The Carnot Cycle by Jules Mills
Part One - Warming Up
"You didn't even leave me a note, or say goodbye!" Dr. Grace Wilson spat angrily.
"I left you the dog, didn't I?"
A swift hand went to strike the face of the tall ex-con but was caught at the wrist before impact.
"Don't ever hit me, Grace," Dana said steadily, without malice or threat, but as a warning.
Grace yanked her hand away and turned her back on the tall, lanky woman standing in the empty doctors' lounge. "Go away, Dana, I refuse to do this again."
"Why? Is it some sort of cosmic directive for you to wreak turmoil in my life and cause me pain?" The young doctor spun around, revealing tears in her eyes. It had been over two months since Dana had walked out on her in Chicago after a glorious evening of lovemaking, but Grace had not stopped aching from the abrupt separation by any degree.
Dana knew she was morally wrong and selfish for turning to her, to inflict more suffering, but she had not been able to think of anything else besides Grace for the past two months. She fought hard to hide the emotions that were choking her, and the longing.
"Believe me," she croaked, "I wouldn't have come if--if...." Grace's dark, piercing glare stopped her cold. It had been a mistake. "I'm so sorry," she whispered and left the lounge on the second floor of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center. Despite the fact that she was being eaten alive by a nano virus and Grace was the only person in the world she trusted to help her, she walked away with the knowledge that she would surely die in less than a week, and Grace would still hate her when she did.
Through watery eyes, Grace watched from the window as the lone figure crossed the street. It was January; ice covered the sidewalks, and aged gray snow was piled everywhere. The figure faltered on an icy patch of the street and then disappeared into a stand of trees blocking the view of the park.
Dana had not wanted to stop, but
the buzzing in her head started as soon as she reached the
elevator. She left the building on sheer willpower alone. Finding
the bench was instinct; the ground would be too cold, and she
would draw too much attention to herself in the form of a cop
or--worse--someone who wanted to help her. She lay down and fell
asleep. She awoke for a few minutes after the sun had set and
what little warmth it lent had blown away on the cold winter
wind. She struggled to plant her feet on the ground, but a
burning pain seared her side, forcing her body to buckle and her
vision to dim. Unable to sit up fully, she lay back down on the
bench and tried to breathe without causing any more pain.
Dr. Wilson left the hospital shortly after four-thirty p.m. She knew that the nano tech was lying on a bench across from her office, but she refused to let herself investigate further. She drove her vintage Jeep Wrangler on I-95 toward her small cottage nestled on the beach in Milford, positively adamant about not thinking about the visit. But true to the immutable law that anything one does not want to think about, one thinks about, she thought about it. "Okay, Grace," she told herself, "at least try to stay objective and emotionally distance yourself." She missed her exit. "Distance, ha! How do you distance yourself from someone you think about every free moment?"
"She looked so terrible," Grace said to herself as she caught the next exit and circled around to take the south ramp. The nano tech had not looked like that the day in Chicago when she had abruptly withdrawn emotionally and physically--poof! She had literally left Grace while she was in the shower. Thank heaven Grace had had her work to return to after that, a relentless, fast-paced environment, adrenaline always rushing through her small frame, people who needed her, making her feel worth the air she breathed. But Dana would creep into her dreams and haunt her, a dark and brooding spirit that turned evasive whenever Grace demanded answers.
Grace's mind was reeling with
observations and questions. Dana had been sheet-white and
sweating, and dark circles under her eyes meant she hadn't been
sleeping. Maybe she was torturing herself too. Had she realized
her mistake but felt too afraid to admit it? And where the hell
had she been the previous two months? "Fuck!" she swore
to herself. She passed her exit again and headed back to New
Haven. Grace had decided she had to say her piece and close this
relationship the right way, where she got the last word.
She left her Jeep idling at the curb and walked toward the bench in the middle of the park. A black-booted foot dangled over the edge of the bench. It surprised Grace that she was able to approach the woman without her awakening. She let her eyes roam over the long body.
Arms were wrapped around the waist, the skin was ghostly pale, and the body moved up and down to the quick, shallow breaths of someone who was ill. The leather jacket was unzipped, revealing a black woolen sweater. The doctor kneeled next to the reclining woman and gently nudged her shoulder. She was met with a groan but no movement. Grace touched the face and gasped at the heat and clamminess.
"Oh, Dana, what the hell is going on now?" Grace took a wrist and checked her vitals. The unconscious woman's pulse was racing. She placed the hand back to rest. Sitting back on her heels, she tried to decide how to get help. She could not carry Dana across to the hospital. She ran to her car, shut off the motor, and grabbed her keys, then sprinted across the street to the ER entrance. It took little effort to get two orderlies to follow her out with a gurney. No one refused to aid her, because, one, they all liked her so much, and, two, allowing an injured person to lie dying just outside their door was grounds for criminal prosecution.
"Damn!" Anthony exclaimed when he saw the figure on the bench. "What's wrong with her?"
"Infection, maybe pneumonia, I'm not sure. Let's get her up," Dr. Wilson directed. Anthony took the shoulders, Roger the feet, and together they lifted the sick woman. Dana groaned in her sleep, clutching her waist. Grace slipped in and lifted the middle section, aiding them in gently lowering her to the gurney. After taking a moment to strap her in, they headed for the ER.
Grace shrugged off her coat and opted for a lab coat while the orderlies were placing the patient in the examining room.
"Someone call in tonight and forget to tell me, love?" Sydney, the head nurse, asked her.
"No, I brought a sick friend in."
"Don't tell me you poisoned another date with your shrimp scampi."
"Nooo." Grace loaded her
hands with waterless cleanser. The Aussie was always reminding
her of that disastrous date. She was taller than Grace, with
dirty-blonde hair, and had no ass, having run it off years
earlier. She had been rough on Grace when she was a third-year
still when she was a resident. But since Grace had become Assistant and earned her respect, Sydney had turned into the doctor's right arm.
"I think she has pneumonia."
"Need any help?"
Grace nodded. "If you have time."
"Always for you, love. I want to meet your friend, too."
Now on the examination bed, Dana was still unconscious, lying on her side and curled up in the same position as she had been on the bench.
Nurse Sydney studied the woman for a long time while Grace removed the leather jacket. Sydney finally spoke. "Are you dating her?"
Grace looked at her nurse, brows pinched to form a question. "No, not really. Why?"
Sydney touched the tattooed right hand of the nano tech. "She's been here before."
"I know, Sydney," Grace snapped. "Do me a favor--stop staring and take her vitals."
The nurse never needed to be told twice by a doctor to do something. She hooked the patient up to a vital monitor. "Her BP is low, but her pulse is high."
"Dehydrated, probably from sweating." Grace put her stethoscope against Dana's sweater and listened to her racing heart, which was trying to compensate for the drop in blood volume.
"Temp is at 103 and climbing." A beep. "Now it's 103.6."
"Infection." Grace rolled her patient onto her back and removed the bulky sweater. Groans were the only protest. "I want a blood work-up. Would you call Onco for me?"
She was wearing the sweater Grace had bought her in Freeport months earlier. Tugging the white T-shirt up so that she could listen to the lungs, she discovered a white bandage held on by surgical tape covering the skinny abdomen. She peeled it off, revealing an inflamed, gaping wound. "Sydney!"
The nurse came to stand next to her favorite doctor to look at what had warranted a shout. "How long has she had that?" she asked as she slid on a pair of plastic gloves. She handed a pair to Grace.
"I...I...have no idea. She just showed up out of the blue today."
Sydney was examining the wound more closely with her fingers. "Looks like a puncture wound and a tear. I suspect by the inflammation..." she pressed lightly, eliciting a groan and some pus, "it punctured the parietal cavity but did not get the intestines--no blood."
Grace was staring, dazed.
"Come look, love." She nodded toward the wound.
Moving forward and slipping her gloves on, Grace began to examine the wound. The skin was red with infection, the tear a few inches long but clean of blood. She was able to pluck out three staples that were clinging to the puffy skin.
"She's already been to a doctor," Sydney remarked, seeing the surgical staples.
Grace sighed, dropping the staples into a plastic container. "No, she did this herself. I can't believe Dana would ever have been this careless with cleaning a wound." Sydney returned to her side with antiseptic. At the first touch of the swab, long fingers caught the nurse's wrist in a vise grip. Grace peeled Dana's hand away from the nurse.
"Dana, she's trying to help."
"I realize that." She struggled to open her eyes. "But that stuff will only...that hurts, you mean old witch."
"Shut up, you little creep."
Dana writhed in the lingering burn, eyes squeezed tight to keep the tears from falling. "You're as mean as you ever were, you old hag." Another swab and a hiss. "Stop, please."
"I really enjoyed that," Sydney said, tossing the cotton into the waste receptacle.
"I'll bet you did, you sadistic cow," Dana panted.
Sydney laughed and turned to Grace. "We go way back."
Dana concentrated on breathing to calm down. Sweat ran down her face from her hairline.
"It doesn't matter how much crap you pour in there, it isn't going to heal."
"What are you talking about?" Sydney asked. "You always heal, and keep coming back to show me how well."
"I have the Beta." Dana pushed herself up to a sitting position. "My cells degenerate at interphase, so I can't heal."
Both Sydney and Grace drifted backward. "Beta?" Grace asked, in disbelief. Sydney placed a hand on her friend's back for support. The young woman's face had drained of color. At that moment the phlebotomist walked into the examination area.
"Come back later, Dee," Sydney instructed the woman. The young tech rolled her eyes, spun on her heels, and left.
"There hasn't been a case of Beta for two years," Grace pointed out, "and it was isolated to the West Coast, L.A." Sheer panic was taking hold of Grace. If this woman had Beta, she wondered who else did. No one survived nano viruses, no one--not even Dana. Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Dana clutched at her side and swung her feet over the edge of the examination bed. Her head drooped from exhaustion.
"How long has it been?" Grace asked in a whisper.
"Two days," was the painful reply. "But I'm more afraid of infection from this nick."
"That isn't a nick."
"It would have been a clean puncture, but I moved when they hit me with the aerosol. I thought they were trying to mace me, but when this didn't heal, I knew it was Beta."
Sydney caught a quick glance from her friend which begged her for privacy. The nurse left, turning away quickly to hide a tear spotting her cheek.
"Does it hurt?"
"Would a local help?"
She nodded again. "Anything you've got at this point."
"Can I biopsy it, just to be sure?"
"Please, so I know."
A slow nod.
Grace reached to swab the wound with a huge Q-tip on a stick. "I don't think it punctured the intestine, so we should be safe from peritonitis."
"You don't need to take any from the injury. They're in most of my cells by now...skin, organs, take your pick, although I prefer skin."
Grace scraped a sample of skin from the back of Dana's arm and sealed it in a biopsy baggie. "We should seal the wound."
"The local first."
Grace smiled her doctor smile of sympathy, then buzzed for Sydney. While the nurse made her way to the examination room, Grace helped Dana onto her back and undid her jeans, lowering them far enough down her hip so that they would not contaminate the wound. After explaining the procedure, she and Sydney set to work. Grace inserted the needle deep into the wound, removed it, and inserted it a few more times, emptying the syringe into her skin, while Sydney went to the organ cooler for a patch of skin.
"I'll have a Sam Adams while you're up," Dana joked.
The nurse ignored the obnoxious ex-con. "What's her blood type?"
"Suggestions on size?"
"Large!" Dana demanded.
"Not the size of your mouth."
When the local had numbed the patient enough, Sydney swabbed the wound with a Merthiolate compound that painted the skin orange. Alternating between a vacuum and cotton swabs, she removed all the pus and infection she could.
"That patch won't take," Dana remarked as Grace dripped liquid from a tube onto the patch of skin and then laid the sticky mess across the wound. It sealed like Super Glue. Dana watched in wonder. "I've never seen anything like that before."
"It's been out a few years, Dana. If you went to the doctor once in a while for your injuries instead of stapling them, you'd have some experience with it."
"What is it?"
"Live epidermal and fibrous adipose cells in a plasma medium. Even if you can't reproduce cells, it'll work its way between the cells like a web as it grows, and it'll anchor itself. Now relax a few minutes while it sets."
She sent Sydney up to the nano lab with a note attached to the skin biopsy.
"What else can I do for you, Dana?"
Dana looked up at her only lover. "Nothing." A crooked smile tugged at her mouth. "I wanted to say goodbye is all. I didn't expect anything else. And to apologize for hurting you." She looked away from the lovely face. "For what it's worth, I've thought about you every second since then. I know I was a jerk."
"You hurt me."
Sad blue eyes darted to Grace's face. "I know."
"Insecurity, I guess. I knew that when we returned, you would discover I didn't fit in here with you. I don't even have a high school diploma, for God's sake, or a job, and I don't suppose many of your coworkers run around with ex-con murderers."
"So you dumped me first, thinking I would reject you?"
A sad laugh. "I couldn't have been more miserable if you had."
Grace stepped closer and lightly traced a pale, hot cheek. Dana had to touch her back and reciprocated by sliding her hand into the soft, blonde hair. Suddenly, desperate mouths met in a passionate kiss, lips sliding against each other, sobs of ache coming from Grace. Soon the sobs overtook the kiss, and all the two could do was lean against each other.
"Why didn't you come back sooner?"
"I knew you hated me, that I'd blown it."
Grace sniffled and buried her head in the broad shoulder. A little sweet talk and one look into those pools of blue, and she would have forgiven her. The truth--an explanation--was all she would have needed.
"Grace, would you take me home with you? I want to see Rip."
"Are you up to it? I mean maybe we should check you in here."
"I hate hospitals. Ended up here more than once, and always ended up with that Broom Hilda poking me with needles. Last time it was because I was beaten to a pulp, broke both my hands fighting off the guards during a riot."
"The good old days."
No, just the only old days I have, she thought sadly. "See, I'm already feeling sorry for myself because of this place." She sat up, wincing, then slowly slipped off the bed. Using Grace for support, she walked out of the exam room.
"Wait here," Grace instructed, propping Dana against the wall while she ran around the corner to grab her coat and keys. Sydney came by and helped Dana with her jacket.
"At least now I know where my new surgi-gun disappeared to, don't I?" the blonde nurse commented.
"I have no idea what you're talkin' 'bout," replied with a wicked grin. Grace returned and allowed Dana to use her as a crutch as they left the hospital.
As the sliders parted for the
couple, Nurse Sydney wondered how Inmate 01432887 had ended up in
the company of her fair-haired young doctor.
"You should sleep," Grace urged.
"I told you on the way here, I don't want to waste time sleeping. Besides, these things are going to eat me at the same rate whether I'm resting or running a marathon. My immune system has no impact." She sat down on the couch. "It's designed to destroy any white blood cells that attack." She grimaced from the pain as she sat back against the cushion. Grace went to the back door of the kitchen and whistled. Dana nostalgically viewed the house, trying to imprint every detail in her mind even if the memories would exist for only a few more days.
As soon as Rip rounded the corner into the living room she froze, staring at Dana, and growled fiercely with bared teeth. Dana shifted nervously, and the black dog began to bark a warning.
Grace grabbed the dog's harness and pulled her outside, closing the door behind her. "She's still angry with you."
"No, it's the nano. Some hounds pick up the electronic noise reverberations."
Grace brought Dana a bottle of water. "Are you sure it's the Beta virus and not Alpha?" she asked hopefully.
"Alpha has a turn-off switch; Beta doesn't."
"I know, Dana. That's why I asked."
"And Alpha doesn't freak dogs out." She drained her bottle in a long swig, then wiped her mouth with her hand. She bounced the empty plastic container against her palm. Grace slipped down between her legs and wrapped her arms around Dana's hips, her cheek resting on a long thigh. They sat like that for a long time, not speaking.
"What are you thinking about, Chipmunk?" Dana asked, a hand stroking the long, golden-red locks. Grace smiled at being called Chipmunk in such an endearing way.
"I was wondering what you'd been doing the past few months."
"Walking. It's a long way from Chicago to New Haven."
She lifted her head up. "You walked here?"
"I needed time to think."
"How long have you been back?"
"That's when you contracted the Beta. Were they waiting for you?"
"First, you don't contract a Beta virus; it's inflicted upon you. And second, they were waiting on my boat." She eyed the kneeling doctor. "How much do you know about nano viruses, Grace?"
"Not much. Nobody knows much because it kills so...."
"It kills quickly. You can say it."
"I understand chip technology better than the viruses, and you never spoke about your nano work."
"I should have talked to you more." Dana mentally slapped herself.
"Don't do that!"
"Talk about yourself like it's too late."
Dana smiled sweetly and brushed a few chaotic strands of hair from Grace's face. She lost herself in her friend's beauty and the softness of her hair. "Tell me now," Grace pleaded, pulling Dana out of her admiration. "Tell me about Beta."
"Take a bath with me first," the brunette asked. Grace blushed, understanding where Dana's mind had been for those silent moments. "I've always wanted to wash your back."
Grace led her to the bath to fulfill her wish. Dana eased herself into the hot water, wincing at the sting of little waves on the wound, despite the analgesic. She leaned her warm skin against the cool tile, relishing the sensation. Grace lowered herself in front of her, causing the water to rise in the small tub to within a half-inch of the top. She reached up with her toes and turned the water off. Dana lifted her calf to the edge of the tub to give her lover more room.
Grace glanced back with a shy look, catching a crooked half-grin float across Dana's face. It caused her belly to knot in that warmly good way. She let her fingers run from wet, aristocratic toes, along the shin, across a round knee, and up that strong, endless thigh. "How's the wound?"
"What wound?" A whisper that caused a chill. "Can I have the soap?" Grace felt hot breath on her ear, and her belly tightened. She picked up the Safeguard and handed it over her shoulder. Fingers touched in passing. Grace waited for more, and when it did not come, she turned to see what the holdup was.
"If I weren't sick, would you be so...um...so...."
"Willing to forgive me?"
"Would you even be here if you weren't sick?"
"Yes. I thought about you all
Grace smiled to herself. "I would have made you work at it a lot harder. Flowers, dinner, then seduction." She kissed the knee.
"So it would have taken maybe a pizza and a couple of daisies?"
Grace laughed. She could have skipped the pizza, the flowers. The dynamic smile and a "sorry" would have been enough, was enough. She leaned back to feel the firm breasts against her skin.
"Forget my back," she said huskily, grabbing the hand with the soap and running it down her chest to her flat stomach. Dana's free hand cupped a round breast, and she slid the length of her middle and index fingers along a nipple. Her lips took an earlobe and she sucked as she stroked the belly with the soap, Grace's hand moving with hers. Lower and lower it moved, Grace arching into her hands. Dana dropped her mouth to her neck, then her shoulder.
"Oh, God," Grace moaned, reacting to the hard suction on her neck. Plunk! went the soap. Together their fingers slid even lower. Dana groaned at the feel of the soft curls, then the soft skin. Grace pressed her feet against the tiled wall, allowing her to lift her hips and move in the most natural of ways. "Oh, yeah, just a couple more times around," she whispered deliriously.
Dana smiled into her hair, breathing in the fragrance of flowers. She dropped her other hand into the action. It did only take a couple more times around for Grace to release, with deep, guttural moans of pleasure, her breath catching in her throat. If Dana had not been so tired, she would have continued, but the fact was that all the work made her hurt, and it took a lot longer than she remembered for Grace to reach her destination.
"You're so beautiful when you release," Dana whispered into the ear of her reclining, spent lover. Grace hummed contentedly, hands stroking the muscular legs that surrounded her.
"And you're awfully spry for someone I couldn't wake in the park earlier."
"I hadn't slept for two days, and the ingestion took a lot out of me."
"Ingestion?" she asked dreamily.
Dana had a hard time remembering
that other people did not understand the nanoverse the way she
did. Her knowledge was not common to the real world, even the
smartest of them, which Grace was.
"Ingestion is how the little buggers get into the cells and replicate."
"That's still pretty vague."
"The virus is delivered in a fatty capsule to be digested in the small intestine when the aerosol is ingested through the mouth."
"Why not the stomach?"
"Fats are absorbed in the small intestine as goblet cells after being emulsified. The masters use their fatty coat to hitch a ride in the goblets to be absorbed, and end up in the bloodstream, and then end up everywhere."
"I know the general physiology, Doc, but why the fatty shell?"
"The masters use the fatty sheath to slip through the lipid membranes of their targets."
"You keep referring to 'masters.'"
"We call the infiltration machines that create the slaves the masters."
"The masters set up shop by creating the slaves, literally building them from the carbohydrates that are available in the cells and using the cellular adenosine triphosphates as fuel. They use up a lot of the ATP to complete replication work. Once a master has finished putting the last carbon on the slave, its program cycle goes into shutdown. It's all computer-programmed on nano processors with small sensory devices that pick up chemical signals and analyze them.
"For instance, the master will begin its cycle as soon as it's taken up into a vacuole and a certain lysome begins to break down the lipase molecule it's attached to. That takes about twenty-four hours, but once the masters are shut down, the virus can't spread. The slave, unlike its master, doesn't have the fatty carrier to get it past the cell membrane, so it never leaves the cell."
"I don't get how these little machines can build more machines."
"They're carbon-based, pyramidal structures we called 'diamonoid,' for lack of a better word. The master links the carbon molecules it finds in the cell together in specific orders to create a pre-programmed mechanical molecule with specific functions, one of which is mobility. The mobility is usually necessary for its function, such as in the slave's case."
"Which is?" She had found the soap and was washing her lover's feet and legs.
"It attacks and decimates the DNA, destroying all protein synthesis and cellular life. Specialized cells that don't divide, like nerve cells, die a little more slowly, because the slave uses the breakdown of the nuclear envelope as its door to the DNA; otherwise, it can't get in to attack. It's all triggered by chemical signals, like I said. Cells that divide more rapidly die more rapidly, like the skin cells and the brush border cells of the kidneys. I'll die of kidney failure or complications of acidosis first."
"That's not true, because for some reason the masters bypass the brush borders of the small intestine, where they're initially ingested. Usually the acidosis kills those brush borders as a secondary effect. We should get out. My pelvis is falling asleep."
"Ooooh, don't want that," Grace stated as she stood and offered her hand to her nano tech. Using her strong back and shoulders, she pulled Dana to her feet. Standing toe to toe in the soapy water, Grace made an offer Dana could not refuse. "Need help waking it up?"
"Only if we can lie down." Dana tried not to appear as tired as she felt.
"Lucky for you, I have a bed."
"I do feel lucky,
Grace," she said seriously. "And if I died right now, I
would die happy."
November 1998 by Jules Mills