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“Is that an Apple unit?” I asked.

“Apple XH-224,” he replied.

“Wow.” I’d seen the top-of-the-line units before, but I’d never had the opportunity to use one. They’re more sophisticated than our standard field units, capable of detecting a live infection at something like ten times the speed. One of those babies can tell you that you’re dead before you even realize that you’ve been bitten. Which didn’t make the process of getting tested any more enjoyable, but it definitely made it more interesting to observe. It was almost worth the pain. Almost.

Five red lights came on along the top of the box, beginning to blink as needles pricked the skin between my thumb and forefinger, at my wrist, and at the tip of my pinkie. Each time, the bite of the needle was followed by a cool blast of antiseptic foam. When all five lights had gone from red to green, the agent pulled the box away and smiled genuinely for the first time.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Miss Mason. You’re free to proceed.”

“Thanks,” I said, and pushed my sunglasses farther up the bridge of my nose. My headache settled back into its previous grumble. “Mind if I wait for the rest of my crew?” Buffy was sticking her hand into the box, and they were waiting for Shaun’s retinal check to complete. He has retinal scarring in his left eye from a stupid incident with some crappy Chinatown fireworks when we were fifteen, and that makes his scans take longer than they should. Mine may be weird, but they’re a standard weird. His confuse just about every scanner we’ve ever met.

“Not at all,” the agent said. “Just don’t cross the quarantine line, or we’ll have to start over.”

“Got it.” I stepped back and studied the area, careful to keep my feet well away from the red line marking the edge of the defined “safe” zone.

We’d been expecting increased security around the campaign, but this was more than I’d been bargaining for. They picked us up from Buffy’s house; the senator’s security dispatch wasn’t even willing to let us near their cars unless they were collecting us from a secured location, which took our place out of the running. Given that they gave us blood tests before they said hello, I don’t quite get the reasoning. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with a zombie attack before lunch. Or maybe they were avoiding our parents, who were practically panting at the idea of a photo opportunity with the senator’s men.

Once in the cars, we were transported to the Oakland Airport, where we had to take another blood test before they loaded us and our portable gear onto a private helicopter. We flew to what was supposedly an undisclosed location but I was pretty sure was the city of Clayton, near the foothills of Mount Diablo. Most of that area was purchased by the government after the original residents evacuated, and it’s been rumored for years that they were using some of the old ranches as short-term housing. It’s a nice place, assuming you don’t mind the occasional threat of zombie coyotes, wild dogs, and bobcats. Rural areas offer a lot where privacy is concerned, but not so much if what you’re looking for is safety.

Judging by the stables around the perimeter, our destination started life as a working farm. Now it was clearly a private residence, with electric fences spanning the spaces between buildings and barbed wire strung as far as the eye could see. Factor in the helipad and it didn’t take any great leap of logic to conclude that this place confirmed the rumors about the government setting up hidey-holes out in the abandoned boonies. Nice digs, if you can get them. I smiled as I continued looking around. Our first day, and we already had a scoop: Government Use of Abandoned Land in Northern California Confirmed. Read all about it.

Buffy picked up her bags and walked over to me, looking flustered. “I don’t think I’ve ever been poked that many times,” she complained.

“At least now you know you’re clean,” I said. “Cameras rolling?”

“There was a minor EMP band at the entrance that took two and five off-line, but I anticipated for that and built in redundancies. One, three, and four, and six through eight, are all transmitting live and have been since pickup.”

I looked at her flatly. “I didn’t understand a word of that, so I’m just going to assume you said ‘yes’ and move on with my life, all right?”

“Works for me,” she said, waving at Shaun as he joined us. “You’re done?”

“They know Shaun can’t be a zombie,” I said, adjusting my sunglasses. “You need a brain to reanimate.”

He elbowed me amiably and shook his head. “Dude, I’m amazed they didn’t strip search us. They should’ve bought us dinner first, or something.”

“Will lunch do?” asked a jocular voice. All three of us turned, finding ourselves facing a tall, generically handsome man whose carefully cropped brown hair was starting to gray but had been left just long enough in the front to fall across his forehead and create the illusion of boyishness. His skin was tan but relatively unlined, and his eyes were very blue. He was casually dressed in tan slacks and a white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up around his elbows.

“Senator Ryman,” I said, and offered him my hand. “I’m Georgia Mason. These are my associates, Shaun Mason—”

“Hey,” interjected Shaun.

“—and Georgette Meissonier.”

“You can call me Buffy,” said Buffy.

“Of course,” the senator said, taking my hand and shaking it. He had a good grip, solid without being overwhelming, and the teeth he revealed when he smiled were straight and white. “It’s a pleasure to meet all three of you. I’ve been watching your precampaign preparations with interest.” He released my hand.

“We had a lot to accomplish and not much time to accomplish it in,” I said.

“A lot to accomplish” verged on understatement. We had seven baby bloggers contact us before we finished eating dinner, all wanting to know if we were planning to schism. Once people knew the size of the story we’d landed, there was no way striking out on our own would have been a surprise, so we didn’t try to make it one. The folks at Bridge Supporters were sorry to see us go and pleased by our severance offer: We took exclusive rights to all campaign-trail stories to our new site, but we allowed them to keep running two of Buffy’s ongoing poetry series, gave them first rights on any continuations to Shaun’s series on exploring the ruins of Yreka, and guaranteed two op-ed pieces from me per month for the next year. They’d get click-through reads from the folks following us on campaign, and we’d get the same in return as existing Bridge Support readers found their way to our new site through the shared material. My friend Mahir had been looking to move on to new challenges, and he was glad to sign on to help me moderate the Newsies. Shaun and Buffy had their own hiring to do, and I left it to them.