I yell as my paw hits the door with all the force I can muster. Wood cracks violently as bolts fly out from their sockets in the frostbitten walls. The wooden frame collapses down on itself and I wince as large, soft spokes of timber fall from the ceiling. I glance back to see the oak door lying flat before me.
I raise my pistol and shine the under-barrel torch around the room, analysing the surroundings. I see nothing outside the faint glow of the torch with the world around me in complete darkness. I’ve finally found what I am looking for: a stairwell leading to the next floor up. The architecture is art-décor, reminiscent of humanity’s wondrous ideas of what the future could possibly hold. The stairs are painted a deep orange, contrasting with the plain white walls, and the lights are built into the ceiling to maximise space amongst the facility’s hallways.
This interior is in stark contrast to the hallway behind me. I glance back at the dark , dingy corridor, the paint on the walls rotting off, revealing the sickly cream-white colour of the moulded material underneath. The light from my touch bounces off of snottites hanging from the ceiling, some colonies stuck together like torn, thin cloaks of canvas. Pools of pure bacterial fluid have formed beneath them, reflecting the light onto the ceiling. The stench of mould mixed with the acidic air assaults me, my nose already sensitive, but I had to battle through it to make it to where I am now.
It is only when I turn back towards the stairwell that the difference between the two rooms strikes me off guard. There is ice here. It replaces the mould that once draped the walls, coating all sides of the room in a layer of glittering sparkles. Icicles replace the snottites that dangled and danced, and I’m taken aback by their sheer size. They aren’t too dissimilar to prison bars blocking my path, snaking their way from the ceiling above all the way down to the floor, just longer than two metres. They reflect the light from the under-barrel torch and glow a brilliant, clean blue. They were packed tight together, forming large bulges of ice at the bottom to form walls with thin gaps in them, like archery windows in a castle. The stairs look like a challenge to climb, given the slippery surface that now cloaks the room.
Something else hits me as I step forward to enter the room. Cold. Bitter, biting cold. I shouldn’t be so surprised considering the surroundings, but even my fur, now standing on end, isn’t protecting me as much as it should. The air’s tendrils brush away the rotten smell of acid and ammonia and begin to envelope me, sliding their way through my ragged clothes and stroking maliciously against my exposed body. I exhale through clenched teeth and see condensation swirl its way into my periphery. My grip around my half-empty gun begins to wane as my fingers shiver.
This is far too cold. I take one hand off my gun and glance down at it, examining its blackened, leathery paw and finger pads and its grey-brown coloured fur. This is almost frostbite temperature, like I’ve just entered a freezer.
Something occurs to me in my dazed mind, a thought that I would never have humoured if it wasn’t for my brain trying to distract itself from the potentially life-threatening situation I’m currently in. All that bacteria behind the door that I had just kicked down - it was thriving because the door was made air-tight by the rot and growth that had sealed it, as well as the ice on the other side. The hallways and test chambers on the lower levels were kept warm by life’s own radiant heat from the various chemical reactions the bacteria performed, insulated from the outside. It had lived like that for potentially tens, if not hundreds of years. My tail stiffens, ceasing to wave on its own accord, as guilt begins to seep into my conscience. Had I just destroyed its one protection against the cold? Did I just doom the life-cycle of an entire ecosystem, and potentially countless more that I kicked the doors down on, literally?
I smack my cheek with my open palm. Shut up. Don’t get philosophical. You’re almost there. Air means outside. This is probably the last stairwell.
All remaining hope I could have had for seeing anyone alive in this place is gone. Clearly the cryo-capsule had somehow malfunctioned, or perhaps the future hadn’t turned out so great. Either way, I have to bury my existential dread for now, before I’m buried inside this facility.
I click the gun’s safety switch on, then double check for my sanity, before putting it into my maw like a bone. I don’t want to accidentally fire it, else risk hardened spikes fall upon me. I wince as I step into the room, the feeling in my paws evaporating as they touch the permafrost covered floor. To my surprise, it isn’t too slippery, but this just meant that it is a lot colder than I think it is. I squeeze myself sideways into the first gap and begin to shimmy between two icicle walls. They brush against my body, sending shudders down my spine. If it wasn’t for my fur I’d probably be given cold burns from them. The ice creaks and cracks as I shift through it, each little creak making my ears turn in its direction. After I’m through the first one, I find myself lodged between two more. It’s getting claustrophobic, setting off alarms in the back of my head, but at least past this longer gap it widens out towards the stairs, so I keep moving sideways between the ice. The shining light from the gun’s torch bounces around in brilliant displays as it passes over the ice walls, dazzling me.
My mind is foggy, drunk on cryosleep, yet I’m having to process an incredible amount of information at once. What year is it? I haven’t found a single working piece of technology throughout my entire journey. The power is completely gone, but how? The facility is solar-powered, meaning it should last for years without humans attending to it. Is the sun blotted out? It can’t be, the place seems old enough for Yellowstone to have calmed down since its eruption. I remember the facility has wind power, too, but I also remember some kind of problem with the line between the nearby wind farm and the facility itself, no thanks to the eruption causing infrastructural damage.
I slip out of the last gap unscathed and let out a beleaguered sigh, leaning onto another massive icicle, sturdy enough to not even let out a crack. As the claustrophobic rush begins to subside, I take the gun out of my maw and hold it in my hand again, the light still on, and point it at the stairs. The silky glimmer shining over the top of it indicated that it’s covered in permafrost, as expected, but it still isn’t slippy. It must be at least minus thirty. If I don’t find help, there will be no food around here to keep me alive aside from ancient crisp packets and, assuming the wildlife is still around, game. However, I doubt much of the ecosystem is left after the blast.
At that moment, I feel a breeze caress my fur. I’m close, very close. If anything, an exit could be right up these stairs. He could be there waiting for me. I start to make my way up the stairs, my paws now accustomed to the freezing temperature of the permafrost. Icicles, though not as large as the ones from before, jut down from the ceiling so much that I must duck under or around them to continue up the flight. As I reach the half-way turn point on the stairs, I hear a phantom whistling from above. It’s a low, drawn-out howl, reverberating off the icy walls. However, I know it isn’t him - it sounded more like wind rushing through the vents.
Something still doesn’t sit right to me as I climb the last flight of stairs, still in complete darkness. I can feel a breeze, the air I’m breathing is fresh and clean, I can hear wind and the rooms around me are frozen to their core. But I still don’t see light at the end of this hallway. I recognise this place, at least. I shine my torch around the frostbitten walls and see photographs still hanging from the glossy-white surfaces, frozen in time. Pictures of Mom, Dad, Marquez, and other founding persons of the Troparez Yellowstone Research Foundation. Of course, this isn’t the same facility I was born in, but I grew up around the valleys that surround it and know them like the back of my hand. Me and Adrien asked specifically to be stored here for that reason, despite Dad’s protest.
I continue down the ‘hall of fame’, as it was called. Some of the administrative office doors still had “do not disturb” on them. It feels like walking through one of these photos on the walls, seeing the place around me sprinkled with telltale signs of life, yet so deathly hollow and devoid. I can hear my own heart beating in my ears, as well as a punctual tinnitus that rang lowly in a fashion that I’d never usually notice. My mind was trying to distract itself. I was trying not to think about my past life.
I stop, claws digging into the ice. My tail stiffens and my ears rear back. I flick the safety switch on my gun and tighten my grip, staring the thing down through the iron-sight, although I question why I feel the need to.
It was dead. A pile of rotted, decaying bones in the vague shape of a human. Seems like something, or someone, took some of the bones for themselves, as the skull was missing its jaw. That or the rest of the skeleton is buried under the small pile of snow.
I raise my gun and point it at the glass-clad exit. It is partly cracked in one pane, but the other three panes look like they shattered on their own accord. To my horror, the opening behind it is completely, tightly sealed from floor to ceiling with packed snow. The door looks to be at least a half a metre over my initial height, and yet the snow stacked neatly overhead, falling in through the gaps in the broken glass and covering the floor - smothering this skeleton. The slow realisation of my worst nightmare began to take hold. The icy hands of fate slowly tightened themselves around my throat, slowly sinking down towards my chest. The world around me feels smaller, tighter, compacting in on itself. I haven’t felt this feeling since I went caving with Dad to take samples from Yellowstone’s deepest caverns - the beating, compressing feeling that you don’t physically feel, but infer from the unbearable roar of entropy that wanted so badly to fill the holes in the world that you so innocently decided to stroll through.
I twist a paw in the ice, the sharp shriek of claw on permafrost echoing harshly throughout the hallway and cutting off my train of thought. No, I tell myself. This isn’t my fate. Adrien had woken up and escaped, somehow. So can I. Don’t panic now.
Critical thinking, me. The howling of the wind means there is an opening somewhere, potentially the ventilation fans on the roof. I can escape through there. The only place I can think of having a way up there would be the janitor’s closet back down the hallway. I turn swiftly around without a second thought and march back down the hallway focusing entirely on the steps I must take to stay alive. Going off of muscle memory, knowing that my actual memory is probably shot through, I turn to the right and spot the janitor’s access. It is marked by an admittedly ornate label for one Kevin Clark, done in the usual scifi-esque décor of Troparez’s branding. The lettering is marked with various streaks and dots hearkening to old computerised machines.
My first drastic thought is to try and bash it open, but I instead tentatively grab the handle and pull down. There is some resistance and I hear ice cracking and snapping, but the door opens on its own as I give it a gentle amount of outward force, unlocked since God knows how many years. I let out a sigh of relief as I poke my gun around the corner to light the room. The closet is small and confined, the walls lined with wooden shelves filled with old tools and smartliquids designed to clean floors on their own, not needing any mops to spread around the floor and evaporate. At the end of the rather bland, cluttered room, there is a ladder going up. A euphoric sensation overturns the seeping dread that I was feeling just moments ago. This is how I get out. Finally.
Once again I flick the safety switch, double-check for sanity, then triple-check to make sure it hadn’t flicked back because my hands are shaking. Stuffing the gun into my maw, I grab the sides of the rusted, blue-painted ladder. The ice cold metal burns my hand-pads, but I can hear the wailing wind above me from the hatch. It’s calling for me.
I scramble up the ladder, feeling my paws get cut on the chipping paint. The air gets colder and colder as I climb, and I start panting through my clenched maw. The wind gets louder and louder. I can feel it now, taste it, smell it. The air reeks of ash - so out of place for temperatures this low.
I don’t think as I slam my open palm into the loose hatch. It swings open wildly, being light enough to be caught by the crosswind. It violently crashes against the other end of the hinge with a metallic clang and I pull myself up as fast as I could, feeling my breath being sucked from my mouth as a gale knocks the sense out of me. The low wailing had turned into a screaming cry of pain.
My hand reaches for the edge of the hatch door and grips it tight. The other hand hits it mark and I push myself up. The cold against my summer-coat fur is agonising and I try to pull my loose-cut top closer to myself, but it’s too windy to do that without falling down. I can’t see anything - it’s too white. Pellets of hail and snow pelt my face and body, and it hurts so badly that I myself wail with the wind in pain. I shut my eyes tightly as I thrust myself out of the hole and away from it, lifting my legs out of the hatch and minding my tail as I move away from it.
My hand slips. My heart lurches into my throat as my eyes reopen, still blinded by the sudden light, and I fall face-first into the snow. It’s so, so cold. I can’t feel my fingers, my fur or anything else - I simply exist.
I lay like that for too long before suddenly forcing my head back out of the snow. My eyes adjust, shielded by my arm against the onslaught of hail. There’s a ventilation box just next to the hatch that should provide me with shelter from the falling debris. I begin to crawl around it, the metal screaming against the gale-force winds, my hands and knees sinking deep into the snow that caked the rooftop. I have never been in a blizzard before, but I wasn’t expecting such a visceral sensory overload. It bit and gnawed at me, trying to keep me down like my ancestors would pin their prey. It rips at my tall ears, and if I didn’t know I’m in a blizzard, I’d think that I was being pulled apart by some freak creature. I will not submit. Not now.
I claw deep into the snow, scraping across the permafrost around to the other side of the vent. I pant so deeply I feel pellets of snow hit the back of my throat, but it all stops once I reach it. I sit up, planting my back firmly against the freezing metal. It doesn’t protest, hardened after years of being out in the cold. Finally, out of the frying pan and into the fire, I gaze up at the wasted plains that surround me.
I feel heartsick looking around at lands that once held one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. It had three-hundred species of bird, sixteen species of fish, five species of amphibians, two kinds of bear and sixty-two different species of mammals - seven of which were entirely native to the area. It used to have geysers that threw boiling hot water hundreds of metres into the sky and lakes that glowed with the many colours of the universe’s countless elements. It had trees taller than some city blocks, snow-coated peaks that provided a unique and diverse landscape, as well as a home for more snow-loving creatures. And most importantly of all, it connected the surface of the Earth to its infinitely powerful and equally mysterious core. I shed a single tear looking at it now, freezing to my fur. This rooftop is no longer a rooftop, for the snow is packed so high that it has become even with the building’s full height. I don’t know if that is due to the ground being raised or if it really is that deep, but I don’t care. I can’t see too far into the distance, for the snowfall completely obscures anything more than about five metres away from me. But I can see the edge. I know that it’s all gone. I feel empty, hollow. No-one is alive. I finally drop my gun from my maw. No single macroscopic creature that once lived here could even possibly be alive in these conditions, save for potentially the wolves. For me. My pack. I inhale a choked breath.
And I howl. I howl deep and long, letting my primal instinct take over me once more. It is a cry, echoing above the gale, piercing the heavens far above where no wind could ever hope to drown its might against all forces the world could throw at it. It is a cry for those who once lived before me. For those who died in the tragic events of my past life. For Mom. For Dad. For Adrien, wherever he is. He has to be alive. There’s no way a corpse could get up and leave the facility. The hatch was already open. I know he has to be out there, somewhere.
The metal beside me ruptures with a violent, metallic shriek. I choke on my own howl, dazed and confused, and shoot a glance to my left. A hole has appeared in the vent shaft just by my neck, metal pointing inwards.
I yell as another one opens right by my throat and I drop down, eyes wide and adrenaline ablaze. A knife’s chill bites deep into my front as my body hits the snow. My heart is beating at a million miles per second, but my brain feels sluggish and ill - from the cryosleep, no doubt!
I glance up from my prone position and spot a red light coming from above me, piercing the mist of the now roaring blizzard that threatens to cut me into shreds, if not the bullets. A flash catches my eyes and I force them shut, blinding me for a second. A laser guide.
Why a laser if they were trying to kill a human?
I roll to my left, grabbing my pistol as I do. I see the red dot bounce around, reflecting against the pale snow near my head, but it doesn’t fire. Whoever this hunter is must think I’m wounded.
I let them know of their mistake by pointing my gun towards the distant light with one hand and pulling the trigger. A flash. The crack deafens me, ringing overriding my earing. My arm caves in on itself from the shock, weak from exultation and nerve, and I barely avoid knocking myself out with the recoil. The stench of gunpowder stifles my sense of smell for a brief moment.
I anticipate a return shot, so I scramble on all fours with instinctive swiftness and fall around behind the vent shaft from whence I came. The red dot is gone, but I doubt that shot hit. I didn’t expect it to. I sit upright and press my back against the ice-metal, my frost-touched front now covered in snow.
My clothes are useless now that they’re soaked through and I’m shivering. My hands tremble with adrenaline and euphoric mania. My breathing is erratic and I feel faint, on top of the sluggishness and fatigue from the cryosleep. Someone wants me dead, and I just fired back. They probably have backup. They might think I’m an adversary. They might not help me. Fight-or-flight is beginning to descend into a dreading, unstoppable panic. My breathing is hoarse and manic. I stare deep into the mist in front of me, grey, blinding, biting. Flakes of snow become waves and torrents in the air, arcing and waving in unison with the banshee-howls of the hills, and I watch them with intent as I try to ground myself. My tail coils around to my front and I grip it tight for comfort.
I hear something amidst the gestalt. A whirr at first, but it was growing into a screech with gradual pace. It isn’t the wind, it’s… an engine. A snowmobile? Too high of a pitch, it sounds more like a jet.
Before I can process what’s happening, a white tidal wave forms to my left, where the snow is level with the roof of the building, and the screeching overwhelms my ears to the point where I grab them and pull them down. A light vehicle whips around from behind the vent, long and slender, painted white camouflage and violently kicking up snow as it skids across thin air. It has a spear-headed rod coming from the front of it, hollow on the tip - a barrel. Riding this pale horse was its horseman, pale themselves; a figure clung to the top of the hovering bike, clad in thick, unwieldy armour, decorated with unsavoury furs that are draped across their shoulders. Their rounded helmet, made up of plated metal, has many eyes, much like an insect. The rider wrenches the vehicle on its side, the engine lurching and sputtering, and I stare in bewilderment as it comes to a sideways stop and ending the wave of snow.
As the engine dies down, its screech becoming a low hum before it assimilates into the blizzard gale, the rider kicks the hovering, wheeless bike to reveal a stand. It comes down into the snow, slumping into its stand and bouncing elegantly into place.
I watch with bated breath, staring into one of the helmets many eyes. The stranger stays equally still, gripping the handle-bars as they stare back. I can’t help but give off a wry smile. I know I’m tens, if not hundreds of years in the future. Maybe they don’t know what an anthromorph is. In any case, I must look like an alien to them.
I flinch as they suddenly move, my smile erasing itself. They detach their boots from the frame of the machine with a hydraulic hiss, perhaps an extra steering mechanism, and swing themselves over in a hurry. They plant their spiked, studded boots firmly into the ground, and I finally see the hunting rifle attached to the side of the machine. It’s also painted white. They flip up the seat of the machine to reveal a storage compartment, and they rummage around inside. My curiosity takes over and I perk up, beginning to stand, trying to see what was inside.
They sling a sleek assault rifle over their shoulders and spin around, pointing it straight at me. My legs go limp and I sit my fluffy ass back down.
They walked slowly, cautiously, towards me, preventing their rifle from trailing away in the wind. I stare back at them, deathly still. I get to have a better look at them, and realise that their armour is kit-bashed. Plates of metal are bolted together with visible welding marks under the crude winter-camo livery. Hinges and strands in the plates allow movement of the joints, and the helmet’s eyes are in fact all camera lenses - there must be a heads-up display on the inside. The furs are certainly authentic, looking like the pelts of white and grey wolves stitched together. Something genetic, ingrained in my consciousness, makes me feel sick. I raise my chin.
They stop a couple metres away from me. I keep staring back, swallowing back a massive, built-up gulp. The ironclad motions towards my own pistol with their gun. I comply, slowly lifting my arm and throwing it aside.
Then they spring towards me. I try to get up but they’re already on me, pinning me to the back of the vent with one arm, rippling with inhuman- no, hydraulic strength, the rifle slung around their chest. I try to cry out, but their arm is quickly around my neck and gripping my maw shut. Their many eyes stare into mine, and as they raise another hand, a filtered, artificial voice speaks:
“This won’t hurt,” she utters bluntly.
I let out a muffled scream at the sight of a five-pronged syringe in her hand. I struggle, but I can’t move under her weight and strength. Claustrophobia sets in and I panic.
“Stay still!” she spits, and I yelp as she wrenches my maw to the side, exposing my neck. “You want to live? Calm down.”
Her voice is colder than the snow. I couldn’t tell if that was a plead or a threat. Tears begin to streak down my face, though they freeze part-way down. I relent, gluing my eyes closed loosening my tension.
It feels awful. I moan in muffled pain as the ironclad inserts the needles into my neck. Though, as quickly as it happened, the pain goes away. In fact, everything feels like its going away - the blizzard, the snow, the stranger. My vision doubles back on itself, not wishing to be vision anymore. The storm becomes a sea, the sea opens up into a whirlpool, and I feel an unnatural pull dragging me back. I try to swim towards the edge, but it spins me around and around, dragging me deeper in, and deeper under.
I sink into a deep, troubled sleep.