Richard woke up on the floor.
He slowly pushed himself up with a soft moan, raising a hand to his head.
The details of the attack returned to his memory by degrees: Alder appearing in the doorway with a nod and a condescending, “Sir…” The pop of some kind of gun. A barb in Richard’s chest.
Richard bolted upright and swooned, his hand landing heavily on the edge of his desk as he caught himself. Where was Heather? The dizziness was still subsiding as he fixed his glasses and groped through the dark to the door.
“Heather? James?” He stepped into the hallway. James’ door was closed, and he found the office empty. “Heather?” No answer.
Richard hurried downstairs and pulled unsteadily on the door to the empty lab. “Heather are you here?”
The fluorescent lights buzzed in the excruciating stillness.
Dread thudded in his chest as he found the equipment room, the storage areas, and the adjoining lab vacant as well. Running now, Richard burst clumsily into the lobby and crossed the polished floor to a door near the front entrance. He weaved down the hallway, opening every door and calling his daughter’s name.
“Heather!” He ended up back in the dim lobby. Where were the security guards? “Heather! Answer me! Where are you!” He rounded the desk to check the security screens. The surveillance system had been disconnected.
When he booted it back up, every feed confirmed his fears. The facility was stagnant, deserted. He tried to access the archives to see what had happened in the last several hours he had been unconscious, but all video was nonexistent for that period of time.
Richard could only stare at the screen, on the verge of hyperventilation. He straightened up, then, remembering an absence of something he hadn’t had attention for his first time through the labs. He lurched back to the nearest lab entrance and stood in the doorway, frozen, his eyes fixed on the empty counter.
The android was missing.
Richard stepped forward. Black spots plagued his vision, as his mind began to piece together a mortifying conclusion.
Abruptly, Richard pushed back through the door, sprinted across the lobby, and tripped up the stairs again. He snatched his cell phone from his desk. The time was 9:14. There was a string of texts from Sue, starting from 2 hours earlier: How’s goes it?
Where are you guys? Is everything ok?
Richard, please answer, I’m getting really worried.
Are you on your way?
She had called him several times, but he’d missed all of it.
Richard called his daughter. Her cell phone rang from within the confines of the room. Slackening his phone from his ear in dismay, Richard craned his neck to look over the desk at her backpack.
If he checked her phone, there probably would have been worried texts from Sue as well.
James was very likely the last person to have seen her. Richard dialed his number, praying for encouraging news.
The call went straight to voicemail. He tried again, with the same result. He waited to leave a message the second time, but after the tone, he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He tried a third time.
At the tone, he said, shakily. “H-hey James…I can’t find Heather. Is she with you? Are you all right? Please call me as soon as you get this. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m so worried. Please call me back.”
His throat ached as he rounded his desk and looked out the window above Heather’s bag. The parking lot was empty, save for his own car. There should have at least been a security guard at the facility. Two of them, in fact.
Any moment, Heather would return to Richard’s office and ask why he was crying, trying to see through a barrage of tears to tap in the correct sequence that would call his partner. Heather would complain about how embarrassing he was being while he tried to laugh it off and joke about being overly protective. He would wrap his arms around his daughter, and most assuredly begin to cry anew from the overwhelming relief—because he had thought she’d been kidnapped with no warning or explanation. He had been dying inside, worrying something unspeakable had happened to her.
Standing alone in the darkness of his office, cellphone up to his ear, Richard waited like a lost child for that moment.
Heather’s system emerged from dormancy with a soft click.
Her eyes opened, and her vision sharpened to startlingly high resolution. A white paneled ceiling loomed above her set with quietly buzzing lights.
She blinked. Her eyelids clicked. Disoriented, she tried to sit up, but her wrists were strapped down. James sat against the wall nearby, his head and crossed arms folded over his knees, asleep.
Something tweaked abruptly in her head and her body seized. She dropped back to the table with a hard metallic clunk. Her vision glitched.
James gave a start, jerking up so quickly his head banged back against the wall. He pulled forward, gripping his affronted cranium with a groan. He twisted and met Heather’s gaze, dumbstruck.
Heather looked down, testing her hands as she surveyed the sleek metal body stretched out on the table. A glowing circular power core with a crystalline center poked out from the open panel in its chest. The core didn’t fit. The outside panel that was supposed to close and protect it had been removed, and strips of black tape spanned the gap, keeping the device in place. A wire ran from somewhere inside, off the table down toward the floor.
Her eyes widened.
She recognized this body.
“James…” A dull, faltering buzz issuing from her face adjusted to an electronic semblance of her own voice. It was eerie, a voice absent of breath vibrating through vocal cords. A soft, horrified imitation. She looked to James, who slowly raised himself to his feet. “What have you done?”
He rubbed the back of his head, staring at the floor. “They were going to kill you if I didn’t.” He talked faster, haunted, “He was dead set on punishing me for trying to back out, but the other model was horribly unfinished. It didn’t even have eyes and I couldn’t bear to…” He cut himself off, closing his eyes in an expression of pain. “Heather, I am so sorry.” He looked up with trepidation. “Are you all right?”
Heather’s eyes narrowed, venomously. But as she returned her gaze to the ceiling, her expression softened. Her voice sounded very small to her, incredibly artificial. “You tell me…”
James ventured nearer, shoulders slumped. A smear of mechanical grease marred the front of his shirt.
“Please tell me I’m a copy,” Heather hardly dared to say it, but crazily, she hoped for the only reconcilable solution: That this, her awareness, was not what she thought it was. That she was something else. Something she could learn to accept, somehow. “I’m somewhere else, right? The real me? Please tell me she’s alive—that she survived.”
“She…?” James said, slowly, not comprehending. His voice was raspy and quiet, “I—it doesn’t work that way…It was the same process as the prototype.”
Heather could only stare at him, her eyes large and lost, and her body as still as a sculpture.
He seemed to crumple in on himself in the long silence between words. When he finally spoke again, his voice dragged out with overwhelming inertia. He sounded like his brain was shutting down, faculty by faculty. “Your body is gone, Heather,” he said. “Converted to energy. I’m sorry.”
She shifted her gaze to the ceiling as his words sank in.
There was no real Heather. She was it.
The survivor of a one-way trip.
“Do my parents know?”
“No,” James said. “—Well, considering the android’s gone, the possibility’s probably occurred to them.”
“How—” She looked down at herself, unable to fathom that the robotic body before her had replaced her own. Yet it was moving, speaking with her voice. She saw with its eyes, heard with its auditory receivers. A forced, irreversible symbiosis. “Why did this happen? Who made you do all this?”
“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to explain right now…”
“No, James. You have to explain,” Heather said, desperate, furious. “What happened to clinical trials and willing volunteers? What happened to people who had no hope left? I was your friend and you used me. You killed me! You killed my body! What I am now—I really may just be a copy!” If she were still organic, she would have been nauseated. Profoundly, forcefully sickened by the implications of everything he had done to her. “The real Heather may be dead and we’ll never really know for sure!”
She still wanted to think she was Heather, but on some level, she was fake. She would never be fully real again.
James was very still, hanging like a tattered shadow before her.
“Didn’t you stop to think?” her voice faltered, warbling in and out of pitch like a broken speaker. She pulled at her restraints. “Just once? Didn’t you think even for one second that this wasn’t the answer? That my dad and I weren’t just tools to move around until you got what you wanted?” She lay back and looked away. She couldn’t stand his crestfallen face anymore. “That’s all we ever were to you, weren’t we? Just a means to an end.”
“This isn’t what I wanted…” James said.
“Well then what did you want?”
James glanced up, and she was startled by the sharpness of the pain she saw in his demeanor, how his entire essence seemed to choke on itself. Hatred and anger and remorse trying to speak, but unable to.
His gaze fell again.
He shook his head, futile.
The minutes of memory before the transfer played over and over behind her eyes. The gun, the guard counting down, James kicked to the floor.
“Someone made you do this,” she said, trying again. He was unbelievably shaken by what he had done, but she needed him to talk to her.
He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out at first.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, his voice little more than a whisper. “They were helping me when Richard told me to give it up. I realized they weren’t who I thought they were, and I tried to back out. I didn’t think that deserved this…I don’t know…”
Heather stared at him, trying to make sense of that response.
“I wish I could fix this,” he said. “More than anything. You have every right to hate me. I guess I even kind of welcome it.”
Silence reigned between them. A twisting sensation plagued Heather’s artificial chest.
She wanted to hate him too.
“I tried so hard to keep you and Richard out of it but—” his voice trembled. “I never even considered that this would happen. If I had known how this was going to end up, I’d have never even built the first prototype.”
“Wouldn’t you have, though?” Heather said quietly. “Your dad—This was meant for him, wasn’t it?”
“But I would never sacrifice you for him,” James said. “Never.” He took a breath so unsteady it was almost a sob. “I would give anything to take this all back.”
“Take me home, James” Heather said, hopelessly. “Please, at least do that much.”
“I’ll do what I can…”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I want so much to grant your request, but I don’t hold that power,” James said, bowing his face. “If I rebel any more, it will just make things worse. Please, you have to believe me.”
She looked at him for a long moment, trying to recognize the man before her. It was strange how quiet her body was without breath. Silent, cold despair. Ice seeping into cracks.
She turned her face away. “I want to be alone right now.”
“Okay.” He stepped back from the table. He cleared his throat, but his voice remained unsteady, “Your neural network and power core aren’t secured in place, so I can’t let you off the table yet…But I’ll give you some time—I need a few hours of sleep, anyway. And then I’ll be back to untie you, begin diagnostics…to make sure you’re all right.”
“I’m not all right,” Heather muttered.
James’ lips tightened, conceding. He met her gaze. “I really am sorry, Heather. This may be my last chance to say it.” He dismally left her line of sight.
The door closed behind him, and Heather stared at the ceiling, listening to his receding footsteps. She didn’t know what their relation to each other would be when he returned. She didn’t know what to think, or what to do.
There would be no recovering from this.
A guard was waiting outside the examination room.
“Don’t you people sleep?” James muttered.
“I’m to escort you to your apartment,” the guard said simply.
James said nothing else as he stalked down the hall and out the security doors into the cool night air. As he trudged across the Empetrum campus, the guard soundless behind him, James glanced up at the sky. In so remote a place, the stars crowded like countless armies in the endless expanse, unbearably cold and indifferent to the pressurized devastation corroding his soul.
“So I’m a prisoner too?” James asked as they made their way up the stairs of the housing complex reserved for researchers. The guard didn’t bother answering.
James opened the door to his apartment and paused, waiting for the guard to leave. The man gestured for him to proceed. Warily, James obeyed, and his escort followed him in.
“You’re not going to stay here, are you?” James said.
“Those are my orders.” The guard shut the door behind them.
James ran his hand through his hair, and numbly took to removing his shoes.
“You received a voicemail around eight o’clock tonight,” the guard said. He pulled James’ confiscated cell phone from his breast pocket. “The director thought you should hear it, now that you’re finished with your experiment.”
James nodded, nauseated.
The man tapped the cracked screen, playing the message on speakerphone, and James soon realized it wasn’t whom he had expected. Instead of Heather’s dad, he recognized his own father’s voice.
“Hello James,” Jonathan Siles said. “I see you still don’t like to pick up your phone. But I suppose you’re probably busy. I just thought you would appreciate knowing I started this new type of treatment several weeks ago, and—though we were pretty skeptical at first—I’m actually responding remarkably well to it.” James gave the guard a tight, quizzical expression. “The tumors are shrinking dramatically, and, the way things are going, the doctors say I have a very good chance of pulling through.” There was a pause. “So yes. That’s all I have to say. I hope things are going well on your end. Have a good night, son. Hope maybe to hear from you soon…”
As the message ended and the guard stowed the phone, James exhaled and turned, unable to believe what he’d just heard.
“I’ll be outside, if you need anything,” the guard said, and left James to his thoughts.
James drifted further into the living room. His dumb shock gave way to jerky, incredulous exhales, which melded into a steady chuckle on the edge of sorrow and mirth.
He leaned against the nearest wall. He wrapped his arms around his aching sides and squeezed his eyes shut as the laughter pulled harder from his throat and lungs. It was compulsive, painful. He couldn’t breathe, but he couldn’t stop.
His father was going to be fine. If only James had called them when he’d thought about it.
This had all been for nothing. He had destroyed Heather’s life, and his along with it—for nothing. It was over. His whole motivation behind organorobotic transference had proven unnecessary just as the project had been wrenched out of his control. He had been forced to use his purest passions to hurt those that meant most to him.
He was banned from access to all communication with the outside world, so he had no way to explain anything to anyone, not even to Heather’s parents. And James could do nothing to help her. Benson had him too perfectly controlled. He felt his grip in his chest, squeezing too tightly, strangling everything to cold, shriveled charcoal.
He slid to a sitting position on the floor, still laughing and sobbing at once, tears streaming down his face.
He couldn’t make any of this right. James had nothing left now but Empetrum.
James responded to Benson’s summons on his pager without comment. He thought maybe he should show more backbone, but the night before had torn it out of him.
He felt reduced to a whipped terrier as he stood before Benson’s desk, waiting to be spoken to.
“Your experiment was a success, then—as expected?” Benson said. “She woke up? She spoke to you?”
“Yes,” James said, vacantly. “But I’ll need to monitor her.”
“Of course. I won’t take too much of your time. I just needed to discuss some guidelines I’ll need you to follow.”
James waited for him to continue. Heather was still strapped down on the first floor, in the middle section of his tripartite lab. He hated himself for leaving her in isolation for four hours. Even though she’d asked him to give her space. Even though he had needed the time to recover some shred of composure before facing their new reality.
He could still hear the rumors of his broken, sobbing laughter in his mind. It was still a ready tightness at the back of his throat.
“First off,” Benson said, “Ms. Brophy may not go home.”
“Why?” James asked, lifelessly. Benson had already made it clear he didn’t need a reason for anything he did.
“You used Larkspur’s android,” he said it like it was a great inconvenience. “They’ll find a way to trace it back here.”
“I can build her another body and send the old one back,” James muttered. “Can she go home then?”
Benson gazed at him, eyebrows patiently raised, like James had said something stupid. “Her whole existence points back to you, even if you were to wipe her memory. Richard Brophy is never to find out about Empetrum.”
He recalled Richard being Benson’s other candidate for the machine. The director had known James wouldn’t pick Richard, then. Or maybe he was changing the rules as he went.
“If you didn’t want him to find out about Empetrum, you shouldn’t have involved his daughter,” James said instead, sullenly.
“They were the only people you seemed to care about, and I won’t underestimate them.” Benson laced his fingers together on his desk. “If this will be too much for you, I suppose you could submit yourself to an organic mindwipe and be free to continue your life elsewhere with no memories of this having ever taken place.”
“I thought you said I had no choice in this.” James stared at his dim reflection in the dark, polished floor. “And besides, what would I even have to return to? I can’t go back to Larkspur. I can’t leave Heather here alone…”
Benson’s features softened into a wan, pleased smile. “Then I believe you understand your duties moving forward.”
James cradled his head in his hands.
Slowly, he was starting to understand. Forcing him to transfer Heather wasn’t nearly so much punishment as it created a mountain of leverage. To keep James perfectly complicit and cooperative in Benson’s nightmare, while taking the worst stab at Richard possible.
Richard didn’t even know about Empetrum. What could he and Eve have possibly done to make Benson hurt them like this?
James had to try to accept this as the way things were. His good intentions had only invited devastation, with more to come if he tried anything else. Perhaps the part of him that had gotten them into this mess could take the lead. They could both survive, quietly, and hope that one day Richard would find a way to get to them. To her.
If James himself moved against Benson, the consequences would fall on Heather. Avoiding that was the only thing he had control over now.
“You will be closely monitored,” Benson was saying, “and required to be available at any time, so keep your pager with you. You may keep Ms. Brophy in your lab with appropriate security accommodations, as long as you can handle it. If you can’t, you will be suspended from the project. I have other, more important matters to steer you into soon, but you may continue to work on organorobotic transference full time until then. Expect to meet with me once a day to make a full report.”
James nodded, slowly. He had half a mind to take a crowbar to the machine as soon as this meeting was over, but he resolved to dismantle it quietly. Or simply seal off that room and hope it decayed on its own.
“Ms. Brophy must cooperate, or she will be punished,” Benson said. “Paint me however grotesquely you want—I don’t care—but refrain from mentioning identifying particulars about personnel or the facility. If you utter them, I will find out, and she will be punished for that too.”
James’ expression darkened, but he said nothing.
“This arrangement will proceed according to your initiative,” Benson said. “If you must leave, leave. But if you must stay, then you will make yourself useful. I reserve the right to fire you if this doesn’t work out.”
James nodded slowly, suffocating under the director’s confident authority. Benson talked like he had a choice, but James had never had a choice at all.
Benson studied him for a long moment. “Where’s your first test subject, if I may ask? The mouse?”
James didn’t move. After hours of shock and tears and trembling, he had become very still as a silent, heavy darkness bloomed in his chest. The weariness of a much older man settled into the features on his long, callow face. The birth of a mad scientist, he thought.
“I destroyed it,” James said.
“I was trying to cut ties with the project. I didn’t want the reminder.”
Benson scoffed, skeptical. “I don’t see you as the unnecessary culling type.”
“I deactivated and dismantled it,” James said. “It was quiet, humane. Heather doesn’t know, and I’d rather she not find out. I stripped the neural network down to its components, to repurpose, but I didn’t make it far after that. The pieces of the body are scrapped somewhere. I don’t know how much of it made it here. We left in a hurry.”
Benson was nodding. “It’s for the best, I suppose.”
James nodded too. He had surprised himself.
How easy it had been in that moment, to lie to the director.
Heather lay still with her eyes closed and senses dulled. At least she could do that much, drown it out for a while. She wanted to go home. James had to fix this, but he had made it clear he didn’t intend to do anything.
She dimly heard the door open. Pulling herself to full awareness, she lifted her shoulders and twisted to see James enter the room with a guard.
The young engineer might as well have had “I hate my life” tattooed across his forehead.
“Sleep well?” Heather asked, bitter and disillusioned as she returned to a supine position. She envied his human needs. Requirements she no longer had to cater to.
He shook his head as he came up to the table. He had what looked like black gym shorts in his left hand.
“I didn’t mean to make you wait so long,” he said. “I’m going to take you through those doors over there to the main part of my lab, but before I release your wrists, remember the energy unit in your chest isn’t tied down well beyond the tape, and there are very makeshift supports in your head for the neural network. I had to throw it together quickly at gunpoint…So please don’t try anything reckless, okay?”
“Okay…” She felt like he was threatening her.
He avoided her gaze while he checked along the underside of the table for the straps’ release button. The metal bands snapped back into the table. Heather held a tentative metal palm over the energy unit and sat up. Her body hummed softly as it moved.
She carefully shifted her legs around so they dangled off the table, watching her free robotic hand plant on the edge of the surface. She still couldn’t believe any of this was happening—that this artificial body was her new tether to the physical world.
She grudgingly accepted his arm to steady her as she lowered her feet to the floor. She locked out her knees so they wouldn’t buckle and stood still for a moment, noticing the pressure sensors in her limbs. She wasn’t confident she could walk without stumbling. Compared to her organic body, the tactile sense in Larkspur’s android was crude at best.
She looked at the gym shorts. “Are those for me?”
“Yeah.” He handed them over. “If you want. I—I thought the familiarity might be…I don’t know…”
“Thanks,” she said, very quietly. She didn’t feel naked, but at least she could indulge the constant of cloth against her foreign robotic exterior—pretend old rules still applied.
She paused, trying to decide how she would don the shorts, then bent her knees experimentally. Her legs were well connected and seemed decently sturdy.
James kept his distance.
She glanced at the guard standing near the door.
“So you have your own lab here,” she said, managing to balance enough on one foot to work the shorts on with her free hand. As she bent forward, she felt something shift inside her head. “Three labs, it sounds like.”
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“How fortunate for you,” she droned. As she adjusted the shorts on her robotic hips, she noticed a vague tactile sensation—less a signal from pressure sensors and more a simple awareness of whether or not she was being touched. An electromagnetic field, like Sesame had. She had felt it on her back while on the table. “I’m so glad you paid my body for this.”
“It was the price to keep you alive,” James said, tired and passive. “It was either this or let them kill you and your dad. Please believe me—I did everything I could to prevent your transfer.” He bowed his head. “It wasn’t enough. I’m sorry.”
Heather frowned at the floor. She still wanted to trust him. She believed he was remorseful, but it wasn’t enough to just be sorry. It didn’t matter how many times he said it.
She wondered where Sesame was, but was too afraid to ask.
“Can you walk?” James said.
“I think so.”
“May I pull out that wire?” he asked, uncertainly.
“I can do it.”
As she carefully pried her mechanical fingers through the tape, searching for the connection point along the side of her chest cavity, James said, “They made me choose between you and your dad, for the transfer.”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “They said something about making it so he and Eve wouldn’t fight for me, because the government wants me here instead. When you walked in on me arguing with that guard, I knew they were going to try to get rid of you no matter what, so…” He couldn’t bring himself to continue.
“So I’m supposed to thank you?” she said, gingerly pulling the wire free and setting it on the table behind her. “If I hadn’t have barged in, who would you have chosen?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“It would have been me anyway, wouldn’t it?”
He didn’t answer.
She glared at the floor. James was so stupid for getting mixed up in this. She wanted to tell him so.
And she might have, if he didn’t already know it. The awareness of his colossal lack of foresight was written all over him: in his slumped shoulders, dark circles under dull eyes. His hair stuck up more than usual, and he was still wearing the same shirt he’d worn to work the day before, stained with grease with the rolled up sleeves scrunched and uneven.
“Who was that guard, anyway?” she asked instead.
“Not who we thought he was,” James said. “I’m not allowed to give names.”
“Of course you’re not.”
He gestured toward the door, as if he barely had the strength to lift his arm. “This way. Please be careful.”
His sullenness angered her, but she complied. The guard stepped forward as James moved toward the door. Heather found herself sandwiched between the two, her metal feet clicking against the floor.
She tilted her face up to regard the back of James’ head while he opened the door to the other lab. He seemed quite a bit taller than before. Larkspur’s android was shorter than Heather was accustomed to. Her rightful body used to come up to James’ chin, but in this mechanical one, she hardly reached the top of his shoulder.
As they entered the other lab, a busy but lonely space with more cabinets and counters, and four tall windows at the far end of the room, Heather’s attention gravitated to her chest. Beams of soft light swirled from the device behind the tape. Her body was in there, ripped from its identity as cell and muscle and bone, slowly being burnt up so she could live. Staring into it filled her with revulsion.
Had it converted her soul to energy too?
Organorobotic transference. How could she have ever thought it was a good idea? This was how James thanked those who cared about him?
She had only ever wanted to help him. She had trusted him.
But James had made her a test subject. Not a volunteer, a human test subject.
Her forehead bumped into James’ shoulders. Startled, she tripped backward and the guard caught her before she fell flat on her back. The supports inside her head shifted.
“Sorry…” She winced as it shifted back when she straightened up. Her vision glitched again.
“Are you all right?” James turned around.
She averted her gaze. The thought of living the rest of her life in the body of an automaton, trapped in this hell of polished floors and fluorescent lights, almost made her wish the transfer had failed. Things were only going to get worse from here.
And if by some miracle she made it back to her family, there couldn’t possibly be a place in this world for her.
James paused, like he wanted to say something. Probably to apologize again. She willed him not to.
Thankfully, he spared her, and continued to the counter across the room. He pulled out a padded desk chair. “Over here, please.”
Heather ventured forward, and finally her gaze landed upon an eerie mass of wiring propped up against the far wall like a corpse. She hesitated. James noticed her looking, and followed the direction of her attention to the piecemeal robotic body slumped on top of the counter.
“That’s the unfinished one?” she said, her voice soft.
“Yeah.” He searched inside the drawers of a metal tool chest.
Heather slowly lowered herself into the chair. It was tall for her. As she adjusted it, she considered the angular, faceless head across the room. The other robot was barely more than an incomplete skeleton. A meager frame laced with a spinal cord of wires. Empty eye sockets. “Thanks, for not putting me in that.”
James nodded. He unrolled a small, soft case on the counter behind her, to the left of her head. It held a spread of fine-headed screwdrivers. As he slipped one from its place, he said carefully, “Heather…I need you to promise you’ll cooperate. If either of us try to rebel, they told me they’ll focus all the consequences on you.” She twisted around to look at him, and to her surprise, his hazel eyes met hers, earnest and afraid. “Please, you have to cooperate.”
Heather’s eyes narrowed. “And stay here forever?”
He looked away. “We don’t have much choice. This happened because I tried to tell them no. Please, Heather, this is for your safety.”
“I have the resources here to build you a more suitable body—”
“Yeah, but if I can’t leave here, what’s the point?” she said. “My neural network might as well be plugged into a toaster. Wouldn’t make a difference, would it?”
James went to open his laptop on the counter near the incomplete robot. “I’m sorry.”
“You keep saying that.”
“It’s all I can offer right now.” His back was turned, but the guard that had followed them in stood by the door, watching her closely.
“No it’s not, James,” she said. “You know what’s happening. You know how to stop this.”
He hunched his shoulders. “I don’t,” he rasped. “I can’t.”
Heather’s vision cut out for a moment and her head twitched sharply. She wearily raised a hand to her face. Metal fingers touched the smooth metal panel. She felt she was wearing some kind of helmet. But when she blinked, or spoke, she felt the movement. Her face existed as eyes and the shallow imitation of a mouth set into the metal panel.
“I’m printing you a new cranial frame for your neural network in the other room,” he said.
“That was fast,” she muttered, carefully leaning back into the chair. The light glinted off her exposed thighs. She hated it.
“I had already made the digital models,” he said. “Just hadn’t had the chance to implement them—Are you okay? I saw you twitch or something just now.”
“I don’t know,” Heather said. “It happened earlier right after I woke up. This time wasn’t as strong. I hope it’s going away.”
“Your body could still be calibrating. We’ll keep an eye on it.”
Heather studied her robotic knees in injured silence.
After several more minutes of computer work, he closed the laptop and turned around. “Can you open your cranial plates?”
“I don’t know how,” Heather said. “That’s not exactly something humans are built to do.”
James came forward and hesitated before reaching over to the top of her head. “May I?”
Heather shrugged. “Have at it,” she said. “You’ve already gone this far.”
She cringed as his spidery fingers contacted her head. He was shaking. He firmly depressed the side panels that extended up in ellipses from the circular auditory devices on either side of her head. The depression stimulated a release of pressure, and with a modest hiss, the two parietal panels, and two more anchored at the front and the back of her head opened outward.
Heather winced as her mechanical brain—little more than a wad of chips and wires—was exposed to the outside air. An awareness ticked off somewhere in her mind that her head was open. A mere notification.
He looked inside. With a metal probe, he gently nudged the existing frame, pushed aside some wires in one corner, then the other. Heather felt it in dull breaches of the electromagnetic field, covering every exposed surface. She stared at her knees, her hands folded in her lap, waiting for it to be over.
“So, what are you going to do to me now?” she asked quietly.
“Stabilize the neural network and energy core, and get you outfitted with a proper chest panel.”
She heard the soft clink of him setting the tool down. “I don’t know.”
“What do they want with me?” she said. “With you?”
He leaned against the counter, looking worriedly out the window. “They want my expertise with something, so badly they were willing to drag you into it as leverage. I don’t want to help them, but I don’t get to decide that anymore. I played right into their hands.”
“I think you’re working for crazy people now, James.”
“I think so too,” he said, shakily. There was a pause, and then his breath grew shallow. He leaned harder against the counter, trying to get a hold of himself, as his breath tightened up, wheezy and frantic.
He lurched unsteadily away, as if to escape her view, one hand gripping his shirt.
Heather reached out and grabbed his arm, startled and scared.
He whipped his head around to look at her, his eyes wide and face pale. Their gazes locked. She let go, surprised at herself.
His legs crumpled and he sat down hard on the floor.
He put his back against the nearest leg of the counter and drew his knees up. He clutched his head and put it between his legs, gasping for air and shaking and most certainly crying.
The guard watched impassively from the door.
Heather didn’t dare look at James directly, so she watched in her peripheral vision, her shoulders tight and mechanical hands squeezed together in her lap.
Witnessing proud, diligent, controlled James tight in the grips of a panic attack was deeply unsettling. Part of her wanted to reach out to him again, to comfort him. But a coldness was rising within her, as she saw him for what he was.
James Siles, for all his layers of masks and attempted approachability, was narcissistic, naive, and cowardly. He had only accepted her friendship, and allowed himself to believe he was her friend too, because she was useful to his ego. He had needed someone to believe in his insanity, and Heather had jumped at the chance to be needed.
Solemnly, Heather listened to his uncontrollable gasps. Him in his organic, breathing body, still trying to understand what he had wrought.
She pitied him. Immensely.
She considered the reflection of the ceiling in her folded robotic hands, wondering what her parents were doing at that moment. Her heart, whatever form it took now, ached for them.
Richard sat hunched forward with his elbows on his desk, his hands hooked on the back of his ducked head. Confusion and despair buzzed furiously in his fatigued mind, along with all the conversations he had had over the last eleven hours.
Sue had been the first. Heather wasn’t at home. But why would she have been?
Richard had called Meg Swanson, who was supposed to be on duty with Alder the night before. She had inexplicably come down with a violent stomach flu and Alder had assured her he would call in someone to cover for her.
Richard had called James dozens of times, but each attempt went straight to voicemail. He had left more voicemails, but all went unanswered. James had dropped off the face of the earth. Along with Heather.
He had contacted the Worthing Police Department, and they said they’d send someone out. But he waited anxiously for half an hour with no arrivals. He called them again to ask if someone was still on their way. He had to explain the situation all over again—but this time, the officer on the phone tried to make light of it, asking about Richard’s mental wellbeing, and finally dismissed his mounting agitation.
So Richard had called the police of the next nearest town, but as soon as he mentioned the address of Larkspur, the officer on the phone shut down.
In desperation, Richard had driven out to the Worthing Police Department himself to talk to someone in person, but they made him wait, explain his presence over and over again to different people. He waited for each newcomer to take notes, but as his stripped patience wore thin, and he started demanding to talk to whomever was in charge, they became defensive. They asked him to leave. He refused, and then they threatened to arrest him.
When it seemed they would actually follow through with that threat, Richard left. He was angry and scared, but he refused to spend the night of his daughter’s kidnapping trapped in a jail cell.
Finally, with nothing else to do, he went home, and he and Sue stayed up most of the night, driving down main streets and backroads between Larkspur and their house, hoping to find her, waiting for Heather to make contact. Somehow. She knew both her parents’ cellphone numbers by heart. If she could call, she would.
Richard went to Larkspur very early the next morning to look up Alder’s contact information from the database, and compulsively tested it. All the emergency contact numbers were disconnected, and his phone number went straight to voicemail as well. He had looked up the home address Alder had given, but when he checked it online, no such location existed.
Richard stared at the wood of his desk, suffering. Nothing made sense. He had the feeling that something terrible and very much over his head was happening, but he had no idea what. Or why.
Sue was home, calling Heather’s friends and acquaintances back east, asking if any of them had heard from her.
He lifted his haggard face to regard Eve. He glanced aside at the clock. The Bureau would open in a few minutes.
Eve’s brow furrowed. “Have you been here all night?”
Richard shook his head, his throat aching. “Something happened.”
Eve’s face went ashen. “What—”
Richard explained, showing his colleague the tranquilizer dart, his voice shaking so hard he could barely get it out.
“I called more than one police precinct, but no one will help me and I have no idea why.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Sue and I have been searching all night but we still can’t figure out what’s going on.”
“Why would Alder…” Eve trailed off.
“The android’s missing too,” Richard said miserably.
Eve froze. “You don’t think—”
Richard threw up his hands. “Of course I think! I worry James has pursued that blasted project behind my back and that he’s used it—and that Heather’s involved somehow.”
“But not as the transferee,” Eve said. “James would never hurt her. They’re friends. He looks up to you. There’s gotta be a better explanation for this.”
“You should have seen his face when I slammed the door on his project. It meant so much to him. Could he have been desperate enough?”
“Pulling something like that wouldn’t help anybody, and James would have known that. What if Heather just decided to help him out of the kindness of her heart without thinking it through, and she got in over her head?”
“Heather would have said something.” Richard rested his elbows on the desk again. “Maybe James isn’t even directly involved. Maybe it’s just Alder.”
Eve sighed, shaking her head. “A security guard presenting a threat? That came out of the blue. Maybe Siles’ claims of sabotage back in May really had some substance. He had better come in today and explain himself.”
“I don’t think he will. I think he’s in trouble too. I hope they’re together, wherever they are…” He bit back tears. Heather must be so scared. It killed him not knowing where she was, how to help her, whether she was in imminent danger.
Eve studied Richard for a few doubtful moments. “Then why was it only you who got tranquilized and left here?”
Richard stared at her. His shoulders sagged, and he sank back down into the position Eve had found him in. The top floor began to stir with the sounds of the other engineers filtering upstairs for work. He glanced at the clock again. The Bureau was finally open.
Richard snatched the wireless phone and punched the speed dial. Upon connection, he listened to a brief automated recording, typed in a code, and listened again.
Eve watched him in silence for a few moments, her jaw tense, and then excused herself to talk to their arriving colleagues.
“Yes, hello, I have a question about one of my employees,” Richard said finally. “Steven Alder. What can you tell me about him?”
As Richard waited on hold, his colleagues appeared a step removed from the doorway, briefing each other of the situation in hushed tones.
“Don’t speculate,” Chelo hissed. “Give James the benefit of the doubt.”
“You’re thinking it too, then,” Greg said.
The person on the other line returned to tell him they had no records about Alder. Richard thanked her and hung up. “What the hell!”
Addie shouldered her way in. Her colleagues hung back. “What is it?”
“Steven Alder,” Richard despaired, pushing his phone away. “The Bureau has no idea who he is, but they’re the one who hired him! How could we be that stupid?” His face slackened. “Unless…”
Unless the Bureau was keeping information from him too. But they couldn’t all be connected. The Bureau wouldn’t take his daughter from him.
“I bet he really was responsible for destroying the other facility too, the way all this is going,” Richard said. “But why? Why would he do this? Does he work for someone or is he just acting on his own? What could he possibly stand to gain from all this?” He raked a hand through his hair.
“We’ll find them,” Addie said. “It’ll be all right.”
Richard exhaled unsteadily.
“Do you think it’s illegal to search James’ office?” Greg called from the doorway.
“I glanced in there last night, but nothing was obviously out of order,” Richard said.
“Let’s scour it then.” Greg crossed the hallway in a single step and gripped the doorknob to his colleague’s office. Richard got up from his desk to follow.
James’ office was in its usual busy state, with half-finished prototypes and sticky notes of code and to-do items hanging from the shelves above his desk. Richard glanced around, still uncertain of what he was searching for, or whether there was really anything to find.
Alder wasn’t a new hire. He had been so calm, even jovial, as he had shot Richard with the tranquilizer. As if Richard were a mere loose end. For a split second, he had even thought the tranquilizer was a gun, and that Alder was going to kill him point blank.
He peeked into James’ filing cabinet, but nothing seemed amiss. He fingered through them, recognizing most of the project labels. He found nothing about organorobotic transference.
Even if James had discontinued the project, the information would still have been among his other files. Unless James had separated or destroyed them, a break from his usual pattern.
Greg stepped up behind him, looking over his shoulder. “Find anything interesting?”
“James’ file for his neural transfer project isn’t here,” Richard said. He glanced around the office, and paused. “Sesame’s box isn’t here either. I don’t remember seeing it yesterday. Did he bring it in?”
“I overheard James telling Heather he’d left it home yesterday,” Chelo said.
“That’s odd.” Greg pulled on the drawers along the other side of James’ desk. “He always brought it in for Heather.” He bent down and peeked in the crevice between the desk and the wall and paused. “Wait—hold on, something’s here.”
He muscled the desk over a little and pushed his arm into the space. Richard came closer as Greg pulled out a food storage container stuffed with a small dark towel.
“What is that?” Chelo moved in as well.
Greg carefully pried up the lid and unwrapped the edges of the towel to reveal the pastel sheen of an antistatic cloth. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Richard, and peeled the folds aside, betraying a wire-ridden mass of computer chips.
Richard’s face went cold. “That looks like Sesame’s mental device,” he said. Greg handed over the container with its electronic bundle.
“James…” Eve sighed from the doorway. “What on earth have you been up to?”
“He really is in trouble, isn’t he?” Addie said. “He seemed shaken yesterday.”
“He should have said something!” Chelo groaned.
“Maybe he couldn’t,” Richard said quietly. “If he felt like he was in danger.”
“And James has never been good at asking for help,” Addie said.
Richard’s gaze fell again to Sesame’s neural network. He felt sick. “I wonder if we can tap into Sesame’s memories.” Careful to touch it only through the antistatic cloth, he nudged it over onto its side, betraying a rectangular slot. “It looks like James used the Larkspur standard for input ports.” He turned around. “Eve, can you see if we still have appropriate adapter cables—something that would fit the android, probably.”
“On it.” Eve left the doorway.
“Let’s see if we can’t put something together.” Richard handed the bundle back to Greg and went to his office to retrieve his laptop. They all headed downstairs to set up in the lab.
Eve emerged from the storage room with a cord. “The adapter cables for the android are missing too, but I found this one where James left his prototype.” She waved the end of the cord. “The one end I know will fit that piece, but the other side was outfitted for his machine, I expect. It’s a different shape entirely.”
“We can work with that,” Richard said.
An odd sense of calm came over him as he made spliced James’ cord with a USB adapter.
“Ok, what have you seen, Sesame?” Richard muttered, plugging one end of the cable into Sesame’s neural network and connecting the other with his laptop.
An icon materialized on the screen, but as Richard moved the cursor, it opened on its own. A colorful vortex of code shifted and swirled in countless layers across the folder window, as if it were a portal to a much vaster dimension.
“What is this?” Richard muttered. He guessed he shouldn’t have been surprised to find something so disorganized. This was an electrical manifestation of a living being’s consciousness, after all. Still, how was he supposed to navigate this?
Unassumingly, the bar at the top of the file domain switched to a single word:
“What’s it doing?” Chelo hovered close behind. Her eyes widened as the icon to the internet browser blinked and sprang open. Information flashed past in a vehement cascade—faster than anyone’s eyes could track.
“He’s found the internet,”Addie said.
“Not good…” Richard reached to pull the cord from his computer. It sparked just as his fingers contacted it.
Richard jerked back with a sharp gasp.
“Please do not touch that,” a voice issued from his computer, pieced together from a myriad of voices ripped from their contexts to form new meaning. “I am not finished yet.”
The five engineers gaped at the computer screen in a mix of stupefied amazement and horror.
“Sesame?” Addie ventured.
“Yes!” A handful of different laughs filtered through the laptop’s speakers. Sheer, disjointed delight. “I am speaking! Can you believe this? It is wonderful!”
“What are you doing?” Richard demanded, holding his affronted hand.
“Learning to be human,” it said, just before the screen went black.
“Sesame?” Richard hung back. “Are you still there?”
“No! Sesame! We need your help!” Richard lurched back up to the computer in dismay. “You’re the only one who may know what happened to James and Heather! Are you listening? Sesame!”
The screen remained dormant, yet the computer still appeared to be running. Richard couldn’t be sure whether or not Sesame was simply ignoring him—or maybe he had uploaded himself onto the internet, never to be heard from again.
“Well…” Eve said, incredulous.
Richard stared at the black screen in mute despair.