CategoryMonday Fiction

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 5 – Chapter 37

Mexico City, 27 June 2010, 2200 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 5 months, 3 days

Jessica Montgomery’s eyes snapped open at the sound of the animal snarl. Her assailant froze in horror, his wide eyes focused on something behind her. Jess rolled onto her belly and came face to face with the largest dog she’d ever seen. It kind of looked like a German Shepard, but tan and light brown. Oh yeah, and it was the size of a pony. It stared at Jess’s assailant with teeth bared and muscles rippling. The animal should have terrified her, but she just felt very safe.

The gunshot startled her. Jess felt the bullet pass over her. A splotch of red blossomed on the animal’s shoulder. The creature didn’t even shudder from the impact. It almost seemed to smile just before leaping over Jess. The man let out a terrified scream. Jess heard bones crunching and the scream stopped instantly. Jess twisted around. The animal was gone. The man was still on the ground.

“Sweet Savior, what was that monstrosity?” Slim asked as he slumped down next to Jess. She stared at the tall Brit for a moment. She had been so transfixed by the creature, Jess had completely forgotten about her Zombie Strike teammate.

“Are you okay?” Jess asked.

“I’ll survive, but I’m bloody getting tired of being banged about every time we sortie out,” Slim answered. The two helped each other up and found their rifles. Jess would have time to figure out the giant dog later. Zombie Strike should have started their attack on the zombies brought by the recent firefight. Jess and Slim found a small building that looked relatively unscathed. The two scaled up onto the roof. The battle was evidently underway.

“Lead, Rifle is back up,” Slim reported as Jess set up her weapon.

“Thank God,” Mateo breathed over the radio. His command voice returned with the next sentence, “We’ve linked up with the Army. How much more are we facing?” Slim scanned through his scope. Jess took a brief second to make sure Billy was with the rest of the team. There he was, fighting six zombies with a baton in one hand and a Glock in the other. She smiled as she watched him casually destroy the half dozen zombies. He was just so graceful.

“Lead, I’m estimating a couple hundred walkers,” Slim said, “They’re too thick for me to get a good estimate on crawlers.”

“That’s what I thought,” Mateo said, “You’re on over-watch.” Zombie Strike and the soldiers formed a loose half-circle. Billy, as one of the team’s close-quarters specialist anchored one end. Quentin, who could have been mistaken for a human wall, anchored the other. The soldiers made up the center. They were pouring a lot of fire downrange. The Zombie Strike team were methodically whittling at the front edge of the zombie horde. Small piles of re-killed zombies grew as the team went about its work.

“Target 0-3-0,” Slim said in a low voice. Jess brought her rifle to bear on a zombie that slipped between the Army’s and Collin’s field of fire. She brought it down and cycled the bolt. Slim was giving her new coordinates as she felt the next round chamber. A zombie got too close to Sport. Jess vaporized its head. The fight raged as the humans fought off ten times their number in zombies. She concentrated on taking down the ones that managed to get just a bit too close to the line. The team’s fire shrank the horde until it was just a few pockets of stragglers. Those were quickly finished off. Jess and Slim rejoined their team after picking their way through the ruins to avoid crawlers and possibly buried zombies. Mateo and Collin were talking to one of the soldiers. The Steve was busy tending to the soldiers injured in the firefight against the drug gang earlier. Quentin was opening a crate.

Billy stepped in front of her. The world seemed to stop for a moment as she looked into his dark eyes. Eyes that silently asked if she was okay. Jess answered with a smile. Relief washed over Billy’s face. She felt him take her hand. Even in the middle of a destroyed city, it all felt magical. She heard footsteps behind her. Billy looked up and suddenly went cold. He yanked his hand away. Jess could only stand there stunned as Billy turned and walked off. Anger seethed through her as she put the pieces together. Jess whirled around to face her foster father. Mateo was still glaring at Billy’s back.

“Matt, why did you do that?” Jess asked keeping her arms tucked across her chest to keep from punching Mateo. He looked down on her, and suddenly it all made sense.

“You told him to stay away from me,” Jess said in her coldest voice.

“He’s five years older than you,” Mateo shot back. He silenced her next volley with a hand gesture. “He’s an adult and you are not. This is not the time or place to discuss this. We will have this talk after we’re through here.” His tone made it clear he was speaking as her team leader, not her foster father. Jess seethed, but it wouldn’t do any good to scream at Mateo. It would have been a lot easier if they all weren’t in the middle of trying to stop their shadowy nemesis from fulfilling an ancient prophecy of doom.

“The Army says they’ve seen Giant,” Mateo announced as the team gathered around. Jess opened her forearm armor bracer to access the PDA underneath. “Some of the Colonel’s men spotted something matching Giant’s description heading towards this area.” A box appeared on the map as Mateo highlighted the area.

“Just Giant?” asked Quentin.

“No, he’s brought some friends along,” Mateo answered. The map flipped to an image captured by a nightvision camera. Giant was easily recognized. Four others were dressed in similar costumes. That made them minions. Another six were only wearing loin cloths. The painted runes showed clearly in the image. Gollums. Jess swallowed as she remembered the last time she encountered the nearly indestructible creatures. Ironically enough, it was here in Mexico City during the fight at the museum.

“Bloody hell, six gollums,” Collin said, echoing the team’s thoughts, “Well this certainly got more interesting. In the Chinese sense of the word.” Jess suddenly understood why the Chinese saying of May you live in interesting times was a curse instead of a blessing.

“What about giant dogs?” Slim asked. The team turned to him. Slim quickly explained to the group. As he finished, Billy barked out a laugh.

“Don’t worry about them,” Billy said, “There isn’t time to go into it now, but trust me. We don’t have anything to fear from them.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Mateo said, “The plan is to find Giant, find out what he’s after, and grab it before he does. If we have to fight, best bet will be divide and conquer.” There were no questions. The Army was kind enough to give the team a lift to the target area. It was clear that Col. Allen, the commander of the Army’s anti-zombie force didn’t want his troops going up against Giant and his group. Jess couldn’t blame him. Jess and Slim were loaded into the back of a Humvee. As the convoy sped along the devastation, Jess began thinking about Billy. More to the point, how she was going to convince Mateo to stop interfering. She knew her foster father was trying to protect her. To his credit, her last boyfriend had been killed fighting zombies, and she’d taken it hard. Why couldn’t Mateo see she was stronger now?

Jess was ripped from her thoughts as the Humvee rocked violently and then rolled over.

[Zombie Strike Part 5 Chapter 38]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 5 – Chapter 36

Above Mexico City, 27 June 2010, 2100 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 5 months, 3 days

Jessica Montgomery shifted the sling of the unfamiliar weapon as she tried to avoid any more bruising. The L96 was heavier than her accurized version of the team’s ZKC, not to mention being longer and bulkier. Most of all, Jess hated the kick of the L96’s .338 Lapua cartridge. Every time Mateo made her practice with the rifle, she made it known how much she hated the weapon. Jess was ready to let loose with her reasoned argument when Mateo told her to take the rifle on this mission. The words died before she could speak them as she saw the looks on the faces of Mateo, Quentin, Collin, and The Steve. There was such a heartbreaking mix of sadness and hope in their expressions as she hefted the rifle. As much as she hated it, Jess slung the rifle and followed the rest of the team.

Mackenzie and Winston provided Zombie Strike with their ride into Mexico. Jess wasn’t sure where the insurance firm got a tilt-rotor, but her fascination wore off soon after the pilot began flying like a crazed roller coaster. Collin called it “nap-of-the-earth.” Jess just gave the experienced man an evil look as she tried to keep her last meal down. Collin tried to explain that it was to keep their approach to the devastated hidden from the various governments converging on Mexico City. He stopped abruptly as Jess used her airsickness bag. Jess felt better for a brief moment. Then, she saw Billy looking at her from across the cargo bay. Jess tried to shrink into her body armor. Oh God, did he see her just puke her guts up? How could she look at him in the face again?

“Everyone brace,” Mateo said over the radio, “We’re doing a fast approach on the outskirts. No feds, but there will probably be zombies and maybe some local resistance. Zombies you can kill. Don’t shoot a human unless he’s a threat.”

“Are you sure we don’t need Haz-Mat suits?” Sport asked, looking out a window.

“These were orbital kinetic strikes, not nukes,” Quentin answered, “The filters in our armor can take care of anything that was thrown into the air by the impacts. For the last time Sport, there is no radiation.” The Brit mumbled something, but let the matter drop.

Jess strained against her restraints as the plane plummeted. Her mind raced with terror that they were about to crash. She was slammed back into her seat as the plane screeched into a hover and gently landed. The rear ramp came down. Jess fumbled with the buckles on her harness. She barely managed to free herself from the accursed plane an instant before Mateo motioned for her to run down the ramp. As her feet hit the cracked asphalt, Jess drew her tiny HK MP7 submachine gun. She searched for targets as she ran to meet up with Slim, who was Jess’s partner and spotter for this mission. The tall Brit barely acknowledged Jess as she huddled up next to him behind a low wall. The tilt-rotor screamed out of the area and shot away from the landing zone. The moans were audible as soon as the noise from the tilt-rotor faded out.

Jess peered over the wall. Several dozen zombies were walking or crawling over the ruins of buildings toward the team. At least, Jess assumed they were zombies. Many of the corpses were so badly burned, Jess didn’t see how their brains could still be intact. She was suddenly very glad she puked on the plane. Even after six months of battling corpses on an almost daily basis, the sights and smells of this horde turned her stomach. She pushed back the foul-tasting bile as Mateo issued orders to the team.

“Let them close to twenty yards,” Mateo said, “We need to put down this group fast and move. Watch your fire and try to conserve ammo.” There was a chorus of double-clicks as the team acknowledged its leader’s commands. Jess extended the stock of the MP7 and squeezed the fore grip. The nightvision picked up the laser’s small dot as Jess aimed at a zombie’s head. The seconds seemed to take an eternity. Mateo signaled the team by firing the first shot.

Jess stroked the trigger. She pivoted just a hair to put the laser on the next zombie’s head. She fired a short burst again and twisted to engage the next zombie in her zone. Her mind assessed the threat as her muscle memory took over the shooting. The horde was maybe fifty strong, but they were spaced out across a fifty-yard wide arc. The eight trained zombie killers divided up the kill zone and methodically whittled down the horde. Jess wasn’t even through her first magazine when she ran out of targets.

There was no celebration or even acknowledgement of their victory. As soon as the zombies were dealt with, the Zombie Strike team hustled across the ruins of what had been a shanty town on the outskirts of Mexico City. Jess struggled to keep up with Slim as he slipped from shadow to shadow with unbelievable speed and smoothness. Where was this side of Slim during all of her training sessions with him? The sounds of a firefight brought the pair to a halt. They were still a couple hundred meters short of the waypoint. From the sounds, Jess guessed the fighting was at the waypoint. Jess holstered her MP7 as she crept around Slim and climbed up some rubble. Jess unslung her rifle and peered through the scope. Two groups were in a nasty gun battle. One of them was the group Zombie Strike was supposed to be meeting.

“Matt, it looks like the soldier boys managed to run into trouble,” Jess reported. “I think they’re narcos.” She felt Slim snake up next to her. Her foster father let out a string of curses before asking for a report.

“I think we’re looking at maybe twenty hostiles,” Jess said as she scanned the area. Slim nudged her. “Oh, and the fight’s pulling in maybe a hundred or so zombies. Those should be hitting the edge of the fight in the next few minutes.”

“Help the Army,” Mateo ordered, “The rest of us will deal with the horde.” Jess swallowed. Zombies were one thing, but Mateo wanted her to kill living humans. Slim noticed her hesitation. With freakish accuracy, Slim hit the core of her fears.

“Jess, those aren’t Mexicans defending their homes. Those are the criminals attempting to increase their territory,” Slim said quietly, “Now, target at 3-5-9, 1-9-5 meters.” Jess easily picked out the target. The scope’s reticle hovered on the man’s head. It was his face that made Jess’s decision. The target was laughing as he sprayed his AK at the soldiers. Jess barely tightened on the trigger before the rifle slammed against her.

“Hit, target down,” Slim reported, “New target. Man with SMG at 0-0-4. Range, 2-0-0 meters.” Jess cycled the rifle’s bolt and shifted slightly. The rifle cracked again. This time she saw the man’s body fall. The bad guys were now aware there was a sniper taking them down. Slim swore as the bad guys started ducking behind cover. Jess took down another bad guy when the man poked his head out from behind a wrecked car. Jess missed as another bad guy darted between two rubble piles. His success was short-lived. The man was cut down by a soldier’s burst.

Both sides stopped firing at each other as the first zombies entered the battleground. Jess watched as most of the bad guys tumbled over each other as they scrambled to get away. Normal people didn’t deal well with the undead. Primal panic was the term Quentin used. The Army soldiers formed a ragged line and opened fire at the zombies. Oh yeah. These were definitely the soldiers Zombie Strike was supposed to be meeting. These were members of the Army’s Task Force 11, the American military’s anti-zombie force. It was made up of soldiers who belonged to the very small group of humans who didn’t suffer from the primal panic. Like Jess and her team.

With the criminals running away, Jess reloaded her rifle and joined the fight against the zombies. Something as loud as a firefight brought zombies from miles around. Slim quit playing spotter and joined Jess in taking down zombies. This was so much easier. Jess didn’t have any problems popping the heads of zombies like unwanted acne. She was in the middle of slapping in her second magazine when she felt an icy cold run down her spine. Instinct made her roll a split second before the pistol fired. She felt her armor shudder as stone fragments splattered her. A large Hispanic man with strong Indian features snarled as he scrambled up the pile of ruins. His hand gripped a Beretta. The man fired twice at Slim who was rolling to bring his rifle around. One round hit the rubble as the other careened off of Slim’s armor.

Jess fumbled with her MP7. Why hadn’t she practiced this more? As she scrambled back, Jess felt the rubble pile shift. She had a bare instant to recognize it before the pile collapsed. The three of them tumbled to the concrete below. Jess felt the wind get knocked out of her as her back slammed into the floor. Her head hurt from slapping the concrete, but the helmet soaked up most of the impact. Jess turned her head to look at her teammate. Slim was on his hands and knees, but he was definitely wobbly, and definitely unarmed. A string of loud and angry Spanish drew her attention. Their assailant was already on his feet. His left arm looked broken. Jess’s attention was focused on the gaping barrel of the man’s pistol. She screamed at her body to move, to flee, to do something. All she could do was just lay there as the man loomed over her. She closed her eyes and waited for him to fire. The armor was supposed to be able to handle pistol fire.

Her eyes snapped open at the snarl.

[Zombie Strike Part 5 Chapter 37]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 5 – Chapter 35

Skull Island, South Pacific, 26 June 2010, 0100 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 5 months, 4 days

Jessica Montgomery looked at her laptop and suppressed a groan as she saw the time. After she lost everything and everyone she loved and knew back in Florida, the thought of living of an exotic tropical island sounded romantic and adventurous. Jess thought she’d be playing on the beach every day, with occasional breaks to hunt down the odd zombie. It was like out of one those cool television shows she watched religiously before Mateo and Zombie Strike swept into her life.

Except it wasn’t anything like she expected. Mateo was nice, but he demanded a lot. Jess was having a hard enough time keeping up with the work from the online school Mateo enrolled her in, but she also had to work with the team. On top of that she had sniper lessons from The Steve, who would be cute if he weren’t a little touched in the head, and the lessons with Quentin on the Aztec culture. Then there was Billy.

Jess forced herself to stop thinking about the Native American close-quarters specialist. He pretty much told her he wasn’t interested, and he made sure never to be alone with her outside of work. She pushed all of the hurt and confusion out of her mind. She had a paper to finish and submit before her first online class at nine. Fortunately, it was on ancient cultures, so she just poured a lot of what Quentin taught her into the assignment.

“You still up?” asked Mateo from the doorway. Jess’s foster father was maybe twenty years older than her own sixteen years. Latino features dominated Mateo’s looks, but there was a hint of something else. Jess thought Mateo would look better if he let his hair grow beyond the close crew cut he wore. His long face was average, but his dark eyes were warm. Mateo still wore the rumpled fatigues he’d been wearing all day. His hands bore two mugs of steaming liquid.

“It’s this paper,” Jess whined, “I’ve got to get it done tonight.” Mateo’s eyes hardened slightly at her tone, but she didn’t care. Maybe he could pull all sorts of hours without a break, but she wanted to have some fun. Instead, she was forced to stay up all night working on this stupid assignment.

“You’re not the first person who’s had to pull an all-nighter, so quit whining,” Mateo said as he walked into her living room. He set the mug down next to her. The aroma of coffee filled Jess’s nose. Okay, maybe Mateo was right, but he just didn’t understand what she was going through. She grudgingly gave him a nod of thanks before picking up the coffee. She eyed it for a moment.

“Don’t worry, Sport made it,” Mateo said with that funny grin. She gulped the scalding liquid, savoring the smooth taste. Sport was the only one on this island who knew how to make a good cup of coffee. Everyone else seemed to think that drinking paint thinner was acceptable.

“Missed you at dinner,” Mateo said, sitting down on her couch.

“Yeah, well, I had things to do,” Jess said quickly, hoping her foster father took the veiled hint.

“Quentin said you came across something today,” Mateo said after taking a sip of his own coffee.

“Doesn’t matter, it was a bunch of gibberish that didn’t make any sense,” Jess said, trying to focus on the words on her laptop’s screen. “Stuff about a cleansing fire in Tenochtitlan. Wipe the corruption away. Sort of like the stuff in Revelations.” Jess felt an icy spike down her back as she spoke of the odd parchment. Something in those ancient words scared her, and she felt embarrassed by her fear. She prayed Mateo didn’t see any of that.

“I think Quentin mentioned it because you translated that passage on your own,” Mateo said. He took a deep breath and Jess closed her eyes in dread. Mateo only took that deep breath before trying to have serious conversations with her. The screaming alarm klaxon cut him off. It was probably the first time she was glad there was an emergency. In an instant, Mateo went from struggling foster father to team leader of Zombie Strike.

“I’m heading down to the situation room,” Mateo said, “Get dressed and meet me down there.” He strode out of the room without giving her a chance for the biting retort she was still working on. Jess scowled as she rummaged through her room for a presentable set of fatigues. She spent a precious few minutes on making sure she covered her few blemishes and her hair was presentable. Billy might say he wasn’t interested, but she saw the glances he shot her way. Let’s see how he liked these apples.

The Zombie Strike field team was in the situation room’s main conference room, along with Nigel Brown and Zombie Strike’s overall leader, Kenn Blanchard. Kenn’s normally warm face was tight and controlled. The team members all glanced at her as she walked in, and quickly turned their attention back to Nigel Brown, the liaison from Mackenzie and Winston, the insurance firm that funded Zombie Strike.

“As I was saying Collin, Mackenzie and Winston had no reason to believe that the damage done to the satellite constellation had anything to do with this team’s activities,” Nigel said in his proper British accent. After six months of working with four Brits, Jess was starting to get a feel for their accents.

“Pictures coming in,” announced one of the techs. One of the large plasma monitors snapped on. The black and white feed had that grainy, military feel to it. Jess thought it was a video of a city in the Middle East. All of the buildings were either destroyed or heavily damaged. Pieces of debris were scattered haphazardly. Some she identified as the burnt and twisted wrecks of cars. Were they dropping into a war zone?

Something made Jess tear her eyes away from the monitor and look at the faces of the men of her team. All of them looked shocked, except for Billy. His head was bowed, and she thought he was crying. That didn’t make sense. What could make Billy cry? There were whispered curses, and more than one of the men slammed an angry fist down on the glass table.

“Mexico City,” Quentin whispered into her ear, and her heart froze. She locked eyes with Quentin who only nodded solemnly. What had happened? It looked like the city had been hit with a nuclear bomb.

“Quentin, are you sure about this?” Kenn asked.

“Yes,” Quentin answered, “Jess translated the prophecy earlier today. It all makes sense. Within a few hours, the dead will begin to rise.” Jess swallowed hard. Prophecy? She had translated a prophecy? One that just came true? She silently prayed this was all just a dream. The words came back to her as Quentin recited the translation.

The servants will call their Lord. The Flayed One will answer from the stars. The Other’s metal stars will fall. The Other’s followers will scream in terror.

The Great City will be bathed in fire. The stain of the Other will be scourged. The dead will return to the Servant. The temple will be revealed.

The Chosen will find the key. The Flayed One will return.

“Who’s the Other?” Kenn asked

“That would be us,” Quentin answered, “More to the point, any of the descendants of Cortez. I’m thinking the Servant is Giant or whoever is commanding Giant. The Chosen could mean either.” He made it sound so coldly academic. Jess wanted to scream at him.

“Giant,” murmured Mateo with a dangerous hint in his tone. He quickly turned to his team. “Okay, this is all hands on deck. I want everyone kitted out and into the airplane. This is going to be the single largest zombie outbreak anyone has seen, not including whatever Giant will be up to.”

“We’re persona non grata in Mexico,” Collin reminded Mateo. “After Giant hit their museum, the Mexican government blamed us and told us to stay out of their country.”

“Do you really think they’ll have anyone to stop us?” Mateo asked, “Everything for a hundred miles around Mexico City is destroyed. They felt the blast all the way in Vegas, and the heat wave managed to ignite the oil spill in the Gulf.”

“Then figure that GPS and most communications are still down,” The Steve chimed in.

“Well, since you put it that way, once more into the breach,” Collin quipped. Jess just looked at the men. Millions were dead, their enemies were after something that sounded really powerful, and they were joking around. And they yelled at her for being immature? Kenn brought the meeting back to order.

“Stop Giant first,” Kenn ordered, “See what help you can give along the way. Don’t get dead.” The team collectively nodded and began filing out of the room. Jess reached the doorway at the same time as Billy. Billy’s bronze face was streaked with tears. Jess suddenly remembered he had family in Mexico. Her heart melted at the look of pain on Billy’s face.

“Billy, I’m sorry,” Jess said quietly, “You said you had family in Mexico.” She didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to hug him and comfort him. She nearly died when he gave her a mournful smile.

“Thanks Jess,” Billy said. He paused, like he was going to say something else. Then that familiar hardness clamped down and he stormed out of the office. Jess just stood there for a moment. What was wrong with that man?

In thirty minutes, the team was in the air flying to Mexico City.

[Zombie Strike Part 5 Chapter 36]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 5 – Chapter 34

Madrid, Spain, 25 June 2010, 1030 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 5 months, 5 days

The man currently known as Castle casually walked into the conference room. It belonged to one of the newer members of the cabal, or more to the point, her company. She beamed with pride as Castle acknowledged her with a simple nod. The new ones were always so eager to prove themselves. Who knew, this one may actually prove more than just financially useful.

There were fifteen men and women seated around the conference table. All were dressed in stylish business attire. Castle had taken great pains to recruit each person. They all believed they were part of Castle’s inner circle, and he did nothing to dissuade them from that belief. They were the levers by which he would direct the world until it was time to bring his god back into this world.

Buenos Dias,” Castle said in his native Spanish, “I must thank you for all of your support since I began recruiting you. This is especially true as we enter the last eighteen months. We have succeeded in collecting several of Xipe Totec’s blessed tools, but more remain. Fortunately none have fallen into our enemies’ hands.” The men and women smiled at each other, enjoying the vicarious success of the cabal’s champion and his minions. Castle’s smiling face grew serious. The men and women quickly picked up on this and copied the solemn expression.

“In the next few days, our plans enter a critical phase,” Castle explained, “I need each of you to react quickly and ruthlessly to seize the opportunities that will be presented to you.” Castle paused as one of the elder gentlemen motioned to speak. Castle graciously nodded at the bald man.

“What kind of opportunities?” the man asked in a deep earnest voice.

“The kind that happens when the services the world has become dependent upon are suddenly snatched away from them,” Castle answered, cryptically. “I apologize for the mystery, but it is necessary. My loyal followers, events are in motion. Everything is critical, including your own reactions. We cannot be undone because you acted too smoothly. Believe me, our enemies will be watching for such things. They know of our existence, but have no idea who we are. We will need to work hard to keep that advantage.” There was a murmur of general agreement with Castle’s statement.

“Soon, very soon, we will all witness the coming of Xipe Totec,” Castle intoned, “When our lord, the Flayed One, returns, we will all be his most trusted servants. All of us will be granted great power and authority. We will make this world into paradise once more.” One by one, the men and women knelt at Castle’s feet to receive a blessing before departing to their regular lives. Castle stayed in the conference room, enjoying the luxury of the room.

“That didn’t take as long as I thought it would,” murmured a deep voice from behind. The voice startled Castle, but he didn’t let it show. Castle rotated in the chair to look up at the cabal’s champion.

“Mikhail, it always amuses me that someone as huge as you can slip in unnoticed,” Castle said nonchalantly. Mikhail was better known as Giant to Zombie Strike, the organization that was the cabal’s nemesis. They have Mikhail that nickname for good reason. Mikhail was easily over seven feet tall, with a powerful build. He wore a tight-fitting black martial arts costume complete with full mask. From the cabal’s spy in Zombie Strike, Castle knew the group mocked Giant about his choice of a “ninja suit.” Castle really didn’t care. What he cared about was the aged leather whip that Mikhail wore coiled at his hip. The Flayed One’s own whip.

“Is your team ready?” Castle asked as Mikhail carefully sat down.

“My helpers are in position,” Mikhail answered, “The American, Alan, has already started the ritual with your priests. I just came to make sure that you didn’t want to accompany us as we retrieved the key.” Castle shook his head.

“It is not time for me to come out of the shadows quite yet,” Castle said. He chuckled at Mikhail’s puzzled look. “We may take them by surprise, but you will be facing Zombie Strike.” Mikhail gave Castle a smug smile.

“Good,” Mikhail said sharply, “This will give me the chance to kill them.”

“Your mission is to retrieve the key,” Castle snapped, “Zombie Strike will be dealt with as the prophecies foretell.” Mikhail nodded, accepting the rebuke. Wordlessly, the huge man slipped out of the chair and strode silently out the door.

Several hours later, NASA was the first to notice something happening. After almost sixty years of humanity launching stuff into space, there was an impressive amount of junk floating around the planet. Dead satellites, spent rocket boosters, and the like floated in space like flotsam and jetsam. NASA kept an eye on the space trash because any of it could be potentially fatal to a shuttle as it rocketed up to near-earth orbit. It was mostly predictable until one piece or another finally managed to fall out of orbit and incinerate itself in Earth’s atmosphere.

Alarms sounded as large amounts of the space junk began accelerating for no apparent reason. Faced with something completely inexplicable, NASA assumed there was a glitch in their tracking systems. Then, the first GPS satellite went down. Then, a communications satellite. Before NASA alerted governments around the world, ten more satellites were destroyed. As experts scrambled to maintain the fragile network of communications and navigation, the accelerating space debris clumped together into dense balls about the size of large kitchen appliances.

A tracking station in Australia first noticed the debris entering the atmosphere. They were in the middle of projecting a splash-down area when the debris started acting bizarre. Dramatic slowdowns followed by bursts of speeds in wildly changing vectors. The Australians immediately handed the problem off to NORAD. The uniformed specialists coordinated with world governments, trying desperately to get people out of harm’s way. Suddenly, the debris settled into straight trajectories. The NORAD personnel watched helplessly six balls of debris screamed towards Mexico City at several times the speed of sound. Each ball was slightly smaller than a dishwasher, but the dense composition and incredible speed from plummeting through the atmosphere gave each ball the destructive power of a small nuclear bomb.

All six slammed into Mexico City at noon local time. No one noticed the unique pattern of the strikes. No one except Zombie Strike.

[Zombie Strike Part 5 Chapter 35]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 33 – Epilogue

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 19 February 2010, 1030 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 11 days

Jim Collins was getting tired of the hospital. The smells, the beds, the food, the nurses coming to check on him every fifteen minutes, it was all putting him on edge. No, it wasn’t the hospital. It was the waiting. Jim was ready to go back to a life he hadn’t lived for almost a quarter-century. The thought of settling down with Jeannie by his side brought an odd sense of peaceful satisfaction.

There was a quiet knock at the door. Jim looked up and felt his jaw drop. Of all the people Jim expected to stop by, Chris Roberts was not even near the list. Jim’s friend and Jeannie’s husband had aged well, with only the slightest hints of graying hair and extra weight. The two men just looked at each other for a tense moment.

“Hey Nate, you mind if I come in?” ventured Chris. Jim, still unable to speak, nodded. Chris ambled across the room and dropped into a chair next to the bed.

“You were expecting Jeannie,” Chris said in a low voice. It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah,” Jim said. There wasn’t any point in denying it. Jim was finished sneaking around and hiding. It was time to get everything out in the open. If he’d done that before, maybe none of this would have happened.

“She isn’t coming Nate,” Chris said, “We’re leaving Salem, and she didn’t want to tell you goodbye again. We’re taking care of our daughter. We’re taking her to California to a place that can help her.”

“She’s my daughter, I’ll take care of her,” Jim snapped, feeling his future slide away from him. Chris’s eyes lit with an old rage, but he controlled himself.

“Stephanie’s not yours, Nate,” Chris said, barely keeping his voice under control, “I’ve been her father from the time Jeannie got pregnant by you. I’m the one who raised her, while you were on the run. If you try to take her away from me, I will kill you.” Jim wanted to scream at Chris, to demand to be a part of his daughter’s life. It was the fear on Chris’s face that stopped Jim. The fear of a man who had seen everything else slip away and was desperate to hold on to the last precious thing in his life.

“Alright Chris, I won’t,” Jim gritted out. Chris stood up and walked to the door.

“You know, I really want to hate you,” Chris said as he stopped at the door, “I saw the look on Jeannie’s face when she came to see you. She’s never looked that way at me. Even on our wedding day. She would have left me back then, and she will leave me as soon as Stephanie’s better. I should hate you for stealing my wife.” Chris paused. “I want to so bad, but you gave me Stephanie. That girl is my world. You might have a good life with Jeannie in the future, but you’ll never have the joy of raising a child with her.” The last sentence came out as a curse. Without looking back, Chris walked out of the room.

Kenn Blanchard joined Mateo Cortez in the parking lot of Salem’s small hospital. The Zombie Strike field team leader was puffing away on a cigar as Kenn neared. Mateo noticed Kenn, but was too deep in thought to do more than nod. Kenn pulled out his own stogie and waited for Mateo to finish mentally processing whatever was going on in that head.

“Not one of our shining moments,” Mateo finally said. “Bad guy got away with the artifacts. We managed to royally tick off the colonel, who probably won’t be calling us anytime soon, and we’re probably going to lose Jim.” Kenn took a long draw on the Monte Cristo before he said anything.

“Matt, you’re beating yourself up again,” Kenn said, “No one died this time. The colonel will calm down. It’s not exactly the first time he wasn’t told everything. Alan got away, but I’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing him again.” Mateo shrugged his shoulders, but didn’t say anything.

“It feels like we’re two steps behind the bad guys,” Mateo said after a few moments, “We don’t even know exactly who we’re fighting.” The team leader was frustrated.

“Working on that Matt,” Kenn said, “Working on that.”

London, United Kingdom, 28 February 2010, 2000 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months

Simon West poured a tumbler full of his best Scotch and handed it to his guest. The man called himself Castle, although West highly doubted that was his true name. West didn’t care. As long as their business relationship remained profitable, the man could call himself the Governor-General of Australia for all West cared. At least Castle left behind the monster that normally accompanied him. Castle graciously accepted the glass and settled into the plush leather chair.

“So, what do you have for me?” Castle asked, ignoring the usual pleasantries. West slid a manila envelope across the desk. Castle picked up the packet quizzically.

“My man’s most recent report,” West said, “Apparently your most recent recruit is a bit on the talkative side. He said some things to Zombie Strike that could expose my man.” West was more than annoyed. He had taken great pains to carefully recruit Collin DuBois. It was one of his most cherished accomplishments. Even more than when he killed Big John Summers and ascended to one of the bosses of the London underworld.

“I see,” Castle said, “Don’t worry Mr. West. We’ll see that doesn’t happen again. Now how can we make this up to you?” West smiled congenially.

“I would like your help dealing with some upstarts from the Continent that have decided to operate in my territory,” West answered. The two men smiled at each other. Both thought they were getting the best of the other man. Only one of them was right.

[Zombie Strike Part 5 Chapter 34]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 32

Twenty miles north of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins stared at the horde of zombies as they emerged from the darkness. The movies always made a zombie horde so much cleaner. Jim shook his head to clear the fogginess from being bounced off the mine’s stone floor and walls. It helped a little, but his body and mind protested all of the abuse he had taken since Jim arrived in Wyoming. Jim forced himself off the ground and began to crawl back to his team. Where was his carbine?

“Form firing lines,” bellowed Mateo Cortez, “Jim, you’re on stopper detail.” The team fell into position at their leader’s commands. This was one of those drills the team practiced rigorously. Billy, Sport, and Jessica crouched down in front with carbines up. Standing behind them and interspersed were Quentin, Collin, and The Steve. Mateo’s job was to watch the flow of the horde to make sure the team didn’t hit crush – the point when the sheer numbers and mass of the horde would overcome all defensive actions. Jim just needed to recover and be ready to jump in if one of the team needed him.

The firing line opened up with full auto fire. With the suppressors, it sounded to Jim like a chorus of angry typewriters. Full auto wasn’t a good thing for fighting zombies. The only reason for the disciplined team to unleash that kind of fire was to open up space between the team and the horde. The leading zombies were less than twenty feet from the team. A normal human could cross that distance in a couple of seconds. Zombies did it in five to eight seconds. Jim saw the first few zombies quickly brought down, and then a barrage of fire tear apart the next group. Zombies collapsed as bullets shattered their legs.

For the first long seconds, Jim feared they would hit crush, but Mateo held the team in place. Then, the horde suddenly thinned, allowing the team to shift from opening distance to engaging the zombies with aimed head shots. The whole fight took less than a minute to finish. Jim realized the horde was less than fifty zombies strong. Billy and Quentin did a routine check to make sure all the zombies were put down as the rest of the team reloaded and prepared for going deeper into the mine. The Steve gave Jim a shot of his infamous “Happy Juice,” a concoction of a pain killer and stimulant. As the injection hit Jim, he felt his head start to clear and some of his pain fell away. He realized Mateo was talking to him.

“Jim, how is this mine laid out?” Mateo repeated his question.

“I don’t know,” Jim answered, “The kids don’t go beyond the first fifty feet or so. I know the parents always tell the kids the mine was closed down because it wasn’t stable. You could get trapped in a collapse and all that.”

“Okay, we’ll take this slow,” Mateo said, “I don’t want to run into in any more surprises if I don’t have to.” He looked over at Jim with a sympathetic look. “I know you want to get down there fast, but we won’t do her any good if we get dead.” Jim nodded. Something felt wrong. He pushed it down to focus on what he needed to do. Still, something was tickling the back of his mind.

The team descended into the icy blackness of the mine. Jim came up to the mine many times when he was a kid, but he never remembered the old mine being this eerie. The team’s weapon-mounted lights pushed back the inky darkness only about twenty yards. Not even the team’s nightvision could penetrate the darkness. Gusts of wind blew out of the mine. On the tails of the gusts were haunting moans. At first, this caused the team to tense up for a fight. The tension turned into annoyance as they continued down. There was little doubt Alan was behind the parlor tricks. It felt almost juvenile from a person who demonstrated the ability to bring down helicopters and drones.

Billy stopped and crouched. The team froze in place. Mateo moved up next to Billy. Jim looked down the mine shaft, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the team’s lights. Jim didn’t personally like Billy, but he trusted the kid’s instincts. He saw the flicker of movement just on the edge of the light. It moved too fast to be a zombie. Jim brought up his carbine. The weapon was torn out of his hands as something shot out of the darkness. Jim spared a momentary glance to see the black-bladed axe protruding out of his carbine before transitioning to his revolver.

A withered corpse covered in blue runes shot out from the darkness. It let out a howling screech as it attacked Billy with a primitive axe. It looked like a gollum, but it was missing the stone medallion that bestowed its mystical powers. Billy blocked the creature’s flurry of blows long enough for Quentin to slide to the creature’s side and bring down his warhammer on its head. The blow sent the gollum to the mine’s floor and left its head a broken, soggy mess. The corpse just sat there instead of withering away to a skeleton. The group exchanged looks. First the goats and yeti at the mouth of the cave, now a bad copy of gollums. What other new horrors were they going to run into?

“Form up,” Mateo ordered. The team fell into its normal lineup, but the annoyance was gone. Alan conjured up things none of the team had ever fought. If he used that much power just to play with the team, what would happen when they finally confronted him? The moaning winds started again. The cold cut straight to Jim’s bones. Everything ached and keeping up the pace grew harder. As the team continued to descend into the mine, Jim decided this was going to be his last field mission. He was getting too old to do this, and he was pretty sure he did some permanent damage to himself on this mission. If what Mateo said about having the proof that Sheriff Jones framed him, then maybe Jim could just stay in Salem. Maybe he could go back to being Nate West and—

The floor fell out from under Jim. His mind had just a second to realize he was falling before he slammed into the floor. He felt the breath whoosh out of him. As he gasped, Alan loomed over him with an insane grin on his face. As Jim looked into the face of his friend turned enemy, the only thought that crossed his mind was how badly Alan had aged. The man’s face was gaunt with sunken features. He sort of looked like a corpse.

“Why Nathan, so good of you to drop in,” cackled Alan. He laughed maniacally at his own joke. Jim didn’t bother with a retort. He managed to keep a hold of his revolver after crashing onto the floor. Without a word, Jim whipped the revolver at Alan and fired twice. Alan jerked as the heavy bullets hammered into his torso. He dropped to the ground.

“NO!” screamed a woman’s voice. Before Jim could look where the voice came from, someone leapt on top of him. He felt the padded thumps as the person unleashed a flurry of futile blows. Jim pistol-whipped the person off of him. It wasn’t until she rolled onto her back that Jim recognized his assailant as his daughter. Guilt hammered through him as he saw the angry purple bruise forming up on her cheek. She looked stunned, as if trying to figure out what had just happened.

Jim looked around. He was in some sort of cavern. The chamber was maybe fifty feet wide and lit with a combination of glow sticks, torches, and fluorescent lanterns. A pair of bedrolls and camping gear was in one corner. As he looked up, he couldn’t see the hole he fell through. He glanced at his PDA. The shattered face looked blankly up at him. He mentally shrugged. He had done okay before Mateo foisted all of those gadgets on him. What he needed to do was find the way out.

A wave of excruciating pain washed over him. Every part of him screamed in agony. As the pain faded, he found himself on the ground unable to move. Alan was crouched next to him, just barely within Jim’s peripheral vision. Alan turned Jim’s head gently so the two were looking at each other. Alan had taken off the robes. He was almost naked, except for some sort of underwear and what looked like a conquistador breast plate. The long knife was balanced in a loose grip. Alan’s body reminded Jim of the pictures of the Jews who survived the concentration camps. Jim wanted to scream and vomit at the same time. Unable to do either, he tried to find his hands and feet.

“For the record, that hurt,” Alan announced, pointing at two small dents in the armor. “My own fault, really. I didn’t think you had it in you. You’d think after the last time, I would know better.” Jim glared up at him. He wanted to throw every evil curse he could think of at Alan.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Alan said with a righteous indignation, “You still don’t understand what this was all about.” Alan waved dramatically at the cave. “I did this all for you, my friend. All of this for you.” He kneeled next to Jim’s paralyzed body. There was a look of compassion on Alan’s face. The look terrified Jim.

“I’m going to explain this to you Nathan, not because I want to gloat, but because I want you out of this. I owe you that much,” Alan said. “I know what you’re thinking. Why do I owe you? Because you didn’t kill me all those years ago. Thanks to your mercy, I found out what I was supposed to do with my life. I found my calling. Because of Zombie Strike, I was recruited by the one you call Giant. We find that nickname amusing, even if Mikhail won’t let us use it around him. Anyways, when I was told to retrieve the artifacts here, I knew I had the opportunity to help you, and repay you for your kindness.” Alan paused long enough to sit down cross legged next to Jim.

“When Giant told me to get these,” Alan said, motioning to the breastplate and the knife, “I knew I could force you to come back here and face your past. I may be insane, but even I can spot a frame-up when I see it. I also knew that your comrades had the proof to clear you. I just needed to push you to confronting your past. Now you’re name’s been cleared, you’ve reconnected with the lost love of your life, and managed to rescue your daughter. Well, what’s left of her. I owed you for killing my son. I took my pound of flesh from her, so to speak.” Alan got up from the floor and walked to one of the walls.

“Your team will find you soon,” Alan said, “Quit Zombie Strike. Just because some of your teammates are fated to fight us doesn’t mean you have to join them in death. Your daughter is going to need your help. Stockholm Syndrome combined with being used to unleash powerful magic does horrific things to a young woman’s mind.” Alan almost sounded remorseful. He stabbed the knife into the wall of the cavern. The cavern filled with bright white light as Alan opened a slit in the wall. There was one more sorrowful look before Alan slipped into the wall and vanished.

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 33]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 31

Ten miles north of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1700 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins’ eyes focused on the tiny display of his PDA mounted to the forearm of his armor. The picture was grainy, but Jim could make out his childhood-friend-turned-enemy, Alan, and a young woman who looked like a younger Jeannie. Alan stared up with annoyance at the Predator drone circling around the pair. Alan’s hand was clamped firmly on the girl’s upper arm as he dragged her along the mountain trail. Jim didn’t know where Alan thought he was going. There wasn’t anything around there. What was Alan hoping to find?

Alan looked at something beyond the camera. Rage came across his face. He drew a long knife from under his robes. The blade glinted in the sun. Jim watched in horror as Alan yanked the girl up. He slashed the knife across the girl’s arm. Jim saw the blood trickle down the girl’s arm. As he watched the girl scream, Jim was suddenly very thankful the feed from the Predator had no sound. He didn’t think he could take the sound of his daughter in pain.

“Green Six deploy now,” Col. Allen said sharply over the radio to one of the units shadowing Alan and Jim’s daughter. The view from the Predator widened quickly, and Jim could see an Army helicopter zooming down at Alan. Alan raised the now-bloody knife at the helicopter. The picture went a brilliant white. Jim hung in his seat by the straps as a wave of sickening power washed over him. It was stronger than anything he felt from the altar. Frantic calls filled the radio net.

“Blue Six report,” Col. Allen demanded, forcing the radios quiet.

“Zulu Six, this is Blue Six. Green Six is down. I repeat, Green Six is down,” said one of the team leaders with a forced calm, “The target fired some sort of energy weapon. The Blackhawk just exploded, sir.” A tense silence followed the team leader’s words. It was broken again by Blue Six. “Sir, the target just destroyed the Predator. Request permission to fall back.”

“Do it,” Col. Allen said, clearly unhappy with the order. The colonel’s head whipped around to the Zombie Strike team leader. “What just happened Mateo?”

“Very bad magic,” Mateo Cortez answered. Col. Allen simply nodded and ordered the helicopter pilot to land where Green Six went down. To his credit, the pilot didn’t say anything. Apparently, Mateo wasn’t the only boss who demanded the impossible on occasion.

“This is why you’re here,” Col. Allen said to Mateo. It wasn’t a question, or even an accusation. Just a simple statement of fact.

“Yes Colonel,” Mateo answered in the same tone.

“I’m not sending my men into a fight they know nothing about,” Col. Allen said, “I’ll get you close, but your people are going to deal with the target.”

“Colonel, we aren’t allowed to engage—“ Mateo began before the colonel cut him off.

“Don’t even give me that line of BS,” Col. Allen said tersely, “I’m still in command of this AO, and you’re still in my employ. You suspected, if not outright knew, something like this was going on. You kept that from me. That annoys me greatly, but I will deal with you afterwards.” The helicopter dropped to the ground, landing with a hard thump. The ramp came down and an icy wind filled the cargo compartment. The colonel gestured for the Zombie Strike team to get out of the helicopter.

“Mateo, one last thing,” the colonel said as the team filed out of the helicopter, “Don’t get dead.” As soon as the team was clear, the helicopter shot up and away from the mountain trail. The mountains were covered with snow. The only break in the white blanket was the burning wreckage of Green Six’s helicopter. Alan and Jim’s daughter were nowhere to be seen. Jim walked down the trail about twenty yards as the team sorted itself out. He remembered this place vividly. It used to be a stock trail in the early days of the state, but now it was used only by hunters and kids looking to go up onto the hills that surrounded the cursed valley. Jim’s mind flashed with realization. He knew where Alan was. Damn, he should have thought about that before. Mateo and Collin walked up to where Jim was crouched next to the trail.

“There’s an old gold mine from the 1880’s about half a mile up the trail,” Jim said, “It’s not on any maps, but the kids sometimes go there to party. There won’t be anyone there this time of year.”

“I hate fighting underground,” Mateo muttered. “Jim, you know the area, so you’ll lead us to the mine. Collin, I want you to pair off with Jim and keep him covered. I’ll bring up the rest of the team. Once we get up to this mine, we’ll reassess.” Collin and Jim nodded as Mateo turned back to the others.

“Lead off, boyo,” Collin said. After about twenty minutes of hard trekking, Jim and Collin neared the mine’s entrance. Jim stopped as he saw two lumps in the trail. He crouched and slid to the right. Jim took a closer look through his scope.

“What is it mate?” Collin asked as he crouched next to Jim.

“Goats,” Jim said, “Two of them in front of the mine.”

“We’re stopping for goats?” Collin asked.

“Collin, those are two mature rams sitting next to each other,” Jim said, “Rams don’t do that. Plus, there’s no heat coming from either of them, but they’re still moving.”

Zombie goats?” Collin asked, incredulously.

“Looks like it,” Jim answered.

“Bloody hell,” Collin muttered, “Odd pair of sentries.”

“Not when you think about it,” Jim said, “A ram’s skull is thick and hard to crack, especially with an M16’s bullet. Those two could probably fend off a platoon of unsuspecting soldiers.” Jim slung his carbine and stood up. Taking off his helmet, Jim let out a screeching whistle. The two zombie goats sprang up and charged the two humans.

“What are you doing?” demanded Collin. Jim drew his revolver. The thundering boom echoed as Jim took down the first goat. The second shot missed when the goat slipped on a patch of ice a split second before Jim squeezed the trigger. The third shot took the goat cleanly through the skull. The creature dropped and slid along the icy trail. The rest of the team ran up to Collin and Jim. Mateo listened as Jim calmly explained the encounter while reloading the revolver.

“Alan probably knows we’re here, and we’ve taken care of his little pets,” Mateo said, “Jim, I want you and Billy on point. Quentin follows with Collin. Then Jess and me, with The Steve and Sport pulling up the rear. Let’s move fast, but move careful.” The team members nodded and fell into their assigned positions. Jim entered the mine with Billy slightly behind and to his left. As Jim took a step into the shadowy mine, he saw some movement. He turned and saw the club an instant before it crashed into his helmet.

Jim felt a bone-numbing cold as he slammed into the rocky floor of the mine. His mind was foggy and nothing seemed to want to move. He could barely turn his head to see his assailant. As he looked up, only one question came to Jim’s mind. Why was he being attacked by Bigfoot? The creature was easily eight feet tall and looked like an upright ape with long dirty white fur. Its face was ape-like except for two yellow tusks protruding from its lower jaw. It clutched a club fashioned from a tree limb in its hand. As it looked down at Jim, the eyes reminded him of an angry bull.

Billy leapt at the monster with a pair of batons in hand. The creature let out an eerie howl as the small man slammed into it and pounded it with a flurry of blows. It lashed out faster than Billy anticipated. Billy caught the massive fist on his forearm guards, but the impact drove him back nearly five feet. The sound of suppressed automatic fire surrounded Jim. He watched as blossoms of red sprouted across the front of the creature’s white pelt. It screamed in pain. Jim saw it lash out with the club and heard Collin grunt in pain. More gunfire shredded the creature’s chest and arms, but it didn’t seem to even slow it down. It attacked, but the team managed to avoid its swinging club. Billy leapt onto its back. With one hand holding the pelt, Billy drew a knife from his belt. Billy stabbed the knife deep into the creature’s back. It let out a brief howl before erupting into an explosion of light and force. Jim was tossed along the ground until he slammed into the wall of the mine.

“Oh, Grandpa’s gonna kill me,” Billy muttered as everyone staggered to their feet, “That was his favorite knife.”

“What was that?” Quentin asked.

“A nightmare,” said an amused voice from the edge of the darkness, “I should have expected the little Indian to have a spirit knife. Oh well, there’s more where that came from.” Jim recognized Alan’s taunting.

“Come on down Zombie Strike,” Alan said from the darkness, “Everyone is waiting for you.” A chorus of moans echoed through the mine. As the team braced, zombies stepped into the light.

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 32]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 30

Five miles west of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1600 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins couldn’t move. He failed so completely, more than he ever thought possible. His enemy had his daughter, had the power of the altar, and was about to unleash some form of hell on the world. Jim watched as Mateo told The Steve to stand guard over him. Jim knew he should get up and help the team as they prepared to stop Alan. His mind told his body to get up off the ground, but it wouldn’t move. He barely noticed as there was some loud talking. Two men in dirty brown police uniforms walked up to Jim and The Steve. Jim knew he should be running. He had been running from these men for over two decades now. Right now, there didn’t seem to be any point. He might as well complete his failure. With a great deal of effort, Jim lifted his head to look at the two officers that were now looming over him.

“Hello Sheriff,” Jim said. His voice was drained and flat. Sheriff Jones hadn’t aged well over the past twenty-five years. The tanned face was creased and weathered. The black hair the Sheriff was so proud of had melted into a few wisps of white that peeked out from under the Stetson. Had he shrunk a few inches as well? Jim looked over at the deputy standing next to the sheriff. The deputy was the spitting image of Sheriff Jones some thirty years ago. So, this was Hal Jones, the heir to the throne. From the malicious gleam in the younger Jones’s eyes, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Well Nathan West, as I live and breathe,” Sheriff Jones said with an evil amusement. A crooked face danced across the sheriff’s face. “I never thought I’d see you in these parts again. You must be one of the dumbest criminals I’ve ever had the pleasure of arresting.” Hal let out a snicker. Jim looked at the sheriff. A part of him screamed to get up. He had to fight. He couldn’t let this happen this way. Then came the crashing guilt, shame, and hopelessness. He was done. Letting the sheriff cart him away on those trumped up charges would put the perfect end on his failure.

“I’ve waited twenty-five years to do this,” Sheriff Jones hissed, “Hal, take him.”

“Sure thing,” Hal said, reaching behind him for his handcuffs. Hal took a step with the silver manacles in his outstretched hand. Then, he stopped with a look of unbelief and fear on his face. It took Jim a moment to realize that The Steve was pointing his Kimber .45 at the younger Jones’s head.

“The Steve thinks you might want to back off,” The Steve said in his normal happy tone. The cheery voice added to the tension. The sheriff fumbled for his pistol. Mateo and Billy appeared with their sidearms drawn and pointed at the two officers. Billy’s dark features were a blank mask, but Mateo regarded the sheriff like a man would a cockroach. Sheriff Jones went red with righteous indignation. Faced with three zombie hunters, the sheriff should have just backed down. Instead he acted the same way he always did.

“You boys might want to think about what you’re doing,” the sheriff said in his best intimidating voice. Jim remembered how that voice terrified him so long ago. Now, it just seemed weak. The pistols didn’t waver, so the sheriff threw down the law. “You are threatening officers of the peace and harboring a man wanted for murder. Keep this up, and you’ll be spending the rest of your lives behind bars.” Something clicked in Jim’s mind, and his paralysis vanished. It was one thing for Jim to pay for his failure, but he couldn’t let his friends do this. Jones was a vindictive and petty man. He could make life rough for the team. He could keep it from completing their mission. Jones wouldn’t care about an apocalypse. All he would care about was taking revenge on those who humiliated him. Jim stood up off the ground.

“Matt, stop,” Jim pleaded, “There’s no need for this.” Jim took a step toward his team leader, but Mateo kept his eyes on the sheriff and his son. Jim tried again. “Listen to me, I’ll go with them. You need to go find my daughter. Time is running out. I’m not worth this.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” the sheriff blurted out, trying to seize the chance to end the confrontation. “You let me take Nate in, and I’ll forget about all of this. Friends have to protect their own after all.” Jim knew Sheriff Jones wouldn’t just let any of the team go. Not after this. Still, Jim needed to give the team time. Time enough to find Alan and his daughter. Time to stop whatever Alan was going to do.

“I don’t think so,” Mateo answered with a tone colder than winter. Mateo holstered his pistol. He took a few steps towards the sheriff, his boots crunching the snow and ice under his feet. “You see, here’s the thing. We work for an insurance firm. One of the oldest and largest. The kind of firm that can afford to hire the best investigators.” Mateo’s dark eyes bored into the older man’s.

“Funny thing about insurance firms, they like to know who they’re hiring,” Mateo continued, “It took a bit of time, but we found out everything about what happened. We know that you framed my man and stole his life from him.” The sheriff stood stunned. Mateo’s words hit the man like a baseball bat.

“Oh yeah, we know who killed Sonny Smith. We have the evidence you thought you’d destroyed,” Mateo said, his cold tone melting into a malicious warmth, “Now, you have a choice. You can let Jim Collins do his job and save your little town from someone who is truly evil. Or, you can try and take Nate West in and have everything we know come out into the light of day. Better decide fast though. Time is running out.” Jim watched in amazed fascination as the man that terrorized him for years broke down under Mateo’s words. Eternal seconds ticked by as Sheriff Jones searched Mateo for any sign of mercy or weakness. There was none. Finding no way out, the sheriff slumped down and waved the team on. He couldn’t even form words.

“No!” bellowed Hal, vibrating with anger. His hand shot down to his holster. Before the young man could draw his pistol, Billy had him on the ground. Billy contemptuously pinned the larger man on the ground and zip tied him.

“As my friend Collin would say, bloody bad move, mate,” Billy said into Hal’s ear. Hal struggled a bit, but Billy simply tightened the zip ties and slapped the back of Hal’s head. “You keep fighting, and things are going to get worse.” There was a promise of violence in Billy’s voice. Hal went limp. The Steve and Billy escorted the sheriff and his son back to their cruiser.

“Um, Matt,” Jim started, and then stopped. Jim was elated, grateful, ashamed, and scared. The emotions threatened to tear him apart. Mateo gave Jim a look and held up his hand.

“I told you before Jim, a man needs his secrets,” Mateo said, “I was waiting for you to come to me about it. Maybe ask for our help. I probably should’ve forced the issue before we got here, especially in light of what’s happened, but that’s not important right now. We’ve got to stop Alan.”

“How?” Jim demanded, “We don’t even know where he is.” Mateo started to say something, but stopped as the steady thrum of helicopter blades filled the area. A large helicopter roared over the team’s heads to land some fifty yards away. Soldiers in full battle gear stormed off as a ramp was lowered from the rear of the helicopter. The last man wore simple BDU’s. Jim recognized him as Col. Bull Allen, the commander of the Army’s anti-zombie forces.

“Seems Alan screwed up and let his little rant be picked up by the Army,” Mateo explained as the colonel strode over to where Zombie Strike had congregated. “Soldiers have this thing about young women being taken to be murdered in evil rituals.” Jim swallowed back a wave of emotion. Col. Allen saluted as he neared the group. The colonel’s hard face softened as he looked at Jim.

“Mr. Collins, we’ve found them,” the officer reported, “Your daughter and the target is maybe fifteen miles from here. We’ve got a Predator tracking them right now. My boys are shadowing them, waiting to engage.” The officer turned to Mateo. “Load your team in the chopper, Mr. Cortez. Don’t want to keep him waiting.”

“Everyone load up,” Mateo ordered. As they climbed into the helicopter, they were met by the rest of their team. All of them were grim faced and ready for combat.

“Come on Jim,” Mateo said, “Let’s go get your little girl.”

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 31]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 29

Five miles west of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1400 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins grunted as the SUV bounced over the rocky road. He still felt weak and hated himself for it. Between the physical ordeal of being shot in the head and the emotional ordeal of dealing with the ghosts of his past, Jim was surprised he was still upright. Having to defend his hometown from zombies and evil magic forces worked better than coffee or caffeine pills. Jim let out a grunt as The Steve, the team’s medic, made final adjustments to Jim’s battle rig. It annoyed Jim he needed help, but that was the price he had to pay. He wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines. Not now.

“Jim, could you tell where the power is on a map?” asked Mateo Cortez. As the team leader, Mateo was busily trying to coordinate Zombie Strike’s activities with the Army’s anti-zombie force. From the snippets Jim heard during the drive from the hospital, the Army was sure they finished off the zombie presence in the area, and they were beginning their withdrawal. Mateo needed the Army to stay near Salem, mostly as cover for the team’s covert mission. They were after the person behind the zombie outbreak. The person who was now in possession of an object of ancient evil.

“I can’t pinpoint it Matt,” Jim said, feeling the pulsing waves of energy. He had run into the magic twice when he was younger. As a result, Jim had some weird connection to it. “All I feel is the pulses and their strength. For it to be this strong, it has to be out of the valley.”

“The Steve would like to know how they got a big stone table out of the valley,” the medic asked, “It’s not like we saw any sign of heavy equipment going in.” Jim pushed down his normal wariness of the medic referring to himself in the third person. There were bigger concerns than one person’s personal quirk.

“I’m starting to think the altar isn’t the source of the power,” Mateo said, “More of a focal point.” Mateo paused as he listened to his comm. His face became stern as his dark eyes flashed with anger.

“Collin, you find a way to keep the colonel on the ground,” Mateo said into the radio, “As long as he doesn’t leave, the battalion will stay put.”

“The Steve says screw the Army. We can do this on our own.” The Steve’s normal bravado took on a hard edge. It was about the angriest Jim had ever seen the medic.

“Love to,” Mateo said over his shoulder, “But the minute the Army leaves, we lose our official reason for being here and our current exempt status.” Zombie Strike’s normal anti-zombie operations were now technically illegal in most countries due to events in Mexico City a while back. None of the governments wanted to be outshone by a private group in defending their citizens against the undead. The colonel in charge of the US Army’s new anti-zombie brought the team in as consultants. Mateo never bothered to burden the colonel with the pesky details of the cabal dedicated to bringing about an apocalypse through an Aztec god, and its minions behind the outbreak here in order to find an artifact of power. As far as Zombie Strike was concerned, the Army had enough on its plate just figuring out how to effectively fight zombies. Why get the feds involved? They’d just screw it up. Unfortunately, that position caused small problems like the one Mateo was dealing with.

“Billy, get us to the valley, now,” Mateo ordered, his annoyance clear in his voice. The diminutive Native American nodded and hammered the accelerator. Say what you wanted about Billy Shakespear, the boy never did anything by halves. The jostling in the truck worsened. Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping his guts inside. It was worse than his days in the rodeo. If Matt didn’t tell that kid to slow it down…

Billy slammed on the brakes, and the SUV violently fishtailed. Jim was slammed up against the window. What was that kid playing at? The chorus of moans killed Jim’s. A horde of forty zombies surrounded one of the sheriff’s squad cars. The front was crumpled, like it hit something much bigger. The light bar was still flashing with red and blue lights. The windows were cracked, but it didn’t look like anyone was still in the cruiser. Drawn by the noise of the roaring engine, the zombies turned and slowly shambled towards the now stopped SUV.

The bad news was Billy stopped the truck only twenty yards away from the edge of the horde. The good news was the four occupants of the truck were all experienced zombie killers. Twenty yards was all the space they needed. Jim felt his weakness fall away as adrenaline flowed through his blood. He kicked the door open and came out with his .45 in hand. As soon as he hit the dusty ground, Jim fell into a Weaver stance and double-tapped two zombies at the edge of the horde. Jim sensed more than felt as Mateo came up next to him. The team leader fired short, controlled bursts. The suppressed carbine’s report reminded Jim of his mother’s old electric typewriter. The Steve and Billy stationed themselves at the front and rear of the truck. Jim could barely hear their carbines over the ragged chorus of hunting moans. Jim lined up another zombie and stroked the trigger in a practiced double tap. Jim saw the puffs of gray mist erupt from the back of the zombie’s head moments before it collapsed. Jim swiveled to his next target and fired again. He felt as the pistol’s slide locked back on an empty magazine. Jim would never know why he chose to transition to his revolver. It made no sense, no matter how he looked back at it. Reloading the .45 would’ve been faster and easier. Sometimes you just have to chalk some things up to divine intervention.

The zombie emerged from the horde as the ones around it were cut down by fire from the team. It was dressed in heavy black tactical armor with POLICE stenciled in white across the front. The heavy riot helmet was locked into place. The helmet rocked as the zombie hunters put burst after burst into it. None of the rounds penetrated the sloping glacis of the shield. The zombie continued its shamble towards the team. Purely on instinct, Jim took a step to the side, lined up the helmet in his sights, and fired the big revolver twice.

The first .500 Magnum round didn’t penetrate the helmet any better than the rifle bullets. What the big and heavy bullet did do was knock the zombie’s head just enough to the left. The second bullet nicked the edge of the helmet. The nick did two things. It changed the bullet’s trajectory up just enough and caused the heavy bullet to fragment. Speeding shards of lead tore the zombie’s brain into shreds. There was no good reason for that shot to have happened that way. It was beyond the normal probability of physics. Sometimes, you just need to chalk things up to the divine. The team stopped firing as they all stared in amazement as the zombie collapsed to the ground.

The hunting moans snapped the team back into action. Jim brought the revolver around to a group of zombies coming directly at him. Four shots boomed through the air. Four decapitated zombies were on the ground. The Smith was heavy and loud, but it did the job. Jim didn’t wait to revel in his small victory. He thumbed the cylinder open and slammed on the ejector rod. As the spent casings fell to the ground, Jim snapped open a pouch on his armor and fished out five rounds. He really should get a speed loader for the Smith if he was going to carry it into battle. Jim slapped round after round into the cylinder. Once all five rounds were in, he closed the cylinder and brought the weapon back up. In those short few seconds, all of the zombies were down.

“Y’know, if you’re going to bring that antique into a fight, you should really have a speed loader,” quipped Billy in his thick Brooklyn accent. Jim glared at the insolent kid, but didn’t say anything.

“Billy, go do something useful and make sure our little firefight didn’t draw more zombies,” Mateo snapped. Billy scampered up the road, seemingly oblivious to the rebuke. Jim stood over the zombie in the armor. He knelt down and yanked the visor of the riot helmet open. Deputy Young’s face was older and distorted by Jim’s bullet but still recognizable. Jim hated this man for decades. He’d even thought about killing him once or twice. Now though, Jim felt no satisfaction, glee, or even sadness at his enemy’s demise. Just another zombie.

“Someone you know?” Mateo asked as The Steve checked him over. None of the zombies got close enough to injure the team, but The Steve always did a quick once over. Never could tell if an odd bone chip or something managed to lance through and cause damage.

“Yeah,” Jim said emotionlessly, “I think we made a mistake taking so much time on this one. With the visor down, it wasn’t like he could have bitten any of us.”

“Maybe not,” Mateo said, “As armored as he was, any punches he threw would be enough to take one of us out of the fight. When we get back, I’m going to have the armorers throw something on this rifle to take something like him down.” The Steve clapped the team leader on the shoulder. Mateo was clean. The team leader examined of the scene. The Steve began his once over on Jim. Jim felt his adrenaline slipping away. The weakness returned. It was bad enough that Jim wanted to ask The Steve for something to keep him going. Instead, he just gritted his teeth and summoned up all of the strength he could. In a few short moments, The Steve clapped Jim on the shoulder. Jim walked over to the police cruiser.

What was Young doing out here? The sheriff and his deputies were supposed to stay in town to help the Army coordinate its efforts. There was no good reason for Young to be out this way. Mateo was on the far side of the cruiser. There was a scowl on his face. That was never a good sign. As Jim rounded the cruiser, he saw the back door of the cruiser lying on the ground. It looked like a cutting torch was used on it. Zombies didn’t use simple tools, much less something as complex as a cutting torch. What happened before the team arrived? The radio crackled to life. Mateo and Jim were both startled by the sudden noise. The two traded sheepish looks, both amused and ashamed at being caught off-guard by the radio. Jim opened the door to silence the constant sound of static. Then came a taunting voice Jim hadn’t heard in thirty years.

“Nathan, my old friend, I’m so glad you’re not dead,” Alan said with a bubbly, almost singsong voice. Jim recoiled from car in shock. Alan continued, “I am quite annoyed with you for killing my son. I don’t know what you used on him, but it was very messy. Don’t worry about finding a way to make it up to me. I’ve already found one.” Jim’s blood went ice-cold. He reached for the radio’s handset, but Mateo grabbed him. The team leader slammed Jim against the side of the cruiser.

“Don’t. Let him talk,” Mateo ordered, “Steve, get a trace going.”

The Steve, bossman,” the medic corrected as he tapped away at his PDA.

“Oh yes bossman, try to find me before it’s too late,” Alan laughed over the radio. The three zombie killers snapped into guard stances and began searching around them. They were in the middle of a flat land. Where was Alan watching from? Alan laughed even harder, stopping for a moment as he broke into a fit of coughing.

“Oh come on you fools,” Alan said after managing to compose himself, “Do you think I would be stupid enough to come anywhere near rifle range to your little team? We know exactly how dangerous you can be. But because I’m such a nice guy, I’ll let you in on the secret. I rigged the radio so I could listen in on you as well as talk.” Mateo let out a string of curses, which elicited another round of laughter from Alan.

“Why are you talking to us Alan?” Jim asked, trying desperately to keep his voice calm despite his fear. The laughter ceased.

“Thank you Nate,” Alan said with a disturbing calmness. “Normally, I wouldn’t be talking to you at all. I have read the Evil Overlord list. Plus, my superiors would discourage it. But if I didn’t, then you wouldn’t know how badly I’ve beaten you. How much I’ve taken from you.” Jim’s stomach tightened to an icy ball of fear. Did Alan manage to get his hands on Jeannie again?

“You spent all those years running from that murder charge,” Alan said tauntingly, “She never had the chance to tell you, did she? What became of that last night before the sheriff and his goons broke down your door? About your daughter?” Jim felt the world begin to spin around him.

“Don’t worry Nate,” Alan said mockingly, “She’s right here with me. She’ll make an excellent substitute for her mother. Shame you won’t get to meet her before I sacrifice her.”

Jim let out a scream of primal anguish as Alan cackled over the radio.

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 30]

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike – Part 4 – Chapter 28

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1100 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins was silent with shock. It had been over two decades since he discussed Nate West with anyone. Even those he’d considered close friends. Now Mateo Cortez, the Zombie Strike field leader and Jim’s boss, was asking like he’d known about Nate all of this time. Mateo waited impatiently with a look of rage on his face. He had the right. Jim didn’t tell him about things that were important to the team’s safety. Jim never told Mateo about the altar.

“I’m Nate West,” Jim said finally, his voice weak, “Nathaniel James West was the name I was born with, in this town.” He gave Mateo a somber look. “I know what the minion is looking for.” There was a dark silence between the two men. Mateo burned with the rage of betrayal. He wasn’t saying anything because he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment.

“In that valley is an evil place. The townsfolk avoid it, but they don’t know why. Everyone just stays away for one reason or another,” Jim said, “The real reason they stay away is the altar. It just exudes evil. I don’t know why it’s there or what went on there to create the evil. Maybe it’s been there since God created the earth. I don’t know. What I do know is what the altar can do.” Jim paused as horrific memories danced in his eyes.

“Tell me what it can do, and how you know about it,” Mateo demanded.

“I’ll need to take you back almost thirty years ago,” Jim said, straightening up in his bed, “You need to know everything, not just about the altar.” He took a deep breath and told a story that he hadn’t spoken of in a long time.

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 25 June 1981, 1100 hours local; Countdown: 30 years, 11 months, 12 days

“Nate, I need you here right now!” hollered Thomas West from across the field. Nate looked up from the fence he was mending. Normally if his father yelled at him, it was because Nate did something wrong. This was different. He could hear it in his father’s voice. Nate mounted his horse and galloped across the grassy field to where his father was waiting with the truck. As he neared, Nate’s mind raced as to what could have made his father come out here. The two weren’t on the best of terms at the moment and were staying on opposite parts of the farm anytime they could.

Nate examined his father as he reigned in next to the truck. Thomas West was almost forty, and the years of hard work in the elements showed. Tanned leathery skin and deep creases in his face made Tom look almost ten years older. The thinning brown hair and slight stoop to his normal towering frame added to the appearance. Nate was expecting a somber look, like one would expect upon hearing the news that someone died. Tom’s dark eyes were flashing with anxiety. Something was really wrong.

“Son, have you heard from Jeannie?” Tom asked in a flurry. Nate’s heart dropped. His father only spoke fast when he was forcing the words out. What happened to Jeannie?

“No sir,” Nate answered quickly.

“When was the last time you saw her?” Tom asked. Nate hesitated. His parents weren’t too keen on Jeannie, and even less on Nate’s interest in her. The entire reason the normally close Tom and Nate weren’t speaking to each other was because of her. Still, there wasn’t that normal look in Tom’s eyes when he was trying to catch Nate in some indiscretion. This was an urgent need.

“I saw her last night, in town,” Nate admitted. He expected some anger from his father. Nate was supposed to be staying away from town, and Jeannie. The total lack of anger in his father’s face scared Nate.

“She’s missing,” Tom said with rushed bluntness. “Never came home last night.”

“What do you mean?” Nate demanded, “I dropped her off at her house before coming home!” He knew he was yelling at his father, but he didn’t care. The only thing Nate could see was Jeannie waving good-bye from her front door. What in the hell happened? He needed to get over to her house right now and find out. Tom must have seen it, because those weathered arms shot out and grabbed the horse’s bridle.

“You need to calm down,” Tom said sternly, “Right now, you are the last person to see her. Do you really think Deputy Young won’t try to pin this on you?” The Wests weren’t well-liked by the new sheriff and his cronies. Young in particular seemed to have some grudge against Nate. It was one of the reasons why Nate was supposed to stay away from town. Nate didn’t like it, but his father was right.

“I want you to stay here until I come and get you,” Tom said, climbing into the truck, “Try to see if you can remember anything about last night. Maybe you saw something that’ll help.” Nate nodded as Tom sped away in the truck. For endless moments, Nate’s mind was tormented by horrific images of what could’ve befallen Jeannie. Frustration and anger rocked the young man. He needed to do something, and there was nothing he could do. Or was there?

Nate went back over last night in his mind. Fear and determination cleared away the love-colored haze of the night. It had taken some doing to push the ancient pickup out of the barn to the sloping driveway leading up to the West farm. At least he didn’t have to sneak up to Jeannie’s house. Her parents were quote, refugees from California, and they found Nate’s western mannerisms quaint. That grated a bit on the pride of the sixteen-year-old, but he hid it well. After all, it meant they let him take their daughter out. The two of them went down to the new McDonald’s in town. Most of the high school kids hung out there. Besides, none of the bars were about to draw the new sheriff’s attention by letting underage kids in.

Nate remembered hanging out with Jeannie’s friends mainly. Nate knew them from school, but he hadn’t hung around them until he started dating Jeannie. They were the small town’s rich kids, and they tended to stick together. There had been some awkwardness in the beginning, but now he got along pretty well with most of them. Especially Chris Roberts. He was the boyfriend of Jeannie’s best friend, as well as the town’s star athlete, son of the bank president, and all-around super guy. Nate thought he’d hate Chris, but the two became fast friends after discovering shared passions for fast cars, pretty women, and shooting. It had been a pretty regular night. The only interesting thing was some tense moments when Nate introduced Chris to his old friend Alan. Nate’s mind froze. Alan. Everything fell into place. Nate looked across the grassy plain to the hills. The hills that surrounded the valley where Death’s Grove lay. Nate thought it was strange Alan was back in Salem. Nate’s mind lit up with sudden realization. Nate kicked his horse into a gallop back to the house. His mind raced back four years prior, when three twelve-year-old boys ventured into that valley. Only two came out, and they had been forever changed by what happened. If Alan was trying to recreate what happened, Nate was going to need help. And some guns. And ammo. Lots of ammo.

Flashing lights caught Nate’s attention. Deputies were up at the main house. Nate quietly snuck into the barn. His grandpa’s M1 carbine and Colt .45 were stored there. So was Deputy Young. Young still looked like the brute of a linebacker he’d been in high school. The brown uniform of the sheriff’s office stretched to contain the deputy’s frame. Young matched Nate’s height, but easily had fifty pounds on the teen. A malevolent grin cracked Young’s square face as he saw Nate. He didn’t say anything. He had the young cowboy right where he wanted him. He seemed to savor the moment.

A cold calmness came over Nate. He didn’t have time for this. Young took a step towards the still mounted Nate with a hungry glint in his eye. Nate made a snap decision and charged like a knight of old. Young’s eyes went wide with incomprehension. The kid was attacking him? He never saw Nate’s kick. Nate’s nemesis dropped in a heap. Nate didn’t take time to gloat. He collected the weapons and ammo before starting up his pickup truck and racing out of the barn. He didn’t even slow down until he brought the truck to a screeching halt in front of Chris’s house. If Nate was right, he was going to need help. Chris came out onto the porch with a shocked look on his face.

“What are you doing here?” Chris asked, “The cops are looking for you.” Chris took a step back as he saw the pistol holstered at Nate’s side and the rifle in the gun rack.

“Don’t have time Chris,” Nate said as he bounded up to the house. “We need to go get Jeannie.” Chris gave Nate a hard stare. Heartbeats passed in silence. Nate was scared Chris wouldn’t trust him. But Chris was the only one Nate could trust. Chris’s hard stare changed into a look of determination.

“I’ll get my rifle,” Chris said, before sprinting back into the house.

In less than twenty minutes, the truck was bouncing along a dirt road that led up into the hills surrounding the valley. Chris tried to hide his fear as the two boys neared the forbidden place. Chris thought his fear was because of all the old folk stories surrounding the valley and the forest in it. Nate knew better. He felt the familiar waves of evil energy as they neared the valley. Through his own uneasiness, Nate felt hope. The energy was weak. There was still time. The two teens left the truck at the top of the hill. Nate led his friend down a trail. This would be the same trail Nate would use thirty years later to lead a group of Army soldiers against a zombie outbreak. The two teens stopped at the edge of the forest. Nate turned to his friend.

“Remember that guy Alan you met last night?” Nate asked. Chris nodded, but was confused by the question. “He’s got Jeannie. There’s an old altar in the forest. That’s where he has her. You’re going to grab Jeannie and get her back to the truck. No matter what you see or what happens, you get her back to the truck.”

“What are you going to do?” Chris said, shocked by the sudden change in Nate.

“I’m going to deal with Alan,” Nate answered. Chris swallowed nervously. Nate’s grim tone frightened Chris. The two teens gripped their weapons and entered the forest. Nate felt the dark energy strengthen as the two crossed the invisible threshold.

“Nate, how do you know what’s happening?” Chris asked.

“This isn’t the first time Alan and I have been here,” Nate said guardedly. Painful memories swirled in his head.

“Was that when Jesse Parker died?” Chris asked. Small towns never forgot when its children died tragically. Jesse had been used for years as lesson on why no one went into the valley.

“Yeah,” Nate answered, feeling a pain he long thought buried.

“So why did Alan kidnap Jeannie?” Chris asked. “What is he doing here?”

“When Jesse died, some weird stuff happened,” Nate answered brusquely, “It screwed Alan up. It’s why his family left town afterward. Now, he’s trying to get the weird started back up.” Nate stopped and turned to face his friend.

“You don’t worry about any of that,” Nate said in a voice that sounded much older than his sixteen years, “You are here to get Jeannie and get out. Don’t wait for me and don’t stop until both of you get back to the truck. Do you understand?” Chris nodded. Nate wasn’t sure if Chris really understood, but he’d have to trust his friend. Time was running short.

After a few hundred yards, the forest opened into a clearing roughly a hundred feet in diameter. The ground was covered with a thick carpet of wild grasses. The whole area with its green grass dotted with the colorful blooms of wild flowers and surrounded by mighty evergreens should have been the very picture of a peaceful nature scene. The black stone table surrounded by sun-bleached bones destroyed any peacefulness. The teens stopped at the edge of the clearing. The sickening waves of energy were stronger. Jeannie was lying on top of the altar. Nate couldn’t help but notice she was completely naked. His mind briefly seized up with the conflict between youthful hormones and rage at what was happening to his girlfriend. Finally, Nate tore his eyes from Jeannie to Alan.

Alan’s tall and lanky frame was hidden under an oversized brown robe. It looked like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi wore. Nate’s one-time friend was methodically circling the altar. He was chanting something, but his tone was too low for Nate to understand the words. Alan swung a large knife in his right hand. With every step, the blade came closer to Jeannie. With every word, the dark energy became stronger. The bones surrounding the altar rattled.

Memories swarmed Nate’s mind. Of Jesse jumping up and down on the altar to prove it didn’t scare him. Of Jesse slipping and cracking his head open on the edge of the table. That’s when all the bad stuff happened. When the dead came up out of the ground. Nate should have been terrified. Instead, Nate found a calm strength to pull his friend’s body from the altar and sprint away from the creatures. He should have seen that Alan wasn’t scared either. He was fascinated. Maybe Nate should’ve just left him.

Nate snapped back to the present as Alan’s knife came within a whisker of Jeannie. Nate looked over at Chris. The teen was shaking with fear, but he hadn’t run away. Nate calmly took the rifle out of his friend’s hands. It was time to act.

“Chris, go get her,” Nate said quietly. Chris didn’t hesitate. Chris demonstrated exactly how good of an athlete he was as he launched himself into the clearing. His speed was amazing. Nate waited half a second before chasing after his friend. The sudden noise startled Alan. He whirled to face them, his robes billowing out with the movement. His face was twisted into a mask of rage and evil.

Chris crossed the fifty feet to the altar before Alan could react to the two teens’ appearance. Alan snarled and swung the knife at Chris as he reached the altar. Chris ducked the wild blow before diving for Jeannie’s still form. Alan howled in triumph as he brought the knife up for an overhead stab. He didn’t see Nate’s fist.

Nate hammered Alan in the side. The blow lifted Alan off the ground and threw him away from the altar. Nate loomed over Alan with pistol in hand. He brought the weapon up. The mechanical click of the safety coming off cracked loudly through the clearing. Nate’s finger lay on the trigger. He could put a round into Alan’s head and end the insanity. It made so much sense. Alan looked up Nate and grinned, like this was what Alan wanted. Nate froze. Alan was insane, but he wasn’t stupid. If he wanted Nate to kill him, there was a very bad reason why.

“Alan, I’m not going to kill you,” Nate said, clicking the safety up and lowering the pistol.

“Oh, don’t feel bad buddy,” Alan said in a soothing voice as he rose shakily to his feet, “I’m going to kill you. Either of us dies here, I still win.” His cackle was a slimy, evil thing. It should have frightened Nate, but it didn’t. It just made him angry. The clearing rocked with two barks of gunfire. Alan crumpled to ground as his knees were disintegrated by the pair of .45 caliber bullets. Nate ignored Alan’s screaming. Nate bound Alan’s hands with strips cut from Alan’s robes. Alan pitifully lunged at Nate. Nate responded by punching Alan in the head. Alan’s jaw shattered and several teeth were now on the grassy ground, but Alan was still screaming and fighting. Nate was annoyed. That always worked on TV. Nate tussled with Alan before hoisting the injured teen onto his shoulder. Alan went limp. Nate felt a moment’s panic. Was Alan dead? No, he was breathing. Just unconscious. Nate thanked God for small mercies, and began hauling his one-time friend out of Death’s Grove.

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1230 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim fell silent. There was more to tell Mateo. It didn’t have to do with the altar directly, but it affected the team, especially if they stayed in town. Some of it started that day, but it was hard to find the words to begin telling that story. After grappling for a few moments, Jim took a deep breath to continue. He was stopped cold by the thundering wave of evil energy that roiled through the town.

“Dear God, what was that?” Mateo asked, looking suddenly sick.

“Matt, help me up,” Jim said as he began to lift himself out of the hospital bed, “We need to get to the Army.”

“Hold on Jim, I know that’s not all,” Mateo said putting a hand over Jim’s chest. It didn’t take much effort. Jim glared at his team leader.

“That’s going to have to wait Matt,” Jim snarled, “What we just felt was energy from the altar. The only way we could have felt it all the way here is if someone managed to get it out of the valley.”

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 29]

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