Sherman wasn’t in my elevator. I stopped worrying about myself and worried about him instead as we made our descent. Anything to keep myself from worrying about Chave. She wasn’t dead, was she? She couldn’t be dead. She’d had some sort of a stroke, or she’d managed to catch whatever had infected Beverly’s original owner—she was sick. They wouldn’t kill her just for getting sick. “We don’t leave our employees without health care, ever,” was what Dr. Banks had said to me when we were sitting in his office together. How did this align with that?
Then the elevator doors opened to reveal four people in white biohazard suits, and I stopped worrying about anyone but myself. Their faces were covered by reflective plastic shields. I couldn’t tell who was inside. There was nothing to indicate whether they were people I knew or total strangers. One of the guards tried to take my arm and pull me out of the elevator. I jerked away from him, backing up until my shoulders hit the far wall.
“I’m not going with you until you tell me what’s going on,” I said flatly. “So you can just keep your damn hands to yourself.”
“Ms. Mitchell, we have been authorized to sedate you if you refuse to cooperate,” said one of the biohazard suits. The voice was filtered so heavily that it was neither male nor female: it was as sterile and mechanical as our environment. I couldn’t even think of them as human.
Another group from the cafeteria walked by, escorted by its own quartet of biohazard suits. Sherman was there, looking dazed and slightly battered, like he’d been through a war and not just a brief fight with a coworker. He stopped when he saw me, bringing the whole procession to a halt. “Sal! Are you hurt?”
“What’s going on, Sherman?” I gestured to the suits, managing to encompass all eight of them in one spread of my hands. “Why won’t they tell us anything?”
“Chave was ill, pet,” he said, a nervous expression washing away all his normal animation. “She needs medical attention, and the rest of us need looking over to be sure we’re not showing symptoms of what she’s got.”
“She wasn’t even showing symptoms before she flipped out!”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” muttered one of the guards.
I whipped around to face him. The biohazard suits with Sherman’s group took that opportunity to get moving again, sweeping Sherman and the others off down the hall. “Mind yourself, and stick with the doctors, Sal!” called Sherman, and then he was gone, carted off with the others, and I was alone among strangers.
There was no way out, and no one was telling me anything. But I trusted Sherman, and so when the biohazard suits gestured for me to step out of the elevator, I didn’t argue further. I just went.
I’d always known the laboratory floor was large—larger than the footprint of the main building, even, since SymboGen owned enough property to let them expand as needed. I hadn’t realized it was large enough for them to build sufficient individual isolation rooms to hold all the people who’d been removed from the cafeteria. Most chilling of all, as two guards were in the process of escorting me into my room, I saw a third guard being escorted into the room across the hall. We were all being locked up.
One of the biohazard suits followed me into the tiny room, which was painted the bland pastel green of a doctor’s waiting area. There was a bench, covered in white paper, and the standard array of cabinets and counters lined two of the walls. A set of folded blue scrubs was stacked on the bench, next to a pair of plain white slippers.
“Please remove your clothing,” said the biohazard suit.
“Or what?” I demanded. Getting naked wasn’t a problem. I just didn’t feel like cooperating with someone who wouldn’t show me their face.
“Or we are authorized to sedate you,” said the biohazard suit.
“What ‘we’?” I asked. “There’s only one of you in here. And who authorized you to sedate me? I didn’t sign anything that said you could sedate me.”
“Ms. Mitchell, please believe me when I say that we do not want to do anything to harm you. But if you force my hand, I will call my associates into this room, and you will remove your clothing. Now please.”
I hesitated. Chave worked for SymboGen. I didn’t. And when Chave wouldn’t calm down, they’d zapped her until she stopped moving. Chave was probably dead. Did I believe the biohazard suit when it said I’d be sedated if I didn’t cooperate? Yes, I did. I glared at the suit’s mask as I removed my clothes, piling them on the floor. I started to reach for the scrubs.
“Stop where you are, Ms. Mitchell.” The biohazard suit’s air filter allowed no inflection in the voice, but the feeling of menace still managed to come through in the way the words were bitten off. “I will need to examine you.”
“What?” I crossed my arms over my chest, covering myself. “What are you talking about?”
“The risk of infection is high enough to require a visual examination. Please lower your arms.”
“I want to talk to Dr. Banks.”
“Dr. Banks is being examined. He will be happy to speak with you once you are both finished.”
That stopped me cold, because somehow, I didn’t doubt what I was being told. Dr. Banks—the owner of the company, the richest man in North America, and one of the most powerful people in the developed world—was being strip-searched and examined for signs of an undisclosed “infection.” Maybe he was getting examined in his office rather than in one of these generic little isolation rooms, but that didn’t change the fact that he was getting the same treatment I was. And that terrified me.