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“Clear,” I said, pulling out my .40.

“Yes,” said Rick. His own gun was larger than mine, but he handled it easily enough for me to think it was a matter of preference, not machismo. He slid it back into the holster in his vest, adding, “I’d offer to take some marksmanship tests, but this doesn’t seem like the place.”

“Later,” said Shaun. Rick looked amused. I smothered a snort of laughter. Poor guy probably thought my brother was kidding. “Right now, we’re splitting up. George, you take the foaling barn. Rick, you hit the adult quarters. I’ll take the hospital barn, and we’ll meet up back here to go through the yearling barn together. Radio contact at all times. If you see anything, scream as loudly as you can.”

“So we can all come together to help?” asked Rick.

“So the rest of us have time to get away,” I said. “Cameras on, people, and look alive; this is not a drill. This is the news.”

Splitting up made the most sense: All four barns were involved in the outbreak, but it started in a single place. We’d search the other areas individually, get some good atmospheric shots for background, and then get back together where we might actually find something. That didn’t stop my heart from racing as I opened the door to the foaling barn feed room and stepped inside. The barn was dark. I removed my glasses and the burning in my eyes stopped almost immediately, pupils abandoning their futile efforts to contract and relaxing into full expansion as I walked into the main barn. This unvaried twilight was the sort of light they’re best suited to. I saw in it the way the infected did, and like the infected, I saw everything.

The ranch was clearly a state-of-the-art establishment, on top of all the latest developments in animal husbandry. The stalls were spacious, designed to maximize the comfort of all parties involved. It was actually possible to ignore the federally mandated hazmat suits hanging from one wall and the yellow-and-red biohazard bins that marked the barn’s four corners.

The smell of bleach was harder to ignore, and once I admitted it was there, the rest came clear. The stains on the walls that weren’t paint or spilled feed. The way the straw in the stalls was matted down with the remains of some thick, tacky liquid. They hadn’t finished the biohazard cleanup in here yet. That’s standard operating procedure. First you remove all infected bodies and any chunks that were left behind. Then you seal the building as well as you can and fill the air with bleach. Finally, you set off the aerosol disinfectants and formalin bombs. Formalin is a formaldehyde-based compound that can kill almost anything, including the mobile infected, and standard decontamination procedures call for five waves of the stuff, releasing a new batch as the previous one is depleted by the organic materials around you. It’s only after the area has been bleached so thoroughly that anything living is pretty much toast and has been allowed to sit long enough for all fluids to dry to a splatter-free state that it’s considered safe to start removing and incinerating potentially infected materials, like the straw in the stalls.

My shoulder cam was already recording. I activated three more cameras, one attached to my bag, one at my hip, and one concealed in my barrette, and began to make my first slow turn, looking around the barn.

A pile of dead cats was under the hayloft, their multicolored bodies twisted from the brutal abdominal hemorrhaging that killed them. They’d survived the outbreak and the chaos that followed, but they couldn’t outrun the formalin. I spent several seconds standing there, looking at them. They looked so small and harmless and they were. Cats don’t reach the Mason barrier. They weigh less than forty pounds. Kellis-Amberlee isn’t interested in them, and they don’t reanimate. For cats, dead is still dead.

I made it almost to the wall before I threw up.

It was easier once the initial wash of disgust was out of my system. My first pass brought up nothing. There were no signs that anything unusual had happened; it was just the site of an outbreak, tragic and horrible, but not special. Here was the place where one of the infected horses kicked its way inside, knocking the barn’s sliding door off its rails. It would have hit the nursing mares in the first three stalls without slowing down, and the humans on duty were probably totally undefended. They had no idea anything was wrong until it was too late. If they were lucky, they died fast, either bleeding out or ripped to pieces before the virus had a chance to take hold and start rewriting them into another iteration of it. That was sadly unlikely. A fresh mob wants to infect, not devour.

It was easy to picture infected horses rampaging through the place, biting everything in sight and rushing on to bite still more. It was a nightmare image; it’s how we almost lost the world at the beginning of the century, and it was probably accurate. We know how this sort of outbreak goes, even though we wish we didn’t. The virus is dependable, not creative.

It took me twenty minutes to sweep the barn. By the time I was done, I was in such a hurry to get out of there that I forgot to put my sunglasses on before rushing out into the sunlight. The sudden glare was more than I could take. I staggered and caught myself against the barn door, eyes squinting shut.

“This is how we can tell she hasn’t converted,” Shaun commented to my left. “Real zombies don’t get flash-blinded by sunlight when they forget their sunglasses.”

“Fuck you, too,” I muttered, as Shaun got his arm around me and hoisted me away from the barn.

“You kiss our mother with that mouth?”

“Our mother and you both, dickhead. Give me my sunglasses.”

“Which are where?”

“Left-hand vest pocket.”

“I’ve got it.” That was Rick’s voice, and it was Rick who pressed my glasses into my hand.