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“Friendly,” I said, as we approached.

“The intercom connects to the duty station, and the test unit has an automatic upload function,” said Rick.

“Friendly and efficient,” I amended. I stopped in front of the door and pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello?”

Shaun’s voice answered immediately, full of the rampant cheer only I was likely to recognize as his way of masking grief and fear. “George! You decided to rejoin the world of the living!”

Something in the center of my chest unclenched and I could breathe again. “Good to see you haven’t decided to leave it,” I said. “Next time, leave me a damn note or something.”

“Afraid that’s my fault, Ms. Mason,” said a deeper, Southern-accented voice. “We try not to leave anything that could serve for a weapon in the rooms. That includes paper. You understand the necessity.”

I frowned. “Joe?”

“That’s right, and I’m pretty properly glad to see you’re both all right.”

Both? Rick hadn’t said a word since I activated the intercom. I turned and scanned the edge of the ceiling until I found a small discolored patch, off-cream against the white of the tile. Looking directly into it, finger still on the intercom button, I said, “You must have been real popular with the girls in high school. They love Peeping Toms.”

“Hey, don’t rag on the man, George. This way I get to see your adorable pajamas. You look like Frosty the Snowman. If he were on the rag, I mean.”

“Frosty’s going to be kicking your ass in a minute,” I said. “Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here, before I get seriously pissed?”

“Door won’t unlock without a blood test, George,” said Shaun.

“Of course it won’t.” Turning, I slapped my hand down on the reader panel, barely even flinching as the needles bit into my skin. For every needle I felt, there were five more I didn’t. The thicker needles on CDC kits are more for psychological reassurance than anything else—people don’t believe they’ve been tested unless they feel the sting. Most of the information the CDC needs comes from hypos so small they’re essentially acupuncture needles, sliding in and out without leaving marks.

A light over the door flashed on, going almost immediately from red to green, and the locks disengaged with a loud “click.” I removed my hand from the panel.

“I assume alarms go off if Rick tries to follow right through?”

“Got it in one. Head into the air lock, let the door shut, and he can follow you.”

“Right.” I gave Rick a quick nod, which he returned, and opened the door and stepped through.

If the hallways seemed featureless, the air lock they fed into was antiseptic. The walls were so white that the stark light they reflected was enough to make my eyes ache, even through the UV-blocking strip. Half squinting, I shuffled to the middle of the room.

The intercom crackled, and Joe’s voice said, “Stop there, Ms. Mason.”

“Close eyes, hold breath?”

“Exactly,” he said, with faint amusement in his tone. “It’s always a pleasure to work with someone who knows the drill.”

“I’m not really in a ‘pleasure’ place,” I said. “Maybe after I have some pants on.” Standing around and grousing wasn’t going to get me to my clothes, or my brother, any faster. Closing my eyes, I removed the UV blocker, took a deep breath, and held it.

The smell of bleach and disinfecting agents filled the room as a cool mist drifted down from the vents in the ceiling, blanketing me. I forced myself to keep holding my breath, counting backward from twenty. I’d reached seventeen when the fans kicked on and the mist pulled away, sucked into drains in the floor. It would be pulled into channels of superheated air, baked until any traces of infection that had managed to survive the chemical bath were burned away, and then pumped into an incinerator, where it would be destroyed. The CDC does a lot of things, but it doesn’t f**k around with sterilization.

“You can open your eyes now, Ms. Mason.”

Sliding the UV blocker back into place, I opened my eyes and proceeded to the door on the air lock’s far side. The light above it was green, and when I touched the handle, it swung open without resistance. I continued on.

The duty station was one of those hybrid beasts that have become so common in the medical profession over the past twenty years: half nurse’s station and medical triage, half guard point, with alarm buttons posted at several spots around the walls and a large gun cabinet next to the watercooler. A good medical duty station can provide an island of safety for the uninfected, even as an outbreak rages on all sides. If your air locks don’t fail and you have enough ammo, you can hold out for days. One duty station in Atlanta did exactly that—four nurses, three doctors, and five security personnel kept themselves and eighteen patients alive for almost a week before the CDC was able to fight through the outbreak raging through the neighborhoods around the hospital and get them safely out. They made a movie about that incident.

Shaun, who had his own clothes on, the bastard, was sitting atop the counter with a cup of coffee in his hands. A man I didn’t recognize was standing nearby, wearing a white doctor’s coat over his clothes, and Senator Ryman was beside him, looking more anxious than the other two combined. Nurses and CDC techs moved past the station, talking among themselves like extras in a movie background—they completed the setting, but they weren’t part of it, any more than the walls were.

The senator was the first to acknowledge my arrival. He straightened, relief radiating through his expression, and moved toward me, catching me in a tight hug before I had a chance to register what he was planning to do. I made a soft “oof” noise as the air was shoved out of my lungs, but he just squeezed tighter, seeming unfazed by the fact that my arms remained down by my sides. This was a hug for his comfort, not mine.