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Page 17

Flashing her award-winning—literally—smile at the crowd, Mom pulled me into an “impulsive” hug and announced, “Well, folks, our table’s ready.” Noises of displeasure greeted her statement. Her smile widened. “But we’ll be back after food, so if you guys want to grab a burger, we might be able to coax a few wise statements out of my girl.” She gave me a squeeze and let go, to the sound of general applause.

I sometimes wonder why none of these news site cluster bombs ever catch the way her smile dies when she’s not facing the cameras. They run solemn pictures of her once in a while, but they’re as posed as the rest; they show her looking mournfully at abandoned playgrounds or locked cemetery gates, and once—when her ratings dipped to an all-time low during the summer Shaun and I turned thirteen and locked ourselves in our rooms—at the school Phillip had attended. That’s our Mom, selling the death of her only biological child for a few points in the ratings game.

Shaun says I shouldn’t judge her so harshly, since we make our living doing the same thing. I say it’s different when we do it. We don’t have kids. The only things we’re selling are ourselves, and I guess we have a right to that.

Dad and Shaun were standing outside the restaurant doors, turned just far enough that none of the microphones capable of withstanding the crowd noise without shorting out would be able to make out what they were saying. As I drew closer, I heard Shaun saying, in an entirely pleasant tone, “ I really don’t care what you consider ‘reasonable.’ You’re not part of our team; you’re not getting any exclusives.”

“Now, Shaun—”

“Dinnertime,” I said, snagging Shaun’s arm as I walked past. He came with me as gratefully as I’d gone with Buffy a few moments before. Shaun, Buffy, and I walked into the restaurant practically arm-in-arm, with our parents trailing behind us, both struggling to conceal their irritation. Tough. If they didn’t want us embarrassing them in public, they shouldn’t have made us go out.

Our table proved to be nice enough to suit Mom’s idea of propriety; it was located in the far corner of the yard, close to both the fence keeping out the woods and the fence isolating us from the street. Several enterprising paparazzi had drifted over to that portion of the sidewalk and were snapping candid shots through the bars. Mom flashed them a dimpled grin. Dad looked knowing and wise. I fought the urge to gag.

My handheld vibrated, signaling an incoming text message. I unclipped it from my belt, tilting it to show the screen.

“Think this’ll die down when we’re on the road?—S”

I smirked, tapping out, “Once the media machine (aka ‘Mom’) has been left here? Absolutely. We’ll be small potatoes next to the main course.”

He tapped back: “I love it when you compare people to food.”

“Practicing for the inevitable.”

Shaun snorted laughter, nearly dropping his phone into the basket of breadsticks. Dad shot him a sharp look, and he put his phone down next to his silverware, saying angelically, “I was checking my ratings.”

Dad’s scowl melted instantly. “How’s it looking?”

“Not bad. The footage the Buffster managed to clean before we hauled her away from her computer is getting a really good download rate.” Shaun flashed a grin at Buffy, who preened. If you want her to like you, compliment her poetry. If you want her to love you, compliment her tech. “I figure once I do the parallel reports and record my commentary, my share’s going to jump another eight points. I may break my own top stats this month.”

“Show-off,” I said, and smacked him on the arm with my fork.

“Slacker,” he replied, still grinning.

“Children,” said Mom, but there was no heat behind it. She loved it when we goofed around. It made us look more like a real family.

“I’m going to have the teriyaki soy burger,” said Buffy. She leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “I heard from a guy who knows a girl whose boyfriend’s best friend is in biotech that he—the best friend, I mean—ate some beef that was cloned in a clean room and didn’t have a viral colony, and it tasted just like teriyaki soy.”

“Would that it were true,” said Dad, with the weird sort of mournfulness reserved for people who grew up before the Rising and were now confronted with something that’s been lost forever. Like red meat.

That’s another nasty side effect of the KA infection that no one thought about until they were forced to deal with it firsthand: Everything mammalian harbors a virus colony, and the death of the organism causes the virus to transmute into its live state. Hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks, and pork chops are things of the past. Eat them, and you’re eating live viral particles. Are you sure there aren’t any sores in your mouth? In your esophagus? Can you be one hundred percent certain that no part of your digestive tract has been compromised in any way? All it takes is the smallest break in the body’s defenses and your slumbering infection wakes up. Cooking the meat enough to kill the infection also kills the flavor, and it’s still a form of Russian roulette.

The most well-done steak in the world may have one tiny speck of rare meat somewhere inside it, and that’s all that it takes. My brother wrestles with the infected, gives speeches while standing on cars in designated disaster zones, never wears sufficient armor, and generally goes through life giving the impression that he’s a suicide waiting to happen. Even he won’t eat red meat.

Poultry and fish are safe, but a lot of people avoid them anyway. Something about the act of eating flesh makes them uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the fact that suddenly, after centuries of ruling the farmyard, mankind has reason to empathize with the chicken. We always had turkeys at Thanksgiving and geese at Christmas. Just another ratings stunt on the part of our increasingly media-savvy parents, but at least this one had some useful side effects. Shaun and I are some of the only people I know in our generation who don’t have any unreasonable dietary hang-ups.

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