Heather sat with her back propped up against the wall, a hardbound biochemistry journal in her lap, which James had given her to read to assess any differences in her cognitive processes with the neural network. Without raising her face, she glanced above the edge of the book and her bent knees, to where James hunched over a workstation across the room, picking apart the device that reminded her of a turkey baster. He dropped a couple of screws in a plastic tray, pulled out a wire-laced internal component, squinted at it, then scribbled something in the open notebook on the edge of the fray.
He had consented to trying to sleep outside the lab the night before instead of the bedroll in the other room, and she had hoped he’d return a little more lucid, ready to pool their resources to break whatever hold Benson had over him. But that morning, James had come in with a stack of academic journals and with the same weary, haunted countenance as he tried to explain why he wanted her to read through them.
Heather was mostly reading them for something to do now, though she didn’t understand most of it. Robotic or not, she had only a basic frame of reference for Western Blots, receptor families and ion channels, and understood little of the journals’ frenzied insistence on abbreviating absolutely everything. It was nice of him to remember she found cell biology interesting, but now the mention of science of any kind set a sour buzz through her circuits.
She wished he would make a gesture that counted, give her the information she needed to escape, tell her he was coming with her instead of insisting whenever she brought it up that they couldn’t do anything. She refused to believe that this was it for her, that the consequences of his stupid need to do whatever he wanted would imprison her in this hell of a facility for the rest of her life—however frighteningly long it would be now.
She thought of a sleepy, anxious morning ages ago, when she had met a young engineer who appreciated her love of academics, who understood the deep frustration of feeling like they were starting over from scratch, eager to just get the transition over with. Whose shy, uncertain trust she had won over, whose friendship she had carefully cultivated, spurred by her own pathetic need to be needed.
Heather had just wanted a place in her parents’ secret world. She’d had no idea how deep she would fall.
She turned a page, dismally trying to make sense of a graph. All the information from the previous pages was stored in her memory as soon as it met her eyes. A lot of it she had recorded but not retained, kept on file in photographic format. As she read on, trying to recall and apply the information, more of it assimilated in the imageless integration she was used to, back when her brain was organic. The more she practiced with it, the more the surface photographic memory moved toward something more useful. Some of it knit itself in right away without first sitting in that photographic stage.
It was similar enough, but her drastically enhanced memory retention felt so alien. She could glaze over information, choose not to read certain paragraphs, but her brain had still pulled and stored some of it, subconsciously. It felt more computer than human.
Meanwhile, James continued to tinker away, his neck craned downward, occasionally pausing to type on the keyboard of his laptop which was also tucked among the strewn pieces. He appeared to be doing exactly what Benson wanted him to do, and Heather kept wondering if there really was a point trying to keep him on her side.
At least the odd mood swings and glitch-ing were subsiding. Larkspur’s android was mostly quiet now, but she knew she would never feel at home in it. She never wanted to.
She glanced toward the door. James hadn’t taken off her ankle tether, so she couldn’t make a run for it without first figuring out how to get that off. She had watched her dad and his colleagues construct the body she now inhabited, so she knew her foot wouldn’t come off easily.
She considered the contraption around her ankle. When James was absent overnight, she had made every experiment she could with it. It was tight, tough, and she would have thought her robotic hands would have the strength to rip through it, but she couldn’t even snap it from the leg of the counter. She’d tested the strength of the counter legs as well—they looked like wood but the centers were metal. She’d taken a second crack at pulling them from the floor, with no success.
James would have to be the one to remove the tether, but there was no way he’d do it.
She watched him work, studious and oblivious, even while Benson had broken him, ignoring her gaze on his back. Even now, he just buried himself as he’d always done, pushing away the things he didn’t want to feel when she most direly needed the empathetic human parts of him to come to the surface.
But he just kept working, and in the silence, Heather’s desire to keep him on her side waned. As it slowly suffocated, she felt a small, justified resentment flickering to life in its place like a pilot light. She considered its heat, and she let it stay.
Better to feel hatred, she thought, than despair.
Richard had a pit in his stomach as he arrived at Larkspur the next morning with his laptop and Sesame’s neural network tucked carefully in his bag.
He and Sue had spent most of the night with Sesame going through his memories, but Sesame had only personally seen Michael Benson a handful of times at best. James had mostly kept him at Larkspur.
They had gleaned that James had been staying on campus at Empetrum over the last month or so, after Richard had asked him to discontinue the neural transfer project. When James brought Sesame to Empetrum, he had kept him in the apartment, so Sesame had actually seen very little action as far as the goings-on of the facility.
They did have visuals, however. Richard had directed Sesame to take screen shots, of the location, the grounds, the on-campus housing, the main facility from the outside and whatever Sesame had seen within, as well as small glimpses of scenery on the commute, though James had kept Sesame’s box under the dashboard on the passenger side, so the robot’s view out the window had been extremely limited.
Besides guards, the only person Sesame had seen at Empetrum was Michael, and despite Richard’s hopes that James had talked to the robot about his activities at Empetrum, he hadn’t. At this point, they could still only speculate on whether or not the clinical prototype had been constructed, and what James had since done with it.
They followed Sesame’s memories all the way up to when James pulled his neural network and hid it. Richard couldn’t get the lead up out of his head. James had been acting normal and positive driving to Empetrum Friday night, dropped Sesame off in the apartment, and left.
He had come back shortly after, pallid and agitated. Sesame had watched him rush around, packing, running his hand through his hair, muttering to himself too quietly to make out. He had tugged a suitcase out the door, come back, gathered up Sesame and some notebooks, then had driven back to his apartment in Worthing.
There was something on the table with a note. James left Sesame across the room, and Sesame had watched him pick up a small black device in shaking hands. James didn’t touch the note, so from Sesame’s vantage point, he didn’t know what it said.
It had been hard to watch. James was upset all weekend, tearing apart his apartment looking for something, leaving Sesame alone, forgotten on the end table by the door. Sesame stayed still, observing everything, feeling safer not drawing attention to himself, as he had explained to Richard and Sue later.
Finally, in the early light of Monday morning, James emerged from his bedroom disheveled and distracted. He lingered in the opening to the hallway, ran a hand through his hair again. Something occurred to him, and he looked up, making eye contact with Sesame, tired, frightened, trapped.
James strode across the room into the kitchen, and Sesame heard him digging in drawers. After a few minutes, James had copped together tools and containers and then he retrieved Sesame’s box and put it on the table.
Sesame tried to escape as the lid of his box came off, sensing something bad was about to happen, but James caught him easily, pulled up the panel in Sesame’s back to access his neural network. Then the recording that Sesame had played Richard and his colleagues fell into place with so much new, terrible context:
Sorry to do this to you Sesame…
Richard, if you end up having access to this: Whatever happens between now and your finding this message…I’m sorry.
Richard arrived at the top of the stairs and started down the hallway, passing his office to first see if Eve was there yet.
“Morning, Rich,” Eve said gently, logging into her computer. “Any luck?”
“Nothing new about Benson,” Richard admitted. “But got some visuals on Empetrum, and when James’ actions started falling apart. Friday was the turning point, I think.” He set his bag down on the desk, and carefully got out Sesame’s setup so he could participate.
When he opened the laptop, Sesame’s makeshift voice spoke up, “James was happy Friday, then he was scared.”
“I see…” Eve produced an envelope from her briefcase and handed it to Richard. “I found those photos I mentioned.”
There were only a few. At the top of the thin stack was a photograph of Eve, twenty years younger, and three others: a tall man with sharp features and gray hair, a younger individual on Eve’s right side who had a similar nose and was just as gray, despite appearing to be in his late thirties. The man to the right had his arm around the shoulders of a boy of about ten, with thick rimmed glasses and cow-licked brown hair. The boy’s features were softer and chubbier than the man from Sesame’s memories, but Richard could see the resemblance.
Eve had rounded the desk to view the pictures with him. “None of the Bensons liked pictures taken of them. I used to tease Lawrence about it…” She indicated each one with her finger. “This one is Lawrence, to my left. That’s his son to my right, Henry, who worked briefly at Larkspur as a biochemist. And then this is Michael, Henry’s son. I remember Michael was a good kid. Bright, but painfully shy. As different as night and day next to Lawrence’s confident charisma, but Lawrence adored his grandson.”
Richard stared at the photo for several moments longer, his attention on Lawrence. He had never seen his face before, only heard his name.
Richard moved the top photo to the back and sifted through the others Eve had found of Michael. One was candid, of the boy watching his grandfather work with a microscope, and in the other, he was trying on a lab coat and looking very uncomfortable to have suddenly found himself faced with a camera lens.
“Sesame,” Richard said. “Could you pull up a picture of the man James was talking to, for comparison?”
Sesame complied and Richard held the third photo up beside it.
“Yeah, that’s him all right,” Eve hummed.
“May I see the photos?” Sesame said.
As Richard held up the photographs for the laptop’s webcam, Eve wearily took a seat on the edge of her desk. “I never learned for sure,” she said. “But I think Henry was helping with Lawrence’s awful project. He feigned ignorance when asked about it, but then he disappeared too.”
“Empetrum can’t be that far away, if James was doubling up,” Richard said.
“That’s very true,” Eve mused. She sighed. “To think the Bensons were this close all along.”
“Be careful if we find it,” Sesame said. “There were lots of guards around, and I do not think Michael will welcome us.”
Richard and Eve nodded in dismal agreement.
“Do you think it was Lawrence who set this up, or could it have been Henry?” Richard said. “Or maybe Michael took the initiative all on his own later on?” He considered the photo of all three Bensons. “Sesame, while we work on your body today, can you see if you can find where the Bensons ended up after the fallout with Larkspur?”
“On it,” Sesame said.
“You may not find anything about the scandal,” Eve said. “The government didn’t want to be publicly associated with what happened, so they did everything they could to cover it up. That’s partly how Larkspur was able to downsize, relocate, and continue to operate underground from the east coast.”
Richard looked at her, shocked. “Why did the government bother to cover it up? Couldn’t they have just said, ‘We didn’t authorize this.’ and moved on?”
Eve looked worried. “I guess I didn’t really question it. At the time, I was swamped in running damage control, while dealing with the loss of an old and dear friend. Up until that point, I had trusted Lawrence implicitly, and I never expected he harbored the capacity to hurt people like that. After everything was said and done, I was just relieved—selfishly, perhaps—that the government had put out most of the fires, and kept it away from us.”
Richard’s gaze fell. He glanced at Sesame’s activated webcam, wishing he knew what the ex-mouse was thinking. “Is it possible Lawrence disappeared after Larkspur to create Empetrum?”
“It’s certainly something I wouldn’t put past him,” Eve said. “But the Larkspur thing got him blacklisted. No self-respecting biotech company would ever hire him after the public outrage that erupted, and his unethical project had every hallmark of being an exorbitantly expensive, multi-decade undertaking, with little promise of return. Even disreputable sponsors would see it as a colossal waste of time and resources.”
The laptop piped up, “Richard, Eve?”
“I found an obituary.”
Richard stiffened but Eve was the first to speak, “Whose?”
“Lawrence Benson,” Sesame said. An image pulled up onto the screen and the two engineers crowded in to read it. It wasn’t much, just a passing mention in a newspaper for a town in the central region of the country. It didn’t offer any new information, saying he was a biochemist, survived by a son and grandson, whose names were not provided.
Richard squinted at it, confused.
“That’s the town he was from,” Eve said. “I imagine he still has family in the area that would have wanted to know.”
“Who would have submitted it to that local paper?” Richard said. “Henry? Michael?”
“Either one, I guess,” Eve said. “Letting relatives know while staying off the grid.” She breathed an incredulous exhale, pressing a hand to her forehead and straightening up to pace. “Three years? He’s been dead for three years? So then is it really Michael pulling the strings?”
“I am looking for Henry,” Sesame said.
Eve halted her pacing and turned to look at the computer.
“We cannot talk to Lawrence,” Sesame explained. “And even though I am curious about Michael, we know all that matters about him for the present situation. The trails for him and Lawrence are sparse, but I am finding information on Henry Benson more easily. He reappeared the same year Lawrence died, and does not seem to be making an effort to cover his tracks now.”
Richard readjusted his glasses and exchanged a glance with his coworker. “Do you think he would help us?”
Eve’s brow furrowed. She ventured forward. “I guess it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
“He seems to have changed his phone number a lot in the last few years,” Sesame said, and as he did, a number came up on the screen, as well as pictures taken by surveillance cameras. Richard marveled at how quickly Sesame was able to access such information. “I think this may be his current one. It is for this man. His most recent address is local, which seems strange. Is this Henry Benson?”
Eve leaned forward again, studying the photos. Richard looked at the physical photograph in his hand, and extended it to place it up against the screen. He was older, with heavy bags under his eyes and a forehead creased in a way that made Richard think he had spent most of the last twenty years worried.
But it was him.
Eve was silent for a long, intense moment. Finally, she tugged her cellphone from the pocket of her slacks.
“You just earned yourself a damn good body, Sesame,” she muttered, thumbing in and double-checking the numbers before raising the phone to her ear.
James hadn’t left the lab in eight hours. Soldering, smothering, dissociating. Almost a week after Heather’s death, as she considered it, he was starting to exhibit some form of stable schedule. He averaged five hours of sleep per night, not that it helped.
Heather sat on the counter, her back propped against the wall between windows with her arms crossed, watching him.
Even though he was constantly in his lab, they barely spoken to each other, even when he had installed a time-keeping device in her head to see if she could integrate it. She adapted it with no problems, and now she could better measure out her robotic purgatory. Lucky her.
For a while, she had hoped maybe he was developing his own escape plan, pretending to work on what Benson wanted but creating something that could help them escape instead.
But all he devoted all his attention now to that turkey baster thing, reading the stack of papers, soldering and programming on other scraps of metal she hadn’t bothered to ask about. Probably more stuff he’d soon plug into her neural network.
None of it mattered, anyway, she supposed. Both their lives were forfeit, thanks to him. True, Benson had been pulling the strings, if what James said was correct, but James had still let himself be forced into it. He was the one that had gone behind their backs.
Heather had liked to think she could never hate, or even dislike someone. But James’ presence was suffocating, his submission disgusting, and she had never hated anyone as much as she had come to hate him. She watched him work from afar, her hostility building until, finally, she just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Could you go work somewhere else?” she asked tersely. “You don’t have to babysit me.”
“I’m not babysitting you,” James said quietly.
“So can you move?”
James stopped soldering and turned to look at her, confused. “Why?”
Heather crossed her arms and looked away.
After a period of silence, in which James waited for her to add something else, he finally turned back to his work, his shoulders tight.
“I would have started school today,” she said, glaring coldly out the window. The grass had been shriveling in the late summer heat, but the massive thunderstorm that had passed through over the weekend had renewed it. “My life was about to start again, and maybe things were going to be better, between private school and Larkspur. You killed me right on time, to make sure I never got to see it.”
“I wouldn’t have done it if I had a choice,” James said, without looking at her, his voice a tired monotone. “Believe me, I tried so hard to find another way.”
“But I don’t believe you, James,” she said. “I think, deep down, you wanted to do it. You wanted this to happen—to get back at my dad for turning down your horrible mad science project.”
James’ hands ceased working as the tension in the room grew. “That’s absolutely not true.”
“Then why didn’t you fight it?” She sat up straighter. “Why didn’t you run when you still had a chance?”
“I didn’t know it would come to this.” James swiveled in his chair to face her. He was actually getting defensive, she noted venomously. “Because, you know, typically, when a guy tries to quit his job, the company lets him. They don’t go ballistic and force him to experiment on the people he cares about—”
“Don’t ever say that again,” Heather snapped.
“That you care.”
James stared at her, stricken. The more feeling he showed, the more Heather hated him.
“Maybe I should just wipe my memory,” she said. “Delete my capacity for emotion. Forget I was ever human so I can at least enjoy my pseudo-immortality, because who knows how long this insane battery will hold out. I’ll outlive everyone. I’ll always be alone.”
James blanched. “Heather, please don’t. You still have so much to live for—”
“Oh, do I?” She glared at his miserable, worried expression. “Wouldn’t it be easier for you if I just made myself forget? You could forget too—forget we were even friends. That you ever had to pretend I meant anything to you.”
“You really think that, do you?” James said.
“I get it. It’s easier to conform.” Heather threw up her hands. “So go ahead! Fall into line! Obey these monsters. Do whatever you have to do to save yourself, but do me a favor and quit pretending you ever wanted to make any of this right. Because you never actually cared about me, or about any of us who supported you. I understand that now.” She turned her face away again, buzzing a short, bitter scoff. “I never belonged anywhere, and now I absolutely never will. I’m such an idiot for trusting you, for thinking you could ever be a good person with your rabid perfectionism complex.” She wished she could cry, that she could feel the cathartic force of a shout leaving her throat and lungs and get some release from the loathing and sorrow raging inside her.
But she only had simulated sound, trapped inside a cold, artificial body, left to drown.
“I can be so idealistic sometimes, it makes me sick.” She watched a guard patrolling far by the fence out the window, her eyes narrowed in pain. “Maybe I deserved this.”
Silence closed in. It dragged on for an eternity, yet the clock in her head measured it as 16.32 seconds long. She glanced at James with only her eyes, wondering if maybe he’d left the room or died in the interim.
He was staring at her, his red-rimmed hazel eyes wide and horrified.
“But that’s—” James finally found his voice. “You can’t possibly believe that I—” he choked on his words, “—that I never cared.” He got to his feet, slowly. “I betrayed you. I hurt you. I made a mess of both our lives. I understand, okay?” His hands curled into fists at his sides, and his voice ticked up a notch as the emotion started spilling out. “You didn’t deserve this, Heather. All right? You did nothing wrong. This is my fault. I deserved this.” Heather straightened slowly, surprised. Over the last week, she’d seen a variety of novel strong emotions from James, ranging from terror to remorse to hyperventilation, but never had she seen him as purely angry as he was in that moment. “How else can I explain that this wasn’t supposed to happen? And now, if I do anything, the consequences will fall on you, not me. He will separate us! He will kick me out and keep you here, and I’ve already hurt you so much already, I can’t let anything else happen. What I’m doing now, this is the only way I can protect you!” He was shaking. Tears were coming. James was ugly and pathetic when he cried. “You couldn’t have known things would end up this way, and I certainly didn’t either. So I know everything’s on fire because of my mistakes, but this is on me, Heather.” He gripped the front of his shirt, as if he could feel himself coming undone. “You can say or do anything you want to me, but don’t you dare take this out on yourself. Ever.”
Heather blinked, dumbstruck.
He pulled back a little, and a look of realization and shock came into his flushed, tearful face as he realized what he’d just done. He spun around and made briskly for the door, rubbing at his eyes. “I’m sorry. I need air—I’m sorry.”
Heather started toward the edge of the counter after him, but stopped herself.
James slipped through the door. She heard a door swing shut across the hallway.
Slowly, Heather’s face fell, and she scooted back against the wall and hugged her knees. She’d finally gotten him to crack, to yell at her, to rage about the sick, unfair situation they were caught up in. Alone in the lab, in the oppressive, vacuous silence left in James’ wake, she didn’t know what to feel anymore.
She just felt worse. More betrayed, more alone.
Grotesque. Alien. Lost.
Her whole life, the people she had wanted most to trust her only embraced her when it suited them. She had been kept on the sidelines in the name of her own protection. And just when it seemed like she was finding her place, she realized she fit even less.
She had had a life in Dunesborough back east. She wasn’t popular in her class, but she had acquaintances, study buddies. Teachers liked her, and she was on friendly terms with the kids of her parents’ friends. But that wasn’t good enough, was it?
Nothing had ever been good enough. She had been insecure about her organic body, frustrated by the distance from her peers, by her parents keeping Larkspur a secret, and bitter that she’d had to overhaul her life for those secrets. She had always felt lacking, unnecessary in the lives of those who meant the most to her.
Strapped in the middle of a nightmare with a cowardly, shell-shocked engineer, with no word whatsoever from her parents, that old stack of insecurities and disappointments felt like the best thing in the world now.
Erika was doing pushups in her cell. She planted all four hands, trying to put as much weight on the arms off her back as possible. They had only existed for ten days, and she still couldn’t trust much weight to them, but they could build muscle. She intended to build them up until she could walk on them if necessary.
With as large as they were, maybe they could one day be strong enough to throw somebody. While she had nothing else to do, she resolved to do whatever she could to make them useful, to bolster the careful physical therapy Yeun was doing with them, maybe to eventually use against her captors.
Now that the exhaustion from the gene therapy and activation was finally wearing off, Erika was getting her strength back.
She figured her behavior would be noted, but let them suspect. Let them prepare.
Erika Davenport hadn’t given up yet.
James sat on the floor in the storage closet across from his lab, his face bowed and his fingers clawed in his disheveled hair. The dimness of the space was quiet and placid—a kinder sort of darkness than the one screaming in his chest. His whole body was ablaze with it, the grief and pain that everything he hated about himself had burst out and overtaken those he had dared to grow attached to. His selfish, obsessive naivety. He’d suspected it wasn’t amazingly healthy, but he had never believed it could be so destructive.
Why was this happening? he thought, his head aching. Why had this been allowed to happen? Heather was just a kid.
If only she had never met him. If only he had never even existed.
His face was hot, and he brushed at the persistent tide of tears leaking from his eyes, but he couldn’t stop crying. How dare he weep over this, some deep part of him that sounded a lot like his father whispered. Was he crying for Heather, or for himself? His own pain, his own regret? He couldn’t tell for sure.
He just couldn’t tell anymore.
His pager beeped in the pocket of his slacks. His arm felt like stone as he twisted to retrieve the device and read the message:
Please come to my office.
His hand tightened on it. He raised his arm to hurl it across the room, smash it to pieces against the wall, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow through.
He thumped the back of his head once against the door. Finally, he typed, I didn’t tell her anything, just got emotional. I’m sorting it out.
Benson had traumatized him enough. The director didn’t need to see the state he was in.He bent over, leaning his forehead on his drawn-up knees and closed his eyes. He was so tired.
The pager beeped again.
Slowly, with great effort, James replied. On my way.
He dragged himself to his feet, pulled a paper towel from a nearby dispenser and dried his eyes as best as he could. Finally, he opened the door, letting light spill into his hiding place. The guard waited for him across the hallway, and nodded for him to proceed alone. James complied.
The director’s office was open, and James hung in the doorway.
Benson folded his hands on top of his desk, expectant. “Come in, Siles.”
James wandered forward and sat down in the chair in front of the desk.
“Care to explain your outburst down in your lab just now?”
James leaned forward, resting his face in his hands. He shook his head.
After a calculated silence, Benson said. “I’m not going to consider what just happened between you and Ms. Brophy as going against our agreement, but I do need you to make an effort to move past this, for both of your sakes.”
James didn’t respond.
“I know our line of work isn’t easy,” Benson went on. “That’s why you must establish your frameworks, draw lines and keep yourself steady. If you can’t do that, you’re setting yourself up for wasted time and avoidable mistakes, which could easily make Ms. Brophy’s sacrifice worth nothing in the end.”
James could only shake his head again. He felt like he was going to throw up.
“Why are you still keeping her in your lab?” the director asked, quietly. “Why insist on torturing yourself like this?”
“I…” James started. He didn’t owe Benson an explanation, but he had no one else to talk to. He still couldn’t fathom what he had done, and bearing it alone poisoned him more every day. “I don’t want her to feel like I’ve abandoned her—any more than she already does, I guess.” He wanted to be on her side, but couldn’t be in the ways that mattered.
Benson didn’t respond right away, and instead sat still, observing him. The longer the silence continued, the more certain James became that he had made a mistake in being honest. He should have tried to come up with something clinical in response, try to make it seem like he had accepted his responsibilities, his imprisonment. Maybe then Benson would release him from his office, instead of inquiring after his broken spirit as if it even made a difference to him.
Because nobody really cared much about James as a person, always more about what he could deliver. His cursed potential. As long as he performed well, what did it matter that he hated himself? That all his relationships were broken and he had never known how to repair any of them?
Heather had cared before all this happened. But she, too, had wanted something from him that he couldn’t give her, because James probably wasn’t even human.
“You should try to free yourself from that sentimentality before it really begins to interfere with your work,” Benson said finally.
James nodded, his face turned toward the floor. Desensitization. James had to admit it sounded appealing. He was so incredibly tired of hurting, of feeling guilty for hurting. Of trying to explain himself.
He had tried shutting down his weak, mewling heart before, hadn’t he? When he was a child at university, trying to convince himself that academics were the only thing that ever mattered and that friendship and belonging were luxuries afforded to those who had something he obviously did not.
“Do you have any more pressing tests to complete with Ms. Brophy?” Benson asked. “Besides the device to control her, which I hope you’ll be finishing soon?”
“Just that one,” James murmured. “And yes, I’ll be finishing it soon.” He had opted for a pain simulator, a crueler device than paralysis-on-demand, but while the latter would simply physically disrupt conduction of her robotic spinal cord wherever the device was attached, the pain simulator was complex and software-based, something he hoped she could learn to override.
“Good. Then I would like you to move her into one of the cells downstairs so she isn’t a distraction. Keep your distance until you need to install that device, give yourself time for the dust to settle. You can’t let things carry on like this with her in your lab.”
He was especially afraid to leave her alone after their last argument, but he felt relief, too, that his exhausted, traumatized mind had finally been given permission to pull away.
In the empty lab, Heather reviewed her argument with James with a mix of anger, sadness, and unease.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
She had only ever done her best to make him feel like his desires mattered, even if his methods were unorthodox. They were friends. She had been proud of him. She’d trusted him.
James was a fire. Bright, intense, and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. She had thought he was going to better the world with that insuppressible electrical current of his, but instead, he had burnt her life down, and all he had to offer in the aftermath were incomplete explanations, and stuttered, weak apologies, as if that could ever mean anything. He could never make any of this right, and how dare he just accept that.
Part of her wanted to forgive him just to prove to herself she hadn’t been beaten yet, that something could still be done. But more and more, she found herself wondering if there was even a point in trying to escape at all.
She watched the goings on of the grounds outside. Guards chatting, birds foraging in the bushes. Far above, a jet traced a small white trail across the sky. She wondered if it was even possible for her to clear her own memory, as she’d threatened. She was afraid to try.
It hurt too much to remember what she had been, what she could never be again. As she sat there alone, she gradually realized her mom and dad still probably wanted her back, freakish robot hybrid or not. She supposed that was enough incentive to keep freedom on her mind for now.
If James wasn’t going to help her, she would have to leave him behind. She didn’t think it wise to leave him under Benson’s control, but if he was too scared to listen to her, what was she supposed to do?
That question seemed to be all she had lately: What was she supposed to do?
She heard footsteps. Heather turned her head to look at the door as a badge beeped in the reader outside and the lock clicked back.
James entered the room, followed by a guard, and any pull to apologize Heather might have felt died when Benson appeared behind them, standing watchfully in the doorway. His bespectacled gaze wielded power, like a tangible collar around James’ neck.
Heather’s eyes widened and she shrank back a little against the wall as the director’s gray gaze met hers.
“I’m going to move you downstairs,” James said in a hollow monotone. “It’ll be better if we both have our own space.” He nodded reluctantly at the guard, who stepped forward to tie Heather’s arms behind her back and lift her down from the table. She didn’t fight him, despite the dread that flooded over her as the restraints clicked down around her hands. James unlocked the ankle tether with a wireless remote.
Benson stepped aside, and the guard guided her out the door and into the hallway. James hung back behind them, walking beside the director as the group made its way to the elevator.
Heather tried to glance back. James’ gaze remained on the floor.
He didn’t look up in the elevator, or all the way down the silent hallway on the basement level. Metal doors lined the corridor, each bearing a cell number. From one further down, a single sheet of paper hung in a transparent sleeve. She zoomed in her vision so she could read it more clearly as they approached.
Subject: Erika Davenport
Project: Non-Comp MBE
Researcher: E. Yeun
They passed the door and Heather tripped, trying to twist around to keep looking at it.
There were others. She wasn’t the only one trapped here.
They came to a cell two doors down from the occupied one. It, too, possessed a similar notice, except it displayed her and James’ names, with O.R.T. listed as the project.
Heather shot an apprehensive glance at James as another guard joined them to unlock her cell and her escort took her inside. James remained by the door, avoiding her gaze. After releasing her wrists, the guard ordered her to stay where she was, and then left her.
Finally, James spoke. “I’ll bring you something to do a little later,” he said quietly. “But aside from that, you won’t have to see me for a while.” He forced himself to look at her, then. Utter misery burned in his tired eyes. A continued apology, despite the resignation.
After all his aching and worry about Benson separating them, James was the one separating them. Heather figured he hadn’t made the decision on his own. Fury sparked through her circuits at how tightly both of them were being manipulated by this person she knew nothing about.
If Benson was some kind of facility director, did her dad know him? She hoped her parents had found something useful in Sesame’s neural network, that they were perhaps on their way right now. But her loved ones were civilians. Could they really confront a place like this without getting hurt, or worse?
The guard closed her into the silence of her cell, as cold as her mechanical body standing alone in its center.
After leaving Heather in her cell, Benson took James to Yeun’s lab on the first floor.
The door was propped open. “Dr. Yeun?” Benson called.
“Yes?” Yeun’s voice issued from across the lab, through another open door. Then his face appeared, a sterile mask over his mouth and wearing a fully buttoned up lab coat.
“I’m putting Siles in your care for a little while,” Benson said, ushering James into the room. “He’s been reading the background data for Non-Comp, and is ready for hands-on experience.”
Yeun blinked, then looked at James, whose gaze fell to the floor.
“Sure thing,” Yeun said.
“Thank you.” Benson took his leave, abandoning the roboticist with his future supervising researcher. “Be gentle with him. He’s had a rough day.”
Yeun waited several moments for Benson to leave earshot before he said, “Well, I’m just finishing up some mice husbandry work if you want something to keep your hands busy.”
James stepped forward, lethargic. “You have mice?”
“Yeah, for Non-Comp,” Yeun said. As James entered the secondary lab, Yeun pointed at a station near the door. “Lab coats, surgical masks, and gloves are over there. Come on over once you’re situated.”
As James donned the sterile gear, he surveyed the room. Cages lined the back wall, and Yeun worked among a system of stations for transplanting mice, cleaning cages, replacing bedding, and reintroducing them. Yeun assigned him to sterilizing cage components at the island in the middle of the room.
“Benson says you’re having a rough day?” Yeun said. “Want to talk about it?”
James shook his head.
“I know the director’s been coming on strong lately,” Yeun said gently. “Sorry. He’ll let up eventually. He just wants to make sure you’re on board.”
James turbidly focused on his work. Yeun returned a group of mice to their clean cage, and James watched for evidence of something weird about the mice, something human weaponry related, but he couldn’t tell.
“So you use human test subjects too?” James asked finally.
“Here and there,” Yeun said. “But you don’t have to worry about that today.”
They worked in silence for a while, a dark cloud hanging around James.
Finally, Yeun spoke up again, “If it’s any consolation, Benson’s leaving on a business trip soon. He’ll want to get some things set up with you before he leaves in a couple of days, but after that, you should have more space to breathe. You’ll report progress to me, as we’re going to be working together soon, and I’ll go as easy on you as I can.”
“Oh,” James muttered. “Okay.”
Briefly, the thought crossed his mind that Benson’s absence presented a window, but he swallowed the temptation to follow it further. The director wouldn’t be on site, but he would still be very much in control. There were still security guards, and all the ultimatums Benson had stacked against him and Heather.
“What is the business trip for?” James wondered if he was even allowed to ask.
“Sponsor stuff.” Yeun snapped two halves of a cage together and dumped aspen bedding inside. “He’ll be gone for a few days.”
“Why so long?” James slid one cage aside and started on another.
“It’s on the east coast, I think,” Yeun said. “To avoid Conxence interference. We’re not sure how much they know about us yet.”
Before long, they’d finished up, and then Yeun was taking him through a door in the back of the lab. “Have you ever done any cell splitting?”
“Not really,” James said. He found himself in a narrow room with sturdy, sealed incubators on the counters, and fume hoods at the back of the room. Compound microscopes and cabinets populated the adjacent wall.
Yeun smiled at him. “Want to learn? Keeping live stem cell cultures is a big part of the job with Non-Comp.”
“Wash your hands, put on some gloves, and take a seat over there.” Yeun nodded to one of the fume hoods.
“I’ll give you some dishes and fluid to practice with, not live cells,” Yeun said, opening one of the cabinets.
Yeun furnished the fume hood with a small stack of empty petri dishes, a motorized pipette controller with a disposable pipette, and an erlenmeyer flask full of water. He took hold of the gate-like window at the front of the fume hood, pulling it down. “First, you pull down the sash like this, as close to your hands as possible to avoid contamination while you’re working. Unwrap the pipette here, it goes into the tip of the pipettor. This button sucks up, this one releases it…” After showing him how the equipment worked, as James had never used motorized pipettes before, Yeun taught him how to pull up the simulated cell culture from one petri dish, and decant it into two more dishes, rattling on about more of the biological steps involved in preparing and caring for stem cell cultures.
Yeun smiled, observing his technique. “You’re a natural.”
James pressed his lips together and kept working for a few minutes more.
“About Non-Comp…” James said finally. “Benson tells me there are currently Compatible subjects with the original science, the one Hill developed with another bioroboticist, who doesn’t work here anymore?”
Yeun hesitated, but tried to brush it off. “Yes, there are six known Compatibilities. All unique.”
“What do they do?” James asked. “I’m told we’re going to try to duplicate them.”
Now that he was out from under Benson’s iron stare and forced to distance himself from Heather’s completely justified hostility until further notice, he found he was actually growing curious. He wanted to know exactly why Benson was so dead set on pairing him up with Yeun. James wasn’t much of a biochemist and would require tutoring, yet Benson had happily destroyed an innocent kid’s life just to bring James into the mix.
“Yes.” Yeun went over to the nearest incubator and lay a hand on it. A label read P.J.E. “The person these cell cultures originate from has an extra set of arms. It’s the most benign and straightforward of the group, so this is the one I’m working to duplicate in a human subject first. And although there have been a few hangups, it’s going well, overall.”
James looked up at him from his place on the medical stool. Sick to his stomach, he laid down the pipette and pulled his hands from the fume hood.
Yeun renewed his smile, sensing James’ discomfort, and moved to the next incubator, “This one, its bearer has rudimentary pyrokinetic abilities, and this one—” He pointed to the next in line. “—can create a burst of projectile force. Telepathy—” He was pointing to the incubators across the room now. “—That one’s bearer turns into a smoke-like substance, phasing and reforming the body at will. Oh, but that one interests me the most, to be honest.”
James looked in the direction Yeun indicated. The final incubator was marked C.R.B. James assumed the initials on each of the incubators corresponded to the subjects’ names. “What’s that one?”
“This one generates plant matter from their body,” Yeun said. “Can you believe it? And it’s not just leaves. They can create large projections that take on a variety of forms like vines and branches, which they can move as easily as their own original limbs. They’re crossing whole genetic domains! And Compatible MBE is only stimulating genes these individuals already possess. We didn’t introduce foreign genetic material.”
“Oh,” James said, considering the incubator, his hackles raising. “Why didn’t you start trying to duplicate that one, if it’s the one that interests you the most?” Empetrum obviously did what it wanted, so why wasn’t Yeun plowing forward, like Benson?
“That Compatibility is complex and still poorly understood,” Yeun said. “I pick at its mysteries in my free time, and while it doesn’t seem to bother its natural bearer much from what I’ve observed, when introduced to another system, it either completely doesn’t take, or it becomes extremely volatile. If I can help it, I’m not letting it anywhere near another human system until I’ve uncovered more about what makes it tick.”
“Oh, let me show you the modulators,” Yeun said, waving him toward the door. James followed.
In the main area of Yeun’s lab stood an illuminated shelf with electrical devices on clear polymer frames. James had barely noticed them when Benson had dropped him off, still too shaken from his fight with Heather.
“These are the devices that drive Compatibility technology,” Yeun said. “Hill and Olsson developed a pair of sera that are entered into these devices, one that drives the genetic activation, and another that dismantles it upon deactivation, making the Compatible phenotypes manageable and reversible.”
“Why bother making it reversible?” James leaned in to examine the devices, which were labeled with the model and development date. Some looked like bracelets, others were shaped like oversized microchips. A chill went up his spine as he imagined how the devices worked—hijacking a person’s genetic code and driving a rapid, manufactured evolution.
“Mainly,” Yeun said, “it gives us a measure of security over the technology. If something happened where they needed to expel one of the recruits from the program, for example, they wouldn’t be able to keep their Compatibility and use it against us.”
“Ah,” James said.
Yeun wistfully surveyed the modulators, his hands in his lab coat pockets. “Soon, we’ll be able to get Non-Comp up and running, if we put our heads together.”
James swallowed. He stepped away from the shelves, leaning against a nearby counter littered with boxes of pipette tips, compound microscopes, flasks of ethanol and used slides.
“Benson’s planning on taking you to see the Compatible recruits,” Yeun went on. “He’ll probably want to do that tomorrow, to help this all sink in a little better, get you moving forward, and give our sponsors a status report they’ll like at the meeting.”
“Oh,” James said. He ran a hand through his hair and tried to take a steadying breath, but it was shaky.
Yeun came over and leaned against the counter beside him, keeping a respectable distance. “I know it’s a lot to deal with. I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now,” he said, quietly. He crossed his arms and considered the floor. “What happened with your friend was awful, and I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m sure the director had his reasons. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about the situation in the capital, but it affects us a lot here. We could become a target of the Conxence ourselves, if we’re not careful, or if we take too long to bring Non-Comp to a stable form.”
James set his jaw, trying to hold back his mounting emotion. He could hear Heather’s accusations clearly in the back of his mind, on repeat behind his eyes. He didn’t care if the militarized rebellion came for them. Let them come. Let them burn Empetrum down.
But until that day, or until the Brophys came for their daughter, James had to lock his heart away and work. He had to concentrate, contribute.
He had to accept this. Somehow.