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“Great,” I said. We were the only things that moved as we walked toward the door. “She didn’t want to let you go. I had to haggle like a bastard to get you away from the Newsies.”

“She recognized talent when she saw it,” said Becks, with a small smile.

“Yes, she did,” I replied, with utter seriousness. Becks blinked, smile fading as she saw the look on my face. “So did I. I’m about to ask all of you to go all-in—put up or shut up, because we’re done treading water.” I was echoing some of what George had said to me, but that was okay. She was a figment of my insanity, and she probably wouldn’t sue me for plagiarism. “Not all of us are going to walk away from this one alive.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Becks actually laughed out loud, the sound echoing through the empty structures around us. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working with you people, it’s that no one gets out alive.” She leaned over, kissing me lightly on the cheek and then speed-walking the rest of the way to the door. “No one,” she repeated, and was gone.

I stopped, touching my cheek and staring after her in bewilderment. “What the f**k was that?”

A complication, said George. She sounded amused. Also, a girl thing.

“Right.” I dropped my hand. “Glad to see you’re back where you belong.”

I’m right here. Until the end.

“Great.” I started forward again. “Come on, George. Check this out.”

BOOK III

The Mourning Edition

All I wanted was a little excitement in my life. Was that such a horrible thing to ask?

—REBECCA “BECKS” ATHERTON

I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter what we wanted. What matters is what we chose to do with the things we had.

—GEORGIA MASON

Here’s how it used to work: George told you the unvarnished facts, no matter how nasty they were or how lousy they made you feel, and then I came in to dance like a monkey and make you feel better about this shitty world we’re living in. I was the carrot, and she was the stick. Well, guess what, folks? The stick got broken, and that’s not how things are going to work anymore. Those days are behind us.

This is the new deal: I’m going to tell you the unvarnished facts, no matter how nasty they are or how lousy they make you feel… and that’s it. If you want news that makes you feel good, go somewhere else. If you want wacky adventures, laughter, and an escape from your miserable life, go somewhere els.

If you want the truth, stay here. Because from here on out, that’s all I’m going to give you. No more carrot-and-stick. No more dancing monkeys. Just the truth. And if it kills us, well, at least this way we died for something. It’s better than the alternatives.

—From Adaptive Immunities, the blog of Shaun Mason, April 15, 2041

Eleven

Becks was half a step behind me as I stopped at the end of Octopus Alley to take in the scene. Kelly was sitting in a folding chair with her hands clasped white-knuckle tight and resting on her knees. Alaric sat across from her, watching her like he thought she’d start making sense to him if he waited long enough. Best of luck with that, buddy. Maggie and Dr. Abbey leaned against the safety-glass window, watching this little tableau. Only Joe didn’t seem to be disturbed by the current mood in the room. He was sprawled at Dr. Abbey’s feet, gnawing on a massive length of animal bone.

Dr. Abbey offered me a nod. “Welcome back. Feeling better?”

“No, but I think I’ll live. That’s more than some people can say.” Kelly shot me a look. I ignored her. “Dr. Abbey, how secure is your network? If we made a call, could it be traced?”

“A call to, say, the CDC?” She straightened. “I have a few burn phones I’ve been saving for just such an occasion. Wait here.” Dr. Abbey made a complicated gesture toward Joe, who was in the process of standing, presumably so he could follow her. The dog subsided, staying where he was as she turned and strode out of the room.

Kelly looked at me with open alarm. “Shaun? What are you going to do?”

“Break your f**king jaw if you don’t shut up, right now,” I said, pleasantly enough. “I’m not ready for you to talk to me yet.”

“That means it’s time for you to be quiet,” said Maggie.

There was a time when I would have told her not to taunt the Doc. That time was over and done with. “Becks, why don’t you make sure the Doc stays quiet while I take care of things. I wouldn’t want her to get any funny ideas about saying hi.”

“My pleasure.” Becks drew her pistol and moved to stand behind Kelly, adopting an easy, comfortable-looking stance. She could stand that way all day if she needed to. I’d seen her do it in field recordings.

Kelly stared straight ahead, unflinching. If I hadn’t been so mad at her, I might have been impressed. As it was, I couldn’t really look at her without wanting to punch her face in.

Dr. Abbey walked briskly back down the hall and slapped a phone into my hand. “This is voice activated and will stay untraceable for about five minutes. Give it the number you want and tell it to dial. You might also tell it to set itself to speaker, since I’d like to know what my resources are being d to do.”

“Happily,” I said. I pulled my normal phone from my pocket and brought up Dr. Wynne in my address book, reading off the numbers in a slow, clear voice before saying, “Dial and set to speaker.”

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