Someone wants private investigator Nick Llewellyn to disappear, and they've devised a twisted way to accomplish that. Now he has just twenty-four hours to find out who is behind it - twenty-four hours until he ends up dead on arrival.
By Breanna Ramsey
Edited by Amelia R.
It was still known as the Capitol of Silicon Valley, though silicon based semiconductors had been replaced in the high tech sector long ago by quasicrystal superconducters. San Jose, California boasted a population of well over a million within the city proper, and was headquarters to many of the world’s top tech corporations. The metropolitan area around the city was home to approximately eight million more people. Thanks to the area’s ultra-modern highway system, and the fact that almost all vehicles were equipped with computerized autopilots, gridlock was virtually a thing of the past.
The advent of room-temperature superconductors had birthed the nanotech revolution, and though still viewed with mistrust by many, nanotechnology had led to tremendous strides in manufacturing, medicine and agriculture. Nanites were rapidly replacing pesticides in agriculture, and were in widespread use for the disposal of waste products. Medical nanites were used for everything from scar-free healing of wounds and burns to cosmetic and reconstructive procedures.
It was a relatively quiet night, and Sergeant Phil Houseman was using the respite to catch up on some paperwork. San Jose had once held the title as the safest big city in the U.S. — now it wasn’t even in the top ten, though the crime rate was not anywhere near the likes of Detroit or Washington. The graveyard shift was always unpredictable, however, and with the nightclubs open for another two hours, anything could happen.
Engrossed in his reports, Houseman didn’t notice the young woman as she entered the police precinct. When he heard the clack of her low heels on the floor tiles, he looked up and whistled to himself.
She was a looker - dark, wine red hair framed a face that even without makeup would put most supermodels to shame. She was dressed in fashionable business attire; a black knee-length skirt and matching short jacket with a turquoise blouse that glimmered like it was real silk.
While the clothes were upscale, their condition was not. They were ill fitting — the skirt tightly hugging her round, full hips, and the blouse straining to contain her breasts, which while not huge were definitely on the large side and threatened to spill out of a bra that was at least two sizes too small. The top two buttons of her blouse were missing, and the jacket was torn in several places. She was dirty and disheveled, and alarm bells immediately sounded in Houseman’s head as she made her way unsteadily to the desk.
“Are you all right, Miss?” Houseman asked, unable to avoid a glance at her chest. She looked uncomfortable and tried unsuccessfully to pull her blouse closed.
“I’d like to see Lieutenant Jack Barton.” she said, her voice a husky, sensuous alto. “Tell him its regarding his friend, Nick Llewellyn.”
The sergeant made a call, and the redhead waited nervously, avoiding any eye contact. She wasn’t very old, perhaps in her early to mid twenties. The sergeant suggested she would be more comfortable if she sat down while she waited, but she politely declined.
A few minutes later, a tall man in his forties arrived at the desk, and the sergeant gestured towards the young woman.
“I’m Lieutenant Barton,” the newcomer said. “What can I do for you, Miss?”
“Could we talk in private?” she asked. Barton nodded and had the sergeant buzz her through the security gate. He led her back to his office and offered her a chair in front of his desk.
“Could I get your name?” he asked as he sat behind the desk.
The redhead smiled and said, “That’s a little complicated.”
Barton studied her intently. She was obviously struggling with her emotions, and from the condition of her clothes, he suspected she might have been raped. He wasn’t at all sure why she had asked for him — he was a homicide detective.
“If this is about an … assault … I really should refer you to….”
“It’s not,” she said, taking a pack of cigarettes from her small purse and lighting one. She took a long drag and held it for a moment, her eyes closing as she slowly exhaled.
“I’m here to report a murder,” she said as she opened her eyes.
Barton leaned forward, his eyes boring into her.
“Who was murdered?”
The redhead’s lip quivered, and she bit back a sob. Tears glistened in her eyes as she whispered in a small, frightened voice.
***Two Days Earlier***
The screeching blare of the alarm jarred Nick Llewellyn from sleep, and his head began throbbing painfully as the after-effects of the night before hit him like a bullet train. He squeezed his eyes tighter and pulled a pillow over his head.
“DANI, kill the alarm!”
The noise continued without pause, and in fact the decibel level increased.
“Dammit, DANI, shut off that noise!”
The noise mercifully ended, and Nick sighed. Then a voice that was not his Domestic Automation Network Interface spoke.
“I don’t have a DANI unit, and it’s time you were up anyway.”
Nick pushed the pillow aside and opened his eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight that filled a bedroom that was not his own. He looked towards the source of the voice and saw a beautiful, buxom blonde looking down at him.
“There’s coffee in the kitchen,” the girl said and then turned and left.
Nick shook his head to clear it, which was a mistake, as it only sent daggers of pain into his skull. He sat up slowly, wincing from the pain the motion caused in his abdomen. He noticed he was fully clothed except for his shoes and socks, and as he lifted his shirt he saw several dark purple bruises on his stomach.
“What the hell?” he muttered, his right hand rising to rub his face. That brought more pain. His jaw was sore, and it felt like his lower lip was swollen.
The bedroom was smaller than his and considerably neater. The clock on the night stand showed it was after one in the afternoon. The last clear memory he had was from around eleven the previous night.
He found his shoes and socks beside the bed and put them on. His sport coat was draped over a nearby chair, and he slipped it on as well and then made his way to the attached bathroom and relieved himself.
~ What the hell did I do last night? ~
There was no answer forthcoming. He remembered going out with the intention of getting blind drunk, and obviously he had succeeded in that respect. He could remember going to his favorite bar and having three or four drinks, but after that everything was blank. He had no idea who the pretty blonde was, or how he had gotten to her apartment.
After washing his hands, he splashed some cold water on his face, wincing again. He looked in the mirror and saw that his lip was indeed swollen and his left eye was blackened. It looked like he had been in a hell of a fight. He dried his face and hands and then followed his nose to the smell of brewing coffee.
The girl was sitting at the table in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and reading the morning paper on a tablet PC. She didn’t say a word, just pointed at the coffee maker, and Nick poured himself a cup and joined her at the table.
“I didn’t figure you’d want anything to eat,” she said, sliding the pack of cigarettes across the table. Nick took one and lit it, grunting a thank you before taking a sip of coffee.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name,” he said, feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Going home with a girl he had never met was something he had never done, no matter how drunk he had been. The fact that she had to be twenty-years younger than him didn’t make him feel any better.
“Did I … I mean … did we …?”
“Relax, Mr. Llewellyn, nothing happened — you’re not my type,” she laughed.
“Well obviously I told you my name last night.”
“Actually you didn’t, but I do know who you are and that you’re a private investigator who at one time specialized in corporate security. I found you staggering out of the alley next to Sullivan’s, beat to hell; although from the way the three guys were running in the other direction, I’d say they came out of it worse than you. My name is Gina … Gina Pollard.”
Nick’s eyes snapped to hers at the name and she nodded.
“That’s right, Mr. Llewellyn; Tim Pollard was my brother,” she said.
“Shit,” Nick muttered.
The incident had occurred three weeks earlier. Nick’s friend, Dr. Richard Halstead had asked him for help with a problem. One of his wife Erica’s students had become infatuated with her and was causing problems. Nick had checked the grad student’s background and found nothing that hinted at any past problems, and he had figured it was a simple case of unrequited love. Erica was a gorgeous, elegant woman, and Tim wouldn’t have been the first student she had had a fling with. Most of them saw it for just that, a fling, and moved on when Erica tired of them, but Tim had apparently decided she had genuine feelings for him.
It wasn’t the kind of case Nick usually handled, although for the last two years he had only worked three corporate jobs including his current case, but this was for a friend. His relationship with Bill and Erica went back to their college days. There had been six of them - Bill, one of his roommates at UCSF; Erica, who at the time had been Nick’s girlfriend; Amelia Baker, now a doctor at Stanford University Hospital; Jack Barton, Nick’s other roommate; and Elizabeth Mattheson.
Nick’s relationship with Erica had been short lived, partly because he recognized early on what kind of woman she was. For Erica, love was just a word, and sex was at best a diversion and at worst a tool of manipulation. The main reason for their breakup had been because Nick was really in love with Liz.
Nick and Liz were married after graduation, and it lasted for eighteen years, through Nick’s time as a Marine and his eight years with the Naval Criminal Investigative Services. After NCIS, he had gone into corporate security and built quite a reputation, but his relationship with Liz had grown more and more distant, until she had finally told him she wanted a divorce two years ago.
Perhaps he should have seen it coming, but he hadn’t, and it had been a blow that had sent him spiraling into a self-destructive depression. He had started drinking more, and after eighteen years as a non-smoker, he had taken up the habit again. Cigarettes no longer carried the risks they once had, but it still wasn’t considered a healthy habit. For Nick, the smoking was partly because of the stress, but mainly because he just didn’t give a damn anymore.
His work had been affected as well. He turned down lucrative corporate contracts in favor of more traditional cases — missing persons and skip traces mostly — many of which delved into the seedy world of nanonarcotics. His latest case had involved the disappearance of a San Jose State coed, and his investigation had uncovered evidence that led to the arrest of a major member of the Russian mob for her murder, a vile man named Vasily Kodorov.
The situation with Tim Pollard had seemed simple enough. The grad student had no criminal record, and nothing in his background indicated he was dangerous. He had experimented with nanonarcs in his early college days, but that could be said of many university students. Nick had gone to the young man’s apartment and told him in no uncertain terms that Erica was not interested and he should back off, and left it at that.
The next evening he had gotten a call from Erica while Bill was out of town. The kid had called her, angry and apparently high, and made several threats before telling her he was on his way over. Nick had arrived at the house to find the door kicked in, the security alarm screaming, and Tim Pollard threatening Erica with a gun, totally out of his head. He had tried to talk him down, but the kid was too far gone to hear him.
Then Tim had turned the gun towards him, and for an instant Nick had hesitated. The thought of dying was something that held no fear for him - he had been dead for two years, merely existing day-to-day. The only thing that made him squeeze the trigger was knowing that after he was dead, Erica would be next.
“Your brother didn’t leave me any choice,” Nick sighed through a cloud of smoke. “He was so jacked he couldn’t think straight. The medical examiner’s report showed he was on some pretty bad bugs.”
Nano-narcotics were one of the banes of the nanotech revolution. There were no drugs involved, only nanites programmed to simulate the effects of various narcotics. Because nanites had very limited mobility, they were usually injected behind the ear, or administered in eye drops, so they had a direct route to the brain.
Good quality nano-narcs had no detrimental side effects, except that they were almost always programmed to create a dependence that was hard to break. The real danger came from lesser quality product, where the programming was bad, or even worse, intentionally written to seriously screw up a user.
“Tim had been clean for four years,” Gina said. “He wouldn’t have started using again … he promised.”
“Addictions can be hard to break,” Nick said, holding up the cigarette in his hand. “People can go for years and then relapse when something causes an emotional trauma. When Erica refused his advances, maybe he slipped.”
Gina shook her head sharply and said, “Not Tim, he was totally focused on his studies. He didn’t even date - he said romance was a complication he didn’t need.”
There was more that she wasn’t saying, Nick could see it on her face. Reading someone’s unspoken signals was a vital skill for an investigator, and Nick was very good at it. It didn’t really matter — her brother really had left him with no choice.
“He got that right,” Nick grunted, thinking about the heartache that had brought on his drinking binge. He had met with his Liz the day before to sign divorce papers after two years of separation. Her announcement that she was marrying again had been the last straw.
“Unfortunately, it happens,” Nick told her, “even when a guy doesn’t want it to.”
“I don’t believe it,” Gina said, but there was less conviction in her voice. “Maybe she led him on.”
Nick grunted again - he was fairly certain Erica had done more than lead him on. Her position as a professor at Stanford was entirely for prestige. Her inheritance had left her incredibly wealthy, and as a senior professor in computer programming, she had a lot of contacts in the tech world and had used those to increase her wealth. Bill’s status as one of the leading researchers in nanotechnology didn’t hurt either.
“Gina, the cops found dozens of emails he had sent her, some of them very threatening,” Nick said. “I’m very sorry about your loss….”
“I don’t want your pity,” Gina said.
“What do you want?” Nick asked. “Somehow, I don’t think you just happened by Sullivan’s at just the right moment last night. You could’ve hired the goons that jumped me — a little payback maybe?”
“I admit I was following you - I wanted to hear what happened from you. I had nothing to do with you getting beat up though. If I was after payback, I could’ve had that anytime last night.”
That was true enough, Nick thought. He certainly had been totally out of it.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I am sorry,” Nick said. “From what I know, your brother had a promising future ahead.”
“And that’s it?” Gina demanded. “My brother is dead, and so I should just move on and forget him?”
“I didn’t say you should forget him,” Nick answered. “Remember the good, hold on to that. As long as someone remembers us, we live on.”
Gina didn’t answer; she just crushed out her cigarette and rose from the table.
“I have to get to work,” she said. “I, um, well I brought you here in your car - I don’t have one. Could you give me a lift?”
“Sure,” Nick said. “Where do you work?”
“A club called Voluptas over on Bascom,” Gina said.
Nick knew the place; it was one of the most popular strip clubs in San Jose. Gina certainly had the body for it.
“It’s putting me through college,” she said at his look.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Nick said. “If you don’t mind my asking, what are you studying?”
“Criminal justice and pre-law,” Gina told him with a grin. “I’ll be starting my fourth year in the fall. I plan to be the first former stripper to become the director of the FBI.”
Nick laughed. He wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she made it. She certainly exuded an air of confidence and determination. While Gina gathered her things, Nick drained the last of his coffee and finished his smoke, then followed her outside to where his Grand Marquis was parked.
“You don’t use the autopilot?” Gina asked as they made the drive to Voluptas. Nick was steering the car manually through the mid-day traffic with practiced ease.
“Not unless I have to,” Nick said. “This car is pretty much my office, and a lot of the time I’m making calls or running background searches in transit, so I have to use it.”
“Mr. Llewellyn, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Not if you call me Nick — Mr. Llewellyn makes me feel like an old man.”
Gina smiled. Nick wasn’t an unattractive man, nor was he particularly handsome. Average was the word that described him best — average look, average height and average weight. There was a hint of grey in his hair, but he kept it closely trimmed so it wasn’t very noticeable. The only thing that was really striking about him were his eyes, which conveyed a sense of pain and a loss of hope.
“All right, Nick. What happened? I mean, I did some research on you - you were the best in your field, and now, well from some of the jobs you’ve worked, it seems like you almost have a death wish.”
“Maybe life just stopped being fun,” Nick said.
He pulled the car to the curb in front of Voluptas a short time later, and as Gina climbed out, Nick said, “I really am sorry about your brother, Gina.”
“I believe you are,” she said. “Thanks for the lift, and try to stay out of dark alleys, okay?”
By the time he made it back to his condo, it was almost four. Surprisingly, he felt much better, the nausea and throbbing headache of the early afternoon gone. Even his face and ribs felt better. His grumbling stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten all day, and he was rummaging through the freezer when the phone rang, and he was saved from another night alone with a frozen dinner.
“Damn, Nick, you act like you haven’t eaten in days,” Bill Halstead laughed as he watched his friend finish off his second steak.
“Well, I haven’t eaten all day,” Nick told him. “I’m surprised I feel like eating at all, considering how sick I was this morning.”
“Hey, at least it’s over,” Bill said. “Now that the divorce is final you can think about moving on. Women can sure mess with your head, can’t they?”
“Speaking of women, where’s Erica tonight?”
“Out of town,” Bill said. Nick knew from the tone it was a euphemism - Erica was having another affair.
He thought about saying something, but decided it was better to let it go. He wasn’t in the mood for an argument, and Bill always got a bit testy when Nick pressed him about Erica’s habitual infidelity. The odd part about it was it bothered Nick more than it seemed to affect Bill.
“Has Gina Pollard tried to contact you or Erica?” he asked to change the subject.
“Tim’s sister? No, not me anyway, and I’m certain Erica hasn’t spoken to her recently. They did have a bit of an ugly encounter after the inquest, but nothing since then. Why do you ask?”
Nick gave him a brief rundown of his encounter with Gina and the incident from the previous night.
“You don’t look bad for someone that got beat up,” Bill said. “It sounds a little convenient that she was there though.”
“She said she wanted to talk to me,” Nick told him. “If she was behind the goons that jumped me, they wouldn’t have run off. It was probably a mugging attempt.”
“Or maybe Kodorov wants some payback,” Bill suggested. “Nick, you’ve got to be more careful - that creep is seriously dangerous.”
“If they had been working for Kodorov, they’d have put a bullet in my head.”
“I guess so, but you still need to be careful,” Bill said.
Nick passed on the offer of an after dinner beer and said goodnight to Bill. Back inside his condo, he sat down on the sofa with his tablet PC and went to work on his latest case, a security audit for Sterling MicroTech. It was his first corporate case in a long time, and he had spent several days over the past week going over their security protocols with their head of security. There wasn’t much he could offer to improve things there, but part of the audit included a review of their employees, with special attention to their financial records. An unexplained influx of cash was often an indicator that someone had been bought off by a competitor, and all of the employees had signed disclosure agreements when they were hired.
“How are you coming on the review, DANI?”
“The review is thirty-percent complete, Nick,” the sultry feminine voice of his household computer said. He had upgraded his unit with several programs that aided him in his work, and tweaked the voice a bit from the standard lifeless simulacrum. He figured if his only female companionship was a computer, it might as well have a sexy voice.
“I have flagged three files of possible interest,” DANI continued. “They are on your tablet.”
“Thank you, DANI,” Nick said as he opened the first file. The computer was excellent at analyzing patterns, but he still had to review any questionable files to determine if there was anything warranting further investigation.
The three files were easily resolved. One employee had a lucky night in Vegas, and the good sense to quit while he was ahead. The casino records didn’t indicate anything unusual in the amounts wagered. The other two were windfalls resulting from court settlements.
It was only ten o’clock when he finished reviewing the files, but he felt very tired and decided to turn in early. A good night’s sleep should be just the thing to get him over the previous night’s excess.
“It’s time to wake up, Nick.”
Nick opened his eyes at DANI’s gentle but insistent voice and was immediately swept by a wave of intense nausea. He barely made it to the bathroom before retching violently. It was mostly dry heaves, and though his ribs no longer hurt, his abdomen was wracked by violent cramps. There were traces of what appeared to be blood in the vomitus, leading him to consider the possibility that he had taken more of a beating than he had first suspected.
When he looked in the mirror, however, he was surprised by what he saw. His black eye and swollen lip were completely healed, as were the bruises on his abdomen. There wasn’t even any tenderness where they had once been.
As he left the bathroom, his vision blurred, and he swayed unsteadily, bracing himself against the doorframe. He felt hot, feverish, and as much as he hated the thought, he decided he had to get checked out. He called Amelia Baker, and she told him to come see her immediately.
The twenty minute trip to Stanford University Hospital was agonizing, and Nick was glad for once to let his Grand Marquis’ navigation system do the driving. He felt far worse than he had the previous morning, and if he had tried to drive himself, he would have surely gotten into an accident.
The ER waiting room was jammed, but Amelia had notified the desk to admit him immediately. A nurse took his vitals, and then Amelia listened as he told her what had happened. She then did a quick physical examination before sending him for a three-dimensional MRI. After the scan, a nurse took some blood and gave him some medication for the pain, and he was left in an exam room to wait. It was over an hour later when Amelia came into the room, and by the look on her face he knew something was seriously wrong.
“Well, first off, we know why you can’t remember anything about the night before last,” she told him. “We found traces of theta-flourophenyl-tetraen in your blood.”
“TFT?” Nick said. He was all too familiar with the drug, commonly used in cases of date-rape. “I wasn’t….”
Amelia shook her head, “No, there’s no evidence of sexual assault. In fact, there’s no evidence of the injuries you received either. We have an explanation for that as well. Your body is saturated with nanites.”
“So somebody drugged me, beat the hell out of me, and then gave me nanites to heal me? Amelia, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’d say the healing of your injuries was simply a side-effect. The nanites are literally in every part of your body - the concentration is far beyond anything we would do for medical purposes. The highest concentrations are in your stomach and abdomen, so I would say the nanites were administered orally along with the drug. I would guess that the TFT was intended to incapacitate you, so whoever did this could take you somewhere while the nanites did their work. Apparently, it took a little longer to reach full effect than they expected, and you were able to fight them off, even though you can’t remember it.”
That made sense, Nick thought. Someone had slipped him the nanites and the TFT, and then when he left the bar, he had been jumped. When he had managed to get away and staggered from the alley, Gina had been there, and his attackers had fled to avoid being identified. However, her presence struck him even more as a little too convenient. There were other questions that were more pressing at the moment though.
“How could nanites I drank spread through my whole body? I’m no expert, but I do know that nanites are administered to specific areas for treatment and don’t travel from there.”
“You’re right,” Amelia said, “currently nanites have a very limited ability to relocate within the body. These nanites are like nothing I have ever seen, however. Not only have they spread, they’re reproducing.”
“How the hell can they do that?”
“Simply put, they’re mining the resources necessary from your body,” Amelia explained. “They’re microscopic, and for them the human body is a treasure trove. Minerals like copper, aluminum, cadmium, even gold and nickel are part of all of us. They’re in minute amounts, but more than enough for the nanites to gather the necessary materials to replicate themselves. The rate of replication is slowing, probably because they’ve reached a pre-programmed concentration, but I’m afraid they’re really just getting started with their main purpose.”
“And that purpose is?”
Amelia didn’t answer, instead turning on the room’s holographic display and slipping a data card into the reader. A three-dimensional image of Nick’s insides appeared, and Amelia manipulated the controls to zoom it in on his abdominal area. Two faint oval shapes were highlighted on the display.
“Those are ovaries, Nick,” she said. “They’re underdeveloped currently, but the nanites are continuing to construct them. These faint lines leading from them are the beginnings of fallopian tubes, and in the center here, the first traces of a uterus. This is the source of the abdominal pain you’ve been experiencing.”
“Amelia, that’s crazy. How could it even be possible? I mean how can I be growing ovaries?”
“Crazy or not, it’s happening,” Amelia said. “As to how, it has to do in part to the homologous structures in male and female anatomy - structures that serve a similar purpose. For instance, the male testes and the female ovaries. The nanites are taking material from your testes and using it to construct ovaries. Exactly how they are doing this I can’t answer. It doesn’t stop there, either. Take off your shirt, please.”
Nick did as she asked, and Amelia reached forward, brushing his nipples with her thumbs. The sensation was electric, eliciting a hiss from Nick. His nipples stiffened and enlarged, and he noticed that there was some slight swelling of the breast tissue beneath them.
“Don’t tell me….”
Amelia nodded. “You’re growing breasts. Nick, I can’t explain it, but the nanites are transforming you into a woman. They’re actually re-writing your genetic code like a virus. We’ve detected both XY and XX chromosome pairs in your DNA.”
Nick’s mind reeled as he tried to comprehend what he was being told. It still made no sense. Why would someone want to change him into a woman?
“What cases are you working on?” Amelia asked. “Who might want to get rid of you?”
“Nothing,” Nick said. “I’m doing a security audit for Sterling MicroTech, but that’s pretty mundane. The only major case I’ve worked in a month is Vasily Kodorov. His trial is coming up in a few weeks, but it’s not my testimony that will put him away; it’s that weasel, Vince Spinelli.”
“But Spinelli is in protective custody, you’re not.”
“Yeah, so Kodorov might want me dead, but turning me into a woman won’t accomplish that.”
“You don’t understand, Nick,” Amelia said, “the nanites are working in every part of your body, including your brain. Where did you go to first grade?”
“It was … it was …,” Nick searched his memory, trying to recall the name of his elementary school. “I can’t remember.”
“The nanites are restructuring the memory centers of your brain, actually destroying cells and rebuilding them,” Amelia told him. “They appear to be working backwards, from your oldest memories forward. If they keep this up, you’ll lose everything. The body you’ll have will be a blank slate with no past or identity. For all intents and purposes, you will be dead.”
Nick almost laughed. He should have been glad - hadn’t he contemplated death many times over the last two years? On more than one occasion he had sat in his living room, a bottle of Jack Daniels on the coffee table and his Glock 45 next to it, a single round in the chamber. When Elizabeth had told him she wanted a divorce, he had said he couldn’t live without her, and he had meant it. For the last two years, he hadn’t been living, he’d been merely existing.
“Liz handles cases for a lot of high tech firms,” Amelia said. Nick looked at her and shook his head.
“That doesn’t track. I signed the papers the day before yesterday. Even if I disappeared, it wouldn’t get her anything.”
“Except maybe some twisted revenge,” Amelia said.
“Amelia, do you really believe Liz could do something like this?” Nick asked. “For God’s sake you were her roommate for four years in college, she’s your best friend!”
“I don’t want to believe it, Nick,” Amelia said. “But you’re my friend too. Liz has been very angry at you — you’ve fought her on the divorce for two years.”
“I didn’t fight her, I just sort of … delayed things,” Nick said. “I kept hoping if I just bought enough time she’d change her mind.”
The divorce had gotten a bit ugly, as divorces often do. Nick and Liz had both said things to one another they didn’t mean, words spawned by anger and confusion. No matter what had been said, Nick couldn’t believe she would do anything to harm him.
Vasily Kodorov was another matter. He was a major trafficker in nano-narcotics, and he definitely had reason to want Nick to disappear. Then there was the girl he had met yesterday, Gina Pollard. Her brother Tim had been a grad student in nanotech research, and she had conveniently appeared at the scene of the crime.
It was a basic investigative problem — he had a crime and a list of suspects. All he had to do was follow examine the evidence and follow the clues. The biggest problem was time.
“How long do I have?”
“We were able to analyze some of the programming,” Amelia said. “They’ll complete their programmed tasks in about twenty-four hours.”
Nick slipped off the exam table and put his shirt back on. He grabbed his coat from the rack and put it on, then opened the door to leave.
“Nick, you can’t leave,” Amelia said. “We need to monitor you.”
“Is there anything you can do to stop it?”
Amelia shook her head. “There are too many of them. Anything we could do to neutralize them would kill you.”
“Then I’m going to find out who did this to me.”
“Wait,” Amelia said. She walked to the room’s med locker and took out a bottle and gave it to him.
“You’re going to probably experience intense pain as the transformation progresses; these will help.”
“The entire biotech staff is working on this. If we come up with anything, I’ll call you. I want you to keep in touch too. Let me know immediately if you experience any drastic changes.”
Nick almost asked her to define drastic, but didn’t. He would undoubtedly know if it happened.
“Nick, you should call Jack.”
Nick shook his head and said, “No, not yet. Jack’s a friend but he’s also a cop — if they get involved it could tip off whoever did this. I need time to work some leads without them interfering.”
It was obvious Amelia wasn’t happy with his answer, and Nick sighed.
“Look, I’ll check in as often as I can. It’s almost ten AM now - if you don’t hear from me by six tomorrow morning, take everything you’ve got to Jack.”
“I don’t like it, but I’ll do as you ask,” Amelia said. “Please be careful.”
“I will,” Nick said. On impulse he gave Amelia a hug and said, “You’re a good friend. Why didn’t we ever get together?”
“I’m not your type,” Amelia laughed. “I’m not a blonde like Liz and Erica.”
“I’m an idiot,” Nick said as he turned towards the door.
“No argument there,” Amelia replied.
Nick’s mind was racing as he left the exam room. What was happening to him was hard to process; that with every tick of the clock he was literally being erased, reformed. He wondered what he would look like when it was all over, but quickly pushed those thoughts aside. He needed to concentrate on the present.e
By the time he reached his car in the parking structure across the street, he had the beginning of a plan. Kodorov was the prime suspect, and the more he thought about it, the more it looked like the kind of twisted scheme the mobster would enjoy.
It had to have been Kodorov’s goons in the alley. They had gotten someone to slip him the nanites and the TFT in the bar, and then jumped him as he left. If he hadn’t managed to fight them off, he’d likely be in some secluded location, listening to Kodorov gloat as he was transformed. After that, Nick shuddered to think what might lay in store for the woman he would become.
He reached his car and slid into the driver’s seat, reaching over to the glove compartment as he did and keying in the security code. He removed his holstered Glock 45 automatic pistol from the compartment and clipped it to his belt just behind his right hip. It may be the last thing he ever did, but he would make sure that Kodorov didn’t get away with this.
Nick started the car and then set the countdown timer on his watch - twenty-four hours and counting.
His first stop was Sterling MicroTech. He needed to get information on who might be capable of producing nanites like those that were in him, and his ongoing security audit for the company got him in to see the CEO, Bryce Sterling, right away. After checking his weapon at the security gate in the lobby, he rode the express elevator up to Sterling’s office.
“Mr. Llewellyn, I’m very busy, so we’ll have to make this brief,” Sterling said as Nick entered his office. “I wasn’t in favor of this ridiculous audit in the first place, but the board insisted.”
“This isn’t about the audit,” Nick said. He quickly explained the situation - he would have preferred to keep the matter private, but he needed the CEO’s help, and the surest way to get that was by telling him what was going on.
“There are only a half dozen or so companies working on that kind of technology, including ours,” Sterling said, after Nick finished. His face displayed shocked amazement, but there was something else too - fascination. The nanites in Nick’s body were potentially worth billions, and Sterling was too shrewd not to recognize an opportunity. In helping Nick, his company would be able to gain valuable information.
“My head of research, Dr. Tallman, will be able to provide you with more useful information,” he continued as he lifted his phone. “I’ll let her know you’re on the way down.”
Nick thanked the CEO and left his office, making his way via the elevator to the research and development level of Sterling MicroTech. He was met as he exited the elevator by a tall, attractive brunette in her late thirties.
“I just got off the phone with Dr. Baker,” she said without preamble. “I have the data they collected, but I’d like to try to get a sample of the nanites for analysis here.”
“Dr. Tallman, I’m on a tight schedule,” Nick said.
“I understand that, but if we are to have any hope of tracing these nanites, I need to be able to examine them closely.”
“All right, let’s get to it,” Nick said, gesturing for her to lead the way. “Sterling said you’ve been working on nanites that could do this.”
“Everyone is,” Tallman said. “Currently, nanites are only capable of targeting specific areas of the body and for very specific purposes. If we could develop nanites capable of operating throughout the body, we could virtually eliminate disease and perhaps even aging. The difficulty is not so much in the hardware; it’s in the programming. There’s not a lot of space for code, so nanites can only perform limited tasks.”
“But why develop nanites that can change someone’s gender?”
“Do you know what the number one use for nanites is?” Tallman asked as she led Nick into a large lab. She had him sit down in a chair as she began assembling equipment from a nearby table.
“No, I don’t.”
“Cosmetic alterations,” she told him. “Breast augmentations and reductions, face-lifts and general weight loss, and body sculpting are the primary uses. A complete makeover requires numerous applications. Nanites capable of multi-tasking could be administered once and carry out the entire process. They could even be used to replace conventional procedures for gender reassignment.”
“But that wouldn’t change someone on the inside, could it?” Nick said, tensing as a series of cramps shuddered through his abdomen.
“In theory, yes,” Dr. Tallman admitted as she walked over to Nick. She had him roll up his left sleeve and strapped a device to his arm near the elbow. The small box had a video screen built into its face, and a receptacle into which was fitted a vacuum tube for collecting a blood sample.
“Nanites are already in use to manipulate DNA,” Dr. Tallman continued. “We’ve developed the technology here at MicroTech to the point where nanites can do the things these are doing to you, actually transforming or constructing organs. As I said, the major hurdle is developing a way to program more complex instructions into the nanites.”
“They must have taken a pint of blood at the hospital,” Nick remarked as she made some final adjustments to the device on his arm.
“I’m not so much interested in your blood as what’s in it,” Tallman said as she studied the screen. “This will sting a little.”
Nick felt the prick of a needle, and the collection tube filled with blood. Dr. Tallman removed the device from his arm and then took the sample tube and inserted it into a scanning unit against one wall of the lab. After several seconds, an image appeared on the unit’s display screen.
“It’s beautiful,” Dr. Tallman whispered.
Displayed at a magnification of over two million times, the nanite on the screen looked like a gear with eight stubby teeth. Multi-jointed appendages extended from each of these teeth, tipped with claw-like manipulators. In the center of the gear was a sphere that resembled a soccer ball. As the image rotated, a needle-like proboscis came into view, extending from the central sphere.
“I wonder how beautiful it would look if it was turning you into a man,” Nick said.
“Point taken, Mr. Llewellyn.”
“My time is measured in hours, Dr. Tallman, and formality seems a waste of that. Why don’t you call me Nick?”
The pretty scientist smiled and extended her hand saying, “We were never formally introduced, Nick. I’m Karina Tallman. Forgive me if I sound overly clinical.”
“I understand your admiration for the technology, even if I don’t share it under the circumstances,” Nick said. “What can you tell me about it?”
“Well, the design is similar to standard nanites. The major difference is it has double the number of manipulators, and the central sphere is totally new. I would surmise it contains the new genetic matrix, and the proboscis is used to penetrate your cell membranes and re-write your existing DNA.
“The speed with which the nanites are transforming you is much faster. The amount of breast development you’ve experienced would take several days with standard nanites. They’re drawing on your body for the resources necessary to effect the transformation. Have you eaten recently?”
“Not since last night,” Nick said. “Now that you mention it, I’m famished; is that important?”
“Yes, it is. From the data Dr. Baker sent us, you’ve already lost a significant amount of weight as the nanites have consumed excess body fat. They’ll start working on muscle tissue now, and if you don’t eat regularly, you’ll get progressively weaker.”
“Could that slow them down, maybe even stop them all together?”
“It could slow them down, but it could also kill you,” Karina said. “At any rate, Nick, if you want to find out who did this, you’ll have to keep your strength up.”
“Will you be able to tell me who made these things?”
“I don’t know. Hopefully, we can at least identify some of the components.”
“Let me know as soon as you have anything,” Nick said, rolling his sleeve back down and rising from the chair. “I’ve got some people to see.”
Dr. Tallman pulled a data card from the pocket of her lab coat and handed it to Nick. He scanned the information printed on the card’s surface, noting that she had a single number for both her cell phone and home phone, just as he did. He retrieved his coat from the rack near the door and took one of his own cards from a pocket and gave it to her. Then he pulled out his cell phone and slipped her card into the data slot. The contact information was downloaded into the phone’s memory, and simultaneously transferred to his car’s onboard computer as well as his home.
"Nick, we’ll do everything we possibly can,” she said. “It sickens me that someone would do something like this.”
“I know the feeling,” Nick said.
He turned to leave just as the door to the lab opened and Hank Garrick, head of security for Sterling MicroTech entered. He was taller than Nick, though not as stocky, and his nose was encased in a plastic splint, the area around it a dark purple. The two men had been working closely on the security audit of the company, and greeted each other with a handshake.
“Mr. Sterling filled me in on the situation, Nick,” Garrick said. “Anything you need, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Hank,” Nick said. “At the moment I can be more effective on my own, but I’ll be sure to give you a call if I need some backup.” Nick gestured to the nose splint and added, “Looks like you took quite a rap there.”
Garrick grinned and said, “Sparring match at the gym. Things got a little serious.”
“Been there myself,” Nick said. He trained three times a week to keep his martial arts skills honed, and had gotten more than a few bruises while sparring.
“Nick, be careful,” Karina said. “Your body has only begun the transformation process. As it progresses, you’re likely going to become weaker as your muscle mass is altered, and your shifting center of gravity will make you unsteady. Your mental and emotional state will be in turmoil as well.”
“I’m always careful, Karina,” Nick said as he left the lab.
As he rode the elevator back up to the lobby, Nick mulled over what he had learned. None of the information shed any light on who was behind this, but he couldn’t consider the trip wasted. The resources of MicroTech were possibly his best chance for getting a solid lead as to who had manufactured the nanites. As much as he wanted revenge for what had been done to him, he had to consider the bigger picture. Someone out there had their hands on some very dangerous technology, and obviously had no regard for how it was used.
He stopped at the security gate and retrieved his pistol, and as he turned towards the exit, he saw a familiar figure entering the lobby.
“Bill, what brings you here?”
Bill started at the sound of his voice, and a broad smile spread across his face.
“Hey, Nick,” Bill said, giving his friend a warm handshake. “You know the drill - I’m going to see if I can wheedle some grant money out of Sterling. You still working that security audit?”
“It’s on the back burner,” Nick said. “I’ve got more pressing matters at the moment.”
“Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
“I seem to have caught a bug,” Nick said, not wanting to worry his friend. “Erica make it back from her trip okay?”
“She always does,” Bill grinned.
“Why do you put up with it, Bill?”
“Love is funny, you should know that,” Bill said. “Besides, I couldn’t afford to drive a Ferrari on my salary.”
It was an old argument, and Nick decided it was pointless to rehash it now. Erica had the money, and Bill had the academic credentials. They each provided something the other wanted. It wasn’t like his own failed marriage, where he had provided nothing but love, which in the end had turned out to be not enough.
Nick tried to recall their wedding, but the images that had once been so clear were hazy now. When he reached further back, he couldn’t even remember where he had met Elizabeth. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and he had to reach out to Bill to stop himself from falling.
“Hey, you sure you’re all right?” Bill asked.
“It’s nothing,” Nick said. “Look, Bill, something is going on, and I hope there’ll be time to tell you about it. If there isn’t, well, I just want to say you’ve been a good friend.”
“Okay, you are scaring me now. What the hell is going on?”
“No time now, buddy. I’ll call you later,” Nick said, leaving his friend staring after him.
After leaving the building, Nick decided he’d better follow Karina’s advice and get something to eat. He stopped at a deli, and once he started eating, it was like a floodgate opened. He ended up wolfing down two huge sandwiches, but afterwards he did feel steadier.
The food helped clear his head, and he decided on his next course of action. The scene of the crime was the logical place to check out next, but Sullivan’s wouldn’t be open yet. That left him with the suspects, and number one on the list was Vasily Kodorov. Finding Kodorov was not a problem, nor was getting in to see him likely to present any difficulty.
Getting out alive - that was another matter.
There was just something about mobsters and restaurants, no matter what country they came from. Dionysos was a Greek restaurant owned by Vasily Kodorov, and the business was entirely legitimate as far as Nick knew. Kodorov had never used it to launder money or even as a meeting place. The restaurant represented his public face, an effort to present himself as a mere business owner that didn’t really succeed with anyone that mattered.
Dionysos was where Kodorov could usually be found these days, playing the part of the wrongly accused as he awaited trial on the murder charge. It rankled Nick that Kodorov had been let out on bail, and the fact that he hadn’t tried to skip town only served to reinforce Nick’s belief that he was behind everything.
Nick knew the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so he pulled into the alley beside it. He knew the front door would be locked, but the service door would be open for deliveries as the kitchen staff prepared for the afternoon. As Nick exited his car, he glanced down the alley at the building across the street. He caught a glimpse of movement in a window on the third floor and smiled.
When he reached the service door, Nick didn’t try to be unobtrusive; he just walked right in and headed towards the private dining room that was Kodorov’s office. As he expected, he was intercepted before he got there by two of Kodorov’s bodyguards. They frisked him, one taking his weapon and stuffing it into his belt. Then they ran an electronics scanner over his body before escorting him to the Russian.
Nick took a quick count as he entered the room — besides the two goons escorting him and Kodorov, there were two more men in the room. He didn’t need to see the weapons to know they were all armed, except Kodorov of course. He wouldn’t risk getting caught with a weapon while he was out on bail.
“What do you want, Nick?” Kodorov asked, pronouncing the name Neek, thanks to his accent. “You have balls to come here like this.”
“For the present,” Nick said, earning him a look from Kodorov. It was hard to tell whether it was of confusion or understanding, however. Kodorov was not a visually expressive individual.
“I’m here about nanites, some very special nanites,” Nick continued. “I think you know something about them.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Let me spell it out, and I’ll keep it slow so the words will get through your thick skull. Someone’s trying to kill me, and I think it’s you. If you think slipping me some nanites is going to make your troubles go away, you’ve been taking your own product.”
“If I wanted to get rid of you, Nick, you’d be dead,” Kodorov said. “But why would I want that? You can’t hurt me - the only witness you found that’s really a threat is Spinelli, and you know what Vince is. My lawyers will tear him to shreds. If you were to disappear that would only make me look bad.”
As much as he hated to admit it, Nick knew Kodorov was right. The mobster was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. High profile trials like his were decided as much in the media as the courtroom. These days it was impossible to prevent contamination of the jury pool, so much so that motions to change venue because of pre-trial publicity were summarily denied.
There was every possibility the Russian was right about the trial as well. Vince Spinelli was not the most credible witness in the world. He had started out as a small time pusher, peddling everything from stims to neoheroin. He hit the big time with Kodorov, and oversaw a major chunk of the distribution network.
Everything had been gravy - until Spinelli’s seventeen-year-old daughter had gotten hooked on nanonarcs. She couldn’t get them through her father’s pushers, they all knew he would kill them if he found out, so she went to the street level, which was like playing Russian Roulette with only one empty chamber. One night she had been found dead, beaten and raped - just like Salina Mendez, the murdered SJSU coed.
That was how Nick had broken Spinelli and gotten him to spill his guts - he had just shown him a picture of his own murdered daughter. He had uncovered other evidence and witnesses that placed the murdered girl in Kodorov’s house the night she disappeared, but all that rested on the testimony of Spinelli, who had seen the girl go into Kodorov’s bedroom, heard her screams, and later helped dispose of the body.
As one of Kodorov’s lieutenants, it wouldn’t be difficult for the defense to cast doubts about the motivation behind his testimony. They might even accuse him of being the actual killer. Nick didn’t think it would work, but all they needed to do was establish a reasonable doubt in the mind of one juror.
“Now, just what are these nanites that I supposedly slipped you?” Kodorov asked. “Something I might be interested in perhaps?”
Nick ignored the question and turned to leave. The bodyguard that had frisked him stepped forward to block his path. He towered over Nick, and his face bore the scars of numerous fights. He stared down at Nick, as if daring him to try something, his muscular arms crossed in front of his chest.
Those muscles were useless as Nick drove his knee up into the goon’s groin. The Russian’s eyes crossed, and he doubled over, unable to even cry out as the pain overwhelmed him. Nick’s left hand snatched his confiscated Glock from the bodyguard’s waistband as he grabbed the back of his shirt with his right, smashing his face down onto the table in front of Kodorov.
The bodyguard slumped to the floor as Nick snapped the Glock up, the barrel pointed right between Kodorov’s eyes. The other three bodyguards froze in place, their hands near their own weapons.
“Go ahead,” Nick told them. “Your boss will catch the first bullet.”
“You’d never get out of here alive,” Kodorov said.
“Look into my eyes, Kodorov — I don’t give a damn. Have your boys drop their weapons and stand over in the corner, or I swear I’ll save the taxpayer’s the cost of a trial.”
“Do as he says!” Kodorov ordered. He had seen it, just as Nick said — he knew he was facing a man who didn’t fear death.
“On your feet,” Nick ordered.
Kodorov rose, and Nick grabbed his collar and pressed the gun to his head as they made their way back to the service exit.
“You’re a dead man now, Nick,” Kodorov said as Nick shoved him out into the alley.
“I’ll make you scream just like I made that little bitch scream. She begged me not to kill her, but you’ll be begging for death before I’m finished with you.”
“You’re right, I am dead, so you won’t get the satisfaction,” Nick told him. He dragged the mobster over to his car and shoved him down onto the hood. He pressed the Glock hard against Kodorov’s temple, and leaned close to whisper in his ear.
“If I find out you’re lying, I’ll be back to finish this if it’s the last thing I do.”
Nick pulled Kodorov back to his feet and gave him a hard shove across the alley. The effort nearly drained him, but he kept the gun trained on the mobster as he got into his car. As soon as he closed the door his pressed the gas pedal to the floor, the auto-ignition activating the hydrogen fuel cells. The engine hummed to life and the tires squealed as Nick sped away from the scene.
At any rate, Kodorov appeared to be a dead end, If he had been responsible, Nick would have expected some gloating. The irony of turning Nick into a woman would have been too much for him to resist.
He thought about Kodorov’s words about making him scream like Salina, and a chill ran down his spine. No, he was certain if the Russian knew what was happening, he would have said something then. He just hoped the police surveillance team in the building across the street had been on their toes.
Nick parked his car on the street outside Sullivan’s and then glanced at his face in the rearview mirror. He didn’t notice any changes, but on closer examination he thought his hair looked a bit longer, and his skin was smooth, even though he hadn’t shaved that morning. He ran his hand over his cheek, and couldn’t feel the slightest trace of stubble.
“I never did like shaving anyway,” he muttered as he climbed out of the car. His pants were slightly loose about his waste, and he tightened his belt a notch to compensate. The weight of his Glock and the spare magazines for it wasn’t helping matters.
Sullivan’s was practically empty so early in the afternoon, which suited Nick fine. He frequented the bar enough that he knew the schedules of the employees, so he knew the person he needed to talk to should be there.
“Hiya Nick, kinda early for you isn’t it?” the young woman behind the bar said as he approached. She was a petite girl of oriental descent, her hair styled in a short bob.
“I’m working Lisa,” Nick told her as he slid onto a stool. “You were here Monday night. I need to know if you saw me with anyone.”
“What, you don’t remember?” Lisa laughed. “Geez Nick, you didn’t drink that much.”
“That’s just the point, Lisa. Someone slipped me something and the whole night’s a blank. Anything you can tell me would help.”
“Oh shit, Nick, sorry I didn’t mean anything,” Lisa said. “I did see you with a blonde. It caught my attention ‘cause, well you tend to drink alone.”
“A blonde? What did she look like?”
“Sorry, Nick, I only saw her from behind. It was pretty crazy in here with that bunch from the convention here. I think you left with her though.”
“Do you know who waited on us?”
“Chrissie had that table,” Lisa told him. “She’s in LA right now visiting her mom, she’ll be back on Friday though.”
“That’s too late,” Nick sighed. “Do you have her mom’s number?”
“No I don’t — I don’t even know her mom’s name. Nick, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Nick lied. “Thanks for your help, Lisa.”
Nick returned to his car and for several minutes he just sat there thinking. Gina Pollard was a blonde — but so was Liz. Without the name of Chrissie’s mother, tracking her down would require time he just didn’t have.
“I’ll just have to do it the hard way,” he sighed as he pulled away from the curb. His stomach grumbled loudly, and he decided he would have to take the time to eat first.
He stopped at a fast food place where he picked up three big burgers and a milkshake at the drive through. He gave the car’s nav system the address of Elizabeth’s office building, and while the car drove itself, he ate. When he finished the burgers, he took two of the pills Amelia had given him to combat the aches that seemed to be in every part of his body. He decided he better check in as well, and he instructed the car phone to dial her.
“How are you, Nick?” Amelia asked. “Have you noticed any changes?”
He told Amelia the changes he had noticed, and about the body aches and weakness he had experienced. He also told her what Karina had said about eating to keep his strength up.
“She’s right, if you don’t eat you could lapse into a coma,” Amelia told him. “Unfortunately, it’s likely that it will also accelerate the process.”
“I don’t appear to have much choice,” Nick grumbled. “I’m on my way to Liz’s office right now, I’ll call you when I’m done there.”
Nick ended the call and drained the last of his milkshake. He was just about to switch back to manual control when he was hit by an intense wave of dizziness. The world spun about madly, and he slumped against the shoulder restraints and passed out.
A rapping on the window brought him back to consciousness with a start, and Nick looked out to see a uniformed security guard staring at him in concern.
“Are you all right, miss?”
~ Oh shit, he thinks I’m a woman! How long was I out? ~
“I … I’m fine, thanks,” Nick said, his voice husky and higher pitched.
“Are you here on business?” the guard asked, his tone suspicious.
“I … I’m here to see Elizabeth … Elizabeth ….” Nick struggled to recall Liz’s maiden name, but it just wasn’t there.
“Could you step out of the vehicle, please?”
Nick opened the door and got out of the car, having to grab his pants to keep them from falling. The look on the guard’s face only confirmed what Nick already knew - he looked ridiculous.
“I need to see some identification, miss.”
Nick knew he couldn’t show the guard his ID. If he did, the next thing that would happen would be a call to the police.
“It’s all right, Sam, she’s a client.”
When he heard his ex-wife’s voice, he nearly fainted with relief. The guard turned and nodded to Liz, and then left them alone.
“Oh my God … Nick … is that really you?”
Nick nodded. The look of horror on Liz’s face erased all doubt he had about her involvement - she had never been able to conceal her emotions very well. He took a step towards her, and his feet came out of his shoes, causing him to stumble. He would have fallen if Liz hadn’t caught him.
Feeling her arms around him was all it took to break his emotional control. He started sobbing violently, his body shaking. He had never experienced such a loss of control, and it frightened him. Liz didn’t say anything, she just held him while he cried for several minutes. When he finally finished, he pushed himself upright, and walked shakily until he could lean against the car.
“Liz, how did you know?”
“Amelia called me,” she said. “You told her you were coming here over three hours ago.”
“Three hours?” Nick looked at his watch and saw that it was well past five.
He turned and looked at his reflection in the car window. He did look like a woman, perhaps what his sister might have looked like if he had one. Make that his younger sister, because he didn’t look a day past thirty.
Nick was an average looking man, which had been a great asset as an investigator. He was astounded to see that the softening of his features had turned his average male face into that of a pretty woman. His hair had grown at least two inches, and amidst his brown strands were red highlights.
His face obviously wasn’t all that had changed. His clothes literally hung off him. Despite the now too large shirt, there was no hiding the fact that his breasts had grown considerably, and while the waist of his trousers was too big, the hips were almost too tight.
“Nick, who did this to you?”
“I don’t know,” Nick said. “I’m following up a few leads, but I had to see you one more time … I had to tell you I’m sorry.”
“Nick, I’ve told you it wasn’t anything you did,” Liz sighed. “It just … I wish we had just stayed friends.”
“I can’t turn off the way I feel, Liz. I still love you.”
Liz looked uncomfortable, as she always did these days when he told her how he felt about her.
“Nick, Amelia wants you back at the hospital. She wants to record the changes, so … so we can prove who you are … afterwards.”
Nick nodded and turned back towards the car, having to hold his pants to keep them from falling. He felt like a kid wearing his father’s clothes.
“I’ll meet you there in thirty minutes,” Liz said “I’m going to stop by my place and get you some clothes. You look like you’re about my size now.”
“I guess I can’t walk around like this,” Nick admitted, not at all thrilled about wearing her clothes.
“Nick, you need to bring the police in on this,” she said.
Nick shook his head. “I don’t have the time. They’ll spend hours taking a statement and grilling me. I have sixteen hours left, maybe less.”
“I don’t like it, but then you always did do things your own way,” Liz sighed.
Amelia took a series of digital photos to document his changes. Nick had been acutely embarrassed to have Liz present as he stood there nude. His genitals were still male, at least on the outside, but they were shrunken and after another full body scan Amelia informed him they were non-functional. His female reproductive organs were nearly fully developed on the inside, and his body’s hormone levels were consistent with those of a woman.
“You’ve lost twenty pounds since this morning,” Amelia informed him.
Nick barely heard her. He was staring with horrified fascination at his right hand. It was much smaller, the fingers long and slender. His arms and legs were also thinner, and his body had developed a slight but noticeable hour-glass shape.
“Yes, the nanites are even altering your bone structure,” Amelia told him. “How is the pain?”
“It’s gone,” Nick said. “Other than being scared shitless, I feel fine.”
“The latest scan shows the nanites are suppressing some of your pain receptors,” Amelia said.
“Why did I start changing so much faster? And why do I seem to be getting younger?”
“I told you that food might accelerate the changes. The food is providing the nanites with raw materials. As to your age regression, the nanites are literally reconstructing you cell by cell based on the genetic matrix they’re carrying.”
“Great, so I could wind up a little girl?”
“Little girls don’t need bras, Nick,” Liz said.
“Your physical appearance suggests you’ll still be an adult,” Amelia said. “At the worst, you may end up a teenager.”
“I don’t want to hear anymore,” Nick said as he slipped off the exam table. “I’ve got to go.”
The clothes Liz had provided fit his new appearance, and he would draw less attention wearing them, but he still felt uncomfortable. He rationalized the black skirt suit and turquoise blouse as a disguise — whoever had given him the nanites might have an idea of what his final appearance would be, but they wouldn’t know what he looked like at the moment. Fortunately, Liz had thought to bring a purse that was large enough to hold his Glock as well. He felt totally ridiculous as he slipped the strap of the purse over his shoulder.
“Nick, please, call the police,” Liz begged.
“No,” Nick said.
“Damn you, why do you have to be so stubborn!”
“You should be happy, Liz,” Nick fired back. “In a few hours I won’t even remember you, or that I love you so much it hurts. You can go on with your life and forget I ever existed.”
“That’s not what I want,” Liz whispered. “I never wanted to hurt you.”
Nick almost started crying again, but he forced it down. He almost wished the process would hurry up and finish so he could forget.
“I’m sorry, that was a cruel thing to say. I need to run down one more lead. If it doesn’t pan out, I promise I’ll call Jack.”
“If you don’t, I will,” Liz said.
Nick left the hospital and returned to his car. He was glad he relied on a manual security system rather than voice identification, because his voice had changed so much a computer would never recognize it. He gave the nav system the address of Voluptas and let the autodrive system have control. There was a good chance he might pass out again, so manual control was out of the question.
When he reached the club, he found out Gina’s shift hadn’t started yet, and rather than wait for her, he decided to drive to her apartment. It was as if he could feel the seconds of his life passing, knowing that with each tick of the clock he lost more of his past.
He was almost to Gina’s when his car phone rang. He hit the button on the steering wheel and answered it.
“Nick, is that you?” Karina’s voice asked through the speaker.
“Yes, it’s me,” he told her. “I’ve had some rather dramatic changes. Have you found something?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, and then she answered, “Yes, but I can’t talk about it over the phone. Don’t come here either; I’ll meet you at my apartment.”
“I’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “I’ll be wearing a black skirt suit with a turquoise blouse. I’d give you more of a description but I might not fit it by the time I get there.”
“I’m leaving here right now,” Karina said. “I’ll see you at my place.”
Nick considered the possibility that Karina was playing him. MicroTech could easily be the source of the nanites, and she had encouraged him to eat, which had accelerated the transformation. Amelia had agreed that the advice was sound, however, and Nick just didn’t feel that Karina was being disingenuous.
He pulled to a stop at the curb in front of Gina’s building, and as he exited the car, he saw her walking out the front door. She turned towards the bus stop at the end of the block, heading in his direction. Then he saw a vehicle approaching from behind her — a black Lincoln with tinted windows. The back passenger window lowered, and the barrel of a gun appeared.
Nick started running, thankful the shoes Liz had brought him had low heels, not much higher than his old shoes.
“Gina, look out!” Nick screamed as he launched himself. He hit her just as the submachine gun opened fire, knocking her to the pavement as bullets smashed into a car parked on the street.
Nick rolled off of Gina, fumbling for the Glock. By the time he got it out of the purse, the Lincoln was speeding away, and he held his fire.
“What the fuck is going on, and who the fuck are you!” Gina screamed. Her eyes widened as she looked closely at his face.
“I’ll explain later,” Nick told her. “We’ve gotta get out of here; they may come back.”
They made it to Nick’s car, and he sped away from the scene, checking the rearview frequently to be sure they weren’t being pursued.
“Nick what is going on? Why do you look like that?”
Nick gave the nav system the address for Karina’s apartment, and then explained what had happened. Gina shook her head in disbelief as he spoke. When he finished, there was anger in her eyes.
“You thought I was involved? Nick, I would never do something like this!”
“I know that, now,” Nick said. “Someone wanted you dead, though, and that means they think you know something. I have a pretty good idea who it is now, as much as I hate to admit it.”
“Nick, I don’t know anything about nanites. I mean, I had my breast enhancement done with them, but I don’t know any more than most people do.”
“Nanite cosmetic enhancements are pretty expensive,” Nick said. “I assume you had it done before you started dancing. How could you afford it?”
“I got it done through a program at Stanford that Tim was working on. I needed them if I wanted to bring in the big tips.”
“What exactly did Tim do? I know he was in the nanotech department, but what was his area of expertise?”
“He was a programmer,” Gina told him.
It all fit, but Nick was having a hard time believing he had been played so well. He had never suspected a thing.
“Nick, do you think Tim was involved in this somehow?”
“Involved, no, but he is part of the puzzle, a big part.”
She pressed him for more information, but Nick refused to provide anything further. He had to be sure before he said anymore. Karina would hopefully be able to provide the last piece of the puzzle.
They reached her apartment building and parked in the underground garage. The elevator ride passed in silence, as Nick continued to work the puzzle in his mind. He prayed that he was wrong, but he knew in his heart he wasn’t.
Karina’s apartment was on the tenth floor, and Nick rang the bell when they reached the door. When there was no answer after several seconds, he rang again. When there was still no answer, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed her number. He let the phone ring several times, then pocketed the phone and tried the door. It was unlocked, and a cold chill ran down his spine.
“Wait here,” he told Gina as he pulled the Glock from his purse. The thought almost made him laugh — his purse.
The apartment was in a shambles, with furniture overturned and drawers dumped out on the floor. It looked very much like a robbery, just as it was supposed to.
He found Karina lying on the floor of the bedroom, a pool of blood surrounding her head. With a sigh, he knelt down and checked her pulse, knowing it was futile. There was a single bullet hole behind her right ear, and from the powder burns it had obviously been delivered at close range, execution style like a mob hit; only he knew Kodorov had nothing to do with Karina’s murder.
“Dammit, I’m sorry Karina,” Nick muttered, struggling to hold back tears.
“My, my, you look adorable, Nick,” a familiar woman’s voice said from behind.
Nick rose, the Glock swinging up as he turned. He caught a glimpse of Hank Garrick out of the corner of his eye, just as something hard crashed against the base of his skull and he was plunged into darkness.
When Nick awoke, he was bound to a chair, and as he looked around, he realized he was in the lab at MicroTech. Gina was seated in another chair across from him, bound and gagged, but alive. Her eyes were wide with fear.
He took a quick survey of his body and saw that the changes were far more advanced. His breasts had swelled and were now straining against the bra Liz had given him, causing the straps to dig into his shoulders. There was also a strange sensation in his groin, an emptiness that told him the transformation was very nearly complete.
“I see our sleeping beauty is awake.”
Nick looked up at the speaker, his face hard as he said, “Hello, Erica. I always knew you were a ruthless bitch, but I never figured you for a murderer.”
The smile on Erica Halstead’s face was one of evil pleasure. Next to her stood Hank Garrick, a silenced pistol in his hand.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” Erica said.
“Oh, you had me fooled for a while,” Nick admitted. He knew he had to buy time, keep her talking. The rope binding his wrists was loose, probably because his wrists had shrunk after he had been tied. He began working to free himself as he continued.
“When you tried to have Gina killed, it all fell into place. Karina’s murder only confirmed it — she found out the nanites were manufactured from components made here at MicroTech, didn’t she? Tell me, just how much stock do you own?”
“Enough to take control of the company,” Erica admitted. “I’ve been very careful, buying the shares through several different funds, but I know you, Nick. You’re too thorough — you would have traced the purchases back to me, and you would have told Sterling about it.”
“That wouldn’t have been enough to push you to murder though,” Nick said. “A radical breakthrough in nanotechnology — now there’s a secret worth killing for.”
“You’re a perfect example of that,” Erica said. “The nanites in you are worth billions.” She walked over and placed her arm around Hank Garrick. “I couldn’t let you uncover Hank’s financial … oddities … either.”
“Or the fact that your husband created the nanites,” Nick said. “That’s why Bill was here this morning. Does Sterling know?”
“He knows MicroTech has been providing funds and materials for Bill’s research, but then they’re backing dozens of researchers. He has no clue about the breakthrough.”
“So let me see if I have this right,” Nick said. He continued working the ropes, and could tell that his wrists were being rubbed raw. Thankfully, the nanites were still suppressing his pain receptors.
“Karina told me that several researchers were close, but the big hurdle was the limited programming capacity of the nanites. That’s where Tim Pollard came in. He developed a programming code that made it all work.”
“Yes, Tim was the most brilliant programmer I’ve ever taught,” Erica said.
“What was so special about the code?” Nick asked. He almost had his right hand free.
“It’s a chemical code, the information is actually encoded at the molecular level, in the very structure of the nanites. Once they’re in the host, they use the body’s nervous system like a computer network. Each nanite has only a small piece of the code, but linked together they have the memory and processing power of a super computer.”
“How did you get him to write a program to do this to me?” Nick asked.
Erica laughed and said, “That was the easiest part of all.” She walked over to Gina and placed her hand on the young woman’s shoulder.
“You see, Tim didn’t want to be Gina’s brother, he wanted to be her sister. He wrote the program for himself. All I had to do was make a few alterations to erase your memories.”
That explained why he was getting younger, Nick figured. Tim had written the program to transform himself from a young man into a young woman. The fact that the nanites were capable of reducing a person’s age made them even more valuable.
”So what happened? Tim wouldn’t play ball with your scheme, or did you plan you plan to kill him all along?”
“I was willing to let him have his share, but the fool wanted to go public!” Erica spat. “He wanted to provide the programming code to everyone at a fraction of its value. He said it was wrong for one company to have a monopoly on technology like this.”
Nick shook his head in disgust. If the technology had been made available to all, it’s value wouldn’t have been diminished. Erica wanted more than money, she wanted control.
“So you manufactured a story about him stalking you, and then slipped him some nanonarcs to fuck with his brain. Then all you needed was your old boyfriend to come to the rescue in the nick of time. You used me to murder him. There’s only one thing I don’t know - was Bill in on what you did to me?”
“Of course not, he’d never hurt you,” Erica said. “He knows I’m making a move on MicroTech, and you know Bill, he loves the life of luxury. When he found out you were doing the security audit, he was ready to call it all off, but I convinced him I could get you to hold off on reporting until we were ready to announce our breakthrough. I suspect he knows the truth about Tim, but he’s not certain so he won’t push the issue.”
“And it won’t matter anyway, will it?” Nick said. “Is he already dead, or are you going to kill him later?”
“Hank will deal with him shortly,” Erica said. “Once you’ve disappeared, he’ll be a liability, and all his data has been transferred here. The records have been altered to make it appear as though Dr. Tallman was working on the nanites on her own. It’s such a tragedy that she was murdered during a break-in after she made such a monumental breakthrough.”
“So why bring us back here?”
Erica shrugged, “It’s a secure location. The building’s security is entirely automated after hours, and Hank of course has all the codes necessary to override the system. There are some items here that we’ve used to speed your transformation.”
“It was you in the alley,” Nick said, turning to Garrick. “Probably with two hired thugs.”
“They got paid off good, too,” Garrick said. “The won’t be telling anyone a thing.”
“How’s the nose?”
Garrick’s hand rose to the splint on his broken nose and he grinned. “You were tougher than we expected. Even dosed with TFT you fought like hell. That reminds me, though, I do owe you something.”
Garrick walked over and punched Nick in the jaw, snapping his head to the side. He felt blood trickling from his mouth, but there was no pain, and he turned back to face Garrick, a wide smile on his face.
“Anyone ever tell you you hit like a girl?”
Garrick drew his fist back to strike again but Erica shouted, “That’s enough, Hank! If you hurt her it will only delay things while the nanites repair the damage.”
The room swam in and out of focus, and Nick felt a strange sensation through his whole body. It was almost like he could feel the changes, and the way his bra began digging into his shoulders more told him he was still changing.
“I imagine that felt extremely odd,” Erica laughed. “We injected you with a super-nutrient solution, just the thing to give those nanites a boost. If you hadn’t escaped the other night, the transformation would be complete by now.”
“And what happens when it is - you just dump me somewhere with no memory?”
“Oh no, that wouldn’t be any fun,” Erica laughed. “I plan to take you home. Maybe I’ll train you as a maid. You’ll be quite open to anything once your memories and personality have been erased.”
The look of glee on Erica’s face sickened Nick. There was more to this than money — it was personal.
“So you finally have your revenge for my dumping you all those years ago,” Nick said.
“Oh I’ve been getting that for years,” Erica laughed. “Every time I cheated on Bill, it was like a knife in your gut. The pain it caused you as I destroyed your friend a piece at a time was delicious. I have to admit, though, that I am enjoying the irony here immensely.”
“Erica, how could you?”
Nick turned at the sound of his friend’s voice and saw Bill standing in the door with a pistol in his hand. He recognized the weapon; it was the Glock 38 he had given Bill for his birthday several years back.
“How did you get here?” Erica demanded.
“After I saw Nick this morning, I knew what you had done. I could see the changes beginning. I had to be sure though, so when you left the house I accessed the tracking system in your car and followed you.”
Bill stepped into the lab, the pistol still trained on Garrick as he said, “Lose the gun.”
Nick managed to get his right hand free of the rope, and after that his left hand was easy. He kept them behind his back, waiting for the right moment to make his move.
Garrick began to lower the silenced pistol in his hand to the floor, but then snapped it back up and fired. The round caught Bill in the left shoulder, but he still managed to get off a shot off his own, the nine-millimeter round catching Garrick squarely in the chest. He staggered back, the gun flailing out as his finger squeezed the trigger three times, one of the rounds puncturing a large tank across the lab.
The tank exploded in flames, the concussion knocking everyone to the floor. Gina started screaming through the gag, and Nick was momentarily stunned.
“I’m gonna get you out of here buddy,” Bill said as he crawled over to Nick. He rose to his knees as the fire started to spread and began to help Nick up.
The soft whisper of Garrick’s gun sounded again, and Bill jerked back as a crimson stain began to spread across his shirt. Nick saw Erica turning the gun towards Gina, and he launched himself into her, his shoulder hitting her stomach as he knocked her to the floor.
Just twenty-four hours earlier, he could have ended the fight in less than a second, but now he and Erica were physically on equal terms. They rolled around on the floor of the lab, grappling for the gun. Erica reached up and tore at Nick’s blouse, the already strained top buttons popping off.
They may have been physically equal, but Nick had vastly more experience with fighting. While he continued to grapple with her for the gun, he snapped his head forward, his forehead smashing into Erica’s nose. She screamed in pain, and her grip on the pistol loosened, allowing Nick to snatch it away.
He pointed the gun at her chest and began rising, but an enraged Erica grabbed the silencer and pulled. Nick’s finger pressed against the trigger, and the pistol discharged, the round striking her under the chin and punching out the back of her head. Her eyes became dull and lifeless as her hand dropped to the floor.
Nick released the pistol and rushed to Gina, who was frantically struggling against her bonds. He untied her and removed the gag, and then helped her to her feet. She screamed in agony and nearly collapsed, and Nick saw that there was a piece of metal embedded in her calf, either from the tank or some piece of lab equipment on one of the tables.
He put his arm under her shoulder and helped her over to where Bill lay. Gina propped herself against a table as Nick knelt beside his friend.
“Hang on, Bill, I’m gonna get you out of here.”
“Forget it, buddy,” Bill coughed. “You’ve gotta get the girl out.”
“I can’t just leave you!” Nick cried.
“Nick, just go, I’m done. Nick, I didn’t know … I never would have ….”
“I know,” Nick sobbed.
“I’m sorry, buddy … I’m so sorry. I just … Erica … I loved her so much I let it blind me. I should … I should have listened to you….”
Bill’s head rolled to the side, and he let out a final, gurgling breath. Nick reached down and gently caressed his face.
“Goodbye, my friend.”
Nick rose and put his arm under Gina’s shoulder again. As they passed by the door he saw his purse on a table and snatched it up. Together they made their way from the lab and out of the building. Nick could hear the sirens of approaching fire units. It was unlikely anyone had heard the explosion as the lab was on a sub-level several floors underground, so Nick assumed that Garrick had not completely disable the security system.
“The paramedics will be here any minute,” Nick said as he lowered Gina to the sidewalk well away from the building. He reached into his purse and found his cell phone, noting that his Glock was missing. It didn’t really matter anymore. What was important was the data card in the bottom of the purse.
He handed the phone to Gina and rose to his feet.
“Call Dr. Amelia Baker at Stanford Hospital, tell her what happened,” he said. “Her number is in the phone’s directory.”
He looked at the data card for a moment, and then handed that to Gina as well.
“This is … this is for me … for after.”
“Nick, wait, where are you going?” Gina asked as Nick turned to leave.
“There’s one more thing I have to do, while I still remember everything,” Nick told her. “Tell Amelia I’m going to keep that promise I made her.”
“Do you believe her?”
Jack Barton looked at Detective Frank Bigelow and then back at the redheaded young woman seated in his office. Her story was incredible, and he silently prayed that she was some nut case, because if she was telling the truth, then he was watching a friend die before his eyes.
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I quizzed her on some details only Nick should know, but she couldn’t answer the questions. If she is telling the truth though, that could be because the nanites have erased those memories.”
“Well, parts of her story check out,” Frank said. “They’ve got the fire under control at MicroTech, but the entire lab level was gutted. We found Dr, Tallman’s body in her apartment, and the place looked just as she described it. We haven’t been able to reach Dr. Baker or Elizabeth Seton.”
Jack nodded and walked back into the office. The girl was smoking again — she’d gone through half a pack while she related her bizarre tale.
“Miss, you have to agree that your story is pretty hard to accept,” Jack said as he sat down. “I mean, you look nothing like Nick Llewellyn. I’ve known him for years - we roomed together in college.”
“We did?” the girl said. “I don’t … I don’t remember….”
“It’s all true, Jack, every word of it.”
Jack looked up to see Amelia and Liz in the doorway. The two women entered the office, and Nick started crying as they hugged him.
“I’ve got an ambulance outside,” Amelia said. “We need to get you back to the hospital.”
“Gina … is she all right?”
“The paramedics took her to San Jose Medical Center,” Liz said. “She’s fine, and Amelia is having her transferred to Stanford. She’ll be there by the time you arrive.”
Nick nodded and rose, and the two women helped him towards the door.
“Wait, Nick,” Jack said. “This afternoon in the alley outside Kodorov’s place. You knew we had people watching him, didn’t you?”
“I … I think so,” Nick said.
“We got it, Nick, when he confessed to killing the Mendez girl. It’s all on tape. You put the final nail in that bastard’s coffin.”
“I’m glad,” Nick said. He turned to follow Liz and Amelia, then paused, tears streaming down his face as he said, “Goodbye, Jack.”
Gina was wheeled into Nick’s room an hour later, and she joined Amelia and Liz by his bedside. The physical changes had ceased, and Nick was fighting a losing battle as the nanites continued to erase his memories.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” he said when he saw Gina.
“You saved my life, Nick, thank you,”
Nick managed a smile and reached out to grasp her hand.
“When we met, you said I wasn’t your type. Am I any better now?”
Gina laughed through her tears and nodded. “I’ve always had a thing for redheads, especially cute, curvy redheads.”
Nick grinned and turned to Amelia and Liz.
“I love you both, you know that, right?”
The two women nodded, neither able to find any words to say.
“Nick, are you in any pain?” Amelia finally managed, letting her medical instincts take over.
“No, just scared,” Nick said. “I … I don’t want to die.”
“You won’t, Nick!” Gina cried. “We’ll remember you, we’ll always remember you, and as long as people remember us, we live on.”
Nick smiled at hearing his own words repeated, and then turned to Liz one last time.
“Good bye, baby. I hope you’ll find all the happiness I didn’t give you. Do it for me, okay?”
“I will, Nick, I promise.”
Nick’s eyes grew distant and unfocused, and the tone of the heart monitor next to the bed skipped a beat. Then he sighed and closed his eyes, lapsing into a deep sleep. Amelia checked the readout on the medical scanner, then turned and shook her head.
“He’s gone,” she said.
“Doctor Baker, how should I mark the chart?” a nurse standing nearby asked.
Amelia looked at the clock and sighed, “Mark it … mark it dead on arrival at six-fifteen AM.”
Two weeks later, Amelia was reviewing charts in her office when she heard a knock at the door. She looked up and smiled at Gina, motioning for her to enter and have a seat.
“Thank you for coming by, Gina,” she said. “How’s the leg?”
“Good as new,” Gina replied. “It feels really, I don’t know, just odd that the same thing that fixed me destroyed Nick. How’s Nikki doing today?”
Amelia smiled at the name. The girl who had once been her friend Nick Llewellyn would soon be legally established as Nicole Llewellyn. Liz had pushed the legal paperwork through, and along with the name, Nick’s assets, his car, condo and bank accounts would all be transferred to Nikki. Nick had done very well over the years and had invested very wisely, so Nikki wouldn’t have any immediate financial worries.
The problem was that Nikki wasn’t currently capable of managing those assets. The nanites had apparently succeeded in erasing all of Nick’s memories, but that was not all they had done. Whether accidentally or by design, the areas of her brain responsible for processing the visual aspects of language had been altered. The result was a condition known as alexia, or word blindness. Her speech was unaffected, but she was unable to read or write. She could pick up simple symbols without much trouble, but written words simply made no sense to her.
There had been some gaps in her vocabulary as well, likely do to the nanites re-writing areas they weren’t intended to. They were, after all, experimental, and while the understanding of the brain had expanded greatly, there were still questions that remained unanswered. Fortunately, Nikki was a fast learner, and they were rapidly filling in those gaps.
“I’d have to say Nikki is doing great,” Amelia said. “Nick’s memories may have been erased, but Nikki has retained his ability to memorize. In fact, I’d say she has an even better memory, perhaps even total recall. She seems to be in great spirits as well.”
“Don’t let her fool you, she’s scared,” Gina said. She had visited Nikki every day since she woke up and had spent many hours getting to know her. “She’s also tough, though. I didn’t really know Nick, but I’d say there’s a lot of his spirit in her.”
“Nick never was one to admit when he was afraid,” Liz Seton said from the doorway.
“Come in and have a seat,” Amelia said. “Now that you’re here, you can tell Gina why we wanted to see her.”
Liz took a seat and opened her briefcase, from which she took a tablet PC. She hit the power button and handed the tablet over to Gina, who scanned the page on the display. It was a draft for a bill entitled The Federal Identity Death Act.
“Gina, what happened to Nick was horrible, but it’s also brought to light a serious potential for abuse,” Amelia said. “Word is already spreading about Nikki — we tried to keep it quiet, but there was just no way to do that. Now everyone knows that it’s possible to construct nanites that can completely transform a human, both body and mind. Sooner or later, someone will do it again.”
“The problem is that there is no precedent in the law to deal with it,” Liz continued. “If Erica had lived to stand trial, the worst she could have been charged with regarding Nick would have been aggravated assault. Of course, she would have faced murder charges for the death of Karina Tallman, but for what she did to Nick, she would have gotten a slap on the wrist. This bill would make the deliberate infliction of identity death a federal crime, equivalent to first degree murder.”
“I like it,” Gina said, “but what does it have to do with me?”
“We’re starting from the ground up with this,” Liz explained. “I went to the senior partners of my firm to ask for their support, but they’re afraid they’ll anger their clientele — so I told them to go to hell, and I quit.”
Gina’s eyes widened in shock — the firm Liz worked for was the most prestigious in the state and one of the top ten in the nation. She knew from talking to Amelia that Liz had been certain to become a partner within the next year.
“I may not have been able to live with him, but I did love Nick,” Liz said. “So, I’m doing this on my own. I’ve already spoken to some friends here in the law department at Stanford, and they’re on board with me, and of course Jack Barton is with us too. I need a personal assistant however, and I’d like you to consider taking the job.”
“I’m flattered, Liz, but why me?”
“You’re pre-law, which gives you the necessary background, and I checked your records - your grades are outstanding,” Liz said. “More than that, though, I want you because you care. You know first hand how serious this is, and I believe you’ll put your whole heart into the job. I know you might want some time to think about it….”
“No, I’ll do it,” Gina said, “for Tim, and for Nick.”
“I’m so glad,” Liz said. “Now, you understand I probably can’t afford to match what you make dancing.”
“I’ve put away more than enough to handle my tuition for next year at SJSU,” Gina told her.
“What about after that?” Liz asked. “Have you considered grad school? I’m certain I can get you into the graduate program here at Stanford.”
“I couldn’t afford that,” Gina said, though her voice made it plain she would love to have the opportunity.
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Liz smiled. “You do realize you’re Tim’s sole beneficiary, don’t you?”
Gina laughed, “Tim was always broke. He was always borrowing money from me. He couldn’t have left much of an estate.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Amelia grinned. “The nanites in Nikki are still active, and they show no signs of shutting down. Once the transformation program had run its course, they reverted to a maintenance and repair function.”
“Won’t MicroTech claim ownership of that technology?”
“The hardware, yes,” Liz told her. “The software that makes it work, however, was developed entirely by your brother. When the police searched Bill and Erica’s house, they found her journals, which clearly show Tim created the coding process on his own. That gives you proprietary rights to it.”
“Wow … that could be worth a lot.”
“Billions,” Liz agreed. “Sterling will almost certainly want to make an offer.”
“But can they be trusted?”
“Bryce Sterling is a bit pompous, but he’s not a bad man,” Liz said. “The reason Erica was trying to steal control of the company was because he was too conservative for her taste.”
“No matter what, I’d want to maintain some control,” Gina said. “I won’t just sell the rights off to the highest bidder. And I’d want someone to advise me on the technical and medical implications of any technology developed — someone I could trust, and someone I know understands the danger it represents, like Amelia.”
“I’d be more than happy to do that,” Amelia said.
“Nikki would have to be taken care of too,” Gina said.
“I’m already working on that,” Liz said. “Erica had moved all the research to MicroTech, so it’s been destroyed. The only way to recreate the nanites is by studying samples taken from Nikki. Because they are in her body, that gives her a proprietary claim as well.”
“There is another matter we want to discuss,” Amelia said, “one that involves Nikki as well.”
“I’m listening,” Gina said.
“Physically, Nikki is in perfect health,” Amelia told her. “I’m inclined to release her, but she’ll need someone to look out for her. She’s grown very attached to you, and we know you’re fond of her as well.”
“I’ll do it,” Gina said without a moment’s hesitation.
Nikki Llewellyn sat on the bed in her private room, giggling hysterically as she watched a cartoon on the television. Elmer Fudd had the drop on Bugs Bunny, until the rascally rabbit put his finger in the barrel of Elmer’s gun just as he pulled the trigger. The barrel ballooned outward, and the gun exploded in Elmer’s face, leaving him standing there dazed and blackened.
“You know that won’t work in real life, right?”
Nikki rolled her eyes at Gina and nodded, then leapt off the bed and ran over to give her a hug. Then she stepped back and gave her a stern look.
“I was starting to think you weren’t coming to see me today.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t stand up my best friend,” Gina said. “Besides, I have something important to talk to you about.”
“Oooh, serious stuff,” Nikki said. “I better turn Bugs off.”
Nikki picked up the remote for the television and pressed the power button. They had gotten her a remote that had mostly simple symbols that she could decipher. The numbers still gave her some problems, but she didn’t have to understand them to memorize which combinations got her to the channels she wanted to watch, which was good, as the onscreen guide was complete gibberish to her.
“So, do I get to go watch you dance?” Nikki asked. She had been pestering Gina for days to take her to Voluptas so she could see her perform. It was out of the question, of course. Nikki was far too impressionable and would be for some time to come.
“Probably not, it seems I’m not going to be working at Voluptas anymore,” Gina told her as they sat down on the bed. She explained about Liz’s offer and what they were trying to do. That led to a series of questions about the legal system, and Gina answered each, patiently explaining the terms Nikki didn’t know.
“It sounds like a big pain in the ass,” Nikki said. “You’re doing all this because of me?”
“Because of what was done to you,” Gina said. “If we can get this law passed, it won’t necessarily prevent this from happening to someone else, but it will mean that those who do it can be brought to justice.”
“I understand,” Nikki said, a sad look on her face.
“What’s that look about?” Gina asked.
“It’s nothing,” Nikki answered.
“Talk to me, Nikki,” Gina said. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just, well, I don’t remember being Nick; all I remember is being me. Everybody talks about this horrible thing that was done to me, and it … it makes me feel like nobody wants me around.”
“Oh no, honey, it’s not like that at all!” Gina said, and then she stopped, realizing there was truth to Nikki’s words. If they were completely honest, everyone involved, herself included, would admit they would prefer to have Nick back.
“Well, it’s not exactly like that,” Gina said, pulling Nikki close. She realized the unspoken reason why Amelia and Liz had asked her to take care of Nikki — she had only known Nick for a day. For them, Nikki was a constant reminder of the loved one they had lost.
“It’s really hard for the others,” Gina said as she gently stroked Nikki’s hair. “They lost someone they cared about very much. But Nikki, they want the best for you. We’ll all mourn Nick for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love you.”
“I do know that,” Nikki said. “It just hurts a little … sometimes. Is that law what you wanted to talk about?”
“No, actually I wanted to talk about something much better,” Gina said. “How would you like to get out of this hospital? Amelia said you can be released.”
“You mean that?” Nikki practically squealed.
“Yes, but there is a condition. You have to put up with me as a roommate.”
Nikki did squeal this time and wrapped her arms around Gina’s neck.
“That would be so cool! I want to get out of here so bad, but I know I can’t do it on my own. But you told me your apartment was small — where would we live?”
“Well, there’s Nick’s condo,” Gina told her. “It’s yours now, but if you don’t want to live there, we don’t have to. I have to tell you that Amelia thinks there’s a possibility that some of Nick’s memories may still be locked in your brain, and being around his stuff might shake them loose.”
“That could be pretty weird,” Nikki said. She stood up and walked over to the window, staring out at the world. “It would be nice to remember more than the last two weeks though, I think.”
Gina joined her at the window and put her arm around her. They stood there in silence for several minutes, just watching the activity below.
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Nikki nodded and leaned her head on Gina’s shoulder.
“I am, but I’m excited too.”
“I’m excited for you,” Gina said. “You know, in a way, I almost envy you. You get to see everything for the first time. The whole world is out there waiting for you.”
A silver shape soared overhead, and Nikki stared at it in rapt fascination until it was out of sight. She knew she should know what it was, but when she searched her mind for the word, she couldn’t find it. She turned a questioning gaze to Gina.
“That’s called an airplane,” Gina told her.
“Airplane,” Nikki repeated, committing the new word to memory. “It carries people, right?”
“That’s right. We’ll have to take a trip on one sometime.”
“It really is scary. What if … what if I can’t handle it?”
“I believe you can,” Gina told her, “and I’ll be right there with you. It’s okay to be scared, Nikki. Just don’t let it define who you are.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
Nikki stayed at the window for a long time after Gina left, just watching the people rushing about below. They all had a past — families they remembered, mistakes they had made, good times and sad times - all the things that made them who they were. She had two weeks of memories and beyond that, nothing.
But that wasn’t really true, she realized. She had friends who cared about her and would look out for her. Maybe they were motivated by a responsibility they felt for the man she had once been, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered was that she wasn’t alone.
There was so much to learn, so much to know, and yes, it was more than a little scary. But beneath the fear, there was anticipation. The world stretched out before her, new and unexplored, and she couldn’t wait to get started.
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