punishing

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"Ditch . . . what? You can't be serious."

"I am, Jesse. It's the only way."

"And you expect us to walk to the airfield, Clair? You have no idea. It'll take us days!"

"We won't walk, I hope. Hang on."

She clicked off the helmet-to-helmet radio.

"Where's the nearest d-mat booth, Q?"

"Copperopolis," I instantly replied. It was the closest by fifty kilometres

"Okay."

Then she asked me something I was totally unprepared for.

"I need you to do something for me. It's a big favour, but I don't have any alternatives. I need you to come with some kind of vehicle to that booth, then drive down to meet us. It'll take us all night to get to the landing field, otherwise. We'll miss the rendezvous."

"Me?" I asked in alarm. "Come join you? In California?"

"Yes," she said. "Time to get your hands dirty, Q. Are you up to it?"

"I don't know," I said, stumbling in my effort to find the right words. "I mean, I'm not sure I can. But I'd like to. Really, I would. I just think it might take more time to organize than you have available . . . for reasons that are hard to explain right now . . . ."

I thought desperately hard, harder than I had ever thought before. How could I explain without telling her that I lived in the Air? It had never occurred to me that I might need to. I had imagined that she would simply accept me for myself once it was clear I had only her best interests in mind. Would she still by my friend if she learned that I was one of many-and that until barely a day ago this version of me hadn't even existed?

Once again, confusion was the mother of inspiration.

"I've had another thought," I said. "This might work even better than your suggestion." I desperately hoped that was true. "I can outfit a quadricycle with a telepresence system and pilot it to you by remote control. That way I can stay where I am and keep an eye on things. Would that work for you?"

"That would work fine," Clair said, although I could tell by her voice that she was puzzled by my refusal to join her. "Better get moving. The faster our new ride reaches us, the better."

"Yes, Clair. I'll get onto it right away."

"All right."

Clair clicked back to Jesse, who had been fuming in silence while she talked to me.

"All right, then," he said. "Let's hear it."

He took it about as well as could be hoped. He had lost nearly everything-his father, his home-and that made what little he had did have left infinitely precious.

"You must be out of your mind," he said. "How do I know we can trust this Q person to do as she says? How do I know I can trust you?"

She punched him the shoulder, making the bike wobble.

"Hey, watch it, Clair!"

"When will you stop punishing me for not being like you? It's not my fault I grew up in the normal world, where people do normal things like use d-mat and fabbers. You're the one who doesn't know the first thing about anything that matters."

"That's not why I'm punishing you," he said. "I'm punishing you for shooting at Dad."

"He shot at me first!"

Her voice choked up, and I knew she was thinking about Zep. Jesse must have understood that too, because when he spoke again his tone was more measured, almost conciliatory.

"All right, Clair. We'll do it your way."

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