My skin boils away under the nanos’ invasive touch. Every nerve ending flares as it dies, sending continuous waves of pain from half a dozen different places on my skin. I scrabble frantically at my jacket, trying to use the fabric to wipe away the destroying nanos, but the fabric disintegrates in my hands.
Brian’s laughing wildly with a hysterical tinge to his voice. I stumble around a corner to avoid any further damage, as if it really matters. The agony jolting through my body, growing worse with every step, confirms that I’ve had it. I’d like to say that I feel noble for my sacrifice, or at least resigned to my fate, but what I really feel is intense, all-consuming fear. I don’t want to die, and especially not like this.
Through the haze of pain, I hear Doc Simmons yelling. “Dan! Hate the nanos!”
Weird advice. Hardly advice at all, honestly. Of course I hate them. Due to these stupid things, I’ve suffered incredible amounts of physical and mental abuse. I’ve been beaten, shot, stabbed, burned, electrocuted and more. I’ve been under investigation by the police, and fired from several jobs. I’ve had my car totaled, my home broken into, my personal sanctity violated in every way imaginable. Also the majority of the city regards me with the same vague sort of hate that’s directed at suspected terrorists shown on the evening news.
And now I’m dying at the hands of my best friend, and that’s also laid at their feet. So yeah, I hate the nanos. If I could rip every one of them out of my body, I would. I’d give up every benefit I’ve gained from them — the extra strength, the improved cognition, the minor lingering powers — just to watch them burn. When I was normal, I thought I’d like to be exceptional. But having given that a try, let me tell you: it sucks.
“Dan! Are you still alive?” calls Simmons, and I realize with some astonishment that I am. I’ve dropped my flashlight and I can’t see my hands in the dim recesses of the store, but they don’t seem to be disintegrating any more. The open wounds on the back make me hiss in pain when I brush them, though, and blood is running freely down my fingertips. A trickling wetness on my neck tells me that the same is probably true of my face. Both of my eyes are still working, although blood is dripping into the left one. I blink it away.
“I — I am!” I shout back, incredulous. This is met by a gargled roar from Brian in the next aisle, and the sound of shifting metal.
“For now!” he shouts, and I quickly shove the shelf I’m standing next to. It topples over with a clamorous crash, eliciting another shout of pain from Brian. I can hear him moving even as the shelving dissolves around him, so I know it’s only a short reprieve.
“I’m…going to…kill…you all,” pants Brian, clawing his way out of the rubble.
“Listen to yourself!” I shout at him. Shouting causes a searing pain from my left cheek, and something’s flapping there like it’s been torn, but I shove that down for now. “I don’t care what poison thoughts you’ve got in your system, man. You’re better than this. You need to come after me, fine, but there’s nothing turning you against the doc and Regina.”
“Don’t say her name!” he growls. His head and shoulders are clear of the fallen shelves, and he’s clambering out of the pit that’s been forming beneath him. His fingers dig into the floor, cutting brief handholds that rapidly widen into small craters of their own.
“Then don’t threaten her!”
“They’re helping you!” He’s almost free now, and I’m backing up quickly.
“Not now they’re not. They’re in a corner of the store, and I’m here in front of you. You want me? Come on, then. But leave them out of this.”
Brian lunges for me, and I break and run. My shredded clothing flutters as I go, and the rushing wind from my progress sings white-hot over my wounds. With every step, I’m certain I’ll feel Brian leap onto my back and bear me to the floor, nanos eating into my spine, but somehow I make it to the front of the store unharmed.
I burst free of the confines of the shop and rush into the atrium’s light. My hands, legs and face burn where the skin’s been eaten away, my jacket and shirt look like I took a shotgun blast at close range, and air is whistling in my cheek as I pant for breath. I’m slightly light-headed, and I’ve lost enough blood that I can actually smell it on me, a rich meaty stink.
I should run. I should hide. I’m in no position to fight. And what can I do against him, anyway? The whole plan was to come out here and either talk him down or catch him by surprise so that we could sedate him. There’s no scenario where I’m going to hurt him. I mean, I did drop a couple of shelves on him, but I mean serious hurt. Nano-disassembly hurt. It’s not happening. I’ll let him kill me first.
I’m really hoping it doesn’t come to that, though.
“Brian!” I call, turning around to face the store. I can see him inside, walking slowly toward me. “Come on! I’m out here!”
“Shut up,” Brian snarls, and although his voice quivers with rage, his tone is quiet and his steps are measured. “Just stop talking. I can just about hold it together when you shut up.”
His arms are wrapped tightly around his stomach, and at first I’m afraid he’s been hurt. Then he steps out of the store and into the daylight streaming in through the windows high above, and I realize that he’s just trying to keep his hands under control. Brian’s knuckles are white from where he’s gripping his own arms so hard, and he shines with the silvery glitter of nanos looking for something to destroy.
“You’re not wrong, you know,” Brian says, pacing around me, his steps still eating holes in the floor as he goes. I stand still, tense and ready to spring, but unsure whether running will break his fragile hold on calm. His speech is tight with fury and delivered through occasionally clenched teeth, but he seems to have himself under control for now.
“This isn’t me. I know that. I know! And I can appreciate what they were trying to do for me. Not you!” He laughs. “Not you. Can’t appreciate anything about you. I can remember things I liked, but they’ve all got a new spin on them. Tainted, like I can finally see the way you really meant everything.”
I must have looked like I was about to say something, because Brian shoots one finger up, pointing at me in an accusatory fashion. “Not one word! If you say one thing, I will tear you apart right here. I won’t even need the nanos. I’ll do it with my hands. And I’ll laugh while I’m doing it.”
I nod, and kneel down. While Brian watches curiously, still pacing, I draw a vertical line in the tile at my feet. I’d meant to just write in the dust, but my nanos are apparently still in high gear, as I end up etching directly into the tile itself. I shrug and continue. It’ll be easier to read this way anyway.
As Brian makes another circuit, I carefully continue my marks. Writing upside down so that it’ll be facing out toward Brian, I draw: I’M SORRY.
He stops in front of me, barely out of arm’s reach, and looks me directly in the eyes. Then, incredibly, he starts to laugh. It’s still got more than a touch of hysteria, but it’s a real laugh, with humor behind it.
“Yeah,” he says between laughs. “That’s perfect.”
His fists are clenched at his sides, and although he’s still chuckling, he’s also crying. For a second, I’m sure he’s about to jump onto me, and I brace myself for the tearing impact. But instead, he kneels down too and closes his eyes.
“Doc!” he shouts. “Come and trank me now. Do it quickly!”
Simmons materializes out of the shadows of the store, a new syringe already in hand, and stabs the point into Brian’s shoulder. Just as before, though, the needle disintegrates on contact, metal flaking and falling away as the sedative spurts out of the ruined syringe, only to be consumed in its turn by the voracious nanos.
“You’ve got to turn that off, Brian,” the doc says authoritatively, but Brian shakes his head.
“Can’t. It’s taking all I’ve got to keep things even this calm,” he grits out. “Figure something out. And hurry!”
The doc digs through her bag. “All right. On the count of three, tilt your head back, open your mouth and pretend you’re about to chug a beer.”
I raise an eyebrow at the doc, and she shrugs as she holds several pills over Brian’s head. “Seemed like the best way to tell him to open his throat. I don’t know how thorough this nano coating is. One, two, three!”
She drops the pills and Brian swallows convulsively, choking. He lurches to his feet, anger twisting his features. “That’s the nicest way you could have done that?”
“Dude,” I say placatingly, and Brian wheels on me.
“NOT ONE WORD, I SAID!” he howls, and leaps at me. I fall to the side and he slides past, scrabbling for purchase on the floor.
“Run, Dan,” says Simmons. “The drugs are going to take a minute to kick in. Oral sedation is slower.”
I don’t need to be told twice. I scramble to my feet, slipping briefly in the blood that’s pooled on the floor where I was sitting, and sprint back through the halls of the mall. Brian follows, shouting invective.
Wounded as I am, I’m sure he’s gaining, so I head back toward the food court and start throwing chairs behind me as I go. I hear a crash and a clatter as he collides with first one, then another. His swearing has started to slur together, though, and I risk a look back.
Brian’s tangled in two chairs on the floor, their metal slowly coming apart around him. His head is hanging down as if it’s too heavy to hold, but even so one arm feels around for a chair and makes a weak attempt to throw it at me. He succeeds only in pushing it a foot or so before slumping entirely to the ground.
I give his fallen form a wide berth and go back to find the doc. She’s supporting Regina out of the store, and although Regina has a nice goose egg forming on her temple and looks a little woozy, she’s walking under her own power and seems to be basically all right. Both of them, incredibly, are smiling about something, and Regina’s actually giggling.
“What’s so funny?” I ask, and Regina points to the blood-spattered tile where I had knelt. There, written in large letters is the phrase: I’M ZORRY.
“I can’t tell if you screwed up telling him that you’re sorry,” laughs Regina, “or that you’re Zorro.”
“Look, I was writing upside down!” I protest. “And also I’ve lost a lot of blood.”
Regina sobers up. “Yeah, let’s get you patched up. Ooh, Dan, your cheek! I can see your teeth!”
“Don’t tell me that. I don’t want to hear that.”
Doc Simmons pulls some bandages and antiseptic out of her bag. I hold up a hand. “Shouldn’t we get Brian?” I ask.
The doc shrugs. “He’ll keep. Hold still.”
I suffer the doc’s tender mercies in silence before a thought occurs to me. “Hey, Doc? When you told me to hate the nanos — and thank you for that, by the way — how did you know it would just make mine attack the invading ones, and not turn them on themselves?”
“What? What would have happened if they’d all turned on each other? They’re all through my system, right?”
“Yes, probably that would have killed you extremely painfully.”
“Dan. That was currently happening anyway. It seemed like a good risk.”
“Yeah, to you!”
“If you can find a logical flaw in my thought process, I’ll apologize. Otherwise, I stand by my decision.”
I can’t spot the flaw, but still, that doesn’t make it okay. I sulk silently until the doc’s done bandaging me, but I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t notice.