zombies

A thunderous crash, punctuated by a roar of frustration, rattled the water glass on Bane’s nightstand. It sounded as if the unhappy ursine was attempting to mimic human speech, and failing miserably.

I

On an unseasonably cool and pleasant night in early September; in the hinterlands of Loudoun County, Virginia; in a farmhouse called Runeharrow, that had been ancient when the Revolution caught fire; in a bedroom that had seen more than its share of life and death, Atticus Bane, renowned inquirer into the improbable and the inexplicable, woke in the thin hours of the morning with the distinct feeling that all was not quite as it should be, that something, somewhere, needed tending to.

Over the course of a long and perilous career, punctuated by more Near Death Experiences and physical therapy sessions than he cared to enumerate, Atticus had learned the supreme value of heeding such premonitions, of making them feel welcome when they showed up for a visit, and inquiring assiduously into their import and meaning. Nor did he hesitate now to act upon the lessons of his experience.

This particular night-winged herald was impelling him to action, and though no clear vision formed in his mind’s third eye, a single word resounded over and over again between his ears. A word that sent a chill of pure, unadulterated fear racing up Bane’s spine, where it dove off his terrified lizard brain, plummeting down his gullet and into the pit of his stomach.

Whatever was unfolding now, his infallible idiosyncratic intuition told him, somehow concerned the fate of America, perhaps even the world.

Bane was no stranger to such weighty matters, but he would have judged himself ten kinds of fool had he not felt a thrill of trepidation and doubt now. Still, he was not the kind of chap to let a bit of healthy terror – understandable though it might be – keep him from answering the clarion call.

Bidding the remainder of the night’s sleep adieu, he threw off the light covers along with his misgivings. Atticus preferred fresh air when he slept, but the night had already been chill with foreboding when he turned in. Switching on the Tiffany reading lamp, he took a moment as he always did upon waking to locate and don his cheaters. Then he keyed the Talk button on the wireless bedside intercom, and called: “Finch?”

Nothing. Except perhaps an ominous, expectant silence. As if something were holding its metaphorical breath in the darkness of the early hours, waiting to see if this interruption of its slumber was going to continue, or allow it to slip back into the mists of the Dreamlands.

“Finch?” Atticus insisted, “Finch, I know you’re there – I can hear you drooling.”

Sounds emanated from the miniature device that would have alarmed a bystander, had one happened to be standing by on the balcony just outside Bane’s open French doors. From the pitch and timbre of the bedlam, and the complete absence of articulate words, such a bystander might well have concluded that Bane’s pet grizzly, suffering from a minor bout of rabies, had broken free of its cage and was now systematically demolishing the remainder of the rambling old farmhouse in a fit of pique.

To be fair, such a conclusion wouldn’t have been far from the truth…

A thunderous crash, punctuated by a roar of frustration, rattled the water glass on Bane’s nightstand. It sounded as if the unhappy ursine was attempting to mimic human speech, and failing miserably. Another crash, sounding very much as if an extensive collection of empty beer bottles had just scattered like a phalanx of duckpins. Another inarticulate bellow.

“Finch? Get up! The game’s afoot!” A domineering mother had taught young Finch to read using The Adventures of Sherlock Homes as a primer. It had not been a pleasant experience, and Finch detested his employer’s infrequent allusions to the Great Detective; if anything could prod the sleeping troll awake, Atticus knew, it was a few well-placed Sherlock-isms.

As proof of Bane’s theorem, a basso groan erupted from the intercom in response to his quip, equal parts disgust at being woken at such a cold, dismal hour, and distaste for one of Bane’s favorite quotes.

“You’ve got to be kidding, Atticus!” the deep voice complained. The bear, it seemed, had found its voice. It was a big bear.

“My life is not so jaded, Mr. Finch,” Atticus snapped, “that I have to rouse myself at one AM to engage in the dubious sport of playing practical jokes on you. Now get up! Something’s brewing, and it wouldn’t have come on like this if it weren’t serious. Get the…” Atticus paused and considered the nature of the intuition. “…Spitfire ready. We leave in fifteen minutes or less.”

Inarticulate grumblings issued from the minuscule speaker.

“Oh, stop complaining,” Bane chided, a little more gently this time, not entirely grateful himself for having to answer the call of duty on so little sleep. “You get to violate every speed limit between here and the Pentagon.”

“Pentagon?” Finch was suddenly wide awake, as if Bane had reached through the intercom and slapped him with a ice-cold halibut. “I’ll have the Spit out front in ten.”

The intercom went dead, and Atticus rose to dress for the morning’s festivities.

II

“Just that one word was going ‘round in my head when I awoke,” Atticus yelled over the roar of the wind trying desperately to get out of the way of the hurtling sports car. “Just ‘Pentagon.’ Nothing else, I’m afraid. Wish I could tell you more!”

Hunched over the wheel of the Triumph, Cullan Finch nodded, an almost imperceptible movement of the massive head that perched on a pillar of muscle that could be tentatively identified as a neck only by virtue of its position supporting said head and securing it to the equally prodigious torso below.

“Don’t you think that’s enough, considering?” Finch rumbled. A passenger unlucky enough to be in the rumble seat for this frigid transit of the countryside might have concluded that Finch was tense, as the combined grip of his immense fists appeared to be warping the steering wheel out of shape.

But Finch always had that effect on steering wheels. It wasn’t his fault – the damn things had never been engineered to accommodate genetic deviations with the strength of a silver back gorilla. He was designing his own Finch-resistant steering wheel, but had too many other projects that were more important, on just about a daily basis.

H. P. Lovecraft, a distant relative of Bane’s, had once employed two henchmen on an ill-fated adventure “because of their peculiar fitness.” He might well have been describing one of Finch’s forebears – his fitness was about as peculiar as they came. But it was not only Finch’s freakishly strong fire-plug of a body that Bane valued on these little jaunts into the improbable and the inexplicable: Finch was a recognized authority in a number of…specialized, less quotidian branches of archaeology and anthropology, as well as being a natural linguist, fluent in a number of living languages as well as dozens of their deceased predecessors.

With his Neanderthal physique and a croaking bass voice, Finch often reminded Bane of the late Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck in the 1938 Warner Brothers production of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Unlike the worldly and peckish clergyman, however, Finch was a devotee of that most heinous of all abominations in Bane’s eyes: healthy eating.

Still, one couldn’t argue too vociferously in the face of repeated success. Besides possessing the strength and stamina of any three men half his age, Bane had never known Finch to have so much as a sniffle, let alone a cold or flu, whilst Bane suffered like clockwork each year from the most vexing of allergies.

This condition was, of course, exacerbated by his insistence on fresh air while living in the country, coupled with his refusal to take mass-manufactured medications of any description. And, in a bit of cosmic irony that Bane did not find amusing in the least, Bane was unable to find any type of arcane recipe to alleviate his misery. Bane could, quite literally, sooth the savage beast with his “herbal” concoctions, but he could do nothing for himself.

Tonight, however, the allergic academic was spared his seasonal torment. The air was cold and wicked-sharp, but also as clear and pure as mountain spring water, devoid of the drifting floral spore-clouds that usually plagued him. What tears its sting did bring to his eyes were fresh and cleansing, quite unlike the rheumy discharge that often accompanied his allergic attacks.

The Triumph Spitfire howled through the darkness, a wannabe SR-71 Blackbird reluctantly tethered to this lonely strip of macadam. Amongst his other credentials, Finch had a degree in advanced mechanical engineering tucked away somewhere, and classic cars were one of his true passions. But he was no purist: under the hood, the Spitfire was mostly stock. A select few of the modifications, additions and replacements Finch had made over the years, however, would have had his fellows at MIT muttering suspiciously about “reverse engineering alien technology.”

Only the relative isolation of Runeharrow had thus far spared them the indignity of having to outrun the police, but Bane knew their luck couldn’t hold all the way to DC.

Atticus was recalled from his reverie by the muffled ringing of his cell phone – the opening bars of Bach’s Toccata. Bane’s sense of humor tended to the macabre, an unfortunate side effect of his avocation, perhaps. Retrieving the strident device from the inside pocket of his scuffed and battered canvas jacket, he put it to his ear.

“Bane here,” he said by way of greeting, then paused, listening. Finch could hear nothing of the other end of the conversation – it was lost in the windy tumult as they hurtled toward the city of Leesburg, and the expressway to the capitol.

“We’re on our way,” Bane said after a moment. “On Route 7, just approaching Leesburg.” Another pause. “Excellent. We’ll keep an eye out for them.”

Bane ended the call and pocketed the phone. He turned a look of smug satisfaction on his colleague.

“The Pentagon,” Bane said, in the event Finch did not, in fact, intend to ask. “They’ve dispatched an escort. Should meet us just the other side of Leesburg.”

Finch groaned, a sound like a dormant volcano clearing its throat.

Any chance that this was nothing but a false alarm had just gone down the loo.

The alien hybrid sportster arrowed on toward the distant glow of Washington, DC, leaving naught in its wake but the thrum of its passage, to mingle with the autumn aromas of hay, harvest and woodsmoke.

III

Bane and Company arrived at the heart of the American military machine in a welter of strobing lights, wailing sirens, roaring engines and screaming tires. Most of which were the result of embarrassed Secret Service drivers trying valiantly to keep up with the Triumph. One overzealous SUV pilot had sent his black behemoth soaring over the lane divider on the turn coming out of the Rosslyn Tunnel, but neither occupant of the Spit worried for the safety of the agents inside. Those vehicles could shrug off an RPG to the over-tinted rear window – if anyone inside the tumbling testament to overconsumption had been injured, it was more likely from flying cell phones and free ranging lattes than anything serious.

This was not Bane and Finch’s first time at the Pentagon on business of the utmost gravity and predictably, Bane had forgotten his ID. Finch of course, had remembered to bring both sets of credentials, although he didn’t think it would have delayed things much if he and Bane had been on the No Fly List. They were whisked through layers of security that would have daunted the most persistent of Congressional investigators, by serious-faced young men and women who might also have been just a wee bit scared shitless.

That icy swimmer in Bane’s gut surfaced again, and began to practice its backstroke. If the rank and file at the Pentagon were spooked, something very bad indeed was in the wind. Normally, they were the last to know when the stinky fan started spinning.

Brigadier General “Snortin’” Norton Ramsey met them at the door to the operations center, and for the first time in twenty years, Bane saw him pale and shaken.

“Thank God you’re here, Bane!” Ramsey seized Bane’s hand and pumped it with such vigor that Atticus’ teeth rattled a trifle. “This could be…The Big One!”

Ignoring the capital letters and Snortin’ Norton’s panicked, saucer-wide eyes, Bane retrieved his numbed hand and glanced around the huge command and control complex. The unwelcome intruder now dog paddling in his stomach was not mollified by what Atticus saw.

The first clues that this was something other than an ordinary, unremarkable overseas military operation were the maps of the Continental United States where a foreign theater of war should be, and an underlying thread of grim, somewhat distracted determination among the anxious yet efficient military personnel. It was, Bane’s inner sense told him, the tension, trepidation and focus of the tribe defending its homeland against an improbable and inexplicable invader.

To judge from the amount of red spreading across the huge digital maps, the defense wasn’t going all that well.

Well then, thought Bane, unaccountably pleased with himself. He had more than a passing acquaintance with the improbable and the inexplicable, after all. If anyone could help these brave young stalwarts sort this matter out, it was Atticus Bane.

Ramsey lurched to Bane’s, preceded by a miasmic cloud of stale cigar smoke, weapons-grade military coffee and Aqua Velva splashed over a day’s worth of office work and an evening’s worth of bourbon. Bane noted that the man was reeling from too much caffeine poured on top of too much alcohol in a well-intentioned but vain attempt to counteract the effects of the General’s Friday night revelry. Ramsey was no lush, Bane knew – it wasn’t all that strange to find a five-star general in his cups at one AM on a Saturday morning in the nation’s capitol.

“This is it, Bane,” Ramsey, wild-eyed, hissed through teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. “The end of the world!” The General actually wrung his hands, something Bane couldn’t recall every having seen before in the real world. Ramsey seemed to be unaware that he had torn his cigar in half – the stub was still clamped between his locked jaws, while he gesticulated wildly with the remainder. Every so often, to Bane’s utter dismay, a fine spray of tobacco bits and…other substances…arced from one half or the other of the severed stogie as Ramsey ranted and raved.

Although Snortin’ Norton had lived and served through the worst of the Cold War (he was six months into his first enlistment when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted), he had never really believed, in his heart of hearts, that the world could or would come to an end in his lifetime: not from divine retribution, not from colliding with some state-sized chunk of cosmic flotsam, and certainly not from any suicidal human idiocies like nuclear war.

Now something had shaken that unconscious faith to its very foundations, and the bastion that had been Snortin’ Norton Ramsey was in imminent danger of collapse.

“Buck up, General,” Bane said, leaning in and whispering softly, not wishing to embarrass the old war-horse in front of his troops, “And tell me what in blazes is going on?”

“Zombies, Bane!” Ramsey spat past the masticated cigar, peppering Bane’s cheek with moist, aromatic Cuban effluvia. He seized Atticus by the shoulders and set the smaller man’s dentition to clattering again with a vengeance. “Zombies are everywhere! It’s the Zombie Apocalypse, man! We’re all doomed!”

IV

Bane and Finch maneuvered the all but unhinged Ramsey into a somewhat secluded conference nook, by the simple expedient of taking an elbow each and hustling the rapidly unraveling warrior thither. Finch could have carried the General on his own, but it might have adversely affected the morale of nearby personnel to see their commanding officer – not to mention a living legend – tucked under the arm of a vaguely anthropoid creature and toted away like a stack of TPS reports.

Once the trio had reached the quiet of their impromptu sanctuary, Finch was forced to intervene to keep Ramsey away from the freshly stocked coffee bar – the last thing the tottering, nearly-delirious soldier needed was more caffeine. If they didn’t do something soon, Bane feared, the General’s next stop might well be the CICU.

Bane motioned to the tea service, on the opposite end of the sideboard from the coffee. “Make the General a cup of tea, if you would, Cullan,” Bane said, the unaccustomed use of his henchman’s forename conveying the gravity of his request. “Add a few pinches of my special mixture.”

“Special mixture” was verbal shorthand for any of Bane’s two-hundred-odd herbal concoctions, balsams, tinctures, powders, poultices and potions. Both men habitually carried a selection of these, another hard lesson learned in times past. Which mixture to use was quite often evident in the context of the moment, as it was in this case. Ramsey’s skyrocketing panic was about to experience engine failure.

As Finch moved to the tea counter and began clinking about amongst the ceramic coffee mugs, Bane attempted to extract a coherent sitrep, or situational report, from the gyrating general. (As a philologist, Bane was fascinated by jargon, particularly the military variety.)

After a few false starts, some doubling-back, and not a little re-re-clarification, Bane thought he had an accurate and comprehensive handle on the current state of affairs.

At approximately 9:00 PM the previous evening, in the midst of one of the worst flu seasons in half a century, news broke from several quarters, over dozens of media: Those infected with the virus had begun to die and, subsequently, to reanimate and attack the living with uncomprehending, unwavering, single-minded homicidal fury.

As uninfected – or at least untransformed – citizens, indoctrinated by decades of zombie movies, TV shows and comic books (masquerading as “graphic novels”), rallied to defend themselves against these attacks, chaos began to spread faster than the as-yet-unidentified “zombie virus.” In less than six hours, the nation suddenly found itself teetering on the twin precipices of civil war and total anarchy. Continuing reports from hot zones indicating that the reanimated dead were consuming their living prey did nothing to calm the escalating crisis. As one might well imagine.

If the computer models were to be believed, zombies would rule the United States in less than seventy-two hours, and the world in just over thrice that.

So Bane chose to ignore them, and closed his right eye instead.

He did this when he wanted to metaphorically shut off his left brain, and let the more intuitive right side have a crack at whatever the current conundrum might be. His unaided intuition was normally up to any challenge, but there were times when every little bit helped.

“These…undead,” Bane used the term with caution and a certain academic distaste, not yet ready to admit its validity in this crisis. “Autopsies have found human flesh in their digestive tracts, yes?”

Ramsey’s deer-in-the-headlights stare, as a half-kiloton light bulb flashed on belatedly over his head, told Bane what he already suspected.

Too tired to stop himself, he sighed deeply, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose, a sign of disdain that had been known to send dowager queens sobbing to their bedchambers.

For any number of reasons, it was lost on Ramsey that morning.

To be fair, Bane consoled himself, the crisis was only hours old, and the situation was growing more dangerous by the minute. In the face of what seemed to be overwhelming evidence and global approbation, who had the time, resources or naked courage to take five from the business of survival just to cut a zombie open and poke around inside – unless it was for self-defense purposes, that is? And it was doubly difficult to determine if these so-called zombies were in fact the living dead, when the living didn’t leave any of the living dead alive long enough for medical examination.

Bane pinched his nose again, this time to suppress a growing headache. He reached for the General’s second cup of special mixture, untouched and growing cold; he needed it more than Ramsey did right now.

In other words, Atticus sighed inwardly, no one had actually confirmed that the living dead were, in fact, what they appeared.

Bane turned to the General, still frozen in incredulous contemplation of the massive, systemic ball that had been dropped, and snapped his fingers under Ramsey’s glazed eyes.

“General, it is of the utmost importance that we immediately acquire, by whatever means necessary, a living zombie.”

V

“She’s alive!” Ramsey bellowed. “What the fuck?”

“I rather thought she would be,” Bane said softly, more to himself than to the apoplectic apocalyptophobe. Intent on the patient in the other room, Atticus moved closer to the Lexan wall that separated the observation niche from the medical isolation chamber, and pressed the very tip of his nose to the cold, glassy surface with delicate precision.

“Holy shit!” Ramsey frothed, now gripping an unlit cigar like a truncheon and waving it in a vague yet all-inclusive gesture. “This is gonna change…”

“Nothing!” Bane said sharply, turning to the taller man. At the moment, he was alone with the General in the dim, bleak, sterile little cubicle, rubbing elbows and other, more sensitive body parts with all manner of glowing, blinking, beeping bits of medical technology. For decorum’s sake, Atticus would never have addressed one of the Joint Chiefs in such a brusque manner, had there been lower ranks present. In the absence of innocent bystanders, however, he saw no reason to beat about the bush.

More out of an exaggerated sense of panache or élan than anything else, Atticus abhorred heavy-handed name dropping and bureaucratic bullying. If push ever came to shove, however, he answered to only one elected official, and that largely on Bane’s terms. He was an agent without portfolio, of a sort, though he carried – and when necessary, wielded – the weight of complete Presidential trust and confidence. Ramsey had learned long ago which side the bread was buttered on, although other military-industrial elitists still required an occasional cuff from the Presidential backhand to remain tractable.

“For now,” Bane continued, his voice softening to its usual gentle baritone, “it changes nothing. Whether these people are alive or dead is irrelevant in the face of their mindless hostility and savagery. Until that behavior can be resolved, we cannot expect other citizens to refrain from defending themselves and their loved ones in the face of these berserker attacks. It’s a deplorable, intolerable situation, but I don’t see what else we can do at this moment. Until you and I can resolve the greater issue, the military will be stretched thin just keeping unarmed and defenseless citizens alive and unharmed – it can’t afford to get mired in trying to separate what are essentially warring factions.”

Bane gave Ramsey an encouraging chuck on the shoulder. “Best to continue as we are for the time being, old friend. We can do nothing at this juncture except protect the untransformed to the best of our abilities. We’ll take what steps we can not to injure the infected unnecessarily, but our first duty has to be to the greater populace.”

Ramsey sagged in gratitude, limp with relief that he wouldn’t have to undo all the plans he had set in motion over the last twelve hours.

Finding a “live” zombie had proven distressingly easy – the zombie outbreak was snowballing, and the acquisition team had to look no farther than the Pentagon parking lot for a suitable…volunteer. A volunteer who forthwith exhibited all the enthusiasm for cooperating with the mission objective that one might well expect of a volunteer:

She fought them tooth and nail, like a rabid hyena protecting her young. Or at least her food supply.

When an exhausted doctor got fed up with being walloped in the teeth by the flailing woman and took a chance on a dose of his own “special mixture,” the so-called living cadaver was dozing and drooling in a matter of seconds – dead to the world, as it were. Subsequent medical examination confirmed what was already evident: she was very much alive, albeit in the throes of a hellish fever.

Bane returned his attention to the as-yet-unidentified patient, considering the anxious, tormented expression she wore as she slept. Even without the EEG traces that flowed across the monitors in the observation room, Bane would have seen the facial and bodily manifestations of the nightmares she was enduring in her sleep.

She was not in constant turmoil, but she never went more than five or ten minutes without suddenly crying out in inarticulate fear and thrashing violently on the bed, straining against the padded straps that held her limbs. During these bouts, she whipped her head from side to side, teeth clenched and bared in a skull-grin rictus after her initial outcry.

The attending physician had lobbied to continue the tranquilizer, but Bane’s infallible intuition for the improbable and the inexplicable jumped up and elbowed the scholar in his ribs – and the elbows of intuition are both sharp and accurate. For reasons he could never put into words, but that he nonetheless would stake his life on, Atticus was convinced that the answer to their present circumstances, or at least a clue toward that answer, lay in allowing this poor woman to continue to suffer in her dream-delirium.

Hours later, as he tapped an index finger softly against the thick, transparent polymer (for all the world like a youngster at the aquarium or herpetarium, thumping the glass to attract the attention of the inmates, and hoping the tour guide didn’t catch him), he wondered if he had done the right thing…

Hard on that spike of self-doubt, sudden inspiration blossomed in Bane’s awareness, and he almost jumped back from the Lexan, so forceful was the realization. He considered the idea for a moment, and decided it merited a field test.

It was, he later remarked to Finch, a sign of his utter physical and mental exhaustion that it took him such a long time – long in Bane’s opinion – to consciously apprehend the key to the situation and what had to be done about it. Perhaps, he hedged, it was because it just seemed so bloody obvious…

“General,” Bane said without looking away from the sleeping woman, “I’ve got an idea. But as they say, you’re probably not going to like it.

VI

“I don’t like it Bane,” Snortin’ Norton growled in Bane’s ear, for at least the tenth time on and off the air. Atticus didn’t have to look back through the Lexan wall to know that the General was rolling the sodden, mangled stub of a traumatized cigar cruelly between thumb and forefinger, like a poor man’s Godfather. Or a used care salesman.

“You’re not required to like it,” Bane said into his bluetooth, “only to permit it, and I believe that point is moot, old boy.”

Unsettling noises emanated from the earbud in response. Ramsey and Finch, Bane concluded, must share an ancestor somewhere back it mists of time – their animalistic vocalizations were remarkably similar.

Bane’s breath plumed before him as he spoke, and he tried to shrug deeper into the minimal warmth of the down parka, loaned to him by an infirmary corpsmen. The unknown woman’s isolation room was being refrigerated to help combat her fever and Bane would require too much time for what he had to do to sit there in shirt sleeves.

“Time to get to work,” he told Ramsey. “I’m signing off for the duration. Remember – if I’m still asleep in an hour, come and wake me. You might want to have one of the corpsmen on hand with a syringe of stimulant, just in case I’m a little groggy. But no one is to touch me except Finch, understand?

Ramsey grunted an affirmative, and Bane knew that neither of his colleagues was likely to let him down.

Silence – inner and outer – was required now; Bane switched off and pocketed the small headset. He moved to the woman’s bedside, and sat in the plush, sturdy chair that had been positioned there earlier, at his requested. Between his feet, he set a military-issue map case of olive green duck.

For a long moment, Atticus just sat and regarded the woman in her troubled, fitful sleep.

She was pretty in an unremarkable way, a healthy female of no more than twenty-five. She was certainly someone’s daughter, and might have been anyone’s mother, sister or wife. She was Any-And-Everywoman, and might possibly hold the key to saving the United States of America – if not the world – from zombie oblivion.

“You can hear me,” he said in an even, well-modulated voice, as if he were beginning a conversation with a patient willing and able to respond, “even though you aren’t aware of it.”

Bane’s eyes flicked away from her face – had her hands twitched when he spoke? Bane continued, keeping his sentences terse, punching the vital information through the Walls of Sleep.

“You don’t know where you are or how you got there. It’s a strange and frightening place. You have every reason to feel afraid.” Lost in nightmare, no sane person wanted to hear “It’s going to be all right…”

Ever so slightly, the brow furrowed above her closed, sunken eyes.

“My name is Atticus. I’m coming to get you. I can’t find you as quickly if you keep moving. If you’re not in immediate danger right now, stay where you are. Everything seems alien and unnatural, but if you stop and look around, you will see mountains or hills… meadows of ripe grain… broad, abundant orchards… lakes, ponds, streams, rivers…”

A less observant, less experience man might have missed the ever so brief, ever so slight smile that tugged at the corners of the sleeping mouth for a heartbeat, then was gone. But Atticus Bane saw it.

“Good… That’s it…” he encouraged gently, “Some of the colors are strange, some of the shapes unfamiliar, but essentially it’s just like here, just like home…”

Moving with great caution, lest an abrupt noise shatter the container he had just created with energy and intention, Bane drew a small thermos from the map case, poured a generous amount of the fragrant, steaming contents into the lid, and raised it in toast to his slumbering companion.

“Here’s looking at you,” he said with a jaunty smile, and drained the vessel.

Restoring the lid to the thermos, and that to the map case, he settled back into the deep cushions of the easy chair. He pulled the fur-trimmed hood up around his face, and folded his mittened hands contentedly over his stomach.

He didn’t have long to wait.

After a few moments, in a soundless concussion that took a bit of his breath away, a wave of profound lassitude rolled over him like a warm caramel tsunami. The glowing, blinking LEDs on the monitoring equipment flowed outward to greet the darkness edging inward, and he became aware of a distant, hollow booming, as if from some vast subterranean chamber, which he presently identified as his own heartbeat.

His last waking thought was that he wasn’t so much walking down the Seven Hundred and Seventy Steps to Deeper Slumber as he was sliding down the banister. He waved as he plummeted past the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah and rocketed through the Gate of the Silver Key, into the Enchanted Forest that borders the Dreamlands, free-range zoogs scattering in hooting panic.

In moments, he too was sound asleep.

VII

Returning slowly and with great reluctance from the Dreamlands, Atticus Bane couldn’t imagine why anyone would be playing the castanets in the isolation ward.

Then feeling returned to his neck, and he realized it was the sound of his teeth being shaken in his head yet again, by someone’s hands gripping his shoulders; before he even opened his eyes, Bane snapped a hand up in an imperious gesture that halted the abuse forthwith.

Opening his eyelids was just the first step – he had to wait a trifle until the eyes themselves would focus properly. A little too much moon-poppy in the special mixture, he thought. In another moment, however, the querulous faces of Finch and Ramsey swam into view, looking as if the world were about to end.

Bane smiled at them disarmingly, and stifled a yawn. He fancied a cup of coffee, but didn’t imagine these two would consider waiting to discuss his findings over a latte. No matter: he had done more on less caffeine before; he could do it again.

“Well?” Ramsey snapped. “Is it a zombie virus or not?”

Bane’s bemused smile broke into an uncharacteristic grin. A somewhat impish, untrustworthy, down-right suspicious grin.

“Oh,” Atticus said with feigned nonchalance, “it’s a zombie virus, all right!” And he began to laugh. Maniacally.

The look of mingled horror and incredulity mirrored on the faces of his compatriots only caused Atticus to laugh that much harder.

Under the lash of Bane’s fresh gales of hilarity, Finch and Ramsey’s expressions transformed from confused terror to embarrassed anger, and both men stepped forward as if to grab and shake Atticus in concert. Bane sidestepped the two, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye and managing to reduce his guffaws to a self-satisfied chortle.

Snortin’ Norton stomped his foot in unbridled frustration. “I knew it!” he bellowed, grabbing what little hair still clung – like valiant but ultimately doomed mountaineers – to the sides of his scalp with both hands and pulling until his eyes grew bright with tears. “I told you I didn’t like this! Now Atticus has lost his mind!” His moniker notwithstanding, General Norton Ramsey, chief of the Joint Chiefs, did not snort. Unless, perhaps, it was the weekend and he had a snoot full. But if he did snort, he damn sure would have at that moment. With gusto.

Atticus took himself in hand, and sobered enough to show his palms in a placating gesture. “I am sorry,” he said, although the mirth still ringing in his voice cast a pall of insincerity over that sentiment. “I know this is not a humorous situation by any stretch of the imagination, but I think you’ll understand when I debrief you fully later on. Right now we have a great deal to do, and while we aren’t obliged to beat any particular deadline, people – not zombies – are dying every minute that we take to complete our tasks.”

“Shoot first and ask questions later, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” Ramsey quipped, and Bane could not help but flinch.

“Perhaps not the best metaphor, all things considered,” he said, “but essentially accurate. I promise you a full accounting when we’ve gotten ahead of this thing, but for now I ask that you trust me. All is not as dark as we first thought.”

VIII

Snortin’ Norton regarded Atticus Bane with genuine affection and admiration.

“I’ve got to hand it to you, Bane,” the General rumbled, cigar smoke flavored by an excellent brandy hanging between them, suspended from his words. “The entire freaking world – hard-core, card-carrying, weapons-grade skeptics included – believed the dead were in fact rising from the grave to feast on the living. But you! You decide it’s just the late summer flu?”

A little over thirty-six hours had passed, and the situation was now well in hand. True, things were still a tad ragged around the edges, but the rule of law had been restored, and caring for the victims of the Westin Flu – whether infected or not – was now the Number One National Priority. Ramsey had rewarded Bane, Finch and himself with a steak breakfast at a nearby Officer’s Club, although none of them had any real inkling as to what time of day it was. Finch and the General had both cadged the luxury of catnaps over the intervening hours, but Atticus had remained awake, too interested in the once-in-a-lifetime – they hoped! – event unfolding around him to consider sleeping. He had managed rather well so far on his special mixture, but even that was wearing thin now.

Bane shrugged, more interested in the five-star filet mignon beckoning to him than reliving what he considered to be an elementary piece of deduction. “Occam’s Razor, General,” he said, slicing a paper-thin strip of meat from his steak with a knife as sharp as the aforementioned grooming implement. “The simplest answer is usually the correct one. The dead rising to consume the living has too many moving parts, as they say. Victims of a particularly mischievous strain of flu hallucinating under its effects and behaving as if they were zombies – not so many. I knew we were on the right track when we found that Lucy was – what did the orderlies call her? – a breather?”

Lucy Westin was the woman brought to Bane as an example of a “live “zombie.” She was now recuperating comfortably from the strain of flu that would ever after bear her name: Westin Flu. She was the closest thing they had to patient zero, and the constant live coverage of her recovery was proving instrumental in halting the violence that still smoldered here and there throughout the country. Once people got the message that there were no zombies, just regular, everyday people driven to delirium by an especially toxic, but nonetheless one-hundred-percent natural strain of influenza, the entire situation altered for the better, virtually within the hour. Despite the predictions of pulp horror and science fiction writers over the years, the vast majority of Americans really objected to being forced into fire-axing their obnoxious neighbors.

“And you saw all that in her dreams…” Ramsey mused, a statement rather than a question, lightly brushed with awe and wonder.

Again, Bane shrugged, but this time he dabbed at his lips, and sat back. While he wasn’t all that interested in rehashing his own modest accomplishments, he did enjoy a good discussion on any number of arcane subjects.

“Say rather that I suspected it,” Atticus told him. “But first I needed to confirm that the infected were not actually the living dead. (Oh, don’t go on like that, Ramsey – the escalation of the event left very little time for true out-of-the-box thinking. You can’t blame yourself or anyone else for getting swept up in what was effectively the other side of a mass hallucination.) Once that was verified, the rest of the equation fell into place. The savage, ghoulish behavior of the infected had to be the result of something other than reanimation of the deceased. Again, that old Razor came into play – I theorized that it must be the fever brought on by this years flu, a toxin produced by the virus, or something of that nature.”

Finch, who set aside his culinary discipline for the night, forked a succulent morsel of duck into his mouth, and gesticulated with the utensil to kill time until he could talk without choking himself and inundating his friends with masticated duck.

“Bingo!” he croaked in his unique voice, causing a nearby waitress who had just come on duty to jump a good six inches out of her pumps. Finch took a pull from the pitcher-sized chocolate milkshake that was nonetheless dwarfed by the massive paw that held it and sighed in unmitigated delight. “The fever isn’t that unusual for influenza, but these little beasties also produce a toxin that acts a lot like sodium pentathol: the infected patient becomes extremely – you might even say fatally – susceptible to suggestion. Couple that with the delirium that even a modest flu stain might cause, and you have a recipe for instant zombies and nationwide disaster.”

Atticus nodded in agreement. “That’s what struck me as so damned funny when I came back from the Dreamlands. It was a zombie virus, but more akin to a computer virus than an organic one. It did its worst damage through misinformation. How the belief that they were Hollywood-esque zombies first took root in the sufferers’ minds, we will likely never know. But it is an unimpeachable fact that our nation is currently infatuated with all things zombie. This cannot be considered a coincidence. The response of the so-called untransformed – treating the infected as if they were indeed undead cannibals – only served to reinforce the mass hallucination in the fever- and toxin-ravaged brains of the victims.”

“But you entered her dreams!” Ramsey was reluctant to let go of the mystery he had stumbled upon. He had known Bane for over two decades, and learned long ago not to be surprised by anything the erudite and irascible scholar might do, say or produce. But this…! Entering the dreams of another person, to learn the mysteries – and the truths – that their dreaming minds knew so well – well, that was the stuff of fantasy!

And yet, the proof was there, as indisputable as the fact that zombies didn’t exist.

Bane waved away Ramsey’s awed tone. “Co-dreaming, co-journeying,” he said, “are old hat in shamanic societies, past and present. Extreme physical circumstances – in Lucy’s case the fever, in mine the lack of sleep – make the walls of our consciousness, if you will, thinner; someone with the proper training can usually make contact. I increased my chances a bit by using another of my special mixtures, but essentially anyone can do it, given proper instruction and sufficient practice.” Bane plucked a roll from the communal breadbasket, tore off a piece and popped it into his mouth, with the air of someone rewarding a puppy for performing a trick.

“The trick,” Finch interjected, his voice even deeper than Ramsey’s, “was getting Woo-Woo Net online and coordinated.”

Woo-Woo Net was one of Bane’s ongoing projects, a sort of telepathic phone tree, a civilian effort intended to broadcast emergency mental messages over a wide geographical area. Normally, such emanations were nowhere near strong enough to be “heard” by or affect the average person. Bane had theorized, however, that the peculiar hallucinatory properties of the Westin Flu might render the infected particularly susceptible to messages from the WWN.

Atticus instructed the volunteers of Woo-Woo Net – an eclectic yet good-hearted mix of self-proclaimed telepaths, mediums, mystics and mages – to broadcast the following message at absolute full power and volume:

“Zombies don’t bite – zombies sleep!”

As if on cue, don’t you know, zombies began dropping like poleaxed horseflies. In a stroke of existential irony, the military found itself re-tasked from killing zombies and protecting civilians, to protecting zombies from killer civilians. Litigation was going to enter a new Golden Age when the survivors started sorting out who did what to whom and who might be responsible. For the time being, the slaughter had ceased. As sleeping “zombies” began to awake and commence recovering from the Westin strain in earnest, the situation continued to defuse itself.

Atticus had little trouble in steering the conversation away from his contribution and putting the focus where he felt it ought to be: on Ramsey and Finch for seeing to the fiddly details of saving the world after Bane returned from the Dreamlands and loosed the proverbial mountain lion from the knapsack. Moving bureaucratic mountains was, in Bane’s estimation, far greater sorcery than anything he did.

The evening passed in a pleasant haze of roast meat, convivial merriment, and an impudent but smokey merlot.

At last, Bane found that he simply couldn’t finish his tiramisu, exquisite as it was. He was yawning more than he was chewing, and the combined carbohydrate blitz from the preceding three courses was beginning to settle over him like warm, doughy quicksand. Ramsey and Finch were still chatting away merrily, fueled by the measured flow of wine and spirits, but Atticus knew he had to call it a night.

He rose, yawning and stretching, amidst the protests of his companions.

“Where do you think you’re going, Atticus?” Ramsey jabbed a soggy cigar stub at him. Simultaneously, Finch pleaded: “Aww, c’mon, Atticus – what’s the hurry?”

But Bane was adamant. He waved away their protestations.

“You gentlemen have had the opportunity to rest, whereas I have not. I have got to get some sleep…” Atticus Bane, intrepid inquirer into the improbable and the inexplicable and quite possibly savior of the world, broke off to stifle yet another yawn.

“Otherwise,” he said at last, his delivery as straight as the edge of Occam’s Razor, “I’ll be an absolute zombie for the rest of the week…”