The gurney moved faster. The sound of moaning dropped away, replaced by silence and the rattle of wheels. My sense of time seemed broken by the isolation. Finally, voices drifted through the gloom, unfamiliar ones first, and then Nathan and a woman I thought might be Daisy answering them in calm, professional tones. The motion had stopped. I tried again to pull myself out of the darkness, and succeeded only in driving myself further down. The voices went away.
Motion, and then no motion, and then motion again. A door slamming. The sound of voices. Pressure receding as the straps that held me to the gurney were undone. Hands moving me to a new surface. Something being fitted over my face, covering my nose and mouth, like the rebreather I used to wear for the gel MRIs. Maybe I was having a gel MRI. Maybe I was back at SymboGen, and everything that had happened since my last checkup was a dream, and when they flushed the tank and let me breathe again, Sherman would be there, and he wouldn’t be a tapeworm, and he wouldn’t be the enemy, and everything would be all right. I could go home. My parents would be my parents, because I would be their daughter, and they would love me, and everything would be fine forever and ever.
“—start the feed—”
“—all data has been—”
“—careful, the risk of compromising her structural integrity—”
The voices were only ghosts; they came and went without making any impact on the world. The mask that covered my mouth and nose began to emit a strange-smelling gas. I breathed it in anyway. There was nothing else I could have done. So I just breathed, until even the ghosts went away, and there was nothing. I was nothing.
I was alone.
When I was born, I was the size of a pinhead: an egg, expressed from the corpse of a tapeworm that had been intended as nothing but a breeder for more tapeworms. It had been my biological mother, and my biological father had been a syringe full of DNA and modified instructions for my growth. The actual process was probably more complicated than that, but I didn’t understand the science: when I tried to hold on to it, I just kept seeing a loop of film from an old cartoon about talking rats. The rats were normal rats until the scientists came along and poked them with needles. Then they got bigger, and stronger, and smarter, and started wanting more for themselves than cages and captivity. They started wanting to be free.
Dr. Banks and his team could have learned a lot from watching The Secret of NIMH a few times. Maybe it would have convinced them that modifying the genetic code of living organisms wasn’t as much fun as they thought it was. But Dr. Banks had wanted to make a lot of money, and he’d succeeded, hadn’t he? Whatever else my siblings and I might have done, we’d managed to make him a lot of money. He was probably still making money, even as the foundations started giving way beneath him.
Memories flickered against the edges of my mind. Waking up in the hospital with Sally’s grieving family standing next to my bed, staring up at the ceiling and not knowing what it was, or who I was, or what I was doing there. I’d been so eager to believe them when they called me their daughter, and why shouldn’t I have been? They were offering me an identity. They were offering me a home. I’d never had either of those things before. So I took them, because I was still a tapeworm at heart, still greedy for whatever I could grab, and I kept them, and when they stopped being enough for me, I’d gone looking for more.
This was all my fault.
No, no, no, I scolded myself, trying to swim through the black that had taken me, trying to pull all the splintered pieces of my mind back together. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do this. You didn’t make this. You’re just here, but you didn’t do anything.
If you really believe that, why are we having this argument? The question came from another corner of my mind, and I didn’t have an answer for it. So I did what felt right, and let it fall away from me as I sank deeper down into the dark. The dark didn’t demand that I do anything but exist. I could do that. I could do that very well.
So I did.
There was only one thing I really remembered from the operation after it was over: light. Bright white light that hurt my eyes so much it was almost like someone had stabbed me, lancing down from above and searing me. But my eyes were closed; the light had to be getting in through some other channel. It didn’t make any sense at the time. It was one more mystery piled onto the endless heap of them that had been coming together since I’d seen myself in the MRI film.
It was thinking of the film that gave me my answer. The light hadn’t been hurting my eyes, because I didn’t have eyes where the light was shining: it had been hurting my body, shining in through the opening in my skull and lancing through the waxy, ghost-white skin of my true, segmented form. I would have screamed if I could have, both from the pain and from the realization. But I had no voice, and so all I could do was sink back into the dark, away from awareness, away from sapience, and wait for it to be over.
This time, it didn’t hurt. It entered through the usual channel, flowing in as I opened my eyes and blinked, slowly, up at the distant ceiling. It probably helped that someone had dimmed the lights in this little room, which was—I turned my head slightly to the left, confirming—which was not at the bowling alley. The walls were painted white, but they were solid, rather than being made from hanging sheets and negative space. A machine was attached to my arm, beeping softly to itself. That was probably what had woken me up. It was the only noise in the room. As I realized that, I also realized that I could barely hear the drums. They had gone from a near-constant pounding in the background of my life to a soft tapping, almost inaudible, the way they used to be. This was how the inside of my head was supposed to sound, when I wasn’t so stressed out that my heart was racing all the time, and when the blood vessels in my brain weren’t threatening to give way at any moment.