Washington DC, 27 July 2010, 1100 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 5 days
Slim Thomas’s stomach started to unclench as the odd plane began its final descent into Reagan National. Flying normally didn’t bother him. Flying half-way around the globe in an experimental plane that constantly groaned and rattled did bother him. Where had MacKenzie and Winston dug up this ungainly craft? The insurance firm’s rep refused to answer the question. The plane groaned again followed by a metallic pop. Slim tightened his grip on the useless arm rest. He surveyed his companions. How the soldiers could just nod off as soon as they were strapped in amazed and disturbed Slim.
"Dude, are we there yet?" asked The Steve from the seat next to Slim. As soon as the Army showed up, The Steve reverted back to his normal, slightly off-kilter self. Slim didn’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved. Besides, there were bigger things to be concerned about.
"Coming in for a landing," Slim answered, "The pilot said we should be on the ground in fifteen minutes."
"You been awake the whole trip?" The Steve asked. Slim just nodded. "The Steve should’ve given you a nice sedative."
"It’s okay," Slim quickly said, "They had an Arsenal match on the telly. Made the time fly right by."
"You’ve been awake for better than thirty-six hours," The Steve said, "As soon as we get a chance, you need to grab some rack time. The Steve doesn’t understand why you didn’t pass out with the rest of us."
"As if I could sleep on this death-trap," Slim replied, "Did you know we went supersonic on this thing?"
"Kind of the point. Still much better than the time The Steve and his team had to ride in the belly of a B-1. That was not fun." Slim looked askance at the team medic. Some of his tales seemed overly fantastical. Still, they held the odd ring of truth.
A short time later, the plane slammed down on the runway. Almost as soon as the plane slowed, black SUVs surrounded the plane and directed it into an isolated hangar. As the team deplaned, they were surprised to find their field leader waiting for them. Mateo Cortez walked over to the crowd. His face was an unreadable mask. That was never a good sign.
"How’s Kenn and your daughter?" Quentin asked. Pain flickered across Mateo’s face.
"Kenn was lucky," Mateo said, "Bullet lanced right through him. Managed to miss vitals and just tore up muscle. Docs plugged him up. He should be up in a week or so. Longer to get fully recuperated. Mercedes is a little more serious." There was an unspoken command in Mateo’s tone not to ask more. Mateo’s eyes flicked to the soldiers.
"Chief Warrant Officer Stahl, Mr. Cortez. Col. Allen sent us along," Chief Stahl said, coming to attention and firing off a salute, "He thought you might need the help." The three other soldiers followed their leader’s example. Mateo gave the four soldiers a long look and then nodded.
"Good, we’re going to need all of the operators we can lay our hands on," Mateo said, motioning everyone towards the waiting vehicles, "Which leads us to another surprise." A tall middle-aged man stepped out of one of the trucks. Slim’s eyes widened as he saw the weathered face and black Stetson.
"Jim, what are you doing here?" Slim asked, shocked at the man’s sudden appearance.
"I headed out here when I heard about Nigel," Jim answered, "Once I arrived, some feds rounded me up, and Mateo gave me the rundown. The feds were nice enough to provide me with some gear." Jim motioned sarcastically to the vest and web gear covering his normal jeans and cotton shirt. A 1911 was in a drop-leg holster that was mounted a little high. Jim used tactical gear, but he didn’t like it. The cowboy was much happier with his revolver and lever-action rifle.
"We can play catch-up later," Mateo said, "We’ve got a minion on the loose. Collin’s talking to the FBI. Hopefully, they’ve managed to get something. As soon as we have a target, we’re moving in." There were nods of agreement. The Zombie Strike team members and US Army soldiers loaded into the SUVs. Mateo, Quentin, and The Steve piled into the first truck. Slim opted for the second truck with Jim. The soldiers took the last truck, kicking out the FBI driver. Slim laughed at the agent’s confused face. Slim was eager to talk with Jim. He hadn’t seen the cowboy for six months. They hadn’t been close, but they fought and bled together in some nasty situations. Slim wanted to know how things were with Jim’s daughter and that lady they met back in Wyoming. Then, as soon as he sat down, all of the built-up fatigue hit him. Slim was out before the small convoy left the hangar.
Slim felt as if he’d just closed his eyes when something slammed into the truck. Adrenaline surged through him, and Slim was instantly awake. At first, he thought they’d been hit by another car. Except for the molten hole where the front passenger had been sitting. The driver was screaming in pain. The man’s suit looked like it had melted onto him. Jim was already out of the truck and moving in between stopped cars with a raised M4. Slim grabbed his bag and followed Jim.
Outside, Slim could see the frenzy. All of the cars were stopped. From the sheer number of cars, Slim guessed they were somewhere on the Beltway. The drivers were abandoning their vehicles and fleeing every which way. Below the overpass was another crowded Beltway interstate. More people were fleeing, but Slim ignored them. Standing on top of a semi was the minion. He was dressed in the black ninja costume and was waving a small rod. The end of the rod glowed with an evil red energy.
"Kill them!" the minion screamed at several hundred strong zombie horde shambling out from under the overpass. Slim stopped and stared at the minion. It was impossible, but the minion was the same height, and was about the same build. How could he have survived all those artillery rounds? How could he have made it to Washington before the team? A strong hand grabbed Slim and yanked him away. Chief Stahl roughly pushed Slim up against an estate car.
"Yeah, I know. Have to figure it out later," the chief said as he saw Slim’s stunned face. "Right now, we’re kind of in the middle of it. Get on what gear you can." All of them ducked as a car exploded and sent fragments screaming through the air. One of the soldiers wasn’t quite fast enough. A shard of fiberglass lanced into his chest. The digi-cam went dark as blood poured out of the wound. His comrades leapt into action.
"Medic!" Stahl calmly hollered. In seconds, The Steve was sliding next to the wounded soldier. Slim let out a relieved breath as he watched the medic’s hands dance over the wound. The Steve may be insane, but he was a miracle-worker in the field. Slim dug out his ZKC and ammo pouch. There wasn’t time to don the armor.
"Stahl, I need your people working the other side!" Mateo yelled, pointing to the far side of the overpass. "Get that horde cut down!" Stahl gave Mateo a thumbs-up and signaled to his soldiers to move. In seconds came the distinctive pops of M4’s. Slim ran over to his team.
"Where are the FBI agents?" he asked as scooted next to Quentin. The team was strung out behind a line of cars.
"They scampered as soon as they caught sight of the zombies," Quentin said. The big man popped up and let out a short burst. As he ducked back down, Quentin looked over at Slim. "Didn’t we kill that guy back on Skull Island?"
"To be fair, it wasn’t like we found a body," Slim said. He straightened up and took out a zombie as it tried to climb up the embankment to the overpass.
"After that much artillery?" Quentin asked, "I’d been surprised to find a body part." He joined Slim in attacking the horde.
Mateo Cortez reloaded his M4. He didn’t expect Ted to attack him directly. That was a mistake. Even after everything, Mateo kept underestimating this minion. Was it because Ted seemed so plain when they first met? Ted fired another beam from that rod. Mateo ducked as the beam slammed a car at the front of the overpass. It erupted into fire. Mateo recognized the weapon. He should. He led the team against the minions to stop them from stealing it. Mateo thought they’d destroyed it.
Something wasn’t making sense. The Rod of Fiore was capable of reducing all of them to ash. Instead of simply killing them all, Ted was just causing random damage. Or was he? The first hit was on the car in front of the convoy. Then, other car behind them. Then, the second truck. Ted was trying to corral the team. It didn’t make any sense. They had enough ammo to take out even that sizable horde Ted brought with him. The realization hit Mateo like a hammer. Ted wasn’t trying to kill them. He was delaying them, keeping them from Ted’s ultimate target. Mateo snatched the sat phone from his belt and frantically dialed Jess’s number. Even with the gunfire surrounding them, the busy signal boomed in his ear.