No sooner had James plugged Heather into his computer the next morning to run routine diagnostics than she pulled up a text box and words flashed across the screen.

James, my parents found out about Empetrum, she said. How it got started, who started it—everything.

As text continued showing up,James took a seat in front of the laptop and pulled up his usual programs along with some extra ones to help cover up their activities.

He extended his hands over the keyboard, pausing. 

I guess I kind of wondered why Benson was keeping an eye on Larkspur, specifically, he typed back. It makes sense.

Also, Sesame’s apparently humanoid now, Heather said. 

Yeah, Benson know about all that, and told me, James replied. He didn’t do anything, but he’s suspicious. We’ll have to be careful.

Heather lay still on the counter, her arms at her sides and eyes closed. She briefly filled him in on everything her parents had found out about Empetrum, including about the Q-13, which deeply unsettled him. Then, she asked, Are you ready to make contact?

James swallowed. Yes, he lied. He wasn’t ready at all to face Richard, however indirectly. Or Sue. On the off chance Richard didn’t hate his guts for what he’d done, Heather’s mom certainly did. Here goes.

He reached into his pocket and gradually turned up the pain simulator. Heather didn’t react. He clicked the device up to eight and returned his attention to his computer.

Sorry, I hate doing this, he typed.

I know, she replied. She sent out a message, and a new window popped up in a corner of the screen with the words. Dad, are you there?

James arranged it on his desktop to be even less conspicuous while they waited for a response.

Finally, text burst under her initial message, Hi Heather!

That had to be Sesame.

Hi. James has me plugged into his computer, so he can see our conversation and talk too.

Ok. Hi James.

James hesitated. Hello, is this Sesame?

Yep, cool, right?

I’m happy for you. He was still struggling to process that particular development. At this point, he only had enough bandwidth to hope Sesame didn’t turn out to be malevolent. Organorobotic transference had brought nothing but serious unforeseen consequences. Thank you for helping us. 

Thank you too. This would be much harder without your cooperation. I hope you and Heather can come home soon.

Me too, James said. Leaving the Empetrum campus was only step one. Maintaining their freedom from Benson after the fact could easily consume the rest of their lives, and he tried not to think too much about the future, the possibility that if Benson couldn’t contain them, he would kill them. James made himself concentrate only on this first step for now. It’s going to take me about a week to get what we need for the escape attempt without attracting attention. There’s also another prisoner here we’re going to take with us if at all possible. Can you help us when we’re ready to move?

Richard says yes. Without a doubt.

Thank you. Anxiety gripped James’ insides. Heather’s parents really were sitting there with Sesame. For too long, he had wanted so terribly to apologize. Now in nearly direct contact, he had to do it now. He might not get the chance later. Richard, Sue, I am so incredibly sorry for everything. I never intended for any of this to happen. Knowing Heather was also in the chat made it much harder. I’m not looking for forgiveness, I only want to bring Heather home.

He sent the message and waited. He glanced at Heather, who didn’t move. He wished she would.

Richard says,“I understand,” Sesame mediated. 

James’ heart leapt into his throat. Reading Richard’s exact response was terrifying.

“It’s been really hard, worrying about you and Heather for so long. The fact that you lied to me and kept something like this from me until things got so out of hand was quite a shock, and it hit us all very hard. We worried you were really with them, and that you had chosen to hurt her on your own. I thought maybe you’d done this to get back at me, somehow, for shutting down your project…”

James swallowed, squeezing his hands together, remembering he and Heather were still under surveillance in the lab. He read Richard’s words as they continued to materialize with a knot in his stomach, trying to think back to who he had been at Larkspur. To what about him could possibly have made Richard think he had the capacity for such cruel vindictiveness. To be so like Benson.

He didn’t think Richard had ever seen him as a threat before, but the disappearance of Larkspur’s android along with Heather had been pretty damning. 

We didn’t know for sure what you had done until Heather told us,” Richard’s response went on. “I tried to believe there was a good explanation. Right now, we’ll focus on the fact that you’re helping us. We’re told getting her out of there would be nearly impossible without inside help. So, thank you.”

James’ hands were shaking as he typed his reply. I would never intentionally do anything to hurt any of you. I’ll do whatever it takes to set as much of this right as I can.

Just as he sent the message, he heard the click of the door to his lab unlocking. Hurriedly, he closed the lid of his laptop and twisted out of his chair to face the newcomer.

“Good morning, Dr. Siles,” Yeun greeted. James felt dizzy with relief it wasn’t Benson. “Sorry to barge in like this, but I just heard you’ll be hanging out in my lab this afternoon?”

“After lunch, right?” James hoped traces of his recent conversation weren’t too evident on his face. His throat was tight, and the room suddenly felt like an oven. He glanced at Heather and cleared his throat. “I’m just running routine diagnostics, then I’ll be right over.”

“I see.” Yeun put his hands in the pockets of his lab coat, following James’ gaze. “How are you today, Ms. Brophy?”

“She’s hibernating,” James said quickly. “If she pulls out of it, it could interfere with the assessment.”

“Oh, sorry,” Yeun said. “Maybe another time, then.” He stepped back toward the door with a cheery smile. “See you in a few.”

James tried to smile and force his shoulders to relax. He waited for the door to close behind his colleague, and delayed for several long moments before returning to his laptop.

“Sorry,” he muttered, pushing his computer screen back up. It took all his will power not to do it hastily.

Another scientist came into James’ lab, Heather had explained. He’s busy right now.

I’m back,
James’ fingers flew across the keyboard. Sorry. Regarding escape plans, we’ll contact you periodically as things solidify, and the night before to confirm. I hope we can rendezvous from a safe distance so you don’t have to have anything to do with Empetrum, but please be ready for anything. 

Sure thing. Came the reply, without quotation marks, so James didn’t know who was speaking. What’s the plan?



One week later, James stayed in the facility after hours, presumably continuing to brush up on information for his swiftly growing involvement in Compatibility research. What he read of the finer connections between modulator engineering and cell biology barely registered as his mind feverishly reviewed the details of the madness he and Heather were about to attempt. He had tried to find a way to tip off Erika to the situation, but Yeun had kept him working with mice and cell cultures all week, and James hadn’t been able to get anywhere near her.

He glanced at the clock in the top right corner of his laptop screen. 9:00.

He took a breath, closed the lid of his computer, and stood up.

“Here we go,” he muttered, pulling the strap of his briefcase over his head and across his chest.

“I’m leaving for the night,” he told the guard outside the door. “But I need to stop by my office for something first.”

The guard nodded and shrugged off from where he had been leaning against the wall, evidently grateful for something to do as he followed James’ nervous gait to the elevator.

Benson had already left the facility for the night, and James hoped it was mostly empty so there’d be enough of a delay between what he was about to do and when everyone else found out. He made sure the zipper to his briefcase was open just enough.

The doors to the elevator closed. As soon as the guard’s back was turned, James carefully put his hand into his briefcase, his fingers closing around a device he’d thrown together out of the body of a stapler. Without giving himself a chance to think, he jerked his hand out, depressing the insulated trigger on the device and lunged toward the guard. The makeshift taser snapped loudly in the enclosed space. 

The guard pulled away in surprise. James grabbed for the arm going toward the tranquilizer gun on the guard’s belt, and an elbow collided with his face. Somewhere in the confusion, a dart fired but hit the wall behind him, and James landed the electrified end of the taser on the man’s arm.

The elevator reached the second floor with a soft, heralding tone.

“Sorry,” James said, kneeling down to unclip the unconscious guard’s badge, and escaping out into the hallway to his right. He had never been in this particular wing of the facility, but process of elimination told him the security offices had to be over there somewhere.

He found the door, and didn’t take time to catch his breath before touching the stolen badge on the reader and extracting a copper and polymer sphere from his bag. The lock clicked. He pulled a protective pin from the sphere, and, depressing a button at the top, he opened the door and chucked the device inside. He braced himself against the door, closing the explosion of buzzing and snapping inside, coupled with cries of shock and pain.

James hunched his shoulders and tried to keep his nerve, waiting for the sounds to fade. This would be over soon, he reminded himself. This was a step he had to make.

This would be over soon.

Once the other side of the door had gone quiet, he slipped inside. Hurriedly picking his way around unconscious bodies, he located the grid that fed power to the wall of active surveillance feeds, and unplugged it from its source. Straddling the behemoth bundle of wires, he disentangled heavy-duty wire cutters from his briefcase and ripped a jagged chunk from the middle of the cords to make it difficult to get them functional again without a decent amount of time and spare wiring. 

Hopefully he, Heather, and Davenport would be long gone by then.

He weaved back to the door, closed it behind him, and ran to the stairs. The three of them needed to at least be outside by the time the alarms went off.

His footsteps bounced off the walls of the stairwell as he hurried down to the basement. Pushing open the door, he strode as calmly as he could down the hallway and held his breath as he passed the elevator. The guard wasn’t there. He or she must have been patrolling the floor.

James sped up, anxiously making his way down the corridor to Heather’s cell. As he touched his own badge to the reader and the heavy automatic lock slid aside, he heard a voice.

“Dr. Siles, you’re still here?”

James jerked his head up. A woman in a black security uniform approached.

He opened Heather’s door. He was sweating. “Yes, I realized I needed to check up on something with my test subject. It can’t wait until tomorrow.”

“Where’s your escort?”

James paused halfway through the door, exchanging a worried look with Heather, who started toward him.

James pulled back out to face the guard, to assess her expression. He was losing ground. “He’ll be down shortly.”

“That’s against protocol.” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you up to?”

Her skepticism cut off in a ragged cry of surprise as a head ducked suddenly under James’ arm and a robotic hand gripped the guard’s wrist with an angry crack of electricity.

“Woah…” James said as Heather lowered the guard’s unconscious form to the floor.

“I know right?” Heather steadied the strap of his briefcase and grabbed the second to last stun grenade from inside. “Figured out how to do it on command.” 

James looked at her, amazed, and feeling like they just might have a chance. He turned and headed back down the hallway toward the stairs. “Let’s get Davenport.”

He touched the stolen badge to the reader outside Davenport’s cell, and to his profound relief, the lock slid over. He tugged the door open and stepped in without allowing himself to hesitate. “Erika Davenport—” He gasped and jerked backward upon almost running straight into her. Heather’s stunt with the guard had evidently attracted her attention.

Davenport pitched back as well, startled. She caught herself on the gargantuan, three-elbowed arms off her back. “What the heck are you doing?” she gasped. “What’s going on?”

“We’re getting out of here, and we’re taking you with us,” Heather piped up, edging in beside James. “Benson’s imprisoned us long enough.”

It was odd for James to hear Heather speak the director’s name out loud, a final colliding of worlds. James stepped aside to give Davenport room to leave the cell, but she stared at him, conflicted.

“What?” James said, anxious to leave. “What is it?”

Davenport shifted more of her weight back onto her feet. “You can’t know much I’ve been waiting for a chance like this…” she said. She looked aside, at one of her accessory limbs, her face falling. “But the grounds are crawling with guards, armed to the teeth with tranquilizers. Your chances of escape are slim as it is, and I’ll muddy up those chances, with the state I’m in. I still can’t move well with these things.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Heather insisted. “We’re not leaving without you.”

Davenport cracked an uneven, futile smile. “I think you’re gonna have to. Yeun’s so close to being done with me. If I try to escape now, they’ll for sure recapture me, and then I’ll have completely thrown away any chance I had of ever being free.” She paused, took a steadying breath, and stepped forward. “But if you succeed, can you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” James said. His heart ached. He hated Benson so much. 

“Can you send a message to my family?” she said. “Tell them where I am, that I’m okay?”

James nodded. “Of course.”

“What are their contact details?” Heather said. “I’ll remember.”

Davenport told her the information, trying so hard to keep her voice from wavering. Heather repeated it back for confirmation. Meanwhile, James dug in his briefcase, producing the last stun grenade, the stun rod, and a modest stack of handwritten pages.

He pushed them into her hands. “I took out the surveillance system, so this conversation is off the grid. This is an electrical stun grenade. Pull the pin, depress the trigger. This is a close-range stun rod, here’s the trigger for it, and the active end. The voltage in both is enough to make someone pass out, but don’t touch it to the chest or head. These are my notes on Empetrum’s layout, guard rotations, security cameras, anything I ended up writing down to help stage this escape attempt. Oh, also this—” He handed over the badge. “I took this off a security guard. It’s high clearance, so it should get you in or out of pretty much everywhere in the facility. If you get the opportunity to escape on your own in a situation with higher odds of success, I hope this all helps.”

Davenport looked at each of them in turn, stunned. “Thank you.”

Heather pulled James’ bag around so she could access it. “James, do you have a pen in here?”

James took one from the front pocket. Heather reached for the stack of papers. Erika handed them over and Heather docked her stun grenade under her arm, twisting James around so she could use his back as a writing surface. “This is my dad’s cell phone number. If you need help at all, call him, okay? We got your back.”

Davenport nodded, accepting the papers again.“Okay.”

Alarms started to blare, making them all jump.

“Go.” Davenport stepped forward urgently, herding them out. “Thank you for this, but it’s time for you to leave.” 

They consented, and James closed her inside her cell. The lock re-engaged, and James started for the stairs with a heavy, pounding heart. He swore under his breath. They broke into a run, and as they hurried up the stairs, James regretted all over again how little attention he devoted to his scrawny physique. Heather very easily kept up.

He hated leaving Davenport there, but she had made her choice. She was right, her malfunctioning Compatibility was a complication, but they had been prepared to work around it somehow. Benson must have hung some awful ultimatums over her head.

Focus, he reminded himself. He had to focus.

Get outside. He repeated it over and over in his head. Incapacitate the guards. Open the gate. Once they had cleared the first checkpoint, their odds of slipping through the cracks would improve in the dark forest of the middle perimeter. Thanks to Benson’s request for updated cameras, James knew exactly where each of them were. 

He opened the door to the first level and they ran together down the hallway, past the elevator, and toward the exit, where he touched his own badge to the reader, but it didn’t work. The facility was locking down. 

“Are you serious?” he barked, frantically testing it again. It denied him with a flat, negatory beep.

“Look out—” Heather jammed an elbow through the heavy frosted glass. James shielded his face as she forcefully dismantled it.

“Thanks.” He tripped through the opening after her and they made for the main entrance, which remained unlocked from the inside. 

As soon as they burst through the door, they found themselves stranded on the front step. The light of monstrous LEDs spilled across the courtyard between them and the gate. James froze in the face of several ready tranquilizers, but Heather plowed forward, skipping all the steps, her arms outstretched. She contacted as many of the guards as possible upon landing.

The surprise of mass electrocution was enough to break their formation as James lurched forward and ducked through after her like a fox under a fence.

A pop sounded behind him. A sharp barb embedded itself in the back of his arm.

“Ah—” His eyes widened and his hand flew to the spot. “No.”

He tore out the tranquilizer dart and stared at it in frantic, winded horror. 

No no no no no!” He hurled it aside. He turned his face to the gate, the crucial step in this ill conceived plan.

“What?” Heather looked back, frightened. She caught sight of the dart as it hit the pavement. Her attention flicked back to James’ face, her large, reflective eyes wide with dismay.

James urgently pointed to the guard booth by the fence. “Throw your stun grenade over there. You have a better arm!” Already, his limbs were losing strength. He began to lag. “We should be safe from the discharge from here.”

James spotted a man by the target, standing beside the gate-operating booth with his arms crossed. He wore a cardigan and jeans, and James might not have recognized him from the distance without the light glinting off those sinister rectangular glasses. 

The director was livid. James was experiment fodder if he didn’t make it out.

Heather drew her arm back and whipped it forward.

The sphere exploded with a bang when it hit the ground. Hands jerked up in front of faces and bodies twisted away as the broken orb emitted sharp, sparking light, electrocuting everything within close proximity. The device was supposed to simply split open, but this one blew apart, shooting shards of its polymer casing at its victims.

James’ vision was fading fast. He couldn’t breathe.

His legs buckled.

“James!” Heather shrieked as he tripped to his hands and knees. She caught his arm. “James no!” 

“Go—” James blinked hard. His head felt enormously heavy. His voice cracked, “I can’t…” He attempted to push her off, but she held fast. If Heather dropped him right then, she had a good chance of prying open the gate and slipping through. She would be able to escape, but the window was closing. “Go! Heather please go!

“I’m not leaving you too!” Heather slung his arm across her shoulders and tried to force him to stand. “We can make it!”

“No. We can’t.” James panted. His voice sounded muted, absorbed by the ringing in his ears. “But you have a chance.” His eyes wouldn’t stay open. Soon Heather’s escape would be barred. “Heather you have to leave me.”

“No!” she insisted, pleading. “We’re both going home!”

“No.” He tried one last time to pull himself from her grip, but the movement was weak as her urgent voice slipped away. “No…”

I’m sorry, Heather.

So much fear and despair thundered through Heather that she teetered on the brink of screaming in the force of it. As if somehow it could help her stop this, cut her and James from the situation and relocate them to a timeline where none of this had ever happened.

But in the cruel bright light, amidst the shuffled footsteps and cocking guns of surrounding guards, James lost consciousness.

Gently, she let him down to the ground. She straightened up, standing before him and readying herself to electrocute anyone who came too close.

She looked beyond the gate. Her parents were parked by the road, out of reach of the guards and surveillance cameras. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there. They had to be there waiting. 

They were so close.

James’ slim, restless body was pure deadweight. She was strong enough to drag him, but that required time and space she didn’t have.

If she couldn’t hold her own—if Benson recaptured them—he would kill James.

She glared savagely at the guards as they encircled her.

“Stay back!” she ordered. “Don’t you dare touch him!”

They heeded her warning, waiting.

Something caught her attention past the ring of guards. Her eyes widened. 

Benson. He should have still been unconscious.

A deep cut marred his cheek. He cradled his left hand, the palm of which was covered in blood. A guard limped behind him, trying to convince him to seek medical attention first, but the director’s gray eyes remained fixed on Heather.

He slipped between the guards. He kept a respectable distance, but his presence loomed.

“Hello, Heather,” Benson said, his expression softening coldly. “This is our first time speaking face to face, isn’t it?” 

Heather stared him down, hands ready. James may have regarded this man as some kind of demon, but Michael Benson was flesh and blood. A mere human being, whose vulnerable, organic vessel she wouldn’t hesitate to fry if he tried to take James from her.

“I’ve no doubt you already know who I am,” Benson went on. “What it is you’re messing with.” The director glanced down at the unconscious engineer. “I didn’t think he’d actually attempt it. A good try, I must admit.” His jaw tightened, and his attention found his injured hand, contemplating the pain. “Overly violent, though, don’t you think?”

“That was an accident,” Heather said. She wasn’t sorry. “The device misfired.”

Benson smiled. A drop of blood broke free from the cut on his face, drawing a line of red down his skin. 

Carefully, he brushed the back of his uninjured hand across its path and regarded the smear with an air of indifference. “Hm, yes, but the consequences will be dire.”

Benson looked up and gave a short nod to someone behind her.

Heather glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see the guard deploy the trigger. Heather tried to dodge, but the snapping spikes collided, burying between the panels in her lower back and discharging like a lightning strike.

Heather’s whole body locked up. Confused, misshapen pain signals roared through her neural network and an auto-tuning scream screeched against her auditory devices.

She felt herself begin to fall.

Her last moment of vision on the way down was of the director’s face—somber, victorious.



Heather woke up with an electronic, buzzing gasp, her shoulders pulling forward off a hard surface. She found her arms were tied tightly behind her back, her torso wrapped up in what appeared to be some kind of elastic electrical insulation. She ducked her head with a weary groan as her vision crackled. There was a lingering jittery unsteadiness in her limbs. Her neural network informed her of mild heat damage in her back. 

She raised her face. She was back in her cell underneath the Empetrum facility, propped against the wall by the door like a broken puppet.

“No,” she said, the volume of her voice very low as the realization hit her. She managed to get her feet under her and stood up. “No!” She twisted and rammed her shoulder into the door. “Let me out! Benson!” She looked at the round black security camera in the ceiling, wondering if it was back online. In case it was, she screamed at it. “Don’t hurt him! Why are you doing this to us?” 

The echo of her voice against the concrete walls faded, unanswered, and silence closed in. She tripped to a sitting position against the door, futile, scared. She bowed her face, searching for the pain simulator, considering its benign, closed mental door, trying to force her way in.


They had been waiting for far too long, the car overly quiet, crickets chirping in the inscrutable darkness of a logging road. 

Heather had checked in before nine o’clock, telling them to stand by. She and James had a very short window of time, so escape shouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, unless something had happened to stall them. Maybe they’d had to call it off and hadn’t had a chance to fill them in. Sick with worry, Richard prayed it wasn’t that they had been caught.

Sesame slumped in the backseat, his face screen deactivated to conserve battery, and a wire running from a single open panel in his head to Richard’s cellphone. He straightened up, suddenly. “Heather?”

Richard and Sue reacted in the front seat, first looking out the windows. Richard moved to start the car, but paused, realizing the robot was responding to something internal. They twisted back to look at him.

“Heather made contact?” Sue said.

Sesame’s face turned on to display a worried expression. Richard’s stomach clenched.

“What is it?” Richard pressed.

“They got caught,” Sesame said, disappointed and surprised. “The other prisoner refused to come with them. Heather says they almost made it, but then James got tranquilized. She tried to protect him but Benson had her electrocuted until her system shut down.”

Sue put a hand to her mouth. “Oh no…”

“She’s okay. She’s back in her cell…She activated that communication device by herself, but doesn’t know where James is. Benson got injured in the escape attempt and he’s super mad about it. She’s worried he’s going to kill James.” He tucked his legs under him, perching on the seat and hugging his knees. “Someone came to get her just now.” His gaze went distant as he retreated into his mind. “I lost her. She’s not responding anymore.” He looked at Richard and Sue, pleading and afraid. “The signal cut off. I can’t get her back.” 

Richard stared at the android, hollow, agape. Slowly, he twisted back around. “This isn’t the end of it,” he said breathlessly. His voice sounded unlike his own, drowning in this empty, silent, horrible futility. He took off his glasses, rubbed at his eyes. Something dark slowly screwed up in his chest. “This isn’t the end of it.” 

“They’ll be okay, right?” Sesame asked softly.

Richard couldn’t answer. He shook his head slowly, out of negation or dismissal of the question, he wasn’t sure. He started the car. Benson would learn of their presence soon, and it was either find a safer place to regroup or ram his car through Empetrum’s fence.

“Wait, we’re not leaving, are we?” Sesame stiffened, dismayed.

Richard glanced in the rearview mirror at Sesame’s alarmed expression.

“We can’t stay here so close to the gate,” Richard said. “Not when the facility’s on high alert. Benson will probably send someone to check the outer perimeter, after what just happened.”

“But we came so far!” Sesame cried. “And James killed the security system, didn’t he?” He pried aside the lock on the door and gripped the lever. “We can’t just—”

Sue reached back and grabbed his other arm. “Sesame—don’t. You’ll give away our position, and they’ll capture you too. We need you here.”

“Sue—” Richard tried, afraid Sesame would electrocute her.

“I won’t get captured!” Sesame pulled back, but Sue held on, unflinching and solemn. “Sue let go! They need us! We’re not leaving them!” Virtual tears gathered in his eyes, and his resistance waxed broken and half-hearted as he, too, began to understand. “We need to rescue them, Sue…Richard. We can’t leave them.” 

Sue’s gaze fell, but she didn’t release him. “We aren’t leaving them.”

Sesame looked away. He let his arm go limp. The pitch of his voice warbled quietly, “They need us…”

“I know,” Sue said gently, her own voice tight. She cautiously let go of Sesame’s arm. “We’ll have another chance, okay?” Very carefully, Richard activated the childlock.

Sesame sat back down, dismally pushing the lock back over. He turned a tortured expression toward the opposite window, out to where the trees obscured the Empetrum facility. He lay down on his side.

Sue returned to her seat and leaned back, dragging her hands over her face with a heavy sigh. “So, what now? Storm the castle?”

Richard turned the car onto the main road. “What other choice do we have?” he muttered. “But we’re civilians. It’ll have to be in a way that won’t get us imprisoned too. Michael’s acting inconsistently.” Richard hadn’t asked Henry to stir things up with the note, knowing that course of action could bring heavy consequences to their ally, or Heather and James. But while Michael had confronted him, Henry had said, he had let him be. “I have no idea what’s on the table tonight.”

Heather had more personal experience with Michael Benson than they did, and if she was afraid he would kill James for their insurrection, Richard was inclined to believe her.

And all their remaining options would take too much time.

“They really will be okay, won’t they?” Sesame asked again, his voice mistuning softly. “They have to be okay.”

“I think we should approach the Conxence,” Sue said, her arms crossed and face turned. Richard glanced aside, spotting the reflection of her face in the car window. His partner was out for blood. She pulled out her cellphone. “Don’t have much signal here, keep driving.”

They had to go nearly a mile down the road before the signal opened up again, and Sue proceeded to search for anything Conxence related: current news, the history of the movement, contact information.

“Do you want me to look too?” Sesame offered. 

“No, keep your mind open in case Heather makes contact again,” Sue said.

“Does the Conxence even have public contact information?” Richard said. “I always kind of assumed it was word-of-mouth, or that you had to know the right people if you wanted to join.”

“Well, if I can’t find information online, we’re headed to the capital to ask around.”

Richard’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Okay.” He hated everything about this situation; strangers hurting his family without provocation or justification, having to reach out across barriers upon barriers of anonymity trying to protect his loved ones and bring them home.

Sue clucked her tongue in annoyance, still searching on her phone. “Well, there’s an email address. Who’s going to answer an unsolicited email about underground labs at ten o’clock at night?”

“They might,” Richard murmured.

He had always been glad the rebel militia operated far enough away from them that he could largely ignore their activities. Their existence seemed dangerous, volatile, and overzealous.

That is, until Empetrum brought his family to the front lines.


James opened his eyes to watchful lights and silence.

He found himself in a metal chair, his hands bound palms up on the armrests. His ankles and waist were also fastened tightly in place. His dress shirt had been removed, leaving the white tank top underneath.

He stared at his lap for a moment, trying to remember what, exactly, had happened to land him there. Finally, his mind cleared, and he raised his head.

Heather—Where was Heather?

James looked around, the first thorns of fear spiking anew as he took in his surroundings. His heart went cold and his breath caught in his chest. He was in the concrete experimentation chamber behind the thick glass barrier. The one with the charred floor and equipment.

His gaze landed on a figure, reclining in a chair against the wall, regarding him superciliously from afar. The director’s face bore a large bandage. His left hand was heavily wrapped up as well.

Benson got to his feet.

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused?” Benson said, in no hurry to close the distance between them.

James’ throat was extremely dry. “How many people got hurt?” he rasped.

“Eighteen.” Benson lifted his hand so James could see the wrapping. “Fifteen stitches…Thanks for that.”

“But no deaths, right?” James would never forgive himself if any of his weapons had dealt a lethal voltage.

“Just yours.”

“For merely trying to escape?” James gasped.

Merely? The damage you’ve done is far worse than minor injuries and a mangled security system.” Benson crossed his arms, favoring his wounded hand.

“You brought me here,” James said. “You should have known I wouldn’t acclimate.”

“No, Siles, from all the signs you were giving off, you seemed like perfect Empetrum material,” Benson said. “You had ambition. You had vision, purpose you were willing to pay any price for. I thought transferring over to Empetrum would give you the opportunity you needed. What we all needed. I pulled so many strings to get you here.” He threw up his uninjured hand. “And you were doing well! Research was picking up and your career looked promising. Yet you chose to betray us. You threw everything away!” 

“I tried to tell you it wasn’t going to work out, didn’t I?” James insisted. “Then I tried to comply for a while because I thought I was protecting Heather, but I’d rather die than participate in any more of this nightmare.”

Benson stared at him for a few condescending moments. “You lack resolve.”

James’ expression darkened. “I had the resolve to go against you.”

“Yes, I suppose you did. A misguided effort, unfortunately.”

“What have you done with Heather?”

“Nothing yet.” Benson paused. “Did Richard Brophy have anything to do with what happened tonight?”


Benson studied his face, skeptical. “And you’re sure you haven’t been aware of anything going on at the Larkspur facility these last few weeks? Brophy and Louis managing to find out far too much about Empetrum? They had to have something to do with that idiotic escape attempt.”

“Leave them alone. I’m the one who crossed you. You didn’t give me any other option.”

“I did give you options, Siles,” Benson said. 

“They were false choices to the same end,” James snapped. He stood nothing else to gain by deferring to the director’s madness, and the fair certainty that Benson was going to kill him made him bold. “Either go the route of a self-preservationist amnesiac and leave Heather behind, or stay on as your puppet and keep her imprisoned here forever.”

“You realize this route you took still involves leaving her entirely to me, don’t you? While you cooperated, she at least had a buffer.”

“But I couldn’t keep doing nothing. I couldn’t leave things as they were.” He worried he was wrong about this too. Every choice he made was wrong. “She wouldn’t have been able to stand me hurting others for her sake.”

“A sentiment she may soon regret. When you’re gone, who knows what will happen to her.” The director pulled a communicator from the pocket of his sweater and lifted it to his mouth. “I’m ready. Dr. Yeun. Please come down to my experimentation chamber for lab prep while I prepare the Q-13. I’d like to get this over with quickly.”

James’ face went cold.

“But Director…” came a tentative reply after several long moments.

“But what, Yeun?”

“You went through all the trouble to get him here, you’re just going to do this again—”

“Do I have a choice at this point?” Benson’s hand tightened around the device. “He’s made it perfectly clear where his allegiance lies, what his actions will be should he ever set foot outside again. Might as well make his death useful.”

The door opened, and Yeun entered, all his usual joviality stripped from his features.

“You’re just going to throw him away too?” Yeun tried, striding diffidently up to Benson, careful not to look at James.

“We must uphold a standard,” Benson said.

“Is this really a standard we should be upholding?”

“Don’t start this again,” Benson growled quietly. He stepped away from James, and his colleague followed. Despite the distance, their voices bounced back to the prisoner off the concrete boundaries of the room.

“I can reconcile human test subjects from death row, but using our own. Again. There really are no lines, are there?”

“There are,” Benson said, impersonal. “As long as loyalty stands, the line remains. Siles knew full well the price of his actions. He has all but declared war, and I must protect my charge.” He flung a gesture toward James with his good arm. “Because of him, Louis got to my father, Yeun, and he was all too eager to crack. He told them everything, and they’re threatening to make a plea to the Conxence over it!” 

“Siles was only doing what he thought was right, as we are…”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop while you’re ahead,” Benson’s voice lilted, warning.

“I can’t watch you do this again,” Yeun insisted, with more resolution. “It doesn’t just kill the test subject. Michael, it kills you too—”

Benson turned on his colleague with such sudden aggression that even James gave a start. “Enough, Elias! This is the way my grandfather did it, and this is the way I will do it. If you take issue, you’ve outlived your usefulness to me. You can surrender your memories of this place and resign!”

Yeun went rigid. He stared at Benson, wide-eyed and mouth agape, as if the latter had just run him through. The director’s face was very close to his. 

And James felt he was seeing Michael Benson for the first time, how deep, how black this man’s ambition and delusion ran. How badly his decisions had turned on him and how hell-bent he was on finding someone to punish for it.

“Gather the necessary supplies for Siles’ infusion,” Benson ordered, laying the words out like a threat. “Now.”

Yeun hesitated. He looked at James, who was hoping for some glimmer of hope, some sign that Yeun would finally come around and try to help them.

“Yes, Director,” Yeun said finally, his gaze falling. He ducked out from under Benson’s looming, challenging frame, and left without another word.

After brief deliberation, the director also moved toward the door. “I’ll return presently. Enjoy your last few moments to yourself.”

James tipped his gaze to the ceiling, suffocating on his own futility.

When he and Heather had made that escape attempt, despite everything that had happened when they got sucked into Benson’s deranged power trip, James had let himself believe it just might work. The odds of success had been slim, but they had had a chance.

But here he was, barely twenty-one years old, about to die. Heather, fifteen, was soon to be left to fend for herself, a test subject without allies, awaiting her own punishment.

He wished he could see her again, to make one last useless apology.


Tucked away in a tiny studio apartment in the northern sector of the capital, Madison Fields sat typing at a desktop computer, the harsh blue light glaring off her large-rimmed glasses in the dark. 

Somewhere in the crowded setup of electronics around her, a laptop chimed. She landed a few more sequences of code before halting, taking a ballpoint pen out from behind her ear to jot notes elsewhere, and leaned aside to check the email that had managed to bypass her screening algorithms.

Her brow furrowed.

She twisted to glance back at a mound of blankets on the lower bunk of the bed across the room. “Yo, Kepler. Where’s your brother at right now?” 

“Hmm?” the body sat up, an icepack sliding to the floor with a thump, revealing a wavy flop of auburn hair and smeared mascara as a young woman groggily extricated herself from the covers. She retrieved a black baseball cap from the floorboards and tugged it on as she came over, yawning. “Home, as far as I know. Why?”

“Got something I think you’re both gonna want to see. How do you feel about running a second operation tonight?”

“Can’t say I’m in favor of it, Mads,” Andrew Kepler grunted, leaning an arm on the back of the desk chair, peering over her friend’s shoulder and squinting in the computer light. With the other hand, she gingerly felt the puffy skin of a generously bruising eye socket. “Empetrum…” She mused, reading the email. “Why does that sound familiar?”

“It’s the name of that lab Erika thought we should do some scouting around,” Mads said.

“Davenport? She went back to stay with her family for a while, didn’t she?”

“That’s what she said,” Mads said. “I don’t blame her for being scarce these days, after losing her mom.”

“Yeah…” After a few moments of silence, Andrew sighed, digging a flip phone from the pocket of her jeans. “Well, guess she was right. We should have paid more attention to that lab. Don’t know if we’ll have time to infiltrate a top security location with the government’s pet freaks on our back, but I’ll ask Derek what he wants to do.” 

There had been rumors that the government was developing a new kind of threat, and barely a week prior, any hopes the Conxence held that it was only hearsay were terrifyingly disappointed when that threat had materialized: Six humanoid soldiers in helmets and jumpsuits, armed with riot gear and bodies that did things no human’s ever could.

Two of their own had been captured since. Rann and Derek, the first and second-in-command, were mounting regrouping efforts like crazy, and suddenly Andrew’s own position as squad leader had become infinitely less satisfying.

At least they’d succeeded their operation that night without losing anybody. She was already exhausted.

She hit the speed dial and put the phone to her ear. While she waited for it to connect, she said. “Where’s Rann at this hour, do you know?”

“Don’t ask me,” Mads scoffed, pulling up background coding and encryption on the email, checking for red flags. Having a public email address while the powers that be treated them like a terrorist group came with a plethora of intelligence hazards, but nothing got through Mads’ protocols.

The phone connected, and Andrew spoke up. “Hey, you home? Hold on a sec, putting you on speaker.”

She pulled the phone from her ear and hit a button.

A voice issued from the phone’s speakers, warm and medium in tone. “Yes, are you at Jaeger’s place?” They never used their real names over the phone. A compromised cellphone could be destroyed, but leaked civilian identities weren’t so easy.

“Yeah, crashing here tonight,” Andrew said. “Took an elbow to the face on the mission earlier, and under the circumstances, I don’t feel like making the full commute for my opening shift tomorrow.”

“You didn’t tell me that in debriefing,” he said.“Are you okay?”

“I’m always okay. Hey, so we just got a weird email.”

“Define weird?”

“‘Government lab took my kid’ weird,” she said. “Police won’t help them, naturally. They tried to stage an escape tonight with help from the inside, but it failed. They say it’s more than likely their inside help is gonna be killed for it.”

There was a pause. “Oh,” Derek said. “That sounds really bad…”

“And it’s a legit email as far as I can tell,” Mads spoke up, angling her face back so the rebellion’s second-in-command could hear her better.

“Good to know,” he said.

“What do you want to do about it?” Andrew asked.

Her brother sighed on the other line, thinking. “Do we have anything on this lab?”

“It’s called Empetrum,” Mads said. “Diamondback said it could be important somehow but they don’t know how and couldn’t ask around without blowing their cover. Cygnus was really into digging more into it, but pursuing new information on it was deemed low priority, so all we have right now is its name and coordinates.”

“Not enough to work with for immediate retrieval efforts…” Derek said, pensive. “What time is it…10:10…Did they provide a phone number?”


“Forward me that email,” Derek said. “I’ll call them, see what the situation is.”

“Already sent your way.”



The director returned wearing his lab coat and carrying a small container in his gloved, uninjured hand. Yeun trailed dejectedly behind him, silently outfitting a cart with disinfectant and a packaged syringe. He pulled it up beside James.

“To answer your question about your test subject,” Benson said. “I’ve decided to erase her memory.”

Dismay jolted through James like a surge of electricity. “Her brain isn’t organic anymore, you’ll never get a mindwipe to work.” 

“I’ll have to go about it differently, but I’ll get it done,” Benson responded coolly. “Of course, I’ll make her watch what happens to you first. Maybe I’ll preserve only that memory so it can always haunt her.”

Yeun and Hill had experience in biorobotics, James realized. Benson would make them try to hack into her neural network, and there was a chance they’d figure it out. “No—” 

“Yes.” Benson held out an expectant hand to Yeun, who obediently unwrapped the syringe, swapping it for the sealed opaque vial. “You will regret crossing me, coward. If you survive this, you will regret it every day for the rest of your wretched, wasted life.”

“I’m not a coward,” James rasped.

Benson steadied the vial in Yeun’s hands and positioned the needle over the seal. “Just wait until the Q-13 is flooding through your system, tearing you apart and remaking you.” He turned his attention away from him to puncture the seal. “As it rewires your nervous system and bursts from your marrow, you will beg, hysterically, for death.”

James watched the viscous, glowing yellow liquid draw up into the barrel of the syringe, terror clawing through him.

“May I leave after this, Director?” Yeun said quietly, setting the empty vial on the cart and picking up the bottle of disinfectant. “I can’t watch this again.”

“Fine,” Benson murmured tersely as Yeun saturated a cotton ball and disinfected the crook of James’ left arm. “Honestly, is everyone losing their minds around here?”

Yeun shrugged and turned away.

“Is this going to make things better, Elias?” James called after him. His voice cracked as he gave an angry tug at his restraints. “Is this the kind of difference you wanted to make?” 

Yeun paused, his gaze lowered.

James waited, breathless. Yeun had to reconsider. He had to stop this.

But their last chance at survival left the room.  

Benson watched after his colleague for a moment, his expression inscrutable. He squared his shoulders and returned his attention to the syringe with a short glare at his prisoner. Half-balancing the needle of the syringe upward with his injured hand, he tapped it a few times with the other, and pushed the remaining air from the barrel.

James’ throat felt extremely dry. Was this what it had been like for Heather, sealed in the scanner, staring imminent destruction in the face? The realization hit him like a blow to the chest, and fresh self-loathing and regret bloomed there.

A door opened in the room behind the glass and a guard dragged Heather into view. With a jolt of shared mortification, James and her eyes met. She jerked away from the guard, lurching toward the glass. Her arms were tied behind her back, her entire torso wrapped tightly in bright red sheets of rubber electrical insulation.

James!” the thick barrier muffled her shrill electronic voice as the guard wrestled her back into submission. “James no!

She almost overpowered the guard despite being bound. Suddenly, she cried out, hunching her shoulders and falling to her knees. The guard had possession of the pain simulator remote.

“Don’t make her watch this.” James looked earnestly to the director. “Please, she’s just a kid! She doesn’t deserve any of this!”

“On the contrary,” Benson said, stepping closer. “I seem to recall it was both of you earlier, causing a scene. And if you have been in contact with Richard Brophy, as I suspect, she has to be involved somehow. This is all because of her.”

James glared at him, his words dripping with deep, futile hatred, “No, this is all because of you.

He hoped she was trying to contact her parents—calling for help. He hoped they were forming a backup plan, one that didn’t need him alive. He tore his eyes from Heather just in time to see Benson insert the needle into one of his antecubital veins with practiced ease.

“Last words?” Benson carefully pressed the plunger down, driving the acrid substance into James’ bloodstream. It burned immediately—like hot bleach and menthol. The muscles of James’ entire arm and hand spasmed.

“Don’t hurt Heather.” James winced. Pain flooded through the length of his arm, nearing his chest. “Please. You’ve had your revenge…Just don’t hurt her. Send her home. You’re done with me.” He was already sweating profusely. The bones of his arm and shoulder felt like they were catching fire.

“Sorry, can’t.” Benson expelled the rest of the substance. He returned the syringe to the cart and carefully removed his glove. “She’s as much a liability as you are.”

He haphazardly pushed the cart away and strolled toward the door. “Happy metamorphosis, Siles—or farewell. Whichever.” 

Metamorphosis. A pang of terror gripped him, just as his heart gave a painful hiccup. The right side of his heart received the contaminated blood and sent it burning up and out in both directions to his lungs. He choked as his pulmonary system recoiled. His heartbeat accelerated and the pain flooded through the rest of his body. His breath narrowed to rapid, shallow gasps. 

His gaze found Heather’s eyes again, full of horror.

And James still wished he could stop this. Even here, strapped to a chair like a caged animal, his body pulsing with poison, that stupid, childish part of him that still wanted to be something good refused to let go.

A bright flash burst across his vision. He cringed and closed his eyes. Pain surged from his head down the length of his frame, throbbing in every nerve, bleeding through his vascular system. Something too dark to be blood started dripping from his nose, running down his chin and speckling black onto his white undershirt. 

The sensation was muffled at first, like a distant crackle in every cell, drawing closer and closer to his awareness, a slow increase in volume swelling higher, coming closer to the surface of the swirling pain. He tugged at his restraints, overcome by panic, but attempting to move his muscles caused them to cramp up all at once, and he gasped. He choked on it, coughing up a mouthful of black. 

Another bright flash engulfed him. When he regained his vision, a black hue was starting to seep from the middle of his palms to the entirety of his hands. The invasion made his skin tingle and burn like liquid nitrogen. Jagged spikes of pain lanced down into his muscles and bone, most intense where the black gained hold.

He fought to suppress his response to the transformation, to try to make it easier for Heather. The last thing he could offer. To take this bravely, quietly.

But despite his best efforts, a cry of agony snapped into the room. The sound was so foreign he wondered if the voice was really his. More black bile came up in its wake, thick and unbelievably bitter in his mouth. Distantly, he hoped it was the Q-13, being rejected and expelled.

But under his skin, the serum’s petrifying sting snaked and crisscrossed up his arms to embrace his shoulders. It crept up the left side of his neck and crowded up onto his face in a cruel, curling stripe. It gripped his spinal cord, burning through his nerves and overwhelming his senses.


He thought he heard Heather’s voice again, but his ears were ringing too much to be certain. This couldn’t be the end. There had to be something more. Something else to hold on to, to hope for, to strive for. Some way to set this right.

But the Q-13 did not hear protestation. It was drowning him. The merciless light beamed from behind his eyes, overpowering his retinas, blotting out everything. 

It was going to tear him apart. He felt it coming. Imminent, inevitable.

I’m so sorry, Heather. He turned his pale, tormented face to the ceiling, waiting for that moment to arrive. Please look away.

With a rush of searing heat, white, spectral flames tore from his arms, shoulders, and the side of his face, anywhere the black had taken hold. The pain spiked deep, drawn from the center of his bones and bursting from everything associated with them. He couldn’t hear, but he felt a scream ripping up his throat.

A hard flash of white inundated his vision, and the blinding light didn’t fade. He couldn’t see. Couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t feel the restraints squeezing his limbs, and for a moment, deliriously, he thought he was floating.

He dwelt there for a second, for an eternity. Enveloped by the scorching white, he stopped feeling entirely.


They sat parked by the side of the road, Richard and Sue standing outside in the chill early September air, trying to stay calm while they waited for contact from Heather, or the Conxence. Sesame sat in the back, the window rolled down, holding Richard’s phone.

Approaching the resistance was such a shot in the dark. Then again, contacting Henry Benson had been as well.

“Heather’s not helpless either,” Sue said, her arms crossed. “She and James will find a way out of this.” She hugged herself tighter, staring out into the darkness of the trees. “If Benson wanted him so badly in the first place, there has to be something else they could work out. To at least buy more time.” 

Richard swallowed, his throat tight and aching. Empetrum was so close, yet closed off to them, and his body was lit up with the terrible, panicky weight that maybe regrouping from a safe distance had been a grave mistake. 

Sue’s phone rang, making them both jump. She shot a hopeful glance at Richard, then answered it on speaker, “Hello?”

“Hi,” a man said on the other line. “I’m calling for Susan Brophy?”

“Speaking,” Sue said.

“My name is Ganymede,” the man said. “You sent us an email about your daughter being kidnapped?”

Sue blinked. “Yes—you mean you’re Conxence?” To Richard, she mouthed, Alias?

Richard raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“That’s correct,” Ganymede said.

“Oh great—” Sue fumbled. “Sorry, we, uh, weren’t expecting a response so quickly. Thank you.”

They weren’t expecting a response at all, Richard thought.

“The situation sounded very urgent,” Ganymede said. “We want to help.”

Sue and Richard exchanged a glance. “What do you need from us?”

“Right now, I need information,” Ganymede said. “From that, we’ll be able to figure out our options and timeframe. We don’t have much on Empetrum. By the nature of it, I’m assuming it’s highly secure?”

“Yes, it is,” Sue said, her throat tight. “We’ve learned a lot about it from this whole fiasco.”

“That’ll come in handy,” Ganymede said. “We’ll approach the extraction of your daughter and the former colleague with every sense of urgency, but bypassing their security successfully will take time. You mentioned the colleague’s life was in danger?”

“Yes,” Richard spoke up without meaning to. “I’m Richard, Sue’s partner. I’m here too. We’re really worried he’ll be killed and we have no idea what they’re going to do to our daughter.”

“I see…”

“We’re a couple of miles from the lab right now,” Sue said. “Waiting for her to contact us.”

“She has a way to contact the outside?”

As Sue explained the present situation in more detail, completely omitting anything having to do with organorobotic transference, Sesame was abnormally quiet, sitting very still in the backseat, the screen of his face deactivated and turned forward.

Richard leaned down toward the open window. “Sesame? You okay?”

“You monster,” the android muttered, the volume of his voice turned very low. It was a different pitch too, and Richard’s stomach dropped. The voice sounded like Heather, “You monster…”

He reached in and touched Sesame’s shoulder. “Sesame, hey.”

Sesame jumped. His face screen activated, the virtual eyes wide and surprised. His voice stayed Heather’s and although his voice box worked, his virtual mouth didn’t move. “Dad.”

Richard’s heart pounded hard in his chest. “Heather?”

They were attracting Sue’s attention. She asked Ganymede to hold on a minute.

“Heather, what’s happening?”

Sesame’s face disappeared, in its place was a video feed, choppy from poor cellular reception. They were looking through a thick glass barrier, at a bright light. A large object ablaze with savage white fire.

Richard realized it was a person. The flames pulled from their arms and shoulders as if from cracks in their exterior releasing an inferno inside. Their face was angled up to the ceiling, the arms free and hands clawed, their body seized up and mouth open in an unbridled scream of torment, though Sesame wasn’t providing sound. The fire obscured any finer details, but Richard didn’t have to be told who it was, what was happening.

It was James. The Q-13.

They were too late. “No…” he whispered.

“Where’s Benson?” Sue said.

The visual angled up and to the right, where Benson stood cradling his arm, one hand wrapped in gauze, staring through the glass. 

Sesame’s voice came through, very quietly. “He looks surprised…”

The flames were dying, leaving James’ body limp and blackened, hanging half off the molten remains of the metal chair he had been strapped to. Richard could hardly breathe. It was hard to tell whether James still lived. He hadn’t exploded, or vaporized, as Henry Benson’s description of the Q-13 had led him to expect. Then again, it had been three years since Henry had worked with it.

“Is he dead?” Sesame asked quietly. 

There was no audible answer from Heather.

“Heather, are you all right?” Sue said. “Is Benson going to punish you too?”

“She says he’s been talking about erasing her memory,” Sesame said.

“We’re in contact with the Conxence, sweetheart,” Richard pressed. “We’re gonna bring you home okay? Just hold on.”

Sesame drew his knees up onto the seat and hugged them. “She says ‘okay.’”

“We love you,” Sue said. 

“‘I love you too,’” Sesame translated in Heather’s voice. It killed Richard to hear how lost, how defeated she sounded. He didn’t know whether Sesame was projecting his own emotions, or being an objective conduit. He hadn’t even expected it to be possible to share so much over their makeshift cellular connection.

“You do whatever you have to to protect yourself, okay Heather?” Sue said, solemnly looking into Sesame’s face panel, where the camera was embedded. “Keep an eye on James, if he managed to survive that.”

“I will.”

There was a moment of silence, then Sesame said. “Lost the connection.”

Richard sighed, leaning hard against the car. He felt dizzy. Sue realized the Conxence was still on the other line. 

She put the phone back to her ear. “I’m sorry, are you still there?” 

While she filled Ganymede in on what had just happened, Richard tried to steady himself. Sesame’s face rematerialized, and he stared at the floor, his chin docked between his robotic knees. 

“Thank you, Sesame,” Richard said hoarsely. “For helping us.” 

Sesame nodded. 

The robot lifted his face to look at him. “Can I come outside?”

Richard opened the door.

Sesame took the cellphone in one hand and carefully got down. He came forward and wrapped his arms around Richard, pushing his face into Richard’s stomach.

Richard didn’t know how to react. “Are you okay?” he rasped. For a moment, he thought maybe it wasn’t that Sesame had acted as a conduit, but that he and Heather had somehow switched bodies, and that it was his daughter hugging him. The ramifications of James’ machine were always evolving. Anything seemed likely.

The android shook its head, a very slight movement. Then it shook its head harder, hunching its shoulders and clutching Richard’s coat in its hands. Richard kneeled down and wrapped his own arms around it.

“I want them back,” Sesame’s voice warbled and mistuned softly in emotion. “I want to kill Benson for what he did to them.”

Richard held the little robot closer, bowing his face. “We can’t think like that, Sesame. We can’t stoop to his level.” He wasn’t sure he believed his own words. “We have to be better than him…”

Why?” Sesame said. “James will still be dead and Heather will still be traumatized and in a body she didn’t want.” 

“That’ll be the case no matter what we do now,” Richard’s voice wavered. He glanced up at Sue, who watched them while she finished setting up some sort of meeting with the Conxence. It sounded like they were headed for the capital that night. “We have to decide instead what we’re going to do to move forward.”


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