Some of them curled into small, fetal balls against the boulders and slept.
Others lounged by the stream and dipped their claws into the current.
After a while, a band of four disappeared into the woods.
He’d never been so close to a swarm.
Hidden in the thicket, he glimpsed abbies no taller than four feet. Forty yards from where he lay, a trio of them splashed in the stream where it hooked back into the forest, their interaction an unsettling amalgamation of wrestling lion cubs and human children playing a game of tag.
He grew cold and his thirst was maddening.
He had a half-filled bottle in his pack, and he could see his thirst driving him to risk discovery and reach for it, but he wasn’t that desperate.
At dusk, the four abbies returned from the woods.
They had brought something back, which two of their number carried between them, the creature thrashing and bleating as they emerged into the clearing.
The swarm surrounded them.
The clearing filled with clicks and screeches.
He’d heard this many times—some kind of communication.
As the abbies formed a circle, there was enough noise for Tobias to risk lifting his rifle to watch through the scope.
The hunters had caught an elk—a gangly teenage buck with the start of a rack of antlers just beginning to rise between its ears.
It stood tottering in the circle, its right hind leg badly broken, hoof raised off the ground, a white streak of bone showing through its hock.
One of the large males shoved a young abby out into the circle.
The swarm screeched in unison, talons lifting to the sky.
The young abby stood frozen.
It received another hard shove.
After a moment, it began to stalk its prey, the elk retreating awkwardly on three legs. This went on for a while like some horrifying ballet.
Suddenly, the young abby charged and flung itself at the wounded animal—talons out. The elk swung its head, connected, sent the abby sprawling back across the ground.
The swarm descended into mayhem that sounded disturbingly like laughter.
Another youngster was pushed out into the circle.
Four and a half feet tall, eighty pounds if Tobias had to guess.
It charged the elk and leapt onto its back, talons digging in, its weight bringing the wounded buck to its knees. The elk raised its head and made a helpless bugle as the young abby buried its face into the hide and slashed wildly.
The game went on, the young ones taking turns chasing the elk around the circle. Biting. Scratching. Drawing blood here and there, but none of them coming close to inflicting serious damage.
Finally, a six-foot bull jumped out into the circle, grabbed the young abby by its neck and pried it off the elk’s back. Holding the youngster up inches away from its own face, it screeched something that sounded like annoyance.
It dropped the cub and turned to the elk.
As if sensing the escalated threat, the buck struggled to stand but its hind leg was ruined.
The bull approached.
The darkness falling fast.
It leaned in toward the elk.
Raised its right arm.
The elk screamed.
The bull shrieked something and the three young abbies leapt out into the circle and piled onto the elk, eating its guts which lay spilled and steaming in the grass.
As the circle of abbies closed in to watch their young ones feed, Tobias lowered the rifle.
There was enough noise and commotion that he reached for the pack and forced his hand inside. Kept reaching and reaching until his fingers finally touched the bottle. He pulled it out, unscrewed the lid, poured the water down his throat.
He slept shivering and dreaming of all that he had seen.
The ruins of Seattle—a dense Pacific rainforest interspersed with toppled skyscrapers. The lower hundred feet of the Space Needle still standing, enwrapped in a riot of vines and undergrowth. Nothing remotely recognizable save Mount Rainier. From sixty miles away, and after two thousand years, it stood seemingly unchanged. He’d sat in a tree at the top of what had once been Queen Anne Hill and wept at the sight of that mountain while the rainforest hummed with the chattering of animals that had never seen or smelled a human being.
He dreamed of standing on a beach in Oregon.
Rock formations looming out of the mist like phantom ships.
He’d taken a stick and scrawled Oregon, United States of America in the sand. Sat watching the sun go into the sea as the tide came in and smoothed the words out of existence.
He dreamed of walking with no end in sight.
Of sleeping in trees and crossing rivers.
Dreamed of dreaming about his home in Wayward Pines. As many blankets as he wanted. A bellyful of warm food. A door that locked.
Safety behind the fence.
Sleep without fear.
And his woman.
When you come back—and you will come back—I’m gonna f**k you, soldier, like you just came home from war.
She’d scribbled those words on the first page of his journal the night before he left. She didn’t know where he was going of course, only that he probably wouldn’t make it back.
He felt so tender toward her.
And more so now than ever.
If she only knew the number of cold and rainy nights when he’d read her last words and felt the glow of comfort.
He dreamed of dying.
And last, he dreamed of the most terrifying thing he’d seen in a long chain of terrifying things.
He’d heard it and smelled it from ten miles away, the noise coming from an old-growth redwood forest of four-hundred-foot trees somewhere along the border of what had once been California and Oregon.
As he approached, the noise became tremendous.
Like hundreds of thousands of sustained screeches.
It was the biggest risk he’d taken in his four years beyond the fence, but his curiosity wouldn’t let him turn back.
Even days after, his hearing wasn’t right. The volume ten times louder than the loudest rock concert. Like a thousand jets taking off in unison. He’d crawled toward it, covered in makeshift forest-floor camo.
At a half mile away, fear overrode his curiosity, and he couldn’t bring himself to move another foot closer.
He caught glimpses of it through the giant trees—the size of ten football stadiums, the highest spires rising several hundred feet above the canopies of the redwoods. He’d stared through the scope of his rifle and tried to process what he saw—a structure made of millions of tons of dirt and logs and rock, all cemented together with some sort of resin. From where he’d lain, it had resembled a giant piece of black honeycomb—tens of thousands of individual cells teeming with aberrations and their stores of putrefying kills.