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“I’m going to have the chicken salad and a cup of today’s soup,” I said.

“And a Coke,” prompted Shaun.

“And a carafe,” I corrected him.

He was still teasing me about my caffeine intake when the waiter appeared, accompanied by the beaming manager. No surprise there. As a family, we’ve been excellent customers for as long as I can remember. Every time a local outbreak has closed down outside gathering areas, Mom’s been at Bronson’s, eating in the enclosed dining area and making a point of being the first one outside when they’re allowed to reopen it. They’d be stupid not to appreciate what we’ve done for their business.

The waiter was carrying a tray laden with our usual assortment of drinks: coffee for Mom and Dad, a virgin daiquiri for Buffy, a bottle of sparkling apple cider for Shaun—it looks like beer from any sort of a distance—and a pitcher of Coke for me.

“Compliments of the house,” the manager declared, turning his smile on me and Shaun. “We’re so proud of you. Going off to be media superstars! It runs in the family.”

“It definitely does,” simpered Mom, doing her best to look like a giggling schoolgirl. She was only succeeding at looking like an idiot, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. We were almost on the campaign trail. It wasn’t worth the fight.

“Be sure to sign a menu before you leave?” the manager pressed. “We’ll put it on the wall. When you’re too big to come to places like this, we’ll be able to say, ‘They ate here, they ate fries right there, right at that table, while they did their math homework.’ ”

“It was physics,” protested Shaun, laughing.

“Whatever you say,” said the manager.

The waiter passed drinks around as we placed our orders. He finished by pouring the first cup of Coke from my pitcher with a flourish of his wrist. I smiled at that, and he winked at me, clearly pleased. I let my smile die, spiking an eyebrow upward. Hours of practice with my mirror have shown me that particular expression’s success in conveying disdain. It’s one of the few facial expressions that’s helped by my sunglasses, rather than being hindered by them. His pleasure faded, and he hustled through the rest of his duties without looking at me.

Shaun caught my eye, mouthing “That wasn’t nice” at me.

I shrugged, mouthing “He should have known better” back at him. I don’t flirt. Not with waiters, not with other reporters, not with anybody.

Finally, the staff retreated, and Mom raised her glass, clearly signaling for a toast. Choosing the path of least resistance, the rest of us did the same.

“To ratings!” she said.

“To ratings,” we agreed and clinked our glasses around the table in doleful adherence to the ritual.

We were on the road to those ratings now. All we had to do was hope that we were good enough to keep them. Whatever it might take.

My friend Buffy likes to say love is what keeps us together. The old pop songs had it right, and it’s all about love, full stop, no room for arguing. Mahir says loyalty is what matters—doesn’t matter what kind of person you were, as long as you were loyal. George, she says it’s the truth that matters. We live and die for the chance to maybe tell a little bit of the truth, maybe shame the Devil just a little bit before we go.

Me, I say those are all great things to live for, if they’re what happens to float your boat, but at the end of the day, there’s got to be somebody you’re doing it for. Just one person you’re thinking of every time you make a decision, every time you tell the truth, or tell a lie, or anything.

I’ve got mine. Do you?

—From Hail to the King,

the blog of Shaun Mason, September 19, 2039



“Georgia Carolyn Mason, licensed online news representative, After the End Times.” I handed my license and photo identification to the man in black, turning my left wrist over to reveal the blue-and-red ID tattoo I had done when I tested for my first Class B license. Tattooing isn’t legally required—yet—but it gives them something to identify your body by. Every little bit helps. “Registered with the North American Association of Internet Journalists; dental records, skin sample, and identifying markings on file.”

“Remove the sunglasses.”

That was a request I was all too familiar with. “If you’ll check my file, you’ll see that I have a filed notation of retinal Kellis-Amberlee syndrome. If there’s another test we can perform, I’d be happy to—”

“Remove the sunglasses.”

“You realize I won’t display a normal retinal pattern?”

The man in black offered me the ghost of a smile. “Well, ma’am, if your eyes check normal, we’ll know you’ve been making all this fuss because you weren’t who you claimed to be, now, won’t we?”

Damn. “Right,” I muttered, and removed my glasses. Forcing myself to keep my eyes open despite the pain, I turned to press my face into the retinal scanner being held by the second member of Senator Ryman’s private security team. They would compare the scan results to the ocular patterns in my file, checking for signs of degradation or decay that could signify a recent viral flare. Not that they’d get any useful results from me; retinal KA means my eyes always register as if I were harboring a live infection.

Buffy and Shaun were going through the standard version of the same process with their own detachments of black-suited security representatives just a few feet away from me. I was willing to bet theirs hurt less.

The light at the top of the retinal scanner went from red to green, and the man pulled it away, nodding to his companion. “Hand,” said the first man.

I took a few precious seconds to slide my sunglasses back into place before holding out my right hand, and managed not to grimace as it was grabbed and thrust into a closed-case blood testing unit. Clinical interest took over, wiping away my distaste for the process as I studied the unit’s casing.