We didn’t have any option but to follow her. I clung hard to Nathan’s hand as we walked, refusing to let on how disturbed I was by the whole situation. This was… I didn’t even know what this was. I just hoped that we were going to survive it.
The second door led to a hallway where the lights were already on, and where things were considerably less grimy than in the first room. Things improved as we walked, until we reached a clear plastic sheet hung to block all forward motion. Tansy turned to face us again, and asked, in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice, “Has either of you been sick in the last week? Any colds, viruses, unusual medical conditions, or fungal infections?”
“No,” I said.
“No,” said Nathan.
“Okay, that’s cool. Any injuries or other physical conditions such as asthma, migraines, insomnia…?”
“I get headaches sometimes,” I said.
“I’m myopic, but as long as you don’t take my glasses away, I’m fine,” said Nathan.
“That’s even cooler,” said Tansy. She tugged the sheet of plastic aside, revealing another sheet of plastic—this one cut into thick strips—hanging behind it. It was like looking into a human-sized car wash. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you.”
That was actually why I was worried, but I was smart enough—barely—not to say that out loud. Instead, I kept my grip on Nathan’s hand as we walked through the sheets of hanging plastic. There were five of them, each cut in the same thick strips. By the time we were through the last one, I was starting to feel like we’d walked into a strange kind of funhouse. One that wasn’t actually any fun.
There was another door past the plastic. Someone had written on it, in Sharpie, BROKEN. I reached out and tried the knob. It was unlocked. Taking that as an invitation, I pushed the door open, and together, Nathan and I stepped through. Then we stopped. It was the only response that made any sense, given what was in front of us. Not that anything else was worrying about making sense anymore.
We were standing in what had clearly once been the main room of the bowling alley. The bowling lanes were still marked off, bracketed by gutters that hadn’t seen a ball since before my accident. There was a structure at the back of the room that had probably been a snack bar originally, and a big mirrored ball, of all things, hung from the ceiling. That was where the original fixtures ended. I wasn’t hugely familiar with bowling alleys, but I didn’t need to be to know that the lab workstations were new, as were the massive plasma monitors that had replaced the screens where bowling scores used to be displayed. The lights were brighter here, almost industrial in quality. Shelves of books and scientific supplies lined the walls, all of them packed to capacity and occasionally beyond.
And there were people. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t people, at least two dozen of them, all wearing lab coats over casual shirts and jeans, moving between the lab stations with the casual intensity I normally associated with the underground levels of SymboGen. A few of them took note of us, glancing briefly our way before appearing to dismiss us completely. It was more than a little bit unnerving.
Tansy squeezed through the door behind us. She stepped into the room so that she could spread her arms wide, and proclaimed, gleefully, “Ta-da! Welcome to the lab!” She dropped her arms. “I keep telling Doctor C we should get a fancy name for it, but she says no, that’s silly, we don’t need a fancy name if no one’s supposed to know we’re here. La-ame. Anyway, it was super-nice to meet you both, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing you really soon.” She turned and wandered off into the bowling alley, weaving her way between the people in the lab coats.
Nathan and I stayed where we were, both of us at a loss for what to do next. I looked around the room, trying to find someone who looked like they were in charge. We’d been called here. That meant somebody—probably “Doctor C,” whoever that was—had to be waiting for us.
A curvaceous blonde woman in a wheelchair was heading our way, wheeling herself deftly across the polished floor. She wore a lab coat over a blue blouse and a pair of gray slacks. Fingerless black leather gloves protected her hands. She was smiling, but it looked wary somehow, like she wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. She stopped herself a few feet away from us.
Nathan’s hand dropped away from mine as his fingers unlocked. I smiled nervously at the woman.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Sal Mitchell, and this is Dr. Nathan Kim? We’re supposed to be meeting someone here. Tansy already verified the password. Please don’t let her have us.”
“Tansy can be a little overly enthusiastic about the wrong things sometimes; I’m sorry about that,” said the woman. I recognized her voice from the phone. This was the person we had come to meet. She was still smiling, and she wasn’t looking at me. I blinked, following her gaze to Nathan. He was staring at her. He wasn’t saying a word. He was just staring.
“Um,” I said.
“I would have come out to meet you myself, but I avoid open spaces these days,” said the woman. “It’s dangerous for me to go places where I might be photographed. You’ve been scanned three times since you entered the building; I know that you’re clean. If you weren’t, you would never have made it this far. I’ll give you a memory stick to attach to your GPS when you leave here. It will create a set of false routes and locations for you, so that it looks like you went to a few perfectly reasonable places today. I do appreciate your coming. I know you’ve both had a difficult morning.”