Yanking the blade free of the corpse I looked in the direction the last pursuer had run, but couldn’t see him in the dark. Moving on auto pilot I started running after him, Kukri held in my right hand, blood spattering off it onto the ground as I ran. I covered ground quickly, keeping my steps light and as quiet as possible. There was a little moonlight and I was able to see and avoid sticks on the ground and branches in my path. After five minutes of running I made it to the larger valley where Betty and the kids had been camped and paused to check the ground to make sure I was still following the man. Before I could spot anything in the jumble of footprints from the passage of two large groups I heard him crashing through the bush to my right, back towards the site of the ambush on the road.
Turning I broke into a fast lope, now tracking him by sound as he continued to step on a stick or run into a bush every few seconds. Several minutes later I crested a small rise and saw him a hundred yards in front of me. The man was struggling through the dark forest. He was overweight and out of shape and even from this distance I could hear his ragged breathing. His run wasn’t much faster than a very slow jog and I came to a stop when I heard voices ahead in the forest. Did I let him escape and tell a terrifying story to his friends? The idea had merit. A frightened enemy is a significantly lesser threat than a mad enemy, and finding all their friends dead would frighten them, but would also make them mad. However, a lone survivor running out of the woods and telling a frightening story of how his entire group was wiped out in the blink of an eye could better serve my purpose. Decision made I turned and started running back down the valley.
Approaching my ambush site I slowed when I heard what sounded like wild animals fighting. Raising the rifle and looking through the night vision scope I was momentarily disgusted by the site of a small pack of infected feasting on the bodies. There were four males and two females and the females would feed on a corpse for a few minutes then move to another. If another infected happened to also be feeding on the new corpse the female would attack it and force it to back off. This was another new behavior I hadn’t seen before, and didn’t quite know what to make of. Shooting the first female as she thrust her hands into the body cavity of one of the corpses I quickly acquired and fired at the second female, but missed. As soon as my suppressed shot had sounded she had moved, dashing into the surrounding trees. What the hell was that?
Feeling less confident about being able to easily clear them out I quickly sighted in on and shot all the males, but the female I had missed hadn’t reappeared and wasn’t making any noise. Not good. Carefully scanning the dark woods I couldn’t spot her, but I was almost certain she was still in the area and was stalking me. Lowering the rifle I drew the Kukri and stepped off the path into thicker brush and started silently circling around the carnage. I took my time, lowering the toe of each boot gently onto the ground and testing the spot before I transferred my weight. This is a slow way to move, but when stealth is more important than speed it’s the only way to move. Eventually I had circled the area and was slightly upslope, only a few yards from where I had left my pack.
I started to move towards the pack, then stopped and froze in place. If I was lying in wait for someone and there was something I knew they’d come back for, like my pack, I’d set up on it and wait for them to come to me and attack when they were vulnerable. For five minutes I stood perfectly still, controlling my breathing, the only movement my head turning slowly as I scanned the area repeatedly. Even though I wasn’t detecting a threat didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Was I giving too much credit to the female? Up until now I hadn’t seen any indication that the infected were able to reason or problem solve, rather had watched them repeatedly behave in only a mindless pursuit of any prey that was in front of them. Was that changing? Were they learning? Was this a product of the viral component that the scientists hadn’t been able to identify, or had I just happened to encounter a gifted one?
Never one to believe in coincidence I filed away this one’s behavior and refocused on the task at hand. My pack lay on the ground five yards ahead of me on a clear patch of ground that was only a couple of yards across. Heavy brush surrounded the clearing except at the rocky edge where it looked down on my ambush site. If she was waiting for me it would be in the brush at the back or on the far side of the clearing. Moving a millimeter at a time I sheathed the Kukri and raised the rifle. Placing my eye up to the scope it only took me seconds to find the female hiding in the brush on the far side of the clearing. She was squatted a couple of feet from the edge of the clearing and was sitting perfectly still, her head turned to watch the path below where the corpses lay. She hadn’t seen or smelled me.
The forest was very quiet, as if even the trees and rocks were holding their breath, and my current problem was that the rifle was on safe and it would make a small degree of noise when I moved the lever to fire. Whether or not she would hear it was the question, but I had already seen that these things seemed to have enhanced senses and I prepared myself to enable the rifle and get a shot off as quickly as possible. Target sighted I exhaled silently, clicked the safety lever with my thumb and fired. Miss again. She had moved the instant the rifle had clicked off safe. Damn that was some reaction time. There was no way any normal human could have avoided my shot. She had dropped lower to the ground and moved to the side and now burst into the clearing, charging directly at me on all fours at a surprising speed. I snapped off another shot that missed her head but impacted at the base of her neck, most likely shattering her collar bone as she lost control of one of her arms and crashed to the ground.
Faster than should have been possible she rolled and leapt to her feet and launched herself into the brush to the side. She was breaking off the attack? That was definitely new. Up to now an infected that spotted prey maintained pursuit of that prey until it either escaped or the infected was killed. Self-preservation had not been a part of the equation. Still tracking the female with the night scope I saw her running down the slope towards the path and I stepped forward into the clearing, waited a moment then snapped off another shot that blew out a chunk of her skull and dropped the body into the dust. I didn’t have time to celebrate my small victory as I was tackled from behind and slammed to the ground on my face.
Another female that I hadn’t seen or heard was on my back and ripping at me with her hands as she leaned in and tried to bite me. All that saved me was the high collar of the tactical vest and the shemagh I had wrapped around my neck. I could feel the pressure from her bites but her teeth weren’t able to get through the layers of tough fabric. More than a little freaked out I got my hands under me and shoved, pushing both of us off the ground where I was able to twist my body to come back down on top of the infected. But she wasn’t there when I landed on the ground, hard, flat on my back. Almost before I realized she had leapt off me when I had pushed off the ground, the bitch straddled me like a lover and lunged her head forward with teeth bared in an attempt at my throat. Her hands were on my upper arms, trying to control them, and while she was much stronger than a normal woman her size she was still no match for a man more than 100 pounds heavier that could bench press more than his own body weight.
Forcing my arms up and together in front of my chest I was able to get my right hand wrapped around her throat. Pushing harder I levered her up until my arms was almost fully extended and hit her hard in the face with my left. No effect. Damn these things were tough. Holding her by the throat at arm’s length she couldn’t reach my face, throat or chest, but she started trying to rip open my arms with her ragged nails. Again, the heavy military issue fabric did its job and protected me. Still struggling with her I rolled and got her on her back on the ground. Pinning her lower body with my weight I leaned into the grip on her throat and squeezed for all I was worth. She thrashed and struggled, a couple of times nearly bucking me off but I held on and almost two full minutes later she lay still.
Not a trusting soul I maintained the pressure for another thirty seconds, staring down at the woman and blinking sweat out of my eyes. She had been young and pretty, once. She was slender with long, red hair and had the kind of features that would have made men remember her. Now she was filthy and bloody with matted hair, and she was dead. Releasing my grip I flexed my hand a couple of times, drew the Kukri and rammed the blade into her brain. No reason to take any chances. Wiping the blade on her tattered shirt I sheathed it and stood up. A scan of the area with the scope didn’t reveal any more threats so I grabbed my pack off the ground, shouldered it and set off down the slope to catch up with Rachel, Dog and our new friends.