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“If God exists, He created everything in the world just to make a bit of a mess,” said Sherman, making me flinch. I hadn’t expected his thoughts to be such a close mirror of my own. His hand closed around my upper arm in a friendly hold that I knew could quickly become a trap. “Humans have been trying to clean up the world ever since they figured out soap and water. I think that’s what their Devil really taught them. There’s a lot of bollocks in the Bible about humans learning modesty and shame when they first sinned, but I don’t think they went ‘oh no, I’m naked.’ I think they went ‘oh no, I’m filthy.’ That was the true fall from grace. You can’t be a part of nature if you’re trying to be clean all the time.”

“You’ve read the Bible?” I asked, bemused.

“Not all of us got dyslexia from the integration, my poppet. I’ve been reading since I was eight weeks old.” He continued to pull me along. “You’re the only one of us to have that particular complication, actually, and I doubt you would have if you’d occurred under lab conditions. You probably chewed through something that you shouldn’t have before you knew any better. It’s really a pity we can’t midwife ourselves into being, don’t you think?”

We were halfway down the umbilical now, with white, faintly ridged walls stretching out in either direction. My stomach gave a lurch as I suddenly realized what the tube-tunnel really reminded me of: It was like being a parasite again. It was like we were walking through the gut of a giant, passing from one end to the other to be digested or excreted at the whim of our monstrous host. I didn’t say anything.

Sherman seemed to take that as an invitation to keep talking. “Tansy got herself a host of psychological issues, but the majority of them came with the body, I think—the brain was too far gone before she got in there to start stitching things back together. That’s important to remember. When we fight them to a standstill they’re going to try to placate us with their old and infirm, the people whose brains have already been damaged one way or another. We can work around some things—we’re clever, in our way, even before we have a fat mammalian brain to do our thinking for us—but we can’t rewire a busted engine. Can you imagine a world full of Tansys? All of them delusional and violent and running around with no one to restrain them? No, that won’t work at all. It’s healthy brains or nothing. Hence the breeding programs. It will be so much easier with infants.”

“They’ll try to make it nothing,” I said, my voice little more than a whisper.

To my relief, Sherman seemed more amused than angry at my statement. “Oh, I know, I know. They’re going to keep fighting to the bitter end, because that’s what men do. What they’re going to refuse to realize is that the bitter end passed some time ago. They’ve already lost. All that’s left from here is the messy process of birth.”

I opened my mouth to answer him, and he swung around to press his raised index finger to my lips, shushing me.

“Shh, shh, my pet, it’s time to be quiet now.” We had reached the door on the far end of the umbilical. It gleamed, black and secretive against all of that nauseating whiteness. “I’m going to open this and let us out. You mustn’t shout or scream or carry on, and most of all, you mustn’t try to get away. If you do that, I can’t protect you. And I know you don’t believe me right now, Sal, but I am your best chance of getting through this alive. Do you understand?”

I had trusted Sherman for most of my life. Even considering his recent betrayals, the habit of trust was strong within me. I forced myself to nod, slowly at first, and then with gathering enthusiasm, until my head was bobbing up and down with surprising force.

Sherman’s hand caught me under the chin, stopping me in mid-nod. He smiled and said, “That’s my good girl. I promise, this is all going to start making sense soon. Too soon, maybe. I did so enjoy your ignorance.”

With that, he let go of me and turned to key his access code into the panel next to the door, which beeped and swung inward, causing us both to have to take a step back. Somehow during the motion, Sherman got his hand around my arm again, and he pulled me with him as he stepped out of the umbilical and into the control room on the other side.

The first thing to catch my attention was the blood. There was so much of it, and it was covering so much of the room, which was small and boxy and lined with monitors, each one tuned to a different bubble back in the room where I had been confined. There was a long, low desk, and three men in military uniforms were seated behind it, still in their chairs. Two of them were missing chunks of their skulls. The third—the bleeder—had had his throat slashed open, resulting in arterial spray that must have bathed the room in seconds. He was the only one who looked anything less than peaceful, although death had come before he had managed to do more than fumble for his gun and knock over a cup of coffee. The brownish dregs were barely distinguishable from the bloodstains around them.

Sherman’s eyes raked dispassionately over the three men before he nodded. “Sloppy work, but sometimes that’s for the best. Come along, Sal, we have places to be.” He continued across the room, ignoring the dead bodies. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They had been alive, and now they weren’t. They had been people, and now they were gone, just like Sally, just like whoever used to live in Sherman’s body—and also not, because at least Sally and Sherman’s host had left something behind. The ultimate organ donors. These men were just… gone.