Inside the building is a small reception area with two worn chairs and a wooden end table. The floor is covered by a thin industrial carpet which does little to hide the feel of concrete underneath. Bright fluorescent lights illuminate the area, which looks to be less than ten feet on a side. Hardly the cavernous space that the large outer door suggests.
Past the reception area, several desks are visible with people working with them. These aren’t lab-coated scientists, but just regular office workers. One woman looks up at our arrival, notes that Zane is handling it, and returns her attention to her computer. The others don’t even bother to glance our way, as far as I can tell.
We stand awkwardly in the lobby for a moment. At least, I stand awkwardly. Peterson is scanning the area intently, as if Ichabot is hidden in the walls and might come leaping out at any moment. Or maybe just to take in the scene, I don’t know. He doesn’t appear to be awkward or ill-at-ease, is my point.
Regina, too, looks more tense than awkward. Maybe she’s feeling what I’m feeling, a sense that something is indefinably wrong here. Then again, it could be that I just think that because I’ve come expecting to see a laboratory and instead found an office. It’s left me off-balance, and I’m slightly disgusted with myself for being so slow to adjust to the situation.
Or am I? Are those the suggestion nanos talking? This disgust might be artificially induced. There’s really no way to be sure, unfortunately. The whole situation makes me want to punch a wall. Or is that the nanos again?
Zane snaps me out of my reverie with a question. “So, what brings you to Rossum today?”
“We’re conducting an investigation,” says Peterson. “It would be helpful to take a look around the office.”
“Sure, sure,” says Zane, still smiling. “Let me just get you to sign in here, and then I’ll show you around.”
He leads us to a logbook, where Peterson prints his name and the time of our arrival. Zane holds the pen out to me, and I write my name as illegibly as possible. I’m not really sure why, but possibly I’ll need to deny being here at some point, and that’ll be easier to do if my name isn’t clearly written in my handwriting in their logbook.
I pass the pen to Regina, who signs in like a normal person. Zane closes up the logbook and, motioning us past the desks, says, “Right this way.”
“So what is it you do here?” Peterson asks conversationally, as Zane opens a door at the back of the room and leads us into a slightly claustrophobic hallway. It’s lined with doors, most marked with nameplates and all closed.
“Mainly medical transcription,” Zane answers, walking leisurely down the hallway. It’s narrow enough that although we probably could technically walk two abreast, we go single file. Zane continues talking, but I tune him out and read the names next to the doors as we pass by. Mrs. Martinez, Dr. Sorenson, Lab A, Dr. Arora….
That last one fits with Ichabot’s A-name pattern, and since an aurora is a bright light, matches his self-aggrandizement theme, too. On a hunch, I swing the door open. Inside is a small office, windowless like the rest of this building. The walls are lined with bookshelves, which are in turn filled with books and binders and topped with stray pieces of laboratory equipment. A small wooden desk sits at the back of the room, and behind it, an Indian woman who looks to be in her early 60s looks up at me quizzically.
“What are you doing in my office?” she asks, her tone somewhere between hostility and genuine curiosity. Zane pushes past me to take hold of the doorknob.
“Sorry, Dr. Arora! We have some visitors looking around. Sorry to have disturbed you.” He gives me an affronted glare as he pulls the door shut. “I’m sorry, please don’t open the doors around here. Some of the work being done here is delicate and should not be interrupted.”
“Nothing dangerous, I hope,” says Peterson as we begin walking again. He says it casually, but I see Zane flinch a bit.
“No, nothing dangerous,” Zane replies, forcing a laugh. “Really, the bigger problem here, though I probably shouldn’t say so, is the egos. If you upset some of our doctors, they’ll grouse about it for the rest of the week. I like to say we should put up ‘don’t tap on the glass’ signs, like at the zoo.”
He laughs again, sounding a little more natural. I nudge Regina.
“Did you see that flinch?” I mutter to her, keeping my voice low so that Zane won’t hear.
“What flinch?” she whispers back.
“Zane’s. He’s hiding something.”
Regina looks dubious. “I’ve gotta say, this place looks fairly innocuous.”
“Yeah, but is that what you think, or is that what you’re being made to think?”
Regina raises an eyebrow at me, and at the same time Peterson turns around to shoot a stare in my direction, so I quiet down and go back to reading the nameplates. Nothing else jumps out at me, though; it’s just more random names interspersed with occasional lab letter designations.
The hallway turns a corner and continues through more of the same. Zane natters on about medical encounters, data storage, experiment replication and other things of that sort. I pick up about three words out of every sentence as I’m lost in my own thoughts, trying to figure out what we’re missing. The answer’s here; I was sure of it back at the police station, and I’m sure of it now. I’m just not sure where.
“And that’s pretty much it!” says Zane, gesturing to a door at the end of the hallway marked SUPPLIES. “Our little slice of the medical game.”
He moves past us to return to the front of the building, but something about the way he’s casually passed over the supply closet raises my suspicions. If I were going to hide a secret entrance to an illegal laboratory, I might well put it behind a door marked SUPPLIES. Hidden in plain sight!
I wait until Zane’s back is fully turned and then open the door to reveal, disappointingly, a supply closet. Unpainted wooden shelves are screwed to the walls, and cleaning supplies, reams of paper and assorted office equipment sit haphazardly on them. The carpet does not extend into the closet, and the concrete floor is grimy and stained with old spills.
Zane turns back and says with some asperity, “Could you please stop opening random doors?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset the supplies,” I say, pushing on one of the shelves in case there’s a secret door behind it. There’s no give at all, though, and the layer of dust I stir up convinces me that it hasn’t been moved in recent memory.
“I think I’ve been more than cooperative in showing you around,” Zane complains. “That’s all there is to see here. If you’ll please follow me back to the front, I’ll sign you out.”
He moves back down the hallway slightly more briskly than on the way in, offended. As we walk, Peterson asks, “So we’ve described an L around the outside edge of the building. What’s in the main area, through the loading door?”
“Storage,” Zane replies. “Of three kinds. One area just holds excess inventory for Rossum, so that’s your standard cardboard-and-pallets area. A smaller section has refrigerated and cryogenically frozen samples, which we maintain for our own use and rent to other professionals in the area. And we also have a small data storage center, keeping a personal cloud for all of Rossum’s needs.”
“That explains the faint hum I’ve been hearing,” Regina remarks.
“That’s probably the air conditioner, actually. It takes a lot to cool those computers! You’d think having it next to the refrigerators would help, but they vent heat worse than the computers do. I’ve said we should just combine the two, put the servers right into the freezers, ha ha!”
I’m looking to the side, trying to pinpoint a source for the hum Regina mentioned, which is why I notice a door I missed on our first trip down the hallway. It’s set on the inside wall just before we get back to the L-bend, it doesn’t have a nameplate at all, and there’s a keypad set into the wall next to it.
“Hey, Zane?” I ask. “Where does this door go?”
“Into the storage center.”
“Could you open it to show us?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have the code to open that door.”
“Oh, if that’s the only problem….” I say as I press both hands flat against the door. My nanos rush forth, hungrily attacking the surface, stripping away the paint and tearing the metal down to dust.
“No! What are you doing?” shouts Zane, rushing forward as if he can hold the dissolving door together with his bare hands. Within seconds, it has collapsed, and behind Zane through the now-open doorway we can all clearly see a state-of-the-art laboratory stretching from wall to wall in the large space behind.
Smooth counters hold computers, microscopes, centrifuges and dozens of esoteric machines. Stainless steel refrigerators with glass fronts stand along one wall, their shelves lines with tubes and trays. A whiteboard covered in notes takes up a good section of another wall. The whole space is filled, but not cluttered. It’s clearly in regular use by someone who cares enough to keep things orderly.
And standing up from the computer, unfolding like a rickety stepladder, is a scarecrow of a man, wearing a shiny black suit and a welcoming grin.
“Ichabot,” I breathe. My hands clench, and I can feel the slippery surface of the nanos sliding against my palms.
“Dan!” he crows in response. “How lovely to see you. You’re looking well!”
“You’re not going to be,” I say, striding forward. The nanos aren’t dripping off of my hands like Brian’s were; I haven’t reached that level of unthinking rage. But it’s close. “You’re going to turn this off right now!”
“Oh yes?” he says pleasantly. “Or what?”
“I’ll tear this place apart!” I growl, slamming my hands onto the closest surface. The counter immediately begins to peel apart under my touch.
“Ah. Well, have it your way, then,” says Ichabot. Reaching down, he types a short command into the computer closest to him, and I suddenly wince as my entire body contracts with an all-over ice cream headache.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Argute!” calls Zane, distraught. “I tried to stop him, but the door –“
“Don’t worry about it, Zane,” responds Ichabot. “Everything’s fine here.”
Glass smashes as the counter I’ve touched continues to dissolve, dropping the vials and machinery on it to the concrete floor below. I touch another counter in an effort to spread the destruction of the lab, but nothing happens. I already knew it would be useless. That full-body spasm always marks the arrival or departure of my powers. With one quick set of keystrokes, Ichabot has just deactivated my nanos.
Ichabot steps out from behind the computers and strides towards us, his stork-like legs covering the ground rapidly. As he walks, he trails his fingertips along the surfaces he passes, like a blind person keeping in contact with familiar surroundings.
“Everything is fine here,” he repeats, adding, “except for this potentially deranged individual who has broken into my lab. Officer! I’m glad you’re here.”
Ichabot has taken several steps past me and now reaches out to grasp Peterson by the shoulder. “This deranged individual has broken into my lab,” he says again. “You should arrest him.”
“Arrest me? Arrest him!” I say, pointing at Ichabot. “This is what we came here for! Look at his lab! Look at all of this! This is proof!”
I slap my hand on the nearest counter, which happens to be one of the ones Ichabot has just passed by. Peterson’s still just staring at me, though, as if unsure what to do. How can he be unclear at this point? This is exactly what we needed to see. Isn’t it? If it isn’t, then I am deranged, imagining things. I built up an entire fantasy scenario to break in here.
I shake my head violently as I realize what’s going on. Ichabot didn’t just use the suggestion nanos in an experiment and a demonstration here, and he didn’t just give them to Tanger. He’s using them himself. The sentences he keeps repeating, that’s what he’s seeding the lab with. I just got a dose from the counter he’d touched, and that was enough to make me doubt myself.
And Peterson? Ichabot still has his hand on Peterson’s shoulder, and is once again repeating, “Everything’s fine, but you should arrest this deranged individual.”
Regina had backed away as Ichabot approached, and now turns to run back out of the doorway. Her maneuver is slowed by Zane, though, who’s standing in the doorway again, and Ichabot reaches out one improbably long arm and touches her on the back.
“You’re safe now,” he says, still holding Peterson by the shoulder. “The situation is under control. This policeman is handling it. Officer?”
Peterson steps forward at last, Ichabot’s hand dropping from his shoulder. “He’s right, Mr. Everton.”
“He’s what?! No! He’s gotten into your head!”
“Calm down, please. Come with me. We’re going to sort this out.”
“It is sorted out. We found him! We found proof! Look at all this stuff! Does this look like a three-part storage room to you?”
“Everything’s fine, Mr. Everton. Just please come with me.” Peterson is pulling out a pair of handcuffs that I didn’t realize he’d been carrying, and approaching me slowly, as you would a wild animal.
“Dude. This is screwed up.” I back away, crashing into more lab equipment. Something behind me shatters on the floor.
“Please, officer! He’s destroying my work.” This from Ichabot, who offers me another grin out of keeping with his tone.
“Mr. Everton. Dan. Come with me, and we’ll sort this out.”
I’m backed against a counter, my superpowers are off, and my friends have been turned against me. I’m pretty low on options at this point, but there’s got to be something I can do. I cast a quick glance around in case there’s anything nearby, something I can knock over, throw or hold hostage.
When my eyes flicker away from him, Peterson leaps for me. I may work in construction and have residual superstrength, but Peterson has years of training in leverage and stopping people who are resisting arrest. He twists one arm up behind me, kicks my legs out from under me and drops me to the floor. I land heavily, only able to catch myself with one arm, and my torn cheek smashes hard against the concrete. I scream in pain, and Peterson pulls my other arm behind me and cuffs my wrists together behind my back.
“You have the right to remain silent,” he recites as I struggle uselessly.
“Come on, really? Snap out of it! You know he can give people thoughts! Or at least, you know Tanger could, and he gave him that power!”
Peterson drones on with my rights, ignoring me. I can’t blame him; I really do sound deranged. Ichabot’s done well, sticking close enough to the truth that his ideas can mesh with existing thoughts, instead of fighting against them. I can’t sort this out, not here with him countering everything I can say.
Relaxing to the inevitable, I go limp as Peterson says, “Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?”
“I guess,” I say, and Peterson hauls me to my feet.
“We’ll be back to talk, Dr. –?”
“Argute,” says Ichabot, his eyes flicking briefly to Zane. “And I look forward to it.”
He places his hand briefly on Peterson’s arm as he says, “I have nothing to hide from you.”
He sounds so logical, so open and convincing. I resist kicking at him as I’m led by, knowing that it won’t help my case against derangement any. But I was so close! We were here! We found him!
Peterson leads me back to the police car, Regina accompanying him. She seems less certain about this result than he does, so I direct my comments to her.
“Regina, come on. You know what he’s done. Think about Brian! This guy almost killed him. Almost made me kill him! Think about how you felt yesterday. You know this isn’t you.”
“I — I just don’t know, Dan,” she says. “Was there ever really any evidence that it was him? All we saw was some grainy security footage of him. There were thousands of other people on those tapes, too. Maybe we just fixated on him because he’s so physically distinctive.”
“He has a mad science laboratory! We were just in it!”
Peterson puts his hand on my head and guides me into the back of the police car. Regina climbs into the front passenger seat, still looking troubled.
“It didn’t look any more mad-sciencey to me than Dr. Simmons’s lab,” she says. “I think maybe you just busted up some doctor’s lab for no reason.”
“Come on,” I say, as Peterson starts up the car. “Hey, you can’t really be arresting me, right? You know this is crazy.”
“We’ll sort it out soon enough, Mr. Everton,” says Peterson. “Count on the system to work.”
And with that, I know I’m totally screwed.
END OF BOOK FOUR