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Finally, Ronnie said, “Come with me,” and turned on his heel, stalking away into the housewares department. He wasn’t heading for the exit.

Either he was going to kill me or he was going to explain, and I was desperate enough for allies that it seemed like a chance worth taking. I followed him through the store, catching up quickly and then just pacing him in silence, letting him lead the way to the dining room sets that stood, slowly gathering dust, near the mattress displays where I’d been sleeping. He pulled out a chair and sat down, gesturing for me to do the same. Lacking any other options, I sat.

The silence stretched out for a little longer, seeming to twist in on itself and nip at its own tail, before Ronnie said, “Rejection can be an issue for those of us who weren’t tailored to specific hosts, or whose hosts were killed before we could finish the assimilation process.”

I blinked at him dumbly. He sighed.

“I was designed for a long-haul trucker, according to the records Sherman got from SymboGen. I secrete stimulants and energy boosters. I also decrease acid buildup in soft tissues. They made worms like me for athletes too, although that was illegal. That’s never stopped anybody, you know?”

I didn’t know, but I didn’t think that interrupting him to explain that would be a very good idea. I just nodded.

“Baseline human DNA in the implants is about three percent, or was before Sherman started getting to the lab rats. I was tailored, so I started with five percent, some of it taken directly from my host. It was supposed to keep his immune system from identifying me as an irritant and taking me over. Instead, it caused total immune collapse. Not fun for either one of us. I don’t really remember much about being him. I know I migrated to his brain during the shutdown, but he didn’t survive the process. We got hospitalized—this was in the early stages of the outbreak, back when there were only one or two of us at a time.” He was switching pronouns with dizzying speed, making it difficult for me to know exactly who “us” meant—him and his trucker, or sleepwalkers in general? “He died.”

I blinked. “Who died?”

“My trucker.” Ronnie shook his head. “He crashed and he died and that should have been the end of me, but SymboGen was collecting all the dead sleepwalkers for analysis, in case they could figure out what was going on. Anything to protect the profit margin, right?”

I sort of suspected it was more about “anything to protect the public health,” but I kept that observation to myself, in part because I didn’t want Ronnie to stop talking, and in part because there was a good chance that I was being overly optimistic again. Dr. Banks had never shown any indication of caring about the health of the world, except when it could put money in his pockets. Keeping the sleepwalkers from eating his entire customer base had probably seemed like a pretty good idea, at least as far as the bank was concerned.

Ronnie took my silence as agreement, because he continued, saying, “Sherman found me in my trucker’s head. I was still alive, and he removed as much of me as he could. I don’t remember any of this—I mean, I didn’t have a brain to plug into at that point, so I wasn’t much of a deep thinker—but I’ve seen my medical records, and I believe things happened the way he explained them. He managed to get me out of the building, and he implanted me in my first stable host. His name was Francisco, and he was a mountain.” A little smile played across Ronnie’s lips. “Six and a half feet of solid muscle—damn. I couldn’t have asked for a better host, you know? I guess I should have known that it couldn’t last.”

“What happened?”

“Rejection.” Ronnie shrugged. “Same thing we’ve been telling you happens to a lot of us. My host’s body recognized me as an infection, and fought me off. I had to be moved to a new body. That’s where I got the name ‘Ron.’ Another big guy. I liked being Ron. He was strong. Too strong, I guess, since his immune system figured out I was new in the neighborhood and beat me off with a stick. That’s how I wound up in here.” He spread his arms, indicating his thin, immature, biologically female body with a bob of his chin. “And we don’t have bodies to spare, so until this one breaks or we come into a sudden wealth of unwanted humans, this is where I’m staying.”

“But… if we become who we are because we’re tapping into human brains, and they can process more information than we can handle with our little tapeworm brains, how can you remember being anyone before you were who you are right now? How can you be…” I stopped, not sure how I could possibly finish that sentence.

Ronnie finished it for me. “How can I be so sure that I’m supposed to be male? I don’t remember a lot about my first three hosts. No one who’s been through rejection remembers much. But there are little bits and pieces. It’s like… it’s like some of the traits of my original hosts got written into me. Sherman says it’s epigenetics at work, and that we’re all going to wind up mosaic individuals, hopping from body to body, bringing just these little pieces of who we’ve been onward with us.”

I blinked at him. Ronnie shrugged.

“Sherman says we’re going to live forever, once we figure out how to keep our hosts from rejecting us. We’ll have to learn a lot of shit new every time, but our core personalities will stay the same. We’ll stay the same. Humans have had stories about reincarnation and the afterlife for millennia. We’re finally going to prove it.” Ronnie stood. “Anyway, that’s how I know I’m a guy, no matter what this stupid body says, and since I want a new host sooner rather than later, it’s time for you to come with me.” He grabbed my arm.