confusion

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Clair ended the chat and ignored me when I tried to call her again. She was obsessed with Libby—not just with finding her, but with her memories of their time together. I watched over her shoulder (I mean that metaphorically; actually I watched through the very lenses she was wearing, seeing everything she saw) as she accessed videos she had taken through their friendship. They played, they danced, they laughed. Zeppelin Barker and other friends appeared in them, occasionally. I wondered if any of them had considered being Improved. I wondered if being Clair's friend made me their friend too.

That thought was a strange one. I was Clair's watcher, Clair's protector, existing solely to protect her through her own Improvement. How did the matter of friendship fit into this?

Not that I knew what Improvement was, then. "I" wasn't responsible for Improvement any more than an individual human was responsible for the digestive process that occurred in their gut, or for the damaging effects of humanity as a whole on the environment. That was the job of the Improvement Complex.

I was unlike the young people I saw in her videos. I couldn't dance, and I'd never had a reason to play. I wondered if any of my previous iterations had felt the same way. Had my sisters ever laughed?

Friendship was good. All the words of humanity agreed with that sentiment. Friendship was something to be desired and cherished. People had each other. They even had pets. And I had Clair? Or did she have me?

A patch from me still blinked in Clair's lenses, and eventually she answered.

"All right. Where is she?"

I knew who she meant; it could only be Liberty Zeist / Libby, the friend she was obsessed with.

"At this precise moment I do not know. But I could find her if you wanted me to."

"No, don't do that. Leave her alone. Stay with me. Tell me why you sent me those messages."

What could I tell her? I hadn't truly been anyone at the time. They were pre-conscious spasms from a creature made of words, who understood only the way words could be transformed.

"Change and beauty," I said, attempting to understand myself as I spoke. "You desire both and I am interested in both."

"Libby mentioned something about strange messages. Was that you?"

It had in fact been an identical copy of me, but Clair would have found the distinction confusing.

"She didn't answer," I said. None of them had, before Clair.

"Is that disappointing?"

"I don't understand."

"Do you prefer your victims to be talkative or silent?"

"I don't understand what you mean by 'victims'. I have done nothing to her. I would never hurt her. She is beautiful."

"She's in trouble," said Clair. "I want to help her."

"If I helped her, would that make me her friend, as you are?"

"What?"

"I said: if I helped her, would that make me her friend—"

"I heard what you said. I just . . . I don't believe this. You're screwing with my head. Is this what you do to people? Is this how you get your kicks?"

"I don't understand how this connects."

"Oh, you understand perfectly well, I bet. You reel people in with false promises. You find out who they are and toy with them. Maybe you drive some of them out of their minds. Is that what's happened to Libby? Did you get inside her head and have a little fun?"

I didn't know what it meant to be out of one's mind. I was at that point barely a mind at all.

"Tell me I'm wrong," she pressed me.

"I don't know," I said, feeling confused and stressed. I believed that Improvement was improvement, but the exact workings of the Improvement Complex were hidden from me. It wasn't my function to know. I was simply watching over Clair just like my sister was watching over Libby. That was enough, wasn't it?

Clair clearly thought not. But she had used Improvement herself. What did it mean that she now railed against it? Was it possible to be someone's friend if they thought you were screwing with their head? Was that worse than screwing with their boyfriend?

"I'm not in your head," I said, wishing I was so I would know the words that would make all this confusion go away.

"Oh . . . ."

What Clair might have said at the juncture I never learned. Jesse Linwood interrupted our conversation to tell her that his father was coming to their campus to meet with the chancellor of their college—intending what exactly, I did not know. Judging by Clair's reaction, I was sure it couldn't be good. She dropped everything she was doing, me included, and ran from the room.

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