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BOOK I

Point of Infection

Sometimes you need lies to stay alive.

—SHAUN MASON

The only thing we have in this world that is utterly and intrinsically ours is our integrity. If we give that away, we may as well stop fighting, because losing that battle is what loses the war. There’s nothing worth that.

—GEORGIA MASON

I got another interview request yesterday from some brand-new baby blogger who’s looking for a scoop and wants to know how I’m “coping.” That’s apparently the only thing anyone thinks I’m doing these days. I’m “coping.” There are days when I feel like I’m never going to be allowed to do anything else. I’m going to walk through my life being Shaun Mason, the Dude Who Copes.Copes with a world filled with stupid people. Copes with a life that doesn’t include the one person who ever really mattered. Copes with everyone asking him whether he’s “coping,” when the answer should be totally obvious to anyone with a brain.

How am I coping? I miss George, and the goddamn world is still full of zombies, that’s how. Everything else…

Everything else is just details. And those don’t really matter to me anymore.

—From Adaptive Immunities, the blog of Shaun Mason, February 17, 2041

One

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-seven years: with an idiot—in this case, Rebecca Atherton, head of the After the End Times Irwins, winner of the Golden Steve-o Award for valor in the face of the undead—deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. Because, hey, there’s always the chance that this time, maybe things will go differently. I know I always thought it would be different for me, back when I was the one doing the poking. George always told me I was an idiot, but I had faith.

Too bad George was right.

At least Becks was being smart about her stupidity and was using a crowbar to poke the zombie, which greatly improved her chances of survival. She’d managed to sink the clawed end under the zombie’s collarbone, which was really a pretty effective defensive measure. The zombie would eventually realize that it couldn’t move forward. When that happened, it would pull away, either yanking the crowbar out of her hands or dislocating its own collarbone, and then it would try coming at her from another angle. Given the intelligence of your average zombie, I figured she had about an hour before she really needed to be concerned. Plenty of time. It was a thrilling scene. Woman versus zombie, locked in a visceral conflict that’s basically ground into our cultural DNA by this point. And I didn’t give a damn.

The guy next to her looked a whole lot less sanguine about the situation, maybe because he’d never been that close to a zombie before. The latest literature says we’re supposed to call them “post-Kellis-Amberlee amplification manifestation syndrome humans,” but f**k that. If they really wanted some fancy new term for “zombie” to catch on, they should have made it easy to shout at the top of your lungs, or at least made sure it formed a catchy acronym. They’re zombies. They’re brainless meat puppets controlled by a virus and driven by the endless need to spread their infection. All the fancy names in the world won’t change that.

Anyway, Alaric Kwong—the dude trying not to toss his cookies all over Becks’s dead friend—had never been a field-situation kind of a guy. He was a natural Newsie, one of those people who are most comfortable when they’re sitting somewhere far away from the action, talking about cause and motivation. Unfortunately for him, he’d finally decided that he wanted to go after some bigger stories, and that meant he needed to test for his Class A journalism license. To get your Class A, you have to prove you can handle life in the field. Becks had ben trying to help him for almost a week, and I was rapidly coming to think that it was hopeless. He was destined for a life of sitting around the office compiling reports from people who had the balls to pass their exams.

You’re being hard on him, Georgia chided.

“I’m being realistic,” I muttered.

“Shaun?” Dave looked up from his screen, squinting as he turned in my direction. “Did you say something?”

“Not a thing.” I shook my head, reaching for my half-empty Coke. “Five gets you ten he fails his practicals again.”

“No bet,” said Dave. “He’s gonna pass this time.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so sure?”

“Becks is out there with him. He wants to impress her.”

“Does he now?” I returned my attention to the screen, more interested now. “Think she likes him back? It’d explain why she keeps wearing skirts to the office…”

“Maybe,” said Dave, judiciously.

On the screen, Becks was trying to get Alaric to take the crowbar and have his own shot at holding off the zombie. No big deal, especially for someone as seasoned as Becks. At least, it wouldn’t have been a big deal if there hadn’t been six more infected lurching into view on the left-hand monitor. I flipped a switch to turn on the sound. Not a thing. They weren’t moaning.

“… the f**k?” I murmured. Flipping another switch to turn on the two-way intercom, I said, “Becks, check your perimeter.”

“What are you talking about?” She turned to scan her surroundings, raising one hand to shield her eyes. “Our perimeter is—” Catching sight of the infected lurching closer by the second, she froze, eyes going wide. “Oh, f**k me.”

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