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One good thing about being the first—and thus far, only—person to be saved from certain death by the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard: I wasn’t paying for a penny of my medical care, and neither were my parents. Instead, the corporation paid for everything, and got running updates from my various doctors, all of whom had release forms on file making it legal for them to give my medical information to SymboGen. It sucked from a privacy standpoint, but it was better than dying.

SymboGen developed the Intestinal Bodyguard. My father works for the government, but even they don’t know enough about what the implants can do to manage my care. So everything went on SymboGen’s bill, and the corporation kept learning about what their tapeworms can do, while I kept getting the care I needed if I wanted to keep breathing. Breathing was nice. It was one of the first things I remembered discovering on my own, and I wanted to keep doing it for as long as possible.

Even with SymboGen looking out for me, we’d had our share of close calls. Since my accident I’d gone into full anaphylactic shock multiple times, for reasons I still didn’t fully understand. The first time had corresponded with a course of antiparasitics provided by SymboGen. They were intended to help me pass my old implant—a pretty way of saying “they were supposed to kill my tapeworm and force it out of my body”—and they’d nearly killed me, too. The second and third attacks had come out of nowhere, and the attack after that had corresponded with another course of antiparasitics, different ones.

What mattered to me was that I’d nearly died each time. Without SymboGen, I would have died. I needed to remember that. No matter how much I hated the therapists and the tests and everything else, I owed my life to SymboGen.

I looked back at Dr. Morrison’s office before walking down the street to the empty bus stop. I sat down on the bench and settled in to wait. I’m patient. I’m rarely in a hurry. And I don’t drive.

Patience may be something I have in abundance, but punctuality is not. My shift at the Cause for Paws animal center was supposed to start at four o’clock. Thanks to my missing the bus—again—and having to wait for the next one—again—it was already almost five when I came charging through the door.

“I’m sorry!” I called. I shrugged off my brown leather messenger bag and hung it next to the door, where it looked dull and out of place next to Tasha’s rainbow crochet purse and Will’s electric red backpack. In an organization made up of eccentrics and chronic do-gooders, the girl with the unique medical history is the boring one.

The door slammed behind me. I flinched.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated more quietly to Tasha, who was standing next to the coffee machine with an amused expression on her face.

“You’re sorry?” she asked. “Really? You’re late, and you’re sorry about it? Truly this is unprecedented in the annals of our humble shelter. I’ll mark the calendars.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

“Did the bad psychologist try to tell you that you were crazy again?” asked Tasha, seemingly unperturbed. Perturbing Tasha was practically impossible. She was the kind of girl who would probably greet Godzilla while he was attacking downtown by asking whether he’d ever considered adopting a kitten to help him with his obvious stress disorder. “You can tell your Auntie Tasha about it. I swear I’m not a SymboGen plant reporting all your actions back to the corporation.”

“You’re a jerk,” I said mildly, and grabbed my apron. “Come on. Scale of one to murder, how mad is Will over the whole ‘late’ thing?”

“Will isn’t mad at all, because you just volunteered to clean all the cat boxes,” said Will. I turned to see the shelter’s owner standing in the doorway of the kitten room, a seemingly boneless cat draped across his forearm. “Thanks, Sal!”

I rolled my eyes. “Lateness is not a legally binding promise to scoop shit.”

“No, but keeping your job sometimes means doing things you don’t want to do. Now go forth and scoop.” Will stepped out of the doorway. “Look at it this way. You spent the afternoon feeding metaphorical shit to your therapist, and now you can clean up some literal shit. It’ll be symbolically cleansing.”

“You just don’t want to do the boxes.”

“That, too,” Will agreed.

I rolled my eyes again and walked past him to the supply cabinet. Will was making a bigger deal of punishing me than was strictly necessary—I had a disability clearance excusing me for all my mandatory medical appointments, and since SymboGen made healthy donations to the shelter in exchange for keeping me on the staff, it wasn’t like he was going to argue with them needing a little of my time. I was also making a bigger deal of disliking my punishment than I had to. He was right. I needed a little normal after the day I’d had. I didn’t like dwelling on the reality of my situation, or the fact that SymboGen essentially controlled my future, at least for now. They paid for everything. The medical care, the lab work, the classes… everything. Until I was perfectly healthy and finished relearning the world, they held the strings.

The cats chirped, meowed, and hissed their greetings as I came into the room and shut the door behind me. I smiled at them, ignoring the paws that reached for me between the bars of their cages. “Okay, guys,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”

There’s one more good thing about being the girl who lived because her genetically engineered tapeworm refused to let her die: I lived. That made everything else possible. Everything else in the world.