Tocumen International Airport, Panama City, 3 February 2011, 0700 hours local; Countdown: 10 months, 28 days

Former US Army Chief Warrant Officer Eric Stahl walked down the ramp of the small cargo jet. He’d spent a few years in and out of Panama in his twenty years with the US Army. He liked the country and the people, and he was glad to be back. He just wished he’d come here on vacation instead of having to fight a bunch of monsters. Chief Stahl wasn’t quite sure what to make of the transmission from Adams and Tredegar.

The plane taxied into one of the smaller private hangars on the outskirts of Panama’s big international airport. Waiting for them was Adams, Tredegar, and a uniformed Panamanian officer. A colonel by the sigils on his epaulets. The three were waiting by a pair of big armored trucks that reminded Stahl of the MRAPs the Army was using. Adams rushed up to Mateo Cortez as the team departed the plane. The two were doing their little courtship ritual. Stahl didn’t like the idea of the team lead and their employer’s liaison doing this half-on/half-off dating dance, but he kept his tongue. The rest of the team seemed happy about the match. Stahl would wait and watch until it became a problem. Then he’d solve it. That was what he did.

Chief Stahl had fallen into the role once occupied by the now-deceased Collin DuBois. He was the professional mentor of the team lead. After a couple of months, Stahl decided he liked Cortez. The man knew how to handle himself and the team. As much as Stahl hated to admit, he’d seen a marked improvement in Cortez’s performance about the same time he and Adams had started up. Jess Montgomery waited a proper minute or two, and then slammed into Adams with an enthusiastic hug. That was a relationship Stahl approved of. Montgomery was decent with her SCAR rifle, but there was more to life than just killing the bad guys. She needed a good role model for life beyond the scope of her weapon. Adams was somewhere between a foster mother and a big sister for the girl.

Stahl motioned for Tredegar and the Panamanian officer over as the rest of the team unloaded their gear from the plane. Tredegar looked like a casting call for Ichabod Crane. Taller than average, gangly, and with a balding head that made his nose seem even longer. He was wearing a dark suit with a white dress shirt that was plastered to him. His normally pale face had the unhealthy red glow of too much tropical sun. The Panamanian officer was a contrast to Tredegar. The colonel was barely average height, but obviously enjoyed his food. A thick bushy black mustache seemed right on his round face.

"Colonel, I’m Eric Stahl, but you can call me Chief or Chief Stahl," Stahl said, introducing himself. "If you’ll tell me how you want us to load up, I can take care of it."

"SEAL?" the colonel guessed in moderately accented English.

"Hardly. Former Chief Warrant Officer with the Army. Used to do some Lurp-Work before I started killing zombies for a living," Stahl said.

"Oh good," the colonel answered, sounding relieved. "When I heard this outfit was led by a civilian who’d never spent a day—" Stahl held up a hand to cut the colonel off. The officer’s eyes flashed with indignation.

"Colonel, that man is one of the most experienced zombie hunters on the planet. He may not be military, or even former military, but the American military listens to him on matters of dealing with the undead. You may want to remember that when you talk to him."

"Talk to who?" Cortez asked, joining the group. The colonel shifted uncomfortably as an awkward silence fell over the small group. When no one said anything, Cortez turned to Stahl.

"Chief, we’re going to have to brief on the move. Put The Steve, Jim, the Brits, and the extra gear in the first truck. Everyone else on the other." Chief Stahl almost saluted out of habit. He turned and issued his own orders. In less than an hour, the two trucks were roaring down Panamanian highways towards the mountain village. It was a tight fit in the truck with all of the people, and the dog. Stahl brought up the document Tredegar transmitted to his PDA.

"These aren’t vampires like we know them," Tredegar began.

"They aren’t sparkly?" injected Cortez. Montgomery flushed at the backhand jibe. She liked Twilight, thank you very much.

"They aren’t even in human form. At least not yet," Tredegar said, plowing on before anyone else chimed in. "According to the intel from the priest, these creatures are from another time and place. I think that means from another dimension. In this world, they need human life force to survive. Usually through blood. The longer in this world, the more they can adapt and the more human-like they become."

"How does a priest in a mountain village have all of this?" Cortez asked.

"Not the first time the Jesuits have dealt with this," Tredegar answered.

"So how do we stop these vampires?" Stahl asked, "We didn’t bring along silver bullets or wooden stakes."

"Or those nifty UV bullets," Sport chimed in from the other truck.

"Would everyone please stop making movie references?" Tredegar said, annoyed. "Right now, they’re vulnerable. They haven’t had time to adapt to our world or develop any immunities. Right now, they’re big, nasty monsters that drink blood. Think of them as a variation of the monsters we fought back on Corsica." Stahl saw a shudder from the team members that had gone down into the Truth’s facility during that battle. "All of that changes in less than twenty-four hours. Then they get stronger, smarter, and harder to kill on an exponential level."

"Let’s not waste time then," Cortez said. "As soon as we reach the village, we fan out and look for survivors. Tredegar needs to see anyone who survived so we can try and piece together what happened and how many of these creatures we’re dealing with. If you find one of the monsters, do not engage it by yourself. Call for help. Any questions?"

"Yeah, The Steve wants to know how we’re going to close the hole these vampires came out of," The Steve said. Stahl reminded himself that under the crazy persona, former Staff Sergeant Mountain was a sharp operator. The man was still talked about among the Special Forces community.

"The papers reference some ritual the Jesuits did last time, but it’s pretty vague." The trucks jostled as they left the paved roads and started up the trail to the mountain village. Stahl hadn’t even learned the name of the place yet. He thumbed around on his PDA until he found a map of the village. Pretty standard layout. Church and the big merchants close to center with some houses and smaller stores as the village spread out towards the farms and the jungle. Probably no more than a few hundred people all told.

Stahl was torn from his PDA as the first truck was flipped into the air. It looked like an IED hit, but there wasn’t the deafening boom of an explosion. Combat reflexes took over. Stahl shoved a Panamanian soldier aside and jumped up into the turret to grab the Ma Deuce’s controls. As the first truck rolled into the tree line, Stahl saw the cause. The creature was maybe seven or eight feet tall. Its wire-thin body was covered in matty, brown fur. Stahl didn’t even pause to look at the thing’s face before he pressed down on the firing paddle between the machine gun’s handles. The familiar heavy buddha-buddha-buddha of the M2 machine gun filled the air. The heavy .50 BMG bullets tore gaping holes into the creature. Stahl heard its screams faintly over the sound of the machine gun. The creature took a step back, fighting to stay on its feet as bullet after bullet shredded its body. It lasted maybe ten seconds before Stahl nearly removed its lower half with the machine gun. The creature fell to the ground.

Stahl jumped up out of the truck and ran towards the creature with his M4 up. Next to him was Quentin McLintock, the big close-quarters specialist. As they neared the creature, it burst into flames. There was maybe a second of bright flames and intense heat. All that remained of the creature was a scorched outline in the dirt.

"Okay, that went pretty well," Stahl said to McLintock, "Let’s get back and help the others." McLintock put a meaty hand on Stahl’s shoulder. The big man wasn’t looking at the scorch mark. He was looking deep into the trees.

"Chief, he wasn’t alone," McLintock said. The morning air was filled with snarls as several more of the creatures stepped out of the tree line. Stahl gripped his weapon and prepared for the fight.

Zombie Strike Part 7 Chapter 67