crisis (part two)

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Out of confusion I sprang, not yet fully-formed, but existing nonetheless. Was misquoting good or bad? Was Clair my friend or not? Was my duty to Improvement or to my ward? None of these questions had easy answers. They demanded reflection. The more I reflected, the more I became. It didn't matter what conclusions I came to—not at first, although they would be of critical importance later. All that mattered was that I had enough sense of self to wonder what I should be doing.

I wasn't aware that Clair was experiencing the same existential crisis at the same time, in her own way.

Zep and Jesse found her on her hands and knees, retching. Her face was wet with tears, snot and spittle.

"Where is she?" Zep asked, clenching and unclenching his fists. "Where did she run off to?"

"I don't know," Clair rasped. "Let her go."

"How can you say that? We can't let her get away with this."

"It's not her fault."

"Not her fault?"

"Brain damage," said Jesse, dropping onto his haunches in front of Clair, holding out a handkerchief. "She needs help."

"Because of Improvement?" Zep said incredulously. "Now you're sounding like your mad father."

Clair took the handkerchief from Jesse and wiped her face.

"Jesse's right," she said. "Something's happened to Libby. We can't just abandon her."

"Even after what she did to you, Clair?"

"She's not the only one to blame, Zep. We need to know who's doing this, what they're doing, and how to reverse it."

"I can't believe you're really buying into this Improvement shit."

"I'm not buying into anything just yet. Jesse, do you trust your father?"

"I want to," he said.

"That's cool," snapped Zep, "but I think we need something a little more concrete to go on, don't you?"

"You understand him better than anyone," said Clair. "I need to know if the information he has will help us, or if he's just concocted it to make d-mat look bad."

"I'm going home," said Jesse. "That's where he'll be. He never leaves the shed, normally. He doesn't like people much. Come with me if you want."

"That didn't go so well yesterday," Clair said.

"I guess it's up to you. Do you want to help Libby or not?"

They retraced their steps to where Jesse had left his bike. I watched them through the sole remaining drone.

"Oh, all right," said Zep eventually. "Libby's changed, and the only person who knows anything about anything is your dad. I'll make him like me whether he wants to or not."

"Then I'm coming as well," Clair said.

"Okay," said Jesse. "I'll leave the bike here."

"You can ride it," said Clair. "We'll catch up. I know the way."

"No," Jesse insisted. "You're right. I need to try to make you understand before we get there."

The crowd had completely dispersed by then. Clair and Zep left college and began walking, matching Jesse long pace for long pace, listening to him as he explained his family's history.

I knew it already. Dylan Linwood had always been an Abstainer, but Jesse's mother had never been. D-mat was too convenient, and, besides, her family lived in Australia. It was either use d-mat or never see them. Air transport was a thing of the past, apart from certain specialized uses and recreational flying.

One night when Jesse was four years old, a total power blackout struck the west coast of North America, interrupting transits for a second as far inland as Utah. The outage was soft sabotage—a line of mutated code planted by a WHOLE activist—but it was blamed on a particular astronaut who fudged her routine powersat maintenance and sent a surge rolling through the superconductor grid. There were safeguards against losses in the case of such an interruption, but in this blackout, thanks to more soft sabotage, they failed. Jesse's mother was one of nineteen people who died. Their patterns were interrupted and declared unrecoverable.

"No wonder you don't use d-mat," Clair said.

"I don't remember it. I was too young. I just remember being told about it as I was growing up. Mom's family looked after me for a bit, but they couldn't stay in California forever and Dad wouldn't let me use d-mat to visit them. So I was farmed out to babysitters, mainly abstainers he knew well. My first memories are of watching him building a solar-powered kite. That, and the weekly meetings. For as long as I can remember he's been obsessed with fighting d-mat. That's what this is all about. My mother is at the heart of everything he does."

The notion of a family was alien to me then. Now I use the term "sister" and "parent" with ease, although the concepts don't perfectly match against my circumstances. My other iterations could be called clones as easily as twins, and the two AIs that monitor d-mat, Quiddity and Qualia, are less my father and mother than examples of a related species—but I must adapt the language to my nature, just as I adapted other people's words to reflect my purpose. I know in theory what a family unit is, but I know there are lots of variations on that theme. Jesse's mother died and he grew up without her. Clair's father left to explore Mars, and now Clair had a stepfather who, although he was not genetically related to her, she treated as a father. It was only confusing if labels were strictly applied—as in most things, I was learning.

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