Symbiont Page 14

“I mean, hello,” I said, eyes still on the sleepwalker. His ability to respond at all was incredible. Maybe he was a chimera, like me: maybe this was how the conversion process began in someone who was actually awake and not sunk deep into a trauma-induced coma. At any moment, his eyes might clear, and he might become a confused, amnesiac person who needed to be guided through his new life. The human who had owned this body was already gone, and I knew abstractly that I should be mourning for him—he hadn’t done anything wrong, not really, apart from trusting a company that could afford to buy hundreds of hours of advertising time that said their products were safe. But he was gone, and if one of my cousins was here now, I should take care of the living.

Even more abstractly, I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to remain this calm if Nathan had been at risk—if Nathan had possessed a SymboGen implant, I would have been moving heaven and earth to get it out of him as quickly as possible. But this wasn’t Nathan. This was a stranger, and whoever he had been before was already gone.

The sleepwalker continued to look at me, an almost puzzled expression in his glazed blue eyes. He moved his mouth silently, and the first gob of spit escaped, running unfettered down his chin.

“I’m Sal,” I said, pressing a hand flat against my chest. “This is Nathan. We’re not going to hurt you. We’d like to help you, if you’d be willing to let us—” I reached my hand out toward him, not coming close enough to startle, but hopefully close enough that he would be able to recognize my offer of support as what it was.

The sleepwalker’s mouth moved again, like he was struggling to remember how to form words. Then, in a low voice that was only barely above a moan, he said, “Saaaaaaaaal.”

I blanched, starting to pull my hand away. That was when the sleepwalker moved.

Like many of the sleepwalkers we’d encountered, he was fast: something about the flawed interface between tapeworm thought and human mind had removed the normal limitations imposed by the body. He didn’t know that he needed to be afraid of hurting himself. He just moved, lunging with an inhuman speed as he latched his hands around my wrist. I screamed, trying to pull away. It was an automatic response, offered without thought for the sleepwalkers that might be lurking in the other apartments on the floor, and it was louder than I would have believed possible, given the torn-up state of my throat. The sleepwalker clamped down harder. He wasn’t just fast, he was strong, and I could feel the bones in my wrist grind together.

“Sal!” Nathan grabbed my other arm. Just in time, too: the sleepwalker gave a mighty tug and I stumbled forward, barely held in place by Nathan’s frantic grip.

“Let me go!” I shouted, trying again to jerk myself free.

“Saaaaaaaaaaal,” responded the sleepwalker, and pulled my arm toward his mouth.

The feeling of his teeth breaking the skin of my wrist was like nothing I had ever felt before or wanted to feel again: intensely painful, and almost unreal at the same time. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening. It didn’t make sense, and so my brain tried to reject the reality of it, shoving it aside in favor of the pounding sound of drums rising in my ears. Nathan pulled on me again, and for a moment, it was like I was being torn in two. My shoulders ached. The sleepwalker’s teeth dug deeper into my wrist. I screamed.

Nathan let me go.

I whipped around as best I could to stare at him, too stunned to keep screaming. The sleepwalker yanked me closer, his teeth digging into my flesh until it felt like they were scraping against the bone, and then Nathan was squeezing past us both and running down the hall, one hand fumbling in his pants pocket.

I realized what he was doing as he shoved the key into the lock, and I shoved my hand against the sleepwalker’s face, trying to break his hold on my wrist. I didn’t expect it to work. It didn’t really need to. It just needed to distract him a little bit, to keep him focused on me while Nathan got the door open.

The dogs must have been waiting just inside for us to return. Nathan kicked the door inward, and Beverly’s long, low growl echoed out into the hall, followed by the sleek black shape of Beverly herself rocketing for the sleepwalker’s knees. Beverly was a black Lab that we had acquired when her original owner went into conversion; it had been her barking and growling that alerted us to the fact that something was wrong with him. Most animals hated sleepwalkers. Something about the chemical changes to the body that occurred during an invasive takeover upset them. Beverly took that hate to a new level.

The man who was trying to gnaw through my wrist might not have known much about pain anymore, but that didn’t make him immune to the laws of physics. Beverly slammed into his knees and he let me go, moaning in confusion as he struggled to keep his balance. The gash in my wrist was almost three inches long. Thanks to the way his teeth had broken through skin and muscle, the wound ran up and not across. Beverly was growling, and Minnie was barking from somewhere inside the apartment, and I was bleeding everywhere. So much blood.

The sight of it actually helped a little. It meant I was on a time limit. I danced backward, getting away from him, and waved my arms in the air, trying to keep his attention on me rather than allowing it to switch to my dog. He staggered forward, arms outstretched, a moan bubbling from his lips.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and grabbed him by the hair, yanking with all of my might. The motion made the open wound in my wrist burn with new pain. But Beverly was still hitting him from behind, and with me pulling from the front, I was able to navigate him to the head of the stairs. He moaned again. I swiveled, and shoved.

Prev Next