Weeks flew by without further incident. Of course, Dieter wasn’t allowing me any time alone in the lab–he’d been arriving earlier to work than myself since the encounter with 42.

I guess he didn’t trust me.

Otherwise, he’d been coming over to my apartment at least twice a week to cook a meal with me. Things seemed to be going well in that respect; I haven’t lit myself on fire yet, anyway. It was strange seeing him in something other than work attire. He looked like any other grandpa.

He also made good on his promise to show me how to work out. He picked on me a bit for my insistance on wearing long sleeves, but for the most part he was gentle with me. He didn’t say anything about my lack of physical strength–no chastising for being weak, or for not knowing what a kettlebell was. Only encouragement came from him. I didn’t have to be afraid to ask questions, or to ask for help with my form. He didn’t force me beyond my limits.

I don’t think he knew how much things like that meant to me. Back home, I was constantly trying to hide–if I couldn’t do something, or if I did it wrong, I would absolutely hear about it in a less than kind way. It was expected of me to do whatever my aunt wanted–or else–and it was considered out of line for me to expect anything in return, especially when I was still a minor. In her mind, I owed her everything for taking me in, and she was making sure I repaid her for her sacrifice. Numerous times, I was threatened with being sent back to live with my father.

As an adult, I know that was an empty threat. At the time, though, it was very effective.

But it wasn’t like that with Dieter. He never threatened me. He never expected anything for his time spent. He didn’t quite treat me like an equal, but he did at least treat me like a person.

I don’t know why this made me cry, but it did. Multiple times, when I was alone, I’d find myself sobbing over everything he was doing for me. It didn’t feel bad, per se, but it absolutely seemed like a strange reaction to have.

I’d already managed to gain 5 pounds, too, and I couldn’t quite be sure yet, but it seemed like my hair was starting to grow again. I hadn’t needed to shave it in months, and until now I’d been so busy I didn’t realize.

I had no idea I was so unhealthy.

I cried over this, too.

Today at work, however, things were a little different. Dieter had moved forward with getting 42 tested for a brain tumor, and he’s sending me off to the East Facility to pick up the results in person. I suspect he wants physical documents because he doesn’t much like using the computer. Multiple times now, he’d use the fact that I’m a Millennial as an excuse to have me prepare and send test results digitally to Eckert, instead of doing it himself. Considering I wasn’t allowed near 42, I was happy to be useful in other ways.

I exited the shuttle and made my way through the East Facility’s security checkpoint. I was determined this time to find my way without any help in this new place despite this facility being roughly as confusing as the West one. Unlike the West Facility, however, it was far more populated here and it certainly seemed like every door did in fact lead to somewhere.

I much preferred the relative isolation of the West Facility.

I did my best not to make eye contact with any of the staff, wanting to remain somewhat invisible. Fortunately for me, the veterinary department wasn’t too far off from the shuttle. I was the only person there today, it seemed.

At the reception desk sat a woman who couldn’t be too much older than myself. She had long, straight, light brown hair tied back in a pony tail, and bright green eyes. Her ID card, which I can see lying on her desk through the plexiglass, reads “Cheryl Reede”.

“Hello!” she said cheerily. “What facility and wing are you from, and what can I do for you?”

“W-West facility, west wing. I’m looking for 42’s test results.”

She types something into her computer. She tilts her head. “Are you new here?”

“Y-yeah, why?”

“Because you’re not Bob or Dale.” She looks at me. “42’s results aren’t in just yet. Can I see your ID card real quick?”

“Um, yes.”

I pull the card from my pocket and hand it over the desk. She scans it.

“… Alright, thank you,” she says as she hands my ID back to me. “Just wanted to make sure you actually have clearance for this.”

“Do… do you have problems with that a lot, or?”

A stupid question.

“Nah, it’s just… something I’m supposed to do.” She takes a moment to type something in, and then turns back to me. “Y’know, we usually email test results like this when they’re in. Makes things easier.”

“I-I figured, but Dieter wanted me to come pick them up in person.”

“Ah, so he’s made you his gofer.” She points over to the waiting area. “If you’d like to sit down, I can head back and harass some people into getting those results in for you.”

I laugh nervously. “Heh, thank you.” I move to the waiting area and sit down. She gets up and heads through a security door.

Unsure what to do with my hands, I sit there and pick at a hangnail on my thumb, and stare at a fake monstrum sitting in the corner.

After a few minutes, she comes back.

“Alright, Eric, it turns out those results need another 45 minutes to cook.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

There’s an awkward silence between us.

“I-I can wait, if you’re okay with that.”

She raises an eyebrow at me. “I mean, if you’re fine sitting in here with nothing to do, by all means. Personally, I could use the company.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I’ve been here for about 8 hours, and you’re the second person to come in.”

“Oh, damn.”

Another awkward silence.

“So how do you like it here? You miss home yet?”

“Oh, god, no,” I say, maybe a little too enthusiastically. “I really like it here so far.”

“Really?” she asks, sounding surprised. “I can’t wait to get back home, personally.”

“I’m living here full time.”

“Oh, I could never do that,” she says. “Not just because I miss my folks; I’m working toward my doctorate.”

“What’re you going for?”

“Molecular biology,” she responds. “I have a Masters right now, but that’s not enough to do the fun stuff.”

“‘Fun stuff?'”

“Well, yeah. I want to be part of the Genesis department eventually.”

I sat there for a moment, unsure of what to say.

“Have you ever been down to the basement?”

“The what now?”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” she says. She looks at her watch. “I get off in about 10 minutes if you’d like to check that out with me. It’s really pretty.”

“What’s down there?”

“Embryos floating in big, glowing orange vats,” she says with a grin.

I sit there for a moment in stunned silence. “What?”

She laughs a bit, “Oh gosh, yeah, you’re extremely new, aren’t you? Where do you think that critter you work with came from?”

She had a point. And I guess that at least partially answered a question I had. “Have you ever met 42?” I ask.

“Oh, no, I’ve never seen one outside of the tanks. I’m not allowed to say too much, but there’s some pretty wild shit down there.”

“There’re other things besides Xs?”

“I didn’t say that,” she says, almost too quickly. “You’ve heard of the donor program, right?”

We continue talking until her shift is over. Another person comes to take her place, and together we head out. Now that she’s standing, I see that she’s roughly half a head taller than I am. We get onto an elevator, she swipes her card, and we descend.

“There’s another security checkpoint once we get down there,” she says. “It’s nothing like the one upstairs by the shuttle–they only allow one person entry at a time to prevent someone who doesn’t have clearance from entering a door they shouldn’t. I’ll go in first.”

“O-okay,” I say nervously.

We reach our floor, and exit the elevator together. She swipes her card, and disappears beyond the checkpoint. After a moment, I too am invited to cross the barrier. I swipe my card, and, unlike her, I am escorted by an airman to a specific door, down a hall of many.

I wish I’d been given directions to the proper door, honestly–this large man makes me anxious.

I swipe my card when we stop. The lock clicks open, and I enter. Cheryl is there waiting for me. It’s very dark, but I can see an orange glow coming from just around the corner.

“I forgot–they escort you if you don’t have access to everything like I do.”

“I see that,” I mumble.

“He’ll be waiting by the door when we leave to take us back,” she says. “C’mon, let’s go.”

We head down the short corridor and turn the corner.

My eyes widen.

At least twenty large vats, most with something visibly floating inside, illuminate the room. She moves forward, and I follow, staring around at everything.

“Isn’t it something?” she asks.

It was eerily beautiful, while at the same time macabre. I could see their little hearts beating through their translucent skin, illuminated by the orange glow of what I assumed to be the heating unit inside the vat.

It was almost unbearably hot in this room, but we stayed and talked together anyway as we walked around and examined each vat. It was nice to have someone around my age to talk to for once–truth be told, I hadn’t spoken much to anyone other than Dieter since coming here. It felt good to finally make a friend.

… Maybe calling us “friends” was a bit too forward. “Acquaintances” was probably more accurate. It’s always been hard for me to tell, and the last thing I want to do is come off as creepy or clingy.

Before I knew it, a half hour had passed, and it was time for me to head back up and get those test results.

We say our good-byes, she heads for the shuttle, and I head back to the veterinary office.

Turns out, 42 is completely healthy.

There goes Dieter’s hypothesis.

I make my way back to the West Facility, and midway up the stairs to the observation deck, I pause.

“You’ve been jerking me around since January, and now you’re telling me there’s nothing you can do? Are you kidding me?”

There’s a silence. I’m assuming he’s talking to Eckert on the phone. I continue my ascent, when I hear something that makes my heart sink.

“You don’t understand. That kid you sent me is a hazard. I’m down here every day essentially doing this job by myself because he’s not strong enough to help me. I want him transferred. Send me a real employee.”

Involuntarily, I find myself sitting down on the steps.

“I’ve been doing what I can with him, but he’s just not cut out for this job. I don’t want to be responsible for this.”

Another pause.

“Maybe have him do something in the East Facility, I don’t know. They work with mice and rats over there, don’t they? That’s more in his wheelhouse.”

I sit there with a pit in my stomach.

“I will be pestering you about this whenever I can, I hope you know. I shouldn’t be expected to teach my adult employee how to cook for himself and work out just to clear my own conscience if something were to happen to him.”

There is another pause, and then, “We’ll see about that.” He snaps his flip phone shut.

I guess he’s done talking.

I sit there for a while longer.

I don’t know what I’m feeling right now.

Eventually, I stand up and force a smile as I continue up the steps, and into the observation deck.

“Ah, Ejay,” Dieter greets me. “I was worried you’d gotten lost.”

“Nope,” I say. “The results just… needed a little while longer to be ready, that’s all.” I hand him the file with the test results inside.

He takes them and has a look. He frowns.

“Well, then…”

“Y-Yeah, I saw, too.”

He shuts the folder and sets it aside.

“You know, Ejay,” he begins. “This is off-topic, but I’ve been thinking. You’re good with computers, right?”

“I guess I am.”

“You’re better than me,” he says. “Eckert’s been nagging me about digitizing some old trial tapes.”

“Tapes?” I blink.

“Mmhm,” he says. “Everything was still analog until fairly recently. I was hoping you’d be able to start that project for me. There are a lot of them, and I don’t know where to begin.”

He heads back toward the stairs. “Here, follow me.”

We head downstairs together, around a corner, and to another door. He swipes his card, and we enter.

It’s a small storeroom filled with boxes upon boxes, all with dates written on them, some dated all the way back to the 1980s. There’s a futon and a file cabinet in one corner.

“O-oh.” I stammer. “Are all of these–?”

“All of them.”

Jesus Christ.

After a moment of taking in the workload, I speak. “Y-yeah. I can do it.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll start today, if you’d like.”

“That would be excellent. Everything you need should be in this room already.”

He leaves.

I stand there for a bit before crossing the room and flopping down on the dusty futon.

After a moment of staring off into the blank wall in front of me, I start crying.

I knew what I was feeling now: betrayal.