twisted

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"Is that all, Ms Hill?" asked the chancellor.

Clair hesitated. I wished my senses could reach into her head as easily as they could reach into the room and see what her thoughts contained.

"Do you think I should get that scan?" she asked. "You know, if . . . ."

"I wouldn't waste my time worrying about this stupid publicity stunt." The chancellor opened the folder, removed the pages, and ripped them in half. "Now, if you'll excuse me . . . ."

Clair was ushered to the door by the PA and locked outside. Jesse Linwood had run after his father too late, and was now standing against his own bicycle—a human-powered one, with pedals at the front and a horizontal seating position. He was wearing jeans and a bright orange T-shirt that, far from being freshly-fabbed, looked like it needed a wash. The crowd was dispersing, staring at but not talking to him.

Clair strode up to him.

"What the hell was that?"

Jesse's expression twisted. "This is his way of helping, believe it or not."

"So it was more than just a stunt?"

"He's convinced, for what that's worth."

Clair rubbed her right temple.

"We need his data. Libby might be in real danger."

"Did he mention her?"

"No."

Zeppelin Barker ran up to Clair and Jesse.

"There you are. You look like hell, Clarabelle."

"Gee, thanks," Clair said. "What are you doing here?"

He hugged her, and after a moment's hesitation, she hugged him back. Their argument was clearly forgotten.

"You were watching?"

"From the moment it went viral," he said. "As long as I could, anyway: the video kept going all hazy-crazy every time someone mentioned Improvement. Eventually it gave out altogether."

Clair pulled away. "How much did you see?"

"Up until you said you were the only one involved."

"It was so frustrating," she said. "I couldn't say anything without implicating Libby, but I couldn't not say anything either. I was trapped."

"Dad had no right to do that," said Jesse. "I should have stopped him."

Zep looked at him curiously. "You're the Stainer kid—son of the lunatic himself? I don't see how it's your fault."

"Sins of the father," said Jesse. "All that."

"Parents are nature's way of reminding us never to procreate."

They introduced themselves to each other while Clair checked the latest flood of messages.

"Do you think it's real?" Zep asked.

"Nine girls in six months?" said Jesse. "There'd be no missing that kind of correlation."

"Doesn't matter, I guess. Word will spread anyway. You'll be famouser than famous, Clair."

"That's totally not helping, Zep."

"Won't last long, though. Some cat meme will soon take your place. And then . . . ." He stopped and grabbed her arm. "Look!"

"What?"

"She's here."

"Who?"

"Who do you think?"

It was Libby. I had noted her approach through one of the EITS drones and was watching with concern. This was the first time Libby and Clair had been in physical proximity since both had volunteered for Improvement. I wasn't sure I liked it.

Zep moved towards her, but Clair hauled him back.

"No, let me talk to her," she said, breaking away and heading across the quadrangle.

Instantly, Libby turned and walked off. Clair picked up her pace slightly, and my sense of alarm rose with it. All my suspicions were aroused, now. Dylan Linwood and Clair Hill together I could tolerate, but Clair and Libby together was worrying. What if this was nothing but an elaborate game to lure my sister's ward out of safety and into the spotlight? Was Dylan Linwood even now doubling back to obtain more evidence of Improvement's handiwork?

I couldn't wait for Clair to respond to my call patch. She wasn't talking to anyone. Hacking into her lenses the same way I had that morning, I interrupted her vision for an instant to get her attention.

Blinking, she furiously responded.

"What the hell did you flash me for?"

"I need to clarify the connection between you and Dylan Linwood," I said. There was something new in my voice, something that hadn't been there before. I was worried, and that was changing me.

"He's a pain in the neck," Clair said. "I thought he might help me deal with you, but turns out he's only made everything worse."

Libby was hurrying across the campus, and Clair was following her while she talked to me.

"He recorded you against your will. Is that correct?"

"Of course it is. And where do you get off invading my space like this?"

"I could help you, if you wanted." Where that suggestion came from, I wasn't sure. Friends helped each other. If she thought of me as a friend, then I wanted to help her. But help her do what? Even now, I have no idea what I could have done in that moment. I was a being of information, not physical action—although that would change.

"Like you helped Libby? No, thanks. If you're not going to tell me what's going on, just leave me alone. I'll figure it out for myself."

Stung by her rejection, I retreated to my proto-conscious state.

"'Beauty is a terrible and awful thing,'" the me I no longer was misquoted, "'where boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side.'"

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