Luke studied the man who had saved him as best he could while they ran. He wore a gas mask that covered his entire head, the kind that had a cylinder projecting out from the side of the mouth and a clear plastic pane that allowed his face to stay in view. While they were on the move though, it was difficult to make out any details about him other than the fact that he was male and looked older.
It was easier to see his outfit, a vest with pockets everywhere over a navy turtleneck and cargo pants with still more pockets. It seemed that he had made it a point to ensure that none of his skin was exposed to the air. Duct tape was wrapped around his ankles where the pants met his boots, and black gloves were pulled snug over his wrists. Even the turtleneck was wrapped around the base of the gas mask to ensure his entire neck was covered.
Though he was thankful for the sudden rescue, the man’s appearance had Luke unsettled and supplied him with even more questions to enhance the blend of anxiety and terror he was running on. Had some kind of gas caused whatever happened to the people in the city, or a toxin that was absorbed through the skin? Had he already been exposed? He’d tried to ask his rescuer, but the man had been unwilling to pull off his mask to talk and his only form of communication thus far had been gestures to start running.
At least the pace he set was only at about a steady jog, but Luke wasn’t sure how long he could keep going anyway. The constant adrenaline spikes and repeated flights had taken their toll, not to mention the ironclad certainty of death that had filled him when he’d been surrounded. It had already been after midnight when everything started, and there was only so long that Luke could stave off his exhaustion.
Not that he could really explain any of that to his silent savior, who ran ahead, still holding the handgun he’d used to shoot the creatures. After pulling Luke to his feet from where he’d been hiding at the base of the tree, the stranger had only paused long enough for the younger man to lace up a pair of boots that had been tossed in his direction. Even then, he stayed alert for any sign of movement, waving off Luke’s attempts to talk. All Luke could hope for was that they would reach someplace safe soon, and not run into any more of the things on the way. Of course he’d no sooner had the thought than the man held up his hand and ducked into an open doorway on the side of the road. Luke followed his lead, and peeked out from behind the door to see another group of the zombie-things blocking the street ahead. There were only four of them, but they were spread out across the block in the same formation as the ones that had cornered Luke before..
The man pulled him back and made a bewildering series of hand motions.
“Wh-what?” Luke asked. “I don’t understand.”
He thought he glimpsed a look of exasperation before the man reached back and unbuckled the mask. As he pulled it off, Luke realized the stranger was even older than he thought. Lines criss-crossed his dark skin, and his well-trimmed beard was streaked with gray. He guessed that the man who had saved him was in his late fifties, maybe older.
“I’m going to draw their attention,” he said, his voice rough. “As soon as there’s a gap, run for it. No matter what you do, do not get close to them. Cut through the alley two streets up and turn on the vehicle there. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Wait, what vehicle? What if there’s more of them? How-” Ignoring his panicked questions, the stranger clapped Luke on the shoulder and put the gas mask back on, rolling the top of the turtleneck over the bottom so that his entire body was contained once more. Without further hesitation, he lifted his handgun and turned out into the street.
Luke had just enough warning to clap his hands over his ears, but the gunshot still echoed painfully. He glanced out to see the creatures run for the man as they had before. There were five of them now, and they were fast. Much faster than the ones who had pursued Luke when he was by himself. He watched them approach in fascinated horror before a rough shove reminded him of what he was supposed to be doing.
He sprinted out to the middle of the road, glimpsing another group converging on them from the opposite direction. More shots rang out, prompting Luke to realize for the first time that this plan put him behind the targets the man was aiming at. Surely he hadn’t been meant to go while the shooting was still happening? If any of the bullets went wide of the creatures, Luke would be right in the line of fire! He hesitated while the man gunned down the rest of the things, each loud report signalling the end of another monster. He then turned smoothly and continued to fire at the group on the other side. On the fourth shot the pistol clicked, out of ammo. Two of the things still flew towards him, hands extended.
Dropping the pistol, he reached into another pocket and pulled out a long hunting knife. He tore at the blade and ripped off a plastic sheath just in time to ram it into the chest of the closest thing. It fell back as he pushed, the knife still stuck inside. The last creature reached out wildly, but the stranger stepped around its flailing arms. While it was overbalanced, he shoved his hand into yet another of the innumerable pockets in his vest and took out a small black oblong-shaped object. Stepping back further, he took advantage of the distance to bring his arm down with the oblong and expand it into a long baton. Before the creature could come up to lunge at him again, the man stepped up and swung the baton at the side of the thing’s head. With a crack, it dropped on the ground.
Even as the monster was falling, the man crouched and grabbed the pistol he had dropped earlier. After pawing at his pocket again, he pulled out a magazine and quickly reloaded. The thing that had been stabbed was making its way to its feet, though its movements were slow and erratic. Blood poured from its chest. The man fired off two quick shots that echoed through the block, one through the forehead of each creature. Stillness reigned once more. The entire encounter had lasted perhaps thirty seconds.
Luke still stood in the middle of the road, dumbstruck by the efficiency of the stranger. He flinched when the man finished picking up all his equipment—including the spent magazine—and turned around to see Luke still standing there. He didn’t speak, but Luke didn’t have to hear his voice to interpret the anger in the gestures made toward him.
The man started jogging in the direction he had told Luke to go, and Luke hesitantly followed. They made their way to the alley to see the vehicle he mentioned sitting at the other end. It was some kind of quad, an ATV with two seats nearly worn through. The entire thing looked ancient; the paint was chipped and faded and metal poles that rose above the seats were nearly rusted through, though the tires looked relatively intact. Without a backwards look the man swung his leg around the front seat and turned the key that was waiting in the ignition. Luke hopped on just before he gunned the throttle and tore out of the alley.
The quad’s exhaust was the only noise that accompanied their drive, but it was loud enough on its own. The ride was rough, but the vehicle was well-chosen—it was small enough to maneuver between any trees and cars that blocked the road, and handled well on both the dewy grass and hard pavement. For the first time, Luke wondered at the lack of cars on the city streets—there were about as many as he would expect to see in a crowded city, but it wasn’t the bumper to bumper insanity that he would have thought there would be if people had been trying to flee from whatever happened.
The thought passed quickly, as most of his attention was devoted to the occasional person that flashed past them. It happened too fast to get a look at their faces, but all of them tried to follow or block their path, and Luke assumed they were the same soulless monstrosities. Their attempts were entirely unsuccessful, and the quad moved far more quickly than any of them could hope to match. For all that, Luke didn’t relax in the slightest until the man turned off a freeway entrance and left the claustrophobic streets of the city behind them.
While it fell far behind in Luke’s immediate concerns, there was an odd disconnect in the path they took out of the city. The streets and architecture in the city itself had been reminiscent of his home city, but the actual layout was totally foreign. It evoked a feeling of deja vu that extended to the freeway they took out of the downtown area. It wasn’t identical, but there were flashes where Luke thought he recognized a particular stretch of road, even with the vastly changed surroundings of the terrain around them. The dilapidation that he’d seen in the downtown area extended to the freeway; there were long stretches where there wasn’t actually any road to be seen, taken over as it was by foliage and plant life, though the stranger never seemed in doubt of where to go. Anywhere that had been developed before looked much the same as the streets Luke had been running through, a cross between demolition and reclamation by nature. Where Luke remembered open countryside, however, wildlife had completely taken over. The area was fairly dry and out here the plant life actually looked less lush than it had in the city, where the flooding had probably provided more water for cultivation, but bushes and shrubs covered every inch of open land for miles on end. Tall grass had grown high enough to block their vision through some stretches, though they also passed huge swaths of blackened ground that looked like they were burned by wildfires, sections where plant life only just starting to creep back in.
Luke’s rescuer hadn’t deigned to take off his mask after leaving the city, letting the silence grow with the miles that they traveled. Luke could only summon so much trepidation for how he had failed to follow instructions; he could barely stay awake, too exhausted even for emotion. He hadn’t been summarily abandoned, and that was good enough for now. After an indeterminable period riding through the road and fields, the darkness started to lighten near imperceptibly. Shades of dawn took over the sky by fractions, but even as slow as it was in coming, morning had truly arrived by the time the quad spluttered and slowed, out of fuel. The man grunted through his mask, the first noise he had made in hours. Swinging his leg around, he jumped out of his seat and strode off in the same direction he had been driving.
“Wait,” Luke called. “I-I don’t think I can keep going.” He was still in the back seat, swaying back and forth; without the breeze to keep him awake, he felt like he might fall off at any moment.
The man turned back and ripped off his mask, his face thunderous.
“You run around the city like an idiot, force me to track you down, nearly get me killed by the Empty, ignore my orders, and now you think you decide when we stop? No, we keep going until you drop, and I might consider taking a break then. I’ll see how I feel in the moment.”
Luke considered passing out right there to make a point. He didn’t think it would even be that difficult. But he obviously hadn’t made the best first impression on—as far as he knew—the last human in the world, and instead tried to grasp for what questions he had conjured up during the drive.
“Who are you? What is—all this?” He asked, waving his hand around vaguely.
The man smiled grimly.
“You do as I say, to the letter, and I might consider answering some of your questions. Till then, get moving.”
Later, Luke felt it reflected rather well on him that he made it a mile and a half before collapsing.
When he woke up, for a brief moment he felt deliriously happy. It had been a terrible nightmare, but-
Then he saw the sky and realized he would have absolutely no reason to be sleeping outside if it had been a dream.
The lighting in the sky was similar to how it had been when he passed out, but after a few moments of confusion he realized that the sun was setting rather than rising. Luke was in the exact same position he had fallen in, lying in the middle of a shrub. When he sat up, though, he saw that there was a fire around a ring of stones nearby tended by his new companion. The mask was nowhere to be seen, though a military backpack nearby seemed a likely storage place. Luke vaguely remembered seeing him grab it when they abandoned the quad.
“I forgot the place you’re from is so much different,” The man spoke. It was a softer voice than anything Luke had heard him use so far, though that was an exceedingly low bar to clear.
“Not your fault, I guess, that you’re soft,” he continued. “Probably the first time you’ve ever been in a situation like that.” He poked at the fire with a stick and fell silent. The firelight made the wrinkles in his face deeper and more shadowed.
His words pierced the fog of fatigue over Luke, prompting the younger man to sit up straighter and look over.
“Wait, you know I’m from…not here?” He asked.
There was a bark of laughter.
“Yeah. You’re the whole reason I’m out here. Sorry you got shafted on the welcoming committee, kid, but this isn’t my idea of a fun day out in the sun either. We’re headed somewhere better than that hellhole, though, I can tell you that.”
“So how did I get here then? How can I go back? What the fuck happened?”
The old man scowled, an expression that looked oddly natural on his face.
“Sandy fucking owes me for this,” he muttered. He went on in a louder voice. “I can give you a basic rundown, but you’ll have to wait for a lot of it. Like the ‘going back’ thing, that’s not my department.”
The hope that had flared inside Luke faded a little, though he nodded.
“How you got here is…complicated. I’m not the best one to explain that. Same goes for why you’re the lucky winner. There’s some metaphysical shit involved that I don’t stick my head into.”
That sounded like an evasion to Luke, but he wasn’t comfortable enough with the man to push the issue. His life was still basically in the old man’s hands, after all.
“As for where we are, best I can explain it is that we’re in a parallel dimension from where you’re from. Far as I know, everything’s mostly the same except for minor differences here and there.”
Luke thought about that for a moment, then snorted.
“I can buy that as much as anything,” he said, “but I don’t know how much you know about the world I’m from if that’s the case. ‘Minor differences’ don’t really cover what I’ve seen so far.”
“Yeah, well,” the man said as he shifted a log in the fire with his stick. “From what I know, that applies up until maybe twenty years ago or so. That’s when everything went off the fucking rails over here.” He stared at the flames, lost in thought.
After a few moments, he shook himself out of whatever reverie he was in and continued.
“Out of nowhere one day, whole cities went dark. No one could contact their friends, family, authorities. This was a lot of the biggest cities in the country, understand—including our great San Miguel back there,” he jammed his thumb toward the south. “And there wasn’t the slightest hint of what happened. Almost all the TV was down, radio, everything.”
“What about the internet?” Luke interrupted. The man gave him an irritated look.
Luke opened his mouth to respond, but remembered what the other man had said. Twenty years ago, assuming time worked the same in both places…the internet would have existed, but might not have been ubiquitous yet. Seemed like his rescuer wasn’t an early adopter.
“Anyway, that only lasted a day or so,” he continued. “After that, what little information was still going around suggested there were…attacks.” He nodded at Luke’s look of sudden comprehension.
“Dead-eyed things that looked like people flowed out of the major cities like water, right into the next biggest population centers. That’s about the last information most of us got directly, but it’s not too hard to figure what happened from there. The first places they attacked would have been overrun pretty quick, unaware as they were, but I’m sure resistance picked up from there. The thing is, by that point it was too late. It’s a pretty rough estimate, but I bet at least half the people in the country were Empty by the time anyone knew what was going on. All our infrastructure was gone. Political leaders, information centers…it was fucking chaos, everyone in the dark, everywhere.”
“But how did the military get overrun so easily?” Luke asked. “Those things seem pretty much like zombies, and that’s always been my problem with those kinds of movies. You managed the ones back there pretty easily, why didn’t they just mow them down?”
“They did,” the man said grimly. “I’ve seen some of the towns that were hit by the later waves. There were whole mountains of corpses where the military or a militia set up kill zones. But while the Empty might not be intelligent, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They have instincts, of one kind or another. You saw that twice, when they blocked us in on the streets. That’s a common tactic when they’re hunting a small group. When there’s more people that they’re after, they overwhelm them with sheer numbers. They’ll gather together a good distance away and wait. They only start moving when they outnumber us by at least three or four times. You can kill ten thousand of them, they’ll just use the bodies to climb over walls. Once they get in close, the game’s basically over. All it takes is a touch.”
“Wait, what,” Luke asked sharply.
“I wasn’t wearing that mask for my allergies. Notice how none of them in the city were disemboweled or shit like you’d expect from those zombies you mentioned? The Empty don’t eat brains or anything else, what they do is make you like they are. All it takes is skin to skin contact for five to ten seconds, and your soul is gone. Or whatever.” He flitted his fingers up in the air to illustrate his point.
Luke tried to digest this as best he could. It explained why there was duct tape around the man’s ankles to keep his pant legs in place, and why he had been so pissed that he’d been forced to fight two of them up close. Something else he had said stood out beyond the obvious, though.
“How do they not eat anything? Where do they get energy to move or…live?”
The old man shook his head.
“I don’t know, but believe me. That’s some of the tamest unbelievable shit there is in this world now. The Empty weren’t the end of it. Just the beginning of the end, maybe. We can talk about it later. Don’t want to overload you all at once.”
It felt almost cruel that he was ending the conversation there, but the old man was already staring at the fire again and Luke let it go. It couldn’t be easy talking about the end of the world no matter how much of a hardass you were. He felt bad for dredging up what were probably the worst memories for anyone left in the world, but not as bad as he felt for being stuck in a world where that was the case.
Though Luke was no longer exhausted as he had been, he still felt far from fresh and his companion showed no sign of resuming the march anytime soon. He layed back on the same bush he had been on before, lamenting the lack of anywhere more comfortable to sleep. Closing his eyes, he was caught by surprise when a weight landed on his chest. Shooting back up, he saw that he’d been thrown a rolled-up sleeping bag. The old man wasn’t so much as glancing his way.
After he set out the bag and zipped himself up, Luke asked one more question before he let himself drift off to sleep.
“What’s your name?”
Luke turned away, leaving him to sit and stare at the fire once more.