The morning light flooded through the cracks of the eastern door of the ranger's station as the party on the other side throttled the handle, jamming on it with all their weight, but the deadbolt would hold. It would not bend. It would not break. It'd take a day to blowtorch through.
However, the jamb holding the deadbolt was half an inch of soggy wood. And the only question was, would the eastern door bust first or the western one?
Colby could only hold one.
He didn't know who could be behind him, but here at the east, his military escort had turned on him upon arrival. The two guards were armed, even if just with one hypothermia gun, but they were trained. The other assailants might be too weak to ever get through the door. Soon, he'd see.
Two beefy soldiers, unsurprisingly, overpowered Colby and he went flat on his stomach as they rushed in. He clawed his way to two feet, only to be grabbed. There were hands everywhere. His struggle against their grapple was useless. There was so much yelling. Voices he might've known but in the chaos, it was overwhelming.
Then with a wet thunk, he was thrown to the side with a lot of force but little follow-through.
A woodcutter's ax had sunk its silver sharpened edge into one of the guard's neck. Then Sunny pulled the ax out to threaten the other, who started on her, then saw Glenn pointing the rifle his way and the guard backed up too far into the railing outside and went over backwards. If the fall didn't kill him, the tumble down the mountain did.
Glenn hesitated to help Colby up, so he rose on his own and asked, "Where did you two come from?"
"Hell," Glenn said.
Sunny slapped his back. "Shut up with the poetics."
Looking around, Colby noticed the cabin felt a bit empty. "Is Malia outside?" Then he realized maybe he knew the answer and shouldn't have asked. "Sorry."
"Margie, too," Sunny said.
"Hunter. Tony,” Colby listed them off with that tone people use at reunions, but usually it’s reserved for the long gone. “I don't think a hug's going to help this."
"Nope," Glenn said. “Who were those guys?”
“It’s been a whole night. Military? Paramilitary? Militia? One of those and there’s a whole camp of them. They were perfectly fine until... There’s something crazy going on and if you don’t already know something about it--I don’t even know how to get you to believe me.”
“We know,” Glenn said as if it were the final word on the matter.
Sunny continued, “We saw Margie shoot Mal dead. Right through the eye and not a second hesitating, but it was dark and I didn’t want it to be true so when Mal got back up… I was glad she got Marge, but I just wished it’d really been Mal.”
Out in the field, Colby’s uncontrollable imagination had helped him come up with the perfect photo while waiting for his subject and he’d keep snapping until he got one with the same feel, but now, it was too much for him. “Can we please hug now?”
They did but Glenn and Sunny had paranoia beaten into them by the night and clenched their weapons and so they each offered a single awkward arm for the hug. Maybe that was why it didn’t help anything. Maybe it was because they were hugging over a corpse with a humming backpack and a gaping neck wound and their shoes were all stained red. Maybe because that corpse rose up during the hug and wanted in on it.
They darted off but that thing lunged for Colby. With the momentum of panic, Colby swung the corpse out the door toward the railing. It hung on by Colby’s hood, the twisted nylon too sturdy to break when they needed it too. The humming backpack’s strap caught on the railing as well.
Sunny cleaved that ax deep into his arm, just below the shoulder. As a doctor, she knew where it’d be easiest to sever.
But that thing inside it was tough. After several swings, it finally lopped off and the arm fell to the deck and the soldier fell to the mountain.
Glenn threw his head back against the lodge and sank to the floorboards. “Were they infected, too?”
“Isn’t everyone?” Sunny gave the arm a little kick. It flopped over. Then righted itself then thrust at Sunny’s ankle and she kicked but its fingers were too strong for mere momentum to throw it off. She hefted the ax overhead and swung it down, crushing the elbow. Its assault stopped.
The hand continued at Sunny’s leg. The gloves ripped off as black tendrils came through. Not just the fabric but the fingertips peeled back. The blackness wrapped around her. She almost swung the ax once more, but Colby had grabbed that humming backpack from the railing and he’d been fiddling with the buttons, pumping the trigger, flipping switches to get the safety off until finally it blasted a spray of icy water on the hand.
It froze. Sunny peeled off the tentacles wrapped around her pant-leg. It stayed down this time. “The hell is that?” Sunny asked.
“At the camp, they used it on my clothes, I guess to blast off any remnants of that thing. Glad it actually worked.”
Her pants were iced over as well. “I need inside or my leg’s going to go dead.”
“Guys!” Glenn said, too panicked to get out more than the alert.
The upper section of the arm had begun to wriggle. At both wounds, the elbow and the shoulder, the black oozed out until it had shed the fleshy sleeve and the black snake came for them.
Colby blasted it again with the ice sprayer.
The twins stared at the frozen arms waiting for them to move again, but Colby was examining the ice sprayer still. Its pressure gauge seemed to have a third left but he wasn’t sure how to recharge it. Maybe it was time dependent. Or there was some pump or button. He couldn’t find it in the dim of daybreak.
He didn’t tell the others.
Finally Glenn got up from the deck. “Can we get out of here before they thaw?”
Sunny was already rounding the corner when she bumped into the soldier that had fallen off, the one with arms still. Before she could raise the ax, he was on her, gurgling at the mouth with black liquid ready to infect them all. It’d force itself down her throat. In her ears. Even seep into her pores if it had to, but it needed to devour what was inside them and replicate itself so it could spread far and wide from this mountain.
“Shoot it!” Glenn yelled at Colby.
Colby looked over the railing and at the pressure gauge. “It’s out.”
“I’m trying but it’s not doing anything. It must be empty.”
Sunny had dropped the ax, but she wouldn’t stop struggling. She kicked its knees and even its balls. Maybe it wouldn’t feel the grapes get crushed but she had good leverage so maybe, just maybe, and in a struggle, it was all instinct told her to do. Instinct wasn’t helping.
Maybe if Glenn could get an arm off, she could get free but that thing so tightly held her that--
“DO IT!” Sunny screamed.
He swung the ax at his sister. There was blood and a yelp but also a solid thud on the floor as an arm fell and floundered at their feet, but with Sunny flailing and Glenn pulling and that thing reeling, Sunny managed some freedom.
“Over here,” Colby yelled to lead them into the ranger’s station. Both doors had been busted down. The locks were useless. But in the moment, the twins listened.
The soldier missing one arm appeared at the door. He was missing his right. The one Glenn had just chopped off was the soldier’s left.
Thank god, Colby thought.
At the other door appeared the second one-armed soldier. They converged on the three hiding in the ranger’s bedroom. The soldiers were both squeezing through the door when Colby aimed the nozzle at them and sprayed them down till there wasn’t enough pressure and the tip froze shut.
But it’d been enough.
The two soldiers had stopped and when Colby gave them a little shove, the ice at their boots broke and they toppled over. The outer shell shattered but their internal temperature had dropped enough that even without the restrictive coating, they were dead. Whatever was inside them was dead.
He looked back at the others with a smile. Finally a victory.
But Sunny was bleeding and Glenn in a rage. “Not working, my ass!” he yelled at Colby, ready to shove that thing down his throat.
Glenn wouldn’t listen.
“Some help?” Sunny asked. She had to instruct these two squabblers on first aid for an ax wound, but she was already light-headed from the blood loss. “Find a clean cloth. Make sure there’s no black shit on it and put as much pressure as possible on me.” She had her arm raised. Without peeling off her coat, something hard to do one handed, she couldn’t see how deep the ax had cut but it felt like it might’ve taken a chunk from the bone. Maybe that was her imagination.
Colby went for the cloth, but called out, “I had to wait. The thing looked like it only had one shot left.”
They didn’t reply.
He muttered to himself, “I was right, too.” The gauge was completely empty with no signs of movement.
But still they kept silent.
Out the window, they’d seen the ranger with a dog bite taken out of his neck up and walking around. The soldiers had seen him thrown off the deck earlier and that was when they turned on Colby, but Colby hadn’t seen the corpse or else he’d have known there was a countdown till it rose up like the others.
And now Colby had seen.
1. Leave alone.