12 Months Later . . .
Analie, grazed and burnt from the Bluetooth grenade explosion, and Clingdog, one glove too many, scooched behind a dumpster down a garbage-strewn alley with a nearby cat mewling.
Everyone else in the team was dead. KarmaWhore2.0, KarmaWhore3.1, GrokTurd... and perhaps Rez... for some reason they automatically assumed that their physical transportationist had also bought it at some random point. That Analie and Clingdog had survived was something of a miracle.
Hardly breathing (save for Clingdog’s deep-chested gasps for air, and Analie’s out-of-breath wheezes), they listened for signs of pursuit. When the grenade exploded, it had taken his right hand clean off, vaporised it and badly singed his eyebrows, but apart from that and a few minor cuts and scrapes, he was okay. The wound already neatly pre-cauterized, he had suffered little blood-loss. Analie had found a clean bandage in her rucksack and wrapped it around the stump. Even though he’d taken the brunt of the explosion and basically shielded Analie from the blast, aside from the occasional dizzy spell he appeared to be surviving.
A bright purple PimpMobile rolled past, bouncing on its suspension like a fifty-year-old bed whose springs are on the verge of collapsing through nightly rampant overuse. Faint remnants of Fiddy Cent filled the gap left by the purple dream machine, and then it was gone, leaving behind a faint aura of stale jism. A distant tin can rolled off the sidewalk, echoing through the otherwise empty streets.
“There was a motel a couple blocks back,” whispered Analie, her hair singed and blackened. Despite her profoundly geeky nature, right now she really wanted to sink into a warm bubble-bath and soak her hair in the softest, most forgiving natural gunk products that the local pharmacy could offer.
Her fellow survivor stared wide-eyed back at her, still not quite able to comprehend his surroundings; still stunned by the sudden violent deaths of his colleagues.
“We need to regroup,” she added, “take stock. Rest. We’re on the other side of town now, pretty much. I doubt they’ll catch up with us here. We just gotta go low-tech for a while. Don’t give Chester any kind of signal he can latch onto.” Clingdog could only think, over and over: How can we regroup when there’s only two of us?
They dragged their sorry arses out from behind the dumpster and limped pitifully to the edge of the alleyway, checked the street for signs of life of a higher order than the rats that scurried behind them to reclaim the alleyway, then hobbled pathetically towards the motel.
Across from the decrepit building, Analie saw – to her intense joy – the bright lights of a 24-hour pharmacy. “Look!” she grinned, pointing, giving her semi-conscious charge a playful nudge. Clingdog, mind swimming through alternating seas of pain and nausea, nodded with his eyelids to indicate comprehension.
They shuffled across the deserted street, Clingdog clinging to Analie’s shoulder for support, then pushed open the part of the all-glass frontage that most resembled a door. Inside, blinking against the brighter-than-the-sun striplights, Clingdog’s feet almost left the lino floor as Analie made a lunge for the baths and toiletries section.
“You wanted bath salts?” he asked in disgust, as she peered over the selection of foam baths and oils, humming along contentedly to the gentle muzak.
“Hmm?” she said absently. “Well, yeah, I guess we’ll need a replacement bandage too, right?”
He shook his head with dismay, left the support of her narrow shoulder, and lurched precariously to the counter near the back of the store, where a pretty young girl in a starched white uniform and thick Goth makeup stood staring aimlessly into space.
Clingdog assumed, for no apparent reason, that her name was Amy.
“Amy,” he gasped, “need bandages. Painkillers... blood transfusion. Got those things?”
“Hey!” she replied, sounding hurt. “My name ain’t Aimeee! And we ain’t got none of them things, ‘sept for bandages and painkillers. Sounds like what you need is a hospital.”
“No hospitals!” Clingdog barked, making not-Amy stand to attention. “No doctors, no hospitals.”
“Why?” not-Amy asked, peering at the burnt customer suspiciously. “You two bin up to no good or sumfink?”
“She’s got a point,” said Analie, walking up behind him. She placed a large jar of Bath Gloop and two bottles of Hair Gunk onto the glass countertop. “We’re not criminals, Clingdog. We should get you to a hospital – get your arm seen to by a proper doctor. There’s no reason why not!”
“No doctors,” he insisted, staring sullenly back and forth between the two girls.
“Suit yourself,” not-Amy said sulkily, reaching to various conveniently placed shelves, and slapping the countertop with a box of headache tablets and a pack of three supporting bandages for sprained wrists. “That’s eighteen dollars twenty, and if you really need a blood transfusion so bad, my uncle Denny operates a clinic for hobos like y'all. Three doors down from here, head round the back through the dark passageway, and you’ll find a door with peeling black paint on it. Knock seventeen times; one long knock, then sixteen quick raps. If there’s no reply, he’s probably asleep, so just use a dustbin lid or sumfink against the bars on the window.”
“Thanks,” said Analie, handing over the cash. “You know,” she added, hesitating, while the unusually pretty Goth swept their new possessions into an eco-friendly crinkly bag, “you must feel kind of vulnerable in here... I mean, in an area like this, so late at night.”
Not-Amy gave her a puzzled look; but now Analie noticed what she interpreted as a trace of desperation, of pleading even, around the girl’s eyes. It was difficult to tell with all the thick layers of Mascara that made the frail store assistant look like a frightened raccoon.
“I mean...” Analie added carefully, “Aren’t you afraid that someone might come in armed with a sawed-off shotgun and rob you, or... well, like anything?”
“I fucking knew it!” a voice rasped, and from behind the counter, a bald man with about a thousand scars and a sawed-off shotgun leapt to his feet. “You dropped them a hint, didn’t you?” he snarled at not-Amy; she meanwhile was shaking her head vigorously, whilst glaring at Analie with intense confusion.
“Jeez!” despaired Clingdog. “I frickin’ hate MeatSpace. I just can’t handle it, man! Too many frickin’ surprises; like, there’s my hand, pow! Now it’s gone, and no undo, no restore, it just gets blasted straight into frickin’ dev/null.”
“How d’you get yer fucking pet to shut up?” the bald man with a thousand scars and nefarious lupara balled at Analie.
“It’s okay,” she explained, trying to keep her voice calm. “We’re just passing through. You should let Amy come over here though, so your hostages are all grouped together. Otherwise, how you goin’ to keep an eye on all of us?”
“Shut it, bitch!” But he paused, stared thoughtfully back and forth between Analie and not-Amy, then shoved her roughly away from him. She scampered round to the shop side of the counter, her little raccoon fingers clamping onto what was left of Clingdog’s arm.
“Thank you,” said Analie. And, without another word, she whipped out her Zaurus and stabbed the Enter button. The bald man hardly noticed; to him, clear and present threats were things like knives and sawn-off shotguns, not pesky electronic Toys R Us-style gizmos. A faint electrical hum from above swiftly became a roar, as if an army of tiny nano-sized robots was clattering through the power cables feeding the lights. Then, rather inexplicably, the strip-light directly above the bald man exploded in a shower of plastic, and a faint grey mist descended onto his pate. He looked puzzled for a moment, then mildly perturbed as if he’d run through a clump of stinging nettles; then he dropped the shotgun and screamed, clawing at his head with his grubby fingernails, tearing long strips of red in his mottled skin.
“You’re being attacked by an army of vicious nano-robots,” Analie explained, her voice barely audible above his screams. “Luckily I had a Ruby script at the ready on my palmtop device, so – as soon as I realized something was amiss in here – like, as soon as my friend here hobbled over to the counter – I got the script ready, so all I had to do was hit the Enter key to activate it. So when I did, the Zaurus got onto the net via my Bluetooth phone, and the script hacked into the South Carolina Nanotech Research Institute via a backdoor I’d wedged open ages ago, and fed in our exact coordinates which the script read from my GPS locator – also lovely Bluetooth, by the way – so all I had to do was fine-tune the spatial coordinates on the Zaurus, which I did while I was choosing my Bath Gloop, so that the Zone of Material Transmogrification would be directly above where I suspected you were hiding your cowardly self.
"After that, it was just a case of creating a 2-way feed: one way transmitting the electromagnetic pulses sent back to me from the Nanotech Institute to test the density of the material they would need to work with; and the other to send back the material density data. After that, it was all out of my hands: all in the wiring, so to speak. Harmonic vibrations pulsed delicately along the electric grid, into the lighting circuit, all timed and harmonized so that directly over your head, the raw material – the strip light and its casing – would be broken down and, at an atomic level, transmuted into an army of vicious nano-robots. Pretty cool, huh?”
By this stage, all that was left of the bald man was a pile of red and grey goo about a foot high, with two bloodshot eyes like joke eyeballs planted into a mound of plasticene, staring up at them.
“I could go on about the Ruby script,” she added proudly. “Ruby’s got this thing where everything is an object; I mean everything, even nil – as in nothing, nada; and everything that passes back and forth is literally a message. So I was able to use both those features to my advantage in the script, so that before the nano-robots even existed, they were sending messages back and forth to each other, and they were like co-ordinating – ”
“Now that was some extreme fucking programming!” not-Amy interjected suddenly, making even the barely compos-mentis Clingdog look up in surprise.
“We should get going,” he decided, grabbing the shopping bag with his hand. “And,” he said to the Goth raccoon shop assistant girl who was still clinging to his stumpy arm, “this would be a very good time for you to call the police. That thing down there is still alive, it’s just been... modified, at a genetic level.”
IN THE NEXT EPISODE: Doctor Uncle Denny administers some back-street surgery to the semiconscious Clingdog.