It was already afternoon, the gloom of the day making it feel like the light was fading ahead of time, almost as if it was being snatched away. It was bitterly cold. Clare went upstairs to try and dress Penny, leaving Tom pacing the ground floor rooms, trying to make contact with other people. He rang every number in his mobile, but no one answered. He did the same with Clare’s, then tried her landline, working his way through her entire phone book as well as any other numbers he could remember. Still nothing. He checked the computer upstairs, but information was loading incredibly slowly, and when he did manage to read something, it had been hours since anything had been updated. The flow of information had stopped along with the people who consumed it. He looked up the number and tried to call John Tipper at the Badger’s Sett, the last person he’d spoken to other than Clare, but the line just rang out unanswered.
The silence outside gave him too much time to think. Was this some kind of sickness? A contagion? Was it somehow connected to the aliens – and he couldn’t imagine that it wasn’t – or purely coincidental? Some kind of infection they’d brought to Earth, perhaps, which had laid dormant until now? His inability to find answers served only to intensify the fear. He hadn’t seen any aliens since he’d last seen Jall, and with only a few hundred of them scattered across the surface of the entire planet, there didn’t seem to be any prospect of that changing. They could have been anywhere. For all he knew, they could have gone.
Clare was taking forever. Tom waited impatiently, flicking through the channels on the TV now. Several channels just showed blank screens, others test cards or station identifiers. A couple were still broadcasting, but he guessed their programming must have been automated. Having some noise in the house – any noise – was welcome and he left it on as he stood at the window, scanning the street outside for any signs of movement. He looked around when Clare turned the TV off again, but she wasn’t even in the room. He tried the nearest light switch, flicking it up and down several times more than was necessary, then did the same in the hall. Clare was at the top of the stairs.
‘Power’s gone. Where’s your fuse box?’ he asked her.
‘Under the stairs.’
‘You got a torch?’
‘Should be one in there.’
He found the torch and switched it on, but it wasn’t working.
‘Got any spare batteries?’
‘Shouldn’t need any,’ she shouted down. ‘I only changed them a few days ago. I’ve told you before, the wiring’s dodgy here. The lights are always tripping.’
Tom checked the torch a couple more times and even unscrewed the base and removed and replaced the batteries before giving up on it. He felt for the fuse board in the darkness under the stairs and located and flicked the trip switch. Nothing happened. He pulled out the fuses and examined each of them in turn as best he could but couldn’t see anything immediately wrong.
‘Don’t bother, Tom,’ Clare said from upstairs. ‘It’s not just us.’
He reversed back out of the cupboard, banging his head and cursing with pain, then went to find her. She was in her bedroom, looking outside. And he saw that she was right. Although it was too early for every light to be on, he would have expected to see a few lights out there by now. There were none, not a single damn bulb lit up for as far as he could see. Instinctively – though he already knew it was pointless – he tried a few more electrical items. A table lamp and small TV in Clare’s room were both dead, as was the phone.
‘Not even a fucking dialling tone now,’ he said, slamming the handset back down. He took his mobile from his pocket. His battery hadn’t been fully charged, but he knew he’d still had some power remaining. The screen was blank. He panicked. ‘I’ve got to go. Sorry, Clare, I’ve got to go.’
She followed him down and out onto the street. He pressed the key fob to unlock his car as he ran towards it, but nothing happened. Clare grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back.
‘This is pointless. Don’t, Tom. It’s too late…’
He unlocked the car door with the key and shrugged her off. ‘I’ve got to go. Got to get back to Siobhan and Rob.’
He slammed the door shut, shoved the key in the ignition and turned it. Nothing. The engine didn’t turn over. Every light and indicator on the dashboard remained unlit. Clare banged on the window then opened the door.
‘Come back inside, Tom. Please.’
‘I can’t just leave them.’
‘Come in and wait with me. Maybe the power will come back on. Please, Tom…’
He kept trying, forcing the key around, pumping the pedals… anything. He popped open the bonnet and checked the battery connections, then checked the fuses, refusing to accept the futility of his actions. He remained in the car alone, not wanting to move. Several minutes later, knowing he had little option, he reluctantly followed Clare back into the house. She shut and locked the door behind him.
‘What are we going to do?’
He looked at her. ‘What the hell can we do? It’s like everything’s running down.’
Tom crept upstairs to check on Penny again a while later. Clare was sleeping. The house was cold. Much of the earlier cloud cover had disappeared, and the intermittent light from a three-quarter moon occasionally provided him with a little welcome illumination.
He found Penny just where Clare had left her, half-dressed now but still on the floor, leaning over with her face pressed up against the wall. The moonlight played tricks, and several times Tom had to check himself because he thought the little girl’s expression had changed.
He crept nearer, stopping when he was less than a metre away, reluctant to get any closer. He leant forward and listened for her breathing. There it was – shallow, but definitely there and reassuringly steady. He took hold of her wrist to try and take her pulse. Her skin was cold, her body limp. He pulled another sheet off the bed and covered her before going back downstairs to Clare.
‘Any change?’ she asked, startling him.
‘Nothing,’ he replied, feeling for a seat in the dark.
‘What’s happening, Tom?’
He didn’t even bother trying to answer. How could he? And even if he knew, what difference would it make? What could he do about any of it? He got up and went into the kitchen. Clare continued talking, but he’d stopped listening. He sat at the table and screwed his eyes shut and covered his ears. He despised himself for being stuck in this damn house. He knew he should be anywhere but here but he was too scared to leave.