Stephen James Price
The July Editor's Pick Story is by Stephen James Price
Please feel free to email Stephen at: firstname.lastname@example.org
ADVERSE SIDE EFFECTS
by Stephen James Price
The steady rhythmic tone of the heart-monitor sped up for an instant before abruptly dropping off. The incessant beeping that replaced it made the three men in long, white lab coats turn toward the monitor.
“He’s coding,” Dr. Lewis Walters yelled.
Dr. Charlie Dalton started chest compressions.
“Charge the Defibrillator to two-hundred while I intubate him,” Lewis told Dr. Robert Richardson.
Robert stared at the man on the operating table while Lewis got the kit out of the cabinet. Lewis spun around, only to find Robert still standing in the middle of the floor.
“Damn it, Robert,” Lewis said as he almost crashed into him. “Charge the defibrillator and get me an amp of Epi. Randall’s dying!”
Robert snapped out of his trance and rushed to the opposite end of the row of cabinets Lewis had just come from. He started fiddling with the buttons and dials on the piece of equipment next to the row of cabinets.
The three-man team worked on Dr. Randall Samuels for twenty minutes, shocking him four times, but they were unable to get a rhythm from his heart.
“It’s no use. Call it,” Lewis told Charlie.
“Crack his chest.” Robert’s voice sounded weak and frail. “We can’t give up.”
“You know we’re not set up for that type of surgery, Robert.” Charlie couldn’t look into Robert’s eyes. “This was supposed to be a simple injection. No one thought …” His voice trailed off.
Robert covered his face with both hands. “We killed him. My God, we killed Randall.” His shoulders slumped forward and his hands, still covering his face, started to shake.
The only sound in the room was the morose tone of the heart monitor as it signaled death. After several seconds, Lewis walked over and switched it off.
Silence enveloped the room, almost deafening in its totality. It was finally broken when Charlie spoke. “We didn’t kill him. People die on the operating table every day.”
“Yes, but people don’t get injected with nanobots everyday, do they? The nanobots killed him. I know they killed him, and you know it, too. He was fine before we injected them into his IV. One second he was lucid and talking and the next he was gone.”
“I wouldn’t call him ‘fine’. Lewis said, thinking about how the Leukemia had taken its toll on the eighty-year old man.
“He knew the risks, Robert,” Charlie added. “We all did.”
“Damn it. That doesn’t make it any better. We don’t have approval for human trials yet. That fact alone could cause us all to lose our licenses … and maybe much worse.”
“What are you saying?” Charlie’s voice was tense and threatening.
“Prison,” Robert said.
“What would putting three sixty-some-odd-year-old men in prison accomplish?” Charlie sounded angry now.
Lewis needed something to diffuse the situation and calm them both down. “I still don’t understand what happened, Robert. There weren’t any variations between the tests on the animals and this one.” Robert looked down at the ground and didn’t respond so Lewis asked, “What was different, Robert?”
“I used more this time,” Robert said softly.
“How many more?” Charlie asked.
“Randall suggested that I use five-billion units to offset the mass difference between him and the dog.”
“That makes sense, Charlie.” Lewis said. “He wanted to keep the ratio the same. I’d have done the same thing.” Lewis thought about the previous tests. The nanobots had worked in the mice and the rabbits pretty quickly, but they took a lot more time to cure the dog. Everyone had speculated that it was because the dog was so much larger.
The look of trepidation on Robert’s face faded when Lewis voiced his support. Charlie nodded his head slightly, signaling Lewis that he was on the right track.
“Do you think it had anything to do with the size difference?”
“Randall’s weight was just over five times that of the dog so I used five times the amount of nanobots in the injection.” Robert the microbiologist took over for Robert the self-proclaimed murderer—at least temporarily. “We thought the replication timeframe would be about the same for Randall. It’s been consistent in the animals. Our calculations said that they should have started working on his bone marrow within two hours.”
“Then what went wrong? How did they end up … what went wrong?” Charlie was the group’s cynic disguised as their mechanical engineer. The nanobots were based on his original design and he was the only member of the group whose title “doctor” did not involve at least one advanced medical degree.
“I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t do what they were programmed to do.” Robert looked down at the body on the table and his voice became barely audible. “Randall is the only one of us who would have been able to answer that one … and he’s—”
“We need to find out what happened,” Lewis interrupted as he took Robert by the arm and led him out of the operating room and away from the distraction of their dead friend and team leader. Charlie walked out behind them.
As they started walking down the hallway, Lewis turned to Charlie and said, “We need to find out exactly what the nanobots did.”
“An autopsy?” Robert’s voice started to crack. Lewis didn’t answer so Robert persisted. “You want us to perform an autopsy on our friend?”
“I don’t see where we have a choice. If they didn’t destroy his abnormal blood cells and replicate his bone marrow like they were programmed to do, we need to know what they did and why.”
“Okay, Lewis. What can we do?” Charlie cut in.
“Robert, do you have any more of the nanobots that … from that lot?”
“I used less than half of what we had made up. There’s still eight-billion units upstairs.”
“Do we have any more test animals with myeloid leukemia?”
“We’ve got several mice and a couple of rabbits.”
“I need you and Charlie to get one of the rabbits and inject it with some of those same nanobots. Draw a blood sample every ten minutes. We need to prove that this batch works on the rabbit before we can try to figure out why it didn’t work on Randall.”
The mention of Randall’s name brought that look back to Robert’s face.
“Listen, he was my friend, too. I’m the one who’s going to have to tell his family.” Lewis paused to let that sink in. “You know he’d want us to finish this. He was so certain that it would work, that he volunteered himself to be our first human trial.”
“It’s just so hard seeing him lie there and knowing that I had a hand in it.” Robert voice sounded less stressed, almost defeated.
“I understand how you’re feeling. I just don’t want to let the last twenty years of his life--of our lives—be for nothing. When we get these things working properly, I think we should name them after him.”
“The Randall Samuels Leukemia vaccine,” Robert said with renewed conviction.
“I’m going to stay here and study the equipment readouts to see if I can find out what happened and in what stages. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t see what was going on with his heart or brainwaves.”
Charlie and Robert walked toward the door. Charlie lagged behind a little and whispered, “Don’t start the autopsy until we get back.”
Lewis nodded his head.
When they were gone, he went to the large desk in the corner of the room and started typing commands into the computer system. Within seconds, the printer came to life and started to spew out sheets of paper. Lewis started sifting through the black-and-white summation of the last ten minutes of Dr. Randall Samuels’ life.
The results were clear; Randall had died of heart failure.
Lewis picked up the phone and dialed the three-digit extension of the lab on the second floor.
“Nanorobotics lab. Dr. Dalton speaking.” Charlie’s voice sounded almost too pleasant considering the morning they had all had.
“Charlie, Randall died of heart failure. The charts show everything normal until the very end. His heart just shut down.”
“Okay, I’ll let Robert know.” He lowered his voice and said. “Will you get us a blood sample? On second thought, you’d better get two. Take one directly from his heart.”
“I’ll bring them right up.” Lewis paused for a second. “How’s Robert doing?”
Charlie’s voice was still very low. “I think he’ll be all right. He’s really focused on this now. He’s talking about Robert, but not like before.”
“That’s good news, Charlie. Keep him that way.”
Lewis hung up the telephone and looked up at the row of video monitors mounted on the wall above the desk.
“What the—” He dropped the stack of papers he was holding and stared at the monitor labeled “SURGICAL 2”.
The operating table—the final resting place of Dr. Randall Samuels—was empty.
Movement in the upper-left corner of the monitor caught his eye. As he stared at it, a shadowy silhouette became visible. Randall was standing against the back wall of the small operating suite.
Randall suddenly lurched forward into the light. His face was expressionless as his body advanced across the room in slow, jerky movements. He moved out of sight of the video camera, but returned to his previous position in less than a minute.
Lewis watched the video monitor like he was watching an old horror movie on television. All he was missing was a big bag of microwave popcorn. That and the knowledge that he could turn off the TV and life would return to normal. There was no turning off what he was seeing now, and it was quickly becoming clear that life would never be normal again.
Lewis had been glued to the monitor for close to twenty minutes before it occurred to him to turn on the recording equipment. History was being made and a video record of the events to follow could prove beneficial.
Lewis reached out to start the recording and a small spark of static electricity jumped between his finger and the switch.
“Damn it!” he said aloud as he stared at his finger. Suddenly, his eyes widened and he smiled. “That’s it,” he exclaimed.
A change on the monitor caught his attention. Randall was standing directly in front of the camera. Lewis leaned closer to the monitor in an attempt to get a better look at Randall’s face. He was hoping for confusion, but would have settled for sadness, happiness, anger, or anything else that shouted humanity. Even a modicum of emotion would have meant some level of brain activity. Instead, Randall just stared blankly ahead. Lewis leaned even closer, his face just inches away from the small black and white monitor.
He fell completely off the stool when the phone rang.
He managed to climb to his feet and answer the phone before the third ring.
“Lewis, it’s Robert. I think we’ve figured out why they’re not working. We think—”
“It’s the electrical current in the body,” Lewis interrupted.
“Well, yes. How did you know?” Robert sounded a little annoyed that he hadn’t been able to deliver the breakthrough news.
“Because they’re working on Randall right now.”
“What did you say?” Robert’s voice was suddenly loud and high pitched.
“I said they’re working on Randall right now.”
“How do you know that? Did you start the autopsy?”
“I’m not sure he’d like that too much.”
“Lewis, what on earth are you talking about?”
“He’s alive.” Lewis wasn’t sure if that statement was one hundred percent true, but he didn’t want to continue this conversation over an open phone line. “You and Charlie need to get back down here. You’ll see what I’m talking about.” He hung up the phone without waiting for a reply.
He continued to watch Randall’s blank stare through the grainy video monitor. They were talking rapidly as the door opened.
“Lewis, what’s this about the nanobots working on him?” Charlie asked excitedly.
“Ask him yourself,” Lewis said, pointing to the video monitor hanging above the desk.
Charlie stared at the screen in disbelief. “But he was dead. He was down for over twenty minutes when we called it.”
“That’s why I theorized that it was the electricity in the body,” Lewis told them. “I think the nanobots considered the electrical current a threat. They attacked his heart to stop it. Once he died, the electrical current ceased and your tiny little inventions were able to replicate enough to start working on him.”
“That makes sense,” Charlie said. “Robert came to the same conclusion. They worked well in the rabbits but were much slower in the dog. The more mass, the more electrical current.”
“We put some of the basic nanobots into a blood sample and applied the equivalent of the current that would be found in a human body. The nanobots went wild. They started attacking the metal electrode on a molecular level. They destroyed over half of it while I watched them under the microscope. Once I shut down the current, they began replicating.” Robert paused to let Lewis digest this information.
Lewis saw the expression on Robert’s face and understood that he had missed something; something Robert thought was very important. “What am I not seeing?”
“They were the basic ones. They weren’t programmed to replicate.”
“You think the electricity altered them? That’s impossible.” Lewis looked skeptical.
“It gets better,” Robert told him. “We put the ones that we ran the current through into a rabbit with myeloid leukemia. We also put them into a mouse that had a thyroid tumor. It cured them both within minutes.”
“Why didn’t they attack the animal’s hearts to try to shut down the electrical current they generated? Especially the dog? He was much bigger.”
“I don’t know. I’m guessing it has something to do with the amount of current.”
“We did it three times, Lewis,” Charlie said. “We had the same results each time.”
“They may even act differently if we subject them to a higher amount of electricity. We haven’t had time to alter the current yet.”
“How did they know what to do without Randall’s bioprogramming?”
“I think they learned. I mean … I guess they took the information from the cells on what was right and what was wrong.” Robert looked a little confused as he thought about the question.
“If they can learn, the possibilities are endless.” Lewis’ voice sounded as far way as his mind was.
“They probably restarted Randall’s heart after the threat was over,” Robert added.
“Why is he acting like that?” Lewis asked as he looked at the monitor again.
“I’d bet he’s got brain damage,” Charlie said.
“That’s what I’m thinking, too,” Robert replied. “He was down for a long time. Lack of oxygen to the brain for that prolonged period would explain the way he’s acting.”
“If they started working again, maybe they’ll fix whatever damage occurred.” Charlie sounded hopeful.
“There’s only one way to tell.” Lewis turned to Robert. “We could get a security team down here to get him sedated, but I think we should probably keep this latest development to ourselves.”
The two men each agreed.
They walked through the door marked “SURGICAL WARD” and stopped in front of room number two.
Charlie slowly opened the door and called out “Randall, can you hear me?”
Randall just kept staring at the wall. He showed no signs of even hearing the question.
“Randall, it’s Charlie. Can you hear me?” Charlie’s voice was loud but shaky.
After a full minute of watching him, the three men walked into the room. Lewis went directly to Randall and stood beside him as his partners hovered near the open door. Lewis gently took Randall’s arm and turned him around. He led him to the operating table and managed to get him to sit down on it. A few more tugs and pushes and Randall was lying on the table.
“Let’s get him strapped down,” Lewis told them. “I don’t want him getting up and walking out of here.”
Charlie and Robert strapped him to the table while Lewis reconnected the monitoring equipment behind the table.
“Did you two notice anything different about Randall?” Lewis asked as he repasted the EEG electrodes to Randall’s forehead.
“Like what?” Charlie asked.
“I’ve known him for almost twenty years and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him with a full head of hair.” Lewis brushed the newly grown hair back to position the final electrode.
“Incredible. The nanobots stimulated his hair growth.” Robert pulled several of them out by their roots. “I need to check these out. I want to get the two blood samples and these hair samples under the electron microscope in the lab.”
Charlie had been surveying the monitoring equipment. He turned toward his colleagues and said. “His heart rate and breathing are stronger than they were this morning but his brainwaves are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Check this out.”
Lewis and Robert stepped forward to see what Charlie was pointing at.
“He’s going from almost total inactivity to these high spikes. Look, now he’s registering as brain dead.” He paused until the monitor started beeping wildly. “And now it looks like he’s disproving Einstein’s theories on black holes.”
Lewis looked down at Randall and said, “His eyes are fixed and dilated. He shouldn’t even be breathing without a respirator. I can’t explain how he was able to get up and walk.”
“The nanobots must be accessing some parts of his brain and wasn’t damaged beyond repair. Maybe they can cure him.” Robert looked hopeful.
“This hair is full of nanobots,” Robert said as he looked up from the electron microscope. “Actually, the majority of the cells making it up are nanobots acting like cells.”
“They’re attaching themselves to the cells?” Charlie asked. “Like a symbiotic relationship?”
“No. I’m saying they are the cells. They’re doing everything the normal cell would do. The nanobots making up the hair are different than those of the root. They’ve almost completely replaced the amino acids.” Robert put his glasses back on and took a deep breath. “Then it gets … weird.”
Charlie and Lewis both stopped what they were doing and looked at him as he spoke. “The nanobots are replicating much faster than we’ve seen in the past. They split three or four times before they attach themselves to a healthy cell and replicate it as they absorb it. The new nanobots do the same thing. They seem to be feeding off from the cells. In a few hours I think this hair will be nothing but nanobots.”
“Both blood samples are full of them, too” Charlie told them. “I didn’t check to see how they were functioning. I’ll do that now.”
“Are you thinking that the nanobots will replace all of Randall’s cells?” Lewis asked. “He’ll be some sort of hybrid robot?”
“More like a zombie robot.” Robert looked at the reactions of the other two men and said, “I’m sorry I said that. Zombie was the first word that came to mind.” He took his glasses off again and rubbed his eyes. “I’m not trying to disrespect Randall in any way, but he was reanimated from death and now it appears that the nanobots are completely taking over.”
“Thanks, Robert,” Charlie said sarcastically. “Now I can’t stop picturing him as some killer zombie robot.”
“It won’t get to that. If the nanobots replace all of his cells, they’ll shut down shortly after that.”
“Why do you say that?” Charlie asked. The tone of his voice still said confrontation.
“Because they’ll starve to death,” Robert said. “They’re feeding on his cells now. Once they run out of human cells, there will be no place for them to get their energy.”
“So the zombie part is real? He’ll need and outside source of cells … of blood and tissue to stay alive?”
“He’s brain dead, Charlie. It might be different if he was alive when the nanobots started changing him, but …” Robert’s voice just trailed off.
“Let’s change the subject, shall we?” Lewis tried once again to diffuse things. When Charlie looked back down at the microscope, Lewis said, “I need a sample of his cerebrospinal fluid. We’ll need to perform a lumbar puncture. I also have the suspicion that he can’t feel pain. I doubt the nanobots are transmitting any negative signals to the brain. I’d like to conduct a few pain threshold tests to confirm this.”
“I’ll go back down with you,” Robert said. “I’d like to get a look at the newest EEG readouts. We’ve been up here for more than two hours. There’s bound to be some progress with the repairs. They’re working pretty quickly up here.”
“We’ll all go.” Charlie said. “My eyes could use a break.”
“Draw some more blood, and I’ll get a tissue sample,” Lewis told Robert. “Then we can start the lumbar.”
When the vial was full, Robert withdrew the needle. He suddenly gasped loudly.
“The puncture mark from the needle just closed. The wound healed instantly.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Get your tissue sample and see if it happens again.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Lewis said as he took a scalpel from the metal tray on the counter. He lifted Randall’s right hand and sliced off the tip of his index finger. Within seconds, the fingertip grew back.
“Get Charlie in here.” Lewis’s voice sounded very excited. “This is incredible.”
As Robert went back to the observation room where Charlie was printing out the EEG report, Lewis used the scalpel to cut a long incision along the top of Randall’s leg. The wound began to heal within seconds. Although there was nothing left of the incision but a thin pink line that was already fading, Lewis noticed the blood on the scalpel. Without thinking, he touched the blood with his fingertip, wincing as the thin steel blade of the scalpel sliced into his flesh.
“Smooth move,” he said aloud as he stuck his bloody finger into his mouth. “A stupid, first-year-intern mistake.”
“Show me,” Charlie said as he and Robert hurried into the room.
Lewis pulled his finger out of his mouth and moved the scalpel toward Randall’s leg again.
“Lewis, stop. You’re bleeding.” Robert rushed forward and grabbed his arm.
“It’s just a nick, Robert. I’ll live.”
“You don’t understand. If you get any of his blood into your cut, his renegade nanobots could get into system. They would probably act the same way on you.”
Lewis jerked his hand back.
“There’s no telling how they’d react. Your brain isn’t deprived of oxygen. You’d be cognizant as they devoured your cells and replaced them.”
“Well, I’m certainly not volunteering for that,” Lewis said. He didn’t mention the blood that had been on the scalpel but he was thinking about it—a lot.
“I don’t think we need to do the lumbar, do you?” Robert asked Lewis. “It’s pretty apparent that the nanobots have taken over.”
“I agree. I want to get the new blood and tissue samples under the microscope and then we should monitor his EEG. Robert, do you think you can compare this blood sample with the last one and determine how long it will take before the nanobots will replace all of his cells?”
“I’ll give it a shot, but remember, anything would be a best guess only. They’ve proven to be nothing if not unpredictable.”
“I also want you to check the rabbit and mouse that you injected today. Maybe we should inject another one with some of Randall’s blood to see if the nanobots act any differently.”
“I’ll do that now,” Charlie said. “The difference in electrical current during their reprogramming phase may make a huge difference.”
“I hope so,” Lewis mumbled under his breath.
“His fingertip is almost completely made up of the replicated nanobot cells,” Lewis informed them. He looked ominously at his own fingertip. He could no longer see where the cut had been; it had completely healed. “How are the test animals?” he asked.
“The two original ones are still doing fine. The nanobots haven’t replaced any of their normal cells. It’s been over an hour. Let me check on the two new ones.” Charlie walked to the back of the room where the two white mice that had been injected with Randall’s blood were caged.
“Oh God, Lewis ... Robert ... You two aren’t going to believe this!” Charlie shrieked.
The two men rushed to the back of the room and gasped. Both mice were covered in blood. There wasn’t a single part of their once white fur that wasn’t bright red. One of them was quite obviously dead. It had been eviscerated. The other mouse was eating what remained of the dead one’s innards.
While Charlie and Robert stood gaping at the gruesome scene in front of them, Lewis stepped forward, jabbed a needle into the live mouse through the small bars of the cage and drew out some of its blood. It kept eating and didn’t even flinch.
Handing the needle to Robert, Lewis said, “Check its blood. I’ll bet it’s completely made up of the replicated nanobot cells now. I think your zombie-robot hypothesis just became fact.”
Lewis and Charlie kept watching the mouse as Robert went back to the front to check the blood sample under the microscope. By the time Robert had his answer, the mouse was licking all of the blood from its own fur. The other mouse was completely gone, bones and all.
“You were right, Lewis,” Robert said as he returned to his place in front of the cage. “The blood is entirely made up of nanobots. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.”
“It took less than an hour,” Lewis said absently as the once-again white mouse turned and looked at them through the bars of the cage.
The three men watched the mouse watching them. Its small, black eyes never blinked as it stared at them. Without warning, it hurled itself against the front of the cage and screeched making them jump backwards. It continued its assault on the medal bars, never taking its eyes off from them. Incredibly, the cage moved about a half inch forward each time the mouse’s small body slammed against the bars.
The three men were frozen in terror as they listened to the furious screams of the tiny rodent and watched the cage getting closer and closer to the edge of the table. When the front of the cage slid off the table, it began to teeter ominously on the edge. Robert stepped forward to catch it but was a little too late. The cage fell to the floor with a loud bang.
The mouse immediately squeezed out of the mangled bars and scurried up the inside of Robert’s pant leg.
“It’s biting me!” Robert shouted as he started to beat his crotch with both hands. He dropped to his knees and began to scream as a small red stain appeared and began to spread with horrific speed on the front of his light-blue surgical scrub pants.
Robert continued to shriek as he tore his pants open and fumbled inside of them. Charlie rushed to Robert’s side and grabbed at the blood-covered rodent as it ran out of the top of Robert’s waistband. He missed it several times as it scampered up Robert’s torso. Charlie finally caught it when it stopped long enough to bite through the soft tissue of Robert’s throat. Within seconds, Charlie was screaming, too.
As Lewis watched the carnage unfold, he suddenly felt very hungry.
Stephen James Price was born and raised in New York, but has lived in the deep-south (or within a two hour drive of it) for more than half of his life. Although he claims to be northern by birth and southern by choice, he has never said “ya’ll” and even finds it difficult to write.
He currently lives in central Arkansas in a haunted house on “The Hill,” the Price family compound.
He is an author, editor, ghostwriter and book designer. His company, Book Looks Design, expertly designs the interiors and covers of print and eBooks and converts print books into digital format through scanning and OCR conversion.
His hobbies include reading, writing, photography and telling “Grandpa’s Lies.”