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“Afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “As you can see, we have your fearless leader captive. You want to go ahead and buzz us in?”

“Sir?” asked one of the men, sounding utterly baffled as he peered past Fishy to the handcuffed form of Dr. Banks. Confusion was an understandable sentiment. Fishy was pretty darn confusing when you weren’t prepared for him.

“I’m their hostage, Kirk,” said Dr. Banks, sounding more annoyed about the situation than anything else. “Go ahead and let us in.”

The man—Kirk—blinked. “Do you want me to notify Security?”

“Uh, hostage-taker right here, remember?” said Fishy.

Both men ignored him. “It won’t be necessary,” said Dr. Banks. “I’m in no immediate danger. Just open the door.”

“Sir, this goes against the protocols that you established—”

“I know full well who established the protocols, Kirk,” said Dr. Banks. A hint of steel had crept back into his tone, stiffening and sharpening it. This was something he knew how to deal with: a disobedient subordinate was easy pickings. “Now let us in, or you’ll have your termination slip by the end of the day. And you know what that means.”

Kirk went pale. “Yes, sir,” he said, and retreated to the booth with his companion. The other man flipped a switch. The gate rolled slowly open.

“Man was pretty terrified of being fired,” observed Fishy, as he restarted the engine and rolled forward through the opening.

“Any staff whose family was able to survive the initial outbreak and survive the trip to SymboGen has been allowed to have that family stay here with them,” said Dr. Banks. “Living space is tighter than we would prefer, but sheltering those people was the only humane thing to do.”

“I bet it also made an excellent PR opportunity,” said Nathan.

“Not as good as it should have. People kept getting distracted by the chaos on the streets.” Dr. Banks sounded disgusted. How dare people die when he was trying to capitalize on showing some basic human decency? “Anyway, everyone who works here knows that space is limited, and that we’re doing serious research to try to resolve the problem. Anyone leaving my employ will have a choice between heading to the official government quarantine facilities in Pleasanton, or being turned out onto the street to do as they will. It’s remarkable how many have chosen the latter.”

Fishy pulled into a parking space near the building and twisted to stare, openmouthed, at Dr. Banks. Nathan and I did the same in the backseat, neither of us quite able to process what the man was saying. Finally, Fishy managed, “You mean you’re turning them out to die just because they don’t work for you anymore?”

“Resources are limited,” said Dr. Banks coolly. “Can you really tell me your precious Dr. Cale would do any differently?”

Fishy shook his head. “You are a piece of work. Let’s get you back into your ivory tower so that I can go back to where the monsters are the only thing I have to worry about fucking me over.”

It was strange to be climbing out of a vehicle in the SymboGen parking lot like nothing had changed; like the world was still the way that it had always been before. The doors would open automatically at our approach, releasing a gust of perfume, while tinny elevator music played in the distance. And Chave would be there, my straight-laced, by-the-book handler in her impeccable business attire, ready to take me off to whatever tests and appointments they had scheduled for me…

But Chave was dead. She had been a double agent for Dr. Cale, and her implant had eventually decided to take her over. I’d never known her well enough to really miss her, but I’d known her well enough to grieve for her. That would have to be enough.

Nathan took the hand that wasn’t holding Beverly’s leash and squeezed it firmly. I squeezed back, and together, the four of us started toward the doors to SymboGen.

The closer we got, the more apparent it became that the illusion of normalcy was just that: an illusion. The grounds were still being maintained at a minimal level, but none of the dead or dying flowers had been replaced. It was late November; the flower beds should have been a riot of poinsettias, and every hedge should have been dripping with tinsel and no-break glass balls. Instead, the early fall plants were still in place, being coaxed along to keep things looking as functional as possible.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. “Who are you keeping up appearances for?” asked Nathan. “Who could possibly be looking at your hedges right now?”

“It’s been important to downplay staff losses and their impact during this crisis,” said Dr. Banks. “The people we’re working with want to look at us and think that we’re weathering the storm without getting wet. It builds their confidence. You understand.”

“Image is everything with you people,” said Nathan. He sounded disgusted. I was just glad he was the one doing the talking. I wasn’t sure I would have been able to shape the words.

“Son, image is everything with everyone, no matter what you try to tell yourself.” The glass doors leading into the lobby slid smoothly open as we approached. The cool air that drifted out to greet us was perfumed—apple, orange blossoms, and fresh corn, a far cry from the sugary chaos of Captain Candy’s—but the music wasn’t playing. That was almost a relief. “Or are you trying to tell me you’d still be so interested in that little girl whose hand you’re holding if we took her pretty chassis away and handed her to you in a jar? You love the woman, but you love the look, too. Don’t think you’re any different from me.”