In bygone days, before Strain Three had forced the people of this place to flee across the water, the lab had not been a lab. As Dobe and I passed beneath the great steel shutters, I considered that we would once have been able to wander in and out without the need for scans or keycards. As we passed the clicking banks of pipetting systems and their stacks of microplates, I wondered at how vacant this space must once have seemed. And as we descended the series of ramps leading to our living quarters, I savoured this one and only reminder that we were walking through a multi-storey car park.
The vehicles sat rusting on the sealed upper floors. A year or so ago, I had made trips up the outside of the building. Had seen them there. There was nothing special about those carsI personally had siphoned the fuel from every last one to feed our generatorsbut there was something uncanny about the way they rested just above our home, waiting for the drivers who had left them one day, twenty years ago, and never returned. The evacuation had been sudden.
Kevin as always was at the desk, illuminated by a single LCD screen which outshone the room's low-energy lighting. Hearing us come in, he cast a rare glance away from the computer. "Hey," he said. "Find anything useful?"
He addressed this question to me, but I let Dobe speak first. "We saw another employee," she said bluntly. "She's with the Purists now."
"Oh." I don't think any of us were sure how to react to the situation.
"She's still alive."
"Well, that's good."
"Really?" Though Dobe couldn't really do expressions, her relief was obvious.
"Yeah." Kevin cast a questioning glance at me. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"I was supposed to...won't she tell them about us?"
"She doesn't know where we are personally. The Purists are already perfectly aware of what the company's doing in general. What is there to tell?"
I could see Dobe thinking this over. "Surely it's still a risk?"
Kevin shook his head, his shock of greasy hair waving pathetically. "I don't think so. And even if it was, we can't really do anything. The Staedtler Corporation may be our best chance of eradicating Strain Three, but they can't force people to stay with them."
Dobe dropped her heavy body armour in the usual corner and set the pistol down on a rickety table nearby. The same table held a long gun safe which contained her corporate-issue assault rifle: auto-calibrated, jam-resistant and motor-fed, complete with biometric safety. However, without bullets, the state of the art weapon was little more than a sub-standard club. The two clips of caseless ammunition that had come with it had apparently been among the last in existence. Dobe stared at the safe for a moment. "That employee," she said, eventually. "She has an engineered immunity to Strain Three, doesn't she? You all do."
"Couldn't do the job otherwise."
"Then how can she quit? There aren't many people who can work here. We need all the ones who can."
Kevin slid the keyboard tray back under the desk. "This employee...Grey, what's her name?"
"Emma Chilcott," I said, simply. I wasn't sure I wanted to get involved in this conversation.
Kevin turned back to Dobe. "Emma didn't get a say in whether or not she was given her immunity any more than I did. Her parents made that decision for her, and there were a lot of people who didn't want to give them that option. You can give someone the genes to do a job, but you can't force them to work for you."
"Can't you?" I asked. The room might have been big, but it still had its elephants.
Kevin stopped and stared at me. "You shouldn't," he said eventually.
If it had turned into an argument, I wouldn't have regretted getting involved, but the way it just ended was a little unsettling. Then again, since the afternoon's events had clearly shaken Dobe's trust in me, it might have been for the best that it didn't go any further. For something to do, I went to the old computer at the back of the room and started transferring the files I had found in the derelict office. Once the computer was plugged inwe couldn't afford to waste a single wattthere was no need to be anywhere near it. My biological dynamo gave my implant a significantly better range than a human or unmodified AI could hope for. Having started the upload, I tried not to think about it: conscious effort on my part was, if anything, more likely to cause interruptions than to speed things up. Instead, I wandered over to the boards.
We had a large corkboard each, salvaged from a stationery shop just outside the lab. We pinned to these any interesting things that turned up: keyrings, postcards, bits of old magazines. In the office, I had noticed something shiny crumpled up in a wastepaper basket. "Cash your gold!" it said in golden letters. Below this there was a smiling woman with a bunch of gold chains in one hand and a wad of twenty pound notes in the other. Next to the wad of cash somebody had applied a wad of gum, which had long ago acquired the texture of porcelain.
"You're not pinning that up there too, are you?" asked Dobe, eyeing my overfull corkboard. "It's junk."
"I like it," I said. "It's nice to think that the people who used to live here had loads of gold just lying around. It must have been nice before the outbreak." I spent a moment looking for a place to put it, but it was useless. The push-pins had spilled off the cork and onto the wooden frame. In order to display this, I would have to discard something else. I selected one of my earlier acquisitions, an image from the back cover of a magazine. It was A4, put up before I realised how carefully I would have to use the space. Until I found some more things and filled in the gaps, the woman with the gold would be set off wonderfully by a frame of pristine cork, too small for the space she occupied. I went to add the magazine page to the pile of much-needed fuel for the furnace.
"What is that, anyway?" Dobe asked.
"This?" I held up the page from the magazine: Paris from £499. "It's the Eiffel Tower. It's a thing in France, the country across the water."
"What does it do?"
"Do?" I took another look at the picture. "I don't think it really does anything. It's just something to look at. Or you can go up to the top and look at other things."
"It sounds stupid," said Dobe.
"I guess it is." I made another move towards the fuel pile.
"Can I have it, though?" Dobe suddenly blurted out. "I mean, if you're just going to throw it away. It is kind of nice."
"Sure," I said. I handed over the magazine page and Dobe pinned it to her board where it hung awkward and alone. In three years, it was the only thing to have ever been displayed there. I didn't know whether to be pleased because she had started collecting too, or worried because the change was almost certainly due to the bullet that had torn through her brain two months ago.
My latest find now on display, I took a step back to appreciate the board. After twenty years, it was surprising what treasures still littered this city. I also took a look at Kevin's board, sparsely populated and neatly organised, featuring mostly things from before he had taken on the job. In the top left corner, first in importance if not in time, was a flyer.
Applicants should be able to work well alone and as part of a team. Familiarity with electrical systems is an asset, particularly well-suited candidates will also have a good to excellent understanding of modular genetics. Applicants should be willing to work outdoors in all weathers and in potentially hostile situations. Immunity to Staedtler strain three is essential: susceptible persons need not apply.
Conditional to your acceptance into our business community, you will be allocated a spacious reclaimed facility in an inner-city location from which to conduct your research: progress reports will be collected by satellite. You will also be provided with one pre-trained biological AI. Use of company facilities to manufacture further team members is permitted, and you are encouraged to produce at least one backup, but we regret that wetware fabricated outside company HQ is not covered by your insurance.
Payment details will be decided pending re-establishment of a national government.
I had never been sure how old that flyer was. The plasticky paper was yellowing, but not crumpled. Some elementsthe reclaimed facility, the one pre-trained AIcertainly seemed to match our situation, but others stuck out as being unusual. Very few people still in the country were susceptible to Strain Three, and still fewer, I think, expected there to be another government. Kevin often joked about whether or not he would ever get paid. It didn't really seem to matter.
Tapping a familiar keyboard shortcut, Kevin opened up a window that would show the percentage complete of each of the dozen or so genomes being assembled upstairs. Most would become viral vectors, intended to insert genes coding for Strain Three resistance into their hosts. Others coded for variations on Strain Three for vaccines. We had even worked on a handful of plasmids destined to be inserted into bacteria for the manufacture of antiviral drugs. So far, however, despite some partial successes, none had proven suitable. Still, when the overview was on the screena dozen tiny progress bars all filling up with healthy green pixelsthere was a sense that any one of these projects could be the one we were all waiting for. Kevin watched it for a while before turning away.
"It's probably about time for dinner," he said. "How about we treat ourselves to a couple of cans?"
"Are you sure?" I asked. "We haven't found any new ones for quite a while."
"It sounds like it's been a difficult day. We may as well open up something good."
"Ok." Dobe started up the ramp that led to the next floor. "I'll pick something out."
I began to followthe canned food left over from before the evacuation was, embarrassingly, much better than anything we knew how to cook for ourselvesbut Kevin waved for me to stop. He waited until Dobe's footsteps had vanished into the noise of the pipetting machines, then spoke.
"Do you think you could check on that employee you saw today?"
"What?" I asked. "Why?"
"Don't tell Dobe," he said, "but I am worried. If she just got fed up with the lab work, it's fine. I doubt we'll hear any more about it. Most likely, there's no point worrying, but...if she's really sided with them, if she really shares their goals, it could be dangerous for us."
"She lost her bodyguard," I said. "I'm sure she just couldn't carry on alone."
"Is that it? Then I'm sure too. It's probably nothing to worry about. Could you still check, though?"
I wasn't exactly looking forward to the prospect of sneaking into the Purists' camp, but it wasn't the first time and, truth be told, I was curious myself. "Should be able to," I said.
Dobe came back with two cans. One was ravioli, the other had been in water at some point and had lost its label. With some ceremony, I applied the tin opener and revealed its ancient secrets.
"Dog food," I announced.
"There were eleven more of those," added Dobe.
Kevin sighed. "Looks like we're going to be having a lot of cottage pie."