Calling the situation a "quarantine" was something of a misnomer. Sure, Neil and his cat had been secured in a foolproof bacteriological prison, but that system had never been tested against nanites, and nobody was optimistic about the prisons' chances against those particular inmates after the light show. That hadn't dissuaded the Centers for Disease Control, of course. They had deemed the two too dangerous to move, opting instead for a good old fashioned quarantine.
"Kinda dead around here, isn't it?"
Petrov jumped at the sound of the tech—whose name he did not know, even after ten hours of association—as he returned with more test results. Petrov gave them a brief look before tossing them aside disgustedly. Nothing useful in the entire pile, as expected. Maybe volunteering to stay locked down so he could work on the problem hadn't been such a good idea.
"Find anything interesting in the datapools?" he asked.
"No, and I've been searching like a madman." The tech smiled contemplatively and took another sip of his caffeine. "But I have my own little theories."
"You wouldn't want to hear them. They're crazy, really…"
"No, go ahead."
"Alright." The tech slammed down the last of his caffeine and looked at Petrov, his face a mask of dead seriousness. "Spaceships."
"That's right, spaceships," the tech said. "Those bumps—tumors, right?"
"It's what they look like."
"Come on, all I know is my lab equipment, and even I can see these 'tumors' have a creepy order to them. Same size, same interior composition— we've even seen those fireflies use them as landing strips."
"You're saying the nanites built them as a kind of spaceport?"
"Yeah, except it was no ordinary civil works project. One of the versions—z-series is my betting guess—knew it was losing the battle and …eh, 'colonized' that cat as a means of self-preservation, then built the spaceports to receive the reinforcements."
"You're making them sound awfully sentient"
"Maybe they aren't—yet—but I'll also bet the longer they fight inside that jerk the more sophisticated they're going to get."
"That makes about as much sense as anything else, I suppose. Still, let's not go announcing it out loud just yet; it's already going to be hard enough to convince the CDC to let us out." Petrov sighed. "We need some stronger proof. Get the Probe."
"You, uh, sure that's really necessary?"
"Are you saying you have reservations about inflicting it on another human being?"
"On that specific human being? Hell no—it's just such a pain in the ass to set up…"
"This is a hospital; we have plenty of drugs for that. Get it done."
The Probe, or "Dirty Harry" as it was popularly known, was indeed a pain in the ass to set up, but well worth the effort thanks to the detailed scans it could provide. The patients didn't like it because the controlling AI had never been programmed any parameters on personal space, so it stuck its implements wherever it believed it would get the best results. It also had a disturbing resemblance to a metallic nightmare spider so creepy in appearance that patients generally had to be kept unconscious while Harry went to work. Rodriguez's blood, however, was so rife with nanites that tranquilizers probably wouldn't have had any effect.
Generally, the cat would have been taken out of the room as well, but none of the remaining staff were feeling stupid enough to try.
The tech skipped into the control room, gulping down his umpteenth cup of caffeine and tossing it away as he scooted up to the nearest console, whistling pleasantly to himself.
"Harry's up and ready to go," he said, not bothering to hide his enthusiasm. Petrov wasn't sure he liked that. Even considering what Rodriguez has done, it felt wrong to set Harry after him while he was restrained and fully aware. The man might be bastard, but that didn't change the fact that he was a bastard under his care.
"Perhaps I should be in there with him," Petrov said.
"Uh-uh," the tech replied, shaking his head. "No other human presence can be allowed in that room; it'll throw Harry's readings off. Besides, Roddy-boy is liable to object to this scan very loudly, and we at least have a mute button here."
"I've never really trusted that machine. It seems to enjoy its scanning a little too much." The tech gave Petrov a wry look.
"Yeah, the guy who programmed it wasn't quite right in the head—masochist is the term I think I heard being thrown around when he was on trial."
"Shh!—Harry's about to start."
On the screen, the door at the far end of the room swung open to reveal Harry squeezing its way towards what had to be a less than enthusiastic Rodriguez. It took up its position over the bed and began to assess the situation.
Petrov tore his attention from the screen and keyed up the monitoring program for Harry's thought processes on a separate workstation.
1071/_| Human male of prime breeding age with irregular epidermal infections.
1072/_| Patient has no known history of such infections. No records of similar infection found in database.
1073/_| Dangerously high number artificially manufactured immunity organisms present. Versions are unrecognized. Concentrations are highest around epidermal infections.
1074/_|Further examination is needed.
Having gotten all it could with its passive scanners, Harry's sinewy arms folded in to exchange equipment. Petrov, though he had witnessed this machine at work many times before, was still horrified when it unsheathed its serious tools. He hoped to God that bringing Harry into this would be worth the trouble. At this thought, Petrov's subconscious kicked the word "trouble" into his awareness again, reminding him of something important.
"Hey," Petrov said, tossing an empty cup at the tech for his attention. "The cat moved next to Rodriguez when you were out getting the last results. Is it going to skew anything?"
"It should have by now if it was. You sure that cat is still there?"
"See for yourself."
The tech squinted at the screen for a moment, frowning as he caught sight of the fuzzy menace.
"Oh yeah, there's his tail. Did a good job of hiding if…hmph. Harry hasn't noticed it yet?"
Before Petrov could reply the console beeped for his attention.
1075/_| Foreign mass of bio-matter detected within examination area.
"He just did," Petrov said.
"That's weird," the tech said, watching Harry with a serious interest now as its undercarriage popped open to admit two small grasping arms to emerge and latch onto the cat.
"Uh-oh…" Petrov said, a cold chill gripping him as his imagination offered up scenarios explaining what that meant.
"What's Harry thinking?"
1078/_|Catastrophic system failure. Attempting to disengage.
∞3?!/_aLl yOǖя b sỀ aR€ b#loNg t* u§!
The console dissolved into a beeping panic as Harry's thought processes blurred into gibberish before stopping altogether. Without any spoken word between them, Petrov and the tech scrambled to reach the other's console. The tech was greeted only with a blank screen and electronic shrilling while Petrov found confirmation that he had defiantly made a huge mistake in getting the probe involved.
"It's still moving," Petrov murmured. The tech scrambled back to his original console, shoving Petrov aside just in time to watch Harry stuff the cat into its undercarriage and go into violent seizures.
"But this is impossible," the tech said. "There isn't a thought in that thing's head—no guiding AI…"
Petrov took the initiative and hit the panic button, clamping heavy deadbolts onto the only doors leading into the isolation room. Petrov heard and felt the reassuring thump of metal locking into metal as the bars slammed into place. Harry apparently heard it as well; it had abandoned its seizuring and seemed very interested in the sealed door.
"We need to find a way to shut Harry off, or at least get Rodriguez away from it. There's no telling what that machine will do now," Petrov said, continuing to watch the screen. Harry was examining the door closely now, like it was sizing it up, rattling ideas around in its casing about how to work its way around the obstacle. Petrov twiddled with the camera, trying to get a closer look. Harry noted the noise and absentmindedly pointed one of its tools at the camera. The picture disappeared into static fuzz.
Petrov looked to where the tech had been sitting, but found the chair empty. He had moved to the door and was looking down the hallway to the entrance of the decontamination chamber.
"I don't think we can contain it," the tech said.
"What do you mean?" Petrov asked. The tech scooted back from the door.
"I mean that it's about to break out. Get down." The look that Petrov gave the tech did not offer a positive appraisal his sanity.
"How the hell is he goin—"
"I said get down!"
The tech grabbed Petrov by his coat and dragged him under the nearest desk away from the door. Then the screaming began, a kind that no human could produce, but what instead metal cried when under attack from extreme heat. It cut off abruptly, and was followed by a tremendous crash. Harry had melted its way through the first of the three sets of doors securing the room.
"Why is Harry packing a giant laser?" Petrov asked, his question punctuated by the sound of Harry successfully casting down the second set of doors.
"It's, uh, not really a 'giant' laser. I mean, it can cut through rubble to rescue earthquake victims—"
"Why is it attached to him in a hospital?"
"Ah, we were kind of bored, so—"
The tech was saved from having to explain further by Harry's breach of the third set of doors, which flew outward with explosive force and came to a skidding halt at the opposite end of the corridor. Then there was only silence.
Both men set aside notions of looking out the door to see what happened when they heard the distinctive crack of metal on tile as Harry scuttled its way past them. Consoles and lights exploded as he passed, and it was only after the sound of exploding electronics and cracking tile faded into the distance that Petrov and the tech moved out from under their hiding place.
"Okay," Petrov said, "I've got to warn the CDC that the situation has just gotten more complicated." He jabbed a finger into the tech's chest. "You will keep an eye on Harry, and tell everyone else to keep their heads down."
"Why exactly am I the one trailing the berserk robot?"
"Irony dictates that if Harry should start using that laser on people you ought to be the first to melt." Petrov said, sending with it the most acidic glare he knew how to produce.
"Is there at least anything around here I defend myself with?" the tech asked.
"There's a stunner at that nurse station down there," Petrov replied, motioning to the end of the hall.
"Right. Off I go."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Eh…um…hmm…Nope, I got nothing. Leave a review if you want. I'd appreciate whatever you can give me.