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Steve activated the kit. The lid locked down, flattening my palm until I felt the tendons stretch. There was a moment of pain. I tensed, but even waiting for it, I couldn’t feel the needles as they began darting in and out of my hand and wrist. The lights atop the unit began to cycle, flashing red, then yellow, and finally settling, one by one, into a steady, unblinking green. The entire process took a matter of seconds.

Steve smiled as he dropped the unit into a biohazard bag. “Despite all natural justice, you’re still clean.”

“That’s one more I owe to my guardian angel,” I said. A glance to the side showed me that Shaun’s unit was still cycling, while Rick’s test was just getting started.

“Yeah, well, stop making that angel work so hard,” said Steve, more quietly. I looked back to him, surprised. His expression was grave. “You can leave the zone now.”

“Right,” I said. I walked to the gate, where two blank-faced men in army green watched me press my forefinger against the much simpler testing pad. Another needle bit deeply, and the light switched from green to red to green again before the gate clicked open. Shaking my stinging hand, I stepped out.

Our van and Rick’s car had been joined by a third vehicle: a large black van with mirrored windows that gleamed with the characteristic patina of armor plating. The top bristled with enough antennae and satellite dishes to make our own relatively modest assortment of transmitters look positively sparse. I stood, considering it, as Shaun and Rick made their own exits from the ranch and moved to stand beside me.

“That look like our friendly order-giver to you?” Shaun asked.

“Can’t imagine who else it would be,” I said.

“Well, then, let’s go up, say hello, and thank them for the welcome. I mean, I was touched. A fruit basket might have been more fitting, but an armed ambush? Definitely a unique way to show that you care.” Shaun went bounding for the van. Rick and I followed at a more sedate pace.

Shaun banged on the van door with the heel of his hand. When there was no reply, he balled his hand into a fist and resumed banging, louder. He was just starting to get a good rhythm going when the door was wrenched open by a red-faced general who glared at us with open malice.

“I don’t think he’s a music lover,” I commented to Rick. He snorted.

“I don’t know what you kids think you’re doing—” began the general.

“Pretty sure they were looking for me,” said Senator Ryman, stepping up behind him. The general cut off, shifting the force of his glare to the senator. Ignoring him, Senator Ryman moved around him and out of the van and clasped Shaun’s hand. “Shaun, good to see you’re all right. I was a bit concerned when I heard that transmission had been intercepted.”

“We got lucky,” Shaun said, with a grin. “Thanks for getting us through the red tape.”

“My pleasure.” Senator Ryman looked back at the glowering general. “General Bridges, thank you for your concern for the well-being of my press pool. I’ll be speaking to your superiors about this operation, and I’ll make sure they know your part in it.”

The general paled. Still grinning, Shaun waggled his fingers at him.

“Nice to meet you, sir. Have a nice day.” Turning back to Rick and me, he slung his arms around our shoulders. “So, my beloved partners in doing really stupid shit for the edification of the masses, would you say I bought us another three percent today? No, that’s too conservative, for I am a God among men and a poker into unpokeable places. Make that five percent. Truly, you should all worship me in the brightness of my glory.”

I turned my head enough to glance at the Senator. He was still forcing himself to smile, but the expression wasn’t reflected in his eyes. That was the face of a man under considerable strain.

“Maybe later,” I said. “Senator Ryman? Did you drive out here?”

“Steve was listening to your report,” the senator said. “When he heard you’d found something, he called me, and we came out here immediately.”

“Thank you for that, sir,” said Rick. “If you hadn’t, we might have had a few issues to contend with.”

“Permanent blindness,” said Shaun, looking at me.

“An all-expenses paid stay at a government biohazard holding facility,” I countered. “Sir, did you want us to follow you back to the house and give you the details on what we found?”

“Actually, Georgia, thank you, but no. Right now, I’d like the three of you to return to your hotel and do whatever it is you need to do. Go do your jobs.” There was something broken in his expression. I’d thought he looked old at the funeral, but I was wrong; he looked old now. “I’ll call you in the morning, after I’ve had time to explain to my wife that our daughter’s death wasn’t an accident, and to get very, very drunk.”

“I understand,” I said. Looking to Rick, I said, “Meet us at the hotel.” He nodded and turned to head for his car. I didn’t want him to ride with us and leave it here. We’d just annoyed the army. A little accidental “vandalism” wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. “You’ll call if you need anything, sir?”

“You can count on it.” The senator’s voice was mirthless. So was his expression as he walked over to his government-issue SUV. Steve was already standing next to the passenger-side door, holding it open. I couldn’t see any other security guards, but I knew they were there. They wouldn’t be taking any chances with a presidential candidate this close to a recent hazard zone. Especially not after the things we’d just learned.

I watched the senator climb into the car. Steve shut the door behind him, nodded toward us, and got into the driver’s side, pulling out. Rick’s little armored VW followed a few minutes later, rumbling down the road toward civilization.

Shaun put his hand on my shoulder. “George? We okay to get going before the jerks in power come up with a reason to detain us? Other than the cat. Rick took the cat with him, so if there’s going to be detention, it’ll just be him. Beating erasers, getting electrodes strapped to sensitive parts of his body ”