Ten miles north of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1700 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days
Jim Collins’ eyes focused on the tiny display of his PDA mounted to the forearm of his armor. The picture was grainy, but Jim could make out his childhood-friend-turned-enemy, Alan, and a young woman who looked like a younger Jeannie. Alan stared up with annoyance at the Predator drone circling around the pair. Alan’s hand was clamped firmly on the girl’s upper arm as he dragged her along the mountain trail. Jim didn’t know where Alan thought he was going. There wasn’t anything around there. What was Alan hoping to find?
Alan looked at something beyond the camera. Rage came across his face. He drew a long knife from under his robes. The blade glinted in the sun. Jim watched in horror as Alan yanked the girl up. He slashed the knife across the girl’s arm. Jim saw the blood trickle down the girl’s arm. As he watched the girl scream, Jim was suddenly very thankful the feed from the Predator had no sound. He didn’t think he could take the sound of his daughter in pain.
"Green Six deploy now," Col. Allen said sharply over the radio to one of the units shadowing Alan and Jim’s daughter. The view from the Predator widened quickly, and Jim could see an Army helicopter zooming down at Alan. Alan raised the now-bloody knife at the helicopter. The picture went a brilliant white. Jim hung in his seat by the straps as a wave of sickening power washed over him. It was stronger than anything he felt from the altar. Frantic calls filled the radio net.
"Blue Six report," Col. Allen demanded, forcing the radios quiet.
"Zulu Six, this is Blue Six. Green Six is down. I repeat, Green Six is down," said one of the team leaders with a forced calm, "The target fired some sort of energy weapon. The Blackhawk just exploded, sir." A tense silence followed the team leader’s words. It was broken again by Blue Six. "Sir, the target just destroyed the Predator. Request permission to fall back."
"Do it," Col. Allen said, clearly unhappy with the order. The colonel’s head whipped around to the Zombie Strike team leader. "What just happened Mateo?"
"Very bad magic," Mateo Cortez answered. Col. Allen simply nodded and ordered the helicopter pilot to land where Green Six went down. To his credit, the pilot didn’t say anything. Apparently, Mateo wasn’t the only boss who demanded the impossible on occasion.
"This is why you’re here," Col. Allen said to Mateo. It wasn’t a question, or even an accusation. Just a simple statement of fact.
"Yes Colonel," Mateo answered in the same tone.
"I’m not sending my men into a fight they know nothing about," Col. Allen said, "I’ll get you close, but your people are going to deal with the target."
"Colonel, we aren’t allowed to engage—" Mateo began before the colonel cut him off.
"Don’t even give me that line of BS," Col. Allen said tersely, "I’m still in command of this AO, and you’re still in my employ. You suspected, if not outright knew, something like this was going on. You kept that from me. That annoys me greatly, but I will deal with you afterwards." The helicopter dropped to the ground, landing with a hard thump. The ramp came down and an icy wind filled the cargo compartment. The colonel gestured for the Zombie Strike team to get out of the helicopter.
"Mateo, one last thing," the colonel said as the team filed out of the helicopter, "Don’t get dead." As soon as the team was clear, the helicopter shot up and away from the mountain trail. The mountains were covered with snow. The only break in the white blanket was the burning wreckage of Green Six’s helicopter. Alan and Jim’s daughter were nowhere to be seen. Jim walked down the trail about twenty yards as the team sorted itself out. He remembered this place vividly. It used to be a stock trail in the early days of the state, but now it was used only by hunters and kids looking to go up onto the hills that surrounded the cursed valley. Jim’s mind flashed with realization. He knew where Alan was. Damn, he should have thought about that before. Mateo and Collin walked up to where Jim was crouched next to the trail.
"There’s an old gold mine from the 1880’s about half a mile up the trail," Jim said, "It’s not on any maps, but the kids sometimes go there to party. There won’t be anyone there this time of year."
"I hate fighting underground," Mateo muttered. "Jim, you know the area, so you’ll lead us to the mine. Collin, I want you to pair off with Jim and keep him covered. I’ll bring up the rest of the team. Once we get up to this mine, we’ll reassess." Collin and Jim nodded as Mateo turned back to the others.
"Lead off, boyo," Collin said. After about twenty minutes of hard trekking, Jim and Collin neared the mine’s entrance. Jim stopped as he saw two lumps in the trail. He crouched and slid to the right. Jim took a closer look through his scope.
"What is it mate?" Collin asked as he crouched next to Jim.
"Goats," Jim said, "Two of them in front of the mine."
"We’re stopping for goats?" Collin asked.
"Collin, those are two mature rams sitting next to each other," Jim said, "Rams don’t do that. Plus, there’s no heat coming from either of them, but they’re still moving."
"Zombie goats?" Collin asked, incredulously.
"Looks like it," Jim answered.
"Bloody hell," Collin muttered, "Odd pair of sentries."
"Not when you think about it," Jim said, "A ram’s skull is thick and hard to crack, especially with an M16’s bullet. Those two could probably fend off a platoon of unsuspecting soldiers." Jim slung his carbine and stood up. Taking off his helmet, Jim let out a screeching whistle. The two zombie goats sprang up and charged the two humans.
"What are you doing?" demanded Collin. Jim drew his revolver. The thundering boom echoed as Jim took down the first goat. The second shot missed when the goat slipped on a patch of ice a split second before Jim squeezed the trigger. The third shot took the goat cleanly through the skull. The creature dropped and slid along the icy trail. The rest of the team ran up to Collin and Jim. Mateo listened as Jim calmly explained the encounter while reloading the revolver.
"Alan probably knows we’re here, and we’ve taken care of his little pets," Mateo said, "Jim, I want you and Billy on point. Quentin follows with Collin. Then Jess and me, with The Steve and Sport pulling up the rear. Let’s move fast, but move careful." The team members nodded and fell into their assigned positions. Jim entered the mine with Billy slightly behind and to his left. As Jim took a step into the shadowy mine, he saw some movement. He turned and saw the club an instant before it crashed into his helmet.
Jim felt a bone-numbing cold as he slammed into the rocky floor of the mine. His mind was foggy and nothing seemed to want to move. He could barely turn his head to see his assailant. As he looked up, only one question came to Jim’s mind. Why was he being attacked by Bigfoot? The creature was easily eight feet tall and looked like an upright ape with long dirty white fur. Its face was ape-like except for two yellow tusks protruding from its lower jaw. It clutched a club fashioned from a tree limb in its hand. As it looked down at Jim, the eyes reminded him of an angry bull.
Billy leapt at the monster with a pair of batons in hand. The creature let out an eerie howl as the small man slammed into it and pounded it with a flurry of blows. It lashed out faster than Billy anticipated. Billy caught the massive fist on his forearm guards, but the impact drove him back nearly five feet. The sound of suppressed automatic fire surrounded Jim. He watched as blossoms of red sprouted across the front of the creature’s white pelt. It screamed in pain. Jim saw it lash out with the club and heard Collin grunt in pain. More gunfire shredded the creature’s chest and arms, but it didn’t seem to even slow it down. It attacked, but the team managed to avoid its swinging club. Billy leapt onto its back. With one hand holding the pelt, Billy drew a knife from his belt. Billy stabbed the knife deep into the creature’s back. It let out a brief howl before erupting into an explosion of light and force. Jim was tossed along the ground until he slammed into the wall of the mine.
"Oh, Grandpa’s gonna kill me," Billy muttered as everyone staggered to their feet, "That was his favorite knife."
"What was that?" Quentin asked.
"A nightmare," said an amused voice from the edge of the darkness, "I should have expected the little Indian to have a spirit knife. Oh well, there’s more where that came from." Jim recognized Alan’s taunting.
"Come on down Zombie Strike," Alan said from the darkness, "Everyone is waiting for you." A chorus of moans echoed through the mine. As the team braced, zombies stepped into the light.