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“I don’t think you’d have bothered calling me if you weren’t going to take the next step.” Her voice turned serious, all the amusement leaching away. “This is a big step for you, Sal. Certain lines can’t be uncrossed; certain maps will get you lost. Do you understand that?”

“No. What lines? What maps? It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“I can understand why you’d feel that way; thank you for not lying to me. And as for that nice boyfriend of yours, Dr. Kim, you can bring him with you if you like. If you think he’d like to come. If you think he’ll trust the map. This will go more easily if there’s someone who can translate for you, and you’ll believe him even when you wouldn’t believe me.”

Having her give me permission to bring Nathan stung somehow, like she was the only one who had any say in what I did with my life. At the same time, he’d never forgive me if this woman actually had information about the sleeping sickness and I left him behind. “I’ll bring him,” I said.

“Good. I’ll see you soon, Sal. Be careful. Don’t trust SymboGen.”

“Look, whoever you are—”

The sound of dead air—the absence of sound—from the phone told me that there was no point in continuing. I was only talking to myself. I hit redial, but I knew even as I did it that there was no point. The call rang straight to an unformatted voice mail box with no greeting to identify it. So did the call after that.

The third call was cut off with the rapid beeping whine of a disconnected number. Whoever I’d been talking to wasn’t on the other end anymore. Now I had nothing to direct me—and even more questions than I’d started out with. And my hair was wet.

Somehow, the worst part of it all was that this was still better than yesterday. My standards for living a normal life were definitely going down.

Tasha was helping a young couple get a leash onto one of our poodle mixes. The dog—a rather unfortunate German shepherd/poodle cross—wasn’t helping, since he was so excited by the prospect of going for a walk that his entire body was vibrating. We get a lot of poodle mixes at the shelter. According to Nathan, before the Intestinal Bodyguard there was a huge demand for so-called hypoallergenic dogs, leading to a glut of poodles crossed with just about anything else. Once the implants became common, the “designer dog” craze died off, and the shelters got flooded. The first few generations died a long time before I came to work at Cause for Paws. It would still be a long time before they stopped coming through our doors.

As I moved to help Tasha with the dog, I couldn’t help thinking about how man was locked in a constant fight to control an environment that didn’t want to be controlled. First we made the world as clean and non-allergenic as we possibly could and, when that just made things worse, we created artificial infections to make ourselves healthier. So what was the “worse” that came after this particular change to our personal environments?

There wasn’t much time for contemplation. Tasha got the dog leashed and escorted the potential adopters out the door while I went into the back to start getting the kittens ready for their visitors. The day dissolved from there into the usual series of small emergencies. One of the dogs got loose and had to be retrieved; one of the kittens was handled too roughly and threw up all over its littermates, necessitating some quick cage—and kitten—cleanup. With one thing leading to another, it was quitting time before I realized that I hadn’t called Nathan yet.

“I think I have dog food in my ear,” complained Tasha, washing her hands in the sink behind the desk. “Is there a medical term for that? One that can, perhaps, be used to excuse me from work tomorrow?”

“I don’t think ‘klutz’ is a good excuse for being absent yet,” I said apologetically. I slipped on my shoulder bag. “We’re both on at nine tomorrow, right, Will?”

“At least you can remember when you’re supposed to come to work,” he said, attention remaining focused on his screen. “Although if you want to keep coming in early, I’m not going to complain about it. God knows there’s enough to do around here to keep us all busy until the end of time.”

“So hire someone else; don’t take it all out on Sal,” said Tasha.

“Out of what budget?” Will asked.

Sadly, he was right. The shelter had two full-time employees, Will and Tasha; one part-time, part-funded by SymboGen employee, me; and a rotating group of volunteers who came in on the weekends to help with the increased foot traffic. There was also a janitorial crew that visited the office once a week to take care of the really heavy cleaning. That was it. Every penny the shelter made above and beyond our salaries went back into keeping the animals fed, the lights on, and the doors open. Pet ownership had increased since the advent of the implants, but all that really meant was that animal abandonment and abuse were also on the rise. Sometimes humanity is the reason we can’t have nice things.

The bell over the door jingled as someone came inside. I turned, ready to tell whoever it was that we were closed but they could come back tomorrow, and stopped, a smile spreading across my face.

Nathan smiled back. He looked tired, but that was nothing new; knowing him, he’d been awake for hours after dropping me off last night, and probably got out of bed before I did. “I thought I’d come and see if you wanted to get dinner, since we didn’t manage to keep our plans yesterday.”