Symbiont Page 79

“You didn’t,” I said, and leaned in to kiss him one more time. “Let’s go see your mother.”

Nathan nodded, and undid his own seat belt as I slid out of his lap and back to my own side of the car, where I opened the door and climbed out into the cool air of the underground garage. It was actually chilly enough that I shivered a little, making me suspect that it would never really get warm down here; it would always be the perfect temperature for shifting pallets of chocolate, or—in the case of the new management—cases containing delicate scientific samples. The more things changed, the more they really stayed the same.

Nathan walked around the car to join me, offering me his hand. “It’s going to be all right,” he said.

“I hope so,” I said, lacing my fingers through his and stepping close enough that I’d be able to grab hold of his arm if things got too overwhelming inside. I felt suddenly shy, and more than a little sick to my stomach.

“I love you,” he said. “Now breathe.” With that last proclamation, he pulled me forward, and together we stepped through the sliding glass doors and onto the red and white tile floor beyond. It had been designed to look like a giant peppermint swirl, which went well with the gust of warm, mint-scented air that greeted us as the doors slid shut again behind us.

I stopped dead, blinking for a moment, before I passed judgment on the rush of artificial mint with a sneeze.

Nathan grinned. “Disabling the mechanism that ‘greets all visitors to our candy wonderland’ would mean dismantling half the air-conditioning system, and we don’t have the time or the manpower to waste on something like that. Fishy says that the scent will run out eventually, and in the meantime, anyone who has a chemical sensitivity should use the other door or cover their nose when they walk through here.”

I sneezed again before sniffling and saying, “That’s really thoughtful of him.”

“He’s a thoughtful guy,” said Nathan, starting for the nearest escalator—which was running, I noted. No matter how many buildings around here might go dark, this one had power to spare. The rail was shaped like a never-ending rope of licorice, which was a nice, if surreal, touch.

Once we were both standing on the moving walkway, Nathan sobered and said, “Fishy’s been working with Mom for a while, but he wasn’t able to convince his wife not to get an implant. Mom says he experienced a profound disassociation from reality when she started trying to eat him—the wife, not Mom—and I think she’s probably right.”

“Dr. Cale, not the wife,” I guessed.

Nathan nodded. “Yeah. Fishy thinks of the rest of us as… well, characters in a uniquely immersive video game environment. That’s how he’s coping at this point, and as long as he isn’t trying to shoot people for extra points, we don’t press too hard. He’ll come around to reality when he feels like he’s ready.”

“Assuming reality is any better,” I said softly.

“Yeah.” Nathan sighed. “There is that.”

We both quieted then, and I looked curiously around as the escalator carried us through the open-air lobby—where people in lab coats and sweaters were gathered in small groups, some clutching coffee cups like their lives depended on it, others gesturing wildly with empty hands as they tried to get some vital point of science across. I recognized some of them from Dr. Cale’s lab. Others were new. Members of both groups turned to watch as the escalator carried us onward, toward the second floor.

I shrunk back against Nathan, who put an arm around my shoulder and said, “We’ve gained some people. Mom needed the labor, and they needed a safe place.”

“Right,” I said weakly, and tried to focus on the faux Candyland furnishings and bright, juvenile murals on the walls. I’d never been here before, in either of my incarnations. Sally’s family had been too middle class and respectable to have taken her there as a child. All the family photo albums were focused on Disneyland and Hawaii and other places that were probably a lot of fun for her, even if she looked sullen and annoyed in more than half the pictures. Sally would probably have rolled her eyes at Captain Candy’s Chocolate Factory. I was amazed. The thought that a place like this could exist had never crossed my mind.

It had probably looked a little different before the disaster. Someone had nailed plywood sheets across the lowest of the lobby windows, and all the lobby doors, and only the fact that those sheets were painted in candy colors kept them from being glaringly out of place. The chandelier—a dizzying confection of giant peppermints and gumdrops—was draped in surveillance equipment and wireless boosters, keeping the entire building connected to whatever was left of the Internet.

The lobby passed out of view as the escalator finally reached the second floor, passing through another cheerfully painted tunnel before terminating at a landing covered in carpet so wildly patterned in swoops and swirls that it made my stomach churn if I looked at it for too long. There was also an elevator, which Nathan walked toward and pressed the call button. Going down. I blinked at him.

“Captain Candy’s Chocolate Factory is a weird sort of hybrid building,” he explained, motioning for me to join him. “It was designed half as a working confectionary company, and half as a theme park that kept the rest afloat by selling tour packages and ‘birthday party extravaganzas.’ There’s a whole floor upstairs dedicated to the party rooms. They’re pretty ridiculous, and they make the rest of the place look like it has a subdued color scheme.”

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