Her husband drew near and smoothed her golden hair back from her eyes. Cupping her face, Travis kissed her lips, then pressed his forehead to hers. “We’re going to make it.”

The elevator doors slid open behind them and an ungodly smell hit them.

Wincing, Katie looked toward Calhoun, satellite dish hat intact, looming in the opening.

“Calhoun, what is--” Travis started to ask.

“One of the traps is disconnected on the east side,” Calhoun exclaimed, waving his hands in front of him. “Gawddamn mind waves of the clones are disrupting my instruments and--”

“Cal, hold on,” Nerit said from nearby around a mouthful of taco. “What do you mean--”

“I lost one of the traps. The controls are dead! Something got disconnected out there!”

“Shit,” Kevin sputtered as he tried to talk and drink coffee at the same time.

“They’re not arriving on the outskirts for another thirty minutes,” Nerit said firmly.

“I don’t trust these ghosts with their mysterious ways,” Calhoun retorted.

“Especially that crazy Mexican one. She was loca in real life and sure as loca in death.”

“Better not let Juan hear you say that,” Nerit said calmly.

“My trap has been disrupted by the evil brain waves of the clone hordes--”

Calhoun then sputtered into a tirade that had half the people in the room gasping.

Small children were quickly ushered into the ballroom while some of the older teens looked impressed.

“We got thirty minutes, Calhoun. Let’s do it,” Rune said from nearby.

“Is it the razor wire trap?” Travis managed to grab a cup of coffee from a nearby tray.

“Nope. The fire one. And you know gawddamn well how important that one is.”

“Shit,” Kevin muttered again, trying to stuff an entire taco in his mouth.

“Let’s do it, dude. I mean it. Let’s go!” Rune was clad in his motorcycle leathers and looking ready for war. “C’mon, Calhoun. We can do this.”

Calhoun looked uneasy for a second. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

With a grin, Rune gripped Calhoun’s shoulder and dragged him back into the elevator. “It’s a damn fine day to die,” Rune assured Calhoun as the doors shut.

“Good idea. I’ll get Katarina out there,” Nerit responded and took up position with Kevin to wait for the elevator to return.

Katie took a cup of coffee from a tray, then snagged the other half of Travis’ breakfast taco. She felt strangely calm. Maybe it was the golden sunlight of the new day pouring through the windows or the light blue sky that seemed so welcoming, but it felt peaceful up here.

Greta appeared nearby already dressed in her uniform and looking ready to go. Her bird would be up in the air soon. Everything they had planned for was about to kick into gear and Katie had to believe it would work.

* * * * * “...and then we shoot them in da head,” Holly assured Juan.

“They’re not getting in,” Jason promised the little girl again.

“Nieta, the bad monsters will not get past the walls,” Rosie assured her adopted granddaughter. “It’s not going to happen.”

“But if they do,” Margie said in an ominous voice, “we will shoot them in da head.”

“Shoot them in da head,” Troy said firmly.

Juan couldn’t help but laugh and leaned over to kiss his kids fondly. “It won’t come to that. I promise.”

Jack flopped down amongst them and Jason leaned over to rub the dog behind the ears. Troy flopped backwards to rest against the dog’s stomach like a pillow.

It seemed like a regular moment for his family: his grandmother had drifted off to sleep in her wheelchair; his mother was fussing with the kid; the kids were ornery as ever; Jason was peering at everyone through his bangs; and the dog was trying to get something into his stomach. This was his family. The thought made him smile, but made his stomach lurch at the same time.

He would do anything to protect them. Jenni had made this happen. His loca. His crazy, freaky, probably partially insane girlfriend. God, he loved her and missed her. But she was at peace, he knew that, and knew her prayers were with him. He had lost her, but gained his children. His heart, he realized, was healed because of their love and need for him. A gift to him. Without their love, he would still be in mourning.

“I need to get going,” Jason said as the other three kids prattled on.

Suddenly, the little family looked quite somber. Jason, like many of the teenagers from thirteen on up, was part of the fort’s defenses.

“Give me a kiss, nieto,” Rosie said throwing out her arms to him.

Jason stood up and moved into her arms and looked a little embarrassed by her tight hug and kiss. Juan rose to his feet as well and moved to hug his son tightly. Jason’s arms came about him and they held each in an embrace that said more than words ever could.

“Me, too!” Margie leaped onto Jason. He laughed as he hugged the younger kids.

Juan took a step back, feeling tears threatening. Jason was his son. He loved him fiercely. He could not love him more if he had fathered him.

The pride he felt in him was overwhelming and he fought for control.

Leaning over, Jason kissed the sleeping old woman that was his adopted great-grandmother, then strode away.

“So am I!” Troy leaped into her arms to hug her.

Rosie laughed and hugged the little boy tightly. “Yes you are. Now kiss your Daddy One.”

Juan could feel his control slipping, but he managed to not cry as the three kids kissed him and hugged him tight.

Then he was walking away, his heart in his throat and his head spinning.

There was just no way about it. His children would not die today. They would not. There was simply no other choice but to win.

* * * * * Kevin and Nerit stepped into the elevator and the doors closed behind them.

“Here,” Kevin said softly, pressing a tiny metal box into her hand.

Kevin shifted on his feet and looked at her steadily. “I want to say something. It’s something I wanted to say since you woke up.”

“I already know. You don’t have to say it,” Nerit responded quickly.

“Arnold once called you the sexiest old woman around, you know.” Kevin said bashfully.

“I think he was right.” Kevin drew closer to her. “Nerit...”

“You deserve the right to find a new family. To rebuild just like everyone else once this is over. I can’t give you that.”

“But you feel it, too. If we were closer in age and met-”

“Yes,” Nerit said simply. “But that is not the case, is it?”

Kevin nodded sadly, his green eyes staring deeply into hers. “I wish it was.”

Nerit looked away and stared at the elevator door. “Me, too.”

Just before the elevator reached their floor, Kevin pressed a firm, hard kiss to her cheek. To his delight, Nerit blushed.

The doors dinged then opened. Kevin stepped out onto this floor, waving at her.

Nodding once, she tucked the detonator into her jacket pocket and took a breath as the doors closed.

3. And The Clock Winds Down...

It was an odd moment. One of many, considering the last year. As Katie was staring out the window over the fort’s defenses in front of the hotel, the ascending sun caught the glass. A flash of light blinded her instantly.

When her eyes cleared, she was driving the old white truck. Jenni sat next to her in jeans, a tank top and a cowboy hat with a good pair of knock off Fendi sunglasses perched on her nose. Jack sat between them, the hot wind ruffling his fur as it poured through the open windows. Beyond her was the desert, hot and fierce. Waves of heat rippled over the endless stretch of highway.

“This could have been it. You know. Our future.” Jenni grinned at her and turned her face into the scalding wind. “The desert.”

The heat was amazing and the sun was unrelenting. Jack woofed beside them and licked at his paw.

“I thought about it,” Katie confessed. “Before we found Nerit and Ralph.”