Torelli Family Farm, 300 miles East of Wichita, Kansas, 10 June 2011, 2000 hours local; Countdown: 6 months, 20 days

Evan Torelli hobbled into the recliner with the help of his cousin Stacy. His uncle didn’t let anyone sit in his favorite chair, but he’d reluctantly let his nephew. Evan understood how proud his uncle was to even make the gesture, and he was humbled by it. He just wished he felt like he’d earned the man’s respect. With difficulty, Evan lowered himself into the leather chair. Even with all the pain meds running through his system, his body ached. Evan knew he should be in bed. If Dr. Milkens saw him up and about, the old man would’ve had a fit. There were just some things that a family needed to witness together.

The President of the United States was walking to a podium somewhere in the White House. His face was grim. He looked tired as he stood at the podium. His lips pursed tightly. The president didn’t seem afraid of what he had to say to the nation, but with the reluctance of a doctor about to tell a patient he just lost his leg. He took a deep breath and started to speak to an anxious nation.

“My fellow Americans, five days ago one of our great metropolises saw the largest outbreak of undead this nation has ever seen. We were forced to watch as tens of thousands of our fellow citizens were killed in the streets of St. Louis, only to rise again as the walking dead. Yet, even as we despaired for those people, we saw the true heroism of our fellow citizens. We all watched on as brave soldiers and Marines charged in to save every living soul they could. We watched as our fellow citizens fought off undead hordes to protect each other. I was as moved as any of you as I watched Dennis Jones fight off dozens of the undead to protect his stranded family. I mourned with this nation when he was pulled down just moments before a Marine convoy came on scene. Dennis Jones’ family is safe in a Kansas City hospital right now, and I’ve been told, they are in good condition.” The President paused as if letting the nation mourn for a moment.

“Through all of these brave and selfless actions, over two hundred thousand people were brought out of Saint Louis and evacuated to cities all over the Midwest. It has been heralded as America’s Dunkirk. The Miracle on the Mississippi. I can only be humbled by what those men and women, military and civilian accomplished. We have thousands of our own. We will mourn them and pray to God for His blessing upon the fallen and the survivors.”

“Yet in the face of this Miracle, I am forced to make an unenviable decision. By our nature, Americans want to rebuild in the face of such tragedy. Not just repair the damage and go on with our lives. No, we need to make it bigger, stronger, better. We need to prove to ourselves and the world that no matter what is done to us, we will not just recover, but become stronger for it. Unfortunately, this will not be the case with Saint Louis. After consulting with my military advisors and cabinet, I am declaring a quarantine zone of a fifty mile diameter around the City of Saint Louis to be sealed off by the Armed Forces of the United States. I am federalizing the national guards of Missouri and Illinois to assist. Any ships that must transit this part of the Mississippi river must do so in convoy under the protection of Navy and Coast Guard ships.”

“I did not take this step lightly. This is a necessary step, but only a temporary one. At this time, there is no method by which to remove all of the undead from St. Louis. We will keep patrolling the city, looking for survivors. Until we have the forces or the technology to eradicate this horror from our lives, we are forced to take drastic measures. I will be meeting with members of Congress in the coming days to determine how the federal government can best serve those who survived this terrible and horrific tragedy.”

“Thank you, and may God protect us all.” The President left the podium with reporters yelling questions at him. Evan’s uncle turned off the television. The room was deathly quiet as the family absorbed the president’s words. Evan never considered St. Louis his home, but he was still crushed by the president’s decision. Not go back and help? Maybe he should have accepted Mateo’s offer.

Evan still wasn’t sure how the team had made it out of the building. The noise of the explosion drew every zombie for two miles down on them. All of the fighting was a blur of gunfire and explosions. Evan knew he’d been out of ammo for his shotgun when the Marines finally showed up. He nearly shot one of the Marines with his pistol. It was in the LAV he’d finally broken down. His last reserve gone, Evan quietly wept as the Marines evacuated him outside of the quarantine zone. Somewhere along the line, Evan managed to bust up his ankle, a couple of ribs, and had dozens of cuts and bruises all over him. Mateo had come to Evan’s bed that night, and offered the teen a job with Zombie Strike, sort of. It was the same speech he’d given Evan back in the hotel. You should go home to your family, but if you want to come along, there’s a slot for you. Evan turned Mateo down. He’d seen enough. Mateo actually seemed happy about that.

As far as Evan’s family knew, Evan had joined up with one of the small bands of armed citizens that fought to rescue civilians in the two days after the outbreak. Jim drove the teen back to Kansas and told everyone how brave Evan had been. In the small town, Evan was now something of a celebrity. Not that he could enjoy it much. The doc said it would be weeks before he was healed up. Evan got up and hobbled over to the telephone. His family looked at him strangely as Evan dialed one of the phone numbers on the back of a business card.

“U.S. Army, 11th Task Force, General Adam’s office,” the polite, but tired woman said.

“My name is Evan Torrelli. The general told me to call this number if I wanted to join up,” Evan said.

“Yes Mr. Torrelli, I have your name right here.”

Skull Island, South Pacific, 11 June 2011, 2200 hours local; Countdown: 6 months, 19 days

Mateo walked out onto the concrete dock and plopped down at the end. In one hand was a lit cigar. In the other was an unopened bottle of Glenfidditch. Mateo bought the bottle of whiskey for Collin some time ago. It seemed right to drink it now. Mateo Cortez really felt like getting drunk. Just for one night stop feeling all of the pain and sorrow. Intellectually, Mateo understood that any one of his team could get killed at any time. It was the nature of the job. They all rolled the dice and took their chances every time they went out. Jack, Billy, Collin, and Slim did this work fully knowing that they might not make it back alive. That didn’t stop each of their losses from cutting Mateo to the bone.

The rest of the team was asleep. They’d been on the go almost constantly for the past week. Slim’s body had been shipped off to England to be buried by his family. Slim’s father, a former general in the British Army, made it quite clear that Zombie Strike was not to come within a hundred kilometers of the family. As much as it hurt, Mateo abided by their wishes. The team had their own funeral for their friend this morning. Tredegar left shortly after. He’d been recalled to head up the investigative group under the growing Task Force 11. What had been a thrown together mix of army personnel capable of fighting the zombies was turning into a massive combined arms unit with full intelligence services provided by the entire alphabet soup of agencies.

Mateo heard boots clomping on the concrete of the dock. He looked back to see Kenn Blanchard walking down the dock. Kenn was Zombie Strike’s commander, pastor, father figure, and a bunch of other stuff. This morning, he’d officiated the Slim’s memorial ceremony. Now, his preacher clothes were replaced with the more familiar black fatigues. Like Mateo, Kenn had a smoldering cigar in his hand. Slung over his shoulder was Kenn’s newest toy, a Kriss Vector sub-machine gun. Mateo preferred his M4, but he was impressed with the bullet hose’s performance on the range earlier. The running joke was that Kenn now needed to update his Browning after updating his Tommy Gun.

“I was wondering where that bottle disappeared to,” Kenn said, sitting down next to Mateo.

“Seemed appropriate tonight,” Mateo said his voice hollow. The two men silently puffed on their cigars for a moment.

“Where’s Robyn?” Kenn asked, “She usually keeps you from going to those dark places.”

“Jess needed her more,” Mateo answered, “I tried to comfort her, but it’s getting harder. It’s harder to tell her everything will be all right when we see so much death around us. I’m thinking real hard on asking her to hang up her rifle.”

“So why don’t you?” Kenn asked, “You let that kid in St. Louis go back home. Jess could go back to the States and go to college.”

“The father in me wants to pack her up and ship her off to Florida. Maria left the girl enough money in her will to go to school,” Mateo said. Kenn’s eyebrow arched up. Mateo let out a tired laugh. “Yeah, that surprised me too. I didn’t think the two had got that close, but there it is.”

“Again, why don’t you?” Kenn asked. “If we need a sharpshooter, we could approach Sissy.”

“Sissy made her position clear. I did enough to that woman,” Mateo said, “Besides, we need Jess more than just because she’s good with that rifle of hers. There’s a reason Wolf decided to foster one of his pups with her. Some of it may have been because Billy was one of Wolf’s spirit warriors or whatever, but I think there’s more to it. We’re treading on some seriously dangerous ground here, and we’re going to need all the aces we can stuff up our sleeves.”

The sudden laughter caught both men by surprise. Mateo and Kenn spun around to their feet. Standing on the dock stood a seven-foot tall man. His normal tight black costume was replaced with a brown hooded robe. The whip in his right hand danced with anticipation. Somehow Giant made it to Skull Island.

“Hello Mikhail,” Mateo said in a casual tone, carefully setting down the bottle of Scotch and placing his hand on his Sig. Kenn already had his Kriss in his hands. “What are you doing on our island?”

“I came for you,” Mikhail hissed, “Come quietly, and I won’t have to kill your friend.” The two men traded sidelong glances. Mateo gave Kenn an almost imperceptible nod. Mateo’s Sig materialized in his hands. The two men opened fire into their looming nemesis. Giant snarled as the bullet after bullet slammed into his torso. Mateo’s pistol locked back on an empty magazine. With practiced motion, he dropped the magazine and went for one of his spares. Giant’s whip lashed out as the two men reloaded their weapons. Mateo felt the mystical leather wrap around him. Giant jerked upward, and Mateo was in the air.

Mateo heard Kenn screaming his name just before he and Giant went into the dark Pacific waters.

[Zombie Strike Part 9 Chapter 87]