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ORIGIN: late 19th century, modern Latin. Noun. The interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.

Her feet continued to remain stationary. No matter how hard she concentrated on every single fiber of each exact sinew in her legs, she could not contract any of them.

It was a world that didn’t make any sense to her, but she found herself here, often. There was no blue sky, no green vegetation, only grey. Grey skies, grey dirt, grey trees and plants, and her skin was grey, too.

It was at this point that she always started. The inability to move, and the acknowledgement of this complete lack of color.

He was there, too, but she could never place him. She knew there was a romantic attraction to him, seething and bubbling somewhere in the festering recesses of her disjointed thoughts. Whatever it was that she felt for him, his face remained an enigma. He was simply there.

He was there, next to her, when they finally sank. She would watch her feet disappear, ankles and calves soon following, and he would turn that forgotten face towards her. As the ground slowly came closer to their waists, he would recite tales to her of their long and sordid history and the link that she alone must maintain between the races. The muck soon contrived to swallow them whole. Throughout the entire monologue of supposed allegorical fables, she had not even noticed that they were now up to their chest, and her arms, complete with clenched fists, pinned to her sides, beneath the ground.

And the next part, she always failed to recall this part, but each time it happened, it was as if it was happening, engulfing her in dread for the very first time, every time. It was always exactly the same. The grey primordial dirt rose to her neck, and she screamed from lungs which were now buried beneath the surface. But it wasn’t a human voice that blasted from her throat, but synthetic cries that sounded very much like the processing a robot would make of sound. And this cry, it wasn’t made out of fear. It was created out of necessity. A signal used to search for one of her own kind.

The scream filled her ears, one single note that became a hum, vibrating the ground that rose to it’s final destination above her head. This grey earth became her tomb. And he was still beside her, his words no longer coherent, but incessant. In the dirt, her flesh peeled and rotted, falling from exposed bone. In that velvet black deterioration, nothing could be seen. But she heard the two of them decaying. The horrific festering stench that they both created filled her every sensation.

There, lying beneath that grey expanse, he took her and enfolded her in his arms.

She felt the two of them sinking into the grey dirt, still falling rapidly, away from the surface. His arms wound about her tighter and tighter and tighter…

That, and only that, was the only thing that could wake her. It was a pressure like no other, dragging her lower and lower, stopping her breath. Fighting and struggling in his grasp, she made an effort for consciousness. Out of all the occurrences she was a part of in this grey dream world, why should this embrace cause her so much distress? She had taken part in this several times. Why was she always so passive up to this point… only to labor horrifically against a final lover’s embrace?

Awake, she suddenly remembered that the battle was not finished, not yet. How could she have forgotten that the dream was only an omen, a warning that the worst was yet to come?

This specific dream could only mean that the antidote has not worked, but this was no time to mourn. Her eyes fought against the fiery blasts of the sunrise, and the grey vegetation, the grey rot that followed her from her dreams once again, just as it has for the past few months, sealing her fears with resolute panic.

Engulfing her doorway, grey vines loomed above her, growing larger and larger by the second. She knew they were only hallucinations, but she also knew that these visions were the signal of death, the progression of the deadly virus. Previous experience of this vision had taught her that she had mere minutes before it successfully shut down her vitality completely. She had to get to the hospital as fast as possible. There, they had a dose of medicine that was highly effective, if only temporary. And she hoped beyond all hope that it was still as effective.

The experimental antidote given to her two days ago had been her last hope. Were they developing a new one? If they weren’t, she could only come to the conclusion that they had given up on her condition.

She was yet unwilling to accept that this, perhaps, was to be her new life. Never cured, but she was still able to fight it. A few days at a time, perhaps a full week without medication. As long as she received help in time, before the delirium was able to follow through with its final death throes. A delirium she had watched take over and kill every other member of her family, and all but a handful of the inhabitants of her little town.

Worst of all, no one had any answers.

Struggling through her ever shifting scenery, placing the first pair of shoes that she could find onto her feet and slipping a coat quickly over her nightgown, she ran from her front door, veering through vines that were now sprouting animated fibrous grey, rotten flowers that peered with vacant yet somehow menacing faces. The plants were actively plotting amongst each other to overtake her and halt her in her plight. The vines manifested thorns, as lethal and sharp as jagged shards of glass. With each careful step she took, she couldn’t help but note their gleaming vibrance, reflecting a horrific violence in the heat of that magnificent morning sun.

Breaking out into a dead run through the maze, all was painful silence in that graveyard of a town. Houses masked off with plastic sheets and bright orange barrels of unknown, rotting waste were the only denizens of those streets. The streets bended and curved in front of her, carrying her swiftly to the hospital, her only savior this morning being the close proximity of medicine, the rescue from her fevered visions, and the next stage of the virus, which was in all cases: death.

She burst into the hospital doors, the doors slamming against the sides of the walls with a resounding crack, her feet taking her swiftly down the dark, deserted corridors. She noticed that today was even quieter than usual, absolutely no one was about. The only sound that breathed in these halls was the echoing clap of her own shoes against the waxed tile.

Many patients had already died here. Many more, most likely, were bound to die here soon, if they hadn’t already. The abandoned halls didn’t alarm her. Not even the empty desk in the front, the forsaken rooms all around her. Each information kiosk at various points of the building were also lonely and dark in shadow. No post anywhere else seemed to be taken.

Like as not, many of the staff had been relocated to more populated areas, somewhere they were needed, where there was a higher chance of rehabilitating survivors. She had heard that there were a few cases, even now, that were successful. If only her’s was the next case that would be on that list, she could only hope.

There had to be someone here, someone, somewhere, she thought to herself. She only now noticed that the grey vines had followed her into the building. They crept alongside her, but she tried her best not to look on either side of her. Tried her best to ignore the walls that held active, curling, rotting foliage that seemed only subdued by the dim light of the building. She didn’t want to look closely, didn’t want to know just how slowly they were climbing, or, rather, how fast they were progressing.

She didn’t dare look down at her feet, either. In front of her, crawling with an intent that terrified her, was the very first opening of grey, cracked and dry dirt that was springing from the waxen floor. Once, her delirium had progressed so far that she started sinking, fully awake and kicking and screaming into this grey dirt. But nurses had been on hand to inject a medicine into her veins just in time.

She could feel the vines brushing past her feet, grazing the sides of her ankles. Only moving away from them as quickly as she could stopped the insidious growth that would eventually entangle her entire body. That vision of their final embrace just wouldn’t leave her mind. A lighted desk at the end of one long winding corridor caught her eye.

A nurse, one lone woman lit by a solitary, cold light, sat at a desk, and she called to the nurse. Desperate to find someone else’s voice other than her own to cling to. A voice that could cut through those vines that refused to stop growing all around her.

The nurse never moved, never looked up, never acknowledged that anything else existed beyond the little halo of a glow that lit only the little desk and unwavering features. She stood in front of the nurse and continued to ask her questions, pleaded with her for help, for news of a cure that could save her from the death delirium that she now found herself in. She asked for absolutely anything at all.

The nurse’s face was strange, she noticed. The cheeks, the nose, the slope of the forehead all seemed to be one solid piece of waxen plastic. The light that reflected on the rounded peaks of her cheekbones was inhuman; it looked as if that face had never actually moved. She stepped closer to the desk, closer, just to check if the nurse was even breathing.

It didn’t appear that the nurse was even alive.

A grinding noise filled the hallway, the whir and buzzing clicks of gears accompanied a strange sight. The nurse’s face split open, shifted, and from the recess where a skull might have been was a device that looked very much like a projector. The device slid forward effortlessly, and then clicked itself onwards. A grey light flickered from its lenses in a myriad of jumbled images.

She hadn’t even realized that she had fallen backwards onto the floor until she felt the vines securely wrap themselves around her ankles, her forearms. They wrapped themselves around her neck, and curled their way behind her ears. Buried themselves in her scalp. She couldn’t move away from them if she tried.

The jumbled light took the form of a man. One that she recognized almost immediately from the depths of her dreams. The one that sank with her into the grey dirt, the one that was always present in the midst of her hallucinations. His face…his face was never something that she could identify, but his form was something she would have known anywhere.

Was he part of her delirium, now…or was he actually there, before her? This man, this hologram projected from the bloodless, plastic dead head of the nurse. Neither were any sort of a representation of a living, breathing human. 

Was she already dead?

“You are nearly to the next stage,” the hologram told her. “Number 6157 is your serial number. Should you be successful in your transition, you will do well to remember that number. Very few have taken up their place in the new race, but you are strong! I have every belief that we will continue to add to the numbers of our new era.”

“You’re nothing more than a mirage,” she sputtered at him, wanting to stop her ears against his words, but her wrists were tied tightly to the ground bending to the will of the vines. “You’re part of my fever dream, they told me so. You’re not real. A nurse will give me medicine at any moment now, I know there is someone that will help me and make you disappear! You’re not real…”

“I’ve been the only real thing in your dreams,” he answered her gravely. “All of the newest transitions, every last one of the humans dreamed of me, they just didn’t realize it. Whatever fever dreams, whatever hallucinations you may have had were caused by your subconscious. It’s normal for your body to fight the transition-“

“What transition, what are you talking about?!” She screamed at him.

“The new era of Robotics.” He replied. He must be smiling, she thought, as the hologram started to creep nearer and nearer towards her. Those features of his were elusive, his words harnessing the meaning of his conversation. She looked over at the nurse, whose head was cranked to a disturbing angle to accommodate the hologram’s movements.

“Humans are only now beginning to realize that what they thought was a disease is just the inner circuitry of a new race of robotics. We’ve been here longer than you have, and implanted the means that created this shift in humanity, long ago. Harmlessly, painlessly implanted while you were sleeping. Specifically for your ease of comfort, but also for a seamless transition into the different phases.”

“But people have died from this virus-“ she countered. It hadn’t taken long for her father and mother and siblings to die, after their first hallucinations struck. Her heart clenched, her breath quickened as she found herself remembering the image of her older sister disintegrate into spasms, turning blue and spitting foam mixed with black blood. Her sister had finally folded into collapsed limbs and broken flesh.

That was the only end to the disease that she had ever seen.

“Only a few survive the transition. Only the strong can survive the next phase that will enter them into our race. Humans have been trying to stave it off for years now, but soon there won’t be anyone left to fight it. All will be changed…or eliminated.”

The vines tightened around her throat, pulled her wrists and ankles towards each other. It felt as if her neck was collapsing upon itself. The walls of her esophagus was collapsing upon itself, the walls of her throat meeting one another. Sinews and muscles and bone breaking and twisting. Her tongue scraped the roof of her mouth, trying to gulp, searching for air, her mouth opening wider and wider as she searched.

The hologram before her was the last thing she ever saw. It faded in flickers and pixels of fractured light that dissipated the very second the last breath left her jagged mouth. Her limbs folded and caved in like the wilted petals and leaves of a flower.

The hologram shifted a few more seconds and then faded away as the projector stopped its whirring and clicked off. The nurse’s face folded her hologram device back into the cavity of her head, her face aligning itself back into its original, humanoid form. She stood and then promptly knelt beside the crumpled form in the middle of the hallway.

No vital signs, no breath. It was as dead as all the others that had just recently passed through here. At her desk was a list of the protocol required, each time this circumstance occurred. The nurse gathered the cart, the body bag as well and the various tags and paperwork needed for identification. Eventually, headquarters would come around to make note of all the specimens that had failed the final phase. The body was then efficiently and briskly filed away.

“Number 6157 has failed transition,” she later told Headquarters, in her daily submission. “There are only two undocumented cases left in this residential area. Number 6158 and Number 6159. The whereabouts of Number 6158 and 6159 are yet unknown.”

Headquarters clicked through the information given and then gave asked for clarification on the final two specimens that were left in the town.

“Do they suspect yet what they are?” Headquarters asked.

“Not enough information gathered to make an accurate analysis.” The nurse answered. “Request a crew to sweep the area for survivors. I will not be leaving my post. The survivors may be dead. The survivors, however, may have removed the implant.”

“Unlikely,” Headquarters told her. “There is not a case yet of a specimen removing the implant. We are sending in crews around your area, soon, to hunt for survivors. Standby for tomorrow’s submission.”

Headquarters closed the line of communication. The nurse, her job done for the day, sat back down at her desk, resuming her post. The lamp on the nurse’s desk continued to glow its harsh orb of light, indifferent to the darkness all around it.

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