Chapter 04: Into the Woods

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Laura couldn't get the image of the Panther out of her mind's eye.

First, they'd encountered the zombies, which were difficult enough to accept. Then, the sickly white, stick-thin thing in the basement of Frost Station. The thing that had brutally eviscerated Nate. It was different, what she had always secretly hoped was a freak, a mutation. Because while the zombies were terrifying and horrible, physically speaking, they weren't all that difficult to kill. They were noisy and obvious and slow. They telegraphed their position to you literally the second they saw you. All it took was a shot to the head to put them down and they didn't even try to duck or dodge or avoid the fatal final bullet.

But these Panthers suggested that more was coming.

Things that wouldn't be so easy to kill. Things that were actually smart and vicious and lethal. Could she survive that? Or would she end up like John and the others? Ripped to shreds or bitten and infected, dying by inches, the only way out the quick end of a bullet? Not exactly the most pleasant of thoughts.

Laura studied the environment around her. They had found a path that was clearly meant to be driven along, leading away from the emergency medical outpost. No vehicles, though. Which made enough sense. Anyone who was still alive would have taken the vehicles when escaping the hellhole the valley had become. Which left them with just walking. Under normal circumstances, it would be a decent, pleasant walk. Unfortunately, the circumstances were currently shit. The gray skies overhead had darkened even further and distantly, thunder boomed, making Laura jump each time. It sounded like bombs.

The treelines along either side of the pathway were dark and foreboding, the shadows deep. Anything could be hiding in there. She kept expecting to see more mutant Panthers burst forth from the trees, but that thought gave way to even more dangerous things. What other beasts might be out there, transformed by the virus? Or what if the humans could mutate into other things, abominations even more dangerous than the one they'd seen up north? Too many questions, too many possibilities. She was freaking herself out.

Trying to calm down, Laura took a few deep breaths and let them out. She'd had to face down bad situations before. Not this bad, but bad. And the reality of it all hadn't changed: pay attention or you'd get dead, real fast. Panic helped no one. Instead, she focused on the plan. Walk through a valley, check out a few buildings and, hopefully, find a ship, a radio, or survivors at a military base that may or may not still be there.

The more she thought about it, the more she wondered how all of this could have happened. Where did the virus come from? In fiction, there were more than a dozen clichéd ways zombies could have spread across a planet. Was it one of those? Or something else? She supposed it didn't really matter. The situation was as it was. Knowing probably wouldn't change anything. She studied the group ahead of her, (she'd chosen rear guard). Viktor and Mike seemed to be holding up fairly well. Viktor's good-natured, hearty endurance that he'd always seemed to exude was showing through. Mike's apparent past as a soldier was coming back as well. He seemed calm, competent, a good person to have your back in a firefight.

Turner, on the other hand, seemed to be declining. He looked haggard, his eyes baggy and bloodshot, his skin taking on a pale pallor. If she didn't know better, she'd suspect the man of turning into a zombie. But he was just freaking, breaking down under the pressure. Some people could handle pressure, some couldn't. Admittedly, Turner had done decently well so far, but he jumped at every sound and looked in desperate need of a few sick days. He hadn't said pretty much anything since they'd left the crash site.

Up ahead, there was a sudden break in the trees. Along both sides of the road were clearings, and in those clearings were the cabins that Mike had mentioned. There were five on either side, all of them identical, all of them looking like the kind of places where rich people would come to vacation. The four of them continued walking until they came to the edge of the clearings. Laura walked forward until she stood next to Mike.

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