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I wake up in pain. I’m lying facedown on a cold cement floor and every part of my body hurts. I groan and roll over, which only adds to the chorus of pain. Every inch of my body has been bruised, broken or burned, oftentimes all three.

There’s some sort of a hubbub going on. I can hear many people talking, several conversations happening at once. I can’t seem to focus on any of them, though. I consider opening my eyes, but even the thought of that is painful, so I just stay where I am and try to reorient myself.

One of the voices draws closer, and suddenly there are hands on my shoulders. I cry out and take a wild swing with my right hand, but the muscles cramp up and rob the strike of any power.

“Easy, easy,” says the voice, and I feel hands on my legs now, too.

“What is he wearing?” asks a second voice.

“Okay, we’re picking you up,” says the first voice, ignoring the question. “On three. One, two, three!”

I am hoisted into the air, and another groan escapes me as pain shoots through my body. A moment later, I’m deposited onto something much softer than the concrete floor, and I open my eyes at last to see what’s going on.

Blue light strobes through the lab, reflecting off every surface. The room is full of uniformed policemen and technicians taking photos and bagging everything they can find. I’m lying on a stretcher with a paramedic at my head and another at my feet.

“I’m gonna untie your…footwear, okay?” says one paramedic, the owner of the second voice.

“Hey,” I say, swallowing. It hurts to talk, but it’s nice to be able to again. “Don’t knock ‘em. Those saved my life.”

With that, I close my eyes again and fall asleep. As I’m fading out, I hear the paramedic say, “No, seriously, he’s just strapped floor mats to his feet. Like, honestly I think that’s the weirdest thing in here.”

When I wake up next, I’m in the hospital and it’s nighttime. They must have given me something to knock me out, because I’m bandaged and stitched. Everything still hurts, but it’s a lot more manageable than it was the last time I woke up. I’m guessing painkillers are involved there.

Regina’s in my room, looking out the window at the lights of the city at night. The rain’s died down, which I take to be a good sign. Also, if she were here to kill me, she probably would have just done it in my sleep.

“Hey,” I say, ever the brilliant conversationalist.

Regina turns. “You’re awake!”

She’s got a bandage over her nose, but otherwise looks none the worse for wear. She hurries to the bedside.

“Can I give you a hug? Where’s safe to touch?”

“No hugs, please. I think there’s one undamaged square inch under my chin. Left side.”

Regina puts her finger there, smiling. “Consider this a hug placeholder, then.”

Abruptly, she leans in and kisses me. Before I can even think to respond, she straightens back up and sits on the edge of the bed. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

“That’s a departure from earlier today. Wait, is it still today? What day is it?”

“It’s still today. You weren’t out for that long. It’s around nine o’clock.”

“Okay, good. So — you’re not homicidal anymore? We won?”

“We won, yeah. Sorry for, you know, for electrocuting you. Again.”

“No, it’s cool, I wanted you to.” We sit in silence for a moment, but it’s a comfortable silence.

The door opens and Brian steps in. He’s clothed, which is a big improvement over the last few times I’ve seen him, and appears to be functioning without mood-altering drugs.

“Holy cow, he’s awake!” Brian rushes over to the bed. “Dude, I don’t know how to tell you this, but — you’ve been in a coma for six years. When the doctors said…you’re not buying it, huh?”

“She already told me it’s the same day,” I say. Brian turns to Regina with an affronted look on his face.

“How could you steal this moment from me? When am I going to get a chance to play a prank like that again?”

“You’re an EMT. Probably like next Tuesday.”

“Yeah, but I could get fired for doing it to a random guy. It would’ve been so good here.”

I listen to them mock-bicker for a minute, enjoying the camaraderie. Eventually they taper off, and silence settles in again. I break it after a moment.

“Hey, so — you guys okay?”

“Well, I melted a building today, and we’re not sure yet if anyone died in that, so I’m still kind of processing maybe being a murderer,” says Regina.

“And I melted a dude by giving him a naked full-body hug,” Brian says. He shakes his head briefly as if to clear out a lodged thought. “There…I didn’t ever want to see the inside of someone’s face, you know? I’ve seen a lot of rough things working for the hospital, but this one really took the cake.

“Also, I’ve sort of been trying to kill you for a couple of weeks, so that’s still rattling around in there. Sorry about that, by the way. I’m glad it didn’t work.”

“Thanks, man. You’re a good friend.” I reach up to clap him on the shoulder, but even the slight impact makes me wince. “Ow. I felt that in my side. Peterson worked me over pretty good. Oh! Peterson! Is he okay?”

“Yeah, man, he made it,” says Brian. “Probably. The doc got him stabilized and they patched him up. She’s pretty sure that she’s set the nanos to undo their mojo, but it’s going to take a few days to find out. And I mean, he doesn’t have a left arm anymore, so there’s that. But he made it.”

“So the doc figured out how to work the computer?”

“Man. It’s a good thing she woke up when she did. You’re standing there maybe dead, Peterson’s standing there maybe dead, I’m in a blood-spattered pit and getting deeper all the time. Doc Simmons comes to, looks around and just gets to work. She has no idea what’s gone on, there’s this insane tableau, no one can answer her questions, and she just gets right to business. Tapes up Peterson, calls the police, starts tapping on the computer and all of a sudden, I can think clearly again. Plus the ground under me stops dissolving, which is good because I’d hit a sewer pipe or a tunnel or something, and one foot was just starting to stick through into open air beneath me.”

Regina chimes in. “I think we were really secondary, though. I mean, obviously she took care of everyone first, got our nanos shut off and made sure we were okay. But then she dove into the computer and just started reading. When the police got there, she refused to step away from the keyboard. Told them that she wasn’t going to let this disappear into some evidence locker. She eventually let them take it, but she left along with it. I doubt she’s let it out of her sight yet.”

“So the police know now? Everyone knows now?” I ask.

“‘Everyone’ is a stretch,” says Brian, “but seeing Peterson half-morphed really quelled a lot of doubts from the police, yeah. Plus I can still dissolve little holes in things if I concentrate on it. Repeatable, testable results are pretty convincing, you know?”

“Man, it feels weird to be believed about this.” I heave a sigh. “So — are we being charged with anything? I mean, just today there was a car accident, I helped trash a restaurant, we burned down a building…”

“You escaped from jail,” Regina adds helpfully.

“I can’t believe that was just this morning. Man, has it been a long day.” I sigh again. “But yeah, I’ve been committing crimes small and large. They’re just going to let all that go?”

Brian shrugs. “I think they don’t want to deal with the mess more than they do want someone to blame. So my impression is that we’re not going to get the blame, but we’re also not going to get any credit.

“Fine by me, man. Fine by me.”

As it turns out, Brian was half-right. And shockingly, the half he was right about was that we didn’t receive any official blame. But when the news organizations got wind of the mad scientist doing clandestine experiments on unwilling subjects, they ate it up. Brian, Regina and I were the darlings of the media for a solid month. Simmons was called on pretty frequently to explain the science, but her brusque attitude meant that they tended to use soundbites or emailed quotes from her instead of putting her in front of a camera. Honestly, I’m pretty sure she played up her asocial behavior to avoid the cameras.

Then Peterson was released from the hospital, and the media dropped us instantly to focus their cameras on him. With his missing arm and his unimpeachable history in the police department, he was the perfect human interest story to rekindle flagging interest. He took it with good grace, all things considered. They’ll grow tired of him soon too, I’m sure.

I can’t speak for Brian or Regina, but I’m glad to be out of the spotlight. I mean, it wasn’t a particularly bad experience for me. It did a lot to reverse the negative impression that Tanger had spread around about me. Also, when I went to apologize to Mr. Steele for missing work without notice, he just said “Heard you had a busy day,” and welcomed me back. I feel like he’s giving me more stuff to haul than he used to, though, so I think he picked up on the part where I’ve got residual super-strength. Most of the guys on the team either don’t know or don’t care, though, so it’s basically business as usual on the site.

Despite all that, I’m just more comfortable when the majority of the world doesn’t know I exist. So to hide from my newfound celebrity, I mainly spend my time hanging out at my freshly refurbished house. It took some decent damage from the fire, but nothing structural. Nothing that a good coat of paint, some new drywall, replacing some studs and redoing a bunch of wiring can’t fix. Oh, also replacing several windows and repairing an outside wall. And part of the roof. So it’s been keeping me busy in my off-hours, is what I’m saying.

Absolutely no one’s tried to kill me in weeks, which is amazing. My dad looked like he might give it a shot when he saw the house, but my mom talked him down. And anyway, like I said, I’m repairing it. He’ll get over it. He threatened to raise my rent, but if he tries that, I’ll threaten to move out and leave them to deal with the rental property. Two can play at that game.

I woke up yesterday morning without any soreness or aches. My cheek has healed up, my bruises and burns are all gone. I don’t have so much as a stubbed toe. It’s actually a little weird. I feel too good now, and it’s weirding me out. I might need to go hit my thumb with a hammer or something just so I know that the world’s still running like it ought to.

Regina and Brian are still doing well, both individually and as a couple. And they still let me third-wheel it up with them whenever I like. It turned out that that warehouse I had Regina burn down was, in fact, unoccupied at the time, so that was a weight off of her shoulders. Also, her nose has healed flawlessly from where she’d taken a header into the floor in Ichabot’s lab, so she’s come out of this pretty well unscathed. As much as any of us have, anyway.

Tanger, my old boss and Ichabot’s sole customer, has vanished. No one’s been able to find him since the day everything went down with Ichabot. The doc says that she deactivated his nanos, so he’s not sweet-talking his way into anything, but money’s got its own way of opening doors, and he presumably still has plenty of that. I doubt I’ll ever see him again, but if I do, I owe that guy a good solid punch in the nose. Probably more than that, since he did have people try to kill me, but I think I’d get the most visceral satisfaction out of just decking him.

Peterson, like I said, is currently taking his turn in the media circus. Between cutting edge medical technology and Doc Simmons’s work with the nanotechnology, the hospital managed to reverse the effects the nanos had on his body and repair all of the internal damage that had been caused. They couldn’t regrow his arm, but Simmons says she’s working on that. I think she’s just excited by the possibility of a human test subject.

The doc’s been buried in Ichabot’s notes for the last month, barely coming up for air. She says making great strides in understanding. I went to go see her at the hospital just a couple of days ago, but when she started explaining the details of what she was doing she might as well have been speaking another language.

“Doc,” I joked, “I don’t know how even you are tracking this stuff. Have you been using the nanos to speed up your thinking?”

She put her hand on my shoulder and said, with amused condescension, “Dan, I’m already the smartest person you know. I don’t need nanotechnology for that to be true.”

I played at being offended, but she’s absolutely right. She is the smartest person I know. If someone asked me to summarize Doc Simmons in one phrase, that’s word-for-word what I would say. Anyway, she’s saved my life more than once, so she’s earned the right to condescend even if it weren’t reasonable.

So my days have fallen into a predictable schedule. I wake up early, go to work, come home, work on the house, watch Netflix and fall asleep. With minor variations, that’s every day now. I’m in a rut. A boring, ordinary rut.

I couldn’t be happier.

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 >]

Connection: Part 2

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The bus drops me off outside of the hospital, and although I’d swear I hadn’t warmed up any on the bus ride, the rain chills me all over again as I step off. I run for the front doors even though I’m already soaked, and actually manage to make my situation worse as I trip over my clumsy improvised shoes and and sprawl shoulder-first into a puddle in the parking lot. The impact jolts the entire side of my body and brings a flare of pain from my cheek, accompanied by lesser complaints from my dozen or so more minor torso injuries. Brian really did a number on me in that mall yesterday, and now I’m risking riling him back up by coming to the building where he’s being kept? This seems like one of the worst ideas I’ve had, and that’s saying something.

A rumble of thunder reminds me that the whole point of my cumbersome footwear was to keep me insulated from the ground, and that I am currently defeating that purpose by lying on the ground. I hurriedly scramble to my feet, futilely attempting to brush some of the water from my shirt, and hustle into the hospital’s lobby.

There’s something in the design of hospital hallways that makes them extra echoey. I don’t know if it’s intentional, like maybe it helps alarms and shouted instructions carry better, or if it’s just a weird side effect. All I know is that even normal shoes sound twice as loud as normal when walking down a hospital corridor, and the effect is magnified with my improvised boots. Every step flops like a fish being slapped onto a counter as I put my foot down, and then squeaks like a rubber chew toy as I put my weight on the mat. I try to slow down my steps and place my feet carefully, but all that does is draw out the noise, squeeeeeak…whap instead of squeak, flomp. The duty nurse at the front desk is watching me with interest, the patients in the lobby are staring, and down the hallway, a curious nurse peeks out of a room to see what the commotion is about. I hold my head high and try to pretend that this is normal as I squeak-flomp my way to the stairs and disappear behind the safety and soundproofing of a thick metal door.

Upstairs, I give Doc Simmons’s door a perfunctory knock before sticking my head inside. “Doc?” I call.

“I assumed that cacophany was you,” the doc says, standing up from a stool in the corner. “I couldn’t fathom why you would be making a noise like that, but I knew that since something was making that noise in my hospital, it could only be coming from you.”

“Look, if you’ve got better rubber footwear, I’d be happy to trade,” I say. “In fact, if you’ve got any spare clothes at all, I wouldn’t say no. I’m kinda soaked.”

Simmons looks me up and down skeptically, but pulls a lab coat from the back of the door and hands it to me. I put it on gratefully, layering it over my wet shirt. It’s not overly warm and it’s pretty tight across the shoulders, but it’s better than I had before, so I’ll take it.

“You don’t look like this is one of your better days,” Simmons observes as I struggle into the coat.

“Well, let’s see. I’ve been tackled by the police, thrown in jail, accused of being a terrorist, escaped from jail, robbed a vending machine, brewed a chemical bomb, set a house fire, stolen a kid’s bike and been told by the authorities to leave the city and never come back. Meanwhile, I can probably still stick my pinky through the hole in my cheek. And it’s what, lunchtime? Maybe a late lunch? I wouldn’t say this has been my best day, no.”

“I appreciate you making time in your busy schedule to come see me, then. Did you talk to Officer Peterson?”

“He was the one who told me to leave town and never return, yeah.”

Doc Simmons makes a sympathetic face. “So no friend on the inside with the police, then?”

“Worse — I’m pretty sure that that was him being friendly. I think this latest escapade has been the straw that broke the camel’s back, though. He seems to have worked through the suggestion nanos, but something definitely set him off.” A thought strikes me. “Aw man, my house!”

“Your house?”

“Peterson mentioned the house fire when I talked to him. If he knows about it, it must have been called in. If it was called in, that probably means it was big enough to do damage — which means my house is probably screwed.” I sit down heavily, depressed. “Well, at least maybe the rain kept it under control.”

“Mhm,” says Simmons noncommitally. There’s a short pause, and then she says, “Well. Shall we get started?”

“Geez, Doc. All business, huh? Can a guy get a bit of sympathy here?”

“What do you want me to do, pat your shoulder and say, ‘There, there’? I’m sorry that nanomachinery is making your life miserable. Now could we please move on to attempting to fix that?”

I stand up from the chair, leaving a puddle of rainwater behind me. “It’s not that you’re wrong, Doc, but your bedside manner…sheesh.”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned that before. Arm, please.”

I push back my layers to expose my elbow, which the doc swabs briefly with alcohol before sticking in a needle to draw blood. I look away as she preps the syringe, and my attention is caught by an area in the corner of the room which is cordoned off by drapes.

“What’s behind the curtains, Doc?” I ask.

“That’s where I’ve got Brian.”

“Brian!” I jerk involuntarily, and the doc frowns at me. “You’ve got us in the same room?”

“Please be careful of the needle, Dan. Yes, you’re in the same room. It’s fine, I increased his sedative dosage before you arrived. He’s not even conscious right now.”

“Well, what if he becomes conscious?!”

“Then there are backup plans in place. Calm down before you magnetize my needle.”

Easy for her to say. She’s not the one who might end up disintegrated if Brian’s sedative wears off. Still, there’s not much I can do about it if I want the doc’s help, so I take a few deep breaths and focus on calming myself. By the time she’s pulling out the needle and putting on a bandage, I’m basically back to where I was when I walked in. It’s not calm, exactly, but it’s acceptance.

“What’s your plan with this blood, anyway? I would’ve thought you had plenty from me by now.”

The doc smiles. “I think you’ll find this really interesting. Come take a look at this.”

I follow her to the far side of the lab, over to the microscope she was sitting at when I walked in. “Okay, tell me what you see,” Doc Simmons says, prepping a slide with my blood.

“Blood and nanos,” I say.

“Descriptive as always, Dan,” says the doc, sounding a bit exasperated. “Do you notice anything in particular about the nanos?”

I squint at them for a minute. “Not really? They’re little black dots. What am I supposed to see about them?”

“They’re not aligned in their grid, right?” prompts the doc.

“Oh! No. I guess not. I mean, they sort of are, but it’s kind of ragged.”

“Okay, now watch this.”

I hear a scraping noise and look up from the microscope to see Doc Simmons moving an unwieldy metal box across the counter toward the microscope. She points a metal probe at the slide and says, “Look what happens now.”

I peer back through the eyepiece of the microscope, and at first everything looks the same. Then I hear the click of a switch being flipped and a faint hum from the machine, and as soon as that happens all of the nanos snap into position, forming a perfect grid.

“Hey, cool! What did you do?”

“I believe — although I’m not one hundred percent certain — that I’ve reactivated the nanos.”

“That’s amazing!” I snap my head around to look at her. “Nice work! Can you turn them off, too, and fix Brian? Or wait, can you just turn mine on so I’ve got a power back? Or more than one, even?”

“I’m not there yet, Dan. In fact, if you’ll please step back from the machine for a minute…”

She’s already reaching a gloved hand for the slide before I move out of her way. She sets the slide on a metal tray and picks up a petri dish, holding it poised over the slide.
For a moment, nothing happens, but just as I’m about to ask what we’re waiting for, the slide bursts into a small but definite flame. The doc drops the petri dish over it, smothering the fire, and it quickly goes out.

“And that is why I’m not quite ready to move to human testing yet,” says Doc Simmons.
I swallow. “Yeah. Good call there, Doc.”

“Now, in addition to the baseline sample, I’d also like to get one where you’ve been using your powers, to observe differences in the nanomachinery’s structure and behavior. Activate one of your remnant powers, please. Any one you like.”

That’s an easy choice. It takes just a few seconds of thinking about the amount of stress in my life right now before I start to feel a tingling in my fingers. I reach out to the steel tray, and as my hand approaches it, it slides the last inch to meet me.

“Excellent, thank you,” says Doc Simmons, standing up. “Now keep that going while I draw blood.”

She takes a step away to get the necessary equipment, and as she does the curtain at the edge of the room suddenly parts. For a moment, I think it’s being drawn apart, and then I realize it’s disintegrating. Behind it, Brian is sitting weakly up in bed, one hand outstretched to touch the curtain. A tube is taped to his nose, and another runs from the back of his hand to an IV pole. His eyes are unfocused, but when he sees me, they do their best to lock on.

“R…rotten…scummy…” he mumbles, trying to stand up from the bed. His hospital gown begins to disintegrate, and the tubes on him fall away and swing free.

Doc Simmons tsks and takes a short step to her right, twisting a valve on what looks like an oxygen tank. It hisses for a second before she pulls a trigger on a metal tube perched on top of the tank, and with a quiet whuf!, a small dart flies across the intervening space and buries itself in Brian’s abdomen. It falls away almost immediately, landing on the floor in a plastic clatter, but Brian’s eyes cross and he slumps back into the bed.

The doc walks briskly over and begins attaching new oxygen and IV tubes to Brian, as if this was completely normal. I am less sanguine.

“What on earth was that?” I demand.

“I thought that might happen, actually. I think the activation of your nanos caused a response. I told you, there were backup plans if that happened.”

“Yeah, I saw your backup plan. You shot him!”

“It was a tiny amount of sedative, just enough to counteract the extra adrenaline. It won’t hurt him.”

“Wait. Wait, wait. You said you didn’t have a trank gun,” I accuse.

“I didn’t. I built this one this morning. It’s not complicated, just compressed air and a tube. It wouldn’t work beyond maybe a dozen feet.”

“But you said there was no point in having one around a hospital!”

“And now there is a point, so I made one. I thought you’d be happy that there’s a tranquilizer gun now, Dan.”

“Well, can I use it?”


“Then I’m not happy about it.”

[ 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 >]

Rescue: Part 2

[< Previous ]

Inside, the mall is surprisingly well-lit.  The early-morning sun creeps in through well-place skylights, and the large central atrium allows this light to suffuse all but the most remote corners.  Inside the shops themselves, it’s probably another story, but for right now I’m pleased at how not-creepy this place is.  I squint my eyes, trying to picture it in the dark, and come to the conclusion that I was absolutely right to wait until daylight.

“Keep moving forward, Dan,” says Simmons behind me, and I guiltily step ahead a few more paces so she can enter, too.  The doc clicks on her flashlight and starts scanning the floor.

“I think it’s pretty sound,” I say, jumping up and down experimentally.

Simmons looks at me like I’m an idiot.  “I’m looking for footprints, or any sign that Brian came this way.  I’m not worried about the structural integrity of the ground floor.”

“What happened over here?” asks Regina, and we turn to see her shining her light on the wall next to the entrance.  From about waist-height down, irregular patches are missing from the drywall, and the metal studs revealed behind it have been eaten away, too.  The damage reaches to the floor, which is also pitted reaching nearly to where we entered.  The same pattern of damage is on the opposite wall, too.

“Something to do with the power,” I say.

“Clearly,” says Doc Simmons.  “Is this something you can do?”

“Not as far as I know.  This looks like a really wide spread of buckshot or something.  Acid buckshot.  I tried using it at range, but never got anywhere with it.”

“Well.  Keep your eyes peeled, and your layers loose, I suppose,” says the doc.

Since everyone else has their flashlight out, I turn mine on, too, and check the floor ahead of me.  I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for; a clear set of footprints in the dust like you see in movies, I suppose.  But while this floor is definitely dirty, it turns out that when you walk on dirt, you mainly just get dirt left in place, only slightly flatter.  Looking behind us, I can’t even see our own footprints.  Maybe I’m just a really bad tracker.

Whatever that spray was about at the door, I don’t see it repeated anywhere else as we make our way through the mall.  I let the doc take the lead, since she seems to have some idea of what she’s doing.  While she studies the floor and Regina watches the hallway ahead of us, I let my light play along the walls as I take a look at the empty shops around us.

I take back what I said earlier about this place not being creepy.  It is, but its creepiness is so big that I missed it at first.  It’s a gigantic tombstone, a monument to the death of civilization.  The shops are all shuttered, the ceiling is cracked and peeling, the floors are unwashed and slowly being subsumed by dirt.  In two thousand years, they might find the ruins of this place and study it, marveling at ancient American culture.  This Cinnabon sign might still be there, its plastic and metal tarnished but still present.  Will they know what that was?  Will they understand why this kiosk was labeled a Sunglass Hut?

Brian’s right.  Urban exploration is just modern archaeology.

We move slowly past an empty food court, the chairs still sitting at the tables like they’re waiting for the crowds to come back.  People have been in here.  The walls are covered with graffiti.  Some of it’s just scrawled tags, but a lot of it is impressive art.  There are fields, rivers, pyramids, and jungles painted on the walls.  Misshapen people lean in at the angles, and odd little monsters crouch along the floor.  Someone’s gone around to every one of the cutouts in the wall where the fast-food restaurants used to be and painted a gaping mouth around each one, so each empty blackness appears to be stretching down some strange creature’s gullet.

For whatever reason, the graffiti seems to be limited to the food court.  Is it a gallery of some sort?  Are there rules about where you do and don’t spraypaint?  How come no one’s broken any of the tables or chairs, or even the windows?  This is a piece of the world I know nothing about.

We’re approaching a grimy escalator when the doc says quietly, “Brian’s been here.”

Her near-whisper echoes sibilantly in the cavernous space.  I start to look for what’s caught her attention, and she adds, “Don’t shine your light around.  If he doesn’t know we’re here, that’ll alert him.  Just look, both sides.”

At first, I don’t see what she’s talking about.  The shops on each side look perfectly normal: large empty entryways, barren shelves and racks disappearing quickly into the darkness inside, just like all of the others we’ve passed.  Finally it hits me — the security gates are missing.  Completely gone, as if they’d never existed.  And straining my eyes, I now can see the white dust piled on the white tile at the shop entrances.

“Which one do you think he’s in?” whispers Regina.

“Either’s equally possible.  Or neither.  Could be a trap,” Simmons whispers back.

“Hey, stupid question,” I say quietly.  “Why are we whispering?”

No one answers, so after a beat I continue, “I mean, we want him to know we’re here, right?  Half of the point of waiting for day was so that we didn’t accidentally startle him into doing something stupid.  So, if we think he’s here, isn’t it time to, like, shout for him?”

There’s another moment of silence, and then the doc says in a normal tone, “All right.  Regina?  He’ll probably be happiest to hear you.”

Regina sticks her flashlight under one arm and cups her hands to her mouth.  “Brian?” she calls out, her voice ringing throughout the mall.  “Baby?  We came to find you, Bri.”

We wait expectantly, but nothing moves in the silence following her announcement.  Regina looks quizzically at me, but I just shrug.  Half a minute passes before I say, “So — left or right?”

“You want to go beard the creature in its den, Dan?” asks Simmons with a small smirk.  “You sure you wouldn’t like to split up first, too?”

“Har har.  Do you have a better option?  If he’s not coming out, we’ve got to go in.”

“He’s not a creature,” Regina says, frowning at Doc Simmons.

“It’s just a joke.  I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“Why are you apologizing?  She’s the one who said it.”

“Well, I’m sorry that she said it, then.”

“Left it is,” says the doc, training her flashlight into the store and walking in.  Regina frowns again at Doc Simmons’s retreating back and I just shrug, but we both fall into step behind her.

The sunlight quickly fades as we enter the abandoned store, and by ten feet in we’re totally dependent on our flashlights.  Regina’s still calling out for Brian as we go, talking to him the same way you’d try to soothe a panicked animal.

“Are you in here, Bri?  We’re here to help you.  You’ve done good so far, you’ve done great.  Let us help you get this under control.  We’re gonna get through this, Brian.”

Regina keeps the monologue going as we progress, pausing her words after each sentence to invite a reply.  No response is forthcoming, though, and so we continue forward, our lights scanning the naked aisles of the store.

Toward the back, I spot a ragged hole in the wall, a vaguely circular shape taller than a man.  The floor near it is dissolved in erratic pits, just like at the entrance to the mall.  I still can’t make sense of the pattern.  There’s a clear path to walk into the hole in the wall at the center, but then the pits start about two feet out from that on each side and continue just past the edge of the circle.  It really does look like someone fired a wide burst of shot on each side of the central path before passing through.

Stepping carefully past the eaten-away section of floor, Regina leans into the makeshift tunnel.  “It opens up into another store,” she reports, shining her flashlight in.  “Looks basically the same as this one — Brian?  Are you in there, baby?”

From the hole issues a sound that at first I think is rushing wind, before it deepens into a feral growl.  I tighten my grip on my flashlight, wishing I had a better weapon.  Beside me, Doc Simmons digs through her messenger bag.

Regina takes a single step backwards, but calls out again, “Brian?”

“You could all learn to take a hint,” comes Brian’s voice, thick with rage.  “Did you even find the doctor?  Or did you just ignore my extremely simple request and come barging in here, certain that you knew what was best?  Like always?”

“Hey, man, we’re looki–” I begin, but Brian cuts me off.

“Don’t even talk to me!  It’s bad enough that you’re here.  Your tainted breath is poisoning the air.  I could smell you from outside.  You’re like a wound in the air, a parasite moving under a scab.”

I open my mouth to protest, but Doc Simmons puts a hand on my arm and shakes her head at me.  I motion to her, asking: should I leave?  She shakes her head again, and I grimace.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.

Regina’s pushing ahead with her plan to talk Brian down from his nano-induced rage, though.  “Baby, we’re looking for the doctor.  We’re going to find him.  But we didn’t want to leave you out here alone.  We were worried about you.  I was worried about you.  I still am.”

“You think I don’t know that?” snarls Brian, anger and frustration dripping from his voice.  “I wanted to tell you!  This was the only way I could handle it!  And it was fine until HE started getting closer!  I was FINE out here, and then he brought in his filth and the whole thing decayed around me like I was drowning in year-old dumpster garbage!”

Without thinking, I respond.  “Dude, I was j–”

“SHUT!  UP!” roars Brian, and twenty feet to my left a hand bursts through a section of the store wall.

[ Next >]

Insistence: Part 2

[< Previous ]

My self-righteous satisfaction has faded by the time I get back to my car, and I sit down in the seat with a heavily exhaled breath.  Pulling out my phone, I reply to Brian’s email:

Dupont was a bust.  Either didn’t know anything, or was covering it up well.  Probably a dead end, but I’m going to see where he goes after work, just in case it’s anywhere interesting.  If you don’t hear from me again, this was a bad choice.

I copy Regina and the doc on it, too, just in case either of them has anything useful to suggest.  Also, I was only half-kidding about the “if you don’t hear from me again” part.  Probably everything’s going to be fine, but on the off-chance that this goes horribly wrong, I’d like as many people as possible to know where I last was, and who was there with me.

I lean my seat back so that I can see the front door of Dupont’s building in my side-view mirror without sitting up, and settle in to wait.  The office hours he sent me suggest that he won’t be going anywhere for at least three hours, but it’s possible that I’ve thrown his day into disarray.  If he does know anything about Ichabot’s secret business, he’ll almost certainly be contacting him now.

I should have dissolved his phone.  Then again, I want him to contact his boss, so that I can trail him to a meeting.  Anyway, it’s not like he doesn’t have a cell phone.

Speaking of which, I check mine again.  No time has passed.  It’s going to be a long three hours.  Minimum; that’s if he leaves right at the end of his office hours.  What if he does administrative work after?  I could be here all night.

I probably have time to go get some food right now.  But if I’m wrong and he takes off while I’m gone, I’ll never even know that he left.  I could end up sitting here watching an empty building.  Well, not empty, but empty of my target, anyway.

I sigh and browse the internet on my phone, keeping the mirror with the building’s entrance in the edge of my vision.  I don’t know how anyone conducted a stakeout before the internet.

For that matter, I don’t know how anyone conducts a stakeout now.  In TV shows, it usually goes, “Settle in.  This could be a long night,” and then a quick cut to, “Wake up!  Something’s happening.”

I don’t have a partner to wake me up, so it had better not be that long of a night.  Come to think of it, though, I do know someone who should be a little more knowledgeable about stakeouts.  I flip through my contacts and call Officer Peterson, my friend in the police department.

“Friend” might be a strong word.  Supporter?  Aider and abetter?  He picks up when I call, at least.

“Mr. Everton.”  He sounds wary.

“Officer Peterson!  Hello.  How’ve you been?”

“Fine.  Please tell me you’re calling before you’ve created a situation this time.”

“Hey, ow.  Everything’s fine here.”

“Mhm.  Are you manifesting again?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you displaying new powers, indicating a likelihood of upcoming damage to the political and physical landscape of my otherwise fair city?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but yeah.  I can, uh…dissolve things now.”

“Good.  That doesn’t sound destructive at all,” Peterson says dryly.

“Well, I’m not DOING it,” I say defensively, which is technically true in the immediate sense.

“I’m glad to hear that.”  There’s a pause, after which he says, “Was that all?”

“Yeah, I mean, you’ve repeatedly asked to be in the loop, so I’m just letting you know.”

“Thank you for that consideration, Mr. Everton.”

“Yeah, absolutely.  Hey, while I have you here, though: can you give me any tips on stakeouts?”

There is an extremely loaded silence on the other end of the phone, followed by, “The best tip I can give you is that they should be left to the police.  Handled by private citizens, they are more commonly referred to as ‘stalking.'”

“Oh, sure, I’ll pop right down to the station to fully explain this situation,” I say sarcastically.

“Mr. Everton.  Please trust that resources are being devoted to your problem.”

I sigh.  “Fine.  Thanks.  Good talking to you.”

“When I take a long road trip,” Peterson says in an apparent non sequitur, “I like to take upbeat music to keep my energy up.”

“All right, but –”

He talks over me.  “My preference is to have someone accompany me, so they can take over as driver in case my energy flags.  That way we can keep going in shifts through the night, if necessary.”

Oh.  Road trip as metaphor.  This is a “can’t officially condone your behavior” situation.  Got it.  I keep quiet and listen.

“Anything that takes my eyes off of the road is bad.  Anything that promotes general alertness, including live conversation or phone calls, is good.

“And although a lot of people swear by it, I personally try to avoid coffee.  The potential for having to pull off for a bathroom stop at an inopportune time is too high,” he concludes.

“Thank you for the road trip tips.  I appreciate them,” I tell him sincerely.

“Don’t mention it,” Peterson says, probably also very sincerely.

As it turns out, Peterson has nothing to worry about.  The stakeout is a bust.  On the bright side, I don’t have to wait particularly long to be disappointed.  It’s less than half an hour before Dupont emerges from the building, gets into a red Subaru and drives off.  I tail him for a few miles before he pulls into the parking lot of a hardware store and heads inside.

Just as I’m starting to wonder if I should have followed him inside, he re-emerges with a plastic clamshell package in one hand.  He tosses it onto the passenger seat as he gets back in his car, but it’s not until I’ve tailed him back to his office and I see him walking inside with it that I realize that what he’s bought is a new doorknob.  Prosaic, but sensible.  Honestly, I don’t really know why I expected him to go anywhere else first.

He’s back outside only a few minutes later, and this time a slightly longer trip ends with him pulling into the driveway of a neatly-kept-up one-story house.  He lets himself in the front door with the familiarity of home, and I reluctantly conclude after a little while that that’s probably because he lives here.  I’d been hoping that maybe it was a nondescript safehouse that he was meeting Ichabot at, but through the window I can see that he’s on the couch with his socked feet on the coffee table, giving every appearance of settling in for a lazy evening.

In fairness, once someone disintegrates parts of your office, maybe it’s just time to call it a day and try again tomorrow.  I was really hoping that he was part of Dr. A’s conspiracy, but so far that seems to be a conspiracy of one.

I jot down his address in my phone anyway, just in case, then drive back to my place for my own lazy evening.  No one’s written back to me with new ideas now that Dupont’s gone nowhere, so I figure I’ll give it a few days and see what else comes to light.

If things go the way they have in the past, I can likely expect my nemesis to launch an attack on me at some point in the near future, which ought to provide a pretty definite idea of what to do next.  So at least there’s that to look forward to.

That said, the next three days go by with perfect mundanity.  By the time my weekend rolls around, I’m actually getting sort of paranoid about the fact that nothing has happened.  I’m reading the local news religiously every morning, scouring it for anything weird or unexplained, but it seems that everything’s normal except for me.

I text Brian:

I had a thought
what if I’m my own nemesis?
this is all a mind game until I get twisted & paranoid & disintegrate myself

He replies:

Not the worst assumption sand
That you don’t have a nemesis I mean
If he’s not showing you can go straight to icky bot sand sand

“Why do you keep writing ‘sand’?” I send back.

I’m using voice to text
The keyboard on this new phone is funky so I’m just tacking at it sand
And it doesn’t like the way I say
Oh that’s just fact ink great sand

I snort with laughter, picturing Brian’s frustration.  He’s a pretty laid back guy, but there’s nothing like a new phone to really raise your irritation levels.  In terms of “most likely to make a saint swear,” I’d put new phones on par with trying to start a lawn mower.

“You want to get together to discuss a plan of attack?” I write.

Pretty swamped at work right now but I have an idea
Set something up with dock and red Gina and I’ll make it work
I’ll deliver you more information when I have it
Seriously its stupid that I can’t say ess e and Dee sand fox sand

At this point, I’m crying with laughter.  I decide not to share this fact with Brian, though.  Later on, he’ll see the humor in the situation.  Right now, that’s the sort of admission that could end a friendship.

[ Next >]

Initialization: Part 2

[< Previous ]

“The man who made the nanobots is here in the hospital?” Doc Simmons asks.  Her eyes have a gleam in them that doesn’t seem entirely safe.

“Yeah, well.  He is, but he’s not like presenting a paper on them or anything.  I think he’s just scoping out the competition,” I say.

“Competition?  No one is doing anything anywhere near this!  He’s decades ahead of everyone else.  He’s breaking ground in so many ways that it’s impossible to even say which is most impressive.  He may be the greatest mind of our generation.”

“Sure, but he’s also experimenting on me and killing people, if you’ll recall.  So maybe dial back the fan club just a bit?”

“I am not in his fan club,” says Doc Simmons haughtily.  “His methods are reprehensible.  But I would kill to see his notes.  Figuratively speaking.”

The gleam is still in her eyes, and I’m not completely positive that that was just a figure of speech.  I can’t think of any polite way to ask, “Even if you’re sure you wouldn’t get caught?”, though, so I just let it slide.

Meanwhile, Brian still has his hand held awkwardly at his side, and has been waiting patiently for the conversation to turn back to our original purpose for coming here.  “So what’s the word, Doc?” he asks.  “Think we can get any nanos off of this?”

Doc Simmons has been donning gloves while we’ve been talking, and now swabs Brian’s hands.  “I can’t imagine that he’d be working with them out of containment, as they’d be far too susceptible to contamination.  So there’s essentially no chance that he’d have them on him as a byproduct of the manufacturing process.”  She carefully stores and labels each of the swabs in small plastic tubes, then takes out a needle.  “Let me get a sample of your blood for comparison purposes.”

“Hold up, I’m confused,” I say.  “If we can’t get nanos from the skin-to-skin contact, then what are you poking at Brian for?”

“Two reasons,” says the doc.  “One: just because I can’t imagine something doesn’t mean that I don’t test for it.  I’ve seen plenty of things I can’t imagine over the years.  For example, superpower-providing nanomachinery.”

I grin at that.  “Okay, fair point.”

“And two,” continues Simmons, “there’s good reason to believe that Dr. Acharya has applied the nanos to himself.  Didn’t you tell me that he transferred them to both you and Regina through simple touch?”

“Oh,” I say.  “Yeah.  I guess he would have to be acting as a carrier there.”

“So,” says the doc, “I’ll check to see if Brian was able to pick any up, and if so, I’ll see if I can spot any differences between those and the ones you and Regina have.  It’s entirely possible that he has a different strain than he’s been giving his subjects.”

“Hey, can you check his DNA, too?” I ask.

“For what?” asks Doc Simmons.

“To — I don’t know, see who he is?”

“Dude,” says Brian.  “We know who he is.  I just shook hands with him like half an hour ago.”

“Yeah, but I don’t know.  This feels like the sort of thing where we should be sequencing his DNA.  Figure something out about him, you know?”

Doc Simmons sighs.  “Dan, you’re conflating DNA profiling and sequencing.  Also, there’s not really a lot of use for either one in this situation.  Unless you particularly need to know if he’s at risk for certain types of cancer?  Or diabetes?  You could slowly get him onto a high-sugar diet and take care of this problem in just a few dozen years.”

“Hey, just start inviting him over to your place,” says Brian.  “Basically all you have to drink there is soda.”

“There’s this bendy metal spout in the kitchen called a ‘faucet,'” I tell him, air-quoting the word.  “You turn the knobs next to it and it just dispenses water freely.  I keep a whole collection of cylinders called ‘glasses’ nearby to catch the water when it comes out.”

Doc Simmons makes a shooing motion with her hands.  “No bickering in the laboratory.  I have work to do.  Out, out.”

Back at home, I feel like there’s something I should be doing, but I can’t think of what.  We’ve identified Ichabot.  We’ve learned his name.  I still need to figure out the intermediate step that leads to “and then we turn him over to the police,” but right now I’ve got nothing.  Officer Peterson?  This man once touched me in public.  No, not creepily, just like a handshake.  Yes, that may not sound bad, but he gave me superpowers.  I’d like you to arrest him, please.

Linking him to Regina would be a better bet, although again, I’d have to prove that he gave her the power to control the weather, something which she can’t demonstrate anymore since he retracted the power.  If I could connect him to Aaron Lovell and Jonathan Caraway, then I might be on to something, since they both turned into ape-men and then died of internal injuries.

I’m not positive that turning someone into a sasquatch is a crime.  It seems like it must be, but I can’t imagine what statute it violates.  Killing them definitely is, though, and the ape-mutation was basically just a complicated method of doing that.  I mean, that’s probably not why he did it, but it was the end result.

Regardless, I have absolutely nothing linking him to those two, so it’s all a pipe dream.  Having his name is good so that I know who I’m working to defeat, but is otherwise completely unhelpful to me right now.

Since my brain’s coming up empty on ideas, I do what I always do when I need to jar something loose: switch off and veg out in front of the TV for a few hours.  Having some mindless monster movie on allows my subconscious to take over, or something.  I don’t know.  All I know is that taking a break is much more likely to yield results than sitting at a table for hours going, “Come on, brain!  Think!  It’s what you’re for!”

However, one teen scream flick later, I’ve got no new bright ideas.  Either the movie wasn’t sufficiently mindless, or I’m overly so.  Whichever is the case, I’m coming up blank.

With nothing else to do, I idly punch Dr. Acharya’s name into Google.  It pulls up a bunch of doctors, lawyers and professors, along with a few colleges with the name, but even after I refine the results I don’t find any doctor by that name in my city.  Frowning, I go back to the first page of results and notice one I’d skimmed over at the top, since it wasn’t a person at all.  It’s the definition of the word “acharya,” and says that it’s a title given to learned people, or can also mean the founder of a sect.

I text Brian:

I think we’ve been played
Acharya’s not Ichabot’s real name

My phone recognizes the word “Ichabot,” which makes me happy.  It’s the small things sometimes.

Some time later, my phone buzzes with response texts.

what a jerk
let’s look him up through his credit card

I write back, “How?” and receive a sarcastic reply:

credit cards have to have a name on them
helps make sure people pay at the end of the month
didn’t know you were new to the whole capitalism thing

I roll my eyes at my phone.

yes, thank you
FYI I’m buying a new car soon & am well versed in credit
how, as in how will you get his credit card info

Visions of ’80s computer hacking montages fill my mind.  I had no idea Brian had these sorts of skills, but he’s surprised me before.  He got into Tanger’s phone with barely even a pause.  Admittedly, that was less hacking and more just following the pattern smudged on the screen in finger grease, but still.  It’s all part of the same skill set.

My daydreams are dashed moments later by his response:

I know a doctor with:
 – standing at the hospital
 – desire to meet this guy
 – track record of getting what she wants

Oh.  “Look him up” like see how he paid for the symposium we were just at, not “look him up” with screens full of code and super-fast typing.  I mean, however we get the info is good, I guess.  But hacking is cooler.

And yes, it’s a crime and a very bad problem and many hackers are bad people who do bad things and much money and information and time is lost to hackers.  I get it, I’m not actually advocating it.  But it’s still cool.

Either way, be it hacking or Doc Simmons bending lesser mortals to her will, the information-gathering is currently out of my hands.  So I get a light workout in, cook up some pasta and sauce for dinner, and settle back in on the couch to waste my evening.

The only brilliant idea I have during this movie is to watch another movie, but that’s a good enough one for me.  I check to make sure my alarm is set for work tomorrow, then settle in to fall asleep on the couch.

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Initialization: Part 1

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Here’s a fact of life: no one likes large social gatherings.  Absolutely no one.  I’m sure that there are people who think that they do, but they are wrong.  What they like are the small social gatherings that they can have inside of the large ones, which is why you constantly have small knots of people forming, usually directly in the middle of the area where everyone else is trying to walk, for some reason.  Large groups are full of people you don’t want to see, conversations you’re trying to avoid, and basically all of the parts of humanity that you try to avoid on a daily basis.

I mean the regular lousy parts, like feeling the breeze when someone coughs, or residual body heat on a seat when you sit down.  Crowds are just sort of passively bad.  There’s plenty of worse stuff about humanity which the nightly news is all too happy to tell you about, but you’re not generally going to see murder and mayhem on display in a crowd.

Not in a standard crowd, anyway.  Then again, I am here looking for a mad scientist without a moral compass, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too sure of that.

Also, I have the top button of my shirt buttoned and I’m wearing a tie, which does not put me at my ease.  The tie is an ongoing dangling threat to my health and safety, and the top button provides a constant light constriction to my neck, just in case I’m ever inclined to forget about the tie.

That said, the vague look of being ill-at-ease that this gives me makes me blend in with about sixty percent of the people milling about in the hospital lobby for this symposium right now, so it’s a pretty good disguise.  The remaining forty percent are bright-eyed, focused and all seem to be trying to sell things to anyone who will make eye contact.  I buy a cup of coffee to help me avoid shaking their hands, and if I catch one of them looking my way, I do my best to pretend to be attempting to read the scrawl that is presumably my name off of the coffee cup until they find another victim.

I have a list of the topics being presented today, but the concepts are so foreign to me that they might as well be in another language.  I recognize a number of words, like “robotic,” “imaging” and “arterial,” but not the context they’re in.  The word “surgery” shows up in many of the titles paired with things I don’t understand, like “keyhole.”

It’s okay, though.  I have a plan, and it doesn’t require me to know what’s going on; I’m learning to play to my strengths.  I know what Dr. A. looks like, and he’s very distinctive: it’s like someone saw the animated brooms from Fantasia and thought, “Not bad, but if I tied these together and put them in a suit, I bet I could make them walk around like a person.”  He doesn’t have a broom for a face, obviously, but everything else from his toast-rack torso to his gangly arms and legs gives that impression.

This is how Brian and I came to give him the name “Ichabot,” after Ichabod Crane.  I don’t know if I’m going to stick with that name, but I refuse to fight a supervillain named “Dr. Adams,” or whatever his last name turns out to be.  “Dr. A.” is mysterious enough that I can work with it.  “Dr. Adams” is a podiatrist name.

So the plan is this: loiter in the corner unobtrusively until I spot Ichabot moving through the crowd.  If that doesn’t work, start sticking my head into various lectures to scan the rooms for him there; even sitting down, he’s head and shoulders taller than average, so he should stick out.  Also, I’ve only ever seen him in one suit, so if that’s still his go-to, that’ll help in identifying him.

Once I’ve spotted him, I’ll simply get close enough to read his nametag, and then voila!  Ichabot’s secret identity is revealed, and then we turn him over to the police.  Or something like that, anyway.  I don’t actually have any real proof of wrongdoing by him yet, so probably I should get that first.  And as Officer Peterson has made clear many times in the past, he’d really prefer it if I managed to do that in a manner that’s at least passingly legal.  So that part of the plan still needs some work.

All of this is predicated on the idea that Ichabot is coming to this medical symposium, though, and as the day wears on, that’s starting to seem less likely.  My coffee has long since gone cold, and although I did manage to reheat it with my residual pyrokinesis, I got some weird looks when nearby people heard me whispering “Uuuuuuppp!” at my cup as I lifted my hand slowly into the air.  I’m not generally overly concerned with what other people think of me, but since the point of today is to blend in, I’m trying to make a bit of an effort.

I haven’t caught sight of Ichabot at the sign-in, and my plan to peer in the back of lectures doesn’t pan out well.  I’d been picturing these as taking place in big college-lecture-sized halls, but for the most part, the conference rooms in the hospital hold no more than thirty or forty people.  That means that opening the door is noticeable and causes heads to swivel; not the subtle entrance I’d hoped for.

After I open one door that turns out to be located at the front of the room, directly next to where the speaker is presenting so that all eyes are immediately on me, I give up this portion of the plan as ill-conceived.  I mumble my apologies and retreat to the cafeteria, figuring that most of the attendees will eventually filter through there for lunch.

I’m safely ensconced at a table by the back wall, debating whether I should go check out nearby restaurants or just admit to myself that Dr. A. isn’t going to show, when I suddenly see him.  He ambles through the door and heads for the food line, and although from this distance I can see that he’s in the same worn black suit and he has a badge for the symposium, that’s all the details I can make out.

Abruptly, I realize the flaw in my “go read his badge” plan: just as I know what Dr. A. looks like, so too does he know what I look like.  In fact, he’s been to my places of business on at least two occasions, so he knows at least something about me, too.  Enough to realize that running into me here would be no casual coincidence, at the very least.  Learning his name isn’t worth letting him know that I’m this close to him.

I text Brian:

found him
can’t get close to him
he doesn’t know you. Come help

Ichabot has gotten a table by the time the response comes back, and I’m practically biting my nails at the thought that we might miss this opportunity.

come help WHERE, o abrupt one?

That is the sort of helpful information I should have provided, yes.  I shake my head at myself as I reply, still keeping one eye on my quarry.

same suit
he hasn’t seen me. Don’t acknowledge me at all

There’s no response to these messages, so for the next few anxious minutes, I watch Ichabot progress all-too-rapidly through his lunch, methodically clearing his tray.  He’s on to the dessert before I see Brian walking toward his table, a tray with food in his hand.

I can’t hear anything they’re saying over the hubbub of the cafeteria, but Brian takes a seat across from Ichabot and they exchange a few words.  Brian starts to dig into his meal, and after a moment, Ichabot unfolds himself to leave.  Brian looks up and offers his hand to shake, which Ichabot accepts, then picks up his tray and clears out.

Brian gives it a couple more minutes before standing up himself and bringing his tray over to where I’m sitting.  He gives me a thumbs-up on the way over, and as he sits down, I demand, “You got it?  You got his name?”

“Yeah, no problem.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, you know?  I said I’m Dr. King can I sit here, he said he was Dr. Acharya and sure, very nice to meet you, lunch lunch lunch, the end.  You could’ve done it yourself if you’d brought one of the masks you were making last time.”

“Dude, where were you with that idea when I was signing up for this thing?”

“I figured you had a plan!”

“I did!  I had a dumb plan.  You should know this about me.”

Brian laughs and shakes his head.  “Yeah, you’re right.  This is on me.”

I notice after a moment that he’s eating left-handed.  “Everything all right?” I ask, gesturing to his right hand.

“Oh yeah, totally.  But — okay, stick with me on this one, ’cause it’s a pretty big reach.  But I was thinking that, you know how you can have bomb-sniffing dogs that pick up residue of explosives?  Since when you work with stuff, tiny particles tend to get everywhere?  I don’t have the slightest idea how these nanos work, but on the off-chance that he’s got some kind of nano particles riding around, I figured I’d see if I could get some by contact and bring them back to Doc Simmons.”

“Man, that’s the kind of reach that an NBA player couldn’t make.”

“Oh yeah?  So you know how the nanos work now, then?”

“I didn’t say I had a better idea!  I’m just staking my ‘I told you so’ claim right here, so that when Doc Simmons makes fun of you, I get to chime in.”

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There’s an old saying: beware the Ides of March.  It’s an inauspicious day, one on which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his friends.  And throughout history, there have been…probably wars or something?  I actually can’t think of anything else bad that’s happened on the Ides of March, even though it’s got a Friday-the-13th kind of vibe in my head.  But I mean, Caesar got stabbed over two thousand years ago.  It can’t be just him and me.  Not that I got stabbed but — well, as usual, let me back up.

This particular story starts at the beginning of March, but the whole thing began early last year.  That was when I got assaulted by a super-strong ape-man while at work, and discovered I had superpowers.  Nothing convenient and reliable, though, nothing I can train up and learn to use over a long period of time; my powers crop up solely so I can deal with a specific nemesis, and fade once the threat is handled.  It’s a real pain in the neck, to be honest.

I’m Dan Everton, by the way.  I’m your average white American early-thirties blue-collar male, a little bit slow on the uptake, a little bit wide in the waistline.  Less so than I used to be, in both of those cases; remnants of super-intelligence helped with the thinking bit, and working in construction helped with the extra padding.  I’ve still got some there, but my belt’s a couple of notches tighter than when I was working a desk job, and there’s a solid core of muscle under it all now.  I don’t like to brag, but I could probably pick up the back end of my car.  If I had a car.  And to be fair, some of that strength is left over from another faded superpower, too.  This is why I don’t like to brag.  I’m not very good at it.

Anyway, since last year I’ve been personally involved in the destruction of two buildings, one by storm and one by fire.  I’ve been punched, kicked, shot, beaten, hit by a car, hit by lightning and generally persecuted.  Plus I’ve been fired twice.  It’s been a rough year, is what I’m saying.

I’ve been in and out of the hospital often enough that I’ve made friends there.  One of them, Doctor Simmons, just wants me for my body.  More specifically, the nanomachines I was somehow infected with that are causing these superpowers.  She’s a lady on a mission, is Doc Simmons, and you do not want to be between her and her goal.  She’s taken enough blood and tissue samples from me at this point to build an entirely new copy of me.  Shoot, for all I know, she’s done just that.  I haven’t heard from her in a little bit.  For all I know, she’s grown a new Dan to experiment on.

Honestly, I’m glad that Doc Simmons is so intent on finding out how these nanos work, because otherwise she’d be the best candidate I can think of to have created them and stuck them in me.  She’s brilliant, she’s driven, and while she’s not amoral, exactly, she’s…let’s say that she’s not one to let minor impediments stop her.  When I do finally track down the mysterious Dr. A., the person behind the nanos, I’m probably going to need to keep Doc Simmons from finding out.  Otherwise, there’s a decent chance that she’ll steal his notes and continue his work.  I mean, she’d probably get volunteers for a study and run it in a controlled environment.  As long as there was funding, and not too much bureaucratic red tape.  “Probably” might be a slightly strong word here.

My other hospital friend, an EMT named Brian, has rapidly risen in the ranks to become my best friend.  Admittedly, the ranks mainly consist of people whose posts I sometimes “like” on Facebook, so that wasn’t that difficult of an ascension.  Still, he’d be my go-to guy even if I had a dozen friends.  I’m sure that some of you are laughing right now that the number I picked for “can you imagine having this many friends?” is only twelve, but whatever.  I like my privacy, I like my solitude, and I don’t need a bunch of people chattering around me all of the time to keep me entertained.

Speaking of which, my temporary roommate Regina found a job and moved out a couple of months back, so I’ve got my place to myself again.  My parents’ place, fine, but I rent it, which makes it mine.  The point is that although Regina’s great, it’s fantastic being able to walk around in my boxers and sprawl out on the whole couch again.  Plus it was always sort of awkward since, while under the influence of nanos, she’d tried to kill me with lightning, and I’d made her magnetic and gotten her temporarily committed.  We were past all of that, but it still sort of lingered.  You know how it is.

She’s still dating Brian, though, so it’s not like I don’t see her on the regular.  Honestly, this is the most active my social life’s been in years.  I’m not a hundred percent on board with it, actually, but I figure that relationships require sacrifice, and I can give up a planned quiet evening once in a while when my friends want to hang out.  It feels like sort of a stupid thing to complain about, anyway.  “Ugh, people want to associate with me when I have important Netflix shows to watch.  Being popular is hard!”

Besides which, when we hang out, a lot of the time it’s at home anyway.  I had a persecution campaign run against me by a nemesis with the power of persuasion a few months ago, and although there were retractions issued and the authorities did what they could to clear my name, not everyone believed them.

“The authorities” in this case mainly consist of Officer Sam Peterson, a local policeman who’s stuck his neck out for me more than once.  He was there shortly after my first superpower kicked in, and managed to gain my trust over time with a mixture of apparent concern and the ability to put me in jail if I didn’t open up to him.  As far as I can tell, his concern for my well-being is real, as is his concern for the city.  He’s a good guy, and I feel badly for having gotten him into this insanity sometimes.  He’s helped keep my life from turning into a total media circus on more than one occasion, and I’ve basically done nothing for him in return.

On the other hand, he seems to have a lot of clout now for a random city police officer, so it’s possible that being connected to me has done good things for his career.  I don’t ask; it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would make me happy.

Anyway, despite his work to convince people that I was not a destructive vandal bent on ruin, many people still seem to just remember the negative press.  I see a lot of sidelong glances when I’m out in public, and hear a lot of whispering with my name in it.  Hopefully it’ll fade in time, but right now I feel like a celebrity who just got busted for drunk driving.  Everyone knows who I am, everyone’s talking behind my back and no one’s saying positive things.

Again, I’m fine with that.  My social interaction consists of getting up before the sun, working until early afternoon on a construction site (Tanger Construction, now under new management), then vegging out at home.  Sometimes I go shopping for food.  I have a couple of close friends and no one else vying to get into that circle, and that’s exactly the way I like it.  When you have too many friends, that’s where you get into the kind of trouble Caesar had.  You think that everybody loves you, but then it turns out that you didn’t know any of them half as well as you thought you did.  Next thing you know: knives in the Senate.

I keep my friends circle tight, and I avoid these problems.  Or so I thought in early March.

So it’s March 1st, and Brian, Regina and I have gotten together for dinner.  I’m third-wheeling it up as usual, but Brian’s the one who’d texted to invite himself over, so it’s not like I’m crashing their date night or anything.  We’re hanging out post-meal, playing cards and snacking on chips while people scream and die in the background in some B-grade Netflix slasher offering.

Brian’s phone buzzes, and he checks to see if it’s anything important.

“You on call?” I ask.

“Nah,” he says, scrolling up on the screen.  “Just a marketing email from the hospital, looks like.”

“Well, you going to bet, then, or what?  We can skip your turn if you need.”

“Whoa, cranky, chill!  All right, I’ll call.  Man, for a dude who spends half of the game staring at the TV, you’re awfully fussy about this, you know?”

“Half, nothing!  I spend two-thirds of the game watching the TV: your turn, and her turn.  The remaining third — my turn — I spend playing.”

“Did you know you always get angrier about the game when you’ve got a good hand, Dan?” asks Regina.

“I do not!” I scowl.  She’s almost certainly right.  I should really work on my tells. The disadvantages of a small friend circle, I suppose; I’m not good at social lies.

Brian, meanwhile, is still looking at his phone.  “Hey, man, you might actually want to see this.”

He turns the screen around so that it’s facing me, and I stare at it in confusion for a few seconds.  “What?  So the hospital’s hosting some symposium on biomedical advances.  So what?”

“So that seems like the sort of thing that people who are into cutting edge medical technology might be into,” he says.

“Yeah, and?  I don’t care about advances in medical technology.”

Brian looks at me like I’m an idiot.  “Yeah, but people who build human-interfacing nanomachinery might.”

Oh.  No wonder he’s looking at me like that.  I am an idiot.

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