Nathan seemed to share my amazement, and my hesitant joy. “Yes,” he said. “It really is.”
If the sleepwalkers were learning, then they were forming connections with the human brains where they lived. They were retaining information in a way that tapeworms couldn’t, and they were doing it despite their faulty initial connections to their hosts. Maybe not all sleepwalkers had the capacity to learn—maybe not all sleepwalkers could be taught, no matter how great the incentive—but if any of them had that potential, maybe the line between chimera and sleepwalker wasn’t as absolute as we had always assumed. Maybe some of them could be saved.
Then three figures emerged from between the buildings up ahead, and the time for abstract contemplation was over. Beverly seemed to lose her mind, lunging against her leash as she barked and bit at the air, presenting a full threat display to the sleepwalkers who were now running toward us at a terrifying clip. The one in the center—a female, still wearing the tattered remains of a floral housedress—moved faster than the others, a sign of a strong brain/body connection. The others followed. She was probably our “smart” sleepwalker; she was the only one with the coordination to swerve around the obstacles in her path, while her companions tripped over every hubcap and bit of shredded tire. That also raised the question of whether she had been somehow controlling them, using her greater intellect—relatively speaking—to keep them moving at her pace as she led them toward the promise of a meal.
“Get down!” shouted Fishy, taking aim at the onrushing sleepwalker. He didn’t move or seem particularly worried; he just braced the butt of his rifle, making small, precise adjustments to his stance as he lined up the shot. He might as well have been at a shooting gallery, not standing in a debris-riddled street with a barely sentient woman rushing toward him, ready to rip out his throat.
Beverly gave one last fierce yank on her leash, ripping it out of my hands, before she took off for the woman, still barking frantically. I didn’t think: I just reacted. In that moment, I was no different from the sleepwalkers, single-minded and unswerving in the pursuit of my goal. “Beverly! Heel!” I shouted, and ran after her.
Behind me I heard Fishy swear as I blocked his shot. I didn’t care. The woman was a danger, but I wasn’t going to lose my dog.
Beverly was faster than I was, especially across flat ground. She leapt, hitting the woman squarely in the chest with both forepaws and sending her crashing to the ground. The sleepwalker woman didn’t even try to hold Beverly off. She just struggled to get back to her feet, seemingly oblivious to the dog that was sitting on her chest, snarling and barking angrily.
I grabbed Beverly’s collar, hauling her backward. The sleepwalker came up with her, lips drawn back and teeth exposed… and then she stopped, looking at me blankly. There was a spark of something in her eyes that could have been confusion.
Fishy’s gun barked once, and one of the two sleepwalkers that had been following the fallen woman went down, his head exploding into a haze of red mist. I flinched but didn’t turn, forcing myself to keep my eyes locked on the face of the woman in front of me. There was a bruise on one cheek, so purple and livid that it looked more like makeup than an injury, and I could see her clavicle clearly through her skin. She hadn’t eaten in a while. None of them had. She tilted her head slowly to the side, making a crooning noise deep in her throat.
Beverly was still barking. I tried to focus past that. “I’m Sal,” I said. “I know you can hear me. I know you can tell that I’m family. Do you have a name? Do you know who you are?” Maybe we had been missing chimera because they were concealed among the greater sleepwalker population, effectively going feral in their efforts to stay hidden. Maybe there were chimera everywhere, and all we needed to do was start looking for them.
The woman bared her teeth and hissed at me. She lunged, and her head seemed to explode, sending bits of skull, brain tissue, and shattered tapeworm everywhere. I shrieked, recoiling. Not fast enough; bits of her showered both me and Beverly, leaving me feeling sticky and contaminated.
“Sal!” Nathan shouted. He ran up bare seconds after her body hit the ground. I stared down at her, unable to take my eyes off the white loops of tapeworm squirming weakly against the red wetness of her blood. Nathan followed my gaze. There was a horrified pause before he said, “Oh, God. Her implant… there was almost no brain tissue left.”
I stared at him mutely, unable to quite comprehend what he was saying. Fishy trotted up behind us, pulling a protesting Dr. Banks in his wake, and peered down at the remains of the sleepwalker. “Looks like her growth limiter broke,” he said, sounding entirely too cheerful about the idea. “It’s sort of like spaghetti, don’t you think?”
“And here I didn’t think you could make it any worse,” muttered Nathan.
Make it worse… I shook off the veil of disgust that had settled over me, standing up straighter and trying to look like I hadn’t just been on the verge of vomiting as I said, “There are at least two more on their way here, and we just made a lot of noise. We need to get out of here.”
“Sal’s right,” said Nathan. “Fishy, are we clear?”
“You mean ‘are we about to get eaten alive by pseudo-zombies conceived by a creative team with an obsession for body horror’?” asked Fishy blithely. “Oh, we’re golden.”
There wasn’t much that any of us could say to that. We resumed our march into the deserted city, moving away from the site of the slaughter as quickly as we could without attracting even more attention.