Forreston FL, roughly fifty miles north of Lake City FL, 1900 hours Local, 18 October 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 2 months, 13 days

Mateo stopped as Slim’s fist shot up. Of the M&W Armed Response Team, only Slim and Sport joined Mateo, The Steve, and Collin to clear Forreston of zombies. The two Brits were very vocal with their nominal leader about his decision to leave. Pryce grudgingly handed over some extra weapons, ammo, and gear before departing back to Lake City.

The small team decided the elementary school in the center of Forreston looked like it would be the easiest place to fortify against zombies. It would make a good place to rally the surviving humans. Then they could sweep out and eliminate as many zombies as they could until help arrived. Slim was point for the team as they made their way into the seemingly deserted town.

"What is it?" Mateo asked.

"Single zombie," Slim reported, "It’s in front of our door." Based on a quick satellite shot of the school, Mateo decided to enter the school from a side entrance. Mateo scanned the area around. He couldn’t see any other zombies around the school.

"Take it down," Mateo said. Slim’s suppressed carbine coughed once. The zombie’s head shattered from the bullet’s impact. The team sprinted to the door as the zombie’s body collapsed to the ground. Speed was of the essence. Mateo’s team needed to seize and clear out the school quickly if they were going to have a chance of using it. As the five men neared, the door slammed open.

"Thank the Lord!" exclaimed the woman in the doorway. She was a stout, mature woman with brown hair and eyes with a dress that hurt the eyes with its clash of bright colors. Mateo suspected when the woman smiled, she would look like someone’s favorite aunt. At the moment, the woman just looked terrified. "Is the Army here?"

"No ma’am," Mateo answered as his team pushed past her into the school, "We’re not soldiers. We’re kind of private contractors." It sounded lame to Mateo’s ears, but the woman simply nodded.

"Are you going to get us out of here?" she asked.

"We’re going to try, Ms?" Mateo asked.

"Oh, I’m sorry. I plumb forgot my manners," the woman said with a slight blush coloring her cheeks, "I’m Mary Jacobsen. Let me take you to the others." Mary motioned for the team to follow her into the school. As they walked, Mary related what happened after the zombies escaped the abandoned supermarket. By sheer bad luck, the zombies’ first target was the local nursing home. The residents never had a chance against the walking dead. Then, they turned on the staff. Their numbers bolstered, the horde attacked some of the outlying homes of the town. Those were occupied by a substantial number of snowbirds. They were easy prey for the horde, but at least they managed to raise the alarm. The town police chief ordered an evacuation of the town before his small force went to fight the growing horde.

"It was so horrible," Mary said, "Most of the folks managed to get out of town in time. The rest of us had to hole up here." She showed the team some of the classrooms that had been converted to sleeping rooms. Some were full of children with a few adults to watch them. "I mean, I’ve watched Zombie Strike! on TV. It was never that horrible on television." Mateo could only nod wordlessly.

Mary led the team into the school cafeteria. The large windows were boarded over with storm shutters. The people in the room stiffened as the team walked in. The faces Mateo saw were beyond scared. These people were terrified and didn’t have a clue how to deal with the horde. Mateo took off his helmet and gave his most confident smile.

"Are all of the surviving people here?" Mateo asked Mary.

"Everyone except those damned Templetons," a grizzled voice from the crowd answered. An old man stood up and strode over to Mateo and the team. The man looked about eighty with his weathered face and gleaming bald head. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans, accentuated with worn cowboy boots and a big lever-action rifle slung on his shoulder. "Those hooligans are trapped in their little clubhouse with nearly every zombie in town surrounding them. Serves them right."

"Now Sparky, that’s not being a good Christian," Mary said in a matronly voice. It reminded Mateo of one of his old Sunday school teachers. The old man, Sparky, scoffed.

"Who are the Templetons?" Mateo asked.

"Family of bad seeds," Sparky said, "Them and their friends cause most of the trouble in this town. Drinking, fighting, drugs. Better question soldier boy, when is the Army going to get us out of here?" Several of the townspeople looked at Mateo expectantly. Mateo braced himself before he answered.

"My men and I are not with the Army," Mateo said calmly, "We’re private contractors. We will try to evacuate all of you out of here, but it’s going to take some time. To be honest, we weren’t expecting this many survivors. If you’ll let us get in contact with—"

THUMP! The room shook as a thunderous roar rocked the cafeteria. People were thrown across the room from the concussion. A few seconds later, the sounds of shattering glass and ripping metal exploded from the hallway that led to the school’s main entrance. Something big just slammed into the school from Mateo’s estimation. A couple of townspeople started down the hallway to find out what happened, but stopped cold. The distinctive hunting moans of zombies echoed through the hallway. Lots of zombies.

"Collin, Slim, recon," Mateo ordered. The two men nodded wordlessly before charging down the hall. "Sport, The Steve, defensive positions. Have some of the locals help you."

"Not a problem boss," The Steve said. Mateo turned to Sparky.

"We need someplace for everyone to go," Mateo stated, "Do you have access to the roof from here?"

"Well, yes, but that’s not the best—" Sparky started before Mateo cut him off with a sharp hand.

"It’s the best place right now," Mateo said, "I need the children up there now with some folks to watch them. I need others gathering food, water, and blankets in case we’re up there a while. Anyone whose strong enough to fight the zombies, I need helping The Steve." Sparky nodded and hurried back to the townspeople. From the activity, the townspeople seemed to be accepting Mateo’s directions.

"Collin, what’s the situation?" Mateo asked over the team’s radio net.

"Some bleeding idiot drove an HG lorry through the front of the school," Collin answered, "Looks like the driver dumped the petrol tank he was hauling before he crashed. That’s what detonated."

"Are we on fire?" Mateo asked.

"Negative," Slim reported, "The petrol was a good two hundred meters away. Did manage to knock some of our friends off their feet."

"We’ve got roughly two hundred of the buggers bearing down on us," Collin reported, "We can take care of the few enterprising ones that managed to get close. The main party will be pouring through here in roughly twenty minutes from the way their staggering about."

"Do it," Mateo ordered. Sparky returned with three individuals. Sparky introduced them as Jim, Ken, and Jess. Jim looked about ten years older than Mateo, with the weathered look of someone who made his living outdoors. From his clothes, Mateo guessed he was a farmer or a farmhand, but the man’s stance and cool blue eyes told Mateo this wasn’t Jim’s first rodeo. Jim had a Ruger Mini-14 slung over his shoulder and a 1911 on his belt. Ken and Jess were teenagers, and quite obviously dating. They looked similar from their Nordic features to the trendy clothing they were wearing to the ARs each was carrying. It made them look so innocent for what was about to happen. The slight nervousness didn’t help. Mateo’s paternal instincts screamed at him to send these kids back, but the team leader ignored them. People always underestimated what teenagers were capable of doing. These two had the hard, determined look in their eyes Mateo instantly recognized. They would be fine. Mateo thanked them and sent them to help The Steve and Slim. Mateo was surprised they’d actually managed to get three more people out of the roughly hundred people in the school. Usually, the percentage of people who could overcome the horror of the zombies to be useful was much lower. Much less the smaller group of individuals who were willing to fight against the horde. Still, he only had eight against two hundred. Granted, Mateo had fought worse odds, but he’d had prepared positions, a trained team of proven zombie hunters, and a bunch of explosives. Mateo’s mind flashed with an insight. Not the best plan, but one that might work.

"The Steve, double thick the wall," Mateo ordered, "Collin, I need you and Slim to ghost out of there as soon as the main group starts getting close to the entrance." Mateo sketched out his plan in a few short sentences. Collin, ever stoic, made no protestations. He just double-clicked the radio mike in acknowledgement. The Steve already had more of the townspeople constructing the palisade. Any furniture or equipment large enough and heavy enough was lashed onto the growing wall. The wall curved around the mouth of the hallway. It left a pocket roughly fifteen feet deep. Firing positions were at regular intervals and provided interlocking fields of fire. Next to each firing position was a shotgun. The Steve was very good at this kind of thing. The workers followed his instructions quickly and efficiently.

"Showtime Matty," Collin whispered.

"Everyone not fighting, get to the roof now," Mateo said. Everyone froze for a moment as their minds realized what that statement meant. "My team, take your positions. We’ve got incoming." The townspeople dropped what they were doing and fled to the roof access. The Steve was positioning the small team. Jim and Ken were on the outmost positions. Jess and Sport took the next positions. That left Mateo and The Steve in the center. Well, that’s what they got paid the big bucks for. At least, Mateo hoped they were being paid for this. Before Mateo could take his position, Sparky stormed in while unlimbering his rifle. The glint in those aged eyes brooked no argument. Actually, it was a good idea. Having Sparky on the line let Mateo observe and act as the team reserve.

"Let the first ones in close before engaging," Mateo said, "Wait until I open fire. Watch your targets, and don’t waste your ammo." Everyone braced as the moans came closer. The first zombies staggered out of the hallway into the pocket. Mateo lifted his carbine and drew a bead on the trailing zombie of this first group. He waited for a long moment and then squeezed the trigger. The carbine rocked back as the zombie fell. No one else fired. What the–? Oh crap, Mateo forgot about the suppressor. It was too quiet for the amped up group.

"Open fire!" Mateo yelled, and was rewarded with a ragged volley of gunfire. A half-dozen zombies fell. From that point, each shooter fired on their own. Mateo joined in with sporadic fire as he watched more zombies pour into the pocket. They were being taken down, but not fast enough. The four townspeople were just not experienced enough to score head shots with each shot. Many of the zombies were just knocked down. Those just got up and continued the attack. Mateo could see the crush, the point when the sheer number of zombies would overcome the firepower being thrown at them. Mateo imagined it was like watching a tsunami bear down on you.

"Collin, now," Mateo said over the radio as he quickly reloaded his carbine. There was no acknowledgement. Panic flooded Mateo. Collin was the only hope for the team to survive this fight. Did he get killed before –?

"Sorry Matty, we had to throw off some of the buggers," Collin reported, "You might want to take cover now."

"FIRE IN THE HOLE!" Mateo roared over the gunfire. Everyone except the kids took cover. They just looked bewildered. They had no idea what the phrase meant. Mateo lunged and managed to yank Jess behind the impromptu palisade an instant before the claymores were triggered. The team only had three of the directional mines, but the shockwave from three kilos of C4 was funneled through the hallway. As close as the line was to the mouth of the hallway, it was like standing next to a howitzer without hearing protection. Mateo’s ears were ringing, and his head was swimming. He felt the cracking impacts as some of the two thousand steel balls propelled by the explosive force of the C4 embedded themselves into the palisade. He barely remembered to stand up and open fire on the surviving zombies. There were maybe twenty or so walkers with quite a few more crawlers. Walkers were priority. Training and instinct took over as he placed the holographic reticule on the nearest zombie. He didn’t even remember squeezing the trigger. Mateo just felt the recoil and transitioned to the next target. As his hearing came back, Mateo heard the screaming. He spared a quick glance towards the sound. Jess was on the ground, cradling the still and bloody body of Ken.

"Steve, Ken’s down," Mateo said, flatly, "Sport, Jim, Sparky, close up the line and keep working the walkers." The four shooters moved towards the center of the palisade and continued to fire at the remaining zombies. The Steve slung his weapon and trotted over to the teenagers. The screaming came back, this time with a string of curses that no young lady should have been able to hurl. There were three walkers left. Sport and the others could deal with three walkers. Mateo went to deal with Jess.

"Do something!" Jess said, "Do something you—" followed by various aspersions on The Steve. Ken’s body was on the floor with The Steve between the body and Jess. Part of the boy’s head was missing. It looked like Ken managed to catch some of the claymores’ blast. Mateo shouldered his carbine as he walked up behind the screaming girl.

"He’s gone, honey," Mateo said quietly as he wrapped his armored arms around Jess. She fought, screamed, kicked, and cussed. Mateo held her carefully until she expended her fury. Then, she just broke into a torrent of tears and unintelligible sounds. The Steve carefully took Jess from Mateo, like one parent relieving another of a child. The father in Mateo screamed to comfort the hurting child, but Mateo knew he was responsible for not only his team, but all of the townspeople trapped in this school.

"Collin, what’s your status?" Mateo asked.

"We’re mopping up from our end Matty," Collin answered, "It’s a bit sticky, but we should be able to handle it." Mateo double-clicked his mike to acknowledge. Collin and Slim could handle themselves. He turned to the rest of his small team.

"Sparky, check on the people on the roof," Mateo said, "Keep them away from the front of the school. The claymores may have caused structural damage." The old man nodded before hustling away. "Sport, Jim, grab those shotguns and start clearing the crawlers. Start from the palisade and advance carefully. Sometimes those things will surprise you."

"What about the kids?" Jim asked, motioning to where Jess was crying over Ken with The Steve hovering over her.

"Ken’s dead, and Jess isn’t in any shape to fight right now," Mateo said, "You’ll have to do this on your own." There was a sudden sadness in Jim’s eyes as he nodded and went about his assigned task.

"You’ve got more trouble, son," Sparky said, "Beyond not knowing how small towns work." Sparky didn’t flinch under Mateo’s impatient glare. "You got another mess of them zombies marching to Lake City behind another tractor rig. The Diggens boy saw them. Good eyes on that boy." Mateo surveyed the scene. The Steve was attending to a multitude of small wounds. Sport and Jim were going through the remains of the zombie horde looking for the still-active ones. The town mothers were consoling Jess as Ken’s body was being removed by some of the men. The rest were milling about lost, flinching each time the shotguns fired.

"Collin, contact M&W in Lake City. Tell them a horde is on its way," Mateo ordered.

"How the bloody devil do you expect me to do that?" Collin asked, clearly annoyed with his team leader, "This town is a bloody black hole for radios and mobiles."

"Collin, you’re the former SAS guy. Figure it out," Mateo said. Collin grumbled out an acknowledgement. M&W might be able to put up some defense – if Collin managed to get off a warning. The problem was Mateo couldn’t depend on that. No matter how tired and battered he was – emotionally, physically, and mentally – Mateo couldn’t stop until this outbreak was extinguished.

[Zombie Strike Part 2 Chapter 15]Chapter 15