Five miles south of Forreston FL, roughly fifty miles north of Lake City FL, 1600 hours Local, 18 October 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 2 months, 13 days
Mateo grunted as the speeding van hit another bump in the road. His shoulder protested as his armor jostled from the sudden jolt. Mateo looked at the others in the converted cargo van. The four men from M&W looked like faceless stormtroopers in digi-cam. Under normal circumstances, Mateo was sure it would be impressive to see them charging out with their armor and suppressed carbines. Problem was zombies didn’t impress easily – or at all. It all seemed far too complex for the task assigned to the team.
Mateo and The Steve were contacted by M&W’s armed response team less than thirty-six hours after Mateo left the clinic. The next twenty-four hours were a whirlwind of getting the duo fitted with the armor, checked out on the carbines, and a very quick mission brief before piling into the van that rocketed north to Forreston. The team was being sent in to retrieve M&W’s investigative agents. The agents missed their last two check-ins and weren’t responding to any attempts to contact them. It was enough for M&W to send in the cavalry.
"Ten minutes lads," announced Collin Pryce, the leader of M&W’s armed response team. The four M&W members were all British. Mateo’s initial impression of the team members was professional, but very cool to Mateo and The Steve. Mateo ignored the coolness. They were probably trying to figure out why Mateo and The Steve were brought in. The Steve was, well, The Steve. That was about the best Mateo could hope for from the gregarious medic. As it was, everything moved so fast Mateo couldn’t remember the other three’s names. He kept them straight by referring to them as Slim, Spiff, and Sport.
"Still no contact with the agents, sir," reported Spiff, the team’s communications specialist. "There are no signals at all from the village. It’s like they fell off the EM spectrum." Pryce nodded and touched his forearm bracer. A satellite photo of Forreston sprang up in Mateo’s face shield. The town looked completely deserted. In a town of five hundred souls, that apparent desolation was not a good sign.
"Gentlemen," Pryce said, drawing Mateo’s attention from the photo, "Our last communication with our agents had them investigating an abandoned grocer’s market. We will secure the building, locate our agents, and extract them. If we run across the smugglers, we will destroy their cargo and attempt to apprehend them." The satellite photo vanished from Mateo’s view. "Do not hesitate to use lethal force if the smugglers refuse to surrender."
"Great, what about if your agents aren’t there?" Mateo asked.
"Then we still secure the building until others can determine where we will go next," Pryce answered with an annoyed tone. Mateo scowled behind his face plate.
The van jolted as it screeched into the supermarket’s parking lot. The driver gunned the van to the entrance, slamming on the brakes just shy of the building. The rear doors of the van sprang open, and a ramp slammed down on the asphalt. Mateo and Slim charged down the ramp. Mateo was acting as point for this operation with Slim backing him up. The supermarket was the familiar concrete block with large windows in front. Mateo slowed as he saw the bullet holes in the glass. His instincts were screaming warnings.
"What are you doing Yank?" Slim said, nearly tripping over Mateo.
"Bullet holes in the glass," Mateo said, pointing with his carbine, "Your agents may have walked into an ambush. I don’t want to repeat that mistake." Slim made a noise that could have been a grunt or a growl, but the tall man matched Mateo’s cautious stride. The two men slipped through the broken glass doors and crept into the dimly lit building. Mateo could make out the checkout aisles in the faint light, but the darkness swallowed everything back. A beam of light shot out from behind Mateo. Mateo swore under his breath and scrambled away from Slim. Didn’t M&W teach their people anything about clearing a building? Slim was lucky. No assassins hiding in the darkness rained bullets down on the tall man. Mateo took cover behind one of the checkout stations as The Steve reamed Slim for his mistake. The medic certainly had a colorful vocabulary.
Pryce knelt down next to Mateo. Mateo said nothing as he continued his search of the darkness. There were no unusual sounds or movements, nor any unusual shapes in the faint ambient light. Mateo knew Pryce wanted him to slap on his nightvision and continue forward. Mateo didn’t trust nightvision inside a building. He lost depth perception with the nightvision. Worse, it would cut out the instant Mateo stepped into a part of the building without enough ambient light for the device to work with. The heavy helmet and face plate took away enough of Mateo’s hearing and peripheral vision as it was.
"Would you care to proceed, Mr. Cortez?" Pryce asked, his British accent dripping with sarcasm and annoyance.
"If you mean charging blindly into the darkness, then no," Mateo answered flatly, "Something’s not right. I can feel it."
"Listen you bloody piker," Pryce said in a low and angered tone, "I will not have my team lollygagging around because you have the willies. We may bloody well have agents down." Pryce turned to Slim. "Owen, you’re on point. Mr. Cortez is afraid of the dark." The tall man nodded and slapped the nightvision device to his face plate. With his carbine up and ready, Slim began walking deeper into the store.
"Pryce, the store’s too quiet," Mateo said, grabbing the team leader’s arm, "We should be hearing some human sounds, but we’re not. There aren’t even any sounds from vermin. We’re walking into an ambush."
"Coward," Pryce spat at Mateo, shrugging out of Mateo’s grip. Rage flared in Mateo. This idiot was calling him a coward? When did this fool fight back wave after wave of zombies? Mateo barely managed to keep himself from decking Pryce right then and there. Mateo’s hot retort died on his lips as Slim reported.
"We’ve got a bleeder!" Slim exclaimed, "Looks like one of the smugglers. He’s been hurt pretty bad." Something about the words flashed in Mateo’s head. He shouldered past Pryce and sprinted towards Slim. The Steve was right behind Mateo. The two caught up with Slim and shone their lights on the smuggler. The smuggler was trapped under some collapsed shelving units. His neck and face were covered with blood. The smuggler was desperately reaching out to Slim.
"Don’t!" was all Mateo could scream as Slim bent down to take the smuggler’s hand. The grab took Slim by surprise. The smuggler – now a zombie – jerked Slim off his feet. Slim screamed as the zombie tried to tear into him with savage bites. The zombie’s frenzied biting just couldn’t penetrate the armor. Slim tried desperately to escape, but the zombie held fast.
"Y’know Matt, that’s kind of funny," The Steve said, pointing at Slim and the zombie. When Mateo didn’t say anything, The Steve shrugged. "I’m just saying."
"Just kill it," Mateo said tersely. Mateo snapped on his carbine’s light and searched around. He wasn’t worried about a human ambush anymore. At that point, visibility was more important than stealth. The Steve took aim, and the suppressed carbine coughed. A single round tore apart the zombie’s head. The Steve shouldered his carbine and pulled Slim away from the zombie. Slim tried to get under control as The Steve checked him.
"Relax dude, you’re shiny," The Steve pronounced. Pryce, Spiff, and Sport hustled up to the trio. Like Mateo, they had their lights on and were busy searching the area surrounding them. Mateo shook his head as he drew his pistol. The team, minus The Steve, jumped as Mateo fired two rounds into the unmoving zombie. The echoes of the thunderclaps bounced around the store. Mateo could feel Pryce’s glare from behind the face plate. He didn’t care. Buried instincts were coming back.
"That should draw every zombie in this store down on us," Mateo said, "Split into pairs and spread out. Engage anything that doesn’t answer a challenge." The commanding tone brooked no questions. Pryce took Sport and moved towards the back of the store. Slim and Spiff strode over to the next aisle.
"Welcome back boss-dude," The Steve said, sidling up to Mateo.
"Head back that way," Mateo said, pointedly ignoring The Steve’s comments, "You and I better clear the offices." The Steve answered with a thumbs-up. The two skulked to the front of the store where the offices were located. Mateo didn’t trust M&W’s team to handle a fight with a zombie in the tight confines of an office. As they neared the offices, Mateo noticed the door was shut. That was unusual enough. Then, there was the odd green glow leaking out from behind the door. Mateo pointed to the light and The Steve nodded. This called for quick action.
The Steve shouldered the door in. Mateo charged in behind him with weapon up and ready. Mateo saw the bright flash an instant before his chest was hammered twice. The armor stopped the bullets and absorbed most of the impact. The remaining energy seemed to jump to Mateo’s shoulder. The pain forced Mateo to his knees. The shooter stepped out of his cover and into the green chemlight. Collin DuBois loomed over Mateo with pistol in hand.