Skull Island, South Pacific, 26 June 2010, 0100 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 5 months, 4 days
Jessica Montgomery looked at her laptop and suppressed a groan as she saw the time. After she lost everything and everyone she loved and knew back in Florida, the thought of living of an exotic tropical island sounded romantic and adventurous. Jess thought she’d be playing on the beach every day, with occasional breaks to hunt down the odd zombie. It was like out of one those cool television shows she watched religiously before Mateo and Zombie Strike swept into her life.
Except it wasn’t anything like she expected. Mateo was nice, but he demanded a lot. Jess was having a hard enough time keeping up with the work from the online school Mateo enrolled her in, but she also had to work with the team. On top of that she had sniper lessons from The Steve, who would be cute if he weren’t a little touched in the head, and the lessons with Quentin on the Aztec culture. Then there was Billy.
Jess forced herself to stop thinking about the Native American close-quarters specialist. He pretty much told her he wasn’t interested, and he made sure never to be alone with her outside of work. She pushed all of the hurt and confusion out of her mind. She had a paper to finish and submit before her first online class at nine. Fortunately, it was on ancient cultures, so she just poured a lot of what Quentin taught her into the assignment.
"You still up?" asked Mateo from the doorway. Jess’s foster father was maybe twenty years older than her own sixteen years. Latino features dominated Mateo’s looks, but there was a hint of something else. Jess thought Mateo would look better if he let his hair grow beyond the close crew cut he wore. His long face was average, but his dark eyes were warm. Mateo still wore the rumpled fatigues he’d been wearing all day. His hands bore two mugs of steaming liquid.
"It’s this paper," Jess whined, "I’ve got to get it done tonight." Mateo’s eyes hardened slightly at her tone, but she didn’t care. Maybe he could pull all sorts of hours without a break, but she wanted to have some fun. Instead, she was forced to stay up all night working on this stupid assignment.
"You’re not the first person who’s had to pull an all-nighter, so quit whining," Mateo said as he walked into her living room. He set the mug down next to her. The aroma of coffee filled Jess’s nose. Okay, maybe Mateo was right, but he just didn’t understand what she was going through. She grudgingly gave him a nod of thanks before picking up the coffee. She eyed it for a moment.
"Don’t worry, Sport made it," Mateo said with that funny grin. She gulped the scalding liquid, savoring the smooth taste. Sport was the only one on this island who knew how to make a good cup of coffee. Everyone else seemed to think that drinking paint thinner was acceptable.
"Missed you at dinner," Mateo said, sitting down on her couch.
"Yeah, well, I had things to do," Jess said quickly, hoping her foster father took the veiled hint.
"Quentin said you came across something today," Mateo said after taking a sip of his own coffee.
"Doesn’t matter, it was a bunch of gibberish that didn’t make any sense," Jess said, trying to focus on the words on her laptop’s screen. "Stuff about a cleansing fire in Tenochtitlan. Wipe the corruption away. Sort of like the stuff in Revelations." Jess felt an icy spike down her back as she spoke of the odd parchment. Something in those ancient words scared her, and she felt embarrassed by her fear. She prayed Mateo didn’t see any of that.
"I think Quentin mentioned it because you translated that passage on your own," Mateo said. He took a deep breath and Jess closed her eyes in dread. Mateo only took that deep breath before trying to have serious conversations with her. The screaming alarm klaxon cut him off. It was probably the first time she was glad there was an emergency. In an instant, Mateo went from struggling foster father to team leader of Zombie Strike.
"I’m heading down to the situation room," Mateo said, "Get dressed and meet me down there." He strode out of the room without giving her a chance for the biting retort she was still working on. Jess scowled as she rummaged through her room for a presentable set of fatigues. She spent a precious few minutes on making sure she covered her few blemishes and her hair was presentable. Billy might say he wasn’t interested, but she saw the glances he shot her way. Let’s see how he liked these apples.
The Zombie Strike field team was in the situation room’s main conference room, along with Nigel Brown and Zombie Strike’s overall leader, Kenn Blanchard. Kenn’s normally warm face was tight and controlled. The team members all glanced at her as she walked in, and quickly turned their attention back to Nigel Brown, the liaison from Mackenzie and Winston, the insurance firm that funded Zombie Strike.
"As I was saying Collin, Mackenzie and Winston had no reason to believe that the damage done to the satellite constellation had anything to do with this team’s activities," Nigel said in his proper British accent. After six months of working with four Brits, Jess was starting to get a feel for their accents.
"Pictures coming in," announced one of the techs. One of the large plasma monitors snapped on. The black and white feed had that grainy, military feel to it. Jess thought it was a video of a city in the Middle East. All of the buildings were either destroyed or heavily damaged. Pieces of debris were scattered haphazardly. Some she identified as the burnt and twisted wrecks of cars. Were they dropping into a war zone?
Something made Jess tear her eyes away from the monitor and look at the faces of the men of her team. All of them looked shocked, except for Billy. His head was bowed, and she thought he was crying. That didn’t make sense. What could make Billy cry? There were whispered curses, and more than one of the men slammed an angry fist down on the glass table.
"Mexico City," Quentin whispered into her ear, and her heart froze. She locked eyes with Quentin who only nodded solemnly. What had happened? It looked like the city had been hit with a nuclear bomb.
"Quentin, are you sure about this?" Kenn asked.
"Yes," Quentin answered, "Jess translated the prophecy earlier today. It all makes sense. Within a few hours, the dead will begin to rise." Jess swallowed hard. Prophecy? She had translated a prophecy? One that just came true? She silently prayed this was all just a dream. The words came back to her as Quentin recited the translation.
The servants will call their Lord. The Flayed One will answer from the stars. The Other’s metal stars will fall. The Other’s followers will scream in terror.
The Great City will be bathed in fire. The stain of the Other will be scourged. The dead will return to the Servant. The temple will be revealed.
The Chosen will find the key. The Flayed One will return.
"Who’s the Other?" Kenn asked
"That would be us," Quentin answered, "More to the point, any of the descendants of Cortez. I’m thinking the Servant is Giant or whoever is commanding Giant. The Chosen could mean either." He made it sound so coldly academic. Jess wanted to scream at him.
"Giant," murmured Mateo with a dangerous hint in his tone. He quickly turned to his team. "Okay, this is all hands on deck. I want everyone kitted out and into the airplane. This is going to be the single largest zombie outbreak anyone has seen, not including whatever Giant will be up to."
"We’re persona non grata in Mexico," Collin reminded Mateo. "After Giant hit their museum, the Mexican government blamed us and told us to stay out of their country."
"Do you really think they’ll have anyone to stop us?" Mateo asked, "Everything for a hundred miles around Mexico City is destroyed. They felt the blast all the way in Vegas, and the heat wave managed to ignite the oil spill in the Gulf."
"Then figure that GPS and most communications are still down," The Steve chimed in.
"Well, since you put it that way, once more into the breach," Collin quipped. Jess just looked at the men. Millions were dead, their enemies were after something that sounded really powerful, and they were joking around. And they yelled at her for being immature? Kenn brought the meeting back to order.
"Stop Giant first," Kenn ordered, "See what help you can give along the way. Don’t get dead." The team collectively nodded and began filing out of the room. Jess reached the doorway at the same time as Billy. Billy’s bronze face was streaked with tears. Jess suddenly remembered he had family in Mexico. Her heart melted at the look of pain on Billy’s face.
"Billy, I’m sorry," Jess said quietly, "You said you had family in Mexico." She didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to hug him and comfort him. She nearly died when he gave her a mournful smile.
"Thanks Jess," Billy said. He paused, like he was going to say something else. Then that familiar hardness clamped down and he stormed out of the office. Jess just stood there for a moment. What was wrong with that man?
In thirty minutes, the team was in the air flying to Mexico City.