Escape: Part 1

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My bid for freedom is almost cut short in its first few seconds.  I weave between the cars and reach what should be the safety of the sidewalk, only to find myself squarely in the path of an onrushing cyclist.

His eyes widen as he attempts to swerve, but with a building on one side and parked cars on the other, there’s not much of anywhere to go.  To his credit, he almost makes it, but the trailing edge of his handlebars catch me in the gut, spinning me painfully around to carom off of the brick edge of the building.  This also has the effect of wrenching his bike toward me, spilling him in a rolling crash to the ground at my feet.  I manage to avoid accidentally kicking him in the head, but that’s about as much as I contribute to the situation.

I’d like to stop and help him up, but for all I know McMannis has ditched the car and is sprinting after me right now.  With a grunted, inarticulate apology, I leap over the fallen cyclist and resume my flight for safety.  He had a helmet on, so he’s probably fine.  A little scraped up, I’m sure, but I can feel fresh blood oozing from where my collision with bike and wall reopened wounds from capturing Brian yesterday.  So maybe he deserves a scrape or two as well, really.

In either case, I don’t have the time to think about him.  I need to formulate a plan other than “run,” and I need to do it while on the run.  Cudgeling my brain for a few seconds, I come up with something that is perhaps less of a plan and more of word association: “hide.”

Still, light on details though it is, it’s basically the right concept.  I sprint for several more blocks, taking corners at random, then slow to a brisk walk so that I look less like I’m fleeing from something.  I’m hoping that this will reduce Brayden’s ability to find out where I went by asking passersby if they saw anyone fleeing.  Of course, slowing down raises his chances of simply seeing me if he cruises by, so the next step is getting out of sight.

Up ahead, a narrow walkway leads between two office buildings to a sunny courtyard, mostly out of view of the the street.  I turn smartly down it, enter the courtyard and plant myself on a bench that’s getting meager shade from a small tree.  Time to catch my breath, both literally and metaphorically.

Time is my biggest enemy here.  And Ichabot, obviously.  Plus through him Vince, and anyone else he’s mobilized with the nanos.  So actually, I’ve got a lot of enemies, but the point I’m making is that time is on their side, not mine.  If I sit around doing nothing, my position gets weaker while theirs gets stronger.

I reach for my cell phone to check the time, and remember that I don’t have it.  It’s in a plastic baggie in Brayden’s car, along with my wallet and keys.  Basically everything I need to get around in daily life, in short.  So add that to the list of problems arrayed against me.

Also, now that I’m calming down a bit, my ribs are really starting to throb on one side.  I think the cyclist might have hit me harder than I realized.  I probe gently at the area with my fingers, and wince at even the light touch.  If nothing else, I’ve got a tremendous bruise forming, and I hope that’s all it is.

Speaking of which, I’ve still got a basic recognizability problem.  Generally, I’m a fairly nondescript white guy.  A little taller than average, but not so much as to stand out.  No tattoos, no unusual hair style or color, neither notably attractive or eye-catchingly ugly.  Usually, anyway.

Today, I’m covered in bandages from corralling Brian, and that includes two wrapping my hands and one covering the entirety of my cheek.  I could probably take the ones off of my hands by now, but when I poke the inside of my cheek with my tongue, I can still taste the gauze pad that I applied to the outside of my face.  So if I take that bandage off, I suspect the attention will simply morph from “why does that guy have a bandage?” to “look, look, I can see his teeth!”  And that’s not really much of an improvement.

Also, in assessing my physical attributes here, I’ve noticed that I’m still wearing handcuffs that just don’t happen to be connected anymore.  That’s the sort of thing that stands out in people’s minds as well.  Fortunately, I’ve finally found an aspect of my situation that I can do something about.

Wrapping my fingers tightly around each cuff, I scowl and let the nanos do their work.  Seconds later, the cuffs are fading away, a light rain of dust falling from my wrists.  It’s uncomfortably easy to summon up loathing right now.  That’s currently quite convenient, but it’s a weird blessing to be counting.

Okay, so arrayed against me we have: hunted by the police, no cash or phone, supervillains trying to kill me, currently no major power of my own, easily identifiable.  And in the positive column there’s…I can dissolve small holes in things.  Good.  This seems fair.

I need a place to hide out, to recharge, to get centered.  And the only place I can think to do that is home.

On the face of it, it seems like a patently stupid idea.  Obviously the police are going to look for me at my house.  I mean, where else am I going to go?  But on the other hand, everyone would assume that the police would check the home address first, and therefore no one would go there, since clearly the police would be waiting for them.  And if that’s the case, then the police wouldn’t waste their time checking the house.

Even though I realize that if I continue iterating that thought, it leads back to the police definitely going to the house, I haven’t got a better idea.  If I go home, I can get money, computer access to find out what’s going on, maybe contact some people who haven’t been turned against me yet.  Without home, I’ve got none of those things.  So I might as well stop on the part of the thought process that gives me some hope.

I don’t know exactly where I am, but I know I’m miles from my house.  What I’m bound to be close to, though, is a bus stop.  In this part of the city, they’re rarely more than a dozen blocks apart, so all I need to do is figure out which bus to catch and I can make my way back home.

I reach for my cell phone again to check the bus schedules, before remembering that I don’t have it.  This also reminds me that I don’t have my bus card, or any money to buy a ticket with.  Problematic.

I look surreptitiously around the courtyard, scanning for anyone with lightly attended purses or easily accessible wallets that I could snatch and run with.  It’s not my proudest moment, but I’m more than a bit desperate and the police are already looking for me, so it’s not like I’d be making things any worse for myself.

The only other person in the courtyard is a guy on a tablet computer, though, with no visible wallet.  I consider grabbing his tablet and making a break for it, but then I’d have to find a pawn shop and also I’m not at all certain that it’s as easy to pass off stolen goods at those places as the movies make it look.  I’m still thinking about it, though, when I spot something better through the glass doors of one of the office buildings: a vending machine.

The plan comes to me fully-formed: pop into the lobby, boost my magnetism to scramble the machine’s workings, catch the coins that come pouring out like a slot machine jackpot.  Easy as pie, and much less morally repugnant than purse-snatching.  Maybe not legally much different, but it feels better, anyway.

I saunter over to the door to the lobby and encounter my first problem when I attempt to open it: it’s locked.  There’s a card-reading machine to the side of the door, presumably for employees to swipe their badges, and obviously I don’t have one of those.  I’m already angering up to futz with the vending machine, though, so I focus that building magnetic charge and wrap my hand around the card reader.  It lets out a stuttered beep and goes silent.  I hear a soft click from the door and pull on the handle again, and this time it opens.  Success!

Feeling good about my progress thus far, I approach the vending machine and quickly glance around the lobby.  No one’s paying attention to me, so I put my hand over the coin slot and try to look like I’m just considering my options while I magnetize things.

At first, nothing happens.  After a few seconds, though, the lights in the machine shut off, after which nothing continues to happen.  I move my hand down to the coin return, in case there’s something more sensitive there, but the now-silent machine refuses to dispense so much as a single quarter.

I attempt to channel my frustration into anger to boost the magnetism, moving my hand randomly around the face of the machine, but it stolidly resists my every effort.  After almost a minute of this, something snaps.  Not in the machine, but in me.

“Fine,” I growl, changing tacks.  I press my fingers together and lean hard against the machine, letting my loathing flow through them and dispensing my destroying nanos.  The plastic of the machine peels away, revealing a brief glimpse of cylinders of change beneath before those in turn flay open and the coins begin to pour out in a tumult.

Surprised by the speed and intensity of the flow, I cup my hands and try to catch the sudden bounty, but they rapidly overfill my hands and pour onto the floor, ringing musically against the tile.  Every other head in the lobby snaps around to see me kneeling there, a look of guilty shock on my face as I blatantly rob a vending machine.

Luckily, though, I recover from the surprise faster than anyone else.  There’s no one between me and the front door, so I close my cupped hands into two fists and sprint for freedom, coins still falling in my wake.  I knock the door open with my shoulder and hip, springing down the front steps and hitting the sidewalk at a run.

A block later, I slow down to a brisk walk and shove my hands in my pockets, storing my bounty.  I take a few more random turns in case anyone’s pursuing, and through a stroke of luck I happen to wander right toward what I’ve been looking for: a bus station, complete with a map and list of bus routes.  I’m going home.


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Rescue: Part 4

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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.”

“What?!”

“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.


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Rescue: Part 3

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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 >]

Absence: Part 1

[< Previous ]


The rest of the day passes in a less spectacular fashion.  This might sound like a bad thing, since “spectacular” is often used as a synonym for “great,” but in this case I mean it in its more literal sense: I manage to avoid making a spectacle of myself.  So that’s definitely good.

Can you still make a spectacle of yourself if there’s no one around to see it?  I suppose this is an “if a tree falls in the woods” sort of question.  I’ll save it as a point to reflect upon the next time I need to meditate.

In any case, even had there been an observer for the remainder of the day, all that they would have seen was me making and eating more tacos than is objectively reasonable.  I work in construction and I host a colony of impossibly advanced machines; I can afford a few extra calories.

Stuffed and happy, I head to the couch to sprawl out and waste the remainder of my day.  As I’m about to sit down, a thought strikes me.  What if I start leaking nanobots?  I’m fully clothed again, but the nanos reduced my other clothes to scrap faster than I think I could roll off of the couch.  This couch is still new, bought to replace the one that Vince built a clone out of.  I don’t want to dissolve a hole in it.

I’ve got to sit somewhere, though, so after a few minutes of waffling, I grab a blanket from the bedroom and drape it over the couch.  It’s not much protection, but the extra layer might buy me the seconds of reaction time I need.

Hours later, I fall asleep to the soothing sounds of a werewolf movie.  When I open my eyes again, the grey light of dawn is sifting through the windows.  For me these days, this counts as sleeping in.  My clothes, blanket and couch are all still happily undisintegrated.  Or just integrated, if you like.  The important thing is that I haven’t destroyed anything in my sleep.

I send a text to Regina and an email to Doc Simmons saying essentially the same thing: Brian wants to meet up to discuss nanos, so how’s tomorrow afternoon at the hospital?  Then I go about my morning and wait for the rest of the world to wake up.  Quick tip: if you add an egg to the previous night’s leftovers, it counts as a breakfast scramble.  I am well-trained in the art of lazy cooking.

Eventually I hear back from both Regina and the doc, who are both on board with meeting at 5 PM tomorrow, so I text that information to Brian and get on with my day.  It’s a household chore kind of day: laundry, vacuuming, general straightening up, fixing the sink that’s been dripping, and so on.  I’ve put most of it off for a long time, so it occupies my day pretty solidly.

This is my excuse for why I don’t notice until the middle of the next day at work that Brian never texted me back.  I’m halfway up a scaffold when this strikes me, but I can’t exactly check my phone for missed messages at that point, so I just frown briefly and continue on up.  By the time I could check my texts, I’ve forgotten again.  In my defense, on a construction site there are a lot of things that require your full attention, and thinking about your phone is a good way to find out exactly how protective your helmet really is.

In any case, it’s not until I’m getting an early dinner after work that I remember again that I haven’t heard from Brian.  I check my phone, but there definitely haven’t been any messages.  I fire off a quick text to confirm that he’ll be there at 5, but if he’s not, it’s not like I don’t know where to find him.  He works in the same hospital as the doc, so even if he’s out on a call, he’ll be back sooner or later, and we can go snag him.

That’s my thinking right up until five o’clock rolls around, and I walk into the doc’s lab to see just her and Regina.

“No Brian?” I ask, checking the time.

“No,” says Simmons.  “In fact, I haven’t seen him in a couple of days.  Did he say he’d be here?”

“I mean, basically!  This was his idea.”  I’m pulling out my phone to text Brian when it buzzes with a message from him.

“What is it?” asks Regina, watching my face shift from annoyance, through confusion and into alarm.  Wordlessly, I pass her the phone.

So you’ve noticed Brian isn’t coming
Take a guess why that is, pus bucket
Looks like associating with you is bad for him again

“What is this?” demands Regina, wanting any answer other than the obvious.  Behind her, the doc shakes her head slowly.

“I…I don’t know,” I say, but the churning in my stomach says otherwise.  Taking back the phone, I write back:

so you stole his phone, big deal
what do you want?

As I’m writing, Regina’s phone rings.  “It’s Brian!” she exclaims, answering it.  “Bri?”

After a second, she puts it on speaker, her face somewhat ashen.  Brian’s voice fills the room, sounding shaky and panicked.

“–ine.  I don’t know where they’ve got me, but I’m okay.  I love you and I’m sor–”

The line goes dead.  A moment later, my phone buzzes again.

Still think I just have his phone
What I want is for you to die screaming
But if you want your friend back you can do something for me first
I left you a note

“Where?” I write back, looking around the lab in case it’s obvious.

At his house genius
Your already brain dead
The rest is a formality

“So I’m just supposed to go on your wild goose chase now?” I send.  What I get back is:

Filth
Filth
Filth

There are quite a lot of those messages, actually, but after the first few I get the point and ignore the near-continuous buzzing of my phone for the next minute.

“So,” I say to the somewhat shocked expressions around me, “I guess we’re going to Brian’s apartment?”


Brian’s place looks different than it did the last time I visited.  For starters, it no longer has a front door.  The frame is undamaged, and even the pins hang in the half of the hinges that are left, but the door itself is completely missing.  In its place is an unpleasantly familiar pile of ashy dust on the ground, with marks in it as if something has been dragged through it.

Doc Simmons and Regina both look at me.  I raise my hands and protest, “I haven’t been here!”

Inside, it’s much the same.  The television lies smashed on the floor amidst a pile of DVDs, the end table that once housed them now nowhere to be seen.  The rugs he had on the floor, most of the furniture, the microwave, even one panel of drywall — all missing.  And everywhere, coating everything, the telltale dust left behind by the nanos’ disintegration.

Anything that hasn’t been dissolved is in total disarray.  The contents of the dresser are on the floor, of course, but it’s more than just things that have fallen because their containers were destroyed.  It looks like someone went through here in a rage, sweeping things off of shelves for the sole purpose of smashing them.  There’s no indication of any kind of search, just an epic, apartment-wide destruction.

On the kitchen counter we find a half-dozen pens and a sheet of paper.  Scrawled on it is a message in several different colors of ink:

FIND THE DOCTOR AND MAKE HIM REVERSE WHAT HE DID TO ME

“What’s with the different pens?” I ask no one in particular, but Doc Simmons answers.

“I don’t think he’s got any real control over his nanos,” she says.  “I think he wrote as much as he could with each pen before it crumbled away in his fingers.”

A horrifying image strikes me then, of this shadowy figure grabbing Brian to drag him away, only to have Brian’s skin dissolve at the point of contact, blood spurting out to reveal white bone beneath, the destruction racing its way up his arm.  I clamp down on that, reminding myself that I heard his voice, that he’s still okay.

Regina’s crying, and I feel a lot like joining her.  “What are we going to do?” I ask.

Fortunately, the doc still seems pretty centered.  “Find your Dr. A,” she says pragmatically.  “This is what you wanted anyway.”

She’s right, of course.  And if he can stop the nanos, then this entire thing can end peacefully.  If not — it’s looking like my option is to go face off against someone with the same powers I have, the ability to disintegrate anything we touch.  Try as I might, I can’t picture any way that that doesn’t end in mutual annihilation.

“We’ve got to get Brian back!” says Regina.

“We do!  And we will,” I assure her.  “I think maybe we do that by finding Dr. A, though.  Unless you see something here that might give us a hint?”

All three of us survey the wreckage for a moment before turning back to each other.  Regina shakes her head.

“Okay,” I say.  “We need to come up with a plan.  Let’s…let’s go somewhere that still has furniture to figure this out.”


[ Next >]

Insistence: Part 3

[< Previous ]


Amusing though Brian’s problems are, though, I’ve got problems of my own to deal with.  Assuming I’m not my own nemesis, at some point I’m going to have to throw down with somebody, and the only weapon currently in my arsenal is unbelievably lethal.  I’m not particularly okay with that.  I sort of suspect that that’s the point, really.  I’m being backed into a corner where it’ll be another kill-or-be-killed situation — only this time it’ll be premeditated.

Maybe not under the technical legal definition, I suppose, but since I’m sitting here thinking about the inevitability of it right now, it’s close enough for me.  Which means that I need to figure out a way to use my power of dissolution defensively.

I take a moment to look back wistfully on the time when I thought using fire in a non-deadly fashion was difficult.  At least that could be used to control and harry, even if it was a massively dangerous endeavor.  With this, I’m really sort of stuck for ideas.  If I use it on a person directly, they’re dead.  Flayed alive and devoured cell by cell, screaming all the while.  Not an option.

Maybe the environment around them?  I picture a fight in a warehouse, with stacks of boxes and weird chains and pipes everywhere.  Take out the bottom box of a stack, and the whole pile collapses.  Or on a larger scale, I could eat away a few key structural supports to bring the building down.

There are two major problems with this idea, though.  One is that I don’t have any sort of range or delay on this power, so I’d basically have to be in view of my nemesis when I sprung the trap.  The other is that even if that worked, I think that dropping a large pile of hard materials onto someone tends to be fairly lethal, too.  So this isn’t really an improvement.

I could dissolve the floor under their feet — as long as I don’t mind dissolving the floor under my feet, too.  I suppose that as long as I’m on a different surface, that could work.  And as long as we’re not outside, since Doc Simmons cautioned that that could potentially destroy the planet.  That probably wouldn’t happen as long as I targeted a road or something instead of just the ground, but I don’t know if it would spread to all connected roads, or what.  I could make myself a bit unpopular if I released something that ate the entire interstate system.

How far can these things spread?  Can they survive indefinitely outside of my system?  They must replicate to disintegrate something so quickly, so clearly they’re self-sustaining in at least that regard.

I’ve been hanging around the doc too much.  I’m actually contemplating running organized experiments.

All right, fine.  If I’m going to mimic the doc’s thinking, I might as well do it right.  I need to find the flaws in my thinking, the unchallenged assumptions.  So, my basic problem here is that I need to take someone out non-lethally, and I have only a lethal tool with which do it.

Breaking that down: I need to take someone out.  Check, that’s pretty straightforward.  The hatred and disgust that my nemeses have been made to feel for me pretty clearly rules out any sort of peaceful conflict resolution, at least until they lose their powers.

Non-lethally is, as stated before, pretty non-negotiable.  I couldn’t sit here and plan someone else’s murder or maiming.  Especially since their minds have been warped by the nanos.  At least when someone’s on PCP or something like that, you can blame them for taking the drug in the first place, but the people I’m fighting didn’t choose this.

Except Tanger.  That guy was a jerk, and deserved worse than he got.  I still don’t think I could have pulled a trigger on him, though, and definitely not with something as ugly as disintegration.  I think again about the rat screaming as it died, and shudder.

Wrenching my mind away from that particular image, I move on.  Last clause of the proposition: I have only a lethal tool.  This is pretty much where I need to do my work, since the first parts are inarguable.  Of course, that’s also where I started, so I seem to have come full circle.

Still, there has to be a flaw somewhere.  Where are the places I’ve said “I can’t” or “I don’t”?  One of those assumptions might be holding me back.

After a few minutes of self-examination, I find three that I think I might be wrong about: I can’t use this at range, I can’t delay the nanos’ power, and I don’t have control over how much they destroy.  I mean, I’m obviously right about these assumptions so far, but with every other power, my control has grown the more I’ve used it.  So it’s possible that I’m doing myself a disservice by assuming that this works only by immediate touch and only on complete objects.

Breaking down only part of something seems like the easiest place to start, so I fish a soda bottle out of my recycling and, holding it only a few inches from my face, concentrate fully on it.  I let the loathing roll through me, but rather than focusing it on the entire bottle, I picture just the O in the label.  I extend one finger to poke the bottle, only to have it crumble apart before I can ever touch it.

For one excited moment, I think I’ve accidentally stumbled on how to use the power at range, before I realize that in fact the bottle is being eaten away from the back, where I’m holding it in my right hand.  I was completely focused on using my left as the deliverer of destruction.  Note to self: I have two hands.

Another bottle, another attempt.  This one sits on the counter, away from my hands.  I focus, I loathe, I thrust my finger accusingly at the bottle.  The plastic around the O shrivels up and peels away…followed by the rest of the bottle.  I sigh, blowing ashy dust across my countertop.

The next few hours look a lot like this, but I feel like I’m seeing progress.  It might just be in my mind, but I feel like the dissolution is slower outside of my target area, more hesitant.  It’s enough to encourage me to stick with it, at any rate.

And finally, after I’ve emptied my recycling bin and most of the trash cans in the house, I manage it.  I press my finger into the side of a waxed fast-food cup, causing a hole to appear right in the middle of the logo — and then stop.

“Yes!” I cheer exultantly.  I’ve done it!  I can use the nanos with precision.  This means that I’ll be able to…actually, I have no idea what this will let me do that I couldn’t do before, in terms of using this power in combat against a person.  I was right that “can only destroy whole objects” was a flawed assumption I was holding, but I forgot to check whether it was in any way related to making this power less lethal.

Still, I’m not going to let a minor thing like lack of usefulness put a damper on my mood.  I’ve successfully improved my ability!  I’m leveled up now.  And if I can do that for one aspect of the power, I can do it for others.  With confidence renewed, I set about figuring out how to make the nanos work on a delay.

This confidence has totally deserted me by mid-afternoon, and I finally throw in the towel as I watch the very last crumpled page of a magazine flash into powder the instant I touch it.  I’ve tried being in contact with the object both before and after loathing it.  I’ve tried mildly disliking it.  I’ve tried thinking of an upcoming time.  I’ve tried loathing the memory of objects I’ve already touched.  Everything has had one of two results: instant initiation of destruction, or nothing at all.

I reach for an apple to munch on, and my fingers sink into it.  I recoil, expecting it to be rotten, but it appears crisp and firm, just with holes where I touched it.  I look at my hands, then rub my fingers together.  Both hands feel slightly slick to the touch, even the hand that didn’t just get apple juice on it.

I poke the apple again, but nothing happens.  I summon up general loathing, let it simmer for a moment, and then touch the apple.  This time, it dissolves where my fingers come into contact with it, just like the first time.  And as before, the destruction doesn’t spread.

This is a fantastic discovery.  It’s the first defensive use of this power I’ve discovered.  If someone’s coming at me with a knife, I can grab it and destroy it.  Of course, I could do that before, but this way I won’t have to think about the knife.  I can just keep a generalized loathing up, and then all I have to do is grab whatever’s threatening me.  I’ll probably still get cut with the knife, since these don’t work quickly enough to stop the blade mid-swing, but at least I’ll only get cut once.  Or hit, or burned, or whatever.  People have found a lot of ways to injure me in the last year.  Now I can stop most of this with just a touch.

For that matter, why does it have to be from my hands?  The nanos are probably coming out through my pores — or maybe directly through my skin?  I’m not really sure how things work at microscopic scales.  Either way, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work from anywhere on my body.  And if I can make that work, then if someone hit me in the back with a baseball bat, bam!  No more bat for them.

I close my eyes and picture my body.  In a weird reversal of standard meditation, I let a sense of loathing spread out from me, feel it pressing out in every direction.  I feel a tingling all over, then a whisper of fabric sliding down my chest.  I open my eyes and hurriedly leap up from my seat as all of my clothes disintegrate, falling to the floor in irregular scraps of cotton and denim.

Standing naked in my kitchen, I shake my head slowly at myself.  Technically speaking, that worked exactly as I’d hoped it would.  I just hadn’t really thought through all of the implications.  It’s probably best not to try to deploy this particular trick in a fight.

At least I didn’t have my shoes on.  I have other jeans and shirts, but those are my only pair of steel-toed boots.  And unlike superheroes in the comics, I don’t have unlimited money for costumes.  Those boots are expensive!


[ Next >]

Insistence: Part 1

[< Previous ]


I’ve slightly overstated my case, of course.  Finding a link to Ichabot is not quite the same as getting any closer to him.  I have all sorts of links to him.  Heck, I’m full of links to him.  They’re just not particularly willing to lead me to him in any way.

The same is likely to be true for Dupont.  I mean, maybe not.  Maybe if I call him, he’ll be thrilled to tell me everything I want to know about the mad scientist who’s inflicted me with superpowers, and who apparently runs a medical supply store in his spare time.  But the more probable course of action is that he’ll think I’m completely crazy, and hang up on me.  It’s the big disadvantage of cell phones; you never know where the person you’re calling is, so it’s hard to go corner them if they just cut you off.

Of course, Brian did provide me with his work address, so that makes my life a bit easier.  And conveniently, the website’s “Contact Us” page has a form to fill out, and one of the options under the “Reason” dropbox is “Make an Appointment.”  Dupont’s going to have a much harder time hanging up on me once I’m physically in his office.  And through the magic of lying on the internet, I can get him to invite me in himself!

A new dropbox appears once I choose “Make an Appointment,” asking me to select what I need Dupont for.  I choose “Expert Medical Testimony,” on the grounds that that’s presumably where he makes his money, and therefore will be motivated to meet with me the soonest.  This option is followed by a text box which instructs me to briefly describe the nature of my problem.  After a moment’s thought, I write:

I was electrocuted at work, and since then have been fired from several jobs.  I need an expert to testify that it is my condition that is making it difficult for me to operate in a normal work environment.

Technically true!  I mean, not the part where I need an expert, but everything else.  The fact that my condition caused the electrocution, and also that it came in the form of lightning, doesn’t need to be mentioned here.  It would just confuse the matter.

I suppose I could have just lied and said I had a bad back or something, but there’s no elegance to that.

With the bait set, I go to bed and sleep as well as I ever do these days.  Which is to say, not particularly.  The image of the dissolving rat haunts me, and variations on it make its way into my dreams all night.  In one, I’m petting a dog, only to have it start screaming as its flesh is eaten away under my hands.  In another, I’m walking around my house, the floor crumbling away beneath my bare feet.

And in the one that finally wakes me up, I’m back in the hospital bathroom, staring at my face in the cracked mirror.  Filled with self-doubt and loathing for who I am and what I’ve become, I reach up with a single finger and poke myself in the forehead.  My reflection shows no emotion as I do it, despite the blossoming pain that fills my head.  The mirror shows my skin crawling away to reveal the skull behind it, every nerve howling as the destruction races its way across my face and down to cover my entire body, an agonizing process that seems to last for hours.

Finally, it’s complete, but I’m not dead, exactly; just not there anymore.  I still stare into the cracked mirror, which now reflects only an empty bathroom.  I can’t turn my head, can’t change my view at all.  I try to raise my hands or move my legs, but I can’t feel anything there.  It’s just cold and still, staring into the broken mirror forever.

I wake up from that one still cold, and find that I’ve kicked off my blankets somewhere in the night.  They’re not piled up on the bed, though, nor off to the side, and it’s not until I’ve turned the light on and am blinking around the room in confusion that I notice I’m covered in dust.  I’ve disintegrated my blankets in my sleep.

“Fantastic,” I complain to the empty room.  “It’s the superpowered version of wetting the bed.”

It could be worse, I suppose.  At least I didn’t wake up on the floor.

There’s less than an hour to go before my alarm, and with the bedding missing there’s not a lot of point in attempting to go back to sleep, so I make an early morning of it.  Basically, this just involves an extra cup of coffee and screwing around online.  I browse through the local news to see if there’s any sign of someone causing potentially superpowered destruction, but there doesn’t seem to be.  A shame, really.  If I’ve got powers, then I know my nemesis does, too, somewhere out there.  And if they’re not showing themselves, then I’m probably going to end up blindsided by them.  Again.

Work goes well until, while not looking where I’m going, I walk into a stack of rebar and bang my shin painfully.  I start to swear, suddenly have an image of the entire stack of rebar disintegrating while everyone looks on, and clamp down on my initial emotion.  Instead of swearing, I end up grimacing and announcing loudly, “This rebar is my friend!”  A couple of guys nearby turn to look quizzically, but they don’t say anything.

I don’t know why yelling makes things hurt less, but it does.  And apparently when I yell while trying to stay positive, I declare friendship with inanimate objects.  Now we know.

At the end of the workday, I check my phone to find an email from jrdupont@mls.biz, inviting me to come in and talk more about my case.  Rather than suggesting an appointment time, he just lists his office hours, so apparently I’m just supposed to come sit around his waiting room until he has time to see me.  That’s a jerk move, but on the other hand, I’m not doing anything for the rest of the day anyway, so I’ll deal with it.

A short drive later and I’m finding street parking outside of a somewhat run-down brick office building, one identical tower among many.  Inside, a dingy lobby hosts an elevator with a list of names and office numbers next to it.  Dupont is on the third floor, so I take a rickety ride up there and make my way down a poorly-lit hallway to his office.

My fears about being stuck in the waiting area were unfounded.  His office is only two rooms, with a water cooler and a sickly plant watching over three chairs in one, and a bookshelf and desk in the other.  Dupont is behind the desk when I arrive, and rises to greet me when I walk in.  This is clearly a one-man operation.

“Hello, can I help you?”  He’s a somewhat pudgy guy about my dad’s age, with a receding hairline and glasses that cling closely to his face.  He’s got a trace of an accent that I can’t quite place, something in the vowels.

He’s looking at me expectantly, so I say, “Yes, I wrote you a message online.  Through your website?”

“Oh, Dan Everton!” he says, and gestures at the chair on the far side of the desk as he sits back down.  “Please, take a seat.  So tell me about your condition.  You were electrocuted?”

I sit down.  “Yes.  Well, that wasn’t the start of it, actually.  It was part of it.  I’ve got — I’m sort of accident-prone.  In ways I can’t control.”

“Hm,” says Dupont, typing something on his computer.  “And this was caused at work?”

“Well, actually I think it was caused by Rossum Medical Supply.”

Dupont looks up sharply.  “How’s that?”

“Your boss,” I say.  “The owner, doctor…” I let the sentence hang for a second, but Dupont doesn’t fill anything in, so I continue.  “Anyway, he was trying out a new medical device on me, and it had…side effects.”

Dupont shakes his head.  “No, I don’t think so.”

“I think I would know!”

“Rossum is simply a medical supply store.  We don’t do tests.  We don’t have any new technology.  The most dangerous thing you’ll find in that store is a Rascal scooter, and that’s only dangerous if you run over your foot with it.”

This guy’s either a good liar or unaware of what goes on behind the scenes at Rossum.  If it’s the former, he’s not going to get me any closer to Dr. A.  If he just doesn’t know, though, then I might be able to convince him to help me.

“Look,” I say, leaning forward, “I’m not blaming you for this, and I’m not looking to get you involved, legally or otherwise.  I just need to talk to Dr. A.  And he’s avoiding me.”

“I’m sorry,” says Dupont, “but I can’t help you.”  He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, regarding me coldly.

“All I need from you is an address where I can find him.  Even a phone number!”

“I’m sorry, but no.  Please leave my office.”

“No, not until you help me.  I’ve almost died several times because of him.  I’m constantly under threat.  Every –”

Dupont cuts me off with a short laugh.  “Under threat?  Initially, he was just getting you fired.  Now it’s your life?”

“I just wrote down the part about being fired because I thought that would get me in to see you!”

“You could have just walked in!” retorts Dupont.

“Well, I know that now!  I didn’t know you had such a rinky-dink operation.”

Dupont stands from his chair and points at the door.  “Get out.”

“Will you help me?” I ask, also standing.  We’re glowering at each other across the desk now.

“No,” says Dupont.

“Fine,” I say, and with a push, I topple my chair over and stalk out of the office.  Behind me, I hear a startled, “What?!”, which is probably the result of Dupont going to pick up the chair, and finding that it is currently dissolving into dust before his very eyes.  I slam the door on my way out, then disintegrate the doorknob as well.

Petty, yes, but it feels good.  The most dangerous thing there is a scooter, indeed.  What a smug jerk.


[ Next >]

Frustration: Part 4

[< Previous ]


Afterward, I’m at the sink washing my mouth out when I make eye contact with myself in the mirror.  I straighten up, letting the cold water run over my hands as I stare myself down, trying to see what a stranger would see.  The corners of my mouth turn up slightly, the sign of someone ready to smile at a moment’s notice — or to smirk.  Stubbled chin, perhaps a sign of someone not overly concerned about appearances, or perhaps a mark of a dangerously antisocial character in the processing of withdrawing from society.  My nose…is a nose.  I don’t think you can read anything in someone’s nose.

My eyes, though, are what caught my attention in the first place, and are what I keep coming back to in my self-analysis.  If you’d asked me what they showed, I would have said horror, revulsion, fear, sadness — all of the things I was feeling when I ran for the bathroom.  But looking at myself in the mirror, I don’t see any of that.  I see tiredness, something that goes deeper than the slight bags under my eyes and permeates the orbs themselves.  It’s an emotional tiredness, the look of someone who’s given up on caring.  I scan my face for a hint of compassion, and I see none.

I lean heavily on the sink and stare myself down.  I’ve killed.  Not just the rat, though that is obviously sharpest at the moment, but people.  I beat Aaron Lovell to death with my hands.  I tricked Jonathan Caraway into a fatal car accident.  And yes, in both cases they were actively trying to kill me, but though that may explain what I did, it does not change it.  Dr. A may have turned them into monsters, but what did I turn myself into to beat them?

I set a building on fire with people inside, many of them simply incidental bystanders.  I burned a man alive in a car.  And again, the latter was to save my own life, and the former was to save the lives of many others, including those bystanders, but the extenuating circumstances don’t alter the toll this is taking on me.  These choices are becoming easier, less demanding, less concerning.

I used my best friend as bait, allowed him to take a beating meant for me, just to get the upper hand on someone.  What kind of person does that?  I glower into the mirror, my reflection scowling back.  My mouth turns down, no smile or smirk ready now, but just a deep disgust for the person I’m regarding.

Suddenly I stumble forward a step, knocking my forehead painfully into the mirror.  It stars at the impact, triangles of glass dropping away to smash further on the floor, but I barely notice.  I’m staring in horror at the porcelain basin of the sink on which I’d been leaning.  It has broken away beneath my hands, leaving me holding about half of it.  Water runs from the faucet over the half still attached to the wall, pouring down to soak my shoes, but even beneath the flow I can see that the sink is still eroding away.

I drop the piece I’m holding and hurriedly shut off the water.  Both pieces of the sink are vanishing at an impressive rate, steadily being erased from existence.  I grab the portion still attached to the wall, putting my hands in contact with as much of the surface area I can, and concentrate on calling back the nanobots.  What’s the opposite of loathing?  Love?  I grit my teeth and try to think loving thoughts.

It’s to no avail, though.  Whether because I did it wrong or because there’s simply no way to call back the nanos once they’ve begun their mission of annihilation, in mere minutes the sink has completely disappeared.  There’s nothing left but a faucet sticking out of the wall and a thick gray paste on the floor, where the water has soaked into the ashy remains.

So.  Apparently if I’m feeling loathing at a target I’m not touching, the nanos will strike out at whatever’s to hand.  That’s incredibly horrifying.  And yet, when I look in the mirror again, all I see is resignation.

I walk back down the hall, trying to touch as little as possible, and re-enter Dr. Simmons’s office.

“Hey, Doc?  Do you have a mop?  And gloves?  And…a good excuse for why a sink is missing?”


Back at home, I shuck off my clothes, get in the shower and try to relax.  It has been a long and unpleasant day, and I can’t even wallow in it; if I let myself get too carried away, things will start dissolving.  So instead, I end up doing daily affirmations in the shower, reminding myself of everything that’s good in my life.

I have a car again!  Top of the list, easily.  It’s the American dream.  The attendant debt is also part of the dream, I suppose.  Americans have weird dreams, when you get right down to it.  Still: no more bus shelters, no more bus.  That’s fantastic.  And I am putting gloves on every time I drive until I kick this power, because I am not risking going back to that.

I have excellent parents.  They raised me well, they’re renting me the place that I live, they care about me and they express it during infrequent visits, so they’re not constantly helicoptering my life.  It’s a good balance, and they’re good people.

My job is great.  It keeps me active, it’s enjoyable, and there’s most of an actual building where just months ago there was only a burned shell.  There’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing something tangible take shape like that.

I have friends who care about me; two of them, in fact.  This is a bit weird, honestly, but overall a net positive.  I’ve always been a loner, and just didn’t bother to make lasting friendships.  But I’m glad that Brian and Regina seem to be proving the exception there.

And finally, I have Netflix, an absolute godsend to binge-watchers and B-movie aficionados everywhere.  Which is where I park myself post-shower, sprawled out on the couch in boxers with my mind disengaged.

An hour or so into the movie, my stomach informs me that I should get dinner.  My brain informs me that perhaps my friends would also like dinner, and so I text Brian and Regina with, “Dinner tonight?”

A few minutes later, my phone buzzes, and I’m surprised to see that it’s an actual phone call from Regina.  Mildly concerned, I pick it up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Dan, it’s me.”

“Yeah, what’s up?  Everything okay?”

“What?  Yeah, oh yeah.  I was just calling because Brian emailed me to ask me to let you know that his phone is broken.”

“Okay, what?  Run that by me one more time.”

She laughs.  “I got an email from Brian, saying that you texted while he was making dinner, and he dropped his phone in the sink.”

“Oh, man!  Sucks.  Sounds like it’s just one of those days all around.”

“Yeah, something’s probably in retrograde somewhere.  Anyway, he’s obviously already got dinner, and also now no phone, so he says he’s staying in tonight.”

“Okay, cool.  Thanks for letting me know.”

“Hey, Dan?  Is everything all right with you and Brian?”

“Sure, as far as I know!  Why, what’s up?”

“I don’t know.  It just seems a little weird that he emailed me and not you.”

“Man just dropped his phone in the sink.  He’s probably a little frazzled.  And not to point out the obvious, but you probably come to mind for him before I do.  We’re friends and all, but there’s a hierarchy.”

“That’s true,” Regina says, though something in her voice suggests that she doesn’t agree with me.  I figure that if she want to vocalize those objections, she will, and otherwise I don’t need to poke at them.  We say our goodbyes, and I unpause the movie.

Fifteen minutes later, my stomach reminds me that friends or no friends, dinner still needs to happen, so I pause it again and ransack my house for food.  This is about as exciting as my evening gets, at least until I check my phone to see an email from Brian.

There’s no subject, but the preview line says “J. R. Dupont,” so I open it eagerly.  Inside, it doesn’t say much more.  After his name, it says “Medical Litigation Support,” followed by an address downtown and a website.  I browse around the website for a bit, but don’t find the name “Jules” or anything directly linking him to Rossum Medical Supply.  That is, until I get to the contact information.  The phone number provided on the website matches the one I got from Nathan for Jules Dupont.

“All right, Ichabot!” I say out loud.  “I’m on your trail now.”

Netflix and solitary living may make for a quiet life, but it’s possible that I’ve ended up with a few quirks.  Don’t judge.


[ Next >]

Frustration: Part 3

[< Previous ]


Doc Simmons is bent over a notepad with her back to the door when I arrive, so I rap my knuckles on her doorframe.  The momentary annoyance on her face flits away when she sees me, and she stands up and strides to the door to close it as I step inside.

“Dan!  Great.  Brief me.”

“And hello to you, too, Doctor Simmons.  Yes, my day has been lovely, and yours?”

“Mine has been full of time-wasting paper-pushers.  Don’t join their ranks.”  Her scowl has returned, and I sigh.

“Check.  Your number one lab rat, reporting in.  I have dissolved a pen.  Poof, it is gone.”  I wave my hands at her, spirit fingers style.

“More details, less sarcasm, please.  Did it vanish all at once?  Was anything around it affected?  What were you feeling at the time?  Have you noticed any adverse reactions in yourself yet?  Was there –”

I break in before I forget the questions she’s already asked.  “Okay, cool the rapid-fire!”  The doc glares at me, but I stand my ground.  “I don’t have perfect recall, Doc.  You’ve gotta let me do a few questions at a time, or give me a survey to fill out or something.

“And hey, what do you mean, any adverse reactions yet?  Are you expecting me to fall apart?”

Simmons gives me an exasperated look.  “No, Dan, but you’re a test-bed for unknown technology.  There’s a reason ethics boards don’t allow human testing until well into the process.  Humans are fragile creatures with a lot of interconnected parts.  These nanos seem to tie into your emotional responses, meaning that they’re likely connected to your brain chemistry, a particularly murky area.  So while I have no particular reason to believe that you are likely to ‘fall apart’ any time soon, I also think it’s worth asking if this unknown technology is having unpredictable effects.

“Now can we please talk about the pen?” she concludes, tapping her own pen impatiently against her notepad.

“Okay, yeah, sorry.  The pen broke down into, like, sand.  Not gritty, though.  Fine sand.  It took a few minutes, and I was holding it most of the time.  Nothing else I was touching dissolved, then or later.  And I was…I don’t know, angry? at the pen.  It was out of ink, and it was just the latest thing in a really irritating day.”

“Ha!” laughs the doc.  It’s a noise without much humor behind it.  “Better you than me.  I could have dissolved much worse than a pen today.  I think the hospital might have noticed if one of their bureaucrats went missing.  Someone must find them useful, at any rate.  They outnumber the doctors around here.  It’s enough to make me see Dr. Acharya’s way of looking at things.”

As she speaks, she’s arranging pens on a series of trays on one of her workspaces.  There’s a metal tray, a plastic cafeteria one, and a paper folder.  Which I suppose isn’t technically a tray, but it’s lined up with the others and has a pen on it, so I’m counting it as a tray in this instance.

“Okay, Dan,” says Doc Simmons, setting up a camera.  “Get angry at these pens.”

Reflecting briefly on how weird my life has become, I step up to the table and put my hand on the first of the pens, the one on the folder.  I focus my anger at it, but after a few seconds, a familiar tingling sensation in my fingers informs me that I’ve screwed up somehow.

“Uh, Doc?” I say, raising my hand.  The pen dangles from my palm, magnetically suspended there by its metal clip.  “Anger’s the trigger for my magnetism, and it looks like it’s still doing that.”

“You know,” says the doc irritably, “any reasonable person designing things like these would link their abilities to a single trigger, not to some vast and varied array of states.  This is like having a panel of seven light switches that all turn on the exact same bulb.”

“Sure, but they make the bulb do different things,” I say.

“Don’t stretch my simile, Dan,” says Simmons, which I take to mean she doesn’t have a response to my point.  “All right.  How did your day go?”

“Fine, thank you,” I say automatically, and the doc glares at me.

“Yes, and if I could get you to actually answer my question and not spit out societal platitudes?  Step through it.  We’re going to build to your emotional state.  I have not personally had a particularly pleasant day, so if you could at least try to work with me on this, it would really be appreciated.”

I shrug sheepishly.  “Sorry.  It was just an annoyance kind of day, I guess.  Spilled my coffee, forgot my lunch, couldn’t get a sandwich.”

“Slow down,” cautions Simmons.  “Don’t just list the events.  Feel them.”

“Okay, so I was frustrated and ticked off when I couldn’t get through the fast food line.  Then work was exhausting, but just physically, not really mentally.  Until I had to get on the stupid bus, and some idiot there spilled his drink all over me.”

I’m starting to feel my blood boil in the retelling, but there’s something more than anger behind it, more visceral.  I try to picture the cow-like look on the guy’s face as he stammered out his apology, and that gives the feeling more shape.  As I relate everything that followed — the largely ineffectual blotting, the broken armrest, Mac’s prying questions while I’m sitting there in still-sticky jeans just trying to buy a stupid car — the feeling grows into a ball of vitriol that I can feel sitting in my mind.

“And then the pen wouldn’t work!  It’s literally designed for a single thing, and it couldn’t do that!”  Disgust drips from my voice.

“See the pen,” Doc Simmons says, intensely.  “Touch it now.”

I reach forward and lay my hand on the pen, and my fingers dent the barrel like it’s made of putty.  The doc and I lean in to watch, fascinated, as before our eyes the pen erodes away, destruction spreading out in circles from the initial point of contact.  It’s like watching a soap bubble pop in super slow motion.  The plastic first thins, then pulls away from the places I touched it.  As it spreads around the barrel, the inner workings are revealed, briefly granting a cutaway view of a functioning pen.  Then, as the rings of disintegration wrap around to the far side, the barrel falls apart into several pieces, dropping into a loose jumble on the folder.

The erasure sweeps across the different materials of the pen with no particular pause.  The metal clip, the plastic barrel, the spring inside — all begin to collapse into dust before our eyes.  In under a minute, the pen is entirely gone.  Even the ink inside has been completely destroyed; when the doc carefully brushes the dust that’s left behind into a collection container, there’s not so much as a mark on the folder beneath it.

“Well,” says Doc Simmons after marking her samples.  “So not just anger, but loathing?  That should be a fun one to use.”

“I mean, I’m kind of glad it’s not something I’m just going to stumble into a lot,” I say.  “It would kind of suck to be molecularly disintegrating stuff every time I smiled or something.”

The doc winces.  “Dan, molecular disintegration would — never mind.  Close enough.”

She pauses, then adds, “And I hate that association with you has caused that phrase to enter my vocabulary.”

“Hey, harsh!  It is close enough, right?  It’s breaking it down into its component pieces.”  She might be right about what is or isn’t happening, but I’m not just going to stand here and be insulted.

“Dan, you have a Renaissance artist’s grasp of science.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

“Close enough.”

Her sarcasm’s not subtle, but I don’t have a good retort, so I let it pass, asking instead, “So, on to these other pens?”

“Yes, since these trays share material components with the pens, plastic and metal, I want to see if the disintegration process will still stop at the original intended target, or spread through similar objects.”

A thought strikes me.  “Hey Doc, what would happen if I went outside and directed this at the ground?  Like, the whole Earth?”

Simmons sighs.  “Dan, does the idea of a controlled experiment really mean nothing at all to you?”

“So you think it would work if I did it, then?”

“Don’t.”

After a few more minutes, we’ve learned several things.   The disintegration is limited to whatever object I target; the nanos don’t spread beyond the original item, even when it’s one pen rubber-banded into a sheaf of identical pens.  There doesn’t seem to be any substance that they can’t disassemble, and the doc quickly has a row of seemingly identical containers of dust for later examination.  And I can’t choose to dissolve just part of something.  If I sic this power on an object, it breaks down completely.

Simmons leaves the room briefly, and I’m trying to figure out potential productive uses for this when she returns.  In her hands is a small plastic cage containing a live rat.

“What?  No,” I say, standing up and backing away.  “No way.”

“We need to know, Dan,” Doc Simmons says implacably, placing the rat on the table and beckoning me toward her.  “We need to know the limits.”

“No way.  I’m not killing a rat.  Not a live rat, not like this.”

“If you want, I can kill it first, but then that’ll only demonstrate that they work on recently dead things, and we’ll have to get another one for the final test.  Look, you told me that Victor’s cloning power didn’t work on living tissue, and this seems related.  Your nanos aren’t reassembling anything afterward, but it’s the same breakdown of material.  So there’s a good chance that it won’t even do anything.”

This is terrible.  Honestly, I’d run for the door if I thought I’d make it, but the doc’s in between me and the exit, and I have no doubt that she’d tackle me to keep me here.  And after all, it is a lab rat; it’s bred to die in experiments.  This at least is fast, as opposed to getting cancer or whatever they usually do to them.  Plus it would be a huge relief to know that I couldn’t accidentally unleash this on a person.  So the rat wouldn’t even get hurt, and I’d have peace of mind.

Reluctantly, I approach the table.  “I don’t like this, Doc.”

“You don’t have to like it.  You just have to try it.”  She opens the top of the container.

I steel myself and reach in.  The rat appears unafraid, stretching up to sniff my finger.

“So, where should I touch it?  Does it matter?”

“Touch it on the head.  If this works, that should kill it faster.”

“Ugh.  Thanks, Doc.”

It takes several minutes for me to work up the emotion necessary to make the attempt.  The rat looks harmless and inquisitive, and it’s hard to loathe it.  So I close my eyes and picture the concept of rats.  Plague bringers.  Vermin.  Property destroyers.  Animal killers.  Eyes in the night, teeth and hissing and claws, lashing tails, scurrying shadows.  Ruiners.  Filth.

When I can finally feel the disgust welling up, with eyes still closed, I reach back in and strike blindly for the rat.  I feel warm fur under my fingers for a second, and then a tortured squeal snaps my eyes open.

I did manage to touch it on the head, directly between the eyes, and the fur is already peeling back, blood escaping and skin inching away to reveal bone beneath.  But my grasping fingers also hit the rat in three places along its back, and the same dark chemistry is occurring at each of those spots.  The rats thrashes violently, spattering droplets of blood around its plastic prison.  It shrieks, flailing desperately for perhaps a dozen seconds before falling still, its brain succumbing to the destructive appetites of the nanos.  In that time, though, its back was flayed open, its organs displayed and the knobs of its spinal cord revealed.  It was not a clean or pleasant death.

I force myself to watch as the rat is rapidly eaten away, the ravages of time sped up to do the work of years in only a few minutes.  It takes longer than the pens, probably due to its significantly increased size, but in the end all that is left is the blood sprayed on the walls of the cage and a rough pile of ash on the floor.

“So anything that separates from the main body is not dissolved by the nanos,” Simmons notes clinically.  “Reasonable.  That could help show how quickly they spread, and in what pattern.”

I don’t know how she can be this calm.  I’m about to throw up.  And not in a figurative sense, I realize.

The doc doesn’t stop me as I run out of the lab.  I make it to the bathroom in time, so at least something’s gone right today.


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Frustration: Part 1

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The next day is apparently just one of those days.  I wake up about forty-five minutes before my alarm for no apparent reason, and it’s not a casual, I-guess-I-got-enough sleep waking up.  Instead, I’ve got the feeling that there’s someone in my room, and that they just touched me lightly while I was sleeping.  If you’ve never woken up to a feeling like this, consider yourself lucky.  It’s deeply unpleasant.

I turn on my phone’s flashlight, and obviously there’s no one there, but I still have to go switch on the lights and check under my bed, because apparently I’m six and still believe in monsters.  After five minutes, I’m satisfied that I am truly alone, but there’s no point in going back to sleep now.  I might manage to fall asleep exactly in time to be awoken by my alarm, and that’s assuming more sleep happens at all.

I manage to overfill the coffee pot, which subsequently spills a burning lake of liquid all over the counter while I’m out of the room getting dressed.  I come back in to hear it hissing and splashing on to the floor, then have to mop up scalding-hot coffee with wadded paper towels.  Also, the rest of the coffee’s diluted due to too much water, so basically the whole thing’s a fiasco from start to finish.  I consider making more, decide I don’t have the time, and pour my weak coffee into a thermos so I can go wait for the bus.

I text Jules Dupont’s info over to Brian as I wait for the bus, along with the short version of what a bust that visit was.  I don’t know what he can do with it, but it can’t hurt to pass it along, at least.  I send it to the doc on the same principle, only I email it to her, since she doesn’t like texting.

I asked her about that one time: “You’re so efficiency-minded.  You should love texting.  It cuts out all the unnecessary stuff.  What don’t you like about it?”

“Abbreviated messages being misunderstood through lack of context?  And the ever-present errors forced in through autocorrect and typing on tiny keyboards, combined with the idea that this is an informal medium that doesn’t need to be proofread?  Texting is a recipe for disaster.  The convenience isn’t worth the trade-off.”

“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” I told her, and she gave me a look that reminded me of exactly how many tools she had in that very room to kill me and dispose of the body.  So now I email her when I need to send her stuff.  I try to keep the emails short enough to fit in a text, because I am petty.  So far, she hasn’t noticed.

Work is actually basically fine, maybe because I’m hyper-alert for things to go wrong.  If I spill a pot of coffee at home, the only repercussion is that I burn my fingers mildly cleaning it up.  On the job site, lack of attention leads to industrial accidents, where you can be lucky to even keep all of your fingers.  There are enough people with residual ill-will for me there for reasons that aren’t my fault.  I don’t need to support their beliefs by actually screwing up.

In fact, the only thing that really goes wrong at work is when we break for lunch, and I discover that mine is sitting at home on the kitchen counter, all bagged up and ready to go.  I could run out and pick up fast food if I had a car, but I don’t.  So I walk to a nearby sandwich shop, wait in line for ten minutes without significant progress, and realize that I’m not going to make it to the front in time to get my food and get back before lunch break is over.  I step out of line, buy a bag of chips and an apple from a gas station, and cram them down on my way back.  I make it before my lunch half-hour is over, but it’s close, and I spend the rest of the day feeling hungry, irritable and just sort of off.

After work, I decide to blow off the plan to go look at cars.  With as poorly as my day has been going, it feels like it’s just going to be an exercise in frustration.  I’ll do better to just go home, unwind and look at cars another day.

This resolve lasts for about five minutes, when a man getting onto the bus trips walking down the aisle and spills his drink on me.  Not splashes it on me, mind you, but full-on drops the entire thing in my lap.  The top comes off and I’m soaked in a wave of soda.

“Oh man, I am so sorr–” the guy begins, reaching down to pick up his cup.  The look in my eyes, however is probably best described as “murderous,” and I don’t think I mean that in a hyperbolic sense at this point.  He stutters to a stop midsentence, backs away from me quickly, and retreats to the far back corner of the bus.  I crumple the cup in my fist and chuck it onto the empty seat next to me.  Someone ahead of me passes back a fistful of paper towels, and I sponge off as much of the soda as I can.

You might think that this would cement my decision to go home, but it has the opposite effect.  There are two reasons for this.  One, I am now determined to never ride the bus again.  If anyone’s going to spill drinks on me on the way to and from work, it’ll be me.  And two, now I feel like the universe is just trying to keep me from buying a car.  Nothing makes me more determined to do something than being told I can’t.  You don’t tell me I can’t buy a car, life!  I’m going to buy one right now.  I’ll buy two if I want to.

Naturally, having made the determination to be done with buses, this one’s got to have one more shot at me.  As I’m leaning on the armrest, futilely trying to press soda out of my jeans, the armrest snaps, jolting me forward and almost causing me to headbutt the seat in front of me.  I snarl silently and place the broken armrest in the empty seat next to me, noting as I do so that the cup is gone.  Maybe the guy got his courage up and came back to get his trash?  Someone took care of it, anyway, which is good.  I had half a mind to wait until I was getting off the bus and then throw it at him, to see how he likes it.

So this is how I enter Caravel Motors: hungry, sticky, damp and mulish.  Despite this, a salesman steps briskly over, looking happy to see me.

“Welcome to Caravel!” he says, shaking my hand.  He’s in his early twenties, clean-cut and crisp.  “I’m Mac.  What can I do for you?”

“Mack, like the truck?  Working with cars?” I say.

He grins like I’d actually managed to make that into a joke.  “John Robert MacDonald the fourth.  My great-grandfather was Johnny, my grandfather was Bob, my dad was Jay and I’m Mac.  When I inflict this fine tradition on my eventual son, he’ll probably have to go by Bert.”

“Or Donald, I suppose.”

“Always an option!  So, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m looking to buy a car.  I’m cheap, but I want one that works well.  I don’t need anything flashy.  I have no one to impress.  And I have had a lousy day, so make this easy on both of us and don’t try to upsell me on stuff.”

Mac flashes that grin again, which is already beginning to grate on me.  I know for a fact that I’m not that entertaining, which means he’s either faking this or laughing at me.  Neither option makes me happy.  I squelch my curmudgeonly instincts for now and follow Mac over to a desk with a computer terminal.

“Okay,” he says as we sit down, “are you looking to pay cash or do you want to finance?”

“Finance, if the price is right.”

“No problem.  We do that in-house, so we should be able to work with you.  Here, if you can get started filling out this paperwork, I’ll get the system up and ready to accept it.”  He passes me a clipboard and a cheap plastic pen with “Caravel Motors” on the side, along with a picture of a sailing ship.  I’m sure it made sense in marketing somewhere.

I click the pen’s point out and write my name.  Or try to; the pen does not actually appear to have any ink.  I scribble a spiral in the top corner of the paperwork, trying to get the ink to flow.

“Are you going to be trading in a vehicle, or is this a second car?” asks Mac.

“Neither,” I say, still scratching with the pen.

“Oh, is this a first car?  Congratulations!”

“No,” I say with some irritation, “I had a car before.  It got totaled.”

“Was everyone all right?”

“Not the guy who stole it, no,” I say shortly.  I don’t really want to discuss this with Mac, since telling him that an ape-man tried to carjack me and I tricked him into driving into a telephone pole is probably going to strain even Mac’s ability to grin through things.  Meanwhile, the stupid pen still won’t write.  I’m pressing harder, as if that will help, and suddenly I hear a snap and look down to see that the plastic of the pen has given way where I’ve been gripping the barrel, and it’s now broken into two halves.

“Can I borrow another pen?” I ask Mac.  “This one doesn’t have any ink.”

“Oh, sure,” he says, grabbing another one off of his desk and handing it to me.  “Sorry about that.  Here, I’ll throw that one away.”

Mac reaches for the pen, but I close my hand around it.  “Um, if you don’t mind, I’ll keep this one.  It, uh, has the dealership number on it, right?”

Mac looks surprised.  “Sure, but so does the one I just gave you, and that one should write.  You can keep the working one, if you want!”

“No, I have plenty of pens.  I’ll just keep this one,” I say, as if that makes sense.  Mac lets the subject drop, although he still looks confused.  I can hardly explain to him the real problem, though, which is that when I looked back down at the pen, it wasn’t just broken.  It was dissolving, the plastic thinning and flaking away even as I watched.  And since I’m guessing that self-dissolving pens are not some new eco-friendly fad, that means I probably did this.

Also, I had better keep my hands to myself until I figure out what’s going on this time. Caravel Motors might not be too worried about their pens, but I bet that if I dissolved one of their salesmen, I wouldn’t be welcome back.


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