Denouement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regina turns. “You’re awake!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, so — you guys okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You escaped from jail,” Regina adds helpfully.

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

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

“Fine by me, man. Fine by me.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t be happier.

Association: Part 1

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The phone rings, waiting for Regina to pick up, as I slap-flop my way down the hallway in my ridiculous shoes. After the third ring, it’s answered.

“Doctor Simmons!” Regina’s voice sounds relieved. “I was worried about you.”

“Hi, Regina,” I say, bracing myself for the abuse. I am not disappointed.

“Dan! Scumlicker! What’d you do with the doctor, you human sewer?”

“What’d I do with the doctor? Nothing, she’s fine. She’s helping me out, on account of us being friends.”

“Put her on, then.”

“What?”

“Put! Her! On! If you’ve hurt her, I’ll sear the flesh from your bones! I’ll fry you alive! I’ll–”

“Whoa, chill, I’m getting her!”

I hurry back down the hallway and knock hastily on Doc Simmons’s door before sticking my head in. “Doc? Regina wants to talk to you. If you could maybe put in a kind word for me, that’d be awesome.”

The doc takes the phone from me. “Regina? …Yes, obviously I’m fine. …He has my phone because I lent it to him to help sort this out. …I would assume that he wasn’t able to get it back from the police after you helped throw him in jail this morning.”

There’s a longer pause, and Simmons’s tone is sharper on her next reply. “He and I are working to fix this, while you are out gallivanting around like some easily-controlled airhead. No, don’t act stupid! I don’t care how you feel, stop and think about it for five minutes and you can work your way through this. And if you can’t, come in here so I can sedate you like Brian.”

She thrusts the phone angrily back in my direction. I can hear Regina talking, but can’t make out the words until I get it to my ear. “–okay though, right?”

“What, Brian?” I ask, leaving the room again. I hear a sputtered hiss on the other end of the line, and roll my eyes. “Are you doing the same thing he did? Fine, I won’t pollute his name with my mouth. Your boyfriend who shall not be named is fine. The doc’s taking care of him. And as long as you don’t start lobbing lightning at the hospital in an attempt to get to me, neither one’s in any particular danger.”

“Are you saying you’ll hurt them if I come after you?” Regina spits.

“What? No! I’m saying that if you start calling down lightning, YOU’RE going to hit them! I’m not threatening my friends!”

My only answer for several seconds is labored breathing. Finally, Regina says, “You can’t imagine how hard this is.”

“It’s not really great for me, either.”

“No, you can’t imagine it! It’s like you’ve currently got a gardening trowel stuck in my side, like you’ve slashed it through blood and muscle and organs. And you’re standing here in front of me and pretending nothing’s wrong, and I’m supposed to agree with you because why would you do that? Only you DID and I can FEEL IT and it’s KILLING ME!”

“Okay,” I say. “Okay. That sucks, unimaginably sucks, and I’m sorry and I’m on my way to stop it. Do you believe that?”

Another lengthy pause. “Yes.”

“You know that we’re friends? Logically you know that, if nothing else?”

“Yes.” The word sounds like it’s been wrested from her mouth like a tooth, leaving her hurt and bloodied in its passing.

“This is going to be a lot easier if you can work with me. Can you do that?”

“Don’t patronize me! Don’t act like I’m beneath you!”

“I’m not doing that. I’m just trying to stay calm here.”

“Why, so you can pretend to be the sensible one while I’m the hysterical woman?”

“No, because I’ve got to be calm to reduce my magnetic attraction and make me less vulnerable to lightning.”

Regina starts to laugh. It’s got a bit of a hysterical jag to it, but it sounds like a release of tension, and I take it as a good sign. I reach the bottom floor of the hospital while she’s still laughing, start to exit the stairwell, and then realize something important. I move the phone away from my mouth so I can sigh without offending Regina, and clomp my way back up the stairs.

Regina’s laughter subsides as I’m on my way back up.

“Do you even have any powers at all right now?” she asks.

I hesitate. She sounds friendly enough, but probably that’s a temporary thing. I saw how quickly Brian lost control and turned on me again. Should I really confess to someone that’s trying to kill me that I’m basically defenseless?

On the other hand, she pretty much already knows that. She saw Ichabot take my powers this morning. So I might as well trust her.

“Nothing but the remnants,” I admit. “Little bit strong, little bit smart, little bit of everything.”

“And a little bit screwed,” she concludes. “Man. And you’ve got both me and Brian after you now?”

“Yeah, and Vince.”

“Huh. So probably Mr. Tanger too, then.”

“Yeah, though he’s keeping his distance so far. He was always more of a hands-off guy anyway. Puppet master type.” I reach the door to Doc Simmons’s lab and knock again. She looks up and makes a gesture of annoyed inquiry in my direction.

“Can I borrow your car?” I mouth, holding the phone with my shoulder and miming a steering wheel with both hands. Simmons looks disgusted, but tosses me a set of keys. I wave my thanks at her and back out of the lab.

Regina is saying, “So even with Brian out of commission, you’ve got the deck stacked against you. And you’re looking to take me out of play?”

“Well, I was hoping for something more positive, actually. Think there’s any possibility of being able to work with me?”

Another long pause, and Regina’s voice is significantly less friendly when it returns. “You cannot possibly understand what you’re asking of me.”

“Okay, stipulated! But can you do it? If not, let me know, but if you can, it really improves our odds.” I’m just opening the door to the stairwell when I’m struck by my own stupidity again, and turn back toward Doc Simmons’s lab again. The doc is standing in the doorway, a piece of paper held in her hand. Even from down the hallway, I can see she has one eyebrow raised and is looking sarcastic. I hurry back and collect the card from her, which lists her car’s make, model, color and approximate location in the parking lot. I try to silently convey “You couldn’t have reminded me to wait for this?”, but my miming skills aren’t that good.

“I can do it,” Regina says after long consideration. “I can keep this under control.”

“You sure? I totally understand if it’s not something that–”

“You don’t understand anything!” Regina explodes. “You’re asking me to work with the worst person imaginable, the equivalent of someone who murdered my whole family in front of me and framed me for it, and then saying ‘Hey, I get it if this is hard for you.’ Shut up! You don’t get it. I’ll work with you because I think you’re right and I don’t think this is true, but shut up and don’t make me listen to your smarmy filth mouth!”

It’s quiet for a moment after that, except for the thick slaps of my shoe-mats hitting the ground. I can’t really think of anything to say in response to that, and Regina seems to be collecting herself.

As I head toward the front doors of the hospital this time, I do a quick inventory. Keys, check. Knowledge of car, check. Phone for communication, check. Still no money or ID, but I’m doing a lot better than I was on the way in here. All I’ve got to do is find the doc’s car in the driving rain, and I’ll be mobile again.

I exit the front doors and scan the parking lot from the safety of the overhang. Doc Simmons’s car should be off to the right, but I haven’t taken more than two steps that way before I see a figure standing in the rain. It’s hard to make out anything but bedraggled blonde hair and a cell phone held to the side of the head, but that’s enough to send me leaping back for the overhang. I’m barely back under the metal roof before a lightning bolt suddenly crashes in the parking lot, just about where I would have been if I’d kept going. Half-blinded, I scramble for the doors, the smell of ozone and burnt asphalt stinging my nose.

I dash back inside, spilling onto the hospital floor. The duty nurse gapes at me, but I just wave a hand at her. “Regina?!” I shout into the phone.

“I’m not really ready to see you yet, Dan,” the phone replies.

“Yeah, I kinda caught that!” I pick myself up off the floor, throbbing all over from every injury I just reopened. “You couldn’t have given me a little bit of a warning?”

“That was a warning.” Regina laughs without humor. “That was nowhere near you, really.”

“It felt pretty near!” I’ve still got spots in my vision and everything smells a little burned, but I seem to be basically okay. “So…I need to leave the hospital. Are you going to let me?”

“I’ll move off to the eastern side, Dan. That was just bad timing. I didn’t mean to be standing there when you came out.”

“Why were you there, then?”

“To kill you when you came out.”

“Then–”

“That was before. I changed my mind. I’m going to work with you. I have to. I just don’t want to see you.”

“O…okay. You’re doing okay with the phone, though?”

“It feels like you’ve got a hand in my guts and are twisting your fingers into a fist.”

“So–”

“Don’t ask me again if I can handle it, Dan. I’m doing it. You’ll know I can’t handle it when a lightning bolt cooks you alive, boiling the blood as it pours out of your twitching body.”

“Ah…check. You…you clear of the parking lot now?”

“I’m around the corner. Don’t dawdle. The temptation makes me twitchy.”

With my makeshift shoes filling up with water, I awkwardly sprint for where I think the car is, hitting the unlock button on the remote to make the lights flash and guide me in. As I spot the car, a sharp pain raps me on the top of my head. My hand flies to the spot, covering it, and is hit by several more missiles. It’s starting to hail.

With ice pinging painfully around me, I tear the car door open and leap clumsily inside, slamming it shut behind me. I’m surrounded by a metallic rattle, but it’s blissfully dry and safe inside the car. I start the engine and turn the heater on full blast.

“Okay,” I say to Regina. “Let’s make a plan.”


[ Next >]

 

Connection: Part 3

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“What would you even use it on, Dan?” The doc’s clearly just talking to humor me now. She’s gotten Brian resettled on his cot, and is back on task to draw my blood.

“I don’t know. What if Vince comes in? It’d be handy then. If this can affect Brian before he can dissolve the needle, probably it would work on Vince too, right?”

“It’s possible, I suppose. From what you’ve told me, though, he can repurpose foreign material to repair damage to himself. So it’s also possible that he could absorb the sedative and convert it instead of suffering its effects.”

“Yeah, maybe.” I stick my arm out for the doc, the metal tray still attached to my fingertips, and let her slide a needle into my arm. “But I mean, the gas I made took him down, so maybe it doesn’t work for chemicals or something.”

Doc Simmons pauses and fixes me with a look. “There are several things I’d like to unpack in that statement. First of all, it is nonsensical to think that the nanomachinery couldn’t work on chemicals.”

“I’m just saying that maybe they’re smaller or move faster or something.”

“That’s really not…chemicals are just –” The doc stops and presses her left hand to her temple. “That’s not how it works, Dan. You’re going to need to take my word for that. I’m not getting into it further with you right now, because I’ll end up frustrated and you probably don’t want that from someone currently draining blood out of your body.”

She cocks her head at me to see if I have anything to say, but this situation seems to call for being quiet, so I say nothing. Satisfied, Simmons continues.

“Second of all, ‘the gas you made’? I assume this is related to your earlier comment about a chemical bomb?”

“Yeah, when Vince was coming at me, I poured a whole bunch of bathroom chemicals together and chucked it at him. I think it actually took him down. He fell back at first, but then when I ran off, he didn’t come after me. I think maybe his clones had to take him to the hospital.” Suddenly, what I’ve just said strikes me. “Oh man, what if he’s here? Look, see, I do need to use the trank gun! Is it reloaded? How do I shoot it?”

“Calm down!” the doc orders, glaring at me. “You poured bathroom cleaners together? Dan, that’s how you end up with chlorine gas, or chloramine, depending on what exactly you mixed. That’s extremely dangerous.”

“Well, yeah! I was trying to stop him from killing me. I was aiming for danger. Asking politely didn’t seem likely to work.”

“Dangerous to everyone, Dan. I somehow doubt that you took reasonable precautions to protect yourself from the effects of the gas.”

“I covered my nose and mouth with a wet washcloth.”

Doc Simmons shakes her head. “And just ran into it eyes open, I assume?”

“Well…yes. I didn’t really think about that. But it worked! My eyes are fine.”

“Dan, when you finally die, I’m going to put you under a microscope and find out what mutation you have that makes you this lucky.”

I snort out a laugh. “You think I’m lucky?”

“To be doing as well as you are, given the choices you make? Unbelievably so.”

“Yeah, well, it’s about my luck to have Vince be checked in a floor below here, and be on his way up to take another shot at me right now. Can you teach me how to use that trank gun, please?”

“Dan, I find it very unlikely that an escaped felon would check into a hospital. We do check patient IDs here, you know.”

“Okay, fine, but he might still track me here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Dan. Why would he look for you here? I never met Vince. He doesn’t know who I am, and can’t tie you to this hospital in any way.”

“Yeah, but he could still track me.” The doc’s usually quicker on the uptake than this. I can’t believe I have to repeat myself to her. This is a new position to be in.

“You keep saying ‘track.’ What do you mean by that?”

“Track me through the nanos….” I trail off, because the doc is staring at me. I thought she’d been glaring before, but this is an exponentially increased level of intensity.

“What?”

“You can track each other through the nanobots, and you never thought to mention this?” She’s seething. I’ve never seen her this angry.

“‘We’ can’t track each other. My nemesis can track me. Nemeses, at this point. You think I would have gone through all that rigmarole with Brian if I could have just pointed to where he was the whole time?”

“I don’t find it a rewarding venture to speculate on how your thought processes work, Dan! This is clear evidence of communication between the nanotechnology in different host bodies and you didn’t think it was the sort of thing I might find relevant?”

“It never came up when you were around! I’m sorry for not briefing you on every stupid thing, but I have had a lot on my plate!”

We’re shouting at each other now, and we would probably be standing nose-to-nose if I weren’t sitting down to serve as the doc’s own personal blood bank. I’m suddenly disgusted with the entire process. “You have enough samples yet? Get this needle out of me.”

Doc Simmons looks down at the needle and I hear her take a deep breath, hold it, then slowly let it out. She holds a gauze pad to my arm as she pulls the needle out, and when she speaks again, her voice is calm and measured.

“I can’t ask all of the questions I need answers to, Dan. Because I don’t even know that they’re a possibility. I need you to tell me everything, no matter how minute. It’s all important.”

“My brain doesn’t work like that, Doc. I forget things. I’m not a machine.” Simmons may be calm, but I’m still peeved and looking for a fight.

“Maybe you could write them down, then?” There’s sharpness to the doc’s tone. Seems like her calmness is just a veneer. I might get that fight after all.

“Ooh, yeah, I could text them to you. Except that you’re not a fan of that lesser form of communication!”

“Listen, Dan –” the doc begins, pointing at me accusatorily. I don’t find out what I’m supposed to listen to, though, because she’s interrupted as the lab phone starts to ring. She glares at me again, then stalks off to answer it.

“Yes?” There’s a pause, during which she glares at me again. “Fine.”

She puts the phone down on the counter and gestures at me peremptorily. “Dan? Phone for you.”

“Who’s calling me here?” I ask, but the doc has turned her back on me and is walking off to do something, possibly with the blood vials, possibly just to ignore me. I stick my tongue out at her as I walk over to pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Everton. Leave the hospital.”

“Officer Peterson? What? How do you know where I am?”

There’s a short pause, as if he’s choosing his words carefully. “You’ve answered a land line.” A hacking cough, and then, “It’s not that hard to figure out where you are.”

Okay, so that was sort of a stupid question. I try again with better phrasing. “But how’d you know I was here in the first place?”

“Vince. The cyclist. Being tackled to the ground this morning.” Peterson sounds like he’s ticking these off on his fingers as he says them. “You’re hurt, so you went to your friend the doctor. Simple.”

“I guess this is why you’re the detective!”

“Shut up. This is not the time for banter.” Another cough. It sounds wet. The guy needs to take a day off to recuperate, if you ask me. “Regina. The storm’s coming for you. I want you out of that hospital before people get hurt.”

“What about me getting hurt? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Anywhere away from people. You’re one person, and I will absolutely sacrifice you to save many.”

“What do you mean, ‘sacrifice’?”

“Too unclear? If I hear about an unusual amount of lightning at the hospital, or a power outage, or even rain making it difficult for the ambulance drivers to see, I will come down there myself and put a bullet through your head.” He snarls the last part, and I hold the phone away from my face, staring at it wide-eyed.

“Leave. Now,” I hear tinnily from the speaker, coming through clearly despite the distance. I return the phone to my ear.

“Okay, I’m going. Thank you for the…warning, I guess?”

Peterson snarls again, wordlessly this time, and hangs up. I stare at the phone for a minute before slowly putting it down.

“He probably called a number of places and asked for you,” offers Doc Simmons, who has clearly been listening in to my half of the conversation.

“Oh. Yeah, could be. That would make sense,” I say. “Hey, do you think the nanos could simulate a cold?”

“I have no evidence of that, but it seems well within the realm of possibility, yes. Why?”

“I think maybe Peterson got some sort of nanoplague from Ichabot this morning. He was fine then, and he sounds terrible now. Like bronchitis-level terrible. And I know he got tagged with the suggestion nanos, so maybe this is something new that Ichabot’s playing with?”

“Entirely possible.”

I picture the possibilities of tailor-made plagues, ones that can hit designated targets and leave others alone, and a shudder runs down my spine. The doc sees me shiver and says, “Wet clothes still keeping you cold, Dan? You can keep the lab coat for now.”

“Thank you, I will,” I say. “Actually, can I ask you for a big favor? I’ve got to get out of here, but can I borrow your phone?”

Doc Simmons reaches in the pocket of her lab coat and produces her phone. A half-smile quirks on her lips. “What are the odds I’m ever going to see this again, Dan?” she asks, handing it to me.

“I mean, I’d like to say ‘good,’ but…history suggests it’s about zero.”

The doc shrugs. “It was time for an upgrade anyway. Good luck, Dan.”

“Thanks,” I tell her, heading for the door. I skim through her contacts and find Regina’s name. “I’m gonna need all I can get.”


[ Next >]

 

Connection: Part 2

[< Previous ]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your house?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s where I’ve got Brian.”

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

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

“Well, what if he becomes conscious?!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Blood and nanos,” I say.

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

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

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

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

“Okay, now watch this.”

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

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

“Hey, cool! What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What on earth was that?” I demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, can I use it?”

“No.”

“Then I’m not happy about it.”


[ Next >]

Absence: Part 4

[< Previous ]


Peterson scans quickly through the texts.  “All right.  I have two men I can put on patrol tonight, and should be able to devote four more tomorrow during the day.  We’ll start checking likely locations –”

“You can just pull people off of what they’re working on?” I ask.  I don’t mean to interrupt, but it slips out.  “I mean, obviously I’m grateful, but I didn’t think you had that kind of clout.”

Peterson fixes me with a stare that I can’t interpret.  “Yes, I can.  Lately, it seems I’m the head of the special force in charge of keeping you out of the trouble and out of the news.”

“That hasn’t –” I start to say, but Regina elbows me hard.  “Ow!  Ow,” I add, looking at her reproachfully as I rub my side.

“Thank you for your help,” she says, looking at Peterson.  “I really appreciate it.”

“No, obviously thank you, but,” I say, “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

Regina glares at me.  “How can you say that?” she hisses.  “He’s hiding to protect you, and you don’t want to even go find him?”

“Obviously I want to find him!”  I’m saying “obviously” a lot in this conversation, which I think means I’m not getting my points across very well.  I take a deep breath and attempt to explain myself better.

“Okay, look.  There are two reasons why I think sending random dudes out to look for Brian isn’t a great idea.  One: they’re probably not going to find him.  Two guys at night with the instructions to ‘look where people aren’t’?  That’s not a recipe for success.

“Two: if they do find him, then what?  He’s mentally unstable and unbelievably dangerous.  If they startle him, if he gets the drop on them, if he doesn’t understand that they’re trying to help him…if any of a thousand things go wrong, they die horribly.  While also vanishing completely, so we don’t even learn anything from their deaths, in case either of you were about to try to justify that horrible math.”

“You think he would kill them?” asks Peterson.

“Not on purpose, maybe, but yeah, absolutely.  This one’s ugly, and there aren’t any takebacks on it.  Look, give me that piece of paper there.  You don’t need this for anything, right?”

Peterson shakes his head, and I ball up the paper and place it on his desk.  Then, focusing my loathing, I tap it with the tip of my finger.  As if caught in an invisible fire, the edges curl and vanish, and within seconds the entire thing has been reduced down to the now-familiar pile of dust.

“So that’s the base form of this power,” I say.  “You touch something, and the nanos eat it completely.  All of its constituent parts, as fast as they can chew through them.  It’s possible that he’s gotten more control of the power, in which case it only eats holes through anything he touches, instead of devouring the entire thing.  But when it comes to people, that’s really not much of a reassurance.”

“Hm,” says Peterson.  “I don’t suppose that body armor would be of any help?”

“No, the type of material doesn’t seem to matter, just the quantity of it.  I suppose dressing in layers might work.  I don’t know if he’d have to affect them one at a time, but at least if you saw your outer jacket dissolving, you could try to pull it off before the nanos spread to the layer underneath.”

I think again about the shrieking rat and about how the spattered blood was the only thing left, and feel nauseated again.

To my left, Regina has gone quiet.  I glance over to see tears quietly slipping out of her eyes as she stares fixedly at the ceiling.

“Hey, it’s gonna be all right,” I say, uncertain what to do.  “We’re gonna find him, and fix this.”

“How?” she asks.  “Like you fixed it with me?”

I wince.  When Regina had active nanos in her, our interaction culminated in a knock-down, drag-out fight which left the atrium of a museum destroyed, both of us in the hospital, and her so magnetized that she couldn’t get within a foot of any electronics without breaking them.  She lost her job, lost her house and ended up living in her car, which was just old enough that none of its computerized parts were vital to its basic functions.

It was months before she was able to track me down and beg me to reverse what I’d done.  Fortunately, I was able to, but that was a significantly less destructive power.  With matter-destroying nanos, anything I do to Brian is likely to be far less reversible.

“No, hey, he’s gonna be fine,” I say.  “We’ve just gotta figure out how to get to him.  I’m not saying we’re going to leave him out there.  I just don’t think sending unknown guys with guns at night is the right idea.  We’ll get him back.”

“How?” Regina asks again, and I stop to consider before replying.

“Okay.  I think we stick with the original plan with the police — if that’s okay by you?” I ask, glancing at Peterson.  He nods, and I continue.  “So you guys are going to run searches on Rossum Medical Supply, Dr. Amun and whatever other proper nouns we’ve got tied to this guy.  See if we can find some more property, a money trail to follow, anything.  I’ll give you the phone number that Dupont gave me, too, in case that goes anywhere.”

“Some of the records are going to have to wait until tomorrow when people are in the offices again, but a lot of it is digitized these days, so we’ll get started on that tonight,” says Peterson.  “However, I can’t help but notice that your plan seems to leave you free to go cause problems.”

“To go solve problems,” I protest.  “Regina and I will go look for Brian, which is an extremely reasonable and legal thing for friends to do.  And is less likely to result in death or property damage than any other method of finding him.  Unless you have a better idea?”

Peterson’s lips tighten, but I can’t tell if he’s holding back a scowl or a smile.  “I will make only one request, Mr. Everton.  Please do not make my job any harder than it already is.”

“You say that like I usually mean to make your life difficult.”

“No, Mr. Everton.  I say it like you usually don’t mean to, and do it anyway.”

I spread my hands in an apologetic gesture.  “I’ll…try not to?”

Peterson shrugs.  “Thank you.”

Regina and I walk out of the temporary police headquarters together in silence.  In the parking lot, she finally speaks.

“So where do we go from here?”

“Well,” I say, “I’m not totally sure.  I was hoping you might have some idea of where he is.”

She shakes her head miserably, and I hasten to reassure her.  “That’s fine!  We’ll come up with some possibilities.  In the mean time, I want to go to the hospital.  The doc’s still there, and I have an idea she can help us out with.”


“Absolutely not,” says Doc Simmons.

“What?  Why not?” I demand.  The doc laughs in surprise.

“Why won’t I just give you some sedatives?  It’s against the rules, it’s against my judgment, and it’s against common sense,” says the doc, ticking the reasons off on her fingers.

“But we need them to get Brian back!”

“Even granting the validity of that statement, which I do not, what exactly is your plan for using them?”

“Well, um,” I say, having not actually gotten that far in the process, “I figured I’d just inject him.  But I guess maybe if he saw the needle coming, he could dissolve it.  Do you have like a trank gun?”

Simmons laughs again.  “Yes, Dan.  I have a tranquilizer gun in my laboratory, for all of those times that an experiment gets loose and I have to hunt it down in the air ducts.”

“Fine, but can you –”

“No.  The hospital does not have a trank gun.  It is not the sort of thing we would ever need or use.”

“Okay, okay.  Um, how big are syringes?  In diameter, I mean?”

“Dan.  I will give you the sedatives you want right now –” My excitement must be evident on my face, because the doc lifts an admonishing finger “– if you can tell me, honestly, that you are not currently thinking of making a blowgun.”

“I, ah.  Might have been,” I admit.

“This is why my answer is no,” says Simmons.  “If you give chemicals to untrained idiots, you end up with untrained idiots full of chemicals.  And you have no one to blame but yourself.”

“How much training can it possibly take to stick a syringe in someone?” I protest.  The doc’s cold stare stops me in my tracks.

“You don’t even know how much you don’t know.  No.  I will under no circumstances send you out with a load of sedatives, a lack of a plan and a deathwish,” says the doc, unlocking a cabinet and removing several boxes and bottles.

“Then what are you doing?” I ask in confusion, as she begins placing supplies into a messenger bag.

“I happen to like Brian.  He’s a good worker, he’s intelligent, and I’d like to see him back unharmed.  So I’m coming with you.”

“But we don’t even know where we’re going yet!”

“Actually,” says Regina, “I think I have an idea.  I thought of someplace.”


[ 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.”


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Frustration: Part 4

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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.


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