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The bus stop was located in the underground parking garage, in a clear, well-lighted area equidistant from both the entrance and exit. The bus approached, the entry gate rose; the bus entered the garage, the gate descended. Assuming it was a standard security setup, there were circuit breakers in place to prevent the entry and exit gates from opening at the same time, and sounding the internal alarm would cause them both to descend and lock. In modern security design, “death trap” isn’t always a bad phrase. The idea is minimizing casualties, not preventing them entirely.

Blank-faced security men approached the bus as the doors opened, each holding a blood testing kit. I bit back a groan as I exited and approached the first free guard, adjusting the strap of my shoulder bag before extending my hand toward him. He slipped the unit over my hand and clamped it down.

“Press pass,” he said.

“Georgia Mason, After the End Times.” I unclipped the pass from my shirt and offered it to him. “I’m with Senator Ryman’s group.”

He fed the pass into the scanner at his waist. It beeped and popped the pass out again. He handed it back and glanced at the testing unit, which was showing a flashing green light. He frowned. “Please remove the glasses, Ms. Mason.”

Lovely. Some of the extremely sensitive units can get confused by the elevated levels of inactive virus particles caused by retinal KA. I didn’t exactly want to expose my eyes to the harsh lights of the parking garage, but I didn’t feel like getting shot as a security precaution either. I removed by sunglasses, fighting the urge to squint.

The guard leaned forward, studying my eyes. “Retinal Kellis-Amberlee,” he said. “Do you carry a med card?”

“Yes.” No one with naturally elevated virus levels goes out without a med card if they enjoy breathing. I withdrew my wallet and produced the card, handing it over. He slotted it into the back of the testing unit. The green light stopped flashing, turned yellow, and finally turned a solid green, apparently having satisfied itself that my virus levels were within normal parameters and nothing to be concerned with.

“Thank you for your cooperation.” He returned my card. I replaced it in my wallet before sliding my glasses back on. “Will your associates be joining us?”

“Not today.” The scan of my press pass would have told him everything there was to know about our organization: Our work history, what our ratings share was like, any citations we’d received for sloppy reporting or libel, and, of course, how many of us were traveling with the senator and his group. “Where can I find—”

“Information kiosks are inside, up the stairs, and to your left,” he said, already turning toward the next of the waiting journalists.

Assembly-line hospitality. Maybe it’s not that welcoming, but it gets the job done. I turned to head through the glass doors into the convention center proper, where I could hopefully locate a bathroom in short order. The light had left dazzling spots dancing in front of my eyes, and the only way I was going to make them go away was by swallowing some painkillers before the migraine had time to finish developing. It was a small hope, but as I didn’t exactly relish the idea of spending the day mingling with politicians and reporters while suffering from a headache, it was the best one I had.

The air conditioning inside was pumping full volume, ignoring the fact that it was February in Oklahoma. The reason for the arctic chill was evident: The place was packed. Despite the xenophobia that’s gripped the world since the Rising, some things still have to happen face-to-face, and that includes political rallies. If anything, the rallies have gotten larger, growing as the smaller events dwindled. There’s always the chance of an outbreak when you gather more than ten or twenty people in one place, but man is by his very nature a social animal, and once in a while, you just need an excuse.

Before the Rising, Super Tuesday was a big deal. These days, it’s a three-ring circus. Beyond the expected political factions and special-interest groups, the convention center has exhibit halls and even a temporary mini-mall of service and sales kiosks. Place your vote for the next presidential candidate and buy a new pair of running shoes! You know everyone in here has been screened for signs of viral amplification, so have a ball!

The combination of sudden cold and the press of that many bodies was enough to make my impending headache throb. Hunching my shoulders, I began cutting my way diagonally across the crowd, aiming for the escalators. Presumably, the information kiosk would identify the locations of both the bathrooms and whatever was serving as a press staging area in this zoo.

Getting there was easier said than done, but after swimming my way upstream against the delegates, merchants, voters, and tourists who felt that the inconvenience of going through security was worth the chance to have a little fun, I managed to reach the escalator and stepped on, clinging to the rail for all that I was worth. I think the average American’s tendency to hide inside while life goes whizzing by is an overreaction to a currently unavoidable situation, but I’m still a child of my generation; for me, a large crowd is fifteen people. The wistful looks older people sometimes get when they talk about gatherings of six and seven hundred are completely alien to me. That’s not the way I grew up, and shoving this many bodies into one space, even a space as large as the Oklahoma City Convention Center, just feels wrong.

Judging from the makeup of the crowd, I wasn’t alone in that attitude. Except for the people dressed in the corporate colors of one exhibitor or another, I was the youngest person in sight. I’m better crowd-socialized than most people born after the Rising because I’ve forced myself to be; in addition to the paparazzi swarms, I’ve attended technology conventions and academic conferences, getting myself used to the idea that people gather in groups. If I hadn’t spent the past several years working up to this, just stepping into the hall would have made me run screaming, probably causing security to decide there was an outbreak in progress and lock us all inside.