[Note: This alternate universe takes place at the height of the zombie infestation as found in the book World War Z. The film version is not part of the background of this novella. The events found in the main Harry Potter novels are concluded, and this story takes place somewhere near the beginning of The Cursed Child (although that particular story does not influence this one). Enjoy!]

The Truth Between Wands and Zee

by D. O'Shae

Chapter 1

The order came during the preparation for the second New York offensive. Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins did not like to be be disturbed during planning meetings, but the tone of the missive delivered to her presented an order as well odd wording. The wording got her. She read it several times while field commanders listed their complaints regarding the previous failed attempt to retake the massive city, and she missed an important point directed at her.

"Colonel Jenkins," General Weyland said her name sharply. "Colonel Jenkins! Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Jenkins do you plan on answering the fucking question?"

"Pardon?" Colonel Jenkins said and jerked her head up.

Eyes bore into her from every part of the table, especially the medical services staff. She glanced around, yet did not do so in an apologetic manner.

"I'm being reassigned," she told collective command council.

"The fuck you are!" Weyland barked at her.

"CENTCOM, General Reese, and Secretary Mantouska would say otherwise. I leave this afternoon, providing we can get a transport out to the airstrip."

"Where the hell are they sending you and why the hell didn't they confer with me? Did they forget we're planning a major fucking push to retake Staten Island?" Her commanding officer shouted across the room.

No one blinked or moved. When Weyland lost his cool, anyone who tried to temper him would suffer. The current state of planning and the inability of military to push back the ever-growing horde of zee made the situation tense. However, she held the message in her hand, faced her senior officer for a moment, and then looked down.

"Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Jenkins, Forward Command, US East Coast Medical and Mission Operations required for medical investigation at Sub-Asian Joint Medical Command – Epidemiological Research..."

"Stop!" General Weyland bellowed while his face glowed red. "Go pack. You're done here."

A faint murmur ran through the room.

"Enough! Shelby, go get Colonel Price and tell him he needs to be here five minutes ago! Jenkins, you should be gone already! Dismissed!"

Colonel Jenkins did not wait to be told a second time. She scooped up her her briefing package, handed it to the major sitting next to her and asked it be given over to Colonel Price. All the while Weyland glared at her, his green-brown eyes glowed with anger as though she purposefully got assigned to a new detail. She felt for the man and understood the tremendous pressure he faced in trying to come up with an alternative to using small-yield nuclear devices to cleanse the city. No one forgot Mumbai, and the London solution did not sit well with anyone. Once she transitioned her meeting materials, Natalie Jenkins gathered her briefcase and quickly departed the planning room.

Men and women saluted her as she quickly walked through and from the command building to the barracks. The converted apartment building meant she got her own small apartment and no bunkmates. Along the way she keep reading the order over and over. Her eyes kept returning to two specific words: source determination. Natalie felt a bit of relief Weyland stopped her from reading the entire message since that would constitute a breach of both protocol and security. While the man often led with his temper, no one ever doubted the extensive knowledge in his head. Only the medical staff present would even begin to glean some sort of understanding about the order from what little she read aloud. The order intrigue her.

"Shit! I have bug out in less than three hours!" The woman complained to no one as she increased the pace and length of her stride.

Little more than an hour later Natalie stood amid a pile of clothing and equipment she thought might come in handy. Her neck ached as she listened again to yet another diatribe through her cell phone. Because of her status in military medical, she got granted one of the secure Iridium phones and tried not to abuse the privilege. At the moment the voice on the other end nearly scorched the ear piece.

"Damn it, Nat, for how long? Why did they give you such short notice? Didn't they know you due for R-and-R rotation in three weeks once the new offensive pans out?"

"Dillon, why are you yelling at me? I just got the order today," she replied and tried to sound calm. "It's from CENTCOM, and it did not provide any other details except I have try and get to the new Scotch Plains airstrip in the next couple of hours. They even got a car on stand-by for me."

The sound of heavy breathing came through the phone.

"Dillon, I… this could be important. I think it might go back to the work I was doing late last year."

"Oh," Dillon blurted in surprise. "I thought the R-and-D got shifted to Colorado?"

"It did."

Natalie tried to fold clothes while she talked and did a poor job of it.

"Nat, is this virology?"

She paused for a second, tossed the undershirt into her rucksack, and then said: "I don't know. Remember when I said there weren't any specific details?"

"They don't issue orders like that," her fiance railed.

"Unless it's beyond TS, Dil… and I think this is, so please don't ask me to speculate over phone," Natalie pleaded with him.

Another moment of silence ensued.

"If it's that classified, you know we won't be able to talk, and the wedding..."

"Goes on hold… again," she interjected. "Why can't we just do a civil service and then fake the ceremony later when this mess is settled?"

"Does that mean you think we're winning?"

"Do you think we're winning?"

Neither answered the other's question. Natalie sat on the edge of her bed and small tower of books fell over. She swore.

"What?" The man on the other end inquired.

"My reading list just collapsed," she informed him. "And more than one slid between the wall and bed."

"Use the hockey stick to fish them out from under it."

"Still in the hall closet?"

"That's where I left it," he rejoined. "Nat, any idea how long this is going to last?"

"Are you even listening to me, Dillon?" Natalie grumbled in a dangerous manner as she stood, paced, and then aimed for the hallway closet.

"Sorry, sorry. Short message. Strange order. No details. Got it," Dillon quickly rambled out the correct response.

"I'll call as soon as I find out the schedule."

"Okinawa security might not let you, you know?"

"How did you…?" She burbled and grabbed another tee-shirt to fold and ignored the scattered books.

"Nat, please. Okinawa didn't fuck around when the outbreak started, and it's about the only secure medical facility left in full operation," Dillon chastised her. "Think about it: you'll be in the only zee-free zone I know of."

"And just a short underwater walk away from one of the most densely pack zee infestations on the planet," Natalie countered. "Safe and zee-free are relative terms, Dil, and you know that."

Her rebuttal appeared to give him pause for a few moments, but Dillon recovered by asking: "Are you going to be in Naha or Kadena?"

"Joint MEDCOM is in Kadena, so I guess that is where I'll be, but… remember, they didn't give me specifics. I could wind up anywhere… even Japan."

"Not Japan, too many hot spots and it's looking worse by the day, and..."

When Dillon's intermission lasted far longer than she expected, Natalie asked: "Dillon, what are you thinking?"

"Variant," he quietly answered.

An involuntary shudder ran through Natalie's body. The supposed virus named solanum already branched into five main variants causing the zee effects to alter slightly, but significantly, in different areas of the world. No one could pinpoint the cause of the variants. Natalie desperately hoped she would not be part of a team identifying another. Zee One, Zee-Tomsk, Zee-Lagos, Zee-Dehli, and Zee-Bogota already produced child variants, and she did not think the world needed yet another infectious zee virus with which to contend. It made fighting the masses of the horrid creatures all the more difficult.

"Please don't say that," she begged, inhaled deeply, and moved on. "Okay, listen, I've still got a ton of packing to do and I need to race to the air field. Their providing transport, but… lot to do, Dillon."

"I know, and thanks for calling instead of sending an email," Dillon rejoined

"Come on. I couldn't send you an email without violating protocol..."

"Baton Rouge…"

"That's not fair, and it's not in the same league as this!" Natalie huffed.

Dillon snickered.

"Remind me to lock you outside of the barriers when I get back."

"Cold, Nat. That is just cold, and right before our wedding," Dillon lamented.

"Which reminds me: you're in charge of planning again, and please don't deviate from the plan unless it absolutely, one-hundred percent necessary… except to maybe put it off again for a few more weeks," she reminded her fiance.

"Why do you get all the breaks?"

"I'm hanging up now," Natalie told him and refused to take the bait.

"I love you, Colonel Jenkins."

"I love you, Dr. Cree," she replied with real affection. "Don't forget I've got to kill the line first or you'll never make a call on that cell 'til I call again."

"Be safe, Nat. Stay guarded. Stay alert," the man instructed her.

"Be safe, be alert, and stay guarded. Bye."


She pressed the off button and the call ended. The Iridium phone suddenly felt very heavy in her hand. Natalie feared her wedding plans would again be moved back, and this time Dillon might actually follow through on his threat to refuse to set a date until after she got discharged from the military. Given her record in epidemiology, pathology, and virology, she doubted the US Army Medical Corps would let her go without a serious fight. Since the zee infestation, as they called it, spun out of control, the military got permission to use a limited form of conscription on personnel deemed essential and irreplaceable. Natalie never fought the two conscription orders she received since she firmly believed her skills better served mankind under the current circumstances.

"At least it makes packing easier. It's just uniforms," she said as she stowed the phone in her briefcase and returned to folding and packing clothing.

The only upside to a thirty-one hour flight came in the fact she could legally take sedatives to sleep once she read through the limited amount of briefing material given to her on the plane. The cargo plan carried essential medical supplies and thus the stops in Bismarck and Juneau caused the extended flight time. She would arrive in Okinawa in the morning, and Natalie wanted to adjust her sleeping intervals to coincide with local time. The completely Spartan nature of the information presented to her worried her far more than if she needed to plow through hundreds of pages of reports. It indicated whatever detail MEDCOM gave her would be highly classified. She dared not even speculate as she sat aboard the cargo plane in the surprisingly comfortable seats. She got two full nights of sleep during the trip. That in and of itself proved a rarity.

As expected, Natalie landed at the Kadena Air Force Base. Unexpectedly she got shunted to a smaller turboprop plane. Four other people met and flew with her: three military and one civilian. The civilian acted pensive and nervous from the start in the rearmost seat. Once the plane took off, it headed in a north by northeast direction. This spiked Natalie's curiosity.

"Colonel Lange, when do I get a formal briefing?" She requested.

"Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins, you will be briefed as soon as we reach our final destination," the older and senior woman told her. "I hate to do this to you, Natalie, but you'll understand once you do get briefed."

"That big, Mandy?" She asked and followed her friend's informal use of names.

She and Colonel Lange knew each other from before the zee war started while she completed a virology research specialty at John Hopkins University. Amanda Lange actually talked her into joining the Army with an insinuation that it would dovetail her straight into the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Natalie swallowed the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. Her path to a much desired appointment at the CDC seemed open until the first reports of a strange epidemic began to surface. Once it became clear the epidemic turned into a pandemic and the full horror of what the human race faced surfaced, everyone's career path changed. Natalie could not bring herself to leave the Army when it needed every specialist it could find.

"Colonel Jenkins, please refrain from asking direct questions as this stage," the younger man, Captain Joshua Nesbit, leaned forward and said.

The civilian kept staring out the window watching Okinawa pass below them. Natalie eyed him for a few moments. His dark skin looked ashen, and his lean frame appeared to come about from hunger rather than training. As she studied him, Natalie began to notice an oddity in his manner of dress. It seemed out of date, but she could not place the period. She wondered if he came from Europe. Natalie gently elbowed her senior officer and then nodded toward the man.

"Mr. Thomas, you maybe interested to know that Colonel Jenkins is one of the leading military researcher in the solanum virus..."

"Solanum virus," the man coughed out the words in a fairly heavy English accent, and London if Natalie judged correctly. He turned his head, and his dark eyes bore into Natalie's. "Medical research, eh? Tell me Colonel… Doctor… how does a virus stimulate neural activity in a dead brain?"

The captain grunted a warning to the civilian, who appeared to totally ignore the intelligence officer. His eyes remained locked with Natalie's.

"Well, it's believed the virus acts an electrochemical pathway between neurons in the medulla oblongata and the pons, and that is what allows motor function and primal drives," she answered since nothing she said could be considered classified in any capacity. She caught the look Colonel Lange tossed in her direction as she spoke.

"Rigor mortis and decay notwithstanding then, eh?" The man called Mr. Thomas spat out the question. He never blinked

Natalie did not open her mouth. It appeared the gentleman possessed some medical knowledge, but whether cursory or detailed could not be determined. However, Mr. Thomas also gave away a hint he knew something about the virus. He zeroed in on the question that often undermined the viral agent argument: no other virus ever acted as a causative agent in cerebral functioning post postmortem.

"Mr. Thomas, do you suspect some other agent is respon..."

"Natalie, not now," Colonel Lange interrupted before Captain Nesbit could interject. "We don't have much further to go and you will get a full briefing. Mr. Thomas?"

The man shifted his line of sight to the older woman.

"Per our… agreement, please do not engage on the topic until we reach the secure location," the woman said in a tight voice.

"Secure? Are you barmy, lady? No place is secure!"

Natalie watched the exchange. The civilian did not appear to respect military rank. Her friend and senior officer, however, maintained composure in the face of the man's hostility. Captain Nesbit sputtered a bit.

"May I remind you, sir, that Okinawa has remained free of infestation from almost the very beginning. What little outbreak they had they quarantined and eradicated within days of the first onset. I think you'll find no other location boasts the security..."

"Against the facking hundreds of millions… maybe a billion of 'em over in China? Lady, once they get a whiff of who've you got stashed here, they'll come walking under the ocean to get..."

"ENOUGH!" Captain Nesbit yelled. "This plane doesn't have classified clearance! We're less than one hour out from our next stop, and then a short drive to the compound. Whatever you think may happen would takes weeks to play out, Mr. Thomas, so we are secure as secure can be. Please keep your mouth shut until then!"

Natalie observed the man in the odd clothes. His fingers twitched in an unusual manner, and she thought she saw him mouth a word. He appeared as though he wanted to fight Captain Nesbit, but he never balled his fists. Even more than the strange order that brought her to Okinawa and back into contact with an old friend, the civilian intrigued her. Natalie wanted to know what he knew and how he knew it because the haunted look in his eyes spoke of a person who witnessed more than his fair share of terror. A hardness lurked under his lean frame, and one apparently tempered by a fierce fire.

Captain Nesbit's warning dampened all further conversation. Colonel Lange handed her another package of material to peruse, but Natalie knew all of the data it contained. Years of studying field reports gave her a keen eye in discerning the important bits often hidden in plain text. This did nothing more than to fuel her already insatiable curiosity regarding the situation. The forty minutes to it took to fly to the undisclosed airstrip near Nagato proved otherwise uneventful. Once they landed and luggage got secured from the cargo hold of the plane, the group got shunted into an armored Humvee. The vehicle always gave Natalie a feeling of claustrophobia and uneasiness as she believed it marked them as a viable target. It stunned her to see a special seat attached in the rear of the Humvee and the civilian go to it without being asked.

"Mandy?" Natalie whispered and jerked her head in the direction of the seat.

"Briefing, Nat," her friend gave the only response she likely would receive.

As happened in the plane, Captain Nesbit reminded them not to talk about classified information. Thus, the six people, if the driver got included, did not say a word to one another. The silence in the transport startled her. Not one of the radios remained active. She stared at the vehicle console and noted all the deactivated electronics. Recent experience told her not to ask.

It took the sextet twenty minutes of driving down rather normal looking and unpopulated roads before they reached the first security checkpoint. The fortified cinder block security station provided the only gap in the heavy gauge chain-link fence, or rather the three levels of chain-link fence. With the exception of the civilian, everyone produced their military identification. Natalie also needed to produce her transfer orders. Captain Nesbit spoke for the civilian who only gave his name: Dean Thomas from Woolsley-on-the-Hampton in the United Kingdom. When Natalie glanced at her senior officer, Colonel Lange simply shrugged and hinted she never heard of the locale either.

The process got repeated two more times at similar checkpoints as they approached a line of low buildings painted a nondescript blue-gray color. Natalie understood that from the air the buildings would be very difficult to see and difficult to target by visuals alone. Never before did she enter a secure a location of the same like. Her role as a research scientist often allowed her access to highly sensitive areas, but those paled in comparison to her current experience. When at last they rolled up to a building that look identical to the rest, Natalie also noticed a complete absence of people on the walkways. In fact, other than a few guards, she saw no one. The mix of excitement and trepidation brewing in her gut made her fidget.

The quintet exited the Humvee, and that then drove off and disappeared. A man came out the building, saluted the gathering, and walked up to the most senior officer. Dressed in the same camouflage duty uniform, the man stood out form the others military personnel who continued to wear dress uniforms.

"Colonel Lange, welcome back," he said in a barely formal manner.

"Major Garner, good to see you again," the colonel replied. "You know Captain Nesbit."

"Sir," Nesbit returned and saluted the man.

"Charlie," Major Garner intoned the name and held out a hand, and received a solid handshake for his efforts.

"By reputation you would know Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Jenkins," her friend introduced her.

"Ma'am," the major said and saluted.

Natalie returned the gesture and then held out a hand. The man accepted it and smiled. She returned that gesture as well.

"Big fan of your work in renal pathogenic load vectors. Makes early detection easier," Major Garner complimented her.

"Wait a second," Natalie said and grinned wider. "Gerald Garner from First Division Medical Advance? Nuclear biology?"

"The same, ma'am," he answered and smirked.

"Well paint me surprised and happy! I've been looking for any excuse to run into you and exchange notes."

"You've been on our list for a while, ma'am, and I'm glad you finally made it out this way."

"When did you get assigned..."

"Look, you can snog all you want later, but I'd be a bit more pleased if I got some serious concrete between me and the outside world," Dean Thomas curtly interrupted.

"He has a point," Captain Nesbit sheepishly concurred. "Colonel Jenkins and Mr. Thomas need to be shown their quarters, and we've got the first debriefing within the hour."

"True, sorry, it's just… professional curiosity," Major Garner half-apologized. He then spun on one heel and started walking to the unmarked building. "This is the intake and quartermaster's office. We've got your bunk assignments. Mr. Thomas, we've got a security detail for you once you get processed. It's not that we don't trust you..."

"You don't," Mr. Thomas injected as the group passed through the single heavy blast door disguised as a regular door. "Don't blame you, really. Think I was daft, too, if I wasn't arse deep in this already. This is bloody worse than the Dark..."

"Mr. Thomas!" Captain Nesbit cut into the monologue. "There is a time and place for that conversation, this is neither. Please refrain."

The comm unit on Major Garner's belt began to squeal even though the switch clearly showed it to be in the off position. Mr. Thomas visibly tensed, and the squealing got worse. The gaunt African-descended man leaned toward the captain. Captain Nesbit unsurprisingly held his ground.

"Listen, mate, I'm the one doing you the favor, so stop crawling up my arse. If you think I'm just going to stand around and take shite from you, then you've got another thing coming. One more time and I am out of here. Clear?" Dean Thomas said in such a threatening manner it gave everyone pause.

"Mr. Thomas, please, he means no disrespect, and what you can offer is vital to this effort if we're all going to survive," Major Garner intoned in a conciliatory fashion. "We're just used to… following a different set of rules."

"Your rules can get bent if he keeps it up!"

Captain Nesbit appeared angry. When the man's hand reached for an inner pocket, Major Garner jumped between them. His walkie-talkie started to scream. Both Nesbit and Thomas backed away. The civilian lowered his arm and the comm unit calmed although it continued to let out a softer high-pitched sound. Guards from further inside the building came streaming forward. Garner held up his hands, and the guards halted in their tracks.

"Mr. Thomas agreed to work with us, and we cannot treat guests this way," the major shouted. "Tulski, take your men back."

"Yes, sir," one of the guards said, and the six man contingent eased back in the direction they came.

"Captain Nesbit, while I applaud your adherence to protocol, this… particular situation requires… more tact. Mr. Thomas is an invited civilian guest and application of military procedures need to be augmented."

"Begging your pardon, sir, but this installation requires..."

"Do you forget, Captain, that two of the people who helped create this base are standing with you right now?"

Captain Nesbit appeared abashed. His gray eyes lowered.

"If we go to war with one another, we all lose. Understood?" Major Garner further chastised his subordinate.

"Yes, sir," Nesbit grudgingly acquiesced.

"Colonel Lange?" The major then differed to the senior officer.

"You're speaking my thoughts, Jerry," Lange gamely returned. "Diligence notwithstanding, civility and courtesy are also required… from everyone."

Natalie saw the effect the quiet words imparted. Both Nesbit and Thomas seemed to deflate a bit. She appreciated the way her friend could exude command without coming across as brusque or domineering. Amanda Lange, used to dealing with people who egos often entered a room ten feet before the person, knew how to control volatile meetings. The medical community in times of crisis often tended toward cantankerous when people held strong, educated opinions.

"Now, Major Garner if you could direct our guest and new detailee to quartermaster's office, I'd be most appreciative. We have a debrief within the hour," the colonel calmly reminded the group. "And, personally, I could use a bite to eat beforehand. Colonel Jenkins? Mr. Thomas? Do either of you require a meal before the meeting.

"Thanks, but I ate breakfast an hour before touchdown," Natalie declined.

"Right, thanks, but I'm good as well," Mr. Thomas also declined.

"Very well, I am off to the mess hall. Nat, give me a ring when you get settled. Mr. Thomas, your security personnel can take you wherever permissible on the base if you get finished early. We'll be meeting in D, level 5, and please use the causeways. We didn't spend several hundred million dollars on this place to expose anyone to unnecessary risks."

Along with the other two officers, Natalie saluted Colonel Lange. She returned the salute. The woman smiled warmly at Dean Thomas, and the man tilted his head back in response in a sort of backward nod.

"Captain, please accompany me if you would be so kind," Colonel Lange gave the order in a sweet tone. "We need to prepare for the meeting, and your knowledge of protocols will come in handy."

"But Mr. Thomas..." Captain Nesbit started to complain.

"Will be with a well-trained detail who know exactly what to expect from our guest as delivered by Major Garner. Mr. Thomas is in good hands, Captain."

Even Dean Thomas seemed surprised by the reprieve, and it took him a few moments before he bobbed his head in either agreement or appreciation. The colonel also walked over to the captain and her physical proximity became noticeable. Captain Nesbit sagged a bit and looked more docile. Colonel Lange saluted once more to her junior officers, and then escorted Captain Nesbit out of the lobby. The rest watched in silence.

"Don't know how she does that," Major Garner mumbled.

"Years and years of working with assholes, Major… and not just in the medical sense, either," Colonel Jenkins remarked.

Major Garner burst out laughing. Dean Thomas glanced between the two of them. The major turned to the man.

"For the next little while you'll be my guest, Mr. Thomas, until we get you racked," he said with a smirk.

"That doesn't involve ropes and horses, does it? My people got a history with that," the civilian darkly inquired.

Natalie snorted at the off-color remark. She recalled England outlawed slavery before the United States, but the British brought the practice to the colonies early on. Racial tensions in the United Kingdom differed from the US for geographical reasons. However, the allusion to the old form of torture seemed strangely out of place given the circumstances.

"I can attest to the fact the US Army doesn't use the rack," she said.

"At least not where anyone can see," the dark-skinned man quipped almost under his breath.

Natalie opened her mouth, but Major Garner shot her a look. She closed her mouth and simply nodded. She realized an unusual exchange took place, yet she could not figure out the entire scope of it. She hoped the debriefing would shed greater light on the civilian. Since Natalie got a tip not to respond, she simply nodded her head.

"This way, Mr. Thomas, and I think you'll find the accommodations more than adequate," the major stepped into the awkward silence. "Colonel Jenkins, you can proceed to the duty desk, and they can assist you. A guide will be waiting for you as well."

"Thank you, Major. See you at the briefing, and I hope we can meet informally later. There's a lot I would like to discuss with you," Natalie responded.

"Oh, I can guarantee we'll meet later, ma'am!"

Major Garner saluted, she returned it, and the man departed with the civilian through the only door other than the entrance. She stood alone in the lobby and suddenly felt awkward. With that, Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Jenkins went to find out what accommodations got prepared for her.

A comfortable suite of rooms awaited, and it made Natalie feel like she checked into a rather nice hotel. A central sitting room dominated with a large desk and office chair sitting in one corner, two doors led to the bathroom and bedroom, and the small kitchen got nested at the far end of the central room near the dining table. All in all, Natalie thought, she could live there for quite a while in relative comfort. Once she thought it, the notion made her heart sink. Instinct told her the rooms would be her home for a goodly amount of time.

The knock at the door announced her presumed commanding officer arrived for a short pre-meeting. With fifteen minutes to spare before the main meeting, Natalie arranged a dozen questions in order of importance in her mind. After opening the door, the two made a silent exchange. Amanda Lange rolled her eyes as if to comment on the earlier part of the day. The medium-brown orbs sparkled with both intelligence and wit. Natalie felt safe within the presence of her old friend.

"This is a suite, Mandy, so does that mean I'm here to stay for a while?" Natalie inquired as he let her guest into the rooms.

Since arriving, both changed into duty fatigues instead of dress uniforms. Natalie understood the meeting to be a working session, so dress greens could be put away. Seeing the senior officer dressed in the same manner reassured her.

"That depends on what we learn in the next couple of hours, but that doesn't matter. Your rank and reputation entitled you to this. Besides, you deserve some comfort after getting pulled halfway around the world," Colonel Lange said as she walked through the room and sank into the armchair facing the short end of the coffee table.

"Can you at least give me some clue as to what I'm about to face in the meeting?" Natalie requested as she sat on the long sofa diagonally from her friend.

"Yes, but I won't. You need to hear this straight through from the source. I don't want to prejudice you at the start."

Natalie gazed at the woman. Amanda's reply proved uncharacteristic in many regards, especially since Natalie carried the highest security clearance available. She immediately amended the notion to clearances of which she knew. Although two years passed since they last worked together, she thought Amanda trusted her more. However, as she stared at her friend, she saw the matter of trust did not really factor into the equation.

"Is this really that important?" She inquired.

"This changes everything we know and understand about the zee, Nat. I… let me say it took me a long time to both accept and recognize the importance of this," the woman told her in a quiet voice. "Oh, and you've achieved a new security level when you got here. You'll get the non-disclosure forms at the meeting, but… Natalie, you need to take this more seriously than anything you've encountered yet."

"Mandy, I've studied corpses that were trying to kill and eat me in an attempt determine how… what allowed them to continue after death. I've lost too many friends to the infection and watched them turn into the same unstoppable… almost unstoppable killing machines. It doesn't get any more serious than that!"

"Want to bet?"

The confident, soft statement made Natalie sit back in her seat. As a rule, medical professionals tended to avoid betting over outcomes since one could never cover all of the factors. That her friend uttered the challenge gave Natalie pause. Over half of her question list fell away. Amanda sat forward.

"Nothing I could tell you in advance can prepare you for what you're about to learn. This, Nat, is unprecedented," Amanda said in low tone.

Few people could influence Natalie's thinking with such cryptic remarks. Yet her faith in knowing Colonel Amanda Lange personally sent for her made all the difference. In less than two seconds she made up her mind.

"Where do I sign?" Natalie flatly stated.

"This one caries a treason clause."

"Blue or black ink?"

"I knew I could count on you!" Colonel Lange gently cheered. "Nat, please, please, please believe me when I say this is going to blow your mind like nothing else you've ever discovered!"

"More than dead people shambling around instead of lying in the ground? More than all those tests I ran on solanum?" Natalie skeptically countered.

"That is just the tip of the iceberg."