Skull Island, Southern Pacific, 15 February 2009, 1000 hours local Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 15 days
James "Jim" Collins silently urged the team in front of him to get moving. The zombie horde was reaching crush, the point where the sheer numbers of the horde would overwhelm anything the defenders could throw at them. Smart zombie fighters knew to retreat and maneuver before crush. This team hadn’t quite gotten to that point yet. They were about to get overrun. Those who fell would be added to the population of undead that roamed Skull Island. Jim took a closer look at the team leader. The man was so busy shooting the zombies in front of him that he wasn’t watching the horde as a whole. It was time to intervene and save them before they were lost.
Jim gave his horse a nudge. It had taken a couple of months, but Seminole was finally able to overcome its fear of the undead. Animals, like most humans, fled from the undead. Jim spent his recovery from his recent injuries during the battle in the Mexican museum training this horse. Jim walked Seminole behind the line of fighters and unslung his new rifle. He took aim at one zombie that seemed to be moving the quickest. The rifle boomed. The top half of the zombie’s head vanished into mist as the .500 magnum bullet vaporized brain and bone. The distinctive report of the rifle drew every team member’s attention. They stopped firing and all turned to look at him. Jim’s stomach plummeted. If he didn’t get these folks out of here quick, the zombies would swarm them.
"Retreat through the woods!" Jim ordered, "Get to the secondary position." To punctuate his command, Jim casually worked the lever on his rifle and took down another zombie. The second gunshot galvanized the team. With practiced fluidity, the team performed a fighting retreat. Satisfied the team would make it to the next line of defenses, Jim took down another two zombies before riding back up the trail to the observation post. Jim could feel his horse’s relief as the gap between them and the zombies opened. Jim was surprised to see Slim at the observation post as he rode up. Slim approached with a slow and careful stride. The other man’s wound was still very tender. Well, that wasn’t all surprising. Slim had been run through with the equivalent of a lance by Giant, Zombie Strike’s nemesis. The lanky Brit damn near died. The very fact the Brit was up and moving was a testament to the power of modern medicine and the raw determination of Slim. Jim tipped his hat in greeting as Seminole trotted next to Slim.
"Mr. Cortez sends his regards and asks that you join him at the command center," Slim said. Jim was sure the man had been a British naval officer in his previous life. Slim sounded exactly like the characters out of Horatio Hornblower.
"Who’s going to watch the kids?" Jim asked, nodding his head at the monitors. The team from the Texas Rangers managed to reach the second defensive position and was engaging the horde. They’d be fine for the moment, but they still hadn’t got the hang of realizing when crush was happening.
"I believe Mr. Blanchard has tasked the Gunny to take over the minding of the trainees," Slim answered. Those poor, poor trainees. Jim didn’t envy them one bit.
"Go ahead and let them know I’m on my way," Jim said. Jim nudged the horse down the trail back to the main compound. Seminole wanted to run, but Jim restrained him back to an easy cant. It wouldn’t do either of them a lick of good if a wayward zombie surprised Seminole. It was a good way to get thrown from the saddle. Jim had just finished healing up from the last mission. The older he got, the harder it was to come back from those injuries.
The main compound was dominated by what was once Skull Island’s hotel. Fifteen stories of luxury accommodations for guests and staff. There were still some guests, but the majority of the people on Skull Island belonged to Zombie Strike, a privately operated anti-zombie unit financed by the world’s largest insurance firm. Jim rode through one of the gates in the fifteen foot concrete walls. The stable was a haphazard affair. Jim and some of his team mates managed to slap it together out of spare building materials. It was functional, but the riot of colors and textures from its mishmash construction would never be anything but ugly. Seminole didn’t seem to mind. The horse just cared it was warm, zombie-free, and stocked with food.
Jim left Seminole in the hands of the stable master, a maintenance tech in his day job. These days, most everyone was wearing more than one hat. Jim was not only part of the training cadre on Skull Island, but he was part of Zombie Strike’s field team. It was in that role Jim was being summoned. He got into one of the gilded elevators, put in his identification card, and braced against the still unfamiliar sensation as the elevator dropped. The command center was below the hotel – several stories below the hotel. It was the main nerve center of Zombie Strike’s operations. The room was stuffed with roughly twenty intel analysts and their workstations. In the center of the room was a conference room where the field team met.
Mateo Cortez, the field team leader, was watching one of the large displays as Jim entered. Collin DuBois, who acted as Mateo’s second in command, was lounging with his boots on the conference table. Jess, Mateo’s foster daughter and the team’s sniper in training, was sitting quietly at the table, loudly ignoring the young man standing in the far corner. If Billy noticed her disdain, he wasn’t showing it. He was concentrating on the same display Mateo was watching. The Steve, the team medic and resident lunatic, was typing away at a laptop.
"Jim, take a seat," Mateo said without turning around, "We need to get started."
"What about Quentin and Sport?" Jim asked as he sat down.
"They’re already en route to the AO," Collin said.
"The what?" Jim asked. Like every other former military in Zombie Strike, Collin used to many acronyms. It was confusing.
"We have a zombie outbreak in Wyoming," Mateo said. Jim felt a cold shock run through his spine. He felt paralyzed as Mateo continued talking.
"Initial report of the outbreak had the zombies overrunning a rest area on the interstate. The horde is heading towards a small town called Salem," Mateo said, "Our people intercepted a report of some guy in all black who seemed to be leading the horde."
"Giant?" Billy asked, extremely interested. The young man felt as if he had a personal score to settle with their enemy.
"Not from what the state trooper reported," Collin answered. With deliberate ease, Collin swung his legs off the table and stood up. "We may have ourselves a minion, mates." Jess perked up at that bit of news. The Steve looked up from the laptop for a brief moment before he promptly went back to typing.
Jim felt a crushing terror. He could feel the karmic wheel starting to roll over him. Why couldn’t the past just stay in the past? Well, it had been almost twenty years ago, Jim’s rational mind reminded him. They probably weren’t even looking for him anymore. Besides, it wasn’t like he even looked like he did back then. Years of hard labor in the outdoors had done their damage on Jim. His black hair was thinning and gray. His face weathered and creased. Plus he would be wearing armor. No one would know. Not even her.
Mateo gave Jim a concerned look. Jim quickly buried all of his fears and smiled at his team leader. The two looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment. Mateo broke eye contact to address the team. What did Mateo see in Jim’s eyes for that brief moment? The possibilities rattled Jim. The only way to go now was forward.
"The US government is sending its new anti-zombie unit to deal with the outbreak," Mateo said, "Officially,Zombie Strike is not supposed to be there. Unofficially, we’ve been asked to assist. The military wants veterans in the field to make sure their troops avoid the mistakes we’ve already made. Quentin and Sport will be setting up the initial contacts and find out exactly what this anti-zombie force needs from us. They’re also there to find ways for us to operate without this force’s knowledge."
"Let me guess," Billy said, his thick Brooklyn accent giving his words a sarcastic slant, "You guys want us to snatch the minion."
"Gold star for the young man," Collin said, "We are wheels up in twenty." That was the signal the meeting was over. The team dispersed to get their gear. Mateo grabbed Jim’s elbow as he tried to leave.
"Is there anything you want to tell me?" Mateo asked. One look at Mateo’s face, and Jim knew he could tell him everything without judgment. Mateo would probably even understand. It just wasn’t enough to overcome twenty years of secrecy.
"No Matt. Nothing at all."