"Just ahead! A little faster-!" It was easy for Sam to say "faster" from his seat in the comms shack more than five miles away, but Five knew he meant well. Putting on an extra burst of speed to sprint the last few yards was about all she could manage, staggering against the barn door with a tremendous clatter. Locked.
Locked, and the six fast zoms that had been falling behind were now gaining rapidly.
"Around the west side," bellowed Sam into the mic, his voice breaking into a panicked squeal as Five threw herself around the corner, clumsy with exhaustion. "There's a window above head height. You'll have to jump."
Jump? Jump? That last mile had left her legs feeling like warm jelly, set to dissolve under her. But it was jump of get eaten. This barn was the only shelter for ages, and she couldn't keep going indefinitely, no matter what Abel Township thought. Driven by the desperation in Sam's voice and the sound of impending doom rattling wetly in undead throats, Five stretched out her arms and took a flying leap, catching the edge of the window sill with her fingertips.
Her arms screamed in protest as she shakily hauled herself up, just missing the jumping form of the first zom around the corner. They couldn't reach as high as healthy, living legs could, thank God. It slammed into the wall with a wet thud, scrabbling at her dangling legs as it slid back down to the ground.
Five heaved herself up onto the sill and looked down, first on the outside, at the rotting upturned faces of her pursuers, then on the inside, into the darkness of the sealed barn. None of the walls were broken. None of the doors were open. This window was the only way in or out, and as far as she could see, there was nothing alive in here.
"I can see you in the window, but so can the zoms." Sam had calmed enough not to shout into the mic, at least, but he sounded very nervous. "You should get out of sight and lie low until they lose interest. Is there anything inside?"
Five was still gasping for breath, but she tapped her mic once, to say "no" like she did when running. One tap for no, two for yes, and any more taps than that usually meant she was in trouble and couldn't make noise or couldn't catch her breath. Running had never been something she liked doing, but she was decent enough and the township needed runners, so... here she was.
Unhooking a flashlight from her belt and turning it on with fumbling fingers, she swept the beam around the old barn, searching for anything alive - or worse, undead. When a pair of eyes caught the light and threw it back at her, Five thought for a moment that she was a zom, and tensed, reading to climb up onto the roof if she needed to. But then it squealed and jerked away from the light, and it didn't sound like a zom. It didn't even sound human.
It was a foal.
No way it would have survived if there was a zombie in here. Five turned the flashlight off and hooked it back where it belonged on her belt before swinging down inside the barn and landing catlike on the wooden floor. Wisps of hay tickled her hands as she straightened, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim light.
Faint grey light from the window outlined half-walls, empty stalls, and a rather ragged-looking pile of hay bales in the middle of the floor. It looked like something had been eating from the edges, and it didn't take too long to find the culprit. Hiding in the inky shadows of a far corner, the mare stood with her tail whisking unhappily back and forth, the skittish little foal at her side. They'd survived because the hay was easy to reach, but from the look of her eyes and mouth, she hadn't had a drink in far too long, and the foal hiding behind her was rail-thin. He hadn't been getting the milk he needed, probably because his mother was dehydrated.
And a dehydrated horse wasn't a problem she could fix. Five gritted her teeth, looking around the barn for a spigot or a hose, holding onto the hope that there might still be running water here. It was a long shot, to be sure, but it was better a long shot than none at all.
"Sam, how are things looking out there?"
"They're still trying to get to the window, but it looks like only one of them is smart enough to jump, and it can't get high enough. Give them an hour or two to wander off after something else. What have you found inside?"
"A horse. I don't think she's doing well, though. There's no water in here. And she's got a baby, too. I'm going to see if I can get closer."
"Don't get trampled. There's no one close enough to rescue you if you get your neck broken."
Five rolled her eyes, moving cautiously across the barn with an eye out for loose floorboards or fallen tools that might trip her up. "Your vote of confidence is astounding. Remind me to write that down somewhere. It's really inspirational."
"Hey, I don't have this job because I'm inspirational. If you wanted that, you could have one of those cute kitten posters instead." She could hear him grinning, and was glad he'd relaxed enough to tease. It was always harder to keep her spirits up when he was afraid. Sam was like the sun on a summer day. If he went behind a cloud, everything else got gloomy, too.
Five spoke in low, soft tones, talking as much to the mare as she was to Sam. "Inspiration is always helpful, especially when there are so many things trying to kill me. It's nice to know someone believes I can get back home again."
The mare stamped nervously and tossed her head, ears pinned back as she stared at the strange human. Five took the hint and backed off, scanning the barn again in the hope she might see something useful. The door to the tack room was half open, and she peeked inside to see a rusty sink and some decent tack, though it was going a bit moldy in the damp. Twisting the knob just made the sink squeak in protest. No water came out of the faucet.
"I do believe in you, you know." Sam's voice was soft. "I have ever since that helo crash. I couldn't think you would ever really just... stop coming home. You'll always come home to me."
He sounded so sad and frightened, Five sighed a little. This. Yes, this was why Sam had her trust. He really did mean every word.
"Thank you, Sam. I knew I could count on you."
"So while we're having a bit of a moment probably wouldn't be a good time to tell you those six zoms you left outside are attracting more?"
"It's never a good time for that." She could hear them groaning. If too many game this way, then the barn would be overwhelmed. Either they'd get in through the window by climbing over one another or they would break down the door just through force of numbers. The mare in the main room let out an anxious whinny, and Five grabbed a bridle. If they were going to get out of this, it would have to be together.
The mare, though, wasn't having any of it. She tossed her head and snorted, danced away and even kicked, not wanting Five anywhere near her baby.
"We need to get out of here, you stupid beast," Five hissed, fear beginning to beat at her chest like the zoms pounding on the walls outside. "The only way we're both going to survive is if you trust me."
Of course that made no difference. The horse didn't understand her and even if she did, Five wasn't sure she would listen. For all that this mare had been in isolation and badly needed groomed and cared for, she didn't want anything to do with this human thing in her barn, not even after Five had rolled around in the hay to make herself smell less foreign.
"Sam, tell me you know something about horses?"
"I know they're big, they have four hooves, and they say 'neigh.' That's about it. But are you sure it's worth saving them? I mean, even if you got them back, how would we feed them?'
"You didn't ask that when you wanted to save me."
There was a slightly awkward pause. "Well... yeah. I mean... you're a person, aren't you?"
"And so is a horse." Five nodded firmly as if this were the final word on the matter and marched up to the mare, determined to get the bridle over her ears. They had zoms to outrun.
Her determination was answered with a sharp nip and a snort as the mare skittered away, followed by her little ghost of a foal. Five hissed in pain, jerking her hand back.
"At what point is petting the pretty horsey no longer worth it?" asked Sam, sounding nervous. She couldn't blame him. The thumping and pounding of the zoms outside was getting louder as more of them surrounded the barn. It was only lucky that the barn doors opened outward, not inward. At least that way they'd have a chance.
"I'm going to save her, whether she wants to be saved or not. But... maybe I'm doing this the wrong way. Maybe I need to go for the baby first and convince her to come to me."
"Maybe I'm just a clueless radio operator, but that sounds like a great way to get trampled."
Maybe he was right. Maybe he wasn't. But at this point, she was too committed to give up. Besides that... escaping without her would mean using her as bait, and Five didn't want to be the kind of person that would do that, even to a difficult animal like this one. Snapping her fingers, she pointed at the floor in front of her and spoke in a harsh, soft hiss.
"If you don't get over here right this second, the zombies outside are going to eat you for dinner, and I'm going to feel guilty about it for the rest of my life, which might not even be very long without your help. So get your butt over here so I can get you to safety."
She was still for a moment, tail whisking to and fro. Then, sighing as if she had no choice, the mare reluctantly approached, followed by her jumpy little gremlin of a foal.