I stumbled a little, but continued to let Sherman guide me. It was better than trying to figure out where to go next on my own. At least he’d been here before. That thought sparked something, and I turned to study him, frowning. He was clean. There were little smudges of dirt under his fingernails, and his skin had the healthy scent of a human male, rather than smelling of fresh soap, but he was clean, and his hair was dry. That third man had sprayed blood everywhere. There was no way Sherman could have killed him and made it to me without being drenched in the process.
“Who’s here with you?” I asked.
“What, you didn’t think I was working alone, did you?” Sherman flashed me a tight-lipped smile. “I haven’t been alone for quite some time. But it’s good to know that you care. Now come on. I don’t want to have to kill anyone else tonight.”
The little security room opened onto an airlock of sorts, filled with hanging plastic sheets and industrial gray lockers. There was no one there, and I was glad. I had no doubt that Sherman would kill anyone who happened to get in our way, and I didn’t want to be responsible for any more deaths tonight. Three was too many.
Then we left the airlock for what looked like a loading zone, and I realized that three was nowhere near the final number.
The floor was unpainted concrete, and the walls were bare metal, strung with bright, uncovered bulbs every ten feet or so. They cast an unflinching light over the eight bodies strewn around the room, all dressed in military fatigues, none older than their early twenties. One woman had fallen so that her eyes were aimed directly at the doorway where Sherman and I stood. I met her dead, clouded gaze and clapped a hand over my mouth, swallowing the urge to vomit. The drums were back, pounding loudly in my ears. In that moment, I welcomed them. I would have welcomed them even without the surgery. Better a clean death than whatever was waiting for me once Sherman got me alone.
A shadow detached itself from the wall and moved fluidly into the open, resolving into a slim, prepubescent girl in a bodysuit much like Sherman’s, although hers was a deeper shade of gray. She had deep brown skin and softly rounded features that would probably have been beautiful, if they hadn’t been set in a forbidding expression. Her eyes flicked to me, sizing me up and dismissing me in an instant, before her gaze returned to Sherman. “You’re late,” she said coolly.
“You’re messy,” he responded.
My eyes widened in horror as I realized what he meant. Her bodysuit wasn’t darker than his: there were still places, along the sides and at the top of her left shoulder, where it was exactly the same color. The blood that had soaked into the fabric had darkened it, turning it virtually black.
“I was bored,” she said. Her eyes flicked back to me. “This is it? This is your mighty ‘natural chimera’? She looks like she’s about to puke all over me.”
“Ronnie.” His tone grew a little colder. “Be polite. Sal’s our guest. Are we clear for extraction?”
“Do you mean, ‘have I killed everyone’? Yes. I have killed everyone who was supposed to be watching this part of the building, and Kristoph has disabled the security cameras. Are you sure you don’t want to pick up anything else on this little shopping trip? A few soccer moms who skipped their implants because they decided that tapeworms caused autism? A member of the City Council? They’re going to tighten security after this, and she”—her eyes raked me up and down one more time—“just doesn’t seem like she’s worth this much trouble.”
Sherman released my arm a split second before his hand caught Ronnie across the face, sending her rocking back several feet. I gasped. She spoke like an adult, but she looked like a child, and seeing him hit a little girl was unnerving in ways I didn’t have the words to express. Ronnie recovered quickly, training her venomous stare on Sherman. She didn’t rub the spot where he’d hit her. She left her hands down by her sides.
“Sal is more valuable than you are, and I will have no compunctions about transplanting you if you continue to cause me problems. Do you understand me?” Ronnie said nothing. Sherman raised his hand as if to strike her again. “Do you?”
“Yes,” she spat. “I understand that you’ve gone native. Enjoy your disgusting mammalian rutting, but don’t expect me to clean up the mess when you break her.” She turned, stalking toward the far end of the loading dock.
Sherman sighed, taking hold of my arm again. It occurred to me that this had been my chance to run. I dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. Freedom was impractical right now. I wanted it, but I didn’t know what kind of weapons Ronnie had, and she was clearly fast enough to have killed all these people—people who presumably had military training—before they could react. I already knew that Sherman was faster than me. All I could have accomplished by running was getting myself hurt.
Better to wait. Better to watch. Better to run when I could actually get away, to act with purpose, and not out of panic. And maybe if I kept reminding myself of that, I’d remember how to breathe.
“You’ll have to excuse Ronnie,” he said, guiding me between the bodies as he followed her across the room. “She’s on her fourth body, and she doesn’t appreciate the fact that we implanted her in someone so small, even though the elasticity of the child’s brain has proven to be the missing factor. Her first three hosts were adult males, and while she preferred those bodies, they rejected her. Now she takes her aggressions out on whatever happens to be around.”