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One hour later, Clair strode up to the safe-house door and waited. She didn't knock. She didn't need to. The door opened and Gemma stepped out. The door closed behind her with a definite click.

"We didn't expect to see you again," Gemma said.

"I didn't expect to see you, either." Clair held the pistol openly at her side. Gemma appeared to be unarmed. The brief glimpse I had obtained of the interior of the house didn't reveal an arsenal lying in wait. That went some way toward quelling my anxieties.

"You should have told me," Clair said.

"About what?"

"About Dylan Linwood."

"You've seen him, then?"

"He tried to kill me."

"If you've been followed here—"

"I haven't been, and I'm not carrying a tracking device, either. You can scan me if you want."

Gemma nodded and said, "We couldn't tell you about him. You wouldn't have believed us."

"Probably not. He had everyone completely fooled. How long has this scam of his been going on?"

"Scam?"

"Using Improvement to track girls. Pretending to be one of you guys to cover it up."

That earned her a long, measuring stare. "You'd better come inside. Your boyfriend is making my life a living hell."

"Zep's not my boyfriend," she said a little too quickly. "What about Jesse? Is he here too?"

"Yes."

"Have you told him?"

"Not yet."

Gemma knocked on the door, a quick rat-a-tat, and it opened again, revealing Raymond Miller.

"I'll be out of touch for a bit," Clair messaged me. "There's no need to worry. I think I'll be okay now."

I was touched by her consideration. She didn't know that I had modified her lenses and ear rings to provide a highly compressed record of all that transpired within the safe-house. The record would be uploaded to me when she emerged. It was true that I wouldn't be able to observe in real-time, but at least I wouldn't be in the dark forever, as I had been at the Linwood home.

This is the transcript of what occurred inside the safe-house:

Zep: "Clair! You shouldn't have come back."

Clair: "I didn't have to. I'm here of my own free will and I'm not making any demands, either. That counts for something, doesn't it?"

Arabelle Miens: "Perhaps it does."

Jesse: "Why are you here?"

Clair: "I worked it out. Neither VIA nor the peacekeepers blew up your house. It was these guys. That's why Gemma appeared so soon after the explosion. That's why she was so alarmed to see you. Your father was the target, and we three were very nearly collateral damage."

Jesse: "It's not true. Why are you lying to me?"

Arabelle: "What Clair says is true, Jesse. I'm sorry."

Gemma Mallapur: "When your father didn't call in on schedule, we knew he'd been compromised and acted immediately to neutralize the threat."

Jesse: "Compromised? Threat? You blew up our house!"

Gemma: "The charges were laid years ago. I helped him put them in place myself, but I never thought we'd need them."

Jesse: "He would never have done anything to hurt you. You murdered him."

Arabelle: "We don't murder people."

Gemma: "Even zombies. If we did, we would have killed you, too."

Zep: "Yeah, that just occurred to me. We're witnesses. So why are they sitting around talking to us?"

Clair: "They don't know what to do with us. We messed up their plans."

Arabelle: "You could say that. And not just our plans. We can't let you go without putting you in grave danger."

Gemma: "She's already run into him."

Jesse: "Run into who?"

Arabelle: "Let's talk about that later."

Clair: "Right. You have to leave. It's not safe here. I didn't lie to you when I said I wasn't carrying a tracker, but they're undoubtedly coming here anyway. I'm leaving before they get here, and I'm taking Zep with me."

Gemma: "The shielding—"

Clair: "Is part of the problem. When enough people disappear into a blank spot, you know something's secret going on in there. Remember the phone call, before? That was from a friend of mine who worked it out. If she can do it, so can someone else."

Raymond Miller: "I don't believe you. You're trying to flush us into the open."

Clair: "Really? Well, feel free to sit here and see what happens when I'm tracked back along my route. Do you reckon you're well-equipped for a siege?"

Arabelle: "I'm afraid she's right. Call Ori, Ray. Stevie, cut their feet free. We'll take them with us."

(sound of ties being severed)

Zep: "Uh-uh. I'm not going anywhere with you lot."

Jesse: "Me either."

Arabelle: "If Clair's right, there isn't time to explain now. You don't have to trust us—just trust her. She's coming, aren't you, Clair?"

Jesse: "Why?"

Clair: "Uh, that's a good question. Why would I do that?"

Arabelle: "We have at least one goal in common: to stop the people behind Improvement. And it's not safe for you on your own. It can't be, if you came back here."

Clair: "Do you plan on telling me where you're going, first?"

Arabelle: "Somewhere safe."

Gemma: "I'll tell you, if you tell me who your friend is."

Clair: "Uh, that's harder than you think."

Gemma: "Well, the same goes for us."

Clair: "All right, I'll go with you. You're not tying me up, though, and I'm hanging on to the pistol."

Arabelle: "We're not your enemies."

Clair: "You're not the only reason I want to keep it."


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