Nealson Rehabilitation Clinic, 30 August 2011, 1000 hours local; Countdown: 4 months, 1 day

Steve Mountain opened and closed his left hand. He felt all of the little electric motors working as they translated the signals from his brain to the artificial muscles and nerves in his new hand. The docs told him it was all phantom feeling. The actual nanotech and pizeo-electronics were far too small for the nerves in his wrist to detect. As a medic, Steve could intellectually understand it, but he still felt it every time he opened and closed his hand.

“Still feel weird?” Quentin McLintock asked as he walked into Steve’s room. Quentin had been a guest of this same facility when he’d lost part of his right leg. In fact, a lot of the same hardware used in Quentin’s prosthetic was used for Steve’s new hand. Quentin went with Steve to help his teammate adjust to the advanced prosthetic. Steve smiled as Quentin sat down. The gentle giant was more of a help during the real rough times than Steve really wanted to admit.

“The Steve wonders how something can feel so sharp and so alien at the same time,” Steve said.

“Yeah. I imagine it’s stronger in a hand than it was in my leg. Sometimes when I’m standing on a rocky path, I know exactly how many stones are under my right foot,” Quentin said. For how amazing the technology was at the Nealson clinic, there were still limitations to the human sensations the prosthetics could replicate. Touch was the worst. Steve’s hand could tell him the temperature of what he was holding within a thousandth of a degree, give him some sensation of pain if the temperature exceeded what the hand should hold, but Steve would never be able to feel hot or cold like every other person took for granted. The best analogy was to imagine that your eyes were replaced with HD television screens. Utterly precise in their rendering, but not quite the human sense the body was accustomed to using.

“So how did this morning go?” Quentin asked cautiously.

“The Steve did pretty decent. Even assisted in some minor surgery,” Steve answered. “Doc Jewel was mighty impressed with The Steve’s medical ability.” Quentin chuckled.

“Not surprising considering how much experience you’ve had patching us up,” Quentin said, “Not counting your chemistry skills.” Steve just shrugged his shoulders. He’d never admit to Quentin, but the happy juice cocktail had been more of an accident than something he’d meant to brew. One of the nice things about Zombie Strike being based outside of the US. Steve didn’t have to deal with the busybodies from the FDA.

“On a more serious note, we need to get back to Skull Island,” Quentin said.

“The Steve figured as much. Docs don’t like it, but we’re flying out tomorrow.”

Skull Island, 30 August 2011, 0800 hours local; Countdown: 4 months, 1 day

Mateo Cortez stared at the report on his screen. It was starting to blur. He rubbed his eyes and reached for coffee cup. Empty. As he looked at the Styrofoam cup, he felt the last of his adrenaline burst fall away. He was tired. Maybe he should get some sleep. When was the last time? He looked over at the clock. Oh that explained it. He’d been up for about thirty-six hours.

“Why am I not surprised you’re here?” a frustrated female voice said at the door of the conference room. Mateo turned to see Robyn standing in the doorway. Her face was a mixture of relief and anger. Mateo felt a flash of guilt. He promised Robyn he would go to bed around midnight last night, but there was so much to do. Between zombie outbreaks and fighting Truth attacks in the few friendly countries, Zombie Strike was being run ragged. Then there was Mateo’s special project.

“Robyn, I’m sorry. I lost track of time,” Mateo apologized. The anger on Robyn’s face lessened, but it didn’t vanish.

“You’ve been saying that a lot,” she replied coldly. Robyn stopped and took a deep breath. She walked into the conference room. She still needed to use crutches or a pair of canes, but she was able to walk. That was only because of intense surgery and physical therapy combined with her own iron determination. As much as it hurt Mateo to watch her struggle to make it to one of the chairs, he was also incredibly proud of this woman. It surprised him when she more or less forced herself into his life, but now he didn’t want to think about life without her.

“I know, and I am sorry. You’ve been dealing with a lot, and I haven’t been there,” Mateo said. Robyn gave him a surprised look.

“Did you ask what Jess to say to calm me down?” Robyn asked, half-joking. Mateo’s face reddened. “My God, you did?”

“Sort of,” Mateo said, “The feelings are mine, but she did help me with sorting them out and putting words to them. One of the things that doomed my marriage with Maria is I never knew how to talk to her. What she needed to hear from me. And I never took the time to find out. Call it machismo, pride, or whatever. I don’t want to make that same mistake again.”

“Words are all good, but actions speak more,” Robyn said, “I know what we’re facing, but as much as the world needs Zombie Strike, I need you.” Mateo leaned back in his chair. This wasn’t how he wanted to do this.

“You’re right,” Mateo said. He leaned in and took Robyn’s hands in his. Fear gripped him as he looked into Robyn’s eyes. He mentally slapped himself. He’d faced off against all sorts of horror. This shouldn’t be this terrifying.

“Robyn, will you marry me?” he asked softly. Robyn’s eyes filled with sudden tears.

“No,” she answered just as softly.

St. Louis, Missouri, 1 Sept 2011, 1930 hours local; Countdown: 4 months

She’d been called many things in this world. Demon, the Little Death, vampire were all names she’d heard since her master sent her to this horrific world. She hated this world. Nothing made sense. The very laws of this world were so different than those of her home. The master sent her because she could adapt to new worlds and their rules quickly. She was a scout. That was what the master created her to do for her people. It didn’t make this world’s rules any saner.

She looked around at the deserted buildings as she clung to the wall of one of the skyscrapers. The zombie hordes staggering on the streets below never noticed her presence. She hated the horrible things. Dead things should stay dead, not as mockeries of what they once were. Her master would correct that as soon as he and the people came into this world.

“I should be grateful to those horrid things,” she said to herself, practicing the crude communication of this world. “They keep those meddlesome humans away from this place.” The trip to this place was not something she ever wanted to do again. Only being able to travel at night was bad enough. Having to drink the humans’ blood rather than just ripping out their life energies was revolting. She shook in remembered disgust as she climbed from her perch to the top of the building.

The two humans cringed as she returned to her nest. They were dressed similar to those humans she fought when she came into this world. The weapons were the same. Yet, these weren’t knights for one of the deities that nominally claimed this world. They served this odd human notion of a nation. America. What a silly name. She grabbed the skinny one. She needed to contact the master. The human screamed as she carved the symbols into him. Its screams stopped as she opened the portal.

“I have found the place, master,” she said as her mind blissfully met the master’s. He looked into her mind and drew out everything she had seen in this world.

“Not where I expected,” came the reply. The master’s words filled her mind like pure ecstasy. How she hated being separated from him. “You have done well my child. We will soon join you. Your sacrifice will be rewarded.” The portal closed, and the dark coldness of this world enveloped her.

“I will be rewarded,” she repeated to herself. Her thoughts drifted back to the human with the bauble. The one that nearly killed her. She knew what she wanted for her reward. She wanted to take that human apart and savor its pain as she fed from him. The thought of food made her realize she was suddenly ravenous. Well, that’s why she snatched two of the humans.

[Zombie Strike Part 10 Chapter 97]