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Apocalypse origins, p.6
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       Apocalypse Origins, p.6

           R.A. Neely
 

  ***

  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. F
inding 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 lea
ve 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 wa
nt 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 ca
ns 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. 
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