Counterfactual Fiction Prompt

The nights are the worst.

Even now with the generators going in the main streets, casting harsh fluorescent light around as though this is all a film set. It feels like one sometimes, with the myriad of candles flickering in apartment windows like some gothic drama displaced in time. It’s as though the clock has been turned back on our world. Beyond the reach of the lights is a darkness so deep it seems to have seeped into the people, the ones who had to hide in the old world. We try not to walk alone now.

I wake early, just as the first slither of light appears above the cityscape and floods the store fronts with light, their broken windows casting shadows like mountains against the barren shelves. A city I grew up in but hardly recognise. One week. If the flare had happened one week later it would have been no more than an afterthought, something scientists might look at some time later and remark that we dodged a bullet. One week. A flap of a butterfly’s wings. A different world.

I was in the air when it happened, unaware of the chaos I would return to. The flight attendants were hurrying up and down the aisles, having hushed conversations with each other before one finally stood at the front of the plane.

‘The communication systems are down, something to do with the satellites’ she looked unsurely at her colleague, ‘which means, for now, we’re unable to contact air traffic control. But don’t be alarmed.’

A ripple went through the crowd, all dreading the same thing, strangers turning and talking to one another. Ignoring the rules, I pulled out my phone, dialling Anne’s number. Nothing. Around me, others were removing their phones from their ears, asking the attendants what was happening. The man next to me turned my way, looking over my shoulder at the ‘no satellite’ message on my screen.
‘If satellites are down that means there’s no navigation. We’re flying blind.’ I ignored his prying, but others were repeating his phrase to one another like a game of Chinese whispers.
‘Flying blind?’ I asked.
‘We’re not.’ A louder voice interrupted, the same flight attendant addressing us from the front. ‘We’re not “flying blind”,’ she cleared her throat, looking at my neighbour. ‘The pilot is very capable, and we will be landing at the airport in an hour.’

The longest hour of my life, at least back then. We all sat banded together in our confusion as we flew towards a world we didn’t yet know was changed.

We were lucky. I heard about other planes on other sides of the globe that had landed in the dark. Pitch black. They barely stood a chance. Or people in lifts, found too late or too hard to reach without the power. The stories spread by word of mouth and none of it seemed real.

I don’t know when it first felt real. When I knew that there was no magic button, no backup power switch that could reboot the world.

It was probably when the riots started.

When people realised this wasn’t going to change and that we were stuck like this for the foreseeable future. We stayed inside for a week whilst the panic and looting and fires raged on. I won’t pretend that we didn’t steal. We had to. With no running water and food rotting in the supermarkets that were still standing after the fires. Half the city is a smoke-blackened skeleton, its bones exposed and threatening to crumble under a gust of wind. So, we took what we could: bottles of water, tins, batteries, gas. It was survival.

It’s different now. The water runs, some cars still work and some of these cars bring food every month. We even get a newspaper. It’s a pretence of order, really. Nobody knows what’s happening and what we do know arrives by post to the nearest city halls. The message from on high pleading for us to remain civilised in the face of disaster, ensuring us that this is temporary. That we should go about our lives as normal.

That wasn’t possible for a lot of us. I help at the triage centre – the hospital, technically, but with all the bells and whistles removed. Mostly I give patients sips of water and meagre supplies of pills.

I used to be a journalist. I suppose I still am, in a rudimentary kind of way. I help collect and organise the articles for the paper; mainly missing persons or radical ramblings about the future of humanity, all beneath the official headlines reminding us that it should take two to three years for electricity to be restored.

I don’t think it can ever go back to how it was, though; lights and phones and WIFI won’t change what happened. I remember when I got off the plane and back in my apartment where we watched the news stations decide our fate. A solar flare, they said. Radio signals went early that afternoon, then satellites. In a day or more, anything that could be plugged in would be useless. There was hardly time to process it.

‘We’re powerless.’ I said to Anne. She snorted, and I realised how true that was about to be. We sat laughing with mugs of coffee as the world collapsed around us.

The power went the next day, in the middle of a broadcast. Twenty-four hours of waiting for the cord to be pulled.

It changed a lot of people. We used to be so sure about our place in the world, so certain of things. An arbitrary blast of power from the sun dismantled everything we know and all we could do was watch in silence. At first, I thought I couldn’t live in a world so out of my control, where things don’t happen for a reason and where normal people turn to thieves or murderers or worse at the flick of a switch.

But I still have hope. This new world is a clean slate, a chance to rebuild and renew and remember what we could have become. Maybe life can still be breathed back into the blackened cocoon of this world and it can unfurl its wings. We can start again.

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