When the convoy had reached the city, it was like entering the gates of hell. The trucks had barreled through snarled traffic, run over raging zombies, smashed through barricades, all in an attempt to save the living.

They had reached the police station just as it was overrun. The police chief and some of his surviving men had leaped from the roof of the police station onto the back of one of the trucks. It was terrifying to see how few people survived. They had met up with what remained of the National Guard and made an attempt to get out of the city. Nearly half of their vehicles and men were lost when waves of zombies filled the roads.

Shattered, overwhelmed, and near panic, the soldiers had fled into the hills. A few had jumped ship at the first sight of an abandoned car to try to go rescue their families. It was tempting to do in the face of so much horror, but Kevin knew their efforts were fruitless. He understood what those men and women did not.

The world was dead. Their families were dead. His own family would have taken refuge in the hospital where his wife worked. There was no hope for them, but he could try to save others.

He had let those soldiers go. The world was ending and every man and woman deserved to make a choice as to their own fate.

So those who remained followed him into the hills. They found their way to Madison, driving through dying towns, and watching with weary eyes as the zombies followed the trucks howling. Bullets had struck down the walking dead, but nothing could alleviate the pain the soldiers felt.

It was the most bitter of any defeat.

They had found the Rescue Center abandoned by FEMA, a few military survivors and townspeople inside, and a locked door in the back barely holding back a horde of undead. Kevin had made the choice to get the people to the mall. All the businesses were closed due to the outbreak spreading so fast so it seemed like a secure location. The high wall around the mall provided them a chance to hold back the undead.

He had stood at the gate of the parking lot and watched the last group of people running from the civic center with the zombie horde behind them.

In his mind, he could still hear his voice shouting orders as he watched the slowest of the survivors be dragged down and consumed. It was a terrible sight, but each person who fell bought a little more time for the ones still running. When the survivors were all inside and the gates shut, Kevin had looked through the bars at the undead snarling at him. He had felt all hope leave him, but he was determined to do his best for the survivors.

For a week he had run the mall as best he could. The surviving soldiers worked hard to secure the mall and keep the zombie population down.

Other survivors showed up on occasion and sometimes successfully made it to safety. More often than not, they were torn apart trying to scale the high walls into the mall parking lot. The National Guard helicopters arrived the second day and managed to airlift supplies and ammunition until the National Guard base was overrun.

He had felt as though he was on the edge of losing his mind. Working hard and keeping focused on what needed to be done kept him from thinking about his family. But at times, he would find himself alone weeping until he felt he would die of the pain.

A week later, the Senator showed up with the retired Major General. The Major General carried orders from the President giving him the power to run the FEMA rescue stations in the area. Kevin had stepped aside, not knowing what else to do. He was at a loss how to run a rescue station or how to keep things running. Or so he had thought at the time. Now he wished he had never relinquished authority. The Major General obviously had his eye on a political career and wanted to be in good standing with the Senator. Kevin just wanted the people to be safe.

When he told the fort leaders of the Senator’s plans, he saw his own horror reflected in their faces. He told them honestly about her disregard for the survivors and her regard of them as “assets.” He was brutally honest about her ambitions. It felt good to speak of her so harshly.

It was hard not to cry, remembering what he had seen, but he knew they had all seen their share of horrors. When he finished telling his story, his voice low, his eyes full of tears. He could see that that the people in the room believed him by the tears in their eyes.

“I just want to do what is right,” Kevin finished. “I want to give those people a good home. I failed them once. I don’t want to fail them again.”

“And you won’t,” Travis promised him. “Let’s bring your people home.”

Katie stood holding her father’s letter in her hand, listening to Kevin tell his horrible story, her fingers slowly tracing the edges of the paper. Her tears were dry now, but she felt them close at hand.

It was too wonderful and too miraculous to fully accept that her father was still alive and yet, she held a piece of paper with his easily recognizable scrawl covering it.

Looking up, she could see the weariness in Kevin’s face. The months in the mall had probably aged him a bit. She didn’t think he was actually as old as he appeared. His shoulders were stooped slightly as if with the great burden of protecting those people in the mall weighed them down.

The other soldiers had a weary look about them as well.

“I appreciate this more than you know. We are getting low on ammunition and the gates won’t hold forever against the zombies,” Kevin said.

“For awhile we would thin them, but ammunition became an issue when the National Guard armory fell to the dead,” Kevin continued. “So we’ve been holding the line up until now.”

“Did you consider trying to get the people out before now?” Nerit asked.

“Honestly, yes. I talked to the Major General and Senator Brightman. The Senator told me to make sure the zombies didn’t get in and that was the end of that. Every time we went out for rescue with the helicopters, we’d try to find a new location, but nothing was really workable.”

“Zombies are thick the closer you get to the cities,” Greta agreed. “We stopped trying to even go within seventy miles of any of the major cities.”

“The bigger towns are just as bad. Most of our rescues have been from small towns,” Kevin said with a weary sigh. “We knew supplies would become an issue soon, so we sent out scavenging raids. We lost people when we went east, so we started coming out this way, west. That is when we realized someone had been there before us. We found this one group in a grocery store making a meth lab in the back. They were seriously messed up. We interrogated their leader. He is the one who told us about the fort. He said his group had tried to join yours, but had been refused.

That you had attacked them instead of helping them.”

“We could tell his story was fishy, but the minute the Senator heard about the fort, things became very intense. She’s been trying to get her free pass to the compound where the President and the remaining government are ensconced. Her goal was to make the mall seem like an asset to the President so that we would receive more assistance. But it was clear to me that the powers that be considered us a lost cause. But the fort changed that. With the farmland and ranches around here and the lower population of undead, this area is now seen as a viable supply outpost.

The Senator is determined to take over and implement some FEMA plan.” Kevin shook his head. “When you realize that your superiors see the surviving human population as assets, that is when you know that the country has truly fallen. She even came up with some crazy invasion plan that had us invading the fort to seize control.”

“So what do you suggest we do?” Katie asked. “Don’t you think the Senator will try to block you coming here.”

“She probably has about twenty military people on her side. They’re scared. They want out. Some of them are from East Texas. I think they are hoping to find their families. Desperate times bring out the fear in the best of people. She’ll try to stop us, but we have more military on our side.”

Thomas laughed. “If they’re stupid they will. C’mon. This place is heaven compared to the stinking shithole we’re in.”

“It doesn’t mean they will be able to switch allegiances that easily,” Nerit said softly. “People have a tough time admitting when they are wrong.”

“The reality is that the mall is full of desperate, terrified people, supplies are running low, and the zombies outside are growing in number. Nobody is in their right mind,” Kevin said. “I feel on the edge of insanity every day.”

“Which means there could be a forceful response to your request to relocate the mall population,” Nerit decided. “They could panic seeing their own ticket out being removed.”

“Tensions are high, ma’am,” Kevin said softly. “I won’t lie. The people are restless. Scared. The Senator is a determined woman. Ruthless. She has no regard for the people. They are statistics in her plans. That’s all.”

“If there is any sort of gunfire, innocent people may be hurt,” Katarina sighed.