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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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!”