The heavy metal gate slammed downwards, knocking the Yvak from its feet and pinning it. As Susan watched, appalled, the trapped creature continued pulling itself towards her in defiance of sense and self-preservation, fingers scraping on the concrete. The massive levers had stalled, the multi-ton weight of the gate unable to close because of the armoured creature pinned beneath it. The alien had time to pull itself free, to retreat and let the closing gate shut. Instead it seemed to be trying to force its way through, perhaps expecting its armour to protect it. A shoulder appeared, and then she saw the glint of eyes beneath the gate.
There could be only one result. The massive weight of the iron gate continued to bear down, corrugated posts fitting into the holes in the floor. There was a solid and very final clunk. The Yvak’s arm, still extended, flexed, and then slowly peeled away from the door, rocking slightly. It had been severed above the shoulder.
Susan relaxed, catching her breath. Even if the creature was not dead, the factory gate would buy her time to find another way out. She stared the limb in fascination, wondering if she could take the sample with her. There was no blood. The severed surface was a pallid spongy yellow with no sign of bone or blood vessels. A few cut hairs stuck to the outside. She looked at the door. Dark stains like black treacle marked the bottom. With a sudden sense of foreboding, she looked back at the limb. There were no marks or stains on the end of the arm, which was pulsating, emerging…as she watched, small white buds formed at the edges of the wound. Susan looked around desperately. No weapons, no iron boxes, no convenient vats of hot metal…. She ran.
There had to be another way out; something she could defend herself with. Instead the machinery all seemed solid, or far too high. The pig iron slugs were too heavy to lift and she didn’t even try, ducking round them to try to put more distance between herself and whatever was forming on the floor behind her. If it had been a smelter there would have been hot iron, but it just seemed to be storage and shipment. Warehouse machinery was not much help in this situation.
She paused for breath, pulse thundering too loud in her ears, and at first she thought she was imagining the scraping behind her. There was a squeaking sound, distressed and terrified, and then a crunch. Susan cringed back behind the machinery, wondering how to get out.
She crept forward, as quickly as she could, not wanting to make a noise that could attract it. Something scraped on concrete behind her, and a shadow of movement flickered as it crossed a light. There was the sound of another successful pounce and Susan took the chance to cross to another line of machines, peering ahead for an exit. It wasn’t hunting rats, she knew with primal certainty. It was hunting her.
She could see a sign to an exit gate ahead. A few broken crates piled against the wall offered possible weapons, but the creature was fast. If she ran, she would never make it across to them. She crept forward, hoping not to be heard, until she could see the exit. The gate ahead was locked and barred, but it was a grill, not solid. She could probably squeeze through, but a Yvak would be too large. Except there was something terribly wrong with the Yvak that was chasing her.
A scent almost treacle sweet hung in the air, and there was nothing natural about it at all. There was no time to think, to plan. She backed against a bit of machinery, bending to hide under an overhang. The creature was disturbingly close and she resisted the temptation to peek out. If she could see it directly, it could see her. She looked for a mirror, a reflection, anything but the nearby metal was covered in grime, and then she caught a view of it in the glass of the dials on a machine further down.
It was in the row between machines, only four or five before hers. Patches of scrubby fur covered its pallid yellow skin. Most of its head was mouth, but as it closed again, two wide-spaced vermillion eyes glittered, seeking any trace of movement.
It was small, probably smaller than the limb that had formed it. Conservation of energy, her mind whispered crazily and then focused on the claws, the double row of inch-long teeth. The skin above the maw twisted and wrinkled as it looked round, as if sniffing with its unfinished features. It’s hunting, she thought with a chill, looking for organic matter it can use to complete growth.
She froze, holding completely still, as the scaled, furred, head turned in her direction. The tongueless mouth opened, testing the air like a snake against the roof of that gaping black maw. Slowly, almost meanderingly, it began to make its way across the floor, each pass bringing it just a little closer… It can sense organics, she thought with a chill, which means, she realised, it can see me.
She broke cover, jumping up to catch a projecting rim, feet finding purchase on the side of the machine as the thing charged. She scrambled up,swinging her legs over the top of the machine in an undignified roll. The creature leapt from the floor, barely missing her and caught the side of the machine.
She took two long strides and jumped to the next gantry, nearly slipping in the slick surface of the machine, as the creature pulled itself up. She landed painfully, the gantry shaking deafeningly and she did not have time to think about what would happen if someone heard. She was already running, clambering up the side of the nearest machine as the clack of claws on metal told her it was gaining on her.
Forcing old muscles to life she pushed up from the top of the machine, in a desperate jump to the wooden rafters. Her fingers caught, her weight swung painfully at the end of her arm, and then she had a second hand up to secure her grip and swung her legs up and over the wooden beam as fast as she could.
Sitting astride the rafter she could see it squatting on the gantry, eyeing her malevolently as its head tilted from side to side. For an instant she thought it would jump, trying to knock her off the beam. Susan braced herself, ready to knock it away before it could get a grip with claws or teeth. In a straight fight, she was dead. It did not jump, and with a moment’s relief she hoped the gap was too far for it.
Hauling herself up, she walked along the narrow beam as quickly as she could, trying to put distance between them, as she looked for a way out. There was a sharp scrape of claws on metal. Her balance teetered and she caught herself, glancing back as she readied to kick out. It had skittered across, keeping level with her on top of the machine.
As she edged away, it matched her, jumping to the next machine across, and then a control gantry as she tried to move further out of reach. Susan stared at the brick wall in front of her, the rafter ending at the beginning of the roof. There was no ledge, no gantry; the beam ended abruptly at the wall and the next rafter was ten feet away. She was trapped. She turned back.
It was crouched on the metal gantry behind and below her. Either she was out of range or…
It knew the rafter would not hold it. How smart are you? Susan thought. Are you a smart animal or a stupid humanoid? Are you a tool user? She kept walking, edging back and forth precariously on the beam. The creature had crouched, ready to try a jump that would knock them both to the floor, but it was not going to risk missing and letting its prey escape.
She wasn’t going to give it a chance to work out angles. Susan kept her gaze switching between it and the beam. If it was a tool user, a single glance at the factory controls behind it could be deadly. If the alien found something to throw, this would end very quickly, but it would have to leave the machine to do it and lose sight of her. Instead it settled on its haunches, legs curled for a spring and simply waited. It knew she was trapped, knew as well as she did that sooner or later she would have to stop moving, or slip, and then it would get its prey.
She had to find a weapon. Susan had lost her bag somewhere on the factory floor during the Yvak’s initial ambush. Walking back along the beam would only bring her nearer to the creature, and it might risk a jump anyway. The factory floor was twenty feet or more below and even if she managed the drop unharmed the creature would be on her as she recovered. She felt in her pockets for anything she could use. Gold sovereigns were as useless as dollar bills. A box of matches might be useful, if she had anything to light. The old rafter was thick oak and not easy to catch aflame and while she tried she would have to stay still. Lighting the box and throwing it would be easily dodged at this range. She turned quickly, walking the other way as she saw the creature begin to tense. It moved, crabbing sideways jointlessly to the corner of the machine. If she stayed still too long, it would jump.