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Apocalypse Origins

Apocalypse Origins

Apocalypse Empire Book 1

By R.A. Neely

 

Text Copyright © 2016

R.A. Neely

All Rights Reserved

Foreword

I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my book. This is my first attempt at writing a full length novel and I have to say it’s been a labor of love. I’ve learned quite a bit along the way and I hope that’ll you enjoy reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

 

Thanks for your time!. To get a free bonus chapter, sign up for my VIP mailing list!

http://eepurl.com/bQEj19

 

Table of Contents

1 Crazy Fitness: Emerald Falls, Illinois

2 James: On Patrol, Emerald Falls, Illinois

3 Shirley: WKJ Studios, Emerald Falls

4 Henry: Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia

5 Greg: Willow Street, Emerald Falls

6 Shirley: Hidden Shelter, Emerald Falls

7 Henry: Hidden Government Facility

8 Greg: Highway, Outskirts of Emerald Falls

9 Shirley: Highway, Outskirts of Emerald Falls

10 Cedar Forest, Illinois

11 Laramie, Illinois

12 Laramie, Trailer Park

13 Highway, Southern Wisconsin

14 Camp, Wisconsin

15 Camp, Northern Wisconsin

 

 

1 Crazy Fitness: Emerald Falls, Illinois

 

Greg Lyons crossed the finish line and started a cool down lap. Three miles done. He grabbed his towel off the ground and wiped some of the sweat from his face and head. Greg had a bit of a receding hairline so he kept it shaved. The downside was that he sweated a lot when he worked out. He practiced krav maga two to three times a week with his best friend James. On the off days, like today, he liked to focus on some light strength training and conditioning. He did the strength training to stay toned while the conditioning helped with the krav maga workouts which were pretty intense.

Greg finished his cool down and gathered his things and put them in his gym bag. A quick shower saw Greg on his way out the gym. He hit the remote to unlock his car doors and threw his gym bag into the back seat. Greg started the car and checked the clock. It was only seven. That left him with just enough time to stop off somewhere for a quick breakfast before he had to be at work at seven forty five. Greg pulled in to a Panera Bread and ordered a steak and egg breakfast sandwich. He got back on the road and made great time to his office. Traffic was actually really light which was unusual. Stopping for breakfast typically meant he wouldn’t get to the office until seven forty five. It was only seven twenty and he was already pulling in. Was there a holiday?

He grabbed his briefcase off the backseat and headed into the office. It was one of those three story affairs where multiple businesses could rent out space. There was a medical office and a dentistry on the first floor. The second floor had an ophthalmologist and some insurance companies. He shared space on the third floor with some company that sold fire safety equipment or some such. Greg hit the call button and looked around. He could see into the medical office from this vantage point. There were several people in the lobby area. They were all bent over in their seats. Stomach cramps? Food poisoning maybe? Greg put it from his mind as the elevator arrived.

“Morning, Carol,” he said as he entered the office.

“Morning, Greg,” she replied smiling.

Carol was cute. She was about five six with green eyes and blonde shoulder length hair. She did a good job of keeping herself in shape too. They’d been working together for a little over three years now. Several times she had dropped hints that she wouldn’t mind exploring a relationship outside the office. Greg wasn’t one to mix business and pleasure though. Carol was the best secretary he’d worked with. Replacing her would be impossible if things didn’t work out.

“Hey, Carol. Is today a holiday or something? Traffic was really light coming in.”

Carol nodded. “There was an outbreak or something early this morning. They’re advising everyone to stay home.”

Carol nodded towards the t.v. they kept in the waiting area. She grabbed the remote on her desk and hit the mute button.

Greg noted the t.v. The screen was split. The celebrity news anchor Shirley O’Hara was on one side and it was probably an expert of some kind on the other. Ah. According to the caption he was Dr. Henry Pendleton of the CDC.

“Thank you for taking time to meet with us today, doctor. I know your extremely busy working on this issue.”

“Of course,” Henry said with a solemn nod. “The people deserve to know what’s going on.”

“Thank you doctor, we appreciate that. Well, I know your time is precious so let’s dispense with the usual pleasantries. Can you tell us exactly what we’re dealing with?”

“I can. At approximately three thirty this morning there was an incident of an unknown viral nature.”

“Forgive the interruption, doctor. But some might say that ‘incident’ doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. Isn’t it true there’s been more than one case of this mystery illness? Sounds like outbreak might be a more accurate term.”

“Defining this as an outbreak would be blowing this way out of proportion,” Henry replied. “The CDC has things firmly in hand. In fact, as we speak, my lab is currently running tests. I’m certain we’ll have a solution very soon.”

“So you’re saying there’s nothing to worry about?”

“Absolutely.”

“Even though citizens are being asked to remain in their homes?”

“There’s no danger to the public,” Pendleton replied. “People staying home keeps the roads clear. That gives authorities the freedom to quickly get to the few affected individuals so they can get the help they need.”

“Thank you, doctor. I think I can speak for our viewers when I say that my mind is at ease knowing the situation is under control.”

The screen faded to a skyline shot of Emerald Falls and listed several pointers on the screen. The list included staying indoors and calling 911 if you came in contact with anyone infected.

Greg turned away from the t.v. “Interesting.”

“Pretty crazy right?” Carol asked. “Looks like it’s under control though.”

“Maybe,” Greg said. He frowned in thought. “I think they left out some important info.”

“Like what?”

“Well, how is the virus spread for one? Does it spread when they cough? Do they have to touch you?”

“That is important. Why would they leave that out?”

Greg shrugged. “I imagine part of it is they don’t want to start a panic. Or, maybe they don’t know but can’t admit it.”

“That would start a panic too.”

Greg nodded.

“So what do we do?” Carol asked with a worried look on her face.

“Nothing for now.” He shrugged again. “They didn’t even list the symptoms. How do we know what to look for?”

“Do you think some of our clients are sick?”

“I don’t know,” Greg replied. “Without knowing the symptoms…”. He sighed. “For now, let’s just get through the day. If we haven’t heard anything new by the end, maybe we’ll close up for a few days. Just to be safe.”

Carol nodded. “Alright. You’d better get ready then,” she said nodding towards the clock.

Greg glanced at the clock. Nearly eight. His first client would be here soon. He nodded towards the t.v. “We should probably turn that off. Don’t want to upset anyone.”

Greg walked into his office to prepare for his first client. Greg liked wood. His office had wood paneling and soft green carpet. Greg liked to think it had a cozy ambience. There were only a few pieces of furniture in the room. There was a desk in one corner where he could work on his laptop and two comfortable chairs in the middle of the room about six feet apart. Close enough to suggest intimacy but far enough so as to not invade anyone’s space.

There was a framed copy of his diploma on the wall near his desk. The other walls contained pictures of various nature scenes. Each picture selected was designed to promote calm in the viewer. Greg felt the influence was subtle and helped his clients feel at ease.

Sitting at his desk he fired up his laptop and pulled up his notes for his first session. Michael Ramsey. Ramsey had just gone through a tough divorce. His wife of five years had just left him for another man. So far they’d been working through how the divorce wasn’t Ramsey’s fault. They’d first met when Ramsey was working his way through school. They had started out poor but it looks like she was just around until he got successful. Now he was stuck paying a significant portion of his salary in alimony payments.

The intercom on his desk chirped. “Yes, Carol?” he asked.

“Mr. Ramsey is here. Are you ready for him?

“Yes, you can send him in.”

A few moments later Greg’s phone vibrated. Greg saw a message from Carol.

“Heads up. Ramsey looks really agitated.”

Greg typed out a quick reply and put his cell away. He rose to meet Ramsey just as he entered the office.

“Good morning, Michael,” Greg said as he approached for a handshake.

“Morning, doctor,” Michael replied. They shook hands and Greg noticed Michael’s palms were sweaty.

Michael’s eyes were also bloodshot. Late night drinking perhaps? He was also sweating profusely. Did he jog here?

“Are you feeling alright today, Michael?”

“I’m fine,” Michael replied as he took a seat. “Just a bit under the weather. Summer flu or something.” Michael rubbed a spot near his left elbow.

“Is it hot in here?”

“Not really,” Greg replied. He usually kept the temperature between sixty eight and seventy. Not cool perhaps, but most of his clients seemed comfortable with that range. “I could adjust the thermostat I suppose,” Greg said. “But, I’m thinking a better idea is to skip today’s session. You’re clearly not feeling well.” He saw that Michael rubbed that spot near his elbow again.

“I can handle it, doc. Besides, already paid for the session.”

Greg waved a hand in dismissal. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll make sure you’re refunded for today. Why don’t you rest a bit and I’ll get you a cab.”

“I can take the train, doc. I don’t want to be any trouble.” Michael stood up and immediately sat back down.

“Rest. I insist. I’ll feel better knowing you get home safe. You can’t even stand.”

“Alright, doc,” Michael replied as he rubbed his elbow.

“Is your arm okay, Michael? I noticed you’ve been rubbing it a lot.”

“It’s nothing. Some guy bumped into me on the train. Jabbed me with his pen or something.”

“Alright. Rest. I’ll go take care of that cab.”

Michael mumbled a response as Greg headed towards Carol’s desk. He couldn’t be sick could he? The news didn’t mention where people were getting sick. So it’s possible. Crap! How did it spread? Was he exposed? He stopped. He didn’t want to put Carol at risk. No, that’s not right. Michael was in the lobby. He would’ve walked right past her desk. If it spread that was easily, they were both already at risk.

“What’s wrong?” Carol asked as he reached her desk.

Greg glanced down the hall. No sign of Michael. “Michael needs a cab.”

“Okay,” Carol replied. “But why do you look so worried?”

“Well…I think Michael might be sick.”

Carol chuckled. “Obviously. Why else would I be calling a cab? Oh…,” she said as the implication sank in. “Are we sick too?”

Greg glanced down the hallway again. Still clear. “Keep your voice down. I don’t think so. At least I hope not. We don’t know how it spreads.” He frowned in thought. “The news cast left a lot to be desired but hopefully some of it was accurate. The way O’Hara spoke, it seems like there were only a few cases. I don’t think they could hide anything if it spread that easily.”

Greg smiled. “That’s what I’m hoping at least.”

“So…what now?” Carol asked.

“Get him a cab. We don’t know that he’s sick. Just send him home so he can rest I’m thinking.”

Carol’s eyes widened in shock.

“What?” Greg asked as he turned to follow her gaze. He immediately saw what caused Carol’s reaction. Michael was slowly walking towards them. His movements were jerky, as if he was having trouble getting his limbs to obey. Why was he walking like that?

And what’s wrong with his eyes? They were completely red as if all the blood vessels had burst. There was also a line of drool dripping from one corner of his mouth. It was way more than anyone should be able to produce. And his face. His face was twisted as if every moment was agony.

Greg took a step towards him. “Mr. Ramsey-,” he began.

“Greg, I don’t think-.”

Michael zeroed in on them at the sound of their voices. A low growl started emanating from his throat.

“Mr. Ramsey, please.” Greg said.

Michael roared like a wild beast and charged towards Greg. In contrast to moments before, his movement was swift. He tackled Greg to the ground lunged for his throat with his teeth.

Greg barely managed to get his arm against his throat. “Michael, calm down!”

“Greg, close your eyes!” Greg complied as Carol brought a coffee pot down into Michael’s head.

Carol stepped back in shock as Michael looked at her with hate filled eyes. As he turned his gaze back towards him, Greg realized something. There was nothing human left in those eyes. No spark of intelligence. No trace of the sorrow Michael had been carrying since his wife left him. It was if everything that made Michael who he was had been erased. All Greg saw was animal rage. He could die right here, right now. Beneath this thing on the floor of his office surrounded by the shards of the coffee pot his mom got him when he first opened his practice.

A switch flipped in his mind. He would not die here today. Not like this. Pushing up with his arm he gained just enough space to pull his knees up. He kicked with all his strength and sent Michael flying across the room.

Getting to his feet, Greg brushed away the glass shards that had clung to him. Michael got back to his feet and roared.

Greg beckoned him. “Come on!” he shouted. Michael charged again.

Greg stepped into the charge. Grabbing an outstretched arm, he flipped Michael over his back. He kept hold of the arm so Michael landed right in front of him. He kept hold of the arm with one hand and started punching Michael in the face with the other.

After the fifth punch, Michael was dazed but still breathing. Greg let him go and Michael dropped to the ground. Despite being dazed, he made feeble attempts to reach Greg. Michael pushed himself to his knees while Greg stood there shocked. How on earth was he getting up? There’s no way he should be moving, Greg thought. He came back to attention as Michael made it back to his feet. Greg moved before Michael go on the offensive and launched a kick at his midsection. Michael bent over from the blow and Greg followed with an elbow to the back of his head which sent him crashing back to the floor.

And Michael began stirring again. Greg shook his head. How was this possible? He delivered a solid kick to Michael’s head just as he made it to all fours. The blow sent him back down but he still wasn’t out.

“Here,” Carol said.

Greg turned to Carol who was holding the butcher knife they kept in the break room.

“I don’t think he’s gonna stop,” she said fearfully.

Greg nodded. Already Michael was coming around. There was only one way to finish this. He wouldn’t stop until one of them was dead. Greg took the knife from Carol and plunged it into Michael’s throat.

***

Greg washed his hands again. This was the fourth time but he still saw traces of blood. He looked in the mirror and saw the same face he viewed every day. Shouldn’t there be some sign of his ordeal? He’d just killed a man. Yes, it was self-defense but surely there should be some sign of distress.

He wasn’t upset. In fact, he felt…satisfaction. Yes, that was it. Satisfaction that he had kept Carol and himself safe. If he was upset at all it was more because he wasn’t bothered. Greg finished washing his hands and sighed. He’d have to deal with his feelings later. He left the bathroom and saw Carol sitting at her desk. She shook her head.

“Can’t get through,” she said. “I’ve been trying for the last few minutes but no luck so far.”

Greg had wanted to report this to the police right away but maybe it couldn’t be helped. He sighed. “I guess we keep trying.” Greg wasn’t really worried about getting in trouble. This was clearly self-defense. Maybe he’d feel differently if Carol hadn’t been there. 

Greg and Carol looked towards the front of the office as someone started pounding on the door. They went to investigate and saw a middle aged man in a disheveled suit beating on their glass door. He looked terrified and was breathing heavily as if he had been running from something. He was clearly in trouble.

“We’re closed for the day,” Greg said. 

“Please,” the man begged, “you have to help me. Rick went crazy and started attacking people. Then they got up and starting going after people too!”

That sounded just like what had happened with Mr. Ramsey. Was this the sickness they were talking about on the news? Did it make people aggressive? He said the people attacked got back up. Did he know how it spread? “Alright,” Greg said, “I’ll let you in.” Greg spied movement down the hallway and saw a figure wandering around. It noticed the man’s frantic beating of the door and let out a piercing howl.

The man looked behind him and screamed. “It’s one of them! You gotta let me in!”

“You have to move,” Greg said. “The door opens out.” The creature started sprinting towards them, spittle flying from its mouth.  

The man nodded quickly and stepped back. Greg unlocked the door and shoved it open. Grabbing the man by his jacket, he hurriedly pulled him into the room. He turned towards the door but Carol was already pulling it shut. She locked the door and stepped back just as the creature ran full speed into the door. There was a loud thump and the glass in the door shook, but held.

Carol dropped the blind down and moved away from the door. She flinched as the infected hit the door again.

“Greg, I don’t know if the door is going to hold,” she said nervously.

“Alright. I’ll get some furniture in front of it.” He left the man who was currently on the floor curled up in the fetal position. The occasional whimper could be heard from him.

There were two couches in their waiting area. The longer one could hold three or four while the second one was basically a love seat. Greg wasn’t sure how to go about this. Their office door opened outward, so blocking the door wouldn’t work.

He maneuvered the long couch in front of the door and placed the shorter one on top of that, forming a t shape. They had to get out of here. The furniture would only slow that thing down for a few seconds at best. Greg walked over to the window and looked outside. The fire escape! He opened the window to get a closer look and frowned when he saw its condition.

It was rusted all over. The bolts that attached it to the building looked as if they were ready to crumble to dust at the slightest breeze but it was the only way out if he didn’t want to deal with that thing at the door. Greg remembered what the man had said about the people who had gotten attacked. He didn’t know how many of those creatures were running around in the building. The fire escape was the best option. Another thump reminded him he only had a few moments to figure this out.

He needed a weapon though. His eyes fell on Mr. Ramsey’s body that they had covered with a table cloth. The knife was still over there. Greg walked over and pulled the sheet back. He grabbed the knife and spent a few moments wiping it clean on the table cloth then put it into his belt. “Carol,” he said, “We need to take the fire escape.”

The sound of breaking glass drew his attention and Greg watched as the love seat was shoved to the floor. To his surprise, there were three of those things there. All the noise must have drawn their attention. Right now they were all trying to get through the door at once but Greg was sure they’d figure it out soon enough. “Go, Carol!”

Carol ran for the window and quickly made her way outside. Greg heard the fire escape groan at the weight but it held. Hopefully it would hold up long enough for them all to get down. The creatures managed to sort themselves out and began scrambling over the couch, one by one. Greg ran forward and planted a kick in the first one’s chest went sent it crashing into its friends. That bought him a few seconds to run to the window where the man they’d let in was making his way out onto the fire escape.

He climbed through the window and started making his way down. Growls behind him told him the creatures were close on his heels. He made it down the first set of stairs when the fire escape started shaking. Looking up, he saw the creatures making their way outside. He heard the screech of metal and hoped the fire escape would last just a few more minutes. He took off, taking the stairs three at a time. He thought about jumping all the way down a flight but didn’t want to fall with those creatures close behind.

The fire escape groaned again and began pulling away from the building. It wasn’t gonna hold! Greg saw that he’d made to the second floor and considered going through the window but the fire escape pulled free with a final screech before he could act on it. There was nothing he could do but hold on. He closed his eyes and held on tight. This was going to hurt. There was a sensation of free fall and Greg heard screaming and roaring but didn’t know who it was. There was a loud crash that nearly shook Greg loose but he managed to hold on. Opening his eyes he saw that he wasn’t on the ground.

The top of the fire escape had hit the building next door. It was a good thing space was so hard to come by in the city. If the buildings had been further apart, the fire escape would have crashed to the ground. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to walk away from that. He looked up and only saw one creature remaining. The roaring must have been the others falling from the crash. Who made that scream then? Was Carol okay?

“Carol?” He looked down but couldn’t see much of the lower area of the fire escape.

“Carol!?”

“I’m okay,” came her reply, “just a bit bruised.”

“Good,” Greg said as he sighed in relief. “What happened? I heard a scream.”

“That was the other guy. He fell when we crashed against the other building.”

Greg shook his head. That was a shame. To survive the horror in the building only to fall…

Movement at the end of the alley caught his eye. Two of those things were making their way towards them. The crash must have drawn their attention. Screaming for Carol probably hadn’t helped either.

“Carol,” he began calmly, “you need to make your way back to top me.

“Alright. I’m on my way.”

Good Greg thought. She didn’t waste time asking why. He looked up. With those creatures down below their best bet was to try and get into the neighboring building. He’d just have to deal with the one creature left up top. He reached for the knife and was glad to feel the handle. He hadn’t lost it.

He started making his way up. He couldn’t use the stairs with the fire escape leaning as it was. He had to use the railing as a make shift stair. He had to be careful. The gap in the railing was large enough that a misstep would see him joining that other man on the ground. Greg approached the creature and it immediately roared and lunged towards him. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the wherewithal to pay attention to its footing and one leg fell through the gap in the railing. Greg quickly took advantage and stabbed the creature in the neck. He withdrew the knife and used a foot to send the creature crashing to the ground below. He continued up the fire escape until he reached a window. It was locked so he launched a series of kicks to break the glass, careful not to cut himself. Once it broke, he used the knife to clear the remaining glass from the frame and slipped inside.

He found himself in a storage room. There were various office supplies arranged on the shelves. Noise from outside alerted him to Carol’s approach and he turned to the window and saw she had reached the end of the fire escape. He held out his hand and helped her navigate through the window. Screams from bellow reached their ears. Carol shook and Greg took her in his arms. The two creatures must have found the man from the office. Shame that he survived that fall only to be attacked by those things. Stepping back he looked at Carol.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yea, I’m fine now that I’m out of that deathtrap.” She sighed and used an arm to wipe sweat from her eyes.

“Good. Sorry I didn’t lend a hand. Had to deal with another one of those things so we could get in here.”

“That’s fine. Look, I know I don’t have a chance of surviving this craziness without you but I’m not completely helpless. I can keep up.”

“I’m not complaining,” he said shaking his head, “and I don’t think you’re helpless.”

Carol smiled. Carol looked around the room. “So what’s next? How are we gonna get out of here?”

“First, I want to see if there’s anything we can use in here. Anything we can use as a weapon. All I’ve got is this knife.”

Carol nodded and began looking at the shelves. There didn’t appear to be much that would be of use. She saw pens, paper, staples, binder clips and so on. She was just about to give up when she noticed a mop sitting in the corner.

“How about that mop?” she asked. “It’s not much but better than nothing maybe.”

Greg walked over and looked at the mop. She was right. It wasn’t much at all but they didn’t really have anything else at hand. He supposed he could take that mop part off, that’d leave him with a staff of sorts. The mop was really fragile though, it wasn’t designed to be used as weapon. Maybe he could get a few hits out of it before it broke.

“It’ll have to do,” he said as he began removing the mop head. He had a sudden inspiration. The mop was nearly useless as a bludgeoning tool, but maybe he could make a serviceable spear out of it. “See if you can find some duct tape or something like that he said. I’ll try and make a spear.”

“Okay,” Carol replied. A few minutes later she found the desired item hiding at the bottom of a shelf. “Found some.” 

Greg took the knife and held the handle to end of the stick. “Take the tape and wrap it around. Make sure you get it really tight.”

Carol nodded and set to work. “How much tape should I use?”

“A lot. I don’t want to lose the knife when I use it.”

“Alright, how’s that?”

Greg tested the knife and it seemed pretty sturdy. It wouldn’t last indefinitely, but it would give him some reach if he had to face any more of those things.

“Not bad,” he said. “Alright, time to get out of here. Stay close to me alright?”

Carol nodded. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Greg nodded and moved over to the door. He wasn’t sure if any of those things were loose in this building so he turned the handle as quietly as he could and cracked the door. He took a moment to listen. He couldn’t hear anything. Maybe no one was in the building. Only one way to find out though he supposed. Greg quietly opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. It was carpeted so that would muffle their footsteps. If anyone was hear they shouldn’t be able to hear them coming. The closet they were in was situated at the end of a hallway. They could only go to the right. He looked back into the closet and motioned for Carol to follow him.

He quietly made his way down the hallway, spear at the ready. The hallway opened up into a larger room. There were a number of cubicles which fortunately, only came up to his chest. He could easily see that the room was empty. Halfway down one wall Greg could see an elevator. Greg’s hand was halfway to the button when Carol stopped him.

“Wait,” she whispered.

Greg looked at her. “What’s wrong?” he whispered back.

“What if one of those things is downstairs?”

Greg thought for a moment. She was right. If one of those things was downstairs it might be on them before they could get the doors closed again.

“You’re right,” he responded, “let’s look for the stairs.”

Crossing the room brought them to another hallway. Looking to his right, Greg saw several doors in that direction. Probably offices. To his left, he saw their goal. He approached the steel door and opened it as quietly as he could. He checked behind to make sure Carol was still with him, at her nod he started down the stairs. Greg paused at the first floor landing. It was probably fine but he didn’t want to be surprised. He still couldn’t hear anything though. Maybe the building was empty after all. He continued down the stairs and paused when he reached the door. Opening the door would reveal his position so he placed his ear to it and listened. Still nothing. He quietly turned the handle and opened the door.

He walked down a short hallway and found himself in a lobby area. There was an information desk and a few comfortable looking chairs. The room was completely empty and Greg sighed a breath of relief. Sneaking through the building may have almost been as bad as if he’d had to fight his way through. The thought that one of those creatures could be around the next corner had kept him on edge the entire trip down.

“Let’s catch our breath,” he said.

Carol nodded and sat on one of the chairs. She let out a shaky breath. “That was intense. I just knew one of those things was lurking around.”

Greg nodded. “I felt the same way but it looks like we’re okay for the moment.” He glanced towards the exit. It was a set of glass double doors. He’d be able to see how things were outside and hopefully nothing would see him in the process. He approached the doors and looked around.

The parking lot for the building was completely empty. Looks like no one made it in to work today. He looked towards his building and saw his car in the lot. A quick sprint could see them there. They’d probably have to deal with those two creatures from the alley though. He glanced at his spear. Hopefully it would be up to the task.

He walked back to Carol. We’re gonna make a run for my car.”

Carol nodded. “What about staying here though? No one else is here so we should be safe.”

Greg shook his head. “That works for the short term but not for the long haul. If one of those things breaks inside we’ll be in the same boat all over again.”

He looked at the exit. “Even if we could barricade the door, what about food? We can’t stay here forever, Carol.”

Carol sighed. “I know. Just…it would’ve been nice to be safe for a while.”

“I don’t think we’ll be safe here. Two of those things are probably still in that alley.”

“Alright,” Carol said, “you’re right.”

“I know this is a lot to deal with,” Greg said, “I don’t even know how I’m not going crazy right now. But we’ll get through this.”

Carol nodded. “Okay. I’m ready when you are.”

Greg led her over to the door and fished in his pants pocket. “Here,” he said taking out his keys.

“I want you to run for my car and start it up. Think you can drive right now?”

Carol nodded. She was scared out of her mind but she had no intention of dying. If Greg needed her to drive then that’s what she’d do. “I’m fine. Just keep them away from me.”

Greg nodded. “I’ll open the door and we’re gonna run for the car. If those things show up I’ll keep them busy.”

Carol nodded as she took the keys from Greg. She took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“Alright. On three. One, two, three.” Greg pushed the door open and ran towards his car, Carol right on his heels. They heard roaring as they passed the alley. Greg glanced and saw two creatures looking up from the remains of the man from earlier. They immediately got up and started running after them.

There was still a little distance left, Greg wasn’t sure if they’d make it in time. “Get to the car!” Greg stopped running and prepared to fight.

The two creatures came barreling around the corner and headed towards him. Greg waited until there were nearly on him and struck with his spear, as he made contact he stepped to his left and put himself out of reach of the second creature. Before the first creature could recover, he struck again, scoring a hit on its side. He jumped back as the second creature swiped a blood covered hand at him. He responded with a jab towards his stomach but didn’t get a solid hit.

The first creature approached and swung at him again. Greg blocked with the staff but heard a crack. It wouldn’t last much longer. Greg kicked it in its chest and sent it sprawling onto the ground. He turned to face the second creature and just managed to duck a swing at his head. He spun away from the creature and swung low with his staff. The creature landed on its back with a thud. Greg quickly approached and thrust the spear into its neck. The force of the blow caused the spear to break and Greg stumbled and fell to his knee.

He looked over his shoulder and saw the first creature charging towards him. The creature leapt and Greg threw himself into a roll to get out of the way. The creature roared in frustration and took off towards him again. Greg scrambled back to his feet. The sound of an engine heading his way caught his attention. That must be Carol. That was good. He didn’t need to finish this one off then. He waited until the creature started its leap and then dodged to the side. Before it could recover Greg ran forward and kicked it in the back, sending it crashing to the ground.

Carol screeched to a halt behind him. He ran over to the car and got in. “Let’s go!” he yelled. Carol sped out of the parking lot while the creature ran behind them, screaming its frustration.

“Where are we going?” Carol asked as she turned out of the parking lot.

“We’ll head to my house,” he replied. “I have weapons and a few supplies there. He pointed at turn coming up. “You can take that road right there. It’ll take us to the expressway.”

Carol nodded and took the turn. “You know,” she began with a grin, “there are easier ways of getting me to your place.”

Greg chuckled. There’d always been this tension between them but Greg had never wanted to act on it. He’d always felt it would be unethical since he was her employer. Though, if he was being really honest, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to replace her. But, getting chased by crazed people that wanted to kill you had a way of putting things in perspective. Today showed him that life was short. Granted, right now maybe wasn’t the best time to explore a relationship but when all this was over…

“Well, I figured we’d skip the whole awkward first date and all.”

Carol smiled. “You could’ve warned me. I would’ve put on something nice.”

Greg deliberately gave her a once over. “That’ll do. You won’t be wearing it long.”

Carol chuckled again. “Is that so? What makes you think it’ll be that easy?”

“You’re madly in love with me. You can’t help yourself really. I am pretty amazing.”

Carol laughed aloud. “Really? Someone thinks pretty highly of themselves.”

Greg chuckled. It seemed a bit weird to be joking around given everything they’d been through this morning. But maybe that was just what they needed. She’d been so afraid back there. And who wouldn’t be? He was scared himself. If not for his training in krav maga he probably wouldn’t have survived. So maybe some laughter is just what they needed. He glanced at the clock on the dash. Nine thirty. All that they went through and only an hour and a half had passed since the day started.

“There. Expressway entrance is right there.”

Carol nodded. She took the on ramp and merged with traffic. It was still pretty light which meant a lot of people were probably taking the warning to stay in their homes seriously. Fifteen minutes went by and Greg pointed out the exit that would take them to his house. They’d seen no signs of those creatures on the expressway. It was as if what happened at the office occurred in its own little world.

A few side streets later and Carol was turning onto Greg’s street. He pointed out his house and she pulled the car into the driveway. Greg hit the garage opener and Carol pulled the car into the garage. They got out of the car and Greg hit the button again to close the garage.

Carol leaned against the car. “I didn’t see anything on the way in. Are we safe here?”

“For now I guess. Maybe it started downtown so it just hasn’t spread this far yet. Probably just a matter of time though.”

Carol nodded.

“Come on,” Greg said, “let’s get inside.”

Greg led the way inside and showed Carol to the living room. “Something to drink?” he asked?

Carol nodded. “Sure. Maybe some food too. Running for your life leaves you famished. Great workout plan though. I’ll finally get rid of those few pesky pounds if this keeps up.”

Greg chuckled as he headed towards the kitchen. Greg rummaged in the refrigerator a bit to see what he had on hand. “Beer, water, or iced tea?”

“Water’s fine,” Carol replied.

Greg filled to glasses with ice and filled them both with water from the tap. A beer would be great right now but this wasn’t the time to get buzzed. He needed to keep a clear head if they were gonna survive all this. He didn’t know how long they’d be safe here.

He sat down on the couch next to her and handed her the glass. “Food wise I can do some sandwiches. Anything else and I’d need to cook.”

Carol nodded. “That’s fine. I could eat a shoe right now.”

Greg chuckled again. “How about some roast beef instead? I mean you’d get more fiber from the shoe I guess but the beef will go down easier.”

Carol smiled back. “I guess that makes sense. Maybe for dessert?”

Greg laughed as headed back towards the kitchen. He got all the necessary ingredients and set about making their food. They continued to make small talk and then returned to the living room after Greg was done making their sandwiches. They ate quickly, both of them being hungrier than they realized. 

“Either that was good, or I was really hungry,” Carol said.

“Hey now,” Greg said, “I make a mean sandwich.”

Carol smiled and nodded towards the t.v. “Want to see if they’re saying anything new?”

“That’s a good idea,” Greg said as he grabbed the remote. Turning the t.v. on they were just in time to catch a newscast from Shirley O’Hara. They sat in rapt attention as she related that they were actually facing an outbreak and the infected were very dangerous. 

“Do you think that’s true?” Carol asked. “What she said about the bite?”

“Well, I guess we don’t know without seeing it for ourselves but that makes sense. I fought with 

Mr. Ramsey and I’m not infected. At least I hope not. If it was just casual contact we’d both be sick I think.”

“So what now? Do we just stay here and hope the government gets things under control?”

Greg frowned in thought. “I’m not sure what we’re gonna do long term just yet. In the short term, we’ll head over to James’s house after we rest a bit. I’ve got a bit a food stored away. Just in case of a tornado or something. We’ll take what I’ve got and combine it with James and we should be okay for a while.” Greg paused as he thought for a moment.

“What’s wrong?” Carol asked.

“Just wondering about James. I think he had to work this morning so he would have been out in the middle of this.”

“Do you think he’s okay?”

“I hope so. But our rest just got canceled. If something did happen to him, I’ve gotta get over there and look after Laura and the kids.”

Carol nodded. “Alright. So what do we need to get going?”

Greg smiled at her willingness to help. You’d think that just about anyone would be paralyzed from the craziness of the whole situation. But Carol had a good head on her shoulders. Shame it took something like this for him to realize it.

“The food I’ve got is in the garage. There’s a few cases of water and some can goods. Not a whole lot. I’d only bought enough for a few days.”

“Alright. I’ll start loading the car.”

“We can take what’s in the cabinets too. It’s not as much as in the garage but every little bit will help if this goes on.”

“Do you think the government will get this under control?”

“I hope the government will get things under control,” Greg responded. “But let’s plan in case they don’t.”

“That makes sense,” Carol replied. “So, I’ll pack up the garage and the kitchen. What will you be doing?”

“I’ll get all my weapons together.” At Carol’s raised eyebrow he explained further. “James and I game a lot. We usually go to the E3 conference every year. We like to buy replicas of weapons from our favorite games. Some of them might actually be functional. He also drags me off to the gun range now and again so I’ve got a few handguns around.”

“Alright. I won’t say that’s nerdy ‘cause it’ll actually come in handy,” she said with a smile.

Greg chuckled. “Who knew right?” Greg stood up. “Alright, let’s get started. I want to get over to James’s house as soon as we can.”

Carol nodded and headed for the kitchen. “You have boxes or something for the stuff in here?”

“I have some of those canvas bangs underneath the sink.”

Carol nodded and set to work. Greg headed to his bedroom. He grabbed a gym bag he had lying around and put the two handguns he owned inside. He had the Glock 17 he’d learned to shoot with and a Glock 19 he’d purchased because James insisted it was better. He tossed in a holster and then looked around for the ammo After locating the box that went into the bag as well. After that, he changed in to a sturdy pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Next came a comfortable pair of hiking boots. Gym shoes would be more comfortable but he’d rather have the boots for the added protection. They had a steel toe so he could also use them offensively if needed.

He threw a few changes of clothing into the bag. After a moment’s thought, he threw in a few pairs of jogging pants for Carol. They’d be big on her but would be better than nothing. Next, he examined the weapons he had around the house. He had a few swords he’d bought over the years. He had a katana, a gladius, and a few random swords inspired by video games. None of them proved to be serviceable however. Most of them were loose in the hilt and it felt like a solid hit might cause it to break. He didn’t want to rely on these only to have them fail. 

Just as he was about to give up on that, he realized he had something in the garage that might do the job. He quickly headed there and grabbed a machete off the wall. He gave it a few test swings and felt it should work. He’d bought it on a whim a year or two ago. He’d thought it be fun to use on the bushes in the backyard when his neighbors weren’t looking. He placed the machete back into its sheathe and took a few minutes to attach it to his belt.  That done, he realized his guns were useless right now. They’d do him a whole lot of good if they ran into trouble on the way to James’s house.

He returned to his room and retrieved the Glock 19 and attached that to the other side of his belt. He then took a few minutes walking around the house too see anything else that might be of use. On a whim he fired up the PlayStation. He was pleased to see a message from James. He typed out a quick reply and turned it off. After that he took one last walk around the house. He wasn’t sure if he’d be back. Yea, if the government showed up things might get back to normal but he thought it best to plan for the worst case scenario. He met Carol by the entrance to the garage.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Yea, I was just taking a second to look around. Don’t know if I’ll be back.”

Carol nodded in understanding. “Well at least you get one last look. I won’t be able to see my place. My poor cat.”

“You have a cat?

“Yea. I hope she’s alright.”

Greg grimaced. He’d like to help but there was no way he was gonna fight his way through those things just for a cat. Carol smiled at the look on his face.

“It’s alright,” she said. “I love that cat but I’m not about to risk my life for it. You ready to get out of here?”

Greg nodded. “Yea, let’s go.”

Carol nodded and they headed out the door.

 

 

2 James: On Patrol, Emerald Falls, Illinois

 

James Ruckley pointed down the street. “I think that guy might be one of them,” he said. He’d pointed at a man trying to walk down the street. He was using the buildings he passed as support.

His partner, Mark Jeffries slowed the car. “How can you be sure from here?”

“We’ll have to get closer to be sure but it’s worth checking out.”

Jeffries nodded and pulled the car over to the curb. They were each wearing a hazmat suit complete with hood. They each put on a face mask that completely enclosed their face. Next came boots and gloves.

“Alright, let’s check this out,” Jeffries said, his voice muffled by the facemask.

James nodded and they both exited the vehicle. They slowly approached the man. Despite the suits, neither really wanted to be all that close to him. Who would’ve thought that this is how his day would be going. He’d arrived for his shift at six this morning only to hear a briefing that sounded like a plot for a bad zombie flick. The chief had told them that some mysterious illness had broken out around three that morning. The CDC was on site. They’d established a quarantine ward at the hospital and all officers were being tasked with rounding up any sick people that they saw.

The major symptom appeared to be fever. That was apparently all that the CDC knew so far. After the chief’s briefing, they’d been issued these suits and sent on their way. Hopefully the suits were doing their job. How could they be certain if they didn’t even know what this illness was? James sighed and brought his attention back to the matter at hand. They were close enough to the man now that he should be able to hear them without them having to shout.

“Excuse me, sir,” James said.

The man stopped walking and looked in their direction. He was sweating profusely. So much so that it looked as if someone had dumped a bucket of water over his head. That wasn’t the most shocking feature though. The man had a pair of bloodshot eyes so red that they looked like something from a horror movie.

“How are you feeling, sir?” Jeffries asked.

“N-Not good,” the man mumbled as he touched his throat. “Throat hurts. M-My head hurts too.”

James nodded. “Alright, sir. We’d like you to come with us. We’ll take you to the hospital.”

The man nodded. “O-Okay. I think that’s a good idea.”

They each took an arm and helped the man to their squad car. James helped the man get in back while Jeffries slid behind the wheel. Jeffries moved to take off his gloves but stopped when James shook his head. It probably wasn’t a good idea to remove their gear with this guy in the car. They wouldn’t want to expose themselves. Jeffries nodded and pulled onto the street.

They made great time to the hospital as traffic was nearly nonexistent. Early this morning, the mayor had issued a statement strongly advising residents to remain in their homes for their own safety. The proclamation hadn’t started a panic fortunately. The mayor had assured the populace that the illness was well in hand but clear streets would allow emergency responders to get to infected people quickly.

They pulled up to the emergency room and immediately several people in gear similar to their came out to meet them with a stretcher. They quickly removed the man from the vehicle who appeared to have fallen asleep. They nodded their thanks and wheeled the man inside.

“This is pretty crazy right?” Jeffries asked.

“Definitely weird,” James replied. “I just hopes these suits are doing their job.”

Jeffries nodded. “Think it’s safe to take some of this off? Sucks driving like this.”

“Better not. No sense taking any risks.”

“You’re right. Thing is just real uncomfortable.”

James nodded. Personally, a little discomfort didn’t bother him. He had a wife and two children at home. He had no intention of taking any unnecessary risks with this illness, especially with no one knowing what it was. No way would he risk exposing Laura and the kids. He thought of his family at home. It was about six forty five. Laura would normally be getting up around now to get the kids ready for school. Fortunately, all the schools were going to be closed. As part of his statement, the mayor had said that all public buildings would be closed today for safety. James was relieved at that. There was no way he would have been able to focus on the job today if he’d been worried about his family.

“Let’s head back out,” James said.

Jeffries nodded and put the car in gear. They made three more trips, each like the first. They’d find someone walking around looking confused. They’d be sweating enough to drown and each had the bloodshot eyes. They were fifteen minutes into their fifth trip when they got a call over the radio.

“Attention all units. Attention all units. We’ve got reports of violent patients at the hospital. Please respond.”

“Car ninety one here,” James said over the radio. “We’re in route. E.ta. fifteen minutes.”

“Acknowledged ninety one.”

Jeffries turned the siren on and threw the car into a U-turn. He sped back towards the hospital as fast as he could safely drive and not lose control.

“What do you think it is?” he asked.

James shrugged. “Maybe some of those patients got a little violent. Those last two we dropped off looked really confused.”

“I hope not. I can’t use any of my gear with these gloves.”

James nodded. The suits might protect them from the illness but it would be difficult if they needed to use any of their equipment. Jeffries turned a corner and the hospital came in view. Jeffries had made record time. It’d only taken about eight minutes to get back to the hospital.

“Nice driving,” James said.

Jeffries shrugged. “No biggy. That is why I drive by the way, just saying.”

James chuckled but it soon died in his throat as Jeffries screeched to a halt in front of the hospital. People were running from the building screaming. Some of them looked to be injured. A woman had a hand to her neck, trying to stem the flow of blood as it seeped through her fingers. Another held her arm and James also so signs of blood on her. What’s going on? They exited the vehicle and approached the nearest person.

James grabbed their arm to stop their panicked flight. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

“The patients have gone crazy! They suddenly started attacking everyone!” she said breathlessly.

“What do you mean they’re attacking people?” Jeffries asked.

“Just what I said,” they replied. “Look at my arm. One of them bit me!” She moved her hand and they could see that someone had taken a chunk out of her bicep. It looked really nasty.

“Shouldn’t you get that looked at?” Jeffries asked. The woman looked at him as if he were stupid.

“It’s not safe in there! I could’ve died.” With that, the woman ran off, following the crowd of people leaving the hospital.

“We can’t go in there without backup,” James said. “Not if it’s as bad as she was saying.”

Jeffries nodded. Neither of them liked the thought of standing by while people were in danger, but this looked really bad. They simply wouldn’t be able to handle it with just the two of them. Fortunately, other officers started arriving. In a few minutes there were nearly a dozen of them.

“Alright, that’s more like it,” Jeffries said. James and Jeffries waited until the other officers reached them and started heading inside. The mass exodus had died down. Anyone else inside would probably need their help getting out. The officers approached them and James gave them a summary of the situation.

“We got a report that the patients are attacking people,” James said. “Saw several people with nasty bite wounds so let’s be careful. Several officers nodded and they all proceeded into the building.

They didn’t see anyone at first. Anyone that had been able to make it this far had been part of that group they ran into when they arrived. They walked down a hallway but all of them came to a stop when the sound of roaring reached their ears.

“What the heck was that?” one of the officers asked.

James shrugged. That couldn’t have been a person could it? It sounded so animalistic. The officers resumed their walk and found themselves in the emergency room. The place was chaos. Workstations and stretchers were strewn everywhere. No sign of the infected though. This was likely the result of everyone’s panicked flight from the building. Where was the quarantine ward? James looked around. Maybe they could follow the trail of destruction. Everyone was obviously running away from the patients. So maybe they could follow the signs of flight to the ward.

James picked a hallway and started walking. There were various items tossed about. Some people must have fled from this direction. They passed a stairway and an elevator before they reached a set of double doors. James checked behind him to make sure the other officers were still with him and then pushed the doors open. He stepped into a scene from a horror movie.

The room they stepped into had beds set in rows, each separated by a curtain, likely for privacy. Looking around, it seemed as if every surface was stained with blood. Blood on the floor, blood on the ceiling, blood on the walls. James could see a body just a few feet from the door. Approaching, he had to swallow hard to keep his breakfast down. The body looked like it had been mauled. The throat was ripped out and it looked like someone had bitten chunks out of the torso. The sound of retching behind him told James that some of his fellow officers hadn’t been able to hold their food down.

“What is this?” one officer asked.

“It’s crazy is what it is,” another answered. “I didn’t sign up for something like this.”

James looked at that officer and he stopped talking. “None of us signed up for this. But there still might be some survivors and we’re their only hope of getting out here.”

The officer hung his head. “I know that. This though…this is crazy.”

James nodded. “We’ll get through it. He looked at two officers. “You two head back out front so you can lead in anyone else that shows up. Don’t want them wasting time like we did.”

The officers in question nodded and quickly made their way out of the room. James carefully made his way in, trying to avoid the blood on the floor. He found himself in the middle of the room and saw a sight that stopped him cold. There was a body a few feet from him. Someone was kneeled down next to it and they were pulling something from the body. James eyes widened when he saw that the figure was pulling something out of the stomach.

“Freeze!” James shouted.                                                                                                                                                                            The creature looked over its shoulder, blood marring its mouth. It growled and stood to its feet.

“I said freeze!” James repeated.

With a sudden burst of movement, the creature charged towards him only to bet me by a prong striking its chest. Thousands of volts sent it crashing to the ground.

“Take that you sick bastard,” Jeffries said. He detached the wire from his taser and placed it in its holster. To their surprise, the creature started moving.

What is this? Any normal man would still be recovering from the shock. Was this some kind of drug thing? PCP or something? That gave users high pain tolerance. How was it moving? The creature made it to its knees and howled. It was an animal sound, more akin to a wolf perhaps than something a human should be able to make.

The officers’ eyes widened as there were answering howls sounding throughout the building. The sound of running feet reached their ears and James looked towards the end of the room. A lot of the answering howls were coming from that direction. There was another set of double doors there, each of them smeared with blood.

The creature stood back to his feet and sprang forward, arms outstretched. A single shot rang out and the creature crumpled to the ground. James lowered his gun hand and sighed. He hadn’t wanted to do that, but he didn’t see any other choice. There didn’t appear to be any reasoning with these…things. They didn’t seem to be human anymore.

James looked up as the sound of running feet came closer. “Shoot to kill,” he said. James sighed at the look of horror on their faces.

“Look quickly,” he said pointing towards the creature he had shot. “Take a good look! Do you see anything human left? I don’t know what this illness does but these things aren’t human anymore. Look around,” he said indicating the room at large.

“Would a man do this?” He shook his head. “Even if they are still one of us, they mean to kill us. Can we let these things loose in the city?”

At that, the officers’ looks of horror were slowly replaced with one of determination. They had to protect the city. They couldn’t let these things out of the hospital. They’d go on a rampage.

James nodded at the look of resolve on their faces. “Get ready. They’re nearly here.”

The doors at the far end of the room burst open and dozens of the creatures charged into the room. Seeing the officers they howled and sprinted in their direction.

“Fire!” James yelled. Shots rang out and several of the creatures immediately crumpled to the ground. Some of the creatures in back stumbled over their fellows but others managed to leap over the obstacle. More shots rang out and more of the creatures fell. James sighed as his gun clicked empty.

James glanced behind him and saw the same for the officers behind him. They were all out of ammo. How many did they put down? He was fairly confident his shots had been kills. He frequently went to the range to hone his skill. He’d always felt that the best way he could use his gun was to shoot what he was aiming at. He wasn’t sure about the other officers. He knew that a number of them trained just enough to pass their annual evaluation. Looking forward, he sighed as he saw the result of that attitude.

Some of the creatures were getting back to their feet. They were wounded but they were somehow able to push past pain that would leave a normal man crippled on the ground. The creatures roared and charged the officers. James drew his asp and flicked his wrist to expand it.

“Hand to hand. Get ready!” James’ krav maga training kicked in. He’d been in a few scrapes on the job. This was the first time he’d needed to fire his weapon at a live target but he had been in his share of fights. Normally he held himself back as his training made him a deadly opponent. Krav maga focused on ending the fight as quickly as possible. That wasn’t something he could normally do on the job. But right now he knew, this was kill or be killed. If he didn’t fight with everything he had, he wouldn’t be seeing his family again.

James met the first creature to reach him with a hard strike to the throat that put it back on the ground. It stopped moving. He sidestepped the next creature and managed a hit to the back of its knee that sent it to the ground. Moving quickly he finished it with a blow to the back of the head. Turning around he barely managed to block a blow with his asp. He responded with an elbow strike to the creature’s throat that had it gasping for breath. James put it out of its misery with a strike to the head.

The next creature that reached James received a kick in the groin for its efforts. James smiled inwardly as it crumpled. They had high pain tolerance, but they still felt that. Two strikes to the back of its head stopped it from moving. Movement from behind caught James’s attention but he couldn’t move in time. He turned only to be tackled to the ground. The creature struck at him but James managed to trap its arm with his against his body. With his other hand, he jabbed the creature in the eye. The gloves cushioned some of the blow but it was enough to make the creature howl in pain. A strike to the throat had the creature holding its throat and James was able to shove it off. Three quick punches knocked it unconscious.

James looked about for his asp. He’d lost it when he’d been tackled. Seeing it he grabbed it and looked for another opponent. He sighed in relief when he saw they were done. He walked over to the creature he’d just knocked out and finished it off. He didn’t want to fight it twice. Who knew how quickly it might have recovered?

Looking around, James took stock. Of the ten officers that had started the fight, only four of them were still standing. They were all breathing heavily. James looked around in disgust. What was this thing? What could turn a man into a raving animal? James noticed a rip in his suit and checked the skin beneath. He sighed in relief as he found the skin unbroken. But the suit was now useless. He might as well lose it and get some mobility back. Some of the officers looked on him in shock as he started taking off his suit.

“Suit got ripped,” he explained. “Hopefully, it doesn’t spread that easily.”

A few officers nodded and followed suit. All of them had suffered a rip of some sort. One of them cursed in disgust when he looked at his arm. One of the creatures had managed to bite him.

“Look around,” James said. “See if you can find some clean bandages and take care of that. The rest of you check for bites too.”

A few minutes passed in silence as the officers checked themselves for wounds. The sound of footsteps reached their ears and all of the officers tensed. James relaxed as he realized the steps were coming from the way they came in. That was their backup hopefully. A number of officers entered the room, the chief of police at head. The chief looked around the room in horror until his eyes found James.

“What the hell happened here?” he demanded. He entered the room and glanced at some of the bodies. “Why did you shoot these people? Have you lost your mind?”

“No, sir,” James responded. “These people are crazed. They attacked as soon as they laid eyes on us. They’ve got high pain tolerance. Several of them that were shot got up and kept attacking. We didn’t have a choice.

The chief sighed as he saw the bodies of his officers on the floor. “Any survivors?”

“Don’t know, sir. Haven’t been past this room.”

The chief nodded. “Alright then. We need to search for survivors.” He looked around the room again. “I’m gonna get the mayor on the radio. We’re gonna need National Guard or something to handle all this.”

The chief headed outside and the surviving officers took that time to rest. Only one of them had gotten bitten but they were all winded from their ordeal. James was grateful for all the intense training he’d been through with krav maga. Not just for the combat skills that had surely just saved his life, but also for the conditioning. He still had plenty of reserves left to see this through.

The chief returned a few minutes later with a look of fury on his face. “We’re on our own.”

“What do you mean, chief?” Jeffries asked.

“National Guard won’t be coming. They’ve been deployed to more ‘critical’ locations.”

“This isn’t critical?” an officer asked.

“Looks like this is happening all over, son,” the chief said. “We’re just not high enough on the totem pole. We’ll have to make do. Let’s check for survivors. Maybe we can contain this here in the hospital.”

Several officers nodded at that. They were angry. Their brothers had been killed by these things and they wanted payback. James wasn’t so sure though. After what they’d just been through, maybe the best course of action was to retreat. If there were still a lot of those creatures left, they’d be facing another massacre. He looked at the chief’s face and saw no argument on his part would make a difference. The chief could be stubborn at times and he looked to be pretty set on this course of action.

James sighed. He had a moment where he seriously considered leaving. Going further seemed like suicide but he wouldn’t abandon his brothers. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if they wound up getting themselves killed. He shook his head. Nothing for it. He hoped he’d be able to walk away when this was done.

The officers headed through the doors and the end of the room and found themselves in another hallway. The hallway ended at a wide set of stairs that led into the upper levels. At the first landing, the chief called a halt.

“I don’t want to be here any longer than we need to be. We’re gonna check each floor as quickly as we can. If we see any creatures, we put them down. Understand?”

The officers nodded but James sighed internally. This still felt like a really bad idea. They entered the second floor and James saw that it was the maternity ward. Fortunately, there was no sign of the creatures here. James didn’t know what he would have done if they creatures had made it here. A search showed that the floor was completely empty. That was good. The people on this floor must have taken another exit from the building. James didn’t remember seeing anyone with babies when he came in.

The third floor showed signs of struggle but it looked to be empty. Maybe some of the creatures he had fought had come from this floor. The fourth floor turned out to be empty as well. One more floor and they could be done with this place. They found themselves exploring the fifth floor when one of the creatures suddenly appeared at the end of the hallway. Seeing them, he howled, alerting his fellows to their presence.

Answering howls told them they were about to have a fight on their hands. “Back to the stairs!” the chief yelled.

The officers turned around only to see there were creatures blocking their escape. “Alright. We’ve gotta fight,” the chief said. “Let’s put these bastards down!”

An officer handed James a clip and he quickly reloaded his pistol. “Go for head shots if you can,” he said. “They get up if they can still breathe.”

The creatures roared and charged towards the officers. James emptied his clip, trying to make every shot count. Twelve shots and ten fell to the ground. Other shots rang out and more creatures fell. Maybe they’d get through this okay.

“Behind us!” someone yelled. Looking behind him, James saw that the creature that had spotted them had been joined by several others.

This was bad. Surrounded like this, it probably wouldn’t go well. Seeing their predicament, several officers bolted. Now the situation was even worse. Massed fire was their only hope of evening the odds for when the creatures reached them. They’d be slaughtered if they tried to stand and fight.

“Fall back!” James yelled. At his shout, officers scattered in every direction. He took off down a hallway with Jeffries and the chief on his heels. He checked rooms as he passed by but every door he checked was locked. Maybe they could find a place to hide and sneak out later. They couldn’t fight their way through this many. James finally found an unlocked door and ducked inside. He waited for Jeffries and the chief to enter and then shut the door. Looking around, he saw they were in someone’s office. There was a large desk in the middle of the room with a laptop and a bookshelf filled with thick volumes.

“Let’s catch our breath,” James said quietly.

Jeffries and the chief nodded, no complaints there. Neither of them were in nearly the shape that James was in. If he wanted to take a break, it was fine by them. A few minutes later, James put his ear to the door. Nothing. Hopefully the coast was clear. James opened the door and quickly looked outside. None of the creatures were in sight. He motioned for the others to follow and stepped out into the hallway. He didn’t want to go back the way they’d come, creatures were likely in that direction. They needed to find another way off this floor and out of the building. An elevator perhaps? Not the regular ones. Those were too close to the stairs where they’d come up. Maybe a service elevator. He remembered when Laura had had the kids. They’d been part of a program that let them bypass the standard check. A nurse would come down and take Laura directly to the maternity ward. They’d used some sort of service elevator to do that. Hopefully he could find something like that.

James walked cautiously down the hallway. He didn’t want to be surprised by another one of those things. As he reached the end of the hallway, he heard someone running to his left. Looking around the corner, he saw an officer running in his direction.

“Run! They’re behind me!” he yelled.

James looked behind him and saw five creatures in pursuit. He took off after the officer and hoped that Jeffries and the chief were following. The officer went around a corner and James followed. Down the hall, James saw that some kind soul had left their door open.

“Door on the left!” he shouted to the officer ahead.

The officer heard and ran into the room, James and the others quickly entered behind them. James shut the door and locked it. He heard the creatures run by and sighed in relief. They’d managed to get in here without being seen.

“Everyone okay?” he asked. “Anybody hurt?”

“I’m good,” Jeffries said.

“I’m fine too,” the chief said.

The officer looked at his arm angrily. “One of those bastards got me before I could outrun them.”

James looked at the officer’s arm and saw a bite mark. It looked like the creature’s teeth had barely broken the skin. He should be fine.

“How do you feel?” James asked.

“He barely got me,” the officer replied. “Still hurts like hell though.”

James glanced around the room. “Let’s look around. Maybe we can wrap it up at least.”

A few minutes of searching turned up a handkerchief that they used to wrap around the wound. That task complete, they all decided to rest for a bit. James looked at his watch. Nine. They’d arrived at the hospital around eight. It was hard to believe they’d only been here an hour. It felt like ages.

“Why don’t we get some rest?” James said. “Hopefully we’ll have better luck later.”

The others nodded their assent and they looked around the room. This office was a bit better appointed than the last one, at least in regards to their current needs. There was a small desk with two leather chairs in front of it. Along one wall there was a comfortable looking couch. They gave the couch to the officer while Jeffries and the chief took the chairs in front of the desk. James took the desk chair. He didn’t think he was as comfortable as the others but it would do.

***

The sound of someone moaning woke James from his nap. Looking around the room he saw that it was the officer on the couch. James stood up and walked over to the officer. He was tossing and turning like he was having a nightmare but that wasn’t what was concerning. He was sweating buckets. James tapped him on the shoulder but got no response. James pushed back an eyelid and sighed sadly when he saw solid red. He was infected. But how? They had all been running from those things and they weren’t showing any signs. How did it spread? James looked over the officer and stopped when he laid eyes on his bandaged arm. The bite. Is that how it was spread? Had to be. That was the only difference between them right now. None of them were wearing suits at this point. If it was spread in some other way then they should all be sick right? James walked over and shook Jeffries and the chief awake.

“We’ve got a problem,” he said once he had their attention.

“What’s wrong?” the chief asked.

James motioned towards the officer on the couch. “He’s infected.”

“How do you know?” Jeffries asked.

“Same symptoms,” he responded, “fever and bloodshot eyes.”

“How?” the chief asked.

James pointed to the officer’s arm. “The bite I’m thinking. Other than that, we should all be sick.”

“Is he gonna turn into one of those things?” the chief asked.

James nodded. “All of the people we dropped off this morning had the same symptoms. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but yea, he’ll turn.”

The chief sighed. “I never should have given that order to look for survivors.”

“How could anyone know about this?” James replied. “And even if we did know, we probably would have come anyway. It’s what we do.”

The chief nodded. “True. Can’t help but feel it’s my fault though. What do we do?”

James sighed. “I see two options. The first is that we look for somewhere else to hide. ‘Course we risk running into more of those creatures.”

“The second?” the chief asked.

“We put him out of his misery,” James said softly.

“You mean kill him?” Jeffries asked.

“He’s already dead,” James responded, “just a matter of time now.”

They all stood quietly as they processed this. It would be really risky to look for another hiding spot. But, could they do this? Kill a fellow officer? Yes, maybe he was as good as dead, but to kill him?

“We’ve got a bigger problem,” Jeffries said.

“What’s that?” the chief asked.

Jeffries looked at James. “How many of those people running out of here were injured?”

James’s eyes widened as he realized the implication. “Oh man. Enough that it could be all over the city right now.”

Jeffries nodded. “If just a few of them went home the city is in trouble. They’ve turned or they’re going to turn soon. Not sure how long it takes.”

James looked at the officer on the couch. He’d been bitten when they’d run in here. He looked at his watch. Ten thirty. So about an hour and a half had passed since they’d all went to sleep.

“A couple of hours I guess,” James said. At their look he shrugged. “We’ve been asleep for about an hour and a half. He was bit just before we ran into him.”

Jeffries nodded. “Okay. So how much time do we have?”

James shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got to get out of here and get home.”

Jeffries looked at him and nodded. “Laura and your kids.”

James nodded. He hadn’t been too worried before. Laura had a good head on her shoulders. She wouldn’t have panicked when she heard the announcement the mayor had made earlier. Plus, he’d made sure that she was proficient with the weapons they had in the house. Laura didn’t particularly enjoy guns but was practical enough to understand something could happen while James wasn’t at home. It would be up to her to keep the kids safe. James was confident she could handle a burglar. But this? One of those things could be creeping around his house right now. He had to get home and make sure his family was safe.

“Yea,” James said, “I can’t stay here.”

The chief nodded. He had family too. His daughter was off at college but he had a wife waiting for him. They had to go be with their families.

“Let’s go then,” Jeffries said. Jeffries lived alone, the consummate bachelor. But there was no way he was gonna hide here while the others escaped from this place.

Jeffries looked at the officer again. “What do we do about him though?”

“We put him out of his misery,” the chief said. “If I get bit, I want one of you to do the same for me. I don’t want to be one of those things.”

“How?” Jeffries asked. “I’ve got maybe three or four shots left and I’d rather save that for getting out of here.”

James was out of ammo himself. If they had to fight their way out he’d have to rely on his asp. He spotted a pillow on the floor. It must have fallen from the couch. He picked it up and sighed. He didn’t want to do this but maybe it was for the best. The officer did look as if he was in a lot of pain.

James approached the officer but stopped when he stood over him. Could be do this? Defending himself was one thing. But this? This just didn’t feel right.

“I can’t do this,” he said shaking his head.

“I’ll do it,” the chief said as he approached. “It was my idea to keep going.”

The chief motioned for the pillow and moved to stand over the officer. James turned his back to the couch. Maybe this was necessary but that didn’t mean he had to watch. He closed his eyes and waited for it to be over.

“It’s done,” the chief said a few minutes later.

James turned around and glanced at the couch. He had to admit that he did look peaceful now, as if he were asleep rather than dead. James nodded and headed for the door. It was time to get out of here.

James slowly opened the door, listening for any sign of the creatures. He peeked into the hallway but didn’t see anything. He motioned for the others to follow.

Alright, they needed a service elevator. Hopefully they could make it the elevator without seeing any more of those…things. James cautiously walked down the hallway, alert for any sound of the creatures. Several minutes passed without incident until they reached a set of double doors. The doors had a square cut out which allowed James to look into the area beyond. Peering through, James saw some good news and some bad news.

The hallway beyond had a desk, probably a nurse’s station of some sort. Right next to the desk was a single elevator. That had to be the service elevator he’d been looking for. Unfortunately, there were several creatures there as well. They were several bodies on the floor and it looked as if the creatures had made a meal out of them. Maybe they’d been making their way for the elevator when they were caught. James hoped they would have better luck.

James motioned for the group to head back the way they came. When he judged that they had enough distance from the doors, he motioned for them to stop.

“I think I saw about six of those things past the doors,” he said.

“Do we need to go that way?” Jeffries asked.

James nodded. “The service elevator is right there. We could try looking for another I guess but we’ll probably have to end up fighting some of those things regardless.”

“Six you said?” the chief asked. At James’s nod he continued, “I think it’s better to deal with a smaller group.”

“What’s the plan then?” Jeffries asked. “If we go in there and they do that howl thing, we’ll be in trouble.”

James frowned in thought. “I’m thinking brute force. We go in, you shoot however many you can. Chief, you finish off whoever he puts down. I’ll keep the others busy until you guys come give me a hand.”

Jeffries side. “That’s a good as any other plan I guess.” He removed the magazine from his weapon. “Four shots,” he said as he slid it back in.

James nodded. He led the way back to the door and looked back to see if they were ready. At their nodded he counted to three with his fingers. He shoved the doors open and Jeffries ran into the room. Four shots sounded out in quick succession. James and the chief ran into the room. James ran for the elevator and hit the button. Behind him, he heard Jeffries and the chief attacking the creatures with their asps.

A growl behind him alerted him to danger and he turned to see two creatures running towards him. He stepped behind the nurse’s desk so they both couldn’t reach him at once. James met the first creature with a solid blow to the head that sent it to the floor. The second creature tried to dive at him over the counter. James stepped to the side and it went sprawling to the floor. Two hard blows to the head stopped it from moving. James moved to finish off the second creature and checked to see how Jeffries and the chief were doing.

They were breathing heavily but looked none the worse for wear.  Maybe they’d get out of this after all. James moved back to the elevator. There wasn’t a floor indicator like you might see on a regular elevator. He had no way of knowing how close the elevator was. He sighed as the sound of running feet reached his ears. Looks like they weren’t done yet.

More creatures entered the room and they howled in unison on seeing them. That wasn’t good. Even if they finished these off, more would be on the way. James rolled his shoulders to loosen up. Maybe this was it, but he would go down swinging. He joined Jeffries and the chief in the middle of the room.

The creatures charged all at once. James thought of his family at home. He might never see them again if this went badly. He’d never see Laura’s smile, or hear junior laugh as he told a lame joke from that little book he had. And Maddy, his little girl. Fury took his mind. These things were not going to stop him from getting home.

James roared his defiance and ran forward to meet their charge. He hit a creature with his shoulder and sent it flying backwards. He ducked under a swing from another creature and countered with a blow to the head that put it down for good.

Another creature charged towards and James stepped to the side. As the creature passed by he landed a solid hit to its head with his asp. The creature hit the ground and James followed through with a second hit, just in case.

The chief screamed and James looked to see him go down beneath two of the creatures. He ran to help and quickly put the creatures down with hits to their head. They’d been so focused on the chief that they hadn’t responded to his approach.

He pushed the creatures away and saw that he was too late. The chief was dead, his throat ripped out. Maybe that was a mercy. At least he wouldn’t become one of those things. James looked around, things looked clear for the moment. Jeffries was leaning against the nurse’s station, breathing heavily.

“Was that that krav stuff you’re always talking about?”

“Yea,” James replied.

“Maybe I should’ve taken a few classes. I’m exhausted.”

James glanced at the chief’s body. “This sucks. We’re nearly out of here.”

Jeffries shrugged. “This whole day sucks.” As if to add emphasis to his comment, they both heard a roar from somewhere nearby.

“Time for round two,” Jeffries said.

James walked over to the elevator. “Why is this taking so long?”

“It should be here soon. Probably hasn’t been as long as it feels. Don’t worry though, I’ll draw them away.”

James turned towards Jeffries. “What are you talking about? We’re both getting out of here.”

Jeffries shook his head as he held up his hand. “One of them got me.”

“Oh man. There’s gotta be something we can do.”

“You know there isn’t. It’ll happen just like it did in the office. I’m not dying like that. If I have to die, I’ll do it on my feet.”

James opened his mouth to say something but Jeffries shook his head.

“There’s nothing else to say, man. Now, say goodbye so I can go save your sorry hide.”

James chuckled despite the seriousness of the moment. “Arrogant till the last, huh?”

Jeffries turned to leave and looked over his shoulder. “That’s right. And make sure to tell everyone how I saved your life.” Jeffries took a few steps then turned around.

“If you and Laura have another kid, I expect you to name him after me.”

James chuckled and blinked back tears. “Yea, we’ll do that.”

Jeffries nodded and took off down the hall, banging the walls with his asp. “Come and get it!” he yelled.

James heard several roars in response. Looks like this will work. A ding behind him alerted him to the elevator’s arrival. He stepped inside and hit the button for the ground floor. He’d make it home but one of his best friends had to die to make it happen. He sighed as he wiped tears away with his arm. He’d have to grieve later. Right now he had to make sure Laura and they kids were safe.

The elevator reached the ground floor and James cautiously stepped out. It was quiet. Maybe any creatures down here had moved on. He made his way outside and saw more officers on the ground. He hoped some of them had made it. James reached his car and locked the door once he was inside. He grabbed the radio to see if anyone had made it out of there.

“Officer Ruckley here. Anyone out there?”

James waited a few minutes and tried again. Ten minutes later he hadn’t gotten a response. He put the car in gear and headed home. He hoped there were survivors but he had to focus on his family now.

James quickly saw evidence of people that escaped from the hospital. Several times he saw cars that had run off the road. Maybe the drivers had succumbed to the infection and lost control. James slowed down to get a closer look. He saw one car where the driver had run into a light post. It looked like they were slumped over the wheel. They must have died from the impact.

Another car had the driver side door hanging open. James could see streaks of blood on the windows. He saw the top of a car seat and quickly looked away, he didn’t need to see anymore.

James picked up speed. He definitely needed to get home. The infection might be all over the city now. How far did people get before the fever took them?

The rest of the drive was uneventful. James felt a sense of relief as he turned into his subdivision. There was no sign of the infection here. Cars were parked the way they should be and there were even some kids playing. It wouldn’t last, but it meant that his family was probably okay. James turned onto his street and into his driveway. James exited the car and approached the house. So far so good. Now if only Laura and the kids were safe inside.

He opened the front door and shut it behind him. He frowned as he looked around. All of the lights were off. That was unusual. Was something wrong with the power? He started walking down the hallway when the sound of a shotgun cocking made him freeze. 

“Don’t move,” Laura said with steel in her voice.

“It’s me, Laura,” James said quietly, not wanting to startle her.

“James? Oh, God. I’m so sorry!” She stepped into the hallway and lowered the gun. 

“It’s alright,” he said as he turned to face her. “What’s with the lights?”

“I heard a news cast from Shirley O’Hara. She said those infected people are violent. They were attacked at the station and what they showed made me think the shotgun was a good idea. I turned everything off so no one would notice us.”

James nodded. “That was good thinking. Where are the kids?”

“In the basement. They wanted to go to a friend’s house with no school but I kept them home when they made that announcement about staying off the streets this morning.”

James nodded again. He knew he could count on Laura. He was glad he’d made sure she knew how to use all of the firearms he kept around the house. His nearly getting shot just now was proof that had been the right decision. If the infected had made their way here, James was confident Laura would have kept the kids safe. They walked into their living room and had seat on the couch.

“That’s great, Laura. I was so worried when I realized what was happening.”

Laura laid her head on his shoulder. “I was worried too. I didn’t know what was happening out there.” She sat up. “You’re home early.”

James nodded. “It was pretty bad out there. We pretty much don’t have a police force anymore. I don’t know how many officers survived. The chief is dead, Jeffries too.”

“What happened?” Laura asked with concern in her voice.

James spent the next half hour relating the morning’s events. He finished with how Jeffries had drawn off the creatures so he could get home to them. Laura put her arms around James, tears in her eyes. James let the tears flow. Now that he was home, it was safe to grieve for a time. Laura rubbed James on the back as she stood up.

“I’d better check on the kids. Don’t want them to get worried.”

James nodded. “Alright. I’ll be down in a bit.”

Laura nodded and headed for the basement. James went to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. No need to worry the kids by them seeing him upset. James was about to head for the basement when another thought brought him up short. Greg. How was he doing with all of this? He couldn’t contact him with the phones down so he had no way of checking on him. He couldn’t leave the house, he had to make sure his family stayed safe. James headed for his PlayStation 4 and fired it up. The phones were down but maybe he could use the console to send a message. He typed out a quick message and hit send.

“Hey man, how are you? Things are crazy. Get here ASAP.”

Hopefully Greg was okay and would get the message. If he was alright, James would feel more confident about this whole thing. He and Greg had been practicing krav maga together for years. He also dragged him down to the gun range whenever he could. That task complete, he headed to the basement to be with his family. He didn’t know how they were gonna get through all this but he’d do whatever he needed to do to keep them safe.

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

3 Shirley: WKJ Studios, Emerald Falls

 

 Shirley waited until she got the all clear signal and then sighed in frustration. She was absolutely disgusted with herself. That was hands down the worst interview she’d ever done in her career. She’d never been part of something that was so deliberately created to deceive her viewers. Promote a certain point of view? Sure. Conservative networks promoted their view while liberal networks promoted theirs. But this? This was outright lying. She got it. The powers that be wanted to prevent mass panic. If there were any chance of getting ahead of this thing, the last thing anyone needed was a bunch of idiots running around rioting and looting. Shirley stood and began walking towards her office. A few steps later her cameraman of five years, Jackson Barnes, met her with a cup of coffee.

“Thanks, Jackson.”

Jackson nodded and headed off in the opposite direction. Shirley discreetly admired him for a few moments. Jackson was a handsome man. He had this deep voice that nearly made her shiver at times. But that was something she could never explore. She was a member of the city’s elite. She’d reached her position through a combination of her stellar career and her engagement to the mayor’s son.

He was an up and coming lawyer who would one day follow in his father’s footsteps. He was quite the catch. Keeping her position among the elite required that certain…expectations be met. Becoming involved with her ex-con cameraman simply wouldn’t do. Even if he had a voice to make a woman go weak in the knees.

Shirley reached her office and sat in her chair. With Jackson out of sight, her melancholy thoughts returned. The Pendleton interview. The truth of the matter was that they were dealing with an outbreak. The mayor knew this already. The interview was simply an attempt to prevent the populace from panicking.

Being part of the city’s elite made her privy to certain information. She knew that the city’s police force couldn’t deal with the outbreak. Help wasn’t on the way because those assets were being mobilized to more critical locations. But, she would be safe. Shirley touched her pants pocket. There was an invitation inside about the size of an index card. It granted her access to a shelter in the city. It was stocked with enough items to support a group of people for weeks. So, she’d be safe, while the city burned around her.

The guilt was eating her alive. Shirley was by no means an altruistic person. She’d done her fair share of lying, cheating, and backstabbing to get where she was. Not that she wasn’t capable. She was one of the best. But getting there meant she’d sometimes had to create…opportunities for advancement. Her engagement to Jeremy was evidence of that fact. She held little love for him. He actually had a number of habits that irritated her to no end. But, he was nice enough. Life with him would be pleasant, if boring. The important thing though is that marriage to him would allow her to maintain her lifestyle. She wouldn’t be on top forever. When that happened, Jeremy would take care of her. She’d give him a kid or two and help make his political career a success. Was that shallow? Maybe. Shirley preferred to think of herself as practical. She was used to a certain level of comfort. She was merely taking steps to ensure that comfort wasn’t interrupted.

So Shirley wouldn’t say she normally cared about the plight of her fellow man. She did what she needed to survive and she assumed others did the same. This situation was completely different though. How could she sit safe while everyone else fought for survival? A knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. She looked up and saw Jackson standing at the door.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Yea, I’m fine,” she replied with a slight smile.

Jackson chuckled. “So staring at a computer monitor for fifteen minutes is fine?”

Shirley glanced at the clock on her computer. He was right. Some fifteen minutes had passed since she’d sat down. “Just thinking.”

“What about? Must be important for you to be sitting there so long.”

Shirley thought. Maybe she couldn’t do anything for the city but she could at least keep Jackson safe. They didn’t spend time together outside of work but they’d been together for years. There was at least some mutual caring and respect.

“Come in, and close the door.”

Jackson raised an eyebrow but complied. After sitting in the only other chair in the room, he looked at her expectantly.

“So you know the interview earlier?”

Jackson snorted. Of course he knew. He was her cameraman.

“Okay, silly question. But the point is that the interview was basically the mayor trying to stop the populace from panicking.”

Jackson sat there unsurprised. Shirley frowned at him, “You don’t looked surprised.”

Jackson shrugged. “Doesn’t take half a brain to see that the doctor wasn’t really saying anything. Plus, the questions you asked should’ve tipped off anyone paying attention.”

Shirley nodded. “Well what’s really going on is that there is an outbreak. There’s way more cases than what Pendleton admitted to.”

“How are they keeping all this quiet?”

“The mayor asked them to.”

“How’s that work?” he asked.

“My understanding is that cities all across the country are doing it.”

Jackson nodded. “That makes sense. If they’re gonna be able to stop this a panic is the last thing that they need.”

Shirley nodded. That was remarkably similar to her thoughts.

“How do you know all this?”

Shirley gestured, drawing attention to her diamond engagement ring.

“Okay, that makes sense. So what happens now? This can’t be what you’ve been sitting here staring about this whole time.”

“It’s gonna get bad. I mean really bad. The police aren’t going to be able to stop this. They simply don’t have the bodies. So it’s going to spread.”

“And once people realize they’ve been lied to…”

“They’ll riot. Add that to the outbreak and I don’t know if our city will recover.”

“Alright, this is sad and all but it’s not like you can control any of this.”

“The…infected are becoming violent in many cases.”

“Violent how?”

“Some people have died.”

Jackson whistled. “Wow. How could you sit on that? That’s like story of the year, easy.”

“I was told if I mentioned the extent of the crisis I’d be out a job.” She paused. “Sitting here talking about it though, maybe that isn’t such a big concern.”

Jackson nodded. “If it’s as bad as you say, getting out of the city probably isn’t a bad idea.”

“Well it’s happening everywhere. So where would you go?”

Jackson shrugged. “I’ll figure something out. I really appreciate you telling me all this Shirley.”

“Wait. I didn’t tell you all this just for you to go fend for yourself. I want you to come with me.”

“Come with you where, Shirley?”

“There’s a shelter. It’s stocked with food and supplies. I want you to come with me.”

Shirley watched as a calculating look entered Jackson’s eyes. It passed quickly though. Maybe she had imagined it.

“My invitation lets me bring my family.”

“I’m not your family, Shirley.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ve accounted for the space.”

Jackson shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll make my own way if they turn me away.”

“So, as far as why I’ve been sitting here. I feel like I should’ve said something during the interview. How many people are going to die thinking things will be fine in a few days?”

“They did threaten your job.”

“Does that really matter if people are dying?”

Jackson shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. If this gets cleaned up, maybe you don’t want to have bit the hand that feeds you.”

“What would you have done?”

Jackson thought for a moment. “I don’t know. But I think it comes down to doing whatever helps you look at yourself in the mirror.”

“Alright, so-,” a series of screams interrupted her. Shirley’s eyes widened in fight.

Moving quickly, Jackson turned off the lights and pulled the blinds down. A second later he locked the door. He then moved the blind a fraction and peered out.

"What's -," Jackson held a finger to his lips and responded in a low whisper. Shirley had to lean forward to hear him.

“It isn’t pretty. Looks like some of your sick people made their way up here.” He looked at her. “What are we calling them by the way? Zombies? No that doesn’t work. They’re clearly still alive.”

Shirley matched her voice level to his. “Well they’re sick, so infected I guess.”

Jackson nodded as he looked back out the window. “That works. Simple, efficient even. So the infected found their way up here and they’re attacking people.” A piercing scream punctuated Jackson’s statement.

Shirley jumped. She looked at Jackson. How was he taking this so calmly? He stood there watching this like he was watching a game on t.v. How is he not freaking out right now?

“What’s happening now?”

“One just got bit. Looks like he got lucky.”

“How’s that lucky?”

“Well, after he got bit the infected shoved him and he hit his head. Looks like he’s unconscious. The lucky part is the infected moved on to someone else.”

“How can you be so calm?” she asked.

Jackson glanced at her before turning back to the window. “You know that I spent some time in jail?”

“Yes,” Shirley replied.

“For now let’s just say that jail taught me how to survive. Panicking isn’t gonna help us get out of here.”

“How are we going to get out of here?” Strangely, she found herself drawing strength from Jackson. During their time working together, she was the one in charge. The roles were reversed now. Jackson was in charge here but it didn’t bother her. She felt he would keep her safe.

“For now we’ll wait. Hopefully the infected will move on once they’re done. Then we can head towards your shelter.” He left the window and walked towards her.

“Let’s get on the floor,” he said as he sat down. “Less chance of being seen that way.”

Shirley nodded and quickly complied. Seeing the fear in her eyes, Jackson tried to reassure her.

“We’ll be fine.  No reason to take unnecessary risks though.”

“Okay. What do we do while we’re waiting?”

“Sleep,” Jackson replied. At her look he explained. “I don’t know how hard it’ll be to get to your shelter. Don’t know when it’ll be safe to rest again when we leave here. So for now, we sleep.”

I guess that makes sense Shirley thought. Shirley removed her suit jacket and made a pillow out of it. Jackson sat with his back against her desk and closed his eyes.

“We’ll sleep a few hours and then I’ll see if the cost is clear.”

***

Shirley opened her eyes. For a split second, she thought she was waking up like on any other typical day. Then she wondered why the ceiling looked different. A moment later, all her memories came crashing back. She sat up with a sigh of disappointment. Was it too much to ask that all this has just been a crazy dream? That she was at this moment actually in her king size bed at home?

Shirley looked around and saw Jackson standing at the window. Was the coast clear? She’d be happy to be on her way out of here.

“Is it safe to leave?” she asked in a low voice.

Jackson shook his head. “Not yet,” he replied in kind.

“There’s still one out there that I can see, “he said moving towards her.

“Is it leaving?”

Jackson shrugged. “We might be able to sneak past it. I’d rather not fight it without some kind of weapon if I can help it.”

Shirley nodded. That made sense. She was completely reliant on Jackson for her safety right now. If he wasn’t ready then she wasn’t budging until he said so. She’d probably have been caught up in that initial attack if he hadn’t been in her office. She could imagine herself opening her door to see what was happening and that would have been that.

“I did see something interesting though,” he said. “Remember the guy who got knocked out earlier?”

“Yes. You said he was lucky because the infected left him alone.”

Jackson nodded. “Turns out he wasn’t lucky. Looks like he’s one of them now.”

“What?” Shirley asked, a bit louder than she’d intended.

Jackson held up a finger for silence. He moved back to the window and peered out. The infected was on its feet and shuffling around the room. Looks like it hadn’t heard them.

Jackson left the window and returned to Shirley’s side.

“Didn’t hear us,” he said quietly.

Shirley hung her head in embarrassment. “Sorry,” she said in a low voice.

Jackson shook his head. “We’re fine. But like I was saying, he’s moving around like the ones that attacked.

“How can that be possible?”

“How can people be running around acting like animals?” he asked with a shrug.

Carol nodded. “Point taken.”

“Might be the bite though. Everyone else attacked is still on the ground. He was the only one that survived an attack as far as I could tell.”

“Are you sure it’s the bite?” she asked. “What if it’s airborne or something?”

“Were already in trouble if it’s airborne.” At her look he explained further. “If it’s airborne we’ve already been exposed or probably will be when we leave this office.”

Shirley nodded her understanding.

“We’ll wait a few more minutes and then try to get out of here,” Jackson said.

“What about the infected?”

“If it doesn’t leave we’ll just have to try our luck. We can’t stay in forever. We don’t have any food or water.”

Shirley nodded. “Alright. I’m ready when you are.”

Jackson nodded and they spent the next few minutes in a companionable silence. After around fifteen minutes the creature still hadn’t left the room and Jackson decided it was time to act.

“I think we should go ahead and make a break for it,” Jackson said.

Shirley nodded. “How do we get past the infected?”

“We’ll try to sneak past. If he notices us, I’ll take care of it.”

“Okay,” Shirley replied and she got up from the floor. She shook out her jacket to get some wrinkles out and then quickly stopped when she realized how pointless that was given what had happened today. What was the point of being wrinkle free when there were people running around trying to kill you?

Jackson motioned for her to come closer. “Ready?” he asked.

Shirley nodded.

“Alright, stay close.”

Jackson quietly turned the handle and opened the door wide enough for them to slip out. He stealthily made his way out of the office. Shirley took a moment to remove her heels, then followed after him. Jackson glanced at the creature and saw that it was still shuffling around the room. So far so good. They made their way over to the stairway when Shirley glanced towards the creature and tripped.

She managed to catch herself and prevent a broken nose but the creature had heard them. It roared and started running towards them. Jackson helped her to her feet and pushed her behind him. Spying a briefcase, he picked it up and readied himself to meet the infected’s charge. Jackson stepped to the side as the creature reached him and gave it a solid blow to the head with the briefcase. The creature was knocked flat on his back and Jackson moved closer to take advantage.

Shirley watched in awe as Jackson delivered several brutal blows with the briefcase to the infected’s head. After the third blow, it stopped moving. Jackson dropped the briefcase on the infected and slowly walked towards Shirley. He appeared hesitant at the look on her face.

“Hope that doesn’t bother you, but I’ve no intention of dying anytime soon.”

Shirley shook her head. “It doesn’t bother me. I’m just amazed you took care of it so easily.”

Some of the tension left Jackson’s shoulders. “Good. ‘Cause it’ll probably be some more of that before the day is done. Just so you know, I’ll do the same if anyone attacks us, infected or not. Hope that’s okay with you.”

“I feel safe with you, Jackson. You do whatever you need to protect us. I’m a practical woman. I’m not gonna faint at a little blood.”

Jackson nodded. “Alright. Let’s get going then.”

“Wait,” Shirley said, “there’s one thing I can do before we get out here.”

“What’s that?” Jackson asked.

“I can warn everyone about this.”

Jackson looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded. “Alright. That’ll give some people a chance. Let’s do it.”

It didn’t take them long to get everything set up. Fortunately, the equipment they needed had survived the attack from the infected. Shirley thought to make herself more presentable but changed her mind. Better that her viewers see her as she was so they would take this seriously. She took her seat at the anchor desk and waited for Jackson to give her the signal. He counted down from three on his fingers and nodded his head.

“This is Shirley O’Hara, reporting live from WKJ TV. I’m here to deliver a message. If you saw my interview this morning, I want to let you know that was only part of the story. The truth is that we’re facing an outbreak. Those infected become extremely violent and will attack anyone around them. I have only barely survived an attack here at the station myself.”

Shirley nodded towards Jackson and he took a moment to pan the camera around the room.

“As you can see, it was a brutal attack. The infected broke onto the floor and killed everyone. I don’t know if anyone survived. I do not know when or if government authorities will regain control of the situation. Keep yourself safe. If someone you know is bitten, you need to get away from them as soon as you can. I’ve seen firsthand that the bite spreads the infection. Good luck, Emerald Falls. Be safe.”

She nodded again and Jackson cut the camera.

“All good?” he asked.

Shirley nodded. “That gives people a chance. The rest is up to them.”

Jackson nodded in response as she left the anchor desk. He led her to the stairway and took a moment to listen for infected on the other side. Hearing nothing, he opened the door and headed down. They reached the main lobby without incident but they saw the signs of the infected attack here as well.  Bodies were in several places around the room. The receptionist sat slumped in her chair, not even having a chance to run when she was attacked.

Jackson shook his head at the carnage. “Poor bastards. Never had a chance.”

Shirley grimaced. Better them than her she thought. The infected attacking everything in sight is probably the only thing that let them survive that initial assault. This was sad sure, but she wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. She’d felt obligated to warn the city about the infection. People deserved a chance to defend themselves. But from this point on, she wanted to survive herself. She normally didn’t show this side of her to anyone. It was okay to be ambitious, but if you appeared callous then people would look down on you. Not that she saw herself as callous, just practical. She felt she could trust Jackson though. He was the only thing keeping her safe so she had might as well be herself. 

“Better them than us,” she replied.

Jackson looked at her thoughtfully for a moment and nodded. “Fair enough. How do we get to this shelter of yours?” 

“It’s near city hall.”

Jackson snorted. “Fitting. Mayor has to be the first to get to safety and all.”

Shirley smiled. “On the bright side, it’s only a few blocks from here.”

Jackson nodded. “Alright. I want to look around first. See if I can find something to use as a weapon.”

Shirley nodded. “What should we look for?”

“Anything really. Scissors, letter openers, a broom stick if the shaft looks sturdy enough.”

Shirley nodded again and they started looking behind the receptionist’s desk. Their search turned up a pair of scissors and a roll of duct tape.

“Can you do anything with this?” Shirley asked.

Jackson nodded. “I can improvise a knife outta that. Let’s keeping looking though. I don’t want to be that close if I don’t have to be.”

They extended their search to a few side rooms but didn’t turn up anything else useful. James was disappointed but figured it would have to do. Motioning for Shirley to follow, he led the way to the rear exit of the building. Going out the front would be faster but he didn’t want to draw attention from any infected that were out there. That didn’t mean the rear exit would be safe. There could easily be infected milling around out there. But hopefully there would be less of them.

“You ready?” Jackson asked. At her nod he opened the door and stepped outside. Fortunately there was no sign of infected. Following Shirley’s instructions he led them towards the shelter, sticking to alleyways and back streets. They managed to reach the shelter without running into any infected. The shelter was a nondescript building. One would walk past it without giving it a second glance. They approached the building and met a sturdy steel door.

Knocking got no response. Just as she was about to yell in frustration she noticed a scanner of some sort mounted on the wall next to the door. She tried her hand but that didn’t seem to work. She then remembered the invitation she’d received. She fished in her pocket and breathed a sigh of relief when she touched it. She then placed the invitation face down on the scanner and noted a white light move across. There was an audible click and Shirley was able to open the door.

Stepping inside they found themselves in a long hallway. They were met by a man dressed in black fatigues. He had a rifle slung across his chest, Shirley wasn’t sure what kind as she had little experience with guns. The guard had a clipboard in hand and asked for her name.

“Shirley O’Hara,” she replied.

The guard nodded as he perused the list. “Alright, I’ve got you here. And this is?” he asked looking towards Jackson.

“He’s my guest,” Shirley responded, “you won’t see him on the list.”

The guard nodded. “That’s fine. Name?”

“Jackson Barnes,” Jackson replied.

The guard made a note of some kind and gestured towards the end of the hallway. There was an elevator flanked by two more guards dressed in the same way as the one they were speaking to.

“Proceed to the elevator. You’ll be directed to a bunk. Rations are at six tonight.”

Shirley nodded and led Jackson towards the elevator. One of the elevator guards nodded at them and swiped a card which caused the elevator to open. There was another guard waiting within.

He nodded towards them and hit a button on the panel. “You folks are lucky. They’ll be closing down the facility soon.”

“What if you haven’t made it yet?” Shirley asked.

The guard shrugged. “Don’t know the answer to that. Just heard we’ll be locking down soon.”

Any further conversation was interrupted as the elevator came to a stop. They entered a large room. Shirley looked around and thought it looked big enough to hold several hundred people. One side of the room consisted of rows of bunks. There were families milling around having already staked out space. The middle of the room appeared to be a common area of sorts. There were several tables with various games ready to be played. The right side of the room had a number of partitions around maybe seven feet high. Bathing area maybe? The sound of someone clearing their throat caught Shirley’s attention and she found herself looking at a middle aged woman wearing brown slacks and a matching shirt.

“Hi there,” she said, “I’m Roberta King. I’m in charge of greeting arrivals.”

“Hi,” Shirley responded, “I’m Shirley and this is Jackson.”

“A pleasure to meet you. If you’ll come with me, I’ll give you a quick tour.”

She led them towards the bunks. “There isn’t much here but it’s enough to meet our needs for the few days we’ll be down here. She led them towards an unoccupied bunk.

“This will be your bunk. You can decide amongst yourselves who gets what.” She glanced at them for a moment. “If you’re sharing a bunk, let me know. Someone else could use the space.”

Shirley blushed bright red. “Oh, it’s not li-”

“Not my business,” the woman said interrupting. “If you’re sharing, or decide to share let me know as we can use the space. Some people have brought in more than the allotted amount of dependents. They’ve paid enough money to be here that we can’t just turn them away so any extra bunks will be needed.” Shirley nodded. The woman motioned for them to follow and led them to the middle of the room.

“This is the common area. We’ve got various games to keep everyone occupied.” 

Shirley and Jackson looked around at the tables and nodded. The woman then pointed to the right side of the room. “That’s the hygiene area. You can shower and use the facilities there.” The woman glanced at her watch. 

“Rations won’t be for another few hours. I hope you had something to eat before this all started.”

“We’ll be alright,” Jackson responded. “Thanks for the tour.”

The woman nodded. “Everything will be fine. We’ll just be down here a few days, a week at most. By then, the government will have this infection under control.”

Shirley nodded. The woman smiled and headed off, presumably to wait for more arrivals. Jackson motioned for her to follow and led the way back towards their bunk. Once there he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.

“So, which bunk do you want? Or should we do the selfless thing and share?” He chuckled as she blushed.

“I’ll take the top she said.”

Jackson smiled. “You sure? Someone might need the extra bunk.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said, still blushing.

“Alright. On a serious note though, I want to pick different bunks.”

“Why?” Shirley asked.

“I think this place is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Shirley noted that he was still speaking quietly and matched her voice to his. “How? We’ve got food, water, and shelter.”

“True, but I already saw a huge red flag when we were on that tour with Roberta.”

“What’s that?”

“She mentioned that they were letting extra people in. People they didn’t plan for. That’s why she made the comment about us sharing a bunk.”

“How is that a problem? A few people will have to double up at some point. Doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”

Jackson shook his head. “The bunks aren’t the problem although it doesn’t help the situation. Think about it. If they’re short on beds, what else might they be short on?”

Shirley thought for a moment. “The food,” she responded.

Jackson nodded. “Exactly. How long are people going to stay calm if they’re not getting enough to eat?”

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Shirley asked. “They’ll have to lower the ration amount or something.”

“That might work for a bit. But what happens when everyone realizes the government isn’t coming to the rescue?”

“They should get here eventually. They won’t be here today, of course. But a few days? A week? They should be able to get people here by then.”

Jackson shook his head. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Tell me, what’s the population of Emerald Falls?”

Shirley shrugged. “I don’t know. Around two hundred thousand or so I think.”

“Alright. We’ve seen firsthand what happens when the infected attack. Most of the time, they just kill you. But every now and then, someone survives an attack and becomes one of them. If just a fraction of that two hundred thousand becomes infected, how can anyone deal with that? You said yourself that the police couldn’t handle this. How is the military any different?”

Shirley frowned as she considered his words. “The military has better gear. Surely they can deal with the infected.”

James shook his head again. “Look, take Emerald Falls. If just ten percent of that two hundred thousand turns, how many is that?”

Shirley paused to do that math in her head. “That’s what, twenty thousand?”

Jackson nodded. “And that’s just Emerald Falls. What about the larger cities? There’s not gonna be any stopping this outbreak. Not man to man anyway. Maybe they’ll bomb some cities to contain it. Maybe that would work. But that doesn’t help us. Either we die to the infected or we die along with them if the government bombs the city.”

“What do we do then?”

“We’re gonna need to get outta the city at some point,” Jackson said. “Between the infected and the people, it’s not gonna be safe.”

“When should we go?” Shirley asked. If you had asked her a few days ago if she’d throw her lot in with someone, she’d have laughed in their face. She trusted Jackson though. He’d already proved he could keep her safe. If he felt they needed leave, then that’s what they needed to do.

“We’ll give it a day or two,” Jackson replied. “We need food and rest. I also want to see if I can get my hands on a better weapon at some point. Stay ready though. Sleep with your shoes on.”

Shirley raised an eyebrow. “Why on earth would I sleep with my shoes on?”

“We might have to leave suddenly,” Jackson replied. “If it happens that way, the last thing you want is to have and stop and worry about your shoes.”

“I’m in trouble if we have too much running,” she said indicating her heels.

“Give them here,” Jackson said. Shirley frowned but handed the shoes over. Jackson quickly broke the heel off of each shoe and handed them back.

Shirley chuckled. “A few hours ago that would’ve pissed me off. But I guess that makes sense.”

Jackson smiled. “You’re welcome. When we do leave, we’ll try and hit a store and get us both some better gear. We’re not gonna get far with what we’ve got.”

Shirley nodded. “I think there’s a Rick’s Sporting Goods not too far from here. A few blocks maybe.”

“That’ll be our first stop then. We’ll need better clothes. Tents and such too.”

“Alright. That’s our plan then.”

Jackson nodded. “Will you be okay here? I wanna look around. See if I can’t find another exit out of here. I don’t trust those guards and their rifles.”

“You think there’s another way out of here?”

“Should be. Don’t see them putting in an elevator without there also being a stairwell.”

Shirley nodded. “Okay, I think I’ll get some rest until they feed us. Didn’t sleep all that well on the floor earlier.” She sat on the bottom bunk.

Jackson nodded. “True. Not a bad idea. Don’t know when we’ll see a real bed again.”

Shirley shivered at the thought. She’d do what she needed to survive but the thought of not sleeping in a bed made the city girl in her scream in protest. Jackson chuckled at the look or her face.

“You’ll manage.”

“I know,” Shirley replied, “doesn’t mean I have to like the thought of not sleeping in a bed.”

Jackson smiled. “Fair enough. So did you change your mind about sharing? You called the top bunk,” he finished with a smile.

Shirley blushed again, “I’m too tired to climb up there right now.”

Jackson chuckled, “Alright, get some sleep. I’ll be back soon.”

Shirley nodded and laid down. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. It felt like only a few minutes had passed when she felt someone shaking her awake. Opening her eyes, she saw Jackson sitting next to her on the bed.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s nearly six so they’re about to hand out the rations.”

“Alright,” Shirley said as she stretched in the bed. “Did you get some sleep?”

Jackson nodded. “I did. Also found what I was looking for.”

Shirley nodded. He must be referring to the stairs. “Good,” she replied.

“It’s guarded but we’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

“Okay. Where is it?”

“It’s just past the bathroom area.”

“Alright. Let me up. I could eat a horse.”

Jackson chuckled and moved out of the way so she could get up. They headed towards the common area and got in line. At the end of the line there were two guards that were handing out a small box to each person. They waited for their turn and found a table to themselves. They opened their boxes and saw a sandwich along with an apple and some potato chips. Normally, they might not find such fare appealing but they each dug in and were done in moments. 

“Is that all?” Shirley asked sadly.

Jackson shrugged. “Better than nothing I suppose.”

“I’m still hungry though.”

Jackson nodded. “You and me both.”

“Shirley! You made it!”

Shirley turned to see her fiancé, Jeremy Dunst, heading towards her. She stood up to greet him and he swept her up in a fierce hug. “I’d feared the worse when I couldn’t reach you on your cell,” he whispered in her ear.

“I’m okay, Jeremy,” she said as she hugged him back. “Jackson kept me safe.”

Jeremy looked over at Jackson who had been looking away to give them some semblance of privacy. “Thank you, Jackson. I owe you a debt I can never repay.”

Jackson shrugged. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Besides, don’t think I’d be here if not for her so we helped each other in the end.”

“Still,” Jeremy said, “it had to be rough getting here.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Jackson said with a small smile.

Jeremy looked back to Shirley. “Everything will be okay now, you’ll see. The government will be here soon and everything will go back to normal.”

Shirley smiled. “I sure hope so. Today was pretty terrible.” 

“Tell me about it,” Jeremy said. He led her away from the common area so they could talk. As they left, Shirley glanced back towards Jackson and he nodded in response. Reassured, she let herself be led away.

 

 

 

4 Henry: Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia

 

Henry sat at his desk with a glass of whiskey in his hand. Another drink or two and he should be at that place where thoughts didn’t happen anymore. He wasn’t sure he could live with himself. He had deliberately lied about the severity of the crisis in that interview this morning. By the time he had taken the interview he had known a few crucial things about the virus.

The first was that there would never be a cure. Tests on subjects brought in by the army had shown this. Further testing since the interview had confirmed it. The virus induced a virulent fever that severely damaged the higher functions of the brain. Speech, problem solving, and so on were all affected.

The virus was a work of art in a way. Fevers of over one hundred and seven degrees could easily be fatal if medical treatment wasn’t provided in a timely manner. The virus somehow induced a fever, but only long enough to kill higher brain functions. The victim survived, but everything that made that person who they were was burned away.

Autonomic functions remained intact. Subjects could breathe and take sustenance without issue. The subjects were extremely aggressive. Strangely though, they didn’t attack other people that were infected. They’d learned this first hand. One of his techs had been unlucky enough to get bit by one of the first subjects the army had brought him. When he showed signs of infection, he’d been placed in the same room with the first subject. They hadn’t attacked each other.

Henry mourned the loss of his tech. What his name? Harry? No. Gary Wilks. He’d been a dependable worker but his loss did reveal some important information. The time from infection to loss of higher brain function took approximately two hours. Further, it seemed a bite is what spread the virus. Another tech had gotten infected blood on him in that first incident but wasn’t showing signs of infection. He was currently quarantined for safety but it was probably safe since he hasn’t shown signs of infection yet. He’d give the order to let him out in the morning. He took another sip of his whiskey.

A cure wouldn’t serve much purpose. The loss of higher brain function meant that the subject was dead for all intents and purposes. Even if he developed a cure, there’d be nothing but a vegetable left. The subject could eat, sleep, and eliminate waste, but that would be it. But this isn’t what had him drinking. He’d lied on that interview today. The infection would spread. People would starve to death in their homes waiting for help that would never come. That would perhaps be a blessing though. The unlucky would survive an attack from the infected and then join their ranks. Perhaps they would even attack their loved ones.

If he’d said something, people would at least know that they needed to protect themselves. Part of him said it wasn’t his fault. After all, the army had told him revealing that information would be considered treason. But, was that just cowardice in disguise? If he’d been brave enough maybe some people could have prepared themselves for what was coming.

On the other hand, he was in a position to make a difference. Telling the country the truth might have assuaged his conscious, but he would have been removed from the project. The truth of the matter was that someone else could easily get it wrong. That wasn’t arrogant. Henry was the best in his field. If any solution could be found, well he was the one to do it. 

He accepted that intellectually. The guilt however, wouldn’t release its grip. He glanced at his empty glass. At least not without some assistance. One, maybe two more and the guilt would be gone, if only for a little while.

The sound of his door opening ended his dark reverie. Looking up he saw Captain Nick Jacobson in the doorway, a look of fury on his face.

“What are you doing?” he demanded striding into the room.

“Just having a drink,” Henry replied, his voice slurred from the drink.

Nick crossed the remaining distance and knocked the glass from his hand. He leaned over the doctor, his hand on either side of his office chair.

“The country I love is dying,” he said in a low voice. “Not by an enemy I can fight, but from a virus I can’t even see with my eyes. I can’t do anything about that. But I’ll be damned if I stand here and watch your drink yourself stupid!”

Henry looked sadly at the shattered remnants of his whiskey glass. So close to quieting the guilt for a while.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Henry jumped. “Sorry. I’m just,” he sighed. “The interview today.”

Nick posted away and stepped back. “The interview? That’s what’s bothering you? You had your orders. I don’t agree with the orders, not with what’s coming, but those were our orders.”

“I could’ve warned people,” he mumbled.

Nick shook his head. “The smart ones can read between the lines. That O’Hara dropped a few hints. But there’s nothing you can do about that. You can make a difference. So do it.”

“I can’t make a cure,” Henry replied. “The virus destroys higher brain function. There’s nothing left to save. I may be able to make a vaccine of sorts given enough time.”

“That you’ll have. We’ll be evacuating soon. The new location should have everything you need.”

“Alright,” Henry said, “guess I’ll get back to work.”

“Not yet. Sleep off the drink. Maybe there’s no cure but stopping this thing from spreading works too. You can’t waste time on mistakes. I’ll give you four hours to sober up.”

Henry nodded and stumbled over to the couch in his office. His position frequently required long hours that made it more efficient to sleep here at times. Oblivion claimed him before his head hit the pillow.

***

He awoke later to someone knocking on his office door. He got up and stumbled towards the door. Opening it he saw one of Captain Jacobson’s men, fist poised for another knock.

“I’m up! You can stop with the banging.”

The soldier merely nodded, no trace of pity in his face. The jerk. No appreciation for a man with a hangover. He probably had knocked way harder than he had needed to. Henry sighed and headed towards the bathroom. He splashed some water on his face and was able to finish waking up. Next stop was the lab. He had to see what he could do to at least stop the spread of this thing. He was the only one that could.

He made it to his lab and nodded to his assistants. He spent a few minutes letting them bring him up to date on the results of the tests that they had been running. As expected, there was no headway towards a cure. The one piece of good news was that they had been able to confirm that the infection was built using the rabies virus. That didn’t necessarily make developing a solution any easier but they could at least focus their efforts on something they knew. 

Examining the results for himself he came to believe that whoever was responsible for this had somehow managed to modify the rabies virus. Rabies was nearly always fatal if prompt treatment wasn’t administered. Paralysis usually occurred and the victim would die from cardiac arrest or respiratory failure. He’d have to keep a subject isolated for longer to see if this held true with the infection they faced. 

This confirmed his initial suspicions. The bite from an infected person spread the disease. That meant that it was the saliva that carried the infection. Could he develop something that would stop the virus from spreading? A treatment that would allow someone to survive a bite? Typical rabies treatment was extremely time sensitive. If a victim got medical treatment in time, a series of shots would prevent the virus from taking hold.

That was a start but he’d first have to identify the foreign elements present in the virus. The incubation period was vastly accelerated. With rabies, one could usually expect an incubation period of days, weeks, or even longer. This infection took hold nearly immediately with full infection occurring within two hours. Anything he developed would have to be administered immediately. 

This was a tall order. Typical rabies treatment took around two weeks. Could he come up with something that could beat this infection? Henry sighed and stood to stretch cramped muscles. He’d been at this for nearly three hours. Prevention remained the key, he thought. That’s how regular rabies treatment worked. 

Several days passed in this vein. The doctor would rise early and spend around twelve hours in the lab. After that he’d eat a quick dinner and retire for the night. He could’ve pushed himself to stay up longer but knew getting this right was so critical that he couldn’t afford any mistakes due to fatigue. It was another day in the lab when the sound of someone’s footsteps gained his attention.

“Doctor,” a voice called.

Henry turned and saw Captain Jacobson standing several feet away. “Captain,” he replied.

“There’s been a change in plans. We’re evacuating today. Transport will be here in an hour.”

“An hour? That’s hardly enough time to pack up our lab equipment,” he said, frustration evident in his voice.

“Pack up your notes. We’ve already sent your specs ahead so you’ll have new equipment. Right now, my men are in the process of preparing some specimens for transport.”

“What’s going on? Why the sudden change?”

Jacobson sighed. “We can’t hold this position. The virus is spreading and there are just too many of them. We’re starting to run low on ammunition. It’d be suicide to try and maintain this position. We have to get out of the city.”

“Alright. I’ll prepare my notes.”

“Any luck so far?”

“Little,” Henry replied, “it looks to be a modified version of rabies. That gives me a starting point but I have to identify the foreign elements before I can develop any sort of treatment.”

“That’s some progress at least,” Jacobson replied. “With a more secure location you’ll be able to find what you need to do.”

Henry didn’t share the captain’s optimism but he nodded anyway. “Alright, captain. You said I have an hour. I’ve got work to do.” 

Henry looked around and hoped his new facility would actually have everything he needed. He wouldn’t be able to do anything with inferior equipment. But maybe the government wouldn’t skimp on expenses. Henry set to work. They did the majority of their notes electronically so he just had to make sure he had up to date files on his tablet. They also had a server where everything was backed up so that was an added layer of insurance.

An hour later, he stood on the roof of the building surrounded by his techs and the captain’s soldiers. The helicopters were landing and Henry squinted to prevent debris from getting into his eyes. Once the helicopters were down, Jacobson had everyone loaded in short order. As they lifted off, Henry saw the reason for the quick evacuation. Looking down, he saw thousands upon thousands of people swarming the area around the compound. Already, they were over the barricades the military had erected. Jacobson had been right. They would have died if they had tried to stay in the building. Henry shook his head. The rate the infection was spreading was incredible. 

“Crazy, right?”

Henry turned to the solider sitting next to him. “What’s that?”

“I said it’s crazy,” the solider replied as he nodded towards the chaos below. “It’s crazy down there. More of those things every single day.”

Henry nodded. Atlanta was a large city. If just a fraction of people attacked survived they’d be looking at thousands of infected. That doesn’t even include the surrounding area. Counting the suburbs, those numbers could easily be much higher. Wait. Evac? Evacuation. Had the city been evacuated?

“You said evac,” Henry began, “has the city been evacuated?”

The solider nodded. “The captain had us spread the word. We rode up and down the streets with bullhorns. Risky business let me tell you. Got chased by infected nearly every time.”

“How many people made it out?”

The solider shrugged. “Don’t know about that. Our orders were to keep the CDC secure. That didn’t quite sit right with the captain though. He had us get the word out. Not sure how many people paid attention and got going while the getting was good if you know what I mean.”

Henry shook his head. “I don’t. I haven’t left the facility since this all started.”

“Ah,” the soldier replied. “Well, it’s like this. The first day or so things were pretty quiet. There were infected running around but there weren’t a lot of people about. But then, there were rumors of a message from that O’Hara newscaster lady. Apparently she got on the air and told everyone that her interview with you wasn’t the whole truth. That they needed to protect themselves. Far as I can tell, people didn’t take her seriously at first. Thought it had to be a mistake. But after a third day of not hearing anything people thought that maybe she was telling the truth. That’s when they started leaving their homes. Hitting grocery stores and the like. That’s when things got bad. With so many people around, the infected had a field day.”

Henry nodded. With that many people about, the infected would have attacked everyone in sight. Those that survived would have contracted the infection and attacked others in turn. That explained what he was seeing below. He felt a bit of relief that Shirley had gone on the air to warn the people. That helped with his guilt a little.

“How do you know all this?” Henry asked.

“Talked to a guy on his way out of the city. He told me about the newscast. The rest I kinda just assume but it makes sense.”

Henry nodded again. “I suppose it does.”

“That’s why I said I wasn’t sure how many made it out while it was clear.”

“I see,” Henry replied. “Thanks for sharing.”

The soldier nodded and left Henry to his thoughts. It made sense. Those that had heeded Shirley’s warning would have had a relatively easy time compared to anyone trying to make it out now. With so many infected about, it would probably be impossible to get away without being attacked. Henry hoped lots of people paid attention to that warning. Atlanta was lost to the infected now.

 

 

 

 

5 Greg: Willow Street, Emerald Falls

 

The drive to James’s house was uneventful. They pulled in to James’s driveway and Greg led Carol to the door. He retrieved a key from his pocket and unlocked the door.

“You have a key?” Carol asked.

“I come here a lot,” Greg said with a smile. He held up a hand for her to wait and entered the house.

“Laura?” he called in a loud voice. “It’s me, Greg.” He knew Laura was proficient with firearms and didn’t want to startle her. If she’d experienced anything like they had this morning, he wouldn’t be surprised to see her waiting around the corner with a shotgun or something. He heard footsteps coming from below and then the sound of the basement door opening.

“Greg?” James called. “That you, man?”

“Yea, it’s me. He turned and motioned for Carol to come inside. James came around the corner and grabbed Greg in a bear hug. 

“I was worried about you,” he said as he let him go. Seeing Carol he smiled. “Good, you got Carol here too.”

Carol smiled as she closed to door behind her. “Wouldn’t have made it out of there without Greg,” she said.

James embraced Carol in a hug. “I’m glad you’re here Carol. I didn’t know how you guys managed at the office.” He turned back to Greg.

“Did you get my message? Phones are down so I had use the PlayStation.”

Greg nodded. “I saw it before we left the house. I was on my way here anyway once we got away from the office.”

James nodded. He knew he could count on Greg to watch out for his family if something happened to him. “Let’s head downstairs. We’re in the basement in case any of those things are walking around. They’re drawn to noise.”

Greg and Carol followed. “They are?” Greg asked. 

“Yea, I’ll tell you all about it. Got stuck in the hospital this morning. First things first, though. You guys hungry?”

“We ate a bit before we left my place. Won’t say no to more food though.”

James chuckled. “We’ve got some stuff downstairs.”

Downstairs there were hugs all around as everyone expressed how happy they were to see each other. Laura looked Greg over several times despite his protestations that he was fine. After some leftover cold pasta, James and Greg took turns relating their mornings. 

“So, it’s the bite that spreads it then,” Greg said. “That’s good to know. O’Hara said the same thing but it’s good to have some firsthand confirmation.”

James nodded. “From what I could tell, it looked to be a few hours before they get back up.”

“Things are gonna get a lot worse then,” Greg said. “All those people that escaped the hospital…”

Laura nodded. “So what do we do? I don’t think it’ll be safe to stay in the city for too long.”

“I agree,” Carol said. “Especially with that message Shirley O’Hara sent out.”

“People are gonna be out in the streets,” James said. “They’ll probably go for grocery stores and such first.”

Greg nodded. “Are we agreed then? We need to get out of the city?” Greg looked around and saw nods from everyone.

“Alright. I think we need a few things if we’re going to do that.”

“We’ll definitely need food,” Carol said. “We’ve got a few days’ worth in the car but we’ll need more.”

Laura nodded. “We’ve got a few days’ worth here also. We can stretch it a bit but we’ll definitely need some more.”

“Should we hit a grocery store then?” James snorted. “I’m a cop and I’m about to advocate breaking and entering.”

Greg shook his head. “This is survival bud. I’m not sure the normal rules apply anymore. But hey, if the store’s open, I’ve got no problem paying for what we need.”

James nodded. “You’re right. It might not be bad yet, but it’ll get there. I’ll be fine.”

Greg nodded. He thought back to how he had felt in the office that morning. That moment when he realized he had to fight or die. Things were definitely going to get worse. If they wanted to survive, they would probably have to do lots of things they wouldn’t normally do. They’d have to deal with any guilt later. 

“I’m not sure a grocery store should be our first stop,” he said.

“Why?” Laura asked. “We’re going to need food.”

“Well, I mean maybe we don’t want to hit the normal places. Anyone else sitting around like us is going to be coming to the same conclusions. So maybe we want to hit the smaller stores first. Convenience stores and places like that.”

James nodded. “That makes sense.” He looked around the room. “We’ll also need camping gear. We can’t sleep in our cars.”

Greg nodded. “You’re right. Tents and stuff. Cooking gear.”

“Why don’t we make a list?” Laura asked. “Then we can prioritize what we need to get first.”

Greg nodded again. “Alright. I think time is an issue so it would go faster if we split things up. Laura, you’re probably best suited to take care of the foodstuffs.”

Laura snorted. “That’s fine, Greg. If I left it up to you we’d probably have nothing but cans of beans.”

Greg chuckled. “There’s nothing wrong with beans. Carol? Would you mind giving her a hand?” Carol nodded and moved to sit next to Laura.

“James, let’s take of camping gear and such. When we’re done, we can compare lists and see if anyone missed anything.” Everyone seemed to agree with this so Greg and James moved off to the side to discuss their list.

Greg looked around. “Where are the kids?”

“They’re sleeping,” James replied as he pointed to a corner in the basement. “Laura made them a pallet earlier. We’ve been keeping them down here all day so there’s been little else for them to do.”

Greg nodded. “Alright, so let’s go over this list. We definitely need camping stuff.”

James nodded. “Before we get to that, we need to discuss weapons. None of the rest matters if we can’t keep ourselves safe.”

“That makes sense. I’ve got my machete and my two pistols. All of those replicas looked useless for any actual use.”

“Alright. I’ve got my asp, my service pistol, and a few things around the house.” He paused to think for a moment. “We’ve got the shotgun and a couple more pistols. Think we’ve got a baseball bat or two lying around somewhere too.”

“How much ammo do you have?”

“At least a box for each type of weapon,” James replied.

“So do we want to add hitting a gun shop to the list?”

“Not a bad idea,” James replied. “We need to think about protective gear too. Something to protect us from a bite.”

Greg nodded. “Maybe a leather jacket or something? That would take care of the arms and torso. Then maybe some thick gloves.”

James nodded. “Need something for our legs too. Don’t think jeans will necessarily stop a bite.”

Greg rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What about some overalls or something? You know, like construction workers wear?”

“That should work. We’ll need boots too. Every area needs to be protected. Something for our heads too.”

“Maybe a helmet, or a hockey mask or something.” 

“That’s a good idea,” James said. “So we’ll need to hit a sporting goods store for some of this.”

Greg nodded. “That about cover it for gear?”

“I think so. Experience will tell us anything else we need. Hopefully we’ll find out what else we need without anyone getting hurt.”

“Agreed,” Greg said. “Okay so we also need camping stuff. I’m thinking a sporting goods store will let us take care of both of those at once.”

James nodded. They spent the next half hour making a list of camping gear, trying to stick to the bare essentials as they would only have so much space in their vehicles. With that done they met with the girls to see if someone had left something critical off of their list.

“That looks good to me,” Laura said. “We haven’t been camping too often but I think that covers most of what we need.”

“The grocery list looks good too,” Greg said.

Carol nodded. “We stuck mostly to dry goods and canned stuff. We figure we can spend a few days here and eat our frozen stuff so we don’t have to go off the fresh stuff right away.”

James nodded. “That sounds good. I’ve got one of those electric grills. I can cook some steaks down here. Might as well eat good while we can.”

Greg smiled. “I’m not going to argue with that.”

“So how do we go about getting this stuff?” Laura asked.

Greg thought for a moment. “I’m thinking James and I should go. I don’t like the thought of one of us not being here but I don’t know what we’ll run into out there.”

Everyone nodded at this. “I have a request,” Carol said. “I want you to teach me how to use one of those guns we have. I want to pull my own weight here.”

Everyone looked ready to protest but Carol continued, “I know there’s other things I can do but I don’t want to just stand by if we get attacked. I don’t want to be helpless.”

James nodded. “I’ll set you up with one of our pistols. We’ll go over the basics before we leave.” James thought for a moment. “Once we leave the city, we can do lessons.”

“Thanks,” Carol said as she nodded.

“Alright,” Laura began, “it’s best for you and James to go. When do you leave?”

“I’m thinking sooner rather than later,” Greg replied. “Give it a few days and we’ll have to deal with desperate people, not just the infected.”

Laura nodded. “Maybe you guys should go now then. I can teach Carol the basics on the gun and we’ll get dinner going why you guys are out.”

James nodded. “That makes sense. What do you think, Greg?”

Greg nodded. “Laura’s right. Time’s a factor here. The longer we wait, the more chance we’ll run into people. With what’s happening, that could easily be a fight over resources.”

“Do you think it’ll come to that?” Carol asked.

“Definitely,” James replied. “We might get another day or so of relative calm but people are gonna get desperate real quick. Just food alone will do it. Most people only have a few days’ worth of food in their house I’m thinking. I definitely think it’s gonna get rough. You remember that Black Friday a few years back?”

“I think someone got trampled,” Carol replied.

James nodded. “Exactly. Now, that was over toys and such. What are people going to do for food?”

“That makes sense,” Carol said. “Just makes me sad to think people will act like that when there are literally people running around trying to kill them.”

Greg sighed. “I don’t really like to think it, but I think it’s pretty much us versus the world.”

Everyone sat in silence for a few minutes as they thought about this. Greg and James stood up after a few minutes and headed upstairs. It was time to get what they could off their lists. James took a few minutes to change out of his uniform and met Greg in the garage.

“We’ll take the minivan,” James said.

“Sounds good,” Greg replied.

They headed out and made good time for the most part. There were more people about now. Some had probably seen the O’Hara newscast and were also out gathering supplies. 

“More people about now,” Greg said.

James nodded. “Yeah, good thing we left when we did. Less chance of running into someone stupid this way.”

“True. So, how you holding up man?” he asked thinking about Jeffries.

James snorted. “I don’t need to be analyzed, Greg.”

“Not analyzing. Just friend to friend. How are you?”

James shrugged. “I have no choice but to be okay. Now isn’t the time to be sitting around crying.  My family needs me. So I’m fine. If we can be really safe at some point, maybe I’ll be sad then. No time for it now.”

Greg nodded. “Well, I’ve got a question for you then.”

“Shoot,” James replied.

“So this morning, at the office. When I had to kill Mr. Ramsey, I felt that I should have felt bad about it. But I didn’t. I wasn’t sad at all. In fact, I was actually kinda satisfied.”

“Well, I don’t think we can really think of these things as human first off. The way they act…” James trailed off as he thought back to his ordeal at the hospital this morning.

“I don’t really think it’s something you should feel bad about. You defended yourself and Carol. She’s alive because of you.”

Greg nodded. “Alright. What about other people though. We’re bound to run into someone at some point. If not today, then eventually. Anyone that survives is going to be looking for stuff just like we are.”

James was silent for a few moments as he thought. “I’m a cop. Have been for what, ten years now? I’ve always prided myself on being careful. I never wanted to be that cop that shot someone when they were just reaching for a cell phone. But now? Unless the government miraculously shows up and takes care of this, I’m not a cop anymore. I’m just a man looking to protect his family. And that man will do whatever he needs to do.”

Greg nodded. That made sense. He would do whatever he needed to as well. James, Laura, and the kids were his family. Had been for years now since his parents had died. And well, it looks like Carol was a part of that now too. He didn’t know what would happen with them as far as a relationship went, but she was definitely on his list of people to protect. He’d keep all of them safe no matter what. 

“We’re here,” James said. Greg looked up and saw that they had arrived at a Rick’s Sporting Goods. There were a good number of cars in the parking lot, was the place doing business as usual?

“What do you think,” Greg asked as James pulled into a spot. “Looks fairly normal here.”

James nodded. “Maybe leave the machete. Keep the pistol though. Just cover it with your shirt.”

Greg nodded. They didn’t want any problems in the store if things were still running normally here. Greg took a moment to remove the machete from his belt and then made sure his shirt covered his gun. Satisfied, they headed inside. They reached the door and saw two employees standing at the door, each of them had a bat in hand.

“You bit?” one of them asked. 

“No, we’re fine,” James replied. 

The employees opened the door and quickly ushered them inside. “We’ll have to check you for bites just to be sure,” one of them said.

Greg nodded. That seemed fair. He showed his arms and lifted his shirt so they could see he was bite free. James did the same. The employees nodded that they were satisfied.

“Alright, you look clean. The rules are business as usual. That means no pushing or fighting or any nonsense like that. No fighting over merchandise.”

“That’s fair,” James said, “I have to ask, you do know what’s going on right?”

One of the employees nodded. “Of course we know. Why do you think we checked you for bites?”

“I mean you’re keeping the store open like nothing’s wrong,” James responded.

“We’ve taken precautions,” the employee said indicating his bat. “Besides, the boss is confident that this will all blow over in a few days. So, he figures why not make some money.”

“Fair enough,” James replied. They each grabbed a cart and headed out into the store. To their surprise, everyone seemed to be acting in an orderly manner.

“This can’t possibly last,” Greg said in a low voice.

“It won’t,” James responded in an equally low voice. “But, it makes our task here easier.”

Greg nodded. That was true. He supposed he should enjoy while it lasted. They’d probably be fighting through infected at some point soon enough. Their first stop was the tent section. They grabbed four tents. One for James and Laura, one for Carol and Maddy, and one for Greg and Junior. They thought it would be a good idea to have an extra tent in case something happened to the others. After the tents they went and looked for other gear such as a camp stove, lanterns, and sleeping bag. They made great progress on the list until they got to clothes. 

“So you don’t know what size Carol wears?” James asked.

“How would I possibly know that?” 

“Well, you’ve been making eyes at her for a while now.”

“It wasn’t like that. I never tried anything because she worked for me.”

“What’s your excuse now?” 

“Wait. How do you know what size Laura wears?”

“How would I not know? She’s dragged me shopping with her enough that I caught on.”

“I think I’ll just grab several sizes and hope for the best.”

James chuckled. “Sure, if you want to play safe. If you want to score some points, you should show up with the right size.”

Greg snorted. “I don’t need points. I saved her life today that has to count for something.”

James chuckled. “Alright. Let’s just throw an assortment of clothes in the cart. We’ll need boots too. “

Their list complete, they took their carts to the register. Greg barely blinked when the bill totaled over a thousand dollars. Normally, he would have had a huge problem with that. Dealing with people trying to kill you had a way of putting things in perspective however. They loaded their purchases into the van and headed towards their next stop. They pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and saw that things were a little more chaotic here. Cars were parked haphazardly and people heading into the store were shoving to be the first inside.

“Looks like it’s starting,” Greg said.

“Yeah,” James said with a nod, “doesn’t look too bad just yet though. Good thing we decided to do this today.”

Greg looked at all their gear in the back of the van. “Think all of this is safe? Should one of us stay back?”

“I think we’re okay,” James replied. “I think people are out trying to get what they can but it hasn’t quite reached the point where they’re stealing from each other yet.”

Greg nodded. “Alright then. Let’s get in and out.”

They left the vehicle and headed inside. They each grabbed a cart and took a portion of the shopping list. They figured it would go faster here if they split up. Greg was looking at soup when a commotion down the aisle drew his attention. Two middle aged women looked ready to come to blows over some product or other. Greg shook his head. This was just a glimpse of the days ahead. Right now, people were probably just hoarding thinking that the government would be along in a few days and everything would go back to normal. Greg wasn’t so sure that was going to happen. Once other people realized that, things would start getting violent.

Greg felt there were basically two kinds of people. Those that followed the laws for some intrinsic reason and those that followed for fear of the consequences. With the police force out of the picture, that second segment of the population would start realizing they could get away with pretty much anything now. Greg left the soup aisle and head for the next item on his list when the cart came to a sudden halt.

Looking up he saw a man, probably in his twenties, holding tightly to the side of his cart. The man wore a ratty looking leather jacket and equally ratty jeans. His pupils were dilated and he was breathing heavily.

“Can I help you with something,” Greg asked in a calm voice.

“Gimme your cart,” the man said.

“No,” Greg said with a slight frown. He gestured back the way he had come. “There’s still a few things in the store. You can get your own cart.”

The man shook his head. “I don’t have no money. So I’m gonna need your cart.”

“I’m sorry,” Greg said, “I’m not giving you my cart.”

The man released the cart and stepped back. “You give it to me or I’m gonna take it!” He reached into his pocket and drew out a switchblade. He flicked hit open and gave Greg a wicked smile.

“Betcha you wanna give me that cart now, dontcha?”

Greg sighed. He figured they’d have another day or two before something like this would happen. This guy did look like he was on something though. Plus, he mentioned he didn’t have any cash so he was already desperate. Greg glanced in the cart. It was piled high with soups and other dry goods. On another day, Greg might have let this slide. It simply wasn’t worth getting into a fight over something like this. Things were different now though. The shelves were nearly empty so he couldn’t just hand this over and expect to get another cart load. They needed this stuff to survive. The cart literally represented life for his group. They wouldn’t survive long without food to eat.

Greg shrugged. “I’m still not giving you the cart.” Before the man could respond, Greg stepped around the cart and kicked the man in the groin. As he bent over in pain, Greg grabbed his knife hand and twisted it cruelly, forcing him to drop the knife to the ground. Greg then hit him in the back of the head with his elbow and the man fell to the ground unconscious. Greg heard footsteps behind him and whirled to face the new threat. He relaxed when he saw James standing there with a grin on his face.

“I leave you alone for five minutes….”

“Funny,” Greg said as he chuckled.

“What happened?” James asked.

“He wanted the cart. I disagreed.”

James nodded as if that was enough for him. “Well, I’ve got everything on my list. What about you?”

“Same here. I’m ready to go.”

They headed towards the cash registers up front when they heard a number of people start screaming. They looked at each other.

“Infected you think?” Greg asked.

“Probably. Best to assume that I think.”

“Let’s find a rear exit. They’ve gotta have a loading dock or something.”

James nodded and drew his pistol with one hand and pulled the cart with the other. Greg followed suit and they headed towards the rear of the store. They heard chaos all around them as people began running away from whatever was happening at the front of the store. Greg heard a growl behind him and turned to see two infected charging towards them. Two shots put both of them down.

“Aren’t you glad I dragged you to the range now?” James asked as they dragged their carts along.

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Remember how much you pissed and moaned? ’I don’t need to use a gun, I know krav maga.’”

Greg chuckled. “Yeah, I remember.”

“Good. I just want to point out that in the future, when I have an idea you should do it without whining.”

Greg laughed. “Fair enough. I guess you owed me that one.”

James laughed. He quickly turned serious as a roar came from the side. He lined up his shot and put it down without slowing down. He smiled again. “I sure did. Can’t wait to tell Laura when we get back.”

They reached the rear of the store and saw a set of double doors that led to the back area of the store. They pulled their carts inside and saw rows and rows of pallets filled with various goods. They walked along cautiously until they reached a large loading door. They looked around for a button and found it after a few minutes of searching, it wasn’t located next to the door for some reason. Unfortunately, pushing the button didn’t give them the result they wanted.

“Is it locked?” Greg asked.

“Must be. I have no idea how to open it.”

Greg glanced back towards the front of the store. They could still hear screams. “I guess asking an employee for help is out.”

“Probably.” James pointed towards a corner. I see a red light over there. Emergency exit maybe?”

“Let’s find out,” Greg replied. They took their carts and headed over and were relieved to see another set of double doors leading outside. Greg saw a sign near the door and spared a second to look it over.

“Alarm will sound,” he said.

James nodded. “That’ll probably draw the infected this way.”

“Alright, so we’ll need to go out and book it to the van. Just toss everything inside. We can sort it neatly back at the house.”

James nodded. “You ready?” 

At Greg’s nod he pushed the door open with his cart and headed outside. A screeching alarm sounded and they figured they didn’t have long before the infected came their way. They both took off running, pushing the carts in front of them. They rounded the corner of the building and headed back towards the parking lot. It looked even worse now. It looked like some people had managed to make their way out the front and get to their cars. Unfortunately, no one wanted to wait for anyone else and there were several cars smashed together. 

They reached their car and quickly started throwing everything inside. Both were breathing heavily but they weren’t winded. Part of their training in krav maga involved a great deal of cardio so they were both in excellent shape. They were both grateful for that right now. Once everything was loaded they got inside and James headed for a side exit in the parking lot.

“I’m not going near that main exit,” James said.

“Don’t blame you,” Greg said. A loud screech behind them got his attention and he turned around to look. It looked as if some more people had ended up in an accident.

“Definitely a good idea,” Greg said.

“That was intense,” James said. “Do we head home now or keep going?”

“Keep going,” Greg said, “it’s only going to get worse right?”

James nodded. “True. James drove along until he found a gas station that was relatively empty. He filled up the van while Greg went inside to see if they had any gas cans. Greg returned a few minutes later with three cans and used another pump to fill them.

“Do you think the power will be affected by all this?” he asked.

James nodded. “Indirectly at least. Don’t think the grid will be damaged but the people who run the station are probably dealing with the same thing we are.”

“That makes sense,” Greg replied with a nod. He finished filling his first can and started on the second.

“What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Greg said,” just thinking about what to do next. We said we want to leave the city but we haven’t said where. After that back there, I’m wondering is anywhere safe? What if this stuff is everywhere?

“That’s true,” James replied, “If there were just a few people on an airplane…”

“It could be spreading everywhere. So where do we go? I’m also wondering about the power. Things will be that much harder if we lose that.”

“We’ll figure it out, man. What matters is that we’re all safe right now. Let’s focus on that. We’ll figure out the rest as we go along.

Greg nodded as he started filling the third can. “Alright, do we want to hit the gas station for some food? Maybe they have power bars or something. That would be good if we don’t want to take the time to make food for some reason.”

“Good idea,” James replied. “I’m done here,” he said as he replaced the nozzle. “I’ll head inside. Maybe you should stay out here and watch the van.”

Greg nodded as he thought about the incident in the grocery store. If some people were already getting desperate, it wasn’t a good idea to leave their things unattended. “Yeah, go ahead. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

James headed inside and returned a few minutes later loaded down with plastics bags. He chuckled when he saw Greg’s raised eyebrow.

“Why stop at power bars? Might as well enjoy some snacks while we can. I was standing in there and I thought it would be sad that no one would be making some of that stuff anymore. So we might as well eat it now.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Greg said with a laugh.

Greg finished filling the last can and they took a few moments to load everything inside the van. They were both grateful for an uneventful trip home but they did take note of some changes they saw as they arrived in their neighborhood. This morning things appeared relatively normal but now things were a bit different. Several families could be seen loading up their vehicles, they were likely intent on getting out of town as soon as possible. Some driveways had cars parked at random angles as if the driver had been in a hurry to get home.

Greg frowned at that. Were some of those people infected? Were the cars parked randomly because they had been overcome with the infection? Greg thought it was a good idea they were staying in the basement. He did think they should rethink how long they were planning on staying though. Just in case the infection had reached this neighborhood.

“We might want to think about getting you another vehicle,” James said.

“What’s wrong with my car?”

“Just thinking we probably want something with a little bit more space. The van’s pretty much packed now with what we picked up today. How’s your car looking?”

Greg thought for a moment. “The trunk is pretty much full I think. There isn’t too much space back there. We should probably handle that as soon as possible.”

James nodded. “Let’s drop the van off and get a bite to eat. We can unload your car and then go get something else. You have enough to cover a new car?”

Greg thought for a moment. “Yeah, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Couldn’t get a hummer or anything, but anything lower than that should be fine.”

“That’s good,” James responded, “If the dealerships are open, I don’t think they’ll be doing any financing.”

Greg chuckled. “This is the perfect time though. They could do an end of the world special or something.”

James laughed as he pulled into his driveway. He waited for the garage door to open then quickly pulled inside. “Why don’t we get some of that gear out the back, just in case?”

Greg nodded. “The jackets and gloves for sure.”

They spent a few minutes finding the desired items and headed inside for lunch. The girls had made some chicken sandwiches and a salad. During the meal, the men explained that they needed to replace Greg’s vehicle. The girls agreed it was a good idea and they sent the kids out to the garage to unload Greg’s car.

After lunch, they put on their new gear. They had another uneventful trip out. They knew this wouldn’t last but were grateful for it nonetheless. They managed to find a dealership that was open and found an SUV that they felt would do the job. Greg ended paying way more than it was worth but didn’t worry about it too much since they really needed it. He wondered how much longer the economy could hold up with this crisis going on. He figured pretty soon people would start looting and taking what they needed. Maybe the owner here thought he could get away some place the infection hadn’t reached yet.

The drive home was much more interesting than the ride out. Several times they had to drive along the sidewalk to avoid traffic despite the fact they were sticking to side streets. Greg was already starting to feel that the SUV was paying for itself. He realized his old car wouldn’t have been any good under these conditions. He smiled to himself. That was another great idea James had had, although he wouldn’t tell him that.

Once they reached the house, they took the time to split up their supplies between both vehicles. Greg had thought it was a good idea for each vehicle to have the essentials in case they got separated somehow. They finished with the vehicles just as the girls were putting dinner together. They sat down to a meal of grilled steak, steamed vegetables, and some mashed potatoes. James smiled happily as he cut into his steak. Laura chuckled at his enthusiasm.

“We’re almost out of the freezer stuff,” she said. “We’ve got some hamburgers left I think, and maybe a roast.”

James shrugged. “Let’s cook it all. No point in letting it go to waste.”

Greg nodded. “Yeah, not sure how much longer it’ll be safe to stay in the city.”

Laura nodded as she glanced at the kids. Junior at ten, was looking at the whole situation as if it were some big adventure. Maddy at twelve, was taking everything in stride as well. If she had been just a few years older they might have had an irate teenager on their hands. As it was, they seemed to be handling the whole thing better than the adults. Laura had marveled at their acceptance of the situation when she had sat them down to talk earlier. 

“Where should we go?” she asked.

“Not sure just yet,” Greg replied. “For now though, getting away from any large cities is probably out best bet. Maybe head north or something. Less people that way, right?”

“Less people should mean less infected then right?” Carol asked.

“That’s kind of what I’m thinking,” he said.

“How can we be sure though?” James asked. “It’s not like won’t have to deal with this if we go north.”

“Hey, dad,” Junior said.

“Yeah, son?”

“Couldn’t we just check the radio? I still have that c.b. radio you got me last year.”

“Does it still work?” James asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you use it in a while.”

“It still works,” Junior insisted. “It’s been sitting on my closet shelf.”

“I’ll go grab it,” James said. He left and returned a few minutes later, c.b. radio in hand. They set it up on the table but nothing happened when he turned it on.

“It probably needs new batteries,” Junior said. “I haven’t used it for a while.”

“I’ll grab some,” Laura said as she left the table. She returned a few minutes later and the radio crackled to life. They cycle through the stations but didn’t hear anything they felt was useful. They stayed at it for fifteen minutes before giving up.

“We can keep checking,” Greg said. “It’s still just the first day. Maybe no one has had a chance to organize anything yet.”

“That makes sense,” James said. “We can probably check every hour or so until we hear something.”

Laura glanced at her watch. “It’s after eight. Should we turn in?”

“That sounds good to me,” James said. “I’m pretty tired now that you mention it.”

Everyone else left, leaving just Greg and Carol at the table. They made small talk while Greg continued to cycle through the stations on the radio. Carol chuckled after he yawned for the fourth time.

“Why don’t you go to bed? The radio will be there in the morning.”

Greg smiled. “You’re right.” He stood and stretched.

“I made a spot for you earlier. Come on, I’ll show you.” Carol took Greg by the hand and led him off to a corner in the basement. There was a pallet set up on the floor with room for two. A blanket hung from the ceiling and enclosed the area to give a sense of privacy.

“What’s this?” Greg asked as he turned to Carol.

“What’s it look like?”

Greg chuckled. “I know what it looks like. I guess I just wasn’t expecting this.”

“I could’ve died today,” she said. “You kept me safe. And before you say anything, this isn’t about that. I’ve liked you for a while now. I know you feel the same way about me.”

Greg nodded. “I do. It’s just…when things were normal it didn’t feel right since we worked together.”

“That’s fine. But normal is gone now. We could die tomorrow.” Carol placed a finger on his lips when he tried to protest. “I know you and James will do everything you can to keep us safe. I’ll learn what I need to so I can help with that too. But you don’t know what will happen. Something can go wrong despite our best efforts. So, I don’t want to waste any more time when we don’t know what the next day will bring.”

Greg glanced around. “What about the others?”

“I’ll be quiet,” Carol said with a small smile. 

The next morning, James found Greg working with the c.b. radio. “How was your night?” he asked with a smirk on his face.

Greg noted the smirk and chuckled. “So you know, huh?”

“Who do you think helped Carol set everything up?”

At Greg’s look, James laughed. “Laura and I have been married thirteen years, man. No secrets there. You are well and truly caught my friend.

Greg laughed. “Well, maybe I don’t mind being caught.”

“That’s the spirit.” James nodded towards the radio. “Anything come through yet?”

“Not yet.”

“So what’s our plan today? I think we pretty much got what we needed yesterday.”

Greg nodded. “I’m thinking we stay here until we hear something on the radio. Might as well be in comfort before we hit the road.”

James raised his eyebrow suggestively.

“I didn’t mean that,” Greg said with a chuckle. “I was just thinking that we might as well be comfortable before we start having to sleep in those tents.”

“Sure, I believe you,” James said.

Greg chuckled again. “I was also thinking we might make small trips outside. Just to keep an eye on things so we have an idea of when it’s just not safe anymore and we need to get out of here.”

“That makes sense. The radio runs on batteries so we can bring it with us and check things on the road. It would be nice to have an idea of where to go when we leave though.”

The next few days passed in relative quiet. They spent time packing and repacking the vehicles. Greg and James made frequent trips outside while everyone else took turns checking the radio. Their peace came to end one day after Greg returned from a trip outside. Greg entered the basement and saw everyone sitting around at the table playing a board game.

“What’s wrong?” Carol asked when she saw the look on his face.

“It’s time for us to go,” he said.

“What happened?” James asked.

“The city’s on fire. Looters or something, I don’t know. Looks like it’s heading this way though.”

“Are you sure?” Laura asked.

“It looks that way,” Greg said. “Either way, it’s not safe here anymore. If the fire doesn’t reach here people might come this way looking for shelter.”

James nodded. “Let’s go then. The cars are ready to go.”

There was little to do. They’d been ready to leave at a moment’s notice so they wouldn’t have to run around looking for things when it was time to leave. The kids packed up their games while Laura and Carol packed up the day’s lunch. Greg and James headed for the garage to start the cars. James took Laura and his kids in their minivan while Carol rode with Greg in the SUV. Greg took the lead and led the group away from the city. 

Carol looked behind them at the rising flames and shook her head sadly. “Who would do this? The infected are bad enough, why set fire to everything?”

Greg shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said as he rubbed her knee. “All I know is that it isn’t safe here anymore.”

 

 

 

 

 

6 Shirley: Hidden Shelter, Emerald Falls

 

Shirley sighed in frustration as she headed for the bathroom. She’d just had another heated argument with Jeremy. For the last few days she’d been trying to tell him they needed to be ready to leave in case things got bad here. He wouldn’t listen to reason though. The latest argument had been the worst. She’d been trying to explain how Jackson said it wouldn’t be safe here but Jeremy wouldn’t listen. He started accusing her of cheating on him with Jackson. 

She was attracted to Jackson. Maybe even more so now since he’d gotten her safely from her office. But she hadn’t done anything with him. She wasn’t even planning on it. That seemed to be the only thing Jeremy could focus on. He’d insisted on her moving her bunk to his area and tried to exclude Jackson from meal times. He’d even taken to having some other guys sit with them so Jackson wouldn’t have space to sit at their table.

This had been going on for two days now and she was getting sick of it. She wasn’t his possession to be told whom she could or couldn’t talk to. Jackson was her friend for life at minimum. You didn’t just turn away from someone who had risked their life to save yours. Fortunately, Jackson was taking the whole situation in stride. In fact, he was acting as if he didn’t care one way or another. That probably fueled Jeremy’s jealous rage even more.

It also didn’t help that there was so much tension going around. People were really starting to complain about the lack of food. It had gotten to the point that an elderly man had been knocked unconscious when he questioned the guards about it. Those thugs had hit that poor man in the head with the butt of their rifle! Shirley couldn’t wait until Jackson said it was time to get out of here.

She exited the bathroom to find Jackson waiting for her. “Hey,” he said with a smile.

“Hey, Jackson,” she replied. “You doing okay?” She hadn’t talked to him for the last two days because she hadn’t wanted to deal with Jeremy’s irrational outbursts. 

Jackson nodded. “Just wanted to let you know to be ready to leave. I think things will come to a head soon.” He tilted his head as he looked at her. “That is, if you’re still coming with me.”

Shirley nodded without hesitation. Jackson’s instincts had kept them safe when this all started so she wasn’t going to start questioning him now. She’d hoped to bring Jeremy with them but maybe it was time to cut her losses. She didn’t love him anyway. He had been a means to an end. With everything going on, maybe he wasn’t so useful anymore. That sounded callous, and maybe a bit shallow but she wasn’t going to risk her life because Jeremy wanted to be stupid.

“I’m still coming,” she said. “I was just trying to convince Jeremy to come with us.”

“I don’t think he’s gonna go for that,” Jackson responded. “Pretty sure he thinks we’ve got something going on.”

Shirley sighed. Jackson had noticed that too? Of course, it couldn’t have been hard the way Jeremy had been treating him. “Sorry about that. I don’t know what has gotten into him.”

Jackson shrugged. “I couldn’t care less about what your boy toy thinks. Why are you with him anyway? He’s a moron.”

Shirley shrugged. “It made sense before all this started. He had connections, wealth. Figured I’d set myself up before I lost the spotlight.” She looked at Jackson to see how he would take this. Would he think less of her? Most people probably would if they knew her true motivations for doing things.

“What about now?” Jackson asked. “Doesn’t seem so practical with what’s happening. Can he keep you safe?”

Shirley’s pulse sped up a bit. Did he leave something off at the end? Like maybe Jeremy couldn’t keep her safe like he could? Funny. Jeremy trying to control her pissed her off to no end but she had no trouble following Jackson’s lead.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Haven’t thought about it that much.”

“Maybe you should. Anyway, I’ll let you go. I don’t want to give your boyfriend more reason to whine. Don’t worry though. I’m keeping an eye on you even if you don’t see me. I won’t leave without you.”

Shirley nodded as Jackson left. He’d given her something to think about. She’d originally gotten with Jeremy because she thought it would secure her lifestyle. But what good was his wealth now? And that jealousy. She hadn’t even known about that. Suddenly, the thought of tying her life to his didn’t seem all that appealing. Now Jackson on the other hand…she swiftly pushed that thought from her mind. Now probably wasn’t the time to be wondering about a new relationship. 

She sighed as she headed towards the common area. Time for their daily sandwich. She hoped today would be uneventful. Another man had been knocked unconscious by the guards. He’d been loudly complaining about the lack of food and had gathered a fair degree of support from the other survivors. Things had calmed down a bit after that, but it was quickly building up again. Putting down the ring leader might not work the second time.

Shirley passed several families on her way to the table where Jeremy was waiting. Many of them had kids and they all looked so hungry. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food. She was pretty hungry herself. They’d only been getting one meal a day and it was really small at that. It provided some nourishment but you were still hungry after. Jackson had been spot on about the consequences of them letting extra people in here.

She reached the table and sat next to Jeremy. She grimaced as he took her hand in a tight grip. “Where have you been?” he whispered fiercely in her ear.

Shirley yanked her hand from his. “The bathroom,” she responded hotly, “or is that not allowed?”

Jeremy looked unfazed by her anger. He nodded towards the other two men sharing the table with them. “They saw Jackson leaving the bathroom area. You came out soon after. Where you with him? Were you back there letting him touch you?” 

“I imagine he has to use the bathroom just like anyone else,” she replied.

Jeremy grabbed her hand again, so tightly this time it hurt. “You listen to me. You belong to me. I don’t want you anywhere near him, you understand?”

Shirley looked in his eyes and realized in that moment Jeremy had no respect for her. He didn’t see her as a person with her own dreams and aspirations, just something to be possessed. Yeah, she didn’t love him, but she had figured there would at least be caring and respect between them. She’d even thought she might grow to love him over time. She didn’t like what she saw in his eyes right now. She suddenly found herself feeling grateful for the infected.

The attack had brought her and Jackson together in a way they hadn’t been during the whole time they had worked together. Without that, she might never have seen Jeremy for the monster he was until it was too late. Any affection she had for him died right then. She didn’t care if he died at that moment. The infected could attack right now and she wasn’t sure she’d blink an eye if he was the first to fall.

She leaned close to him and let all the emotion bleed from her save for a core of rage. “Let. Me. Go.”

He seemed taken aback by the anger in her voice but recovered quickly. He reached for her again but she quickly stood and moved out of his reach. He stopped reaching for her, probably afraid to make a scene. Shirley removed the engagement ring from her finger and tossed it onto the table. 

“I’m not yours, Jeremy. I never was. You absolutely disgust me.” She turned and walked away from him, not caring that people around them had been listening in to their conversation. 

She saw Jackson sitting at a table and she walked over and sat next to him without hesitation. “Took you long enough,” Jackson said with a small smile on his face.

Shirley flushed. “I hate him. I can’t stand to even be in the same room as him.”

Jackson nodded. “Yeah, he’s a prick.”

Shirley looked at him and laughed. “You’re right. He’s a prick. I can tell you for a fact that he’s overcompensating.”

Jackson laughed. “He looks the type.” He looked up as a guard approached with meal boxes for their table. 

They accepted their food and made quick work of the contents. Shirley groaned with frustration as her stomach continued to rumble with hunger. “This isn’t nearly enough food,” she whispered quietly.

Jackson nodded and responded in an equally low voice, “I know. We’ll leave soon. Tonight or tomorrow, I think.”

They spent the next half hour playing a game of checkers although neither really focused on the game. It was simply something to do to pass the time. They heard a commotion from the front of the common area and looked to see what was going on. There was a small group of people standing in front of one of the guards. Jackson stood up to go get a closer look and Shirley followed close behind.

“I’m telling you, this just isn’t enough food!” a man at the front of the group shouted. “You can’t expect us to accept this. I paid good money to be here and I expect better treatment!”

The guard shrugged. “You’re welcome to leave whenever you want.”

“I’m not going out there with all those crazy people running about! What I want is some more food!”

“Sir, you need to go have a seat. You’ll receive more rations tomorrow.”

“My children are hungry right now. Stop holding back on us!” A number of people voiced their agreement with this and the group swelled as more people came to see what was going on. The guard started to look irritated and called for backup into his walkie.

“Are you gonna shoot me?” the man asked. “Or maybe you’ll knock me out like you did poor Tim the other day. Well, you can’t do that to all of us. We’ve had enough of this!”

The guard started to look concerned then as he realized he was maybe moments from having an angry mob of people on his hands. Roberta Lyons showed up then and tried to placate the group.

“I hear what you’re saying she said. It’s just that some of you brought people we didn’t account for. We’re just trying to make sure everyone gets enough to eat.”

“Who are you to tell us how much we get to eat?” someone shouted.

Jackson grabbed Shirley by the elbow and led her towards the bathroom area. “Time to go,” he said.

Shirley nodded. “It’s getting ugly.”

“Yeah, if it doesn’t go down now, it will tomorrow, or the next day.” They stood and Jackson led the way towards the exit behind the bathroom area. They were nearly there when they heard someone behind them.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

They turned to see Jeremy standing behind them with his two lackeys. “Just like I thought all along. You’re sneaking off with him, aren’t you?”

“We’re leaving you idiot,” Shirley said, frustration evident in her voice.

“Why would you leave?” Jeremy asked. “Everything we need is here. He waved in the general direction of the common area. “That’ll be dealt with soon enough.” Several shots rang out and the yelling they’d been hearing was replaced with people screaming.

“See?” Jeremy asked. “They’re being put in their place as we speak. No need to go running outside.”

“I don’t even want to be in the same room with you Jeremy. You disgust me.”

Jeremy waved it aside. “So we had our first fight. Everybody does, right? We’ll get through this, you’ll see.”

Shirley shook her head in frustration. Was he just not hearing her? Or was he deluded enough to think there was still something between them? She’d thought she had made her feelings clear when she threw his ring on the table.

“It’s over, Jeremy. I don’t want to marry you. I don’t want to even look at you.”

Jeremy smiled. “You’re upset, I get that. You need some time to cool down. Why don’t you go lay down for a bit? I’m sure that’ll help things.”

Jackson shook his head. “You’re not listening. She’s already made her feelings clear.”

“It’s all your fault!” Jeremy yelled angrily. “You’ve been poisoning her against me. There’s no way she would choose you over me. I have wealth, influence! How do you think she got in here? You think they’d let a newswoman in this place? I made that happen. She’s alive because of me!”

Shirley looked at Jeremy in surprise. She knew their relationship wasn’t based on love, but did he really think so little of her? To think, she’d almost married this monster. She shivered to think what her life would have been like.

“Jeremy,” she said. She held his eyes when he looked at her. “It’s over. I will never be with you, understand?”

Jeremy just smiled at her. “It’s okay, Shirley. My dad always said it was a man’s duty to keep his woman in line. I’ve clearly been lax with you. Don’t worry. We’re gonna get rid of your little friend here and we’ll set everything right. You just need a little discipline to see the way of things.

Jackson shook his head. “You’re wasting your breath. He genuinely thinks you just had a lovers spat.” Jackson used his arm to put Shirley behind him. 

“Alright, Jeremy,” he said with an arrogant smirk, “let’s get this over with so we can be on our way.

Jeremy snarled at the look on Jackson’s face. “Get over there! Wipe that smirk off his face.”

Jeremy’s companions moved towards them while Jackson stood their confidently. This seemed to unnerve them a bit. Who just stood there when they were about to get the beating of their life? When they had covered about half the distance between them, Jackson suddenly sprang into action. He swiftly covered the remaining distance and gave the first man several strikes to the abdomen with the knife he had fashioned earlier.

His friend stood in shock at the viciousness of the attack. Before he could recover, Jackson pounced on him as well. He fell to the ground, holding his stomach with blood pouring between his fingers. Jackson looked up from his handiwork and smiled at Jeremy.

“Ready, Jeremy?” 

Jeremy made no move to attack. He was furious. That could be seen easily enough. He was also at least slightly insane but not so far gone that he would attack Jackson after how quickly he had put down his friends.

“What’s wrong?” Jackson asked. “Where’s all that bluster from a moment ago? Can’t do anything without your friends? Well think about this,” he said.

“Come here, Shirley.”

Shirley frowned and moved to stand at Jackson’s side. As soon as she reached him, Jackson grabbed her around the waist and kissed her fiercely on the mouth. Jackson released her and she stood next to him breathless.

“You see that, Jer? First opportunity I get, I’m gonna take her someplace nice and quiet and well…let’s just say I’m gonna run my hands all up and down that silky skin of hers.”

Shirley flushed. Why was he talking like this? Is that what he wanted? And that kiss. It had only been for a moment but she was still recovering. No man had ever kissed her like that. She pushed the thought from her mind. Now was not the time to be thinking about Jackson. 

Jeremy’s face twisted in anger at Jackson’s words. With a roar, he rushed forward. Jackson moved to meet him and caught him in a hug.  Jeremy groaned in pain and looked down. Jackson had buried his make-shift knife up to the hilt in his stomach. He groaned as the strength left his body. Jackson laid him on the ground. 

“So, you’re going to die now, Jer.” He twisted the knife a bit and Jeremy screamed in agony. He removed the knife and blood immediately started pooling through Jeremy’s fingers as he tried to stop the flow.

“I could’ve made that quick, but you’re really a prick. I kinda felt you needed to suffer a bit. So as you’re dying, I want you to think about how Shirley will never think about you again.” Jeremy moaned again. Jackson was curious as to whether he was in more pain from the wound or the thought of Shirley being with someone else.

Jackson stood. “Alright, we’re done here.”

Shirley nodded and followed him towards the exit. They knelt behind one of the partitions fashioned for the bathrooms. The guard looked nervous, maybe he was worried about his friends in the common area. 

“What do we do?” Shirley whispered quietly.

“I need you to distract him,” Jackson whispered back.

“How?”

“Doesn’t matter. You can say anything. Just need you to keep him busy long enough for me to get behind him. When you talk to him, stand on either side. That way I can sneak up.”

Shirley nodded. She stood and walked towards the guard. The guard looked in her direction at the sound of her footsteps.

“You lost, lady?”

“No,” Shirley said shaking her head, “I want to get out of here. Someone just got shot!”

“Sorry, lady. Can’t open this door. Can’t risk the infected getting inside.”

“I’m supposed to stay here with people getting shot?”

“I’m sure everything is under control b-” the guard crumpled to the ground as Jackson delivered a solid blow to his head. Jackson hit him again for good measure and the guard’s eyes shut.

“Great job,” Jackson said. “Surprised you went with the truth.”

Shirley shrugged. “I was too nervous to do anything else.”

“Well, it worked. Get the door for me.”

Shirley pushed the door open and Jackson dragged the guard’s body into the stairwell. He then set about to stripping him of anything useful. He took the guard’s rifle and sidearm along with an extra clip of ammunition for each. The guard also had a proper combat knife which Jackson happily took. He then took off the guard’s belt so he’d have a way to hold some of his new gear. The guard was also wearing a tactical vest that Jackson removed. 

“Here,” Jackson said as he handed Shirley the vest, “put this on.”

“Shouldn’t you wear it?” Shirley asked.

Jackson shook his head. “I’m too big to fit it but it should work for you. It’ll be big but it’ll give you some protection.” Shirley nodded as she put the vest on.

“Take this too,” he said handing her the pistol. The safety’s on, so you’re fine. I’ll show you how to use it later.”

“Where do I put it?”

“Hold on.” Jackson removed the thigh holster from the guard and help Shirley get into it. 

“There you go. Don’t go using that until I show you some things. I don’t want you to shoot your foot or something.”

Shirley nodded. She’d never handled a gun before but she liked the idea of being able to protect herself. Jackson then motioned for Shirley to follow and led the way upstairs. The door to the first floor had a window cut out in it and Jackson used that to make sure the coast was clear. They were in a different part of the building than when they had first entered. Whoever had built the shelter had definitely made some modifications to the basic layout of the building. 

Shirley felt this was a good thing. That hopefully meant that they wouldn’t run into any guards on their way out. Jackson led her to an exit and waited for her to catch up.

“Ready?” he asked.

Shirley nodded and Jackson opened the door and stepped outside. It was dark out so Shirley stayed close to Jackson as he led the way. He stuck to side streets and alleys for the most part. Shirley’s feet quickly grew sore in her shoes, despite the fact that Jackson had broken off the heels. They walked for what seemed like hours when Jackson motioned for her to stop.

They were near a brick wall that was about seven feet high. Shirley wondered why Jackson had stopped here. Was something wrong? She noticed Jackson staring through the wall and moved to get a closer look and saw that a gate was placed in the wall. Inside she saw a town home that had a well-kept backyard. The lights were all off but she didn’t see any sign of damage. 

“We’re gonna stay here for the night,” Jackson whispered.

“Is it safe? What if someone’s home?”

“Then I’ll persuade them to let us stay the night,” he said. He motioned for her to follow. “Stay close. We’ll check things out to make sure it’s safe first.” He tried the knob on the gate but it refused to open. He tried to reach through the bars to reach the lock but couldn’t get his hands through.

“See if you can reach the lock.”

Shirley nodded and replaced Jackson at the gate. It was tough, but she just managed to undo the latch. She looked to Jackson with a triumphant smile and he nodded.

“Great work,” he said. He led the way inside and motioned for her to close the gate behind them. Heading towards the house they saw a set of glass double doors. Jackson tried them and smiled when they opened at his touch.

He waited for Shirley to enter and locked the door behind her. He fished for his cell phone and used it to light their way. “No lights,” he whispered quietly. Don’t want anyone to know we’re here. If everything checks out, we can cover the windows or something so we don’t have to sit in the dark all night.”

Shirley nodded and followed Jackson as he explored the house. They didn’t see anything on the first floor and headed upstairs. They saw two bedrooms and a bathroom. A quick search showed signs of someone having left in a hurry. Both rooms had clothes strewn over the beds and the closet doors were hanging open.

“Looks like they left in a hurry,” Shirley whispered.

“Looks that way,” Jackson responded in a normal voice. 

“What now?” Shirley asked.

“I’m gonna make sure the front door is locked. Then we can look around for some food. Hopefully they left something.”

“Food sounds great right now.”

Jackson smiled. “Why don’t you look for some sheets or something? I want to cover the windows before we turn on any lights.” He handed her his cell phone and headed downstairs.

Shirley used the light to look for a linen closet. She found what she needed in the hallway. Fortunately, the family hadn’t taken everything with them. Shirley grabbed several sheets and headed downstairs. 

Jackson met her at the stairs and they took some time to cover all the windows. A search of the kitchen turned up some duct tape and they used that to tape a sheet over the glass doors leading to the backyard. 

“Alright,” Jackson said. “Go ahead and turn on a light.”

Shirley used the phone to find the switch in the kitchen and flicked it on. Shirley sighed in relief. She was hoping they wouldn’t have to spend the whole night in the dark.

“Let’s find some food,” Jackson said. Shirley nodded and they looked through all of the cabinets. There wasn’t a great deal left but they managed to find several cans of food. A search of the fridge turned up some frozen meat as well as some lettuce and vegetables.

“Let’s save the canned stuff,” Jackson said, “we’ll want that when we leave.”

“Okay,” Shirley said as she nodded towards the meat Jackson had taken out of the freezer, “I hope you don’t expect me to cook that.”

“You can’t cook?” Jackson asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m a famous anchorwoman that makes a great salary. I eat out a lot.”

Jackson chuckled. “Well famous anchorwoman, we’re gonna have to change that.”

“That’s a terrible idea. I burn popcorn.”

Jackson laughed. “Okay so we have a lot of work to do then.”

“A lot of work,” Shirley emphasized. “You sure you want to take that on?”

“I’m pretty sure I can handle it,” Jackson said as he looked her in the eyes.

Shirley flushed. They were still talking about food right? She walked over to the fridge to look inside. She grabbed the lettuce and vegetables and set them on the counter.

“I can make a salad,” she announced.

“You sure?” Jackson asked smiling.

Shirley laughed. “Yes, I’m sure. There’s no cooking involved. No way for me to mess it up.”

“I suppose. Make sure you peel those cucumbers.”

“Why wouldn’t I? Who eats cucumbers with the skin on?”

“Weirdos as far as I’m concerned.” 

They laughed and spent the next few hours making small talk while Jackson cooked the meat on the stove. When it was done they brought everything into the dining room and sat at the table. The next few minutes was filled with the sounds of them eating. Days of just having a single meal had left them ravenous. Each of them had seconds while Jackson helped himself to a third plate.

“I’m so full I’m gonna burst,” Shirley said.

“Good feeling isn’t it?” Jackson asked. 

Shirley smiled. “You’re a great cook by the way. Tasted like I was eating something at a restaurant.”

“I aim to please,” Jackson said with a smile.

“Where did you learn to cook like that?”

“I learned when I got out of prison actually. I was there for ten years you know. So, that’s ten years of really crappy food. When I got out I promised myself I wouldn’t eat like that if I could help it. I grabbed a cook book and started cooking.”

“Why were you at the studio? You should’ve been a chef or something.”

Jackson smiled. “I wanted to do that for a while actually. I actually went to school for it when I got out. No one would hire me with the record though. Not in this city. I only got the job at the studio because my mom knew someone there from her college days.”

“Sorry,” Shirley said,” didn’t think about that.”

Jackson waved it away. “Nothing to be sorry for. Not your fault. And it’s not like it was bad working at the studio. I made enough to have my own place and pay all the bills. So, not bad overall.”

“It’s not what you wanted to do though.”

Jackson shook his head. “I did what I love to do. I cooked all the time. Just didn’t make my living doing it.”

Shirley nodded. “That’s a positive way of looking at it.”

Jackson shrugged. “Alright, your turn. What’s with Jeremy? 

Shirley shrugged. “He seemed harmless when I met him. I’ve never seen that side of him before. The short version is I knew that I wouldn’t be famous forever. If I ever lost ratings, the station would have replaced me in a heartbeat. Jeremy was my insurance that I could keep living the way I was used to.”

Jackson nodded. “That makes sense.”

“Does that make me sound horrible? I didn’t even love him.”

Jackson shrugged. “You were doing what you felt you needed to do. Why live poor if you can do something about it? That doesn’t make you horrible. It just makes you someone who knew what they wanted and went for it.”

To Shirley’s surprise, she felt a bit of relief at Jackson’s words. It was nice that someone accepted her for who she was. With her normal circle of friends, she felt like she had to put on a high wire act every time she met with them. They were constantly judging one another, looking for any excuse to put you down. When she’d become part of high society as it were, she’d thought she’d finally made it. That she’d be able to relax and enjoy the finer things in life. Her new status had given her access to privileges the regular folk of Emerald Falls could only dream off. But the price, she could never have been herself with any of her high society friends. 

She felt safe with Jackson. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. Jackson didn’t judge her. Even after knowing why she’d done certain things. Was this what it felt like to have a real friend? She’d had friends before of course. Before she’d made it big at WKJ, she’d had her share of friends. When she entered high society though, she’d left them all behind. There hadn’t been a lot, just two or three that she recalled. She’d forgotten what it was like to have someone you could talk to. A relationship that wasn’t a performance filled with hidden expectations. 

Jackson set his for aside and gave a sigh of contentment. “That hit the spot.”

Shirley chuckled. “I think we hit more than just the spot.”

“True,” Jackson said as he chuckled.

“Should we clean the dishes?”

“No point,” Jackson said as he shook his head. “We’ll probably move on tomorrow. Our best bet is still to get out of the city.”

“Alright. It’s really nice here though.”

Jackson nodded. “It is. But the city isn’t safe. And we’d run out of food eventually.”

Shirley nodded. “What’s next then?”

“I’ll take the rest of the meat out of the freezer and cook it in the morning. After that, maybe we hit a few houses nearby for supplies.”

“What about Rick’s Sporting Goods. I thought we were going to go there.”

“We still can but we won’t be getting first pick at this point. We were in the shelter for three days right?

Shirley thought for a moment. “Yeah, today’s Thursday and this all started on Monday. So yeah, three days.”

“Alright, we’ve been down there three days. Other people may have already grabbed anything worth taking.”

“Alright, that makes sense.”

Jackson nodded. “Okay, I’m thinking it’s time to get some rest. I’d like to get all that done tomorrow. We also need to find a car.”

Shirley nodded as they left the table and headed upstairs. Jackson picked one of the bedrooms and headed inside. Shirley stood outside his door and thought for a moment. She wondered if she should go in there. Jackson was keeping her safe and she wanted to make sure he was motivated to keep doing that. She entered Jackson’s room a few minutes later and crept towards his bed.

“What are you doing?” he asked before she’d taken more than a few steps.

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” she asked as she struck what she thought was a seductive pose.

Jackson sat up, there was just enough light from outside for him to see her in all her glory. “You’re naked.”

“Well…yeah, that usually helps facilitate the process.”

Jackson chuckled. “Okay, true but that’s not what I meant. I meant, why are you naked?”

“Well I was planning on getting in bed with you,” Shirley said suddenly uncertain. Was he not attracted to her? Had she been reading all the signs wrong? What about all the flirting? And that kiss? That couldn’t have been just to piss Jeremy off could it?

“I’m not Jeremy,” Jackson said.

“I know that,” Shirley said. “Why would you even say that?”

“Because maybe you seem to think you owe me something. You don’t. I’ll keep you safe because I’m a fairly decent human being that protects the people he cares about. You don’t have to do anything to earn my protection.”

“You don’t want me?” she asked. “I thought…why have you been flirting with me if you don’t like me? And that kiss earlier? What was that about?”

“Yes, I want you,” Jackson replied, “but not like this. Let me ask you a question. Are you in here because you want to be, or because you think this is what you need to do to keep yourself safe?”

Shirley thought for a moment. She was attracted to Jackson. She had been for a while if she was going to be completely honest with herself. She wasn’t sure if she’d have ever acted on it if this whole crisis hadn’t happened. She probably would have married Jeremy and been miserable for the rest of her life. 

“I take it from your silence, it’s the second one,” Jackson said.

“Why can’t it be both?” Shirley asked.

“Because it doesn’t need to be. An arrangement like that, I’d feel like I’m forcing myself on you.”

“I’m standing here because I choose too, Jackson.”

“I don’t want an arrangement with you, Shirley. I don’t want you to think you need to be in my bed in order for me to keep you safe. If I did that, I might as well hold a gun to your head. It’s the same thing to me.”

“Okay. Thanks, I think…can I still stay with you? I won’t try anything. I don’t think I want to sleep alone.”

“That’s fine. But I need you to put some clothes on first. I’m not gonna get any sleep if you’re next to me like that.”

Shirley chuckled. “I’ll be right back.”

A few minutes later she was dressed and laid down next to Jackson. “Thanks,” she said quietly.

“For what?” Jackson asked.

“Just being you I guess. For saying no.”

“You’re welcome. Night, Shirley.”

“Goodnight, Jackson.”

The next morning Shirley awoke to an empty bed. She felt around with her arm and finally opened her eyes. She was in bed alone. She got out of bed as she wondered where Jackson was. She took a moment to stretch then noticed the smell of something cooking. Was that bacon? Shirley made her way downstairs and saw Jackson in the kitchen.

“Hey there,” she said.

“Hey,” Jackson replied as he looked up from the stove.

“You left me all alone.”

Jackson smiled. “I like the idea of spending all day in bed with you but we’ve got stuff to do today.”

Shirley smiled at the thoughts Jackson’s words invoked. “You sure? A day of relaxing sounds pretty good right now.”

Jackson laughed. “That does sound good but I don’t feel all that safe while we’re still in the city.” He left the stove and laid a kiss on her forehead. 

“Tell you what, though. When we get somewhere safe, I promise you I’ll keep you in bed all day.”

Shirley flushed at the thought. “Promise?”

“Yeah. But today, we’ve got things to do.” He headed back towards the stove. “Breakfast will be ready in a few.”

“Did I smell bacon?” Shirley asked.

“Yeah, found some in the bottom drawer of the fridge. I’m making some eggs too.”

“That sounds fantastic.” Shirley smiled as the thought of a great breakfast brought her the rest of the way into the land of the living. 

Jackson finished with breakfast and they sat in the dining room to eat. They ate at a slower pace this time, no longer starving due to the good meal they’d had the night before. After breakfast, Jackson outlined their plans for the day.

“I want to hit a few houses like I said last night. If we get lucky, we won’t have to risk a trip to Rick’s.”

“Why the change? You seemed okay with going there last night.”

“I was thinking that the more time that passes, the more dangerous the city gets. The infected have no doubt attacked a lot of people. Also, enough time has passed that we’ll have to worry about other survivors.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember the shelter? People could easily be fighting over whatever is left. We’ll hit Rick’s if we have too, but we’re safer if we can avoid some confrontations.”

Shirley nodded. “Alright.” She pushed her empty plate aside. “Might as well start here then. I’ll check upstairs for some clothes that fit.” She gestured towards her business suit. “Don’t think this is gonna cut it in the apocalypse.”

Jackson chuckled. “Fair enough. I’ll pack us a lunch so we don’t have to come back this way until we’re done.”

Shirley nodded as she headed upstairs. She started with the master bedroom and searched through the clothes strewn around the room. She managed to turn up a pair of jeans and some gym shoes that might fit. A search of the other room turned up a t-shirt that would work. She changed into her new clothes and found that the jeans fit well enough although the cut wasn’t to her liking. The shirt ended at her midriff but otherwise fit well enough, plus it was clean. She was glad to get out of the blouse and skirt she’d been wearing the last few days. The shoes were a little tight but would serve. They’d definitely be better than the heels she’s been running around in.

Shirley scrounged around a bit more and found a scrunchie that she used to put her hair in a ponytail. She checked herself out in the mirror and was more or less satisfied. She couldn’t be terribly picky about her clothes given the circumstances. Everything fit more or less so that would have to be good enough. She headed downstairs and blushed when she heard a whistle.

“Nice,” Jackson said with a smile. “You ready?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Jackson led her to the glass doors and moved the blanket aside to check the yard. Satisfied, he opened the door and stepped outside. He waited for Shirley to close the door and headed for the gate in the wall. 

“Did you find anything in the house?” Shirley asked.

“No,” Jackson replied, “I checked the garage hoping they had a second car or something but no luck. Did find some tools though.”

“At least they left some food.”

“True.” Jackson led the way down the alley to the next town home. This gate proved to be locked as well and Jackson retrieved a hammer and screwdriver from his belt. He set to work and had the gate open in short order. A search of the house turned up some clothes that Jackson could actually fit and a few more cans of food. Shirley found a bag they could store their items in. 

The third townhouse revealed a working vehicle. After finding the keys, they loaded everything into the backseat. They were on their way back to their original town home when Jackson suddenly pulled the car to a stop.

“What’s wrong?” Shirley asked.

“I think I see smoke,” Jackson replied as he pointed in the direction of the disturbance.

Shirley craned her neck to see. “I think you’re right.”

Jackson nodded. “Change of plans then. We’re leaving now. No telling how fast that’ll spread without anyone to fight it.”

Shirley nodded. “Alright, where to?”

Jackson looked at the smoke again. “That looks like the south if I’m not mistaken. We’ll head north.”

Shirley nodded as Jackson put the car in gear and headed north out of the city. She looked back as he drove and wondered if she would ever see this place again. Thinking of the fire she wondered if there would be anything left if she did manage to get back here someday. She was glad to be alive but leaving your home was tough, no matter the circumstances. She figured she might have to get used to that feeling. How far would they have to go before they reached somewhere safe?

 

 

 

7 Henry: Hidden Government Facility

 

Henry opened his eyes and wondered what had woken him. Ah, they were descending. The change in motion must have done it. Looking out the window he saw they were arriving at some sort of fenced in facility. He could see four buildings from his vantage point and he wondered what their purpose was. He sighed as the helicopter touched down. Time to get back to work. He stretched as much as the confines allowed. He’d gotten a few hours of sleep so he should be able to start work as soon as the Captain’s men got his specimens to the lab.

He was directed to one of the large buildings and found himself in a large open space separated into sections with large white dividers. Looking closely, he saw that they appeared to be some sort of plastic in a wheeled metal frame. He pushed one slightly and nodded when it moved. If needed, he could rearrange the room. He didn’t know if that would be necessary, but it was nice to have that option. He explored the various sections until he found what was meant to be his lab. He smiled as he stepped into the area.

It looked like the military had come through. It appeared as if all the needed equipment was in place. If a treatment could be found, he could do it here. Leaving the lab, he continued to explore. He found a section that contained several cots and nodded. It was best if he and his techs could stay on site. No time would be lost traveling to and from their quarters. Exploring further he found a kitchen and even an area with some exercise equipment. It looked as if the military had spared no expense.  The final area he found contained what looked to be like several display cases. They were approximately eight feet in height and five feet in the width. 

“I see you found our containment area,” a voice said behind him.

Henry turned and saw a man in a smart business suit. Henry wondered who he was. He obviously wasn’t military. The man smiled at Henry’s frown.

“Agent Terrence Matte,” he said extending his hand. 

“Doctor Henry Pendleton,” Henry said as he gripped the man’s hand.

“I know who you are doctor. Everyone knows who you are at this point. You’re our only hope of stopping this mess.”

“Surely there are others working on a treatment as well.”

“No one else has your qualifications,” Terrence replied. “There were some who were working on something. They either failed or their location was compromised before we could extract them.”

At Henry’s frown Terrence waved a hand as if to dismiss his concern. “We’re safe here for the time being.”

“The time being?”

“Yes,” Terrence said with a nod, “I’m a realist, doctor. I deal in what is, not what I hope to be and I make sure everyone around me knows that. I could stand here and tell you that we’re perfectly safe but that would be a lie. When I say for the time being, I mean just that. This facility is surrounded by a high voltage electric fence. In theory, that should hold back any infected.”

“Should?”

Terrence nodded again. “I like to prepare for various scenarios. In the event that the fence does not hold, we’ll evacuate to another facility that’s currently being prepared.”

“How long can we keep that up? It’s a lot to set up a lab like this.”

“That’s true,” Terrence replied. “Let’s just say it’s in everyone’s best interest if you solve this quickly.”

Henry nodded. “I’d better get to work then.”

Terrence nodded. “Your techs are here. I believe they were in the kitchen area when I came this way.”

“Thank you. I’ll get to work right away.”

“Excellent. Do you need anything? I followed the specifications I was sent.”

“No, everything looks to be here,” Henry replied. 

Terrence nodded. “Alright then, I’ll leave you to your work.” He nodded towards the cages behind Henry. “The specimens should be delivered shortly. There will be a detail of soldiers here at all times to prevent any accidents.”

Henry nodded. He thought of the first tech he’d lost and wondered if he’d still be alive if they’d taken this precaution at the CDC. There had been a few soldiers around for the first incident but maybe that had worked out for the best. They’d gained valuable information and maybe having more soldiers around would have meant that they wouldn’t have held out for as long as they did.

“Thank you,” Henry replied, “that gives me some peace of mind.”

Terrence nodded and left the room. Henry stopped by the kitchen for a quick bite to eat and then gathered up his techs. The first hour or so was spent configuring the equipment to their specifications. By then, the specimens had been delivered. Henry arranged for one of the specimens to be strapped to a table so he could perform some tests.

Henry looked down at it as it growled at him. Under normal circumstances, he’d never get away with what he was about to do. He wanted to perform an autopsy. Perhaps there was a clue in the infected’s brain that would give him a clue as to how he should proceed. There was only so much information you could gain from a live specimen.

He nodded towards one of the guards. “Terminate it, if you would.”

The guard frowned. “Kill it? You sure? We’ve only got three of these.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Henry replied. “I need to perform an autopsy on its brain and I can’t very well do that while it’s still breathing. Now, if you would. And not in the head, I need that.”

The guard nodded and stepped forward, drawing his sidearm as he moved. He glanced back toward the other guard. “Go let them know what’s happening so they don’t panic.”

The guard nodded and left the room. Henry frowned, he probably should have thought of that. Oh well, he was brilliant but he couldn’t think of everything. Henry jumped as a single shot rang out. The guard had delivered a perfect shot to the infected’s chest.

“Thank you,” Henry said.

The guard nodded and returned to his post near the cages. Henry directed one of his techs to grab a bone saw and set to work. The tech stepped back when he was finished, bits of bone fell to the ground from his apron. Henry directed another tech to remove the brain. 

“Bring it to the lab when you’re done,” he said. He left the room and returned to the lab. He didn’t know what the autopsy would reveal but he had to try something. He’d ruled out the possibility of a cure earlier so what was left? He hoped for some way to stop the infection from spreading. It wouldn’t stop the infected from killing people but at least that would stop this from spreading further. 

A few hours later he stepped away from the table in frustration. The autopsy had been a waste of time. The brain revealed that the infected had some form of rabies but he already knew that. What he really needed was to see the infection first hand, from start to finish. Maybe something in that process would reveal how he could fight it. He sighed at the thought of the opportunity he’d already missed. If only they had put that tech in observation instead of throwing it in the room with the other infected.

He was stuck. There was no way to proceed without seeing the infection first hand and there was no way that could happen. There was no way they could purposely infect someone. Was there? A lot was on the line here. The fate of the entire country rested in his hands. If he stopped the infection from spreading it would only be a matter of time before the military regained control. These were desperate circumstances. Maybe that justified what he thought. He called one of his techs over and ordered them to go get a guard.

Henry paced back and forth arguing with himself. The thought of this went against everything he stood for. He was supposed to help people, not hurt them. He certainly wasn’t supposed to purposely infect someone with a disease that would kill them. But if he didn’t? He was at an impasse. Without his treatment the infection would spread unchecked. 

“Doctor?” 

Henry turned and saw one of the soldiers standing in the room. “I need to speak with Terrence Matte.”

The guard nodded and spoke into his walkie. A few moments later a response assured them that Terrence was on the way. Henry thanked the guard and resumed his pacing. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do but he didn’t see any other way. Better that one die so that everyone else might live. Footsteps alerted him to Terrence’s arrival.

“Hello, doctor. What do you need?”

Henry stopped pacing and looked at Terrence. “I have to ask something terrible. I can’t believe I’m even asking this but I don’t see another way.”

“What’s the problem?” Terrence asked.

“I can’t go any further. The autopsy was useless. All I’ve been able to do is confirm that the infection is a modified form of the rabies virus. There are foreign elements in play that I’ve never seen before.”

“Where do we go from here, doctor? We’re all counting on you.”

“I hate to ask it, but I need to see the infection first hand.”

“What do you mean? We’ve provided several samples for your use.”

Henry sighed. “I mean that I need to hook someone up to monitoring equipment and see what happens when they get infected.”

Terrence nodded. “That makes sense I suppose. I’ll make it happen. What do you need to run your tests?”

“An MRI, an ultrasound, and recording equipment.” Henry spent the next few minutes detailing all the equipment he felt would be needed.

“Alright. I’ll set men on it immediately. Thank you, doctor. I know this is a hard decision for you but it’s for the greater good.” Terrence nodded and left the room.

Henry sank onto a stool. He couldn’t believe what he’d just asked. He’d just signed someone’s death warrant. But he simply didn’t see another way to stop this infection. He felt as if a weight settled onto his soul. He’d have to deal with this for the rest of his life. He only hoped it would be worth it. He didn’t know how he’d live with himself if this turned out to be another dead end. Henry thought of the bottle of whiskey sitting in his bag. All he had to do was go to the sleeping area and get it. A little bit of forgetfulness would be great right now.

He shook his head. No, not right now. He had to be at his best when Terrence returned with the…with the specimen. That helped. Not thinking of whoever came as human quieted the guilt, if only a little bit. He knew he was fooling himself but he’d do it if it got him through it. Henry sighed as he stood up. It probably made sense to get a bite to eat now, before Terrence returned.  Henry headed over to the kitchen area and made himself a sandwich. He was hungrier than he thought as he quickly ate that sandwich and was halfway through a third before he felt full. 

Leaving the kitchen, he directed his techs to rearrange the space. They’d need an area to conduct the experiment. Yes, the experiment. It helped to think of it that way. Once the space was prepared he decided to take a nap so he could be fresh when Terrence returned. He left instructions with his tech to wake him as soon as Terrence arrived. 

He awoke hours later to one of his techs shaking him insistently. “I’m up,” he said.

“Terrence is back, sir. They’re setting up in the new space we made.”

Henry nodded and waved him off. He headed to the bathroom to splash some water on his face and made his way to the new area. He entered the room and saw ten people handcuffed and standing against the wall. Several guards with rifles kept them in line. On the far side of the area, an MRI machine sat waiting. There was also a table set up with a laptop which would be needed to observe the results of the MRI. Terrence saw him and walked over.

“We’ve got what you need, doctor. How would you like to proceed?”

Henry looked around the room in shock. “I didn’t need this many. Just the one.”

Terrence looked at him patiently. “Doctor, would one subject be enough to gather the data you need?”

“No, but this…I didn’t ask for this.”

“This isn’t the time for cold feet doctor. You said you needed live specimens so I’ve delivered. This is for the good of the country, doctor. These men and women, their sacrifice will ensure our society survives.”

Henry sighed. Of course one subject wouldn’t be enough. He’d known that deep down but had hoped he’d only have to do this the one time. He put his emotions aside as best he could, he’d face his demons later. Terrence nodded as if he saw the change in the doctor’s thoughts.

“How shall we proceed, Doctor?”

“I’d like two tables,” he said. “Strap the infected on one, and the live specimen on the other. Full straps, head, arms, torso, and legs. The tables need to be close together. I’ll need to administer the infection quickly. Assuming it still shares some properties with the rabies virus, it’ll become dormant if it dries.”

He looked towards the people still standing against the wall. “I don’t need the rest right now.” The guards looked to Terrence for confirmation and then escorted the remaining people from the room.

Terrence directed some guards to set things up according to the doctor’s specifications. Henry approached the tables when it was done. The table on the left had an infected strapped to it. It growled impotently but wasn’t able to move. The second table had a young woman on it in a similar position. She whimpered as Henry approached the table.

“Please…” she begged, “why are you doing this to me? I didn’t do anything. Please, let me go.”

Henry stared into her eyes as something broke inside him. He would do it. He would kill this woman. What was it that Terrence said? For the greater good. Yes, that was it. He would damn his soul for the greater good.

“Steel yourself, Doctor,” Terrence said. “You said yourself it has to be done.”

Henry nodded and selected a syringe from a nearby tray. He nodded towards two of his techs and they approached wearing thick rubber gloves. They pried the infected’s mouth open and Henry used the syringe to collect a saliva sample. He then moved over to the woman and looked for a vein on her arm. He could simply deposit the sample orally, but the bloodstream would probably allow the experiment to progress more quickly.

“Wouldn’t it be faster to just let the infected bite her?” Terrence asked.

Henry shook his head. “We couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t kill her in the process. This is more efficient.”

“What are you doing?” the woman asked. “What are you doing with that?”

Henry smiled sadly as he found a suitable vein. “I’m sorry,” he said, and plunged the needle into her arm. She whimpered as Henry depressed the plunger. 

“What’s next?” Terrence asked.

“Now, we wait,” Henry replied. “From my earlier observations, it takes approximately two hours before the infection takes over.” He directed his techs to start the monitoring equipment.

“Let’s get her into the MRI. I want to see what’s happening to her brain as the infection takes hold.”

Terrence nodded and directed some guards in protective gear to escort the woman to the MRI. Henry sat at the table to observe the results on the computer. There were two monitors, one to display results of the scan and another that showed a live shot of the woman’s face. Henry could see that she had already lost some color.

Terrence sat down next to Henry. “I’ll observe with you if don’t mind, Doctor.”

Henry shrugged.

The next two hours passed slowly for Henry. He could have left and simply returned later for the results but that felt too much like cowardice. If he had consigned this woman to death, the least he could do was be present for it. Henry examined the computer screen as the results began to appear. He’d be busy with this for a while. He glanced at Terrence who was watching the live screen intently. Looking over, Henry saw the woman open her eyes, no trace of humanity remained. 

An idea began to form in Henry’s mind but he’d need more test subjects. He wasn’t sure the ones they had would be enough. He sighed as turned to Terrence. “I have a few ideas,” he said.

Terrence nodded. “Excellent, Doctor. What do you need?”

“More test subjects.”

“I’ll see it done,” Terrence said. Terrence took a few steps then turned back.

“I have a question, Doctor.”

“Yes?”

“I don’t think it’s been said out loud at this point, but this infection, there’s no way this could occur in nature, right?

Henry nodded. “It’s man made. Nature would never come up with something like this.”

“Is there any way to trace who did this? 

Henry thought for a moment. “I have one of my techs working on identifying some elements of the virus. Once that’s done, you might be able to check those results against labs that were known to work with those substances.”

Terrence nodded. “Good. See that your man informs me as soon as he’s done. I mean to find the bastard that did this and put a bullet between his eyes.”

***

Penthouse Office, Emerald Tower

Emerald Falls, Illinois

William stood in his penthouse office and looked out over his city. That’s right, his city. His plans had been executed brilliantly for the most part. The city was nearly purged and his men were in control. William paused to swipe a speck of dust from his immaculate pinstriped suit. He took a moment to bask in his success. All the years of planning had finally paid off. The city was purged of the dross, those that added nothing to the country. Those that hadn’t fled had been killed by the infected. The only remaining people were his soldiers and a few members of the city’s elite. They wouldn’t be around for much longer either.

They thought themselves the elite but William had simply used them to further his plan. Why spend his millions when they were so willing to spend theirs? So he cultivated them over the years, found those receptive to his views and pretended to bring them into his fold. They were part of what was wrong with this country. No loyalty whatsoever. Whenever he told them about his plans, each was quick to jump on board. Not one sent out an outcry for all those people that would be killed when his plan was set in motion. They were selfish and therefore of no use for the kingdom he would build. 

The mayor was the worst. He fancied himself a king and treated the city as his playground. The city was rife with corruption. The poor faced harsh sentences while the rich would get away with a mere slap on the wrist. That would all change now. He would establish order. The rule of law, his law would prevail. It was fitting, who could match his vision? He saw the need for a purge of the filth from society. The rich were selfish and the poor were greedy children looking for a handout.

His intercom chirped and he moved to answer it. “Yes, Alanna?” he asked in his deep baritone.

“Sorry to disturb you sir. Watkins and Reel are ready for the conference call.”

“Thank you, Alanna. Excellent work as always.” William picked up a remote and hit a button. Moments later a sixty inch screen lowered itself from the ceiling. William thought of Alanna as the screen came on. She was a good worker. She showed the proper deference and knew her place in life. She had a good knack for anticipating his needs and had even made significant contributions to his plans over the years. When he was ready, he felt she would make an excellent mother for his offspring. His kingdom would need heirs after all.

“William Dray,” a voice said from the screen.

Giving his attention to the screen, William greeted his counterparts. “Watkins, Reel,” he said as he nodded briefly to each.

“Any news on the problem with the infected?” Watkins asked.

“Yes,” Reel said, “you said the infected would die out within a week, two tops. It’s been nearly three weeks now.”

William controlled his facial expression. How dare that ant talk to him so? He was the architect of this grand plan. These two fools would have been swept away along with everyone else if he hadn’t included them in his grand design. Unfortunately, he had needed them to implement certain aspects of his plan. He couldn’t wait to have them killed the moment they ceased being useful.

“It appears the virus underwent a mutation of some kind,” Williams replied. “They should have died off due to paralysis but that component of the virus seems to be missing.”

“What do we do?” Watkins asked. “The infected are overrunning my city. I’m not sure how much longer my forces can hold out.”

“I have the same problem,” Reel added. “I’ve lost a lot of men. I’ll have to evacuate if this keeps up.”

That looks like your problem William thought smugly. “I suggest that you hold out, gentlemen. It would be a shame to see all our preparation go to waste because you can’t deal with a few infected.”

“A few infected?” Reels asked in frustration. “There are thousands of those things knocking on my door.”

“Exactly so,” Watkins said. “We hadn’t planned for a siege. These things were supposed to have died out days ago.”

“This is an unfortunate turn of events,” William replied. “But it doesn’t change our plans. The country has been purged of the dross that made her weak. We are now in a position to rebuild her and make her strong.”

“You are right, of course,” Watkins said. “Forgive my outburst but I find the situation extremely troubling. How are you holding up on your end?”

“My forces are clearing Emerald City as we speak,” William replied. I will establish a two block corridor from the tower to the city’s edge. My men will then construct an electric fence to keep any remaining infected at bay.”

“You expect to kill all the infected?” Reel asked. “How?”

“I don’t plan to kill all the infected, Reel. I’m clearing a corridor. The fence will keep the rest at bay.”

“Would you be able to spare some men, Dray? It seems you’re doing pretty well there. I could use some help.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, Watkins. It’s taking all of my forces to maintain the order I’ve established here. Sending my forces out would put things here in jeopardy. You are more than welcome to evacuate to the tower if needed, gentlemen.”

Watkins nodded. “Yes, it might come to that. I’m just not sure that I can hold the west.”

“Don’t hold your breath, William. I’ll manage just fine,” Reel said.

“Of course. I by no means intended to imply that you were incapable of holding your city,” William said with a slight smile. Watkins would think nothing of his comment but Reel would feel the sting.

“I welcome your assistance,” Watkins said. “I think I’ll begin preparations to evacuate should it be needed.”

“I’ll do just fine on my own,” Reel said angrily. “I don’t need help holding what’s mine.”

Williams spread his hands as if he had meant nothing of the sort. “I would never say otherwise, Reel. The offer stands should you change your mind.”

“Enough of this,” Reel responded. “There are matters that require my attention.” Reel ended the call on his end and Watkins side resized to fill the whole screen.

“Why must you antagonize him so, William?”

“I merely offered my assistance,” William replied. “It is no fault of mine that he’s too proud to accept it.”

“Well I most definitely appreciate your help, William. Thank you for the update. I’ll be in touch.” The image winked out and William hit the button that caused the screen to retreat into the ceiling. 

He had been furious when he’d learned the infected wouldn’t die out as planned. But this was the silver lining. The thought of sharing power hadn’t sat well with him. Why should he? His was the vision, the grand plan. Watkins and Reel had only been necessary for certain aspects. Why should they rule as he when he’d done all the work? This would work out very well. Watkins was terrified and would be easy to control. Reel would likely die in his city as his pride wouldn’t allow him to come to him for help.

William’s intercom beeped and he answered. “Yes, Alanna?”

“Forgive the interruption, sir. Mr. Dunst is here to see you again.”

William sighed. He had little desire to interact with the so called members of his elite. They’d already served their purpose as far as he was concerned. He did find himself somewhat curious though. Jeremy had been turned away several times over the last two weeks but he continued to ask for an audience. “Send in him.”

“Right away, sir.”

A few moments later Alanna opened his office door and Jeremy Dunst stepped into the room. He spent a few moments looking impressed at the decor of the room and then remembered himself. “Thank you for seeing me, sir.”

“Of course,” William replied. “What can I help you with, Jeremy?” While curious, William hoped this wouldn’t take long. He had another project he wanted to look in on. He was only granting this audience because Jeremy was the mayor’s son. 

“I need you help finding someone, sir.”

Williams raised an eyebrow. “You’re bothering me because you lost someone?”

“It’s my fiancé sir. Her camera man took her and ran off from the shelter.”

“Why should this concern me, Jeremy? There are important matters that require my attention. Finding you wife to be doesn’t rank high on my list.”

“The man that took her was capable sir. I’m thinking he might meet up with other survivors.”

William thought for a moment. That might be useful. The dross had to be purged and it would be useful to know where they were hiding. Armed with that knowledge, he could send his men to remove them at will. But, Jeremy seemed kind of desperate. The woman had probably run off rather than remain with him.

“I can see the usefulness of that,” William replied. “I’ll give you a few men to assist you. You will of course inform me if you find any groups of survivors.”

“Of course, sir! Thank you sir!”

William nodded, indicating his dismissal. Jeremy left the room with a huge smile on his face. He seemed a bit obsessed frankly. But his fascination with that woman might prove useful. Now, William thought as he rubbed his hands together, to look in on that project.

William sat at his desk and turned on his monitor. It was good that matters had worked out in his favor but it was still unacceptable that the purge hadn’t gone completely as planned. He typed in a sequence on the keyboard and a new screen pooped up. The image was of a room in a secret location in the tower. There was a scrawny man strapped to a table while another bent over a nearby table rummaging through some tools necessary to the craft.

Williams pressed a button and spoke into his microphone. “Perkins.”

The man leaning over the table stood and faced the camera. “Sir? How may I be of assistance?”

“Has Mr. Culber explained what went wrong with my virus?”

“I’m afraid not sir. He maintains that he has no idea why the virus is acting this way. I will of course continue ministrations. I’m about to begin another session if you care to observe.”

“I do,” William replied. Perkins nodded and selected a tool from his tray.

“Let’s begin again, Mr. Culber. What did you do to the virus?”

William smiled as the sound of Culber’s screams echoed from his speakers.

 

 

 

8 Greg: Highway, Outskirts of Emerald Falls

 

“This is taking forever,” Carol said from the passenger seat.

Greg nodded. “I know. I don’t see a way around it though.” 

They were on their way out of the city, but it was slow going. Traffic had been bad on the main roads no doubt due to other people fleeing the fire. The side streets were little better. There was less traffic but there were a number of accidents. Twice now they’d had to drive along the curb to avoid wreckage. It would take some time to get out of the city at this rate.

“What’s that up ahead?” Carol asked.

Greg looked ahead and saw that the road was blocked by two cars. Head on collision maybe? Worse, there were several infected banging on one of the cars. Was someone trapped inside? Greg slowed the car down as he thought. They needed to get out of the city but could he just stand by and do nothing? What if they were infected? Greg sighed. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t check it out. 

“You’re gonna check it out aren’t you?” Carol asked.

“Yeah, sorry,” Greg replied.

“No,” Carol said with a shake of her head, “we should stop and check on people if it’s not too dangerous. Don’t know how I’ll sleep otherwise.”

Greg smiled at the echo of his own thoughts. “Alright. I’m gonna stop here.” Greg pulled the car to a stop and exited, making sure his pistol was on him.

James pulled his van to a stopped behind him and got out. “What’s wrong?”

Greg nodded towards the infected that were about fifty yards out now. “I think someone’s trapped in that car up ahead.”

James looked ahead and nodded. He took a moment to explain what was happening to Laura and she laid their shotgun across her lap in case anything went wrong.

“Alright, let’s check it out then.” He drew his pistol and Greg followed suit.

“What do we do if they’re infected?” James asked as they walked towards the infected.

Greg sighed. “We’ll have to leave them, but I won’t feel right if we don’t at least check.”

James nodded as they came to a halt about twenty yards away. “Warning shot to get their attention,” he said.

Greg nodded and James fired his pistol once into the air. At the sound, the infected all turned in their direction. They roared and began sprinting towards them. Greg counted five infected. Hopefully they could put them down from range and that would be that. 

“Ready?” James asked.  Greg nodded and they opened fire. The five infected fell quickly under the onslaught and James nodded in satisfaction.

“Let’s make sure they’re down,” Greg said. 

James nodded and they cautiously approached the infected. Greg sighed in relief when he saw the results of their handiwork. Each infected had been take out with a shot to the head or upper torso. Greg glanced towards the car where a woman stared at them with wide eyes.

“You’re safe now!” Greg called out.

The woman nodded and opened her door. She approached them and Greg sighed sadly as she got closer. There was a clear wound on her neck, the blood had flowed down the front of her shirt.

“Can you help me?” she asked. “My husband went crazy and bit me. Made me crash into that other driver. James gave the woman a wide berth as he went to investigate the second vehicle.

“What’s going on? Why did those people attack me like that?”

“You listen to the radio this morning?” Greg asked.

“No, I hate the radio. Too much talking. My husband and I were on our way to Wisconsin for vacation.”

“Anything unusual happen to your husband this morning?”

The woman thought for a moment. “Well, my husband got attacked at the gas station a few hours ago. It was the weirdest thing. He’d gone inside to pay for gas and the attendant attacked him. Managed to bite his hand.”

The woman gestured towards her neck. “Do you have some bandages or something? This thing won’t stop bleeding.”

Greg took a step away from the woman. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.”

“What do you mean? I just need a bandage, a towel or something.” She took a step towards Greg who took another step away to keep the distance between them.

“Stay back please,” Greg said.

The woman looked confused. “What’s going on? Why are you treating me like this?”

Greg sighed. This poor woman had no idea what was going on. “There’s an infection going around,” he explained.

“An infection? I’m not sick? I feel fine!”

“People that get sick, well they get really aggressive. They’ll attack anyone near them.”

The woman’s eyes widened as the pieces fell into place. “You mean…my husband?”

Greg nodded. “The infection is spread through the bite. Your husband got it this morning and he just passed it to you.”

The woman crumpled to the ground and started sobbing. “You…mean I’m gonna end up like them?” she asked as gesture towards the infected in the road.

Greg nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“There’s got to be a cure! Can you take me to the hospital?”

“I don’t know if there’s a cure,” Greg responded, “but the hospital isn’t gonna happen. It was overrun by infected this morning.”

James approached then, still giving the woman a wide berth. He gave a small shake of his head as he and Greg made eye contact. The other driver must be dead then. Greg sighed. Time they were on their way. He nodded towards James and they turned to head towards their vehicles.

“Please!” the woman begged, “don’t leave me like this. Just give me a ride to the next town. I’ll find my own way to the hospital from there.”

Greg stopped but didn’t turn around. “I’m sorry but you’ll turn soon. I won’t put my family at risk.”

James glanced back towards the woman and saw that she was starting to sweat, way more than the weather called for. “It’s starting,” he said in a low voice.

Greg nodded. “Let’s go.” They started walking again and the woman called out behind them.

“Don’t leave me like this! You might as well kill me!” She yelled a few more things but she quickly turned to sobbing again as the reality of her situation sunk in.

Greg and James reached their vehicles and drove along the side to get around the accident. Carol patted his knee in sympathy.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Greg nodded. “Me too. That poor woman, her husband too. They had no idea what they were driving through.”

“I heard her screaming. Do you think it would have been kinder to put her out of her misery?”

“Probably,” Greg said with a nod, “I can’t bring myself to do that though. Fighting the infected is one thing, I don’t really think of them as human. Just animals that need to be put down really. And if someone else attacks us,” he paused as thought back to the fight in the grocery store, “well I’ll do what I have to do. But this? She was infected but she was still talking. She was afraid and confused. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”

Carol nodded. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to suggest anything.”

Greg shook his head. “No, you’re fine. It was a valid question given the circumstances.” He shrugged. “If this goes on, maybe that’ll become the order of the day. Maybe it would be a mercy instead letting them become one of those things. That’s not today though.”

Carol nodded and they drove in silence for a while. Greg considered turning on the radio but figured if there was anything on, it would just be about the crisis. Looking ahead he saw another road block. He glanced at the odometer and saw they had made it about ten miles. Hopefully things would clear up soon so they could make better time.  He slowed down and used the shoulder of the road to get by. Glancing over, he saw that the accident looked like another head on collision. Both drivers looked to be slumped over their steering wheels.  Greg briefly wondered what had happened. Was one of them riding with someone infected? Or was it just a regular accident?

“Have you decided where we’re going yet?”

“No,” Greg said shaking his head, “We’ll keep trying the radio and hopefully someone has a shelter or something set up.”

Carol nodded towards the rearview mirror, “James is flashing his lights.”

Greg nodded as he looked for a good place to pull over. They were in the outskirts of the city now. A few more miles and they’d officially be out. Greg glanced at the clock, they’d been driving for around two hours now. The trip out would normally take maybe half an hour, he hoped the roads outside the city were better.

Greg noticed a stretch of road up ahead free of obstacles, that should work. They’d be able to see any infected coming their way. Greg slowed down and pulled the car to a stop. He waited for James to pull up behind him and motioned for Carol to get out of the car.

“Might as well stretch your legs,” he said.

“Everything okay?” Greg asked as he met James.

“Yea,” James said with a nod,” just thinking it’s about time for some lunch.”

“I need to use the bathroom, Dad,” Junior said.

“Alright, I’m coming.” James headed off to take Junior to the bathroom, probably a bush on the side of the road.

“Does anyone else need to go?” Greg asked. “We can take turns keeping watch.”

“I kinda need to go too,” Maddy said sheepishly.

Laura mussed her hair. “Come on, kiddo.” Laura rested the shotgun on her shoulder and led Maddy to the other side of their van.

“What about you?” Greg asked. “I can keep watch.”

Carol chuckled. “That’s gross. You’re not watching me use the bathroom.”

“What? Who wants to watch you use the bathroom? I was talking about infected.”

Carol laughed. “I know but the look on your face was worth it.”

James returned then with Junior. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh nothing,” Carol said, “Greg just wants to watch me use the bathroom.”

“Eww,” Junior said, “is that true Uncle Greg?”

“No, it’s not true. Carol’s just being weird.”

James laughed as he retrieved a cooler from the van. Laura and Maddy returned and looked around at everyone laughing.

“What’s going on?” Laura asked.

“Mom! Uncle Greg wants to watch Carol use the bathroom. Isn’t that nasty?”

Carol laughed even harder along with James who nearly dropped the cooler.

“That’s not what happened,” Greg said trying not to laugh.

Greg gave up as everyone had a good laugh at his expense. It wasn’t that funny but maybe any humor they could find right now was a good thing. Who knew how often they’d get to be like this? Carol and Laura set out the things for lunch and everyone dug in. Greg sighed as he bit into the chicken sandwich. This was the last of the meat from the freezer. From here on out it was gonna be canned food or dry stuff. Laura was a good cook so it wouldn’t be torture, but he was gonna miss eating like this.

“So,” James began around a mouthful of food, “I’m thinking we need to find some walkie talkies or something. We need to be able to talk while we’re driving.”

“Stop talking with your mouth full,” Laura admonished, “you’ve already taught junior enough bad habits.”

James chuckled. “Excuse me. Junior, don’t talk with food in your mouth in front of your mom.”

“Okay.”

“James!” Laura shouted.

“What? I just did what you said.”

She punched him in the arm. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

“Yeah, but it was funny.”

Greg chuckled. “I think walkies are a good idea.”

“Where can we find some?” Laura asked. “I don’t think going back into the city is a good idea.”

“You’re right,” Greg said with a nod, “we’ll have to keep an eye out as we’re driving.”

“What about our phones?” Carol asked. “Think they’re working?”

“We can try,” Greg said. “If they are working, it’ll only be for a little while though. I don’t think power is gonna be on for too much longer. How long has it been now? Three, four days?”

“Four,” Laura replied.

James nodded. “So even if the phones work, the cell towers are gonna lose power soon.”

“Maybe it’ll last long enough until we find some walkies,” Carol said.

“True,” Greg said. He fished for his cell in his pocket and called James, to his surprise the call went through. He frowned as he realized something.

“What’s wrong?” Carol asked. “It worked.”

“Yeah, but I just thought of why it worked.” At their look he explained, “So I’m thinking the phones didn’t work the first few days because everyone was trying to call at once. What does it mean that the calls are going through now?” He stopped as he glanced at the kids.

James shook his head. “Go ahead, man. This might be the way things are. We’re not doing the kids a favor by keeping things from them.”

Greg nodded. “Okay, so I’m just wondering what happened to all the people making calls?”

“Emerald Falls was lucky,” Laura said, “We had the warning from Shirley O’Hara.”

“That’s true,” James said. “Without a warning, people could easily have just stayed in their homes until it was too late.”

“So, how long do we drive today?” James asked. “It’s probably a good idea to find a place to set up before dark.”

Greg glanced at his cell. “It’s one now. I’m thinking we can drive for a few more hours and then look for a place to set up.” He looked around. “Maybe somewhere away from the road.”

“What about someone’s house?” Carol asked. “I know we’ve got the tents but why sleep outside if we don’t have to?”

That’s not a bad idea,” James said. “We drive for a few hours like you said and then find some small neighborhood to spend the night in.”

“I don’t know,” Greg said with a frown, “I’m worried about drawing attention to ourselves. If we go into a town, there’s no way to tell who’s watching.”

“That’s true,” Laura said. “I’d rather sleep in a bed but I don’t want to wake up to someone trying to steal our stuff.”

“I didn’t think of it like that,” Carol said.

“Yeah, I kinda like the idea of a roof over my head,” James said. “But you’re right, we don’t want to go looking for trouble. People are gonna be desperate, especially people that didn’t take those first few days to stock up.”

“Alright, it’s settled then,” Greg said. “I’m thinking we’ll drive until around five or so then look for someplace to spend the night. We should probably sleep in shifts or something. Don’t want to be surprised by anything.”

Everyone nodded and they set about packing up lunch. Greg and James took a few minutes to show Carol the basics of how to use her handgun but there wasn’t much to go over since Laura had done a pretty good job. Once she seemed comfortable, they got back on the road and drove for a few more hours. It was uneventful until Greg noticed something ahead.

“What is that?” he asked out loud.

“Looks like someone’s blocking the road,” Carol said.

Greg nodded. She was right. It looked like two cars were blocking both lanes of the road. There were also some wrecked cars on both sides of the road so they simply couldn’t drive around the obstacle using the shoulder. Greg pulled the car to a stop as several figures exited the vehicles blocking the road.

“Get James on the cell,” Greg said, “and put him speaker.”

“Okay,” Carol said as she took his phone and dialed. She turned on the speaker and held the phone so Greg could talk.

[_“What’s going on?”  _]James asked.

“Looks like a road block up ahead,” Greg replied. “Looks like four, maybe five guys up there. I’m assuming they’re armed.”

James sighed. “How do we play it? I don’t want to get in a shootout with the kids.”

“You’re right. Let me think for a second.” How can we go about this? Greg thought. Going in guns blazing would put the girls and the kids at risk. Switch vehicles maybe? James could ride in the suv with him and they could keep everyone else in the van. If a fight broke out, he and James would be in a position to deal with it.

“James, come up here with me. Carol will ride with Laura and the kids.”

“Alright, on my way.”

“What are you doing?” Carol asked.

“I don’t see a way around them,” he replied. “We’re on a long stretch of road here. The only way out is to head back towards the city. That’s no good cause of the fire. Only way out is forward.”

Carol pulled Greg into a fierce hug. “Be careful.”

“I will,” he said as he gave her a quick kiss. Carol left the car and James replaced her a few moments later.

“Check your ammo,” James said as he ejected the magazine from his pistol.

Greg nodded and did just that. He replaced the magazine with a fresh one, having to reload in the middle of a fight was a bad idea. Once he saw James was ready, he put the car in gear and slowly drove forward. As they got closer he could see that it was five guys holding the road. Three of them held pistols while the other two had bats slung across their shoulders.  He stopped the car around twenty yards away.

“Stay behind the door when we get out,” James said. “It’ll provide some cover if the shooting starts.

Greg nodded. “Wish we had some vests or something.”

James smiled. “We’ll be fine. Shooting isn’t as easy as it looks. You’re only as good as you are because I drag you to the range every month.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’ve pointed that out already.”

“Oh I’m gonna point it out every chance I get.”

Greg chuckled. “Alright, you ready?” At his nod they both opened their doors and kept them between them and figures ahead.

“Hello there!” one called out. “No need to be shy, we’re not out to hurt you.”

“You’re blocking the road,” Greg called back.

“We’re protecting the road,” the man corrected. “We’re keeping this stretch of road clear of infected.”

“I don’t see any infected,” Greg said as he looked around.

“That’s because we’re keeping this area safe.”

“Where are the bodies?” 

“We dragged those away.”

Greg glanced at James. “Can you believe this?”

James chuckled. “They probably haven’t even seen infected.”

“What do you want to let us pass?” Greg asked.

“Oh, just whatever food and water you’re carrying. Don’t worry though. There’s a town a few more miles down the road. You can restock there and continue on your way.

“Yeah, we’re not doing that,” James said quietly.

“I know,” Greg responded.

“What if I don’t want to pay your toll?”

“That’s fine,” the man responded. “You’re free to turn around and head back to Emerald Falls. Maybe you can get through before the fire burns everything down.”

Greg glanced behind him and sure enough, he could see a trail of smoke in the sky. How widespread was the fire? He wondered how it had even started for that matter. Greg turned back. He didn’t see this ending well.

“Come on, now,” the man said, “We don’t have all day.”

Greg figured he would try one more time to resolve this peacefully.  He wasn’t sure if it would work but he felt he needed to try. “Look, this is ridiculous. Are you really gonna sit here and stop people from passing through?”

“You’re free to go through,” the man said, “so long as you pay the toll. Protection doesn’t come free.”

“We’re at a good spot,” James said quietly. “Unless they practice their marksmanship regularly, we’ve got the advantage here.”

“You’re right,” Greg replied in kind, “guess there’s really no way around this.”

“Yeah, we can’t give them our food.”

“Let’s do what we need to do then,” Greg said. 

“Whoa, whoa,” the man said as Greg and James positioned themselves to fire. “There’s no need for all that. Just pay the toll and no one has to get hurt.”

“Step aside and no one has to get hurt,” Greg replied. “You’re not getting our food. That just isn’t gonna happen.”

“You’re outnumbered,” the man said worriedly. “You sure you wanna die over a few boxes of food?”

“Do you wanna die over a few boxes of food?” Greg responded.

One of the man’s companions grabbed him by the arm and whispered in his ear. Greg hoped he was convincing him that this was foolish. The nerve of these guys. Were they really going to block the road and stop people from escaping the city? This is ridiculous. 

“Alright,” the man said. “My associate has convinced me to be generous today. You can go through.”

Greg sighed as another thought struck him. “We couldn’t do anything for that woman earlier today.”

“Yeah?” James responded.

“We can do something about this though.”

“We’re not heroes, Greg. We can’t save the world. We have to take care of our family.”

“Yeah, I agree. But could you have passed that woman by without stopping?” Greg took James’s lack of response as his answer. “Look, I want to survive this as much as you. But, I also want to be able to look myself in the mirror. Can we pass these guys knowing they’re gonna do the same thing to the next group that passes by?”

James sighed. “You know we can’t save everyone we pass. Sometimes we’re gonna have to keep moving, like this morning.”

Greg nodded. “When that’s necessary then that’s what we’ll do. But right here? We can do something. Make it safe for whoever comes after, even if only for a little while.”

“Alright, man. I’m with you.”

“Are you listening? I said you could-” Greg fired and the bullet took the man in his shoulder, spinning him around to face his fellows. A second shot hit him in the back and he sank to his knees. James fired and took down another as they stood there in shock. That snapped them out of their stupor. One quickly scrambled over the roof of a car while the other abandoned all thought of fighting and fled off the side of the road.

James lined up the shot and squeezed off a few rounds and the man fell to the ground a moment later. They saw a pair of hands go up on the other side of the car and held their fire.

“Please, I give up! Don’t shoot.” Greg glanced at James and nodded. It looked like they were done here.

“Alright,” Greg said, “you can come out.”

The man stood up and hesitantly came to stand on their side of the vehicle. “Please don’t kill me.”

Greg gestured towards the vehicles blocking the road. “Get those out of the way and you can go.”

“Really?”

Greg nodded. “Your friend there was the ringleader so I’m done here. Clear the road and you’re free to go.”

The man nodded his thanks and jumped into one of the vehicles. He moved it to the side of the road and then got into the other vehicle. James chuckled as the tires screeched from the man speeding away.

“You sure it was a good idea letting him go?”

Greg shrugged. “We took care of the one in charge. He won’t be bothering people anytime soon.”

“Alright, good enough for me. Ready to get back on the road then?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Greg returned to his vehicle and chuckled as Carol pulled him into a fierce hug. “I’m okay. I didn’t get hurt.”

“Okay,” Carol said as she released him. “I was so worried when the shooting started. What happened?”

Greg put the car and gear and started driving. “They were gonna let us go but I thought I’d do anyone following us a favor. They would’ve robbed anyone they could have gotten away with. Didn’t feel right just leaving them there to prey on people.”

Carol nodded. “That makes sense. You know we can’t save everyone though, right?”

Greg chuckled. “That’s the same thing James said. But yeah, I get that. I’m not trying to save everyone. Just didn’t feel right leaving them there.”

“What if there had been more of them?”

Greg shrugged. “I probably would have chosen differently. I felt we had the advantage there but I’m not gonna do anything to risk you or the others unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Alright,” Carol said with a nod, “that’s good enough for me.”

“So I’m thinking we might need to change our plans.”

“What’s wrong?” Carol asked.

“Earlier, we agreed that heading into a town was a bad idea.”

“Yeah. You said it was too risky. I definitely agree after what just happened.”

“Well, now I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t such a bad idea.” He nodded towards their surroundings. “We’re surrounded by fields right now. No place to hide our vehicles if we were gonna camp on the side of the road. If we do head into a town, maybe we can put the vehicles in a garage and just keep the lights off or something. It’s still a risk but I think I might feel a little better with a wall in front me now.”

“Alright, I can see your point. Want me to call James?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Carol nodded and dialed James’s cell. She took a few minutes to explain Greg’s current line of thinking and James and Laura quickly agreed. “They’re on board. Do we stop at the town coming up or keep going?”

“We’ll stop,” Greg said. “We’ll have to make sure the place is safe and it’ll be easier to see how things look if we’ve still got some daylight.”

Carol nodded. “Alright.” She glanced out the window then back with a shy smile on her face. “I have a random question.”

“Okay.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“My favorite color?”

“Yes. I know it’s silly but it’s important.”

“How’s that?”

Carol shrugged. “I like to think we eventually would’ve gone out if all this didn’t happen. Probably dinner and a movie and made lots of small talk.”

“True. Guess we kinda skipped that stage. But I mean we’ve worked together for what, two years?”

“Yeah but we never really had deep conversations. It was always about the job or just, ‘how was your weekend?’.”

“Alright,” Greg replied, “I see your point.”

Carol nodded. “If this goes on, maybe small talk will be what your favorite gun is but I don’t know enough about that yet.”

Greg chuckled. “Blue. My favorite color is blue.”

“Okay,” Carol replied. “Purple for me. Favorite movie?”

“I don’t really have a favorite. More like a list of ones that I really like maybe.”

“Okay, name one on your list.”

“Lord of the Rings.”

“Really? You’re such a nerd!”

“What? Come on, it’s got everything. Action, drama, romance.”

Carol shrugged. “I tried watching it once, couldn’t stay awake.”

Greg laughed. They continued in this vein for some time until they saw a sign on the side of the road. “Welcome to Cedar Forest,” Carol read aloud. “Population ten thousand.”

“Alright. Let’s hope we can find a good spot. We’ve still got a bit of daylight left. What time is it?”

Carol glanced at the cell. “Five.”

Greg nodded. “Alright.” He put his signal on early to make sure James wouldn’t miss it. Greg turned into the first subdivision he saw and looked for likely spot. There were signs of the infection here. Cars were parked haphazardly and they were bodies in the streets.

“It’s gotten here, too,” Carol said as she looked around.

“Yeah, probably have to assume it’s everywhere by now I guess.”

“How could it spread so quickly?”

Greg shrugged. “We stayed holed up for nearly a week. Plenty of time for people to travel and get infected.”

“I was hoping we could outrun it or something.”

“Yeah, that would’ve been nice.” Greg pulled into the driveway of a home whose windows were mostly intact. After James pulled up beside him, everyone got out and stretched their legs.

“Alright,” Greg said, “James and I will check the house out. You guys keep watch here. Keep your guns ready.”

At their nod Greg and James approached the house. They found the door unlocked which hopefully meant the occupants had left. The entered the house and began searching room by room. They saw signs the owners had left in a hurry. Clothes were strewn everywhere and the kitchen looked as if a tornado had hit it. 

“Looks good,” James said as they returned to the living room.

“Yeah, let’s get that garage open and get everyone inside.” James nodded and they headed for the garage to let everyone in. Once they had the door open, they brought the vehicles inside and everyone headed inside the house.

“They were in a hurry,” Laura said as she looked around.

“Yeah,” James replied, “maybe there’s still something of use though.”

“I can check the kitchen for some food,” Carol said, “maybe they left something.”

“Good idea,” Laura said. “Come on, Maddy, give us a hand.”

“What can I do, dad?” Junior asked.

“How about you look for some blankets? Check the closets. That way we won’t have to unload anything from the cars.”

Junior nodded excitedly and raced off in search of his prize. Laura came over with a worried looked. “You sure it’s safe?”

James nodded. “We checked every room, top to bottom. Nothing in here but us.”

“Alright,” she replied as she returned to the kitchen.

“Why don’t we cover the windows?” Greg suggested. “That way we don’t have to spend the night in the dark.”

James nodded and the two set to work looking for anything they could use to cover the windows. Half of their work was done for them already, the living room windows were intact and covered with heavy drapes. A few minutes with some duct tape sealed the drapes at the corners so no light escaped.

“We found some food,” Carol called from the kitchen.

Greg headed over and saw Carol triumphantly holding two boxes of spaghetti. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it’ll let us save the food in the cars.”

Greg nodded. “That’s good. Anything we can take with us?”

“Not much,” Laura said. “Maddy found a couple of canned goods, but that’s it.”

“Something is better than nothing,” Greg replied. Greg returned to the living room and saw James standing with a frown on his face.

“What’s wrong?”

James shrugged. “Just thinking about gas. We got what, three cans?”

Greg nodded. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“I’m thinking we need to hit a gas station before we leave or siphon some cars or something.”

“Good idea. Keep the cans for emergencies. Probably better to do that in the morning.”

“Yeah. So, what do you think? We safe here?”

“I’d like to think so, but we should probably sleep in shifts just to be safe.”

James nodded. “How do you wanna split it up?”

“Probably from six to midnight. Then midnight ‘til six or so.”

“Sounds good. Since we’re gonna be looking for gas, maybe we should look at a few of these houses. Can’t hurt to have more supplies.”

Greg nodded. That was a good point. They probably shouldn’t expect to find shelter in a town every night. Some places just might not be safe, be it from infected or other survivors. It was a good idea to stock up on as much as they could while they were able.

“How much space is left in the van?”

“A bit,” James said. “The tents are strapped to the luggage rack so we’ve got some room.”

Carol stepped into the living room. “Food’s ready.”

Greg smiled as he and James headed for the dining room. The girls had cleared away some of the chaos and set places at the table. The meal was just spaghetti but there looked to be plenty of it. Everyone took a seat and spent the next few minutes eating their fill.

“We found some tupperware,” Laura said. “We can take the leftovers with us. Stave off eating canned stuff for one more day.”

“Sounds good to me,” James said after swallowing a mouthful.

“Hey, Junior,” Greg said, “any luck with the radio?”

“Not yet. Still just a bunch of static.”

“Alright. Why don’t you grab it after dinner and I’ll give it a try. I’ll take first watch. Might as well have something to do.”

“How do the watches work?” Carol asked.

“I think it’s a good idea that someone be awake while the others are sleeping. I’ll stay about ‘til around twelve, then James will take over.”

“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean you’ve been driving all day. Why not do shorter shifts? Laura and I can watch to.”

“That’s right,” Laura said, “you’ve both been driving all day. We can both do our part. We’ll wake you if anything happens.”

“Can’t really argue with that,” James said.

Greg nodded. “I guess you’re right.”

“Of course we’re right,” Carol said. “We’re all in this together. We can’t afford to have able bodied people not pulling their weight. Especially if we ever decide to bring someone with us.”

She was right. It was good to get in to the habit of sharing the workload. Especially if they added anyone to their group. That would give people a chance to have a break. There wasn’t that much to do right now but just getting to sit for a while could do some good. Greg thought about his group and felt they were holding up pretty well. It seemed they each had accepted the situation and were determined to survive. 

“Alright,” Greg said, “guess I’ll help clean up and get some sleep then.”

“No,” Carol said shaking her head, “you go get some rest. Both of you.”

“Not gonna argue,” James said. I’ll take last watch if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine,” Greg replied. “Wake me up at midnight.” Carol nodded and Greg headed upstairs to find a suitable place to sleep. He found two bedrooms and chose the smaller one. James and Laura would need the bigger one for the kids. He found some clean sheets in a hall closet and set about making the bed. As soon as that was done he lay down and realized how tired he was. They didn’t have to do any running today but the day had been emotionally draining. Between the woman they’d left behind and those thugs that that had blocked the road, well Greg was glad the day was done.

He thought back to the guys they had fought earlier and found he didn’t feel any remorse. He didn’t want to fight, but what they were doing was wrong. How many people would they have robbed if he hadn’t done something about it? It bothered him a bit that he wasn’t torn up about it but maybe James was right. He was just a man trying to protect the people he cared about. This was how things were. He was going to have to fight off infected and other survivors to keep everyone safe. He did give those thugs a chance, he didn’t attack outright. He also couldn’t stand by when people were doing something like that.

The sound of the door opening interrupted his thoughts. A few moments later, Carol slipped in the bed beside him. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Just thinking.”

“Anything you want to talk about?”

“Nah, I’m okay.”

“Come on Mr. Psychologist. It’s not good to bottle things up.”

Greg chuckled. “I’m not. I think I’ve got it worked out for now. I was just thinking about that fight earlier today.”

“You alright?”

“Yeah. So Laura took first watch then?”

“Yeah. She’ll come get me in a few hours.”

“So we’ve got some time then.”

“Time to sleep? Yeah, we’ve got plenty of time for that.”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” he said chuckling.

“Oh? What did you mean?”

“I’ll show you.” 

 

 

 

9 Shirley: Highway, Outskirts of Emerald Falls

 

“What’s that up ahead?” Shirley asked pointing.

“Not sure,” Jackson replied. He slowed the car down and they saw several bodies in the middle of the road. There was also someone poking around two cars that had had a head on collision. 

“What happened?”

“Don’t know. Infected maybe.” Jackson slowly pulled the car forward when the figure standing near the cars suddenly turned in their direction. They could clearly see her blood shot eyes and saliva dripping down her chin.

“Definitely infected,” Jackson said. He picked up speed and drove around the roadblock. Shirley looked behind them to see the infected giving chase. 

“Looks like it’s already out of the city,” Shirley said as she faced the front.

Jackson nodded. “No telling how far it’s spread by now.”

“What’s our plan? How far do we go today?”

“We’ll drive while there’s daylight. If the roads were clear I’d say we switch off and get as far away as we can. That’s probably not safe though. We might have to move some cars out of the way. I don’t want to be poking around at night.”

“Yeah,” Shirley replied imagining.

“We’ll stop at the next town if it looks alright. Maybe we can find some more supplies. I’d like to have more than just a few days of food on hand.”

Shirley nodded. They sat in comfortable silence for the next few hours until they saw a road sign. “Cedar Forest. We stopping here?”

Jackson glanced at the clock. “Yeah, I think we should. We need to look for a few things. A map would be great. That way we could plan out our driving for the day.”

“Alright, that sounds good. Do we find a place to stay first?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. We’ll check it out and make sure it’s safe before we go looking for anything.”

“So we need food, a map, what else?”

“That’s all I can think of for right now,” Jackson replied as he took the exit ramp.

“There’s a subdivision up ahead,” Shirley said pointing. Jackson nodded as he took the turn. 

“It’s gotten here, too,” Shirley said as she looked around. 

“Yeah, we’ll have to be careful. Let’s find a house and get the car in the garage. Might be better to go around on food so we don’t draw any attention to ourselves. No telling who’s still around.”

“Okay,” Shirley replied. “What about that house over there? Most of the windows are still there.”

Jackson nodded as he pulled into the driveway she had pointed out. “Let’s check it out.”

Shirley nodded and followed Jackson inside. The front door was unlocked so they didn’t have to break their way in. Shirley thought that was good in case they had to rely on that door later. They checked the house and were relieved when they didn’t find any signs of infected.

“Everything is clean,” Shirley observed.

“Maybe they weren’t home when this happened. That’s good news for us though. Maybe we can find some food in the kitchen.”

“Good point. Let’s check it out.” Shirley headed into the kitchen and started opening cabinets. “We lucked out. Lots of stuff in here. I’ll set something out to eat and then we can put the rest in the car.”

“Good,” Jackson replied. “I’ll get the car in the garage.” 

Shirley nodded as she began taking items out the cabinets. She found some canned goods which she set aside, they’d put those in the car. She also found some spaghetti and set a pot of water to boil. 

“Car’s inside,” Jackson announced as he entered the kitchen.

“Alright. You’re up,” she said pointing towards the spaghetti.

Jackson chuckled. “Nah, I think it’s time we started teaching you how to cook.”

“What? Now?”

“Why not? We’ve gotta eat right?”

“This isn’t gonna end well.”

“It’ll be fine. I’ll supervise.” Jackson guided Shirley to the stove. “Let’s see what they have in the way of seasonings.” Jackson rifled through the cabinets until he found where the spices were kept. 

“Here we go. Salt, pepper, and basil. Nothing fancy.”

Jackson guided Shirley and they soon had an edible pot of spaghetti. “See,” Jackson said, “that wasn’t so hard.”

“I guess so. I am kinda pleased though.”

“This is seriously the first time you’ve cooked something?”

Shirley laughed. “Hard to believe right? My parents were pretty well off. We actually had a chef that made our meals.”

“Really?’

“Yeah, so there was never a need to learn. I figure other girls learned from their mothers but mine just knew how to shop.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll teach you everything I know. I like my women to know their way around the kitchen.”

“Watch yourself, mister.”

Jackson laughed. “It’s only fair. I won’t feel like cooking all the time.”

“Fine, but don’t expect anything fancy.”

Jackson chuckled as they sat down to eat. “Not bad,” Jackson said after he’d taken a bite. 

Shirley smiled. “That’s only because you were watching. This would have been a disaster otherwise.”

They made small talk until diner was finished and then took some time to load the other food into their car. After that a more thorough search of the house turned up a few random items they thought might be useful. One of the items they found was a deck of cards. They found themselves staying up late as Jackson taught Shirley some of the games he knew. They were into their third hand of poker when the sound of a gunshot rang out.

Shirley jumped. “What was that?”

“Gunshot,” Jackson replied as he made his way over to the window. “Looks like it came from across the street.”

“What’s going on?”

Another gunshot rang out, quickly followed by another. “Looks like whoever is in that house is getting attacked. Get the lights, we don’t want anyone to see us.”

“Good idea,” Shirley said as she ran to flick the switch. She joined Jackson at the window and watched as the fight played out. They couldn’t see anything except for the brief flash made when a gun went off but they couldn’t tear themselves away. They heard a piecing scream followed by another gunshot and then everything was quiet.

“Looks like it’s over,” Jackson said.

“Should we get out of here?”

“No, I don’t think anyone saw us. Leaving right now would definitely draw attention to us. We don’t know who won over there, if they’re friendly or not.”

Jackson was about to say more when they heard a howl that made their blood run cold. The howl was quickly joined by another and then another, until it sounded like some sort of horrible attempt at song.

“Infected,” Shirley whispered. “It’s time to get out here now, right?”

“Not yet,” Jackson said. “Let’s wait and see what they do over there. We don’t want to be the first ones to move.”

They watched as dozens of infected descended on the house across the street. Gunfire resumed and infected fell to the ground. More infected took their place and the assault continued.

“Those poor people,” Shirley said.

The infected broke the living room window and began crawling into the house. Shots rang out but that didn’t slow them down. They watched as they infected beat down the front door and entered the house. More shots rang out and a few infected fell through the doorway.

“They’re putting up a good fight,” Jackson said.

The garage door opened and two vehicles sped out into the street. A few more shots rang out and then it was silent aside from the growls of the infected.

“I think we’re okay,” Jackson said.

“You sure?” Shirley asked.

“Yeah, I don’t see any more infected arriving and they killed most of them. A few of them followed that car and the rest are still in that house. We should be okay until morning.”

They went to bed and got what sleep they could. In the morning they ate leftovers from the night before and got ready to leave.

“I only see a few infected out there,” Jackson said from the window. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Ready when you are,” Shirley replied. They headed for the car and started it up. Jackson hit the button for the garage door and drove off as soon as it was high enough. A few infected looked in their direction but Jackson quickly left them behind.

They left the subdivision and got back onto the main road. They drove for several minutes when Jackson began bringing the car to a stop. Ahead of them the road was completely blocked. There were five or six cars jumbled together and there was no way around due to the buildings on either side of the road.

“What do we do now?” Shirley asked.

“I saw a side street a ways back. We’ll take that.” Jackson put the car in reverse when a shot rang out. He cursed as the car listed to one side. “They got the tire!”

“Oh no,” Shirley said as a dozen figures emerged from nearby buildings. They all had some sort of pistol or melee weapon. One walked towards them dragging a chain along the ground.

“Get your gun ready,” Jackson said as he grabbed the rifle from the backseat. “Put your backpack on too. We’ll have to make a run for it.”

“How? There’s so many.”

“See that store behind us? I’m gonna open up with the rifle and you make a run for it. Send a few shots their way as you go.”

“What? You only showed me the basics. I don’t know if I can hit anything.”

“Doesn’t matter. The fact that you’re shooting should make some of them run for cover. And if not, well maybe you’ll get a few lucky shots.”

Jackson shrugged into another backpack. He hated to leave all the stuff they’d gathered behind but they could get more. It was more important to get away from these guys. “Ready?”

Shirley nodded. “Go!” Jackson shouted. He kicked his door open and came out firing. The men approaching stood there in shock for a second and then scattered in every direction looking for safety. Shirley bolted from the car and set a few shots in their direction, a scream let her know that she’d hit one.

She ran for the store Jackson had indicated and tried the door. When she found it locked she stood back and took aim with his pistol. She shot the lock and was relieved when it broke. She heard footsteps behind her and whirled around ready to shoot.

“It’s me!” Jackson shouted as he ran towards her. “Get inside!”

They stepped inside and found themselves in a furniture store. Jackson grabbed a nearby couch and dragged it front of the door. “That’s not gonna do much,” Shirley said.

“It’ll slow them down,” Jackson replied. “We’re not staying in here. We’ll head out the back.” Shirley led the way towards the rear of the store when the sound of the door being shoved open caught her attention.

“Keep going,” Jackson said as he slammed another magazine into the rifle. He let off a few bursts and followed her through a set of double doors. This was where the store kept anything they didn’t have on display. There were couches, beds, and tables taking up the space. 

“There has to be a back exit,” Jackson said as he moved some furniture in front of the doors. Shirley looked around frantically until she spotted another set of double doors on the rear wall. Shirley sprinted for the door only to find that it was locked. It had a crash bar so shooting the lock wouldn’t work this time.

“It’s locked!”

“Look for a key.” Jackson arranged some of the furniture to give himself some cover as the double doors began bumping against the barricade he’d’ set up a moment ago. He waited until they managed to push the tables out of the way and stepped into the room. He squeezed the trigger and several shots took the first man that stepped inside in the chest. The man behind him was a bit smarter and quickly flipped the table over for cover before Jackson could get another shot off.

Shirley looked desperately around the room. She had no idea where they kept the keys. She spotted a desk piled with paperwork and quickly made her way to it. She didn’t see anything on the desk so she pulled the drawers and dumped out their contents. Shots from Jackson’s rifle told her she didn’t have much time. He only had that last magazine and then he’d be out of bullets. There! A flash of metal. Shirley moved things out of the way and snatched up the keys.

She ran back to the doors and began trying to find which key fit the lock. Luck was with her as she found the key on the third try. “It’s open!” she shouted as she shoved her way outside. She found herself in a narrow alley. There was a dumpster to her left. As far as she could tell, going right would lead her back towards the street. 

Jackson let off one last burst from his rifle to force his targets to duck their heads then sprinted after Shirley. Spotting the dumpster, he quickly grabbed it and pushed it in front of the doors. “I think that way goes back to the street,” Shirley said pointing.

Jackson nodded. “You go first. I’ve got a few shots left in case they make out that door too soon.” They made their way down the alley as quickly as they could and turned left. Going right would take them back towards their car which was useless at the moment with the busted tire. They walked for several blocks, making sure to head north so they could get out of the city.  Eventually they reached another barricade. There were two cars blocking the road. 

They wouldn’t get far on foot. Shirley wondered if one of those cars blocking the road worked. “Can we take one of those cars? I don’t know how much further I can run.” She really hoped one of them worked. She was breathing heavily, their flight from the furniture store having taken a lot out of her. Without a working vehicle, their best bet was to probably find somewhere to hide. She didn’t like the thought of being in this town any longer than necessary with those crazy people running about.

“I’ll give it a try. Keep an eye out, okay?” 

“Okay,” Shirley replied. She did her best to stay alert as Jackson headed towards one of the vehicles. 

“Don’t move,” a voice said.

Shirley and Jackson made to turn around when the voice spoke again, “I said don’t move!”.

 

 

 

10 Cedar Forest, Illinois

 

Greg stirred as Carol slid into bed next to him. “Your turn,” she whispered quietly.

“Already?”

“It’s midnight. You’ve been asleep for hours.”

“Alright,” Greg grumbled as he roused himself. He kissed Carol on the forehead then headed downstairs. He’d have to stay up for about three hours, then he could wake James up for his turn. He found the c.b. radio sitting on table downstairs and figured he might as well pass time seeing if he could hear anything. Fifteen minutes later he turned the radio off, still nothing but static. Greg wandered over to a window and pulled back the covering a tad so he could look outside. Full moon tonight. It was actually quite beautiful. If things were different, he’d love to take Carol somewhere so they could see stuff like this all the time. Hawaii or Cancun or something. He found himself slightly grateful for what happened. He wasn’t necessarily glad it happened but it had led to him and Carol getting together. He mentally kicked himself for all the time they could have had together. He wasn’t ready to confess his undying love, but he would have liked getting to know her without having to worry about if they were gonna live through the day.

A flash of movement caught his eye and he looked for the source. Had that been his imagination? He was sure he’d just seen something move a moment ago. He was just about to give up and conclude he had to be mistaken when he saw movement again. Same place as last time. And here! A few feet from the first. No mistaking it this time. Someone was outside the house, more than one actually. Was it infected? No, probably not. Subtlety didn’t seem to be their strong suit from what he’d observed so far. So that left other survivors then. Maybe someone had seem them pull in earlier this evening. Greg sighed. He had to assume they were hostile. Why sneak around otherwise? He could go wake the others but then he’d lose track of where they were. Based on their movement, it looked like they were heading for the back of the house. Greg stepped away from the window and drew his pistol. Greg looked around for something to use for cover and his eyes rested on the couch. As quietly as he could, he tipped it over. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than standing in the open.

Greg heard scrabbling at the back door and figured they were trying to get the door open without making too much noise. Still, Greg didn’t think this could be resolved peacefully. They didn’t bust in, which meant they weren’t necessarily looking to hurt them outright. They probably just wanted their food. Greg wasn’t sure if that made a difference though. With limited resources, taking their food seemed no different from putting a gun to their head. And how could he trust that they wouldn’t try to hurt them? He doubted they were breaking in without some sort of weapons on them. Greg heard a click and the back door slowly opened. The moon was bright outside, he couldn’t make out details but he could see several people in the doorway. 

“Okay,” one whispered, “let’s keep this quiet. They put their cars in the garage so we’ll just grab their stuff and be on our way.”

“What if we run into someone?” another asked. “They might be armed.”

“Then we take care of them,” the first voice replied. “It’s us or them. They’ve got stuff that we need to survive. Now, let’s go and get this done.” Greg waited until the first figure stepped through the doorway and squeezed the trigger. The man grunted and fell to the ground.

“Look out!” someone yelled. The figures scrambled away from the doorway and began returning fire. Greg ducked his head as chips from the couch rained down on his head. He heard footsteps coming down the stairs and figured James was on his way down.

“Greg! What’s happening?” James asked.

“At least four guys trying to get in.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Figured the gunshots would wake you and I didn’t want to lose track of them coming to get you.”

“Fair enough,” James said as he leaned out of the stairwell and fire off a few shots.

“How is everyone?”

“I’ve got them all in the same room,” James replied. “They’re both armed in case this goes south.”

Greg fired off a few more shots and sighed in disappointment when it clicked empty. “You have another clip?”

“No, just what I got in here.” James fired off the rest of his rounds and heard a grunt in response. “How many is that so far?”

“Two, by my count.”

A few minutes passed in silence with neither side firing. “They’re out!” someone shouted from outside. “Rush ‘em!”

Several figure burst into the room and paused when they didn’t see anyone. “Check that couch,” someone directed. “And one of you get that garage open. The rest of us are going upstairs.”

“What? They might be waiting.”

“So what? They’re outta bullets just like us. They’re gonna pay for killing our friends.”

Greg heard footsteps approach the couch and waited until there were nearly on top of him. He suddenly jumped up and lashed out using the butt of the pistol as a weapon. He caught someone in the temple and the crashed to the floor with a grunt.

“They’re still here!” someone yelled. “Get ‘em from both sides.”

Greg waited for two of the figures to approach him from the right. He trusted that James would deal with the other two. When they got close enough, he quickly stepped forward and kicked the first figure in the stomach. As he staggered away, Greg deflected a punch from the second and managed a strike to his throat that left him gasping for air. Greg followed up with a kick to the groin and finished him off with a blow to the back of the head as the man leaned over in pain. Greg looked for his first attacker and saw he was still recovering. Greg took advantage and delivered several swift blows with the pistol that left him unconscious.

James waited for the two figures to flank Greg and then sprang from his hiding place. The first crumpled immediately from a vicious blow to the head from James’s pistol. The second turned in shock and James gave him two hard blows with the pistol. James looked for more opponents and saw someone heading towards Greg with a knife. Greg was finishing off his second opponent and didn’t seem aware of the danger. James sprinted across the room and tackled the assailant to the ground. He mounted him and used his knees to pin his arms to the ground. Several blows from the pistol left him unconscious at best.

Greg looked up and saw that James had tackled someone to the ground. Looks like James had just saved his life. He saw movement in the corner of his eye and looked towards the stairs to see two figures heading up. He sighed in relief a moment later when a shotgun blast sent them tumbling down the stairs. One of the figures scrambled to his feet, his friend must have taken the brunt of the blast, only to be sent crashing into the wall from a second shot. The unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked brought an end to the fight. Laura walked down the stairs and stepped over the bodies.  She had a menacing look on her face and Greg was glad she was on his side. She aimed her shotgun and the people still standing.

“Are we done here?” she asked.

Those still on their feet raised their hands and began backing towards the door. “Yeah, we’re done,” one answered. “We’re sorry. We just wanted some food.”

“You think it’s okay to take food from my children?” Laura asked angrily. She let off another shot and another figure fell to the ground. “Get out of here before I kill all of you!”

The two remaining figures made for the door only to freeze when series of howls pierced the night. That’s just great Greg thought. The fight had drawn the infected to them. It sounded really close so they didn’t have long. The two remaining figures sprinted away into the night, leaving their friends where they lay. “We need to move,” Greg said.

“You’re right. Good shooting, Laura,” James said.

Laura nodded. Carol led the kids down the stairs and tossed Greg his machete. “I heard the howls. We’re leaving right?”

“Yeah,” Greg said, “Let’s get to the cars.” Greg approached Carol and fished for another magazine in the bag she was carrying. “Alright, let’s-” A crash against the front door told them they were out of time. A moment later, the living room windows broke as the infected pounded on them and began making their way into the room. Greg started shooting and several infected fell to the ground. “Get to the cars!” he shouted. 

Laura let off another blast from her shotgun then grabbed the kids and headed for the garage. James had reloaded his pistol and let off some shots of his own. They were doing okay so far. The infected could only come in so many at a time through the window but that wouldn’t last. Other infected were pounding on the door and it was bouncing in its frame. Greg thought it would only be a matter of time before it gave out. Carol unloaded her pistol and more infected fell to the ground. 

“Let’s go!” James yelled. “There’s too many!” Just then the door fell to the ground under the combined weight of the infected pounding on it.

“Go!” Greg yelled. “I’ll distract them. Get me on the next block.”

“What?” Carol asked desperately. “Let’s get out here now!”

Greg fired until his gun was empty and then drew his machete. The assault slowed down a bit as the infected had to climb over the bodies to get into the house. “We don’t know how many are out there. What if we open the garage and the cars can’t get out. I need to draw some of them off.”

“He’s right, Carol,” James said. “Let’s go. We don’t have much time.”

“Take my pistol at least,” Carol said. “There’s a few shots left.”

Greg nodded and took her gun. “Go. I’ll distract them and then head out the back.”

James grabbed Carol by the hand and led her towards the garage. Greg thrust his machete through the neck of an infected crawling through the window. He only needed to buy a few moments and then he could be on his way. Several infected made it through the doorway and Greg fired three shots before running out. He spent a few moments hacking with his machete but knew he had to leave soon. Several more infected shoved through the doorway and Greg managed to stab the first in the chest. He kicked the infected in the chest to get it off the blade and it sailed backwards and knocked several more infected to the ground. Looking back to the window Greg saw more infected climbing into the room and realized it was time to go. He sheathed his machete and sprinted for the back door. He quickly crossed the backyard and approached the fence. He’d only get one shot at this, footsteps behind him told him the infected were right on his heels. He jumped as he approached the fence and grabbed the top with his hands. Using his momentum, he swung his legs over to land on the other side. The fence shook violently as the infected crashed into the other side. He took off for the street, hoping that James and the others would be waiting.  He ran around the side of the house and glanced behind him, already the infected were scrambling over the fence.

Entering the front yard, he sighed in relief as he saw two pairs of headlights coming down the street. They screeched to a stop and Greg quickly got into the suv with Carol. They sped off just as infected were beginning to come around the house. “You alright?” Carol asked. “You’re not hurt are you?”

Greg shook his head. “I’m good,” he said breathing heavily. “Just glad you were there.” Greg’s cell rang and he picked it up. “Yeah?”

“We’ll try to get out of here.” Greg paused to hear a reply from James. “Let’s cut the lights. The moon’s pretty bright so we won’t crash into anything.” Greg ended the call and turned towards Carol. “Cut the lights. We’re gonna try to get out of town.’

Carol nodded and switched the lights off. She had to cut her speed drastically to compensate. Twenty minutes later they realized this wasn’t going to work. Between the lights being off and cars blocking the road, it felt like they were making little progress. Greg directed Carol to turn into another subdivision and they spent a few minutes finding a suitable place to hole up. They pulled the vehicles into a two car garage and spent the rest of the night trying to get what sleep they could.

Carol dozed off but sleep remained far off for Greg. He wondered what would make people attack complete strangers like that. Yeah, resources were getting scarce, but had people already abandoned common decency? It was one thing to defend yourself, he’d done that back at the grocery store. But going after people that hadn’t done anything to you was something else altogether. He had no doubt those guys would have killed him and James had things gone differently. Who knows what they would have done to the girls, it didn’t bear thinking about. Was this the way the world was going to be now? Kill or be killed? Greg didn’t want to think that way. He had no problem defending himself, but he didn’t want to live in a world where people didn’t care about each other anymore. 

***

Greg yawned as light filtered through cracks in the garage door. It was time to go. He nudged Carol awake then rolled down his window. He rapped on the passenger window of James’s van and smiled apologetically when Laura jumped awake. He waited for Laura to roll down her window before speaking.

“We need to decide what to do,” he said. “How are we doing on food?”

“We have about weeks’ worth between both vehicles,” Laura replied.

“We were gonna look around this morning. Do we stick to that or push on?”

“Might be more of those guys around,” James said. “Definitely some infected around too.”

Greg nodded. “We probably have to assume there are always infected around. Do we risk a fight with those other guys though?”

“Let’s just push on,” Carol said. “The ones that got away might be looking for us.”

Laura hung her head. “Sorry, I-”

“You did good, Laura. We’re not cold blooded killers. They backed down when they knew they were outmatched. Maybe we need to hold on to that.”

“What do you mean?” James asked.

Greg shrugged. “I think we might have to get used to killing if we want to survive. But that doesn’t mean we have to do it when it isn’t necessary. Sure, life might be a tad easier if we had killed everyone last night but I’m not sure I want to live that way.”

Laura looked up at this. “I’ll do what I have to if they come at us again.”

“I know you will,” Greg replied, “we all will.” Greg took a moment to look at each person in turn. “So we push on then?” At their nod he continued, “Alright, let’s get this door open and get out of here then.”

Greg opened his door and made his way around the garage until he reached the switch for the garage door. After hitting it, he made his way back to the suv. The garage door opened to a sunny day that looked like any other day if you ignored the cars abandoned all over the street. The infection had hit hard here. They didn’t see when they had drove this way last night but there were bodies everywhere. Greg wondered if the infected had hit while these people were trying to escape. Several infected were heading towards the garage, the noise from it opening must have gained their attention.

The group quickly left them behind as they pulled out of the garage. They got back on the main road and continued heading north. They were nearly out of town when they noticed a blockade up ahead. “What is that?” Carol asked.

“Couple of cars. No way around it either, it goes right up to the buildings on each side.’

“Do we move it?”

Greg shook his head. “No, I think that was done on purpose which means there might be more of that other group around here somewhere.” A shot rang out and clipped the driver side mirror. Carol screamed in surprise.

“Take that right up ahead!” Greg directed.

Carol took the turn as more shots rang out. Fortunately, none of them hit. No other shots came there way and Greg breathed a sigh of relief. Seemed like they were safe for the moment. Greg directed Carol to back into an alleyway so they could have a moment to come up with a plan. Once James was in the alley, everyone except for the kids got out.

“Now what?” Laura asked.

“There should be another way out of town,” Greg said. “Or at least a side road that links up after that barricade.”

“That’ll probably be guarded, too,” James said.

“Probably,” Greg replied, “but hopefully it’ll be a little easier to deal with than the main road.”

“What’s the plan then? Carol asked.

Greg thought for a moment. “James and I will go on foot. We’ll ring the cell if we find a clear path. We’ll head right out of the alley, that’ll take us north.”

Carol pulled Greg into a hug. “Be careful.”

Greg nodded. “You too. Stay in the car. Don’t hesitate if they show up.”

“We won’t,” Laura said. She had a fierce look in her eye. Greg wondered if she regretted letting those guys go last night. It was one thing to talk about how you wanted to live, it was another when that choice started shooting at you. Would they be dealing with this right now if they had killed everyone last night? Greg didn’t know the answer to that. Besides, it was possible that this wasn’t even the same group so last night might have nothing to do with what was happening right now.

Greg headed to the end of the alley and looked around. It seemed clear as far as he could tell although someone could be hiding out in one those buildings overlooking the street. Being out in the open was probably a bad idea so Greg decided it would be best to stick to the alleys. They walked for several blocks, moving as quietly as they could. They finally reached a point where they’d have to head back out to the road. Greg headed towards the end of the alley and paused when he heard gunfire.

“Do you think that’s the girls?” he asked turning to James.

“No,” James said shaking his head, “the girls are south of here. That was more to the west.” More shots rang out and Greg hoped that James was right.

Greg reached the end of the alley and saw two cars blocking the road. He couldn’t see anyone but that didn’t mean that someone wasn’t hiding. Two figures came barreling around the corner, a man and a woman. They stopped when they saw the cars blocking the road. The woman bent over as if she was out of breath then they headed towards the cars. They said something to each other but Greg couldn’t make it out. Were they on the run? Maybe they were the reason for the gunfire they’d just heard. Greg didn’t want to take that chance though. Greg caught James eye and he nodded in response.

Greg crept up behind the couple until he was just a few yards away. “Don’t move,” he said as he aimed his gun at their back. Despite his warning, they moved as if they were about to turn around. “I said don’t move!”

They froze and the man spoke out. “We’re not with those other guys,” he said. “We’re running from them.”

“How do you know I’m not with them,” Greg asked.

“Because you didn’t shoot us.”

“Maybe you’re just stalling for reinforcements.”

“We don’t have time for this arguing,” the woman said. “Please, let me turn around. I think you might trust me then.”

Greg found himself curious. “Alright. But don’t think I won’t shoot you. And if by some miracle you manage to get me, my friend will finish you off.” James stepped out of the alley and raised his gun in their direction.

“No tricks,” she said.

“Alright, turn around. Slowly, mind you.”

The woman turned around and Greg frowned when saw her. She seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite place how he knew her.

“Really?” she asked. “I know I’m not at my best but surely you recognize me.”

That voice. Greg realized who was looking at. “Shirley O’Hara?”

Shirley nodded. “Yes. Can you please stop pointing that gun at us now?”

Greg nodded and lowered his gun. “Sorry about that. We heard the gunshots and had to be sure.”

“We should move,” Jackson said, “those guys were right behind us.”

“We need to get these cars out of the way,” James said.

“I can take care of that,” Jackson said. 

Greg nodded and called Carol on the cell. They arrived just as the guys were moving the last car out of the way. “Could you give us a ride?” Shirley asked.

Greg thought for a moment. Just because she was Shirley O’Hara didn’t mean that he should let his guard down. No doubt they’d been doing what they needed to survive as well so he didn’t automatically trust them. But, Shirley did warn the city. That earned them a ride to the next town at least. “Yeah, we’ll give you a ride. You’ll ride with Carol and I. Shirley, you sit up front.” He looked at Jackson and frowned.

“Jackson,” he supplied. “Alright, Jackson and I will ride in back. No offense, but I’ll need you to hand over any weapons you have.”

“That’s fair,” Jackson said, “I’d do the same in your shoes.” Shirley handed over her pistol while Jackson handed over his rifle and knife.

“Alright, let’s go,” Greg said. They entered the vehicles and were able to catch the main road after the first blockade they’d run into.

“You did us a favor,” Greg said. “That second blockade probably would have been guarded if you guys didn’t run into them.”

Jackson nodded. “So what do I call you? We didn’t do introductions back there.”

“Oh. I suppose we didn’t. Greg Lyons.”

“I’m Carol,” she supplied from the driver seat.

“And everyone knows Shirley,” Jackson said with a grin.

Everyone chuckled. “So, where we headed?” Shirley asked.

“Just to the next town for right now,” Greg replied. “We were planning on looking for supplies this morning before we got attacked last night.”

“That was you?” Shirley asked. “We were across the street. I’m so glad you guys made it out.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we didn’t run into each other last night then. It wasn’t fun at all. We spent the rest of the night holed up in a garage.” Greg shook his head, remembering.

“How did you make it out?” Jackson asked.

“I kept them distracted then ran out the back,” Greg said. “Hopped the fence and met them on the next block.”

“Smart,” Jackson said with admiration in his voice. “Everyone got out okay?”

Greg nodded. “Yeah, it was a bad situation. We fought off the guys that attacked and just weren’t ready for the infected.”

“Don’t know if you can ever be ready for them,” Jackson replied.

They found themselves leaving town at that point and Carol took the ramp to get back on the expressway. There were abandoned cars all over but most people had managed to pull over before leaving their vehicles behind. There were a number of accidents but none that took up the whole road. All in all they had enough space so they could drive at a normal speed. Occasionally, they’d see an infected give chase as they passed by but they were quickly left behind. Greg wondered what had happened here. How did it start? Did someone stop to give someone a hand and it spread from there? Or was someone driving when they came down with the infection and then crashed into someone else?

He found himself getting drowsy as he watched the fields fly by in the window. He didn’t want to sleep though. He more or less felt Shirley was okay but he didn’t know about Jackson. He obviously knew how to handle himself. They’d escaped Emerald Falls and probably had to deal with some of the same things his group had faced. Greg didn’t want to turn his back on the guy until he got a better feel for him.

“You can sleep,” Jackson said in a low voice, Carol had turned on the radio so their conversation would go unheard. “I’m not out to hurt you.” He looked Greg in the eye. “That’s why you’ve been fighting sleep the last few miles right? I saw you dozing off a bit.”

Greg smiled sheepishly. “That obvious, huh?”

Jackson shrugged. “I don’t blame you. You don’t know me so you’ve got no reason to let your guard down. But, you trust Shirley well enough. Maybe some of that trust can extend to me. At least enough that you can go to sleep without worrying about if I’m going to try something.”

“How do we go about that?” Greg asked.

“I’m her cameraman,” he said nodding towards Shirley. “Well, I was anyway. Don’t suppose our previous professions matter all that much now. I’ve worked with her for about five years now. Every time you saw her on location that was me behind the camera.”

Greg nodded. “Fair enough. Tell me, what are your plans? We’ll at least give you a ride to the next town. What are you going to do after that?”

“I want to keep her safe,” Jackson said. “That’s pretty much it for my plans. I’m kinda starting to think keeping her safe would be a little easier with a group around me, though.”

Greg saw where this conversation was going. “You’d like to join up with us.”

Jackson nodded. “You’ve got something. Plus, you walked away from that attack last night. You survived not only those other survivors but also got all of your people away from the infected.” Jackson shook his head. “And you put your neck on the line to do it. You’re not just a random group of people trying to get by…you’re like family or something.”

“They are my family,” Greg replied. “I’ve known James and Laura for years, Carol too.” Greg thought for a moment. “Giving you a ride is one thing. Shirley earned that much just for making that warning. But joining us? That’s a different level of trust. Anyone that joins us, not just you, how do I know I can trust them? I’m literally trusting them with the lives of my family. Are they gonna steal from us? Will they stay or run at the first sign of trouble? If they stay, will they contribute? I have to know I can trust you around my family.”

Jackson nodded. “Trust comes with time, right? I don’t know that I can say anything right now that would ease all those concerns. But maybe you can trust us enough to give us a shot.”

Greg thought for a moment. This was something he had to seriously consider. Not just for these two but for anyone else they might meet. Jackson seemed genuine. At the very least, his feelings for Shirley were plain to see. Greg believed Jackson would do whatever he could to keep her safe. Would that extend to the group though? He didn’t want to come and trust this guy only to have him leave during a crisis.

“And if you have to choose between her and the group?”

“I think being with you is the best way I can keep her safe right now. So long as you’re not stupid, keeping the group safe means I’m keeping her safe. So long as you’re not stupid we don’t have a problem. If you do turn out to be stupid, well it would be stupid of me to stick around, wouldn’t it?”

Greg couldn’t really fault that logic. “Fair enough. You understand I might make mistakes along the way?”

Jackson nodded. “A smart man learns from his mistakes. That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean if you continually do stupid things. In that case, I’m better off trying to take care of her on my own.”

Greg nodded. “Alright. I appreciate your honesty. I have to admit, having another guy around would be useful. I hate leaving the girls behind When James and I need to go do something.”

Jackson nodded. “I’m a decent shot and I can hold my own in a fight too. I’ve also been teaching Shirley a few things. Right now she won’t shoot her foot off but she’ll get better. Just don’t ask her to cook though,” he finished with a grin.

Greg chuckled. There was a story there and he looked forward to learning about it. “So, what’s your background? James and I have done krav maga for years. He’s cop by the way, so he’s got the training from his time on the force as well. We’d also go to the range at least once a month.”

Jackson nodded. “I don’t have anything like that. My skill is more…self-taught I guess.” At Greg’s look he continued, “Might as well get this over with now I guess. I spent some time in prison when I was younger. Did a ten year stint. Don’t know how you feel about that.”

“A week ago I might have made a number of assumptions about you. But now? I’m more concerned about how I can use your skills to keep everyone safe. You obviously know how to handle yourself if you survived ten years in prison.” Greg thought for a moment. “I don’t know that I care about what you were. I care about who you are now.”

Jackson nodded. Greg nodded in turn and was just falling asleep when he heard Carol up front. “Greg,” she said. When he didn’t respond right away, she turned down the radio and called again.

“Yeah?” he said waking up. 

“Ashton is the next exit. Do we stop or keep going?”

“Stop,” he said stretching as far as the confines of the car would allow. “We need supplies.”

Carol nodded and took the exit ramp. Getting into town was slow going due to the cars that were all over the road. A few times, they had to get out and move cars out of the way. Greg realized that this would probably be a regular part of their day as long as they were on the main roads. He mentally added a map to their list of supplies. They could make better time if they didn’t have to navigate around wrecks so much.

Once they made it into town they pulled into the first subdivision they saw and looked for a likely house. It looked like the infection had hit hard here. In addition to the car wreckage which was becoming a common occurrence, there were bodies everywhere. As they got closer Greg could see that some sort of animal looked to be eating the bodies. As they got even closer, Greg saw that the animals were raccoons. They’d have to watch out for those then. Those things were known for carrying rabies and such if Greg recalled correctly. 

“Try a few blocks over,” Greg instructed, “I don’t want to be around all these dead bodies.” 

“Oh those poor people,” Shirley commented as Carol drove on.

The next few blocks showed the same story, wreckage and dead bodies everywhere they could see. Greg was about to tell Carol to leave the subdivision when the last street they tried looked a whole lot better. There was still a good deal of wreckage but they didn’t see any bodies in the streets.

“This looks a lot better,” Greg said. “Let’s find a house to hole up.”

Carol nodded and drove down the street until they saw a house that looked relatively untouched. It was a two story home with an attached garage, perfect for their use. The group pulled into the driveway and exited the cars. After taking a few moments to stretch he retrieved Shirley’s pistol and handed it to Jackson.

“We’ll need to clear the house,” Greg said.

Jackson nodded as he received the weapon. “No problem…and thanks,” he finished with a nod.”

“James, stay here with everyone else and we’ll get the garage door open.”

James nodded and approached closer so he wouldn’t be heard, Jackson was already heading for the front door to wait for Greg. “You trust him?”

Greg nodded. “We had a good talk during the drive. I think I’ve got a pretty good read on him.”

“Alright. I’m still gonna keep an eye on him though. I trust your judgment but I’m still gonna keep an eye out.”

“I know you’ve got my back, James. Wouldn’t expect anything less.” Greg nodded then headed over to join Jackson at the front door. He didn’t see any signs of damage so that was a good sign. That meant no one else had been to this house yet. It didn’t mean they’d find anything inside but hopefully they wouldn’t run into other survivors. “Can you do anything about that lock?”

“You think because I spent time in prison I know how to pick locks?”

Greg chuckled. “No-”

“I’m just kidding. I don’t know how to pick locks though. I figure we kick it open and then barricade with furniture or something once we’re inside. I could probably get that bottom lock open with my knife but I wouldn’t be able to do anything about that deadbolt.”

Greg looked the door over and saw that he was right. “Alright, let’s do it quick then in case the noise draws infected. I’ll let the others know what’s happening first.” Greg returned to the others to let them know about the plan and they got back into the cars so they could be ready to pull into the garage as soon as it was open.

Greg nodded as he returned to Jackson’s side and they took turns kicking the door. It took a few minutes but they eventually got it open. They entered the house cautiously, not sure if something would be waiting to greet them. They found themselves in a short hallway that opened up into a living room. It had a couch and an easy chair that faced a large screen t.v. Greg could see pictures of whoever owned the house on the walls but didn’t go to take a closer look.

The living room led to a dining area and the kitchen was off of that. The kitchen had the usual appliances as well as a door that led to backyard and one that led to what had to be the basement. There was also a door that probably led to the garage. They took the stairs in the dining room to the second floor and made sure that area was clear as well. There was a bathroom and three bedrooms that showed no sign of the owners having left in a hurry.

“Think they were on vacation or something?” Jackson asked.

Greg shrugged. “Or at least out for the day. Turns out to be our gain though. Let’s go get that garage door open.” 

Greg led the way downstairs and into the garage. He saw a tool rack with various tools like hammers, hedge trimmers, and so on. Greg hit the button to open the garage and shut it as soon as the cars were inside. “All clear,” he announced as everyone exited the vehicles.

“Great,” Laura said, “I’ll get some lunch started.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” Carol announced.

“I’d help, but I’m terrible at cooking,” Shirley added.

Jackson laughed. “Go help anyway. You might learn something.”

Greg chuckled. “Why don’t the three of us sit down and think about what supplies we want to look for?”

At their nod, Greg led the way into the living room and took a seat in the easy chair, James and Jackson sat across from him on the couch. James held out his hand. “I’m James. Greg says he trusts you and I trust his judgment, so welcome to the group.”

Jackson clasped James’s hand, “Thanks, I appreciate that.”

James nodded. “Alright, so what are we thinking for supplies? We definitely want to get some gas.”

“What do we need for that?” Greg asked.

“I think you need a hose and a pump of some kind. You don’t want to be trying to suck gas.”

“Alright, we’ll make sure we get that done. Gas is one of our higher priorities. I’d like to find a map. I don’t want to use the GPS on my phone. Not sure how long we can use that before the power goes out.”

“Where are we headed anyway?” Jackson asked.

“North, for now,” James said. “We’ve got a c.b radio and have been listening to see if anyone has set up a camp or something.”

“Ah.”

“What’s wrong?” Greg asked.

“Well, Shirley and I were in a shelter for a while and it didn’t end well.”

“What happened?” James asked.

“Well, the problem was that they had too many people and not enough space. That also meant they didn’t have enough food to go around. Part of that was the extra people and part was they were expecting the government to come riding to the rescue.” Jackson paused, remembering.

“It got bad pretty quick. After a few days of too little food, people started getting angry. It got to a point where they confronted the people in charge and one of them got knocked out for his trouble. I decided we had to leave the next time a fight broke out. We heard gunshots as we were leaving. I didn’t see it, but I’m pretty sure the guards shot the people complaining.”

“That’s something to think about,” James said.

Greg nodded. “Maybe we’ll rethink that. Mostly, we were trying to get away from Emerald Falls.”

Jackson nodded. “I’m not saying this camp or whatever is a bad idea if it’s out there. Just wanted to give you a heads up about what could happen.”

“No, you’re right,” Greg replied. “I suppose on some level we were hoping to find someplace where things could get back to normal. But normal doesn’t exist anymore, at least not the normal we were used to.”

“What are you thinking?” James asked.

“I’m thinking Jackson makes a good point. A camp could easily turn out to be just like Jackson experienced given the right pressures. Maybe we should look for something of our own. Maybe find a farm or something like that.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” James replied. 

Greg nodded. “Something to think about at least.” Greg rubbed his chin. “What else should we look for while we’re out?”

“Gas, food,” James said, “we need those for sure.”

“What about trade goods?” Jackson asked. 

“Trade goods?” Greg asked.

“Yeah, stuff we can use to trade. Assuming of course we find people that don’t want to shoot us first.”

Greg chuckled. “What sort of things should we look for?”

Jackson shrugged. “Whatever we’d normally grab for ourselves I guess. Whatever people are gonna need.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” James said. “We’ve still got a bit of space in the van.”

“We can fit a few things in the suv also,” Greg said. “Should we find another vehicle?”

James shrugged. “We could carry more stuff that way but that’s another tank to keep full of gas. Not sure if it’s worth it at the moment.”

Greg nodded. “Alright, so gas, food, and anything extra we can carry to trade with.”

“Sounds good,” James replied.

“Who should go?” Jackson asked. “Might be a good idea for one of us to stay around here.”

“That’s true,” James said, “I don’t like the idea of the girls not having some muscle around.”

“You should take one of the girls along,” Greg said. “If we’re talking about trade goods, you’ll need someone to help carry stuff.”

“Lunch is ready,” Laura said stepping into the living room.

“Thanks, babe,” James replied. “We’ll head out after lunch.” The men headed into the dining room and sat down to a lunch of instant macaroni and cheese. 

“I know it’s not much,” Laura said.

James shrugged. “Food is food. Not like we can be choosers right now.”

“There was some meat in the freezer,” Carol said. “We can have something better for dinner later.”

“Maybe I can try my hand at that,” Jackson said. He smiled when everyone looked at him. “I know my way around the kitchen a bit.”

“Sounds good to me,” Laura said. “I could use a break.”

“Jackson is a great cook,” Shirley said. “You’re in for a treat.”

“No pressure,” Carol said chuckling.

They were in the middle of their meal with the lights suddenly cut out. Greg chuckled. “Well, we knew that was gonna happen eventually.”

There was still enough light to see by but so they were able to finish their meal without difficulty. After lunch, James and Jackson headed out to see what they could find. Greg took the time to see what he could do to fortify the house while they were out there. He didn’t want a repeat of last night’s ordeal. He found a few pieces of plywood in the garage and took some time to cover the first floor windows. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would give them more time to escape if they got attacked again. He was just finishing up with the last window when he heard footsteps behind him.

“Hi,” Shirley said.

“Hi, Shirley,” Greg replied as he finished hammering the last nail in place.

Shirley waited until he was done before continuing. “I just wanted to thank you for taking us in. I know you had little reason to trust us after last night.”

Greg shrugged. “I admit, it’s hard to trust people you don’t know right now. But, you did that broadcast. You didn’t have to do that.”

Shirley shrugged. “I didn’t feel right not getting some kind of warning out.”

Greg nodded. “And that’s why I trusted you guys enough to bring you with us. Jackson and I also had a good talk during the drive so we’re good.”

“So that’s what you guys were whispering about.”

Greg smiled. “I don’t know if he’s mentioned it to you yet, but he was thinking about sticking around for a while.”

Shirley shook her head. “He hadn’t said anything yet but I’d like that. Safety in numbers and all that right? So anything I should know?”

“We don’t have any special rules or anything. Just help out where you can and we’ll be fine.”

Shirley nodded and turned to go. “Thanks again,” she said with a smile.

Greg nodded. “No problem. I’m glad to have you guys around.” Shirley left and Greg thought about what else they could do to fortify the house. They’d probably have to keep watch from upstairs if they wanted to be able to see anything. That was the downside with boarding up all the windows. Greg decided to take a break and entered one of the bedrooms.

He sat down on the bed and thought about the conversation he’d had earlier with James and Jackson. He wondered if looking for some sort of refugee camp was still a good idea. If it turned out to be anything like Jackson’s experience, going there could be a really bad idea. Besides, did he want to trust their fate to the government at this point? They hadn’t seen or heard any sign of governmental authority all week. No helicopters flying overhead, no calvary to the rescue, and nothing but static on the radio. Maybe striking out on their own was for the best. Maybe they could find an isolated spot somewhere where they wouldn’t see too much trouble. They hadn’t really made a plan on where they were going aside from just getting out of the city. Greg shrugged as he lay down. He wasn’t going to solve the problem right now but he’d keep thinking on it.

 

 

 

 

11 Laramie, Illinois

 

“Laramie next exit,” Greg announced as he drove past the sign. 

“Think we’ll find something here?” Shirley asked from the backseat.

“Hope so,” Greg replied.

“Me too,” Carol said, “its been slim pickings.”

Greg nodded. The group was down to about three days of food. After Ashton they had had little luck scavenging. If they were lucky, they’d discover a can of soup or two, but for the most part they had to use the supplies they had on hand. It also didn’t help that a trip that should have taken hours had taken days instead. The roads were horrible, they constantly had to maneuver around wreckage or worse, spend time moving it out the way. Greg was really hoping they could restock their supplies.

Greg took the exit ramp and they found themselves entering Laramie. There was little sign of the infection here. The streets were clear of wreckage and the buildings seemed to be intact. 

“Looks pretty good here,” Jackson announced.

“You think the infection missed this place?” Carol asked.

Greg shrugged. “It’s good news for us regardless of how it happened. I’m thinking we should be able to restock here.”

Greg’s optimism quickly wilted when he noticed an obstruction ahead. Greg saw that this is where all the wreckage had went. The road was blocked with a minivan and either side of the road was littered with wrecked cars. There was no way to get a car through that unless the car blocking the road was moved. Greg brought the suv to a stop so they could plan their next move.

“What do you think?” Greg asked.

“Well, they’re not shooting at us so that’s a good sign,” Jackson said.

“That’s true,” Carol said, “maybe they’re friendly.”

“We haven’t had the best luck with that so far,” Greg said. “But you’re right, they’re not shooting so maybe it’s okay. Have you guns ready just in case.”

Greg slowly drove forward and stopped when a figure approached from behind the barricade. As he drew closer Greg could see that he was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. There was a rifle slung across his back and knife holstered at his hip. The man walked with his hands spread out as if to indicate he didn’t mean any arm. Greg exited the vehicle, making sure to keep his hands well clear of the weapons holstered at his side.

The man nodded amicably as Greg met him halfway. “How are ya?” he asked. “I’m Hal Dow. I’m in charge of security around here.”

Greg nodded. “Greg Lyons. Nice to meet you.”

“How can I help you, Greg? You just passing through?”

“Yeah,” Greg replied, “although I wouldn’t mind trying to trade for some supplies.” Greg sighed internally. So much for this place being the boon they’d hoped for. He had hoped they’d be able to get in, restock, and get out. He had no idea what they could expect to get if they had to trade as they had little to keep themselves going.

“Trade? Well, that’s fantastic,” Hal said with a smile. “I’m really glad to hear that. The last group that came through, well we had to send them on their way. Thought they’d take over or some such.”

Greg thought there was little chance of that happening. They seemed to be well organized. “You guys survived the outbreak pretty well then?”

Hal nodded. “Laramie’s a hunting town. Just about everyone has a gun of some sort. When those things showed up we sent ‘em packing. We put the wall up right after that and haven’t had too much trouble.”

“Wow,” Greg replied, “that’s impressive. We’ve been running place to place just trying to survive.”

“Well, if you’re looking for a place to call home, this might be it for ya. We did well enough in the outbreak but a lot of people are gone. Most of them commute, you see. So we haven’t seen any of them since the outbreak. They’re either holed up somewhere or didn’t make it.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Greg replied.

Hal shrugged. “It’s the world we live in now.” He motioned towards the roadblock and a figure came into view. He got inside a vehicle and made an opening large enough for them to drive through. “Let’s get you inside. We can do some lunch and talk about that trade you mentioned.”

“Thanks,” Greg replied. He returned to his vehicle and led the way past the barricade. He immediately saw why that other group had failed in their takeover. There were maybe a dozen men and women all armed with rifles of some sort. They all seemed to carry their weapons with an easy familiarity that probably meant they knew how to use them. One of the figures directed them to pull over to the side and Greg complied.

Greg exited the vehicle again as Hal joined him. “We’ll have to ask you to leave your firearms in your vehicles,” he said. He shrugged apologetically. “You can keep you blades,” he said as he noticed the machete on Greg’s hip.

Greg nodded. He wasn’t thrilled about having to put the pistol away but he understood. He wouldn’t want strangers walking around armed in his town either. He poked his head inside the suv to relay the message and then walked over to give James the news. With that done, Hal led them to a house near the road.

“This is a visitor center of sorts,” Hal announced as he held the door open for them. “Lunch will be up in a few minutes so we can sit in the dining room.”

Hal waited for everyone to get inside and then led the way. The dining room had a long table big enough for all of them sit comfortably. There was a picture window that looked out onto a field where people could be seen working the ground.

“It’ll be a small harvest this year,” Hal said as he joined Greg at the window. “It’s July so we’ve already missed most of the growing season.”

Greg nodded. “Looks like you’ll be set for next year though.”

Hal nodded. “We are doing pretty well.” Hal turned as several women entered the room and began setting food out on the table. Everyone took their seats and Greg smiled as he saw beef and mashed potatoes on his plate.

Hal chuckled. “Probably been a few days since you guys have had a good meal, huh?”

“You have no idea,” Carol replied.

“It’s canned beef and instant potatoes but we’ve got a good store of spices so it should still be pretty good.”

“It looks amazing,” Carol said.

“Well, let’s dig in,” Hal said. “We can do business after we eat.”

The group applied themselves and made quick work of the food. They’d been given large portions so everyone was satisfied when they were done. After that, Hal led them to a building a few blocks away. It looked to be an old hardware store. “This is where we keep most of our stock,” Hal explained as he led the way inside. “It’s guarded round the clock but we haven’t had any trouble. Hal led them over to a middle aged man that was making notations on a clipboard.

“This is Ryan Barton. He’s in charge of our stores. He’ll take good care of you. Have someone send for me when you’re done and we can set you up with a place for the night. No reason to head back out on the roads at night.”

“Thanks,” Greg replied, “I appreciate that.”

“Not a problem. You seem like good people so we’ve got to stick together. There’s plenty of bad people running around. Alright, I’ll see you guys in a bit.”

The group spent the next fifteen minutes trying to negotiate with Ryan but were disappointed to find that he had little interest in what they had.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said, “you don’t have that much worth trading except for that ammo. I doubt you wanna part with that, you’re gonna need that on the road.”

Greg sighed. “Well we need the supplies, so we’ll have to make do.”

“That won’t be necessary,” a voice said from behind them. The group turned and they saw a middle aged woman dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. She approached for a handshake and Greg held out his hand.

“Dawn Stamper,” she said as they shook hands. “I’m what remains of the administration here in Laramie. That pretty much makes me the mayor I guess.”

“Nice to meet you,” Greg replied, “Greg Lyons.”

“I think I might have a way that we can both get something we want out of this deal,” Dawn said.

“What do you have in mind?” Greg asked.

“Walk with me if you would. I can have one of my assistants find lodgings for your friends.”

Greg glanced at the group and saw that they looked excited at the thought of resting for the remainder of the day. They had gone through a rough few days, the rest would probably do them good. “Alright, lead the way.”

Dawn smiled and led the way out of the hardware store. They kept walking until they reached a fence of sorts. Looking closely, Greg saw that it was a combinations of cars, wood, and sheet metal. Every thirty feet or so there was a platform of sorts that let the man guarding have clear view over anything approaching the fence.

Dawn chuckled. “Not much to look at but it’s kept the infected out so far.”

Greg shrugged. “Doesn’t matter how it looks as long as it’s getting the job done.”

“You’re practical,” Dawn said, “I like that. I like to think I’m pretty practical myself. Do you have any idea why I brought you out here, Greg?”

Greg frowned for a moment in thought. They weren’t completely alone Greg thought. From the men on the platforms to the men that appeared to be going about their business, there were plenty of people close enough to protect Dawn if he tried anything. Further, he figured she wouldn’t have put herself this close to him if she didn’t have some idea of his temperament. That meant she probably listened closely to Hal’s recommendations. What could she want though? According to Ryan, they simply didn’t have much that the town was interested in. Greg thought some more, they were alone, at least for all intents and purposes. Maybe she needed a favor of some kind. Maybe something she couldn’t trust to her men.

“You need me to do something for you,” Greg replied. “Something you can’t trust your men with for some reason.”

Dawn smiled. “Hal was right about you. You’re quick. I do need something. You see, we’re doing pretty well here. My men are doing a great job of keeping the infected at bay and the only group that came through looking for trouble was quickly dealt with. The main problem we have right now is that there’s another group on the other side of town. The short version is that we’re competing for what resources remain when it would be so much more efficient if we were to join forces.”

“Why do you need me?” Greg asked. “Why not work out some sort of deal?”

“Look around you, Greg. We’re trying to rebuild something here. We’ve established security so that all of the remaining residents can safely sleep in their beds at night. We’re in the process of planting so we’ll have a reliable source of food.  That’s gonna take time though. To get there, we need all the resources remaining in the town.”

“The other group doesn’t want to work something out?”

“Exactly,” Dawn replied. “They’d rather go their own way instead of joining forces and dealing with this crisis together. I don’t even know if they’re rationing what they have. Properly managed, there should be enough food remaining to see us until harvest next year.”

“What do you want me to do?” Greg asked.

“Go and talk to them. Maybe they’ll listen to reason if it’s coming from someone new. I’m afraid communication has broken down to the point that they open fire as soon as one of my people approaches them.”

“That bad?” Greg asked.

Dawn nodded. “I have nothing but the best in mind. I want to make sure all the food is evenly distributed so we can all survive this.”

“Alright,” Greg said, “what if they don’t want to listen.”

“Well, you’ll be in a position to convince them that joining us is in their best interest. Maybe destroy some of their food supplies.”

“I thought you wanted to keep all the supplies so you could make it to harvest.”

“Well, you wouldn’t destroy everything of course. Just enough for them to realize their best chance for survival is in joining with us.”

“Alright. And if I fail? If they don’t want to join up?”

“I’m not trying to force you do anything you’re not comfortable with. I look at you and I see a man that has survived for days out there. I’m sure you’ve had to do some things you never would have done before all this happened. I’m sure that you’d do anything to keep you friends safe, I’m just trying to do the same for my people here. But hey, if you can’t go through with it, we’ll put you up for that night and you can be on your way in the morning. Without any supplies mind you, we can’t give anything away for free.”

Greg nodded. “And if I do this for you?”

“I’ll give your group a week’s worth of food. That should be enough to see you through until you find another place you can scavenge for supplies.”

That would be great. A week’s worth of food? He didn’t really like how easily she talked about destroying food supplies but did he have a choice? They were down to what, three days of food now? How long before they reached a place that was safe enough to scavenge for supplies? 

“Alright,” Greg said, “I’ll go talk to them.”

“Great,” Dawn said with a smile. “I’d wait ‘til morning,” she said as she glanced at the sun. “It’ll be dark soon and the infected will be out in droves beyond the fence.”

Greg nodded and she led the way back to the hardware store and dropped him off with an aide that took him to where the rest of the group was staying. They’d given them a whole house for their use. If Greg hadn’t just talked with Dawn, he’d think it was rather generous. As it was, it was probably part of her plan to get him to do her dirty work.

Greg entered the living room and saw everyone lounging on the couches. The kids were in the corner playing games on their handhelds.

“What happened?” Carol asked when she saw him.

Greg sighed as he took a seat next to Carol. “She wants us to do a favor.”

“What does she want?” Jackson asked.

“There’s another group in town,” Greg said, “apparently there’s some competition for the resources left. She wants us to convince the other group to join her.”

“What do we get for doing that?” James asked.

“A week’s worth of food.”

“That would be a big help,” Laura said.

Carol nodded. “Definitely.”

“What’s the catch?” Shirley asked.  “If that’s all she wanted, why’d she have to take you off alone?”

“If they won’t listen, she wants us to persuade them. Destroy some of their supplies and such.”

“Ah,” Jackson said, “she wants us to do her dirty work.”

“Why not just do it herself?” Shirley asked.

“She said communication has broken down. Claims her people get shot at whenever they get close.”

James nodded. “So she thinks a fresh face has a chance to talk to them. And if that fails, well you’re already there so you can cause some trouble.”

“And, why put her own people at risk if we’ll do it for her?” Jackson added.

“What happens if we don’t do this?” Laura asked.

“Nothing,” Greg replied. “She said they’ll let us stay the night and then we’ll have to be on our way in the morning. Without any additional supplies of course.”

“There might be another option,” Jackson said.

“What’s that?” Greg asked.

“How many people were with you when you had your talk?”

“Just us. There were guards nearby I guess, but just the two of us as far the conversation went.”

“Okay,” Jackson said, “maybe her people don’t know about what she’s planning.”

“What do you mean?” Carol asked.

“Well, we’re not dealing with a hardened group of people here. These are just some people that banded together to survive. They know each other, they care what each other thinks. They survived the initial outbreak pretty well so they’ve never gotten desperate enough to do whatever they need to do to survive. So maybe we can work out a deal with the other group.”

James nodded. “Tell them what she’s planning. Maybe they’ll be generous and give us enough food to last a few days.”

“Don’t they already have an idea?” Laura asked. “If they’re shooting whenever her people show up…”

Jackson shrugged. “She may not have been entirely truthful. Maybe she said what she did to get Greg to see things her way.”

Greg nodded. “Maybe it isn’t an issue of the other group refusing to join. Maybe Dawn wants to control them.”

James nodded. “It’s worth checking out. Go in with an open mind.”

“Alright,” Greg said, “that’s what we’ll do. I want us all to go though, I don’t think I trust her.”

“That’s a good idea,” James said, “we can get out of here if something goes wrong.”

The group ended on that note and spent the rest of the night resting. They didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow so they figured they needed to be well rested. Morning came and one of Dawn’s people delivered them a box of oatmeal for breakfast and a map of the city. The area they needed to go to was circled in red. After breakfast, the group headed to their vehicles and drove over. 

They saw a fenced in area as they approached. Greg stopped a good distance away and they proceeded on foot. “Laramie Mobile Homes,” Greg read aloud as they got closer. The mobile home park was completely fenced in. Greg could see that mobile homes were just on the other side of the fence. He quickly figured out they were using these to man the fence as he saw people with rifles spaced every twenty feet or so.

“They’re organized,” James announced. “The whole perimeter is guarded. And look around,” he said indicating the street around them. “No wreckage anywhere, nothing to hide behind. They’ll see anyone coming from a long ways off.”

“Why would they even want to join up?” Jackson asked. “They’ve got a nice defensible set up here, completely fenced in. They probably don’t have as many people to support either.”

“Let’s approach slowly,” Greg said. “We don’t want to make them nervous.”

“Make them nervous?” Carol asked. “What do they have to be nervous about? They’re pretty much sitting on a fortress.”

Greg chuckled. “Okay, so maybe I’m a little nervous.” He led the way forward and stopped when they were addressed.

There was an older man standing on the other side of the gate. He looked to be around fifty or so. He was dressed in a pair of camouflage pants and a matching shirt. “You folks picked a bad day to come through Laramie.”

“I’m sorry?” Greg said.

“I said you picked a bad day to come through. You just landed yourselves in the middle of our little civil war. We’ll talk more inside. Have some of your people grab your vehicles.”

Greg found himself confused. This wasn’t at all how he thought this meeting would play out. He hadn’t expected them to be outright hostile, but he wasn’t expecting them to be welcoming either.

“I can see that your confused,” the man continued, “let’s get you inside and I’ll explain.”

Greg nodded. “Jackson, Shirley, go get the cars, please.” They nodded and headed back towards the vehicles. The man retrieved a set of keys form his pocket and unlocked a large padlock. Two more men stepped forward and pushed the gates open so the vehicles would have enough space to get through.

Once everyone was inside, the gate was closed and the man directed the group to follow him. He led them to an area that had several wooden picnic tables, Greg thought it might be where they had their meals.

“I’m Richard Fritz,” the man said, “you can say I’m the leader of this little band.”

“Greg Lyons,” Greg replied as they shook hands. “This is James, Laura, and their kids Maddy and Junior. That’s Carol over there and Jackson and Shirley are the ones driving the cars.”

“Nice to meet you all,” Richard said. “Why don’t we have a seat?” Once everyone was seated he continued, “We’ve got a few sandwiches left over from breakfast if you guys want any.” When they nodded, Richard gestured towards someone nearby and explained what he needed. The group made small talk while they ate and James told the story of how Greg stayed behind when they had to escape the house in Ashton.

“That’s impressive,” Richard said in appreciation, “not many would do that.”

Greg shrugged the compliment off and the group continued to make small talk until Greg decided it was time to ask some questions. “So what did you mean about a bad time to come through?”

“Well you can say we’ve got a civil war of sorts going on. Dawn wants to have all the town’s resources under her control even though there’s plenty for both of our groups to have what they need.”

“She did mention something about the resources,” Greg said. He decided to take a leap. He didn’t trust Dawn at all but Richard seemed pretty honest. “She wanted us to convince you to join her group.”

Richard shook his head, “I’m afraid you’ve been duped.”

“What do you mean?” Greg asked with a frown.

“Dawn knows full well you wouldn’t have been able to convince us to join her. What’d she offer?”

“A week’s worth of supplies. She wanted us to destroy some of your stock if we couldn’t convince you but we had no intention of doing that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Richard replied, “not that you would’ve succeeded mind you. But the thing is, Dawn doesn’t really care what you do here. You’re a scapegoat.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dawn’s a smart woman. She knows you would’ve failed. Her offering you that food tells me you guys are probably desperate for supplies so she used that to manipulate you. I’m thinking that she’s planning on attacking soon and she can blame whatever happens on you.”

“What?” Greg asked. “Why would she do that?”

Richard shook his head. “Dawn’s surrounded by a good group of people. I’m talking about average folks. They’re not gonna stand for outright attacking people for no good reason. I actually know some of those people over there, we used to frequent the same bar before all this started.”

“So she can’t do an outright attack because she wouldn’t have any support.”

“Exactly. Now, if someone were to come along, say someone that was only gonna be around for a few days. Well, maybe she can blame things on them and get away with it.”

“She would really do that?”

Richard nodded, “I’d expect her attack to be any day now. She has to do it while you’re still here or she’ll lose her chance.”

Greg took a moment to look around the table and made a decision. “How can we help?”

“Help? This isn’t your fight. If it wasn’t you, she would’ve convinced someone else to come out here.”

“But it is us and I don’t like being used,” Greg said angrily.

“I won’t say no to extra help but I want you to know I’m perfectly willing to give you some supplies and send you on your way.”

“The rest of you feel the same way?” Richard asked as he looked around the table.

“I’m with Greg,” James announced. “I don’t like the way she used us.”

“I wouldn’t feel right knowing she attacked you guys because of us,” Laura said.

Carol, Jackson, and Shirley all nodded their agreement. “See?” Greg asked. “We’re helping.”

“Alright then, I’m glad to have you. 

“Why don’t we take a walk around and I can figure out where to put you?”

Greg nodded. “Sounds good.”

Richard took them on a tour of the trailer park. There wasn’t a great deal to see. It was basically a large square enclosed by a wire fence. At regular intervals, there was a trailer home set against the fence which gave the guard on duty a clear line of fire over the fence. Greg had seen this on their way in. The interesting part came when Richard led them to an area that was blocked off by several trailer homes.

“This is our little ‘secret spot’,” Richard explained as they approached. The ‘secret spot’ as Richard referred to it was just a number of trailer homes arranged in a square. Inside they saw an assortment of vehicles in various stages of repair.

“This is our auto shop,” Richard explained. 

“Why do you have so many cars?” Greg asked.

“Well, it’s not so many as it appears. A number of these are just being used for parts. There were a lot of accidents on the day of the outbreak so not everything is in great condition. Hey, Giovanna!” he called. “Take a break. I want you to meet someone.”

A figure slid out from underneath one of the cars and stood up. She appeared to be Hispanic with black shoulder length hair and was dressed in a pair of overalls. If the oil stains were any indication, she knew her way around a car. She used a sleeve to wipe sweat from her brow which only smeared a bit of oil in its place but she didn’t seem to notice. She approached the group while wiping her hands on a rag that she pulled from one of her pockets.

“Hey there,” she said as she reached them. “I’m Gio. Richard insists on using my full name just to irritate me.”

Greg chuckled. “Nice to meet you, Gio,” Greg said as he extended his hand.

Gio shook hands and smiled. “So, what’s going on, Richard?”

“Our friends here have been caught up in Dawn’s latest scheme. They’re gonna stick around to help out.”

“Great!” Gio said enthusiastically, “could always use a hand around here. Any of you know your way around a car?”

Greg glanced at Jackson who shook his head. “Afraid not.”

Gio shrugged. “Oh well, didn’t hurt to ask. You fill them in on the master plan yet, Richard?”

Richard chuckled, “I was getting to that, Giovanna.”

Gio rolled her eyes at his use of her full name. “Alright, back to work. These cars won’t fix themselves.” Gio left the group and was quickly ensconced back under a vehicle.

“What’s this master plan?” Greg asked.

“Well, I’ve been thinking and I don’t think we can stay here long term. Eventually, all the easy to grab food will be gone and we’ll be stuck trying to farm. I don’t see that going too well with Dawn breathing down our necks.”

“You’ve got a good spot here though,” Carol said. 

Richard nodded. “It’s not bad, but it’s only good so long as the food and ammo hold out. After that, it becomes a trap.”

“What’s the plan then?” Jackson asked.

Richard nodded towards Gio. “I want to get out of here. Gio is working on getting enough vehicles working. Should be done in the next few days. Then we leave and Dawn can have this place.”

“Where will you go?” Greg asked “We’ve got a similar plan I guess. We were just getting away from Emerald Falls but we really don’t have an end destination in mind.”

“I’m thinking the outbreak has made a lot of prime real estate available. Plus, there’s no government authority to say what belongs to whom. I figure we find an isolated spot and try to build something of our own.”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Greg replied.

“It’s a great idea,” Richard said with a smile. “We hit the hardware store the other day. Got seeds, you know, tomato, cucumber, corn, and so on. Bunch of stuff that should grow pretty well. Also got a few loads of lumber and such so we can do repairs when we find a place. Don’t know what condition it’ll be in.”

“Sounds like you thought of everything,” Carol said.

“Probably not,” Richard said with a chuckle, “but it’s a start. Staying here just isn’t gonna work. Dawn isn’t gonna leave us alone and she might eventually convince enough people to come after us in force. Don’t get me wrong, if a bandit comes through I’ve no trouble giving them some bullets. But I’m not ready to start shooting people I’ve known for years.”

“That’s understandable,” Greg replied. 

“This is where I want you to be, Greg. I want you to make sure my people make it out here if things go south. You strike me as a good man, Greg. You staying to fight even though I gave you an out, which says a lot about you. You’ve also been out there, surviving. We’ve been doing fine here but we have no idea how things are out on the road. If something happens to me, I want you to take over.”

“What? I don’t even know these people,” Greg protested. “Why would they listen to me?”

“Because I’ll tell them to,” Richard replied with a smile. “I’ll bring you around to meet everyone and we should still be okay for a day or two. Plenty of time for them to get to know you.”

“Aren’t there other men more suitable?” Greg asked. “I’m just getting here. If I pass over a bunch of people, that’s gotta cause some problems.”

“It’ll be fine,” Richard said. “These people need leadership. If I hadn’t organized them, most would still be huddling in their trailer homes. Right now, they don’t care who leads so long as someone is doing it. They just want to be safe.”

Greg sighed as he thought. What did he know about leading a group of people? It was one thing to take care of his family, but this? This was way too much. He looked up as Richard placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You stayed behind fighting off the infected while your people got themselves to safety. That’s what a leader does. You’ve already got the instincts for it.”

“That was different,” Greg protested. “They’re family. I did it without thinking.”

“That’s all this is,” Richard replied. “Family, just a little bit bigger, that’s all. 

“Just bigger, huh?” Greg asked.

Richard nodded. “Let’s go for a walk. I’ll introduce you to some of the guys.” Richard looked at the rest of the group, “You guys are welcome to relax for a bit. Maybe lend a hand if you see someone that needs help with something. Gio could use a hand if you can manage not to annoy her. She’s chased everyone else away so far. Says she works faster alone.” 

The group dispersed and Richard took Greg on a more personalized tour of the trailer park. This time around they stopped to speak with the people they passed. Greg was pretty sure he wouldn’t remember most of them although a few stood out. There was Justin Oller. He spent most of his time guarding the fence. He’d lost his only daughter the day of the outbreak and was determined that wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

There was also Ricardo. Turns out that he was Gio’s son. They found him kicking a ball off the wall of a trailer home and Greg decided he should introduce him to Maddy and Junior when he had the chance. There wasn’t a whole lot for the kids to do with the power out so maybe they could entertain each other. After Ricardo, it was a blur of names and faces. There were about thirty men and women that Richard had organized into his little army. 

The rest of the residents were next. They all seemed like good people, if a bit afraid. It seemed like the only thing holding them together was the force of Richard’s will. Greg began to understand when Richard had said they didn’t really care who was in charge so long as someone was. Who could blame them though? They were living in a strange situation. Who would have ever imagined that you would have to hide from people carrying a deadly infection? 

They met as a big group for lunch around noon and Greg sat down and noted that their table seemed to be getting a lot of stares. “Something happen?” he asked.

Jackson shook his head, “No, it looks like we’re celebrities of a sort though.”

“How’d that happen?”

Jackson shrugged, “A lot of them are impressed that we’ve been on the road. They were asking a lot of questions when Richard took you off for that meet and greet.”

“How’d that go anyway?” Carol asked.

“Pretty good I guess,” Greg replied. “Can’t say that I’ll remember anyone’s name just yet but it went well.”

“That’s good,” Laura said. “Everyone is looking forward to getting out of here but there will have to be some changes with this many people.”

James chuckled. “Already organizing things, huh?”

“Somebody has to,” Laura replied.

“What’s the problem?” Greg asked.

“Well, Richard’s done a great job of keeping everyone safe here but I noticed that not everyone is contributing. There’s quite a few people just sitting around.”

“What do you think we should do?” Greg asked.

Laura shrugged, “I don’t know, but I think everyone should be doing something. We can’t live the way we used to. Richard said we’re gonna be attacked soon,” she said in a low voice. “What happens then? It doesn’t seem right that just a few people fight while everyone else hides.”

“Isn’t that what we’re used to doing though?” Carol asked. “If you get in trouble, you call the police.”

“Don’t think that model is gonna work right now,” James said. “Think about the other night. We survived because everyone lent a hand. When we left Ashton, Greg and I cleared the way while you guys drove. Everyone was involved.”

Greg nodded. “That makes sense. Richard thinks the attack is gonna go down any day now though. Don’t know if we can change anything by then.”

Laura shrugged, “I’m thinking long term I guess so maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. We have to survive whatever that Dawn woman throws at us.”

Greg shook his head. “You’re right, if we’re gonna do this we have to make it work. And well I guess we’re gonna do this. Stick around I mean.”

“That’s fine,” Laura said, “it’s great even. I think we’ll be safer in a bigger group. We just have to organize some things is all.”

“You’re right,” Greg replied, “I’ll bring it up with Richard next time I talk to him.”

After lunch, Greg found Richard and told him some of the things they were talking about. “Those are all great ideas,” Richard said when he was finished. “I knew you were the right man for the job. I didn’t think of any of those things. Just been focused on getting enough food and keeping the infected out.”

Greg shrugged. “I think you did a fantastic job. Just, we’ll have to organize a little different on the road.”

Richard nodded, “You’re absolutely right. I knew there was something about you.”

Greg shrugged. “I still feel a little weird about the whole thing but I’m willing to give it a shot. I don’t want to see any of these people hurt.”

Richard nodded. “Good man. We can go around after dinner tonight and introduce the changes. Better to do it now so people have an idea of how things are gonna be.”

“Sounds good,” Greg said with a nod.

Greg spend the rest of the day interacting with the residents. He kept some of the guards company as they stood watch and tried to get a sense of who they were. After that he found himself in a trailer that was being used as a daycare for some of the younger children. On his way out, he saw Carol smiling at him and decided he would stay away from there so she wouldn’t get any ideas. He mingled here and there, introducing himself to faces he hadn’t seen yet and eventually found a quiet corner where he could be by himself for a while.

This whole thing was really overwhelming. He didn’t really feel equipped to lead anyone let alone all of these people that would be depending on him. Who would’ve thought he’d be in this position? He’d spent the last week running from place to place just trying to stay alive. He was supposed to do that for a whole group now? Laura was right, there would definitely have to be some changes. He shuddered just thinking of how they would provide food for so many people. Richard said they had a good amount stored up, but what happened if that ran out? He’d need to find out exactly how much food they had and long it would last. He could probably put Laura in charge of that. She was good at organizing things like that. 

They’d probably have to send out scouts or something to look for food every day. What about hunting? The canned stuff lying around would only last for so long. He’d need to ask Richard if anyone knew how to hunt. Hopefully those two things would be enough to keep the group fed. He shook his head. He needed to talk to the rest of the group. This was too much to deal with on his own. He’d probably miss something important. Isn’t that what leaders did though? Surround yourself with people who actually knew what they were doing? Even the president had a cabinet right? Greg stood and started to look for the rest of the group. He’d need their advice if they were going to be making changes that were going to affect all of these people. 

Days passed and Richard began involving Greg in the daily running of the trailer park. They would rise early and determine the guard rotation for the day. While the infected mostly came out at night, there were other threats they had to guard against. Even though Dawn hadn’t attacked, Richard insisted that she remained a threat. There were also bandits to be on the lookout for. They hadn’t had any problems lately but Richard believed it was the presence on the men on duty that kept them at bay. The next task was to determine the team that would go scavenging. They were doing well food wise but Richard wanted to have a constant flow of supplies if only because they were competing with Dawn’s group. There were a number of other tasks that Richard handled and Greg quickly realized that he would need to delegate. Trying to handle everything on his own would quickly grow tiresome.

A week passed and Greg began to feel more comfortable with his future role here. Richard began letting him make the day to day decisions so that he could focus on security. The residents were also growing comfortable with him and frequently nodded or greeted him by name as he passed. A few days into the second week Richard pulled Greg aside.

“What do you think so far?” Richard asked.

“It’s going pretty well,” Greg replied. “We’re all starting to fit in here.”

“Laura’s been a great help keeping the meals organized.”

Greg chuckled, “Yeah, she’s always been queen of the kitchen.”

“What about the others? Haven’t had the chance to talk to them really.”

“Carol’s been helping me organize some ideas I have and helping Laura otherwise. James and Jackson have been taking shifts on guard duty.”

“That’s great,” Richard replied, “you guys have been a huge help.” He chuckled, “I’m glad Dawn sent you this way.”

Greg smiled, “It’s been over a week. Do you still think she’s gonna make a move?”

Richard nodded, “I know it’s been quiet but I just don’t trust her.”

“What happened?”

“She’s devious and has everyone over there fooled.” Richard shook his head remembering, “You wouldn’t expect it but she wasn’t always like that. She was the village treasurer for years but something changed when the infected showed up.”

“She lose someone?” Greg asked. He knew that trauma could affect people in different ways.

Richard shrugged, “So what if she did? Who hasn’t lost someone? Hell, we lost nearly everyone in this town. Anyone that wasn’t here that day is gone.”

Greg nodded, “Fair enough.”

“I don’t know what happened to her. Some of my men were hitting the grocery store when she shows up with several of her own guys, all armed. Claimed that she was the legitimate authority in town and my guys had no right to be stealing supplies from the town.”

“What happened then?”

“Same thing happened with the next group I sent out. Only this time one didn’t make it back. We haven’t figured out if Dawn had given the order or if one of her guys was just trigger happy. I started sending everyone out armed after that.”

“I think it’s just a matter of time,” Richard concluded.

“That’s why Gio’s work is so important.”

Richard nodded. “I just can’t bring myself to fight people that used to be my friends. Maybe that makes me weak, a bad leader but I can’t do it.”

Greg shook his head as he thought of the decisions he would be willing to make. “I’d say that makes you human.”

Richard smiled, “Thanks for that.”

“How is Gio coming along?” Greg asked.

“Good. I think we’ve got enough vehicles right now if we had to leave in a hurry.”

“Maybe we should start loading now, just in case.”

“That’s a good idea. Think we can put Laura on it?”

“Yeah, she’s the best person for the job.”

More time passed and Greg found it easier and easier to fit in. By the time the third week dawned, Greg felt as if they had been in the park for years. Most of the residents greeted him by name as he passed and he felt that taking over the leadership role would work out pretty well. Part of the way he had done this was to help out wherever he could and he directed the others to do the same. This served two purposes in his mind. The first was that there was a lot to do if they were going to get out of here. Gio still had some work to do on the vehicles and she needed help despite her protestations that people just slowed her down. The second was that it gave the group a chance to get to know everyone. If they were gonna be leading the group, Greg felt he should try to establish a relationship with as many people as he could.

 

 

 

12 Laramie, Trailer Park

 

Greg began taking different members of the group with him on his rounds as he began to call it. He felt that this was a good way of further introducing the other members so that the people would listen to all of them as a whole. Greg wasn’t going to be able to do this alone and he’d need everyone’s help. They also began to make a few changes around the trailer park. Jackson had suggested that all the guards should start wearing protective gear. He had noticed that the guards were simply wearing whatever they had on hand, jeans and a t-shirt for example. If a breach happened, the guards should have some sort of protection so they could fight the infected effectively.

Greg had thought this a great idea and had requested that someone get leather jackets or something of the like the next time they made a supply run. He also requested gloves and few other items that Jackson had requested. This was received well by the guards. It wasn’t much but they liked the idea of having additional protection.

Laura had also made some progress implementing her ideas. One of the first things she did was assign everyone into a work group. Everyone had a task of some sort be it helping prepare food or watching the children. There was some resistance at first but most quickly bowed under the weight of her will. Peer pressure also helped. Most people took their tasks with a degree of enthusiasm. Keeping busy was a great way to keep their minds off the fact that their world had fallen apart. No one wanted to be thought of as someone that didn’t contribute to the well-being of the group.

While Laura organized the people, Carol took to organizing their trip for when they eventually left. Greg had shared with the group his ideas on what they might need on the road and Carol set to making it happen. She determined a rendezvous point for everyone to evacuate to if they had to leave in a hurry and also determined who would make ideal scouts when they were on the road. The last thing she did, was organize an evacuation plan. They would leave in three waves. People were assigned to a certain wave and each wave had several guards as well. She didn’t know if matters would play out the way they wanted, but the organization seemed to give everyone peace of mind.

Greg and James started teaching a crash course in Krav maga.  They weren’t expecting anyone to achieve proficiency on such short notice but they might learn something that could save their life. They taught the guards in the morning and taught a second course in the evening when everyone was done with their chores. Not everyone took it seriously but they welcomed the activity. The electricity was gone after all.

As time passed there was a definite change in the trailer park. When they’d first arrived, Greg had sensed a desperation of sorts. People were scared and just doing what they could to survive. With the changes his group had implemented, people seemed a little less scared. Having a concrete plan in place seemed to go a long way in easing their fears. 

They were sitting down to dinner one day discussing their progress when Jackson asked Richard a question.

“It’s been three weeks. Do you still think Dawn is going to come after us?”

Richard nodded. “It’s just a matter of time. We’ve been making more supply runs the last few days, she isn’t gonna accept the competition for resources. You guys deciding to stay probably messed up her plan. Too many people know that you’re still here. But I know she’s still planning something.”

Greg shrugged. “I’m not complaining. The more time we have to prepare the better.”

 The group made small talk after that and went their separate ways for the night. Greg and Richard decided to do a perimeter check and see how the guards were doing.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Richard said as they walked. “You’re definitely the right man for the job.”

Greg chuckled. “I don’t know about all that. Just trying to keep everyone safe.”

“Exactly. You’re not in it for the glory. You genuinely want to keep everyone safe. I’ve seen you making the rounds, talking to people. I think this is gonna work out great. I’ll handle security while you deal with everything else,” he finished with a chuckle.

Greg laughed. “Now the truth comes out. You just wanted someone else to do all the work.”

Richard laughed. “This will be good. We’ll get out of here and find someplace up north, away from the Dawns of the world.”

They reached one of the trailer homes set against the fence and Richard called out in greeting. “Ryan, how’s it going tonight?” Richard frowned when he didn’t hear a response. “Ryan?”

Greg climbed the ladder on the trailer home and made his way onto the roof. “He’s been shot,” he said quietly, “crossbow or something.”

Richard cursed. “She’s attacking tonight. Oh no.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The fence down here has been cut. This is gonna be bad.”

Greg climbed back down and joined him at the fence. Sure enough, there was a man size hole cut in the fence. Greg looked up. The sun was setting. The infected would be out in force soon.

“Can we move this trailer?” he asked. “That should cover the hole until we can get it fixed.”

“No time,” Richard said nodding beyond the fence.

Greg looked and saw half a dozen infected slowly making their way towards them.

“They’ve already seen us,” Richard said. “They’re cautious for the moment. We’ve been shooting any that get near the fence. I need to you run and get some help, Greg. I’ll hold them here for as long as I can.”

Greg shook his head. “I’ll stay with you. We can take six between the two of us. Plus, they can only come one at a time.”

“And if we fail? That’ll be a whole bunch of infected loose in the park and no one would have any idea what’s coming. Plus, the fighting will probably draw more infected.”

Greg nodded. He didn’t like it but Richard was right. “Alright. I’ll go get help and make my way back.”

“No,” Richard said. “Don’t come back. We leave now. You get everyone loaded and get the hell out of here.”

“I’m not leaving you to die.”

“Yes you are. That’s why I signed you on, remember? You try to stay and we might all die. Get them outta here!”

Greg took off sprinting and Richard unslung the rifle from his back. He’d probably die in the next few minutes but he would not go quietly. He’d take as many of these demons to hell with him before he died.

One of the infected came in range and Richard squeezed off a shot that took it in the forehead. He smiled grimly as hit the ground. The other infected jumped back a bit but started making their way forward again when there weren’t any more shots. Normally, there’d be at least three guys firing into a group like this but Dawn had killed their guard before he could raise the alarm. Richard let off another shot, striking one in the chest and knocking it to the ground. He couldn’t fire indiscriminately, he needed to make every shot count.

A howl in the distance told him other infected had heard the noise and were on the way. He fired another shot and dropped another infected. Three down but more were on the way. He took his shots carefully and managed to take down the remaining infected before they could reach the fence. He took no victory in it though. Already, he could see more infected coming his way.

 Greg sprinted until he saw one of the guard and came to a stop. “We’re under attack! Get to the west fence. Richard is over there alone!”

The guard unstrapped his rifle and ran in the direction Greg had indicated. Two more guards nearby heard the exchange and headed in that direction as well. Greg quickly made his way to Gio and saw her legs sticking out from underneath a car.

“Gio!”

“Yeah?” she asked as she slid from underneath the vehicle.

“We’re under attack. We have to leave now.”

“What’s going on?”

“Someone cut the west fence. Infected are attacking right now.”

Gio shook her head. “But I’m not done. I’m not sure if we have enough vehicles for everyone.”

“We’ll have to make do. We need to leave now and save as many as we can.”

Gio nodded. “Alright, let me get my tools together.”

“Greg! Greg!” someone yelled. Greg turned and saw one of the residents running towards him. “The north gate! There’s a bunch of infected over there.”

“Alright, I’m on my way. I need you to find some others and help Gio get packed up. Then spread the word. We’re getting out of here. Just like we practiced mind you. No panic.”

The man nodded and headed off to do as he was told. Greg took off running again and headed towards the north gate. Along the way he ran into James and Laura. “James,” he called as he came to a stop. “I need you at the north gate, there’s a breach. Laura, get the kids then help everyone get loaded up.” Laura nodded and took off in the direction of the trailer they had been staying in.

Greg sighed as he took off again, James right on his heels. They should have had a better communication system, walkies or some such. How many people would be lost while they tried to spread the word? Greg reached the north fence and cursed when he saw what was happening. There was an even larger hole here and there were a dozen infected inside the park with more on the way. There were half a dozen guards fighting off the infected but a few were already on the ground unmoving. Greg drew his pistol and machete and launched himself at the infected, trusting James to watch his back.

He couldn’t fire his pistol indiscriminately because he didn’t want to hit one of his people by mistake. As he reached the melee, he saw an infected about to bite into the arm of one of his people. A well placed kick to its side sent it sprawling and Greg quickly followed up with a strike to its throat. Turning, he saw another infected coming towards him. Greg ducked under its swipe and placed his pistol to its stomach. Three shots sent it towards the ground screaming in pain. Greg saw an infected with its back turned and stabbed it through the back. He kicked it away to free his machete and looked around for another target.

James was laying about with his asp and the rest of the men looked to be holding their own now. Greg looked past the fence and saw that more infected were nearly on them. He was about to lend a hand to finish off the remaining infected when her heard someone running towards him from behind. He turned and saw Lisa. If he recalled correctly, she was one of the women that watched the kids. “Greg! There’s infected over by the kids. We need help!”

“James, hold things down here. I’m going to help the kids.”

“On it,” James replied as he finished off the last infected with a solid strike to the head.

Greg followed the woman to the trailer and saw four children cornered against the wall of a trailer home by several infected. Carol stood in front of them and there were a number of infected at her feet. The infected were hanging back for the moment, likely wary of Carol’s gun but that wouldn’t last for long. There must be another breach around here he thought. He turned to the woman. “Find a guard and have them find that breach. They’re coming in from somewhere.” That meant another guard had been quietly killed. At her nod he launched himself at the infected. This would be close quarters, he wouldn’t risk the pistol with the kids and Carol so close.

He struck down the first infected from behind and had already put down the second before they realized something was wrong. The two remaining infected turned towards him and attacked. He kicked the first infected in the chest and sent in to the ground and ducked under the swipe of the second infected. He stepped back to give himself some space and smiled grimly when he heard a gunshot close by. Glancing over, he saw that Carol had finished off the infected he had kicked to the ground. Turning back to the one in front of him he blocked a swipe with the machete and countered with a punch to its throat. The infected grabbed its throat as it tried to breathe and Greg finished it off with a two handed blow to its head.

“You alright?” he asked as he pried the machete from the infected’s skull. He took another moment to clean it on the infected’s clothing before sheathing it.

Carol nodded. “We’re fine now that you’re here. What’s going on? Where did all these infected come from?”

“Someone cut holes in the fence. They took out the guard before they could raise an alarm.”

“Oh no,” Carol replied.

Greg nodded. “We’re getting out of here. Let’s get you guys over to Gio. I’m not letting you walk around without an escort.”

Carol nodded. She put the safety on the gun and tucked it into her waistband. “Come on guys. It’s time to go. Just like we practiced.” The kids nodded tear stained faces and followed as they lead the way to the vehicles.

Richard fired his last round and smiled grimly. He’d lost count of how many infected he’d killed but it would be over soon. He was out of bullets but he could hold out awhile longer. They could only come at him one at time through the hole in the gate. He stepped over the bodies of infected and stood directly in front of the hole. He hoped Greg was doing his part. Gunfire from other parts of the camp told him this wasn’t the only breach but he didn’t dare leave this spot. The more infected that were running loose in the park meant the more people that would die. An infected approached the hole and Richard stepped forward and thrust quickly into its throat. He smiled as it fell to the ground holding its throat. Now, he only had to do this about twenty more times to take care of this next wave.

Jackson kicked the infected in the knee and it fell to the ground. He quickly stepped away and Shirley stepped forward and gave it two solid blows to the head with baseball bat she’d found. Jackson turned to face the next infected and blocked its swipe, a thrust to its throat sent it crashing to the ground. Jackson hoped some help would show up soon. He and Shirley were holding their own but it would only take one slip up for it to all be over. The people they were guarding weren’t any help either. He glanced at the half a dozen people cowering against the side of a trailer home. He shook his head in disgust. This was literally life and death and they couldn’t be bothered to defend themselves? Shirley knocked an infected to the ground and he quickly finished it off. She was breathing heavily and probably wouldn’t be able to do this for much longer.

“Take a breather,” he said. “I’ll do the next few alone.”

“I’m fine,” Shirley replied breathlessly. “I’m not gonna sit here cowering while you do all the work.”

Jackson smiled. “Alright then.” He ducked under a swipe and stabbed the infected in the stomach. It bent over in pain and Shirley stepped forward and gave it a solid blow to the back of the head. A second blow while it was on the ground stopped it from moving. Jackson sighed as more infected appeared around the corner. He was starting to get tired himself. Just as the infected started towards them, he heard several shots in quick succession. Each shot put an infected down. Looking in the direction of the shots he saw Greg lowering his pistol.

“You guys alright?” he asked.

Jackson laughed. “You have great timing. We’re fine now.”

Greg nodded. “We’re leaving. Get them over to the vehicles,” he said nodding towards the people cowering near the trailer. “Be careful. There’s infected loose everywhere. Someone cut holes in the fences.” Greg left them to look for anyone else that needed help.

Jackson nodded. “Alright,” he said looking towards his charges, “you heard the man. It’s time to go.”

A few of them shook their heads. “You heard what he said. There’s infected out there. We should stay here until the fighting is done.”

Shirley stepped forward. “Get up or stay here by yourselves. We’ll fight to keep you safe but we’re not gonna die because you’re stupid!”

Jackson nodded. “We’re leaving now. Come, or don’t.” With that said, he nodded to Shirley and they started walking towards the vehicles, weapons at the ready. Most of the people got up and followed although one stubbornly refused to move.

“You guys are crazy. I’m staying right here.”

Jackson shook his head as they walked, “Idiot.”

James elbowed the infected in the throat then turned to hit one that had tackled one of his fellows to the ground. Fortunately he’d intervened before the man was bitten. The man scrambled back to his feet and nodded his thanks. James finished off the first infected with a solid blow to skull and took a look around. He didn’t see any other infected for the moment and sighed in relief. 

“Anyone bit?” he asked looking around.

Everyone shook their heads and James nodded in satisfaction. This morning had reminded him of that day in the hospital and he was glad to see people still standing. James directed a few of the men to remain at the gate and took the rest to see if anyone else needed help. There were still sounds of gunfire coming from several areas of the trailer park so the attack was still underway.

Greg made his way back to the area where Gio was stationed. He nodded in satisfaction when he saw the group directing people into vehicles. “Great work guys,” he said as he reached them. “I want you guys to go with this first wave. I’ll stay here to make sure people can reach the vehicles.”

Jackson and Shirley both nodded while Carol and Laura shook their heads. “I’m not leaving without you,” Carol said.

“And I’m not leaving without James,” Laura added.

Greg wisely remained silent and nodded. He could tell by the look in their eye that this wasn’t a fight he could win. Greg directed a few nearby guards to accompany the group and the first wave of vehicles started making their way out of the trailer park towards the meeting point. Greg noticed that he didn’t hear any more gunfire and hoped that meant the attack had been repelled. A few minutes later, James arrived with some guards in tow.

“Looks like we’re clear,” he said.

Greg nodded. “Did you check the west fence? That’s where Richard was when this all started.”

“I didn’t know,” James replied. “Everything was clear there when we walked by. We checked the whole park.”

“Alright. Let’s head that way. We can also look for stragglers so we don’t leave anyone behind.”

A few minutes later Greg was standing over Richard’s body. He was surrounded by the bodies of the infected. They’d taken him down but it didn’t look like it had been easy. That heroic bastard Greg thought shaking his head. He also saw the bodies of the guards that had come to help. From the position of their bodies it looked as if they had arrived after Richard had already fallen. They didn’t run though, they held the line for long as they could. A howl in the distance caught Greg’s attention and he looked beyond the fence to see more infected. 

“Time to go,” he announced, “I hate the idea of leaving Richard’s body here but he wouldn’t want us risking ourselves for sentiment. Let’s head back.” Greg led the group back towards the vehicles and they knocked on trailer home doors as they went. This turned up a small family of four but it looked like most of the other people had made it out in the first wave. 

Greg road in the lead vehicle with Carol, James, and Laura. They left the trailer park and started taking the main road towards the expressway. They were nearly out of town when they were forced to come to a stop. There were several cars blocking the road with a number of people standing in front. Greg exited the vehicle and everyone else in the caravan followed suit.

“I’m assuming that’s Dawn up there,” Greg said after everyone gathered around.

“How do you want to play it?” James asked.

“I’ll meet with her. Hopefully we can do this without a fight but be ready.” He looked around at the remaining guards in the group. “I don’t know who exactly did the deed, but I’m pretty sure someone cut the fences on Dawn’s order. Anyone have a problem if we have to fight?”

All the guards shook their heads fiercely. They’d gotten lucky today that they’d only lost so few but they were happy to exact some payback on whoever was responsible. Greg walked towards the group of people and Dawn came to meet him halfway. 

“We heard the gunfire,” she said, “is everyone okay?”

“Really?” Greg asked. “You orchestrate the whole thing and have the gall to ask if we’re okay?”

“I see Richard has poisoned you against me. Where is he by the way? Did he make it out in that first group?”

“Richard is dead because you,” Greg replied. “He gave his life so we could get away.”

“That’s a shame,” Dawn said with no trace of remorse in her voice. “That could have been avoided if he hadn’t been so stubborn.”

Greg felt rage boil up within him at her casual mention of Richard’s death. “Don’t talk about him,” he said angrily.

Dawn shrugged. “I don’t really care to be honest. We have a bit of a problem here, Greg. I don’t care that you guys are leaving but you’ll have to turn over any supplies. Those belong to the city.”

Greg took a step forward. “I’m this close to putting a bullet in your brain, Dawn. Good men died today because of you. Push me if you want to.”

Dawn looked in his eyes and must have seen something because she nodded. “Maybe I underestimated you. Alright, you’re free to go.” She waved towards her men and they began moving the cars from the road. Greg waited until the road was clear and walked back towards the cars. A few moments later they left Dawn behind.

Dawn sighed shakily as Greg’s caravan drove away. She’d made a gross miscalculation. She’d seen the look in Greg’s eye when she had pushed him about the supplies. She had no doubt in her mind that he would have killed her then and there. She shook her head as if that would dispel her unease. It was over, she’d never have to deal with him again.

***

Greg’s group reached the rendezvous point after about an hour on the road. Jackson and Shirley exited their vehicle with relief evident on their faces. People exchanged greetings, happy to see that their loved ones had made it out. Jackson approached Greg and pulled him into a fierce hug.

“Can’t tell you how glad I am to see you. Wasn’t sure you’d make it and they were starting to look to us for answers.”

Greg chuckled. “Oh you would’ve been fine. How is everyone? How many did we lose?”

“Only one that I know of,” Jackson replied. “There was one that refused to come with us when we made a run for the vehicles.”

Greg shook his head, “Stupid.”

Jackson nodded. “What can you do? I wasn’t gonna die because they were an idiot.”

Greg nodded. “Alright, let’s gather everyone around. I’ve got some news to share.” Greg looked out over the people as they gathered together. They were about sixty people all told. They looked tired, disheveled, and hungry. And he was responsible for all of them. He felt something stir within him and knew that he would do everything he could to keep them safe. Robert’s vision of finding a place of their own was good one. He’d make sure it happened.

“We were attacked tonight,” he began, “someone cut the fences and killed the guards before they raised the alarm.” He looked out over the sea of faces and didn’t see much fear, he did see a lot of anger though.

“Richard saved us,” he continued, “we discovered a breach and Richard held the infected off while I raised the alarm. He was a hero. And not just him. After Richard fell, Paul and Anthony held the line.” He paused for a moment, grateful that James had been able to supply their names. “Several men on lookout were killed. That’s why there was no warning. There were also men at the north gate that gave their lives. I have no doubt their sacrifice is the only reason so many of us were able to make it out.” A few teared up at this, Richard was well liked even before he had organized everyone and kept them safe.

“Who did it?” someone yelled. The crowd began to murmur then, many of them expressing a desire for payback. Greg raised his hands for silence and the crowd complied.

“Dawn Stamper did it,” Greg replied. The crowd expressed surprise at this revelation, who would think that one of their city officials could turn on them like that?

“Do you want revenge?” Greg asked. The crowd nodded their assent at this. “Let me tell you what means. It means that we go back and fight the very people some of you grew up with. Are you prepared for that? Further, I believe most of those people back there are just trying to survive. I don’t even think they know what Dawn orchestrated. But we can go back, is that what you want?”

The crowd quieted then and Greg nodded. It was one thing to want revenge, who wouldn’t? But they weren’t ready to kill the innocent along with the guilty. “I say we take this as a lesson. We move forward. Richard wanted to find a place where we could all be safe. I say we do that, but there will be a few changes.”

“Richard was a good man. He believed that everyone deserved the benefit of the doubt. I say the rules we used to follow are gone. The world we knew is gone and we can’t live the way we used to.” Greg paused as the ideas he had been thinking about became cemented in his mind.

“If someone shows hostility, we put them down. No questions, no hesitation. If they hit us, we hit back twice as hard.” The crowd began nodding then, some responding with shouts of agreement.

“Follow me and I will lead you to a place to call our own. We will claim it, we’ll defend it, and we’ll rebuild what we’ve lost. Who’s with me?”

The crowd erupted then, everyone voicing their support. Greg nodded in satisfaction and raised his hands again for silence. When the group complied he continued, “We’ve had a long day. We’re gonna get some more miles on the road and set up camp for the night. You all know your jobs, let’s get to it.”

The crowd dispersed and Greg heard many of them talking excitedly amongst themselves. Something was different now. Before, they were little more than a group of individuals trying to survive. Greg felt they were something more now, their shared trauma having forged a bond between them. He had no more doubt that they would follow his lead. He took a moment to think about those that had been lost. Richard. Paul. Anthony. The guards on lookout and those that had fallen at the north gate. Proper communication was a priority so this wouldn’t happen again. How many of that number would still be alive if they had walkies? 

“Good speech,” Shirley said as she walked up to him. “You been planning that?”

Greg shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, the rest just happened.”

“Looks like everyone is on board,” James said. “Don’t think we’ll have too many problems.”

“Scouts are out,” Jackson said as he joined the group. “We can head out now.”

Greg nodded and headed for his vehicle. It would be slow going but they had decided it was a good idea to send scouts out before them. If they ran into trouble, one of their number would head back with a warning so the main group could respond accordingly. The arrangement was simple, the guards were set in vehicles at the head and tail of the caravan with all the liabilities in the middle. Greg felt this would give them the best chance to respond in case they ran into trouble.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. The scouts found a suitable area to set up and they stopped for the day to pitch their tents. Later that evening, Greg walked the camp and checked in with each of the guards on sentry duty. He didn’t stay long, he just exchanged a few words to let them know that he appreciated them.  Morning came and everyone loaded up after a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal. They traveled about fifty miles that day and then stopped to find a suitable camp.

The scouts had found a truck stop and the group were glad to have a semblance of civilization after clearing it of infected. The vending machines were raided and they had a treat with their dinner that night. Morning came and the scavengers were sent out to look for supplies. The respite also served to let the group recover further. No doubt many of his people were still stressed about the trailer park. After that, he’d been trying to put as much distance as he could between them and Dawn’s people. Taking a break for morale would be good for everyone’s psychological health.

That night, Greg gathered his inner circle and they poured over a map they found at the truck stop. He’d also invited Don Dixon and Joe Montiel, these men had become the de facto leaders of the scouts and scavengers. Don was an experienced hunter and was the best man to lead the scouts. Joe had already proved his worth because he was planning on hitting a town as soon as possible to deal with their walkie situation.

“We’re going through our supplies a little faster than we anticipated,” Laura said. “We’ll need to start that hunting you were talking about to supplement.”

Greg nodded and looked at Don. “You’re from around here. What’s a good area where our guys can get some hunting done?”

Don leaned over that map and mumbled a bit under his breath. “This whole area has lots of deer so I think any forested area should do.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “I hunt at least once a year. This is Freyfield State Park, I usually do my hunting there.”

Greg leaned over and looked at the spot. “How’s the setup there? Would we be able to take everyone in?”

Don nodded. “They’ve got plenty of space for campgrounds. We’d be able to fit comfortably there and then some.”

Greg looked around at the other members of his inner circle. “Any objections?” he asked. When no one voiced any concerns he nodded. “That’s the plan then.” He rubbed his chin in thought. “Are there any cities close by? Joe could do some scavenging while we’re there. I think I’d like to stay there a few days and give everyone a chance to rest.”

“There’s a few small towns in the area,” Don replied. “Nothing major but Joe should be able to find some supplies there.”

“Something is better than nothing,” Joe said.

“Anything that adds to our supplies is a good thing,” Laura chipped in.

“Alright,” Greg said, “that’s settled. Anything else we need to talk about?”

“There’s one other thing,” Jackson said with a disturbed look on his face.

“What happened?” Greg asked.

“One of the women accused one of the men of raping her.”

James sighed. “We have to be on top of this. If we’re talking about trying to rebuild, we can’t let this sort of thing happen.”

“Who was accused?” Greg asked. “Was it one of my guards?”

Jackson shook his head, “a father from one of the families.”

“What do we know about him?” James asked.

“Seems like a bum,” Jackson replied. “Said he was injured when Richard was putting the guard together. He also had a convenient excuse whenever it was his turn to do any actual work.”

“Definitely a bum,” Greg said. “Where is he now?”

“I’ve got two guards keeping him in one of the trailers.”

Greg shook his head. “That’s no good. We don’t have people to spare for guard duty.”

“What do you want to do then?” James asked.

Greg thought for a moment and came to a decision. “I see two options,” he said looking around at the group. “Death, or exile.”

“Whoa,” Carol protested, “isn’t that a bit much? And with everything going on, exile is the same thing as death, isn’t it?”

Greg shrugged. “We can’t spare people for guard duty. We have to watch out for infected and not to mention anyone else that might want to take what we have. Even if we could spare the guards, that means he’s eating and making no contribution to the survival of our group.”

James nodded. “It’s harsh, but maybe that’s the best way. The old rules don’t work anymore. I mean, are we going to put him on trial?”

“How sure are we about this guy?” Greg asked.

“A number of people saw him leaving her trailer. He had no reason to be there.”

“I don’t really have a problem dealing with this guy but I want to make sure he’s guilty. Could this have been an affair or something?”

Jackson shrugged. “Anything is possible, I suppose. I find myself believing the girl’s account. All the people I’ve talked to confirm this guy is a piece of garbage. He has a rep for stepping out on his wife.”

“What happened?” Greg asked.

“The short version is that he helped her escape the trailer park. She said that she fell and he helped her up before an infected could get its hands on her. He came around later saying that she owed him.

Greg shook his head in disgust. “Bring him to me,” Greg said. “Let’s see what he has to say.”

Jackson nodded and left the room. He returned a few minutes later with a disheveled man in tow. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a tank top and stringy hair was plastered over his forehead. Jackson dumped him on the floor in front of Greg and stayed near in case he tried anything.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Greg asked quietly.

“Nothin’” the man replied in a weasely voice. “She’s lying. She invited me over, said she wanted to thank me.”

“You’re married,” Greg replied.

The man shrugged. “I’m a handsome man. Am I supposed to say no if a lady wants to spend some time with me?”

Greg shook his head in disgust. “I’m afraid you don’t understand the gravity of your situation,” he said as he took a step forward. “I am judge, jury, and executioner. If I decide you’re guilty, I’m going to kill you.”

The man’s eyes widened. “What? You can’t do that, I know my rights!”

“Do you think the old rules still apply?” Greg asked. “There’s no court here. You won’t get a day in court while your victim is forced to relive the event all over again. There’s here and now. Your life is in my hands.”

“Alright! I did it! What’s the harm though? She gave nearly everyone in the park a piece.”

Carol snorted. “Let me guess, everyone but you right?”

“Yea. She thought she was too good for me. I risked my life to save her so she owed me.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Greg said in a quiet voice laced with steel. “Return him to the trailer and ensure that he’s guarded. He will be executed in the morning.” He ignored the gasps among the group and returned to the table to look over the map. A moment passed and no one had moved. “Is there a problem?” he asked without looking up.

“No, sir,” Jackson replied, his voice tinged with respect. “It’ll be done.” He grabbed the man and dragged to his feet. “Let’s go you piece of filth. I can’t wait ‘til the morning.”

“Spread the word,” Greg said. “I want everyone present.”

“Are you sure about this?” Carol asked.

Greg nodded. “It’s necessary.”

“Who do you want to do it?” James asked.

“I will,” Greg replied. “I am the leader of the group. I will not give an order that I’m not willing to carry out myself.”

Don and Joe looked at Greg with newfound respect. “We’ll let the people know, sir. I don’t think anyone will be sorry to see him go.”

Later that night, Greg stood at the sole window in the office and looked out at the stars. He and Carol had moved their bedding into the office rather than sleep in their tent outside. Greg turned his head as he heard Carol stir behind him.

“Are you coming to bed?” she asked.

“Eventually,” Greg replied. “I’m going to kill a man in the morning, sleep isn’t coming easily.”

“You don’t have to do it,” Carol replied. “Have one of the guards do it.”

Greg shook his head. “I won’t back down from this. The men would lose respect if I did that at this point.”

“Want to talk about it? What’s bothering you?”

Greg turned to face Carol. “I’m bothered because I’m not bothered. In the middle of a fight is one thing, someone is trying to kill you. But I’m going to kill this man tomorrow and it doesn’t bother me.”

Carol shrugged. “You’re setting a precedent, right? Letting people know that they can’t do this sort of thing and expect to get away with it.” She rose from the bedding and made her way over to Greg.

“I could become a tyrant you know. I can’t help but feel this power is going to corrupt me somehow.”

Carol shook her head. “You’re standing here not getting sleep because it bothers you. A tyrant wouldn’t care.”

Greg thought for a moment and nodded. “When did you get so smart?” he asked.

“I’ve always been awesome,” she replied, “you were too busy being the good guy to notice.”

Greg smiled. “Come here.”

***

Morning came and everyone gathered outside of the rest stop. Greg stood in front of them and raised his hands for silence. Once they quieted he spoke, “Bring out the accused.”

There was some shuffling as two of his guards dragged the man through the midst of the group. The guards dropped the man at Greg’s feet and took a step back. “This man stands accused of raping one of our women,” he announced. Greg paused as a number of people gasped.

“I have investigated and found him guilty. There is no doubt in my mind. Before, this man would have been put on trial. If he was found guilty, he’d face some jail time.” Greg shook his head, “That’s not how it’s gonna work with us. I will not take away from our defenses to guard this man. I will not waste our food on a man that doesn’t contribute.”

Greg looked around the group and saw that a number of people were nodding. Greg drew his machete and the group gasped. “This man confessed his crime but he showed no remorse. He felt that he was owed because he saved the woman’s life. Listen up! No woman is to be touched against her will. Any man that breaks this will find himself right here.”

Greg stepped forward and thrust his machete into the man’s chest. He then placed his foot on his chest to pull his machete free. “We are attacked on all sides,” he said looking at the crowd. “The infected are one side and scum like this are on the other. We have to stand together if we’re going to survive.” Greg walked away and people took that as a dismissal.

He heard snippets of conversation as he went. “Can you believe that?”

“I’m glad he did,” their companion replied.

There were several more conversations like this that Greg heard and he nodded to himself. At least some of the group so the necessity for his actions. He reached his quarters and used a rag to clean his machete before sheathing it. He turned at the sound of movement and saw Carol standing in the doorway.

“You okay?” she asked.

Greg nodded, “Yeah, I’m alright. How’s everyone taking it?”

“There are couple that look upset but most of them seem to think that was a good idea. That man wasn’t popular around here.”

Greg nodded, “Everyone getting ready?”

Carol nodded, “Laura took over after you left. Everyone’s packing up now.”

“Alright,” Greg replied, “Let’s get on the road.”

***

Undisclosed Location

Nick shoved the door open as he barged into Terrence’s office. He ignored the plush carpeting on the floor and the expensive art pieces hanging on the walls. He also ignored the plush leather chairs in front of Terrence’s desk in favor of leaning over it menacingly. “What have you done?” he demanded.

“Welcome, Major,” Terrence said, seemingly unfazed by the Major leaning over him, “please, come in.”

“What have you done?” he asked again.

“I’ve done lots of things,” Terrence replied, “you’ll have to be more specific.”

“I’m talking about the doctor. I just walked by and saw him drinking himself stupid.”

Terrence shrugged. “Maybe he needed a little liquid courage as it were. The…experiments can be considered quite horrific if one doesn’t steel themselves to the necessity.”

“The necessity? I asked around. You’re killing innocents!”

“No,” Terrence replied, “the good doctor is killing innocents as you put it. I don’t tell him how to run his experiments. And if some of them have been killed in the process…well we’re trying to find a way to stop this infection.”

“By killing innocents? There has to be a better way.”

“You misunderstand the situation, Major. I don’t tell the doctor how to solve the problem. I believe I’ve already stated this. The doctor told me what he needed and I provided it. If you want to wax on about the morality of the situation, you should go talk to the doctor.”

“This can’t go on,” Nick said. “I’m reporting this.”

“Alright. You do that. How do you think they’ll respond? Pendleton is the best person qualified to find a treatment. You think they’re going to tell us to just stop? Do you think they care how we come up with a solution?”

Nick sat in one of the chairs. “How can you be okay with this? We’re supposed to be protecting people, not experimenting on them.”

“Believe it or not, I take no pleasure in this. If there was another way to do this, I’d happily do it. Doctor Pendleton told me he needed live subjects so I procured them. My understanding is that he’d learned all he could from performing autopsies. I don’t like it any more than you, Major. But it’s for the greater good. If we can stop this thing, millions of lives can be saved.”

“At what price? How can this be worth it?”

“There are over three hundred million people in this country. How many are dying right now as we speak? Worse, how many are being turned? How can we hope to rebuild with all those things out there?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know that I can be okay with this.”

“You don’t have to be. Focus on your job. Keep this facility secure as long as possible. I can only guarantee one more site if we have to evacuate again.”

“That bad?”

“Communication is breaking down. Some of our bases have been overrun by the infected. If the doctor doesn’t find a solution soon, there won’t be anything left.” Terrence nodded at the look on Nick’s face. “So you see, Pendleton finding some sort of treatment is critical. Hopefully he’ll find something while there’s still something to save.”

Nick sat with a trouble look on his face. He heard what Terrence was saying but it still didn’t sit well with him. They were supposed to protect the people, not hurt them. Did it really come down to the numbers? Allow a certain amount of people to die so that others could live? “I hear what you’re saying. It just doesn’t feel right.”

“I know,” Terrence replied softly. “The only way to deal with it is to focus on the bigger picture. It doesn’t help you sleep at night, but that’s the job.”

Nick nodded. “Alright, then. I guess I better go do my part then.” Nick stood and left the office. On his way out he stopped by Henry’s lab. He thought about going in but decided it was better that he didn’t He didn’t like what they were doing but it seemed necessary. He kept walking until he was outside and made his way to the building where his office was set up. He didn’t like what was going on, but he’d do his part to keep the facility secure. Otherwise, all those people would have died in vain. They were doing alright so far, they still had plenty of ammo and he hadn’t lost any men to the infected yet. He was just sitting down to do some paperwork when one of his men burst into his office. He looked up and saw Sergeant Lynch standing in front of his desk breathing heavily. 

“What happened?” Nick asked.

“We’ve got trouble, sir. There’s a lot of infected coming our way.”

Nick frowned as he followed Lynch from his office. They headed for the north fence and he saw worried looks on the faces of the men he passed by. It had to be pretty bad then. These guys had been through a lot. Iraq, Afghanistan, there were also operations that weren’t public knowledge. He’d led these men through a lot and he’d never seen looks like this on their faces. He reached the fence and mounted the platforms they’d set up. They weren’t much, but they allowed the men to fire over the fence at the infected. They’d mounted gun emplacements on a few of them but it wasn’t as effective as he’d hoped. He had to guard all four walls so he couldn’t concentrate fire as much as he’d like. He reached the top and grabbed a pair of binoculars and immediately saw why his men looked the way they did. There had to be thousands of infected heading their way. They’d been fighting infected for days, but they hadn’t seen anything like this. He wasn’t sure it had even this bad when they had evacuated from Atlanta. Nick sighed as he thought quickly, there wasn’t any time to panic. 

“How are the other walls looking?” he asked.

“They’re all clear for the moment.”

“That’s good at least,” Nick replied. They’d been fighting infected since they’d arrived. It was mostly smaller groups, a few dozen at a time at most but they’d been coming from all directions. This was a piece of good news. They’d have to leave immediately if they were surrounded. As it was, they should be able to hold out for a while. “I want an ammo count done immediately. I also want those emplacements moved from the south fence. Put two here and for the last two, put one each on the east and west fences. Also, have someone go inform Agent Terrence. Let him know we will have to evacuate soon. 

“I’m on it, sir,” Lynch said. 

Nick nodded as Lynch left and looked out again towards the horde coming their way. If their ammo held up, they should be able to hold for a few days. A few minutes passed and he heard footsteps on the platform. He turned to see Agent Terrence climbing the stairs. Nick nodded as he reached the top.

“Major, I just received some disturbing news. I was told we might have to evacuate soon. I have to tell you we need more time. The doctor says he might be on to something so-” Nick handed Terrence the binoculars and pointed towards the approaching horde.

“Oh,” Terrence said as he looked through the binoculars.

“We’ve got a few hours before they arrive,” Nick said. “I’m making some adjustments so we should be able to hold out for a while but we’ll have to leave eventually if more infected keep coming this way.”

“How long can you hold?”

“For as long as our ammo holds for right now. If we start to lose men that changes.”

“I’ll have the doctor prep for evac.” Terrence sighed, “Just when he was starting to make a breakthrough.”

“How much time does he need?”

“He said he should have something within forty eight hours.”

“I’ll have to give you two days then,” Nick replied. He looked Terrence in the eye, “For the greater good right?”

“You’re good man, Major.”

Nick shook his head. “No, those are good men,” he said gesturing towards the men in the compound, “and a lot of them are going to die to get you those two days. Make sure the doctor gets this done. I don’t want my men dying for no reason.”

Terrence nodded. “I will. I’ll leave you to your preparations.”

Nick nodded as Terrence left. Now he just had to come up with a plan to buy Henry forty eight hours. One that wouldn’t get them all killed in the process.

They came like a wave. Nick stood atop the platform and watched as thousands of infected made their way towards the facility. Nick sighed and hoped they had enough ammo to survive.  A howl started amongst the infected and was quickly picked up by the entire host. It was a low keening cry that climbed higher and higher until the men were holding their ears to block out the sound. The infected sprinted forward and a number of men cried out in fear but to their credit, they stood their ground.

“Get ready!” Nick yelled. “You make every shot count and we’ll get out of this alive!” That was probably a lie but he needed his men to find their courage. He knew a lot of his men would die, but maybe, just maybe a few of them would survive.

Nick gave the order for the gun emplacements to open fire and row upon row of infected hit the ground as they were cut in half. The infected behind them tripped over their fellows and chaos ensued as the gun emplacements tore into their ranks. The victory was short lived however as the infected just kept coming. For every infected cut down, another took its place. Nick smiled grimly. It would have been too much to hope that the emplacements would win the day. 

The infected were also acting differently. Usually, inflicting enough casualties would cause them to break and run away. Not so today. Maybe their courage was bolstered because they were so many of them. Despite the damage being caused by the emplacements, the infected got close enough that Nick had to order the rest of his men to open fire. Wave upon wave of infected was struck down but Nick knew this was only temporary. They could only hold them back for as long as their ammo held out.

***

Nick stood on the makeshift rampart and watched as death came towards them. There had to be thousands of infected coming their way. They’d had a brief reprieve but it was over now. There was no end in sight to the infected coming their way. Nick silently hoped their ammunition would out. Terrence said he needed forty eight hours. Henry was on the verge of a cure but leaving right now would mean he’d have to start the whole process all over again. Nick glanced around to do a last minute check on his men. He had never been prouder to serve with these soldiers. Most of them would probably die before the forty eight hours were up but each of them stood ready to face their enemy. Nick hated the thought of his men dying but it was necessary. How many lives would be saved if Henry came through? He dared not think of the alternative scenario, that Henry would fail. That his men would have spent their lives for no reason.

Nick shook his head to clear his thoughts. The infected would be in range in a few moments. Nicked glanced at his aide, “Direct the emplacements to open fire.”

The aide nodded and relayed to order over the walkie. A moment later there was a thunderous roar as all the gun emplacements opened fire. Nick smiled grimly as row upon row of infected fell to the ground. His satisfaction was short lived however as the infected began charging towards the facility. Nick gave the order for everyone to open fire and his aide quickly relayed the message. The smaller thunder of his men’s rifles joined the emplacements and more infected fell to the ground.

The infected kept coming and a few survived the volleys only to be arrested on the electrified fence. The stench of their burnt flesh assaulted Nick’s nostrils and he had to swallow down his bile. The sound of vomiting nearby told him that some of his men hadn’t been so lucky. Nick steeled himself and carried on. The infected attacked and his men unleashed volley after volley into their ranks. As night fell, powerful floodlights provided illumination for his men to see by. The battle continued until the sun poked over the horizon and the infected finally retreated from the light’s harsh glare.

Nick breathed a sigh of relief and heard the same echoed from his men. That was the first day. One more and hopefully they could be on their way to the next facility. Nick turned to his aide, “Get me a status report ASAP.” the aide nodded and left the rampart to carry out the order.

A half hour later, Nick sat with his men eating an MRE. They hadn’t suffered any casualties and Nick dared to hope they might escape this relatively intact. They used up a lot of ammo for the gun emplacements but hopefully it would hold out long enough. He desperately hoped Henry would be finished before the ammo for the emplacements was depleted. If that happened, they wouldn’t be able to hold the infected back and would probably have to engage in hand to hand. A lot of his men would die then. Nick sighed as he tossed the remains of his MRE into the trash. He headed for his office to get some sleep while he could.

Nick awoke to the sound of the base siren filling his ears. He quickly stood and grabbed his gear, grateful that he had slept fully clothed. Nick reached the fence and heard the howls of the infected as they approached. He cursed. He hoped that is men had gotten enough rest. Nick reached the top of his rampart and saw that his men were all in position. He nodded to his aide who relayed the order to fire and day two began.

Terrence Matte entered the lab and found Doctor Pendleton examining a computer screen. “Forgive the interruption, Doctor. I came to check on your progress.”

Henry turned a pair of bloodshot eyes in Terrence’s direction and sighed. Clearly, the experiments the doctor had performed had taken their toll on his psyche. In addition to the bloodshot eyes, his skin was unhealthy looking pallor. He also looked as if he hadn’t slept in days which was probably true. Terrence snuffed out that spark of pity. This was necessary. So what if the doctor had nightmares. What he had done here would save countless lives. It could be the very difference between their country being destroyed, or coming back from the brink. What was one man in the face of that?

“Almost there,” Henry replied.

“How soon can you be ready to leave?”

“This simulation has to finish. If it doesn’t I’d have to harvest more…material. I’m not sure I can go through that again.”

Terrence sighed internally. Terrence had hoped the doctor was committed but he was letting his emotions get the best of him. So what if they had to ‘harvest’ more? It would be better to leave while they could and begin again. Unfortunately, the cure couldn’t be found without the doctor’s help so he had to cater to him. 

“Of course, doctor. It’s just that the soldiers are being hard pressed outside. The sooner we can leave for the next facility, the better.”

“A few more hours at least,” Henry replied. “Five, maybe six. That’s just an estimate though.”

Terrence nodded, “Thank you, doctor.”

Nick felt footsteps shake the rampart and turned to see someone whispering in his aide’s ear. “Well?” Nick asked once they were alone again.

“Agent Terrence reported that Doctor Pendleton needs about five or six more hours.”

Nick nodded and dared to hope. The end was in sight at least. Maybe they could make it through this after all. “Send someone to prepare the helicopters. I want to be in the air the second the doctor is done.”

Nick surveyed the fence line again and noticed something that made his blood run cold. The infected that had managed to survive the gauntlet of fire were purposely jumping on the fence. They were steadily making a pile of bodies that might let them get over the fence. Were they getting smarter? Nick shuddered at the thought of infected using tactics. “Keep an eye on things here, I’m going to check that fence.”

He hurried down the rampart, taking the stairs two at a time. He motioned to a squad on standby and headed for the fence. It was just as he had thought. The infected were trying to climb over the bodies of their fellows so they could scale the fence. “Shoot them before they reach the fence,” he ordered. “You two, find some brooms or mops. No metal pieces, we’ve got to clear this fence.”

Nick and his men fired on the infected and managed to prevent any more from adding to the pile. The two soldiers he had sent off returned and they shoved the brooms between the links in the fence to dislodge the bodies. The infected roared and headed for the fence again only to be put down by rifle fire.

“Sir,” Nick’s aide called over the walkie, “there’s another build up south of your position.”

“Acknowledged,” Nick replied. He left two men there to guard against any new infected and led the rest to the new position. They found themselves at another pile and worked quickly to dismantle it. Nick sighed. This wasn’t a fluke, the infected were making an organized effort to get over the fence. He made a mental note to inform Pendleton later. His aide contacted him again and Nick led his men to the next pile. After what felt like days, Nick finally heard Terrence’s voice over the walkie.

“We’re done here, Captain. Ready for EVAC.”

“Understood,” Nick replied. He switched to a general channel, “Begin EVAC procedure. I repeat, begin EVAC.” Nick returned to his rampart to ensure that his men were getting away safely. The gun emplacements continued to roar and Nick was grateful the ammo had held out.

The evacuation proceeded in an orderly fashion and Nick was pleased his men remained calm, despite the thousands of infected just on the other side of the fence. Several minutes later, the gun emplacements went silent and they infected roared in what seemed like victory. They surged forward and began hurling themselves at the fence in several areas. Nick quickly made his way to a helicopter and put on a headset.

“Everyone accounted for?” he asked his aide.

“Yes, sir,” came the reply. “The last group just reported in.”

“Alright. Pilot, get us outta here!”

The helicopters lifted off just as the infected began clearing the fences. They sprinted into the facility and Nick could hear their howls over the helicopter blades, furious that they had been denied their prize.

“Get me a private channel with Agent Terrence.”

The aide nodded and fiddled with some nobs on a control panel nearby. He then gave Nick a thumbs up.

“Agent Terrence?” Nick asked.

“I’m here, Captain.”

“What’s going on? Was the doctor successful?”

Terrence hesitated a moment before answering, “Yes and no.”

“Yes and no? How is that an answer?”

“The doctor discovered a treatment but it’s not a cure.”

“Not a cure? What use is it then?”

“The doctor says it’ll stop the infection from spreading. The layman’s version that he gave me is that it makes the bite one hundred percent fatal rather than allowing a portion to survive and become infected.”

“That’s…not what we were hoping for,” Nick replied. “Still, that could mean no new infected.”

“Exactly,” Terrence replied. “It’s a win.”

“No new infected means we can win this. Take back the cities.”

“You see, Captain? You might not agree with my methods but this is what everything was for. Today everything changes.”

Nick grunted. He couldn’t argue with the results but he wasn’t ready to say Terrence had been right all along. Suddenly, the stress of the day caught up with him and he wanted nothing more than to lie down. “Maybe,” he said in a tired voice.

“You sound tired, Captain. Get some rest, you earned it.”

***

“Captain! Captain!”

Nick jerked awake to the sound of his aide screaming over his headset. “What’s wrong?” he asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“We’re under attack!” As if to punctuate his statement, a nearby helicopter exploded. Nick surged from his seat and looked out the window as fiery debris rained down. Nick look around and saw that they were above a heavily forested area. It looked as if there was a clearing below that would accommodate them.

“Take us below the tree line!” Nick yelled into his headset. “Don’t touch down, stay about twenty feet up.” Nick held on as the pilot quickly complied with his order.

“What now?” the pilot asked over the headset.

“We wait,” Nick replied as he made his way to the co-pilot seat.

A few minutes later, half a dozen jeeps sped into the clearing. Nick frowned as he saw that each jeep was equipped with what looked like M240 machine guns. This wasn’t a random event. Nick had at first thought they had stumbled onto some sort of anti-government group. Or maybe someone that just wanted their supplies. Neither was the case here. This was a highly organized attack but by who? How did they know they’d be coming this way? Nick pushed those thoughts away. The why could be answered later.

“Light ‘em up!” Nick ordered. The helicopters unleashed a fusillade from their M230 machine guns. They managed to hit one of the jeeps and it burst into flames but the others managed to escape their initial volley. Nick cursed in frustration. They were at a severe disadvantage here. There wasn’t that much space in the clearing so they couldn’t maneuver for fear of hitting each other. The jeeps below though were free to use their mobility to full effect. They were able to evade the shots from the helicopters while returning fire on mostly stationary targets.

Nick ordered the helicopters to rotate in place in an attempt to counteract the jeeps’ mobility. The next few minutes passed slowly as the two groups exchanged fire. Fortunately, Nick’s men were better trained and claimed victory. Unfortunately, two more helicopters had been shot down during the exchange. Nick asked for a status report and was relieved to hear that Pendleton hadn’t been in one of those helicopters. He would mourn those that died, but Henry was their only hope of beating the infected. Nick ordered the helicopters to land and they quickly searched the downed helicopters for survivors. That done, Nick ordered some men to search the wreckage of the jeeps for some clue of who had attacked them. 

The only things they had managed to discover was that the jeeps were military grade, so they were probably dealing with private contractors or some such. The second thing they found was an insignia on the uniforms of the men they had killed. It was a triangular black patch with yellow stylized letters. The patch read DE. Nick had no idea what that stood for and Terrence also came up empty. Maybe they could figure it out when they reached the facility. Maybe this was some sort of new terrorist group taking advantage of the chaos in the country. Nick gave the order and they lifted off and sped north. He didn’t like the idea of leaving hostile militants on the loose but he didn’t see any other choice. Developing Pendleton’s treatment was the highest priority right now. That was their only hope of rebuilding everything the infected had destroyed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 Highway, Southern Wisconsin

 

Days passed and the group made their way towards Freyfield State Park. It was slow going due to the high volume of wreckage on the road. Hours every day were spent just clearing a path for the caravan to drive through. They first had to secure the area. No one wanted to be attacked by an infected hiding in a back seat or underneath a vehicle. Once that was done they had to go about moving the cars. That length of that task was determined by whether or not the keys remained in the ignition. If there weren’t any keys, Gio had to come by and work her magic so they could move the vehicle. What would have normally been a four hour trip was taking days.

It wasn’t all bad though. The time on the road gave Greg the time to implement some of the ideas they’d been talking about. James continued teaching the guards krav maga and that was going pretty well. The gun training also went well. A lot of people liked the idea of being able to defend themselves. They didn’t have enough guns for everyone right now but people would have the necessary training when that changed. The krav maga training for everyone else didn’t go so smoothly. People didn’t see the need for it since they were training with firearms. It wasn’t until Greg asked one of them what they would do if they ran out of ammo that people stopped complaining. The only change Greg made was insisting that Carol, Laura, and Shirley participate in James’ sessions. 

Several days in, Greg found himself walking rounds with James. After clearing a path for the day, they’d simply park their vehicles alongside the road. Guards were placed at regular intervals to watch for infected or anyone else that had bad designs in mind. So far they had been fortunate, they hadn’t seen any infected since leaving the trailer park. 

“We’re coming up on the park, sir,” Don announced from the driver’s seat.

“Alright,” Greg replied from the back seat. Greg glanced out the window and saw a sign indicating they were entering the park. The drive had been uneventful. The only change was that many in the group were looking at him with newfound respect. Or was that fear? Greg wasn’t sure it mattered though. He wanted to keep everyone safe, which included these people now. It had only been a few weeks but Greg felt responsible for them. So maybe a little bit of fear was okay if it helped them follow directions. The light changed and Greg looked up to see that the sun’s light was being filtered by the canopy above them. It had just gone from noon to twilight. A sign indicated the campgrounds were to the left and the caravan headed in that direction. They passed through an area filled with recreational vehicles. The elderly people milling about gave them fearful looks as they passed. What had happened here for them to look like that?

A short distance after the RV’s they came upon a parking lot. They parked their vehicles and everyone got out to stretch their legs. Greg gathered his inner circle and they began planning on how the camp should be organized.

“Jackson, Shirley, I’d like you guys to help with getting all the tents set up. Carol, Laura, you guys can get something going for lunch. Grab whoever you need.” Greg was about to issue further orders when they were interrupted.

“Hi, there!” Greg looked and saw three figures approaching them, two men and one woman. They were each dressed in dark colored clothing with a sidearm on their hip and functional looking boots. A badge on their chest indicated that they were probably some sort of governmental authority, not that that mattered much anymore. Greg thought they were likely park rangers or some such.

“Hi,” the middle figure said again as they reached the group. “I’m Russell Stubs, head ranger. Who’s in charge here?”

“I am,” Greg replied as he took a step towards them, he extended his hand and Russell clasped it in a firm grip.

“I just want to give you a heads up. We’ve got some bandits in the park. You might want to keep your group moving.”

Greg thought for a moment. He didn’t want any unnecessary conflict but his people needed rest. This was also a great opportunity to have a service of some sort for Richard and the others that had died at the trailer park. They could also use this time to think of any other rules they wanted to implement. He’d told everyone how the old ways didn’t apply anymore but the people needed something to order their lives by. Telling them old systems were gone was all well and good, what would he replace it with? This was also a chance to supplement their food supply. He had already planned on sending his hunters out.

Greg shook his head, “Thanks for the warning but we’re gonna stick around for a few days. My people need rest and I’d also like to get some hunting in.”

Russell nodded, “Alright, I won’t try and stop you. Just felt I needed to warn you.”

Greg nodded, “We’ll deal with the bandits if they get in our way. I’ve got some thirty armed men at my disposal.”

Russell’s eyes widened in surprise briefly before he regained composure, “That many?”

“That’s great!” the woman exclaimed. “We can take those bastards out!”

“Excuse me?” Greg asked.

“Sorry,” Russell replied, “this is Melissa Edgars. As you can see, she’s a bit passionate about our bandit problem.”

“Ah,” Greg replied, “I’m not about to commit to anything. We were just in a fight a few days ago.”

“Please,” Melissa began, “you have to help us. They’re demanding all our food!”

“Enough, Melissa. This isn’t their fight. We can’t expect complete strangers to risk themselves for us.”

“What if we paid you?” she asked.

“Melissa!” the other man exclaimed. “We’re not in charge here.”

“Byron and Kelly will agree, Cody. They want the bandits gone too.”

Russell sighed, “Sorry about that but what do you think?”

“We’d have to discuss specifics,” Greg replied. “After that, I’d have to discuss it with my men. Defending their families is one thing, this is something completely different.”

“I understand,” Russell replied. “I’ll bring it up to Byron and Kelly, maybe we can do dinner later tonight.”

Greg nodded, “Sounds good.” The trio turned around and left the way they came. Greg looked around and saw that James was the only one left.

“Everyone left to go do their jobs,” he explained, “I’m doing mine.” James chuckled at Greg’s confused look. “Watching your back. This whole thing would fall apart without you. I figure the best way to keep my family safe is to keep an eye on you.”

“When did this happen?” Greg asked.

“This morning was the final piece although people have been talking for a bit. They saw that you were going to be running things and figured protecting you was top priority. People are realizing that our survival is dependent on you.”

Greg frowned, not exactly sure how he felt about that.

James chuckled again, “Deal with it, it’s happening. There’s five men aside from myself. I’ve removed them from regular guard duty. One of us will be with you twenty four seven.”

“I don’t have any choice in this do I?”

James shook his head, “Nope, it’s already done.”

“Alright then, let’s go see how everyone’s doing.

They left the parking lot and entered the camping grounds. To their right they saw several tents and a trail that continued on out of sight. Maybe that was where the rangers had gone. There were a number of people around going about various tasks. Some were tending to fires while others seemed to be just milling about. James nodded towards the left and they soon found their people.

A number of tents had already been erected and others were being worked on. Greg saw Jackson giving directions to a group of people and was pleased to see things getting done. In another area of the camp he saw Laura directing some helpers to place bins in a specific spot. Hopefully that meant that lunch would be ready soon. Greg turned towards James. “I want you to sound out the men. See how they feel about a fight. I’ll find out exactly what they’re offering and we can decide.”

James nodded and motioned towards a man walking by. He was of average height and looked to be in decent shape. “This is Stephen Carter. He’s one of the five that will be watching you.”

“Nice to meet you, Stephen.”

“It’s an honor, sir. You saved my sister back at the trailer park. I’m happy to help.”

“I did?” Greg asked.

Stephen nodded, “She was trapped with the other kids at the daycare. You showed up just in time.”

Greg thought back and remembered helping Carol, she had been trapped against the wall of a trailer home with some kids. “I remember. She alright then?”

Stephen nodded again, “She’s just fine thanks to you. If you need anything at all just let me know.”

Greg nodded in response, “I’m glad she’s safe.”

“Alright,” James said, “I’ll go check on the men.”

Greg nodded as James walked way and decided now was good time to see how lunch was coming along.

***

Shirley sighed in frustration. These people were impossible. Couldn’t they just behave like adults and solve their own problems? If one more person came to her saying their blanket had been stolen, she’d scream. She glanced over at Jackson and saw that he seemed to really be in his element. He was directing people on where they could set up their tents and had a slight smile on his face. Shirley approached and waited until the person he was speaking to had walked away.

“I’ve dealt with the blanket crisis,” she announced.

Jackson chuckled, “What would we do without you?”

“You wouldn’t have any blankets.”

“That would be terrible.”

“I know,” she said with a smile, “Almost done?”

Jackson nodded, “They’ve got the procedure down, just needed to be told where to go.”

Shirley nodded and took a quick glance around. They were alone for the most part. “I’ve been wondering, how do you feel about all this?”

“We’ve got a good thing going here,” Jackson replied. “Greg is trying to rebuild. Supporting him is the best way to keep you safe. And I don’t want to go back to how we had to live before finding Greg. It was only a few days, but still.”

Shirley nodded, “Good, I feel the same. I just wanted to make sure you were alright.” A look flashed across her eye and Jackson smiled.

“Still feel guilty about the shelter?”

Shirley nodded, “If we had gone off on our own to begin with we’d have been better off. And I wouldn’t have run into that jerk again.”

Jackson shrugged, “We needed some rest after the t.v. station. It worked out.”

“Thanks,” she replied.

***

The day passed uneventfully. After lunch, Greg pitched in where he was needed and then just mingled until it was time for the evening krav maga session. Greg was really looking forward to it. The more that people were able to defend themselves, the better chances they had of surviving an attack. He briefly wondered if Richard would still be alive if more people had been able to fight. Not everyone was happy with the mandatory training. They were still used to the idea that a select few could protect them while they were able to sit back and enjoy the benefits. They’d been lucky at the trailer park. Everyone had to be able to defend themselves to some extent. 

Greg reached the training area which was basically an open space cleared of any obstacles. Greg joined James and they spent the next hour showing some basics. When they were done Greg felt that none of them were ready for a fight but they had to start somewhere. After the workout, Greg found a spot where he could be alone, Stephen kept watch from a few feet away. He retrieved a pen and paper, precious commodities now, and began writing down some of his thoughts.

Later that evening, Russell Stubs returned to escort Greg to dinner. Greg had planned taking Carol along but James insisted on coming as well for his protection. They walked past the campers they saw on their way in and took the trail that Greg had seen earlier. Russell led them to a large two story home that looked like something from the Victorian era. There was a porch that ran the length of the house and a turret that stood above the roof line.

“That’s impressive,” Carol said looking up.

“Welcome to Freyfield Park Bed and Breakfast,” Russell announced with a flourish.

The group chuckled and Russell led the way inside. They entered a foyer where a large chandelier hung over head. The walls were covered with soft wood paneling and carried portraits of various nature scenes.

“This place has been here since the civil war,” Russell explained as the group looked around. “Follow me, dinner should be ready.” 

The group followed and Russell led them down several hallways, each covered in the same wooden paneling from the entryway. There were also portraits that depicted various moments in a family’s life. Greg assumed it was Byron and Kelly since they were the owners. They entered the dining room and saw a large table covered with a white tablecloth. Surrounding the table were eight wooden chairs that had the look of being handmade. 

“Why don’t we get comfortable,” Russell said. “Byron and Kelly should be here any minute.”

They took their seats and a few minutes later they looked up as Melissa and Cody entered the dining room. Behind them were two people that had to be Byron and Kelly. Byron looked to be in his late thirties with a muscular build. Not the type of physique you’d find at gym but from working outdoors. Kelly also looked to be in her late thirties. She also had the look of someone that worked outside a lot but it didn’t subtract from her femininity.

Greg stood as Byron approached and they exchanged a firm handshake. “Nice to meet you,” Byron said. “I’m Byron Oates and this is my wife Kelly. I hear you’ve already met Melissa and Cody.”

Greg nodded, “Greg Lyons. This is Carol Reed and James Ruckley

“Russell said your group might be willing to help us out.”

Greg nodded, “We are but it may not be as much as you’re hoping for. I explained a bit to James earlier. We had a big fight a few days back, had to leave our place to escape from infected. Asking the men to defend their families is easy, I’m not sure how they would feel about this. 

“I can understand that,” Russell replied.

“Having that said, I’m definitely willing to help myself.”

“Thanks,” Russell replied, “I appreciate that. Maybe I can tell you how everything started.” At Greg’s nod he began, “We’ve been getting along pretty well since the outbreak. There were a few campers that turned that first day but we were able to handle it. After that, being way out here takes care of the rest.” Byron paused while two young women entered the room carrying platters of food.

They set the platters down and Greg’s mouth watered at the sight of sliced venison, string beans, and potatoes. It was silent for a few minutes as everyone took the time to load up their plates. Once everyone had served themselves, Byron resumed his story.

“I imagine we had it easy compared to be people caught in the cities. We’ve got plenty of food and I don’t have a problem getting fresh meat,” he said with a nod towards the platter of venison.

“When did the bandits show up?” Greg asked.

“About a week ago now,” Kelly replied. “They showed up and demanded all of our food.”

‘You can’t give in to people like that,” Byron said. “You give in once and they’ll keep coming back.”

“One of them shows up every day around noon and makes the same demand. I don’t know how long it’ll be before they just try to take what they want,” Kelly said worriedly.

Byron nodded, “We’re really the only ones that know how to use a gun. The campers really don’t have any idea of how to survive.”

“If they attack, we’ve been thinking of having everyone come inside and hoping for the best,” Kelly said.

Gregg nodded, “I think it’s not as bad it seems.” At everyone’s look he explained. “Here’s what I’m thinking. They’ve been here a week and haven’t attacked yet. That makes me wonder if they can. I mean why would they wait otherwise?”

“Maybe they just want an easy victory,” Russell said.

Greg frowned in thought. He wanted to help these people but the situation reminded him of when he had first met Dawn. Everyone had seemed friendly at first then too. He felt they were genuine but he didn’t want to find himself in the middle of another civil dispute. It had worked out then, he now had thirty armed men under his command. It would probably be best if he could verify some of what they were saying for himself.

“Do you know where they’re operating from?” Greg asked.

Russell nodded, “I followed their guy back the first day he showed up asking for our supplies. I followed him again yesterday to make sure their camp hadn’t been moved.”

“Alright,” Greg said, “I’d like to see the camp for myself.”

“I’ll take you first thing in the morning,” Russell replied.

***

Morning came and found Russell, Greg, and James stealthily moving through the forest. “We’re nearly there,” Russell said quietly.

The sound of heavy metal music reached their ears and Russell went prone. The others followed suit and they belly crawled until they reached the edge of a clearing. Inside they saw a number of men moving about. They were all dressed in leather attire and Greg assumed that they were bikers of some sort. This was confirmed a moment later when he saw bikes neatly arranged on one side of the clearing.

Greg continued looking around and suddenly went still. On the other side of the clearing there were a number of women in various states of undress. On their legs he noticed that a chain had been attached to a bracelet around their ankle. The chain was then staked to the ground with a peg of some sort. Greg frowned angrily. There was no doubt in Greg’s mind about what they had been forced to do.  To make matters worse, Greg saw several women dressed like the men moving around. He saw several of them go out of their way to walk past the captives. There were pinches and slaps as the women walked by and Greg heard raucous laughter in response. 

Anger filled Greg’s heart. These things, he wouldn’t dignify them with anything more, were worse than Dawn. She at least had reason for her madness. These animals were being purposely cruel for no reason. Who would have thought he’d find something worse than the infected? Greg had seen enough. He’d gather the men and they’d strike this place in force. He’d save the women too if he could. Hopefully they’d be able to recover from what they’d been through. He reached out to tap Russell on the shoulder and indicated that he wanted to leave.

They stopped once they were a safe distance away. Greg looked at each of them and saw the same fire in their eyes that was no doubt in his own. “We’re coming back,” he said.

Russell and James nodded in unison. “I’m glad you’re on board,” Russell said.

“No way we couldn’t be after seeing that,” James said.

“I’d like a plan so we can try and save the women but I’m putting those bandits down. They’re worse than infected.”

Russell nodded his agreement. “I’m glad you feel that way. There’s no way we could do anything about them without your help.”

Back at the inn Greg gathered his inner circle and met with the rangers and the Oates. They tried to come up with a plan that would give the captives the best chance of surviving.

“How do we know they won’t just hurt the captives as soon as they see us?” Jackson asked.

“Let’s not give them the chance,” Russell said.

“Yeah,” Melissa chimed in, “let’s hit them so hard that they’ll be too busy trying to save their own skin.”

“That seems a good way to get those women hurt,” Laura said.

The group went back and forth for a while, each of them pushing a plan that they thought would guarantee the captives’ safety. Greg waited for a lull in the conversation before speaking.

“There are things worse than death,” Greg said. Everyone looked at him and he smiled sadly. “Getting bit by the infected and then turning on your loved one,” he said as he looked towards James who nodded in response. He was no doubt thinking of the ordeal he had faced in the hospital. “Getting captured by animals and being forced to endure God knows what. There are things worse than death.”

They all sat quietly as they thought about what Greg had said. “We’ll go with this,” he said. “I’d like to save all the captives but I’m not going to let these animals get away. They’re not gonna hurt anyone else. We’ll task a few men to go for the captives once the fighting starts. If we get lucky they’ll be able to get everyone. If not, we’ll still have saved some.”

Greg looked around the table and he could tell from their facial expressions that they weren’t happy with his proposal. He didn’t see any other options though. There was no way to guarantee the captives safety. They couldn’t call a hostage negotiator and bargain for their release. Greg was sure these animals wouldn’t be satisfied unless they got all of their food and maybe not even then. He was surprised that they hadn’t already attacked the inn. Bargaining with your survival was a dead end. If Byron gave up all his food, how we these people here going to survive?

“Let’s move,” Greg said putting an end to the discussion. Everyone quickly filed out of the room and he quickly found himself alone with Byron.

“Thanks for that,” Byron said. “We’d still be arguing if you hadn’t taken charge.”

Greg shrugged, “Just doing what needs to be done.”

“I mean it,” Byron said, “I don’t know what we would’ve done if you hadn’t shown up.”

“Good thing we showed up then,” Greg said as he stood. “You coming?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Byron replied with a deadly smile.

***

A few hours later, Greg and his forces were arrayed just outside the bandit camp. The strains of heavy metal music still filed the air so the entire group had been able to get into position unseen. For this fight, Greg had a rifle in addition to his usual machete and pistol. Greg raised his rifle and zeroed in on one of the bandits. They were all waiting for his signal. He squeezed the trigger and the bandit fell to the ground motionless a moment later. All around the clearing, his men opened fire and more bandits fell. Several seconds passed before the bandits realized they were under attack and went for cover.

***

Marcus Sands knelt behind the tree stump as shots flew overhead. “What is this?” he demanded. “Who’s attacking us?”

“It’s gotta be those guys from the inn,” one of his men replied.

“You’ve been going out there every day. I thought you said there were only five of them to worry about!”

“That’s all there was, I swear!” the man replied fearfully. 

“Well, I don’t care who they are,” Marcus said angrily. “Who do they think they are coming up into my camp like this?” Marcus leaned out for a moment and squeezed off a few shots, smiling in satisfaction when one of his enemies hit the ground.

“We can do this!” he yelled to encourage his men. 

Taking heart at his words, several of his men returned fire. The shots coming from the other side died off as they were forced into cover. “Keep it up men! Look at ‘em. They’re hiding like little girls.” He leaned out to fire more shots then cursed when his pistol went empty.

“They’re taking the women!” someone yelled.

Marcus peeked out to see several figures pulling up the stakes that were keeping the women immobile. He had half a mind to open fire on them, just on principle mind you but he figured he should save his bullets for the idiots shooting at him.

“Forget them,” he called as he reloaded. “We’ll get them back after we take care of these idiots.” He let off another shot and smiled again when it hit home. He suddenly realized that he didn’t hear a lot of gunfire from his side. He looked around as best he could and saw that a good number of his men were on the ground. The ones that were left were cowering, no doubt in hopes of not being shot. What had he done to get stuck with a bunch of cowards?

“Come on, men. We can do this!” he looked around but got no response. 

“Throw down your weapons,” a voice called. “Or we can finish you off. Makes no difference to us.”

The nerve! Who did they think they were to talk to him like that? They wanted him to surrender? He’d take as many of them with him as he could. 

“We surrender,” one of his men called out. “Stop shooting.”

Marcus yelled. “We’re not giving it up.”

“It’s over,” one of them said. “Most of us are down and we’re all out of ammo. I’m not getting shot for no reason.”

“We fight to the death,” Marcus replied. He looked up in shock as two of his men charged towards him and tackled him to the ground. They wrestled his pistol away from here and held him there like he was some kind of animal. How dare they? After all he had done to take care of them, they treated him like this?

Moments later he heard the approach of a large number of footsteps. His men got off of him and he looked up to see himself surrounded by a number of hard looking men. One of them stepped forward and looked down at him. He had a rifle slung over his back and Marcus noticed a pistol and a machete on either hip. “You the leader of this group?” he asked.

“Yea that’s right,” Marcus said as he stood to his feet. “That was a raw thing you did, coming at us like that.”

Anger flashed across the man’s eyes. “Should I have sent a messenger? Announced my intent? You are filth. You’re lucky I’m talking to you at all. The only reason I’m talking to you is that one of my men pointed out that some of you may have been coerced.”

A few of the bandits looked up at this, hope evident in their eyes. They were kneeling off to the side, bound by twine. Several of the guards were keeping watch over them. Seeing the look on their faces, Marcus cursed.

“Wasn’t no coercion. They all wanted to do it,” he said angrily.

“I will determine their guilt,” Greg replied. 

“We’re all guilty then,” Marcus insisted. “You really gonna trust them?”

Greg looked at the bandits as they tried to bargain for their lives. He could let them go but he had no doubt they would rally and go right back to preying on anyone weaker than themselves. He felt it was his duty to stop them. Who else would do it? The government was fallen and the police were nowhere to be found. Who would protect the weak? He couldn’t save everyone but he could protect the people in the park right here, right now.

“Enough,” he said quietly. The bandits fell silent and he looked at each of them in turn. Ten had survived the firefight and they all looked terrified with the exception of Marcus. They likely understood that their lives hung in the balance.

“No more pleading. I’ll show you the same mercy you’ve showed.”

“We don’t always hurt people,” one of them said desperately.

“Of course,” Greg replied, “you just take their food and leave them to die slowly instead.”

Greg shook his head, “No, this ends here.” He moved to stand in front of Marcus and two guards came forward and forced him to his knees.

“Let me go!” Marcus yelled defiantly. “What gives you the right?”

“I suppose we give ourselves the right,” Greg replied. “We’re trying to rebuild. I won’t stand by while people like you tear down what’s left.”

Marcus realized he was moments away from death. “Okay, you’re right! I’ve done some bad stuff but I was just trying to survive. We didn’t have someone like you. We did the best we could.”

Greg shrugged, “The best you could do was steal the little food that people have? Even if some of that’s true, it’s too late. I’ll leave here knowing there’s one less piece of scum preying on people just trying to survive.” Greg stepped forward and plunged his machete into Marcus’ chest. He stepped back and Marcus’ lifeless body fell to the ground.

Greg looked at the remaining bandits. “Take care of them,” he said to his men. “Let one of them survive. Maybe the story they tell will stop someone else from trying this.”

Greg made his way over to a semi-truck where the bandits had been storing their goods. Laura had arrived and was directing several workers. “Laura,” Greg said as he walked up.

“Greg,” Laura replied with a smile. “Are you okay?”

Greg nodded, “I’ll be alright. What’s going on here?”

“Doing some inventory,” Laura said. “A good amount has gone bad but they had a lot of canned goods so that helps.”

“That’s good,” Greg replied. “I’ll leave you it.” Greg left Laura and headed over to where the captives were being held. Carol was overseeing some workers handing out food and water.

“How are they?” Greg asked.

“They’re alive,” Carol replied quietly.

“That bad, huh?”

“Those bandits did terrible things. Some of them were thinking about trying to kill themselves rather than go through another day of it.”

Greg shook his head and knew he had made the right decision. People like that couldn’t be allowed to roam free. He couldn’t stop everyone like that but he could protect the people close to him. “Can they be moved to the other camp?”

Carol nodded, “I’ve the thought some of them would crawl over broken glass rather than stay here.”

About an hour later Greg and his inner circle were once again ensconced in the Oates’ dining room. They’d just finished a meal of venison along with carrots and potatoes. “I can’t thank you enough,” Byron said.

Greg shrugged, “Some things have to be done. This was one of them.”

“I’d like to give you some extra food,” Byron said. “You’ll need it if all those women are coming with you.”

“Thanks,” Greg said, “I appreciate it.” Laura would be happy to hear that. She had been going over their inventory trying to figure out how they were going to feed all those extra people. Greg had thought some of them might choose to stay with Byron but every single one had refused. 

“How long will you be staying?” Byron asked.

“Just another day or two,” Greg replied. “Laura wants to give the women a chance to recover a bit before we get back on the road.”

“Where are you guys headed anyway?”

Greg shrugged, “I don’t really have a specific destination in mind. We’re just heading north at the moment. Looking for a place we can settle. Something remote, easy to defend.”

Byron nodded, “That’s not a bad idea. I’m not too sure how long we’ll be able to stay here. What’s to stop another group of bandits from coming through?”

“Come with us,” Greg said. “You’d be a great asset with your survival skills.”

Byron looked thoughtful for a moment. “I may take you up on that but not just yet. This place has been in our family forever. I’m not ready to give it up just yet.”

Greg nodded in understanding. Some people might say it’s just a piece of land and he should move on but weren’t they looking for that very thing? A place to call their own? He couldn’t blame the guy if he wanted to stay and protect what was his. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly and Greg’s group eventually made their way back to their camp. The following morning they took it easy and the day passed uneventfully. The day after that they got on the road early and continued heading north.

***

A few days later Byron was behind the inn dressing one of his kills. The sound of a branch breaking caught his attention and he turned around to see Kelly walking towards him with several men behind her. They were all dressed in black fatigues with rifles slung across their backs. There was one figure that stood out though. He was dressed the same as the others but he carried himself differently. The others had this potential threat hanging around them, as if they could explode into violence at any moment. This other guy, he seemed…shifty. Byron wasn’t sure if it was the beady eyes or something else but he took an immediate dislike to him.

“What’s going on?” Byron asked as he mentally cursed himself for having put his rifle away earlier. Not that he could do much against the six of them but it would have been comforting nonetheless.

“These men are looking for someone,” Laura explained as she came to stand by him. She leaned against him and he felt something poking his stomach. He shifted and placed his hand on the small of her back and felt one of their handguns. Good girl! It wasn’t much but they would at least be able to put up a fight if it came to that.

“Who are you looking for?” Byron asked. “We’ve got quite a few campers here and a large group left just this morning.”

“I’m looking for a woman,” the pasty man said.

Byron spread his hands, “You’ll have to be more specific. Have you checked the campers?”

“She is distinctive,” the man replied. “It’s possible she’s been forced to disguise herself to hide from me. Maybe you noticed the man she’s traveling with.

He proceeded to give a detailed description and Byron realized he was talking about Jackson. That meant the woman he was talking about was probably Shirley. So what was this guy? Some sort of jilted lover? A husband? And why look for her with a group of armed men that were clearly some sort of military force? Byron wasn’t sure but he felt that the truth sprinkled with some misdirection would best serve here.

“I think I remember a man like that,” Byron said.

“When did you see him?”

“He was with that large group I mentioned. I didn’t have a conversation with him, I mostly talked to their leader.”

“Do you know which way they went?” he asked, eagerness evident in his voice.

Byron shrugged, “You’ve gotta head north to get out of the park. They’d have to go as far as Morton before they could head in another direction.”

The man smiled excitedly. “We’re close then! Let’s get back on the road. We can probably catch them.”

One of the men nodded and five of them left the area. “I have a few questions,” the remaining man said.

Byron nodded. He realized he would need to stick closer to the truth with this one. The other man was clearly obsessed over Shirley for whatever reason. Byron didn’t think he’d be able to fool this one so easily.

“How big was the group you were talking about?”

“I’m not sure,” Byron replied. “We had dinner with their leader and his inner circle or whatever. I’m not sure how big they were overall.”

“Why were they here?”

Byron didn’t like the way he was being interrogated but he saw little choice. He was a decent shot but he had not doubt that this man was a trained killer. “They were just passing through as far as I could tell. Looking for a place to settle or something like that.”

“Just passing through?  Did they do anything while they were here?” the man casually rested his hand on his sidearm.

Byron nodded, “their leader said something about a fight a few days back Maybe they were just resting up.”

The man nodded, “What else?”

“What else?” Byron asked in confusion.

“You feel threatened from some reason. That’s why your woman came to stand next to you with the gun at the small of her back.”

Byron did his best to keep his expression in check but the man’s smile showed that he must have failed. “I don’t blame you,” the man continued. “Armed strangers come into your home, it’s common sense to protect yourself. But I think it’s something more.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Byron replied.

“Please, don’t insult my intelligence. My associate gave you a description. A description you recognized. That tells me that you spent time with that person. Maybe you didn’t have a conversation with him as you said, but he was at least nearby.”

Byron hesitated, he didn’t want to send harm Greg’s way but this wasn’t going well.

“Let me help you,” the man said. “You’re a nice person and you feel some sort of obligation here. But that’s not gonna serve you. I’m not a nice person you see. I don’t have a problem killing you and everyone here,” the man smiled as Byron’s eyes widened in shock.

“In case you’re feeling brave I want you know that by the time you clear that pistol I will have shot your woman. When my men hear the gunshot they’ll go and kill everyone else. Do you understand what’s at stake here?”

“How do I know you won’t kill us anyway?”

“You don’t,” the man said, “but I’ll be honest, while I don’t mind killing I don’t do it if it isn’t necessary. Give me what I need and I’ll be on my way.”

Byron nodded, “When they showed up we tried to warn them away. Some bandits had set up camp nearby and were demanding our food. Their leader helped us out in exchange for some food.”

“How many bandits were there?” the man asked thoughtfully.

“Around thirty or so.”

“So this group was large enough, organized enough to take on a group that size. Thank you, you’ve been helpful.” The man turned to leave but then faced them again as if he had thought of something. “You’re a hunter. The man I work for may be interested in your services. If someone shows up, your cooperation will be expected.” With that said, the man turned and walked away.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” Kelly said once they were alone.

“I know,” Byron replied, “first the bandits, and now this.”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’ll have to leave,” Byron said sadly. This place had been in his family for generations. He hated that it was being lost during his watch.

Kelly turned and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry. I know how much this place means to you.”

“I’ll be alright, our lives are more important.”

“What are we doing?”

“We’ll head north and try to find Greg’s group. He needs to be warned about these guys and they’re probably our best chance for safety.”

“Alright, we’re leaving. What about the campers?”

Byron frowned, “We’ll let them know we’re leaving. They can follow or go their own way. Either way, we’re leaving.”

Kelly nodded, “Why don’t you break the news and I’ll start packing.”

***

Olson sat thoughtfully as they drove north. It looks like the trip wouldn’t be a waste after all. Jeremy thought they were out here to find his errant female. Dray had only permitted the excursion due to the influence the boy’s father wielded. No, that was a complete waste of time. Olson figured the woman had probably left him of her own accord. No, the real reason they were out here was to take note of any large survivor groups. Small setups like the one they’d just left were fine. They could be easily controlled. Larger groups could turn out to be a problem however. Dray was building something and they didn’t need the competition.

They were making great time because the group they were following had to clear the roads. These guys were organized but he doubted they could handle trained professionals. They could grab Jeremy’s woman and maybe drop the group’s leader while they were at it. Near the end of the day they saw their target on the horizon. They pulled over to wait for nightfall so they could approach unseen.

***

Byron drove as fast as he dared. Fortunately, the roads were clear so there wasn’t much to worry about. He just hoped they reached Greg in time for their warning to be of any use. Overall, he was kind of relived. All of the campers had elected to stay behind. They probably didn’t see the point of going on the road when there was plenty of food at hand. He was still upset about having to leave his place, and who knew what kind of condition those campers would leave it in? But, he was taking Kelly somewhere safe and that meant everything. 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Camp, Wisconsin

 

Late in the day they reached Greg’s caravan. The vehicles were pulled over to the side and tents were pitched in the grass. A guard waved them down and Byron quickly pulled over. “I need to talk with Greg,” he explained when the guard came to his door. The guard escorted him to Greg’s tent and he wasted no time relating the morning’s events.

“I’m sorry you had to leave like that,” Greg said as Byron finished his story.

Byron nodded, “It’s just not safe anymore. How long ‘til someone else shows up?”

“I guess that’s true,” Greg replied. “I’m happy to have you here though. The thought of regular fresh meat sounds pretty good.”

“It’s no problem,” Byron said, “it’s the least I can do.”

“We’re were about to have dinner,” Greg said. “Why don’t you join us? It won’t beat your table but it’ll be filling.”

“That sounds great,” Byron replied, “we haven’t eaten since breakfast this morning.”

Greg led the way to where a folding table was set up. The rest of the group was already there. “Hey guys,” Greg said as they seated themselves. “We’ve got some news.”

“What’s going on,” James asked.

“Byron had some visitors this morning,” Greg explained. “The short version is that someone’s looking for Shirley.”

Jackson narrowed his eyes, “I have an idea. Pasty looking fellow? Weak chin?”

Byron nodded, “That’s him. Shifty fellow but he didn’t seem like that much of a threat on his own. The guys with him though, they seemed dangerous.”

Jackson sighed, “Should’ve dealt with him when I had the chance.”

Shirley laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, “It’s alright. You couldn’t have known.”

“What happened?” Carol asked.

Shirley shrugged, “There isn’t much to tell. Jeremy and I were engaged. He was the city’s favored son and I was an up and coming star. The Collapse showed me the kind of man he really was so I ended it. He didn’t take it too well.”

Laura smiled sympathetically, “Why is he coming after you?”

Shirley shrugged again, “He’s entitled, used to getting what he wants. He had the mistaken belief that I belonged to him. I thought I’d dissuaded him of that. If I see him again we’ll revisit that convo with a bullet,” she finished fiercely.

“That’s if I don’t get to him first,” Jackson said.

“Alright,” Greg said with a glance towards James. “I want a guard on each of them.”

“That’s not necessary,” Jackson protested. “I’ll stay close to her. We’ll handle Jeremy if he shows up.”

“I’m not really worried about Jeremy,” Greg replied. “These other guys though, they might be a problem. I don’t want to underestimate them.”

Jackson nodded grudgingly, clearly not liking the arrangement. “I’m sorry,” Shirley said sadly. I thought I was done with him. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I don’t mean to bring this to your doorstep.”

“Nonsense,” Laura said, “you’re family.”

“That’s right,” Carol said with a smile, “we’ll deal with this together.”

“Let’s increase patrols,” Greg said, “I don’t want to make getting in here easy for them.”

James nodded, “I’ll take care of it.”

***

It had been dark for over an hour now. Olson was waiting for Simmons to return with word of the camp’s defenses. He wasn’t terribly worried but he figured some token recon wouldn’t hurt.

“I’m back,” a voice called out.

Olson turned to see Simmons walking towards him. “How’d it go?”

“Someone over there has some idea of what they’re doing. Nothing insurmountable, but it’ll take some caution. Patrols are pretty tight.”

“How hard would it be to get in?”

Simmons shrugged, “Don’t think it’ll be that big a deal. Probably can’t bring along the dead weight though.

Olson nodded, “He’d just be in our way anyway. Did you see the girl?”

“I think so. I’m pretty sure I found their leader too. I also saw that other guy that Jeremy described. There were two blondes there that match Jeremy’s description. I figure we just grab them both and sort ‘em later.”

Olson nodded, that was probably the best way since they wouldn’t be bringing Jeremy with them. Speaking of, Olson bit back his frustration as he heard clumsy footsteps coming their way. It could only be Jeremy. 

“Did you find her?” Jeremy asked as he reached them. “Is she there?”

“Olson found the man she’s traveling with. I’m thinking that unless she’s parted ways with him she’s still around.”

“That’s great! When do we go in?”

“Soon,” Olson replied, but you won’t be coming with.”

“What? Why not? How can you be so sure you get the right woman?”

“These guys have a bit of training and all of their guards are armed. You’d be a liability. As far as the woman goes, we’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. We’ll just grab both.”

Jeremy sighed in relief, “I suppose that would work. Be careful. I don’t want her hurt.”

“Of course,” Olson replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve some planning to do.”

“Right, I’ll leave you to it.”

“Where do you think he’s going?” Simmons asked.

“Probably off to take another nap. Who cares? After tonight we can send him back to Emerald Falls.”

Olson gathered his men and they developed a plan to infiltrate the camp. It was fairly simple. Olson would go for the women while Simmons took out their leader. Meanwhile, Drake and Roberts would cause distractions along the perimeter of the camp. Cimino would be nearby with the vehicles so they could make a quick escape. Olson smiled as they completed their planning. In about an hour’s time they’d be done and could send Jeremy on his way.

***

The sound of an explosion rocked Greg from his slumber. Moments later he heard a flurry of activity outside his tent. No doubt someone was coming to wake him.

“What’s going on?” Carol asked as she sat up in the bed.

“They’re here. Stay in the tent,” he said as he stepped outside.

“Greg!” James called. “Explosion on the north side of the camp!”

Greg nodded as another explosion lit the night. “That was from the west. They’re trying to distract us. Probably hoping we spread ourselves thin.”

“What do we do?” James asked.

“Go check on Shirley.” Greg looked at the guards who had arrived for instructions. “Split up. Check each side of the camp.” This was exactly what they wanted but he didn’t have a choice. If they were attacking his people he had to defend them. It just really bugged him that he was playing right into their hand.

Greg wasn’t sure what alerted him. A shift in the wind? The sound of a foot depressing the grass? All he knew was that someone was behind him. He threw himself into a forward somersault and came up with his pistol at the ready. A boot connected with his hand and sent the pistol flying away. His attacker followed up with a downward thrust but Greg managed to catch the arm and delivered several quick strikes to the abdomen. Standing, he grabbed the arm with his other hand and flipped his opponent over his hip. His attacker recovered instantly and Greg barely managed to dodge a boot aimed for his knee. Greg drew his machete. He’d have to be careful, this guy could fight.

“Nice reflexes,” the man said as he stood. “They’re not gonna save you though. Your men are distracted so no one can save you,” he said as he drew a long combat knife.

Greg smiled confidently, “I don’t need saving. You had your one chance to kill me and you failed. How about you save yourself some pain and tell me what this is all about?”

The man chuckled, “It’s not about anything. I have orders to kill you, simple as that.”

“Alright,” Greg replied, “let’s get this done.”

Simmons smiled and sprinted forward. Greg roared and responded with a charge of his own. Despite the situation, he was excited. This was going to be fun. There was no guilt holding him back here. No gray area as to whether or not he should respond with force. This man had tried to kill him and Greg would put him down.

***

Carol watched the fight unfold from the tent flap. She had her pistol in hand but didn’t dare use it for fear of hitting Greg. She kind of felt helpless but she had to believe that Greg would be alright. They’d been through far worse. The first day of the Collapse had been terrible but Greg had kept her safe. She had to believe he’d be okay now. Carol heard something behind her but didn’t see anything when she turned to investigate. This whole ordeal had her jumpy.

Olson slowly approached the woman from behind. He had to be more careful, she’d almost discovered him before he could make his move. He’d cut an opening into the tent but he must not have been as quiet as he thought. He’d have to be careful here. The first woman had a surprising amount of fight in her. Someone had been training her, she’d even managed to land a few blows before he had decided to knock her out. He wasn’t supposed to hurt her but he wasn’t gonna get killed dragging these women out of here. Olson crept closer. What was the woman looking at? He heard the sound of metal on metal. Looking past her he saw two figures fighting. Was that Simmons? That must be the leader of this camp then. Was this his woman? Olson shook his head, it didn’t matter, he’d grab her just in case. He doubted they’d get another chance at this if they failed here tonight.

***

Greg ducked under the man’s swing and countered with one of his own. The man leaned back just enough so the blade passed harmlessly in front of him. Greg followed up with another swing but that was parried harmlessly. Simmons swung with his free hand and Greg ducked underneath and countered with a punch to his gut. Simmons stumbled back a few steps but was otherwise unaffected. Greg continued his offensive, throwing swing after swing in attempt to break through Simmon’s defense. On his third swing, Greg scored a solid hit that cut Simmons from his eye to his ear. Greg quickly followed up with another thrust as Simmons roared in pain.

Greg ripped his machete free and Simmon’s body hit the ground. He knelt and quickly wiped his machete clean before putting it away. He glanced around for his gun but realized that would have to wait until the morning, there was no way he would be able to find it right now. He was about to go check the camp when he heard a scream. A scream that sounded exactly like Carol. He sprinted for his tent and saw a figure throwing Carol’s unresponsive body over his shoulder. Was she dead? No, she must be unconscious. There’d be no need to carry her otherwise. The man turned at the sound of Greg’s running footsteps and drew a pistol with his free hand. Greg was forced to dive to the ground as the man sent several shots in his direction. The man took off running and Greg surged to his feet and quickly covered the rest of the distance to his tent. He saw Carol’s gun lying on the ground and grabbed it to replace his own. He took after Carol, pushing himself as fast as he could go. 

He was grateful for all the training he had gone through. He knew he’d have no chance of saving her if he had been in any less than peak physical condition. He reached the edge of the camp and saw the man running in the distance towards a waiting vehicle. He quickly glanced around and was relieved when he saw his suv nearby. 

“Greg!” Jackson called from behind him.

Greg turned to see Jackson running towards him. “They took Shirley! I have to find her!”

“Come with me, they got Carol too!” Greg led the way as they sprinted towards his suv. They jumped inside and a moment later left a cloud of dust in their wake. “You have your walkie?” Greg asked.

“Yeah.”

“Tell them to grab some men and follow. Have the rest lock down the camp. The fight might draw in some infected.”

Greg focused on pursuing the headlights in front of him as Jackson relayed his instructions. They were off-road, parallel to the highway as it was still littered with abandoned vehicles. Greg did the best he could to find level ground and hoped they wouldn’t hit anything that would end their pursuit. They eventually reached a clear stretch of road and the driving was much smoother after that.

The suv in front took an exit and Greg followed. “Denton,” Greg said aloud. “Let them know where we are.” Jackson nodded and began speaking into the walkie. Greg went over his gear in his head. He had his machete, Carol’s gun, and a clip of spare ammunition. The rest of his gear was sitting back in his tent. It was unfortunate, but it would have to do. It’s not like there had been time to grab anything. Several gunshots rang out in quick succession and Greg swerved, thinking they were being fired upon.

“There’s no sign of anyone,” Jackson said. “What are they doing?”

A chorus of howls sounded out n response and Greg realized what they were doing. “They’re trying to draw in the infected for backup.”

“They’ll be trapped inside,” Jackson replied.

Greg shrugged, “Maybe they’re desperate.” He turned a corner and saw two suvs parked in front of a three story office building. Greg quickly brought the vehicle to a stop. “It doesn’t matter why they’re doing it,” he said as he exited the vehicle. “We’re going in regardless,” he finished drawing his weapons.

Jackson nodded. “I’m with you but should we wait? They’ve got two suvs, so there might be quite a few in there.”

Greg hesitated. He wanted to go in now but that could be suicide if they were outnumbered. He glanced at the two suvs. They looked as if they could each seat about five people. That meant they could be dealing with at least ten people. Jackson was right as much as he hated to admit it. “We wait. I don’t want to but that’s the best course.”

Jackson nodded. He wanted to head inside right away too but they wouldn’t be helping anyone by getting themselves killed. Two vehicles screeched into the parking lot and the men quickly took cover behind their suv.

“Keep an eye out,” came James’ voice. “I swear I saw some infected heading this way.”

Greg sighed in relief as he stood. “James, you’re here.”

Greg smiled in satisfaction as he saw the men James had brought with him. They now totaled eight including Jackson and himself, those were much better odds. 

James nodded in response, “What are we dealing with?”

“Two vehicles,” Jackson said, “so maybe around ten or so.”

James nodded. “I’ll take point. Stay in cover and don’t run off on your own. It’s too easy to get ambushed in a set up like this.”

Greg nodded. James had the expertise here given his time on the force. He still wanted nothing more than to run in guns blazing but he would defer to James here. He glanced at Jackson and saw the same desire reflected in his eyes. “We’ll get them back.”

Jackson nodded, “I know we will.”

***

Olson looked down in frustration as he saw additional men spill from the newly arrived vehicles. This was not how this was supposed to go down. He had been pleased when he had seen that there were only two pursuing them. He had planned to draw them in and ambush them in the twisting corridors of the building. That wouldn’t work now, outnumbered two to one. He hoped that enough infected were on the way to put the odds back in his favor. Periodic howls told him that his ploy had been successful. If the infected could keep a few of those men busy down there, they should still be able to come out on top. Just in case though. He pulled out his satellite phone and dialed headquarters.

“This is Lieutenant Olson, I’m requesting immediate evac from my location.” Olson sighed as he got the affirmative. They had a ride on the way, all they had to do now was hold out for about a half hour or so for the chopper to arrive.

He looked at two of his men. “Clear a path to the roof and keep it open. Evac is on the way.” Olson smiled. They’d still get out this yet. 

“What did you do to her?” came Jeremy’s whiny voice from behind. Olson rolled his eyes as he turned to face him. Why did he have to be stuck with this waste of space? Just because his daddy had some connections? Stupid politics. 

“What?”

“What did you to her face? You weren’t supposed to hurt her!”

Her face? Ah, he must be referring to the first woman he had grabbed. She had put up quite the fight. He shrugged, “She resisted and I made her stop.”

“Did you have to hit her so hard?”

Olson snorted, “That woman’s no delicate flower. She put up quite a fight.”

“Nonetheless, I’ll be talking to Dray about this. How did I get saddled with some thug that can’t follow simple directions?”

Olson narrowed his eyes, “You do that. I’m pretty sure Dray doesn’t care about some piece of tail that you can’t control. Also, keep in mind we’re about to be fighting for our lives soon. You probably don’t want to piss me off right now.”

A look of indignation flashed across Jeremy’s eyes although he managed to smother it a moment later. Olson was completely right. He had no chance of getting out of here without Olson’s help. He’d still report the man but there was no need to antagonize the man beforehand. “I apologize,” Jeremy said. “I’ve just been under a lot of stress.”

“Of course,” Olson replied.

Jeremy headed over to where the women were seated on the floor, their hands bound by zip-ties.  “Are you alright?” he asked as he reached her. 

“It kinda hurts,” Shirley admitted.

Jeremy sighed, “Let me take a look,” he said as he knelt down. He moved his hand away from her cheek and leaned in for a closer look. “It’s bruised pretty bad, Maybe – “, Jeremy screamed as Shirley lunged forward and head butted him in the nose.

“Get away from me! Don’t you ever touch me again!” she shouted.

Jeremy surged to his feet as blood poured between the fingers he had over his nose. “Why would you? What’s wrong with you?” Jeremy left the area as he searched from something to stop the bleeding.

Olson laughed as he walked over. “Thanks, maybe I won’t have to listen to his whining for a few minutes.”

Shirley looked at him with daggers in her eyes. Olson chuckled, “I’d calm down. I have no problem knocking you out again. I’m a real man unlike you’re friend over there.”

“My real man is on the way to put a bullet in your head,” she replied. She glanced at Carol who had sat silently this whole time. “Hers is on the way too and you don’t want to piss him off. But you already did that when you grabbed her.”

Olson’s mood soured. There was a significant chance things could go that way. “The game’s not done yet. Your man will be busy playing with infected soon while we wait for our ride to get here.” He walked back towards the window, no longer in the mood to talk.

He didn’t see any sign of the men outside so they must already be in the building. He did however see a good amount of infected in the parking lot. “Let’s get set up boys.  We’re about to get started.” His remaining men nodded and took positions facing the stairwell entrance. With the power out, the only way up was the stairs so that was the only point of entry they had to worry about. That would help to reduce the effect of their numbers. He took his sidearm and fired several shots out the window and the infected howled in response. Good, infected below and they were waiting at the only viable entry point. He was feeling pretty good about their odds.

***

Greg cursed as he heard the sound of gunshots from above. The infected howled and threw themselves against the door they’d just barricaded. “That’s not gonna hold for long,” James said.

Greg pointed towards the stairway. “That’s the only way up with the power out. We can hold up there, they can only come a few at a time.”

James nodded and led the way towards the stairwell. In another time, he might look around the building and take note of what he saw. Maybe try to figure out what kind of business this place did before the Collapse. That wasn’t important right now though. Right now everything he saw was evaluated on its usefulness as cover or a potential hiding spot. They reached the elevator and James instructed four of their men to remain behind.

“You guys stay here and keep the infected off our backs. Blades only unless you get overwhelmed. The more we’re shooting the more infected are gonna show up.”

James led the way up the stairs. “We’ll have to check the second floor first, just in case. I’m assuming they’re on the third but we don’t want to be surprised.”

Greg nodded as they reached the second floor landing. James led the way inside and they spent the next few minutes checking every cubicle and office for any sign of their targets. When that was done they headed back towards the stairs, James had an apologetic look on his face. He could tell that Greg wanted nothing more than to tear this place apart.

“It’s fine,” Greg said. “We had to be sure.” They headed back into the stairwell and took the remaining stairs to the third floor. 

James paused at the landing and glanced behind him to make sure everyone was ready. He leaned against the wall and pulled the door open and flinched back as a hail of bullets sailed past. He cursed in frustration, they were in a bad spot here. They could lay down suppressive fire and enter the room but there was no guarantee that there was adequate cover close by. They were effectively pinned. The one bright side was that the stairwell was constructed from brick which meant he was relatively safe where he was, he didn’t have to worry about them shooting him through the wall.

Greg looked up the stairs in frustration. They were so close but they might as well be miles away. His mood brightened as an idea struck him. “James,” he whispered.

“What?” James asked as he glanced towards him.

“I’m gonna head back down, look for another way up.”

“We were just there,” he protested, “I didn’t see a second stairwell.”

“Maybe we missed it,” Greg countered. “I’m gonna check.” Greg headed back down the stairs and motioned for Jackson to follow him.

“I don’t think there’s another stairwell,” Jackson said as they entered the second floor.

“I don’t think there is either,” Greg replied.

“What’s your plan then?”

“This,” Greg said as he stopped in front of the elevator.

Jackson looked thoughtful for a moment, “That could work as long as the car isn’t on the third floor.”

“Only one way to find out.” Greg used his machete to pry an opening between the elevator doors and then pulled them all the way open. He placed his hand on the wall and leaned out as far as he could. To his left he saw a ladder bolted to the wall. That was perfect, they could use that to go up. He looked up and saw that the way was clear, that meant the elevator was on the first floor.

“There’s a ladder here just to the left,” Greg explained.

“What about the noise when we get up top?” Jackson asked. “They’ll probably here the door open.”

Greg nodded and grabbed his walkie. “James,” he called into it.

“Yeah?” came the reply of few minutes later.

“I’m gonna contact you in a few minutes. I found a way up. I’ll need you to lay down some fire to cover the noise I make.”

“You’re not doing something crazy are you?”

“Of course not, it’s perfectly safe.”

“Alright, let me know.”

The men carefully made their way into the shaft and climbed up, doing their best not to make any noise on the ladder. When they reached the third floor, Greg contacted James and a moment later the sound of rifle fire filled the air. Greg carefully stepped onto the ledge the doors rested on and used Jackson’s knife to pry and opening. He pulled the doors apart far enough to slip through and stepped to the other side. The way was clear. They were in area filled with cubicles. From the other side of the room Greg could hear James exchanging fire with the kidnappers. He held the doors open for Jackson who slipped through a few moments later. Kneeling down they made their way towards the gunfight. Greg peeked around the corner of a cubicle and saw two men kneeling behind cover occasionally firing into the stairwell.

To the left he saw the women sitting on the floor. Fortunately, they looked unhurt for the most part. Standing over them was another kidnapper. Greg wondered if he was the one that had grabbed Carol. Greg leaned out and fired several shots at the men sitting in cover, he hit them both in the chest but they didn’t go down. Were they wearing some sort of armor? James used the distraction to lead his men into the room. As he was entering the third man took off running.

Greg glanced at the girls to make sure they were safe then took off after the runner, Jackson hot on his heels. James had things under control there. The two men in cover had put their hands up as soon as James had entered the room. Greg followed the man to a door that had a sign reading Roof Access. Greg pushed through the door and saw a set of stairs heading up. He took them two at a time and stepped through a door that led to the roof. Two men popped up from behind an air conditioning unit and Greg quickly ducked back inside the doorway.

“Give me some cover fire and I’ll try to flank them,” Jackson said. “I don’t want that guy getting away.”

Greg nodded and leaned out to squeeze off several shots. As the men ducked back behind their cover Jackson sprinted out and towards the right. The men attempted to respond but more shots from Greg forced them back into cover. The two men realized they were being flanked and decided to make a run for it. Shots from Jackson put one of them down while the other managed to find another piece of roof equipment to hide behind. “Go!” Jackson yelled. “I’ll deal with him!”

Greg nodded and took off across the roof. He saw his target standing in an open area looking towards the south. What was he looking for? Greg gave himself a mental shrug and he approached, it didn’t matter what he was doing because he was about to die. Greg fired off a round and struck the man in the chest. The man spun around but stayed standing.

“You’ll have to do better!” he called. “Top of the line kevlar right here”

“It hurt though didn’t it? Greg asked. He started firing and emptied the remains of his clip into the man’s chest. He then sprinted forward, easily covering the distance as the man reeled in pain. He unleashed a vicious overhead strike that the man barely managed to parry with a combat knife. Greg didn’t let up and rained down blow after blow until the man fell to his knees. A kick to the man’s hand sent the knife flying away and Greg kicked him a second time in the chest which left him sprawling on his back.

He raised his machete for the finishing blow when a thump thump thump sound reached his ears. Looking south he saw a helicopter heading towards him. So that had been the man’s plan. They had an escape planned when they fled to this building. The helicopter quickly reached them and turned so that’s its side was facing them. The door slid open and Greg saw a long gun poke out. He took off running and dove behind an a.c. unit just as a torrent of bullets struck just where he had been standing. Greg peeked out and saw the man grab hold of a rope ladder. He quickly reloaded his pistol and unloaded the clip in his direction. He probably wouldn’t hit him, the helicopter was already making its way south but the final bullet struck home and the man was barely able to hold onto the ladder. It wasn’t a kill shot but it would give the man something to remember him by.

He waited until the helicopter was some distance away before he left cover, just in case they had decided to double back. James ran up then, with everyone else in tow behind him. “You okay? I swear I heard a helicopter.”

“You did,” Greg replied. “The man I was chasing escaped on it.”

“That was close,” Jackson said. 

Greg nodded and walked towards Carol, pulling her into a tight hug. “You okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she replied. “I’m so glad you made it.”

“I was right behind you the whole time.”

“We’ve got a piece of business to deal with,” James said.

“What’s that?” Greg asked looking in his direction.

“We’ve got survivors.” He nodded towards two of his men and they tossed a man to the ground. The other two captives carried themselves with some measure of dignity and knelt on the ground. They were probably assuming they were about to be killed.

“Please don’t kill me!” he begged as he rose to his knees.

Greg raised an eyebrow, “He doesn’t seem like those other guys we fought.”

“That’s because it’s Jeremy,” Shirley said with disgust in her voice.

“Ah,” Greg replied. He glanced at one of the guards. “Give her your sidearm.” The guard complied and Shirley looked at him questioningly.

Greg shrugged, “You decide what you want done with him. I’d have him killed regardless but thought you might want the honors.”

“Very much,” Shirley replied as she cocked the gun.

“Wait!” Jeremy begged. “I can be useful. I can tell you things! Things about the men you fought.”

Greg shrugged, “I know all I need to. They attacked us and we killed them. It’s done.”

“It’s not done,” Jeremy replied shaking his head. “There’s a man. His name is William Dray and he’s the one responsible for all this.”

“All this what?” Greg asked curiosity growing.

“The infection. Everything that’s gone wrong.”

Greg blinked. Was this guy serious? He knew the person responsible for everything they were dealing with? And what did he mean it’s not done? He glanced at the other two captives to see if their expression would betray anything but couldn’t get a read on them.

“I’m sorry, Shirley. I need you to wait a little bit.”

Shirley nodded, “I understand. If he’s telling the truth this is pretty important.”

“Remember what I said, Shirley.”

“About what?” she asked.

“We don’t keep prisoners.”

She smiled grimly and walked away from the group. Jeremy potentially had important info but she didn’t want to hear his sniveling voice right now. 

“Alright,” Greg said, “start talking.”

“You’ll let me go?” Jeremy asked.

“Maybe, maybe not. There’s a chance you get to live if you tell me something useful.”

Jeremy nodded enthusiastically, not seeing the grim look in the people around him. They already knew the man’s fate was sealed. They remembered Greg’s speech when he said they wouldn’t be keeping prisoners.

“The man is William Dray. He’s a billionaire out of Emerald Falls. He orchestrated everything.”

***

Olson finally managed to reach the helicopter. He’d nearly lost his grip when that bastard had managed to score a lucky hit. His labored breathing also hadn’t made the climb any easier. He must have at least one broken rib from when that man had unloaded those rounds into his chest. The men inside the helicopter pulled him inside and he sighed in relief.

“What happened to your eye?” one of them asked.

Olson touched his face and felt wetness coat his hand. Now that he was thinking about he also felt pain on the side of his head. Exploring further, he discovered the bullet had carved a furrow from his eye to his ear. He’d been lucky. He had no idea how he’d managed to hold on to the ladder when he’d been hit. He suffered silently as one of the men bandaged his wounds. They gave him something for the pain and darkness quickly claimed him.

Early the next morning Olson found himself in Dray’s penthouse suite. He’d been rushed into surgery upon arrival but there hadn’t been anything they could do to save his eye. They in fact had to remove what remained to avoid any complications. A patch covered the empty cavity and he did his best not to dwell on it. After a few hours of rushed sleep, he submitted his report and was now about to answer for his failed mission.

“Relax,” Dray said from behind his expansive desk. “If I’d wanted you killed I wouldn’t have wasted the resources on surgery.”

Some of the tension left Olson’s shoulders and Dray smiled on seeing it. “I will of course punish incompetence but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Your mission was actually a success in some ways. You discovered three survivor groups, one of which is a potential enemy.”

“Thank you, sir,” Olson replied.

“I’m even going to give you a chance to get revenge,” Dray continued, “I want you to find this man’s group before they have a chance to grow.”

“Of course, sir,” Olson replied. Dray nodded and looked at something on his terminal. Olson took this as his dismissal. He was nearly out the door when Dray called out.

“Olson.”

“Sir?” Olson asked as he turned to face him.

“While this mission was a success overall I expect considerably better performance on your next task. Do you understand?”

“Of course, sir,” Olson replied. Dray nodded and Olson quickly made his exit. He breathed out a huge sigh of relief once he was in the hallway. He’d managed to survive the day. Despite Dray’s assurances, he had no doubt that Dray could have made an example out of him, expended resources or no. Dray rewarded success and punished failure. He had to ensure his next mission was completely successful.

Olson headed for the firing range and got set up. He’d need to practice to compensate for his loss of vision. He couldn’t afford for anything to affect his chances of success.

***

“What are we going to do about this?” Laura asked looking around the table. They were sitting down to breakfast, a much needed respite after last night’s ordeal.

“We need to fight,” James said.

“How?” Jackson asked. “Those guys came in here and did exactly what they wanted. Nearly took Greg out too.”

Greg snorted in response, “I was fine but I see your point.”

“We need to be more disciplined,” Carol said. “Everyone kinda ran off once the alarm was sounded.”

James nodded, “Carol’s right, we can’t leave our leader unprotected. You could’ve been killed if you weren’t such a good fighter.”

“I think we should all have a guard,” Greg replied. 

Everyone nodded in agreement and Jackson changed the subject. “What do we do about Dray?”

“Nothing for now,” Greg said. “Those men we faced were way better trained than ours. We should probably assume most of his men have that level of training which means we need to close that gap as best we can.” He looked around the table and wondered how they were going to take what he was going to say next.

“I did some thinking while we were on the roof.” They had waited for the sunrise to disperse some of the infected before fighting through to their vehicles. Fortunately, they’d been able to get through without any casualties. 

“Dray is building an empire. We need to do the same. We have to match him in resources if we’re gonna defend ourselves.” Greg chuckled self-consciously. “I know how that sounds. Originally I thought we’d find a spot and just have to worry about defending ourselves from the infected.”

“That’s not gonna work anymore,” James said.

“It won’t,” Greg agreed, “if Dray attacked right now there isn’t much we could do. They’ve got good training and vast resources…at least one helicopter and who knows what else.”

“He must have been planning this for years,” Laura said. “How can we catch up when he has such a head start?”

“We need to expand our forces,” Greg said. “We’ll look for survivors as we travel north. Once we’re set up, we can take in smaller groups. When we’ve done as much of that as we can we can look to building alliances with other groups like ours. No one’s safe if Dray intends to be some sort of emperor. We haven’t survived everything we have just for someone else to come along and put us in chains.”

“When do we start?” James asked.

“Now,” Greg replied.

***

Greg continued leading his people north, looking for a place to establish themselves. It was slow going as gas was becoming scarce. In addition to clearing the roads, they had to spend a significant portion of their day siphoning fuel for their caravan. They also had to deal with car trouble. Some of the vehicles were overheating despite Gio’s best efforts to keep everything in working condition. The delays weren’t all wasted time however. They size of their group began drawing people to their banner and they were able to increase the size of their fighting forces. Every day, Greg and James put the group through rigorous training, both in krav maga and firearms training. As the weeks passed, their ragtag group began to resemble an actual military. 

As they made their way through Wisconsin, Greg began having the group park for several days at a time. This allowed more time for training as well as hunting to supplement their dwindling food supply. During this time, Greg would also send out scouts to look for survivors. In this way, Greg was able to increase his budding army to over one hundred fighting men. They were poorly armed; most had whatever weapons they had managed to scrape together during the early days of the Collapse but Greg was encouraged. They were getting trained and would be a force to be reckoned with once they had some proper gear. The men were also fiercely loyal. Many of the men had come with their families, be it family they had from before the Collapse or family they had adopted after. They were more than grateful to serve the man who was giving them regular food and a place to stay. 

As the weeks passed, there was little resemblance to the ragtag group of survivors that had fled the trailer park. Walking through the camp one would detect a tangible sense of order. Nearly every hand was set to a task, the necessities of survival left little room for idleness. This order carried over to every aspect of camp life, from the way the tents were erected to the placement of latrines. The group had several military veterans to thank for that level of organization. The camp had been haphazard at first. People had set up their tents wherever they found room. The veterans had suggested the camp would benefit from being set up in a more organized fashion. Greg had ordered it implemented and had been surprised when he noticed an improvement in morale. 

Walking through the camp, he received a crisp salute from the men on duty. The men had been resistant to the idea of a traditional salute and had started using a closed right fist over the heart. Greg wondered if some of the solidarity was due to their new attire. The scavengers had been really successful during their journey and one thing they had acquired was a uniform of sorts for the guard. It consisted of black cargo pants along with matching boots, shirt, and jacket. On their right shoulder, each wore a circular patch. It consisted of a stylized “GG” over a field of white. The men had taken to calling themselves the Gregorian Guard. Greg had been amused at first but had quickly stopped when he saw how much pride they took in the name. 

Greg reached the center of the camp and looked at the seat of their fledgling government. It was just several tents sewn together but it got the job done. Greg felt a sense of pride as he looked at it. They’d done this, they were building something from the ashes. Greg nodded to the guards on duty and stepped inside.

***

William set Olson’s report to the side. This was an interesting development. This group was organized enough that they could be a potential threat. It was good that he had told Olson to get rid of them. Their leader was particularly impressive. He had survived an assassin’s blade and had nearly killed Olson in battle. He had smirked when he read about the man unloading his clip into Olson’s chest. There was a viciousness there that he could appreciate. 

He’d only glanced at the report before Olson had arrived for his meeting. A more thorough look had him wondering if he’d been too hard on him. It appeared that Olson had simply been outmatched. Who would have thought the man would have used an elevator shaft to flank him? 

His intercom chimed and he reached over to answer. “Yes, Alanna?”

“I apologize for the interruption. Watkins and Reel are ready for the conference call.”

“Thank you, Alanna.” William hit the button and watched as the screen descended from the ceiling. It flickered to life and William schooled his features to keep the smile off his face when he saw Reel’s haggard appearance. The weeks had not been kind to him. Watkins looked much the same, worried. But that was to be expected.

“Gentlemen,” William greeted them pleasantly.

“Dray, Reel,” Watkins replied.

Reel nodded and focused on William. “You’re looking rather immaculate,” his distaste forcing his lip to curl up a bit.

“One must maintain a proper appearance,” William replied. “It’s good for morale.”

Reel shook his head in dismissal. “I haven’t had time to worry about morale. I’ve lost half my men to the infected.”

“How’d that happen,” William asked in pretend sympathy. 

Reel hesitated, no doubt aware William was taking pleasure in his misfortune. “There was a breach. One of the men had failed to report that he had been bitten.”

“Ah,” William replied. There wouldn’t be a lapse like that among his men. William rewarded success but his men knew an error of that magnitude would see their entire family executed.

“I’ve been having trouble of my own,” Watkins chipped in. “Does that offer to join you still stand?”

“Of course, Watkins. You’re more than welcome.”

Watkins visibly sighed in relief, “Thank you Dray. I will of course place my remaining resources at your disposal.”

William nodded. That was precisely as it should be. Watkins knew his place. He understood that he would survive because William permitted him to do so.

Reel glanced off screen as if he was faced with an unpleasant task. “Does that offer still hold for me?”

William let the silence stretch out for a few moments before responding. “It does, but I have proposal.”

“What’s that?” Reel asked.

“Given our mutual…animosity, living under the same roof might prove difficult.”

“There’s an understatement,” Reel replied.

“Indeed. I have a problem you can help me with. In solving it you’ll have another city of your own.”

“I see, and what does this problem of yours entail?”

“There’s a group to the north. They’re pretty organized and pose a potential threat to our rebuilding efforts.”

“Some would be bandit king is giving you trouble,” Reel asked with a chuckle.

“This man is no bandit,” William replied. “He survived an assassination and nearly killed one of my best men in personal combat.”

“So I get rid of him and you’ll find me another city?”

“You get rid of him and you take his city. He’s in Wisconsin so that should be enough distance between us.” Olson’s latest report had indicated the group was camped somewhere near the middle of Wisconsin.

“That could work. Thank you, Dray,” Reel said with traces of genuine emotion in his voice.

William nodded and explained there were some matters that he had to deal with and ended the call. He chuckled as the screen returned to its berth in the ceiling. That fool. He would likely be in for a rude awakening when he attacked that group. If their leader had half a brain, he’d be building his forces even now. Jeremy hadn’t returned with Olson. That meant that he was dead or captured. If captured, he no doubt would have revealed everything he knew to save his skin.

William assumed that the group knew about him. They were no doubt panicking, impressed by the vast resources at his disposal. They were surely building up their forces. While they’d be no match for his army, they might be able to give Reel some real trouble. However the scenario played out was fine. Reel could swoop in or the group could win the conflict. He could then send in some helicopters to deliver some ordinance. He won regardless.

***

Olson made sure to follow the group from a safe distance. At night, they ate cold rations to avoid any chance of a fire being spotted. It was grueling but necessary work. He had to admit that he was impressed. In weeks this group was well on its way to being an organized military force. Daily, men flocked to his banner with families in tow. Olson used his binoculars to take a closer look at the flag flying from the center of the camp. It was a golden lion’s head roaring defiantly over a field of white.

 

 

 

 

15 Camp, Northern Wisconsin

 

“Hey everyone,” Greg said as he entered the tent.

“Hey, Greg,” James replied. “Did you see the flag?

“What flag?”

James motioned for him to follow and made his way outside. He pointed to the new addition flying from the command tent. “You like it?”

Greg looked at the lion and thought. Weeks ago he would have felt subconscious about the whole thing but he had seen how proud his Gregorian Guard were to wear his name. The lion was fitting, especially the roar. As if they would stand against whatever came their way.

“I like it.”

“Good,” James replied, “we were gonna keep it anyway.”

Greg chuckled, “Fair enough.”

James motioned for them to head back inside and the first thing he saw was Carols smile. 

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“I did,” Greg replied.

“It was my idea. Some of the older women put it together.”

“Tell them I love it then,” Greg replied.

Everyone chuckled as Greg joined them at the table. It was covered in maps. Some had been taken from gas stations and pit stops while others had been hand drawn. “I think we’ve got something,” Laura said drawing his attention to one of the maps.

Greg looked at where she indicated and saw a town circled in red near the edge of Lake Superior. “What’s it called?”

“Lakeside,” Laura replied. “Looks like the infrastructure is still intact. We’d literally just have to move in.”

“Is that our best bet?”

Laura nodded, “It best matches the criteria you set. It’s isolated, defensible, and has fresh water.”

“And the others?” Greg asked.

“They’re missing something,” Laura explained. “They might have water but then they’re in a bad spot for defense. If we can hold it then water is scarce. There are one or two that might work but the infrastructure is badly damaged.”

Greg nodded as he looked over the map. “How far are we?”

“A few hours. It’s a good thing too. Gas is getting scarce and Gio is having trouble keeping some of the vehicles running. It’ll be easier once we’re not on the move so much but it’s hard right now.”

Greg nodded again, “It looks good. I think it’ll work.”

“There’s just one problem,” James said. “It’s occupied.”

“What are we dealing with?” Greg asked.

“Just looks like some locals according to the scouts,” Laura said.

Greg thought for a moment, “I don’t see the problem. We need a place and this looks good. We’ll offer them the chance to join us.”

“What if they refuse?” Carol asked. “Are we just gonna kick people out of their homes?”

“They’re getting a better deal than anyone else would give them,” Shirley said.

“Shirley’s right,” Greg said. “We play by different rules now. Lakeside works so we’re going to take it. I don’t care if that makes us the bad guys. We need to be able to defend ourselves before Dray comes looking for us. I’m not gonna put us in a bad position to spare a few residents.”

Jackson nodded, “We need fresh water and a location that’s easy to defend. That’s so much easier if the infected aren’t breathing down our neck.”

“I know,” Carol said, “I just feel bad about it.”

“We do what we have to do,” Greg said. “I have no intention of being a slave to Dray or anyone else. We’ll give the residents of Lakeside a chance to join our ranks. That’s the best we can do for them. And as far as that goes, I don’t think any nation was forged without displacing someone else. I need you guys with me on this,” he said as he held their gaze for a moment before nodding.

“Alright, let’s move. I want to be there before nightfall.”

The camp burst into a flurry of activity as everyone began packing up. The news about finally finding a place spread like wildfire. Soon enough, the entire camp was packed and headed toward their final destination. Several hours later the group reached the outskirts of Lakeside. As the group set up camp, Shirley headed into the town to speak with those in charge. She was escorted by a dozen of the Gregorian Guard. This wasn’t what she wanted to be doing right now, but Greg had insisted. She thought back to their conversation the night before. 

Greg had come to their tent and reminded them that they didn’t keep prisoners. The other two survivors had been taken care of before made their way out of Denton. Shirley understood that he was referring to Jeremy and went to take care of the deed. Jackson had offered to do it but she felt doing it herself would give her so much needed closure. They’d taken care of it quickly.

Jackson had dragged Jeremy outside the camp and Shirley had put a bullet between his eyes. It didn’t give her the closure she had been looking for though. She still didn’t feel safe. How could she? Men had entered their heavily armed camped and taken her. Later she approached Greg and informed him that she wanted to be part of the scouts. She didn’t like feeling unsafe and felt that was the best way to get over it but Greg had refused. Even after explaining her reasoning he still shook his head. He’d told her that he needed her as an ambassador of sorts. He wanted her to be the one to make first contact with any survivor groups they found. The one concession to her desire was that the roads were still unsafe so there would probably be plenty of time for her to gain the skill she wanted.

As she began walking through the town she thought this would be a good place to set up. To her right there appeared to be a farm. She guessed it was such due to the livestock she glimpsed milling around. She didn’t think one would have a farm so close to a town but who was she to judge? She’d lived in the city all her life. To her left a street headed towards what looked to be a residential section. Everything appeared to be intact just as Laura had said. Their group would easily be able to fit in here. After a few minutes of walking, she entered the town proper. On either side of the street there were various stores where one could spend their time. As she neared the center of town she noticed a group of people standing in the street. They leveled their rifles in their direction as she stopped at a respectable distance.

A middle aged man stepped forward from the group. He was slightly overweight but bore a stern expression. “That’s far enough,” he said. “Who are you and what do you want?”

Shirley bowed her head respectfully. For this initial meeting, she had adopted the uniform of the guard. The group had reasoned that this would put forth an image of professionalism. Hopefully the town would see them as such rather than merely a group of bandits and this could all go peacefully. They had discussed what she’d say beforehand but she wasn’t particularly pleased to have them pointing rifles at her. She spread her hands to her side as if to indicate that she meant no harm. 

“My name is Shirley O’Hara and I represent Gregoria.”

“I’m Brian Hicksel, the mayor. Gregoria?” the man asked. “What’s that? You some type of foreigner?”

Shirley shook her head, “Not at all. We’re a group of survivors that banded together for safety. We’ve named ourselves after the man who’s kept us safe all this time.”

“What do you want with us?”

“We’ve been looking for a place to resettle and your town looks to be a perfect fit. Our leader was hoping you’d be willing to meet to discuss a possible arrangement.” Shirley hoped this went over well. If the roles were reversed, she wouldn’t be pleased about some random people showing up and saying they wanted to move in.

“I see,” Brian said thoughtfully. “And if we refuse to come to an arrangement?”

“I can see that you need some time to consider. That’s understandable. I’ll give you some time to think. I’ll come back around five this afternoon. If you decide to meet with us, there’ll be fresh venison,” she said with a smile.

“I see,” Brian replied. “Haven’t had fresh meat in some time. I’ll have your answer then.” She nodded and Brian watched as she led her escort back towards their camp.

Brian turned to the group behind him. “We’re alright for now, guys. You can head on back to your chores.” The group dispersed until David Renner, the town’s sheriff, was the only one remaining.

“What do you think, David?”

David shrugged, “I think we might have to consider their offer. As it stands, they could simply come in and take over. If they’re willing to play nice we should at least hear what they have to say.”

Brian nodded, “Alright, let’s call a meeting. We’ll have to run this by the Three.”

About half an hour later Brian walked into the council chambers. It was a fairly simple affair. A dais as the head of the room boasted a long table with several chairs. The floor of the chamber held several rows of chairs the citizens of Lakeside could use if they felt inclined to attend a meeting. Not that there had been much point of that for years. Today everyone was seated around the long table. All the major players were there. David was there along with Mary Higgins, the village treasurer. After that there were the trustees. They were “elected” officials that were supposed to manage the village’s assets in the best interest of the people.

For years there hadn’t been an actual election. Years ago the village had hit some hard times. A significant portion of their population had left and the village had little in the way of income due to the lost property taxes. They had a single tourist attraction, a mock farm on the edge of town. It had been popular at the time but hadn’t generated nearly enough income to keep the village solvent. Enter the Three, as they had come to be called. North of the village the wealthy had taken to building lavish summer homes. For the most part it had been a good arrangement. They paid a significant amount in property taxes and weren’t that disruptive to village life. They’d show up for two to three months in the summer, throw a few parties and then go back to wherever they had come from. That changed about fifteen years ago. Three of the families, the Apples, the Wests, and the Scalas decided to help the village.

They opened their wallets and the village’s money problems disappeared overnight. In exchange however, they had themselves appointed to the village board of trustees. No one argued at first. These people had literally been the saviors of the town. Soon however, they began making decisions that weren’t in the best interest of the village. Their main goal was trying to look good so they would vote for policies that raised the profile of the village. It didn’t matter if the policy was sound or not so long as it made the village look good. They had a brand new high school built that they didn’t have nearly enough people to fill but it looked good so it happened. He could go on and on, he hated them fervently. All that influence and they just worried about themselves. When people complained and thought to elect someone else to the board, the Three implied that they’d withdraw their financial support. That quickly put an end to anyone interested in running against them. It wouldn’t do to get rid of them only to find themselves back in financial straits. 

“What’s going on?” Roland Apple asked. “I don’t appreciate being summoned outside of regular meetings.

Apple, such an innocent sounding name that concealed a complete snake. Roland’s irritation did improve his mood somewhat. With the power out, the Three had to suffer along with everyone else. They probably didn’t know what to do with themselves without access to their bank accounts and everything else that made their lives so easy.

“There’s been a development,” Brian said as he took his seat.

“Well? What happened?” Roland demanded. “I don’t really care but anything is better than this incessant boredom.”

Roland’s wife, Kerri, laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. Roland’s life of indulgence meant that getting overly excited probably wasn’t good for his blood pressure. Roland was basically the leader of the Three. Brian didn’t know what he held over the others but they hung on his every word as if it were gospel. Even now they were laughing as if his comment was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

Brian waited for the laughter to die down, “An armed group showed up today. They’re camped near the edge of town.”

“What do they want?” Roland asked. “We’re cut off from our funds. There’s little we can do for them.”

“I think they want the town,” Brian said.

“The town? Well they can’t have it!” He glanced at David, “Do your job and get rid of them!”

David chuckled. He’d come to work for the village about six years ago and never toed the line like everyone else in Lakeside. This made Roland hate him. He fancied himself as the real leader of Lakeside and the thought of someone not bowing and scraping around him drove him insane. Unfortunately for Roland, David was good at his job. As much as Roland hated him, the village bylaws didn’t allow firing someone because you felt they didn’t show you the deference you thought you deserved. Roland couldn’t get rid of David without risking a lawsuit and that would have been bad for the profile of the village.

“I’ve got three deputies under my command,” David said calmly. “Their spokesman had an escort of twelve armed men. We’re already outnumbered right there.”

Roland waved a hand dismissively, “Then have the people of Lakeside fight. That should even the odds.”

David shook his head, “We have no idea how many men they have in their camp. In addition, they had the look of being well trained.”

“What do you know?” Roland asked.

David smiled, the way you would at a small child that was having trouble understanding you. “I spent most of my career working the streets of Chicago. I know the difference between an organized group and a bunch of thugs. These guys are professional. If we try to fight, we’ll lose and they’ll take the town anyway.”

“What do you suggest then?” Roland asked with a sneer. “That we just turn over the village to them? That’s preposterous!”

“They mentioned an arrangement,” Brian explained. “It’s worth hearing what they have to say. If we play our cards right we might still be able to have some influence over what happens here.”

“Influence? This is my town!” Roland shouted. “I pulled it from the gutter and kept it afloat. I’ll be damned if I’m just gonna turn it over to some lowlife who shows up with a gun.”

“The woman mentioned resettling,” David said. “That means they want the town intact. It’s not a bad deal. Assuming they leave us alone, the next group might not be so generous.”

Roland shook his head fiercely, “I still say no. I’m not turning over my town!”

“It’s not your decision,” Brian said quietly.

“Excuse me?” Roland asked.

“It’s not your decision,” Brian repeated. “I’m the duly elected official and I’m going to meet with this man. If he has good intentions, it’s in the best interest of the village to hear him out.”

“How dare you talk to me like that?” Roland demanded. “What if he doesn’t have good intentions? What then?”

“Then it’s in the best interest of the village to hear him out,” David said. “We’ll lose if we try to fight. We’ve only got a few pistols and some hunting rifles.”

“This is happening,” Brian said. “What will you do? Withdraw your financial support as you’ve threatened every time someone questioned you? Your money is worthless now.”

Roland’s face turned beet red at Brian’s words. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s have the meeting. But I’ll be coming as well,” he continued, trying to maintain some sense of authority. “I’m not just gonna turn this town over to anyone.”

“Thank you for your vote of confidence,” Brian said sarcastically. “The woman said she’d return around five p.m.”

“Fine,” Roland said. “I’m going to go change. We’ll need to impress this would be warlord.” The Three stood and left the council chamber while the remaining village officers stayed at the table.

Brian waited until the door shut and laughed. “That felt great! I’ve been wanting to tell that man off for years.”

David chuckled, “I could tell you enjoyed that.”

“Do you really think it’s gonna go well?” Mary asked.

“It can’t be much worse can it?” Brian asked.

“There’s some hope here,” David said. “They want to resettle so they’re not looking to raid the village.”

“If you can trust what they said,” Mary replied.

“True,” David said nodding somberly, “that’s the kicker isn’t it?”

***

Brian waited as the woman and her escort approached them. Brian nodded as she arrived. “We’d be happy to meet with your leader,” he said. I have all of the village officials with me, I hope that’s alright.”

Shirley nodded pleasantly, “That’s completely fine. If you’ll follow me?” Brian nodded and followed Shirley as she led the way back to the camp. 

The walk was fairly short, these people were nearly camped on their doorstep. He had to admit he was impressed as they arrived. All of the tents were set up in a neat and orderly fashion. Everyone appeared to be busy in some way, the whole place had an atmosphere of discipline. He also noticed more guards, a lot more. He relaxed a bit as he realized he had made the right decision. However this went down tonight, he’d saved the lives of his people. There was no way they would have been able to stop these guys if they had come in using force. 

“I neglected to mention,” Shirley said as they walked, “if you’re armed you’ll be permitted to carry within the camp. You will however be searched before your meeting. Your weapons will be returned to you when you leave.”

“That’s perfectly understandable,” Brian replied. He hoped that Roland would keep his mouth shut. Now that he’d seen some of their camp, the last thing he wanted to do was antagonize these people.

Shirley led them to a large tent that stood in the center of the camp. Brian noticed a white flag waving in the breeze and took note of the lion printed on it. “It’s not much to look at,” Shirley explained, “but we have to make do with what we find. If you’ll excuse me for just a moment.” She nodded to the guards standing on either side of the entrance and stepped inside.

She returned a few moments later and smiled. “We weren’t expecting so many so while they’re making arrangements I wonder if you might like a tour of the camp?”

“That would be appreciated,” Brian replied. Shirley led them around the camp and Brian quickly noticed most of the sights were military in nature. This was planned no doubt. A subtle way of showing that they had no chance if this turned to open conflict. One of the last things Shirley showed them was a training session. Brian noted that it was an all-female class and was impressed. Not only did they have a sizable fighting force, even their women were capable of fighting. They looked pretty vicious too. Brian had little doubt that any of them would be able to take him down. 

Shirley noticed his look. “We rescued these women from some bandits a while back. There’s actually an argument going that they might be fiercer than our men.”

Shirley led the way back to the tent and Brian realized he had little choice in what happened tonight. The tour had the cemented the fact that these, what’d they call themselves? That these Gregorians could simply take their town if they were so inclined. But he took some comfort in the fact that this could happen peacefully. At least his people wouldn’t be killed if their leader kept his word. He felt pretty confident about that. If Shirley was telling the truth about the women he had seen, then that meant they tried to do good.

When they arrived back at the tent, each of them was thoroughly searched. Fortunately, no one had tried anything stupid. David was the only armed with his pistol. Once they were cleared, the guards nodded and Shirley led the way inside the tent.

It was an open area dominated by a large table in the center of the room. The table was arrayed with a number of dishes and Brian’s mouth watered at the cut of venison situated in the center of the table. He also noticed several bottles of wine. He might lose control of his city tonight, but at least he would eat well.

“Please have a seat,” Shirley said. “Gregory will be with you shortly.” Shirley seated herself and looked at them expectantly. 

Brian found a seat and got comfortable. Gregory, huh? That was the first time he’d heard their leader’s name. David and Mary sat on either side of him and he smiled pleasantly. “At least we’ll eat well he whispered quietly. David nodded and glanced towards the venison. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to eat this well.

Roland and his wife sat near the head of the table, no doubt in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with Gregory when he arrived. Brian really hoped they wouldn’t do or say something stupid. The tent flap rustled and Brian turned to see who entered the room.

***

Greg entered the tent and looked around the table. He looked around until he saw the man fitting Shirley’s description. This was the mayor, Brian Hicksel. Who were these others? The man next to him had the look of a fighter. He was probably the sheriff or some such. He hadn’t let himself go either but stayed in shape despite working in so small a town. He had no idea who these others were. How had Shirley described them? Village officials?

“Hi everyone,” Greg said, “thanks for coming.” He made his way to the head of the table as the rest of his inner circle entered the tent. “How about some introductions?” he asked as the group made their way to the table.

He gestured towards James and Laura, “James Ruckley here is in charge of my personal security. Laura is my Director of operations, that’s probably the best way to describe everything she does.” He gestured towards Jackson and Shirley next. “Jackson is our sheriff and Shirley is our envoy.”

He smiled as he nodded towards Carol. She was a few seats away due to the way the Three had chosen their seats. “Carol here helps me keep everything organized. We haven’t come up with a fancy title for her yet,” he finished with a chuckle.

Brian smiled and began the introductions on his end. “Brian Hicksel, mayor,” he said indicating himself. This is David Renner, our sheriff. Next we have Mary Higgins, village treasurer and the rest are the village board of trustees. Roland and Kerri Apple, Oliver and Patricia West, and Timothy and Wendy Scala.”

Greg nodded once the introductions were complete. “Great. I thought we might eat first before getting down to business.”

Brian nodded appreciatively, “I have to admit part of the reason I came was the chance for fresh meat.”

Greg chuckled, “You won’t be disappointed. My huntsman keeps me well fed.”

“You have your own huntsman?” Brian asked.

“I do,” Greg replied. “Helped him out of a jam some time ago. The man is an amazing hunter. He could probably keep us fed all winter if we had a way to preserve the meat. Hard to do that on the move though.”

Brian nodded as he took his first bite of fresh meat in weeks. “Wow,” he said after swallowing. “I don’t know if it’s the fact I haven’t had real meat in weeks or if you also have a personal chef.”

“A bit of both, maybe. I will admit our cooks have been doing a great job given the circumstances.”

They continued to make small talk until everyone had eaten their fill. Greg looked around the table to ensure that everyone had eaten and nodded to himself. “Alright, I think it’s about time to discuss the reason for your visit.”

“I believe that Shirley told you why we were here?”

Brian nodded, “She mentioned that you were looking for a place to resettle.”

Greg nodded, “That’s true. We’ve traveled a long way and I have to say that your town suits our needs perfectly.”

“Why us?” Brian asked.

“You’ve survived the Collapse relatively unscathed. Your infrastructure is intact and your isolation is a natural defense against the infected. You’re also sitting right on the edge of Lake Superior. The location of your town also makes it easy to defend.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Brian replied. “I went on your tour and I believe I understand the message you were making loud and clear,” he said cutting to the heart of the matter. “What can we do to keep our people safe?”

“Now hold on there,” Roland protested, “you can’t just hand over my town like that!”

Greg raised an eyebrow and glanced in Roland’s direction. “I find myself a bit confused,” he said as he addressed Brian. “I thought you were the mayor.”

“I am” Brian replied. “Roland here bailed the town out of some financial difficulty years ago. Since then he has used the threat of removing financial support to influence town policy.”

Greg nodded in understanding. “Do you own any land, Roland? Farmland specifically.”

“What do I need a farm for?” he asked.

“Do you have orchards, or livestock?” Greg asked.

“No,” Roland replied wondering where this was going.

“So you don’t have anything actually useful to me. Your wealth isn’t tied to the land but to a currency that no longer has any value. As such, you’re useless to me. I really don’t understand why you think you have something useful to say.”

“How dare you?” Roland said, his face turning red with rage. “I am Roland Apple! I saved this town when everyone abandoned it-”

“Shut up, Roland!” David yelled. Roland cut off mid-sentence, surprised at David’s outburst. “I’m sorry,” he said looking at Greg. “Roland’s an idiot. He’s so used to being able to throw money around that he doesn’t know when to be quiet.”

Greg waved his hand dismissively, putting the matter from his mind. “You asked what you can do,” he said looking at Brian. “Simply put, I want your town. It’ll become my capital. I want you to sell the idea to your people. I’ll need men to swell my army as well as help with rebuilding. Everyone will be put to work.”

“I see,” Brian said thoughtfully. Not that there was much for him to think about. Agreeing to the terms kept his people safe. “I agree to your terms.”

“Thank you,” Greg replied, “I mean that.”

“Thank you,” Brian replied. “I know how this could have gone. So what happens now?”

“Break the news to your people tonight. I’ll give you all day tomorrow to get them used to the idea. The following day we’ll having a ceremony where you officially hand over the city and take the oath.”

“The oath?” Brian asked.

Greg nodded. “Remember the pledge of allegiance as a kid? Same thing, only to Gregoria and myself as its head.”

“Alright, I understand.”

“After that, we’ll have a feast. Assuming the hunt goes well everyone should get a chance at some fresh meat.”

“That’ll help the sell for anyone that has a problem,” Brian said. “We’ve been eating out of cans these last few weeks.”

Greg nodded, “That was the idea. I’m gonna tell you what we’re up against. After I do that, you can tell me if you want to keep your job or not.” At Brian’s nod Greg proceeded to tell him about Dray and his plans for conquest. Brian listened intently, amazed that one man could be responsible for so much destruction.

“These are my people,” Brian said when Greg was finished. “I want to help however I can.”

“It’s gonna be hard work getting order established,” Greg said. “I’ll be out bringing others into our fold and building alliances with those I can’t. I’ll need you to run the city. You’ll report to Carol when I’m not here. We’ll go over the details later, I just wanted to give you an idea of what we’re up against.”

Brian nodded and the group made small talk for a bit before breaking up for the night. As they were leaving, Greg pulled Brian aside. “Tell me about Roland,” he asked once they were alone.

“He’s wealthy,” Brian said, “well he was before all this happened anyway. He’s used to getting what he wants. He’s been bossing everyone around in Lakeside for years.”

“Does he do anything? I’m wondering if you need him to run the city.”

“Our bylaws required us to vote on certain things and he was there for that. He had a lot of influence over what happened but he isn’t essential for anything.”

Greg nodded, “I thought as much. How much influence does he have over the people?”

“Everyone knew he was the reason our town was staying afloat. He’d always be sure to point that out if someone disagreed with him over something. No one actually likes him though.”

“Good,” Greg replied. “I’ll be removing him from office. I won’t have someone like that making decisions solely for their own profit. I’ll get rid of all the trustees actually. You won’t have to worry about votes to get things done. If you need something we’ll make it happen.”

Brian nodded, “I think this is gonna work out just fine,” he said as he extended his hand.

Greg took it in a firm grasp. “It will. We’re gonna build something great here. I’m glad you’re gonna be a part of it.”

That evening, Brian called a town meeting. He wanted to make sure everyone was there so he’d had David and his deputies go door to door of the remaining citizens to make sure no one was left behind. To his surprise, the people took the announcement well. Brian wondered if it was the promised feast which implied that there could be food like that on a regular basis.  He also thought it might be the idea of security, someone that was willing to tell them what to do. Everything had been so uncertain when the infected showed up. They’d only seen one or two but there were just so many questions. Most of their town hadn’t come home from work that night and there wasn’t any news from the government. They’d just been surviving, hoping that their loved ones were alright and that someone would tell them what was going on.

During the dinner last night Brian had learned the extent of the destruction unleashed by the infected. Greg called it the Collapse for good reason. Brian couldn’t even wrap his mind around how many people had been killed. And to think, all this had been unleashed by the twisted ambition of one man. Greg had his loyalty. The government had failed them. It was either unable to help or had abandoned them entirely. He had no problem giving Greg his oath. 

***

Greg watched silently as the next group of guards came to stand before them. “I pledge my loyalty to Gregoria and her people,” they began in unison. “I will serve with honor and integrity.”

They had already taken the oath Lakeside would be performing in the morning. James had thought that the guards should have a separate oath so here they were. It was after midnight and he wanted nothing more to be in his bed but they decided to get all the guards sworn in before the ceremony.

“I will uphold her laws,” they continued.

Greg was amazed that they had come so far. To think, they started out as nothing more than a desperate group of survivors and now they were their own people. Lakeside was just the first step. In a day or two, he’d send out the scouts to look for more survivors. He’d unite whoever remained so they could stand against Dray’s plans for conquest.

“Though it cost me my life, I will defend her from her enemies.”

Greg smiled as the men continued their oath. They’d started out so small, now they had an army.

“I will not falter, I will not fear, her enemies will fear my roar.”

***

Reel looked out the window as they sped through the Wisconsin countryside. They were just a few hours out from his new city. One of Dray’s men had contacted him with the coordinates early this morning. Dray was a fool for giving him a new base of operations. Reel would rebuild his forces and take the tower from him. Emerald Falls was the true center of power and he had no doubt this had been part of Dray’s plan. The man had probably hoped that he would have been killed by the unchecked spread of the infected but Reed would show him. He’d come out on top and rule from the Emerald Tower himself.

His suv pulled to a stop and Reel exited the vehicle. There caravan was a sight to see. There were nearly forty identical suvs, each of them filled with loyal men. He was handed a pair of binoculars and brought them to his eyes. His new home sprang into view and he had to admit he was disappointed. He’d been expecting a moderately sized town at least, not some backwater. Yet further insult by Dray but that was alright. He’d make this work.

“How’s it look?” he asked the man standing next to him.

“We’re not seeing a lot of movement at the moment. I’d guess that most of them are holed up in the town. We did notice some tents to the south though. We should probably do some recon to make sure we have an accurate count of their numbers.”

Dray’s man had told them they had a fighting force of approximately one hundred men. He had twice that plus his men were some of the best the world had to offer. “We’re dealing with a group of survivors, not a trained military force. I sincerely doubt they’re any match for us.”

“Of course sir,” the man replied. 

Reel nodded, “Let’s move, we’ve got a town to take.”

***

Greg walked down the street at the head of his Gregorian Guard. Directly behind him walked James and Jackson. Behind them, the Gregorian Guard walked three abreast. Greg was sure they had to cut a dashing image, each of them in the colors of the guard. He saw that many of Lakeside’s citizens were on either side of the street and was pleased that Brian had done his part. Fathers held children on their shoulders who waved enthusiastically and even the adults seemed to be pleased. Greg chuckled to himself. Maybe they were just happy about the promised feast. They reached the center of town and the procession came to a halt.

Greg stepped forward and moved to stand in front of Brian. He’d officially hand over the town now and they’d then start preparations for the feast. At this moment his hunters were out scouring the woods for game. He had no doubt Byron would at least be successful but he hoped the other hunters would be as well. After all, he had promised everyone fresh meat.

“Sir! Sir!” Greg looked towards the source of the shout and saw a guard running full speed towards them. The guard came to a stop and bent over as he pulled in lungfuls of air. 

“What happened?” Greg asked.

“Big…group…coming…this…way,” he managed to gasp out between breaths.

Greg frowned, “Why didn’t you use the walkie? James asked.  “We could have already been on our way.”

“Tyler thought…they might…hear us.”

Greg glanced at James, “New recruit,” he replied. “Pretty talented.”

Greg nodded, “Where are they coming from?”

“From the west. Tyler and…the others are trying to slow them down.” The guard stood up straight, recovered enough that his breathing was no longer affected.

He’d have to meet this Tyler. Greg looked at the guard they had assembled. They were about one hundred and fifty according to James. The rest were either on patrol or guarding the camp. 

“Did you manage to get a head count?” he asked.

“Tyler said there looked to be about two hundred.”

“Should I call in the other patrols?” James asked.

Greg thought for a moment. He’d have to leave some men here to guard the town. That would put them down even further but it couldn’t be helped. He also doubted there was enough time to call in the other patrols. There was also the possibility that they just weren’t being attacked from one direction. No, it was too risky to call in the other patrols.

“No, there might be others. We’ll have to make this work. Brian!”

“Yes?” Brian asked.

“Let’s get everyone inside. Down into basements if you have them. Jackson, pick some men to remain behind, just in case.”

Jackson nodded and walked down the line, pulling a man here and there. “You’re going?” Brian asked.

“Of course,” Greg replied. “I won’t stay behind while my men go to fight.”

In that moment he won Brian’s loyalty. This man wasn’t some bandit looking to gain power. He genuinely cared about his people. “Be careful, sir,” Brian said. “We’ll hold it down here.”

Greg nodded and turned back towards the messenger. “Can you make the run back?”

The man nodded vigorously, “Wouldn’t miss it, sir.”

Greg nodded, “Good man. James, let’s go.”

James nodded, “Alright! Someone’s attacking our new home. Let’s show ‘em what we can do. Remember your training. Lion Guard, form up!”

Greg glanced towards James with a raised eyebrow. “It seemed appropriate,” he replied with a grin.

Greg chuckled as a dozen men broke from the line and moved to surround him. He recognized the men tasked with guarding him on a regular basis and saw one other familiar face. He remembered, Justin Oller from the trailer park. “Alright, let’s move!”

They took off and set a hard pace. Fortunately, a significant portion of their krav maga training was conditioning. Otherwise, they would’ve arrived winded and been of no use to anyone. They covered distance quickly and a few minutes later they entered a forested area. Greg called a halt and looked around. It looked like the trees would provide adequate cover here. This was probably the best that they could hope for given that they were outnumbered. 

“Alright, let’s set up here.” he said.

***

Tyler Marlin leaned around the tree and squeezed off a few shots. Turning around he sprinted towards the town and hoped no one would get off a lucky shot. He weaved in out and the trees hoping they would block any shots that managed to get close. He slid to a stop behind another tree and squeezed off a few more shots then took off running again. He doubted that he’d scored any kills but this was the only way he could think of to slow their advance. Shots sounded from either side of him and he knew that the fellow members of his patrol were doing the same. He hoped they all made it through this. He took a deep breath, time to move again.

***

Greg peeked around the tree and saw a guard running towards his position. Greg leaned out a bit and made eye contact before returning to his position. The man slid to a stop next to him and Greg pointed to a nearby tree. The man nodded his understanding and took position. Greg heard a few more shots and then silence. 

“Keep an eye out!” someone called. “He couldn’t have gone far.”

Greg kept perfectly still and hoped his men were doing the same. As the sound of their footsteps neared him he quietly moved around the tree so he wouldn’t be seen. He risked a look out and saw a large group of men, all dressed in military gear. He waited a few moments until the bulk of the group was in front of him and then opened fire. At his signal, the rest of his mean leaned out of cover and did the same. Dozens of men dropped in the first volley and were soon joined by their fellows as Greg and his men continued firing.

“Ambush! Find Cover!” one of their number yelled.

Their enemies scattered and found nearby trees to hide behind. They exchanged fire for several minutes and Greg cursed in frustration. He looked around and saw James using a nearby tree for cover.

“James!” he called. James looked in his direction and he continued, “This is no good. We’re outnumbered. We can’t sit here trading fire all day.”

James nodded and got the attention of some nearby guards. He led the group off into the woods and Greg knew he needed to keep the fight going to buy him some time to get into position. The next few minutes passed slowly. Greg would lean out, fire a few shots and then get back in cover as the enemy returned fire. This continued until he heard gunfire coming from another direction.

James must be in place, now they could end this. The screams he heard told him that James had been successful in flanking the enemy. This continued for a few minutes until gunfire from the other side stopped as they realized they were in a terrible position. 

Men threw themselves to the ground in hopes of being spared and just like that, it was over. “We surrender!” one of them called out. “Don’t shoot!”

“Throw us your weapons!” Greg shouted.

The survivors hurriedly complied and a pile of weaponry was soon formed. Greg looked at the pile from his position and saw rifles, sidearms, and other items he couldn’t quite make out from this distance.

“On your knees, hands behind your head,” he called.

The men complied and Greg and his men left cover, weapons aimed at their targets.

“Who’s in charge?” Greg asked.

“I am,” a man replied. Greg looked and saw a man that appeared to be in his mid-forties. “Ryan Reel,” he said.

“Who sent you?”

Reel sighed, “Dray. William Dray sent me.”

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” Greg said. “One of you escaped last time and I find an army on my doorstep weeks later.”

“I’ve been played,” Reel said.

“What?” Greg asked.

“The infection you’ve seen, it’s all over the U.S. All over the world really. I was in charge of the west. Long story short, it didn’t work out and I had to come here. Dray told me I’d be able to take you out and I could keep your town for myself.”

“That just makes me want to kill you more,” Greg replied.

“I can help you,” Reel said.

“Help me how? You would’ve killed us given the chance.”

“True,” Reel replied, “but I’m practical man. I can clearly see that I’ve lost and I’m trying to bargain for my life.”

“What can you do for me?” Greg asked.

“I can buy you time. You’ve got a nice sized force here but Dray has way more. This trick won’t work against what he can bring against you. I can give you time to build up your strength so that when you go against Dray you’ll be ready.”

“How?”

“Let me go back. Dray sent me here to keep me out of the way. I’ll go back, tell him that I killed you and that your town wasn’t to my liking.”

“We were obviously being followed for you to find us here. How do we know he just won’t send more?” Greg asked.

“He might, that’s possible. But if you let me go back he’ll be busy with me. I intend to take the tower from him. If I succeed, I’ll stay in Illinois and leave you alone. If I fail, then I’ve bought you some time.”

Greg sighed, “James? What do you think?”

“I’d rather finish the lot of them but he’s kinda making sense. Dray is gonna come at us and we could use some time to prepare. Not that this is all we’ve got mind you, but it wouldn’t hurt to be safe.”

Greg nodded and thought that was a good move on James’ part. No need to admit this was most of their military strength. Greg didn’t trust this Reel but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have someone distracting Dray. “Alright,” he said. “I suppose that makes sense. You can go but all your weapons are staying.”

Reel nodded, “That’s understandable. Thank you.”

Greg nodded and Reel and his remaining men headed back the way they came as quickly as they could. They were about twenty men remaining by Greg’s estimate. “Have some men follow them, make sure they leave.”

James nodded and started calling names. 

***

Reel walked as swiftly as he legs would carry him. That had been a close call. Add this to the list of indignities Dray had put him through. He’d walked directly into ambush! Only his smooth talking had seen him survive the day. He should’ve aborted the plan when they had been fired upon. He saw now that those men had been buying time for the rest of their forces to set up the ambush. He’d miscalculated, thought that a bunch of survivors couldn’t possibly out maneuver his highly trained men. He’d survive this though. He’d return to Emerald Falls and take it over from within. Surely he could subvert some of Dray’s men to his cause. Then, he’d return and crush this upstart. The man thought he’d buy him some time and that would be true to some extent. But he’d return and crush him once Dray was out of the way and the tower was his.

***

The Gregorian Guard returned to a hero’s welcome. They’d radioed ahead to announce their victory and everyone was back in the streets by the time they arrived. Greg walked at the head and Brian knew he’d made the right decision. Everyone quieted as the guard came to a halt and Greg took a few steps forward.

Brian watched as Greg came to stand in front of him. He had to admit the man cut a dashing figure the way he stood with his hand resting on the hilt of his blade like a king of old. Brian nodded to himself, that was it right there. This man wasn’t a mayor or governor or anything like that. He wasn’t a politician at all. This man saw what needed doing and did it. You could either go along with it or not. Brian got down on one knee. “Kneel before your king!” he called out.

There were a few moments where people processed what he said then one by one, everyone got down on one knee. Greg looked around and saw that everyone was kneeling, the people of Lakeside and the guard alike. Everyone from camp was here as well. He caught Carol’s eye and she smiled. He hadn’t been expecting this but it was fitting. Hadn’t he led them here just as he said he would? Hadn’t he fought to keep them safe?

“On behalf of Lakeside,” Brian began, “we accept your authority as our king. Lead, and we’ll follow.”

A simple oath but it got the point across and Greg knew it was genuine. He’d have no problem here, these were now his people. “I accept your oath,” he called out in a loud voice. “Now hear my oath to you. So long as I breathe I will fight for you. I will purge the infected from our land and I will destroy any who come against us. I will give you peace. Not the peace of cooperating with those who would hurt us. But peace in that no one will dare to come against us!”

In the silence that followed James shouted, “Long live the king!” A moment later the shout was taken up by all. “Long live the King! Long live the King!”

As their voices washed over him Greg smiled. He’d had no idea that his life would take this direction. Who would have thought he’d lead a ragtag group of survivors to safety? But he knew it was right. This was his destiny. He was king.

***

End Book 1

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Apocalypse Origins

  • Author: ra neely
  • Published: 2017-02-03 16:05:17
  • Words: 100455
Apocalypse Origins Apocalypse Origins