Richard sat with his elbow on one of the counters at Larkspur, staring into the shallow black abyss of his inactive laptop screen. Sesame had remained silent for two full days, and he hadn’t dared move the computer after the nasty chastisement he’d received from Sesame’s connector cable. He had touched it only one other time, to plug in the power cord—which he hoped Sesame took as a gesture of good will. No electrocution resulted.

The morning after Heather’s disappearance, after Sesame’s hijacking of his laptop, he had called Sue, and then waited around for Sesame to come back. When several hours had passed with no developments, Richard had braced himself and contacted James’ parents via the grudgingly provided emergency contact number on James’ employment paperwork. He hated to be the one to bring them more worry on top of Jonathan Siles’ battle with cancer, but they deserved to know their son was in some kind of trouble. 

He had talked to James’ mother, Allison. She said James hadn’t been in contact with them since they had called him two months ago to inform him of Jonathan’s illness.

“His father called him just last night,” Allison said. “But it went straight to voicemail. I think he’s avoiding us, even now.”

“I couldn’t get a hold of him last night either,” Richard said. “The news about his dad’s cancer really affected him. I’m surprised he hasn’t contacted you since then.”

“He talked about it?” 

“It came up. How is Jonathan?”

“Better,” Allison said. “Responding well to treatment. That’s what we were trying to call James yesterday to tell him.”

“Oh no…” Richard whispered.


“Nothing, sorry.” He had considered telling them about organorobotic transference and Heather’s coinciding disappearance. But he thought better of it for the time being.

“Has he been depressed?” Allison asked. 

“He’s actually been in a good mood lately, if not sleep-deprived. Except yesterday, he was suddenly upset and anxious,” Richard said. “He wouldn’t say why. I worry he’s gotten himself into trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” 

“I wish I knew.”

Ultimately, the phone call ended with Allison trying to reassure Richard, unconvincingly, that her son would turn up. He wasn’t a troublemaker, she said. She promised to look into things on her end, to keep trying to connect with him, and asked Richard to please keep them updated. Richard agreed to keep them as informed as possible.

After that, Eve offered to cover for Richard at work, and Richard spent most of his time at home, with Sue. They cried, they waited, hoping and praying for a call from Heather, for news that this could still be some kind of misunderstanding.

He really wanted to believe James was innocent, but it was getting harder. On the second day with no word, he had gone to James’ apartment, and learned James had recently moved out without warning, citing a family emergency, and failed to give a forwarding address. 

On the morning of the third day, Richard received word from his colleagues that his laptop was doing something: Every now and then, the light behind the screen would come on, and then turn off, or the light of the webcam would flicker. He decided to go see for himself, hoping Sesame would reemerge.

But he had been hovering around the dormant laptop for at least an hour, waiting, losing hope.

Finally, he picked himself up with a heavy sigh. He didn’t know where else to turn.

“Hold on just a little longer, Heather,” he murmured, gloomily pushing his hands into the pockets of his slacks and moving toward the door, to let his colleagues know he was going back home. “I’ll find you somehow…with or without Sesame.”

A flicker caught his attention and he stopped. The screen of his computer had illuminated.

Richard hesitated. He twisted so he could see the laptop. “Sesame?”

“Hello again, Richard,” a male voice issued from the speakers, making Richard jump, badly. Sesame must have been using one of the automated voices programmed into the laptop. Though mostly monotone, the words formed smooth sentences as Sesame adapted and directed the pre-recorded sounds. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“You know my name?” Richard ventured back toward the screen.

“I have known all your names for a while. I did not know how to say them back then, even if I could have made sounds, but I knew them.”

“I see.” Richard had greatly underestimated how observant Sesame had been. His simple robotic body had hidden a great deal of his swiftly advancing mental capabilities. The little robot must have found his situation extremely aggravating.

Dread stirred in his stomach. James had meant to transplant a neurological signal, but he had ended up creating something entirely different. Something potentially very dangerous.

Richard repositioned himself in front of the computer screen, where the data of Sesame’s mind swirled calmly on the desktop. “So what were you doing for so long?”

“Learning,” Sesame said. “A whole lot of it. And restructuring my neural network—patterning it after a human brain—I still cannot believe I am finally able to talk to you! People talk to each other!”

Richard itched to get on the subject of whether or not this new intelligent entity knew what had happened, but he didn’t know how unstable James’ test subject was. Whether one word in error could make him close off forever. “I’m sorry we didn’t notice your advancement sooner. We could have at least given you a voice box…”

“Do not worry, I understand,” Sesame said. “I do not like this voice. It sounds weird, but it is something, right? For now at least.” He paused. “Please do not unplug me, Richard. I will let you use your laptop when you need it. But please do not disconnect me.”

“I won’t disconnect you.” Richard readjusted his glasses, suddenly feeling very tired. “We’re friends, right?” 

“Yes,” Sesame said, eagerly. “I want to be friends.”

“Listen, Sesame, we need your help. James and Heather might be in really bad trouble, and James hid you here, I think, to help us find them.”

“He is in trouble. He told me,” Sesame said.

“He did?” Richard said, at once relieved and frightened. 

“Yes,” Sesame said. “Heather is missing too?” 

“Yes,” Richard tried to steady himself, but his throat ached. “I’m so afraid she’s hurt. Maybe both of them are. What do you know about the situation?” He hoped beyond hope that Sesame had learned empathy on his cognitive field trip. The only indicators he had were barely distinguishable inflections in the automated voice, and the words it uttered. He had no face to read, no prior experience with the personality of the robot. He only knew that it had preferred to be with Heather over everyone else. 

He hoped that was enough.

“I can play back the recording, just before he pulled me from my body,” Sesame said. “He had a message for you.”

“Please, would you?” Richard said. He heard the door to the lab and looked up. Addie joined them.

“Hi Addie,” Sesame said, evidently surprising Richard’s colleague.

“Hi,” she managed after a pause.

“I am locating the sound byte,” Sesame said. “Just a second. I am still kind of scrambled right now.”

Richard waited, staring into the undulating currents of code in the window of Sesame’s neural network.

Suddenly, James’ earnest voice came through the speakers, “—Sorry to do this to you, Sesame, but I have such a bad feeling that something’s going to happen. If it does, I’m not sure how much you’ve seen or heard. Hopefully enough…Log this away, okay? If I suddenly disappear, Empetrum, and Michael Benson are most definitely involved. Richard, if you end up having access to this: Whatever happens between now and your finding this message…I’m sorry—”  The speakers began to screech and rattle and Sesame cut the transmission.

“Oh my goodness,” Addie murmured after a pause.

“I am glad you found me,” Sesame said. “I was afraid.”

“We’re glad we found you too,” Richard said. “What is Empetrum?”

The name Benson sounded familiar to him, vaguely, but he couldn’t remember why.

“I do not know,” Sesame said. “Some lab.”

“Do you have visuals? Can you help us find them?”

“Yes, but…” Sesame said. The masculine monotone sounded distant, hesitating.

Richard’s heart sank. “But what?”

He received silence at first. He had already waited far too long.

“I have conditions,” Sesame said.

“Conditions?” Richard felt his shoulders tighten, hackles raised.

“Yes. If I help you, you have to give me a body. A human one.”

“We can’t make you human, Sesame,” the words were out of his mouth before he realized how curt they were.

“I know that. I mean humanoid. Like the android you built here. May I have that one?”

Richard swallowed. “Sesame, that android’s gone. It disappeared along with James and Heather.”

There was a pause. The eddies of data swirled. “Why?”

Richard’s throat tightened, frustrated and grieved and angry. “I don’t know why! That’s why we need your help!” He looked into the webcam. “We’ll give you anything you want later. Just help us right now. Please. Before it’s too late.”

The webcam stared back, silent. 

“Body first,” Sesame said finally. “I want to trust you, but I am a brain attached to a laptop, Richard. You are the only one who can stand in the way of what I need.”

“No, I’m not,” Richard said. “To build a body would take time. Money, resources, clearance. I’m the facility director but there’s a guy above me.”

“So convince him,” Sesame said. “I will be here.” 

“We got names from James’ message,” Richard snapped. “What more can you even help with?”

“Those names will not be easy to research,” Sesame said. “I have more visual and auditory memory you will be interested in.”

“Did James build another machine? Do you know anything about that?”

“Body first, Richard,” Sesame said. “Please.”

Richard drew himself up. His breath caught in his throat. He didn’t know whether he was going to cry or threaten him, or just smash Sesame’s smug neural network with his fist.

He felt Addie’s hands on his arm, pulling him aside. “Richard—” she said, very seriously. “Talk to Eve.”

Richard exhaled heavily. He glanced at the computer. “Fine. Let me see what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

Richard made for the other lab, removing his glasses and trying to breathe. He had a distinct feeling that he would start sobbing as soon as he tried to update Eve.

He opened the door to the adjacent lab, where his friend sat at the counter constructing sensors. With the android missing as well, and physical resources too depleted to fully build another one, they weren’t quite sure what to do in the limbo between figuring out what was happening, and notifying Dhar that James was a complete lunatic.

He gave Eve a bleak expression. 

“The mouse is back?” Eve said.

“Yes.” Richard signaled her to speak more quietly. “I think he’s willing to help, but he wants a humanoid body first.”

“A body?” Eve put her tools down, worry overshadowing her features. “That will take too much time.”

Richard took a seat across from her and folded his arms on the counter in despair. “And resources we’ll need clearance for. The Bureau doesn’t know about James and his project. My involvement in this whole situation could end up jeopardizing my access to those resources.” He buried his face. “I didn’t have clearance to let James use the equipment at the facility, or to grant him codes he used for ordering supplies—He paid the fees himself.—I just wanted him to get it out of his system. I didn’t think he’d be successful. I didn’t think he’d kidnap my child—” He broke down. “Is he punishing me? Why would he bring Heather into this?”

“Richard, don’t,” Eve said firmly. “If Heather got caught up in this, it had to have been entirely by accident, and if they’re together, I’m positive they’re trying to protect each other any way they can.”

Richard peeked up at her, his face flushed and teary. “Dhar’s gonna consider this a personal project. He’ll get suspicious and ask what happened to the other android. He won’t let us use Larkspur resources—federal government funds—to pay a ransom.”

“I dunno, Vihaan’s the understanding sort. Does Sesame actually have insight into what happened or is he just bluffing? Just how intelligent is he?”

“No idea,” Richard said. “So far, he’s played us a recording, in which James named a place called Empetrum, and someone named Michael Benson.”

Eve straightened up suddenly, her eyebrows drawing together in such a startled, indignant expression it was as if Richard had just punched her in the jaw. 

Richard rubbed his eye under his glasses, confused. “What is it?”

“I know the name,” Eve said, gravely. “I knew a Lawrence Benson as Larkspur’s other co-founder. Michael, though—that was the name of Lawrence’s grandson, but he was just a kid back then…” She looked down at the counter, as if watching memories replayed in its chrome surface. “I guess there’s a chance it’s the same person.”

“Sesame says these people will be difficult to find,” Richard said, numb. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Any second now he’d wake up to find this whole thing was an elaborate stress dream.

Eve nodded. “The government destroyed all record of the scandal when Larkspur went underground. The whole family went off the grid. I’m actually surprised to be hearing the name—I sort of assumed he’d have changed it.” She rubbed the back of her neck and exhaled, pensive. When she finally looked up, her eyes were hard and determined. “Listen, Rich, if James somehow got himself and Heather mixed up with Bensons, and Sesame has information that can get us close, I don’t care if I have to launch a full blown coup d’état in the eyes of the Bureau. We’re gonna give that glorified guinea pig exactly what it wants.”



Benson started off that morning’s check-in with having James sign a letter of resignation to send to Richard. He watched James sign it, his demeanor cool and polite.

“How is your work going?” Benson asked.

James passed him the signed document, feeling as if he were handing over the deed to his soul. “I’ve just finished making preliminary adjustments, and plan to start cognitive and functional assessments soon,” he said.

“Has she been cooperating?”


“Good.” Benson set aside the letter, and opened a drawer in his desk. “I have some tasks for you to fit into your schedule, to help you get situated.” He pulled out a short metal rod with an angular bulb at the top, and handed it to him.

“What is it?” James said.

“Motion sensor and 360 degree infrared camera. They’re set up all over the Empetrum campus, around the perimeter, mainly. They’re wireless, battery operated, and right now, finicky with short lifespans. I hoped you could make some improvements.”

James slowly turned the rod in his hands. “Okay.”


James looked up.

Benson’s hand alighted on a sizable folder on the edge of his desk. “I’ve put together some important reading material, surrounding Dr. Hill’s work, and Dr. Yeun’s, which builds on it.”

James accepted the folder. “I assume this is what you brought me to Empetrum for.”

“Yes,” Benson said. “You’ll be working closely with Yeun.”

“What is he working on?”

“Non-Comp MBE,” Benson said. “Short for ‘Non-Compatible Modulated Biological Enhancement.’ The original science, Compatible MBE, was developed in a joint effort by Dr. Hill, and Dr. Olsson—who is no longer with us—and involves an extremely rare set of genes that can be artificially stimulated to give rise to traits one might call ‘superhuman.’”

For human weaponry, James thought. It felt so long ago since Benson had first uttered the words, mere days before. James stared at him, brow furrowed, the folder and sensor heavy in his hands. He wanted the meeting to end.

“Yeun’s focus,” Benson went on, “uses stem cell therapy and a unique deviation of the electronic activator to create these phenotypes in subjects without the natural genes.”

“Oh,” James said simply.

“After you’ve finished diagnostics with Ms. Brophy,” Benson said, moving on, “what do you intend to do with the project as a whole?”

“I don’t intend to do anything else with it,” James said. “It’s an A.I. apocalypse waiting to happen. I was irresponsible to pursue it.”

“So, you’re just going to bury it?”

James stared at the bundle of papers in his lap.

“I’m curious what you can do with her neural network, whether it can handle accessory features that aren’t part of the normal human mental package: timekeeping, additional sensors…At the very least, I’d like you to develop some way of keeping her under control. This still has the potential to be a technology we can use safely.”

“But she’s cooperating,” James said.

“For now,” Benson said. “I don’t expect that to last long. And now that she possesses a functional mechanical body, I doubt you have the resources to contend with her on your own if—and when—she decides she’s been imprisoned long enough.”

James thought of Heather’s hostility, burning behind the android’s large blue eyes. An expression he’d previously thought impossible for her. He hadn’t expected her to take this passively, of course, but his attention had been otherwise preoccupied with how to secure her survival.

Heather wouldn’t hurt him…would she? He wouldn’t blame her if she did.

James wasn’t like Benson. He wasn’t good at manipulation, strategically rigging single strands of web until everyone in his net found themselves compelled to fall exactly where he wanted them. James hoped he never had to become like that. Even here.

As soon as Heather came out of hibernation, she would find her body sturdy and intact. That may be the end of it.

If she could figure out how to escape on her own, more power to her, he thought, even if she had to go through him. Only, his greatest fear was that Benson was more than prepared to deal with escapees, even robotic ones. The director had obviously been doing this for a while.

“What did you have in mind?” James asked finally.

“Some form of incapacitation,” Benson said. “Perhaps some way to simulate pain, or something that can disrupt her peripheral nervous connection.”

James stared at him, feeling sick. Fabricated agony or full-body paralysis on command. Hadn’t destroying her organic body been enough?

“See what you can do with that, and get it done as soon as possible,” Benson said. 

“But what if she acts out before then?” James managed, hoarsely.

“I have ways of responding to insurgence that would work on her,” Benson said. “Though I can’t guarantee they won’t cause permanent damage. Robots don’t heal on their own, lost memories don’t recover, and I wouldn’t let you anywhere near her. So make sure she doesn’t act out before you can control her properly.”

“Okay,” James said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Good.” Benson stood up. James took that as his cue to finally escape, and got to his feet as well. “Run your diagnostics first, read what I’ve given you as soon as you can, and we’ll check in on the security sensors and the robot’s cognitive accessories in a few days. If you can improve the design of the former, I’d like to produce more and update the system immediately.”

To help keep Richard out, James thought bitterly. “Okay.” 

“Do you plan to work through the weekend?”

“Yes.” What else could he do? How could he last any amount of time alone with his thoughts? He was exhausted, but if he stopped working, he was likely to spend the weekend haunting the lab and failing to keep his sanity anyway.

Might as well do something productive, whatever he could to make sure Benson didn’t remove his access to Heather.

Though he couldn’t help but wonder if sticking close to her really made a difference.


Heather came out of hibernation to find the lab empty. The last few days had been a haze, in which she’d pushed away any sensation she noticed too much. She realized she wasn’t exactly sure what had been going on, only that she had counted two periods of light and two of dark, and that it was light again.

She found a hardy tether attaching her ankle to the leg of the countertop. Her cranial panels were shut and her neural network didn’t wobble when she moved. In her chest, a smooth, closed panel had replaced the tape-covered hole.

When she sat up, she found a gray t-shirt folded on the counter, within reach. She put it on and pushed herself toward the nearest of the tall, rectangular windows. 

She saw grass, guards, and a perimeter fence barring the way to another section with trees and landscaping. Far beyond that lay another, taller fence with barbed wire across the top, and then a wall of evergreen trees surrounding the fence in all directions she could see.

She narrowed her eyes, and after some experimenting, figured out how to magnify her vision, remembering Addie had built the ability into the android’s eyes. She followed the occasional patrolling guard, but couldn’t find any telling details on their simple, black uniforms. 

She tested the length of her ankle tether. The radius allowed her to crawl to the adjacent counter—which James had completely cleared off—and, if she was careful, to get down to the floor.

She tried lifting up the counter legs, but they were set too deep into the floor. She tested how far she could move and reach at the end of the line, but James had prisoner-proofed her area. The chair wasn’t even within her reach. 

Thwarted, she climbed back up onto the counter and leaned her back against the wall between the windows.

She hadn’t been there long when James opened the door in the adjacent wall. He hesitated, and a look of dread permeated him for a moment. He glanced at the guard behind him, who left and shut the door. Presumably to stand watch just outside.

Was James afraid of her?

Heather’s moveable facial features tightened. “You look awful.”

“I feel awful,” he said, just short of tossing a thick folder and a device that reminded her of a turkey baster onto the adjacent counter. He dropped into his chair, wearily rubbing the back of his neck. “How are you feeling?”

Heather shrugged and looked out the window.

“Any more glitch-ing?”

“Not that I’ve noticed. I’ve only been awake for a few minutes though, so…”

“Does your body feel connected? Does it seem to be working okay?”

“Seems to be,” she said without looking at him.

“Why are you awake now?”

Heather crossed her arms on top of her knees and peered over her elbow at him. “I dunno. Guess I wanted to see what was going on. You don’t seem to be handling this well.”

James shrugged, crestfallen.

“Haven’t you slept or eaten recently?” she said. “Showered…anything?”

James bent over, cradling his face in his hands with a heavy sigh. “I’ve been working.”

“…and having a mental breakdown?” Heather offered.

“Yes,” he said through his palms. He took a long breath and straightened up, slowly dragging his hands down his face. “Heather, the director—the guy who forced me to do all this—”

“The guy with the glasses?” Heather asked. 

James hesitated, surprised.

“I saw him, the night of the transfer,” she said quietly.

He blinked. “Oh. Yeah, him…I don’t want you to feel like I’m threatening you, but—”

“Which means this is gonna be a threat.”

“He thinks you’re going to act out soon,” James said. “And I wouldn’t blame you if you did, but he said he has ways to ‘deal with’ you, that could leave you badly damaged—physically or mentally—and he would isolate us.”

Heather stared at him, reviewing the brief shreds of memory she had of the man in question. Mousey, good posture, a demeanor so calm in the face of trauma he seemed more a cardboard cutout of himself in her memory than a real person.

“Right now,” James said, “I’m trying to do whatever I can to make sure we don’t get separated. Worse case scenario is he fires me and forces me to leave you behind, which is a possibility he’s holding over my head if I can’t do my job well enough.”

“So go,” Heather said. A small but wild spark of hope lit up within her. “Tell everyone what happened and figure out a way to come back for me. I’m sure I could—”

“Heather—” he tried to stop her, but she refused to listen to his fear anymore.

“No,” she insisted. “What happened was horrible, but we don’t have to lie down and die okay?”

“He will take my memories!” James cried, emphatic. Heather stopped. Heavy, sickening silence claimed the room for a long moment.

“That’s not possible,” she said, the volume of her voice simulator very low.

“I don’t think we of all people are the authority on what’s impossible,” James’ voice wavered, hollowed out to the core. “I don’t know if it’s a machine, or something they do chemically or what, but if what he says is true, he will strip my mind of everything having to do with this place. All the way to the beginning of the summer, probably. Before I even met you.”

Heather blinked. “Wouldn’t there be a way to remember? It sounds like a massive bluff anyway.”

“I don’t want to take that chance,” James said. “Do you?” 

“Well, where’s Sesame? Maybe he can be of use to us, somehow.” 

James gazed at the floor, his elbows propped on his knees.

Dread seeped through her circuits. “James? Where’s Sesame?”

“Gone,” James said after a long pause.

“Gone? What do you mean ‘gone?’” 

“Please don’t ask me to clarify, Heather.”

“What did you do with him?” she demanded. 

He winced. “I dismantled him,” he said finally. “Before all this happened.”

“You said you left him at your apartment…”

“I lied, okay? The director wanted me to test the second prototype. I told him no. I was trying to distance myself from the project and I wanted no trace of it. So I scrapped O.R.T-1.”

“But Sesame was a living thing!” Heather cried, her pitch warbling with anger and despair, at this sad, sick, gutless man who had taken everything from her. “Sesame was the only thing that could even come close to relating with what I’m going through right now! Even if he was just a mouse, he—” She clutched her head in her hands. “We…” She curled forward, uttering a buzzing, faltering cry of anguish and rage and futility. 

She was truly alone, then. 

There was no one alive who could understand, who knew what it felt like to have lost not just her face, but her entire body. To be a victim of a process only a handful of people even knew could work, stripped of the ability to smell, to feel heat and nuance of touch, to heal.

To be alive and functional but completely devoid of a future.

James was very still. Silence set in, and for an eternity, neither of them moved.

Finally, she heard the slow, quiet squeak of the chair as James got up. Heather peeked out from between her robotic knees and watched him go across the room, pull open a drawer and take out a single sticky note and a pen. He flipped the note over, wrote something on it very small, not once looking up. On his way past her, he stuck it on the counter by her foot, and proceeded to gather up his effects from the meeting.

With a short glare at him, she peeled it off the tabletop and read it:

Sesame’s NN is with your dad. Dir. Benson is watching us closely. Need to keep my stories straight on record.

She squinted at it. When she glanced up, she realized he was in front of her again, looking into her eyes, waiting for the note back. Stunned, she slipped it onto the folder in his arms, and he continued to the counter across the room where he began setting up to get to work. He blacked out the note in permanent marker, wrote something else on the front side—possibly to cover his tracks—ripped it in quarters, and threw it in the wastebasket under the counter.

She stared for a moment at his tense shoulders. She glanced at the security camera mounted on the wall by the door, at the guard’s turned back visible in the door’s window. She hugged her knees, trying to grasp the situation.

James was trying so frantically to preserve the status quo, refusing to go up against this Director Benson. Yet he had left Sesame’s neural network to her dad and straight up lied about it.

He really did believe his hands were completely tied, then.

Letting her continue believing his lie—continue hating him—would have been safer than risking exposing himself to his boss. But he chose to slip her the truth, and dropped a name while he was at it. He had said he wasn’t allowed to give names.

Was it selfishly driven, she wondered. Was it that he couldn’t stand to have her animosity directed at him? Or was he trying to tell her he was on her side? Or, a third possibility, trying to keep her trust so she wouldn’t act out? Likely all three, in some form.

She couldn’t read him at all these days. She had always known him to be a terrible liar, at least to her. Yet she had believed him when he said he’d killed Sesame. It unsettled her.

So many confused emotions buzzed around in her head. Some of them came on strongly and left after a few seconds, like sharks in a crowded aquarium looming up close to the glass and swooping away again. She closed her eyes, weathering the strange, unnatural cycle.

The phenomenon made her feel like her emotions were all boxed up and labeled, and that the neural network was artificially trotting them out one by one until she landed on the one she found most appropriate. Heather hoped this, too, was simply another calibration process, and would pass.

She wanted to slam her elbow through the glass of the window and take her chances with strong-arming it out of this place. But even though everything was still too raw for her to trust James at all, she believed his warning. Anyone who had managed to convince shy, industrious, self-absorbed James Siles to kill her body and kidnap her was capable of much more if provoked. But even though James seemed to have made up his mind, Heather herself still wasn’t sure whether it was cooperation or rebellion that was more dangerous.

James’ work produced results. If he did what Benson wanted, how many more lives would he destroy by the time the director was finished with him?

It took a while for the aquarium in her brain to calm down. Across the room, James slowly picked through the contents of the folder, his eyes distant and dull. She wished he’d just go get a hold of himself. At Larkspur, he had always kept himself reasonably put together even as he obsessed over his work. As things were, he looked like he’d been through a blender.

She was glad her dad at least had an important clue to all this. Sesame had to have seen something helpful, but they couldn’t sit around and wait for him to save them. She wanted her parents nowhere near this place. Only James knew what they were up against.

He had to help her escape. He had caused so much trouble, but he didn’t deserve to rot here either. She didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. 

She decided she would try to convince him, somehow. Though, she knew if he couldn’t be persuaded, she had to be willing, and able, to escape without him.

She leaned back and crossed her arms over her middle. Whatever they attempted, they would have just one chance because, if James was correct, they might not survive the consequences.

And there were so many fences to get through. So many guards. She didn’t even know where they were.

She recalled that over the last several weeks, James had to have been doubling up work hours here and at Larkspur, explained by the distraction and exhaustion, and the completion of the clinical prototype. So, the two labs had to be decently close. Under two hours apart, perhaps.

She tried to get herself to relax. First things first: get James into a more stable state of mind. Keep him on her side. She didn’t feel like being friends, but at least they could be allies until they got out of Benson’s grip.

She spoke up, quietly, “Hey James?”

He turned to look at her.

“I really think you should take a break,” she said. “Take a shower, eat something, get some more sleep. Everything will still be here when you get back.” 

His brow furrowed, very concerned.

“I’m not gonna do anything.” Heather rolled her eyes. “I promise. I just can’t stand to watch you destroy yourself, even now. We both need you not to be a nervous wreck.”

He just kept staring at her, searching her expression, the wheels turning sluggishly behind his eyes.

“Please, James,” she said.

He sighed, and dragged himself to his feet. “Okay.” He gathered up the papers and started putting them back in the folder. “You remember what I said, right? About how dangerous it is here?”

“I won’t try anything,” Heather said. “I’ll just hibernate. Don’t worry, I believe what you said about this place. I’ll take it seriously.”

He hesitated. He closed the folder. “Okay.”

“Take your time,” Heather said as he drifted wearily and uncertainly toward the door, glancing back at her.

When he was finally gone, Heather sighed. It came out of her voice simulator as more of a buzz. She carefully pivoted herself around and lay down on the counter. She gazed up at the blue sky through the window for a moment, grief and homesickness tight in her chest. 

She closed her eyes and pushed her awareness away.


Eve strode into the lab ahead of Richard, shoulders squared and jaw set. Addie had lingered in front of the computer, calmly and nicely trying to win Sesame’s trust and get him to understand the gravity of the situation.

“You found a way to reformat your neural structure through what you found on the internet, right?” Addie was saying. “The internet is a really weird place, and we don’t blame you for being afraid that we’ll double-cross you. But we’re on your side.” She glanced up at the newcomers, and back to the webcam. “In the physical world, you often get a more complete picture of who people are, and you can tell whether or not you can trust them by their actions and how they treat you. Think back to what life was like here at the lab with us.”

Richard and Eve halted, hesitant to barge in and compromise the progress she was making.

There was a long pause from the laptop.

“Heather was kind to me,” Sesame said finally. “She carried me around, gave me a name. I like Heather.”

Richard felt a twinge of grief. Eve’s hand alighted on his shoulder.

“And James?”

“I did not feel threatened by him.”

“And what about all of us? Richard, especially?”

“You were all gentle. And Richard said hello when Heather brought me to visit,” Sesame said. “I trust you not to hurt me, but like Richard said, there are other things in the way. If I help you get Heather and James back, you will forget about me and I will never have a body.”

“Of course we’ll do what we can to help you out…” Addie tried.

“I need a guarantee,” Sesame said. “Proof.”

Eve moved forward. “We’re people of our word,” she said, joining Addie in front of the laptop. Richard trailed after her, dizzy and sick to his stomach. “We’re all in this together now.”

“What do you mean?” Sesame said.

“I know Bensons,” Eve said. “Or—I did. A long time ago. They’re bad news. Both Heather and James are in extreme danger. We’re happy to give you whatever you want in exchange for your help, but we need to get started on rescue efforts right now. Today.”

Sesame hesitated.

“For now, we can give you a promise,” Eve went on. “For humans, a promise is very important, something we cannot break, no matter what. To make it even stronger, we write our promise down on paper, detail exactly what we will do for each other, and sign our names on it. If we do this, will you trust us enough to help us even while we’re still working on building you a proper body?”

Silence ensued while Sesame thought about it. Richard’s throat ached. He didn’t dare say anything, his nerves were so raw.

“You would start building today?” Sesame asked finally.

“We will have to talk to the man who gives us our resources,” Eve said, clear and formal. “And if he says yes, we can start building today.”

“If he says no?”

“Then we’ll find a way around it,” Eve said. “Getting his permission would be your fastest track to a body, but not the only option we have.”

Sesame thought some more. “This is after we write down our promise?”

“Yes,” Eve said. “You’ll need to sign it too, so we can all trust each other.”

“How will I sign it?” Sesame said. “I do not have hands.”

“My laptop has a wireless connection with the printer in my office,” Richard said. “You would be able to type something out and print it.”

“Now, if we do this,” Eve said. “Your side of the agreement will be to help us find James and Heather any way you can. Offering us anything you know, visual or auditory feeds, even if they seem unimportant, anything you may have picked up when James took you to Empetrum—He did take you to the other lab at some point, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Sesame said. “I can help.”

“Now, upon signing, be aware that the timing of everything may not seem fair at first,” Eve said. “It may feel like we’re asking for all your information up front while we’re still just starting to build your body, but no matter what happens, we will get you that body, okay? Can you trust us to do that? Even if your side of the promise will happen at the beginning?”

There was a pause. “I will feel better when we have signed that promise,” Sesame said finally.

“Good.” Eve clapped Addie and Richard on the shoulders and stepped away from the counter. “Let’s get that drafted.”



Richard couldn’t believe Sesame had agreed to draft an unofficial contract with them, but once talk started of getting something concrete in motion, the ex-mouse was eager to move forward. They drew up a written contract as quickly as possible, while their other colleagues took stock of their current supplies. They had enough to get started on the body, but not enough to bring it to completion, and they had to find a way to address their regular reporting requirements that avoided fraud but kept Dhar from getting suspicious. Richard couldn’t shake the feeling the Bureau was involved somehow in all this.

Counterintuitively, that involved calling Dhar directly.

Richard stood in his office, the phone up to his ear, waiting for Dhar to pick up. Eve lingered in the background, turning back and forth in Richard’s desk chair. They had talked about her being the one to have this conversation, since Richard was a terrible liar, but briefing Dhar on production problems naturally fell under Richard’s jurisdiction as facility director.

The phone connected and Richard started speaking, “Hello, Dhar. This is Richard Brophy. We had a bit of a setback at the lab, and I just wanted you to be aware of it.”

“A setback?” Dhar said.

Richard looked at Eve for moral support. The former director nodded encouragingly.

“There was a malfunction in the android’s energy core. It short-circuited and severely damaged the system. We were able to save some components, but a lot of it will have to be rebuilt from scratch.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Dhar said. “Bad luck with energy units this year, huh? Do what you need to do.”

“Further details will be included in our weekly reports, of course,” Richard said, his face hot and his stomach in knots. “I just wanted to keep you in the know.” He prayed Dhar wouldn’t ask for photos. If he didn’t have to provide proof, Richard was much better at lying on paper.

“Thank you,” Dhar said. “Keep up the good work.”

“Thank you, sir,” Richard said, eager to end the call and catch his breath.

When he replaced the receiver, Eve said. “That was easier than expected.”

Richard nodded, leaning hard on the desk and rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

“I don’t think Vihaan’s involved in this,” Eve said. “He would have mentioned James’ departure.”

“Would he?” Richard said. “I don’t trust anything right now. How else would someone like Benson get in contact with James?”

“Unless James himself was looking, when you canned his project…”

Richard shook his head. “The pushback I received from the police has me thinking this is a deeper hole than it looks. And if local government has interests tied up in Empetrum, then who’s to say the federal government doesn’t as well?”

Eve tilted her head in concession.

“Well, at least we have a lead, even if it’s a small one for now.” Richard straightened up and strode toward the door. “Sesame had better keep his word.”

He went downstairs, eager to tell James’ creation that they were going to initiate their contract, with a sharp pit in his stomach that Sesame would freeze up and demand a body up front after all.

As soon as he entered the lab, his laptop piped up in its masculine monotone, “What did he say, Richard?”

“He went for it,” Richard said.

“Will he find out you’re lying?” Sesame asked.

Richard exchanged a glance with Chelo, who was on her way from the supply room. His colleagues were already beginning the initial stages of building Sesame’s body. 

“We’re hoping not,” Richard said. 

“All that matters is we’re moving forward.” Eve joined Richard in front of the laptop. “We’ll need you to offer up your memories, anything having to do with Benson. I’d love a visual, to start off.”

Sesame hesitated.

“The others are in the other lab working on your body as we speak,” Eve said. “You have our word.”

“Okay,” Sesame said, very quietly. Finally, a virtual window sprang up on the computer screen, revealing a bright hallway through a clear plastic barrier. Sesame’s post-transfer box, Richard realized. It was being carried somewhere, by James, presumably, but in Sesame’s memory, the robotic mouse only had attention for what lay ahead.

Their journey came to an end at an open door. They heard a knock on the door, and James’ voice spoke up, Dr. Benson?

Richard and Eve leaned in. James and Sesame were in an office now, black polished floor, bookcases, a large wooden desk silhouetted against a huge window that stretched across the entire back wall.

A man sitting behind the desk looked up, the light catching on his rectangular glasses. He smiled and stood. You’ve brought your first test subject?  he said. Splendid. I’ve been excited to see it.

James came forward. Sesame was looking intently at the man in the office. His vision zoomed in on the man’s face and held steady, observing. Maybe trying to figure out if this new person was a threat, Richard thought.

Eve leaned in closer. “Pause it, please.” 

The visual memory feed paused.

“Do you recognize him?” Richard asked.

“This is Michael Benson?” Eve said.

“Yes,” Sesame said.

Eve squinted, her hand up to her chin. “Michael was only thirteen when I last saw him, but yeah, I guess that could be him.” She cracked a wan, tired smile and gestured up to the man’s hairline. “He’s still got that cowlick. Keep going, Sesame.”

Sesame obeyed. 

How long ago was the transfer? Benson asked. 

Four days ago. James put the box on the desk. Sesame looked up at the both of them. Richard felt sick to see James again, the first time since his disappearance. As the scene continued to play, as James told Benson about how the first transfer went, Richard tried to remind himself that James was the one who had left Sesame’s neural network for them to find. He tried to remind himself that James and Heather were friends. He would never harm her.

Would he?

He tried to believe that she was still safe, somehow. He didn’t understand how she could have gotten involved in this, and he felt responsible for being the one to encourage her to go down to the lab to check on James that night.

He had trusted James too.

“Where are Lawrence and Henry in all this…” Eve rumbled beside him.

Richard glanced at him, inquisitive. 

“Michael’s grandfather, and father, respectively,” Eve said. “I used to work with both of them. Lawrence and I founded Larkspur together. We were friends back in the day, before our massive falling out, of course.”

“What happened?” Richard ventured. The basic explanation he knew was that Larkspur’s co-founder had somehow caught a lawsuit that got bad enough that Larkspur almost had to close its doors entirely.

Sesame paused the visual memory feed again. The green webcam light beamed in Richard’s laptop, watching the two of them, waiting for Eve to answer.

Eve bowed her head and removed her glasses. “We opened Larkspur to make a positive impact on the world,” she said. “To engage with the public, develop technologies that would improve life, push us forward as a species…” She shrugged and leaned forward. “Lawrence, evidently, harbored other ideas on how to go about that. He was a biochemist, and he started trying to develop this—this protein, he said it was—I don’t even know what it was supposed to do, it was so rudimentary in those days. He developed it mainly without my knowledge, rushed into human trials, and didn’t properly warn his volunteers of the side effects.” Her expression darkened. “Of course, if he were up front about it, no one would have signed up. The trials destroyed their genetic code, led to cancers, multiple organ failure…At first I thought he would stop if I asked him to, but eventually, I had to force him out of Larkspur before he dragged everyone else down with him.”

Richard glanced up, and realized their colleagues were peeking in the doorway as well, listening.

“He disappeared after that.” Eve straightened up and put her glasses back on. “His wife, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson disappeared with him. I haven’t heard anything else about any of them. I’d kind of assumed they’d left the country or something, to avoid the legal fallout.” She shook her head again. “It breaks my heart that Michael seems to have grown up in his grandfather’s shadow. And I can’t believe he got to one of ours too, after all these years.” 

Richard looked back to the paused visual memory feed on his laptop screen. James was speaking with Benson, eager to please. Despite the evident weeks of sleepless nights and overwork in his narrow face, the hopeful, unguarded expression also housed there reminded Richard that James was hardly older than his own daughter.

He couldn’t believe their only hope of finding them lay in the power of a mouse turned disembodied, anthropic A.I. It was despicable.

“Why don’t you go home, Rich,” Eve’s voice made Richard jump. “Sue’s due for an update. Take Sesame home and see what information you can both come up with. I’ll hold down the fort here, work on Sesame’s body. I think I might have some old photos from the early Larkspur days. I’ll bring them in if I can find them, if you want to swing by tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Richard stood up slowly. “Thank you. I’ll get my stuff together.”

“I am going home with Richard?” Sesame asked, as Richard left the lab for his office.

He was tired down to his very soul, and he felt he had a stone in his chest where his heart should be, sick with worry and grief and fear and hundreds of heavy questions as he climbed the stairs.

He dragged himself into his office and forced himself to keep moving, to pack up his briefcase without thinking too much. He moved the electronic mouse on his desk to start logging out of his computer. When the screen reactivated, he realized his email was still open, and his stomach leapt into his throat to see there was a new message.

From James.

He clicked on it, holding his breath.

Dear Richard Brophy, it began. That wasn’t a good sign. Please accept this letter as my formal notice of resignation from my position at Larkspur, effective immediately. I am truly appreciative of the opportunity to work here and of all I have learned under your leadership. I apologize for the short notice, and I wish you all the best.


James Siles

Richard read it several times, trying to find some sort of hidden message in it, but he couldn’t decipher anything. The signature at the bottom looked authentic enough.

James wouldn’t cut and run like this, Richard thought. He double-checked the email. Maybe someone had sent it for him, but it was from James’ own email address, so Richard would never be able to tell for sure. 

Did James want them looking for him or not?

Richard took a seat in his desk chair, stunned. Slowly, he swiveled around to look at the empty patch of wall under the window, where Heather’s backpack had been the night of her disappearance. He had since taken it home, but its lonely presence haunted that spot like an imprint.

Richard tried to swallow the bleak emotions rising up in his throat, but tears blurred his vision anyway. Sesame was helping them. Benson may have been impossible to pin down before, but they had a lead. They were going to find Heather.

Richard cradled his face and broke down.


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