The opening and closing of a door disturbed the silence of a modest apartment. A light switched on and the flat’s solitary owner stepped into the kitchen, depositing two heavy cloth bags of groceries on the island counter. He tossed his keys beside the bags and pushed his hood back, revealing hair that had gone fully gray many years earlier than his peers, an angular jaw, and a straight, jutting nose. He rid himself of his wet jacket and disappeared into the nearby laundry room to hang it up.
As he returned to the kitchen, he realized his cellphone still lay connected to its charger under the overhead cupboards, a red light flashing in its top right-hand corner. When he flicked it open with his thumb, the number of the two missed calls was unknown to him, but whoever it was had left a message on the second try. He set his voicemail to speaker as he proceeded to empty his grocery bags on the counter.
“Hello Benson,” said the voice on the message. “This is Evangeline Louis…” The man froze, eyes widening. “I don’t know if you remember me. I founded and led Larkspur with your dad for a while way back when. Listen, I wouldn’t bother you if this weren’t extremely important, but I need to talk to you about what happened after you all left Larkspur, and what you know about Michael’s involvement with a place called Empetrum. If you can, please call me back as soon as you get this message. My friend’s kid is in danger, and you may be our only hope.” Louis gave a phone number, thanked him, and then the voicemail ended.
Henry Benson stared at the phone long after it fell silent, a head of lettuce in one hand and a hard knot in the pit of his stomach.
Louis didn’t know what she was asking.
He nervously continued to put groceries away, considering his options. How had she even found him? He wasn’t being careful about covering his tracks, of course, but he wasn’t that careless.
He could just neglect to call her back. Nothing had to change.
After putting the kitchen in order, Henry lingered for a moment, staring pensively at the opposite wall. However Michael had harmed these people, it wasn’t his problem. He had left Empetrum. Nobody could bring him back into the equation. Not Michael, not Louis.
His father’s sick ambitions had already taken years away from him, irreparably infected his life and psyche, stolen his wife and son.
He navigated to his phone’s call history, staring down Louis’ number.
Empetrum could hold no power over him if he just stayed out of the way. Anyone with any sense would see the trap for what it was and put as much distance as they could from the entire situation.
Yet his thumb hovered over the call button.
After nearly twenty years, he was finally ready to try building a life he could learn to accept with grace. He was slowly, cautiously making friends, volunteering in the community, working and paying his bills. If he got involved with Louis, all of that would crumble. Empetrum’s claws would come out, and he’d be thrown back to square one, if not worse.
Lawrence was dead, Michael was too, in his own way. Henry was not responsible for their victims. None of this was in his hands anymore.
He pressed the button and raised the phone to his ear.
Louis picked up almost immediately. She must have been waiting. “Hello?”
“Hi…Mrs. Louis?” Henry said, already impatient to get the conversation over with. Henry was his own brand of insane, he thought, going through with this. “This is Henry Benson, returning your call. I’m willing to help if I can, but I can’t tell you anything over the phone. Are you still on the east coast?”
“No, west, near Worthing,” came the quick reply. Henry was relieved she had sensed the urgency, at least.
“I’m local to Worthing these days too,” Henry said. “It’s pretty late now, but are you available in two hours? Michael keeps tabs on me, so I can’t guarantee anything if we wait long.”
“Of course,” Louis said, nearly interrupting him.
“Aisling Park, then,” Henry said, glancing at the clock. “By the fountain, 8pm?”
“Yes, see you then.”
Disconnecting the call, he frowned at the looming thunderheads out the window above the sink. He wondered if the sky was this turbulent over Empetrum as well.
He expected he’d soon find out.
Rain hammered onto the pavement, slapping through the foliage of trees and muffling the world in its watery cacophony. Richard took a steadying breath before quickly opening up the car door and stepping outside. He attempted to deploy his umbrella before the downpour drenched him, but he was unsuccessful.
Aisling Park appeared deserted as Richard and Eve became mere silhouettes in the dark obscurity of the shower. As they neared the fountain in the heart of the area, they spotted a single figure, standing alone with a black umbrella and carefully watching the gloom around him.
He looked up, and Richard felt an odd sense of disconnect, unable to believe they were about to speak with the man from the surveillance photos. That morning, when Eve left a voicemail, Richard expected a dead end. The Bensons felt more myth than human, dangerous and terrible but forever out of reach. Yet here, one of them stepped across the flooded square to meet them, flashing a preoccupied smile.
“Louis—it’s been a while.” Henry Benson had to raise his voice to be heard above the downpour.
“Yes, it has,” Eve agreed, reaching through the rain to shake his hand. She gestured to Richard. “This is my associate, Richard Brophy. Thanks for coming out. You have no idea what this means to us.” She nodded toward where the windows of a coffee shop glowed across the street. “Mind if we go in there to talk? Get out of the rain?”
Henry looked across the square, then glanced around at their surroundings. Finally, he nodded, and they made their way to shelter. Richard walked behind them, considering this specter who had turned out to be a real person.
Richard searched for traces of Michael’s features or mannerisms in his father’s form as they walked, some kind of proof that this man really was who they thought he was. Henry’s broad shoulders were slightly rounded from years of careless posture, in contrast with Lawrence and Michael’s prim, collected demeanor. So far the only similarities among the three of them were the straight angle of the nose, and the hooded, gray eyes. A stubborn pair of traits, Richard thought, to have passed down three generations.
Eve opened the door for them and Henry muttered thanks as he stepped into the warm atmosphere of coffee beans and soft jazz music. A small brass bell clanged as the door closed behind them, pushing back the thundering rain.
Richard ventured forward between the mismatched tables and Henry trailed behind as Eve stopped at the counter to order them all coffee. They found a rectangular table tucked away in a corner and took a seat across from each other. Henry selected the chair that faced the entrance.
“Are you the friend Louis mentioned in her voicemail?” Henry shed his coat over the back of the chair and propped his closed umbrella against the bricks of the wall behind him. “My son has put your child in danger?”
“Yes,” Richard said quietly. “At least, we think so.”
Henry nodded, lowering himself into his chair. “Well,” he said. “I hope I can help.”
They sat in awkward silence until Eve returned, neither sure what to do with each other. When the former returned with coffee, Henry thanked her quietly, removed the cardboard sleeve from his disposable cup and wrapped his hands around the unprotected surface. “So…” he said. “I was very surprised to receive your call, Louis.” He lifted his gray eyes from the lid to regard the two across from him. “Before we begin, you should know I’m placing us all in a very precarious position by not only meeting with you, but freely offering you whatever information I can. The more you know about the situation with Empetrum, the more of a threat you become to the powers that be. Getting involved in this isn’t something you can come back from.”
“My daughter’s in danger,” Richard said. “I’m already involved.”
“Understood,” Henry said. He leaned back a little, taking up his coffee cup. “So, bring me up to speed. I’m sure you don’t like dredging up the past any more than I do, Louis. So things must be pretty serious for you to summon me.”
Eve glanced at Richard, who nodded. “Essentially, Larkspur’s still alive and well.”
Henry nodded once. “I sort of figured. I heard about the relocation.”
Richard took it from there, “A colleague of ours has created a dangerous machine, and when I asked him to discontinue it, he secretly aligned himself with another lab to pursue it against our wishes.” He swallowed the tightness in his throat. “His actions have led to his sudden disappearance, along with my fifteen-year-old daughter.”
Henry stared at him, an expression of dread and surprise crossing his features.
Richard went on before he lost his nerve. He hadn’t expected him to be surprised. “I don’t think he meant for the situation to go where it did, and he left a recording for us to find, citing your son Michael, and Empetrum as being involved.” He purposefully neglected to mention Sesame as a conscious entity. He didn’t trust Henry, and he didn’t want their robotic confidant anywhere near the equation.
“And I’d be inclined to believe him,” Henry said. “What does this machine of his do, if I may ask?”
“It’s a neural transfer device. It moves the consciousness of an organic organism into a mechanical replacement body.”
Henry blinked. “That’s possible?”
“Apparently,” Richard said. “And when the two of them disappeared, an android we had been working on vanished as well. I was tranquilized by one of Larkspur’s security guards, and the police fought me to drop the matter when I tried to involve them. Because of this, we think Empetrum may have governmental ties.”
“Your thoughts are correct,” Henry said. “Is Larkspur still under the FBSI?”
“Yes,” Richard said.
“Empetrum is too,” Henry said. “The Bureau keeps it far under the table, of course, but the government likes having at least one biotech facility like Empetrum around.”
It was Eve and Richard’s turn to stare. Richard thought he should be more stunned, but he was starting to take everything at face value at this point. He’d deal with that later. Heather took precedence. James too, if he wanted to come home. If he hadn’t hurt her.
“What is Empetrum, exactly?” Richard asked. “How is Michael involved?”
Henry took a long draught from his coffee cup, as if to steady himself. “About a year after my father left Larkspur, he managed to strike up a deal with the government through the Bureau, proposing to develop technology no one else would deliver. It’s now in the hands of my son, who succeeded Lawrence as director.”
“We found the obituary,” Eve said. “What happened?”
“Massive stroke,” Henry said, his voice quiet. “It was sudden, unexpected. When the directorship changed hands and Michael wasn’t yet settled, I took the opportunity to leave, and I’ve been trying to escape having anything else to do with that horrible place ever since.”
“You used to work there, then,” Eve said. “Why on earth did you follow him?”
“Believe it or not, I agreed with him for a while.” Henry turned a sad, uneasy smile on Eve. “You know better than anyone how he could talk—how he could make his ambitions sound like your own.” He let his gaze drop to the table. “It just seemed to make so much sense back then. He made such noble speeches about sacrifice and progress, he made you feel like you were trying to make the earth stand still if you didn’t follow his lead.”
Eve nodded slowly. “I’ve told Richard what I know of what happened between Lawrence and I.” She lowered her voice, “The human experimentation, why Larkspur had to go underground…”
Richard stared intently at his own coffee cup. He felt Henry’s eyes on him.
After a long pause, Henry said, “At Empetrum, he continued it. But test subjects don’t volunteer anymore.”
“You can’t be serious,” Eve said.
Richard shuddered. His mind flew immediately to Heather.
“They’re funneled in from death row,” Henry said. “People no one will come looking for. The source makes it easier for some to justify, I suppose, but it’s sick, all the same. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.”
“Where is Empetrum?” Eve asked.
“It’s in the area,” he said. “Forty minutes from here, maybe.”
“That close—” Richard muttered. He leaned forward, incredulous and angry. “That close? Where?”
“Up in the hills,” Henry said. “Northwest, secluded.”
“What happened after he set the facility up?” Eve asked.
Henry hesitated, looking at Richard, who nodded for him to continue.
“After a couple of years,” Henry said, “everything was built and ready to go, and we moved into the living arrangements there—my parents, my wife and son, and myself—as I had agreed to work with my father. I was pretty content with it for a while, and I let Michael come in and watch. We homeschooled him.”
He paused. “Then my mother got cancer, and passed away the year after.”
“I’m so sorry,” Eve said.
He nodded gratefully. “It tore my father apart. He was already going downhill before Mom’s death, but that kind of sealed it. He became harsh and overbearing, his ambition went pathological. He obsessed over the Q-13, as that project he started at Larkspur came to be called, terrified he’d never see it to completion. He became fixated on the idea of a successor, and I guess he decided Michael would fill that role, and so my son began to spend quite a bit of time with him. I didn’t interfere. I was too afraid of how he would react.”
“Eventually you changed your mind, didn’t you?” Eve asked softly. “That’s why you left, why you’re helping us now?”
Henry nodded again, slowly. “The next year, my wife had had enough. She filed for divorce. Empetrum has a policy where if someone wants to leave, they have to agree to a mindwipe—via this machine one of the other scientists presented to my father as part of the initial employment process.” A cloud settled further over Henry’s features. “She was so fed up and felt so guilty about everything we were doing that she agreed to give up several years’ worth of memories, and she even forfeited charge of our son. She didn’t dare fight Lawrence for him. Michael didn’t understand. He was only fourteen. He tried to blame himself.”
“Have you been in contact with her at all since then?”
Henry shook his head. “Michael’s likely found her by now, but he hasn’t mentioned anything about it to me. He may be keeping his distance out of respect for her.”
Eve and Richard weren’t sure how to reply. They waited for him to continue.
“Losing her was hard,” Henry said after another weary, thoughtful pull from his coffee cup. He took stock of their surroundings again, making sure no one was eavesdropping before he continued. “I retreated into my work for a long time, trying to cope with it. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t pay much attention to Michael. Dad was doing a better job with him—encouraging him, holding high expectations. I got lost in my own world, unable to think coherently about anything outside the lab. My father cared about things, so I let him do what he wanted as far as Michael was concerned. I did as I was told. And the Q-13 grew more and more dangerous.”
Richard tried hard to stop fidgeting as his cold apprehension grew.
“Life continued on like this,” Henry said. “Eventually, Michael went to college, working at Empetrum during the summer. After graduate school, he came back there to work full time, specializing in the Q-13, as expected. He had only been officially employed at Empetrum for two years when Lawrence died, launching Michael into the director’s position. By then, he was fully trained. My father had groomed him to justify everything to a pulp, and had successfully managed to desensitize him to anything that tugged a little too hard on the conscience. So Michael claims, anyway.
“By that time, I wanted out, but I didn’t have the guts to defect. Attempting to leave Empetrum without a mindwipe could mean becoming a test subject for the Q-13 myself, if the fallout was bad enough. I know that sounds crazy, but Lawrence demanded loyalty at all costs.” He glanced out the window to his right. “In the early days of Michael’s directorship, I begged him to steer Empetrum toward more ethical science, but he made his intentions clear. There would be no changing his mind, and I realized then the full implications of what I had done, allowing my father to turn him into a monster like himself.” His fingers tightened on his cup, his face falling. “Like me.”
He contemplated the lid for several long moments. “I decided to leave, then, certain he was going to try to stop me—but he didn’t. He didn’t even threaten me, he just let me go, and didn’t say why. He still refuses to explain.”
Henry made another brief survey of the coffee shop, which remained empty, except for a couple who had come in and taken their coffee to go.
“But he keeps tabs on me,” he said. “Just as he monitors Larkspur.”
Richard’s stomach dropped. “What?”
“The security guard that attacked you, Richard, was most likely part of this,” Henry said. “And I doubt they were the only source. Next time you go to Larkspur, I would advise checking your video cameras, walls, and furniture for surveillance taps, microphones and the like. Also, running additional background checks on all your other employees would be advisable as well.”
“Why would Michael want to keep us under surveillance?” Richard asked.
Henry shrugged. “Control. Convenience. Any number of reasons. It’s beneficial to him to have that information available. If your colleague works at Empetrum now, it sounds like this contact came in handy for him.”
“I see,” Richard worried that Michael already knew about Sesame, who was currently at home with Sue. Richard resisted an immediate need to go home and check on them, to make sure nothing had happened in his absence.
If Michael had been watching them this whole time, how much did he know? Luckily, Henry had called Eve back once she had already left the facility. Unless Michael had bugged their personal spaces as well.
Eve was studying Henry. “So, you’ve been in recent contact with Michael?”
Henry scratched the edge of his jaw. “Yeah, he called me about a month ago to gloat about finding me again. I’ve been moving around a lot these last few years trying to avoid him, but at this point I’m set on staying where I am.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I had no intention of crossing him, so he should just forget about me. He didn’t buy it.”
“Sounds like he was correct in being suspicious of you.”
Henry smiled wearily. “Guess so.”
Silence closed in. Across the room, the sudden hiss of the espresso machine made Richard jump.
He readjusted his glasses, uneasy. “So what is the Q-13, exactly?” Empetrum’s pet project, a cruel punishment hovering over would-be dissenters.
Henry glanced past them toward the door again before refocusing on his interviewers. “It’s a human weaponry serum,” he said. “It’s based in an artificial protein that rewires the body’s physiology to generate a high temperature, high abrasion projection without sustaining any self-inflicted damage—In theory, at least.” He lowered his voice. Richard and Eve stared at him, horrified, as he went on, “In the earliest stages, it caused cancers or organ failure, but later on, as Lawrence made more headway, many of the trials became combustive. As far as I know, it’s still unviable. An organic vessel simply can’t handle that much power crammed into it without the serum first overhauling the body’s fundamental makeup in a molecularly stable way. The last trials I saw, though it’s been three years since I last worked on it, the body rejects it just as the Q-13 activates for the first time, and if it doesn’t bind to something quickly enough, the substance breaks down, and completely atomizes the host.”
Richard felt sick. James and Heather were up against that? He ached to hold his daughter.
“I haven’t told anyone about this until now,” Henry said, fidgeting with his coffee cup. “I had resolved to keep it a secret for the rest of my life.”
“What changed your mind?” Eve asked.
Henry shrugged. “Not sure. I really didn’t expect anyone to ask me about it, least of all you. I can hardly believe you even found me.” He scoffed quietly. “Perhaps I’m much more conspicuous than I think I am.” He paused. “I had always vaguely hoped Empetrum would be exposed someday, but I wasn’t too keen on getting involved myself. I thought if I could just get enough distance, ignore all the harm my family and I have caused, that maybe that would be enough. But I guess I’m finally able to accept that I can’t run anymore.” He smiled, sadly. “I’ve already told Michael I’m fed up with this game. I’ve been a coward, but I think I’m ready to see that place dismantled once and for all. There’s nothing I can do to make up for any of this, but it’s a start, at least.”
He reached into his pocket and produced a flash drive, which he handed across the table to Richard. “This contains everything we’ve discussed—the whole story, along with directions to where the facility is located. It’s pretty much anything that came to mind in the time between your phone call and driving out to meet you here. I would appreciate if you contacted me again in about a week or so. If I can’t be reached, take this to the nearest prominent news station and tell them everything. Despite Empetrum’s governmental ties, enough public involvement can seriously throw a wrench into things. The Conxence seems to have the right idea. I’m sorry, I wish I could offer you stronger leverage than this.”
“No, you’ve been a great help,” Eve assured him before Richard could. “Thank you.”
“Do you have any theories on why Michael recruited our colleague?” Richard spoke up.
“Empetrum is in the business of bioweaponry,” Henry said. “Sounds like your colleague had the right amount of talent and crazy to fit that picture. Empetrum always has use for scientists who want to push boundaries.”
Richard considered the memory drive in his hands. “If we publicized this information, as you asked, my former colleague will get scorched too, and I’m still not even sure if he’s done anything.” Submitting the matter to the press would undoubtedly spiral everything even further out of control. In the uproar, Empetrum might sustain a hit, but James might not survive.
“It sounds like he’s not completely innocent, either, bringing your daughter into this.”
Richard shrank back. “I don’t know.” They had no idea whether or not James had done anything to Heather. Perhaps she was just a prisoner, held there to secure James’ compliance. Maybe she was still unharmed. “What else can we do?”
Henry lips tightened indecisively. He glanced out the window again, thinking. “Not much. It would take time for politics to get going, which may or may not even work due to Empetrum’s connections. If at all possible, I’d try to get a hold of either your daughter or your colleague, however you can. Empetrum is heavily guarded inside and out, so if they are there, as you suspect—” His gray eyes trained on Richard, grim, “—it’ll be nearly impossible to get them out yourself.”
The boy lifted his gaze to consider his disquieted reflection in the chrome elevator doors: shoulders forced straight, the fluorescent lights glaring off the large lenses of his glasses. A thick cocoon of gauze shrouded his dominant hand, and despite the pain killers, the wound still burned, deep, throbbing, and livid.
The director presented a much more confident picture—sharp, direct features, better posture with hard, stern lines around his mouth and eyes. Michael knew he looked timid and inferior standing next to his grandfather.
“I’ll put you on data entry duty today, Michael,” the director said, his steady, calculating voice bouncing faintly off the corners of the compartment. “Try to only use your left hand.”
Michael nodded. “I’m sorry…”
“Accidents happen,” was the simple reply. Michael knew his grandfather was annoyed.
A few days before, Michael had forgotten an important buffer when preparing one of the Q-13 variations for the upcoming trials. He’d heated it too quickly, and the flask had boiled over.
In panic, he had impulsively reached out to turn off the hotplate, and the substance had splashed onto his hand.
He still felt it radiating in his metacarpals. Sometimes numb, sometimes so hot he could barely keep from sobbing at the pain of it.
The director had assured him it would fade.
“It was an incomplete mixture,” he had said. “It didn’t take. You’ll be fine.”
His grandfather would be running a trial today, and Michael was glad he didn’t have to watch. It had been hard enough to stomach when he hadn’t tasted the Q-13 for himself.
Heather lay on the bed in her cell, her hands docked behind her head and bored out of her mind. Beds weren’t even comfortable anymore. Regardless of the surface beneath her, she either chose to be awake, or she chose to hibernate, but neither felt better than the other. The main difference was time spent in hibernation was time she didn’t have to deal with living.
Eighteen hours and thirty-two minutes had passed since James had separated them. As promised, he had come in a little later with reading material, mostly scientific, as she figured this prison wasn’t exactly the kind of place to stock young adult fiction. He had also brought paper and a pen.
Heather had spent most of her time in solitary confinement sitting against the door, listening to the guards patrol. They came by every ten minutes like clockwork. She didn’t have to write any of her notes down, as she remembered everything perfectly.
She listened for signs of the other prisoner, Erika Davenport, but she was either too far away, or too quiet for Heather to hear.
Earlier, she had heard a man come down the hallway and open Erika’s door, judging by the location of the sounds. Heather caught him say, “Good morning, Ms. Davenport.”
A reply, a woman’s voice, minimalistic and monotone, responding to the dusty, chipper voice of the man. The latter was another scientist, Heather guessed. Doors closed, footsteps retreated, and the hallway had gone silent again.
Heather had sat under the security camera for some time as well, staring up at it and hoping Larkspur’s android had some kind of electrokinetic powers, or wireless hacking ability to take over the surveillance system remotely and direct it to her bidding.
But as far as she could tell, it was only a body. Just the wrong body, nothing more.
She had dug around the cell, but the faucets didn’t work, and the cabinets were empty. She suspected her quarters were even more minimalistic than the cell that held organic prisoners.
Heather wondered how many test subjects there were. Maybe she and Erika could work together somehow, if only they could get in contact.
James certainly wasn’t going to help. If she even mentioned the possibility, Benson would find out and shut down that avenue. As things were, she expected James would not only try to discourage her, but might actively rat her out to the director, eager to please, frantic to obey.
Heather had experimented with moving her bed, testing how strong Larkspur’s android was. She found it stronger than she used to be, due to the metal supports and wire contractile units populating her limbs. She had picked up the end of the bed and didn’t feel much strain, holding it until her chest began to hum and her whole body started getting warm. It took about five minutes.
She didn’t know where the limit was, and with that security camera staring at her, she avoided actions that might attract the director’s attention. She believed James’ warnings, and she didn’t want anything to happen to him either. Even now.
After their fight the day before, she wondered if his access to her cell had been revoked. He had gotten pretty upset.
She heard footsteps, and she hastily sat up as the locks on her cell door pulled back. The door opened, and James appeared, carefully, and shut the door behind him so that it was just the two of them in the cell.
Heather’s robotic brow constricted, simulating the human expression as much as it could. James looked more hollow and tired than when she’d left him almost nineteen hours before.
“No guard today?” she asked.
“Security,” he said simply. He carried a small toolbox.
“…Security?” Heather shifted position so her legs dangled over the edge of the bed, waiting as he came near. Then it occurred to her: she was in full possession of herself, and given her prior attachment to James, she was less likely to injure him than security personnel. “Oh. Never mind.”
“I have to install some things in your neural network,” he said quietly, setting the box beside her on the bed. “Can you open your cranial panels, please?”
Heather complied. She had since figured out how to do it herself.
As he set to work undoing the screws in the protective frame locking down her neural network, she said, “What are you installing?”
“A heat sensor, first,” he said, distracted. “I know it’s not as good as the real thing, but I thought it may be useful to you, for now.”
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
He placed screws in an empty compartment of the toolbox as he freed them from the frame. Heather held still as he worked. She glanced down at the toolbox, considering two small devices in the compartment next to the screws. One, she presumed, was the temperature sensor.
“What’s the other thing you’re installing?”
“We’ll get to it…”
Heather didn’t like the sound of that.
With a gentle, calculated jerk, he unclipped the frame, and set it aside on the bed.
It was still so odd for Heather to see something that was inside her head just come out and lay beside her. She half tried to compare it with what it would be if her body were still organic, but she knew it could never be a true comparison. Those rules didn’t apply anymore.
She still felt like she was Heather, somehow, but everything had changed. This robotic body had a similar shape, tried to pretend it was related, but it wasn’t. She was mechanical. It was different.
James picked up one of the devices and took off a sort of cap, betraying the end of a chip adapter. He craned his hands into her head, and she felt the pressure as he plugged it in.
“It’s in,” he said. “Go ahead and see if you can support it.”
Heather took a moment, searching. She found the awareness, the presence of a different area in her mind that wasn’t there before, like an additional room had been tacked on with the door closed.
In her mind, she opened the door.
James lit up before her in blues and oranges and yellows, superimposed on her vision in a way that was overwhelming at first, but she found she could push it back to the periphery of her awareness, and bring it forward again by degrees.
She turned her head, focusing her attention on the door to see if she could detect the guard through the walls, or maybe, hopefully, the other test subject several doors down.
But the thick concrete walls blocked her vision.
“It works,” she said. “But I thought thermal cameras could see through walls.”
James shook his head. “Sorry, they don’t under normal circumstances.”
“The next thing, I’ll plug in and then explain,” he went on, picking up the other device and pulling its cap.
“Okay,” she said, warily. This wasn’t going to be a good surprise, but her only other choice was to fight him in view of the surveillance camera and a guard outside the door.
She had an image in her head of the director dismantling her, or possibly, ordering James to do it, and she opted for not moving toward that possibility.
James plugged in the other device, in a port on the other side of her neural network. The connection registered, but the door remained inaccessible, silent and ominous like a parasite.
James replaced the frame inside her head and after reattaching the screws, he directed her to close her outer cranial panels.
“So, what is it?” Heather said. “This other one?”
James closed the toolbox. “A pain simulator,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice. I’m sorry.”
“What?” Heather stiffened. “Take it out right now! Robots don’t feel pain, isn’t that the point?”
“It was either that or paralysis on command.” He crossed his arms, unable to meet her gaze. “Like I said, I wasn’t given much say in the matter. The director would never let you move around freely without it.”
“You’d better not test it, then,” Heather said. “Just leave it in there, I guess, but don’t you dare use it.”
“I do have to test it,” he said, very quietly. He had pulled out a pager and was typing something on it. “The director will be in here in a few minutes. I’ll make it quick.”
Heather glanced at the surveillance camera again. She contemplated fighting him, her odds of escape. What did any of it matter anymore? James had gone from sullen to just short of planting bombs in her head.
They waited in awkward, injured silence for a few minutes. When Benson finally did arrive, Heather glared at him, but he pretended not to notice.
At Benson’s direction, James produced a small, flat remote with only a few buttons.
“You may want to lie down for this,” James said.
Heather shot him a venomous look, but obeyed.
“Just so you aren’t alarmed,” he went on, as she got situated. “This device involves different levels of a signal that will process like a pain response, with no actual damage being inflicted. I’ll start on the lowest setting. Are you ready?”
“Just get it over with,” Heather muttered, closing her eyes and trying to ignore the director’s serene attention.
She heard a modest click as his thumb depressed a button on the remote, and Heather became aware of a dull pain easing into existence. A nagging headache coupled with minor muscular pain was an odd, almost welcome sensation, reminiscent of her organic body. She hadn’t realized she missed pain, even.
“What does it feel like?” he said.
“Like I have a fever,” Heather said.
“Okay.” He pressed the button again. “This is two.”
Heather’s headache intensified, stabbing behind her eyes. Her neck felt cramped and sore as the ache spread throughout her body. The moveable parts around her eyes tightened, and she pulled her head to one side, then the other, realizing after she had done so that nothing but the remote could alleviate the pain. She didn’t have muscles anymore, not in the traditional sense.
“Are you doing okay?” James asked, tentative.
Heather cracked open an eye at him. “It hurts. Good job, I guess?”
He swallowed, and turned his attention back to the remote. “Three…”
Heather stiffened as the pain intensified with sharp, unexpected stabs. “How many levels are there?”
The process continued on, the signal climbing up to level six. Heather pressed her arms into the bed, trying to stay calm and still. Pain pounded viciously in her head, radiating throughout her torso and down her arms and legs. She felt like she was back in her old body, and that it had been hit by a train.
“Can you try to sit up?” James asked.
Heather simulated a tight scoff. “Are you serious?”
“That should do it,” James said, looking at Benson, who shook his head.
“Take it all the way up,” the director said, calmly.
James hesitated. Heather braced herself.
“Seven,” James said. “Eight…”
It was only two clicks of a button, but her whole body suddenly felt like it was imploding on itself, bones fracturing, joints dislocating, and muscles tearing under the pressure. Panic flooded through her, a need to rip out the device. She curled up in fetal position, gripping her head with a ragged, artificial gasp. She popped open her cranial panels, ducked her head and reached in, as if to rip out the frame, crush the device. Anything to make it stop.
“No, don’t—” James started forward. His hand touched hers, and at the sharp snap of electricity, he gasped and jerked away.
Heather needed to breathe, hear her heartbeat, something living and rhythmic to focus on that might help her block out the signal, but there was nothing to latch onto. Just cold metal. Just wires and deadness and pain.
Suddenly, the screeching in her limbs and head snuffed out, and her body went quiet. She relaxed, closing her eyes, feeling the need to rest for the first time since the transfer. For once, she reveling in the robotic stillness in the aftermath of that simulated agony.
She closed her cranial panels and slowly dragged herself to a sitting position. She cradled her head in her hands, despising the modest click of metal against metal as they touched.
“Impressive, Dr. Siles,” Benson said. “Finish up here and meet me outside so we can leave.”
“Okay,” James replied.
Benson departed, and then it was just the two of them.
“That really hurt,” Heather said, the volume of her voice very low. She blinked a few times, trying to pull free from the lingering disorientation. Her irises readjusted and she glanced up at him, the tops of her eyes lowered in confusion. He was favoring his hand, looking at her with a strange, soft incredulity. “What?” she said.
James snapped out of it. He shook his hand in the air a bit and picked up his toolbox with the other. “Nothing I just, uh, you shocked me. It caught me off guard.”
Heather’s eyes widened. She tried to think back, sifting through her memories to see if she had remembered anything through the pain. It was hazy. There was panic. A breach of the electromagnetic field on her hand. A short jolt of power flashing from her chest and up her arm.
“Thanks for humoring me,” James said, holding the toolbox close to his chest, preparing to take his leave. “I have the only remote for that device, and I won’t ever use it again if I can help it.”
Heather moved the arm the electrical current had passed through, testing its connectivity. “Yeah, sure. You’re the worst, James, for making that thing.”
“I know,” he said. He wearily turned and strode toward the door. “See you later.”
Heather crossed her arms over her knees, disillusioned.
The door closed, and she listened to his and the guard’s footsteps recede down the hallway. Finally, she looked at her robotic hands, then at her chest, curious. The shock she had issued James had been pure reflex, but she wondered if she could learn to do it on command, or even control the voltage.
Maybe Larkspur’s android wasn’t so useless after all.