Base Camp, Southern Beach of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 1000 hours Local, 26 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 5 days

Mateo Cortez covered his face with a bandana to ward off the smell. The clean-up crew from the mercs – oh, wait, private security company – was efficient, but there were over three hundred “re-killed” zombies strewn across the area surrounding the base camp. The clean-up crew was required to make sure there were no corpses still animated, then pull DNA or fingerprints from each corpse before loading it into a portable crematory. Mateo would have just dug a big hole, pushed all of them in with some white phosphorous, and lit the whole mess on fire. The apparent care M&W was taking with the corpses stoked the raging anger inside Mateo. He closed his eyes and pushed it back down. He needed to be rational at the moment.

“Mr. Cortez, the fortifications are deconstructed and secured for transportation,” reported Nigel Brown, the team’s liaison from M&W, “The processing of the corpses should be completed within the next two to three hours. And, I’ve just received word that Mr. Winchester’s remains have been secured aboard the Morning Star. We can ferry your team back to the ship at your convenience.” Mateo turned to face the British insurance representative. Dear God, the man was actually wearing a pith hat!

“Yeah, we wanted to talk to you about that,” Mateo said.

“What is there to discuss?” Brown asked, clearly surprised by the question, “You’ve completed your mission.”

“I need to show you something,” Mateo said, motioning for Brown to follow him. Brown was the same medium height as Mateo, but he struggled to keep up the same stride across the base camp grounds. The team gathered around a long folding table. Two laptops and some other items were carefully arranged on the table.

“Okay Quentin, explain it to the man,” Mateo said, jerking his thumb at their liaison. Brown eyed the team leader quizzically.

“Okay, we have reason to believe that this outbreak was caused by followers of one of the Aztec gods,” Quentin said, “We believe those followers are still on the island.”

“Perhaps you would care to elaborate,” Brown told Quentin, his face showing his clear surprise.

“While we’ve been on this island, we’ve come across what we first thought was some new type of zombie,” Quentin said. He motioned to one of the laptops. Pressing a key, the video of the fight between the Quentin and the first creature played. Brown watched with rapt attention, both intrigued and horrified with the discovery.

“I talked to some archeologists I know who specialize in Aztec culture,” Quentin said when the video finished, “One finally told me about an obscure myth where some Aztec priests not only enslaved the dead, but could create monsters built from human corpses. Kind of like a flesh robot.”

“Like the Gollum from Jewish folklore,” Brown supplied. The group looked confused, so Brown elaborated. “It was the basis for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Brown unconsciously trembled momentarily. The liaison was like most people. Faced with zombies and other monsters, the overwhelming majority of humanity felt a primitive terror that couldn’t be overcome. The small minority, like the team of people in front of Brown, were lucky enough to be immune to that peculiar fear. “I’m sorry Mr. McLintock, but how did you know to focus on Aztec histories?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” Quentin said. He picked up the carved stone fragment he recovered from the fight with the gollum. Quentin handed it to Brown, who scrutinized the odd carvings on the stone. “The carving on this stone looked similar to Aztec carvings I’d run across before.” Brown held the carving for a moment before gingerly setting it back upon the table.

“So, your theory is that Aztecs are somehow mystically raising the dead?” Brown asked, looking at Mateo with a skeptical eye.

“Perhaps, Mr. Brown, you should consider the following,” Collin interjected, “Cultists followers of ancient Aztec gods have managed to obtain a method by which they could create not only zombies, but these gollums as well. This is not particularly far-fetched considering the recent discovery of the methods by which voodoo practitioners create their zombies. Not to mention the existence of the zombies on Skull Island.”

“Yes, but to what end?” Brown countered, “What are these cultists hoping to accomplish with their activities here?”

“That we don’t know,” Mateo admitted, “I’m willing to bet every dime you’re paying us that it isn’t good.” Brown looked down at the screen shot of the gollum. From the expression on his face, Brown was still skeptical. Oh well, Mateo didn’t need Brown’s approval. The team already agreed on finishing the job. Having M&W backing would just make things easier, as well as up the chances that they’d get paid if they survived.

“You have developed an interesting theory, but no conclusive evidence to give it any credence,” Brown said. He paused, as if almost waiting for one of the team to voice an objection. Brown scrutinized each team member. “I can give you seventy-two hours to come up with conclusive evidence, or handle the matter on your own. Then I will have no choice to demand you leave this island or forfeit your pay to cover the additional cost of keeping the Morning Star moored here. I’ll see about making sure you have adequate supplies for those seventy-two hours.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mateo said, feeling part of his burden lighten.

Central Jungle of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 1500 hours Local, 26 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 5 days

“Four walkers at our eleven o’clock,” Collin reported quietly over the team radio, “Maybe fifty yards ahead of us. No others in sight.” Collin was acting point for the team. Mateo, three positions behind, looked through the scope.

“Route around them,” Mateo said, “Sissy, Quentin, if they show any sign of noticing us, take them down fast.” This was the second small group the team encountered. Mateo was guessing the leader of the cultists was using the small groups of zombies as tripwires. By not engaging the zombies, the team stayed invisible. At least, that was what Mateo hoped. Following Collin’s lead, the team skirted the four zombies. They walked deeper into the jungle.

Mateo guessed the cultists were somewhere in the jungle. The heavy canopies were impenetrable by general commercial satellites the team was using for reconnaissance. The good news was the island’s land mass was only about a square mile. The bad news was that the island’s land mass was a square mile, about three-quarters of which was the central jungle. Hot, stick, smelly jungle. If I survive this, Mateo thought, God help any fool asking me to save the rainforests. Mateo agreed with Quentin. Burn them all down.

“Team stop,” Sissy said. Mateo crept up next to the sniper.

“What you got, Sissy?” Mateo asked. Sissy didn’t say anything for a moment. It was like watching a wax statue, Sissy held so still. Mateo waited patiently for her to report.

“I’ve got several zombies, but they’re acting strange,” Sissy said, “Ten or so, dragging something. I can’t make it out, but I’d swear it was a stone slab.” Mateo tracked to where Sissy’s rifle was pointed. Ten zombies were lashed with crude ropes to a large, rectangular stone. The zombies were struggling to drag it across the jungle floor.

“Quentin, are you seeing this?” Mateo asked over the radio.

“Yeah,” Quentin answered, “Matt, this could be what we’re looking for. I’ll bet that this is a construction crew.”

“What would zombies be building?” Collin asked.

“Temple, probably,” Quentin said, “Some sort of sacred building. It probably figures into why they’re here on this island.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Mateo said, “We’ll shadow them.” Collin double-clicked his mike in acknowledgement. The team stalked the oblivious zombies. It was a slow, monotonous task. Mateo wondered how something could be both exciting and boring at the same time. The monsters were focused on their task of dragging the stone. If the stone snagged, they just strained against the ropes until the stone came free.

The jungle suddenly opened up into a large clearing. Only the highest canopy shaded the roughly two hundred yard by two hundred yard expanse. The team froze at the tree line. The clearing was dominated by a two-story Aztec-style stone pyramid. A couple hundred zombies were working tirelessly to make it a three-story pyramid. There was no sign of any gollums or any other humans around the worksite. Stones littered the clearing around the pyramid. Some were large and roughly cut into blocks to build the pyramid. More were smaller and either shaped to fit somewhere on the structure, or looked as if they were scrap. Mateo paused suddenly – how were zombies fashioning stones into proper building materials?

The howling moan caught Mateo by surprise. He whipped around to the sound. Three feet from Mateo was a crawler. The zombie’s lower body was crushed almost flat, but it was reaching out at Mateo’s leg. Mateo jumped to the side and cursed. His hand snatched the extendable baton from his waist and snapped it out with a flick of the wrist. A fierce, fluid motion brought the tip of the baton crashing down on the crawler’s skull. It ceased moving instantly. Mateo hoped the horde some twenty yards away from him didn’t hear the single moan.

Unfortunately, one moan was all that was needed. A ragged chorus of hunting moans erupted from the working zombies. All work ceased instantly as the horde began its staggering walk towards its prey. Collin and Sissy were the first to open fire, quickly followed by the others. Zombies fell as the team began their steady staccato of fire into the horde. Mateo surveyed the scene around him. Without strong defensive positions – or Jack, God rest his soul – the team couldn’t fend off two hundred zombies. That didn’t include the ones that were no doubt homing in on the racket of the gunfire. The smart option would be for the team to retreat into the jungle, split up the horde, and take it out in detail. Something inside Mateo was screaming at him that if the team left the clearing at this moment, they would lose their chance of getting the cultists behind this outbreak. There had to be a better option. Mateo figured he might as well tap those more experienced than him.

“Collin, we need to get into that pyramid,” Mateo said, “Find me a way.” Collin took a split second to shoot his team leader an evil look. Seconds passed as the team whittled away at the horde. Without slowing down his rate of fire, Collin started issuing orders.

“Quentin, The Steve, pivot left and work your way to that large stone to my ten o’clock,” Collin said, “Set up a firing position.” Quentin followed The Steve as the two men sped into the clearing. The large stone was cut as a large building block. It would give Quentin and The Steve an elevated position to rake the horde’s flank.

“Sissy, you’re next, lass,” Collin said. motioning toward the large stone. The sniper slung her rifle and drew the small but boxy MP7 submachine gun. She sprinted to the others as the tiny SMG chattered. Quentin reached down and slung Sissy up to the top of the now crowded stone. Collin measured the battlefield as he changed magazines. “Okay lads, next movement.”

Collin directed the team through a zigzag course, leapfrogging from stone to tree line to stone to whatever he could find. A zombie horde was many things, but maneuverable was not one of them. Collin’s plan was simple. By the time the zombies focused on the team’s new position and managed to start shuffling toward them, Collin rapidly moved everyone. The plan allowed the team to take advantage of the horde’s flanks – and pull them away from the pyramid. A clear path opened up for Mateo, who sprinted to the stone structure. As he ran the perimeter, Mateo found a darkened opening flanked by two crudely carved statues.

“Team, there’s an opening on the east side of the pyramid,” Mateo said over the radio, “We’ve got a couple of statues we can use to reinforce the opening. Everyone rendezvous here.” Mateo took two steps into the darkness, scanning the tunnel with his flashlight. It went down at a slight angle for at least fifty feet. Beyond that, his light was swallowed by the darkness. The walls were stone and the floor was made of dirt and covered in indistinguishable tracks.

“Coming to you bossman,” The Steve said, “We’ve got some following us.” Mateo braced at the opening’s mouth as Quentin and The Steve rounded the corner. The two men fell in line with Mateo as the zombies appeared. Rapid shots dropped the first five zombies. More tripped over the sudden roadblocks. Mateo, Quentin, and The Steve stood their ground, pumping round after round into the quickly growing bottleneck. Collin and Sissy landed behind the others after running across the top of the pyramid.

“Sissy, take over for Quentin,” Mateo ordered, “Quentin, help Collin knock those statues down and make us some cover.” The two switched places so seamlessly, the rate of fire from the line never dropped. Mateo heard Quentin let out a loud string of curses.

“Matt, forget the zombies,” Quentin said, “We’ve got to find the cultists.”

“What are you talking about?” Mateo shot back, “We can’t ignore the hundred or so zombies bearing down on us. They’ll tear us apart. How are we supposed to find the cultists then?”

“The zombies won’t follow us into the temple,” Quentin said, “They can’t.” Mateo wanted Quentin to explain, but there wasn’t time. The horde of zombies was starting to surge the bottleneck. In a few seconds, the team would be overwhelmed by the crush of the living dead.

“Everyone, into the temple,” Mateo ordered, “Fall back a hundred feet and form a line.” The fighting retreat was a maneuver the team practiced over and over. All of that practice paid off as the team fluidly slid back into the temple’s opening into the darkness. As the daylight shrank, the team’s weapon-mounted flashlights created a globe of illumination around them. At the hundred foot mark, the team braced in a line across the width of the tunnel. The zombies approached the tunnel’s opening and stopped cold. More swarmed around the opening, dimming the little ambient light that reached them, but not one zombie took a step into the tunnel. Mateo slumped against the cool stone wall.

“How’d you know we’d be safe in here?” The Steve asked Quentin as the team caught its collective breath.

“We’re not safe,” Quentin answered ominously, “If anything, we may have just jumped into the fire.” Mateo turned to ask Quentin for an explanation. He was stopped by the snarls.

Zombie Strike Part One Chapter Eight