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“I I’m not sure what you ”

“Just say yes, Mahir. We have so many recorders running right now that you know a verbal contract will stand up in court, as long as I don’t test positive when they come to let me out of here.”

Mahir sighed, the sound seemingly summoned up from the very core of him. I glanced up from the process of loading bullets into Georgia’s favorite .40, and saw him nod. “All right, Shaun. I accept.”

“Good. Welcome back onboard.” I’ve done my own hiring and firing from the start and I know what it takes to activate a new account or reactivate an old one. Leaning over the nearest blood-free keyboard, I called up an administrative panel and tapped in his user ID, followed by my own, my password, and my administrative override. “It’ll take about ten minutes for your log-in to turn all the way back live.” Just about as long as it had taken Georgia’s typing to degrade. “Once you can get in, get in. I want you monitoring every inch of the site. Draft any-damn-body you can get your hands on—I don’t care what department they belong to, you get them working the forums, watching the feeds, and making the goddamn news go. You need to hire people, you hire people. Until I come back, you’re in charge. Your word is law.”

“What’s the goal here, Shaun?”

I looked toward the screen, teeth bared in a grin, and he recoiled. “We’re not letting them kill my sister’s story the way they killed her. She gets buried. It doesn’t.”

For a moment, it looked as if he might protest, but only for a moment. It passed as quickly as it had come, and he nodded. “I’ll get on that. Are you about to do something foolish?”

“You could say that,” I agreed. “Good night, Mahir.”

“Good luck,” he said, and the screen went black.

I had just finished loading Georgia’s gun when the intercom buzzed. “Answer,” I said, pulling down my Kevlar vest and slamming the weapons locker shut before starting to fasten the buckles around my chest.

“—there? I repeat: Shaun, are you in there?”

“Steve, my man!” I didn’t have to feign my delight at the sound of his voice. “Dude, you’re like a cat! How many lives you got, anyway?”

“Not as many as you,” Steve replied, the rumble of his voice not quite hiding his concern. “Georgia in there with you, Shaun?”

“She is,” I said, sliding a Taser into my pocket. It wouldn’t stop someone who’d amplified all the way, but it would slow them down. The virus doesn’t like to have the electrical current of its host messed with. “She’s not really interested in talking, though, Steve-o, on account of the bullets I put through her spinal column. If you’re not infected, and you’d be good enough to open the doors, I’d be greatly obliged.”

“Did she bite, scratch, or come into contact with you in any way after exposure?”

They were routine questions. They’d never made me so angry in my life. “No, Steve, I’m afraid she didn’t. No bites, no scratches, no hugs, not even a kiss good night before that Bible-thumping bastard’s assassins sent my sister off to the great newsroom in the sky. If you’ve got a blood test unit and you’ll open the doors, I’ll prove it.”

“You armed, Shaun?”

“You gonna leave me in here if I say yes? ’Cause I can lie.”

The pause that followed was almost enough to make me think Steve had decided safe was better than sorry and was leaving me in the van to rot. That was a goal, sure, but not yet. The story wasn’t done until the last of the loose ends were tied off, and one of those loose ends was slated to be George’s honor guard. Finally, voice low, Steve said, “I haven’t read her last entry all the way. I read enough. Stand back from the door and keep your hands where I can see them until you’ve tested out clean.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and stepped backward.

The air that rushed in when the door opened was so fresh it almost hurt my lungs. The scents of blood and gunpowder were heavy, but not as heavy as they’d been inside the van. I took an involuntary step forward, toward the light, and stopped as a large dark blur raised what I could only assume was an arm and said, “Don’t come any closer until I’ve moved away.”

“You got it, Steve-o,” I said. “You guys dealt with the little outbreak you had going out here? Sorry I didn’t come to join your party. I was preoccupied.”

“It’s been contained, if not resolved, and I understand,” said Steve, coming into focus as my eyes adjusted. He knelt, placed something on the ground, and retreated, allowing me to approach the object. As expected, it was a blood testing unit. Not the top of the line, but not the bottom, either; solidly middle of the road, enough to confirm or deny infection within an acceptable margin of error. “Acceptable.” That’s always seemed like such a funny word to use when you’re talking about whether somebody lives or dies.

It weighed less than a pound. I broke the seal with my thumb, looking toward Steve as I did. “He doesn’t walk away from this,” I said.

“I promise,” Steve replied.

Good enough for me. “Count of three,” I said. “One ”

Inside my head, Georgia said, Two

I slid my hand into the unit and pressed the relays down, watching as the lights started cycling through the available colors. Red-yellow-green, yellow-red-green. Every damn one of those lights danced between red and gold for a few seconds, long enough to make me sweat, before settling on a calm and steady green. You’re fine, son; just fine. Now go and be merry.

“Merry” wasn’t exactly in my plans. I held up the testing unit, letting Steve get a good long look. “This good enough?”

“It is,” he said, and tossed me a biohazard bag. “What the hell happened, Shaun?”

“Just what George said. Some sick f**ker killed Rick’s cat and rigged our trailers to blow. When the blast didn’t kill us, they hit George with one of those hypodermic darts like the one that triggered the outbreak at the Ryman place. Shit, I wish we’d been looking for the things back at Eakly. I bet we would’ve found one.”