Approximately 20 miles from the village of Rosca, island of Corsica, 14 August 2010, 0200 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 2 months, 16 days

Mateo Cortez gripped the handhold tighter as the helicopter bucked from a sudden updraft. He learned to hate flying in choppers. They were noisy, uncomfortable, and tended to jerk at the wrong moment. Mateo was half-convinced the machines wanted to crash. Unfortunately, there was nothing better for a rapid entry into a combat zone. Another jolt made Mateo wish he’d been able to lead Collin’s part of the mission. Then, he remembered he hated sky-diving more than flying in a helicopter. That was better left to the experienced people.

“Two minutes, Mr. Cortez,” the pilot said over the headphones. Mateo held up two fingers to his team in the helicopter’s cabin. The red light cut out, plunging the cabin into darkness. Mateo took off the headphones and put on his helmet. A few quick attachments and his eyes lit up with the distinctive green of nightvision. Mateo checked his team. Jim was almost hanging out of the helicopter’s door by one hand. The other was firmly gripped on his precious Big Horn .500 S&W lever-action. The team’s resident cowboy demanded to be a part of the offensive, and Mateo was glad to have him along. Sport sat next to Jim, looking almost asleep. Sport was one of those good utility shooters. For this assault, Sport was the team’s grenadier. He carried an M4 and an XM25 20mm grenade launcher the Army lent the team. Sitting next to Mateo was Jess. The girl had become very serious over the last couple of weeks. She pushed herself almost as hard as Mateo. He knew it wasn’t healthy for her. Robyn Adams told him as much the day before. Zombie Strike’s new liaison from M&W practically demanded Mateo leave Jess behind. One look in his foster daughter’s eyes, and Mateo knew that wasn’t going to happen. The girl needed vengeance as bad as Mateo. She caught him looking at her, and she patted the SCAR-H strapped to her chest. She preferred the semi-auto rifle to her previous bolt gun. The team sharpshooter was ready. Billy, the spirit wolf pup looked up from her feet. He was ready as well. Quentin McLintock was pulling triple duty for this operation. Not only was he the team’s close-quarters person, but he was also acting as Mateo’s tactical deputy. Those two roles would have been hard enough, but Mateo knew that Kenn Blanchard, the commander of Zombie Strike, asked the big man to keep an eye on Mateo and act as the team conscience. The last member of the team was a surprise. Special Agent Edgar Tredegar of the FBI was lounging in the helicopter seat. Tredegar was acting as the team medic and intelligence specialist. Apparently, Tredegar made his way into college via the US Army, where he’d been a medic in the 101st. Mateo still thought Tredegar looked out of place in battle rattle with an M4 strapped to his chest.

Gunfire cracked over the sound of the helicopter. From the sound, it was all small-arms fire, and none of it was coming near the helicopter. Collin’s team must have made contact. Earlier than expected, but well within the plan’s parameters. Well, Collin’s team had all of the experienced shooters for a reason. Mateo looked out the opened cargo door. The town’s power had been cut an hour ago. There were a few lights, either from generators or torches. Tracers from the gun battle between Collin’s team and the town’s defenders gave the scene an almost sci-fi feel. Mateo’s stomach revolted as the helicopter dropped out of the sky only to flare to a hover a bare few feet from the dusty ground. The crew chief forcefully gestured for the team to get out. Jim, Jess, and Billy jumped out and sprinted about twenty yards away from the helicopter before crouching down with their weapons up. Sport and Quentin were the next out, hustling across the ground to their positions. Mateo and Tredegar jumped out an instant before the helicopter roared back into the night sky. The downwash pelted the team with stinging dust. Mateo remembered another reason he hated helicopters.

The team was motionless as the dust settled around them. The edge of the town was maybe three hundred yards away from them. The buildings stood in shadows, just barely visible in the team’s nightvision. Mateo waited, and listening for Billy. The spirit wolf pup wasn’t growling, so the team wasn’t in immediate danger. Even so, they didn’t have time to waste. Mateo motioned to Jim. The cowboy gave a short nod and trotted towards the town. The team filed in behind him. Jess and Billy were next, following about ten yards behind Jim. Quentin jogged behind the pair with Tredegar right behind him. Mateo came next with Sport covering their rear. All of the team was anxious as they neared their target. This mission was different than any they had done before. In the past year, Zombie Strike engaged the cult known as The Truth several times, but it was always in reaction to the Truth’s operations. Contain a zombie outbreak here, or try to prevent the cultists from stealing an artifact there. This time, Zombie Strike was on the offensive. This town was one of the Truth’s strongholds, and Zombie Strike was here to wipe it out.

Billy growled an instant before the darkness was broken by the twinkling of muzzle flashes and the distinctive sound of assault rifles from the town. The team instantly scattered as bullets kicked up plumes of dust. There wasn’t any cover on this side of the town, and precious little in the way of concealment. The team managed to duck behind sparse bushes and small rises in the ground. More weapons opened up on the team. Not ARs or AKs from the sound. Probably something German.

“Jess, Jim suppressive fire,” Mateo ordered over the team’s radio net, “Quentin, Sport, we need a hole opened up.” A chorus of double-clicks acknowledged Mateo’s commands. Jim’s rifle boomed over the puny sounds of assault rifles. One of the muzzle flashes stopped suddenly. Jim racked another cartridge and continued firing. Jess was methodically taking out targets. Her suppressed SCAR was essentially silent next to Jim’s thunderous lever-action. The incoming fire lessened as the Truth shooters were either killed or hid from the two sharpshooters. Sport and Quentin sprinted the last hundred yards to the town. Mateo waited impatiently as the two kicked their way into a small building and set up a cross-fire against their assailants.

“Matt, we’ve got them pinned down in a shop catty-corner to us,” Quentin reported after a tense two minutes, “We could use some help.” Mateo leapt to his feet and charged towards the town. The town was essentially a large diamond with several neatly laid out blocks of homes and shops clustered around what Mateo thought of as the town hall. Scattered single buildings, like the one Quentin and Sport were fighting from, dotted the edges of the town. From what Mateo remembered of the town’s layout, the bad guys were using a shop on the edge of one of the city blocks. Mateo and the rest of the team lined up behind Quentin’s building.

“Jess, see if you can get up on the roof and rain down some fire,” Mateo said. The teen nodded. She slipped around the corner with Billy in tow. Mateo wished the wolf pup was coming with him, but he had to admit he felt easier knowing the pup was guarding Jess. Directly across from Mateo was a vacant lot the town had been using as an impromptu dump for large appliances. Discarded ovens, refrigerators, and other junk were scattered across the grass and gravel lot. It wasn’t great cover, but it would have to do. The bad guys opened up with a new fusillade. Mateo ducked into the scrap lot with Jim and Tredegar in tow. A couple of the more observant bad guys saw the three men running and fired bursts at them. Bullets panged off of metal. Close. Too close. That just wouldn’t do. Mateo rose up just enough where the building was in sight. He could see maybe a dozen or so pale green figures in what had been a café across the street. Mateo aimed and squeezed the trigger. The suppressed M4 stuttered like an electric typewriter. The figure collapsed to the ground. Tredegar dropped another. Then, Jess opened fire from her roof perch. Three went down in less than three seconds. Another two went down, victims of Quentin and Sport. The remaining five threw their weapons out into the street and raised their hands. Under the cover of Jim and Jess’s rifles, Mateo ordered the bad guys out into the street.

Four of the five were just townspeople, not active members of the Truth. Mateo didn’t feel any guilt as he watched them zip-tied. These men weren’t innocent people defending their town from invaders. Zombie Strike had good intel the townspeople were willing partners of the Truth. Whether it was because they believed in the Truth’s mad plan or just because they wanted the Truth’s money wasn’t clear. In the end, it didn’t matter. If they were willing to take up arms in defense of the cult, they were targets. If they surrendered, Mateo was willing to tie them up and stash them until the fight was over.

Tredegar had the last man off to the side with his arms bound behind him and lying on his stomach. This one was definitely a member of the cult. He was maybe twenty, if a day, with his brown hair in a fashionable cut. At least, that’s what Jess said. Duct tape across his mouth muffled the unending string of angry protests. Tredegar was busily sorting through the contents of the cultist’s jeans and out-dated web gear.

“Anything useful?” Mateo asked.

“Doesn’t look like it,” Tredegar said. “He’s just a flunky. Probably not even one of their Champions.” Mateo grimaced as Tredegar used the cult’s name for what Zombie Strike called minions. It felt like the special agent was giving the cult respect it didn’t deserve.

“I’ll check the ones that didn’t survive the fight,” Tredegar said, starting to walk to the bodies.

“We don’t have time for an investigation,” Mateo said. Over the past two weeks, Mateo gained a newfound respect for the investigative abilities of the FBI special agent and his colleagues. They could do some amazing detective work, but they did it at a methodical pace. Excellent for preparing a criminal case. Not so much in the middle of an operation.

“Five minutes?” Tredegar asked. Mateo scanned the surrounding area. No sign of additional bad guys. He nodded. Tredegar took two steps towards the café before he stopped suddenly and cursed. Mateo looked back as the dead began to rise.

“Team, we get to kill them twice,” Mateo announced over the radio as he brought up his M4.

[Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 58]