Page 108

“He really didn’t know her very well,” Rick said, in a bitter, distant tone.

“Neither did we,” Shaun replied.

“I don’t care how you take the rest of them out,” Tate barked. “Just do it. If the CDC couldn’t finish them off, we’ll find another way. Understand me? Do it!” There was a slam, as if a receiver was being thrust rudely into its cradle, followed by the sound of footsteps. The hiss continued for a few more seconds, then cut off as suddenly as it had started.

“They only cut and save when there’s sound being received,” said Shaun needlessly. We all knew how Buffy’s saver bugs worked. Plant them and they’d press anything they heard to file, going dormant to save their batteries when the space around them was silent. She must not have been listening to her files. Just saving and transmitting them, serene in her own certainty that her side was the right one.

“Tate,” snarled Rick. “That f**k.”

“Tate,” I said. My eyes were burning. Finally sliding my sunglasses back into place, I looked from one to the other. “We have to see the senator.”

“Can we trust him not to be a part of this?” Shaun asked.

I hesitated. “How good is Becks?”

“Not that good.”

“Fine.” I swiveled back to my screen. “Screamers on everyone. Get the whole team online. I don’t care where they are, I want them here.”

“Georgia ?” said Rick, uncertainly.

I shook my head, already beginning to type. “Shut up, sit down, and get started. We have work to do.”

* * *

Every life has a watershed moment, an instant when you realize you’re about to make a choice that will define everything else you ever do, and that if you choose wrong, there may not be that many things left to choose. Sometimes the wrong choice is the only one that lets you face the end with dignity, grace, and the awareness that you’re doing the right thing.

I’m not sure we can recognize those moments until they’ve passed us. Was mine the day I decided to become a reporter? The day my brother and I logged onto a job fair and met a girl who called herself “Buffy”? The day we decided to try for the “plum assignment” of staff bloggers to the Ryman campaign?

Or was it the day we realized this might be the last thing we ever did and decided not to care?

My name is Georgia Mason. My brother calls me George.

Welcome to my watershed.

—From Images May Disturb You,

the blog of Georgia Mason, April 8, 2040


It took two hours and seventeen minutes to gather every blogger, associate blogger, administrative employee, system administrator, and facilities coordinator employed by After the End Times together in one hastily opened virtual conference room. Our conferencing system has eleven rooms, and the eleventh had never been successfully hacked, but Buffy “built” them all. The code was hers, and I didn’t feel like we could trust it anymore. We would have invited the volunteer moderators—leaving them out didn’t seem right—but we didn’t have a way of contacting them without using unsecured channels. And that was the last thing I was willing to do just now.

With Becks, Alaric, and Dave—who was finally back from Alaska, having acquired several hundred hours of footage, and a minor case of frostbite—working in tandem, we almost had a functional replacement for Buffy. Alaric and Dave did most of the heavy lifting of setting up the room, freeing Becks to keep trying to sift through Buffy’s data. There was a lot to sort through.

The atmosphere started out jovial, if tinged with unavoidable melancholy. Buffy was dead; we weren’t, and every person who logged on seemed to feel the need to comment on both facts, congratulating us on our survival even as they mourned for her. The Fictionals were taking it the hardest. No surprise there, although I was pleased to see Magdalene stepping up to comfort the ones who seemed the most distraught. No fewer than four of the network connections we were getting off the Fictionals were coming from her house—Fictionals tend to be the most social and the most paranoid of the bloggers you’re likely to encounter, but Maggie, with her sprawling old farmhouse with the military-grade security system, has a talent for getting them to set the second aside in favor of the first. She could’ve been an alpha at her own site, if she’d wanted it, but what she’d wanted was to work with Buffy. That wasn’t an option anymore. I tapped an IM to Rick, reminding him to ask her about taking the department; if she was handling the mourning period this well, she’d definitely be an asset.

The grumbling started about an hour in, when the congratulatory celebration of our survival died down and it became apparent both that there were people online but working on some sort of secret project, and that we weren’t planning to tell anyone what was going on until everyone arrived. No exceptions, no allowances. Not this time.

The last person to log on was a Canadian Fictional named Andrea, mumbling something about hockey games and cold-weather romances as her connection finished rolling and her picture stabilized. I wasn’t really paying attention by that point. That wasn’t why we were here.

“Is everyone’s connection stable and secure?” I asked. Tapping out a predetermined sequence of characters on my keyboard caused the borders of the dozens of tiny video windows to flash yellow. “If the answer is yes, please input the security code now appearing at the bottom of your screen. If the answer is no, hit Enter. We will be terminating this conference immediately if we can’t confirm security.”

The grumbling slowed. People had been relieved to see us when we first called them, confused as I refused to let them off the line, and finally annoyed by our group refusal to tell them what was going on. Add draconian security measures and it became clear that something was up. One by one, the borders of the video windows representing our staff flashed white and then green as their security status was confirmed. Shaun’s window was the last to change states; we’d agreed on that beforehand. He would close the loop.