“And, that’s it,” Yeun said brightly. “Last treatment done.”

Erika carefully moved from her side to her back, wincing at the soreness in her upper body.  Lately, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her shoulders were uneven somehow. It was subtle, but they felt wrong against the pillows. Yeun said there weren’t any obvious signs of deformation when she had asked.

She had also grown a little taller, she’d noticed. Her clothes were slightly shorter than she remembered. She didn’t feel at all at home in her own skin and hated the suspicion that it would only get worse from here.

He gave her a tiny plastic cup with vitamins and a glass of water.

“We’ll let things settle over the weekend, give your body a chance to produce some more stem cells naturally,” he said as she methodically put the pills in her mouth and washed them down. They took the edge off the crushing, restless fatigue. “If nothing else exciting happens, we’ll remove the cannulas on Monday and transition into phase two.”

Erika nodded. She looked forward to being free of the tubes, even though their damage had been done. After over a month of imprisonment at Empetrum, escape felt more and more like something she thought about just to pass the time.

“So that was bad, then,” she said. “What happened the other night.”

Yeun shrugged. “Neutral. A strong reaction, yes, but I ran diagnostics while you were sedated and you’re totally fine.”

Her brow furrowed. “But definitely not a normal response to stem cell therapy.”

“Your last treatment did have a little activator serum in it,” Yeun said. “To help get things going.”

“What’s activator serum?”

“A catalyst that’s unique to this and related projects.”

Erika blinked, unsatisfied. “So what is phase two?” She watched him pour her a small cup of coffee. “Or have I not earned an explanation yet?”

“I don’t want to worry you,” he replied as he doctored the drink with sugar and cream. They’d been through this enough times that somewhere along the line she had mentioned how she liked it, and he remembered without being reminded.

“That itself worries me,” she replied, accepting the coffee.

After some deliberation, he said, “I’m going to take a blood sample, then do some scans.”

“Looking for what, exactly?”

“Altered genetic sequences, and new neurological tissue,” he said, beginning to clean up his effects. He passed off the chrome coffee pot to the nearby guard.

“Yes, but for what?”

“You’re doing great, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said, smiling nicely as he took his leave. “You don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Then he was gone, and Erika leaned her head back with a exasperated groan.


Benson insisted that James come check out the Empetrum facility as soon as possible. They set up an appointment for the next evening, as soon as James could arrive after work.

The facility lay twice as far from Worthing as Larkspur, located high in the surrounding hills where overhanging trees crowded along the winding roads.

James’ nerves intensified as the terrain became increasingly rugged and he could no longer utilize his GPS. While he received surprisingly excellent cell phone coverage, the turnoff he was looking for was unmarked and uncharted—so he had to rely solely on Benson’s directions.

Finally, he made a right turn onto a narrow gravel road that swiftly disappeared into the trees. He proceeded warily, but before long, the gravel melded to pavement. Eventually, after the last bend, James spotted the first checkpoint, a chainlink fence with brick pillars and barbed wire. 

He pulled up to the security booth. A guard in a black uniform stepped up to the driver’s side window, which James rolled down to hand him his Larkspur ID. “My name is James Siles. I have an appointment with Dr. Benson.”

The man returned the badge, lifted the vehicle barrier, and waved him through. James found himself driving through another stretch of forest, occasionally spotting guards patrolling. Another, taller fence loomed up in front of him. He stopped at a sliding gate, and another guard met him at the window for verification.

Looking over his badge, the second guard said, “Continue straight, and you’ll find a parking lot around the other side of the facility.” She waved at a man in the security booth behind the fence, and with a low hum, the imposing section of fence slid over so James could drive through.

As his car skirted the rim of the concrete courtyard surrounding the building, James leaned forward over the steering wheel to look up at the facility, two stories high with tall, thin windows slashing lines of transparency in the walls, and it wasn’t the only building on campus. Others watched from behind another interior fence, the landscaping suggesting they were living areas rather than additional labs. Other patrolling guards helped wave him over to the correct parking area, and he got out, taking a moment to survey the campus, contained within the fence and the hoard of trees beyond. The air was clear and invigorating.

James ventured up to the front entrance, where a short bout of steps led to sleek double doors set into an alcove of the outer wall. A woman waited at the top of the steps, calm and formal. Her black and violet business attire, razor sharp bob and immaculate makeup gave off such an intimidating air of sophistication that James felt severely underdressed in his button down shirt and slacks.

“Good evening, Dr. Siles,” she said, extending a hand. “I’m Lynn Walker, Director Benson’s administrative assistant.”

James shook her cold hand. 

She opened one of the doors. “This way, please.”

James followed her through the entrance into a short L-shaped hallway. At the single frosted glass door at the end, she placed her index finger on a small oval scanner and the two gained entry to a wide corridor that extended in two directions. James glanced around, his gaze first finding a wall of paneled glass across the way that looked into a bright, spacious biology lab.

Walker led him to an elevator in the wall to their right, which they took to the second floor, and James suppressed the urge to linger at the window straight ahead, which afforded a balcony view of the lab below. Instead, he followed Walker to their left, down a hallway and past doors set with windows in their upper halves, around a bend, and down a stretch of unadorned corridor to a single door at the end.

M. H. Benson, Director, a panel on the door read.

Walker knocked, and James recognized the voice giving them permission to enter. 

She pushed the door wide open. “Director, James Siles is here.”
The man stood up from his desk at the far end of the room. “Thank you, Walker.”

She made a discreet gesture for James to step forward. The young scientist obeyed, entering the neat, cozy office accented with dark wood and burgundy tones. The door closed behind him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you face-to-face,” the man said, rounding his desk and extending a hand. “I’m Michael Benson, the director of Empetrum.”
Benson was a slim individual, with good posture, even features, and thin rectangular glasses. His presentation was just as upscale professional as Walker’s, and he carried himself with the air of one well-versed and assured in his trade, as if he had held his position for many years. However, James guessed he couldn’t have been much older than thirty.

“It’s great to meet you.” James shook his hand, noticing as he did that a large burn scar faded the smooth skin of the director’s right hand.

Benson smiled, a soft, confidence-inspiring expression. “I’m very excited you’ve agreed to work with us, even if it is only part time for now.”

“Thank you for being so accommodating,” James said, extremely grateful of the liberties Benson was allowing him to take. They both knew a stunt like this was unprofessional at best, but even with little information about James’ situation, Benson eagerly made room for it. “Though, at least for the next month, I expect I’ll be here enough to fill a standard forty-hour week.”

“Glad to hear it. I understand the demands of your position at Larkspur may make structured work hours a hassle, so how often you come in will be your choice. I had the customary living arrangements prepared so you can have that resource at your disposal, though boarding here is not mandatory, of course.”

“Thank you,” James said. 

Benson gestured at the door. “Would you like to see where you’ll be working?”

James followed him out and walked beside his tranquil gate as he headed down the hallway. At the end of the passage, just before it opened up to the section with the elevator, Benson placed a passing hand on the nearest door. “This is your office, to use however you like.”

James peeked in the window as they continued to the elevator.

“By the way, how’s that project of yours going?” Benson said, as the elevator arrived to take them to the first floor.

“Really well,” James said. “The first trial was successful. It was miniaturized for a rodent test subject, and I’ve just about come to the end of my personal ability to fund the next phase.”

“Then you’ve come to us right on time,” Benson said. “I would love to see this project come to full fruition. Does it have a title?”

“Organorobotic Transference.”

Benson considered James’ words with a smile “Has a nice ring to it. I hope you’ll tell me all about it as soon as we’re finished looking around, if you have some time to spare.”

“Of course,” James said, nervous and extremely flattered.

Upon reaching the first floor, the director turned right, and slowing on their way past the airy, pristine lab beyond the paneled windows, Benson said, “This is the shared biochem lab. Occasionally we need extra counter space or storage, or a change of scenery. But each of us have our personal laboratories, including you.”

James’ gaze lingered on the lab beyond, the fume hoods, black epoxy resin counters set with sinks and gas hookups, the refrigerators centrifuges, and transparent overhead cabinets full of glassware. Giddiness stirred in his chest. He loved this place already.

“Dhar passed along your resume to us,” Benson said as they continued on. “But it says nothing about where you acquired the biochemical training you’re employing in organorobotic transference. That requires quite a bit of neurobiological understanding as well, doesn’t it?”

“My father’s a neuroscientist,” James said. “He trained me.”

“Ah, that would explain it,” Benson said. “Be sure to let me know how I can best support your many talents.”

James nodded, sheepish. “Thank you.” 

Benson stopped at a door at the end of the hallway. “This is your personal lab. I apologize, it’s a bit of a mess right now, but it should have some reason to it by the time you’re ready to set up—which I assume will be Monday?”

James nodded, his heart in his throat as he prepared to see his personal engineering lab for the first time.

Benson opened the door and flicked on the light. A stack of black crates and moving boxes sprawled haphazardly in the middle of the room, fringed by the angular forms of machinery covered in sheets. A long, resin counter hugged the adjacent wall, underneath tall windows with a lower partition that opened to the outside air. 

The labs at Larkspur didn’t have windows like this.

The discordant space was the most beautiful thing James had ever seen.

“This is all mine?” James’ feet moved of their own accord, and he was soon exploring the clutter in growing excitement.

“It is,” Benson said.

James was checking labels and peeking under sheets at the equipment, “Kamuntu Inc.? This is the best of the best—”

Benson was nodding. “Is it to your satisfaction?”

“Are you kidding?” James grinned, inspecting the parameters on a medium-sized 3D printer across the room. “This is incredible.” He noticed a door to his left, and moved to open it.

The tall windows shed light on a polished floor, countertops, a CNC mill, lathes of various sizes, desktop computers, and an industrial-sized 3D printer. He took another left, and tried the handle of a sturdy metal door. It was unlocked. 

The lights were motion activated, and as he entered, sudden illumination lit up the room. It had a cement floor and industrial electrical hookups complete with heavy duty power grids, emergency breaker boxes, safety equipment, and a powerful ventilation system. He froze in the doorway, awestruck.

“Like it?” Benson said from behind him.

James could only utter a dumbfounded scoff in confirmation.

“Let me know if we need to build this up a little more,” Benson said as James drifted forward into the room to examine the equipment. “I’m a biochemist, so I’m not sure how much energy capability you’ll need for your work, but I assumed it would be a lot.”

“Oh yeah, this should do it,” James said, assessing the hookups. “This room can easily power the full-sized prototype.”

“Good.” Benson said, pleased. He let James poke around a bit longer before calling him back. “If I may interrupt, Dr. Siles, there’s one more place at your unlimited leisure—which I think you’ll enjoy.”

Down the hallway, through the clean and bright communal biochem lab, and to the left wall brought them to a single door. “This is the data library.”

Ten rows of long, heavy bookcases lined the space, with workstations at the room’s edges. James was still reeling from his tripartite heaven of a personal lab, and he didn’t think he could be even more delighted, yet Benson had astounded him yet again.

“We have all of this and more in the online databases, of course,” Benson said as James pulled the nearest academic journal from its place and flipped through its pages. “But, in my opinion, nothing beats print.”

“This is so impressive.” James slipped the volume back among its counterparts. He could literally live in any one of the places Benson had shown him. 

“Any questions?” Benson said.

“You said there was on campus housing available?” James was considering staying at Empetrum until he had finished the second prototype. He could commute straight to Larkspur on weekdays.

Benson smiled pleasantly and turned. “Follow me.”

As they reemerged into the lab, someone else had just entered, donning a crisp white lab coat.

“Dr. Yeun,” Benson said. “Good timing. This is James Siles, our new roboticist.”

“Pleased to meet you, Siles,” the scientist said, extending a hand with an open, unguarded smile that lit up his entire face. “Elias Yeun.”

“Dr. Yeun specializes in biorobotics, like you,” Benson said as James, surprised and elated, accepted the handshake. “There will be plenty of time for you two to bond over the details later, but for now, we have housing to survey, and we should let you get back to what you were doing, Dr. Yeun.”

“Of course,” Yeun said. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and smiled again. “Nice to see a new face around here. I’m a fan of your work, Dr. Siles, what little I’ve heard of it.”

James’ eyes widened, his face instantly hot. “Really?”

Yeun nodded amiably. “Our director definitely snagged a good one. I hope you can thrive here.” 

“Thank you so much,” James stammered. He realized Benson had left them, raising a hand as he departed. He tripped to catch up with the director. “I’ll, uh, see you around? Nice to meet you, Dr. Yeun.”

“Likewise,” Yeun called after them. “Welcome aboard.” 

The housing buildings were through a smaller fenced partition, set off to the side of the campus. The larger of the two was for the majority of the facility staff, and a smaller, two-story brick apartment building belonged to the research scientists.

“Are you a researcher too, Dr. Benson?” James asked as the director led James up the stairs that bisected the latter complex, which held four apartments per floor.

“I am.” He unlocked the door of the one he explained would be James’ and let him inside. “Biochemical genetics.”

The apartment was already furnished in a modern style, with ample natural light and no noise pollution due to the rural location. James felt like he could breathe here.

“Consider this space yours to use how you want,” Benson said simply, lingering in the living room while James roved among the high-ceilinged rooms, getting a feel for the place. “Just let me know if you plan any renovations, and I’d appreciate if you kept your experiments in the lab.”

“Can do.” James couldn’t believe he even had creative freedom of his living space.

Soon, the two headed back to Benson’s office where they talked business, ironing out the particulars of James’ employment. Then Benson asked for more details regarding organorobotic transference. After his failure to convince Richard, James began with trepidation, but he quickly found Benson easy to talk to. Benson listened with interest and received James’ intention to continue to clinical trials with ready enthusiasm. 

On the trip back through the forested hills to Worthing, James couldn’t stop smiling. Everything about Empetrum inspired him. He could do whatever he wanted there, and any project he chose to pursue would be met with full support. 

Finally, nothing stood in his way.



In between setting up his lab at Empetrum over the weekend, James closely monitored his test subject. Everything remained stable and functional, and O.R.T-1’s cognition and learning capacity appeared to have improved. It was settling into its new state of being, and its behavior quickly evolved based on the parameters of its body plan. It stopped trying to use its nonexistent sense of smell and instead turned to a more deliberate use of touch and observation as its primary senses. It was learning how to rear up, and when it fell onto its side, it could already right itself without help. It used its flat metal snout to push around objects in its path, or pry against whatever it could reach when James had to hook wires to its back to run diagnostics.

O.R.T-1, which Heather had started calling Sesame, much preferred Heather over him—with good reason, admittedly. Heather was nothing but tenderness and love with it, a source of escape from James’ battery of tests. She offered it things to look at and explore, she petted and complimented it, and it was always eager to interact with her, even though she’d only had two days so far to bond with it.

James passed it off to her as soon as she came to greet him Monday morning.

“How are you doing?” she asked James, neglecting to open the box. Her tone suggested she wanted more than a monosyllabic answer.

“Fine,” he said, opening the door to his office. “Yourself?”

“Good,” she murmured, not following him inside.

After a few moments of uncharacteristic silence from his friend, James paused removing his laptop from his bag and turned his attention to her. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she said quickly. She removed the robot from its box. “I’m just—it’s nothing.” She carefully situated O.R.T.-1 in the crook of her arm. “Have you been testing him? How does it all look?”

“He’s very stable,” James said. “As far as I can tell, everything worked perfectly.”

“Mm…” She ventured forward and set the box on his desk. Stroking Sesame’s nuzzling face, she said. “Are you really okay?” 

“I’m fine,” James insisted as kindly as he could, stepping out into the hallway. “I got over it.”

“Already? I mean, you must have shaved off a week of your life working on that thing.” Heather followed him down the stairs.

“Oh, probably.” He pushed his way through the door into the lab. He might sacrifice some more working at Empetrum, he thought. Richard was in the lab, and James didn’t want to keep talking about this. He managed a smile as he held the door open for her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were more attached to that project than I was.”

“But you were—You mean you really are over it? Completely and totally over it?” Heather lowered her voice.

“I’d like to move on,” James said simply.

Heather paused, letting him break away from her to attend to his work. The android lay like a cadaver on a chrome counter in the back lab, waiting for the device that would bring it to life.


The songs of frogs and crickets wafted into James’ lab through the open window. The breeze from outside was gentle enough that it didn’t disturb his notes sprawled across the counter. The thick, green scent of local flora stirred a sense of nostalgia in James he didn’t realize he still harbored, dredging up a small quiet part of him that had missed the climate of his childhood.

Benson came to check on him after a few hours. James had to close the door to the fabrication portion of his lab, muffling the gallant hum of the CNC mill as it processed components for the human-sized neural network.

“I just came to let you know I’m heading out for the night,” Benson said. “Is there anything you need before I go? I see you’ve already begun, so I assume the materials we gave you are working out?”

“Yes, very much so.” James smiled, ablaze with inspiration. “Thank you.”

“Splendid,” Benson said. “I forgot to mention it before, but extra supplies are stored in the room across from your lab. You have badge access to it. If there’s something you need that isn’t there, I’d be happy to order it for you.”

“Thank you,” James said. “I actually wanted to ask you about a certain material I’ll need for the energy unit.”

“A substance capable of handling a staggering amount of energy?” Benson smiled knowingly.

James nodded, smiling as well. “For the first prototype, I used a tungsten alloy—”

“I believe we have something better.” The director slipped his hands into his jacket pockets. “I’ll do a little digging and have Dr. Jones ready to show you tomorrow evening when you come in. She’s our materials engineer.”

The humming ceased from behind the door to the fabrication lab. The roboticist glanced back.

“I’ll let you get back to work,” Benson said. “Good luck. If you have any more questions, feel free to come by my office when I’m there, and I believe you have my number as well.”

“Yes,” James replied, thanking him again.

Benson nodded and took his leave. “Good evening, Dr. Siles.”

“Good evening,” James replied, his hand already twisting the handle to attend to his equipment.


The Empetrum facility was quiet the following afternoon. Siles was still at Larkspur. The other scientists were between breakthroughs or crises for the time being, and Michael Benson was waiting on an immunoassay. He had another day before he needed to make a report to Empetrum’s sponsors, so he had time to procrastinate. Not to mention, he didn’t feel like figuring out how to reiterate for the millionth time in a way they would believe that Empetrum was making every effort to develop a mature form of Non-Comp as quickly as possible.

It was pointless trying to push back. Their sponsors were a pack of businesspeople and politicians with no scientific frame of reference, who refused to accept the simple facts of how long stem cell therapy took. Vihaan Dhar was really the only one willing to take his word for it, but that man’s capacity for patience got on Benson’s nerves in other ways.

While the government constantly breathed down Benson’s neck, nobody was ever asking about when Larkspur would get up to speed. Dhar was happy to coddle Brophy and his lot, letting them pursue their nice projects, oblivious to what their own commissioned artificial intelligence project was inevitably going to lead into. 

With the resistance movement determined to throw a wrench into whatever they could, everything boiling under the surface was going to come to light. And when Larkspur caught on, every one of those engineers were going to refuse to proceed as a matter of principle. Even though the government had graciously kept Larkspur afloat in their nearly two decades underground, Brophy and Louis, that bleeding heart former director who refused to let go, would lead the charge to pull out and try to go private.

At least Dhar had finally given Benson the go-ahead to reach out to Siles, after months of pestering. A young engineer with so much potential deserved a fighting chance to become truly revolutionary.

But Benson didn’t want to think about that right now. For now, he had a phone call to make. Considering an index card he had just received from his administrative assistant, he retrieved the cordless phone from his desk and dialed the number on the card. Walker never failed him.

The voice of the man who answered struck a deep chord within the director, past impressions of encouragement and frustration, care and neglect. Nostalgia, and deep, deep resentment.

“Hello, Dad,” he said. “Found you again.”

After a few moments of silence, Henry Benson’s voice hummed in his ear, “Great job. You want a gold star or something?”
Benson scoffed and leaned against his desk. His tone turned probing, “You not only moved back into the state, but settled in the same county as the facility. Why?”

“Would you buy that I missed you?”

Benson blinked. “No.”

“A gesture of goodwill, then.” 

“Let’s get to the point.” Benson readjusted his glasses in exasperation.

“I’m letting you win,” Henry said. “I’m sick to death of this. I haven’t done anything to cross you since the day I left, and you can bet I don’t intend to. I want to stop glancing over my shoulder. I’m nearby now. Come get me if you want, bug my phone, keep watching my life, but you’ll just be wasting your time. Especially as I fully intend to ignore you.” He paused. “So, there’s your reason. What will you do, Dr. Director?”

Benson’s brow furrowed as he tried to read between the lines of his father’s exposition. “As you said, I’ll continue to keep tabs on you.”

“Just let me know who’s watching me this time so I can invite them to coffee once in a while,” Henry retorted. “No doubt you’ve noticed this paradox: I’m not a threat, not an asset. Yet you just keep hovering.”

“You defected without a mindwipe. That makes you a threat.”

“Perhaps to celebrate your stalking victory, you might finally fill me in on what you were thinking back then? I understood what I was setting myself up for when I decided to leave Empetrum. Why did you bend the rules? Why do you let me walk free, knowing what I know?”

Benson drew a slow breath. “As long as you behave, I don’t see any reason to confine you.”

“And if I decide, say tomorrow, to suddenly broadcast everything I knew about Empetrum to the world?” The spite in Henry’s voice sent a chill down Benson’s spine.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Benson said, cracking a tight, sideways smile.

“What would you do?”
Ice crept into Benson’s tone. “I would send for you.”

“To kill me?”

Benson rose up to his full height. “I’ll do whatever I have to, understand? You step one millimeter out of line and I will not show you leniency again.”

Henry laughed bitterly. “What’s this? A heated tone? I’m honored, Michael.”

“Do you understand?” Benson demanded.


“Make sure you don’t forget it, then.”

“I won’t. Rest assured.”

“Good.” Benson firmly replaced the receiver.

Benson’s grandfather wouldn’t have hesitated that day, had he still been the director. There were rules about leaving Empetrum, and Henry had broken them. Benson had broken them too. The decision was still a thorn in the director’s side, an insult to Empetrum and what it stood for, a lingering reminder that, while Benson was well trained to be his grandfather’s successor, he was still too soft in a few places.

And Henry knew just where to stab.


Nothing happened over the weekend, so, as promised, Yeun took the stem cell cannulas out of her spine and arm. He took blood for analysis. She wished hard that something in this whole process would destabilize, so he would just let her go home.

But who was she kidding, she thought, lying still in the bed of an MRI machine. So far, Yeun was getting what he wanted. Ages ago now, she had just wanted to get close enough to see what Empetrum looked like, to blow off steam, maybe put it on a priority list for the Conxence. But instead, she was giving her enemies exactly what they wanted, the development of human weaponry of some sort. Among the IVs and endless waiting and Yeun’s bedside manner, she had almost forgotten that’s what this place existed for.

It all seemed so pointless. 

At the end of the day on Thursday, after all the results had come back, she presumed, Yeun came into Erika’s room with a folder.

She watched him with a bored expression as he stole forward. Erika thought about making some wise-cracking remark as she’d grown accustomed to, poking at him, never able to nettle him much. But a profound sense of unease permeated the air as Yeun went to a free-standing bulletin board along the wall, pulled it up to the foot of her bed with a little space for him to move, and opened up his folder.

He took a steadying sigh, swiveling around to face her. “We’re all set to go for phase two,” he said.

Erika looked at him, solemnly, her hands folded in her lap. Her shoulders were pressed back against a wide electric heating pad. It calmed the tingling and tenderness of the region—barely. The restless feeling of deformation at the lower part of her shoulder blades was enough to make her want to chuck the pad across the room at him, wires and all.

“Not until you tell me what phase two is,” she said.

“That’s why I’m here.” He pinned up the first image from the MRI, which depicted a rear view of her neck and shoulders, in minimalistic black and white like an old photo negative. She watched him put four of them up, one by one. All focused on the nerves of her neck, arms, and upper back. His folder held more pages, but he closed it. “The stem cell therapy and stimulation of neurogenesis has been successful so far,” he said. “We’re seeing another brachial plexus forming here, around T-7,” he pointed to the part of her vertebral column corresponding to about the middle of her chest region. Erika’s stomach sank. “The brachial plexus, of course, provides the vital musculocutaneous innervation for your arms, chest, and shoulders.” 

Yeun was trying to hide behind big words, but Erika had taken enough science in college to know what that meant. The result of their twisted gene therapy was forming a second set of nerves. Specifically, nerves that commanded her arms and shoulders. The purpose of this was beginning to dawn on her, but she still couldn’t guess what the end application was. The fact that he was so reluctant to tell her made her extremely nervous.

“Why would I need another brachial plexus?” she asked quietly, feeling sick.

“Perhaps I should start at the beginning,” Yeun said, fidgeting with his folder. “Several years ago, my colleagues found a set of genes that, if stimulated in just the right way, could give rise to unique forms of physical enhancement in an otherwise ordinary human being.” 

“Human weaponry,” Erika said. 

“An evolutionary advantage,” Yeun said. He cleared his throat. “Which we are working to integrate into the military sphere in a sort of special task-force.”

Erika gave a single nod with raised eyebrows, as if he had simply repeated what she’d just said. “Yeah, human weaponry.”

Yeun cleared his throat. “We found that these genes are extremely rare, and we were only able to find six young people to integrate into this task force. They’re responding well to training, but they’re still very inexperienced, and for the research to really bring back returns, we need to find a way to develop these biological enhancements in people who don’t naturally carry the gene, but whose bodies can support the process.”

“So you’re…” Erika didn’t want to say it. “You’re trying to turn me into one of them?”

“Exactly,” Yeun said. “Though if this trial works out, you won’t be recruited. We’re still developing the technology, and our ideal candidate for the program is of a younger age range, anyway.” 

“They’re kids, then?” Erika said, her voice kicking up a notch in anger. She was twenty-four. The age group below her were minors. “You’re forcing kids to be these soldiers?” When she’d first heard the rumors of human weaponry, she’d imagined a sea of burly, faceless drones, not a pack of children. 

“Teenagers,” Yeun said. “Don’t worry, they’re well taken care of. Anyway, this is the young man whose DNA you and I are working with for this project.” He opened the folder and thumbed through the remaining pages. “His is the simplest of the six known natural enhancements—or, ‘Compatibilities,’ as we’ve come to call them, referencing their inherent genetic compatibility with the technology.” He pinned up a photograph on the board, and Erika felt the color drain from her face.

The boy’s head was blacked out to preserve his identity, but Erika thought the act was superfluous. If she saw this kid in person, she’d know exactly what he was. His towering frame stood in front of a height grid, measuring over seven and a half feet from head to toe, and he had not one, but two fully-formed pairs of arms, spread out like wings for the photographer. The page was a copy from some other report, and at the bottom, next to filing information, were the initials P.J.E

Erika’s breathing grew tight in her chest. “You’ve been trying to mix my DNA with his?” 

“Correct,” Yeun said. He glanced at the monstrous photos. “Compatibilities are brought out with an electronic device called a modulator. It manifests them, stabilizes the effects in some of the more volatile ones, and deactivates the abilities at will. The physical effects are reversible, even in this one.” He used his folder to point at a silver band on the young man’s wrist, which Erika hadn’t noticed at first. “When this deactivates, the second pair of arms goes away.” 

Erika shook her head. “This is wrong.” She pushed the covers aside and swung her legs off the side of the bed. Standing up was arduous. She was still fatigued from the stem cell integrations, and the immature brachial plexus in her ribs complained and tingled against the fabric of her t-shirt. She didn’t know what she intended to do. “I’m done. You’re letting me go, Yeun. I draw the line at phase two.”

The door had opened at the front of the room, and a calm, chilling voice answered her. “You are not the one who draws lines here, Ms. Davenport.” 

Erika turned her head to look at the newcomer. Two guards accompanied the director. Yeun stepped back, uneasily, as if giving Erika and the director room to face off.

Erika reached out and gripped the handlebar at the head of her hospital bed for support. She forced her shoulders straight and defiant, staring down the man behind it all. 

“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” she said. “How do you intend to keep me going along with this, huh? Brainwash me? Keep me in a coma? Threaten my family?”

The director blinked, unruffled. It struck her all over again how mousey he looked between the larger forms of the guards at his sides. Somehow it made it all the more menacing, that this slim, soft-featured person commanded all of them, confident that he would control her too.

“Dr. Yeun,” the director said. “The modulators you are calibrating for Ms. Davenport have components that must be implanted close to the spinal cord, correct?”

Erika tried to stand her ground.

“Yes,” Yeun said, uncomfortable.

The director leveled his calm intensity on Erika. “Rebellion, Ms. Davenport, will first earn you no anesthesia for any of that procedure,” he said. “If you still have fight in you after that, you may be mindwiped completely, and passed off to the military as a resource, regardless of the outcome of this experiment.” His features remained placid, yet his gray eyes took on a direct coldness that froze her to the core. “Either way, if you continue to cross me, I will personally see to it that your life is nullified, and reconstructed from the ground up. If you try to deny us progress, you will never see your family again.”

Erika stared at him in horror. She was shaking. “You wouldn’t…”

“Do not make the mistake of underestimating what I won’t do to push this endeavor to full maturity, Ms. Davenport,” the director said. “As Dr. Yeun mentioned, there are six known Compatible progenitors, and that was only within a very specific age group, sampled over a limited time frame. The work, you see, has only just begun.”

Erika’s heart pounded hard in her ears. Slowly, she sat back down on the bed, despair welling up in her throat.

“Prudent choice,” the director said. He turned to go, while the guards remained. “I’ll leave you to it, Dr. Yeun. Be sure to notify me if she acts out again.”

“Yes, Director,” Yeun said, offering Erika an apologetic expression as the director left them.

Erika stared at the floor, biting back furious, desperate tears. She carefully scooted herself back, twisting to push her legs back under the covers. Her limbs felt heavy and her spine ached, as fatigue crashed in around her, and she hated herself for feeling so helpless.

Yeun pulled the bulletin board away toward the wall, and proceeded to remove the images. “I’m sorry he had to be harsh with you—”

“Save the good-cop bullshit,” Erika snapped, lying down and turning her back on him. “Threat noted. Congratulations, you got what you wanted. If there’s nothing else you need from me right now, then just leave me alone.”

There was a long pause, the quiet shuffling of paper.

Then, finally, “Of course.”

Erika glared savagely at the wall, listening to him take his leave. 

“We won’t be ready to install your modulator until Monday,” he said, quietly. “So you’ll have a few days to adjust to the idea.”

Erika elbowed the electric heating pad out of the way and pulled the covers up to her chin, refusing to answer. 

Yeun paused at the door, hesitating. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the result you wanted.”  Then he left.

Erika settled in, and finally let the tears flow. She hated them. 

She knew she wasn’t the first person to have to deal with Empetrum, and she wouldn’t be the last. Just a single victim in a harried, soulless overturn.

Did that four-armed kid—did P.J.E.—know he was a victim too? Did he know they were farming him for resources any way they could, seeding his genetic code like a virus even as they trained him to lock down the corrupted status quo?

Did he want out?

If Erika ever got the chance she would make the director remember her. She would raze Empetrum to the ground, and cull any chances it had of resurrecting.

Then, she would come for the six progenitors.



James came to gradually, realizing the side of his face lay numb and cold against a hard surface.

His kitchen table? No, a lab bench.

Morning light streamed in through the tall window, illuminating his work area and glinting off the crystalline surface of the updated, more powerful energy unit. The neural network sat close by, a more advanced device than the first prototype with a smoother finish. Scattered across the counter near his head lay pieces of the incomplete DNA targeting system. The reflective application panel nested safely in a foam square, waiting for installation.

Blinking slowly, James dragged his wristwatch in front of his face and read the numbers. His eyes widened. “No…”

“No!” He jerked up so abruptly he almost tipped his chair over backward.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed his badge, and staggered to the door.

Swinging out into the corridor and running down the hallway, James checked his watch again. He had minutes to leave before he would be late for work at Larkspur.

He only realized he wasn’t paying significant attention to where he was going when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with Archibald Hill—a stern, gray-haired scientist who always seemed either irked or hostile. James gave Hill a deer-in-the-headlights expression before stammering an apology and dodging around him to the door. He had heard Yeun liked to tease Hill, but James preferred to keep his distance.

Not that James often encountered many of the other scientists. They had usually finished for the day by the time he arrived. With the exception of Benson’s occasional interjection and Dr. Jones’ advice about the new material for the energy unit, James had spent most of the last eleven days shut away in the isolation of his personal lab.

James ran down the path to his apartment on the Empetrum campus, pounding up the stairs and scrambling to unlock the front door. Once inside, he changed into the first clean dress shirt he found, then rushed into the bathroom to brush his teeth and shave. Grabbing his messenger bag, he darted back out to the parking lot.

As he drove through the gates, he checked his overall presentation in the visor mirror and frowned at his reflection. He had nicked his face a few times and had completely forgotten about his hair. He ran a hand through it. 

Flicking up the visor in distaste, he concentrated on taking the winding road as fast as he could. There was no way he could be late. Absolutely no one could find out about his activities outside Larkspur until everything was said and done. Of course, Empetrum was supposed to remain a secret in general, but he could worry about that later.

James arrived at the Larkspur facility on time—tired, disheveled, and very annoyed as he trotted upstairs to his office.

He barely avoided kicking something at the top of the stairs. Surprised, he looked down to find a small robot close to his foot. It sat down and stared up at him. 

“Heather?” James raised his face toward the hallway. “Why is Sesame loose?”

Heather’s face poked out from the doorway of Richard’s office. “Because he’s very well behaved and comes back when I call him. I think that neural network you gave him makes him smarter than normal.” She paused, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes. “What happened to you?”

James retreated to his office. The little robot got up and trundled after him, as if determined to get in the way. “Nothing. Just overslept.”

“Sesame, come here,” Heather said, and James spotted the robot crossing the doorway. 

Heather entered the room a moment later with O.R.T-1 in her arms. She smiled. 

“What in the world did you reward him with to teach him that?” James asked. “Is there even anything he wants?”
“He just likes attention, I guess,” Heather said, rubbing a finger up and down Sesame’s back. It shifted position in her arms so she could rub its side. “Are you sure he can’t feel anything?”

“Like I said, there are hardly any sensors…” He considered the robot, the side of its face snuggled into Heather’s arm. “But he does seem a lot more attuned to his environment than I would have expected. I’ll have to look into that when I have time.” He smiled, sheepish. “Thanks for taking him under your wing for me.”

“No problem.” She bent down to let Sesame run free. It lingered by her side for a moment, then climbed lovingly over her foot and left to explore the hallway.

“Just watch he doesn’t fall down the stairs. I almost tripped over him.”

Heather glanced back at the robot. “Sesame, don’t go near the stairs, okay?”

James opened his laptop, following her gaze. “Think he’ll listen to you?”

Heather docked her hands on her hips and said brightly. “We’ll see.”


After a few minutes, Heather called Sesame and brought him downstairs. Work took place in the lab so they could better collaborate as they continued working through the artificial intelligence programming.

Heather couldn’t offer much help in this phase, as she knew very little about programming. She played with Sesame when she wasn’t seated dutifully beside one of the engineers, watching them plan and type and troubleshoot. 

The program wasn’t coming together as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Even James, the most lethal programmer of the bunch, couldn’t seem to make much headway. Heather couldn’t tell if he was actually stumped—a state which rarely lasted long for him—or if he simply wasn’t trying very hard. James had been increasingly distracted and apathetic about his work.

Perhaps he was still working through lingering grief for his rejected project, she thought, even though he insisted he was over it. Or he could have simply burnt himself out, working at such an unrelenting pace for a whole month. Either way, he was back to talking more readily, and had begun to show up for breaks with the rest of them. He looked just as sleep-deprived, but he actually seemed happier. And for that, Heather was glad.

Still, it wasn’t like him to oversleep.


The modulator—the device that would activate what Yeun’s gene therapy had set up—had been installed the day before, and the site was already healed. Yeun said he’d treated it with dilute activator serum, which had powerful regenerative properties. Erika wasn’t looking forward to finding out what the real deal would be.

Tuesday morning, she lay prone on a table in an operating room, with her arms up like goalposts by her head and strapped in.

The director and another stern, sharp-featured scientist stood nearby, both in lab coats and waiting as Yeun prepared to activate her modulator for the first time. He pulled up a medical cart with a small styrofoam box on the top tray. Erika watched, her face cold with dread, as his gloved hands opened it and plucked a tiny rectangular vial of fluid from the ice within.

Erika glanced at their audience. “I’d rather it just be you and me,” she said to Yeun, very quietly. “If you’re going to go through with this…”

Yeun looked at the director for his opinion. The latter glanced aside at their other colleague, then turned slowly and took his leave. He waved a resident guard closer to Erika on his way to the door.

When the older man lingered, the director’s soft, purring voice spoke up, “Come on, Dr. Hill. We’ll monitor remotely.”

A venomous look crossed Hill’s face, but he followed.

Erika watched them go, surprised. Yeun came forward, instructing her to turn her face so it rested straight downward on the forehead rest. She complied, wondering if it would even be possible to fight back from such a position.

“Okay,” Yeun murmured. “Just going to move the gown out of the way so nothing snags…” 

She felt the air cold on her skin as he carefully peeled aside the fabric on either side, betraying most of her back. He let her keep her sweatpants, thankfully. 

“Do you want a weak sedative?” Yeun asked.

Erika fought back tears. Her heart pounded hard in her chest. “That would be great, actually…”

He administered an injection, and waited with her for it to take effect. 

It wasn’t enough to put her under. She wanted to be awake for this, anyway. If it didn’t work, she immediately wanted to know, instead of waking up monstrous and surprised. Or never waking up at all.

The sedative took the edge off the fear, and Erika lay still, her body feeling relaxed and heavy, as Yeun prepared to move forward with phase two.

“Ready?” he said.

“Yeah,” Erika rasped, reluctant.

She felt his fingers on the rectangular plate of the modulator that was accessible from the outside, getting into position. With a soft click, he opened a panel and slid the vial in. He hadn’t said, but she suspected it contained activator serum.

“Here we go,” he murmured. “In three, two…”

Erika shut her eyes tight.


She felt a modest depression, then sharp pin pricks set into her skin in a wave. She gasped, feeling like it had bitten her, deep. 

After a brief, unpleasant electrical shock, warmth flooded from the epicenter of the modulator, spreading fast. The device throbbed hot and restless in her back, as pressure grew, squeezing her spine tighter and tighter.

“Keep breathing, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said gently. “Remember to breathe.”

Erika obeyed, taking strained, deliberate breaths against the pressure. Then the spikes of pain started, shooting up in not one, but two distinct spots on her back. With every arc, they grew more and more intense, and suddenly her back muscles seized up and she gasped as two hot, reaching columns of confused biomass pushed into the open air, stretching out and snapping together into something with structure and weight. 

She felt elbows bend, muscles spasm, hands extend long and cramping as they materialized from the formless, reaching things.

Then the hot, vibrating pain of the modulator snuffed out. The unseen limbs held themselves in the air for a timeless moment, their muscles quivering under the shock and strain. Then the elbows drooped at painful angles, and slow, heavy hands found the table down by her feet. Dimly, she thought maybe they would break if they twisted wrong.

Groggy and breathing hard, she didn’t dare look back. She didn’t have to be coherent to know that the monstrosities Yeun’s device had brought about were nothing like what he had hoped. As she slipped into unconsciousness, she lamented the fragile, alien things, wishing they would at least be an asset to help her escape.

But she was too shaken, too tired to hope.


In a private surveillance room, illuminated by the screen of a monitor tuned into one of the operating rooms downstairs, Hill scoffed, and Benson crossed his arms.

“What on earth are those?” Hill said scornfully, leaning closer to the screen to get a better look at the state of his colleague’s test subject. “It’s like he didn’t even bother to calibrate that modulator.” 

“Yeun takes every precaution,” Benson said, frigidly. “As you do.”

He watched Yeun hurry to attend to Davenport. She lay still, save for the stretched, misshapen arms unfolded like wings off her back. The long fingers of her new pair of hands weakly gripped the edges of the table, and then they, too, went limp. Yeun lurched forward to catch them at the elbows and preserve the angle. There were two other bends between the primary joint and their articulation points. Three total hinge joints each. A fortunate and fascinating addition, Benson thought. Structurally, they would have been far too fragile, otherwise.

The arms had sprouted further around her back than Yeun had planned, but the origin points were level with the correct vertebra. Pride swelled in Benson’s chest for his colleague.

“Are you going to go rescue him?” Hill asked, as the pair watched Yeun on the screen, calling to the guards to support Davenport’s accessory arms while he attended to the modulator higher up on her back.

“Why? He’s handling it,” Benson said simply.

On the security camera feed, Yeun tried to deactivate the modulator, and Davenport didn’t fight him. It looked like she’d passed out. Benson readjusted his glasses and watched intently. Yeun’s movements grew more and more worried as the modulator wouldn’t trigger the reabsorption of the extra limbs. He pulled equipment over to check her vitals, leaving the defibrillator where it was, which was a promising sign. Activator serum could be intense.

Hill shook his head. “I don’t know why you let him head up this project, Benson. Yeun’s attempt at biorobotics is like watching a five-year-old with a mad science kit.”

“Yeun has worked extremely hard for this, and he’s producing great results,” Benson said quietly, quelling a stab of anger. “You of all people know modulator technology is finicky. With Siles on board, the two of them will puzzle out the issues in no time. You’re welcome to advise them, of course, but I want you focused on your work keeping the ICNS recruits stabilized.”

“Siles isn’t going to be much help to you,” Hill said. “He’s just a kid, primarily mechanically-minded with no gene therapy experience whatsoever, and he’s from Larkspur. It’s not enough for him to be reckless in his own pet projects. He’ll take one look at this—” He gestured toward the screen. “—and run screaming.”

“I can train him,” Benson replied. “I know it’s a gamble. Time for natural acclimatization is short, but there are many routes to securing his cooperation until then.” 

“If you can,” Hill sighed. His thin eyebrows pinched downward as he continued to watch Yeun’s progress. The guards were helping him move Davenport off the table, to transport her to somewhere she could rest. “If you mess it up you can just kill Siles too, I guess.”

A soft smile graced Benson’s unthreatening features, trying to be patient. “It’s been a year and a half, Hill. Empetrum stresses innovation and progress. Not grudges and nostalgia.”

Hill scowled, arms crossed. “I wouldn’t call murdering my lab partner nostalgic.
“What Olsson received was only Empetrum policy. She tried to destroy us, don’t forget that.”

Hill scoffed bitterly and stepped away from the screen. “Don’t think because you managed to punish one of our own that you’re fit to be Lawrence’s successor.”

Benson swallowed the hot indignation rising in his throat. “It’s high time you grew up and accepted my grandfather’s choice,” he said.

Hill halted and turned. “I knew you when you were a child,” he snapped. “Passive. Timid. A boy left crying or mute after trials with the Q-13 while I helped him build this place! Posture all you want, Director. All he saw in you was a puppet to be molded.”

“He saw potential,” Benson said, straightening his shoulders. He rested his hands against the small of his back, and squeezed them together. “I will make this organization greater than my grandfather ever imagined, and I will perfect his life’s work.” He looked at the screen again. He knew the look on Yeun’s face well. Despite everything, Elias was berating himself for the hitch. He’d been that way since college. Benson pivoted so he faced Hill directly. “As you are well aware, Dr. Hill. I am no longer that child. If you can’t get over your personal hostilities, I’ll call for your resignation.”

Hill blinked. “You’re actually threatening me.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a precarious political situation. If we’re going to move forward, we must be unified,” Benson said. “Your contempt of your colleagues is divisive and petty, and I’m not going to tolerate it anymore.”

“But I’m co-responsible for modulator research—our core source of funding,” Hill tried to scramble together his terse, inflammatory composure. It gave Benson pleasure to watch him squirm. “I’ve given everything to Empetrum.” 

“Then you would lose all of that,” Benson said, steady and formal as he came forward. “So, reconciling yourself with the current state of affairs is in your best interest. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Hill glared, then looked away. He gave Benson room as the director passed him by.

Benson allowed himself a smile as he left his colleague alone. Hill would never resign, Benson knew, and he wouldn’t behave himself completely. But if Hill pulled back just a fraction of his snide comments toward Yeun, and stopped trying to undermine Benson’s authority, the director would consider his warning satisfactorily heeded.

Benson headed downstairs, to find Yeun and congratulate him on a job well done.


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