“Sal!” Nathan sounded like he was on the verge of panic. “Get on board!”
“Check for ropes holding us to the dock!” I shouted back. “I’m going to see if I can slow them down.” It was a stupid idea. Every inch of me knew that it was a stupid idea. But the sleepwalkers were starting to listen to me, even if it was only for a few seconds at a time, and maybe a well-placed command to stop could keep them from rushing the boat. Not forever. Just long enough for Fishy to get the engines turned on and get us the hell out of this deathtrap.
“Go!” I kept my hand on the door, ready to jump onto the boat and slam it behind me. The stairs didn’t retract. What I was planning might not be safe, but it wouldn’t get me killed unless I was stupid or mistimed getting on board.
Nathan didn’t shout again. I glanced up the stairs and saw Beverly’s worried black face peering back at me, her ears perked forward in canine confusion. I offered her a wan smile but didn’t talk to her, not even to tell her that she was a good dog. She might have decided that was her cue to come to me, and I wasn’t going to try getting both of us on board without time to do it properly.
The sleepwalkers hit the door again, this time hard enough that the boom of impact resonated through the entire building. I tensed, turning just in time to see the door fly open and the swarm of sleepwalkers begin forcing their way inside. There were at least thirty of them, possibly more: they must have come from every inch of the waterfront, following the promise of food—and maybe, I had to admit, the pheromone trail that I was leaving just by moving through their world.
I can’t be Sally, I thought, almost nonsensically. Human girls don’t leave tracks like bees for their drones to follow back to the hives.
The boat under my hand gave a small hitch and then began to vibrate on an almost subsonic level as the first of the engines came on line. Beverly barked and withdrew, presumably to go to the end of the deck and bark more at the sleepwalkers.
“Good girl,” I murmured. The leading edge of the swarm was no more than fifteen feet away now—close enough. I raised my voice and shouted, with all the authority that I could muster, “Stop right there!”
And they stopped.
Not all of them, but four of the larger individuals. They had been at the front of the mob, and their sudden stillness ran another six up against immobility as they found their passage blocked.
“Stop!” I shouted again.
Three more stopped, and four more were barricaded. It was like a strange and potentially fatal math problem: if yelling at the onrushing cannibal zombies makes them stop moving, but it only works for X percent, how many times will you need to yell before safety is assured? Show your work, and don’t get eaten.
The vibration from the boat was getting stronger. It became audible as the second engine kicked in, suddenly roaring. That was good: that meant we were on the verge of getting out of here. That was also bad, because it meant that the engines were going to be pulling air, which would strip my pheromones from the air.
“Stay where you are!” I yelled.
Most of the sleepwalkers, against all odds, listened. Maybe it was the noise from the boat, making the area strange and potentially dangerous and keeping them from taking any major risks in pursuit of a single skinny dinner that they would need to split between them. Or maybe it really was the beginning of the next stage in our development. We still didn’t know how sleepwalker/chimera interaction was going to look, because we didn’t have the models for it.
“Sal!” Nathan’s shout came from the top of the stairs. “We’re clear!”
“I’ll be right there,” I called back, glancing toward him.
That was my mistake. The sleepwalkers might have been able to resist the urge to rush for me, but two bodies ripe and ready for consumption were a much bigger temptation. As soon as I took my eyes off them they moaned and began rushing forward again, moving with that eerie speed that they could achieve when they were focused on a goal. A goal like eating me alive. I looked back, screamed, and began scrambling for the stairs.
A hand caught the back of my shirt as I was stepping over the gap between dock and boat. I screamed again, thrusting one elbow backward with as much force as I could muster. The sleepwalker fell back, ripping the collar of my shirt in the process. I shoved myself forward into the tiny stairwell and slammed the door shut, pulling down the handle to lock it into place. The sound of hands drumming against the hull began almost instantly.
Twisting in that narrow, confined space was difficult, but I was able to do it, and was rewarded with the sight of Nathan’s worried face peering down at me from the deck of the ferry, his glasses askew and Beverly peeking over his shoulder like she was afraid that I would disappear. I forced myself to smile, aware that the expression would look artificial, but willing to accept it if it meant reassuring the people I cared about.
“I’m okay,” I said. “They didn’t hurt me, and they actually listened when I told them to stop—did you see? Did you see them stop?”
“I saw you risking your life to buy us time we didn’t need,” said Nathan, leaning forward to offer me his hand. I took it, allowing him to tug me up the last few steps. “Please don’t do that again.”
“Can’t promise that under the circumstances,” I replied. He pulled me into an embrace, and I went willingly along with it, wrapping my arms around the reassuring barrel of his chest and inhaling the detergent and sweat scent of his shirt. I giggled, unable to stop myself.