"Can I interest you in one of our unusual pets, sir?"
Aldous grinned at the saleslady, breathing the warm animal scents of the store. "No need for the 'sir'. And actually, I'm here to look for work. I don't have a lot of money." He'd graduated without a good offer, but he'd find something soon enough.
She looked unperturbed. "No problem. Why not check out what we sell while you're at it?" The clerk led Aldous past racks of cages, past kittens and a parrot that squawked, "Magnetic containment tokamak!" Aldous got distracted by a ferret that peeked out from a plastic tube and squeaked at him.
"A good choice," the clerk said. "Some people mind the musk, but we've toned it down."
Aldous blinked, his attention drawn from the bright beady eyes. "You had the glands and everything removed?"
"Genetically tweaked," she said. "This store is a subsidiary of Genetech."
"You sell biotech pets?" Aldous looked around the store again, now noticing unusual colors, exotic breeds, and purpose and curiosity in some of the animals' expressions. The strangeness unnerved him. "I've never heard of Genetech." They hadn't been at the career fair last semester.
She said, "The company's new. I was only hired last month myself."
"Oh?" She had a great smile. "How is it?"
"Seems all right. The application was weird, but they've got a great health plan."
"They still hiring, by any chance?" Aldous sighed, remembering that everybody wanted experience in their exact field. He hadn't even had a family cat since he left for college.
"I think so." She pulled out some forms from behind the counter.
Aldous glanced at the sheaf of papers, intimidated by its size. Well, he could fill them out later. "Thanks." He paused, looking away at the cages. "Say, are you interested in meeting up at the food court when you've got a break?"
She wavered, then said, "Okay. In an hour or so."
Aldous sat in the mall, nibbling a salad and working through the application. Name, work history, citizenship, favorite color, phobias... Aldous put down "Chekhov" for that one. The creepy Russian guy from /Star Trek/. Then the forms started asking if he'd ever stolen from an employer. /No,/ he answered. "How much?" it asked. /None./ "C'mon," it asked, "just between us." Aldous checked the box labeled /Seriously, no./
"Have you ever imagined being a different gender?" /No/, he checkmarked. He didn't think it was even legal to ask that kind of thing.
"Have you ever imagined being a different species?" Aldous was really staring at the form now. He put /Yes/ for the hell of it, thinking of a couple of Halloween costumes he'd had.
"In fifty words or less: How would you defeat a rampaging velociraptor?"
Aldous skipped ahead. About half of the paperwork was fairly ordinary, with some fun logic puzzles, and the rest a bunch of nonsense. Okay, so this was a prank on the saleslady's part. While Aldous waited for her, he went along with the joke. For the raptor question he wrote, "Two lamp-posts, and a big rubber band." It went downhill from there.
"Done yet?" asked the clerk, coming over to his table.
Aldous said, "Very funny," and handed the papers over.
"I warned you. That's the actual application."
Aldous shook his head. "Weirder then Google's, even. I guess that means no job for me; I went into smartass mode halfway through."
"I did that too, and they hired /me/. Name's Sue, by the way."
The two of them had a low-pressure date at the food court, and for a week, nothing much happened.
# 2. #
The phone rang at five in the morning. Aldous, sprawled on his bed, opened one eye and snatched the thing. /Family emergency?/
"Mister Dulac?" The voice was deep, and friendlier than it had any right to be at this hour. When Aldous mumbled a response it went on: "I'm Erin, from Genetech TransHuman Resources. I believe we have a position in our Technical Support department that you'll find unique and exciting. If you're interested, meet me at the pet store you applied to, in twenty minutes."
The line went dead.
Aldous was tangled in sheets and half asleep. He didn't need this kind of treatment. He fiddled with the phone and thought about calling back to tell the guy off. The mall was at least ten minutes away, and couldn't even be open yet!
/"TransHuman Resources." Advanced biotech. An actual job offer./ He didn't want to pass this job up without at least seeing what it was. He threw on clothes and left his apartment looking like it'd been ransacked: sheets on the floor, drawers open, papers spilled. He drove through empty streets and found the mall's parking lot nearly deserted. The closest car to the right entrance had a plush porcupine in the back window and a bumper sticker proclaiming, "DNA Is Life."
Aldous found the mall's doors locked, of course. But there was a service entrance to one side, held open with a brick. He guessed it would be okay to enter, since he had a mall tenant's permission, but he hoped he wouldn't need to explain that to a guard. He slipped through the door with three minutes till his appointment.
"Come /on/, said Aldous. "This is /not/ standard mall security."
Aldous watched the mist curling from an air vent, hopped over a laser beam, limboed under another, peeked around a corner, hid from a rotating security camera, and dodged more beams and a suspicious floor panel before finding himself in a hall behind the shops. He was off-balance, standing on one foot after avoiding another trap.
Aldous saw a man leaning against the pet shop's rear door. Aldous tried to compose himself, but felt sweaty and gross and half-dressed, with a grungy t-shirt that read, "When all else fails, manipulate the data." Not a good way to show up for an interview. Aldous faced the guy by the door, and with spread hands said, "What the heck?"
Erin met Aldous' glare with a smile. He wore a shirt and jeans and his hair was unkempt, making Aldous feel less disheveled than he'd expected to. Erin checked his watch. "Sorry about that. The company needs people who can deal with the unexpected. Want a job?"
"Dodging laser beams? Look, I don't know what kind of enterprise you're running, but I'm not planning to get into organized crime."
"No, we don't want you to do anything illegal. It's just that the Proactive Acquisitions department was interested in you too, so I gave you a version of their test. You passed that despite missing the infrared sensor and taking the obvious route instead of picking the front door locks."
"You're kidding, right?"
"What we'd want you for," said Erin, "is to apply that dusty biotech degree of yours to helping with troubleshooting operations inside and outside the company. You'd get free housing at our Genetech East corporate campus, plus expenses and a company discount." He named a decent salary figure.
"Troubleshooting," said Aldous. "So it's not 'customer service' in the sense of sitting by a phone?"
"The housing sounds nice." Aldous was surprised to find himself actually considering this job after all. "Where is this campus place?"
"Near Bermuda, with an ocean view."
Aldous considered. "And what exactly is the discount for? Pets?"
Erin smiled. "Among other things." Then he /flickered/. His face was changing, and his hair... Aldous stared at a man with a little snout, with a head and arms covered with spikes!
Erin said, "This is me without my disguise projector." He tapped his watch. "As you know, we have some unusual technology."
Aldous stared. "You're a hedgehog." He was backing away, stopping just short of the lasers. This guy might maul him or eat him or -- or offer him work!
"I'm a human with porcupine-related modifications. Not the most popular choice, and it wasn't completely intentional at the time. So, do you want the job? I need to get going; I've been shedding quills lately trying to deal with other applicants."
"Well, uh. It seems like a good offer..." Aldous sweated, overwhelmed. "I've got a six-month apartment lease, though, and I don't know what I'd do with my car."
"The company will work something out. Come on, man, do you want to be fifty years old and wondering why you kept looking for a mundane job after seeing me?"
Aldous imagined being a grey-haired accountant, and shuddered. It would be safer than whatever Erin had in mind, but he feared that fate more than he did the porcupine. His voice wavered as he said, "Fine. I accept."
Erin seized his hand and shook it, nearly scratching him with a stray spine. "Great! Check your e-mail for a printable airline ticket. Your flight is at ten tonight."
# 3. #
The company must have really wanted him. Aldous scrambled for the airport, bringing little but clothes and a computer. On the little plane he reviewed some files from his biochemistry and bio-medical engineering classes, and felt inadequate.
An unsmiling driver with a sign met him in Bermuda, a tiny island of limestone houses where a warm, humid breeze blew even at this hour. The man silently led Aldous to the sparkling moonlit shore to find not a car, but a boat. The other passenger had a hat... no, she had bunny ears on her head. And grey fur, and pink finger-pads on the hand she offered. "Hiya! I'm Cindi."
Aldous shook hands. "Uh, hi. Are there a lot of rabbits at the company?"
"A couple. So I hear you're a new hire! It's, like, awesome here!"
The driver took the wheel and the boat zoomed away, carrying the three of them over the waves. Aldous asked Cindi, "What do you do?" He thought she might be a secretary.
"Like, all kinds of neat stuff. Lately I've been engineering plasmids /in vivo/ for study of the p53/pRB cancer suppressor genes. You know they're the same sequence in different reading frames?"
Aldous blinked, finding her suddenly less ditzy. "Nice."
She handed over a disc. "So here's the assigned viewing for newcomers to Genetech East. You've got /Atlas Shrugged/ -- the extended version -- /Frankenstein/, /Bioshock/, and ya might as well add /The Evil Overlord's List/. Then there's the Non-Disclosure Agreement From Hell."
Aldous let the disc catch the moonlight as the boat bounced along. "You know, nobody's explained yet exactly what my job is."
"You'll be working for Mister Dwalin's troubleshooting squad, in Technical Support. For instance, last month we had an ivyzard outbreak in the Battle Dome, and the trainers tried to contain it with an electric fence. Like, duh!" She slapped her forehead. "So Dwalin had to go deal with that. Got any questions?"
"I don't think my list is getting any shorter."
Cindi laughed. "Just roam till Dwalin gets back. There's probably nothing that'll kill you, so the boss would say everything will make you stronger. He also says guided tours are for the weak."
"Okay... do I get an office?"
"A room in the Prometheus Dome. Sorry; I can't lead you there."
The boat stopped after a while in empty water under a starry sky. Aldous stood unsteadily and looked around. He saw nothing special. "What's wrong?"
"We're here," said Cindi. "See the unusually stable buoy with the suspicious double doors and an elevator call button?"
Aldous squinted. There was a buoy here, but -- "So what?" His eyes slid away from it.
"Right, right. Keep staring."
He was getting annoyed. "Why?" Still he followed Cindi's jabbing finger to look again at the thing.
"See it yet?"
"Of course I --" Wait, how could he be dismissing something like this, like -- "An /elevator/?"
The driver said, "You saw past the Field faster than some."
Now Aldous really glared at it. He kept feeling tempted to look away, to ignore it. "I can't quite focus on it. What's going on?"
Cindi said, "It's got a Someone Else's Problem field. I think it's powered by Higgs bosons and dark energy. Good for when people see the buoy in passing."
They docked. Cindi brought Aldous to the elevator, which apparently lead down into the water -- into a big structure hidden beneath the waves! She used a keycard to open the doors.
"Do I get one of those keys?" asked Aldous, stepping inside.
Cindi's smile showed buckteeth. "Yep! It's in your room. Good luck!" The doors shut and the car dropped, while from outside, Cindi waved goodbye.
# 4. #
The elevator lurched downward, with its speakers blaring "Ride of the Valkyries." When it let him out, he was in a round hall of glass, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the curving wall and the bright clear water was a jungle of blue spheres and tunnels, like a huge molecular model. Fronds of green kelp brushed along domes anchored to the seafloor. Aldous stepped forward until his nose bumped the glass. Erin was right about there being an ocean view! Fish drifted by. It took him a minute to remember he was here to work. Looking back and forth, he frowned; apparently useful signage was also for the weak.
Through a blue door on the right, he entered a greenhouse. No; the big sphere was an office area full of terraces, draped with fragrant vines. He smelled an animal musk somewhere too. At first he thought it was from the laboratory in a glass-walled arc across the room, but actually it was a startled ferret-man baring fangs at him from a cubicle. Aldous hopped away from the creature, eyeing the guy's teeth more than his tie and pocket protector, and hurried towards one of the humans instead. He said to a woman, "I'm new here. I'm looking for my room -- Prometheus Dome, I think. Is there a map anywhere?"
"Hey there. Not a reliable one. But if you want the housing area, go past the cafeteria, then up, up, down, down, left, right, left, then right. Can't miss it."
Aldous thanked her, and as he climbed stairs by the terraces, wondered what she was laughing at.
Aldous got confused by the hallway junctions and was soon lost. Any sane office building would have been designed better than this! He was about to turn back if he could, when he spotted the cafeteria. It had big tables, little tables, beanbags replacing some chairs, and even a wooden perch, all in the top half of a sphere with its glass roof curving beneath the sea. "Nice," he murmured at the ceiling. The array of food reassured him enough that he decided to take a break and have a moment of relative normality. He was in no hurry anyway. The cafeteria could have passed for one anywhere, if not for the lunch-lady's obvious cybernetic implants. He got himself some veggie lasagna, feeling almost at home.
The lady fixed him with an unnerving metal eye when he pulled out a twenty from his wallet. "We don't take funny-money."
"I'm pretty sure it's real. Want a credit card though?"
"We take company credits, and gold." She started to lecture about the evils of fiat currency.
"Yeah, uh, how do I get company credits?"
She smiled. "I could take your play money and cover for you, at the right exchange rate. Or you could just wait for your bank account to be assimilated."
A minute later, feeling poorer, he took a faraway table and sat there grumbling, calming down as he ate. Yeah, he thought, it didn't much matter if there were animal-people running around and he had to work in a secret undersea base. Aldous sat there thinking, actually bored, even when the angry bearded guy showed up.
"What are you doing?" said the man. He looked like hell -- filthy in a mildewed ski parka, with a hammer at his belt and a sack on his back.
Aldous yawned. Yeesh, he should get some sleep. "Just getting in."
"Bah!" The man stomped over to the lunch-lady. "Two Skunk Beers. Cold." He returned and shoved an open bottle under Aldous' nose. A stench woke Aldous up, making him recoil and sit up straight.
The man said, "That's better. So the bosses saddled me with a mundane loafer who can't keep his eyes open."
Aldous realized: "You're Dwalin!"
"So I hear. Drink now, and maybe I can use you tomorrow."
Aldous was shamed enough by having his new boss find him half-asleep that he drank the nasty beer with Dwalin. It was actually pretty good. Bold flavor. "Sorry," he said. "It's been a strange couple of days."
"I just got back from saving Antarctica. What happened to you -- did the airline not let you keep the whole can of soda?"
Aldous stood unsteadily, swigging his beer. "Can we start over tomorrow?"
Dwalin nodded. "Get yourself down that hall over there, then go to the bottom floor. Call tomorrow. And don't touch anything on the way."
Aldous got out of there, hanging his head. These directions proved easier to follow, taking him down a glass staircase to a clear ball in the depths, full of apartments. One of the doors opened as he passed, revealing an empty room. A steel-framed bed, a glass desk with an ID card on it, and some lockers for furniture. Aldous shrugged, flopped onto the bed, and fell asleep.
# 5. #
He woke up itchy. When he rolled over onto his back, he winced at a pain from somewhere on his spine. There was a soft, fluffy pillow beside him... with black fur and white stripes... attached to him.
He leaped out of bed, unable to escape his new tail. Tugging it just hurt him, and he could feel its every twitch. The company had poisoned him with their mad science! He found a phone on the room's desk and said into it, "I want to talk to Dwalin in Technical Support."
The phone played thirty seconds of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" before Dwalin came on and said, "Twenty hours' sleep is a good sign."
"I have a tail!"
"Good," said Dwalin. "Meet me in the cafeteria."
The line went dead, leaving a flustered Aldous to snatch the keycard on his desk, stomp his way back upstairs, and feel the tail bouncing behind him with every step. There was no way to hide the thing. In the cafeteria the water overhead looked night-dark. His sense of time was completely thrown off. Dwalin shared a table with two others: a blue-haired woman, and what appeared to be a centauroid lioness. Four-footed torso with an upper chest that had her arms and head. Aldous grimaced at the thought that he kind of fit in, what with the ridiculous thing behind him. He looked at the blue-haired one and said, "Does everyone here have to be weird?"
She stared at Aldous with a look from deep purple eyes. "I had burns on eighty percent of my skin when Genetech found me."
Aldous' tail hid between his legs. "Sorry. But someone did something -- wait, it was the beer, wasn't it? How?"
Dwalin nodded. "Stay a while, and listen."
Aldous was about to flop onto an aluminum chair when the lioness called out, "Tail!" Aldous stopped and turned the chair around so he could lean forward against the back. The lioness added, "You have to keep aware of your shape till you get used to the sensors or whatever."
Dwalin said, "The beer and a few other vittles here have low-level nanites in 'em. When my bosses are more interested in playing games with a newcomer than giving him a thorough scan for hostile nanotechnology, I find beer to be a useful line of defense."
"What he means," said the lioness, "is, nanotech is modular. One model, one effect. The low-level kinds like the ones in the beer only work if you have no nanites in you already, except maybe a booster. So if you got a tail and glands from the beer, it means you're probably not carrying anything nasty and contagious."
So Dwalin had done this to him for a reason. "Wait a minute. Scent glands?"
"Yes," said Dwalin.
Aldous shuddered. "You were drinking the same stuff!"
"I've been exposed to nanites and worse already. I just like the taste."
Aldous' mind raced. Just yesterday were the interview with Erin, the plane flight and the boat ride. Then he'd slept nearly a full day, and the tail had happened in his sleep. He tried to put aside his own fluffy problem and figure out just what was going on. "You've got advanced technology here --"
"It's a work in progress," the lioness said with a toothy grin.
"And someone is trying to kill you with it?"
Blue-hair said, "It is world domination they pursue. The final doom of Man."
"Or not," said the lioness. "Oh yeah -- miss gloom there is Marie. I'm going by Firestar." She looked expectantly at Aldous.
His brow furrowed. "So you're Firestar the cat-centaur?"
"Close! I'm the first-taur."
Dwalin interrupted Aldous' groan. "We have a job to do."
"Right; sorry," said Aldous. "Tell me, who else has the tech to create animal-people? Nanites with that kind of power could be -- well, incredibly deadly." It'd be harder to turn someone into a creature like Firestar than to disassemble them cell by cell.
Dwalin grunted. "So you do know something. The answer is, Genetech itself. We're in the East Campus. The West and South divisions work mostly independently under our General Management, and we suspect one of those two is sabotaging us."
Marie of the blue hair added, "If the West or South division becomes dominant, there will be suffering and oppression and probably layoffs."
Aldous said, "Uh-huh. And what do they say about this one?"
Firestar said, "Director Gattart doesn't want to rule the world, I think. He'd rather rant and flex muscles at it."
"Now," said Dwalin, "Genetech East's Technical Support department -- largely consisting of us -- has been assigned to keep the inter-campus rivalry in check. A few of our clients have been wondering why they're getting conflicting messages from the company. You know that news story where the Arabs accused the Americans of releasing man-eating badgers in Iraq? Those were supposed to go to Afghanistan."
Aldous found himself overwhelmed, but he could say honestly, "It's an honor to be trusted with a job like this, sir. I can put my biology and engineering skills to use, and it'll be great to learn about all the technology here while I investigate the sabotage attempts." It'd be like detective work.
Dwalin scoffed. "That's /my/ mission. What I have for you suits your skills as a newcomer. You're hereby part of the Excellence Or Else Workplace Task Force." He dug out a sheaf of pamphlets decorated with a steel smiley face. "Morale has been low."
Aldous picked up a pamphlet and saw that the whole stack was actually one document, around fifty pages long. "What have you done to overcome customer expectations?" he read. He looked up at the others. "I can see why, if they have to read this."
Marie said, "This is abridged."
Dwalin said, "You can tell people you're working to improve morale -- which is true -- but really the point is to make sure they get the job done and don't mess with the customers too much."
Aldous slumped against his chair. "So I'm basically a cheerleader."
Dwalin's expression was hard to read. "I don't know why Management sent you to me, but we'll make the best of it for now, and get you some experience. Now, I'm headed back to Genetech South to do some..." His expression hardened for a moment. "Cleanup work, and see what I can learn there. Aldous, pick one of these two to stay here and hold your hand while the other goes to the West Campus."
Aldous was vaguely flattered at having the choice. He looked to Marie and Firestar. Marie was the more normal one, who would make him feel like there was some sanity here, but he found himself drawn more to the lioness' attentive slit-pupiled glance. He'd never even especially liked cats. "Firestar, would you mind?"
Dwalin said, "All right. If you're intact when I get back, we'll discuss further work."
# 6. #
Aldous walked with Firestar down a glass-tube hall, self-consciously clutching his tail and feeling the tickle of his hand against the fur. "How do I get rid of this?"
"Why do you want to?" Firestar's own twitched, showing off a golden tuft at the tip.
"Not around here. We can get you some modified pants; we have a tailor."
Aldous paused to watch a jellyfish drift by outside. "I don't want to advertise this thing."
"No problem. His motto is, 'Don't ask, don't tail'."
"Well, what if I sit on it and hurt myself?"
Firestar kept walking. "The medical plan includes dent-tail coverage."
"Quit that," said Aldous.
"Quit what?" she said with a grin. "Okay, we're here."
They'd stopped at a big airlock-style door with a blue cover. Firestar kicked it open with a forepaw to put them in a little room before another door. "Remember, you do the talking. Chat them up, get 'em talking, find out what their complaints are." She opened the inner door.
Aldous looked into a room dominated by a swimming pool, open to the ocean below. Light rippled over the ceiling and the dive gear on the walls; dense, humid air wafted around him. "Wrong room," he said.
Three dolphins' heads broke the water's surface. Each had a panel of circuitry on its jaw. One waved a wrench in its teeth and squeakily said, "New guy?"
Aldous glanced back at Firestar, who had settled on all fours onto the tile floor. Finding no help, he tried to give the interview/pep talk he'd expected to give to a bunch of cubicle-dwellers, or at least surface-dwellers.
"I'm Aldous, with the Workplace Task Force. I'm here to ask about morale, and, uh, working conditions."
The dolphins looked to each other in confusion.
Aldous scratched his head, tail curling indecisively. How to talk to them? "Um. Job good?"
"Job good!" said one dolphin, and the others nodded, squeaking.
"Okay. Any problems? Bad things?"
They considered this. "Want more fish. Want plas-ma tee-vee. Sur-round sound."
"What exactly do you do here?" he said, half to himself. "What your job? What is?"
"Fix tun-nels. Fix glass ball things. Sea no squish hu-mans."
"Engineers! Okay, that's something I can relate to. Got tools? Good tools?"
"Tools good. Get more fish? Sword-fish?"
"Sorry. I didn't bring any." They looked blankly at him. He tried, "Me no have fish."
"Have big tail," said one.
Another chimed in, "Like big tails. Not lie. Oth-er mam-mals not de-ny. When --" The other dolphins said, "Ssh, ssh."
Aldous wasn't sure what else he could get across to them. "You see problem, you tell me. Okay?"
"O-kay, hu-man! Bye now!" The sleek heads ducked beneath the water and were gone... until one surfaced just long enough to squeak, "Hope you swim bet-ter than you talk!"
Aldous stood there looking at the empty pool. "They were putting me on?"
Behind him Firestar said, "Cybernetic uplift doesn't make 'phins stop being smartasses."
"Is there someone else I could talk to?"
"How about my favorite department? They're usually pretty boring."
# 7. #
That turned out to be Integrated Investigation, which seemed part chop shop, part medical clinic. "Can I touch stuff in here?" asked Aldous, admiring a robotic workstation that was weaving threads of plastic.
"Yeah, but be careful," said Firestar. "Generally you should watch out before touching anything unknown in this company. Or eating or drinking, or wearing anything, or inhaling anything. You don't want to spend a month as a busty skunk-girl, at least by accident."
"Is that possible?"
"That's more the Genetic Engineering department. What goes on here is -- well, you can pester Luke over there."
A big man with glasses and a scruffy jacket was staring blankly at a screen, drumming fingers on one knee. When Aldous greeted him, he waved. Aldous said, "What do you do here?"
"This and that. Cyborg stuff." A wall chart showed grey muscles that Aldous realized looked like the material that the nearby robot was weaving.
Aldous said, "I'm hearing that there's been some trouble around the company lately. Know anything?" By now, Aldous had figured out that he needed to work on how to read people, but he guessed that Luke wasn't Mister Enthusiasm.
Luke shrugged. "I've been kind of bored lately. Haven't asked around."
"Bored!" said Aldous, too stunned to follow that up.
Firestar said, "Excuse Aldous; he's new here. Can he look around?"
Aldous went to the area that was walled off with glass; it had a lot less motor oil and stray wiring to hurt himself with. He saw a couple of inner rooms whose walls were frosted glass, and stepped through a doorway. There he saw a fox-furred nurse fussing with equipment around a girl in a hospital bed.
The girl winced as the nurse adjusted an IV tube running to a needle in her arm. "Can I come back and visit sometime?"
The nurse sighed. "You won't remember. We can't advertise everything just yet."
Aldous felt he should leave them alone, but it wouldn't hurt to say hello. He did.
The nurse said, "Times are tough."
The girl was cheerier. "Skunky!"
"What?" Aldous said, and then he remembered the weight curled along his back. "Oh. Heh. Like it?"
"It's cute. Are you a doctor?"
"No, I'm kind of an inspector for now. Can I ask why you're here?" The nurse didn't object.
"I was real sick, an' then this guy talked to my parents and had the doctors chop out all the bad stuff and give me a robot lung an' a robot liver. I hate liver, don't you?"
"Yeah," he said. He didn't know anyone had invented implants like that yet. He hadn't heard of any clinical trials... which might explain why this surgery was happening twenty leagues under the sea. He looked to the nurse. "So you're using some kind of memory suppressor to hide the details of what we're doing?"
The nurse shrugged. "Whatever works."
Aldous gave a last smile to the girl and ducked out of the room, feeling proud of the medical tech but vaguely troubled. He went back to the grungier machine area to look for Firestar, and saw her long torso sitting improbably on a table. Then he reached out to tap her on the shoulder... neck... whatever, when he saw a gaping grey hole in the flesh.
"Yaaah!" he shouted.
"Eek!" said a creature inside the wound.
"Yaaah!" he replied.
The creature blinked. She seemed to be a miniature raccoon in a blue jumpsuit, brandishing a wrench. The "wound" was some kind of mechanical access panel, lined with plastic. The raccoon said in a chirpy voice, "I didn't expect the Skunkish Inquisition!"
Aldous tried to slow his heartbeat. "No one expects --"
"Yeah, hi. I'm Niki. Don't startle me like that."
"Aldous, from Technical Support. What happened to Firestar?"
"She's over there." Aldous looked where Niki pointed and saw the lioness flipping through an overstuffed binder. On closer inspection, the body on the table was more fox-taur than lion-taur, with an inert, glossy expression.
"What's this?" he said.
Niki leaned on her wrench. "I'm doing a little work on our cybernetic life support system. The South Campus guys thought that being a 'brain in a jar' should mean either floating there menacingly or strutting around in an armored war-spider. With tentacles. So, Marketing had us steal the idea and make the mobile brain pod cute instead. But the hardware is still so big and heavy we had to put it in a four-footed torso, and then we needed an upright torso for hands and normal social stuff. And making 'em look like six-limbed humans creeped people out. So we made furry cyborg centaurs."
"That almost makes sense," said Aldous. He'd clearly been here too long. "Wait. Firestar is a brain in a tank?"
"Yeah. Calls herself a mecha-cat." Niki hopped down to the table, a drop several times her height, and attacked a huge bag of pretzels. Aldous helped open the bag. She said, "Thanks. I'm trying to make the life support pod smaller. Miniaturization makes /everything/ better."
"Have you noticed any morale problems lately?"
Niki paused in sawing a pretzel log. "Everybody's in the dumps lately. I've been feeling a little blue myself, but I'm okay. Why?"
"I got this fifty-page tract about how if you're not productive and happy, you're 'engaging in anti-conceptual mentality' or something. Is the propaganda itself depressing people?"
"Oh, that? I don't think anyone's read it. I could barely lift it."
"What's wrong, then?"
Niki said, "I don't know. At least Firestar's okay."
Aldous' tail curled as he thought. "Thanks. I might talk to you later."
He found Firestar and motioned her outside to the hallway. "You didn't tell me you were a cyborg."
"You didn't ask," she said. "What's up?"
"You don't even eat normal food, do you?"
She glared at him. "Huh? No, I don't have a digestive system anymore. Have you got some kind of bio-chauvinism?"
Aldous let the lab's door close and glanced down the empty glass tunnel. "Something weird is going on. You're fine."
"Why, thank you," said Firestar, looking mollified as she gave a complex bow.
"You're all right. The girl in there was on an IV. Niki had a month's supply of pretzels. Dwalin had just gotten back. The dolphins are smartass fish-eaters. The people who've been bored and depressed are the ones who seem to have a normal diet."
"What about you?" she said, tilting her head.
"I was totally out of it when Dwalin saw me -- which was right after I had the veggie lasagna. Where is this place's food coming from?"
Firestar's ears flicked back in alarm and her tail thrashed. "The greenhouses of Genetech West!"
# 8. #
Aldous said, "Could it be that the sabotage is something healthy and nutritious?"
"We've been looking for ordinary employee gripes, while Dwalin and Marie are off looking for nanotech attacks -- but the real problem is the food. We've got to do something! Quick, buy us first-class tickets to Vegas!"
She ran off, leaving Aldous to stand there blinking. He went back to the cyborg lab and said, "Can I borrow a computer and an expense account?"
Firestar returned wearing a backpack and saddlebags. "Got them?"
"It'll cost a fortune, and I'm not paying out of pocket, especially since you didn't say why."
"As I suspected, I couldn't reach the others. We need to go to Genetech West in person before this problem gets any worse."
"It's in Las Vegas?" A secret research base wouldn't be the strangest building there.
She looked exasperated. "It's near the border. We fly in, drive the rest of the way, expose the conspiracy, then play blackjack at the Luxor."
Aldous said, "Look at yourself. The company's disguise tech might be good enough to hide someone like Erin, but what about you? How long have you been like this, anyway?"
Firestar slumped on four feet. "Months. I keep forgetting I still can't do the things normal people do, not in public."
"They'll improve the hardware soon. We can take the casinos' money later."
"But I like being a taur!" she said. "I love being able to stand up and dance and leap and haul my own weight after... what I went through."
He hesitated by the computer, not knowing whether it was right to ask. Maybe he should just get packed and let her work out the travel arrangements. "If you don't want to say..."
"Here." Firestar snatched up pen and paper, then handed him a scribbled note while looking away. "That's your answer; don't blab. I have a new life now. Anyway, buy one plane ticket and rent a car with your ID card. You're a harmless, clueless newbie, so they hopefully won't do much to you. Get what evidence you can without arousing suspicion, and we'll take it to General Management. Look for a message from me at the airport; I'll do research while you travel."
Aldous was overwhelmed. "You want me to spy on Genetech West, alone?"
Firestar tugged at Aldous' shirt, adjusting it as though dressing him for work. "You did okay so far. Your cover story can be that you're there to complain about the latest batch of Vixena (tm). Just don't ask for a demonstration."
"Okay. Okay, then. I can do this." He turned to the computer with unsteady hands, and ordered one plane ticket.
He felt Firestar's forepaw clutching his tail, with little claws against soft fur. She said, "Remember this? You need one of these." She held out a watch, like the one Erin used as a disguise projector. Aldous looked at the watch and felt the touch on his tail, and knew he wasn't human anymore. /No/, he told himself. /I'm just different./ He donned the watch, now seeing only a faint ripple in the air behind him. He had trouble looking straight at it.
Firestar stepped away, saying, "Good luck. Have fun storming the castle."
Aldous returned to his room to sit and think before leaving the base. He'd hardly been here a day and all this had happened. Should he use the chance to quit and run away screaming? He could go back to being safe at home, and not be surrounded by this madness.
The crumpled note was still in his pocket. He took it out, wondering what Firestar had gone through. The note simply said, "Vietnam."
He sat there for a while, full of mixed feelings, wondering just how strange this company was, and whether that was a bad thing.
# 9. #
At the airport, a metal detector beeped. "Remove your watch, sir."
Aldous sweated. How did Erin travel with his own disguise? What would the guards do to him? "I'd really rather not. It's valuable."
"Then you don't get on the plane, sir."
There wasn't a good way to handle this. /Improvise./ He removed the watch while trying not to be seen from behind.
"Huh?" said one of the guards. Aldous' tail had reappeared, waving hello.
Aldous talked quickly. "I wear the tail for religious reasons. Realistic, isn't it? Have you smelled the good news of the Church of Stripedastrian Mephitology? It's really changed my life."
The guards were looking at him with a mixture of disgust and bafflement. Aldous put his watch through the X-ray machine and strode through the metal detector again. "Can I interest you in some literature? I've got scratch-and-sniff pamphlets."
"No, that's -- never mind. Just go."
Aldous picked up his backpack and the watch, marched along to the nearest men's room, and locked himself in a stall to hyperventilate and hide his tail again.
The flight was uneventful, with room for his tail in the first-class seat. Many miles later, a car-rental clerk at the airport handed him keys and a sheaf of papers. Slot machines beeped from the baggage claim area. "Oh, and there's a message for you." Reading from a screen, the clerk said, "Bring back some gourds! This message will self-destruct."
Aldous ducked. After several seconds he peeked over the counter.
"I'm not sure why they said that, sir. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Sorry. I've had a tough few days."
The long drive was hot and boring. Aldous found himself wishing for Firestar's company. After a while he reached an area that looked like just more desert at first -- sand, cacti and sagebrush -- but he kept looking around, knowing that the place had to be nearby. There! The Genetech West Campus stood off to the right: a complex of dusty tan greenhouses that seemed to make his eyes slide away. This place couldn't hide so well; there was too much in the open, and there had to be a road entrance somewhere. Sure enough, he found a sign for "Consolidated Engineering Enterprise Dynamics," with a green smiley-face logo that gave him the willies. The sign took him to an underground, unguarded parking lot.
It was when he tried his card at the door that the security started. A cheery voice asked, "Can we help you?"
"I'm here to talk to someone about the latest batch of Vixena. Trademarked."
A young man's face appeared on a screen. "You don't look like a vixen. Are you a customer?" He seemed to be fumbling with a computer on his end. "No, wait, you're an employee. Hang on."
Aldous shrugged and entered when the door opened. The guy at the reception desk didn't look organized; he said, "Sorry, man. I'm new here."
"Don't worry about it. I just arrived in Bermuda myself."
The receptionist froze. "Wait. You're with the East Division?"
Aldous mentally kicked himself. "Don't we all have access to every campus?"
"I'm not really sure. I think your boss and Boss Henweigh have some kind of feud going on."
Aldous kept hands in his pockets, hiding a cell phone with a camera. He tried to sound casual. "Oh? Say, I've had nothing but airline food all day. Is there any place to eat here?"
"There's the Genghis Galley, over that way. Lemme give you a badge." The guy handed over a "Visitor" badge. "About the Vixena (tm), what were the side effects this time?"
"Oh, the usual."
The receptionist snickered. "Talk to That Fox about it."
"That's what he's called. I think That Fox started out as a wild animal. He likes chasing mice and designing molecules. Third basement floor."
This place actually had signage! Aldous made his way to the little cantina. He saw scruffy scientists slouched over beer; what seemed to be big-eyed grey aliens, and a band of mutants playing a catchy tune. He made his way warily through the crowd and saw a familiar-looking cyborg lady behind the counter. "Awaiting order," she said.
"What do you have for vegetables today?"
Her steely voice unnerved him. "There is no veggie; only soup."
Aldous took a step back and examined the food. He'd been hoping to find clues here, but they wouldn't use poison gourds on their own employees... probably. He saw a steamer tray full of some kind of casserole and said, "What about that?"
"You are logged in as a guest," said the cyborg. "Please enter your administrator password to select this item."
Aldous was about to turn away and get a bag of Ken Lay's potato chips for a snack, when a gaunt old man laid a skinny hand on him. "You don't want /that/ stuff," the man said. The accent was faintly Russian, unsettling Aldous.
"The casserole. I don't believe in messing with legitimate visitors."
"Hmm? Oh, this badge," said Aldous, taking the chance to remove the Visitor tag so he wouldn't be an obvious outsider. He flashed his company ID at the man, with his thumb over the raindrop East Campus logo. "I'm actually a new hire, in Technical Support. The receptionist said the guest badge would make me safer somehow."
"Don't bother with it; they just issue the badges to collect data from the radiation film. I see you've already got a disguise and some kind of big tail. Squirrel?"
Aldous relaxed a bit and removed the watch, revealing his tail. "Close. So, what's wrong with the casserole? I've already been tricked into drinking Skunk Beer; does this have the Carrots of Doom or something?"
"Doom carrots are more South Campus' style. This just has my own little project in it." The old man cleared his throat. "Behold: the Rutabagas of Ennui!"
"They impart a certain /fin de siecle/, /je ne sais quois/ feeling." He saw that Aldous had no idea, and added, "Angst. Docility. Cow-like nirvana."
Aldous tried to hide his fear. He really needed some stronger deodorant. The man in front of him was trying to sabotage rival divisions with mind-control salad! "That's kind of extreme, isn't it?"
"Bah! Marketing wants to call everything 'extreme' or 'radical' on the theory that you kids can't hold still long enough to pay attention to anything normal. But the rutabagas themselves help solve that problem."
"Sorry to bother you," said Aldous.
"Don't you want to stay and eat?"
"That's all right. Thanks!" Aldous excused himself and got out of there, to a sunny hall of flowers. This facility was a lot more open, a nice place with a self-contained jungle to one side and to the other, a day care center with too many cacti.
After some exploration he found his way to a huge greenhouse. Cubicles dangled from the trees around rows of plants and racks of hydroponics tanks. He strolled along, looking for evidence and trying to remember what rutabagas looked like. A bunny-girl hummed to herself while attaching electrical leads to a cabbage. Aldous said, "Excuse me. Where are the Rutabagas of Ennui?"
"Thataway," she said with a flick of her ears.
He found only a door where she pointed. Beyond it was a big indoor garden, packed with yellowish root vegetables. /Aha!/ The humid air scorched his skin and made his tail droop. No one was tending this room but a couple of robot ferrets. He waited till they were some distance away, then knelt and used his car keys to slice off a few leaves and other bits of veggie and put them in his pockets. Great! Now all he needed was to escape. He turned to the door, and found the old botanist staring at him. "What," said the man, "are you doing in my laboratory?"
/Caught!/ Aldous decided to try bluster. "I'm on to you! We've already discovered your conspiracy to subvert employee morale with genetically-engineered rutabagas grown by robot ferrets!"
The botanist spread his hands in protest. "What?"
Aldous forced his way past the man, saying, "Don't try to deny it. I've got the authority to be here for Technical Support."
"Wait! Seriously, what conspiracy?"
Aldous stopped, uncertain. "To feed these to Genetech East."
"To them? No, no! These rutabagas are for a government contract, for school lunches. What makes you think they're being served at your facility?"
"They're even at your own cafeteria, under security."
"The casserole? That's just for unsuspecting auditors and lawyers. I don't know how any of my crop would be getting into the Genetech East food supply."
"Then you won't mind my going back and telling my bosses that."
"Of course not."
From the main greenhouse outside the rutabaga room came a woman's voice. "I'd mind."
Aldous said, "Marie?" His blue-haired co-worker was descending a staircase, pointing a dart gun at him.
"Think you're pretty smart, eh?" she said. "You were supposed to stay at the office and not poke around in Genetech West's affairs." She pointed lower with the dart gun, showing its chamber full of glowing purple stuff. "Is that a root in your pocket? I can't let you have that."
Aldous looked for a good escape route and found none. The botanist was protesting but Aldous interrupted: "Even these things' maker doesn't support you, Marie. If you're a double agent for the West Division, you're hurting them too. This is madness!"
Marie snatched a chunk of veggie from his pocket and waved it in his face, hissing, "This is salad!"
Aldous snatched a bioluminescent jack o'lantern off a vine and threw it at Marie, saying, "Trick or treat!"
Marie fumbled as she warded off the grinning pumpkin, and the dart gun fired at the ceiling. Aldous ran, hearing the botanist trying to restrain her. Aldous dashed past the startled bunny-girl, dodged a huge Venus fly-trap, and was nearly to the door when he tripped over a pipe. "Stay right there," said Marie behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw her finish reloading. He'd just gotten to his feet when she aimed at his back.
"What's in those darts, anyway?"
"Killing you would be against company policy, but you can be reassigned. Really, you'd have been fine if you hadn't interfered. Now put your hands on the cantaloupes where I can see them."
Aldous reached for the fruit displayed in front of him, making no sudden moves. Great; he'd probably be "reassigned" to a zoo. This job stank. /Oh, wait.../
He sucked in his gut and pulled down his pants...
In a moment Marie was gasping, collapsing backward into a patch of grain stalks. A dart thudded into a table and Aldous was hopping ahead, trying to recover and fix his belt. Marie coughed and cursed while the botanist called to some guards, "There! Catch her in the rye!" They weren't chasing him yet and he was happy to be ignored for the moment. He remembered something, then called out over his shoulder: "Evil Overlord's List, Rule 7: Shoot first, taunt later!"
Down one hall and another he dashed, with people hustling out of his way. His eyes watered but he didn't smell /that/ bad, did he? Not even the receptionist stopped him as he fled the building, jumped into his rental car, tossed bits of rutabaga onto the far seat, and found the keys.
# 10. #
The boat stopped at the entry buoy on a blazing afternoon. Aldous thanked the driver and carefully sighted the tiny dock before stepping on. The elevator took him down to the tune of Holst's "Jupiter."
Dwalin and Firestar ambushed him in the hall, saying, "Welcome back!"
Aldous said, "Did the samples arrive? Is everything dealt with?"
"Aye," said Dwalin, "and we've changed our menu a bit. Genetech South will be hearing from us."
"The West group wasn't doing anything to us intentionally, this time. Marie was playing all three sides, tricking the West into using its menacing vegetables against the East. General Management was not pleased to learn of the South's treachery."
Firestar pulled a present from a saddlebag. "The boss wanted you to have this."
Aldous grinned and pulled away the gold ribbon. Inside was a photo. A picture of a man flexing muscles in a shirt advertising "Galt's Gym," with an autograph in black marker: "To Alvous -- Glad the job's working out for you -- A. Gattart."
"Uh, great," said Aldous.
Dwalin shook his head at that. "This might thrill you less than that present, but it seems I can use you for more than giving morale surveys. I'm short a good Technical Support agent, after all."
Aldous stared out to the water, watching fish drift by. He'd had time in Las Vegas before his return flight, but he'd avoided the casinos for fear of being seen with his tail somehow, and being exposed as a freak. No, that wasn't the right word. He was different now, and didn't feel quite at home among the people who'd never heard of Genetech. "How long will it be," he said, "before people like Firestar can go wherever they want? Before everyone can benefit from what we do here?"
Dwalin said, "Patience, lad."
Firestar grinned. "Let the researchers keep doing their thing, while we keep it all from going wrong. Soon we'll show more of our stuff to the world. We'll show them all!"
Aldous nodded, satisfied, and let the others lead him on.
Congratulations on your employment with Genetech Incorporated, <subject name here>! We're sure that <subject campus here> will be a perfect fit for you, and we promise not to tell anyone about <subject blackmail here>. Don't forget that next month we're having Take Your Daughter To Work Day!
I'd personally love to see more of this series. I could tell just by reading up to that point that your writing skills were phenomenal. The Douglas Adams-style of over-the-top humor is just icing on the cake.
Thanks. The only thing I did in this series after this was [link] , "Safari Swap", for a story exchange with someone. I wasn't nearly as pleased with that one though. Oh, and there was a random collaborative thing I worked on, but it didn't get far.
When I posted the survey on FurAffinity originally, a bunch of people commented on it in-character, and I replied as "Erin." That helped inspire this story when someone said "can I pay you to write something more with Genetech?"