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Chave looked at my battered Target messenger bag distastefully, like it was a snake that might decide to take a bite out of her manicured fingers. The polish was clear, which probably meant it was expensive; there was no other way she could have gotten away with something so bland. “I’ll be happy to take that to Accounting for you. You have a meeting with the financial department after lunch, to discuss any questions they may have or inaccuracies that they may find.”

“Inaccuracies” was the approved corporate way of saying “attempts to make SymboGen pay for something that wasn’t their problem.” They weren’t going to find anything, but the idea was still enough to make my mouth go dry. I hated dealing with the SymboGen financial people. They were always so nice. Somehow, that made them worse than the blandly professional faces that made up the rest of the company’s human infrastructure.

“Oh. Good.” I swung the messenger bag around to the front and dug through it until I found the heavy manila folder with my receipts and mileage statements for the past six months. I offered it to her. “Everything’s in there. We used the filing instructions we got from you last time.”

“Then there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.” Chave’s utterly fake smile remained in place as she took the folder and tucked it under her arm. “This way, Ms. Mitchell.” Then she turned and walked away across the lobby, her heels sinking silently into the plush blue carpet.

I didn’t want to go with her. I went anyway.

The first time I was at SymboGen, I didn’t know I should be impressed by my surroundings. I had been out of my coma for less than a week, and was being moved to their parasitology wing for further study. The public hospital came later, after I’d regained fine motor control and the rudiments of language. First came SymboGen, and their many, many experts. I stayed there for almost a year. I learned what trees were from their arboretum, and what birds were from their aviary, and I cried for days when they made me leave.

The second time I was at SymboGen, I had been back with my parents for less than a week, and I was returning for physical and cognitive therapy. I’d run into the building and hidden in its halls for three hours, refusing to leave. They’d had to sedate me to get me back into the car. It felt like the world had stopped making sense, like the only home I believed in didn’t want me anymore. The third time I was at SymboGen, the tests began in earnest, and I learned what home—the place I thought was home, anyway—had wanted me for all along.

Psychological exams. Puzzles and mazes and endless, endless tests to see what I could learn and how long I could retain it under stress. The scientists were kind and did their best to make things easy, but they weren’t the ones giving the orders. It was like the corporation had been waiting for someone like me to come along, and now that I’d finally arrived, I was just a lab animal to them. I was a lab animal that they had to release at the end of their twice-yearly study dates, letting me go back into the wild and learn a few more tricks to impress them with.

Every time the doors of SymboGen closed behind me, I was a little more convinced that we were inching toward the day when they would no longer let me leave. Part of me insisted my parents would never let that happen. The other part of me, the one that was loudest when I was actually inside the building, reminded me, over and over again, that I was a stranger. I’d killed their real daughter, taken over her life, and if SymboGen decided to petition for custody, my parents and sister would probably be relieved. SymboGen already felt more like home than home did, according to that part of me; why couldn’t I see that I belonged there forever and ever? I tried not to listen to that little voice, but sometimes it was so hard that I might as well have been trying to ignore Dr. Morrison’s grin.

Chave was one of my two primary handlers when I was on company property. I liked her counterpart, Sherman, a lot better, and I liked them both more than I liked any of their substitutes. They were always impeccably groomed, and they clearly had their own agendas—which ironically made me like them more than I liked the administration. Some of them treated me like a human being, but I was a lab animal all the same, and lab animals aren’t entitled to personal space. It was nice to have at least a few people outside the science wing who didn’t feel like they could grab me at any moment.

“Where are we going first?” I asked, once we were in the glass-backed elevator, sliding high into the grasp of SymboGen. The schedule for my visits was never provided ahead of time. I just knew when I was supposed to show up, and when to tell my parents that someone needed to come and get me. One of the psychiatrists once told me it was so I wouldn’t psych myself out about the tests. Personally, I thought they just enjoyed it more when I was unprepared.

“We’re actually beginning with an interview today,” said Chave, her tone as mild and uninflected as ever.

“An interview? I didn’t agree to any interviews. They still have to let me approve those.” Once—and only once—SymboGen had surprised me with a reporter. That particular article had presented me as some kind of idiot savant who had managed to overcome traumatic brain damage in order to become a semifunctional person. It was syrupy, sweet, and almost entirely untrue. My parents had threatened to sue the company for libel, slander, and half a dozen other things, some of which I was pretty sure were exclusive of one another. SymboGen apologized and promised never to do that again without getting my consent and allowing me to have someone of my choice to be an unbiased observer.