The Earth is in ruins. Cities and nations destroyed. Mankind is extinct.
Brant and Arsha are synthetics, machines made in the image of people. They dream of bringing humans back into the world and have the technology to succeed, but the obstacles in their way are mounting.
Not only are their own conflicting ideals creating a rift between them, but now the sinister Marauders are closing in as they seek revenge on Brant. Out in the wasteland, strange lights and mysterious objects in the sky herald the arrival of new factions that seek to control the region.
Even in the once quiet streets of their own city, malevolent forces are beginning to unfurl that threaten the sanctity of everything they hold dear, jeopardising the future that is within their grasp.
The flashlight was starting to give out. It threw a murky yellow disc across the pavement, enough to accentuate the shadows in the street but little else – a poor excuse for illumination. As I watched, it winked and then went out.
Thumping it in my hand, I tried to jolt it back to life as if hammering on the chest of one whose heart had stopped. It was no use.
The motion of my feet ceased and I listened. Something out there was watching me.
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt it. In the past weeks I’d experienced this same feeling before – an indefinable knowing that I wasn’t alone, that there was some kind of presence nearby and that it observed me, not unlike a hawk watching a mouse in a field. I felt that any minute now it would decide that it had waited long enough, that it had finished toying with me and now the game was over, that there was no more satisfaction for it to derive from this pursuit. It was time to end it, to swoop down with a wordless shriek, to rip and tear at my innards with talons and a wickedly curved beak until the light went out of my eyes. I fought to push that idea from my mind. Imagination was a dangerous thing at times.
High above, the stars were coming out. The last breath of the day was spent, manifested by a cool breeze that eddied around my ankles and flapped at the folds of my jacket like the hands of an invisible assailant. I pressed my fingers to my chest. The fabric fought to squeeze between them, to cast itself at the mercy of the wind, but as suddenly as the breeze had arrived, it was gone. The fabric went limp and the street quietened as the last wisps receded across the concourse.
This was a city without people. The humans who had built it had perished long ago, and now it was an empty husk where the sound of their voices was but a memory.
I still thought of them often. My creators. I’d outlived them by many years, but still yearned for their return, to hear the reassuring sounds of their feet echoing in these streets again, to hear their voices. After so many years I’d had enough of traipsing this place alone.
But now I wasn’t alone. Something other than me was flitting between the shadows, unseen. I could sense it. And it was anything but reassuring.
I took a few quiet steps along the asphalt. There was a rustling in the gloom that seemed to mimic every movement I made, as if the thing out there was a shadow, masking its own motions in the furtive stirring of my own. A predatory thing that stalked me with great cunning and patience, waiting for the right time to strike.
Marauders? No, it wasn’t them. They would have come at me already by now, brandishing their machetes and screaming promises of violence as they thundered along the street. They would have taken me by force, not by patiently abiding in the darkness.
I hooked my thumbs under the straps at my shoulders and tugged them forward, the weight of the backpack transferring snugly to the curve of my back. With that secure, I ducked into a crouch and moved rapidly to the alleyway nearby, poking my head discreetly around the corner to survey its narrow confines.
Overhead, threadbare cables stretched between apartments and along the walls like cobwebs, disappearing in and out of gaping voids and crisscrossing into the upper reaches of the tenements, where one thick strand dangled vertically, swinging idly back and forth in little oscillations like a hangman’s noose.
Was this place truly hiding secrets from me, or was I just afraid of my own shadow, creating imaginary spectres in order to frighten myself? Tricks of the mind to alleviate the loneliness.
As if in answer I heard a noise down the alleyway, a rasping, drawn-out scrape like a blunt knife being dragged across wood. I shied backward involuntarily, then, edging forward, peered down the alleyway again. There was nothing moving, nothing altered since I had last looked.
I could leave now and be on my way, make my way home while there was still enough light to see, make it to the security of four walls and shelter from the evening chill. That was the safe option, the easy option. It was probably also the prudent choice. I knew that it would gnaw at me, though, the source of this unknown presence that seemed to monitor my every movement. It would dog me as I fled home, as I lay in the darkness of the house, watching the windows for signs of movement. It would be waiting in the morning when I stepped back into the sunlight and looked out across the city, teasing me.
It would eat me up, knowing that I’d had a chance to unravel the mystery and had failed to take it.
I needed to go after it.
Slinking away from my place of concealment I shuffled down the alleyway. The wind stirred again, ruffling little flaps of garbage at my feet, and I noted that among them were the decaying remains of those who had died in the Winter, their forms now nothing more than mounds of brittle grey bones entangled in scraps of clothing. An undignified kind of resting place, I thought remotely, but one that I had seen all too often in my travels. I had mourned for so many of them over the years, understanding the pain of what they must have gone through, but now was not the time for such sentimentality. I needed to focus.
A wooden doorway appeared on my right, bent and broken inward, within which I could see a staircase leading up into the dimness of the building. I stood and listened. Drifting down the stairwell, I thought I could detect the barest hint of that scratching and rasping I’d heard before, permeating the quiet. Something moving, sneaking about.
I pushed forward, noisily kicking and bashing through the remains of the door, then stopped to listen to determine if the racket had elicited a response from above.
Nothing. All was quiet.
My boots brushed against the steps and I began to ascend. Almost immediately I heard it again – the scraping. It was louder, closer, more defined. I was closing in on it.
With more urgency, I thumped my way up onto the next floor and out into a long, dark hallway. In the gloom I could make out the mottled and cracked form of the walls and ceiling where paint had peeled away, the flakes collecting on the bare floor in chunky strips like an accretion of fallen leaves. Half a dozen doorways lined either side, disappearing at the end of the passageway where it fed into the tenebrous innards of the building.
The noise abruptly stopped.
I clenched my fist involuntarily, unsure of what to do. Was it lying in wait behind one of these doors, its breath stilled, poised to strike should it be cornered? Had it laid a trap somewhere and now patiently waited for me to fall into it? Or had it found itself at a dead end, standing there helplessly as I closed in?
I’d come this far, and I’d never been this close to capturing it, to discovering the nature of it.
Don’t turn back now.
I entered the passageway, the paint chips crackling as they yielded under my boots, my jaw set firmly, my synthetic muscles coiled and ready to respond to whatever might cross my path. I paused at the first doorway, my hand hovering over the knob. I grasped it gently and twisted. It was locked.
Further down I could see that only one of the doors in the passageway was open. Listening at the first door for a moment longer, I heard nothing. I kept going.
Pausing briefly at each entrance, I listened for sounds of movement, for that distinctive scraping noise, but it seemed to have retreated. I could no longer find any trace of it. Had I lost the watcher, or was it still here, having fallen silent?
I reached the open door and looked through, into the room beyond. Inside it was brighter than the hallway, and as I eased across the threshold I saw the dull light from outside spilling in through an open window. The room itself was in tatters, a small bed rotting away in one corner and a filthy, dirt-smeared kitchenette in the other. The darkened recess of a lavatory appeared as I entered further, but it was empty.
I moved across to the window and looked out into the street, the cool evening breeze caressing my face. There was no movement out there. Gripping the windowsill I leaned out more, craning my neck this way and that, but could see nothing aside from the great concrete and steel expanse of the city and the stars above.
As I leaned back inside, my fingertips brushed something sharp, and I looked down. The wooden frame of the windowsill had been splintered and gouged, with four distinct gaps lined out across it like great claw marks. Something had come through here. Something had gone out.
Lifting my hands away and brushing at the splinters of wood that clung to my skin, I realised it had eluded me, stealing off into the night and out of my reach. Whatever purpose it had in mind, whatever its reasons for following me, would remain a mystery for now, for once again it had managed to stay out of my reach.
This game of cat and mouse wouldn’t last forever. There would come a time when it grew tired of waiting. One day soon I’d find it, or it would find me.