Absence: Part 1

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The rest of the day passes in a less spectacular fashion.  This might sound like a bad thing, since “spectacular” is often used as a synonym for “great,” but in this case I mean it in its more literal sense: I manage to avoid making a spectacle of myself.  So that’s definitely good.

Can you still make a spectacle of yourself if there’s no one around to see it?  I suppose this is an “if a tree falls in the woods” sort of question.  I’ll save it as a point to reflect upon the next time I need to meditate.

In any case, even had there been an observer for the remainder of the day, all that they would have seen was me making and eating more tacos than is objectively reasonable.  I work in construction and I host a colony of impossibly advanced machines; I can afford a few extra calories.

Stuffed and happy, I head to the couch to sprawl out and waste the remainder of my day.  As I’m about to sit down, a thought strikes me.  What if I start leaking nanobots?  I’m fully clothed again, but the nanos reduced my other clothes to scrap faster than I think I could roll off of the couch.  This couch is still new, bought to replace the one that Vince built a clone out of.  I don’t want to dissolve a hole in it.

I’ve got to sit somewhere, though, so after a few minutes of waffling, I grab a blanket from the bedroom and drape it over the couch.  It’s not much protection, but the extra layer might buy me the seconds of reaction time I need.

Hours later, I fall asleep to the soothing sounds of a werewolf movie.  When I open my eyes again, the grey light of dawn is sifting through the windows.  For me these days, this counts as sleeping in.  My clothes, blanket and couch are all still happily undisintegrated.  Or just integrated, if you like.  The important thing is that I haven’t destroyed anything in my sleep.

I send a text to Regina and an email to Doc Simmons saying essentially the same thing: Brian wants to meet up to discuss nanos, so how’s tomorrow afternoon at the hospital?  Then I go about my morning and wait for the rest of the world to wake up.  Quick tip: if you add an egg to the previous night’s leftovers, it counts as a breakfast scramble.  I am well-trained in the art of lazy cooking.

Eventually I hear back from both Regina and the doc, who are both on board with meeting at 5 PM tomorrow, so I text that information to Brian and get on with my day.  It’s a household chore kind of day: laundry, vacuuming, general straightening up, fixing the sink that’s been dripping, and so on.  I’ve put most of it off for a long time, so it occupies my day pretty solidly.

This is my excuse for why I don’t notice until the middle of the next day at work that Brian never texted me back.  I’m halfway up a scaffold when this strikes me, but I can’t exactly check my phone for missed messages at that point, so I just frown briefly and continue on up.  By the time I could check my texts, I’ve forgotten again.  In my defense, on a construction site there are a lot of things that require your full attention, and thinking about your phone is a good way to find out exactly how protective your helmet really is.

In any case, it’s not until I’m getting an early dinner after work that I remember again that I haven’t heard from Brian.  I check my phone, but there definitely haven’t been any messages.  I fire off a quick text to confirm that he’ll be there at 5, but if he’s not, it’s not like I don’t know where to find him.  He works in the same hospital as the doc, so even if he’s out on a call, he’ll be back sooner or later, and we can go snag him.

That’s my thinking right up until five o’clock rolls around, and I walk into the doc’s lab to see just her and Regina.

“No Brian?” I ask, checking the time.

“No,” says Simmons.  “In fact, I haven’t seen him in a couple of days.  Did he say he’d be here?”

“I mean, basically!  This was his idea.”  I’m pulling out my phone to text Brian when it buzzes with a message from him.

“What is it?” asks Regina, watching my face shift from annoyance, through confusion and into alarm.  Wordlessly, I pass her the phone.

So you’ve noticed Brian isn’t coming
Take a guess why that is, pus bucket
Looks like associating with you is bad for him again

“What is this?” demands Regina, wanting any answer other than the obvious.  Behind her, the doc shakes her head slowly.

“I…I don’t know,” I say, but the churning in my stomach says otherwise.  Taking back the phone, I write back:

so you stole his phone, big deal
what do you want?

As I’m writing, Regina’s phone rings.  “It’s Brian!” she exclaims, answering it.  “Bri?”

After a second, she puts it on speaker, her face somewhat ashen.  Brian’s voice fills the room, sounding shaky and panicked.

“–ine.  I don’t know where they’ve got me, but I’m okay.  I love you and I’m sor–”

The line goes dead.  A moment later, my phone buzzes again.

Still think I just have his phone
What I want is for you to die screaming
But if you want your friend back you can do something for me first
I left you a note

“Where?” I write back, looking around the lab in case it’s obvious.

At his house genius
Your already brain dead
The rest is a formality

“So I’m just supposed to go on your wild goose chase now?” I send.  What I get back is:


There are quite a lot of those messages, actually, but after the first few I get the point and ignore the near-continuous buzzing of my phone for the next minute.

“So,” I say to the somewhat shocked expressions around me, “I guess we’re going to Brian’s apartment?”

Brian’s place looks different than it did the last time I visited.  For starters, it no longer has a front door.  The frame is undamaged, and even the pins hang in the half of the hinges that are left, but the door itself is completely missing.  In its place is an unpleasantly familiar pile of ashy dust on the ground, with marks in it as if something has been dragged through it.

Doc Simmons and Regina both look at me.  I raise my hands and protest, “I haven’t been here!”

Inside, it’s much the same.  The television lies smashed on the floor amidst a pile of DVDs, the end table that once housed them now nowhere to be seen.  The rugs he had on the floor, most of the furniture, the microwave, even one panel of drywall — all missing.  And everywhere, coating everything, the telltale dust left behind by the nanos’ disintegration.

Anything that hasn’t been dissolved is in total disarray.  The contents of the dresser are on the floor, of course, but it’s more than just things that have fallen because their containers were destroyed.  It looks like someone went through here in a rage, sweeping things off of shelves for the sole purpose of smashing them.  There’s no indication of any kind of search, just an epic, apartment-wide destruction.

On the kitchen counter we find a half-dozen pens and a sheet of paper.  Scrawled on it is a message in several different colors of ink:


“What’s with the different pens?” I ask no one in particular, but Doc Simmons answers.

“I don’t think he’s got any real control over his nanos,” she says.  “I think he wrote as much as he could with each pen before it crumbled away in his fingers.”

A horrifying image strikes me then, of this shadowy figure grabbing Brian to drag him away, only to have Brian’s skin dissolve at the point of contact, blood spurting out to reveal white bone beneath, the destruction racing its way up his arm.  I clamp down on that, reminding myself that I heard his voice, that he’s still okay.

Regina’s crying, and I feel a lot like joining her.  “What are we going to do?” I ask.

Fortunately, the doc still seems pretty centered.  “Find your Dr. A,” she says pragmatically.  “This is what you wanted anyway.”

She’s right, of course.  And if he can stop the nanos, then this entire thing can end peacefully.  If not — it’s looking like my option is to go face off against someone with the same powers I have, the ability to disintegrate anything we touch.  Try as I might, I can’t picture any way that that doesn’t end in mutual annihilation.

“We’ve got to get Brian back!” says Regina.

“We do!  And we will,” I assure her.  “I think maybe we do that by finding Dr. A, though.  Unless you see something here that might give us a hint?”

All three of us survey the wreckage for a moment before turning back to each other.  Regina shakes her head.

“Okay,” I say.  “We need to come up with a plan.  Let’s…let’s go somewhere that still has furniture to figure this out.”

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