The bus drops me off outside of the hospital, and although I’d swear I hadn’t warmed up any on the bus ride, the rain chills me all over again as I step off. I run for the front doors even though I’m already soaked, and actually manage to make my situation worse as I trip over my clumsy improvised shoes and and sprawl shoulder-first into a puddle in the parking lot. The impact jolts the entire side of my body and brings a flare of pain from my cheek, accompanied by lesser complaints from my dozen or so more minor torso injuries. Brian really did a number on me in that mall yesterday, and now I’m risking riling him back up by coming to the building where he’s being kept? This seems like one of the worst ideas I’ve had, and that’s saying something.
A rumble of thunder reminds me that the whole point of my cumbersome footwear was to keep me insulated from the ground, and that I am currently defeating that purpose by lying on the ground. I hurriedly scramble to my feet, futilely attempting to brush some of the water from my shirt, and hustle into the hospital’s lobby.
There’s something in the design of hospital hallways that makes them extra echoey. I don’t know if it’s intentional, like maybe it helps alarms and shouted instructions carry better, or if it’s just a weird side effect. All I know is that even normal shoes sound twice as loud as normal when walking down a hospital corridor, and the effect is magnified with my improvised boots. Every step flops like a fish being slapped onto a counter as I put my foot down, and then squeaks like a rubber chew toy as I put my weight on the mat. I try to slow down my steps and place my feet carefully, but all that does is draw out the noise, squeeeeeak…whap instead of squeak, flomp. The duty nurse at the front desk is watching me with interest, the patients in the lobby are staring, and down the hallway, a curious nurse peeks out of a room to see what the commotion is about. I hold my head high and try to pretend that this is normal as I squeak-flomp my way to the stairs and disappear behind the safety and soundproofing of a thick metal door.
Upstairs, I give Doc Simmons’s door a perfunctory knock before sticking my head inside. “Doc?” I call.
“I assumed that cacophany was you,” the doc says, standing up from a stool in the corner. “I couldn’t fathom why you would be making a noise like that, but I knew that since something was making that noise in my hospital, it could only be coming from you.”
“Look, if you’ve got better rubber footwear, I’d be happy to trade,” I say. “In fact, if you’ve got any spare clothes at all, I wouldn’t say no. I’m kinda soaked.”
Simmons looks me up and down skeptically, but pulls a lab coat from the back of the door and hands it to me. I put it on gratefully, layering it over my wet shirt. It’s not overly warm and it’s pretty tight across the shoulders, but it’s better than I had before, so I’ll take it.
“You don’t look like this is one of your better days,” Simmons observes as I struggle into the coat.
“Well, let’s see. I’ve been tackled by the police, thrown in jail, accused of being a terrorist, escaped from jail, robbed a vending machine, brewed a chemical bomb, set a house fire, stolen a kid’s bike and been told by the authorities to leave the city and never come back. Meanwhile, I can probably still stick my pinky through the hole in my cheek. And it’s what, lunchtime? Maybe a late lunch? I wouldn’t say this has been my best day, no.”
“I appreciate you making time in your busy schedule to come see me, then. Did you talk to Officer Peterson?”
“He was the one who told me to leave town and never return, yeah.”
Doc Simmons makes a sympathetic face. “So no friend on the inside with the police, then?”
“Worse — I’m pretty sure that that was him being friendly. I think this latest escapade has been the straw that broke the camel’s back, though. He seems to have worked through the suggestion nanos, but something definitely set him off.” A thought strikes me. “Aw man, my house!”
“Peterson mentioned the house fire when I talked to him. If he knows about it, it must have been called in. If it was called in, that probably means it was big enough to do damage — which means my house is probably screwed.” I sit down heavily, depressed. “Well, at least maybe the rain kept it under control.”
“Mhm,” says Simmons noncommitally. There’s a short pause, and then she says, “Well. Shall we get started?”
“Geez, Doc. All business, huh? Can a guy get a bit of sympathy here?”
“What do you want me to do, pat your shoulder and say, ‘There, there’? I’m sorry that nanomachinery is making your life miserable. Now could we please move on to attempting to fix that?”
I stand up from the chair, leaving a puddle of rainwater behind me. “It’s not that you’re wrong, Doc, but your bedside manner…sheesh.”
“Yes, you’ve mentioned that before. Arm, please.”
I push back my layers to expose my elbow, which the doc swabs briefly with alcohol before sticking in a needle to draw blood. I look away as she preps the syringe, and my attention is caught by an area in the corner of the room which is cordoned off by drapes.
“What’s behind the curtains, Doc?” I ask.
“That’s where I’ve got Brian.”
“Brian!” I jerk involuntarily, and the doc frowns at me. “You’ve got us in the same room?”
“Please be careful of the needle, Dan. Yes, you’re in the same room. It’s fine, I increased his sedative dosage before you arrived. He’s not even conscious right now.”
“Well, what if he becomes conscious?!”
“Then there are backup plans in place. Calm down before you magnetize my needle.”
Easy for her to say. She’s not the one who might end up disintegrated if Brian’s sedative wears off. Still, there’s not much I can do about it if I want the doc’s help, so I take a few deep breaths and focus on calming myself. By the time she’s pulling out the needle and putting on a bandage, I’m basically back to where I was when I walked in. It’s not calm, exactly, but it’s acceptance.
“What’s your plan with this blood, anyway? I would’ve thought you had plenty from me by now.”
The doc smiles. “I think you’ll find this really interesting. Come take a look at this.”
I follow her to the far side of the lab, over to the microscope she was sitting at when I walked in. “Okay, tell me what you see,” Doc Simmons says, prepping a slide with my blood.
“Blood and nanos,” I say.
“Descriptive as always, Dan,” says the doc, sounding a bit exasperated. “Do you notice anything in particular about the nanos?”
I squint at them for a minute. “Not really? They’re little black dots. What am I supposed to see about them?”
“They’re not aligned in their grid, right?” prompts the doc.
“Oh! No. I guess not. I mean, they sort of are, but it’s kind of ragged.”
“Okay, now watch this.”
I hear a scraping noise and look up from the microscope to see Doc Simmons moving an unwieldy metal box across the counter toward the microscope. She points a metal probe at the slide and says, “Look what happens now.”
I peer back through the eyepiece of the microscope, and at first everything looks the same. Then I hear the click of a switch being flipped and a faint hum from the machine, and as soon as that happens all of the nanos snap into position, forming a perfect grid.
“Hey, cool! What did you do?”
“I believe — although I’m not one hundred percent certain — that I’ve reactivated the nanos.”
“That’s amazing!” I snap my head around to look at her. “Nice work! Can you turn them off, too, and fix Brian? Or wait, can you just turn mine on so I’ve got a power back? Or more than one, even?”
“I’m not there yet, Dan. In fact, if you’ll please step back from the machine for a minute…”
She’s already reaching a gloved hand for the slide before I move out of her way. She sets the slide on a metal tray and picks up a petri dish, holding it poised over the slide.
For a moment, nothing happens, but just as I’m about to ask what we’re waiting for, the slide bursts into a small but definite flame. The doc drops the petri dish over it, smothering the fire, and it quickly goes out.
“And that is why I’m not quite ready to move to human testing yet,” says Doc Simmons.
I swallow. “Yeah. Good call there, Doc.”
“Now, in addition to the baseline sample, I’d also like to get one where you’ve been using your powers, to observe differences in the nanomachinery’s structure and behavior. Activate one of your remnant powers, please. Any one you like.”
That’s an easy choice. It takes just a few seconds of thinking about the amount of stress in my life right now before I start to feel a tingling in my fingers. I reach out to the steel tray, and as my hand approaches it, it slides the last inch to meet me.
“Excellent, thank you,” says Doc Simmons, standing up. “Now keep that going while I draw blood.”
She takes a step away to get the necessary equipment, and as she does the curtain at the edge of the room suddenly parts. For a moment, I think it’s being drawn apart, and then I realize it’s disintegrating. Behind it, Brian is sitting weakly up in bed, one hand outstretched to touch the curtain. A tube is taped to his nose, and another runs from the back of his hand to an IV pole. His eyes are unfocused, but when he sees me, they do their best to lock on.
“R…rotten…scummy…” he mumbles, trying to stand up from the bed. His hospital gown begins to disintegrate, and the tubes on him fall away and swing free.
Doc Simmons tsks and takes a short step to her right, twisting a valve on what looks like an oxygen tank. It hisses for a second before she pulls a trigger on a metal tube perched on top of the tank, and with a quiet whuf!, a small dart flies across the intervening space and buries itself in Brian’s abdomen. It falls away almost immediately, landing on the floor in a plastic clatter, but Brian’s eyes cross and he slumps back into the bed.
The doc walks briskly over and begins attaching new oxygen and IV tubes to Brian, as if this was completely normal. I am less sanguine.
“What on earth was that?” I demand.
“I thought that might happen, actually. I think the activation of your nanos caused a response. I told you, there were backup plans if that happened.”
“Yeah, I saw your backup plan. You shot him!”
“It was a tiny amount of sedative, just enough to counteract the extra adrenaline. It won’t hurt him.”
“Wait. Wait, wait. You said you didn’t have a trank gun,” I accuse.
“I didn’t. I built this one this morning. It’s not complicated, just compressed air and a tube. It wouldn’t work beyond maybe a dozen feet.”
“But you said there was no point in having one around a hospital!”
“And now there is a point, so I made one. I thought you’d be happy that there’s a tranquilizer gun now, Dan.”
“Well, can I use it?”
“Then I’m not happy about it.”