St. Louis, Missouri, 4 June 2011, 1035 hours local; Countdown: 6 months, 26 days
Evan Torelli stared as the fireball lit up the stairwell. Jim yanked the teen down as the basketball-sized orb of fire streaked over his head. Evan winced as the back of his neck blistered from the intense heat. He reflexively tried to gasp in pain, but he couldn’t get any air. Where was the air? Panic flooded the teen. He tried to get up, to run to where he could breathe. Jim’s iron grip held onto Evan’s armor.
"Breathe kid," Jim said. Evan tried another breath and felt his burning lungs fill up with air. Satisfied Evan had himself under control, Jim rose up and let off a single shot. A female scream split the air.
"Thank God for stupid enemies," Jim said as he fell back down. Evan peered up and saw two more of the Red Gollums were now standing in front of the female minion. Both were holding long spears and jabbing down at Quentin and Chief Stahl. Quentin batted the steel tips away the first attack with his warhammer. One of the spears slipped by him on the second attack and drove into his chest plate. The big man grunted. The blade didn’t pierce the hard ceramic plate, but Red Gollums were strong. It was all the force of a sledgehammer in a tiny point.
"Over here!" Evan yelled, standing up. The move caught Jim by surprise who grasped at air trying to keep the teen down on the deck. The two Red Gollums stared at him. He could feel their malicious glee as a new target presented itself. Evan placed the bead of his shotgun on the one that stabbed Quentin. The twelve gauge’s booms echoed off the walls as he pumped dart after dart into the monster. He couldn’t even hear its screaming over the thunderous roar of his shotgun. The eight heavy darts punched into the monster’s torso and shredded it. The Red Gollum slumped to the ground.
Evan dove back down to the ground and started slamming shell after shell into the shotgun. It was then he realized Zombie Strike was engaging the other monster. Jim glared at the teen before standing up and firing his big lever action. As Evan looked up he watched the team as it did an odd version of the wave. Sport and Slim who were right behind Quentin and the chief rose up and fired into the monster. They dropped down when their weapons went empty, and the next two followed suit. Three pairs emptied their weapons into the monster before it screamed and went down. Almost before the monster hit the landing, Quentin and the chief were rushing forward toward a bullet-riddled door.
Quentin, Sport, Slim, and The Steve stacked up at the side of the door. Chief Stahl stood on the other side of the door and slapped the handle. The door exploded as another fireball streaked into stairwell. Evan slapped at burning door parts as they rained down on him. The team poured gunfire into the doorway and charged in. Evan followed Jim as the pair ran through the doorway. What had been a very expensive looking lobby was now trashed. The large floor-to-ceiling windows were shattered with large beams of sunshine providing odd contrast to the rest of the suite. The hallway behind the receptionist’s desk was barricaded by a line of riot shields. Four men behind the shields were popping up and firing small automatic weapons. Zombie Strike team members hid behind anything that could give them cover. Behind the shooting men was pitch black. Jim yanked Evan back through the door. They took up positions on either side of the door just before one of the men fired an entire magazine at them.
"Chief, Steve, Sport, on my mark, I want full magazines three feet above their heads," Mateo ordered. "Quentin, tackling dummies." The big man gave the team leader a wide smile and a thumb’s up.
"Boss, it’s The Steve," protested the medic. Mateo shot The Steve an exasperated look, but didn’t say anything. The men sent two more bursts out. Then the room was filled with an odd silence.
"MARK!" yelled Mateo as he brought up his M4. Five automatic weapons emptied their magazines in less than five seconds. That was all the time Quentin needed. There was a reason Quentin was considered a star of West Virginia’s offensive line. He was not only huge, but amazingly fast. The human equivalent of a bullet train with a battering ram attached to the front. Quentin slammed into the center shield, throwing the metal plate back several yards. Without stopping, Quentin spun and whipped his warhammer in a deadly arc. Two of the men collapsed as the hammer shattered their skulls. Two shots rang out and the last two men fell to the carpeted floor. Jess and Slim stood up from behind an overturned marble table. Wisps of blue-gray smoke wafted up from the barrels of their rifles.
"These weren’t mercs," chief said, toeing one of the dead gunmen. "Just a bunch of the Truth’s little acolytes. Stupid fools. Amateur hour." The chief froze as screeches echoed out of the darkened hallway. He swung the light on his weapon down the hall an instant before six gollums leapt out into the hallway. Five made it into the lobby, bouncing off every surface as they attacked Zombie Strike. The last gollum was caught between the wall and a shield. Quentin grunted as the creature flailed wildly trying to free itself.
Evan lost track of Quentin as he focused on one of the erratically moving monstrosities. He tried to track the wiry gollum as it bounced around. As soon as it got close enough, the gollum lashed out with its axe. Evan blocked with his shotgun. The black blade screeched as it slid across the shotgun’s receiver. Jim stepped around Evan and placed the muzzle of his monster Smith revolver less than an inch above the gollum’s stone medallion. Evan felt the blast wash over him as Jim fired. The creature fell to the ground lifeless and withered away to dust in a few seconds. Evan looked up from the dead gollum just in time to see it happen. One of the gollums bounced between The Steve and Tredegar. It twisted in midair and managed to push itself off the ceiling. Evan lined up the creature and fired his shotgun an instant too late. Slim never saw the axe as it hit the small critical spot just under his helmet. Slim screamed in pain as the axe bit deep into neck. Evan’s dart slammed into the gollum’s creature and threw it out one of the windows.
"Slim’s down!" shouted The Steve, pushing his way through the melee to his fallen comrade. Billy jumped next to the medic and shielded him from another gollum. The axe blade seemed to bounce off the wolf’s brilliant white pelt. Billy snarled. In an eye blink, the wolf had the gollum’s neck in his teeth. Billy shook the gollum like a rag doll before throwing it into a wall. The gollum withered away in flight and the bones shattered as they hit the wall. Jess stood next to her wolf, taking precise shots at the last three gollums as they bore down on the small group. They ignored the gunfire as the heavy 7.62 mm rounds punched harmlessly through their bodies. Jim snatched one out of the air as it leapt at Jess and Billy. The cowboy used all of his mass to slam the creature into the ground. His revolver boomed again and the gollum disintegrated. Jess dodged an axe swing and butt-stroked the gollum. It staggered back into Mateo’s waiting arms. In three seamless movements, Mateo cut away the gollum’s medallion, flipped the creature, and drove his knife into the gollum’s eye.
The last gollum slipped between the defenders and swung its axe down on the medic. Without even looking up from his patient, The Steve whipped up his Kimber and unloaded the magazine. The first two rounds shattered the gollum’s medallion. The remaining bullets tore its body apart. Slim’s wet gasping was the only sound in the bizarre calm after the furious combat. Jess collapsed next to her friend, grasping Slim’s hand tightly. The Steve was throwing everything he could into Slim’s gaping wound, but blood just seemed to pour down the front of Slim’s armor. Tredegar was screaming into his radio for a medevac. The Steve waved the FBI agent down, his normal shining eyes dull. The medic looked over at Mateo. The team leader nodded silently, his face an emotionless mask. The Steve punched in a code on Slim’s PDA. The Brit’s gasping slowed, and then stopped. Billy whined as Jess’s quiet sobs hovered in the air.
"Keep on coming Zombie Strike. I can keep killing you all day," the female minion taunted from the darkness. Evan could feel his rage rise from the bottom of his gut. As he looked around, Evan could see the same faces on the rest of Zombie Strike. Even Billy was silently snarling at the hallway. The lone exception was Mateo. The team leader looked at the hallway with an almost impassive mask.
"Everyone else back into the stairwell. Quentin, please carry Slim. Sport you’re with me. Load your special magazine," Mateo said his voice a tightly controlled neutral. Quentin carefully lifted Slim over his shoulder. Jess placed a hand on her foster father’s arm. Mateo looked down at Jess and smiled. She still looked worried as she followed the rest of the team out of the suite and into the stairwell. Evan yearned to comfort Jess and felt frustrated that he couldn’t think of anything to say. As he stormed down the concrete stairs, Evan found something on which to vent his anger. The zombies finally managed to make it up the stairs. Maybe half a dozen were climbing over the wriggling arms of their fellows and onto the landing. Evan put the glowing bead on the first zombie’s head and squeezed the trigger. The click of the firing pin on an empty chamber seemed to echo loudly. Jim and the chief pushed past Evan and made short work of the zombies.
"Get down!" Jim yelled as he turned back to Evan.
"Why?" Evan demanded. Then the top of the building exploded.