"Baby Bear to Mama Bear, I'm in the cottage," came Emily Finch's static-tinged voice through the headset. The student nurse was loitering conspicuously at the mouth of an alley.
"I hear you and see you, Baby Bear. You're doing brilliantly. Just sit tight until Papa Bear gives us the signal, OK?"
"I think you're meant to say 'copy that'," Padma suggested.
From their vantage point over a terrace roof top, Padma and Hermione were watching their morning mission unfold.
"Are the call signs really necessary?"
Hermione shrugged. "What's life without whimsy?" She was fully occupied watching Emily's position through a pair of binoculars.
"Whimsy?" Padma muttered. "We're about to use an eighteen year old girl as bait…"
It occurred to Hermione that she, Harry and Padma often applied vastly different standards of maturity to the younger team members in their charge. She supposed they could be accused of being slightly hypocritical, considering that Hermione and Harry, in particular, had regularly put themselves in dangerous situations since before puberty. Albus Dumbledore had been either very confident in their abilities, or he had some rather relaxed views regarding child endangerment. Neither theory was palatable, frankly.
"She volunteered for this," Hermione pointed out to Padma.
"I suppose the field of contenders for the two-hundred meter zombie dash was rather thin," said Padma.
"Emily was a track star at her college back in the US. She thought she could help."
Agent Richards' gravelly baritone came through the headset. "Papa Bear now in position. We're ready."
"These headsets are posh," Padma commented, touching her virtually invisible ear piece.
Hermione was in agreement. "Got to hand it to the Americans—they don't do things by halves."
The two women sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying a rare dose of unimpeded mid-morning sunshine, already a rarity in London under normal circumstances. Padma took a sip from her water bottle and then offered it to a grateful Hermione, whose fair skin was already sunburnt.
"Why call this operation Goldilocks, though? I always found that story rather disturbing."
"The Cowboy's idea," Hermione said. "Apparently Mercer wanted the specimen to be 'just right'."
"And how are we going to guarantee that?" Padma wondered. "We're not going to have much choice in whatever Emily manages to lure into that alley."
Hermione sat up in rigid attention, adjusting the binoculars "Speaking of—here we go! Baby Bear, Goldilocks in on approach. Merlin, we have ten! No, make that twelve! Richards? I mean, Papa Bear, do you see this?"
"Yeah, I see 'em," said Richards. "More importantly, Baby Bear, they see you. Goldilocks is on the move. You get on your starting block, you hear?"
Everyone could hear Emily's ragged breathing. "Oh, Jesus," the girl whispered. A few profanities followed. Hermione concurred heartily with them all.
"I don't like this," Padma said.
"Closing in…" Hermione told the team.
"Now?" Emily hissed.
"Not yet," said the Cowboy. "Wait."
Hermione was practically hanging over the roof parapet now. "Papa Bear, are you sure? They're speeding up."
"Now?" Emily implored.
"Almost," said Richards. "We don't want them to quit the chase as soon as she's out of sight; their vision is based on movement. Like T-Rex, remember?"
"That's not technically accurate," Padma pointed out. "The Tyrannosaurus Rex's vision was actually more sophisticated than—"
"NOW! NOW! NOW!" shouted Richards, nearly perforating Hermione's ear drum. "Baby Bear, GO!"
Emily ran, blowing a rape whistle as she went. As predicted, the zombies gave chase. The noise and movement was impressive for a relatively small group. They snarled, goose-stepped and lurched. The scene might have been comical if it weren't straight out of a nightmare. All of the team members had seen what happened when even the most lumbering, seemingly inept horde got a hold of fresh meat.
They ripped into it like day-old bread.
"Damn, she's fast!" Padma observed.
Hermione's chest hurt from holding her breath. "Good thing, too! She's nearly at the fence! Wallen! Yoshida! Are you ready?"
Felix Wallen's soft, steady, voice sounded over the radio. "We're ready."
Emily hit the fence running, fairly leaping onto it. She scrambled over with impressive athleticism and was met on the other side by the ever stoic Wallen, and Professor Yoshida.
The zombies collided with the metal fence so violently that some of the pack members at the front were crushed; pulpy, severely decomposed bodies splitting against rusted metal, spilling putrid viscous fluid that was the colour of pus. Their feral bloodlust destroyed any sense of culinary discretion they might have had and the remaining pack members began to feed on their incapacitated counterparts. The weight pushing against the fence intensified. It began to creak and buckle.
"It's going to fall over," Padma predicted.
"Now, Wallen!" Hermione yelled.
Wallen and Yoshida went on a Petrificus free-for all. In short time the entire pack was frozen in place. Many lay on the ground, in pieces. The remainder of the team Apparated into the alley, regrouping on the other side of the fence.
"Merlin, that was close," Padma said, clutching Hermione's arm in relief.
Professor Yoshida gave Emily a high-five. "Emily, very good job!" said the elderly Potions Master.
Hermione approached the fence, trying to make out where one creature started and another began. Unfortunately, there weren't many viable specimens left. Nearly all were sporting serious mangling from the feeding frenzy. In due course, however, an intact specimen was located. It took the efforts of both Wallen and Yoshida to levitate it over the fence. Padma slid a stretcher beneath the Petrified creature, before wrapping it up with a tarp.
The team (now heavy one zombie) Disapparated for Grimmauld Place
Back in the laboratory, Alec Mercer's eyes widened as he inspected the captured specimen. To say they had acquired a large zombie was putting it mildly.
"I ask for fun size, you guys bring me Thor."
Hermione tilted her head to the side, as if the new angle would allow the enormous zombie to fit better into her field of vision, "It's not about size, Alec. It's what you do with it. Were you concerned about it being too big for the machine?"
"I just thought a small specimen would be easier to transport. Technically all that needs to fit in the MRI machine is its head."
Hermione was halfway out the door. She had a mission briefing to plan. "Good, because he was the only member in that group that still had one left."
Following the successful capture of the zombie behemoth, the mission briefing for the hospital visit the next day was well-attended.
Research and medical staff, Ministry clerks, two government agents and one Minister for Magic gathered in the meeting room on the second floor. The Minister handed out copies of the mission plan and route diagrams. There was about ten minutes of silent reading. Hermione stood in a corner of the room beside the blacked-out windows.
The Minister waited until everyone was looking at him again before he spoke.
"As you can see, we've selected Welwyn Hospital at Devonshire Place. It's a small, day-surgery hospital with two MRI machines and I am told boasts an impressive array of backup generators that are partially fed by solar power. Agent Richards and Hermione Granger have already been to the site this morning to inspect the machines and they assure me that both are still functioning, and more importantly, they are turned on."
"If the hospital still has power, why would it have been a problem if they were switched off?" asked Honoria Cloot.
"You can't simply turn on an MRI machine that has been powered off," Mercer explained. "It's expensive, highly technical and time-consuming."
"Timing is very critical. It's imperative that we complete the scans, quick smart," said Richards. "Every additional minute spent there puts us at risk of being discovered and we will already be moving a damn sight slower on account of lugging our two specimens around."
"One specimen," Hermione corrected, coolly. "One patient and one specimen."
Richards' returning stare was just as cool. "Sure."
"You'll be Apparating to Welwyn in two teams," Scrimgeour continued. "The first team will arrive at designated entry point to ensure a clear path to the nearest machine. Once a safe route has been established, the rest of the team, who will be carting Mr Weasley and the specimen, will follow."
Here, Scrimgeour addressed Mercer, the only Muggle on the mission. "As you are aware, Dr Mercer, Apparation can only be undertaken if the Apparator has already been to a destination once before. This, of course, does not apply to side-long Apparation. I am assured that our London regulars, Hermione and Honoria, are already quite familiar with the hospital, so you'll be travelling side-along."
"Great," said Mercer. "I threw up over Dr Patil's shoes last time."
Padma nodded vigorously. "They were suede. I had to throw them out."
There was a bit of a pause as Scrimgeour digested this information, before he resumed the briefing. He seemed slightly hesitant now. "There are two last-minute additions to the team list. Jason Lam, being the only other person with experience in…" Scrimgeour looked to Padma for assistance with the phrase he had only recently been introduced to.
"Medical imaging," she supplied.
"Medical imaging," Scrimgeour echoed, "will therefore assist Dr Mercer with the MRI machine operation. Provided there are no objections from Mr Lam? Needless to say, this is a voluntary mission."
"No objections," said Lam, who was a Muggleborn mediwizadry student and a protégé of Mercer's.
"Dr Mercer, you are certain one person will be sufficient to assist you in your task?"
Mercer nodded. "Jason's as capable as two technicians."
"Good," said Scrimgeour. "Our mediwitches, Honoria Cloot and Mira Khan, will transport Mr Weasley." Scrimgeour then addressed Aisha Malik, a young trauma nurse in a bright yellow headscarf, "I'm sorry Aisha, I know you expressly volunteered, however, wands are a necessity as Mr Weasley will have to be maintained in a stable state of magical petrification during the course of the mission."
"It's OK, I understand," said Aisha.
"Mr Lam and Dr Mercer will be responsible for the specimen. Agent Kent, Agent Richards, Hermione Granger and I will be on security detail."
Both Padma and Hermione raised protests at the same time.
"With all due respect," Padma began, "I distinctly recall you saying that at least one senior security officer is to remain at this facility at all times. What if we receive word from Taransay while you're away?"
Clearly irritated, the Minister turned to the Cowboy, "Agent Richards, it appears you were correct in your estimation of the likely reaction to my inclusion on the team. Translate, would you?"
"You can't come because you're lame. You'll slow us down, at best. Put us all in danger, at worst," said the Cowboy.
Hermione scowled at Richards' bluntness.
Scrimgeour sat down heavily, propping the aforementioned lame left leg out in front of him. "Hermione, this is true?"
"You're needed here," was all she said.
He sighed. "We need a fourth on the security team. In all my years of planning missions, I have never sent out a team of only three."
Emily Finch spoke up. "Sir, if I may?"
"No, you may not, Miss Finch, you've done quite enough for us this week. Besides, I have an alternative in mind."
Scrimgeour's eyes met Hermione's. Her look of disbelief told him she knew exactly whom he was planning to volunteer. It was clear he had already discussed the candidate with the Americans.
"No," Hermione said.
"Malfoy will be your fourth."
The room erupted into protests.
Hermione was incredulous. "The only way Malfoy can break free of his tether is if he kills the person he's tethered to, and that's more likely to happen if he has access to a wand. How is he to be of any use on the mission if he can't defend himself, let alone any of us? I mean, you're not seriously proposing we allow him use of a wand?"
Scrimgeour snorted. "No. Not a wand." A slight nod from him sent Agent Kent to a large cabinet, which she unlocked and then entered. The front of the cabinet was clearly the façade of a Reduced storage vault. She emerged moments later, walked over to Scrimgeour's desk and none too gently placed a large, pump action shotgun upon it.
"We propose that the Subject be allowed use of a Remington 870 instead," she told the assembled group, with the ghost of a smirk directed at Hermione.
Alec Mercer's hand tentatively rose into the air. "Um, yeah...where can I get one of those?"
HP story or not, we gotta have at least one shotgun...
Next chapter—field trip! Draco Malfoy in combat fatigues + shotgun! Zombies optional.