“It looks like a bird,” said Sarah Bundy. She examined the photoacoustic image of Ethan’s head on the screen.
“My nanobots look like a bird?” said Ethan. He fiddled with the imaging helmet’s strap.
“Yeah.” She turned the screen so he could see it from the dentist chair. “Like kids draw with crayons, see? A stretched out, upside-down double-u between your brain and your skull.”
“I see what you mean. It’s even a little feathery.”
“It’s three times the size it was when we implanted them. We need some help to manage it.”
“No,” said Ethan. “I designed the neuro-integrators to structure themselves to cover more space. I’ll be fine.” He waved his hand at the helmet for her to remove it.
She pulled it off his head and swung it away on its arm. “We did the math when it got twice the size, and the bots’ structure barely allowed for that. They’re growing, and I’m telling Francis to get us some specialists.”
“Better slip him a few Scotches before telling him you performed an unapproved human trial.” He slapped his thighs and stood up.
“You pressured me to do it with no time to think about it,” Sarah said.
“And you did it,” said Ethan.
He was right. She let this snake charmer manipulate her into performing the procedure. She couldn’t let it pass her by, and she didn’t want to say no to him. “I was stupid.”
“That’s why I chose you.” He smirked.
Sarah couldn’t tell if he was taunting her, charming her, or putting her in her place.
She saved the images and shut down the helmet. “If it gets any bigger we’re going to Francis—for your own safety, Ethan.”
He shushed her and pulled her by the arm into the hallway. “I told you. They have no way to multiply. It would take a system of systems just to multiply one nanobot—there’s no way this one is doing it on it’s own.”
He dragged her into his personal laboratory. “What if they’re not doing it on they’re own?” she asked.
He led her to a chair at his touchscreen table and sat next to her. “What could be helping them?” He woke the screen with a swipe, and brought up a lab template.
“You said you were getting feedback from the explorer bots you released.”
“So?” He tapped vigorously at the template.
Sarah ignored it and glared at him. “How is it you can be this daft? If they’re giving the nanos in your brain feedback, they may be joining the structure.”
Ethan scoffed. “That’s not how the RNAS works.”
“Really?” Her voice tightened and she pinned his hands to stop his typing. “How does it work?”
“It’s just a method for a swarm of nanobots to carry a program as a unit. They run through a relative index protocol that structures their spatial network with each other, then the commands are flooded out among all of them. When they receive the one they’re indexed to, they keep it and ignore the rest. When they’re all loaded, they can execute as one giant, coordinated and spatially intelligent program.”
“So the explorer bots have integrated yours into their RNAS.”
“Ethan.” Sarah’s voice rasped with frustration. “That means they’re penetrating your scalp to get to your brain, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but… son of a bitch, Sarah, you’re the most frightened person I’ve ever met. We’ll panic when there’s reason to panic. Right now I have less than twenty-four hours before those explorers go inert, and I want to test them every way I can before they do.” He pushed her hands off his display. “Are you with me, or not?”
He filled in the minimum required fields and saved it so the system would number and manage the file.
Sarah pulled out her notepad and set it to record and collect for the event. “I’m with you,” she said.
“Good.” He synced the file to both their notepads. “I released most of them in the woods. Let’s head out that way first.”
“Sure, but keep talking about what you’re experiencing as we go.”
“Sorry. I don’t like to talk.”
She hissed at the sarcasm. “Get chatty now, Kathy.”
Ethan struggled trying to describe how the nanobots felt, stuttering over his choice of words, insisting that it was an entirely new sense. Pressures and shapes and tensions that continuously changed, feeding him incomprehensible knowledge about things happening far off where he couldn’t even see.
“That’s why I want to go to the forest. Most of the sensations are coming from there, and I want to see what they correspond to.” He hemmed and hawed, then said, “It’s like being able to see, but not knowing what you’re seeing, so you have to touch it and taste it and smell it to figure out what it is.”
Sarah drove them to the edge of the woods. She struggled to keep up with Ethan as he trotted in and wove his way through bushes, fallen branches, and spiderwebs, purposefully in search of a destination.
They finally reached a clearing filled with ragweed and Ethan stopped short. His eyes went wide, and he smiled, then released a lusty laugh.
Sarah cringed. “What? What is it?”
“It’s the pollen.” He swept his hand in front of him. “Pollen is blowing all around this clearing, and the explorer bots are intermingled with it, collecting data and passing it through the network, eventually reaching my neuro-integrators.”
“What’s it feel like?”
Ethan opened his mouth and shook his head. “I… I…” He squinted and tilted his head. He turned toward Sarah, his eyes full of wonder, his smile changing to a feral snarl. “I sense us both,” he said. “I sense us from outside my body.” He laughed gleefully. “We’re like—have you ever seen those pin-art toys where you press something, maybe a hand, on them, and the pins form the shape of the object on the other side?” He moved closer as he explained, hands gesticulating in front of his face. “It’s kind of like that, only with something entirely different than pins.” He twirled away and swung out his arms. “And now I understand so much more of what I’m sensing—throughout the forest, around the BNS building—anywhere the nanos are, I sense these things.”
“Ethan.” Her voice hushed. “We need to have you looked at.” She cupped his elbow. “C’mon.”
He shook her off. “I’m fine.”
“I don’t think so, Ethan. Let’s go back.”
“We’ve got a lot more to test here, girly.” He waved at a butterfly.
He turned and snapped at her, shoving his face in hers. “Shut up and help me record.”
Sarah recoiled and dropped her notepad. “Okay,” she said, her voice cracking.
Ethan leaned forward to pick up her notepad and she winced. He stared at her.
“Oh.” He gently handed her the notepad. “You’re not frightened for me. You’re frightened of me.”