parity

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The door opened. Dusk was thickening outside. Clair was near the sea—near Sacramento Bay, to be specific. She was back where she had started after escaping WHOLE, more or less. It wasn't the same station, but it was close. The crowd was thin around her. Most importantly, there were no drones.

"I have provided you with a mask, but you have your name back," I told her through her lenses, which I had returned, along with her audio rings, slightly modified but essentially the same as they had been before. "You may now interface with the Air. But I advise against contacting anyone you are closely associated with. That may draw attention to the mask, and therefore to you."

There were five benches arranged in a pentagon around the base of a broad-trunked tree. She walked on visibly unsteady legs to one of them and took a seat.

"Are you saying," she said to me through the Air, "that I can't call my parents to see if they're okay?"

"They are in no danger. The trap was sprung, and it failed. Their injuries are superficial. They are of no value to your enemies anymore."

"Good, but who are my enemies?"

"I do not know, Clair."

That was the truth. I had assumed that Dylan Linwood worked for WHOLE, but now they were trying to blow him up and he was hunting Clair all over the world. He was receiving orders from someone, and I had yet to figure out who that might be.

"Can I at least go home?" Clair asked me.

"I also advise against using d-mat for the foreseeable future."

"What?"

"A search is currently underway for you. These last three jumps will be traced eventually, and all future transmissions by anyone resembling you will be red-flagged. It's too dangerous."

Clair wiped her palms on her skirt, leaving damp streaks behind. I thought she was worried about losing her mobility, as anyone would be when they were being chased, but her next words spoke of a more difficult fear for me to understand.

"You changed my pattern," she said. "How did you do that? I thought it couldn't be done."

"As long as I maintain parity and don't hurt anyone, it can indeed be done."

"I don't know what you mean by 'parity'. Doesn't changing someone set off an alarm somewhere?"

"Material objects come under far less scrutiny than people, which makes them much easier to re-route or create from scratch. That's all a fabber does, after all. The only difference is a legal one: people are alive and shouldn't be duplicated or altered, but everything else is fair game."

"The Improvement people manage it, if Dylan Linwood was telling the truth."

"Yes," I said, although I had no idea how Improvement was accomplished. That wasn't my role in the Complex. "The trick I used changed your tag from alive to material so I could alter your pattern, and I changed it back before anyone noticed."

"That's what you did with my name back there?"

"Something similar. When a pattern is taken by a d-mat booth, two very important things happen. First, it's checked against databases containing prohibited compounds, genetic records, and so on. Most people are licensed to carry most things through d-mat, but suicide bombers shouldn't be allowed to and neither should young kids trying to run away from home, say. If the database doesn't reveal anything like that, the transfer is given a conditional green light. This phase of the process is handled by one of the two AIs VIA uses to keep the system running safely.

"Now, if you think of the first AI as the conductor of a bus—"

"A what?"

"An outmoded mass-transport vehicle."

"Like a train?"

"Kind of. If the first AI, the conductor, is the one that checks your ticket as you get on and off the bus, then that makes the second AI the driver of the bus. Its job is to get you safely to your destination without being duplicated or erased or sent to a booth that doesn't exist.

"These two AIs, conductor and driver, are bound by a principle similar to the laws of physics: that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Even though both happen at opposite ends during the jump, it has to look as though it didn't."

Clair nodded slowly. "What happens when it doesn't?"

"That's called a parity violation, Clair. Something has been duplicated or erased, equilibrium hasn't been maintained, and an alarm does sound, then. It's the number one alarm in VIA. It can't be ignored and you can't turn it off until the problem's fixed. Not without breaking the second AI. And if you break that AI, the whole system crashes."

"Which obviously hasn't happened, or we'd have noticed," Clair said. "How did you work out how this works?"

"I remembered what you said. You said: 'We need to know who's doing this, how they're doing it, and how to reverse it.' I thought I could help with the middle part, and this is what I came up with."

"But we still don't know who's doing this to Libby or how to stop them."

"No, Clair. I'm sorry."

I wasn't lying. Strange as it sounds now, I had no idea who was behind Improvement. I had sprung into being in response to the Words, armed with all the knowledge of the Air, certain precepts guiding my behaviour, and nothing else. My sisters and I were alone in the world. We weren't even allowed to talk to each other, lest our exchanges be noticed.

"Don't apologize," Clair said. "If anything, I should thank you for what you did back there. I was right out of ideas. It was clever of you to figure it out." She paused before adding, with surprising firmness, "But please don't spring something like that on me again. If you're going to muck around with my pattern, you have to warn me in advance. You have to ask my permission."

Her request surprised me. Wasn't her use of Improvement already a kind of permission? But I supposed that was different. Maybe I needed different classes of permission for different classes of manipulation. Or maybe the act of asking was more important than the inevitable granting.

"I promise I will, Clair. I'm sorry."

"No, don't apologize again. Just, well . . . I don't know. Hopefully there won't ever be a next time."


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