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The Chicago job was a job, no better or worse than any of the jobs the Machine had sent Shaw on since they’d killed Samaritan. The world remained exactly as gray and muffled as it had been for most of her life. Not that she had anyone to tell, but she was only about 90% sure that this wasn’t a simulation. She was only about 50% sure that she wanted to be out of a simulation, because if she was still in then there was a chance—

They could be letting her grow old inside, only to be ripped out and offered the opportunity to be young again. Maybe they’d wait until someone managed to get the drop on her, leave her gut-shot and bleeding. Maybe this time they’d offer her Root, in exchange for her help. Maybe this time she’d say yes.

“You look like a person who forgot to eat breakfast,” and how did someone get close enough to speak into her ear, and who would dare to take that tone with her? She had the stranger up against the nearest wall before she finished the thoughts, her elbow digging into the woman’s throat.

The woman who smiled at her with Root’s smile, and held up her hand in Shaw’s peripheral vision, nutrition bar displayed as nonchalantly as if she were in a TV ad.

Shaw blinked. The hair was the same, and the shape of the face. Small scars at the hairline indicated that plastic surgery had been employed to achieve the effect.

“No, Samaritan didn’t survive after all, Sameen,” the woman said, indulgent, perfect. Shaw used her free hand to put her gun to the woman’s temple. “And no, this isn’t a simulation and I’m not reading your mind.”

“Then what,” Shaw said, and appallingly had to stop and swallow in order to get her voice under control, “are you?”

She smiled, serene as a Madonna in a museum. “I’m Root, Sameen. She just put me in a new hard drive.”

****

Fifteen minutes later, Shaw sat with her back to the wall of the nearest Starbucks, pointing her gun under the table at the stranger, the maybe-stranger, while she (Root?) sipped at her latte and talked. (Shaw wasn’t even going to think about the preceding patdown and the small pleased noises she’d made while Shaw was removing her guns and her knife.)

As a compromise, Shaw was eating a croissant one-handed, because no way was she eating something that this person had offered, but she had refused to talk while Shaw had such low blood sugar, and going along had seemed simpler than torturing her.

“It’s simple, Sameen,” she said, when she was satisfied that Shaw had a few hundred calories in her. “The Machine has access to the same technology Samaritan used on you, and the same simulation capability, except better because it knows us so much better. Add in one phenotypically similar brain-dead overdose victim, a few orders moving her to a specialized high-tech recovery facility, and a subjective truckload of programming time, and I woke up. And let me tell you, learning to use the body of someone who’s been in a vegetative state for years is no picnic. The muscle tone is awful.”

She looked over Shaw’s shoulder, as if seeing into the past. “And the family. Her boyfriend ended up marrying her sister while she was comatose. I know, you thought that only happened in rom-coms, but apparently it’s a real thing. I think they were relieved when I told them that I didn’t want anything to do with them and that I was a lesbian anyway. Then it was just a matter of a few nips and tucks to deal with the worst of the dysmorphia, and here I am—still a wave traveling through reality, just a little different frequency.” Her tone had changed by the end. Thinner, less certain, like she was asking Shaw for something.

Her chin was almost exactly the same, and the curve of her eyebrows. Her eyes were darker, but somehow Shaw felt that was appropriate, as if she’d been through a fire and come out refined.

Shaw was usually good at facing facts. Not feeling things the way other people did made that simpler for her. This time, though—this wanting to believe. If this was what it was like to be normal, it sucked.

She did believe. Whether or not it was true. And if it wasn’t, then they were all fucked; she’d kill herself for real when they woke her up; and she might as well let herself have this one thing.

She’d never been one for slow decisions. She finished chewing her last bite, swallowed carefully, and raised an eyebrow at Root as she put her gun away.

“Nice body,” she said. “Wanna try it out?”