The first hint that anything was wrong came when the internet went out. The fridge had seemed perfectly fine, stocked with about everything that could be expected. Since this wasn’t much, Luke had to be satisfied with grabbing a slice of cheese for his snack. Turning around, he glanced at his phone on the way back to his room and frowned when he saw all the bars for wifi turn gray. He could not afford to go on data at the moment. The frown deepened when he pulled up the list of connections and saw that the device didn’t register any networks within range. That wasn’t good. If his phone crapped out on him he was screwed every way except the fun one.
Luke was shorter than average, with a frame that wasn’t quite malnourished, but he knew he’d lost a few pounds in the last month. His dirty blonde hair was longer than he normally wore it as he wasn’t willing to shell out for a haircut, and his pale skin was in the process of acquiring the unhealthy pallor of one who stayed inside too often. Dark brown eyes peered at his phone, appearing black in the reflection as he pondered this new development.
Occupied as he was, he didn’t look as he threw himself onto his bed and was thus caught completely off-guard when the bedframe came apart and the mattress fell to the ground. He froze for a moment to catch his breath and stare at the rusted metal beam that had been part of the frame until a moment ago. It was mostly remarkable for the fact that it now poked through the top of his mattress, a mere few inches from impaling him. The light was off and all he could see came from the flashlight on his phone, but a brief sweep across the fallen remains was enough for him to learn at least one pertinent fact.
That wasn’t his bed.
Looking around the room now, while the general layout was similar to his room, nothing was exactly the same as it had been a minute ago when he went to get a snack. His PC had been replaced by some antique box-looking monitor straight from the ‘90s, and the few posters he had put up as a halfhearted attempt at decoration were gone entirely. In their place, flowered wallpaper wrapped around the room. It was faded and peeling, but undeniably present in the space he called his own. For that matter, a lot of the room seemed to be peeling or in a similar state of disrepair. The metal in the bed that had given out on him was rusted so badly that it was surprising it hadn’t collapsed under its own weight before he came in to finish the job, while the mattress was old and decayed badly enough that it looked like the fabric would tear apart with the slightest pressure. A thick layer of dust covered everything.
“What in the ever living fuck?” Luke said aloud. The moment after he spoke, a series of thumps sounded from the ceiling. Long experience told him it was footsteps from the apartment above. He paused at this sign of life and considered seeking help, but it was after midnight and he just wasn’t mentally prepared to have that conversation with his neighbors. The sound moved away, out of the range of his hearing, and he put it out of his mind. Slowly, Luke walked out of his room back into the living space and kitchen he had just left.
A quick look with the flashlight told him that the only other space in his apartment had undergone an even greater change than that of his bedroom. The kitchen and living room had swapped places, and the door to the apartment hall was on a different wall than it should have been. The same decay seemed he had seen continued here. The fridge and other appliances in the relocated kitchen looked like they were thoroughly rusted and replaced by models thirty years older. Luke opened the door of the fridge—fumbling with a latch that had never been there before—but before he could identify any of the rotted remains within, his attention and flashlight snapped to the entrance to his apartment. The doorknob was jiggling loosely within its setting as it slowly turned to the right.
Unable to bring himself to do more than watch, Luke stayed in place as the door creaked open, revealing a man in tattered trousers and the remains of a white polo. Half of his hairy beer gut was visible where the shirt had been torn in two, hanging down around his sides. Luke started to say something, but the words died as a half-strangled noise when he met the stranger’s eyes.
In color and construction they were normal, a deep blue with the pupil, iris, and sclera all in the right places. It was impossible to even articulate what precisely was wrong with them, but it was clear to Luke the instant he made eye contact with the stranger that the man was dead. No, not even dead. Whatever spark or sentience that could be inferred from a person’s face was absent from the intruder. The gaze of a corpse held immeasurably more humanity than that of the man who had walked into Luke’s apartment.
They looked upon each other for a single moment before both broke into movement at the same time. The kitchen counter made a barrier between Luke and the entrance, giving him a second’s head start to run back into his room and slam the door. Dust showered down around him as he turned the lock. That should keep the thing out for at least-
A fist appeared through the middle of the door with a crunching sound, pieces of wood flew into the room. It hadn’t been the most solid portal to begin with, and with the wood rotted like everything else in this fucked-up hellscape it seemed to have the structural integrity of a piece of styrofoam. Panicking, Luke scrambled to the only other exit in the room—a window on the wall opposite the door. He pulled back the curtain, some part of him registering that it was still the dead of night, as it had been before this started. He clawed at the latch until he managed to throw the window open, glancing back with his phone’s light to see the door being methodically ripped apart by his pursuer, unmindful of a chunk of wood that stuck out of his arm.
Once the window was open, Luke nervously looked down below. He was only on the second floor, but it still had to be a ten foot drop at least, maybe more. Before he could work up his courage, the tearing sounds at the door ceased. He whirled around to see the intruder lunging through a sizeable gap, grabbing towards him. On pure instinct, Luke leaped out the window just as the fingertips of the thing brushed against his shirt.
He hit the pavement hard, but not as hard as he was expecting. Something soft broke the worst of his fall. Rather than looking down, however, he sought out the window he had just jumped from and the intruder he had escaped. There were no lights on, but the moon was high and he had a good view of a figure leaning out above him. The face was shrouded in darkness, but Luke shivered at the thought of those empty eyes staring down at him. After a few moments, the figure retreated inside, leaving Luke alone on the street.
Only “street” was a generous term, he saw as he took in his surroundings. It was certainly an urban area, or had been, and the layout seemed to match what he remembered of the outside of his apartment, but just about everything outside of that looked wrong.
The soft substance that had broken his fall was grass, he saw now, and his landing spot was far from the only place it had found a foothold. Half the street was flooded; algae and dirty water covered the other sidewalk across from Luke, shining under the moon in an ankle-high film. It was hard to see where the water came from, but the reason it hadn’t reached the whole street was due to a huge crevasse that had formed in the middle of the road. It was filled partway with water, and ran down the block as far as Luke could see. There were trees too, growing in smaller cracks that lined the dry side of the street. The damage wasn’t limited to the pavement alone—a third of the buildings on his block had collapsed, and several more looked to be sagging at even a casual glance. Luke’s apartment building seemed to be one of the few that had held up relatively well; most of the glass was still intact, and the roof didn’t look like it was on the verge of caving in.
At a loss for where to go, and worried that his pursuer might be taking the stairs to the ground floor, Luke set off in the direction that had the least amount of flooding. At least, the water level seemed to be going down, which was enough to push him that way. He was wearing sweatpants and a hoodie that kept him warm enough for the moment,—thankfully, it was summer—but slippers were all he had for shoes. Walking would be brutal enough without soaking his feet.
After a few blocks, Luke felt through his pockets with a sinking feeling and realized that somewhere along the way he had lost his phone. There was no way he was backtracking to find it though, and he quickly wrote it off as well and truly lost. He had bigger issues at the moment. Every so often Luke glanced for signs that he was being followed, but the streets were deathly silent. It was disturbing, seeing the results of what had to be at least ten years of decay in the city he grew up in. What the fuck is this? Now that he was past the initial stupor of incomprehension and was moving on something other than pure instinct, Luke could only wonder what the hell had happened.
One second he had been in his room, playing games way later than he should have been as usual, and the next he was attacked by some thing that practically radiated inhumanity in an urban jungle that looked like it hadn’t been inhabited for years or decades. It had been so sudden that he couldn’t begin to imagine how or why it changed. He supposed it could be a dream, but dismissed the idea quickly. He knew dreams, and there was no way he could be this lucid while he was asleep. After a few deep breaths, he forced himself to table the question for the moment. He had no chance of figuring out an answer, and there were more pressing issues to worry about. One question in particular seemed more urgent than anything else for immediate survival.
Where were all the people?
The streets were absolutely noiseless, devoid of the crowds that should have been there even as late as it was. Was the city abandoned? Were they all killed by the thing that had attacked him? Or had he been dropped right in the middle of a zombie movie with soulless monstrosities instead of brain-eating undead? Something told him there were more of the things out there than the one who had made a grab for him. Maybe a lot more.
Was he the only human left?
When it came, it came on quick. Everything seemed to close in, as if the buildings were hemming in on him to cut off any escape. Luke’s heart started pounding, his hands trembled. He fell to his knees and took deep, gasping breaths, trying not to throw up. He curled into a ball on the ground, a sense of doom falling over him. Time passed while he laid there, fetal. Gradually, slowly, his breathing steadied and rational thought crept back into his mind. After a span of minutes he managed to stand back up, though his palms were slick with sweat and he still felt unsteady on his feet.
It had been a long time since he had an attack like that, but it seemed pretty damn appropriate for the situation. Luke closed his eyes and clenched his fists, willing himself to return to normal. It wasn’t a healthy way to cope with what happened, but there didn’t seem to be a therapist around at the moment and he was pretty fucking far from his happy place. It worked to an extent, but when he opened his eyes what he saw nearly made his heart stop and sent him spiraling all over again.
The glow of the moonlight illuminated several of the closest buildings, most of which were storefronts in this part of town with glass windows, most of them either dirty beyond visibility or completely shattered. Of the latter, there was one store that looked like it sold clothing once, though the only hint to that was the apparel strewn across the floor, visible by a narrow strip of light that made its way inside. Just beyond the reach of the illumination, a shadowed figure stood out from the darkness. It might have been a mannequin, but before Luke could do more than conjure a desperate hope that this was the case, it stepped forward into the light.
It was a woman, wearing thinned out pajama pants and a black tank top with one of the straps broken in half, leaving it askew on her body. The clothing was enough to set alarm bells ringing, but even if she’d been wearing a fresh-pressed suit, the eyes would have given her away. She gave off the same sense as the man from Luke’s apartment, a disconnect from life and thought. Luke turned to bolt, only to see the same soulless eyes gazing at him from half a dozen different buildings. Up until now, he had instinctively preserved the quiet of the streets he walked through, but they had found him anyway. He had stayed in one place too long, and now there were a lot more that had found him.
He turned back the way he had come from, dimly noting that they sprang into action the same moment he moved, and sprinted back down the street. The loose slippers he was wearing slapped down on the pavement where it wasn’t covered by grass, making his footing even more unsure than it would have been merely from the plants and debris underfoot. Luke ran without thought, taking cross streets at random, glancing behind at his pursuers as often as he dared.
They seemed to be growing in number, though it was impossible to tell whether that was because he was drawing more attention to himself or they were communicating in some unseen way. They certainly weren’t speaking. They stayed as quiet as they had been when he noticed them, the only noise during the chase coming from Luke himself. He wasn’t even sure if they were breathing, though that was hard to tell from half-second glances as he ran for his life.
At least they seemed slower than he was. Though he didn’t seem to be losing the group, there was no immediate danger of being caught either. At least until exhaustion set in, anyway. Luke tried to keep in shape, but he was no athlete and he could already feel himself tiring. Desperately, he cut through an alley to break the things’ line of sight, throwing off his slippers as he went. The street beyond was as naturalized as the rest, carpeted with grass and dotted with trees twisting their way up through the broken pavement.
Without many options to choose from, Luke made directly for the closest cover and slipped behind the biggest tree on the block, peeking around to watch for the things chasing him. It wasn’t the most inspired hiding place, but he was just about out of options. The crevasse outside his apartment might have been a good place, but it was gone here. There wasn’t any flooding on this street either, just a few shallow puddles scattered around. A few buildings around had openings he could duck through, but there was no fucking way he was going in one of them to get lost in the dark until he got jumped by one of the assholes. Maybe he could escape them by getting out of the city, but the street layout was different from the city he knew and he didn’t have the slightest idea which way to go. The only possibility he could think of was to try to lose them and slip away in the confusion.
After a few minutes without seeing any of them and feeling a little better about his chances with his semblance of a plan, Luke put his back to the tree trunk to rest for a moment. Turning around gave him a glance at the street in front of him that made him jump badly enough that he scraped his shoulder on the tree bark. He barely noticed the pain. There were a dozen of the things spread out in a line across the road, every one staring straight at him. He hadn’t heard any of them move. Not even the ones standing in puddles seemed to have made a splash on their approach, which was all kinds of fucking unfair.
They were frozen for the moment, and a sinking feeling in his gut made Luke risk a quick glance around the tree. Sure enough, the second he had taken his eyes off that side of the block they had cut him off there too, forming another line that blocked off any side street he might run to. There was nowhere to go but into the arms of the things, one way or another.
He glanced up at the branches of the tree above him, but a part of him pushed back on the idea. It would only be delaying the inevitable, and his terror was fading into weary resignation. Whatever had happened, it seemed like he wasn’t destined to survive it. Even if he somehow made it through them, there had to be more, just waiting for a chance to get at him. A wave of tiredness flooded through him, further dulling the horror that dominated his psyche.
After a few minutes of awaiting the inevitable, Luke realized they hadn’t moved. Another glimpse behind the tree told him that it was the same there. Still frozen, still staring. The tension was worse than when they were actually chasing him. He stood there, staring back, and the pressure grew and grew until Luke thought he would have another panic attack. He tensed, ready to shout or run or do something to make them react. What exactly that would be, he never knew. Before he could move, a deafening blast resounded through the street and the leftmost thing collapsed in a spray of blood.
The others turned immediately, sprinting away from Luke, but the sound echoed again and again, another creature falling still with each blast. Luke crouched by the tree and covered his ears, flinching each time the sound rang out. Eventually he registered that it came from a gunshot, convincing him further to stay where he was. The shots continued until Luke couldn’t distinguish between them, his ears ringing from the sudden assault. He only realized that the gunfire had stopped when he chanced a look up and saw a hand held out in front of him.
Relief flooding through him, Luke reached up to take it.