Only a couple of hours after James and Heather had talked, James woke up feeling like he’d been punched in the chest. He sat up quickly, shaking and drenched in sweat. His glowing skin dimly illuminated the bedroom.

Horrified, he tore off the covers and tripped out of bed. He staggered toward the door before the pain could overtake him. The Q-13 was going to discharge if he didn’t do something, but he didn’t know how to stop it. 

It couldn’t be allowed to discharge in the house.

Despite his best efforts, his movements alerted Heather and Sesame inside the fort. Sesame had plugged himself into the wall too.

“James? Are you all right?” Heather spoke up in a hushed tone. The lighted ovals of her eyes were wide with concern as James emerged from the hallway.

“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry, I’m fine,” James muttered anxiously, trying not to make much more noise as he made for the front door. He unlocked it, stumbling out onto the porch and lurching down the stairs. His heart pounded in his ears and the gravel bit into his bare feet as he strode unsteadily out into the middle of the driveway.

James stripped his head and torso and held out his trembling arms. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe slowly and deeply, to bring it back down, though the cold drizzle outside hissed like ice on his skin, locking up his throat.

But finally, the sharp pain began to ebb, and his scars faded to their usual midnight obscurity. He glanced back, spotting Heather’s eyes from the doorway to the front of the house. Sesame stood out on the porch, in the shelter of the eaves.

James lingered outside, thoroughly freezing, making sure the Q-13 wouldn’t stir again before he retrieved his clothes from the ground and stiffly returned to the house.

He shuffled to the couch in the living room, a halfway point between the front door and the guest room, clumsily donning his shirt, sweatshirt, and beanie before lowering himself into the cushions with a soft groan. He wanted to go back to bed, but the ache won out in keeping him seated. 

“I’ll get you a blanket,” Sesame said, padding away on socked feet.

“Thank you,” James said. He felt like crying. His cane silently mocked him from beside the door.

He had single-handedly designed and constructed two iterations of an impossible machine in a matter of months. He had happily endured grueling self-imposed work marathons, oblivious to the ways it punished and deprived his body, instead of protecting it as his most precious resource.

Now, he spent most of his time sleeping or too exhausted to even think, and he couldn’t leave the house without a cane. He didn’t know how many years the Q-13 had stolen from him, and he felt like it had nullified any time he did have left. 

Heather ventured up to him. “You okay?”

James nodded. He brought his arms close to his chest, pulling the collar of his sweatshirt higher and constricting in on himself.

Heather sat down beside him, carefully. “Are you sure?”

“Please don’t worry about me, Heather.” He couldn’t stop shivering.

“But I do,” Heather said. “Why won’t you be open with me?”

James shook his head. Sesame returned with a fleece blanket from the closet. James thanked him again and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, pulling it up and squeezing the folds closed under his chin. “I appreciate that you all are trying to take care of me, but my wellbeing doesn’t really matter right now.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Because I did this. Besides, you aren’t being open either,” James said. The pain in his bones only made him feel more cornered, as he fell headlong into a conversation he hadn’t meant to start. “I’ll do anything you ask, if you just tell me what you need. Do you want me to go? I’ll go. As soon as I can help fix your body, pick up my stuff from Larkspur, and find a place to store it and myself, I’m gone. I’ve done enough damage.”

“James…” Heather looked at him. Her countenance was so fatigued, so weary of everything. “You think we want you gone?” 

“Don’t you?” 

Silence sat heavy and cold between them. 

“I’ll let you two talk,” Sesame said. He plugged himself into the wall and ducked into the blanket fort.

James watched him over the back of the couch for a few moments, then settled in again. “I want to do what’s best for you,” he said. The black stains throbbed, the pain radiating out in fibrous tendrils in his arms, in his throat and face. “And I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to keep hanging around.”

“Wouldn’t it?” Heather said, quietly. “A family to keep you steady? A place to call home?”

His throat was tight. He didn’t understand. He stared at her, raggedly. “Do you hear yourself?”

“You were going to give your life for me,” Heather said.

He looked away, and his voice was barely above a whisper, shaky and emotional, “After I’d already taken yours.”

Heather’s gaze fell to the wires in her chest.

James wrapped the blanket closer. “At this point, for me to want anything from you or your family would be….inappropriate.” Disgusting was the word he really wanted to use. Egotistical, extortionate. Parasitic. “It’s not up to me. This is about what’s best for you.”

“Because I’m the only victim here?” Heather snapped. James had neglected to turn on a light, and her large robotic eyes glowed brighter in frustration. “Ever since I’ve come home, everyone’s been trying so hard not to be all ‘Poor Heather.’ but you’re all still doing it. I don’t want pity, I want to live, and I’m not the only one that went through hell because of Benson.” 

James tightened his shoulders, his face sinking into the blanket up over his nose, his brow furrowed. He closed his eyes and felt tears as his eyelids met.

Heather sat back and pulled her legs up onto the couch. “It’s been hard to adjust, but I’m not in physical pain. Benson destroyed your body too. Nobody deserves what he did to you.”

James swallowed. The beginnings of a migraine sat squarely in his left eye. “If I may be allowed to want something,” he rasped, “I want you to be able to move on from this. Despite Empetrum. Despite me.”

Heather averted her gaze, her arm crossed over her chest.

When she didn’t say anything, he slowly straightened up, bracing a hand on the arm of the couch to help drag himself to his feet. He took a step toward the guest room, and his face cracked into a sad, wavering smile as he looked at her. “You don’t have to tell me anything until you’re ready,” he said. “But when you do, I’ll honor your decision.”

She looked up, and in the soft, worried expression on her robotic face, he saw the girl he had met in an airport a lifetime ago. He wished he could go back to that time, erase every trace of his influence.

He tried to keep the smile there, to make it reassuring. He felt his fragile heart ripping and a quiet sense of grief settling in. A peace in his resolve to accept his departure when she would inevitably tell him to go, to reconcile himself to starting over broken, vulnerable, and hopelessly alone. He wasn’t sure he could bear it.

But he’d dug this grave. 

He would miss her. He would miss all of them.

“Good night,” he said, turning to make the painstaking journey back down the hallway, to spend the rest of the night dreading the morning.

“Good night,” Heather replied.



James was extremely sick to his stomach as Richard pulled up to the Larkspur facility the next morning. Everyone knew he and Heather were coming, but that didn’t make it any easier.

“How are you guys doing?” Richard asked.

The question had begun to annoy James, especially after his conversation with Heather the night before. He wasn’t all right, but it didn’t matter. He refused to make them waste any more time and energy wondering about his wellbeing, but they kept asking, wanting a real answer. 

“Okay,” Heather replied nervously from the back seat. James turned his head enough to see her in his peripheral vision. Heather met his gaze from under the hood of her open sweatshirt, silently daring him to call her out in front of her dad. 

A slight smile tugged at the edge of James’ mouth, and he turned back around, making sure his beanie was pulled down over his forehead. The situation was awful and forward motion seemed impossible, but at least he and Heather were on to each other. 

“It’ll be all right,” Richard assured them.

“They’ve spent enough time around me they’re mostly used to the idea of organorobotic transference,” Sesame told Heather.

“But they didn’t know you before this,” Heather said. She checked the wires running from her chest to a large dry cell battery on the floor. Her eyes narrowed. “It will be so weird.”

James stifled the intense urge to apologize again for everything as he shakily got out of the car. He gazed up at the building, hugging himself, his cane hanging from one arm.

“Nobody’s going to give you trouble, James,” Richard offered. “They’re aware of Benson’s role in all this, and we’re just relieved you’re on the other side of it. But, if it’s all right with you, I hope you’ll be able to tell them what happened.”

“Of course.” Dread crawled up James’ spine as he shut the car door. He tightened the scarf around his neck, wishing there were a way to hide the effects of the Q-13. “I owe them an explanation.” He had already sat down with Heather and her parents and unfolded the entire narrative as he had experienced it, filling in the gaps. Despite his very best efforts, he had broken down again, but the Brophys had taken the account better than expected. It was useful for them to know his side, but it didn’t change anything. His actions remained the same.

Richard still hadn’t decided what to do with the confirmation that the Bureau was actively sponsoring Empetrum. It cast quite a lot of concern on their recent A.I. commission. At first it had seemed like an innocent challenge, a logical step forward, but now it seemed the government probably had unethical plans for that too.

Sesame helped Heather with the battery as she dismounted the vehicle as well, and volunteered to carry it for her. 

James watched their interaction. Any time Sesame was nearby, James found himself observing him, wondering if he would someday become another one of his horrible mistakes. O.R.T-1 was sometimes a little alien, and certain emotional nuances escaped him as they would a small child, but he was sweet and helpful, especially toward Heather, and focused on adapting, on trying to earn a place among her family.

James didn’t know if he would ever fully trust Sesame, but he was relieved he was there.

As James stepped into the lobby of the Larkspur facility, he immediately wanted to leave. He avoided the security guard’s gaze and headed up the stairs next to Richard, shoving his free hand into the pocket of his jacket and squeezing the hand warmer in it.

His heart thumped uncomfortably behind his ribcage, and he forced himself to breathe, willing the increasingly finicky Q-13 to remain dormant. So far, it was behaving.

A wave of nostalgia rushed him as he wearily climbed the last few steps, and he froze when he glanced aside and locked gazes with Greg. The latter was pouring himself coffee next to Chelo in the kitchenette, and almost spilled it on himself in distraction.

“James—” Greg breathed, incredulous. He replaced the coffee pot and stepped forward to meet him.

James half expected him to wrap his arm around his head like he used to, but he didn’t. Greg kept a respectful distance, taking in the sight of him with a grieved, apologetic expression. “Welcome back…”

Chelo gave James a gentle side hug, which left him feeling emptier than before. “We’re happy you’re safe.”

“Thank you,” James said. “I’m, uh, I’m glad I got to see you all again before I leave.”

Chelo simply nodded, melancholy. 

“We’ll miss you,” Greg said. No humor, no nonchalance. 

James nodded, his throat tight.

Chelo gave Heather a hug as well. “Hey, Heather. Are you settling back in okay?”

“Doing my best,” Heather said, managing a smile, and it broke James’ heart.

Addie emerged from her office, and her greeting was hard to swallow as well. Then Eve stepped into the hallway, and James almost bolted.

Eve had watched unethical practices almost destroy Larkspur once, not to mention her career. She had undoubtedly foreseen the pain James was in danger of causing from the very beginnings of organorobotic transference, but James had brushed her aside. In searching for Heather, Eve had had to endure her own skeletons being dragged to the surface. She had witnessed firsthand all James had put the Brophys through.

His former colleague moved toward him with trepidation, as if she were facing a ghost. James forced himself to remain where he was.

“Eve, I’m so sorry for everything,” James said, a lump in his throat. “I should have listened to you.”

Eve wrapped her warm arms around James, producing a wheezy squeak of surprise as she hugged him a little too tightly.

James hesitantly lifted his arms to return the embrace. He didn’t know what else to say. Everything that came to mind sounded like an excuse. James was done with excuses.

After several long moments, Eve composed herself with a sharp inhale, letting James breathe again as she held him at arms length and stared straight into his eyes. “Welcome home.” Then she released him and turned to Heather. “Heather, thank goodness. We were worried sick.”

Heather nodded, wrapping her one arm around her as she hugged her. “Thank you so much for your help.”

Sesame stiffly stood by with the battery. Eve patted him on the shoulder, leaving the android smiling up at her. James watched, dazed and leaning heavily on his cane.

“So, what’s on the agenda, Richard?” Eve asked, taking care not to look at James for too long.

“Finishing up as much of Heather’s repairs as we can,” Richard said. “And James said he was willing to debrief with you all about the last several weeks.”

“Maybe we should do that first.” Eve looked to James for confirmation, who nodded, his gaze falling.

James just had to get past the next hour, he told himself. Explain it quickly. Apologize again. Answer questions. They probably knew most of the story by now. He just needed to tie some of the loose ends.

They gathered downstairs in the conference room, and James took an unassuming place along the side of the table. Heather sat down next to him. Sesame planted her battery on the floor and took a seat beside her. 

“You can do it,” Heather said. Her robotic hand was cold on his forearm.

He moved to lay his hand over hers, but stopped himself. He swallowed, and managed a nod instead.

James’ throat felt dry as he waited for his colleagues’ attention. When the room had silenced and all eyes turned to him, he began his account, starting with the events leading up to Richard and Eve asking him to discontinue organorobotic transference. Benson’s unexpected proposition, the Bureau’s reassurance. His overwhelming sense of urgency to bring his project to maturity, which had kept him blissfully ignorant until the inevitable manifestation of Empetrum’s true intentions.

He was glad to get it off his chest, and the second time through was easier. “I suppose I should have just disappeared altogether for a few weeks, and then reached out to Richard to tell him what happened. Maybe all of this could have been avoided.”

“What did Benson want so much from you that he orchestrated all this harm?” Eve asked.

James deliberated. Maybe Benson was still watching him somehow, despite everything.

He told them about modulator research and Empetrum’s goals. About how a desire to utilize James’ expertise merged with Benson’s pathological need for total control.

“So the government’s dabbling in human weaponry now, with kids, no less,” Eve sighed. “It’s looking more and more like the Conxence has the right idea.” She looked back to her unsettled former colleague. “Sorry. Please continue, James.”

James continued, trying to swallow the despair welling up in his throat. Richard had mentioned in passing that the leaders of the Conxence had expressed an interest in meeting with him for information on Empetrum and the ICNS, if he was willing. Associating with the rebellion was most definitely illegal in the current political climate.

James was still in so much trouble.


“This isn’t ever going to end, is it?” James groaned, following Richard up the steps of the Brophy’s porch. Heather trailed behind beside Sesame, who carried the battery and detached cables. Heather still didn’t have a left arm, but they had fixed her remaining one, made significant repairs on her torso complete with a new, rechargeable energy core like Sesame’s, and had replaced the broken panels in her head and her left auditory receiver, which had never started working again on its own. 

“What?” Richard pushed open the door.

“This. Empetrum, the government, the resistance.” James waved a jet black hand. “I’m stuck in the middle of all of it and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Should I stay involved? Should I join the Conxence? Maybe I should just wander off into the woods. But I guess that didn’t turn out well for Erika four months ago.” 

“There’s still time to think about it,” Richard said uneasily. “You’ve barely started recovering. Give yourself time.”

“Do I have time? We escaped, and who knows how long that will last. But in the meantime, there are more innocent people still trapped inside that system, and it drives me crazy to know I’m outside while they’re still in there. But there’s nothing I can do, is there? There’s nothing any of us can do.”

Heather lingered on the porch. Richard motioned for her and Sesame to go inside before carefully closing the door and turning to James.

“Take a breath,” Richard said kindly. “It’s okay.” He took a seat on the top step and waited for James to join him. “I have to admit, though, I’m relieved to hear this from you.”

James stiffly sat down, setting his cane aside and crossing his arms over his knees. “Why?”

“It would be logical and well within your right to turn your back on this. To pick up the pieces, take them far away, and start a new life,” Richard said. “But it sounds like in your heart, you’re still standing outside the gates of Empetrum, already planning another escape.”

James shrugged, evasive.

“That’ll be a tough road,” Richard went on. “But it reveals something in you I think you’re afraid isn’t there.”

“And what is that?” James muttered, his attention on the driveway.

“Empathy,” Richard said. “Integrity.”

“Integrity?” James scoffed. “I stabbed you in the back and you treat me like it doesn’t matter.”

Richard laced his fingers together, his tone careful, “I’d like to move on, see what happens.” At James’ morose silence, he observed, “Our kindness toward you bothers you…”

James shrugged again. He couldn’t look at him. “You should all hate me, for what I did.”

“Who would that benefit?” Richard asked gently. “You made mistakes, which Benson exploited cruelly, but you fought for us. You’re one of us now, if you want to be.”

James’ throat ached. At Larkspur, Richard had been like the father he only wished he had, but it was always just a vague thought. He couldn’t own it now. He would never be worthy of it.

“I know there’s a lot to sort out,” Richard said. “And it sounds like there’s another storm coming. But we’re with you, if you’ll have us.”

James should have been relieved the Brophys were somehow on his side. Anyone with any sense would see that having even the most basic of moral support was something to hold onto. But all the support James had ever received, he had had to earn. He had always had to prove his worth, to his parents, his professors, his colleagues.

Because his core value was in what he had to offer. He was a genius young engineer with revolutionary potential, or so he’d been told. Because that’s what they wanted. Just James was never good enough.

Misguided, arrogant, broken James.

He had helped bring Heather home. There was nothing else to offer her or her family, no other reason for their continued association with him, even if they’d gotten used to having him around, and especially not if his attention was already magnetizing toward the ICNS. Soon, he would be able to leave them, and they should have been eager to wipe their hands of him.

The front door opened, and Heather poked her head out. “Mom’s making cocoa. Do you two want any?”
Richard gave James an inquisitive smile. James shrugged, his attention on the winding driveway.

“Yes, please,” Richard translated. “Thanks.”

When Heather closed the door again, Richard stood up. “I’ll give you some space.”

James hugged himself. Belatedly, he twisted around as Richard reached the door. “Thanks, Richard…for what you said.”

Richard smiled, and then James sat alone on the porch in the waning light of the drizzly autumn evening. The breeze picked up among the trees surrounding the old two-story house, and James debated lying down inside with an electric blanket, if he could persuade himself to get up first.

He sighed and tilted his face toward the clouds, feeling very small. Shivering, he pulled his scarf up over his chin.

The door opened again, and James glanced back, expecting Richard, but it was Heather. She sat down beside him, extending a big mug of cocoa piled with little white marshmallows. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been offered something as simply beautiful. Or, rather, the last time he had appreciated it. James took it with an awkward, mumbled thanks.

“Can we talk?” she asked.

James nodded. Silence closed in, and they sat listening to the breeze for a long time. Gingerly, James brought the mug to his lips. The cocoa was hot, foamy, and rich. It helped push back against the chill of the Q-13.

James fidgeted, thinking maybe he should say something, but he didn’t know what there was left to say. So he waited for her to find the courage to tell him what he knew her answer would be. He prepared to take it humbly, to start forming his exit strategy with a brave face. No tears.

When Heather finally spoke, her voice was quiet, but clear, and ever so slightly electronic, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said last night.”

A knot screwed up in his stomach, a panicky hitch in his lungs. 

“There’s really nothing you can do to excuse, or take back what happened,” she said, carefully. “And I’m sure you know that.”

James nodded, dismally.

“But I’ve accepted your apology, the one that counted. We all have.”

Heather’s mom still hated him, he thought, and Richard seemed intent on adopting the wounded, cowering ghost of James’ inner child in an attempt to process—neither of which felt particularly like forgiveness. He squeezed the warm mug in both hands. Heather stared at the porch steps below them. 

“For me,” she went on, “it was when you came to get me the first time we tried to escape. I could trust you meant it when you physically went against Benson. When we were recaptured, and your life was in danger, you didn’t take it back. You were going to defy him to the end. I understood, then, that you had changed. As much as I’d like everything to go back to the way it was, even if we were more sheltered back then, I’m someone different now too, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be okay with it. But I want us both to be free. So I’ve forgiven you, and I want you to stop apologizing for this.”

James stared into his cocoa, bracing himself. 

“If you really want to leave, that’s okay. I won’t keep you. I don’t want to be one more person trying to manipulate you,” she said. “Obviously I don’t want you to crash at my house forever, but I think it could be good to stay in each other’s lives.”

James clutched his mug, trying hard to keep his whole body from shaking. “For the other kids, right?”

She shook her head. “I’m not ready to jump back into all that right now. It’s because you’re my friend. I care about you.” She steeled herself. “And, it’s because you were right. I’ve been locking down, trying to protect Mom and Dad especially, because if I’m honest with any of you, I’ll have to admit how sad, how angry—” Her voice became staticky and unsteady, distorting in and out, and James realized she was starting to cry. This was the equivalent. “—how lost I feel. I’ve always tried to make myself easy for them…” She bowed her face, considering her robotic knees, and her voice became very quiet, “But I’m scared of this version of myself. If you leave, I’m afraid I’ll bury myself too deep, and that you’ll destroy yourself. I’m afraid we’ll both get stuck.”

“But I can’t save you from that,” James’ voice cracked. “You know me. I wasn’t even a good friend to you before Empetrum happened.”

“I know,” she said, her shoulders tight and closed off. “And I can’t save you either. As much as I wanted to, but that’s a journey no one else can make for either of us.”

James carefully set his mug aside before he spilled it on himself.

Heather offered a wan, faltering smile. “We can’t save each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other. We can find out together what good the world still holds for us, if you want…” Her voice devolved into near static, “It feels impossible to hope for right now but if we’re still alive then there has to be more, right? There has to be better.” She lifted her hand to her eye as if to brush away tears but caught herself. Embarrassed, she leaned forward, crossing her arm over her knees. She looked out on the driveway, melancholy. “Man, old habits die hard.”

James stared at her. He knew she was aware he was staring, but somehow, he didn’t mind. He didn’t mind that she could see right through him.

Slowly, he extended an arm behind her. He was so confused by how things were unfolding, at the complete sincerity of her tone. She leaned into him and it was easy to crumble in, to envelope her in his long arms and hold her. Her arm found its way around him too.

“I want that, too,” he managed, his voice wavering. He could hardly admit it, even to himself. “If that’s okay.” Emotion welled up in his throat and his shoulders caved as he broke down. “Is it really okay?”

“It is,” Heather’s voice buzzed. “It really is.” 

“Okay,” it came out half nervous laugh, half sob. He was terrified, because he wanted to stay too, but he was too afraid to want most things anymore. The wind brushed his tear-streaked face, as fatigue and grief crashed in around him and he tried to accept the possibility of being welcome among Heather’s family, of being a part of their lives.

Potentially a neutral, even beneficial part. Even though he was just weak, sobbing, fumbling James, and every single one of them had seen the absolute worst of him. 

“Of course, I still reserve the right to be completely furious with you sometimes,” Heather mumbled into his chest.

He chuckled tearfully. “Good.” 



Three days later, Heather’s body was fully repaired.

James loaded the last box from his office into the trunk of Richard’s car and tried unsuccessfully to stave off the crushing gloom. Then he dragged himself back into the building to say his goodbyes.

Greg clapped a hand on his shoulder. “See you around, James. Be sure to visit every now and then.”

James nodded, accepting hugs from Chelo and Addie in turn and trying to keep composure. In his last few days at Larkspur, James had talked readily about everything, answering every question, welcoming and listening to every thought and feeling his colleagues needed to get out in the open, with hopes it would help them work through what he had done. Things were still awkward, but they seemed to have forgiven him.

He didn’t deserve any of them.

Eve dealt her own hug. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“You too, Eve,” James said. He extended a stained hand. “Thanks for everything.”

Eve shook it. She nodded once, with a warm, but troubled smile.

Then James was leaving.

A heavy weight sat in his chest. He still couldn’t believe how short-sighted he had been in thinking Larkspur wasn’t good enough for him. This was his home. A place where he felt he belonged—or used to, at least.

He would miss it terribly.


The next evening, the Brophys invited Erika over for dinner to check in, and to talk about the ICNS. James was nervous most of the day, puttering around, trying to decide what his options were, and what he wanted to do about it. 

During his visit to the ICNS, after seeing the recruits, the coordinator, Varnet, had offered the possibility of a part-time teaching position, in case he needed an occasional change of scenery from the Empetrum campus. Benson had politely declined for him, but James wondered if the offer still stood. After what he and Heather had done to Empetrum—which Varnet undoubtedly knew about by now—it probably didn’t. He didn’t even have Varnet’s contact information.

It was impossible, and he couldn’t believe he was even thinking about trying to return to that world willingly, back into Benson’s realm, into more situations that would weigh heavily on his conscience.

The mindwipe machine must have muddled his brain. It was a bad idea all around, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He brought it up at dinner, earning a blank, shocked stare from everyone present.

James rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I mean, how else are we going to get close to the recruits if we can’t get inside?” He picked at his food. “It’s just speculation, anyway. The coordinator of the ICNS isn’t going to let me anywhere near that facility. Benson will see to that.”

“Or they’ll want to keep you close, which sounds worse,” Erika said. “They know you can’t be trusted, but you’re still an asset to them.”

“Can I come too?” Sesame piped up. “I want to help.”

James glanced at him, surprised. 

“While you were still with Empetrum, did you get to see the recruits?” Erika asked.

“Yes,” James said. “They’re all just kids, around Heather’s age. They seemed in good spirits for the time being. It was eerily like watching a high school athletic team.” He kneaded the pain in his hands. His body ached more when he was nervous. “But I know that’s going to be short-lived, and I just keep thinking that when their operations against the Conxence start heating up, I need to be there. Somehow.”

“It sounds too dangerous,” Heather said. “I agree with Erika. If you approached the ICNS, they’re more likely to arrest you than turn you away, and you refused to even go to a hospital because it might have meant Benson could drag you back.”

“I know it doesn’t make sense,” James said. He wasn’t even sure if he could set foot in either location without having a panic attack, anyway. “I just—who else will fight for them?”

Heather stared at him for a moment, melancholy. “It makes sense to me,” she said finally. “I hate thinking that they’re stuck there too, mad-scienced into something else and forced to work for the government.”

“I know you’re not used to having any space to breathe, James,” Sue said. “This sounds a lot like you’re grasping at straws, trying to make amends.”

“Probably,” James said. He idly rubbed his jaw, the side outwardly stained by the Q-13. He glanced at Erika, who looked thwarted. She knew better than anyone what the ICNS recruits were going through.

“We can keep an ear to the ground,” Erika said. “I’m so afraid we won’t get a chance to help them before the ICNS has harmed them way more than it already has.”

James nodded. “The Conxence will have more direct contact with them in the coming months. Maybe that will be our foot in the door.” He caught Sue’s eye. “When we’re ready, of course. None of you are under any obligation to follow me into this. In fact, I’d rather you not, for your safety.” 

Heather’s expression tightened at that.

He kept trying to think of a way he could use the Q-13 to just break them all out, but he wasn’t nearly strong enough. Besides, unlike Empetrum, the ICNS was well prepared to deal with Compatibles with a much greater command of their abilities than James probably ever would. All Varnet needed was to land a successful hit with a tranquilizer dart, and then she would keep him sedated. No awareness, no fire. Then she would hand him over to Benson, who would probably mindwipe him before he even had a chance to wake up.

Or, as before, they just had to get Heather and her family involved. James refused to let them become leverage again.

He sat quietly, massaging his hands, listening to the conversation about the ICNS taper off, as his friends generally agreed that if they were able to someday help the recruits, they would know it when the opportunity presented itself. Heather wanted that eventuality. She didn’t think it fair that she got to be free while her peers didn’t.

But as it stood right now, James knew he had to let it be, to let himself be okay with waiting. Even though waiting felt unacceptable.

“So, I’ve been thinking,” Heather said. “I’d like to maybe start up school next year? After taking some time off to get used to things.”

Her statement caught James off guard. Heather’s parents stared at her too, unprepared for the subject as well.

“Okay,” Richard said with quiet resolution. “We can do that.”

James watched the relief wash over Heather’s countenance at her father’s support.

“I don’t know if it’s a great idea,” Heather admitted, with a glance at James. “But I don’t want to let others’ reactions to this body, or what happened to me deny me my life.”

“We’re here for you, whatever you need,” Sue said.

James nodded agreement. The urge to bring up the organic-passing body burned at the tip of his tongue, but he kept his mouth shut. 

“I think I should start small,” Heather said, with trepidation. “Small excursions, errands.” She cracked a wan, worried smile. “Though, a sentient robot in the small town of Knights Bridge will be hard to accept.” She looked at her mechanical hands. “Maybe there’s a way to hide it. At least until I’m more comfortable. James mentioned he was thinking about an organic-passing body. I thought it sounded way too expensive. Do you think it’s possible?”

James glanced up, surprised. Heather was looking at her parents. Then they were all looking at him, and he shrank under their gaze. 

“Of course it is,” Richard said, trying to sound reassuring.

James stayed silent, uncertain of whether he should contribute to the conversation at all. He was always overstepping himself. He lay awake most nights, craving something tangible, a plan, a project. Yet all they had at this stage was a quiet, stubborn hope that someday, somehow, things could be okay. And even though Heather wanted him around, he felt like he couldn’t possibly be welcome there, sitting at the Brophy’s kitchen table while they discussed futures and recovery.

“We’ll find a way,” Sue said. “If the technology doesn’t exist yet, I’m sure your dad and James will be the ones to develop it.”

James hadn’t expected to be included in that statement. He glanced at Richard, who offered a smile. 

“If that’s what it takes,” James said.


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