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“Thanks.” I snapped the glasses open, continuing to lean against Shaun as I pushed them on. Both their cameras were catching this. I really didn’t care. “Either of you find anything?”

“Not me,” said Shaun. For some reason, he sounded like he was laughing? His barn couldn’t have been any better than mine; if anything, it should have been worse, since more of the medical staff would have been on duty overnight. “Looks like Rick’s the only one who got lucky.”

“I’ve always had a way with the ladies,” said Rick. Unlike Shaun and his evident amusement, Rick sounded almost embarrassed.

I clearly needed to see whatever was going on to understand it. Wary of the light, I opened first one eye, and then the other. There was Shaun, his arm still around me, holding me upright as best he could; my eyes are a lot of why I’m so leery to go into live field situations, and no one understands that better than him. And there was Rick, standing just a few feet away, his expression a mixture of anxiety and confusion.

Rick’s shoulder bag was moving.

I jerked upright, demanding, “What is that?”

“ ‘That’ would be Rick’s new lady friend,” Shaun said, snickering. “He’s irresistible, George. You should’ve seen it. He came out of that barn and she was all over him. I’ve seen clingy girlfriends before, but this one doesn’t just take the cake, she takes the entire bakery.”

I eyed the junior member of my reporting staff warily. “Rick?”

“He’s right. She latched on once she realized I was in the barn, not aiming a bleach gun at her face, and not planning to hurt her.” Rick opened the flap of his shoulder bag. A narrow orange-and-white head poked out, yellow eyes regarding me warily. I blinked. The head withdrew.

“It’s a cat.”

“All the others were dead,” Rick said, closing his bag. “She must have managed to burrow farther under the hay than they did. Or maybe she was outside when the cleaners came through and somehow got trapped inside when they left.”

“A cat.”

“She tests clean, George,” Shaun said.

Mammals under forty pounds can’t convert—they lack some crucial balance between body and brain mass—but they can sometimes carry the live virus, at least until it kills them. It’s rare. Most of the time, they just shrug it off and carry on, uninfected. In the field, “rare” isn’t something you can gamble on.

“How many blood tests?” I asked, looking toward Shaun.

“Four. One for each paw.” He held up his arms, anticipating my next question. “No, I didn’t get scratched, and yes, I’m sure the kitty’s clean.”

“And he already yelled at me for picking her up before I was certain,” Rick said.

“Don’t think that means I’m not planning to yell at you, too.” I pushed away from Shaun. “I’ll just do it when we’re back inside. We have three clean barns and one live cat, gentlemen. Are we ready to proceed?”

“I’ve got nothing better planned for the afternoon,” Shaun said, his tone still cheerful. This was Irwin territory. Very little makes him happier. “Cameras on?”

“Rolling.” I glanced at my watch. “We have clean feeds and more than enough memory. You going to grandstand?”

“Do I ever not?” Shaun backed away until he was standing at the proper angle in front of the remaining barn, backlit by the afternoon sun. I had to admire his flare for the theatrics. We’d do two reports on the day’s events—one for his side of the site, playing up the dangers of entering an area that had suffered such a recent outbreak, and one for my side, talking about the human aspects of the tragedy. My opening spiel could be recorded later, when I had a better idea of what happened. Irwins sell suspense. Newsies sell the news.

“What’s he doing?” Rick asked, raising his eyebrows.

“You’ve seen those video clips of Irwins talking about fabulous dangers and horrible lurking monsters?”


“That. On your count, Shaun!”

That was his cue. Suddenly grinning, suddenly relaxed, Shaun directed the smile that sold a thousand T-shirts toward the camera, flicked sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes with one gloved hand, and said, “Hey, audience. It’s been pretty boring around here lately, what with all the politics and the sealed-room stuff that only the heavy-duty news geeks care about. But today? Today, we get a treat. Because today, we’re the only news team being allowed into the Ryman ranch before decon is finished. You’re gonna see blood, guys. You’re gonna see stains. You’re gonna do everything but taste the formalin in the air—” He was off and running.

I admit it: I tuned him out as he started getting into his spiel, preferring to watch rather than actively listening. Shaun has working his audience into a frenzy down to a science; by the time he’s done with them, they get excited by the mysterious discovery of pocket lint. It’s impressive, but I’d rather watch him move. There’s something wonderful about the way he lets go, becoming all energy and excitement as he outlines what’s coming next. Maybe it’s geeky for a girl my age to admit she still loves her brother. I don’t care. I love him, and one day I’ll bury him, and until then, I’m going to be grateful that I’m allowed to watch him talk.

“—so come with me, and let’s see what really happened here on that cold March afternoon.” Shaun grinned again, winking at the camera, and turned to head for the barn doors. As he reached them, he called, “Cut segment!” and turned back, joviality gone. “We ready?”

“Ready,” I said.

With all chances to gracefully decide, “You know what? This is a job for the authorities—the people we pay to risk their lives for information” behind us, Rick and I followed Shaun through the feed room and into the last of the Ryman’s four barns.

The smell hit first. There’s a stench to an outbreak site that you never find anywhere else. Scientists have been trying for years to determine why it is that we can smell the infection even when it’s been declared safely dead, and they’ve been forced to conclude that it’s the same viral sense that lets zombies recognize each other, just acting on a somewhat smaller scale. Zombies don’t try to kill other zombies on sight unless they haven’t had anything to eat in weeks; the living can tell where an outbreak started. It’s probably another handy function of the virus slumbering in our own bodies—not that anyone can say for sure. No one has ever been able to put the smell into words. Not really. It smells like death. Everything in your body says “run.” And, like idiots, we didn’t.