The Pod

The world's financial situation has declined rapidly. Entire countries have descended into chaos. And the only thing anyone's thinking about is when their pay check's coming through. Except the adolescent boy and his war-widowed mother living in a shabby London flat. Shade and Coral Ashton know what's coming, more than the wealth-robbed people of the upper class. They're expecting the nuclear events. The screams. The bodies. The unrecognisable ruins of your own home. Because, when it's World War Three and you've never had a penny to think about, thoughts can be both dangerous and useful.

Unfortunately, foresight isn't the perfect assistant in a world polluted to the brim. Soon, life without some disgusting mutation is scarce. Until Shade finds the fabled pod. A reinforced dome that houses a community of survivors. Is it the haven it seems to be? Or will an escape from the outside prove to have its own dangers?

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4. Chapter 3

18th July 2017

Scratching drifted into the conversation, its low volumes amplified in the eeriest of ways. So out of place amongst warm chatter and suits rustling. Vic promptly shut her mouth and threw a glance over at Shade. There it was again, fading in and out as if parts of the noise were too muffled to reach their ears.

The pair were fixed to the seat with their leg muscles in knots. A disjointed, inarticulate noise peeled through the now-inadequate thickness of the door.

"That's just your stomach or something, right?" Vic probed, voice at a hiss and eyes joining his at the door.

Beside her, Shade stared on with lips tight shut. He lifted a finger to them and inched his body off of the seat. The lower half of his suit crinkled back into shape, as he straightened up and crossed the room with careful steps. Heel first and then all the rest of the foot - like peeling a banana or applying a plaster.

On top of an ornate table, which looked suspiciously as if it was from the furniture shop across the road (its 'used' section, to be precise), laid a jumble of papers and coffee cups. Magazines were the closest thing to a weapon. Death by papercut. Nice.

 

At a prod to his shoulder, Shade swivelled his torso round to catch Vic. She seemed to have followed his example. "Anything?"

He shook his head. "Zilch. Magazines and that's it."

"I don't know, if it likes models with legs up to their eyeballs, things could go kind of well." Her reply was met with an eye roll. Their conversation was cut short by a grating slice at the door. Two heads spun and Shade scowled, going to clenching his fist when a hand touched his. He raised an eyebrow at his companion, who mouthed, "Don't. Rubber. Noise."

Nodding and returning his hand to its previous position, Shade edged away from the pile of 'weapons'. There hadn't been another scratch at the door - instead it had spread down the adjoining wall, the one attached to the shop itself, a noise to wake the dead and turn the guts of living inside out.

For a split second, they stopped and Shade's muscles tensed to breaking point. He narrowed his eyes; Vic was beside the door. Just when he was about to leap at her, the words 'cat thing' and 'coming this way' forming on his tongue, she pointed his way. There were a few sharp-edged footsteps then the claws went back to work somewhere else along the back wall of the supermarket.

 

"There's a hole in the door," she told him. "It'll get in eventually and I think it might know we're here."

"Suggestions? That's all well and good, but I'm not sitting here just thinking it over like it's my last meal. Probably because, if I die now, the situation itself wouldn't be my last meal-" Vic cut him off, as she tilted her head to get a better look at the tears in the door. He stalked over as she spoke.

"Run for it?" Even before she was finished, he shook his head. "Why not?"

"It'll hear us. And I don't want anything that makes that..." He gestured to the the gauged out wood (and the spot of linoleum she could see the other side), set in three uneven claw marks across. "Anything that makes that mark should stay well away. So we need to sneak out and find some kind of tool shop."

"Fine then, Sooty the genius, lead the way." An unsettled sense grew in the pit of his stomach.

"When we came in, there was a stand...with books on-"

"Generally known as a bookshelf, if you remember the olden days," Vic interjected, lips curling into a smirk. Shade stifled a laugh (which he backed away from the door for, considering the lack of success he had in not giggling like a schoolgirl).

 

Sobering up, he responded, "Never mind what it is, we need to get out of here and behind it. Then find some weapons in a tool shop."

"And the reason we can't take the super-sharp kitchen knives from this place is..?"

"Everything past that book s...those books is catland." The absurdity of the situation seemed to numb the anxiety curling around in his stomach. He cast a steadied look in Vic's direction. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be..." He heard her suck in shallow air and watched a gloved hand reach for the door handle. At the last second, his own shot out and grasped hers. Heart pounding in his chest, he thought fast while she tilted her head and demanded, "What?"

"Don't..." He trailed off and bit his lip. Then the words came to him. "Don't crouch, okay? Just run. If he sees you, he'll see you whether you're three feet tall or three hundred."

"I wish." She snorted, patting his hand, and assured him, "I'll be fine. Make sure you run past the bookshelf and not into it."

 

With that, she pulled open the door to the dingy shop and darted out across the linoleum. Shade swallowed, a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead in the enclosed space of his helmet. The salty liquid trickled onto his lips then mingled with his tastebuds. His lips curled into a grimace right as the heel of Vic's leather boot disappeared behind the book display, and there was a time and a place for mouthwash (he got a feeling the break room of a supermarket at who-knows-when o'clock wasn't it), so he bore the taste and set off after her.

 

He crept along - part of him tried to hold his breath, but the rest decided there wasn't any point with the squeaks his shoes were making.

All the while, he tracked the cat as it moved along the back wall - mid-prowl, it arched its neck and exposed numerous razor-like fangs all covered in a translucent liquid. A hairless tail swung in wild loops behind a body almost as devoid of hairs as the windmilling string of flesh attached to it.

The shelf - and a dark eye peering around the edge - wasn't far off. He could feel the tension constricting his internal organs until barriers between heart lung became one beating, breathing mess (just like he'd be, if he didn't get a move on).

Just then, he saw the abomination disappear behind a shelf. This was his chance. Not too loud.

 

Tiptoe, tiptoe...

He ground to a halt at the scratch behind him. His heart and lungs paused as he turned around to stare at polluted yellow eyes.

"Gah!" he hissed, running full pelt towards his partner.

At the rapid rise and fall of his chest, she fixed him with a bemused stare. "I thought you said don't run..."

"Too late-"

"Shade-"

He looked down at the claws as they blurred towards him. Thinking a muddle, he pulled his leg up to block the attack. The rubber let out a sickening squeal as the sharp points tore through it. He yanked it free, slammed his foot into the creature's eyes and high-tailed it down the aisle with a death grip on Vic's sleeve.

 

She stumbled after him but soon caught up, shaking at the edge of his vision as he sped towards...

"Where are we going?" she grunted. Shade almost stopped - almost. An afflicted mewl echoed down the aisle and, over his shoulder, the twenty-one-year-old thought he'd caught a glimpse of those eyes again.

His jaw tightened as he muttered, "Split up, makes it harder for him to fimd us. Got that?" Each word fell from his tongue before he could do anything about it. Vic skidded to a halt ad shook her head, skin wrinkling as she narrowed her eyes.

"Nuh-uh."

 

A high-pitched outcry echoed down the aisle. Setting his jaw, he shoved his companion into one of the aisles. He only caught her enraged expression for a moment before his legs carried him onward.

Dread shot through him when he saw the wall, the end of the overhead lighting, the place where the windows halted and he knew where he was. "The back row." A shiver ran down his spine - he spun round, all focus falling on the section of the corner that matched his foe's height. In response to each movement of the paw, becoming louder until they deafened him, Shade inched away. His gait became more unstable. While the air had been disturbed little in the four years since the world had descended into chaos, it seemed to take on a stale feeling that it hadn't before. Breathing became shallow. The world struggled to decide which way up it wanted to be.

 

A mass of hairless meat emerged, purring in fits and starts as though something was stuck in its throat. If only I was that lucky. It gained on him, leapt a little closer and flashed him something he could almost mistake as a leer. The advance was one swift motion, crying grace and deadliness. His step back, this time, was a stride.

Terror mounted in his esophagus. Undertones of a growl matched its levels and the unforgiving sound drifted out of the cat's mouth. With its bare jaw open, Shade swore he could see down into its stomach and catch a glimpse of the acidic liquids sloshing about at the ready. Bile from his own stomach rose in his throat and he shook his head.

 

Still, the cat glared at him. It released another screech then leaned closer to the ground. Strung muscles. Guitar strings, almost.

Do I run? I can't turn round. And won't it...catch me? He had minimal time to decide before he spotted it: a knife, sliding under the shelf to his side and unbeknownst to his enemy.

"No..." Keeping his eyes fixed on the beast, he reached for the strip of silver at the edge of his vision. Fingers closed around the handle and Shade yanked it up off the floor. He averted his eyes for the briefest time.

And it launched.

 

Shade leapt back, plunging the knife down in the hopes that the he'd hit his target. Sure enough, a hideous gash in the cat's side encompassed the blade. Gore had splattered up the handle. The animal was limp. Breath ragged, Shade pressed his hand to the flesh with a wince and eased it out.

Some slice of bodily organ was pierced by the tip and he pinched it with his fingertips. He frowned at it then flung it to join the carcass, tucking the knife into his pocket. That's when he heard the infuriated sound. Meow. Distress call. Almost too high-pitched for his ears to bear. And it was coming from at his feet.

 

This time gravity exerted its greatest force on his bones. Shade tore his eyes away from the blood-coated weapon and drew in a sharp breath of air. Layer upon layer of torn insides knitted itself back together, all while the cat wailed at a tone that slid down to his eardrums like a drop of hot water.

(Too) soon enough, evil reared its head. Then it looked up. Into his pupils, as wide as they'd become. Shade took one step and then another - the rest came rushed as he teetered backwards. Hands on automatic began to throw obstacles off the shelves. Until he reached out and found only air. That's when the pitch spiked, the screech deafening him, and he leapt aside as it pounced. The freshly-healed monster slammed into the base of the glass refrigerators and sent the structure toppling down upon it.

 

Only a squeak, and all was silent.

"Shade!" Vic was skidding up to him, clutching the surfaces either side of her to stop. Her eyes scanned the back row. "Where is it?"

"Under there." He gestured a tense hand in the direction of the mess the refrigerator had created. Pieces of plastic had sprung away and scattered across the floor, and one of the shelves was poking out of what was previously the back. Glass from the door - Shade was pretty sure it was glass, anyway - has somehow managed to trickle out to settle around the base. It wasn't even cuboid-shaped.

"I'm going to be honest with you..." Craning her head to peak in at one exposed patch of flesh, she muttered, "It looks like a pile of dirty laundry."

 

-

 

They made it to the doors and out with a combination of scrutinising the aisles and peeling their feet off the floor - then planting them back down so the entire foot, heel to toe, rolled over the flooring. When they set foot in solid ground, Shade grabbed Vic's arm. He stopped in the mouth of a dead-end alleyway. Not to say there wasn't anything on the other side of it but the brick wall as tall as Shade. The buildings either side of them had at least two floors.

 

"What's going on?" Vic had lowered her tone and, between the odd glance at the larger street, he caught her staring at him. Almost a glare (the expression she only seemed to hold in jest).

"Just before I killed it... Though, technically, I didn't and it did... Anyway, it start screeching. Really loud. I think it was a call to its little friends, or something." Once his lips had stopped moving, he nodded towards the road just in time for them to catch the first glimpse of a deformed paw.

 

I haven't had nightmares in ages but I swear... If I start having them again, Paws-a-lot'll be in there. Shade's jaw clenched. Then he blinked and Vic had disappeared from his line of sight. To his left, she was testing the door that lead into the building to their right. In fact, it seemed as though she was accustomed to it.

He'd never really seen her trying to get into another room like that. In the bunker, the only place they knew each other, very few areas were off limits. And most of those were places he'd avoided with a wide berth anyway: waste disposal, empty rooms, medical areas (the only thing considered entertaining there was the drug cabinet and the thing had come with two locks).

 

He blinked until the memories slid from the back of his eyelids. "What're you up to?"

"Ah..." Vic froze up and glanced at him. She shifted her weight from the door and uttered, "If I open this, we can loop around those things and get a move on."

He turned his gaze to the array of pink flesh gathering at the doors, pushing to get through and spraying the door frame with blood as they went. Like an angry mob. Like raiders. "Deal... If you can be quiet enough."

"They're making too much noise on their own for me to make much difference, trust me." And, with that, she took a look around then pushed against the door. It came partly free, the wood of the frame revealed patches of peeling paint and the odd splinter.

 

Shade shifted his weight. Over at the supermarket, salmon bodies were packed in behind the glass. Some weren't even touching the ground. He wasn't an idiot. He'd listened in Biology. Little food, and a population that had been allowed to multiply, meant competition.

There was a final thump and Vic hissed, "Done. Come on, let's get a move on before they decide it's not as interesting as it looks."

 

In a heartbeat, he was over the threshold and watching her wrestle the door back into its frame. They were in a home. Not a business, so there were no display windows. It seemed far too small, lacking in extreme grandeur, to have a bay window or a whole glass door. It has walls. Brick, breeze blocks, plaster, paint... Then again, by bunker standards, I was a spoiled teenager four years ago.

"You check that room, I'll look at the kitchen. We're not really splitting, we should be fine." On the opposite side of the room stood a door and an archway. Vic disappeared through the door without further discussion.

 

Shade stepped into the kitchen and the hardened sole clicked against the tiles. It was a far cry from the one at his London flat and a luxury compared to what he had at the bunker. He moved further into the space; another part of the kitchen was attached behind the archway. It could've once been as wide as the rest of the room but the bin and the counter conspired to narrow it down to a one-person space. And that was at a push.

 

Then he spotted a side door much like the other, as if the owner had a 'thing' for them. "Vic!"

Through the walls, he heard a clatter and then she called back, "You found it?"

"Yeah, it goes out onto the next alley. Hopefully there's something we can use down that way." He wondered, for a brief moment, where the inhabitants of the house had gone.

They could be anyone. I could know them. Just as a local. No address, he mused. Or they could be dead.

 

Before he could continue that line of thought, Vic stumbled into the room and brandished a smile. She traipsed over to him, inclined her head for him to move out of the way and set to work. The second door swung open with a satisfying set of sounds. Outside was a bitter sight; glass panels from the supermarket had shattered and the pavement was tainted by the shards.

The last cat, or 'cat-thing', stretched then slunk into the crowd. "It's fine, I didn't need to rest anyway..." Vic commented, stealing a glance at the monstrosities then slipping out of the alley in the opposite direction.

Shade followed her. The presence of the creatures didn't leave him until they were down the road, until he couldn't look back and see that sickly pink.

 

"Come on." Vic patted his arm. The firm hit drew him back to their little bubble. And the vague plan of arming themselves. Which, it seemed, wasn't so vague anymore because Vic had been pointing to something. "Tool shop. Looks catless, nothing like a...spanner in the works."

She finished with a grin of mirth that drew a groan from Shade. "They get worse every day. Every. Day," he muttered, opening the door to the tool shop.

"They can't be, otherwise you would've left me in the first year."

"And died of radiation poisoning."

"Exactly! So you can't say it's killing you if you favour my amazing jokes over death." In response to that, Shade only rolled his eyes and strode over to the stock. When he looked back, his friend had left the door to close and was poking around a corner he couldn't really put a name to.

 

"Hunting must be popular around here," he muttered. At his feet, there were bear trap crates and a mesh of nets with discoloured price tags stuck to the hooks on the end. The adjacent wall was peppered with various hand weapons. He picked one out. A long metal shaft with a pointed end, smooth but for the ridges that ran upwards.

Fingertips met with metal and he blinked; Vic had crossed the shop to stand in front of him. Forefinger perched on the uppermost ridge, she ran it down the length and snatched it away right before the shape started to descend it jaggedness. Then she held it up before his eyes, undamaged, and scooped up an identical weapon and a stretch of wire - then she dumped both of them into his hands and lifted a crowbar off a nearby surface.

 

When he raised an eyebrow, she supplied, "Thief's choice. Wrap those two together, it'll be as easy to handle as one of them but you'll make a hole twice the size."

Shade began to bind the two weapons together and started for the door.  "Okay, let's get a move on. We need to find where we're going." Just on the threshold, he glanced back at Vic then slipped out into the open.

"Living in a bunker has its downsides... Living anywhere has its downsides. You couldn't get lost in one of the places I lived. Someone would always find you." A note of irritation wormed its way into her tone. It was almost like she was growling at something. Trying to scare off distant memories.

"Getting lost in London? Too easy."

 

-

 

With all the clocks being destroyed or otherwise out of order, neither of them had any concept of time. It has to have been an hour now, Shade thought.

Not that his feet particularly ached. And they hadn't anything that even resembled running. But, still, Vic groaned and came to stop.

"What? We have to keep going."

"Keep going my ass. It's not really my idea of fun, walking into walls."

That stopped him. "What?" As his eyebrows shot up, he turned away from her and saw the road block towering in front of him: rubble, scrap, whole pieces of wall or door. And the only way was back.

 

"Can we go around?" Vic held out her hand and knocked on a section of wall stuck on a slant - she knocked on it, seeing it shift by minuscule amounts, and flinched. "Not over. Definitely not over. The last thing I climbed was a ladder and that ended really bad."

Shade chuckled. The map they'd found at the tourist information centre was clutched in his fingers. "You're talking about that time they deepened the bunker and the ladder snapped."

 

For that, he earned a half-hearted glare and the same physical treatment as the wall. The pair of them had been two of the earliest arrivals and a predicted lack of space had confined them both to the same room. But they were the luckier of many. Not that they had a huge population. The speed of it all hadn't co-operated with construction times. They'd had the bare minimum and the rest was grasping at straws and squashing three to four people in one living space.

So, after some deliberation (and a ridiculous amount of messing about with 'scientific instruments'), they'd deemed it suitable to expand. Only, they'd overestimated the strength of the ladder and ended up with half the group stuck in the bottom sector.

At least they got the work done, Shade joked, unfolding the map and raking his eyes over it. Dead ends, roads that snaked off the edge of the paper and straight roads that had never looked so unsightly.

 

"Any luck? Are we going to have to smash a door?"

"Looks like it."

She paled. "I was joking."

"I wasn't." He swallowed and ran his hand lightly along the mesh of debris to where it dipped, a foot or two from the centre. There was a patch of the door showing through, flimsy wooden panels and the edges of smashed glass that made up its window, with a door handle half-attached.

 

He gave it a prod then snatched his hand away. Behind him, Vic crossed her arms and scrutinised the mass. "Normally, I'd laugh. But I kind of don't want to be covered in crap at the minute."

"If you're covered in enough of this stuff, you won't be able to 'want' anything. You'd be dead," Shade muttered. One more push and, without looking into her eyes, he spoke again, "Vic, could you fit through? If I push out the planks, I mean."

Vic appeared at his side, resting her head on his shoulder to peer closer. The shrug that followed jabbed into his back until she straightened up and put distance between them. "Go ahead. I'll fit. Your fault if it collapses on top of me."

"What're you going to do if it does? Come back from the grave and haunt me?" Shade chuckled, shook his head and then lifted up his new weapon. Pushing his mind back to long-passed woodwork lessons, he plunged the cylinders through. The journey back out was slow - he had to see if the wall would crumble. But it held.

 

Soon enough, lined the edge with punctures as close to the edge of the gap as possible. He placed the weapon on the ground, wedged his hands into one of the gaps and wrenched. The panel clattered to the ground and he stood back, gesturing towards the gap.

"Do me a favour and don't get your suit ripped," he told her.

With a nod of her head, she stepped in front of him. "See you later..." And then she was gone. 

 

-

 

Much like the other unwelcome reminders of what he'd had four years ago, the onslaught of an old memory drew out a groan as he lingered by the barrier and tried not to press his weight onto the stacked mess. This time he allowed it to be audible. The friends he'd had back in London were distant figures, concepts he neither needed nor wanted to cling to. Their faces, the casual conversations - they lacked a warmth that tinted his time with Vic. She was real. She was tangible.

Which brought Shade to the fact that he'd done this once before. Of course, at the time, mutated cat-things hadn't existed and his friends had been climbing through a gap a wooden fence (not a wooden door).

 

"Oh, to be young and not at risk of radiation poisoning again," he quipped.

As the word 'risk' passed his lips, a related thought rushed to the forefront of his mind. Where's Vic? She should be back by now, right? I told her it was dangerous...

Or maybe he didn't.

Regardless, he sized up the gap before he knew what he was doing. A few seconds were spent - wasted - on testing whether he could fit his legs through then his body. Holding his breath, with one hand attached to the top of the gap and another moving freely beside him, he wormed through the gap.

 

On the other side, he cleared the wall without a second thought. He brought himself just in time to meet a second, lower wall made mainly of bricks. While he lifted one leg over, he caught sight of some kind of cement.

"Seeing things too..." His words, however, became less convincing when the wall was high enough to conceal the scratch in his boot.

 

His walk forward was lined with waste of all kinds and what he suspected to be dead bodies (he didn't look long enough to confirm his suspicions). The wall he'd just passed through cast a hulking shadow across the ground, where every edge of the top was defined in darkness. Paths had been cleared here and there. He steered his course away from a puddle of something. It wasn't radioactive waste, he was sure. Whatever it was might have been irradiated but he'd probably never have the equipment to get solid results, and he didn't need them to use common sense anyway.

Part of him that still remembered GCSE Science knew that radioactive waste wasn't the green slime you found on Simpsons. Unless there was some other element in there that made it green, of course. The puddle was yellow.

Either way, it looked vile.

 

Further on, it became a case of choosing the least hazardous place to walk and hope that the town's major litter problem didn't come crashing down on top of his head. Shade looked up from his feet to catch a glimpse of dark hair and yellow suit crouched behind a rock. His vision narrowed and he strode over to her.

"Vic," he hissed. Her head shot up and a dash of something appeared in her eyes, only to leave as fast as humanly possible. "Hey, I was back there worried and you're just sat here-"

"Shh." The sharp sound tore through his words, a glare made of daggers establishing itself in her eyes. Darkened skin wrinkled to it. It was almost like they were high school students and she was trying to get to him to shut up because the teacher was walking towards them.

"No, don't shush me," Shade snapped. His shoulders turned rigid - she glanced over her's and he spoke up, "Look at me. Don't do that again. I'm not even joking! It's not like the 'normal' world, where you can go missing for an hour or two longer than you should and everything'll be put down to slow traffic."

Just then, her lack of response steeled his features afresh. He seemed to miss the restraint in her jaw. And the way the contours of her face said she was running out of time. Fast.

 

Her mouth opened and that look from mere moments ago returned. "There's someone-"

"There!" The cry was distant but they both heard it echoing across the open space. Vic paled. "She's got a friend, too!"

"-Coming." No sooner had the sounds left her lips than a bare hand closed around her shoulder.

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