“Yes, I can answer that,” Kaira said.
She felt a thin layer of sweat forming along her temples. She took a breath and forced herself to pause long enough to send a mental command through the processing patch just below her throat. The four investors sitting before her probably thought she was composing her thoughts. But she was actually commanding the nanoparticles on her face to shimmer and give her that classic “dewy glow” while other particles swept any excess sweat back through her hairline.
Or so she hoped. She was still in the process of calibrating and training the mental commands program.
“So, the particles are nanoscopic,” she said. “When they’re inactive, they’re invisible. Unlike conventional makeup, they won’t wash off with water, but they will be cleaned. So you can keep them on and not worry about bacterial growth. The cosmetic layer is so thin that it can cover individual strands of hair. That’s how I’m able to do something like this.”
Kaira cleared her throat and turned her face to the right, so that the investors could see more of her hair. “Loose curls from chin level down.”
She wasn’t looking at any of the investors. So she didn’t see their reactions. She just heard them. There was a quiet, “okay.” And a couple of “ah’s.”
Her straight shoulder-length hair had just developed curls. “Loose curls ear level down,” she said. And her hair responded. She checked the compact she’d brought into the room with her. Her hair now hung in loose curls below the crown of her head.
She turned her head forward again. One of the investors gave her a nod of respect. But their gazes were still largely steely.
“Change color. Dark turquoise,” she said.
This time she got a few raised brows. And one smile, which she returned.
Kaira explained how it worked. Her nanoparticles were simple mechanisms that responded to commands transmitted from a voice-activated processing patch attached to her skin, just below her throat. She called them nanoparticle mechanisms or NPMS. They were simple, but not identical. The ones that coated her hair were designed to expand and contract, turn opaque, and reflect light of certain wavelengths. But the ones coating her face were designed to remain translucent, to cluster in different concentrations so as to conceal when needed, and to turn sheer when wanted.
They didn’t like the name she’d come up with for the product, Intelligent Nanocosmetics, or INC.
So she went into future plans.
A nanoparticle perfume that would make a person smell fresh as a daisy even after a sixteen-hour flight.
A nanoparticle fabric from which one could design a generic outfit that could change patterns and textures, and could stretch to various layers up to a point. She would even include temperature regulation and water resistance in future iterations.
When she opened the floor to a Q and A, the investors had plenty of Q’s. And Kaira answered.
Were the nanoparticles safe to sleep in? (Yes).
How did one remove the nanoparticles? (You could command them to through a special containment protocol).
What was the back-up plan if the transmitter stopped working or the nanoparticles glitched and didn’t recognize commands anymore? How would you remove them? (They didn’t act on their own, so they would still be present, just inert.)
What was stopping the nanoparticles from getting inside the body and causing problems, like clogging arteries, disrupting nerve signals, or triggering the immune response? Would the product pass current federal and international testing standards?
In the end, Kaira was told that her invention was intriguing and full of vast potential, but she hadn’t yet done the work to remove all the inherent risk. Beauty was not more important than overall health. So, one by one, the investors all passed on her invention.
“What do they know? They’re such experts?”
Kaira sighed and smiled at her sister’s dismissal of the investors and the chorus of agreement from the rest of her outraged friends. The five of them were at dinner. She had warned them that it would either be a celebratory dinner, if she managed to secure investment to develop her invention, or a sympathy dinner, if she didn’t.
The others toasted her, and even as she soaked in their solidarity, Kaira admitted to herself that the investors were right. She didn’t even trust her invention well enough to let anyone else try it, even though everyone at that table had asked.
All that day between her meeting with the investors and her commiseration dinner, she had wondered what she should focus on to make her invention investment-worthy. She had thought of all the dazzling, exciting, sexy advancements she’d had in mind. But she kept circling back to something that wasn’t in the least dazzling, or exciting, or sexy. She kept circling back to safety.
Her invention was would be applied onto the human body, and might make its way into the human body, and would be available to people of all ages and stages.
It had to be safe.
She would start with addressing the issues that the investors had pointed out.
She told her friends as much.
Her sister, Galina, set down her glass. “Okay, that sounds hot.”
“Don’t laugh,” Kaira said. “If I want to do the fun stuff, I have to do the boring stuff. But safety…safety isn’t fun or boring. It’s its own thing.” She nodded to herself. “This makes sense. Risk-free makeup.”
“What if your make-was up worth the risk of wearing it?”
Kaira laughed. “You’re making it sound like someone has to be a daredevil just to use it.”
Galina shrugged. But Kaira turned her thoughts—as she often did—in the opposite direction of her sister.
Kaira leaned toward the center of the table. “What if my makeup wasn’t just safe to use? What if it wasn’t just safety-neutral but safety-plus?”
One of her friends frowned at her. “What does that mean?”
Kaira leaned back in her chair, sweeping up her drink. “What indeed.”
The others laughed. They were just watching for signs of malaise. But Kaira seemed all right. And so the conversation drifted to other topics.
And Kaira let herself relax. All the while, the gears in her mind continued spinning, spinning around her invention.
Even as she plugged away at revising and refining her program algorithms to increase safety, Kaira couldn’t help but to think on her sister’s words.
What would be worth the risk of applying nanoparticulate mechanisms to one’s skin that might malfunction and trigger breakouts, or worse, poison the user?
“Nothing,” Kaira said. She was recording audio notes on her latest round of tests. She gazed at the patch of fabric stretched between clamps on her benchtop. It was a poly-cotton blend. She used the fabric as a stand-in for skin when testing various properties of her nanobots (as Galina called them). If the nanobots damaged the fabric doing whatever she commanded them to do, they certainly weren’t safe enough to test on actual human skin.
“The recent rounds of trials, on the fabric and on my own face, indicate that this configuration of NPMs are safe for human use.” She paced around her home laboratory in the basement of her house. “But something still makes me hesitate from letting anyone else try them. I don’t have the expertise to run models on how the NPMs might behave on another person’s skin. It should behave the same. That’s the beauty of my INC. It can match every color. It should be milder than artificial teardrops. But I just have some gut feeling that I’m not ready yet. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
It’s safe, she thought. As safe as something could be in our wide world.
That wasn’t it.
“I’m going to work on something else,” she said, finishing off her notes. “Let whatever’s bothering me work in the background. Galina is out of town for a while anyway. I told her she could be the first to try INC. I’ll manufacture a batch for her. Run all the safety protocols. Work on something else. And I’ll come back to it when she’s back in town.”
Kaira wanted to do some good with whatever she made. And while helping people feel beautiful and confident was good, she had another idea in mind. She had started playing around with using her nanobots for thermal regulation of the fabrics into which it was applied. That would be a lot more useful and practical than making fabric that only changed color and texture. Depending on how far she could take the thermal regulation, she aimed to make fabric that could actually preserve life, by keeping people warm in freezing weather, and keeping them from overheating in hot weather. The fabric could be distributed to shelters, and to soldiers, constructions workers, anyone who spent a considerable amount of time outdoors.
She started with commanding the nanobots to vibrate to create friction and heat. That was relatively easy, but she kept burning the fabric. If she turned down the intensity, she couldn’t produce enough heat to keep someone warm at temperatures at or below freezing. She began to layer the nanobots, using some layers to produce and conduct the heat and some to protect the fabric.
She made some progress. She even started feeling motivated to return to her safety trials.
“A safe and beautiful world,” she mumbled to herself one day, as she left her basement lab to head out and gather another batch of nanobots.
Her laboratory may have been in her own basement, but there were elements of Kaira’s project for which she needed outside resources. The printer that manufactured her nanobots was one such resource. But the local satellite campus of the wealthiest academic institute in the nation (possibly the world) was generous with many of its core facilities, provided the user completed an extensive application process. Kaira had applied three times before they finally accepted her application. But once they did, she had fairly regular access to the facility. So regular in fact that she had made friends with guards on three different shifts, joked around with two of the people who worked the kitchen in the dining area, and helped visitors figure out which floor they needed to go to.
When she came in on Wednesdays, she even had a coffee buddy to talk to while she waited for her nanobots to render. Her friend worked for a private company that had rented out an entire floor a few levels above the nanoprinter floor. He too was in the habit of taking his coffee breaks in the dining area while he waited for whatever he was working on to incubate or run.
They started a fast friendship over their general excitement with research and invention, but both were reserved when getting into details about their own projects. He had signed a non-disclosure agreement that was the length of a short novel. And Kaira was hesitant to divulge any details that might compromise her rights to her own invention.
But while she was silent about the details of the nanobot construction and the command programs, Kaira was an open book about the end result. And her coffee-mate, Roger, was fascinated by her invention. He’d spent some time in the makeup chair while his daughter gave him various seasonal makeovers, and he’d come to appreciate how much time and effort the process took.
Since she started working on the thermal regulation aspect of her project, Kaira had been to the facility three times, and seen her friend once.
When she saw him again that Wednesday after starting manufacture on her latest batch of nanobots, Kaira realized how much she needed and wanted to talk to someone about her invention.
They exchanged pleasantries and the usual insults of each other’s coffee orders. He showed her pictures of his daughter’s debut in a school play. And Kaira began to tell him about her latest set of trials.
“So, I can get them to keep the fabric warm,” Kaira said, as they stood by a window, watching the sunset. “But I haven’t yet figure out how to do the opposite, keeping the fabric cool, not without including some kind of chemical refrigerant.”
“Okay…but from the look on your face, you figured something out.”
Kaira grinned. “I haven’t tried it yet. That’s the batch that’s cooking right now.”
“Are you going to tell me, or keep me guessing until next time?”
Kaira took a breath to answer, but a sudden crash and clatter interrupted her. Her friend jumped and turned around.
One of the servers had dropped a tray of drinks. His colleagues were converging on him to help clean up.
Kaira shook her head. “Next project, unbreakable glass. What do you think?” She looked at her friend.
He was staring at the server and the broken glass. He gulped.
Kaira tilted her head to the left to catch his attention. “You okay?”
He snapped out of his daze and looked at her. He smiled. “Oh yeah, yeah, fine. I just…not enough sleep I guess.”
“I hear you.”
“So, did you do that,” he asked, tipping his head toward the serve, “with you nanobots, to try and avoid answering me?”
Kaira shook her head. “That would be something. Telekinesis, but not real telekinesis, because I’m using robots so small the eye can’t see them.” She wagged a finger at him. “Maybe I should recruit you to come work for me once my first invention gets me rich enough to start my own company.”
He suddenly beamed. “I would gladly work for you, Kai.”
It was the first time Kaira had ever mentioned her ultimate dream to anyone outside of her sister. She had just blurted it out before she realized she should panic, but his positive reaction was heartening.
Kaira went to collect her newest batch of nanobots with a renewed hope. And a reminder to herself to spend more time with people who got what she was doing.
The new batch of nanobots was complex. They took longer than Kaira had expected. If she’d known, she might have had a longer conversation with Roger about her idea for cooling fabrics. She wasn’t sure it would work, but her idea was to simply have the nanoparticles spin in opposite directions to create a vacuum.
While she was waiting, she checked her messages, and found one from her sister. Galina was flying in that night, and Kaira was supposed to pick her up. But Kaira had forgotten. She’d taken the train. She might barely make it to the airport if she left to go home and pick up her sister’s car. But if she did that, she’d have to leave the nanobots.
The on-duty technician would take care of them, gathering them in the canister assigned to Kaira, and storing them until she came to retrieve them.
But Kaira had never left her nanobots before. Not only would she be leaving them, but she would be leaving her program running. She knew she should have just trusted. And maybe if it was one of her earlier batches, she might have. But this batch was a new version.
But she also couldn’t let Galina down again. Her sister had had to pay for a ride home half a dozen times already over the past year, because Kaira had forgotten, usually because she’d gotten caught up in her own project.
Kaira prepared to disappoint her sister again. But when she started typing out a message, she stopped. She brought up her list of contacts. She had an idea.
“I can’t believe you’re still here,” Kaira said as Roger walked into the suite.
She had already explained what she needed for him to do, if he had the time. He did. He was there for another two hours, and after that he had a briefing that he suspected wouldn’t be so brief. He seemed relieved to be out of the office, even if it was just a few floors away.
She walked him to the banks of nanoprinters and pointed out the one she was using. She showed him where the lockers were. “It’s like a hotel room. You can punch in your own code.”
Roger grinned. “I know, Kai. We have them upstairs too.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, and thank you for doing this.”
“Are you sure you trust me?”
“Not really, but you’re the devil I know. Deb over there seems sweet, but she’s the unknown devil.” Kaira tipped her head toward the far end of the suite where a technician sat at a station, monitoring the various machines.
“I’d better run,” Kaira said. But she just stood there and took a breath, staring at the machine printing her nanobots.
“What airport is she at?”
Kaira blinked and looked at Roger. “What?”
“The airport she’s flying into?”
Kaira told him.
“Take my car,” he said, reaching into his pocket.
Kaira frowned. “I can’t do that.”
“You’ll cut it close, but if you take my car, you’ll be able to stay and collect your bots yourself. And then you’ll have to run, actually run through the hallways. I can point out which one is mine from up here, so you don’t waste time.”
He offered her his keys.
“Roger…are you sure?”
“I have all the permits you could want to get you through traffic—clean vehicle, toll pass, et cetera, and the best one yet, the priority lane at the airport.” He shrugged. “My wife travels a lot for work, so we have all these on both cars.”
“How will you get home?”
Roger reached out and lifted Kaira’s hand. He placed his keys in her palm. “My wife and kid will pick me up. There’s a diner nearby that we love and we haven’t been there in a while. And maybe once you get your invention up and running, you’ll get us a free set of nanobots.”
Kaira shifted the keys to her other hand and grasped Roger’s hand to shake it. “You got it.”
“Also, it would be great if you would let me hang out here, so I can avoid whatever work I’m supposed to be doing.”
Kaira ran down the hallway. She had checked the traffic. Even adjusted for all the priority access things that Roger had on his car, she would be maybe fifteen minutes late. And the last time she checked, her sister’s flight was on time.
She hoped the plane would take its time taxiing to the gate.
She felt the heavy canister bumping against her hip through the side of her bag. She’d done all her checks, and filled out all of the logs, and she’d forced herself not to rush. But she wanted badly to check the seal on the canister. Of course, if it wasn’t properly sealed, it would be too late for her to worry about it by the time she got to Roger’s car.
Still, when she got in and sat down, she pulled the canister out and checked it. It was sealed. She wouldn’t mention it to Galina. Her sister might think that batch was meant for her. That was another betrayal Kaira had wrought on her sister, pushing back the manufacture of Galina’s nanobots, so she could have a crack at testing a new version of her nanobots.
Kaira took a deep breath. She checked the time. She told herself she had time. She closed the car door.
She slid the key into the ignition, and she turned it.
She remembered hearing a loud click. She remembered wondering what that click could be.
And the next thing she knew, she was waving her arms in front of her.
And she couldn’t see.
“I can’t see,” she said. Or she thought it. Or she did both.
Her legs were moving and she tried to stop them. If she couldn’t see, she might step on something, or crash into something.
She stopped her legs.
I can’t see.
Light appeared first. Dim and then brighter. Then blurred shapes. A scene began to materialize before her. Her vision was off somehow. Lensed. As if she were looking through glass. She blinked a few times and it cleared up.
She realized that someone was beside her. Someone was holding her by the elbow and the shoulder, guiding her.
She heard random shouting. She couldn’t make out the words, but something about the tone triggered spikes of fear in her gut.
In the distance, she saw red flashing lights. Soon, she heard sirens.
She glanced at the person beside her, a young woman.
“Don’t worry,” the young woman said. “Help is on the way.” The cuff of her left blouse sleeve had blood on it.
Kaira frowned and gently cupped the young woman’s hand. There was a cut across the bottom of her palm. The young woman smiled and told Kaira she cut it when she caught herself falling from the force of the blast. It could have been worse.
Kaira looked down at herself. There was no blood on her clothes. She didn’t have a scratch on her.
Kaira didn’t go to the hospital. She didn’t need to.
She instead stared at the burning remnants of the car she’d been sitting in. Firefighters put out the fire.
Some kind stranger let her borrow a phone so she could call Galina and let her know that she’d been in an accident and couldn’t pick her up, but would meet her at home.
Kaira was still dazed. She couldn’t help but to sound dazed on the message she left. And she couldn’t help but to sound dazed when her sister called back.
“Kai, are you okay? What happened to your phone?”
Kai looked at the charred and steaming remnants of Roger’s car. She mentally apologized to Roger, wondered where he was, and if he would come and confront her. She thought about her phone in the wreckage.
And she suddenly remembered her bag, and the canister within it.
Kaira moved closer to Roger’s car.
“Kai? Are you still there?”
But I was in there, she thought, looking at the car.
“Where are you? I’ll come to you.”
“No, I’ll get home,” Kaira said. But even as she said it, she wasn’t sure how she would manage getting home. Her wallet and identification and house keys. They were all in her bag, and she couldn’t see her bag in the wreckage.
But then, she saw it. She saw it lying fairly close to where she was. Kaira sighed. Some of the daze burned off and she felt a bit of focus returning. “I just have to finish up with the police.”
“Okay, but don’t worry about my car. Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“It was a friend’s car,” Kaira said. “He let me borrow it.”
“It wasn’t my fault.” Kaira walked over and picked up her bag. It was like her. Unscathed.
A police officer approached her. She explained that it was her bag, and offered her wallet to show her identification inside. He thought she was a bystander. Someone who’d just gotten knocked off her feet. There was no reason for him to think otherwise. He nodded and let her go. She was a witness. But the police had already taken her information in case they had more questions.
Insider her bag, she found her phone. So she told her sister, hung up on her, and returned the kind stranger’s phone to the kind stranger.
Kaira’s heart began to beat as she checked her bag for the canister.
No one got hurt, she thought. It’s okay.
And if the nanobots were still in the canister, then it really would be okay.
But if they weren’t…
Kaira’s eyes widened when she pulled the canister out of her bag. The seal was open.
Not damaged. It was open, just a little. She checked the readings of the content. The canister’s detectors were crude compared to the containment in the facility and even in her own lab. But she believe them when they blinked the word “Empty” at her.
She gazed out at the charred frame of Roger’s car, at the bank of police squad cars, and the fire trucks that were just now beginning to roll away.
Had her nanobots done that? Had she done that?
Kaira didn’t say anything to her sister that night. And Galina let her get away with it. Galina gave her space, telling her she needed to get rest. She gently said that they should call and make a doctor’s appointment in the morning, to make sure Kaira didn’t have any injuries that weren’t obvious.
The next morning, Kaira told her sister about the car explosion. She left out the detail of being in the car when it exploded. She planned to work up to that detail. It was late morning. They’d both been tired the night before.
“I knew you weren’t telling me something,” Galina said. She searched the news, and found the story.
Kaira watched the footage. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her sister that she might have caused the explosion. That maybe the nanobots became too agitated. Maybe they had ignited. Maybe they had responded to her anxiety about running late. Kaira had beaten her sister home, and had activated the main kill switch in her lab to render all the nanobots on her inactive. She’d brought her bag into the room too. And she ran ever confirmatory test she had to make sure that the nanobots were inactive. She wouldn’t be able to contain them again, without returning to the printer facility. But she could at least keep them turned off.
Kaira braced herself to confess to her sister.
“Whoa,” Galina said. She glanced up at Kaira. “They’ve identified the owner of the car that exploded and details of what happened. Oh my goodness…Kai.”
She showed Kaira the story. And as Kaira read it, her thoughts began to spin.
The preliminary police investigation found evidence of a bomb in the car. The car’s owner had been identified and taken into protective custody. He was a whistleblower. He’d been helping police and prosecutors build a case against his company. And he would be testifying soon. Police were still investigating, but the reporter suggested that the bomb was an attempt on the whistleblower’s life.
Kaira’s eyes widened.
But it seemed something had gone wrong, the story said. The bomb went off on its own, and luckily, no one was seriously injured. Bystanders were far enough away to escape with minor injuries.
No one knew that Kaira had been in the car. How could they have? She didn’t have a scratch on her.
She shouldn’t have survived. The heat, and not just the heat. The pressure. The combustion. The blast.
They hadn’t caused the explosion.
They had protected her from the explosion.
She remembered now how her hair had been in her face. That was part of why she couldn’t see. The nanobots had covered her face, her hair, her clothes, her shoes, even her bag.
The nanobots had shielded her, from heat and pressure. She had had to account for pressure changes. But this was a scale she had never calibrated the nanobots for. And there was no way she had sent them a command. They had acted too quickly. The code of the program commanded the nanobots to adapt to changes in weather conditions. But they had reacted quickly enough to protect her from an explosion even thought she’d been sitting right on top of it.
Quicker than instinct. Quicker than conscious thought.
The nanobots would have gathered some data. She could analyze it. Both layers. The layer of NPMs she already had on. And the new nanobots. The new nanobots that were still lying on her skin, not just on her face, but all over. She looked down at her hands.
“They’re shutting down that whole campus until further notice,” Galina said. “I can’t say I’m sad about that. I know you’re disappointed, but for the sake of humoring me, I would have asked you stay away for a while anyway.”
Kaira nodded. She had enough to work with.
“Look, there’s a still of you in this one story,” Galina said. She magnified the image. “You’re kidding me. Do you ever take those things off these days?”
Kaira looked up at the image.
“You don’t even look disheveled like all those other people. Not a hair out of place. Not a smudge on your face.” She shook her head. “That is some heavy duty makeup.”
“Yes,” Kaira said. “It believe it is.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel