Skull Island, Southern Pacific – 0700 Local – 1 July 2009 – Countdown: 2 years, 6 months
Mateo Cortez looked down at the distinctive building growing larger as the helicopter descended. The fear and excitement inside him flared back after a year’s slumber. The imposing gray headquarters building with the white skull visage were just as he remembered. Mateo looked down at the jagged scar that ran up his right arm. It was a souvenir from the last time he was on this small Pacific island.
Oh well, Mateo thought, No one ever said hunting zombies was safe.
The helicopter gently touched down. The door slid open. Mateo pulled down the brim of his ball cap and stepped down from the helicopter. Two dark-suited men who looked like they just stepped off the Presidential Detail ushered Mateo off the landing pad. They didn’t say anything beyond simple one-word monotone commands as they led Mateo into the headquarters building. The last time Mateo was in this building, he had a spacious suite on the eighth floor. That was right before he competed in Zombie Strike! contest.
Forget all the posers who thought they were so tough doing the so-called “X-Games.” Running from bunker to bunker while fighting and evading hordes of zombies was the ultimate extreme sport. Not everyone who competed survived. Mateo not only managed to survive, but he was on of the few who managed to make it to the last bunker and collect the million dollar prize. He hoped the IRS and his ex-wife were enjoying the money. Heaven knew Mateo never had the chance.
The elevator plunged down so fast Mateo needed to grip the brass bar to keep from falling over. He wanted to ask what was going on, but he knew that was futile. The Secret Service wannabes who escorted him from his home in Florida hadn’t said anything beyond a half-dozen words. Mateo looked at himself in the elevator’s mirrored walls. The rigors of travel gave his normal light olive skin a wan appearance. His dark eyes were blood shot with his round face covered with a few whiskers. Good God, could he never grow proper facial hair? Mateo’s black hair was a little longer than his normal crew cut. The blue t-shirt and jeans were wrinkled and stained with over twenty hours of travel. Only his boots maintained their black shine. Mateo stopped his musings over his looks as he noticed the elevator was slowing. The elevator opened into a bare concrete hallway that ended at a red metal door. Mateo followed the two suits as they walked off the elevator and opened the door for him. Mateo took a step inside and froze as he saw who was sitting around a large mahogany conference table. There was something to be said for treading carefully amongst a pantheon of legends. Worse, they were all staring at him like they’d been waiting on him. Mateo slouched down into the empty chair next to the door.
“Relax bro,” said the hulking man to Mateo’s right. Quentin McLintock looked every inch the football linebacker he’d been at West Virginia University. Quentin had been an excellent linebacker – for a college player. He was in that horrible spot of being barely not good enough to make the pros. He flitted about the Canadian and European football teams before someone (Quentin never said who) convinced him to compete in Zombie Strike! Quentin was an instant fan favorite. There was just something unforgettable about watching a wall of a man use a twenty-pound sledgehammer to take out three zombies in one swing. Quentin smiled down at Mateo.
“We all just got here,” Quentin said, much to Mateo’s relief.
“Thankfully, with Mr. Cortez’s arrival, we can begin,” a bespectacled man said at the head of the table. His accent and clothes were unmistakably British, as was that impatient glower as the man looked at the people around the table. “In front of all of you are the standard non-disclosure agreements. If you’d be so kind as to glance them over and sign, we can proceed.”
“Perhaps you’d be so kind as to explain why we’re here?” purred Melissa “Sissy” O’Connell. Sissy O’Connell was sitting across from Quentin. Mateo was trying hard not to meet her beautiful brown eyes. Sissy was the pinup girl for Zombie Strike! fan boys everywhere. The blonde was gorgeous, charming, and absolutely scary with a sniper rifle. Mateo was feeling guilty for having that one picture of her on his computer back home. He hoped his discomfort wasn’t showing on his face.
“The better question is why you decided to kidnap us and drag us back to this – place,” Jack Winchester boomed, twisting the last word with pure hatred. Winchester was the only person to compete and survive in Zombie Strike! twice, once on the indivdual course and once as part of an all-star team. The brown-haired and bearded Aussie had been a gregarious and boisterous fan favorite. During the individual competition, Jack gained a following for his quick, witty banter and his matching pearl-handled silver Browning Hi-Powers. That man was killed slowly during the team competition as he saw his team get taken down one by one. After the team disaster, the ZS blogs reported Winchester retreated back to Australia. It was said Jack verbally attacked anyone who even brought up Zombie Strike.
“You were not kidnapped Mr. Winchester,” bristled Spectacles, “You were asked to fulfill the contract you signed.” The suits who approached Mateo used the same words. Mateo got into the car less because of the threat of legal action and more because of the money they were offering.
“Listen mates, we all signed the contracts when we won our prizes,” said the man to the right of Spectacles. Then, the man looked straight at Jack, “Apparently, all of us didn’t bloody read them too close.” The cockneyed London accent still seemed strange coming from the man whose skin looked just this side of slate. Collin DuBois was tall and lanky with a shaved head and a face which could be charitably called “strong.” He was also former SAS before leaving the family military tradition and entering the more lucrative consulting and contracting world. Mateo remembered the practiced ease DuBois slid through the jungles of Skull Island, only fighting the zombies when he couldn’t evade them. Throughout the competition, Collin demonstrated the expert infiltration techniques of the true operative.
“Yes, quite,” Spectacles said, not sure if to be annoyed or relieved by Collin’s comment. “All of you are under contract to MacKenzie & Winston for additional services. Now, your unique services are required.” He pointed to the NDA’s and the other packets sitting in front of each individual.
“Required for what?” Mateo asked. The lure of a quarter million dollars plus additional bonus got Mateo in the car and onto the helicopter. With that much, Mateo could finally pay off all of his debts and get a fresh start. Now, he was staring to wonder if he’d collect it.
“Dude, what have we all got in common?” asked the final person in the room, “All of us won the million dollar prize on ZS. The Steve understands. The Steve is waiting for the details.” Mateo arched an eyebrow in surprise. Sweet Mother of God, it wasn’t a stunt for the cameras – he really did act that way. Steven “The Steve” Mountain was a former Army Special Forces medic, and he’d been a superb one by what Mateo saw when “The Steve’s” team competed. “The Steve” was of average height, build, and looks. It was his constant talking about himself in the third person that made “The Steve” stand out to the audience.
“You need experienced zombie fighters,” Mateo said. It wasn’t a question. “So instead of recruiting an existing team, why did you bring us all in?”
“According to our analysis, each of you possess unique and complimentary abilities and skills, Mr. Cortez,” Spectacles continued, “Our analysts give this combination of individuals an extremely high chance of succeeding.” The man almost preened.
“Exactly what are we supposed to be succeeding at?” Winchester asked, the furious fire still burning in his eyes. The others locked their eyes on Spectacles as he cleared his throat. The Brit didn’t want to tell the group before they signed the NDA’s, but he was also not willing to stand against the collected group of proven fighters. He had some survival instinct.
“We’ve discovered a breakout of zombies on a small island some hundred and fifty kilometers from the Hawaiian islands,” Spectacles said, clearly uncomfortable. “The firm requests the six of you travel to this island and eliminate this infestation before it can threaten inhabited islands.” The six zombie hunters looked at each other as they digested what Spectacles was asking.
“How the bloody devil did a bunch of zombies get a thousand miles from here?” asked DuBois, his voice heated.
“Wish we knew,” answered a familiar voice from behind the group. Mateo spun his chair and smiled as Kenn Blanchard walked into the room. The host of Zombie Strike! was just shy of six feet, but the black fatigues made him look taller. The normal broad smile was replaced with a serious face. “Look y’all, this is why Zombie Strike! was created. Not just to create another reality TV show, but to find folks like you. Ones that could handle themselves when it got hip deep and smelly with undead.”
“I thought you had a team already,” Quentin mused.
“Tampa Team?” Kenn asked, “They’re good for quick strikes and such around the island, but this thing is going to be longer and nastier. That’s why we got the best of our winners.”
“I don’t like it,” Winchester stated, “And I don’t like a bunch of limey insurance people–“
“Watch who you call limey, mate,” warned Dubois with a serious tone, “To enlighten you, insurance firms are the ones most aware of what’s going on in the world, because they’re the ones who have to pay out. Not the bloody governments. Most of the firms have better intelligence sections as well.”
“Collin’s right,” Kenn said, “I’ve seen the information from M&W. I give you my word I wouldn’t have dragged all y’all here if it wasn’t important.” A general murmur of agreement rose from the group. Even Winchester wasn’t willing to dispute Kenn’s word.
“The Steve wants to know what the plan is,” Mountain said, pointing at himself with his left thumb in his familiar fashion.
“We’re going to need to start working together as a team,” Mateo said, remembering Jack’s team debacle. Much like the people around the table, Jack’s team was made up of previous winners. They’d been killed because none of them were working together. Mateo looked at each of the others with a grim look.
“That means we practice,” Mateo said, “Basic weapons drills first. Then get out there and actually work together.” The others looked at Mateo and collectively agreed.
“All right then,” Kenn said, “We’ve got rooms set up for y’all. We need to get working first thing in the morning.” The new team stood up from the table and walked to the waiting dark-suited escorts. Mateo hung back as the others traded greetings with Kenn before following their escorts. As “The Steve” left, Kenn looked over at Mateo with an appraising eye.
“What’s the matter, my brother?” Kenn asked.
“I can understand why everyone else is here. They were the superstars on ZS. Why am I here?” Mateo asked.
“That’s simple,” Kenn said with his familiar wide smile, “You get to be the leader of all of these folks.”