Location: Aboard Assimilation ship EOC-2789, the private vessel of Count Doloroso. In orbit around the planet humans call “Mars”.
Time: Several solar days following the death of Doloroso’s human host body and the subsequent acquisition of his new Majoran host body.
The new body was working out splendidly. Count Doloroso—for so he still preferred to refer to himself, despite his numerous recent physical changes— stretched his muscular arms with delight. He still couldn’t get over how much better he felt in the Majoran host than he had in the human one.
This body was young and strong and virile and best of all, it wasn’t orange. Well, not unless he wanted it to be. For Majorans were chromatacromes, able to change their hair and skin and eye color at will. It was the perfect disguise—really, he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t taken a Majoran as a host before.
It had been extremely lucky, his old host body dying just as a perfect new host was available right on his own ship. The little silver drone that carried his essence and injected it into new sentient host bodies had only had to fly a few feet to sting one of the Imperial Guards on the neck. No one had even noticed when he took over—the transition had been exceedingly smooth.
As for the other Imperial Guards, he had managed to lure them down to the stasis booths in the belly of the ship. One by one he had tricked them into entering the empty booths and one by one he had frozen them in suspended animation. Now he had enough hosts to last him for years! Count Doloroso felt positively rich.
Of course there was still one problem, Doloroso admitted as he paced back and forth in the control area of his ship—he still lacked a La-ti-zal to utilize in his new breeding program. How could he begin production of a whole new race of Organic Assimilated if he couldn’t get a La-ti-zal female to impregnate?
There was the one, of course—the last one of Zoe’s friends who was one of those females blessed by the Ancient Ones. But how could he get to her? Especially now that the Majoran captain of the Imperial Guard was watching over her? That was the question that had been occupying him for days as he orbited Mars, out of range of detection from his enemies.
A sudden thought made him stop pacing.
Then again, who said he had to get to her and take her away from Earth himself?
A slow smile curved his new lips. The Majoran captain would do that for him. Because he believed that Charlotte—that was her name, correct?—was the new incarnation of the Goddess-Empress. And so he would take her away from Earth and head for Femme One, where the throne and palace of the Empress was located.
Doloroso had a long history with the Empress—the old one, that was. She had been a La-ti-zal and a Seer—one who was granted visions of the future by the meddling Goddess of the Twelve Peoples.
Due to her unfair advantage, the old Empress had been able to wipe out his entire race. He alone had survived to try and propagate his species, that of sentient machines inhabiting living hosts. The Assimilation had once been a mighty force to be reckoned with and yet the Goddess-Empress had brought them low and all but wiped them out.
What if he returned the favor?
Doloroso’s smile became a wide, evil grin. If he could get his hands on the new Empress, what amazing things could he accomplish? He could impregnate her with his seed, yes, but the possibilities went far beyond a single pregnancy. He could hold her for ransom and demand anything he wanted—he could even demand that every La-ti-zal in the galaxy be brought to him for his personal use and delectation. He could have a whole harem of La-ti-zal brood mares—all impregnated with his seed—all incubating Organic Assimilated fetuses!
Doloroso rubbed his new, strong hands together in delight. Oh yes, he had plans for the new Empress. And he wouldn’t even have to go to the trouble of going down to Earth to find her. Captain Verrai would bring her right to him…on Femme One.
Quickly, he went to set a course for the Majoran capital planet. He would have to make excuses, of course, for his delay and the “loss” of the other Imperial Guards, but those little details could easily be explained. There was much to put into place, many preparations to make in order to be ready.
He was determined that this time, he would not fail. The Assimilation would rise again and every sentient being in the galaxy would speak its name with fear and awe and wonder.
The Last Day would become the First.
I slipped into a supply closet at the North Florida Regional Medical Center hospital where I was doing my surgical rotation, and crammed myself into a corner, breathing hard.
He’ll never find me here! I’ll be safe here, I told myself. Yet how many other times had I told myself the same thing, only to find that I was wrong?
I took a quick scan of the closet and breathed a sigh of relief. Stacks and stacks of fresh sheets and towels, sterile, plastic wrapped trays for various procedures, bags of saline—it was all good. I didn’t see any shiny, reflective surfaces here. There was no way he could find me.
That is, until I had to go out again.
Which would be as soon as any of the dozen or so patients under my direct supervision had a problem and one of their nurses paged me. And that could be at any moment. So I needed to take a moment to enjoy my sense of peace and safety now.
Then I heard it—that high, squeaky voice that had been haunting me for weeks.
“Attention, Charlotte Walker,” it said, coming from somewhere overhead. “I have a message that I must deliver to you.”
Looking up, I saw that the light fixture in the supply closet had a curving, silver metal side which was shiny enough to reflect light. Only instead of the dull glint of the light bulb, it was showing a strange, blue worm-like creature with multiple arms and eyes that were mounted on stalks.
It was the same creature I had been seeing for weeks. It appeared everywhere—the bowl of my metal spoon when I was eating oatmeal or yogurt, the side of the toaster when I was making toast, even the shiny metal surgical instruments laid out on the tray in the operating theater where I was supposed to be assisting.
The other day it had appeared in the middle of a splenectomy, speaking to me from the blade of a scalpel in its tiny, high voice that only I could hear.
The blue worm creature had startled me so badly I had dropped the scalpel I had been handing to the surgeon right into the patient’s open body cavity! Luckily, the scalpel had fallen handle first, so it hadn’t severed any major blood vessels or punctured any organs, but the surgeon had been livid. I had been dismissed from the surgery with a black mark on my record.
Thanks a lot, you little blue bastard!
Day and night the worm followed me—unless I slept in a completely dark room with no reflective surfaces. But have you heard when medical interns get to sleep? That’s right—almost never. We’re constantly on call, constantly on the move. And we almost never get a good night’s sleep—or any sleep at all, for that matter.
It was awful and also, the main reason I was convinced I was going crazy.
“Charlotte Walker,” the blue worm said again. “I have accepted payment to deliver a message to you regarding—”
“No! NO!” I screamed, finally “losing my shit” as my best friend Zoe would say.
Zoe. God, I missed her—she had disappeared months ago and nobody knew what had happened to her. When my other friend, Leah, and I had finally made the painful decision to stop looking for her, I had decided to go to med school and drown my sorrows in work. And because I was already a PA, I’d been allowed to jump right into the third year which meant clinical rotations at the hospital and plenty of action to distract me.
At first, everything had been fine—well, as fine as it could be after losing my friend. But then the blue worm had started stalking me. And now, after weeks of constant harassment, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“No, no, no!” I shouted. “Leave me alone!”
I pulled off one of my comfortable clogs, stood on a plastic stool which was obviously used for reaching the higher shelves, and began banging on the light fixture as hard as I could.
“Leave me alone!” I screamed at the weird blue worm. “Leave me the fuck alone!”
“What’s the matter, Walker—pager driving you bugshit?”
I looked over to see my friend and fellow intern, Sebastian Trent, leaning against the door jam with his arms crossed and a sarcastic little smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
“Shut up,” I said, climbing off the stool and quickly replacing my clog. “I just, uh, thought I saw a worm up there.”
“A worm?” He frowned. “What would a worm be doing on the ceiling?”
“Uh, spider, I mean. I thought I saw a spider,” I said quickly. “And I hate spiders.”
“Oh. I thought maybe your pager was going off when you were trying to catch a nap.” He smiled sympathetically. “I know how that feels.”
“I don’t nap on duty,” I said. “Especially not when I’m covering the Pit.”
The “Pit” was what we called the ER, which was generally jammed almost all the time. Tonight, however, it had been strangely quiet, which was why I had dared to duck into the supply closet to try and get five minutes of peace and quiet.
So much for that.
“Well excuse me for interrupting your ‘me time’ your royal highness,” Sebastian snapped bitchily. “I just thought you might like to know you have a new triage.”
“In the Pit?” I asked. “What is it? MVA? Gunshot wound?”
“Knife fight victim.” Sebastian grinned. “We think anyway—there’s blood coming from somewhere but we can’t get to the wound. Anyway, just wait ‘till you see him.”
“Why? Is he in bad shape?” I was already moving down the hall with Sebastian jogging to keep up with me. “You think he’ll need surgery?”
It may sound ghoulish but I was kind of hoping he would. We interns are always trying to get more cases under our belt. What’s bad for the patient is often good for us. Not that I want anyone to die—I just kind of hope they’re in danger of dying and that I can save them.
Wow, that sounds crazy, right? But that’s the life of an intern—rushing from emergency to emergency, trying to save as many people as possible and soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can along the way.
If I hadn’t had that damn blue worm following me and popping up everywhere to yell at me in his high, Disney-character voice, I would have been having the time of my life. As it was, I was miserable—though the idea of a stab wound so bad it needed surgery did cheer me up considerably.
But Sebastian was shaking his head.
“No, I’m not talking about his trauma—I’m talking about his ass,” he gushed. “You should see this guy. He’s got to be over seven feet tall and every inch of him is pure muscle. Not to mention he has this incredible blue-black hair and these amazing eyes—”
“Sebastian…” I sighed and shook my head. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Get me this guy’s number and ask if he swings both ways,” my friend said promptly.
“If he’s so hot, why didn’t you take him yourself?” I demanded. “You’re on Pit duty too.”
“Believe me, I tried.” Sebastian opened his eyes wide and made a helpless gesture with both hands. “But he only wants you—he asked for you by name.”
“He what?” I frowned at him. “What are you talking about? Is he from Tampa or something?”
Tampa, Florida is my hometown and the city I had been living in until I decided to go back to medical school in Gainesville, which is a couple of hours to the north. But even in Tampa, I hadn’t known any seven foot tall guys with black hair and amazing eyes.
Of course, Sebastian was probably exaggerating on at least one, if not all counts. He was perpetually horny and had already worked his way through most of the male nurses at North Florida Regional, as well as a good number of the young male doctors.
“I don’t know where he’s from,” Sebastian said, as we rounded the corner and went through the automatic doors that led to the ER triage area. “I just know he’s gorgeous and he’s asking for you. You lucky girl.”
“Shut up,” I said under my breath as we came to a curtained area. There was some kind of commotion taking place inside—someone was yelling and then I heard the clang of instruments being thrown on the floor.
“I told you,” a deep male voice shouted. “I will speak only to Charlotte Walker. She is the only person I will allow to treat my wounds!”
“Sir if you’ll just—” came the voice of a nurse from the other side of the curtain.
“Charlotte Walker! I must see her now!” he bellowed, loudly enough to hurt my ears.
“See what I mean?” Sebastian whispered. “He wouldn’t let me touch him either and believe me, honey, I tried.”
“Well he can’t be that bad off if he’s yelling like that,” I muttered back.
He shook his head. “Actually, I’m afraid he’s got a really nasty slice up the right side of his abdomen. You better get in there and see what you can do for him.”
I glared at him. “You’re enjoying this.”
“Of course I am! Girl, this is better than an episode of Grey’s Anatomy!” He grinned and gave me a nudge towards the curtained area. “Go on—have fun.”
Putting on my I am a serious doctor face, I squared my shoulders and pulled back the light blue curtain.
Sebastian hadn’t been lying.
Lying on the hospital gurney was the biggest man I had ever seen in my life. Even flat on his back, I could see that he was more than seven feet tall and, as Sebastian had said, every inch of him appeared to be covered in muscle.
I don’t mean that he was grossly over-muscled in a roided-out body-builder kind of way—it was just that his entire frame was pumped in all the right places. He had kind of a swimmer’s build—long and lean and muscular with broad shoulders and narrow hips.
I bet myself that he had less than two percent body fat. Must be nice—as a plus sized girl, I have considerably more than two percent myself.
But back to my patient.
He also had curly black hair and eyes like nothing I had ever seen before. As I watched, they seemed to change color from sky blue to pale, leaf green, to iridescent silver. Wait—silver? Nobody had silver eyes. And how were they changing like that?
“Get away from me!” the huge patient was storming at the nurse—a girl named Gloria—who was trying to take his vitals. “I told you, I will have none other than Charlotte Walker as my healer!”
“Honey, I’m just trying to take your blood pressure.” Gloria held up the extra-large cuff. “Come on now, why don’t you be a sweetheart and settle down?”
“It’s okay, Gloria, I said, coming into the curtained triage area. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Fine.” She threw up her hands and let the BP cuff drop. “You handle him, Dr. Walker. You’re the only one he seems to want, anyway. Just be careful, I don’t know what he’s on but it must be some wild stuff. You see those eyes?”
As a matter of fact, I did. At the sound of my voice, the patient’s incredible eyes had fixed on me and he was practically staring laser beams right through me.
“Charlotte Walker,” he breathed, reaching for me with one catcher’s mitt-sized hand. “I have come for you. I must warn you—you are in danger!”
And then his eyes rolled back in his head, his head thumped back on the pillow, and he was out like a light.