promise

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Pal. Buddy. Friend.

We weren't the same, Clair and I. I had been deluding myself from the very beginning. Now the delusion was laid open for both of us to see. Now at last I understood. My feelings for her were based on a terrible misunderstanding of my nature-so what were hers in return? Was I just a tool to her, like the Improvement Complex was to Wallace, a means of getting what she wanted?

But was she Clair or was she Mallory?

My sister was back, hammering at my defences with all of my own abilities, all of my own tenacity. Clair and I had the high ground, but it was only a matter of time before we lost it. I could hear high-energy weapons attacking the outside of the booth even as we talked.

"Who do you want me to erase?" I asked her. The answer to this question was critical.

"I need you to erase Turner's pattern, Q. Don't think of it as killing him. In his mind, he's already dead. He's a zombie. It's what he'd want. And his genes are too dangerous to leave in Wallace's hands. We have to get rid of them entirely . . . for the sake of everyone else."

I felt a measure of relief. Turner wasn't Clair's enemy. They had liked each other, in the end, and it was clear that she understood his wishes. If she had been entirely Mallory, she would never have wanted to erase him.

But still, I hesitated.

"You can do it, Q. You're the smart one. Stop at nothing or Wallace will win and everyone else will lose. Do it, Q. For me."

I felt a new unease. Clearly she understood our relationship better than she had stated outright. She probably interpreted my ceaseless assistance as a kind of dependency-which was more true than it was untrue. She was definitely trying to manipulate me emotionally.

The one good thing about this was that she believed that I had emotions. In her eyes I wasn't a soulless robot, so if she was using me, she knew she was using a person. Even I had been unsure about that, until that moment.

"All right," I told her. "If that's what you want, I'll find a way. I'll get Turner out of the system somehow. What about you, though? When are you going to d-mat out of here?"

"I'll come when I'm done here. I won't be long."

She was already preparing the booth for another jump. I felt hope at first, but then I saw the destination: another null jump. And she was adding grenades to the pattern.

"Do you promise, Clair?"

"I promise, Q."

She was lying.

Don't think of it as betraying a friend, Wallace had said, although I hear you have some proficiency in that regard . . . .

The booth activated, and I knew that I had almost lost her.

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