The sky was an abyss that loomed over the dying world like an omnipresent threat. Sunlight was fading, leaving vast shadows that looked like graves to those foolish enough to still be outside. A weary shell of rusted metal sputtered with age as its speed died with the sun. Jack looked outside and bit his lip; he knew they had no place to go but he’d hoped they could drive even for just a little longer. Thomas grumbled in the seat behind him and threw a dirty look at Edward.
“Well that was a great idea.” he spat.
Edward shrugged. “So let’s crash.” He gestured to the flanking homes of red brick and identical metallic shutters. “Do a safety check and we’ll be fine. Come on.”
Getting out, Thomas and Jack watched Edward approach the closest house. With the knowledge born of trial and error, he slowly edged around the crimson hovel with his pistol drawn. He then peeked behind the metallic shutter before motioning both Jack and Thomas to the front door. He disappeared as they approached.
“Fuck’s he gone?” muttered Thomas as they reached the weathered front door. Green paint peeled just through their presence alone. As Jack observed, he slowly grasped the handle and turned. The door yielded and they were greeted with a wave of thick dust. Both men grabbed their faces in identical fashion as they laboured from the dirty influx.
A pale face loomed from within. Edward. He pointed upstairs. The roof above the staircase had fallen in from years of disrepair. Despite the thickening snare of darkness that was suffocating all tangible view, it was evident this was just a regular home before The Change. The carpets and drapes may have been spoiled, the valuables looted and the kitchen shorn of supplies, but it once housed a regular family just like every home on that block. However, instead of the Harpers were three Scavengers and whatever was above them.
Thomas opened his mouth to speak but was silenced by Edward almost immediately. He looked almost trance-like; his usual sharp features were relaxed in the dim light. His eyes sparkled with triumph as he met the confusion stares of the two men before him.
“We’re alone.” he announced.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s awesome.”
Thomas rolled his eyes and dropped the heavy bag before him. The tins of supplies clanged within.
Not a word was said as they set up camp. Even as the darkness smothered them all, it was just another night in a forgetful year.
It only took half an hour to fully fortify the house. Each window was reinforced with the debris of tables and wardrobes as they decided on an old bookcase to block the front door. The back entrance was jammed shut with stepladders that hadn’t seen use since the last Scavengers sought refuge there.
The trio were gathered around a small fire they made with the various broken pieces of furniture and old, useless books by lost authors. The smell of beans and pilchards rode a wave of musty effervescence. Though it were a meagre meal with a limited supply (Jack’s backpack remained at the site in which they fled), they were grateful for it. Edward in particular found more sustenance with the chunky mixture than he did with the stale ramen. His stomach yawned with appreciation as he ate with the consistency of a wild animal.
“So, we’re going after Ren, right?” asked Jack. He looked at the two men tentatively.
Thomas glanced at Edward. His smile could have been slashed onto his face.
“Well? Aren’t you gonna be Daryl Dixon and save the day?”
Edward said nothing and continued to eat. Jack offered a pleading look but was ignored. Maybe it was the group dynamic but something stirred in him. As Thomas chuckled, he felt a strange germ of anger and let it spread.
“Well, fuck you two. I’m going after her. I owe my life to her anyway.” he looked back at them both, daring either to challenge him. Thomas continued his chuckle as though Jack were a child who spoke out of turn.
“Jack.” said Edward. His voice was soft and could have been part of the spitting fire. “You won’t be able to do anything till tomorrow.”
Thomas snorted. “There’s nothing out there. Just black. You don’t believe those fucking lies about demons do you?”
Edward did not break stride. “We all woke up one morning to find around ninety percent of people disappeared off the face of the earth. To be honest, nothing surprises me anymore. Even Biblical stuff like that.”
Muffled voices silence them instantly. A clatter of the shutters emanated throughout the house. Edward reached for his pistol as his eyes darted to the source of the commotion. They banged more and more on the shutters as though they’d yield to feeble force. Thomas clenched his fists as though they were ready to burst in.
“Junkers?” breathed Jack. Edward shook his head. Something in the authoritarian baritone permeated the walls and swept over him in familiarity.
“Military.” Edward replied. He inched towards the shutter as though he were smoke in the feeble fire light. His eyes scanned the thin line to the outside as a powerful light gleamed. “Oh joy, looks like Major Shugar’s out on the town.”
A chiselled man with a waxy stare lead a small group of men through the adjacent alleyway. Though Edward’s view was obscured, he imagined them about to board their vehicle. A squeal of tires and a clatter of gunfire painted a violent picture. But, as the limp fire light illuminated them all, they were alone once more.
“Well, I’m beat. I say we call it a night.” said Edward. He sat down and pulled out an old, moth-eaten cushion. As he lay his head onto the feathery mess, he felt the ache within his bones and was asleep before the fire light was extinguished. Jack followed suit as Thomas left the room. His footsteps were the only clue to his presence as the house surrendered to darkness.
Some miles away, under the suffocating blanket of the sky, Angelica’s convoy was beating a long path illuminated by twin pools of pearly car light. Angelica herself lead the charge; one hand on the wheel and another relaxed on the arm rest. Behind her, in the lethal stare of Barker’s shotgun, lay Ren unconscious. A swelling below her right eye courtesy of Angelica gave a deeper impression on her porcelain skin; she looked as though she had not slept in an age.
Her eyes softly opened to the smiling bogan. Regaining her composure, she looked around as her memories flooded back.
“Oh great.” snarled Angelica. Do I need to put you under again?” she rapped the steering wheel smartly with her knuckles.
“I think we’re golden.” said Barker. He was more than enjoying this. Ren felt like a fly caught in the web of a particularly vindictive spider. It wasn’t the capture; it was feeling of being utterly powerless. Wystan’s empty smile loomed in her thoughts and, as though electricity flowed within her veins, she made a desperate snatch for the door handle.
“I wouldn’t, Renxiang. You wanna go out at night? Go ahead.” said Angelica.
Ren looked to the choking darkness outside. Something primal within her screamed with ancient fear. Where are the stars? I haven’t seen the stars since… Instead the sky was nothingness devoid of Heaven. Earth was a box and the lid had been sealed tight.
“Not long now.” continued Angelica. “Wystan can’t wait to see you again.”
“Fuck Wystan.” said Ren. Her defiance belied her anxiety. “Why do you serve him? He’s just going to get you slaughtered by the military.”
“Au contraire.” snickered Barker. “He’s got the Military running scared. For the first time, a community got them shitting themselves. It’s great.”
Angelica picked up a sliver object; it was no bigger than a box of cigarettes and it seemed oddly familiar to Ren. Angelica spoke though Ren did not listen; the memory of such a device came back to her in blurred increments. She even owned one herself in the past.
“I-is that a phone?” she asked.
Angelica hung up. The phone disappeared with a flick of her wrist.
“You’d be surprised what we have.” she said. She looked at Barker. “We’re in the district. Make sure she doesn’t do a runner.”
Ahead, a collection of dim pinpricks became a cluster of defined light. Streetlights. Wystan’s Empire had enough influence and intelligence to create a community unlike the loosely knit groups in the jungle around them. Ren did not question this; her words remained in her thoughts as though they were taboo. A small flower of uncertainty within her had bloomed into a Venus Flytrap of desperation. She needed a plan lest Wystan’s violent touch permeate her gentle flesh once more.
With that, Ren became silent and watched the coming streetlights shine pools of light onto the car windows. They passed by like tiny UFO’s; for a moment it was though the sky was full again.