There was a small bench inside the fitting room. I pushed it to the wall under the grate and stood, reaching up to rattle the grill. It didn’t budge, thanks to the screws that were holding it in place. That was a small problem at this stage. I knelt and took my fresh bra off its hanger. This was a nice department store. They used wood and wire hangers.
I smashed the hanger against the floor until it broke. Then I scavenged through the pieces until I found a splinter of the right thickness and flexibility to serve my intended purpose. “If they didn’t want me to learn to improvise, they should’ve kept the shelter better funded,” I muttered, and got to work.
It took less than five minutes to unscrew all but one of the bolts from the grate. It swung drunkenly down, revealing the empty black chasm on the other side. There was a chance that was exactly what it was: a hole, rather than a tunnel. I paused, looking into the dark, and asked myself if this was really the right course of action. It could get me killed.
Even killed was better than captive. I hopped down from the bench long enough to strip and put my new clothes on, taking care to tuck the tank top into my jeans before letting the sweater hang over it. Hopefully, it would be enough padding to keep me from getting seriously cut up on any sharp edges inside the vent.
This was it: this was the moment where I would have to decide whether I wanted to be the girl I’d always been, or whether I was ready to become someone new. Someone who was brave enough to crawl into the dark alone, and see where the risk would take her. Someone who was going to survive.
I was going to see my family again. I was going to get back to them. I was going to see Nathan again.
I was going to survive, and then I was going to find Tansy, and we were going to get through this.
I reached up, grabbing the open edge of the vent, and hoisted myself into the unknown.
INTERLUDE II: DIPLOTENE
History will remember my name forever. Isn’t that the truest form of immortality? All you have to do to earn it is change the world.
–DR. STEVEN BANKS
I don’t think “human” means what people tell me it does. I’m just as human as you are. Everything that matters is underneath the skin.
–ADAM CALE (SUBJECT I, ITERATION I)
October 2027: Tansy
Still here I’m still here I’m still me I’m still here.
It hurts so bad, and I keep on still being me, I keep on still being here, but I’m starting to think that maybe not being me—maybe not being here—would be better, because absence hurts other people. Absence doesn’t hurt you.
The lights were too bright for my eyes. That was happening more and more, now that Dr. Banks had stopped taking things out of me and started putting things inside me instead. Tears were running down my cheeks, even though I wasn’t crying. I’d learned a lot about what crying felt like since he brought me here, since he strapped me down and started taking whatever he wanted out of me. He was running out of pieces. That’s why he’d decided to introduce some new variables.
“Now, this may hurt a little,” he’d cautioned. “But don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. The pain is temporary, but the knowledge we’re going to get in exchange is forever. You’re going to help me transform the world. Isn’t that wonderful?”
I hadn’t answered him. I hadn’t been able to answer in days, not since he’d sent two of his flunkies into the room to rip out four of my molars, all without the benefit of painkillers or sedation. Knocking me out apparently messed with my reactions in a way that would slow down the all-important research. “You understand,” that was what he had said before and after every procedure. He always had the same smug little smile on his face, like he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but was doing so much right.
It hurt. I hurt. For the first time since I woke up in this body, with its wonderful hands and eyes and legs, I could feel both of my selves independently. The human half of me was numb and distant, filled with pains I didn’t have a name for. The invertebrate half felt like it was on fire, skin scored with a hundred tiny cuts, fluids leaking out into my human brain and making my thoughts even more muddled than usual.
The lights in the room never varied. They were always bright and burning, too white for my eyes. They hadn’t fed me once. All my nutrients came in through a tube, plunged deep into my arm and filling me until my veins felt swollen and tight, like they were becoming worms in their own right. I hoped that they would break out soon, and that they would be able to slither their way to freedom.
It was getting difficult to remember anything before the room. I had a name once—Sandy or Tammy or something like that. I had a family, a mother who was a brilliant scientist and a brother who was smarter than I’d ever be. I thought I remembered going sledding, but that couldn’t have been true, because I didn’t remember snow.
I remembered Sal. I remembered her running away and leaving me behind. I remembered being glad. I clung to that gladness as hard as I could, because I knew that if it ever managed to slip away, I’d only remember how much I hated her. She shouldn’t have left me behind. Not even if I told her to, not even if her survival mattered more than almost anything else, because she was the one who carried the data we’d infiltrated SymboGen to take. She left me, and I wanted to hate her, and I wanted to love her, and that meant remembering how her desertion made me feel.
There was a click from the far side of the room as the door swung open. I kept my eyes closed. Opening them wouldn’t have done me any good. I hadn’t been able to turn my head in what felt like forever.