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“Crazy stories? Crazy stories like what?”

One of the football players who was taking the class for science credit said, “Like dead dudes getting up and walking around and eating living dudes.”

“We’re living in a Romero movie!” shouted someone at the back of the room, drawing nervous laughter from the rest of the students.

“All right, now, settle down. Let’s approach this like scientists—if it’s important enough to distract you all from the important business of biology, we should do it the honor of thinking about it like rational people. You mentioned Romero movies. Does that mean you’re positing zombies?”

There was another flurry of laughter. It ended quickly, replaced by dead seriousness. “I think we are, Professor,” said the herpetology major in the front row. She shook her head. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Another student rolled his eyes. “Because zombies always make sense.”

She glared at him. “Shut up.”

“Make me.”

“Now that we have demonstrated once again that no human being is ever more than a few steps away from pulling pigtails on the playground, who wants to posit a reason that we’d have zombies now, rather than, oh, six weeks ago?” Michael looked around the room. “Come on. I’m playing along with you. Now one of you needs to play along with me.”

“That Mayday Army thing.” The words came from a tiny bio-chem major who almost never spoke during class; she just sat there taking notes with a single-minded dedication that was more frightening than admirable. It was like she thought the bottom of the bell curve would be shot after every exam. She wasn’t taking notes now. She was looking at Professor Mason with wide, serious eyes, pencil finally down. “They released an experimental, genetically engineered pathogen into the atmosphere. Dr. Kellis hadn’t reached human trials yet. If there were going to be side effects, he didn’t have time to find out what they were.”

She sounded utterly serene, like she’d finally found a test that she was certain she could pass. Michael Mason paused. “That’s an interesting theory, Michelle.”

“The CDC has shut down half a dozen clinical trials in the last week, and they won’t say why,” she replied, as if that had some bearing on the conversation.

Maybe it did. Michael Mason straightened. “All right. I’m going to humor you, because it’s not every day that one gets a zombie apocalypse as an excuse for canceling class. You’re all dismissed, on one condition.”

“What’s that, Professor?” asked a student.

“I want you all to stay together. Check your phones for news; check your Twitter feeds. See if anything strange is going on before you go anywhere.” He forced a smile, wishing he wasn’t starting to feel so uneasy. “If we’re having a zombie apocalypse, let’s make it a minor one, and all be back here on Monday, all right?”

Laughter and applause greeted his words. He stayed at the front of the room until the last of the students had streamed out; then he grabbed his coat and started for the exit himself. He needed to cancel classes for the rest of the day. He needed to call Stacy and tell her to get Phillip from his kindergarten. If there was one thing science had taught him, it was that safe was always better than sorry, and some things were never on the final exam.

* * *

Professor Michael Mason has announced the cancellation of class for the rest of the week. His podcast will be posted tomorrow night, as scheduled. All students are given a one-week extension on their summer term papers.

July 20, 2014: Manhattan, New York

The anchorman had built his reputation on looking sleek and well-groomed even when broadcasting from the middle of a hurricane. His smile was a carefully honed weapon of reassurance, meant to be deployed when bad news might otherwise whip the populace into a frenzy. He was smiling steadily. He had been smiling since the beginning of his report.

He was beginning to wonder if he would ever stop smiling again.

“Again, ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing to be concerned about. We have two particularly virulent strains of flu sweeping across the country. One, in the Midwest, seems to be a variant of our old friend, H1N1, coming back to get revenge for all those bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and of course, our old friend, the stuffy nose. This particular flu also carries a risk of high fevers, which can lead to erratic behavior and even violence. So please, take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

He shuffled the papers in front of him, trying to give the impression that he was reading off them and not off the prompter. Audiences liked to see a little hard copy. It made them feel like the news was more legitimate. “The second strain is milder but a bit more alarming. Thus far, it’s stayed on the West Coast—maybe it likes the beach. This one doesn’t involve high fevers, for which we can all be grateful, but it does include some pretty nasty nosebleeds, and those can make people seem a lot sicker than they really are. If your nose starts bleeding, simply grab a tissue and head for your local hospital. They’ll be able to fix you right up.”

He was still smiling. He was never going to not be smiling. He was going to die smiling. He knew it, and still the news rolled on. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have to beg you to indulge me for a moment. Some individuals are trying to spin this as a global pandemic, and I wish to assure you that it is nothing more than a nasty pair of summer flus. Please do not listen to reports from unreliable sources. Stick with the news outlets that have served you well, and remember, we’re here to make sure you know the real story.”