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“Yeah,” I said, not quite managing to keep the glee out of my voice. “You ever killed a zombie bear before?”

“Can’t say as I have.”

“Maybe we’ll be going back to use their showers after all.” I unbuckled my seat belt, moving slowly. “First one to get the headshot gets first shower.”

“Deal,” said Becks, and grabbed her gun.

Please make it back alive. Please make it back alive. Please make it back alive. Please make it back alive. Please make it back…

—From Dandelion Mine, the blog of Magdalene Grace Garcia, July 26, 2041. Unpublished.

My dearest Nandini;

You will only see this letter if I die during the fool’s errand I am about to undertake—one more foolish quest in a life that has been defined by them. Do you ever regret that you chose a husband who would forever be leaving you to chase some elusive platonic ideal of the truth? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Please, consider this letter my blessing, and remarry when you’re ready. Find an accountant or a computer programmer—a nice, stable profession that won’t lend itself to this breed of madness.

Oh, but I loved you. Maybe not at first, when our parents brought us together and said we should marry, but it didn’t take me as long as some thought it would. I am truly sorry I have not been the husband you deserved. You were always more wife than I was worthy of. I love you, my Nan. Believe me, even if you believe nothing else I have ever said. I love you, and I am blessed beyond all words that you were willing to take a risk, and marry me.

—Taken from an e-mail composed by Mahir Gowda, July 26, 2041. Unsent.

Eleven

Dr. Thomas smiled indulgently across the table separating us. “Now, Georgia, I know things have been very stressful for you these past few weeks—”

“Boredom and stress aren’t the same thing,” I said. “You can check the dictionary if you want. I’ll wait.”

He made a note on his tablet. “Inappropriate humor is a defense mechanism, isn’t it?”

“No, Shaun was a defense mechanism. Since he’s not here, I have to fill in.” I took a breath, trying to look miserable. It wasn’t easy. I’ve never had to worry about what my eyes were doing. People say the eyes are windows to the soul, and I was accustomed to having blackout curtains over mine. Without my retinal KA, they might be giving me away without my even knowing it. “Are you ever going to tell me what happened?”

“When your system is ready to stand the stress,” said Dr. Thomas, making another note on his tablet. “Dr. Shaw says you were very cooperative with her tests, and confirms your story about the haircut. I’m sorry to have doubted you.”

“Yeah, well.” I shrugged, trying to look frustrated and innocent at the same time. The frustration was easy. The innocence wasn’t. “I’ve never been much of a liar.”

That little dig hit home; Dr. Thomas winced. I made my reputation as a Newsie based on my refusal to lie—a refusal that got me fined several times early in my career, when I was found in places I wasn’t supposed to be and couldn’t come up with an even half-decent excuse for what I was doing there. I never got better at making excuses. I just got better at refusing to let Shaun talk me into climbing over fences marked NO TRESPASSING.

My memories of those early escapades were fuzzy, like I’d reviewed them so many times that the edges had begun to blur. A lot of my earlier memories were like that, and had been since I’d woken up. I’d been trying to figure out what that meant. Given what Gregory had shown me the night before, I was pretty sure I finally knew.

The memories weren’t fuzzy because the things I remembered happened a long time ago, or because there was a glitch in the process that transferred my consciousness into a freshly cloned body. The memories were fuzzy because the things I remembered never happened at all—not to me, anyway. I was “remembering” an implanted incident extracted from the mind of a dead woman. A certain loss of fidelity was only to be expected.

Somehow, knowing that I wasn’t really who I thought I was—knowing that Georgia Mason was dead and gone and never coming back—made dealing with Dr. Thomas easier. I don’t like lying. I’ve never liked lying. And when I was myself, I wasn’t any good at it. Now that I was someone else who just thought she was me, it seemed like a skill worth developing. I wasn’t compromising my values. I was creating my values, and compromising the values of a dead woman.

And maybe if I told myself that enough times, I’d convince myself to believe it.

Finally, Dr. Thomas cleared his throat, and said, “Your test results have been good so far. I believe you may be stabilizing.”

“Bully for me.”

“The people who have been monitoring your case remotely are very encouraged. You’re getting high marks.”

After Gregory’s revelation that I was being used as a display model, that announcement made me want to start smashing things. I forced the urge back down, asking coldly, “Will any of these people be coming to see me in person?”

Dr. Thomas smiled, chuckling in practiced amusement. It was so at odds with his generally nervous demeanor that it made me want to slap him and send him to acting classes at the same time. “Vice President Cousins is too busy to come to the CDC for social calls, even when he’s calling on an old friend.”

I sat up a little straighter, old journalistic instincts locking my shoulders tight as his words sunk in. “Vice President? Rick? My Rick? From After the End Times?”

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