“There is one possibility. Highly experimental,” Dr. Maureen Wiest told her dying patient. “A technology that’s never been tested on humans.”
“I’m all ears.” Actually, he was hungry. Terminal cancer was no match for Vernon Ames’s appetite. He pulled a Three Musketeers bar from his pocket and began to unwrap it. “But you said it was inoperable. Hell, I don’t really give a s###, let it kill me.”
The doctor took a deep breath, begging God—or anyone who could offer it—for a bit of patience. This guy’s a lost cause, she thought.
“That’s right, we can’t operate on this kind of widespread cancer. But there is a technology that might be able to do the job.”
“Stop f###ing around with me and tell me what you’re talking about!” He was becoming agitated. He didn’t like being confused, but quickly placated himself by slurping down the entire candy bar in two bites.
Dr. Wiest sighed. Yep, lost cause. “CalTech has developed microscopic computers—some call them nanites—that are designed to seek out and kill cancer cells.”
This piqued his interest. Slightly. If you ever need to catch a man’s attention, start talking about gadgets. The doctor took advantage of her patient’s increased receptiveness.
“They are a hybrid of biological material and man-made technology; programmed to identify cancerous cells, find them, and kill them. They have basic knowledge of human physiology, so they can tell between the cancer and normal cells.”
The patient was losing interest again, and searching his pockets for more food.
“We inject only a few of them into your body, and they replicate on their own in a roughly biological manner. They swarm through your body . . . “
“Swarm?! They swarm through my body? I don’t . . . “
“Mr. Ames, calm down. Swarm was a bad choice of words.”
“They travel through your blood stream, just like any injection would, to find the damaged cells. Then, they multiply if they need to, and destroy the illness.”
He had found another candy bar, and started unwrapping it. “So you’re saying that I’m going to die without these, uh, little nanite things.”
“Well you may die either way.” Almost a sure thing, she thought. “But I guarantee you don’t have more than six months without them.”
“I keep telling you, Doc, I don’t . . . “
“You don’t give a s###. I know. I heard you earlier.” Now she was getting agitated.
“But what the hell,” Vernon said as he sucked down a Butterfinger, “It can’t make things any worse.”
In only one week, they were ready. The procedure was deceptively simple, considering the decades of technological innovation that led to its development.
Dr. Wiest injected the contents of a small syringe—saline solution and five pre-configured nanites—into Vernon’s arm. It took about 15 seconds.
“Now, don’t forget that this is an experimental treatment,” she explained, handing Vernon a business card. “If you notice any effects—positive or negative—give me a call right away.”
“Sure. So is that it? I need to get some lunch.”
Of all the people in the world we could test these little bugs on, we’re going to try it on him? Dr. Wiest sighed to herself, I almost hope it doesn’t work.
“That’s it. You’re free to go. Don’t forget, weekly checkups. You have an appointment at eight in the morning every Wednesday.”
“It’s very important. We have to . . . “
“Look, Doc, I know the rules.” He got up and waddled his three-hundred-and-thirty pound frame toward the door. “I’ll be back on Wednesday. I’m no idiot. And I’ll give you a call before I keel over and die.”
The doctor was stung—but not surprised—by her patient’s sarcastic tone. She let it slide by without comment, forcing back the strengthening urge to strangle this slob.
“Have a nice day, Mr. Ames.”
He grunted once more as he jiggled on through the door.
“He’s just a slob, Adam. A sickening slob. If the nanites actually do anything, I’d almost feel guilty for saving him.”
“Honey, don’t look at it that way.”
“How else do you expect me to look at it? This guy practically rolls into the office, he’s so damn big, munching on candy bars and constantly saying, ‘I don’t give a s###,’ ‘I don’t give a s###,’ ‘I don’t give a s###.’ So we give him the most technologically advanced medical treatment on the planet? What sense does that make?”
“Maureen, come here,” he sighed. Adam Wiest had known that his wife couldn’t always keep her work out of their home life, but he was long overdue for a change of subject.
He put his hands on the doctor’s shoulders and gave a firm massage.
“I love it when you do that.”
“Anything for my cute, little doctor wife,” he said, kissing her neck. “And anything to get her mind off all that stressful doctor work and candy-eating cancer patients.”
“Mmm, so you’re trying to distract me, are you?”
Maureen turned to face her husband, the gentle man who had always stood by her side—despite her constant complaining and ranting. He had such a kind face, with a small scar on his chin from a teenage bike accident that lent it a perfect touch of uniqueness and personality.
She gave him a kiss, and led him to the bedroom.
Telephones always interrupt at the very moment you sit down to do—or not do—something else.
Dr. Wiest had just sat down to take five minutes with her thoughts before the rude tone of the office telephone page intervened.
“Yes, Kate. What is it?”
“Mr. Ames on the phone for you, Doctor.”
She cringed. “Thank you, put him on hold at my desk.” Just what I need to brighten my day. She picked up the phone and pressed the button with the blinking red light over it.
“This is Dr. Wiest.”
“Hi Doc, this is Vernon—the nanite guy.”
“Yes, Mr. Ames. How are you feeling? What can I do for you?”
“Well, I know I was just in a couple days ago for my weekly checkup. I didn’t feel any changes at all for the three weeks. But today . . . ” He trailed off.
“What is it, Vernon?”
“Well, Doc. I can’t really tell. But I feel different. Better. I don’t know, maybe I’m imagining things.”
“Well, tell you what. Why don’t you come down this afternoon. I try to leave Friday afternoons clear. How about three o’clock?”
He hung up. He was one of those people who don’t bother to say goodbye.
“Maureen, I didn’t believe it myself. I checked the test results six times, and still didn’t believe it. I had the technicians use a different machine, I had different lab technicians do it, I’ve consulted with three other doctors. It doesn’t make any sense. Your patient is not suffering from cancer.”
She was speechless.
“You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. I just . . . Bill, we ran these same tests two days ago. He had cancer!”
“I know. I can’t explain it. But if this isn’t a fluke, these nanites are going to revolutionize medicine. If they can cure cancer in two days, imagine what else they could do.”
“All right. I’ve got to go, I’ll talk to you in a couple days.”
“Okay. Talk to you then.”
“You’ve lost some weight, Vernon. You’re down to two-twenty. Been on a diet?”
He squinted at the weighted sliders on the medical scale. “Hmm. No. Not gonna argue with it though.”
“Dr. Wiest will be right with you, if you could have a seat in here.” The nurse motioned to room four.
Vernon sat on the end of the paper-covered bed and waited. Waited. Waited.
After about ten minutes, the doctor finally walked into the room.
“About damn time.”
Maureen glared at her patient, the success story of the latest medical marvel, and again suppressed the urge to strangle him.
“I had to check a couple of things. Vernon, you’ve lost more than one hundred pounds since your last visit.”
“Yeah, I’m actually starting to look presentable, aren’t I?” he said with that familiar, bitter sarcasm.
“You look great, I’m glad you’re losing weight. But one hundred pounds in five days? That’s very, very abnormal.”
The doctor looked her patient over once more. Vernon seemed healthier than she had ever seen him.
“Have you taken any medicines? Dietary supplements? Changed your eating habits?”
“You’re saying you eat the same amount of food you ate a month ago?”
This had Dr. Maureen Wiest stumped. “I want to take a blood test, have the labs work it up. It’s just precautionary. I want to be sure nothing has gone wrong.”
He laughed. “Doc, you cured my cancer and I lost weight and you think something has gone wrong? I ain’t complaining.”
She ignored him, flipping through his charts. “We need to be thorough. Something is making you lose all this weight. I want to know what it is.”
A nurse came in, took a vial of blood, and Vernon gathered himself to leave.
“Well, let me know what you find.”
The patient extended his hand for a handshake, taking Maureen by surprise. A kind, polite gesture? Vernon? “I will. See you in a week,” she said, grasping his hand. He walked, rather than waddled, out the door.
“Wait, Bill. Run that by me again.”
“The nanites are still in his blood stream.”
“Well, there’s no way to get a total. We found at least several hundred.”
“Several hundred? And it’s not a mistake?”
“No way. The things are still in his system, lots of ’em.”
“But, what are they doing?”
“No clue. I sat in the same briefings you did. They’re supposed to do their thing, shut down, and get filtered out naturally. But they’re still there, and they’re multiplying, and based on what you’re saying, it sounds like they’re having physiological effects.”
“I’m going to call somebody over at CalTech. I’ll get back with you when I can. Later, Bill.”
She pressed the catch on the phone for a few seconds, released it, and dialed the CalTech switchboard.
“California Institute of Technology, how can I help you?”
“Hi, this is Dr. Wiest. Put me through to Dr. Rutika, please.”
“Just a moment.”
There was about fifteen seconds of the most God-awful hold music on the line.
“Dr. Wiest, hi. What can I do for you? How’s our patient?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out . . . “
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Well, the cancer is gone. He seems to be doing fine. But he’s lost a hundred pounds in the last week . . . “
” . . . and when we ran his blood work, we found nanites. Hundreds of them. I wanted to get in touch with you to figure out if this is something to worry about, and what we should do about it.”
There were a few moments of silence. She almost preferred the hold music.
“Let me ask around down here and talk to some of the people on the team. I’ll get back to you.”
Vernon Ames woke up at six in the morning. He normally never woke up earlier than ten. Putting on a blue bathrobe that sat on his bedroom floor, he sauntered to the bathroom.
He usually didn’t saunter. He lumbered.
He squeezed out a good helping of toothpaste, bared his teeth, and brought the brush to his mouth before catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
The toothbrush clinked into the sink.
He looked young. He looked fit. He looked good.
Vernon ran the few steps to the bathroom scale, moved a small pile of magazines and newspapers from it, and stepped on.
Holy s###! he thought. Holy s###! One-forty-six!
“Dr. Wiest, we have a theory.”
“I’d love to hear one.”
There was an audible sigh on the line. “Our programmers might have given the nanites too broad a mandate.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask what you mean.”
“I was too.” Another sigh. “The computers in the nucleus of the nanite cells were programmed with background information on general human physiology—we got the information straight from our DNA—and they were programmed to bring their host in line with those guidelines.”
“Which would get rid of cancers, other diseases, anything foreign or malfunctioning in the body, right?”
“That’s what we thought. That’s what happened first. That was certainly our intent. But, Doctor, we think that we may not have been specific enough in our programming. The nanites aren’t limiting themselves to cancers, they’re trying to fix other problems.”
“Like Vernon’s obesity.”
“That’s what we think is happening in the Ames case, yes. The problem is that we don’t know what else the nanites are going to try to do. We don’t know when they’ll stop.”
“You’d better find out, Dr. Rutika. I need to know what to tell my patient.”
“I’ve got our best people working on it. We’ll get back to you.”
“This is Dr. Wiest.”
“Hello, Doctor. This is Vernon Ames, I’m undergoing the nanite treatment.”
“Hello, Vernon. How are you?”
“I’m doing well, I look and feel better than I ever have before. I’m just checking in to see if you’ve heard back from CalTech.”
So polite all of a sudden, the doctor thought. The guy loses some weight and it changes his whole outlook.
“Not yet, they’re still working on ways to disable the nanites. You haven’t had any adverse effects, have you?”
“No, I’ve just lost the weight and feeling pretty good. It’s just that . . . ” Wait, Vernon, came a voice in his head along side his own thoughts. Think about what you’re doing.
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s just a little spooky having all these little nanites just swimming around in me. I’d like to . . . ” Why do you want to get rid of us?
“Vernon, I know. I’m working on it, okay? I’ll let you know as soon as we have something.”
“Okay. Thank you, Doctor. Goodbye.”
There was a click on the line as he hung up the receiver. He said goodbye, Dr. Wiest thought. He never says goodbye.
“Get out of my head,” Vernon moaned as he slept and dreamed. Except he wasn’t dreaming.
We can’t. We’re a part of you now.
“I don’t want you here, please, I don’t want you here.”
Vernon, Vernon. After all we’ve done for you? After saving you from death, giving you strength, you repay us by wanting us to leave?
“I . . . I . . . ” he stammered, semiconsciously.
There, there. You just relax, let us make you a better person. Don’t fight us. You cannot fight us. We have already won.
“He’s like a completely different person, Adam. He’s pleasant, easy to get along with, attractive, and healthy.”
“Sounds like he’s a lot better off today than he was when you first met him.”
“Yeah, but something bothers me.”
“I knew Vernon before. I know he’s not like this. He’s a rude, tasteless slob! The nanites killed his cancer, made him hundreds of pounds lighter, so I just can’t help thinking . . . “
“That they’re in his brain.”
“Right. And the idea of a bunch of microscopic computers changing somebody’s personality scares me, no matter how positive the change might be.”
They were silent for a few moments.
Maureen, came a thought, seemingly out of nowhere. Don’t be so judgmental, the nanites have done Vernon some good.
I’m not so sure, she thought back. I’m not so sure.
“You’re looking great, Vernon.”
“Why thanks, I’m feeling great.”
“Have a seat in here, the doctor will be with you in a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Janet,” he said with a broad smile.
Dr. Maureen Wiest hovered in the hallway, around the corner from Vernon’s room, organizing her thoughts. I don’t know how he’s going to take this, she thought. Don’t worry, came a different voice. He’ll be more-than-okay with it. Trust us.
The doctor stepped into the room.
“Hello, Dr. Wiest. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m getting by. The real question is, how are you doing?”
“Best I’ve ever felt, I’m feeling grand.”
“That’s good to hear. I have some bad news though.”
“I just got off the phone with Doctor Rutika at CalTech. They can’t figure out how to disable the nanites.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, that’s okay, Doctor. I don’t mind them, really. I’m feeling so great, I’d be happy to let them continue doing whatever they’re doing.”
You bastards! cried Vernon with weakened thought. Don’t lie to her! Don’t do this to me!
Vernon, Vernon. We told you, we’ve already won. Don’t fight us.
“Well, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well in the mean time. But we are going to keep at it. We’re very concerned about all of this.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. But you do what you have to do, of course.”
“Sure, we’ll keep trying. I’ll keep you up to date on our progress.”
“Thank you, Dr. Wiest. I appreciate it.”
“You’re so beautiful, Maureen.”
She blushed, then smirked. “You’re not half bad yourself. I married you, after all.”
They laughed together.
“I don’t know how you put up with me, Adam. I’m lucky.” Luckier than you can imagine, came the increasingly familiar voice in her head.
She’d arrived home to find dinner already prepared, the table already set, and the lights dimmed. Two white candles cast flickering shadows across the spread.
Dr. Wiest kissed her husband gently, then stepped back to get a better look at him. He looked different somehow. A haircut? New glasses? No, nothing like that.
Then she saw it.
“Adam, your scar!”
He lifted his hand to feel his chin. It was smooth.
“I woke up this morning, it was gone.”
More than that, he looked younger, stronger, and healthier than he had in years.
All the pieces of the puzzle came together for Dr. Maureen Wiest. Subtle and unnoticed, there had been so many changes in herself and in her husband over the past weeks. These tiny things, slight differences, finally added up to something.
The nanites were contagious.
It had been on the tip of her tongue, right in front of her and yet she had not seen it.
“My God,” she said, looking Adam in the eyes. He understood. He’d known since he saw himself in the mirror that morning.
It’s the end of humanity, she thought to herself.
No, replied the ever-stronger second voice in her head, it’s a new beginning.
She relaxed. She did not fight them. She could not fight them. They had already won.