Symbiont Page 90

The real factory level was being used for research, development, and all the things that went with having a team of working scientists rather than a bunch of independent researchers. I stayed out of there as much as I could. It wasn’t that people were unfriendly—for the most part, they were perfectly nice, if a little distant and occasionally wary of my nonhuman status—it was just that I didn’t understand anything that was going on there, and I had long since learned to keep a safe distance from what I didn’t comprehend. Call it the last great survival strategy.

The false factory was located on the second floor, which had been divided into two levels by some cunning tricks of interior design and elevator programming. The first level was a walkway made of plastic-coated steel gridding surrounded by a clear, waist-high plastic guardrail. It was completely wheelchair accessible, all long, gentle turns and shallow ramps as it made its way around the room, taking the most circuitous path possible. The elevator always stopped there first no matter how the buttons were pushed, since that was where the tourists were supposed to get off, and then continued down to the actual work level.

Once, the view beneath the walkway would have been all colorful, impractical machinery being tended by men and women in neon scrubs, with perpetual smiles plastered across their faces. No facial hair, pregnancies, or visible tattoos were allowed in the tourist factory, although all three were tolerated and even encouraged in the real Captain Candy. The good Captain didn’t care what you looked like, as long as you came to work and did your job the way that you were told to. The Captain’s PR department was a little more fixated on appearances, and they insisted that he run a tight ship, if only to keep those birthday dollars rolling through the door.

I think I would have liked Captain Candy. You know. If he’d actually been a real person, and if he’d managed to survive the rise of the SymboGen implants with his mind and his humanity intact.

The view from above had changed considerably since the factory switched hands, even if it all still belonged to the corporation on paper. The colorful machines were still there, but most of them had been gutted for whatever useful parts they happened to contain, and then left open to the air as they were converted into planters or small habitats for the less free-range inhabitants of our private indoor farm and animal sanctuary. The neon uniforms were long gone, along with the people who used to wear them. Instead, an observer would find Dr. Cale’s assistants moving between the machines, most of them wearing T-shirts or tank tops and jeans, a few with dirty white lab coats thrown over the top, as if to say, “I’m working in an indoor farm, but I’m still a scientist; I will always be a scientist.” The number of lab coats had dwindled even in the weeks since I’d come to the factory, as people realized that maybe some trappings of the old world were less important to hang on to than others.

We were building a world, one piece at a time. It was a small world, and a strangely dysfunctional one, but it was one where we could be relatively safe, and relatively happy, and maybe find a way to save the human race. If we were lucky, and we worked hard enough—which meant science for most of the people around me, and farming and taking care of the animals for the people like me, who had connections to the science community without being part of it—there was still a chance that we could find a way for everyone to live in peace. All we had to do was stop the cousins from taking over their hosts, and stop the humans from killing all the sleepwalkers and chimera who had already resulted from those takeovers. The sleepwalkers were bitey, but maybe they could still be helped, if we could just keep them alive.

It didn’t even sound easy. I put my fork down and looked glumly at the smears of syrup and berry juice that remained on my plate. Across from me, Nathan kept eating. He knew that whatever was bothering me, I’d share it eventually, and he needed to pack in as many calories as possible before his shift in the lab started. There was no eating allowed near the active cultures, for fear of contamination.

Footsteps on the faux stone pathway behind us caught both of our attention. I turned in my seat while Nathan raised his head. Daisy was standing in the doorway to the area, eyes wide, a slightly poleaxed expression on her round, normally friendly face.

“You’re both needed downstairs,” she said without preamble.

“I’m not on duty for another thirty minutes,” said Nathan.

“I know.” Daisy sounded frustrated. “But like I said, we need you both, and right now there’s no such thing as being off duty, because we have a situation. Sal is required, and you’re not going to let her go out alone.”

“Why won’t he let me go alone?” I asked, bemused. “What kind of situation means I can’t go out alone?” The unconscious echo hit me an instant later, and a thin worm of panic writhed in my stomach. Everyone here at Dr. Cale’s lab was steeped in the mythology of an obscure, out of print children’s book, and from us, those words meant something very concrete.

Daisy looked at me solemnly, an uncharacteristic reserve in her mossy green eyes. “Dr. Banks is here,” she said. “He’s asking for you.”

The transfer of genetic materials was complete at 6:52 p.m. on October 18, 2027. The selected donor, a lab assistant originally attached to the tissue rejection research team, was put under twilight sedation but remained conscious and able to respond to stimulus. All remained normal within the subject area for approximately forty-five minutes, following which the donor began to experience confusion, disorientation, and some pain. This continued for approximately fifteen minutes. Pertinent parts of her final words have been captured and attached to this document.

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