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I don’t know whether she made it or not. We lost track of her shortly after she crossed into Oregon. But Buffy convinced George to let her scrub the identifying marks from our reports. These days, after spending some time on the wrong side of the rules, I sort of hope that woman and her dog made it over the border, into a place where they could live together the way she wanted them to.

That’s because you’re a sentimental idiot, said George.

“Probably,” I said, getting my laughter under control. “But isn’t that why you love me?”

Becks lifted her head from the dashboard, still chuckling, and went back to tapping on her tablet. “How much farther?”

“About ten miles,” I said. “Get the trade goods.”

“On it.”

The smuggler’s supply stations were largely maintained by people in the business of stealing the most forbidden commodity of all: freedom. They were the ones who chose to live in the places we’d abandoned, not because they were breeding large dogs or making meth, but because they wanted to live the way they always had. They wanted to open their doors on green trees and blue skies, not fences and security guards. I couldn’t blame them. Oh, I was pretty sure they were insane, but I couldn’t blame them.

Living off the grid came with its own set of problems, including limited access to medical care. So while the people we were on our way to buy gas from might take cash, they were likely to be a lot more interested in fresh blood test units, antibiotics, and birth control. More than half the “trade goods” we’d received from Dr. Abbey were contraceptives of one type or another.

“They choose their lives, and they love their lives, but bringing children into that environment isn’t something you want to do by mistake,” was her comment, as she showed Becks how to load the contraceptive implant gun. “This stuff is worth more than anything else you could possibly carry, and it’ll keep them from trying to barter for your ammunition. Just make sure they see that you’re armed, or you’re likely to find yourselves at the center of a good old-fashioned robbery.”

Becks unbuckled her seat belt and climbed over her seat into the rear of the van. I could hear her banging around back there as she got our kits ready. Glancing into the rearview mirror, I could see the back of her head. Her medium-brown hair was pulled into a no-nonsense braid, the streaks of white-blond from Dr. Abbey’s chemical showers striping it like a barber pole.

“We need gas, and maybe some munchies,” I called. “I think we can make it another eight or nine hours before we need to stop for the night.”

“Got it,” she called back. “Should I pack any of the antibiotics?”

“No, but grab the poison oak cream. That probably has some local demand.” I turned my attention back to the road. The counter on the GPS indicated that our turn was somewhere just up ahead. “How we wound up here is a mystery to me,” I said, almost under my breath.

The part where we’re about to bribe criminals for gas, or the whole situation? asked George.

“A little bit of both.”

“I wish I’d known about this while I was alive.” It wasn’t that surprising when I heard her voice coming from the seat Becks had vacated. I glanced over to see George with her feet braced on the dashboard and her knees tucked up almost against her chest. “I mean, Becks is right. This would have made a fantastic exposé.”

“And destroyed these peoples’ way of life. They’ve never done anything to earn that.”

“How many of the people we exposed did? I mean, we were never tabloid journalists—”

“And thank God for that,” I muttered.

“—but we weren’t saints, either. If a story caught our eye, we chased it down, and sometimes people got hurt. Like that woman with the dog that you were just thinking about.”

“Can you not remind me that you can read my mind? That’s where I keep all my private thoughts.”

“Please. Like there’s anything in your head that could shock me?” George leaned forward, resting her cheek on her knee as she smiled at me. “The woman with the dog, Shaun. Even if she got out, how many of the routes we documented her taking were closed by Homeland Security immediately afterward? How many people like her tried to run when they saw our report, and got driven straight into a trap we’d created?”

“That’s not our fault.”

“Was it Dr. Kellis’s fault when Robert Stalnaker decided to write a sensationalistic article about his cure for the common cold, and kicked off the whole stupid Rising? We’re supposed to be responsible journalists. How do we cope when the stories we report get people hurt?” She sighed. “Do you honestly think Buffy and I were the first casualties?”

“Right now, I just think I’m lucky Buffy isn’t haunting me, too,” I said sourly.

“Shaun?”

I twisted in my seat to see Becks standing behind me. She looked concerned. I couldn’t blame her. I’d have looked concerned, too, if I were the one in her place.

“Hey, Becks,” I said, glancing to the empty passenger seat as I turned my eyes back to the road. George was gone. She’d be back. “Everything okay back there?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine—is everything okay up front?”

“Just arguing with myself again. Nothing new.”

“Please turn left,” said the GPS, cutting off any reply from Becks. That was probably for the best. Ignoring my crazy might seem okay when we were in a nice, relatively safe lab environment, but that didn’t mean her tolerance was going to extend to the field. I really didn’t feel like arguing about whether or not I could decide to be sane again.

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