Loveday Taylor wrestled the back door closed in a game of tug of war with the wind. It had certainly picked up since she’d come home, and weather reports were advising people to stay inside. Hurricane Hilda was about to blow into Southern England from the Atlantic after causing all sorts of damage, first in the Caribbean and then North America.
Loveday and other volunteers from town prepared all day for its arrival—a reluctant welcome wagon. In the afternoon they hoofed sandbags up to the Crane River, known to swell and breach its banks on occasion, sometimes flooding all the way up to the main road.
Loveday’s back was sore and her hands chapped from lugging the rough, heavy bags. She would have liked a hot bath and a quiet evening in front of the fire with Claude, her ginger cat. He was the reason she’d opened the bloody door in the first place. He’d bolted through straight away—a pleasant change from his usual MO. Normally he’d stand at the door, sniff the air for a bit, and generally get on her last nerve before he strutted inside, completely ignored her, and headed for his food bowl.
Skinny, dirty, and with dried blood crusted on his torn, lumpy ears, Claude turned up on her doorstep one day and never left. Two years later he had the appearance—and carried the weight—of a healthy, if slightly overindulged, tomcat. Loveday adored him, and in his own stand-offish way, she thought he probably quite liked her too.
She shook some biscuits into his bowl, startled into pouring out near enough the whole box when lightning cracked overhead, followed by a peal of thunder that rattled the window in its frame. Loveday looked down to see Claude watching the storm. His intelligent orange eyes didn’t flick to his overflowing bowl even once. He blinked, yawned, stretched, then went to his food, brushing against Loveday’s leg on his way past.
Claude was pretty much unflappable, and that was good because Hilda looked like she meant business tonight. As if to prove it, a flurry of rain hurled itself violently at the window, and the wind picked up, howling and tearing through the trees outside. The kitchen lights flickered, dimmed, then went out.
Ellery Jackson was in the veterinary clinic finishing up the last of her paperwork in her office when she was plunged into darkness. Rocky the Jack Russell started to cry and howl before the generator kicked in and the lights came back on. According to the staff, he hated the dark. Ellery knew just how he felt.
She’d sent her staff home early, just about the time the wind began to kick it up a notch and the sky turned a dark and ominous grey. Being alone here, no traffic whizzing past on the road outside—it was normally busy this time of the evening with the commuter traffic—left her feeling uncomfortable. Not that the town was especially lively, but they had a decent high street and a handful of restaurants. Being so close to a motorway meant that more and more people were moving here, attracted by the green landscape and cheap property prices.
The veterinary clinic had been converted from an old barn, and the high ceilings, open-plan layout, and myriad of windows amplified the emptiness. She could easily believe she was the only person left in the world. Except for Rocky the dog.
Ellery swivelled in her office chair and looked out the window. A fork of lightning lit up the night and rain hammered down. Usually she liked a good storm, but this one made her uneasy. Rocky was restless too, and maybe that was it. She had a way of picking up on what animals were feeling—a kind of vague interspecies telepathy, she thought with mild amusement. It had been with her since childhood. It was most likely what made her a good vet, and probably the reason she was eternally single. Ellery always found animals so much easier to deal with than people. Their needs were obvious to her, and they were free from the many layered and messy complexities of human beings.
Like any vet in a semi-rural town, Ellery dealt with a fairly even mixture of domestic pets, like cats and dogs and hamsters, and farm animals. The other day she’d helped an alpaca give birth. Admittedly, most of her farm animals were cows, pigs, sheep, and horses, but Dave Randell had a penchant for the slightly more exotic. Ellery managed to talk him out of adopting a flock of flamingos last year.
Ellery sighed and rubbed her eyes. It was getting late, and if she didn’t leave soon, then she never would. Rocky had gone quiet again. She wouldn’t leave him here alone for the whole night though. She planned to go home, have dinner, then come back and stay with him. The storm was supposed to be a big one, worse than most of the remnants that usually blew over from the Atlantic. She wouldn’t let Rocky deal with it alone.
Ellery stood, stretched out her back, and groaned in pleasure as her spine popped. She’d sat for too long, and her office chair was hard as concrete. Sarah, the head veterinary nurse, kept telling Ellery to buy a new one, but most days she wasn’t in it long enough to justify the expense.
She walked back to the cages where they kept the furry patients and smiled as Rocky stood on his back legs, tail wagging like mad, and began to scratch at the bars.
“Hey, boy, how’s it going?” she asked softly, kneeling to stroke his head and tickle his chin. Rocky licked her hand and whined, as if to say I’ve been better. His owner—Jill Wood, who ran the local grocer’s—brought him in, sobbing her eyes out, after he’d tangled with a wild pony in the forest. Nosy Rocky got a little too close, and the pony kicked out, bruised a couple of ribs, and broke his front leg.
Rocky was most of the way healed, apart from his broken leg which would stay in a cast for a few weeks yet. He would probably be allowed home in the next few days. All in all, Rocky was lucky. “No more making friends with wild ponies, eh, Rock?” Ellery smiled and gave him one last stroke. Rocky chuffed and lay back down in the corner, his intelligent eyes still on her. “I need to get my dinner. Promise I’ll come back, though. Okay?” Rocky dropped his head onto his paws and closed his eyes.
Back out in reception, more lightning flashed, ripping the night in two, and Ellery thought it sounded a bit too close for comfort. Thunder rumbled and clapped so loud she thought it might crack the windows which ran along the front of the surgery. They shook and rattled but held firm.
Rain lashed down and the wind howled, kicking up the leaves outside and throwing them against the building. Ellery decided she had left it too late to go home after all. She mentally sorted through the contents of the staff-room fridge and figured it would be biscuits and an overripe banana for dinner. At least there was the generator to power the lights. Outside, the town was dark, and Ellery guessed everyone had lost their power already.
Loveday rummaged around in the kitchen drawer trying to find the torch. “Give me a hand, would you, Claude? I could really use your night vision.” Claude ignored her and continued to crunch his biscuits. The loss of light didn’t bother him at all.
Finally, she felt something hard and plastic and solid. She moved her hand along its shaft until she located the button. She clicked it on. It emitted a sickly beam of light, and Loveday chastised herself for not replacing the batteries ages ago. She’d kept forgetting about it, one of the mundane tasks she would do tomorrow, then tomorrow, until it slipped her mind altogether. Well, that would teach her, wouldn’t it? Loveday sighed and went into the living room. She knew she had some tea lights around here somewhere—it was just a case of finding the bloody things with this crappy light.
After what seemed like an eternity, Loveday found them in a box on the shelf with a lighter—thank God—and proceeded to light several and place them around the living room. She kept back four or five because they were only small and wouldn’t last very long. Another flash of lightning ripped the sky open. It was close. Loveday hoped everyone was safe inside. The tea lights weren’t bright enough to read by, and the TV obviously wouldn’t work, nor would the heating, which ran off the electric, and it would soon get cold. She decided to get a fire going in the hearth and try to doze in her chair.
She put as much wood as she dared on the fire—the last thing she wanted was to start a blaze—and dragged the sofa closer to better feel the heat. Loveday checked her phone and saw she didn’t have much battery left. She turned it off to preserve as much as possible in case of an emergency. It wasn’t as though anybody would try to get hold of her. She had no family left and hadn’t been in the town long enough to form any friendships. She’d moved here three months ago and mostly kept to herself, easy enough when you were a writer.
This town was a big change from London but a necessary one. Loveday couldn’t stay after everything that happened there. The wisps of memories made her feel like she couldn’t breathe, like she was drowning in murky water. She quickly pushed them from her mind, before they properly formed, and concentrated on the flames, on the pop and hiss of the wood as it caught. Claude sauntered over to the fireplace and stretched out his long limbs. He yawned, then flopped down in front of the hearth and closed his eyes, oblivious to the storm raging outside.
Rosemary Decker stood at almost six feet tall. By the time she was thirteen she was already five eight and showed no sign of slowing down. Being so tall meant she often looked down on people, and that seemed just about right to Rosemary because her height was matched only by her prodigious brain.
Tonight she stood on a platform watching workers scurry around below her, making the final preparations for something she’d been waiting for a long time.
Today was a great day. Her life’s work was about to be realized. Shortly, the superiority of her mind and all her planning was about to be tested against the might of nature and destiny. She was certain God’s plan involved her survival, but tonight she’d find out for sure.
Tonight, the human race would cease to exist in its current form, and Rosemary planned to be at the head of a bright new dawn, one where the righteous would be rewarded and the sinners cast out forever, left to drown in a flood of their own immorality and depravity.
Rosemary regarded the great boat in front of her, which had taken every last penny she had and more besides. Donors from across the world had contributed to its building and they were all here tonight.
The boat filled the hangar. Her platform ran the length of it in fifty-two staggered parts with ladders and lifts and scaffolding rising up and all around, lending support to the majesty of her greatest accomplishment. She reached out and touched it sleek, cool body, ran her hand over the saviour of mankind. Ark 2. She smiled. Today was a great day.
Someone cleared their throat behind her and she turned. Claire or Chloe—Rosemary couldn’t remember the woman’s name—shuffled nervously, her eyes darting around. She was a mousy thing. Most of her sentences started with sorry, like some sort of nervous tic.
“What?” Rosemary asked.
“Sorry to bother you, Ms. Decker. Another four families have arrived. Jo said I should come upstairs and ask you where to put them.”
Rosemary rolled her eyes. Did no one have any initiative? Must she do everything herself? “Put them with the others. If there’s no room, find somewhere else. Anyone who wants to find their way back to God’s light is welcome tonight.”
Claire or Chloe nodded and hurried off.
It was the storm. People had been dribbling in all day, and once the rain started, the numbers had swelled. They now had about forty people in the hangar. Rosemary knew some of them would be the same people who had mocked her on Twitter and Facebook and in the newspapers. It didn’t matter. She would forgive them because tonight, they were starting to believe. They’d come here, hadn’t they? And they weren’t laughing now.
Ellery lay back on the stainless steel table, her arms behind her head serving as a pillow. She’d put a few blankets down and dragged out the old oil heater, positioning it on the floor near her feet. It was almost cozy.
She’d found some crackers and a partially shrivelled cucumber in the staff kitchen. With the overripe banana, it had been a pretty depressing dinner, but at least her stomach wasn’t growling any more. Rocky whined as a fresh onslaught of rain and wind hammered against the windows loudly enough to almost drown him out. At the sight of the pathetic dog, cowering and crying in the corner of his cage, Ellery crumbled and let him out. She nestled him against her side beneath the blanket, and he was soon snoring softly. She wished sleep would come as easily to her. Instead she stared up at the skylight above her head and watched the storm.
Ellery had never wanted to be anything except a vet. When she was six or seven, her parents bought her a plastic doctor’s bag for her birthday—she was surprised they’d even remembered, let alone bought a present. Mary and David Jackson always seemed more interested in drinking than in their only child.
Young Ellery Jackson carried the bag—bright red with a green cross printed on the front—everywhere, until the plastic cracked and the handle fell off. Inside was a yellow and white stethoscope. The buds wouldn’t sit in her ears properly and kept popping out, but it didn’t matter. In her bedroom, Ellery was Dr. Jackson, saviour of stuffed animals and occasionally of the family cat if she could get Trixie, their mangy tortoiseshell, to sit still long enough.
That little bag opened up a whole world of possibilities to Ellery. From the moment it was given to her—not wrapped in bright kiddie paper, but hey, you couldn’t have everything and it was probably the first and only present she ever got from her parents—she was fixed on the idea of becoming a vet. The very thought of it seemed right somehow. All the sacrifices and all the work since had been worth it.
Ellery moved to the town three years ago. She’d grown up nearby and was familiar with the area. Although she’d studied in London, she always knew she would end up back in the countryside one day. And here she was, her own practice in a beautiful small town in the middle of nowhere. She didn’t have any friends, and the staff at the surgery had given up trying to include her in their social outings. She was friendly enough to everyone but made sure she kept her distance. People had long since given up trying to breach her walls.
She didn’t speak to her family any more either—not that she knew how to get in touch even if she did. They moved when she was eighteen and hadn’t given her a forwarding address. But she was content. Maybe lonely at times—most of the time—but content.
There were times when she thought she should go out and meet people, make some friends. Sometimes she made a plan to do just that. Then it would come to it—accepting an offer to go out or whatever—and she just couldn’t bring herself to go. What would she talk about? Who would be interested in a country vet with no friends and no social life? She’d bore people to tears. The thought of it made her chest tighten and sweat prickle her forehead. Ellery knew it was some kind of social anxiety, and it got worse the more she avoided new people, but she just didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. She had the animals and that would have to be enough. It wasn’t such a bad life.
Rocky yipped in his sleep and Ellery gently ran her hand along his flank to soothe him. He breathed deeply and started snoring again. Another burst of lightning lit up the sky. It illuminated the bare branches of the trees as they swayed and dipped, the wind pulling them this way and that. Ellery shivered. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was about this storm that unnerved her, and it was frustrating. A worry she couldn’t name gnawed at the back of her mind. She knew part of it was being alone with just Rocky for company in this big empty space. Part of it was the knowledge the generator could fail and plunge her into darkness at any moment. The dark had always terrified her beyond reason, and in her home she had about a dozen night lights plugged in around the place. True, she was embarrassed about the childhood terror which wouldn’t leave her, but the embarrassment wasn’t stronger than her fear of the dark. And it wasn’t like anyone ever came over anyway. Her last girlfriend was four years ago and what a disaster that had been. Maddie was a vet Ellery met at a conference. Usually she attended the bits she had to, then skulked off back to her hotel room. But Maddie had made a beeline for her and wouldn’t let her go. Ellery supposed she’d been flattered to be pursued so relentlessly.
It hadn’t seemed to matter to Maddie that Ellery was so introverted. She’d even said she found it refreshing to find someone who listened when she talked. She said Ellery was like the ocean—deep and vast and fascinating—and Ellery liked that. It didn’t last long, though. Maddie was an extrovert. She liked parties and bars and clubs—all the things Ellery hated—and Ellery’s charmingly quiet and unassuming nature soon got boring for Maddie. And then infuriating. Then suddenly Ellery was just a puddle Maddie stepped in long enough to get the muck off her shoes before moving on to something better.
The storm picked up outside. The wind whipped around the surgery, shook the windows, and howled furiously. She couldn’t shake the sense something was about to happen. A voice inside told her it was something bad. She recognized it as her intuition, the same voice that told her when something was wrong with one of her patients.
Ellery stared up at the skylight and willed morning to come quickly.
At exactly two o’clock in the morning, a huge burst of light lit up the sky. At the other end of the village, Loveday woke. It felt like someone turned on a floodlight outside her house. At first she thought it might be another flash of lightning, but when it didn’t go away, she got up to look.
At the veterinary surgery, Ellery opened her eyes, blinking immediately into the brightness. Rocky went crazy and Ellery locked him in his cage to stop him damaging his broken leg further. She hurried to the front of the surgery to see what was going on.
At her house, Loveday was surprised Claude joined her at the window. He growled low in his throat, then hissed at something she couldn’t see. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
Back at the vet’s, Ellery squinted into the light which obliterated everything else, wondering if it would burn her retinas and make her blind.
Loveday stared out her window. Looking into the light wasn’t like looking at the sun at all—the strength of it probably should have blinded her, but she didn’t need to squint or shield her eyes. The problem was she could see nothing beyond the brightness.
A steady high-pitched whine—Ellery thought it sounded like a dentist’s drill—started up. It got louder and louder until it was unbearable. Ellery felt it all the way to the fillings in her teeth and worried the pressure would work them loose. She put her fingers in her ears to try and block out some of it, but the sound seemed to be coming from inside her head. It didn’t make sense.
Loveday moaned as the awful screeching noise reverberated through her body. She felt pressure behind her eyeballs and thought they would burst if it carried on much longer.
The sound increased in both vibration and pitch until Loveday began to scream.
Ellery screamed. The terrible noise was so powerful it felt like it was working its way into the muscle and sinew of her being and ripping her apart from inside out. As it increased, so did the intensity of the light, until in one final pulse, it exploded and Ellery knew no more.
Loveday dropped to the floor, unconscious.
Ellery opened her eyes. The tiles were cold under her back. She tested her arms and legs—wriggled the fingers and toes on each—relieved everything seemed to be in order. Her head ached. She sat up and gingerly felt the base of her skull, and her hand came away wet with blood. A little was smeared on the tiles but the wound didn’t feel serious. She must have banged her head when she fell.
Outside, the sun was just beginning to peek from behind the hills. She looked at her watch and saw it was stopped on exactly two o’clock. Either she’d bashed it when she fell or that awful noise had interfered with the battery. Ellery sighed and stood. Muscles groaned and joints popped from her time on the ground, reminding her that she wasn’t as young as she used to be.
She heard a bark from the back of the surgery. Rocky. She hurried to his cage. As soon as he saw her he began to yip, his tail thumped manically, and he frantically pawed at the bars. Ellery opened the door and he bolted out and into her arms. She held him close and let him lick her face. “I know, boy, I know. I was scared too.” He trembled and whined, so she tucked his head under her chin and rocked him for a bit.
Without putting him down, Ellery went into her office and picked up her phone. She pushed the power button but the screen remained dark. She frowned and tried again. It had almost a full battery last night, so it shouldn’t be flat already.
She put Rocky on the floor and left him to investigate the room while she sat at her desk and attempted to power up her computer. Again, the screen remained black and silent. What the hell? She remembered her watch, how it stopped working too, and decided that the strange goings on last night must have emitted some kind of pulse or wave that had affected anything electrical. It didn’t seem very likely, but what other reason could there be? Not expecting much, she tried the office phone. That was dead too.
Frustrated, Ellery pushed back in her chair, stood, and turned to face the window. The sun was weak but rising. It must be fairly early in the morning still. She considered driving into town, then realized her car wouldn’t start if everything electrical really had been destroyed by the storm. Didn’t hurt to try, though.
Ellery glanced at Rocky who was busy sniffing under the door. She didn’t have the heart to lock him back up in the cage. He should be okay to walk for a little while on the cast, and he was only small, so she could easily carry him the twenty-minute journey.
Loveday woke up feeling pressure on her lips—something pushed down and mashed them into her teeth. For a second she panicked. Then she realized it was the same thing that happened every morning. The cat was pawing at her mouth again.
“Get off me, Claude.” She gave him a gentle shove, and he hopped off her chest with a huff allowing her to breathe much more easily. She sat up and looked around.
She was on the lounge floor, facing the window. Loveday remembered the light and that awful noise and then…nothing at all. She must have fainted. Claude meowed and pawed her hand. He probably needed the bathroom. Usually Loveday let him out before she went to bed and back in in the morning for his breakfast. He didn’t seem to be very pleased with the break in his routine.
Loveday reached out and ruffled his head. He tried to duck her hand but she got him anyway. She went into the kitchen. Through the window she saw that although there were a lot of branches and leaves strewn about the garden, there didn’t appear to be much damage. She was surprised because Hilda had been fierce, and Loveday thought a fence would be down at the very least.
She let Claude out and propped the back door open. It was a mild morning and the sun was already most of the way up over the fields.
Loveday flicked the switch for the kettle. She needed coffee. She fetched her phone and tried to turn it on. The thing remained dead and she frowned. There should be some battery left because she remembered turning it all the way off last night. Strange.
Then she noticed the kettle had stayed silent. She flicked the switch a couple more times and decided the power must still be off, which was annoying because she needed coffee to kick-start every morning. Perhaps she’d walk down to the cafe and see if they had any power. Worst case, she’d buy a camping stove from Romans.
Claude was nowhere in sight, but his bowl was most of the way empty. She hadn’t cleared up the spilt biscuits from last night, so he’d had a good feed and wouldn’t need any breakfast.
Loveday set off down the lane, surprised at how quiet it was. The position of the sun told her it must be close to eight o’clock, so it was strange the town wasn’t bustling. People’s days started early around here. There were a good few farms in the area, and it was also a commuting town, so there should be at least a few cars passing through to join the motorway nearby. It was eerily quiet, without even the distant drone of traffic, or a radio from someone’s house—the general noises of people getting ready for the day were absent.
She continued on and reached the cluster of shops that constituted their high street—a post office, a small supermarket, a café, and a handful of chain stores. Again, the place was empty. The shop windows were dark and nothing stirred behind them. What on earth is going on?
Living in London most of her life, and even here to a lesser degree, Loveday had never been alone. When she took long walks in the forest, she would see other people, or a plane would fly overhead. Even in the deepest silences, there had always been a sense humanity existed nearby. Not today. The birds called out to each other, but the presence—the sense—of life had vanished. Loveday felt entirely alone for the first time in thirty-two years. She’d spent the last few years wanting to be left alone, and now she was. And she didn’t like it at all. She felt scared.
Rosemary was pleasantly surprised to discover sixteen survivors from her group, The Children of the Ark. She had hoped for more but planned on less—sometimes sinners were hard to spot, and she wasn’t naive enough to think they didn’t lurk within her own ranks. Still, the number was adequate. There were bound to be others out there like her though she didn’t have very long to find them. Eighteen days if her dreams were right. Though finding survivors would be secondary to finding the girl. Every moment she existed was a threat to Rosemary and the new world she planned to create. So far, her dreams hadn’t revealed the location of the girl, but with every passing day she felt her connection to the child—she was certain the girl was still young—grow stronger.
Rosemary didn’t come from a religious family. Both her parents were scientists, well respected in their fields, and couldn’t understand how religion and science were able to coexist peacefully in her mind. Rosemary was equally perplexed about their views. How could they contemplate the vast and terrible beauty of the universe and not see God’s hand in it?
Even though she was deeply religious and there was no doubt in her mind of God’s existence, she was as surprised as the Virgin Mary was when He appeared to her nine years ago in a dream.
Rosemary had seen it all. The destruction of mankind and the end of civilization, all swept away in less than a few hours. She’d also been shown her own demise at the hands of a girl who would lead humanity on a course so far away from God’s light, when she saw it Rosemary had screamed until her throat was raw and bloody. She hadn’t been able to speak for a week due to the pain. Fortunately, she was blessed with foreknowledge and had a chance to save both herself and whatever was left of humanity.
This morning, those who survived were treating her as some kind of God. All morning she was forced to remind them of Exodus 20:3. You shall have no other gods before me.
Rosemary was not God. It was true she had been blessed with a vision, but there was only one God and her job was to serve Him and root out any evil if it still existed. To have any chance in this new world, she would need to begin with her own small group, and that meant putting into practice every dictate of the Bible. There would be no picking and choosing the parts that suited any more. It was all or nothing.
Over the last few months, she’d been very clear on social media, directing where survivors could come. It would probably be a few days yet before they saw anyone—possibly longer, depending on where in the country they were. They would come, though. Rosemary had been proven right and they would all come eventually. People would be scared. They’d be lost and confused and Rosemary would help them. She would show them the way of God, and teach them about what came next. About what God wanted from his children. It wasn’t hard to understand. It was all there in the Bible. The very way they should be living was written down in black and white, and she would make sure the way was followed to the letter from now on.
Ellery made slow progress down the lane and was tempted to pick Rocky up and carry him the rest of the way. He was having a great time after spending so long indoors, and she didn’t have the heart to be a killjoy. Rocky tottered busily back and forth from one side of the road to the other, sniffing and peeing on pretty much everything he could find. Surely he had to run out soon?
As she’d expected, her car hadn’t started. There hadn’t even been a splutter. It was dead. Hopefully someone in town would know what was going on. No doubt there would be some sort of emergency plan in place—or she guessed there would be. Wasn’t that how things worked? Governments, town councils had to have contingencies for things like this, didn’t they? Ellery noticed there were no cars going by and the normally busy road was empty. Her intuition continued to warn her something was deeply wrong, despite every effort she made not to hear her inner voice.
The roads were silent because last night’s storm caused some kind of wave or pulse that shorted everything electrical. This was the only explanation she was prepared to accept.