Date: July 3, 2013 Time: 1200. Location: Central United States.
Deep in the heart of what was formerly the United States of America a long abandoned small town has been re-occupied; debris has been cleared, barricades erected, watch towers raised, homes transformed into barracks, the small town clinic reestablished, armories, dining facilities, and entertainment spaces opened. Life inside the walls passes each day as normally as possible. There is a buzz of activity in the air as men, women, and children go to and fro, outside the walls people tend various crops all under the watchful eyes of the guards standing ever vigilant, always on the lookout for walking corpses or marauders. What is it that makes all this possible?
Just outside the town, beyond the cultivated plots, on the forest's edge men and women take up arms. The training is brutal yet all those who are here are survivors. They have survived; the raising dead, the plagues of diseases thought long gone, looters, and the military in-fighting. They have come to this place seeking protection behind its walls and a warm meal. What they got was more.
They found the opportunity to fight back. To gain the skills necessary to no longer live in fear of the undead. They hope to no longer be survivors hiding from the undead but to become saviors to the living.
Over the course of 16 weeks they are drilled day in and day out in land navigation, threat assessment, Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE), and most importantly enemy eradication and disposal. They are taught how to fight the enemy in unarmed combat, with the use of blades and bludgeons, and while looking down the barrel of a sidearm or rifle. They work on minimal food and water with almost no rest. No one opts out of the course though most will never complete it falling victim to THEM. Their only saving grace being the promise that their families and loved ones, if any, will be cared for. There has been no shortage of volunteers. Men and woman from all walks of life sign up. There are no judgements based on a person's past, all who volunteer are given the same opportunity. Police train with men they arrested, former US Military personnel train with conscientious objectors. The man leading the training isn't preparing the new modern US Army. No, Lieutenant Colonel Bludd is preparing the next generation of Cobra Viper one specialized in urban pacification with an affinity for the exterminating the undead, their official designation; Cobra Reapers. A play on the character of the Grim Reaper as these men and women are to be the hand of true death for the shambling carcasses polluting the continent.
The final stage of training is called the Gauntlet. It is a two mile long quarter mile wide corridor made up of sections of neglected interstate, deserted homes, and forsaken forrest bound only by the occasional makeshift fence or wall. Haphazardly strewn about are the stalled, smashed, and burned out hulks of family sedans, pick ups, SUVs, delivery trucks, and an overturned semi. Walkers and draggers roam the grounds unhindered. A raised walk way allows Bludd to watch each trainee's progress.
Bludd watches from above as the man starts to make his way toward the growing pack of creatures. He is no stranger to combat. He has fought on six continents and been involved in every major battle of the last two decades. He found himself stateside when it all happened. For over a year he survived watching his beloved country become a desolate landscape of death and pestilence. He offered help in the form of training to those he came across, his motto being "Give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish he'll eat for life." In this new world that's what people needed, training and he had undergone the best.
"Get goin' you lazy louse!" Spittle flies through the air as Lieutenant Colonel Bludd screams at the staling trainee. His voice echos over the landscape attracting the attention of THEM. The closest ghoul turns in the direction of the noise, a gurgling moan escapes its black lips. The sound starts a chain reaction as each of THEM is drawn toward the location of their next feast. Many of the dilapidated vehicles start to rock and shake as those forever trapped by seat belts thrash and struggle. Skeletal hands shoot out of broken side windows. Others scrape against the tempered glass relentlessly. The tall grasses at the roads edge sway under the movement of bodies dragging themselves towards their next meal. The cracked and broken pavement does little to slow the progress of those still able to walk. Many of THEM are wearing the uniform of a trainee; black t-shirt, black cargo pants, black boots, heavy black gloves. The bite marks on their necks evidence that they were unable to complete this final stage of training. The recruit turns his eyes up to see the face of a man who just rang the dinner bell. The sneer on Bludd's face grows in twisted amusement as he looks down. The recruit doesn't know how many of the zombies are in the vicinity he just knows that in order to complete his training he must get out alive.
Over the last 16 weeks. He has been cold, wet, hungry, and tired. He has had his physical and mental ability pushed beyond anything he faced while serving in the Special Forces. The addition of THEM to the daily training made Ranger School look like pre-school. He surveys the scene before him trying to mark a course. The yelling from above doing little to help his predicament. He knows the Gauntlet has an 80% "wash out rate" and he will not be one of THEM. He can't help but question if he has made the right decision.
He couldn't believe the stories he heard of Soldiers slaughtering innocent civilians. He knew there had to be an explanation, perhaps they were "treating" infected, something, anything. Then he saw it. He had been shadowing a Marine Platoon as it made its way West. They had come upon a barricaded warehouse. Inside was a group of 21 survivors. He'll never forget them; nine men, two boys, seven women, and three girls. Seeing help had arrived they rushed out to welcome their saviors. They were met by the raised barrels of M16s. At first he thought they were going to check them for infection, which they did. What came next shocked him to the core. The men and boys were lined up, forced to kneel in the street, and shot execution style. The women and girls… Three fought bravely, one was even able to send two Marines to their graves as she successfully pulled one of their sidearms. The others… That evening is burned into his memory as the night he was forced to kill men in uniform.
After that night he was a man lost. He cared not whether he lived or died. He's not sure when they found him, or where. Last thing he remembered was curling up in the corner of an empty house. Next thing he knew he was being carried on a stretcher. He flashed in and out of consciousness. When he finally came to he was on a bed in an unfamiliar room. Sunlight was shining across the room as a gentle breeze came through the open window. His vision swam as he turned his head towards the bright light. He heard the door click open as a nurse entered. "I see you're awake. That's good." The tall lean man went to the end of the bed retrieving a clip board turning toward the machines he jotted some notes then returned it to its original location. "Can I get you anything?"
Eyes fixed on the nurse, "Wa…"
Seeing the words struggling to escape the nurse interrupted. "Water. Well I'm not sure you're ready for that but I'll see what I can do." He left the room leaving the door open behind him. He came back a friendly smile brightening his face, "Good news and bad. Bad first. I can't give you water. But the good news is I can give you ice chips." The nurse steps to his side and gently helps him sit up. "Here ya go. Don't go too fast now." He places the dixie cup of crushed ice to his lips and tips it just so. The ice feels good on his parched throat. He takes a few more pieces.
"Thank you." The words barely audible scrape out of his throat.
"No worries. My name is John and I'll be here for a few more hours. I you need anything just ring the bell. With a smile he turned and walked out again leaving the door open. For several days John arrived each morning to help him with breakfast and left each night to be replaced by Susan another nurse with impeccable bedside manor. On the fifth day John entered as usual, "Good morning sir, you're looking much better today. Let's take a look shall we." He picked up the clipboard, checked the various instruments and monitors, and looked up, "Great news. I think today is the day." It was the day that led to this new life. Nurse John removed the various sensors and instructed him to get dressed, "You'll find fresh clothing in the bathroom." Sure enough he did. All black. After putting on the clothes he was escorted to the office of the "Commanding Officer." The door was opened and he was bid entry. The office was a standard hospital office. Plaques and diplomas lined the walls. Photos of a family here and there. A small sofa sat near the back wall. A large oak desk, richly stained, took up the center of the room. A high backed brown leather chair was turned toward the large airy windows. He couldn't see who was in the chair but knew it was occupied. John walked him in and offered him a chair. He took it with a nod. Sitting he watched as John left in without a word. Silence filled the room. A clock on the far right wall ticked away the seconds. Finally the chair turned. He stared in shock at the man filling the seat. It was not the man from the pictures.
"G'day. I 'ope your stay has been sa'isfyin'." The man locked his good eye on him, his other covered under a black patch, a smile touching the corners of his mouth making his thick handle bar mustache twitch.
Six long months later and he finds himself about to become a member of a new SOF unit for an organization he spent his entire military career trying to topple. The moment he recognized Bludd he thought he'd be subject to beatings, tortured, even killed. But that never came to pass. He was given an offer. Join or leave. It really was that simple. He could become part of something new. Or he could take his chances in the wastes. He was given 48 hours to think about it and allowed full access to the compound with the understanding that he could leave at any time should that be his choice. What he saw as he walked around amazed him; children playing, families laughing. Sure there was the ever vigilant Cobra presence but they seemed to be solely focused on protecting those inside. He learned that the people were the families of the Troopers. That anyone who could make it to the entrance of the walled in city was given admittance so long as they were not infected or somehow otherwise posed a threat to the safety of the inhabitants. He had dinner in the clinic and heard tales of rescue from others. It didn't make sense. These were his Enemy. The "bad guys." Ruthless terrorists hellbent on world domination. Yet he saw it with his own eyes, groups of people going outside the compound to tend crops. Children going to classes. His mind fought against it but in the end. He stayed.
He has not been subject to anything beyond what all the other trainees have under gone. He hasn't been the subject of extra brutality despite his former position. He has been treated like every other recruit. Even now he knows that Bludd has started each prospect's race across the Gauntlet the same way. Their is no personal animosity simply the desire for the best. Taking it all in he goes. He has been trained by the best and trained the best. This is one more training exercise, only this time the stakes are higher then anything he's faced.
He has no weapons to use and no time limit. The only rule is survival. The first ghoul that had turned at Bludd's shout locked onto his position. It lurches towards him arms outstretched. Its bottom lip had been torn away exposing teeth and bone covered in dried blackened blood. It's eyes are sunken and grey. Its broken skin secreting a puss of nauseating ooze. The other trainees had attempted to avoid confrontation with the undead at all costs, many ended up paying or that decision with their lives. Bludd watches in astonishment as the recruit runs head long at the monster before him. He grabs it by the head and smashes it repeatedly into the charred remains of a Cadillac Escalade. Spinning he turns towards the on coming shamblers his gloves caked in gore. With a savage growl he charges. He is a raw force of destruction. His expertise in escape and evasion all but forgotten. He snatches two of the closest things slamming their heads together, the sickening sound of skulls splitting is followed by rancid brain matter spattering the ground. He is far from subtle as he paves his path of destruction crushing the craniums of any who came near. For one unlucky dragger true death came under the heal of his heavy black boot. He took his time making sure he got each and every attacker who came near. Bludd watches from the catwalk in silence, awed by the sheer brutality of the scene playing out below him. He was the lone witness to a transformation that would forever change the man below, Bludd knew that when the man left the Gauntlet below he would not emerge as the Joe who took the namesake of the harsh back country of his former homeland there would be no coming back. The trail of bloodshed finally ends. Hours after entering and hearing the steel door lock him in perdition he at last arrives at the exit. He stands peacefully waiting for the door to open.
"'Ell thawas a amazin' ting ta watch." Bludd stands aside making way for the man. He looks as if he had just emerged from the deepest bowels of Hell. His once red hair black with carnage. His uniform encrusted with the ichor and entrails of his enemies. The handful of recruits who had successfully run the gauntlet stood in formation eyes locked in awe on the thing that stood before them. He took his spot and snapped to attention. Bludd stood before him, "As I said, thawas amazin' ta watch. You went in there a wanker of a puppet regime and came out sometin' else." Turning his attention to the group he continues, "Once 'e was a member of our sworn enemy. 'E fought to protect the corruption and evil of a guvment 'ell bent on destroying' the world in the name of profits. 'E was a worthy foe but he has seen the light and has witnessed the wickedness that was our former adversary. The man known as Stuart R. Selkirk is no more. Reapers today we add another to our fold." Bludd turns to a man behind him holding a tray, upon it sits a silver crest, a pair of crossed sickles behind a hooded skull. He takes a step towards the man in front of him he places the pin over the mans heart and thrusts the end into his flesh, there is no outward expression of pain, "Congratulations and welcome to the Reapers. Brothers and Sisters welcome our newest bringer of true and final death…" As was the ritual each man or woman who passed the trials of training and survived was assigned a call sign, a name by which others would know him or her. Bludd knew the perfect name for the new Reaper. "…welcome Skull Buster."