Gentlemen, we have met the problem head-on. We have risen to the occasion, and beyond. We have continued our work despite personal tragedy, despite deaths and losses too great to be borne. The men and women under my command have been genuine heroes, and it is a crime that their names will not be remembered by future generations, because I no longer have any faith that those future generations will exist—or if, should their existence be assured, they will be anything we could recognize as human.
My recommendations on this matter were made years ago, and were ignored. It is an unfortunate truth that the inconvenient, when ignored, tends to become worse rather than becoming better.
The situation is continuing to deteriorate. There is nothing more that we can do.
–MESSAGE FROM COLONEL ALFRED MITCHELL, USAMRIID, TRANSMITTED TO THE WHITE HOUSE ON NOVEMBER 2, 2027
I dreamt of the hot warm dark. Of the hot warm dark and of the redness that never ended, instead stretching on and on into a peaceful eternity. I moved through that redness without moving, and I understood the reasons for that now. My old therapist would have been amazed by the breakthroughs I was making in understanding my own mind. Not thinking of myself as a human being helped a lot. I didn’t need to consciously move when I was in the hot warm dark because I was the hot warm dark, and I was the occupant of the hot warm dark, and it would never leave me, even if I could never go back to the simplicity of being that I had once enjoyed, before I became self-aware, before I became Sal, with all the consequences that choice—if it was a choice—implied.
I didn’t really think of my creation as a choice. All the choices had come later, when I was a thinking, feeling creature that stood on two legs, instead of swimming fluidly with none. If there was a price to pay for what I had become—a price for me to pay, not Sally—it was that once you were human, you had to choose things.
“Sal.” A hand touched my shoulder, accompanied by the familiar sound of Nathan’s voice. The hot warm dark dissolved into the blackness behind my eyelids. I didn’t move. There was always a moment, right after I woke up, where I had to decide whether or not waking up was worth it. Choices again. Nathan sighed. “Honey, I know you’re awake. Come on. We’re going to miss breakfast if you don’t get moving.”
I opened my eyes and rolled over. Nathan, fully dressed, with a lab coat over his brown wool sweater, was sitting on the edge of the bed and smiling ruefully at me. His thick black hair was damp and sticking to his forehead, a sure sign that he’d come straight from the showers. “What?” I said, groggily. “Why?”
“Because we only serve breakfast for so long, and then we have to start turning the kitchen over to get ready for lunch,” he said reasonably. Beverly had her head resting on my hip. He reached over me to ruffle her ears, adding, “It’s waffles today. The chickens on the roof have started laying enough eggs that we can use them for things like batter.”
“I like waffles,” I allowed, and sat up. Beverly gave me a betrayed look and rolled over, telegraphing her intent not to get out of the bed for anything short of bacon. I giggled. I couldn’t help it.
“I like waffles too,” said Nathan, his small smile blossoming into a full, tight-lipped grin. He never showed me his teeth when he smiled anymore. What had been an affectation for my comfort when we were dating and I was human had become full-on habit upon learning that I was a tapeworm, and that my distaste for teeth was a genetic atavism that no amount of therapy could cure.
That sobered me. I bit my lip, dropping my chin a bit as I said, “I’ll get some clothes on and be right down.”
“That sounds like you’re planning to stay in bed until I leave the room, and then get ready without me,” said Nathan. “What’s wrong? Did you have bad dreams again?”
Sometimes I dreamt about my time with Sherman, or even my time at USAMRIID, blessedly short as it had been. In my dreams, Sherman never came to save me, and what Sally’s father had planned for me—the worm that had stolen his daughter’s life—was always worse than a few marrow samples. I had been back where I belonged for almost two weeks, and the dreams weren’t as frequent as they had been once, but I still woke up screaming frequently enough that we were both running on a disrupted sleep schedule.
“No,” I said quietly.
“It’s something, or you wouldn’t be refusing to meet my eyes.” Nathan touched my shoulder. “Tell me, please. I can’t help if you won’t tell me.”
“I dreamt about the hot warm dark. That’s all. It was… it was so nice. It was so much nicer than dreaming about being back with Sherman that I didn’t want to wake up. I just wanted to stay there forever.” The words were all simple ones, but between the two of us, they meant so much more than they could possibly encompass. I had dreamt of being something other than human, and I had wanted to stay that way. But if I wasn’t human, how could I belong here?
Nathan sighed. “Sal. Look at me.”
I lifted my head.
“Wanting to disappear into the hot warm dark is perfectly reasonable for you right now, and you know it. I don’t care where you came from. I never have, and I never will, and you know that.” Nathan looked at me solemnly. “I won’t tell you not to be silly—you’re not being silly, you’re going through a perfectly natural and normal process. You’re grieving for a life you didn’t think was going to turn out like this, and I’m just sorry we don’t have any trained therapists here for you to talk to. But I don’t care how many times you dream about disappearing into the dark. You’re still my girl.”