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Authors: Mira Grant

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BOOK: Blackout
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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 Unpublished.

Two

S
haun! 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.

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?”

BOOK: Blackout
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