Needless to say, the rest of the walk home sucks. My body throbs with every step, and because it hurts to lift my legs, I’m taking about twice as many steps as normal. I’m afraid to stop to rest because I’m pretty sure that wherever I sit down, I’m staying for the night. I have had a rollercoaster of a day, and the car is just about to pull back into the station.
Even knowing this, I nearly sit down for a breather anyway. I’m slumped against a wall, about to slide down to the sidewalk, when I hear sirens getting closer, and I suddenly remember exactly how much I do not want to explain my involvement in this. I lurch back to my feet, my motivation to make it home renewed.
It’s a painful twenty minutes before I finally stumble through the front door to my house. My body is screaming “Bed bed bed!” at me, but I force myself to steer for the shower first. I’m burned, bruised, cut-up and filthy. I’ve got sweat, tears and blood all over me, tarry bits of asphalt clinging to my clothes and exposed skin, and I reek like an industrial explosion. Also, I’ve got a hacking cough that sounds like I’m two weeks into bronchitis, and I have a vague idea that steam from a hot shower might help that.
I shed my clothes in an untidy, torn puddle in the bathroom and all but fall into the shower. I don’t have the energy to soap up or even rub the grime off with my hands; I just stand there under the spray and let the water sluice over me. If I hold very still, keeping my eyes closed and breathing slowly and deeply, I can almost tell myself that everything’s fine.
Abruptly, my head knocks into the shower wall, and with a yelp of pain I realize that I’ve almost fallen asleep on my feet with the water running. I don’t feel a lot better, but I smell less like a car accident, and my cough does seem to have subsided.
I step out of the shower and stagger toward my bedroom, dripping water behind me as I go. Toweling off just seems like it would require too much energy right now, and it’s not like I’m likely to get cold.
I wake up shouting, with a pounding headache and a pair of charley horses in my legs. Frantically, I try to reach my calves to massage the muscles, but the act of reaching out my arms causes the spasms to worsen, straightening my legs painfully and tangling them in the blankets. As I try to thrash free, I spill myself out of the bed and crash to the floor, hitting my head hard enough to see stars.
A few minutes later, I’ve gotten everything more or less under control. My legs are still horribly sore, but no longer actively rebelling against me. My head is aching, which I can handle with aspirin. And my whole body feels — I mean, like I’ve been hit by a car. It’s not great, but I’ll live.
I’m limping blearily through the kitchen to get the aspirin when I spy the microwave clock, which tells me it is 8:18. Almost twenty minutes after I was supposed to meet Brian at the hospital.
I don’t even have the energy to curse myself; I just groan, grab the aspirin and some water, and go retrieve my phone from the bathroom floor, where it’s spent the night in my pants pocket. It’s cracked but not broken and fortunately has some charge left, so after a quick explanatory text to Brian and an Uber call, I gear up to face the day.
Thirty minutes later, I’m walking into the lobby of the hospital. Brian’s waiting impatiently at the front desk, and comes striding over when he sees me.
“Nice and punctu — geez, man, you all right?”
“Rough night, but yeah.”
“Yeah, but you’ve got this big yellow bruise, you know?” he says, putting his hand to the right side of his face. I reach up to touch the left side of mine, and wince. The area above my eyebrow is swollen and hot to the touch, and it feels like it radiates back under my hair. It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t looked in a mirror since the accident, and I have no idea how bad I look.
Brian’s clearly hoping for an explanation, but I’m not interested in talking about it where there’s any chance of being overheard. “You’ve seen me worse,” I say, aiming for nonchalance. He just stares at me for a second, then shakes his head.
“Yeah, all right. Come on, I told Doc Simmons that you’d be here an hour ago, and she’s pissed.”
He starts to walk away, but I don’t move. “Wait, what?”
“You said you’d be here at 8, dude.”
“No, not that. Who’s Doc Simmons?”
“She did the blood tests. On the samples.”
“I thought you were going to do those.”
“No, man, I wouldn’t know what I’m looking for. I just told you that I’d get it tested.”
Seeing my expression, Brian continues, “Look, can we talk about this in the elevator? We’ve seriously gotta move.”
Reluctantly, I follow him. “So you’re just telling random people about me now?”
“Hey, not cool!” Brian protests as we get onto the elevator. “A: I didn’t tell her anything. I said I needed tests on this blood. No names, no explanations, nothing about you. I wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I know this mutant Dan, see what makes him weird,’ you know? I have some discretion.
“And B: she’s not some random person. I trust her. Anyway, you’ve met her. She was here when you got tagged by lightning, remember? She’s the one who worked on you afterward.”
My brain kicks up a vague image of someone in a lab coat, tall and imposing, big dirty blonde hair. I remember her looming a lot, but I was lying on various tables for most of the time I saw her, so that makes sense. I don’t know that I could pick her out of a lineup, but I nod anyway and say, “Sure, fine. I just didn’t know you were bringing someone else in. I mean, I trust you, but I could’ve used a heads up on this.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. Didn’t occur to me that you thought I’d do the testing myself, or I woulda told you, you know?”
“It’s cool,” I tell him. We exit the elevator and Brian leads me through a short maze of hallways to a door that looks identical to the others we’ve passed. He knocks and immediately sticks his head inside. “Doc? Got ‘im.”
“It’s about time,” an annoyed voice calls back, presumably belonging to Dr. Simmons. I hear the sound of a chair being pushed back as she continues, “Well? Bring him in, Brian.”
Brian grins sheepishly at me and motions me to follow him inside. I enter the room and discover that I was wrong about my recollection: I could absolutely have picked Doc Simmons out of a lineup. She has a presence about her, an air of easy command that makes her instantly identifiable. And despite being an inch or so shorter than me, she does indeed loom. I’m not sure how she manages it from below me, but it’s the only way to describe her posture.
“Dr. Simmons,” she says, shaking my hand.
“Hi. Uh, Dan,” I say.
She looks me over critically. “Brian hasn’t told me anything about the blood samples. Is your bruising a result of what’s in your blood?”
“Ah, no. That was, um, an accident. The blood is — um, he hasn’t told you anything?”
Brian shoots me an ‘I told you so’ expression over the doctor’s shoulder.
“I believe what he told me was that there was ‘something, like, weird’ about it,” she says, making air quotes with her fingers. A gleam comes into her eye. “He’s certainly right about that!”
“Well, what is it?”
“Better if I show you, I think. What do you know about blood?”
“Nothing. Well, red blood cells, white blood cells, keeps the body going.”
“Okay,” Doc Simmons says, putting a slide under a microscope and gesturing for me to look. I peer through the eyepiece to see what appears to be a mass of squishy bricks.
“That’s a normal blood sample at a thousand times magnification,” Simmons says. “Red blood cells, some white blood cells. I’m showing you for comparison.”
Suddenly, the image disappears in a blur, leaving me staring into a bright white light. I pull my head back to find that Doc Simmons has whisked the slide away from the microscope and is fitting another one in its place.
“This is yours. Tell me what you see,” she directs.
It’s the same squishy bricks again, but this time, small black dots are interspersed throughout. They’re not arranged regularly, exactly, but something in their placement makes me feel like there’s a pattern I’m not seeing.
“Is this an infection?” I ask, looking up from the microscope. The doctor shakes her head.
“Not exactly. Yes, it’s foreign material, but it’s not bacteria or a virus. Look again. Watch the black dots carefully for a minute.”
I study the slide, not certain what I’m meant to be looking for. I let my eyes drift aimlessly from one dot to another for a while, when suddenly, I see one of them move. It’s a subtle motion, but as I stare at that dot, I see it repeat. It’s a slight shift in shape, a sign of life in an otherwise frozen tableau.
“It moved!” I exclaim, and Doc Simmons says, “Exactly! And these samples are days old. It’s got staying power.”
“But what is it?” I ask her, and the doctor hesitates.
“Are you a fan of science fiction, Don?” she asks.
“Dan, but sure. Why?”
“There’s a pattern to the movements. The foreign objects move in sync with each other. I think –” She hesitates again, longer this time, then sighs, sounding both uncertain and excited. “I think it’s a machine. Nanomachines.”