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“I want to punch someone,” said Shaun conversationally.

“Do it with the hand that’s currently crushing my fingers,” I suggested. “You’re endangering my ability to type.”

Shaun let go of my hand, grimacing. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just be ready for whatever’s coming.”

“He didn’t say anything about weapons,” said Becks. “Bets that they’re going to take our weapons away?”

“No bet,” said Alaric. “These pig-fucking sons of diseased dock workers aren’t going to let us out of this car armed.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You’re really enjoying the possibilities of the English language today, aren’t you?”

“Just wait,” said Becks. “When he gets really worked up, he swears in Cantonese. It’s like listening to a macaw having a seizure.”

Alaric glared at her. She grinned at him. And the car stopped moving.

All levity fled, the four of us assuming wary positions that made our earlier tension look like nothing. Shaun put one hand on my shoulder; the other, I knew, would be going to his gun. We’d started out among friends. Now we had no idea where we were.

The car door swung open, revealing the bulky shape of Steve. He stepped aside, letting us see the man who was standing behind him.

“Hello, Georgia,” said Rick, smiling as he offered me his hands. “I know we’ve never actually met before, but I have to tell you… it’s been a long time.”

The concierge just came to tell me my parents have landed at the Seattle/Tacoma International Airport, and will be at the Agora in less than an hour. I look like hell. My hair doesn’t even bear thinking about. But oh I am so glad they’re coming.

Mahir and I have discussed what to tell them, and we’ve settled on the only thing they’re likely to accept: the truth. He’s pointed out (a few too many times) that they’re in medtech, they have contracts with the CDC, and they could be on the wrong side. I can’t find a way to explain that I don’t care. If they’re on the wrong side now, they’ll change when they find out what happened—what that bad, bad side was willing to do to me.

I have hidden the truth from them for too long. It’s time I started living up to the mission statement that Georgia Mason chose when she founded After the End Times. It’s time for me to start telling the truth.

But ah, it hurts.

—From Dandelion Mine, the blog of Magdalene Grace Garcia, August 6, 2041. Unpublished.

The lab is very quiet.

I’m not sure that I like it anymore.

I miss you, Joe.

—From the private files of Dr. Shannon Abbey, August 6, 2041. Unpublished.

SHAUN: Thirty-four

Rick had more gray in his hair than I remembered. It would make him look distinguished in the right circumstances. At the moment, it just made him look old. He was wearing a tailored suit that probably cost as much as three rescue missions into the Florida hazard zone, and his shoes were shiny and tight. He’d never be able to run from a zombie mob in those shoes.

Then again, he wouldn’t have to—not with two Steve-sized Secret Servicemen flanking him, each of them wearing their firearms openly on their belts.

“Rick?” George got out of the car. Her movements were jerky, like she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. She grabbed the edge of the door as she stood. “What are you—?”

The question was cut off as the Vice President of the United States—our former colleague and one of the only bloggers to survive the Ryman campaign—swept her into a hug. She made a squeaking noise, clearly startled, and her arms stayed down, but she didn’t pull away. For George, that was practically a passionate embrace.

Becks shoved against my hip. “Hey, Mason. Move out of the damn way.”

“What?” I tore my eyes away from Rick and George. I hadn’t realized I was moving, but I apparently had; I was standing, blocking Alaric and Becks from getting out of the car. I stepped to the side. “Oh. Sorry about that.”

“Sure you are.” Becks stood, moving far enough to the side for Alaric to squeeze out, and eyed Rick suspiciously. “So that’s Richard Cousins, boy reporter.”

“Pretty sure we’re supposed to call him ‘Mr. Vice President’ now, but yeah, that’s him.” Becks was already with the After the End times when Rick joined us, but they’d only met once, at Georgia’s funeral. Rick had just been asked to stand with Ryman. He’d been in shock, and so had the rest of us.

Becks looked at him critically, finally saying, “I could take him.”

“And I could take you,” said Steve. “Let’s not get into a pissing contest. We both know who’d come out the winner, so there’s no point.”

“Sometimes the contest is the point,” said Becks piously.

Rick pushed George out to arm’s length, eyes avidly scanning her face. That was going to keep him distracted for a few more seconds at least. The fact that George hadn’t pulled away from him yet meant she wanted us to be studying something else—namely, our surroundings.

I turned to look around, not bothering to be subtle about it. Let Alaric and Becks be subtle; I’d play the happy buffoon, a role I’ve been practicing since I was a kid. People underestimate you if they think your only interests in life involve poking zombies with sticks and getting that perfect camera angle.

We were in an underground garage. There was a row of SUVs identical to the one that drove us from the airfield parked nearby, presumably waiting to be needed. The lights were smooth and clear, and the doors weren’t just gated; they were sealed with metal sheeting that looked almost like blast protection. This place was locked down tighter than a bank vault.


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