She leaned against the gate post and lit a cigarette. The crackle of paper and tobacco was the only sound to be heard save the low howl of a near-constant wind. With a flick of her wrist, she closed the cover of her lighter, then slid it into an inner pocket of her coat.
While she smoked, she scanned the horizon, periodically checking in with the sentries at the three other gate posts of the compound. All clear. All quiet. Just as it had been for weeks.
She should be thankful, she knew, that they'd had such a lull in the violence that had plagued them these past few years. But so long as that violence could erupt again at any moment, she preferred a constant state of alertness and peril to the complacency that had begun to settle over those she guarded. She'd been furious to hear that the children had been allowed outside the gate yesterday, and had petitioned the governor to lock down the schools and cut the teachers' rations as punishment. He hadn't listened to her. He'd been sympathetic to the teachers and their charges. The small exercise yard and dilapidated playground equipment inside the compound could not compare to the recreation to be enjoyed in the low hills less than a mile away.
She didn't argue that point, but attempted to convey how vital it was they not relax their vigilance now, particularly with regard to the children. This compound was the last refuge of free and untainted humans, and those children were the only hope of their survival. There were rumors of other compounds in what was left of Europe and Asia, but nothing proven, and in the absence of that proof she would err on the side of caution.
She took one final drag off her cigarette and dropped it, grinding it under the toe of her boot and shifting her gun to her other shoulder. She knew many of the others found her caution overzealous, but she didn't care. If it kept them safe, she'd let them think her a tyrannical fascist. Would that she'd had this caution at the beginning, her own children might still be with her, rather than out there, desperate to feast on her living brain. She'd known the nature of the threat at the time, but had counted on others to protect her and hers. She'd foolishly gone about her life, secure in the knowledge that the Sentry Initiative would keep them all safe.
Her grip on her gun tightened, her knuckles turning white, as she thought of the Sentries. Powerful warrior robots, they'd been designed to fight and exterminate the hordes of zombies that had begun feasting on human brains, increasing their own numbers with each victim. For a time, the Sentry Initiative had worked. The zombies were held back from the cities and suburbs, and had begun to decrease in number.
Unfortunately, they'd underestimated their enemies. They'd thought the zombies mindless creatures, not realizing they kept their intellect, their knowledge and their memories. They were the same people they'd been before becoming infected; the only thing they lost was their connection to the human race and those moral values that kept them from killing. What they gained in return was unnatural strength and resilience, and an insatiable hunger for living brain tissue.
It stood to reason, therefore, that one of the zombies would be proficient with computers and their various systems. It designed a virus that acted much like the zombie infection and uploaded it to a captured Sentry. Within weeks, the robots were all on the side of the zombies, save those few in the compound that had escaped infection.
With the robots on their side, the zombies had little trouble acquiring new humans. Her own children had been stolen from her arms by an infected Sentry. She had escaped only through the efforts of a passing troop of soldiers. They'd taken her in, turned her grief to vengeance, and trained her to fight and protect. And she had done so for over a year now, rising quickly through the ranks and becoming a trusted advisor to the governor. But at night, when she was alone in her bunk, her arms would ache for her babies, vengeance would turn to grief and sorrow would flood her soul.
The scrape of a shoe on gravel pulled her attention back to the now and she looked down. There before her, as though conjured from her own memories, stood her son. Her beautiful little boy was just as she remembered him, save for the greenish tinge to his skin, the sunken eyes and a gaping hole in his exposed skull. He looked up at her and smiled his sweet smile.
"Hello, mama," he said, in the little sing-song voice she loved. He opened his arms wide and said, "uppy."
She squeezed her eyes shut against the flood of tears, swallowing the lump in her throat. When she opened them again, he was still there, arms open, asking her to pick him up.
She raised her rifle and took aim, but her hands shook and it fell from her grip. She knew she should call for backup, should call one of their Sentries, but...
But it was her little boy.
So instead she knelt down and held open her arms, pulling her son into her embrace. She was so happy to be with him again, she barely felt it when his teeth ripped through her scalp and cracked open her skull. She was only dimly aware of him chewing on her brain and didn't even notice the change when it came. She was where she should be, with her son in her arms. She was a soldier no more, and a mother again at last.
"Where's your sister?" she asked.
"Back at our new home," her son answered. "I'll take you there soon." Then he looked up at her, innocent eyes blinking. "I'm hungry, mama."
She smiled. "I'm hungry too, sweetie." She took his hand, leading him into the compound. "Come on, let's go get something to eat."