The hike through the rainforest was going as smoothly as could be expected. Ashley’s herb compound had helped Barb’s wound heal over, and she was walking better, and even in a better mood.
That’s what Ashley told Barb, anyway. The truth was, things were growing more critical for Barb with each passing moment. The wound healing wasn’t a product of the salve Ashley had cobbled together- it was the regenerative properties of the viral infection spreading through Barb’s body. Her euphoria was more likely a result of her infection and subsequent fever than a few herbs. But she was infinitely more pleasant this way, so Leon and Ashley kept quiet about it. There wasn’t anything they could do for the moment anyway.
The labs were going to be at least a mile walk. Not horribly long, but they were also exposed in the rainforest. The monkey-things that had attacked them in the hotel had been bad enough in an artificial environment.
No doubt the little bastards will be right at home here, Leon thought in passing as he pushed aside a low banana tree’s leaves so that Ashley and Barb could come by unimpeded. It was almost the hottest part of the day, too. Sweat, overheating, mosquitoes…
Mosquitoes. Now there is a way to make this more unpleasant.
Mosquitoes were notorious for carrying viruses. Hell the BEST case scenario with a mosquito bite was that you had an obnoxious bump to itch and complain about. That was before you got to infection, which could be deadly, especially in a tropical climate. Giving Barb one more reason to complain wasn’t exactly a good thought, either.
Leon could hear the low buzzing of mosquitoes now. Or he thought he could, anyway. He wasn’t sure at this point. His mind might be playing tricks on him. Rainforests were like that. They messed with your senses. No matter how well trained you were, or how many times you did it, there was something about nature that swallowed you up.
The buzzing got louder.
“Damn it, that’s annoying,” Ashley said from up ahead. She was standing on top of a rise with one hand over her eyes, shielding the sun. There was a break in the thick overhead canopy here.
Leon glanced up, an old trick he’d learned. You got bad headaches if you didn’t look up once and a while when you were in the rain forest. He lowered his gaze once more and joined Ashley at the lip of the rise.
There were a series of one-story buildings down below. It looked like two buildings forming an L-shape, with a third building added in front of them. There was a clear cylinder connecting it to the first larger building. It looked vaguely similar to an airlock.
The buzzing was almost deafening. A sharp beep punctuated the buzzing at regular intervals.
One of the GPS units? Leon glanced over his shoulder- then he had to double-take.
Jeff was walking toward them.
Every part of Jeff’s body was swollen and red. He’d been stung multiple times by the wasps. His bulging biceps had been pulled apart, leaving red-white sinew in their place, peeling like licorice. His eyes were swollen shut. His stomach was distended in a pear-shape.
He “looked” at the small group.
“Jeff…” Barb managed, gasping. She pawed at her eyes in sheer disbelief. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Rather, who she was seeing.
Ashley seized her by the back of her shirt.
“Get back,” she whispered sternly. “The dead don’t come back the same as when they were alive. It doesn’t matter who they look like.”
Leon trained his handgun on Jeff. Every instinct he had was literally screaming at him to shoot. An old discipline held his fire: He had to be sure that Jeff wasn’t alive and coming for help. The wasps weren’t necessarily infected; Jeff might being going into shock. No matter how unlikely, Leon couldn’t pull the trigger until he knew for sure.
“Leon, he’s dead,” Ashley told him in an even tone. “You’ve got to shoot before it gets closer. That buzzing isn’t normal…”
She drew her own gun. Barb protested and tried to jump on Ashley, who simply ran out of patience and stiff-armed the smaller woman in the upper chest, upsetting her balance and sending her tumbling backward onto the lip of the rim.
Barb recovered, angry and shocked, but too focused on Jeff to do anything but gape at him. “JEFF!”
“Leon, you shoot or I do. I’m not having all of our deaths on my conscience,” Ashley insisted.
“I’ve trained for this, Ashley. Same as you. I know the risk,” Leon told her cooly. “Trust me.”
Ashley gritted her teeth. She retreated back toward Barb and crouched down, ready to help the dazed woman up once she was sure what direction they’d start moving in.
Leon, you and I are used to this. You’re missing the real danger here… Ashley thought to herself. She didn’t take her eyes off Jeff, out of respect for Leon. When the muted buzzing sound grew louder, she tensed.
You asked me to trust you, Leon. I will. But I think something is impairing your judgment. You’re putting us all at risk…
“Jeff?” Leon called out.
Jeff opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
He needs help! Leon realized.
“Jeff, stay there. I’m going to come over to you…”
Leon holstered his gun. That was when a gunshot rang out. A dot of red appeared on Jeff’s forehead for a split-second before the cylindrical hole widened and Jeff fell backward onto the ground, his mouth still gaping. His body began to go into death throes.
Ashley had fired.
“NOOOOOO! You miserable, fucking bitch! How could you?!” Barb howled. She hobbled as quickly as her injuries would allow. She threw herself on his misshapen corpse and began to sob and bellow hysterically.
Leon rounded on Ashley. He was furious, with nostrils flaring and teeth pulled back in an uncharacteristic, open snarl.
“I gave you specific orders not to shoot. What the hell is wrong with you?!”
Ashley didn’t back down. She’d had enough of that. She seized Leon by the front of his shirt and pulled his face in to hers.
“I’ve been wondering that about you. You’ve made one stupid decision after another. Something is messing up your judgment, and it’s my job as your partner to call you on it. I don’t know if you need to get laid, or if you’re just going through withdrawl, but you’re putting all of us at risk.”
She let him go; rather, she shoved him away.
“Get your ass killed on your own time. Be the man I respected again.”
Leon wanted to yell at her. He started to. Whatever he was going through personally wasn’t affecting him professionally. And she’d just shot an unarmed man- he’d never made a mistake like that, not on his worst day.
A sound cut through the air. Bone cracking; flesh rending. It was the sound of a mutation; Leon was familiar with that sound on an almost intimate level.
Barb gave a yell that was cut off. Leon had just a couple seconds to realize how royally he’d just screwed up.
Jeff’s stomach bulged and extended past the point that his body could contain it and retain its shape. He bent backwards, with only his head and toes touching the ground. Out of his open mouth came a buzzing sound, growing louder and louder until it was almost deafening. Barb had thrown herself across his stomach, trying to hold him together.
That was when his sternum finally tore under the internal strain. His ribs cracked into powder and shifted aside; his breastbone dislodged and snapped up into his throat, causing a rush of very red, internal blood to cascade down what remained of his torso.
A fully mature wasp emerged from his carcasses, coated in a slimy semi-opaque mucus and blood. It was instantly obvious that it had been nourishing itself on Jeff’s innards, as organs were missing and there wasn’t nearly the amount of intestine that there should have been.
It expanded and stretched its wings. Its wingspan alone was over six feet- taller than Jeff. It pulled itself with sickening, wet, sucking sounds from its host and flapped its wings powerfully, clearing itself of the remains of its mucus coating.
It began to hover idly, as though testing itself out. It had just been born and didn’t know the full extent of its abilities. But it was hungry, and it saw prey.
Instinct drove it to pick the weakest of the group as sustenance. It flew high, circled once to gain speed, then aimed its stinger down and dove.
Ashley began to shoot, as did Leon. They struck an armored sternum, a thin proboscis, its two gleaming red compound eyes. Yellow fluids gushed from it with each shot, but it wasn’t deterred.
It’s articulating stinger caught Barb, who threw her arms in front of herself. It pierced both her arms and stopped just shy of penetrating her chest. The wasp tried to dislodge its stinger, but instead lifted Barb up with it as it tried to pull out. Leon and Ashley held up their shots, afraid to hit Barb; afraid not to shoot. It carried her maybe twelve feet in the air before she came loose. Her arms ballooned and slipped free of the stinger, infected by the wasp venom, muscles paralyzed.
She fell twelve feet with no way to brace her landing. She hit the ground with a shuddering impact and lay limp. The wasp immediately landed and stung her again, this time in the neck. She flailed briefly, but the venom soon overtook her body and she laid still, eyes open, mouth frozen in a scream.
It’s proboscis found her infected leg first. It jammed it in and began to suck blood, marrow, and cartilage. It ate noisily and greedily, slurping and gulping.
Ashley and Leon were halted by the shockingly violent feeding.
So much so that they didn’t notice Jeff’s body pull itself to its feet. One gore-streaked hand was just about to grab Ashley when a bolt struck its head and it finally fell, dead for the last time.
Ashley drew her gun and threw herself on the ground in one motion, looking in the direction the bolt had come.
A man in a white lab coat was standing near the airlock-like entrance to the labs.
“Come on! Hurry! Before that thing gets you!”
Leon and Ashley exchanged glances only briefly before mutually agreeing to run toward the labs. Ashley wanted to shoot Barb, to at least end her misery, but then she risked calling attention to her and Leon. There was nothing else they could do for Barb.
Behind them, the wasp continued it’s noisy meal. Barb’s eyes had glassed over as she’d mercifully passed out from the pain.