Three of them.
He’s naked, and his best means of defense—a .357—is tucked away in the pocket of his duster on the far side of the pool.
But not even his Smith & Wesson offers much comfort against three abbies at close range in snowstorm visibility. If he were prepared, if he had spotted them farther out, he might have dropped one or two with his Winchester. Put a bullet through the last one’s skull point-blank with the revolver.
This line of thought is pointless.
They’re coming toward the pool.
Hassler eases soundlessly back into the water, all the way up to his neck. He can scarcely see them now through the steam, prays that lack of visibility cuts both ways.
As the abbies close in, Hassler lowers himself to his eyes.
It is a mature female and two lankier adolescents, each of whom clock in around one twenty—easily lethal. He’s seen smaller ones than this bring down full-grown bison.
The female is the size of them both combined.
From sixty feet away, Hassler watches as the mother stops at his pile of clothes and gear.
She lowers her nose to his duster.
The young ones come up alongside her and sniff as well.
Hassler rises a few millimeters until his nose is just above the surface.
With a long, penetrating breath, he goes under, blowing enough air out of his lungs so his body will sink.
Soon, he’s sitting on the rocky floor of the pool.
Streams of burning water shoot up through tiny fissures under his legs.
He shuts his eyes, and as the pressure and the ache intensifies in his lungs, the oxygen deprivation manifests as explosions of light.
He digs his fingernails into his legs.
The thirst for breath growing exponentially.
When he can’t stand it anymore, he surfaces and drinks in a gulp of air.
The abbies are gone.
He turns slowly in the water—inch by inch by—
The urge to jerk back, to just run, is almost irresistible.
Ten feet away at the edge of the pool, one of the young abbies crouches down beside the water.
Head cocked slightly to one side.
Studying its reflection?
Hassler has seen more than his fair share of these monsters, but mainly through his riflescope. At a distance.
He’s never been this close to one undetected.
He can’t take his eyes off its heart: the beating of the muscle visible through the translucent skin, the blood pumping through its arteries—purple highways converging center mass. All obscured and blurred as if he watches it behind a sheet of quartz.
The abby has small eyes that remind him of black diamonds—hard and otherworldly.
But strangely enough, it isn’t the monster’s horrific qualities that so unnerve him.
Shining through the five-taloned claws, the rows of razor teeth, and the devastating physical strength is its humanness. These things have so clearly evolved from us, and now the world is theirs. David Pilcher, Hassler’s boss and the creator of Wayward Pines, estimated there were half a billion abbies on this continent alone.
The steam is thick, but Hassler doesn’t dare to slip back under the surface.
He doesn’t move.
And still the abby watches its reflection in the pool.
It will either see him and he will die, or—
Off in the distance, the mother shrieks.
The young abby’s head lifts.
The mother shrieks again, her voice filling with the intensity of a threat.
The abby scuttles off.
Hassler listens as the trio moves away from the pool, and by the time he chances the smallest degree of movement—a quick turn of the head—they have vanished into the snowstorm.
Hassler waits for a break in the snow, but it never comes. He climbs out of the pool and brushes three inches of powder off his duster and dries off each foot before sliding them into the boots.
He puts the duster on wet and grabs the rest of his gear and jogs across the clearing toward the stand of pines. Ducks under a canopy of low-hanging limbs that protect the ground as thoroughly as a thatched roof. Already shivering, he drops everything and tears open his pack. The old-man’s beard lies on top, and underneath it a bundle of dry tinder that he collected that morning.
The lichen takes the third spark.
As the twigs begin to crackle, Hassler breaks off several larger limbs within reach and snaps them over his knee.
The fire roars.
The cold departs.
He stands naked in the heat of the flames.
Soon, he is dressed and comfortable, leaning back against the trunk of the tree with his hands held out to the fire.
Beyond his weather-protected nook, snow pours down into the meadow.
Night creeps in.
He is warm.
And for the moment . . .
All things considered, in this shitty new world, that’s about as much as a man can hope for at the end of a long, cold day.
The next time his eyes open, the sky through the branches is infused with deep blue and the meadow lies buried beneath a foot of sparkling white.
The fire burned out hours ago.
The saplings in the meadow bend under the weight of snow like little arches.
Courtesy of the hot springs, it’s the first time in months that, as Hassler struggles onto his feet, he doesn’t feel as stiff as a rusted hinge.
He’s thirsty but his water froze overnight.
He eats just enough jerky to beat back the mad, raving hunger he always wakes to.
Lifting his rifle, he scopes the clearing for any sign of movement.
It’s a good twenty or thirty degrees colder than yesterday—barely above zero—and plumes of steam ascend in a perpetual cloud off the hot springs.
Otherwise, nothing moves in that vast winterscape.
He digs out his compass and the little patch of map and then heaves his pack onto his shoulders.
Hassler crawls out from under the overhanging branches and sets out across the meadow.
It is cold and perfectly still, the sun on the rise.
In the center of the meadow, he stops and glasses the terrain through the scope of his Winchester.
For the moment at least, the world is his alone.
As the sun climbs, the glare off the snowpack becomes painful. He would stop to retrieve his sunglasses, but the welcome darkness of the forest is just within reach.
It’s all lodgepole pine.
Two-hundred-foot giants with straight, thin trunks and narrow crowns.
Forest travel is considerably more dangerous, and at the edge of the trees Hassler pulls the .357 out of an inner pocket of his duster and checks the load.
The forest climbs.
The sun pushes through the pines in splashes of light.