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—From Charming Not Sincere, the blog of Rebecca Atherton, August 7, 2041.

SHAUN: Thirty-six

The pen in the doctor’s hand—so much like the one Dr. Wynne used to kill Kelly in the Memphis CDC, what felt like the better part of a lifetime ago—was enough to make me go cold. I was immune to Kellis-Amberlee. None of the others could say the same. Especially not George, who made me immune, but didn’t confer the same immunity on her own clone.

Do you think you could survive losing me again? asked her voice, sweet and low and somehow poisonous. She’d never taken that tone with me before. But why shouldn’t she turn on me? I was replacing her, and doing my best to shove her away.

What kind of world were we living in, where the people we trusted to keep us healthy were the ones keeping us sick, and a man couldn’t even depend on his own insanity?

I raised my hands defensively and said, “There’s no reason for us to do anything crazy. Let’s just settle down, okay?” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Becks restraining Alaric, keeping him from moving toward the now-deadly doctor. He wasn’t with us in Memphis. We’d told him what happened, but he didn’t really understand.

“It’s a pen,” said George.

It took me a second to realize that it was the live George who was speaking, not the increasingly malicious voice inside my head. I glanced her way, giving a quick, tight shake of my head. “We’re all going to stay calm,” I said, hoping she’d decide to listen. “Okay?”

George frowned before nodding slowly. “Okay.” She put her own hands up, mirroring my defensive position. “I’m sorry. I spoke too hastily. We’ll consider your proposal.”

“Why don’t I believe you?” asked the doctor. He glared at President Ryman. “I knew this was a terrible plan from the start. We should have arranged for an outbreak in their hometown as soon as the campaign was over. Wynne was soft on them, the old fool. Leaving them alone was his idea, not mine.”

“That sounds less like ‘soft on us’ and more like sensible resource management,” said Becks, pulling the doctor’s attention back to her. I winced, but didn’t try to stop her. She was keeping him from focusing on any one person. That was valuable. I just hoped it wouldn’t get her shot.

“Put down the pen,” said Steve. His tone was clipped, indicating that he, too, knew exactly what it was.

“No, I don’t think so,” said the doctor. “The agreement was simple: I would allow the president to bring his little covey of pet journalists here, and try to sway them to the side of reason. If it failed, they would be mine to dispose of. As I expected, it has failed.”

“Who says she speaks for the rest of us?” The words sounded alien even as they left my mouth. George, please, forgive me, I thought. “I mean, come on, man. It was nice of you to let the science dudes grow me a replacement, but you could have just sent a card. She’s a clone. She’s not a real person. She doesn’t get to be the one who gets the real people dead.”

The man from the CDC paused, an uncertain look crossing his face.

I decided to press what little advantage I had. “I’m not going to pretend we’re happy about this bullshit. I mean, dude, you killed Alaric’s parents. That’s pretty crappy, and it doesn’t make us feel like playing nice. But that doesn’t mean she speaks for the rest of us. You know she’s not a perfect copy of my sister. You built a broken Georgia. Maybe you could’ve done a better job if she hadn’t managed to get away from you—that happens a lot, doesn’t it? Clones, mosquitoes, reporters. You’ve been running the country for like twenty years. Shouldn’t you be better at this by now?”

“That’s quite enough, son,” said President Ryman. Turning to the man from the CDC, he said, “Put the pen down. They’re willing to listen to what we have to say. Isn’t that what we brought them here for? To sway them to the right way of thinking?”

I could see George out of the corner of my eye. She had her face turned toward me, jaw slack in the way that told me she was staring behind the dark lenses of her sunglasses. I was briefly, terribly grateful she’d chosen to keep wearing them. I wouldn’t have been able to keep smiling if I’d been able to see her eyes.

She believes every word you’re saying, whispered my internal George, sounding pleased and disappointed at the same time, like she couldn’t decide which was better. I bet she’s said those same things to herself every day since she woke up. Not good enough. Not Georgia enough. Not real. And now you’ve confirmed it. Think she’ll ever forgive you?

That seemed like a less pressing question at the moment than whether I was ever going to be able to forgive myself. We had to survive before I could find out one way or the other.

George sniffled before saying, in a small voice, “If I’m not going to be a part of this decision, can I please go lie down? My head hurts. I don’t understand what’s going on.” She sounded utterly pathetic. I had to bite back a sigh of relief.

Georgia’s migraines were the one thing that ever got the Masons to let her out of public appearances when we were kids. Her eyes meant that sometimes, migraines just happened, and the best thing for her to do was lie in a nice dark place and wait for them to go away. I used to wonder why the Masons never noticed that she always seemed to have a migraine when we were supposed to go to the government orphanage where she was adopted—lucky her, she was found within driving distance of Berkeley. The Masons had to go all the way to Southern California to get me.

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