by Annalee Newitz

The first time I vaporized a car, it was because I was in love.

I was seventeen, and Lawrence had eyes like chips of black glass. We’d parked behind the donut shop, between two trash bins that blocked my car’s windows. I was on top of him when it happened, marveling at the way bones made a bas-relief map of his skin, willing every cell in my body to touch every cell in his. I bent down to kiss his lips but they weren’t there. The air was in confusion; my body sank into his as if he had become honey, and then steam.

We had trained ourselves in the silence of covert intimacy so thoroughly that I kept myself from screaming by reflex as Lawrence sublimated into thick vapor, our connection torn into its constituent molecules. And it didn’t stop there. I was so deep in concentration that I kept sinking through solids gone muddy, the old Chevy station wagon vaporizing around my body, hood and windows curling into steam. I disintegrated my way through a layer of reeking blacktop before I came to a stop, hands and knees planted in the stabilizing dirt. A melted blob of tar oozed down my bare back. When I stood, it was at ground zero of a car bomb explosion: a hole bitten into the ground, surrounded by a few distorted engine parts.

I walked home naked along one of those smog-shrouded highways that cut through even the most remote towns in Southern California.  Every time I stumbled into the light-puddles of street lamps, I wondered if the police would catch me. But the early-morning streets were deserted. In the morning, I told my father that I’d totaled the car and didn’t want to talk about it. Lawrence’s picture was in the paper: Local Boy Missing. Nobody even questioned me. Why would they? Our relationship was a secret. Lawrence was terrified that people would discover us stretched out half-naked on the Chevy’s carpet-covered cargo volume. We lived in a traditional-values town, and his family was churchy.

A prejudice that had once seemed like superstition at that moment mutated in my mind, becoming something truthful and portentous.

***

I went to college in a big city. Even five hundred miles away from my hometown, I was always just one thought away from the steaming hole where I’d deconstructed Lawrence. Somehow I had killed my boyfriend and melted my car, for reasons none of my materials science classes could explain. How could I make friends with my lab mates when I had done with my bare hands what they required lasers and liquid nitrogen to accomplish?

All the student groups set up tables in the campus plaza at lunchtime, and I wore earbuds to ignore everything from the Korean Christian Fellowship to US Out Of Iraq. But then something caught my eye: a poster taped to a flimsy card table. An incredible CGI rendering of a car blowing up, but instead of flames, it was surrounded by what looked like a halo of steam. I thought I was the only one who knew that cars could be converted into steam. I stared.

“You interested in saving nature from cars?” A woman in a torn black T-shirt and combat shorts stood up to hand me a flyer. “We’re having a meeting this week in the student center to organize a demo.”

I was so immersed in materials science research that I thought she meant they’d be demoing some kind of prototype technology that vaporized cars. Maybe their discovery could help me figure out what had happened to Lawrence. It wasn’t until I sat down with the group on some beaten-up sofas, my hands slick with sweat, that I realized she meant a political demonstration. A protest. The group was called the Green Liberation Army, and they were going to blow up some SUVs at a dealership in the city. The woman from the lunchtime table looked at me critically, then grimaced. “You look strong,” she said. “Do you want to get arrested?”

The seven other members of the Green Liberation Army looked at me. “We’re all going to get arrested,” one said. “Except Maria.” He hooked a thumb at the woman. “She does video.”

The tiny group with its violent purpose made me realize how lonely I was. Lawrence was the last person I’d shared anything with. As Maria waited for my answer, it occurred to me that maybe what had happened with Lawrence wasn’t my fault. Maybe the Chevy had caused it. Even as I thought it, I knew it didn’t make any sense. But I liked the way Maria looked at me.

“I know something about blowing up cars,” I said. I watched the reactions break over their faces as they tried to figure out why a person like me would know about that. But this was the city, so nobody asked.

Her face hardened into a smile. “What’s your name?”

“Long,” I said.

Four nights later, we crept into a parking lot full of SUV hulks, their candy colors leeched to grey by darkness. We used infrared LEDs to blind the security cameras, and each of us carried a hemp shopping bag full of liter-sized Pepsi containers, now full of gasoline. Maria shadowed us with the camera. She treated the whole thing like a gonzo indie film production, as if at any minute she’d whip out a huge, fake octopus and make us wrestle with it for the final showdown scene. Instead, she pulled a fat roll of firecrackers from her backpack and directed us to stop beneath the amber of a sodium streetlamp. Using a dirty roll of scotch tape, we attached firecrackers to the plastic bottles and put them under the rear bumpers of three cars. Maria ran past the leaking bottles, letting the camera jiggle in her hand. Shakycam establishing shots before the showy explosions. Now she was standing still, lining up the angles, her entire being poised between B-movie maker and political extremist.

“Wait–let me get the angle right,” Maria whispered as gas leaked slowly from a bottle. We all stepped back, waiting.

And then she gestured for us to light the firecrackers. The air fizzed with fire, and we ran to another row of cars, away from the booming heat, waiting to be arrested. Maria filmed until a distant siren noise sent her crashing up the fence and home, to upload what we’d done. I was as afraid as I’ve ever been, and I clutched the back of the SUV beside me, pressing my forehead against the crack between its back doors. I thought of Lawrence, how he yielded to me despite his fear, how painfully I had loved him. Perhaps my trauma was bound to the object world at nano scale, turning everything I touched into a novel hybrid material, its atomic structure knitted from carbon and anguish.

That’s when my head melted straight through the SUV’s back doors. The composite shell beneath my hands was boiling away into wisps of particles, the frame crumbling so fast that the SUV first seemed to kneel, then prostrate itself, then at last fall prone into a diminishing smear of sizzling matter.

“What…the…fuck,” somebody said through his mask beside me.

“That was awesome. How did you do that?”

The sirens were upon us, the car lot whirling with red and blue light.

“You’ve got to do that next time, so Maria can put it up on YouTube!”

They were all majoring in peace and conflict studies, so it was easy to lie and say that I’d sprayed the car with a special chemical we used in the molecular foundry lab. I knew now that what I’d done to Lawrence I could do again–and that I could even control it, at least a little. While we were in the back of the police van, I experimented with evaporating things, trying to melt the plastic cuff pinching my wrists. I concentrated on the covalent bonds holding them together, trying to reproduce the feeling I’d had just before the SUV dispersed. Instantly, my arms were free, though briefly wet.

At the station, all of us were processed and released. It turned out Maria had some kind of trust fund that involved lawyers and lots of money to spend on bailing out her activist friends whenever they got into trouble.

The Green Liberation Army wasted no time turning me into their citizen superhero, the Eco-Avenger. Ordinary people who dressed in costumes to fight crime were all the rage that year because of the TV series Who Wants To Be a Superhero? But most of the citizen superhero videos were just embarrassing–guys in masks and motorcycle jackets yelling at pot dealers in suburban parks. Maria got me some green coveralls and a ski mask, and filmed while I evaporated cars. She added little comic book bubbles to the videos that said things like, “Take that, environment-destroying gas guzzler!” Or “Once again, Eco-Avenger saves the world from the car menace!” She posted on citizen superhero websites and got her friends at the Environmental Graffiti blog to do a story about our work. Eventually BoingBoing linked to one of the videos, proclaiming me the coolest citizen superhero on the web, “Because the special effects are so good that it really looks like the Eco-Avenger has a superpower!”

Every time I ran my hands over an SUV and felt its electrons unzip, I had more questions. Where was all this disappeared mass going? You’d expect the demolished molecular bonds to release enough energy to throw me across the room, or explode, but instead there was only a cool mist. Maybe my power was teleportation, not demolition. I combed the web for stories of cars that had materialized out of nowhere and found nothing. My working theory was that my powers of destruction seemed to affect both mass and energy. Which made a weird kind of sense, but didn’t get me any closer to figuring out what had happened to Lawrence.

I finished my degree and took a research job at the molecular foundry, churning out invisible sheets of carbon molecules. The principle investigator in charge of the lab marveled at my dedication to the job, my dedication to driving polymers across a gold substrate, but it was all self-serving. I was trying to reverse engineer my power. Working at the lab allowed me to target objects with an extreme degree of granularity. I continued my work with the Green Liberation Army, but those experiments weren’t particularly helpful. When a car sublimated beneath my fingers I never knew exactly what I was doing. Who knew what substances were in those cars? In the lab, I could isolate and disintegrate.

And just maybe regenerate.

At last, early one morning in the empty lab, I managed to roll my own carbon nanotube. I got so excited that it puffed out of existence immediately. So I repeated the experiment, painstakingly, over a period of months. I began to work on more complicated objects, conjuring blood out of air and lung tissue out of salt. When I felt a solid object curling out of the atoms in my hands, I imagined its substance coming from everything I had taken apart and sent whirling into subatomic space. All the matter I had disappeared was coming back to me.

***

In spring, I returned to the town where Lawrence and I grew up. Six years ago, almost to the week, I had reduced Lawrence to vapor. Now I would use my powers to rebuild him from the subatomic particles he’d left between those two trash bins.

The crater had been filled in with new asphalt long ago, and the donut shop was gone. It didn’t matter. I stood in the middle of the parking lot, feeling every particle that moved through me. Closing my eyes, I extended my arms and remembered how it felt to run my fingers over Lawrence’s body. His hair was thick, his collar bone sharp, veins ran in soft bulges down his inner arms, and his muscles were always bunched into hypervigilance. I tasted him in my mouth; I translated photons into lipids. At first I was uncertain, but then I could feel the shreds of his molecular structure arriving, growing, bursting out of nothing into my waiting hands. The air grew cloudy with his assembling tissues. It was really him; he was emerging into naked, wet solidity.

Just as I could see the outlines of his face, he imploded, collapsing into a cooling solid which I could barely control. There was only one thing I could do if I wanted to keep the matter I had conjured from dispersing: extemporize. I gathered what remained of him between the parentheses of my hands, squeezing his particles into an ultra-dense torus. What clanged to the ground looked exactly like a gold wedding band. Lawrence could fit on my ring finger, but he weighed as much as he had in life.

It was a hard thing, dragging him home.

I brought Lawrence to work inside a reinforced steel box that fitted onto a handcart. I had a lot of crazy ideas, thoughts about how I could rebuild him. Maybe I could bury him, and grow his body out of the mineral-rich earth? Or bring him to the tissue engineering lab, and try to situate him inside already-existing flesh?

I was contemplating these possibilities when Maria sent me a text. She was moving to L.A. to work on a feature, and tonight would be our last car disintegration video. “Can u meet at shipyards b4 light gives out?” she asked. I could.

When I arrived, pulling Lawrence behind me, she was the only person there. The other members of the Green Liberation Army were apparently busy at their office jobs. Maria was leaning against a brand-new Rav4, eating salad out of a plastic yogurt container.

“Do you think you could make this car melt while it’s moving?” She asked. “It would look so cool to show the car rotting from the inside out! I could mount the camera on the dashboard and film the whole thing while driving.”

As Maria explained the setup to me, she blocked out each shot with her hands. I was going to miss talking openly to somebody about vaporization. Maybe Maria didn’t know that my power came from something beyond the understanding of science, but she’d seen me use it more times than anyone. And until today, she’d always wanted more. Before I could lose my nerve, I put my hands on her bare arms and kissed her on the mouth.

“If this is our last video, let’s really make it memorable,” I said.

She didn’t look surprised.

We opened the hatchback and pulled ourselves inside. I hoisted Lawrence’s box in behind us, the handcart banging over the bumper. Somehow we wormed out of our clothes in the cramped space. As I kissed her neck, I thought about how all human skin feels more or less the same. Bodies are interchangeable if you consider them from the perspective of very small surface areas. I straddled her and listened to the sound of our breathing. The windows began to fog up and I grabbed the box to hold myself steady. It popped open and Lawrence rolled out, coming to rest next to her shoulder.

Maybe this was what I’d wanted all along.

I touched the ring and Lawrence streamed through me, replacing every molecule in her body with one of his. I couldn’t stop. I was pouring him into her. Maria’s eyes faded to dark and her chest broadened.  Squirming and changing, she hovered in a vague space between herself and Lawrence. I could see every outline of his body in her.

“I have wanted to see you like this for so long,” I whispered to him.

“Where are we?” he asked. “What–why is it light outside?”

I started to babble, crying and hiccupping. “Lawrence, I love you. I’ve missed you so much.” I buried my wet face in his dark hair.

He put his arms around me, solidifying, and we completed our six-year-old kiss. A haze hung over his skin as I banished the last of Maria from her own body.

“What happened? Did I pass out?”

I hadn’t thought about what I’d do when Lawrence returned. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, in the back of my now-disappeared friend’s about-to-be-melted SUV. With no other options, I held both his hands and spilled the truth, starting with what I called “the accident” six years ago. Lawrence had spent a summer doing science camp at a particle accelerator, so he understood what I was describing–though, like me, he must have been confused by the “how” part. His face settled into a thoughtful expression.

“Do you think your friend is dead? The person whose body you turned into mine?”

“I don’t think so–I mean, I was able to reconstruct you from molecules behind the donut shop. But I’m not sure I could do that with Maria.”

He looked down at our joined hands. “So it’s been six years? My family must have given up looking for me.”

“I don’t know.” A flare of the old pain from our relationship hit me. I was the shameful thing in his life, the secret he kept from his family and the town. But now he was unmoored. I’d liberated him from every stupid, fake barrier of our old lives. “They can’t come between us now,” I said.

“What are you talking about? You don’t even know my family.”

I’d rehearsed this conversation with my memory of him so many times that I’d forgotten the real Lawrence and I never spoke about why we kept our secret. We just kept it. “I guess what I meant was that nobody would judge us for being together here in the city. You know, the way they would have back home.”

“I don’t think anybody is judging us.”

“Then why did we have to hide from everybody that we were dating? Why didn’t we ever go to your house for dinner? Or to mine?”

Lawrence shook his head, looking very young and confused. He pulled on Maria’s pants and T-shirt. They fit him perfectly. In all those years since the accident, it never occurred to me that Lawrence hadn’t planned to escape our old lives. Hadn’t wanted to change anything. Was it only me who was upset by living in a place where we could only express ourselves freely inside a gas guzzler parked between two giant piles of trash?

“Want to take a drive?” I asked. It was our old code, the phrase I’d used in high school to mean “let’s make out behind the donut shop.” He never refused, and today was no different.

We crossed the bridge into downtown, but it felt like we were crossing over to another reality. Since the accident I’d imagined this thousands of times: Lawrence alive beside me, in a car that was the historical precursor of the SUV I drove now. This is what it could have been like between us all along, if only we’d come from a place where people accepted us. But maybe that wasn’t true after all.

I drove into the hills, then parked on a cul-de-sac with a view of the bay. Lawrence sat next to me on a bench and held my hand. It was the first time we’d ever touched outside a car.

“You look different,” he said. “Your hair looks good short like that.”

“I cut it in sophomore year,” I replied, then realized that no time had passed for him. “When I was in college,” I added.

A ripple of pale skin worked its way up Lawrence’s arm, then broke in a wave over his face. A thin slice of Maria’s features moved across his, then stopped once they formed a vertical stripe over his forehead, nose and mouth. The effect was theatrical rather than grotesque, until Maria’s voice came out.

“Long? I can’t see anything!” She was panicked. “What happened? Did something go wrong with the demo?”

Her panic spread to Lawrence’s eyes, trapped in that shared face. I ignored Maria’s question, searched out and vaporized her. Slowly the brown of Lawrence’s skin bled into Maria’s whiteness and his lips returned to form an unhappy line.

“Is that going to keep happening to me?” he asked. “I thought you said Maria had evaporated.”

“I guess part of her is still in there.” I was miserable. “I told you that I still don’t really understand how my power works. I tried to use her body as a fiber substrate to grow your cells on, like they do in tissue engineering. But most of my experience is with metals. I’m sorry–I screwed up.”

Lawrence wiped the tears off my face and sighed.

“Where do you think the rest of Maria is?” he asked.

“Probably in the SUV.”

“Maybe if we went back inside the car, you could drain the rest of her into it? I can’t deal with being like this.”

We returned to the car. Sunset light slanted through the windows, ribbing the entire cargo volume with what looked like glowing skin. I put one hand on Lawrence’s warm chest and one hand on the molded plastic of the car interior.

Smoke dribbled from Lawrence’s eyes, leaving grainy streaks on his cheeks as it tumbled and spread toward the material of the car frame.

Maria’s face rose out of the fake leather front seat, sliding like oil over its surface until she faced us. Her vinyl eyes narrowed, and then she was gone.

Lawrence looked at me in silence, his face smudged with what remained of her absence. “I have to go home and find my family,” he said at last.

“You can stay here, stay with me. We don’t ever have to go back there.”

Frowning, he shook his head. “What am I going to do here? I haven’t even graduated from high school. Plus…” he trailed off, touching the seat where Maria had emerged. “This is too weird for me.”

“I worked all these years to bring you back because I love you, Lawrence. I know you feel the same way. You don’t have to go back there.”

But Lawrence was already raising the back door of the SUV and leaving. “I don’t know how I feel,” he said. “I just want to go home.”

Lawrence used my cell to call his family. They only spoke Korean, but I heard him use my name between incomprehensible syllables. By the time he’d gotten off the phone, they’d bought him a plane ticket. None of my fantasies about bringing him back to life involved driving him to the airport, helping him return to what he used to be.

“Thanks,” he said. “For bringing me back.” We were outside the terminal, surrounded by cars and people. I could tell he didn’t want to kiss me goodbye in front of the crowds. Or maybe he just didn’t want to kiss me at all. For the second time in my life, Lawrence was gone without explanation.

***

I drove that SUV everywhere, waiting for Maria to reappear. Sometimes when I was winding up the hilly roads above the university, toward the molecular foundry, I thought I heard her muttering. But when I looked for her face, when I touched the body of the car to find her atomic structure, she wasn’t there. Still, I’ll never let go of that car. One day, she might unfurl from its surface like a vengeful spirit: the eco-terrorist in the machine.

These days I use my powers mostly to create non-reproducible results in the lab where I work. The P.I. has gotten almost superstitious about me: somehow, when I’m working on her experiments, we are able to fabricate almost anything. Our nanocars cruise gracefully across flakes of gold, carrying their single molecule payloads. But when I’m not running the experiments, things break down. A random nucleotide stalls out, or a sheet of carbon atoms refuses to form.

Sometimes the whole lab group goes out drinking and tries to get me to come along, or one of the researchers says that I really should come with him to see the new Avengers movie. But I don’t. Instead, I go for a long drive, far out into the redwood forests where Green Liberationists and SUVs are equally at home. I think about whether I should vaporize the car the way Maria wanted, leaving her to hover forever among ancient trees. I think about the single e-mail Lawrence wrote me from college, where he’s majoring in philosophy and trying to forget everything he knows about physics.

The P.I. needs my help to make her experiments work now, but I’m just an interim phase. One day, there will be molecular foundries everywhere, mass producing the powers that manifested in me by accident.

That’s what gives me comfort, when I lie down on top of the SUV that is partly made of Maria and stare up through redwoods at an ocean’s reflection. In a century or two, I’ll be replaced by machines. When that happens, the only romantic relationship of my life will make sense outside the laboratory.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, and has written about science for Wired, Popular Science, Discover, and other publications. She is writing a novel about pirates and pharmaceutical corporations.

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