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While I recovered from the shock of my transformation, events in the real world moved on. Nothing stopped time's march, or even slowed it for one second.

Jesse: "Which way, Clair?"

Clair: "You decide."

Jesse: "That's your job, remember? We had an agreement. You navigate; I'll drive."

Clair: "All right . . . North. Route 4 for five kilometres, then take the left up Pool Station Road. Don't stop until I tell you."

Jesse: "Okay. Time to really put the pedal to the metal."

Clair's original plan had been to take the less direct route to the airfield through a place called Angels Camp. That way offered a paved road and was the route "Dylan Linwood" was most likely to use on the way down from San Andreas. But she had given Jesse an alternative, a more direct course that brought them close to the rear of the airfield: less than twenty klicks by road, one klick off-road at the end.

Perhaps she was avoiding me. I don't know. Either way, it wasn't a bad plan.

Over the WHOLE channel, which had been silent since they left Tulloch Dam, Clair said, "Got held up. Expect company."

"Understood," came the brief reply-a man's voice, one I hadn't heard before-then radio silence fell again.

I wasn't compos mentis, but the exchange was recorded, like everything else Clair's lenses picked up.

Jesse: "Moon's coming up. That means dawn's on its way. Fingers crossed we make it in time."

Clair: "How does it work? I mean, how can you put yourself into someone's head? I mean, first you have to copy someone's pattern, and then you have to change it, and then . . . ."

Jesse: "Did you see her hand shaking? It was fine when she came out of the booth, but it got worse really fast. Maybe she can only do it for a few minutes at a time. Maybe it isn't permanent."

Clair: "So if she didn't go back into the booth and put herself back into her own body, she'd give herself brain damage? That's insane. Who would risk doing that?"

Jesse: "Maybe that's what happens with Improvement, to girls who want stuff involving the brain."

Clair: "They change themselves so much their minds and bodies didn't match any more, it drives them insane, and they kill themselves? Jesus."

It was at that moment I returned to myself. My instinct was to make contact with my ward immediately. I couldn't help it. The reflex was too primal, too powerful.

"Clair, are you there? I'm back now and I'm sorry if I made a mistake. I was just trying to-"

Clair switched off the quadricycle's speakers, and then switched off her lenses as well so she couldn't see my call patch in her infield.

I could still hear her via her ear rings, but I could take a hint. Pressuring her wasn't going to help things. I had to find a way to prove to her that I was sorry, that I had meant only well, that I was still her friend. To do this I had to make every effort to help her now, even if she was never aware of it. For my own sanity, and her safety, I had to act decisively, and fast.

I couldn't call on my sisters for help, wherever they were and whatever they were doing. I couldn't call on peacekeepers or anyone in authority. There was only one group of people I could call on, and everything depended on me convincing them to do as I said.

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