Panama City, Panama, 6 February 2011, 1200 hours local: Countdown: 10 months, 22 days

Eric Stahl recognized the familiar antiseptic smell of a hospital as he emerged from the blackness. He heard people around him, but they were talking too low to make anything out. His body felt weak and unresponsive, but he didn’t feel any pain. He must have been out for a while, at least a couple of days. He remembered the unique sensations of an unused body and heavy pain medications. At least they hadn’t tubed him.

Stahl forced his eyes open. The room was dim and he could make out a few people-sized blotches moving about him. One of the blotches froze and then let out a string of excited Spanish in a high-pitched female voice. A plastic straw was thrust in his mouth. The water tasted horrible and wasn’t even cold. Stahl drank greedily until it was snatched from him. Then, a blinding light shone in his eyes. Why did docs always insist on blinding you right when you were trying to see?

"Mr. Stahl, can you hear me?" asked a voice in precise, if accented English.

"Get that light out of my face," Stahl snarled. The light vanished. As soon as the dancing orbs cleared from his vision, Stahl could see a smooth face hovering over him. Why did the docs get younger every year? This one looked like he had just stepped out of a Menudo video.

"You’ve been unconscious for a few days. We were concerned about concussion," the doctor explained. He laid a restraining hand on Stahl’s chest as the former soldier started to get up. "Please Mr. Stahl, you need to rest. Your body sustained several serious injuries."

"I’ve been resting for three days," Stahl snapped back, but he fell back into the bed. His head spun the moment it came up from the pillow.

"Unconsciousness is not the same as rest. You have some broken ribs, substantial contusions all over your body, and you’re recovering from extreme fatigue and blood loss. For God’s sake, give your body time to heal." Stahl grumbled something the doctor took as agreement. "The good news Mr. Stahl is that if you keep recovering at this rate, we should be discharging you in less than a week. More to the point, we’re discharging you to the medical facilities on Skull Island. They should be able to keep you in bed until you’ve actually healed. Now if you could please be nice to the nurses, I have to go tell all of your friends that you should recover." Stahl scowled, but nodded.

As the doctor left, a small form slipped into the room. Before Stahl could move his lethargic limbs, the face of Father Rodriguez materialized above him. The bright brown eyes twinkled with amusement. Stahl opened his mouth to yell for a nurse, but nothing came out. The former soldier fixed smoldering eyes on the tiny Jesuit priest. Father Rodriguez smiled serenely, ignoring Stahl’s anger.

"I’m glad to see you are recovering," the priest said, "Human bodies were not created to handle the raw power of the Almighty. Do not worry Chief Stahl, I didn’t come here to preach to you. I just came to return something to you." Father Rodriguez reached into his coat. Stahl’s eyes fixated on the copper metal and chain as it glinted in the little light of the hospital room. The amulet had been shaped like a heart with intricate engravings. Now it looked like a half-melted nugget of copper. The priest dropped the amulet on to Stahl’s chest. Stahl could feel warm pulses from the amulet though his hospital gown.

"I warned you that you shouldn’t keep that thing out around the vampires," Father Rodriguez said, his warm tone erasing any reproof in his words. "Funny things happen when a human does battle with a holy relic. Especially when it’s someone who is not a follower of the Almighty. Sometimes, the relic bonds with the wielder. Of course, it becomes useless to men like me. To men like you, however, they can amplify all that power that lies in your heart." Father Rodriguez strode back to the door.

"You may not trust the Almighty yet, but He trusts in you," the priest intoned, "You hold the evidence of His trust in your hands. Think on that while your body heals." Stahl frowned as the tiny priest slipped back out the door. You knew your life was screwed up when the easiest part of it was just fighting zombies.

Mateo Cortez knocked once and walked into the hotel suite. Kenn Blanchard sat in an overstuffed chair. His charcoal suit was slightly rumpled, and he was working on a glass of the local rum. The head of Zombie Strike flew into Panama City less than twenty-four hours ago. Global communications were still too shaky to trust with the information gathered on this mission. Kenn arrived on the chartered transport that would ferry the team back to Skull Island once the chief was recovered enough to travel.

The couch was taken up by Robyn Adams, the liaison to Zombie Strike from McKenzie and Winston, the insurance firm that funded Zombie Strike’s operations. Her blue eyes glittered as Mateo walked into the room. He gave her a quick smile. They’d been together for the past couple of months, and Mateo had made plans for the two of them after the meeting. Right now, it was time for business. At least if he concentrated on that, maybe he could ignore what that green silk dress did to Robyn’s curves. He shook his head and focused his attention on Special Agent Tredegar.

The FBI special agent was sitting at the room’s desk poised to enter everything discussed into his laptop. Tredegar had three roles. First, he was the American government’s liaison with Zombie Strike. Second, he acted as Zombie Strike’s representative to the American government. Third, he was the FBI’s point-man on dealing with the Truth, the cult that had emerged as Zombie Strike’s nemesis over the past year or so.

"Quentin’s plane get off okay?" Kenn asked as Mateo sat down on the couch next to Rachel. She handed him a bottle of beer.

"Yeah, but I wish he was here now," Mateo answered.

"Couldn’t be helped," Kenn said. "So, what did we learn on this job?"

"We learned the Truth’s motivation for all of its actions," Mateo said, "Sometime in near future, there’s going to be a collision between our world and the world of these vampires. Demons. Whatever you want to call them. As far as the Truth is concerned, the only way to fight them is to take control, raise a zombie army, and use the artifacts Xipe Totec left scattered around along with sorcerers that can actually call down the god’s power."

"So what does that give us exactly?" Tredegar asked.

"Giant kept mumbling about prophecies when he and I were stuck in Redencion," Mateo said, "If we can find some copies of these prophecies, maybe we can figure out how to stop both the Truth and the vampires."

"Plus figure out how you fit into these prophecies," Tredegar observed.

"That too," Mateo admitted. "We also learned the Truth is augmenting its forces with some pretty well trained believers. From what the others deduced, the Truth has formed a core of former soldiers and shooters to protect their sorcerers and whatever other mischief they can think of. That means our next operation could get more dangerous than normal."

"What do you mean?" Kenn asked.

"We have to go after the prophecy. Even if it’s a crock, it’s what the Truth believes is true, and the roadmap of what they’re going to do."

"Okay, do it." Kenn said. "Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been on the go for the last thirty hours or so, and I’d like to get some sleep." The others stood up and walked out of the suite. Tredegar hustled down to his own room, leaving Robyn and Mateo alone.

"Well that was quick," Robyn said.

"I just hit the highlights and what our next move will be," Mateo answered, "Tredegar’s going to give Kenn the big briefing in the morning. As for now, you and I have reservations." Robyn smiled and took Mateo’s arm as the two walked to the elevator.

"Where did Quentin go?" she asked.

"Baltimore. Sissy called."

It hurt. The pain was finally tolerable, but this was the longest the daemon had ever felt pain. It hated this world. It hated the pathetic creatures that lived on this world. It hated the pain. The demon curled up in the small cavern. It knew that it would be a while before it would be well enough to venture out beyond the cave, much less fulfill its duty as a scout. When it was finally well enough, the demon would find that human and shred him. And take the hated bauble.

Zombie Strike Interlude -Sissy’s Story