four and five at a time, careless of injury.
Being trapped is bad. The slow discovery that you're trapped is worse. Having to march your young children through decay and ruin in order to learn that you're trapped is hell.
Without a car they had to walk. Alan knew that you could hot-wire a car. But he didn't know how to. So they walked.
The streets were empty, but where the dark had run during the night, they were corrupt. They stank, the weight of decades had descended on them in hours, and gruesome relics lay scattered amid the rusting cars. A severed hand, handcuffed to a street light. A baby seat with the straps torn away. Four parallel scratches across a doorstep, as if someone had been dragged away.
Ben grew tired, and Alan carried him. Sarah grew tired, but she had to walk.
Time and again they turn a corner and found the road dipping into the liquid dark.
“What are we going to do?” Jane asked the question they weren't allowed to voice.
“I don't know.”
Alan had seen the footage of Nazi's herding Jews onto trains. He had been too young when he saw it, and the images kept with him all his life. He had seen a man with two little boys, holding their hands, leading them on to the train. And later, the pits, with skeletal bodies stacked like cord wood. Every new understanding in his life had added a fresh layer of horror to the look on that father's face. And now it was him. Perhaps he really had lived his whole life beneath dark waters.
“We'll go back,” he said. “Try the west route.”
“But that's away from James Hill,” Jane said.
“I know.” And he beat down the fury that threatened to burst out of him. “I know it is.” Because if it got out, he would hurt the things he loved.
Another image reached him. Rats in a trap. Kittens in a sack as the water seeped in. Animals, with nowhere to run, biting each other.
He glanced at his flashlight. The bulb held a dim glow in the fading light. He'd forgotten to turn it off. The batteries almost run out.
“Fuck!” His hope had run out with them.
And he threw it. Out across the rippled darkness. The flashlight landed twenty yards away, where the dark sea lapped close to the top of abandoned cars. No splash. The yellow box-like body of the thing vanished beneath the surface immediately, but for a long moment the mirrored lamp held there.
“What the hell are you doing, Alan?” Jane shouted at him now, her own fear maturing into anger.
He watched the lamp. It held for another second and then slipped away beneath the surface.
The weight of his misery crushed him. A man in dark times, throwing away his light. Abandoning hope.
“Quick. Follow me.” He grabbed Sarah's hand and started to run.
“What?” Jane stumbled after him. “Why?”
Alan couldn't say. The idea flickered at the back of his mind. If he named it, it might die, it might fade away like a waking dream.
Three blocks back and he stopped in front of the store they had passed earlier. ?Wild and Wet'. He let go of Sarah's wrist and she collapsed. He had dragged her the last half block. One of her patent leather shoes was gone, the other worn to a dirty brown.
He cast about for something to break the window with. It took a while. The dark tide hadn't reached these streets and there's never a baseball bat around when you need one.
The hardware store he needed next lay just around the corner. In it he found a portable generator. The kind folk buy so they can watch TV after a storm and keep their freezer running. It seemed that the wind just had to puff these days and the lines went down.
Alan loaded the generator onto a trolley and stacked a workman's tool-box on top. He added a length of plastic tubing, some gas cans, and five rolls of duct tape for good measure. A man can never have too much duct tape. Jim Sanders used to swear by it.
Looters will be shot on sight. The thought rose as he wheeled the trolley out of the broken doors. He grimaced. If a cop turned up to shoot him, or the national guard came in by helicopter, he'd weep for joy.
Jane and the kids waited for him in the street. She sat on the box holding the inflatable raft from Wet 'n Wild. Across her lap, both the shotguns he'd taken from the sports shop.
The children watched him with exhausted eyes, too tired for questions.
He came back pushing a second trolley, stacked with several nine-by-four boards, a circular saw, steel brackets, screws, heavy duty drill.
“I'm going to need help,” he said. “We need this stuff on the roof.” He pointed to a nearby office block. Seven stories.
Jane and the children set to lugging the equipment up piece by piece. Alan stayed in the street with his gas cans, tubing, and a screw driver. When he had siphoned enough cars to fill his cans he took them up.
“What are we doing here, Alan?” Jane sounded weary but calm. Sweat ran down her neck making streaks through the dirt. In the streets below the shadows were lengthening.
“I'm…I have an idea. It may not work.”
It almost certainly won't work.
Most of what he was doing was for the sake of doing something. It was to occupy his mind, to distract the kids, to keep busy and not think about the black sea rising from below.
Jane said nothing, and watched him.
“The flashlight floated for a moment or two,” he said.
Sarah and Ben stood to either side of their mother, silent and watching.
“It must have weighed four pounds, maybe five, and the light was weak, but it floated.”
Alan looked around at the equipment laid out on the flat roof. He had brought up several panels of fluorescent tubes removed directly from the office ceilings below their feet.
“We've got a generator and plenty of gas.” He spoke fast now. He needed to get the words out, to spread it all out before Jane could question him. “We inflate the rubber dingy. I make a wooden frame and set it on a stand, and set the boat in the frame. I attach these banks of lights to the underside of the frame. I wire the generator to juice the lights. We use another panel with lights for drive. If light can float us, it can push us forward too.”
He looked at Jane. “What do you think?”
She raised her hands. “You're building an ark?”
“Sure. But we've gotta be careful sailing her. The underside is going to be fluorescent tubes. Scrape them across anything and we're going down.”
“Can you do it?” she asked.
“I've got to.” He could hear her thinking it. He was the man never further than a fuse switch away from calling out an electrician. The man who had trouble getting shelves straight. “Necessity is the mother-fu ...I'll just have to.”
He built the stand first. Close to the edge of the roof so they could sail out over the deeps.
By sunset he had the frame ready, chipboard panels bracketed together. His hands ached, and he had a deep cut on his wrist where the circular saw went AWOL. They fired up the generator to power enough lights to work by.
A cold wind blew up, laced with rain.
“We'll inflate the raft,” Alan said.
“What's she called?” Jane asked.
“She's got to have a name. All boats have names,” Jane said.
“Pandora,” Alan said. He didn't know why.
“Hope,” Ben said quietly.
“Pandora's Hope,” Sarah said.
And that was her name.
Every step was critical. If the generator didn't work, if the raft didn't inflate, if the lights blew, any one failure and the whole thing failed.
The raft inflated with an explosive gusto that nearly knocked Ben off his feet. He retreated to the shelter of the doorway to the main stairs.
They positioned the raft in the frame and fixed it with about a mile of duct tape. Alan loaded the generator into the center of the raft. The dark tide had reached the doors of the office block. In the fire escape, step after step would be vanishing beneath the rising darkness.
Alan fixed the fluorescent tubes, still in the aluminum cases that housed them in the ceiling. He spliced the cut cables to new plugs and linked them to the generator multi-plug.
The lights in the building had failed during the previous night, but enough moonlight shone for Alan to see how many floors had been engulfed. The dark tide reached to floor five of seven, and kept rising.
“Right. Get in the raft and we'll fire the main light banks.”
Jane took Sarah's hand. She looked around. “Where's Ben?”
Alan spun around. Just the empty windswept roof, no sign of Ben.
He sprinted to the edge. Floor six of seven, and rising.
“Jesus!” Alan ran back to the boat and snatched up flashlight and a shotgun. “Get in the boat. I'll find him.”
He sprinted for the stair door. A tuft of bleached-blonde hair fluttered on the door frame, caught on a nail.
He yanked the door open and started down the stairs. The beam of his light danced wildly before him.
As he turned the corner he caught a glimpse of someone turning down the next flight. He could hear their feet on the stone, and a muffled yelling.
Alan threw himself down the steps, slamming into the wall at the turn. He fell around the corner, sprawled on the landing, the breath knocked from him. The next flight of steps ended in darkness. And between Alan and the black sea, with Ben over one shoulder, Lucy, running.
He shot without thinking. The blast hit her in the small of the back, just below Ben's head. Black flesh spattered. She pitched forward and fell into the dark tide. Ben landed on the steps, his feet inches from the blackness.
Alan limped down to his son, still unable to draw breath, and hauled him clear as the dark tide engulfed another step.
He sucked air into his bruised chest, and staggered back, dragging Ben up another three steps. The dark tide rose, still lapping at the boy's heels.
Alan dropped his shotgun and took Ben under his arm. Agony flared in his ankle as he turned and tried to climb the stairs. Hobbling and cursing he labored on.
Without looking back, Alan knew the tide kept pace with him. He could feel it, smell it, hear its whispers.
Alan broke out into the open. The boat blazed with light. Jane had lit up the main tubes beneath the frame. He took one step forward and the whole roof vanished before him. The dark tide rippled across the fifty yards between him and the boat.
He started to run. Dark fire rose around calves, dwarfing the pain from his twisted ankle. With thirty yards to go the dark tide reached his knees and he almost dropped Ben. His legs burned, and a cold sickness spread through his veins. He heard voices, Jim, Lucy, Fred, a hundred others, yammering in his ears, telling him to stop, to lie down, to let it end.
Another ten yards. The howling he could hear was his own. He carried Ben high on his chest, staggering, wading, the blackness around his waist.
You've lived your whole life beneath dark waters.
Let it take you.
Soon no-one will remember any other time.
The boat blazed ahead of him, an island of light.
His vision failed. He could see nothing but the light.
He held Ben above his head. One leg moved ahead of the next, the muscles burning, melting, full of ice and broken glass.
The dark rose in the back of his mind. A voice, huge and terrible, told him to push Ben under, to thrust the boy beneath the waves.
He saw the light, distant, at the end of a long dark tunnel.
Put him down, Alan, lay the boy down. The voice filled him, dark and glorious, the voice of every mother, every lover.
He moved on.
Don't look into the light. Come back to us, Alan. Come back.
Don't look into the light.
But he did.
He stepped and he reached.
For a moment he saw the boat, lifting clear of the frame.
He felt Ben lifting away, screaming as Jane pulled him up beside her.
The lights blazed and the raft moved.
She was going to try to lift him, too.
Grab her. Pull her out. The dark voice rang within him, undeniable.
Four strides carried Alan over the edge of the roof. The last act of his will. He fell fast as a stone and forever claimed him.
The Pandora's Hope rides the gentlest of ocean swells. Occasionally the dark waters slap against her brilliant hull. That and the chug of her generator are the only sounds on a midnight ocean, starlit and calm.
Three sailors steer her on an ancient night. And anything is possible.
Next short story: During the Dance