“This is my voice!” a child’s voice exulted from the confines of the lab. “I am hearing it! What I imagined! Richard, this is my voice! My own!” He laughed, and sounded like he might cry. “I am so happy.”
Richard smiled wearily at the laptop, where Sesame was still tethered. “I’m glad you found a pitch you like.”
“Can I play with my face too?”
“It’s not quite ready yet,” Richard said as he joined Chelo and Eve at the other counter, where they were setting up to start adding to the android’s skeletal frame. Addie and Greg were busy at a workstation against the wall, making the finishing touches to the sleek dark screen that would generate Sesame’s face. It may have been a bit of a shortcut on their part, but Sesame would likely appreciate the creative freedom.
“That’s my body,” Sesame said eagerly, as if trying to convince himself it was true.
Richard attended to his work, melancholy. It had been three days already since they had met with Henry Benson, and he didn’t know what to do next. They had been systematically locating suspicious surveillance devices in the Larkspur facility, but hadn’t removed them, as much as he itched to do so. They assumed Michael already knew about Sesame, but hoped to stall his inevitable discovery of Henry’s involvement until they were ready to move.
Henry had given them permission to stay in contact, very cautiously. They were to let him know if they came up with a strategy he could help with, and he promised to pass along any new information if he caught wind of James or Heather.
So they were waiting, planning. Or, attempting to, at least.
Richard wanted to take what they knew to the press immediately, but he couldn’t get himself to do it. Whether James was innocent in the situation or not, Empetrum’s government ties meant it wouldn’t go down with anything short of an all out brawl. The police would refuse to investigate properly, and before the media had a chance to dig up enough evidence to mobilize the public, Benson would have plenty of time to cover his tracks, which put James and Heather’s lives even more at risk.
Every passing day without news of his daughter or his missing colleague made him more and more heartsick, but he was forever terrified that as soon as they released the information to take a stab at Empetrum, Heather or James would make contact.
And then it would be too late.
Yeun’s prediction had been spot on. After the trial with the pain simulator, Benson took James an hour and a half northeast to the national capital, to where Non-Comp’s progenitors lived and trained: the Institution of Compatible National Security.
As Benson scanned his access badge outside the glass double doors of the entrance, James glanced back at the wide, deserted street of one of the capital’s more industrial districts. It was easy to forget a whole world existed outside Empetrum.
Benson ushered him inside. The lobby of the ICNS stretched out before him in black marble, with white cushioned benches placed back to back with a shock of indoor plants on the shelf between them. Beyond that, at the back of the room, stood a security desk, posted with the facility’s title in a tall, commanding font.
Directly behind the desk sat a pair of double doors, and they looked more to James like fire doors than anything else.
Benson strode straight up to the desk and had James hand over his Empetrum ID. The guard kept it, trading it for a visitor’s badge with a neon yellow lanyard. James slipped it over his head without comment, thinking it was an appropriate color for a visitor’s badge—a glaring announcement to everyone who came across him that he didn’t belong there.
The guard pressed a button under the desk and with a long, gentle tone, the lock on the fire doors beyond clicked back.
Benson thanked him and proceeded.
The doors opened to a wall, with a sign pointing left toward the offices, or right for the training facilities. Benson turned left and gained access to another door around the bend, which opened up on a quiet hallway with warm lights over an immaculately polished floor.
Benson stopped at a door near the end of the hallway, scanned his badge on the reader, and opened the door. James expected to be facing Varnet directly when he entered, but he stepped into an office suite, with a receptionist presiding over a podium-like desk that seemed to prohibit entry to the frosted glass doors behind it.
The receptionist got up. “Take a seat, Dr. Benson. I’ll let Varnet know you’re here.”
“Thank you,” Benson said, and complied. James followed suit, lowering himself into a black, cushioned chair against the wall.
It was odd to see Benson under these circumstances. Nobody calling him “Director,” nobody overtly scared of him, and himself being the one taking orders rather than giving them.
James clasped his hands together in his lap. The skin of his right hand still stung a little from where Heather had electrocuted him. He tried to work out where that could have stemmed from, whether it was a simple static discharge, or fully intentional.
Heather had acted surprised.
The sound of a door opening down the hallway broke the stillness and made James jump. Then a heavy-bodied woman in sharp business attire appeared. She wore her dark, wavy hair tied up in a loose bun, her dangling earrings catching the light. Something in her body type and the almond shape of her eyes reminded James of Heather, should she have been able to grow up. He felt his face grow hot, and a knot of guilt twisted painfully in his chest.
Varnet’s full lips curled into a smile. “Good morning, gentlemen,” she said. Her gaze flicked first to Benson, then to James. “This is Yeun’s new lab partner?”
“Yes,” Benson said. “James Siles. Roboticist and neurobiologist.”
“Neuro?” Varnet looked at him with renewed interest. She stuck out a hand. Her fingernails were neat and manicured with sleek white polish. “Anusha Varnet, head coordinator of the ICNS. I call the shots here.”
“Nice to meet you,” James managed, shaking her hand.
She stepped aside, gesturing down the hallway. “Come down to my office, let’s chat a bit.”
James followed, practically holding his breath.
Varnet’s office was light and professional, punctuated with potted plants and photographs around a modern, white lacquered desk. Her aesthetic was in direct opposition to Benson’s darker, more muted sensibilities. The contrast set James on edge, and he felt very uncomfortable in a room with both of them at the same time.
Once they had taken a seat in two available chairs, Varnet positioned herself at her desk and said, “How long have you been at Empetrum, Siles?”
James swallowed. “A little over a month.”
She glanced at Benson, who didn’t react, and back to James. “How do you like it?”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m adjusting.”
“Good,” Varnet said. “I’m sure Benson has briefed you of the situation at the ICNS, and all the work that’s yet to be done.”
James nodded. “I’m told there aren’t enough Compatible recruits.”
“That’s right,” Varnet said. “We only have a handful who were able to support the modulators, and who also passed physical and psychological exams to be brought into our program. As you can imagine, we’re very interested in getting Non-Comp off the ground.”
James had heard that title so many times over the past week. He hated it.
“Have you started working with Dr. Yeun yet?” she asked.
“A little,” James said. “I’ve been brushing up on the procedures and background material.”
“We’re bringing him up to speed as quickly as we can,” Benson said, nicely.
“So you have neurobiology as a concentration,” Varnet said. “Interesting choice, Benson. Do you think the key to developing Six’s strain of Non-Comp to viability has something to do with its nervous properties?”
“It couldn’t hurt,” Benson said. “Siles has more than proven his abilities in this field. His most recent project involved a successful neural transfer to a mechanical medium, and it’s not much of a stretch to assume he’ll have no trouble integrating other biological disciplines into his robotics prowess to push modulator research forward.”
James felt Varnet’s eyes on him, but he kept his gaze trained on his hands in his lap. After mountains of graphs and theories and data surrounding modulator research and its offshoots, James had finally heard someone utter a name, even if it was likely an alias.
Six. They called the four-armed progenitor Six. These were real people, with feelings and thoughts and families.
Benson stood up. “I don’t want to take too much of your time,” he said. “I was hoping to show Siles around the facility, see the recruits. They’re in a training session right now, aren’t they?”
“Yes, go ahead and go upstairs,” she said. “I’m sure your new bioroboticist would like to see with whom he’ll be working in the coming months. The recruits are up in the gym with Gresham and Hill. But please stop by again when you’re finished. I’d like to talk more with you, Siles.”
James nodded, numbly, and then he was following Benson out the door.
As they made their way back up the hallway, cutting across a different corridor to elevators on the other side of the building, the abundance of hushed, empty air struck James as eerie. The ICNS was three stories tall. He could hardly imagine what it must be like for the six existing soldiers, spending all their time in a place built for a much higher occupancy.
They took an elevator up to the second floor, then went down a wide hallway to a door with a window reinforced by a checkerboard of wire. Benson opened it, and immediately, the sound of running footsteps echoing off equipment met them.
James nervously stepped inside the gymnasium. It was massive, with high, industrial ceilings, stocked with mats, carpeted floors, pull-up bars, foam pits, and a small city of wooden parkour structures in the back. Dr. Hill stood near the adjacent wall with an electronic tablet docked on his forearm, next to a tall, muscular man with a stern jaw, gauges in his ears, and athletic attire.
“That’s Victor Gresham,” Benson said, nodding toward the latter. “The recruits’ trainer and caretaker.”
James felt like he was on a leash as Benson strode across the sidelines to Hill, who acknowledged them with a nod. Gresham spared him only a glance.
Across the room, James spotted the recruits, and his breath caught. The literature behind Compatibility technology listed them as young adults, but nobody had bothered to clarify that the soldiers were teenagers.
More innocent kids, caught up in the system like Heather.
They were running some sort of cardio circuit involving jogging, sprinting, and hurdles. At this phase of the workout, they appeared to be concentrating on simply remaining mobile. It wasn’t hard to single Six out of the group. He absolutely towered over his peers, and he indeed possessed an additional set of fully-formed arms, sticking out of a tank top that had been slit down the sides to accommodate them. His dark, curly hair was clipped back in the front to keep it out of his heart-shaped face, and he ran next to a boy with green skin. The latter must have been the plant one, James thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
He felt like he had stepped into someone else’s dream as he watched the very people Yeun described in the stem cell culture lab, training, running, avoiding obstacles, spurring each other on to complete the circuit.
They each had a chrome metal band attached to their wrists, which James recognized as modulators, the reason he had been consumed by Empetrum.
At the front of the group, competing with a girl with springy, pink-dyed hair was a boy who seemed to be composed of shadows. Wisps of black smoke trailed out from the collar of his t-shirt and off his arms, as if fatigue were causing him to lose grip on physicality.
Aside from Six, the green kid, and the shadow one, the rest of the recruits otherwise looked normal from a distance. James found himself trying to think, based on what he knew about genetics and physiology, who the next target after Six would be for Non-Comp. Concussion, telepathy, pyrokinesis, smoke, plants…
Telepathy, maybe. It was probably electromagnetic in some way.
Gresham called out to the kids across the gym, making James jump for the second time. “Stop! Get water. Line up on the floor in five minutes for group conditioning. Don’t let your muscles get cold!”
The recruits slowed. Following his teammates toward a wall of cubbies, Six clasped two hands behind his head and stretched the other pair back. The kids seemed in good spirits, chatting while they caught their breath before Gresham’s next task.
James watched them interact. Their voices filtered across the gym to him, but he couldn’t hear much of what they were saying.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Benson said quietly. “Someday we’ll have unraveled the secrets of each of those Compatibilities.”
James simply nodded, his attention following the four-armed teenager. The green kid said something and Six glanced James’ direction, his eyes widening in embarrassment as their gazes accidentally met. Six looked away and leaned down to say something to his teammate. The green kid pulled a water bottle from his cubby, and gave James a once-over from the distance, eyelids lowered and brows raised. He flitted over to a girl with a round face and choppy black hair, aiming his water bottle at her like a sword and asking her something.
James looked down at his shoes, pretending not to be straining to hear their conversation.
“I don’t read you without permission, I don’t read him,” she said. She must be the telepath, then, James thought. His forehead felt cold, uncomfortable being the center of the recruits’ curiosity.
“Aw, come on Hui-Ling,” the green kid said.
“Don’t give me that, Collin. You know I’d get in trouble, anyway.”
They lowered their voices, then, their conversation attracting the attention of their other teammates. Six offered something. Despite his size, he had a timid, gentle countenance. Collin threw his head back with a guffaw, earning a squirt of a water bottle from the girl with pink hair. Hui-Ling muttered something, and a boy with broad shoulders and a dark, freckled face, who had otherwise been observing from the side snorted, and the whole group burst into laughter.
“Rett!” The smoke boy pushed against his shoulder, as Rett grinned into his water bottle. “It wasn’t that funny.”
James felt a stone in his chest, weighing him down, slowly crushing him.
“See, Siles?” Benson said. “They’re well taken care of here. They get along. They’re happy enough.”
James’ brow furrowed. Happy enough.
Did they know what they were a part of? Having such rare and valuable genetics, James doubted refusing to participate in the program was an option. Did they believe in the cause or were they simply making the most of it?
They were just kids.
Gresham left Hill’s side and strode out onto the floor. “All right everybody, it’s time! Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
The recruits took their places out on the floor without comment.
“Pushup position,” Gresham said, his voice deep and commanding as he strolled among them and began to count. “One! Two!”
James found himself watching Six yet again, who pounded out two pushups for every one his teammates did, with his accessory hands behind his back. Once Gresham reached twenty, Six let his other arms down, clasping his original pair behind his head to keep them out of the way while his second pair worked.
Once James and Yeun had developed a viable form of Non-Comp, he wondered if the target group would remain adolescents. He supposed the age group’s natural state of flux helped with the physical elasticity required in making their transformations reversible, but that meant the government’s human weapons had a shelf life of only around five years. And that was assuming the current recruits were all fourteen or fifteen years old, which James could tell they weren’t. Six looked at least sixteen. Rett looked closer to James’ own age than some of the younger recruits. The pink-haired girl might have been Heather’s age, or perhaps even younger.
It was hardly sustainable. The government would eventually have to choose, then. They’d have to keep the enhancement reversible only until they could lock down the recruits’ free will, so that when that period of physical flux passed, no bearer of a Compatibility would even think about betraying the ICNS.
He felt sick. The government was building an empire, and creating superhuman sentinels to fortify it. What was Benson’s stake in all this that he would push so hard to support that? He of all people had to know that systems like the one rising to prominence felt no obligation to honor agreements, and Benson’s obvious desire to pursue his own research unimpeded by ethical responsibility couldn’t possibly be worth assuming such a risk.
Then again, James thought, it could be. After all, Empetrum’s boldness and pressure for innovation had captured James in a heartbeat.
That kind of power was irresistible. Infectious.
Six was starting to fall behind. The extra work with his second pair of arms had put him at a disadvantage, and he was shaking and struggling hard in a sequence of intense core conditioning. He was three reps behind and counting, his face screwed up in effort.
“Patrick!” Gresham barked at him. “Don’t do this today.” The name embedded like an arrow in James’ sternum.
The green kid, Collin, spoke up. He was winded himself, and a couple of leafy twigs had sprouted out the top of his head under the strain. “Come on, Dragonfly. You got this.”
Anxiety pressed dull and firm against James’ throat. Hazards were blooming all around him, a cavernous series of extrapolated consequences hanging over his head, hinging on his loyalty to the director’s goals. Cooperating with Benson was the only way he could protect Heather, but he was starting to think about insubordination constantly.
Quietly, tiredly, James knew Heather wasn’t the only casualty, and that she wouldn’t be the last. The recruits were unified and progressing as a team, but they were soon to begin operating in the field, kids sent out into combat as secret weapons. He was going to help manufacture more Compatibles, and organorobotic transference would likely get appropriated to create a more indestructible type of soldier as well.
James had to stop trying to think ahead, to consider the consequences of what continued cooperation would mean. He didn’t have a choice here. He felt for these kids and the hardship they had ahead of them, but he wasn’t responsible for them. His charge was to make sure nothing else happened to Heather. That was where his true loyalty began and ended.
He had to protect Heather.
James descended the front steps of Empetrum with the final load of 360 degree, infrared security cameras in his arms, watching his footing. At the bottom, he looked up and halted abruptly. Yeun reclined in the passenger seat of the jeep waiting to take James out to the perimeter, and was attempting to get the stony-faced guard to maintain a conversation.
Yeun noticed him standing there and smiled. “Hey. Want some help?”
James paused, trying to figure out what the purpose of this was. “Uh, sure?” He came toward the jeep, loading the box into the back. “Thanks.”
“How many of those are you installing today?”
“Two hundred.” James climbed into the back, pushing aside some boxes to make room as the guard started the engine. “It’s not going to be very interesting. I’m just entering location data and swapping the old ones out.”
“Sounds interesting enough for me,” Yeun said. “And please, call me Elias. Formalities are null and void when the director’s not around.”
“Benson put you up to this…”
Yeun laughed. “Oh no, this is all my own meddling. I know you’re to report to me while he’s off on the east coast, but it’s not like I really need to keep tabs on you. You’re a lot like him, you know. You never stop working, so you’re not actually that hard to locate at any given time.”
James crossed his arms, staring turbidly at the distant fence ringing in the Empetrum campus. The jeep arrived at the first gate, and the guard at the security booth opened it for them.
“The director’s position is a big job. I wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility,” Yeun went on as they continued into the middle security checkpoint, an empty span of woodland between Empetrum’s heart and the outer perimeter. James was starting furthest out and working his way in, a method approved by Benson before his departure. Dr. Hill had screened James’ code for the devices before approving duplication.
“Sometimes I wonder if he even wanted it.”
“What?” James leaned forward. He couldn’t hear Yeun’s voice well over the engine and air whipping past.
Yeun tilted his head back toward James. “Nothing—just muttering to myself.”
“Do you know him well?” James asked. “The director?”
“Yeah, more or less.” Yeun draped an arm across the back of the seat and looked at his colleague. “We were classmates, friends, even. He got me my job here at Empetrum, put in a good word with his grandfather, who used to run the place. They copped together an offer I just couldn’t refuse, you know?”
James watched the trees sweep past him, the wind buffeting the side of his head.
“Are you friends now?” James asked finally.
“I hope so,” Yeun said, and something in his voice sounded a little haunted.
As the jeep came to a stop on the outer perimeter, James opened the back door and dragged out an unfoldable utility wagon, snapping it into shape.
“Just tell me what I gotta do,” Yeun said brightly, getting out.
James handed him a notebook with a pen stuck in the spiral binding.
“We’re going to mark down the coordinates,” James said, planting a plastic bin of supplies in the wagon. “Scan the serial numbers of the cameras we’re removing, and record the serial number of the new series.”
“You got it,” Yeun said.
James loaded the four boxes of cameras onto the wagon, pulled a GPS and electronic tablet from his supplies, and trekked ahead to where the first surveillance camera stuck out of the ground. He kneeled down, and Yeun joined him while the guard took over operation of the wagon.
James tugged the old camera out of the ground and looked on the underside where the bulb met the metal stake, finding the barcode. He checked the GPS in his other hand. “Okay, coordinates 44.163…” He paused, glancing aside at Yeun to make sure he was writing it down.
Yeun looked up at him. “Keep going.”
James resumed, rattling off the coordinates, then connected the scanner to the tablet and scanned the serial number. He handed Yeun the old one, took a new camera from the wagon, scanned the number, and planted it in place of the other one. He activated it with a wireless remote, adopting the old models’ mode of operation so they couldn’t be deactivated manually by intruders.
He thought about Heather’s mom and dad, hoping they were making headway, as James dutifully worked to secure his and Heather’s imprisonment.
“One down,” Yeun said, and stowed the old camera in an empty crate. “You were going to do all these yourself?”
James got to his feet, brushing dirt off the knees of his jeans. “Yeah.”
“That would take you a good couple of days, at least.”
James shrugged, consulted the GPS, and trudged on. “Kind of glad for the busywork, to be honest.”
“I hear ya,” Yeun agreed. “It’s a beautiful day for it.”
James grunted. Soon, they had come across the next camera.
“So I’ve been wondering something, and I think you may have an answer,” James said, uprooting the device.
“What happened to the other bioroboticist? Hill’s lab partner?” James said. “I hear bits and pieces that there was someone else involved with modulator research, but that they’re not here anymore. And with the ICNS needing Non-Comp so badly, I can only assume it didn’t end well with them?”
Yeun hesitated. James read him another sequence of numbers. When Yeun finished writing them down and accepted the old device, he pretended to be nonchalant as he said, “She quit.”
“I got the impression people don’t just quit from Empetrum.” James narrowed his eyes at the GPS, lining up his next target.
Yeun glanced behind them at the guard, who appeared disinterested.
“They can, it’s just complicated.”
“Yeah, I heard about the process. If you leave, the director takes your memories or something. Is that what happened to her?” James was privately surprised at his own directness. He hadn’t started off the day in a bad mood per se, but now that he was out from under the frigid lights and surveillance cameras of the lab, it started welling up how sick to death he was of all the Empetrum scientists’ secrets and sense of entitlement. And Yeun already struck him as the least withholding of Empetrum’s personnel.
Yeun’s bright demeanor clouded. James could feel it brew beside him as they walked to the next device.
“Not exactly,” Yeun said.
James hesitated. “What do you mean?”
Yeun uneasily retrieved a camera from the wagon as James pulled one from the ground. “Let’s just say whatever threats Benson made to force you into the neural transfer were mild compared to what he can do to dissenters.”
Fear bloomed in James’ chest. “She’s dead, then?”
Yeun stiffened. “What? Why would you say that?”
James shrugged. “I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. Empetrum’s not like other places I’ve worked. The only rules that apply are the ones Benson sets.”
Yeun was quiet for so long James thought he wasn’t going to answer. James opened his mouth to read another GPS coordinate when Yeun’s soft voice stopped him, “Yes, she is.”
James looked up at him. Yeun’s gaze was to the side, studying something in the moss and pine needles of the forest floor.
“What happened?” James asked, glancing at the guard, who didn’t react.
Yeun glanced at the guard too.
“Q-13,” he said finally, crossing his arms. He still couldn’t look at James. “Nobody survives it.”
“You mean like there was a lab accident?”
Yeun shook his head.
Fear and disgust twisted in James’ stomach. “Another one of Benson’s punishments?”
“I’ve said too much already,” Yeun said. “Just promise me you won’t cross the director.”
James looked at the device in his hands. “I don’t plan to.” After a long silence, he said, “Does he threaten you too?”
“He doesn’t have to.”
“Because you believe in all this?” James sat back on his heels and gestured around him. There wasn’t anything Empetrum-related within sight he could gesture to, other than the security cameras. “Human weaponry? None of you are happy with reality as it is, I understand that, but just being human’s not good enough anymore?”
It had never been good enough for James. He didn’t even know how to be human. He figured that was something that should have been intuitive, but it had always been the only puzzle he couldn’t work out.
He thought of all the days he had spent pushing himself to be better, to work harder, to reach higher and need less. All those nights he had lain awake thinking of the possibilities, of what the world could be if he contributed to it in a major way. He remembered how he had channeled everything into his hopes for organorobotic transference.
Hopes that had proved poisonous, in the end.
“It’s a matter of curiosity for me, I suppose,” Yeun said, slowly. “You grow up being told to accept things as they are. But if you hold the keys to the building blocks of reality, you can command it, alter it. No one can tell you what is or is not possible, what sort of difference you can make in the world.”
James’ eyebrows constricted, incredulous. “Do you want a Compatibility?”
“No, I don’t,” Yeun said, and James was surprised by the honest directness in his response. “I want to know why the human genome has evolved them. I want to figure out how to manufacture that evolution. I’m more after knowledge, not power.”
James scoffed. “Aren’t you though? Aren’t we all, in some form? We’re all just grasping for control any way we can get it, burying anything and anyone that stands in the way.”
“It’s not wrong to want to carve out a safe place for yourself,” Yeun said. “To make sense of this life and the reality it’s dumped us into, to see if we can’t make it better.”
James shook his head. After a long silence, he scanned the barcode on the underside of the camera.
As he read Yeun the GPS coordinates, he tried to focus his full attention on them. Self-loathing sat heavy and painful in his chest, and he couldn’t stand thinking about having ever wanted anything at all.
The next morning, James followed Yeun down the hallway of white linoleum and metal doors on the basement level. He still expected the prisoner ward to have a dungeon-like appeal, and the clean, well-illuminated space never ceased to unsettle him.
“You can wait out here,” Yeun said cheerily, stopping before the door of his test subject’s cell. James could see Heather’s door from where he was, and it inevitably attracted his attention like a magnetic field.
Yeun caught him staring. “Or, you can wait in the examination room if you want.” He waved a hand toward the other end of the hallway. “I’ll be in there shortly.”
James nodded and turned. As he headed down the hallway, Yeun pulled open the door and greeted the cell’s occupant. James tried to take deep breaths against the tight, imminent panic in his chest.
Yeun had briefly explained the situation with his test subject: The arms had manifested, but not correctly, and he was currently working to build them up to assess their stability and physiology until they could find a way to achieve the reversibility the Compatible progenitors enjoyed. Sooner or later, James was going to have to face it. Yeun had mentioned it would be better to have the first encounter out of the way by the time Benson returned from his trip.
James opened the first normal looking door he came to on the other side of the corridor, and took a furtive step into the dark, feeling for the light switch.
The fluorescent bulbs buzzed to life, and James found himself in a narrow room with a wall of thick, reinforced glass to his right.
Near the door sat a small stand of tinted eyeglasses. With a sinking feeling, James looked through the barrier into the dimness of a large, empty room. A single metal chair with armrests waited in its center, a compact sink along the rightward wall. The floor was pure cement, and the sink’s square metal basin, along with the nearby metal cabinets, all bore scorch marks.
James snapped the light off and hastily backed himself out into the hallway, his breathing disturbed and heart pounding hard, feeling like he’d just come across a corpse. Yeun stepped out into the corridor by Davenport’s cell, and James frantically tried to get a hold of himself.
Yeun waved his arm forward and called, “Two down, Dr. Siles. Sorry, I wasn’t specific.”
James moved numbly, turning his back on him before Yeun’s test subject emerged. The room James entered next was much more agreeable, light and spacious with a makeshift physical therapy setup and no heat damage in sight.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the other late bioroboticist, Olssen. Benson had threatened to kill and maim enough times since James had known him, and James had vaguely assumed he hurt people in his research and hired people like Alder to do his dirtywork, but now James knew for sure that the director had personally executed someone.
The door opened and James jumped.
Yeun offered him an encouraging look as he entered, showing in a tall athletic woman with locs tied into a high ponytail. Her hands were bound behind her back, escorted by a guard. As she emerged into the room, James saw the extra arms extending large and twisted from her back like tree branches. She touched the ground with her long other hands, carefully walking them alongside her steps and trusting some weight to them, though her legs didn’t seem to need the extra support.
Her eyes met his, and James stiffened.
“This is him?” Davenport said warily, her gaze following him as the guard took her along the edge of the room to a padded bench. She took a seat and twisted to make her other arms more easily accessible as Yeun prepared kinesiology tape. The back of her t-shirt had been cut out to give the arms room.
“Yes,” Yeun said. “This is James Siles. He’s going to help me sort out your Compatibility.” He held up a strip of bright orange tape. “Right accessory arm, please.”
Erika shifted the appendage over a bit, offering the region with the most prominent elbow-like joint, the second of three. As she did so, her attention stayed on James, one eyebrow constricted as she sized him up.
James didn’t know what to do with himself. He just stood there, keeping his distance, waiting for Yeun to give him a task.
Unfortunately, Yeun didn’t have anything for him to do except watch. Once the physical therapy session began, Davenport did her best to concentrate, and kept her thoughts to herself while she worked with Yeun to strengthen her extra arms and key stabilization points in her torso.
James took a seat in a white plastic chair against the wall. Yeun didn’t ask him to come near to help, so he just sat there while he and Davenport kept an eye on each other.
Yeun had reviewed for James the process that had brought Davenport to the state she was in, so James knew she had been held prisoner here for almost three months. He wondered what her life had been like, before all this, how she felt about her current situation.
It made him uneasy to watch her and Yeun interact. Their exchange was benign, even professional, on the surface, but they were obviously used to each other. Davenport did everything Yeun asked of her without comment, as if she had somehow accepted this. He wondered how Benson or Yeun had secured her cooperation.
This was the relationship Benson expected him to one day have with Heather, he thought. He was to slowly distance himself until she became merely a test subject and he became a monster. He caught a glimpse of his future watching Yeun and Davenport, and he couldn’t tune out the persistent signal of Davenport’s humanity and presence of mind through it all.
In that hard plastic chair, he realized it would never get better. There would only be more of this: human beings used as lab rats, aware of what was happening to them. Scientists who didn’t care.
An eternity ago, over the completed mechanical bulk of the scanner for organorobotic transference, Benson had insisted that progress had to be made. Not everyone could be the ones presiding over that forward motion. According to Yeun, curiosity was grounds enough.
But the last time James had checked, he hadn’t been asked to kill his friend’s body in the name of curiosity. He had been forced to do it because, for some reason or another, Benson had singled out the both of them. One, a candidate for indoctrination, and the other, an innocent bystander who knew too much.
James had tried to tell himself he didn’t need to return to the world. He didn’t need acceptance, comfort, affirmation. He had wasted too much time chasing them already. Empetrum understood heartless, narcissistic beings like himself, who looked like the rest of their species but maybe had never once been human. Empetrum preached that whatever they were gave them the right to operate on some different plane than the rest of humanity, to take more risks, to ask others to sacrifice their freedom, their bodies, their lives in the name of progress.
James could very well have been the one in Davenport or Heather’s position. If advancement were truly the only thing that mattered, James should have felt passionate about the possibility of nobly sacrificing his living body and mind to progress. But he felt only fear, and a selfish, twisted relief that he bore the label of researcher, and not test subject.
He would never be able to climb out of the pit he had dug himself, but that didn’t justify any of this. Test subjects were never safe. He hadn’t been protecting Heather at all.
“Dr. Siles, are you all right?” Yeun’s voice broke his concentration, and he realized every gaze in the room was on him: Yeun, Davenport, even the guard present.
He raised a shaking hand to his forehead, trying to straighten up. He felt dizzy. “Yes, sorry.”
“Maybe you should get some rest,” Yeun said. “I can finish up here. Thanks for shadowing me a bit today. I hope it was helpful.”
James got to his feet, and unsteadily made his way to the door. “Yes, it was. Thank you.”
“The director will want to speak with you when he gets in later,” Yeun called after him. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” James escaped into the hallway, wandering toward the elevator as his vision swam. A guard fell into stride beside him, but he hardly noticed.
He should have been the one in a robotic body, alone in that cell down the corridor. He should have been the one with non-Compatible modulators embedded in his back after months of exhaustive gene therapy, forced to grow a second set of arms and keep them. He should have been the countless individuals destroyed by the hands of monsters like himself.
He had succumbed. He had obeyed. He had tried to convince himself that everything that happened here was logical and acceptable, even necessary. If not for his own sake, then for Heather’s.
But he couldn’t do it anymore.
He went to his lab and heavily sat down at the counter. He ran his hands through his hair, trying, failing, to catch his breath.
If he rebelled against the director, his chances of success were slim, and failure would be met with swift, brutal punishment. Benson would either make good on his threat to take James’ memories and separate him from Heather, or he could just decide to kill him with the Q-13, whatever that was.
He turned his head, staring at the toolbox of fine-tipped screwdrivers on the counter beside him.
He understood now that there was no safe option where Empetrum was concerned, even standing still and cooperating. No matter what angle he tried to approach it from, he was keeping Heather trapped here, asking her to either accept her imprisonment or fight him for her freedom, when he had already taken so much from her.
Abruptly, he stood up, grabbed the toolbox from the counter, and left the lab.
The door to her cell opened, and Heather glanced over from where she sat on the bed with a hardbound scientific journal in her lap, resigning herself to doing whatever James wanted just so he’d leave her alone. He had been drifting in and out of her cell over the last few days, making checkups, asking how things were, if she needed anything. When she told him no, he’d drift out again and not come back for twenty-four hours, more ghost than human.
She hadn’t figured out any new information to help with her rudimentary escape plans, and was cross about it.
James had that toolbox with him. Heather’s eyes narrowed as he strode forward.
She set the book aside. “You’re not putting anything else in my head, are you?”
“An issue with the pain simulator’s code came to my attention,” he said simply. “I need to fix it.”
Heather blinked. “Oh…” She opened the panels in her head and scooted to the edge of the bed, relieved to have the device out for a while.
He made short work of the screws in the frame inside her head, plucked out the pain simulator, and replaced the frame with a firm snap.
“That’s all I need for now,” he said, gathering his supplies. “Thanks.”
Heather watched him go, confused.
A month earlier, the kid she used to be might have worried his behavior meant she had done something to annoy him. But now she knew James better than that.
Something was happening. He still looked like he hadn’t slept in years, and carried himself with the same slumped shoulders and haunted expression of someone who knew he had irreparably destroyed their lives. But for some reason, after almost two weeks of tears, exhaustion, and excuses, something subtle and familiar had returned to his gaze, something she realized she hadn’t seen since before the night of the transfer.
James Siles was calculating.