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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.”
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…”
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.
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.