There’s an enraged scream from Regina, but I can barely hear it over the crash of thunder from outside. Car alarms startle awake in the parking lot around me. The lightning strike is followed immediately by a second one. I may be wearing rubber shoes, actively working to reduce my conductivity and sitting in what’s effectively a Faraday cage, but none of that is bringing me much peace of mind right now.
“What? What is it?” I yell desperately into the phone over the continuous rattle of the hail.
I can hear Regina’s breath hiss through clenched teeth as she struggles to bring herself back under control. “You. You don’t even have a plan?”
“No, I mean obviously I have a plan,” I lie. “I mean, I was just saying that, you know, I wanted you to be included in this. I’m not looking to order you around here or anything. It’s a partnership. So I was looking for your input.”
“Fine. You want my input? Let’s go back to Ichabot’s lab. You knock on the door, and when he answers, I call down lightning.”
“I feel like that kind of puts me right in the strike zone.”
“Does it? Oh darn,” Regina says in a completely flat voice.
“Plus I’m kind of looking for a plan that doesn’t kill anyone, or fry the machinery that controls the nanos. We don’t know what they’ll do if the controlling computer shuts down.”
“They’ll turn off, probably. That’s what machinery does when it stops getting instructions.”
“Yeah, sometimes, or maybe it keeps going forever because it never got a shutdown command. I’m just saying, let’s not blow up the computer and then find out if we need it.”
“Aren’t you the one who usually wants to kick down the front door and figure things out later?”
“Yeah, well, I’m trying not to be. Peterson pointed out to me that Ichabot’s been several steps ahead of me since this entire thing started, so I’m working on changing up my thinking.”
“So if your plan isn’t to have me fry things with lightning, then why exactly did you bring me on board? I can’t wait to hear this plan of yours that doesn’t involve just charging directly in and hoping for the best. Heedless of consequences. No matter who else gets hurt.”
“Okay, yeah, I get it. And I would love to discuss this with you and apologize at some point when you’re not being mind-controlled.”
“Don’t you dismiss this as some neurotic machine fantasy! I know the nanos are ramping this up to a fever pitch, and I am keeping that in mind, but you have sacrificed enemies and friends alike when it was convenient for you.”
“What? I have gone out of my way to avoid hurting people!”
“You clobbered me unconscious when we fought!”
“You were in the process of tearing your own skin off when I did that! I –” I suck in a deep breath. “Seriously, can we not talk about this right now? I’m not saying I haven’t screwed up. I’ve screwed up a lot. But I’m not some out-of-control maniac, and you’re not really likely to listen to any explanations right now.”
“Fine,” grits Regina. “Then answer the question: what is your plan?”
I start talking in the hopes that one will come to me. “Okay, hear me out. We don’t want to just go kick in his front door, because he’ll be prepared for that. We need to get him off-balance, get him angry so he makes a mistake. And we don’t want to trash his lab, because we might need the equipment there.”
“Great, idiot. So what do we do?”
All at once, it comes to me. “We go trash one of his other properties.”
Regina immediately pokes a hole in my plan. “Do you remember where they are?”
“Well, no. But Peterson knows. Would, ah…would you mind calling him?”
“Ticked off another friend, have you, Dan? User.”
“Again, I will argue this at a later date. Would you please just call him?”
“Ooh, it says ‘please’! Yeah, I’ll give him a call. Why not do something else for you.”
“This is for all of us!” I yell at the phone, but the screen is already informing me that the call has ended. I mutter some unkind things under my breath.
At least Regina’s working with me, though. And she’s right; I really can’t imagine what this is like for her. I’ve never had anyone that I viscerally hated, but I’ve had plenty of people I’ve disliked. My old boss Edgar comes to mind, as does my Børger co-worker B-Rock. It was bad enough working with them, and they just sort of got on my nerves. Also, I always had the option to quit and walk away. Ramp the emotional intensity up by an order of magnitude or two, raise the stakes so that there’s no option to walk away — and yeah, Regina’s absolutely correct in saying that I can’t understand what this feels like. For the sake of understatement, though, I’ll bet it’s not great.
A couple of minutes later, the phone rings, and Regina’s name appears on the screen. I answer.
There’s a pause. “I really hate the sound of your voice. It’s like a spear through my guts. An electrified spear.”
I decide to ignore this and press on. “So, the address?”
“I got it. What did you do to Peterson?”
“What? I didn’t do anything. I think Ichabot did, gave him a whammy. Maybe some kind of a plague.”
Regina laughs sharply. “You’re a moron.”
“Let me spell it out for you, genius. A guy who was on your side suddenly starts exhibiting negative behavior toward you after being exposed to the creator of the nanobots. The ones that generate your nemeses.”
Phrased like that, she’s right. I am a moron for not seeing this. “So Peterson –”
“Has powers, yeah. And is about where I am: trying not to kill you, but you’re not making it easy.”
“But why was he coughing so much?”
“How should I know? Maybe he’s got acid spit now. Maybe he just has an unrelated cold. Send him to Dr. Simmons if you care so much. In fact, yeah! Call him out here to the hospital. Gather us all together, see how that works out for you.”
“Yeah, speaking of, he did tell me to get away from the hospital. That was to stop you from tearing it down, but still. It’s probably time to hit the road. You told Peterson what we’re doing?”
“I told him I needed the addresses of Ichabot’s properties. He said, and I quote, ‘I don’t know how you can stomach him. Go let him do whatever he wants, and with luck he’ll get himself killed before I do it for him.'”
“So that sounds like permission to me, yeah.”
“I’m guessing we’re not carpooling,” I say.
Regina barks another laugh, then gives me the addresses. I fumble around Doc Simmons’s car looking for a pen, and come up with a permanent marker. With nowhere better to write, I scrawl the addresses on the left sleeve of the lab coat I’m wearing. The water makes the writing blur a bit, but it’s still basically readable.
“Okay, let’s meet at the first one. Give me like five minutes, let me go in first and see if it’s empty? Judging by the area of town, I think this should just be a storage place, but even so I don’t want to catch some janitor or security guard inside.”
That’s probably about the best assurance I’m going to get, so I roll with it. I set the phone on speaker, back the car out of the parking space and head for the edge of the lot. Even though it’s mid-afternoon, the sky is dark and the rain haze is making it hard to see. Also, even at parking lot speeds the barrage of hail is almost more than the wipers can keep up with. This is not going to be fun on the roads.
“What are the chances of getting you to stop the hail?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Dan! I can’t just turn it on and off. There’s — I don’t know, a build-up. I’m extremely sorry if that’s inconvenient for you.”
“Sorry! Just asking. I have no idea how it works.”
“You think I do?”
“I don’t know, I thought maybe you’d know the basics. Like, mine tend to run off of intensity of emotion, so maybe –”
“If that sentence finishes with any variation on the idea that I should calm down, it will be the last thing you ever say. I will melt the asphalt under your car and scald you to death in a fiery lake of tar.”
This seems like a pretty good time to stop talking, so we drive in silence for a while. At least, I stay silent. Regina keeps up a near-constant muttered stream of anger at the roads, the weather and life in general. No more lightning is striking particularly near my car, though, so it’s evidently helping her to keep things under control. I’ll take it.
A few minutes of careful driving later, I pull up outside of the address Peterson gave us. As I thought, it’s a warehouse, but the lab where we found Ichabot was in what looked like a warehouse, too, so it’s still worth looking inside to make sure it is what it appears.
“Okay, I’m going in now. Five minutes, okay? And then –”
With a resounding crash, a lightning bolt lances down from the sky and spears into the roof of the building. Steam flashes up, sparks spit from the sides and blackened metal skitters off of the roof. I reflexively stomp on the accelerator of the car. The engine roars, but the car goes nowhere since it’s in park.
“Regina! What about –”
“New plan. I’m burning this place down now.”
Another bolt strikes, and another. I slam the car back into drive and speed off down the street, stopping a block away to look back. There’s a weird light behind me, bright enough that I twist the rearview mirror away to stop it from blinding me. When I stop and look back, I see something amazing: a lightning bolt connecting the building to the clouds, twisting and arcing but not letting go. It’s a continuous stream of energy pouring down, and the sight leaves me awestruck.