There wasn’t much going on King James Street that day. The doors were closed, the shutters blocking out the world. Fruit drinks cans and newspapers skittered around on the pavement, the politicians grinning on the front page. A burnt out car sat on the corner, rusted pieces of metal sticking out at awkward angles, as if daring anyone to get closer.
And a human head, rolling lazily down the road.
No one knew the name of the man who used to own it. One of the eyes was closed, the other rotted away so that only a black hole remained, staring indefinitely. The owner had probably been young - the hair had been badly dyed at one point, and a brown tinge was creeping out from under the blonde. There was a hole in the lip when a piercing had been torn out, probably in the same fight that had decapitated the man, and the nose was broken. The entire face was caked in blood, some of it old, some of it new. Under it all, it might once have been considered attractive, maybe even have made the cover of a few magazines. No one would ever know.
The head continued its leisurely journey down the road.
If the eyes still worked, maybe they’d have caught the open shutters, and the face staring out onto the street.
There were no lights on in the room, and the occupant was bathed in darkness. The blackness was so complete that it almost appeared as if he, too, was also simply a head, watching his fellow rolling past the houses. His hooded eyes tracked the thing as it made its way slowly past. It hit a bump and rolled upright, the empty black socket turned in the direction of the room.
The man opened the window.
“What are you looking at?” he snapped. A woman, somewhere inside, laughed; a shrill cackle that echoed onto the street.
The head stayed there for a second, leaning gently, and then finally rolled over and trundled on, as if its curiosity was satisfied.
Inside, the man turned away from the street, closing the window. “Fucking…”
Cole waited for him to finish the sentence, but he didn’t, instead stomping to the kitchen. He turned his eyes to the woman on the sofa, who took another swig from the bottle she was carrying.
They were dead.
He knew it almost as soon as he found them three days ago. They’d been high then, too, and he didn’t think they’d come down since. Every few hours they’d sleep for thirty minutes or so, and then return to what they were doing – in the woman’s case, drinking, and in the man’s, continually stomping from room to room. Sometimes he’d find a break in his schedule long enough to stare at a wall and drool, but otherwise he maintained his vigil, day and night, picking up food from the kitchen and eating it as he patrolled.
Cole didn’t know their names. He doubted he ever would – they rarely spoke to him. The apocalypse had come, and they’d chosen to handle it by drugging themselves to oblivion, so that when the Harvested did eventually find them, they’d barely feel the pain.
As he watched the woman drink, Cole couldn’t help but wonder what the once-human thing on the street outside had become. Sandman? Rattler? Belummusk? It was probably a Sandman – they had no need of heads.
Cole stood, and went to get some water from the kitchen. He passed the man in the hall, moving aside for him as he stomped past without giving any sign that he’d seen the young man. Cole opened the fridge, ignoring the smell, and took out his bottle. He drank deeply from it, wondering how much time these people had left. Judging from the scene outside, not much longer. He’d probably have to move tonight. The Harvested were moving faster than he’d thought. There was clearly no refuge in the city.
He spotted the alcohol, but made no attempt to move towards it. Drunkenness was a reward for living in a happier time. It was something he used to relish. Not anymore.
“What are you doing?”
The voice startled him, and he spun to find the man standing behind him. Cole wouldn’t have thought it possible for him to move so quietly.
“I’m just standing here.” snapped Cole. “Is that allowed, sir?”
Even in his drugged state, the man couldn’t fail to notice the heavy sarcasm dripping from the last word.
“I’d be very careful about how you speak to me.” he said.
“Because I could snap your neck and leave you out on the street for the Harvested to find.”
“It’s stuff like that which is leading them straight to your door. You remember I said that when they’re tearing your fucking head off to roll down some other street.”
Something poked him in the side. He looked down. It was a knife.
“Why shouldn’t I kill you?” The man asked. His tiny pupils were inches from Cole’s face, and his hot breath stank.
Cole tried to twist his head away, but the man held his face with the other hand, turning it back. Cole looked up at the ceiling, as if making a final prayer.
Then he suddenly snapped forward. His forehead connected squarely with the man’s nose, and the latter squealed. The knife clattered to the floor and he fell backwards with a crash, clutching his broken nose.
“Because I’d kill you first.” Cole said, looking down at him. He stepped over the whimpering man, and started upstairs. As he went down the hall, he could hear the woman’s laughter, the soft, high pitched giggle of the barely sane.
He went to his room, and locked his door. Not that it would stop his ungracious host if he decided to slit his throat in his sleep, but Cole doubted it would come to that. He’d been lucky enough so far. He wondered sometimes if he might end up the only survivor, forever hunted through streets, alleys and corridors by barely human monstrosities. Maybe one day he’d find a way to properly kill one of them. He smiled as he fell asleep.
Darkness. Screams. A figure stood in the doorway, staring at him. He couldn’t see its face, and it didn’t move. Just stared.
“Are you here to kill me?” he asked. Like he always did.
This time. Yes.
Cole didn’t hear the words – he thought them. The thing didn’t have a voice. The words just appeared in his head, as if he’d read them from a book.
Daylight streamed from the windows, the curtains thrown back wide. Cole wondered, like he always did, how he’d never noticed it sooner.
The figure took a step towards him, and there was a metallic clang as it clattered its sword against the doorframe. It stepped into the daylight, a hat tilted at an angle. It wasn’t low enough for Cole to avoid seeing its face.
The figure levelled the sword at his throat, and drew a pistol, aiming between his eyes.
Cole was still yelling as it fired.
The bang woke him, and Cole took a second to realise it had been real. The screaming was, too, though it wasn’t his own.
Cole shook his head violently from side to side, trying to dislodge the vision. The noise could only mean one thing. They’d been discovered.
He breathed the single word. His watch told him it was two in the morning. Bathians, then. The Harvested would be sweeping the ground floor now.
The door burst open, and someone he didn’t recognise careered into the room. Cole shot from the bed as the man slammed into the dresser, gibbering. He abruptly spun to face Cole.
“They followed us.” The man said, looking into Cole’s eyes. “They said it was safe here.”
Yells from the garden. Cole risked a glance behind him, out of the window. His host, face still bloodied, was being backed down the garden. The harsh floodlight glinted off the knife he was holding unsteadily in his hand – the same one he’d used to threaten Cole.
Cole turned back to face the man. “How many of you are there?” he asked, panicked. “How many people did you try and bring here?”
The man tried to answer, but a screech drowned out his answer. Something entered the room at breakneck speed, slamming the man against the dresser. He had time to scream once as the Sandman raised its cleaver, before it brought it swinging sharply down.
Cole didn’t breathe.
The Sandman turned its sightless head towards him, steam pumping from its mechanical midsection. Two human arms acted as its rear legs, bending at the elbow as it prepared itself to spring forward. Pistons whirred amongst its ribcage, spitting black smoke into the already dark room. It opened its maw as the human fingers that lined it wiggled and snapped together, cramming a piece of the dead man down its throat to be incinerated by its midsection.
“Bring me a dream.” Cole murmured, almost smiling to himself.
The Sandman hissed as an armoured figure clanked into the room, turning its helmeted face to Cole. It gave the Sandman an unheard instruction.
Smoke belched from its stomach, and the creature shrieked as it propelled itself over the bed, and through the air towards Cole, its cleavers outstretched.
He didn’t have time to think. He closed his eyes, and behind him, a whole chunk of the wall blew itself outwards as if decimated by an explosion. Cole ducked, and the Sandman sailed through the hole, still screeching, to land with a crunch in the garden amongst the debris.
That left the armoured figure. Cole saw it raise the torch. He yelped, and turned, leaping out of the hole as the flames filled the room.
He landed neatly some feet away from the still whining Sandman, in time to see the Bathians advance on his still-drugged host. They had lifted their visors, and their fanged faces were grinning as they ignited him. The man, whose name Cole would never know, screamed, the sound almost lost amongst the crackling of flames and the laughter of Bathians. His arms waved weakly in the air and he crashed into the fence and fell backwards, invoking howls of laughter. The Bathians finally set the Sandmen on him, and the man was eviscerated as he burned. His body wasn’t fit to be used.
Cole realised he had frozen, staring. Looking around, he saw the knife on the ground near him. He snatched it from the lawn before the Bathians spotted him, raising their torches.
He spotted a hole in the fence that could be his only chance. He tore through the shrubbery towards it, as the flames poured after him. He could hear the Sandmen screeching and clanking on the other side of the blaze, but they couldn’t reach him through the flames. He reached the hole and scraped himself through it, turning his head sideways as he forced himself through the gap.
After scaling the fence from the neighbouring garden, he found himself out on the street. He made a snap decision, turning left. He kept running. He was too far now, and the darkness was his friend. By the time the squad had organised themselves, he’d be far away.
Cole just had to hope he’d have time to find another hiding place before they found him again.