Impact: Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Impact: Part 2

[You’re joining a story already in progress.  You might want to start at the beginning of the current book, Day of Reckoning, or you can start from the very beginning with Book 1: The Reluctant Superhero.]

[< Previous ]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[ Next >]

Impact: Part 1

[< Previous ]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[ Next >]

Association: Part 3

[< Previous ]


Inside the car, I scramble into the backseat to stare at the incredible sight. Even with my eyes squinted nearly shut, it’s almost impossible to look at, but I can’t imagine looking away right now. The bolt continues to crackle in place, writhing like a tormented snake, a spark trapped between the globes of an immense Van de Graaff generator.

Beneath it, the building has burst into flames, but that’s the least of it. The windows shatter explosively, showering the street in broken glass to mix with the hail. Molten metal drips from the roof, forming knife-edged stalactites as it runs from the gutters and spattering to the ground in hissing, steaming piles. Every exposed piece of metal from the doorframe to the roof is edged in glowing, crackling electricity, and the entire structure buzzes like a tremendous swarm of locusts has descended upon it. The noise shakes the car, vibrating it so violently that I can feel the buzz as much as hear it.

Fiery tendrils abruptly explode forth from the broken windows, reaching up as if to grasp the rain and the lightning itself. They’re gone in an instant, and still the lightning cascades down. Through the blackened holes in the sides of the building where the windows were, a burning light starts to shine as the fires spread inside, joining together to create a true inferno.

And then, suddenly, the lightning is gone, leaving jagged afterimages in the center of my vision. A man runs out of a nearby building to see what’s happening, and only then do I realize that the entire display of nature’s power has lasted no more than ten seconds from start to finish. The aftereffects are still ongoing, of course; the melted metal is still sending up clouds of steam from the roof and the street, and it’s joined by thick black smoke as the fire begins to really take hold, roaring its defiance against the rain beating down upon it.

I open the car door and lean out of the backseat. “Hey! Hey, you!” I shout to the man gawping at the burning building. He turns to look.

“Call the fire department!” I instruct him. He stares for a second longer, then turns and runs back to the building he just emerged from. From inside the car, I hear Regina’s slightly hysterical laughter ringing out over the speakerphone, and she says something I can’t make out over the sound of the rain and hail.

I close myself inside of the car again.

“What was that?” I demand.

“I said, it’s a bit late for the fire department to do anything here, don’t you think?”

“No, not ‘what did you say.’ ‘What was that,’ meaning ‘what did you just do?'”

“I trashed Ichabot’s storeroom. Like we planned, more or less.” There’s still humor in Regina’s voice, along with more than a hint of madness, but it’s tinged with malice now, too. On the whole, not really a combination I’m excited about.

“Yeah, but remember the part where I was going to go inside and check to make sure it was empty? That was sort of a key part of the plan.”

“Well, you’re welcome to go inside now,” says Regina, unrepentant. “I decided to take some initiative. Sue me. You said this was a partnership.”

I look at the inferno engulfing the warehouse and take a deep breath. At least she didn’t wait until I was in there to do that. I’ll take the victories where I can get them, I suppose.

“Fine.” I sincerely hope no one was in there, but despite Regina’s mocking suggestion, it’s not like I can really go check now. “You did trash the place, like in the plan. Thank you.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” spits Regina. “I pictured you being inside. I want this sensation of you out of my head. Get on to the next stage of your plan and fix this.”

I glance at the sleeve of my coat. The next stage of my plan had been to go to the next address on the list and trash it, too, but now that I’ve seen the process in action I’m not convinced that’s a safe idea for me or any other bystanders. I think it’s time to improvise again.

“Okay, next step is that I need you to go back to the hospital,” I say.

Regina snorts. “So you’re trying to get rid of me after all, because I’m too scary to work with.”

Yes, absolutely. “No, that’s not why.” I need an excuse. What’s at the hospital? “Doc Simmons wanted you to come by so she could get samples. She thinks she’s close to cracking this. It’s another avenue of attack.”

I flinch at my own use of the word “attack.” It’s probably best not to use violence-related words with Regina right now. I should choose more calming language.

“Yeah, very convenient reason for you to want me at the hospital,” Regina says sarcastically. “You sure it doesn’t have anything to do with Brian?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, genuinely confused.

“You’re clueless, Dan, but not that clueless. You’re hoping that when I’ve got Brian in front of me, it’ll give me something else to focus on instead of you.”

For a split second, I start to argue. Wouldn’t it make just as much sense that when she saw Brian, she’d blame me for him being screwed up and sedated? Fortunately, it occurs to me before my mouth kicks into gear that it isn’t wise to give Regina new reasons to hate me. So instead I simply say, “Okay, maybe,” in a slightly sheepish tone.

“Whatever,” says Regina. “I’ll go. You might want to stay away from conductive surfaces as much as possible, though. There’s a lot of lightning out today.”

She hangs up, and I take deep calming breaths, focusing my attention into being as non-conductive as possible. If I still had the full power, I could become lightning-proof in seconds, but since I’m working with the residual it seems like a good idea to go for as much buildup as I can get. Besides, I could really use the calming breaths right now.

After a minute, I clamber back into the front seat of the car and drive off. I’m not sure where I’m going yet, but there’s an enthusiastically burning building a block away and it seems like pretty much anywhere else is a better place to be.

I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, counterpointing the hail. What I need right now is for Ichabot to know what I’ve done. If I had my phone, I could just call him up and tell him; I have his number from when Dupont gave it to me. Unfortunately, my phone’s at the police station, and since I’m still an escaped — prisoner? Suspect? Whatever I am, they’re not likely to let me pop in and pick it up.

I frown in concentration. I was supersmart once, and the nanos always leave residual effects. Surely I can remember seven numbers. I picture the scene with Jules Dupont: me outside his house, looking menacing. Him inside, looking scared. Holding some kind of a dog by the collar. Was it a husky? Maybe a labrador? Wrong details, brain! Focus up!

Okay, so he tells me a number. I can picture him saying it. He’s saying the phone number. It’s 867 —

“Nice, brain,” I say out loud in disgust. It’s coughing up Jenny’s number from the Tommy Tutone song. I try again, but now I’m dealing with a background of “I got it! Got your number on a wall,” and it’s clearly hopeless.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that there’s a much easier way to get his number. I pull over and look up the website for the building we were in this morning, Mangiafuoco Medical Transcription. Sure enough, they list their address and phone number right there. Good work, brain; you’ve redeemed yourself. By remembering how to use the internet. I apparently have low standards for my machine-enhanced brain.

I dial, and a voice answers brightly. “MMT, this is Zane, how can I help you?”

I drop my voice to a lower register in case Zane recognizes me from this morning. “Yes, this is Officer Austin, looking to reach –” I panic for a second, trying to remember which name he was using here, but my brain comes through for me this time “– Dr. Argute. It’s a matter of some urgency. I’m afraid there’s been a fire at one of his properties.”

“Oh, no!” exclaims Zane, sounding legitimately distraught. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No, but the property damage is extensive. Is he available?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Let me put you through to him.”

The phone cuts into hold music for only a few seconds before it’s picked up.

“Hello, what’s this?” says Ichabot, sounding more harried than I’ve ever heard him.

“There’s been a terrible fire,” I say, reverting to my normal voice. “Lightning strike. What a strange and unpredictable thing weather is.”

“Well, Dan,” says Ichabot nastily. “I’m frankly startled to find that you’re still alive. You’re a remarkably resilient bacterium.”

“More resilient than your buildings,” I retort. Not my finest comeback, I admit. “Speaking of which, I know of four others you own, including the one you’re currently at. Let’s play a game called ‘Which One Burns Down Next?'”

“I’m going to kill you myself,” says Ichabot. His voice is calm and controlled, making it sound not like a threat but like a statement of fact. It’s an eerily effective technique, judging by the goosebumps that raise on my arms.

“Well,” I say with false cheeriness, “come on by Rossum Medical and give it a shot! I’ll be there in, let’s say fifteen minutes, and it’ll be burning down in twenty if I don’t see you. Hope that gives you enough time to make it there!

“Oh, and I’ve got Regina with me, so you might want to wear your galoshes. Seeya!”

I hang up without waiting for a reply. My hands are shaking with adrenaline as I put the car back into drive and start back onto the road. If he goes for this bluff, I’m about to have a clear shot at his lab. This whole thing could be over within the hour. Everything I’ve gone through for the last couple of years, all of the pain and suspicion and suffering — it could end with a few keystrokes, in just a few minutes.

As I drive, I’m focused on what I’m going to do when I get there. I’ll dissolve a hole in the wall to sneak in. Assuming there’s not a big Dr. Frankenstein-style off-switch, I’ll call up Doc Simmons and see if she has any bright ideas about how to stop the nanos. If she doesn’t, I’ll get her to call Peterson while I poke around at it, maybe.

I’m several layers deep in the planning when a car rams into me from behind, slanning my head back against the headrest and sending my vehicle into a terrifying spin on the rain-slicked roads.


[ Next >]

Association: Part 2

[< Previous ]


There’s an enraged scream from Regina, but I can barely hear it over the crash of thunder from outside. Car alarms startle awake in the parking lot around me. The lightning strike is followed immediately by a second one. I may be wearing rubber shoes, actively working to reduce my conductivity and sitting in what’s effectively a Faraday cage, but none of that is bringing me much peace of mind right now.

“What? What is it?” I yell desperately into the phone over the continuous rattle of the hail.

I can hear Regina’s breath hiss through clenched teeth as she struggles to bring herself back under control. “You. You don’t even have a plan?”

“No, I mean obviously I have a plan,” I lie. “I mean, I was just saying that, you know, I wanted you to be included in this. I’m not looking to order you around here or anything. It’s a partnership. So I was looking for your input.”

“Fine. You want my input? Let’s go back to Ichabot’s lab. You knock on the door, and when he answers, I call down lightning.”

“I feel like that kind of puts me right in the strike zone.”

“Does it? Oh darn,” Regina says in a completely flat voice.

“Plus I’m kind of looking for a plan that doesn’t kill anyone, or fry the machinery that controls the nanos. We don’t know what they’ll do if the controlling computer shuts down.”

“They’ll turn off, probably. That’s what machinery does when it stops getting instructions.”

“Yeah, sometimes, or maybe it keeps going forever because it never got a shutdown command. I’m just saying, let’s not blow up the computer and then find out if we need it.”

“Aren’t you the one who usually wants to kick down the front door and figure things out later?”

“Yeah, well, I’m trying not to be. Peterson pointed out to me that Ichabot’s been several steps ahead of me since this entire thing started, so I’m working on changing up my thinking.”

“So if your plan isn’t to have me fry things with lightning, then why exactly did you bring me on board? I can’t wait to hear this plan of yours that doesn’t involve just charging directly in and hoping for the best. Heedless of consequences. No matter who else gets hurt.”

“Okay, yeah, I get it. And I would love to discuss this with you and apologize at some point when you’re not being mind-controlled.”

“Don’t you dismiss this as some neurotic machine fantasy! I know the nanos are ramping this up to a fever pitch, and I am keeping that in mind, but you have sacrificed enemies and friends alike when it was convenient for you.”

“What? I have gone out of my way to avoid hurting people!”

“You clobbered me unconscious when we fought!”

“You were in the process of tearing your own skin off when I did that! I –” I suck in a deep breath. “Seriously, can we not talk about this right now? I’m not saying I haven’t screwed up. I’ve screwed up a lot. But I’m not some out-of-control maniac, and you’re not really likely to listen to any explanations right now.”

“Fine,” grits Regina. “Then answer the question: what is your plan?”

I start talking in the hopes that one will come to me. “Okay, hear me out. We don’t want to just go kick in his front door, because he’ll be prepared for that. We need to get him off-balance, get him angry so he makes a mistake. And we don’t want to trash his lab, because we might need the equipment there.”

“Great, idiot. So what do we do?”

All at once, it comes to me. “We go trash one of his other properties.”

Regina immediately pokes a hole in my plan. “Do you remember where they are?”

“Well, no. But Peterson knows. Would, ah…would you mind calling him?”

“Ticked off another friend, have you, Dan? User.”

“Again, I will argue this at a later date. Would you please just call him?”

“Ooh, it says ‘please’! Yeah, I’ll give him a call. Why not do something else for you.”

“This is for all of us!” I yell at the phone, but the screen is already informing me that the call has ended. I mutter some unkind things under my breath.

At least Regina’s working with me, though. And she’s right; I really can’t imagine what this is like for her. I’ve never had anyone that I viscerally hated, but I’ve had plenty of people I’ve disliked. My old boss Edgar comes to mind, as does my Børger co-worker B-Rock. It was bad enough working with them, and they just sort of got on my nerves. Also, I always had the option to quit and walk away. Ramp the emotional intensity up by an order of magnitude or two, raise the stakes so that there’s no option to walk away — and yeah, Regina’s absolutely correct in saying that I can’t understand what this feels like. For the sake of understatement, though, I’ll bet it’s not great.

A couple of minutes later, the phone rings, and Regina’s name appears on the screen. I answer.

“Hello?”

There’s a pause. “I really hate the sound of your voice. It’s like a spear through my guts. An electrified spear.”

I decide to ignore this and press on. “So, the address?”

“I got it. What did you do to Peterson?”

“What? I didn’t do anything. I think Ichabot did, gave him a whammy. Maybe some kind of a plague.”

Regina laughs sharply. “You’re a moron.”

“What?”

“Let me spell it out for you, genius. A guy who was on your side suddenly starts exhibiting negative behavior toward you after being exposed to the creator of the nanobots. The ones that generate your nemeses.”

Phrased like that, she’s right. I am a moron for not seeing this. “So Peterson –”

“Has powers, yeah. And is about where I am: trying not to kill you, but you’re not making it easy.”

“But why was he coughing so much?”

“How should I know? Maybe he’s got acid spit now. Maybe he just has an unrelated cold. Send him to Dr. Simmons if you care so much. In fact, yeah! Call him out here to the hospital. Gather us all together, see how that works out for you.”

“Yeah, speaking of, he did tell me to get away from the hospital. That was to stop you from tearing it down, but still. It’s probably time to hit the road. You told Peterson what we’re doing?”

“I told him I needed the addresses of Ichabot’s properties. He said, and I quote, ‘I don’t know how you can stomach him. Go let him do whatever he wants, and with luck he’ll get himself killed before I do it for him.'”

“So –”

“So that sounds like permission to me, yeah.”

“I’m guessing we’re not carpooling,” I say.

Regina barks another laugh, then gives me the addresses. I fumble around Doc Simmons’s car looking for a pen, and come up with a permanent marker. With nowhere better to write, I scrawl the addresses on the left sleeve of the lab coat I’m wearing. The water makes the writing blur a bit, but it’s still basically readable.

“Okay, let’s meet at the first one. Give me like five minutes, let me go in first and see if it’s empty? Judging by the area of town, I think this should just be a storage place, but even so I don’t want to catch some janitor or security guard inside.”

“We’ll see.”

That’s probably about the best assurance I’m going to get, so I roll with it. I set the phone on speaker, back the car out of the parking space and head for the edge of the lot. Even though it’s mid-afternoon, the sky is dark and the rain haze is making it hard to see. Also, even at parking lot speeds the barrage of hail is almost more than the wipers can keep up with. This is not going to be fun on the roads.

“What are the chances of getting you to stop the hail?”

“It doesn’t work like that, Dan! I can’t just turn it on and off. There’s — I don’t know, a build-up. I’m extremely sorry if that’s inconvenient for you.”

“Sorry! Just asking. I have no idea how it works.”

“You think I do?”

“I don’t know, I thought maybe you’d know the basics. Like, mine tend to run off of intensity of emotion, so maybe –”

“If that sentence finishes with any variation on the idea that I should calm down, it will be the last thing you ever say. I will melt the asphalt under your car and scald you to death in a fiery lake of tar.”

This seems like a pretty good time to stop talking, so we drive in silence for a while. At least, I stay silent. Regina keeps up a near-constant muttered stream of anger at the roads, the weather and life in general. No more lightning is striking particularly near my car, though, so it’s evidently helping her to keep things under control. I’ll take it.

A few minutes of careful driving later, I pull up outside of the address Peterson gave us. As I thought, it’s a warehouse, but the lab where we found Ichabot was in what looked like a warehouse, too, so it’s still worth looking inside to make sure it is what it appears.

“Okay, I’m going in now. Five minutes, okay? And then –”

With a resounding crash, a lightning bolt lances down from the sky and spears into the roof of the building. Steam flashes up, sparks spit from the sides and blackened metal skitters off of the roof. I reflexively stomp on the accelerator of the car. The engine roars, but the car goes nowhere since it’s in park.

“Regina! What about –”

“New plan. I’m burning this place down now.”

Another bolt strikes, and another. I slam the car back into drive and speed off down the street, stopping a block away to look back. There’s a weird light behind me, bright enough that I twist the rearview mirror away to stop it from blinding me. When I stop and look back, I see something amazing: a lightning bolt connecting the building to the clouds, twisting and arcing but not letting go. It’s a continuous stream of energy pouring down, and the sight leaves me awestruck.


[ Next >]

 

Association: Part 1

[< Previous ]


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

[< Previous ]


“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.”


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