Ronnie herself was waiting next to an open door, showing an intoxicatingly dark slice of the night outside. She scowled at Sherman. “I’ve told you before, I’m not a girl.”
“And I’ve told you that gender is a construct of the mind, but while we live among humans, we must blend in with the humans,” Sherman countered. “A white British man with a little black girl is strange enough without that girl insisting on being treated as a boy. It would attract too much attention. Once we’ve taken over, you can be whatever gender you prefer. We can even find you a host of your preferred gender, if you’re ready to develop again.”
To my surprise, Ronnie blanched, shooting Sherman yet another glare before she slipped out the door.
“I didn’t think so,” said Sherman smugly. “Come along, pet. We’re almost home free.”
My head was spinning, and so I didn’t fight him. He led me out of USAMRIID, leaving the dead soldiers behind, and into a parking lot that I recognized. We were in Oakland. The building where I’d been held…
“They were keeping us in the Coliseum?” I squeaked, unsure whether to laugh or be offended by the stupidity of it all. The Oakland Coliseum was an oversized monstrosity of a building, used primarily for sporting events, massive concert tours, and indoor festivals. The Cause for Paws animal shelter where I’d been working for the last few years used to exhibit at Social Justice Fest—where we’d try to pawn adult animals off on people who had more compassion than common sense, according to my boss—and the Hemp Fest, where blazingly stoned twenty-somethings would coo over puppies and kittens before deciding whether they wanted a pet or another hash brownie more. Weirdly, we always got more returns from the Social Justice Fest, while the happy stoners plastered our social media channels with pictures of their pampered cats and dogs. I always thought it was sort of awesome that it worked out that way. Human nature was too big and too diverse to be pinned to something as small as what kind of specialty events you liked to attend over the weekend.
Good memories of the Coliseum aside, learning that I’d been kept there made me feel oddly dirty, like I had somehow become one of those orphaned puppies or kittens, and Sherman was the man who had decided to take me home. The thought of him keeping me as a pet made me shudder. Sherman twisted to look at me, frowning, and gave me another tug as he tried to keep me moving.
“Where else would they have put that many people, that quickly? Learn to think, Sal. I know you have it in you, and while I’ve enjoyed your pampered innocence more than you can possibly dream, playtime is over. Now is when you grow up and join the war.”
I finally yanked my arm out of his hand. Sherman didn’t grab for me. If anything, he looked pleased, like this was something he’d been waiting for. “I’m not joining your war. I’m going with you because I don’t have any other options if I want to stay alive and make it back to my family, and I don’t want to be blamed for all the—” My throat seemed to close on the word “bodies.” I swallowed, hard, and continued: “All the dead people. You made those. They shouldn’t become my fault.”
His legs were longer, and he was the one who’d shepherded me through dozens of visits to SymboGen, holding my hand and guiding me from lab to lab. He knew what my responses would be better than I did. So when he was suddenly in my face, I didn’t know how to react. I froze, eyes going wide, as his hands cupped my cheeks and his mouth clamped down over mine, forcing me into a kiss.
His lips tasted like mint and honey. I could feel his pulse through his hands, and as he pulled me closer, it felt like the drums in my head synchronized with the beat of his heart, one slowing while the other sped up, until we were breathing in unison, him and me, me and him. I didn’t want to be kissing him. I didn’t want to pull away. This was wrong, it was wrong in every possible way, and that didn’t matter, because the drums were beating together, pulse matching pulse, forever.
Sherman was the one who broke away from me. He pulled back, a smug smile on his face, and said, “I told you a long time ago that you ought to leave that human boy you’re so besotted with and be with me. We’re the same, Sal. We’re survivors, predators, and you’re wrong, because you’ve always been part of this war. This war is all about you.”
There was nothing I could say to that. My mouth moved, and no sound came out as Sherman, still smiling, took my hand and led me into the waiting dark.
Sherman and his team had arrived in a black van with the USAMRIID logo on the side. It was a magnet: as we approached, Ronnie yanked it off and slapped up a cupcake store logo in its place. She shot me a glare, all but daring me to say something. I didn’t say anything. It felt like something had shorted out inside of me, leaving me mute and defenseless. I didn’t like it.
Ronnie’s glare softened into something like understanding before it was redirected on Sherman, hardening again. “You kissed her, didn’t you? God, you’re such an asshole, Sherman.” In that moment, she sounded almost like a preteen girl. She wrenched the van door open and tossed her magnetic sign inside before grabbing my hand and pulling me away from Sherman, who let me go without a fuss. He’d already gotten what he wanted. Ronnie peered at my eyes, apparently looking for something. Whatever it was, she found it, because she pulled away and shot one more glare at Sherman. “Asshole,” she repeated, before pushing me into the van.