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Blackout

Get back inside! He almost screamed as he got to his feet, his gloved hand pressed against his aching side. But it was too late. The oldest one had already seen the dead pigeon smeared against the kitchen skylight and was shrieking her astonished amusement. One cartoonishly lifeless eye peered in at them, as if delivering a mocking farewell on behalf of the natural world. It had come out of nowhere, the thud of heavy carcass on glass taking him by surprise, making him topple off and then fall on top of the ancient stepladder he’d been standing on. She’d come because of the noise and the girls had followed her. He heard the big one start in on a long series of questions about the bird as her mother calmly shepherded her and her tearful little sister away. Come on, back in the bedroom, daddy will be finished soon. He called an apology after them but the many layers of clothing he was wearing muffled his voice and his hearing, so he couldn’t tell if it registered. He ignored the sweat trickling down under his arms, pooling in his underwear, and continued blocking out the sunlight of a bright spring morning. When the last of the skylights was covered he turned off the electric lights to check that none of the sun’s rays were getting through them, or the window, or the patio doors. He looked at the house plants – a large dracaena by the garden doors, a rubber plant next to the sofa, mother in law’s tongue on the kitchen counter – and wondered whether to take them outside. Better for them to die out there than in here, where he’d be forced to watch. But it probably wasn’t worth the risk of going outside even for that long.

He removed the extra clothing before opening the door of the room where his partner and children had been imprisoned for the last two hours. As if fleeing a disaster zone of building bricks and Citymobil figures the girls sprang towards him. The little one was naked from the waist down, explaining a wet patch on the carpet near the middle of the room. The big one jumped up and down on his feet. Yes, you can come out now. No, you can’t look through the windows. No, we can’t go to the playground. I’ll come and play after I’ve talked to mummy. And then they were off to explore the darkness. She asked him how long they would have to live like this, whether he believed that they would be able to get enough food, whether he thought the power, the water, would stay on, how they were going to stay sane locked up inside with these children. He tried to stay upbeat but she was right. Who knew? They hugged for a long time and then spent a few minutes scrolling through news sites on their phones while the girls shrieked with delight at some newly discovered game.

NO CONTACT: OBJECTS IN ORBIT REMAIN SILENT AS RADIATION DEATH TOLL SOARS

LIVE: PRIME MINISTER ANNOUNCES ‘WARTIME MOBILISATION’ TO PRODUCE PPE FOR ESSENTIAL WORKERS

UNITED NATIONS TO BOMBARD ALIEN VESSELS WITH MESSAGES OF PEACE

MAPPED: LOCATIONS OF 1,086 EXTRATERRESTRIAL CRAFT IN LOW-EARTH ORBIT

RADIATION FATALITIES PASS 250,000 IN DEADLIEST DAY YET

ONLINE SUPERMARKETS TO COLLABORATE ON FOOD RATIONING

EXPLAINER: HOW NASA DISCOVERED THE ALIEN OBJECTS

‘SECONDS NOT MINUTES’: ALIEN RADIATION KILLS FASTER THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT

SY-LON: TIMELINE OF RADIATION’S DEADLY PROGRESS AROUND THE GLOBE

PRAYER TO DARKNESS: BILLIE EILISH’S PAEAN TO VISITORS TOPS DOWNLOAD CHARTS

OPINION: THEIR TECHNOLOGY KILLS US, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE SHOULD TREAT THE ALIENS AS ENEMIES

VITAMIN D, EXERCISE, SLEEP: TIPS FOR COPING WITH THE LACK OF SUNLIGHT

After the initial period of excitement, blackout quickly settled down into drudgery. Since she had to work normal office hours (her job seemed to consist of back-to-back meetings all day) and since he was technically out of work (as a freelance writer he was always technically out of work), childcare fell mainly to him. It was exhausting. Not so much the tasks of feeding, dressing, entertaining, mediating arguments between and providing emotional support for his four-year-old and two-year-old daughters but suppressing his urges to rant, rave, punch walls, kick chairs, smash toys and generally indulge in his own violent temper tantrums to let his family and the neighbours and the universe know exactly how much he resented the incursion of these two dependents into his every waking moment. The only refuge from their pleading, nagging, whingeing, crying, moaning, arguing, shrieking, accident-prone, milk-dribbling, mess-making neediness was to be found in junk food and television, and supplying too much of either made him feel like a bad parent. That feeling in itself was tolerable, but when he projected it onto her and imagined that she was judging his performance as a caregiver harshly, it was unbearable and sent him careening into silently hostile moods that could pollute the already-oppressive atmosphere of their cave with unpleasantness for days on end. But at least the swings from tearful intimacy to icy standoffishness helped to give the passage of time some kind of shape, some light and shade. In the days leading up to the blackout, as coverage of the catastrophes in other countries dominated the news channels, as the rolling death counts appeared, as it became clear that there was going to be no escape and that they were about to be locked in together for some time, a kind of giddiness had overwhelmed them and swept them through their preparations. Procuring food, drink, toilet roll, soap and other staples amid widespread panic, paying awkwardly brisk last visits to local friends, securing the flat against potential intruders, figuring out how to explain to the girls that they were going to have to seal themselves in their home for who knew how long – it had all flown by like the first act of a disaster movie. Their trajectory had been so straight, so fast, as they’d been hurled into the void. Now they were inside, they were dead in the water. Time had lost all its flavour. The weeks were given a slight cadence by her weekends and the arrival of the weekly grocery delivery, but for him and for the children it was hard to distinguish when one day ended and the next began. The lack of natural light was already messing with their sleeping patterns, even though they’d tried to compensate by turning on more lights during the day, fewer at night. The girls, previously excellent sleepers who could easily stay down for eleven hours each night, would now wake several times during the hours when it was dark outside and begin to play noisily. Sometimes they could be convinced to go back to sleep, often they couldn’t. He struggled with the urge to lock them in their room. Instead, meals would be eaten at night while the days became more heavily punctuated by naps (sometimes as long as five hours) for him and the girls. After three weeks, he felt like he could see them growing paler, the skin at the bridge of the nose and around the temples tending towards translucency. Eczema flared on their arms, thighs and bellies, acne on their cheeks. The big one was getting mouth ulcers.

When the government announced free UV lamps for every home, prioritising delivery to homes with children, he almost wept. They’d been sold out in every online shop long before blackout had begun. On the dark web they were selling for thousands of pounds with no guarantee that the product you’d bought would show up or if it would be a genuine UV lamp which put out the wavelengths corresponding to sunlight. And then there was the risk of getting a £10,000 fine if you were caught. The Department of Health was working with several major manufacturing companies to repurpose existing factories for lamp production and would be sending them out to homes within the week, starting with the areas closest to lamp production and spreading out from there. All you had to do was register online. If his perception of time passing hadn’t been so warped, if the days hadn’t seemed so long, he would’ve been surprised by how fast it all happened. The lamp was delivered to their door just three days later. The arrival of the package put the little one into such a state of excitement that she wet her knickers. He caught a glimpse of the courier as he was replacing the heavy blanket he’d hung over the outside of the front door. The poor guy had to wear a full-body suit of protective clothing. The black visor over his face was of a piece with a shiny, domed sun helmet which covered his head and shoulders. He looked like a walking mushroom. She ended a meeting early to join them for the unboxing. This time they both wept. As the girls ran round the living room, the ethereal, vaguely antiseptic light seemed to iridesce on the surfaces of their naked near-white bodies. At 6pm they started gradually reducing the intensity of the light via the accompanying smartphone app. At 8pm they turned it off. The girls went to bed shortly afterwards and weren’t heard from all night.

***

He was woken up by the light. It gradually increased in intensity over the space of several hours, starting as an almost indiscernible glow before faintly illuminating the edges of objects closest to it, endowing the room in which they slept with form, coaxing it out of blackness. Eventually it was strong enough to find, caress, then press, then hammer on, and finally pry his eyelids open, like a too-eager midwife violently birthing his waking consciousness. She stirred next to him, then sat up in bed wearing a dopey smile. She brushed the hair from her eyes with her hands and let the light fall on her bare face and shoulders. She breathed deeply, luxuriating in the radiation that was, supposedly, finely tuned to produce just the right photochemical reactions in her skin. He felt a dull throb at his temples. Was he getting ill, or was it just caffeine withdrawal? He got up and turned off the lamp. The rectangular unit wobbled slightly on the small stepladder they were using as a makeshift stand so that it could sit directly in front of the plywood-covered bedroom window.

I was enjoying that. He avoided her gaze as he walked out of the room, mumbling. We should save the bulbs. They won’t last forever. He heard her get out of bed and turn the lamp back on as he walked down the hallway and into the pitch black kitchen. Coffee didn’t help his headache. After half an hour on his phone, trawling through links from alt-media blogs, the throbbing at each of his temples had spread to his forehead, joining up in the middle, and down into both sides of his jaw.

SIX BILLIONAIRES MAKING OUT LIKE BANDITS IN BLACKOUT

STIMULUS SUCCESS: STOCK MARKET SOARS AS WORLD TEETERS ON BRINK OF DESTRUCTION

UK HEALTH MINISTER SACKED AFTER FINANCIAL INTERESTS IN LAMP MANUFACTURERS REVEALED

‘WHEN CONTACT COMES, WE’LL BE READY’: BILL GATES AND THE AI READY TO TRANSLATE ALIEN LANGUAGE

HOW NEOLIBERALISM LEFT US VULNERABLE TO VISITATION DISASTER

LAMP ROLLOUT INEQUALITY: GOVERNMENT RESPONSE LEAVES MINORITY GROUPS IN THE DARK

THINK TANK CALLS FOR NATIONALISATION OF FIVE LARGEST GROCERY DELIVERY FIRMS

‘ARMY OF THERAPISTS’ REQUIRED TO DEAL WITH EPIDEMIC OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

FREE POWER FOR ALL: POWER COMPANIES MUST STOP CUTTING OFF MOST VULNERABLE

DANGEROUS DOUBT: THE ONLINE CONSPIRACY THEORIES PUTTING LIVES AT RISK

He had the vague notion that he was forgetting something, that he’d neglected some important duty but he shrugged it off, reasoning that there was nothing to do in blackout except survive, and try not to think about what came next. Then he got an email from an old client, an electronics retailer. Demand was up but their competitors were beating them out of the search engine results pages – could he help? Grateful for the distraction, and for the first offer of work he’d had in weeks, he dove into the task of putting together a proposal. He was happy to find that it was already late afternoon when his concentration waned. He’d blown through breakfast and lunch. She seemed to be similarly immersed in her work. When he went quietly upstairs to use the toilet the light creeping round the bedroom door and the noise of key pecks told him that she was still sitting in bed, in front of the UV lamp, working. He’d wanted to tell her to turn it off, to save the bulbs, but he had no stomach for confrontation. He decided he would try to heal the rift between them by cooking dinner, a vegetable chilli made from the salvaged parts of half-rotten courgettes and squashes that had turned up in the weekly delivery. But by the time it was ready, the desire to reconcile had ebbed. He could only manage a grunt in response to her inquiry about his general well being and they ate in silence. He thought he could sense her twitching in anticipation of getting back in front of the lamp. He would not be joining her. There was something strange about those things. So far, he’d managed to avoid diving down rabbit holes but he knew from the links he’d seen on social media that certain conspiracy-minded sites were buzzing with rumours and conjectures that centred around the lamps. He seemed to get a headache every time he sat in front of theirs. She told him she was going to get on a Nifty with some friends before turning in. She gave him a concerned, sympathetic look, kissed him on the forehead and left with a three-quarters-full bottle of pinot noir. He tried to remember what he’d just been thinking about.

There were great gaping holes in his memory. He didn’t know whether it was the disruption to his circadian rhythms caused by the blackout or if it was the lack of sunlight on skin or if it was the stress or what but he felt increasingly disoriented, increasingly unable to accept that he had had a life, or at least that he had been the same person, the same self, before the blackout. There were still long distant memories that he could call up at will, but when he tried to remember events from the last few years, all he got was hazy images and sensations that almost resolved into something concrete but never quite got there. He would look at objects in the flat – the TV, sofa cushions, a standing lamp, pictures hanging on the wall – and be unable to remember when they were procured or how or why. He supposed he had to put it down to trauma. He hadn’t thought that he was very much affected but how else could he explain this memory loss? What was even more alarming was a suspicion that he’d forgotten more than just events and objects. He’d found a small, posable, plastic figurine of a little girl while he was hunting for a replacement lightbulb in the spare room. The toy, which he’d discovered at the back of one of the drawers beneath the sofa bed, had yellow hair, a purple dress and an immovable smile painted onto her pale face. It was the kind that was mass produced and which went with all kinds of expensive playsets like houses, farms, schools, supermarkets, fire stations – Citymobil, he remembered they were called. He remembered a surprising amount of information about these toys. The details came to him when he found the girl. Images of plastic horses, dogs, furniture, tiny coffee mugs and swappable hairstyles came and went, along with the knowledge that the characters tended to lack ethnic diversity, that they got mildewed when left in the bathroom, that their broken limbs could be fixed with superglue. And yet, he’d never played with these toys as a child and couldn’t remember a child who did play with them ever visiting their home. Could he have forgotten whole people too? Had he blacked out faces, names, whole personalities? He searched his memories of all his and her family members, friends, colleagues, neighbours, but could think of no one with young children. In fact, he couldn’t remember any specific children. General ideas of children, yes. Child actors. Children in adverts and catalogues. But no specific individual child. Could that be right? Was it possible? He was nearly forty years old.

He thought about the Citymobil figure all through a family quiz on Nifty that evening. Normally he’d only speak to members of his family once every few weeks and they’d never, ever organise a group video call, but since blackout had started it seemed like everyone was doing it and, as the eldest of three siblings, he’d felt obligated to arrange one. He found himself scanning the backgrounds of the windows in which his relatives were displayed for signs of youth – framed pictures, toys, drawings stuck to fridges, anything – but there was nothing. She threw herself into the quiz with gusto. She’d always been better at the social stuff than him and these Nifty chats seemed to play to her strengths. She brought warmth, energy and humour and for a couple of hours he was in awe of her resilience, her adaptability. When the quiz was over she again expressed her concern about his wellbeing and when he said that he was fine she left for the bedroom with wine and a disappointed look. He decided to sleep on the sofa.

He woke up at some time that seemed like all other times. Except at this time he really needed to piss. He rolled off the sofa and staggered past the kitchenette on confused legs. In the hallway, he was just about to flick on the light switch for the bathroom when something in the periphery of his visual field stopped him. In the darkness he often thought he saw things that weren’t really there – hobgoblins disguised as drying laundry; ghostly apparitions that turned out to be his own reflection in a cabinet door; squadrons of imaginary mouse-like creatures that scuttled between the shadows – but he’d never had such a persistent and detailed vision as this before. He looked harder, trying to deconstruct the elements that composed this trompe l’oeil – shadows, irregularities in the wall’s surface no doubt. And yet it persisted. It really looked like there was a door, white with a brushed steel lever handle. A door just like the bathroom door, right next to it, where there should be only a blank wall. He thought he could even make out tiny dents in the door frame and specks of paint on the handle where the painter had been careless. About as careless as he would have been, had he been the one who painted it. Determined to break the spell he reached out for the handle. Fear gripped him like ice cold hands moving up his back and over his shoulders as his fingers made contact with metal. It was there. There was a room in his home that he had forgotten. His head suddenly felt heavy and he found himself unable to think, unable to decide what to do next. Just then he heard her roll over in bed. He let go of the handle, used the bathroom quickly and quietly and went straight to bed without looking at it again.

The next day he managed to avoid thinking about it until dinner time. He immersed himself in media, trying to find some reassurance that his mental derangement was normal, or at least not abnormal, under such stressful conditions. There were lots of articles in the mainstream describing his symptoms – difficulty remembering things, audio and visual hallucinations, feelings of loss and bereavement, lethargy, anxiety, depression – which were put down to stress and vitamin D deficiency. The experts in the articles recommended more time in front of the lamp. He could hear her on a work Nifty upstairs, knew that she was bathed in the light of their lamp. She did seem to be coping much better than him. But the thought of sitting in front of that thing made his head hurt. Besides, he was taking all sorts of supplements every day, sometimes twice a day. Vitamin D, zinc, omega 3, etc. etc.

You could no longer watch videos of seemingly fit and healthy people collapsing in the streets of Melbourne and Sydney – the first cities afflicted by the alleged visitors – on the major tube sites and social networks. They’d been taken down for compassionate reasons. But the clips had been copied and reuploaded onto alternative platforms by conspiracy theorists and were being analysed for irregularities and incongruities to a degree that eclipsed both the moon landing films and the Zapruder footage. Were they real or staged? Were those real people or actors? Why were people shooting these videos in the first place? How did the emergency services arrive so quickly? How could those injuries be faked? How could you be confident of staging such an event in a public place in broad daylight? They could be used to support almost any narrative interpretation of recent events. Nevertheless, he watched those people collapsing over and over again. He spent hours scrolling through comments threads below articles on the legitimacy of the scientific evidence, both for the existence of extraterrestrial visitors and the cause of the apparent epidemics of radiation sickness, trying to tease the truth from the gibberish, the real humans from the bots, the righteous anger from the glib provocations. Everyone accused everyone else of being an intelligence operative. If there was a signal amongst all this noise, he could not tune into it.

His head throbbed and his mind was was dulled when she came down the stairs and brightly suggested that she cook them both dinner. She asked him if he was okay in a way that suggested concern but he had a feeling she didn’t want a truthful answer. He realised that he must look terrible – had he changed his clothes today? Yesterday? He replied yes and sat and drank a lager while she made risotto with half a packet of dried mushrooms that she found at the back of one of the cupboards. She talked about her problems at work and how difficult it was trying to carry on as if everything was normal while the whole world was going crazy around them but he couldn’t get into it and sat and pretended to listen while his head buzzed and he nursed his lager until it was time to eat. He thought about the room. He tried to stop thinking about the room but it was useless so he told her. Or rather, he asked her if she knew about the room and she looked at him like he was losing his mind, which he admonished her for, but then admitted that he might indeed be losing his mind. He asked her to go and look for him. She wouldn’t. She told him to stop thinking about it. He didn’t understand. If it was so crazy, why wouldn’t she go and look? She said these were strange times. That they were both under an extraordinary amount of pressure. That it would be easy to lose your, hers, anyone’s sanity under such conditions. It was important not to give in to hysteria. Not to go looking for reasons to crazy. To hang on to what was real, what was important. They were important, she said, the two of them. Their health and mental health which, God knows, they had to work hard to protect right now. They had to look out for each other. She was worried that he wasn’t looking after himself. She knew he hated the group Niftys but he should make an effort, more for himself than for other people. Would he join the one she was on tonight with their university friends? Would he at least take a bath and then spend an hour in front of the lamp? Just an hour? It would make him feel much better, she said.

He took a bath. There was buzzing coming from behind the door now. He first became aware of it in the bathroom but couldn’t locate the source of the sound until he was padding past the place where the new door appeared. It was barely audible, right on the edge of hearing, but it was definitely there. A staticky, tight buzzing like a faulty fluorescent light bulb. Then the door was there. Or rather, he was aware of the door. It didn’t appear out of nowhere. It just became known to him. Like the vase formed by the blank space between two faces in profile. He didn’t dare touch the handle again, or linger near the door for more than a few seconds. While she chatted with their friends in the front room he pored over his laptop in the bedroom. The lamp remained off.

COOKING THE BOOKS: HOW THE RADIATION DEATH COUNT IS OVERESTIMATED

BIRDSONG PROVES ALIEN RADIATION A HOAX

ARE VITAMIN D LAMPS REPROGRAMMING PEOPLE’S BRAINS ON BEHALF OF ALIEN INVADERS?

WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? BLACKOUT MASKS MASS KIDNAPPING EVENT

THE GREAT FLYING SAUCER FRAUD: POKING HOLES IN NASA’S ‘VISITATION’ STORY

VIDEO: MET POLICE USE BRUTAL FORCE AGAINST PEOPLE GOING OUTSIDE

WHO ARE YOU NIFTYING? INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES POSSESS CAPABILITIES TO DEEPFAKE ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS

PENTAGON LEAK: US, EU, RUSSIA, CHINA IN SECRET SURRENDER TALKS WITH ALIEN INVADERS

REVEALED: THE GOVERNMENT SCIENTIFIC ADVISERS PROFITING FROM BLACKOUT

VIDEO: THE HEALTHY PEOPLE FLAUNTING BLACKOUT RULES

ALIEN INFRASTRUCTURE: 5G MASTS ARE THE REAL SOURCE OF DEADLY RADIATION; THE AIM: POPULATION CONTROL

A notification. Recycling. Tomorrow was Friday: waste collection day. When blackout rules had first been imposed, the service had been suspended while they worked out how to safely kit out the refuse collectors. The bags had piled up in the hallway they shared with the flat upstairs, reeking, leaking and attracting rats which made their way in through the holes cut for gas and water pipes. He’d managed to block those holes with glass and filler, and the waste collection was now two-weekly. Taking the rubbish out was one of three permitted reasons to leave your home. Otherwise you had to be taken out by a paramedic or police officer or be fleeing from imminent injury or death. Loitering was punishable by a fine of up to £5,000, imprisonment or forcible removal to a mental health institution. He normally put on several layers of clothes, hoods, scarves and a ski mask to take the sacks out to the wheelie bins on the pavement outside – a round trip of around six metres – but tonight he didn’t feel like it. It was a balmy evening and he was already sweating in jeans and a t-shirt, so that’s how he went out into the street, two black bin liners in one hand, two green recycling sacks in the other. Nestling the sacks at the edge of large pile on the pavement, he allowed his fear of being exposed to the sky to wash over him, but not to send him scurrying back into the house for cover. He stood still and tried to notice things. The street was empty, of course, but the street lamps were lit. There was no wind. Only the sound of a blaring television from next door disrupted the quiet. He felt like the sole survivor in a post-apocalyptic world. The trees on the street, which had probably been in place for less than a decade judging by their young appearance, were in full leaf and shook the signature hues and shapes of their various species proudly. A cloudless sky with a waning crescent moon revealed more stars than he’d expected to see. Perhaps there was less pollution in the air since the blackout had begun. He could only bear to look up at the sky for a short while, even though he knew that the dark shapes of the visitors, assuming they existed, would not be visible from earth.

A loud metallic clatter from his left sent an electric chill up his spinal chord. Before the cause of the sound had become apparent a multitude of images flickered though his mind – masked and helmeted policemen wielding batons; an outraged neighbour who might rat him out for loitering; a tentacled visitor emerging from the darkness to harvest his organs or suck out his brains, or whatever it was they wanted to do with him. His head swivelled to locate the source of the sound on a fear-stiffened neck. The alert, curious eyes that met his, peeping out from behind an overturned dustbin, seemed to swallow up his panic. He stood as still as he could, noticing the beads of adrenaline-laced sweat trickle down his back. The young fox investigated his strange presence, wobbled slowly towards him on bandy legs and too-large feet, sniffed at his legs and then sat down in front of him as if it expected to be petted and praised for its good work. He slowly extended an open hand towards his visitor. The fox backed away from it at first, then sniffed it, licked it and finally nipped at it playfully. He pulled his hand away, examined his finger. It hurt, but the skin wasn’t broken. The animal watched him. It didn’t seem sick. In fact, it was the healthiest looking fox he’d seen in the city. A couple of years ago a family of foxes had more or less set up home in their small back garden. At first he’d enjoyed feeling like he was connected to nature, despite living in the middle of the metropolis, and had watched the youngsters cavort on the patio for ages. He’d even filmed them. But eventually he’d felt the need to block up the holes under the fence and get one of those ultrasonic deterrents on a motion trigger. Why? Why had he been so protective of his little patch of earth? Why hadn’t he wanted to share it with these animals? He felt that there had been a reason but he couldn’t remember it. He bid the pup good luck and left it sitting at the end of the path that led from the front door to the street, casually scratching itself behind an ear.

When he got back into the hallway of their flat, the new door was buzzing again. It was more apparent, more solid, more real-looking than it had ever been. It was like it had always been there, like it was a composite of sensations he was experiencing now and sensations that he was recalling from hundreds or thousands of previous experiences over many years. He stood there for a while, trapped between the attraction of the door’s familiarity and the repulsion of its strangeness. The light from the UV lamp which seeped round the edges of the not-quite-shut bedroom door, behind which he knew she was either sleeping or working on her laptop, threw a shadow of his form on the hallway floor which extended past the strange portal. Was he dreaming? He realised he was holding his breath so he released and tried to regulate it. He started slowly towards the door, allowing its commonplace attributes and the comfortable feelings they inspired in him to become dominant, to pull him along, to tease him into remembrance of what lay behind. The shape and space of a bedroom. The placement of a window. The pattern of curtain fabric. The faint smell of faeces and urine mixed with something sweeter, perfumed, vaguely antiseptic. A bar of a lullaby, electronic, slightly distorted in the low frequencies. He was standing in front of the door now. Two piping voices crying out in unison, as if from the very centre of his being. Fine hair matted by tears and snot to a soft red cheek. Plastic gems. Spilled milk. Small, pudgy fingers gripping his own. He turned the handle and pushed open the door against the resistance of a plush, light-coloured carpet. Again, the room and its contents were strangely familiar, like elements from a long-forgotten dream. It could only have been this size, could only have contained two single beds. Of course there was a built-in wardrobe with double doors, and of course one of those doors was missing a handle and had to be opened after the other. Of course there was a gap of three feet between the beds, a rainbow-coloured rug on the floor between them. Of course there was a framed alphabet poster on the opposite wall where each letter was accompanied by a stylised animal or object in the shape of that letter. Of course the bed clothes had pictures of unicorns on them. Of course the ends of the beds were overflowing with stuffed animal toys. Of course there was a little girl asleep in each bed. Of course the older one slept on the wardrobe side, the younger on the window side. This all felt just so, just like it should be. It all felt so natural, so like waking up from a horrible dream to see the smiling face of a loved one. Two loved ones. Yes, love. He loved these girls. He knew how they sounded, how heavy they felt, how they cried, how they ate, how they smelled, how their moods shifted when they were hungry, or tired or needed to go to the toilet and how that changed the way they moved. He had seen them in a playground swinging in time, their hair swept from their faces by the wind, their shadows dancing in the sunlight. It was when he stepped forward to get a better look at them, to stroke their sleeping faces, maybe steal a light kiss on each unwrinkled forehead, that he saw it.

Or didn’t see it. It had no shape that he could discern. He could not determine its composition or anatomy or physical makeup. He wasn’t entirely sure that it was there at all, based on the evidence of his eyes and ears. All he saw was blackness. An area about half a metre wide and two metres high, between the two beds, completely devoid of light. It was roughly egg-shaped, but with a fuzzy, dynamic, ever-changing border region that made it impossible to tell where it left off and the more familiar world that surrounded it began. He could easily have written it off as a trick of the light – the only illumination came from the dregs of the UV rays that made it this far down the hallway and a small, dim nightlight plugged into a wall socket at ankle level between the window and the door – except that he felt a presence. He felt an aliveness, an alertness. Something was in or behind or was itself this darkness. And it was watching. He felt its observation, its intelligence. He knew, somehow, that whatever was cloaked in this absence of light was possessed of an intelligence far greater than his own or any that he had ever known. He knew, for certain, that it already knew everything it needed to know about him, his every strength, every weakness. He knew that it was watching over these girls on behalf of some higher authority. And he knew that it would not let him near them.

He stood absolutely still. He had no choice. But while fear rendered him unable to move, and though his gaze was transfixed by the utterly lightless region in front of him, his awareness of the room’s fine details suddenly improved substantially. He noted that there was a small trolley between the beds of the kind that contains medicines and dressings and other hospital paraphernalia. He noted also that next to each bed was an upright stand, also like in a hospital. There were no screens for displaying heart rates etc, but attached to each stand were several of those devices which are used to automatically empty a syringe of medicine into an IV bag over a set period of time. He also noted that there were IV bags suspended next to each bed, and that several lines disappeared under the bed covers of each girl. He thought of pulling the lines out, of waking the girls, or of carrying them out of the room but no sooner had he visualised it than something shifted in the room’s atmosphere. The darkness seemed to move, or grow in size. It was getting closer. It started crackling, like a staticky old television set, and the presence that before he had interpreted as watchful now seemed to him irritated by his intrusion. Was it responding to his growing awareness of the situation? Could it read his thoughts? He panicked, stumbled backwards, tripped over his own feet and was down. When he looked up, the darkness was over him, filling more and more of his visual field. He felt the static tingle all over his body. He was paralysed. Was it fear, or was the thing pinning him? He opened his mouth to scream but before any sound came out the blackness enveloped everything.

When he regained consciousness he was sitting in the hallway, slumped against the wall, spittle dripping from his open mouth, wetting his t-shirt. The new door was still there, shut tight. He struggled to his feet, resisting the strong urge to run out of the flat as the memory of what had happened in the room came rushing back. His heart pounded in his chest as a crowd of thoughts fought in his head like sex-crazed spermatozoa jostling to penetrate the ovum of his attention. Was that a visitor? Who were those children? How could he know them so well and not know who they were? What was happening in there? Why in this flat? Was this the only place or was it happening everywhere, in every home? What was he supposed to do? Could he stop it? How? Could he get help? Who would believe him? What if they were working with it, or for it? How would he know? His chest felt tight, his arms were tingling. Christ, was he having a heart attack now too? Perhaps this was all just an hallucination. Perhaps he was just sick. He pulled his eyes away from the door and focused on the light seeping from the bedroom door down the hall. If he could just get some distance from it, he could reassess with a cooler head. Perhaps the next time he checked the door wouldn’t be there. Perhaps it was all just a bad dream. He staggered down the hall towards the light. He just needed to rest. She was right, he hadn’t been getting enough sunlight substitute. The light would do him good, make everything clearer. Blackout was gruelling and he’d been trying to do it without any help. He’d been pushing away the help that was on offer. No wonder he was seeing things. No more. He just needed a couple of hours in front of the lamp. Just to reset.

***

He woke after a series of rambling, incoherent dreams dominated by the feeling of searching for something that he couldn’t remember while formless entities of pure darkness stalked him. The voices of the girls and their mother floated in through the open bedroom door. They were playing some silly game that they must have made up just now, repeating the same nonsense phrase over and over, louder and louder each time, after which the girls would erupt in shrieks and giggles. He listened for a while, feeling too weary to move. He allowed the lingering remnants of queasy dream imagery to be washed away by their laughter and felt a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. They were really having a lot of fun. Remarkable, under the circumstances. There was something strange about the sound of their voices though. Something off. There was no echo. It sounded for all the world like they were in the garden. He turned his head towards the door and was gripped by panic. There was light. Too much light. Sunlight. He scrabbled the covers away and lunged for the door, desperate to get them back inside, to replace the covers on the windows. She looked up at him as she heard his approach. She was outside, framed by the makeshift shades which had been pulled back to reveal an overgrown mess of weeds and fox-broken flowerpots. She was grinning. Had she gone insane? He took a deep breath in, ready to shout but at the same moment he read deep relief and gratitude in her expression, in the tears that welled up in her eyes.

He stopped running. It’s over? She nodded and he moved past the girls, who were pulling earthworms out of the spilled dirt, to embrace her. She told him how she had woken up to the news that the visiting spaceships (for what else could they have been?) had suddenly disappeared. It was assumed that they had observed enough for now and left. Perhaps they had worked out how much harm they were causing and decided to back off until they could make contact safely. In any case, the blackout was over. She said she was sorry – she’d tried to wake him without much success so she’d let him sleep. Look at what a beautiful day it is. Should they go somewhere to celebrate? Then her phone rang and she went inside to talk to her mother, leaving him to enjoy the excitement of the girls over snails and spiders and flowers and to learn their hilarious new nonsense phrase.

It wasn’t until bath time that night – the girls tired from the exertions of a walk of moderate length – that they noticed the red marks. They were in the same locations on each girl: one small one on each wrist and in the groin at the top of the leg; a larger one on the back of the neck, just below the hairline. They looked like puncture wounds. She suggested that they must be insect bites and he nodded. Before tucking them in, they checked the girls’ beds and bedclothes for signs of bugs. They didn’t find any, but since the marks healed quickly they were soon forgotten. In the days and weeks that followed they kept a close eye on the girls, looking for any indication of blackout-induced trauma. They concurred that there were no behavioural signs. If anything, the girls were better behaved now than before. They were polite and agreeable. The little one no longer had toilet accidents and the big one no longer teased, tortured or tormented her sister when she thought there were no witnesses. He did, once in a while, feel that perhaps they’d lost some of their bounce, their spontaneity, but he didn’t share those feelings with their mother.

Like most of the people they knew they kept the UV lamps. Occasionally, when things felt tough, or scary, or stopped making sense, they even turned them on.

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