The bell on the door to the convenience store clanged like a startled bird as James staggered in. He lurched straight up to the counter, making the cashier jump and step away.
“Can I use your phone?” he gasped.
Pressed up against the shelves on the opposite wall of the counter, the frightened cashier looked him up and down. James knew he was a sight, wearing only singed sweatpants, his entire body from the waist up burnt clean and his exposed skin tangled with black markings while he was sweating and shaking like he was about to explode.
“Please,” he pressed. “It’s an emergency!”
Stunned, the cashier fumbled for the cordless phone. She passed it to him across the counter, and backed up again as he snatched it and started pushing buttons. His fingers were clumsy and weak.
He called the emergency number and described how to get to Empetrum. When the dispatcher confirmed, James thanked him, hung up, and dialed the number Heather had written down for Erika. He used to have Richard’s number himself, but that had been lost with his cellphone, which was probably stashed in Benson’s desk, wherever that was in the wreckage of Empetrum.
The line connected and the voice that answered made him go weak at the knees. He hadn’t physically heard Richard’s voice since the night of the transfer.
“Richard?” James said quickly, catching the cashier’s nervous gaze. He raised a stained hand to run through his hair out of habit, but stopped, startled at the reminder of only cold skin. “It’s James.”
Silence engulfed the other line. Then Richard spoke, incredulous and emotional, “James? Is Heather with you? What happened? We thought you were dead!”
James took a shaky, painful breath. “I don’t even know where to begin. I’m at a gas station down the hill from Empetrum. We got out but Heather’s not with me right now. She, uh…” Glancing back at the cashier, he gave what he hoped was a reassuring gesture, and edged away from the counter. He winced, his body stiff and head pounding. “She overloaded Empetrum’s generator to force an evacuation and destroy the facility—” His throat tightened and he faltered, lifting a hand to his mouth, trying to stifle the surge of emotion clawing up his throat. “It’s bad,” he managed, his voice warbling. “I—I haven’t had a chance to find her yet.” Squeezing an arm across his chest, he tipped a tortured expression up to the ceiling. Not yet. He couldn’t give yet. As soon as he found his voice again, he said, “The fire department’s on their way. Come meet me at Empetrum. Be careful, though. I don’t know how many Empetrum people stuck around.”
“We’re on our way,” Richard said.
“See you soon.” James took the phone from his ear and ended the call. Slowly, trying not to make any sudden moves, he approached the register. He carefully set the phone on the counter, thanked the cashier, and turned to go. He took a deep breath, rubbing a hand across his eyes as he moved toward the door. He tried to keep his shoulders straight, perhaps attempting to redeem his alarming entry. He barely made it outside before leaning hard against the wall with a grimace and a whimpered, strangled exhale. He struggled to steady himself, pulling in fitful draughts of the quiet, rural air.
He thought maybe he was dreaming. They had finally escaped Benson’s control. He was outside, unbound, yet he couldn’t stand how unfair it was. Heather should have been the one calling her parents.
He caught the gas pump attendant staring at him, and forced himself to return painstakingly to Yeun’s car. He pulled open the door, his jaw tightening in pain.
As he collapsed into the passenger seat, Erika’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Did he pick up?”
James nodded. “He’s going to meet us there, to help us find Heather.” He pressed an aching hand against his face and felt something wet. His nose was bleeding black again.
“Good,” she said, starting the engine. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” James opened Yeun’s glovebox, looking for something to catch the discharge. “I think so.”
The emergency responders made it back to Empetrum shortly after James and Erika, and by the time the Brophys arrived, they had already extinguished the fire. James thought Benson might have lingered, but the Empetrum campus was effectively deserted, likely to preserve the identities of its personnel.
James leaned next to Erika on Yeun’s car, swaddled in a blanket one of the medics had given him as they had tried to figure out what on earth had happened to him and Erika. A couple of law enforcement had arrived too. They took his and Erika’s statements, in which the two tried to be honest, then they conferred with the other emergency personnel, and left. They’d soon have the matter buried, James thought bitterly as he scanned the scene, looking for traces of his friend in the monstrous pile of rubble.
His throat ached. He hardly knew where to begin.
Richard parked along the side of the path. In the passenger seat, James spotted Heather’s mother, Sue. A robotic face peered out from the back.
James uneasily stood up from the car as they started getting out. Richard said something to the android and it stayed put, grudgingly. James felt like his heart was going to stop as he looked at it, knowing who it must be.
“I’ll talk to the first responders, if they have any more questions,” Erika said. “Go find Heather.”
“Thank you.” James attempted to swallow his terror as he ventured forward to meet Heather’s parents.
“James—” Richard’s face flooded with worry long before he saw him up close. Even Sue paused, and James felt odd to have their worry trained on him. As if his wellbeing even mattered in this situation. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.
He turned, directing himself toward the remains of the Empetrum facility.
Only shards stood of their prison. The blast had decimated the rest, blowing debris in all directions. James tried to trace where Heather could have been standing and where the explosion would have thrown her.
The moment the detonation hit still throbbed in his head. It had thundered suddenly from behind the car, jogging him back to tortured wakefulness. He had twisted back to look out the rear window just in time to watch the facility behind them erupt. Erika had had to simultaneously try to get to the main road and calm him down before he began to hyperventilate, the Q-13 mercifully spent for the time being.
Heather’s parents walked beside him, silent. James wished he knew what to say. He soon had to stop to catch his breath, and the Brophys paused to wait for him. He heard a car door shut. He glanced back.
A robot ran across the grounds toward them. James took a step away in a flash of panic. A painful twinge pulled from his scars, and his breath caught. He hunched his shoulders, gripping his arms and ducking his chin into the blanket.
“Sesame, wait a second—” Richard stepped between them, his voice cracking. “He may not be ready—”
“I want to help,” the android said. It stopped before Richard, keeping its distance from James. It looked at the Brophys, lowering its voice carefully, “Please, let me help.”
Richard glanced at James, who stared at the childlike android with wide eyes.
This was Sesame, the creature he’d watched trundle along his kitchen floor the night after its transfer, whom Heather had held in her arms, talked to, petted, trained, named. James had purchased the animal housing its soul from a pet store on his lunch break.
Now it was humanoid, audibly and intelligently communicating. Emoting and carrying itself as smoothly as if it had been born into the body it now possessed.
“Okay,” Richard said finally, watching James, who nodded numb approval.
“Where should we search first?” Sesame looked around.
James slowly straightened up, gesturing stiffly toward the northern edge of the debris. “The generator was over there…so…” He fell silent. Further words wouldn’t come.
“Okay.” Sesame considered its plan of action. Finally, it offered James a furtive virtual smile. “I’m glad you made it, James.” Then it was off, jogging ahead, calling Heather’s name.
James’ gaze followed it.
“So, Heather blew up the generator,” Richard said quietly.
James nodded. He took a step forward, and his leg faltered. He grimaced in pain.
“Maybe you should lie down,” Richard said. “We can search.”
Sue was watching him. She kept close to her spouse, slightly forward, as if ready to position herself between him and James.
James shook his head and forced himself to keep moving. His whole body felt burnt and arthritic. “I’m fine.”
Richard and Sue picked around the ruins a hundred feet from where Sesame searched. They didn’t let James follow. He was far too decrepit. So James remained on solid ground, surveying the area, looking for movement. Heather had used her energy core to overload the generator, but it was possible she had been able to reserve enough to maintain consciousness.
Suddenly, Sesame cried out. “I found her! Richard! Sue!”
“Is she—” Sue couldn’t finish her question. She and Richard ran Sesame’s direction, tripping over rubble in their haste. James slowly made his way around the edge, looking for an opening he could utilize. He was doing well just to keep pressing forward
Squeezing through a narrow channel between two chunks of burnt wall, he found Sesame crouched by where a scorched robotic arm stuck out from the wreckage.
Sesame dropped to its hands and knees and ducked its head down to try to see her face. “Heather? Can you hear me? Hello?” It shot the Brophys a worried expression.
Richard helped it pull burnt rubble off the top. They struggled with a bent metal crossbeam. Renewed remorse tore through James as he drew nearer, gingerly kneading his hands.
“I can get her out,” James said, stepping forward, carefully shedding the blanket from around his shoulders. The breeze was awful. “Please, if you could stand back…”
Sue especially looked like she was going to protest, but at a pleading look from Richard, she relented, and stepped away with him. The android followed their lead and backed off as well.
James crept up to examine the crossbeam, looking for weak points, tracing regions of leverage that wouldn’t fall and further damage Heather’s body trapped underneath. After asking Richard to check his calculations, he nervously steadied himself. Then he summoned it. The flames came a little too easily. He ignored the fearful stares he received as he fought to keep the Q-13 under control. He methodically pushed his hands through the metal like knives, lopping off the bulk of the weight. The sides of the beam slipped on either side of the target beneath. James glimpsed Heather’s charred robotic face and closed eyes before he stepped back.
Sesame was able to lift up the remaining obstruction while Richard pulled her free.
The flames left James with a cruel jolt. He fell to his knees, doubling over and gasping raggedly for breath.
“Heather.” Richard sat back on his heels, drawing his daughter into his lap. Sue kneeled beside him. Heather’s mechanical head was badly dented, her body blackened. Her left arm appeared to have been blown clear out of its socket, and only a fraction of her other hand remained. The blast had ripped off half her left leg at the knee. The polymer supporting her chest dangled loosely in cracked, melted shards. No light beamed from her shoulder.
“Heather? Can you hear me?” Richard tried to pry open the panels in her head to check her neural network, but it wouldn’t budge. His movements became increasingly frantic as he tried to bypass the dent. He checked where the light should have been, touched her face, pulled an eyelid up to reveal a dilated, mechanical pupil. “Heather please…” He hugged her close, dipping his face to hers. His breath shuddered and his shoulders constricted. “Please be okay.”
Heather’s body remained very still.
James hung back, half bent over, the more excruciating edge of his physical pain beginning to subside. Black spots plagued his vision and the sound of his irregular breathing dragged dully through his ears. Maybe the Q-13 would finally kill him, he thought.
“I am so sorry. This is all my fault.” He hugged himself tighter. His voice broke softly, “I’m so sorry.”
Sue stared at the ground, but Richard looked up, tears in his eyes as he met James’ gaze. James braced himself for anger and hatred, but he saw only pain. A plea for this entire scenario not to exist. What Richard must be thinking, staring at the man who had triggered it all.
“She uh…” James almost felt too wretched to even try to speak again. “She wanted me to tell you that she loves you…that what she did with the generator was her decision. And—and that she was sorry—” He choked on the last word.
He had tried to talk her out of it. He had begged her to reconsider. “I should have listened to you, Richard.” He bowed his head, talking well beyond his ability to keep composure, “I should have forgotten about organorobotic transference when I had the chance. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to hurt anyone. I just—” James shook his head. Tears came, and the liquid hatred and shame burned across the tender black mark on his cheek. He clutched his face in his hands and curled forward with a sob. “I’m so sorry.” The phrase was overused, empty. It couldn’t change anything. “I’m so sorry, Richard, Susan. I’m so sorry…”
“I know, James.” Richard left Heather to her mother and Sesame, and came and stood over him. James didn’t dare look up. He felt the blanket lower onto his quivering shoulders. “I know. But you looked out for her as best as you could. You tried to get her out.” Richard knelt down and gently laid a hand on his back. “You tried so very hard to make amends.”
“It wasn’t enough,” James choked. His skin needled and smarted at Richard’s touch. “I failed you.” I killed your daughter. My friend. His voice caught again, “I can’t believe what I’ve done to her, to you and your family…” He pressed the heels of his hands into his sunken eye sockets. Tears squeezed out his burning, golden eyes into his stained palms.
“You were both forced into impossible positions,” Richard said softly. “…And you never would have transferred her in the first place if Benson hadn’t had something to do with it.”
“Of course, but that’s not—”
“You just wanted to help your dad.”
“But it was more than that,” James lowered his hands. “I needed to see if I could pull it off. I thought it would fix everything. I thought Empetrum was going to help me.”
“But now you’re free.”
“No.” James slowly straightened up. Richard’s hand lifted. James dragged himself to his feet, pulling the edges of the blanket further around his shoulders. Richard stood as well. “I’ll never be free of this. And not just because Benson branded his signature into my genetic code.” He looked at the debris around him. “No one can just walk away from something like this.” His spiritless, tear-swollen gaze found Heather’s body, and his heart gave a painful twist inside his chest.
Sesame managed to pry open Heather’s chest panel. Her energy core was fragmented and charred, and the escaped energy had utterly fried the wires formerly connected to it.
“Sue and I have decided not to press charges,” Richard said quietly. “We’re releasing you from responsibility.”
“You can’t do that.” James turned on him in dismay.
“It’s what Heather would want.”
“But you can’t—I mean I—”
“What do you want me to do, James?” Richard snapped, startling him. “Say ‘I told you so?’ Try to punish you further for all the hell you wrought on my family? Believe me, there is so much rage in me right now, but I just—” He cut himself off, rubbed his hand up under his glasses. After a long, heavy silence, he said, “Heather sent us a visual feed of your infusion as she witnessed it.” James stiffened, but Richard continued, “I saw what Benson did to you that night, and when he told her you had died, she passed along the message. We were all devastated. We thought you were dead, yet here we are. Don’t you understand, James?” Richard was starting to cry too. “We all know you tore our hearts out and tried to run. But you stayed, in the end. You tried to make it right. You came back to face us.” He looked at James, his eyes intense and full of tears. His brow furrowed. He drew himself up, and James braced himself for a fist to the nose, but before he realized what was happening, Richard was hugging him.
Richard was soft and warm. James was taller, all sharp edges that didn’t know how to be held. He stood still, as Richard clung to him like a lifeline, and it felt like Richard was claiming him, somehow. He didn’t understand.
“You’ve suffered far too much already,” Richard said quietly, resolutely. “I refuse to put you through any more.”
James couldn’t even begin to process Richard’s words. “You can’t possibly—”
“No more, James.”
James bowed his face. And as he stood there, silent in Richard’s embrace, unsure of what else to say, everything he had been storing away broke loose. He wrapped his arms around his former boss, bowed his forehead to his shoulder, and began to weep. He wasn’t relieved. He didn’t know what he was.
“I wanted to pay for this myself,” James sobbed into Richard’s shoulder. “But he wouldn’t let me.” He felt himself buckling, Richard held him up. His voice waned to a futile, broken whimper, “He wouldn’t let me…”
“I know,” Richard said. “You’re among friends now.” After a long moment, Richard made sure James could stand on his own before carefully letting him go. “And don’t give up on Heather just yet.” He looked over to where Sue gently took Heather in her arms, preparing to lift her up, to take her home. “If her neural network is undamaged, she should be fine, right?”
James studied the dent in her head. “Yes,” he rasped, brushing at his eyes. He hadn’t designed the internal supports to handle what she had put them through.
But he wanted to hope too.
Heather’s eyes opened.
Her vision was a dark, scattered blur. She heard the rain through only one auditory receiver. She blinked groggily, and finally, her eyes began to focus and lighten. The haziness sharpened to the visual clarity she’d since grown accustomed to.
She was staring up at a ceiling, lit by soft yellow light. Spackled and white, not homogenous tiles like the ceilings of Empetrum. She tried to place it.
A mass of spliced wires and extension cords bloomed from her chest. She carefully turned her head and traced them to where they plugged into the wall. She lay on a yoga mat on someone’s kitchen floor. Gradually, she realized it was hers.
She was home.
“Mom? Dad?” Her voice simulator managed a weary, fizzling croak. She looked down at her mangled body, impressed. There was a gap in her electromagnetic field on the surface of her head. She lifted what remained of her hand to the upper left side of it, finding electrical tape over where one of her smaller cranial panels had been removed.
“Heather!” An unfamiliar voice piped up from the living room and a smallish android in purple athletic shorts vaulted over the side of the couch. “You’re alive!”
“Heather?” she heard her mom through their open bedroom door upstairs, and soon her parents were hurrying down.
Heather slowly tilted herself toward her right arm and pushed herself to a sitting position, just as Sesame dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her head.
“Careful!” Richard gasped. “Watch the cords.”
“They’re fine,” Sesame insisted. He turned his beaming virtual smile on her. “Do you know who I am?”
“Sesame, right?” Heather said. She was tired. The electrical socket was a poor substitute for her boundless energy core, but the electricity felt like standing over the heater vents in the early morning. “Thanks for your help.”
Sesame moved aside so her parents could kneel down and wrap their arms around her as well.
“Watch the cords,” Sesame teased.
“They’re fine.” Richard shot him a breaking smile and hugged Heather tighter. “Heather,” he squeaked. “Heather, you’re okay. You’re home.”
Heather brought her hand to her mother’s arm. She pressed her face against it. “I missed you both so much.”
Heather found her heat sensor still worked. She watched their thermal signatures, felt their touch through her electromagnetic field. Her parents. Her family. She was finally with them again. She closed her eyes and tightened her hand. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Even though they all knew it was coming if they were to be reunited, she was still ashamed they had to see her like this. Robotic, severely damaged. Still their daughter, somehow, but drastically changed from the kid they knew and loved before.
Another person emerged from the living room. Heather glanced up. “Erika, you’re here too.”
“Yeah.” She shyly stepped closer. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Heather smiled. “Thanks.”
“It’s so good to have you back,” Sue managed, her face flushed with tears.
“It’s good to be back.” Heather’s gaze roved what she could see of the other part of the house as her parents grudgingly let her go. “Where’s James?”
“He’s resting in the guest room,” Richard said. Both her parents’ faces and shirts were smeared with soot from their contact with her. “He’s in bad shape.”
Fear stirred in Heather’s broken chest. “Can I see him?”
A door opened down the hallway and Erika’s attention turned. “Woah, hold on, Siles—You shouldn’t be up and about.”
“James?” Heather shifted toward the hallway, forgetting she lacked a few parts. Richard caught her before she fell onto her side and helped her stand. Her remaining foot was damaged, but functional.
“I’m okay,” James said hoarsely. A jet black hand gripped the edge of the wall, and he emerged painfully into the kitchen. He wore one of Richard’s sweatshirts, and a gray beanie on his bald head. After a wince, James’ eyes met hers, and emotional relief inundated his humbled, scarecrow-like countenance.
Leaning heavily on Richard, Heather smiled and extended her arm. James shuffled forward, and she wrapped it around him. She buried her face into his sweatshirt.
James’ arms enveloped her while Richard held them steady.
At close range, Heather could detect the heat circulating in James’ veins, could hear his beating heart and the respiration in his lungs—whole, organic, living. James’ breath faltered and his arms tightened, pressing a hand to the back of her head and his shoulders caving over her as he broke down. Richard hugged them both at once and Heather nestled into the shelter of their bodies.
“You’ll be okay now, James,” Heather murmured, her voice mistuning slightly in emotion. Even though she would never see her organic body again, and her mechanical one was in pieces, she was finally home, with the people she loved. For that fact, she felt like they could be all right someday.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” James rasped, shattered, relieved. “I can’t believe we let you go after the generator.”
“But thank goodness you did,” Heather said, pulling back a bit to smile up into his tearful face. “It was so satisfying to finally stick it to that monster. Someone had to knock that god complex of his down a few notches.”
James scoffed unsteadily, rubbing a hand under his eyes. He swooned, and both Richard and Erika reached out to catch him. Sue stepped in to support Heather while Richard wrapped an arm around James’ back.
“We really should take you to a hospital,” Richard said it like they had already argued about this before.
“No.” James pulled away, stumbling right into Erika, who managed to keep him standing. “No hospitals. There’s nothing to be done about this, and I’ll just be sent straight back to Empetrum.”
Heather glanced between them, her dad worried and exasperated, and James looking about ready to walk out the front door even though he wasn’t at all strong enough.
“Then please rest, at least,” Richard said. “Stop getting up so much.”
“I’ll still be here when you’ve gotten more of your strength back,” Heather said as reassuringly as she could. “There’s no rush.”
James managed a nod, and slowly turned back toward the hallway. He moved like a man four times his age.
Erika held onto him. He lingered for a moment to glance back at Heather.
“I’ll start work on helping Richard repair your body as soon as I can,” he said.
Richard pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Thank you.” Heather smiled, hanging onto her mother’s arm. “But please, rest first.”
James nodded, grudgingly, then let Erika take him back down the hallway.
“So did it work?” Heather asked as her parents helped her back down to the floor. “Destroying the generator? Is the facility gone?”
Richard cracked a soft smile. “You’ve given Benson quite a lot of recovery work to do.” He pulled his cell phone from his back pocket and showed her pictures he had taken of the aftermath.
A slow smile stole across Heather’s face. She lay down and closed her eyes, wearily satisfied. “Worth it.”
“You could have killed yourself, Heather,” Sue admonished.
Heather looked at her. “He was never going to let us go, Mom. You even went to the Conxence to get us out.”
Sue and Richard exchanged a glance.
“How far did you get with them?” Heather asked.
“We were still planning, but they had finished an initial security stakeout,” Richard said. “They sent a few operatives out with us when we came to get you from Empetrum, but we asked them to keep out of sight of the police.”
“I should actually give them an update,” Sue said. She bent down to kiss Heather’s head, and stood up to retrieve her phone.
“They’ll probably want to talk to James,” Richard said.
“And that will have to wait.” Sue retrieved her phone from the kitchen counter and scrolled through her contacts. “Once James has finally managed to calm down, he’s probably not going to let anyone ask anything of him ever again.”
“And I wouldn’t blame him,” Heather muttered.
Sue sighed. She tapped her phone and raised it to her ear, removing herself from the kitchen while she waited for it to connect.
“I still can’t believe you went to the rebellion.” Heather smiled at her dad.
Richard readjusted his glasses self-consciously. He sat down on the floor next to her. “It seemed like a logical next step.”
“What are they like?”
“Intense.” He flashed a sideways smile, like just the thought of them was overwhelming. “But they were kind to us.” He went quiet for a moment, watching Sue across the room. “I had thought they were disgruntled rabble rousers who just wanted to watch the world burn. But they’re really a lot like us. People who found their backs against the wall, who decided to fight for the people they love against a system that would control and exploit them.”
Heather managed a smile. “They sound like my kind of people.” Her face fell, and she touched the setup of wires connected to her chest, nervous at how helpless she felt with only half her limbs and dependent on the wall socket to maintain consciousness. “Do you think Benson will come try to take us back?”
The relief at victory, and the buzz of revenge was fading, and she was realizing how powerful of an enemy she had just made. She’d destroyed a large part of something Benson was willing to kill for, and she was aware that even though they had escaped Empetrum, he knew where to find them to return the favor. She wondered if she would spend the rest of her life running away.
Richard reached for her hand. “If he tries anything, we’ll stand in his way. You’re home for good.”
“The basement may still be intact,” Benson said as he turned off the engine. “I wonder if we can get down there.”
“I don’t know, seems too dangerous to me,” Yeun stepped from the director’s car, taking in the blackened piles with a sense of awe. “Ms. Brophy really packed a punch, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Benson impatiently locked his car and strode along the edge of the wreckage, his posture decidedly less straight than usual.
“Yes, Director.” Yeun followed him.
“I’m mainly after the backup drive in my apartment, anyway,” Benson said, directing himself toward the rear fence, where the living quarters remained intact. He had ordered the grounds to stay empty for a few days to let the dust to settle, but soon he would appoint guards and allow his employees to come back to their living quarters while they began efforts to rebuild.
As soon as Benson was able to make sense of the mess, that is, and break it to Empetrum’s sponsors what had happened.
Yeun lingered. The modest rumble of an approaching engine back toward the gate caught his attention. He thought maybe it was Hill, who stayed busier than ever with the Compatible recruits despite the destruction of his lab. However, Yeun was surprised to see his own car emerge from around the bend, followed by another, which proceeded to turn around as his vehicle stopped at the closed gate.
Confused, Yeun glanced at his colleague’s turned back, and back to where the driver killed the engine and got out. He didn’t need to see the extra arms off her back to know who it was.
Davenport paused, surprised to see him as well. Then she set her jaw, and stared him down as she readjusted the seat and shut the door with a firm thud.
“Is that your test subject?” Benson’s disquieted voice sounded a ways behind him.
Yeun flashed a solemn, private smile. “Not anymore.”
Davenport ceremoniously placed the keys atop the car, as if washing her hands of him, and folded herself into the other vehicle.
Benson backtracked, and he and Yeun stood side-by-side as they watched what Yeun presumed to be Brophy’s car disappear from sight.
“You gave her your car?”
Yeun shrugged, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “I figured it would turn up again, eventually.”
“You could at least pretend to have had a useful plan for that,” Benson muttered. “Register it as stolen or something for law enforcement to keep a lookout and arrest them.”
Yeun shrugged again, looking at the ground.
Benson heaved a sigh, and turned to survey the remains of his grandfather’s facility. “I was counting on you. When did you go soft?”
“I’ve always been kind of a softy,” Yeun said. He had meant it to sound jovial, but it came off sad. It occurred to him Benson might have to fire him for this, but with the facility destroyed, a mindwipe wasn’t currently possible. He knew he couldn’t trust Benson like he had before, but out among the ruins in the calm morning sunlight, where Benson felt no one else was watching them, the director wasn’t so intimidating.
A long silence sat between them.
“I think I went too far, Elias…” Benson said quietly.
Yeun nodded, pensive. “Will you try to retrieve the escapees?” he asked.
Benson crossed his arms. “From a practical standpoint, I should. They all know far too much, which they may try to act on. Each of them are important firsts as prototypes…” He fell silent, brooding.
“But look at what trying to control Siles landed me!” Benson flung a hand toward the remnants of the research building in exasperation. “Our sponsors may pull out altogether after this.” He faltered, looked away.
“I don’t think they will,” Yeun said. “Our work is solid, and we can set up shop elsewhere for a bit. Once we rebuild our cell cultures, we’ll be up and running.”
Benson nodded slowly, his gaze tired and melancholy.
“Look at it this way,” Yeun went on. “You analyzed Siles’ genetic code, right? That last batch had some progenitor DNA in it. Was he Compatible?”
“No,” Benson said. “He wasn’t even a carrier.”
“Yet the uptake and usability of the Q-13 after less than a week was remarkable. We couldn’t contain Siles with that kind of power-up, and I think the results speak for themselves, don’t you? In a way even the most crotchety of sponsors can’t ignore.”
Benson still wasn’t looking at him.
“The Q-13’s on the table now for the ICNS, if you want it to be,” Yeun said, quietly. “We don’t need the escaped prototypes in order to move forward. I vote we just leave them alone.”
“You would.” Benson scoffed bitterly. After several long moments, he sighed. “Well, they had better make themselves easy to leave alone.”
“It’ll be fine,” Heather said, lying still on the kitchen floor as Richard made last minute adjustments on her replacement leg. “Please, Dad.”
She couldn’t bear waiting on the floor anymore. For two days, she had had to watch Sesame, Erika, and her parents disappear and reappear down the hallway, with little to report about James’ condition.
Richard didn’t reply for a moment.
“Okay…” he said finally, gripping her metal calf and pushing up, connecting her foot. “I’ll scrounge up another extension cord.”
He offered a wan smile. “Or two. How much walking around are you planning on doing?”
“As much as I can,” Heather smiled back. “I’ve been a prisoner for four weeks, I’ve been missing my autonomy.”
Richard swallowed and nodded.
“No, it’s fine,” Richard said hastily, gathering his tools together and avoiding her gaze. “It’s fine, I just…” He brushed a hand across his eyes. “I can’t believe everything you’ve gone through. I feel like if I had just been more attentive to James when I had the chance, then maybe…”
Heather carefully sat up. “Dad, it’s not your fault.”
“Then stop, okay?” Heather tried to smile, but the expression faltered. “We’re beyond the could-have-been’s now. This is what happened. This is what we have.”
What to do now, was the question. Heather didn’t know where to start.
Richard nodded, his lips tight. After a moment, he cleared his throat and got to his feet.
“Let me get those extension cords,” he said.
Heather watched him go, anxious. She bent her repaired leg, moved the paneled toes. She buzzed a sigh.
This was what they had.
When Richard returned, he carefully unwrapped, connected, and plugged the accessory cords into the other outlet above the one supporting Heather.
“Ready?” he asked.
Richard pulled the plug and immediately jammed it into the end of the extension cords. Heather’s vision blacked out briefly, but that was all.
“You okay?” Richard said.
Heather smiled, relieved. “Great.” She tried to stand. Richard helped her up.
“How does the leg feel?”
“It feels good,” Heather said, trying to beam at him, despite her acute anxiety to check on James. “Thanks.” She took a step toward the guest room, her hand keeping the wires in her chest steady.
Richard made sure the extension cords didn’t tangle or unplug as she ventured into the shadows of the hallway. It was so quiet, Heather could hear her system thrumming in her chest, the hum of her moving joints.
The door was open a crack. Heather carefully peeked in. James lay under a mound of blankets, silent, still. Her heat sensor clicked on. He was still alive, thankfully.
She hated that the need to check that was always on her mind.
The blankets were pulled up over his chin, but she could see the hints of black on his face. When it had first manifested, the black stripes were blurred in webby tendrils under his skin. Now the edges were cleaner, as if the Q-13 had finally found a place to exist in his body, if it was determined to stay.
She didn’t dare proceed.
“Keep fighting,” she said, the volume of her voice extremely low. She hoped he could hear her at least a little, subliminally. “Okay, James? You’ll pull through.”
The body under the covers didn’t stir.
Her parents had tried to downplay some of the more troubling details of his progress, but Heather had been paying enough attention to glean the basics. James was deep in the throes of a fever, his nose frequently discharging the black substance that wasn’t blood. They didn’t know what it was, but it stained everything it touched.
He stayed asleep when left alone, but they were able to rouse him to check in when they needed to. He was taking fluids, eating what he could, and when he was awake, albeit slightly, to accept food or help to the bathroom, he only said two things: “Thank you.” and “I’m sorry.”
All James had wanted was to feel like he was human too.
How Heather had wanted to give him the permission he sought. How she had tried, though it was never hers to give. The force of his desire ran so thick and concentrated she was still reeling from the things he had done in pursuit of it.
But maybe now he finally understood. Maybe now he could be free.
Maybe, somehow, they both could be.
Heather hung in the doorway, contemplating the weight in her chest. She had no heart or blood or chemical signals—any of the things she might have attributed to this feeling before.
This pain, this terror of being alive. The grief of not yet knowing what to do with that.
She heard a shuffle at the opening of the hallway and turned her head. Erika stood there.
“Heather,” she said, hushed. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
Heather turned toward her, making her way back down the hallway.
They took a seat on the couch in the living room, and it hit her in a renewed wave how deeply she had felt she would never see her house, or her life, again.
“Your parents and I have been talking,” Erika said. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to stay here for a few more days to help around the house and keep watch, make sure things are safe.”
“Of course,” Heather said. “Thank you.”
Erika nodded, folding her hands in her lap. “I’ve already called my family to tell them I’m all right, and that I’ll be home soon.” She managed a sad smile, glancing at one of her accessory arms, the forearm of which rested along the couch cushion at her side, the hand draped over the edge. “I don’t know how I’m going to show myself to them like this…”
“It’ll be okay,” Heather said quietly. “They love you. They just want you back.”
Erika hesitated. “You’re parents told me what happened between you and James. That you and Sesame weren’t robots, originally.”
Heather’s gaze fell, finding the wires in her chest. She fidgeted with them, making sure they were each still secure. “Yeah…”
“I’m sorry,” Erika said.
Heather nodded. She glanced across the room, at the spattering of family photos on the wall. Her mom, dad, and herself. Organic. Smiling.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now,” Heather said.
Erika sighed, sympathetic, thinking. “I guess we just take it one day at a time,” she said. “Keep going, little by little. It’s really all we can do at this point, isn’t it?”
“At least for now,” Erika added, looking at her hands in her lap.
“What do you mean?”
“I know this sounds crazy, but I’m not sure I’m done with Empetrum yet. There are other kids like you, still trapped in the system.”
Heather’s eyes widened. “What?”
“James knows a lot more about it than I do. Modulator research, the science that created these things—” She gestured to her second set of arms. “That’s what Benson had him doing when I met him.”
“We should ask him about it when he’s feeling better,” Heather said. “That’s definitely something I’d like to hear more about, and he may want to talk about it too.”
Heather was glad to be able to sit at the table for dinner that evening, instead of spending it on the floor. It felt like an improvement. Even though she couldn’t eat, going through familiar motions was more comforting than unbearable, somehow.
It helped to have Sesame there with her, who navigated the social ramifications of his robotic body with a grounded confidence she didn’t think she’d ever know. He was just happy to be there, to be humanoid. It didn’t seem to bother him that he wasn’t organic anymore.
He probably didn’t even remember his old body, she thought. His old cognitive format had been of a different creature entirely, so dinner with the family was something he never could have experienced in his organic body.
The adults were abnormally quiet, more so than usual since Heather had come home. She was afraid to ask, but she didn’t have to wait long until her mother spoke up.
“Heather, James’ condition has taken a bad turn,” she said. “He’s started refusing food, and he threw up earlier…”
Heather looked up from the magazine Sesame had brought to the table. “What?”
Sue swallowed, gathering her nerves. “He hasn’t been very coherent, but what I’ve gathered is he’s having chest and abdominal pain too. A different kind than the other stuff he was dealing with.” She hesitated. “His fever hasn’t let up, and—and he’s starting to look jaundiced.”
Heather stared at her, eyes wide. She glanced at Erika and her dad. “What does all that mean?”
“Taken together, it makes me think his internal organs aren’t doing well,” Sue said. “Jaundice points to liver problems…”
Heather could hear Michael Benson’s voice at the back of her mind, lying to her about the circumstances of James’ death. His internal organs shut down. She tried to block it out but it kept repeating, over and over. It seems the Q-13 is still unviable, after all.
Sue looked at Richard. “I think we should call his parents.”
Heather straightened up, defensive. “What, like to come say goodbye? You think he’s dying?”
“We don’t know,” Richard said, readjusting his glasses, and he looked so worried and sad she couldn’t take it. “We just have to consider the possibility—”
“No,” Heather insisted, getting down from the chair. “I didn’t destroy Empetrum and put us all in danger of a revenge trip from Benson just so James could die of something stupid like organ failure!” The cords attached to her power core almost caught between the chairs and Sesame helped her free them before she ripped them out of her chest. She rounded the table, pulling more slack on the extension cord with her one, mangled hand.
“Heather…” Richard tried. “We’re not saying—”
Heather shook her head, her voice mistuning, furious, terrified. “Just—stop talking. Please.” She escaped into the hallway. “Just stop.”
As she arrived at the door of the guest room, she heard her dad sigh, emotionally. And she felt like Empetrum had destroyed her. It had turned her into something harsh, angry, alien. An artificial being with a familiar voice, imbued with cavernous sorrow and seething rage. The last thing that should be entering the room of someone clinging to life.
But she opened the door, and crept into the room, approaching the bed where James fitfully breathed. He had haphazardly pushed the covers down, betraying the black snaking up his arms, and a sweat-drenched t-shirt. There were dark bruises under his eyes, and it was hard to see in the low light from the drawn curtains, but the unstained parts of his skin were taking on a sickly, yellow tint.
Heather turned her head, considering the nightstand, crowded with a large bowl, a box of tissues, a glass of water, and a pile of towels, the latter of which were stained with black. An electric heating pad lay forgotten on the floor. James’ long, dark hand rested limp at his side. His nose was raw and smudged black from the unsettling discharge.
Slowly, Heather lowered herself to her knees at the side of the bed. She crossed her arm and bowed her forehead to it, a soft, buzzing sound fizzling out of her voice box as her anger and denial gave way and the overwhelming gravity of grief she’d been trying to push away since she got home started pulling too hard.
“Don’t leave me,” she buzzed very softly, closing her eyes. “Please, James…”
The stillness of the room was unbearable.
She felt a slow, gradual breach of her electromagnetic field over her hand and she lifted her head, surprised, to see James’ hand there. She looked up at his face. His eyes were open, barely, focused on her. His irises glowed with an ominous, animal iridescence, and she hated it. Hated the Q-13. Hated what Benson had done to them.
There was a lethargic look of apology in his eyes, and Heather wanted to tell him to stop apologizing. She just wanted all this to stop, to go back to when she was just an intern at Larkspur, making friends and feeling included.
She and James were both still alive, but time plowed forward, crushing them beneath its weight. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t tread water in the swelling waves. She couldn’t protect him from the battle he fought.
She gently picked up his hand and rested her metal cheek against it. James looked confused, but then his eyes closed. His hand tightened, weakly, around hers.