Novella: the Blighted


the Blighted
part 1

This is a work of fiction.  All of the characters, organizations and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or undead is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 Archer Garrett. 
All Rights Reserved.
No Part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission


World Health Organization (WHO), South Pacific Region
Suva, Fiji
The exhausted soldiers leaned against the walls of the flat roof and scanned the city with their binoculars.  An occasional walker was noted below as it randomly shuffled about, but so far, there were no signs of a real threat.  Hopefully it would be a quiet day.  They certainly needed the rest.
In the lobby of the building, five floors below, a group of a dozen men with spears and machetes waited for an update from the watchmen high above.  They’d abandoned the use of firearms in all but the most dire of circumstances.  The rifles’ loud reports only served to attract even more of the undead, and their supply of ammunition was running precariously low.
In the center of the roof was a sprawling array of solar panels.  A confusion of wires led from the modules to a battery bank on the fifth floor, just below.  The rain over the past several days had been both a blessing and a curse.  Though it had refilled their cistern, it had nearly drained their power reserves.  Hopefully the next few days would be sunny.  For a day without power was a day without research, and thus, another day without hope.
Liam, The commanding officer on the roof, sighed deeply as he surveyed the city.  The view inspired a sense of complete despair.  The nearby streets of Suva Old Town were once filled with tourists as they explored the endless line of shops and dined in the sidewalk cafes.  The colonial architecture was a mocking reminder of times that were no more.  Now, they were hauntingly barren, save for the occasional, shuffling corpse, and an endless parade of wind-blown trash. 
Liam turned and scanned the jagged, northwest horizon wrought by the island’s mountainous interior.  There’d been no word from the survivors on the opposite side in Nadi or Lautoka for nearly two weeks.   He sighed and wondered if he and his companions were the last of the living on Viti Levu.
Cursing, he listened as the cries echoed through the surrounding area.  Apparently not.
“Help us!”
He watched as two distraught men appeared in the distance.  Desperately, they fled along Renwick Road, ever closer to the watchmen.
“Sir, should we take ‘em out?”
“No!” Liam snarled, “Last time shots were fired, we were nearly overrun.  Radio the lobby; have the men go out and shut ‘em up, before they get us all killed.”
Noah nodded and radioed the men below.
“Come in Ratu.”
“Go ahead.”
“Send some of your men out to get those two before they wake the entire city.”
* * *
Ratu and the others dashed out of the building’s main entrance towards the pair of terrified refugees.  Their machetes and spears bobbed rhythmically with their strides as they cleared the gap.  The uncharacteristically large Ghurka was filled with dread at the thought of what might be shuffling after the two men.  If they’d managed to survive this long, the pair was obviously capable of defending themselves.
As Ratu and the others reached the men, the unease that was within him gave way to rage.  His machete clattered on the pavement as he put his full weight into the swing.  The man’s knees buckled as the Ghurka’s massive fist violently connected with his jaw.  The second man lost the last remaining vestiges of his composure as he watched his companion collapse onto the filthy street.
Ratu leaned in so that he was inches from the face of the fearful figure that was still standing.  His hot, rancid breath swirled about the man’s nostrils as he growled, “Are you insane?  You’ll wake the dead!”
The emaciated refugee closed his hollow eyes and dropped to his knees.  A long, low moan filled the air as he shook and wept uncontrollably.  The wounded man cradled his jaw as he sat up and draped an arm over his friend’s shoulder.
“How many’re after you?”
They ignored the Ghurka.  Instead, they curled around his feet like scolded dogs.  They were broken men, exhausted from the terror of a nightmare that never ended.
“How many’re after you?”
The wounded man looked up with bloodshot eyes and tears streaming down his face.  Still rubbing his jaw, he said, “We’re all dead… all dead...”
Ratu’s radio crackled to life with the sound of a panicked voice. “All of you get back here, now!  Barricade the doors; get the guns!”
As the voice on the radio faded, a low gurgle filled the void.  The men looked up to see an endless wave of undead spilling out from around the distant street corner.  As terrifying as the sight of the horde was, the sound was worse.  As the infected’s eyes settled on the living, the dull drone was replaced by a shrill babble and clacking of jaws.   The eerie silence of the midsummer’s day was to be no more. 
Ratu crouched low to retrieve his machete before jerking the refugees to their feet.  Standing again, he glanced quickly about.  The faces of his fellow soldiers were pale with horror.  He aimed to will forth words that would bolster his comrades, but a single, broken word blundered out.  “Go.”  It sounded cracked.  Uncertain.  Like their fate.  Turning, they made for the refuge.
* * *
Dr. Rawlings’ assistant, Emma, finished transcribing the notes from the previous day’s observation and uploaded them to RISA.  The information on RISA could be accessed by hundreds of collaborating doctors and researchers from around the globe as they frantically searched for a cure to the virus that had spread like wildfire.  In another life, his assistant would’ve never performed such a lowly task, but times had changed.  Everyone had to pull together.
Communication between the researchers had begun to devolve as they’d become increasingly isolated.  The last conference call had been several days ago, and some of the more reclusive members of the team had begun communicating solely through RISA.  Emma could understand the eccentricities that were surfacing because of the despair.  Without a cure in sight, the research was becoming increasingly maddening.  And all the while the world continued to descend into a darkness that had been unfathomable just weeks ago.
“Emma, are you finished?”
Upon unleashing a final assault on the keyboard, she replied, “Yes sir.”
“Good; ready for today’s observations?”
She nodded and followed him up the stairs to the fifth floor lab.  As they walked the long hall towards the solitary door at the end, the shrieks and wails of the test subjects became apparent.  The pitiful sounds of the creatures filled Emma with despair, but she knew of no other way.
Inside the room were cages of all sizes.  A menagerie of indigenous animals was held therein.  Some were miserable, terrified creatures, while others were milky-eyed aberrations.
The doctor crossed the room with a dispassionate sense of duty.  Emma followed closely behind, careful not to stray too close to any of the enclosures.
“Shall we begin?”
She retrieved her notepad and nodded in affirmation.
“Let’s see…” His words were long and slow, as if he were debating every syllable.  They teetered on his tongue for a time before making themselves known, as if they’d minds of their own.  “Suva Eighty-Five… Brachylophus fasciata – Banded Iguana…” Rawlings paused momentarily as he glanced down at is watch.  “…Thirty-six hours after inoculation.” 
The doctor prodded the limp body with his pencil, before finally announcing, “Status… deceased.”
He waited patiently while Emma dutifully recorded his dictations.  Once she had finished, she looked up and forced a weak smile.  He nodded and began anew.
“Suva Eighty-Six…  Notopteris macdonaldi – Long-tailed fruit bat…  Forty-eight hours after inoculation.”  As he leaned in to examine the creature, it suddenly flung itself against the bars of the cage.  Hissing and snarling, it struggled desperately to reach the doctor.  With a sigh, he continued, “Status… infected.”
As Emma finished scratching her shorthand notes, an alarm screeched to life.  The animals were thrust into a frenzy by the frantic sound.  Unable to grip the pen, she watched as it tumbled from her quivering hand to the floor.  Exhaling deeply, she closed her eyes and pulled the notebook towards her, until it was pressed tightly against her chest.  The sounds of the room seemed to fade away until only the deep, foreboding tones could be heard.
Dr. Rawlings placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and whispered reassuringly, “Emma, we’re just going into an alert.  It’s happened before, and we were alright then too, right?”
“Yes, but-”
“Ratu and the others’ll keep us safe.  They always do, right?”
She exhaled deeply as she struggled to regain her composure, before finally forcing a meager smile.
Dr. Rawlings brushed her hair out of her eyes and smiled back confidently.  Turning, he continued with the observations.
“Suva Eighty-Seven.  Sus scrofa; Common wild boar…” His voice was stronger, as if to assure her there was nothing to fear in this new world except for failing to complete the day’s observations.  “Sixty hours after inoculation.  Status… infected.”
As Emma finished the notes and they moved to the next subject, Dr. Rawlings began again, but then paused.
“Yes sir?”
“Is this Eighty-Eight?”
Emma checked her notes carefully before replying, “Uhm… it is.”
“You’re positive this is Eighty-Eight?”
“I mean, I could recheck my notes,” she paused as she shuffled several pages.  “Yes; I’m positive.”
The doctor prodded the animal with the instrument, but it only whimpered and shrunk into the corner of the cage.  Jubilantly, he continued his dictation, “Suva Subject Eighty-Eight shows no signs of aggression seventy-two hours after inoculation.  No other subject has exceeded the forty eight hour window!  Emma!  This could be the one!”
As the two cheered and embraced, a second, more urgent alarm began to sound.  The color drained from the doctor’s face as the siren continued.
The shrill ring of a telephone called out from a small table in the far corner.  Emma watched as Rawlings raced across the lab and snatched the hand piece from the base.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“What floor?  No!  Do something!”
He let the phone drop from his hand as he turned to Emma.
“I have to get to RISA.  We must let the others know about Eighty-Eight!”
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve been breached; they’ve made it to the second floor.  There’s no time, I have to go!”
The doctor opened the top drawer of the table and retrieved a pistol.  Tilting it up, he pulled back the slide and verified a round was chambered.  Without a word, Emma followed him out into the hall and watched helplessly as he dashed towards the stairwell.  Before disappearing below, he called out, “Lock the door behind me!  Don’t let anyone in until the alarm is over!”
“No!  Please… don’t go!”
Rawlings ignored her pleas as he rushed down the stairs.  Alone, she walked the long hall in a trance.  As the deadbolt clicked into place, she covered her face with her hands, slid down the wall, and wept.
* * *
After what seemed like an eternity, the alarm finally ceased its assault on her ears.  Emma cradled a heavy pump shotgun and waited anxiously for the doctor to call out to be let back in.  After the pandemonium of the past hour, the silence that’d settled over the hall was unnerving to her senses.  A single, loud rap against the cold steel of the door startled her with its suddenness.  The sound reverberated forebodingly down the passage.  Gripping the Mossberg tightly, she slowly approached the door.
“Dr. Rawlings?”
No response.
As she neared the door, a second knock rang out, and then another, and another – until an endless clamor erupted.  Beyond the drumbeat of fists, a symphony of snarls and moans swelled to a feverish pitch.  Stumbling backwards, she shouldered the heavy gun against her slender frame, struggling to hold it in place.  The door soon began to groan and buckle under the stress of the relentless assault.
The frame slowly began to crack and splinter, until the deadbolt suddenly smashed through the wood.  The door swung wide and slammed violently against the wall, revealing the decaying horrors just beyond.  The front line of creatures collapsed in a heap on the floor, their bodies having been effectively pulverized by the others.  The parade of undead behind them ignored their groans as they trampled over the fallen and poured into the research wing of the fifth floor.
Emma stumbled backwards from the harsh recoil as she squeezed the trigger.  The wad of lead tore through tattered flesh and bone, but still they ambled forward. 
Fifteen strides away.
She firmly planted her left foot, leaned forward and aimed higher as she fired again, sending several of the walkers on the front line tumbling to the ground.  Racking the slide, she pressed her assault.  An undead rampart began to form from the fallen, but the others simply clambered over the still-writhing heap.
Thirteen strides away.
She fired a quick volley of three shots and watched as a half dozen of the walkers’ heads exploded in a disgusting display of black gore.  The sickening stench of rot and decay caused her to turn and retch on the floor.
Eleven strides away.
As the trigger clicked against an empty chamber, Emma panicked.  She fumbled with the shotgun’s side saddle and dropped the first two shells on the floor.  Finally, her shaking hand clutched a shell and pushed it into the empty tube.  She racked the slide and sent several more of the walkers tumbling to the ground, before clutching another shell and repeating the cycle.  After three salvos, she hurled the spent weapon at the horde and retrieved the Walther that had been resting in the small of her back.
Eight strides away.
Upon thrusting the pistol forward, Emma took a moment to survey the scene that was unfolding in front of her.  She forced herself out of the adrenaline-induced tunnel vision and noticed that the no more walkers were emerging from the stairwell.  She reasoned there were at least forty corpses lumbering down the hall, just yards away.  She exhaled deeply before squeezing the trigger.  Only seventeen more rounds, she mused as the slide was slammed backwards and the pistol leapt up, better make ‘em count.
Round after round from the Walther slammed against the rotting foreheads.  The disgusting, milky eyes of the undead froze in position as their heads lurched backwards from the sudden impact of the hollow-point bullets.  Their skulls sprayed on the faces of their companions behind them as the bullets exploded out the back and continued tumbling into the crowd.
Five strides away.
Emma executed her futile assault with deft precision, downing one line of undead in a single, fluid motion, before beginning anew.  Upon emptying the magazine into the swarm, she shrieked as she stumbled backwards and collided painfully against the floor.  She shielded her face and tearfully accepted her fate.
The lead walker’s guise was gruesomely distorted.  Its nose was smashed flat and its ears had been torn from the side of its head.  Its teeth clacked loudly as it outstretched its arms and leaned in.  Emma retched again from the evil-dead stench.
Somewhere beyond the putrid crowd, a door burst open.  An explosion of gunfire filled the narrow hall, cutting the horde down where they stood.  Emma stared in shock as the ventilated corpses fell all around her.
Liam and the others cautiously advanced towards her, occasionally stopping to drive a boot into the head of a writhing walker.  As he reached her, he offered his hand and helped her to her feet.
“Were you bitten?”
He turned to the other men and said, “Noah, you and the others check the next floor for survivors.”
Noah nodded and motioned to the others.  Slowly, they made their way down the hall, avoiding the heaps of corpses when they could.  Emma and Liam watched as they disappeared into the uncertainty that waited below.  Finally, he turned to her and said, “There anyone else here?”
She tried to speak, but the words refused her.  He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Noah’ll do what he can.  If the doctor’s down there, they’ll bring him back.”
She wanted to say more, but, “Thank you,” was all she could manage. 
Liam nodded and added softly, “If we can’t retake the building, we’ll have to evacuate.  You should probably go and gather your things.”
“Where do you plan to take us?”
“I don’t know; we’ve lost contact with the others on the island.  All of Oceania’s been hit fierce - Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia… we’ve had scarce contact with anyone close to us.  If it was up to me we’d go east, find an island that hasn’t been hit yet and let the rest of the world fend for itself.”
“We can’t do that, Liam, even if such a place existed.”
“Why not?  Why’s this burden ours?”
“We’ve a subject that hasn’t turned after three days of being infected with the virus.  We may hold the key, Liam.  We need to get him somewhere that can continue with the research.  Whether we want it or not, this burden is ours now.”
Liam stood in shocked silence as he processed her words.  Finally he replied, “But where do we go?”
“We have several colleagues in the States.  If we could make it there, maybe they could help.”
As the two talked, a flurry of gunfire erupted somewhere below.
“Emma, go!  Get your things; we have to leave now!”
She raced down the hall and disappeared for several moments before returning with a backpack and a small cage.  As she reached Liam, Noah and the others emerged from the stairwell.  The last soldier turned and tossed a grenade down the darkened hole from where they’d just fled.  It bounced down several steps and landed at the feet of a lumbering corpse.  Contorting its head unnaturally, it curiously observed the device.
A deafening explosion rocked the wing.  Thick plumes of dust and smoke billowed up from the stairway.  Emma and Liam raced to the roof while Noah and the others sent a final volley of lead down below.
Up top, Liam and the others could hear the groans of the undead intensifying as they pressed onward.  Arms could be heard flailing against the door as the living made for the far side of the roof.
Vertigo gripped Emma as she stared down at the street and then at the makeshift, wooden bridge that connected the rooftops.  Noah and the other soldiers quickly crossed the short gap as Liam whispered reassuringly, “Emma, you can do this; I’ll be right behind you.  Look straight ahead and just walk.”
She exhaled deeply and shakily climbed over the parapet wall and onto the scavenged catwalk.  As she stood at the precipice, trying to urge herself forward, the door burst open.  A dozen walkers stumbled onto the roof.  They searched their surroundings momentarily, before eyeing their prey.
“Get down and crawl if you have to!”
Emma did as he ordered.   With teary eyes, she began to nudge the cage forward and crawl behind it.  Noah praised her progress, while Liam turned and began to execute head shots with a half-empty mag.  Despite his efforts, the mob only grew larger as the undead continued to flood the roof.  As the winds shifted, the putrid essence of the corpses overwhelmed them.
As she reached the other side, Noah took the cage while the others pulled her to safety.
“Liam, come on!”
He slammed the butt of his rifle against the nearest creature.  It snarled menacingly as it reeled backwards, but remained on its feet.   Turning, he leapt up onto the walkway.  A mangled hand grabbed his heel as he started to cross the bridge.  Liam jerked his leg with such a force that it ripped the walker’s arm from its socket.   He was grateful that the corpse had not been fresh as he dragged the still-clenched arm with him to the other side.
As he reached the far side, the soldiers pushed the bridge to the side and sent it tumbling to the alley floor below.
“Where to now?” Noah asked.
“To the port; we’re leaving the island.”
Chapter 1

Lakeshore, Mississippi
Blaine desperately tore through the thick bayou as the light of the moon cast eerie shadows all around him.  Branches grasped at his clothing as if they were devilish snares.  Thorny vines tore his flesh like the claws of his pursuers.  It seemed that the swamp itself meant to consume him, or at least seize him for the others.
The groans of the others echoed from every direction.  No matter how fast he ran, they only seemed to get closer with every labored breath.  Though the putrid, rotting corpses were much more terrifying to behold, the freshly dead were far more dangerous.  The unspoiled wights moved much quicker, perhaps what one might consider a corpse trot.  Though they could still be outpaced over short distances by the living, their endurance was immeasurable.  Even the most stalwart of survivors could not outrun them forever.
As he burst through the tree line and into the open field, he could see a farmhouse in the distance.  The thought of reaching the sanctuary reinvigorated Blaine.  He pressed forward with an even greater intensity.  Less than a hundred yards ahead was the last remaining obstacle, three strands of rusted barbed-wire draped between a line of crooked posts.
Blaine looked back as he neared the fence row.  The fastest of the undead host was just emerging from the thicket.  Their pace seemed to hasten as they caught their first, unobstructed gaze at him by the light of the full moon.  The sound of their jaws popping out of socket as they opened their mouths wide sent a chill through him.  
He carefully timed his last few strides before planting his gloved hands on a post and vaulting over the fence.  As his body contorted like a seasoned gymnast, something went terribly awry.  An errant bootlace snagged the top strand of wire and refused to let loose.  Blaine’s efficient, forward motion suddenly became an awkward, uncontrollable descent.
He landed face-first against the ground.   Mud and grass filled his mouth and nostrils.  One of his ankles twisted with a sickening crunch and sent a shockwave of pain up his leg.  His face contorted in terror as half of his body writhed on the floor of the pasture, while the other half was tangled hopelessly in the fence.
Blaine cried out in agony as he used every bit of his remaining fortitude to pull himself free.  The screams only made him all the more desirable to the flesh-starved ravenours.  Their pace only seemed to quicken with his every bleat.
He lifted himself up gingerly and managed several hobbled strides before collapsing again.   The pain was too much.  He rolled over onto his back as the first of the undead reached the fence.  The corpse hit the strands of wire at full stride, sending it toppling over.  As it faltered on the ground, Blaine aligned the front sight of his Glock with its head.  The report of the 9mm was near-deafening as it exploded from the chamber.  The fully-jacketed round slammed into the corpse’s forehead and exited the back of its skull with little indication of impact.  The creature groaned for a moment, before tumbling headlong into the mud.  Hollow-points were conserved for threats that still breathed.
He turned his attention to the other two wights that’d become tangled in the fence.  The barbs tore long gashes in their arms as they labored to reach Blaine.  If they felt any pain, they didn’t betray it.  Behind them, a much larger horde slowly lumbered across the field.
He fired a single shot into the second runner’s skull and turned to execute the third.  Bracing his elbows against his side and exhaling slowly, he gently squeezed the trigger. 
He cursed aloud as he tilted the pistol up and stared down at the stove-piped bullet casing.  As he fumbled in the dark to clear the slide, the top strand of barbed-wire popped off the posts, sending the snarling creature lurching forward.
With one, final jerk, the casing fell free.  The next round slammed into the chamber.  Blaine fired two quick shots at the corpse as it stumbled forward.  The first round missed by a hand and a half, but the second connected squarely with the bridge of its nose.
Blaine cringed at the sharp pain as he tried to stand again.  His swollen ankle throbbed with each labored step.  As he hobbled towards the cabin, he could hear the sounds of the fence being destroyed by the horde that pressed against it.
His pace was slow and excruciating, and the lumbering walkers matched him step for step.  If he could just keep going, he would reach the cabin.  The cabin would buy him some time – it had to.  Just keep pushing, you’ll be safe there, he whispered to himself under labored breaths.  The groans behind him seemed to grow louder with each stride, but he was too afraid to look back to see if they were gaining.
He cried out as he suddenly plunged forward.  The stinking, black mire engulfed him up to his chest.   It took all his strength to merely stay upright.  His legs were hopelessly held in place by the thick muck that served as the bottom of the marsh.  How had he not seen the trap as it lay out before him?
Blaine twisted his torso to see the throngs of undead slowly advancing on him.  Their arms were outstretched and their jaws hung slack as they gurgled their guttural canticle.  He fought back the panic that was rising in his chest and slowly and methodically began to puncture their skulls with the remaining rounds.  As the last round exited his barrel and connected with the walker’s skull, he holstered the pistol and retrieved the long-bladed bowie knife that hung from his belt.  The five remaining creatures began to fan out as they reached the swamp’s edge.  Their hungry, soulless eyes met his.  He readied himself.  Here, he would make his stand.
He grabbed the matted hair of the first corpse that lunged at him and jerked its head with as much force as he could muster.  As he prepared to drive the blade in to the hilt, the head snapped loose from the body.  He flung it, the jaw still-snapping, as far away as he could. 
Using his momentum, he spun as best he could and slashed the neck of the second walker.  The blade cut deep into the rotting flesh.  Its head rolled back until it hung upside down by a thin ribbon of muscle. 
Before he could turn and engage the others, a bony hand grabbed his blade and tried to wrest it from his hand.  The sharp steel cut deep into the corpse’s palm, but it refused to release its grip.  More hands grabbed him and pulled him deeper in the mire as he continued to struggle desperately for his life.  He swung wildly at the second assailant, but it was in vain.  The final walker stumbled as it entered the marsh and collided with Blaine, sending him flailing backwards.  As the black water filled his nostrils, the undead straddled him and began to rend his flesh.  He screamed for help, but it was too late.  They ripped muscle and gore from his body like vultures scavenging carrion.
As the dark depths welcomed him, one of the corpses leaned in closely and gurgled, “It’s okay, dear.”
As he looked closer, he recognized the face to be that of his wife.  Her beauty was gone; the stench of death was all that remained.
“It’s okay, I’m here.”
Blaine struggled to push her away, but the others held his arms tightly as they stripped his bones of flesh and muscle.
It’s okay.
Wake up.
Wake up, Blaine.
* * *
He awoke to Taylor’s gentle voice urging him back to consciousness.  The dim glow of a nearby candle revealed the worry on her face.
“It’s just a dream.”
He wiped the sweat from his brow as he replied, “Seemed so real.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go out tonight.”
“I’ll be fine.  We need the supplies.”
“You know, sooner or later I’m going to have to go out there.”
He sighed aloud and simply said, “I know.”
He’d not divulged the worst of what he had seen outside of their refuge while he’d been out on his nightly outings.  Taylor had only left the house once since the outbreak – the day they tried to flee from the vacation rental back to their home.  They’d traveled less than five miles north to Highway 90 before realizing that they would never make the two-hour trip back to Hattiesburg.  Even if they did, what would be waiting for them when they got there?  The situation would likely be far worse than in sleepy Lakeshore.
The fishing retreat had been completely destroyed several seasons ago by back to back hurricanes.  Only a few houses had been rebuilt since then.  Though there was no beach to speak of in Lakeshore, the houses would’ve appeared right at home in any resort community.  They towered high over the surrounding rivers and marshes on timber pilings.  The roofs were metal and the facades were colorful.  Their new home was nestled at the southernmost tip of a narrow, man-made peninsula and was flanked on either side by canals.  After they’d decided that they would remain at their current retreat, Blaine had found a chainsaw and removed the wide staircase leading up to the second floor.  A knotted rope that was the only means of access that remained.
Because Lakeshore had been destroyed so completely by the storms, and the fact that it was the off-season, there’d been only a few locals in the area during the initial outbreak.  Subsequently, there were relatively few undead about.  They did exist, but not nearly as bad as just a few miles north.  Eventually, they would wander into the tiny community, but for now, Blaine and Taylor were fortunate.
As they lay in the bed, dusk’s creeping shadows began to invade the room.  Somewhere outside, a low groan interrupted the natural order of the night.
“He’s been outside for a while.  I didn’t want to wake you.”
“They’re its.  I don’t like the thought of killing he’s and she’s.”
“Right, I’m sorry.  I think there’s only one.”
Taylor pulled at Blaine’s arm as he sat up in the bed and touched his bare feet to the cold, hardwood floor.
“If I don’t kill it, it’ll just attract more.”
Taylor nodded and replied, “I’ll have something ready to eat when you get back.”
“Thanks.  Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Blaine pulled a shirt over his head and grabbed the .22 rifle that was propped in the corner of the room.  He checked the cotton-filled, two-liter bottle that was duct taped to the end of the barrel, to ensure it was still secure.  Not long ago, he would’ve been apprehensive to even think of constructing the improvised suppressor.  But now, it was all that was keeping them alive.
As he slipped through the shadows and out onto the balcony that encircled the home, he was struck by the beauty of the last moments of twilight.  The most distant reaches of the western horizon were a raging inferno of reds and oranges.  A line of clouds just above the point where earth and heavens embraced was a stark contrast to the warm colors just behind them.  As the sky fled the horizon, the blaze faded into a dull yellow.  A fickle hue separated the fire and ice.  Just above the zone of capriciousness, rich blues faded to black.
Every night seemed a little blacker, as if the world was slowly dying.  Blaine had never seen skies on the Coast as dark as these.  No oil rigs twinkled in the distance like low-hanging stars.  Not even a dull flicker of civilization rose up to challenge it.  Two evenings ago he thought he saw the lights of New Orleans, before reasoning that if indeed it was from the Crescent City, it wasn’t the kind wrought from electricity.  He dared not tell Taylor.
Lying prone on the balcony, he listened for the groans of the offending corpse as he searched the darkness.  Finally, it murmured its fetid song again.  Blaine centered the scope’s crosshairs on the side of the walker’s head and squeezed the trigger.  The bullet silently burst forth from the barrel, through the cotton and into the twilight air.  It connected perfectly with the creature’s skull, piercing its ear canal and dropping it immediately.  Little more was heard than the gentle smack of the firing pin against the rim of the casing.
He continued to lie on the deck for several minutes, straining to hear the sounds of any other interlopers.  As he did so, the full magnitude of the new darkness settled upon him.  The new world had no distant glow of sodium-vapor lights, no headlights or roaring of engines and no blinking stars overhead as red-eye flights surreptitiously cross the sky.  Satisfied that they were once again alone, he melted back into the house.
Taylor greeted him with a cup of coffee.  The lantern did little to illuminate the room.  Nonetheless, they kept the curtains pulled tight.  Even the faintest of light would draw the walkers closer.
He took a seat and placed the rifle on the table in front of him.  After several sips of coffee, he removed the rotary mag from the .22 and reloaded it.
“What’s for dinner?”
“More of the same, Hun.”
He sighed and muttered aloud, “Canned ham, canned fruit – all the things people leave behind.”
Taylor emerged from the kitchen with two plates and sat across from him.  He smiled at her as she handed him the meager meal.
“It’s good.”
“You’re a bad liar.”
He chuckled and replied, “Reckon I am.”
They ate in silence for several minutes before Taylor spoke again.
“Wish you didn’t have to go out at night.  It seems more dangerous.”
“They seem to be less active at night.  I don’t know if they sleep, or if they just prowl around less.  Either way, their sight seems to be worse than ours, so it works to my advantage.”
“You think they go by sound mostly?”
Blaine nodded, “Mostly, yeah.  If they hear something, they usually go investigate it.  And if one of them starts groaning more than usual, it tends to attract others.  Maybe they’re communicating, but most likely it’s just the sound that draws ‘em in.”
“But they could be communicating?”
“I guess they could, I mean, maybe they retain that.”
“I don’t like the thought of that.”
Blaine smiled and tried to ease her mind, “They probably don’t, but either way it doesn’t change anything much.  They’re noisy and they root around, like wild hogs.  When it’s dark, I can hear them long before they ever know I’m there.”  Blaine tapped the rifle and added, “I just slip around and give them the silent treatment.”
Taylor reciprocated a weak smile, but the look of concern was still on her face.
“I know you don’t mind bearing this on your own, but you can talk to me about it.  I’m tougher than what you give me credit for.  I watch you every night while you sleep.  I’ve seen you toss and turn and wrestle with the nightmares.”
He sighed and replied, “I know you can more than handle yourself, but I operate better knowing you’re safe.  I promise when I need you, I’ll ask you to come.”
She leaned across the table and kissed his forehead, before grabbing the empty coffee cup.
“I’ll remember that promise.”
She returned with two fresh cups and sat again.  The conversation lulled for a while as they simply enjoyed each other’s presence.  Finally, she spoke.
“Yeah babe?”
“How long’s it been since we lost the phones?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “Maybe a week’s time.  I don’t really remember; days seem to run together now.”
“Kaylee should’ve been here at least three days ago.  I’m scared, Blaine.  What if something’s happened?”
As her eyes began to fill with tears, Blaine leaned forward and took her hand.
“We could take the boat; go to her.  Tonight I’ll start getting supplies for the trip.  It may take me a night or so to get everything we need, but I promise we’ll leave as soon as we can.”
“You’d do that?  Leave this place?”
He exhaled deeply and replied, “Of course.  Just know that it’s going to be bad there – very dangerous.  We’ll just have to be careful.  Besides, we can’t stay here forever.”
“I know it’ll be bad there, that’s why I haven’t asked sooner.  It’s just, she’s my sister; she’s probably all I’ve got left.”
“Baby, it’s okay; I understand.  After she didn’t show, I knew that eventually we’d have to go for her.  We’ll leave soon, I promise.”
“I love you.”
“I love you to.  I better go; I’ll see you later on tonight.”
Chapter 2

They rushed down the pitch-back stairwell of the building adjacent to their stronghold. The light on Noah’s rifle guided their way.  The darkness was dangerous, but being a beacon of light in the darkness was deadly.  Emma could hear the scratching and clawing of the undead on each door they passed.
Liam had ordered all the doors leading into their escape route barricaded after the heavy losses they’d incurred during the first major assault.  Their numbers had been more then, much more, but they were brash.  With a host population of nearly two-hundred thousand surrounding them, how could they’ve ever thought that they were safe?
Suddenly, a door burst open just below them.  A dozen corpses lumbered into the stairwell.  They were putrid from weeks of baking inside the building.  The narrow passage became one long echo of gunfire as Noah emptied his rifle into the crowd.  The bodies fell into a heap on the floor until a single corpse remained.  With its broken teeth clacking loudly, it made its move and lunged at Noah.  He tried to sidestep the creature, but there was nowhere to go.
At the last moment, a long-bladed kukri chopped down on the corpse’s skull.  Its cloudy eyes crossed and its knees buckled.  The towering Gurkha, known to the others simply as Ratu, flung the body like a rag doll as he wrested his blade from its skull.  Sheathing the blade, he said, “Go.”
Noah flashed a sheepish grin and slapped the uncommonly tall Gurkha on the shoulder, before turning and resuming the descent.
They burst from the building and out onto a street filled with hordes of the undead.  Their presence captured the attention of every nearby corpse.  The hungry groans of the captivated horrors spread outward like a wave as more and more of the creatures were made aware of their welcome appearance.
Ratu buried his kukri deep in the skull of a nearby walker, before turning and beheading a group of corpses as they closed in with arms outstretched.
“Blades!” Liam ordered.
The men slung their rifles over their backs and retrieved their machetes. 
“This way!” He shouted as he raced towards a narrow alley across from the building. Meanwhile, the swarm of undead continued to surround them.
They scaled the makeshift barricade that’d blocked the hordes from entering the narrow passage, and continued into its depths.  As long as there was nothing of interest on the other side, the corpses had no desire to test the crude palisade.  Now, the tangled wall of lumber and barbed wire rattled violently as the legion of death pressed in against it.
The alley was dark and restrictive, like a cavern hewn out of the surrounding buildings.  Overhead, balconies and fire exits crowded out the sun, while the buildings continued up for what seemed like forever.  Overflowing dumpsters and rotting refuse was scattered throughout the path.  The stench was nearly as crippling as that of the creatures behind the wall.  In the distance, two SUVs waited for them.
Liam tossed a set of keys to one of the soldiers and then retrieved a second set for himself.  Behind them, the wooden dam burst, releasing a deluge of horrors into the alley.  Several sprinting wights led the pack of undead in their pursuit of Emma and the others.
One man turned and shouldered his rifle, but Liam growled, “No!  Run!”
The runners swiftly advanced down the alley, while Emma and the exhausted soldiers seemed to slow with every footfall.  Nevertheless, Liam was right, there were far too many of the undead to turn and fight.  They had to make it to the SUVs.  The snarls grew louder in anticipation as the ravenours cleared the gap between themselves and their feast.
Liam reached the SUVs first and shouted, “Stand clear!” as he climbed in.  The group parted alongside either wall as he jerked the vehicle into reverse and stomped the accelerator.  The engine roared to life as the SUV lurched towards their pursuers.  The bright lights on the rear of the vehicle drew the corpses in like rancid moths to a flame.  The runners outstretched their arms and hissed eerily in the last moments before the collision.  Finally, he was theirs’.
The impact was sudden and violent.  Liam never braked, but rather carried his momentum through them.  Several of the runners bounced backwards, while others skidded across the pavement in mangled heaps.  Behind them, a massive throng of walkers slowly continued their shuffling pursuit.  Emma and the others cheered at the minor victory as the SUV raced back towards them.
Noah, Ratu and Emma climbed into the vehicle with Liam as the other soldiers sped away in the lead SUV.  A plywood wall that had been constructed to conceal the far end of the alley exploded in a hail of splinters as they hit it.  Nearing full speed, they burst forth from the alley.
The SUVs slid sideways as they maneuvered the sharp turn and transitioned from the alley to the street.  Several unsuspecting walkers were sent rolling towards the abandoned storefronts as the lead vehicle’s quarter panel swatted them effortlessly.  As the hordes continued to swarm in from the surrounding areas, the SUVs disappeared into the city.
Emma stared out the window at the decaying city that was all around her.  She found it amazing how quickly society’s constructs had atrophied without the constant nurturing of its former occupants.  She opened the cage that rested on the seat beside her and eased her hand inside.
Eighty-Eight withdrew to the back of the cage at first, but slowly relented to Emma’s coaxes.  He ducked low and edged towards the opening, never once taking his eyes off Emma’s fingers as they danced about and gently rapped the cage.  With his back arched, Eighty-Eight suddenly dashed from the cage and playfully attacked her shiny charm bracelet.  Emma let out a surprised giggle.  She unclasped the bracelet and dangled it in front of the lively creature.  Occasionally he would nip at her fingers as she snatched the trinket from him, before curling into a ball and feigning defeat.
“Is that safe?” Noah asked.
“He shows no signs of infection.  The Blight isn’t known to be transmissible until after the host has turned.”
“Still seems like a risk…”
“Maybe it is, but he’s scared.”
“Just keep it away from me.”
Liam interrupted Noah’s derision to ask, “Does he have a name, Emma?”
“Just Eighty-Eight; I haven’t had time to name him.”
The creature suddenly sprang from Emma’s lap to the front of the cabin.  It swirled about Noah’s head and chattered scornfully at the man, while he panicked at the thought of being bitten.  Ratu leaned forward and grabbed the fury troublemaker by nape of his neck as Noah shrieked and squalled in terror.  The others burst into laughter as Noah’s face flushed red with embarrassment.
“I think you should watch your tongue, old friend,” Liam said with a chuckle, “I don’t believe he liked your thought of keeping him in the cage.”
 As Ratu rubbed behind the mongoose’s ears, he simply said, “Rikki.”
“It’s perfect,” Emma replied, “Rikki.”
Ratu smiled and nodded.
* * *
The pair of SUVs slowed to a crawl as they approached the harbor.  Noah retrieved his binoculars and scanned their surroundings.  After several moments, Liam’s radio crackled to life.
“There’s no way we just drive in there...”
“Parris is right,” Noah said, “those things are everywhere.”
Liam held the radio close to his mouth and replied, “There’s a warehouse just past the intersection.  The key to the gate is on your key ring.  If there’re no walkers around, go for it.  Otherwise, we’ll lure them out and circle around.”
The lead SUV crept through the intersection, before seizing the opportunity and dashing towards the gate.  The execution was seamless.  Hardly a corpse noticed them.  Within moments, the gate was open, and then then the warehouse door, and then they disappeared. 
Parris shut the bay door behind Liam’s SUV as he darted into the warehouse.  With the door closed behind them, the interior of the SUV was suddenly blanketed with a heavy darkness.  A line of grimy windows set high in the surrounding walls let in only the faintest slivers of light.  Outside, the first drops of rain could be heard as they began to patter the metal roof.
“What do we do now?” Emma asked.
“Wait until nightfall; try to sleep.”  Liam said, before turning and adding, “But if you two are up to it, we’ll scout the surrounding area to see what our safest route to the boat’ll be.”
The men nodded in agreement.
“Good; let’s go.”
Chapter 3

Blaine descended the rope.  Upon his feet hitting the ground, he crouched low and spun, checking his surroundings.  Taylor pulled the rope back up to the deck and whispered, “Please be careful!”
“Always am.  Should be back in an hour or two.”
Taylor lowered a .22 pistol.  It was suppressed much like the rifle that Taylor retained on the nights that Blaine left their retreat.  The bottle was smaller, but the accessory still made the weapon far too bulky to be holstered.
“Thanks,” he whispered, “love you.”
Blaine silently stalked north along the narrow peninsula for nearly its entire length in search of a residence that he’d not already scavenged.  Somewhere in the night, a pair of alligators grunted to each other, ambivalent to the mass die-offs that were occurring with numerous species.  He wondered if a gator would consider one of the putrid corpses a worthy meal.  Furthermore, he wondered if a gator could become one of them.  The thought of an undead alligator was not comforting.
He quietly observed the last house on the peninsula from behind the safety of a nearby live oak.  The night had been unusually quiet, which he found to be surprisingly unnerving.  After several minutes of surveillance, he crouched low and approached the residence with his pistol at the ready.
He cautiously followed the trail of black gore that led up the staircase.  Reaching the upper floor, he noticed deep scratches in the door and the surrounding walls.  Jagged shards of glass hung from smashed windows, while curtains twisted in the Gulf’s salty breeze.  Crouching beside the door and listening for the sounds of any remaining corpses, he shuddered at the thought of the assault.
He cupped the lens of his flashlight with the palm of his hand before turning it on, so that he could dictate exactly how much, or little, light escaped into the surrounding blackness.  As the faintest glimmer pierced his fist, he noticed that the deadbolt had been forced through the surrounding frame.  The door shrugged low from its own weight as it hung perilously from battered hinges.  He flicked the Ruger’s safety off and gripped the pistol tightly.  Carefully, he pushed the door ajar and squeezed through the narrow gap.   
The walls were riddled with bullet holes and smeared with blood and gore.  Death and decay hung heavy in the home.  Blaine’s chest tightened as he flashed back to several weeks ago, in the early days of the outbreak.  He recalled the nights of endless gunfire and the wails of terror.  He mourned at the thought of the lives that perhaps he could’ve saved.  Those first hours were so full of uncertainty, though.  And he dared not leave Taylor alone, much less risk taking her with him while he ventured out.
A dark silhouette was slumped across a sofa on the far side of the room.  Blaine pocketed the flashlight and retrieved a long-bladed knife from his belt.  Cautiously, he approached from the rear.  With one hand holding the pistol at the ready, he flipped the blade around with his other hand.  Nudging the silhouette’s skull with the knife’s pommel, he breathed a sigh of relief as it slid down the cushion and remained motionless.
A sudden sound of shuffling feet caused Blaine to look over his shoulder just in time to see a swift-moving corpse aiming for him.  As he raised his pistol, the creature crossed the kitchen threshold at full-stride, a little more than an arm’s length away. 
He rolled to the side and stumbled over an end table, sending a lamp crashing loudly against the floor.  Though it still retained most of the speed from its past life, the corpse lacked the ability to react quickly.  Instead, it merely craned its neck and watched Blaine’s evasion while it slammed into the living room wall with a disgusting crunch.  As it dawdled in a momentarily from the impact, Blaine buried the knife in its skull.
Blaine placed his pistol on a nearby table.  Planting a boot on the corpse’s back, he struggled to remove the blade.  Suddenly, something grabbed him from behind and jerked him with an unexpected force.  Blaine teetered backwards as the familiar, guttural groan – the sound of insatiable hunger – grew in intensity, until it seemed as if it was inside of his head.  He tried to wrest himself free, but the grip was unflinching.  He recoiled as he felt the stench of what once was a breath, but was now simply a hollow muscle spasm.
In a final act of defiance, he blindly kicked behind him with all of the strength he could muster.  His boot connected squarely with the corpse’s knee, shattering bones and sending it swaying unnaturally in the opposite direction.  He sprung forward like a swimmer kicking off of a wall, while the walker tumbled to the ground and writhed about.  He lunged for his pistol and turned, firing three successive rounds into the thing’s skull.  Blaine retrieved the flashlight and scanned the room nervously, ready to continue the fight, while the corpses lay motionless around him.  After several minutes of silence, he arose and continued his search of the house.
He walked to the kitchen and searched what was always his first stop.  Opening the pantry door, Blaine was both elated and then bereaved at the realization that he’d probably just encountered the remains of the people that’d stocked it.  The cache had the typical offerings of a second home during the off season – various canned goods and cases of water.  It also was filled with newly purchased comfort and convenience foods in anticipation of a relaxing vacation.  Taylor and he had not had anything sweeter than canned fruit in over a week.  The contents of the pantry would be a much-needed boost to their morale.
He disappeared down the hall and into the bathroom for several minutes, before emerging with an armful of medical supplies and other items.  After piling the provisions on the kitchen counter, he rummaged through cabinets and drawers, appropriating various sundries, before moving on to other rooms in the house.  Common caliber ammo, boots, tools and anything of use was taken.  If they were forced to flee the safety of their redoubt, they could always decide what to leave behind later.  For now he reasoned redundancy was prudent.  He grabbed all three key rings as he exited the home and began his search of the area below.
* * *
Blaine loaded the last of the provisions into the back of the truck and prepared to make the short trip back to safety.  In addition to the supplies he’d found in the home, he had liberated the batteries out of the other vehicles and siphoned off the abandoned vehicles’ fuel tanks for the trip to find Kaylee.
Blaine opened the truck’s glove box and rummaged through it, before finally locating the owner’s manual.  He studied several diagrams by the dim light of his cupped flashlight to determine which fuses should be removed to disable the its lighting.  As he circled the offending components on the diagram, a headlight flashed momentarily in the distance.
He stumbled over a pile of debris as he blindly dashed to a nearby thicket of palmettos and mayhaws.  The pair of lights appeared and disappeared several more times before the vehicle emerged from a dense stand of storm-ravaged pines that flanked Lakeshore Avenue.  The vehicle’s brake lights glowed red as it approached Blaine’s narrow sliver of land.  He held his breath as the truck idled in the distance and cursed aloud as it turned in his direction.
The four-wheel drive pulled into the driveway opposite of him and came to an abrupt stop.  He ducked low as a man scanned the surrounding darkness with a spotlight from the bed, while a second man followed the beam of illumination with his rifle.  After several moments, the man with the spotlight slapped the roof of the cab.  Two driver and passenger emerged from the cab.
The pair climbed the stairs of the house while the other two remained at their sentry posts.  Without warning, the spotlight landed on Blaine’s thicket and paused for several moments of deep scrutiny.  He closed his eyes and sat motionless as his mind screamed out in panic.  After what seemed like an eternity, the light darted away as quickly as it had settled on the thicket.  He let out an uneasy sigh of relief; the encounter was far from over.
He watched as the men at the top of the stairs activated the lights on their pistols and kicked the door open, before rushing in.  Blaine was amazed at their complete disregard for any semblance of light discipline.  Undead from miles away would be drawn in by their foolish indiscretions.  He wondered how such a careless group had survived for so long.  Even the best of luck ran out sooner or later.  Blaine shuddered at the only remaining attributes:  superior firepower and sheer force of numbers.
The two men emerged from the house and shouted down to the others, “It’s already been looted.”
The man with the flashlight cursed aloud and replied, “But we haven’t seen anyone on the road for days.”
“Must be someone nearby.”  The apparent leader motioned across the street and said, “Let’s see if they’ve hit it too.”
“What if we see someone?”
“We’ll try to get some information about their group first; be friendly, but if they resist, kill ‘em.”
The leader’s casual tone caused a wave of fury to wash over Blaine as he listened to them nonchalantly discuss his fate.  He gripped the pistol tightly as he continued to watch their movements.  At least, he reasoned, I know what I’m up against.
The men in the back of the truck dismounted and waited for the others before proceeding across the street.  Blaine shrunk deeper into the thicket as the men walked within yards of his position.  He readied his pistol and trained it on the leader of the group as they passed him and began to approach his newly acquired truck.  He exhaled deeply and began to slowly squeeze the trigger.
The men stopped abruptly, just short of the truck, as the leader’s radio crackled to life.
Lucas, we need y’all back here!
‘Bout twenty confirmed; maybe more behind ‘em.  They’re fresh and moving fast!
The other men had already begun running back to their truck as Lucas replied, “Fifteen minutes; we’re on our way!”
Blaine sighed in relief as tires squealed and the truck disappeared into the night.  The confrontation had been delayed, but they would return soon enough.  Hopefully, he reasoned, he and Taylor would be gone by then.
* * *
Taylor watched from above as the pickup quietly navigated by the light of the moon.  She checked her watch; the time was right, but she always worried that it might not be him.  Once the vehicle was several hundred feet from her, it stopped momentarily.  A dim flashlight blinked three times, and the truck began its advance again.
Blaine emerged from the truck and approached with an armful of supplies.  Taylor lowered the rope with a basket tied to the end.  He stopped several feet from it and looked up.
“Hey babe, how was your night?”
“I worried about you the whole time; other than that, not bad.  I shot a walker down by the water a little while ago.”
“One shot stop?”
“Who do you think I am?”
Blaine chuckled; Taylor was arguably a better shot than he was, but he’d never admit it.  In a shattered world, Blaine mused in jest, one of the few things a man had left was his self-worth.
“Not going to need the basket tonight; going to load most of what I found tonight in the boats.”
“Why?  Did something happen?”
“Well,” Blaine paused before continuing, “yes and no.”
“What does that mean?”
“I met some of our neighbors.”
“What were they like?”
“Their leader, I think Lucas was his name, said to, ‘Kill us if we resist,’ if I recall correctly.”
“Oh my God.”
“They’ll find us; it’s just a matter of time before they do.  We can’t stay here.”
“Where will we go?”
“First, we go for Kaylee; after that, I don’t know.  Somewhere less populated; maybe out west.”
“When can we leave?”
“Let’s try to get some rest tonight.  We should probably take both boats so we can carry more supplies.  First thing tomorrow I’ll go back out and try to find some more fuel, and then we can leave.”
Chapter 4

The three sharp raps on the door garnered the attention of everyone in the warehouse, even Rikki.  Parris approached apprehensively.  He sighed in relief as a familiar voice called out from the other side.
“It’s us!”
Parris unlocked the door.  Liam and Ratu burst in from the storm that was raging outside.  They were completely drenched.   A trail of water followed behind them as they crossed the open room.  The two men disappeared behind the SUVs, draped their wet clothes over the vehicles and changed into drier attire.
“Where’s Noah?” Parris called out.
“We left him.”
“You left him!”
“He’s fine,” Liam said reassuringly, “he’s soaked to the bone, but he’s fine.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s at the port.  The place is overrun with infected, and containers are scattered everywhere; it’s a maze of dead ends.  Noah’ll be our watchman on the wall.”
Liam unfurled a map, laid it on the hood of the lead vehicle and motioned the others over.
“This is a map of the port before the outbreak.”  Liam outlined the central area on the map with a gloved finger and continued, “See these walls of shipping containers in neat stacks?  Well, that’s not the case anymore.  The whole place’s been looted.  It’s a mess of overturned boxes and piles of freight.” 
“Couldn’t we skirt along the perimeter to the boat?”  Parris asked.
“We considered that, but that’s where most of the infected are as well.  There’s too many of them in the open for us to fight; we’d be overwhelmed.  In the interior of the port there are fewer, but the quarters will be tighter.  We’ll need to be careful.”
“With the storm, it’s going to be dark out there,” Parris warned, “So dark that we won’t be able to see much farther than an arm’s length.  And we only have three pair of night-vision goggles.  Tight quarters aren’t in our favor.”
“They won’t be able to see far either, and the sound of the storm should muffle our movement.” Liam tapped an area on the map just south of the containers, before continuing, “Here’s where Noah comes into play:  right now he’s waiting for us on this crane.  He’s got a bird’s-eye view of the entire port.  He’ll use his infrared light and laser to guide us through the maze and identify any threats for us.  Ratu and I’ll use our night vision to see Noah’s signals, and we’ll dispatch the threats by hand.  Everyone else just has to keep up.  If we get in a bad situation, we’ll switch to rifles and flashlights and push our way through, but that’s a last resort.”
Parris smiled, satisfied with Liam’s plan.  “Sound’s doable.”
“I hope so.”
Parris slapped Liam’s shoulder with approval and added reassuringly, more for the group than for Liam, “It definitely is; it’s the best idea we have, and it’s a good idea at that.  Lead the way.”
“Alright, grab all the gear you can carry, but don’t weigh yourselves down.  We’ll need to be able to move if we get caught by surprise.  We leave in five minutes.”
* * *
The rains were torrential and unforgiving, and showed no signs of waning.  Lightning popped all around them while a low rumble of thunder filled the air.  Liam worried about Noah as he waited for them on the giant lightning rod.
The group navigated the bleak, industrial landscape with caution.  They crouched behind abandoned vehicles and in between derelict warehouses, while slowly advancing on the port.  Liam tried to time their short dashes between the dark alleyways and overflowing dumpsters with the rhythm of the lightning to avoid being discovered.
He watched how the infected in the areas around them seemed to shuffle back and forth, unsure of where to go.  It was as if the panoramic rumble of the thunder and the random flashes of lighting had pushed them into a sensory overload, of sorts.  Without visual confirmation, the stimulation from all directions had them confused and unable to react decisively.
As they reached the fence that separated them from the port, three quick flashes, known only to Liam and Ratu, signaled that Noah was aware of their approach.  An infrared laser, invisible to both the living and undead, cut through Liam’s greenish-hued landscape and settled on an area of the fence several hundred feet to the south.
While motioning with his hand, Liam whispered to the others, “This way.”
Liam stood watch over the others as Ratu created an opening in the fence with a small pair of bolt cutters.  Not far away, a group of dripping walkers furiously shook the fence in a blind attempt to gain access themselves.  So far, the living had gone unnoticed.
Having completed his task, Ratu silently stepped aside and peeled the fence back. The others ducked low and passed through.  A thoroughly-drenched Rikki poked his head out of Emma’s coat as she crossed into the port.  On the other side, the green beam of the IR laser waited to guide them through the industrialized catacombs that waited in the thick blanket of darkness.
Liam followed the laser’s path and led the group across the open space between the fence and the containers.  Ratu trailed closely behind them, occasionally checking their rear, while gripping his kukri tightly.
The group paused with the laser while it dawdled momentarily.  Noah activated the IR spotlight and shined it less than twenty feet ahead at a group of three walkers in a narrow intermodal cavern.  The undead snarled and groaned amongst themselves.  The largest of the three occasionally bared his teeth and snapped at the others, like an impatient hound growling at his pups.
Parris and the other soldiers shouldered their rifles and huddled in a tight, outward-facing circle around Emma, while Liam and Ratu faded into the dark shadows along the weathered, steel walls.  As the tempest continued to assault them from above, the two men slowly crept closer to their unsuspecting quarry.
A bolt of lightning flashed from heaven to earth somewhere nearby with a deafening fury.  With it, the two men sprang onto the infected.  Ratu swung his curved blade in a high, sweeping arc and chopped through the top of a creature’s head, nearly splitting its face in half.  Planting a boot against the corpse’s torso, Ratu sent it hurtling into a second walker as he jerked his kukri free.
Liam’s target swayed at the last moment, causing his machete to connect with the soft tissue in its neck.  The corpse’s head clacked its teeth and made mute groans as it sailed backwards through the air.  The still-animated crown landed face down in the mud and rolled unevenly for several feet, before coming to an abrupt stop.
The third creature shrugged off Ratu’s attack and lunged at Liam with surprising speed, sending the pair crashing into the port’s slush.  Its mouth stretched unnaturally wide.  A fowl stench rolled out and curled around Liam’s nostrils.  He struggled to push it away, but it clenched his arms as it leaned in for the kill.  Suddenly, the corpse went limp as Ratu’s wide blade skewered the back of its head and pushed through its mouth.  Liam lay motionless in astonishment as the kukri’s point came to a halt mere inches from his own face.  The steel glistened as lightning flashed around them.
Ratu merely smiled and nodded as he rolled the heap off of Liam and pulled him to his feet. 
“Thanks, old friend,” Liam offered.
“Think nothing of it,” the giant replied, before motioning and adding, “We should go.”
Again, Noah’s infrared laser cut through the night air and terminated directly in front of them, urging them onward.
The group followed the laser’s path as it wound them through the maze of shipping boxes, occasionally drifting up the surrounding walls or disappearing for several moments as a conex cantilevered precariously over their heads.
The laser stopped abruptly, and again the infrared spotlight flashed ahead of them.  Liam and Ratu watched as nearly a dozen walkers lumbered towards them.
“There’s too many,” Liam whispered.
Ratu pointed his kukri towards the darkened confines of a half-open shipping container.
Liam nodded before turning to the others and whispering, “In there, quick!”
The group slunk deep into the container and waited anxiously.  The stench of the infected preceded them, and their groans grew louder with each awkward step.  Liam and Ratu crouched low with their blades ready, while the remaining soldiers stood behind them with their rifles shouldered.  Emma rubbed Rikki’s head as she cowered in the corner.
The horde slowly began to drift by the container while the group held their breath in trepidation.  A single, gnarled corpse drifted out of the throng and paused for a moment, before stumbling towards the conex.  It placed a putrid hand on the door, leaned inside and held its head high, as if to catch an errant whiff of life.  The others passed by without notice, but something had piqued the walker’s interest.  It put its weight on the leg that was still intact and leaned forward into the dark container, while its maimed appendage provided only a modicum of balance and stability.
As the last of the horde disappeared past the opening, the curious corpse climbed into the container and hobbled across the wooden floor, the planks creaking with each labored step.  When it was an arm’s length away, it spotted Liam through the thick blanket of blackness and lunged.  Almost immediately, Ratu’s curved blade sliced across its skull at a sharp angle, rendering it inert.  Liam caught the creature under its arms and silently laid it on the floor.  The two men waited in the darkness for several minutes before peering outside.
Liam sighed with relief, before turning back and whispering, “They’re gone, let’s go.”
As the group emerged from the container labyrinth, a flash of lightning revealed the 47’ trawler bobbing in the waves along the wharf, not far from where they stood.  Noah flashed the IR spotlight in quick succession to signal he was descending from his perch.
Liam whispered triumphantly, “We made it!”
While the others cheered with guarded voices, Parris stared out into the stormy waves.
“What’s that?”
Peered into the darkness, Liam replied, “What’s what?”
The dim sidelights and single white light of a small skiff rose and fell as it was violently tossed about by the storm.  They would appear momentarily, before vanishing behind the crest of a vast wave, only to appear again.  The faint silhouette of the bow and several occupants could be seen during the fleeting moments that the glow was visible.  Slowly, the skiff battled the squall and made its way towards the trawler.
Parris added, “They must be crazy to be in a boat that size!”
“Crazy… or desperate.  And if we don’t hurry, we’ll be the ones left behind.”
The men assumed a wedge formation and dashed across the open space between themselves and the trawler.  The skiff’s lights appeared once again and betrayed the men as they climbed onto the larger boat.  Liam and Ratu sheathed their blades and shouldered their rifles in anticipation of the encounter.
As they approached the gangway, the lightning began to flash vibrantly across the sky, causing the ground below to illuminate for what seemed like an eternity.  Though the raiders on the trawler had not seemed to notice their presence, Liam glanced over his shoulder and quickly realized the undead had not been as oblivious.  A horde of walkers began to fill the area behind them, dashing any hopes of a possible retreat.  There was but one path forward.  Stepping onto the trawler, Liam prayed Noah could navigate the corpses and reach them in time.
As the group rounded the cabin, several men emerged from below deck with their arms full of supplies.  Their eyes met at the same time.
“Not one move!” Liam growled.
Easy now; we didn’t mean no harm.”
“No harm?” Liam parroted, before ordering, “Drop everything and move to the stern, now!”
The lead man flashed a devilish smile, while the others stood motionless behind him.
“What the he-” A booming voice from behind caused Liam to stop midsentence.
“That’s enough, soldier.  Now, drop your weapons – everyone.”
Liam and the others did as they were ordered.  Slowly, they turned around to face several, grisly-looking men with rifles at the ready.  From the looks of them, they’d not fared well over the past few weeks.  Their eyes were cold and their bodies were emaciated.
Look,” Liam offered, “this doesn’t need to escalate.  We can all walk away from this.”
Oh, really?  Because you seemed so accommodating moments ago with my men, right?”
Liam stepped forward defiantly and pointed into the night, “I’ve got a half-dozen men out there that’re waiting for my signal.”
“You lie.”
“Look behind you, there’s a wall of undead that’ll soon be upon us.  Our options are few and there is no time!  Take your men and the supplies you’ve claimed and leave us.  We can all live yet.”
“I’ll not have an unarmed man bargain with me.  On your knees, all of you.”
His every heartbeat echoed with a deafening rumble as Liam sank to the deck.  Every breath was an eternity unto itself as it entered and exited his body.  They’d failed.  He had failed.  Somewhere in the distance, a legion of guttural growls filled the night air.  Liam closed his eyes and awaited his fate.
A shot rang out in the night, but the pain he’d expected never came.  As the warm gore sprayed his face, he opened his eyes in time to see the man, now faceless, collapse onto the deck.  A second shot rang out from somewhere in the night, and then another.  Noah!  He was alive!
Ratu had already cleared the distance between himself and the raiders.  His judgment was harsh and swift.  One man’s mouth hung agape as he struggled to prevent his bowels from spilling out of a long, mortal gash.  A second man howled in terror as the towering Gurkha hurled him at a throng of corpses on the gangway.
Liam spun to grab his rifle, but an explosion of pain erupted against the back of his skull. Numbness swept over him.  He staggered for a moment on his hands and knees, trying to regain his composure, but a second blow assailed him, this time from his rib cage.  His last vision before darkness consumed him was Emma gripping her side as she lay motionless on the deck, awash in crimson.
Chapter 5

Blaine paddled the canoe across the canal back to their retreat.  It was perilously overloaded with the remaining supplies that he’d gathered.  The dark, brackish water threatened to surge over the gunwale with every movement he made.  Fortunately, the trip across the narrow channel would be a short one.
He turned back to watch the group of undead that‘d begun to congregate on the shore.  Some waded out into the muddy water up to their waists, but then curiously dawdled about.  Eventually they retreated to the bank and stood alongside their companions.
As he continued to paddle across the canal, careful not to make any sudden movements, he considered what he’d just witnessed.  The corpses in the water were sentient enough to reason that several more steps would’ve been counterproductive to their continued survival.  Even more impressive were the ones that had remained on dry ground.  Their judgment extended beyond their next action to a more complex cause and effect analysis.  Blaine remembered watching in the early days of the outbreak as several of the infected blindly thrashed about in the surrounding waters, before eventually disappearing below.  Had the undead began to evolve, or at least adapt?
Despite the disturbing revelations, the cloudless sky managed to boost his spirits.  He stopped momentarily to roll up his sleeves and enjoy the warmth of the sun’s rays.  It’d been nearly a week since he’d begun sleeping during the day so he could scavenge at night.  The groans and gurgles of the walkers was a stark reminder of the dangers of moving about during the day.
As he reached the opposite shore and began to unload the contents of the canoe, the sounds of a vehicle filled the air.  Blaine raced to a nearby boatshed, as the same truck from the night before came into view.  He quietly searched the dark shed to ensure he was alone, while the vehicle continued to advance on his position.
It stopped at the end of the pavement, directly in front of the house that served as Blaine and Taylor’s sanctuary.  The men in the back of the truck once again scanned the surroundings for several moments before the driver and passenger emerged and approached the house.  Blaine scanned the home for any sign of Taylor, but the only movement was a curtain twisting in the wind.
His choices were limited.  Soon the men would find a way into the house, and then they would find Taylor.  He removed the bottle from the end of the pistol and tucked it in the small of his back.  Exhaling deeply, he stepped out of the boathouse with his arms raised.
“Don’t shoot!”
The men in the back of the truck trained their rifles on Blaine and shouted, “Don’t move!”
“Alright - alright!”
Lucas, the apparent leader, approached Blaine, while careful not to step in the line of fire of the men in the back of the truck.  The second man followed closely behind, his pistol drawn and at the ready.
“Easy guys, easy,” Lucas said, “this man obviously means us no harm, right?”
Blaine slowly nodded, his arms still stretched skyward.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Lucas.  It’s a pleasure to meet you; I’d shake your hand but…” he paused and grinned before continuing, “in our current situation, I think sudden movements should be avoided.”
“I appreciate your discretion,” Blaine replied cooly.
Lucas took several moments to examine him before continuing the conversation.
“Where’re you from, Blaine?  We didn’t know any of the living were still in these parts.”
Blaine, careful not to move his hands, nodded across the canal and replied, “Pleasure Street; ‘bout midway up.”
“Is it just you?”
“Nah.  Twelve of us – eight men, four women.”
“How fortunate of you to be in such a large group.  Have you been there long?”
“No, we’re just passing through.  We’ve been moving along the coast since the outbreak.”
“I see.  What’re you doing away from the group by yourself?”
“Just scoutin’ around.  Wanted to make sure there was no trouble about.”
“Well, as you can see, the trouble here is less than in most places.” Lucas smiled as he continued, “We’ve been fighting the Blight ever since the outbreak.”
Blaine nodded, “Us too.  It’s bad out there.”
“I agree, friend.  Say, why don’t you let us take you back to your group?  I’d like to meet ‘em.  Maybe we could even work together.”
“Why don’t you give me a location we can meet at later and I’ll go back and round up my group?”
Lucas removed his pistol from its holster and let it hang at his side.
“It wasn’t a suggestion, Blaine.  Get in the truck.”
His bluff had failed.  Lucas knew there was no group of twelve, but he probably reasoned there were others.  Blaine knew if he complied, he would never see Taylor again, but what choice did he have?
As he began to walk towards Lucas, he noticed a commotion on the back of the truck.  One of the men stared in shock as his companion suddenly collapsed.  Adrenaline surged through Blaine’s body as fractions of moments seemed to each drag on for eternities.  He glanced back at Lucas and the other man, but they were still unaware of what had transpired behind them.  He cut his eyes from side to side, searching for somewhere in which to take cover.
The second man in the truck groaned slightly as the silenced .22 pierced his skull.  The sound of the first man collapsing was immediately followed by the second man tumbling over the side of the truck.  As Lucas and his partner turned to see the source of the commotion, Blaine exploded with a burst of speed and dashed to the safety of a nearby vehicle.  As he raced through the tall grass, he retrieved his pistol and fired several rounds at the two remaining men.
They ducked low and returned fire, but he’d already reached his cover.  Lucas’ partner suddenly began to wail in agony and stumble about.  A second, silent bullet dropped him immediately.  Lucas dropped prone and cried out, “Don’t shoot!”
“Hold your fire, babe.”
Lucas tossed his pistol to the side as Blaine approached.
“What am I supposed to do now, Lucas?”
“Just let me go.  I won’t tell anyone.”
You won’t?  What’ll you say when you show back up to your group with three dead men?  Besides, you weren’t about to let me go anywhere.”
Taylor emerged from the house with the suppressed rifle aimed squarely at Lucas.
“You see her?  She’ll kill you; she killed your friends.  Don’t move.  Don’t even think.
Blaine walked over to the canoe and rummaged through the items for a moment, before retrieving a roll of duct tape.  He plunged the pistol into the small of his back as he returned to the prone man.
“Hands behind your back.”
Lucas silently complied.  Blaine wrapped his wrists nearly a dozen times with the tape.  Taylor continued to watch the man as Blaine transferred the day’s new-found provisions from the canoe into the boats behind the house.
After emptying the canoe, Blaine stood Lucas up, patted him down and escorted him to it.  Lucas stumbled and fell painfully headlong into the narrow, aluminum craft as it rocked unsteadily beneath him.  He groaned and writhed in pain, but offered up no words.  With a forceful shove, Blaine sent him drifting aimlessly into the river.  The corpses on the opposite side of the canal craned their necks and followed the meal hungrily as he floated by.  After several hundred feet, the river’s current wedged the boat in a stand of tall reeds along the water’s edge.
“How long will that hold him?”
“Probly for a while, I reckon.  That duct tape is unforgiving.  We should get going.  We don’t know how long before someone’ll come looking.  And we don’t want to be here when that happens.”
Chapter 6

New Orleans, Louisiana
The sound of the flint impacting the steel seemed much louder than it actually was in the unblemished silence of the apartment lobby.  Eli, or the Shepherd as he had come to be known by the men, made eye contact with each member of the squad as he held the lighter in the center of the circle.  After seizing their attention, he executed a series of hand signals directed at individual members of the party.  Everyone had a role.  Every man was a unique and vital component of the team.  They nodded their confirmations and divided into small units.  Quietly, they proceeded deeper into the darkened structure.
The building was a sea of black with an occasional island of light, afforded only by a series of small, shattered windows.  The units slowly cleared the large, open space before coalescing at the stairway in the back corner of the room.  The Shepherd whispered several commands as the final group approached.
The men were armed with weapons that were as diverse as their roles.  Some carried large riot shields and pistols, while others grip menacing sawed-off shotguns with flashlights duct taped to the shortened barrels.  Still others looked as if they were former military, with OCP uniforms and select-fire M4 carbines.  All of the men had machetes or hatchets strapped to their belts or across their backs.
The two shield-bearers created a testudo formation in the narrow confines and began to climb the stairs.  Several teammates behind them readied themselves with rigid, rapier-like creations that terminated at their ends with deathly sharp points.  A pair of shield-bearers at the rear of the group ascended the stairs backwards, while the men behind them also readied their brutal, stabbing instruments.
As they reached the first quarter-space landing where the stairwell paused before turning up again, Eli whispered, “Hold.”
They paused and held their position without so much as a word.
After several moments, he whispered again, “Ready?”
A series of low grunts of affirmation arose around him.
“Light it up.”
The men in the center of the formation switched on their weapon lights.  Immediately, the stairwell was awash with the bright glow.  Somewhere high above, a series of gurgles and groans could be heard.
Alright, here they come.  Gird your loins, boys.”
Though the Shepherd’s words were peppered with sarcasm and rolled off his tongue without concern, everyone knew how dangerous the encounter would be.  If the modern-day legionnaires did not hold their formation and execute their tactics flawlessly, they would be surely overrun, and would join the ranks of their foes.  Though the assaults were always perilous, Eli had found no better way to storm an infested building.
The fleeting footfalls high above resonated throughout the stairwell as the starved corpses bounded towards the glow of the lights.  Several of the men shouted and urged them on, as if the creatures could comprehend them.
“We’ve got runners!” One of the men shouted.
“Careful!” Eli warned, “Brace the line; they hit hard!”
A trio of snarling wights finally appeared on the landing above them.  Gazing upon their prey, the undead sprang from their perch.  The terrified men roared like savages to bolster their resolve.
Five risers from the men, the lead corpse leapt through the air, while the others continued downward in a blind charge.  The shield bearers groaned in pain from the force of the collision and nearly toppled over backwards, but the second line leaned in and braced the pair.  Moments later, the two remaining runners reached the line, further pressing in.  The shields threatened to break apart under the weight of the assault.  The stench that rolled out of the creatures’ throats filled the air as their gnarled fingers scraped against the thick, clear plastic.
Upon the Shepherd’s orders, the shield-bearers parted their wall just enough so that the men behind them could thrust their crude rapiers through.  They leaned forward and gouged through eyes, or crouched low and fiercely thrust upward through the soft tissue where neck and jaw met.  After piercing the skull and finding a route into the soft tissue of the brain, they wrenched and pried the steel rods wildly about to decimate whatever remained of the corpses’ thalamus and hypothalamus.  One by one, the creatures’ milky eyes rolled back in their heads.  With each new thrust, another of the infected collapsed at the feet of the shield bearers.
The men’s cries of victory were short lived.  A voice in the rear cried out, “Two back here!  We got runners!”
The attention of the group swung to the rear.  The men leaned forward and braced for the second wave of the onslaught.  The slower moving walkers were dispatched with relative ease compared to their livelier, unliving counterparts.  The blow to the second corpse was so forceful that the blade passed through the back of its skull.  The creature dawdled for a moment on the blade before its knees buckled and its skull began to slide off the steel, leaving a thick film of black-crimson blood and gore.
“Six clear!”
“Twelve clear!”
“Proceed as one,” Eli ordered, “keep it tight!”
The group cautiously ascended to the next landing, careful not to break the formation, even if a threat was not apparent.  The Shepherd required perfect discipline during their assaults, and his rebuke was harsh.
They paused at each landing and repelled the wights before ascending further.  Craning their necks and straining their eyes, they scanned the dark chasm.  Only when they were certain they’d dispatched all threats would they continue upward.  Facing a group of undead on the uneven footing of the stairs had proved deadly in the past.  As they reached a landing that led to a floor of the building, a member of the group called out the floor number so that all were aware.  The Shepherd divided up every task among them.  Every man had a role, no charge was without warrant.
“Fourth floor!”
After a time, two voices rang out.
“Six clear!”
“Twelve clear!”
The Shepherd turned to one of the men and asked, “So this is it?”
“Fourth floor; this’s where we saw the light in the window.”
Eli looked over his shoulder and said, “Dalton.”
“Yes sir?”
“Check it out.”
He nodded and complied with the Shepherd’s orders.  With his machete in hand, he moved forward through the ranks.  The shield-bearers parted to allow him to pass through.
Illuminated by his teammates’ flashlights, Dalton tugged forcefully on the steel door several times.  Defeated, he abandoned his attempt and glanced back at Eli.  The Shepherd simply nodded.  Dalton sheathed his machete and removed a pry bar from his ruck.
He leaned hard against the door and forced the bar into the narrow gap between the door and the frame.  After several attempts the door broke free from the lock, but stopped abruptly.  Something behind it blocked the way.  Dalton slammed a shoulder against it to push through whatever was beyond, but it was in vain.
“It’s barricaded.  Y’all better step back.”
The unit retreated to a lower landing as Dalton dropped to one knee and rummaged through his pack.  He retrieved a roll of duct tape, removed several long strips and shrugged the ruck back over his shoulders.  He removed three, home-made, stick grenades from several pouches on his belt and affixed them along the opening of the door.  Grinning, he pulled the pins, and dashed madly down the stairwell in search of cover.
“Frag out!”
As he pushed past the shield-bearers, the entire team crouched low and waited.
A deafening explosion rocked the stairwell and sent a rippling shockwave through the building.  The men remained crouched as dust and debris rained down on them.  The ringing of their ears was soon replaced by a chorus of groans.   Somewhere above, a throng of undead had been awakened by the blast.
“Everyone alright?”
The men nodded and grunted their affirmations.
“Good.  Get ready; we’ve got more company.”
The men grew anxious as the countless footfalls echoed louder and the groans escalated into a constant, droning murmur.
“Hold the line!”
The horde that appeared was over a dozen strong, and particularly menacing and aggressive.  Teeth clacked and disgusting fluids dribbled from their chins as they charged the men.
The second row stepped forward and braced the shield-bearers.   The pair was nearly crushed between the weights of the opposing forces.  Slowly, the line began to falter and stumble backwards.  The strength of the frenzied walkers was too much.  The swordsmen stabbed and skewered the skulls of the corpses, but another creature would immediately step forth and continue the blitz.  A man in the rear guard stumbled and fell backwards down the stairs.   He crashed into a wall nearly a dozen feet below and writhed in agony on the filthy floor.  It seemed as if the formation would surely cede the landing. 
“Push!  Push!”
The shield-bearers cried out as they feared their ribs would collapse between the epic struggle of the living and the dead.  The swordsmen feverishly stabbed blindly at the corpses in an effort to turn the tide in their favor.  The narrow space grew dim as flashlights were shoved up against bodies.   Men were squeezed like grapes in a winepress.
Finally, the group lurched forward, awkwardly at first, but then with more control and discipline.  The line of undead was breaking as their bodies piled up in heaps on the stairs.  As the last corpse ceased its snarls and collapsed in front of the shields, the men exploded with the roars of victory.
“Save it ‘til we’re done.  Let’s clear the fourth floor.”
* * *
The floor was eerily quiet and devoid of all life.  The halls were stacked high with refuse and filth.  Coupled with the stout barricade, the waste was a strong indication that someone was trying to survive in the new world behind one, or several, of the doors in front of them.  After the team cleared the hall, they took up defensive positions throughout.  The Shepherd stepped forward with a booming voice and delivered his proclamation to anyone in earshot.
“Citizens of New Orleans, this is Agent Foster of GOHSEP, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.  As y’all are quite aware, this area is no longer safe, and is being evacuated.  Governor Rouquette has ordered the immediate relocation of all remaining citizens to a facility just south of Natchitoches. My agents and I will be your guides.  Food and water will be provided, bring only what you can carry.”
No response.
Eli paced the hall for several moments and then repeated his address.
After a second round without response, he turned to the others and said, “Break ‘em down.”
As a group of men lined up beside the nearest door, Dalton said, “Shepherd, over here.”
The Shepherd and several others joined him in cautiously approaching the door that had just creaked ajar.  A wrinkled old lady peered frightfully out at them.  One of her hands clutched the door, while the other shakily gripped a gnarled, wooden cane.
The Shepherd smiled lovingly and stooped low to greet her, “Ma’am, I’m Agent Foster.  Are you well?”
Her eyes were filled with sorrow and her face was haggard from long days and sleepless nights.  After several moments, she nodded her head.
“Good, I’m glad to hear that.  Is there anyone else with you?”
“My husband.  He’s bad sick; hasn’t had any medicine in I don’t know when.  We’ve lost count of days as of late.”
“We’ve medicine downstairs in our vehicles, what is he on?”
She smiled and replied, “Honey, there ain’t nothin’ he don’t take.”
The Shepherd chuckled and said, “Is there anyone else on the floor that we can help?”
She pointed at a pair of doors down the hall and answered, “There’s the Landry’s place, and over there’re the Rivettes.   We’re all that’s left.  Thank you so much, I don’t know how much longer we could’ve made it.”
“It’s our job, Ma’am.  Helping folks is what we do.”  He turned and said, “Dalton, you and the others go rouse the Landrys and Rivettes.”
After Dalton had coaxed the other families to their front doors, Eli addressed everyone.
“Folks, let me have your attention.  In just a moment, we’ll ask everyone to gather up only what is of utmost importance to you:  heirlooms, valuables, photos – things like that.  As I’ve said, we’ve plenty of food and water, there’s no need to bring your own.  If we hurry, hopefully we can all sit down to a warm meal tonight.  When you return,” Eli motioned his hand and continued, “please line up along this wall so we can document your names and some vital health information.  Now, please hurry.”
The families cheered and disappeared for several minutes, before reemerging with bulging packs and suitcases.  The faces of the mothers and fathers expressed relief to be leaving the horrors behind, while the children were excited to embark on the adventure.  The city had fallen into unspeakable darkness.   To the parents, Agent Foster offered a feeling of hope that they thought they might never experience again.
After they had all lined up, the Shepherd raised one arm skyward.  The scene around them was unfolding so quick, that the people didn’t have time to process it.  They simply stood by idly, in shock.  The members of the squad shouldered their weapons and waited for Eli’s command.  As his arm fell to his side, the room exploded with gunfire.  A thick fragrance of smoke filled the air.  The Shepherd turned and walked away as the last of the bodies slid down the wall.
“Check their bags and search the flats.  Check the vacant apartments as well.”
As Eli stood by and watched the men hurry about, a voice crackled on his radio.
“Go ahead.”
“Almost done?”
“Almost.  Clean sweep; just gathering up the goods now.”
“How long?”
“Maybe an hour.”
“We think we’ve found some more survivors.  Do you want to hit them today?”
The Shepherd kneeled to retrieve a cigarette from a soft pack in the chest pocket of one of the dead men.  He mulled the thought for several moments before replying.
“Negative.  We’ve been productive enough.  Let’s enjoy the spoils.  There’s always tomorrow.”


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