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I wake up in pain. I’m lying facedown on a cold cement floor and every part of my body hurts. I groan and roll over, which only adds to the chorus of pain. Every inch of my body has been bruised, broken or burned, oftentimes all three.

There’s some sort of a hubbub going on. I can hear many people talking, several conversations happening at once. I can’t seem to focus on any of them, though. I consider opening my eyes, but even the thought of that is painful, so I just stay where I am and try to reorient myself.

One of the voices draws closer, and suddenly there are hands on my shoulders. I cry out and take a wild swing with my right hand, but the muscles cramp up and rob the strike of any power.

“Easy, easy,” says the voice, and I feel hands on my legs now, too.

“What is he wearing?” asks a second voice.

“Okay, we’re picking you up,” says the first voice, ignoring the question. “On three. One, two, three!”

I am hoisted into the air, and another groan escapes me as pain shoots through my body. A moment later, I’m deposited onto something much softer than the concrete floor, and I open my eyes at last to see what’s going on.

Blue light strobes through the lab, reflecting off every surface. The room is full of uniformed policemen and technicians taking photos and bagging everything they can find. I’m lying on a stretcher with a paramedic at my head and another at my feet.

“I’m gonna untie your…footwear, okay?” says one paramedic, the owner of the second voice.

“Hey,” I say, swallowing. It hurts to talk, but it’s nice to be able to again. “Don’t knock ‘em. Those saved my life.”

With that, I close my eyes again and fall asleep. As I’m fading out, I hear the paramedic say, “No, seriously, he’s just strapped floor mats to his feet. Like, honestly I think that’s the weirdest thing in here.”

When I wake up next, I’m in the hospital and it’s nighttime. They must have given me something to knock me out, because I’m bandaged and stitched. Everything still hurts, but it’s a lot more manageable than it was the last time I woke up. I’m guessing painkillers are involved there.

Regina’s in my room, looking out the window at the lights of the city at night. The rain’s died down, which I take to be a good sign. Also, if she were here to kill me, she probably would have just done it in my sleep.

“Hey,” I say, ever the brilliant conversationalist.

Regina turns. “You’re awake!”

She’s got a bandage over her nose, but otherwise looks none the worse for wear. She hurries to the bedside.

“Can I give you a hug? Where’s safe to touch?”

“No hugs, please. I think there’s one undamaged square inch under my chin. Left side.”

Regina puts her finger there, smiling. “Consider this a hug placeholder, then.”

Abruptly, she leans in and kisses me. Before I can even think to respond, she straightens back up and sits on the edge of the bed. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“That’s a departure from earlier today. Wait, is it still today? What day is it?”

“It’s still today. You weren’t out for that long. It’s around nine o’clock.”

“Okay, good. So — you’re not homicidal anymore? We won?”

“We won, yeah. Sorry for, you know, for electrocuting you. Again.”

“No, it’s cool, I wanted you to.” We sit in silence for a moment, but it’s a comfortable silence.

The door opens and Brian steps in. He’s clothed, which is a big improvement over the last few times I’ve seen him, and appears to be functioning without mood-altering drugs.

“Holy cow, he’s awake!” Brian rushes over to the bed. “Dude, I don’t know how to tell you this, but — you’ve been in a coma for six years. When the doctors said…you’re not buying it, huh?”

“She already told me it’s the same day,” I say. Brian turns to Regina with an affronted look on his face.

“How could you steal this moment from me? When am I going to get a chance to play a prank like that again?”

“You’re an EMT. Probably like next Tuesday.”

“Yeah, but I could get fired for doing it to a random guy. It would’ve been so good here.”

I listen to them mock-bicker for a minute, enjoying the camaraderie. Eventually they taper off, and silence settles in again. I break it after a moment.

“Hey, so — you guys okay?”

“Well, I melted a building today, and we’re not sure yet if anyone died in that, so I’m still kind of processing maybe being a murderer,” says Regina.

“And I melted a dude by giving him a naked full-body hug,” Brian says. He shakes his head briefly as if to clear out a lodged thought. “There…I didn’t ever want to see the inside of someone’s face, you know? I’ve seen a lot of rough things working for the hospital, but this one really took the cake.

“Also, I’ve sort of been trying to kill you for a couple of weeks, so that’s still rattling around in there. Sorry about that, by the way. I’m glad it didn’t work.”

“Thanks, man. You’re a good friend.” I reach up to clap him on the shoulder, but even the slight impact makes me wince. “Ow. I felt that in my side. Peterson worked me over pretty good. Oh! Peterson! Is he okay?”

“Yeah, man, he made it,” says Brian. “Probably. The doc got him stabilized and they patched him up. She’s pretty sure that she’s set the nanos to undo their mojo, but it’s going to take a few days to find out. And I mean, he doesn’t have a left arm anymore, so there’s that. But he made it.”

“So the doc figured out how to work the computer?”

“Man. It’s a good thing she woke up when she did. You’re standing there maybe dead, Peterson’s standing there maybe dead, I’m in a blood-spattered pit and getting deeper all the time. Doc Simmons comes to, looks around and just gets to work. She has no idea what’s gone on, there’s this insane tableau, no one can answer her questions, and she just gets right to business. Tapes up Peterson, calls the police, starts tapping on the computer and all of a sudden, I can think clearly again. Plus the ground under me stops dissolving, which is good because I’d hit a sewer pipe or a tunnel or something, and one foot was just starting to stick through into open air beneath me.”

Regina chimes in. “I think we were really secondary, though. I mean, obviously she took care of everyone first, got our nanos shut off and made sure we were okay. But then she dove into the computer and just started reading. When the police got there, she refused to step away from the keyboard. Told them that she wasn’t going to let this disappear into some evidence locker. She eventually let them take it, but she left along with it. I doubt she’s let it out of her sight yet.”

“So the police know now? Everyone knows now?” I ask.

“‘Everyone’ is a stretch,” says Brian, “but seeing Peterson half-morphed really quelled a lot of doubts from the police, yeah. Plus I can still dissolve little holes in things if I concentrate on it. Repeatable, testable results are pretty convincing, you know?”

“Man, it feels weird to be believed about this.” I heave a sigh. “So — are we being charged with anything? I mean, just today there was a car accident, I helped trash a restaurant, we burned down a building…”

“You escaped from jail,” Regina adds helpfully.

“I can’t believe that was just this morning. Man, has it been a long day.” I sigh again. “But yeah, I’ve been committing crimes small and large. They’re just going to let all that go?”

Brian shrugs. “I think they don’t want to deal with the mess more than they do want someone to blame. So my impression is that we’re not going to get the blame, but we’re also not going to get any credit.

“Fine by me, man. Fine by me.”

As it turns out, Brian was half-right. And shockingly, the half he was right about was that we didn’t receive any official blame. But when the news organizations got wind of the mad scientist doing clandestine experiments on unwilling subjects, they ate it up. Brian, Regina and I were the darlings of the media for a solid month. Simmons was called on pretty frequently to explain the science, but her brusque attitude meant that they tended to use soundbites or emailed quotes from her instead of putting her in front of a camera. Honestly, I’m pretty sure she played up her asocial behavior to avoid the cameras.

Then Peterson was released from the hospital, and the media dropped us instantly to focus their cameras on him. With his missing arm and his unimpeachable history in the police department, he was the perfect human interest story to rekindle flagging interest. He took it with good grace, all things considered. They’ll grow tired of him soon too, I’m sure.

I can’t speak for Brian or Regina, but I’m glad to be out of the spotlight. I mean, it wasn’t a particularly bad experience for me. It did a lot to reverse the negative impression that Tanger had spread around about me. Also, when I went to apologize to Mr. Steele for missing work without notice, he just said “Heard you had a busy day,” and welcomed me back. I feel like he’s giving me more stuff to haul than he used to, though, so I think he picked up on the part where I’ve got residual super-strength. Most of the guys on the team either don’t know or don’t care, though, so it’s basically business as usual on the site.

Despite all that, I’m just more comfortable when the majority of the world doesn’t know I exist. So to hide from my newfound celebrity, I mainly spend my time hanging out at my freshly refurbished house. It took some decent damage from the fire, but nothing structural. Nothing that a good coat of paint, some new drywall, replacing some studs and redoing a bunch of wiring can’t fix. Oh, also replacing several windows and repairing an outside wall. And part of the roof. So it’s been keeping me busy in my off-hours, is what I’m saying.

Absolutely no one’s tried to kill me in weeks, which is amazing. My dad looked like he might give it a shot when he saw the house, but my mom talked him down. And anyway, like I said, I’m repairing it. He’ll get over it. He threatened to raise my rent, but if he tries that, I’ll threaten to move out and leave them to deal with the rental property. Two can play at that game.

I woke up yesterday morning without any soreness or aches. My cheek has healed up, my bruises and burns are all gone. I don’t have so much as a stubbed toe. It’s actually a little weird. I feel too good now, and it’s weirding me out. I might need to go hit my thumb with a hammer or something just so I know that the world’s still running like it ought to.

Regina and Brian are still doing well, both individually and as a couple. And they still let me third-wheel it up with them whenever I like. It turned out that that warehouse I had Regina burn down was, in fact, unoccupied at the time, so that was a weight off of her shoulders. Also, her nose has healed flawlessly from where she’d taken a header into the floor in Ichabot’s lab, so she’s come out of this pretty well unscathed. As much as any of us have, anyway.

Tanger, my old boss and Ichabot’s sole customer, has vanished. No one’s been able to find him since the day everything went down with Ichabot. The doc says that she deactivated his nanos, so he’s not sweet-talking his way into anything, but money’s got its own way of opening doors, and he presumably still has plenty of that. I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but if I do, I owe that guy a good solid punch in the nose. Probably more than that, since he did have people try to kill me, but I think I’d get the most visceral satisfaction out of just decking him.

Peterson, like I said, is currently taking his turn in the media circus. Between cutting edge medical technology and Doc Simmons’s work with the nanotechnology, the hospital managed to reverse the effects the nanos had on his body and repair all of the internal damage that had been caused. They couldn’t regrow his arm, but Simmons says she’s working on that. I think she’s just excited by the possibility of a human test subject.

The doc’s been buried in Ichabot’s notes for the last month, barely coming up for air. She says making great strides in understanding. I went to go see her at the hospital just a couple of days ago, but when she started explaining the details of what she was doing she might as well have been speaking another language.

“Doc,” I joked, “I don’t know how even you are tracking this stuff. Have you been using the nanos to speed up your thinking?”

She put her hand on my shoulder and said, with amused condescension, “Dan, I’m already the smartest person you know. I don’t need nanotechnology for that to be true.”

I played at being offended, but she’s absolutely right. She is the smartest person I know. If someone asked me to summarize Doc Simmons in one phrase, that’s word-for-word what I would say. Anyway, she’s saved my life more than once, so she’s earned the right to condescend even if it weren’t reasonable.

So my days have fallen into a predictable schedule. I wake up early, go to work, come home, work on the house, watch Netflix and fall asleep. With minor variations, that’s every day now. I’m in a rut. A boring, ordinary rut.

I couldn’t be happier.

Decommission: Part 3

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I hear a low growl as Peterson moves in close behind me. I try to flinch away when I feel his breath on my neck, but I can’t even do that. I’m stuck here like some ridiculous statue, one arm pointed outward, frozen in my final dramatic and useless gesture. I’m a monument to my own folly. Unable to defend myself, unable even to turn to see it coming, I brace myself for the pain about to come as Peterson finishes the job he started out in the street a half an hour ago.

But after several seconds of breathing down my neck, Peterson steps away. I hear wet footsteps against the concrete floor, and then he moves into my field of vision, slowly pacing past. His eyes are on mine, and I attempt to say something, to appeal to his reason, but with my jaw locked all I manage is “Eeur huh!”

I’m not positive that there’s reason left to appeal to, anyway. Peterson looks bad. And not just “has been lying unconscious in a puddle in a cold rain” bad, although obviously he’s been doing that. Even in the short time that’s passed since I last saw him, the nanos have continued to reconfigure his body. He has a thicker brow ridge, a more pronounced stoop and a rounder spine. His shoulders have broadened, judging by the fact that his jacket is now split almost completely in half in the back. The sleeves dangle loosely from the few remaining threads still attaching them to the shoulders, and through those gaps I can see that the shirt beneath is tearing apart along the seams as well.

The fact that he’s not just mindlessly attacking me suggests that he hasn’t yet gone fully along the route of the other ape-men, though. Either one of them would have torn me apart as soon as they made it through the door. Peterson’s taking his time, considering things. Of course, he’s currently pacing like a caged tiger, which means that what he’s considering is probably just how best to kill me, but it’s something. It’s a small thread of hope, but if Peterson’s still in there, then maybe there’s still a way out of this.

This hope promptly vanishes as Peterson walks over to a nearby shelf, grabs one of the metal crossbars and tears it free. Brandishing the three-foot length of metal, he stalks slowly back over toward me. Behind him, Ichabot laughs delightedly, but Peterson’s attention is on me. His pacing carries him behind me again, and I don’t need the look of anticipation on Ichabot’s face to warn me of the blow that’s about to fall. I brace myself as best as I can without being able to move, which really isn’t very well at all.

The first strike is overhand, cracking down across my shoulder blades with a meaty thud. It’s followed by another, diagonal to the first, then a horizontal strike across the left side of my lower back. Tears form in my unblinking eyes and run down my face as each hit causes my cuts to reopen and my broken bones to rub painfully together. Peterson works his way around the front, landing hits as he goes, one after the other in rapid succession.

And yet, oddly, it doesn’t hurt as much as I’d expect. I mean, it’s agonizing, and I’d be screaming if I had the muscular control to make that much noise right now. But he was doing more damage with his hands when we fought on the street. Although these hits hurt, he’s not breaking anything new, and even the areas he’s striking seem to be chosen to absorb the hits. He hasn’t struck me in the head or any limbs. It’s all been center of mass, and even then I think he’s pulling his hits as much as he can without making it look obvious.

Ichabot hasn’t noticed this, and is loudly cheering Peterson on. “Go, monkey, go! Let’s see that blood!”

He sees the tears running down my face, notices me struggling for breath, and grins. “In fact, let’s loosen the nanos a bit, so we can really watch him suffer. It can’t be much fun hitting something that doesn’t even react.”

For a moment, I think that this was Peterson’s plan: count on Ichabot’s sadistic streak to let me go to more properly showcase the pain, and then we can both team up on him. As Ichabot turns his attention to the computer, though, it becomes clear that Peterson’s plan was nowhere near that complex or cooperative. The instant that Ichabot glances away, Peterson roars and hurls the metal bar at him like a javelin.

It spears Ichabot through the shoulder, eliciting a cry of pain and spinning him away from the computer. Peterson threw it hard enough to completely penetrate Ichabot’s body, and I can see a solid half-foot of bar sticking out of his back as he stumbles. Even as Ichabot’s regaining his balance, though, the bar clatters to the floor in two pieces, and through the hole torn in his suit I can see the unbroken skin beneath. I could do with a repair trick like that.

Peterson’s thundering across the floor, leaping at Ichabot, but Ichabot is ready for him. Moving with uncanny speed, he shifts to meet Peterson, catching him in the jaw with a hard right cross as he comes in. Peterson crashes into the counter, and the access computer is knocked spinning to the floor, dragging the monitor and peripherals with it to smash on the concrete.

Peterson recovers quickly, though. Even as he’s impacting the counter, he lashes out behind him with a kick that catches Ichabot in the knee. There’s a snap and a scream, and then Peterson’s pouncing on Ichabot and the two go down in a tangle of limbs.

Only seconds later, Peterson’s back on his feet, and he’s got Ichabot by the neck. Although Ichabot is significantly taller, Peterson still manages to lift his feet clear of the ground in an impressive one-armed maneuver. Holding the gangly scientist in the air, Peterson roars his triumph.

Ichabot, for his part, simply smiles, reaches up to the hand crushing his throat and taps it lightly. Peterson’s triumphant roar turns into a scream of pain as the skin on his hand peels back and begins to flay away, revealing blood and bone beneath which rapidly dissolve in their own turn. He drops Ichabot, backing away, but the damage is done. The nanos spread rapidly across his hand and begin to travel up his arm, destroying as they go.

Ichabot puts his knee back into place with a grimace and another audible snap, then straightens his suit and retrieves the fallen computer. He tsks at Peterson.

“Look, half of the display is broken now. You really should be more careful. Though I suppose that won’t be a problem for much longer.”

Peterson stares at his dissolving arm, wild-eyed, and I can see the moment that he comes to the necessary decision. Gripping his left elbow in his right hand, he squeezes with all of his enhanced might. I hear the bones splinter, and then with an anguished cry Peterson tears what’s left of his own left arm off at the elbow. He flings it at Ichabot, who ducks and lets it flop to the ground behind him where it continues its rapid disintegration.

“Well! You are tenacious,” says Ichabot with what sounds like real admiration. Peterson glares at him, hatred in his eyes, the stump of his left arm gripped tightly in the fist of his right. Blood is dripping thickly out between his fingers, but he lowers his head and roars at Ichabot, clearly ready to continue the fight.

“That’s about enough of that, I think,” says Ichabot, typing quickly. Peterson suddenly stiffens, freezing in place. A low moan escapes through his gritted teeth, but it’s clear that Ichabot has hit him with the same whammy that he laid on me. I can see Peterson straining against the nanos’ hold, but the only thing moving right now is his blood, which continues to ooze between his fingers and pool on the floor beneath him.

The storm howls outside, wind whipping chilling gusts into the lab and sending rain running down my back. Ichabot doesn’t seem inclined to pull the roll-up door closed again, though. At first, I think he’s just enjoying watching me stand half-exposed to the elements, unable to so much as shiver to warm myself up. But after a minute I realize that he keeps looking not at me but over my shoulder, as if waiting for something.

Ichabot is rambling about something to do with seeding the nanos, but I’m not listening. Whatever it is he’s waiting for, I suspect I won’t live long after it arrives. But if I can anticipate what it is, maybe I can be ready for it, turn it to my advantage somehow.

I may be immobilized, soaked, dangerously chilled, in tremendous pain and trapped in a mad scientist’s lair, but there’s still a chance I can come out ahead! A guy’s got to dream, right?

“You’re a very poor conversationalist like this, Dan,” says Ichabot, catching my attention with the use of my name. “I’m going to try something.”

He presses a key, and my face erupts in excruciating pain. I shriek, and it’s only once the pain subsides that I realize I was able to open my mouth to scream. I blink my eyes, which are also under my control again. The rest of my body is still locked up, though; even turning my head is beyond me.

“I’ve just sent a localized kill command to the nanomachinery in your face,” Ichabot says. “I gather that it didn’t feel very good?”

“It was…very relaxing,” I slur, forcing the words out with difficulty. My mouth is moving, but it’s not moving well. My tongue feels like it has weights attached to it, and my lips are half-numbed. “You should…try it on yourself. Like a spa day.”

Ichabot laughs. “The paralysis will return as the nanomachines replicate and spread back out, but I can always terminate them again if you go quiet.”

“Thanks. Think I’ll…talk for now.”

“And they say you aren’t smart!”

Something behind Ichabot catches my eye, movement on the back wall of the lab in between two of the fridges. I can’t tell what it is at first. It looks like a bug inching across the wall, but it would have to be a heck of a bug for me to see it from here. As I watch, it increases in size, spreading like a water stain. It’s not until enough of the wall has dissolved for me to see the splayed fingers of a hand on the far side that I realize what’s happening. Brian’s here.

Ichabot is working on his computer and chatting about applications of his work, unaware of what’s happening behind him. The hole has widened enough that its edges are hidden behind the flanking fridges, and it reaches almost to the ground now. Brian steps carefully over the small piece of wall remaining and inches gingerly between the fridges. He’s naked again, soaked from the rain and looking even colder than I feel. Though it’s not as severe as it was at the mall, I can see the floor at his feet being eaten away.

“So the world’s…just a bunch of lab rats to you?” I ask Ichabot, willing him to keep his attention on me. I still feel like I’m talking through a mouthful of Jell-O, but I’m able to get the words across.

“No, of course not. Lab rats couldn’t buy my products,” says Ichabot, typing while he talks. “And I intend to sell them very dearly. I feel that being the richest man in the world is the least I deserve for my brilliance.”

Regina has crept into the lab as well, following Brian through the hole he made. They’re both stealthily advancing on Ichabot. If Brian can catch him by surprise, maybe his nanos can outpace Ichabot’s healing? I don’t know for sure, but it seems worth a shot. I keep talking to hold his focus as Brian and Regina draw closer.

“Can’t…unleash this on the world,” I tell Ichabot. “It’d be…chaos.”

“It will be the next evolutionary leap of mankind!” he exclaims vigorously. “Homo superior, the melding of man and machine. Picture a child born with the abilities you’ve experienced, able to use these powers innately. Imagine growing up like this!”

“Poor parents,” I mumble.

“They’ll be enhanced, too! Strong, brilliant, completely healthy. Bodies that self-repair anything less than actually losing a limb — and I’m working to fix that, too! Minds to rival my own.” He sighs. “It’s a utopia. And I can hear you, you know.”

“What?” I ask, but his last comment wasn’t directed at me. Brian and Regina both start to rush forward, subterfuge abandoned, but Ichabot’s already executing the lockdown command.

Brian teeters in place, caught in mid-step. For a second I think he’s still able to move and is slowly crouching down so as not to attract attention, but then I realize it’s the ground beneath his feet dissolving away as his nanos seek out a target for his loathing.

Regina was more fully committed to the rush when Ichabot froze her, and gravity continues the move for her. Unable to bring her foot forward, her hands up or do anything to arrest her motion, she topples forward like a felled tree, crashing face-first to the hard cement floor. Brian makes a muffled noise, but the way the floor is disintegrating at his touch suggests that even if he could move, he couldn’t risk touching her to help her up.

“There,” says Ichabot, “the gang’s all here. Except for Vincent, who sadly couldn’t make it. Or more precisely, didn’t make it.”

“He died?” I ask.

“Oh yes, sadly he never made it out of the ambulance.”

My stomach roils. I’d only meant to get free, not to kill him. Ichabot sees my self-disgust on my face and laughs.

“Oh, it wasn’t whatever chemical you cooked up, Dan. Though maybe I should have let you keep believing that. Your face really is too funny. No, it wasn’t you. I killed him.”

“Why? He…was helping you.”

“Well, a bit.” Ichabot waves his hand dismissively. “No, they were probably going to have to operate, and I really didn’t want anyone else stumbling across my work. I’m not ready for the world to know just yet, and I don’t want anyone stealing my thunder.”

Ichabot claps his hands. “Which brings us to the point of this gathering. We have the old nemesis and the new nemesis. The nosy cop and the nosy doctor. And of course, the experiment himself. All in one convenient location!”

From the floor, Regina says something incoherent. Whatever it is, I suspect it’s not complimentary. It’s good to have confirmation that she’s alive, though.

Ichabot chooses to take it as a question. “I’m glad you asked that, Regina. It’s very simple: this is the end of the experiment. I’ve learned what I need to from this, and frankly I’m getting a little over-exposed. It’s time to nuke this petri dish and start over fresh.”

“You’re forgetting…Tanger,” I say. It’s getting harder to talk.

“Forgetting? Not at all. Evan’s my first customer! An experiment of its own, I suppose. He’s in no danger of exposing me.”

“So what’s your plan here?”

“Warehouse fire! I’ll keep it simple. It’s a real problem, you know. In fact,” he allows a bit of venom to creep into his voice, “I heard that another building caught fire earlier today. Struck by lightning, they say. So it happens more often than you’d think.”

He’s moving around the room, picking up odds and ends to take with him. This is pretty much the end of the line. Everyone is frozen or knocked out. Peterson hasn’t moved in some time, but the blood flow has slowed, and it’s possible he’s dead and the nanos just aren’t letting him fall over.

And yet, I’ve seized hold of a strand of hope again. Something Ichabot said has given me an idea. It’s definitely a long shot, it’s probably terrible, and it’s possibly suicidal. But if we’re about to burn to death anyway, I might as well go for it.

As Ichabot passes in front of me, I speak. “I don’t think…this is it.”

A grin splits Ichabot’s face, and he stops and turns to face me. “Oh? I am intrigued.”

“I’ve…almost died before. It…feels electric. I get…charged up when I know…it’s the end of the line.” My jaw is almost frozen in place again, but I have to get these words out. I have to get this message across to Regina. I press on, feeling like I’m speaking now through setting cement.

“But now…I…feel calm. Calm. This…will all…flow through. We….”

And that’s it. My jaw freezes in place, and I’m reduced to vowel sounds again. Ichabot regards me for another moment, amused, then shrugs.

“Well, while I certainly appreciate your never-ending optimism, Dan –”

And at exactly that moment, the lightning bolt spears down out of the sky. Everyone else is safely inside the lab, but I’m in the open doorway, a perfect target. It blasts into me, crackling every nerve ending in my body awake as it passes through.

And passes through it does. Because I am wearing my stupid homemade rubber boots, and because I have spent all of the day that I could remember focusing my nanos on rubber thoughts, increasing my insulating properties, the lightning does not ground out through me. Instead, it leaps along my outstretched arm, ripping out along the outstretched, blunted scalpel, and grounds itself through Ichabot.

He staggers, flailing, his arms and legs momentarily released from his control. He takes two fatal steps backwards and slips at the edge of the pit that’s been forming around Brian. For a split-second, he teeters on the edge, then falls over, slamming his full body into Brian on the landing.

I can’t see what happens then, but from the shriek that goes up from the pit, I can imagine. I try not to picture what Brian must be seeing, a man’s body boiling away in front of him. The shriek goes on for longer than I’d have imagined, before tapering off into a wet gurgle.

And suddenly I realize that my pain is fading and the room is growing dark at the edges. As I’m trying to figure out if the two are in some way connected, I pass out.

[ Next >]

Decommission: Part 2

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My eyes dart around the lab, seeking a place to hide, a weapon, or both. With Ichabot staring directly at me, a hiding place is probably a lost cause, but there are plenty of things around here to use as weapons. The lab is full of heavy throwable objects, breakable glass beakers, scalpels, syringes and more. I drop the computer mouse and make a quick move towards a scalpel, grabbing it and pointing it threateningly at Ichabot.

“Yeah, something came up and I wasn’t going to be able to make our meeting. You didn’t get my text?” I ask mockingly.

Ignoring the scalpel in my hand, Ichabot paces slowly into the lab, closing the distance between us. He looks over my shoulder, and I turn my head to follow his gaze. He’s caught sight of the monitor I’ve attached to the server rack, which is still displaying the contents of the file server. What he can’t see from his angle, though, is Doc Simmons crouched down behind a counter. She’s moving steadily towards the far edge, clearly aiming to keep the counter betweem them as he advances. I don’t know what her plan is, but any advantage right now is a good one, so I’ll back her play as much as I’m able.

“And now I find you going through my personal items. That’s very rude, Dan,” he chides.

“Well, you know. Couldn’t find paper and a pen anywhere and I wanted to write a ‘sorry I missed you’ note. I was gonna erase the whiteboard and write it there, but it looked like it might be important.”

Ichabot breaks into an insulting chuckle. “As if you can comprehend a single notation on there. You’re a toddler trying to read a graduate-school textbook.”

“I got the joke in your password hint pretty easily,” I tell him, gesturing to the computer and keeping his attention away from the doc’s hiding place. “And I figured out a way into your ‘secure’ system, too.”

“Very good!” exclaims Ichabot. “You’re right, I’ve underestimated you. You’re a kindergartener trying to read a graduate-school textbook.”

“Unkind,” I tell him, waving the scalpel. “And unwise. I’m armed, and you’re not. Seems like you might want to tone down the insults a shade.”

With my tiny sword held protectively before me, I advance slightly on Ichabot, circling around to his right so as to force him to turn his back to Doc Simmons. The maneuver works, although the intimidation seems to be failing. Ichabot turns to keep facing me, an amused smile on his lips.

“Or what, Dan? You’ll stab me? You’re not a killer. Besides, then how would you ever find out how to stop your friends from trying to murder you?”

“I’m already in your computer system. I can sort it out.” Doc Simmons is creeping up behind him now. I still don’t know what her plan is, but presumably it involves him not noticing her, so I’ve got to keep his attention. I decide to try a taunt. “You seem like the sort of guy who likes to leave copious notes so that history can understand how great you were. I bet it’s practically a step-by-step guide.”

“There’s that kindergarten can-do attitude again, Dan! I appreciate your optimism, I really do. Why, without –” Ichabot stops mid-sentence as Doc Simmons, rising silently up from behind him, stabs a syringe into his upper thigh. She presses down on the plunger, and I see liquid splash out in all directions. The doc pulls back the syringe, looking dismayed, and I can see that it no longer has a needle at its tip.

Before the doc can backpedal, Ichabot lashes out with one gangly arm and grabs her around the neck, hoisting her to her feet. “Really, this was your plan?” he says, addressing me even as Doc Simmons struggles in his grip. “You know my nanos are activated. You really should have assumed that I could dissolve would-be weapons on contact. You’ve watched Vincent do it, after all.”

He tightens his grip on the doc’s neck and, with only a small amount of apparent effort, lifts her off of the ground one-handed. “I’ve been testing the abilities on others, but I’ve been implementing them in myself. I’m really quite superhuman at this point.”

Ichabot grabs the doc’s right shoulder with his left hand and, in a movement almost too fast to follow, whips her over his head to hurtle against the metal roll-up door we crawled in under. Simmons barely has time to scream before impacting the door headfirst, denting it severely. She crashes to the floor in a crumpled heap and lies still.

“Doc!” I shout, rushing to her side. I kneel down and touch her neck for a pulse. My own heart is hammering so hard that at first I can’t find her heartbeat, but after a second I feel it beneath my fingers. There’s a clear red handprint around her throat from where Ichabot gripped her, and it’s already starting to bruise. Her breathing sounds okay, though, and her pulse is strong, so I’m guessing that she’s more or less all right.

Ichabot’s laughing, a hearty and sonorous sound which seems out of place coming from his matchstick frame. I look up in disbelief, and the expression of outrage on my face only makes him laugh harder.

“You should see yourself!” he manages between laughs. “Like a kicked puppy. You don’t get it at all!”

“Enlighten me,” I growl, rising to my feet.

“Oh, I’ll do one better,” says Ichabot, calming down. “I’ll show you, so that you can actually understand it.”

He rushes at me, covering the dozen feet between us in an eyeblink. Before I’ve even really processed that he’s in front of me, he has my head in both of his hands and is slamming it into the corrugated metal door repeatedly. My skull rings with the impacts, and the next thing I know I’m staring at the concrete floor from extremely close range, blood pooling gently beneath my face.

With a major effort, I push myself up to a kneeling position and look around. Ichabot is halfway across the room, reconnecting the monitor, keyboard and mouse to the computer I’d borrowed them from. He types something brief on the keys, then pauses.

This is it. He’s logged in. If I can just get him away from the computer somehow, even if it’s only for a second, maybe I can figure out what to do to shut everything down safely. The doc’s still down, though, apparently out for the count, and simply getting up to one knee took just about all I had left in me. I didn’t come this far to bail out now, though. I’ve got to make the effort.

I summon up my final reserves and, leaning heavily on a nearby shelf, manage to regain my bipedal status. The makeshift rubber shoes I still haven’t had a chance to take off might actually be helping me here, by giving me a broader base of support on each foot. I think it’s the first time they’ve been anything but a hindrance. Not the purpose I’d designed them for, but I’ll take it.

I do my best to strike a dramatic pose, despite how much everything hurts. Taking a deep breath, I point my scalpel at Ichabot and intone, “This ends now.”

“How right you are,” says Ichabot, typing in a swift command. Abruptly, every muscle in my body seizes up.

Think about a charley horse, or pointing your foot until it cramps up. This is like that: the same feeling of complete tension, the muscle becoming a rock-hard and unbending rod. Except instead of just being in my foot or calf, it’s everywhere, all at once. My feet, my legs, my back, my arms, even my jaw and eyelids. Everything locks up completely, radiating discomfort and pain. I’m frozen like a statue, scalpel extended, unable to move an inch.

“Bet you didn’t know I could do that!” says Ichabot. “It’s the same principle that allows the nanomachinery to augment your muscular strength, actually. In this case, rather than amplifying your muscle movements, I’ve seized them up entirely. So you see? It’s all over. The only question here is what to do with you.”

“I’ll kill you,” I say, or try to. Due to being unable to move my lips, jaw or tongue, what comes out is mainly vowels, sounding more like “Ah hih you.”

Ichabot seems to get the point, though, judging by the new bout of laughter that grips him. “Oh, really? How? Shall I come impale myself on the end of your scalpel?”

He walks over and presses the tip of his index finger against the scalpel blade, which dissolves. I’m left holding just the stainless steel handle. “Oops! Well, so much for that plan. I’m sure you’ll figure something else out.”

I glare at him, although this is largely a mental feat since even my eyes won’t move. Ichabot paces back and forth in front of me, tapping his long fingers together.

“So, how to get rid of you? I could just prop you in a corner, leave you like this until you die of thirst. It’s certainly a simple answer, although it lacks a certain elegance. Hm.”

Suddenly, the roll-up door behind me rattles. I try to turn to look, but of course it’s to no avail. I have a brief moment of hope that it’s someone here to help me, but no sooner has the thought flitted across my mind than it is banished as an animalistic howl sounds from outside. The howl is accompanied by a screech of metal and a crash of falling shelves the barely-opened door is grabbed and hurled upward along its track, opening the entire wall behind me. I’m facing the wrong direction to see for sure what’s going on, but from the howl and the brute strength I know what must be happening.

Peterson’s awake. And he’s right behind me.

“Ah!” exclaims Ichabot, a look of delight on his face. “Now here’s a nice solution. I could just let your friend take you apart!”

[ Next >]

Decommission: Part 1

[< Previous ]

Inside, it’s dark, which shouldn’t surprise me but does. Once clear of the door, I roll onto my back, stretch my hands upward to make sure that I’m clear of any overhanging obstacles, and push myself to a sitting position. Then, just as my eyes are starting to adjust to the dark and vague blocky shapes are becoming clear, a light flares on near me.

I startle away, eliciting stabs of pain from my ribs, arms, back — basically all of my body at this point, really. Peterson worked me over pretty well, but it’s all melded into one constant overall pain. It’s only when I specifically impact one damaged part that I’m forcibly reminded of any particular injury. As I’ve done just now, scooting backward into a metal rack as I shy away from the light.

“It’s me, Dan,” Doc Simmons says quietly, holding up her cellphone. She sounds distracted, and when she pans the light away from me, it becomes clear that that’s because she is distracted. She’s doing a slow scan of the room, taking everything in. When her eyes light upon the whiteboard, she immediately walks over toward it, leaving me in darkness.

“Hey Doc? I don’t suppose you’ve still got your other phone on you, do you?” I stage-whisper across the room. I don’t know how thick the walls are in this place, and I’d rather not alert anyone in the main office to our presence.

“No good,” says the doc, which seems like a weird answer until I realize she’s totally ignoring me and talking about the notes on the board. “This isn’t what I need.”

I walk over to join her. “What do you mean, what you need?”

“There’s nothing fundamental here,” she says, gesturing at the board. “Which makes sense, since he figured out the basics years ago. But I’m so close to understanding the principles behind them. The answers are in here.”

“Yeah, and that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to find out the science behind this, too. But what I’m really looking for — what we came here to find, remember? — is an off switch. Officer Peterson’s dying, remember? Brian’s gotta be doped up to live? Regina…well, is fine, actually. But plans to kill me?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Simmons says impatiently. “Let’s find how to turn these off. I thought maybe there would be something in the notes here that explained it, so we could do more than just press a button, and actually understand what we’re doing instead of just treating it like magic.”

“Speaking of pressing a button and treating it like magic, can I borrow your other phone so I can have a flashlight, too?”

The doc pulls her phone out of her pocket and hands it to me. “I don’t understand your segue.”

“Cellphones are basically magic.” The doc’s giving me a disgusted look, and instead of shutting up I try to explain myself. “I don’t know how any of it works. I can say ‘computers’ and ‘radio waves,’ but that’s basically the same as saying ‘voodoo’ and ‘scrying’ in terms of understanding what that means. What I know is I press a button and the far-talky box makes a light.”

Doc Simmons stares at me for a second, then turns away without saying anything else. I like to think that I’m good for her self-control.

Now armed with a light, I scan the room. It looks much the same as it did this morning, with the exception of the row of cabinets now missing a countertop, from where I dissolved it. The mess has all been cleaned up and swept away, though. There’s a large sheet of plywood up against one wall, and if I hadn’t known that it was blocking a doorway — the door to which I also dissolved — I might think that the only entrance into this room was the way we came in.

Well, through the roll-up door we came in, anyway. I probably wouldn’t think that the only way in was to belly-crawl through puddles. Even secret lairs need a dignified entrance.

I ignore all of the scientific equipment and make a bee-line for the computer I saw Ichabot standing at this morning. After all, I saw him use it to shut off my powers. If I can figure out what he did, I can turn off everyone else’s powers, too. The screen’s off when I get to it, but a click of the mouse brings the monitor humming to life. I hold my breath in anticipation, then release it in disappointment when I see a login screen.

It’s a grey screen with a highlighted bar that just says “A” and text box below it. I press enter, and it adds red text beneath the box reading “Wrong Password. 4 Tries Remaining.”

There’s also some small white text next to the box that says “Password Hint?” I click it, and a box pops up: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

“Hey Doc?” I call, louder than I mean to. My voice echoes in the cavernous room, and I lower my tone. “How’s your…foreign?”

“My what?” Simmons closes the refrigerator she was looking in and strides over to me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to log in to the system, and this is the password hint. Does that mean anything to you?”

The doc snorts. “Yes, but it’s not helpful.”

“You can read that? What language is it?”

“I can’t read it, exactly, but I know what it says. It’s Italian, and it’s from Dante’s Inferno. It’s what’s written over the gates of Hell, and you probably recognize the English translation: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'”

I hit “OK” on the prompt and take another crack at the password. The screen updates: “Wrong Password. 3 Tries Remaining.”

The doc looks at me sharply. “Dan? Did you just try ‘Inferno’ as the password?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t work.”

“Of course it didn’t work! The ‘hint’ was just him telling people not to look for help in the password hint field. He’s not going to build something this revolutionary, this…this world-shaking and then protect it with a three-syllable dictionary word!”

“Well, what if he had? It didn’t hurt to try. See, we have three attempts left.”

“Dan.” The doc’s tone suddenly drops from agitated to deadly serious. “Do not, under any circumstances, lock the account on that computer.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“Maybe nothing. Probably nothing. But if he’s paranoid enough, it could wipe everything. The research, the controlling program, maybe even the nanos out in the wild.”

“Wait, so you think locking this out might fry our nanos? Then that’s perfect!”

“Yes, unless ‘fry’ is a little more literal than you’re thinking. Remember what I showed you in the lab, where I activated the nanos?”

“Yeah, and then they burst into flame — ah. Okay, no remote wipe through lockout. Got it.”

“I don’t think he’d do that by preference. But if he has offsite backups of his files, and he was concerned that he was going to be exposed…well, we know he’s unscrupulous. I wouldn’t like to gamble with your lives on this.”

“No, check, I’m with you. Finding another way in.”

I don’t care what Doc Simmons says, though: even geniuses make stupid mistakes. Once she turns away, I take a quick look under the keyboard in case he has the password written down there. There’s nothing there, though, and a check of the underside of the counter’s lip also turns up nothing. I do a thorough investigation of the surrounding area, but come up completely empty-handed. Why does this guy have to be one of the rare ones who doesn’t write his passwords down?

Still, this terminal is only half the battle. There’s a server rack on a wall behind me, and it’s doubtless running most of what’s going on here anyway. This computer is just an interface for everything in the rack. I’m going to try going direct.

The rack’s screened door shields what looks like at least a dozen servers from view, but I can see their lights blinking merrily away. I tug on the door, but it’s locked. This, at least, is a problem I can solve. I work my pinkie finger in the narrow gap between the door and the frame, just barely touching my nail against the metal bar of the lock, and focus my loathing. It takes almost a minute, but then the door swings open freely, and I have access to the servers.

Of course, that only does me so much good. Now instead of looking at a screened door protecting a bunch of blank computer fronts, I can look at the blank computer fronts directly. There are no convenient labels to tell me what anything does. I could start pulling cords free at this point, but since I really have no idea what shutting the system down would do, that seems a bit ill-advised.

On the other hand, instead of removing cords, I could try adding them. The computers have front-facing USB ports, places where you can plug in interface devices. I trot back over to the counter, unhook the monitor and keyboard, and carry them over to plug them in.

The first two servers I try present me with login screens. The third is simply black, and even when I connect the keyboard and press keys, it won’t respond. But when I connect the monitor to the fourth one, it displays several windows open in a fairly standard graphical format. I freeze, afraid to touch anything.

“Doc? Doc! I’ve got something here!”

The doc hurries over. “What have you found?”

“I have no idea. Look, what is this?”

“It might be a file server. It’s hard to say by the names of the folders, but…” She looks around in frustration. “Is there a mouse? I can’t navigate this with the keyboard.”

I hurry back to the counter to disconnect the mouse, but as I’m detaching it from the computer, there’s a loud scraping sound from across the room, and suddenly the entire lab is flooded with light. I whip my head around to see the plywood moved aside and there, towering in the doorway to the lab, stands Ichabot.

“Why, Dan,” he says with false pleasantry. “This isn’t where you asked to meet at all.”

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 4

[< Previous ]

“Not in there, Dan!” snaps Doc Simmons.

“You just told me to get in the car!” I protest.

“Yes, but the front seat has an oxygen tank in it. I assume you can see that? Get in the back. Honestly, Dan. I shouldn’t have to tell you not to attempt to co-locate with other solid objects. Though actually, perhaps that explains why you get hurt so much.”

I carefully arrange myself in the backseat, wincing with every move. In the front, the doc fiddles with the tube on top of the tank, fixing it from where I’ve jostled it out of place. Satisfied, she fires one more dart into Peterson’s prone form, then turns back to the wheel.

“Time to leave here, I think,” she says, putting the car into gear. “I’m sure the police have been called by now. Hopefully no one got a good description of this car through all of the rain.”

“Wait, yeah!” The first of my questions manages to surface. “How did you even get this car?”

“You’re not the only one who can borrow a car, Dan,” the doc says archly. “And just where is my car, hmmm?”

“It, ah — a couple of blocks from here.”

“I see. Out of curiosity, how would you describe its condition?”


“Yes. Rather.” She raises a hand to forestall any comment I might make. “I am truly not interested in hearing about how it’s not your fault. Blame can and will be assigned later. Right now I’d like to know where we’re going.”

“I mean, you’re the one driving, so –”

“I know you were just hit repeatedly in the head, Dan, but I really need you to focus up. I am asking you where you were going before the car accident. You looked like you had a plan in mind. What’s your destination? I’m going to take you there.”

“Oh.” I give her the address for Mangiafuoco Medical Transcription. “Thank you.”

We ride in silence for a moment, and then another question coalesces. “Wait, how did you know I looked like I had a plan before you got here?”

Apparently I’m going to begin all of my questions with “wait.” In fairness, I’d really love it if events would wait for me to catch up to them for once. Doesn’t seem likely to happen, but it can’t hurt to put the request out there.

The doc reaches in her coat pocket and pulls out the cell phone she’d loaned to me. “I was tracking you from my hospital-issued phone to see where you went. You weren’t driving aimlessly or choosing randomly. When I saw the lightning strike, I was briefly concerned that you’d done something stupid and burned down the nanomachinery lab, but the way you drove after that suggested another specific destination in mind. I thought you’d arrived when the signal stopped moving, so imagine my surprise when I pulled up to find my car totaled.”

She waves the cell phone at me again. “Thank you for not destroying this, at least. It’s good to see that you don’t break everything you get your hands on.”

“Hey! I returned that oxygen tank I borrowed, and I had to shelter that through a raging fire to get it back to you. I’m careful with other people’s stuff!”

“And yet, my car.”

“Well, fine. But I’m as careful as I can be. I got hit from behind there.”

“Like I said, blame can and will be assigned later. I don’t want to hear about it right now.”

“Hang on,” I say after a short pause. At least I’ve moved on from “wait.” “Did you only give me your cell phone so that you could track me?”

“You asked to borrow my phone, Dan,” says Doc Simmons.

“That’s not an answer.”

“And yet it is a response.”

A short time later, we pull up outside of Mangiafuoco Medical Transcription. I feel like the building should look ominous in some way, either brooding like a dark castle or gleaming like a cold and uncaring futuristic lab. Instead, it’s just an nondescript door opening onto an alley with dozens of others just like it. It’s depressingly banal.

“In there is his lab?” asks the doc. Her voice is hushed, as if worried that we might somehow be overheard out here in the car.

“Yeah, it’s in the side of the building behind the big roll-up garage door. From what I saw this morning, he’s got everything in there. The computers, samples, everything. I should be able to shut it all down once we’re inside. I hope.”

“I assume you have no idea how to operate it, but are assuming it will be clearly labeled?”

“Well…yes. I mean, I saw him turn off my powers this morning, and it was just a couple of keystrokes. So it’s not some complicated thing you have to do. I’m just hoping those keystrokes are obvious, or written down somewhere.”

The doc nods, which either means she thinks this is likely, or it’s too dumb to be worth arguing about. “And you think he’s not there right now?”

“He shouldn’t be, no. I called him out, told him I was going to another of his buildings to destroy it. He took the bait, I think. He’ll figure it out quickly enough once he gets there and I don’t show, but I’m hoping to still have maybe half an hour to figure it out.”

I pause, realizing that I have no idea how much time the fight with Peterson cost me. “Well, fifteen minutes, anyway. Hopefully enough.”

“So how are you planning to get inside?”

“I’m going to nano-melt a hole in the wall. It’s a slow process with the nanos shut down, but I think I’ve still got time, and I don’t really have a better option.” Suddenly, my eye falls on the oxygen tank in the front seat. “Hey, unless –”

“You can’t go tranquilize everyone in the office, Dan.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know how to aim this reliably, and calibrating appropriate levels of sedatives is not a game. You could kill someone with this.”

“You shot Peterson four times!”

“It was a calculated risk. I needed to stop him, and I assume that the nanobots restructuring his system will help to neutralize the damage I inflicted. In fact, I wouldn’t count on him still being asleep at this point. He may well be back up already.”

“I think you just don’t want me to fire the trank gun,” I grouse.

“That’s correct. I think you’ll harm yourself and others. I did just say. Time’s ticking! You’d better get going.”

I get out of the car, then hesitate when the doc remains inside. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll stay here and watch for unwelcome visitors,” she says, patting the oxygen tank. Sure, fine. It’s fine to use the trank gun when she gets to do it. It’s only unreasonable when I want to.

Complaining about it doesn’t seem likely to make any headway, though, so I hustle across the alley in the rain and take shelter under the narrow eaves of the building. Placing my fingers to the giant roll-up door, I concentrate on my loathing. It comes easily in the shadow of this place.

My broken finger screams at even the light pressure I’m applying, but I take that pain and turn it back on the one who caused it. On Ichabot, Dr. A, whatever his real name is. Behind this wall lies the root of all of my physical torment for the last year, the reason for everything bad that’s happened in my life during that time. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. There have been other minor screwups, both mine and others’, but nearly everything can be traced back to the machinery inside this building and the man who’s been operating it. So yeah, it’s easy to loathe right now.

And yet, after a minute of focus, I lift my hands to see only the smallest of circles etched into the metal, ten discs about a half-inch in diameter each. It shouldn’t be a surprise; it took me a significant amount of time even to get through the thin link of the handcuffs in order to escape from Brayden’s car, and now I’m trying to make a hole in a wall big enough to climb through. I’d hoped that the intensity of the emotion would accelerate the process, but it seems like this trickle is all I’m going to get.

Then it dawns on me that I need to work smarter, not harder. This is, after all, a door and not a wall. Casting my gaze downward, I quickly spot what I was hoping to see: a lock set nearly flush with the ground. I kneel down in the swirling rainwater and press my fingertips against that part of the door, forming an arch around the lock. My fingers slowly sink in like I’m pressing them into thick molasses, and when I can feel them break through into empty space, I slowly tighten them together, connecting the holes.

After a couple of minutes, there’s a lurch as the entire door is freed from its moorings. It shudders upward about an inch before coming to a stop, so I slide my hands under it and lift. The metal groans in protest but moves up almost a foot before stopping.

“What is it?” the doc says in my ear, and I just about jump out of my skin. I hadn’t heard her leave the car and come over here.

“It’s caught on something inside,” I tell her as my heartbeat returns to normal. “I could maybe force this past it, but I don’t want to knock over whatever it is and alert everyone in the main part of the building.”

The doc eyes the gap. “Looks wide enough to wriggle inside.”

So saying, she drops to her stomach, heedless of the puddles, and belly-crawls in.

“Hey! What? Wait!” I am articulate as always, and the doc ignores me, also as always. I give a mental shrug, lay down in the water and follow her inside.

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 3

[< Previous ]

At times like this, the mind’s supposed to focus. I should be searching for weaknesses, analyzing escape routes, figuring out how to survive. My mind did not get this memo. Peterson’s leaping toward me, arm cocked back to throw another punch, and the thought going through my head is, “If you’re a superhero armed with a pan, you could go by Pan Demic.” Useful, right?

I drop to my knees and Peterson’s punch swings overhead. He stumbles as he hits nothing but air, and I take the opportunity to scurry past him on all fours. As I go by, I lash out with a kick at the back of his knee, and it connects as he’s turning to follow me. He drops, and judging by the noise he bangs his head sharply into the metal stovetop as he falls. I still don’t have time to look back, though. I scramble to my feet and try to put some distance and heavy kitchen equipment between us.

Peterson roars in outrage, and through the wire mesh of a kitchen rack I see him regaining his feet. He hauls himself up by an oven handle, blood sheeting down his forehead. He swipes it away with one hand and, with a shriek of tearing metal, rips the oven door free and hurls it sideways at me. I don’t know if Peterson was big into discus in college or what, but he sure loves throwing things disc-style.

The oven door embeds itself in the rack separating us, smashing through jars and knocking rice, flour and spices into the air. Peterson’s already following in the door’s path, and where I ran around the racks and counters, it seems clear that he plans to go over and, where necessary, through. It’s a time-saving technique if you’ve got the strength to back it up, and he absolutely does. I, on the other hand, do not, so I sprint away again, my eyes on the door at the far end of the kitchen.

Two deafening crashes sound behind me in rapid succession, and I risk a look over my shoulder. From what I can tell, Peterson leaped onto the damaged rack, bearing it to the ground, and used it as a springboard to launch himself after me. That was the first crash.

The second happened when he landed from that leap, because when the rack toppled it scattered the contents that hadn’t already spilled, including what was left of a fifty-pound bag of rice. Peterson landed with both feet right in the middle of the rolling carpet of uncooked rice grains, with much the same effect as a cartoon character trying to run on marbles. I look back to see him on his back, caught up in another rack with pots and pans raining down around him; that was the second crash. His legs appear pretty well entangled in the lower shelves, but this is probably going to buy me a few seconds at most.

Fortunately, a couple of seconds is all I need. I’m nearly at the door exiting the kitchen, so I dig into my dwindling reserves of energy and slam into it at full speed. Doing so nearly dislocates my other shoulder, because the other chefs have been piling a barricade of tables up against the door. I’m lucky that it wasn’t particularly effective, since it allowed me to get out, but it also means that it won’t even really slow Peterson down.

There’s a crowd of diners gathered in addition to the cooks, but they all scatter like frightened birds as I burst into the room. A babbled mass of questions assaults me, but I ignore them all.

“Push the tables back!” I yell at the gaggle of people. A number of them start doing so as I frantically scan the area for my next move. My options appear to be up a flight of stairs or out the front door back into the streets. I’m likely to get cornered upstairs, but outside is just back on the long, straight streets, which is exactly the problem I had which ended me up in here.

A hand grabs my shoulder. “Where’s Emmanuel?”

“Who?” I almost strike out with my pan before I realize that it’s one of the cooks yelling at me, his hands shaking.

“Emmanuel! He was in there with you! Where is he?”

“Still in there! It’s fine, he’s after me!”

“You just left him?” His eyes widen at the idea that I would do such a thing, but before I can bring up the fact that he and his friends left us both in there, there’s a cacophonous  smash as Peterson hits the doors.  The table barricade is shoved several feet backward, causing the crowd to scream and scatter again, but it still manages to trap Peterson for a crucial second.

“Everton!” he howls, glimpsing me through the doors, and I turn to run again. I’m not sure if I consciously choose outside over upstairs or if the front doors are just what I see first, but that’s where my feet take me.

Amidst all of the screaming and incoherent yelling, I hear one of the cooks shout, “That’s our pan!” Apparently I’m not the only one whose brain focuses in on the wrong sorts of details in moments of crisis. Maybe it’s just something about this pan. Either way, it’s the only thing I’ve got going for me right now, and I’m not about to let it go.

I crash into one of the front doors, sending it flying open hard enough to crack the glass. I hurtle down the two cement steps to the sidewalk and take a hard right just as I’m about to smack into a parked car. I’m not more than five steps down the street before I hear the door slam open again, this time with a shattering noise suggesting that the glass has given out entirely. It’s immediately followed by a resounding metal thump, which is punctuated by a whooping car alarm. Peterson is hot on my tail, it seems, and a bit less graceful dismounting the steps.

Up ahead, I can see the alley I just escaped from coming up on my right, and I’m hit with an idea. I’m clearly doing better than Peterson on taking corners; the howl of the car alarm is evidence of that. And since he so conveniently tore the alley door off of the restaurant, I’ve now got a square spanning less than half a block that I can run in. If I duck down the alley again and take another lap through the restaurant, I might be able to gain enough distance to — I don’t know. I’ll cover that part of the plan when I get there. At least I’ll be staying out of his hands, which buys me more time to figure something out.

This plan rapidly downgrades from “acceptable” to “utter idiocy” when I round the corner into the alley and realize it’s littered with trash cans. Which I threw there, in an attempt to impede Peterson. Less than two minutes ago. They’ve been very active and terrifying minutes, but still. I could have remembered that I left the alley in a rather different state than I found it. Come to think of it, sprinting through the kitchen with all of that rice on the floor probably isn’t the best idea, either. Plus the cooks are probably all back in the kitchen helping Emmanuel up, and therefore adding even more obstacles. Basically, this was a terrible idea from start to finish.

I twist away from the alley and attempt to continue up the street, but my stutter-step has given Peterson the time he needs to finally get within arm’s reach of me. I feel his fingers closing on my left arm, and when I try to pull away, my damaged shoulder explodes in pain.

Caught, I wheel around, striking out with the pan in a wild swing. It connects solidly, caroming off of Peterson’s shoulder and cracking him in the jaw. He snarls, spits blood and lands a hit in the center of my chest that’s so powerful that I swear it actually lifts me off of the ground before slamming me back into the car parked several feet away.

Glass crunches and a new alarm wails on impact, and now I’m the one spitting blood from where I bit my tongue. Before I can move away, Peterson’s on me, pummeling me back against the car with hit after punishing hit. I can’t fight back; I’ve dropped my pan somewhere and it’s all I can do to curl up and try to protect my more vulnerable areas. With all the injuries I’ve been accumulating, though, there are a lot of vulnerable areas, and Peterson’s creating more with every hit.

Abruptly, Peterson lets out a startled yelp, and the hits stop. I slump to the ground, throbbing with pain. I’m not sure what’s stopped him, but whatever it is, I’m glad for it.

Peterson takes a step away from me, and almost buried under the sound of the rain and the car alarms I hear a whispered whuf!, matched by a curse from Peterson.

“You…don’t…” he says thickly, his words slurred. Another barely-heard whuf! interrupts his sentence, and he staggers. He takes an uncertain step toward the road, then one back toward me. He teeters, sits down heavily on the sidewalk, and then slumps over uncomfortably on one side. Rain runs down his face and begins to collect in his half-open mouth.

Painfully, I lever myself off of the ground, leaning heavily on the car as I go. Everything hurts. It hurts even to breathe. I make it to a standing position and turn around to see a car idling in the road, its passenger window open. Strapped into the seat is an oxygen cylinder with a metal tube attached to the top, pointing out the window at me. Leaning over the cylinder and looking skeptically at me from the driver’s seat is Doc Simmons.

I gape at her open-mouthed. I can’t imagine how she got here, how she knew to be here, or really anything about this. I try to formulate the questions out loud, but it just comes out as, “Guh?”

“Get in the car, Dan,” says Doc Simmons. I don’t have a better idea, so with a cautious look back to make sure that Peterson is still down for the count, I slowly shamble to the car and open the door.

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 2

[< Previous ]

I can hear Peterson panting behind me, closing the distance with every step. This isn’t a surprise, despite my efforts to tell myself that I could outrun him. He’s fueled by rage and nanomachinery, while I’m nursing two dozen different injuries and have rubber floor mats tied to my feet. I wish I’d taken the time to remove them after Regina went her own way, but like the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I could do with a horse right now. Heck, I’d settle for a beggar. I could push him in Peterson’s way and make my escape. I’m not proud.

Since I don’t have either a horse or a beggar, though, the whole question’s academic. Right now, my options are limited. I can keep going straight until Peterson catches up to me, or I can dodge off to one side and hope to lose him down an alleyway. I’m not totally sure how I’m going to lose him down an alleyway, since the alleys here are broad and straight, but since he’s definitely going to catch me on the straightaway I might as well give it a shot.

I can’t look back to see how close Peterson is. It’s taking all of my concentration just to keep from tripping over my makeshift shoes as I run. If I try to look over my shoulder, it’s basically guaranteed that I’ll end up sprawling right on my face. Through the rain, I can see an alley up ahead, but I have no idea if he’s close enough to grab me when I slow down to make the turn.

There’s a NO PARKING sign on a pole near the mouth of the alley, and as soon as I spot it, a plan leaps into my mind fully formed. I’ll dodge to the right just as I approach the sign, drawing Peterson that way. Then, as I’m passing the sign, I’ll shoot out my arm, grab the post and use my momentum to swing myself into a ninety-degree turn and sprint off down the alley. I’ll be able to keep going full speed while Peterson ends up overshooting and having to reverse direction.

This is how it all looks in my head. The reality, unfortunately, is somewhat messier. Here’s the way it actually goes down: as I’m coming up on the signpost, I juke right. I catch a glimpse of Peterson over my shoulder as I turn. He’s uncomfortably close, almost in arm’s reach, and I see him scrambling to readjust his direction on the rain-slick pavement to match my maneuver. So far, so good.

I snap my left arm out to snag the pole, and that’s where things go wrong. First of all, it turns out that when you suddenly hang your entire body weight off of one joint, it hurts. There’s a sharp wrenching sensation from my shoulder as my body whips around. I do manage to reorient toward the alley, though, so at least the basic idea works.

But it’s not just physics that’s conspiring against me. The pole I’m swinging myself around isn’t a nice smooth pole like you’d see on a playground. It’s one of those half-a-hexagon metal structures with rows of holes all the way down. They’re standard issue for most roadside signs, so they’re probably very strong and cheap to make, I assume. All I can really say for sure is that they’re not designed for swinging.

When I grab the pole, the tip of my index finger slides into one of those holes. Before I even notice it’s happened, I’m airborne and slinging myself around the pole. This twists the top joint of my finger painfully, trapping it — and by extension, me.

If I had time to reverse direction and circle back around, I’m sure my finger would just pop free the way it went in, probably slightly swollen but otherwise none the worse for wear. But although Peterson bought my feint and has lunged in the wrong direction, I haven’t bought nearly enough space for that. So instead, I do the only thing I can: I grit my teeth and yank my hand free.

There’s an audible pop and a cataclysmic flare of pain from my finger, and for an instant I’m certain that I’ve torn off the tip of my finger. I grab the outstretched finger in my other hand, which helps the pain somehow. I chance a look at it, and although it’s covered in blood, everything appears to still be attached. More or less, anyway. The nail is hanging half-off, a great flap of skin is dangling loosely and the whole joint appears to be at a new and unpleasant angle, but I’ll take it. I’m free, I still have my finger, and despite everything I’ve managed to make the turn into the alley without breaking my stride.

Large plastic trash cans line one wall of the alley, and I grab for their handles as I run past. Some overturn and some merely roll away from the wall, but either way they’re creating a more complicated path behind me, which is my aim. I don’t know how much it’ll slow Peterson down, but anything is worth a try right now.

You know how some alleys go through to other places? This isn’t one of those alleys. This is the kind that dead-ends into the side of a building, forming an urban box canyon. Thanks to the heavy rain, I don’t see this until I’m well into the alley. There’s no convenient fence to climb, no window to wriggle through. There are some fire escapes several feet above my head, but there’s no real chance that I can jump high enough to catch one, and judging by Peterson’s leap onto the car roof earlier, there’s every reason to believe that he could follow me up.

All that I have on my level are four unmarked metal doors, which are undoubtedly locked. I try the first one just in case, but as expected, it doesn’t budge. I’m out of options, though, so I start hammering on the door with both fists. Every impact causes a new flash of pain from my broken finger, but I need to be heard. Peterson’s thrashing his way through the trash cans, and I’ve only got seconds before he gets to me.

There’s a guttural snarl, and I hit the ground as a trashcan comes flipping end over end at me, trash spewing everywhere. The lid clips me on the way by, but I’m otherwise unscathed. Judging by the abrupt thud, the can makes it all the way to the far wall, but I can’t take the time to track its path. There’s already another trashcan hurtling toward me. Peterson is snatching them up one-handed and hurling them overhand at me as he lurches down the alley.

Suddenly, one of the doors swings open. A heavyset man in a dingy apron peers out into the alley. “Jus’ what is go — oof!”

The “oof” is because I’ve just driven my shoulder into his stomach, folding him over my back as I barge my way through the door. He topples backward into the kitchen, landing heavily on his back, and I spin around, grabbing wildly for the door handle and pulling it shut behind us.

Several other aproned men stare at me in shock. “I need something heavy to shove in front of this door!” I shout. They all just blink at me.

“Now!” I add. Still nothing. I might as well be looking at a display of mannequins. Frustrated, I grab a nearby rack and pull on it. It’s bolted down, and I succeed only in drawing fresh agony from my left shoulder and index finger.

On the floor in front of me, the man I’ve assaulted gets to his feet. He’s understandably angry. Sticking a finger in my face, he demands, “I wan’ you to –”

He’s cut off by a chilling howl from outside, an animal cry of challenge. Immediately after that, the whole door shudders in its frame, there’s a sound of metal pinging on asphalt, and then the doorknob on the inside clatters to the ground.

“What was that?” asks one of the other cooks, who doesn’t have a good view of what just happened.

“He just tore the doorknob off trying to open the door. Something heavy! Now!”

The door shakes in its frame, and then two hairy fingers appear in the hole where the doorknob was. The kitchen fills with a nails-on-chalkboard screeching, the sound of metal under stress, as Peterson hauls with all of his might and the lock begins to bend.

The cook I hit looks at me, white-faced, then runs over to the door. He grabs a pan on his way and swings mightily at the two exposed fingers, slamming the pan down with a metallic crash. There’s an almost catlike shriek from outside, but instead of forcing Peterson to withdraw his fingers, the pain appears to have given him an adrenaline surge. The door suddenly rips open and the poor cook is left face-to-face with the half-ape thing that Peterson is becoming.

From inches away, Peterson bares his teeth and snarls. The cook in front of him is frozen in place; the others are all shouting and fleeing the kitchen. And despite my earlier claim, apparently I would not push a beggar in front of Peterson to effect my escape, because instead of doing the intelligent thing and running, I charge in and shove the cook off to the side. He crashes into a rack full of cooking implements, but before I can see if he’s all right, Peterson swings a huge right fist and catches me in the side of the head.

My head snaps around and I’m sent reeling backwards. Stars explode in my vision and for a moment, everything is either black or bursts of light. I slam painfully into a counter, catching the edge right in my lower ribs on my left side. It drives the wind out of me, and I’m fairly certain I hear something snap.

There’s no time to worry about that right now, though. That was only Peterson’s first punch, and he’s out to kill. Gasping for breath, I grab the nearest kitchen implement I can reach — a pan — and prepare to do battle.

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 1

[< Previous ]

The world twirls sickeningly around me as I fight to regain control of the car. Buildings, parked cars and street lights whip past from right to left, a sped-up panoramic view. I’m momentarily blinded by the headlight of the car that hit me before that’s gone too, the skid continuing while I frantically twist the wheel to no avail. I know you’re supposed to turn into a skid, but this seems a little more extreme than that. Do I hit the brakes? Should I stomp the gas and hope it sorts itself out? Does the doc’s car have rear-wheel drive, and is that even a thing I’d want right now?

All of these thoughts clamor for attention in the second that it takes the car to do a complete 360 degree spin, jump the curb and slam broadside into a building. I’m thrown violently toward the passenger’s side of the car, my seatbelt catching me with bruising force even as the airbag pummels me backward into my seat. Glass shatters as the world slams to a halt.

Shocked and dazed, my first thought as the airbag subsides is, “Did the rain get hot?” Almost immediately, I realize that no, that’s steam rising from the front of the car. The hood is bent into a mountainous fold on the far side, both windows over there are smashed in, and the sideview mirror is lying on the seat next to me, having been somehow driven through the window in the crash. The frame bends ominously inward, and it’s clear that those doors won’t open, but fortunately we impacted on the passenger’s side and my side’s pretty much fine.

In fact, I’ve come through this pretty much okay entirely, for once. I’m probably going to have a nice diagonal bruise across my chest and my brain’s a bit rattled, but I’m physically doing well. At least, until Doc Simmons kills me for wrecking her car.

This thought kicks my survival instinct back into gear, and I immediately begin fumbling for my seatbelt release. I’d be an idiot to believe that this was unintentional, which means I need to get out of the car before I get trapped in there by whoever did this. My initial thought is that my bluff has not worked and Ichabot has rammed me, but even as I’m opening the door this idea is falling apart. I’m still something like a mile away from his lab, so how would he know how to find me? Also, he doesn’t seem like the sort to take things into his own hands when he doesn’t have to, so ramming another car doesn’t seem like his style.

The hail has mercifully stopped, but it’s still sheeting rain. When I open the door, I’m instantly re-soaked, negating any warmth I’d managed to gather while in the car. I stumble onto the pavement and look up to see a familiar figure advancing on me, hunched over against the rain.

“Peterson?!” I exclaim, backing up rapidly. It’s hard to see him clearly through the rain, but he looks pretty angry. Also, he just hit me with his car, so that’s a pretty good hint. I scurry behind the open door of the doc’s car, holding it as a flimsy shield against him.

“Everton!” Peterson’s usually even voice is a growl, and his hands are balled into fists. “You vermin. Wrecker! Can’t you go one single day without burning something down or blowing something up?”

As he approaches, I start to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. He’s hunched over, yes, but not just against the rain: his back looks slightly curved. His brow is slightly more prominent than when I last saw him, too, and his jacket is split at both shoulders. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in days, which I know isn’t the case because I saw him this morning. Also, he’s got some significant hair growth on the backs of his hands.

I’ve seen this before. Back when this all started, when I was just manning the night desk at the museum and didn’t have a care in the world. Then some ape-man tore the huge metal door off of its hinges and hurled it at me, giving me my violent and unpleasant introduction to the world of superpowers and the life of a superhero.

That guy, Aaron Lovell, was clearly much farther along than Peterson is. Peterson still looks human, whereas that guy just looked like Bigfoot, not a trace of humanity left. Also, he either couldn’t or didn’t talk anymore. Peterson may be about to kill me, but he’s still able to tell me why. And in a weird way, this is a relief, because the transformation that the nanobots put Aaron Lovell through killed him. They twisted his body too hard, too fast, and his internal systems just couldn’t keep up.

Peterson’s not nearly that far along yet, which hopefully means there’s still time to reverse this. Just one more timer on the desperate countdown to stop Ichabot.

As a further indication that he’s not fully gone yet, Peterson slows and comes to a stop on the far side of the door I’m hiding behind. He leans on the car in a forced mockery of casual behavior.

“There is a building on fire,” he says, gritting out the words, “and if it weren’t for the fact that I recognize the address, you would already be dead. But I will give you exactly one chance to tell me that you have a plan. If it has a chance of working, I will let you implement it. Otherwise, I will rip you apart right here and fix this torn spot where I can feel you in my mind.”

Peterson finishes this quietly menacing speech with a grimace of pain, and I hear the seams in his jacket split farther apart as the nanos continue to forcibly reconstruct his body. He bares his teeth at me, and I struggle for an answer.

“I have a plan,” I say, which feels like a pretty solid beginning. “I — hey, if I tell you, how do I know you won’t tell Ichabot? I need the element of surprise.”

In response, Peterson reaches inside his jacket and draws out his cellphone. While making eye contact with me, he crushes the phone in one fist, simply drawing his fingers together while the phone crumples and shatters like it’s in a trash compactor. He opens his hand and the battered pieces rain to the pavement.

I swallow hard and continue. “Okay. Right. I’ve tricked him into leaving his lab, and I’m going to sneak in while he’s gone and shut everything down. Simple plan. No moving parts. Hard to screw up. Right?”

Peterson stares me down until I stop talking, then lets the silence stretch on a few beats longer. Finally, he shakes his head.

“No good. I don’t trust the basic assumption — that you’ve tricked Amun. I’m ending this.”

He takes a step toward me, and I do the only thing I can think of to do: I slam the open car door into him. It’s like hitting a cement post. He doesn’t even move, and the door rebounds hard enough that my wrists ache.

Peterson stares at me, then grasps the door by the top and side and wrenches it completely off of the car, letting out a bestial roar as he does so. He swipes at me with it, but I leap backwards, sliding over the hood so that the bulk of the car is between us. He circles around toward me, and I scramble up the rainy surface, finding purchase on the bent metal as I scurry onto the roof. From here, I’ve got the most options for avenues of escape.

“You can help me!” I shout back, gaining my footing on the roof. “We can stop him!”

“Ending! This!” shouts Peterson, punctuating each word with a swipe at my feet with the car door. I shrink back against the building, trying to decide which way to run. The choice is made for me when Peterson crouches and leaps onto the roof of the car with me, slashing with the car door as he lands. I duck to avoid it, slipping and slithering off the back of the car as I do so. With my choice made for me, I land on my feet, briefly stumble to all fours and take off running back the way I came.

I hear another roar behind me, and on instinct I duck, tripping myself and rolling painfully across the sidewalk. The car door sails over my head as I tumble, clattering to the ground like a deadly discus another ten yards ahead. People shout in surprise and fear, and only now do I realize that a small crowd has been gathering in doorways to watch us. The city’s going to have a rough time keeping this one under wraps. Just one more thing for Peterson to be furious with me about, I suppose.

I regain my feet and continue running. I’m sure he’s close behind me, but I can only hope that his partial transformation has slowed him down. It certainly didn’t seem to impede him in his jump onto the car, but I need to tell myself something so I can believe that this situation isn’t totally hopeless.

I reach the car door and leap over it. The doc really is going to kill me. I just hope I live long enough for her to take a shot at it.

[ Next >]

Association: Part 3

[< Previous ]

Inside the car, I scramble into the backseat to stare at the incredible sight. Even with my eyes squinted nearly shut, it’s almost impossible to look at, but I can’t imagine looking away right now. The bolt continues to crackle in place, writhing like a tormented snake, a spark trapped between the globes of an immense Van de Graaff generator.

Beneath it, the building has burst into flames, but that’s the least of it. The windows shatter explosively, showering the street in broken glass to mix with the hail. Molten metal drips from the roof, forming knife-edged stalactites as it runs from the gutters and spattering to the ground in hissing, steaming piles. Every exposed piece of metal from the doorframe to the roof is edged in glowing, crackling electricity, and the entire structure buzzes like a tremendous swarm of locusts has descended upon it. The noise shakes the car, vibrating it so violently that I can feel the buzz as much as hear it.

Fiery tendrils abruptly explode forth from the broken windows, reaching up as if to grasp the rain and the lightning itself. They’re gone in an instant, and still the lightning cascades down. Through the blackened holes in the sides of the building where the windows were, a burning light starts to shine as the fires spread inside, joining together to create a true inferno.

And then, suddenly, the lightning is gone, leaving jagged afterimages in the center of my vision. A man runs out of a nearby building to see what’s happening, and only then do I realize that the entire display of nature’s power has lasted no more than ten seconds from start to finish. The aftereffects are still ongoing, of course; the melted metal is still sending up clouds of steam from the roof and the street, and it’s joined by thick black smoke as the fire begins to really take hold, roaring its defiance against the rain beating down upon it.

I open the car door and lean out of the backseat. “Hey! Hey, you!” I shout to the man gawping at the burning building. He turns to look.

“Call the fire department!” I instruct him. He stares for a second longer, then turns and runs back to the building he just emerged from. From inside the car, I hear Regina’s slightly hysterical laughter ringing out over the speakerphone, and she says something I can’t make out over the sound of the rain and hail.

I close myself inside of the car again.

“What was that?” I demand.

“I said, it’s a bit late for the fire department to do anything here, don’t you think?”

“No, not ‘what did you say.’ ‘What was that,’ meaning ‘what did you just do?'”

“I trashed Ichabot’s storeroom. Like we planned, more or less.” There’s still humor in Regina’s voice, along with more than a hint of madness, but it’s tinged with malice now, too. On the whole, not really a combination I’m excited about.

“Yeah, but remember the part where I was going to go inside and check to make sure it was empty? That was sort of a key part of the plan.”

“Well, you’re welcome to go inside now,” says Regina, unrepentant. “I decided to take some initiative. Sue me. You said this was a partnership.”

I look at the inferno engulfing the warehouse and take a deep breath. At least she didn’t wait until I was in there to do that. I’ll take the victories where I can get them, I suppose.

“Fine.” I sincerely hope no one was in there, but despite Regina’s mocking suggestion, it’s not like I can really go check now. “You did trash the place, like in the plan. Thank you.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” spits Regina. “I pictured you being inside. I want this sensation of you out of my head. Get on to the next stage of your plan and fix this.”

I glance at the sleeve of my coat. The next stage of my plan had been to go to the next address on the list and trash it, too, but now that I’ve seen the process in action I’m not convinced that’s a safe idea for me or any other bystanders. I think it’s time to improvise again.

“Okay, next step is that I need you to go back to the hospital,” I say.

Regina snorts. “So you’re trying to get rid of me after all, because I’m too scary to work with.”

Yes, absolutely. “No, that’s not why.” I need an excuse. What’s at the hospital? “Doc Simmons wanted you to come by so she could get samples. She thinks she’s close to cracking this. It’s another avenue of attack.”

I flinch at my own use of the word “attack.” It’s probably best not to use violence-related words with Regina right now. I should choose more calming language.

“Yeah, very convenient reason for you to want me at the hospital,” Regina says sarcastically. “You sure it doesn’t have anything to do with Brian?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, genuinely confused.

“You’re clueless, Dan, but not that clueless. You’re hoping that when I’ve got Brian in front of me, it’ll give me something else to focus on instead of you.”

For a split second, I start to argue. Wouldn’t it make just as much sense that when she saw Brian, she’d blame me for him being screwed up and sedated? Fortunately, it occurs to me before my mouth kicks into gear that it isn’t wise to give Regina new reasons to hate me. So instead I simply say, “Okay, maybe,” in a slightly sheepish tone.

“Whatever,” says Regina. “I’ll go. You might want to stay away from conductive surfaces as much as possible, though. There’s a lot of lightning out today.”

She hangs up, and I take deep calming breaths, focusing my attention into being as non-conductive as possible. If I still had the full power, I could become lightning-proof in seconds, but since I’m working with the residual it seems like a good idea to go for as much buildup as I can get. Besides, I could really use the calming breaths right now.

After a minute, I clamber back into the front seat of the car and drive off. I’m not sure where I’m going yet, but there’s an enthusiastically burning building a block away and it seems like pretty much anywhere else is a better place to be.

I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, counterpointing the hail. What I need right now is for Ichabot to know what I’ve done. If I had my phone, I could just call him up and tell him; I have his number from when Dupont gave it to me. Unfortunately, my phone’s at the police station, and since I’m still an escaped — prisoner? Suspect? Whatever I am, they’re not likely to let me pop in and pick it up.

I frown in concentration. I was supersmart once, and the nanos always leave residual effects. Surely I can remember seven numbers. I picture the scene with Jules Dupont: me outside his house, looking menacing. Him inside, looking scared. Holding some kind of a dog by the collar. Was it a husky? Maybe a labrador? Wrong details, brain! Focus up!

Okay, so he tells me a number. I can picture him saying it. He’s saying the phone number. It’s 867 —

“Nice, brain,” I say out loud in disgust. It’s coughing up Jenny’s number from the Tommy Tutone song. I try again, but now I’m dealing with a background of “I got it! Got your number on a wall,” and it’s clearly hopeless.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that there’s a much easier way to get his number. I pull over and look up the website for the building we were in this morning, Mangiafuoco Medical Transcription. Sure enough, they list their address and phone number right there. Good work, brain; you’ve redeemed yourself. By remembering how to use the internet. I apparently have low standards for my machine-enhanced brain.

I dial, and a voice answers brightly. “MMT, this is Zane, how can I help you?”

I drop my voice to a lower register in case Zane recognizes me from this morning. “Yes, this is Officer Austin, looking to reach –” I panic for a second, trying to remember which name he was using here, but my brain comes through for me this time “– Dr. Argute. It’s a matter of some urgency. I’m afraid there’s been a fire at one of his properties.”

“Oh, no!” exclaims Zane, sounding legitimately distraught. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No, but the property damage is extensive. Is he available?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Let me put you through to him.”

The phone cuts into hold music for only a few seconds before it’s picked up.

“Hello, what’s this?” says Ichabot, sounding more harried than I’ve ever heard him.

“There’s been a terrible fire,” I say, reverting to my normal voice. “Lightning strike. What a strange and unpredictable thing weather is.”

“Well, Dan,” says Ichabot nastily. “I’m frankly startled to find that you’re still alive. You’re a remarkably resilient bacterium.”

“More resilient than your buildings,” I retort. Not my finest comeback, I admit. “Speaking of which, I know of four others you own, including the one you’re currently at. Let’s play a game called ‘Which One Burns Down Next?'”

“I’m going to kill you myself,” says Ichabot. His voice is calm and controlled, making it sound not like a threat but like a statement of fact. It’s an eerily effective technique, judging by the goosebumps that raise on my arms.

“Well,” I say with false cheeriness, “come on by Rossum Medical and give it a shot! I’ll be there in, let’s say fifteen minutes, and it’ll be burning down in twenty if I don’t see you. Hope that gives you enough time to make it there!

“Oh, and I’ve got Regina with me, so you might want to wear your galoshes. Seeya!”

I hang up without waiting for a reply. My hands are shaking with adrenaline as I put the car back into drive and start back onto the road. If he goes for this bluff, I’m about to have a clear shot at his lab. This whole thing could be over within the hour. Everything I’ve gone through for the last couple of years, all of the pain and suspicion and suffering — it could end with a few keystrokes, in just a few minutes.

As I drive, I’m focused on what I’m going to do when I get there. I’ll dissolve a hole in the wall to sneak in. Assuming there’s not a big Dr. Frankenstein-style off-switch, I’ll call up Doc Simmons and see if she has any bright ideas about how to stop the nanos. If she doesn’t, I’ll get her to call Peterson while I poke around at it, maybe.

I’m several layers deep in the planning when a car rams into me from behind, slanning my head back against the headrest and sending my vehicle into a terrifying spin on the rain-slicked roads.

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Association: Part 2

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There’s an enraged scream from Regina, but I can barely hear it over the crash of thunder from outside. Car alarms startle awake in the parking lot around me. The lightning strike is followed immediately by a second one. I may be wearing rubber shoes, actively working to reduce my conductivity and sitting in what’s effectively a Faraday cage, but none of that is bringing me much peace of mind right now.

“What? What is it?” I yell desperately into the phone over the continuous rattle of the hail.

I can hear Regina’s breath hiss through clenched teeth as she struggles to bring herself back under control. “You. You don’t even have a plan?”

“No, I mean obviously I have a plan,” I lie. “I mean, I was just saying that, you know, I wanted you to be included in this. I’m not looking to order you around here or anything. It’s a partnership. So I was looking for your input.”

“Fine. You want my input? Let’s go back to Ichabot’s lab. You knock on the door, and when he answers, I call down lightning.”

“I feel like that kind of puts me right in the strike zone.”

“Does it? Oh darn,” Regina says in a completely flat voice.

“Plus I’m kind of looking for a plan that doesn’t kill anyone, or fry the machinery that controls the nanos. We don’t know what they’ll do if the controlling computer shuts down.”

“They’ll turn off, probably. That’s what machinery does when it stops getting instructions.”

“Yeah, sometimes, or maybe it keeps going forever because it never got a shutdown command. I’m just saying, let’s not blow up the computer and then find out if we need it.”

“Aren’t you the one who usually wants to kick down the front door and figure things out later?”

“Yeah, well, I’m trying not to be. Peterson pointed out to me that Ichabot’s been several steps ahead of me since this entire thing started, so I’m working on changing up my thinking.”

“So if your plan isn’t to have me fry things with lightning, then why exactly did you bring me on board? I can’t wait to hear this plan of yours that doesn’t involve just charging directly in and hoping for the best. Heedless of consequences. No matter who else gets hurt.”

“Okay, yeah, I get it. And I would love to discuss this with you and apologize at some point when you’re not being mind-controlled.”

“Don’t you dismiss this as some neurotic machine fantasy! I know the nanos are ramping this up to a fever pitch, and I am keeping that in mind, but you have sacrificed enemies and friends alike when it was convenient for you.”

“What? I have gone out of my way to avoid hurting people!”

“You clobbered me unconscious when we fought!”

“You were in the process of tearing your own skin off when I did that! I –” I suck in a deep breath. “Seriously, can we not talk about this right now? I’m not saying I haven’t screwed up. I’ve screwed up a lot. But I’m not some out-of-control maniac, and you’re not really likely to listen to any explanations right now.”

“Fine,” grits Regina. “Then answer the question: what is your plan?”

I start talking in the hopes that one will come to me. “Okay, hear me out. We don’t want to just go kick in his front door, because he’ll be prepared for that. We need to get him off-balance, get him angry so he makes a mistake. And we don’t want to trash his lab, because we might need the equipment there.”

“Great, idiot. So what do we do?”

All at once, it comes to me. “We go trash one of his other properties.”

Regina immediately pokes a hole in my plan. “Do you remember where they are?”

“Well, no. But Peterson knows. Would, ah…would you mind calling him?”

“Ticked off another friend, have you, Dan? User.”

“Again, I will argue this at a later date. Would you please just call him?”

“Ooh, it says ‘please’! Yeah, I’ll give him a call. Why not do something else for you.”

“This is for all of us!” I yell at the phone, but the screen is already informing me that the call has ended. I mutter some unkind things under my breath.

At least Regina’s working with me, though. And she’s right; I really can’t imagine what this is like for her. I’ve never had anyone that I viscerally hated, but I’ve had plenty of people I’ve disliked. My old boss Edgar comes to mind, as does my Børger co-worker B-Rock. It was bad enough working with them, and they just sort of got on my nerves. Also, I always had the option to quit and walk away. Ramp the emotional intensity up by an order of magnitude or two, raise the stakes so that there’s no option to walk away — and yeah, Regina’s absolutely correct in saying that I can’t understand what this feels like. For the sake of understatement, though, I’ll bet it’s not great.

A couple of minutes later, the phone rings, and Regina’s name appears on the screen. I answer.


There’s a pause. “I really hate the sound of your voice. It’s like a spear through my guts. An electrified spear.”

I decide to ignore this and press on. “So, the address?”

“I got it. What did you do to Peterson?”

“What? I didn’t do anything. I think Ichabot did, gave him a whammy. Maybe some kind of a plague.”

Regina laughs sharply. “You’re a moron.”


“Let me spell it out for you, genius. A guy who was on your side suddenly starts exhibiting negative behavior toward you after being exposed to the creator of the nanobots. The ones that generate your nemeses.”

Phrased like that, she’s right. I am a moron for not seeing this. “So Peterson –”

“Has powers, yeah. And is about where I am: trying not to kill you, but you’re not making it easy.”

“But why was he coughing so much?”

“How should I know? Maybe he’s got acid spit now. Maybe he just has an unrelated cold. Send him to Dr. Simmons if you care so much. In fact, yeah! Call him out here to the hospital. Gather us all together, see how that works out for you.”

“Yeah, speaking of, he did tell me to get away from the hospital. That was to stop you from tearing it down, but still. It’s probably time to hit the road. You told Peterson what we’re doing?”

“I told him I needed the addresses of Ichabot’s properties. He said, and I quote, ‘I don’t know how you can stomach him. Go let him do whatever he wants, and with luck he’ll get himself killed before I do it for him.'”

“So –”

“So that sounds like permission to me, yeah.”

“I’m guessing we’re not carpooling,” I say.

Regina barks another laugh, then gives me the addresses. I fumble around Doc Simmons’s car looking for a pen, and come up with a permanent marker. With nowhere better to write, I scrawl the addresses on the left sleeve of the lab coat I’m wearing. The water makes the writing blur a bit, but it’s still basically readable.

“Okay, let’s meet at the first one. Give me like five minutes, let me go in first and see if it’s empty? Judging by the area of town, I think this should just be a storage place, but even so I don’t want to catch some janitor or security guard inside.”

“We’ll see.”

That’s probably about the best assurance I’m going to get, so I roll with it. I set the phone on speaker, back the car out of the parking space and head for the edge of the lot. Even though it’s mid-afternoon, the sky is dark and the rain haze is making it hard to see. Also, even at parking lot speeds the barrage of hail is almost more than the wipers can keep up with. This is not going to be fun on the roads.

“What are the chances of getting you to stop the hail?”

“It doesn’t work like that, Dan! I can’t just turn it on and off. There’s — I don’t know, a build-up. I’m extremely sorry if that’s inconvenient for you.”

“Sorry! Just asking. I have no idea how it works.”

“You think I do?”

“I don’t know, I thought maybe you’d know the basics. Like, mine tend to run off of intensity of emotion, so maybe –”

“If that sentence finishes with any variation on the idea that I should calm down, it will be the last thing you ever say. I will melt the asphalt under your car and scald you to death in a fiery lake of tar.”

This seems like a pretty good time to stop talking, so we drive in silence for a while. At least, I stay silent. Regina keeps up a near-constant muttered stream of anger at the roads, the weather and life in general. No more lightning is striking particularly near my car, though, so it’s evidently helping her to keep things under control. I’ll take it.

A few minutes of careful driving later, I pull up outside of the address Peterson gave us. As I thought, it’s a warehouse, but the lab where we found Ichabot was in what looked like a warehouse, too, so it’s still worth looking inside to make sure it is what it appears.

“Okay, I’m going in now. Five minutes, okay? And then –”

With a resounding crash, a lightning bolt lances down from the sky and spears into the roof of the building. Steam flashes up, sparks spit from the sides and blackened metal skitters off of the roof. I reflexively stomp on the accelerator of the car. The engine roars, but the car goes nowhere since it’s in park.

“Regina! What about –”

“New plan. I’m burning this place down now.”

Another bolt strikes, and another. I slam the car back into drive and speed off down the street, stopping a block away to look back. There’s a weird light behind me, bright enough that I twist the rearview mirror away to stop it from blinding me. When I stop and look back, I see something amazing: a lightning bolt connecting the building to the clouds, twisting and arcing but not letting go. It’s a continuous stream of energy pouring down, and the sight leaves me awestruck.

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