The gun had been holding down a piece of folded paper. I picked it up with my free hand, unfolding it, and read.
This is all the protection we can give you right now. We’re still working on an exit plan. Trust Dr. Shaw. She’s been working with me for a long time. Keep cooperating. They can’t know you’re planning to escape. You have to keep trusting me.
The gun was enough to buy a lot of trust. I kept reading, and stopped breathing for the second time in as many minutes as I saw the second part of his message:
I have received confirmation from my West Coast contact: Shaun Phillip Mason is alive. I repeat: Shaun is alive. He’s been off the grid for a little while, for reasons I hope to have the opportunity to explain soon, but he is alive, and he will be waiting when we get you out of here. Whatever they say, whatever lies they try to make you believe, believe me: Shaun is alive. All we have to do now is keep you that way long enough to get you back to him.
I sank onto the stool, staring at the letter. My fingers were creasing the paper, rendering some of the words almost illegible, but that didn’t matter. I knew what they said. They were burning behind my eyes, lighting up a darkness that I hadn’t even realized was there.
Shaun was alive. I wasn’t making educated guesses. I wasn’t just telling myself something I wanted to believe: Shaun was actually and genuinely alive. That, or the CDC had planted Gregory to earn my trust… But the gun nixed that line of thinking. I paused, turning my attention from the paper to the pistol just long enough to eject the clip and check that it was loaded. It was. Those tiny bullets made all the difference, because no matter how hard the CDC was trying to make me believe them, they weren’t going to give me a gun.
“There you are.” Dr. Shaw stepped around the screen, moving with a silence that made it plain how much she’d been exaggerating the sound of her footsteps before. She plucked the paper from my hand, not seeming to mind when she ripped it in the process. “Thank you for cleaning up the lab, Georgia. I’ll just go feed this through the shredder while you finish undressing. You can leave your clothing here. No one will disturb it.”
My eyes widened as I glanced from her to the gun and back again. Dr. Shaw followed my gaze and nodded understandingly.
“I appreciate that you have little privacy in your current circumstances, but I assure you, no one will touch your things while you’re here. I take privacy concerns very seriously.” Her smile was thin and cold, briefly recalling the way she’d first presented herself. “You have my word.”
Gregory said I could trust her, and she wasn’t sounding the alarm over my possession of a weapon. I swallowed to clear my throat, and nodded. “I’ll get ready.”
“Thank you. Call for Kathleen when you want the robe.” She paused, as if one more thing had just occurred to her, and added, “You may keep your underwear.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I thought you might.” Dr. Shaw walked away, her heels clacking on the floor, as if to illustrate that outside this small, screened-in space, we were playing by the CDC’s rules.
I may not enjoy playing by other people’s rules, but I’ve had enough experience to be good at it. I slid off the stool, putting the pistol back where I originally found it, and disrobed, piling my white pajamas over the gun. If any of Dr. Shaw’s technicians weren’t in on things—and I had no real reason to believe that any of them were in on things—they’d need to actively look before they found anything awry.
While I stripped, I heard the oddly reassuring sound of a shredder coming from the main room. Dr. Shaw had been telling the truth about disposing of Gregory’s message. I just hoped she’d have the sense to take the trash with her when she left.
Kathleen was waiting when I stuck my head around the screen. She held a plain white robe out to me, smiling pleasantly. “Dr. Shaw is ready for you now.”
“Tell Dr. Shaw I’m almost ready for her,” I said, and ducked back behind the screen to shrug into the robe. With one last, regretful glance toward the pile of clothing concealing my new gun, I turned to head out into the room.
Kathleen was still waiting. Her smile brightened as she saw that I was dressed. “This way,” she said, beckoning. “We’re going to begin by measuring your basic neurological responses.”
“Meaning what?” I asked, following her.
“Meaning we’ll be applying electrodes to your scalp, asking you neutral questions and watching to see how your brain waves change as you respond. Dr. Shaw has been petitioning for permission to do a sleep study, but so far, they’ve refused.” Kathleen frowned, like the refusal was somehow a personal insult. She led me toward a complicated-looking machine where Dr. Shaw and two of the technicians were waiting. “I’m sure she’ll be granted permission sooner or later. For the moment, conscious brain wave studies will have to do.”
“For today,” said Dr. Shaw, snapping a connector into place. “Georgia. So glad you could join us. If you would be so kind as to take a seat, we can begin getting you ready. Please remove the robe.”
I froze. “Please what?”
“Remove the robe.”
“Why did you give it to me if—?”
“Modesty and science are not always compatible,” said Dr. Shaw. “Kathleen?”
“Yes, Dr. Shaw,” said Kathleen, and took hold of my robe’s collar, tugging just hard enough to make sure I knew she was there. “If you would be so kind?”
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