Decommission: Part 3

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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.

[ Next >]

Decommission: Part 2

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My eyes dart around the lab, seeking a place to hide, a weapon, or both. With Ichabot staring directly at me, a hiding place is probably a lost cause, but there are plenty of things around here to use as weapons. The lab is full of heavy throwable objects, breakable glass beakers, scalpels, syringes and more. I drop the computer mouse and make a quick move towards a scalpel, grabbing it and pointing it threateningly at Ichabot.

“Yeah, something came up and I wasn’t going to be able to make our meeting. You didn’t get my text?” I ask mockingly.

Ignoring the scalpel in my hand, Ichabot paces slowly into the lab, closing the distance between us. He looks over my shoulder, and I turn my head to follow his gaze. He’s caught sight of the monitor I’ve attached to the server rack, which is still displaying the contents of the file server. What he can’t see from his angle, though, is Doc Simmons crouched down behind a counter. She’s moving steadily towards the far edge, clearly aiming to keep the counter betweem them as he advances. I don’t know what her plan is, but any advantage right now is a good one, so I’ll back her play as much as I’m able.

“And now I find you going through my personal items. That’s very rude, Dan,” he chides.

“Well, you know. Couldn’t find paper and a pen anywhere and I wanted to write a ‘sorry I missed you’ note. I was gonna erase the whiteboard and write it there, but it looked like it might be important.”

Ichabot breaks into an insulting chuckle. “As if you can comprehend a single notation on there. You’re a toddler trying to read a graduate-school textbook.”

“I got the joke in your password hint pretty easily,” I tell him, gesturing to the computer and keeping his attention away from the doc’s hiding place. “And I figured out a way into your ‘secure’ system, too.”

“Very good!” exclaims Ichabot. “You’re right, I’ve underestimated you. You’re a kindergartener trying to read a graduate-school textbook.”

“Unkind,” I tell him, waving the scalpel. “And unwise. I’m armed, and you’re not. Seems like you might want to tone down the insults a shade.”

With my tiny sword held protectively before me, I advance slightly on Ichabot, circling around to his right so as to force him to turn his back to Doc Simmons. The maneuver works, although the intimidation seems to be failing. Ichabot turns to keep facing me, an amused smile on his lips.

“Or what, Dan? You’ll stab me? You’re not a killer. Besides, then how would you ever find out how to stop your friends from trying to murder you?”

“I’m already in your computer system. I can sort it out.” Doc Simmons is creeping up behind him now. I still don’t know what her plan is, but presumably it involves him not noticing her, so I’ve got to keep his attention. I decide to try a taunt. “You seem like the sort of guy who likes to leave copious notes so that history can understand how great you were. I bet it’s practically a step-by-step guide.”

“There’s that kindergarten can-do attitude again, Dan! I appreciate your optimism, I really do. Why, without –” Ichabot stops mid-sentence as Doc Simmons, rising silently up from behind him, stabs a syringe into his upper thigh. She presses down on the plunger, and I see liquid splash out in all directions. The doc pulls back the syringe, looking dismayed, and I can see that it no longer has a needle at its tip.

Before the doc can backpedal, Ichabot lashes out with one gangly arm and grabs her around the neck, hoisting her to her feet. “Really, this was your plan?” he says, addressing me even as Doc Simmons struggles in his grip. “You know my nanos are activated. You really should have assumed that I could dissolve would-be weapons on contact. You’ve watched Vincent do it, after all.”

He tightens his grip on the doc’s neck and, with only a small amount of apparent effort, lifts her off of the ground one-handed. “I’ve been testing the abilities on others, but I’ve been implementing them in myself. I’m really quite superhuman at this point.”

Ichabot grabs the doc’s right shoulder with his left hand and, in a movement almost too fast to follow, whips her over his head to hurtle against the metal roll-up door we crawled in under. Simmons barely has time to scream before impacting the door headfirst, denting it severely. She crashes to the floor in a crumpled heap and lies still.

“Doc!” I shout, rushing to her side. I kneel down and touch her neck for a pulse. My own heart is hammering so hard that at first I can’t find her heartbeat, but after a second I feel it beneath my fingers. There’s a clear red handprint around her throat from where Ichabot gripped her, and it’s already starting to bruise. Her breathing sounds okay, though, and her pulse is strong, so I’m guessing that she’s more or less all right.

Ichabot’s laughing, a hearty and sonorous sound which seems out of place coming from his matchstick frame. I look up in disbelief, and the expression of outrage on my face only makes him laugh harder.

“You should see yourself!” he manages between laughs. “Like a kicked puppy. You don’t get it at all!”

“Enlighten me,” I growl, rising to my feet.

“Oh, I’ll do one better,” says Ichabot, calming down. “I’ll show you, so that you can actually understand it.”

He rushes at me, covering the dozen feet between us in an eyeblink. Before I’ve even really processed that he’s in front of me, he has my head in both of his hands and is slamming it into the corrugated metal door repeatedly. My skull rings with the impacts, and the next thing I know I’m staring at the concrete floor from extremely close range, blood pooling gently beneath my face.

With a major effort, I push myself up to a kneeling position and look around. Ichabot is halfway across the room, reconnecting the monitor, keyboard and mouse to the computer I’d borrowed them from. He types something brief on the keys, then pauses.

This is it. He’s logged in. If I can just get him away from the computer somehow, even if it’s only for a second, maybe I can figure out what to do to shut everything down safely. The doc’s still down, though, apparently out for the count, and simply getting up to one knee took just about all I had left in me. I didn’t come this far to bail out now, though. I’ve got to make the effort.

I summon up my final reserves and, leaning heavily on a nearby shelf, manage to regain my bipedal status. The makeshift rubber shoes I still haven’t had a chance to take off might actually be helping me here, by giving me a broader base of support on each foot. I think it’s the first time they’ve been anything but a hindrance. Not the purpose I’d designed them for, but I’ll take it.

I do my best to strike a dramatic pose, despite how much everything hurts. Taking a deep breath, I point my scalpel at Ichabot and intone, “This ends now.”

“How right you are,” says Ichabot, typing in a swift command. Abruptly, every muscle in my body seizes up.

Think about a charley horse, or pointing your foot until it cramps up. This is like that: the same feeling of complete tension, the muscle becoming a rock-hard and unbending rod. Except instead of just being in my foot or calf, it’s everywhere, all at once. My feet, my legs, my back, my arms, even my jaw and eyelids. Everything locks up completely, radiating discomfort and pain. I’m frozen like a statue, scalpel extended, unable to move an inch.

“Bet you didn’t know I could do that!” says Ichabot. “It’s the same principle that allows the nanomachinery to augment your muscular strength, actually. In this case, rather than amplifying your muscle movements, I’ve seized them up entirely. So you see? It’s all over. The only question here is what to do with you.”

“I’ll kill you,” I say, or try to. Due to being unable to move my lips, jaw or tongue, what comes out is mainly vowels, sounding more like “Ah hih you.”

Ichabot seems to get the point, though, judging by the new bout of laughter that grips him. “Oh, really? How? Shall I come impale myself on the end of your scalpel?”

He walks over and presses the tip of his index finger against the scalpel blade, which dissolves. I’m left holding just the stainless steel handle. “Oops! Well, so much for that plan. I’m sure you’ll figure something else out.”

I glare at him, although this is largely a mental feat since even my eyes won’t move. Ichabot paces back and forth in front of me, tapping his long fingers together.

“So, how to get rid of you? I could just prop you in a corner, leave you like this until you die of thirst. It’s certainly a simple answer, although it lacks a certain elegance. Hm.”

Suddenly, the roll-up door behind me rattles. I try to turn to look, but of course it’s to no avail. I have a brief moment of hope that it’s someone here to help me, but no sooner has the thought flitted across my mind than it is banished as an animalistic howl sounds from outside. The howl is accompanied by a screech of metal and a crash of falling shelves the barely-opened door is grabbed and hurled upward along its track, opening the entire wall behind me. I’m facing the wrong direction to see for sure what’s going on, but from the howl and the brute strength I know what must be happening.

Peterson’s awake. And he’s right behind me.

“Ah!” exclaims Ichabot, a look of delight on his face. “Now here’s a nice solution. I could just let your friend take you apart!”

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 3

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At times like this, the mind’s supposed to focus. I should be searching for weaknesses, analyzing escape routes, figuring out how to survive. My mind did not get this memo. Peterson’s leaping toward me, arm cocked back to throw another punch, and the thought going through my head is, “If you’re a superhero armed with a pan, you could go by Pan Demic.” Useful, right?

I drop to my knees and Peterson’s punch swings overhead. He stumbles as he hits nothing but air, and I take the opportunity to scurry past him on all fours. As I go by, I lash out with a kick at the back of his knee, and it connects as he’s turning to follow me. He drops, and judging by the noise he bangs his head sharply into the metal stovetop as he falls. I still don’t have time to look back, though. I scramble to my feet and try to put some distance and heavy kitchen equipment between us.

Peterson roars in outrage, and through the wire mesh of a kitchen rack I see him regaining his feet. He hauls himself up by an oven handle, blood sheeting down his forehead. He swipes it away with one hand and, with a shriek of tearing metal, rips the oven door free and hurls it sideways at me. I don’t know if Peterson was big into discus in college or what, but he sure loves throwing things disc-style.

The oven door embeds itself in the rack separating us, smashing through jars and knocking rice, flour and spices into the air. Peterson’s already following in the door’s path, and where I ran around the racks and counters, it seems clear that he plans to go over and, where necessary, through. It’s a time-saving technique if you’ve got the strength to back it up, and he absolutely does. I, on the other hand, do not, so I sprint away again, my eyes on the door at the far end of the kitchen.

Two deafening crashes sound behind me in rapid succession, and I risk a look over my shoulder. From what I can tell, Peterson leaped onto the damaged rack, bearing it to the ground, and used it as a springboard to launch himself after me. That was the first crash.

The second happened when he landed from that leap, because when the rack toppled it scattered the contents that hadn’t already spilled, including what was left of a fifty-pound bag of rice. Peterson landed with both feet right in the middle of the rolling carpet of uncooked rice grains, with much the same effect as a cartoon character trying to run on marbles. I look back to see him on his back, caught up in another rack with pots and pans raining down around him; that was the second crash. His legs appear pretty well entangled in the lower shelves, but this is probably going to buy me a few seconds at most.

Fortunately, a couple of seconds is all I need. I’m nearly at the door exiting the kitchen, so I dig into my dwindling reserves of energy and slam into it at full speed. Doing so nearly dislocates my other shoulder, because the other chefs have been piling a barricade of tables up against the door. I’m lucky that it wasn’t particularly effective, since it allowed me to get out, but it also means that it won’t even really slow Peterson down.

There’s a crowd of diners gathered in addition to the cooks, but they all scatter like frightened birds as I burst into the room. A babbled mass of questions assaults me, but I ignore them all.

“Push the tables back!” I yell at the gaggle of people. A number of them start doing so as I frantically scan the area for my next move. My options appear to be up a flight of stairs or out the front door back into the streets. I’m likely to get cornered upstairs, but outside is just back on the long, straight streets, which is exactly the problem I had which ended me up in here.

A hand grabs my shoulder. “Where’s Emmanuel?”

“Who?” I almost strike out with my pan before I realize that it’s one of the cooks yelling at me, his hands shaking.

“Emmanuel! He was in there with you! Where is he?”

“Still in there! It’s fine, he’s after me!”

“You just left him?” His eyes widen at the idea that I would do such a thing, but before I can bring up the fact that he and his friends left us both in there, there’s a cacophonous  smash as Peterson hits the doors.  The table barricade is shoved several feet backward, causing the crowd to scream and scatter again, but it still manages to trap Peterson for a crucial second.

“Everton!” he howls, glimpsing me through the doors, and I turn to run again. I’m not sure if I consciously choose outside over upstairs or if the front doors are just what I see first, but that’s where my feet take me.

Amidst all of the screaming and incoherent yelling, I hear one of the cooks shout, “That’s our pan!” Apparently I’m not the only one whose brain focuses in on the wrong sorts of details in moments of crisis. Maybe it’s just something about this pan. Either way, it’s the only thing I’ve got going for me right now, and I’m not about to let it go.

I crash into one of the front doors, sending it flying open hard enough to crack the glass. I hurtle down the two cement steps to the sidewalk and take a hard right just as I’m about to smack into a parked car. I’m not more than five steps down the street before I hear the door slam open again, this time with a shattering noise suggesting that the glass has given out entirely. It’s immediately followed by a resounding metal thump, which is punctuated by a whooping car alarm. Peterson is hot on my tail, it seems, and a bit less graceful dismounting the steps.

Up ahead, I can see the alley I just escaped from coming up on my right, and I’m hit with an idea. I’m clearly doing better than Peterson on taking corners; the howl of the car alarm is evidence of that. And since he so conveniently tore the alley door off of the restaurant, I’ve now got a square spanning less than half a block that I can run in. If I duck down the alley again and take another lap through the restaurant, I might be able to gain enough distance to — I don’t know. I’ll cover that part of the plan when I get there. At least I’ll be staying out of his hands, which buys me more time to figure something out.

This plan rapidly downgrades from “acceptable” to “utter idiocy” when I round the corner into the alley and realize it’s littered with trash cans. Which I threw there, in an attempt to impede Peterson. Less than two minutes ago. They’ve been very active and terrifying minutes, but still. I could have remembered that I left the alley in a rather different state than I found it. Come to think of it, sprinting through the kitchen with all of that rice on the floor probably isn’t the best idea, either. Plus the cooks are probably all back in the kitchen helping Emmanuel up, and therefore adding even more obstacles. Basically, this was a terrible idea from start to finish.

I twist away from the alley and attempt to continue up the street, but my stutter-step has given Peterson the time he needs to finally get within arm’s reach of me. I feel his fingers closing on my left arm, and when I try to pull away, my damaged shoulder explodes in pain.

Caught, I wheel around, striking out with the pan in a wild swing. It connects solidly, caroming off of Peterson’s shoulder and cracking him in the jaw. He snarls, spits blood and lands a hit in the center of my chest that’s so powerful that I swear it actually lifts me off of the ground before slamming me back into the car parked several feet away.

Glass crunches and a new alarm wails on impact, and now I’m the one spitting blood from where I bit my tongue. Before I can move away, Peterson’s on me, pummeling me back against the car with hit after punishing hit. I can’t fight back; I’ve dropped my pan somewhere and it’s all I can do to curl up and try to protect my more vulnerable areas. With all the injuries I’ve been accumulating, though, there are a lot of vulnerable areas, and Peterson’s creating more with every hit.

Abruptly, Peterson lets out a startled yelp, and the hits stop. I slump to the ground, throbbing with pain. I’m not sure what’s stopped him, but whatever it is, I’m glad for it.

Peterson takes a step away from me, and almost buried under the sound of the rain and the car alarms I hear a whispered whuf!, matched by a curse from Peterson.

“You…don’t…” he says thickly, his words slurred. Another barely-heard whuf! interrupts his sentence, and he staggers. He takes an uncertain step toward the road, then one back toward me. He teeters, sits down heavily on the sidewalk, and then slumps over uncomfortably on one side. Rain runs down his face and begins to collect in his half-open mouth.

Painfully, I lever myself off of the ground, leaning heavily on the car as I go. Everything hurts. It hurts even to breathe. I make it to a standing position and turn around to see a car idling in the road, its passenger window open. Strapped into the seat is an oxygen cylinder with a metal tube attached to the top, pointing out the window at me. Leaning over the cylinder and looking skeptically at me from the driver’s seat is Doc Simmons.

I gape at her open-mouthed. I can’t imagine how she got here, how she knew to be here, or really anything about this. I try to formulate the questions out loud, but it just comes out as, “Guh?”

“Get in the car, Dan,” says Doc Simmons. I don’t have a better idea, so with a cautious look back to make sure that Peterson is still down for the count, I slowly shamble to the car and open the door.

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 2

[< Previous ]

I can hear Peterson panting behind me, closing the distance with every step. This isn’t a surprise, despite my efforts to tell myself that I could outrun him. He’s fueled by rage and nanomachinery, while I’m nursing two dozen different injuries and have rubber floor mats tied to my feet. I wish I’d taken the time to remove them after Regina went her own way, but like the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I could do with a horse right now. Heck, I’d settle for a beggar. I could push him in Peterson’s way and make my escape. I’m not proud.

Since I don’t have either a horse or a beggar, though, the whole question’s academic. Right now, my options are limited. I can keep going straight until Peterson catches up to me, or I can dodge off to one side and hope to lose him down an alleyway. I’m not totally sure how I’m going to lose him down an alleyway, since the alleys here are broad and straight, but since he’s definitely going to catch me on the straightaway I might as well give it a shot.

I can’t look back to see how close Peterson is. It’s taking all of my concentration just to keep from tripping over my makeshift shoes as I run. If I try to look over my shoulder, it’s basically guaranteed that I’ll end up sprawling right on my face. Through the rain, I can see an alley up ahead, but I have no idea if he’s close enough to grab me when I slow down to make the turn.

There’s a NO PARKING sign on a pole near the mouth of the alley, and as soon as I spot it, a plan leaps into my mind fully formed. I’ll dodge to the right just as I approach the sign, drawing Peterson that way. Then, as I’m passing the sign, I’ll shoot out my arm, grab the post and use my momentum to swing myself into a ninety-degree turn and sprint off down the alley. I’ll be able to keep going full speed while Peterson ends up overshooting and having to reverse direction.

This is how it all looks in my head. The reality, unfortunately, is somewhat messier. Here’s the way it actually goes down: as I’m coming up on the signpost, I juke right. I catch a glimpse of Peterson over my shoulder as I turn. He’s uncomfortably close, almost in arm’s reach, and I see him scrambling to readjust his direction on the rain-slick pavement to match my maneuver. So far, so good.

I snap my left arm out to snag the pole, and that’s where things go wrong. First of all, it turns out that when you suddenly hang your entire body weight off of one joint, it hurts. There’s a sharp wrenching sensation from my shoulder as my body whips around. I do manage to reorient toward the alley, though, so at least the basic idea works.

But it’s not just physics that’s conspiring against me. The pole I’m swinging myself around isn’t a nice smooth pole like you’d see on a playground. It’s one of those half-a-hexagon metal structures with rows of holes all the way down. They’re standard issue for most roadside signs, so they’re probably very strong and cheap to make, I assume. All I can really say for sure is that they’re not designed for swinging.

When I grab the pole, the tip of my index finger slides into one of those holes. Before I even notice it’s happened, I’m airborne and slinging myself around the pole. This twists the top joint of my finger painfully, trapping it — and by extension, me.

If I had time to reverse direction and circle back around, I’m sure my finger would just pop free the way it went in, probably slightly swollen but otherwise none the worse for wear. But although Peterson bought my feint and has lunged in the wrong direction, I haven’t bought nearly enough space for that. So instead, I do the only thing I can: I grit my teeth and yank my hand free.

There’s an audible pop and a cataclysmic flare of pain from my finger, and for an instant I’m certain that I’ve torn off the tip of my finger. I grab the outstretched finger in my other hand, which helps the pain somehow. I chance a look at it, and although it’s covered in blood, everything appears to still be attached. More or less, anyway. The nail is hanging half-off, a great flap of skin is dangling loosely and the whole joint appears to be at a new and unpleasant angle, but I’ll take it. I’m free, I still have my finger, and despite everything I’ve managed to make the turn into the alley without breaking my stride.

Large plastic trash cans line one wall of the alley, and I grab for their handles as I run past. Some overturn and some merely roll away from the wall, but either way they’re creating a more complicated path behind me, which is my aim. I don’t know how much it’ll slow Peterson down, but anything is worth a try right now.

You know how some alleys go through to other places? This isn’t one of those alleys. This is the kind that dead-ends into the side of a building, forming an urban box canyon. Thanks to the heavy rain, I don’t see this until I’m well into the alley. There’s no convenient fence to climb, no window to wriggle through. There are some fire escapes several feet above my head, but there’s no real chance that I can jump high enough to catch one, and judging by Peterson’s leap onto the car roof earlier, there’s every reason to believe that he could follow me up.

All that I have on my level are four unmarked metal doors, which are undoubtedly locked. I try the first one just in case, but as expected, it doesn’t budge. I’m out of options, though, so I start hammering on the door with both fists. Every impact causes a new flash of pain from my broken finger, but I need to be heard. Peterson’s thrashing his way through the trash cans, and I’ve only got seconds before he gets to me.

There’s a guttural snarl, and I hit the ground as a trashcan comes flipping end over end at me, trash spewing everywhere. The lid clips me on the way by, but I’m otherwise unscathed. Judging by the abrupt thud, the can makes it all the way to the far wall, but I can’t take the time to track its path. There’s already another trashcan hurtling toward me. Peterson is snatching them up one-handed and hurling them overhand at me as he lurches down the alley.

Suddenly, one of the doors swings open. A heavyset man in a dingy apron peers out into the alley. “Jus’ what is go — oof!”

The “oof” is because I’ve just driven my shoulder into his stomach, folding him over my back as I barge my way through the door. He topples backward into the kitchen, landing heavily on his back, and I spin around, grabbing wildly for the door handle and pulling it shut behind us.

Several other aproned men stare at me in shock. “I need something heavy to shove in front of this door!” I shout. They all just blink at me.

“Now!” I add. Still nothing. I might as well be looking at a display of mannequins. Frustrated, I grab a nearby rack and pull on it. It’s bolted down, and I succeed only in drawing fresh agony from my left shoulder and index finger.

On the floor in front of me, the man I’ve assaulted gets to his feet. He’s understandably angry. Sticking a finger in my face, he demands, “I wan’ you to –”

He’s cut off by a chilling howl from outside, an animal cry of challenge. Immediately after that, the whole door shudders in its frame, there’s a sound of metal pinging on asphalt, and then the doorknob on the inside clatters to the ground.

“What was that?” asks one of the other cooks, who doesn’t have a good view of what just happened.

“He just tore the doorknob off trying to open the door. Something heavy! Now!”

The door shakes in its frame, and then two hairy fingers appear in the hole where the doorknob was. The kitchen fills with a nails-on-chalkboard screeching, the sound of metal under stress, as Peterson hauls with all of his might and the lock begins to bend.

The cook I hit looks at me, white-faced, then runs over to the door. He grabs a pan on his way and swings mightily at the two exposed fingers, slamming the pan down with a metallic crash. There’s an almost catlike shriek from outside, but instead of forcing Peterson to withdraw his fingers, the pain appears to have given him an adrenaline surge. The door suddenly rips open and the poor cook is left face-to-face with the half-ape thing that Peterson is becoming.

From inches away, Peterson bares his teeth and snarls. The cook in front of him is frozen in place; the others are all shouting and fleeing the kitchen. And despite my earlier claim, apparently I would not push a beggar in front of Peterson to effect my escape, because instead of doing the intelligent thing and running, I charge in and shove the cook off to the side. He crashes into a rack full of cooking implements, but before I can see if he’s all right, Peterson swings a huge right fist and catches me in the side of the head.

My head snaps around and I’m sent reeling backwards. Stars explode in my vision and for a moment, everything is either black or bursts of light. I slam painfully into a counter, catching the edge right in my lower ribs on my left side. It drives the wind out of me, and I’m fairly certain I hear something snap.

There’s no time to worry about that right now, though. That was only Peterson’s first punch, and he’s out to kill. Gasping for breath, I grab the nearest kitchen implement I can reach — a pan — and prepare to do battle.

[ Next >]

Impact: Part 1

[< Previous ]

The world twirls sickeningly around me as I fight to regain control of the car. Buildings, parked cars and street lights whip past from right to left, a sped-up panoramic view. I’m momentarily blinded by the headlight of the car that hit me before that’s gone too, the skid continuing while I frantically twist the wheel to no avail. I know you’re supposed to turn into a skid, but this seems a little more extreme than that. Do I hit the brakes? Should I stomp the gas and hope it sorts itself out? Does the doc’s car have rear-wheel drive, and is that even a thing I’d want right now?

All of these thoughts clamor for attention in the second that it takes the car to do a complete 360 degree spin, jump the curb and slam broadside into a building. I’m thrown violently toward the passenger’s side of the car, my seatbelt catching me with bruising force even as the airbag pummels me backward into my seat. Glass shatters as the world slams to a halt.

Shocked and dazed, my first thought as the airbag subsides is, “Did the rain get hot?” Almost immediately, I realize that no, that’s steam rising from the front of the car. The hood is bent into a mountainous fold on the far side, both windows over there are smashed in, and the sideview mirror is lying on the seat next to me, having been somehow driven through the window in the crash. The frame bends ominously inward, and it’s clear that those doors won’t open, but fortunately we impacted on the passenger’s side and my side’s pretty much fine.

In fact, I’ve come through this pretty much okay entirely, for once. I’m probably going to have a nice diagonal bruise across my chest and my brain’s a bit rattled, but I’m physically doing well. At least, until Doc Simmons kills me for wrecking her car.

This thought kicks my survival instinct back into gear, and I immediately begin fumbling for my seatbelt release. I’d be an idiot to believe that this was unintentional, which means I need to get out of the car before I get trapped in there by whoever did this. My initial thought is that my bluff has not worked and Ichabot has rammed me, but even as I’m opening the door this idea is falling apart. I’m still something like a mile away from his lab, so how would he know how to find me? Also, he doesn’t seem like the sort to take things into his own hands when he doesn’t have to, so ramming another car doesn’t seem like his style.

The hail has mercifully stopped, but it’s still sheeting rain. When I open the door, I’m instantly re-soaked, negating any warmth I’d managed to gather while in the car. I stumble onto the pavement and look up to see a familiar figure advancing on me, hunched over against the rain.

“Peterson?!” I exclaim, backing up rapidly. It’s hard to see him clearly through the rain, but he looks pretty angry. Also, he just hit me with his car, so that’s a pretty good hint. I scurry behind the open door of the doc’s car, holding it as a flimsy shield against him.

“Everton!” Peterson’s usually even voice is a growl, and his hands are balled into fists. “You vermin. Wrecker! Can’t you go one single day without burning something down or blowing something up?”

As he approaches, I start to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. He’s hunched over, yes, but not just against the rain: his back looks slightly curved. His brow is slightly more prominent than when I last saw him, too, and his jacket is split at both shoulders. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in days, which I know isn’t the case because I saw him this morning. Also, he’s got some significant hair growth on the backs of his hands.

I’ve seen this before. Back when this all started, when I was just manning the night desk at the museum and didn’t have a care in the world. Then some ape-man tore the huge metal door off of its hinges and hurled it at me, giving me my violent and unpleasant introduction to the world of superpowers and the life of a superhero.

That guy, Aaron Lovell, was clearly much farther along than Peterson is. Peterson still looks human, whereas that guy just looked like Bigfoot, not a trace of humanity left. Also, he either couldn’t or didn’t talk anymore. Peterson may be about to kill me, but he’s still able to tell me why. And in a weird way, this is a relief, because the transformation that the nanobots put Aaron Lovell through killed him. They twisted his body too hard, too fast, and his internal systems just couldn’t keep up.

Peterson’s not nearly that far along yet, which hopefully means there’s still time to reverse this. Just one more timer on the desperate countdown to stop Ichabot.

As a further indication that he’s not fully gone yet, Peterson slows and comes to a stop on the far side of the door I’m hiding behind. He leans on the car in a forced mockery of casual behavior.

“There is a building on fire,” he says, gritting out the words, “and if it weren’t for the fact that I recognize the address, you would already be dead. But I will give you exactly one chance to tell me that you have a plan. If it has a chance of working, I will let you implement it. Otherwise, I will rip you apart right here and fix this torn spot where I can feel you in my mind.”

Peterson finishes this quietly menacing speech with a grimace of pain, and I hear the seams in his jacket split farther apart as the nanos continue to forcibly reconstruct his body. He bares his teeth at me, and I struggle for an answer.

“I have a plan,” I say, which feels like a pretty solid beginning. “I — hey, if I tell you, how do I know you won’t tell Ichabot? I need the element of surprise.”

In response, Peterson reaches inside his jacket and draws out his cellphone. While making eye contact with me, he crushes the phone in one fist, simply drawing his fingers together while the phone crumples and shatters like it’s in a trash compactor. He opens his hand and the battered pieces rain to the pavement.

I swallow hard and continue. “Okay. Right. I’ve tricked him into leaving his lab, and I’m going to sneak in while he’s gone and shut everything down. Simple plan. No moving parts. Hard to screw up. Right?”

Peterson stares me down until I stop talking, then lets the silence stretch on a few beats longer. Finally, he shakes his head.

“No good. I don’t trust the basic assumption — that you’ve tricked Amun. I’m ending this.”

He takes a step toward me, and I do the only thing I can think of to do: I slam the open car door into him. It’s like hitting a cement post. He doesn’t even move, and the door rebounds hard enough that my wrists ache.

Peterson stares at me, then grasps the door by the top and side and wrenches it completely off of the car, letting out a bestial roar as he does so. He swipes at me with it, but I leap backwards, sliding over the hood so that the bulk of the car is between us. He circles around toward me, and I scramble up the rainy surface, finding purchase on the bent metal as I scurry onto the roof. From here, I’ve got the most options for avenues of escape.

“You can help me!” I shout back, gaining my footing on the roof. “We can stop him!”

“Ending! This!” shouts Peterson, punctuating each word with a swipe at my feet with the car door. I shrink back against the building, trying to decide which way to run. The choice is made for me when Peterson crouches and leaps onto the roof of the car with me, slashing with the car door as he lands. I duck to avoid it, slipping and slithering off the back of the car as I do so. With my choice made for me, I land on my feet, briefly stumble to all fours and take off running back the way I came.

I hear another roar behind me, and on instinct I duck, tripping myself and rolling painfully across the sidewalk. The car door sails over my head as I tumble, clattering to the ground like a deadly discus another ten yards ahead. People shout in surprise and fear, and only now do I realize that a small crowd has been gathering in doorways to watch us. The city’s going to have a rough time keeping this one under wraps. Just one more thing for Peterson to be furious with me about, I suppose.

I regain my feet and continue running. I’m sure he’s close behind me, but I can only hope that his partial transformation has slowed him down. It certainly didn’t seem to impede him in his jump onto the car, but I need to tell myself something so I can believe that this situation isn’t totally hopeless.

I reach the car door and leap over it. The doc really is going to kill me. I just hope I live long enough for her to take a shot at it.

[ Next >]

Escape: Part 3

[< Previous ]

Entertainingly, my very first thought is, “I should call 911!”  This despite the fact that I’ve spent all afternoon trying to avoid the police.  It’s hard to break a lifetime of ingrained habits.

I search frantically for a better plan, but the best that my brain can conjure up is apparently “Stall.”  That’s pretty much the mental equivalent of a “Please wait, loading…” screen.  Still, if it’s all I’ve got, then I’ll work with it.

I figure that the first move in any successful stall is to get the other guy talking, so I ask the first question that comes into my mind.  “How did you find me?  Did you figure that I’d think that the police wouldn’t think to look for me here, since I obviously wouldn’t go to the most obvious place?”

Vince, still in the ruined doorway, tilts his head to the side quizzically as he looks at me.  “Did that make sense in your diseased brain?”

He steps inside, and I stand up from the chair and retreat as he advances on me slowly.  “I found you,” he says through gritted teeth, “because you feel like a tear in a map in my brain.  It doesn’t matter where I’m looking, where I’m thinking about going.  My eyes are drawn to that ripped spot every time.  I couldn’t not know how to get to you if I wanted to.”

Vince’s mood seems to have dramatically worsened since his arrival.  At least when he kicked down the door, he was faking humor.  Now he has his teeth bared like some sort of feral animal, and from the look in his eyes I really can’t be sure that he won’t try to attack me like one, too.  I recall my attempts to talk to Brian while he was in the grips of the nano-inspired hatred, and how the very sound of my voice drove him into a rage.  This is probably not a situation that can be improved by conversation, then.

My eyes flicker to the kitchen doorway, measuring the distance.  As if this is a prearranged signal, all three Vinces lunge at me.  Their movements are almost perfectly synchronized, which is unsurprising since they think almost exactly alike.  The only thing that saves me from being immediately caught is that since they all came to the same idea independently, they all rush the same spot instead of fanning out.  This allows me to stay one step ahead of their grasping hands as I sprint into the kitchen.

Never before in my life have I cared about interior doors, but now I find myself cursing their lack.  I tear open the door to the refrigerator as I run past, hoping to slow down my pursuers, and a slam behind me tells me both that I was successful, and that they’re right on my heels.  With my left hand, I snag a chair from the table and turn my run into a spin, swinging the chair in a wide arc around me.

I almost hit the wall, which would have been a fatal mistake since one of the Vinces is nearly upon me.  Fortunately, I miss it by inches and slam the edge of the chair’s seat directly into the side of his face.  Blood spatters, two of the chair legs crack and fly off, and Vince grunts and careens off into the table, smacking his face into it before hitting the ground heavily.

“Back!” I shout, brandishing the shattered chair at the next Vince, but he grins nastily and doesn’t even slow his charge until he collides with the chair.  I’m knocked back by the impact, so I take an extra step back and swing the chair again, crashing it into Vince’s shoulder and head.

I see his skin briefly torn by the impact, only to immediately knit itself back together.  The chair, meanwhile, loses another leg and part of the seat, and this time it’s not entirely due to the impact.  Vince has stolen pieces of its material to rebuild his own body.  For the same reason the police couldn’t fight him with their batons, I’m not going to be able to do any damage with this chair.  And in the time it took me to try, his other clone has shouldered past him and is coming at me, fists up in a boxer’s stance.

I throw the chair at the clone on the grounds that maybe it’ll do some good and run for the hallway.  I reach my bedroom ahead of my pursuers, slam and lock the door, and knock my wooden dresser over in front of it for good measure.  The drawers jar open and spill their contents onto the floor.

From the other side of the door comes Vince’s mocking voice.  “I just broke down your front door, spitrag.  You think this can stop me?”

“Why are you after me?” I shout, looking frantically around my room for anything useful.  I don’t see anything immediately likely to get me out of this situation.

“To kill you!” shouts Vince.  This is punctuated by a thump that rattles the door, but it’s a solid oak door and might actually be stronger than the front door.  It should hold him long enough for me to come up with some sort of a plan, anyway.

“I can tell you who did this to you.  I can tell you where to find him!  He can stop it!”

“I like what he did to me, moron.  I love this!  The only part that’s bad about it is having to feel your festering pus-wound of a life.  And I can fix that myself.”

My search for useful items has led me to the attached bathroom.  The cabinet under the sink has a bunch of different cleaning chemicals, and it seems like I should be able to do some damage with those.  Even if he can heal it, I might be able to blind him for a second or something, long enough to get past.  I sweep them all up in my arms and head back into the main part of the bedroom.

A faint scratching noise snaps my eyes to the fallen dresser.  I see grasping fingers on top of it and at first, I think someone trying to climb out from underneath it.  Seconds later, I realize the truth is much worse.

Vince, on the far side of the door, is converting the door into a mass of animated flesh, foregoing the complete cloning process in order to make a Lovecraftian puddle of semi-sentient limbs and organs.  Not only is that horrifying and potentially dangerous, it’s also stealing away the material of the door at a concerning rate.  Vince doesn’t have to break the door down if he just converts it.  I look frantically around the room, at my spilled clothes and my armload of chemicals, but nothing seems to offer a way out.  The pool of flesh is creeping up the sides of the door, turning the frame into fingers, eyeballs and the occasional tongue.

“I’ll be in there in a minute, Dan!” Vince calls in a sing-song voice.  “I’ve got all of the exits blocked.”

I rush to the window, and sure enough, Vince is on my back lawn.  Is this one of the ones who was at the front door with him?  Are there more that I hadn’t seen?  Even if it’s just one of him, he’s a better fighter than I am and he’s obviously prepared for me.

“There’s no way out but past me.  Might as well take it like a man, you worm.”

Suddenly, an idea occurs to me.  It’s stupid and possibly suicidal, but it might create enough confusion for me to slip by.  Rushing to the bed, I place both hands on the comforter and focus on intensifying.

“Uuuuuuuuup!” I chant, clutching the comforter in my fists and raising it into the air.  The material smolders, then bursts into flames.  Thick smoke begins to rise from the bed.  I cough and retreat to the bathroom, returning with a wet washcloth held to my face.

The bed is blazing merrily now and smoke is filling the room.  I crouch low to the floor and pour all of the bathroom chemicals into the largest jug among them, a multi-gallon container of Clorox bleach.  I don’t know if it’ll explode or what, but I cap it, put it on the dresser by the door and hope for some sort of a distraction.

“Why do I smell smoke, Dan?  What nasty little trick are you trying?”  Vince kicks at the door and, weakened by the structural damage it’s taken, the door pops open.  He kicks again, shoving the dresser a few inches backwards.  The smoke rushes out of the room and I hear him cough.  This is probably about as good a moment as I’m going to get.

Washcloth still pressed to my mouth and nose, I crawl over to the door, grab the jug of bathroom chemicals and crouch by the entrance.  As Vince kicks it again, shoving the dresser far enough back for him to enter, I pop the cap on the jug and squeeze it as hard as I can.  Thick white vapor billows out along with a gout of liquid, and Vince screams, coughs violently and staggers backwards.

I leap from my crouch into the hallway, slamming my shoulder into Vince and knocking him off of his feet.  He grabs at my ankle as I run past, so I chuck the bleach jug at his face.  He pulls his hands up to protect himself and I’m running free.

The smoke alarm goes off as I make it to the kitchen, and once again my brain kicks in with, “Call 911!”  Not helpful.

I’m heading for the front door and feeling like I might be home free, when Vince suddenly steps into the door frame.  This isn’t the original, though, which means he’ll take damage.  He steps in to punch at me, but I’m riding high on adrenaline and duck under it.  He manages an elbow to the back of my head, and I see stars as I drop to one knee.  But even as he’s closing in with a kick, I rise back up, putting the full force of my body into an uppercut that smashes him full in the face.  Now Vince is the one on the ground, and my kick to his head is successful.

I’d love to take a moment to catch my breath, but the fire alarm is still shrieking, original Vince is probably back up by now and there could be who-knows-how-many more clones waiting for me.  I stagger out into the street, coughing, and pick a direction to start running again.

[ Next >]


Rescue: Part 4

[< Previous ]

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?”

“I didn’t.”

“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.

[ Next >]

Rescue: Part 3

[< Previous ]

For a split second, the dust-covered hand sticks out alone, a wall-hanging put up by someone with a morbid sense of humor.  Then the drywall around it begins to melt away like plastic held up to a blowtorch, disappearing rapidly in all directions.  Metallic clangs ring out as half-dissolved shelves fall to the ground before vanishing in their own turn.

Within seconds, the hole is big enough to admit an entire person.  Striding out of the gloom comes Brian, a murderous look on his face.  His shoulders are hunched, his forehead lowered, and his teeth bared behind a snarl big enough to cause him to drool slightly.

However, the very first thing I notice about Brian is that he’s completely naked.  From head to toe, he doesn’t have a stitch of clothing on.  The nanos coat his entire body, giving him a sheen that shimmers slightly in the beams of our flashlights.  I’ve seen this on my own hands when Dr. A drove me to my wit’s end, but this is far more extreme.

“All you had to do!” Brian shouts, stalking toward me one deliberate step at a time.  “Was find!  Dr. A!”  His breath is coming in short pants, his nostrils flaring with each inhalation.  His hands clench into fists over and over again, hard enough that I can hear the knuckles popping in one of them.  The silvery nanos drip off of his hands, eating small holes in the carpet where they land.

He steadily closes the distance with a strange bobbing walk, and after a few steps I realize why.  With each step, the floor beneath him is dissolving, lowering him gently through the carpet, thin padding and cement with equal ease.  Small craters, still slowly expanding, mark the path he’s taken so far.

Brian’s still drawing closer.  “You know what this does to people, you imbecile.  You know!  And yet you came here!  You did this to me!  Look at me!”  He gestures violently at himself, and I suddenly realize that he’s only a few steps away from being able to touch me.

I jump backwards, hands up in a placating gesture.  “It’s cool, man.  I’ll leave.”

Brian snarls without words and spits on the ground, still advancing as I retreat.  Regina steps forward, fear and concern in her eyes, and puts herself between the two of us.

“Brian, stop!” she pleads.  “You know Dan’s your friend.  You’re better than this.”

Brian stops and stares her dead in the eyes.  “You?” he asks incredulously.  “You of all people?  You’d stand here and tell me just to resist this, to out-think it?”

“Yes, me.  You can beat this!”

“I recall a city-swamping storm.  Lightning drawn down, incautious of bystanders.  A museum in wreckage.  All of this spanning days, weeks because you knew, like an itch on your brain itself, that HE was out there!”

Throughout this speech, Brian has been sinking slowly into the floor.  Stepping up almost a foot to get out of the holes he’s creating, he resumes his advance.

“Bri, please, stop.  You’re right.  I know exactly how this feels.  That’s why I can help you.  And we’re going to, I promise.  We’re going to help you.”

“Regina,” I caution.

Brian growls deep in his throat.  “Don’t you even say her name.  I won’t hear you corrupt it.”

I reach for Regina’s arm to pull her back with me, but she shakes off my grip.

“Brian, come on.  Come with me.  Doc Simmons has sedatives.  We’re gonna get this under control.”

He shakes his head, then again violently, as if trying to shake it clean.  “No.  No!  There are two ways to control this.  He could have found the cause.  I wanted to do it that way, you know?  I tried.  I tried so hard.

“But now he’s here, and we’re doing it the other way.  This all stops when I wipe the Earth of your disgusting presence.  Dan.”  He spits my name like a curse, steps out of the new holes he’s standing in, and starts forward once more.  Regina is now only a few feet from him, but his eyes are fixed over her shoulder on me.

“Get out of my way, Regina,” he says, but she shakes her head and reaches out a hand.  I make a strangled noise in my throat, afraid to say anything that’ll set Brian off.

“Please, Bri?” asks Regina.

Brian makes an incoherent noise, halfway between a sob and a shout, and tears a piece of metal shelving from the wall.  He juggles it briefly as it immediately begins to dissolve in his hands, catches it in a temporarily solid grip and swings it like a bat at Regina.

The makeshift weapon slams into her shoulder, driving her into the wall.  She hits the shelves with a cry and stumbles to her knees.  The shelf falls from Brian’s hands, fist-sized holes rapidly expanding through it from where he grasped it.

Brian points at Regina, looking at me again.  “Look what you made me do!  You ruin things.  You ruin everything!”

I want to help Regina, but backing up seems the most prudent action at this point.  It draws Brian away from her, which honestly seems to be the most helpful thing I can do right now.

Weighing my options briefly, I decide to risk his further ire by talking, just to keep his attention on me.  “C’mon, man.  That’s the nanos talking.  You don’t want to do this.”

“Is it?  Dan?”  He uses my name as an epithet again.  “Is it really?  How good a friend are you?  How good a person are you?”

He advances relentlessly, and I back up to keep pace.  I don’t have too many more steps to go until I’m up against the back wall of the store, and I definitely need to turn before that happens.

“Dude, you’re my best friend.”

“Yeah.  I am.  And what do I get out of it?  Danger.  Pain.  Physical damage.  Mental anguish.  LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW!” he roars.  “You!  This is because of you!  You use people!  You wad them up and throw them away like they’re garbage, but it’s you!  You’re the trash!  You’re the filth!”

With eyes wide and spittle flying from his mouth as he delivers this diatribe, Brian’s attention is completely on me.  At this moment, Doc Simmons steps from one of the aisles behind Brian, a syringe in her hand, and in one smooth motion jabs it into his neck and depresses the plunger.

Brian roars, and for one moment, I think that it’s worked.  Then I see the liquid sheeting briefly down his neck and shoulder before being consumed by the ravenous nanos, even as the doc drops the disintegrating syringe.

The doc has immediately started moving away again, but Brian lashes out with a backhanded blow and catches her across the chest with his bare arm.  I cry out, “No!” as the nanos set in, but the doc is already tearing off her coat and throwing it away from her.  It falls to the ground as a ragged scrap of fabric, but as far as I can tell she got it off before anything spread.

“You see?” growls Brian, turning back to me.  “Everyone!  You put everyone in harm’s way, while you just watch and let it happen.  This ends now!”

On that final word, he lurches into a run, and I abandon backing up in favor of an all-out sprint away.  I skid around the corner and turn up another aisle, heading back for the front of the store in an effort to get out of this dark and maze-like shop.  Behind me, I hear a crash and risk a look back.

Brian has stumbled while running and fallen into a shelf, which is collapsing around him.  Judging by the enraged shouting, he’s not hurt, just entangled, but it’s bought me a bit more of a lead.

Probably I should take advantage of this to get to the open atrium of the mall, but I really don’t want to leave Regina and Doc Simmons in here with Brian.  No matter what he’s said, I don’t just use people.  I don’t.

So instead of making my escape, I double back toward Brian.  I duck low as I go, running my hand along the main piece of the shelving unit as I go.  I can feel the metal pulling away from my fingers, a crawling sensation, and by the time I’m halfway down the aisle I can hear the creak of the shelf starting to give way.

Brian’s nearly free of the shelf that’s fallen on him now, and is laying in a pit almost two feet deep.  As the shelf behind me collapses, I break into a full run and leap over the pit.  Brian springs up to try to grab me, and is hit by the falling shelf and driven back into the deepening pit.

I land on the far side and stumble.  My moment of triumph changes quickly to horror as I feel my right shoe eroding beneath me.  Brian must have gotten a hand on me on the way by!  In a panic, I stomp on my heel with my other foot and kick my shoe off, sending it flying.  In an utter coincidence, just as Brian is raising his head from the wreckage of the latest shelf, the steel-toed boot strikes him directly in the face, snapping his head back and knocking him over with a crash.

Still panicked, I shine my flashlight on my foot, but see no sign that the nanos made it through, or transferred to my other shoe.  I take in a deep, shaky breath and step carefully toward Brian, who’s currently lying on a pile of rubble.  The whole pile is shifting and collapsing beneath him as the nanos disintegrate it, and I can’t tell if Brian is moving or not.

Shining my light on him, I see no signs of direct movement.  “Doc, where are those –” I begin, but my question is cut off by a scream of rage from Brian.  He sits up, bleeding from the nose and with a black eye already forming, and whips his hand at me like he’s snapping an invisible towel.  A spray of nanos flies off and strikes me, hitting my shirt, my pants, and worst of all, directly landing on my exposed hands and face.

It feels like being branded.  I scream as points of bloody pain erupt all over my body.

[ Next >]

Advancement: Part 5

[< Previous ]

Regina floors the gas pedal, but the man in the black car matches her speed and stays even with us.  The green car is still following right behind us, so we can’t slam on the brakes and hope to make him overshoot; even if we didn’t end up getting rear-ended, we’d still be trapped in between the two cars afterward.

The driver next to us points the gun more precisely, no longer just waving it at us.  His window begins to roll down, clearing his shot.

“What do I do?” shouts Regina, her hands locked in a death grip on the steering wheel.

“Bump him!” I say, having been able to get a much longer look into the car than Regina.  “He’s got both hands off of the wheel right now.”

Regina shoots me a look of terror, but pulls the wheel to the left.  The car veers, and there’s a jolt and a tinkling of glass as our headlights smash together.  The black car swings wildly off to the side, and I can see the driver drop his gun as he scrambles to get it back under control.  There’s a sound of metal tearing as he sideswipes a parked car, and I see what looks like a sideview mirror tumbling in the street behind us before it’s crushed by the green car.

Regina’s hyperventilating, which is more than reasonable in the circumstances, but she’s still speeding along and that’s the important thing.  I dig my phone out of my pocket to call 911.  After a brief pause, they pick up.

“911.  Police, fire or ambulance?”

“Um — police.  Police!”

“What is your emergency?”

“We’re on the road and someone is trying to kill us!  He’s got a gun and he’s ramming us with his car!”  Technically, we rammed him, but I don’t feel bad about stretching the truth here.  I think we really just beat him to the punch.

“Okay, sir, where are you?”

“I have no idea!  We’re on some side street.  The road signs are going by kind of fast!  Can’t you get this from my cell phone?”

There’s the roaring of an engine as the black car surges up beside us again.  The driver, now with one hand on the wheel, has his window down and the gun pointed at us.  “Regina, hit the brakes!” I yell, and she does just as the gun goes off.  Her window and mine both shatter as the bullet whizzes through the car, and then we’re rocked from behind as the green car tailing us slams into our rear end.

“Go, go, go!” I shout unnecessarily, as Regina is already standing on the gas again.

“Sir, are you all right?  Can you tell me what’s happening?” says my phone.

“A man is shooting at us with his gun, and we just got rammed again!  No, we’re not all right!  Regina, see if you can get back to the main streets.  They might back off there.”

The 911 operator sounds alarmed.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea!  Going to the main streets may just escalate the situation.”

“It’s feeling pretty escalated right now!” I shout, crashing against Regina as she swings the car in a hard right in an attempt to shake our pursuers.  The green car has a cloud of something, smoke or steam, coming up from its hood, and is starting to fall behind, but the black car is still with us, with the driver trying to line up for another shot.  Regina’s feinted at him a couple more times, trying to knock into him, but he’s dodged or fallen back each time.

The 911 operator has gone silent, and when I hold it up to see if the call was disconnected, I see that my phone is off.  I mash the power button, but nothing happens.  I start to flip the phone over to check the battery, and it briefly sticks to my hand before pulling free.  Abruptly, I comprehend what’s happened.

The trigger for my magnetism is any sort of high emotion, like frustration or anger.  Since that particular power got switched off, it takes a concentrated effort to make things even slightly magnetic — but apparently the current situation ramped things up enough that I’ve magnetized my phone, which is completely screwing with its circuits.  It’s not going to work again until I can calm back down and demagnetize it.

Even as I’m realizing this, the back window shatters.  The driver of the black car, tired of Regina’s attempts to run him off of the road, has gone for the less precise but easier technique of simply firing at us from behind.  My heart is thudding in my chest and I can feel my blood pulsing in my head, so calming down to fix my phone is really not going to be an option right now.

The green car is nowhere in sight now.  Regina throws our car into another sharp turn to lose the black car, and it buys us a few seconds of lead time.  Suddenly, an idea comes to me.

“Regina, hit a few more turns like that one, buy us a little distance.  Then hit the brakes and let me out.”

“What?  No!  He has a gun!”

“No, it’s okay, I have a plan.  Make sure he’s far enough away that he can’t just shoot me immediately, then let me out and drive off, like a block away.  He’s after me, not you, so he’ll come after me.  You call the police and tell them where we are, and I’ll stop this guy.”

Even through her terror, I can see doubt on Regina’s face, but she slaloms into another turn.  As the black car fishtails to make the corner, I shout, “Now now now!” and Regina stomps on the brakes, throwing us both forward.

I’m scrabbling for the handle even as I unbuckle, because the black car is coming up fast.  Regina starts to accelerate before I’m fully out of the car, and my intended run for cover turns into a graceless tumble instead.  I fetch up against the bumper of a parked car a split-second later and duck behind it as the black car screeches to a halt next to me.

“Dan!  You thief!” the driver hollers, bounding from his car.

“I don’t even know you!” I shout.  Not that I expect that to work, but I want him to know where I am without being able to see me to take a shot, so I’ve got to say something.  And if it does somehow make him realize that this is crazy, then hey!  We can end this right now.

No such luck, of course.  A bullet zings off of the trunk of the car I’m hiding behind, and I reflexively duck further, banging my head into the side of the car.  How many shots was that?  Four?  Five?  How many shots does a gun hold, anyway?  I think a standard clip is eight or ten, but it’s probably different based on the type of gun, and I have no idea what he’s got.  He’s still got plenty of shots left, in any case.

“You’re going to pay, Dan!  Ruiner!  You can’t expect to just go around spoiling everyone’s hard work and get away with it!”

“Just stay over there and let’s talk about it!” I call, peering under the car to see his advance.  He’s creeping forward cautiously, hoping to spring out at me and take me by surprise.  I keep talking in the hopes that he’ll think I’m distracted.

“I haven’t done anything to you.  These aren’t your thoughts!” I tell him.  He’s at the far edge of the car now, trying to peer over the trunk.  I crouch low to the ground and get ready to jump.  “Just stay calm and put down the gun and we can –”

His hand holding the gun comes into view around the edge of the car, and I leap upwards at him, knocking his hand away from me and crashing into his chest.  The gun fires once as I smack into him, and then we’ve both got both hands on it, wrestling for control.  He’s still got his finger on the trigger and has the better grip, but hands wrapped tightly around the gun is exactly where I want him.

Focusing all of my thoughts on the gun, I shout, “Uuuuuppppp!”  I don’t know if the driver even hears me through his incoherent shouting, but after a few seconds, he definitely feels the effects as I escalate the gun to a burning heat.  It’s not a shadow of what I could do when the nanos were actually tuned to produce this effect, but even the residual is still enough to make the metal blisteringly hot, and the driver screams and tries to drop the gun.

I hold his hands in place for a few more seconds, still focused on raising the heat, but I lose my concentration when he headbutts me on the bridge of the nose.  I reel back, and he drops the gun, shaking his injured hands.  Before I’ve recovered, though, he’s on me again, throwing a wild haymaker at my head.

I turn into it, raising my arm, and take the punch on the left shoulder.  Then I return a punch of my own, slamming it solidly into his chest and knocking him back into the parked car hard enough to break a window.  Its alarm goes off, as if anyone on the street had not already been alerted by the squealing tires, gunshots and screaming.

He comes at me again, but working on the construction site, coupled with my residual superstrength, has left me able to throw a pretty hefty punch, and I hook one into his gut, leaving him winded.  He doubles over, gasping, and I step behind him to put him in a chokehold, just like you see in the movies.  I figure I’ll knock him out quickly this way, and then I just have to babysit an unconscious guy until the police get here.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to me when he punches me in the face, which is not a thing that they show happening in the movies.  It’s not a great angle for him, but it still hurts, and try as I might I can’t find a place to hide my head from his pummeling.  So after a second, I let go and slam a hammerblow into the back of his neck with both fists.  It’s not elegant, but it drops him to his knees, where I kick him squarely in the stomach with my steel-toed construction boot.

That takes most of the fight out of him.  The gun’s still a little too close to him for comfort, though, so I kick him in the ribs on the other side to roll him away from it.  I probably could have just kicked the gun, but I don’t know what sets a gun off.  And to be honest, I’m not feeling all that charitable towards this guy right now.

He’s lying facedown on the ground groaning, so I put a knee on his back to make sure he stays there.  “Okay, buddy.  You want to tell me what set you off today?”

“Screw you,” he manages, wheezing.  “Trying to…blackmail our next mayor.  Someone had to…take you out.”

Not like I didn’t know these were Tanger’s thoughts driving him, but this is more than just a passing idea picked up by an unstable mind.  Tanger clearly sent this guy out, purpose-driven.  He’s not accidentally infecting people; he’s targeting me.

Beneath me, the man starts to struggle, so I take his head in both hands and knock it against the sidewalk, not ungently.  “Trust me, dude.  Stay down.”

Down the block, a voice calls out from one of the houses, “I’ve called the police!”

“Good!” I shout back.  “So have I!”

As I wait for the cops, I ponder my situation.  It’s only getting worse as it goes.  I can’t continue to sit here and wait for Tanger to lob victims at me.  I’m going to have to take the fight to him somehow.

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Advancement: Part 4

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I lunge desperately to the side, just ahead of the machine’s blade.  The sandbags I was carrying scatter and are crushed under the wheels as Carl pivots after me.  I stumble to my feet, trying to regain my balance and stay ahead of him.  The machine whirls around in my direction, but fortunately for me it’s not overly maneuverable.

Carl’s shouting something from the cab, but I can’t make out the words over the engine roar, and I’m not about to stop and ask him to repeat himself.  I can just about guess the gist, anyway.  I suspect it has to do with his disgust for me, and my general failure to deserve to live.  He’s obviously been close to Tanger.  If I can get him out of the machine, I might be able to talk him down, although obviously he’s a lot farther gone than the others have been.  Or maybe he was just more homicidal in the first place.  Either way, separating him from the earthmover is a good first step.

Other people are running towards us now, and I see Christopher waving his arms frantically at me.  Since I’m not sure what set Carl off, I can’t be sure that everyone coming over is intending to help me.  Since Christopher’s the one who warned me, though, he seems like a safe bet.  I change direction to circle back toward him, and behind me, Carl guns the motor and attempts to cut off my path.

As soon as the earthmover turns to intercept me, though, Christopher is barreling at it from out of Carl’s field of vision.  He makes a reckless leap for the door, tearing it open and grabbing Carl by the arm even as he’s falling backwards off of the machine.  The two men tumble to the ground alarmingly close to the earthmover, and the giant tires print down tracks just inches from their heads.

Carl and Christopher are locked in a tangle of punches, and a crowd of construction workers descends on them to pull them apart.  The bulldozer, unattended, is still trundling slowly along, and before I can decide if I should do something about it, Mr. Steele appears from somewhere, vaults inside and brings it to a halt.  He steps back out with a thunderous expression and approaches the mass of men, now split into two groups holding Christopher and Carl back from each other.

“What just happened?” Steele demands.

“Carl tried to run Dan over with the bulldozer,” growls Christopher, pulling his arms free and dusting himself off.  Mr. Steele looks around and gets a general chorus of assent, then glowers down at Carl, still struggling to get the others to let go of him.  No one seems particularly inclined to release him yet.

“You wanna explain yourself right quick, Carl?”

Carl jerks his head at me.  “This isn’t my fault!  He’s been stirring up trouble, causing problems.  Man can’t be expected to just sit there and take that forever!”  When Mr. Steele doesn’t look overly sympathetic, he adds, “He stole my phone!”

“That phone there in your pocket?” asks Mr. Steele, and a look of panic settles over Carl’s face.  The workers behind him finally let go of his arms, and he reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls forth his phone.

“I mean…he had it…he, he took it…he must have put it back!”

Mr. Steele looks over at me, still a couple of dozen feet away, then back at Carl, who seems to be shrinking in on himself.  He sighs heavily.  “Carl, to my office.  Everyone else, back to work.  Christopher, you all right?”

Christopher nods, and Steele continues, “Good.  Check out that bulldozer, make sure it’s all right.  Then get it back where it goes and make sure nothing important got run over.  Carl, let’s go.”

He herds Carl over to his trailer, and the crowd slowly disperses.  I get a number of glances my way, and they’re not all sympathetic.  A number of the men seem to be wondering what I did to set Carl off, and I do my best to just look shocked and not guilty.

I’m pretty sure I know what phone Carl’s talking about.  It’s not his phone, but then again, those weren’t his thoughts.  Tanger’s been tipped to the fact that we found his phone.  And the most reasonable way for that to have happened is if the mysterious doctor A, who I emailed this morning, told him that his account had been compromised.  Maybe he only used that throwaway account to talk to Tanger, which is actually sort of the point of a throwaway account, now that I think about it.  Regina was right.  That was a really stupid idea.

I feel like I use the phrase “now that I think about it” a lot in my daily life.  Probably this means I should start thinking about things a little more before I do them.  I swear I do, though!  I just don’t seem to get to the right conclusion as often as I’d like.

I retrieve what I can of the sandbags and try to get back to the task at hand.  Christopher joins me after a few minutes.  He looks worse for wear than I do; all I have is dirty clothes and a few scrapes from sliding on the ground.  Carl landed a few good punches on him, and his shirt got torn somewhere in there, revealing a decent scrape across his belly.

“You all right?” I ask him, and he nods.  “Man, thanks for jumping in there!  You saved my bacon.  I don’t know how you had the guts to jump on there like that.”

“Hey, I did much stupider stuff as a kid.  It’s all good.  Couldn’t exactly let him run you down.”

“Still, though!  You put yourself on the line there.  I really appreciate that.”

“Yeah, no problem.”  His expression turns troubled.  “Hey, so — you didn’t steal his phone, though, right?”

“No!  Absolutely not.  I wouldn’t do that.”  To him, my brain wants to add, but I cut the sentence short.  See?  I think about stuff ahead of time!

“Yeah, good.  I mean, I knew you didn’t.  I just wanted to hear it, I guess.  Thank you.”

“No, seriously man, thank you.  I’m buying you beers sometime.”

Christopher laughs.  “Now that’s how you say thank you!  You’re on.”

About half an hour after the bulldozer incident, we all see Carl collecting his stuff and leaving without a word.  It’s pretty clear that he’s been fired, but really, I don’t think there’s another possible response to trying to run a coworker over.  Hopefully he was just fired, and they’re not bringing any kind of charges against him.  It wasn’t his fault, although there’s no reasonable way I could explain that to anyone.

And seriously.  If Tanger Construction ends up bringing charges against him because he was poisoned by Tanger’s thoughts — that’s just screwed up.  I can understand manipulating someone into doing your dirty work and then pretending you didn’t know about it.  That’s not pleasant, but it’s human nature.  We do it so often that we’ve got a dozen different words to describe all of the variations.  Blackmail.  Coercion.  Leverage.  Heck, politics.

But actively blaming someone who was doing the very thing you sent them to do?  That seems above and beyond, and if Tanger thinks he can get away with that, he’d better think again.

“Hey, uh, you need a hand with that?” asks Christopher, and I suddenly realize two things.  One: I’m really, intensely angry about a scenario that has not happened yet, and may not happen at all.  Two: in my irritation, I haven’t really been paying attention to what I’m moving, and I’m currently walking with a stack of rebar that’s designed for two guys to carry.  It might be close to two hundred pounds, and I’ve got it up on one shoulder.

“Oh!  Sure.  Yeah, gimme a hand before the adrenaline wears off, would you?”  I don’t know if he’ll buy that dodge, but it’s the best explanation I could come up with on the spot.

“Been bulking up to impress your lady, huh?” asks Christopher as we carry the rebar.

“Who, Regina?  Nah, she’s got a thing for a friend of mine.”

“Yeah?  Huh.  I woulda bet she had her eye on you.”

“Nah, she likes the brainy guys.  I’m more the strong, silent type,” I tell him.

“Strong, sure, but you talk way too much to be the silent type.”

“Harsh, man.”

“Hey, I call ’em like I see ’em.”

The rest of the day passes without incident, and eventually Regina arrives to pick me up.  “So how’d your day go?” she asks.

“Prepare for an atypical answer!” I say, and give her the whole rundown.

She shakes her head in disbelief.  “So you think Mr. Tanger just straight up had someone try to murder you?”

“Yeah, basically.  I mean, how many times have you thought something along the lines of ‘I’d like to kill that guy’ over something innocuous like getting cut off in traffic?  Now you figure that Tanger is afraid that I’m onto him, plus he’s got the nano-loathing of me — how could he not be thinking that?  And if he lays that thought on someone less stable, then bam, here we are.

“Also, hey!  I just realized that I’m not excited about the idea of him running the city anymore.  Apparently ‘tried to murder me’ is good enough to bump him out of the good-guy role he assigned himself in my brain.  So that’s a silver lining.”

“Yeah, I’m glad you’re finding the bright side here,” says Regina, checking her rearview mirror.  “Continuing on that positive note, I think I’m joining you in the reassessment of Tanger.”

I crane my neck around to see what she’s looking at.  “What’s up?”

“See that green car, and the black one behind it?  They’ve both been following us since we left the site.  These are pretty major roads, so maybe it’s a coincidence.  But they’re staying right on me.”

“Yeah, um,”  I say.  “Maybe let’s not go home just yet.  Take some turns at random, see if they follow us.”

Regina takes the next left, then a right after that, taking us onto side streets.  Both cars follow us, one speeding up to run a light turning red.

“Right,” says Regina.  “What do we do now?”

Suddenly, the black car roars forward, pulling up beside us.  The driver waves wildly at us from inside the car, and it takes me a second to realize that he’s not just waving his hand.  He’s holding a gun.

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