At long last, it's the third book of Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. You've followed the zombie apocalypse and the blogger drama in Feed and Deadline, and now it's time to find out how it ends. We're proud to present the first chapter of Blackout, the final chapter in the trilogy, below.
Warning: There are huge spoilers for the first two books!
From the Dead
People say things like "it wasn't supposed to go this way" and "this isn't what I wanted." They're just making noise. There's no such thing as "supposed to," and what you want doesn't matter. All that matters is what happened.
- Georgia Mason
I honestly have no idea what's going on anymore. I just need to find something I can hit.
- Shaun Mason
My name is Georgia Carolyn Mason. I am one of the Orphans of the Rising, the class of people who were under two years of age when the dead first started to walk. My biological family is presumably listed somewhere on The Wall, an anonymous footnote of a dead world. Their world died in the Rising. They didn't live to see the new one.
My adoptive parents have raised me to ask questions, understand the realities of my situation, and, in times of necessity, to shoot first. They have equipped me with the tools I need to survive, and I am grateful. Through this blog, I will do my best to share my experiences and opinions as openly and honestly as I can. It is the best way to honor the family that raised me; it is the only way I have to honor the family that lost me.
I'm going to tell you the truth as I understand it. You can take it from there.
- From Images May Disturb You, the blog of Georgia Mason, June 20, 2035.
So George says I have to write a "mission statement," because our contract with Bridge Supporters says I will. I am personally opposed to mission statements, since they're basically one more way of sucking the fun out of everything. I tried telling George this. She told me that it's her job to suck the fun out of everything. She then threatened physical violence of a type I will not describe in detail, as it might unsettle and upset my theoretical readership. Suffice to say that I am writing a mission statement. Here it is:
I, Shaun Phillip Mason, being of sound mind and body, do hereby swear to poke dead things with sticks, do stupid shit for your amusement, and put it all on the Internet where you can watch it over and over again. Because that's what you want, right?
Glad to oblige.
- From Hail to the King, the blog of Shaun Mason, June 20, 2035.
My story ended where so many stories have ended since the Rising: with a man- in this case, my adoptive brother and best friend, Shaun- holding a gun to the base of my skull as the virus in my blood betrayed me, transforming me from a thinking human being into something better suited to a horror movie.
My story ended, but I remember everything. I remember the cold dread as I watched the lights on the blood test unit turn red, one by one, until my infection was confirmed. I remember the look on Shaun's face when he realized this was it- it was really happening, and there wasn't going to be any clever third act solution that got me out of the van alive.
I remember the barrel of the gun against my skin. It was cool, and it was soothing, because it meant Shaun would do what he had to do. No one else would get hurt because of me.
No one but Shaun.
This was something we'd never planned for. I always knew that one day he'd push his luck too far, and I'd lose him. We never dreamed that he would be the one losing me. I wanted to tell him it would be okay. I wanted to lie to him. I remember that: I wanted to lie to him. And I couldn't. There wasn't time, and even then, I didn't have it in me.
I remember starting to write. I remember thinking this was it; this was my last chance to say anything I wanted to say to the world. This was the thing I was going to be judged on, now and forever. I remember feeling my mind start to go. I remember the fear.
I remember the sound of Shaun pulling the trigger.
I shouldn't remember anything after that. That's where my story ended. Curtain down, save file, that's a wrap. Once the bullet hits your spinal cord, you're done; you don't have to worry about this shit anymore. You definitely shouldn't wake up in a windowless, practically barren room that looks suspiciously like a CDC holding facility, with no one to talk to but some unidentified voice on the other side of a one- way mirror.
The bed where I'd woken up was bolted to the floor, and so was the matching bedside table. It wouldn't do to have the mysteriously resurrected dead journalist throwing things at the mirror that took up most of one wall. Naturally, the wall with the mirror was the only wall with a door- a door that refused to open. I'd tried waving my hands in front of every place that might hold a motion sensor, and then I'd searched for a test panel in the vain hope that checking out clean would make the locks let go and release me.
There were no test panels, or screens, or ocular scanners. There wasn't anything inside that seemed designed to let me out. That was chilling all by itself. I grew up in a post- Rising world, one where blood tests and the threat of infection are a part of daily life. I'm sure I'd been in sealed rooms without testing units before. I just couldn't remember any.
The room lacked something else: clocks. There was nothing to let me know how much time had passed since I woke up, much less how much time had passed before I woke up. There'd been a voice from the speaker above the mirror, an unfamiliar voice asking my name and what the last thing I remembered was. I'd answered him-"My name is Georgia Mason. What the fuck is going on here?"- and he'd gone away without answering my question. That might have been ten minutes ago. It might have been ten hours ago. The lights overhead glared steady and white, not so much as flickering as the seconds went slipping past.
That was another thing. The overhead lights were industrial fluorescents, the sort that have been popular in medical facilities since long before the Rising. They should have been burning my eyes like acid . . . and they weren't.
I was diagnosed with retinal Kellis-Amberlee when I was a kid, meaning that the same disease that causes the dead to rise had taken up permanent residence in my eyeballs. It didn't turn me into a zombie- retinal KA is a reservoir condition, one where the live virus is somehow contained inside the body. Retinal KA gave me extreme light sensitivity, excellent night vision, and a tendency to get sickening migraines if I did anything without my sunglasses on.
Well, I wasn't wearing sunglasses, and it wasn't like I could dim the lights, but my eyes still didn't hurt. All I felt was thirst, and a vague, gnawing hunger in the pit of my stomach, like lunch might be a good idea sometime soon. There was no headache. I honestly couldn't decide whether or not that was a good sign.
Anxiety was making my palms sweat. I scrubbed them against the legs of my unfamiliar white cotton pajamas. Everything in the room was unfamiliar . . . even me. I've never been heavy- a life spent running after stories and away from zombies doesn't encourage putting on weight- but the girl in the one- way mirror was thin to the point of being scrawny. She looked like she'd be easy to break. Her hair was as dark as mine. It was also too long, falling past her shoulders. I've never allowed my hair to get that long. Hair like that is a passive form of suicide when you do what I do for a living. And her eyes . . .
Her eyes were brown. That, more than anything else, made it impossible to think of her face as my own. I don't have visible irises. I have pupils that fill all the space not occupied by sclera, giving me a black, almost emotionless stare. Those weren't my eyes. But my eyes didn't hurt. Which meant either those were my eyes, and my retinal KA had somehow been cured, or Buffy was right when she said the afterlife existed, and this was hell.
I shuddered, looking away from my reflection, and resumed what was currently my main activity: pacing back and forth and trying to think. Until I knew whether I was being watched, I had to think quietly, and that made it a hell of a lot harder. I've always thought better when I do it out loud, and this was the first time in my adult life that I'd been anywhere without at least one recorder running. I'm an accredited journalist. When I talk to myself, it's not a sign of insanity; it's just my way of making sure I don't lose important material before I can write it down.
None of this was right. Even if there was some sort of experimental treatment to reverse amplification, someone would have been there to explain things to me. Shaun would have been there. And there it was, the reason I couldn't believe any of this was right: I remembered him pulling the trigger. Even assuming it was a false memory, even assuming it never happened, why wasn't he here ? Shaun would move Heaven and Earth to reach me.
I briefly entertained the idea that he was somewhere in the building, forcing the voice from the intercom to tell him where I was. Regretfully, I dismissed it. Something would have exploded by now if that were true.
"Goddammit." I scowled at the wall, turned, and started in the other direction. The hunger was getting worse, and it was accompanied by a new, more frustrating sensation. I needed to pee. If someone didn't let me out soon, I was going to have a whole new set of problems to contend with.
"Run the timeline, George," I said, taking some comfort in the sound of my voice. Everything else might have changed, but not that. "You were in Sacramento with Rick and Shaun, running for the van. Something hit you in the arm. One of those syringes like they used at the Ryman farm. The test came back positive. Rick left. And then . . . then . . ." I faltered, having trouble finding the words, even if there was no one else to hear them.
Everyone who grew up after the Rising knows what happens when you come into contact with the live form of Kellis-Amberlee. You become a zombie, one of the infected, and you do what every zombie exists to do. You bite. You infect. You kill. You feed. You don't wake up in a white room, wearing white pajamas and wondering how your brother was able to shoot you in the neck without even leaving a scar.
Scars. I wheeled and stalked back to the mirror, pulling the lid on my right eye open wide. I learned how to look at my own eyes when I was eleven. That's when I got my first pair of protective contacts. That's also when I got my first visible retinal scarring, little patches of tissue scorched beyond recovery by the sun. We caught it in time to prevent major vision loss, and I got a lot more careful. The scarring created small blind spots at the center of my vision. Nothing major. Nothing that interfered with fieldwork. Just little spots.
My pupil contracted to almost nothing as the light hit it. The spots weren't there. I could see clearly, without any gaps.
"Oh." I lowered my hand. "I guess that makes sense."
I paused, feeling suddenly stupid as that realization led to another. When I first woke up, the voice from the intercom told me all I had to do was speak, and someone would hear me. I looked up at the speaker. "A little help here?" I said. "I need to pee really bad."
There was no response.
There was still no response. I showed my middle finger to the mirror before turning and walking back to the bed. Once there, I sat and settled into a cross- legged position, closing my eyes. And then I started waiting. If anyone was watching me- and someone had to be watching me- this might be a big enough change in my behavior to get their attention. I wanted their attention. I wanted their attention really, really badly. Almost as badly as I wanted a personal recorder, an Internet connection, and a bathroom.
The need for a bathroom crept slowly higher on the list, accompanied by the need for a drink of water. I was beginning to consider the possibility that I might need to use a corner of the room as a lavatory when the intercom clicked on. A moment later, a new voice, male, like the first one, spoke: "Miss Mason? Are you awake?"
"Yes." I opened my eyes. "Do I get a name to call you by?"
He ignored my question like it didn't matter. Maybe it didn't, to him. "I apologize for the silence. We'd expected a longer period of disorientation, and I had to be recalled from elsewhere in the building."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, we weren't disappointed," said the voice. He had the faintest trace of a Midwestern accent. I couldn't place the state. "I promise, we're thrilled to see you up and coherent so quickly. It's a wonderful indicator for your recovery."
"A glass of water and a trip to the ladies' room would do more to help my recovery than apologies and evasions."
Now the voice sounded faintly abashed. "I'm sorry, Miss Mason. We didn't think . . . just a moment." The intercom clicked off, leaving me in silence once again. I stayed where I was, and kept waiting.
The sound of a hydraulic lock unsealing broke the quiet. I turned to see a small panel slide open above the door, revealing a red light. It turned green and the door slid smoothly open, revealing a skinny, nervous- looking man in a white lab coat, eyes wide behind his glasses. He was clutching his clipboard to his chest like he thought it afforded him some sort of protection.
"Miss Mason? If you'd like to come with me, I'd be happy to escort you to the restroom."
"Thank you." I unfolded my legs, ignoring pins and needles in my calves, and walked toward the doorway. The man didn't quite cringe as I approached, but he definitely shied back, looking more uneasy with every step I took. Interesting.
"We apologize for making you wait," he said. His words had the distinct cadence of something recited by rote, like telephone tech support asking for your ID and computer serial number. "There were a few things that had to be taken care of before we could proceed."
"Let's worry about that after I get to the bathroom, okay?" I sidestepped around him, out into the hall, and found myself looking at three hospital orderlies in blue scrubs, each of them pointing a pistol in my direction. I stopped where I was. "Okay, I can wait for my escort."
"That's for the best, Miss Mason," said the nervous man, whose voice I now recognized from the intercom. It just took a moment without the filtering speakers between us. "Just a necessary precaution. I'm sure you understand."
"Yeah. Sure." I fell into step behind him. The orderlies followed us, their aim never wavering. I did my best not to make any sudden moves. Having just returned to the land of the living, I was in no mood to exit it again. "Am I ever going to get something I can call you?"
"Ah . . ." His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he said, "I'm Dr. Thomas. I've been one of your personal physicians since you arrived at this facility. I'm not surprised you don't remember me. You've been sleeping for some time."
"Is that what the kids are calling it these days?" The hall was built on the model I've come to expect from CDC facilities, with nothing breaking the sterile white walls but the occasional door and the associated one-way mirrors looking into patient holding rooms. All the rooms were empty.
"You're walking well."
"It's a skill."
"How's your head? Any disorientation, blurred vision, confusion?"
"Yes." He tensed. I ignored it, continuing. "I'm confused about what I'm doing here. I don't know about you, but I get twitchy when I wake up in strange places with no idea how I got there. Will I be getting some answers soon?"
"Soon enough, Miss Mason." He stopped in front of a door with no mirror next to it. That implied that it wasn't a patient room. Better yet, there was a blood test unit to one side. I never thought I'd be so happy for the chance to be jabbed with a needle. "We'll give you a few minutes. If you need anything-"
"Using the bathroom, also a skill." I slapped my palm down on the test panel. Needles promptly bit into the heel of my hand and the tips of my fingers. The light over the door flashed between red and green before settling on the latter. Uninfected. The door swung open. I stepped through, only to stop and scowl at the one- way mirror taking up most of the opposite wall. The door swung shut behind me.
"Cute," I muttered. The need to pee was getting bad enough that I didn't protest the situation. I glared at the mirror the entire time I was using the facilities, all but daring someone to watch me. See? I can pee whether you're spying on me or not, you sick bastards.
Other than the mirror- or maybe because of the mirror- the bathroom was as standard- issue CDC as the hallway outside, with white walls, a white tile fl oor, and white porcelain fi xtures. Everything was automatic, including the soap dispenser, and there were no towels; instead, I dried my hands by sticking them into a jet of hot air. It was one big exercise in minimizing contact with any surface. When I turned back to the door, the only things I'd touched were the toilet seat and the floor, and I was willing to bet that they were in the process of self- sterilization by the time I started washing my hands.
The blood test required to exit the bathroom was set into the door itself, just above the knob. It didn't unlock until I checked out clean.
The three orderlies were waiting in the hall, with an unhappy Dr. Thomas between them and me. If I did anything bad enough to make them pull those triggers, the odds were good that he'd be treated as collateral damage.
"Wow," I said. "Who did you piss off to get this gig?"
He flinched, looking at me guiltily. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Of course not. Thank you for bringing me to the bathroom. Now, could I get that water?" Better yet, a can of Coke. The thought of its acid sweetness was enough to make my mouth water. It's good to know that some things never change.
"If you'd come this way?"
I gave the orderlies a pointed look. "I don't think I have much of a choice, do you?"
"No, I suppose you don't," he said. "As I said, a precaution. You understand."
"Not really, no. I'm unarmed. I've just passed two blood tests. I don't understand why I need three men with guns covering my every move." The CDC has been paranoid for years, but this was taking it to a new extreme.
Dr. Thomas's reply didn't help: "Security."
"Why do people always say that when they don't feel like giving a straight answer?" I shook my head. "I'm not going to make trouble. Please, just take me to the water."
"Right this way," he said, and started back the way we'd come.
There was a tray waiting for us on the bolted- down table in the room where I'd woken up. It held a plate with two pieces of buttered toast, a tumbler full of water, and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, a can of Coke with condensation beading on the sides. I made for the tray without pausing to consider how the orderlies might react to my moving faster than a stroll. None of them shot me in the back. That was something.
The first bite of toast was the best thing I'd ever tasted, at least until I took the second bite, and then the third. Finally, I crammed most of the slice into my mouth, barely chewing. I managed to resist the siren song of the Coke long enough to drink half the water.
It tasted as good as the toast. I put down the glass, popped the tab on the can of soda, and took my first post- death sip of Coke. I was smart enough not to gulp it; even that tiny amount was enough to make my knees weak. That, and the caffeine rush that followed, provided the last missing piece.
Slowly, I turned to face Dr. Thomas. He was standing in the doorway, making notes on his clipboard. There were probably a few dozen video and audio recorders running, catching every move I made, but any good reporter will tell you that there's nothing like real field experience. I guess the same thing applies to scientists. He lowered his pen when he saw me looking.
"How do you feel?" he asked. "Dizzy? Are you full? Did you want something besides toast? It's a bit early for anything complicated, but I might be able to arrange for some soup, if you'd prefer that . . ."
"Mostly, what'd I'd prefer is having some questions answered." I shifted the Coke from one hand to the other. If I couldn't have my sunglasses, I guess a can of soda would have to do. "I think I've been pretty cooperative up to now. I also think that could change."
Dr. Thomas looked uncomfortable. "Well, I suppose that will depend on what sort of questions you want to ask."
"This one should be pretty easy. I mean, it's definitely within your skill set."
"All right. I can't promise to know the answer, but I'm happy to try. We want you to be comfortable."
"Good." I looked at him levelly, missing my black-eyed gaze. It always made people so uncomfortable. I got more honest answers out of those eyes . . . "You said you were my personal physician."
"So tell me: How long have I been a clone?"
Dr. Thomas dropped his pen.
Still watching him, I raised my Coke, took a sip, and waited for his reply.