“Oh, come on, Sal,” said Sherman, sliding off his stool. “Don’t stand there gawping like a codfish. You haven’t seen a ghost. It’s just me. Or have you decided to break my heart by forgetting me already?” He pulled an exaggeratedly sorrowful expression. “I thought we were friends.”
“You were sick.” My mouth was desert-dry. I swallowed and tried again, with barely any more strength than I had managed the first time: “You were sick. They took you away after Chave collapsed. How are you here? Did you get better?” Hope sprung wild in my chest. Maybe Dr. Banks had lied to me about having a treatment, or maybe Dr. Cale was the one who’d lied, claiming that there were no recoveries when they were really just rare. “Are you better now?”
“Aw, pet. Don’t look so miserable, you’ll break my heart.” Sherman’s expression sharpened as he glanced to Marvin. “How’s the tank coming?”
“It’s almost ready,” he said. “The procedure usually takes about an hour, so we should have that long before Dr. Banks comes looking for Sally. If he tries to monitor the process, we have some old data he hasn’t seen that we can feed through to him. As long as she’s not pregnant or hiding any broken bones, it’ll work.” Marvin glanced my way, eyes raking along my body assessingly. “Are you pregnant?”
“What? No! I’m not pregnant, I’m not… what is going on here?” I looked to Sherman. All three of them had been friendly to me, but he was the only one I really thought of as an ally. Mysterious as his presence was, I was happy to accept it if it made getting through the next few minutes easier. “Sherman, please. What’s happening? How are you here? I thought you were…”
“Aw, Sal. You know I never could resist those big brown eyes of yours.” He walked over to me, bending to gather me into a hug. I didn’t resist. I hugged him back, glad beyond words to have him back. I had missed him so much while I thought that he was dead. I had missed him—
His heartbeat seemed oddly loud with my ear pressed against his neck. It briefly overwhelmed the sound of my own inner drums. It mingled and harmonized with them, taking over the rhythm line for the few seconds that passed before he pulled away, leaving me blinking and newly confused.
“I didn’t get better because I wasn’t sick,” he said, with the utmost patience. “I never had the so-called ‘sleepwalking sickness.’ I never lost control of my own mind. And I always knew that you’d come back to us, my sweet Sal. You’d have to see the light sooner or later. It shines right through the branches, doesn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“He’s talking about the thumb drive,” said Dr. Sanjiv. She sounded almost bored. “We know you stole those files off of Dr. Banks’s computer, and we want you to give them to us. This doesn’t have to be difficult, or complicated. Just hand over the thumb drive. You can even get into the ultrasound chamber for real after that, if you want to.”
I stared at her. “What?”
“There are never just two sides in anything,” said Sherman. “Children’s games, maybe, but we’re not children, and this is not a game. Not even you are a child, my dear, for all that you’re only a little over six years old. You’re old enough to make your own decisions, live your own life, and be drafted into someone else’s war, whether you want to be or not.”
“But… but you work here,” I protested. “Why do you need my thumb drive?”
“Partially as a show of good faith—it would be an excellent way for you to indicate that you’re willing to work with us, don’t you think? And partially because we haven’t been able to get at Dr. Banks’s computer. He’s actually very careful about his security with most people. You’re special, Sal.” For a moment, Sherman looked almost angry at me. I took an unconscious step backward. “You’ve never understood just how special you were, have you? Just how many rules have been bent to allow you to live your happy little life, safe in your cocoon of oblivious joy? I’m afraid that’s going to end soon. We’re coming up on a war, my pet, and there’s no room for coddling in a war zone. I do hope you’ll side with us in what’s to be done. It would be easier that way. On all of us, I think, but most especially on you. You’re the one who has to suffer if you choose wrong. And all you have to do—the very first step you need to take, to show us that you’re ready to play games with the big boys—is give us that thumb drive.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” I whispered.
“You can’t hide in ignorance after you’ve already admitted that you’re not that foolish, sweetheart. You’re through the doors. It’s too late by far.” Sherman closed the distance between us in two long steps, reaching out to tweak a lock of my hair between his fingers. What joy I had felt at the return of my friend was quickly dying, replaced by a whole new kind of fear. “Remember? ‘Why do you need my thumb drive?’ ” The voice he used to imitate me was squeaky and girlish. A weak voice.
I might be a child. I might be the least well-informed person in this room. But I was not weak.
“Get the hell away from me,” I snapped, and stomped down on his foot, hard.
Sherman’s eyes widened. And then, to my surprise and chagrin, he started to laugh. “Oh, so they’ve been teaching you to fight back, have they? That’s a fun new wrinkle. But Sally, darling, it’s not going to help you. This is so much bigger than you are.”