American Chimera – 15.3

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A claw gripped onto my wrist. “Stacy!”

“I swear I’ll never cheat again!” I screamed. “Dani!”

And Dani, who’s so crazy strong, pulled me to her seat. The width of her body allowed and the eight legs allowed her to hold onto the seat better than I ever could. She shoved me under her, so I gripped the the metal rod under the seat and held on for dear life.

The ceiling crushed down. Broken glass churned in the spinning bus. Dani held both of us tight to her seat, the space between her and me getting ever smaller. My breath was compressed. I stopped screaming.

And then, suddenly, the bus stopped rolling and remained still on its side. I took a few moments, waiting to make sure the horrific spinning was over, then pulled myself out from under Dani. “Dani – Dani, oh my god, are you ok?”

Dani struggled, but she finally pulled a couple stuck claws out from between the bus seats and fell across the aisle toward where I had been sitting. She crumpled into herself and shivered. “What just happened!?”

“I think we rolled off a cliff!”

“I’m scared.” She felt around in her hoodie pocket and pulled out her tablet. “I’m calling Mom and Dad.”

I shook my head, now feeling a little bit of blood trickling off my nose. I noticed my head hurt, and my glove came back wet when I touched my forehead. I must have hit it against something in all the crazy twirling.

You can see the scar – right here, look – still. I have to cover that with crazy makeup, and it still gives me point deductions for symmetry. I mean, I totally beat the pants off Dani in the beauty category, but you can’t accumulate too many points. You literally can’t.

Anyway, I felt a little dizzy. I put my leg against something hard and “down,” and started crawling to the emrgency door in the back. All the running lights were off, and I smelled something burning. The lithium batteries’ casings had probably cracked. I coughed in the light smoke and put my hands against the emergency exit handle.

The door banged against its casing. The hard, composite shell of the bus had crunched and twisted such that the door was stuck. I kicked at it a couple times.

Dani crawled out of her seat. “Mr. Potter? Mr. Potter, you ok?” she shouted. I noticed her legs squirm around on the sideways chairs, pulling her up from the polymeric side of the bus.

Water from the shallow creek started seeping in through the windows. “Dani!” I shouted. “Dani – we have to get out of here! There’s water and cracked batteries!” I kicked at the door again, budging it a few centimeters.

You hear that, hag? I can use the metric system. Suck it.

Dani ripped the driver’s seat apart and manhandled the unconscious Mr. Potter out. She slung him over her thorax, held onto him with a couple of her legs, and started crawling back. “Get that door open, Stacy!”

“I’m tryin’!” I kicked again, and blood from my head dripped into my eye. At last, I kicked the window in the bottom of the door out. “I got it!”

I bent down and crawled through the opening. The cold of the morning bit into my bare hands, and the cut on my forehead stung with the temperature. The smell of lithium fire was even stronger out here.

“Stacy!” I heard behind me. “Stacy – help me get him out of here.”

Though dizzy, I turned around and took Mr. Potter’s jacket. I remember the smell of his breath, like how my parents’ breath smelled after a couple glasses of wine, but more intense.

Dani fed him out through the little hole in the door, squeezing him out like pasta from an extruder. I pulled the limp spaghetti man out from the hole. I felt crappy when his feet went into the creek, but that wasn’t a big deal – flames spurted from the bottom of the bus as more of the lithium became exposed to air.

“God, he’s heavy!” I cried as I dragged him. I could hardly see – my eyes were clouding up from loss of blood and all the exertion.

Dani pushed at the door. “Just get him away from here, Stacy! Run!”

My arms gave out after I got Mr. Potter a few yards further away. “God, Dani, help me.”

“Get out of here, Stacy!”

I stumbled a couple feet, then fell to the ground. It smelled of leaf litter and frost.

“Stacy!”

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American Chimera – 15.1

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Stacy cleaned something out from under her nails and shifted around on the long chaise lounge. “Gah, I wish you’d stop pretending like you were a shrink. Everyone knows you’re trying to get something else out of me.”

The interrogator wrote something on her tablet. “Like what?”

“Something about Dani. That’s for sure.”

“It is. Dani is, after all, exactly what I’m here to talk about.” She put the tablet down on her lap and leaned forward earnestly. “This figment was created by you for a reason. Perhaps it was due to some sort of trauma? An event that may have precipitated the need for comfort?”

Stacy rolled her eyes. “I remember playing basketball with her in kindergarten. It’s not like anything bad had happened at that point.”

“Your memory has been vastly altered. Your mind is hiding the truth, even in what you perceive as your past. I’m here to help you dig through your thoughts and find the truth.”

“So if I just tell you something bad, you’ll stop hounding me with this bullshit?”

The interrogator sighed. “Well, since I wasn’t hired to help clean up your language, yes. After I figure out the source of your false memories, we can begin the real work. We can start the healing process.” She cleared her throat. “So, is there something you want to tell me about? It could have happened recently, it could have happened a couple years ago. Middle school, maybe?”

Stacy put her cleaned finger up to her chin. “I think I know what you’re goin’ for.”

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American Chimera – 14.4

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“Mr. Huffman?”

Brett Huffman’s face was in his hands. When he looked back up at the interrogator, the sheen of leftover tears glimmered in the overhead light. “I got off track. Just tryin’ to ’member what happened next.”

The interrogator put a hand to her chin. “I don’t see how that story proves that Dani’s a person. It doesn’t even have to be true.”

Brett’s brows furrowed. “How can you just sit there, look at me, and tell me I’m lyin’? What the hell kind of reason might I have for lyin’?” He stood from his bed and pointed to the door. “Dani’s a person ’cause she’s got feelin’s. If she’d gotten straight zeros on that test, she’d still be a person ’cause she’d have feelin’s and a way to tell us ’bout em. She has hopes and dreams and y’all just crushed ’em into tiny pieces with your stupid tests. So get out of here – let me sit here with my pants off in peace.”

The interrogator crossed her arms. “No.”

“Then what you want?!” he asked. “You rurned my life, and I mighta arreddy give yeh summat to use ’gainst me or Janie or Dani. I am pow’rless here. So you git outta here, or I’ll find some way to make yeh git out.”

“Last time I spoke with you, you told me a story about tearing down a flag.” She swallowed. “Since then, I talked with someone who told me something surprising: that flag wasn’t an American flag.”

“Git out.”

“It was a Confederate flag.”

“Heritage, not hate.”

“Is that what you taught your chimera? Did you teach your stolen weapon of war that flag wasn’t about hate?”

He gritted his teeth. “I wouldn’t ’spect you to unnerstand.”

“What, because I’m black?”

“’Cause y’er hateful! You destroyed everything and everyone I love! Git outta my cell.”

“No,” the interrogator said. “You love Dani, and it’s obvious a whole bunch of other people love her too. But Brett, she’s a spider. A freaking 200 pound spider.”

“300.”

“300 pound, then,” the interrogator said. “A 300 pound spider that you’ve obviously taught to distrust the government. I’m going to talk with her soon, and I’m…I…”

Brett sighed and sat back down on his cot. “Y’er scared.”

“No. I’m not scared.”

The room fell quiet, only the lapping of the water in the trough echoing off the walls. The lights burned bright in the ceiling, undying LED’s shimmering in concert.

“I’m leaving,” the interrogator said.

“I never taught ’er to be racist, if you were wonderin’ ’bout that.”

The interrogator didn’t wait around to listen to more. She closed the door tight behind her.

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American Chimera – 14.3

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“’Cause the gov’ments filled with darned idiots,” I answered. I leaned onto the coffee table and looked into our daughter’s eyes. “This pisses me right off. So I’m just gonna tell yeh how the world works and get it over with. So siddown.”

Dani crawled onto the bed, and Janie gave a wary look at me. “What’re you doin,’ Brett?”

“What shoulda been done afore now.” I fell onto the bed, next to Dani, and smoothed out the blanket in front of me. “Now, Dani, you ’member a couple weeks ago when the war ended? How I told you I thought you was a chimera?”

She nodded her cephalothorax. That’s a fancy word, ain’t it? Cephalothorax. Learned that one from Dr. Worthington.

“Well,” I continued, scratchin my chin, “Bein’ a chimera means you’re a whole genetic soup of a whole bunch of things. It’s why you’re a ‘spider girl,’ why you hafta get those head treatments so yer brain will fit into yer exoskeleton. And you know what? Someone made you that way.”

“I knew that.”

“I ain’t talkin’ ’bout God,” I refuted, holding out a hand. “I’m talkin’ ’bout some gov’ment scientist. Some little weasel nerd in Connecticut or summat awful like that thought, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s put a little girl into a spider’s body. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.’ And so that dirty carpetbagger come up with some way to put you in that body.”

Janie held onto the bedpost. “Brett, that’s enough.”

“I ain’t finished, though,” I said. “We fount yeh, Dani, over in the holler near the blackberry bushes. Up above Miss Sarah’s cow pasture.” My lips quivered. “We fount yer egg and took yeh home. And you ’ventully hatched, and Dani, we loved you then like we love you now. And I want the best for yeh. The absolute best.”

Dani wiggled her little pedipalps. I remember seeing the fangs on her jaws. I remember at that moment wanting to just squeeze her and stop the pain she was gonna feel.

I coughed. “You’ve learnt in school how babies are made. They’ve tole yeh the end of year tests determine your phenotypical fitness, and your phenotypic fitness determines how many babies the gov’ment’s gonna let you have when you grow up.” I leaned forward. “Mama and Daddy weren’t ’lowed no babies.”

“What?” She skittered around on the bed. “None? Then…then…am I adopted?”

Janie took hold of Dani’s front leg, right round the flexible part she used as a hand. “You’ve gone too far, Brett.”

Dani’s gaze fixed on Janie. “Is it true? Did you just…just…find me down with all the other trash in the holler?”

“You’re not trash, Dani.” Janie said. “Dani, you got a two child rating. Do you know how rare that is? Don’t you realize how many other kids got ones, or zeros? Because most of them did.”

“Youns are both missin’ the point.” I pounded a fist on the bed. “The point is that the gov’ment made you real special, Dani, and your Mama and me are lucky to have you. Blessed, in fact. But the stupid gov’ment ain’t figgered out how to judge the beauty of a spider girl, ’cause they ain’t e’er gonna love you like Mama and Daddy can. The gov’ment made you, prob’ly spent a whole lotta money to do it, and they put so much time into makin’ you that they ain’t updated their test to ’count for you bein’ a spider girl. They just ’spected plain human girls and plain human boys, and that’s why their test sucks. ’Cause they’re idiots…spend all that money to make you and not give you a fair test…stupid.”

Dani shook.

Janie held her tight. “Your classmates love you. Your friend Stacy loves you.” She rubbed Dani’s head. “And yeah, you’re adopted. That’s how come you got the most rotten parents in the world.”

Dani pushed Janie away. “What? Mommy, I love you. You’re the best!”

“Am I?” Janie asked. She pulled some files out of the computer and brought an old letter, marked by its old file extension. “This paper here says I’s never fit to be a mommy. I took the same test you took, and the state told me I failed. Failed. I got a big ol’ zero, and they cut me open and took out my ovaries. I got low scores in ev’ry subject, ’cludin’ beauty. You beat me on near ’bout ever’thin, Dani. And you know what?” She reached out to take my right hand, then kept her other hand on Dani’s cephalothorax (gotta use my fancy words when I can). Janie squeezed my hand tight. “I found you, and I think my raisin’ you’s showed that test what’s what. I think I’ve been a good mommy, and I hope you agree.” She shed a tear. “I don’t know what I’d do if I had to believe my score was right.”

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American Chimera – 14.2

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Janie pointed to the holographic note. “Now, you know what we said earlier. Not gettin’ the score you want don’t mean you’re bad.”

“Yeah,” Dani said. She rubbed her claws in excitement then reared back onto four legs. I remember her cute little pink dress, the one my mother had made special for the summer. It had white polka dots and Minnie Mouse on the print.

Janie gave me our secret look. We’d been married long ’nuff that I could ’bout read her mind. She was worried.

Hell, I was ’bout to piss myself I was so worried. Janie couldn’tve been much better off.

The end of year tests. When I was in school, leastwise up ’till it mattered, the tests just determined if you passed to the next grade. I’d scoot by on the minimum and look for’ard to fishin’ in the summers. There weren’t no fat-measurin’ contests nor beauty pageants nor physical fitness tests. Janie might’ve failed the phenotypic tests just ’cause she ain’t never learned to swim. The tests were real hard back when they was first cuttin’ out people’s testicles and ovaries. Had to get rid of a slew of undesirables, ya know.

Anyway, the scores came in the mail. “Open the letter, Mama.” She hopped up and down, just shy of bein’ able to touch the hologram.

So Janie tapped the note, and the airy envelope opened. On the inside of the envelope was the scoring rubric and what the state had given for each category.

Dani tugged a claw at the bottom of the letter and pulled it to her height so she could see it. “2!” she cried out. “I got a 2!”

I looked at Janie. A two? Our daughter?

A tear came to my eyes. I couldn’t be more proud of her, couldn’t wish greater success. At the same time, my heart sank – how would getting a tentative two-child rating help a creature so clearly inhuman?

We knew she was a Chimera. The news had broke just a couple weeks afore her first exam results came in. So who was she going to breed with? How would we break her heart?

Well, of course we decided not to break her heart right then.

Janie pointed to a number. “Dani, look at this! You did so well on your physical aptitude test – that’s a very high score!”

I looked over her shoulder. “Wow…holy mackeral, sweetie, that’s perfect in every subcategory. When’d you learn to swim?”

“Basketball camp,” she answered, “And the internet.”

I whistled. “Lord have mercy, child. I’m gonna have to see that. You teach me how to swim?”

She nodded. “Yeah!”

Just so it’s clear, the swimmin’ lessons didn’t go too well. Ain’t gonna suggest learnin’ to swim from an 8-legged person to no one.

Janie shook her head incredulously. “It’s…this is amazing. Reading, writing, math, science, history are all very good! You’ve done so well, Dani!”

“I think this calls for ice cream!” I decided.

“Yes! Absolutely. You want ice cream, Dani?”

The little girl pulled the paper down and kept perusing it. Her ecstatic demeanor crashed when she pointed out a single number. “I got a zero in this one.”

I blinked and looked at what she pointed out. “Aw, that one ain’t worth jack diddly.”

She dropped the hologram and left it floating in midair.

Janie offered her a hand. “The rubric ain’t fair for you on that one, sweetie.”

Dani clutched her claw tight. “Am I ugly, Mama?”

“No!” Janie denied. “Look at this sub-rubric – ear size. Sweetcakes, your ears don’t look nothin’ like Mama’s or Daddy’s. They’re on your face, kinda like dolphin ears ’cept tuned to work in air rather than water.”

“And nose,” I said. “You say you smell with your legs. How they gonna compare your legs with my nose?”

Dani’s legs curled in. “How do I get a nose like yours? Ears?” She reached up and caressed my legs, then held tight to the pants on my outer thigh. “Do I get to grow up to be human, eventually? Is that going to happen?”

I shook my head. “No. You’re a chimera, and we love you for who you are.”

“But that makes me ugly.”

“Swetheart, no,” Janie insisted. “This is a stupid paper. See this bit?”

Dani nodded, saying that yes, she understood that Janie’s finger pointed to ‘Morality.’

Janie ran her finger down the list. “You are just. You are kind. You are smart. You are way ahead of the curve on altruism, which means niceness. This section right here says you’re gorgeous.”

“Then why is this section called ‘beauty’?”

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American Chimera – 14.1

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“What in tarnation?!”

The interrogator unfolded a canvas and aluminum chair then plopped it next to the cell door. She sat down and unfolded her tablet from its stylus. “I need information. Information I don’t have time to ready the interrogation chamber for.”

Brett hurriedly stepped into his trousers and hopped around. “Well, you could’a tole a man you were comin’ to visit afore you caught ’im with his pants down!”

“You could wear clothing instead.”

“I ain’t gonna wear pants in my own room.”

“Fine.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve seen Dani’s grades. I know she’s somehow rated for a two child future despite being a chimera. How did you swing that?”

He tightened the drawstring at the top of his jumpsuit and sat to pulling the overshirt around his shoulders. “I reckon she’s got more brains than me. Maybe more than her mama – er, Janie, you know – but I’m a bit too dull to tell. She passed them tests, all I can tell yeh.”

“You didn’t rig them?”

“No. Wouldn’t know how anyway.”

“Her teachers could have cheated for her.”

“I don’t reckon that’s what happened.”

“Then prove it. Tell me something that will assure me Dani’s…safe. Prove to me that she’s both intelligent and moral.”

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American Chimera – 13.4

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“So when you go to see Dani, you’ll notice her cephalothorax is a bit distended on one end. That’s from the injections and the extra growth of her exoskeleton.”

The interrogator chuckled. “I’d say it’s more an ‘if’ than a ‘when.'”

“You’re the only person I know of that can travel from our prisons to hers. You have to make sure it’s a when. I don’t know your Dr. Smith, but he has to be cruel if he’s used biosafety and science as an excuse to keep Dani from her friends and parents. Even if it’s only a few times, I need you to assure Dani that we’re all thinking about her.”

The interrogator let go of Dr. Worthington’s hand. “You think she’s Brett and Janie’s actual child, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“That’s ludicrous. And why would you support that? You know what they were. You knew they were poor lunatics, the exact kind of people the government wouldn’t want raising a child.”

Dr. Worthington leaned in close to the interrogator. “I had two children. They each had two children. All of it with no oversight, no chance of involuntary sterilization. I lived a life you can’t even imagine, a life filled with sugar and beef and butter and wine.” She pointed to the door. “But I know what votes I had to cast. My generation knew that sterilization would be unpopular, but it had to happen or none of us would be here now. So hate us and hate our hypocrisy for as long as you want, but none of that will change my past. None of that will change the fact that you are suffering for choices you couldn’t have made. None of that will change the fact that Dani exists and is here now, imprisoned.”

The interrogator stood, her face dour. “I do what I have to do. If I were to treat this specimen like an accident child as you do, this country would be lost.” She crossed her arms. “So I’ll do what I have to. I’ll deal with the mess your generation left this world in.”

“Help me back down?”

The interrogator turned away from Dr. Worthington and left.

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American Chimera – 13.3

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“I told you before that I don’t know what she is, but…you’re right, in a way. I think her mind is human, or at least human enough. Her cranial cavity isn’t growing correctly given her brain size.”

“Can we…is there anything we can do?”

I nodded. “Yeah. There are things we can try.”

I actually didn’t have a clue. It was at this point, when I realized I was trying not to let them know I couldn’t save their daughter, that I stopped being jealous of doctors that worked on humans. Oh, hell, that would be the worst.

Brett nodded. “What we gonna do?”

“I have to do a couple more studies,” I said. “We’re going to need to run some metabolic and hormonal tests, and it’s…it’s going to be a lot of them. We don’t know what she is, so I’m going to have to run the gamut. After we figure out what growth hormones she produces, I should be able to order a cocktail to inject near her brain immediately after she sheds her next exoskeleton. It’ll force the soft, new flesh to grow more than normal. If we do this every time she molts, we should be able to control it.”

Brett held his little spider close. “Any side effects?”

“I don’t know.” I leaned forward, putting a lot more weight on my arms than I can manage now. “Everything we do with Dani is uncharted territory. The only way I could make better decisions is if we knew what she was – but that would require me asking for help from an agency. Is that what you want?”

He shook his head. “No. Keep this quiet. I git the sneakin’ spicion that Uncle Sam won’t take kindly to us raisin’ this little girl. Not that I think the gov’ment’s involved or anythin,’ since we definitely didn’t just steal her. Nothin’ classified or anything, not that we know of.”

I moved some of the images into Dani’s electronic folders. This was the first time I knew for sure that Dani was supposed to be government property. I looked at some of the wrinkles and liver spots on my hands. I didn’t have that long left to live, not the way the environment was falling apart and disposable plastics were disappearing. A lifetime of excess and luxury was catching up to me.

And to Dani.

My wrinkles and spots and failing health made me part of the generation that had made Janie and Brett sterile, that had failed to stop the temperatures from rising. I can blame my parents and grandparents as much as I want, but they’re long dead now and there’s no point. Assuming time goes on, you’ll understand one day. Your generation will do things to irrepably change the lives of those younger than you, and they won’t like your decisions no matter what they are, no matter if they’re all that stands between the planet and total destruction.

“I’ll help you. It’s going to be expensive, but I’ll put you on a payment plan. There’s no point in making you pay for a child’s medical care when no one else on the planet has to.” I typed into the records system a few notes and made another appointment. “Bring her back in a couple weeks and we’ll do the complete workup. I’ll formulate the first therapy, and we’ll try it. If we don’t, well…I fear the alternative is worse than the possible side effects from the treatments.”

Brett nodded. “How can I thank you, Dr. Worthington?”

“Keep your job. Do right by this girl you’ve adopted. No one else with kids is going to slack off.”

“I’m not sure I wanna go to college.”

I let my shoulders down. “That’s up to you. But one of you should try – they have scholarships just for sterilized people.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Yeah.” Dani wrapped a few legs around his neck. “I’ll see you in a couple weeks then, Doc.”

I nodded and saw him off.

He paid his bill in full.

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American Chimera – 13.2

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Spiders go through something called a molt. It’s like growing pains, like how your very bones hurt when you’re actively getting bigger, but more violent, explosive, and energetically expensive.

During her first few months of life, Dani molted several times. Given the rates I saw her growing, I decided the little girl was going to live at least as long as a tarantula, probably longer, and reach a size I couldn’t predict. I charted her as accurately as I could, tried to maintain constant interaction with the Huffmans, and still my predictions seemed entirely guesswork.

Toward the end of her first year, the Huffmans called me with concerns about her molt. Ever since a few days after she’d shed her previous exoskeleton, she’d been holding her head with her claws and keeping her eyes closed. They theorized that she had a headache. I had them bring her in.

“Dada?” she asked.

I’d heard it a few times. I’d heard her say Mama, Daddy, and a few other things. I knew that she was progressing like a human baby more than a spider or even a monkey.

“Was Janie sick today?” I asked.

He shook his head. “’Mergency at work. You wouldn’t b’lieve how many folks think Bojangles robots got money in ’em – I mean, how long’s it been since people’d carry cash?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. A while.”

“And yet they think it’s a smart idea to crawl up the cookin’ hole to find money. So Janie’s gone downtown to cut sommun outta the box.”

“That’s insane. Though, I suppose I should be proud of her – and you, really – for holding a job for a year. Didn’t expect it, to tell you the truth.” I stroked the spider’s smooth back and wondered if she’d ever develop urticating hairs (hint: she didn’t). When I touched the top of her head, she’d grimace and flail her eight legs. “Brett…I know I’ve said it before, but I’m still not sure what she is. I don’t-”

“She’s a little girl,” Brett said. He pointed at her and waggled his thick, calloused finger. “Ain’t you ’eard what she just said? That’s my name. Dada. And here – lookit – came in the mail recently.” He fumbled in his phone until he pulled up a copy of an official document. “See? Social security card. Bona-fide human.”

“Oh good lord.”

“It’s even legal an’ everthin. Had some illegals help me figger it out, though.”

I put a palm to my forehead. “Whatever. I don’t know what’s going on with your legal situation, and I don’t rightly care. Do you want to pay for an MRI?”

“You think it’ll hep ’er, doc?”

“I’ve got no better idea. Her head’s hurting, and I’d see a break in the exoskeleton if that were the problem.”

He nodded. “Then yeah. I got the cash, so I reckon we ort’ta figger this out. Whadda I do?”

I swaddled the blanket around her a little. “Pick her up and follow me.”

MRI machines are amazing now. They’re incredibly inexpensive. When I just started out in veterinary medicine, it took a room full of scientists and equipment just to run one, so most animal MRIs were done at veterinary schools or some of the biggest, most expensive hospitals. Now even po-dunk country doctors like me could just have one in a back room. I shuffled down the hallway and opened the door to the room, then instructed Brett to sit her in the ring openeing.

I’d never had a patient so…patient before. Calm. Trainable. At that moment, I felt insanely jealous of doctors practicing on humans. They had such an unfair advantage.

Brett helped hold her still while I operated the machine, and in about fifteen minutes I had an image before me. He picked her up at my direction and brought her over to the screen. While he bounced her in effort to make her happy, I pointed at the place on the screen I wanted him to look.

“The problem is obvious,” I said. “If you look here, you’ll see that the brain is growing about as you’d want in a human of her age. The problem is that the exoskeleton is growing for a spider of her weight – and that doesn’t match up.”

Brett sucked in a breath and held it.

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American Chimera – 13.1

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Dr. Worthington’s eyes blinked a few times when her cell unexpectedly opened. “Lord, you nearly gave me a stroke. I didn’t expect visitors at this hour – assuming time’s still ticking out there.” She reached out a withered, old hand. “Help me sit up.”

The interrogator let the door shut and lock behind her, then walked over to the feeble old woman. She offered a hand and picked Dr. Worthington up from the soft trap. “Would you like me to place a pillow behind you? For your back?”

“That would be nice.” She groaned with relief when she leaned back against the feather-filled cotton. “Oh, Lord, sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have just died when my husband did.”

The interrogator took a seat on the foot of Dr. Worthington’s bed. Her nose twitched as she sniffed the room. “Why?”

“Should be obvious. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing I or my friends or even my generation did can stop it.” She coughed a bit after she breathed in. “Now. I’m glad you’ve come to visit an old woman in her death chambers, but I’m sure you’re looking for something else out of me.” The doctor leaned forward a bit, then back when she realized it was hard to hold the position. “And why haven’t you taken me to the interrogation room this time? Why visit?”

The interrogator looked to her own feet and intertwined her fingers. “Records indicate you’re not in the best of health, and our living conditions aren’t improving that. The guards suggested I come here to question you today.”

“Hmph. Now I know you’re lying.”

“Will my lying change anything?”

“Depends.”

“I’ve learned from Dr. Smith, the resident scientist here and foremost expert on Chimeras such as Dani Huffman, that your medical notes have been invaluable. He told me something about, uh, ‘cranial treatments’ that you’ve done. I was wondering if you could tell me more about those.”

Dr. Worthington closed her eyes a moment. “I know what you’re talking about. I couldn’t tell you exact formulations, and most of the medical documentation’s already in my logs. I don’t think there’s anything more definitive I can tell you.”

The interrogator’s face turned directly to Dr. Worthington. She placed a dark hand on top of Dr. Worthington’s pale white. “I was allowed to see the male chimeras. They’re little more than animals, but the stories I’ve heard from Dani’s parents, friends, and teachers have all indicated she’s more than a pet or a killing machine. I’m on the training docket to visit with Dani eventually, but I need assurance, doctor. I need assurance that I shouldn’t be afraid, that what’s inside her exoskeleton is something human.”

Though hidden beneath mounds of wrinkles, Dr. Worthington beamed a gummy smile. “I’m not sure if you’re trying to play psychological games with me. You’re wilier than you want people to think. I’m too old for your crap, though.” She clutched the interrogator’s hand. “So listen, and listen well, because Dani deserves better than what you’ve given her. She deserves better than what you’ve given me.”

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