Sarah leaned back against the cracked plaster of the building’s inner wall. Fragments of green paint crumbled to the floor.
‘Wolves, lions, flat fields that slope? David, where have you taken us?’
‘I haven’t taken you anywhere!’ He swatted a fly from his face. ‘It was your boyfriend, remember? And what did you do to stop him? Nothing. So, don’t blame me for this. The only reason I didn’t go straight back home is that I’m trying to protect Michael. I couldn’t care less if we don’t find Toby.’
Sarah looked at the floor between her feet, pushing the ash and fragments of concrete into little ridges with her boots.
‘You’re right. But you know what Toby’s like… So where do you think we are?’ She looked up at him but avoided his eyes. An insect whined in the still air and was gone.
‘Well, we should be wherever the pod last went. So wherever this is, the machine’s been here before, and it got back OK. And since we never set a time, I’m guessing there’s at least a possibility we’re in our own time.’
‘Really? Look at it. Have you ever seen anything like this?’
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘There’s always bombings. There’s what, twenty-five, thirty conflicts going on right now, plus all those loony terrorists.’
‘So where are the people? The cars, the tanks, the noise? Whatever happened here hasn’t just happened. This isn’t Gaza or Kabul or Tripoli. This place is dead.’
‘Not quite. Someone threw those spears,’ David said.
‘Let’s hope is was a someone.’
‘Let’s look at what we do know,’ he said. ‘There’s not a lot of people around here, so that’s probably good, right? We’ve not dropped into the middle of an active war. And whoever threw those spears wasn’t aiming at us or we wouldn’t be sitting here now. This place is different, but it’s not that different. Like you said, it’s not as if we dropped the pod on someone’s head.’
‘I guess.’ She looked down again, working the dust with her feet.
‘We just need to be systematic,’ David said. ‘First we need to find the spear-thrower. We’ll search the edge of town and gradually work our way in. If Toby’s here we should also find some sign of him.’
He looked out of a large hole that had once been the front door. There was no movement out in the street, just an eerie silence. Beyond the gate the two spears were now still. The occasional slow-motion rippling of the pennants on the stone towers was the only movement.
‘The spears can’t have been thrown far. We’ll start looking on this street, OK?’
They stepped out into the street and ran across a side road and into a cluster of buildings, instinctively keeping their heads down. The first house was much like the one they had left. Charred stumps of beams jutted out from the walls above them and everything was dusted with powdery ash. The remains of a staircase still clung to the edge of one wall, and gave access to a series of beams at first floor level.
They squeezed through a hole in the wall into the next house, then the next. Each was just a burned-out shell. If there had been anyone here, he was long gone now.
‘I guess our guardian angel doesn’t want to be found,’ David said. He absent-mindedly swatted a fly away from his face. ‘So we go after Toby. The town looked quite narrow from the plain. We’ll go along this street to the end, then move in to the next one, one building at a time.’
They stood at the edge of the main street. Some buildings were filled with jagged mountains of bricks and concrete where their upper floors had completely collapsed into the confines of the walls below. Others spread lazily out into the streets, their higher stories having tumbled outwards to claim new territory. Here and there the walls were stained with flaking brown patches about six feet above the ground. Some of these marks had long rusty spikes protruding form their centres, but most were just random marks, as if someone had been engaged in a lonely and half-hearted paint-ball battle.
Sarah led the way out across the street and down a narrower side road that ran parallel to the plain. They kept low and as close to the buildings as the litter of rubble and broken glass would allow. For several minutes they crept along, constantly checking the road ahead of them before moving any further. In the silence of the town, every footstep, every crunch of concrete or glass was magnified, tracing their movements for anyone who happened to be listening. The more carefully they tried to tread, the more conscious they became of the sounds they were stirring up.
They checked every building they passed, but the result was always the same: no sign of life at all.
Only occasionally was there any evidence that there had ever been life here: a twisted bicycle frame, a rusty cooker protruding through the debris like a giant metal weed growing on wasteland, the crushed metal legs of a table. Anything of any use or value had been looted – taken for fuel or to rebuild a community that David hoped still existed somewhere.
After twenty minutes they stopped at another house. David leaned on the remains of the window sill and looked in. The heat was building and the day becoming airless. He scanned the floor of the house with no more expectation than he had had at the beginning of this walk, but this house was different. On the ground near the back wall were signs of recent occupation. His heart raced and he could hear the blood pounding in his ears.
‘What?’ Sarah stood on tiptoe to look in over his shoulder.
‘Look at the floor.’ David pointed at a pattern of dust and ash near the foot of the back wall. As soon as she saw what David was pointing at, Sarah ran around the side of the house and in through the shattered doorway. She stood looking down at the pattern, then pressed her own shoe hard onto the floor.
‘It looks just like my footprint.’
‘It is your footprint,’ said David from the doorway. ‘This is the house we just hid in.’
‘It can’t be. We just walked along the street. We never left that one road.’
‘Stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.’
David swung around the edge of the door-hole, dislodging a clump of bricks which crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. He began to run along the road almost opposite their hideout, skirting the edge of the rubble.
Sarah watched him run until his footsteps had faded into the silence, then slumped down behind the wall. A fly buzzed close to her ear. She swatted it and examined the bloody smear on her palm.
She stayed perfectly still, listening for any sound in the streets outside until pins and needles tingled in her legs. Time stood still even as she tried to count out the seconds, and wished she had worn a watch to tonight (tonight? Had they really been in the university just tonight?). Lost, becalmed, alone; unwelcome thoughts began to crowd in. She lost count of the passing seconds.
She peered over the sill of the hole. Her legs protested and she had to steady herself against the wall. The street was empty. On the outside of the house opposite, at about head-height, was an another of the irregular brown circles, as if someone had thrown a mug of strong coffee at the wall. Sarah tried not to think what that mess might have been made by. Blood went brown with age, didn’t it?
She shook her head. There was a more pressing issue right now than what had been splattered against so many of the houses’ walls.
Should she try to follow David, or wait, what?
Straining hard, she just caught a delicate pounding in the distance. It seemed to be coming from through the hole in the wall behind her, and by the time she had got across the room, the sound had crystallised into running footsteps. Looking round the edge of the hole, she saw David coming along the street towards her.
‘Don’t do that!’ she said. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Notice anything?’ David leaned on the sill, breathing heavily.
‘Only you buggering off and leaving me here.’
‘No, which way I went; which way I came back?’
‘Yes… you went the other way. How…?’ she asked.
‘I just went exactly the same way we walked. No turns, nothing.’
‘So, we got lost, the town’s circular. That’s not so unusual.’
‘But it’s not circular. I checked between buildings wherever there was a gap. All the time I was only one street away from the plain, going in a straight line.’
‘Same way as a flat field can slope. This is going to sound mad, but you know how water goes down a funnel?’
‘Exactly. Coriolis effect. I think that plain’s like the funnel. We got sucked into this town, and now we’re being pulled further in.’
‘I know, but I mean… there’s something about this place. The way we’re being directed. The way we seem to be descending into something. It is mad, but only in the same way that wolf vanished into thin air.’
‘So what does that mean? That we’re being sucked into a trap?
‘Or maybe a refuge. We need to find someone who can explain what this place is.’
They left the familiar house and moved one street further into town, turned right and began to walk. David piled four bricks in the middle of the road as a marker then ran to catch up with Sarah.
They walked in silence, taking less care now about staying close to the buildings. David did not bother to stop at every house or mountain of rubble. It was easy to see that there was no one around long before they reached each building.
It wasn’t long before they saw the little pile of bricks in the road ahead of them.
‘This is a waste of time.’ Sarah said. ‘There’s nothing here. Let’s go further into town. Maybe if there is anyone here, they’ll be in the centre. People would gather where they could get food and water, wouldn’t they?’
‘Well, they must have taken Toby somewhere. He’s not out here.’
Sarah set off along the middle of the main street without waiting.
‘I’m not sure this is a good idea,’ David said. Sarah stopped but did not return.
‘We’ve been assuming that whatever destroyed these buildings was just bombs and fire, whatever,’ he said as he caught up with her. ‘But there’s nothing left alive here. We’ve not seen any evidence of stray dogs, or birds, or even rats. Just these flies. Conventional wars don’t kill everything.’
‘You think it was nuclear?’ Sarah said.
‘What else could destroy a town so completely?’
‘Shit, David. We’ve been walking around in this dust for hours!’
‘Not hours. We’ve only been here twenty minutes at the most.’
‘Twenty? Are you serious?’ Sarah was trembling now, her eyes wide and glassy. She stared past him, constantly scanning the ruins as if seeing them for the first time. ‘It must have taken us two hours to cross the plain, then search for the spear-man. We’ve walked miles along that one road. We’ve been here for four, five hours at least, all the time walking through this dust. This ash…’
‘It hasn’t been that long.’
‘It has! I can’t believe we didn’t see it before, all this ash. There’s nothing here because–’
‘–this place it radioactive. We’ve been breathing this stuff in, walking right into it. And how long does it take–’
‘–to get radiation poisoning? A few minutes, maybe… David, don’t turn round. Oh my God, there’s someone behind you–’
‘–he’s coming. There’s… Shit, David, that’s not human… run!’
She grabbed his arm and began to haul him along the main street. David caught a glimpse of the man (men? he wasn’t sure) lumbering along an alley towards them. His fleeting impression was of some huge, deformed creature, then Sarah led him down a side street and deeper into the centre of town. They ran blindly, all the time churning up the dust and ash. They stumbled along narrow alleys of shattered buildings, over heaps of rubble, through shops and houses now open to the skies.
‘Stop!’ David gasped. He coughed hard, trying to clear the dust form his throat. He was sweating hard, his lungs tearing in mouthfuls of the hot, thin air. He rested his head against a rusted and broken metal grille set into a wall.
‘What the hell was that?’ David said.
‘I don’t know. I don’t even know if it was one or two people.’
‘I think there were two of them.’
‘Sarah, whatever destroyed this town, it wasn’t nuclear.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t look round. OK? Just don’t look round, but there’s someone down that alley and he didn’t die of radiation poisoning.’
Sarah did turn round. It would have been impossible not to. As she looked along the shadowed alley behind her, she realised at once what David was only just beginning to understand: they could see now what the ragged dark stains on so many of the walls were.
About fifteen yards along the alley stood a woman, apparently staring at the wall opposite her. She was thin and dressed in rags, and from this distance it was impossible to guess at her age. She stood perfectly upright, her shoulders a little drooped, but her back ramrod straight. He feet were planted on the dusty ground and her arms hung by her sides.
But she was clearly dead.
Protruding from the middle of her face was a long rusty spike. Someone, or something, had nailed her to the wall.
Sarah tore her gaze away from the corpse and back to David. He was staring at the ground and swallowing hard. His face was pale. Sarah reached a shaking hand out towards him, but she never made contact.
Suddenly a fist shot out of the grille next to David’s head and grabbed his shoulder. He twisted and turned, trying to break free, but the bony grip tightened. For an instant Sarah was frozen. She could see the face that was snarling through the grille, it’s toothless mouth opening and closing as if to bite the back of David’s head.
Then her muscles unlocked. She lurched forwards and sank her teeth into the hand. It immediately let go and shot back into the room behind the grille. As Sarah pulled David away from the wall the face reappeared, grinning.
‘Outlanders,’ the man hissed. His head jerked around and another face appeared. This time, a woman looked at them with dark, beady eyes. She strained as if listening for something just beyond hearing.
Sarah took another pace away from the doorway.
As the woman’s face was turned away from them, David saw that the two heads, rather than being of two different people, were joined at the back of the skull. The man’s blind eyes searched for them, rolling and blinking in the grey light.
‘Who are you?’ David said.
‘They’re looking for you,’ the man replied.
‘All of them. The whole world’s looking for you.’
‘What world? What is this place?’
The head jerked again and the woman’s face appeared. An arm shot out of the grille and thick gnarled fingers clutched at the air.
‘What is this place?’ the woman screamed. ‘This is your reality, Outlander. Your world!’ She bit down hard on her lower lip and spat blood into the dust at their feet.
Then they were running again. Careless of being seen or pursued, they ran out into the main street and deeper into the centre of town. Somewhere in this maze of destruction there was a man who could help them: a man who had already saved them once, and who might just be able to do it again.
It was the only hope they had left.
* * *
They had run a dozen or so blocks further into the town when Sarah stopped suddenly.
‘Down there. I saw something…’
To their left was a wide opening between two taller buildings. Beyond was a kind of open plaza. Steel reinforcement rods from one of the buildings had bent over, almost forming a bridge between it and the shattered structure opposite. Lumps of concrete hung precariously from the metal bars. Directly below one such large lump of masonry stood a solitary figure, all but hidden in the gloom.
‘Thank God! See? There are other people here.’
David caught her arm as she moved forward.
‘Sarah, I don’t like the look of this. Those two, one, back there weren’t trying to catch us. They were trying to scare us. What if we’ve run right into their trap?’
‘Who cares? At least this one looks human!’
Sarah shook her arm free and began to walk towards the figure. As they drew closer, they could see what appeared to be a very tall man, standing with his back to them. His long arms and legs were clad in heavy, deep brown leather, studded with single lines of metal bolt-heads. Much of his torso was covered by a broad metal plate.
As they approached, the figure began to turn slowly towards them. David caught Sarah’s arm again. The figure had no face. A shiny visor covered all its features, reflecting a distorted, bloated image of themselves staring at it. Sarah was about to speak, when the figure extended an arm towards them, as if in greeting.
David’s grip tightened as he saw the pale bony hand of six fingers, each twig-thin and ending in a hooked black claw.
They both turned to run, but as soon as they did another figure appeared in the plaza behind them, cutting off their exit. The hard morning light glinted off a line of screws holding the visor to the exposed skull of the creature.
‘That way,’ David whispered, indicating an alley-way between two of the wide-fronted shops. At first they moved slowly towards it, but when the first of the creatures began to move, they ran.
Behind them, they heard a loud rattling cry, more machine than human. The first figure joined in the metallic wailing, the sound echoing off the shattered walls of the streets around them.
They scrambled over a huge pile of rubble that almost blocked the alley, and found themselves in another open plaza. The machine-like voices were closing in, and their options for escape were limited. Just as the shadow of one of the figures crept over the dusty ground of the plaza, David spotted a hole in the collapsed wall of a building to their left.
They plunged into darkness for a moment as they pushed through a short tunnel, then emerged into a vast empty area which still bore portions of its roof. Shafts of dusty light came through holes in the ceiling and through the crazed pattern of broken glass at the front of the shop they saw one of the figures move swiftly past. They moved deeper into the building.
Rows of twisted metal and rectangular burns on the floor marked where check-outs had been in this abandoned supermarket, and the cavernous interior was littered with broken shelves and fragments of glass. Much of the shop had been burned.
Through a storeroom at the back they found a smaller room with a heavy metal door. The inside was littered with ash and twisted, blackened hulks of burned plastic. Metal hooks still hung from rails in the ceiling.
‘In here,’ Sarah whispered. ‘This must have been the refrigeration room.’
They stepped in and David pulled the door closed behind them. It was dark except for the pale grey light that strained in through the cracked porthole in the door. There was a strong and nauseating stench of decay, mixed with burned flesh and the acrid odour of rats. David stood at the little window, checking for movement in the shop. He caught a glimpse of the studded outline of a leather-clad arm.
‘They’re coming!’ he whispered. They huddled in a corner away from the door, praying that the darkness would give them sufficient cover.
A dull metallic gargling sound came from the dark recesses of the storeroom outside. They could hear slow, heavy footsteps drawing closer. The sound stopped as the figure paused outside the cold-store. Sarah fought to silence an involuntary scream as a rat brushed against her leg.
The door swung slowly open, a cold dusty light spreading in across the litter-strewn floor. David pulled his feet silently towards him, out of the growing patch of light.
The rat saw a chance of freedom, and darted for the open door. In an instant, six fingers were around its body, lifting the squealing creature off the ground. A moment later, the crushed body of the animal splattered against the far wall of the cold-store and fell to the ground. The door of their refuge slammed shut and the rattling voice of the hunter began to fade back into the shop.
Another rat scurried across the floor to the body of its mate. There was the sound of claws on dry concrete, and the slurp of a rat enjoying a warm wet meal.
‘I think they’ve gone,’ David said.
‘Then we need to move.’
‘Let’s give them another couple of minutes. You heard what it did to the rat.’
‘We’ve got to find Toby,’ Sarah said in a voice pitched uneasily between a whisper and a strangled cry. ‘If they’ve got him, they could lead us right to him.’
Cautiously she opened the door of the cold-store. All was silent. A single set of six-toed prints remained in the dust outside their refuge. The trail led towards the back of the shop.
An angry grey sky greeted them as they emerged from the building through a smashed fire escape. There was no sign of the sinister figure that they had seen in the concourse at the other side of the shop or the one that had followed them into the store room, but occasional scuffs in the dust told them which way they had gone. A light breeze had begun to stir. Desiccated leaves scuttered amongst the rubble, and wisps of dust chased along the road and into doorways.
They set off along the narrow street, keeping close to buildings, constantly on the lookout for bolt-holes. Soon the footprints ran out, swallowed by the shifting dust. Their search once again became random and hopeless, but it was better than doing nothing; better than just waiting for those things to find them. Slowly they moved along the alleyways and deeper into the town.
Sarah had just turned a corner when she stopped dead, pushing David back against the wall with her arm.
‘It’s down there,’ she whispered. Her voice sounded dead and still, dulled by the concrete walls around them, but it was not still enough. When David looked around the corner the figure had turned its reflective visor in their direction.
‘Run!’ This time there was no need to be quiet. The figure had already begun to move towards them. They stumbled through the rubble the way they had come. David pointed at the entrance to a narrow side-street which he hoped would give them some cover. As they reached its corner, they both jinked into it at the last moment.
The alley was narrow and strewn with debris. They jumped over piles of brick and concrete, bouncing off the walls as the ground gave way in places, opening gaping holes to cellars and collapsed sewers. David glanced behind him. The figure was gaining on them, never once tripping or stumbling on the uneven ground. It’s movement was silent except for the low metallic rattling of its voice calling others into the chase.
They ran on, their breathing becoming strained, their hearts pounding as panic tightened its grip. But in their blind haste to retreat, they had made a mistake. Around a sharp bend behind another shop they were confronted by a collapsed building lying across the road. There was no way round it, and no other turn they could take.
The figure stopped at the corner, watching. Its rattling call echoed down the walls around them as they stood frozen with fear. Their grossly distorted reflections in the visor stared back at them. The creature reached out a leathery arm, the skeletal hand emerging directly from the thick studded material. Sarah was beginning to scramble backwards up a slab of concrete, but each time she reached a point just a few feet from the ground she slipped back. They were trapped.
The creature began to walk slowly towards them. It turned its head as another of the hunters joined it from a shop loading bay. David shuffled sideways into a small recess, a tiny area that he knew might only buy them seconds more of life. He felt around the wall behind him. There was an opening. Not much, but maybe enough to slip into.
One of them might be able to escape while the other was hauled back out of the passageway.
Problem was, there was no time to debate which one of them it would be. David was closest to the hole, but he felt a sick knot in his guts at the thought of leaving Sarah to the mercy of these creatures. The adrenaline surge of fight-or-flight coursed through him, but he could do neither. He was trapped, not only by the buildings, but by his own indecision.
In the end the decision was made for him.
David was the first to feel the tug from behind him. Unseen hands reached out of the hole and grabbed at him. As he was hauled backwards, fingers tightened across his mouth to stifle his scream. He tried to grip the edge of the hole, but he was powerless against the pull. As he was swallowed by the darkness, he caught a glimpse of Sarah being hauled in behind him. For a moment he was on his feet, then almost immediately he was on the move again, dragged backwards through the dingy filth. He tried to call out, to make some contact with Sarah, but the hand over his mouth gripped harder. His eyes bulged and he struggled to draw breath.
Then it all went black as they were bundled down a steep flight of stairs and a door slammed shut above them.