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The first place I went was an online game site, the sort of thing that’s been killing productivity in offices everywhere since the first computer was invented. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised when the browser autofilled the URL after I’d entered only the first three letters. Not even the CDC is immune to the lure of brightly colored graphics and simplistic puzzles. The site presented a list of options, all with cute, easily marketed names and icons designed to catch the eye. I scrolled to the bottom.

“What are you doing?” asked Gregory.

“Not all computers have shell access these days, and any site that’s obviously designed to be secure might as well have a big red label on it, flashing ‘Oh, hey, look over here; people do things they don’t want you to know about when they’re over here,’ ” I said. The last icon on the list of games was a comparatively drab cartoon atom. I clicked on it. “So we have back doors, for those times when we need to get in, but don’t have access to the normal equipment.”

“And one of your back doors involves a game site?”

“Buffy designed their security.” I smiled as the “loading” bar appeared on my browser. “Buffy designed a lot of people’s security. She hid things all over the damn Internet.”

“Well, I wish she were here,” said Gregory.

“Yeah. So do I.” The menu appeared, giving a list of options. I clicked a set of five that would have resulted in an unplayable game if I’d actually been trying to play, and hit START. The screen froze.

“Did it crash?” asked Gregory.

“Are you going to watch over my shoulder the whole time I’m online?”

“Yes. We’re still in the ‘earning trust’ phase, remember?”

“Right. No, it didn’t crash. This is what’s supposed to happen.” I tapped the space bar twice. “If I were a casual player who’d just chosen a bad set of options, this is where I’d reload and try again. Since I’m not, this is where we wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“Wait for that.” The browser flickered and vanished, replaced by blackness. A log-in window appeared, floating in the middle of the screen.

USER NAME? it prompted.

NANCY, I typed.

“Nancy?” asked Gregory.

“Remember how I said Buffy did our security programming? Well, Buffy was a pre-Rising media nut.”

ADDRESS? prompted the window.


There was a longer pause this time as the program controlling this particular back door checked my responses against the list. The pause wasn’t necessary. It was one more trick programmed by our former professional paranoid. If I touched the keyboard before I was prompted, it would not only kick me out, it would lock this door until someone who was already inside the firewall decided it was safe to open it again.

Finally, the prompt asked, WHY DID YOU MOVE OUT?

Of the eight possible questions it could have asked, that was the one I’d been hoping for. I wasn’t sure I remembered the answers to any of the others. I typed, BECAUSE A DEAD SERIAL KILLER WITH KNIVES FOR HANDS MURDERED MY BOYFRIEND.

The pause this time lasted less than a second. WELCOME, GEORGIA MASON appeared on the screen, and vanished, replaced by the After the End Times logo.

“That log-in won’t work again for six months,” I said, trying to make the comment sound casual. I probably failed, but it didn’t matter as much as making sure I got my point across. “Buffy knew her business.”

“Remind me—why wasn’t she working for the CIA? Or better yet, for us?” Gregory dragged a chair over and sat down where he could watch my screen. Oddly, it made me feel more at ease, rather than making me feel spied on. There’s almost always been someone watching over my shoulder while I worked. It was usually Shaun, but that didn’t change the way Gregory’s presence calmed me down.

“You guys didn’t offer her enough opportunities for bad poetry,  p**n , or bad poetry about  p**n .” I clicked the link that should have taken me to the staff directories. Instead of opening, it flashed a red “restricted” warning at me. “Crap.”

Gregory frowned. “You’re kidding, right?”

“About the poetry and  p**n ? No. She was a genius. We all knew she’d been scouted by at least one of the alphabet soup agencies. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she’d been scouted by all of them.” I glared at the screen. “I’m not kidding about this stupid firewall, either. They didn’t close the loopholes into the system, but they locked down the staff directory. Who does that? Purge it all, or allow for the occasional spontaneous resurrection!”

“Most people who come back from the dead can’t type, you know.”

“Right now, I don’t care. Let me try something else.” I moved my mouse to the administrative panel for the forums. If anything was going to stop me, it would have done so on the first layer, when I accessed the full member list. Nothing pinged. “Oh, jeez. They let Dave do the purge, didn’t they? He never finishes everything on the first go.”

“David Novakowski?” asked Gregory, sounding suddenly hesitant.

I glanced toward him. “Yeah. Why?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…”

Something in the way his voice trailed off told me what he didn’t want to finish his sentence. My eyes widened. “Dave’s dead? How the hell is Dave dead? He was the most careful Irwin I ever met!”


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