Amusing though Brian’s problems are, though, I’ve got problems of my own to deal with. Assuming I’m not my own nemesis, at some point I’m going to have to throw down with somebody, and the only weapon currently in my arsenal is unbelievably lethal. I’m not particularly okay with that. I sort of suspect that that’s the point, really. I’m being backed into a corner where it’ll be another kill-or-be-killed situation — only this time it’ll be premeditated.
Maybe not under the technical legal definition, I suppose, but since I’m sitting here thinking about the inevitability of it right now, it’s close enough for me. Which means that I need to figure out a way to use my power of dissolution defensively.
I take a moment to look back wistfully on the time when I thought using fire in a non-deadly fashion was difficult. At least that could be used to control and harry, even if it was a massively dangerous endeavor. With this, I’m really sort of stuck for ideas. If I use it on a person directly, they’re dead. Flayed alive and devoured cell by cell, screaming all the while. Not an option.
Maybe the environment around them? I picture a fight in a warehouse, with stacks of boxes and weird chains and pipes everywhere. Take out the bottom box of a stack, and the whole pile collapses. Or on a larger scale, I could eat away a few key structural supports to bring the building down.
There are two major problems with this idea, though. One is that I don’t have any sort of range or delay on this power, so I’d basically have to be in view of my nemesis when I sprung the trap. The other is that even if that worked, I think that dropping a large pile of hard materials onto someone tends to be fairly lethal, too. So this isn’t really an improvement.
I could dissolve the floor under their feet — as long as I don’t mind dissolving the floor under my feet, too. I suppose that as long as I’m on a different surface, that could work. And as long as we’re not outside, since Doc Simmons cautioned that that could potentially destroy the planet. That probably wouldn’t happen as long as I targeted a road or something instead of just the ground, but I don’t know if it would spread to all connected roads, or what. I could make myself a bit unpopular if I released something that ate the entire interstate system.
How far can these things spread? Can they survive indefinitely outside of my system? They must replicate to disintegrate something so quickly, so clearly they’re self-sustaining in at least that regard.
I’ve been hanging around the doc too much. I’m actually contemplating running organized experiments.
All right, fine. If I’m going to mimic the doc’s thinking, I might as well do it right. I need to find the flaws in my thinking, the unchallenged assumptions. So, my basic problem here is that I need to take someone out non-lethally, and I have only a lethal tool with which do it.
Breaking that down: I need to take someone out. Check, that’s pretty straightforward. The hatred and disgust that my nemeses have been made to feel for me pretty clearly rules out any sort of peaceful conflict resolution, at least until they lose their powers.
Non-lethally is, as stated before, pretty non-negotiable. I couldn’t sit here and plan someone else’s murder or maiming. Especially since their minds have been warped by the nanos. At least when someone’s on PCP or something like that, you can blame them for taking the drug in the first place, but the people I’m fighting didn’t choose this.
Except Tanger. That guy was a jerk, and deserved worse than he got. I still don’t think I could have pulled a trigger on him, though, and definitely not with something as ugly as disintegration. I think again about the rat screaming as it died, and shudder.
Wrenching my mind away from that particular image, I move on. Last clause of the proposition: I have only a lethal tool. This is pretty much where I need to do my work, since the first parts are inarguable. Of course, that’s also where I started, so I seem to have come full circle.
Still, there has to be a flaw somewhere. Where are the places I’ve said “I can’t” or “I don’t”? One of those assumptions might be holding me back.
After a few minutes of self-examination, I find three that I think I might be wrong about: I can’t use this at range, I can’t delay the nanos’ power, and I don’t have control over how much they destroy. I mean, I’m obviously right about these assumptions so far, but with every other power, my control has grown the more I’ve used it. So it’s possible that I’m doing myself a disservice by assuming that this works only by immediate touch and only on complete objects.
Breaking down only part of something seems like the easiest place to start, so I fish a soda bottle out of my recycling and, holding it only a few inches from my face, concentrate fully on it. I let the loathing roll through me, but rather than focusing it on the entire bottle, I picture just the O in the label. I extend one finger to poke the bottle, only to have it crumble apart before I can ever touch it.
For one excited moment, I think I’ve accidentally stumbled on how to use the power at range, before I realize that in fact the bottle is being eaten away from the back, where I’m holding it in my right hand. I was completely focused on using my left as the deliverer of destruction. Note to self: I have two hands.
Another bottle, another attempt. This one sits on the counter, away from my hands. I focus, I loathe, I thrust my finger accusingly at the bottle. The plastic around the O shrivels up and peels away…followed by the rest of the bottle. I sigh, blowing ashy dust across my countertop.
The next few hours look a lot like this, but I feel like I’m seeing progress. It might just be in my mind, but I feel like the dissolution is slower outside of my target area, more hesitant. It’s enough to encourage me to stick with it, at any rate.
And finally, after I’ve emptied my recycling bin and most of the trash cans in the house, I manage it. I press my finger into the side of a waxed fast-food cup, causing a hole to appear right in the middle of the logo — and then stop.
“Yes!” I cheer exultantly. I’ve done it! I can use the nanos with precision. This means that I’ll be able to…actually, I have no idea what this will let me do that I couldn’t do before, in terms of using this power in combat against a person. I was right that “can only destroy whole objects” was a flawed assumption I was holding, but I forgot to check whether it was in any way related to making this power less lethal.
Still, I’m not going to let a minor thing like lack of usefulness put a damper on my mood. I’ve successfully improved my ability! I’m leveled up now. And if I can do that for one aspect of the power, I can do it for others. With confidence renewed, I set about figuring out how to make the nanos work on a delay.
This confidence has totally deserted me by mid-afternoon, and I finally throw in the towel as I watch the very last crumpled page of a magazine flash into powder the instant I touch it. I’ve tried being in contact with the object both before and after loathing it. I’ve tried mildly disliking it. I’ve tried thinking of an upcoming time. I’ve tried loathing the memory of objects I’ve already touched. Everything has had one of two results: instant initiation of destruction, or nothing at all.
I reach for an apple to munch on, and my fingers sink into it. I recoil, expecting it to be rotten, but it appears crisp and firm, just with holes where I touched it. I look at my hands, then rub my fingers together. Both hands feel slightly slick to the touch, even the hand that didn’t just get apple juice on it.
I poke the apple again, but nothing happens. I summon up general loathing, let it simmer for a moment, and then touch the apple. This time, it dissolves where my fingers come into contact with it, just like the first time. And as before, the destruction doesn’t spread.
This is a fantastic discovery. It’s the first defensive use of this power I’ve discovered. If someone’s coming at me with a knife, I can grab it and destroy it. Of course, I could do that before, but this way I won’t have to think about the knife. I can just keep a generalized loathing up, and then all I have to do is grab whatever’s threatening me. I’ll probably still get cut with the knife, since these don’t work quickly enough to stop the blade mid-swing, but at least I’ll only get cut once. Or hit, or burned, or whatever. People have found a lot of ways to injure me in the last year. Now I can stop most of this with just a touch.
For that matter, why does it have to be from my hands? The nanos are probably coming out through my pores — or maybe directly through my skin? I’m not really sure how things work at microscopic scales. Either way, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work from anywhere on my body. And if I can make that work, then if someone hit me in the back with a baseball bat, bam! No more bat for them.
I close my eyes and picture my body. In a weird reversal of standard meditation, I let a sense of loathing spread out from me, feel it pressing out in every direction. I feel a tingling all over, then a whisper of fabric sliding down my chest. I open my eyes and hurriedly leap up from my seat as all of my clothes disintegrate, falling to the floor in irregular scraps of cotton and denim.
Standing naked in my kitchen, I shake my head slowly at myself. Technically speaking, that worked exactly as I’d hoped it would. I just hadn’t really thought through all of the implications. It’s probably best not to try to deploy this particular trick in a fight.
At least I didn’t have my shoes on. I have other jeans and shirts, but those are my only pair of steel-toed boots. And unlike superheroes in the comics, I don’t have unlimited money for costumes. Those boots are expensive!