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Finding a host for our new site was disturbingly easy. One of Buffy’s biggest fans runs a small ISP, and he was willing to put us up and online in exchange for a minimal fee and a lifetime membership to our exclusive features, once we had some to offer. Less than twenty minutes after calling him, we had a URL, a place to put our files, and our very first subscriber. The baby bloggers who contacted us the first night were quickly joined by two dozen others, and that gave us the liberty to pick and choose, looking for people who fit a profile other than “available.” We wound up with twelve supporting betas, four in each major category, already producing content for a site that hadn’t even officially launched yet. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe it could be that easy to get everything you’d ever wanted but it was.

After the End Times went live six days after we got the notice that we had been chosen to accompany Senator Ryman’s campaign, with my name on the masthead as senior editor, Buffy listed as our graphic designer and technical expert, and Shaun responsible for hiring and marketing. Whether we sank or swam, there was no going back; once you make alpha, you can never be a beta again. Blogging is a territorial world, and the other betas would eat you alive if you tried.

I hadn’t slept more than four hours a night in two weeks. Sleep was a luxury reserved for people who weren’t trying to design their futures around a meal ticket that might still prove to be a rotten apple. I just had to hope the dirt we found on the campaign trail would be enough to support us, or our careers would be short, sour, and too interesting by far.

“Still, you seem to have done all right,” Senator Ryman said. His Wisconsin accent was stronger than it sounded on the newscasts; either he didn’t realize we were filming, or he figured there was no point in playing fake around the people who were going to be sharing his quarters over the next year. “If you’ll come with me, Emily has a nice lunch going, and she’s been looking forward to meeting you.”

“Is your wife coming with you for the whole campaign?” I asked. He started to walk toward a nearby door, and I followed, gesturing for the others to do the same. We knew the answer already—Emily Ryman was going to be staying on the family ranch in Parrish, Wisconsin, during most of the year, taking care of the kids while her husband did the moving and shaking—but I wanted him to say it for our pickup recordings. The best sound clips are the ones you gather for yourself.

“Em? I couldn’t make her come the whole way if I used a tractor pull,” the senator said, and opened the door. “Wipe your feet, all three of you. There’s no point to making you go through another damned blood test—if you’re this far past the gate and you’re not clean, we’re dead already. May as well be friendly about it.” Then he was inside, bellowing, “Emily! The bloggers are here!”

Shaun gave me a look, mouthing “I like him.” I nodded. We’d just met the man, and he was probably a master of political bullshit, but I was starting to like him, too. There was something about him that said “I know how pointless all of these political circuses are. Let’s see how it long it takes for them to realize that I’m just playing along, shall we?” I had to respect that.

He might be playing us for a bunch of saps, but if he was, he’d slip eventually, and we’d take him apart. That would be almost as much fun as getting along with him, and definitely better for our market share.

The interior of the house was decorated with a distinctly Southwestern flare, all bright, solid colors and geometric patterns. Southwestern art has shifted in the last twenty years; before the Rising, any house with that many potted cacti and Native American–style throw rugs would have boasted a coyote statue or two and possibly a polished steer’s skull, complete with horns. I’ve seen pictures—it was pretty morbid stuff. These days, representations of any animal that weighs more than forty pounds have a tendency to make people uncomfortable, so coyotes and steers are both out of fashion, unless you’re dealing with a serious nihilist or some kid playing “creature of the night.” Only the painted deserts remain. An enormous picture window took up half of one wall, marking the house as having been put up before the Rising. No one builds windows like that anymore. They’re an invitation to attack.

The kitchen was defined by raised counters rather than walls, spilling tile flooring into the hall and attached dining room in an almost organic fashion. Senator Ryman was standing by the big butcher’s block at the center when we entered, arms around the waist of a woman in blue jeans and a flannel lumberjack’s shirt. Her brown hair was pulled back in a high, girlish ponytail. He was murmuring something in her ear, looking a good ten years younger than he had when we met outside.

Shaun and I exchanged a glance, debating the merits of retreating and allowing them this private time. My journalistic instincts said “stay,” and I certainly wasn’t turning off the cameras, but my sense of ethics told me that people deserve a chance to unwind before starting on something as huge as a full-on political campaign.

Luckily, Buffy saved us from the conundrum by barreling straight ahead, sniffing the air appreciatively, and asking, “What’s for lunch? Wow, I’m starving. That smells like shrimp and mahimahi—am I close? Can I do anything to help?”

Senator Ryman stepped away from his wife, exchanging an amused look with her before turning a grin on Buffy, and said, “I think things are pretty much in hand. Besides which, Emily’s too territorial to share her kitchen with another woman. Even if it’s a borrowed kitchen.”

“Quiet, you,” said Emily, jabbing him in the ribs with a wooden spoon. He winced theatrically, and she laughed. The laugh was bright, perfectly in keeping with the practical, elegantly simple kitchen. “Now, let me see if I can guess which of you is which. I know you have two Georges and a Shaun—how is that fair?” She put on an exaggerated pout, not looking a bit like a senator’s wife. “Three boys’ names for two girls and a boy. It puts me at a disadvantage.”