“Intestinal Bodyguards are rated for infants eighteen months and older,” he murmured. “I always thought that was a terrible idea. Now I see that I was more right than I ever knew.”
“Disgusting,” murmured Fang, and continued toward the exit… or tried to. A sudden living wall of humanity appeared in front of him, hands outstretched, mouths moving in a noisy chorus. It wasn’t sleepwalkers. That would almost have been easier to handle. Sleepwalkers were simple, wanting only to grab and hold and feed. No, this was something far worse, and infinitely more complex:
This was the living.
“We’ve been here for an hour! When is someone going to see us?”
“Where are the doctors?”
“Are you doctors?”
“Please, Kim won’t wake up, I don’t know what to do.”
Their voices blended together into an unearthly chorus of words—“seizure” and “won’t wake up” and “help us.” That was said more than anything else: “help us.” I quailed back against Nathan, and he put a hand on my shoulder, glaring at the people who were reaching for me. It didn’t help much. They kept coming.
“We’re not doctors!” I shouted. “We can’t help you!”
That didn’t do any good either. Anyone in a lab coat was better than nothing. Hands grabbed for my sleeves, buffeting me deeper into Nathan’s arms. The drums were back, but softer, pounding the way that they used to before the arteries in my head had begun to give way. I guess that was a small blessing. I’d lived long enough to be torn apart by the crowd.
And then the doors at the far end of the lobby banged open and the sleepwalkers surged inside, their arms as outstretched as their unturned kin, but grasping with terrible purpose. They were moaning, an eerie, discordant sound that was quickly answered from the halls behind us. People turned, crying out in dismay, and forgot to grab for us in favor of scrambling away from the tide now flowing through those open doors. There was nowhere for them to go. The mother with the sleepwalker baby was bowled over by her fellows as they fled, and she didn’t get up again. Neither did her baby. They weren’t the only ones to be trampled in that first panicked rush: anyone who couldn’t get up fast enough, who couldn’t get out of the way, was at risk of being crushed to death.
“Come on,” commanded Fang, grabbing my wrist and dragging me with him as he bolted in the exact direction that I did not want to go: toward the exit. Nathan chased after us, apparently deciding that it was better for all of us to die together than it was for any of us to die alone. I disagreed—I thought it was better if none of us had to die at all—but I was too busy running to argue.
A row of heavy potted plants created a space maybe three feet wide between the wall and the doors. Fang ran into that space, dragging me with him, and dropped my hand. I stared at him, starting to open my mouth and demand to know what was going on. He shook his head, motioning for me to be quiet, and pointed to the plants. I frowned. He gestured to the plants again, more urgently this time, like there was some secret he wanted me to catch on to.
My frown deepened. I looked over my shoulder to Nathan, who seemed as lost as I felt. That was something, anyway: I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what was going on. I turned and peered through the broad leaves of the plants, watching the sleepwalkers pouring into the lobby. That was when I finally realized what Fang was trying to show us.
The sleepwalkers weren’t smart. They could be destructive if they were frustrated or wanted to get somewhere, and they were definitely dangerous at close range, but they weren’t smart. Something in the interface between worm and human was too broken to allow them to be anything approaching smart. They would have come after us if they’d known that we existed—we were too close to ignore, and too defenseless to pass up—but they hunted primarily by sight, and the plants were blocking us from view. My pheromones would still have been an issue under normal circumstances. With this many people in a confined space, some of them with implants of their own that were starting to emit confused pheromone trails, the jumble of scents and instructions must have been throwing the sleepwalkers off. The plants were just one more layer, buying us a little time to let the crowd pass us by.
Fang crouched down, watching them through the space between the leaves. He was perfectly still in that moment, like he could have been a sleepwalker himself. Very softly, he said, “As soon as there’s a break, we’re going to run. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. If you’re afraid you’ve lost the rest of the group, keep going. Daisy is straight ahead of us in the parking lot, in the fifth row of cars. She nicked the keys for a red Corolla. If you don’t see her, keep running and test the doors of the cars you pass. See if you can find something that isn’t locked and shut yourself inside. We will come back for you.”
The moans of the sleepwalkers almost obscured his speech, but the gist of it got through, enough to make my stomach clench. I looked over my shoulder at Nathan. He looked even unhappier than I felt, and I realized that a lot of our relationship—not always, maybe, but ever since I’d first called his mother and said I was willing to go through the broken doors—was based on him protecting me. He couldn’t protect me now, and it was making him uncomfortable. The thought of him needing to protect me made me uncomfortable, but in a different way. I didn’t want to be coddled and kept like a specimen in a jar. I’d already had that life. I wanted something bigger and less confined.