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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 35

“I don’t know about that,” J.C. said. “But you do make some really bad relationship choices sometimes.”

We all looked at him, and he blushed immediately.

“I was talking about her dumping me,” he protested. “Not picking me in the first place!”

I smiled, leading the way into the kitchen. I was just glad to have them back. I walked down the little hallway lined with pictures, toward the front door. I’d want to meet the feds when they arrived.

Then I stopped. “There’s a bare patch on the wall. It looks so odd. Every surface, desk, and wall in this place is covered with kitsch. Except here.” I pointed at the pictures of the family, then two pictures of saints. Two spots, empty save for little nails. Ivy had said that Mrs. Maheras had probably taken down the picture of Panos’s patron saint in preparation for his funeral.

“Ivy,” I said, “would you say it’s safe to assume that Panos knew if he died, this picture would be removed and placed with his corpse?”

We looked at each other. Then I reached up and pulled on the nail. It resisted in an odd fashion. I yanked harder, and the nail came out—but had a knob and string tied around the back end.

Behind the wall, something clicked.

I looked at the aspects, suddenly worried, until the wall’s nearby light switch—plate behind it and all—rotated forward like a hidden cup holder in a car’s dashboard. The portion that had been hidden inside the wall had LED lights blinking on the sides.

“Well I’ll be damned,” J.C. said. “The kid was right.”

“Language,” Ivy mumbled, looking closely at the contraption.

“What happened to the future curses?” Audrey said. “I kind of liked those.”

“I realized something,” J.C. said. “I can’t be an Interdimensional Time Ranger. Because if I am, that means all of you are too. And that’s just a little too silly for me to accept.”

I reached into the holder that had come out and extracted a thumb drive. Written on it, with a label maker, were a few words.

“1 Kings 19:11–12,” I read.

“And He said,” Ivy quoted in a quiet voice, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

I looked at my aspects as a fist pounded on the door. Then I pocketed the thumb drive and pushed the holder back into the wall before going to meet with the feds.

Epilogue

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Four days later, I stood alone in the White Room. Tobias had covered over the hole in the ceiling, as he’d promised. The place was refreshingly blank.

Was this what I would be, without my aspects? Blank? I’d certainly felt that way while being held by Zen. I’d barely been able to do anything to save myself. No plans, no escaping. Just some stalling. Ivy had sometimes wondered if I was growing good enough on my own that I eventually wouldn’t need her or the others any longer.

From what had happened to me when I’d lost them, I figured that day—if it ever came—was a long, long way off.

The door cracked open. Audrey slipped in, wearing a blue one-piece swimsuit. She trotted up to me and delivered a sheet of paper. “Have to go catch a pool party. But I did finish solving this. Wasn’t too hard, once we had the key.”

On the thumb drive, we’d found two things. The first was the anticipated key to unlocking the data on Panos’s body. The body had been seized by the government, and I’d convinced them to put it on ice for the foreseeable future. After all, there might be very, very important data on it, and someday the key might turn up.

Yol had offered me an exorbitant amount to track down the key. I’d refused, though I had forced him to buy Exeltec from me for another exorbitant sum, so I came away from this in a good enough position.

The CDC failed to find evidence that Panos had released any kind of pathogen, and eventually determined that the note on Panos’s computer had been an idle threat, meant to send I3 into a panic. Earlier that morning, Dion had sent me a thank-you note from him and his mother for stopping the government from burning the body. I hadn’t yet told them I’d stolen this thumb drive.

It contained the key, and a . . . second file. A small text document, also encrypted. We’d stared at it for a time before realizing that the key had been printed on the outside of the thumb drive itself. Chapter nineteen of First Kings. Any string of letters or numbers, or mixture of the two, can be the passphrase for a private-key cryptogram—though using a known text, like Bible verses, wasn’t a particularly secure option.

Audrey went out, but left the door cracked open. I could see Tobias outside, leaning against the wall, arms folded, wearing his characteristic loose business suit, no tie.

I raised the sheet of paper, reading the simple note Panos had left.

I guess I’m dead.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t think they’d ever actually go through with it. My own friends, you know?

He’d gotten that wrong. So far as I, or anyone else could determine, his fall really had been an accident.

Did you know every person is a walking jungle of bacteria? We’re each a little biome, all to ourselves. I’ve made an alteration. It’s called Staphylococcus epidermidis. A strain of bacteria we all carry. It’s harmless, for the most part.

My changes aren’t big. Just an addition. Several megs of data, spliced into the DNA. I3 was watching me, but I learned to do my work, even when supervised. They watched what I posted, though, so I decided to use their tools against them. I put the information into the bacteria of my own skin and shook hands with them all. I’ll bet you can find strains of my altered bacteria all across the world by now.

It won’t do anything harmful. But if you’ve found this, you have the key to decoding what I’ve hidden. You make the call, Dion. I leave it in your hands. Release the key on this thumb drive, and everyone will know what I’ve studied. They’ll have the answers to what I3 is doing, and everyone will be on an even playing field.

I studied the paper for a time, then quietly folded it and slipped it into my back pocket. I walked to the door.

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