“We were all engineered for different things, you know. We each have different mechanisms of supporting and enhancing the human body.” His hands worked as he spoke, clever hands holding clever needles and making them do clever things. My throat ached to scream, but the numbing effect of my slowed pulse and confused flesh kept me from doing anything more extreme than whimpering. Any time it seemed like I was going to break loose, he would press a hand down against the exposed skin of my upper arm and yank me back down into the darkness, where my needs and desires mattered not at all. “I know you spoke with Ronnie about her enhancements. It’s why she can stay awake for so long, and move so fast, and have such a terribly bad temper without slipping over into Tansy territory. Tansy was designed to secrete antipsychotic medication, if you can believe that. Maybe she still does. That would explain why that damaged brain of hers doesn’t kick her out entirely. It will one day. Won’t that be something to see?”
He finished with the veins in my arm and moved on to the veins in my thighs. There was nothing sexual about it, for all that he was so fond of posturing and propositioning. I knew that Sherman would have taken me up on any offer I chose to make—taken me up on it enthusiastically and without hesitation. He’d said as much, and I remembered his assignations with the scientists back at SymboGen, back when our relationship consisted of more than needles and captivity.
“You, I haven’t quite figured out. No one has an exact genetic profile on you, which is odd, since I know you were of SymboGen design. Nothing off-market or back alley about you, Sal my girl, and still I don’t know what your chimeric interface has blessed or cursed you with. You’ll sort it out one day, probably when you least want to, and you’ll forgive me if I very much want to be standing by to point and laugh. Discovery is almost always traumatic for someone. That’s what discovery is for. If only they hadn’t hidden your files from me. I looked. I looked so hard. But alas. They had to make me do things the hard way.”
He put the syringe he’d been using aside, and I had time to breathe a sigh of disoriented relief before he picked up a scalpel, raising it high to be certain that I would see it.
“I was designed to regulate the heartbeat of a captain of industry, a man who did so love his indulgences. They might as well have called him Old King Cole for the way he carried on. He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his fiddlers three, and when those proved to be too much for his feeble mammalian body, he called for his faithful tapeworm jester to come and bear the brunt of everything he’d ever done to himself. I’m a biological pacemaker. Can’t do much to humans, I’m afraid, and I can only slow a sleepwalker down if I can get them to stop biting me long enough to notice that they’ve been calmed past all reason, but give me a chimera and ah, you’ve given me the world.”
He brought the scalpel down. I think I surprised us both when I found another scrap of strength in my damaged throat and began to scream.
“Really, Sal,” chided Sherman, once he had his composure back—and he did not, I noted, look happy about having lost it in the first place. Sherman was not a man who liked looking foolish, no matter how good his reasons had been. “Flesh is an illusion, human flesh doubly so. You should be grateful that I’m teaching you that now, rather than your needing to learn it the way that Ronnie did.” He continued slicing small chunks of my underarm off. Every time he raised the scalpel, it was a little redder, as were his fingers. I could hear my blood dripping into the pan he’d positioned for just that purpose. I pictured a basin overflowing with pieces of me, things I had never agreed to give away or let him steal. How many pieces could I lose before I could never be put back together again? How many pieces did he want?
“You’ve been very good so far today, but it’s time you pull your little mental rabbit hole trick, because this next bit is going to be quite painful.” Sherman’s jovial tone was all the warning I really needed. I gathered my consciousness into a tight knot and plummeted down, down, down through the layers of self until I reached the hot warm dark, where everything was safe and warm and red, and no men with scalpels or inscrutable designs could touch or take me.
It was becoming increasingly easy to separate myself—my actual self, the part of me that was Sal, and had never been Sally Mitchell—from the human body that had always defined me. It was something I’d always been able to do when I was sleeping, whether I intended to or not, but since Sherman had started putting his hands on me, it had become a waking refuge as well, a place where I could know that my inner core would not be violated in any way. I didn’t know why I could do it, just like Sherman didn’t know why he couldn’t. I just knew that when I really needed to escape, everything except the hot warm dark and the sound of distant drums would go away.
Maybe that’s what they built into me, I thought, floating formless in the void that was the core of my self. Silence and meditation, instead of messing with people’s hearts or never being still. I had only heard the word “epigenetic” once before I was brought here. I still wasn’t quite sure what it meant. I wondered if Dr. Cale would know. I wondered whether I would ever have the chance to ask her.
He’s never going to let you go, murmured one of the under-voices that lurked in the dark, more and more often these days, giving voice to things I knew but didn’t want to know. I felt fractured, fragmented, like I was splitting myself into pieces in my effort to remain whole.