Nano #3 The Carnot Cycle by Jules Mills

The Carnot Cycle
by Jules Mills

Part One – Warming Up

“You didn’t even leave me a note, or say goodbye!” Dr. Grace Wilson spat angrily.

“I left you the dog, didn’t I?”

A swift hand went to strike the face of the tall ex-con but was caught at the wrist before impact.

“Don’t ever hit me, Grace,” Dana said steadily, without malice or threat, but as a warning.

Grace yanked her hand away and turned her back on the tall, lanky woman standing in the empty doctors’ lounge. “Go away, Dana, I refuse to do this again.”

“I can’t.”

“Why? Is it some sort of cosmic directive for you to wreak turmoil in my life and cause me pain?” The young doctor spun around, revealing tears in her eyes. It had been over two months since Dana had walked out on her in Chicago after a glorious evening of lovemaking, but Grace had not stopped aching from the abrupt separation by any degree.

Dana knew she was morally wrong and selfish for turning to her, to inflict more suffering, but she had not been able to think of anything else besides Grace for the past two months. She fought hard to hide the emotions that were choking her, and the longing.

“Believe me,” she croaked, “I wouldn’t have come if–if….” Grace’s dark, piercing glare stopped her cold. It had been a mistake. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered and left the lounge on the second floor of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center. Despite the fact that she was being eaten alive by a nano virus and Grace was the only person in the world she trusted to help her, she walked away with the knowledge that she would surely die in less than a week, and Grace would still hate her when she did.

Through watery eyes, Grace watched from the window as the lone figure crossed the street. It was January; ice covered the sidewalks, and aged gray snow was piled everywhere. The figure faltered on an icy patch of the street and then disappeared into a stand of trees blocking the view of the park.

Dana had not wanted to stop, but the buzzing in her head started as soon as she reached the elevator. She left the building on sheer willpower alone. Finding the bench was instinct; the ground would be too cold, and she would draw too much attention to herself in the form of a cop or–worse–someone who wanted to help her. She lay down and fell asleep. She awoke for a few minutes after the sun had set and what little warmth it lent had blown away on the cold winter wind. She struggled to plant her feet on the ground, but a burning pain seared her side, forcing her body to buckle and her vision to dim. Unable to sit up fully, she lay back down on the bench and tried to breathe without causing any more pain.

Dr. Wilson left the hospital shortly after four-thirty p.m. She knew that the nano tech was lying on a bench across from her office, but she refused to let herself investigate further. She drove her vintage Jeep Wrangler on I-95 toward her small cottage nestled on the beach in Milford, positively adamant about not thinking about the visit. But true to the immutable law that anything one does not want to think about, one thinks about, she thought about it. “Okay, Grace,” she told herself, “at least try to stay objective and emotionally distance yourself.” She missed her exit. “Distance, ha! How do you distance yourself from someone you think about every free moment?”

“She looked so terrible,” Grace said to herself as she caught the next exit and circled around to take the south ramp. The nano tech had not looked like that the day in Chicago when she had abruptly withdrawn emotionally and physically–poof! She had literally left Grace while she was in the shower. Thank heaven Grace had had her work to return to after that, a relentless, fast-paced environment, adrenaline always rushing through her small frame, people who needed her, making her feel worth the air she breathed. But Dana would creep into her dreams and haunt her, a dark and brooding spirit that turned evasive whenever Grace demanded answers.

Grace’s mind was reeling with observations and questions. Dana had been sheet-white and sweating, and dark circles under her eyes meant she hadn’t been sleeping. Maybe she was torturing herself too. Had she realized her mistake but felt too afraid to admit it? And where the hell had she been the previous two months? “Fuck!” she swore to herself. She passed her exit again and headed back to New Haven. Grace had decided she had to say her piece and close this relationship the right way, where she got the last word.

She left her Jeep idling at the curb and walked toward the bench in the middle of the park. A black-booted foot dangled over the edge of the bench. It surprised Grace that she was able to approach the woman without her awakening. She let her eyes roam over the long body.

Arms were wrapped around the waist, the skin was ghostly pale, and the body moved up and down to the quick, shallow breaths of someone who was ill. The leather jacket was unzipped, revealing a black woolen sweater. The doctor kneeled next to the reclining woman and gently nudged her shoulder. She was met with a groan but no movement. Grace touched the face and gasped at the heat and clamminess.

“Oh, Dana, what the hell is going on now?” Grace took a wrist and checked her vitals. The unconscious woman’s pulse was racing. She placed the hand back to rest. Sitting back on her heels, she tried to decide how to get help. She could not carry Dana across to the hospital. She ran to her car, shut off the motor, and grabbed her keys, then sprinted across the street to the ER entrance. It took little effort to get two orderlies to follow her out with a gurney. No one refused to aid her, because, one, they all liked her so much, and, two, allowing an injured person to lie dying just outside their door was grounds for criminal prosecution.

“Damn!” Anthony exclaimed when he saw the figure on the bench. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Infection, maybe pneumonia, I’m not sure. Let’s get her up,” Dr. Wilson directed. Anthony took the shoulders, Roger the feet, and together they lifted the sick woman. Dana groaned in her sleep, clutching her waist. Grace slipped in and lifted the middle section, aiding them in gently lowering her to the gurney. After taking a moment to strap her in, they headed for the ER.

Grace shrugged off her coat and opted for a lab coat while the orderlies were placing the patient in the examining room.

“Someone call in tonight and forget to tell me, love?” Sydney, the head nurse, asked her.

“No, I brought a sick friend in.”

“Don’t tell me you poisoned another date with your shrimp scampi.”

“Nooo.” Grace loaded her hands with waterless cleanser. The Aussie was always reminding her of that disastrous date. She was taller than Grace, with dirty-blonde hair, and had no ass, having run it off years earlier. She had been rough on Grace when she was a third-year student, tougher

still when she was a resident. But since Grace had become Assistant and earned her respect, Sydney had turned into the doctor’s right arm.

“I think she has pneumonia.”

“Need any help?”

Grace nodded. “If you have time.”

“Always for you, love. I want to meet your friend, too.”

Now on the examination bed, Dana was still unconscious, lying on her side and curled up in the same position as she had been on the bench.

Nurse Sydney studied the woman for a long time while Grace removed the leather jacket. Sydney finally spoke. “Are you dating her?”

Grace looked at her nurse, brows pinched to form a question. “No, not really. Why?”

Sydney touched the tattooed right hand of the nano tech. “She’s been here before.”

“I know, Sydney,” Grace snapped. “Do me a favor–stop staring and take her vitals.”

The nurse never needed to be told twice by a doctor to do something. She hooked the patient up to a vital monitor. “Her BP is low, but her pulse is high.”

“Dehydrated, probably from sweating.” Grace put her stethoscope against Dana’s sweater and listened to her racing heart, which was trying to compensate for the drop in blood volume.

“Temp is at 103 and climbing.” A beep. “Now it’s 103.6.”

“Infection.” Grace rolled her patient onto her back and removed the bulky sweater. Groans were the only protest. “I want a blood work-up. Would you call Onco for me?”

She was wearing the sweater Grace had bought her in Freeport months earlier. Tugging the white T-shirt up so that she could listen to the lungs, she discovered a white bandage held on by surgical tape covering the skinny abdomen. She peeled it off, revealing an inflamed, gaping wound. “Sydney!”

The nurse came to stand next to her favorite doctor to look at what had warranted a shout. “How long has she had that?” she asked as she slid on a pair of plastic gloves. She handed a pair to Grace.

“I…I…have no idea. She just showed up out of the blue today.”

Sydney was examining the wound more closely with her fingers. “Looks like a puncture wound and a tear. I suspect by the inflammation…” she pressed lightly, eliciting a groan and some pus, “it punctured the parietal cavity but did not get the intestines–no blood.”

Grace was staring, dazed.

“Come look, love.” She nodded toward the wound.

Moving forward and slipping her gloves on, Grace began to examine the wound. The skin was red with infection, the tear a few inches long but clean of blood. She was able to pluck out three staples that were clinging to the puffy skin.

“She’s already been to a doctor,” Sydney remarked, seeing the surgical staples.

Grace sighed, dropping the staples into a plastic container. “No, she did this herself. I can’t believe Dana would ever have been this careless with cleaning a wound.” Sydney returned to her side with antiseptic. At the first touch of the swab, long fingers caught the nurse’s wrist in a vise grip. Grace peeled Dana’s hand away from the nurse.

“Ouch!”

“Dana, she’s trying to help.”

“I realize that.” She struggled to open her eyes. “But that stuff will only…that hurts, you mean old witch.”

“Shut up, you little creep.”

Dana writhed in the lingering burn, eyes squeezed tight to keep the tears from falling. “You’re as mean as you ever were, you old hag.” Another swab and a hiss. “Stop, please.”

“I really enjoyed that,” Sydney said, tossing the cotton into the waste receptacle.

“I’ll bet you did, you sadistic cow,” Dana panted.

Sydney laughed and turned to Grace. “We go way back.”

Dana concentrated on breathing to calm down. Sweat ran down her face from her hairline.

“It doesn’t matter how much crap you pour in there, it isn’t going to heal.”

“What are you talking about?” Sydney asked. “You always heal, and keep coming back to show me how well.”

“I have the Beta.” Dana pushed herself up to a sitting position. “My cells degenerate at interphase, so I can’t heal.”

Both Sydney and Grace drifted backward. “Beta?” Grace asked, in disbelief. Sydney placed a hand on her friend’s back for support. The young woman’s face had drained of color. At that moment the phlebotomist walked into the examination area.

“Come back later, Dee,” Sydney instructed the woman. The young tech rolled her eyes, spun on her heels, and left.

“There hasn’t been a case of Beta for two years,” Grace pointed out, “and it was isolated to the West Coast, L.A.” Sheer panic was taking hold of Grace. If this woman had Beta, she wondered who else did. No one survived nano viruses, no one–not even Dana. Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Dana clutched at her side and swung her feet over the edge of the examination bed. Her head drooped from exhaustion.

“How long has it been?” Grace asked in a whisper.

“Two days,” was the painful reply. “But I’m more afraid of infection from this nick.”

“That isn’t a nick.”

“It would have been a clean puncture, but I moved when they hit me with the aerosol. I thought they were trying to mace me, but when this didn’t heal, I knew it was Beta.”

Sydney caught a quick glance from her friend which begged her for privacy. The nurse left, turning away quickly to hide a tear spotting her cheek.

“Does it hurt?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Would a local help?”

She nodded again. “Anything you’ve got at this point.”

“Can I biopsy it, just to be sure?”

“Grace.”

“Please, so I know.”

A slow nod.

Grace reached to swab the wound with a huge Q-tip on a stick. “I don’t think it punctured the intestine, so we should be safe from peritonitis.”

“You don’t need to take any from the injury. They’re in most of my cells by now…skin, organs, take your pick, although I prefer skin.”

Grace scraped a sample of skin from the back of Dana’s arm and sealed it in a biopsy baggie. “We should seal the wound.”

“The local first.”

Grace smiled her doctor smile of sympathy, then buzzed for Sydney. While the nurse made her way to the examination room, Grace helped Dana onto her back and undid her jeans, lowering them far enough down her hip so that they would not contaminate the wound. After explaining the procedure, she and Sydney set to work. Grace inserted the needle deep into the wound, removed it, and inserted it a few more times, emptying the syringe into her skin, while Sydney went to the organ cooler for a patch of skin.

“I’ll have a Sam Adams while you’re up,” Dana joked.

The nurse ignored the obnoxious ex-con. “What’s her blood type?”

“A-negative.”

“Suggestions on size?”

“Medium.”

“Large!” Dana demanded.

“Not the size of your mouth.”

When the local had numbed the patient enough, Sydney swabbed the wound with a Merthiolate compound that painted the skin orange. Alternating between a vacuum and cotton swabs, she removed all the pus and infection she could.

“That patch won’t take,” Dana remarked as Grace dripped liquid from a tube onto the patch of skin and then laid the sticky mess across the wound. It sealed like Super Glue. Dana watched in wonder. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“It’s been out a few years, Dana. If you went to the doctor once in a while for your injuries instead of stapling them, you’d have some experience with it.”

“What is it?”

“Live epidermal and fibrous adipose cells in a plasma medium. Even if you can’t reproduce cells, it’ll work its way between the cells like a web as it grows, and it’ll anchor itself. Now relax a few minutes while it sets.”

She sent Sydney up to the nano lab with a note attached to the skin biopsy.

“What else can I do for you, Dana?”

Dana looked up at her only lover. “Nothing.” A crooked smile tugged at her mouth. “I wanted to say goodbye is all. I didn’t expect anything else. And to apologize for hurting you.” She looked away from the lovely face. “For what it’s worth, I’ve thought about you every second since then. I know I was a jerk.”

“You hurt me.”

Sad blue eyes darted to Grace’s face. “I know.”

“Then why?”

“Insecurity, I guess. I knew that when we returned, you would discover I didn’t fit in here with you. I don’t even have a high school diploma, for God’s sake, or a job, and I don’t suppose many of your coworkers run around with ex-con murderers.”

“So you dumped me first, thinking I would reject you?”

A sad laugh. “I couldn’t have been more miserable if you had.”

Grace stepped closer and lightly traced a pale, hot cheek. Dana had to touch her back and reciprocated by sliding her hand into the soft, blonde hair. Suddenly, desperate mouths met in a passionate kiss, lips sliding against each other, sobs of ache coming from Grace. Soon the sobs overtook the kiss, and all the two could do was lean against each other.

“Why didn’t you come back sooner?”

“I knew you hated me, that I’d blown it.”

Grace sniffled and buried her head in the broad shoulder. A little sweet talk and one look into those pools of blue, and she would have forgiven her. The truth–an explanation–was all she would have needed.

“Grace, would you take me home with you? I want to see Rip.”

“Are you up to it? I mean maybe we should check you in here.”

“I hate hospitals. Ended up here more than once, and always ended up with that Broom Hilda poking me with needles. Last time it was because I was beaten to a pulp, broke both my hands fighting off the guards during a riot.”

“The good old days.”

No, just the only old days I have, she thought sadly. “See, I’m already feeling sorry for myself because of this place.” She sat up, wincing, then slowly slipped off the bed. Using Grace for support, she walked out of the exam room.

“Wait here,” Grace instructed, propping Dana against the wall while she ran around the corner to grab her coat and keys. Sydney came by and helped Dana with her jacket.

“At least now I know where my new surgi-gun disappeared to, don’t I?” the blonde nurse commented.

“I have no idea what you’re talkin’ ’bout,” replied with a wicked grin. Grace returned and allowed Dana to use her as a crutch as they left the hospital.

As the sliders parted for the couple, Nurse Sydney wondered how Inmate 01432887 had ended up in the company of her fair-haired young doctor.

“You should sleep,” Grace urged.

“I told you on the way here, I don’t want to waste time sleeping. Besides, these things are going to eat me at the same rate whether I’m resting or running a marathon. My immune system has no impact.” She sat down on the couch. “It’s designed to destroy any white blood cells that attack.” She grimaced from the pain as she sat back against the cushion. Grace went to the back door of the kitchen and whistled. Dana nostalgically viewed the house, trying to imprint every detail in her mind even if the memories would exist for only a few more days.

As soon as Rip rounded the corner into the living room she froze, staring at Dana, and growled fiercely with bared teeth. Dana shifted nervously, and the black dog began to bark a warning.

Grace grabbed the dog’s harness and pulled her outside, closing the door behind her. “She’s still angry with you.”

“No, it’s the nano. Some hounds pick up the electronic noise reverberations.”

Grace brought Dana a bottle of water. “Are you sure it’s the Beta virus and not Alpha?” she asked hopefully.

“Alpha has a turn-off switch; Beta doesn’t.”

“I know, Dana. That’s why I asked.”

“And Alpha doesn’t freak dogs out.” She drained her bottle in a long swig, then wiped her mouth with her hand. She bounced the empty plastic container against her palm. Grace slipped down between her legs and wrapped her arms around Dana’s hips, her cheek resting on a long thigh. They sat like that for a long time, not speaking.

“What are you thinking about, Chipmunk?” Dana asked, a hand stroking the long, golden-red locks. Grace smiled at being called Chipmunk in such an endearing way.

“I was wondering what you’d been doing the past few months.”

“Walking. It’s a long way from Chicago to New Haven.”

She lifted her head up. “You walked here?”

“I needed time to think.”

“How long have you been back?”

“Two days.”

“That’s when you contracted the Beta. Were they waiting for you?”

“First, you don’t contract a Beta virus; it’s inflicted upon you. And second, they were waiting on my boat.” She eyed the kneeling doctor. “How much do you know about nano viruses, Grace?”

“Not much. Nobody knows much because it kills so….”

“It kills quickly. You can say it.”

“I understand chip technology better than the viruses, and you never spoke about your nano work.”

“I should have talked to you more.” Dana mentally slapped herself.

“Don’t do that!”

“What?”

“Talk about yourself like it’s too late.”

Dana smiled sweetly and brushed a few chaotic strands of hair from Grace’s face. She lost herself in her friend’s beauty and the softness of her hair. “Tell me now,” Grace pleaded, pulling Dana out of her admiration. “Tell me about Beta.”

“Take a bath with me first,” the brunette asked. Grace blushed, understanding where Dana’s mind had been for those silent moments. “I’ve always wanted to wash your back.”

Grace led her to the bath to fulfill her wish. Dana eased herself into the hot water, wincing at the sting of little waves on the wound, despite the analgesic. She leaned her warm skin against the cool tile, relishing the sensation. Grace lowered herself in front of her, causing the water to rise in the small tub to within a half-inch of the top. She reached up with her toes and turned the water off. Dana lifted her calf to the edge of the tub to give her lover more room.

Grace glanced back with a shy look, catching a crooked half-grin float across Dana’s face. It caused her belly to knot in that warmly good way. She let her fingers run from wet, aristocratic toes, along the shin, across a round knee, and up that strong, endless thigh. “How’s the wound?”

“What wound?” A whisper that caused a chill. “Can I have the soap?” Grace felt hot breath on her ear, and her belly tightened. She picked up the Safeguard and handed it over her shoulder. Fingers touched in passing. Grace waited for more, and when it did not come, she turned to see what the holdup was.

“If I weren’t sick, would you be so…um…so….”

“Easy?”

“Willing to forgive me?”

“Would you even be here if you weren’t sick?”

“Yes. I thought about you all the time.”

Grace smiled to herself. “I would have made you work at it a lot harder. Flowers, dinner, then seduction.” She kissed the knee.

“So it would have taken maybe a pizza and a couple of daisies?”

Grace laughed. She could have skipped the pizza, the flowers. The dynamic smile and a “sorry” would have been enough, was enough. She leaned back to feel the firm breasts against her skin.

“Forget my back,” she said huskily, grabbing the hand with the soap and running it down her chest to her flat stomach. Dana’s free hand cupped a round breast, and she slid the length of her middle and index fingers along a nipple. Her lips took an earlobe and she sucked as she stroked the belly with the soap, Grace’s hand moving with hers. Lower and lower it moved, Grace arching into her hands. Dana dropped her mouth to her neck, then her shoulder.

“Oh, God,” Grace moaned, reacting to the hard suction on her neck. Plunk! went the soap. Together their fingers slid even lower. Dana groaned at the feel of the soft curls, then the soft skin. Grace pressed her feet against the tiled wall, allowing her to lift her hips and move in the most natural of ways. “Oh, yeah, just a couple more times around,” she whispered deliriously.

Dana smiled into her hair, breathing in the fragrance of flowers. She dropped her other hand into the action. It did only take a couple more times around for Grace to release, with deep, guttural moans of pleasure, her breath catching in her throat. If Dana had not been so tired, she would have continued, but the fact was that all the work made her hurt, and it took a lot longer than she remembered for Grace to reach her destination.

“You’re so beautiful when you release,” Dana whispered into the ear of her reclining, spent lover. Grace hummed contentedly, hands stroking the muscular legs that surrounded her.

“And you’re awfully spry for someone I couldn’t wake in the park earlier.”

“I hadn’t slept for two days, and the ingestion took a lot out of me.”

“Ingestion?” she asked dreamily.

Dana had a hard time remembering that other people did not understand the nanoverse the way she did. Her knowledge was not common to the real world, even the smartest of them, which Grace was.

“Ingestion is how the little buggers get into the cells and replicate.”

“That’s still pretty vague.”

“The virus is delivered in a fatty capsule to be digested in the small intestine when the aerosol is ingested through the mouth.”

“Why not the stomach?”

“Fats are absorbed in the small intestine as goblet cells after being emulsified. The masters use their fatty coat to hitch a ride in the goblets to be absorbed, and end up in the bloodstream, and then end up everywhere.”

“I know the general physiology, Doc, but why the fatty shell?”

“The masters use the fatty sheath to slip through the lipid membranes of their targets.”

“You keep referring to ‘masters.'”

“We call the infiltration machines that create the slaves the masters.”

“Master Betas?”

“The masters set up shop by creating the slaves, literally building them from the carbohydrates that are available in the cells and using the cellular adenosine triphosphates as fuel. They use up a lot of the ATP to complete replication work. Once a master has finished putting the last carbon on the slave, its program cycle goes into shutdown. It’s all computer-programmed on nano processors with small sensory devices that pick up chemical signals and analyze them.

“For instance, the master will begin its cycle as soon as it’s taken up into a vacuole and a certain lysome begins to break down the lipase molecule it’s attached to. That takes about twenty-four hours, but once the masters are shut down, the virus can’t spread. The slave, unlike its master, doesn’t have the fatty carrier to get it past the cell membrane, so it never leaves the cell.”

“I don’t get how these little machines can build more machines.”

“They’re carbon-based, pyramidal structures we called ‘diamonoid,’ for lack of a better word. The master links the carbon molecules it finds in the cell together in specific orders to create a pre-programmed mechanical molecule with specific functions, one of which is mobility. The mobility is usually necessary for its function, such as in the slave’s case.”

“Which is?” She had found the soap and was washing her lover’s feet and legs.

“It attacks and decimates the DNA, destroying all protein synthesis and cellular life. Specialized cells that don’t divide, like nerve cells, die a little more slowly, because the slave uses the breakdown of the nuclear envelope as its door to the DNA; otherwise, it can’t get in to attack. It’s all triggered by chemical signals, like I said. Cells that divide more rapidly die more rapidly, like the skin cells and the brush border cells of the kidneys. I’ll die of kidney failure or complications of acidosis first.”

“Or starvation.”

“That’s not true, because for some reason the masters bypass the brush borders of the small intestine, where they’re initially ingested. Usually the acidosis kills those brush borders as a secondary effect. We should get out. My pelvis is falling asleep.”

“Ooooh, don’t want that,” Grace stated as she stood and offered her hand to her nano tech. Using her strong back and shoulders, she pulled Dana to her feet. Standing toe to toe in the soapy water, Grace made an offer Dana could not refuse. “Need help waking it up?”

“Only if we can lie down.” Dana tried not to appear as tired as she felt.

“Lucky for you, I have a bed.”

“I do feel lucky, Grace,” she said seriously. “And if I died right now, I would die happy.”
Part Two – Cooling

“What are you doing to me?” Grace groaned the words out loudly.

Dana looked up from between the thighs where she had been submerged. “If you have to ask that, I must not be doing it very well.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” she said a little crossly, frustrated that her lover had stopped.

Grace still had Dana’s full attention but in an entirely different manner. Dana rested her head on her hands, eyebrows arched, and awaited an explanation.

“I mean, I should be trying to save you, not lying on my back, begging you to move a little to the right.”

Dana pulled herself to a kneeling position. “Grace, there is no cure for what I have, and I would rather be doing this than anything else with my remaining time.”

“Alpha was curable, right? So maybe someone has found a cure for Beta.”

Dana shook her head sadly. “No, Alpha was curable because it had a chemical trigger-mechanism built in, an off-button specifically incorporated to activate a shutdown sequence in the machine.”

“Maybe there’s a back door in Beta too. We just have to find it.”

“No, Grace, there is none.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do.”

“How do you know?” she asked testily. The nano tech thought she knew everything sometimes.

“Because I didn’t build one into it.”

“Whoa…you…you….”

“Yes, I created Beta, and Alpha as well.”

Grace was completely stunned, her mouth hanging wide open. Dana silently watched her expression change while she processed the information. Dana knew that talking now would be a mistake and that there was no good reason for what she had done three years earlier.

“I don’t understand why anyone would create something so hideous. Why would you make something like this?”

Dana took a deep breath for courage to face this, not only with Grace but with herself as well. She had hoped to die without this ever coming out, had accepted her recent affliction as poetic justice, karma, right back at ya, babe. However, the illness was nothing like the torture of seeing the disgust in those green eyes at the revelation of how hideous a monster she had really been.

“I can’t justify it, Grace, and I have to live with it.” The irony of that statement hit her like an ’85 Bears linebacker.

“My God, Dana, do you know how many people have died because of this?”

“Two thousand two hundred six officially-documented deaths from Alpha. Sixteen thousand eight hundred forty-three from Beta,” she whispered with shame.

“Plus one.”

Dana’s eyes grew dark. “I’m not dead yet,” she said, echoing Grace’s earlier remark.

Grace closed her eyes, stricken with a colossal pain in her heart. “You told me you had done a lot of things that you weren’t proud of, but I never figured it was on this scale.” Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she spoke. “I can’t believe someone with your intellect would choose such an awful path. It’s really hard for me, someone….”

“For someone good like you to accept. Look, Grace, I understand how you feel, but I did not set out to destroy people, and it wasn’t some sort of perverse experiment I did for kicks. I look at myself in the mirror with the same disgust and hatred as you are right now.”

“I don’t want to feel like this about you.” The sobs came hard, racking the petite body.

Dana was helpless, and the easy loving was gone. Grace had finally encountered the darkest, ugliest part of Dana’s soul, and she had no idea how to feel about what she saw. “We aren’t all good or all bad, Grace. But sometimes the darker part is stronger in some of us than the lighter. For a long time that was me. The only thing I lived for was saving myself. I couldn’t see that there were other lives at stake. I had not really known or cared about anyone for years. I was just a faceless number to everyone else, and so you all became faceless and nameless to me.”

Grace became angry. “Is that your reason?”

Dana was acutely aware of the fact that the young doctor, dedicated to improving the lives of others, could not look at any part of Dana’s body, especially her face. “I don’t have a reason. Reasoning is a tool for finding forgiveness or justification. I haven’t forgiven myself.”

“I need time to think,” Grace finally said and slid away from the bed and into the bathroom, shutting the door between them. Dana listened to the retching noises coming from the other side of the door and knew she was the cause, and she detested herself more at that moment than she ever had before in her life.

“I would have expected you to run away from this.” Grace addressed Dana, who was sitting wrapped in a blanket on the couch. An hour had passed while Grace sorted out her thoughts in the privacy of the bathroom.

“Were you able to wash me away?”

Grace shot her an angry look. “I wasn’t doing that.”

“I would have left, but my clothes are in the bathroom,” Dana explained.

“Oh.” Grace went to the refrigerator. “The bathroom is free now.”

“Right,” Dana replied and managed her way to claim her belongings.

Grace tried not to follow her, but there were still questions to which she needed answers. And despite her revulsion for what Dana was claiming responsibility for, she wanted to forgive her for the simple fact that she loved her.

Silently, she watched from the hall as her lover tried to pull up her pants. Dana was struggling, the anesthesia’s effects having long since dwindled. Perspiration from the pain covered her body in a damp sheen. As she managed to snap her jeans, Grace broke in. “Where are you planning on going?”

Dana looked at her, unaware that she had been watching.

“Maybe I’ll find a nice hard park bench.”

“That’s certainly an option.”

Dana clamped her jaw to hide the pain created from the simple act of putting on her sweater and Grace’s biting sarcasm.

“How long ago did it wear off?”

“I’m fine.” Dana was brooding over the reality that what she had most dreaded and what she had known was eventually bound to happen had in fact occurred.

“No, you aren’t, you big, stupid nano tech.” She reached over and helped Dana to a seat on the toilet so she wouldn’t pass out.

“Don’t help me,” Dana said, grasping her arm. “I deserve this.”

“Shut up, Dana. This is my house, and I’m in charge here, and if I want to help you, let me. You think you can do that without screwing it up?”

Dana scowled at her.

“Stay put while I get my bag.” She returned from the bedroom with her black doctors’ bag. Withdrawing a syringe and a small bottle of Novocaine, she set to the action of preparing a dose. “Hold this up,” she said, handing the hem of the sweater and undershirt for her patient to hold away from the wound. She swabbed the area and then jabbed the needle deep into the muscles of the tight belly.

Dana hissed at the warm burning of the Novocaine flowing through her flesh.

“All done,” Dr. Wilson said and disposed of the used materials. “You’ll be numb in a few minutes.” She had turned her back to her seated companion while she repacked her bag. “What happens next, renal failure?”

“Renal tubular acidosis. All of my blood proteins and glucose will pass out in my urine, my blood will become acidic, and then if convulsions don’t kill me, eventually renal failure will,” she stated quietly.

“Slow and painful.”

“I’ll get headaches, dizziness, and vomiting first. I figure three, maybe four days before I’m seriously ill.”

“Maybe dialysis will help.”

“If you want to prolong the effects. But to treat me you’d have to eliminate the destruction of the kidney cells, but eventually my liver will fail, then all of the other organs will follow.”

“I still don’t understand why….”

Dana hurt, she was exhausted, and she was beyond being defensive. She was as sore in every emotional way a person could be, and her irritation was gaining control.

“Look, I had been in prison for twelve years, okay? I had been in solitary for ten months straight, and I had spent most of that time trying to figure out a way to hang myself with my underwear. If I could have, I would have gotten out that way. When the suits came to me and offered me a reprieve, I took it. I didn’t give a shit about good or evil or the repercussions of what I was being asked to do. They gave me something I had never thought I could have, and I gave them my soul. And I don’t expect you to understand that, not someone who was voted most popular in high school.”

“Best smile, actually,” and Grace looked Dana in the eyes for the first time in what seemed like years. “But you’re correct. I can’t understand how a person could trade the lives of thousands of people for their own happiness.”

“I must be missing that gene, but then, I don’t have any future generations to sacrifice myself for.”

“Who did you work for? Maybe they can help you,” Grace asked, a distance in her voice forced by that remark.

“The government.”

“Ours?”

“Yours. I can’t vote.”

“Did–”

“–Look, I’m not in the mood to play Twenty Questions,” Dana snapped. “I need to make arrangements. I have some money saved, and I want you to have it.”

“I don’t want money earned from that kind of work.”

Dana looked hurt. “You still think I did it for money?”

“I don’t have any idea what I’m thinking,” she snapped, just as irritated now as the tall brunette.

“The money is from Ruth.”

“Your mom?” she scoffed. “You don’t talk to your mother.”

Dana looked away from the disbelieving green eyes. The money had been a payoff, her mother’s life insurance, offered with the stipulation that Dana never try to contact her or her new family again. Angry and fresh from prison, Dana had taken the money and given up hope of ever having any type of relationship with her mother.

“Ruth has a couple of kids who will be college-age in a few years. You can send it to her. Then, if I don’t get a chance, call Tony or Booger and ask them to sell the boat for me. They can either keep the money or send it to her too.”

A chill ran through Grace’s body. She knew Dana was slipping far away from her emotionally, but she was not sure if she could handle holding on to her any longer. Grace wanted to change the conversation before being consumed by the panic that was hovering over her. She cleared her throat. “Look, it’s one-thirty in the morning. You should get some sleep. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

Reluctant, yet relieved, Dana agreed.

“You can have the bed. I’ll take the couch.”

“No, Grace, you and Rip should sleep in the bedroom.” Grace opened her mouth to insist, but Dana interrupted. “Otherwise, if I get up for anything, Rip will attack me.”

They made up the couch together, Dana holding the pillow while Grace laid out a sheet and a quilt made by her great-great-grandmother.

“I’ll wait out front while you bring her inside,” Dana said.

Grace reported to the hospital for work five hours later. Too busy to take lunch because of a gang shooting, she also forgot to call home until she received the report on the biopsy from the techs upstairs. Then she made time. It was definitely Beta virus. Of course, with the results came the questions, and Dr. Wilson’s presence was requested in the hospital director’s office at two-thirty concerning the discovery, a meeting that would be attended by the head of the Biomedical Research Facility, Dr. Barbara Buchler.

Dana, meanwhile, slept most of the day anyway. When she was not sleeping, she was sitting on the back deck, watching the gray winter waves lick and tease the beach, leaving tokens of love from far-off lands in the form of rocks and driftwood. Closing her eyes, the dying woman pictured the ruins of Trinidad, an orange rooftop poking out of the clear blue waves at the highest point of the former island. The melting icecaps had slowly drowned the island over the last twenty years, lost cities now shadows under the water of the Caribbean.

The phone drove her from her daydream. The news was not unexpected but was still depressing. She decided that a break from her rest was in order, so she washed her clothes, the few that she had, and took a shower. She even allowed herself a cup of coffee and a granola bar. Then the nausea started, as did the headaches.

Grace returned to a dark house, the dog still lying under the apple tree on the drive. It had been tethered there first thing in the morning for Dana’s safety.

She found her ill companion sitting in a fold-up lawn chair down on the beach, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders for warmth. A full moon was low on the horizon, skittering yellow light across the ocean to them.

“How do you feel?” Grace asked, feeling her forehead.

“Shitty. Depressed. How was work?”

“A madhouse. Full moon always does it. Listen, Dana, I’ve thought about this, and I want you to check into the hospital.”

“No hospital.”

“I can’t take care of you.”

Dana had known this was coming, that Grace would decide she could not be with her anymore. “I can take care of myself,” Dana said angrily.

“For what, another day, a few more hours, maybe. I’m more than willing to stay home and take care of you, Dana, but you’ll need IV’s, dialysis, painkillers. I can’t do that for you here.”

“Take me to the train station,” she said, struggling to her feet.

“Dana, be reasonable. You can’t run off now,” Grace pleaded.

“If you won’t take me, then lend me ten bucks so I can call a cab.” Dana’s words were angry. She was full of anger at herself and everyone else in the world at the moment. Nothing was beautiful, or friendly, or fair–not the moon, her memories, or her friend. She could not remember a single good choice she had made in her life and wondered if this was how her father had felt, desperate and scared.

“I thought you had money!” Grace shouted after her.

“It’s in the bank, Grace. Do you think I carry it on me? They took what little cash I had, my clothes, and my fucking computer.”

Grace ran up to her and swung her by the arm to face her. “Who took them?”

“Motherf–” She bit her tongue. “Shit, Grace!” she exclaimed in pain, grabbing her side. The curses fell from her mouth quickly and heavily–she was losing control. “The geeks that stuck me.”

She tugged her arm away from the blonde and plowed across the sand to the door. Grace sprinted after her into the house.

“I’ll take you wherever you want to go,” Grace said, snatching the phone out of Dana’s hand.

“Take me to New Jersey.”

“Why can’t you get money at a teller?”

“I’m not going to a bank. I want to see Rachel. She has some things of mine. I’ll go to the bank in the morning.”

“How do you know Rachel will even be there?”

“She’s always there.”
Part Three – High Pressure

Rachel was shocked by the appearance of her friends and noticed by the weary faces that a dark cloud was hanging over them, especially over Dana. “Come on in, have a seat.”

“Thanks, Rachel,” Grace said and offered a pained smile.

“Do you have my backups?” Dana asked.

“Yeah, sure, of course,” she replied, befuddled. “They’re in the safe. Do you want them?”

“Please,” Dana replied. She had learned some manners from her current companion.

“I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into her bedroom for a long time. When she returned she was carrying a large, flame-retardant, silver envelope the size of an 11 by 17 mailing envelope. Dana accepted the envelope, walked to the glass dining room table, and dumped out the contents. There must have been fifty or sixty small CDs and cases that were white-labeled and marked in black pen with file names. Dana began sorting the discs into piles while the other two watched in amazement.

Dana looked up at her audience, her expression blank. “Do you have some stickies?”

Rachel walked over to her computer center and returned with a purple pad of Post-It notes. Dana pulled a roller ball out of her jacket pocket and uncapped it with her teeth. “This is going to take me a little time,” she told the idle women. Then she sat down and began to make notes on the stickies for each disc.

“What the hell is going on?” Rachel whispered to the doctor.

“Can I get a bottle of water?” Grace asked, grabbing the hacker’s elbow and gently pulling her into the kitchen, where Dana could not see them. There she explained the miserable circumstances.

“Beta?”

“The biopsy was positive.”

“I thought we’d destroyed all the Beta.”

A questioning look. “You were involved too?”

“Doc called me right after the L.A. thing hit the news links. I helped her destroy the lab and wipe out all the files, the backups, and all the remaining base materials with CH5. We even wiped it out of Dana’s laptop. Then Dana torched the lab. There was nothing left.”

“You must have missed some.”

“No, she cataloged every batch that was manufactured. The only stuff missing was what Reichert took and used in L.A. to control the riots.”

“Maybe he still has some.”

“He died of Beta, caught himself in the aerosol release.” Fear crossed the hacker’s face. “Do you know who did this to her?”

“We’re not communicating very well right now.” A pause. “I’m having a hard time accepting it.”

“Uh-huh,” Rachel said as she opened the refrigerator. She handed her a water and took two others out as well, opening the cap to one. “Tell me, Grace, does Doc ever tell you about what her life was like in York?”

“She doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“What do you think it was like?”

“I can only imagine.”

“Well, I was there, and I only dealt with a fraction of the shit that she did. Horrible things happened to her during the three years I was in. She didn’t have a life there; she existed. And she hid everything that happened to her behind that same mask that she’s wearing right now.”

“What kind of things?” Grace asked tentatively.

Rachel hesitated.

“I know she was raped.”

“Every night was a battle for her, and every night she would meet me to talk about software and programs and she would always have a new split lip, or cut, or bruise. We never talked about it, so I never knew what nights they had been successful, or what nights she had managed to…anyway, that was her life, and I was in there when she was only nineteen. I can’t imagine what it was like being a–”

“–Fifteen-year-old?”

Rachel nodded. “Did you know Doc holds the record for the longest time in the hole?”

Grace shook her head.

“She never mentioned solitary?”

“Once, earlier tonight. But it sounds like it would have been better than being with the general population.”

“No, Grace, it’s not.”

“But–”

“–Imagine this: a room, cement floor, white walls, no furniture, a toilet, a sink, no windows, and lights that never go out. All you get to wear is a pair of underwear and a T-shirt. Your meals and any supplies are fed to you through a door, and you eat with your hands because you might hurt yourself with plates or utensils. You never see anyone or hear a voice, and you aren’t sure if they hear you or see you. Now imagine being there for a month, except you think it’s been a lifetime because you have no sense of day or night.” She looked at the doctor and waited for a sign of comprehension. “Now imagine that for sixteen months.”

Grace was silent.

“I spent another nine months with Doc after that, before I was released. It was not a pleasant time for her after she came out of solitary after having killed a guard. And all of Gundy’s pals were on her like stink to vomit.”

“The Gundys were the women she killed?”

“They were the two sisters that were always trying to take Doc. Killing them and the guard who had brought Ruel Gundy from Cell Block C into ours is what landed her in the hole. Some battle too. Doc took all three down after they tried to gut her. Anyway, I figure after I flew, life wasn’t much better for her, except she didn’t have anyone to talk to.”

“Did you ever visit or communicate?”

“Nah. No one goes back there if they don’t have to.”

“How did she get hooked up with the government?”

“She wrote a letter about her ideas to a professor who had been mentioned in one of the old textbooks she was reading. He posted it for her, and they caught wind of it. But I don’t understand why they’re killing her now. They should want her, instead.” She went to the counter and opened a bag of potato chips. “Have you ever seen ‘Quest For Fire’?”

“Yeah, that movie about early man where all they do is grunt and fight over fire.”

“Dana is fire to those people.”

“Who are they?”

“You’ll have to ask her that.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. “How did Dana find you?”

“I gave her my e-mail address before I left. But she didn’t contact me until after the L.A. thing. What do you think she would have been like if she’d had all the same opportunities and home life as you?”

Grace shrugged.

“I figure MIT, maybe. Did you know that what she’s done without a formal education is fifteen years ahead of projected schedule in nano technology?”

“No, I–”

“–And when we destroyed the lab, we wiped out that fifteen years. No one has been able to reproduce it. The only place it still exists is up here.” She tapped her head. “That’s how she survives, that’s what got her out of York, and that’s what’s killing her now.”

Grace sat thinking.

“Did you go to church as a kid?” Rachel asked.

“Religiously.”

“Me too. Mom and Dad used to trap me between them in the pew for an hour. It was boring as heck, and I didn’t understand the chants or the songs. And I went along with it because I had no choice. But I used to like the part when the pastor would talk to us from his pulpit. I usually didn’t understand him, but he was funny and the light shone off his head and he had this loud, booming voice.” She spun the plastic cap to her water bottle on the table.

“One day, I was about seven or so, he was talking about hell fires and sin. And then he started talking about how we would suffer in hell, and I got really scared. So I listened, wide-eyed and curious. And then he asked us all, ‘If someone offered you the nastiest, most vile cigar and told you if you smoked it you couldn’t go to heaven but you would never have to suffer the hell fires again, would you take it and smoke it?’ Do you know what I did? I stood up and told him at the top of my voice, ‘Yes, I would,’ because I thought that was the right answer and I didn’t want to be scared anymore. Now, you and I can say that that wasn’t the right answer, because smoking can kill you, and second-hand smoke is worse. But do you think a scared seven-year-old cares about that?”

“Hey,” Dana said from the doorway.

Both looked up, startled at the sound.

“I want to get to the server. Can I use your computer?”

Rachel stood. “I’ll clerk for you.” A good hacker didn’t let anyone use their device. She led her to the workstation. The super computer whirled with phenomenal speed.

The nano chip had been developed first for super computers for two reason: one, the nano-chip technology was needed for intelligent nano machine technology, and, two, there was more money in creating faster nano-chip-based super computers than any other use for the technology. The scale had revolutionized personal computers, minimizing electricity used, eliminating heat loss, and speeding up the processing. Computers would no longer hold up humans. Now it was almost always the other way around, the computer waiting for the next command before the user had finished with the first.

Dana drank from her bottle, watching Rachel log on to her server with expert skill. She must have gone through thirty passwords and several encryptions before accessing a main menu.

“What do you want?”

“Fidelity First Bank.”

Rachel grinned. “Gonna go out in style, Doc?”

Doc looked at Grace, irritated that the doctor had divulged the story of her predicament. “Get into their main branch for a transfer.”

She logged in like a regular customer, using Dana’s password and account number. Dana had her electronically write a check and send it to her mother for the full amount of the savings as well as a portfolio of stocks to be transferred.

“I wouldn’t have given her a freaking dime back,” Rachel commented after the deed was done.

Dana walked away from the workstation to the dining room table without a word. She stood over the piles of discs, contemplating them. Grace approached cautiously.

“What are all these?” she asked, touching a pile covered in stickies.

Rachel had joined them too, her curiosity growing. She picked one up and read the note. “What’s up, Doc?”

“I hoped you would post those for me, get the info out to everyone so that no one group can wield it over another.”

“What are these, your theories?” Rachel asked.

“Some of them are, mostly theoretical. Some are applications; some are notebooks of experiments. This pile is strictly nano machination; this is laser manipulation; these are biomedical applications. This is a programming application I used for general experiments that simulates nano machines in the human physiology at a cellular level. This is the programming application I developed for creating Alpha, with all of the simulation tests. This is a general self-replicating program I used as a template. These are the notebooks of all the techs who worked on the Alpha project. These are the anti-devices for Beta that failed,” she said, tossing it on the table at Rachel, who picked it up and flipped it over in wonder.

“I thought we destroyed them.”

“I kept this one. I should have destroyed all of the Alpha records too–they’re so much alike.”

“You want me to post all of these on the Web?”

“No, just some of my theories. I’ve marked the ones I want out there.”

“What about these other discs?” Grace asked, picking up a disc from a pile Dana had not touched or explained.

“Those are personal.”

“Oh.”

“They’re for you, if you want them.”

Grace quietly accepted. “What are they?”

“Ideas, collections–I don’t know what to call them. Just anything I thought I might want to keep. Some are songs I wrote and recorded on the boat. A journal. Some are digital images I took while I was sailing…stupid stuff like that.”

“This one says ‘prison.'”

“That’s a journal, kind of, from memory. They didn’t let us use computers in there. Knew us too well, huh, Rach?”

Rachel nodded.

“What’s this one?” Rachel pointed at a lone disc in the center of the table.

Dana picked it up and handed it to Grace. “I want you to give this to your lab at Yale.”

“What is it?”

“It’s some ideas I have about how to get past the hump.”

“Hump? You mean dead in the water.” The Yale nano tech cancer research program had been stalled for two years now, despite the brilliant mind pool it had. They were losing some of their best techs to corporates as the program died, but, worst of all, they were losing hope. Grace took the disc in wonder, her mouth agape.

Dana turned away from her.

Tears were running down Grace’s cheeks. “So that’s it?” she blasted angrily. “This is a cleaning-house session. You give us some of your ideas and you wash your hands of it? Of us?”

Dana looked at her in surprise. “I’m never going to save the world, Grace.”

“No, but you could do a lot more for it than hand off some ideas. What the hell are we supposed to do with this shit? Like we can even understand it.”

“I don’t care what you do, Grace!” Doc yelled back.

“You should. You owe us all that much.”

“I owe? What the fuck–I’m dead, Grace, time’s up, missed the buzzer, can’t make up for my bad deeds now!” She was shouting.

“Doc, chill,” Rachel said calmly.

“You haven’t even tried to save yourself.”

“Save myself? Don’t you think I would have saved those people if I could have?”

“We tried to kill this thing last time, Grace,” Rachel explained.

Grace turned to Rachel. “But you said you destroyed the lab after you heard about L.A.”

Doc walked out of the room. Rachel watched her disappear into the bathroom. “Yeah, but we spent two weeks trying to find a cure, up until the last person died.”

Grace followed the path Dana had taken to the bathroom and knocked on the door. “Dana, are you okay?”

The water was running.

“Are you sick?”

The door unlocked but did not open. Grace peeked in. Dana was washing her face and rinsing her mouth with Listerine.

“Did you vomit?”

“Only water.”

“Only because you haven’t eaten in hours.” She handed her a face towel that smelled of fabric softener. Dana dried her face and hands and hung the towel on the rack, then looked deeply into green eyes.

“Grace, you need to accept the fact that I’m going to die.”

The fire of stubborn anger flashed in her eyes. “I can’t.”

“Why not? You see people die every day.”

“And I hurt every time I do.”

Dana looked away from her.

“Despite the fact that I’m totally overwhelmed by this, I know one thing, and that is that I love you.”

Dana refused to listen and tried to push her way out of the room. Grace grabbed her, using her strong legs and back, and forced her back against the sink. Grace was determined, and Dana could see how the young woman had excelled in the competitive world of medicine.

“This isn’t about what you did, or why you did it, or that you think retribution should be exacted for it. Yes, something terrible happened, and you were a big part of it. But I think I know who you are now, and I can’t see the person I’m in love with ever doing something like that.”

A shake of a dropped head.

“I’m not your judge–I’m your friend, and I want to help you.”

And then it happened. The person who had dragged Dana back into the world once and made her feel joy brought her back again, but along with those sweet emotions came the flip side, the misery of knowing that this heaven of being loved again was only going to be temporal. Dana cried for the first time since her father had died.

Grace reached out to touch the crumbling woman, needing to touch her and hold her. “We aren’t finished with each other,” she whispered, as if she could read her lover’s thoughts, and wrapped her arms around her. Dana tried to push away, afraid that Grace would find herself regretting again, but found herself melting into the embrace. “I expect you to try to find a way to survive this, just as you have every other test fate has subjected you to, understand?”

“I don’t know how, Grace,” she whispered into the smaller woman’s shoulder.

The three were sitting around the kitchen table, Rachel munching on potato chips and holding a glass mug of moonshine in her right hand. Grace broke the silence that had settled in on the group. “Did you run out of time the first time, or ideas?”

Rachel looked at Dana.

“Both,” Dana answered.

“A lot of time has passed since then.”

“A lot of time, but the same old problem.”

“Try a new approach.”

“What do you mean?” Rachel asked.

“How did you try to kill the virus the first time?”

“We tried to trigger a shutdown with chemicals,” Dana explained.

“A back door, like Alpha has?”

“Exactly,” Rachel answered.

“What triggered Alpha to shut down?”

Rachel looked to Dana.

“Viagra.”

“Why Viagra?” Grace said in disbelief.

“I wanted something that would be in everyone’s medicine cabinet, with a unique and easily identifiable molecular structure.”

“Why not Ibuprofen?”

“Too much racemation in the commercial products. The sensors in the Alpha could pick up only one conformation of the molecule. Commercial products usually have two geometries present.”

“So you tried several organic compounds on the Beta, and none worked.”

“The diamonoid properties of the slaves and masters are at such a stable energy state that they won’t combine with other compounds until they’re programmed to, so they won’t break down or react, which is what Alpha did. It reacted with the Viagra because we told it to, and when it reacted, it lost several of its atoms and disintegrated. Kind of like pulling out the wrong blocks in Jenga.”

“Did you try every chemical?”

“There are fifteen million known organic compounds, Grace. We didn’t have that much time, and not too many are things a person wants floating around in their bloodstream. All of the simulations we tried either failed to stop the Beta or killed the simulated patient.”

“So then what did you do?”

“Then we ran out of time,” Dana stated flatly.

“So the machines are impervious to everything except acids. Did you try acid?”

“Only strong acids worked, but in simulations they killed all the cells as well. The weak acids merely aggravated the renal acidosis, killing the patient in simulations quicker than the Beta alone. The diamonoid structure of the machines is too strong,” she locked her fingers together, “like a web of interlinked pyramids. It takes a lot of energy to build, but once constructed, it’s impervious.”

“Like a diamond,” Rachel added.

“Gee, that must be why we refer to it as ‘diamonoid,'” Dana said, looking at the hacker and crossing her eyes.

“Diamonds aren’t impervious.”

“Under normal environmental conditions they are.”

“The only thing that will cut a diamond is another diamond,” Rachel said, and then slugged down three inches of white lightning.

Grace looked at her lover. “So build another machine to destroy it.”

“It takes time, Grace, and a facility. Can’t cook it up in your mama’s crock pot.”

“Yale has a facility.”

Dana rolled her eyes. “Right, I’ll walk in and say, ‘By the way, since you’re not doing anything with it, can I borrow your multi-billion-dollar facility?'”

“No, but I could. With this as a payment,” she said, holding up the disc marked with a purple stickie that said “Yale.”
Part Four – How to Fight Perfection

Yale was interested in saving their cancer research program, but had it not been for the fact that the administrator of the program was Dr. Barbara Buchler herself, Grace and Dana might have been buried in red tape until it was too late. Dr. Buchler had lost the most recent program supervisor to Stanford; moreover, she was a woman dedicated to saving lives as well as money. Because of these reasons, she had accepted Grace’s plea and the disc with enthusiasm. However, all responsibility for any repercussions–good or bad–would be Grace’s. It was a risk the young doctor was more than willing to take. It also did not hurt that the lab was shut down to a skeleton crew: a few techs and students running simulations and refusing to give up on their project.

Basic arrangements were made by two that morning, and they were given Laboratory 2A. The set-up included a network of super computers, but they were not quite on a par with the system in the living room of Rachel, who had come along to help.

Dana was inclined to refuse the offer of aid from two grad students, but Grace talked her into taking the help, knowing that sooner or later Dana would grow too tired or sick to do the work herself. Dana agreed on one condition, that nobody be told that she was the one with the virus.

Despite assurances of confidentiality, the word that someone with Beta virus had been in the hospital had spread through the nano community within the previous day, and the hush-hush research added another level to the excitement.

At six a.m. Dana took the two students aside into the conference room of the vacated lab for a briefing. Grace watched through the glass partition while Dana explained to them what they were going to try to accomplish and how. Then she spent an hour trying to get to know them so that she could decide who would support which tasks. She decided that Minnie, a twenty-three-year-old microbiologist, would be best-suited to work with Rachel creating the computer-generated machine and running the simulations to determine whether the machines would work. Jack, almost twenty-six and working on his Ph.D., was an organic chemist. Dana trusted him to take the physical preparation of materials and machine production and run.

“You know what’s funny about Doc?” Rachel said, blowing a bubble with her chewing gum while standing next to Grace to watch.

“What?” Grace asked, fighting the temptation to pop the large sphere with her finger.

“She has no clue how super-smart she is and how much good she could accomplish. She always fears she’ll screw it up if she tries to act.” She chomped her gun for a few seconds. “She trusts you to guide her in the right direction.”

Grace watched her tall, ailing friend drawing pictures on the dry-erase board. “Dana is strong on her own.”

“Dana is defiant, but not confident. You give her strength.”

The two students came out of the room, buzzing with anticipation and heading for their assignments.

Dana stood in the doorway, letting the doorframe support her aching body. “We need to write the production program for breeding our little monsters.”

“We have to determine what they’ll need to do.”

“We know they have to find the Beta and destroy it.”

“What tools do they need for that?”

“Depends on how we’re going to find the little buggers.”

Rachel nodded her head in agreement. They began to walk as a group to the computer room.

“First thing I want to do is adjust the model to make them non-replicating.”

“Masters only?”

“We don’t have time for both the master and slave phases.”

“They’ll be bigger than the Beta slaves but smaller than the master Betas.”

“And they’ll have to be motile so they can catch the slaves. Do you have any ideas?”

“A few.”

Dana sat down in the cushioned chair and groaned at her throbbing muscles.

“How will they destroy the others?” Grace had asked a good question.

“We’ll short out the Betas with pulses, kind of like a power surge that disrupts and crashes their programming. Or we can blast them and hope to destroy the structure enough to halt functioning. Kind of like how lightning can stop a human heart.”

“We have to gather and store energy for that. And then there’s the big problem,” Rachel said.

“A bigger problem?” Grace asked, perplexed.

“Locating them.” Dana rubbed her tired eyes as the obstacles mounted. “Get started designing her. I’m going to use the Alpha base and turn it into Beta and stick it in the simulation program.” She rolled her head and popped her neck. “I hope I can remember everything about the differences between the two, or the simulations won’t have any validity.”

“I haven’t programmed with your model application before. What did you write it in?” Rachel asked as Minnie entered the room.

“Rachel, I only use your language. It’s the best.”

Rachel smiled at the compliment, but then Doc was only speaking the truth. With a spring in her step, she jaunted over to the computer station and began speaking commands as she watched the code flash by her quickly.

Grace stepped closer to Dana and touched an elbow. “You’re a good leader,” she whispered as they walked out of the booth.

Dana smiled weakly down at her.

“What can I help you with?”

“Don’t you have to report to work?”

“I’m scheduled.”

“Then you should go down there. They count on you.”

Grace looked hurt. “But….”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I meant that you can help far more people being down there than helping one worthless ex-con up here.”

Grace roughly grabbed the front of Dana’s shirt and pulled her face down to hers. “Don’t ever call yourself worthless again.” She was standing on her tiptoes trying to be at eye level with the taller woman.

Dana could not answer; she was in shock. When Grace realized what she had done, she released the shirt and smoothed out the claw marks. “Sorry, I think the intensity is starting to get to me.”

Dana could not blame her. She recognized that Grace was scared. She had seen the younger woman scared once before, and she had been kind of mean and nice to Dana at the same time then too. Dana wrapped her long arms around the doctor and pulled her into her chest for a long hug. Grace returned the embrace, trying to release her fear and enjoy the comfort of being there, with her, at that moment.

Eventually, Rachel popped her head out of the booth. “Hey, Doc, I need a few pointers.”

Grace pulled away slowly. “I’ll be up in a couple of hours to check on you and bring you some food,” Grace said, calmly touching Dana’s cheek with a familiar gentleness and a wistful look before walking away to the elevator.

When the elevator closed and the disappointment of no longer seeing Grace faded, Dana actually felt a little less hopeless. She knew she could design and build the destroyer of the Beta slaves, but the ultimate challenge would be to somehow find and catch the Betas. But Beta slaves gave off no special wastes or heat any different than the wastes and heat given off by other cellular organelles, like Messenger RNA from the nucleus, or Golgi Apparatuses which packed and released nutrients into the cell, or mitochondria that created usable energy for cell power. The Beta mimicked the organelles because Dana had made sure they would, so that they would be invisible for just this reason.

Minnie and Rachel worked through the morning, modeling the tools they knew they wanted into the nano machine, giving it mobility and a way to store enough pulse energy to destroy the slaves. This in itself was determined through a set of simulations, once Dana had fed the Beta model into the simulation program. It took more energy than they had expected it would to blast the Beta.

“The real Betas won’t be as strong as the simulated Betas,” Dana pointed out for morale. “The real things will have molecular imperfections,” although very few, because she had honed the system so that the error was smaller than that allowed in Japanese electronics production. The kids did not need to know that.

After adjusting the pulse levels and the measurement of energy in the form of small molecules called adenosine triphosphate necessary to generate the most effective pulse to do the job and not damage the cell at the same time, Dana felt even closer to her goal and a sense of accomplishment. And Grace had come up to feed Dana and examine her twice already.

By eight p.m. Dana, Rachel, and Minnie were incorporating several sensory adaptors into the machine for tracking the slaves. Rachel was inputting different chemical levels that the slaves were known to give off during activity and praying that one of the levels or combinations of chemical levels would allow the destroyer to lock on its target.

“We’ve tracked the phosphate ingredient already,” Dana explained.

“What about motion detection?” the hacker asked.

“They replicate vacuole movement.”

“We should feed their speed into the program and simulate anyway,” Minnie suggested.

“That’s a good point,” Dana replied.

That made Minnie grin for a second, then resume her serious work face.

“How many simulation categories are we up to now?”

“Fifteen,” answered the Asian woman.

“It’s going to take hours to run enough cycles to results to make a judgment.”

“Does it leave an exothermic or endothermic trail?” Rachel asked.

“It’s slightly endothermic, because it takes in slightly more heat than it releases, but it’s too low for the destroyer’s receptors to even pick up.”

“We should simulate anyway,” Minnie stated, and Rachel began programming that.

“I know.” Dana rubbed her eyes. “I can’t think of any more properties.” I can’t think at all, she told herself. Her body was aching everywhere except in her stab wound. The skin cells of the unspoiled graft tissues were weaving their way through her dying skin, holding her together tightly.

“Too bad video receptors haven’t been developed.”

“I’m only human, Rach.”

Rachel turned to the computer loaded with the simulation program. “Only human and you created a perfect nano virus the first time,” she mumbled to herself as she began inputting a list of chemical properties that Minnie had handed her.

When Grace returned from feeding the dog and buying Dana a clean set of clothes, it was almost eleven. Rachel and the two grad students were in the office sitting at the conference table and talking over Chinese food. Grace stuck her head into the room, interrupting a discussion of how Dana had developed the human physiology program they were using.

“She downloaded most of the physiology right from the government’s electronic human program,” Rachel said, stuffing a dumpling into her mouth. “She took all the basic cellular function data and translated it into an IDNO. We can find out how each organelle is affected as well as the entire virtual patient and the Beta.

“Howdy, Grace,” Rachel said when she caught sight of the blond head. “We’re in the middle of simulation. Do you want something to eat?”

“Actually, I was wondering where Doc was.”

“Doc’s out wandering. She paces when she’s anxious.”

Grace nodded and lifted a wonton. “Has she eaten?”

“Just that carbo/vitamin crap you brought up earlier.”

Grace took a fork and a small carton of rice and went to look for her patient. It took her twenty minutes of searching every dark corner before she found Dana tilting back in a chair next to the janitor’s closet. She was staring at the wall and sipping from a bottle of Gatorade. When she heard Grace’s sneakers squeak on the floor, she looked up.

Grace gasped at the grisly changes that had taken place in her appearance over the past six hours. The whites of her eyes were pink from exhaustion and stress. Grace touched her cheek to sense the temperature and felt the clammy, warm skin of a person in the throes of acidosis.

“I must look as bad as I feel,” Dana said with a half-hearted, crooked grin.

“How do you feel?”

“Weak, achy, like I have the flu.”

“You need rest.”

“I need kidney dialysis.”

“I can arrange that, but I don’t think you’re ready for it. Here.” She handed her a minty bicarbonate pill to buffer the acids in her blood.

“Yum, chalk,” she said, crunching it and then chasing it with Gatorade.

“What were you thinking about when I came up?”

Dana studied her a moment. “The Carnot cycle.”

“You were thinking about engines?”

“Not just any engine. The Carnot cycle describes a perfectly heat-efficient engine, so that the work done by the engine is 100% of what is put into it.”

“That’s a dream. It doesn’t exist in our physical world.”

“It does in none, almost at least, at the nano scale.”

“Why were you thinking about that?”

“Because I wanted to think about something perfect, and attainable.” She looked at Grace. “It makes me feel better.”

“Do you want me to leave you alone for a little while?”

“No, Grace.” She smiled. “Now that you’re here, I don’t have to imagine something to make me feel good.” She caressed her cheek.

Grace turned the hand over, kissed the palm, and then placed it back on her face.

“Dana, I’m sorry I haven’t been understanding about things.”

“Grace.”

“No, let me say this.” She was kneeling next to her sickly friend. “When I…in Chicago…when I brought up the tattoo…I didn’t understand what it meant to you, and now I think I do, and that remembering is very important to you. That it keeps you from making mistakes. What I’m trying to say is…uh…what I’m trying to say here is….”

“You’re sorry?”

“Yeah.”

A mischievous half-smile found Dana’s face. “I never thought I would have a doctor on her knees apologizing for anything.”

“How about we go into the bathroom and get you cleaned up.” She held up the bag of clean clothes, a toothbrush, and some supplies. “You’ll feel better.”

Another crooked smile.

While the water in the bathroom ran to a steam, Grace helped Dana undress, taking the time to examine the puncture wound.

“That’s taking really well,” she remarked, surprised at how well.

“Too bad you can’t use that stuff to replace all of me. It would make this a whole lot easier. Or we could transplant my brain into a whole new body.”

“But I really like this one,” Grace said, helping her out of her jeans.

Dana felt the heat creep into her face and other places.

Grace marveled at Dana’s blush, that of a young woman. Using a soft washcloth from home, she began to systematically wash the brunette, starting with her face and working down to her toes. When she was done, she wrapped the damp body in a towel. “Bend over and I’ll wash your hair too.”

Dana caught her hands. “If you touch me anymore, this is going to become more than a sponge bath.”

“But you’re in no shape to….”

“I know that, which is why I can’t take you touching me like this.”

“I promise not to be–”

“–Erotic, arousing, tender. You would have to be in the other room not to be.”

Grace laughed softly. “Let me wash your hair and we’ll go find a place to take a nap.”

“If you’re intimating that doing it lying down would be any less hazardous, you’re a fool, doctor. I’d rather go right here, right now with you on this sink,” she said, testing the sink’s strength with her hands. When she was satisfied as to its stability, she lifted Grace by the waist and set her on the edge of the sink.

Grace giggled nervously. “But I haven’t washed your….”

Dana took her mouth with a primal growl and the intensity to match. Her hands popped off the buttons that held the tailored white blouse closed, exposing the naked torso. A moment later and she was tugging on the woven belt of Grace’s slacks. All the while tongues were stroking and tasting each other, darting from one mouth to the other and back again. Grace was holding herself up by hanging onto Dana’s neck with both hands. When Dana could not get the belt to unhook, Grace lowered a hand to help and had to quickly grab the sink as Dana yanked the Dockers’ off her, nearly pulling Grace off the sink in the process. “Grab hold,” Dana growled into her mouth. Grace could tell by her tone that she meant it and grasped the porcelain more tightly.

By the time Dana had finished, Grace thought she would never be able to move again and did not want to. Dana’s towel had fallen from her body way back when, and they stood together in their birthday suits holding each other, Grace’s head resting on a scarred shoulder.

“I guess you can wash my hair now,” Dana mumbled into the salty skin of her lover’s cheek.

“I’ll wash anything you want after that,” Grace mumbled back.

A knock on the door. “Hey, you two, get dressed. The simulations are complete,” Rachel said through the metal door.

When they emerged from the bathroom, Grace was wearing the new T-shirt she had brought for Dana. The taller woman was dressed in the new jeans and a softer-than-clouds blue fleece shirt. Dana led Grace by the hand to the computer room where they would view the results.

“Where are the kids?” Dana asked, looking for the students.

“I sent them up to the third floor to rest. I didn’t expect the sim returns this soon.” This statement said a silent warning from hacker to tech.

Dana took the seat next to Rachel and pulled Grace down onto her lap, causing Grace to blush a little in front of the hacker.

“Don’t worry, Gracie, after all that ruckus you made in the bathroom, your professional image is not key in my mind or ears right now.” Dana snaked her arm around her lover’s hip and squeezed.

“Now, for the results.”

“Hard copy, or shall we scroll?”

“Scroll, but save first.” She pulled her glasses out of her pocket and hooked them around her ears. She breathed in the skin of Grace for luck, enjoying the scent of her lover.

Painfully slowly, they moved through the results of sets of simulations. The lists of numbers and percentages meant very little to Grace, but from the falling moods of her companions she could see that the simulations had not gone well. An hour later Dana’s expression had changed from elation to defeat.

“How bad?” Grace ventured to ask.

“Zero percent,” Dana said in a whisper, her eyes closed.

The doctor stirred uncomfortably. Dana turned to face her. “I’m sorry, Grace,” she said, her forehead touching her lover’s. Their fingers intertwined and held tightly.

“It’s fucking invisible,” Rachel vented angrily. “The little destroyers blasted everything but the Beta slaves.”

Dana had buried her head in Grace’s shoulder, so tired she could have slept just like that. Grace stroked her hair soothingly.

“Can you think of anything else, Doc?” the hacker asked impatiently.

“Get some rest,” Dana said, looking up with blood-red eyes. The rosy flush from love had drained away to sickly gray.

Rachel strolled out of the computer center, slapping the door frame in frustration.

“What now?” Grace asked, trembling.

Dana shrugged. “Home, if you want.” Dana had expected the disappointment; however, she had let hope in, and now the failure devastated her. But she could not let Grace know her despair or her fear.

“Why did you have to make it so perfect?” Grace asked, sliding off her lap and looking at the numbers on the screen.

Dana shrugged and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and her face in her hand. “It was supposed to be a Beta–it wasn’t supposed to be perfect. That’s why I put a trigger in the Alpha.”

“It’s so imperfect we can’t even find it to stop it.” Grace laughed sadly. “Too bad we can’t shrink Rip and send her in to hunt out and destroy them. She seems to be the only thing that can detect the little shits.”

Silence.

“Dana?” Grace said, wondering if she was asleep and turning to find the nano tech staring back at her. “I didn’t mean to make light of–”

“–Where were you three years ago?” Dana said in wonder.

“Downstairs working in the ER in my first year of residency. Why?”

“Because I could have used you three years ago,” she said, jumping up and switching the computer into a super browse of the World Wide Web. She began hunting for sonar receptors and found a jackpot in the U.S. Navy Net. With three keystrokes, she was able to get past security into the catalog of sonar hardware and software and zoomed in on several technical, yet unclassified publications that were perfect.

“Dana, what are you doing?”

“I’m going to build a nano scale sound receptor–sonar receptor, really–that can latch onto the sound waves of the Beta.”

“The sound that Rip hears.”

“Yeah, the freaking thing isn’t perfect. I had to change some of the gear works in the Alpha to get rid of the noise. Otherwise the little buggers squeak.”

“Kind of like that Six Million Dollar Man episode when Steve Austin’s friend is an evil robot that squeaks.”

A pause.

“I guess not everyone got the Sci Fi Channel when they were kids.”

“I watched South Park,” Dana said and continued her search for the sonar receiver she wanted to reproduce.

“Hmmm.” She paused and stared at the screen. “I have to incorporate the other sounds of the body into the memory of the program, like the viscosity of the blood against the walls, the heartbeat, digestive noises, and external noises. The cell is a highly littoral environment, which makes determining a specific sound more difficult, especially if I haven’t blocked out the wavelengths of the other noises. Hopefully, the Beta will be so unique it won’t be too much of a problem. Cross your fingers, Grace.”

“We can help by keeping the environment outside quiet.”

Dana rubbed her chin. “Would you run upstairs and get Minnie and Rachel for me? I need them to help too.”
Part Five – Finding Perfection

Grace was unable to sit idle for the next fifteen hours while Dana and her crew plugged away, surviving on adrenaline and Zap–Jolt’s and Surge’s daughter, so she went down to the emergency room to work.

The nano group had just begun to make the new nano processor work in simulations and were patting each other on the back, when Grace appeared at the door with a visage not unlike that of the Grim Reaper or Mick Jagger.

“Hola, Gracie, what’s up?” Rachel asked boisterously when she saw her.

Grace simply nodded at Dana to follow her to the conference room.

Dana’s good mood flew away as she followed her down the hall.

“Dana, sit down,” Grace commanded, a slight edge to her voice.

Dana did as she was told.

“We have a serious problem.”

She listened purposefully.

“Three people who worked in the boat yard checked into the hospital today.”

“Oh, no. And they have Beta?” Dana said, knowing right away what had happened.

“Yes.”

“How bad are they?”

“One’s a large guy, two hundred fifty pounds, in his late thirties. He’s in about the same shape as you, experiencing early renal failure. The other man, Mr. Riley, is old, in his eighties, and he’s not faring very well. He’s unconscious, and we have him on a respirator to regulate his breathing.”

Dana rubbed her eyes under her glasses. “You said there was a third?”

“A boy, fifteen. Dana, he’s dying. His kidneys have already failed, and his liver is failing.”

“Long blond curly hair, braces?”

“Yes.”

“He worked the dock this summer. I remember him.”

“Dana, he’s very sick.”

“He’s growing now, so the cells are dividing more rapidly. Shit!” She stood up and began to pace. “We’re so close, Grace. I need one more day.”

“We had to notify the police. They’re checking with all of the marina employees, trying to track down anyone else who may have been exposed.”

Dana blew out a long stream of air to help her concentrate and decide how to speed up the start of production.

“I guess we’re lucky it’s not the sailing season.”

Dana sat back down, rested her hands together on top of her head, and closed her eyes.

“It gets worse.”

“Good God.” Dana waited. “Well, hit me with it now–don’t make me wait.”

“Dr. Buchler reported the Beta to the Feds.”

Dana started to shake her head from side to side and whispered curses in a succession that would have put the Confederate States to shame. “Don’t let them near the programs, Grace.”

“It’s the Contagion Agency, Dana, not–”

“–No shit. I know who they are. And they all have the same boss. Listen, we can encode all the programs. If they try to get into them before we can post them on the Web, even if I’m gone, they’ll electronically dissolve.”

“Dana, you’re being paranoid.”

Dana stopped pacing, her eyes furrowed in irritation. “It’s not paranoia if they actually are out to get ya. I know these people, Grace, very well.”

“Do you think they’re the ones who started this?”

“No, they would have been waiting in the wings.”

“Then why don’t you trust them?”

“Anything else brewing?” Dana asked.

Grace realized that Dana was not going to answer her question. “Yeah, it’s snowing.”

The storm, a Northeaster, was a gift, shutting down every highway and airport in northern New England and stranding the Nano Division personnel of the U.S. Contagion Control Agency at Dulles Airport.

The hospital had taken on that aura of isolation that a good snowstorm could create. The hallways squeaked from wet rubber boots, and the maintenance crews were busy with their mops. The patients were cranky, as very few visitors were venturing out into the thirty-three inches of white stuff. But the group in Laboratory 2A was oblivious to the rest of the hospital as well as the rest of the world. Theirs was all of three thousand square feet on the second floor and five very sick people.

“How many do we need?” Jack asked Doc. It was Day Three, four-twenty in the morning, and the only sleep the group had snatched was during the three hours of simulation of the nano processor with its new sonar sensor.

“At least two trillion per person.”

“Tr–tr–trillion?” Jack stuttered.

“That’s probably how many Beta have infected each patient.”

The group looked around at each other.

“Roughly three trillion cells in the human body, right?” Three nods. “How many cells must die to kill you?”

“Depends on the organ,” Minnie said.

“No, this is not specific to one organ, or two organs. Beta is a general virus. It hits them all but affects the kidneys and liver first because of the generative life of those cells. But if we target only those organs, eventually every other cell will die as well. We may beat the acidosis, but we need our skin, our digestive system, and our heart to live. Besides, we can’t physically deliver the Destroyers directly to specific organs. We have to cover the entire domain that the Beta covers and kill as many as possible.”

“How will we deliver them–in an aerosol or a pill?” Grace asked.

“The digestive systems are shot in most of the patients by now from the effects of the acidosis. I doubt we could even get enough absorbed into the body. We’ll have to go intravenously, right into the bloodstream.”

“I think we should use the inferior vena cava.”

“Me too. Right below the kidneys. That’s where simulated entry seemed to work best. A portion will pass out in the urine–hopefully, not too much–which is another reason we need so many, but two-thirds will go to the heart and then be circulated throughout the entire body. Then we have to hope the fatty coating will allow them through the cell membranes so they can get to work.”

“I’m assuming all of your base materials are ready and you’re waiting to load the production program.” Dana addressed Jack.

He was trying to calculate in his head how much time it would take to make ten trillion nano machines, the fifth patient having been brought in a little after midnight.

“Jack?” Dana asked gently.

The number was too big. “Huh?”

“Are you ready to begin production?”

“I’m waiting for Rachel to load the program.”

Dana smiled. “How long will it take?”

“I have no idea.”

Dana scratched out a mathematical equation on her notepad and slid it to him with her pencil. “Fill in the rate of how many you can create per second at full production.”

He wrote down the number and slid it back to her.

“Fuck!” Dana said, looking at the number. “Are you sure?”

“That’s conservative, Doc.” He had picked up the name from Rachel.

Grace leaned over to look at the number. “Five million. That’s great!”

“That’s 555 hours, Grace. It’s too slow,” Dana explained.

“Twenty-three days?”

“What about a non-conservative estimate?”

“Six million, maybe.”

“You added the lipid-sheathing time in too, Jack?” Dana asked.

“Yes.”

“Good. Okay, let’s be optimists. We have nineteen days to make ten trillion Destroyers. That’s three-point-eight days per person.” She scribbled on her pad, estimating how much longer she thought she could live without treatment. “We can save one person, before the rest die. So we’re still fucked.” Dana tossed her pencil down onto the table and closed her bloodshot eyes. “I remember this being a lot faster, somehow,” she said to no one in particular.

“The Destroyers are more complex than the master Betas, Doc,” Rachel offered.

Nobody knew what Doc wanted them to do. “How do you choose who lives?” She sighed sadly.

The group sat in silence..

“What about dosing the patient?” Grace offered quietly.

Dana looked at her with interest.

“We could give the person injections through a feeder bag in a drip, or several injections, in doses of one billion each. Why all or nothing?”

Dana slowly grinned at her magnificent companion proudly. “Would you be willing to create a protocol and oversee the nurses to make sure it happens, Dr. Wilson?”

“I’ll give them to you myself, Doc.”

Jack and Minnie looked across the table at each other in sudden comprehension. They knew their leader looked bad, but they all did, with as little sleep as they’d had over the past seventy-two hours.

“You start with the four downstairs and any more that may show up.”

“Then we should get started right away,” Jack said, jumping to his feet with a new sense of purpose.

Dana grabbed his arm. “Take your time, Jack. We make mistakes when we rush.”

“I’ll help you, Jack,” Minnie said and joined him after running a compassionate, tiny hand across Doc’s shoulders as she passed by her. She smiled at Dana.

“Do you think you can speed up the program at all?” Dana asked Rachel.

Rachel rolled herself away from the table and stood. “Of course. But a wise woman once said, ‘Take your time. We make mistakes when we rush.'” Then she laughed as she walked out. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Rach!” Dana yelled.

“What?”

“In case I never get the chance again,” she said as she walked over to the exhausted computer programmer, “you’re brilliant.” And she gave her an awkward hug.

“I know,” the hacker said, squeezing back and then following the two students down the hall to the Organic Lab.

That left Grace and Dana in the office alone on opposite sides of the conference table. “I think you were flirting with that grad student, Papadopolis.”

Dana smiled with her eyes; her face was too tired. “I’m in no shape to flirt, especially with one so young.” Dana pulled her pad over and started a new page. “I was thinking we could use a plasma-based medium.”

Grace began to walk over to her.

“We can’t guarantee every cell will take up the Destroyers, but hopefully we can save enough cells.” Grace was touching her arm now. “Maybe you can get the ER to lend you that mean old Nurse Sydney to help you,” Dana said.

“I’ll ask.” She was rubbing Dana’s back.

“Don’t tell her I asked for her, though.”

“I won’t.” She was getting a full shoulder massage. As Dana’s muscles relaxed she found herself falling to a chair, Grace’s compact body controlling her fall. When she reached the chair, she felt herself slipping but fought to keep heavy lids open so that she could see Grace.

“I want to kiss you.”

“Are you in any shape to kiss me?”

A tiny nod.

Grace leaned into her face, their lips barely touching. Dana closed her eyes.

She was warm with fever, and her skin was beginning to take on the yellowing jaundice of liver failure. The liver failure was leading to signs of diabetes and aggravating renal failure. Grace quietly worried about her.

“I love you, Dana,” she whispered and pressed her lips a little harder. Dana kissed her back but had to break because she was growing fuzzy-headed. She managed a smile, the sweetest thing Grace had ever seen, that spoke more than words ever could.

“I’m so tired, Grace.”

“I know, baby,” she replied and enveloped her in warm, loving arms. “I’ll take care of it from here, trust me.”

Dana rested her head on the sturdy shoulder.

“You did so good, Dana,” she whispered, nuzzling her neck and listening to the even breathing as sleep quickly took her lover. “I’m so proud of you.”
Part Six – Recovery

The five patients were on their eighth dose when the federal agents finally arrived. And when they required access to the database and computers, Rachel had disappeared, as had all of the computer programs, as well as the handwritten technical notebooks they all kept, everything except the application running the production.

Grace refused them entry into any of the ICU rooms where the patients were continuously monitored, claiming that silence in the patient’s environment was one of the priorities of the treatment protocol. She likely would not have been persuasive enough to keep them at bay had it not been for Nurse Sydney or Dr. Buchler, who stood behind her. Together they were formidable, and the agents found themselves watching from a perimeter.

Mr. Riley, the oldest of the victims, Mike Lyons, the youngest, and Dana remained unconscious for the first week of treatment, all three losing renal function completely and requiring dialysis as well as the Destroyer treatments. Mr. Riley was experiencing full liver failure as well and was becoming Grace’s number one medical worry. The other two patients, the man and the woman who had come in last, recovered within the week and were released after several organ and skin biopsies had shown no active Beta slaves.

The other three were going to require further medical care. Their kidney cells had completely died, leaving very few options for treatment. On Day Five of treatment, live cells were harvested from the kidneys of each patient and sent down to the cloning laboratory. Until the new kidneys were ready, the patients would remain in ICU on dialysis.

When Dana finally awakened, she caught through bleary eyes a blonde halo of hair, an ethereal whiteness surrounding her, and silence. A gentle touch to her forehead told her she was not dreaming, and, hopefully, not dead. Then a straw was placed to her cracked lips, and she drank cold, wonderful water. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer to whoever was listening. When she reopened them, she could see a little better, and the blonde, angelic figure was still hovering at her side. She blinked several times until her caregiver came into focus.

“Ugh,” she rasped, “not you again.”

“Good to see you too, you bloody little creep.”

“Where’s Gr–”

“–She’ll be here in a second. She’s with the Lyons boy.”

Dana let herself get reacquainted with the wonderful sensation of air filling her lungs. “How long–”

“–Ten days, now be quiet.”

Dana decided she was simply too grateful to offer a biting retort. “Did everyone….”

“Yes, so far.”

Dana let her eyes search her surroundings. “Is that a dialysis machine?”

“We’re cloning your kidneys. They should be ready in a month. Now I need you to be quiet–you’re still under treatment.”

Dana reached for the water, but Sydney easily beat her to it and helped her to more.

“Ah-hem.”

Both patient and nurse looked up to find out who the sound had come from.

“Well, it’s about time,” Grace said from the doorway. Her green eyes were filling with tears. “I say, it’s about friggin’ time you woke up, you big, wonderful nano tech.”

 

 

The End

Next Part – Newton’s Second Law — Gravitation

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