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I considered pressing the matter. If this were a normal zombie attack, one of the hit-and-run outbreaks that can happen anywhere, I probably would have. It’s always best to question the survivors before they can start deluding themselves about the reality of what they just went through. After the adrenaline fades, half the people who survive a zombie attack turn into heroes, having gunned down a thousand zombies with nothing but a .22 and a bucket of guts, while the other half deny that they were ever close enough to the undead to be in any actual danger. If you want the real story, you have to get it fast.

But Steve was a professional bodyguard, and that made him less likely than most men to lie to himself. Factor in the fact that unless he left the convoy after the paperwork was completed, I’d have to continue interacting with him on a regular basis, and getting the scoop wasn’t worth alienating the large, potentially violent man who managed a lot of my blood tests. Shaking my head, I took a step back.

“Sure, Steve,” I said. “Just let us know if there’s anything we can do.”

There was a clatter as Shaun jumped down from the fence. I didn’t turn, and he trotted to a stop beside me, eyes narrowing as he took note of the attending guards. “Christ, Steve, where’s Tyrone?” he said.

Shaun has done more to get close to the guards than I have. A little friendliness is unavoidable, but he’d actually gotten out there and made friends. Maybe that’s why Steve answered his question with a quiet, “Conversion was confirmed at twenty-two hundred hours, twenty-seven minutes. Tracy put him down, but not before he was able to pass on the infection.”

Shaun whistled, long and low. “How many down?”

“Four casualties from the convoy and an as-yet-undetermined number of locals. The senator and his aides are being moved to a secure location. If you’ll gather your things and collect Miss Meissonier, we’ll take the three of you to decontamination before relocating you as well.”

“Are all the zombies down?” I asked.

Steve frowned at me. “Miss Mason?”

“The zombies. Shaun and I just eliminated the better part of two packs,” ignoring the part where one of us nearly got eaten in the process, “and you seem to have handled the mess at the gates. Are all the zombies down?”

“Channels are showing a negative on infected activity within the area.”

“Channels are not a one hundred percent guarantee,” I said, keeping my tone reasonable. “You’re down hands, and we’ve already been in primary contact, which means we’ll need the same decon you will. Why not let Shaun and me stay and help? We’re licensed, and if you have ammo, we’re armed. Remove Buffy, but let us stay.”

The guards exchanged uneasy glances before looking to Steve. Whatever he said would go. Steve frowned down at the bodies littering the tarmac, and finally said, “I hope you both understand that I won’t hesitate to shoot either one of you.”

“We wouldn’t go out with you if we thought you’d hesitate,” said Shaun. He held up his crossbow. “Anybody got bolts for this thing?”

Cleanup is the worst thing about a small-scale outbreak. For many people, this part of a rising is pretty much invisible. Anyone without a hazard license is confined outside the contaminated zones until the burials, burnings, and sterilizations are done. When the cordons come up, life goes back to normal, and this sort of thing is routine enough that, unless you know the signs, you could even fail to realize that there was an incident. We’ve had a lot of practice at cover-ups.

That changes if you have to be involved. Part of getting your hazard license is going along on a cleanup run, just to make sure you understand what you’re getting into. George and I both threw up when we made our first cleanup run, and I almost passed out twice. It’s horrible, messy work. Once a zombie’s been shot through the head, it doesn’t look like a zombie anymore. It just looks like somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I hate the whole process.

Sterilization is horrific. You burn any vegetation the zombies came into contact with, and if they walked on any open ground, you drench it with a solution of chlorinated saline. If it’s a rural or suburban area, you kill any animals you find. Squirrels, cats, whatever; if it’s mammalian and can carry the virus in its live state, it dies, even if it’s too small to undergo amplification. And when you’re done, you shuffle back to the hazmat center that’s been established for agent decon, and you go inside, and you spend two hours having your skin steamed off, which is a nice way to prepare for the two weeks of nightmares that you’re going to have to live through.

If you ever start to feel like I have a glamorous job, that maybe it would be fun to go out and poke a zombie with a stick while one of your friends makes a home movie for your buddies, please do me a favor: Go out for your hazard license first. If you still want to do this crap after the first time you’ve burned the body of a six-year-old with blood on her lips and a Barbie in her hands, I’ll welcome you with open arms.

But not before.

—From Hail to the King,

the blog of Shaun Mason, February 11, 2040

Nine

I collapsed onto our bed at the local four-star hotel a little after dawn, my aching eyes already squeezed shut. Shaun was a bit steadier on his feet and he stayed upright long enough to make sure the room’s blackout curtains were drawn. I made a small noise of approval and felt him pulling my sunglasses off my face a moment later. I swatted ineffectually at the air.

“Stop that. Give those back.”

“They’re on the bedside table,” he said. The bedsprings creaked as he sat down, taking the side of the bed that was closer to the window. Rustling followed as he removed his shoes and slumped sideways. I didn’t have to open my eyes to know what he was doing. We shared the same room until puberty hit, and since then we’ve never been more than a closed door away from one another. “Christ, George. That was a clusterfuck.”


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