CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR—MOVING TARGET
When Erika came to, her first thought was that this was all just an elaborate fever dream, a neurotic coping mechanism that was easier to live in rather than face the questions of how she was supposed to keep living on without her mother.
In this state, she didn’t have to be strong for her family, to be the protective sister, the sturdy oldest daughter, because she was here, at Empetrum, warped out of control. The timing was too convenient, too ridiculously awful to be real.
She lay on her stomach, supported by pillows. Her arms were pulled back and upward, suspended in three points each by what felt like cloth slings. However, it took her a moment to realize that her actual arms, the ones she was born with, were tucked up close to her face among the pillows. An IV clung to one of them.
Slowly, she drew her hands into loose fists. Looming above, out of her field of vision, two other appendages responded the same way, and she wished in that moment that she was just imagining all of this.
She was back in the hospital room in which she’d weathered gene therapy. From somewhere in the corner off to her left, she heard a shift of fabric and paper, the sound of someone setting aside a book and standing up from a chair. Carefully, she lifted her head up enough to turn it the other way to see who it was.
It was Yeun, naturally.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, coming nearer.
“Does it matter?” Erika mumbled wearily. Her whole body ached. “How long was I out?”
“About a day and a half,” he said. “The activation was harder on you than expected. Nothing some extra electrolytes and a lot of sleep couldn’t fix, though.”
Erika tried to move the gargantuan limbs off her back. They responded, swinging gently in their slings. They ached too. “Why are they still there? What happened?”
“Your body wouldn’t take them back,” Yeun said. “Despite my best efforts.”
A month ago, Erika would have gone weak at the knees at such a statement. Now that the die were cast, she felt surprisingly indifferent. She started thinking about where she could get them amputated when she got out of here. She decided to write it on her hand or something before the mindwipe so she wouldn’t have to do the same brainwork twice.
“Guess your experiment’s done, then,” she said, expecting to be disappointed. “Time for my exit interview.”
Yeun shook his head, dismally. For a fleeting moment, it almost seemed like maybe he was beginning to want her released too, but Erika knew better.
“There’s still a lot to learn from your accessory arms,” he said. “This technology is new, so there’s a lot we can’t take for granted. I need to see how developed the nervous tissue is, whether or not your body will accept them longer term, or how they handle muscle building or healing. We may still be able to get them to reabsorb, in time. I’m getting a lab partner soon, who’s extremely good at this sort of thing, so that day may be sooner than later.”
Erika just stared at him, eyebrows lowered. She sighed and settled in as he left her view to check on her IV setup. “You’re never going to let me go, are you? I bet your boss won’t allow it. Because of that gene therapy, I’m as good as Compatible now.” From the corner of her eye, she could see the other arms, hanging. They reminded her of the articulated skeletons of sea creatures strung up in museums. “Maybe you won’t recruit me to be a soldier, but I’m no different than that kid whose DNA you mixed with mine. There is no end to my usefulness to you, and you’ve already invested all these resources into corrupting my genetic code, so you’ll only keep pushing this experiment out further and further until either you kill me or I escape.”
A heavy silence answered her. She hesitated, thinking maybe he’d slipped out while she was talking. “Yeun?”
She couldn’t see him far over on her other side, but when he spoke up, it didn’t sound like he’d moved at all.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said. “And I’m not going to keep you here forever, either.”
James spent the next handful of evenings in the sizable shell of the scanner, working at strange angles or struggling to single-handedly mount larger, heavier pieces like the translucent panel on the underside of the lid. He was constructing the machine directly inside the wing of his lab furnished for high electrical output.
Benson never asked James to justify any of his activities, nor submit any formal requests to move forward. He didn’t worry James would waste resources or bring something dangerous into existence, never asked James to consider how his efforts could be abused. He only asked how he could help push it forward.
Empetrum seemed to suit his goals and pacing better. He thought maybe he should transfer fully from Larkspur.
His back ached as he craned his arms down inside the body of the scanner, and he let his mind wander to help drown out the sensation. He had analyzed O.R.T-1’s sensory abilities before leaving Larkspur that night, and he’d found Sesame was emitting some sort of electromagnetic field across his surface area. James had traced it to the neural network, possibly an electrical extension to represent the peripheral nervous system. He was excited to tell Heather.
He wished he could tell her about the clinical prototype too. He was eager to see how the neural network would handle the human brain, though as the reality of clinical trials sank in, he was beginning to understand Richard’s misgivings—however hurtful they still were. He found himself worrying no one would be willing to undergo the transfer.
James thought of his body as simply a vessel that enabled him to do his work. If his were dying, he’d gladly make the jump. His father was the same way, but he understood others had different philosophies about the body’s worth and purpose.
He would never force anyone into it.
He debated calling his parents to fill them in, and perhaps glean a status update. A part of him was considering chancing a visit with them.
James pulled his arms back from the depths of the scanner and swapped the wrench in his hand for a pair of needlenose pliers. No, he was too busy now.
If he ended up remembering to call them, he decided, he would refrain from mentioning his project until it was ready. He wanted to leave no room for doubt when he finally pitched the possibility to his father.
By the following Friday, everything was constructed, connected, and functional, and James had begun busying himself with the mechanical replacement body for the first human trial. Now came the time to begin looking for a willing volunteer. He didn’t even know where to begin that phase.
Perhaps Benson had connections.
Constructing the body was therapeutic, and having regained some extra headspace, James began to wonder about Empetrum’s other projects. He had completely forgotten to ask. He figured he’d ask as soon as the second prototype was truly finished.
As he packed up to leave Larkspur for the weekend, he received a text from Benson:
Good evening, Dr. Siles. Please let me know when you arrive tonight. I’d like to see how your project is coming along.
Someone crossed the door to James’ office and James looked up from his phone. “Oh—Richard?”
“Yeah?” Richard reappeared in the doorway, his inquisitive expression resembling one often found on his daughter’s face.
“I want to comb through those codes this weekend,” James said. “I think we’re close.” He was losing patience with the artificial intelligence program. He wanted the problem straightened out so it could stop nagging at the back of his mind.
“That’d be great, James.” Richard smiled. “Thanks a lot. Looking forward to what turns up. Make sure you log any time you work on it so we can pay you, okay? Don’t forget again.”
“Okay,” James said.
Richard nodded in approval and took his leave. “See you Monday.”
“Have a good weekend,” James said as Richard disappeared.
“Bye, James!” Heather chimed as father and daughter headed for the stairs. For once, Heather was excited to leave. They were taking a trip to the beach that weekend.
James returned his attention to his phone, typing a quick reply to his other employer: Sure thing. I’m leaving Larkspur now.
When James arrived, he called Benson, and soon, he was scanning his badge to his personal lab. “I’m still working on the mechanical body replacement,” James explained, showing the director into his lab. “But besides that, everything’s finished.”
Benson studied the robot pushed to one side of the counter. Currently, the android was merely an incomplete torso with half a head and a hole in its chest. James pulled a case off a shelf next to the unfinished android and carefully opened it up to reveal the neural network, cradled in anti-static foam. Benson leaned forward to get a better view as James brought over the power core. He admired both without touching, familiar with the need for prior electrical grounding for the neural network especially.
“You always manage to exceed my already lofty expectations, Dr. Siles,” he said, glancing at him. “And the scanner?”
James eagerly led him into the high voltage electrical lab. A smile spread across the director’s face as they neared the machine at the back of the room.
James undid the thick clamps running along the edge of the scanner’s domed lid. He gripped both the handles and pulled it open, revealing the neural transfer devices resting in the sleek depression in the scanner’s lower half. Dormant lights dotted the concave underside of the lid.
James stepped over the tangle of cords snaking away from the machinery, and after plugging two of the main ports into the high-voltage sockets, he returned to the scanner and flipped up a small compartment on the nearest end, depressing the button inside.
The lights in the scanner pulsed to life, and Benson squinted at their sudden intensity. Lights on the neural transfer devices flickered as well, waiting for something to read. The machine emitted a gentle, expectant hum.
“So, everything is functional?” Benson said
“I tested everything I could without actually transferring myself,” James said, looking at the ready machine with fondness and anticipation. “—that being the DNA targeting system and the mass-to-energy conversion.” He lay a hand on the helmet-like contraption inside the scanner. “—as well as the neural transfer devices. Everything worked beautifully. I was able to improve almost everything from the prototype, which had already worked pretty well in its own right.”
“Indeed.” Benson said. “How’s your little test subject doing?”
“Better than I had expected. Thriving beyond his former potential, actually.” Just two months before, James had been wondering about the very plausibility of organorobotic transference. But now the project had become mature and tangible, impossibility finally making the full transition to technological revolution.
“Wonderful,” Benson said with a good-natured smile. “We can start human trials as soon as possible. Say, this weekend, maybe?”
“I was actually just going to ask you about—” James halted as the full meaning of the director’s words took hold. “—this weekend?”
“Of course. I can have someone by tomorrow evening at the latest,” Benson replied. “We usually obtain human test subjects only as we need them. I’ll take care of the details.”
James stared at him blankly. “What?”
“I apologize for leaving that part out of our initial onboarding,” Benson said with an almost rueful smile. “It always sounds so deplorable at first, but it just takes some getting used to. Your expertise is unprecedented, so I have full faith we’ll not see any casualties with this trial.”
“You mean you—” James fumbled. He ran a hand through his hair as another wave of incredulity knotted his insides, as he tried and failed to come to grips with Benson’s words. “You use human test subjects on a regular basis?”
“Yes,” Benson said, unconcerned.
“Do they give you their permission?”
“Some do, eventually.”
“Eventually?” James turned off the scanner and reached up with both hands to grip scanner’s lid. Suddenly, Michael Benson didn’t seem so safe and amiable anymore. “This is why Empetrum is a secret, isn’t it…” He glanced over his arm at the director, who waited patiently for him to process. “Does the Bureau know?” The betrayal hit him even as the first slivers of fear took root. He had personally talked to Vihaan Dhar about Empetrum. Eve had known Dhar for at least ten years. “Dhar would never sponsor methods like this—”
Benson scoffed. “You are so innocent, Dr. Siles.”
James’ jaw tightened. He pulled the scanner shut, carefully, as if sealing their conversation, as well as his father’s fate. “I’m sorry, but I can’t align my research with a policy like that. The only way I can start clinical trials is with volunteers only. They have to be completely informed of the risks and willing to take them.”
“That would attract too much attention, and waste too much time,” Benson said. “You want results now, don’t you? Larkspur has already stood in your way long enough, and you can’t risk leaving your father to fate for much longer, can you?”
“No, but I—” James froze. “I never told you anything about that. How did you—You’ve been watching me?”
“For quite a while.”
James hesitated, reeling. Pushing the information back, he emphasized with as much resolve as he could muster, “Please let me do this the right way.”
“‘Right’ is subjective,” Benson said. “You’re insistence on it is simply not an option. You are serious about this project, aren’t you?”
“I am…” James admitted. “I want this more than anything, but—”
“Then pursue it harder than anything else,” Benson said coolly, turning fully to him. “Don’t hesitate to take risks and make sacrifices.”
“I can’t force others to make sacrifices for me,” James said.
Benson laughed. “You think you haven’t already?”
“What you propose is—is profoundly unethical.”
“Ethics,” Benson sighed. “You used a mouse for the first prototype, right? So you draw the boundary at animals. Apes are animals too, yet they are genetically very similar to humans, and we only value the human animal above everything else because it’s our own species. So how close is too close for you? Do you draw the line at self-awareness? The capability of abstract thought? You forced your rodent test subject to sacrifice its body for you. It had its own level of intelligence. It could still feel fear, and pain.” As Benson went on, James’ stomach sank, as his own double standard was revealed to him. “As you can see, everything sounds inhumane if you phrase it right. The world exists in shades of gray, Dr. Siles, and progress must be made regardless. The sooner you learn that, the better.” He considered the sleek, closed lid of the scanner. “We’re not senselessly cruel, you know. We do have our reasons for our choice of test subject.”
James crossed his arms to try to ward off the chill creeping through his body. “What reasons could justify experimenting on our own species?”
Benson’s pleased expression felt like a rope tightening around James’ throat. “I could discuss the advantage of intelligent test subjects, once their cooperation is secured, but really, for our ends, it’s far better to just go for the throat and test on the target species for the end goal of our research.”
James could hardly breathe. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “And what is that end goal?” He berated himself for neglecting to ask about Empetrum’s projects earlier, though now, he was afraid to know.
“Anthropic bio-enhancement,” Benson said. “Or, human weaponry, if you prefer.”
James’ attention crept back to his machine with a cold wave of horror. Organorobotic transference had human weaponry written all over it.
He suddenly remembered Richard’s words, Have you thought about how this could be abused? James raked a hand through his hair. He hadn’t seen reality through the stars in his eyes. His machine could give someone a second chance at life, but it could also turn them into something they were never meant to be.
Benson caught James’ change in expression. “Tomorrow,” he said, “your machine will see its first transferee.”
“No.” James took a step back toward the door. They couldn’t work it without him, and even less without his computer, which was programmed to direct the entire process. “I’m not doing this.”
“I understand you’re frightened of this next step, but it will pass,” Benson said, unperturbed. “This is nonnegotiable, Dr. Siles. We’re moving forward with your project whether you’re ready for the next step or not.”
If James abandoned Empetrum, his project would die or be dangerously delayed. His hopes of redemption would die, and his father would be left without a failsafe. But if James stayed, Benson would only ask for more, and before long, James would have embraced monstrosity as well.
Richard was right. James had to cull this project before it hurt someone. At Empetrum, James was not only allowed, but encouraged, to cross even the most sacred of boundaries in the name of innovation. Of course, who else but Benson would support his project, which had crossed a few of these lines already?
Biting back the emotion rising in his throat, James turned away from his machine.
“Are you leaving for the night?” the director said.
James took a steadying breath. “Yes, but I’m not coming back. Consider this my resignation,” he said. His voice shook. “Thank you for your interest in my work, and for extending the opportunity, but I can’t—I won’t continue like this.” He would never be able to face Richard again if he did. He strode toward the door. “I’m sorry I wasted both of our time.”
Richard and Eve’s reluctance to let him develop organorobotic transference had stymied his progress and hurt his pride, but he had come to rely on Richard’s quiet empathy. It wasn’t about not making waves, James realized, but about being careful to create positive ones. About solving more problems than he created.
The cracks his activities at Empetrum had already made in his relationship with Larkspur were on the verge of collapsing into a full rift, shattering everything he realized he still wanted. Maybe it wasn’t too late to save it.
Lesson learned. No one had to know.
“One moment, Dr. Siles,” Benson’s voice stopped him. In the ensuing silence, James heard him strolling toward him across the polished floor. “Be sure to keep everything you’ve seen and heard here to yourself.” James felt rooted in place as the director came into his field of vision beside him. “The moment you try something, I’ll know. And it would be a shame if your role at Empetrum were to change.”
James slowly forced himself to glance at the director. The taller of the two, James had to look down slightly to meet his gaze, but in that moment, James felt smaller than a child.
Benson’s gray eyes were steady and intense. “Do you understand?”
James stared at him, his throat extremely dry. He managed a nod.
Benson’s face softened with a pleasant smile, and he continued on ahead, taking his leave. “Good. See you tomorrow morning, then. Nine o’clock.”
James shook his head, dazed. “I’m resigning, Dr. Benson. I won’t be there.”
The director paused at the door. “Fight it if you want, Dr. Siles,” he said. “But there is no going back for you.”
James watched him go, his forehead cold and breathing disturbed. Only after Benson was long gone, did James move to gather his laptop, work notebooks, and the neural network and power core. He abandoned everything else in his lab and hurried to his apartment on campus, where he hastily repacked his suitcase and stowed everything, including Sesame, in his car. At any moment, he expected guards to apprehend him, but they all just watched him from their posts. As far as the rest of the facility was concerned, the evening’s events were only business as usual.
He went back to his on-campus apartment for one last check, and once he made sure he had everything in the car, he left his Empetrum access card and apartment key on the kitchen table.
James spent the forty minute drive back to Worthing in crushing, despondent anxiety. Benson had offered his unwavering confidence in James’ crazy ambitions, along with the promise to cultivate them instead of shrink back like Richard had.
And James had been caught in the spell.
He was ashamed to realize how easy it was for him to start turning his back on Larkspur. For several weeks now, he had known his loyalty was shifting, but he hadn’t cared. He had conflated their hesitance about his dangerous ideas with total rejection, and he had let himself reject them in turn.
Benson’s words still stung as James pulled up to his apartment in Worthing. There is no going back for you.
Empetrum was just a biotech company. Benson couldn’t force him to do anything, yet James still felt like he was marked.
Evening sunlight spilled into James’ empty apartment, casting a long shadow across the floor as he paused in the doorway, Sesame’s box heavy in his hands. The scents of woodwork and paint had since overtaken those of human habitation in the silent, stagnant air. He had returned very seldom to his dwelling over the last month, and the abandoned feeling of it burned his throat.
His eyes locked on something on the kitchen table. Leaving Sesame and his other effects crowded around an end table by the door, he warily ventured toward the object, his heart pounding in his ears. It was a pager of some kind. Under the small rectangular device lay a note, written in a neat hand that danced the line between print and cursive:
You’ll be needing this soon.
James took the pager in his shaking hands and turned to glance at his hushed surroundings. This certainly wasn’t legal. James breathed a heavy exhale, and wearily dropped into one of the chairs at the table.
If Benson had been watching him at Larkspur, he must have known when the best time was to extend the offer. He had played him, lied to him just enough. If he had only slowed down for just a moment, maybe he would have noticed before it was too late.
No matter what tactics Benson used to try to intimidate him, James resolved to resist. Even if Benson was watching his every move, he debated simply pretending nothing had happened and hoping for the best. Either way, organorobotic transference was dead.
The weight of James’ guilt and fear sat so heavy in his chest that he barely had room for breath, for grief that his revolutionary failsafe—this project on which he had hung so many hopes—would never move another step forward.
Maybe Benson would pull strings and get Richard to fire him, or try to get him blacklisted so he had to choose between his career or Empetrum. Benson had already proved himself shockingly manipulative, and James had a terrible feeling he would be stubborn as well.
James spent half the night overturning his entire apartment, looking for surveillance devices. His search turned up fruitless, and he lay awake the other half of the night worrying about it.
The next morning, he realized there was no food in apartment, and left, glad for any excuse to try to evade Benson’s radar. He stayed out for hours, wandering around feeling hunted, before he actually found himself at a grocery store. Finally, he reluctantly returned home and tried to work on the artificial intelligence program like he had told Richard he would.
But nothing came of his efforts. He couldn’t concentrate. He forgot to log his hours.
That evening, he received another text from Benson: You missed your appointment.
James didn’t reply. He half expected Benson to send someone to drag him back up to Empetrum to experience his machine firsthand as punishment. But that seemed hyperbolic. Benson lacked empathy, but James didn’t think he was insane.
No one ever came. He didn’t hear from Benson again for the rest of the night, and the lull continued long into the next day.
He wanted to call Richard. He needed someone to tell him what he should do—to lessen the endless torment of guilt and fear. But Richard could never know about this.
So James bided his time alone, miserably wondering if, or when, the details of his ruin would unfold.
Monday arrived and Benson continued to remain silent. James wondered if he was supposed to carry the pager with him, but he left the evil gesture where he had found it.
Richard asked if James had made any breakthroughs with the artificial intelligence program. Instead of bursting into tears, James nervously lied that he hadn’t had a chance to work on it. The rest of the day, he worked obsessively on whatever he could devote his attention to, but the gnawing fear soon became exhausting to hide.
And Heather noticed, like she always did. James wished she would just look the other way for once.
She asked him what was wrong, but he couldn’t answer.
Fight it if you want, but there is no going back for you.
Empetrum couldn’t possibly want him badly enough that Benson would destroy his life over quitting. He reminded himself that as long as he didn’t try to be a whistleblower, Benson would have no reason to come after him, but still, some deep, instinctive part of him knew this wasn’t over yet.
James lingered down in the lab after hours, alone with his laptop, still fussing with the program for the android’s artificial intelligence. He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t stay here. He felt like Benson was watching him at all times, and James just wanted to forget everything and pretend he didn’t even exist.
His cell phone rang, and the name in his caller ID made his face go cold. He rejected the call and pushed it away from him on the counter, cradling his face in his hands.
After a few minutes of heavy silence, the screen of his phone lit up again, and the gentle beeping sent even more ice creeping up his spine.
James stared at the pixels.
He raked both hands through his hair, trying to get a hold of himself. He considered getting up, going straight to Richard’s office where the director was finishing reports, and coming clean. Richard firing him could never be worse than whatever Benson had up his sleeves. But he was too afraid to face Richard’s disappointment.
“You’re going to want to pick that up.”
James snapped his head up to see a security guard, blond, toned, an easy determination about him. Steven Alder. James’ attention touched first on the Larkspur security guard uniform and then the gun in Alder’s hand. James’ phone quieted, and James stood up, backing away from both the missed call and the uniform as Alder raised his weapon.
“What are you doing?” James tripped backward over a seat left between the counters as Alder advanced. “Alder what are you doing?”
“The director will call back,” Alder said. “When he does, you will answer your phone.”
The phone on the counter began to ring again. When James didn’t move, Alder angled the gun toward James’ chest. Eyes wide, James reached forward, his whole arm trembling, and took the device from the counter.
Tapping the talk button, he raised it to his ear.
Richard typically completed and sent off their weekly report for the Bureau database on Friday, but he hadn’t had time before leaving on vacation for the weekend. So, with Heather’s approval, they were staying later Monday night to catch up instead.
As Richard typed away at his desk, Heather sat leaning against the wall behind it, reading a paperback.
She yawned as she turned a page. They had returned late the night before, and Heather had dismissed the option of taking the day off. Still, she looked forward to crashing on the couch back home.
“How are you doing Heather?” Richard’s voice made her look up. He glanced back at her.
“Sleepy,” she said. “You?”
Richard smiled. “Same.”
“How far do you have left to go?”
Richard slumped forward, propping his chin on a hand. “Half an hour, I hope.”
Heather pulled her cell phone from her pocket to check the time. 6:03.
“Thanks for hanging in there.”
“No problem.” Heather contemplated breaking out leftovers from lunch that afternoon. She tucked her cell phone into the front pocket of her bag, tired of looking at the screen.
Richard clicked the electronic mouse and resumed typing. As he consulted some of the notes on his desk, he said, “Hey, why don’t you go bug James? He’ll be more interesting than all this paperwork.”
Heather straightened up. “I thought he already left.”
“I don’t think he did.”
James had been out of sorts all day, his fidgety, industrious nature on full anxious overdrive. When she’d asked if he was okay, he’d insisted he was fine, pallid and on edge. Maybe he had received bad news about his dad.
She didn’t know how to ask him about it, but maybe he would appreciate some company, at least.
“You sure you’ll be fine here?” she asked facetiously, lingering at the desk.
Richard smiled, amused. “I’ll make it.”
“Tell him to go home, would you?” Richard called after her on her way to the door. “That one works too hard.”
Heather twisted around, flashing a smile. “Will do.”
“Dr. Benson,” James said, his voice flat.
“Good evening, Siles,” Benson said. “We haven’t heard from you for a while. You might have guessed, but you missed an important appointment this past weekend.”
“Yes, I know.” James apprehensively watched as Alder moved closer to him. “What have you done in my absence?”
“Nothing. This is your project, after all.”
“Not anymore,” James’ voice trembled, despite his best efforts to keep it steady. It still killed him to say it. “I told you, I won’t do it your way.”
“But you are going to do it my way. Everything is in place. The experiment will be tonight.”
James’ stomach clenched. “No, it won’t.”
“You remember our last conversation, do you not?”
James hesitated. “I do.” He hadn’t been able to get the exchange out of his head. “The answer is still no. I swear, I’m not going to tell anyone about Empetrum, but as far as I’m concerned, organorobotic transference is dead.”
“I think you’ll reconsider, given the situation.”
James glanced in dread at the traitorous security guard. Alder hadn’t lowered the gun.
“I’m not letting you squirm your way out of this, but you do have an option,” Benson continued. “Call it a last shred of mercy, if you like. There are only four people at Larkspur at the moment. Tonight’s test subject will be one of the two upstairs.”
Richard or Heather.
“No.” James backed away from Alder. “No, you’re insane! Why are you dragging the Brophys into this?”
“Whether or not you realized it, Siles, you’ve been handed off,” Benson said. “Our shared sponsors want you at Empetrum, and I gave you a chance to integrate willingly. Sooner or later, you were going to tell Brophy and Louis, and even though you scare them, they would have attempted to fight for you. If their wings were not clipped first, that is.”
James stared at Alder, his mouth hanging open. Benson’s words permeated his ribs like rot. “What?” he whispered. When he spoke again, his voice shook, desperate and juvenile. “You said the consequences would fall on me if I crossed you—which I haven’t.”
“I like this better.”
“You can’t make me do anything.”
“We’ll know the answer to that question by the end of the night.”
“There’s no way I’ll hurt the Brophys—” James cut himself off as the line clicked. “Benson? Do you hear me? You can’t make me do this!”
“Here’s how this will go.” Alder stepped forward. “Tell me which Brophy you want, and I’ll tranquilize them first.” He patted a different firearm on his belt. “Let’s do this quick and easy, Siles.”
James opened his mouth to protest, and Alder loomed closer.
“Either you take one of them for your project,” he emphasized. “Or I will dispose of both of them and pin the evidence on you.” He kept the weapon on James. “Understand?”
James stared at him, eyes wide.
Abruptly, James tried to dodge around the side of the counter. Maybe he could make it to the door and up the stairs to warn his friends before sustaining a mortal wound. But then what? Then what?
“Hey—” Alder grabbed James’ arm. He tugged him back and easily twisted his arm behind his back. James struggled but Alder caught and twisted the other arm too. “Cut your losses, kid, before you make this any worse. If you can’t make a decision, I can guarantee Brophy and his daughter will disappear tonight. Then Benson will literally shred you to pieces, and believe me, Siles, too many people are banking on your coming through for it to go down like that.”
“Okay,” James said, his throat tight. “Okay fine! I’ll use one of the people you bring in from wherever.” He felt like scum, but he needed to buy time.
“Too late for that,” Alder said. “Forgive us for not trusting you.”
“Just take me, then, if it’s too late!” James tried to wrench his arm from Alder’s grip. “The Brophys are good people! You know they don’t deserve this! Don’t the years you worked for Richard mean anything to you!”
Alder twisted his arm further behind his back, producing a yelp. “Get yourself together, or I’ll break your arm.” James’ cell phone slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.
“Is my cooperation really worth this?” James pleaded.
Alder didn’t reply.
“Is Benson afraid the experiment will fail? Is it because the body’s not done? And I can’t work from something like that?” James felt light-headed. His heart beat wildly in his chest. “Because a torso and half a head is great for anybody, right? What a great idea to force one of my friends into it!”
“You had your chance,” Alder said. “We could have done this quietly, but you tried to run. You act on our terms, now.”
James’ gaze darted around for anything he could use as leverage. He could threaten to kill himself. They couldn’t work the machine without him, and with James out of the equation, there would be no cause for Benson to go after his friends. If he could just get away from Alder, if he could get his phone, call the police. Something.
The door to the lab opened, and James’ heart leapt into his throat.
“Heather run get out of here!” he shrieked, pulling against Alder’s grip. Pain spiked up into his shoulder.
Heather jumped. “What—”
“Get out—” James’ voice cut off abruptly as Alder released his arm, jerked his shoulder up and jabbed the side of his fist into James’ throat.
James choked, clutching his neck and gasping for breath.
“James!” Heather shifted forward. The door closed behind her, sealing them in the soundproof lab. Alder raised the gun toward her. Heather froze and held up her hands.
“No—” James lurched toward the gun, but Alder quickly deflected him with a kick to the stomach. James staggered and fell. He tried to get up, but doubled over, folding his arms across his middle with a groan.
“Stay where you are,” Alder ordered. “Both of you.” He kept his aim trained on Heather. “Siles, you move, she dies right here.” He pushed up on a switch on the side of the gun. James knew very little about firearms, but he realized the safety lock had been on until that moment. “You have ten seconds. Make your choice. ”
James glanced helplessly between Heather and their attacker. Alder could be bluffing but James was too scared to call it. He wasn’t anywhere near close enough to shield her. He couldn’t cry for help. No one would hear him.
He hated himself. More than he had ever hated himself before.
But his machine would work. Transference for one or death for both. He couldn’t transfer Richard. But he couldn’t transfer Heather either.
Alder grimly counted down. Heather’s gaze was trained on him, her eyes wide and frightened.
Her blood would spill all over the floor. Her death would be on his hands, regardless of whose finger pulled the trigger.
Richard had access to more resources. Maybe he even knew something about Empetrum that James had been too stupid to ask about. Benson would try to cover this up, but Richard might be able to find his daughter.
A slim possibility. That was all he had. Heather knew too much. If he chose Richard, Benson would make her disappear anyway.
Alder was about to utter the number nine. He clicked back the hammer.
“Okay I’ll do it!” James gasped. “I’ll do it. Please just put the gun away.”
Alder didn’t move. “Which one?”
James choked on it, “Heather.”
The shock and confusion in Heather’s face pierced him like hot iron.
“Good choice.” Rounding the counter, Alder switched his gun to the other hand, pulled the tranquilizer from his belt, and shot her with it.
She fell against the door with a gasp, her hand flying to her arm. The door opened a crack and she tried to slip through the space, but then Alder was there. Heather was too frightened to make a sound as he tugged her back into the lab. The door sealed them back inside.
James stood up slowly, his arms crossed over his middle. He watched the gun back in his enemy’s dominant hand, and debated whether he still had a chance.
Alder guided Heather around so his back was to the door, blocking the exit. Only then did he release her. She stumbled back toward the other exit near James.
James prepared to catch her, but she shifted away from him, her face ashen and confused. Already, lethargy was taking hold, and she staggered as she backed away. James moved in front of the door. Heather’s gaze flicked toward the equipment room, but they both knew there was no escape through there.
Heather pulled out the small dark dart. She squinted at it before holding it up to James’ tortured expression. “What is this?” Her voice shook. “James…what have you done?”
“I’m so sorry, Heather.” James said, useless, pleading. “I’m so incredibly sorry.”
She backed further away from them both, shaking her head, cornered. Her balance faltered, and she fell sideways to her hands and knees as the tranquilizer began to overcome her.
She tried unsuccessfully to pick herself up. She looked up at James with difficulty. “You have to stop this…”
James could only stare at her as she succumbed, sinking to the cold, polished floor.
He stood over his friend, rooted in place, his stomach hurting and his aching heart pounding in his ears. If he had only known what his alignment with Empetrum would come to. If only he had just trusted Richard and walked away.
He wished some supernatural force would suddenly strike him down, severing Benson’s use for the Brophys. No one had to miss him, or even remember him. If only James could be wiped from existence so no one else had to pay for his mistakes.
But only silence assailed him. Despite every frantic prayer emanating from his wretched being, James continued to exist. His future stretched before him, dark, void, mocking.
“Get what you need together.” Alder rounded the counter and picked up James’ cracked cellphone from the floor. “I’m knocking Brophy out and then we’re leaving.” He brandished his tranquilizer on his way to the door. “Don’t leave this lab until I come back.”
“My android’s not even finished yet.” James narrowed his eyes. Pain tore through his chest, as if he had already killed her. The replacement body was only a torso and half a head, completely devoid of sensors. He couldn’t stomach imagining what it would be like for her to wake up like that. “I won’t put her in that thing. It’s not ready.” As if he were even in a position to negotiate. “At least let me postpone the transfer until I can finish it.”
Alder tilted his head toward the other lab. “What about the body in there? You could outfit that in like two seconds, right?”
James couldn’t bring himself to answer.
“Good,” Alder said. “Do that if you want, but get it together quickly or headless robot’s her new home.” He paused at the door. “I’ve locked all the exits. If you try anything, I’ll find out, and I don’t think I have to remind you what’s at stake.”
James nodded, his jaw tense.
Alder left him alone in the silent, soundproof lab with his victim. James hated to think what was about to happen upstairs. Richard didn’t know what James had done. How much he was about to tear apart their lives.
No one would try to rescue James from Empetrum after this. Benson was getting exactly what he wanted.
“I am so sorry,” James murmured again, brushing at tears as he moved to comply with Alder’s orders. The words dripped hollowly from his lips like a leaky faucet. “I’m so sorry…”
Within minutes, Alder returned. At gunpoint, James hauled the android and anything he needed to adapt it to his own machinery out to his car. Then he went back in for Heather.
The facility stood dark and watchful as he struggled to single-handedly transport her through the lobby and out the front doors, his arms locked under hers and her feet dragging on the floor. Alder hovered with his gun.
The warmth of her limp body pressed into his, and he wished more than anything he didn’t have to take it from her. That heat, that lifeblood.
James really was a better candidate for his machine. Becoming robotic would have simply manifested what he already was. Heather was the opposite, an empathetic, organic soul whose affection James had never once deserved.
Alder helped him get her into the back seat of James’ car, and James carefully looped the middle seatbelt around her. In bleak, heavy resignation, he closed the door.
Maybe somehow, once they got to Empetrum, James would be able to buy more time.
As Alder drove him off the Larkspur campus, up into the hills, further and further from civilization, James clung desperately to that small hope.
Heather’s eyes opened slowly. Disoriented, she tried to remember what had happened, and then her unsteady focus trained on James’ face. His eyes widened when he saw she was awake.
He had pricked her finger and drawn blood.
“James…?” She couldn’t move her limbs. “What’s going on?” Something thick with weight cocooned her head like a helmet, except the sides were connected to a frame clamped over her shoulders, keeping her immobile. The helmet sent a jittery sensation through her skull like thousands of needlepoints all over her scalp.
She realized she was lying inside a machine. It looked like a hybrid between a tanning bed and an MRI machine, with bright light flooding over her from the underside of a looming, concave lid.
“Please, try to relax,” James spoke urgently. She struggled to keep her vision in focus. He leaned aside, and she caught the modest hum of a panel opening and closing somewhere near her bound ankles. “You’re gonna be all right. You’re gonna make it.”
As the grogginess ebbed away, fear mounted to take its place. Her face still felt torpid and slow from the lingering effects of the tranquilizer. “James, please tell me what’s happening.” Her unfocused vision landed on a door, pipes and wires on the walls, a makeshift computer setup across the room on a folding table with wires snaking down and across the floor out of sight.
A man with narrow glasses stood behind the table, waiting.
James reached up for the handles on the raised lid. “This is the only way through.”
Foggily, Heather began to remember where she’d seen the concave lid before. She recognized this machine. The scanner bed, the headgear emitting a sensation James himself had called “pins and needles.”
This was his project. The project.
James hesitated, readjusting his grip on the handles. He looked down at her, brokenly. “I’m so sorry, Heather.”
Heather fought her restraints, horrified as the lid descended. “No! James stop!”
The panels of lights fell closed above her face as the lid pulled all the way down. The first latch folded shut outside near her head. “You were supposed to abandon this! James! Why are you doing this! Let me out!”
“This is the only way through,” James begged, his taut voice muffled. “Please believe me…”
“No! You can’t do this!” Heather’s desperation rang loudly in her ears in the tight space. “You’ve lost your mind! James! Are you listening to me? You can’t do this!”
He didn’t answer.
The sound of Heather’s own frantic breathing inundated her within the helmet. She tried to twist her neck, her shoulders, feeling for a weak spot, anything to open the frame keeping her still.
With a resounding click like the closing of a lighter, the space flooded with white light from both the top and bottom surfaces. The machine hummed all around her.
“No,” she gasped. “No no no…”
Heather squinted as the light intensified. A blue beam scanned the length of her body. It flickered and trained on the space she occupied. After a brief lull, the target locked, and the humming deepened. The light became unbearably bright—so much so that she only barely saw the edges of the container.
“James,” she choked, futile, terrified. Tears ran down her face as she closed her eyes to shut out the light. “Please.” James’ terror and pain at Larkspur repeated over and over in her mind. His desperate, violently thwarted attempts to protect her.
She didn’t understand.
She couldn’t possibly be about to end up like Sesame. An experiment. An inorganic system of wires and metal.
The humming broke into a rhythmic, undulating pattern. Then the light stopped pressing through her eyelids. She opened her eyes to see it had dimmed, grouping to a scattering of small dense points. Like hundreds of illuminated pupils gazing at her from another dimension.
She stared at it in horror. If James’ experiment didn’t kill her, no one would recognize her. She didn’t know what body James was putting her in. Would she remember?
Would anyone ever find out what had happened to her?
The points released, exploding into an overwhelming flash of hot, electrified light. Heather’s scream thudded mutedly in her ears amid the snapping, squealing roar of the inside of the machine. Hot claws clamped on her head, rooting in and jerking upward.
The jolt tore the surface away from her body. She left the sounds behind as if through a tunnel, and in the ensuing dark and silence, occasional lights burst across her vision—flashing, forking like lightning, and flickering away.
Her chest seized up. She couldn’t breathe. Her back arched and eyes snapped open wide to a view of the outside contour of the scanner. Wires crowded the edges of her vision. She thought she was still screaming but only an odd, strangled buzzing crackled in her ears.
Her head was open. Arcs of fire pulsed down her limbs.
James stood behind the computer across the room, hands clasped anxiously under his nose, next to the man with the narrow glasses.
She waited, blankly, in those few delirious seconds, for her throat to unlock, for air to fill her lungs. But it never did.
Dark, cold, emptiness fell like a hammer and smothered her instead.