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“Mmm,” I replied, and pulled the covers over my head. I was still wearing my shoes. The staff was paid to wash the sheets after every visit, and by the point we left the field, I’d dressed and undressed so many times in the course of decontamination that I never wanted to remove my clothes again. I’d just wear them until they dissolved, and then spend the rest of my life naked.

“How the hell did we get an outbreak that close to the convention hall? Primaries are coming up. We didn’t need this, even if it’s going to be great for ratings. Think Buffy has the initial edits up? I know you hate it when she releases footage without your say-so, but cleanup ran long. She probably won’t wait. Waiting could mean we get scooped.”


“Bet this spikes us another half-point. More when I can get my POV stuff edited together. Think there were faults in the fencing? Maybe they broke through. Steve wasn’t clear on where the attack started, and we lost both guards stationed on the gate.”


“Poor Tyrone. Jesus. Did you know he was putting his teenage son through college with this gig? Kid wants to be a molecular virologist—”

Somewhere in the middle of explaining the hopes, dreams, and character failings of the fallen guards, Shaun’s voice trailed off, replaced by the soft, rhythmic sound of his breathing. I sighed, rolling over, and followed him into sleep.

The curtains were pulled away from the window some unknown length of time later, allowing sunlight to stream into the room and jerk me unceremoniously back into awareness. I swore, fumbling for the nightstand I vaguely remembered Shaun mentioning in conjunction with my sunglasses. My hand hit the side of the bed, and I squinted my eyes more tightly closed, trying to ward off the light.

Shaun was less restrained in his profanity. “Fuck a duck, Buffy, what are you trying to do, blind her?” My sunglasses were thrust into my hand. I unfolded them and slid them into place, opening my eyes to see Shaun, clad only in his boxer shorts, glaring at an unrepentant Buffy. “Knock next time!”

“I did knock, three times,” she said. “And I tried the room phone, twice. See?” Both Shaun and I glanced toward the phone. The red message light was blinking. “When you kept not answering, I rerouted the locks to make them think your room was my room and let myself in.”

“You didn’t just shake us because?” I mumbled. A splitting headache was rushing in to fill the void left by my disrupted REM cycle.

“Are you kidding? You two sleep armed. I like having four limbs and a head.” Seeming oblivious to the hostility in the room, Buffy activated the terminal on the wall, pulling down the foldable keyboard. “I’m guessing you guys haven’t seen the daily returns, huh?”

“We haven’t seen anything but the insides of our eyelids,” Shaun said. He wasn’t making any effort to hide his irritation, which was only increasing as Buffy ignored it. “What time is it?”

“Almost noon,” Buffy said. The hotel start-up screen came up and she began typing, shunting the connection to one of our own server relays. The logo of After the End Times filled the screen, replaced a moment later by the black-and-white grid of our secure staff pages. “I let you guys sleep for, like, six hours.”

I groaned and reached for the phone. “I am so calling room service for a gallon of Coke before she can do any more talking.”

“Get some coffee, too,” said Shaun. “A whole pot of coffee.”

“Tea for me,” said Buffy. The screen shifted again as she pulled up the numerical display that represents our feed from the Internet Ratings Board. It measures server traffic, unique hits, number of connected users, and a whole bunch of other numbers and factors, all of them combining to make one final, holy figure: our market share. It’s color-coded, appearing in green if it’s more than fifty, white for forty-nine to ten, yellow for nine to five, and red for four and above.

The number at the top of screen, gleaming a bright, triumphant red, was 2.3.

I dropped the phone.

Shaun recovered his composure first, maybe because he was more awake than I was. “Have we been hacked?”

“Nope.” Buffy shook her head, grinning so broadly that it seemed like the top of her head might fall off. “What you’re seeing is the honest to God, unaltered, uncensored Ratings Board designation for our site traffic over the past twelve hours. We’re running top two, as long as you discount  p**n , music download, and movie tie-in sites.”

Those three site types make up the majority of the traffic on the Internet—the rest of us are just sort of skimming off the top. Rising unsteadily, I crossed the room and touched the screen. The number didn’t change.

“Shaun ”


“You owe me twenty bucks.”


Turning to Buffy, I asked, “How?”

“If I attribute it to the graphic design, do I get a raise?”

“No,” said Shaun and I, in unison.

“Didn’t think so, but a girl has to try.” Buffy sat down on the edge of my bed, still beaming. “I got clean footage from half a dozen cameras all the way through both attacks. No voice reports, since someone went and volunteered to help with cleanup—”

“Not that going through decon without helping would have left me able to record,” I said dryly, retreating back toward the phone. Incredible ratings or not, I needed to kill this headache before it got fully established, and that meant I needed something caffeinated to wash down the painkillers. “You know that wipes me out.”

“Details,” said Buffy. “I spliced together three basic narrative tracks—one following the outbreak at the gate as closely as possible, one following the perimeter, and one that followed the two of you.”

I glanced in her direction as I waited for room service to pick up. “How much of our dialogue did you get?”