A scream erupted from the woods.
He raised the rifle, scoped the line of trees a third of a mile away.
A second scream followed.
He couldn’t see anything distinctly in the trees.
Just movement in the shadows.
The realization hit with a sickening burst of fear—there were more of them.
He’d only killed a scout for a larger swarm.
Shouldering his pack, he grabbed the Winchester and took off across the field.
The forest he moved toward stood a quarter mile away. He slid the rifle strap over his shoulder and accelerated to a dead run, arms pumping, glancing left every few strides in the direction of the screams that were growing louder and more frequent over his own breathless gasps.
Hit the trees before they see you. For God’s sake. If you reach the woods, you might live. If the swarm spots you, you die in the next ten minutes.
He looked back, saw the dead abby in the grass, the line of woods beyond, but no other movement in the field.
Straight on, the trees that would save him stood fifty yards away.
He hadn’t run for his life in more than a year. Staying alive beyond the fence was an art based upon the principle of avoidance. You never charged ahead into unknown territory. You always took your time. Walked softly. Stayed in the trees whenever possible. Ventured out into the open only when necessary. You didn’t rush. Left nothing to track. And if you stayed alert every second of every day, you had a chance at staying alive.
He finally reached the trees just as the first of the abbies broke out into the clearing. He didn’t know if he’d been seen and he couldn’t see them now. Couldn’t hear them. There was nothing but the riot inside his own chest, his own gasping.
He plowed between trees, branches grabbing at his arms.
A limb sliced open the right side of his face.
Blood ran over his lip.
He leapt over a downed log and glanced back when he hit the ground on the other side—nothing to see but a blur of joggling green.
His legs burned.
He couldn’t keep this up much longer.
Out into a clearing studded with boulders and backed by a seventy-foot cliff. The temptation to climb to safety was primal but misguided. Abbies could climb almost as fast as they could run.
A stream meandered through the clearing.
His boots pounded in the water.
Screams tore through the woods behind him.
He was coming to his end. Simply couldn’t keep going like this.
He shot into a grove of scrub oak, the leaves crimson.
He hit the wall within range of a thicket, fell to his knees, dragged himself into the bushes. Dizzy with exhaustion, Tobias set the gun down and ripped his pack open.
Is this, after everything, the place where I die?
The box of .30-30 cartridges was on top.
Tore it open, started feeding rounds into the receiver just forward of the bolt. He loaded two in the magazine, the last into the chamber, and shoved the bolt home.
Rolled over onto his stomach.
The foliage surrounding him was orange.
The air carried the scent of dying leaves.
His heart still slamming like it was trying to bust out of his chest.
He stared back through the woods into the clearing.
They were coming.
No telling how large of a swarm he was dealing with.
If he was spotted and their number was more than five, buenas f**king noches.
If he was spotted, their number was five or under, and he made every shot count, he had a slim chance.
But if he missed or didn’t make kill shots every time—if he was forced to reload—he would die.
He glassed the boulder-strewn clearing through the scope.
It wasn’t the first time he was faced with the prospect of not making it back to Wayward Pines. He was already overdue by four months. It was possible they had declared him KIA. Pilcher would wait a little longer. Give him a good six-month past-due window to return before sending someone else beyond the fence deep into hostile country. But what were the chances another nomad would find what he had found? What were the chances they would survive as long as he had?
An abby streaked into the clearing.
No more. Please. No—
A group of five joined the others.
Then ten more.
Soon there were twenty-five of them milling around the boulders in the shadow of that cliff.
His heart fell.
He crawled back deeper into the thicket, dragging his pack and his rifle with him out of sight.
No chance now.
The light began to fail.
He kept replaying what had happened, trying to pinpoint the lapse in judgment, the misstep, but there wasn’t one. He had waited at the edge of that field five minutes before walking out into it. Glassed the surrounding terrain. Listened. He hadn’t rushed out into anything.
Sure he could’ve circumnavigated that piece of open country. Kept to the perimeter of the woods. That would’ve taken him the entire day.
No. You couldn’t second-guess a choice like that. There’d been nothing reckless in it.
By his reckoning, Wayward Pines lay nestled thirty or forty miles east of his position.
Four days of smooth-sailing travel.
Ten in bad weather or with minor injuries.
He was almost there, for Christ’s sake.
For the last three days he’d been climbing into high country. Fir and aspen starting to mix in with the pines. Colder mornings. He could even feel the air thinning out in those deep breaths that never quite filled his lungs.
For f**k’s sake.
Calm down, soldier.
Secure that shit.
He shut his eyes, willed the panic to subside. A small rock lay in the leaves beside his right hand. He picked it up and began to quietly carve the forty-fifth notch into the stock of his Winchester.
They hadn’t detected him, but they hadn’t left either.
It was strange—he’d witnessed abbies following scent trails before. Recalled a night he’d spent forty feet up in a pine tree. In the moonlight, he’d watched an abby pass fifty yards away, its nose to the ground, clearly on the trail of something.
Maybe it was the brook.
He’d crossed in a frenzy, but the water had come to his knees. Perhaps he’d shed his scent trail, or at least enough of it to throw them off. Truth was he didn’t know exactly how keen the abbies’ olfactory abilities were. Or what exactly they tracked. Dead skin cells? The odor of freshly trampled grass? God forbid they were as gifted as bloodhounds.
The sun dropped.
The abbies settled into the clearing.