Kristoph was gone, leaving the entire front of the van empty, since Sherman was crouched in front of me with a thoughtful expression on his face, like he was assessing my value every time he looked at me. Ronnie was still in her seat, arms crossed over her budding breasts, eyes narrowed.
“What the fuck did she just do?” she demanded. Her attention flicked to me. “What the fuck did you just do?”
“I… what?” I moved to unfasten my belt with shaking hands. I hadn’t been told to, but I wanted to get out of this van as soon as possible. I didn’t mind small spaces, normally. This one was different. It felt oppressive and dangerous, like it could start moving again at any moment. “I didn’t do anything. I went down into the dark to avoid the drive. Where are we?”
“What Sal fails to understand is that for most of us, ah, ‘going down into the dark’ is a difficult feat.” Sherman waited until my belt was off before opening the door and offering me his hand. Through the opening, I could see what looked like an ordinary parking garage, all gray concrete and emptiness. “Come along, pet. You make yourself more precious by the hour, and I cannot wait to start learning all the tricks you have to teach me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I took his hand. It seemed like the safest thing to do. “I don’t know any tricks. I don’t even know how I go down into the dark. I just do, when I need to.”
“I’m telling you, rehome her.” Ronnie stepped out of the van after me, pausing long enough to slam the door. I blinked at her. She sneered. “We know she adapts quickly. Train a new one who doesn’t have all these stupid hang-ups.”
“Ah, yes, because what one should absolutely do on the eve of war is take one of the best available weapons, break it down for scrap, and wait six months to have a new model on line.” Sherman shook his head. “Honestly, Ronnie, if you were in charge of this battle, the humans would defeat us handily.”
“Maybe, but a lot of them would die first,” she said.
Sherman sighed. “Come along, Sal. It’s time to introduce you to the people who will be your new family.”
“I don’t want a new family,” I whispered.
His smile was benevolent and terrible. “It’s adorable how you keep thinking that what you want has any merit.”
I didn’t say anything. I just glared at him. He might have me at his mercy right now, but he wasn’t going to make me believe that I was going to be helpless forever.
We crossed the parking garage to a large steel door, which Sherman accessed with a swipe of a plastic card and a scan of his left index finger. He didn’t bother to conceal either of these security measures from me, which made me sure that they couldn’t be broken, or at least couldn’t be broken easily. He would have made at least a little effort if he was worried about my getting away.
The door beeped, the locks disengaging with an audible click. Sherman smirked and pulled it open, letting go of my arm. “After you,” he said.
I was unarmed, effectively barefoot, and in an unidentified parking garage with no idea where I was. I went through the door…
… and emerged into a defunct shopping mall, obviously long since gutted and abandoned by its original owners, only to be rebuilt by the people who came to claim it as their own. There was a fountain directly in front of me, the water trickling merrily out of a sculpted concrete flower to cascade into the basin below. A few people were sitting on the fountain’s rim. One was eating a sandwich.
Stores extended in all directions, most still bearing the signs identifying what they had been before this place closed down. The shoe stores and shops selling scented candles were gone now, replaced by little swarms of people clustering around lab equipment. Unlike Dr. Cale’s makeshift bowling alley lab, which held to strict protocols, even if most of the technicians wore jeans under their lab coats, the people here could have just wandered in off the street and picked up a scalpel. I didn’t see a single lab coat or pair of scrubs, although some of the people were wearing gray bodysuits like the ones Sherman and Ronnie had on. As I stood there, trying to process the scene, a man walked by towing a pallet of caged chickens that clucked and fluffed their feathers at me. I blinked.
“Welcome, darling, to the revolution.” Sherman slipped his arm around my shoulders, holding me closer than I was comfortable with. “I’m sure you recognize this place.”
“No,” I said blankly. “I mean, should I? I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
Sherman glanced meaningfully over my head. I turned to see Ronnie standing on my other side. She rolled her eyes.
“Ugh, fine,” she said. “Your precious special snowflake is so sheltered that she’s not going to be a threat. I’m delighted to know that she can’t give us away. I’d be even more delighted if you’d let me cut her open.”
“I don’t want to be cut open,” I said hastily. “I’m not sure I get a vote in this, but I really think I should, since this is my life you’re talking about, and I don’t want to be cut open.” That didn’t seem like enough. I paused before adding, meekly, “So please don’t?”
“God, it’s like kicking a fucking puppy,” muttered Ronnie. She raised her voice as she said, “We’re not going to cut you open. Not right now, anyway. It’s not allowed, right, Sherman?”