Doc Simmons is bent over a notepad with her back to the door when I arrive, so I rap my knuckles on her doorframe. The momentary annoyance on her face flits away when she sees me, and she stands up and strides to the door to close it as I step inside.
“Dan! Great. Brief me.”
“And hello to you, too, Doctor Simmons. Yes, my day has been lovely, and yours?”
“Mine has been full of time-wasting paper-pushers. Don’t join their ranks.” Her scowl has returned, and I sigh.
“Check. Your number one lab rat, reporting in. I have dissolved a pen. Poof, it is gone.” I wave my hands at her, spirit fingers style.
“More details, less sarcasm, please. Did it vanish all at once? Was anything around it affected? What were you feeling at the time? Have you noticed any adverse reactions in yourself yet? Was there –”
I break in before I forget the questions she’s already asked. “Okay, cool the rapid-fire!” The doc glares at me, but I stand my ground. “I don’t have perfect recall, Doc. You’ve gotta let me do a few questions at a time, or give me a survey to fill out or something.
“And hey, what do you mean, any adverse reactions yet? Are you expecting me to fall apart?”
Simmons gives me an exasperated look. “No, Dan, but you’re a test-bed for unknown technology. There’s a reason ethics boards don’t allow human testing until well into the process. Humans are fragile creatures with a lot of interconnected parts. These nanos seem to tie into your emotional responses, meaning that they’re likely connected to your brain chemistry, a particularly murky area. So while I have no particular reason to believe that you are likely to ‘fall apart’ any time soon, I also think it’s worth asking if this unknown technology is having unpredictable effects.
“Now can we please talk about the pen?” she concludes, tapping her own pen impatiently against her notepad.
“Okay, yeah, sorry. The pen broke down into, like, sand. Not gritty, though. Fine sand. It took a few minutes, and I was holding it most of the time. Nothing else I was touching dissolved, then or later. And I was…I don’t know, angry? at the pen. It was out of ink, and it was just the latest thing in a really irritating day.”
“Ha!” laughs the doc. It’s a noise without much humor behind it. “Better you than me. I could have dissolved much worse than a pen today. I think the hospital might have noticed if one of their bureaucrats went missing. Someone must find them useful, at any rate. They outnumber the doctors around here. It’s enough to make me see Dr. Acharya’s way of looking at things.”
As she speaks, she’s arranging pens on a series of trays on one of her workspaces. There’s a metal tray, a plastic cafeteria one, and a paper folder. Which I suppose isn’t technically a tray, but it’s lined up with the others and has a pen on it, so I’m counting it as a tray in this instance.
“Okay, Dan,” says Doc Simmons, setting up a camera. “Get angry at these pens.”
Reflecting briefly on how weird my life has become, I step up to the table and put my hand on the first of the pens, the one on the folder. I focus my anger at it, but after a few seconds, a familiar tingling sensation in my fingers informs me that I’ve screwed up somehow.
“Uh, Doc?” I say, raising my hand. The pen dangles from my palm, magnetically suspended there by its metal clip. “Anger’s the trigger for my magnetism, and it looks like it’s still doing that.”
“You know,” says the doc irritably, “any reasonable person designing things like these would link their abilities to a single trigger, not to some vast and varied array of states. This is like having a panel of seven light switches that all turn on the exact same bulb.”
“Sure, but they make the bulb do different things,” I say.
“Don’t stretch my simile, Dan,” says Simmons, which I take to mean she doesn’t have a response to my point. “All right. How did your day go?”
“Fine, thank you,” I say automatically, and the doc glares at me.
“Yes, and if I could get you to actually answer my question and not spit out societal platitudes? Step through it. We’re going to build to your emotional state. I have not personally had a particularly pleasant day, so if you could at least try to work with me on this, it would really be appreciated.”
I shrug sheepishly. “Sorry. It was just an annoyance kind of day, I guess. Spilled my coffee, forgot my lunch, couldn’t get a sandwich.”
“Slow down,” cautions Simmons. “Don’t just list the events. Feel them.”
“Okay, so I was frustrated and ticked off when I couldn’t get through the fast food line. Then work was exhausting, but just physically, not really mentally. Until I had to get on the stupid bus, and some idiot there spilled his drink all over me.”
I’m starting to feel my blood boil in the retelling, but there’s something more than anger behind it, more visceral. I try to picture the cow-like look on the guy’s face as he stammered out his apology, and that gives the feeling more shape. As I relate everything that followed — the largely ineffectual blotting, the broken armrest, Mac’s prying questions while I’m sitting there in still-sticky jeans just trying to buy a stupid car — the feeling grows into a ball of vitriol that I can feel sitting in my mind.
“And then the pen wouldn’t work! It’s literally designed for a single thing, and it couldn’t do that!” Disgust drips from my voice.
“See the pen,” Doc Simmons says, intensely. “Touch it now.”
I reach forward and lay my hand on the pen, and my fingers dent the barrel like it’s made of putty. The doc and I lean in to watch, fascinated, as before our eyes the pen erodes away, destruction spreading out in circles from the initial point of contact. It’s like watching a soap bubble pop in super slow motion. The plastic first thins, then pulls away from the places I touched it. As it spreads around the barrel, the inner workings are revealed, briefly granting a cutaway view of a functioning pen. Then, as the rings of disintegration wrap around to the far side, the barrel falls apart into several pieces, dropping into a loose jumble on the folder.
The erasure sweeps across the different materials of the pen with no particular pause. The metal clip, the plastic barrel, the spring inside — all begin to collapse into dust before our eyes. In under a minute, the pen is entirely gone. Even the ink inside has been completely destroyed; when the doc carefully brushes the dust that’s left behind into a collection container, there’s not so much as a mark on the folder beneath it.
“Well,” says Doc Simmons after marking her samples. “So not just anger, but loathing? That should be a fun one to use.”
“I mean, I’m kind of glad it’s not something I’m just going to stumble into a lot,” I say. “It would kind of suck to be molecularly disintegrating stuff every time I smiled or something.”
The doc winces. “Dan, molecular disintegration would — never mind. Close enough.”
She pauses, then adds, “And I hate that association with you has caused that phrase to enter my vocabulary.”
“Hey, harsh! It is close enough, right? It’s breaking it down into its component pieces.” She might be right about what is or isn’t happening, but I’m not just going to stand here and be insulted.
“Dan, you have a Renaissance artist’s grasp of science.”
“I’m going to take that as a compliment.”
Her sarcasm’s not subtle, but I don’t have a good retort, so I let it pass, asking instead, “So, on to these other pens?”
“Yes, since these trays share material components with the pens, plastic and metal, I want to see if the disintegration process will still stop at the original intended target, or spread through similar objects.”
A thought strikes me. “Hey Doc, what would happen if I went outside and directed this at the ground? Like, the whole Earth?”
Simmons sighs. “Dan, does the idea of a controlled experiment really mean nothing at all to you?”
“So you think it would work if I did it, then?”
After a few more minutes, we’ve learned several things. The disintegration is limited to whatever object I target; the nanos don’t spread beyond the original item, even when it’s one pen rubber-banded into a sheaf of identical pens. There doesn’t seem to be any substance that they can’t disassemble, and the doc quickly has a row of seemingly identical containers of dust for later examination. And I can’t choose to dissolve just part of something. If I sic this power on an object, it breaks down completely.
Simmons leaves the room briefly, and I’m trying to figure out potential productive uses for this when she returns. In her hands is a small plastic cage containing a live rat.
“What? No,” I say, standing up and backing away. “No way.”
“We need to know, Dan,” Doc Simmons says implacably, placing the rat on the table and beckoning me toward her. “We need to know the limits.”
“No way. I’m not killing a rat. Not a live rat, not like this.”
“If you want, I can kill it first, but then that’ll only demonstrate that they work on recently dead things, and we’ll have to get another one for the final test. Look, you told me that Victor’s cloning power didn’t work on living tissue, and this seems related. Your nanos aren’t reassembling anything afterward, but it’s the same breakdown of material. So there’s a good chance that it won’t even do anything.”
This is terrible. Honestly, I’d run for the door if I thought I’d make it, but the doc’s in between me and the exit, and I have no doubt that she’d tackle me to keep me here. And after all, it is a lab rat; it’s bred to die in experiments. This at least is fast, as opposed to getting cancer or whatever they usually do to them. Plus it would be a huge relief to know that I couldn’t accidentally unleash this on a person. So the rat wouldn’t even get hurt, and I’d have peace of mind.
Reluctantly, I approach the table. “I don’t like this, Doc.”
“You don’t have to like it. You just have to try it.” She opens the top of the container.
I steel myself and reach in. The rat appears unafraid, stretching up to sniff my finger.
“So, where should I touch it? Does it matter?”
“Touch it on the head. If this works, that should kill it faster.”
“Ugh. Thanks, Doc.”
It takes several minutes for me to work up the emotion necessary to make the attempt. The rat looks harmless and inquisitive, and it’s hard to loathe it. So I close my eyes and picture the concept of rats. Plague bringers. Vermin. Property destroyers. Animal killers. Eyes in the night, teeth and hissing and claws, lashing tails, scurrying shadows. Ruiners. Filth.
When I can finally feel the disgust welling up, with eyes still closed, I reach back in and strike blindly for the rat. I feel warm fur under my fingers for a second, and then a tortured squeal snaps my eyes open.
I did manage to touch it on the head, directly between the eyes, and the fur is already peeling back, blood escaping and skin inching away to reveal bone beneath. But my grasping fingers also hit the rat in three places along its back, and the same dark chemistry is occurring at each of those spots. The rats thrashes violently, spattering droplets of blood around its plastic prison. It shrieks, flailing desperately for perhaps a dozen seconds before falling still, its brain succumbing to the destructive appetites of the nanos. In that time, though, its back was flayed open, its organs displayed and the knobs of its spinal cord revealed. It was not a clean or pleasant death.
I force myself to watch as the rat is rapidly eaten away, the ravages of time sped up to do the work of years in only a few minutes. It takes longer than the pens, probably due to its significantly increased size, but in the end all that is left is the blood sprayed on the walls of the cage and a rough pile of ash on the floor.
“So anything that separates from the main body is not dissolved by the nanos,” Simmons notes clinically. “Reasonable. That could help show how quickly they spread, and in what pattern.”
I don’t know how she can be this calm. I’m about to throw up. And not in a figurative sense, I realize.
The doc doesn’t stop me as I run out of the lab. I make it to the bathroom in time, so at least something’s gone right today.