10 — Brave

A flashlight beam swayed in the darkness as Izzy searched the storage room for anything of value; food, supplies, or anything that could make a useful tool. An all-day-long streak of bad luck had forced her there—to Residential Section C’s diner. She had been avoiding the place, but after sweeping everywhere else for supplies without success, she had run out of cards to play. She only needed something worthy of taking back home to prove her father she could do this on her own. That restaurant was her last chance to save her first scavenging run ever from complete failure.  And so, here she was, knee-deep into shit.

Literally.

The plumbing had acted up after months without use, resulting in the toilets vomiting hundreds of gallons of sewage until flooding the entire kitchen and storage area. And to all this, Izzy’s jumpsuit wasn’t waterproof. She couldn’t do more than wrapping her scarf as tight as she could around her mouth and nose, swallow hard, and hope for the best. 

It was completely useless.

The wool fabric didn’t even hinder the suffocating stench fuming out the gut-wrenching soup swirling around her legs as she trudged her way to the food storage. Gagging and twitching and trying her best to not throw up her stomach, Izzy opened one cabinet still above water. A bag of petrified bread and a stack of bowls was all she found inside. An irritated sigh. “Come on, man. For real?” she muttered.

Izzy opened the next cabinet, reluctant of peeking inside and finding nothing. Indeed, it was empty—not even dust. And the next. And the one after. If she could spare the noise, she would’ve slammed the door out of frustration. 

While delving deeper into the room, she planned what she would tell her father; he wouldn’t get mad, and that made it far worse for her. The methane exuding from the foul waters interrupted her thoughts, blurring her vision, and making her head go all groggy. She coughed, resourcing to her forearm to cover her nose. “Way to spend your thirteenth birthday, Izzy.” If only her grandmother was alive and could see her like this, Izzy pondered, no doubt she would lose her mind; all those years spent in training the family heir on proper etiquette, gone down the drain. Izzy had no regrets; she didn’t ask to be born the daughter of a red suit.

A beeping caught her attention. “Shit,” Izzy said to herself while checking her watch; it was six in the evening, and soon dusk would settle. She didn’t embrace the idea of having gone through all that only to end empty-handed, but if night caught up with her, she would be in a lot of trouble. At this point, there were two options: go for the top cabinets Izzy couldn’t reach or the one with the big padlock. 

Big padlock it was; something significant must be hiding in there. 

With no time for breaking the combination, Izzy pulled out her trusty crowbar and shoved it in the latch. She pulled slowly at first, careful not to make too much noise; it was already dark enough for them to come out. The latch squeaked a bit, but it proved to be a far stronger contender than she expected. “Come on, you bastard,” Izzy grunted. “What are you hiding from me?” 

She pulled a little harder, but the cabinet replied with the same annoying squeak, and then nothing. The cabinet projected in her head like a cartoon character taunting and laughing at her petty attempts. She backed off. “That’s how you wanna play it, huh? Well, fine by me.” 

Determined, Izzy drew one foot from the filth, planted it on the cabinet door, and pulled as hard as she could. Way too hard. The latch flung off, 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 in a putrid mud. Her limbs did some more batting on their own to shake it off. “Ewwww!” Not having emptied her stomach to that pungent smell had to be her highest achievement all day.

However, Izzy forgot about all that when she contemplated the treasure before her eyes.

Boxes, cans, and bottles of all kinds stuffed the cabinet: cereal, dried meat, beans, rice, water, milk—they had even thrown a pack of crunchy bars for kicks. It seemed like all the supplies of Residential Section C had been hiding in there all along. “Happy. Frigging. Birthday to me,” Izzy smugged. If she found a way to take it all back to the shelter, she would secure a whole month worth of food—that was plenty of time without her or her father having to risk their lives scavenging the residential sections.

Without having to deal with them.

Wait… them.

Izzy froze where she stood, eyes wide open and a frantic battering in her chest—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. She didn’t check the labels or worried about the waste smearing all over her loot—there was no time for that. Eight cans, three boxes, and she was out of space. Good enough. It was at least two or three days worth of food.

A creaking 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. There were none she could discern. Izzy sneaked to the door and peeked outside. Everything looked the same. Abandoned. Ancient. Tainted windows barred most of the outside light from coming in, dwindling the dusty tables and chairs to shadows in the gloom. The last ones to be there had left plates, utensils, and glasses scattered everywhere as they ran for their life.

Some of them did leave. 

The rest didn’t.

Mummified corpses rested over the eroded floor, wearing clothes otherwise intact aside from their tarnished colors. The bodies remained in the same position as when they died a year ago during the attacks: facing away from the exit, trapped in the restaurant by something.

Izzy knew what could’ve been.

Hefty steps thudding outside the diner spurred Izzy’s pulse back to a race. By the time the front door creaked open, she was sliding behind the bar. A quadruped hunk of a shadow walked inside, followed by a second. Izzy fought to control herself 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 behemoths shielded in scales, with a wide-jawed face resembling an ox skull, a mouth riddled with fangs, a long and thick tail, and spikes along the spine. It was as if a portal to hell had vomited the things, failing to digest them. Their clawed feet pounded the ground with their massive weight as the monsters searched for whoever had dared to intrude their territory.

With her whole body shaking, Izzy forced herself to gather her guts and seek for a way out of the restaurant before it was too late. The mud covering her entire body served an excellent camouflage both for her and her scent. She prowled to the other end of the bar, careful not to let her backpack contents make any noise, and then slid behind a nearby table.

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The howlers walked past without noticing, saliva oozing from their mouth as they growled quietly and huffed. Their vocal inflections shot chills down Izzy’s spine—a blend of guttural snarls and what seemed to be a mesh of thousands of human voices as if every man, woman, and children those things had killed were trapped in their gut. Reaching the storage room, one beast stood on watch while the other prowled inside, almost too big to fit through the door.

Meanwhile, Izzy pushed forwards through the tables, the exit coming closer and closer. A lump on the floor caught her foot. She glanced at her feet, reluctant, expecting a corpse or worse. But no. She gasped at the sight of a military backpack, many times larger than hers, glorious. That would sure make a hell of an upgrade. And all she had to do was taking it—no risks involved. So, she grabbed it and moved on to the next table. Then to the one after. Five tables and the front door was only steps away; it was stuck open, leaving enough space 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 at the center of the diner, oblivious to its escaping prey.

It was a matter of seconds before Izzy was 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.

Bloodlust eyes shot at her.

Even if the beast was at the other side of the diner, Izzy could smell its putrid breath huffing out of its mouth. It irrupted a loud howl, metallic, the voices from its throat now screaming in agony, forcing Izzy to cover her ears. The windows quivered with the deafening noise, barely holding, and her vision distorted like an interfered signal. The yell concluded with a clacking. As if answering the call, the other howler prowled out of the methane-filled storage room all covered in filth. It shook off the mud, snarling, glaring at what its partner had caught. 

Methane.

That was it—her only chance to escape that place in one piece.

Before the howlers made their first move, Izzy pulled out her lighter, thumbed the cap off, and ignited it in a fraction of a second. She flung the thing as hard as her arm yielded. The beasts recoiled as she threw herself out the front door of the diner, covering from the methane combusting into hellfire. A shock wave cracked the barrier of sound with a deafening blast, and the whole place erupted into a powerful explosion, fire bursting from all doors and windows followed by roiling clouds of smoke.

The next thing Izzy remembered was she laying on the ground, her surroundings spinning, and a beep overtaking her hearing; she was a good thirty meters from the blazing restaurant. She forced her unresponsive body to crawl away from the raging flames, sparks raining down on her. “Holy shit,” she said to herself with a dry cough, her throat feeling as if it had turned into charcoal. Every gasp of air seemed insufficient. “Stand up, Izzy, come on.” She planted one foot on the soil, then the other, and she was upright. Or more like hunched, coughing, all covered in smut and her clothes charred. Everything hurt. Her face felt as if somebody had poured acid on her and even opening her eyes was painful.

She didn’t have time to check if she was okay.

With one leg still recovering, she made her way out the park of Residential Section C, through the petrified trees and abandoned benches, and limped down Main Avenue. It was night already, and if it weren’t for the flaming ball of a diner, she wouldn’t see a thing. She sped up her pace as much as she could before the fire suppression systems kicked in and killed her only source of light.

Like the rest of the generation starship Goliath, the former Residential Section C now resembled the vestiges of a war zone. Only a few apartment buildings remained standing among the hills of rubble leaking over the fractured streets. In her haste, Izzy stumbled upon clothed lumps scattered all and about.

Corpses.

Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Men, women, children—they were all there.

A decade could pass and Izzy wouldn’t have gotten used to that sight. But as she raced through that valley of death, she didn’t bat an eye at the dead; her worries remained fixed on the clock instead. The containment door to Section D was close, but the shelter was at the far end of the section. 

Her father must have been losing his mind already.

When her legs failed her, and her lungs supply enough oxygen to her body anymore, a familiar howl echoed in the distance. Either the monsters had survived the blast, or more had come to aid their hunt—or both. If anything, it helped refuel Izzy’s body with adrenaline. She slid full-speed below the crack beneath the hefty containment door and emerged at the other side with a cloud of dust. 

She laid there, hugging her new backpack, huffing and puffing as if all the oxygen in the habitat wasn’t enough to fill her demanding lungs. Her hearing scanned her surroundings, searching for noises. There was no more howling. No more steps stampeding to her pursuit. Her eyes darted about as she went to a crouch. She was sure those monsters wouldn’t give up so easily. She sneaked to a crumbled wall on the street, leaned on it, and listened carefully.

Absolute silence.

She held her breath, focusing.

Wait—a subtle growl lurked somewhere in the dark engulfing Section D. Izzy pressed herself against the wall, trying to place the noise, her hands shaking uncontrollably. If she didn’t make a move soon, whatever number of howlers were prowling on her would. She went on her marks, ready to attempt a sprint to the shelter. But as she did, a sewer cover exploded before her and a howler bust from it, roaring its horrible roar and throwing claws at her. She stumbled through a window on the wall and landed at the other side. The beast rammed through the frame, but it was too small. Eyes bulging with terror, Izzy crawled away from her foe to a safe distance; upper and lower teeth pounded each other with a hollow sound as the monster threw bites at her, its many eyes blinking at a different pace, a stare almost sentient.

The wall wouldn’t hold it for much longer.

But until then, the howler was stuck, looking foolish. Annoyance started dissipating Izzy’s fear. She scoffed. “You dumb, stupid thing,” she said at the beast, throwing a rock at its face. The thing bashed the window frame, making Izzy recoil. It was still trapped. “Yeah well, you too,” she hissed back.

Returning 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. There might still be a way out of this mess. However, that would involve breaking her father’s first rule: never engage in combat.

Well, he didn’t have to know.

“All right,” Izzy spoke to the twitching monster. She turned over and wiggled and patted her bottom. “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 the window frame for release. 

When the entire wall finally burst into pieces, Izzy was a good hundred yards away, bolting up the street. “Come on, Izzy, you can get out of this,” she said chuffing as obstacles kept coming fast at her. She vaulted over a sewer pipe protruding from the cracked street and then slid under a column of twisted aluminum and plaster from a fallen building.

Meanwhile, hefty steps raced behind her, 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.

Ahead, the park in the middle of Section D 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 Goliath’s habitat. A wall leaned on it, leaving just enough space for Izzy to slip through; the howler would find a way through, but it 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.

The 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 through it 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. Darkness balanced the odds in her favor courtesy of the steel curtains covering the massive viewport of the observatory.

It was then when Izzy pondered if she had gone mad; nobody 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, she had a plan.

Out time to catch her breath, she sneaked towards the left side of the deck to the door leading to the control room two stories above.

Her heart stopped when a card reader greeted her with a red light.

“Shit,” she muttered, trying the door handle to no use. “Come on.” Her breathing paced up as panic rushed into her body. As she implored the door to open, the howler scouted the opposite side of the deck with its sensing tail. Izzy gave up and retreated under the bleachers before getting spotted. She needed to weigh her options, which weren’t many. It was either to keep playing hide and seek or rush to the exit and end up the same—none of those ended with her alive.

Then something in the wall caught her eye, filling her soul with hope like a breath of fresh air: a fire alarm. Low-clearance locks released during fire emergencies. Izzy and her father had pulled that trick a few times before. However, 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. But again, there weren’t many 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, but still, fear and adrenaline punt her in the knees. “Oh, shit,” she shrilled and tried the door once more. She gripped the handle and turned it with full confidence it would open.

The door didn’t budge.

Izzy’s 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 steps pounding the ground in full throttle. “Come on, you piece of shit.” She kicked the door. The same result. The beast was already on her, about to mash her against the wall. But then, the card reader beeped, and the door flung open. Izzy fell inside as the howler drove into 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. And it almost did, but Izzy shot herself upright out of pure adrenaline and raced up the stairwell.

A small room with windows overseeing the entire deck waited for her at the top. She tapped on a terminal before the window, and it came alive with a prompt with several buttons. Her trembling fingers swiped on the screen, searching for one specific command. Her fuzzy mind fought the adrenaline to focus. “Goddammit, this is supposed to be easy to use.”

And then she saw it—a button on the console reading “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 shattered, but it held. Not for long, though. Hence, although her legs hesitated to carry her towards certain death, Izzy approached the console. She covered herself from the glass bits shooting at her as the howler sieged its way inside, buffing and raging.

Izzy contemplated her contender one last time, huffing through barred teeth, her survival instinct urged her body to retreat. But no. She had won. “Game over, fucker.” And she bashed a finger on the virtual button.

The walls of the deck rattled as the giant steel curtain cracked open and retracted. A dazzling light flooded the entire place and cleared into an infinite expanse of stars and planets where Alpha Centauri gleamed dominant among the others. The howler dropped from the window, throwing claws as it fell, crashing on the ground below, shaking the whole place on impact. It twitched in pain, whimpered, and shrilled as the intense sunlight fried its skin. With each guttural cry accompanied by a chore of agonizing voices, smoke vented off its foul mouth. Then the glow on its throat and eyes flickered like a damaged lightbulb. 

At last, the moving stopped; that death machine was now but a crisp curled on the floor.

Back in the control room, Izzy backed off from the window and fell to her knees. She remained there, glancing upwards, and arms hanging. As her soul returned to her body, she took a deep breath of relief. The realization hit her a few seconds after: it was finally over. She couldn’t believe it, but it was over—and she had done it all by herself. 

“Holy shit,” she wheezed.

She reached to her neck to grab something but didn’t find it; her cross, the one her father gave her, wasn’t there. Despite not being much of a believer herself, she always carried just in case. Her father had insisted on it, and she had obliged. And today, of all days, she had forgotten it in her drawer. A scoff escaped her. Ultimately, she dropped to the floor with arms open wide and burst into laughter.

· Index ·

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