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“Kathleen, what is our time situation?” asked Dr. Shaw, working a thumbnail under one of the sensors on my forehead. Either these had been pressed down harder, or they’d used a particularly robust batch of slime mold to glue them to my head and neck; it felt like she was trying to chip her way through concrete.

“We have fifteen minutes remaining in your original research appointment,” said Kathleen serenely. “We have ninety-three seconds of previously untransmitted sensor data, which James is now feeding through the main uplink. It will remain unquestioned for approximately fifty-four more seconds.”

I was still blinking at her in confusion when Dr. Shaw nodded, said, “Good,” and ripped the recalcitrant sensor from my forehead. I yelped, clapping a hand over the stinging patch it left behind. Dr. Shaw watched me, calm appraisal in her eyes. “Are you paying attention?”

“Yes!” I gasped, half glaring at her. “I was paying attention before you tried to scalp me!”

“There will be an accident with the building’s EMP shield tonight, at six minutes past midnight. The shift change will have occurred an hour previous, and you will have a thirty-minute window before anyone realizes they’ve lost the visual feed to your quarters.” The certainty in her voice told me this wasn’t the first time she’d had to give this little spiel. “Your contact will come to collect you. There’s something we feel you need to see.”

“Eleven seconds,” said Kathleen.

“Do you understand?” asked Dr. Shaw.

I understood that they’d obviously timed this little window of stolen security so as to leave me no room for asking questions. “Yes,” I said. “I understand.”

“Good.”

“Four seconds.”

Dr. Shaw bent to remove the last sensor from the underside of my jaw. This time, her fingers were gentle, and the slime mold let go without resistance. The professional chill was back in her eyes as she stepped back, saying, “You may get dressed now. We appreciate your cooperation.”

“Yeah, well, you’re welcome,” I said, standing. My legs were surprisingly shaky; I’d either been sitting still for longer than I thought, or there was some form of muscle relaxant engineered into their adhesive slime. Possibly both. Kathleen passed me the robe, and I leaned against the side of the chair to shrug it back on. Being clothed didn’t make me feel any better. As the tests Dr. Shaw and her team had been running proved, I was always naked here. What difference did fabric make when these people could look inside my body, and understand it in ways that I didn’t?

Kathleen and Dr. Shaw waited as I got my balance back. “Better?” asked Dr. Shaw.

“I think so.”

“Good. Make yourself decent; I’ll go unseal the door before Dr. Thomas decides to knock it down.” She almost smiled as she turned and walked away from us, her heels clacking against the floor.

“This way,” said Kathleen, motioning for me to follow her—in case, I supposed, I had somehow managed to forget where I left the screen that was protecting my flimsy CDC-issue pajamas… and the gun Gregory had somehow managed to smuggle to me. That was the last thing I was going to forget.

Becoming a licensed journalist requires passing basic gun safety and marksmanship exams; even if you’re planning to do nothing but sit at home typing to an anonymous audience, having the phrase “accredited journalist” after your name means having a carry permit. Becoming a licensed field journalist, like I am—like I was—means taking a lot more exams, and learning how to handle a lot more varieties of weapon. I never shared Shaun’s interest in the more esoteric firearms. The basics suited me just fine, and I’d been carrying at least one gun at pretty much all times since I got my first permit. I was twelve that summer. Knowing that I had a gun again, that I had a means of protecting myself if I needed it… that made a lot of difference. The robe didn’t make me feel any less naked. The gun would.

Kathleen waited outside the screen while I went behind it and put my pajamas back on. The small plastic gun tucked easily into the top of my right sock, not even creating a noticeable bulge once my pants were on. As long as I could act natural, Dr. Thomas would never know that it was there. That was probably what Gregory was counting on.

Gregory, and the EIS. There was no way Dr. Shaw wasn’t working for them, and if she was one of theirs, her assistants probably were, too. Definitely Kathleen; no one who was loyal to the CDC would have stood there calmly counting down our privacy window. Not unless she was a double agent hidden in the EIS, and that idea was too James Bond for me to worry about, since there was nothing I could do if it was true. The CDC had been infiltrated. The EIS might not be the good guys by any objective measure, but given the choices I had in front of me, I was going to go with the team that gave me firearms and told me Shaun wasn’t dead.

Dr. Thomas and the guards were standing just inside the lab when I emerged. His eyes widened at the sight of me, and then narrowed. “What have you done to her hair?” he demanded, attention swinging back toward Dr. Shaw.

She watched him with cool, if evident, amusement, and said, “It was interfering with the placement of my sensors. As none of the tests scheduled for the remainder of the month required uncut hair, I thought it best to eliminate the issue in the most efficient manner possible. Is there a problem?”

“No, but…” Dr. Thomas stopped, obviously torn as to how to complete that sentence. Finally, looking almost sullen, he said, “You should have consulted with me before cutting her hair. Sudden changes to her environment can be stressful at this stage in her recovery.”

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