Running Dark

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This story is set in the world created in John Birmingham’s “End of Days” series of books, which imagines what happens when the complex systems that support modern society are taken out – and how susceptible we are to a small number of supply chains. He produced this series as a Patreon campaign, and encouraged his backers to write their own vignettes set within the wider story, which is an opportunity I took. This is the first story I shared with that supportive group, in June 2019, a full 9 months before we knew that it was actually toilet paper that was the critical underpinning of civilisation.

If you’d like to support John’s work, I can recommend  this series as a cracking good read, which takes an all-too-plausible premise and runs it forward to see how the world falls apart. 

The first book in the series is Zero Day Code. The Audible version is also very good.

My story takes place very close to the start of Zero Day Code, when electricity and other utilities have stopped working and food distribution networks have fallen apart. Just another day in the suburbs… 

running dark

The whole suburb felt empty now. From the upstairs window, Luke Wilson could see half a klick along the road in both directions. Nothing moved. The looters had come through in waves, but they hadn’t been back for almost a week. Dogs and cats were gone too. That was somehow worse, because he knew what’d happened to them.

At least he hadn’t had to do that. Not yet anyway.

Luke had tricked the looters. He still had a decent store of frozen and canned foods he’d bought with cash on Zero Day, before most people realised how bad things were. He’d gone back and filled his trolley more than once that night. It was luck, as much as foresight. He’d had a couple grand in cash stashed away he was going to spend on a piano for Marcy. Her music teacher said she was gifted. The sort of gift that should be nurtured.

He’d spent the money on food, that first day. Couldn’t even recall why now. Just a sense that something was very badly wrong.

The front door was broken and hanging askew from its hinges, but that was all his own work. The house looked as though it had been deserted and looted, but the hallway door just inside was firmly barricaded shut.

The solar panels and Powerwall he’d put in last year were really paying their way now. Ella had argued against them. The up-front price was pretty steep, but Luke’s spreadsheet on costs and rebates and life-of-system amortisation had finally won her over. Not that they’d be getting any more rebates. But there was power for boiling water, running the camp freezer, and for cooking. Luke wouldn’t turn on the lights of course. But the house was a tiny pocket of civilisation.

It also meant he could retreat to the TV room at night, carefully blacked out, headphones on, and watch videos of Ella and Marcy, from before all of this happened.

Marcy was just over a year old in this one. Running around the back yard, falling over and giggling. Ella sitting in a deck chair with a chilled glass of white in her hand, laughing with her.

“Dadda! Dadda!” Marcy shrieked when she spotted him filming, stumbling her way over the grass to him as fast as her little legs could carry her. Marcy’s face filled the screen as she rushed into his arms, still calling out “Dadda!”

Luke hit pause. Let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. Her perfect little face lit up the darkened room, just like it had on that glorious summer day. It was only a few short years ago, but it felt like ancient history now.

Luke turned off the TV and made his way in darkness to the back of the house. He slowly opened the well-oiled door and stepped into the backyard.

In bare feet, he walked through the long, damp grass that he would never mow again.

Overhead, the Milky Way blazed with a brightness that Melbourne hadn’t seen in over a century. No light pollution. One small net gain to come from all this, he thought.

As he’d done every night for the last three weeks, he stood silently in his yard, just listening. The first week or so, he’d heard the sounds of life all around him. Talking, arguing. His friends and neighbours loading up cars.

And death of course. That too, in the end. Doors kicked in. Shouts of terror and despair. Gunshots. The nights growing quieter every time he came out. A few cars maybe, somewhere distant. But no talking. No crying. If anyone was still living around here, they’d learned to stay silent. So had he.

He found his way to the lemon tree by the back fence, his path illuminated by starlight. The heady citrus scent brought back memories of being out here with Ella and Marcy.

He knelt beneath it. Placed his hands on the still-soft dirt he’d dug up weeks ago. Two rows. One long. One short. Oh so short! She was so full of life. Too full of life and joy. And noise. So much noise.

All was quiet now. And dark. He stayed there for a long time.