Skull Island, South Pacific, 25 July 2010, 0700 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 6 days

Slim Thomas felt his body shaking apart. Waves of thunder reverberated through him. He barely remembered to clamp his hands over his ears and open his mouth. The pulsing force continued to hammer his body for what seemed like an hour. Then, it stopped, and Slim felt hands grab him. Slim lashed out with kicks and punches as he searched frantically for his weapons. His eyes couldn’t focus on the dark blobs standing over him. Slim aimed a snap kick at one of the blobs and realized he was on the ground. When did that happen? Then he started hearing voices. Tinny, echoing voices. Human voices.

"Stop fighting," said a voice Slim could finally make out. The voice sounded gruff, but compassionate. To be honest, Slim could have been imagining it. His hearing was coming back slowly. Hands helped him to his feet. His vision focused on the unmistakable sight of American troops surrounding him. Sudden panic hit Slim as he remembered the wall of armored zombies. Then he looked into the maze. Pieces of zombies were scattered around in a blanket of gray flesh and bone. Slim couldn’t even distinguish the zombies that had been wearing the bomb suits.

"Yeah, the captain says sorry about that," said the soldier holding him up. "The Strykers cut it a bit close with the Bushmasters." More soldiers were mopping up the few zombies that survived the onslaught of heavy chain gun fire. The high-pitched pop of an M4 signaled another crawler put down. Distant thunder rumbled across the horizon. It was only until the heavy chattering of an autocannon Slim realized the thunder was artillery.

Slim knew he was still out of sorts, but the minion was still out there. As much as he hated to depend on the drugs built into his med system, he knew he didn’t have much choice at this point. Slim opened his PDA and triggered a battle cocktail. Slim felt as the pain killers and stimulants hit his system. His hearing was still tinny, but the vertigo and weakness vanished. Slim gave the soldier a quick once over. Slim couldn’t decipher the chevrons, but from the number of them, Slim figured the soldier was probably a senior sergeant. The familiar horned skull patch of the US Army’s anti-zombie Task Force 11 seemed to grin at Slim. He looked past the sergeant to look at his two teammates. Sport was already strapped to a stretcher. Quentin had the same disoriented but ready to fight look Slim suspected was on his own face.

"Sergeant?" Slim ventured, guessing at the man’s rank.

"Daniels, sir," the soldier supplied, nodding his head, "Alpha Company, Stryker battalion."

"Okay," Slim said, not sure what a Stryker battalion was, "Where is the minion? Do your men have him acquired yet?" Sergeant Daniel’s face went pale. That wasn’t a good sign.

"We were told that your team dealt with the minion in charge of this outbreak," Daniels said, clearly terrified with the prospect of dealing with a minion. Slim couldn’t blame him. He didn’t want to go another round with that one either.

"We handled the junior one, but the senior minion was responsible for this ambush here," Slim answered. Slim caught Quentin’s eye and motioned the other zombie hunter over. He needed the big man’s expertise.

"What’s up?" Quentin asked. He took one look at the soldier’s fearful expression and guessed. "Other minion’s still out there."

"Too right," Slim answered, "I don’t fancy leaving him about to wreak mischief."

"You must be feeling better," Quentin commented, "You’re talking Brit again." Slim ignored the big man’s jibe.

"Sergeant Daniels, my compliments to your officers, but I will need you and your men to accompany us as we endeavor to ferret out the minion." Daniels cocked his head, clearly not understanding the order. Bloody colonials.

"He means you need to call your boss and let him know that Slim and I are borrowing your people to hunt down the minion," explained Quentin. Daniels nodded slowly with dawning understanding.

"Not necessary, Mr. McLintock," said another voice. The three men turned to see another group of soldiers hop the entrance to the maze. The leader returned Daniel’s sudden salute. Must be an officer, but Slim couldn’t decipher the four squares on the rank insignia. He made a mental note to study American ranks. The leader continued to speak.

"Sergeant, continue mopping up here, and then report back to your company," the man ordered. He turned to Quentin and Slim. "Gentlemen, I’m Chief Warrant Officer Stahl. You may call me Chief Stahl, or just Chief. My team and I have been assigned to help you."

"Green Berets?" Quentin asked as he surveyed Stahl’s team. The eight soldiers just looked lethal. It wasn’t just their weapons or gear, which seemed much better than those carried by Sergeant Daniels and his soldiers. It was the way Stahl’s soldiers stood. Relaxed, yet ready to do immediate and brutal violence. They reminded Slim of The Steve during an operation, and of Collin. Slim buried the pang of betrayal. The Steve was right. Vengeance could wait until after they survived.

"We’re Lurps, not Special Forces," Chief Stahl answered. "All of us have our Ranger tabs if that makes you feel any better. Well, everyone except for Smith. He’s only Force Recon." From the grins on the men’s faces showed a strong camaraderie. It reminded the two zombie hunters of their own field team.

"Be nice, Chief Stahl," Quentin warned, "The head zombie killer used to be a leatherneck," Stahl didn’t rise to the bait. He just gave a knowing smile.

"Very good Chief," Slim said. He didn’t know what a lurp was, but they had already wasted enough time. "The minion we’re hunting was last seen going deeper into the maze. He can raise a bullet-proof shield, so don’t waste your ammo." The soldiers nodded at the comments.

"You sure he’s still in here?" one of the soldiers asked. As if on cue, a beam of brilliant purple energy lanced into the sky from deep within the maze. Slim’s eyes tracked the beam into the sky. A burning fireball plummeted to the ground.

"Dear God, I hope that was just one of the Predators," murmured another of the soldiers.

"Chief, if you and yours want to wait here while Quentin and I settle things with the minion, I would understand," Slim said quietly when he saw the look of shock on Stahl’s face.

"All of those things they said about the minions are true," Stahl said. It wasn’t a question.

"Mostly," Slim confirmed.

"Well, if I wanted safe, I’d have done as my mom wanted and became an accountant," Stahl answered, "No sense in stopping now. Besides, the colonel would skin my hide if I let you take on that on your own." Slim nodded. He braced his MP5/10 in a low ready and led the group into the maze. As his hearing returned, Slim could hear the minion’s smug laughter.

Washington DC, 26 July 2010, 2315 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 5 days

Mateo Cortez looked at the screen. He was crouched in one of the FBI’s covert observation vans. In the odd green hues of nightvision, Mateo watched as the entrance team stacked up at the front of the house. Spotters confirmed Ted entered the house some twenty minutes earlier. Mateo felt the rage roar inside of him as one of the monitors watched the average looking man in slacks and a polo shirt walked into the house. One of the techs kept running the footage. Something about getting a clear ID. Mateo recognized the face, and that was enough for the agents. This man was responsible for the kidnapping of Mateo’s ex-wife, and assisting in the killing of Mateo’s friend Nigel Brown, and the near killings of Kenn Blanchard, Zombie Strike’s leader and Mercedes, Mateo’s five year old daughter.

"Team ready," SWAT’s leader announced, "No movement in the house." The special agent in charge of the operation looked at Special Agent Tredegar for any last minute information. Tredegar nodded. The SAIC didn’t even look at Mateo. He’d made his opinion on an armed amateur in his command post known quite explicitly. Mateo was surprised there hadn’t been a PowerPoint with all the buzzwords the SAIC threw around during his little speech. A chill ran down Mateo’s spine. Certain it was nerves, Mateo ignored it and focused on the monitor. His entire body was tensed as he waited to hear the command to enter. A stronger chill flashed through him. Not nerves. Something was wrong. He could feel it. Mateo turned to tell SWAT to abort. The explosion picked up the van and slammed it on its side some fifteen feet from where it had parked.

Mateo heard the moans of the injured techs. He ignored them as leapt out of the van. The front of the house was gone. It kind of reminded Mateo of the dollhouse he’d bought Mercedes for Christmas. Open it up and see all of the rooms. Debris and FBI agents littered the lawn and street. Mateo focused on the movement in the house. His weapon was up as his mind immediately recognized the familiar walk of zombies. The first two zombies were brought down by instinct. Mateo’s eyes scanned the house. Maybe twenty or so. Less now as he pivoted and took down two more.

Screams of panic filled the street as the wounded agents saw the first walking corpse emerge out of the shadows. Some of the wounded tried to crawl away from the house, while others could only lie and scream. The noise just drew the zombies in. Right into Mateo’s sights. Undead after undead fell as Mateo placed hammer pairs into their skulls. Mateo was swept up into the familiar, simple action. Spot zombie, shoot zombie, find next target. Reload. Continue process. Mateo’s mind registered the last zombie at the back of the house. Just as he had practiced many times, Mateo advanced into the house. Something trapped the zombie. From the shadows, it looked like the explosion overturned a table. The zombie was just stuck there, unable to pass the waist high barrier. Mateo flipped on his flashlight. He wanted to make sure he finished this one properly.

Mateo froze as the light hit the zombie. He couldn’t move. He could only stare at the snarling face of Maria. Maria the zombie. The weapon came down as Mateo stared at Maria. She uselessly lunged at him. Mateo tried to bring his carbine up. The weapon was almost excruciatingly heavy. How could he do this? Maria was the mother of his child. And, if he was being honest, the one true love of his life. Each time Mateo tried to bring the carbine up his mind was flooded with memories. Maria when he first saw her, on their wedding day, just after giving birth.

The two gunshots shook Mateo out of his reveille. He watched in horror and relief as the two red holes blossomed on Maria’s head. Mateo stood immobile as his wife’s corpse collapsed to the ground. As soon as Maria was on the floor, Mateo whirled and brought up his carbine. A sad-faced Collin stood maybe fifteen feet away with a smoking Glock in his hands.

"I’m so sorry Matty," Collin said.

Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 52