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 fucking 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 fucking 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.
Interns and technicians were everywhere, all rushing around on weird science errands. I don’t understand most of what Dr. Abbey’s people do, and that’s probably a good thing. Mahir understands a lot more than I do, and he says it makes it hard for him to sleep at night.
Speaking of Mahir, the man himself was storming across the room, a look of profound irritation on his face. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he demanded.
“That’s an interesting philosophical question, and one that would be better discussed over a can of Coke,” I replied amiably. “It’s good to see you, too.”
“I have half a mind to punch your face in, you bloody idiot,” Mahir said, still scowling.
Mahir used to be George’s second in command. Since she can’t run a third of the staff as a voice in my head, Mahir took over the Newsies when she died. I sometimes think he’s angry with me for not being angrier with him over taking her place. What he never seems to quite understand is that he’s one of the only people in this world who loved George the way I did, and having him on my side makes me feel a little better.
Besides, it’s funny as hell when he gets pissed. “But you won’t,” I said. “What’s our status?”
Mahir’s glare faded, replaced by weariness. “Alaric is still attempting to find out what keeps happening to our mirror sites. We’ve put up six new reports from the junior bloggers in the past hour, none of which touch on the Gulf Coast tragedy, and three of them have vanished into thin air. I think he’s going to start pulling his hair out before much longer.”
“This is what happens when you piss off a government conspiracy.” I started walking toward the kitchen. “How’s Becks doing on the extraction plan?”
Mahir answered with a small shake of his head.
“Aw, damn.” Alaric’s little sister, Alisa, was in Florida when Tropical Storm Fiona made landfall. She managed to survive the first wave of infections, through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. After that… Alaric was unable to step forward to claim her, since Dr. Abbey said that if one of us left, all of us left. We thought Alisa might wind up placed with a foster family, but things in Florida were too bad for that. She wound up in a government-sponsored refugee camp. She was sending regular updates and had managed to stay mostly out of trouble. Still, it was clear that if we didn’t find a way to get her out of there soon, Alaric was going to do something stupid. I understood his motivation. Family’s the most important thing there is.
“Yes, well. It is what it is.” Mahir paced me easily. He wasn’t always a field man, but he’d been working out since we arrived at Dr. Abbey’s—something about not wanting to die the next time we wound up running for our lives. “Dr. Abbey requests the pleasure of your company once you’ve had the opportunity to clean yourself up.”
I groaned. I couldn’t help it. “More blood tests?”
“More blood tests,” he confirmed.
“Motherfucker.” I scowled at nothing in particular. “Immunity is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Yes, absolutely, being mysteriously immune to the zombie plague which has devastated the world is a terrible cross to bear,” said Mahir, deadpan.
“Hey, you try giving blood on a daily basis and see how you feel about it.”
“No, thank you.”
I sighed. “Is this another of those ‘no caffeine before donating’ days? Did she say?”