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The Surgeon continued to speak as though she hadn't just casually offered me up as a piece of meat to some horrific malevolent... artificial eye. "You aren't losing anything, Conversant, just gaining something. Give it a moment of thought, will you?"

Conversant was clearly giving it more than a moment of thought. I could see every little pulse of the muscles that ringed his pupil as he considered me. I yanked against the Surgeon's grip, but her hand was steel, both literally and figuratively. Even if I could get out of her grip, could I get through the wall that Conversant had made between us and the street? It looked goopy, but I wasn't sure I could push through it, and even if I could get through that, how far could I run before he caught me? I had a little half-remembered thought come up, like a video clip or dream, of an insect struggling in the cocoon of another insect, unable to free itself before it was sucked dry of life. That would undoubtedly be my fate.



"Hey-- you can't just--" I struggled to pry the Surgeon's fingers up from around my wrist. "You said you were going to help me!"



WE HAVE ENOUGH EXPERIENCE WITH A WILLFUL CREATION, Conversant said, finally. A UNIQUE WILL IS IRRELEVANT TO OUR PURPOSES. IT IS NOT THE RECREATION OF SENTIENCE THAT CONCERNS US. AS YOUR EXISTENCE DEMONSTRATES, THERE HAS BEEN TOO MUCH OF THAT.



"It's just a template. You can disassemble him for parts; I don't care. There are no conditions attached to the trade. I know your database isn't perfect. He should fill the holes nicely."



I felt like I was going to vomit. Conversant's fluid was creeping up around my boots. I pulled up a foot and shook it off. The Surgeon noticed, and lifted me up off of the ground, not comfortably, just sort of around the torso so my legs dangled in the air.



WE COULD DISASSEMBLE BOTH OF YOU NOW.



"There's nothing in my body that you haven't seen." The Surgeon shifted me to her other arm like a sack. "And it would be a waste. Don't posture. You're an archivist, not a murderer."

I kicked at her waist but she ignored me. Since she'd been wandering around in a toxic wasteland naked, my feeble blows were more of a protest than a fully-hearted attempt at escape.



"It's still murder if he cuts me up!" I yelled. "What's wrong with you?! You walked me out this far just for this? Why didn't you just leave me for the doctor, or better yet, kill me right there yourself? I thought you at least respected my right to live!" Right to live sounded pretty good-- I even believed it myself for a moment when I said it, a stronger will than just the fear of death.

"Oh, hush," the Surgeon said, not cruelly but with an air of total sardonic dismissal. "You've only been alive for three days. You barely have a personality, let alone a name. When predators hunt, they go after the children, not the mothers, you know. Well, you might not have known that-- do you know why?"



"I don't actually care! I want to live!" I took a deep breath and then tried to exhale as much as possible, to make myself really small and slip away.

It didn't work.

"Because the mother can have more children quickly, but the children take time to grow and breed again. None of us have survived out of kindness."



Conversant's cyclopean eye split into two eyes, then four, then eight, each set smaller than the last, in some kind of absentminded thought process. None of them took their gaze off of us, though, It was definitely unsettling. All of the wires clustered and expanded, in and out, the rising and falling of an inorganic breath. The wires must have slid through the cracks in the stone, through the windows, through the ground and the ceilings.... a whole network that built up one creature, one mind... was it really appropriate to call it a city, when it was one creature alone? Did anyone else even live here? I slumped, hopeless and winded.

WE WILL EXCHANGE THE INFORMATION FOR THE SPECIMEN, Conversant said, finally. WHAT METHOD OF TRANSFERENCE DO YOU PREFER?

I screamed, as loudly and high-pitched as possible, in case someone else could hear me. It ripped out my already-raw throat, and I coughed gunk up into the mask. Great. It already didn't smell good in there, and I wasn't sure I hadn't coughed up blood or worse. At least it wasn't vomit. Yet.

The Surgeon tilted her head. "Easily portable. Solid state. Light retrieval.”

VERY WELL. Conversant bubbled, the surface boiling for a moment, and then one of the eyes extended a long tendril with a small object tied at the end. The object reflected in the shimmering bio-walls, but I still couldn't quite make out what it was. A crystal of some sort, maybe?

The object was deposited into the Surgeon's free hand, and she held it up to the light for a moment, examining it with her eyeless black faceplate. Then she said, simply, "thank you" and lowered me to the ground. This time I clung to her arm.

"Wait, wait, I don't want to die--" I babbled, and a lot more embarrassing things came through my mouth, anything pleading or threatening or even the least bit interesting that I could think of. The Surgeon casually slotted the data crystal into her leg, and bent down to lift the gas mask from my face.

I took in a choking gasp despite myself and tried to hold my breath, sure that I had just sealed my death with that errant gulp--

-- but the air didn't burn my throat. With the tinted lenses removed, the light was even brighter, Conversant's oily sheen more luminous and colorful and nauseating. I stared up at the Surgeon's face as she regarded me with an slight upward turn to her full lips.

"I will miss you a little, little survivor,” she said, and bent down and kissed me, her mouth covering mine, her lips softly parting my lips. It wasn't even that it felt good at that moment, but the whole experience was so alien to me that I locked up and stood there, frozen and confused for upwards of a full second, until she bit my lip and a lancing pain ripped through my right ear.

I yanked myself back and stumbled but managed to stay upright even though Conversant's fluid stuck to the soles of my boots. I clapped my hand to my ear and then pulled it away, bloody. The Surgeon was licking her lips-- blood smeared across her mouth like a macabre lipstick. She held my right earlobe delicately between her metal claws.
"But don't worry," she said, "I won't forget you."

And with that she grabbed my shoulder and shoved me face-first into the quicksilver muck. It filled my mouth and my eyes and nose before I had a chance to make even a startled grunt, and as The goop and darkness closed around my body, sucking me down into the street of the city, the last thing I could think of was the insect-- the spider-- cheerfully spinning the cocoon for its doomed prey.

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