We followed him into the bowling alley, Beverly straining at her leash as she tried to rush ahead into this world of exciting new smells, Minnie lagging behind and nearly tripping me as she looked for something to reassure her that the world wasn’t changing for the worse. I understood the sentiment, even as it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to put one foot in front of the other. The spots around the edges of my vision were back, chewing little moth holes in everything I saw.
The dark room connecting the bowling alley door to the main lab seemed even darker than usual, although that could have been a side effect of my clouded vision. Fang stopped in front of the interior door, holding up a hand as he motioned for us to do the same.
“If you’ll wait here, I’ll let Dr. Cale know that you’re back,” he said.
“Okay,” I said dreamily. “I’m just going to take a little nap, all right?” The black spots were continuing to expand.
I didn’t even feel myself hit the floor.
This time, when I woke up, I was in a hospital cot in the middle of what looked like a makeshift operating theater, with two IV bags—one full of blood, one full of saline solution—attached to my left arm. I blinked at the tubes, and then twisted to look around the small room. The walls were just white sheets hanging from a pipe framework. A heart monitor beeped steadily, providing a treble accent to the drums that were beating softly in my ears. Another monitor was tracking… something. I assumed it was connected to the tangle of wires spilling off the bed. I reached up. There were sensors on my forehead, big round flat things held down with what felt like surgical tape. I frowned.
“Ah, good: you’re awake.” Dr. Cale’s voice came from the other side of the curtain. She pushed it aside with one sweep of her arm and came rolling in. “You gave us all quite a scare, young lady. It may be time to have a little talk about how you’re taking care of yourself. This can’t continue.”
“What?” I blinked at her blearily, trying to make sense of what she was saying. I’d been standing in the bowling alley with Nathan and the dogs—the dogs. “Where are Beverly and Minnie?”
“Your dogs are fine. I was prepared to be irritated about you bringing non-lab animals here, but they’ve already proven their value by distracting my son while you were having a seizure on my floor.” Dr. Cale’s frown deepened. “There are only a few human-tapeworm chimera in the world, Sal. You know that. As far as I’m aware, you’re the only one ever to arise without help. You’re a collector’s item, for lack of a better term, and you’re not taking the proper care to keep yourself in mint condition.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand. Where are my dogs?”
Dr. Cale reached up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Your dogs are with Nathan, who is getting them settled in the room you’ll be sharing until we relocate to a new lab space. Recent events have accelerated our timeline for moving slightly. We can’t risk being found.”
“Dr. Banks was on the radio,” I said. “He’s telling people I broke into SymboGen because somebody made me do it.”
“Well, that’s technically true, or close enough to true that I can’t be as angry at him as I’d like to be. But we’re getting off the topic.” She lowered her hand, looking at me gravely. “As I said before, you’re the first chimera to happen naturally. All of the others have had a team of experts standing by, bound and determined to make sure that our subjects had a successful melding with their hosts. Even then, it didn’t always go as well as we wanted it to.”
“Like Tansy?” I asked.
Dr. Cale nodded. “Yes. Exactly like Tansy. She had everything going for her when I performed the procedure. I had practiced on other subjects, the original damage to the host’s brain was minimal—it should have been perfect. It wasn’t. She caused seizures in her host, and damaged the brain in the process. All her neurological and cognitive issues stem from those seizures. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
I didn’t. I knew that my ignorance would show on my face, and so I didn’t even try to hide it: I just shook my head, wincing a little as the sensors attached to my forehead pulled, and said, “Not really.”
“When you entered Sally Mitchell’s skull, you exploited the damage that had been done by her accident,” said Dr. Cale. “It was a lucky break—literally. If her skull had broken in any other place, you probably wouldn’t have been able to get through. But in the process, you compromised some of the blood vessels that feed into the brain. They were partially repaired during the initial surgery. There should have been an additional surgery to suture and reconnect them properly, since those are your only source of nutrition now that you’re anchored in the brain, instead of in the digestive system. Unfortunately, Dr. Banks had taken over your care by that point, and he did not choose to order that operation.”
I stared at her. “But… why not?”
“Sal, I don’t know everything, all right? I can’t say for sure why he would have decided not to operate. Maybe you were too fragile at that time, and he didn’t want to endanger your integration. Maybe he was looking for leverage to hold over you later. There’s no way he missed this damage. I honestly don’t know why he didn’t correct it.”
“But you suspect.” The drums were starting to make a little more sense to me now. Of course they would seem louder than a normal human heartbeat: I wasn’t just hearing them with my ears, but with my entire body, which was wrapped into the pulse of the circulatory system in Sally Mitchell’s brain. There was no way I could have avoided hearing the drums. And at the same time… hadn’t they been seeming just a little too loud lately? Like they were pounding when they didn’t need to be? Like they were being played by someone who didn’t really know what they were doing.