Then an older black woman said loudly, “We want to go where it’s safer!”

“Ma’am, this is about as safe as you are going to get. Trust me. This is heaven compared to where I came from.” Kevin turned toward Travis and the blond woman and saw amused expressions on their faces. “Trust me, they don’t want to go there.”

Travis led him down a hall, past the check-in desk, and into a large office that most likely had belonged to the hotel manager. There was a young man in a police officer uniform waiting along with a man that looked every inch the city official. The woman, who had stood outside of city hall looking suspiciously at them, came around from behind Kevin and took a seat. Travis motioned to the soldiers to sit down as he sat on the edge of the desk. The blond woman slid onto the desk next to him, her legs dangling, watching all of them curiously.

A little nervously, Kevin and his people took up seats in the creaky leather chairs, feeling awkward in their helmets and body armor. Kevin took off his helmet and the others followed his example. Next to him, Valerie shoved her weapon under her chair.

“My name is Nerit,” the older woman said. “And this is Katarina. We head up the fort security.”

“I’m Peggy. The fort secretary. I deal with making sure the people here are comfortable.”

“Curtis, I’m the last cop from the town’s force. I assist in law enforcement.

Bill usually works with me on that.”

“Eric, fort planner and engineer,” the well-dressed man said.

“Juan De La Torre is in charge of construction, but he is recovering right now in our clinic,” Travis said. “Katie, my wife, serves on the fort council.

“First Lieutenant Kevin Reynolds,” Kevin answered. “I have been serving at the Madison Mall Rescue Center since the first day.”

“Valerie. I don’t think my rank means much anymore,” Valerie, the perpetual smart-ass, said with a grin.

“Thomas. I was a Private,” Thomas said with a slight wave.

“Greta. That’s my copter out there,” came the surly response from the redhead.

Travis had his arms folded across his chest and looked very thoughtful.

“So, what can we do for you folks?”

“Like I said, we were ordered to come here and demand you surrender the fort to our superiors. But we can’t agree with that.” Kevin sighed wearily.

“And why are we supposed to believe you?” Katie arched an eyebrow.

Kevin pulled out a letter from his jacket. “This is from Police Chief Bruce Kiel. He was told his daughter is still alive and here at the fort. If she reads this, she’ll be able to vouch that what I am saying is true.”

The blond woman’s face paled and she reached for the letter. “Give that to me.”

Travis reached out to lay a calming hand on her shoulder as Kevin handed over the folded bit of paper.

“Yes,” she answered, and unfolded it quickly. She let out a gasp as the familiar handwriting came into view. Covering her mouth with one trembling hand, she read quickly. Tears shimmered in her eyes and she handed the letter to her husband in silence. Travis bundled her up in his arms and read the letter over her shoulder.

“Katie-girl, It’s me, Dad. I’m alive and safe in the Madison Mall. Safe for now at least. Your friends Jenni and Bill told me you are alive and doing very well in the fort they came from. They tell me that you are even married and have a little one on the way. It makes me very happy to hear you are okay. I have lived these last months in sheer terror that you died with the rest of the world. Senator Brightman is in charge at the mall and wants your fort. Don’t let her have it. The way she treats people is despicable. I would never want her to have any say in your life or the lives of the people around you. Especially in the life of your baby. Listen to Kevin. He’s a good guy and know that what he says is the truth. Love you, baby. Your Dad.” Travis finished and kissed Katie’s forehead, holding her close. She was sobbing loudly and openly with relief.

Nerit stood up and Travis handed her the note. She looked it over. “It is good to know that ones we love survived.”

Kevin lowered his gaze. So far, he had not found one survivor of his former life. His family was long gone and he knew it. That is why he wanted to make sure these good people and the people at the mall had a chance.

“So what do you have to tell us?” Travis finally asked.

Looking up, Kevin saw all eyes were on him. He felt old and tired, but knew he had to press on. Where should he start? What should he say?

“I guess I should start at the beginning,” Kevin finally said as the images of the first day horror unfolded in his mind and his hand slightly shook as he ran it over the top of his head.

“I woke up next to my wife with the phone ringing. We were being mobilized to deal with civic unrest. Of course, what I didn’t know then, was that it was the last day of everything…”

He opted not to tell them how he had reluctantly climbed out of his bed to dress as his wife sat on the edge of the bed talking to him softly in a sad voice. He had just returned from overseas and she had hoped he could make a normal life with his family. There had been plans to see his son play basketball in the early evening followed by dinner at their favorite barbecue dive. Of course, that would never happen.

Instead he had found himself rushing to make it to the base. He took the time to open the doors to the bedrooms of his three children one by one.

Trying hard to control his emotions, he tried not to remember how their skin and hair felt under his touch as he had kissed them goodbye as they slept. He had left his home for the last time, promising his wife that he would contact her as soon as he could. He would never speak to her again.

The briefing at the base had been quick and his orders simple. At a truck stop near a small town a riot had broken out. The local police and sheriff had responded, but were overwhelmed. The military was being sent in to quell the violence and bring it under control. There were rumors it was one of many riots breaking out in the pre-dawn hours in the country.

The convoy of trucks had departed the base, the headlights sluicing through the darkness like a blade. Looking back, Kevin had to admit he had seen some odd things as they traveled out into the hills. At one point he saw two people running down a street at such a quick pace he had thought they must be training for some sort of sprinting event. Now he wondered if they were running to or from something.

By the time they had arrived at the truck stop, which was a small city unto itself, they found a scene out of hell. Vehicles were smashed into each other, one truck was overturned, and a fire was spreading inside of the restaurant. But what was worse was the human carnage. There were dead people everywhere, but they weren’t lying down. Instead, to his horror, they were running about. As soon as the convoy came into view, it was rushed.

Those minutes were a blur. The sound of weapons being fired, screams, growls, and the horrible chewing sounds filled his ears. Blood had sprayed through the air and he had to wipe it from his face mask. Somehow, they managed to tear a swath of destruction through the horde of undead. But mostly, they only damaged them enough to slow them down. Finally someone had shouted to aim for the head. It wasn’t until that moment that Kevin fully realized what they were dealing with. He had seen the armless man running toward him and the woman with an empty chest cavity ripping the eyes out of a soldier, but it had not fully hit him until then.

The soldiers swept through the truck stop, guns firing, bullets ripping apart heads, blood and gore splashing over the pavement and sides of trucks like gruesome artwork. There had been losses as men fell under the onslaught of the zombies. Once they realized what they were up against, the soldiers were more methodical and soon they stood wearily triumphant among the truly dead.

The true horror started when the wounded soldiers suddenly attacked the living. Kevin had fired four bullets into the face of one of his best friends to keep him from attacking him. It was then he discovered a bite was lethal.

Reporting in, Kevin found himself defending what he had seen. Finally, he was told to help the National Guard in the nearby city at the downtown rescue center. As he sat in his truck, covered in blood, his men waiting for his orders, he looked up to see the sun rising over the hills.

Little did he or his superiors realize that the world was already dead.

They had traveled along the back roads toward the city, occasionally stopping to eliminate any zombies or any infected they ran across. Now he realized it was fruitless to eliminate all the bitten, but at the time they had tried to do their best. The number of undead was probably overwhelming at that point, but they didn’t know that.

Looking at Katie as he spoke, he recognized her as the woman he had seen with the German Shepard. The two women with their dog in the big white truck had impressed him that morning. They both looked so shellshocked yet determined to survive. He remembered petting the dog and thinking briefly of his family. He had told them to go to the Madison Rescue Center. Yes, there had been others much closer in the area, but that one seemed the farthest away and therefore, possibly the safest.