I’m sorry, I thought, as I ran. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you wouldn’t even have been here if it weren’t for me. You should never have left the lab. I’ve been putting you in danger over and over again, and that means I have to get you out of it at least once. I have to be the one who saves you. That seemed so important, and it was enough to keep me moving. He’d be sad if he lost me. He’d still be able to help his mother save the world.
An engine roared to life in the parking lot behind me. Tires squealed against pavement, and hope rose in my throat like bile, burning everything it touched. Fang and Nathan had managed to reach the car. They were in the car, they were safe, and they were going to get out of here. They were going to back to the lab, and everything was going to be all right.
Then I realized that the screeching tires were getting closer, and the burning feeling of hope intensified, becoming even more painful than my increasingly strained breath. They were coming to get me. They were in the car, and they were on their way, and all I had to do was keep it together long enough for them to somehow open a door and pull me in. I’d probably have a panic attack after a stunt like that, but under the circumstances, that was okay. I was going to be okay. We were all going to be okay. We were—
Lights came on directly ahead, blinding me. I squeaked and kept running, all too aware of what would happen if I stopped while the sleepwalkers were this close on my tail. I was still running when the dart slammed into my chest, its feathered end sticking out like some sort of carnival game—pin the sedative on the chimera.
I kept running. I ran for as long as I could, and then the black spots on the edges of my vision were back, and my knees gave out under my weight, dumping me to the pavement. I clawed for consciousness, tired of letting it go, but my fingers found no purchase, and my last thought as I toppled down into the dark was that I had come to the hospital to make this stop happening.
This isn’t fair, I thought, and the world went black, and there was nothing.
I was down in the dark, in the hot warm dark where nothing hurt and nothing could touch me and nothing mattered but existing. I recognized the dream for the memory that it was now, and I let myself drift, wondering only abstractly how I could remember something that had happened before I had a mind to remember with.
You always had a mind, I scolded myself. You didn’t think like a human, but you thought. Beverly thinks. Minnie thinks. Everything with a brain can think. You just had smaller thoughts.
Small thoughts, hot thoughts, hot warm thoughts of redness and blackness and peace. It was strange to me, here in this place, that any of us would have chosen to leave it voluntarily. Being a human was hard. It was sharp and cold and filled with choices that had no good outcomes, just varying shades and shapes of badness. No matter what you chose, you were choosing wrong for someone. Better to stay down in the dark, where there were no choices and no challenges, just food and warmth and the contentment of simplicity.
But there was no Nathan either, was there? No love, no kisses, no anger born from the hard edges of two people rubbing against each other. There were no chances to change down there in the dark. There were no chances to grow. I’d enjoyed those parts of being human, and a lot of the parts that came with having a body. If I stayed down here in the dark, I wouldn’t get to enjoy those things anymore.
You’ll have to go back, then, I thought sadly, and I didn’t know whether I was talking to myself or to something outside myself, and it didn’t really matter, because I was right either way.
I opened my eyes.
“We’ve got movement!” shouted a voice I didn’t recognize. A woman in wire-framed glasses leaned over me, producing a small flashlight from the pocket of her lab coat and shining it into my eyes. I whimpered and screwed them shut again. Her voice followed a moment later, now announcing jubilantly, “Movement and pupil dilation! I think she’s okay.”
I cracked my left eye cautiously open. The woman was still there, but she was facing away from me, giving me a good look at her profile. She was pale-skinned, with hair that was either bleached or the palest blonde I had ever seen, and her lab coat…
Her lab coat had the USAMRIID logo on the sleeve. My mouth went dry and my stomach went tight, the drums suddenly pounding in my ears as I realized where the lights and tranquilizer dart had come from. I tried to sit up, and discovered that I couldn’t. As with the gurney from before, I was strapped to the surface that I was on top of. I opened both my eyes, making another attempt. Still nothing, and this time the motion attracted the woman’s attention. She turned to face me, plastering a smile so patently fake that it was almost painful across her face.
“Hello, Sally,” she said, speaking slowly and clearly. “My name is Dr. Crystal Huff. I was with the team that extracted you from the hospital. You may feel a little disoriented. That’s perfectly normal, and does not indicate infection. You have been checked thoroughly, and I am glad to be able to tell you that you’re not sick. Do you understand me, Sally? Nod if you understand me.” She stopped, smiling brightly down at me. It was like she was trying to make herself understood by a small child who didn’t understand English, and if my hands hadn’t been strapped down, I would probably have hit her.
My mouth was too dry to let me form words. I swallowed hard, trying to convince my salivary glands to do their job. Finally, after several seconds of silence and swallowing, I managed to croak, “Why am I strapped to this table?” How do you know who I am? I had still been wearing the ID bracelet with the fake name Dr. Cale used to get me into the hospital.