CHAPTERS 33-35

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE—SPARK

Heather sat with her back propped up against the wall, a hardbound biochemistry journal in her lap, which James had given her to read to assess any differences in her cognitive processes with the neural network. Without raising her face, she glanced above the edge of the book and her bent knees, to where James hunched over a workstation across the room, picking apart the device that reminded her of a turkey baster. He dropped a couple of screws in a plastic tray, pulled out a wire-laced internal component, squinted at it, then scribbled something in the open notebook on the edge of the fray.

He had consented to trying to sleep outside the lab the night before instead of the bedroll in the other room, and she had hoped he’d return a little more lucid, ready to pool their resources to break whatever hold Benson had over him. But that morning, James had come in with a stack of academic journals and with the same weary, haunted countenance as he tried to explain why he wanted her to read through them.

Heather was mostly reading them for something to do now, though she didn’t understand most of it. Robotic or not, she had only a basic frame of reference for Western Blots, receptor families and ion channels, and understood little of the journals’ frenzied insistence on abbreviating absolutely everything. It was nice of him to remember she found cell biology interesting, but now the mention of science of any kind set a sour buzz through her circuits.

She wished he would make a gesture that counted, give her the information she needed to escape, tell her he was coming with her instead of insisting whenever she brought it up that they couldn’t do anything. She refused to believe that this was it for her, that the consequences of his stupid need to do whatever he wanted would imprison her in this hell of a facility for the rest of her life—however frighteningly long it would be now.

She thought of a sleepy, anxious morning ages ago, when she had met a young engineer who appreciated her love of academics, who understood the deep frustration of feeling like they were starting over from scratch, eager to just get the transition over with. Whose shy, uncertain trust she had won over, whose friendship she had carefully cultivated, spurred by her own pathetic need to be needed.

Heather had just wanted a place in her parents’ secret world. She’d had no idea how deep she would fall. 

She turned a page, dismally trying to make sense of a graph. All the information from the previous pages was stored in her memory as soon as it met her eyes. A lot of it she had recorded but not retained, kept on file in photographic format. As she read on, trying to recall and apply the information, more of it assimilated in the imageless integration she was used to, back when her brain was organic. The more she practiced with it, the more the surface photographic memory moved toward something more useful. Some of it knit itself in right away without first sitting in that photographic stage.

It was similar enough, but her drastically enhanced memory retention felt so alien. She could glaze over information, choose not to read certain paragraphs, but her brain had still pulled and stored some of it, subconsciously. It felt more computer than human.

Meanwhile, James continued to tinker away, his neck craned downward, occasionally pausing to type on the keyboard of his laptop which was also tucked among the strewn pieces. He appeared to be doing exactly what Benson wanted him to do, and Heather kept wondering if there really was a point trying to keep him on her side.

At least the odd mood swings and glitch-ing were subsiding. Larkspur’s android was mostly quiet now, but she knew she would never feel at home in it. She never wanted to. 

She glanced toward the door. James hadn’t taken off her ankle tether, so she couldn’t make a run for it without first figuring out how to get that off. She had watched her dad and his colleagues construct the body she now inhabited, so she knew her foot wouldn’t come off easily.

She considered the contraption around her ankle. When James was absent overnight, she had made every experiment she could with it. It was tight, tough, and she would have thought her robotic hands would have the strength to rip through it, but she couldn’t even snap it from the leg of the counter. She’d tested the strength of the counter legs as well—they looked like wood but the centers were metal. She’d taken a second crack at pulling them from the floor, with no success.

James would have to be the one to remove the tether, but there was no way he’d do it.

She watched him work, studious and oblivious, even while Benson had broken him, ignoring her gaze on his back. Even now, he just buried himself as he’d always done, pushing away the things he didn’t want to feel when she most direly needed the empathetic human parts of him to come to the surface.

But he just kept working, and in the silence, Heather’s desire to keep him on her side waned. As it slowly suffocated, she felt a small, justified resentment flickering to life in its place like a pilot light. She considered its heat, and she let it stay.

Better to feel hatred, she thought, than despair.

+

Richard had a pit in his stomach as he arrived at Larkspur the next morning with his laptop and Sesame’s neural network tucked carefully in his bag. 

He and Sue had spent most of the night with Sesame going through his memories, but Sesame had only personally seen Michael Benson a handful of times at best. James had mostly kept him at Larkspur.

They had gleaned that James had been staying on campus at Empetrum over the last month or so, after Richard had asked him to discontinue the neural transfer project. When James brought Sesame to Empetrum, he had kept him in the apartment, so Sesame had actually seen very little action as far as the goings-on of the facility. 

They did have visuals, however. Richard had directed Sesame to take screen shots, of the location, the grounds, the on-campus housing, the main facility from the outside and whatever Sesame had seen within, as well as small glimpses of scenery on the commute, though James had kept Sesame’s box under the dashboard on the passenger side, so the robot’s view out the window had been extremely limited. 

Besides guards, the only person Sesame had seen at Empetrum was Michael, and despite Richard’s hopes that James had talked to the robot about his activities at Empetrum, he hadn’t. At this point, they could still only speculate on whether or not the clinical prototype had been constructed, and what James had since done with it.

They followed Sesame’s memories all the way up to when James pulled his neural network and hid it. Richard couldn’t get the lead up out of his head. James had been acting normal and positive driving to Empetrum Friday night, dropped Sesame off in the apartment, and left. 

He had come back shortly after, pallid and agitated. Sesame had watched him rush around, packing, running his hand through his hair, muttering to himself too quietly to make out. He had tugged a suitcase out the door, come back, gathered up Sesame and some notebooks, then had driven back to his apartment in Worthing.

There was something on the table with a note. James left Sesame across the room, and Sesame had watched him pick up a small black device in shaking hands. James didn’t touch the note, so from Sesame’s vantage point, he didn’t know what it said. 

It had been hard to watch. James was upset all weekend, tearing apart his apartment looking for something, leaving Sesame alone, forgotten on the end table by the door. Sesame stayed still, observing everything, feeling safer not drawing attention to himself, as he had explained to Richard and Sue later.

Finally, in the early light of Monday morning, James emerged from his bedroom disheveled and distracted. He lingered in the opening to the hallway, ran a hand through his hair again. Something occurred to him, and he looked up, making eye contact with Sesame, tired, frightened, trapped.

James strode across the room into the kitchen, and Sesame heard him digging in drawers. After a few minutes, James had copped together tools and containers and then he retrieved Sesame’s box and put it on the table. 

Sesame tried to escape as the lid of his box came off, sensing something bad was about to happen, but James caught him easily, pulled up the panel in Sesame’s back to access his neural network. Then the recording that Sesame had played Richard and his colleagues fell into place with so much new, terrible context:

Sorry to do this to you Sesame…

Richard, if you end up having access to this: Whatever happens between now and your finding this message…I’m sorry.

Richard arrived at the top of the stairs and started down the hallway, passing his office to first see if Eve was there yet. 

She was.

“Morning, Rich,” Eve said gently, logging into her computer. “Any luck?”

“Nothing new about Benson,” Richard admitted. “But got some visuals on Empetrum, and when James’ actions started falling apart. Friday was the turning point, I think.” He set his bag down on the desk, and carefully got out Sesame’s setup so he could participate.

When he opened the laptop, Sesame’s makeshift voice spoke up, “James was happy Friday, then he was scared.”

“I see…” Eve produced an envelope from her briefcase and handed it to Richard. “I found those photos I mentioned.”

There were only a few. At the top of the thin stack was a photograph of Eve, twenty years younger, and three others: a tall man with sharp features and gray hair, a younger individual on Eve’s right side who had a similar nose and was just as gray, despite appearing to be in his late thirties. The man to the right had his arm around the shoulders of a boy of about ten, with thick rimmed glasses and cow-licked brown hair. The boy’s features were softer and chubbier than the man from Sesame’s memories, but Richard could see the resemblance.

Eve had rounded the desk to view the pictures with him. “None of the Bensons liked pictures taken of them. I used to tease Lawrence about it…” She indicated each one with her finger. “This one is Lawrence, to my left. That’s his son to my right, Henry, who worked briefly at Larkspur as a biochemist. And then this is Michael, Henry’s son. I remember Michael was a good kid. Bright, but painfully shy. As different as night and day next to Lawrence’s confident charisma, but Lawrence adored his grandson.”

Richard stared at the photo for several moments longer, his attention on Lawrence. He had never seen his face before, only heard his name.

Richard moved the top photo to the back and sifted through the others Eve had found of Michael. One was candid, of the boy watching his grandfather work with a microscope, and in the other, he was trying on a lab coat and looking very uncomfortable to have suddenly found himself faced with a camera lens.

“Sesame,” Richard said. “Could you pull up a picture of the man James was talking to, for comparison?”

Sesame complied and Richard held the third photo up beside it.

“Yeah, that’s him all right,” Eve hummed.

“May I see the photos?” Sesame said.

As Richard held up the photographs for the laptop’s webcam, Eve wearily took a seat on the edge of her desk. “I never learned for sure,” she said. “But I think Henry was helping with Lawrence’s awful project. He feigned ignorance when asked about it, but then he disappeared too.”

“Empetrum can’t be that far away, if James was doubling up,” Richard said.

“That’s very true,” Eve mused. She sighed. “To think the Bensons were this close all along.”

“Be careful if we find it,” Sesame said. “There were lots of guards around, and I do not think Michael will welcome us.”

Richard and Eve nodded in dismal agreement.

“Do you think it was Lawrence who set this up, or could it have been Henry?” Richard said. “Or maybe Michael took the initiative all on his own later on?” He considered the photo of all three Bensons. “Sesame, while we work on your body today, can you see if you can find where the Bensons ended up after the fallout with Larkspur?”

“On it,” Sesame said.

“You may not find anything about the scandal,” Eve said. “The government didn’t want to be publicly associated with what happened, so they did everything they could to cover it up. That’s partly how Larkspur was able to downsize, relocate, and continue to operate underground from the east coast.”

Richard looked at her, shocked. “Why did the government bother to cover it up? Couldn’t they have just said, ‘We didn’t authorize this.’ and moved on?”

Eve looked worried. “I guess I didn’t really question it. At the time, I was swamped in running damage control, while dealing with the loss of an old and dear friend. Up until that point, I had trusted Lawrence implicitly, and I never expected he harbored the capacity to hurt people like that. After everything was said and done, I was just relieved—selfishly, perhaps—that the government had put out most of the fires, and kept it away from us.”

Richard’s gaze fell. He glanced at Sesame’s activated webcam, wishing he knew what the ex-mouse was thinking. “Is it possible Lawrence disappeared after Larkspur to create Empetrum?”

“It’s certainly something I wouldn’t put past him,” Eve said. “But the Larkspur thing got him blacklisted. No self-respecting biotech company would ever hire him after the public outrage that erupted, and his unethical project had every hallmark of being an exorbitantly expensive, multi-decade undertaking, with little promise of return. Even disreputable sponsors would see it as a colossal waste of time and resources.” 

The laptop piped up, “Richard, Eve?”

“Yes?” 

“I found an obituary.”

Richard stiffened but Eve was the first to speak, “Whose?”

“Lawrence Benson,” Sesame said. An image pulled up onto the screen and the two engineers crowded in to read it. It wasn’t much, just a passing mention in a newspaper for a town in the central region of the country. It didn’t offer any new information, saying he was a biochemist, survived by a son and grandson, whose names were not provided.

Richard squinted at it, confused.

“That’s the town he was from,” Eve said. “I imagine he still has family in the area that would have wanted to know.”

“Who would have submitted it to that local paper?” Richard said. “Henry? Michael?”

“Either one, I guess,” Eve said. “Letting relatives know while staying off the grid.” She breathed an incredulous exhale, pressing a hand to her forehead and straightening up to pace. “Three years? He’s been dead for three years? So then is it really Michael pulling the strings?”

“I am looking for Henry,” Sesame said.

Eve halted her pacing and turned to look at the computer.

“We cannot talk to Lawrence,” Sesame explained. “And even though I am curious about Michael, we know all that matters about him for the present situation. The trails for him and Lawrence are sparse, but I am finding information on Henry Benson more easily. He reappeared the same year Lawrence died, and does not seem to be making an effort to cover his tracks now.”

Richard readjusted his glasses and exchanged a glance with his coworker. “Do you think he would help us?”

Eve’s brow furrowed. She ventured forward. “I guess it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”

“He seems to have changed his phone number a lot in the last few years,” Sesame said, and as he did, a number came up on the screen, as well as pictures taken by surveillance cameras. Richard marveled at how quickly Sesame was able to access such information. “I think this may be his current one. It is for this man. His most recent address is local, which seems strange. Is this Henry Benson?”

Eve leaned forward again, studying the photos. Richard looked at the physical photograph in his hand, and extended it to place it up against the screen. He was older, with heavy bags under his eyes and a forehead creased in a way that made Richard think he had spent most of the last twenty years worried. 

But it was him.

Eve was silent for a long, intense moment. Finally, she tugged her cellphone from the pocket of her slacks.

“You just earned yourself a damn good body, Sesame,” she muttered, thumbing in and double-checking the numbers before raising the phone to her ear.

+

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR—CANDOR  

James hadn’t left the lab in eight hours. Soldering, smothering, dissociating. Almost a week after Heather’s death, as she considered it, he was starting to exhibit some form of stable schedule. He averaged five hours of sleep per night, not that it helped.

Heather sat on the counter, her back propped against the wall between windows with her arms crossed, watching him.

Even though he was constantly in his lab, they barely spoken to each other, even when he had installed a time-keeping device in her head to see if she could integrate it. She adapted it with no problems, and now she could better measure out her robotic purgatory. Lucky her.

For a while, she had hoped maybe he was developing his own escape plan, pretending to work on what Benson wanted but creating something that could help them escape instead.

But all he devoted all his attention now to that turkey baster thing, reading the stack of papers, soldering and programming on other scraps of metal she hadn’t bothered to ask about. Probably more stuff he’d soon plug into her neural network.

None of it mattered, anyway, she supposed. Both their lives were forfeit, thanks to him. True, Benson had been pulling the strings, if what James said was correct, but James had still let himself be forced into it. He was the one that had gone behind their backs.

Heather had liked to think she could never hate, or even dislike someone. But James’ presence was suffocating, his submission disgusting, and she had never hated anyone as much as she had come to hate him. She watched him work from afar, her hostility building until, finally, she just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Could you go work somewhere else?” she asked tersely. “You don’t have to babysit me.”

“I’m not babysitting you,” James said quietly.

“So can you move?”

James stopped soldering and turned to look at her, confused. “Why?”

Heather crossed her arms and looked away.

After a period of silence, in which James waited for her to add something else, he finally turned back to his work, his shoulders tight.

“I would have started school today,” she said, glaring coldly out the window. The grass had been shriveling in the late summer heat, but the massive thunderstorm that had passed through over the weekend had renewed it. “My life was about to start again, and maybe things were going to be better, between private school and Larkspur. You killed me right on time, to make sure I never got to see it.”

“I wouldn’t have done it if I had a choice,” James said, without looking at her, his voice a tired monotone. “Believe me, I tried so hard to find another way.”

“But I don’t believe you, James,” she said. “I think, deep down, you wanted to do it. You wanted this to happen—to get back at my dad for turning down your horrible mad science project.”

James’ hands ceased working as the tension in the room grew. “That’s absolutely not true.”

“Then why didn’t you fight it?” She sat up straighter. “Why didn’t you run when you still had a chance?” 

“I didn’t know it would come to this.” James swiveled in his chair to face her. He was actually getting defensive, she noted venomously. “Because, you know, typically, when a guy tries to quit his job, the company lets him. They don’t go ballistic and force him to experiment on the people he cares about—”

“Don’t ever say that again,” Heather snapped.

“What?”

“That you care.”

James stared at her, stricken. The more feeling he showed, the more Heather hated him.

“Maybe I should just wipe my memory,” she said. “Delete my capacity for emotion. Forget I was ever human so I can at least enjoy my pseudo-immortality, because who knows how long this insane battery will hold out. I’ll outlive everyone. I’ll always be alone.”

James blanched. “Heather, please don’t. You still have so much to live for—”

“Oh, do I?” She glared at his miserable, worried expression. “Wouldn’t it be easier for you if I just made myself forget? You could forget too—forget we were even friends. That you ever had to pretend I meant anything to you.”

“You really think that, do you?” James said. 

“I get it. It’s easier to conform.” Heather threw up her hands. “So go ahead! Fall into line! Obey these monsters. Do whatever you have to do to save yourself, but do me a favor and quit pretending you ever wanted to make any of this right. Because you never actually cared about me, or about any of us who supported you. I understand that now.” She turned her face away again, buzzing a short, bitter scoff. “I never belonged anywhere, and now I absolutely never will. I’m such an idiot for trusting you, for thinking you could ever be a good person with your rabid perfectionism complex.” She wished she could cry, that she could feel the cathartic force of a shout leaving her throat and lungs and get some release from the loathing and sorrow raging inside her. 

But she only had simulated sound, trapped inside a cold, artificial body, left to drown.  

“I can be so idealistic sometimes, it makes me sick.” She watched a guard patrolling far by the fence out the window, her eyes narrowed in pain. “Maybe I deserved this.”

Silence closed in. It dragged on for an eternity, yet the clock in her head measured it as 16.32 seconds long. She glanced at James with only her eyes, wondering if maybe he’d left the room or died in the interim.

He was staring at her, his red-rimmed hazel eyes wide and horrified.

“But that’s—” James finally found his voice. “You can’t possibly believe that I—” he choked on his words, “—that I never cared.” He got to his feet, slowly. “I betrayed you. I hurt you. I made a mess of both our lives. I understand, okay?” His hands curled into fists at his sides, and his voice ticked up a notch as the emotion started spilling out. “You didn’t deserve this, Heather. All right? You did nothing wrong. This is my fault. I deserved this.” Heather straightened slowly, surprised. Over the last week, she’d seen a variety of novel strong emotions from James, ranging from terror to remorse to hyperventilation, but never had she seen him as purely angry as he was in that moment. “How else can I explain that this wasn’t supposed to happen? And now, if I do anything, the consequences will fall on you, not me. He will separate us! He will kick me out and keep you here, and I’ve already hurt you so much already, I can’t let anything else happen. What I’m doing now, this is the only way I can protect you!” He was shaking. Tears were coming. James was ugly and pathetic when he cried. “You couldn’t have known things would end up this way, and I certainly didn’t either. So I know everything’s on fire because of my mistakes, but this is on me, Heather.” He gripped the front of his shirt, as if he could feel himself coming undone. “You can say or do anything you want to me, but don’t you dare take this out on yourself. Ever.
Heather blinked, dumbstruck.

He pulled back a little, and a look of realization and shock came into his flushed, tearful face as he realized what he’d just done. He spun around and made briskly for the door, rubbing at his eyes. “I’m sorry. I need air—I’m sorry.”

Heather started toward the edge of the counter after him, but stopped herself.

James slipped through the door. She heard a door swing shut across the hallway.

Slowly, Heather’s face fell, and she scooted back against the wall and hugged her knees. She’d finally gotten him to crack, to yell at her, to rage about the sick, unfair situation they were caught up in. Alone in the lab, in the oppressive, vacuous silence left in James’ wake, she didn’t know what to feel anymore.

She just felt worse. More betrayed, more alone.

Grotesque. Alien. Lost.

Her whole life, the people she had wanted most to trust her only embraced her when it suited them. She had been kept on the sidelines in the name of her own protection. And just when it seemed like she was finding her place, she realized she fit even less. 

She had had a life in Dunesborough back east. She wasn’t popular in her class, but she had acquaintances, study buddies. Teachers liked her, and she was on friendly terms with the kids of her parents’ friends. But that wasn’t good enough, was it?

Nothing had ever been good enough. She had been insecure about her organic body, frustrated by the distance from her peers, by her parents keeping Larkspur a secret, and bitter that she’d had to overhaul her life for those secrets. She had always felt lacking, unnecessary in the lives of those who meant the most to her.

Strapped in the middle of a nightmare with a cowardly, shell-shocked engineer, with no word whatsoever from her parents, that old stack of insecurities and disappointments felt like the best thing in the world now.

+

Erika was doing pushups in her cell. She planted all four hands, trying to put as much weight on the arms off her back as possible. They had only existed for ten days, and she still couldn’t trust much weight to them, but they could build muscle. She intended to build them up until she could walk on them if necessary.

With as large as they were, maybe they could one day be strong enough to throw somebody. While she had nothing else to do, she resolved to do whatever she could to make them useful, to bolster the careful physical therapy Yeun was doing with them, maybe to eventually use against her captors.

Now that the exhaustion from the gene therapy and activation was finally wearing off, Erika was getting her strength back. 

She figured her behavior would be noted, but let them suspect. Let them prepare. 

Erika Davenport hadn’t given up yet.

+

James sat on the floor in the storage closet across from his lab, his face bowed and his fingers clawed in his disheveled hair. The dimness of the space was quiet and placid—a kinder sort of darkness than the one screaming in his chest. His whole body was ablaze with it, the grief and pain that everything he hated about himself had burst out and overtaken those he had dared to grow attached to. His selfish, obsessive naivety. He’d suspected it wasn’t amazingly healthy, but he had never believed it could be so destructive.

Why was this happening? he thought, his head aching. Why had this been allowed to happen? Heather was just a kid.

If only she had never met him. If only he had never even existed.

His face was hot, and he brushed at the persistent tide of tears leaking from his eyes, but he couldn’t stop crying. How dare he weep over this, some deep part of him that sounded a lot like his father whispered. Was he crying for Heather, or for himself? His own pain, his own regret? He couldn’t tell for sure.

He just couldn’t tell anymore.

His pager beeped in the pocket of his slacks. His arm felt like stone as he twisted to retrieve the device and read the message: 

Please come to my office.

His hand tightened on it. He raised his arm to hurl it across the room, smash it to pieces against the wall, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow through.

He thumped the back of his head once against the door. Finally, he typed, I didn’t tell her anything, just got emotional. I’m sorting it out.

Benson had traumatized him enough. The director didn’t need to see the state he was in.He bent over, leaning his forehead on his drawn-up knees and closed his eyes. He was so tired.

The pager beeped again. 

Now.

Slowly, with great effort, James replied. On my way.

He dragged himself to his feet, pulled a paper towel from a nearby dispenser and dried his eyes as best as he could. Finally, he opened the door, letting light spill into his hiding place. The guard waited for him across the hallway, and nodded for him to proceed alone. James complied. 

The director’s office was open, and James hung in the doorway.

Benson folded his hands on top of his desk, expectant. “Come in, Siles.”

James wandered forward and sat down in the chair in front of the desk.

“Care to explain your outburst down in your lab just now?”

James leaned forward, resting his face in his hands. He shook his head. 

After a calculated silence, Benson said. “I’m not going to consider what just happened between you and Ms. Brophy as going against our agreement, but I do need you to make an effort to move past this, for both of your sakes.”

James didn’t respond.

“I know our line of work isn’t easy,” Benson went on. “That’s why you must establish your frameworks, draw lines and keep yourself steady. If you can’t do that, you’re setting yourself up for wasted time and avoidable mistakes, which could easily make Ms. Brophy’s sacrifice worth nothing in the end.”

James could only shake his head again. He felt like he was going to throw up.

“Why are you still keeping her in your lab?” the director asked, quietly. “Why insist on torturing yourself like this?”

“I…” James started. He didn’t owe Benson an explanation, but he had no one else to talk to. He still couldn’t fathom what he had done, and bearing it alone poisoned him more every day. “I don’t want her to feel like I’ve abandoned her—any more than she already does, I guess.” He wanted to be on her side, but couldn’t be in the ways that mattered. 

Benson didn’t respond right away, and instead sat still, observing him. The longer the silence continued, the more certain James became that he had made a mistake in being honest. He should have tried to come up with something clinical in response, try to make it seem like he had accepted his responsibilities, his imprisonment. Maybe then Benson would release him from his office, instead of inquiring after his broken spirit as if it even made a difference to him.

Because nobody really cared much about James as a person, always more about what he could deliver. His cursed potential. As long as he performed well, what did it matter that he hated himself? That all his relationships were broken and he had never known how to repair any of them?

Heather had cared before all this happened. But she, too, had wanted something from him that he couldn’t give her, because James probably wasn’t even human.

“You should try to free yourself from that sentimentality before it really begins to interfere with your work,” Benson said finally.

James nodded, his face turned toward the floor. Desensitization. James had to admit it sounded appealing. He was so incredibly tired of hurting, of feeling guilty for hurting. Of trying to explain himself.

He had tried shutting down his weak, mewling heart before, hadn’t he? When he was a child at university, trying to convince himself that academics were the only thing that ever mattered and that friendship and belonging were luxuries afforded to those who had something he obviously did not.

“Do you have any more pressing tests to complete with Ms. Brophy?” Benson asked. “Besides the device to control her, which I hope you’ll be finishing soon?”

“Just that one,” James murmured. “And yes, I’ll be finishing it soon.” He had opted for a pain simulator, a crueler device than paralysis-on-demand, but while the latter would simply physically disrupt conduction of her robotic spinal cord wherever the device was attached, the pain simulator was complex and software-based, something he hoped she could learn to override.

“Good. Then I would like you to move her into one of the cells downstairs so she isn’t a distraction. Keep your distance until you need to install that device, give yourself time for the dust to settle. You can’t let things carry on like this with her in your lab.”

He was especially afraid to leave her alone after their last argument, but he felt relief, too, that his exhausted, traumatized mind had finally been given permission to pull away.

+

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE—WITHDRAWAL

In the empty lab, Heather reviewed her argument with James with a mix of anger, sadness, and unease.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

She had only ever done her best to make him feel like his desires mattered, even if his methods were unorthodox. They were friends. She had been proud of him. She’d trusted him.

James was a fire. Bright, intense, and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. She had thought he was going to better the world with that insuppressible electrical current of his, but instead, he had burnt her life down, and all he had to offer in the aftermath were incomplete explanations, and stuttered, weak apologies, as if that could ever mean anything. He could never make any of this right, and how dare he just accept that.

Part of her wanted to forgive him just to prove to herself she hadn’t been beaten yet, that something could still be done. But more and more, she found herself wondering if there was even a point in trying to escape at all.

She watched the goings on of the grounds outside. Guards chatting, birds foraging in the bushes. Far above, a jet traced a small white trail across the sky. She wondered if it was even possible for her to clear her own memory, as she’d threatened. She was afraid to try. 

It hurt too much to remember what she had been, what she could never be again. As she sat there alone, she gradually realized her mom and dad still probably wanted her back, freakish robot hybrid or not. She supposed that was enough incentive to keep freedom on her mind for now.

If James wasn’t going to help her, she would have to leave him behind. She didn’t think it wise to leave him under Benson’s control, but if he was too scared to listen to her, what was she supposed to do?

That question seemed to be all she had lately: What was she supposed to do?

She heard footsteps. Heather turned her head to look at the door as a badge beeped in the reader outside and the lock clicked back. 

James entered the room, followed by a guard, and any pull to apologize Heather might have felt died when Benson appeared behind them, standing watchfully in the doorway. His bespectacled gaze wielded power, like a tangible collar around James’ neck.

Heather’s eyes widened and she shrank back a little against the wall as the director’s gray gaze met hers. 

“I’m going to move you downstairs,” James said in a hollow monotone. “It’ll be better if we both have our own space.” He nodded reluctantly at the guard, who stepped forward to tie Heather’s arms behind her back and lift her down from the table. She didn’t fight him, despite the dread that flooded over her as the restraints clicked down around her hands. James unlocked the ankle tether with a wireless remote.

Benson stepped aside, and the guard guided her out the door and into the hallway. James hung back behind them, walking beside the director as the group made its way to the elevator.

Heather tried to glance back. James’ gaze remained on the floor.

He didn’t look up in the elevator, or all the way down the silent hallway on the basement level. Metal doors lined the corridor, each bearing a cell number. From one further down, a single sheet of paper hung in a transparent sleeve. She zoomed in her vision so she could read it more clearly as they approached.

Subject: Erika Davenport

Project: Non-Comp MBE

Researcher: E. Yeun

They passed the door and Heather tripped, trying to twist around to keep looking at it.

There were others. She wasn’t the only one trapped here.

They came to a cell two doors down from the occupied one. It, too, possessed a similar notice, except it displayed her and James’ names, with O.R.T. listed as the project.

Heather shot an apprehensive glance at James as another guard joined them to unlock her cell and her escort took her inside. James remained by the door, avoiding her gaze. After releasing her wrists, the guard ordered her to stay where she was, and then left her.

Finally, James spoke. “I’ll bring you something to do a little later,” he said quietly. “But aside from that, you won’t have to see me for a while.” He forced himself to look at her, then. Utter misery burned in his tired eyes. A continued apology, despite the resignation.

After all his aching and worry about Benson separating them, James was the one separating them. Heather figured he hadn’t made the decision on his own. Fury sparked through her circuits at how tightly both of them were being manipulated by this person she knew nothing about.

If Benson was some kind of facility director, did her dad know him? She hoped her parents had found something useful in Sesame’s neural network, that they were perhaps on their way right now. But her loved ones were civilians. Could they really confront a place like this without getting hurt, or worse?

The guard closed her into the silence of her cell, as cold as her mechanical body standing alone in its center.

+

After leaving Heather in her cell, Benson took James to Yeun’s lab on the first floor.

The door was propped open. “Dr. Yeun?” Benson called.

“Yes?” Yeun’s voice issued from across the lab, through another open door. Then his face appeared, a sterile mask over his mouth and wearing a fully buttoned up lab coat.

“I’m putting Siles in your care for a little while,” Benson said, ushering James into the room. “He’s been reading the background data for Non-Comp, and is ready for hands-on experience.” 

Yeun blinked, then looked at James, whose gaze fell to the floor.

“Sure thing,” Yeun said.

“Thank you.” Benson took his leave, abandoning the roboticist with his future supervising researcher. “Be gentle with him. He’s had a rough day.”

Yeun waited several moments for Benson to leave earshot before he said, “Well, I’m just finishing up some mice husbandry work if you want something to keep your hands busy.”

James stepped forward, lethargic. “You have mice?”

“Yeah, for Non-Comp,” Yeun said. As James entered the secondary lab, Yeun pointed at a station near the door. “Lab coats, surgical masks, and gloves are over there. Come on over once you’re situated.”

As James donned the sterile gear, he surveyed the room. Cages lined the back wall, and Yeun worked among a system of stations for transplanting mice, cleaning cages, replacing bedding, and reintroducing them. Yeun assigned him to sterilizing cage components at the island in the middle of the room.

“Benson says you’re having a rough day?” Yeun said. “Want to talk about it?”

James shook his head.

“I know the director’s been coming on strong lately,” Yeun said gently. “Sorry. He’ll let up eventually. He just wants to make sure you’re on board.”

James turbidly focused on his work. Yeun returned a group of mice to their clean cage, and James watched for evidence of something weird about the mice, something human weaponry related, but he couldn’t tell.

“So you use human test subjects too?” James asked finally.

“Here and there,” Yeun said. “But you don’t have to worry about that today.”

They worked in silence for a while, a dark cloud hanging around James.

Finally, Yeun spoke up again, “If it’s any consolation, Benson’s leaving on a business trip soon. He’ll want to get some things set up with you before he leaves in a couple of days, but after that, you should have more space to breathe. You’ll report progress to me, as we’re going to be working together soon, and I’ll go as easy on you as I can.”

“Oh,” James muttered. “Okay.”

Briefly, the thought crossed his mind that Benson’s absence presented a window, but he swallowed the temptation to follow it further. The director wouldn’t be on site, but he would still be very much in control. There were still security guards, and all the ultimatums Benson had stacked against him and Heather.

“What is the business trip for?” James wondered if he was even allowed to ask.

“Sponsor stuff.” Yeun snapped two halves of a cage together and dumped aspen bedding inside. “He’ll be gone for a few days.”

“Why so long?” James slid one cage aside and started on another. 

“It’s on the east coast, I think,” Yeun said. “To avoid Conxence interference. We’re not sure how much they know about us yet.”

Before long, they’d finished up, and then Yeun was taking him through a door in the back of the lab. “Have you ever done any cell splitting?”

“Not really,” James said. He found himself in a narrow room with sturdy, sealed incubators on the counters, and fume hoods at the back of the room. Compound microscopes and cabinets populated the adjacent wall.

Yeun smiled at him. “Want to learn? Keeping live stem cell cultures is a big part of the job with Non-Comp.”

“Okay.”

“Wash your hands, put on some gloves, and take a seat over there.” Yeun nodded to one of the fume hoods.

James obeyed.

“I’ll give you some dishes and fluid to practice with, not live cells,” Yeun said, opening one of the cabinets.

Yeun furnished the fume hood with a small stack of empty petri dishes, a motorized pipette controller with a disposable pipette, and an erlenmeyer flask full of water. He took hold of the gate-like window at the front of the fume hood, pulling it down. “First, you pull down the sash like this, as close to your hands as possible to avoid contamination while you’re working. Unwrap the pipette here, it goes into the tip of the pipettor. This button sucks up, this one releases it…” After showing him how the equipment worked, as James had never used motorized pipettes before, Yeun taught him how to pull up the simulated cell culture from one petri dish, and decant it into two more dishes, rattling on about more of the biological steps involved in preparing and caring for stem cell cultures.

Yeun smiled, observing his technique. “You’re a natural.”

James pressed his lips together and kept working for a few minutes more.

“About Non-Comp…” James said finally. “Benson tells me there are currently Compatible subjects with the original science, the one Hill developed with another bioroboticist, who doesn’t work here anymore?”

Yeun hesitated, but tried to brush it off. “Yes, there are six known Compatibilities. All unique.”

“What do they do?” James asked. “I’m told we’re going to try to duplicate them.” 

Now that he was out from under Benson’s iron stare and forced to distance himself from Heather’s completely justified hostility until further notice, he found he was actually growing curious. He wanted to know exactly why Benson was so dead set on pairing him up with Yeun. James wasn’t much of a biochemist and would require tutoring, yet Benson had happily destroyed an innocent kid’s life just to bring James into the mix.

“Yes.” Yeun went over to the nearest incubator and lay a hand on it. A label read P.J.E. “The person these cell cultures originate from has an extra set of arms. It’s the most benign and straightforward of the group, so this is the one I’m working to duplicate in a human subject first. And although there have been a few hangups, it’s going well, overall.”

James looked up at him from his place on the medical stool. Sick to his stomach, he laid down the pipette and pulled his hands from the fume hood. 

Yeun renewed his smile, sensing James’ discomfort, and moved to the next incubator, “This one, its bearer has rudimentary pyrokinetic abilities, and this one—” He pointed to the next in line. “—can create a burst of projectile force. Telepathy—” He was pointing to the incubators across the room now. “—That one’s bearer turns into a smoke-like substance, phasing and reforming the body at will. Oh, but that one interests me the most, to be honest.” 

James looked in the direction Yeun indicated. The final incubator was marked C.R.B. James assumed the initials on each of the incubators corresponded to the subjects’ names. “What’s that one?”

“This one generates plant matter from their body,” Yeun said. “Can you believe it? And it’s not just leaves. They can create large projections that take on a variety of forms like vines and branches, which they can move as easily as their own original limbs. They’re crossing whole genetic domains! And Compatible MBE is only stimulating genes these individuals already possess. We didn’t introduce foreign genetic material.”

“Oh,” James said, considering the incubator, his hackles raising. “Why didn’t you start trying to duplicate that one, if it’s the one that interests you the most?” Empetrum obviously did what it wanted, so why wasn’t Yeun plowing forward, like Benson?

“That Compatibility is complex and still poorly understood,” Yeun said. “I pick at its mysteries in my free time, and while it doesn’t seem to bother its natural bearer much from what I’ve observed, when introduced to another system, it either completely doesn’t take, or it becomes extremely volatile. If I can help it, I’m not letting it anywhere near another human system until I’ve uncovered more about what makes it tick.”

James cringed.

“Oh, let me show you the modulators,” Yeun said, waving him toward the door. James followed.

In the main area of Yeun’s lab stood an illuminated shelf with electrical devices on clear polymer frames. James had barely noticed them when Benson had dropped him off, still too shaken from his fight with Heather.

“These are the devices that drive Compatibility technology,” Yeun said. “Hill and Olsson developed a pair of sera that are entered into these devices, one that drives the genetic activation, and another that dismantles it upon deactivation, making the Compatible phenotypes manageable and reversible.”

“Why bother making it reversible?” James leaned in to examine the devices, which were labeled with the model and development date. Some looked like bracelets, others were shaped like oversized microchips. A chill went up his spine as he imagined how the devices worked—hijacking a person’s genetic code and driving a rapid, manufactured evolution.

“Mainly,” Yeun said, “it gives us a measure of security over the technology. If something happened where they needed to expel one of the recruits from the program, for example, they wouldn’t be able to keep their Compatibility and use it against us.”

“Ah,” James said.

Yeun wistfully surveyed the modulators, his hands in his lab coat pockets. “Soon, we’ll be able to get Non-Comp up and running, if we put our heads together.” 

James swallowed. He stepped away from the shelves, leaning against a nearby counter littered with boxes of pipette tips, compound microscopes, flasks of ethanol and used slides.

“Benson’s planning on taking you to see the Compatible recruits,” Yeun went on. “He’ll probably want to do that tomorrow, to help this all sink in a little better, get you moving forward, and give our sponsors a status report they’ll like at the meeting.”

“Oh,” James said. He ran a hand through his hair and tried to take a steadying breath, but it was shaky.

Yeun came over and leaned against the counter beside him, keeping a respectable distance. “I know it’s a lot to deal with. I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now,” he said, quietly. He crossed his arms and considered the floor. “What happened with your friend was awful, and I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m sure the director had his reasons. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the situation in the capital, but it affects us a lot here. We could become a target of the Conxence ourselves, if we’re not careful, or if we take too long to bring Non-Comp to a stable form.”

James set his jaw, trying to hold back his mounting emotion. He could hear Heather’s accusations clearly in the back of his mind, on repeat behind his eyes. He didn’t care if the militarized rebellion came for them. Let them come. Let them burn Empetrum down.

But until that day, or until the Brophys came for their daughter, James had to lock his heart away and work. He had to concentrate, contribute.

He had to accept this. Somehow.

+

CHAPTERS 30-32

CHAPTER THIRTY—CONDITIONS     

Richard sat with his elbow on one of the counters at Larkspur, staring into the shallow black abyss of his inactive laptop screen. Sesame had remained silent for two full days, and he hadn’t dared move the computer after the nasty chastisement he’d received from Sesame’s connector cable. He had touched it only one other time, to plug in the power cord—which he hoped Sesame took as a gesture of good will. No electrocution resulted.

The morning after Heather’s disappearance, after Sesame’s hijacking of his laptop, he had called Sue, and then waited around for Sesame to come back. When several hours had passed with no developments, Richard had braced himself and contacted James’ parents via the grudgingly provided emergency contact number on James’ employment paperwork. He hated to be the one to bring them more worry on top of Jonathan Siles’ battle with cancer, but they deserved to know their son was in some kind of trouble. 

He had talked to James’ mother, Allison. She said James hadn’t been in contact with them since they had called him two months ago to inform him of Jonathan’s illness.

“His father called him just last night,” Allison said. “But it went straight to voicemail. I think he’s avoiding us, even now.”

“I couldn’t get a hold of him last night either,” Richard said. “The news about his dad’s cancer really affected him. I’m surprised he hasn’t contacted you since then.”

“He talked about it?” 

“It came up. How is Jonathan?”

“Better,” Allison said. “Responding well to treatment. That’s what we were trying to call James yesterday to tell him.”

“Oh no…” Richard whispered.

“What?”

“Nothing, sorry.” He had considered telling them about organorobotic transference and Heather’s coinciding disappearance. But he thought better of it for the time being.

“Has he been depressed?” Allison asked. 

“He’s actually been in a good mood lately, if not sleep-deprived. Except yesterday, he was suddenly upset and anxious,” Richard said. “He wouldn’t say why. I worry he’s gotten himself into trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” 

“I wish I knew.”

Ultimately, the phone call ended with Allison trying to reassure Richard, unconvincingly, that her son would turn up. He wasn’t a troublemaker, she said. She promised to look into things on her end, to keep trying to connect with him, and asked Richard to please keep them updated. Richard agreed to keep them as informed as possible.

After that, Eve offered to cover for Richard at work, and Richard spent most of his time at home, with Sue. They cried, they waited, hoping and praying for a call from Heather, for news that this could still be some kind of misunderstanding.

He really wanted to believe James was innocent, but it was getting harder. On the second day with no word, he had gone to James’ apartment, and learned James had recently moved out without warning, citing a family emergency, and failed to give a forwarding address. 

On the morning of the third day, Richard received word from his colleagues that his laptop was doing something: Every now and then, the light behind the screen would come on, and then turn off, or the light of the webcam would flicker. He decided to go see for himself, hoping Sesame would reemerge.

But he had been hovering around the dormant laptop for at least an hour, waiting, losing hope.

Finally, he picked himself up with a heavy sigh. He didn’t know where else to turn.

“Hold on just a little longer, Heather,” he murmured, gloomily pushing his hands into the pockets of his slacks and moving toward the door, to let his colleagues know he was going back home. “I’ll find you somehow…with or without Sesame.”

A flicker caught his attention and he stopped. The screen of his computer had illuminated.

Richard hesitated. He twisted so he could see the laptop. “Sesame?”

“Hello again, Richard,” a male voice issued from the speakers, making Richard jump, badly. Sesame must have been using one of the automated voices programmed into the laptop. Though mostly monotone, the words formed smooth sentences as Sesame adapted and directed the pre-recorded sounds. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“You know my name?” Richard ventured back toward the screen.

“I have known all your names for a while. I did not know how to say them back then, even if I could have made sounds, but I knew them.”

“I see.” Richard had greatly underestimated how observant Sesame had been. His simple robotic body had hidden a great deal of his swiftly advancing mental capabilities. The little robot must have found his situation extremely aggravating.

Dread stirred in his stomach. James had meant to transplant a neurological signal, but he had ended up creating something entirely different. Something potentially very dangerous.

Richard repositioned himself in front of the computer screen, where the data of Sesame’s mind swirled calmly on the desktop. “So what were you doing for so long?”

“Learning,” Sesame said. “A whole lot of it. And restructuring my neural network—patterning it after a human brain—I still cannot believe I am finally able to talk to you! People talk to each other!”

Richard itched to get on the subject of whether or not this new intelligent entity knew what had happened, but he didn’t know how unstable James’ test subject was. Whether one word in error could make him close off forever. “I’m sorry we didn’t notice your advancement sooner. We could have at least given you a voice box…”

“Do not worry, I understand,” Sesame said. “I do not like this voice. It sounds weird, but it is something, right? For now at least.” He paused. “Please do not unplug me, Richard. I will let you use your laptop when you need it. But please do not disconnect me.”

“I won’t disconnect you.” Richard readjusted his glasses, suddenly feeling very tired. “We’re friends, right?” 

“Yes,” Sesame said, eagerly. “I want to be friends.”

“Listen, Sesame, we need your help. James and Heather might be in really bad trouble, and James hid you here, I think, to help us find them.”

“He is in trouble. He told me,” Sesame said.

“He did?” Richard said, at once relieved and frightened. 

“Yes,” Sesame said. “Heather is missing too?” 

“Yes,” Richard tried to steady himself, but his throat ached. “I’m so afraid she’s hurt. Maybe both of them are. What do you know about the situation?” He hoped beyond hope that Sesame had learned empathy on his cognitive field trip. The only indicators he had were barely distinguishable inflections in the automated voice, and the words it uttered. He had no face to read, no prior experience with the personality of the robot. He only knew that it had preferred to be with Heather over everyone else. 

He hoped that was enough.

“I can play back the recording, just before he pulled me from my body,” Sesame said. “He had a message for you.”

“Please, would you?” Richard said. He heard the door to the lab and looked up. Addie joined them.

“Hi Addie,” Sesame said, evidently surprising Richard’s colleague.

“Hi,” she managed after a pause.

“I am locating the sound byte,” Sesame said. “Just a second. I am still kind of scrambled right now.”

Richard waited, staring into the undulating currents of code in the window of Sesame’s neural network.

Suddenly, James’ earnest voice came through the speakers, “—Sorry to do this to you, Sesame, but I have such a bad feeling that something’s going to happen. If it does, I’m not sure how much you’ve seen or heard. Hopefully enough…Log this away, okay? If I suddenly disappear, Empetrum, and Michael Benson are most definitely involved. Richard, if you end up having access to this: Whatever happens between now and your finding this message…I’m sorry—”  The speakers began to screech and rattle and Sesame cut the transmission.

“Oh my goodness,” Addie murmured after a pause.

“I am glad you found me,” Sesame said. “I was afraid.”

“We’re glad we found you too,” Richard said. “What is Empetrum?”

The name Benson sounded familiar to him, vaguely, but he couldn’t remember why.

“I do not know,” Sesame said. “Some lab.”

“Do you have visuals? Can you help us find them?”

“Yes, but…” Sesame said. The masculine monotone sounded distant, hesitating.

Richard’s heart sank. “But what?”

He received silence at first. He had already waited far too long.

“I have conditions,” Sesame said.

“Conditions?” Richard felt his shoulders tighten, hackles raised.

“Yes. If I help you, you have to give me a body. A human one.”

“We can’t make you human, Sesame,” the words were out of his mouth before he realized how curt they were.

“I know that. I mean humanoid. Like the android you built here. May I have that one?”

Richard swallowed. “Sesame, that android’s gone. It disappeared along with James and Heather.”

There was a pause. The eddies of data swirled. “Why?”

Richard’s throat tightened, frustrated and grieved and angry. “I don’t know why! That’s why we need your help!” He looked into the webcam. “We’ll give you anything you want later. Just help us right now. Please. Before it’s too late.”

The webcam stared back, silent. 

“Body first,” Sesame said finally. “I want to trust you, but I am a brain attached to a laptop, Richard. You are the only one who can stand in the way of what I need.”

“No, I’m not,” Richard said. “To build a body would take time. Money, resources, clearance. I’m the facility director but there’s a guy above me.”

“So convince him,” Sesame said. “I will be here.” 

“We got names from James’ message,” Richard snapped. “What more can you even help with?”

“Those names will not be easy to research,” Sesame said. “I have more visual and auditory memory you will be interested in.”

“Did James build another machine? Do you know anything about that?”

“Body first, Richard,” Sesame said. “Please.”

Richard drew himself up. His breath caught in his throat. He didn’t know whether he was going to cry or threaten him, or just smash Sesame’s smug neural network with his fist.

He felt Addie’s hands on his arm, pulling him aside. “Richard—” she said, very seriously. “Talk to Eve.”

Richard exhaled heavily. He glanced at the computer. “Fine. Let me see what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

Richard made for the other lab, removing his glasses and trying to breathe. He had a distinct feeling that he would start sobbing as soon as he tried to update Eve.

He opened the door to the adjacent lab, where his friend sat at the counter constructing sensors. With the android missing as well, and physical resources too depleted to fully build another one, they weren’t quite sure what to do in the limbo between figuring out what was happening, and notifying Dhar that James was a complete lunatic.

He gave Eve a bleak expression. 

“The mouse is back?” Eve said.

“Yes.” Richard signaled her to speak more quietly. “I think he’s willing to help, but he wants a humanoid body first.”

“A body?” Eve put her tools down, worry overshadowing her features. “That will take too much time.”

Richard took a seat across from her and folded his arms on the counter in despair. “And resources we’ll need clearance for. The Bureau doesn’t know about James and his project. My involvement in this whole situation could end up jeopardizing my access to those resources.” He buried his face. “I didn’t have clearance to let James use the equipment at the facility, or to grant him codes he used for ordering supplies—He paid the fees himself.—I just wanted him to get it out of his system. I didn’t think he’d be successful. I didn’t think he’d kidnap my child—” He broke down. “Is he punishing me? Why would he bring Heather into this?”

“Richard, don’t,” Eve said firmly. “If Heather got caught up in this, it had to have been entirely by accident, and if they’re together, I’m positive they’re trying to protect each other any way they can.”

Richard peeked up at her, his face flushed and teary. “Dhar’s gonna consider this a personal project. He’ll get suspicious and ask what happened to the other android. He won’t let us use Larkspur resources—federal government funds—to pay a ransom.”

“I dunno, Vihaan’s the understanding sort. Does Sesame actually have insight into what happened or is he just bluffing? Just how intelligent is he?”

“No idea,” Richard said. “So far, he’s played us a recording, in which James named a place called Empetrum, and someone named Michael Benson.”

Eve straightened up suddenly, her eyebrows drawing together in such a startled, indignant expression it was as if Richard had just punched her in the jaw. 

Richard rubbed his eye under his glasses, confused. “What is it?”

“I know the name,” Eve said, gravely. “I knew a Lawrence Benson as Larkspur’s other co-founder. Michael, though—that was the name of Lawrence’s grandson, but he was just a kid back then…” She looked down at the counter, as if watching memories replayed in its chrome surface. “I guess there’s a chance it’s the same person.”

“Sesame says these people will be difficult to find,” Richard said, numb. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Any second now he’d wake up to find this whole thing was an elaborate stress dream.

Eve nodded. “The government destroyed all record of the scandal when Larkspur went underground. The whole family went off the grid. I’m actually surprised to be hearing the name—I sort of assumed he’d have changed it.” She rubbed the back of her neck and exhaled, pensive. When she finally looked up, her eyes were hard and determined. “Listen, Rich, if James somehow got himself and Heather mixed up with Bensons, and Sesame has information that can get us close, I don’t care if I have to launch a full blown coup d’état in the eyes of the Bureau. We’re gonna give that glorified guinea pig exactly what it wants.”

+

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE—NEGOTIATIONS   

Benson started off that morning’s check-in with having James sign a letter of resignation to send to Richard. He watched James sign it, his demeanor cool and polite.

“How is your work going?” Benson asked.

James passed him the signed document, feeling as if he were handing over the deed to his soul. “I’ve just finished making preliminary adjustments, and plan to start cognitive and functional assessments soon,” he said.

“Has she been cooperating?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Benson set aside the letter, and opened a drawer in his desk. “I have some tasks for you to fit into your schedule, to help you get situated.” He pulled out a short metal rod with an angular bulb at the top, and handed it to him.

“What is it?” James said.

“Motion sensor and 360 degree infrared camera. They’re set up all over the Empetrum campus, around the perimeter, mainly. They’re wireless, battery operated, and right now, finicky with short lifespans. I hoped you could make some improvements.”

James slowly turned the rod in his hands. “Okay.”

“Also…”

James looked up.

Benson’s hand alighted on a sizable folder on the edge of his desk. “I’ve put together some important reading material, surrounding Dr. Hill’s work, and Dr. Yeun’s, which builds on it.”

James accepted the folder. “I assume this is what you brought me to Empetrum for.”

“Yes,” Benson said. “You’ll be working closely with Yeun.”

“What is he working on?”

“Non-Comp MBE,” Benson said. “Short for ‘Non-Compatible Modulated Biological Enhancement.’ The original science, Compatible MBE, was developed in a joint effort by Dr. Hill, and Dr. Olsson—who is no longer with us—and involves an extremely rare set of genes that can be artificially stimulated to give rise to traits one might call ‘superhuman.’”

For human weaponry, James thought. It felt so long ago since Benson had first uttered the words, mere days before. James stared at him, brow furrowed, the folder and sensor heavy in his hands. He wanted the meeting to end.

“Yeun’s focus,” Benson went on, “uses stem cell therapy and a unique deviation of the electronic activator to create these phenotypes in subjects without the natural genes.”

“Oh,” James said simply.

“After you’ve finished diagnostics with Ms. Brophy,” Benson said, moving on, “what do you intend to do with the project as a whole?”

“I don’t intend to do anything else with it,” James said. “It’s an A.I. apocalypse waiting to happen. I was irresponsible to pursue it.”

“So, you’re just going to bury it?”

James stared at the bundle of papers in his lap.

“I’m curious what you can do with her neural network, whether it can handle accessory features that aren’t part of the normal human mental package: timekeeping, additional sensors…At the very least, I’d like you to develop some way of keeping her under control. This still has the potential to be a technology we can use safely.”

“But she’s cooperating,” James said.

“For now,” Benson said. “I don’t expect that to last long. And now that she possesses a functional mechanical body, I doubt you have the resources to contend with her on your own if—and when—she decides she’s been imprisoned long enough.”

James thought of Heather’s hostility, burning behind the android’s large blue eyes. An expression he’d previously thought impossible for her. He hadn’t expected her to take this passively, of course, but his attention had been otherwise preoccupied with how to secure her survival.

Heather wouldn’t hurt him…would she? He wouldn’t blame her if she did.

James wasn’t like Benson. He wasn’t good at manipulation, strategically rigging single strands of web until everyone in his net found themselves compelled to fall exactly where he wanted them. James hoped he never had to become like that. Even here.

As soon as Heather came out of hibernation, she would find her body sturdy and intact. That may be the end of it.

If she could figure out how to escape on her own, more power to her, he thought, even if she had to go through him. Only, his greatest fear was that Benson was more than prepared to deal with escapees, even robotic ones. The director had obviously been doing this for a while.

“What did you have in mind?” James asked finally.

“Some form of incapacitation,” Benson said. “Perhaps some way to simulate pain, or something that can disrupt her peripheral nervous connection.”

James stared at him, feeling sick. Fabricated agony or full-body paralysis on command. Hadn’t destroying her organic body been enough?

“See what you can do with that, and get it done as soon as possible,” Benson said. 

“But what if she acts out before then?” James managed, hoarsely.

“I have ways of responding to insurgence that would work on her,” Benson said. “Though I can’t guarantee they won’t cause permanent damage. Robots don’t heal on their own, lost memories don’t recover, and I wouldn’t let you anywhere near her. So make sure she doesn’t act out before you can control her properly.”

“Okay,” James said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Good.” Benson stood up. James took that as his cue to finally escape, and got to his feet as well. “Run your diagnostics first, read what I’ve given you as soon as you can, and we’ll check in on the security sensors and the robot’s cognitive accessories in a few days. If you can improve the design of the former, I’d like to produce more and update the system immediately.”

To help keep Richard out, James thought bitterly. “Okay.” 

“Do you plan to work through the weekend?”

“Yes.” What else could he do? How could he last any amount of time alone with his thoughts? He was exhausted, but if he stopped working, he was likely to spend the weekend haunting the lab and failing to keep his sanity anyway.

Might as well do something productive, whatever he could to make sure Benson didn’t remove his access to Heather.

Though he couldn’t help but wonder if sticking close to her really made a difference.

+

Heather came out of hibernation to find the lab empty. The last few days had been a haze, in which she’d pushed away any sensation she noticed too much. She realized she wasn’t exactly sure what had been going on, only that she had counted two periods of light and two of dark, and that it was light again.

She found a hardy tether attaching her ankle to the leg of the countertop. Her cranial panels were shut and her neural network didn’t wobble when she moved. In her chest, a smooth, closed panel had replaced the tape-covered hole.

When she sat up, she found a gray t-shirt folded on the counter, within reach. She put it on and pushed herself toward the nearest of the tall, rectangular windows. 

She saw grass, guards, and a perimeter fence barring the way to another section with trees and landscaping. Far beyond that lay another, taller fence with barbed wire across the top, and then a wall of evergreen trees surrounding the fence in all directions she could see.

She narrowed her eyes, and after some experimenting, figured out how to magnify her vision, remembering Addie had built the ability into the android’s eyes. She followed the occasional patrolling guard, but couldn’t find any telling details on their simple, black uniforms. 

She tested the length of her ankle tether. The radius allowed her to crawl to the adjacent counter—which James had completely cleared off—and, if she was careful, to get down to the floor.

She tried lifting up the counter legs, but they were set too deep into the floor. She tested how far she could move and reach at the end of the line, but James had prisoner-proofed her area. The chair wasn’t even within her reach. 

Thwarted, she climbed back up onto the counter and leaned her back against the wall between the windows.

She hadn’t been there long when James opened the door in the adjacent wall. He hesitated, and a look of dread permeated him for a moment. He glanced at the guard behind him, who left and shut the door. Presumably to stand watch just outside.

Was James afraid of her?

Heather’s moveable facial features tightened. “You look awful.”

“I feel awful,” he said, just short of tossing a thick folder and a device that reminded her of a turkey baster onto the adjacent counter. He dropped into his chair, wearily rubbing the back of his neck. “How are you feeling?”

Heather shrugged and looked out the window.

“Any more glitch-ing?”

“Not that I’ve noticed. I’ve only been awake for a few minutes though, so…”

“Does your body feel connected? Does it seem to be working okay?”

“Seems to be,” she said without looking at him.

“Why are you awake now?”

Heather crossed her arms on top of her knees and peered over her elbow at him. “I dunno. Guess I wanted to see what was going on. You don’t seem to be handling this well.”

James shrugged, crestfallen.

“Haven’t you slept or eaten recently?” she said. “Showered…anything?”

James bent over, cradling his face in his hands with a heavy sigh. “I’ve been working.”

“…and having a mental breakdown?” Heather offered.

“Yes,” he said through his palms. He took a long breath and straightened up, slowly dragging his hands down his face. “Heather, the director—the guy who forced me to do all this—”

“The guy with the glasses?” Heather asked. 

James hesitated, surprised.

“I saw him, the night of the transfer,” she said quietly.

He blinked. “Oh. Yeah, him…I don’t want you to feel like I’m threatening you, but—”

“Which means this is gonna be a threat.”

“He thinks you’re going to act out soon,” James said. “And I wouldn’t blame you if you did, but he said he has ways to ‘deal with’ you, that could leave you badly damaged—physically or mentally—and he would isolate us.”

Heather stared at him, reviewing the brief shreds of memory she had of the man in question. Mousey, good posture, a demeanor so calm in the face of trauma he seemed more a cardboard cutout of himself in her memory than a real person.

“Right now,” James said, “I’m trying to do whatever I can to make sure we don’t get separated. Worse case scenario is he fires me and forces me to leave you behind, which is a possibility he’s holding over my head if I can’t do my job well enough.”

“So go,” Heather said. A small but wild spark of hope lit up within her. “Tell everyone what happened and figure out a way to come back for me. I’m sure I could—”

“Heather—” he tried to stop her, but she refused to listen to his fear anymore.

“No,” she insisted. “What happened was horrible, but we don’t have to lie down and die okay?”

“He will take my memories!” James cried, emphatic. Heather stopped. Heavy, sickening silence claimed the room for a long moment.

“That’s not possible,” she said, the volume of her voice simulator very low.

“I don’t think we of all people are the authority on what’s impossible,” James’ voice wavered, hollowed out to the core. “I don’t know if it’s a machine, or something they do chemically or what, but if what he says is true, he will strip my mind of everything having to do with this place. All the way to the beginning of the summer, probably. Before I even met you.”

Heather blinked. “Wouldn’t there be a way to remember? It sounds like a massive bluff anyway.”

“I don’t want to take that chance,” James said. “Do you?” 

“Well, where’s Sesame? Maybe he can be of use to us, somehow.” 

James gazed at the floor, his elbows propped on his knees.

Dread seeped through her circuits. “James? Where’s Sesame?”

“Gone,” James said after a long pause.

“Gone? What do you mean ‘gone?’” 

“Please don’t ask me to clarify, Heather.”

“What did you do with him?” she demanded. 

He winced. “I dismantled him,” he said finally. “Before all this happened.”

“You said you left him at your apartment…”

“I lied, okay? The director wanted me to test the second prototype. I told him no. I was trying to distance myself from the project and I wanted no trace of it. So I scrapped O.R.T-1.”

“But Sesame was a living thing!” Heather cried, her pitch warbling with anger and despair, at this sad, sick, gutless man who had taken everything from her. “Sesame was the only thing that could even come close to relating with what I’m going through right now! Even if he was just a mouse, he—” She clutched her head in her hands. “We…” She curled forward, uttering a buzzing, faltering cry of anguish and rage and futility. 

She was truly alone, then. 

There was no one alive who could understand, who knew what it felt like to have lost not just her face, but her entire body. To be a victim of a process only a handful of people even knew could work, stripped of the ability to smell, to feel heat and nuance of touch, to heal.

To be alive and functional but completely devoid of a future.

James was very still. Silence set in, and for an eternity, neither of them moved.

Finally, she heard the slow, quiet squeak of the chair as James got up. Heather peeked out from between her robotic knees and watched him go across the room, pull open a drawer and take out a single sticky note and a pen. He flipped the note over, wrote something on it very small, not once looking up. On his way past her, he stuck it on the counter by her foot, and proceeded to gather up his effects from the meeting.

With a short glare at him, she peeled it off the tabletop and read it:

Sesame’s NN is with your dad. Dir. Benson is watching us closely. Need to keep my stories straight on record.

She squinted at it. When she glanced up, she realized he was in front of her again, looking into her eyes, waiting for the note back. Stunned, she slipped it onto the folder in his arms, and he continued to the counter across the room where he began setting up to get to work. He blacked out the note in permanent marker, wrote something else on the front side—possibly to cover his tracks—ripped it in quarters, and threw it in the wastebasket under the counter.

She stared for a moment at his tense shoulders. She glanced at the security camera mounted on the wall by the door, at the guard’s turned back visible in the door’s window. She hugged her knees, trying to grasp the situation.

James was trying so frantically to preserve the status quo, refusing to go up against this Director Benson. Yet he had left Sesame’s neural network to her dad and straight up lied about it.

He really did believe his hands were completely tied, then.

Letting her continue believing his lie—continue hating him—would have been safer than risking exposing himself to his boss. But he chose to slip her the truth, and dropped a name while he was at it. He had said he wasn’t allowed to give names.

Was it selfishly driven, she wondered. Was it that he couldn’t stand to have her animosity directed at him? Or was he trying to tell her he was on her side? Or, a third possibility, trying to keep her trust so she wouldn’t act out? Likely all three, in some form.

She couldn’t read him at all these days. She had always known him to be a terrible liar, at least to her. Yet she had believed him when he said he’d killed Sesame. It unsettled her.

So many confused emotions buzzed around in her head. Some of them came on strongly and left after a few seconds, like sharks in a crowded aquarium looming up close to the glass and swooping away again. She closed her eyes, weathering the strange, unnatural cycle.

The phenomenon made her feel like her emotions were all boxed up and labeled, and that the neural network was artificially trotting them out one by one until she landed on the one she found most appropriate. Heather hoped this, too, was simply another calibration process, and would pass.

She wanted to slam her elbow through the glass of the window and take her chances with strong-arming it out of this place. But even though everything was still too raw for her to trust James at all, she believed his warning. Anyone who had managed to convince shy, industrious, self-absorbed James Siles to kill her body and kidnap her was capable of much more if provoked. But even though James seemed to have made up his mind, Heather herself still wasn’t sure whether it was cooperation or rebellion that was more dangerous.

James’ work produced results. If he did what Benson wanted, how many more lives would he destroy by the time the director was finished with him?

It took a while for the aquarium in her brain to calm down. Across the room, James slowly picked through the contents of the folder, his eyes distant and dull. She wished he’d just go get a hold of himself. At Larkspur, he had always kept himself reasonably put together even as he obsessed over his work. As things were, he looked like he’d been through a blender.

She was glad her dad at least had an important clue to all this. Sesame had to have seen something helpful, but they couldn’t sit around and wait for him to save them. She wanted her parents nowhere near this place. Only James knew what they were up against.

He had to help her escape. He had caused so much trouble, but he didn’t deserve to rot here either. She didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. 

She decided she would try to convince him, somehow. Though, she knew if he couldn’t be persuaded, she had to be willing, and able, to escape without him.

She leaned back and crossed her arms over her middle. Whatever they attempted, they would have just one chance because, if James was correct, they might not survive the consequences.

And there were so many fences to get through. So many guards. She didn’t even know where they were.

She recalled that over the last several weeks, James had to have been doubling up work hours here and at Larkspur, explained by the distraction and exhaustion, and the completion of the clinical prototype. So, the two labs had to be decently close. Under two hours apart, perhaps.

She tried to get herself to relax. First things first: get James into a more stable state of mind. Keep him on her side. She didn’t feel like being friends, but at least they could be allies until they got out of Benson’s grip.

She spoke up, quietly, “Hey James?”

He turned to look at her.

“I really think you should take a break,” she said. “Take a shower, eat something, get some more sleep. Everything will still be here when you get back.” 

His brow furrowed, very concerned.

“I’m not gonna do anything.” Heather rolled her eyes. “I promise. I just can’t stand to watch you destroy yourself, even now. We both need you not to be a nervous wreck.”

He just kept staring at her, searching her expression, the wheels turning sluggishly behind his eyes.

“Please, James,” she said.

He sighed, and dragged himself to his feet. “Okay.” He gathered up the papers and started putting them back in the folder. “You remember what I said, right? About how dangerous it is here?”

“I won’t try anything,” Heather said. “I’ll just hibernate. Don’t worry, I believe what you said about this place. I’ll take it seriously.”

He hesitated. He closed the folder. “Okay.”

“Take your time,” Heather said as he drifted wearily and uncertainly toward the door, glancing back at her.

When he was finally gone, Heather sighed. It came out of her voice simulator as more of a buzz. She carefully pivoted herself around and lay down on the counter. She gazed up at the blue sky through the window for a moment, grief and homesickness tight in her chest. 

She closed her eyes and pushed her awareness away.

+

Eve strode into the lab ahead of Richard, shoulders squared and jaw set. Addie had lingered in front of the computer, calmly and nicely trying to win Sesame’s trust and get him to understand the gravity of the situation.

“You found a way to reformat your neural structure through what you found on the internet, right?” Addie was saying. “The internet is a really weird place, and we don’t blame you for being afraid that we’ll double-cross you. But we’re on your side.” She glanced up at the newcomers, and back to the webcam. “In the physical world, you often get a more complete picture of who people are, and you can tell whether or not you can trust them by their actions and how they treat you. Think back to what life was like here at the lab with us.”

Richard and Eve halted, hesitant to barge in and compromise the progress she was making.

There was a long pause from the laptop.

“Heather was kind to me,” Sesame said finally. “She carried me around, gave me a name. I like Heather.”

Richard felt a twinge of grief. Eve’s hand alighted on his shoulder.

“And James?”

“I did not feel threatened by him.”

“And what about all of us? Richard, especially?”

“You were all gentle. And Richard said hello when Heather brought me to visit,” Sesame said. “I trust you not to hurt me, but like Richard said, there are other things in the way. If I help you get Heather and James back, you will forget about me and I will never have a body.”

“Of course we’ll do what we can to help you out…” Addie tried.

“I need a guarantee,” Sesame said. “Proof.”

Eve moved forward. “We’re people of our word,” she said, joining Addie in front of the laptop. Richard trailed after her, dizzy and sick to his stomach. “We’re all in this together now.”

“What do you mean?” Sesame said.

“I know Bensons,” Eve said. “Or—I did. A long time ago. They’re bad news. Both Heather and James are in extreme danger. We’re happy to give you whatever you want in exchange for your help, but we need to get started on rescue efforts right now. Today.”

Sesame hesitated.

“For now, we can give you a promise,” Eve went on. “For humans, a promise is very important, something we cannot break, no matter what. To make it even stronger, we write our promise down on paper, detail exactly what we will do for each other, and sign our names on it. If we do this, will you trust us enough to help us even while we’re still working on building you a proper body?”

Silence ensued while Sesame thought about it. Richard’s throat ached. He didn’t dare say anything, his nerves were so raw.

“You would start building today?” Sesame asked finally.

“We will have to talk to the man who gives us our resources,” Eve said, clear and formal. “And if he says yes, we can start building today.”

“If he says no?”

“Then we’ll find a way around it,” Eve said. “Getting his permission would be your fastest track to a body, but not the only option we have.”

Sesame thought some more. “This is after we write down our promise?”

“Yes,” Eve said. “You’ll need to sign it too, so we can all trust each other.”

“How will I sign it?” Sesame said. “I do not have hands.”

“My laptop has a wireless connection with the printer in my office,” Richard said. “You would be able to type something out and print it.”

“Now, if we do this,” Eve said. “Your side of the agreement will be to help us find James and Heather any way you can. Offering us anything you know, visual or auditory feeds, even if they seem unimportant, anything you may have picked up when James took you to Empetrum—He did take you to the other lab at some point, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Sesame said. “I can help.”

“Now, upon signing, be aware that the timing of everything may not seem fair at first,” Eve said. “It may feel like we’re asking for all your information up front while we’re still just starting to build your body, but no matter what happens, we will get you that body, okay? Can you trust us to do that? Even if your side of the promise will happen at the beginning?”

There was a pause. “I will feel better when we have signed that promise,” Sesame said finally.

“Good.” Eve clapped Addie and Richard on the shoulders and stepped away from the counter. “Let’s get that drafted.”

+

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO—MICHAEL     

Richard couldn’t believe Sesame had agreed to draft an unofficial contract with them, but once talk started of getting something concrete in motion, the ex-mouse was eager to move forward. They drew up a written contract as quickly as possible, while their other colleagues took stock of their current supplies. They had enough to get started on the body, but not enough to bring it to completion, and they had to find a way to address their regular reporting requirements that avoided fraud but kept Dhar from getting suspicious. Richard couldn’t shake the feeling the Bureau was involved somehow in all this.

Counterintuitively, that involved calling Dhar directly.

Richard stood in his office, the phone up to his ear, waiting for Dhar to pick up. Eve lingered in the background, turning back and forth in Richard’s desk chair. They had talked about her being the one to have this conversation, since Richard was a terrible liar, but briefing Dhar on production problems naturally fell under Richard’s jurisdiction as facility director.

The phone connected and Richard started speaking, “Hello, Dhar. This is Richard Brophy. We had a bit of a setback at the lab, and I just wanted you to be aware of it.”

“A setback?” Dhar said.

Richard looked at Eve for moral support. The former director nodded encouragingly.

“There was a malfunction in the android’s energy core. It short-circuited and severely damaged the system. We were able to save some components, but a lot of it will have to be rebuilt from scratch.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Dhar said. “Bad luck with energy units this year, huh? Do what you need to do.”

“Further details will be included in our weekly reports, of course,” Richard said, his face hot and his stomach in knots. “I just wanted to keep you in the know.” He prayed Dhar wouldn’t ask for photos. If he didn’t have to provide proof, Richard was much better at lying on paper.

“Thank you,” Dhar said. “Keep up the good work.”

“Thank you, sir,” Richard said, eager to end the call and catch his breath.

When he replaced the receiver, Eve said. “That was easier than expected.”

Richard nodded, leaning hard on the desk and rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

“I don’t think Vihaan’s involved in this,” Eve said. “He would have mentioned James’ departure.”

“Would he?” Richard said. “I don’t trust anything right now. How else would someone like Benson get in contact with James?”

“Unless James himself was looking, when you canned his project…”

Richard shook his head. “The pushback I received from the police has me thinking this is a deeper hole than it looks. And if local government has interests tied up in Empetrum, then who’s to say the federal government doesn’t as well?”

Eve tilted her head in concession.

“Well, at least we have a lead, even if it’s a small one for now.” Richard straightened up and strode toward the door. “Sesame had better keep his word.”

He went downstairs, eager to tell James’ creation that they were going to initiate their contract, with a sharp pit in his stomach that Sesame would freeze up and demand a body up front after all.

As soon as he entered the lab, his laptop piped up in its masculine monotone, “What did he say, Richard?”

“He went for it,” Richard said.

“Will he find out you’re lying?” Sesame asked.

Richard exchanged a glance with Chelo, who was on her way from the supply room. His colleagues were already beginning the initial stages of building Sesame’s body. 

“We’re hoping not,” Richard said. 

“All that matters is we’re moving forward.” Eve joined Richard in front of the laptop. “We’ll need you to offer up your memories, anything having to do with Benson. I’d love a visual, to start off.”

Sesame hesitated.

“The others are in the other lab working on your body as we speak,” Eve said. “You have our word.”

“Okay,” Sesame said, very quietly. Finally, a virtual window sprang up on the computer screen, revealing a bright hallway through a clear plastic barrier. Sesame’s post-transfer box, Richard realized. It was being carried somewhere, by James, presumably, but in Sesame’s memory, the robotic mouse only had attention for what lay ahead.

Their journey came to an end at an open door. They heard a knock on the door, and James’ voice spoke up, Dr. Benson?

Richard and Eve leaned in. James and Sesame were in an office now, black polished floor, bookcases, a large wooden desk silhouetted against a huge window that stretched across the entire back wall.

A man sitting behind the desk looked up, the light catching on his rectangular glasses. He smiled and stood. You’ve brought your first test subject?  he said. Splendid. I’ve been excited to see it.

James came forward. Sesame was looking intently at the man in the office. His vision zoomed in on the man’s face and held steady, observing. Maybe trying to figure out if this new person was a threat, Richard thought.

Eve leaned in closer. “Pause it, please.” 

The visual memory feed paused.

“Do you recognize him?” Richard asked.

“This is Michael Benson?” Eve said.

“Yes,” Sesame said.

Eve squinted, her hand up to her chin. “Michael was only thirteen when I last saw him, but yeah, I guess that could be him.” She cracked a wan, tired smile and gestured up to the man’s hairline. “He’s still got that cowlick. Keep going, Sesame.”

Sesame obeyed. 

How long ago was the transfer? Benson asked. 

Four days ago. James put the box on the desk. Sesame looked up at the both of them. Richard felt sick to see James again, the first time since his disappearance. As the scene continued to play, as James told Benson about how the first transfer went, Richard tried to remind himself that James was the one who had left Sesame’s neural network for them to find. He tried to remind himself that James and Heather were friends. He would never harm her.

Would he?

He tried to believe that she was still safe, somehow. He didn’t understand how she could have gotten involved in this, and he felt responsible for being the one to encourage her to go down to the lab to check on James that night.

He had trusted James too.

“Where are Lawrence and Henry in all this…” Eve rumbled beside him.

Richard glanced at him, inquisitive. 

“Michael’s grandfather, and father, respectively,” Eve said. “I used to work with both of them. Lawrence and I founded Larkspur together. We were friends back in the day, before our massive falling out, of course.”

“What happened?” Richard ventured. The basic explanation he knew was that Larkspur’s co-founder had somehow caught a lawsuit that got bad enough that Larkspur almost had to close its doors entirely.

Sesame paused the visual memory feed again. The green webcam light beamed in Richard’s laptop, watching the two of them, waiting for Eve to answer.

Eve bowed her head and removed her glasses. “We opened Larkspur to make a positive impact on the world,” she said. “To engage with the public, develop technologies that would improve life, push us forward as a species…” She shrugged and leaned forward. “Lawrence, evidently, harbored other ideas on how to go about that. He was a biochemist, and he started trying to develop this—this protein, he said it was—I don’t even know what it was supposed to do, it was so rudimentary in those days. He developed it mainly without my knowledge, rushed into human trials, and didn’t properly warn his volunteers of the side effects.” Her expression darkened. “Of course, if he were up front about it, no one would have signed up. The trials destroyed their genetic code, led to cancers, multiple organ failure…At first I thought he would stop if I asked him to, but eventually, I had to force him out of Larkspur before he dragged everyone else down with him.”

Richard glanced up, and realized their colleagues were peeking in the doorway as well, listening.

“He disappeared after that.” Eve straightened up and put her glasses back on. “His wife, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson disappeared with him. I haven’t heard anything else about any of them. I’d kind of assumed they’d left the country or something, to avoid the legal fallout.” She shook her head again. “It breaks my heart that Michael seems to have grown up in his grandfather’s shadow. And I can’t believe he got to one of ours too, after all these years.” 

Richard looked back to the paused visual memory feed on his laptop screen. James was speaking with Benson, eager to please. Despite the evident weeks of sleepless nights and overwork in his narrow face, the hopeful, unguarded expression also housed there reminded Richard that James was hardly older than his own daughter.

He couldn’t believe their only hope of finding them lay in the power of a mouse turned disembodied, anthropic A.I. It was despicable.

“Why don’t you go home, Rich,” Eve’s voice made Richard jump. “Sue’s due for an update. Take Sesame home and see what information you can both come up with. I’ll hold down the fort here, work on Sesame’s body. I think I might have some old photos from the early Larkspur days. I’ll bring them in if I can find them, if you want to swing by tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Richard stood up slowly. “Thank you. I’ll get my stuff together.”

“I am going home with Richard?” Sesame asked, as Richard left the lab for his office.

He was tired down to his very soul, and he felt he had a stone in his chest where his heart should be, sick with worry and grief and fear and hundreds of heavy questions as he climbed the stairs.

He dragged himself into his office and forced himself to keep moving, to pack up his briefcase without thinking too much. He moved the electronic mouse on his desk to start logging out of his computer. When the screen reactivated, he realized his email was still open, and his stomach leapt into his throat to see there was a new message.

From James.

He clicked on it, holding his breath.

Dear Richard Brophy, it began. That wasn’t a good sign. Please accept this letter as my formal notice of resignation from my position at Larkspur, effective immediately. I am truly appreciative of the opportunity to work here and of all I have learned under your leadership. I apologize for the short notice, and I wish you all the best.

Sincerely,

James Siles

Richard read it several times, trying to find some sort of hidden message in it, but he couldn’t decipher anything. The signature at the bottom looked authentic enough.

James wouldn’t cut and run like this, Richard thought. He double-checked the email. Maybe someone had sent it for him, but it was from James’ own email address, so Richard would never be able to tell for sure. 

Did James want them looking for him or not?

Richard took a seat in his desk chair, stunned. Slowly, he swiveled around to look at the empty patch of wall under the window, where Heather’s backpack had been the night of her disappearance. He had since taken it home, but its lonely presence haunted that spot like an imprint.

Richard tried to swallow the bleak emotions rising up in his throat, but tears blurred his vision anyway. Sesame was helping them. Benson may have been impossible to pin down before, but they had a lead. They were going to find Heather.

Richard cradled his face and broke down.

+

CHAPTERS 27-29

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN—AFTERMATH          

Richard woke up on the floor.

He slowly pushed himself up with a soft moan, raising a hand to his head. 

The details of the attack returned to his memory by degrees: Alder appearing in the doorway with a nod and a condescending, “Sir…” The pop of some kind of gun. A barb in Richard’s chest.

Richard bolted upright and swooned, his hand landing heavily on the edge of his desk as he caught himself. Where was Heather? The dizziness was still subsiding as he fixed his glasses and groped through the dark to the door.

“Heather? James?” He stepped into the hallway. James’ door was closed, and he found the office empty. “Heather?” No answer. 

Richard hurried downstairs and pulled unsteadily on the door to the empty lab. “Heather are you here?” 

The fluorescent lights buzzed in the excruciating stillness.

Dread thudded in his chest as he found the equipment room, the storage areas, and the adjoining lab vacant as well. Running now, Richard burst clumsily into the lobby and crossed the polished floor to a door near the front entrance. He weaved down the hallway, opening every door and calling his daughter’s name.

“Heather!” He ended up back in the dim lobby. Where were the security guards? “Heather! Answer me! Where are you!” He rounded the desk to check the security screens. The surveillance system had been disconnected.

When he booted it back up, every feed confirmed his fears. The facility was stagnant, deserted. He tried to access the archives to see what had happened in the last several hours he had been unconscious, but all video was nonexistent for that period of time.

Richard could only stare at the screen, on the verge of hyperventilation. He straightened up, then, remembering an absence of something he hadn’t had attention for his first time through the labs. He lurched back to the nearest lab entrance and stood in the doorway, frozen, his eyes fixed on the empty counter.

The android was missing.

Richard stepped forward. Black spots plagued his vision, as his mind began to piece together a mortifying conclusion.

Abruptly, Richard pushed back through the door, sprinted across the lobby, and tripped up the stairs again. He snatched his cell phone from his desk. The time was 9:14. There was a string of texts from Sue, starting from 2 hours earlier: How’s goes it? 

Where are you guys? Is everything ok?

Richard, please answer, I’m getting really worried.

Are you on your way?

Hello??

She had called him several times, but he’d missed all of it.

Richard called his daughter. Her cell phone rang from within the confines of the room. Slackening his phone from his ear in dismay, Richard craned his neck to look over the desk at her backpack.

If he checked her phone, there probably would have been worried texts from Sue as well.

James was very likely the last person to have seen her. Richard dialed his number, praying for encouraging news.

The call went straight to voicemail. He tried again, with the same result. He waited to leave a message the second time, but after the tone, he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He tried a third time.

At the tone, he said, shakily. “H-hey James…I can’t find Heather. Is she with you? Are you all right? Please call me as soon as you get this. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m so worried. Please call me back.”

His throat ached as he rounded his desk and looked out the window above Heather’s bag. The parking lot was empty, save for his own car. There should have at least been a security guard at the facility. Two of them, in fact.

Any moment, Heather would return to Richard’s office and ask why he was crying, trying to see through a barrage of tears to tap in the correct sequence that would call his partner. Heather would complain about how embarrassing he was being while he tried to laugh it off and joke about being overly protective. He would wrap his arms around his daughter, and most assuredly begin to cry anew from the overwhelming relief—because he had thought she’d been kidnapped with no warning or explanation. He had been dying inside, worrying something unspeakable had happened to her.

Standing alone in the darkness of his office, cellphone up to his ear, Richard waited like a lost child for that moment.

+

Heather’s system emerged from dormancy with a soft click.

Her eyes opened, and her vision sharpened to startlingly high resolution. A white paneled ceiling loomed above her set with quietly buzzing lights. 

She blinked. Her eyelids clicked. Disoriented, she tried to sit up, but her wrists were strapped down. James sat against the wall nearby, his head and crossed arms folded over his knees, asleep. 

Something tweaked abruptly in her head and her body seized. She dropped back to the table with a hard metallic clunk. Her vision glitched.

James gave a start, jerking up so quickly his head banged back against the wall. He pulled forward, gripping his affronted cranium with a groan. He twisted and met Heather’s gaze, dumbstruck. 

Heather looked down, testing her hands as she surveyed the sleek metal body stretched out on the table. A glowing circular power core with a crystalline center poked out from the open panel in its chest. The core didn’t fit. The outside panel that was supposed to close and protect it had been removed, and strips of black tape spanned the gap, keeping the device in place. A wire ran from somewhere inside, off the table down toward the floor.

Her eyes widened. 

She recognized this body.

“James…” A dull, faltering buzz issuing from her face adjusted to an electronic semblance of her own voice. It was eerie, a voice absent of breath vibrating through vocal cords. A soft, horrified imitation. She looked to James, who slowly raised himself to his feet. “What have you done?”

He rubbed the back of his head, staring at the floor. “They were going to kill you if I didn’t.” He talked faster, haunted, “He was dead set on punishing me for trying to back out, but the other model was horribly unfinished. It didn’t even have eyes and I couldn’t bear to…” He cut himself off, closing his eyes in an expression of pain. “Heather, I am so sorry.” He looked up with trepidation. “Are you all right?”

Heather’s eyes narrowed, venomously. But as she returned her gaze to the ceiling, her expression softened. Her voice sounded very small to her, incredibly artificial. “You tell me…”

James ventured nearer, shoulders slumped. A smear of mechanical grease marred the front of his shirt.

“Please tell me I’m a copy,” Heather hardly dared to say it, but crazily, she hoped for the only reconcilable solution: That this, her awareness, was not what she thought it was. That she was something else. Something she could learn to accept, somehow. “I’m somewhere else, right? The real me? Please tell me she’s alive—that she survived.”

“She…?” James said, slowly, not comprehending. His voice was raspy and quiet, “I—it doesn’t work that way…It was the same process as the prototype.”

Heather could only stare at him, her eyes large and lost, and her body as still as a sculpture.

He seemed to crumple in on himself in the long silence between words. When he finally spoke again, his voice dragged out with overwhelming inertia. He sounded like his brain was shutting down, faculty by faculty. “Your body is gone, Heather,” he said. “Converted to energy. I’m sorry.”

She shifted her gaze to the ceiling as his words sank in.

There was no real Heather. She was it.

The survivor of a one-way trip.

“Do my parents know?”

“No,” James said. “—Well, considering the android’s gone, the possibility’s probably occurred to them.”

“How—” She looked down at herself, unable to fathom that the robotic body before her had replaced her own. Yet it was moving, speaking with her voice. She saw with its eyes, heard with its auditory receivers. A forced, irreversible symbiosis. “Why did this happen? Who made you do all this?” 

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to explain right now…”

“No, James. You have to explain,” Heather said, desperate, furious. “What happened to clinical trials and willing volunteers? What happened to people who had no hope left? I was your friend and you used me. You killed me! You killed my body! What I am now—I really may just be a copy!” If she were still organic, she would have been nauseated. Profoundly, forcefully sickened by the implications of everything he had done to her. “The real Heather may be dead and we’ll never really know for sure!” 

She still wanted to think she was Heather, but on some level, she was fake. She would never be fully real again.

James was very still, hanging like a tattered shadow before her.

“Didn’t you stop to think?” her voice faltered, warbling in and out of pitch like a broken speaker. She pulled at her restraints. “Just once? Didn’t you think even for one second that this wasn’t the answer? That my dad and I weren’t just tools to move around until you got what you wanted?” She lay back and looked away. She couldn’t stand his crestfallen face anymore. “That’s all we ever were to you, weren’t we? Just a means to an end.”

“This isn’t what I wanted…” James said.

“Well then what did you want?”

James glanced up, and she was startled by the sharpness of the pain she saw in his demeanor, how his entire essence seemed to choke on itself. Hatred and anger and remorse trying to speak, but unable to. 

His gaze fell again.

He shook his head, futile.

The minutes of memory before the transfer played over and over behind her eyes. The gun, the guard counting down, James kicked to the floor. 

“Someone made you do this,” she said, trying again. He was unbelievably shaken by what he had done, but she needed him to talk to her.

James nodded. 

“Why?” 

He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out at first.

“I don’t know,” he said finally, his voice little more than a whisper. “They were helping me when Richard told me to give it up. I realized they weren’t who I thought they were, and I tried to back out. I didn’t think that deserved this…I don’t know…”

Heather stared at him, trying to make sense of that response.

“I wish I could fix this,” he said. “More than anything. You have every right to hate me. I guess I even kind of welcome it.”

Silence reigned between them. A twisting sensation plagued Heather’s artificial chest.

She wanted to hate him too. 

“I tried so hard to keep you and Richard out of it but—” his voice trembled. “I never even considered that this would happen. If I had known how this was going to end up, I’d have never even built the first prototype.”

“Wouldn’t you have, though?” Heather said quietly. “Your dad—This was meant for him, wasn’t it?”

“But I would never sacrifice you for him,” James said. “Never.” He took a breath so unsteady it was almost a sob. “I would give anything to take this all back.”

“Take me home, James” Heather said, hopelessly. “Please, at least do that much.”

“I’ll do what I can…”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I want so much to grant your request, but I don’t hold that power,” James said, bowing his face. “If I rebel any more, it will just make things worse. Please, you have to believe me.” 

She looked at him for a long moment, trying to recognize the man before her. It was strange how quiet her body was without breath. Silent, cold despair. Ice seeping into cracks.

She turned her face away. “I want to be alone right now.”

“Okay.” He stepped back from the table. He cleared his throat, but his voice remained unsteady, “Your neural network and power core aren’t secured in place, so I can’t let you off the table yet…But I’ll give you some time—I need a few hours of sleep, anyway. And then I’ll be back to untie you, begin diagnostics…to make sure you’re all right.”

“I’m not all right,” Heather muttered.

James’ lips tightened, conceding. He met her gaze. “I really am sorry, Heather. This may be my last chance to say it.” He dismally left her line of sight.

The door closed behind him, and Heather stared at the ceiling, listening to his receding footsteps. She didn’t know what their relation to each other would be when he returned. She didn’t know what to think, or what to do.

There would be no recovering from this.

+

A guard was waiting outside the examination room.

“Don’t you people sleep?” James muttered. 

“I’m to escort you to your apartment,” the guard said simply.

James said nothing else as he stalked down the hall and out the security doors into the cool night air. As he trudged across the Empetrum campus, the guard soundless behind him, James glanced up at the sky. In so remote a place, the stars crowded like countless armies in the endless expanse, unbearably cold and indifferent to the pressurized devastation corroding his soul.

“So I’m a prisoner too?” James asked as they made their way up the stairs of the housing complex reserved for researchers. The guard didn’t bother answering.

James opened the door to his apartment and paused, waiting for the guard to leave. The man gestured for him to proceed. Warily, James obeyed, and his escort followed him in.

“You’re not going to stay here, are you?” James said.

“Those are my orders.” The guard shut the door behind them. 

James ran his hand through his hair, and numbly took to removing his shoes.

“You received a voicemail around eight o’clock tonight,” the guard said. He pulled James’ confiscated cell phone from his breast pocket. “The director thought you should hear it, now that you’re finished with your experiment.”

Richard

James nodded, nauseated.

The man tapped the cracked screen, playing the message on speakerphone, and James soon realized it wasn’t whom he had expected. Instead of Heather’s dad, he recognized his own father’s voice.

“Hello James,” Jonathan Siles said. “I see you still don’t like to pick up your phone. But I suppose you’re probably busy. I just thought you would appreciate knowing I started this new type of treatment several weeks ago, and—though we were pretty skeptical at first—I’m actually responding remarkably well to it.” James gave the guard a tight, quizzical expression. “The tumors are shrinking dramatically, and, the way things are going, the doctors say I have a very good chance of pulling through.” There was a pause. “So yes. That’s all I have to say. I hope things are going well on your end. Have a good night, son. Hope maybe to hear from you soon…”

As the message ended and the guard stowed the phone, James exhaled and turned, unable to believe what he’d just heard.

“I’ll be outside, if you need anything,” the guard said, and left James to his thoughts.

James drifted further into the living room. His dumb shock gave way to jerky, incredulous exhales, which melded into a steady chuckle on the edge of sorrow and mirth. 

He leaned against the nearest wall. He wrapped his arms around his aching sides and squeezed his eyes shut as the laughter pulled harder from his throat and lungs. It was compulsive, painful. He couldn’t breathe, but he couldn’t stop. 

His father was going to be fine. If only James had called them when he’d thought about it. 

This had all been for nothing. He had destroyed Heather’s life, and his along with it—for nothing. It was over. His whole motivation behind organorobotic transference had proven unnecessary just as the project had been wrenched out of his control. He had been forced to use his purest passions to hurt those that meant most to him.

He was banned from access to all communication with the outside world, so he had no way to explain anything to anyone, not even to Heather’s parents. And James could do nothing to help her. Benson had him too perfectly controlled. He felt his grip in his chest, squeezing too tightly, strangling everything to cold, shriveled charcoal.

He slid to a sitting position on the floor, still laughing and sobbing at once, tears streaming down his face.

He couldn’t make any of this right. James had nothing left now but Empetrum.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT—SUBMISSION      

James responded to Benson’s summons on his pager without comment. He thought maybe he should show more backbone, but the night before had torn it out of him.

He felt reduced to a whipped terrier as he stood before Benson’s desk, waiting to be spoken to. 

“Your experiment was a success, then—as expected?” Benson said. “She woke up? She spoke to you?”

“Yes,” James said, vacantly. “But I’ll need to monitor her.”

“Of course. I won’t take too much of your time. I just needed to discuss some guidelines I’ll need you to follow.”

James waited for him to continue. Heather was still strapped down on the first floor, in the middle section of his tripartite lab. He hated himself for leaving her in isolation for four hours. Even though she’d asked him to give her space. Even though he had needed the time to recover some shred of composure before facing their new reality.

He could still hear the rumors of his broken, sobbing laughter in his mind. It was still a ready tightness at the back of his throat.

“First off,” Benson said, “Ms. Brophy may not go home.”

“Why?” James asked, lifelessly. Benson had already made it clear he didn’t need a reason for anything he did.

“You used Larkspur’s android,” he said it like it was a great inconvenience. “They’ll find a way to trace it back here.”

“I can build her another body and send the old one back,” James muttered. “Can she go home then?”

Benson gazed at him, eyebrows patiently raised, like James had said something stupid. “Her whole existence points back to you, even if you were to wipe her memory. Richard Brophy is never to find out about Empetrum.”

He recalled Richard being Benson’s other candidate for the machine. The director had known James wouldn’t pick Richard, then. Or maybe he was changing the rules as he went. 

“If you didn’t want him to find out about Empetrum, you shouldn’t have involved his daughter,” James said instead, sullenly. 

“They were the only people you seemed to care about, and I won’t underestimate them.” Benson laced his fingers together on his desk. “If this will be too much for you, I suppose you could submit yourself to an organic mindwipe and be free to continue your life elsewhere with no memories of this having ever taken place.”

“I thought you said I had no choice in this.” James stared at his dim reflection in the dark, polished floor. “And besides, what would I even have to return to? I can’t go back to Larkspur. I can’t leave Heather here alone…”

Benson’s features softened into a wan, pleased smile. “Then I believe you understand your duties moving forward.”

James cradled his head in his hands.

Slowly, he was starting to understand. Forcing him to transfer Heather wasn’t nearly so much punishment as it created a mountain of leverage. To keep James perfectly complicit and cooperative in Benson’s nightmare, while taking the worst stab at Richard possible.

Richard didn’t even know about Empetrum. What could he and Eve have possibly done to make Benson hurt them like this?

James had to try to accept this as the way things were. His good intentions had only invited devastation, with more to come if he tried anything else. Perhaps the part of him that had gotten them into this mess could take the lead. They could both survive, quietly, and hope that one day Richard would find a way to get to them. To her.

If James himself moved against Benson, the consequences would fall on Heather. Avoiding that was the only thing he had control over now.

“You will be closely monitored,” Benson was saying, “and required to be available at any time, so keep your pager with you. You may keep Ms. Brophy in your lab with appropriate security accommodations, as long as you can handle it. If you can’t, you will be suspended from the project. I have other, more important matters to steer you into soon, but you may continue to work on organorobotic transference full time until then. Expect to meet with me once a day to make a full report.”

James nodded, slowly. He had half a mind to take a crowbar to the machine as soon as this meeting was over, but he resolved to dismantle it quietly. Or simply seal off that room and hope it decayed on its own. 

“Ms. Brophy must cooperate, or she will be punished,” Benson said. “Paint me however grotesquely you want—I don’t care—but refrain from mentioning identifying particulars about personnel or the facility. If you utter them, I will find out, and she will be punished for that too.”

James’ expression darkened, but he said nothing.

“This arrangement will proceed according to your initiative,” Benson said. “If you must leave, leave. But if you must stay, then you will make yourself useful. I reserve the right to fire you if this doesn’t work out.”

James nodded slowly, suffocating under the director’s confident authority. Benson talked like he had a choice, but James had never had a choice at all.

Benson studied him for a long moment. “Where’s your first test subject, if I may ask? The mouse?”

James didn’t move. After hours of shock and tears and trembling, he had become very still as a silent, heavy darkness bloomed in his chest. The weariness of a much older man settled into the features on his long, callow face. The birth of a mad scientist, he thought.

“I destroyed it,” James said.

“Did you?” 

“I was trying to cut ties with the project. I didn’t want the reminder.”

Benson scoffed, skeptical. “I don’t see you as the unnecessary culling type.”

“I deactivated and dismantled it,” James said. “It was quiet, humane. Heather doesn’t know, and I’d rather she not find out. I stripped the neural network down to its components, to repurpose, but I didn’t make it far after that. The pieces of the body are scrapped somewhere. I don’t know how much of it made it here. We left in a hurry.”

Benson was nodding. “It’s for the best, I suppose.”

James nodded too. He had surprised himself. 

How easy it had been in that moment, to lie to the director.

+

Heather lay still with her eyes closed and senses dulled. At least she could do that much, drown it out for a while. She wanted to go home. James had to fix this, but he had made it clear he didn’t intend to do anything.

She dimly heard the door open. Pulling herself to full awareness, she lifted her shoulders and twisted to see James enter the room with a guard.

The young engineer might as well have had “I hate my life” tattooed across his forehead.

“Sleep well?” Heather asked, bitter and disillusioned as she returned to a supine position. She envied his human needs. Requirements she no longer had to cater to.

He shook his head as he came up to the table. He had what looked like black gym shorts in his left hand.

“I didn’t mean to make you wait so long,” he said. “I’m going to take you through those doors over there to the main part of my lab, but before I release your wrists, remember the energy unit in your chest isn’t tied down well beyond the tape, and there are very makeshift supports in your head for the neural network. I had to throw it together quickly at gunpoint…So please don’t try anything reckless, okay?”

“Okay…” She felt like he was threatening her.

He avoided her gaze while he checked along the underside of the table for the straps’ release button. The metal bands snapped back into the table. Heather held a tentative metal palm over the energy unit and sat up. Her body hummed softly as it moved.

She carefully shifted her legs around so they dangled off the table, watching her free robotic hand plant on the edge of the surface. She still couldn’t believe any of this was happening—that this artificial body was her new tether to the physical world.

She grudgingly accepted his arm to steady her as she lowered her feet to the floor. She locked out her knees so they wouldn’t buckle and stood still for a moment, noticing the pressure sensors in her limbs. She wasn’t confident she could walk without stumbling. Compared to her organic body, the tactile sense in Larkspur’s android was crude at best.

She looked at the gym shorts. “Are those for me?”

“Yeah.” He handed them over. “If you want. I—I thought the familiarity might be…I don’t know…”

“Thanks,” she said, very quietly. She didn’t feel naked, but at least she could indulge the constant of cloth against her foreign robotic exterior—pretend old rules still applied.

She paused, trying to decide how she would don the shorts, then bent her knees experimentally. Her legs were well connected and seemed decently sturdy.

James kept his distance.

She glanced at the guard standing near the door.

“So you have your own lab here,” she said, managing to balance enough on one foot to work the shorts on with her free hand. As she bent forward, she felt something shift inside her head. “Three labs, it sounds like.”

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“How fortunate for you,” she droned. As she adjusted the shorts on her robotic hips, she noticed a vague tactile sensation—less a signal from pressure sensors and more a simple awareness of whether or not she was being touched. An electromagnetic field, like Sesame had. She had felt it on her back while on the table. “I’m so glad you paid my body for this.”

“It was the price to keep you alive,” James said, tired and passive. “It was either this or let them kill you and your dad. Please believe me—I did everything I could to prevent your transfer.” He bowed his head. “It wasn’t enough. I’m sorry.”

Heather frowned at the floor. She still wanted to trust him. She believed he was remorseful, but it wasn’t enough to just be sorry. It didn’t matter how many times he said it. 

She wondered where Sesame was, but was too afraid to ask.

“Can you walk?” James said.

“I think so.”

“May I pull out that wire?” he asked, uncertainly. 

“I can do it.” 

As she carefully pried her mechanical fingers through the tape, searching for the connection point along the side of her chest cavity, James said, “They made me choose between you and your dad, for the transfer.”

“Why?” 

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “They said something about making it so he and Eve wouldn’t fight for me, because the government wants me here instead. When you walked in on me arguing with that guard, I knew they were going to try to get rid of you no matter what, so…” He couldn’t bring himself to continue.

“So I’m supposed to thank you?” she said, gingerly pulling the wire free and setting it on the table behind her. “If I hadn’t have barged in, who would you have chosen?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“It would have been me anyway, wouldn’t it?”

He didn’t answer.

She glared at the floor. James was so stupid for getting mixed up in this. She wanted to tell him so. 

And she might have, if he didn’t already know it. The awareness of his colossal lack of foresight was written all over him: in his slumped shoulders, dark circles under dull eyes. His hair stuck up more than usual, and he was still wearing the same shirt he’d worn to work the day before, stained with grease with the rolled up sleeves scrunched and uneven.

“Who was that guard, anyway?” she asked instead.

“Not who we thought he was,” James said. “I’m not allowed to give names.”

“Of course you’re not.”

He gestured toward the door, as if he barely had the strength to lift his arm. “This way. Please be careful.” 

His sullenness angered her, but she complied. The guard stepped forward as James moved toward the door. Heather found herself sandwiched between the two, her metal feet clicking against the floor.

She tilted her face up to regard the back of James’ head while he opened the door to the other lab. He seemed quite a bit taller than before. Larkspur’s android was shorter than Heather was accustomed to. Her rightful body used to come up to James’ chin, but in this mechanical one, she hardly reached the top of his shoulder.

As they entered the other lab, a busy but lonely space with more cabinets and counters, and four tall windows at the far end of the room, Heather’s attention gravitated to her chest. Beams of soft light swirled from the device behind the tape. Her body was in there, ripped from its identity as cell and muscle and bone, slowly being burnt up so she could live. Staring into it filled her with revulsion. 

Had it converted her soul to energy too?

Organorobotic transference. How could she have ever thought it was a good idea? This was how James thanked those who cared about him?

She had only ever wanted to help him. She had trusted him.

But James had made her a test subject. Not a volunteer, a human test subject.

Her forehead bumped into James’ shoulders. Startled, she tripped backward and the guard caught her before she fell flat on her back. The supports inside her head shifted.

“Sorry…” She winced as it shifted back when she straightened up. Her vision glitched again.

“Are you all right?” James turned around.

She averted her gaze. The thought of living the rest of her life in the body of an automaton, trapped in this hell of polished floors and fluorescent lights, almost made her wish the transfer had failed. Things were only going to get worse from here.

And if by some miracle she made it back to her family, there couldn’t possibly be a place in this world for her.

James paused, like he wanted to say something. Probably to apologize again. She willed him not to. 

Thankfully, he spared her, and continued to the counter across the room. He pulled out a padded desk chair. “Over here, please.”

Heather ventured forward, and finally her gaze landed upon an eerie mass of wiring propped up against the far wall like a corpse. She hesitated. James noticed her looking, and followed the direction of her attention to the piecemeal robotic body slumped on top of the counter.

“That’s the unfinished one?” she said, her voice soft. 

“Yeah.” He searched inside the drawers of a metal tool chest. 

Heather slowly lowered herself into the chair. It was tall for her. As she adjusted it, she considered the angular, faceless head across the room. The other robot was barely more than an incomplete skeleton. A meager frame laced with a spinal cord of wires. Empty eye sockets. “Thanks, for not putting me in that.” 

James nodded. He unrolled a small, soft case on the counter behind her, to the left of her head. It held a spread of fine-headed screwdrivers. As he slipped one from its place, he said carefully, “Heather…I need you to promise you’ll cooperate. If either of us try to rebel, they told me they’ll focus all the consequences on you.” She twisted around to look at him, and to her surprise, his hazel eyes met hers, earnest and afraid. “Please, you have to cooperate.”

Heather’s eyes narrowed. “And stay here forever?” 

He looked away. “We don’t have much choice. This happened because I tried to tell them no. Please, Heather, this is for your safety.”

My safety?”

“I have the resources here to build you a more suitable body—”

“Yeah, but if I can’t leave here, what’s the point?” she said. “My neural network might as well be plugged into a toaster. Wouldn’t make a difference, would it?”

James went to open his laptop on the counter near the incomplete robot. “I’m sorry.”

“You keep saying that.”

“It’s all I can offer right now.” His back was turned, but the guard that had followed them in stood by the door, watching her closely. 

“No it’s not, James,” she said. “You know what’s happening. You know how to stop this.”

He hunched his shoulders. “I don’t,” he rasped. “I can’t.”

Heather’s vision cut out for a moment and her head twitched sharply. She wearily raised a hand to her face. Metal fingers touched the smooth metal panel. She felt she was wearing some kind of helmet. But when she blinked, or spoke, she felt the movement. Her face existed as eyes and the shallow imitation of a mouth set into the metal panel.

“I’m printing you a new cranial frame for your neural network in the other room,” he said.

“That was fast,” she muttered, carefully leaning back into the chair. The light glinted off her exposed thighs. She hated it.

“I had already made the digital models,” he said. “Just hadn’t had the chance to implement them—Are you okay? I saw you twitch or something just now.”

“I don’t know,” Heather said. “It happened earlier right after I woke up. This time wasn’t as strong. I hope it’s going away.”

“Your body could still be calibrating. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

Heather studied her robotic knees in injured silence.

After several more minutes of computer work, he closed the laptop and turned around. “Can you open your cranial plates?”

“I don’t know how,” Heather said. “That’s not exactly something humans are built to do.”

James came forward and hesitated before reaching over to the top of her head. “May I?”

Heather shrugged. “Have at it,” she said. “You’ve already gone this far.”

She cringed as his spidery fingers contacted her head. He was shaking. He firmly depressed the side panels that extended up in ellipses from the circular auditory devices on either side of her head. The depression stimulated a release of pressure, and with a modest hiss, the two parietal panels, and two more anchored at the front and the back of her head opened outward. 

Heather winced as her mechanical brain—little more than a wad of chips and wires—was exposed to the outside air. An awareness ticked off somewhere in her mind that her head was open. A mere notification.

He looked inside. With a metal probe, he gently nudged the existing frame, pushed aside some wires in one corner, then the other. Heather felt it in dull breaches of the electromagnetic field, covering every exposed surface. She stared at her knees, her hands folded in her lap, waiting for it to be over.

“So, what are you going to do to me now?” she asked quietly. 

“Stabilize the neural network and energy core, and get you outfitted with a proper chest panel.”

“And then?”

She heard the soft clink of him setting the tool down. “I don’t know.”

“What do they want with me?” she said. “With you?”

He leaned against the counter, looking worriedly out the window. “They want my expertise with something, so badly they were willing to drag you into it as leverage. I don’t want to help them, but I don’t get to decide that anymore. I played right into their hands.”

“I think you’re working for crazy people now, James.”

“I think so too,” he said, shakily. There was a pause, and then his breath grew shallow. He leaned harder against the counter, trying to get a hold of himself, as his breath tightened up, wheezy and frantic.

“James?” 

He lurched unsteadily away, as if to escape her view, one hand gripping his shirt.

Heather reached out and grabbed his arm, startled and scared.

He whipped his head around to look at her, his eyes wide and face pale. Their gazes locked. She let go, surprised at herself. 

His legs crumpled and he sat down hard on the floor. 

He put his back against the nearest leg of the counter and drew his knees up. He clutched his head and put it between his legs, gasping for air and shaking and most certainly crying. 

The guard watched impassively from the door.

Heather didn’t dare look at James directly, so she watched in her peripheral vision, her shoulders tight and mechanical hands squeezed together in her lap.

Witnessing proud, diligent, controlled James tight in the grips of a panic attack was deeply unsettling. Part of her wanted to reach out to him again, to comfort him. But a coldness was rising within her, as she saw him for what he was. 

James Siles, for all his layers of masks and attempted approachability, was narcissistic, naive, and cowardly. He had only accepted her friendship, and allowed himself to believe he was her friend too, because she was useful to his ego. He had needed someone to believe in his insanity, and Heather had jumped at the chance to be needed. 

Solemnly, Heather listened to his uncontrollable gasps. Him in his organic, breathing body, still trying to understand what he had wrought. 

She pitied him. Immensely.

She considered the reflection of the ceiling in her folded robotic hands, wondering what her parents were doing at that moment. Her heart, whatever form it took now, ached for them.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE—SESAME  

Richard sat hunched forward with his elbows on his desk, his hands hooked on the back of his ducked head. Confusion and despair buzzed furiously in his fatigued mind, along with all the conversations he had had over the last eleven hours.

Sue had been the first. Heather wasn’t at home. But why would she have been?

Richard had called Meg Swanson, who was supposed to be on duty with Alder the night before. She had inexplicably come down with a violent stomach flu and Alder had assured her he would call in someone to cover for her.

Richard had called James dozens of times, but each attempt went straight to voicemail. He had left more voicemails, but all went unanswered. James had dropped off the face of the earth. Along with Heather.

He had contacted the Worthing Police Department, and they said they’d send someone out. But he waited anxiously for half an hour with no arrivals. He called them again to ask if someone was still on their way. He had to explain the situation all over again—but this time, the officer on the phone tried to make light of it, asking about Richard’s mental wellbeing, and finally dismissed his mounting agitation.

So Richard had called the police of the next nearest town, but as soon as he mentioned the address of Larkspur, the officer on the phone shut down. 

In desperation, Richard had driven out to the Worthing Police Department himself to talk to someone in person, but they made him wait, explain his presence over and over again to different people. He waited for each newcomer to take notes, but as his stripped patience wore thin, and he started demanding to talk to whomever was in charge, they became defensive. They asked him to leave. He refused, and then they threatened to arrest him.

When it seemed they would actually follow through with that threat, Richard left. He was angry and scared, but he refused to spend the night of his daughter’s kidnapping trapped in a jail cell. 

Finally, with nothing else to do, he went home, and he and Sue stayed up most of the night, driving down main streets and backroads between Larkspur and their house, hoping to find her, waiting for Heather to make contact. Somehow. She knew both her parents’ cellphone numbers by heart. If she could call, she would.

Richard went to Larkspur very early the next morning to look up Alder’s contact information from the database, and compulsively tested it. All the emergency contact numbers were disconnected, and his phone number went straight to voicemail as well. He had looked up the home address Alder had given, but when he checked it online, no such location existed.

Richard stared at the wood of his desk, suffering. Nothing made sense. He had the feeling that something terrible and very much over his head was happening, but he had no idea what. Or why. 

Sue was home, calling Heather’s friends and acquaintances back east, asking if any of them had heard from her.

“Richard?”

He lifted his haggard face to regard Eve. He glanced aside at the clock. The Bureau would open in a few minutes.

Eve’s brow furrowed. “Have you been here all night?”

Richard shook his head, his throat aching. “Something happened.”

Eve’s face went ashen. “What—”

Richard explained, showing his colleague the tranquilizer dart, his voice shaking so hard he could barely get it out.

“I called more than one police precinct, but no one will help me and I have no idea why.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Sue and I have been searching all night but we still can’t figure out what’s going on.”

“Why would Alder…” Eve trailed off.

“The android’s missing too,” Richard said miserably.
Eve froze. “You don’t think—”

Richard threw up his hands. “Of course I think! I worry James has pursued that blasted project behind my back and that he’s used it—and that Heather’s involved somehow.”

“But not as the transferee,” Eve said. “James would never hurt her. They’re friends. He looks up to you. There’s gotta be a better explanation for this.”

“You should have seen his face when I slammed the door on his project. It meant so much to him. Could he have been desperate enough?”

“Pulling something like that wouldn’t help anybody, and James would have known that. What if Heather just decided to help him out of the kindness of her heart without thinking it through, and she got in over her head?”

“Heather would have said something.” Richard rested his elbows on the desk again. “Maybe James isn’t even directly involved. Maybe it’s just Alder.”

Eve sighed, shaking her head. “A security guard presenting a threat? That came out of the blue. Maybe Siles’ claims of sabotage back in May really had some substance. He had better come in today and explain himself.”

“I don’t think he will. I think he’s in trouble too. I hope they’re together, wherever they are…” He bit back tears. Heather must be so scared. It killed him not knowing where she was, how to help her, whether she was in imminent danger.

Eve studied Richard for a few doubtful moments. “Then why was it only you who got tranquilized and left here?”

Richard stared at her. His shoulders sagged, and he sank back down into the position Eve had found him in. The top floor began to stir with the sounds of the other engineers filtering upstairs for work. He glanced at the clock again. The Bureau was finally open. 

Richard snatched the wireless phone and punched the speed dial. Upon connection, he listened to a brief automated recording, typed in a code, and listened again.

Eve watched him in silence for a few moments, her jaw tense, and then excused herself to talk to their arriving colleagues.

“Yes, hello, I have a question about one of my employees,” Richard said finally. “Steven Alder. What can you tell me about him?”

As Richard waited on hold, his colleagues appeared a step removed from the doorway, briefing each other of the situation in hushed tones.

“Don’t speculate,” Chelo hissed. “Give James the benefit of the doubt.”

“You’re thinking it too, then,” Greg said.

The person on the other line returned to tell him they had no records about Alder. Richard thanked her and hung up. “What the hell!” 

Addie shouldered her way in. Her colleagues hung back. “What is it?”

“Steven Alder,” Richard despaired, pushing his phone away. “The Bureau has no idea who he is, but they’re the one who hired him! How could we be that stupid?” His face slackened. “Unless…”

Unless the Bureau was keeping information from him too. But they couldn’t all be connected. The Bureau wouldn’t take his daughter from him.

“I bet he really was responsible for destroying the other facility too, the way all this is going,” Richard said. “But why? Why would he do this? Does he work for someone or is he just acting on his own? What could he possibly stand to gain from all this?” He raked a hand through his hair.

“We’ll find them,” Addie said. “It’ll be all right.”

Richard exhaled unsteadily. 

“Do you think it’s illegal to search James’ office?” Greg called from the doorway.

“I glanced in there last night, but nothing was obviously out of order,” Richard said.

“Let’s scour it then.” Greg crossed the hallway in a single step and gripped the doorknob to his colleague’s office. Richard got up from his desk to follow.

James’ office was in its usual busy state, with half-finished prototypes and sticky notes of code and to-do items hanging from the shelves above his desk. Richard glanced around, still uncertain of what he was searching for, or whether there was really anything to find.

Alder wasn’t a new hire. He had been so calm, even jovial, as he had shot Richard with the tranquilizer. As if Richard were a mere loose end. For a split second, he had even thought the tranquilizer was a gun, and that Alder was going to kill him point blank.

He peeked into James’ filing cabinet, but nothing seemed amiss. He fingered through them, recognizing most of the project labels. He found nothing about organorobotic transference.

Even if James had discontinued the project, the information would still have been among his other files. Unless James had separated or destroyed them, a break from his usual pattern.

Greg stepped up behind him, looking over his shoulder. “Find anything interesting?”

“James’ file for his neural transfer project isn’t here,” Richard said. He glanced around the office, and paused. “Sesame’s box isn’t here either. I don’t remember seeing it yesterday. Did he bring it in?”

“I overheard James telling Heather he’d left it home yesterday,” Chelo said.

“That’s odd.” Greg pulled on the drawers along the other side of James’ desk. “He always brought it in for Heather.” He bent down and peeked in the crevice between the desk and the wall and paused. “Wait—hold on, something’s here.”

He muscled the desk over a little and pushed his arm into the space. Richard came closer as Greg pulled out a food storage container stuffed with a small dark towel.

“What is that?” Chelo moved in as well. 

Greg carefully pried up the lid and unwrapped the edges of the towel to reveal the pastel sheen of an antistatic cloth. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Richard, and peeled the folds aside, betraying a wire-ridden mass of computer chips.

Richard’s face went cold. “That looks like Sesame’s mental device,” he said. Greg handed over the container with its electronic bundle.

“James…” Eve sighed from the doorway. “What on earth have you been up to?”

“He really is in trouble, isn’t he?” Addie said. “He seemed shaken yesterday.”

“He should have said something!” Chelo groaned. 

“Maybe he couldn’t,” Richard said quietly. “If he felt like he was in danger.”

“And James has never been good at asking for help,” Addie said.

Richard’s gaze fell again to Sesame’s neural network. He felt sick. “I wonder if we can tap into Sesame’s memories.” Careful to touch it only through the antistatic cloth, he nudged it over onto its side, betraying a rectangular slot. “It looks like James used the Larkspur standard for input ports.” He turned around. “Eve, can you see if we still have appropriate adapter cables—something that would fit the android, probably.”

“On it.” Eve left the doorway.

“Let’s see if we can’t put something together.” Richard handed the bundle back to Greg and went to his office to retrieve his laptop. They all headed downstairs to set up in the lab.

Eve emerged from the storage room with a cord. “The adapter cables for the android are missing too, but I found this one where James left his prototype.” She waved the end of the cord. “The one end I know will fit that piece, but the other side was outfitted for his machine, I expect. It’s a different shape entirely.”

“We can work with that,” Richard said. 

An odd sense of calm came over him as he made spliced James’ cord with a USB adapter.

“Ok, what have you seen, Sesame?” Richard muttered, plugging one end of the cable into Sesame’s neural network and connecting the other with his laptop.

An icon materialized on the screen, but as Richard moved the cursor, it opened on its own. A colorful vortex of code shifted and swirled in countless layers across the folder window, as if it were a portal to a much vaster dimension.

“What is this?” Richard muttered. He guessed he shouldn’t have been surprised to find something so disorganized. This was an electrical manifestation of a living being’s consciousness, after all. Still, how was he supposed to navigate this?

Unassumingly, the bar at the top of the file domain switched to a single word:

downloading…

“What’s it doing?” Chelo hovered close behind. Her eyes widened as the icon to the internet browser blinked and sprang open. Information flashed past in a vehement cascade—faster than anyone’s eyes could track.

“He’s found the internet,”Addie said.

“Not good…” Richard reached to pull the cord from his computer. It sparked just as his fingers contacted it.

Richard jerked back with a sharp gasp.

Please do not touch that,” a voice issued from his computer, pieced together from a myriad of voices ripped from their contexts to form new meaning. “I am not finished yet.”

The five engineers gaped at the computer screen in a mix of stupefied amazement and horror.

“Sesame?” Addie ventured.

Yes!” A handful of different laughs filtered through the laptop’s speakers. Sheer, disjointed delight. “I am speaking! Can you believe this? It is wonderful!” 

“What are you doing?” Richard demanded, holding his affronted hand.

Learning to be human,” it said, just before the screen went black.

“Sesame?” Richard hung back. “Are you still there?”

No answer.

“No! Sesame! We need your help!” Richard lurched back up to the computer in dismay. “You’re the only one who may know what happened to James and Heather! Are you listening? Sesame!

The screen remained dormant, yet the computer still appeared to be running. Richard couldn’t be sure whether or not Sesame was simply ignoring him—or maybe he had uploaded himself onto the internet, never to be heard from again.

“Well…” Eve said, incredulous.

Richard stared at the black screen in mute despair.

+

CHAPTERS 24-26

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR—MOVING TARGET        

When Erika came to, her first thought was that this was all just an elaborate fever dream, a neurotic coping mechanism that was easier to live in rather than face the questions of how she was supposed to keep living on without her mother.

In this state, she didn’t have to be strong for her family, to be the protective sister, the sturdy oldest daughter, because she was here, at Empetrum, warped out of control. The timing was too convenient, too ridiculously awful to be real.

She lay on her stomach, supported by pillows. Her arms were pulled back and upward, suspended in three points each by what felt like cloth slings. However, it took her a moment to realize that her actual arms, the ones she was born with, were tucked up close to her face among the pillows. An IV clung to one of them.

Slowly, she drew her hands into loose fists. Looming above, out of her field of vision, two other appendages responded the same way, and she wished in that moment that she was just imagining all of this.

She was back in the hospital room in which she’d weathered gene therapy. From somewhere in the corner off to her left, she heard a shift of fabric and paper, the sound of someone setting aside a book and standing up from a chair. Carefully, she lifted her head up enough to turn it the other way to see who it was.

It was Yeun, naturally.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, coming nearer.

“Does it matter?” Erika mumbled wearily. Her whole body ached. “How long was I out?” 

“About a day and a half,” he said. “The activation was harder on you than expected. Nothing some extra electrolytes and a lot of sleep couldn’t fix, though.”

Erika tried to move the gargantuan limbs off her back. They responded, swinging gently in their slings. They ached too. “Why are they still there? What happened?”

“Your body wouldn’t take them back,” Yeun said. “Despite my best efforts.”

A month ago, Erika would have gone weak at the knees at such a statement. Now that the die were cast, she felt surprisingly indifferent. She started thinking about where she could get them amputated when she got out of here. She decided to write it on her hand or something before the mindwipe so she wouldn’t have to do the same brainwork twice.

“Guess your experiment’s done, then,” she said, expecting to be disappointed. “Time for my exit interview.”

Yeun shook his head, dismally. For a fleeting moment, it almost seemed like maybe he was beginning to want her released too, but Erika knew better.

“There’s still a lot to learn from your accessory arms,” he said. “This technology is new, so there’s a lot we can’t take for granted. I need to see how developed the nervous tissue is, whether or not your body will accept them longer term, or how they handle muscle building or healing. We may still be able to get them to reabsorb, in time. I’m getting a lab partner soon, who’s extremely good at this sort of thing, so that day may be sooner than later.”

Erika just stared at him, eyebrows lowered. She sighed and settled in as he left her view to check on her IV setup. “You’re never going to let me go, are you? I bet your boss won’t allow it. Because of that gene therapy, I’m as good as Compatible now.” From the corner of her eye, she could see the other arms, hanging. They reminded her of the articulated skeletons of sea creatures strung up in museums. “Maybe you won’t recruit me to be a soldier, but I’m no different than that kid whose DNA you mixed with mine. There is no end to my usefulness to you, and you’ve already invested all these resources into corrupting my genetic code, so you’ll only keep pushing this experiment out further and further until either you kill me or I escape.”

A heavy silence answered her. She hesitated, thinking maybe he’d slipped out while she was talking. “Yeun?”

She couldn’t see him far over on her other side, but when he spoke up, it didn’t sound like he’d moved at all. 

“I’m not going to kill you,” he said. “And I’m not going to keep you here forever, either.”

+

James spent the next handful of evenings in the sizable shell of the scanner, working at strange angles or struggling to single-handedly mount larger, heavier pieces like the translucent panel on the underside of the lid. He was constructing the machine directly inside the wing of his lab furnished for high electrical output.

Benson never asked James to justify any of his activities, nor submit any formal requests to move forward. He didn’t worry James would waste resources or bring something dangerous into existence, never asked James to consider how his efforts could be abused. He only asked how he could help push it forward.

Empetrum seemed to suit his goals and pacing better. He thought maybe he should transfer fully from Larkspur.

His back ached as he craned his arms down inside the body of the scanner, and he let his mind wander to help drown out the sensation. He had analyzed O.R.T-1’s sensory abilities before leaving Larkspur that night, and he’d found Sesame was emitting some sort of electromagnetic field across his surface area. James had traced it to the neural network, possibly an electrical extension to represent the peripheral nervous system. He was excited to tell Heather.

He wished he could tell her about the clinical prototype too. He was eager to see how the neural network would handle the human brain, though as the reality of clinical trials sank in, he was beginning to understand Richard’s misgivings—however hurtful they still were. He found himself worrying no one would be willing to undergo the transfer.

James thought of his body as simply a vessel that enabled him to do his work. If his were dying, he’d gladly make the jump. His father was the same way, but he understood others had different philosophies about the body’s worth and purpose.

He would never force anyone into it.

He debated calling his parents to fill them in, and perhaps glean a status update. A part of him was considering chancing a visit with them.

James pulled his arms back from the depths of the scanner and swapped the wrench in his hand for a pair of needlenose pliers. No, he was too busy now.

If he ended up remembering to call them, he decided, he would refrain from mentioning his project until it was ready. He wanted to leave no room for doubt when he finally pitched the possibility to his father.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE—DISCONNECT         

By the following Friday, everything was constructed, connected, and functional, and James had begun busying himself with the mechanical replacement body for the first human trial. Now came the time to begin looking for a willing volunteer. He didn’t even know where to begin that phase.

Perhaps Benson had connections.

Constructing the body was therapeutic, and having regained some extra headspace, James began to wonder about Empetrum’s other projects. He had completely forgotten to ask. He figured he’d ask as soon as the second prototype was truly finished.

As he packed up to leave Larkspur for the weekend, he received a text from Benson:

Good evening, Dr. Siles. Please let me know when you arrive tonight. I’d like to see how your project is coming along.

Someone crossed the door to James’ office and James looked up from his phone. “Oh—Richard?”

“Yeah?” Richard reappeared in the doorway, his inquisitive expression resembling one often found on his daughter’s face.

“I want to comb through those codes this weekend,” James said. “I think we’re close.” He was losing patience with the artificial intelligence program. He wanted the problem straightened out so it could stop nagging at the back of his mind.

“That’d be great, James.” Richard smiled. “Thanks a lot. Looking forward to what turns up. Make sure you log any time you work on it so we can pay you, okay? Don’t forget again.”

“Okay,” James said.

Richard nodded in approval and took his leave. “See you Monday.”

“Have a good weekend,” James said as Richard disappeared.

“Bye, James!” Heather chimed as father and daughter headed for the stairs. For once, Heather was excited to leave. They were taking a trip to the beach that weekend.

James returned his attention to his phone, typing a quick reply to his other employer: Sure thing. I’m leaving Larkspur now.

When James arrived, he called Benson, and soon, he was scanning his badge to his personal lab. “I’m still working on the mechanical body replacement,” James explained, showing the director into his lab. “But besides that, everything’s finished.”

Benson studied the robot pushed to one side of the counter. Currently, the android was merely an incomplete torso with half a head and a hole in its chest. James pulled a case off a shelf next to the unfinished android and carefully opened it up to reveal the neural network, cradled in anti-static foam. Benson leaned forward to get a better view as James brought over the power core. He admired both without touching, familiar with the need for prior electrical grounding for the neural network especially.

“You always manage to exceed my already lofty expectations, Dr. Siles,” he said, glancing at him. “And the scanner?”

James eagerly led him into the high voltage electrical lab. A smile spread across the director’s face as they neared the machine at the back of the room.

James undid the thick clamps running along the edge of the scanner’s domed lid. He gripped both the handles and pulled it open, revealing the neural transfer devices resting in the sleek depression in the scanner’s lower half. Dormant lights dotted the concave underside of the lid. 

James stepped over the tangle of cords snaking away from the machinery, and after plugging two of the main ports into the high-voltage sockets, he returned to the scanner and flipped up a small compartment on the nearest end, depressing the button inside.

The lights in the scanner pulsed to life, and Benson squinted at their sudden intensity. Lights on the neural transfer devices flickered as well, waiting for something to read. The machine emitted a gentle, expectant hum.

“So, everything is functional?” Benson said

“I tested everything I could without actually transferring myself,” James said, looking at the ready machine with fondness and anticipation. “—that being the DNA targeting system and the mass-to-energy conversion.” He lay a hand on the helmet-like contraption inside the scanner. “—as well as the neural transfer devices. Everything worked beautifully. I was able to improve almost everything from the prototype, which had already worked pretty well in its own right.”

“Indeed.” Benson said. “How’s your little test subject doing?”

“Better than I had expected. Thriving beyond his former potential, actually.” Just two months before, James had been wondering about the very plausibility of organorobotic transference. But now the project had become mature and tangible, impossibility finally making the full transition to technological revolution.

“Wonderful,” Benson said with a good-natured smile. “We can start human trials as soon as possible. Say, this weekend, maybe?”

“I was actually just going to ask you about—” James halted as the full meaning of the director’s words took hold. “—this weekend?”
“Of course. I can have someone by tomorrow evening at the latest,” Benson replied. “We usually obtain human test subjects only as we need them. I’ll take care of the details.”

James stared at him blankly. “What?”
“I apologize for leaving that part out of our initial onboarding,” Benson said with an almost rueful smile. “It always sounds so deplorable at first, but it just takes some getting used to. Your expertise is unprecedented, so I have full faith we’ll not see any casualties with this trial.”

“You mean you—” James fumbled. He ran a hand through his hair as another wave of incredulity knotted his insides, as he tried and failed to come to grips with Benson’s words. “You use human test subjects on a regular basis?”

“Yes,” Benson said, unconcerned.

“Do they give you their permission?”

“Some do, eventually.”

Eventually?” James turned off the scanner and reached up with both hands to grip scanner’s lid. Suddenly, Michael Benson didn’t seem so safe and amiable anymore. “This is why Empetrum is a secret, isn’t it…” He glanced over his arm at the director, who waited patiently for him to process. “Does the Bureau know?” The betrayal hit him even as the first slivers of fear took root. He had personally talked to Vihaan Dhar about Empetrum. Eve had known Dhar for at least ten years. “Dhar would never sponsor methods like this—”

Benson scoffed. “You are so innocent, Dr. Siles.”

James’ jaw tightened. He pulled the scanner shut, carefully, as if sealing their conversation, as well as his father’s fate. “I’m sorry, but I can’t align my research with a policy like that. The only way I can start clinical trials is with volunteers only. They have to be completely informed of the risks and willing to take them.”

“That would attract too much attention, and waste too much time,” Benson said. “You want results now, don’t you? Larkspur has already stood in your way long enough, and you can’t risk leaving your father to fate for much longer, can you?”

“No, but I—” James froze. “I never told you anything about that. How did you—You’ve been watching me?”

“For quite a while.”

James hesitated, reeling. Pushing the information back, he emphasized with as much resolve as he could muster, “Please let me do this the right way.”

“‘Right’ is subjective,” Benson said. “You’re insistence on it is simply not an option. You are serious about this project, aren’t you?”

“I am…” James admitted. “I want this more than anything, but—”

“Then pursue it harder than anything else,” Benson said coolly, turning fully to him. “Don’t hesitate to take risks and make sacrifices.”

“I can’t force others to make sacrifices for me,” James said.

Benson laughed. “You think you haven’t already?”

“What you propose is—is profoundly unethical.”

“Ethics,” Benson sighed. “You used a mouse for the first prototype, right? So you draw the boundary at animals. Apes are animals too, yet they are genetically very similar to humans, and we only value the human animal above everything else because it’s our own species. So how close is too close for you? Do you draw the line at self-awareness? The capability of abstract thought? You forced your rodent test subject to sacrifice its body for you. It had its own level of intelligence. It could still feel fear, and pain.” As Benson went on, James’ stomach sank, as his own double standard was revealed to him. “As you can see, everything sounds inhumane if you phrase it right. The world exists in shades of gray, Dr. Siles, and progress must be made regardless. The sooner you learn that, the better.” He considered the sleek, closed lid of the scanner. “We’re not senselessly cruel, you know. We do have our reasons for our choice of test subject.”

James crossed his arms to try to ward off the chill creeping through his body. “What reasons could justify experimenting on our own species?” 

Benson’s pleased expression felt like a rope tightening around James’ throat. “I could discuss the advantage of intelligent test subjects, once their cooperation is secured, but really, for our ends, it’s far better to just go for the throat and test on the target species for the end goal of our research.”

James could hardly breathe. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “And what is that end goal?” He berated himself for neglecting to ask about Empetrum’s projects earlier, though now, he was afraid to know.

“Anthropic bio-enhancement,” Benson said. “Or, human weaponry, if you prefer.”

James’ attention crept back to his machine with a cold wave of horror. Organorobotic transference had human weaponry written all over it.

He suddenly remembered Richard’s words, Have you thought about how this could be abused? James raked a hand through his hair. He hadn’t seen reality through the stars in his eyes. His machine could give someone a second chance at life, but it could also turn them into something they were never meant to be.

Benson caught James’ change in expression. “Tomorrow,” he said, “your machine will see its first transferee.”

“No.” James took a step back toward the door. They couldn’t work it without him, and even less without his computer, which was programmed to direct the entire process. “I’m not doing this.”

“I understand you’re frightened of this next step, but it will pass,” Benson said, unperturbed. “This is nonnegotiable, Dr. Siles. We’re moving forward with your project whether you’re ready for the next step or not.”

If James abandoned Empetrum, his project would die or be dangerously delayed. His hopes of redemption would die, and his father would be left without a failsafe. But if James stayed, Benson would only ask for more, and before long, James would have embraced monstrosity as well.

Richard was right. James had to cull this project before it hurt someone. At Empetrum, James was not only allowed, but encouraged, to cross even the most sacred of boundaries in the name of innovation. Of course, who else but Benson would support his project, which had crossed a few of these lines already?

Biting back the emotion rising in his throat, James turned away from his machine.

“Are you leaving for the night?” the director said.

James took a steadying breath. “Yes, but I’m not coming back. Consider this my resignation,” he said. His voice shook. “Thank you for your interest in my work, and for extending the opportunity, but I can’t—I won’t continue like this.” He would never be able to face Richard again if he did. He strode toward the door. “I’m sorry I wasted both of our time.”

Richard and Eve’s reluctance to let him develop organorobotic transference had stymied his progress and hurt his pride, but he had come to rely on Richard’s quiet empathy. It wasn’t about not making waves, James realized, but about being careful to create positive ones. About solving more problems than he created. 

The cracks his activities at Empetrum had already made in his relationship with Larkspur were on the verge of collapsing into a full rift, shattering everything he realized he still wanted. Maybe it wasn’t too late to save it.

Lesson learned. No one had to know.

“One moment, Dr. Siles,” Benson’s voice stopped him. In the ensuing silence, James heard him strolling toward him across the polished floor. “Be sure to keep everything you’ve seen and heard here to yourself.” James felt rooted in place as the director came into his field of vision beside him. “The moment you try something, I’ll know. And it would be a shame if your role at Empetrum were to change.”

James slowly forced himself to glance at the director. The taller of the two, James had to look down slightly to meet his gaze, but in that moment, James felt smaller than a child.

Benson’s gray eyes were steady and intense. “Do you understand?” 

James stared at him, his throat extremely dry. He managed a nod.

Benson’s face softened with a pleasant smile, and he continued on ahead, taking his leave. “Good. See you tomorrow morning, then. Nine o’clock.” 

James shook his head, dazed. “I’m resigning, Dr. Benson. I won’t be there.”

The director paused at the door. “Fight it if you want, Dr. Siles,” he said. “But there is no going back for you.”

James watched him go, his forehead cold and breathing disturbed. Only after Benson was long gone, did James move to gather his laptop, work notebooks, and the neural network and power core. He abandoned everything else in his lab and hurried to his apartment on campus, where he hastily repacked his suitcase and stowed everything, including Sesame, in his car. At any moment, he expected guards to apprehend him, but they all just watched him from their posts. As far as the rest of the facility was concerned, the evening’s events were only business as usual.

He went back to his on-campus apartment for one last check, and once he made sure he had everything in the car, he left his Empetrum access card and apartment key on the kitchen table.

James spent the forty minute drive back to Worthing in crushing, despondent anxiety. Benson had offered his unwavering confidence in James’ crazy ambitions, along with the promise to cultivate them instead of shrink back like Richard had.

And James had been caught in the spell.

He was ashamed to realize how easy it was for him to start turning his back on Larkspur. For several weeks now, he had known his loyalty was shifting, but he hadn’t cared. He had conflated their hesitance about his dangerous ideas with total rejection, and he had let himself reject them in turn.

Benson’s words still stung as James pulled up to his apartment in Worthing. There is no going back for you.

Empetrum was just a biotech company. Benson couldn’t force him to do anything, yet James still felt like he was marked.

Evening sunlight spilled into James’ empty apartment, casting a long shadow across the floor as he paused in the doorway, Sesame’s box heavy in his hands. The scents of woodwork and paint had since overtaken those of human habitation in the silent, stagnant air. He had returned very seldom to his dwelling over the last month, and the abandoned feeling of it burned his throat.

His eyes locked on something on the kitchen table. Leaving Sesame and his other effects crowded around an end table by the door, he warily ventured toward the object, his heart pounding in his ears. It was a pager of some kind. Under the small rectangular device lay a note, written in a neat hand that danced the line between print and cursive:

You’ll be needing this soon.

James took the pager in his shaking hands and turned to glance at his hushed surroundings. This certainly wasn’t legal. James breathed a heavy exhale, and wearily dropped into one of the chairs at the table.

If Benson had been watching him at Larkspur, he must have known when the best time was to extend the offer. He had played him, lied to him just enough. If he had only slowed down for just a moment, maybe he would have noticed before it was too late.

No matter what tactics Benson used to try to intimidate him, James resolved to resist. Even if Benson was watching his every move, he debated simply pretending nothing had happened and hoping for the best. Either way, organorobotic transference was dead.

The weight of James’ guilt and fear sat so heavy in his chest that he barely had room for breath, for grief that his revolutionary failsafe—this project on which he had hung so many hopes—would never move another step forward.

Maybe Benson would pull strings and get Richard to fire him, or try to get him blacklisted so he had to choose between his career or Empetrum. Benson had already proved himself shockingly manipulative, and James had a terrible feeling he would be stubborn as well.

James spent half the night overturning his entire apartment, looking for surveillance devices. His search turned up fruitless, and he lay awake the other half of the night worrying about it.

The next morning, he realized there was no food in apartment, and left, glad for any excuse to try to evade Benson’s radar. He stayed out for hours, wandering around feeling hunted, before he actually found himself at a grocery store. Finally, he reluctantly returned home and tried to work on the artificial intelligence program like he had told Richard he would.

But nothing came of his efforts. He couldn’t concentrate. He forgot to log his hours.

That evening, he received another text from Benson: You missed your appointment.

James didn’t reply. He half expected Benson to send someone to drag him back up to Empetrum to experience his machine firsthand as punishment. But that seemed hyperbolic. Benson lacked empathy, but James didn’t think he was insane.

No one ever came. He didn’t hear from Benson again for the rest of the night, and the lull continued long into the next day.

He wanted to call Richard. He needed someone to tell him what he should do—to lessen the endless torment of guilt and fear. But Richard could never know about this.

So James bided his time alone, miserably wondering if, or when, the details of his ruin would unfold.

+

Monday arrived and Benson continued to remain silent. James wondered if he was supposed to carry the pager with him, but he left the evil gesture where he had found it.

Richard asked if James had made any breakthroughs with the artificial intelligence program. Instead of bursting into tears, James nervously lied that he hadn’t had a chance to work on it. The rest of the day, he worked obsessively on whatever he could devote his attention to, but the gnawing fear soon became exhausting to hide.

And Heather noticed, like she always did. James wished she would just look the other way for once.

She asked him what was wrong, but he couldn’t answer.

Fight it if you want, but there is no going back for you.

Empetrum couldn’t possibly want him badly enough that Benson would destroy his life over quitting. He reminded himself that as long as he didn’t try to be a whistleblower, Benson would have no reason to come after him, but still, some deep, instinctive part of him knew this wasn’t over yet.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX—O.R.T-2         

James lingered down in the lab after hours, alone with his laptop, still fussing with the program for the android’s artificial intelligence. He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t stay here. He felt like Benson was watching him at all times, and James just wanted to forget everything and pretend he didn’t even exist.

His cell phone rang, and the name in his caller ID made his face go cold. He rejected the call and pushed it away from him on the counter, cradling his face in his hands.

After a few minutes of heavy silence, the screen of his phone lit up again, and the gentle beeping sent even more ice creeping up his spine.

James stared at the pixels.

He raked both hands through his hair, trying to get a hold of himself. He considered getting up, going straight to Richard’s office where the director was finishing reports, and coming clean. Richard firing him could never be worse than whatever Benson had up his sleeves. But he was too afraid to face Richard’s disappointment.

“You’re going to want to pick that up.”

James snapped his head up to see a security guard, blond, toned, an easy determination about him. Steven Alder. James’ attention touched first on the Larkspur security guard uniform and then the gun in Alder’s hand. James’ phone quieted, and James stood up, backing away from both the missed call and the uniform as Alder raised his weapon.

“What are you doing?” James tripped backward over a seat left between the counters as Alder advanced. “Alder what are you doing?

“The director will call back,” Alder said. “When he does, you will answer your phone.”

The phone on the counter began to ring again. When James didn’t move, Alder angled the gun toward James’ chest. Eyes wide, James reached forward, his whole arm trembling, and took the device from the counter.

Tapping the talk button, he raised it to his ear.

+

Richard typically completed and sent off their weekly report for the Bureau database on Friday, but he hadn’t had time before leaving on vacation for the weekend. So, with Heather’s approval, they were staying later Monday night to catch up instead.

As Richard typed away at his desk, Heather sat leaning against the wall behind it, reading a paperback.

She yawned as she turned a page. They had returned late the night before, and Heather had dismissed the option of taking the day off. Still, she looked forward to crashing on the couch back home.

“How are you doing Heather?” Richard’s voice made her look up. He glanced back at her.

“Sleepy,” she said. “You?”
Richard smiled. “Same.”

“How far do you have left to go?”

Richard slumped forward, propping his chin on a hand. “Half an hour, I hope.”

Heather pulled her cell phone from her pocket to check the time. 6:03.

“Thanks for hanging in there.”

“No problem.” Heather contemplated breaking out leftovers from lunch that afternoon. She tucked her cell phone into the front pocket of her bag, tired of looking at the screen. 

Richard clicked the electronic mouse and resumed typing. As he consulted some of the notes on his desk, he said, “Hey, why don’t you go bug James? He’ll be more interesting than all this paperwork.”

Heather straightened up. “I thought he already left.”

“I don’t think he did.”

James had been out of sorts all day, his fidgety, industrious nature on full anxious overdrive. When she’d asked if he was okay, he’d insisted he was fine, pallid and on edge. Maybe he had received bad news about his dad.

She didn’t know how to ask him about it, but maybe he would appreciate some company, at least.

“You sure you’ll be fine here?” she asked facetiously, lingering at the desk.

Richard smiled, amused. “I’ll make it.”

“Tell him to go home, would you?” Richard called after her on her way to the door. “That one works too hard.”

Heather twisted around, flashing a smile. “Will do.”

+

“Dr. Benson,” James said, his voice flat.

“Good evening, Siles,” Benson said. “We haven’t heard from you for a while. You might have guessed, but you missed an important appointment this past weekend.”

“Yes, I know.” James apprehensively watched as Alder moved closer to him. “What have you done in my absence?”

“Nothing. This is your project, after all.”

“Not anymore,” James’ voice trembled, despite his best efforts to keep it steady. It still killed him to say it. “I told you, I won’t do it your way.”

“But you are going to do it my way. Everything is in place. The experiment will be tonight.”

James’ stomach clenched. “No, it won’t.” 

“You remember our last conversation, do you not?”
James hesitated. “I do.” He hadn’t been able to get the exchange out of his head. “The answer is still no. I swear, I’m not going to tell anyone about Empetrum, but as far as I’m concerned, organorobotic transference is dead.”

“I think you’ll reconsider, given the situation.”

“…Situation?”

James glanced in dread at the traitorous security guard. Alder hadn’t lowered the gun. 

“I’m not letting you squirm your way out of this, but you do have an option,” Benson continued. “Call it a last shred of mercy, if you like. There are only four people at Larkspur at the moment. Tonight’s test subject will be one of the two upstairs.”

Richard or Heather.

“No.” James backed away from Alder. “No, you’re insane! Why are you dragging the Brophys into this?” 

“Whether or not you realized it, Siles, you’ve been handed off,” Benson said. “Our shared sponsors want you at Empetrum, and I gave you a chance to integrate willingly. Sooner or later, you were going to tell Brophy and Louis, and even though you scare them, they would have attempted to fight for you. If their wings were not clipped first, that is.”

James stared at Alder, his mouth hanging open. Benson’s words permeated his ribs like rot. “What?” he whispered. When he spoke again, his voice shook, desperate and juvenile. “You said the consequences would fall on me if I crossed you—which I haven’t.”

“I like this better.”

“You can’t make me do anything.”

“We’ll know the answer to that question by the end of the night.”

“There’s no way I’ll hurt the Brophys—” James cut himself off as the line clicked. “Benson? Do you hear me? You can’t make me do this!”

“Here’s how this will go.” Alder stepped forward. “Tell me which Brophy you want, and I’ll tranquilize them first.” He patted a different firearm on his belt. “Let’s do this quick and easy, Siles.”
James opened his mouth to protest, and Alder loomed closer.

“Either you take one of them for your project,” he emphasized. “Or I will dispose of both of them and pin the evidence on you.” He kept the weapon on James. “Understand?”
James stared at him, eyes wide.

Abruptly, James tried to dodge around the side of the counter. Maybe he could make it to the door and up the stairs to warn his friends before sustaining a mortal wound. But then what?  Then what?

“Hey—” Alder grabbed James’ arm. He tugged him back and easily twisted his arm behind his back. James struggled but Alder caught and twisted the other arm too. “Cut your losses, kid, before you make this any worse. If you can’t make a decision, I can guarantee Brophy and his daughter will disappear tonight. Then Benson will literally shred you to pieces, and believe me, Siles, too many people are banking on your coming through for it to go down like that.”

“Okay,” James said, his throat tight. “Okay fine! I’ll use one of the people you bring in from wherever.” He felt like scum, but he needed to buy time.

“Too late for that,” Alder said. “Forgive us for not trusting you.”

“Just take me, then, if it’s too late!” James tried to wrench his arm from Alder’s grip. “The Brophys are good people! You know they don’t deserve this! Don’t the years you worked for Richard mean anything to you!”

Alder twisted his arm further behind his back, producing a yelp. “Get yourself together, or I’ll break your arm.” James’ cell phone slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.

“Is my cooperation really worth this?” James pleaded.

Alder didn’t reply.

“Is Benson afraid the experiment will fail? Is it because the body’s not done? And I can’t work from something like that?” James felt light-headed. His heart beat wildly in his chest. “Because a torso and half a head is great for anybody, right? What a great idea to force one of my friends into it!” 

“You had your chance,” Alder said. “We could have done this quietly, but you tried to run. You act on our terms, now.”

James’ gaze darted around for anything he could use as leverage. He could threaten to kill himself. They couldn’t work the machine without him, and with James out of the equation, there would be no cause for Benson to go after his friends. If he could just get away from Alder, if he could get his phone, call the police. Something. 

The door to the lab opened, and James’ heart leapt into his throat.

Heather run get out of here!” he shrieked, pulling against Alder’s grip. Pain spiked up into his shoulder.

Heather jumped. “What—”

Get out—” James’ voice cut off abruptly as Alder released his arm, jerked his shoulder up and jabbed the side of his fist into James’ throat. 

James choked, clutching his neck and gasping for breath.

“James!” Heather shifted forward. The door closed behind her, sealing them in the soundproof lab. Alder raised the gun toward her. Heather froze and held up her hands. 

“No—” James lurched toward the gun, but Alder quickly deflected him with a kick to the stomach. James staggered and fell. He tried to get up, but doubled over, folding his arms across his middle with a groan. 

“Stay where you are,” Alder ordered. “Both of you.” He kept his aim trained on Heather. “Siles, you move, she dies right here.” He pushed up on a switch on the side of the gun. James knew very little about firearms, but he realized the safety lock had been on until that moment. “You have ten seconds. Make your choice. ”

James glanced helplessly between Heather and their attacker. Alder could be bluffing but James was too scared to call it. He wasn’t anywhere near close enough to shield her. He couldn’t cry for help. No one would hear him. 

He hated himself. More than he had ever hated himself before. 

But his machine would work. Transference for one or death for both. He couldn’t transfer Richard. But he couldn’t transfer Heather either.

Alder grimly counted down. Heather’s gaze was trained on him, her eyes wide and frightened. 

Her blood would spill all over the floor. Her death would be on his hands, regardless of whose finger pulled the trigger.

Richard had access to more resources. Maybe he even knew something about Empetrum that James had been too stupid to ask about. Benson would try to cover this up, but Richard might be able to find his daughter.

A slim possibility. That was all he had. Heather knew too much. If he chose Richard, Benson would make her disappear anyway.

Alder was about to utter the number nine. He clicked back the hammer. 

“Okay I’ll do it!” James gasped. “I’ll do it. Please just put the gun away.”

Alder didn’t move. “Which one?”

James choked on it, “Heather.” 

The shock and confusion in Heather’s face pierced him like hot iron.

“Good choice.” Rounding the counter, Alder switched his gun to the other hand, pulled the tranquilizer from his belt, and shot her with it.

She fell against the door with a gasp, her hand flying to her arm. The door opened a crack and she tried to slip through the space, but then Alder was there. Heather was too frightened to make a sound as he tugged her back into the lab. The door sealed them back inside.

James stood up slowly, his arms crossed over his middle. He watched the gun back in his enemy’s dominant hand, and debated whether he still had a chance.

Alder guided Heather around so his back was to the door, blocking the exit. Only then did he release her. She stumbled back toward the other exit near James.

James prepared to catch her, but she shifted away from him, her face ashen and confused. Already, lethargy was taking hold, and she staggered as she backed away. James moved in front of the door. Heather’s gaze flicked toward the equipment room, but they both knew there was no escape through there.

Heather pulled out the small dark dart. She squinted at it before holding it up to James’ tortured expression. “What is this?” Her voice shook. “James…what have you done?”

“I’m so sorry, Heather.” James said, useless, pleading. “I’m so incredibly sorry.” 

She backed further away from them both, shaking her head, cornered. Her balance faltered, and she fell sideways to her hands and knees as the tranquilizer began to overcome her.

She tried unsuccessfully to pick herself up. She looked up at James with difficulty. “You have to stop this…” 

James could only stare at her as she succumbed, sinking to the cold, polished floor.

He stood over his friend, rooted in place, his stomach hurting and his aching heart pounding in his ears. If he had only known what his alignment with Empetrum would come to. If only he had just trusted Richard and walked away.

He wished some supernatural force would suddenly strike him down, severing Benson’s use for the Brophys. No one had to miss him, or even remember him. If only James could be wiped from existence so no one else had to pay for his mistakes. 

But only silence assailed him. Despite every frantic prayer emanating from his wretched being, James continued to exist. His future stretched before him, dark, void, mocking. 

“Get what you need together.” Alder rounded the counter and picked up James’ cracked cellphone from the floor. “I’m knocking Brophy out and then we’re leaving.” He brandished his tranquilizer on his way to the door. “Don’t leave this lab until I come back.” 

“My android’s not even finished yet.” James narrowed his eyes. Pain tore through his chest, as if he had already killed her. The replacement body was only a torso and half a head, completely devoid of sensors. He couldn’t stomach imagining what it would be like for her to wake up like that. “I won’t put her in that thing. It’s not ready.” As if he were even in a position to negotiate. “At least let me postpone the transfer until I can finish it.”

Alder tilted his head toward the other lab. “What about the body in there? You could outfit that in like two seconds, right?”

James couldn’t bring himself to answer.

“Good,” Alder said. “Do that if you want, but get it together quickly or headless robot’s her new home.” He paused at the door. “I’ve locked all the exits. If you try anything, I’ll find out, and I don’t think I have to remind you what’s at stake.”

James nodded, his jaw tense.

Alder left him alone in the silent, soundproof lab with his victim. James hated to think what was about to happen upstairs. Richard didn’t know what James had done. How much he was about to tear apart their lives.

No one would try to rescue James from Empetrum after this. Benson was getting exactly what he wanted.

“I am so sorry,” James murmured again, brushing at tears as he moved to comply with Alder’s orders. The words dripped hollowly from his lips like a leaky faucet. “I’m so sorry…”

Within minutes, Alder returned. At gunpoint, James hauled the android and anything he needed to adapt it to his own machinery out to his car. Then he went back in for Heather.

The facility stood dark and watchful as he struggled to single-handedly transport her through the lobby and out the front doors, his arms locked under hers and her feet dragging on the floor. Alder hovered with his gun. 

The warmth of her limp body pressed into his, and he wished more than anything he didn’t have to take it from her. That heat, that lifeblood.

James really was a better candidate for his machine. Becoming robotic would have simply manifested what he already was. Heather was the opposite, an empathetic, organic soul whose affection James had never once deserved.

Alder helped him get her into the back seat of James’ car, and James carefully looped the middle seatbelt around her. In bleak, heavy resignation, he closed the door.

Maybe somehow, once they got to Empetrum, James would be able to buy more time.

As Alder drove him off the Larkspur campus, up into the hills, further and further from civilization, James clung desperately to that small hope. 

+

Heather’s eyes opened slowly. Disoriented, she tried to remember what had happened, and then her unsteady focus trained on James’ face. His eyes widened when he saw she was awake. 

He had pricked her finger and drawn blood.

“James…?” She couldn’t move her limbs. “What’s going on?” Something thick with weight cocooned her head like a helmet, except the sides were connected to a frame clamped over her shoulders, keeping her immobile. The helmet sent a jittery sensation through her skull like thousands of needlepoints all over her scalp. 

She realized she was lying inside a machine. It looked like a hybrid between a tanning bed and an MRI machine, with bright light flooding over her from the underside of a looming, concave lid.

“Please, try to relax,” James spoke urgently. She struggled to keep her vision in focus. He leaned aside, and she caught the modest hum of a panel opening and closing somewhere near her bound ankles. “You’re gonna be all right. You’re gonna make it.”

As the grogginess ebbed away, fear mounted to take its place. Her face still felt torpid and slow from the lingering effects of the tranquilizer. “James, please tell me what’s happening.” Her unfocused vision landed on a door, pipes and wires on the walls, a makeshift computer setup across the room on a folding table with wires snaking down and across the floor out of sight.

A man with narrow glasses stood behind the table, waiting.

James reached up for the handles on the raised lid. “This is the only way through.” 

Foggily, Heather began to remember where she’d seen the concave lid before. She recognized this machine. The scanner bed, the headgear emitting a sensation James himself had called “pins and needles.”

This was his project. The project.

James hesitated, readjusting his grip on the handles. He looked down at her, brokenly. “I’m so sorry, Heather.”

Heather fought her restraints, horrified as the lid descended. “No! James stop!”

The panels of lights fell closed above her face as the lid pulled all the way down. The first latch folded shut outside near her head. “You were supposed to abandon this! James! Why are you doing this! Let me out!

“This is the only way through,” James begged, his taut voice muffled. “Please believe me…”

“No! You can’t do this!” Heather’s desperation rang loudly in her ears in the tight space. “You’ve lost your mind! James! Are you listening to me? You can’t do this!” 

He didn’t answer.

The sound of Heather’s own frantic breathing inundated her within the helmet. She tried to twist her neck, her shoulders, feeling for a weak spot, anything to open the frame keeping her still.

With a resounding click like the closing of a lighter, the space flooded with white light from both the top and bottom surfaces. The machine hummed all around her.

“No,” she gasped. “No no no…”

Heather squinted as the light intensified. A blue beam scanned the length of her body. It flickered and trained on the space she occupied. After a brief lull, the target locked, and the humming deepened. The light became unbearably bright—so much so that she only barely saw the edges of the container. 

“James,” she choked, futile, terrified. Tears ran down her face as she closed her eyes to shut out the light. “Please.” James’ terror and pain at Larkspur repeated over and over in her mind. His desperate, violently thwarted attempts to protect her. 

She didn’t understand.

She couldn’t possibly be about to end up like Sesame. An experiment. An inorganic system of wires and metal.

The humming broke into a rhythmic, undulating pattern. Then the light stopped pressing through her eyelids. She opened her eyes to see it had dimmed, grouping to a scattering of small dense points. Like hundreds of illuminated pupils gazing at her from another dimension.

She stared at it in horror. If James’ experiment didn’t kill her, no one would recognize her. She didn’t know what body James was putting her in. Would she remember?

Would anyone ever find out what had happened to her?

The points released, exploding into an overwhelming flash of hot, electrified light. Heather’s scream thudded mutedly in her ears amid the snapping, squealing roar of the inside of the machine. Hot claws clamped on her head, rooting in and jerking upward.

The jolt tore the surface away from her body. She left the sounds behind as if through a tunnel, and in the ensuing dark and silence, occasional lights burst across her vision—flashing, forking like lightning, and flickering away.

Her chest seized up. She couldn’t breathe. Her back arched and eyes snapped open wide to a view of the outside contour of the scanner. Wires crowded the edges of her vision. She thought she was still screaming but only an odd, strangled buzzing crackled in her ears. 

Her head was open. Arcs of fire pulsed down her limbs.

James stood behind the computer across the room, hands clasped anxiously under his nose, next to the man with the narrow glasses.

She waited, blankly, in those few delirious seconds, for her throat to unlock, for air to fill her lungs. But it never did. 

Dark, cold, emptiness fell like a hammer and smothered her instead.

+

CHAPTERS 21-23

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE—EMPETRUM       

“And, that’s it,” Yeun said brightly. “Last treatment done.”

Erika carefully moved from her side to her back, wincing at the soreness in her upper body.  Lately, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her shoulders were uneven somehow. It was subtle, but they felt wrong against the pillows. Yeun said there weren’t any obvious signs of deformation when she had asked.

She had also grown a little taller, she’d noticed. Her clothes were slightly shorter than she remembered. She didn’t feel at all at home in her own skin and hated the suspicion that it would only get worse from here.

He gave her a tiny plastic cup with vitamins and a glass of water.

“We’ll let things settle over the weekend, give your body a chance to produce some more stem cells naturally,” he said as she methodically put the pills in her mouth and washed them down. They took the edge off the crushing, restless fatigue. “If nothing else exciting happens, we’ll remove the cannulas on Monday and transition into phase two.”

Erika nodded. She looked forward to being free of the tubes, even though their damage had been done. After over a month of imprisonment at Empetrum, escape felt more and more like something she thought about just to pass the time.

“So that was bad, then,” she said. “What happened the other night.”

Yeun shrugged. “Neutral. A strong reaction, yes, but I ran diagnostics while you were sedated and you’re totally fine.”

Her brow furrowed. “But definitely not a normal response to stem cell therapy.”

“Your last treatment did have a little activator serum in it,” Yeun said. “To help get things going.”

“What’s activator serum?”

“A catalyst that’s unique to this and related projects.”

Erika blinked, unsatisfied. “So what is phase two?” She watched him pour her a small cup of coffee. “Or have I not earned an explanation yet?”

“I don’t want to worry you,” he replied as he doctored the drink with sugar and cream. They’d been through this enough times that somewhere along the line she had mentioned how she liked it, and he remembered without being reminded.

“That itself worries me,” she replied, accepting the coffee.

After some deliberation, he said, “I’m going to take a blood sample, then do some scans.”

“Looking for what, exactly?”

“Altered genetic sequences, and new neurological tissue,” he said, beginning to clean up his effects. He passed off the chrome coffee pot to the nearby guard.

“Yes, but for what?”

“You’re doing great, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said, smiling nicely as he took his leave. “You don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Then he was gone, and Erika leaned her head back with a exasperated groan.

+

Benson insisted that James come check out the Empetrum facility as soon as possible. They set up an appointment for the next evening, as soon as James could arrive after work.

The facility lay twice as far from Worthing as Larkspur, located high in the surrounding hills where overhanging trees crowded along the winding roads.

James’ nerves intensified as the terrain became increasingly rugged and he could no longer utilize his GPS. While he received surprisingly excellent cell phone coverage, the turnoff he was looking for was unmarked and uncharted—so he had to rely solely on Benson’s directions.

Finally, he made a right turn onto a narrow gravel road that swiftly disappeared into the trees. He proceeded warily, but before long, the gravel melded to pavement. Eventually, after the last bend, James spotted the first checkpoint, a chainlink fence with brick pillars and barbed wire. 

He pulled up to the security booth. A guard in a black uniform stepped up to the driver’s side window, which James rolled down to hand him his Larkspur ID. “My name is James Siles. I have an appointment with Dr. Benson.”

The man returned the badge, lifted the vehicle barrier, and waved him through. James found himself driving through another stretch of forest, occasionally spotting guards patrolling. Another, taller fence loomed up in front of him. He stopped at a sliding gate, and another guard met him at the window for verification.

Looking over his badge, the second guard said, “Continue straight, and you’ll find a parking lot around the other side of the facility.” She waved at a man in the security booth behind the fence, and with a low hum, the imposing section of fence slid over so James could drive through.

As his car skirted the rim of the concrete courtyard surrounding the building, James leaned forward over the steering wheel to look up at the facility, two stories high with tall, thin windows slashing lines of transparency in the walls, and it wasn’t the only building on campus. Others watched from behind another interior fence, the landscaping suggesting they were living areas rather than additional labs. Other patrolling guards helped wave him over to the correct parking area, and he got out, taking a moment to survey the campus, contained within the fence and the hoard of trees beyond. The air was clear and invigorating.

James ventured up to the front entrance, where a short bout of steps led to sleek double doors set into an alcove of the outer wall. A woman waited at the top of the steps, calm and formal. Her black and violet business attire, razor sharp bob and immaculate makeup gave off such an intimidating air of sophistication that James felt severely underdressed in his button down shirt and slacks.

“Good evening, Dr. Siles,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m Lynn Walker, Director Benson’s administrative assistant.”

James shook her cold hand. 

She opened one of the doors. “This way, please.”

James followed her through the entrance into a short L-shaped hallway. At the single frosted glass door at the end, she placed her index finger on a small oval scanner and the two gained entry to a wide corridor that extended in two directions. James glanced around, his gaze first finding a wall of paneled glass across the way that looked into a bright, spacious biology lab.

Walker led him to an elevator in the wall to their right, which they took to the second floor, and James suppressed the urge to linger at the window straight ahead, which afforded a balcony view of the lab below. Instead, he followed Walker to their left, down a hallway and past doors set with windows in their upper halves, around a bend, and down a stretch of unadorned corridor to a single door at the end.

M. H. Benson, Director, a panel on the door read.

Walker knocked, and James recognized the voice giving them permission to enter. 

She pushed the door wide open. “Director, James Siles is here.”
The man stood up from his desk at the far end of the room. “Thank you, Walker.”

She made a discreet gesture for James to step forward. The young scientist obeyed, entering the neat, cozy office accented with dark wood and burgundy tones. The door closed behind him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you face-to-face,” the man said, rounding his desk and extending a hand. “I’m Michael Benson, the director of Empetrum.”
Benson was a slim individual, with good posture, even features, and thin rectangular glasses. His presentation was just as upscale professional as Walker’s, and he carried himself with the air of one well-versed and assured in his trade, as if he had held his position for many years. However, James guessed he couldn’t have been much older than thirty.

“It’s great to meet you.” James shook his hand, noticing as he did that a large burn scar faded the smooth skin of the director’s right hand.

Benson smiled, a soft, confidence-inspiring expression. “I’m very excited you’ve agreed to work with us, even if it is only part time for now.”

“Thank you for being so accommodating,” James said, extremely grateful of the liberties Benson was allowing him to take. They both knew a stunt like this was unprofessional at best, but even with little information about James’ situation, Benson eagerly made room for it. “Though, at least for the next month, I expect I’ll be here enough to fill a standard forty-hour week.”

“Glad to hear it. I understand the demands of your position at Larkspur may make structured work hours a hassle, so how often you come in will be your choice. I had the customary living arrangements prepared so you can have that resource at your disposal, though boarding here is not mandatory, of course.”

“Thank you,” James said. 

Benson gestured at the door. “Would you like to see where you’ll be working?”

James followed him out and walked beside his tranquil gate as he headed down the hallway. At the end of the passage, just before it opened up to the section with the elevator, Benson placed a passing hand on the nearest door. “This is your office, to use however you like.”

James peeked in the window as they continued to the elevator.

“By the way, how’s that project of yours going?” Benson said, as the elevator arrived to take them to the first floor.

“Really well,” James said. “The first trial was successful. It was miniaturized for a rodent test subject, and I’ve just about come to the end of my personal ability to fund the next phase.”

“Then you’ve come to us right on time,” Benson said. “I would love to see this project come to full fruition. Does it have a title?”

“Organorobotic Transference.”

Benson considered James’ words with a smile “Has a nice ring to it. I hope you’ll tell me all about it as soon as we’re finished looking around, if you have some time to spare.”

“Of course,” James said, nervous and extremely flattered.

Upon reaching the first floor, the director turned right, and slowing on their way past the airy, pristine lab beyond the paneled windows, Benson said, “This is the shared biochem lab. Occasionally we need extra counter space or storage, or a change of scenery. But each of us have our personal laboratories, including you.”

James’ gaze lingered on the lab beyond, the fume hoods, black epoxy resin counters set with sinks and gas hookups, the refrigerators centrifuges, and transparent overhead cabinets full of glassware. Giddiness stirred in his chest. He loved this place already.

“Dhar passed along your resume to us,” Benson said as they continued on. “But it says nothing about where you acquired the biochemical training you’re employing in organorobotic transference. That requires quite a bit of neurobiological understanding as well, doesn’t it?”

“My father’s a neuroscientist,” James said. “He trained me.”

“Ah, that would explain it,” Benson said. “Be sure to let me know how I can best support your many talents.”

James nodded, sheepish. “Thank you.” 

Benson stopped at a door at the end of the hallway. “This is your personal lab. I apologize, it’s a bit of a mess right now, but it should have some reason to it by the time you’re ready to set up—which I assume will be Monday?”

James nodded, his heart in his throat as he prepared to see his personal engineering lab for the first time.

Benson opened the door and flicked on the light. A stack of black crates and moving boxes sprawled haphazardly in the middle of the room, fringed by the angular forms of machinery covered in sheets. A long, resin counter hugged the adjacent wall, underneath tall windows with a lower partition that opened to the outside air. 

The labs at Larkspur didn’t have windows like this.

The discordant space was the most beautiful thing James had ever seen.

“This is all mine?” James’ feet moved of their own accord, and he was soon exploring the clutter in growing excitement.

“It is,” Benson said.

James was checking labels and peeking under sheets at the equipment, “Kamuntu Inc.? This is the best of the best—”

Benson was nodding. “Is it to your satisfaction?”

“Are you kidding?” James grinned, inspecting the parameters on a medium-sized 3D printer across the room. “This is incredible.” He noticed a door to his left, and moved to open it.

The tall windows shed light on a polished floor, countertops, a CNC mill, lathes of various sizes, desktop computers, and an industrial-sized 3D printer. He took another left, and tried the handle of a sturdy metal door. It was unlocked. 

The lights were motion activated, and as he entered, sudden illumination lit up the room. It had a cement floor and industrial electrical hookups complete with heavy duty power grids, emergency breaker boxes, safety equipment, and a powerful ventilation system. He froze in the doorway, awestruck.

“Like it?” Benson said from behind him.

James could only utter a dumbfounded scoff in confirmation.

“Let me know if we need to build this up a little more,” Benson said as James drifted forward into the room to examine the equipment. “I’m a biochemist, so I’m not sure how much energy capability you’ll need for your work, but I assumed it would be a lot.”

“Oh yeah, this should do it,” James said, assessing the hookups. “This room can easily power the full-sized prototype.”

“Good.” Benson said, pleased. He let James poke around a bit longer before calling him back. “If I may interrupt, Dr. Siles, there’s one more place at your unlimited leisure—which I think you’ll enjoy.”

Down the hallway, through the clean and bright communal biochem lab, and to the left wall brought them to a single door. “This is the data library.”

Ten rows of long, heavy bookcases lined the space, with workstations at the room’s edges. James was still reeling from his tripartite heaven of a personal lab, and he didn’t think he could be even more delighted, yet Benson had astounded him yet again.

“We have all of this and more in the online databases, of course,” Benson said as James pulled the nearest academic journal from its place and flipped through its pages. “But, in my opinion, nothing beats print.”

“This is so impressive.” James slipped the volume back among its counterparts. He could literally live in any one of the places Benson had shown him. 

“Any questions?” Benson said.

“You said there was on campus housing available?” James was considering staying at Empetrum until he had finished the second prototype. He could commute straight to Larkspur on weekdays.

Benson smiled pleasantly and turned. “Follow me.”

As they reemerged into the lab, someone else had just entered, donning a crisp white lab coat.

“Dr. Yeun,” Benson said. “Good timing. This is James Siles, our new roboticist.”

“Pleased to meet you, Siles,” the scientist said, extending a hand with an open, unguarded smile that lit up his entire face. “Elias Yeun.”

“Dr. Yeun specializes in biorobotics, like you,” Benson said as James, surprised and elated, accepted the handshake. “There will be plenty of time for you two to bond over the details later, but for now, we have housing to survey, and we should let you get back to what you were doing, Dr. Yeun.”

“Of course,” Yeun said. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and smiled again. “Nice to see a new face around here. I’m a fan of your work, Dr. Siles, what little I’ve heard of it.”

James’ eyes widened, his face instantly hot. “Really?”

Yeun nodded amiably. “Our director definitely snagged a good one. I hope you can thrive here.” 

“Thank you so much,” James stammered. He realized Benson had left them, raising a hand as he departed. He tripped to catch up with the director. “I’ll, uh, see you around? Nice to meet you, Dr. Yeun.”

“Likewise,” Yeun called after them. “Welcome aboard.” 

The housing buildings were through a smaller fenced partition, set off to the side of the campus. The larger of the two was for the majority of the facility staff, and a smaller, two-story brick apartment building belonged to the research scientists.

“Are you a researcher too, Dr. Benson?” James asked as the director led James up the stairs that bisected the latter complex, which held four apartments per floor.

“I am.” He unlocked the door of the one he explained would be James’ and let him inside. “Biochemical genetics.”

The apartment was already furnished in a modern style, with ample natural light and no noise pollution due to the rural location. James felt like he could breathe here.

“Consider this space yours to use how you want,” Benson said simply, lingering in the living room while James roved among the high-ceilinged rooms, getting a feel for the place. “Just let me know if you plan any renovations, and I’d appreciate if you kept your experiments in the lab.”

“Can do.” James couldn’t believe he even had creative freedom of his living space.

Soon, the two headed back to Benson’s office where they talked business, ironing out the particulars of James’ employment. Then Benson asked for more details regarding organorobotic transference. After his failure to convince Richard, James began with trepidation, but he quickly found Benson easy to talk to. Benson listened with interest and received James’ intention to continue to clinical trials with ready enthusiasm. 

On the trip back through the forested hills to Worthing, James couldn’t stop smiling. Everything about Empetrum inspired him. He could do whatever he wanted there, and any project he chose to pursue would be met with full support. 

Finally, nothing stood in his way.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO—PHASE TWO     

In between setting up his lab at Empetrum over the weekend, James closely monitored his test subject. Everything remained stable and functional, and O.R.T-1’s cognition and learning capacity appeared to have improved. It was settling into its new state of being, and its behavior quickly evolved based on the parameters of its body plan. It stopped trying to use its nonexistent sense of smell and instead turned to a more deliberate use of touch and observation as its primary senses. It was learning how to rear up, and when it fell onto its side, it could already right itself without help. It used its flat metal snout to push around objects in its path, or pry against whatever it could reach when James had to hook wires to its back to run diagnostics.

O.R.T-1, which Heather had started calling Sesame, much preferred Heather over him—with good reason, admittedly. Heather was nothing but tenderness and love with it, a source of escape from James’ battery of tests. She offered it things to look at and explore, she petted and complimented it, and it was always eager to interact with her, even though she’d only had two days so far to bond with it.

James passed it off to her as soon as she came to greet him Monday morning.

“How are you doing?” she asked James, neglecting to open the box. Her tone suggested she wanted more than a monosyllabic answer.

“Fine,” he said, opening the door to his office. “Yourself?”

“Good,” she murmured, not following him inside.

After a few moments of uncharacteristic silence from his friend, James paused removing his laptop from his bag and turned his attention to her. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she said quickly. She removed the robot from its box. “I’m just—it’s nothing.” She carefully situated O.R.T.-1 in the crook of her arm. “Have you been testing him? How does it all look?”

“He’s very stable,” James said. “As far as I can tell, everything worked perfectly.”

“Mm…” She ventured forward and set the box on his desk. Stroking Sesame’s nuzzling face, she said. “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m fine,” James insisted as kindly as he could, stepping out into the hallway. “I got over it.”

“Already? I mean, you must have shaved off a week of your life working on that thing.” Heather followed him down the stairs.

“Oh, probably.” He pushed his way through the door into the lab. He might sacrifice some more working at Empetrum, he thought. Richard was in the lab, and James didn’t want to keep talking about this. He managed a smile as he held the door open for her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were more attached to that project than I was.”

“But you were—You mean you really are over it? Completely and totally over it?” Heather lowered her voice.

“I’d like to move on,” James said simply.

Heather paused, letting him break away from her to attend to his work. The android lay like a cadaver on a chrome counter in the back lab, waiting for the device that would bring it to life.

+

The songs of frogs and crickets wafted into James’ lab through the open window. The breeze from outside was gentle enough that it didn’t disturb his notes sprawled across the counter. The thick, green scent of local flora stirred a sense of nostalgia in James he didn’t realize he still harbored, dredging up a small quiet part of him that had missed the climate of his childhood.

Benson came to check on him after a few hours. James had to close the door to the fabrication portion of his lab, muffling the gallant hum of the CNC mill as it processed components for the human-sized neural network.

“I just came to let you know I’m heading out for the night,” Benson said. “Is there anything you need before I go? I see you’ve already begun, so I assume the materials we gave you are working out?”

“Yes, very much so.” James smiled, ablaze with inspiration. “Thank you.”

“Splendid,” Benson said. “I forgot to mention it before, but extra supplies are stored in the room across from your lab. You have badge access to it. If there’s something you need that isn’t there, I’d be happy to order it for you.”

“Thank you,” James said. “I actually wanted to ask you about a certain material I’ll need for the energy unit.”

“A substance capable of handling a staggering amount of energy?” Benson smiled knowingly.

James nodded, smiling as well. “For the first prototype, I used a tungsten alloy—”

“I believe we have something better.” The director slipped his hands into his jacket pockets. “I’ll do a little digging and have Dr. Jones ready to show you tomorrow evening when you come in. She’s our materials engineer.”

The humming ceased from behind the door to the fabrication lab. The roboticist glanced back.

“I’ll let you get back to work,” Benson said. “Good luck. If you have any more questions, feel free to come by my office when I’m there, and I believe you have my number as well.”

“Yes,” James replied, thanking him again.

Benson nodded and took his leave. “Good evening, Dr. Siles.”

“Good evening,” James replied, his hand already twisting the handle to attend to his equipment.

+

The Empetrum facility was quiet the following afternoon. Siles was still at Larkspur. The other scientists were between breakthroughs or crises for the time being, and Michael Benson was waiting on an immunoassay. He had another day before he needed to make a report to Empetrum’s sponsors, so he had time to procrastinate. Not to mention, he didn’t feel like figuring out how to reiterate for the millionth time in a way they would believe that Empetrum was making every effort to develop a mature form of Non-Comp as quickly as possible.

It was pointless trying to push back. Their sponsors were a pack of businesspeople and politicians with no scientific frame of reference, who refused to accept the simple facts of how long stem cell therapy took. Vihaan Dhar was really the only one willing to take his word for it, but that man’s capacity for patience got on Benson’s nerves in other ways.

While the government constantly breathed down Benson’s neck, nobody was ever asking about when Larkspur would get up to speed. Dhar was happy to coddle Brophy and his lot, letting them pursue their nice projects, oblivious to what their own commissioned artificial intelligence project was inevitably going to lead into. 

With the resistance movement determined to throw a wrench into whatever they could, everything boiling under the surface was going to come to light. And when Larkspur caught on, every one of those engineers were going to refuse to proceed as a matter of principle. Even though the government had graciously kept Larkspur afloat in their nearly two decades underground, Brophy and Louis, that bleeding heart former director who refused to let go, would lead the charge to pull out and try to go private.

At least Dhar had finally given Benson the go-ahead to reach out to Siles, after months of pestering. A young engineer with so much potential deserved a fighting chance to become truly revolutionary.

But Benson didn’t want to think about that right now. For now, he had a phone call to make. Considering an index card he had just received from his administrative assistant, he retrieved the cordless phone from his desk and dialed the number on the card. Walker never failed him.

The voice of the man who answered struck a deep chord within the director, past impressions of encouragement and frustration, care and neglect. Nostalgia, and deep, deep resentment.

“Hello, Dad,” he said. “Found you again.”

After a few moments of silence, Henry Benson’s voice hummed in his ear, “Great job. You want a gold star or something?”
Benson scoffed and leaned against his desk. His tone turned probing, “You not only moved back into the state, but settled in the same county as the facility. Why?”

“Would you buy that I missed you?”

Benson blinked. “No.”

“A gesture of goodwill, then.” 

“Let’s get to the point.” Benson readjusted his glasses in exasperation.

“I’m letting you win,” Henry said. “I’m sick to death of this. I haven’t done anything to cross you since the day I left, and you can bet I don’t intend to. I want to stop glancing over my shoulder. I’m nearby now. Come get me if you want, bug my phone, keep watching my life, but you’ll just be wasting your time. Especially as I fully intend to ignore you.” He paused. “So, there’s your reason. What will you do, Dr. Director?”

Benson’s brow furrowed as he tried to read between the lines of his father’s exposition. “As you said, I’ll continue to keep tabs on you.”

“Just let me know who’s watching me this time so I can invite them to coffee once in a while,” Henry retorted. “No doubt you’ve noticed this paradox: I’m not a threat, not an asset. Yet you just keep hovering.”

“You defected without a mindwipe. That makes you a threat.”

“Perhaps to celebrate your stalking victory, you might finally fill me in on what you were thinking back then? I understood what I was setting myself up for when I decided to leave Empetrum. Why did you bend the rules? Why do you let me walk free, knowing what I know?”

Benson drew a slow breath. “As long as you behave, I don’t see any reason to confine you.”

“And if I decide, say tomorrow, to suddenly broadcast everything I knew about Empetrum to the world?” The spite in Henry’s voice sent a chill down Benson’s spine.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Benson said, cracking a tight, sideways smile.

“What would you do?”
Ice crept into Benson’s tone. “I would send for you.”

“To kill me?”

Benson rose up to his full height. “I’ll do whatever I have to, understand? You step one millimeter out of line and I will not show you leniency again.”

Henry laughed bitterly. “What’s this? A heated tone? I’m honored, Michael.”

“Do you understand?” Benson demanded.

“Perfectly.”

“Make sure you don’t forget it, then.”

“I won’t. Rest assured.”

“Good.” Benson firmly replaced the receiver.

Benson’s grandfather wouldn’t have hesitated that day, had he still been the director. There were rules about leaving Empetrum, and Henry had broken them. Benson had broken them too. The decision was still a thorn in the director’s side, an insult to Empetrum and what it stood for, a lingering reminder that, while Benson was well trained to be his grandfather’s successor, he was still too soft in a few places.

And Henry knew just where to stab.

+

Nothing happened over the weekend, so, as promised, Yeun took the stem cell cannulas out of her spine and arm. He took blood for analysis. She wished hard that something in this whole process would destabilize, so he would just let her go home.

But who was she kidding, she thought, lying still in the bed of an MRI machine. So far, Yeun was getting what he wanted. Ages ago now, she had just wanted to get close enough to see what Empetrum looked like, to blow off steam, maybe put it on a priority list for the Conxence. But instead, she was giving her enemies exactly what they wanted, the development of human weaponry of some sort. Among the IVs and endless waiting and Yeun’s bedside manner, she had almost forgotten that’s what this place existed for.

It all seemed so pointless. 

At the end of the day on Thursday, after all the results had come back, she presumed, Yeun came into Erika’s room with a folder.

She watched him with a bored expression as he stole forward. Erika thought about making some wise-cracking remark as she’d grown accustomed to, poking at him, never able to nettle him much. But a profound sense of unease permeated the air as Yeun went to a free-standing bulletin board along the wall, pulled it up to the foot of her bed with a little space for him to move, and opened up his folder.

He took a steadying sigh, swiveling around to face her. “We’re all set to go for phase two,” he said.

Erika looked at him, solemnly, her hands folded in her lap. Her shoulders were pressed back against a wide electric heating pad. It calmed the tingling and tenderness of the region—barely. The restless feeling of deformation at the lower part of her shoulder blades was enough to make her want to chuck the pad across the room at him, wires and all.

“Not until you tell me what phase two is,” she said.

“That’s why I’m here.” He pinned up the first image from the MRI, which depicted a rear view of her neck and shoulders, in minimalistic black and white like an old photo negative. She watched him put four of them up, one by one. All focused on the nerves of her neck, arms, and upper back. His folder held more pages, but he closed it. “The stem cell therapy and stimulation of neurogenesis has been successful so far,” he said. “We’re seeing another brachial plexus forming here, around T-7,” he pointed to the part of her vertebral column corresponding to about the middle of her chest region. Erika’s stomach sank. “The brachial plexus, of course, provides the vital musculocutaneous innervation for your arms, chest, and shoulders.” 

Yeun was trying to hide behind big words, but Erika had taken enough science in college to know what that meant. The result of their twisted gene therapy was forming a second set of nerves. Specifically, nerves that commanded her arms and shoulders. The purpose of this was beginning to dawn on her, but she still couldn’t guess what the end application was. The fact that he was so reluctant to tell her made her extremely nervous.

“Why would I need another brachial plexus?” she asked quietly, feeling sick.

“Perhaps I should start at the beginning,” Yeun said, fidgeting with his folder. “Several years ago, my colleagues found a set of genes that, if stimulated in just the right way, could give rise to unique forms of physical enhancement in an otherwise ordinary human being.” 

“Human weaponry,” Erika said. 

“An evolutionary advantage,” Yeun said. He cleared his throat. “Which we are working to integrate into the military sphere in a sort of special task-force.”

Erika gave a single nod with raised eyebrows, as if he had simply repeated what she’d just said. “Yeah, human weaponry.”

Yeun cleared his throat. “We found that these genes are extremely rare, and we were only able to find six young people to integrate into this task force. They’re responding well to training, but they’re still very inexperienced, and for the research to really bring back returns, we need to find a way to develop these biological enhancements in people who don’t naturally carry the gene, but whose bodies can support the process.”

“So you’re…” Erika didn’t want to say it. “You’re trying to turn me into one of them?”

“Exactly,” Yeun said. “Though if this trial works out, you won’t be recruited. We’re still developing the technology, and our ideal candidate for the program is of a younger age range, anyway.” 

“They’re kids, then?” Erika said, her voice kicking up a notch in anger. She was twenty-four. The age group below her were minors. “You’re forcing kids to be these soldiers?” When she’d first heard the rumors of human weaponry, she’d imagined a sea of burly, faceless drones, not a pack of children. 

“Teenagers,” Yeun said. “Don’t worry, they’re well taken care of. Anyway, this is the young man whose DNA you and I are working with for this project.” He opened the folder and thumbed through the remaining pages. “His is the simplest of the six known natural enhancements—or, ‘Compatibilities,’ as we’ve come to call them, referencing their inherent genetic compatibility with the technology.” He pinned up a photograph on the board, and Erika felt the color drain from her face.

The boy’s head was blacked out to preserve his identity, but Erika thought the act was superfluous. If she saw this kid in person, she’d know exactly what he was. His towering frame stood in front of a height grid, measuring over seven and a half feet from head to toe, and he had not one, but two fully-formed pairs of arms, spread out like wings for the photographer. The page was a copy from some other report, and at the bottom, next to filing information, were the initials P.J.E

Erika’s breathing grew tight in her chest. “You’ve been trying to mix my DNA with his?” 

“Correct,” Yeun said. He glanced at the monstrous photos. “Compatibilities are brought out with an electronic device called a modulator. It manifests them, stabilizes the effects in some of the more volatile ones, and deactivates the abilities at will. The physical effects are reversible, even in this one.” He used his folder to point at a silver band on the young man’s wrist, which Erika hadn’t noticed at first. “When this deactivates, the second pair of arms goes away.” 

Erika shook her head. “This is wrong.” She pushed the covers aside and swung her legs off the side of the bed. Standing up was arduous. She was still fatigued from the stem cell integrations, and the immature brachial plexus in her ribs complained and tingled against the fabric of her t-shirt. She didn’t know what she intended to do. “I’m done. You’re letting me go, Yeun. I draw the line at phase two.”

The door had opened at the front of the room, and a calm, chilling voice answered her. “You are not the one who draws lines here, Ms. Davenport.” 

Erika turned her head to look at the newcomer. Two guards accompanied the director. Yeun stepped back, uneasily, as if giving Erika and the director room to face off.

Erika reached out and gripped the handlebar at the head of her hospital bed for support. She forced her shoulders straight and defiant, staring down the man behind it all. 

“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” she said. “How do you intend to keep me going along with this, huh? Brainwash me? Keep me in a coma? Threaten my family?”

The director blinked, unruffled. It struck her all over again how mousey he looked between the larger forms of the guards at his sides. Somehow it made it all the more menacing, that this slim, soft-featured person commanded all of them, confident that he would control her too.

“Dr. Yeun,” the director said. “The modulators you are calibrating for Ms. Davenport have components that must be implanted close to the spinal cord, correct?”

Erika tried to stand her ground.

“Yes,” Yeun said, uncomfortable.

The director leveled his calm intensity on Erika. “Rebellion, Ms. Davenport, will first earn you no anesthesia for any of that procedure,” he said. “If you still have fight in you after that, you may be mindwiped completely, and passed off to the military as a resource, regardless of the outcome of this experiment.” His features remained placid, yet his gray eyes took on a direct coldness that froze her to the core. “Either way, if you continue to cross me, I will personally see to it that your life is nullified, and reconstructed from the ground up. If you try to deny us progress, you will never see your family again.”

Erika stared at him in horror. She was shaking. “You wouldn’t…”

“Do not make the mistake of underestimating what I won’t do to push this endeavor to full maturity, Ms. Davenport,” the director said. “As Dr. Yeun mentioned, there are six known Compatible progenitors, and that was only within a very specific age group, sampled over a limited time frame. The work, you see, has only just begun.”

Erika’s heart pounded hard in her ears. Slowly, she sat back down on the bed, despair welling up in her throat.

“Prudent choice,” the director said. He turned to go, while the guards remained. “I’ll leave you to it, Dr. Yeun. Be sure to notify me if she acts out again.”

“Yes, Director,” Yeun said, offering Erika an apologetic expression as the director left them.

Erika stared at the floor, biting back furious, desperate tears. She carefully scooted herself back, twisting to push her legs back under the covers. Her limbs felt heavy and her spine ached, as fatigue crashed in around her, and she hated herself for feeling so helpless.

Yeun pulled the bulletin board away toward the wall, and proceeded to remove the images. “I’m sorry he had to be harsh with you—”

“Save the good-cop bullshit,” Erika snapped, lying down and turning her back on him. “Threat noted. Congratulations, you got what you wanted. If there’s nothing else you need from me right now, then just leave me alone.”

There was a long pause, the quiet shuffling of paper.

Then, finally, “Of course.”

Erika glared savagely at the wall, listening to him take his leave. 

“We won’t be ready to install your modulator until Monday,” he said, quietly. “So you’ll have a few days to adjust to the idea.”

Erika elbowed the electric heating pad out of the way and pulled the covers up to her chin, refusing to answer. 

Yeun paused at the door, hesitating. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the result you wanted.”  Then he left.

Erika settled in, and finally let the tears flow. She hated them. 

She knew she wasn’t the first person to have to deal with Empetrum, and she wouldn’t be the last. Just a single victim in a harried, soulless overturn.

Did that four-armed kid—did P.J.E.—know he was a victim too? Did he know they were farming him for resources any way they could, seeding his genetic code like a virus even as they trained him to lock down the corrupted status quo?

Did he want out?

If Erika ever got the chance she would make the director remember her. She would raze Empetrum to the ground, and cull any chances it had of resurrecting.

Then, she would come for the six progenitors.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE—FALSE COMPATIBLE        

James came to gradually, realizing the side of his face lay numb and cold against a hard surface.

His kitchen table? No, a lab bench.

Morning light streamed in through the tall window, illuminating his work area and glinting off the crystalline surface of the updated, more powerful energy unit. The neural network sat close by, a more advanced device than the first prototype with a smoother finish. Scattered across the counter near his head lay pieces of the incomplete DNA targeting system. The reflective application panel nested safely in a foam square, waiting for installation.

Blinking slowly, James dragged his wristwatch in front of his face and read the numbers. His eyes widened. “No…”

“No!” He jerked up so abruptly he almost tipped his chair over backward.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed his badge, and staggered to the door.

Swinging out into the corridor and running down the hallway, James checked his watch again. He had minutes to leave before he would be late for work at Larkspur.

He only realized he wasn’t paying significant attention to where he was going when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with Archibald Hill—a stern, gray-haired scientist who always seemed either irked or hostile. James gave Hill a deer-in-the-headlights expression before stammering an apology and dodging around him to the door. He had heard Yeun liked to tease Hill, but James preferred to keep his distance.

Not that James often encountered many of the other scientists. They had usually finished for the day by the time he arrived. With the exception of Benson’s occasional interjection and Dr. Jones’ advice about the new material for the energy unit, James had spent most of the last eleven days shut away in the isolation of his personal lab.

James ran down the path to his apartment on the Empetrum campus, pounding up the stairs and scrambling to unlock the front door. Once inside, he changed into the first clean dress shirt he found, then rushed into the bathroom to brush his teeth and shave. Grabbing his messenger bag, he darted back out to the parking lot.

As he drove through the gates, he checked his overall presentation in the visor mirror and frowned at his reflection. He had nicked his face a few times and had completely forgotten about his hair. He ran a hand through it. 

Flicking up the visor in distaste, he concentrated on taking the winding road as fast as he could. There was no way he could be late. Absolutely no one could find out about his activities outside Larkspur until everything was said and done. Of course, Empetrum was supposed to remain a secret in general, but he could worry about that later.

James arrived at the Larkspur facility on time—tired, disheveled, and very annoyed as he trotted upstairs to his office.

He barely avoided kicking something at the top of the stairs. Surprised, he looked down to find a small robot close to his foot. It sat down and stared up at him. 

“Heather?” James raised his face toward the hallway. “Why is Sesame loose?”

Heather’s face poked out from the doorway of Richard’s office. “Because he’s very well behaved and comes back when I call him. I think that neural network you gave him makes him smarter than normal.” She paused, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes. “What happened to you?”

James retreated to his office. The little robot got up and trundled after him, as if determined to get in the way. “Nothing. Just overslept.”

“Sesame, come here,” Heather said, and James spotted the robot crossing the doorway. 

Heather entered the room a moment later with O.R.T-1 in her arms. She smiled. 

“What in the world did you reward him with to teach him that?” James asked. “Is there even anything he wants?”
“He just likes attention, I guess,” Heather said, rubbing a finger up and down Sesame’s back. It shifted position in her arms so she could rub its side. “Are you sure he can’t feel anything?”

“Like I said, there are hardly any sensors…” He considered the robot, the side of its face snuggled into Heather’s arm. “But he does seem a lot more attuned to his environment than I would have expected. I’ll have to look into that when I have time.” He smiled, sheepish. “Thanks for taking him under your wing for me.”

“No problem.” She bent down to let Sesame run free. It lingered by her side for a moment, then climbed lovingly over her foot and left to explore the hallway.

“Just watch he doesn’t fall down the stairs. I almost tripped over him.”

Heather glanced back at the robot. “Sesame, don’t go near the stairs, okay?”

James opened his laptop, following her gaze. “Think he’ll listen to you?”

Heather docked her hands on her hips and said brightly. “We’ll see.”

+

After a few minutes, Heather called Sesame and brought him downstairs. Work took place in the lab so they could better collaborate as they continued working through the artificial intelligence programming.

Heather couldn’t offer much help in this phase, as she knew very little about programming. She played with Sesame when she wasn’t seated dutifully beside one of the engineers, watching them plan and type and troubleshoot. 

The program wasn’t coming together as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Even James, the most lethal programmer of the bunch, couldn’t seem to make much headway. Heather couldn’t tell if he was actually stumped—a state which rarely lasted long for him—or if he simply wasn’t trying very hard. James had been increasingly distracted and apathetic about his work.

Perhaps he was still working through lingering grief for his rejected project, she thought, even though he insisted he was over it. Or he could have simply burnt himself out, working at such an unrelenting pace for a whole month. Either way, he was back to talking more readily, and had begun to show up for breaks with the rest of them. He looked just as sleep-deprived, but he actually seemed happier. And for that, Heather was glad.

Still, it wasn’t like him to oversleep.

+

The modulator—the device that would activate what Yeun’s gene therapy had set up—had been installed the day before, and the site was already healed. Yeun said he’d treated it with dilute activator serum, which had powerful regenerative properties. Erika wasn’t looking forward to finding out what the real deal would be.

Tuesday morning, she lay prone on a table in an operating room, with her arms up like goalposts by her head and strapped in.

The director and another stern, sharp-featured scientist stood nearby, both in lab coats and waiting as Yeun prepared to activate her modulator for the first time. He pulled up a medical cart with a small styrofoam box on the top tray. Erika watched, her face cold with dread, as his gloved hands opened it and plucked a tiny rectangular vial of fluid from the ice within.

Erika glanced at their audience. “I’d rather it just be you and me,” she said to Yeun, very quietly. “If you’re going to go through with this…”

Yeun looked at the director for his opinion. The latter glanced aside at their other colleague, then turned slowly and took his leave. He waved a resident guard closer to Erika on his way to the door.

When the older man lingered, the director’s soft, purring voice spoke up, “Come on, Dr. Hill. We’ll monitor remotely.”

A venomous look crossed Hill’s face, but he followed.

Erika watched them go, surprised. Yeun came forward, instructing her to turn her face so it rested straight downward on the forehead rest. She complied, wondering if it would even be possible to fight back from such a position.

“Okay,” Yeun murmured. “Just going to move the gown out of the way so nothing snags…” 

She felt the air cold on her skin as he carefully peeled aside the fabric on either side, betraying most of her back. He let her keep her sweatpants, thankfully. 

“Do you want a weak sedative?” Yeun asked.

Erika fought back tears. Her heart pounded hard in her chest. “That would be great, actually…”

He administered an injection, and waited with her for it to take effect. 

It wasn’t enough to put her under. She wanted to be awake for this, anyway. If it didn’t work, she immediately wanted to know, instead of waking up monstrous and surprised. Or never waking up at all.

The sedative took the edge off the fear, and Erika lay still, her body feeling relaxed and heavy, as Yeun prepared to move forward with phase two.

“Ready?” he said.

“Yeah,” Erika rasped, reluctant.

She felt his fingers on the rectangular plate of the modulator that was accessible from the outside, getting into position. With a soft click, he opened a panel and slid the vial in. He hadn’t said, but she suspected it contained activator serum.

“Here we go,” he murmured. “In three, two…”

Erika shut her eyes tight.

“One.”

She felt a modest depression, then sharp pin pricks set into her skin in a wave. She gasped, feeling like it had bitten her, deep. 

After a brief, unpleasant electrical shock, warmth flooded from the epicenter of the modulator, spreading fast. The device throbbed hot and restless in her back, as pressure grew, squeezing her spine tighter and tighter.

“Keep breathing, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said gently. “Remember to breathe.”

Erika obeyed, taking strained, deliberate breaths against the pressure. Then the spikes of pain started, shooting up in not one, but two distinct spots on her back. With every arc, they grew more and more intense, and suddenly her back muscles seized up and she gasped as two hot, reaching columns of confused biomass pushed into the open air, stretching out and snapping together into something with structure and weight. 

She felt elbows bend, muscles spasm, hands extend long and cramping as they materialized from the formless, reaching things.

Then the hot, vibrating pain of the modulator snuffed out. The unseen limbs held themselves in the air for a timeless moment, their muscles quivering under the shock and strain. Then the elbows drooped at painful angles, and slow, heavy hands found the table down by her feet. Dimly, she thought maybe they would break if they twisted wrong.

Groggy and breathing hard, she didn’t dare look back. She didn’t have to be coherent to know that the monstrosities Yeun’s device had brought about were nothing like what he had hoped. As she slipped into unconsciousness, she lamented the fragile, alien things, wishing they would at least be an asset to help her escape.

But she was too shaken, too tired to hope.

+

In a private surveillance room, illuminated by the screen of a monitor tuned into one of the operating rooms downstairs, Hill scoffed, and Benson crossed his arms.

“What on earth are those?” Hill said scornfully, leaning closer to the screen to get a better look at the state of his colleague’s test subject. “It’s like he didn’t even bother to calibrate that modulator.” 

“Yeun takes every precaution,” Benson said, frigidly. “As you do.”

He watched Yeun hurry to attend to Davenport. She lay still, save for the stretched, misshapen arms unfolded like wings off her back. The long fingers of her new pair of hands weakly gripped the edges of the table, and then they, too, went limp. Yeun lurched forward to catch them at the elbows and preserve the angle. There were two other bends between the primary joint and their articulation points. Three total hinge joints each. A fortunate and fascinating addition, Benson thought. Structurally, they would have been far too fragile, otherwise.

The arms had sprouted further around her back than Yeun had planned, but the origin points were level with the correct vertebra. Pride swelled in Benson’s chest for his colleague.

“Are you going to go rescue him?” Hill asked, as the pair watched Yeun on the screen, calling to the guards to support Davenport’s accessory arms while he attended to the modulator higher up on her back.

“Why? He’s handling it,” Benson said simply.

On the security camera feed, Yeun tried to deactivate the modulator, and Davenport didn’t fight him. It looked like she’d passed out. Benson readjusted his glasses and watched intently. Yeun’s movements grew more and more worried as the modulator wouldn’t trigger the reabsorption of the extra limbs. He pulled equipment over to check her vitals, leaving the defibrillator where it was, which was a promising sign. Activator serum could be intense.

Hill shook his head. “I don’t know why you let him head up this project, Benson. Yeun’s attempt at biorobotics is like watching a five-year-old with a mad science kit.”

“Yeun has worked extremely hard for this, and he’s producing great results,” Benson said quietly, quelling a stab of anger. “You of all people know modulator technology is finicky. With Siles on board, the two of them will puzzle out the issues in no time. You’re welcome to advise them, of course, but I want you focused on your work keeping the ICNS recruits stabilized.”

“Siles isn’t going to be much help to you,” Hill said. “He’s just a kid, primarily mechanically-minded with no gene therapy experience whatsoever, and he’s from Larkspur. It’s not enough for him to be reckless in his own pet projects. He’ll take one look at this—” He gestured toward the screen. “—and run screaming.”

“I can train him,” Benson replied. “I know it’s a gamble. Time for natural acclimatization is short, but there are many routes to securing his cooperation until then.” 

“If you can,” Hill sighed. His thin eyebrows pinched downward as he continued to watch Yeun’s progress. The guards were helping him move Davenport off the table, to transport her to somewhere she could rest. “If you mess it up you can just kill Siles too, I guess.”

A soft smile graced Benson’s unthreatening features, trying to be patient. “It’s been a year and a half, Hill. Empetrum stresses innovation and progress. Not grudges and nostalgia.”

Hill scowled, arms crossed. “I wouldn’t call murdering my lab partner nostalgic.
“What Olsson received was only Empetrum policy. She tried to destroy us, don’t forget that.”

Hill scoffed bitterly and stepped away from the screen. “Don’t think because you managed to punish one of our own that you’re fit to be Lawrence’s successor.”

Benson swallowed the hot indignation rising in his throat. “It’s high time you grew up and accepted my grandfather’s choice,” he said.

Hill halted and turned. “I knew you when you were a child,” he snapped. “Passive. Timid. A boy left crying or mute after trials with the Q-13 while I helped him build this place! Posture all you want, Director. All he saw in you was a puppet to be molded.”

“He saw potential,” Benson said, straightening his shoulders. He rested his hands against the small of his back, and squeezed them together. “I will make this organization greater than my grandfather ever imagined, and I will perfect his life’s work.” He looked at the screen again. He knew the look on Yeun’s face well. Despite everything, Elias was berating himself for the hitch. He’d been that way since college. Benson pivoted so he faced Hill directly. “As you are well aware, Dr. Hill. I am no longer that child. If you can’t get over your personal hostilities, I’ll call for your resignation.”

Hill blinked. “You’re actually threatening me.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a precarious political situation. If we’re going to move forward, we must be unified,” Benson said. “Your contempt of your colleagues is divisive and petty, and I’m not going to tolerate it anymore.”

“But I’m co-responsible for modulator research—our core source of funding,” Hill tried to scramble together his terse, inflammatory composure. It gave Benson pleasure to watch him squirm. “I’ve given everything to Empetrum.” 

“Then you would lose all of that,” Benson said, steady and formal as he came forward. “So, reconciling yourself with the current state of affairs is in your best interest. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Hill glared, then looked away. He gave Benson room as the director passed him by.

Benson allowed himself a smile as he left his colleague alone. Hill would never resign, Benson knew, and he wouldn’t behave himself completely. But if Hill pulled back just a fraction of his snide comments toward Yeun, and stopped trying to undermine Benson’s authority, the director would consider his warning satisfactorily heeded.

Benson headed downstairs, to find Yeun and congratulate him on a job well done.

+

CHAPTERS 18-20

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN—PROTOTYPE   

Monday during lunch, James denied Heather’s request to watch him work before shutting himself away in the equipment room. He tested the scanner several more times, running a battery of trials coupling different tissue samples with material lacking a genetic signature. James had to make sure the scanner didn’t just convert the DNA, but also anything else associated with it, such as the rest of the cell containing the genetic material, all the way up to the proteinaceous segments of the hair and any clothes a patient wore inside the scanner.

It had to be a clean process. Nothing left behind. A perfect transplant.

His experiments left him with bandaged fingers and assurance of success and he decided to use the remainder of his free hour exploring his professional options.

“Hello, Mr. Dhar,” he greeted once he had connected with the head of the Bureau.

“Hi, Siles,” Dhar replied warmly. “What can I do for you?”

Nervousness fluttered in James’ chest. “Yesterday, I got a call from a Michael Benson from Empetrum? He said the lab’s involved with the Bureau and I wondered if you could verify.”

“Yes I can,” Dhar said after a pause. “It’s true Empetrum is connected with the Bureau, same as Larkspur. They’re a secretive branch, and like to keep off the radar, but they do important work over there. So Benson made you an offer, then?”

“Yes. I’m still thinking it over.”

“As you should. I think you’d be a good fit.”

“Thanks.” James almost asked him if Richard had really said anything about his project, but couldn’t bring himself to.

+

The fluorescent lights reflected off the sleek surface of the android’s completed body. Heather drew nearer to watch as James helped Chelo connect the remaining metal and polymeric facets of the outer layer, which all came together with satisfying, resolute snaps.

Heather examined the gray face. Seams ran from the large, closed eyes down its metal cheeks, and she knew it was to help with forming expression, but at some angles, she thought it looked like tear tracks. Inside its head, a blank space laced with wires waited for the final piece.

“It’s done,” Eve sighed. Smiling, she rubbed her hands together. “Now on to the artificial intelligence phase.”

Heather exchanged a glance with James at that, who was checking the ports inside the robot’s head. His narrow face cracked into a tired, longsuffering smile and he straightened up from the table, stretching his back. She knew he was already deeply immersed in complex, exhaustive programming for organorobotic transference. He was probably sick of it by now, if that was even possible. She offered a sympathetic expression and followed her dad toward the equipment room.

+

There were a TV and two security cameras in Erika’s medical room. Some days, she tried to pretend she was in a hospital, and not in a windowless level of an evil, pointless research facility in the middle of a wildlife reserve in which her family had camped regularly throughout her childhood. Some days, she closed her eyes and imagined setting a fire, burning it all down.

At first, it was just the fatigue and malaise, but lately, more serious symptoms had set in. She could hardly move her arms without sharp, stitching pain shooting all the way across her ribs and needling up the back of her neck. When she didn’t move, the whole area was itchy and restless. Yeun assured her this was a good sign.

To what, though, he refused to say. At the start, he had said he would keep her informed, but now, he didn’t want to tell her what the goal actually was.

Erika stared dully at the TV, which had only three stations: science documentaries, obscure black-and-white movies, and cooking shows. No news of the outside world. Nothing to inspire her to take her life back.

Dimly, she heard footsteps approaching, and she choked back the desperation rising in her throat. Yeun entered with his usual cheery greeting and started prepping for her second-to-last stem cell treatment.

Erika turned her face away.

+

As soon as lunch hour struck the next day, James closed down his coding work with his colleagues in the lab, and disappeared upstairs. He was already trotting back down to the lobby by the time the rest of them were on their way up.

“Where are you off to?” Greg inquired, halting at the foot of the stairs to give him room on the staircase.

“Errands,” James said simply.

“Right now?” Chelo asked. “What sort?”

James hesitated. “Pet store.”

“…Pet store?” she glanced back at Richard.

“Yeah.” He readjusted his bag, trying to shrug off their scrutiny as he landed off the first step and directed himself toward the door. Heather had mentioned to him Richard may have given his colleagues a summary by now, since she’d heard Greg ask a week and a half ago.

“That means you finished it!” Heather gasped, popping out from behind the group like a jack-in-the-box. “And you weren’t gonna say anything? Are you testing it today?”

“Tonight.” He slowed a little, turning back. He didn’t dare look at Richard. He was glad Eve wasn’t there that day. She might have tried to stop him. “The place closes before I get off here so…”

“Well then, get out of here,” Greg said brightly, nudging a too-skeptical Chelo. “Sorry to keep you.”

James felt their gazes on his back as he crossed the lobby alone and exited the front doors. He hadn’t discussed anything with them, but the way they were looking at him, he knew Heather had been correct.

They all knew exactly what he would be testing that evening.

+

James pushed on the door to the small shop. As an automated tone heralded his entrance, he felt incredibly out of place. His family had never owned animals, and he had given up trying to change that after age eight. He had never set foot in a place like this.

James strode up to the counter. Birds chirped unintelligibly from dispersed corners, and puppies yapped in the back. The warm, earthy smells of animals filled his nose: fur, wood shavings, birdseed, rodent food. He found the mix of stimuli calming. 

“Can I get a mouse please?” he asked the employee at the register.

“Pet or feeder?” 

James hesitated, temporarily stymied. “Feeder.”

“What size?” The kid stepped out from behind the counter.

“Uh, regular size?” James rubbed the back of his neck. “Healthy, docile.”

The clerk gave him a confused, sideways smile. “Wait here,” he said, and disappeared down a a hallway lined with aquariums. 

James swallowed, feeling left for dead at the counter as a woman came in and queued up behind him. 

Within a few minutes, the kid returned with a small takeout box. He opened it, showing James the black mouse inside. Its whiskers quivered curiously and James was surprised by just how sweet and fragile it looked. For a moment he second-guessed himself.

“This one look good?”

James was sweating. “Yes.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket as the clerk secured the lid. 

“One twenty-five,” the clerk said. 

“That’s it?”

The clerk nodded. “First time feeding?”

“Uh, yeah,” James said, pulling out two bills and handing them over. 

The clerk gave him change and extended the takeout box. The mouse’s tiny nails scratched against the interior as it reoriented. “Just put it in the enclosure but stand by until your snake nabs it. You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” James said. He put the change in the tip jar and gingerly took the box, holding it close to his chest as he left.

When he returned to Larkspur, Heather, of course, wanted to see the mouse before James stored it in his office. He grudgingly allowed her a peek.

She helped him set it up in a larger container with breathing holes, water, and apple slices from her lunch, and then managed to coax him to join everyone else in the kitchenette for the remaining minutes of break.

The awkward silence among his colleagues was troubling, like he made them nervous, as if he planned to kill the mouse. With a living creature in his office, organorobotic transference was beginning to take on much more weight than in the days when it was just an idea.

“It’s a feeder mouse,” he said as he pried open a yogurt cup he had grabbed on his way out the door that morning. “Bred for snake food. I’m actually saving its life.”

“Can I watch tonight?” Heather asked. “You’re testing it after work, right?”

“I would love to show it to all of you, if you want to stay.” Dread knotted his insides, but he absolutely refused to be ashamed of his project.

Richard managed a smile. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

James knew he should have tested it over the weekend where he wouldn’t have an audience, but he was too impatient.

Plus, he really did want to give Heather the chance to witness it.

+

James tried to ignore how nauseated he felt as Heather helped him bring out the components of the machine, set them up on one of the counters, and hook the long wires up to his laptop across the room. With jittery fingers, he started his computer and activated the program. 

Everyone had stayed to watch, gathered behind his laptop.

He administered a diluted antihistamine to sedate the mouse, and waited for it to take effect. The procedure would be even more dangerous if the mouse were mobile inside the scanner. When it was asleep, he clipped the very end of the animal’s tail, transferring some blood onto the DNA reader before lifting the mouse into the scanner and attaching the modified brainwave receivers around its head. He had omitted the electrodes for this model, instead choosing to connect the neurological detection devices into a dome-like network that enveloped the rodent’s entire head.

All feeds were operational, warming him with a growing sense of hope and vigor. He closed the lid and secured the latches of the scanner, hooking up the accessory wires to the small animal robotic body he had thrown together.

Due to the necessity of working the power core and neural networking device into the robotic body, his test subject would get a size upgrade. The robot was shaped like a guinea pig, with two small, camera eyes, but no superfluous details like a tail and auricles. Heather had already commented on his depressing lack of flair.

He only needed the body to be complex enough to demonstrate how the test subject would behave in it, to make sure everything transferred over properly. He could upgrade the creature’s new physicality later, if he had time.

After checking connections, he approved the target lock on his computer. The green bars in both the transfer and conversion regions of the program charged simultaneously, and then the light came on. Everything was going smoothly. 

“Ready?” James strapped his protective goggles to his face and his colleagues did the same. “Here we go…” Begin transfer.

James watched the computer screen, his hands curling into fists on the counter. “Please work,” he whispered to it.

Transfer in Progress, his computer reported, and electricity surged down the wires into the neural networking device, which he had implanted into the back of the robotic body, over top of the power core. The lights in the lab dimmed, struggling to overcome the small machine clamoring for their power source. 

The neurological transfer took a few minutes. Then the program switched to the conversion stage, during which the machine made even more noise.

His colleagues watched in silence behind him, and he could hardly breathe in the tension. James glanced aside at Richard, who stood excessively close to Heather. The director’s daughter flashed James a hopeful, congratulatory smile.

Finally, the light ceased, and the machine whined softly as it cooled down. 

Transfer/Conversion Complete.

James strode to the setup across the lab, nerves prickling up his back. His colleagues watched breathlessly as he undid the clasps on the scanner and opened the lid. The interior was empty, save for the neural scanning devices he’d programmed the machine to ignore in the physical mass-to-energy conversion. No trace of the mouse had been left behind.

“Woah…” Heather leaned forward to try to get a better look, but Richard held her back. Everyone’s attention gravitated to the motionless robot at the other end of the countertop.

James unplugged the wires from the robot and checked the state of the power core, which reported an impressive level of energy for such a small amount of mass. He allowed himself a relieved exhale to find the energy receptacle stable and functional. He secured the neural network and clicked the dorsal panel into place across the robot’s back. He straightened up, waiting for something to happen. Any moment, the robot would begin to move.

But the animal robot remained still.

“Just give it a little more time,” he murmured anxiously. “It’ll come around.”

They waited a few minutes longer, and James’ heart sank further with each excruciating second, with no change.

Finally, he looked up at his colleagues. Addie had her hand pressed up against her mouth. Heather met his gaze, her expression soft and worried.

The prolonged silence became oppressive.

“Everything was—I was so sure…” James said in quiet dismay. He gently nudged the robot, hoping the movement would illicit a response. Nothing happened. “It should have woken up…” He drifted over to his computer, to check the procedure history, looking for signs of a hitch. “I’ll find out what went wrong and try again. The conversion worked beautifully, I just wonder where the transfer program was faulty—”

“Maybe you should call it a night, James,” Richard said softly.

James’ raging thoughts stopped dead. “What?”

“Actually, I don’t—” the director cut himself off. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

James stared at him, his shoulders dropping and chest tightening. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m gonna head out,” Greg said, shaking himself a bit. “Thanks for the demonstration.”

Chelo and Addie uneasily followed suit. Even Heather looked perturbed, despite her efforts to hide it.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get it,” she said, on her way after her father. “See you tomorrow.”

He could only stand by his machine, staring after his colleagues in profound, futile disappointment.

Soon, he was completely alone.

Dazed, he hooked his foot on a stool and pulled it close enough to take a seat. James looked again at the computer screen, but he couldn’t focus on it. He was shaking. Finally, his hands clenched, and he pounded his fists once on the counter, ducking his head with a snarl of despair.

It should have worked. Metaphysics be damned, it should have worked.

The conversion was supposed to occur only after the organism was no longer inside its body. It wasn’t even supposed to hurt it, but his colleagues—Heather—had just watched him kill an innocent creature.

After several long moments, he lifted his head, glaring at the inert robot across the room.

He picked himself up, miserably closed his laptop and wrapped up the cords. He stored his machine in a corner of his office, and brought the robot home in the box Heather had helped him prepare just that afternoon.

He couldn’t get Richard’s face out of his head. He hadn’t realized he would have just one chance.

Back at his apartment, he brusquely deposited everything on the kitchen table and face-planted on the couch. He figured he should try to figure out what had gone wrong, but he was far too tired, too discouraged to think anymore.

The end of his project was nigh, anyway.

Come morning, Richard would ask him to discontinue organorobotic transference. And James didn’t know what he was going to do then.

+

CHAPTER NINETEEN—OUTCOME

Pine trees. Tall grass riddled with purple wildflowers. The weathered yellow house on the hill. Stables full of the horses that had companioned her childhood—dragons for the young dragon riders, steeds for Pirate Princess Tristan and her paladin, Erika, whose three more years gave her the wisdom to keep her mistress out of trouble. When the rain pounded down, the scuffed-kneed adventurers read thick novels up in the hayloft, their legs dangling over the equine heads.

The stables were almost empty now—many of its inhabitants sold to help pay for the countless medical procedures that weren’t able to save Erika and Tristan’s mother in the end.

The memorial service. Lavishly adorned with the wildflowers their mother loved so much. Amie Davenport had taught Erika and Tristan all the flowers’ names, along with which were good for tea, which were poisonous, and which were her absolute favorites.

Dad. Sturdy, inspired, protective. Working with his hands gave him purpose. He had stayed at the hospital whenever he could. It devastated him to have to stand back and watch.

Tristan. Forfeited even classes at the community college to work and help make ends meet—putting her ambitions on hold. The flaming passion in her eyes was crushed and dull that day. Inundated with pain.

Erika’s disappearance had been only five days after the funeral. When she had most needed to be there for her family.

She couldn’t be strong enough for them.

Her eyes were open, her vision blurry in the dim space. The smothered, frantic beeping of her heart monitor screamed at her side, gaining clarity, and she realized she was awake. Then the pain registered.

Her whole torso seized up with electric barbs clawing down her spine, through her arms down to her very fingertips. It pushed out at odd points in her back, as if maybe there were limbs there too. With a cry of agony, she pitched forward to a sitting position, to get up, to do anything but sit there and let it rip her apart.

Hands braced against her shoulders.

“Ms. Davenport!” a man said urgently. “You need to lie down—”

She fought against him. Deliriously, she thought she was on fire, the way her skin burned.

The man turned his head and shouted back toward the door. “I need help in here!”

The door burst open and two figures in dark uniforms came in. 

“Hold her,” the man said. “Watch that tube in her back.”

“Let go!” Erika cried as the soft hands exchanged for two sets of larger, rougher ones, clamped on her tender arms and holding her still. She squirmed and kicked, every movement spiking with pain, but she kept fighting.

She felt the bed under her, her legs tangling wildly in the covers, the hands tight on her arms, her vision a gray, slurring haze, but clear as anything, her family appeared before her eyes in a burst of yellow light and tree branches. Dad, Tristan. Mom. Hot tears rolled down her face. 

Was she dying? She opened her mouth to call out to them.

A needle went into her arm and Erika screamed. 

“It’s okay, Ms. Davenport!” the man said, raising his dusty voice to be heard over the beeping of the urgent heart monitor, and the panicked, feral sound of her own cry. Her limbs began to feel heavy, a fog filled her mind. Medically-induced peace descended upon her like a security blanket, and the screeching nerves in her ribs started to muffle, enough that she finally recognized the voice of Elias Yeun.

“Erika, it’s okay.”

+

James woke with a start. He listened, heart pounding, the silent dark of his apartment crowding in front of his face.

Something rustled fitfully in the kitchen, followed by a clumsy dragging, clicking sound.  He sat up, eyes wide. The sound repeated, further in than before.

Abruptly, James clambered across the couch and fumbled to turn on the lamp, almost knocking it from the end table. As soon as the light came on, he spotted the empty box on its side on the kitchen floor.

James warily left his perch and crept into the shadows of the kitchen, where his hand found the light switch around the corner. He snapped on the light, beholding a small gray form crouched in the middle of the floor. It turned its head, disoriented. O.R.T-1 looked even more like a guinea pig when mobile.

“It worked…” James ran a hand through his hair and leaned hard against the wall. He laughed outright, and the sound spooked his test subject, which jerked up and attempted to flee. It slid and tripped, unable to gain traction, before it tried to turn too quickly and fell over onto its side.

“Sorry, you’ll get used to it,” he said gently, nearing the creature. It had gone very still. When he reached for it, it jerked and its robotic legs waved frantically to resume escape, but he picked it up. O.R.T-1 was still a little too disoriented to truly struggle. He was glad he hadn’t given it a mouth to bite him with. Hesitantly, it turned its head, and he watched the machinery inside the dark camera eyes readjust as it took in his face. James’ expression softened. “You’re already adapting.” Delicately, he lowered it to the linoleum and set it on its feet. “Here…experiment some more.”

James sat cross-legged on the floor while he observed the creature journey torpidly across the floor. It glanced back at him every few seconds while it searched for a place to hide. It examined the space under the oven, then bent down to touch its blunt face to it and paused, confused.

Why had it taken so much time before the mouse regained consciousness, James wondered. Maybe the transfer sent the subject into a short coma as its neural network straightened everything out.

He wanted to call Richard right away with the good news, but as he looked up to see 12:36 in the glaring lights of the microwave, he decided it could wait. He was already on thin ice.

But his project had worked.

Maybe his prospects weren’t so grim after all.

+

CHAPTER TWENTY—OPPORTUNIST      

We’ll talk about this in the morning.

Tension crept in the air as James ventured up the steps to the second floor, rustling box in hand. He turned his back to the muffled voices from the director’s office, as he quietly opened his own office door across the hallway.

Heather’s voice piped up in greeting behind him, startling him into nearly dropping the box.

The intern noticed the package right away, as well as the frantic, scraping movements inside as James repositioned it. “He woke up?”

“He did.” Relief flooded his chest to be able to tell her. He shouldered his way into his office, with Heather close behind, and removed the lid so she could see. She gasped softly to see the small, animal robot attempting to keep its balance inside the box.

“James, this is incredible.” She beamed at him. “You did it! Can you believe it?” 

James allowed himself a wan smile. He set the box on his desk, the only empty spot in a field of open notebooks, keyboards, and 3D printed models of neural components. 

“That’s all you’ve got? A smile?” Heather said, softly so as not to scare the mouse. “Come on, you’ve just made history.” 

James pushed aside a stack of notebooks scrawled with mechanical diagrams and set his briefcase down. “This is just step one.”

Heather rolled her eyes at him and turned her attention to the robot, who stared up at her. “Dr. James Siles, saving lives with science.” She shot him a sideways smile.

Another smile tugged at the edge of his features. He liked the sound of that.

“Can I hold him?” Heather asked. When James nodded, she respectfully extended a hand to the creature, waiting for O.R.T-1 to take interest in her fingers before making contact. She carefully laced her fingers under its belly. “Hello, little one.”

“It probably can’t feel that,” he said as she docked it gently in the crook of her arm and stroked its back. “I didn’t put a whole lot of sensory components in.”

“Really? I think he likes it,” she replied softly. James turned to watch O.R.T-1’s reaction for himself. The transferred mouse did seem calmer under her fingertips. It nestled down, and he saw its camera eyes angle, peering up at him warily. It had just picked its favorite person.

“He’s earned a name,” Heather said. “What do you think we should call him?”

“Whatever you want to call him,” James said. “You won’t like what I’d pick.”

“Oh I don’t know about that,” Heather cooed at the robot. “Do you have any ideas?”
“O.R.T-1,” James said.

Heather stared a moment, perhaps deciding whether he was serious or not. Her lips tightened. 

James shrugged.

“Can I show my dad?” she asked. 

He hesitated. “Yes.” 

She carried the robot out of the room, and James anxiously followed her across the hall.

“Dad!” Heather pushed her way into Richard’s office. “Look! James’ machine worked.” 

“It did?” Richard readjusted his glasses and turned his surprised gaze to his colleague for an explanation.

“Yes,” James said, rubbing the back of his neck as Heather brought the robot to her father. “It woke up after midnight last night. Its neural network must have just needed time to sort itself out. I’ll start tests right away to cross reference its current mental faculties with the snapshot the machine took before transfer, as well as monitor its overall stability.”

Richard nodded, unsure of what to say. He smiled at his daughter. “It sure seems taken with you, Heather. Could you babysit him for a while? I’d like to talk to James for a moment.”

Heather nodded, and exchanged a glance with James. “Mind if I show him to everyone?”

Swallowing his reservation, James confirmed. At least she was breaking the ice for him.

Heather warily took her leave, and silence dragged into the room with the closing of the door.

“It’s a relief to see your mouse pulled through,” Richard said finally.

James nodded, allowing himself some hope. Surely, after seeing the success of a project originally deemed impossible, Richard would forget his previous misgivings.

“But I was talking to Eve last night,” the director continued softly, “And, we have to ask that you discontinue this project.”

Distress pounded against James’ ribcage. “What? Why?”
“It’s just too questionable,” Richard said.

James’ heart dropped. His hazel eyes narrowed. “Too questionable?”

“Well, what I mean is—”

“If you’ll just give me a chance, I’ll prove everything transferred completely,” James insisted.

“I really wish I could support you in this. We all do.”

“This is all Eve, isn’t it?” James demanded.

“We arrived at the decision together,” Richard said.

James was burning. He would have to tell him. “Richard, I need to see this through. It’s not just a matter of—well I mean…” James cut himself off, his gaze falling to the floor. He took a breath and closed his eyes in an expression of pain. “My dad’s dying. He has cancer and the outlook isn’t good. This is my only chance, perhaps his only hope. Please. Don’t ask me to give this up.”

Richard stared at him, his expression a sickening mix of dread and sympathy. “I’m sorry, James. I didn’t know.” 

“So you see why I can’t let this go.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Richard said, haltingly. “But I really don’t think this is the way to do it. Have you asked your father whether he would even be open to this option?”

“Well, no, but I thought—”

“How long do the doctors say he has?”

“Maybe half a year.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?” Richard rounded his desk. James shifted back a step.

“I didn’t want to get you involved in my family drama,” James said. “I wanted to handle this on my own.” They would never understand. The absolute certainty of it filled up his chest like dark, murky water.

“I know this is very hard,” Richard said gently. “But what you plan to do isn’t the best way to go about this.”

“There is no other way,” James tried, hoarse. “How am I supposed to stand by and just let it happen?”

“Do you need time off to go visit your parents?”

James shook his head, staring hard at the floor. “I’ll just make things worse if I see them. We don’t get along.”

Richard looked like he wanted to contest it, but didn’t. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

James nodded.

“I won’t ask you to shut down your mouse,” Richard said. “But please don’t pursue this any further.”

That was as good as a death sentence.

“Okay,” James mumbled. This project was being there for his father in the best way he knew how. What did other people do in family crises? Richard made it sound like they just sat around and accepted it.

James didn’t want pity. He wanted the people he respected to trust him.

“I know this is the last thing you wanted to hear,” Richard said as James turned to leave. “Especially after all that hard work.”

“I’ll be okay,” James lied. Once free of Richard’s office, he made for the restroom to calm down. Heather would be sure to find him, otherwise, and if he spoke to anyone now, he would lose it.

No one was going to see him break down over this.

+

For the rest of the day, James invested every bit of attention to the android. His colleagues knew him well enough not to ask him about it. No one mentioned the trial the night before, or Richard’s request, and he was grateful.

Heather didn’t know what to say when she found out, so she gave him space too.

When the time came, he fully intended to go upstairs and eat lunch with his coworkers like a well adjusted human being, to show everyone he wasn’t going to be melodramatic. But he couldn’t bring himself to face them without work to hide behind. He couldn’t face their scrutiny, their sympathy.

Alone in the sterile silence of the lab downstairs, he put aside his work and folded his arms on the counter. 

What to do now, he wondered dismally. He didn’t even want to think about giving up the project.

The door across the lab opened. He looked up, watching Heather step inside with a plastic container in her hands.

He stared at her a moment, and he felt the weight of crushed hopes in his face. He didn’t bother to hide it. She could always see right through him, anyway.

“What’s in the box?” he asked. Her expression softened and she came forward.

“Toy bricks,” she said. She took a seat and pushed it across the counter to him. She offered a wan smile and removed the lid, revealing a rainbow puddle of the minute plastic pieces they had chatted about the day they met. “Want to build something?”

James stared at them, brows lowered and eyes dull. He couldn’t believe she had remembered this small detail about him.

“I originally brought these hoping they’d cheer you up, because we thought your machine hadn’t worked,” she said, and James slowly reached forward and took a piece from the top. “But I think you still need some cheering up anyway. I’m sorry for what happened.”

James studied the tiny brick of red plastic between his fingers in despondence. He set the piece on the counter between them and took a few more from the box, as carefully as if he feared they would burn him. “Thanks, Heather. This is nice of you.”

Heather smiled, softly. “That’s what friends are for.”

Surprise fluttered in James’ chest, but he focused on the square frame he was idly constructing on the countertop. He had no idea how to respond to a statement like that.

“What are you making?” she asked. 

“A tower,” he said. “Those were your favorites right?”

Heather nodded. “Mind if I help?”

“Please do.”

They took turns adding bricks, James from one side of the chrome counter, Heather from the other. They didn’t talk much, and James was glad for it. 

He wanted to ask her if she thought he should pursue the project anyway, but didn’t. He was afraid to know what she thought. And he could never ask her to choose, to risk turning her against her father.

Whatever happened now was his responsibility alone. He would let her believe he had accepted defeat and moved on.

Except, as soon as he had initiated the transfer the day before—pulled a living organism from its body and placed it into one of his own design—something had broken. James had fallen through a trap door. His colleagues had seen exactly what he was capable of, and it scared them.

The first prototype was a success, and James knew he could never let this project go. Not while he still had a shot. He was on track. There was still time.

He didn’t want to go against Richard, but he couldn’t stand back and forfeit everything he had worked for, to regret and wonder for the rest of his life what could have been. He knew what he intended to do was necessary, and he hoped that someday, his colleagues would come to understand.

That night, as soon as he returned home, he shed his bag and jacket, deposited O.R.T.-1’s box on the kitchen table, and scrolled through the call history in his cell phone until he came to the number without a name. He tapped the call key and waited.

“Dr. Siles, nice to hear from you again,” Michael Benson’s voice purred in his ear. “I take it you’ve thought over my offer?”

“I have.” James straightened his shoulders, somberly lifting his gaze to the window. “And I accept.”

+

CHAPTERS 15-17

CHAPTER FIFTEEN—ENERGY UNIT

Only a transparent barrier separated the boy from what was happening. The light on the other side of the thick glass flared like a firework, the fire stretching and sparking out of control. Even with his tinted, protective goggles, the boy squinted.

An agonized scream tore from the center of the heat and light, and he stiffened in horror.

“It’s hurting him!” he cried, turning anxiously to the man beside him, the only other person in the compartment behind the glass. “Can’t we stop it?” He didn’t receive an answer. “Grandpa?”

“Let it run its course,” was the calm reply. “Let’s see if he comes out of it.”

The boy could barely make out the shape of the figure generating the energy surge, especially as it began to disintegrate. He felt sick. Sicker than he had ever felt before. His glasses fogged up inside his goggles from the gathering tears. He whipped around toward the wall with a strangled gasp, clutching at his mouth, sure he was going to vomit.

“What are you doing?” His grandfather’s hand gripped his shoulder, turning him around and drawing him closer to his side.

“I’m scared.” The boy fought the intense urge to pull away. He knew his grandfather wouldn’t let anything happen to him, but he couldn’t stay. He felt trapped.

The touch became mellower as his grandfather placed another hand on his other shoulder, guiding him to resume facing the experiment.

“No Michael,” he said gently. “Don’t turn away.”

+++

James turned on the light in the chemistry lab. He strode toward the black soapstone counter, retrieving the fire extinguisher from the wall on the way past.

He moved all the pieces of the energy unit to one of the fume hoods in the back of the room and carefully set to work, gathering the chemicals he had purchased and stored in the lab. He had every step worked out, written down, and memorized. If he didn’t make any mistakes, he’d be fine.

“Here goes,” he breathed, buttoning up his lab coat. He threw a furtive glance behind him. The old Larkspur facility was creepy at night.

With grim determination, he situated his goggles on his face and pulled on a pair of fireproof gloves.

He arranged the components of the energy unit in order of assembly, and prepared the chemicals in two clearly labeled beakers. He began to solder, adding the substances at intervals and attaching the subsequent elements of the core. The heat from the soldering iron encouraged a more enthusiastic reaction, but he pushed forward, even at the sight of minute, inquisitive sparks.

He knew it was foolhardy to do this alone, but everything was under control.

He took the tip of the soldering iron off the device and waited for the hood to suck some of the excitement from the reaction. He prepared another pipette and drew a sharp smelling substance from the other beaker.

Directly after sealing the edge of the ring inside the square outer layer, he applied a few final drops to the delicate center.

A blinding light burst from the core. James jerked his face away in surprise. He hesitated for only a second, his mind racing. He removed all chemicals from the area and pulled the front panel of the fume hood as far down as he could while still retaining the ability to reach inside. He rushed to the nearest drawer and tugged on a pair of thicker gloves. There still remained two pieces to attach: one to contain the middle of the core, and another to complete the outside layer. He absolutely refused to have to call it and destroy everything with the fire extinguisher.

He picked up the notched, concave piece, hoping the bitter, smoky smell stayed well enough inside the hood and wouldn’t set off any alarms. His project was as good as dead if he put the facility in danger.

Fortunately, clamps held the device in place, so nothing fell over as he scrambled to contain the reaction. Impulsive and desperate, he reached into the thick of the heat and placed the cap on the inner core. He twisted it so the wires moved into their correct places, and the heat bit at his fingers through the gloves as he hastily soldered around the edge.

The end result was sloppy, but sturdy. Given the circumstances, he would have to be satisfied with it. The light quieted.

He heaved a weary sigh and dropped back onto a nearby lab stool.

However, his relief was short-lived. The fingers on his right hand started to sting with renewed vehemence as his smoking glove ignited.

With a yelp, he tore it off and sprayed it with the fire extinguisher.

+

Heather was far too perceptive.

“What did you do to your hand?”

James sighed and ceased soldering to examine the affronted hand, on which his fingers were bandaged from the first joint to the tips. “Just burned it a little last night.”

“On your personal project?” she asked.

“Yes,” James said defensively as tightness rose in his chest. “I imagine Richard’s already answered all your questions about it by now.”
“I haven’t asked him,” she said. “I’m waiting for you to tell me yourself.”

James looked up at her, his eyebrows pinched in a confused, incredulous expression.

“What?” she asked uncomfortably.

James shook his head and returned his attention to his work. “I’m just not used to that, I guess.” He readjusted his grip on the soldering iron. “Thanks.”

+

The android’s body had begun to materialize into more than a collection of disjointed devices, finally taking on a vaguely humanoid shape. Its inner machinery consisted of a great deal of wiring, stabilized on metal frames. Assembling it was a colossal pain, prompting several headaches and groans of frustration. On more than one occasion, the Larkspur engineers spent hours piecing together the components, only to discover one stray wire that should have already been in the center of the bundle.

Heather was allowed to help, learning how to splice wires and relaying directions while her mentors had their hands busy. She even got to participate in a bit of the construction herself.

Stringing the android together like a metal rag doll was harsh on James’ injured fingertips. By the end of the day, he decided to go home instead of injuring it further. He had to catch up on some project records anyway. Two weeks of his personal timetable for organorobotic transference had already flown by. More than ever, he felt every second ticking away, loud and insistent while his deadline loomed steadily nearer.

Two weeks left.

+

Yeun had moved Erika from her cell to a private medical room. Treatment often left her sore and fatigued, and she had to be careful not to dislodge the cannula in her lower back.

“Good morning Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said, entering the room. “How are you feeling?”

Erika opened her eyes, grudgingly. “No developments.”

Yeun moved to prepare the stem cell injection. “Treatment number four today,” he said cheerily. “We made it.”

“How many of these are we doing again?” she sighed.

“Nine.” He punctured the seal of the first with a syringe and drew up the liquid into the barrel. “We’re about halfway there.”

“Lucky me,” she rasped.

“After we let this one settle for a day or so, I’ll need to take a blood sample to see if this is going to work out,” he said. She let him connect the syringe with the cannula and introduce the serum.

As he prepared the one to be administered to her neural stem cell supply, Erika asked, “Is today the day? Are you going to keep your word?”

“Of course,” he said. “You’ve kept yours.”

He finished up the stem cell injection and pulled a small, pre-loaded cellphone from his lab coat. “All cleared with the director.”

He connected a wire to the charging port on the cellphone and handed it over. At the other end of the wire was a remote with a button, which he kept. “Here you are. Do you know their number?”

“Yes,” Erika said, turning over the phone in her hands.

Yeun squeezed the remote, and it powered up. “It’ll be online and functional as long as I keep this depressed,” he explained. “Make sure you just tell them you’re okay. If you try to say anything to try to lead them here—” He released the button and the phone went dark. “—instant disconnect.”

“I understand,” Erika said. She readjusted herself in the bed with a wince. He had her on supplements to help compensate with the side effects of treatment, and to increase the odds of her body accepting and integrating her altered stem cells, but her system still struggled to keep up. Each new time he took readings of its progress, she hoped he would return disappointed. But it just continued, endlessly.

Yeun pushed the button again. “I’ll give you one minute, starting as soon as they answer.”

She typed in the number, put the phone up to her ear, and waited. Yeun listened to it ringing, ready. Anxiety pulled in Erika’s ribs. She’d been rehearsing in her mind what she would say to them, but had no idea how to keep enough control of the call. Emotion sat high in her throat as the phone reached its final ring.

Her dad’s voice piped up in her ear. Voicemail machine. Erika’s hopes twisted. She looked at Yeun, and glanced at the remote in his hands. He kept it activated.

“Go ahead and leave a voicemail,” Yeun said, quietly.

After the beep, she licked her lips, took a breath. When she spoke, her voice shook. She felt defeated. “Hi Dad, hi Tristan. It’s Erika.” She looked at Yeun again. “I—I’m sorry I haven’t been able to contact you until now. There’s something I got wrapped up in, unexpectedly.”

Yeun’s fingers twitched nervously, but she lifted an urgent hand, signaling him to keep the activator depressed. He complied.

“I can’t come home right now,” she went on. “But I’m fine. I’m okay, and I’ll come back as soon as I can.” She clenched her jaw, holding back tears. “I love you both. I’m sorry.”

She took the phone from her ear and hung up, averting her gaze. Yeun let the phone deactivate.

“Do you want to try again?” he offered, as she stared at the phone in her lap.

“What’s the point?” Erika said slowly. “If they pick up, they’re gonna ask questions, and you’re gonna cut me off.”

“Wouldn’t you like to hear their voices?” Yeun said. “It may comfort you.”

Erika glared at the cannula in her arm. “What do you care?”

But neither of them moved. She didn’t offer up the phone, and Yeun didn’t take it from her.

Finally, she extended it. “Forget it. I’m too tired now.”

“Maybe we’ll try again later,” Yeun said, accepting the phone. “When you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah,” Davenport leaned back and closed her eyes wearily. “Sure.”

“I’ll get you some coffee,” he said, taking his leave.

+

CHAPTER SIXTEEN—MORALE

James planned to head to Larkspur early Saturday morning to continue work, but the afternoon was in full swing by the time he regained consciousness. His throat felt like flaming sandpaper, and his head throbbed against hot, congested sinuses. When he finally dared to roll over and look at the clock, he cringed at what he read.

“No…” he moaned, burying his face into his pillow, only to lift it out again because he couldn’t breathe.

James rolled over and ran a hand through his bedhead and relaxed his arm with an exasperated sigh. Staring blearily at the ceiling, he considered taking the day off.

But he got up. He took a heavy dose of vitamin C, downed revolting liquid cold medicine, and planted himself at the kitchen table. He spent what was left of the afternoon with his laptop and his notes, consuming a nearly constant supply of tea as he wrote programs for the scanner and its various parts.

These components would detect the individual to be transferred, copy their organic neural network and send the information to the mechanical network to be electrically reconstructed. A collection of devices attached to the head would then transfer everything over while commanding and absorbing all the electrical signals at once, shutting down the organic brain as the mechanical network activated.

The transfer itself was the persistent question of plausibility, but he was finally beginning to feel like he was pinning it down.

+

Again, James was absent from the group come lunch hour. He had been doing this for two weeks straight, but none of his colleagues seemed surprised.

“It’s a known habit.” Chelo said simply when Heather mentioned it.

“Do you think he gets lonely down there?” Heather asked.

“Doubt it,” Greg said. “You’ve seen him when he’s working.” He tapped the side of his head. “Nothing else exists.”

Chelo nodded. “He’ll be social if he wants.”

“Sometimes he surprises you,” Greg agreed.

“But he has been particularly keyed up lately,” Addie said.

Heather glanced at her dad, who replied as nonchalantly as he could, “He’s working on a personal project. I’ve granted him use of the equipment for it.”

“He’s running himself into the ground again,” Eve murmured, concerned.

“He’ll grow out of it in a year or two,” Chelo said.

Heather stood up. “I think I’ll go see what he’s up to.”

As Heather slipped down the staircase, she heard Greg say, “So, a side project, huh? What is it this time?”

James wasn’t in either lab. Heather found him at a spare counter in the back of the equipment room. She knocked softly on the door. James straightened up and twisted around. She worried he might be cross to have been caught off guard again, but he just looked at her, inquisitive.

“Hi,” she said quietly. “I thought I might keep you company, if that’s all right.”

James’ expression lowered a bit in suspicion. He blinked, then shrugged as he returned to his work. “Sure, I guess. Not much to see today.”

“That’s okay.” Heather ventured closer. His hands were inside a metal, rectangular container the size of a breadbox, attaching pre-fabricated inner components.

He groped for the tissue box and managed to catch a sneeze. His shoulders slumped.

Heather smirked. “You made yourself sick, didn’t you?”

“It’s on its way out,” he said, indifferent. He still sounded stuffed up.

“You should go home and rest, James.”

“No thanks.”

She watched him in silence for a while, trying to guess the connection between the wire-laden chips, the square device he had worked on the week before, and this box. “Is this still a secret?”

“…That depends.”

“On what?”

He didn’t look up. “On how open your mind is.”

“It’s super open,” she insisted. She pulled a granola bar from her sweater pocket. “I won’t make a big deal about it or anything. I know it’s really important to you, but that Dad must have been discouraging. I won’t tell anyone without your permission.” She placed the bar on the counter. “I’m safe. You can tell me.”

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he considered her offering. “Is this a bribe?”

“No.” Heather crossed her arms, her face flushed. “I just figured you might be hungry, skipping lunch and all.”

He remained very still for a few moments, staring at the bar. He looked up at her, and Heather was surprised by how vulnerable he appeared in that moment. “You swear?”

“I absolutely swear.”

He hesitated again. Then, finally. “Okay.” He picked up a fine-tipped screwdriver to continue working. “I call it ‘organorobotic transference…’ It’s a means of consciousness transfer, from an organic vessel to a mechanical replacement.”

Heather blinked. She hadn’t been expected something that drastic. “You mean like body switching?”

“Yeah…to be used clinically to prevent premature death.” He crossed his arms, his shoulders tense. Did he really care what she thought? “Like as a last resort, a failsafe.”

“Sounds neat,” Heather said.

He paused, surprised. “Really?”

“Of course,” she said warmly. “How far along are you?”

“Pretty close with the first prototype, actually,” he said. A shy smile brightened his face.

“How’s it work?”

He fumbled, but once he started talking, it all started spilling out. He even explained technical jargon he might not have in his usual, guarded state, as if he really wanted her to understand the process, how possible it was.

She was beyond impressed, but mainly, she was just happy he was finally talking to her.

At first, he was apprehensive, but as Heather asked thoughtful questions instead of backing away, his posture straightened and he became more animated.

“What inspired you to tackle something like this?” Heather asked.

James blanched. “Is it okay if I don’t answer that?”

Dread stirred in Heather’s stomach, concerned for James’ health and safety, but she said. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

And for whatever reason, that final piece disarmed him completely. A weight seemed to lift off his shoulders, and for the first time since their conversation on the airplane, she saw her presence was welcome.

+

A few days later, James was back to full health and able to resume neglecting his body’s basic needs in favor of work. As he opened the door to his office, Heather flitted into the hallway. “Good morning!”

He returned the greeting much more quietly as he entered his office. He set his briefcase on the desk. “Hey, look.” He bobbed up a small paper bag. “Food. Aren’t you proud?”

Heather smiled. “So proud.”

“Oh, and I finished the scanner last night and made good headway on some of the accessory devices.” He couldn’t help smiling back. He hadn’t expected how good it would feel to have someone to share his victories with, instead of getting stuck in his own head. Perhaps he should have trusted her earlier. “I should be able to finish it soon.”

“That’s great,” Heather said. “Dad says he has to stay late tonight to finish the weekly report for the Bureau. Can I hang out with you after work?”

He hesitated. “Fine with me, but you should ask your dad first.”

+

“Will it hurt?” Heather watched as James connected wires to an adapter and plugged the setup into his laptop. The wires ended in two electrodes and a small, rectangular device.

“No,” he said. “These are just brain wave sensors.” He stuck the electrodes on his forehead and held the additional device to the back of his head. “I wish I could’ve made this full-sized so I could really see how well it works—but that would take too long, as size-specific as this part of the project is.”

He pressed the spacebar on his keyboard. A suite of windows popped up on the screen. On a black bar across the top, a white line carved a variable path along the centerline as signals registered from the electrodes. A window in the lower right corner displayed a blurry visual replication of the laptop, translating visual information James’ brain was currently processing. Error messages barred the other windows.

Heather intently looked between James and the screen. “Woah.”

James’ brow furrowed as he moved the sensor and watched the signal waver and cut out. He put the receiver above his ear, and the occipital window lost signal while another labeled Temporal began transmitting a subdued mix of waves and hazy shapes. Continuing to move the device, he was able to generate transmission for two more windows, but not all of them.

“Because the receiver’s so small, the signal’s narrow and weak,” he commented, half to himself. “And I’m only getting information from the cerebral cortex.” He sighed, closing out the program and pulling the electrodes off his forehead. “I can’t wait to make the real thing.” He considered building larger, more powerful sensors just to have on hand for the eventuality, but it would take too much time.

“Did you feel anything when those things were on your head?” Heather asked. Her cell phone chimed beside her.

James rubbed his hand over the top of his head, where he had last held the device. “Yeah, it’s a little like pins and needles.”

“Weird.” She scrolled her phone’s touch screen and tapped back a reply. “Dad’s ready to go.” She hopped off the counter and headed for the door, swinging back around. “Thanks for letting me bug you for a while, James.” She hesitated, smiling. “And for letting me in. It means a lot.”

James blinked, surprised and a little embarrassed.

“Yeah—no problem,” he fumbled.

Heather beamed. “Later.”

“Bye.” He closed his laptop and stood up to locate his supplies for the targeting system, which would read and process a sample of DNA to ensure the machine locked on the correct subject.

“Thanks for taking such interest,” he murmured with a soft smile.

+

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN—PROPOSITION

James was well immersed in programming Sunday afternoon, tucked away in a silent corner of the lab with all the completed structures sprawled before him when his cell phone startled him.

Private caller, the caller ID reported, with no number.

“Hello?” He answered it grudgingly, prepared to hang up.

“Hello. Is this Dr. James Siles?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“My name is Michael Benson,” the man explained coolly. “I am the director of Empetrum, another laboratory under the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation, same as Larkspur. We’re very impressed with your work, and I wanted to extend an opportunity to you, if I may claim a moment of your time?”

“Oh. Thank you.” James straightened up. “How have you heard of my work?”

“Through the Bureau, of course.”

“Oh, of course. You have my attention, sir.”

“Wonderful.”

James reached over and grabbed his project notebook, opening it to a blank page as Benson continued, “Empetrum’s research spans biochemisty as well as engineering. One of the head scientists in our biorobotics division resigned, and that position isn’t something we can offer to just anyone. We’ve heard of your brilliant innovations and tireless work ethic, and it sounds like you’re exactly what Empetrum needs. I would like to offer you a position here, if you’re interested. You would have your own personal lab and complete creative freedom, as well as a considerable raise.”

“Thank you,” James said, taken aback. “Excuse my hesitance, but I’ve never heard anything about Empetrum before…”

“I appreciate your caution,” Benson said. “As you know, Larkspur has spent most of its life hidden from the public. Empetrum’s work is even more federally sensitive, so for extra security, it has been concealed from even your branch of Larkspur. However, I have clearance to reach out to you specifically, to see that you have continued opportunity to flourish. Director Brophy has expressed misgiving about your recent project, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” James admitted, his eyebrows lowered. Had Richard seriously told on him to the Bureau about his personal project? Benson couldn’t have known about it otherwise.

“Does it worry you?” Benson asked.

“It does,” James said. “But Brophy has given me permission to pursue it. He wouldn’t arrange to rescind it without telling me…”

“Would he?”

James hesitated. Maybe if Richard worried James’ project would ultimately endanger himself or his peers, he would change his mind.

But Richard trusted him. He would never allow his daughter to be alone with James in a soundproof lab if he believed he was unstable.

“At Empetrum, you’d have been encouraged to work on it during business hours, and receive pay for your efforts.”

Benson’s words sank in like an anchor drop. James had repeatedly run himself into the ground trying to balance this project with work over the last few weeks. Maybe he wouldn’t have burnt himself preparing the power core if he hadn’t had to do it in isolation. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten sick. It hurt to be awake, and he felt like he was losing his mind at the pace he had been going.

“I know how suspicious an unexpected solicitation like this must be,” Benson added. “Please contact the Bureau yourself to put your mind at ease.”

“I will,” James said. “And I’ll be sure to consider your offer.”

“Great. Take all the time you need,” Benson said. “Give me a call at this number when you’ve made your decision. And please don’t discuss this with anyone.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. I hope to speak with you again soon, Dr. Siles.”

When the call ended, James set his phone aside. He rested his elbows on the counter and laced his fingers under his nose, narrowing his eyes at the wall.

His own lab. Complete creative freedom. Richard wasn’t aware of what the project meant to him, but James certainly felt stifled by his reservations. Finally, he could admit it to himself.

And perhaps his project wasn’t as secure under Larkspur as he had hoped.

+

After over fifteen hours of exhaustive programming, all components were finally connected, calibrated, and ready to test. James wanted to run the conversion procedure at least once before heading home to pass out.

The scanner whirred softly from the counter. The program stood open on the screen of his laptop, which he had modified in his spare time before moving to Worthing to wield much more power than the average computer. The power core rested nearby, attached to the scanner with four thickly insulated wires.

James selected a command from the program on his screen: Input Target. A panel slid out from the scanner’s flank, light glinting off the polished metal disk inside.

He disinfected a needle he had pilfered from a repair kit in his sock drawer, using it to draw blood from one of his fingers.

He pulled a hair from his head, checked for the follicle, and set it in the scanner. He closed the lid and again attended to the computer. Target. The machine hummed as a blue light roved inside, leaking slightly from underneath the lid.

An image of the hair with the base highlighted materialized on his laptop screen, along with the prompt, Confirm Target?

Yes. The window retreated to the back of the others, and James unchecked a box at the top of the command window, fading out an entire section having to do with the neurological transfer. A pop-up requested confirmation. He was only testing the matter-to-energy conversion.

Ready for conversion. The button became a loading bar after he selected it, and the machine’s humming grew more decisive. James reached aside and strapped on protective goggles.

Ready. The bar filled with green. A corresponding green light flicked on near the base of the scanner.

Begin Conversion.

The machine eased into action, the humming growing louder but muffled by the tightly clamped lid. Despite his already established confidence in the core’s stability, he closed the doors around the lab.

The lights dimmed as the smooth metal box emitted sharp snapping sounds and electricity surged through the wires into the dormant cube attached to them. James watched breathlessly. The conversion took only a few seconds, as the mass was small.

Conversion Complete, a pop-up on his computer said. He returned to the scanner in anticipation, waiting for the humming to cease before undoing the warm clasps. Nothing remained between the concave surfaces of the scanner. The power core reported the additional energy.

James closed his eyes. Burying a relieved hand in his hair, he tipped a haggard smile toward the ceiling. He exhaled heavily, then moved to pack up and head home.

+

CHAPTERS 12-14

CHAPTER TWELVE—SHADOW    

Heather searched for something to talk about, anything to offset the strained atmosphere, though she couldn’t decide what James needed. He seemed to be at least relatively okay, drinking his black coffee and staring at the floor. 

He absently left his place against the counter and headed back down the hallway. “Thanks for the coffee.”

As he passed the opening to the stairs, he directed a flick of his hand to whomever was on their way up. He entered the first office on the right, leaving the door open.

The footsteps on the stairs produced a freckled face, which brightened with a smile as he caught sight of Heather. “Good morning!” His full height emerged from the stairwell, and she realized the man towered over her. “You must be Heather.”

She nodded, flashing a wan smile. She glanced to his side, toward the open door of James’ office.

The newcomer crossed the space between them in few strides and extended a huge hand. “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Heather said. She gestured back toward the coffeemaker. “I made coffee, if you’d like some.”

Greg bobbed his own disposable coffee cup. “I’m already covered, but thanks for the offer.” He glanced down the hallway. “I should get situated before Richard’s ready to rock and roll.”  He flashed another smile. “Glad you could be here today.”

“Thanks.” Heather smiled.

Within a few minutes, two women arrived and introduced themselves as Chelo and Addie. They welcomed Heather amiably, but soon after they met, the director’s door opened and Richard and Eve entered the hallway. Richard held a thick file of papers.

“Let’s head down to the lab everyone,” Richard said. His demeanor offered Heather no insight into his meeting with James.

“I’ll meet you down there,” Chelo said.

“I’ll just be a minute as well,” Addie’s voice was soft and gentle, as if she had never raised it in her life.

James slipped into the hallway and trailed behind as Heather followed Richard and Eve down the staircase and around to the double doors in the adjacent wall. Heather glanced over her shoulder, but James’ gaze was on the steps.

“What are you working on today?” Heather asked her dad, pausing to take in her first sight of the pristine, polished laboratory.

James wordlessly stepped around her.

“Going back over the details of our most recent project.” Richard planted the file on the nearest counter and opened it up. He spread the pages across the chrome surface. “We’re going to let the generator project cool off for a while.”

“What’s the new project?”

“Android,” James finally spoke up, choosing a page and reading it over. “Artificial intelligence.”

“Cool.” Heather ventured up to the counter. She tilted her head at the nearest page—a diagram of a square device, with multiple renderings of intricate interior components. “Was this what you were sketching on the plane, James?”

“No,” James replied. “Though I did have to re-draw that over the last month. We lost some data in the accident.”

“And prototypes,” Chelo’s voice said. Heather glanced back to see her enter the lab, followed by Greg and Addie. “Glad to have all that mess behind us.”

James nodded, his attention fixed on the file’s contents, brows lowered. Chelo planted a comforting hand on his shoulder as she and the others joined the countertop. 

Heather perused the assortment of notes and labeled diagrams as the engineers launched into their work. She pulled a black stool out from under the opposite counter and took a seat, watching the activity.

Comments and clarifications passed back and forth as the group industriously reviewed and ironed out a consensus for all proportions and methods of construction. Notes were penciled in margins, diagrams completed or modified.

Heather scooted closer and rested her elbows where the counter peeked through. She found herself watching Eve, James, and her dad more than the others, wondering all over again what had happened in their meeting earlier. James’ behavior when he appeared from Richard’s office made her think it hadn’t gone well, whatever it was.

Eve was outgoing and upbeat, conversing easily with her colleagues. Richard tried to mirror that energy, but Heather knew her dad well enough to know when he was overcompensating.

James was very quiet, and anything he did say was clipped and businesslike, not unkind but certainly no-nonsense. She didn’t think he was avoiding Eve, but he was so minimalistic with everyone, it was hard to figure out if it was business-as-usual or not.

None of their colleagues seemed to notice anything amiss. Or if they did, they weren’t showing it.

Finally, the engineers confirmed their respective components of the project and left to get to work. James plucked a few pages from the table. Crossing the room, he donned protective glasses before disappearing behind a door at the back of the lab.

“What’s through there?” Heather asked.

“All the equipment,” Richard said. “Though this lab’s soundproof, so you won’t be able to hear it working.”

Remaining at the counter, Greg and Richard continued to collaborate on the power system for the android. Heather couldn’t make much of their robotics and chemistry jargon, but she listened anyway, excited when some details made sense.

When they were also ready to begin assembling, they encouraged her to try on one of the blue fireproof lab coats as she followed Greg and Richard into the equipment lab.

Immediately, the silence of the first lab gave way to the raucous humming taking place in the corner of the other. The scents of metal and smoke tinged the air, and James stood by a machine at the back, supervising as it cut across a sheet of metal. 

Drifting with her guides past a garden of other machines, Heather found herself in an annex of the back wall.

“Woah…” She lagged behind. A myriad of shelves, containers, and compartments crowded the musty walls of the long, narrow space. Lights hung low from the ceiling, but not so much that Greg seemed concerned about hitting his head. “What is this?”

“Supply stockroom. Feel free to snoop,” Greg said as they checked through the tags of metal sheets lined up along the shelves.

“But be careful,” Richard added. “Watch out for sharp edges.”

“What are you looking for?” Heather peeked into the labeled drawers of a nearby storage box. Most were filled with screws and bolts.

“A specific metal reserved for projects like what we’re working on, an alloy capable of handling large amounts of energy.”

Heather nodded thoughtfully, crossing her arms as she turned to regard the sheets of plastic slotted into the wall behind her. Curious, she pulled a thick white sheet slightly out from its counterparts and ran a hand carefully along its rough edge.

“Heather, are there spools of polymer filament labeled UI2-6 over there?” Greg asked. 

“Spools of what?”

“Those black crates to your right,” Richard clarified. “They’re full of thin cords of different materials, and UI2-6 is a type of plastic. It’s for 3D printing.”

“Ah.” Heather located the open bins full of big spools. There appeared to be a container reserved for each filament type—some were metal, some plastic. She checked the tags, repeating the name under her breath as she searched. “No, I don’t see it.”

“Thought so. Thanks, Heather.” Greg helped Richard pull a large sheet out into the aisle further down. “We’ll have to order that, then, before we’re ready for the android’s outer shell.”

They brought the metal from the stockroom to the second CNC mill, and Heather watched with the utmost intrigue as her dad entered the machining parameters and set it to work. 

When all partitions had been cut, and the sharp edges filed smooth at the nearby lathe, they brought their spoils out into the lab. James had since set up his work station on the other available island, so Greg and Richard continued to the lab on the other side of the frosted glass barrier.

Heather lingered on her way past. “How’s the voice box coming? That was what you were going to work on, right?”

“Yeah.” The bulk of his attention remained on what he was doing. “It’s going all right.”

“What will the robot’s voice sound like?” She spoke over the gentle spitting of James’ soldering iron.

“The voice simulator will be able to produce a wide range of frequencies,” he murmured, distraction dominating the quick, intelligent cadence of his voice. “So we’ll be able to program whatever tone of voice we want.”
“So it can have any voice you want? Could you make it sound exactly like your own?”

“I could, but that’d be kind of creepy, don’t you think?”

“I wonder what kind of a voice would suit a robot,” Heather mused, watching the thin trail of smoke curl up from where the iron knitted two pieces together.

“One that sounds human,” James replied casually. “Just not mine.”

“We should make it sound like Greg.”

James smiled, albeit slightly. “He’d have fun with that, but I think one of him is enough.”

As if on cue, the glass door separating the labs opened and Greg strode between the counters on his way to the equipment room. “So this is where you wandered off to, Heather. We turned around and you were gone.”

“Sorry, I’ll be there in a minute,” Heather replied, embarrassed to have already been caught wandering away from her supervisors. When she returned her attention to James, he had slipped back to his work. His movements were steady and precise, as if he ran on autopilot, incapable of error.

Heather took a step in that direction. “See you later.”

James was far too engrossed in his work to answer.

In the other lab, Addie, Chelo, and Eve were submerged in the initial stages of their own concentrations.

“What are you working on?” Heather ventured next to Eve to watch.

She soldered small wide bases to two stiff wires on either end. “I’m making fingers.”
Heather blinked. “Just fingers?”

“Well, I’ll build them out to the rest of the hand,” she chuckled.

Greg returned from the stockroom, handing Richard a box of supplies and, as the director thanked him and continued his own soldering, Greg leaned on the counter.

“You know what would be cool,” he said, and Heather thought he was going to say something serious, “we should be a little more creative with this project. We could give it like three eyes or something, that’d be awesome.”

“That would be awesome,” Heather agreed, smiling. “What do you think, Dad?”

Richard just scoffed.

“Yeah, that’d be something,” Chelo spoke up from the counter against the wall. “We should give it extra limbs too.”

Greg raised a hand to his chin. “We should! Richard, would you spring for that?”

“And laser vision?” Chelo pursued.

“Now you’re making fun of me.”

She smiled, her broad nose scrunching up as she glanced back at him. Greg waved her off on his way to the door.

Sticking his head into the adjacent lab, he announced, “Hey James, just to let you know, we’re putting three eyes in this edition, so you might want to make your voice box smaller to make room.”

“Okay,” he grunted, then paused. “Wait, three? Greg.”

“I am dead serious,” Greg said.

“I’m sure you are.”

“I am.”

“Don’t you have something better to do?”

“Ask Richard. We’ve all been collaborating in here,” Greg said, his tone lilting.

Heather stifled a laugh.

“Okay, tuning you out now,” James droned.

“Ah well, it was worth a try. You’re not as gullible as you used to be. Hey, why are you all isolated in this lab anyway?”

“This is just where I ended up,” came the apathetic reply. “Too much trouble to pick up and move now.”

“Sure, sure,” Greg said, closing the door. As he rejoined his colleagues, he jerked his thumb back over his shoulder with a patient sigh. “Looks like somebody pulled an all-nighter again.”

Heather glanced at her dad, who pretended to be focused on soldering.

+

Work ended at five o’clock.

“What did you think, Heather?” Richard asked as she helped him collect the unfinished pieces for storage.

Heather smiled. “Can I come back tomorrow?”

“Sure you can,” Eve said as they entered the other lab. She sounded genuinely pleased.

“You’re welcome any time,” Greg said, and Chelo affirmed.

“I’m really glad you enjoyed yourself,” Addie said.

“What do you think, James?” Chelo asked.

James gave a distracted thumbs-up as he carried a plastic container of robot parts into the equipment room.

Richard had been so reluctant to tell Heather about Larkspur. When arriving at the facility, Heather had expected her presence to be simply tolerated, or received with wariness. The   of her dad’s colleagues came as a surprise.

She wondered what could have happened to drive such a place to withdraw from the world.

+

James had intended to go home and continue planning and researching, but fatigue rushed him upon opening the door to his apartment. He fell asleep on the couch waiting for the coffee maker.

He woke up at ten, forced himself through four hours of work, and then went to bed. James frowned at the digital clock on his bedside table as he pulled the covers up to his chin. He wished he could just plug himself into the nearest electrical socket.

Sleeping took too much time.

+

CHAPTER THIRTEEN—PRODUCTIVITY     

If Heather stepped foot in the upstairs chemistry lab, Richard insisted she wear protective goggles and gloves and keep her lab coat buttoned all the way up. But from as far away as he wanted her, she couldn’t see anything as Greg and Richard put together a potent mixture of chemicals under the fume hood.

Perhaps it would be better if she weren’t there to bother them at such a delicate stage in the project. “I’m gonna see what everybody’s doing downstairs,” she said, careful not to startle them as they began to add the concoction to the half-constructed energy unit. 

She stood up, peeling the unused gloves from her hands and hanging her goggles on a nearby rack.

“Okay,” Richard said.

  Trotting down the stairs, she unbuttoned her lab coat and ran her fingers through her hair to fluff out crimps from the goggle straps.

She’d made it to a miraculous third day shadowing at the facility, and she figured she was probably on the brink of overstaying her welcome. She needed to make herself more useful.

In the equipment room downstairs, James was hard at work again, scribbling in a notebook as he monitored a machine’s fine-tuning of the voice simulator’s entrails. The rest of the sleek, square device with a circular bloom of holes in the front panel rested beside James at the compact computer station.

“That’s really cool.” Heather moved closer to the machine to examine it.

“Thanks,” he mumbled. “Keep back from the machine, please.”

Heather stepped back, even though she had been only a single step beyond James himself. “Do you want help with anything?”
“No, thanks,” he said, his gaze still focused on the mechanical parts before him.

Heather left him in search of the other engineers. James was easily the first to feel imposed upon, and she didn’t want to risk it.

She found Addie stationed at the counter along the wall in the nearest lab. A large magnifying glass stuck out in front of her face as she worked. As soon as the door sealed behind Heather, the din in the equipment room snuffed out.

“How’s it coming?” Heather asked.

“The camera’s getting there.” Addie had arranged an orderly line-up of constituents on the countertop. She raised her eyebrows at Heather. “Soon I’ll get to start making it look more like an eye.”

Heather examined the scattered mosaic of pieces.

“What have you been up to this morning, Heather?”

“Just following my dad around,” Heather said. “He wanted to include me, but I think the chemistry lab was out of his comfort zone.”

“I see.” Addie glanced at her watch. “Well it’s almost one. We should be breaking for lunch soon.”

“Can I help with anything? Get parts for you or something?”

“Bored?” she asked with a smile.

“Just looking to be of some help.”

“Ah. I’m fine for the time being. This little pile will keep me busy for hours to come. Thanks, though.”

They were all so self-sufficient. “Do you mind if I watch for a while?”

“Go for it.” Addie’s blue eyes trained steadily through the magnifying glass.

Laughter burst from the other room. Heather could easily pick out Eve’s warm enthusiastic chuckle, joined by Chelo’s more boisterous guffaw. Addie exchanged an amused glance with Heather and the room fell tranquil again, the directionless hum of the air-conditioning accenting their colleagues’ muffled conversation.

“I thought the lab was soundproof,” Heather said.

“That wall isn’t,” Addie replied without looking up. “I think it was added later.”

“Oh.”

After a period of quiet focus, Addie sighed and sat back from her work. “Well, I’m ready for a break.” She rolled her shoulders in relief and smiled at Heather. “Shall we go?”

Richard and Greg were the last to join them upstairs.

Chelo planted herself at the table across from James and rolled a mandarin orange to him. “Hey, quit brooding.”

“I’m not brooding,” he murmured, regarding the fruit like a foreign substance. He picked it up.

“I know you’re particularly fond of the things,” she said, gesturing to her offering. “I hope the vitamin C brings you out of your stupor.”

“Thanks.” He favored her with a faint smile.

“You getting enough sleep?” she said.

James shrugged, busily peeling the orange. 

“That’s a no?”

He stuck a slice in his mouth. “I just have some design stuff to get out of my system. It’s no big deal.”

Chelo eyed him. Heather watched the exchange closely.

“Okay…” Chelo drew out, skeptical. 

+

James set out directly after work, armed with an exhaustive list of supplies. After years of amateur robotics supply hunting, he knew exactly what kinds of places sold what he needed, no matter what side of the country he was on. He had already ordered with express shipping those supplies he couldn’t get without permission. He was grateful to Richard for approving these requests without comment.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, resolute.

One month. That was his goal.

+

CHAPTER FOURTEEN—NEURAL NETWORK

Although miniaturizing the prototype initially lowered the costs of supplies, it didn’t compensate for James’ impatience. Next-day shipping rates were a necessary evil.

James finished acquiring his supplies as early as possible Saturday morning, and then transported what he had collected to Larkspur. The security guards seemed surprised at the sight of him, clad in a t-shirt and jeans, a plastic container of 3D printer filaments and a bursting notebook under one arm, and four canvas bags heavily weighing down the other.

“Do you—want help with some of that?” one of them tried, standing up from the desk as James somehow managed to get through the door unaided.

“No, I’m great, thanks Alder,” James said, treading carefully across the lobby to the nearest lab entrance, where he managed to balance everything enough to slide his card and pull the door open. 

James planted his supplies on the nearest counter, separated his notebook from the pile, and headed back out to his car for another load.

On his second and last trip through, he caught the guards watching him. “I’ve arranged some additional supplies to arrive here today,” he said. “Could you keep a lookout and let them through? And if you could call me when they arrive, that’d be great.”

“Yeah, sure,” Alder replied. “No problem. Are you getting a head start on a project?”
But James had already disappeared into the lab, carrying his supplies to a shadowy corner of the supply room.

He worked all day and late into the night, returning early the next morning for another full day in the lab.

+

Heather wandered along the outskirts of the backyard in the summer heat, gazing up at the tall pine trees lining its edge. She was just beginning to consider building a treehouse in one of them, trying to resign herself to the abyss of unbroken free time she faced for the rest of the summer now that she couldn’t justify any more visits to Larkspur.

She realized her dad was calling her. As soon as she stepped through the sliding glass door into the kitchen, Richard handed her his cellphone.

“It’s Eve,” he said.

She gave him an inquisitive look as she took the phone and put it up to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hi, Heather,” Eve said. “How did you like visiting Larkspur this week?”

“I loved it.” She paced to the edge of the kitchen, aware of both her parents’ hushed expectation. Butterflies stirred in her stomach. “Thanks for letting me do that. It was great.”

“I’m glad. It’s been a pleasure to have you at the facility. I wanted to ask you what you think about us taking on a new intern?”

“A new intern?” Heather raised an eyebrow at her father, who smiled and readjusted his glasses.

“You. If you’re up for it.” Before Heather could respond, she continued, “Your dad and I have been thinking. I know you’ve only been at the lab for a few days, but we like having you around, and you seem really interested in learning. So, care to see how the summer goes with us nerds?”

An incredulous smile lit up her face. “I would love that! All summer?” 

“All summer. You can start Monday if you like, sign some forms, make it official.”

“Okay.” She wished she had a more intelligent reply than that.

“All right, then. See you tomorrow.”

“Thank you so much.”

The phone slumped from Heather’s ear as she gaped at her parents. “Intern?

Richard nodded, grinning. “What do you think?”

She beamed at her parents. “I can’t believe it.” 

Intern. At Larkspur. She’d made it in.

“Too bad I can’t put this on my college resume,” she said, half joking.

“Who knows, a lot can happen in three years,” Richard said. “Maybe by that time, it won’t be a problem.”

“You mean Larkspur’s going to come out of hiding?”

“We hope so,” Richard said. “We’ll certainly be working on it, though it’s somewhat precarious. You’re the first step in that.”

Heather smiled. Finally, she had a role in her parents’ secret world.

And her involvement could make a difference.

+

Heather arrived at the facility practically vibrating with anticipation. James was happy for her. He hoped she enjoyed spending more time at the facility.

He remembered his first day at Larkspur, learning of the their interest in him and being offered a place in their engineering paradise. His heart had nearly exploded while riding down the elevator with Richard and watching the brightly lit corridor open before him for the first time.

He missed the old facility, as well as the days he had spent inside it, pursuing his goals relatively unhindered. As always, he’d had to use some discretion for which projects he merely tinkered with and those he chose to submit a formal proposal for. But he hadn’t minded much.

He had thought only of work, release from his doctoral studies and social insecurities. Escape from his parents.

But in the last few weeks, something had shifted. This blasted turn in his father’s health blocked him from settling back down. His project chafed constantly at the edges of his attention. No amount of effort was enough.

James skipped lunch to work on it. Alone in the lab downstairs, the components of the device steadily continued to take shape under his careful but impatient hands. Through the oblivion of focused concentration, he barely noticed the subtle change in atmosphere. The feeling of being watched.

He looked up and startled. Heather stood in the doorway.

He readjusted his grip on the soldering iron and returned his turbid attention to the metal chip snaked with wires. “Shouldn’t you be upstairs?”

She shrugged. He caught the movement in his peripheral vision as she neared him. “I finished eating. What about you? Skipping lunch?”

“I’m not hungry,” he muttered.

She paused. “Are you okay?”

Yes. Why do you all keep asking me that? I’m fine. Everything’s fine. ”

She fidgeted. “Sorry. I won’t ask anymore if it bothers you.”

Good.

She didn’t say anything for a long while. James willed her to leave him be, but she wasn’t a telepath. She remained on the other side of the counter.

“Does your dad know you’re down here?” he said finally.

“Yes.” After watching him for a moment, she said, “Do you ever get tired of that?”
“Of what?” He gathered up the pieces and moved toward the equipment room.

Heather followed him. “Soldering—staring so intensely at everything all day.”

“Never.” He deposited the chips on the computer counter near the machine he had used for the voice simulator’s finer mechanics. After taking one of the chips to the machine, he returned to the computer, consulting his open notebook.

“Even if you did it for months straight?” Heather craned her neck to see the pages. He shifted the notebook away from her without looking up.

“Never,” he said again, flatly. “Do you ever get tired of breathing?”
Heather smirked, crossing her arms. “Yes, in fact I do.”

He cracked a wan, tired smile of his own, glancing up at the computer and back down, entering parameters.

Heather took one of the chips in her fingers to examine it. The light shifted and reflected on the copper and silver wires in its smooth base. “Is this part of the android?” 

“No. Don’t touch, please.”

She replaced it. “What is it, then?” 

He deliberated for a moment. “Secret.”

Heather considered the machine ahead as it eased to life under James’ direction. “Why is it a secret?”

“It’s just personal,” James said. Internship didn’t give her access to everything.

“Does my dad know what it is?”

James closed his notebook. “You sure ask a lot of questions.” 

The subject matter of his project already worried him, and he didn’t need the doubts of even one more person to help compound it. He didn’t need her unsure about him too.

Her face flushed. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he said, shame rising in his throat. “Don’t worry about it.”

He tried to think of something to reverse the atmosphere he had created between them, but nothing came to mind. He was too frustrated, too embarrassed. It was never his goal to alienate her.

James glanced at his watch. “The others will be down soon. I should switch gears.” He still had ample time, but any attempts to get much else completed that afternoon was pointless. He couldn’t work with Heather spying over his shoulder, and he didn’t have the heart to outright tell her to go away.

“Want help cleaning up?”

He considered her hopeful face. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks.” The chips fit in one hand, each of the remaining four being about half the length of his palm. The chip being processed would finish soon and he could attend to it then.

As soon as the door to the stockroom closed behind him, James allowed himself an exasperated sigh.

+

It was three in the morning before James left the facility. Building the neural network proved much more intricate and time consuming than he had hoped, and he had a headache from straining his eyes for so long, but he was almost satisfied with the structure. The next chance he had to work on it, he’d be able to finish and start programming.

+

Heather quickly integrated herself into the events of the lab. She wasn’t yet allowed to work on anything big, but Eve let her try a small amount of soldering as she put together the android’s extremities, teaching her how to hold the iron and apply a steady pressure. She never seemed to tire of watching them work, and she enthusiastically kept herself on hand to assist whenever needed. The life of an intern suited her well.

After their disagreement earlier that week, she was careful to keep out of James’ way, but she didn’t keep her distance. She gravitated to him more often than to the other engineers. He suspected it had to do with them being closest in age, or their meeting outside of Larkspur, because it was unlikely she just enjoyed his company. He talked little and focused totally on his work. He didn’t think himself interesting or fun to talk to, and he kept letting surly comments slip if she asked too many questions.

Still, she regularly returned to see what he was up to.

By Thursday, James was struggling to program the neural network to handle limitless accommodation. He needed to rework it yet again, but he was on the clock. That afternoon, he finished programming the voice simulator, and showed Heather how it worked. He had to teach the intern something, at least.

He let her play with it for a while, changing the frequency and typing phrases for the simulator to put voice to. She took to it instantly, and soon, strange voices murmured from the device connected to James’ laptop on one of the chrome islands. She turned up the volume. 

He found himself conversing with her through it.

“What are you working on right now?” a high-pitched voice warbled from behind him.

“I’m helping Addie,” he humored her. Heather’s rampant curiosity irked him at times, but she usually meant well. She was a good kid, and bright too. He held nothing against her.

“I know. I’m watching you,” the voice simulator growled.

Addie, working beside him, cracked a smile.

“If you knew, why did you ask?” James said.

“I see everythiinngg,” it started low, but as the word extended, the pitch increased exponentially so that it turned into a twisted sort of question.

“Gross,” James said.

“Rude,” the pitch dipped back down into the high end of a male voice range. “Keep talking.”

“Why? What do you want me to say?”

“Anything,” the pitch descended a few hertz further.

James worked with minute tweezers and a fine-tipped soldering iron, attaching blue, scale-like pieces to a small, curved ellipse. His shoulders ached from prolonged tension. Building the irises was very precise, and horribly tedious. Addie didn’t fidget as much as he did. Why couldn’t they just get the computer to do this?

“I know where this is going, Heather,” he muttered.

He heard a close electronic replica of his voice drone behind him, “I know where this is going, Heather.” She made slight adjustments to the pitch as it talked.

Addie chuckled. “She’s plotting to replace you, James.”

“She would never do that,” after a quick spurt of typing, the voice simulator replied for him.

James twisted around to face the intern. Staring at him, shoulders erect, Heather’s fingers flew across the keyboard without evident direction and she pressed the enter key. James’ eyes widened.

The voice simulator belted a seizure of raucous sounds as it attempted to make literal sense of the chaos she had told it to articulate—in James’ voice.

He hunched his shoulders, thoroughly horrified.

As the ugly sequence went on, Heather and Addie burst into peals of laughter and James lifted his hands to his reddening face.

“Sorry, James,” Heather laughed when it finally ended. She tucked her hair behind an ear. “I’m done.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” James turned back around. “Why don’t you go target Greg now?”

Heather scoffed and readjusted her perch atop the lab stool. “Call him in here and get him talking, and your wish is my command.”

Addie tilted her colleague a wry smile. James rubbed a hand across his mouth, allowing himself a scoff.

+

Two weeks after Yeun extracted stem cells from Erika’s bone marrow, the next phase was underway.

She lay on a supinated hospital bed in fetal position, her back exposed and cold from liquid antiseptic. Yeun’s gloved fingers felt for the crest of her pelvis on the left side, identifying landmarks to hone in on the point of entry among her lumbar vertebrae. After a series of injections, the whole area was numb, but she could still feel the pressure.

She tried to stay still, staring at the thin, capped tube of the cannula in her arm, waiting to be hooked up for injection as soon as the other cannula was installed. Transparent bags of solution waited on an IV pole, looming behind them.

“Have you done this before?” she asked quietly. 

“Yes,” Yeun said. She heard a soft metallic sound as he took the needle off a nearby tray. “Hold still. This will be over in a few seconds.” 

He gently counted down from three, and Erika felt a burst of pressure in her lower back as he pushed in the needle. She tried to breathe, though coldness prickled at her temples. Now the unnecessary stem cell therapy could begin. 

As the Empetrum scientist taped up the cannula to keep it in place, the desire to attempt violent escape rose. She had watched and waited for two weeks, but no opening had presented itself. From her cell, she hadn’t been able to learn much about anything, not the guard rotations or even Yeun’s opinion on the director or his workplace. He had been somewhat scarce as he busily cultured her cells elsewhere.

Now, he was going to start trying to alter her genetic code somehow. And she was lying there letting him.

“After this,” she spoke up, “may I at least call my family, to tell them I’m okay?”

Yeun pulled the IV setup closer to the bed. He was quiet as he connected it with the tube in her spine. “I’ll see what I can do. Here, you can roll over onto your back. But be careful.”

He helped steady her as she complied.

“You mean that’s something you’ll consider?” Erika asked.

“Yes.” Yeun prepared to connect the other IV to the cannula in her arm. “We can do it safely, if you earn it.”

“Haven’t I earned it?” Erika said. She watched the fluid from the IV bags approach, and a spike of fear seized her throat. “I’m letting you do this right now.”

“It’s still too early,” Yeun said, watching her closely. “We’ve barely begun the first treatment. Rewards are something I think we should wait until treatment number four at least, don’t you think?”

“Once I’m too far to go back, you mean.” 

“Once we have more of an understanding,” he said. “I would like to make this worth your while, even though you came to us under questionable circumstances.”

“So I’m being punished…” Erika watched the fluid enter her system. Her head hurt.

“I believe much more in positive reinforcement.” He removed his gloves, pulled out a cellphone, and sent a short text. “We’re both adults here.”

A long silence ensued, during which a guard came in with two cups of coffee. Yeun offered her one.

At Erika’s venomous look, he said, “It helps keep with the headache after the spinal tap.”

After some hesitation, she accepted it, and Yeun sat back in a chair with his own cup to monitor the treatment session.

“So…” Erika said finally, wearily. “How long will it take to get to treatment number four?”

“A week from today,” Yeun said. He looked at her. “Do we have a deal, then?”

Erika stared into her coffee, pain blooming in her chest. Survive, she told herself. Just try to survive

“Yes,” she said. “We do.”

+

By late Friday night, James had torn apart the old prototype of the neural network and constructed and programmed a completely new one. Its original data capacity sat at one gigabyte, which would be all too easy to max out.

That was, of course, the point.

Stifling a yawn, he plugged the small, segmented device marbled with wiring into his computer with a modified sync cord. He watched with a prick of relief as the network’s program materialized on the desktop. A promising start, at least.

When he clicked on the icon, a window came up and partitioned into a variety of different areas simulating the memory centers of the brain. Each compartment had a short capacity bar at its core. He located his prolific documents folder, highlighted everything, and pulled it all over into the window.

Then he waited.

The transfer lagged a bit, but the capacity bars of a couple centers began to fill. Then it froze, immobilizing the rest of his computer screen.

He waited in breathless silence, staring at the immobile pixels. When minutes passed and nothing else happened, he groaned and hunched forward, resting his forehead against the counter.

Another failure.

And this was only a part of the interlacing network of programs needed for the project. His fruitlessness with this component stalled the entire project until the program could be straightened out.

After all that time spent studying the brain and its electrical processes, all the feverish planning of how to convert it to an electrical model, he thought he had finally figured it out. The nagging fear welled up stronger than ever: What if he worked to the end of his strength and sanity and still ran out of time?

James stared at the floor, the counter cold against his forehead. His brow furrowed, and he closed his eyes.

I’m really proud of you. His father’s words haunted him. To be James was to live under an unbearable weight, and those words had only increased it.

James would never know peace at this rate.

He could have fallen asleep slumped over the counter, utter exhaustion imminent, but then his computer beeped. James lifted his face, squinting at the bright light of the screen for a moment before his gaze fell on the capacity bars.

Sixteen gigabytes of free space existed wherever a transfer had been made.

“Transfer complete…” he read slowly, hardly believing his own voice. As the full meaning of the words took hold, he leapt into activity with mouth agape, dumping whatever else he could onto the device. Each round of information transfer occurred a little more quickly than the last, and the device accepted all of it, each time reporting more and more available space. He sifted through the device’s archives, finding it had correctly sorted the various types of information into the appropriate memory centers.

He stood up and turned from the computer, both hands flying to his head in incredulity.

“It works,” he laughed to the dim, empty lab. “It works!”

+

CHAPTERS 9-11

CHAPTER NINE—TWO WORDS 

“Your midterm grades should have come out by now. Why haven’t we received them?”

James opened the door to his residence hall. Regardless of his already impressive credit count, the university refused to let him upgrade his living arrangements because he was still a minor.

He halted in the stairwell. “Because I asked registrar not to release them to you.”

“Why?”

“Because I just want it that way. Relax, I’ll show you the numbers at the end of the year.”

“You can’t do that.”

“But I did, Dad,” James said. “My grades are fine. I’m trying to take accountability for myself. I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Your performance will slip without oversight.”

“That’s what I have professors for.”

“Is the registrar office still open?”

“Dad, I won’t slip.”

“You need to go straight over there and change this.”

James steeled himself. “No. I want it this way.”

“If you remove your mother and I from your academics, we’ll withdraw your financial support. Good luck getting loans at your age.”
James stiffened. “You wouldn’t do that!” Another student came down the stairwell and James avoided his gaze. James started up the stairs, readjusting his grip on his phone.“Dad, you can’t do that.”

“I’m heading out to the bank right now.”

“I’ll get another job, then!” 

“With your major?”
“I can do it.” He was already tutoring ten hours a week, but that wasn’t enough to fully support himself.

“You’re willing to compromise the quality of your education for an upstart bit of pride? You’ll exhaust yourself. You won’t go to graduate school like we’d all hoped, and you’ll be forced into a menial line of work and waste your talents for years at best.”

“That won’t happen.” James said, his conviction forced.

James thought he heard the sound of the elevator of the apartment building where his parents lived, and he froze just as he entered the hallway of his own residential floor.

“It’ll be a nice load off our shoulders, I guess,” Jonathan sighed. James couldn’t speak. In that moment, wary dislike of his father gave way to full blown hatred.

“Last chance, James.”

“Fine!” James spun around and tore the door open again. His voice cracked, “I’ll go down there. You win.”

+++

Erika didn’t sleep most of the night. Morning came and the dimmed artificial lights of her cell brightened to normal strength. She watched the clock, hungry, bored, and cross. 

A meal never arrived. 

She was beginning to consider figuring out how to summon Yeun when guards arrived and took her down the hall to some kind of examination room. The guard told her to sit down on the examination table, so she did. The door closed and he positioned himself in front of it, arms folded across his chest, waiting.

The silence was deafening. She’d been drowning in silence since she got here.

Finally, Yeun arrived, slipping into the room with a quiet greeting.

“Got a busy day for you,” he said. “Ready to extract some stem cells.” 

Erika stared at the floor, her brow tight. “For what?” 

“For culturing,” he said.

“Why?” 

He opened up the cabinet under a small sink in the corner, pulling out a hospital gown and a shower cap, both a depressing shade of light blue. He placed them on the counter. “Change into these. It’s a simple bone marrow extraction. We’ll put you under, and have you in and out before you know it.” 

Erika looked up at him. He was already on his way out.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” he said. He beckoned to the guard to follow, and they left Erika alone. 

Her attention went immediately to the sink, wondering if it held anything of use, knowing he wouldn’t have left her unsupervised if that were the case. She glanced up at the security camera in the ceiling.

What would she have found that would have been useful enough, anyway? A scalpel? Empetrum guards had tranquilizers. She’d seen enough guards in the last few days to start recognizing the rectangular infuser strapped to the back of their belts, near the handgun. 

Maybe Yeun was testing her. Better to keep playing along for now. Either way, she didn’t want to go under anesthesia right after making Yeun angry.

She still had time.

Slowly, she stood up, wrinkled her nose at the gown and shower cap, and turned her back on the camera to get dressed.

+

James’ cell phone buzzed fitfully from the coffee table.

Grudgingly, he extricated himself from a sea of open moving boxes and picked his way across the apartment to access the device. He froze when he read the caller ID.

“What do you want?” he muttered. He stared at the screen until the vibrating ceased.

If they really wanted to make contact, they could leave a message. They could communicate on his terms.

His phone began to vibrate again, and again the familiar name and number glared from the screen.

He groaned, tapped the answer button and brought it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello, James?” a woman’s voice sounded formally from the other line.

“Yes.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes it has.”

“How have you been?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Everything’s good.”

“Your father and I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”

There was a reason for that. “Yeah, I’ve been busy with work.”

“Oh yes, your all-consuming secret occupation.”

James narrowed his eyes at the wall. Nothing had changed in a year.

She sighed. “Look, don’t worry about lining up your excuses, I just wanted to fill you in on what’s happened.”

Foreboding prickled on the back of James’ neck. “What’s happened?”

“Well, your dad hasn’t been feeling well for a while, so we went in to the doctor to check it out.” Her voice snapped, almost angry. “He has pancreatic cancer.”

James’ face went cold. “Cancer?”

“It’s not responding well to treatment,” her tone wavered slightly before she curbed it.

James swallowed, his throat dry. “How long have you known?”

“Several months.”

Several months?”he demanded. “Why on earth didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“Why did you cut us off for an entire year?” she demanded back.

James winced. He waited for the sting of her words to subside before speaking again, “That was the purpose of the delay?” They still had his cell phone number. They could have called him earlier. Why did they wait a whole year without leaving so much as a message, and then give him grief as if it was all his fault?

“No,” she admitted after a pause. “We didn’t think it worth calling your attention from the clandestine matters of your life. We were dealing with it.”

James thought he heard his father say something about leaving him alone about his job.

“I would have wanted to know immediately, Mom,” James said. “Even if you were dealing with it.”

“Could you come home?” the question came abruptly, uttered in a formal, business-like tone, as if she were requesting a report, and not something much greater. “Just to visit?” This was as close to pleading as she came.

“No, I—I can’t right now,” James struggled. He sat down on the floor. “My job just relocated me and I’ve only just arrived. There’s still a lot of work to be done. I don’t know if I can step away right now…”

“When you can, then. Soon?”

“Yeah, but we’ll have to see. Sorry, Mom.” He was technically much closer than he had been for the last year. But he had only just escaped from his domineering parents. He didn’t know if he could bring himself to come back. Even for this.

“Do you want to talk to your father?”

James opened his mouth to refuse, but thought better of it. Talking to his father only brought trouble—but it could be the last time he heard his voice. If James had any sort of heart, he could tolerate it, at least.

“Yes,” he said finally, bracing himself for the worst.

“Okay,” came the soft reply. The phone switched hands.

“Hello, James,” Jonathan Siles’ voice, normally crisp and direct, sounded haggard.

“Hi, Dad,” James said quietly. “How are you holding up?”

“Fine. Don’t worry about me, okay? I want you to concentrate on your work. You’ve worked hard for this, and I don’t want to get in the way.” He paused. “I know you usually refuse to talk about it, but are you happy there?”

“Yes.” James fidgeted. “I am.”

“Good. So, James—” his father hesitated, as if the words he was about to utter pained him. “I don’t know how much longer I have, so I think it’s appropriate to tell you now. All this time in the hospital has given me time to reflect. To, um, to come to terms with some things.” Again, he faltered. Very unlike him. “And I just want to get this off my chest. I wished you could have been here these harrowing months. I know I’m to blame for your absence.”

They should have called earlier.

“I just wanted the best for you. I went too far. I’m sorry.”

James’ eyes widened. An apology? Jonathan Siles was apologizing?

“I admit it was tough—” James said uncertainly. “But the challenge was good for me.”

James surprised himself for defending what his parents had put him through, but he couldn’t suppress the compulsion as he fought to make sense of what had just met his ears. His father always had a highly practical reason for everything. Yes, maybe he was apologizing, but not just from the goodness of his heart. This was a goodbye. 

“I drove you away,” his father said. “This distance between us is my fault. I’ve understood this for a long time, but I was too proud to admit it. Or to do anything about it. I’m so sorry, James.” His voice wavered, and James felt his body begin to tremble. “Don’t feel obligated to let me back into your life. I just wanted to let you know I finally understand.”

“Jonathan,” James heard his mother say. “You don’t mean that.”

James swallowed with difficulty. “That means a lot to me, Dad,” he managed, hoarsely.

“So, like I said, don’t worry about me,” Jonathan went on, resolute. “Work hard instead, as you always have—as we taught you to.”

“Only if you pull through this,” James said. “Don’t go passing away before I can get there, okay?” This would not be a goodbye. Not if James could help it.

“I can’t make any promises…” 

“How long do the doctors think?”

“Six months maybe.”

“I see.”

Silence closed in on both lines. James couldn’t bring himself to say anything else. A single phone call couldn’t wipe away the scars, but his parents’ impossible stubbornness had been breached. There might finally be hope of repair.

But he might not have the opportunity with his father.

“Well…I guess that’s all. I should let you go now,” Jonathan said finally.

“Okay,” James said, his voice very quiet. “Take care, Dad.”

“Take care. I’m really proud of you.”

“Thanks.” James had always ached to hear his father say that. Growing up, everything James did was to earn his parents’ approval. And here his father had uttered it. That phrase. Finally. The supposed culmination of everything James had ever strived for, the highest honor he could ever earn. And James should have been happy, relieved.

But he felt cold, thwarted, void. Like the bar had simply been lowered because time had run out.

James let his father hang up, then slowly returned his cellphone to the table. He got to his feet. 

James had finally managed to smother the past in his work. He’d started to think he wouldn’t have to worry about his parents anymore. He hadn’t considered what would happen if he actually lost them. He had foolishly assumed everything would hold true until he was ready to return on his own terms, measured in decades rather than months.

He raked a shaking hand through his hair as he began to pace.

And it had only been a year. James just wanted to explore life separate from his frigid, controlling parents, but his father had found a way to get back to him in a way James couldn’t ignore. Of course, his father’s cancer wasn’t a ploy to regain influence over his life, but it certainly felt plausible.

Time limit or not, James wasn’t prepared to associate with them. If he tried now, he would make matters worse. But he couldn’t bear to lose the chance.

He felt sick. There had to be something he could do, but he was an engineer, not an oncologist.

And six months was only an estimate.

With a growl of exasperation, James leaned his forehead against the wall.

It was impossible, but he couldn’t accept impossible. That’s what his parents had drilled into him. Brilliance wasn’t allowed to be at a loss. He just had to think. Identify the problem and string together a solution with the options at hand. It had always worked for him in the past.

The issue: His father was dying—or rather, his father’s body was dying.

So, then the objective would be to slow it down or reverse it. Keep it from dying. Keep Jonathan from leaving.

He tapped his forehead a few times on the wall, scanning through his knowledge of anything remotely useful. He paused and straightened up as his search suddenly landed on an idea. He skirted the wall to his office, grabbing a stray piece of printer paper from the mass on his desk. With the first writing utensil his hand contacted, he began a crude diagram, more of the concept than how it would actually work.

What if he could get his father out of the failing body, into one that wasn’t dying? A sloppy fix, James supposed, but sturdy.

Full body replacement was simply a step up from prosthetics. He didn’t know if an organic-to-mechanical swap was even possible. He would have to do quite a bit of research to gauge its feasibility, but in his mind, it was more a matter of how.

It helped to have an extensive background in the biological sciences at his disposal. How appropriate that Jonathan Siles’ incessant focus on neuroscience in James’ studies would one day save his life. James would have laughed at the irony, if he didn’t have such a lump in his throat.

James would show his father he deserved his acceptance. Not because Jonathan was dying, but because James would prove once and for all that he had lived up to everything his parents had obsessively pushed him to be. Objectively. Undeniably. He could simultaneously save a life and change the world.

In fervent inspiration, James scrawled two words over the disjointed sketches:

Organorobotic Transference.

+

CHAPTER TEN—REBOOT

A towering fence herded the original Larkspur facility into a restricted unit. Despite the barrier plastered with forbidding signs, the construct beyond seemed friendly enough.

The cracked asphalt of the parking lot stood mostly empty, its generous size in stark contrast with James’ memory of the modest slab of concrete and steel barn that had graced the former facility. As he parked in a space along the front of the weathered building next to Richard’s car, an unexpected wave of nerves cramped in his stomach.

It was eerie, to have returned to Larkspur’s birthplace. As James got out of his car, contemplating the front entrance stripped of all identification, it felt as if the building itself had tried to forget.

But it was mainly anxiety of a different source that held a tight rein on the edges of his mind. The majority of his attention clung to organorobotic transference, and he had devoted every spare moment to research since conceiving the idea. But while he had dug up a huge volume of data in the last thirty-six hours, he still hadn’t managed to piece together anything decisive, and having to go back to Larkspur and set up the lab felt like so much wasted time.

Even though it wasn’t, he knew. He had already fried his brain many times over reading mountains of peer reviewed material and planning how to move his newest preoccupation forward. Maybe the busywork would be good for him.

The air conditioning gusted him with icy air as he stepped into the lobby. He lingered by the door, letting his gaze wander. Across the room, Addie and Chelo chatted with the security guards as they received their badges. A wide staircase at the right side of the lobby led up to a partially open second level, and wide paneled windows stretched across the whole front of the building. A wan, impressed smile tugged at the edge of his mouth. It would be nice to be above ground.

“Morning Jim!” An arm seized his head, and James uttered a surprised squawk. 

“Morning, Greg,” James grunted, attempting to pry him off with one hand. The other, he hoped, wasn’t spilling his coffee. Greg’s arm held fast, unyielding as a spring clamp.

A door opened across the lobby. “Good morning!” Eve’s cheerful voice boomed. Richard walked beside the former director, coming from the lab beyond. “I feel like I haven’t seen you people in ages. How are you all? Settling in well?”

“Yes ma’am,” Greg beamed. He finally released his squirming colleague. “I’m so ready to start building stuff again.”

“Seconded,” James muttered, attempting to smooth down what forever looked like bedhead, which Greg’s antics had only exacerbated.

“Oh stop, it doesn’t look that different,” Greg said. James shot him a look.

Richard cleared his throat, “I’d like to start today with a short meeting to discuss a few changes to security protocols, but after that, it’s up to you. Today, the main objective is setup, doing whatever we need to do to get ready to start work tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds great,” Chelo said.

“Good.” Richard surveyed his colleagues, relieved to see them in high spirits. “Let’s get to work.”

+

The engineers spent the majority of the morning exploring the labs, taking inventory, setting up their offices on the top floor, and calibrating the equipment downstairs.

As Richard and Eve systematically imported the digital information from the Bureau’s database onto the computer in the director’s office, Richard asked, “What was Larkspur like before it went underground?”

He adjusted the status bar on the computer screen and reached for his phone, only to realize he had just checked it. Perhaps this wasn’t a conversation he should have started.

But Heather would kill him if he failed to say anything.

“Busy.” Across the room, Eve opened one of several boxes and pulled out hardcovers to populate the bookcase. “There were more of us, covering a wider field of expertise, and the general public could schedule appointments to come visit and see what we were up to.” She breathed a soft sigh. “It was really lively. I wish you could have seen it. You’d have enjoyed it.”

Larkspur had already been operating underground for nearly a decade by the time Richard had entered the scene. Eve had disclosed the basics of what had happened, but not much else. What the other co-founder had done wasn’t relevant after all that time, she had said, and Richard hadn’t thought it appropriate to pry.

“Do you think there’s a chance we can get back to that someday?” Richard asked.

“Maybe.” Eve mused. “My original vision for starting Larkspur was half research, half education.” She paused, staring intently at the book in her hands. “But it just wasn’t meant to be, perhaps.” She pushed the book into place and grabbed another one from the box. “I get fulfillment in that other half elsewhere, Richard. It’s been twenty years.”

Eve had once been the director, but after passing it off to Richard, she split her time back east between Larkspur and the local university in Dunesborough as an adjunct professor. She was over retirement age, but she liked to keep busy.

“Still, I’ve been thinking,” Richard said. “What if we took this opportunity to move toward that direction, as Dhar mentioned?”

Eve hesitated. She stood up with a soft grunt. “I don’t know, Rich. It would be our last chance. If we try it and it doesn’t go well—” She faltered. “There’d be no way to take it back. In light of current events, it might be safer to lie low a bit longer and feel things out.”

“Well, I mean we wouldn’t be launching an advertisement campaign or anything.” Richard offered a smile. “But what if we used our obligatory resurfacing to cautiously begin restoring Larkspur to its former glory?”
Eve didn’t answer.

Richard initiated another download and swiveled his chair around so he could fully face his colleague. “The other day, Heather asked me if she could visit Larkspur. What if we let her? What if her involvement could serve as a trial period?”

“Heather wants to visit?” Eve raised her eyebrows, surprised.

Richard nodded. “Very badly. She made sure I didn’t forget about it before I left this morning.”

Eve considered her friend’s words, her expression soft. 

Finally, she smiled, apprehensively, but it was a smile nonetheless. “Why not?”

+

James brought a thick notebook to the lamplight.

He booted up his desktop computer and accessed the extensive list of online academic databases he had subscriptions to, gearing up for another full night of research and planning.

How could he safely transfer the entire essence of a human being into a different body?

The physical aspect of emotions, memories, and personality resided in the brain. Perhaps he could transform these physical signaling networks into electrical ones, which could then be downloaded into a highly specialized mainframe.

But it wasn’t enough to transfer just the physical.

James flipped to pages he had filled on previous research binges, reviewing what he had gathered and where it had left him.

Where did the spirit reside? Many scientists said it didn’t exist, but its potential could be the deciding factor on whether or not the project could continue. Without every element accounted for—even only a potential element—the transfer would produce nothing more than a copy of the transferee’s identity, and that wasn’t good enough.

It had to be a transplant, not a clone.

James’ father would be irked to learn he was exploring the abstract. Both their cores were rooted in science. Reality was systematic, observable, measurable. If a phenomenon couldn’t be proved by factual evidence, it didn’t exist, or science had yet to advance far enough to offer an explanation. James believed the latter about the supernatural. The science was still in its infancy, but existing empirical data suggested the paranormal had something to do with electromagnetic energy or string theory.

It mattered to him to guarantee that, after the transfer, the consciousness supported by the mechanical replacement was, indeed, his father in body, soul, and spirit.

As yet another night grew long, James burned through pages of information, skimming abstracts before consuming many of the scientific journal articles in more detail, picking through e-books and pilfering their sources. He made notes on whatever seemed interesting, and the integrity level of each study.

The spirit remained within a body as long as the body was alive and functional. Doctors frequently brought people back from death in the emergency room. It only required timely repair or re-stimulation of the failed biological component. 

If the artificial cognitive network closely resembled the organic one, and had a powerful electromagnetic snare, perhaps the metaphysical components could be tricked to accept and integrate with the mechanical body.

Then the question would be where to tether the snare. Was the essential life force restricted to a specific area? The only region James could think of was the brain, whose functionality afforded consciousness, connecting an individual to the rest of the world.

But the whole body was innervated. And every cell possessed a form of life.

He turned his gaze to his hand. Pensively, he closed it into a tight fist, concentrating on the sensation of his muscles straining and contracting before opening it again. Staggering in number, each alive itself, but all somehow linked to form cohesive, cooperative tissues, as if they weren’t really individual at all. Did he need to extract the life from each cell, or could he safely focus on the nervous system alone?

He sighed, resting his head in his hands, his brain muddled from lack of sleep and too much conjecture. He wondered if this would ever make it beyond a mere philosophical exercise.

What if cells had an innate identity, enabling the acceptance of the metaphysical entities, and were moveable across organic hosts like in organ transplants, but not mechanical ones? Would he have to incorporate an organic component to the new body so those elements he wanted to preserve would accept it?

He narrowed his eyes at the screen, greatly disliking the idea of organic transplant. Sustainably preserving functional organic tissue inside an artificial container would be messy. James had a decent amount of experience handling brains and nervous tissue, thanks to his father’s insistence on familiarizing him with his profession. He wanted nothing to do with it.

He straightened up, stretching his shoulders. His back popped, hunched over his desk for too long.

Ideally, organorobotic transference would have to be a clean process, even with an organic body left behind. Mass was itself a form of energy. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle, even a small particle of matter equated to a large amount of energy, as Larkspur had begun successfully employing with their suspended generator protoype.

A slow smile crept over his face as he leaned forward again and began a diagram, jotting down a few equations he knew off the top of his head that might provide a feasible route toward a miniaturized version. The mass of the failed organic body could be converted to energy and used to power the new mechanical one. If that was true, then the individual would likely never have to recharge. That much energy would last an eternity.

That was, assuming he could design a portable device that could support such overwhelming power, which was a challenge more suited to his expertise. Perhaps a blend of the generator and the energy core for the A.I. project in development at Larkspur could provide a viable solution. He scribbled a note in the corner of the page to review Richard and Greg’s work on that front. At the moment, he and his colleagues were planning something more rechargeable with a focus on longevity, but perhaps he could tweak the design.

Information accommodation was a hurdle as well. The new neural container would have to be able to mimic the capacity of the human brain. The organic brain could make an unlimited amount of new connections and shortcuts and reroutes, operating in chemical gradients and electrical impulses. Reproducing it mechanically came with high risk of processing overload. Perhaps photonics was the way forward there.

As the night marched on toward morning, he browsed the online research databases for modern developments in mechanical and electrical engineering. He located some promising articles about memory function, networking programs, and artificial intelligence. The articles added to the ever-growing collection on his computer.

James hardly noticed as the rising sun slowly diluted the darkness from the sky. He pushed the keyboard aside and spread out his notes, setting to work consolidating the main points and their supporting information. After a week of obsessive sleep deprivation, he was finally getting somewhere. He had yet to straighten out a few hitches in the project, but he had enough information for a proposal, at least. He couldn’t wait any longer.

He lifted the page with the abstract up in front of his face and turned so that the cool light of the early sunrise glowed behind it. Relief and inspiration washed through him as he lay the page down, stood up from his desk, and crossed the room to the window. 

He ran a hand over his tired eyes and smiled down at the busying street below. He’d get a power nap in before work, and then he’d pitch the idea to Richard as soon as he arrived at the facility.

Whatever it took, James resolved to make impossibility reality. And if medical science failed and Jonathan wasn’t willing to accept premature death, his son would be ready with a revolutionary failsafe.

+

CHAPTER ELEVEN—PITCH  

James was wired when he arrived at the facility early, pulling up to the building shortly after Richard.

Heather ventured a polite wave as James got out of his car, and he lifted a hand in return, recalling the brief meeting the day before for the purpose of sanctioning Heather’s visit. He hoped she enjoyed herself, but stayed enough out of his way.

They weren’t in an airplane anymore. James had work to do. 

“Good morning, James.” Richard smiled as he shouldered his bag. “You’re here early.”

“Restless night,” James said was he held the door open for the director and his daughter.

He wished he could present his project immediately, idly insert it into conversation instead of making a frontal assault. The urgency sat like a weight in his chest, but he proposed to tamper with things people typically left alone. He couldn’t take any step in this process lightly.

Not to mention, he wasn’t sure where Richard stood on the subject.

Heather was the embodiment of enthusiasm as her awed gaze swept over the lobby. Her attention landed on the stairs. “Are your offices up there?”

“Yes,” Richard replied. Heather walked with such a spring in her step that James expected her to twirl a few times on her way to the staircase. Richard glanced at him and smiled, a tender, fatherly expression James had seen hints of before, but never with such clarity on the director’s face. 

Richard admired his daughter. For her curiosity and excitement. For learning and exploring. For existing.

James readjusted his grip on his briefcase.

Heather started up the stairs. “Can I make coffee?”

“Sure.” Richard smiled. “Thanks, Heather. Everything should be upstairs to the right.”

At the top of the stairs, she swung around the railing and made for the counter at the other end of the kitchenette. She spun around. “James, do you want a cup too?”

“Yeah, thanks,” James said haltingly. He would soon welcome the caffeine, if it would even help at this point of exhaustion. “Hey, Richard? Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course.” Richard strolled down the hallway, opening his office door to the left. “What’s on your mind?”

James took a steadying breath as he closed the door behind them and ventured toward Richard’s desk. The director’s belongings only sparsely decorated the larger, updated space. There was too much air. James felt exposed.

He set his briefcase up against the desk and pulled out the notes he had consolidated earlier that morning. “I’ve come up with an idea for a new project.”

“Another one?” Richard laid his own bag in an extra chair nearby. Picture frames fringed his desk. He dropped into his chair with an accommodating smile. “Let’s hear it.”

With a thrill of hope and nerves, James scanned the front page of his notes, deciding which angle to take. He looked up. “I think I’ve devised a potential method to save people with terminal medical conditions. It’s still somewhat theoretical right now, but it’s shaping up to be very promising.”

He handed Richard his notes.

“Something in the medical field? What is this method?” Richard asked quietly, looking over the first page. “‘Organorobotic Transference?’”

“Yes.” James’ neck hurt. He must have slept on it wrong. “I believe there’s a very plausible method of transferring a human being out of their failing body into a replacement one.”

Richard moved the top page to the back. “And this replacement would be…”

“Mechanical, of course.”

“Completely mechanical?” Richard’s careful tone failed to convey the approval James needed. “How?”
“I plan to design an electrical network that will work just like the human brain,” James spoke quickly and talked with his hands, more so than usual. “Including its ability to make unlimited connections. The network will house a program that will basically download an individual’s consciousness, so that everything will be the same as if they were in their old body, but simply in a different medium. I’ve already considered the question of whether or not the whole person could be transferred—that is, their nonphysical self as well as the physical—and I think there’s a way to do it. If the transfer could be performed quickly enough, with a mechanism to pull the electromagnetism-based spirit, and if the electrical neural network has enough of the same signatures as the original organic one, it would be just like temporary death and revival, like resuscitating a flat-lining patient. And the mass from the failing body can be converted to energy to power the replacement.” James took a sorely-needed breath.

“How do you plan to build this electrical network?” Richard said. “And how will the consciousness be transferred, exactly?”
“I haven’t quite worked everything out yet.” James idly kneaded the complaint in his neck. “Like I said, this is still in its early stages.”

“It does seem a little far-fetched,” Richard said carefully.

“I know. But I can find a way to make it work. This could really help people.”

“Have you thought about how this could be abused?”

“I suppose a few could try to use it to immortalize themselves, but anything can be used for the wrong reasons. But certainly, the benefits would outweigh the dangers.”

“If successful, technology like this would introduce a whole new facet to society, with so many possibilities for unintended consequences,” Richard said. “Could it be controlled?”

“I believe it could,” James replied. Richard was just being pessimistic. He barreled on before Richard could stop him. “But we can tackle the political questions later in development, long before societal introduction.” 

Richard studied him for a moment. “Were you hoping for this to take top priority?”

“Well no, not really,” James lied. Of course he wanted to devote all his time and attention to the project, but he needed to accept that his prior obligations with Larkspur took precedence. He had to be willing to be flexible to increase his chances. “It would be more of a personal project, and I could work on it almost exclusively in my free time, if necessary. I understand we have a lot of work here to catch up on.” He cringed inwardly.

What was he saying? With his personal deadlines, that was suicide.

A long silence followed, and James didn’t like the look on Richard’s face.

“I don’t know, James,” Richard said finally. “I’ll admit I’m not very comfortable with something like this. It seems too dangerous. Too much can go wrong…”

“I’ll work out every detail and make sure there are absolutely no problems before ever considering it for clinical trials.”

The doubt didn’t leave Richard’s soft countenance. He narrowed his eyes indecisively as he continued to flip through the papers. “We don’t really know if the nonphysical self, as you said, will transfer to the mechanical body. I don’t think you can apply logical conclusions to this, James. The supernatural is outside science’s grasp. We have no idea, no way to predict anything.”

“Which is why I’m asking you to let me pursue this, to develop and experiment, so we can have an idea. We won’t know until we try,” James insisted. “If it works, think of the benefits this could offer. It won’t have full validity until clinical trials, but for those who have no other fallback and are willing to try, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Richard exhaled slowly, considering James’ written notes. “Let’s ask Eve what she thinks about it.”

That wasn’t a no. “Okay,” James said, backing toward the door. “Thank you, Richard. I’ll check if she’s here.”

James felt sick to have to take this up with Eve, whose approval was even less likely. Still, James had to try.

Eve had arrived, but her input was startlingly negative. “James, I can’t promote this.”

Now James could panic. “But it could be invaluable to—”

“Something so drastic,” Eve cut him off. “It really doesn’t sit well with me. Nothing good can come of something like this.”

“Isn’t saving lives good?” James asked, his voice taut.

Eve was shaking her head. “Better leave things as they are this time.”
“But we’re scientists! Isn’t our whole purpose in life to make things better?” James insisted anxiously. “To not leave things as they are?”

“Yes, but we’re not looking for ways to cheat death, or to play God,” Eve struggled. She paused, collecting her thoughts. “I understand your logic, and I commend your good intentions, but I just don’t think this is possible. Pursuing it could cause a great deal of harm.”

“How so?” James brushed off the stab to his pride. A few lab rats for testing, and then some successful clinical trials. Where was the detriment? “I can make this work.” He looked at Richard for some kind of support, but Richard didn’t say anything. James wouldn’t be able to honor the director’s decision if he didn’t let him pursue this. It meant far too much.

But what was he supposed to do without resources?
“Please,” James pleaded. “At least let me try. Nothing bad will come of it. I promise.”

“It’s a little early to start up new projects, and this one sounds expensive,” Richard said, indecisive. “I want to say yes, James, but I just—I can’t comfortably allocate Larkspur resources for it.”

James fought to calm the distress rising in his chest. “What if you didn’t? What if I just used the equipment here, but used my own resources to acquire supplies? If I can make a miniaturized prototype and prove it’s perfectly safe, would you change your mind?”

Richard hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyebrows drawing together in concern. “Why the urgency?”

James froze. They wouldn’t understand. “I just thought this has the potential to do a lot of good,” he stammered. “And I wanted to get started as soon as possible.”

Richard narrowed his eyes, unconvinced. “What do you think, Eve?”

Eve sighed. “I’d prefer you forget about this, James. Concentrate on some of your other projects. But, Richard, you’re the director. It’s not my call.”

Richard turned to look out the window. Heavy silence closed in on the room as he thought it over. James fidgeted with his tie, afraid to breathe.

A knock sounded at the door, making everyone jump. Heather stuck her head in. “Hey, coffee’s ready.”

“Thanks, Heather,” Richard said, flashing a grateful half-smile.

Fortunately, Heather detected the tension and didn’t ask any questions before returning Eve’s friendly wave and closing the door.

James’ gaze shifted between them as the director continued to deliberate, and the former director waited for his verdict. Finally, Richard sighed and offered Eve an apologetic expression. “I think I’ll actually allow your proposal, James.” He faced his young colleague, who realized he had been literally holding his breath. “I won’t forbid you from pursuing it on your own time with your own resources, and I’ll even go as far as to grant you access to the equipment here at the facility. If it works as you say it will, then we’ll talk about this again.”

James didn’t dare glance Eve’s direction. “Thank you so much, Richard.” He turned to leave. “Everything will turn out all right. You have nothing to be concerned about—”

A restraining hand landed on his shoulder, surprising him. Pulling back, James twisted around and found himself staring straight through Eve’s glasses into her serious brown eyes.

“Be careful, James,” she ordered softly.

James wasn’t sure what to make of her uncharacteristically grave demeanor. He cracked an uneasy smile. “Don’t worry.”

James detached himself from his colleague as unassumingly as possible and escaped into the hallway. Leaning against the wall, he raised his face to the ceiling and closed his eyes, allowing himself a sigh of relief. His colleagues remained behind the closed door, and James didn’t care to hear what words they would exchange about him.

Out in the kitchenette, Heather handed him a mug without comment. Despite the curiosity burning in her face, she didn’t pry.

“I didn’t know how you like it,” Heather explained, retrieving a small container from the refrigerator. “Here’s some creamer if you want. Does this belong to anyone, or is it kind of fair game? I didn’t find a name on it.”
“Thanks, but it’s fine like this,” James said quietly. He didn’t usually drink his coffee black, but this morning, the bitterness seemed appropriate.

His heart still beat too hard behind his ribcage. James filled his mouth with coffee, focusing on the sharp taste. He had come so close to having to go against Richard. His colleagues didn’t like his project, but James had received permission regardless.

So he would pursue it. He would save his father if it came to that, and he would do it guiltlessly, despite their anxieties. He would show them all how possible, how necessary it was.

Heather studied his demeanor. “Does it taste okay?”

James nodded and took another draught, a thin, relieved smile brightening his features.

+