They met in a parking garage in the southern sector of the capital, one with four levels and a single camera at the entrance of dubious functionality.
The gray hatchback they were told to look for was already on the third level when they arrived, the only other vehicle there at that hour, with two men waiting outside. One of them, middle-aged with ash blonde hair and a roman nose, was smoking. The other wore a black surgical-style mask over the lower half of his face.
“Is that them?” Sue said as Richard parked a few spaces down.
“The car fits the description,” Richard said, trying not to stare at them too directly. He felt like they were walking straight into a trap, into a world that would eat them alive.
“Wait here, Sesame,” he said, undoing his seatbelt.
“What?” Sesame whined. “I want to talk to them too.”
“Sentient robots aren’t really—a thing people know exist right now,” Richard said. “I’d like to make this as safe and streamlined as possible.”
“You’ll be talking about Heather,” Sesame protested. “It’s gonna come out anyway.”
Richard glanced in the rearview mirror and realized Sesame was waving to the two men. They exchanged a glance, surprised. The younger of the two, a twenty-something with black hair, several ear piercings, and the face covering lifted an uncertain hand in return. The older one put out his cigarette under his boot.
“See, they’ve seen me,” Sesame said. “It’s okay.”
Richard stifled an extremely heavy sigh and undid the child lock. “Okay.”
Sesame was already on his way out of the backseat.
Richard took a steadying breath and got out of the car. The rebels waited until they were close.
The young one spoke first, “Are you Susan?”
“Yes, that’s me,” she replied. “Call me Sue.”
The man’s eyes narrowed in a warm smile and he extended a hand. “I’m Ganymede. We spoke on the phone.”
That really had to be an alias, Richard thought. It made sense, but it only increased his anxiety about trusting these people.
Sue accepted the handshake. “This is my spouse, Richard, and this is Sesame.”
Sesame shook Ganymede’s hand, eager to participate. The rebel didn’t question it. He likely assumed an explanation would come up eventually.
The older one also shook hands, considerably more serious. “Noran Kaczmarek. Friends call me Rann.”
Richard nodded, trying to suppress an urge to look at Sue. She’d read him as much as she could dig up about the Conxence during the hour and a half drive to the capital. Kaczmarek was the leader of the entire operation.
“Thank you for meeting with us so urgently,” Sue said.
“Of course,” Kaczmarek said. “So, run us through the situation in a little more detail. What are we up against?”
Sue reviewed the background information through what had happened that night, leaving out the parts about organorobotic transference as before but including James’ infusion. Sesame was right, it was going to come up, but neither of them were ready to tell complete strangers about the complicated subject of their daughter’s trauma. As they spoke, Richard sent a text to the number of the device they’d been using to communicate with Heather: Meeting with the Conxence right now. We’ll keep you posted.
He hoped she would check in soon. Even minutes spent not knowing what was going on at Empetrum was far too long. He couldn’t get Sesame’s observation of Benson out of his mind: He looks surprised…
They were taking that as a good sign.
“They attempted to escape tonight, but failed,” Sue was saying. Her throat tightened and she paused, taking a moment. Richard put a hand on her arm. “They were recaptured. Something was done to James, we think injected with Q-13. He, uh, burst into flames. Heather was connected with us at the time, so Sesame relayed the video footage to us, when you called me earlier.”
The Conxence members exchanged a glance.
“And you’re still not sure if Siles is dead?” Ganymede asked, surprised.
Sue shrugged, and Richard offered, “He can be very stubborn.”
“Do you have a photo of him and your daughter?” Kaczmarek asked.
“Yeah…” Sue pulled out her phone and searched through the photos, finally handing it over. On the screen was a snapshot they had taken at the beach, just a couple of days before she was kidnapped. Heather had roped Richard and Sue into a selfie, despite Sue’s protestations at not knowing how to take a proper one. Richard was content just to be with them, though he wasn’t photogenic. Heather had made it her mission that weekend to get a good picture of him, and she had been proud of this one.
The three smiling faces in the photo had no idea what horror awaited them.
With shaking hands, Richard searched through his own photos. He landed on a department photo and zoomed in. “And this is James.”
Kaczmarek and Ganymede leaned in, and Richard realized they both had a common scar in the cartilage of their right ears, like a large hole had been clamped out of it. Ganymede wore a silver ring in his so that it accented his other earrings, while Kaczmarek had left his to scar.
“Young,” Kaczmarek commented. “He looks like an undergrad yet he was one of your full time engineers?” He glanced at Richard. “Prodigy type?”
“He didn’t like the term,” Richard said quietly. “Or—doesn’t. I shouldn’t talk about him in the past tense.” Even though it was so difficult not to. People didn’t often burst into flames and survive.
“Did you approve of your daughter’s friendship with him?”
Richard hesitated. “Yeah, I guess. James was shy, and consumed with work, but I believed he was a good person. After the move, Heather didn’t have any local friends, and they were closest in age. She pestered him a bit, but I think she looked up to him, and she was interested in his work, which meant a lot to him.” He could feel Sue’s gaze on him. She, too, had known James and Heather were friends at work, but didn’t think he was nearly as dangerous as he had proved to be. “And she brought him out of his shell, so he seemed to appreciate her company too.”
Kaczmarek nodded, thinking. “Supposing our rescue is successful, what will you do with him, as the one that dragged your family into this nightmare?”
Sue crossed her arms.
“We honestly haven’t thought that far ahead,” Richard admitted. “He says he didn’t mean for all this to happen.”
“Hm,” Kaczmarek grunted, whether pensive or skeptical Richard couldn’t tell.
A long pause set in. Itching to shift the subject, Richard spoke up. “If I may ask,” he said, indicating his right ear. “What are those marks? Some kind of group signifier?”
The leader of the Conxence and his associate paused. Kaczmarek cracked a wry smile.
“Oh this?” he said, tugging on his ear and turning his head so they could see it better. “Gift from the government, bestowed upon anyone arrested under political circumstances. Tags you as a threat.”
Richard hesitated. He looked at Ganymede, who nodded. The latter came as a surprise. Kaczmarek exuded the calculating confidence of a seasoned rabble rouser, but Ganymede’s soft voice and gentleness of expression made him nearly impossible to imagine doing anything deviant enough to get arrested.
“Still up for associating with us?” Kaczmarek asked.
“Yes,” Sue said, and Richard nodded, readjusting his glasses.
“Good,” Kaczmarek said. “So, a high profile extraction. I’m sure Ganymede here has already warned you that we’ve never done a job quite like this, and that preparing for it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, is your daughter reasonably safe, at least?”
“We don’t know,” Sue said.
“I see. And we’re not giving up the possibility Siles survived whatever Empetrum’s director did to him?”
Richard nodded along with his partner, trying to swallow the tightness in his throat. “Also, there’s another prisoner James and Heather wanted to break out. So the extraction would need to be for three people, if we can manage it.”
Ganymede blinked and Kaczmarek’s lean face broke out into a surprised grin.
“Well, we got our work cut out for us, then,” Kaczmarek said. He looked at Sue. “In planning tonight’s escape attempt, I don’t suppose you picked up any of Empetrum’s security protocols that can help speed this along?”
“Not that specific,” Sue said. “But Heather might, if she’s in a position to check in.”
Sue handed over a folder from her bag containing a stack of printed pages, which held the contents of the flash drive Henry Benson had given them. “The defector we spoke with gave us this. He told us as much as he could, but he hasn’t been near Empetrum in three years.”
Ganymede flipped through the pages while Kaczmarek read over his shoulder, arms crossed. Richard held his breath as the speakers for the Conxence read up on the nightmare lab he and his family had been pitted against.
“Human weaponry…” Kaczmarek mused. “Have you come across anything mentioning the ICNS?”
“No,” Richard said. “Though James mentioned they were steering him into something other than the project he came in with. Could that be related?”
“Possibly.” Kaczmarek said. “Hope he really did make it. I’d like to talk with him and see what he knows. The government’s released what I guess you could call ‘human weapons’ just recently, and we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with them.”
“How recently?” Richard asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“About a week,” Ganymede said.
“But they’re not—” He glanced at Sesame, who knew where this was going. “—robotic, in any way, are they?”
The rebels looked at each other.
“No, they’re very much organic, as far as we can tell,” Ganymede said. “Why?”
Richard and Sue hesitated. Sesame shifted from foot to foot, and Richard thought if he or Sue didn’t speak up, the mouse would.
Richard took a breath. Then he told them about organorobotic transference. About Sesame’s journey, about Heather.
The two stared at him. Even Kaczmarek looked nonplussed, and he seemed to Richard someone who didn’t truly surprise easily.
“I’ll admit, most of what I’ve heard about the Conxence is from the news,” Richard went on, before that information could sit for too long. Heather’s transfer was done. Reversal was impossible, and what mattered that night was bringing her home. “They say you’re a gang of anarchists and vigilantes…”
“And what do you think?” Kaczmarek said, eying him, as if sizing him up, looking into his soul and assessing what he saw there. Something about this man seemed dangerous, but Richard wanted more than anything to trust him. The leader of the rebellion, perhaps the only person left with the resources to organize a successful rescue mission, who also, miraculously, both believed them and seemed willing to help.
“Unless she manages to escape on her own,” Richard said. “I think you may be our only hope of getting our daughter home.”
After the initial meeting with the Conxence, Kaczmarek and Ganymede took the Brophys and their robotic charge to an unmarked brick building in a decrepit industrial district of the capital. Ganymede drove the Brophy’s car so they didn’t have to tell them exactly how to get to their base of operations. The closer they got to the location, the closer Richard got to calling it off, especially when Ganymede turned the headlights off to drift down the street, passing dark, condemned houses with overgrown yards, and long stretches of homeless encampments.
The outside of the building didn’t look much better, and Richard held his breath as they followed Ganymede and Kaczmarek through a back door and up a narrow stairwell, landing on an old wooden hallway that seemed sturdy, at least. They went to a large meeting room on one side of the hallway to start setting up for planning, but Richard and Sue were starting to feel the strain of everything that had happened that night, and Ganymede suggested they rest and pick things up the next morning.
“That’s a good idea,” Sue said. “We’re no help to Heather and James with stripped nerves.”
Ganymede directed them to a room on the other side of the hallway, in which they found a couple couches around a central coffee table, and a mini fridge in the corner. Sesame plugged himself into an outlet, and Richard and Sue made up a bed on a pullout couch with clean sheets and pillows from a nearby closet. Ganymede had said they were clean, anyway. They just had to take his word for it.
Richard lay still in the dark, listening to the soft rumble of voices across the way as the rebels regrouped, and prepared to sign off for the night as well. Footsteps creaked down the hallway, and the foreboding sound of sirens wailed in the distance.
Richard closed his eyes, breathing a shaky sigh. Sue lay her head against his shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” Sesame said quietly from where he sat hooked up to the electrical outlet. “I’ll stay awake and keep watch.”
“Thank you, Sesame,” Sue rasped.
“Do you trust them?” Richard didn’t know why he was asking. He wondered maybe if Sesame had somehow retained the intuition animals were known to have, if he could tell something about Kaczmarek and Ganymede that he and Sue couldn’t.
“I don’t know,” Sesame said. “I want to, though.”
“Me too,” Richard said.
James felt the pain before he even knew he was awake. His head throbbed, and his eyes felt hot and sticky in their sockets. As for the rest of his body, his first thought was the Q-13 had either blown his limbs off or turned his bones to ash within them.
A heart monitor beeped languidly beside him, the sound oddly muffled. He thought the wires running across his chest had been fused to him, because there was something very wrong with his skin. When he tried to move, he felt it stitching, as if all his tissues were melted together, held intact by tiny metal barbs. His mouth tasted like copper.
He managed to crack open one eye, and the air needled cruelly on its dry surface. Slowly, he turned his head and opened the other eye, craning his painful, stitching neck to take stock of himself and expecting a charred mass. He vaguely remembered being on fire.
There were electrodes taped to his bare chest, but they weren’t melded to him. Jagged patterns of dark unnatural black engulfed his intact ribcage, like ink spilled under the skin. Dimly, wincing, he raised his trembling arms to find them swirled and zigzagged with the same dark hue. His hands completely drowned in it. Anything not claimed by the stain was red and swollen and peeling like a bad sunburn.
He realized then, that he wasn’t strapped down. Instead, he was enclosed in a cylindrical chamber with a transparent, domed lid. Some kind of pressurized oxygen chamber, he guessed.
He stared up through it at the paneled ceiling in dumb, emotional shock. As he slowly grew more lucid, he could only despair about what they were supposed to do now. Where was Heather? How could he get to her?
And how in the world was it possible he had even survived the infusion? No one survived the Q-13, Yeun had said. Not even Benson had expected him to make it.
He lifted a hand to his jugular to feel his heartbeat for himself. He really was alive. But now would come the tests and humiliation, the poking and prodding and dissection if necessary.
He closed his aching eyes. Being a test subject meant he wouldn’t be able to control his access to Heather like he could before. Benson would never let him near her unless he was using her as leverage against him, or him against her. The time for mind games had passed. The director would likely give him black and white options from here on out: Comply or die.
He couldn’t believe that after everything, Heather had refused to leave him behind. The whole purpose of their escape attempt was to get her home. She didn’t owe him anything.
Why couldn’t she have just left him behind?
He thought he heard a sound, greatly impeded by the transparent acrylic chamber. He opened his eyes to see Benson enter the room with a couple of guards. James blinked and returned his gaze to the ceiling, pain rising in his chest.
Benson reached down to a panel on the outside and produced a black telephone receiver. He put it to his ear, and his voice purred clearly in James’ enclosed bubble, making him feel increasingly claustrophobic. “You even made it through the night. I’m impressed.”
James winced, turning his head just enough so he could see him. He felt like if he did anything quickly, he would disintegrate.
Pinning the receiver between his ear and shoulder, Benson slid a clipboard off a nearby cart, consulted the panel at the base of the oxygen chamber, and made notes. The heart monitor continued to beep.
“Your vitals seem to have stabilized,” Benson muttered, as if mainly speaking to himself. “I look forward to finding out why.”
James swallowed with difficulty. It hurt. It hurt to breathe, to see, to think.
“Where is Heather?” he rasped.
“In her cell.”
“Not yet,” Benson said. He replaced the receiver, set the clipboard aside and moved to the head of the chamber outside James’ field of vision. He heard clamps pulling back. The panel came free with a hiss of air.
“Don’t move,” Benson warned. He motioned for the guards to come over. They took hold of the edge of the frame holding up James’ thin inclined mattress, unhooked some safeguards, and carefully pulled the setup out of the chamber. The air outside was freezing cold, penetrating deep into his bones.
“Why was I in there?” James asked, shivering.
“Didn’t think it wise to hook much up to you, with the state your integumentary system is in,” Benson said, tugging straps out from under the mattress. The right side of his face was swollen and bruising under the bandage. He only worked with his right hand, which was already gloved in blue latex. The guards washed their hands and donned gloves and lab coats of their own. James dimly wondered if he was vulnerable to infection.
Benson turned off the heart monitor and carefully took to removing the electrodes from James’ stained chest. The adhesive was very mild, yet removal still ripped skin, sending cruel, stinging pain radiating out along the surface, and pushing deep like a taproot straight inward. James gasped.
Benson’s lips tightened in annoyance. Once it became obvious there was no way to remove the electrodes without damage, he took less care in removing the others. James braced himself, his nerves screaming in the strain. He grit his teeth to avoid from crying out, but tears clouded his eyes.
The director disconnected the electrodes from the wires and put them in separate specimen bags, while James lay back, short of breath and sweat standing out on his forehead. He closed his eyes, all his strength gone.
He faded in and out of consciousness as he felt the guards slip gauze around his wrists first, then straps. Benson made a physical examination, listening to his breathing, heartbeat, testing the quality of the stained and unstained parts of his skin, swabbing his mouth and pricking his finger. Finally, he took a series of photographs, and then James was being wheeled out of the room and down a hallway on the lower level.
They took him to a cell, the one next to Davenport’s, and a jolt of anxiety splintered up James’ spine. With Benson overseeing the operation from a distance, they took him inside the cell, up to the stationary bed, where they lowered the mobile one and undid his restraints.
The guards helped him sit up, the touch of their hands stinging and painful on his seared shoulders. He slipped his legs over the side of the bed, and, bracing his arms on theirs, they slowly raised him up.
James set his jaw, struggling to breathe. His vision swam. They practically dragged him over to the other bed, where there sat a change of clothes and blankets.
“How nice,” James muttered, weak and winded. “Thought a concrete floor was going to be it for me…”
Benson scoffed as he and his assistants took their leave. “Don’t push your luck, Siles.”
The door closed behind them, leaving James alone. He sat still for several long moments, then found a sweatshirt in the pile of fabric and pulled it on. The fibers scratched against his tender skin, but James was so cold. Nothing helped it.
Carefully, agonizingly, he planted his feet apart and very slowly stood up, his attention on the acrylic mirror mounted above the sink. He was extremely dizzy and sick to his stomach, but he managed to shuffle across the room. Now that he’d been awake for more than a few minutes, he had begun to feel desperately thirsty.
He managed to make it to the opposite wall, but he was afraid to look in the mirror. He instead focused on the faucet, insulating his hand with the sleeve of the sweatshirt before pulling the lever. The action sent deep, groaning pain stitching up his hand and arm. He cupped his stiff, fragile hands under the modest water stream and endured the pain in his back enough to bend over and bring the water to his lips. It cooled his dry throat like liquid hope. And for just a moment, he felt relief.
He lifted his gaze to the small mirror above the sink, and that relief gave way to blank despair as he saw his reflection. The black stood out starkly against his pale skin. A curling stripe of it claimed the left side of his face, webbed and veiny at the edges as it ran over his cheek, down the side of his throat and under the collar of the sweatshirt. The ebony skin was smooth and cool to the touch, and everything else was swollen and tender, with burst blood vessels that were more black than red.
Patches of his brown hair had been burnt off at odd angles. Anywhere the fire had contacted, he supposed. His left eyebrow and the eyelashes had met the same fate, everything above the black stripe burnt clean.
Upon closer inspection, he realized his hazel irises had turned gold, reminiscent of the color of the Q-13 before it had entered his veins. As if he had become a manifestation of the substance itself.
He took hold of both sides of the sink, his face going cold and a sudden high pitched ringing in his ears. He heard his breath rushing muffled and strained in his head. He tried to sit down on the floor, his joints cracking and protesting, sending sharp barbs of pain through his muscles.
He lost his bearings and sat down hard, his shoulders hitting the concrete panels of the wall. A shiver of needles radiated from the contact point, then heavy pain like the grinding of cinder blocks between his bones bloomed icy and overwhelming in his torso. His chest and arms seized up and he collapsed into fetal position, a snarl of utter agony pulling from his throat.
After several eternal moments, the sensation began to fade, and James lay panting on the floor, the sound of water running in the sink keeping him dimly tethered to consciousness. Behind its obnoxious spluttering, a voice filtered into his cell from above.
“Hello?” it said. “Anyone alive in there?”
James opened his eyes. The prisoner cells were encased in concrete, but at the top of the walls dividing them spread a narrow span of empty space covered in a mesh of metal.
He realized the voice had to be Davenport’s. Everything was hazy.
“I think so…” he said, wincing from the exertion.
“Who are you?” Davenport asked.
Very slowly, he forced himself to sit up, and leaned against the wall. His throat tightened, and tears welled up in his eyes. He exhaled, trying to get ahold of himself.
“Please tell me your name,” Davenport said. “I know you must be scared, and unsure of what’s happening to you. But you’re not alone. I’m Erika.”
If he acted like he knew her in any personal capacity, Benson would suspect she had somehow been a part of the escape attempt. He refused to bring consequences on her, when she had made such a hard decision to avoid that in the first place.
“My name is James,” he said finally.
An extremely long silence answered him.
He carefully drew his knees to his chest. Bowing his forehead on them, he crossed his aching arms over his stomach.
Finally, she said, “Yeun’s lab partner?”
“Yes, but not anymore,” James said.
“I tried to get my test subject out, but we got caught,” James said, hoarsely. “Benson injected me with his pet project.” His voice wavered. “I don’t think I was supposed to survive it. I don’t know if I have yet.”
Another long silence ensued, as she grappled with what both of them knew they could not say where someone could hear them. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” James said. He didn’t know if his survival was a second chance, or just a slow death. He wanted to hope the former, but it was only a matter of time before Benson wanted to see if his serum worked.
In the silence, he debated asking Erika to take care of Heather after he was gone.
He almost did.
Heather activated the pain simulator intermittently to check in. She received a text from Richard saying they were meeting with the Conxence, and then later, that they had agreed to take up their case. She couldn’t believe the very same rebel militia she had been afraid was after her dad at the beginning of the summer had become their allies. She hoped Benson was as afraid of them as she suspected.
Since James’ traumatic infusion, the director seemed to be ignoring her for the most part, and she spent her time trying to squirm out of the rubber straightjacket binding her limbs, and wracking her brains on what her next steps were. Benson might have thought he’d already won, but this would never be over until one of them destroyed the other.
A faint sound attracted her attention, filtering through the vents at the top of the prisoner cells. A cry of pain. Heather tipped her face up, her eyes wide. She accessed the memory and replayed the sound several times in her mind, trying to figure out what it was, and it simultaneously broke her heart and made her dizzy with relief to find she recognized the pitch of that howl. James had survived.
Heather climbed up on her cot close to the vent, turning up her hearing as high as she could and listening hard. She heard Davenport’s voice, “Hello? Anyone alive in there?”
Then James. “I think so…” He sounded weak, frustrated, but coherent.
The conversation was short and basic, and then silence settled in. After listening longer, with no change, Heather adjusted her hearing back to baseline and sat down on the bed, activating the pain simulator to let her family know James was still a factor in further rescue efforts. She clung to that tentative spark of hope and relief, that all three of them would see freedom if they could just hold on.
Planning began the next morning. A young woman with large rimmed glasses and a bomber jacket who introduced herself as Jaeger joined them. Richard gleaned that she was Kaczmarek’s intelligence and technology specialist, and together, they began outlining and consolidating all the information they had at their disposal, trying to identify more about the grounds of Empetrum, what the potential angles of entry would look like.
At one point, Sesame managed to make contact with Heather and spent the next hour downloading over their spotty cellular connection her visual memories of the escape attempt, along with other information about the setup so they could construct a better idea of the layout, such as where the prisoner cells were, and what it took to get to them. During this process, she had disclosed the name of the other prisoner, which all the Conxence members present were shocked to recognize.
“I told her not to go anywhere near that place,” Kaczmarek declared. “Of all the stubborn, reckless—” He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Ganymede crossed his arms on the table, troubled. “There was a death in the family, and she told us she was going to stay with them, so I never thought to check. I wonder how long she’s been there. Her family must be worried sick. Do we have their contact information?”
“Heather does,” Sesame said. Heather was still connected, participating in the planning as much as she could stand, though she had to take breaks from the pain simulator. “Erika gave it to her.”
Sesame relayed the phone number, and Ganymede excused himself from the room to make the call.
It was all so hard for Richard and Sue to swallow. Heather tried to omit parts and pull punches in her own narrative, and Richard suspected Sesame further cleaned it up before passing it along, possibly even by her request. Richard wished she would be more open with them, so they could attempt to comfort her across the distance.
But Heather wasn’t looking for comfort in that moment. There would be time to grieve when she was safe at home, with James and Erika in tow.
Finally, having finished looking over the data, Kaczmarek sat back with crossed arms. “We’ll have to stake out the location from a distance before we even think about getting close. Stealth would be the best way to go, but it may be impossible to get back out with three prisoners without a massive show of force involving tranquilizers, which we’ll have to acquire from elsewhere—I think I know how to get my hands on those, but that’ll be its own step. Not to mention we’ll probably need bootlegged access badges to get anywhere within Empetrum.”
“For that, I’ll need to gain access to their systems,” Jaeger said. “We may need one tiny, successful infiltration, and then stage the larger one. Or perhaps collaborate with Heather from the inside in a way that we can safely meet in the middle. What kind of device is she using to communicate?”
“She doesn’t know the nature of it,” Sue said. “We’d have to ask James for that, and as far as we know, he’s alive but inaccessible.”
“We’ll make do,” Kaczmarek said.
“I don’t mean to sound rude by asking this,” Richard spoke up, “But, why are you helping us so readily on something so dangerous? How are you benefitting from this?”
Ganymede glanced at the leader of the Conxence, who looked at Richard, his dark eyes steady and calculating. Kaczmarek leaned forward, lacing his fingers together on the table.
“I want,” Kaczmarek said, choosing his words carefully, “a country where government labs don’t take children. I want a country where you can hold the powers that be accountable and not get tagged as a threat, a government that maybe isn’t perfect but does its best to be honest and do right by its citizens.” He smiled. “Of course, we’re always glad to earn the aid of sympathizers all across the board, but participation in Conxence activities is as complex as it is optional, and the information we’re getting in helping you with this ordeal will likely prove useful later on, not to mention we’ll be retrieving one of our own. So, overall, you could say I’m looking to karma for compensation on this one.”
Richard nodded and exchanged a glance with Sue. Sesame sat next to her, watching Kaczmarek especially closely.
The door opened behind them, and a voice spoke up, “I’m here! Finally. How far did we get?”
Richard, Sue, and Sesame twisted around to look at the athletic young woman who had just entered. She was a seeming incarnation of everything Richard had stereotyped the Conxence to be. A black face mask covered her face as well. She had short, reddish brown hair that was shaved close on the sides and burst out from under the front of a baseball cap in a wavy side fringe, a black and red jacket with a skull on the lapel, black skinny jeans, and a large dark bruise on her eye socket.
Ganymede’s expression clouded with worry for a moment, his attention on her black eye. Then he smiled, gesturing her way, “This is Io, one of our main squad leaders. She’s agreed to work on this mission too.”
“Hey,” Io said, shaking Richard and Sue’s hands with a firm grip, on her way to find a seat at the table. When Sesame extended a hand, she grinned and shook it too.
“Sorry I’m late, had work I couldn’t get out of,” Io said, dropping into the empty seat beside Ganymede. “Sounds like there’s been a lot going on today. So, bring me up to speed. Where are we at?”
Erika had a physical therapy session with Yeun that afternoon, and from the moment he appeared in her cell subdued and exhausted rather than his sunny, chatty self, she mulled over how wise it would be to ask him about James.
She burned with curiosity. Benson’s biggest threat to her had been to take her memories and sell her off to the military’s existing Compatible squadron. Siles’ actions, however, had earned him swift and explosive attempted homicide, and Erika wondered how anyone could have riled up the cold, invulnerable director so much. Empetrum was enough of a cult that she would have thought it standard protocol, except for how much it had disturbed Yeun.
“I heard your lab partner was a turncoat,” she said finally, once they were a few minutes into the session.
Yeun winced, handing a weighted ball to her right accessory arm. She sympathized with James and the robot, but it was also morbidly satisfying to watch how much drama their uprising had created among the other scientists.
Yeun didn’t answer.
“Benson did something to him and dumped him in the cell next to mine.” Erika said. “That’s weird, isn’t it? He was supposed to help you fix my modulators, and after a single misdemeanor, he’s even worse off than me? What kind of dumpster fire are you guys running here?”
“It wasn’t a single misdemeanor,” Yeun said, his voice a tired, worried monotone, as if trying to justify it to himself. “But that’s the director’s business.”
Silence sat between them as Erika worked. Her arms were finally starting to feel remotely useful.
Yeun stood by, brooding. She hadn’t known it was possible for cheery sunflower Elias Yeun to brood.
“Have you spoken with him at all?” Yeun asked finally.
“A little.” If she denied it, they’d find out she was lying anyway. They hadn’t said anything incriminating, and the resources James and the robot had given her were still safely stashed under the sink.
“What did he say to you?”
“Not much. He said he was sorry.”
“I bet he did,” Yeun muttered. As she finished a set and switched to a new exercise, she considered the dark rings under his eyes.
Even though the escape attempt had failed, James had changed something. Broken something.
“It seems like what happened actually affected you,” Erika said.
“Well yeah,” Yeun rubbed the back of his neck. “He was going to be my lab partner. He was a brilliant engineer and a decent person. I liked him.”
“You’re talking like he’s already dead.”
“He crossed the director,” Yeun said, not looking at her. “He might as well be.”