Adana, Turkey – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010.
Ten minutes after The Pulse
When Berat Sezgin looked through his room’s only window, he knew with a terrifying, foreboding kind of knowledge that the world was ending. A few minutes before, his mother called him on his cell phone to let him know that she was stuck in the elevator at work because the power had gone out. His phone had died while he was doing his best to reassure her that everything was going to be all right.
Now the sky had become an angry, purplish-black bruise even though it was almost noon. Through the apartment building’s thin walls, Berat heard his neighbor noisily complain about his phone company; it seemed he hadn’t taken a look outside yet.
There was no more traffic. The streets were filled with people who had left their homes and workplaces to ask about the outage and seek reassurance from others. Their faces grew anxious as more and more of them looked up at the sky, pointing and gesticulating.
What you should do instead is pray, Berat scolded them.
He wasn’t braver than his countrymen, but he knew that rushing outside and waving his arms in panic wasn’t going to accomplish anything. He wasn’t afraid for himself. He was just an average fourteen year old kid, unremarkable at school and unlikely to leave a mark in history or change the world for the better. But his older sister was a gifted medical student, selfless and kind, working hard to join a Doctors without Borders exchange program in Africa. If the world was ending, the children’s clinic whose planning she’d been involved in would never be built. And his mother was a saint who sacrificed all of her free time to homeschool socially disadvantaged girls. She didn’t deserve to die today.
It was for their sake that Berat unfurled his prayer mat on the floor and kneeled on it. As he glanced through the window one last time, he saw a tide of darkness sweep across the city toward his house, as fast and unstoppable as a tsunami. It swallowed everything and everyone it touched, burying the world beneath a blanket of impenetrable blackness. Just before it reached him, Berat closed his eyes and began to pray.
“I don’t know why you chose today of all days to take the world away,” he murmured over the pounding of his heart in his ears, “But I’d like to understand the reason. I know there are people out there who deserve it. Child molesters, warmongers, murderers. Selfish folks who care about nothing other than their pleasure and their paycheck. But there are people – like my mother and my sister – who care, who work hard to change the world for the better. And what about the underprivileged millions who don’t ever get the chance to be part of the change? The ones who are too poor to support anyone else, or too oppressed by society for their opinions to be heard. Maybe the world wouldn’t be such a mess if you gave them the chance to make a difference.”
As he paused to gather his thoughts, it dawned on him that he could still feel his heartbeat and hear the sound of his own voice, but the sounds of the city had died. The noisy neighbor was no longer cursing. Even though the darkness now covered everything, no shouts or screams came from the crowd that had gathered on the streets outside. It was as if time had stopped and the world was standing still, billions of people holding their breath as they listened to Berat’s prayer.
“If you are listening, please spare my sister and my mother.” He felt the warmth of his tears on his cheeks but kept his voice clear and steady. “Spare all the good people out there. If you don’t believe we deserve it, at least give us a chance to prove ourselves. To show you that we care, that we can take responsibility for each other and for the world. That we can do better.”
What followed was a heavy silence that seemed to stretch on for an eternity. Having never gone to the Islamic schools that instructed their students learn passages from the Quran by heart, Berat wasn’t particularly well versed with scriptures and doctrine. He didn’t know how else to make his point, so the simple, heartfelt words of his prayer were his only arguments.
But to his amazement and surprise, he received an answer.
The name wasn’t spoken by a single voice, but many, enunciated in every language and dialect that was ever known to man. He felt rather than heard it, and it vibrated in his soul and throughout his being, overwhelming his consciousness with benign warmth and acceptance. His eyes flowed over and sent a new trail of tears rolling down his cheeks. On some profound level he sensed that his prayer was heard and accepted, and that he had been chosen for a task or role he did not yet understand.
Too overwhelmed to say anything more, Berat kneeled in the darkness until another word sang to his soul. It wasn’t a name this time. Or perhaps it was, but not the one his mother had given him. The word had many meanings, and even though he didn’t speak any languages or dialects apart from his own, he understood the nuances of every possible translation.
Averton, Washington, USA – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010.
Shortly before The Pulse
Christina Chung was among the first who became aware of the global blackout.
It was past three in the morning when she woke from a fitful doze on the couch and couldn’t go back to sleep. Instead of heading up into her room and her bed, she decided to fall back on her favorite method of problem solving: running. A short jog in the cold winter air would cure her insomnia, she assumed.
She had dozed on the couch because her parents were out late, delayed by the fact that their car broke down in the middle of nowhere. When they called at around ten, Helen assured them that the Chung sisters – fifteen and eighteen years old – were perfectly capable of looking after their baby brother, so Dylan was left in the girls’ care for the night.
According to Chris’s expectations, he should have fallen asleep as usual, but the little rascal was more aware of their mother’s absence than anyone had anticipated. The two sisters spent several hours teetering on the brink of madness until he stopped crying. Even when the baby was fast asleep in his crib, Chris didn’t have the heart to leave him on his own in the big living room, so she volunteered to snooze near Dylan until their parents came home. It was a good plan except for the part about snoozing.
I’ll only be out for five minutes, she told herself as she stepped out into the cold night air. But of course she enjoyed running a little too much and couldn’t resist taking a smoke break, and by the time she was jogging back in the direction of her house, she’d been gone for nearly twenty minutes. Hopefully the baby was still asleep.
She realized something strange was going on when all the street lights went out at the same time, plunging her into darkness. And it wasn’t just the street lights. Stopping to take a look around, she noticed with a sinking feeling in her stomach that with the exception of the pale moonlight, the entire cityscape of Averton was completely dark. The darkness was too absolute for a simple power outage. Chris had heard about outages affecting certain districts, but what were the odds of a whole town with a hundred thousand inhabitants being affected at once?
Prompted by that visceral feeling of wrongness, Chris looked up to see the sky painted in alarmingly unnatural colors. Streaks of angry red stood out against the familiar dark blue, star-speckled backdrop, giving her an impression of frozen lightning.
She had no idea what any of this meant. An alien invasion, a natural disaster or an attack with a new type of superweapon – right that moment, Chris couldn’t care less about an explanation. All she wanted was to make sure Dylan and Helen were okay. If she was lucky enough to discover that phone service hadn’t broken down, she was going to call her parents and make sure they were okay, too. But first she had to run back home.
So she broke into a sprint. Her sneakers flew across the sidewalk, the sound of their staccato thuds joining the short puffs of her breath. She didn’t feel the pounding of her heart or the throb in her ankles. The mental image of Dylan swathed in his crib, sucking on his tiny thumb while he dreamed of his mother’s return, released hidden energy reserves. Chris maintained her breakneck pace until she arrived on the front porch and yanked the house key from her pocket, nearly dropping it because her fingers had gone numb in the cold.
“Helen?” She called into the gloomy living room, not bothering to wait until the front door opened all the way. No response came from Helen’s room upstairs, but Dylan’s pitiful whine pierced the heavy silence. Chris had never been more relieved to hear him cry. Her eyes misted over, and she stumbled through the darkness, navigating it by memory and by the sound of her baby brother’s voice.
“Helen? Helen, you have to wake up!” Chris shouted again, her voice trembling.
Dylan cried louder in response. Dismayed that she let her fear affect the baby, Chris reached into the crib to pick him up and held him tightly against her chest. The cries immediately diminished to sniffles. He smelled faintly of powder and soap, and his warmth spread through her sweatshirt, calming her nerves in turn.
She whispered to him. “Don’t be afraid of the dark, Dylan. I’m here with you.”
The baby made a gurgling noise that may have been approval and grasped a strand of her chin length hair with his tiny fist. The innocent gesture filled her with an overpowering urge to protect him against whoever was responsible for the power outage and the messed up night sky. On instinct, she rolled up the bottom half of her sweater and wrapped the baby in it before turning toward the stairway. She still had to wake Helen up and call their parents; they would make it through this strange night together.
When she turned away from the crib, she caught a glimpse of what was beyond the large floor to ceiling windows, and her blood turned to ice. The city was gone. There was nothing but pitch black darkness, and that darkness rushed toward the house, swallowing up the porch while Chris stood frozen in shock.
But she wasn’t the kind of girl who shut down in the face of danger; she fought or she ran. A burst of adrenaline surged through her and set her in motion. When the darkness flooded in through the windows, she was already at the bottom of the stairs, running up the steps two at a time, Dylan pressed to her chest as a tightly wrapped bundle. Her mind drew a blank. Nothing about what she’d seen and experienced made sense. It was like a scene from a nightmare. Whatever it was, she was going to die before she let it touch Dylan.
So, she ran up the stairs and into the first room to the right, which was hers. She shut the door behind herself and called out to Helen again. This time she heard a sleepy reply through the wall separating them, too quiet to make out the words.
Then, the darkness flooded her room through the window and swallowed everything. Chris, Dylan, all the sounds in the world. No matter how many times Chris called out to Helen, she was met with silence. But she still felt the weight of Dylan in her arms, and he still smelled of baby powder and soap, so she kept whispering to him as if they were the last two souls on Earth.
“Shhh, it’s all right. I’m still here. You can hear me, right? I don’t know what’s going on, but the phone is somewhere on my desk. It’s not connected to the power line, so it should still work. I’m going to find it and call our parents. Would you like to hear Mom’s voice, Dylan? I know I would.”
She slowly shuffled in the direction of the desk as she whispered, careful to feel her way into the pitch black space ahead of her before she made a step forward with Dylan on her arm. She didn’t want him to bump his head or be touched by something nasty she couldn’t see. He was unusually calm, seemingly unafraid of the darkness. The touch of his stubby fingers on her face let her know that he was still awake.
Despite not even seeing her hand in front of her face, she somehow made her way to the desk. She knew she’d gone in the right direction because her meandering fingers found the knob of one of the drawers, and there were a pair of pens on the smooth surface above it. But Chris never found the phone. A chorus of voices came out of nowhere and stopped her short. Startled, she held Dylan tighter and wrapped both of her arms around him to shield him from harm.
She froze again. This wasn’t the near paralyzing fear that overcame her at the bottom of the stairs; what she felt now was totally different. It was a warm feeling, a sensation like an incorporeal embrace from everyone she ever cared about. It made her feel loved and accepted and understood.
“What–” she began.
“Protector,” the voices chimed in every language and accent that was ever spoken in the history of man.
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010.
Shortly before The Pulse
For Nora Landry, the 24th of February got off on the wrong foot even before the power outage. She woke earlier than usual with a pounding headache that refused to budge even after taking two aspirin. The persistent throb prevented her from finishing the assignment she was supposed to hand in to her English teacher, so she was sitting at the small folding table that served as the breakfast table for herself and her mother, staring down at her essay booklet while her toast and scrambled eggs were getting cold.
The cramped old kitchenette was depressing to look at. Everything about it screamed ‘lower class American’, and Nora’s half-finished essay on the breakfast table prevented her from fantasizing about stepping up to a higher social class in the future. If she couldn’t even finish her homework on time, how was she ever going to be successful in life?
Try harder, her mother often said when she caught Nora wallowing in self-doubt. Keep going to school. Keep trying and going forward, one step at a time.
The cheap digital wall clock showed that it wasn’t yet seven, so Mother was still home. She was hurriedly buttoning the blouse for her cleaning company uniform, in a haste to catch the next bus that would take her to work. Since she was a single mother with a low wage job, owning a car was out of the question. The two women of the Landry household had to manage their daily routines using public transportation.
“Eat your breakfast, and don’t be late for school,” Nora mother said. “And thank the Lord for the food I put on your table..”
Nora murmured one of her standard replies to the subject of the Lord when the lights went out. Startled, she sat up straight in her chair and turned her head to look out the window. She instinctively sensed that it was too dark. Nora was accustomed to power outages; the Landry household had survived without power for a week the previous summer. The city of New Orleans had always provided a minimal amount of illumination.
But now it didn’t. As far as Nora could see, everything had gone dark. Even the annoying neon sign that was almost directly across from her room and frequently drove her mad with its persistent flashes.
“Mama, it’s not the electricity bill,” she said before her mother could say anything. “It’s the city. Come look.”
Her Mama stepped up to the small kitchenette window, her face distant and unreadable. Her words came as a low murmur; their cadence reminded Nora of the doomsday cult members who showed up to preach on her doorstep a while back. “This is it, Nora. Oh, Lord have mercy. It’s happening right now.”
“What’s happening? It’s a power outage, Mama. Not Judgement Day.” The words came out more bluntly than Nora had intended, but she wasn’t sorry. She couldn’t relate to her mother’s religious fervor and found it hard to endure at times.
“Look at the sky, Nora. Do you see it?”
“See what?” Nora put her face to the window to get a better view. ”Oh. Wow.”
Now that her mother had drawn her attention to the sky, she could see the veins of red glowing light that crisscrossed the pre-dawn canopy above the cityscape. She didn’t normally pay attention to the clouds, but now the frayed, orange-tinged cloud cover raced by at time lapse speed even though there was no wind. No, this wasn’t normal. It was about as abnormal as it could get, and it creeped Nora out.
She stood from her seat abruptly, causing the folding table to sway dangerously. Her glass of milk spilled onto the open essay booklet, drenching it.
Her mother turned away from the window with wide eyes. “Nora, stop! Come here. Pray with me.”
But Nora had already spotted the approaching darkness. It came like an avalanche, relentless and incredibly fast, burying even the tallest buildings beneath it. Her breath caught in her throat. Her blood turned to ice. What she saw outside was like a scene from an apocalyptic horror movie, and it triggered her flight instinct. Her ears became deaf to her mother’s pleading. All she could think about was the battery charged flash lamp in the closet and how fast she could get her hands on it. Everyone, even small children, knew that light defeated darkness. It had been that way since the beginning of time.
Before she knew it, Nora had already yanked the closet door open and was searching the walkable storage space for the flashlight. Fortunately she remembered where she put it the last time the lights went out. She grabbed it from the top shelf and turned it on, relieved to discover that it was still working. But as she turned around to tell her mother about it, the oncoming darkness had already swallowed everything outside their apartment. The windows were pitch black.
Nora cried out in panic, nearly dropping the flashlight. Her entire body was trembling. Having never experienced such a terrible, mind-consuming fear in her life, she resorted to a basic human instinct: run and hide.
The closet door was still open and offered enough hiding space for one or two people. She slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her, then pointed the flashlight at herself and started praying with quivering lips and a pounding heart. Nora was distantly aware of her mother calling out to her, screaming and shaking the closet door in an attempt to find safety alongside her daughter.
But Nora couldn’t find the mental strength to open the door. Her fear was too strong to think of anyone’s safety than her own. Her fingers were frozen on the closet door. There was light in there, and a door to shut out the tidal wave of shadows. Even though she was ashamed of her fear, she couldn’t open up no matter how much her mother cried and begged her to.
After an unknown amount of time, the flashlight went out, and all sounds died. Nora could no longer hear her mother’s cries. She crouched inside the closet surrounded by pitch black shadows, trembling, too afraid to even breathe.
If there is a God, she prayed in her mind, please forgive me. I want to believe in you. I want to be strong and protect my mother. But even then, she couldn’t bring herself to open the closet door and face the silence that had consumed the world.
A chorus of voices, young and old, male and female, spoke from the surrounding darkness. “Nora.” They sounded sad, somehow. Disappointed.
Nora squeezed her eyes shut and folded her hands in prayer. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I’ll make it up to you somehow, and to Mama, I’ll do better and protect her. I just…” The words dissolved in a sob, so she had to pause and clear her throat. “I couldn’t stand the thought of being touched by it, whatever it is. Of having it here with me. I’m sure Mama felt the same. I’m sorry, Mama. Will you give me a chance to do better? Please?”
Nora had a feeling that her actions would have far-reaching consequences. Maybe she would go to hell. She knew she had been judged, and she had screwed up by locking herself in while leaving her mother to the darkness. She was so afraid, but… that was a poor excuse. She wanted nothing more than a chance to do better.
When the voices spoke up again, they delivered their message in every language and accent that had ever existed, using a colorful variety of terms and expressions that couldn’t be accurately translated into English. But she could still understand their meaning. Like the languages used, the expressions and names given varied somewhat. One could be roughly translated as “Fearchild.”
But the majority of them had two linked terms in common: “Shadow Warrior.”