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“No, they didn’t,” I said, as calmly as I could. It was surprisingly easy. Losing my temper wouldn’t do any good, and I was starting to become accustomed to the idea that everyone in the world—except Shaun—was going to betray me. “I was never supposed to leave the lab.”

Rick moved to join President Ryman. He met my eyes as he turned to face the rest of us. President Ryman… didn’t. He looked away instead, and the set of his jaw said everything he wasn’t saying out loud.

“You bastard,” whispered Shaun. He started to take a step forward. I grabbed his elbow, stopping him.

“The last thing we need today is for you to assault the president,” I said quietly. “Take a deep breath, and let it go.”

“He was going to let them kill you.”

“He let them make me in the first place. Let’s call that part a wash, and see where he takes it from there.” I kept watching President Ryman’s face. He kept not meeting my eyes. “Why are we here, Mr. President? You never had to let us make it this far.”

“Yes, I did.” His head snapped around. For a moment, I saw the man I knew behind the beaten shadows in his eyes. He looked angry. Not with us—with the world. “I owed you this.”

“Did you owe us this before or after you let your people call an air strike on Oakland?” asked Becks. “David Novakowski stayed behind when those bombs came down. He was an Irwin. A good one. He wasn’t involved in your campaign because he was in Alaska at the time, but he would have liked you.” Her tone was calm and challenging at the same time, daring him to give an answer she didn’t approve of.

“The air strike on Oakland was called in response to an outbreak, and did not involve the president,” said the man from the CDC. I managed not to cringe at the sound of his voice. “Consider your words before you make accusations.”

“It was a pretty convenient outbreak, considering one of your people had just shown up, running for her life,” snapped Shaun. “Don’t try to bullshit us, okay? We all know we’re not leaving this building alive. So there’s no point in f**king with our heads.”

“Shaun.” President Ryman actually sounded offended. “Please don’t make assumptions. You’re absolutely going to leave here alive. At a certain point, it became inevitable that we’d bring you here to fully explain the situation.”

“Does that point have anything to do with us having secure footage of a living clone of Georgia Mason running around Seattle?” asked Alaric. “I ask purely out of academic curiosity, you understand. I know you’re going to lie through your teeth.”

President Ryman sighed. “You don’t trust me anymore, do you?”

“Have you given us a reason to?” I asked.

“You’re alive, Georgia. I’d think that might be enough to buy me a little patience.”

“You were planning to have me killed and replaced with a more tractable version. I think that explains a little crankiness.”

The man from the CDC cleared his throat. “It doesn’t matter who’s angry with whom. You are here to have the true nature of the Kellis-Amberlee infection explained. With that in mind, I believe it’s time we make you understand why you have been remiss in your lines of inquiry.”

“Ever notice how people like to use five-dollar words when they know they’re wrong?” asked Becks, of no one in particular.

President Ryman shook his head. “Arguing is getting us nowhere. This way.” He gestured down the hall before starting to walk. His Secret Servicemen promptly moved to get behind us, making it clear that we’d be herded along if we didn’t come on our own.

We went.

The hallway led to a room with walls covered by crystal display screens. Two of them were already showing the structure of the Kellis-Amberlee virus. Another showed an outline of a generic human body. Ryman walked to the large table at the center of the room and stopped, clearly unhappy, as he turned to the man from the CDC.

“I believe that, at this point, I must remind you that national security depends on your silence,” said the man from the CDC. “Nothing said here can leave this room.”

“Uh, reporters,” said Becks. “Or did you forget?”

“Even reporters have things they care about,” he said, with chilling calm. “Perhaps you feel immortal. Perhaps you consider martyrdom something to aspire to—a thrilling entry for your much-lauded ‘Wall.’ But you have a family, don’t you? Rebecca Atherton, of the Westchester Athertons. Your youngest sister was married this past summer. Katherine. A very pretty girl. It’s a pity they live in such a remote area.”

Becks’s eyes widened before narrowing into angry slits, filled with a murderous rage. “Don’t you even—” she began.

“And you, Mr. Kwong. Your sister is your only remaining family. She’s currently in the custody of Stacy and Michael Mason—not people renowned for their ability to keep children alive, when you stop to think about it.”

For possibly the first time in my life, original or artificial, the urge to defend the Masons rose inside me. “You’ve made your point,” I snapped. “We’ll keep our mouths shut. Now do you want to explain what the hell is so important that you need to tell us your evil plan before you have us all shot?”

“It’s not an evil plan, Georgia; it’s the truth.” With those words, President Ryman went from sounding weary to sounding utterly heartbroken. “You’ve become too associated with this whole situation, and that means we need you. You’re the ones who tell the truth, and the ones who fell off the radar when things turned bad. People will believe you.”


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