The worst part? Even if no one wanted to say it out loud, when you looked at the timing of everything going wrong—the way it all happened just as we started really prodding at the CDC’s sore spots—I thought there was a pretty good chance it wasn’t an accident. And that would mean it was our fault.
There was no one standing watch over the vehicles. That was sloppy; even if we cleared out the human infected, there was always the chance a zombie raccoon or something could take refuge under one of the collection vans and go for somebody’s ankles when they came back with the evening’s haul. I made a mental note to talk to Dr. Abbey about her tactical setup as I swung a leg over the bike. Then I put on my helmet—Becks was right, immune doesn’t mean immortal—and took off down the road.
See, here’s the thing. My name is Shaun Mason; I’m a journalist, I guess, even though right now all my posts are staying unpublished for security’s sake. I’m not technically wanted for anything. It’s just that places where I show up have a nasty tendency to get wiped off the map shortly after I get there, and that makes me a little gun-shy when it comes to telling people where I am. I think that’s understandable. Then again, I also think my dead sister talks to me, so what do I know?
About a year and a half ago—which feels like yesterday and an eternity at the same time—George and I applied to blog for Senator Peter Ryman’s presidential campaign, along with our friend Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier. Before that, I was your average gentleman Irwin, wanting nothing beyond a few dead things to poke with sticks and the opportunity to write up my adventures for an adoring populace. Pretty simple, right? The three of us had everything we needed to be happy. Only we didn’t know that, so when the chance to grab for glory came, we took it. We wanted to make history.
We made it, all right. We made it, Buffy and George became it, and I wound up as the last man standing, the one who has to avenge the glorious dead. All I know is that part wasn’t in the brochure.
The road smoothed as I got closer to our current home-sweet-home. Shady Cove, Oregon, has been deserted since the Rising, when the infected left the tiny community officially uninhabitable. We had to be careful about how visible we were, but Dr. Abbey had been sending her interns—interning for what, I didn’t know, since most universities don’t offer a degree in mad science—out at night to patch the worst of the potholes with a homebrewed asphalt substitute that looked just like the real thing.
Fixing the road was a mixed blessing. It could give away our location if someone came looking. In the meantime, it made it easier for supply runs to get through, even if no one seemed to know how we were getting those supplies, and it would make it easier for us to evacuate the lab when the time came. Dr. Abbey didn’t care how many of us died, as long as her equipment made it out. I had to admire that sort of single-minded approach. It reminded me of George.
Everything reminds you of me, George said.
I snorted but didn’t answer. The roar of the wind in my ears was too loud for me to hear my own voice, and I like to pretend that we’re having real conversations. It helps. With what, I can’t quite say, but… it helps.
Barely visible sensors in the underbrush tracked my approach as I came around the final curve and entered the parking lot of the Shady Cove Forestry Center. The building was dark, its vast pre-Rising windows like blind eyes staring into the trees. It looked empty. It wasn’t. I drove around to the back, where the old employee parking garage had been restored and strengthened to provide cover for our vehicles.
Since it was a pre-Rising design, I didn’t need to pass a blood test to get inside, and was able to just drive straight to my assigned slot, shutting off the bike. I removed my helmet and slung it over the handlebars, leaving it there in case I needed to leave in a hurry. I approach everything as a potential evacuation these days. I’ve got good reason.
Cameras tracked my progress toward the door. “Hello, Shaun,” said the lab computer. It was pleasant and female, with a Canadian accent. Maybe it reminded Dr. Abbey of home. I didn’t know.
What I did know was that I don’t like computers pretending to be human. It creeps me out. “Can I come in?” I asked.
“Please place your palm on the testing panel.” An amber light came on above the test unit, helpfully indicating where I needed to put my hand. Like any kid who lives long enough to go to kindergarten doesn’t know how to operate a basic blood testing panel? You learn, or you die.
“I don’t see the point of this.” I slapped my hand down on the metal. Cooling foam sprayed my skin a bare second before needles started biting into my flesh. I hate blood tests. “You know I’m not infected. I can’t be infected. So why don’t you stop f**king around and let me inside?”
“All personnel must be tested when returning from the field, Shaun. There are no exceptions.” The amber light blinked off, replaced by two more lights, one red, one green. They began flashing.
“I liked this place a lot better before Dr. Abbey got you online,” I said.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” replied the computer blithely. The red light winked off as the green one stabilized, confirming my uninfected status. Again. “Welcome home.”
The door into the main lab unlocked, sliding open. I flipped off the nearest camera and walked inside.
Dr. Abbey’s people have had lots of practice converting formerly abandoned buildings into functional scientific research centers. The Shady Cove Forestry Center was practically tailor-made for them, being large, constructed to withstand the elements, and best of all, in the middle of f**king nowhere. Entering from the parking garage put me in the main room—originally the Visitor’s Welcome Lobby, according to the brass sign by the door. That explained the brightly colored mural of cheerful woodland creatures on the wall. People used to romanticize the natural world, before the Rising. These days, we mostly just run away from it.
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