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Times like this make me think my mother was right when she told me I should aspire to be a trophy wife. At least that would have reduced the odds of my winding up hiding in a renegade virology lab, hunting zombies for a certifiable mad scientist.

Then again, maybe not.

—From Charming Not Sincere, the blog of Rebecca Atherton, July 16, 2041. Unpublished.


Shaun! Look out!”

Alaric’s shout came through my headset half a second before a hand grabbed my elbow, bearing down with that weird mixture of strength and clumsiness characteristic of the fully amplified. I yanked free, whirling to smack my assailant upside the head with my high-powered cattle prod.

A look of almost comic surprise crossed the zombie’s face as the electrified end of the cattle prod hit its temple. Then it fell. I kicked the body. It didn’t move. I hit it in the solar plexus with my cattle prod, just to be sure. Electricity has always been useful against zombies, since it confuses the virus that motivates them, but it turns out that when you amp the juice enough you can actually shut them down for short periods of time.

“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said, trusting the headset to pick me up. “I’ve got another dead boy down. Send the retrieval team to my coordinates.” I was already starting to scan the trees, looking for signs of movement—looking for something else that I could hit.

“Shaun…” There was a wary note in Alaric’s voice. I could practically see him sitting at his console, knotting his hands in his hair and trying not to let his irritation come through the microphone. I was his boss, after all, which meant he had to at least pretend to be respectful. Once in a while. “That’s your fourth catch of the night. I think that’s enough, don’t you?”

“I’m going for the record.”

There was a click as Becks plugged her own channel into the connection and snapped peevishly, “You’ve already got the record. Four catches in a night is twice what anyone else has managed, ever. Now please, please, come back to the lab.”

“What will you do if I don’t?” I asked. Nothing seemed to be moving, except for my infected friend, who twitched. I zapped him with the cattle prod again. The movement stopped.

“Two words, Shaun: tranquilizer darts. Now come back to the lab.”

I whistled. “That’s not playing fair. How about you promise to bake me chocolate chip cookies if I come back? That seems like a much better incentive.”

“How about you stop screwing around before you make me angry? Immune doesn’t mean immortal, you know. Now please.” The peevishness faded, replaced by pleading. “Just come home.”

She’s right, said George—or the ghost of George, anyway, the little voice at the back of my head that’s all I have left of my adopted sister. Some people say I have issues. I say those people need to expand their horizons, because I don’t have issues, I have the Library of Congress. You need to go back. This isn’t doing anybody any good.

“I don’t know,” I said. I used to be circumspect about talking to George. That was before I decided to go all the way insane. Madness is surprisingly freeing. “I mean, I’m having fun. Aren’t you the one who used to nag me to get my butt back into the field? Is this field enough for you?”

Shaun. Please.

My smile faded. “Fine. Whatever. If you want me to go back to the stupid lab, I’ll go back to the stupid lab. Happy now?”

No, said George. But it’s going to have to do.

I poked my latest catch one last time with the cattle prod. It didn’t react. I turned to stalk back through the trees to the ripped-up side road where the bike was parked. Gunshots sounded from the forest to my left. I paused. Silence followed them, rather than screaming. I nodded and started walking again. Maybe that seems callous, but I wasn’t the only one collecting virtual corpses for Dr. Abbey, the crazy renegade virologist who’d been sheltering us since we were forced off the grid. Most of her lab technicians were either ex-military or trained marksmen. They could take care of themselves, at least in the “killing stuff” department. I was less sure about bringing the zombies home alive. Fortunately for me, that was their problem, not mine.

Alaric’s sigh of relief made me jump. I’d almost forgotten that he and Becks were listening in from their cozy spot in the main lab. “Thank you for seeing sense.”

“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Thank George.”

Neither of them had anything to say to that. I hadn’t expected them to. I tapped the button on the side of my headset, killing the connection, and kept walking.

It had been just under a month since the world turned upside down. Some days, I was almost grateful to be waking up in an underground virology lab. Sure, most of the things it contained could kill me—including the head virologist, who I suspected of having fantasies about dissecting me so she could analyze my organs—but at least we knew what was going on. We had a place, if not a fully functional plan. That put us way ahead of the surviving denizens of North America’s Gulf Coast, who were still contending with something we’d never anticipated: an insect vector for Kellis-Amberlee.

A tropical storm had blown some brand-new strain of mosquito over from Cuba, one with a big enough bite to transmit the live virus to humans. No one had heard of an insect vector for Kellis-Amberlee before that day. The entire world had heard of it on the day after, as every place Tropical Storm Fiona touched discovered the true meaning of “storm damage.” The virus spread initially with the storm, and then started spreading on its own as the winds died down and the mosquitoes went looking for something to munch on. It was a genuine apocalypse scenario, the sort of thing that makes trained medical personnel shit their pants and call for their mommies. And it was really happening, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.

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.