I hear a low growl as Peterson moves in close behind me. I try to flinch away when I feel his breath on my neck, but I can’t even do that. I’m stuck here like some ridiculous statue, one arm pointed outward, frozen in my final dramatic and useless gesture. I’m a monument to my own folly. Unable to defend myself, unable even to turn to see it coming, I brace myself for the pain about to come as Peterson finishes the job he started out in the street a half an hour ago.
But after several seconds of breathing down my neck, Peterson steps away. I hear wet footsteps against the concrete floor, and then he moves into my field of vision, slowly pacing past. His eyes are on mine, and I attempt to say something, to appeal to his reason, but with my jaw locked all I manage is “Eeur huh!”
I’m not positive that there’s reason left to appeal to, anyway. Peterson looks bad. And not just “has been lying unconscious in a puddle in a cold rain” bad, although obviously he’s been doing that. Even in the short time that’s passed since I last saw him, the nanos have continued to reconfigure his body. He has a thicker brow ridge, a more pronounced stoop and a rounder spine. His shoulders have broadened, judging by the fact that his jacket is now split almost completely in half in the back. The sleeves dangle loosely from the few remaining threads still attaching them to the shoulders, and through those gaps I can see that the shirt beneath is tearing apart along the seams as well.
The fact that he’s not just mindlessly attacking me suggests that he hasn’t yet gone fully along the route of the other ape-men, though. Either one of them would have torn me apart as soon as they made it through the door. Peterson’s taking his time, considering things. Of course, he’s currently pacing like a caged tiger, which means that what he’s considering is probably just how best to kill me, but it’s something. It’s a small thread of hope, but if Peterson’s still in there, then maybe there’s still a way out of this.
This hope promptly vanishes as Peterson walks over to a nearby shelf, grabs one of the metal crossbars and tears it free. Brandishing the three-foot length of metal, he stalks slowly back over toward me. Behind him, Ichabot laughs delightedly, but Peterson’s attention is on me. His pacing carries him behind me again, and I don’t need the look of anticipation on Ichabot’s face to warn me of the blow that’s about to fall. I brace myself as best as I can without being able to move, which really isn’t very well at all.
The first strike is overhand, cracking down across my shoulder blades with a meaty thud. It’s followed by another, diagonal to the first, then a horizontal strike across the left side of my lower back. Tears form in my unblinking eyes and run down my face as each hit causes my cuts to reopen and my broken bones to rub painfully together. Peterson works his way around the front, landing hits as he goes, one after the other in rapid succession.
And yet, oddly, it doesn’t hurt as much as I’d expect. I mean, it’s agonizing, and I’d be screaming if I had the muscular control to make that much noise right now. But he was doing more damage with his hands when we fought on the street. Although these hits hurt, he’s not breaking anything new, and even the areas he’s striking seem to be chosen to absorb the hits. He hasn’t struck me in the head or any limbs. It’s all been center of mass, and even then I think he’s pulling his hits as much as he can without making it look obvious.
Ichabot hasn’t noticed this, and is loudly cheering Peterson on. “Go, monkey, go! Let’s see that blood!”
He sees the tears running down my face, notices me struggling for breath, and grins. “In fact, let’s loosen the nanos a bit, so we can really watch him suffer. It can’t be much fun hitting something that doesn’t even react.”
For a moment, I think that this was Peterson’s plan: count on Ichabot’s sadistic streak to let me go to more properly showcase the pain, and then we can both team up on him. As Ichabot turns his attention to the computer, though, it becomes clear that Peterson’s plan was nowhere near that complex or cooperative. The instant that Ichabot glances away, Peterson roars and hurls the metal bar at him like a javelin.
It spears Ichabot through the shoulder, eliciting a cry of pain and spinning him away from the computer. Peterson threw it hard enough to completely penetrate Ichabot’s body, and I can see a solid half-foot of bar sticking out of his back as he stumbles. Even as Ichabot’s regaining his balance, though, the bar clatters to the floor in two pieces, and through the hole torn in his suit I can see the unbroken skin beneath. I could do with a repair trick like that.
Peterson’s thundering across the floor, leaping at Ichabot, but Ichabot is ready for him. Moving with uncanny speed, he shifts to meet Peterson, catching him in the jaw with a hard right cross as he comes in. Peterson crashes into the counter, and the access computer is knocked spinning to the floor, dragging the monitor and peripherals with it to smash on the concrete.
Peterson recovers quickly, though. Even as he’s impacting the counter, he lashes out behind him with a kick that catches Ichabot in the knee. There’s a snap and a scream, and then Peterson’s pouncing on Ichabot and the two go down in a tangle of limbs.
Only seconds later, Peterson’s back on his feet, and he’s got Ichabot by the neck. Although Ichabot is significantly taller, Peterson still manages to lift his feet clear of the ground in an impressive one-armed maneuver. Holding the gangly scientist in the air, Peterson roars his triumph.
Ichabot, for his part, simply smiles, reaches up to the hand crushing his throat and taps it lightly. Peterson’s triumphant roar turns into a scream of pain as the skin on his hand peels back and begins to flay away, revealing blood and bone beneath which rapidly dissolve in their own turn. He drops Ichabot, backing away, but the damage is done. The nanos spread rapidly across his hand and begin to travel up his arm, destroying as they go.
Ichabot puts his knee back into place with a grimace and another audible snap, then straightens his suit and retrieves the fallen computer. He tsks at Peterson.
“Look, half of the display is broken now. You really should be more careful. Though I suppose that won’t be a problem for much longer.”
Peterson stares at his dissolving arm, wild-eyed, and I can see the moment that he comes to the necessary decision. Gripping his left elbow in his right hand, he squeezes with all of his enhanced might. I hear the bones splinter, and then with an anguished cry Peterson tears what’s left of his own left arm off at the elbow. He flings it at Ichabot, who ducks and lets it flop to the ground behind him where it continues its rapid disintegration.
“Well! You are tenacious,” says Ichabot with what sounds like real admiration. Peterson glares at him, hatred in his eyes, the stump of his left arm gripped tightly in the fist of his right. Blood is dripping thickly out between his fingers, but he lowers his head and roars at Ichabot, clearly ready to continue the fight.
“That’s about enough of that, I think,” says Ichabot, typing quickly. Peterson suddenly stiffens, freezing in place. A low moan escapes through his gritted teeth, but it’s clear that Ichabot has hit him with the same whammy that he laid on me. I can see Peterson straining against the nanos’ hold, but the only thing moving right now is his blood, which continues to ooze between his fingers and pool on the floor beneath him.
The storm howls outside, wind whipping chilling gusts into the lab and sending rain running down my back. Ichabot doesn’t seem inclined to pull the roll-up door closed again, though. At first, I think he’s just enjoying watching me stand half-exposed to the elements, unable to so much as shiver to warm myself up. But after a minute I realize that he keeps looking not at me but over my shoulder, as if waiting for something.
Ichabot is rambling about something to do with seeding the nanos, but I’m not listening. Whatever it is he’s waiting for, I suspect I won’t live long after it arrives. But if I can anticipate what it is, maybe I can be ready for it, turn it to my advantage somehow.
I may be immobilized, soaked, dangerously chilled, in tremendous pain and trapped in a mad scientist’s lair, but there’s still a chance I can come out ahead! A guy’s got to dream, right?
“You’re a very poor conversationalist like this, Dan,” says Ichabot, catching my attention with the use of my name. “I’m going to try something.”
He presses a key, and my face erupts in excruciating pain. I shriek, and it’s only once the pain subsides that I realize I was able to open my mouth to scream. I blink my eyes, which are also under my control again. The rest of my body is still locked up, though; even turning my head is beyond me.
“I’ve just sent a localized kill command to the nanomachinery in your face,” Ichabot says. “I gather that it didn’t feel very good?”
“It was…very relaxing,” I slur, forcing the words out with difficulty. My mouth is moving, but it’s not moving well. My tongue feels like it has weights attached to it, and my lips are half-numbed. “You should…try it on yourself. Like a spa day.”
Ichabot laughs. “The paralysis will return as the nanomachines replicate and spread back out, but I can always terminate them again if you go quiet.”
“Thanks. Think I’ll…talk for now.”
“And they say you aren’t smart!”
Something behind Ichabot catches my eye, movement on the back wall of the lab in between two of the fridges. I can’t tell what it is at first. It looks like a bug inching across the wall, but it would have to be a heck of a bug for me to see it from here. As I watch, it increases in size, spreading like a water stain. It’s not until enough of the wall has dissolved for me to see the splayed fingers of a hand on the far side that I realize what’s happening. Brian’s here.
Ichabot is working on his computer and chatting about applications of his work, unaware of what’s happening behind him. The hole has widened enough that its edges are hidden behind the flanking fridges, and it reaches almost to the ground now. Brian steps carefully over the small piece of wall remaining and inches gingerly between the fridges. He’s naked again, soaked from the rain and looking even colder than I feel. Though it’s not as severe as it was at the mall, I can see the floor at his feet being eaten away.
“So the world’s…just a bunch of lab rats to you?” I ask Ichabot, willing him to keep his attention on me. I still feel like I’m talking through a mouthful of Jell-O, but I’m able to get the words across.
“No, of course not. Lab rats couldn’t buy my products,” says Ichabot, typing while he talks. “And I intend to sell them very dearly. I feel that being the richest man in the world is the least I deserve for my brilliance.”
Regina has crept into the lab as well, following Brian through the hole he made. They’re both stealthily advancing on Ichabot. If Brian can catch him by surprise, maybe his nanos can outpace Ichabot’s healing? I don’t know for sure, but it seems worth a shot. I keep talking to hold his focus as Brian and Regina draw closer.
“Can’t…unleash this on the world,” I tell Ichabot. “It’d be…chaos.”
“It will be the next evolutionary leap of mankind!” he exclaims vigorously. “Homo superior, the melding of man and machine. Picture a child born with the abilities you’ve experienced, able to use these powers innately. Imagine growing up like this!”
“Poor parents,” I mumble.
“They’ll be enhanced, too! Strong, brilliant, completely healthy. Bodies that self-repair anything less than actually losing a limb — and I’m working to fix that, too! Minds to rival my own.” He sighs. “It’s a utopia. And I can hear you, you know.”
“What?” I ask, but his last comment wasn’t directed at me. Brian and Regina both start to rush forward, subterfuge abandoned, but Ichabot’s already executing the lockdown command.
Brian teeters in place, caught in mid-step. For a second I think he’s still able to move and is slowly crouching down so as not to attract attention, but then I realize it’s the ground beneath his feet dissolving away as his nanos seek out a target for his loathing.
Regina was more fully committed to the rush when Ichabot froze her, and gravity continues the move for her. Unable to bring her foot forward, her hands up or do anything to arrest her motion, she topples forward like a felled tree, crashing face-first to the hard cement floor. Brian makes a muffled noise, but the way the floor is disintegrating at his touch suggests that even if he could move, he couldn’t risk touching her to help her up.
“There,” says Ichabot, “the gang’s all here. Except for Vincent, who sadly couldn’t make it. Or more precisely, didn’t make it.”
“He died?” I ask.
“Oh yes, sadly he never made it out of the ambulance.”
My stomach roils. I’d only meant to get free, not to kill him. Ichabot sees my self-disgust on my face and laughs.
“Oh, it wasn’t whatever chemical you cooked up, Dan. Though maybe I should have let you keep believing that. Your face really is too funny. No, it wasn’t you. I killed him.”
“Why? He…was helping you.”
“Well, a bit.” Ichabot waves his hand dismissively. “No, they were probably going to have to operate, and I really didn’t want anyone else stumbling across my work. I’m not ready for the world to know just yet, and I don’t want anyone stealing my thunder.”
Ichabot claps his hands. “Which brings us to the point of this gathering. We have the old nemesis and the new nemesis. The nosy cop and the nosy doctor. And of course, the experiment himself. All in one convenient location!”
From the floor, Regina says something incoherent. Whatever it is, I suspect it’s not complimentary. It’s good to have confirmation that she’s alive, though.
Ichabot chooses to take it as a question. “I’m glad you asked that, Regina. It’s very simple: this is the end of the experiment. I’ve learned what I need to from this, and frankly I’m getting a little over-exposed. It’s time to nuke this petri dish and start over fresh.”
“You’re forgetting…Tanger,” I say. It’s getting harder to talk.
“Forgetting? Not at all. Evan’s my first customer! An experiment of its own, I suppose. He’s in no danger of exposing me.”
“So what’s your plan here?”
“Warehouse fire! I’ll keep it simple. It’s a real problem, you know. In fact,” he allows a bit of venom to creep into his voice, “I heard that another building caught fire earlier today. Struck by lightning, they say. So it happens more often than you’d think.”
He’s moving around the room, picking up odds and ends to take with him. This is pretty much the end of the line. Everyone is frozen or knocked out. Peterson hasn’t moved in some time, but the blood flow has slowed, and it’s possible he’s dead and the nanos just aren’t letting him fall over.
And yet, I’ve seized hold of a strand of hope again. Something Ichabot said has given me an idea. It’s definitely a long shot, it’s probably terrible, and it’s possibly suicidal. But if we’re about to burn to death anyway, I might as well go for it.
As Ichabot passes in front of me, I speak. “I don’t think…this is it.”
A grin splits Ichabot’s face, and he stops and turns to face me. “Oh? I am intrigued.”
“I’ve…almost died before. It…feels electric. I get…charged up when I know…it’s the end of the line.” My jaw is almost frozen in place again, but I have to get these words out. I have to get this message across to Regina. I press on, feeling like I’m speaking now through setting cement.
“But now…I…feel calm. Calm. This…will all…flow through. We….”
And that’s it. My jaw freezes in place, and I’m reduced to vowel sounds again. Ichabot regards me for another moment, amused, then shrugs.
“Well, while I certainly appreciate your never-ending optimism, Dan –”
And at exactly that moment, the lightning bolt spears down out of the sky. Everyone else is safely inside the lab, but I’m in the open doorway, a perfect target. It blasts into me, crackling every nerve ending in my body awake as it passes through.
And passes through it does. Because I am wearing my stupid homemade rubber boots, and because I have spent all of the day that I could remember focusing my nanos on rubber thoughts, increasing my insulating properties, the lightning does not ground out through me. Instead, it leaps along my outstretched arm, ripping out along the outstretched, blunted scalpel, and grounds itself through Ichabot.
He staggers, flailing, his arms and legs momentarily released from his control. He takes two fatal steps backwards and slips at the edge of the pit that’s been forming around Brian. For a split-second, he teeters on the edge, then falls over, slamming his full body into Brian on the landing.
I can’t see what happens then, but from the shriek that goes up from the pit, I can imagine. I try not to picture what Brian must be seeing, a man’s body boiling away in front of him. The shriek goes on for longer than I’d have imagined, before tapering off into a wet gurgle.
And suddenly I realize that my pain is fading and the room is growing dark at the edges. As I’m trying to figure out if the two are in some way connected, I pass out.