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Daily Science Fiction :: Nanomite by Patricia Duffy Novak
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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Nanomite

Patricia Duffy Novak lives in Alabama with her husband, Jim, and several cats and dogs. Her short fiction has appeared in several volumes of the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, as well as in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and Realms of Fantasy, among other places. She became hooked on science fiction and fantasy while still in grade school and continues as an avid reader in the field to this day.
Oops, tactical error. Marla gave an internal grimace as she looked up from her salad-making to see her husband bustling down the hall with the latest issue of Woman's Journal in his hands. After the incident with the security system she'd vowed to stash her magazines where he couldn't find them. Looked like she'd gotten careless. Again.
Tom, on one of his tangents, was the last thing she wanted to deal with today, with a head cold coming on. All she wanted to do was get supper over and go to bed.
"Here, look at this." He thrust the magazine under her eyes, forefinger stabbing at the two-page "Health Roundup" spread.
"What?" She sliced the last bit of cucumber into the bowl.
"Dust mites." He pronounced the two syllables deliberately, in an almost oracular fashion.
She didn't remember anything about dust mites. "What about them?"
"It says here that a lot of people are allergic to them. What they think are head colds are really mite allergies." He held her in a speculative gaze, his thoughts clearly turning in diagnostic circles. It drove her crazy when he did that. He was an economics professor, not a medical doctor.
"So?"
Tom laid the magazine on the Formica counter, and held up one hand, finger extended, lecture style. "This is your second so-called cold in a month. And this house--" He turned and gestured toward the back door, and then to the beige-carpeted den. "So drafty. Dust is always seeping in under the door, and all these carpets are a breeding ground for the critters. You probably have allergies."
She ground her teeth. "It's a cold."
"Hmmm." Tom's face muscles went slack, which meant, Marla knew, that his mind was casting into the great beyond.
"Here." She thrust the salad bowl into his hands, hoping to reel him back. "Put this on the table and call Vic." Vic, their sixteen-year-old son, six-foot-two and two hundred pounds. Tom had installed a security system so that no one would break in and steal him, an obsession he'd developed the last time she'd been careless about where she left her magazines.
She didn't want to think about the cost of that security system. And the inconvenience. Two days of having her house pulled apart as the security team put in the infrared beams. And the false alarms every time the cat got into the living room. At least mites offered no expensive, high-tech solution. At worst, they would need to vacuum more often.
Marla woke from a deep sleep to the sound of Tom's chortling. He was standing beside the bed in his underwear, a pile of papers in his hands. "I have the answer," he said, grinning like a lunatic.
"Good." Marla rolled over. Tom had turned on every light. She loved the way he sneaked into bed late. The man was as subtle as a bazooka. "Tell me about it in the morning."
"Nanomites," he said, ignoring her request. "That'll clear up our problem."
"What are you babbling about, Tom?" Marla sat up, pressing a hand to her painfully full sinuses. "We don't have any problems." Other than a husband who woke his sick wife at--she glanced at the clock--two a.m.
"The dust mites!" Tom gestured with the papers. "I've found the answer. Nanos. Specially designed to chew up mites. Only approved last month."
Nanotechnology. Marla had heard of that. They had been used in medicine for a couple of years for exotic illnesses and gene therapy--but mites? Tom must be deluded.
She took the papers from his hands. The first one: a picture of an enormous dust mite, looking like a dangerously demented crustacean. The second: a diagram of a nano, all its little parts labeled in techno-babble. The third was largely text--a list of names and addresses. Bug Blasters. Roach Raiders. Things like that. "Is that what you were doing with the computer all evening, researching mites?"
"Yup." Tom beamed. "We'll get this problem licked. You'll see."
She let out a groan. What if she didn't want to see? "In the morning, Tom," she croaked, pulling the pillow over her eyes.
"Okay," Tom said. But instead of turning out the lights, he settled himself on the edge of the bed. Marla felt the bed sag under him and waited in vain for him to lie down. To heck with it, she finally thought, willing herself back to sleep. She'd have it out with him later, when she felt better. No crazy little machines were going to invade her house. Thank God, tomorrow was a Saturday. She'd have the weekend to recover from her cold before she had to face a roomful of sticky-fingered four-year-olds and their germs.
As she drifted into sleep, she heard Tom mutter something and felt him poke her back with his finger. "Okay, Tom," she muttered. "Now goodnight."
She dreamed of dust mites. Big ones, the size of kittens, scuttling along her curtains and plopping on the furniture, hissing at her as she tried to sweep them up.
Tom said nothing more about mites that weekend, and Marla assumed that he'd given up the idea of purging the house. She didn't ask. With Tom, it was almost always better not to ask. On Monday, after two days of lying around eating chicken soup and blowing her nose, she woke feeling better. Things, she decided as she got dressed for work, were looking up.
Tom woke with a snort as she was brushing her hair. "What time you coming home today?" he asked, rubbing his eyes. His thinning blond hair stood up in a halo around his face, making him look like a punk angel.
"Usual time. Why?" She frowned at the reflection of her red, peeling nose as she jabbed an earring into her earlobe.
"I've got some people coming by the house about two. Thought it would be better if you weren't home."
"I won't be." She shoved the other earring into place. "Who's coming? Graduate students?"
"No." Tom rose and stretched, patting the small paunch he had developed. "Gotta do something about this. I'll get some stuff out of the library on weight loss."
"Eat less. Exercise more." She ignored his pout. "So, who's coming?"
"The Nanomite people."
"Nanomite?" A small shiver of alarm crept up her spine. If her memory served her, and it usually did, "Nanomite" had been one of the names on that list of exterminators Tom had printed. "What for?"
"To give us an estimate on getting rid of the mites."
"Now whoa there, Mister." She turned, placing hands on hips. "Don't you think we should have discussed this?"
His features took on a hurt look. "We did. Friday night. You said okay."
She remembered, vaguely, some muttered question or the other and her drowsy and--she thought--nonspecific response. "I was asleep!"
"How was I to know!" He raised his hands in supplication. "And what harm could it do, anyway, just to get an estimate?"
Marla shuddered, but she didn't have time to argue. Drop-off at the preschool began at seven. "All right. Get an estimate. And then we'll talk." Exactly what she'd said when he'd proposed the alarm system.
She glanced at the clock. Almost six-forty-five. No time to argue now. "And be sure Vic gets up, will you." She hadn't heard any signs of life from her son's room, and he usually thundered through the house like a blind bull when he first woke.
Something crashed downstairs. Fortunately all their dishes were unbreakable. "Never mind," Marla said.
When she came home from work that afternoon, the smell of her favorite take-out Chinese greeted her, aromatic enough to penetrate through her stuffiness. Little white cartons lined the kitchen counter, and Vic stood in the center of the room, an egg roll in each hand.
"What's this?" Marla said.
"Dad brought it home," Vic said around bites.
She opened the cartons and peered in: Kung-bao chicken, boneless spareribs, Moo-shi pork. All her favorites. Not a sweet and sour in the batch. "Your father picked these out himself?"
Vic shrugged. "I guess." The second egg roll vanished into his mouth.
"Where is your father?"
Vic pointed down the hall, in the direction of the office. Marla found him there, happily pointing and clicking. "So what was the estimate?" she asked.
"It's all right here." He tapped the screen. "One standard price."
The screen displayed several diagrams of machines that reminded her of mechanical fleas. If a price was mentioned, she couldn't see it. "How much?"
"Five hundred dollars."
"That's all?" She didn't know what she'd expected, something on the order of thousands, maybe. From the grin Tom shot her, she wished she could recall that comment. "That doesn't mean I want it done." Five hundred dollars wasn't petty change, after all, especially with Vic's college expenses coming up.
"Come on, Marla, it costs more than that to get the carpets cleaned. And think how much more valuable this will be. We'll be mite-free forever. Your allergies will clear up."
"It's not allergies," Marla said. "It's a cold."
"You don't know that."
She sighed. Some arguments weren't worth pursuing. "What will the exterminators do to the house? Tear it apart installing the things?"
He shook his head. "They pipe them into the filtration system. Nothing needs to be moved."
"Into the filtration system? That's it?"
"Yup."
"Maintenance?"
"None. The Nanomites are self-replicating. Once they're introduced, they'll make new little Nanos as needed." He gave a rather rueful grin. "Look, I know I got a little carried away with the security system, but this is different. You can't really want the house to be a breeding farm for mites."
She remembered her dream, the kitten-sized mites darting across the furniture. And that picture Tom had printed of that lobster-like monster. He had a point, she really didn't want those things in her house, or in her lungs. "No tearing up the house?"
"Nope. Promise." He moved his finger in a cross pattern on his chest.
"All right then." If she didn't give in, he'd no doubt force her to look at pictures of dust mites until all her dreams were haunted.
He shot her a wide smile. "I knew you'd see this was a good idea."
"I wouldn't go quite that far. Let's get to the kitchen before Vic eats everything."
"Even Vic couldn't eat that much food," Tom said, but Marla noticed he turned off the computer and got to his feet. Yes, Vic could, and Tom knew it.
The exterminators came the following Saturday, arriving in a white Mazda pick-up with "Nanomite!" in red letters on the side. Two men dressed in green lab coats got out of the truck, carrying something that looked like a weed sprayer. They went around the house, blasting whatever was in the bottle down the vents. The entire visit lasted less than fifteen minutes.
Other than the five-hundred-dollar debit to the checking account, Marla noticed no difference in the quality of her life, but that was not necessarily a bad thing, she reasoned, remembering the alarm system. She had no new colds that summer, true. Tom took this as proof that the Nanomites were busy doing their job, chewing up dust mites and keeping her sinuses clear. But summer had always been a slow time for diseases at the daycare. The real test, she assumed, would come in the fall.
Right on schedule, Marla developed a runny nose in late September. She sat on the couch one Saturday with a box of tissues at her side and a pile of magazines in her lap, while Tom watched a game on television. A fire roared on the hearth and it would have been a lovely afternoon, if it weren't for the darn sniffles. She crumpled yet another tissue into a ball.
"You got a cold, huh?" Tom said.
She sighed. Tom's attention had already returned to the game. No point in discussing the five hundred dollars they'd spent on nanotechnology to cure her "allergies." "Yes."
"Too bad." His gaze remained riveted on the screen.
Marla picked up the top magazine on her pile and flipped through it. Bold black headlines caught her eye: "Cold or Allergies?" At the top was a blowup of a nano, looking much the same as the one Tom had shown her months back. The article discussed the new method of purging dust mites. Marla relaxed. Here at least was an article she need not fear Tom coming across; they'd already been nanomited.
On the next page, her gaze was drawn to a red sidebar with white lettering, bearing the title "Warning," all in caps. She felt the blood drain from her face as she read it. Nanos, it seemed, could provoke allergic reactions in sensitive people. To rid a house of nanos took considerably more effort than installing them. Floors would have to be pulled up. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Marla felt a sneeze coming on. A cold, dammit, she knew it was a cold.
"Whatchya reading, Marla?"
She blinked, a deer-in-the-headlights feeling coming over her. Of all times for a commercial break.
"Nothing much." The floor boards. Tens of thousands of dollars.
She crossed the room and shoved the magazine into the fire. The bright red cover blackened and smoked. Marla hadn't had a chance to read the article on her favorite movie hunk, but it was a sacrifice she made willingly.
"What are you doing?" Tom sat up straight, eyes wide.
She shot a glance at the TV. The game hadn't returned. Drat. Then inspiration struck, aided by the fast food ad, sizzling burgers and piped-in scent that penetrated even her stuffy nose. Tom had been sitting in that chair for hours. He must be starving. "You want a sandwich?"
Tom beamed, the magazine clearly forgotten. "Sure. Ham and cheese. Lots of mayo. And some chips on the side."
"I thought you were trying to watch your diet."
Tom waved a hand. "Oh, you can't pay attention to every crazy thing that gets published. You should really stop reading those alarmist magazines."
Indeed. Marla hid her smile with a raised hand. What had she expected from a man who thought potato salad was a breakfast food? "Be right back with that sandwich, dear."
"Thanks."
In the kitchen, she stood on tiles that would not be torn asunder, breathing in tiny machines. Tiny, harmless machines, she reminded herself. In spite of her best efforts to direct her thoughts elsewhere, she recalled that diagram of the nano-thing that looked like a tiny metal flea. Nah, she didn't have allergies. She suffered colds, a hazard of her work.
She washed her hands and got to work, spreading mayonnaise thickly on white bread, assembling Tom's sandwich. Her nose started to run and her throat began to tickle.
"You okay in there, hon?"
"I'm fine." She tried to take a deep breath and nearly choked on congestion. Annoying, but after all, it was only a cold. Wasn't it?
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 17th, 2012


In a house with a number of cats and dogs in residence, there is usually no shortage of dust, dander, and animal hair. Browsing the internet one day, looking for possible solutions to the pet-hair problem, I found a picture of a magnified dust mite in an article about mite-induced allergic reactions. Shortly after, by happenstance, I read another article on nanotechnology. The two things came together in my mind, the way disparate ideas sometimes do, and this story resulted.

- Patricia Duffy Novak

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