James spent the rest of the day after infusion mostly unconscious. His exterior was maddeningly itchy, and his whole body throbbed while he shivered and sweated with fever. At one point he thought maybe his nose was bleeding, but he fell asleep again before he could check.

The next day, he had woken up with his skin dry and shriveled, with the black marks having faded to a dark, ashen gray. His bones ached constantly, especially those in his upper body. At times it was so intense he could hardly breathe. He found black stains on his pillow, and it all set a sour, panicky feeling in his stomach as he wondered if he was in danger of spontaneous combustion.

Sometime later, he was taken out of his cell, to an examination room with a curtain at the back and Benson told him to take a shower. He complied without question, too stunned, too afraid to exist as the Q-13 had made him to do anything other than follow orders. 

The water cascaded like hail on his tender shoulders, but the warm water helped soften the metal barb sensation in his limbs. With a simultaneous sense of relief and revulsion, he found the damaged, desiccated skin peeling. With little abrasion, it sloughed off like sheets of dried glue, leaving the skin underneath smooth where it was pale, and the ebony stains deep, penetrating black. All things considered, he expected to find his hair falling out too, but it wasn’t.

He lingered there as long as he dared, in a brief sanctuary of warmth and privacy, dreading what Benson had in store for him, marveling at how strange and horrible this all was. He wondered if it really was too late for him and Heather, or whether her parents had already found another way to save her.

When he was finished, a guard gave him a towel and a change of clothes, but it didn’t include a shirt. James donned them wordlessly and waited to be told what to do. His unofficial goal for the time being was just keeping Benson’s mood out of a dangerous range.

The director took another blood sample and swabbed the inside of James’ mouth for an additional DNA source. James sat still, his arms crossed, trembling in the incredibly frigid examination room.

Benson shone a light in each of James’ eyes, testing responsiveness and reflexes. “Cold, Siles?”

“Yes,” James managed.

“Hm.” Benson turned the pen light off and jotted down some notes. He left James with the guards to gather up his supplies. He opened a cabinet, rifled through stacks of folded fabric, and tossed James a shirt. “Take him to the Q-13 chamber,” he told the guards.

James’ eyes widened, clutching the shirt close to him while the guards pulled him to his feet. “But I’ve already been infused—”

Benson held the door open for them as they took James down the hallway and into the sinister concrete chamber. They let him pull on the shirt before sitting him down in an intact metal chair that had replaced the one he had melted, and strapped him in. 

The viewing room across the glass remained dim and empty. As Benson approached the chair, James realized he had a handheld taser.

“Are you ready, Siles?” Benson asked.

James stared up at him. His heart pounded in his chest, throbbing uncomfortably through the black marks. “You’re going to electrocute me?” Even exhausted and poisoned, the pettiness of the parallel—as Benson had been similarly electrocuted the night of the escape attempt—was not lost on him. 

“To stimulate your sympathetic nervous system,” Benson said simply. 

“It’s stimulated,” James retorted. 

“Not nearly enough, obviously,” Benson said, depressing the trigger. The taser snapped, and though James tried to shift away, he easily touched the active end to James’ arm.

James gasped as the electricity jolted through his body like a crack over the head, thumping hard in his ears. He closed his eyes, waiting for the panicky white out pain to fade, even as an odd sensation pulled into the black marks, on the line between numb and cold.

Benson spoke up beside him, “Bring her in.”

James looked up to see the director putting his communication device back into the pocket of his lab coat and swapping it for the taser again, annoyed at having to fumble around with one hand.

A guard dragged Heather into the viewing room, still wrapped up in rubber insulation. Their gazes locked. James felt weak with relief to see the immediate recognition in her eyes. Benson still hadn’t managed to take her memories, as he had threatened. He briefly forgot about Benson standing next to him, who dosed him again with the taser.

“Stop!” Heather cried, muffled through the thick glass. “Leave him alone.”

James fought to catch his breath, while a wash of petulant nerves prickled across his torso. The black marks grew colder and colder until James squirmed at the jagged pain of it. His heart pounded hard. He waited, frightened and helpless in a static moment heavy with potential energy, and then the gradient tipped. Thick ribbons of heat crowded in to fill the freezing void. His whole body started to burn like it had during his infusion—cruel, hot and cold pain that whispered of tearing him apart. He curled forward with a groan, straining against the bindings around his wrists. 

Benson solemnly watched as the black marks in James’ skin began to glow.

Looking down at his arms in terror, James forced deep, frantic breaths into his lungs, trying to fight it, to calm it down, to steady his racing heart and shaking muscles, but the burning white light only grew in intensity. Benson put distance between them, hanging a pair of tinted goggles over his glasses.

The Q-13 exploded. James seized up with a cry of pain as ferocious white plasma flared from the marks in his skin, gushing up through the spaces between his cells, tearing his breath away, and blinding him in his left eye. 

The straps around his wrists disintegrated, and the flames reacted to the sudden jerk of his tense arms breaking free, spiking with renewed fury while James, their host and epicenter, struggled to understand what was happening to him within the inferno.

The heat faltered, then faded. Gasping for air, James collapsed, only barely managing to catch himself as he crumpled forward onto the concrete floor. The impact on his arms and hands sent pain splintering up into his shoulders.

He curled up in fetal position. He felt every bone in his body, incandescent. The concrete seared like dry ice on his exposed skin. Groggy, he brought his shaking hands in front of his face, expecting to see nothing but charred bone, but everything remained whole, as if he had simply hallucinated the whole thing. Even the unstained parts of his skin were unaffected. He relaxed.

He heard Heather’s muffled voice, calling his name, but he couldn’t move. His eyes were open, his vision unfocused.

Benson’s voice, soft and disgusted, came distantly to his ringing ears. “Looks like it really did take…” He scoffed, bitterly. “Of all people to bond with the first viable strain of my grandfather’s life’s work…Siles, why on earth did it have to be you?”


Heather sat on her knees, watching the trial in horror. After the flames left him, James lay curled into a loose ball on the floor, his irises glowing yellow from staring, sightless eyes. Heather turned on her heat sensor, but the glass barrier withheld that information from her. His eyelids drooped closed, and Heather watched him closely, zooming her vision in on his stained chest.

It moved. He was still breathing.

She pushed air through her voice box in a soft buzz of relief.

While James lay unconscious, Benson retrieved a handheld IR camera from the back of the room and took readings. As soon as the charred, melted metal chair cooled down, assistants unscrewed it from its place and put in a new one. Heather loathed how practiced and seamless the process was. She glared at Benson through the glass. 

The director ignored her. 

Within minutes, James began to stir, and Benson’s assistants took hold of his arms and pulled him back up into the replacement chair, strapping him in. Heather glanced back over her shoulder at the guard watching her, trying to figure out how she could stop this. She didn’t have the use of her arms, and her ankles were tied together.

A low groan from behind the glass attracted her attention again. James’ face was bowed, his breathing painful and disturbed, his bare torso slick with sweat. His head turned, dimly considering the straps around his wrists. He raised his face then, his movements lethargic and uncontrolled, and his gaze met Heather’s, stricken.

Heather leaned forward.

His golden eyes narrowed desperately, filling with tears. “Don’t watch,” he whispered, and Heather more read his lips than heard him. “Please don’t watch…”

Benson steadied the taser in his functional hand and stepped closer. “Round two.” The device snapped loud and merciless. Just before the taser made contact, Heather turned her face to the floor, trying to honor James’ request. She flinched as the white light burst from the marks, as he belted a single cry of torment while the flames stretched toward the ceiling.

They left more quickly the second time, and James was conscious enough to clutch his arms close to his chest, doubling over with a sob while faint trails of steam pulled from his skin. She looked up from the floor but he couldn’t meet her gaze. She felt like he was running out of time.

“That’s enough for now,” Benson said, beckoning his assistants nearer. “Take him back to his cell.” They made sure James was safe to touch, and then took his arms, dragging him toward the door.

Benson checked the screen on the IR camera, reviewing the footage. Then his gray eyes flicked to Heather’s, icy and hard. With a slow breath, his gaze softened to a different kind of cold, the mask of the self-possessed director he preferred to present, though Heather now knew what festered underneath.

He raised his voice enough to be heard through the thick glass, “I’ll let you know if he dies.”

Heather stared daggers at him. Then Benson directed a flick of his hand to the guard behind her and it was her turn to go back to her own cell.

As she was herded out into the hallway, she frantically scanned the space for James. The guards were just closing the door to his cell. 

“James!” she cried as they took her past it. She pulled back, trying to linger close to his door as long as she could before her escort jerked her back on course. “Don’t you dare die on me, okay? You can make it. Just hold on!”

She listened hard for movement, for a response, but no sound issued from inside.



“Try to activate it intentionally,” Benson instructed. 

James leaned on the metal chair for support. His ankle was tethered to the base so he had more room to experiment with that morning’s trial, but not for much else. A guard stood near the door with Heather, a threat if James decided to be uncooperative.

He had spent the weekend in and out of examination rooms, submitting to a plethora of MRIs and other scans, hooked up to tubes and electrodes that measured everything imaginable as Benson sought to understand how the Q-13 had integrated with every tissue in his body, and what features of James’ physiology could serve as potential hallmarks of whether or not others would be able to support it too. So far, James hadn’t heard much about the results, but he figured they must have been interesting, or Benson wouldn’t have bothered to work overtime on it while injured. That, or Benson expected him to die at any time, which was a fair assumption.  

Now, they were dealing with some of the more macro aspects.

“I don’t know how,” James replied. His tired, shellshocked voice sounded whiny in his own ears that morning.

Benson stared at him, unimpressed. “Then think. You’re smart. I’m sure you’ve started to form theories.”

“I haven’t exactly been in a thinking mood recently,” James said. The last few days were a haze, of constant aching and fatigue, and persistent inability to find relief from the chill.

He was minutes from lying down on the floor and refusing to get up again. Benson couldn’t do anything to Heather without sustaining a nasty shock. It was written all over her robotic face.

“Please don’t make me threaten you,” Benson sighed.

“Why? Are you getting tired of it?” Heather spat from across the room. 

“You suggested it yourself,” James said, weakly. “The Q-13 is tied to the fight-or-flight response. It doesn’t take orders from me.”

“Yes, but that response can be influenced,” Benson said.

“Why do you even want me to control it?” James asked. “When you’ve seen what it can do.”

Benson pulled a taser gun out of his lab coat pocket. “Call me optimistic.” He pointed it at James and deployed it. 

Benson had impeccable aim, it turned out. Two bolts hit James’ chest, and suddenly his body was seizing in intense, blinding pain. He fell, convulsing. 

As the electricity left him, and the silence of the experimentation chamber crept back in, Benson said, “Before I forget, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. I suppose now’s as good a time as any.”

James stared at the leg of the chair near his face, unable to move. 

“The accident at Larkspur back in May,” Benson went on, reloading the taser. “Which undermined your colleagues’ trust in you and resulted in relocation, thereby bringing you closer to Empetrum, was very much intentional.”

James’ muscles began to reengage. He groaned, dragging himself weakly to a sitting position. 

“I guess I already suspected,” James said finally, slowly pulling the short taser bolts out of his chest.

“Was that really supposed to surprise us at this point?” Heather snapped.

“No,” Benson said. “Of course, annihilating the facility and endangering your lives wasn’t part of the plan, if it makes you feel any better.” He took aim again. “But it served its purpose.”

James bowed his head, waiting for it. The Q-13 stirred under his skin. This next dose of electricity would push him over.

“Stop it!” Heather cried, pulling angrily against her guard. “Haven’t you hurt him enough? I hope the Conxence burns you to the ground!”

“Cut the melodrama, Ms. Brophy, or I’ll have your voice box taken out,” Benson said, firing the taser a second time. 

The bolts collided with James’ bent shoulders, and he took it as bravely as he could. Once his muscles stopped cramping, he lay still on his side, trying to catch his breath.

Finally, he found it, and the Q-13 reacted, tearing from his first gasp of air.

“If you control it just a little, we can be done for the day,” Benson called over the flames roaring in his ears. 

James thought briefly about trying to burn the tether around his ankle, but Benson had him trapped in other ways. With difficulty, he got his knees under him, clenched his hands into fists, and tensed his arms. His shoulders pulled forward, and he searched through his soul-crushing fatigue for stronger emotions. Fear and anger were always somewhere in the back of his mind. Anxiety and grief for Heather, the fury and despair of feeling like he had sold both their souls and nobody had bothered to warn him before it was too late. He hated everything about what his life had become, and he hated himself for falling prey to it, for dragging Heather down with him.

The Q-13 flared higher with a savage burst of energy. Then it snuffed out, and he felt his body cave. His eyes closed. His shoulder hit the floor.

“James?” Heather’s timid voice ricocheted in the silent, open space, building concern. “James?” 

He moaned in response, curling slowly into a ball as the ache and cold returned with a vengeance, now that the fire was spent.

“Well, I guess that’s a start,” Benson said.

James forgot where he was. He couldn’t remember what he had been thinking about. Finally, gratefully, the pain faded as darkness claimed him.


That evening, the locks on Heather’s cell door slid back, disturbing the stillness. A guard poked his head in, looked at her sitting on the bed, and said firmly, “Stay where you are. The director wants to speak with you.”

Heather straightened up, dread and confusion buzzing through her circuits.

As promised, the door opened wider, revealing Michael Benson in his usual business attire. His hand was still bandaged, and the deep, swollen cut from James’ defective stun grenade looked particularly painful that evening.

“What do you want?” Heather asked, wary.

“Just here to fulfill my promise to you.” Benson regarded her coldly, his shoulders straight and formal. “Siles is dead.”

Heather’s eyes widened. “What—”

“He went into shock and his internal organs shut down,” Benson said. “It seems the Q-13 is still unviable, after all.”

Heather stared at him, stunned.

“I don’t believe you,” she said, her voice very quiet.

“Believe me, don’t believe me, the fact remains the same.” 

“Can I see him?”

“Impossible,” he said. “The autopsy and cremation are already completed.” He turned to go. “My condolences.”

It must have happened right after tests that morning. 

Far away, a part of her visualized launching herself at the director, seeing how much voltage she could get into him before the guards could react. She thought about ramming him aside with her shoulder and tearing down the hallway, to find someone who would take her to James, wherever and whatever his body had become. She would force them to tell her what had really happened to him, then force everyone to let her leave.

But she couldn’t move. She felt like the wind had been knocked out of her, and it was an eerie sensation, as she hadn’t drawn breath for almost a month now.

“Wait, what happens now?” Heather asked. He paused. “What am I to you, without him?”

“Good evening, Ms. Brophy,” he said, and the door closed heavily behind him.

Heather stared at the door for a long time, reeling. Finally, with nothing left to do, she began to pace.

Why did Benson care if she knew whether James had pulled through or not? She strode back and forth in her cell, looking for a way out, a worthless, maddening perusal that she had already repeated many times before. She strained her arms against the tightly-wrapped rubber binding around her torso, but it didn’t budge.

He couldn’t be gone.

James couldn’t be gone.

Heather leaned forward against a wall. Abruptly, she kicked it as hard as she could and bent double with a harsh, buzzing scream of grief and fury. She drove her voice box so hard in that single cry it mistuned and perforated, unable to contain the force of organic, human rage.

She twisted, falling to a sitting position against the wall and drawing her knees up to her chest. The kick had damaged the end of her foot, but she didn’t care. She lowered her face to her knees.

James’ idealistic, passionate nature had driven him straight into the hands of evil people, and he had done terrible things under their influence. But he hadn’t deserved to die like that.

She had kind of hoped he would be free, in the end. Maybe he finally was.

And she was alone, deep in the bones of Empetrum, with only a makeshift communicator and a bound, artificial body.

Heather closed her eyes, and sought for the communicator in her neural network. She barely felt the simulated pain as the device activated and her attention focused on the signal, on the vast sense of hopelessness blooming in her chest.

Is anyone there? she sent.

It took a minute, but then Sesame replied, We’re here, Heather. What’s going on?

She hesitated.

The silence of her prison was overwhelming, pressing in on her from all sides. James, of course, hadn’t been the only way out of Empetrum, but he had been their best chance of success. He’d fought so hard. She had wanted to take him with her. 

For all his failings, she had wanted to save him too. Even when they were recaptured, she kept thinking if only he could survive, they’d find a way out. Even if she had to carry his limp body across her shoulders, they would find their way home.

Both of them. Together.

She curled up tighter, and finally forced herself to say it. The words made the suffocating feeling come back, cold and vacuous and infused with a dull, inexpressible sense of panic:

We just lost James.



James heard the door of his cell, but kept his eyes closed. Maybe they’d think he was dead and he’d get a break. If Benson wanted him for tests today, he could drag him.

“Get up,” a familiar voice ordered, and James cracked an eye open, anxiety ripping through his infected organs. Alder.

James slowly pushed himself up. Every cell in his body screamed at him to lie back down and never get up again. He looked up at Alder, eyebrows lowered sullenly.

“Come on,” Alder sighed, gripping his arm and pulling him up. James gasped as needles of pain surged up his arm and into his neck and shoulder. Alder tied his hands behind his back. 

James struggled to maintain his bearings as Alder pushed him out into the hallway. Benson had ordered him moved to a different cell, far from Heather and Erika, but he had been too muddled to question it, only lamented how much farther of a walk it was to the Q-13 chamber.

He braced himself as they neared the door, wondering what fresh hell Benson had in store for him, but then they passed the door completely. James glanced back, confused, as they continued on down the corridor. “Where are you taking me?”

Alder didn’t reply, eyes forward and the set of his mouth grim. They turned a corner into a narrow passage, and headed toward a featureless white door at its end. Alder opened it, and ushered James into a small white room—a broom closet compared to the Q-13 chamber, but unlike any of the medical rooms he had seen. A lone medical chair sat in its center. Behind it, another guard stood at some kind of control panel.

James pulled back, uneasy. Alder shoved him closer, undid one handcuff, spun him around, and pushed him down into the chair. James’ wobbly legs weren’t strong enough to keep his balance.

The other guard gripped his tender, aching shoulders and held him down while Alder fought his arm onto the arm of the chair. A shackle snapped up, closing it in. His other wrist soon followed. 

James tugged at his bonds, dread pressing cruel and cold against his forehead. “What is this?” he demanded as they strapped his legs in too. Neither of them answered him, but Alder glanced at him once, and James thought he caught a hint of pity.

Throbbing and out of breath, he anxiously took in his surroundings. Everything of consequence was just out of his ability to see. 

Silence closed in while they waited, and James didn’t have to be told whom they were waiting for.

Minutes later, the director arrived, calm and businesslike.

“Good morning, Siles,” he said, heading for the control panel.

“What is this?” James insisted, trying to twist his head around to see Benson, and he gave quite a start when Alder grabbed it in both hands and held it straight.

“Let’s make this as painless as possible, shall we?” Benson said, planting three small electrodes across James’ forehead. A hard, angular frame descended over his cranium, and Benson adjusted it, tightening it uncomfortably around his skull.

James struggled, but Alder easily held him in place. The wires shifted across the top of his head as Benson plugged them into the panel behind him.

“I don’t usually do this to test subjects while experiments are still being conducted unless it’s completely necessary,” Benson said. He moved toward the wall as the guard released James’ stinging face. He plugged in a power cable. “But if you are ever able to control the Q-13, your cooperation needs to have been secured first.”

James’ eyes widened. “This is the mind wipe, isn’t it?”

“Very astute of you.” Benson snapped up a lever on the panel behind the chair. “We’re doing a total one today, clearing the slate.”

James’ heart dropped. “No…”

“Just embrace it, Siles,” Benson said. He adjusted what sounded like dials and flipped more switches. “By erasing your identity, I’m giving you a fresh start. No more messy attachments, no pointless guilt. You should be thanking me.” 

James pulled his head forward, trying to disengage any part of the apparatus, but it held fast. He willed the Q-13 to activate. He sought for the tipping point, for the generalized pain in his body to sharpen into something useful and explosive, but nothing happened.

“I can’t forget—” he said breathlessly. “Please, you can’t do this.” 

“But I can,” Benson said. “The moment you decided to act against me, you made it a struggle of  powers, of which I was inevitably going to come out on top. Brophy can’t have you, you’re far too connected to the wrong people to ever go free, and you’re harder to kill than I took you for. At this point, you’re a milestone, the first survivor of the Q-13. And I’m thinking maybe, if you survive its effects long enough, there will still be use for your intellect, as long as I can calibrate it correctly. I’ll see to it that you never forget your place again.”

James was shaking in horror. From the very beginning, even when he was on good terms with Benson, he was only ever just a resource in the director’s eyes. An asset to be passed around and fought over, coerced into submission, and repurposed when his obedience proved insufficient. 

“I’ve already informed your precious test subject of your death,” Benson added. “She’s not waiting for you anymore.”

“What?” James gasped. “When?” 

“Last night.”

“No—” James pulled at his restraints. He couldn’t bear the thought of how she must have felt. A whole night, thinking he’d abandoned her once and for all. “No…” It wasn’t over yet. It couldn’t be over yet. She couldn’t have believed him. 

“Very soon,” Benson said, “James Siles will be erased. What do you want your name to be, when you start over?”

James’ eyes clouded with tears. “You can’t do this.”

“Maybe I’ll just give you a number. You won’t know the difference.”

James’ head began to tingle from the apparatus locked over it. Desperation lanced through him, and he writhed in his restraints. The movement sent thick barbs of pain up into his shoulders, but he closed his eyes and pulled harder.

As long as the Q-13 stayed dormant, he knew fighting was useless. Even with such a volatile ability bonded to his cells, he was just as weak and helpless and trapped as he had always been. Soon he would be only a number. Everything he had been, the good along with the bad, blotted out like data on a hard drive.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Benson said on his way to the door. “I’ll be back in an hour to introduce myself.”

James’ arm broke free.

Shocked, his eyes opened to see his arms ignited. Benson stood stunned. 

The hot and cold agony flooded in like an afterthought, but James had already recovered, melting the device’s strap and ripping the contraption from his head.

Alder and the other guard moved forward to restrain him. Benson raised his voice in alarm, stopping them, “Don’t—touch him…”

James stared at him, thoroughly incredulous, eyes ablaze with wild fire. He had activated the Q-13. By himself. It was his now. Benson couldn’t control him anymore.

No one could.

James pulled his other arm free and reached down to melt the restraints from around his ankles. Benson swung the door open and waved the guards through.

“Lock down the facility,” he ordered as James clumsily extricated himself from the chair. “Gather all available personnel upstairs and ready for defense and recapture.”

The heavy door slammed and locked before James could reach it. Exposure to the mind wipe apparatus had left him dizzy. The sticky, bone-grinding pain of the Q-13 threatened to overcome him, but he managed to hobble to the door. He focused on Heather. He had to find her, to tell her he was alive, to burn her a path to freedom.

Taking a hitching, steadying breath, he braced the edge of his hand on the seam in the door where the locks were and pressed hard. The Q-13 responded, biting easily through the latch and deadbolt. The door swung open, dripping molten metal and polymer, and James staggered out into the hallway. As he labored his way back up the corridor, holding his flaming ribs and leaving scorched hand prints down the wall, he found the entire lower floor deserted. 

“Heather!” he cried when he finally made it to her cell. He blinked hard, briefly losing his bearings. His head drooped too close to the door and the fire from his left cheek started singing the metal before he could pull back. “Heather, are you in there? Can you hear me?”

“James?” Heather’s voice rang off the concrete walls. She ran to the door. Her voice mistuned emotionally, “Oh my gosh, James!”

“Stand back.” James tensed his right arm and drove it into the door, melting the lock. Fatigue inundated him as he pulled it open. Heather stood before him, relieved, elated.

“What’s happening?” she asked. 

“Benson was going to erase my memory.” James directed himself toward Erika’s cell, uncertain of how long the Q-13 would function and determined to at least give them an exit. “I got out. They locked the facility down and they’re getting ready upstairs to block me.”

“So escape attempt number two is in progress?”

“No other choice,” he panted. Steeling himself, he flared up again to destroy the lock. He raised his voice with difficulty. “Erika Davenport! Stand back! I’m burning through the door!”
“I’m clear!” Erika called back. She had evidently heard him yelling Heather’s name down the hallway.

James’ fire flickered, but he managed to keep hold of it enough to finish melting the lock. The bolt broke, and he tugged the door open before crumbling to his knees. The flames subsided with a whooshing sound, like the snuffing of a candle. It took his breath with it and the cold rushed in like a hundred angled swords.

“Please come with us,” he said between gasps, doubled over. “Benson’s insane and I don’t know what he threatened you with or offered you, but they’re liars and murderers and you can’t trust any of them. Heather and I are getting out of here today and we’re not leaving you here. Please, you have to come with us.”

Erika stood over him, considering his plea. Finally, she stepped aside and began unwrapping the rubber sheets pinning Heather’s arms behind her back. She managed a smile. “You make a good case, James…”

A breathless, wheezing scoff tinged James’ attempts to get ahold of himself. He smiled up at her, ruefully.

As soon as Heather was freed, she lurched forward, dropping to her knees before him and wrapping her arms around him. James sat back on his heels and she pressed her face into his chest with a buzzing, emotional sound.

“Benson told me you were dead,” her voice mistuned softly. 

Emotion welled up in James’ throat. He bowed his face, holding her close, and in that moment, he felt safe. He felt like he could do anything.

“We’re gonna get out of this, okay?” Heather said, her gaze clear and earnest as the hug loosened, and she stared seriously into his eyes. She reached up and carefully peeled the severed electrodes from his forehead. “We’re going home this time. All of us.”

James nodded. He moved to stand, and she helped him up, supporting his arm across her mechanical shoulders. He winced. “Thanks.”

Trying to straighten his body sent barbs of pain around his ribs. His breath caught, and the marks began to glow white again. He hastily detached himself from Heather and tripped to the wall, leaning against that instead. “I’m sorry—” The light began to fade with his deep breaths. Now that he’d brought it out, the Q-13 was all too eager to manifest. Erika looked at each of them in turn, waiting for an explanation. “After what I just pulled,” James said. “I can either try to escape or wait for Benson to successfully kill me.” Or die trying. “Right now, he’s worried about getting me back under control with an armed lockdown, which could give you two enough room to escape.”

Heather’s brow tightened, but to his relief, she didn’t argue.

“I’m willing to chance it,” Erika said. “You’re right. I’ve been here long enough.” She shifted some of her weight onto the large arms off her back, testing their strength. “You’re both more familiar with the layout. Just tell me what I need to do to help.”

James and Heather nodded. He took a breath and ran a hand through his patchy, singed hair, thinking. “Benson’s probably amassed an army of guards upstairs by now. The Q-13 is effective, but inefficient and unpredictable.” He looked at his ebony hands, closing them and opening them again, wondering if he could somehow make a barrier with the flames to force their opponents back.

He’d probably have to set his whole body on fire to achieve that.

“Are there any more of us locked up here?” Erika asked.

“No,” James said. “Benson doesn’t like to waste resources.” He winced. “For—for housing, I meant.”

“So,” Erika numbered it off on her fingers. “We’re facing tranquilizers for sure. I’ve noticed handguns. Tasers?” 

“Yeah, they have those too,” James said. “Long range.”

Heather nodded in agreement. “Completely avoid those when possible. They packed enough of a punch to take me down that first time.”

“Okay, noted,” Erika said. “So, just how many guards does he have?” 

“Way too many,” James said.

“There’s a generator upstairs,” Heather said as Erika went back to her cell to retrieve the resources they had left with her on their first attempt. “By your lab, James. If I could get in there, I’m sure I could—” Her resolve faltered. James looked at her, a hard knot twisting his stomach. “If you can somehow get me into the room with it, I can shoot it full of electricity and try to overload it enough to explode. Maybe I can bring this place down and give you two a chance to escape in the process instead of you playing decoy and risking recapture.”

“Heather no,” James said quickly. “That’s too dangerous. We’ll find another way.”

“If I threaten the generator, Benson will be forced to lift the lockdown and call for the facility to evacuate before it detonates.” Heather looked urgently into James’ pallid, stricken face. “They won’t have time to be bothered with a couple of escaped test subjects, and there will be an obvious, unlocked exit path. And if I can at least damage the facility, Benson will be hard pressed for a while to do anything to us after we get out—or to anyone else.”

“Then I’ll do it,” James insisted. “I can’t let you— ”

“I don’t think the Q-13 is electrical,” Heather pressed. “My core holds more than enough energy to pull it off.” James opened his mouth to protest but she interrupted him, “James, I’m made of metal! I can take an explosion.” 

James felt like his soul was draining slowly from his chest as he stared at her. She was right, but her neural network wasn’t perfectly repairable if it sustained damage. She could lose memories, personality traits, maybe even her soul itself. 

She opened the panels in her head. “Pull the pain simulator out. I don’t want Benson using it against me.”

James complied, his hands shaking so much he could hardly grab it. “Your family is waiting for you…” he tried, pleading.

“I know.” Heather replaced her cranial panels and started down the hallway. “If I don’t get out of this, tell them I love them.”



James tripped painfully after her, but Heather didn’t turn around. For too long, Benson had used her to control and torture everyone she cared about, and she and James were far from the only ones to suffer at his hands. She refused to be exploited anymore. Benson would regret bringing her into this.

A trembling hand caught her arm.

“Please, Heather,” James said timorously. “I can’t…I can’t let this happen after everything I’ve—”

“James, I need you to focus, okay?” Heather said, turning back. He released her with trepidation. “Can you still activate the Q-13 at will?”

“I think so.”

“Can you make a shield with it? We shouldn’t use the remaining stun grenade if we want everyone to be able to evacuate.” 

James looked at his shaking ebony hands again, searching. “I’ll try.” 

“They’re probably waiting near the door to the stairs,” Heather said. “The generator is down the hall from that, but not far. I assume the door was locked even before the lockdown, so I’ll need your help. Can you get me into the room and protect yourself in the process?”

“Yes,” his voice cracked.

Heather addressed Erika, “If James gets injured or tranquilized, can you drag him out?”
Erika didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”

“I’ll give everyone time to evacuate,” Heather said. “I want to wipe this place off the map, but I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Even though Benson deserved it, she thought. She didn’t want to be the kind of person that wished harm on anyone, but she also knew physically destroying Benson’s lab wouldn’t be enough for her. She wanted to destroy him, in the most complete, irreversible way possible. She didn’t wish death on him, she wished worse. 

But his facility would have to do for now.

Heather tried the door to the stairwell and found it unlocked, which only further convinced her of the army of tranquilizers that awaited them upstairs. Benson’s lockdown procedure was herding them on a single route to recapture. She exchanged a glance with James, and the dread in his face suggested he had drawn a similar conclusion. 

“I don’t suppose there are stairs elsewhere?” Erika said apprehensively. 

“This is the only exit aside from the elevator,” he said.

They stepped into the stairwell. At the top of the first flight, Heather turned around. James paused, confused. His irises glowed yellow in the dim space, and it hit her all over again that if they survived this, they weren’t returning to the niceties and naiveties of their old lives. Nothing would ever be the same again, and she feared stepping into that life more than she feared death.

“James,” she said. “If something does happen to me, I just want you to know that I forgive you. Please tell my parents that. And tell them that staying behind to blow up this place was my decision alone. Okay?”

James gazed at her, exhausted and scared and sorry. He nodded. “We’ll come back for you as soon as we can.”

She nodded back. She had to believe she’d be all right, but there was always the possibility. As she looked at him, she felt she was experiencing all the emotions she’d ever held toward him at once. They coalesced into a mix of pity and grief, of care and respect. James had dragged her into this, but he was trying so hard to make it right. She wanted him to live. 

She offered a wan smile. The world of the nerdy high-schooler bored and frustrated on summer break felt so far away. “Ready?”

James stared at her for a moment, his eyes wide and eyebrows pulled together. He glanced at Erika. “Don’t follow us out right away. I’ve never tried what I’m about to do. It’ll be really dangerous for either of you to be anywhere close to me.”

Erika nodded, nervous.

Heather tried not to think too hard about what she was about to do as she waited for James to painstakingly climb the steps.

He paused halfway up to catch his breath. As they neared the door to the first floor, he stopped and steadied himself, holding his arms out in front of him. He ducked his head and his shoulders pulled forward. The black rapidly charged up to white, but wavered. James’ eyes glowed bright and ghostly as, finally, with a sharp gasp, the white projections burst back into existence. He curled his arms across his middle and resumed his ascent, pain etched across his face.

“Are you okay?” Heather asked.

“Okay enough,” he said through gritted teeth. “Let’s do this.”

They paused at the door. Heather put her hand on the doorknob, glancing through the window. She flashed another reassuring smile at her companions, in gratitude, in farewell, before tearing the door open and throwing herself out into the hallway. She sent energy through both arms, shocking a line of the closest Empetrum security guards and sparking a small retreat before she ran the opposite direction toward the generator room. Behind her, James slid out in front of the assembly. The few guards that had moved forward after her halted.

She threw a glance over her shoulder, just as, with a fierce, determined snarl, James erupted in flame. She caught herself on the door to the generator room. The flare spiked alarmingly in her heat sensor and she turned around to get a glimpse of the full force of the Q-13 as a terrible thought occurred to her: that by asking for a shield, she had asked James to kill himself.

The fire crept out from him on either side, growing to block the corridor while their opposition scrambled back from the flames. The edges of the projection blackened and melted the walls, but did not ignite them.

She pressed herself against the door, awestruck.

James looked back. The flames from his face and shoulders snapped and buffeted around him. He looked otherworldly, shrouded in furious light, his eyes burning white and featureless, all his hair incinerated to oblivion in the immense fire that engulfed his head.

James switched his gaze back across the sizable barrier he had constructed, toward their enemies. He shifted a step backward, and the sheet of flame followed.

As he came near, Heather squeezed herself into the corner to give him room, hiding her face from the heat. The intensity of it blinded the sensor in her head, but James kept enough distance that the Q-13 didn’t touch her. He carefully pulled an arm close to him, and, twisting around, he shoved his hand into the door with a short bark of pain. The muscles in his bare arm and shoulders strained as he gripped the bolt and pulled it from the door. Quickly, he reached his hand back through the hole and tugged the barrier free from the mangled doorframe before the melted metal could harden. 

“Thanks, James.” Heather avoided the molten parts as she pushed the door open farther and slipped through. James returned his full attention to the barrier in front of them. “Just hold on a minute longer,” she said. “It’ll be okay.” She didn’t have much time.

Upon gaining entry to the generator room, she stuck her hands through the hole James had created and, grasping the other side, jerked the door back with all the strength in her short robotic body. The door squealed past the re-sculpted metal, creating a satisfactory lock.

She turned to face the generator, staring up at its imposing size. Overwhelming it with an intense surge of electricity could be enough to melt it down, but first she had to shut down whatever emergency regulation systems kept it in line.

A small intercom poked from the wall by the door next to what looked like some kind of control box.

Grimly, she opened the box betraying a host of wires, and pressed the speaker button on the intercom.


White fire swirled around James’ face, blurring his vision and roaring in his ears. Keeping up the caustic wall sought to tear him apart, but the moment he let it down, he knew the Empetrum guards would pump him full of tranquilizer, and then Benson would probably end him.

Experimentally, a guard fired a dart into the flames. It disintegrated instantly.

James watched them deliberate, only barely managing to keep his emotions at bay. What Heather was about to do was her decision. He would honor her plan and evacuate with Erika, but no matter what happened, he was coming back for her. 

He narrowed his eyes, trying to shut out the pain of the Q-13 and the terrible weight in his chest. He could crumble into hysterics later, he told himself. He was dead set on following through this time.

He would not fail Heather again.

Her voice rang out from the facility’s intercom system, startling him. “Attention, Michael Benson and all other Empetrum personnel.” James had never heard her sound so cold. “My name is Heather Brophy, James Siles’ test subject. I have locked myself in with your generator, and I’m going to use my powerful energy core to blow it up, annihilating this facility. You have six minutes to evacuate, starting now.”

The host of guards in front of James glanced at each other in dread. James set his jaw, struggling to keep himself steady. He could hardly breathe.

The door to the main lab slammed open, and Yeun lurched incredulously into the hallway. “She can’t possibly—” His attention found James through the fire, and his eyes widened further. “Siles—”

Benson strode into view behind Yeun, his handheld up to his mouth. “Don’t you dare.”

“Like you can do anything about it!” Heather snarled. “Finally, after suffocating for so long under your deranged control, it’s us who have the upper hand.”

The director cracked a smile, his face pale. “You will destroy yourself.”

James felt his grip on the Q-13 slipping. The adrenaline was wearing off and fatigue setting in, stitching in his trembling muscles and blazing like a swarm of bees in his head. 

The director caught James’ gaze. “After everything Siles did to you, you’re seriously willing to die for him? Did you forget he killed your organic body and imprisoned you? That he was going to keep you here forever to secure his own safety? As unwilling as he is to accept it, he has sealed his tomb here. You propose to sacrifice yourself in vain.”

“You’re wrong,” Heather said. “He’s ours, and we’re taking him.”

“I’ll let you walk out right now,” Benson replied. “Forget this overblown show of aggression and just go home already. You’re of no more use to me.”

“And James and Erika?”

“They stay.”

“No,” Heather said. “I’m taking them, and I’m taking your lab too. Five minutes, Benson.”

“Director…” Yeun shifted apprehensively.

Benson held the communication device up to his mouth again, indecisive. The guards edged further back from James’ threatening display. 

“Siles’ strength is going to run out soon,” Benson said finally. “What then?”

Heather didn’t reply. James waited.

The alarms activated.

“I don’t think she’s bluffing.” Yeun stepped back. He opened the door to the main lab and disappeared inside.

Benson’s composure yielded to a glare. In the red light of the blaring sirens, he spoke into his handheld, and his voice echoed from the overhead speakers, “Attention all Empetrum personnel. The generator has been compromised. Launch evacuation procedures and exit the premises immediately.”

The guards responded instantly, eager to abandon the entire situation. One of them ran over to the fire alarm. Punching in a code on the keypad next to it, he lifted the cover blocking access and pulled the lever down. 

All at once, every door James could see opened, and a different type of alarm superimposed the first.

The spluttering Q-13 pulled from James’ grip and extinguished. He staggered and doubled over, choking in draughts of air, fighting to stay standing as cold fire and waves of pain cascaded through him. His knees buckled and his face pitched toward the floor.

An arm caught him across the chest.

The director kept his distance, staring for a moment at the person over James’ shoulder, then back to him.

“An eye for an eye,” Benson said icily before striding toward the exit. “How appropriate.”

More hands took James’ upper arms, helping him up. “Let’s go,” Erika said, throwing one of his stained, smoking arms over her shoulders.

James stumbled beside her. Erika readjusted her grip on him, her attention trained on the exit.

“Siles!” a voice behind them called. “Davenport!” 

Erika whipped around in surprise. James gasped at the pain of the sudden movement.

Yeun caught up to them and held out a set of keys.

“My car’s parked out front,” he said solemnly. “Go home.”

Confused, Erika accepted the offering.

“I’m sorry,” Yeun added, moving toward the exit. “I’m really sorry.”

Erika stood still, agape as she watched him leave.

“After everything he…” Erika glared at the keys. “That little—!” She drew herself up indignantly before hauling James toward the door. “Fine. Fine!

James glanced back at the hallway. The angle of the wall obscured the gnarled entrance to the generator room. They passed through the first door to the outside, then the second, but James couldn’t tear his gaze away. The alarms pounded and screamed through his aching head.

Then he was outside, and the sirens grew distant and muffled and the breeze bit like ice on his skin. Erika pressed the lock button on the keys and followed the beeping to a small red sedan. She unlocked the doors.

James felt his body hanging more and more on Erika. His head lolled forward, his eyes closed.

“Stay with me,” she said, shaking him. He uttered a soft gasp, waking up a little. She helped him over to the passenger side, where he just barely managed to pull the door open and lower himself into the seat.

“Well this will be interesting,” Erika muttered, rounding to the driver’s side. She reached in and angled the seat all the way back, maneuvering her accessory arms into the space.

James’ head drooped to the side. The car window was cold against his bare scalp.

When Erika had found a suitable arrangement, she shut the door. She winced as she adjusted her accessory arms and started the car. One of her extra hands took hold of the back of the passenger seat. “If this was some kind of trick…”

James’ eyes closed again. He couldn’t take the pain anymore.

“Don’t fall asleep, James,” Erika said. “You awake?”


Heather watched her internal clock as it counted down, waiting for everyone to get a safe distance, listening for the possibility of Erika or James to come to the door and tell her urgently to call it off, that something had happened. They never did. She gave them thirty more seconds than threatened, and hoped it was enough.

She readjusted her hands on the generator’s surface, choosing to keep her heat sensor activated. She could pretend she could actually feel the heat through her hands. Like old times.

She sought the energy in her chest and channeled more of it than she had ever pulled before. It flowed easily from its container, up her arms, and through her hands into the generator. It shocked her and warmed her. She kept pushing it out, harder and harder.

The alarms increased overhead. The generator’s internal heat fluctuated and grew.

Heather allowed herself a wan smile as she stared at the metal surface between her hands.

She pulled up a memory. Greg was teasing James. He had just mussed James’ hair, and James looked cross as he ran his hands back through it. But he smiled as he made a sarcastic reply. The two were always riling each other up and pretending to be serious. Chelo made a comment, which flustered Greg. It was easy for her to fluster him. They had a crush on each other, Addie had told Heather, but refused to confess. Her dad was laughing with Eve. Smiling as well, Heather glanced into the sleek chrome surface of the lab bench at Larkspur. 

Springy, dark hair. Brown eyes. Pudgy features and soft contours. Privately, she’d been insecure and judgmental toward her organic body. She had felt like her physical form was a combination of the features her parents didn’t like about themselves, though they would never have admitted it. As awful as she had felt about her awkward, adolescent body at times, she liked it. She missed it.

She thought of her father’s reserved smile. Her mother’s laugh. She remembered what it was like to hug her parents. To throw her arms around them and know she was home.

“I’m sorry,” she said, as if somehow they could hear her, wherever they were at that moment. “I love you.”

Her energy core cracked. A diagonal beam of heat sliced up through her shoulder, cutting close to her head. She held steady. Her mechanical pupils readjusted to the light. Her electromagnetic field invaded her core, enveloping the exposed surfaces and filling her chest with a confused, crackling sensation.

Her vision blurred and flickered as sudden exhaustion inundated her. The sirens screamed and wailed, but she didn’t tune them out. Instead, she turned up her auditory volume, letting the vibrations pound through her, fill her with life.

She narrowed her eyes and pushed harder.

Her energy core broke apart, and its contents surged wildly out the channel she had created, overwhelming and exploding one of her arms just as the surface of the generator fractured.

Her eyes closed with the detonation.


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