Skull Island, Southern Pacific; 1200 hours Local, 31 July 2009; Countdown: 2 years, 5 months

Mateo hesitated before rapping on the door. This was his final task before going back to the real world. The deep voice beckoned Mateo to enter. The conference room looked the same as it did when the team gathered that first time. Good Lord, was it less than a month ago? It felt like a lifetime.

Kenn Blanchard sat at the head of the table. Kenn was dressed in black with his preacher’s collar still on. That morning, Kenn presided over Jack’s burial in the island’s small cemetary. In an odd twist of irony, the Australian government forbade Jack from being buried on his native soil. The officials feared the body was contaminated. So, Jack – who so hated this island – would reside here for eternity. Sitting to Kenn’s right was Nigel Brown. The representative from MacKenzie & Winston looked exhausted. From what Kenn said, Brown fought hard with his own firm’s entrenched bureaucracy to ensure that the firm’s ship stayed to extract the team. Then, the liaison went another round with the paper-pushers to ensure the team was taken care of properly. Just when M&W’s middle managers thought Brown would leave them in peace, Nigle charged back in to make sure that the team was paid what was promised by the firm. Mateo was surprised Brown was still employed. To Kenn’s right was Collin DuBois. Collin’s left arm was in a working cast. His normal graceful movements were jerky from the numerous injuries he’d collected during the fight in the temple room. The three men wore compassionate looks on their faces as Mateo lowered himself into a chair across from them.

"The processing of the island has been completed," Brown reported, "We are still unable to determine how the zombies were raised in the first place. They show none of the expected infections, mutations, or substances that we have observed in other zombies. Mister DuBois believes it was magic."

"That’s about a good enough explanation as any other," Mateo answered.

"Yes, well. I thought you, as an American, would frown on such supernatural explanations," Brown said. Mateo could tell Brown was probing him. Mateo wasn’t in the mood for such nonsense.

"I saw enough on that island. Magic will work fine as an explanation," Mateo said, flatly. Brown pursed his lips, but changed the subject.

"As to this Dr. de Castilla you encountered, we have been unable to find any trace of the man," Brown said, "Did he mention any way he could have escaped the island on his own?"

"No, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had one. It’s not like we asked him about it," Mateo said, "From what we gathered, all of the remaining zombies dropped when I shot Xipe-tzin. Maybe the doc overheard something from Xipe-tzin about a boat or something." Mateo paused as he considered the possibilities. "No sign of him at all?"

"None. If your teammates hadn’t corroborated your account, I might have thought you hallucinated the doctor." Brown’s mouth snapped shut as he realized what he said. Mateo shook his head in annoyance. Everyone, with the glorious exception of The Steve, had been walking on eggshells around Mateo since the team arrived on Skull Island.

"Mateo, we’re worried about you," Kenn said, "You’ve been walking around here with a bad vibe. I’m worried you’re eating yourself up. You can’t blame yourself for what happened."

"Why shouldn’t I?" Mateo shot back, a little too loud. Collin and Brown flinched a little, but Kenn just kept looking at him with those caring eyes. "Because of me, because of my decision, Sissy is probably going to be in the asylum for the rest of her life. She told me she couldn’t go on, and I forced her into it. Because I wanted another damn shooter along, things went to hell and Quentin lost his leg! Jack’s death I can understand, and I put paid to that debt. Sissy, Quentin, how am I supposed to make it up to them?"

"You saved them didn’t you?" Kenn asked, "Doesn’t that count for anything?"

"I don’t know! It damn sure doesn’t feel like it," Mateo said before storming out of the room. The three men looked at each other. A tension rose between them.

"I don’t know," Brown said, finally breaking the silence. "He’s bloody damaged. Right now, that man is no good to us."

"I hate to side with Nigel, but it looks pretty bleak Kenn," Collin said, "If what M&W found on the island is true, can we really rely on him? Wouldn’t it be better just to get a new team together?"

"My brothers, you saw a broken man. I saw one who finally opened up so he can be put back together," Kenn said serenely, "This good Earth of ours is about to go through a tribulation. If we don’t have good men and women ready, we could be facing down an apocalypse."

"And Mr. Cortez is one of these good men?" Brown asked skeptically.

"Mateo could very well be the best of them all."

Zombie Strike – Part Two – Chapter 10