The only thing I wanted more than food was access to the Internet, which Shaun provided as soon as our dinner was just memory and crumbs. My laptop wasn’t at the Agora—why would it be?—so he let me borrow his, both of us stretching out on the bed with our backs to the headboard, my shoulder pressing into his chest as I began doing the most important thing I could possibly do.
I began catching up on the news.
Working as a professional journalist meant years of learning to absorb as much information as possible in as short a time as possible, since failure to stay on top of current events could easily result in posting a story that had no relevance at all. I was always a little slower than most of my contemporaries, because I was always so damn careful to check and double-check my facts before I put my name behind them. Oh, I had my op-ed blogs—Just the Wind when I was a teenager on a provisional license, and Images May Disturb You once I was old enough to go full-time—but those were thoughts. Opinions. Ideas. It was the articles I put on the main site that really mattered, and those were the things that needed me to do my research.
Using After the End Times as my start point, I pulled up the archives, going all the way back to the day after I died. Shaun’s posts from that period were a jumbled mess; half the time, I wasn’t even certain they were written in English. Mahir and Alaric did most of the real reporting, following the rest of the Ryman campaign with a clinical detachment that told me everything I needed to know about the depth of their grief. Shaun wasn’t the only one who’d been hurting. And the headlines rolled on.
Ryman elected in a landslide vote, stuns voters by choosing Richard Cousins as his replacement vice president! The Democratic candidate, Susan Kilburn, is so devastated by her loss that she takes her own life! Ryman takes the White House!
Shaun Mason goes quietly crazy, while his staff scramble to cover up the cracks in his facade. Maggie Garcia moves into Buffy’s place, and does a good job, especially considering the circumstances. Shaun cedes his position to Rebecca Atherton, letting her run the Irwins while he runs deeper into the damaged recesses of his own psyche. Mahir continues shaping the site into a force for the truth, doing as much as he can to stand against the tide of ignorance and corruption.
CDC researcher Kelly Connolly is shot in a robbery gone wrong! Downtown Oakland is sterilized following an outbreak, resulting in the tragic death of thousands, including reporter David Novakowski! An insect vector for the Kellis-Amberlee virus appears along the Gulf Coast, killing millions more! The members of the After the End Times core team are wanted in conjunction with potential bioterrorism, and should be reported if seen! Ryman grieves for his wounded nation!
The CDC decides to raise the dead. Someone tells a whole lot of lies, and someone else makes sure the world will believe them.
Everything goes wrong.
The effort of filtering the headlines for the truth hidden beneath them—the truth hidden between the lines, in the places where it was less likely to be seen—left my head pounding. I slumped backward, letting my head rest against Shaun’s shoulder.
“I couldn’t have done it,” I said, closing my eyes.
“What you did. Kept things going. I wouldn’t have—couldn’t have—done it. I would have fallen apart.”
“I did fall apart,” he noted, in a tone that was almost comically reasonable. “I went nuts. I’ve been talking to you since Sacramento, and you’ve been talking back.”
“I thought it might be something like that. You never did do ‘alone’ very well.”
“Neither did you.”
“That’s why I would have killed myself by now.”
Silence fell, and stretched out for almost a minute before Shaun said, “Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing I’m the one who got out of Sacramento, huh? Which is kind of funny if you stop to think about it.”
I put the laptop aside on the bed and pushed myself up, twisting around to look at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Dr. Wynne died because Kelly—the Doc, that’s what I called her while she was with us—stabbed him with a scalpel while he was in the middle of a big-time bad-guy soliloquy. I mean, I don’t know if there’s an Evil Fucker 101 class that they all take, but between him and Tate, I’m about ready to slap the next person who wants to tell me about his evil plan.” Shaun’s eyes were haunted. “The Doc was a good person. Maybe the only good person left in the CDC. I don’t know. I never had time to find out.”
I thought of Gregory and Dr. Kimberley, both of whom had chosen the EIS over the CDC. “Maybe you’re right,” I admitted.
“Anyway, before Dr. Wynne died, he as good as said that whoever shot you wasn’t aiming for you. The needle was supposed to be mine.” He brushed my hair away from my cheek. “You were supposed to shoot me, not the other way around. Then Tate would give you his big bad guy speech, and you’d think it was over, because you believed in black and white.”
My stomach felt like a solid ball of pain. “They knew how to beat us.”
“Yeah. But the cold equations f**ked them up, because the math doesn’t care. They subtracted the wrong half of the equation, and I’ve been kicking them in the ass ever since. For you.” He looked at me earnestly. “I was doing it all for you.”
I sighed, folding my hand over his before I scooted closer. “I know.”
Some time later—once the laptop had been put back on its charger, and the “do not disturb” light had been lit on the door—we slept, both sprawled on top of the covers. Shaun kept one arm around me as we drifted off, clinging like he was afraid I’d vanish before he woke up. I’ve never been the world’s cuddliest person, and that didn’t seem to be one of the things that dying and coming back had changed, but for once, I didn’t mind. Anything that kept me from waking up and thinking I was back in CDC custody was okay by me.
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