beautiful

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Clair called Libby's home but she wasn't there and her parents didn't know where she had gone. She had cancelled all her friend and family privileges, and she hadn't left any notes, virtual or physical. Clair didn't mention Improvement or Zep. She just kept on looking for her best friend, hoping to track her down by sheer persistence.

Libby wasn't with either of her grandmothers. She wasn't in the class she had scheduled that morning, or in the refectory or the library or anywhere else on campus that Clair looked for her. She didn't seem to be in any of her old haunts either. Beaches, nightclubs, theme parks—all were busy but empty of Libby. Clair widened her search even further. Thanks to d-mat, Libby could have been literally anywhere on Earth.

I watched her search, mystified as to why Clair was going to such lengths. Was it out of concern for Libby or to assuage her own sense of guilt? Nothing she could do now would take back what had happened between her and Zep; nor could it undo the process of Improvement, which by then was well and truly underway. Maybe she was trying to show Libby that, whatever happened with Zep, Clair really did care about her. Why that would be a comfort was (and remains) a mystery to me, though. Caring for someone doesn't mean you won't hurt them.

Then something totally unexpected happened: a call came for Clair from my previous iteration's ward. This surprised me just as much as it seemed to surprise Clair. She took the call, but was speechless for a moment, as though fearful of what the person on the other end of the call might say.

"I'm beautiful, Clair," said the young woman. "I'm beautiful."

"Of course you are—but you always have been, right? It doesn't have anything to do with . . . uh, a word that starts with 'I' . . . ."

Clair was in a booth at that point, waiting for the d-mat process to begin. I had just seconds before I lost her to the d-mat process. By her words I realized that she had become cognizant of the ban on all public discussion of Improvement. If she so much as used the word, the call would crash.

But why was she speaking with such familiarity with my sister's ward? How could they possibly know each other? Out of all the recipients of the invitation, what were the odds that these two would both have used the Words?

"Where are you, Libby? I'll come to you. Just tell me and I'll be there in seconds."

"I'm in heaven, and I'm so beautiful."

"Libby? Libby, don't move. I'll come to you. We'll fix this, I know we can, if you just tell me where you are."

"I'm the beautiful one, Clair Hill. He only wants you because you're different."

The d-mat process began and the call ended anyway.

And I, at last, was beginning to make a connection.

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