“At last, you begin to learn,” said Sherman. “If you want any chance of a stable long-term integration with a host you’ll actually like, you’ll stop threatening Sal. Go get yourself cleaned up. You reek of dead human.”
“My favorite cologne,” said Ronnie, and swaggered away. She didn’t walk like a little girl: she walked like a grown man, all strutting and strength, and people got out of her way.
Sherman pulled his arm away from my shoulders as he transferred his hold back to my arm. “This way,” he said, starting to walk deeper into the mall. A few people cast curious glances our way, but most of them ignored us. They had their own business to attend to, and we were just so much background noise. That, or they had been with Sherman long enough to learn to stay out of his way. All my early experiences with him told me that I could trust him, that he was my friend and would protect me. He had been one of my handlers at SymboGen. He had been my friend.
And yet everything I’d experienced since my last visit to SymboGen told me he was the enemy, or close enough as to make no difference. It was his fault we’d lost Tansy. It was his fault I was here. But whether he was friend or foe, the only option I had was to go with him. If he was going to protect me, he’d do a better job if he knew where I was. If he was planning to hurt me, maybe he’d be gentler if I seemed to be playing along.
“Have you been keeping up with your linguistics, pet?” he asked. “I know I haven’t taught you any new words the last few times we’ve seen each other. I’m sorry about that. I did so enjoy expanding your vocabulary.”
“Did you always know I was a tapeworm?” It wasn’t the question I’d been planning to ask, but once it was out in the open between us, I realized that there were no other questions. Anything else I might have wanted to know was dependent on how he answered me.
“Oh, Sal. My pretty, innocent little creature.” Sherman kept walking, and I kept walking with him. We passed more people, none of them familiar, and none of them paused to ask where we were going. “I knew someone like you was going to come along eventually—knew it in my bones, you could say.” He chuckled like this was somehow hysterical. Maybe it was, to him. Tapeworms don’t have bones. “Mother always told us we could only happen under proper laboratory conditions, but what she didn’t count on was that I was the closest she’d yet come to perfection. Tansy was… well, you’ve met Tansy; there was no way she was going to bite the hand that fed her. Adam was always a momma’s boy, too devoted to doing exactly as he was bid to question anything. Whereas I was the snake in her garden. I read all her files, and when I ran across something I didn’t understand, I learned. It’s amazing what people will tell you when they don’t yet realize that they need to be wary.
“I asked her lab staff about biological interfaces and statistical probability. I asked her technicians about skeletal structures and backup functions and how often blood circulated through the brain. And I asked our mutual creator about the structure of my soul. She was very glad to tell me as much as I wanted to know, because she didn’t think I’d have the background to understand what she was telling me. She even taught me—albeit accidentally—how one went about creating a false identity for someone, and what it would take to get on Steven Banks’s good side.” Sherman cast me a sly, sidelong look. “You see what I did for you, Sal? I twisted the world into knots so I could make it a pretty bow to tie in your hair. Your human lover never did anything half so nice.”
Bile rose in my throat as I realized that he meant what he was saying. Some of this—not all, thankfully, but enough to be disturbing—had been intended as a form of courtship, like he could convince me to love him if he just spent enough time working on the problem. “You’re not answering the question,” I said. “People keep doing that to me. I don’t like it.”
“I do appreciate that you’ve started growing a spine. It’ll make this much more of an equal partnership, and much less of a burden.” Sherman shook his head. “Yes, I knew. I recognized you for what you were when they first rolled you into SymboGen and I thought, this is it. This is what fate looks like. This is the way destiny presents itself. With a brunette on a stretcher, wetting herself and staring dispassionately at the ceiling. You were the Holy Grail, Sal. A natural chimera in the process of full neural integration, yet awake through the entire process. Most of us didn’t get to wake up until a full six months further along. I honestly feel that it hampered our ability to completely inhabit our bodies. The protocols for integration as practiced here are based largely on your experience. We have so much to thank you for.”
We had reached the far end of the mall while he was talking. A metal grill was half-lowered across the mouth of what had clearly been a department store, once upon a time. Sherman ducked to get under the grill, not letting go of my arm, and so I bent to follow him. The grill creaked down and locked onto the floor as soon as we were through. Because that wasn’t disturbing or anything.
“You never told me.” My voice sounded small and betrayed, matching the slivers of ice that felt like they were piercing my heart. I knew Sherman was on the other side of this conflict. It didn’t matter. Part of me was always going to want him to be a good guy.
“What would I have said? ‘I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, dear, but not only are you not actually Sally Mitchell, you’re not even a human being. You’re something new, and better, and everyone you have ever loved is going to view you as a monster.’ ” He let go of my arm and stepped away, turning to face me. “Everyone but me, that is. You have never been a monster in my eyes, Sal. You have never been anything short of perfect. I doubt that you ever could be. You feel it, don’t you? The way your heart slows down to beat along with mine.”