Puppets of the Nano Master

Tim Pratt

Dane dropped his bag on the bedroom floor and stretched, yawning. Something moved near the foot of his bed. Dane flipped on the light, and a mechanical scorpion hurried away. He glimpsed two more scuttling under the dresser.

Bugman had found him again, and sent scorpions equipped with surveillance devices and paralyzing-toxin-tipped stingers.

Dane extended his left arm, a tiny nozzle breaking the skin. He crouched and swept his arm in a semicircle, spraying a nearly invisible dust under the furniture. The scorpions rushed out, stingers upraised to incapacitate him, but slowed and stopped before they reached him.

Dane’s nanomachines, deployed from his spray-nozzle, transformed the scorpions’ molecules into delicate crystalline structures, attacking their control systems first. Dane watched as the scorpions gradually turned to glittering crystal, altered from the inside out. The scorpions would shatter at the slightest blow, but Dane didn’t want to risk pricking himself on a stinger.

He hung the bag containing his nanoassembly equipment over his shoulder. Never comfortable leaving something so valuable behind, he’d taken it to a meeting today. Certain corporate interests valued his skill at creating custom nanos. He hadn’t broken into a safety deposit box or stolen a jewel years. Such pursuits didn’t make sense in today’s economy. Dane was a relic, a hands-on hardware man in a world that eschewed the physical, but he tried to adapt to changing times. Data piracy and electronic espionage provided the big money, but Dane didn’t like sitting behind a computer all day. That’s why he left research and went into crime in the first place.

Bugman didn’t approve of his career change, and evidently intended to ignore it.

Dane left the building and walked a few dirty blocks to the subway. On the way down the stairs, he released his last security-nanos. They would deactivate Bugman’s ubiquitous homing and surveillance devices. He rode the train, swaying on an overhead strap and thinking.

Dane left the subway and walked a block to Guido’s Comics and Thingz. The shop, crowded with jumbled shelves and tables, smelled like grease and model paint. Guido sat behind the counter, fat as always, chewing a toothpick and reading the Ubermutants/ Bloodbuddies crossover. He looked up, smiling, when the bell over the door rang. Guido and Dane went way back. “You’re in this,” he said, holding up the latest issue of The Adventures of Bugman.

Guido flipped to the title page, where blood-red characters spelled out “Puppets of the Nano Master”. Dane’s comic-self, dressed absurdly in black leather and a featureless silver mask, stood atop a building.

“I haven’t gotten my own story in a while,” Dane said. “I bet Bugman kicks my ass.”

“You take mental control of his wife first, and tell her to kill him. Doesn’t work.”

Dane shook his head, flipping through the comic. “I wish my nanos could do that. I could turn a brain into mush, if I had time to put something together.”

Guido rummaged behind the counter and found a grease-smudged pizza box. He crammed a slice in his mouth and offered the box to Dane. Ersatz anchovies and red peppers. “I’ll pass,” Dane said. “Wanted to ask a favor. Could I crash on your couch for a few days?”

“Sure. What happened to your place?”


Guido blinked. “No shit? I thought he was working for the government and producing movies and stuff. Why’s he bothering you after all this time?”

Dane tapped the cover of “Puppets of the Nano Master.” “Because people love the hero, Guido, but they love the arch-enemy more. I retired, and this made-up shit doesn’t satisfy Bugman. He wants to get out of the funny pages and into the headlines again.”

“Fucking A, man.” Guido munched his pizza happily. “That comic sucks anyway.”

* * *

“Does this count as aiding and abetting a fugitive?” Guido attacked his take-out Chinese. Grease coated every surface of his tiny kitchen, though as far as Dane knew he never cooked.

Dane slurped a lo mein noodle. “There’s no warrant on me. There’s a standing warrant for the Nano Master, but nothing connects him to Dane Gray. You’re safe.”

“Bugman found you though, right? So he must know who you are.”

“The wonder and glory of assumed names, Guido. I’ve hidden my real identity pretty well. He won’t find me that way.”

“You’ve got an assumed name? You never tell me the interesting stuff.”

Dane shrugged. “Underworld figures aren’t interesting. They’re just guys who get you stuff when you need it. Don’t worry about Bugman or the cops.”

“I’m not worried. I just hope they call me your sidekick in the newspapers, after they catch you.”

“I always meant to put a secret headquarters underneath your shop, Guido. Sorry I never had a chance.”

“You don’t do anything interesting. The Nano Master in the comic has an awesome headquarters.” Noodles hung out of Guido’s mouth like catfish feelers.

“I’m limited by what’s scientifically possible, by my lack of money, by basic morality... What can I do? I never wanted to be a super villain.”

“I did,” Guido said. “Or even a hero, if push came to shove.” He licked his chopsticks, looking into the take-out box hopefully.

“Eat mine.” Dane shoved the box toward him. “I’ve got work to do.”

“More nanos?”

“Not by choice. But if Bugman’s coming, I have to prepare.”

“Why don’t you kill him this time?”

“I don’t kill people, Guido. I don’t even steal things anymore.”

“You’re boring. Why do I hang out with you?”

“Because I’m the Nano Master.”

“Yeah, but you can’t even sign my comics. What good are you?”

“When I start making money again, you’ll get a cut, I promise.” Dane shoved aside a mound of dirty clothes and sat on the couch. He opened his bag and placed the nanotech assembler, a stainless-steel box with several input and output jacks, on the coffee table. He plugged his computer in, donned his goggles, and activated the touchboard. He opened his existing nanomachine templates and tried to decide what he needed. He could fit a tremendous number of nanomachines into the small storage cartridges embedded in his arms and back, but it would take time to fabricate and test them. Once he’d assembled several of a given variety, they could replicate themselves from available dust and trash molecules.

More crystalline ones. He’d used those to break into bank vaults once upon a time. Once they did their work, you could smash through a vault wall with a crowbar. He also queued up security, tissue-rebuilding, and structural disintegration nanos. He could reprogram the destructive ones to attack vital organs; the thought tempted him. To get rid of Bugman once and for all... Dane thought the world would be better off without its greatest self-made hero. Sure, Guido read too many comic books, but he didn’t compare to Bugman. Guido hadn’t spent a fortune on equipment, bodily modifications, and for-the-love-of-god costumes like Bugman had. Dane closed the template file.

He didn’t intend to commit murder. He’d always avoided direct conflict, despite Bugman’s long pursuit. They’d faced one another a few times, but Dane always escaped, with help from his nanos. He wanted to lose Bugman once and for all.

Dane slept on the couch, after deploying scouring nanos to kill any brewing bacteria. The cushions were damp in places from Guido’s sloppy meals. Dane twisted, trying to get comfortable. Tomorrow I’ll go see Bugman, he thought. Preemptive strikes are just another kind of self-defense.

* * *

Dane slouched, hands in pockets, in before Bugman’s headquarters. The building contained Bugman’s main office, garage, helicopter bay, and the administrative offices for Bugman Media, Inc. Dane hadn’t been inside an office for a long time. He abandoned research and development because he hated the bureaucratic treadmill that went along with perfecting new technologies.

Dane bent over to tie his shoelace, simultaneously releasing a spray of destructive nanos. They would multiply, spread, and break down the walls and foundations of Bugman’s headquarters. They would die out before destroying any neighboring buildings. When the command nanos died, the drones they’d built would become inert.

Dane ate lunch at a sub shop a few blocks away. He walked to a pay phone, whistling, and called Bugman’s office. “There’s a bomb in the building,” he said. “The media juggernaut will die in flames.” He hung up and walked away.

Back at Guido’s apartment, he turned on the radio and waited. Before long a news report about the disintegration of Bugman’s headquarters came on. Falling debris had injured a janitor, which gave Dane a twinge, but no one died. Bugman was not available for comment.

That should slow him down for a while, Dane thought. He flipped open a month-old issue of Mercurial Chronicle. Mr. Mercury battled the nefarious Nano Boy. The Nano Master had secretly cloned himself years earlier, and subsequently taught Nano Boy to emulate his evil ways.

Dane threw the comic across the room.

* * *

Dane woke the next morning eye-to-eye with a huge cockroach. The insect wiggled its inch-long antennae and scurried from the couch to the floor. Dane sat up and rubbed his face. “Hey, Bugman.”

Bugman stood from behind the kitchen counter. “I wanted to surprise you.”

“One good turn deserves another. I surprised you pretty good yesterday.” Dane pulled on a t-shirt. “New costume?”

“You like it?” Bugman puffed out his narrow chest. He wore a navy blue body stocking with polished black boots. Instead of human eyes, faceted sensory clusters bulged underneath his eyebrows. When he wished to appear fully human, he removed the clusters and replaced them with beautiful blue artificial eyes.

“It’s better than the red and yellow thing you used to wear. Listen, Bugman--”

Bugman held up his hands. “Before you do anything nasty, I want to talk to you.” He wrinkled his nose. “This is hardly the place for a battle anyway.”

“We’ve never had a battle. You just chased me around. I don’t fight. I make nanomachines. It isn’t very dramatic.”

“We could have a wonderful battle.”

Dane shook his head. “I don’t even arm-wrestle people with artificial muscles. I certainly don’t intend to fight you.”

“I’ve got a reinforced skeleton now, too. And enhanced hearing. Cutting-edge bio-tech.” Dane didn’t say anything, and Bugman’s smile tightened. “Aren’t you going to ask how I found you?”

“Sure. How did you find me?”

“My bugs have been sweeping the city. I still haven’t matched your face to any known citizen, but the bugs contain sophisticated pattern-matching equipment. Just show them a picture, and off they go.” Another pause. “Aren’t you going to ask what I want?”

“What do you want?”

“I have a proposition for you. I think its time for the Nano Master to come out of retirement.”

Dane pushed past Bugman and went into the kitchen. He took a cereal box from the cabinet. Bugman’s synthetic roaches scurried across the shelves. “I already came out of retirement. Didn’t you notice your building fall down yesterday?”

“A nice opening move, but you didn’t claim proper credit. The police suspect an anti-media terrorist group with access to illegal nanotechnology.”

“Glad to know I’m not the main suspect in nano-crimes anymore.”

“That’s because you’ve been out of the business for too long. You could be on top again. The comic readers still love you.”

Dane threw a handful of cereal at him. Bugman squawked and covered his face. “That’s a hint.” Dane went into the bathroom.

Bugman banged on the door. Dane sighed and flushed the toilet. He opened the door. “Do you need to piss before you leave?”

“I’m willing to pay,” Bugman said. “I’ll allow you almost total freedom to plan your acts of terror. I’d never completely defeat you, because I want this to be a serial sort of thing.”

Dane edged past him. “You’ve always been wacko, but you used to have integrity. Why don’t you go after real villains?”

“There aren’t any.” Bugman dogged Dane’s heels back to the living room. “I don’t want to chase gang members and wife-murderers. I want to face someone serious, someone grand, like you used to be.”

“Like you wanted me to be. I just stole some high-tech equipment and tried to make a money. You’re the one who came after me, put me in your stupid comic book. And what’s this ‘Nano Boy’ shit?”

Bugman waved his hand. “You want editorial veto power? Done. Want your own spin-off title, or a one-shot about your origins? Done. I’m willing to work with you.”

Dane sat down on the couch. Bugman paced, agitated.

“What if I say no?” Dane said. “No, no, and hell no? What then?”

Bugman shrugged. “I won’t play nice. I’ll just bring you in.”

“There’s no evidence connecting me with the Nano Master.”

“I’m recording all this.”

“It’s inadmissible.”

“Then I’ll find you and send a couple of guys to break your spine. How’s that sound?”

Dane looked at him. He leaned back. “Okay. What did you have in mind for a debut?”

* * *

Two weeks later, Dane stood before Guido’s full length mirror. Guido bounced around like a delighted schoolboy. “This is gonna kick ass. This’ll be so awesome. You look great, man.”

“It’s hot.” Dane wore a black leather bodysuit with shoulderpads and black gloves. The suit possessed its own muscular structure, so the Nano Master could perform feats of superhuman strength, just like Bugman. Dane used a razor blade to cut slits for his nano-deployment nozzles. He picked up the helmet with its blank, mirrored visor, and slipped it on.

Looks just like the comic book, he thought. Except I’m not muscle-bound enough. “A black helicopter should be on the way to pick me up soon.” His menacingly synthesized voice projected through a speaker on his suit.

Guido widened his eyes. “Does it have stealth mode and everything?”

“Didn’t ask.” He patted Guido’s back. “Take care of my computer and assembler, would you? I’ll be back for them.”

“What? I’m going to watch!”

“Watch it on television. You’ll get a better view.” Guido began to argue, and Dane said “Hey, I’m speaking as the Nano Master, here. Keep an eye on my stuff until I get back, and I’ll see about making you my sidekick next time. You could pass for Nano Boy, I bet.”

“Nano Boy’s a pussy.” Guido paused. “But that would still be pretty cool.”

Dane’s new cell phone rang, and one of Bugman’s functionaries told him to expect the helicopter shortly. Dane dropped the phone on the floor and stepped on it after the call. “Probably full of homing devices,” Dane said. “Wish me luck.”

“What for?” Guido flopped down on his bed. “You take a dive in the second round, right? The fix is in. I wish I had a bookie.”

“There’d be terrible odds. The Nano Master never wins, right?” Dane went to catch the helicopter, sweating in his leather costume.

* * *

Dane descended from the helicopter on a rope ladder. The people lining the street pointed, and television cameras swung toward him.

Roadblocks closed the street for a fourth of July parade, featuring Bugman, the city’s favorite son. Bugman had arranged the whole thing. Born wealthy enough to turn himself into a superhero, his holdings had only increased. He could afford to throw a parade in his own honor, and did so two or three times a year.

The black helicopter peeled away, and Dane strode down the center of the street. He ripped a parking meter from the sidewalk and swung it menacingly at a couple of kids. A few people shouted “It’s the Nano Master!” but no one ran away.

This is too much like watching television, Dane thought. They don’t think they’re in danger. He smiled under his helmet. I guess they aren’t.

A marching band appeared around the corner, and Dane stalked toward them. “I’m waiting for Bugman!” he shouted, his voice amplified over the sound of tubas and drums. The marching band fell out of step and scattered at Dane’s approach.

Bugman’s hornet-shaped float rounded the corner. Bugman sat behind the gleaming head, waving and throwing bug-shaped candies to the kids.

When he saw Dane, he jumped to the ground, blue cape flapping. “Nano Master! How dare you interrupt a freedom parade, on this of all days?”

Dane winced behind his mirrored mask. You should have let someone else write your lines, he thought. “I came to kick your ass!”

Bugman sputtered. He’d written a different line.

That’s what you get for paying me up front, Dane thought. I can improvise all I want.

“Do your worst!” Bugman pressed a button on his belt, and a swarm of golden dragonflies emerged from a compartment behind the buckle.

The dragonflies surrounded Bugman like a shimmering net, and Dane lifted his hand. “Nanos, attack!” he shouted, sticking to Bugman’s script. He didn’t actually deploy any nanomachines. The dragonflies dropped, ridiculously quickly, and fluttered on the ground. “Your insects are no match for my Nanos!” Dane said, for the benefit of the crowd’s slower members.

“And you’re no match for me!” Bugman cried. He leapt.

Dane fired a spray of nanos, specially designed the week before, and Bugman passed through the invisible cloud. Bugman kicked him in the chest, and Dane fell backward. Using the suit’s artificial musculature, Dane turned the fall into a graceful backward somersault. He regained his feet. “You’re pathetic, Bugman.”

Not the proper dialogue at all. Bugman didn’t reply, just released a stream of artificial wasps from his belt. Dane fired a spray of crystal nanos as the bugs whizzed toward him. He dodged away, and seconds later the insects fell to the ground and shattered.

Bugman’s face reddened at Dane’s latest violation of the agreed-upon rules. “I’ll kill you!” he shouted, running forward.

Dane threw the parking meter at his legs. Bugman tripped, sprawling. The crowd gasped, with some laughing. “A million dollars worth of biotech, and you still trip over your own feet,” Dane said. He turned to the crowd. “This is your hero? He’s ridiculous. He thinks he lives in a comic book.” The crowd looked back at him blankly. Dane sighed.

Bugman raised himself into a crouch. Dane couldn’t read his expression. The glittering eye-clusters made him too non-human.

“The nanos should start working any second now.” Dane had fired hundreds at Bugman, but they needed time to replicate and work.

Bugman’s right eye-cluster dissolved into metallic dust. He shrieked and clapped a hand over his face. A moment later his costume shredded into individual threads and fell away, revealing Bugman’s naked, pigeon-chested body. He covered himself with his hands and stared at Dane with his one good sensory cluster. Despite his nonhuman face, Dane thought he looked hurt. Betrayed, almost.

“Sorry I didn’t stick to the script. I’m not cut out to be a super villain.”

Bugman screamed like a humiliated child and rushed for him. Dane took a few rapid steps back, but the nanos must have gotten to Bugman’s artificial inner ear just then. Bugman swayed, then pitched over on his side, his superhuman balance destroyed.

Dane didn’t bother with more dialogue. The nanos would destroy all Bugman’s hardware, from artificial senses to enhanced muscles to the remote-control he used to guide his insects. The nanos would lurk in Bugman’s bloodstream, inert, unless he tried to install more hardware. Then they would reactivate and destroy the new equipment, too. Even a complete blood transfusion wouldn’t get rid of all the nanos, and if one remained, it would replicate. The nanos wouldn’t bother standard organic replacements, but Bugman’s hard-wired superhero days had ended.

Dane pushed his suit to full power and ran down the closed-off street. Bugman had arranged to keep the cops away during the battle, but Dane expected them to show up soon. Dane bulled his way through the crowd and down open streets, eventually running into an alley. He released another stream of nanos, then crouched behind a dumpster while they multiplied and dissolved his leather costume. The suit fell in strips to the asphalt, revealing his street clothes underneath. He removed his mirrored helmet and pitched it into the trash. Dane walked out the other end of the alley, whistling.

A block later he got into his waiting car, purchased with Bugman’s advance. He wanted to leave town and hole up somewhere. His cosmetic-surgeon nanos, stored in the tank on his back, would need a few days to transform his face. After that, he could go anywhere. Guido could ship the nanotech assembler to him. Or maybe Dane would find another line of work. He had enough money to take his time and figure out what to do next.

I wonder how the comic writers will deal with this, Dane thought, starting the car. Bugman will probably recover in the next issue and kick my ass. Being a super villain sure is a shitty job.


I wrote this story at Clarion, in the summer of 1999. The best part of it, in my opinion, is the title-- which actually came from a comment made by classmate Drachen Birch, in reference to a story by someone else. The story sprang from the title in fairly direct fashion.

The part of this story I like the most that I'm actually responsible for is the made-up comics. I'd love to read the Ubermutants/Bloodbuddies crossover, wouldn't you?

Mike Resnick rather liked this one. He'd be annoyed to find out that I sold it to a small-press publication (Maelstrom SF, specifically). Dave Felts, the editor at Maelstrom, said it was a shame none of the big magazines wanted it-- he called it a fun, well-written romp of a story. Which is all I ever wanted it to be.

For the record, I like the small press. I'm picky about which magazines I submit to, admittedly... but once all the major magazines pass on a story, I'd rather see it in print in a little magazine than let it rot in my trunk.

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