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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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?”
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.”