“What’s so bad about Edgar?” Regina asks.
“Okay, imagine someone was always following you around, straightening up everything you did. Even minor stuff, like fixing the way you’d put a book down or something.”
“Did he do that?”
“Worse! Because now imagine that that habit came to life, and followed you around on its own. And was in charge of your paycheck.”
Regina laughs. “He couldn’t have been that bad.”
“Tell her about ‘Dobson’s Dos and Don’ts,” Brian chimes in.
“Oh, man. So for a while, Edgar was really looking for a reason to fire me, and started putting out these daily memos of how to behave at work. And I just kept following the letter but not the spirit, and the memos got worse and worse. So eventually I collected them all into an official-looking handbook. Everyone thought it was pretty funny except for Edgar, who just about bit my head off over it. That was where I finally told him off, actually.”
“How’d he take it?” Regina asks curiously.
“Like a volcano about to blow. I went off to get dinner while he was still trying to come up with an answer — and actually, that was the last conversation I ever had with him.”
“Oh? Did he just avoid you after that?”
“Um. Well, that was sort of the night you showed up at the museum.”
“Oh,” says Regina quietly, pulling in on herself. There’s an awkward silence for a moment.
“So,” Brian says brightly, “you think Edgar’s still got tapes of you?”
“Could be! Depends on what his procedures call for. If they say to keep tapes for a year, then he’s still got them. If they call for them to be destroyed after ninety days, those things were destroyed three months to the day from when they were made.”
“What about months with thirty-one days?” asks Brian, and I shoot him a dirty look.
“Yes, thank you Señor Semantics, less than three months. Point is, he might have them. I doubt he’d be interested in showing them to me, though.”
“But he’d probably turn ’em over to the cops, you know? Maybe your friend Peterson can help you out here.”
“Probably! I’ll give him a call. I bet he’ll be happy to help.”
Officer Peterson is not happy to help. I explain what I want, and he is skeptical at best.
“So you’re not alleging any crime. You just want to look at the security tapes on a hunch that you might see someone you recognize.”
“Well, I mean, injecting someone with nanomachinery without their knowledge has to be some sort of a crime, right? I mean, probably not specifically, but it’s got to be a violation of the Third Amendment or something.”
“The Third Amendment protects against the government quartering soldiers in your home.”
“Fine, the Fourth, then. Or whatever, it doesn’t matter. My point is, it can’t be legal to inject people with stuff randomly!”
“But it’s also not legal to go obtain tapes to spy on private citizens without probable cause.”
“Two people who have run into him have superpowers now. That seems pretty probable!”
“Two people is a coincidence, Mr. Everton. I’d like to help you, but I can’t use my authority as a police officer to request something like this. Have you tried simply talking to him? He might be willing to just show you the tapes.”
“Yeah, thanks, I’ll try that,” I say, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
“No dice?” Brian says as I hang up.
“No, nothing. He thinks it’s perfectly fine that some mad scientist is off running around sticking miracle machines into people, and won’t help. He says maybe I should try asking nicely. And anyway,” I add as a thought strikes me, “it sort of is quartering soldiers in my home. These things are definitely warlike, and I live in my body.”
Brian, who did not hear Peterson’s half of the phone conversation, says, “…What?”
I wave it off. “Don’t worry about it.”
From the couch, Regina suggests, “Maybe we can get someone he hates less to ask him.”
“Not a bad call, but why would he turn the tapes over to some rando? This is why we need someone in authority. Edgar loves authority.”
“Maybe you call him up and tell him you’re a cop, and we’ll get him to drop them off or something.”
“Wait, no,” I say. “I mean, you’ve got the right idea, but there’s a better solution. I think we’ll have to wait for the weekend, though.”
Over the week, work grows increasingly polarized. The people I’ve talked to and reminded that I’m a good guy are fine, and we talk and laugh like we always did. None of them seem to have gone back to their briefly-held opinions of me as unpleasant, so that’s good.
Less good are all of the guys who I’d previously had a blank-but-amicable coworker relationship with, who now seem to have solidified their belief that I am a real jerk. I’m convinced that I could talk them out of it if we interacted, like I did with Mr. Steele and Christopher, but they literally turn their backs on me if I come over.
I try pressing the point with one guy named Ray. “Come on, man. You’re acting like I stole money from your mother. Tell me why! All you’ve gotta do is tell me what’s up, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Ray puts one meaty finger on my chest and shoves. “What’s up is that I don’t like you. I’ve seen guys like you before. You screw around on a project until someone gets killed.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong!” I protest. “Name one time you’ve seen me screwing around.”
Ray steps towards me, leaning down to get right in my face. “Take a hint, squirt. Go do your job, leave me to do mine, and stay as far away from me as you can. And when we’re working together, you’d better hold up your end. I’m not getting killed over your shoddy work.”
He shoves me again, takes his lunch and stomps off. The loose circle of interested bystanders that was starting to form around us breaks up and begins to drift off. I rub my shoulder where he pushed me, shrug and walk back to my own lunch.
Interestingly, Ray’s attitude towards me thaws after that. We’re not friends, but he’s friendly enough as we pass by each other on the site. Obviously, once I caused him to think about it, he realized that I wasn’t guilty of whatever he’d been thinking, and it’s eased the tension.
So all I’ve got to do to fix this problem is get into a physical altercation with the other fifteen or so guys who are still holding this phantom grudge against me. Yeah, that’ll definitely win me a lot of friends at work.
Every night, I go home and meditate, which is probably the least normal way to relax from a construction job. In fairness, I’m not using it to relax; I’m practicing my focusing techniques to try to speed up the growth process. If it took me all night just to grow a coating for half of an arm, it’ll take me days to grow an entire suit, and I’d really like to get that done faster.
By Friday, I’m able to grow a sleeve and glove in under an hour, which is a pretty big improvement. That evening after work, I carbo-load at dinner and go to bed early to get ready for the main event. I lie down in bed, focus on my breathing, and picture a policeman.
Officer Peterson pops immediately into my mind, so I go with it. I feel the familiar prickle on my back as the skin starts to grow, and I hold the image in my mind, feeling the form build up around me, tiny insects skittering with purpose all over my body.
Eventually, I drift off to sleep. When I wake up in the morning, it feels like I’m wrapped in a rubber sheet. I roll out of bed and rub my face, which I can barely feel, then stumble toward the mirror.
Looking back at me is a near-perfect copy of Officer Peterson, fully dressed in his police uniform. I flick the nametag curiously, but it just makes a dull thud instead of a sharp ring. Although it shines like metal, it has the same rubbery consistency as the skin.
In the kitchen, Regina looks over me in awe. “That’s seriously creepy, Dan. It looks natural, though.”
“Yeah, it feels really weird. It moves all right, but I can’t really feel anything when I touch it. It’s like wearing heavy gloves.”
“How do the clothes work? Can I touch?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Oh, weird! The sleeves meld into your arms just inside. It’s like a little flap of skin masquerading as a shirt. Is this skin? Are you naked under there?”
“What? No. I slept in boxers and a t-shirt. They’re still on. Listen, I’m going to need some coffee if there’s going to be an interrogation.”
Regina pours me a cup, then stares as I drink it. “So you can eat and drink normally?”
“Yeah, I think it seals up on the insides of my lips. See, these are my real teeth.”
“What if Peterson had a gold tooth?”
“Then I guess the disguise wouldn’t work. He’s not my height, either, so it’s not perfect anyway. But Edgar only met him a couple of times a few months back, so it’ll probably be close enough.”
I finish my coffee and eat my breakfast with Regina still peppering me with questions I don’t really have answers for, like how long the disguise will last and what happens if I have to go to the bathroom. That last is actually a very good question and something that I should have thought of, but since I didn’t, I suppose the answer is that I’m going to hold it.
In the interest of minimizing the amount of time I have to do that for, I call Edgar as soon as it’s a reasonable hour. I use Regina’s phone in case he has my number saved, because this would be sort of transparent if the phone call shows up under my name.
“Yes?” Edgar answers the phone. Man, I hate that tone. Hearing it now brings back every lecture of his that I had to sit through while I was at the museum — and there were plenty.
“Is this Mr. Dobson?” I ask, putting on a gruff voice.
“Yes, this is –” shoot, I didn’t come up with a name; ah, screw it “– Officer Sam Peterson. I’m calling in reference to a case that occurred several months back, which resulted in severe damage to the museum property.”
“Yes, I recall,” Edgar says icily.
“We had some questions which I think could be resolved by a look at your security tapes from the weeks before the incident. Do you still have those?”
“Museum policy calls for tapes to be held for only ninety days.”
Well, so much for that. “I underst–“
“However,” Edgar continues, “I thought that keeping them longer in this particular case might prove fruitful. We had a problem employee at the time, and it seemed to me that the police might want to take a longer look at him at some point. I’m pleased to see that you are of the same mind.”
“So you do have the tapes? Very good. When could I come get them?”
“I will be at the museum all day today. If you could stop by around 2 PM, I will have them ready for you.”
“2 PM, excellent. Thank you for your assistance.”
“And thank you, Officer.”
I check to make sure I’ve ended the call before turning back to Regina. “Can you believe that? He kept the tapes longer than policy just in case the police wanted to investigate me!”
“Which is really convenient for us now, right?”
“Yeah, but — man, what a jerk!”