A reporter and his estranged husband have to work together to prevent a zombie apocalypse.
After his cousin, Ben, is murdered, Jessie has to work with his estranged husband, Mathew, to uncover why Ben was killed.
Tuesday, March 21, 2025
Nanomedicine: the end of death.
Jessie Canning leaned forward in his office chair, studying the title of his article on his computer screen. When his husband whispered the words as a possible headline three months before, Jessie had just laughed softly. In another twenty years, he could see the robotic version of a white blood cell doing that.
After seeing Senergine's press conference that morning, Jessie wanted to call Mathew and tell him...
Several things. That he was sorry. That he wasn't. He wanted to tell Mathew about what happened that morning. He wanted to tell Mathew that he'd missed him.
Jessie frowned. When someone told their spouse they needed time apart, they didn't say that in the hope that their partner would call him a couple weeks later. Mathew could read the headline along with the rest of the world in the morning. If he recognized the words, fine.
If not, at least Jessie wouldn't know.
Somewhere behind him, a phone rang.
It wasn't his phone, was at least four or five desks away, and yet, for a moment, Jessie hoped. What if Mathew called him?
Jessie ran his fingers through his hair, sending several strands of light brown hair into his face. Behind him, the phone shrilled. It might be someone offering someone else a new story; it might be someone's child asking if they could go to a friend's house. It wasn't Mathew. It would never be Mathew.
And someday, Jessie would stop hoping.
He dropped his hands to the arm rests and slouched back in his chair. The nannites in the black material shifted, adjusting to his back in ways ergonomic furniture had never been able to do. He and Mathew had been in college when marriage first became a possibility in California. Youthful passions led them downtown and they'd gotten married in the brief time it'd been legal. It'd been awesome. His cousin, Ben, had been his best man; Mathew's college roommate, Gabriel, had been his, and now, seventeen years later, Jessie had the ironic pleasure of having an estranged husband.
For better or worse, the thought always amused him. He and Mathew had tied the knot before the legal strands had been unwoven. It'd taken years to become legal again and though there would be people who fought to get the law shot down, that didn't stop marriages from happening. Rings continued to be exchanged. People continued pledging themselves.
For some of them, they'd be able to pull off living happily ever after. For the rest, all they would have would be mutual friends who'd drift away, a house that often seemed too big, and photos they had to hide away lest the images of other times haunt them.
Presuming the ringing of a phone didn't do that already.
Jessie glanced at his top right drawer.
The phone rang again.
Jessie inched the drawer open.
Inch by inch, a photo of two men began to appear. He became visible first. Slightly below average height, thin, with a face that was neither handsome nor okay, but somewhere in between. Arresting, Mathew had once said. Jessie had dark blue eyes, a sharp looking chin and nose, and journalistic pallor, meaning he rarely spent time outside of offices.
Another inch and then Mathew smiled up at him. He was the classical tall, dark, and handsome, a fairy tale prince who decided to go to medical school instead of politics. He married a prince, bought a castle, and hoped to live happily ever after.
In a story, they probably would have.
In reality, Jessie didn't know when he'd talk to Mathew again.
The ringing died.
The sudden silence was jarring. The connection had never been made; the caller was moving on.
He should as well.
Jessie shoved the drawer close. Pushing himself forward, he reached across the keyboard and hit the 'enter' key. If work had come between them, then work would get him through this.
It was a scene straight out of the Stepford Wives, he wrote. The woman pressed the knife to her hand.
And then cut into it.
His words chased after the memory, Times New Roman letters capturing ephemeral images.
The camera caught the movement. Enhanced by a cousin of the nannites coursing through the woman's blood, the viewfinder transferred the action and threw it up on the screen behind her so everyone in the room saw a crimson line chase after the blade.
Light glinted off the knife as she set it down. Drops of blood fell around it, as thick as cherry blossoms. Smiling a bright smile that would've been at home at the eponymous Stepford community, the woman held her arm out. People shifted uneasily around the room, torn between sitting there and getting bandages.
Then, the crimson line began fading.
The camera crept closer, capturing the torn flesh merging and sealing shut.
"Did she offer to let anyone cut her after that?" a man asked behind him.
Jessie turned. His friend, Nathen, sat at the edge of his desk.
At thirty-nine, Nathen made the gate between the thirties and forties look approachable. He was tall, with short, dark brown hair, green eyes, and a youthful face. He'd gotten carded until well into his thirties and, between them, Nathen swore that the moment gray touched his hair, he'd let it stay.
"What'd she do after she healed?" Nathen asked. "Did she have someone else cut her to show it wasn't an illusion?"
"How do you know it wasn't a trick, then?"
"Because next she put her hand over a small flame."
Nathen grimaced. "Stepford, indeed."
Jessie chuckled. As long as nannites did their microscopic thing to make computers and cameras better and back support comfier, no one protested.
Then Senergine came along and the landscape changed.
From various sources--starting with a husband whose interest in virology made him want nannites to succeed and ending with the very patient scientist who worked with the machines that created the little spuds--Jessie knew that of the five thousand drugs that were tested during the preclinical phase, only five made it to clinical testing. And of those five, only one made it to market.
In some ways, it reminded Jessie of succeeding in journalism. The Internet made communication easier, but it also made the shrinking field competitive. It was possible to still have a career. It just took work.
Most days, Mathew had understood. When that day fell on their anniversary, though, things got pretty ugly.
Jessie wondered how many Senergine doctors were still married.
Nathen looked past him at the computer. "So what happens next?"
"Next I launch into a brief history about nanomedicine."
"Is it filled with blood and knives?"
"No," Jessie said. "Test tubes and electrodes during the Victorian era."
"Does it involve Dr. Frankenstein?"
"No. Though, interesting enough, earlier in the nineteenth century, another man passed electric current through a solution of powdered flint in acid. After a little over two weeks, he found 'mites. The guy later theorized that the 'mites may have contaminated his instruments but a newspaper had already falsely reported that he'd created life. It killed his reputation."
"Ah. Journalism ethics at its finest."
Jessie snorted. Not quite but he understood. "Sadly, that anecdote won't fit in with this story."
"Pity. With your lead, I'd say you have one, maybe two paragraphs before the reader's eyes start glazing."
Jessie understood. The history was interesting, but he suspected if he began talking about the properties of stochastically-formed atomic assemblers, Nathen would remember that he needed to go change the ink in the printer.
Thankfully, Jessie had become adept at translating technical babble after dealing with two of the greatest babblers the world had ever known--his spouse and cousin. Those two could out-Spock Spock.
"They're like Terminator white cells," Jessie said. "Once released into the human body, they create a home base in the brain and then travel through the body, fighting crime."
"I think you missed your calling as a pediatrician. I would've killed to have you as a doctor when I was twelve."
His words were kind, but they still stabbed Jessie. His father would've agreed with Nathen. Maybe not about the exact field, perhaps, but by the time Jessie graduated from college, Dr. Joseph Canning would've settled for him becoming a candy striper.
"Are they actually white blood cells?" Nathen asked.
"No. They're a precise arrangement of atoms."
"They're robots. They fight crime."
"Oh. Okay. How many robots do they need to pump into a person?"
"They're unbelievably small, so millions of the little guys can be inserted with a single shot. They then build a base in the brain and begin multiplying."
Nathen looked thoughtful. "So what's to stop people from bypassing Senergine's accountant and taking a needle to one of their Terminators? All we'd need is a little blood, right?"
"Well, considering they're being designed to kill cancer, and you don't have cancer, would you really want it?"
"Me, no. I'd be worried they'd decide my liver looked cancerous." Nathen shuddered. "I'm just curious."
"I think the nannites can't survive out of the body for long." Jessie turned to his desk and went through his notes. "Yeah, the original conveyer is the only thing they can live in, outside of the body. And once you hit brain dead, the nannites stop."
"Ah. Lights out for all." Nathen motioned to the computer. "So what happened to the woman? I presume you return to her at the end of the article?"
"Oh yes. After her burn heals, she shakes people's hands. Her skin felt fine."
Jessie had been working on the Senergine project for the past few months, going from amused disbelief to blinking acceptance. Senergine had been the first who'd taken their healing technology from animal trials to humans. While people tended to hate having rats infest their homes, the thought of them being experimented on reminded them that they'd once loved The Secret of NIMH or The Great Mouse Detective. People protested the company testing on rodents but when the research showed Professor Ratigan's cancer cells fading, they became curious.
And when the only complication to arise from the clinical testing was some minor healing, well, investors opened their checkbooks. The Senergine president, George Savini, had said his face was going to be on the cover of Time next week. Jessie imagined that would bring even more money in.
"I saw a documentary once where people vowed to cure cancer by the end of the seventies," Nathen said. "I get that these little guys can fix a cut, but I'd be a little worried about having a bunch of things I can't see running free through my body."
"You might want to have a talk with your atoms then."
"You know what I mean."
Nathen looked thoughtful. "Yeah. It's like getting a new toy. I don't know if I want to be in the first wave, the ones who have to deal with bugs. Might be better to wait."
"There's a million things that have to happen between when a new idea is on the drawing board and when it's commercially available. I think the average time between patent application and marketing is twelve years. Some of their other research projects were also trashed after reaching the advanced stage of clinical studies."
"Ah." Nathen made a face. "Crap. That must've been expensive. When did these guys begin playing with this?"
"Senergine?" Jessie frowned thoughtfully. He'd read it just that morning. "Fifteen years ago. The ideas behind nanomedicine goes back a while. I think someone first talked about it during the fifties or sixties."
"In science fiction novels?"
"No. A physicist named Richard Feynman gave a lecture called there's plenty of room at the bottom in nineteen fifty-nine. He talked about manipulating matter on an atomic scale."
And there was the glazed, does the printer need ink? look he'd anticipated.
Jessie considered pulling out his notepad and sketching a nannite. It looked like a balloon, with one end drawn to water and the other wanting to avoid it. His drawing abilities weren't great but he could simplify this.
As much as it was possible.
Jessie reached for his notepad.
Nathen inched away. "Do you know if anyone's checked the ink in the printer recently?"
"This morning. Two hours ago, in fact."
"Damn. I mean, good."
Nathen glanced at Jessie's desk. "Oh look, a stray rubber band."
Jessie laughed. He was tempted to tell Nathen that Ben had once told him that people had unwittingly using nanotechnology for things like vulcanizing rubber but he suspected he was at the end of Nathen's patience.
"I'm sorry," Jessie said. "I think this stuff is fascinating."
"Oh, it is. I think if my ex-wife had been a doctor, I'd be more curious."
Maybe. And maybe not; Nathen and Pamela loved ballroom dancing. They used to compete together. Nathen now danced alone.
"I believe Michael Crichton was able to explain nannites without abusing innocent rubber bands," Nathen said, twining the band in question around his fingers like a cat's cradle.
"He also had swarms of them chasing after people. These things aren't dinosaurs."
"Hey, he made me believe that the next time I went to South America little dinosaurs would chase and eat me."
A secret Jessie hoped would never get out: for two hours, he'd thought the same thing. Then the lights came on and he stopped believing in them.
"As much as it pains me to say this, we don't need dinosaurs," Jessie said. "When the nannites finally advance past helping people recover from a disease to growing back a limb, maybe we'll move on to something just as cool."
"What's as cool as dinosaurs?"
Nathen released the rubber band, dropping it back onto Jessie's desk. "Maybe. I wouldn't plan on trading your Prius in any time soon."
Jessie raised his eyebrows. "Are we jealous that I got the cushy tech piece this time?"
"Oh yeah. I'd rather be sitting in the office trying to translate technobabble than out covering the protests and hoping I don't get mugged. Probably by somebody who hates nannites up until they need some to fix them up."
Jessie raised an eyebrow. Whereas his story had him writing about Senergine, Nathen was writing about the protesters that were currently camped out in front of the company Senergine was using to manufacture their nannites. The future was coming, perhaps faster than some were comfortable with.
"Whatever happened to peaceful protests?" Jessie asked.
"No one pays any attention. Throw a rock, though, and suddenly you have the world's attention."
"Has someone betrayed their supposed hatred?"
Nathen nodded. "A couple. One guy cut his hand badly. He was certain a couple nannites would zip that wound closed. I thought a few stitches could do likewise, only without the cool factor. I imagine both would have him sitting in the waiting room for hours, though."
"My understanding is that it'd be a quick in-and-out procedure. And the cost prospectus I saw said--"
The shrill call of his office phone startled him. It might be Mathew. He might be calling to ask if they could talk.
Shit. Not again.
Jessie gave Nathen a quick, apologetic glance before picking up his phone. "Hello?"
"Jessie? It's Ben."
"Hey, Ben." He smiled. The voice on the other line might never belong to Mathew but when it was people like his cousin it wasn't okay, but it was nice.
"Are you free right now?"
Jessie's smile faded. There was a tremor in his cousin's voice. "Has something happened?"
"To you?" Well, Jessie couldn't say Ben didn't know him.
"Yeah, sort of."
"That sounds promising."
"Can you get over here?"
"Yeah." Jessie rose. "I can be there in twenty minutes."
"Thanks," Ben said. "I really appreciate that."
There was a soft thud.
"Ben?" Did he drop the phone?
"Jess." Ben sounded far away. "Hurry."
The sound was heavy. Wet.
Jessie looked around quickly. Keys, where were his damn keys?
Front coat pocket.
"I'm on my way!" Jessie gave Nathen a wild gesture toward his own desk and phone. "Nathen's calling the police."
Fuck. The line had gone de--
Cut. The call had been cut.
That didn't sound any better.
Jessie returned the phone to its cradle and looked at Nathen. "I have to go."
"I know." Nathen held his cell phone to his ear. "I can tell the cops where Ben lives. Go."
Jessie ran across the Observer's large bull pen and headed out of the building.
The world around Jessie became a blur as he slid into his car. He started the engine and headed for the highway. Ben lived across town, but it was early afternoon. Traffic would be light right now, and if Jessie could hit every green light, he might halve his time.
Even breaking God knew how many traffic laws and barely paying enough attention to make sure he didn't get into an accident, it still took him twelve minutes to get out to Ben's town house.
Jessie parked in a guest space and hurried toward his cousin's unit.
Ben lived in the Redwoods, a town-house community that, when they'd been kids, had been a dirt lot. The arid area had been replaced with gentle green hills, oaks, and town houses with red wood facades. Ben's home was in a corner, near a pond. Jessie ran over a small bridge.
And then stopped.
The police were there.
They stood outside Ben's town house. One talked on his phone; the other watched the area.
Jessie headed for them. Okay. The police were there. He'd wanted that to happen. Maybe a neighbor called them. Or Ben did, after he dealt with whatever had happened. Or Nathen, Nathen said he'd call them. A lot could happen in twelve minutes.
Too much could happen in twelve minutes.
The officers focused on him. One stepped forward, meeting Jessie halfway.
"I need you to move on, sir," he said.
"My cousin called," Jessie said. "He lives there. Is he okay?"
The officer frowned. "May I see some ID?"
Jessie withdrew his wallet and flipped it open. "Is he okay?"
The officer studied his driver's license. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not at liberty to say anything yet." He drew back. "Someone will be over in a moment to tell you more."
Well, maybe. If it was bad, he would've said so, right?
A figure in yellow hazmat suit stepped out of Ben's town house.
Oh. Maybe no one was saying anything because they didn't like what they had to say.
The man in yellow walked backward, carrying something on a litter. Past him, Jessie caught sight of another figure in a matching outfit.
Jessie headed toward them. Maybe this was an over-the-top reaction to Ben's lousy chili. Or an elaborate joke. Or someone's exceptionally realistic home movie.
The policeman stepped between Jessie and the gurney. Behind him, the two figures walked by, heading toward the parking lot. This close, Jessie made out the shape of a body inside a black plastic sheet.
"We need you to step back," the officer said.
Jessie shook his head. Ben was okay twelve minutes ago. He had to be okay now. He...