Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 16 February 2010, 0800 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 14 days

Jim Collins watched the grumbling US Army soldiers as they carefully made their way down the mountain path. The soldiers were not happy. Not with the weather. Not with the terrain. Most definitely not with having to be led around by an observer who didn’t seem to be affected by any of it. Jim didn’t care. He was just happy to be back where he grew up. He felt the mountains calling to him the moment the squad left Salem.

"Remind me again why we’re tromping through these mountains instead of choppering in?" asked the lieutenant in command of the detachment. The lieutenant was almost as tall as Jim’s six-foot-two, but was draped in enough Army-issued gear that Jim couldn’t tell the difference between the officer and the soldiers he was leading. Jim couldn’t even remember the man’s name.

"Rumor has it that someone is leading this horde," Jim answered, "Don’t want to spook him with a bunch choppers in the air."

"How could anyone lead a horde?" the lieutenant asked incredulously.

"Have to ask the folks that did it in Mexico City," Jim said. Giant’s attack on a museum in Mexico City drew the world’s attention to the zombie problem. Including the army forming up its own anti-zombie force. The lieutenant’s mouth clicked shut. The officer just nodded in dawning comprehension. Jim had been there, done that, and had the scars to prove it. The lieutenant was smart enough to realize Jim might know a thing or two about mixing it up with the undead. The officer gave Jim a half-salute before returning to his squad. After another two miles, the squad of soldiers crested the hill and began the trek down. Everyone froze as the wind carried the familiar moans of zombies. Jim paused to check his PDA. With a few fumbled taps, he managed to bring up the GPS. He scowled. That couldn’t be right. Jim double checked the settings. What was the horde doing there?

"What’s the matter, sir?" the lieutenant asked.

"The horde is congregating around an old altar," Jim said, before he could stop himself. Jim paused as he thought furiously how to cover his lapse. Finally he decided boldness. "The individual leading the horde might be searching the area for some sort of an artifact."

"What kind of artifact?" the lieutenant asked.

"Don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter," Jim said. "At least not from where we sit." The lieutenant thought about it for a moment. The squad’s mission was to find the horde. Now that they succeeded, it was time to bring in the rest of the US Army’s new zombie-fighting force. Jim let the officer find his radioman. He had a different call to make.

"Go Jim," Mateo Cortez said a half-second after Jim pressed the button on his PDA.

"The horde’s been found," Jim reported. He hesitated. Mateo needed to know the rest, but there would be some uncomfortable questions afterward. Jim’s decision came down to two things: Mateo had saved Jim’s life more than once, and even more than that, Mateo was his team leader.

"Matt, the minion is probably there hunting for one of those artifacts Quentin told us about," Jim said, hoping Mateo wouldn’t ask the expected questions.

"I see," Mateo said in a frighteningly neutral voice. There was a pause as Jim heard commotion in the background.

"Jim, it looks like the soldiers you’re with just reported in," Mateo said, "The rest of the force is loading up and moving out. The Steve and Collin are riding along. Help the soldiers with you. If you can find the minion, try to capture him. Mark him if you can’t. Above all, keep those boys alive."

"Sure thing Matt," Jim said, sending silent thanks to God. So far, everything was still buried. As long as he kept the minion from the idol, everything should be fine. He hoped, anyways. Jim crept through the snowy terrain to where the squad was hastily digging fighting positions. Apparently the officer in charge of the Army’s force gave the lieutenant the same orders. At least as far as waiting for the rest of the soldiers. Eleven soldiers and one zombie hunter against a five-thousand strong horde wasn’t good odds in anyone’s book. Wait, there were only nine soldiers digging in. Where were the other two?

"Lieutenant, where are your other soldiers?" Jim demanded. The lieutenant was clearly taken aback by Jim’s sudden forcefulness.

"I sent them forward to eyeball the zombies," the officer answered. Jim’s nostril’s flared as he barely stopped himself from screaming at the lieutenant. The man had no experience with zombies. The closest this young man had been to a zombie was probably the initial screening to see if he was one of those precious few humans who could be near the undead and not flee in panic.

"Get them back here," Jim ordered, "Make sure they do it very quietly." The lieutenant was clearly confused by the sudden change in demeanor, and that worked in Jim’s favor. The lieutenant was one of those rare young officers who knew exactly what to do when encountering something he didn’t understand – defer to the person with the experience. Jim would never know to thank two sergeants who carefully mentored and guided the young officer through some harrowing firefights.

"Sergeant, recall the OP," the lieutenant ordered, "Tell them to be quieter than ghosts back here." The sergeant nodded. The noncom was of the same opinion as his officer. Jim let the soldiers do their thing while he assessed their position. The horde was in the middle of a small valley ringed with large hills and small mountains. Covering most of the valley was an evergreen forest. The edge of the forest ended maybe fifty yards from the base of the hill the squad was digging into. The overcast sky would keep the squad from being blinded by light reflecting off the snow blanketing the ground.

The squad was on the slope of the hill, giving them about another fifty yards from the edge of the forest. Jim would have preferred more distance, but at least the soldiers were keeping their lines of retreat open. Following a suggestion from Zombie Strike, the squad switched out their grenades for claymore mines. The squad placed twelve of the mines along the front of their fighting positions. Another half-dozen were set up further up the hill to give the squad more breathing room as they retreated. Jim was under no grand illusions. If that horde came calling, the squad could do little more than whittle away at the zombies. There would be no way they could hold the position before the horde reached crush.

Jim checked his PDA. In fifteen minutes, the rest of the soldiers would arrive. He looked at the map again. The soldiers were moving too fast. There was no way those armored vehicles should be covering ground that fast. Especially not in this terrain. His heart dropped as he heard the rhythmic thrumming of helicopters. The sound echoed through the valley. The sound of hunting moans erupted from five thousand decaying throats. The soldiers froze as the horrific cacophony swept over them.

"Get into your positions!" Jim yelled. There was no longer any point in being quiet. He needed the soldiers to focus on his voice instead of the moans. The response was almost instantaneous. As the soldiers rushed into their firing holes, Jim continued speaking.

"Tell your scouts to run as fast as they can back here," Jim said to the lieutenant. The officer nodded as Jim addressed the squad. "Zombies don’t run, so don’t shoot your friends as they come out of the forest." The soldiers let out a morbid chuckle. It was a good sign. "Zombies are slow. They’ll give you all the time in the world to put them down. Just try to remember to shoot them in the head." The helmets bobbed as the soldiers nodded. All they had to do was keep their heads and take their time.

"Stilwell, keep that SAW quiet until the zombies are ten meters from the base of the hill," the sergeant ordered, taking his cue from Jim. "As soon as they reach the bottom of our hill, we blow the claymores and fall back. Cover each other and watch your ammo." The sergeant’s calm voice steadied the soldiers. They started a bit as their two friendlies sprinted out of the forest. The soldiers couldn’t see the zombies in the forest, but their moans were coming closer. Jim unslung his ZKC and moved next to the lieutenant. The officer didn’t look happy.

"We’ve been ordered to hold this hill," the lieutenant said grimly. "Colonel said we’d have a company waiting for us at the top." Jim gave the lieutenant a humorless smile.

"Sucks to be bait," Jim said. The lieutenant simply nodded. Complaining wouldn’t change anything. Jim clapped the officer on the shoulder before taking his own spot on the line. The waiting was the hardest part. The moans were growing louder and louder as the horde came closer. A couple of soldiers looked over at Jim. He waited patiently, hoping his own anxiety wasn’t showing.

The first zombie emerged from the forest. Jim ignored anything that made the creature seem human. The clothes, the wounds, the face, none of it mattered. Jim put the reticle over the zombie’s head and squeezed the trigger. The zombie jerked backwards as its head exploded into a red and gray cloud. There were a few shots from the soldiers. The sergeant bellowed a curse-laden reminder to hold fire until they had a zombie in their sights and quit wasting ammo. The squad didn’t have to wait long.

A wave of over a hundred zombies staggered from the tree line. The firing line erupted as the soldiers opened fire. A dozen zombies fell. The pristine snow darkened with blood and other nasty fluids. The squad’s fire became ragged chorus of pops as the soldiers took down the oncoming undead as fast as they could. Jim’s fire was slower, but he was watching the flow of the horde. For every zombie the squad dropped, five more emerged to take their place. That wasn’t good.

The earsplitting chatter of the squad’s machinegun thundered across the battlefield as the zombies approached the hill. The gunner wasn’t even trying for head shots. His only purpose was to knock the zombies down and keep them back from his squad. The impressive fire from the machine gun only bought the squad a minute. The sergeant waited until roughly fifty zombies were at the base of the hill. Jim was deafened as twelve pounds of C4 plastic explosive hurled thousands of steel balls into the mass of oncoming zombies. The claymores scythed down hundreds of zombies. Jim didn’t wait to get an accurate count. He was charging up the slope to the next line of claymores.

The odd black costume caught Jim’s eye. He stopped running. The minion was standing in the middle of the horde, maybe ten yards from the tree line. This one wasn’t wearing the ninja costume donned by his cohorts. Instead he wore a long black duster. A bandana and Stetson hat masked his face. The hunting rifle in the minion’s hands came up. Jim snapped his own weapon up. Jim fired half a heartbeat before the minion. It was just long enough to see the black garbed man fall back before everything went black.

Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 27