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“Repeat the first part of your statement again.”

“They had to torch and ” He stopped. “You’re not serious.”

“Shaun, the O’Neils have been raising horses for generations. They didn’t even take a break after the Rising.” I pulled out of the lot and started down the road. The countryside around us was wide, flat, and relatively unbroken by anything as plebian as signs of human habitation. Not the best hunting territory for the living dead. “They don’t make mistakes on the level of allowing a massive outbreak that kills nearly half the hired help. It just doesn’t happen. So either somebody screwed up big time—”

“—or someone cut the screamers,” Shaun finished, hushed. “Why wouldn’t anyone have found anything?”

“Was anyone going to look? Shaun, if I say, ‘A big animal amplified and killed its owners,’ do you think, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ or do you think, ‘It was bound to happen sometime’?”

Shaun was quiet for several minutes as we drove toward the ranch. Finally, in a pensive tone, he said, “How big is this, George?”

I tightened my hands on the wheel. “Ask Rebecca Ryman.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

“We’re going to tell the truth.” I glanced toward him. “Hopefully, that’s going to be enough.”

He nodded, and we drove on in silence.

A lot of time was spent looking into the science and application of forensics before the Rising. How did this man die? What did he die for? Could he have been saved? It’s been different since the Rising, as the possibility of infection makes it too dangerous for investigators to pry into any crime scene that hasn’t been disinfected, while the strength of modern disinfectants means that once they’ve been used, there’s nothing to find. DNA testing and miraculous deductions brought about by a few clinging fibers are things of the past. As soon as the dead started walking, they stopped sharing their secrets with the living.

For modern investigators, whether with the police or the media, this has meant a lot of “going back to our roots.” An active mind is worth a thousand tests you can’t run, and knowing where to look is worth even more. It’s all a matter of learning how to think, learning how to eliminate the impossible, and admitting that sometimes what’s left, however improbable, is going to be the truth.

The world is strange that way.

—From Images May Disturb You,

the blog of Georgia Mason, March 24, 2040

Fourteen

Rick was a good match for our team in more ways than one: He had his own transport, and he didn’t leave home without it. I’d heard about the armor-plated VW Beetles—they’re in a lot of Mom’s antizombie ordnance reports, which she tends to leave lying all over the house—but I’d never actually seen one before Rick’s. It looked like a weird cross between an armadillo and a pill bug.

An electric blue armadillo.

With headlights.

He was parked outside the ranch gates, leaning against the side of his car and typing something into his PDA’s collapsible keyboard. He lifted his head as we drove up, folding the keyboard and stowing the entire unit in his pocket.

Shaun was out of the van before we’d stopped moving, pointing to Rick. “You do not lower your eyes in the field!” he snapped. “You do not split your attention, you do not focus on your equipment, and you especially do not do these things when you’re alone at an off-grid rendezvous point!” Rick blinked, looking more confused than anything else.

I stopped the van, leaning over to close Shaun’s door before opening my own. A lot of people don’t think my brother has a temper. It’s like they assume I somehow sucked up the entire quota of “cranky,” and now Shaun’s perpetually cheery and ready for a challenge while I glower at people from behind my sunglasses and plot the downfall of the Western world. They’re wrong. Shaun has a bigger temper than I do. He just saves his fits of fury for the important things, like finding one of our team members acting like an idiot in the vicinity of a recent outbreak.

Rick was realizing he had a problem. Putting up his hands in a placating gesture, he said, “The area was cleared, and they did a full disinfect. I looked it all up before I came out here.”

“Did they get a one hundred percent scratch-and-match between mammals meeting the KA amplification barrier, known victims, registered survivors, and potential vector points?” Shaun demanded. He knew they hadn’t, because there’s never been a one hundred percent return on the Nguyen-Morrison test array, not even under strict laboratory conditions. There’s always the chance something capable of carrying the virus, either in its own bloodstream or by carrying tainted blood or tissue on its person, got away.

“No,” Rick admitted.

“No, because it doesn’t happen. Which means you? Have basically been standing naked in the middle of the road, waving your arms and shouting, ‘Come get it, dead guys, I wanna be your next snack.’ ” He flung Rick’s field kit at his chest. Rick caught it and stood there, blinking as Shaun spun on his heel and stalked off toward the gates. I let him go. Someone needed to start the process of presenting our credentials to the guards on duty, and it would calm him down. Bureaucracy generally did.

Rick stared after Shaun, still looking shell-shocked.

“He’s right, you know,” I said, squinting at him through my sunglasses. The glare outside the van was bad enough to make me wish it were safe to take painkillers in the field. It’s not; nothing that dulls your awareness of your body and what it’s doing is a good idea. “What made you get out of your car?”

“I thought it was safe,” Rick stammered.

I shook my head. “It’s never safe. Get your pack on, activate your cameras, and let’s go.” I started along Shaun’s path to the ranch gates. Getting out of the car alone was a rookie mistake, but Rick’s record wasn’t heavy on field work. His reporting was good, and he knew enough to stick with the senior reporters in an area. He’d learn the rest if he lived long enough to get the chance.


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