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"I don't approve of fighting fire with fire," said Turner. "But Clair is right. Q put herself at risk. Without her we might all be dead now. Duped like them, or worse." He shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around him.

"Worse?" said Arcady. Then he shook his head. "Whatever. We're pulling the plug on the booths. Then I'll take an axe to them myself."

"Not yet," said Jesse. "First she needs to go back into the booth. Otherwise she'll die."

A ring of worried, puzzled faces stared down at me as I spasmed and shook on the table.

"How come the dupes can do this," asked Dyta, "and she can't?"

"They've had more practice," Clair guessed. "We have to send her back to the hangover."

"I'll give you . . ." The twitching of my jaw muscles made it hard for me to get the words out. ". . . give you the woman . . . who was supposed to be here."

Clair gripped my hand tighter. "Yes, of course! Someone must have been on their way already, in Libby's body, otherwise Q couldn't be here now. There'd be a parity violation."

"So what?" asked Arcady.

"The dupes were expecting this other woman. They called her Mallory. They deferred to her. She might be the one giving the orders."

"All right," he said, cautiously. "We'll trade your friend for one of theirs. Then we use the axe."

Two of the farmers lifted me in Libby's body and carried me through the farmhouse. Clair stayed close, still holding my hand. I was barely able to squeeze back. My muscles were getting weaker by the moment. Was that the fault of the bullet or my imperfect control of Libby's body? I didn't know. I wondered if this was what it would feel like to die.

The booth I had arrived in was a big industrial machine shaped like a water tank with curved walls. Its mirrored surfaces had seen better days but were perfectly functional. They laid me on the floor inside and stepped back.

"Are you okay from here?" asked Clair, the last to leave.

My head moved fitfully. "It h-hurts, Clair. I j-just want it to s-stop."

"Is there anything I can do?"

There was nothing.

Clair lingered a second longer, as though she didn't want to go, then she released me. Was she thinking of Libby or of me? I couldn't tell.

The door slid shut behind her and the machine hummed and hissed, cycling matter and data in furious streams.


And so, after saving Clair, I was released.

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