Dallin pointed to a sign at the top of the threshold: 642. “642’s our oldest – unfortunate for him.”
While Dallin typed in a key code to the door handle, the interrogator asked, “642 – that number’s smaller than the female specimen’s. Does that mean he’s older?”
“Yes, but not by much. They were probably cloned up the same year.”
“What happened to numbers 1 through 641, then?”
Dallin stopped short of pushing the handle to open the door. “Sexual dimorphism in spiders, especially tarantulas and our chimeras, isn’t very kind to males.” He lifted the aluminum box a couple inches. “You don’t have to come along, you know, but 642 is special to me. The aides said it’s time.”
The interrogator took a few seconds to respond, “642 is dying, then?”
“It doesn’t know it, but yes.” He let the handle return to locked position.
The interrogator gulped. “Then how much longer do you expect 803 has to live?”
“Oh, 20, thirty years. Maybe more. We don’t know. We haven’t had a female before.” He typed the code in once more. “You should probably stay at the door this time, even if you aren’t scared.”
The interrogator nodded. “Well…I am scared.”
“Don’t be. 642 was a good boy too. Well…is, for a little while.”
Dallin cracked the door open. The lights in this cell were dimmer than the ones in 951’s cell, a bit redder in temperature. The interrogator bit her lip and held her breath.
Dallin put his hand into his pocket and withdrew the aluminum box he’d taken from the gowning room, then slowly opened the door. He closed it partway and looked back at the interrogator. “Just peek around the corner. The bright light might spook him, and that would be a painful way to go.”
She nodded in agreement and held just to the edge.
Inside was the spider. On its back was a huge gash, and a second spider seemed to be erupting from the opening in the exoskeleton.
At Dallin’s approach, the thing jerked, but it didn’t seem capable of moving. “Poor thing. Just like we expected – stuck in its ultimate molt. They have to shed their skin every so often, you know, if they want to grow. Even when they’re done growing, like poor 642 here, they need to continue molting to perform self repair and keep their vitals up. So when a mature male has to molt – pop! That’s it. The end.”
642 shivered as Dallin approached.
“Does it know what’s happening?”
“It knows its pedipalps are stuck. It’s afraid, since a predator might be coming while it’s still weak.” Dallin opened the aluminum box and withdrew a glass syringe. “Shh, it’ll be alright. It won’t hurt. Sleep, now.”
He stuck the end of the syringe at the top of the thorax and emptied the contents.
The interrogator closed the door a little more while Dallin rubbed the injection site. “Can’t you save it?”
He shook his head. “Afraid not. We’ve tried to remove the pedipalps before, but doing it before the molt begins doesn’t work; by the time they’re this mature, the exoskeleton is too hard. Removing them when they’re young seems to send them into a kind of…starvation mode. It doesn’t quite make sense.”
The spider soon calmed, its breathing more even. It stopped thrashing about in attempt to escape its own skeleton.
“I…I almost feel sorry for it,” the interrogator said.
“I do feel sorry for him,” Dallin admitted. He replaced the syringe in the aluminum box and placed it in a biohazard bin. “This creature was happy for sixteen years, though. He had plenty of food, the best medical care it could ask for, and plenty of human friends. I…I hate putting them down.” His eyes blinked quickly.
The interrogator’s fingers gripped the door more tightly, and she fought back tears to match those that dripped down Dallin’s face. “You like your creations.”
“Yes.” He sniffled. “They may be soldiers, may be perfect killing machines, but they’re also loyal, trainable creatures. They can count, and they can almost trick you into thinking they’re sentient, at times. I’ve spoken with monkey researchers before, and they claim similar feeling to their wards. But…it’s different. I made these chimeras. They’re…in a way, they’re my adopted children. My brain children.”
The interrogator stuck her head in a little further. “So what the two hillbillies did, how they decided to adopt specimen 803 – it’s not something you’d find crazy?”
Dallin didn’t respond. The interrogator waited longer, but the old scientist said nothing.
At last, he places a viscose-encased hand over the eight eyes of the spider and pulled the lids down. He looked to his wrist, and the computer shimmered a holographic watch into place. “Time of death: 20:06, March 16th, 2087.” He coughed. “Well, that’s about all I think I’m ready to show you today. Ready to get out of this heavy garb? Mara’s packed me something fantastic – with all these Southerners around, she was inspired to make biscuits. Want to try one?”
The interrogator looked once more at the dead spider. The dead, 200-lb, chimeric spider. “I don’t know if I can, right now.”
“Nonsense! Come along. We’ll warm it up in the microwave first and eat it with apple butter…”