Five miles west of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1400 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins grunted as the SUV bounced over the rocky road. He still felt weak and hated himself for it. Between the physical ordeal of being shot in the head and the emotional ordeal of dealing with the ghosts of his past, Jim was surprised he was still upright. Having to defend his hometown from zombies and evil magic forces worked better than coffee or caffeine pills. Jim let out a grunt as The Steve, the team’s medic, made final adjustments to Jim’s battle rig. It annoyed Jim he needed help, but that was the price he had to pay. He wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines. Not now.

"Jim, could you tell where the power is on a map?" asked Mateo Cortez. As the team leader, Mateo was busily trying to coordinate Zombie Strike’s activities with the Army’s anti-zombie force. From the snippets Jim heard during the drive from the hospital, the Army was sure they finished off the zombie presence in the area, and they were beginning their withdrawal. Mateo needed the Army to stay near Salem, mostly as cover for the team’s covert mission. They were after the person behind the zombie outbreak. The person who was now in possession of an object of ancient evil.

"I can’t pinpoint it Matt," Jim said, feeling the pulsing waves of energy. He had run into the magic twice when he was younger. As a result, Jim had some weird connection to it. "All I feel is the pulses and their strength. For it to be this strong, it has to be out of the valley."

"The Steve would like to know how they got a big stone table out of the valley," the medic asked, "It’s not like we saw any sign of heavy equipment going in." Jim pushed down his normal wariness of the medic referring to himself in the third person. There were bigger concerns than one person’s personal quirk.

"I’m starting to think the altar isn’t the source of the power," Mateo said, "More of a focal point." Mateo paused as he listened to his comm. His face became stern as his dark eyes flashed with anger.

"Collin, you find a way to keep the colonel on the ground," Mateo said into the radio, "As long as he doesn’t leave, the battalion will stay put."

"The Steve says screw the Army. We can do this on our own." The Steve’s normal bravado took on a hard edge. It was about the angriest Jim had ever seen the medic.

"Love to," Mateo said over his shoulder, "But the minute the Army leaves, we lose our official reason for being here and our current exempt status." Zombie Strike’s normal anti-zombie operations were now technically illegal in most countries due to events in Mexico City a while back. None of the governments wanted to be outshone by a private group in defending their citizens against the undead. The colonel in charge of the US Army’s new anti-zombie brought the team in as consultants. Mateo never bothered to burden the colonel with the pesky details of the cabal dedicated to bringing about an apocalypse through an Aztec god, and its minions behind the outbreak here in order to find an artifact of power. As far as Zombie Strike was concerned, the Army had enough on its plate just figuring out how to effectively fight zombies. Why get the feds involved? They’d just screw it up. Unfortunately, that position caused small problems like the one Mateo was dealing with.

"Billy, get us to the valley, now," Mateo ordered, his annoyance clear in his voice. The diminutive Native American nodded and hammered the accelerator. Say what you wanted about Billy Shakespear, the boy never did anything by halves. The jostling in the truck worsened. Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his guts inside. It was worse than his days in the rodeo. If Matt didn’t tell that kid to slow it down…

Billy slammed on the brakes, and the SUV violently fishtailed. Jim was slammed up against the window. What was that kid playing at? The chorus of moans killed Jim’s. A horde of forty zombies surrounded one of the sheriff’s squad cars. The front was crumpled, like it hit something much bigger. The light bar was still flashing with red and blue lights. The windows were cracked, but it didn’t look like anyone was still in the cruiser. Drawn by the noise of the roaring engine, the zombies turned and slowly shambled towards the now stopped SUV.

The bad news was Billy stopped the truck only twenty yards away from the edge of the horde. The good news was the four occupants of the truck were all experienced zombie killers. Twenty yards was all the space they needed. Jim felt his weakness fall away as adrenaline flowed through his blood. He kicked the door open and came out with his .45 in hand. As soon as he hit the dusty ground, Jim fell into a Weaver stance and double-tapped two zombies at the edge of the horde. Jim sensed more than felt as Mateo came up next to him. The team leader fired short, controlled bursts. The suppressed carbine’s report reminded Jim of his mother’s old electric typewriter. The Steve and Billy stationed themselves at the front and rear of the truck. Jim could barely hear their carbines over the ragged chorus of hunting moans. Jim lined up another zombie and stroked the trigger in a practiced double tap. Jim saw the puffs of gray mist erupt from the back of the zombie’s head moments before it collapsed. Jim swiveled to his next target and fired again. He felt as the pistol’s slide locked back on an empty magazine. Jim would never know why he chose to transition to his revolver. It made no sense, no matter how he looked back at it. Reloading the .45 would’ve been faster and easier. Sometimes you just have to chalk some things up to divine intervention.

The zombie emerged from the horde as the ones around it were cut down by fire from the team. It was dressed in heavy black tactical armor with POLICE stenciled in white across the front. The heavy riot helmet was locked into place. The helmet rocked as the zombie hunters put burst after burst into it. None of the rounds penetrated the sloping glacis of the shield. The zombie continued its shamble towards the team. Purely on instinct, Jim took a step to the side, lined up the helmet in his sights, and fired the big revolver twice.

The first .500 Magnum round didn’t penetrate the helmet any better than the rifle bullets. What the big and heavy bullet did do was knock the zombie’s head just enough to the left. The second bullet nicked the edge of the helmet. The nick did two things. It changed the bullet’s trajectory up just enough and caused the heavy bullet to fragment. Speeding shards of lead tore the zombie’s brain into shreds. There was no good reason for that shot to have happened that way. It was beyond the normal probability of physics. Sometimes, you just need to chalk things up to the divine. The team stopped firing as they all stared in amazement as the zombie collapsed to the ground.

The hunting moans snapped the team back into action. Jim brought the revolver around to a group of zombies coming directly at him. Four shots boomed through the air. Four decapitated zombies were on the ground. The Smith was heavy and loud, but it did the job. Jim didn’t wait to revel in his small victory. He thumbed the cylinder open and slammed on the ejector rod. As the spent casings fell to the ground, Jim snapped open a pouch on his armor and fished out five rounds. He really should get a speed loader for the Smith if he was going to carry it into battle. Jim slapped round after round into the cylinder. Once all five rounds were in, he closed the cylinder and brought the weapon back up. In those short few seconds, all of the zombies were down.

"Y’know, if you’re going to bring that antique into a fight, you should really have a speed loader," quipped Billy in his thick Brooklyn accent. Jim glared at the insolent kid, but didn’t say anything.

"Billy, go do something useful and make sure our little firefight didn’t draw more zombies," Mateo snapped. Billy scampered up the road, seemingly oblivious to the rebuke. Jim stood over the zombie in the armor. He knelt down and yanked the visor of the riot helmet open. Deputy Young’s face was older and distorted by Jim’s bullet but still recognizable. Jim hated this man for decades. He’d even thought about killing him once or twice. Now though, Jim felt no satisfaction, glee, or even sadness at his enemy’s demise. Just another zombie.

"Someone you know?" Mateo asked as The Steve checked him over. None of the zombies got close enough to injure the team, but The Steve always did a quick once over. Never could tell if an odd bone chip or something managed to lance through and cause damage.

"Yeah," Jim said emotionlessly, "I think we made a mistake taking so much time on this one. With the visor down, it wasn’t like he could have bitten any of us."

"Maybe not," Mateo said, "As armored as he was, any punches he threw would be enough to take one of us out of the fight. When we get back, I’m going to have the armorers throw something on this rifle to take something like him down." The Steve clapped the team leader on the shoulder. Mateo was clean. The team leader examined of the scene. The Steve began his once over on Jim. Jim felt his adrenaline slipping away. The weakness returned. It was bad enough that Jim wanted to ask The Steve for something to keep him going. Instead, he just gritted his teeth and summoned up all of the strength he could. In a few short moments, The Steve clapped Jim on the shoulder. Jim walked over to the police cruiser.

What was Young doing out here? The sheriff and his deputies were supposed to stay in town to help the Army coordinate its efforts. There was no good reason for Young to be out this way. Mateo was on the far side of the cruiser. There was a scowl on his face. That was never a good sign. As Jim rounded the cruiser, he saw the back door of the cruiser lying on the ground. It looked like a cutting torch was used on it. Zombies didn’t use simple tools, much less something as complex as a cutting torch. What happened before the team arrived? The radio crackled to life. Mateo and Jim were both startled by the sudden noise. The two traded sheepish looks, both amused and ashamed at being caught off-guard by the radio. Jim opened the door to silence the constant sound of static. Then came a taunting voice Jim hadn’t heard in thirty years.

"Nathan, my old friend, I’m so glad you’re not dead," Alan said with a bubbly, almost singsong voice. Jim recoiled from car in shock. Alan continued, "I am quite annoyed with you for killing my son. I don’t know what you used on him, but it was very messy. Don’t worry about finding a way to make it up to me. I’ve already found one." Jim’s blood went ice-cold. He reached for the radio’s handset, but Mateo grabbed him. The team leader slammed Jim against the side of the cruiser.

"Don’t. Let him talk," Mateo ordered, "Steve, get a trace going."

"The Steve, bossman," the medic corrected as he tapped away at his PDA.

"Oh yes bossman, try to find me before it’s too late," Alan laughed over the radio. The three zombie killers snapped into guard stances and began searching around them. They were in the middle of a flat land. Where was Alan watching from? Alan laughed even harder, stopping for a moment as he broke into a fit of coughing.

"Oh come on you fools," Alan said after managing to compose himself, "Do you think I would be stupid enough to come anywhere near rifle range to your little team? We know exactly how dangerous you can be. But because I’m such a nice guy, I’ll let you in on the secret. I rigged the radio so I could listen in on you as well as talk." Mateo let out a string of curses, which elicited another round of laughter from Alan.

"Why are you talking to us Alan?" Jim asked, trying desperately to keep his voice calm despite his fear. The laughter ceased.

"Thank you Nate," Alan said with a disturbing calmness. "Normally, I wouldn’t be talking to you at all. I have read the Evil Overlord list. Plus, my superiors would discourage it. But if I didn’t, then you wouldn’t know how badly I’ve beaten you. How much I’ve taken from you." Jim’s stomach tightened to an icy ball of fear. Did Alan manage to get his hands on Jeannie again?

"You spent all those years running from that murder charge," Alan said tauntingly, "She never had the chance to tell you, did she? What became of that last night before the sheriff and his goons broke down your door? About your daughter?" Jim felt the world begin to spin around him.

"Don’t worry Nate," Alan said mockingly, "She’s right here with me. She’ll make an excellent substitute for her mother. Shame you won’t get to meet her before I sacrifice her."

Jim let out a scream of primal anguish as Alan cackled over the radio.

Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 30