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Like my heart was beating too hard.

“I do.” Dr. Cale nodded. “You have to understand that… oh, God, how do I say this? I genuinely think of Adam and Tansy—and yes, you—as my children. You contain my DNA, and while a connection to a living human brain is required for you to achieve full sapience, I cannot question your right to exist once you have that connection. Do you understand? I wouldn’t kill a functional human being to give one of my babies a body, but I wouldn’t take that body away from them if they already had it.”

“Okay,” I said, confused.

“You were a miracle, Sal. For whatever reason, you not only took advantage of Sally’s accident, you found a way to complete integration without help. Sally’s brain is the computer that runs your consciousness, but you, only you, are the medical miracle here. You’re the one who evolved under pressure.” She smiled a little, like she expected this revelation to make me happy. It did not make me happy. “If Dr. Banks wanted to study a natural chimera, you were perfect. Tell me, those contracts that he had you and your parents sign, agreeing to allow SymboGen to handle your medical care. Did they say anything about what would happen to your body if you passed away for any reason?”

“Dr. Banks would get it for research purposes.” Dawning horror was coiling in my stomach. I tried to tamp it down, demanding, “But what good would that do? All he’d get would be a dead worm and a deader girl. There’s not much to learn from that.”

“Tapeworms are hardy, Sal. It’s true that your current body wouldn’t survive the loss of your human host; you’re too deeply integrated to be removed. But all he’d need is a single viable proglottid to grow a new worm with your exact genetic makeup. He could create another you under controlled lab conditions. He’s never had a chimera of his own—I’ve had people sabotaging his research every time it looked like he was getting close. Creating another iteration of you wouldn’t require the same level of research; you’ve made all the modifications necessary for a successful joining already, all by yourself. He could exploit that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were built with a DNA profile,” she said. “You found a way, instinctively, to modify it enough to let you take Sally Mitchell’s body as your own. That’s normal. Every baseline worm expresses itself differently. We could hatch a thousand eggs from the same batch that made you and get a thousand slightly different results—but your body is hermaphroditic, and every egg it generates will be a tiny, perfect clone of you, Sal. Banks could use that. He could grow a chimera of his own, and then figure out how to make the process easier… or how to stop it altogether.”

I stared at her, aghast. “Are you saying that Dr. Banks left weak blood vessels in my brain because he wanted me to have an aneurism and die?”

“So that he could take samples and culture eggs from your original body, yes, and possibly move it into a new host,” said Dr. Cale. “Observing you throughout the life cycle of your original host would have been a secondary goal. I admit, I can see the temptation. It would have been a perfect, untouched system, if only it had been a computer model instead of a living person.”

“I don’t think he thinks of me as a person,” I said.

“You may not be a human, Sal, but you’re a person. Anyone who can think and speak and be upset by someone’s plans for them is a person.” Dr. Cale wheeled herself closer. “Which brings us to the next matter at hand. Those blood vessels need to be repaired, or you’re going to keep having incidents like this one.”

“I thought I fainted because I lost too much blood,” I said weakly.

“You didn’t lose that much blood, but what you did lose was enough to strain your system,” she said. “That was really the problem. Once your body begins to worry about circulation, things will go downhill for you very quickly, because you don’t have much in the way of a reserve. We need to operate.”

The thought of being unconscious on a table while someone sliced into my head filled me with terror. I didn’t want them so close to my vulnerable body. I needed my skull to keep people away from it. But that wasn’t going to do me much good if the channels that carried the food I needed to survive were blocked. “Can we do that here?” I asked, inwardly amazed at how calm I sounded. Why, it was almost as if I weren’t asking someone to cut me open.

Dr. Cale shook her head. “No, we can’t,” she said. “I have excellent surgical facilities—I can even perform limited brain surgery, when there’s a need for it—but what you need is too delicate. It’s going to require a specialist, and equipment that’s much more advanced than I have access to here. We’re going to need to take you to a hospital.”

“Nathan has admitting privileges at the hospital where he works,” I said slowly.

“Yes, and that hospital is in San Francisco, and everyone there knows him.” Dr. Cale shook her head for the second time in under a minute. A look of deep regret transfused her features. Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any better. “We’d be arrested before we even managed to get you on the table.”

“So what, then? I can’t just stay here and try not to get upset about anything. The sleepwalkers are getting worse. That sort of makes staying calm impossible.”

“I’m going to need you to trust me.”