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I interrupted him with a wave of my hand. “What are the numbers like, Rick?”

“Ah ” He recovered quickly, glancing to the top of his screen. “Up seven percent in all markets.”

Shaun whistled. “Wow. We should uncover terrorist conspiracies more often.”

“We haven’t uncovered it yet; we’ve just found out that it existed,” I said, and sat down at my own terminal. “Hit your boards and start pinging your people. We’re doing the debrief in thirty, and then we start to edit and recap for the evening reports.”

“On it.” Shaun grabbed a chair and looked to Rick, adding carelessly, “You get to ping the Fictionals. Buffy isn’t coming.”

“Oh, great,” said Rick, wrinkling his nose. He was already pulling up his IM lists as he asked, “Why do I get the honor?”

“Because you kept the cat,” I said. “Kick Magdalene. She’ll help you. Hush now. Mommy’s working.” He snorted but turned back to his computer. Shaun and I did the same.

It took thirty minutes to beat the message boards into something that looked less like a combination of a forest fire and a conspiracy theorist convention. No one had quite reached the point of linking the outbreak at the Ryman family ranch with the initial release of the Kellis cure and the death of JFK, but they’d have gotten there before much longer. As I’d expected, everyone in my department was already up, online, and doing their best to moderate the mess, and from the crossover threads, it looked like the same was mostly true for the Irwins and the Fictionals. Behold the power of the truth. When people see its shadow on the wall, they don’t want to take the time to look away.

“My boards are clear,” Shaun called. “Ready when you are.”

“Same,” Rick said. “The chat relay is humming nicely, and the volunteer mods have things under control.”

“Excellent.” Since the volunteers weren’t technically employees of After the End Times, they didn’t need to be included in the debriefing. I pulled up the employee chat and typed, Log on now. “Turn on your conference functions, boys. We’re about to see the swarm.”

“Logged on.”

“Logged on.”

“Logging on now. Room eleven, maximum security.” Our conferencing system is half the standard Microsoft Windows VirtuParty setup—allowing people to share real-time socialization through web-cams and a common server—and half Buffy’s own homebrew. All eleven of our channels have varying degrees of security, from the base three, which clever readers can break into with relative ease, to eleven, which has never been successfully violated. Not even by the people we’ve paid to try.

Windows began spawning on my screen, each containing the small, pixelated face of one of our bloggers. Shaun, Rick, and I appeared first, followed almost immediately by Mahir, who looked like he hadn’t slept in several days, Alaric, and Suzy, the girl I’d hired to replace Becks after she jumped ship to the Irwins. Becks herself appeared a moment later, along with a trio of Irwins I only vaguely recognized. Five more faces followed them as the Fictionals logged in; three of them were sharing one screen, proving that Magdalene was hosting another of her infamous grindhouse parties.

When all was said and done, we were only missing Dave—one of Shaun’s Irwins, who was on a field trip in the wilds of Alaska and probably couldn’t get to a conferencing setup—and Buffy. I looked from face to face, studying their expressions while the initial quiet still held. They looked worried, confused, curious, even excited, but none of them looked like they had anything to hide. This was our team. This was what we had to work with. And we had a conspiracy to break.

“All right, everyone,” I said. “This afternoon, we led an expedition onto the Ryman family ranch. You’ve seen the footage by now. If you haven’t, please log out, watch it, and come back. Here’s the topic at hand: ‘What happens next?’ ”

Following the campaign of Congresswoman Kirsten Wagman taught me one important fact about politics: Sometimes, style can matter more than substance. Let’s face it: We’re not talking about one of the great political minds of our age. We’re talking about a former stripper who got her seat in Congress by promising her constituency that for every thousand votes she got, she’d wear something else inappropriate to the floor. Judging by the landslide of that first win, we’ll be seeing congressional hearings graced by a lady in lingerie long after the end of her term in office.

But she didn’t win. Despite the general malaise of the voting public and their willingness to put “interesting” above “good for them” in nine out of ten cases, Wagman’s run for the presidential seat proved to be the tenth event. Why was this? I place the blame partially on Senator Peter Ryman, a man who proved that style and substance can be combined to the benefit of both, and, more important, that integrity is not actually dead.

I also blame After the End Times and Georgia Mason, for their willingness to get into the campaign in a way that has seldom been seen in this century. Their reporting hasn’t been impartial or perfect, but it has something we see even more rarely than integrity.

It has heart.

It is with great joy that I report that the youth of America aren’t actually riddled with ennui and apathy; that the truth hasn’t been fully forsaken for the merely entertaining; that there’s a place in this world for reporting the facts as accurately and concisely as possible and allowing people to draw their own conclusions.

I’ve never been more proud of finding a place where I can belong.

—From Another Point of True,

the blog of Richard Cousins, March 18, 2040

Sixteen

The discussion lasted late into the morning. People dropped off the conference one by one, until it was just Rick, Mahir, and me. Shaun had long since passed out at his terminal, leaning back in his chair and snoring. Rick’s newly acquired cat was curled up on his chest with its tail tucked over its nose, occasionally opening an eye to glare at the room.


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