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Oh. Crap. Feeling like an idiot, I turned to Steve and said, “I’ve never been to the White House before. Do you think we’ll get some of those cool souvenir key chains before we leave? I’ve wanted one of those ever since I saw a video of this one dude from Newfoundland using his to pop a zombie’s eye out.”

Spreading it a little thick, don’t you think? asked Georgia.

I forced myself to ignore it and keep on smiling. Crazy doesn’t go away overnight. Especially not crazy you’ve watered and tended yourself. But wow was this not the time to have an incident.

“I don’t think this is a souvenir key chain kind of visit, but man, it’s good to see you,” said Rick. I turned to see him walking toward me, leaving George behind. He kept talking as he stuck out his right hand, clearly expecting me to shake it. “There were a few points where you went quiet, and I was afraid—let’s just say I’ve had reasons to be worried about your welfare.”

“Really?” I took his hand, squeezing his fingers until that big politician’s smile he’d acquired somewhere started to look strained. “Because it seems to me that if you knew we were having problems, you could maybe have answered your f**king e-mail and helped us.”

“No. I couldn’t have.” His smile died as he pulled his hand away. “And just so you’re aware, if it were up to me, I would have stuck a bow on her and delivered her to your doorstep on your birthday. I never wanted things to be this way.”

Dr. Wynne. Buffy. Rick. How many of the people we considered allies were never allies at all? “But they are,” I said.

Rick sighed. “True enough.” He turned, starting toward the sealed blast doors behind him. His Secret Servicemen continued facing forward, watching us with what I could only describe as suspicion. They were waiting for one of us to do something.

Instead, we just stood there. Finally, Alaric asked, “Are we supposed to go with you?”

“What? Oh. Yes.” Rick waved for us to follow him. “Right this way.”

“Blood tests…?” asked Becks.

“We don’t bother with the security theater here,” said Steve. There was a deep disdain in his voice—less, I thought, for the lack of security in this garage, and more for the idea that the security everywhere else in the world was flawed.

And it was flawed. I used to believe in that level of security, in blood tests every ten minutes and checking your reflexes and response rates constantly. Even as an Irwin, I swore by following the rules. And then I met Dr. Abbey, who maintained the absolute minimum where security was concerned, and I learned that half the tests we take on a daily basis are useless. If you haven’t been exposed or gone outside, what’s the point of sticking another needle in your finger? Those tests didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know… but they reinforced the idea that we had to be afraid, always, that our humanity was fleeting, maintained only by a constant web of government oversight.

Rick tapped out a code on the keypad by the blast doors and they slid open, revealing a hall that could have belonged in any government building I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what it is that identifies their hallways, but there’s something in the inevitable combination of beige, white, and green that just screams “seat of power.” Mind, the Presidential Seal etched on the sliding glass doors that had been concealed behind the blast doors didn’t hurt.

“You know, my mother always dreamed I’d wind up here someday,” said Becks. “Pretty sure she wanted me to be First Lady, not a semi-hostage journalist on the run from a global conspiracy, but hey. At least I’m in the White House.”

I laughed and started for the doors. They slid open at our approach, and, once again, there was no blood test required to get inside.

“Getting into the White House through any of the public entrances requires six blood tests and a retinal scan,” said Rick as we walked. “If you’re unable to successfully complete a retinal scan for any reason, you have to submit to whatever further testing security deems necessary. Refusal to be tested will result in your being removed from the premises.”

“And shot,” said George. “Correct?”

Rick looked uncomfortable. “It generally doesn’t come to that.”

“Mm-hmm.” She had stepped through the doors a few feet ahead of me. She stopped there, waiting until we could walk on side by side. “What are we doing here, Rick?”

“You’re here because… it was time for you to be brought up to speed.” He kept walking, trusting the rest of us to follow. I’m sure the presence of three enormous Secret Service agents had nothing to do with his degree of confidence.

No, really.

The four of us stuck close together as we walked along the hall, George and me in the lead, right behind Rick, with Becks and Alaric behind us. Steve and the two unnamed agents brought up the rear. The driver of our SUV stayed in the vehicle when we went inside. Presumably, he or she had been left in order to park the car. This was all very well organized. I stepped a little closer to George, whose face was set in the grim mask that meant she was as uncomfortable as I was. That was good. I didn’t want to be the only one who knew we were walking into a trap.

We stopped at an apparently blank wall midway down the hall. Rick gave the rest of us an apologetic look as he said, “This is where we have to take your weapons away. I’m sorry. It’s just that we’re about to go into some very secure areas, and I don’t have the clearance to authorize you to go armed.”

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