Festus, Missouri; 23 December, 2011, 1200 hours local; Countdown: 8 days
Mateo Cortez walked down the helicopter’s cargo ramp. Just beyond the still-spinning rotors of the helicopter stood a grim-faced welcoming committee. A young-looking corporal hustled over to lead Zombie Strike’s field leader to the waiting group. Mateo suddenly realized the corporal was Evan Torelli. What was that kid doing here? Mateo filed the question in the back of his mind as General Allen stepped out.
"Welcome to Fort Deadhead," General Allen said. Mateo shook the general’s outstretched hand. General Bull Allen was the commander of the American Combined Anti-Zombie Task Force for the St. Louis Quarantine Zone. Officially called The Quarantine Zone Forward Command and Control Operations Center, Fort Deadhead was the task force’s headquarters. Although the quarantine zone was a fifty-mile diameter perimeter around Saint Louis, the military commandeered the Festus Memorial Airport about thirty-five miles south of the city. Most of Festus’s residents, as well as those in neighboring Crystal City, were now working inside Fort Deadhead.
"Thanks General. I appreciate you setting us up here," Mateo said.
"Just made sense," General Allen said. His warm face went tight. "I expect you to tell me exactly what’s going on. Everything. No more holding back."
"That was one of the first things we expected to do after setting our stuff down," Mateo said, "We even brought a PowerPoint."
"It better be good. I hate PowerPoints," the general replied.
"It should be. We even brought in some of M&W’s marketing people to polish it up," Mateo said neutrally. Lowering his voice, Mateo asked, "Why is Evan here?"
"Kid’s smart and can handle himself," Allen answered, "We ran him through an abbreviated boot camp, which he passed with flying colors. We bootstrapped him so that he could be attached to headquarters. Technically, Torelli’s Special Agent Tredegar’s aide, but he’s really the guy’s bodyguard." Mateo looked over at the gangly, hook-nosed FBI agent. Tredegar headed up the Justice Department’s covert investigation of the Truth. Mateo asked Zombie Strike’s parent firm, MacKenzie and Winston, to quietly ask for Tredegar’s reassignment to head up the task force’s intelligence team. This close to the endgame, Mateo wanted people in place that he trusted.
"Does Tredegar need a bodyguard?" Mateo asked.
"There’s been three attempts on his life since he got here," Allen answered, "Twice for me. Needless to say, I’m more than a little interested in finding out what these people are after." Mateo only nodded. General Allen showed the team their barracks and let them get settled in. Six hours later, the Zombie Strike team, General Allen, his staff and field commanders, and Tredegar and his top staff, including Evan Torrelli, crammed into Fort Deadhead’s main command center. Mateo was standing in front of the gathered personage. He clicked the projector’s remote. On the screen behind him appeared a black and white picture of a young, handsome man dressed in khakis standing at an archeological dig.
"This is Dr. Juan de Castilla, better known as Castle. He is the leader of the Truth," Mateo began. "He comes from a wealthy Spanish family that has been preparing for this day for the last four hundred and fifty years. Everything the Truth has done up to now has been in the cause of fulfilling a prophecy written by the followers of the Aztec god Xipe Totec. The destruction of the satellite constellation, the destruction of Mexico City, the toppling of most of the world’s governments, and the near constant outbreaks of zombies were all part of setting up the world for this. Eight days from now, Castle, and at least his Champions – we call them minions – will go into St. Louis to perform a ritual."
"This purpose of this ritual will be to somehow use the power of Xipe Totec to fend off an invasion of interdimensional beings bent on conquering our world. The Truth calls them the Great Death. This is what they really are," Mateo continued, clicking the remote. The fuzzy picture depicted a seven- to eight-foot tall monster with a flat, fang-filled face, matty brown fur, and powerful limbs ending in sharp claws.
"This is what they look like when they first come into our world. After a while, they will change into something more human-looking. Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Death are vampires." There was a collective gasp of astonishment from the task force leadership.
"Are you out of your mind? Vampires, a ritual to bring in a god, and a world-wide conspiracy? It sounds like a bad movie," said Col. Dickens, the task force’s head Air Force officer.
"I’ve seen the vampires Walt," Tredegar said. "Zombie Strike fought them in Panama a while back. A handful of them nearly wiped us out, and they hadn’t even gotten strong by then."
"If the Great Death, as you called them, are so powerful, why shouldn’t we let the Truth deal with them?" asked one of the intelligence people.
"Because if they manage to defeat the Great Death, the Truth will have the power to take over the world and convert everyone to the worship of Xipe Totec," Mateo answered. "I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my daughters growing up in a world where human sacrifice is considered a normal religious ceremony." There were grunts of agreement.
"So how are we going to stop both the Truth and this Great Death?" asked one of the army officers.
"We know the ritual requires specific people to be involved to work. We have information that some of those people may be members of Zombie Strike," Mateo answered.
"Who?" General Allen asked.
"We think Chief Stahl and maybe myself," Mateo answered, "Unfortunately, the actual people who will fulfill the roles aren’t decided until the moment of the ritual."
"Decided by whom?" Tredegar asked.
"The magic, the gods, fate, all of the above?" Mateo said, shrugging his shoulders, "We don’t know. Our current theory is that if we kill as many of the Truth before the ritual, more of our people will be able to take those roles. From there, we should be able to take control of the ritual and stop Xipe Totec and the Great Death."
"That sounds like a lot of guesses," General Allen commented.
"We know," Mateo said, "That’s why you’ll have the Omega directive underway when we go in." The room fell silent as the task force’s leadership looked at Mateo in stunned silence. The Omega directive was classified to the highest levels. As far as the task force knew, they were the only ones who knew about it beyond the president, the secretary of defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The Omega Directive was simple. At the predetermined time, Saint Louis would be hit by nukes. A lot of nukes from multiple vectors. Nukes on missiles, nukes in gravity bombs, even nuclear tipped artillery shells. Even more horrendous, the directive called for a continuous nuclear bombardment for over twelve hours. The first time General Allen saw the directive, he recoiled in horror at the sheer overkill for a city of zombies. After hearing Mateo’s briefing, the general wasn’t sure if it was going to be enough.
"What do you need from us?" asked General Allen, trying to keep his composure.
"What we really need from the task force is an all-out attack against the zombies in the city," Mateo answered, "We’re going to have a tough enough time fighting whatever Truth forces Castle has with him without having to deal with the hordes as well. After that, I’d like some air cover available on call and someone to control it. Being able to rain down some fire in a pinch would be nice. Any other support you can give us after that will be helpful, but to be honest, you’re going to have enough of a fight on your hands." General Allen stood up and faced his people.
"Well folks, we have a lot of work to do between now and New Year’s Eve. No matter what we do, too many of our boys and girls will be celebrating their last Christmas on Sunday. Let’s do what we can to make sure that it isn’t the last Christmas this world sees."