For a split second, the dust-covered hand sticks out alone, a wall-hanging put up by someone with a morbid sense of humor. Then the drywall around it begins to melt away like plastic held up to a blowtorch, disappearing rapidly in all directions. Metallic clangs ring out as half-dissolved shelves fall to the ground before vanishing in their own turn.
Within seconds, the hole is big enough to admit an entire person. Striding out of the gloom comes Brian, a murderous look on his face. His shoulders are hunched, his forehead lowered, and his teeth bared behind a snarl big enough to cause him to drool slightly.
However, the very first thing I notice about Brian is that he’s completely naked. From head to toe, he doesn’t have a stitch of clothing on. The nanos coat his entire body, giving him a sheen that shimmers slightly in the beams of our flashlights. I’ve seen this on my own hands when Dr. A drove me to my wit’s end, but this is far more extreme.
“All you had to do!” Brian shouts, stalking toward me one deliberate step at a time. “Was find! Dr. A!” His breath is coming in short pants, his nostrils flaring with each inhalation. His hands clench into fists over and over again, hard enough that I can hear the knuckles popping in one of them. The silvery nanos drip off of his hands, eating small holes in the carpet where they land.
He steadily closes the distance with a strange bobbing walk, and after a few steps I realize why. With each step, the floor beneath him is dissolving, lowering him gently through the carpet, thin padding and cement with equal ease. Small craters, still slowly expanding, mark the path he’s taken so far.
Brian’s still drawing closer. “You know what this does to people, you imbecile. You know! And yet you came here! You did this to me! Look at me!” He gestures violently at himself, and I suddenly realize that he’s only a few steps away from being able to touch me.
I jump backwards, hands up in a placating gesture. “It’s cool, man. I’ll leave.”
Brian snarls without words and spits on the ground, still advancing as I retreat. Regina steps forward, fear and concern in her eyes, and puts herself between the two of us.
“Brian, stop!” she pleads. “You know Dan’s your friend. You’re better than this.”
Brian stops and stares her dead in the eyes. “You?” he asks incredulously. “You of all people? You’d stand here and tell me just to resist this, to out-think it?”
“Yes, me. You can beat this!”
“I recall a city-swamping storm. Lightning drawn down, incautious of bystanders. A museum in wreckage. All of this spanning days, weeks because you knew, like an itch on your brain itself, that HE was out there!”
Throughout this speech, Brian has been sinking slowly into the floor. Stepping up almost a foot to get out of the holes he’s creating, he resumes his advance.
“Bri, please, stop. You’re right. I know exactly how this feels. That’s why I can help you. And we’re going to, I promise. We’re going to help you.”
“Regina,” I caution.
Brian growls deep in his throat. “Don’t you even say her name. I won’t hear you corrupt it.”
I reach for Regina’s arm to pull her back with me, but she shakes off my grip.
“Brian, come on. Come with me. Doc Simmons has sedatives. We’re gonna get this under control.”
He shakes his head, then again violently, as if trying to shake it clean. “No. No! There are two ways to control this. He could have found the cause. I wanted to do it that way, you know? I tried. I tried so hard.
“But now he’s here, and we’re doing it the other way. This all stops when I wipe the Earth of your disgusting presence. Dan.” He spits my name like a curse, steps out of the new holes he’s standing in, and starts forward once more. Regina is now only a few feet from him, but his eyes are fixed over her shoulder on me.
“Get out of my way, Regina,” he says, but she shakes her head and reaches out a hand. I make a strangled noise in my throat, afraid to say anything that’ll set Brian off.
“Please, Bri?” asks Regina.
Brian makes an incoherent noise, halfway between a sob and a shout, and tears a piece of metal shelving from the wall. He juggles it briefly as it immediately begins to dissolve in his hands, catches it in a temporarily solid grip and swings it like a bat at Regina.
The makeshift weapon slams into her shoulder, driving her into the wall. She hits the shelves with a cry and stumbles to her knees. The shelf falls from Brian’s hands, fist-sized holes rapidly expanding through it from where he grasped it.
Brian points at Regina, looking at me again. “Look what you made me do! You ruin things. You ruin everything!”
I want to help Regina, but backing up seems the most prudent action at this point. It draws Brian away from her, which honestly seems to be the most helpful thing I can do right now.
Weighing my options briefly, I decide to risk his further ire by talking, just to keep his attention on me. “C’mon, man. That’s the nanos talking. You don’t want to do this.”
“Is it? Dan?” He uses my name as an epithet again. “Is it really? How good a friend are you? How good a person are you?”
He advances relentlessly, and I back up to keep pace. I don’t have too many more steps to go until I’m up against the back wall of the store, and I definitely need to turn before that happens.
“Dude, you’re my best friend.”
“Yeah. I am. And what do I get out of it? Danger. Pain. Physical damage. Mental anguish. LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW!” he roars. “You! This is because of you! You use people! You wad them up and throw them away like they’re garbage, but it’s you! You’re the trash! You’re the filth!”
With eyes wide and spittle flying from his mouth as he delivers this diatribe, Brian’s attention is completely on me. At this moment, Doc Simmons steps from one of the aisles behind Brian, a syringe in her hand, and in one smooth motion jabs it into his neck and depresses the plunger.
Brian roars, and for one moment, I think that it’s worked. Then I see the liquid sheeting briefly down his neck and shoulder before being consumed by the ravenous nanos, even as the doc drops the disintegrating syringe.
The doc has immediately started moving away again, but Brian lashes out with a backhanded blow and catches her across the chest with his bare arm. I cry out, “No!” as the nanos set in, but the doc is already tearing off her coat and throwing it away from her. It falls to the ground as a ragged scrap of fabric, but as far as I can tell she got it off before anything spread.
“You see?” growls Brian, turning back to me. “Everyone! You put everyone in harm’s way, while you just watch and let it happen. This ends now!”
On that final word, he lurches into a run, and I abandon backing up in favor of an all-out sprint away. I skid around the corner and turn up another aisle, heading back for the front of the store in an effort to get out of this dark and maze-like shop. Behind me, I hear a crash and risk a look back.
Brian has stumbled while running and fallen into a shelf, which is collapsing around him. Judging by the enraged shouting, he’s not hurt, just entangled, but it’s bought me a bit more of a lead.
Probably I should take advantage of this to get to the open atrium of the mall, but I really don’t want to leave Regina and Doc Simmons in here with Brian. No matter what he’s said, I don’t just use people. I don’t.
So instead of making my escape, I double back toward Brian. I duck low as I go, running my hand along the main piece of the shelving unit as I go. I can feel the metal pulling away from my fingers, a crawling sensation, and by the time I’m halfway down the aisle I can hear the creak of the shelf starting to give way.
Brian’s nearly free of the shelf that’s fallen on him now, and is laying in a pit almost two feet deep. As the shelf behind me collapses, I break into a full run and leap over the pit. Brian springs up to try to grab me, and is hit by the falling shelf and driven back into the deepening pit.
I land on the far side and stumble. My moment of triumph changes quickly to horror as I feel my right shoe eroding beneath me. Brian must have gotten a hand on me on the way by! In a panic, I stomp on my heel with my other foot and kick my shoe off, sending it flying. In an utter coincidence, just as Brian is raising his head from the wreckage of the latest shelf, the steel-toed boot strikes him directly in the face, snapping his head back and knocking him over with a crash.
Still panicked, I shine my flashlight on my foot, but see no sign that the nanos made it through, or transferred to my other shoe. I take in a deep, shaky breath and step carefully toward Brian, who’s currently lying on a pile of rubble. The whole pile is shifting and collapsing beneath him as the nanos disintegrate it, and I can’t tell if Brian is moving or not.
Shining my light on him, I see no signs of direct movement. “Doc, where are those –” I begin, but my question is cut off by a scream of rage from Brian. He sits up, bleeding from the nose and with a black eye already forming, and whips his hand at me like he’s snapping an invisible towel. A spray of nanos flies off and strikes me, hitting my shirt, my pants, and worst of all, directly landing on my exposed hands and face.
It feels like being branded. I scream as points of bloody pain erupt all over my body.