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“Ninety-seven percent certainty on the Nguyen-Morrison,” I said, pulling up a picture of a pale gold horse with a white streak down its nose. “Ryman’s Gold Rush Weather. Yearling male, not gelded, clean vet reports every three months since birth, and a clean blood test registered every week for the same time period. No history of elevated virus levels. If you were looking for the cleanest horse on the planet, epidemiologically speaking, you’d have trouble going wrong with this one.”

“And he’s our index?” said Rick. “That’s bizarre. Maybe something bit him?”

“They logged every movement these horses made, all day, every day.” I closed the files, snapping the screen of my PDA into its collapsed formation before slipping it into my shoulder bag. “Goldie went out for a run the night before the outbreak, was rubbed down, and checked out clean, with no wounds or scratches. He didn’t leave the barn again before things went south.”

“None of the other horses top out in the Nguyen-Morrison?” Shaun reached into his own bag, pulling out a collapsible metal rod that he began uncollapsing as the three of us moved, by unspoken accord, toward the side of the ranch where the barns were clustered. If there was evidence to be found, it would be in the barns.

“The closest is the horse in the stall next to his, Ryman’s Red Sky at Morning, which tested out at a ninety-one and had visible bite marks. Six percent pretty much says Goldie’s our index.”

“The only way that could happen is spontaneous amplification,” Shaun said, with a deep frown. He snapped the last segment of the rod into place and hit a button on the handle, electrifying the metal. “No chance of heart attack or other natural death?”

“Not in a place like this,” Rick said. We both looked toward him. Shaking his head, he said, “I did a piece on modern ranching a few years back. They have those animals so monitored that if they just up and die—a heart stops, or they suffocate on a piece of feed, or whatever—someone will know immediately.”

“So you’re saying the people on duty would have received some sort of notification that the horse had died, and they’d have been able to get there before he got up and started biting the other horses,” I said, slowly. “Why didn’t they?”

“Because when you convert instead of reanimating, there’s no interruption in your vital signs,” said Shaun. He was starting to sound almost excited. “One minute you’re fine, the next minute, bang, you’re a shambling mass of virus-spreading flesh. The monitors wouldn’t catch a spontaneous conversion because a machine wouldn’t be able to tell that anything was wrong.”

“And people say modern technology doesn’t do enough to protect us,” I deadpanned. “All right, so if the horse checked out clean at a seven o’clock rubdown and went into spontaneous amplification in the night, the monitors wouldn’t have caught it. That still doesn’t tell us why it happened.”

Spontaneous amplification is a reality. Sometimes, the virus sleeping inside a person decides it’s time to wake up, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Roughly two percent of the recorded outbreaks during the Rising were traced back to spontaneous amplifications. It usually hits only the very young or the very old, as the virus reacts to their rapidly changing body weight by making some rapid changes of its own. I’d never heard of spontaneous amplification occurring in livestock, but it’s never been proven that it couldn’t happen and it seemed way too pat. The index case for equine spontaneous amplification happened to be in Senator Ryman’s barn, on the day he was confirmed as the next Republican candidate for president? Coincidences like that don’t exist outside of a Dickensian tragedy. They certainly don’t wander around happening in the real world.

“I don’t buy it,” said Rick, voicing my thoughts. “It’s too cut-and-dried. Here’s a horse, the horse is healthy, now the horse is a zombie, lots of people die, isn’t that tragic? It’s what I would write if you asked me to pen a front-page human interest story that would never happen.”

“So why isn’t anyone digging deeper?” Shaun stopped in the courtyard between the four barns, looking first at Rick, then at me. “Not to be rude or anything, but Rick, you’re new on this beat, and George, you’re sort of professionally paranoid. Why isn’t anyone else punching holes in this crap?”

“Because no one looks twice at an outbreak,” I said. “Remember how pissed you got when we had to do all that reading about the Rising back in sixth grade? I thought you were going to get us both expelled. You said the only way things could’ve gotten as bad as they did was if people were willing to take the first easy answer they could find and cling to it, rather than doing anything as complicated as actually thinking.”

“And you said that was human nature and I should be thankful we’re smarter than they are,” Shaun said. “And then you hit me.”

“That’s still your answer: human nature.”

“Give people something they can believe, especially something like a personal tragedy and a teenage girl being heroic to save her family, and not only will everyone believe it, everyone will want to believe it.” Rick shook his head. “It’s good news. People like to believe good news.”

“Sometimes it’s great living in a world where ‘good’ and ‘news’ don’t always combine to mean ‘positive information.’ ” I looked to Shaun. “Where do we start?”

I’m in charge in the editing studio and the office. It’s different in the field. Shaun calls the shots unless I’m demanding an immediate evac. Both of us are smart enough to know where our strengths lie. His involve poking dead things with sticks and living to blog about it.

“Everyone armed?” he asked—more for Rick’s benefit than mine. He knows I’d stick my hand in a zombie’s mouth for fun before I’d enter a field situation unarmed.