“Like you belong here,” he said, and leaned in and kissed me—quickly, but with an intensity that spoke to his fear, and to our mutual, growing conviction that we weren’t going to make it out of here. I kissed him back, allowing the momentary closeness to distract from my terror. It was going to be okay. We were going to find a way to make this okay, and I was going to spend the rest of my life kissing Nathan, although preferably not in besieged hospital rooms.
The door swung open. Nathan and I pulled away from each other, our eyes going wide and our backs going tight as we prepared to flee. Fang looked at us disdainfully, tilting his chin up just enough to let him stare at us down the length of his nose. It was a surprisingly effective expression.
“Daisy’s already waiting for us in the parking lot, so if you two lovebirds are done celebrating the fact that we’ve made it this far, we’d like to make it the rest of the way,” he said mildly. “Come on.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, cheeks flaring red, and hurried out of the room. Nathan followed after me, and we plunged into the chaos of the hospital.
I’d believed myself prepared for anything, based on Nathan’s description and my own knowledge of what usually happened during a sleepwalker outbreak. I hadn’t been prepared at all.
There were bodies everywhere we looked. Some were on stretchers or strapped to gurneys like the one they’d used to bring me from Dr. Cale’s. Others sat propped against the walls, hands clasped over obvious injuries and shocked expressions on their faces. Those were actually the ones that bothered me the least. They were clearly upset about what had happened to them. Their wounds hurt. They could feel pain, and they were connected enough to their bodies to understand what that meant, to know that they needed to stop what they were doing and have it taken care of. Those people might be infected—the majority of them probably had implants, considering SymboGen’s saturation of the market—but they weren’t sleepwalkers yet.
The ones that worried me were the ones who weren’t clutching themselves. The ones who leaned against walls, staring into nothingness with the characteristically dead eyes of someone whose human mind has shut off, but whose tapeworm mind has not yet started supplying fresh instructions. The ones who seemed to have fallen asleep, but whose chests were still moving smoothly up and down, marking their continued life even as the worms within them worked their way toward a stronger integration. I stuck close to Nathan, trying not to look at those people. It was like I was afraid that eye contact was all it would take to make them come after me.
The air smelled like blood and vomit and human waste, a horrible mixture of urine, feces, and other things that I didn’t want to put a name to. People cried and screamed and shouted profanities, and that was all good, yes, that was all welcome, because those cries were human. The people who made them were still people.
The steady undercurrent of moaning was a lot less welcome.
Fang wove his way through the crowd like a man who’d spent most of his life moving in tight spaces, and Nathan and I followed him, taking advantage of the narrow openings he created in the brief seconds before they could close again. We were like a surgical laser: we didn’t wound the crowd, but we sliced it open and let it heal behind us, leaving no trace, creating no scar.
One of the dead-eyed men turned his head as we walked past, tracking my movement. I whimpered a little and walked faster, nearly stepping on Fang’s heels in my hurry to get out of range. If these people were far enough along to start picking up on my pheromones, we were in trouble. Real trouble, the kind that no clever plan or stolen car was going to get us out of.
Nathan produced a clipboard from somewhere, probably taking it off one of the hooks on the wall. He handed it to me, motioning that I should start consulting it. I ducked my head and pretended to do just that, watching as the letters seemed to shift and blur around the page. Sally wasn’t dyslexic before I chewed myself a place in her brain. Sorry, Sally. On the plus side for her, she didn’t have to live with the consequences of what I’d done, and I did.
Next time I’ll be more careful which part of the brain I eat, I thought, and barely suppressed an inappropriate giggle. The stress was getting to me. I was expecting to be attacked at any second, or stopped by hospital administration when one of them realized that no matter what I was wearing, I didn’t work there. None of us did.
A few of the people in lab coats looked up as we passed, but Fang moved with enough purpose for ten people, and I had a clipboard; as long as Nathan and I stayed close to him, we looked like a strange little research group, going somewhere important to do something essential. It was all props and posing. Maybe that was enough.
It wasn’t until we reached the doors that one of the actual doctors seemed to realize where we were going. He turned away from the patient he’d been examining, fear flashing across his face, and raised a hand in a beseeching gesture. “Wait!” he cried. “Don’t go out there!”
It was too late. Fang had already hit the doors, never breaking his stride, and we were supposed to be his little research team. We followed him, only to stop dead as he ran out of room to move. It wasn’t that the lobby wasn’t large—it was enormous, as befitted a medical center of this size. It was that the lobby was even worse than the halls, so full that there was barely room to take a step.
People had spilled over from the ER and the urgent care, clogging the couches and chairs until no more bodies could be packed onto them. After that, they’d started sitting on the floor. They milled, almost mindlessly, even though most of them still had the bright-eyed awareness that meant a conscious mind was in control. Most—not all. I saw a young woman with a toddler in her arms, the baby’s mouth hanging slack, the baby’s eyes filled with the nothingness that meant that there was a tapeworm in the process of taking over that tiny body. Nathan followed my gaze and grimaced.