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“Excellent.” I picked up my PDA, which had been cued to my e-mail client since the conference began, and tapped Send. “Please check your e-mail. You’ll find your termination notice, along with a receipt confirming that your final paycheck has been deposited to your bank account. Due to California’s at-will status and the fact that you’re all employed under hazard restrictions, I’m afraid we’re not required to give you any notice. Sorry about that.”

The conference exploded as everyone started talking at once, voices overlapping into a senseless barrage of sound. Almost everyone. Mahir, Becks, Alaric, and Dave stayed silent, all of them having ascertained from the process of getting the conference online that something huge was going on.

Shaun, Rick, and I sat quietly, waiting for the furor to die down. It took a while. The Irwins shouted the loudest, while the Newsies shouted the least; they knew me well enough to know that if I was supporting a grand gesture—and this was a grand gesture—there had to be a reason. They trusted me enough to wait and see what it was. Good team. I hired well.

I set my PDA aside when the shouting began to quiet, saying, “None of you work for us. None of you have any legal ties to keep you here. If you choose to log off at any point during the next five minutes, I’ll see to it that you have a letter of recommendation stating that your value as a journalist is entirely beyond measure. You’ll never have this easy a time finding another job in your life because I’ll pull strings to get you hired, I’ll make sure you’re settled, and then I’ll write you off. This is the all-or-nothing moment, folks: Walk away now if you want to walk, but if you do, you’re walking for keeps.”

There was a long silence, broken when Andrea asked, “Can you tell us why you’re doing this?”

“Buffy’s dead, and now we’re fired,” interjected Alaric. “You don’t think these things might be connected?”

“I just—”

“Not very well, you didn’t.”

“Do me a favor, dears, and shut up so our former boss can speak?” Magdalene sighed. “You’re giving me a headache.”

“Thank you, Maggie.” I looked around my screen, studying each video window in turn. “Andrea, the answer to why we’re doing this is a simple one: We don’t want any of you to feel obligated to stay with this site any longer than you already have. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the call the CDC received, reporting our deaths?” Murmurs of agreement. “It was received before we placed the call to tell them we were still alive. Someone shot out our tires, there was no one else on the road, and yet somebody told the CDC that we’d been killed.”

“Do you have time stamps on that?” asked Alaric, suddenly alert.

“We do,” I confirmed, nodding to Shaun, who began to type. Alaric glanced away from his video transmitter, signaling the arrival of the appropriate files, and quieted. “Buffy didn’t die in an accident; Buffy was murdered, and her killers thought they’d killed us too. There’s a lot more going on, but that’s the important part right now: Buffy was murdered. Her murderers would have been happy to do the same to the three of us, and that means I can’t put it past them to do the same to any of you. This is your chance to make a graceful exit before I tell you why they want us all dead.” I tapped my PDA again. “If you check your e-mail, you’ll see an offer of new employment—everyone but you, Magdalene, and you, Mahir. We need to talk to you off-line.” From Magdalene’s nod, it was apparent that she’d been expecting that request, or something similar. Mahir just looked floored. I’d been anticipating both responses. “Again, if you want to refuse, that’s fine. You will have five minutes to make your decision. If you haven’t decided within that time, I’ll disconnect you from this conference. Should you choose to leave this organization, you will have twelve hours to remove your personal files from our servers. At the end of that time, your access will be revoked and you’ll need to contact a member of the senior staff to obtain anything you haven’t downloaded.”

I paused, giving the others a chance to speak. No one said a word. “All right. Please review your contracts. If you accept, enter the security code listed under the space for your license number. If you do not accept, it’s been a pleasure working with you. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.”

More silence followed this announcement as people opened and read their new employment agreements. Nothing had really changed from their original contracts; they got the same number of shares and the same percentages of the various merchandising lines, and they were expected to hold to the same deadlines and levels of journalistic conduct. In another way, everything had changed from their original contracts because when those contracts were signed, nobody was trying to kill us. We weren’t offering hazard pay or guaranteed ratings. We were just offering a lot of danger, and the only real reward was the chance to be a part of telling a truth that was bigger than any of us on our own.

Andrea was again the first to speak, saying, “I I’m sorry, Georgia. Shaun. I just I was here because Buffy asked me to come. I never wanted to deal with this sort of thing. I can’t.”

“It’s all right, Ace,” said Shaun, soothingly. He’s always been good with this sort of thing. That makes one of us. “Thank you for all your hard work.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay longer,” said Andrea. “I good luck, all of you.” Wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, she looked away from her webcam just before the picture blinked off, leaving a black rectangle on the corner of my screen.

That was the pebble that kicked off the avalanche. Screen borders started blinking white as people agreed to their new contracts; video windows started blacking as people mumbled their apologies and logged off. Some of the answers we got weren’t a surprise. I knew Alaric and Becks would stay. Shaun had given me the same reassurance about Dave. With Buffy gone, there was no one to vouch for the Fictionals, but it seemed likely that we’d lose at least half of them. What I wasn’t expecting was how many of my Newsies would be making their apologies along with them.