A flashlight beam danced in the darkness as Izzy searched the storage room for anything useful; anything edible, or something that could make a good tool. A streak of bad luck had forced her to come here, to Section C’s diner. She had been avoiding the place the whole day, but after sweeping everywhere else for supplies without success, she had run out of cards to play. She just needed something she could take back home, to prove her father she could do this on her own. That diner was her last chance to save her first scavenging run ever from complete failure. And so, she was knee-deep into shit. Literally. After months without use, the plumbing had acted up, and the toilets had vomited hundreds of liters of sewage which flooded the kitchen and storage area.
And Izzy’s jumpsuit wasn’t waterproof.
There wasn’t much to do about it, except for tying her scarf around her mouth and nose, swallow hard, and hope for the best. Completely useless. The wool fabric didn’t even hinder the suffocating stench fuming out the gut-wrenching soup swirling around her as she trudged towards the food storage.
Holding herself from throwing up her stomach, Izzy opened one of the cabinets still above water. A bag of petrified bread and a stack of bowls greeted her inside. “Agh, come on, man. Really?” she muttered.
A few more cabinets, also empty.
By now, the methane exuding from the foul waters were blurring her vision and making her head go all groggy. “Way to spend your thirteenth birthday, Izzy.” She coughed. If only her grandmother was still alive and could see her like this, Izzy pondered, no doubt she would completely lose her mind. All those years spent in training the family heir on proper etiquette, gone down the drain. Well, it wasn’t like Izzy minded at all. After all, she didn’t ask to be born the daughter of a red.
A beeping caught her attention. “Shit,” she said to herself while checking her watch. Six in the evening. Dusk was settling in already. Having gone through all that only to come out empty-handed wasn’t an idea she embraced, but if she didn’t hurry night would catch up, and she’d be in a lot of trouble.
At this point, there were two options: the top cabinets Izzy couldn’t reach, or the one with the big padlock.
Big padlock, of course.
Something significant hid in there.
No time for breaking the combination though. Izzy pulled out her trusty crowbar and shoved it on the latch. She pulled slowly, careful not to make too much noise; it wasn’t night yet, but just dark enough for them to come out. The latch squeaked a bit, but it proved to be a far stronger contender than it seemed. “Come on, you bastard,” Izzy grunted. “What are you hiding from me?”
She pulled a little harder.
“So, that’s how you wanna play it, huh? Well, fine with me.” Izzy pulled one foot from the filth, planted it on the cabinet door, and pulled as hard as she could. Way too hard. The latch flung away, and the door busted open. “Oh crap,” Izzy said, tumbling into the sewage. She batted arms and legs, splashing to recover balance. “Ew, eww!” As soon as her feet found the ground, she shot herself upright. A shriek escaped her as she saw herself covered entirely in a putrid mud. Her limbs did some more batting on their own to shake it off. “Ewwww!” Managing from emptying her stomach to that pungent smell had to be her highest achievement that day.
She forgot about all that when she glanced at the treasure before her eyes.
The cabinet was stuffed with boxes, cans, and bottles of all kinds—meat, beans, rice, water, milk. They had even thrown a pack of crunchy bars for kicks. “Happy. Frigging. Birthday to me,” Izzy exhaled in awe. If she found a way to take it all back to the shelter, she would secure a whole month worth of food. That was a lot of time without her or her father having to risk their lives scavenging the residential sections.
Without having to deal with them.
Izzy froze in place, eyes wide open and a battering in her chest. There was no way they hadn’t heard all that noise she just made. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she muttered, her dirty hands shoving as many cans as she could into her backpack. No time for checking the labels, or worrying about the waste smearing all over her loot. Eight cans and two boxes and she was out of space.
Well, that would be enough for two or three days at least.
A creaking noise from the main area made Izzy drop to a duck. She struggled to control her flustered breathing, focusing her hearing on catching any other sounds.
Izzy sneaked to the door and peeked outside.
Everything looked the same. Abandoned. Ancient. Tainted windows clogged most of the outside light from coming through, dwindling the dusty tables and chairs to shadows in the gloom. Plates, utensils, and glasses were scattered all over the place as whoever was the last to use them had left in a hurry.
Some of them did leave. Some others didn’t.
Mummified corpses rested on the eroded floor with clothes otherwise intact aside from their muddied colors. All the bodies had remained in the same position they had when they died a year ago during the attacks. They were facing away from the exit, caught in there by something.
Izzy had an idea what could’ve been.
Hefty steps thudding outside the diner spurred Izzy’s pulse back to a race. She slid behind the bar just as the front door creaked open. A quadruped hunk of a shadow walked inside, and then another. Panic. Izzy fought to control her breathing bursting in and out of her nose as the shadows prowled down the middle aisle, their blue-gleaming eyes dancing in the darkness. Their long tails split into four strands with glowing tips, wagging almost hypnotically while sensing their surroundings.
A faint ray of light intruding through a cracked window cleared the shadows as they walked past, revealing their appearance. “Howlers,” Izzy and her father called them; four-eyed beasts covered in scales, long and thick tail, and spikes along their spine. Their clawed feet pounded on the ground with their massive weight as the monsters searched for whoever had dared to intrude their territory.
Continued below …
With her whole body shaking, Izzy forced herself to gather her guts and seek for a way out of the diner. The mud covering her entire body served an excellent camouflage both for her and her scent so that was something. She sneaked to the other end of the bar, careful not to make her backpack rattle, and then slid behind a nearby table.
The howlers walked past without noticing, saliva oozing from their fang-riddled mouths as they growled quietly and huffed. One of them stood on watch while the other prowled into the storage room.
Izzy continued through the tables, closer and closer to the exit. A lump on the floor caught her foot. It was a military backpack, many times larger than hers; it sure would make an excellent upgrade. There was no way in hell she would leave such loot behind despite the situation. She grabbed it and sneaked to the next table, and the next, and so on until the front door was just a few steps ahead. It was stuck open, leaving enough room for her to slip through.
Meanwhile, bowls and pans clashed against each other in the storage room as the monster continued scrutinizing the scene. Its partner didn’t move an inch, resembling a gargoyle towering in the center of the diner, oblivious to its escaping prey.
A few more steps and Izzy would be out.
Or so it would’ve been if only a burst of radio static hadn’t fled her precious new backpack. “Shit,” she muttered, all of her muscles stiffening.
Bloodthirsty eyes shot at her.
Even if the beast was on the other side of the diner, she could smell its putrid breath huffing out of its mouth. It extruded a loud metallic howl that forced Izzy to cover her ears. The windows quivered with the deafening noise, barely holding. Then a clacking. Covered in filth, its partner prowled out of the methane-filled storage room.
Wait, that’s it.
Before the howlers made their first move, Izzy pulled out her lighter and tossed it at them with all her strength. The beasts flinched as she threw herself out the front door, covering from the methane igniting into hellfire. The whole place erupted in a powerful explosion, fire bursting from all doors and windows with roiling clouds of smoke.
The blast kicked Izzy a good ten meters away from the blazing restaurant. Still dazed and confused, she rolled over and crawled away from the raging flames. “Holy shit,” she said coughing. Her throat felt like it had turned into charcoal. “Stand up, Izzy, come on.” She planted a foot on the soil, and then the other.
No time to check if she was okay.
With one leg still recovering, Izzy left the park filled with petrified trees and limped down Main Avenue. It was night already, and if it weren’t for the flaming ball the diner had become, she’d be able to see nothing. She stepped up her pace before the fire suppression systems kicked in and killed her only source of light.
What used to be Residential Section C now resembled the vestiges of a war zone. Only a few apartment buildings remained standing among the hills of rubble invading the fractured streets. In her haste, Izzy stumbled upon clothed lumps scattered all over the place.
Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Men, women, children. They were all there.
As she rushed through that valley of death, Izzy didn’t even bat an eye at them. Her worries were fixed on the clock instead. The containment door to D was near, but the shelter was all the way at the far end of the section. There still was a long way to go, and her father must have to be losing his mind by now.
When Izzy’s legs were about to give up, and her lungs couldn’t hold enough oxygen anymore, a familiar howl echoing in the distance re-fueled her body with adrenaline. Either the monsters had survived the blast, or more of them had come to aid their hunt.
Without stopping, Izzy slid through the thin crack left beneath the massive containment door. She emerged at the other side with a cloud of dust. She laid there for a moment gasping for air and hugging her new backpack.
No more howling.
Izzy darted her eyes around, getting up to a crouch. No way those monsters had given up just like that. She walked to a collapsed wall on the street ahead, leaned on it, and listened carefully.
She held her breath, focusing.
Wait… a subtle growl lurked somewhere in the dark. Izzy pressed herself against the wall, trying to spot its location, her hands shaking uncontrollably.
As she was about to attempt a sprint to the shelter, a sewer cover exploded before her and a howler bust from it, roaring and throwing claws at her. She fell through a window in the wall and landed on her back at the other side. The beast rammed through but didn’t fit. Eyes wide with terror, Izzy crawled away from her foe to a safe distance, as it threw bites at her.
The wall wouldn’t hold it for much longer.
But until then, the howler was stuck there, looking foolish, and annoyance started dissipating Izzy’s fear. “You dumb stupid thing,” she said at the enraged beast, throwing a rock at its face. The howler bashed the window frame, and Izzy backed off by reflex. “Yeah well, you too.”
Of course, going back home with a howler on her tail was out of the question; she and her father had managed to keep the shelter a secret for over a year to spoil it now. But there might still be a way out of this mess, Izzy reckoned. Although, that would involve breaking her father’s first rule: never engage in combat.
He didn’t have to know, right?
“So, that’s how this is gonna be, huh?” Izzy said to the twitching monster and then wiggled her bottom. “All right, then. Come for me, stupid. Can you do it on your own, or you need your friends to lend you a hand?”
The taunt played all right. The howler roared even angrier and repeatedly bashed against the window frame for release.
When the whole wall finally burst into pieces, Izzy was a good one hundred meters away, bolting upstreet. “Come on, Izzy, you can get out of this,” she said huffing and puffing as obstacles kept coming fast at her. She vaulted over a sewer pipe protruding from a crack in the street and then slid under a column of twisted aluminum and plaster from a fallen building.
Meanwhile, hefty steps chased closer and closer at a constant pace. None of those puny blockers put a challenge to the howler which claws decimated everything on its way as it charged forwards in pure rage.
The park in the middle of the section ahead featured a massive spike at its center. Gleaming blue squiggles all over its surface pulsed in the darkness, and a tentacle attached to its tip and spanned indefinitely towards the artificial sky. The whole thing resembled a morbid monument in honor to the attacks a year prior when hundreds of them had rained upon the hab. A cracked wall rested against it, leaving just enough space for Izzy to slip through. The howler surely would find a way around, but that would buy her some time. She then turned right, past more petrified trees and a diner in the corner like the one in the previous section, and continued along West Street.
The Observation Deck awaited at the end, the avenue of their showdown.
That, or her final resting place.
Thudding steps resumed their pace somewhere above in the apartment buildings looming at both sides of the street. When they finally crashed behind Izzy, she dodged an incoming claw and swooped into the deck past the half-open front gate. The door blasted as the beast charged against it with full force. By then, Izzy was hiding under the bleachers encircling the semi-dome. Keeping quiet was a whole undertaking with her extenuated lungs begging for oxygen. Luckily, the steel curtains covering the massive viewport left the deck in complete darkness, balancing the odds in her favor.
For a second, Izzy pondered if she had gone mad.
No one in their right mind would lock themselves in a closed space with a howler. Hell, those things had murdered all the security forces during the invasion.
But unlike them, Izzy had a plan.
With no time to catch her breath, she sneaked towards the left side of the deck towards a door leading to the control room two stories up the wall.
Her heart stopped when a card reader greeted her with a red light.
“Shit,” she muttered, trying the door handle with no success. “Come on.” Her breath raced at a sudden rush of panic. Behind her, the howler scouted the opposite side of the deck with its sensing tail. Before getting spotted, Izzy retreated under the bleachers to weigh her options. Not many to chose from; it was either keep playing hide and seek or rush to the exit and end up the same.
None of those were actual solutions.
Then something in the wall caught her eye: a fire alarm. That’s it. Low-clearance locks released during fire emergencies. Izzy and her father had pulled that trick a few times before, but there were a few risks involved. First, it would blow her cover, and it would be seconds before the howler was on her. Second, it didn’t work all the time. Sometimes the lock just didn’t open.
Again, not many other options.
So without further ado, Izzy reached to the alarm and pulled. A loud blaring resounded in the deck and beacons flashed all over. As expected, the howler glared at her. “Oh, shit,” she shrilled and tried the door once more.
The door didn’t budge.
Her legs turned to jelly at the brink of death. “No. No. No, come on!” She jerked the handle, desperately trying to open it as the monster charged at her, its massive steps in full throttle. “Come on, you piece of shit.” She kicked the door with the same result.
The beast was already on her, about to mash her against the wall.
Nevermind. The card reader beeped, and the door flung open. Izzy fell inside as the howler rammed the wall like a speeding truck. She crawled away from her hunter who bashed the doorframe, again and again, shooting one claw inside trying to reach her. Before it did, Izzy shot herself upright out of pure adrenaline and strode up the stairwell.
A small room with windows overseeing the entire deck and a control terminal waited for her at the top. She tapped on it, and the terminal came alive with a prompt with several buttons. Her trembling fingers swiped on the screen, searching for one specific command. “Goddammit, why is it so much stuff in here?”
And then she saw it: ‘OPEN.’
But before Izzy’s finger landed on it, the howler jumped onto the window from outside, the impact throwing her to the floor. The monster sunk a claw into the wall to lock its weight, and with the other bashed the window again and again. The reinforced glass cracked, but it held. Only for so long though. So, although her legs hesitated to carry to a certain death, Izzy approached the console. She covered herself from the glass bits shooting from the window as the howler siege its way inside, buffing and raging.
“Game over, fucker.” She bashed a finger on the virtual button.
The walls of the deck rattled as the giant steel curtain retracted. A dazzling light flooded the entire place and cleared into an infinite expanse of stars and planets where Alpha Centauri glared brightly. The howler pushed away from the window and tumbled back to the ground. It twitched in pain, whimpered and shrilling as the sunlight burned its skin. With each cry, smoke vented off its foul mouth, and the glow at the back of its throat and eyes flickered like a damaged lightbulb.
It then stopped moving.
That death machine was now but a crisped curl in the floor.
Back in the control room, Izzy dropped to her knees, glancing upwards and taking a deep breath of relief. It was over. She still couldn’t believe it, but it was over. And she had done it all by herself. “Holy shit,” she whispered.
Izzy reached to her neck to grab something but missed. Her cross, the one her father gave her, wasn’t there. She wasn’t much of a believer, but she always carried with her just in case.
Her father had insisted on it, and she obliged.
Today, of all days, she had left it forgotten in her drawer.
She scoffed at the irony and burst in laughter.