The room spun, blurred white. Ruby tried to rub her eyes, but she couldn't move her arms. She waited for her head to clear.
A bright light hung over her—round silver chrome. She lay on a table, her wrists bound in leather restraints. She heard shuffling feet and low mutters to her left.
At first they were just a blur of limbs and teeth. She closed her eyes tight, then looked again, fighting to focus.
A row of faces grinned at her through a plexiglass wall, several rows of holes allowed her to hear one woman giggling with mechanical glee.
"Why aren't you smiling?" a man muttered, his grinning mouth pushed to an air hole.
Ruby pulled at her restraints. She tried pushing up off the table and found her ankles bound. She thrashed against her bonds. She leaned to one side and pulled her left wrist as hard as she could, fighting to break the chain on the restraint. A seam popped in the leather wrist cuff, but she couldn't tear it.
After several minutes of this, she fell back on the table and breathed heavy. What was the point of having extraordinary strength if she couldn't move?
"Hey," she cried. "Hey, somebody get me out of here!"
"You seem distressed," cooed a woman from beyond the plexiglass wall. "Would you like to feel better?"
"Piss off," Ruby snapped.
Footsteps approached from somewhere behind her. Ruby arched her back, trying to see.
"Oh, don't fear, young lady." The man walked into sight. He was short, balding, with round spectacles that hung halfway down his nose. He smiled, holding up a syringe, its needle dripping with clear liquid. "I'm not here to hurt you."
"Who are you?" she demanded. She tugged on her right wrist.
The man frowned. He looked down at the badge on his lab coat. "Why, I'm Doctor Yocum. Sorry, it's been so long since I've needed to use my name."
"Why am I tied up? What do you want?"
He examined the needle. "If all goes well, I'll make all your sorrow go away."
"That's Aeterna Storm. You want to turn me into one of those zombies."
"No," he assured. "No, not like them. This is a cure for them as well. If it works, they'll regain their autonomy. They'll live normal lives. They'll be happy all the time, and they won't..." He smiled at the wall of writhing Simps. "They won't bite."
"So why don't you inject one of them?"
He leaned in and traced a finger down her cheek. Ruby yanked her head away, glaring.
"I need an unmodified host to observe the nanobot infusion. I cannot properly gage the effects in an already enhanced host."
"So inject yourself. If it's so good."
"Hardly a scientific approach. Don't worry." He chuckled. "Or worry all you want. In a moment, all your worries will melt away."
He held her shoulder down and moved in. Ruby thrashed, making it impossible for him to inject her.
"Young lady, you don't want me to break the needle, do you? You're only hurting yourself."
"Better a broken needle then lose my mind."
He leaned in, putting his full weight on her shoulder. She continued to buck him off.
"You're strong," he said.
"I could kick your ass."
"No doubt." He stepped back and frowned down at her. "Fortunately, you will not get the chance." He ducked out of sight. She struggled to see where he had gone. She heard the clicking of a crank. Her wrist cuff grew taut, the slack in the restraint being pulled away under the bed. Soon, her arm lay pinned to the table.
He stood up and repeated the process on her left side, then did the same for her legs. She felt a strain on her hips and shoulders, her limbs nearly pulled from sockets. She screamed with rage.
Doctor Yocum chuckled as he retrieved the syringe once again. "Young lady, what I do, I do for the good of the world. Don't fear. You will be the first to enjoy the fruits of a whole new—"
His body suddenly tensed, his eyes wide, his spine arched backwards. He shook for a moment, his eyes darting back and forth. Then he fell.
Ruby craned her neck back. Behind the fallen body of Dr. Yocum, Basha stood with the stun baton, grinning down at his victim.
"Is this guy bothering you?" Basha asked.
Ruby heaved a gasping sigh. "Basha, how did you find me?"
"Just followed your little friend here."
From behind him, Skylar zipped out, spun around the room once, then landed on the table next to Ruby.
"Skylar, you're alive?"
"Of course I'm alive."
"But you couldn't move. You were frozen. You... you... you can talk?"
Skylar rolled her eyes. She spoke with a tiny, elfin voice. "What do you think the point of the upgrade was? Series 400, baby." She threw her chest out. "I'm a talker now. In fact, now that I can talk, I don't think I'll ever shut up."
"But what about—"
"If you'd read the fine print on the card, you'd know I had to reboot after receiving the upgrade. You could have waited for me, but no, you have to go marching into certain doom. I woke up in your pocket while that short stack dragged you through his lab. By the way, your coat pocket smells like corn nuts."
"She came and got me," Basha said as he unbuckled a restraint. "It was a little unnerving, being ordered around by an action figure."
"Bite me, Ken Doll," Skylar snapped.
Once Ruby was free, she stood over Dr. Yocum's body with Basha. "He wanted to inject me with the Aeterna Storm."
"It was an upgrade. He wanted to study me."
"So what do you say we inject him instead?"
"He knows about the nanobots. He might be able to help us."
"I don't get it. Why would a CDC scientist want to upgrade the stuff? Why not just find a way to shut it down?"
"Let's get him on the table and bring Chandra down here. I think this is the lab she was looking for."
* * *
Chandra ran her hand down an electron microscope. "This is better. Basha, have you found what he was working on?"
Basha sat at a workstation, clicking through screens. "The code is all here. Genetic interfaces, hormone stimulation, neuron routing configurations. He's been making modifications to the software. This guy is a shitty programmer by the way."
Chandra leaned in beside him. "This is what we need. Do you think there's a way to shut it down?"
"Of course. I don't understand why these people had so much trouble with a cure. The code's all here. The little beasties share upgrades through a low energy communication network. You inject a nanobot with codes to go dormant into the network, treat it like an upgrade, and the little guys will just roll over and sleep forever. Eventually, they'll break down in the bloodstream."
"So why didn't they do that here?" Ruby asked.
Chandra looked down the line of lab equipment, some of it polished to a professional gleam, some of it cobbled together from circuit boards and open racks. "I don't know," she said. "I won't understand what's going on until I know what we're working with. Where's the fairy?"
"I'm a fixie," Skylar said, standing on top of a computer monitor. To Ruby's surprise, she spoke Starrik. "Get the name right, skin bag."
"Sorry. I need your help to figure out what all of this equipment does."
Skylar turned to Ruby. "That cool with you, captain?"
"Uh, yes. Do what you can for her."
Ruby watched them work, Basha slumped over his terminal, Chandra and Skylar examining each piece of equipment. Once again, Ruby felt useless. "I'm going to go call Bryce and give him an update."
Basha waved, not turning.
Ruby stared down at her phone as she left the lab. No signal. That made sense. She was two stories underground. She didn't relish the thought of returning to the stairwell, but at least now she knew she'd be alone.
She pulled the door open. To her surprise, the stairway was now lit, every fluorescent light blazing and none of them blinking in disrepair.
"Hi," Tim said. "Your name is Ruby, right?"