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“There was an outbreak in the location of your team’s new headquarters. It’s unclear exactly why he did what he did, but he chose to remain behind after the quarantine sirens began ringing. He was still inside the building when it was sterilized.”

“By ‘sterilized,’ do you by any chance mean ‘carpet-bombed’?”

Gregory looked away.

Pressing my lips into a thin line, I looked back to the computer. The After the End Times forums were open in front of me like some sort of a miracle, with their threads and board titles looking so familiar that it was like I’d never left. It didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize even a quarter of them—that could happen when I spent a weekend in bed with a migraine and let Mahir take forum duty for me. What mattered was that they were there. I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, and closed my eyes for a moment from sheer relief.

The moderator’s forum was listed. If there had been any changes to my profile following the purge of my core system access, the forum would have turned invisible, marking me as one more end user. I crossed my fingers, opened my eyes, moved the mouse to the appropriate icon, and clicked.

The forum opened without a pause. I started scrolling down, barely aware that I was crying. According to the admin script at the bottom of the page, only two users with mod privileges were currently online. One was me. The other was Alaric.

“What are you doing?” asked Gregory.

“Sending up a flare,” I said. I opened a private message window and tapped out, ALARIC ARE YOU THERE? NEED TO CHAT ASAP, DO NOT HAVE MUCH TIME.

I hit enter.

“Georgia—”

“Just give it a second.”

A message appeared in my inbox less than fifteen seconds later. HOW DID YOU GET THIS LOG-IN? THIS IS NOT FUNNY. LOG OFF RIGHT NOW OR I WILL CONTACT THE AUTHORITIES.

I grinned. “Oh, good. He’s pissed.”

“That’s good?”

“Yeah, that’s good. If he’s pissed, he’ll want to know who I am so he can have someone to be pissed at. That means he’ll talk.” I hit REPLY, typing, BUFFY GAVE ME THIS LOG-IN THE DAY WE WENT LIVE. ALARIC, IT’S ME. IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME, OPEN A CHAT. I CAN PROVE IT.

Gregory looked dubiously at my screen. “Let me guess. The goal here is to make him really mad.”

“Kind of, yes. Alaric thinks better when he’s mad—he doesn’t second-guess himself nearly as much.” I was speaking from a flawed model and I knew it: Not only had Alaric been alive while I wasn’t, giving him time to adapt and change, but I was working off memories extracted from a dead woman’s mind and implanted in my own. Even the way I thought about myself—half “me,” half “her”—told me I couldn’t trust my own judgment where the reactions of others were concerned. And that didn’t matter, because my judgment was the only thing I had.

That was a depressing thought. I was trying not to dwell on it when a light blinked at the bottom of my window, signaling an incoming chat request.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m rushing you, Georgia, but we can keep this window active for another ten minutes at best.”

“That should be all I need.” I opened the chat window. THANKS FOR TALKING TO ME, ALARIC. I APPRECIATE IT. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?

The response was immediate, making me think it had been more than half typed before I said anything. YOU’D BETTER LOG OFF THIS SYSTEM RIGHT NOW AND NEVER COME BACK. YOU’RE JUST LUCKY MY BOSS ISN’T ONLINE, OR YOU’D BE SORRIER THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE.

DO YOU MEAN MAHIR OR SHAUN WHEN YOU SAY THAT? It was common knowledge that Mahir was my second; he was almost certainly also my replacement. I WOULD BE MORE AFRAID OF SHAUN, PERSONALLY. MAHIR MAY GET ALL PISSY AND BRITISH AT YOU, BUT HE DOESN’T HIT. IT’S ME, ALARIC. IT’S GEORGE. LICENSE AFB-075893, CLASS A-15. THE FIRST TIME WE MET IN PERSON, YOU BROUGHT ME A CAN OF COKE TO SHOW YOUR RESPECT, BUT YOUR HANDS WERE SHAKING SO HARD THAT IT EXPLODED EVERYWHERE WHEN I OPENED IT. SOME CAMERA JOCKEY FREAKED OUT, AND WE WOUND UP IN DECON FOR THREE HOURS. REMEMBER?

There was a longer pause before his answer appeared—at least in part, I was sure, because my reply wasn’t what he was expecting. Finally, two words flashed on my screen: GEORGIA’S DEAD.

I took a deep breath. Then, more slowly than before, I tapped out my answer.

ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO SIT THERE, POST-ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, AND TELL ME THE DEAD NEVER COME BACK?

“Five minutes, Georgia.”

“Hold on.” I stared at the screen, willing Alaric to reply. Seconds ticked by, making me feel like my time had been wasted—maybe worse than wasted. If he thought I was an imposter, and told Shaun…

HOW?

I was so relieved I actually laughed as I typed, CLONING. THE CDC HAS BEEN A NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION. NEED TO GET A MESSAGE TO SHAUN. IS HE THERE? I regretted the question as soon as I sent it. If he still didn’t believe me… Hurriedly, I typed, DON’T ANSWER THAT. IF YOU HAVE A WAY OF REACHING HIM, TELL HIM I AM BEING HELD AT THE SEATTLE CDC. I AM WORKING WITH THE EIS. I NEED AN IMMEDIATE EXTRACTION. I AM IN DANGER. PLEASE CONFIRM.

Again, seconds ticked by. I was still crying. I wiped my cheek viciously with one hand, watching the screen, praying to a higher power I didn’t believe in for some sort of miracle. Alaric was a Newsie. Even if he didn’t believe I was who I claimed to be, there was a chance he’d be interested enough in the idea of me to chase the story. If he did that, I might have a chance.

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