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Finally: WHY SHOULD I BELIEVE YOU?

“Oh, thank God, he’s asking something easy,” I muttered, and typed, EITHER I’M THE REAL THING, A TRAP, OR A GREAT STORY. FIRST OPTION, YOU NEED TO SAVE ME. SECOND OPTION, YOU NEED TO FIND OUT WHO’S TRYING TO TRAP YOU. THIRD OPTION, YOU NEED TO GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT BEFORE YOU GO PUBLIC. PERSONALLY, I THINK I’M ALL OF THE ABOVE. In case that wasn’t good enough, I added, BESIDES, IF THERE’S ANY CHANCE I’M THE REAL DEAL, AND YOU DON’T GO AFTER IT, SHAUN WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU.

Gregory’s watch beeped. He looked at it and winced. “You need to log off now. IT has started scanning the wireless connections in this part of the building. Nothing indicates that this isn’t random, but—”

“Better safe than sorry. I get that.” Quickly, I typed, GOT TO GO—SECURITY IS LOOKING OUR WAY. TELL SHAUN YOU HEARD FROM ME. HE’LL BE SO PISSED HE’LL COME TO FIND THE FAKE AND BUST ME OUT INSTEAD. PLEASE, ALARIC. BELIEVE ME. I AM BEGGING YOU.

I hit ENTER and logged off. Gregory snatched the laptop as soon as I pulled my hands away from it. He flipped it over, ejecting the battery pack with a motion too smooth to be anything but practiced.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and then he was striding out of the room, the battery in one hand, the laptop in the other. I stayed where I was, slumping ever lower in my seat, my eyes fixed on the space where the computer had been.

For just a moment, I’d been able to reach the outside world. I’d been able to tell someone what was happening—and whether he believed me or not, Alaric listened. He knew. I had put my hands on the keys, and even without the muscle memory of the body I was born in, they’d known what to do. Maybe I could still be Georgia Mason after all. As long as I could still tell the truth…

“Rise up while you can,” I whispered. Then I slumped in my seat, put my head down on my arms, and sobbed until the tears ran out.

Mahir are you there?

Mahir I need you to reply RIGHT NOW. It’s important or I wouldn’t be trying to break radio silence.

Mahir, PLEASE. If you’re ignoring these messages because you think I’m fighting with Dr. Abbey or something, PLEASE. I NEED TO TALK TO YOU. I can’t talk to Becks or Shaun until I talk to you.

MAHIR GODDAMMIT YOU ANSWER ME RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

… fuck.

—Internal chat log, user AKwong to user MGowda, August 1, 2041.

We have removed all tracking devices and self-destruct triggers from the subject, who continues to self-identify as “Georgia Mason.” She was made aware of the realities of her situation by Dr. Lake before we reached this phase, and her psychological progress has been nothing but encouraging. I believe she will remain stable in the long term, providing we are able to secure her release. My team can keep her isolated for a few days more; Dr. Thomas and his lackeys are distracted with the final preparations to awaken her replacement.

This has crossed a line. This experiment has always been both disgusting and morally questionable, but for the first time, it has become obscene. She’s a real person. She knows who she is, even if she is only that person because of us. She thinks, she feels, and she wants to go home.

How did we ever come to this?

—Taken from a message sent by Dr. Danika Kimberley, August 1, 2041. Recipient unknown.

Twenty

We left the Brainpan and returned to the Agora. Breaking into the CDC in broad daylight would take a stupid plan and render it actively suicidal—not something I was in a hurry to do, all indications to the contrary aside. Besides, even if it had been full dark, I would have insisted on going back to the resort. There was no way we were going to take Maggie into the field with us. Not for something like this.

She was silent during the drive, almost shrinking in on herself as she listened to Becks and Mahir arguing about the best ways to bypass CDC security. She’d been a part of this team almost from the beginning, but that time was coming to an end, and we all knew it. When this was over, if she was still alive, she wouldn’t be one of us anymore.

I parked the van in the Agora garage and twisted around to face her. “Maggie, I—”

It was too late. She was already out of the van and on her way to the airlock door. I froze where I was, not sure what I was supposed to do.

“Let her go.”

For a moment, I thought the voice was Georgia’s. Then I lifted my head and saw Becks looking at me.

“She’s made her choice. That doesn’t mean she feels good about herself. Let her go. We can talk to her when we get back.”

If we get back, said George.

“Yeah,” I said, answering them both, and unfastened my seat belt.

We didn’t talk as we followed Maggie’s path to the airlock. The lobby was empty when we arrived. Somehow, that wasn’t much of a surprise. We didn’t discuss our next move. We just split up, each of us heading for our own room to do whatever it was we had to do in order to feel like we were ready. If you can ever feel ready for something like this.

Becks and I hadn’t had much time to get unpacked—or much with us to unpack—but there was enough that it took me about fifteen minutes to get everything together, double-checking the ammo in every gun and the straps on every holster. I even retied my boots. It never hurts to be overprepared. Then I stopped, looking at the empty room, and closed my eyes.

“This is all I’m going to leave behind,” I said aloud. “No apartment. No belongings. No family. Just a hotel room that won’t remember me tomorrow.”

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