Some people have a fear of spiders—Arachnophobia. Others have a severe aversion to fire—Pyrophobia. Still others are forced to put up with Peladophobia—a fear of bald people. Sufferers of Acrophobia—a fear of heights—are common. They are far more common than the rare individuals who suffer from Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia—the fear of long words. Neil Rodriguez suffered from an acute case of whatever they called people who went into a homicidal rage whenever a needle came into view.
When he was young, it had manifested itself as a simple childish fear. That continued until he became a full-fledged adult; when he realized—knowing his health was in his own hands—that when it came to needles he would just have to shut his eyes, grit his teeth, and lie.
This worked wonderfully; only once in his adult life had he been tricked into getting a shot—but that had been years ago, and he'd learned from it. Those lessons were running through his mind again now that he found himself back in a hospital for reasons related to his fear.
Specifically, he'd been forced back to the St. Christovon mediplex because they had noted his inoculations were dangerously out of date. With the seasonal Ebolax outbreaks cropping up, his weak immunity offered the thing a chance to mutate into a serious public health threat. Others had tried to reason with Neil on this point during previous visits, but his condition always won out against logic. The ingenuity he displayed for avoiding inoculations born of it made him infamous; one does not burn down the east wing of a mediplex without getting a reputation.
This was why the staff at St. Christovon had pulled a nasty little trick to get to Neil by calling on his employer, who was more than happy to counter Neil's condition by instilling in him a fear shared by all humans: the fear of not receiving a paycheck.
"Hello Mr. Rodrigez," Dr. Petrov said as he slid into the sterile examination room. "I understand you're here for the z-series nanite injection?"
"That's what they tell me," Neil said, keeping his voice low to appear nonchalant. This doctor looked a little too young to have been here for long. Did he really know who he was dealing with?.
"Mind if I use the bathroom first?" Neil asked.
"This won't take but a minute Mr. Rodrigez," Dr. Petrov said, flashing Neil a look that told him he knew exactly what he was dealing with. "I think you can hold it for that long."
"You don't understand," said Neil. "I've got a weak bladder; if I don't go, it's gonna rupture."
"Yes, Nurse Garroway told me all about your 'weak bladder.'"
"Oh, Garroway?" Neil asked, laughing weakly. "So she finally came out of that coma, huh? How's her leg doing?"
"Good, considering the blood loss before the scalpels were removed. It will take time for her hair to grow back once they finish replacing the scar tissue, and the overdose of gamma radiation was particularly troubling, but Dr. Bertha says they got to her in time. Other than that, everything is fine." Petrov smiled fakely. "She sends you her warmest greetings."
"Oh, well, that's…that's good," Neil said, knowing that it most certainly was not. This doctor was motivated; he had to think of a way out of this.
Gears that were turning and burning gray matter froze when Neil saw Dr. Petrov's hand snatch something off the counter.
"What's that in your hand?" Neil asked.
"This?" Petrov asked, displaying a sinister metal cylinder with a small button at the end of it. "It's the latest model injector. We did away with needles about a year ago and switched over to these."
"No needles?" Neil asked.
"No needles, I promise. Now, if you'll just let me see your arm." Petrov took Neil's arm and wiped it down with a disinfectant swab before touching the cylinder to it.
Neil flinched as the cold metal contacted his bare flesh. He became dimly aware of something that felt like the tip of a needle poking into his arm, but before he could react, Petrov pushed the button. The needle plunged into Neil, delivered the nanites, and retracted—all in the space of a second.
In a single spasm, Neil exploded off the examination table and into to the nearest corner of the room, pressing his back to the wall like a panicked animal. Petrov calmly replaced the removable cap on the cylinder that had hid the needle and pocketed the device.
"Please come down from there Mr. Rodrguez."
"What did you do to me!"
"Saved you from a huge nuisance. You now have the z-series nanites; they're a huge improvement over the old q-series—."
"I didn't need an improvement; I did fine with what I had!"
"Trust me, you're better off. The q-series were too aggressive, and we found that certain viruses—ebolax especially—"
"I don't give a damn about ebolax!"
"Please, don't make me call the orderlies."
Two orderlies, the biggest and meanest looking St. Christovon had, entered the room then, stunners ready for action. Neil took one look at them and forced himself to take in a deep calming breath.
"There now," said Petrov, extending his hand to Neil when he slid back onto the floor
"No hard feelings, I hope?"
Neil looked from the doctor to the orderlies and grudgingly shook.
"None at all," he said.
"Good," Petrov said, beaming widely now as he handed Neil a small bottle. Neil glared at him questioningly.
"It's nano-food. The injection only had enough nanites to get you started; they need time to propagate and spread. The top of your left hand will itch when it's time to take them; with your body weight, two at a time should be sufficient. You might experience a slight drowsiness."
"Yeah, sure, thanks doc." Neil snatched the bottle from Petrov and reached for his piled clothes. Minutes later, when he was dressed and ready to go, Petrov tapped him on the shoulder.
"Be sure to see the front desk on the way out so we can get you scheduled for a check-up in about six weeks. If you develop any complications between now and then, don't hesitate to come in."
"I'll do that," Neil said. He allowed himself to be peacefully shown to the nearest exit with both orderlies flanking him.
Once outside the hospital Neil hailed a cab and made his way home through the late evening traffic rush. When he arrived at his apartment complex he cursed the cabby for nearly getting him killed and would have taken the time to scam him out of a chunk of the fare if his whole left arm hadn't begun to furiously itch. He reluctantly paid the fare in full and made it past the doors before he fell flat on his face from a sudden lack of energy. Pulling on reserves he never knew he had, he managed to get himself up to a crawl, making it to the elevator in only a single eternity, where he was able to sprawl out and down two of the supplements.
The instant he swallowed them he began to feel better, as if those little robot bastards now coursing through his system were terrorists whose demands he had just met. It only added to the discomfort since, in the movies, the terrorists always detonated the bomb, or released the virus, or shot the hostages—or whatever—after their demands were met.
"Murrrr," Chester greeted as Neil stumbled into his modest apartment with its messy furnishings, amongst which Chester was perhaps the messiest. A mixed breed cat that had spent his entire life cooped up indoors with nothing to do, he had long since become psychotic in his quests to amuse himself. It was because of this that his next act was to assault Neil's crotch, which he suspected of being a very cleverly disguised mouse. Neil merely dropped his pants and kicked them away, leaving him to parade around in his boxers. If Chester was aware of Neil's presence, he didn't give any indication, most likely because he was too busy fighting pants that he was convinced had sprung to life.
"Stupid cat," Neil muttered under his breath. With a grunt of annoyance, he pushed Chester out of his mind, and as the ultimate battle between Cat and Pants continued, plopped down in his recliner. Now his left arm and his back were itching. Two more supplements fixed that, but not for long, so Neil continued to pop them as he turned on the 'Net to do a little research.
Doctor Petrov and St. Christovon were going to pay for what they did; his boss too, for going along with them. First they threaten him, then they stick him, then they threaten to beat him, and now he was sure they'd intentionally tweaked his shots so the itch would keep spreading and the weakness was debilitating. He didn't deserve any of that. Was it his fault he was the way he was? No. Could he help it that needles happened to make him a little uncomfortable? No. If they could just make them a little less pointy…
His lawyer had understood, and had argued it really well when he had been charged with burning down the east wing of the mediplex. Too bad he was in prison; the courts were hard-nosed about psychological trauma cases, and there weren't many lawyers who could pull one off. Finding a reliable one might take all night.
Hidden behind a glossy dome set into the ceiling, the electronic eyes of the apartment's artificial intelligence sighted Neil and noted that he was continuing to adhere to his usual routine. As per its programmed instructions, the AI drew a bath and prepared a light evening snack for when Neil finished his daily 'Net session. With no other tasks to perform, the AI went into sleep mode.
At the appointed time, the AI came out of its hibernation. It noted that Neil had not moved from his chair and appeared to be wide-awake, albeit in some kind of a stupor. Every so often, he would jolt out of it, ingest a few pills, and sink back. Another odd, albeit welcome, occurrence was that feline had passed out next to him. The AI concluded that the two had retired early for the night and sent out the cleaning drones while preparing to return to sleep mode.
It snapped back to full alert less than a minute later when one of the cleaning drones flashed an emergency report about a fire in progress between Neil and the feline. Various sensors throughout the apartment confirmed that there was a sparkling phenomenon moving between the two, but heat readings were not indicative of a fire. The AI made several verbal attempts to roust Neil from his slumber, but only the feline managed to show any groggy signs of life. Programmed to err on the side of caution, the AI contacted emergency medical services with a report that the tenet in the apartment was asphyxiating.
The paramedics arrived within minutes, by which time the glowing phenomenon had stopped; Neil, however, was still unconscious. No attention was paid to the cat who, the AI noted with what passed for annoyance, was now moving under his own power, following the unsuspecting paramedics out of the apartment as they carried Neil away.
Back at the hospital, Petrov was still beaming about his accomplishment. The entire staff had been after Rodriguez, and today they were all sad and proud. Sad that it had not been any of them who'd finally given Rodriguez the needle, and proud that it had been one of their own who'd gotten the job done. The air was thick with celebration, and would be even thicker during the party that had been planned for after Petrov's shift ended.
There was, however, a tiny little upset: Rodriguez was back. When the AI made the call for the paramedics, word got around fast; Petrov was unanimously selected to be Mr. Rodriguez's handler while he was on hospital grounds and just managed to worm his way out of an appointment to meet the paramedics as they wheeled him into the receiving bay.
"What's his condition?" Petrov asked. The senior paramedic shrugged.
"The 'puter that made the call said he was suffering from asphyxiation due to a fire, but when we got there we just found him passed out in his chair; no evidence of any fire. He won't wake up, but everything else about him is normal."
Petrov sighed. The case was simple then; the stubborn idiot had probably not taken his supplements as some kind of revenge. "Very well, wheel him into room five."
Once a feeding tube for the nanites was inserted and switched on, the effect was almost immediate. Neil's eyes shot open and he struggled against his restraints. Wild panic was in his eyes until he saw Petrov leaning over him and realized where he was.
"You didn't tell me these were going to take so much out of me."
"That's why we gave you the supplem— "
"They hardly did anything!"
"How many did you take?"
"All of them."
"That bottle was a three month supply."
"Tell that to them!"
"Alright then," Petrov said, "we've got a feeding tube in you, so you shouldn't have any problems with weakness. If you'll just let us get a sample of your blood so we can run some tests..."
Neil was too tired and well restrained to put up much of a fight while his blood was being drawn, and so Petrov was able to get his sample and send it to the lab with only minor bruising. The results came back surprisingly fast, accompanied by the technician who ran the lab during the graveyard shift, or had been running it until he had seen the results and felt that his expert commentary would be best relayed in person.
"This has got to be the weirdest shit I've ever seen," the tech said to Petrov as he pulled him out of the room. "That man's nanite count is over twenty times the maximum limit, and that was increasing exponentially as I was taking the reading. Why isn't he dead yet?"
"I'm not sure," Petrov said. "I've never seen any nanites, much less the z-series, go so far out of their parameters." .
"Z-series?" the tech asked
"Yes," Petrov said. "I gave him the shot this afternoon, why?"
"All I saw was some weird variant of the q-series in the sample."
"A variant? This man hasn't had a single update since the original q-series came out."
"He's been carrying those things around for ten years with no updates?"
"He was very effective in his methods of dissuading us. You remember the fire last year?" The tech's eyes darted to the examination room.
"He's that Rodriguez? Are you sure you've got enough restraints—"
"Enough for now," Petrov said. "I'm more concerned about the nanites. Why are they burning through so much nano-food?"
"Well, when we introduce a new series the old one is supposed to let them gradually phase in. You know, resetting the little production centers in the bone marrow—"
"I know how they work. Why are they not working?"
"Um, my guess is that the q-series became hyper aggressive and won't let themselves be replaced. The z-series, because of this, assumes the q-series to be an invading organism, so each version thinks it's dominant and sees the other as a threat."
"But you said you didn't see any z-series."
"I didn't see any intact ones. There was an awful lot of background clutter in the sample that could've been what was left of them wherever you took it."
"So where did they go?"
A nurse rushed up to Petrov before the technician could respond.
"Doctor, you need to look at this."
Petrov agreed with a nod and followed the nurse back into the room, dragging the technician behind him.
"Yes, wha—Oh my…" Rodriguez was naked, tied down to the examination table, and was anything but a sight for sore eyes, but that was not what had gotten Petrov's attention.
"We finally managed to get him fully disrobed and then these things just started appearing," the nurse said.
Those "things" were white balls sunken into Mr. Rodriguez's head and chest that gave him the appearance of having suffered a long-distance assault by a mob of angry golfers. An explanation for them could not be immediately gleaned, because gleaning is extremely hard to do when staring like a slack-jawed moron, which is how every individual in the room decided to respond.
This continued—deepened, even—as a cat jumped onto the examination table, where Neil was already passed out.
Chester, however, was completely awake now, but for reasons he could not fully comprehend, being just an ordinary psychotic house cat. All he knew was that he had this overpowering urge to get closer to Neil. The hospital staffers present were too surprised to do anything about it, and so the mission went off without a hitch.
The urge gone, Chester lost his motivation to stay conscious and plopped down next to Neil to fall promptly back to sleep. Nobody called to have him removed. This was in part because of the fear of having to manhandle a cranky clawed animal, but the most compelling reason was that Chester had started to glow.
All over his feline body, little pinpricks of light were creeping out of the fur and combining into one luminescent sphere. There was a blinding flash as they upped their intensity to unbearable levels. The electronics went haywire; the lights found that they could not withstand the onslaught and blew up, leaving only the pinpricks to provide illumination.
The formation moved away from Chester and hovered over Neil's chest, flattening out as it moved until it was like some miniature galaxy had been born into the room. The resemblance ended when the stars comprising it burst into sparkling disarray and flew into to the most convenient white bump, their light winking out as they made contact.
Darkness reigned once more; there passed a full five seconds of dead silence before Petrov was the first to come to his senses.
"Get them into isolation…now!"