The Truth Between Wands and Zee
by D. O'Shae
Natalie felt a numbness settle into her bones as she absorbed the information. She stopped watching the memory replay and stared at the table. Only when more yelling and screaming took place did she watch again, and regretted what she saw. Later she learned Harry found out from the notebook the bowels of the facility were filled with the new form of inferi creatures, which explained why he wanted to leave. Ron convinced him they needed to collect evidence regarding the illegal magical experimentation. As they did, the feel and sound of rumbling began to emerge. Ron and Harry grabbed what they could and made for the exit. Zee and infected inferi, now called modus inferi, broke through doors as they raced to get out. The sound of zee moaning and pounding on the walls grew.
Ron managed to apparate, but he did not manage to get a hold of Harry's hand in time. Instead, he got bit in the attempt. Natalie already guessed Ron died, but learning how and why left her shaken. Two men sacrificed their lives to get the precious information.
"The Ministry people at the outpost from where they set out barely had time to extract his memories before he started to turn into a zed. They used his own gun to take him out," Dean Thomas concluded the grisly story.
"The zed..." Padma began.
"Zee," Savini corrected her.
"Whatever," the woman grunted at him, but she lowered her volume. "These things were first generation, and they were stuck there for over two years without anything to eat. They craved magic. When Ron and Harry went in there, it must've drove them into a frenzy to sense magic again. Who knows what barriers they broke down to get to them."
"Ron only brought back a few pages of research. Harry had the notebook detailing everything, and, well, you know what happened to him," Dean said, and his voice took on a bitter, hard edge. "We do know this: the Chinese muggle government worked hand-in-hand with the magical community to create these things… these modus inferi. They wanted to create an army they didn't have to feed or shelter or supply: just turn 'em loose on whatever battlefield they wanted."
"Stupid fuckers," Randy Miller said, and he seemed to speak for others as well.
"What about it?" Padma spat at him in response. "You don't think half the other countries in the world were doing the exact same thing? The United States got sanctioned by the International Magical Confederation in the nineteen-twenties, the nineteen fifties, and again in the nineteen-eighties for illegal cooperation and experimentation between the military and magical community. The old Soviet Union did it, Cuba got caught, there were lots of rumors about India, and even our Department of Mysteries were up to some questionable practices with British Intelligence before all this got started."
"Oh, so you're saying we're to blame, huh?" Lou Savini rumbled the question.
"I think you missed the point, Lou. Both Bray and Thomas are saying we're all to blame," Colonel Lange stepped in to quell what looked to be a heated argument on the rise. "Both sides participated. It was a joint effort. The normies provided the impetus and probably the funding, and the magi provided the means. We're all at fault, and that's why this team now exists."
Natalie sighed with relief when Amanda took control of the conversation. She felt too rattled by the truth to take time debating who should bear the guilt. Countless questions regarding the solanum virus got answered, but countless more arose. The prospect of what they actually faced unnerved her. In the midst of her rumination, she felt an elbow gently tap her arm. Nina Ramirez held her gaze when Natalie looked for the source. The woman representing the Navy gave her an imploring look. Natalie felt her arm raise.
"Yes, Natalie?" Amanda said with a hint of schoolmarm in her timbre.
"Did your people try to figure out a cure, Major Thomas?" She asked and hoped she tried to sound neutral.
Dean Thomas shifted his eyes away before saying: "We tried. Nothing worked… sometimes it made the test subjects worse. More than a few of us think something went wrong with the spells that the wizards never noticed. These zed, zee, are… magical mutants."
"The biggest problem we faced were, I guess are, the zee themselves. They wiped out our communities almost faster than we could count. No one really knows how many of us survived... at least in England. I haven't heard much about other places," Padma said and added a dismal facet.
"So where does this leave us? What do you expect us to do?" Arliss asked and directed the questions at his commanding officer.
"Be creative, Arliss," Amanda said, but without levity. "We have reams and reams of detailed data regarding what the… what did they call it again? I mean what Harry found in the notebook."
"Modus inferi," Padma answered before Dean who looked ready to take out his wand and fight. "But that's not what most of the zee are, ma'am. These zee are mostly transformed muggles – normies – regular people. Inferi would have to be created first before they could be infected and turned into the mutant variety."
"Well, that narrows things down a bit," the colonel replied in an offhanded manner.
"Oh, really, Colonel? Please, explain that 'cause I'm at a loss here," Nina half-begged the question.
Colonel Lange gave the Navy commander a short look before saying: "We always knew one of the infection vectors came from the bite. We still don't know why those with intact brains rose from the dead, but it gives us some clue..."
"Ley lines," Dean Thomas flatly stated. "Lines of magical energy that crisscross the entire world. Whatever this spell combination is it travels along those line like someone with a cold bug sneezing in a closed room. The Brazilians figured it out last year. I think… it's not alive but it's attracted to magic."
"And now we have the airborne method of transmission," Amanda said without sounding smug. She glanced around before adding: "And this is why we needed to come together ages ago. Did any of you piece the time line together as to when Harry and Ron went on their mission?"
Six heads tilted to various angles as each person sought to figure out the answer. Natalie began reviewing what she remembered from the memory presentation. Unfortunately, Amanda's talk of infection vectors still occupied her thinking.
"Jesus, that was more than three years ago," Randy breathed out the words in a stunned, staccato fashion.
"Why the hell did they wait so long..."
"International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, mate," Dean cut into Jerry Garner's protest. "And the fact someone misplaced the vial holding Ron's memory about what they discovered. We knew it existed, but it took us a while to find the damn thing. It got passed around from person to person for six months before I could finally take a proper look at it."
Not one milligram of apology entered into Thomas' statements. Both Garner and Savini seethed in response. However, the baleful glare of Colonel Lange warned them to maintain civility.
"Don't forget the British magic ministry also took a huge hit, and the loss of civilian coordination only complicated the situation," Amanda chipped in. "But eventually they located what I think may be the most important pieces of information regarding the zee plague. They also brought it to us."
Natalie felt her eyebrows draw together as she contemplated what that really meant.
"Padma and small contingent of British magi contacted the French office of the World Health Organization. As soon as they said they held information about solanum, they got… well, Padma got sent here. Two refused to fly and couldn't just magic themselves here without good coordinates. The third needed to return to England. She's also the one who tipped us off about Dean and where to find him."
"Bloody traitor," Dean grumbled, but anger seemed absent from his words.
"Major Bray saved your life Major Thomas," Colonel Lange bluntly retorted. "You were heading straight into zee infested lands, unless you were trying to commit suicide."
The air all but crackled because of the expression that crawled over Dean's dark face. His brown eyes tried to bore holes through the colonel. Once again Natalie saw his right hand twitch. In the back of her mind she guessed him to be a wand slinger.
"I want to reiterate once more that we don't have time for recriminations, people. One minute spent accusing each other is a minute lost to figuring out the solution if we want to save the human race from extinction," the commanding officer told them in a steely voice. "And let me assure all of you that this is an extinction level event. Think of the odds, like we discussed before, and how long we, the non-infected, can hold out."
Natalie already knew the answer to that question. Unless they found a way to counteract the magic infection, the remaining world population would be consumed – literally – in two or three more years. Pockets of humanity might survive for a while after that, but sooner or later supplies would become exhausted and starvation would take hold. Farming proved difficult when swarms of zee trampled crops and ate the farmers. Sealed compounds did not provide an answer. Natalie read enough reports about isolated communities with closed gates that got destroyed from within when a person died unexpectedly and turned zee despite whatever precautions got out into place. Safety, she learned long ago, tended to be an illusion.
"Gates, guards and guns aren't enough," Natalie said out loud although she meant to say it only in her heard.
"Exactly," Amanda said in support of the verbal slip.
"But if these people couldn't find an answer…?" Randy asked the leading part of the question.
"They lacked resources. We don't. We lacked good intel. They didn't. We got lucky that somebody in their community saw past the fear, panic, and paranoia and decided to come to us. We'd've never found them on our own, and then…" Colonel Lange responded and left the final conclusion unspoken.
Fifteen minutes later, after another heated exchange regarding how to best approach the research, the colonel called for an early lunch break. Natalie quietly gathered her materials and set off for her quarters. With the exception of Savini and Garner who got into an argument, all appeared disturbed by what they leaned and what it could ultimately mean. It did not matter, Natalie thought as she sought the confines of her rooms, whether she believed Padma Bray and Dean Thomas. Belief did not play a part in the current situation. Facts, whether magical or otherwise, became the most important element. Natalie thought her friend and commanding officer to be absolutely correct: the magi and normies worked together to create this menace, and they needed to work together to solve it.
Natalie sat in her room hugging her briefing book while staring blankly at a wall as her mind attempted to consider the best course of action to take. Her training kicked in when her ability to suspend disbelief began to falter. As she did when she first discovered solanum did not exist, Natalie channeled her want to panic into more productive avenues. It saved her career, possibly her sanity, on several occasions. Only the rapid and repeated knocking on her door broke her concentration.
"What?" She grumbled at the faces on the other side when she pulled the door open.
"Already at work, I see," Amanda said and smirked. "You always get so testy when your brain is chugging away on some problem."
"Don't apologize, and I'm glad I caught you in this mood. It'll help," the colonel said and began to push her way into the entrance.
"Hello, Natalie," Padma said in an apologetic voice. She stepped out from behind the colonel.
"God, where are my manners. Come in," Natalie rejoined and stepped aside.
Ten minutes later the three women sat in her small living room. She prepared a plate of cheese, crackers, and some small fruit for her guests. Hot tea served as the main beverage, and Padma expressed gratitude for it. Once comfortable, the trio sat staring at one another.
"Thomas resigned his commission and is probably already gone," Amanda told her.
"It didn't seem like he wanted to be here," Natalie offered her opinion.
"Dean is a fighter and an auror at heart, so being cooped up here didn't sit well with him. He delivered what he need to hand over and… well, he'll head off to do… whatever," Padma tried to give an explanation.
"How did you and your people know he knew how to unlock those memories?" Colonel Lange inquired.
"Because those memories are his. It's why you could hear him talking to Agatha Wentworth, the head of the Auror's Office."
"But I thought… Ron's memories..." Natalie sputtered as he understanding of who did what got rearranged again.
"They really did get completely lost eventually, but not before Dean saw them in a penseive with Agatha. The whole London… episode disrupted their work," the woman of Hindu descent told her.
"It's why we tracked him down and captured him. I met with the current Minister of Magic, Kirby Kelsey, once I accepted all of this is real, and he told us where to find Dean," Amanda said and looked drawn. "He put up one hell of a fight, I'll give him that much."
"Dean worked at the outpost where Harry and Ron got started. He knew about the mission from the beginning. He doesn't like to talk about it or admit it, but he was there when they had to… when Ron turned," Padma quietly said. "All of us go back a long way and went through a lot together. Dean's on a personal war with the Chinese now. He wants to find any survivors of that research facility and bring them to justice or worse… and I think you can guess which one he wants."
"We caught him trying to sneak into China through Chumur in Kashmir; its on the border near Gegyai."
"Good lord, Mandy, isn't he aware that entire province is lost to the zee?"
"He does, but… I have a sneaking suspicions Thomas knows something we don't, and I really hoped he stay around and tell us," Amanda said with naked consternation.
Since only one of them knew anything in detail about Dean Thomas, the two non-magi women slowly began to look at Padma.
"Dean has a, I guess, complicated history. He's half muggle, and it got used against him in the Voldemort Wars. I think he's angry because both sides of his heritage were involved in making this mess. He wants to end it his way, but I feel pretty confident he'd come back and tell me whatever he learns once… if he finds what he's looking for and stays alive," Padma said and sank into herself a bit.
Natalie felt sorry for the woman. The only connection to her world departed and now she worked alone. The situation did not appear to sit well with her.
"Padma, are there any doctors or medics or… whatever you call them who'd be willing to join us?" Natalie questioned her guest looking for a way to forestall any internal collapse Padma might suffer.
The woman looked to the full-bird colonel who said: "Told you I wasn't the only one who'd ask you this. You're not dealing with typical soldiers, Padma. These are doctors and researchers. We prefer answers before we start shooting."
Natalie nodded in complete agreement.
"A couple of people come to mind. If they're still alive, I think I could persuade them to come here. I don't suspect you have an aviary? I'll need to send some owls later," the magi woman inquired.
"We're probably going to need to set one of those up," Amanda said with a sly grin. "Will any type of owl do?"
Natalie and Amanda got a short lecture on the nature of owls used in the magical community. Amanda took notes, including the names of several people to whom she could surreptitiously appeal for assistance. Natalie started to realize a small contingent of witches and wizards would likely set up shop alongside them. Their world appeared no less complicated than her own, except their needs differed in several important aspects. Secrecy, of course, topped the list.
"I'm going to have to talk to the brass and have a long, long conversation with Jerry," Colonel Lange sighed. "Will your people be able to operate here?"
"Sure, we've lived and worked next to mug… normies for untold centuries. It's not like we're a different species," Padma said and shrugged.
"Oh, I can think of one or two people who might disagree with that."
Natalie looked wide-eyed at her commanding officer.
"Savini," the two military women said together as if rehearsed.
"But he'll come around once he gets used to the idea that witches and wizards exist. Lou's actually a pretty good guy. We're going to need him to figure out what is going on in the brains of the zee. I worked hard to get him here," Amanda revealed and defended her subordinate.
The three women then settled into their own private thoughts for a few moments. Natalie wondered what it would be like to share a base with such extraordinary people, and she also wondered how they would react to being revealed to normie military personnel. Granted, it would be a very small number, but it flew in the face of their conventions.
"Colonel Jenkins… Natalie, can I ask you a question?" Padma inquired.
"Do you think we can find a solution to these zee and, if we do, will they revert back to normal?"
"Yes and no," she answered.
"Is that a maybe, Nat?" Her normie friend queried.
"Ah, it's not a maybe. Yes, I think we can find a solution for the zee plague, and, no, I don't think any of the infected will return to their previous state. They're technically dead but ambulatory. The solution we're after means neutralizing the very agent keeping them going: getting rid of the magic and spells. Once it's gone, they'll just fall over… dead," Natalie explained.
Padma nodded. Natalie reached over and patted the woman's arm. Padma covered the comforting hand with her own.
"Don't think I didn't hope for the same thing for a long time," Natalie told her. "Science and fact don't care how we feel or what we want. We have to accept whatever it is for what it really is, Padma. I think the same has got to be true for your people as well."
Padma nodded again and sucked in a trembling breath.
"When we're successful," Amanda said and drew strange glances from the other two. "Consider the alternative if we're not."
Natalie and Padma looked at one another and each bobbed their head in agreement.
"When we're successful," the colonel began anew, "there are so many other lessons we need to take away from this. I don't think we can afford to hide from one another any more, Padma, your people and ours. Our survival depends on cooperation. In fact, and I do mean fact, this whole mess began with cooperation, but the wrong kind… the secret kind. I think the time for secrets needs to come to an end."
"Can you guarantee our safety?" Padma quickly asked with an edge to her voice.
"Can you guarantee ours?" Amanda fired back.
Natalie watched as the two assessed one another. Therein lay a main issue: each side feared the other. Non-magical people possessed great numbers while the magical people possessed staggering power. Any battle between the two would be devastating.
"How many magi hate normies?" Natalie presented what she thought a very salient question.
"Voldemort thought we should rule over you. He thought of muggles as cattle and treated them like it. He was the worst, but… I've known my fair share who wouldn't mind if muggles just up and disappeared," the British witch confessed.
"And I'm sure there's more than few people who'd be willing to burn magi at the stake again," Amanda careful said the words as though she did not like the feel of them in her mouth. "People will fear the power of the magi."
"Like we fear your numbers."
Some truths proved ugly.
"At least we know how it got started, and that gives us a place to start," Natalie said when the depressing silence lasted too long for her tastes. "If you can get more magi involved, it'll make the research happen than much faster… especially if they have medical experience."
"I'm already thinking of the healers I can contact," Padma said and her tone hinted at relief at the change of topic. "I don't think any of my people fully appreciate how much you know about the human body. You're science and technology always confused us because it doesn't work around magic most of the time."
"Hmm," Amanda hummed in a fashion familiar to Natalie. "That'll be an issue we need to figure out and overcome if we can. Maybe we should get some physicists involved in this project."
Natalie saw the puzzled look on Padma' face and said: "Physicists probe the nature of matter and energy, and… we are going to need a few, Mandy. Savini will want some. He's going to want to know what magic is doing on the atomic level that's affecting the molecular facets. Hell, I want to know!"
"We have magical theorists who… sort of do similar research. Some if it is kind of silly, I must admit, but I know one who would love to work with your physicists. He's keen on understanding the fundamental nature of magic," Padma eagerly offered.
"See? This is what we needed to be doing ages ago! We're looking for answers… the truth!" Colonel Lange crowed.
"No, Mandy, truth is rather subjective. We're looking for fact," Natalie corrected her friend and superior officer who turned narrowed eyes toward her. "The moment we start going after the truth, I think that's went the kindling gets piled around the stakes and wands come out for all the wrong reasons. No, the whole concept of truth is a lot different than something being true."
"See what I mean?" Amanda said to Padma. "She comes at problems from a different angle. I told you she'd be the first to accept who and what you are."
"It doesn't matter whether I accept who and what Padma is," Natalie quickly interceded before anyone else. "Even if I don't accept her, it doesn't stop her from being a witch, does it?"
"Are you saying you don't..."
"Oh, I do, Padma, even though it runs counter to almost everything I was taught. This is the only time when I've seen the concept of magic answer questions science can't," Natalie freely admitted. "Once I couldn't find a trace of the so-called solanum virus, I had no way to explain how the dead manage to move like they did or why the kept wanting to eat people. Magic… magic offers real and reasonable, if that applies, answers."
Natalie reached over, seized a hunk of cheese, and stuffed it into her mouth before she could say anything further. A couple of her statements came more from speculation than accumulated evidence. However, she meant what she said about fact trumping belief. Belief, she told herself, did not negate intuition or the ability to see patterns before the cause could be discovered. She chewed slowly to keep her mouth occupied.
"This is a new world whether we like it or not, and it's going to need some new rules," Colonel Lange muttered, and it sounded more like a personal thought. "It won't be easy. Change is never easy, but we really don't have a choice any more. I just hope we can find enough people willing to change their thinking and add it to the collective good."
"I need to tell you something and… and maybe it will put you in a different mind," Padma spoke slowly when Amanda said nothing further.
Both Natalie and her commanding officer nodded, and their faces reflected seriousness.
"Magic just happens," Major Bray began. "It's all around us. Even if every last witch and wizard got wiped out, we wouldn't be gone as long as people exist. It'd only be a matter of time before one got born somewhere."
"Are you saying magi occur naturally?" Amanda asked for clarification.
Padma nodded and said: "One of the best and most powerful witches I know came from a family that didn't have any witches or wizards on either side for centuries. She just happened by accident of birth."
"That certainly does put a different spin on it, so..." and Amanda paused for a moment, "so any of us could be a witch or a wizard."
"The ability shows up in childhood, early childhood, so if weird things didn't start happening around you by the time you turned five, chances are you're a true muggle," the British witch told them. "And just so you know: we give birth to muggles all the time. We call them squibs. Kind of a cruel name now that I think about it."
"Just so you know, we've got things called squibs as well, but they're small explosive devices," Lange rejoined.
Padma snickered. Natalie watched the woman. She believed the two of them started on a path of real friendship. After their lunch together, it seemed easier to converse. As with nearly everything else in her life, Natalie formed a long list of questions she wanted to ask the unique woman. Given the current state of conversation, she decided to take a chance.
"Padma, I don't know if I should ask, but were you the one who suggest coming to the normie military for assistance… both to lend and receive?" Natalie inquired and hoped she did not cross a line. She also caught sight of Amanda raising her eyebrows, but her friend did not object.
"No," Padma said and glanced downward. "I was against the whole notion at first. Hermione Weasley came up with the idea and made it her personal campaign for over a year. I can see now she was right."
Both army women blinked in surprise.
"Hermione is Ron's widow, and that might help explain why she pushed so strongly for this."
"What changed your mind?" Amanda inquired in an oddly neutral voice.
"Hermione asked me if I wanted the death of my husband and children to only be a statistic. She lost one of her sons to the zee early on and then Ron on that mission. She kept bringing it up over and over and over. It made me angry: very, very angry."
Padma halted, and she clearly stared down the path of the past. Neither Natalie or Amanda said a word. The trio sat in silence for a long while.
"But she was right in the end. Hermione has a bad habit of doing that. She and I both knew Emerson was already gone when he… it killed Annabelle and Panav. They were just toddlers… babies, and it didn't make any sense..." Padma said and slowly began to whisper. Tears rolled quietly down her face.
"Padma," Natalie gently said the name and hope it conveyed the message the woman did not need to continue.
"Doing this, being here, working with you… this gives some meaning to their lives. I'm doing this for them… and me."
"Then you're doing this for all the right reasons," Amanda firmly stated.
Padma looked up, and Natalie saw fire in the dark, almost mysterious eyes. The British woman turned her head to face Amanda, and Natalie watched her friend's reaction. Again, no one spoke and waited.
"This is also my revenge on those bloody awful things," Padma seethed the words. "I hate them. I hate that they exist. I hate what they've done to everyone… to our world. If I can help stop them, then Emerson and the twins have a purpose for dying like they did!"
"And you think those reasons are wrong, Padma? I don't think so," Colonel Lange said as if sharing common knowledge.
"But I hate the slaggers so, so much! It burns in me!"
"We're supposed to hate them," Natalie blurted and could scarcely believe it needed to be said. "There's a good biological reason why were repulsed by dead things we don't intend to eat. This is what makes what happened so fucking wrong when they got created! Don't give up on that hate. Use it to wipe the zee out of existence!"
The vehemence Natalie spewed seemed to act like a check on Padma's roiling emotions. Her face lost the feral squint it produced, and she gaped at Natalie, who felt no shame in her words. Natalie sat back in her chair in a self-satisfied manner.
"Okay," Amanda murmured.
"I'm serious, Mandy. How can you not hate them? I know I act like I treat the zee like a medical curiosity, but why the hell do think I've stayed with the Army through all of this?" She begged her questions to her friend.
Amanda Lange's mouth opened and then closed.
"Who did you lose?" Padma asked without any preamble.
"Lost my parents in the first battle of Chicago. Most of my mom's side of the family died in Hudson Bay incident trying to make it out of New York. My brother thinks I'm insane 'cause I keep doing this, but… Jesus, what the hell else can I do? I hate the zee for what they did to my life, too, Padma," Natalie said with old anger eating away at the edge of every sentence.
"Is this why you won't marry Dillon?" Amanda queried.
Natalie threw the woman a nasty look for playing dirty with her personal knowledge.
"Nat, I get it. Who would want to start a family in this shitty mess?"
"I'm going to lose him, Mandy, if I don't go through with it soon, but… he gets so pissed off each time I get a new assignment that changes our plans," Natalie confessed to her mentor.
"Maybe you won't have a reason to avoid your wedding after we get to work and solve this," Padma said in an eerily calm manner. "And I think you'll love having children when the time is right."
Natalie looked at the woman, and a feeling of dread and horror swept through her as she thought about what the English magi suffered. It seemed amazing Padma would be willing to endure reviewing what happened to her friends Ron and Harry, what might possibly happen to Dean Thomas, and living with a constant reminder of her family's demise. Natalie did not think she could go on if something like that happened to her. It formed the core of why she blithely accepted any assignment or detail that conflicted with the wedding date.
"Maybe when the world is normal again," she whispered to her fears.
"Then let's make it normal again, Nat. Padma and Dean… maybe more of their people, too, are giving us the best shot we've had since it started," Amanda told her in a steely voice.
"I'll tell you what," Padma piped up in a flinty tone. "You bring the science and I'll bring the magic. Let's get rid of those rotters once and for good!"
Natalie looked at the woman with the tear-streaked face. The resolve she saw on the features seemed as infectious as the zee plague. Natalie latched onto the idea behind the stony visage. When she glanced at Amanda, her friend appeared to be of the same mind. Then again, Natalie never knew a time when Amanda Lange shirked away from a fight when she could use her mind instead of muscle. It felt invigorating.
"You got a deal!" She said to both women.
"Then let's get started," Amanda encouraged them.
"Good, and I know just where to begin."
Both Amanda and Padma watched her with expectant faces.
"I want to know how these spells work," Natalie implored Padma as she grabbed a notebook with one hand and pen with the other. "So tell me everything you think magic is… and I'll listen… and don't worry about me not believing you."