“We’ve been instructed to land in front of the hotel,” the pilot’s voice said in his ear.

As the helicopter flew over the hotel, Valerie whispered in awe, “A pool.”

The wall extended in front of the hotel. The block in front of the wall had been cleared and was nothing more than an empty lot now. Slowly, they began to descend just outside of the fort.

“Watch out for zombies,” Kevin ordered, even though he knew it wasn’t necessary to do so.

Valerie, Kevin and Thomas were the only ones on this expedition. The pilot, Greta, was their fourth. She wasn’t too pleased about having to leave the helicopter, but he had promised the leaders of the fort they would all go inside.

Valerie zipped up her jacket and shoved her helmet on her head. Thomas did the same before taking the time to double check his weapons.

As expected, the helicopter drew the dead out and toward them. Some staggered, some crawled, and a few did a weird little skip, but none ran.

The older they got, the slower they were.

As the rotors slowed, Kevin thought briefly of that zombie movie where a zombie had the top of his head whacked off by the blades.

“I got four on this side,” Thomas said.

“They should be out here with a vehicle in a few,” Kevin assured his people.

Then the zombies began to fall. One by one, a plume of bone and brain exploded out of their heads and they slumped to the ground.

The zombies kept falling and Kevin said, “Shit. Dead on aim.”

Greta watched through the window and looked toward Kevin. “Think they got military here?”

Another zombie tumbled to the ground as more appeared from the side streets.

Suddenly jets of flame exploded up out of the street and sent the zombies into retreat, some of them on fire.

A civilian version of the Hummer came racing around the corner at top speed. It ran over a few of the crawling zombies then roared up to the helicopter.

They slid the doors open and leaped to the ground. Racing toward the Hummer, they saw more zombies falling near the edge of the lot. Piling into the Hummer, they sat in amazement as country music flooded their ears.

She floored the vehicle and the Hummer flew over the ground, smashing into a few zombies, before the woman whipped the wheel around and headed back toward the hotel.

“My name is Katarina,” she said.

The Hummer hit an old man zombie and sent the creature’s broken body careening off into a tree.

“First Lieutenant Kevin Reynolds,” Kevin said as he held onto the dashboard.

The Hummer turned sharply and slid through an opening in the wall.

Kevin briefly glimpsed heavy metal gates beginning to slide closed as they breached the perimeter. A few zombies tried to enter, but jets of flame erupting from the ground sent them fleeing. The Hummer was in a lock of some kind with another set of gates closed in front of them. Once the gates behind them closed, he watched as a man and woman on the wall extended long poles with mirrors on the ends and examined under the Hummer. Satisfied, they signaled and the second gate opened.

“Except for Nerit,” Katarina answered. “She was a sniper for the Israeli army.”

Kevin blinked as the gate opened to reveal a large courtyard. A block down, garage doors were open into the bottom half of a building.

A tall handsome man stood with a pregnant blond and an older woman.

Thomas was busy looking around, his mouth slightly open. Greta was still pissed over leaving the helicopter, but was looking a bit more impressed than mad now. Valerie craned her head to look up at the top of the wall.

Katarina slid out of the Hummer and Kevin followed. His crew climbed out behind him and they stood in a small, amazed group looking around.

The man walked over to Kevin and held out his hand. “I’m Travis.

Welcome to our home.”

Kevin looked around before he slowly took the man’s hand. “Kevin Reynolds, glad to be here.”

“So, how can we help you?” Travis asked.

Kevin could feel the older woman’s eyes studying him intently. He pegged her as former military. She seemed far too keen for a mere civilian.

“I’m here to negotiate. I was sent by my superiors to ask for you to surrender the fort.”

The man’s face grew solemn and the pregnant woman’s eyes narrowed.

The older woman just looked calm and deadly.

“But I’m here, on the behalf of the people at the Madison Mall and the men under my command to ask for your permission to relocate here and join your town. My superiors, frankly, can go to hell.”

Travis looked surprised, then said, “Well, then, sounds like we got a lot to talk about.”

Chapter 16 1. The Bridging of Words This world was far different from his own.

As they were escorted out of an area where all the vehicles were maintained and stored in the fort, Kevin could not help but think of the vehicles in the mall’s parking lot that could not even venture past the gates where the zombies groaned and wailed. His men would turn on the cars once a week just to make sure the battery didn’t die. But here, there was a whole fleet of vehicles that seemed ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The only way out of the fort’s entry was a staircase that led up over the wall that separated it from the rest of the fort. Levers at the top and bottom of the staircase made it clear the stairs could be collapsed at a moments notice.

“Is this the only way in and out?” Valerie asked.

“When the garage doors are down, yes,” the older woman answered. “And those are reinforced.”

When Kevin reached the top of the stairs, he found himself looking out over the reclaimed downtown of the small town. He felt tears come into his eyes and fought them back.

All the way from the secured courtyard where the trucks were kept and over the wall into the actual town, Kevin absorbed it all. He noticed how internal walls and gates divided the town up. He took in the guards on the walls and the construction workers. Children ran in the streets, shouting and laughing. Old people sat in a gazebo enjoying the cool air and warm sun. Young people were walking down a sidewalk outside of an old movie theater, talking and sipping sodas. The marquee read “Family Night Tuesday Night. Monster’s Inc and Shrek Double Feature.” A pack of dogs ran around playing, yelping and carrying on as a cat sat calmly in the sun cleaning its paw.

As they walked, people stopped to look at the soldiers. A few people waved, others just stared. An old man, with navy tattoos covering his arms, gave them a salute. Kevin saluted back.

“Are you going to kill all the zombies, mister?” a little boy called out. He was playing with toy soldiers in the dirt.

They walked past the back of city hall where a woman stood with a little boy, watching them suspiciously. The hotel loomed large and imposing.

When they entered, he glimpsed a young couple was kissing in a corner.

On the wall was a hand drawn poster announcing “Disco Night Friday Night.”

This was far removed the mall and he felt a lump in his throat.

A large chalkboard in the hallway announced lunch as “Egg Sandwiches, homestyle fries, and chocolate milk shakes.”

Nothing in this world was similar to his. His world was near starvation, mindless tasks to keep people moving, children dying of the flu, and zombies moaning endlessly outside the walls of the mall. It was power struggles. It was hell.

To his surprise, a group of people was seated in the hotel lobby with their luggage around them. When they saw him, they all rose to their feet and began to applaud.

A middle-aged man rushed over. Kevin saw in his peripheral vision Travis sigh and rub his brow in embarrassment.

“It is so good to see you! We are ready to go! We have all our things,” the man said in a torrent of words as he grabbed Kevin’s hand.

“Um...why?” Kevin looked at the man clutching his hand and shaking it vigorously.

The man blinked and his grip lessened. “Why what?”

“Why are you ready to go?”

“Yeah. And where to?” Valerie tilted her head and looked at the man curiously.

“To go to your base, of course. Away from here!”

The soldiers laughed and Kevin patted the man’s shoulder. “Trust me.

You don’t want to leave here. You don’t want to go to where I came from.”

The people looked confused and began to whisper among themselves.