Fifty Miles Off of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 1830 hours Local, 24 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 1 week

Sissy O’Connell watched the gorgeous Pacific sunset from the stern of the converted cargo ship. She regretted leaving her long blonde hair down and loose. The downwash from the helicopters kept sweeping it into her eyes. Still, the view was worth the hassle. The orange sun melted into the blue waters highlighted by a sky lit with reds and purples. It was more beautiful than any of the paintings Sissy adored. She watched with constant fascination as the sun slowly dropped under the horizon, and then a bit longer until the natural light was replaced by the blazing white of the lights on the flight deck. The time gave Sissy a chance to get herself centered.

Sissy left the flight deck and made her way down to her team’s rooms. They were two levels below the flight deck and separated from the ship’s crew and M&W’s security people. Sissy was still amazed an insurance company owned and operated its own helicarrier. Mr. Brown, the bespectacled liaison from M&W, mentioned something about the ship being a prototype for the British Navy to convert cargo ships to Harrier carriers during the height of the Cold War. Considering Sissy had been five years old when the Iron Curtain fell, that historical fact meant absolutely nothing to her. What did matter to her was that the technological improvements M&W put into their private warship meant the vessel didn’t need much in the way of crew, and gave the team an inordinate amount of privacy. Sissy was relieved as she finally descended into the empty corridor. She was getting tired of the stares from the sailors.

Her room was the first on the left from the – ladder? Stairs? Ships were so bizarre. Opposite of her room, Sissy heard a pitiful moan from Quentin’s cabin. The former rough and tumble football player was laid low by seasickness. Dramamine didn’t do a thing for Quentin, and the team medic wouldn’t give him anything stronger. Sissy admired Quentin’s grit as he joined the team for exercise and weapons training every morning – even when he looked like death warmed over. Sissy decided to check back on Quentin after she was done with her other teammates. He needed the most attention at the moment.

“Hey Matt,” Sissy said, gently rapping on the open door, “Everything going okay?” Mateo spun in his chair. He clenched the papers in his hand in a death grip as he looked at Sissy. His eyes darted all over his room.

”Um, yeah. I’m just – I’m just getting the final bit of the planning finished,” Mateo half-stammered. His twitching shoulders telegraphed his unease. Sissy stifled the sigh before it escaped her lips. During exercises, Mateo was completely different. He was never uneasy or had any trouble speaking to her. The times when the team wasn’t training, like now, he just looked like he was trying to escape from her. She didn’t know what it was about her that made Mateo so uncomfortable, but she figured she’d try one more time tonight to pull him out.

“Okay,” Sissy said warmly, “Don’t stay up too late. Early morning. Could be a long day.”

“Uh, yeah,” Mateo said, staring at the papers in his hand, “Thanks.” She grimaced as Mateo whirled back to his work.

“Don’t worry too much about him,” whispered a voice behind her. Sissy jumped in surprise, and then whirled on a smiling Steve “The Steve” Mountain. How did he always manage to do that? Frustrated and angry, she punched the smiling medic in the chest.

“Idiot.”

“Relax chica,” The Steve said, ignoring the punch and the insult with his characteristic smile, “The Steve understands the boss man. The Steve sees the signs. Let The Steve handle this.” Sissy looked into The Steve’s brown eyes. There was a steady dedication behind the normally laughing eyes. The Steve may be a bit touched in the head, but he was dedicated to healing the physical and emotional wounds of his teammates.

“Well I guess I better check on Collin and Jack then,” Sissy said.

“Don’t bother,” The Steve said, “Collin racked out fast. That whole grab-sleep-when-you-can thing. Jack’s in one of his bad moods, so The Steve locked him in his cabin until the morning brief.” Sissy nodded in tired resignation. She didn’t even want to contemplate Jack walking around the ship in one of his dark moods. Someone was bound to wind up hurt – or dead.

“Listen, get some rack time. You’re worrying too much,” The Steve said with as much sincerity as the medic could muster. Sissy turned back to her room as The Steve went to his own room. She changed out of her fatigues into a comfortably over-large T-shirt and pajama bottoms. Sissy looked at herself in the small mirror of the room. She finally admitted it. She was terrified. She couldn’t hide from it anymore by taking care of the others. Sissy was scared. Scared that she would die, or she would make a mistake and one of her teammates would die. They reminded her so much of her brothers.

No, she admitted to herself, her fear wasn’t that simple. She knew where her fear came from, but she just couldn’t face it. Sissy snatched Frederick off the bed. The stuffed toy monkey usually chased away the fear. Not this time. As she clutched at Frederick, her eyes fell on the long black case. Her rifle case. Her father’s deep, warm voice filled her ears and heart. Don’t worry Little Bit, everything’s going to be all right. The fear was finally banished for the night. Sissy gently placed Frederick back on the bed. She put on her slippers. Quentin still needed some looking after before the morning meeting.

Fifty Miles Off of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 0630 hours Local, 24 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 6 days

Sissy watched the water as the helicopter sped towards the target. The island didn’t even have a name, just a long alphanumeric designation Sissy couldn’t remember. The mission was simple. Land and disembark, set up base camp, and then eradicate every zombie on the island. She smiled as she remembered Mateo’s words from the morning meeting.

“Now we all know the saying’s easy. The doing’s going to be a mite bit harder,” Mateo told the group. Sissy didn’t know where that southern accent came from, but it relieved a little of the tension of the team. Sissy closed her eyes and tried to keep calm as the helicopter neared the island.

The distinct buzzsaw sound of miniguns signaled the descent to the island. Two escort gunship helicopters provided a distraction to cover the team’s insertion. Zombies were attracted by loud sounds, and the sound of two helicopters spraying thousands of 7.62mm NATO into the jungle was a very loud sound. Hopefully, it was loud enough to cover the sound of a single helicopter dropping off six people.

The helicopter made an easy descent. Sissy barely noticed the helicopter touching the grassy ground. Collin and The Steve were the first off. The two former military men jumped out of the helicopter with an easy grace. They were already thirty feet from the helicopter with their weapons up and searching before Sissy and Jack were ushered off by the hurried crew chief. Sissy hit the deceptively hard ground, barely remembering to move away from the helicopter. She moved as fast as she could while crouched, keeping the little H&K MP7 submachine gun braced. The roar of the helicopter’s engine meant Mateo and Quentin were off as well. She felt the intense downwash as the helicopter lifted back into the sky.

“Okay team, huddle up,” Mateo said. Mateo held a green plastic device, about the size of a hardcover book. A large screen dominated the top of the device. A map of the island appeared. Their current position on the south end of the island was designated as “Landing Zone One.” The island was roughly circular and was maybe a mile at its widest point. There was a dense jungle in the center of the island with a band of tall grasslands and smaller sprouts of jungle between the center and the beaches.

“Latest intel has most of the zombies still on the north end of the island,” Mateo said, pointing to the grassy area with a small growth of jungle, “Numbers still estimated at a few hundred.”

“Do you believe that?” Jack asked, sarcastically.

“I’m willing to use that as the low figure,” Mateo answered. He took a moment to look at the time display on the device. “We’ve got about nine hours of daylight. Collin, I want you and Sissy to clear the immediate area while the rest of us set up base camp.” Jack scowled and Quentin made a playful groan as the two walked over to the large metal boxes dropped off the helicopter with them. The Steve smiled as he strode behind the two.

“Well lass, let’s get this done,” Collin said, hefting his MP5/10. Sissy folded up and holstered the MP7 and removed her beloved “Danny-Boy” from its protective bag. Sissy worked the bolt and felt the welcome sound of the .338 Lapua round feeding into the chamber. The two strode away from the others. For Sissy, the stride was a familiar hunting walk. The two quietly walked about fifty yards from where the others were erecting the base camp. The edge of the jungle was another hundred yards off. Strange sounds emanated from the darkened forest that stirred up the terror from the previous night. Sissy gripped her rifle closer.

There was a blur of motion from the jungle. She spun to bring the rifle at the dark shape. It was indistinct, but humanoid. The scope did nothing to resolve the form as she brought her rifle to her shoulder in a single fluid motion. Sissy took a quick breath and let it out as she gently squeezed the trigger.

[Zombie Strike Part One Chapter Five]