“And chaos could follow. It could get dangerous real fast,” Eric agreed.

Katie took a deep breath. Her father was alive and trapped. She wanted him here, with her. She wanted to see him meet Travis and love him as he had once loved Lydia. She wanted to see her father hold her child in his arms. She wanted Jenni and Bill home. She wanted Jenni at her side when she gave birth. She wanted her family to be whole again.

“I’ll go and speak with her,” Katie said at last.

“I was a prosecutor and leader of the debate team in college. I can be very persuasive. I will speak to the Senator and Major General and make them see that the fort is open to everyone as long as they are willing to work hard to keep this place safe and a decent place to live.”

“I can do it. I can make her and her supporters at least see the possibility.

So that there won’t be bloodshed or death. I may personally despise the woman, trust me, I know her, but if this is all that remains of the American dream and Texas independence, then we should at least give her the option to see the truth. Besides, if the President is really, truly alive in East Texas, then maybe we can find a way to open communication and figure out what the hell happened and what the future holds.”

Everyone was staring at her, taking in her words.

“The Senator did ask me to return with the fort leader for negotiations for the turnover,” Kevin said finally.

Katie felt her jaw set and knew her eyes were determined. “I can talk to her. I have argued her into corners before. I had the displeasure of meeting her at more than one dinner party. She had a real issue with me being married to a woman and I argued her into a corner on that subject,”

Katie said in a low, terse voice. “I can face her again.”

This comment elicited raised eyebrows and looks of curiosity, but Katie didn’t care.

Travis kissed her temple softly Travis’s lips were warm against her skin and she looked up into his eyes. He smiled sadly down at her. “Okay, then I go, too.” He immediately turned and pointed at Nerit. “And you are not stopping me this time!”

Nerit inclined her head. “I agree with you. This time.”

Katie smiled at him and kissed him lightly. His body was tense and she knew he wanted to argue with her, but she loved that he respected her enough not to.

“So if the Senator says yes and there is a horde of zombies outside of the mall, how do we get the people out?” Curtis was looking very uncomfortable with everything going on and his foot was rapidly tapping the floor.

“Airlift. We got three other helicopters other than my bird,” Greta answered.

“We’ve been using an abandoned commercial airstrip for refueling. We cleared out the zombies and have been refueling there regularly,” Kevin explained. “It will take a lot of trips, but it would be the safest. We do have explosives on all the gates out of the mall, but if we do that, there is a good chance of the last part of the convoy being overrun.”

“We can coordinate and figure out how to make the airlift work then,”

Nerit assured Kevin. “As long as the helicopters don’t pull in any zombie mobs, we can run regular pickups out to the helicopters to pick up the people.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Travis said in a low voice. ” A workable, needs to be fine-tuned plan.”

The tension in the room had dissipated and now there was a sense of tentative camaraderie. It would be rough bringing everyone here, Katie knew that, but they could do it. And perhaps they could use the Senator’s contacts within the East Texas compound to their advantage.

Travis rubbed Katie’s back gently as she leaned into him. She loved him so much, but it was time for her to do what she did best. Beyond that, she felt a great need to go to the mall. She wanted to see what had happened there and see her father. She wanted to bring him home as well as Jenni.

The thought of both of them trapped there made her feel sick to her stomach.

“We should get to planning then,” Nerit decided.

Calhoun burst into the room, wide-eyed, jabbering, and wielding his camera. With a scream that made Katie jump, Calhoun raced toward Kevin, his hands stretched out.

Valerie swung her rifle out from under her chair, rose easily to her feet, and nailed the old man with a sharp crack to the forehead. Calhoun fell back, blood running down his face, the camera falling to the floor. Thomas aimed his revolver at Calhoun’s head and everyone heard the safety snap off.

“He’s just a crazy old man!” Katarina had her gun pointed at Thomas.

“Do zombies talk?” Katie stepped forward and she felt Travis holding her arm, making sure she didn’t rush forward.

Calhoun was saying in a low voice as he lay on the floor.

Kevin gently pushed the weapons down that his people had trained on the old man. “He smells dead.”

Katie leaned down and moved the broken camera out of the way. Gently, cautiously, she touched the old man’s matted hair. “Calhoun?”

His eyes, dazed and filled with blood, glanced toward her. “…they are hiding secrets…aliens…you know…and clones…and my head hurts real bad.”

“I think it’s broken…” Calhoun whispered and his eyes rolled up.

“Stop the bleeding,” Nerit ordered as she pulled a small pillow from a chair and handed it to Katie.

Calhoun lay silent, blood seeping into the carpet around him.

Chapter 17 1. Entering the Parlor This is hell, Jenni thought as she walked through the mall after a few hours of scrubbing toilets and sinks with five other ladies. The mall stank of human sweat and fear. Despite all the cleaning they did, personal hygiene was not a luxury the common people enjoyed. According to one of the ladies she had been working with, only a few showers existed in the mall and most of them were upstairs where the Senator and her entourage lived. The two showers on the main level were rigidly scheduled and each person was allowed a two minute shower every four days.

She felt nasty and raw, but according to the schedule, she wasn’t to have a shower for another two days.

The mall was a weird design. Its bottom floor was v-shaped with a long corridor connecting the two sides of the v halfway to form an “A.” The crossing corridor was the food court and public area, complete with a twostory waterfall that fell into a pool of water. Jenni had already been told the waterfall was off limits. It was seen as a reserve water source.

Considering how little water they were given, she wondered why it wasn’t being used yet.

As she entered the food court, she saw people sitting down silently eating their rations. It looked like beans with bits of hot dog was the meal. A few kids were running around in the playscape near the waterfall, but otherwise, the scene was depressing. Soon after the news of the fort had spread, other news had countered it. Word was out that the Senator was seizing control of the fort. Hope had slowly sizzled out of everyone.

An enormous skylight let in the outside light and illuminated the area.

She noticed a crisscross of catwalks that sprawled over the entire court.

What looked like a fire escape-like metal stairway snaked up the back wall and over the empty fast food stalls.

She fell in behind other people waiting for food and let her hair down from its ponytail. After a few minutes in line, she was handed her bowl of beans and wieners and headed over to sit with Bill. He was eating slowly, watching the children with a sad look on his face.

“They’re just waiting to die,” he said as she sat down.

“No, not really. At the fort we were actually living. You and Juan together.

Katie pregnant. Folks do things like movie nights and special dance nights. We actually live.” Bill spooned more food into his mouth and chewed.

“True,” Jenni admitted. She shook her head a little to clear her thoughts.

Without Juan and Katie, it had grown easier for her to hide inside herself and disassociate from her surroundings. Much to her distaste, she was reverting to the old, quiet Jenni who waited for her husband to unleash on her. Except now, she was waiting for something very wrong to go down.