I was working in the garden, surrounded by pink tulips and yellow daffodils, when everything went dark. I froze in the action of pulling some weeds, my heart hammering in my chest. I thought I had been suddenly struck blind, that I was having a stroke or a heart attack or something. But I felt no pain, only fear.
I slowly got to my feet and tilted my head back toward a sky I couldn't see. I pulled off my gardening gloves and touched my eyes one at a time. First the left, then the right. How could this be? I wondered. How could a relatively healthy man in his early sixties be suddenly struck blind?
I turned my head this way and that, listening. No birdsong. Only a few moments before, I was trading tunes with a mockingbird while a chorus of cardinals played backup. Now, only silence. Was I deaf as well?
"Hello?" I whispered, then sighed with the relief at the sound of my own tremulous voice. Not deaf then, but still blind.
Knowing the layout of my garden as well as I did, I had no trouble negotiating my way back to the house. I always left the back door open when I was working outside because I could never remember the code and I didn't like to take my tablet out where it might get dirt in the fans. The damn things were so sensitive and I'd already broken three this cycle. If something happened to this one I wouldn't get a replacement until the start of the next cycle.
As soon as I stepped through the door into the kitchen, I knew something was seriously wrong. No humming. My appliances always hummed. They were never whisper quiet like they were supposed to be. I moved carefully forward, trailing my hand along the counter until I came to the refrigerator. I touched the door. The surface was cool, but the familiar tremble of the motor was missing.
Cold terror clutched at my guts. It was worse than I thought. I wasn't blind, the power was out. I pulled my trembling hand away from the refrigerator. The emergency generators should have kicked no more than two seconds after a power failure.
On a normal day, the emptiness of the house didn't bother me. Madge had been dead going on six years and I'd grown accustomed to be being alone. Now the emptiness was like a living thing lurking in the darkness, waiting to devour me.
"Don't panic," I whispered. The sound of my own voice was eerie in the stillness. "It's only this sector. Has to be. I just need to get to where I can call J-Block and everything will be fine."
J-Block was two sectors north of where I lived. Surely neither of those sectors would be dark. And even if they were, J-Block wouldn't be.
I made it through the house without running into or tripping over anything. Under a little table by the front door, a battery operated lantern waited for me. One good thing about living alone was that everything was always exactly where you left it.
I lifted the lantern and turned it on, casting the room in deep blue light. Madge had picked this particular lantern because of the color of its light. Cerulean, like the sky, she'd said. So much nicer than yellow or red.
Opening the front door was out of the question, but when I had the house built for us thirty-five cycles ago I had a failsafe put in. Madge laughed at me then, saying I was being silly to think we'd ever need it, and it was a running joke between us during the course of our marriage. Now it would seem it wasn't such a fool thing after all.
After setting the lamp on the floor, I pushed my recliner against the wall, revealing a trapdoor. I spent a moment studying it. The door hadn't been opened since the tunnel was installed. It was meant to be only used once, in the case of dire emergency. This certainly qualified.
I bent over and slipped my hand through the narrow opening where a button waited. I pushed it and a spring activated latch popped open. It wasn't hard to lift the door and once up it stayed open exactly as it was supposed to. Three steps led down into the tunnel.
With the lantern in hand, I descended into the confined space. The tunnel was made of steel and was just tall enough so I didn't have to crawl or even stoop. Blue light reflecting from the walls made the tunnel seem to glow all on its own.
The tunnel was short. It ended at a second set of three steps and another trapdoor. This one also lifted easily, tearing a small hole my front yard. I climbed out, then stood a moment, shining the light around. I saw no sign of anyone else. But I did notice the air had cooled considerably in the short time since darkness descended.
I walked slowly down the street, silence my only companion. The air tasted metallic. Then I heard the sound of pounding followed by muffled screams. My heart raced. I turned slowly toward the sound, wishing I'd thought to grab something to use as a weapon before leaving the house.
The light of my lamp played out across the front of one of my neighbor's homes. Mary Watten's panic stricken face was pressed to the glass of the window beside her front door.
"Help," she cried, her voice small and distant behind the glass. "Please," tears rolled down her face, "we can't get out. The air...it's so cold. So thin. Please."
I stared helplessly back at her. She couldn't get out; I couldn't get in. Unlike me, most people kept their houses sealed up tight and rarely ventured outside even though the temperature was carefully modulated. The Council discouraged people from leaving the safety of their homes more than was necessary. They didn't want people wandering around getting into mischief. In fact, this was the first time since Madge's death that I had even seen another person face to face, instead of through a video screen.
The only way I could help Mary was to get word of our troubles to J-Block. Turning my back on that terrified woman was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my entire life. I gazed north, expecting to see lights glowing in the distance. Nothing. J-Block was dead. Dead. The word echoed down the corridors of my mind.
I drew in a breath, my lungs struggling to cope with the rapidly thinning air, and when I breathed out a crystalline fog spread before my lips. With a tremble in my step and the cerulean glow of the lantern to lead me, I continued on into the silent darkness.
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