Symbiont Page 123

Beverly snarled, and the feeling I had come to recognize as my sleepwalker detection sounding off fizzed as if my brain had been carbonated. “Sleepwalker!” I shouted, just as a hulking, filthy figure shambled out from behind a Dumpster. Fishy didn’t break stride as he swung his rifle around and put two bullets in the man, one in his throat, the other in his forehead. The sleepwalker fell back, the feeling of presence in my head snapping off like a switch had been flipped. Fishy laughed, and a cold feeling raced across my skin, like he had finally started making sense and I really didn’t want him to.

There wasn’t time to explore that feeling, or even begin consciously feeling it. We were still running, and with gunshots behind us and sleepwalkers potentially up ahead, stopping to think would have been a good way to get somebody killed. Probably Dr. Banks, who was huffing and struggling to stay upright as Fishy hauled him along. He had always struck me as being in excellent shape, but how much of that was thanks to his implant siphoning off the extra calories he ingested and keeping him from needing to watch his cholesterol? His cheeks were bright with exertion now, not pale with fear, and he was starting to have trouble breathing.

“We’re almost there!” shouted Fishy, who wasn’t even breathing hard. Out of all of us, he was the only one who seemed to be benefiting from this run. He looked more alive than I had ever seen him, and the grin on his face was unwavering.

“Why are people shooting at us?” demanded Nathan.

“Fear, panic, protecting their shit, I don’t know!” Fishy actually laughed. That cold sensation raced across my skin again. Dr. Cale had been very clear about the fact that Fishy was not participating in the same version of reality as the rest of us. Until this moment, I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that I was crossing the city with an armed man who didn’t believe that I—that anyone—was actually real.

This day just kept on getting worse, and I was ready for it to stop anytime now.

Nothing else lunged out at us as we ran down the alley and onto a new street, and there was the water, glimmering calm and deep, deep blue in the sunlight, like a sheet of glass stretching out toward the distant shape of San Francisco, its skyscrapers and bridges rising like ghosts out of the fog. We all stumbled to a halt, even Fishy, briefly shocked out of our headlong flight.

“Here we go,” murmured Nathan, and I couldn’t argue with that, so I didn’t say anything at all.

I received the official “disconnect at your earliest convenience” request from my superiors today. They couched it like they were asking me to turn off a faulty piece of machinery or requesting that I decommission a vehicle no longer capable of performing its function. There was no compassion, no concern for how their request might impact my ability to carry it out. I am career military, after all. When I am given an order, that order is followed, regardless of the consequences.

For more than thirty years, I have done everything that has been asked of me. I have served my country to the best of my ability and at the expense of my own better judgment. I have done everything within my power to be a patriot and a credit to my nation. Even when they asked me to host the occupied body of what had been my eldest daughter, I agreed, because it was my duty.

They are asking me to kill my only surviving child. For the first time, I do not know whether I am capable of what I have been asked to do.

–FROM THE PRIVATE FILES OF COLONEL ALFRED MITCHELL, USAMRIID, NOVEMBER 2027

I have sent my biological son and my spiritual daughter away with my worst enemy and a man whose grasp on reality makes mine seem both solid and admirable. I have sent them to do the impossible, and the fact that it was at their own request is cold comfort; I should have been able to stop them, somehow. I should have convinced them that there was another way. But there wasn’t another way. They knew it, and so did I. That’s why I let them go.

The world was supposed to get easier once I was no longer standing in the middle of it. I have what I always said I wanted: a problem too big to be solved in a single lifetime, a lab full of people to help me solve it, and no oversight of any kind.

Why do I feel like I’ve lost?

–FROM THE JOURNAL OF DR. SHANTI CALE, NOVEMBER 16, 2027

Chapter 17

NOVEMBER 2027

The ferry landing was abandoned. Private watercraft lined the dock, some of them half submerged, others clearly ransacked for whatever food or medications might have been stored on board. A dead woman lay, naked and fully exposed, on the deck of the nearest sailboat. Her skin was blackened and full of holes, showing the depredations of the crows and seagulls; her eyes were two dark pits in the stripped circle of her skull, staring up into the sky until time or a storm washed her away and left the clouds once again mercifully unobserved.

I paused as we passed the dead woman. Then I stooped down, taking quick, shallow breaths through my mouth as I peered closer at her skeletal visage. There were streaks of withered off-white in the dark where her eyes had been; the looping segments of her implant, dried to fishing line by the sun. “She was a sleepwalker,” I said. “I don’t know what killed her.”

“Hunger, maybe, or thirst,” said Nathan. “This is salt water. If she didn’t have the intelligence to realize that she couldn’t drink it safely, she could have died of dehydration within sight of the sea.”

It was a terrible way to go. I wrinkled my nose as I straightened, and turned to see Dr. Banks and Nathan both looking uncomfortable and upset. Only Fishy still looked calm. To him, this was just so much scene setting, background data that would tell him the severity of the crisis before it was casually dismissed as unimportant to the greater game.

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