The end of the line stared him down, approaching too quickly for comfort.

Patrick wasn’t in a hurry to get back to class, where reviewing grammar rules for the umpteenth time made him want to tear his face off. But the present moment posed an unfriendly alternative, as medical personnel called student after student back into the locker room to undergo an exam whose purpose no one really understood.

“I think they’re looking for some kind of virus,” a classmate whispered to his friend in front of Patrick. “I wonder how contagious it is.”

Another boy exited the locker room ahead, where the line of students waited to be screened. The girls were queued at the other locker room across the gym.

“Hey,” the student behind Patrick caught the arm of the newcomer. “Did it hurt? Did you have it?”

The latter shook his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but a teacher overseeing the line interrupted him with a curt, “Back to class, please.”

The student jumped to comply. Patrick glanced after him. The general murmur continued, and Patrick shifted forward as another kid disappeared into the room beyond.

“Negative or positive?” his classmate asked as yet another emerged from the locker room. Patrick took a breath as surreptitiously as possible, trying to stay calm, though his chest was tight.

“Negative,” was the relieved response.

Now, Patrick stood at the front of the line. He jumped at the dispirited, “Next!” that burst from the room before the door swung closed. He crept forward.

Portable white curtains divided the locker room into three sections, where attendants in scrubs sat students into plastic chairs and pricked their fingers with an electronic device shaped like a temperature gun.

“Sit down,” the attendant said, reloading a clear cartridge onto the end of the handheld device. Patrick complied.

“Give me your hand.”

Patrick obeyed nervously. The attendant fitted the device onto his index finger. Patrick winced as, with a modest release of air, the device bit into his skin.

The attendant waited for the device to give the verdict.

It began to beep repeatedly, like the fretful chirping of a bird. The man’s bored expression hardened in disbelief. Patrick’s stomach sank.

“What does that mean?” Patrick ventured timidly.

“Hold on,” the attendant said, pulling off the cartridge and clicking in a new one. “Let’s try this again.”

Patrick obeyed. The device discharged, and they waited. The same chirping bubbled up from the device. The attendant loaded another cartridge.

“Next!” he called. 

Patrick stood up slowly.

“Stay in here for a minute,” the man said. “Wait over there.”

Patrick stepped off to the side and waited anxiously for something to make sense.

The man waved the next student over, and ran through the same process with him. Luckily, it wasn’t the kid that had been asking everyone if they “had it,” but he was on the other side of the room, his own test coming out negative. He exchanged a glance with Patrick on his way out of the locker room and Patrick looked at the floor, mortified.

The device beeped flatly and flashed a simple red light for the boy called to sit in Patrick’s place.

“Negative. Thank you. You can go.” The attendant reloaded the tester yet again, and gestured for Patrick to step up and offer his hand again.

The device chirped as urgently as before, and Patrick watched the green light, burning loudly and confidently just to the side of where the red light had appeared.

“Huh…” the attendant said, incredulously considering the device. He looked at Patrick, as if seeing him for the first time. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Patrick Everhart,” Patrick stammered.

“Well, Patrick,” the man said, as he reached for a clipboard with an empty form, writing the name at the top. He spelled Patrick’s last name wrong. “You’re Compatible.”

“What does that mean?” The last thing Patrick’s parents could handle on top of Adri and Ximena’s college loans were medical bills.

“Go ahead and return to class,” the man said, discharging the cartridge with its counterparts into a separate plastic bag. He labeled it with a permanent marker. “Come back after your last class and I’ll explain more. For now, we have to get through the rest of the student body to see if there are any more like you.”

Before Patrick had even left the locker room, the gaze of every one of his peers trained on him.

He returned to class and quietly found his seat. His heart thudded hard in his chest, and he couldn’t concentrate on the lecture. As the teacher droned about punctuation, Patrick considered the three bandaged fingers of his left hand.

They had taken great pains to make sure it was true.


Several hours later, the last bell rang, and amid the rustle of students gathering their books and papers, the teacher called him up to her desk.

When Patrick apprehensively crept up, she handed him a slip of paper, her expression careful. “Take this back down to the gym for your followup,” she said. “It’s very important.”

Patrick nodded. He slung his backpack over his shoulder, keeping his head down and avoiding gazes as he left the room. Word was spreading fast. He had been tested in the morning, and by then, even kids whose names he didn’t know were staring, whispering. He’d always been invisible before. Before last period, he’d found a messy drawing on notebook paper taped to his locker, of him with X’s over his eyes and people in hazmat suits.

He made his way toward the gym, his stomach in knots. 

“Nice knowing ya, Neverheard!” One of the school bullies, an arrogant, upper class control freak jeered across the crowded hallway after him. He was probably the artist responsible for the drawing on Patrick’s locker.

Patrick stole down the stairs and out to the gym. He found the attendants packing up their impromptu testing site in the locker room.

“Welcome back,” the man who had tested him said without looking up.

No other students were around. 

“Are we waiting on anyone else?” Patrick asked, hopelessly.

“Just you.”

“Just me…”

“Please, sit down,” the man said, gesturing to one of the short, plastic chairs.

As Patrick complied, the man continued, “You’re Compatible: We’re screening students for a rare set of genes, which have the potential to give rise to superhuman abilities. And, according to this device—” He held up one of the apparatuses before packing it away with its counterparts— “You have it.”
A knot twisted Patrick’s insides. “What?”  he said slowly. “Superhuman…?”

“I know, it sounds a little Out There,” the man said. “But believe me, it’s a big deal. So congrats.”

Patrick blinked. “What kind of abilities?”
“Depends on your genes.”

“Were they going to show up sometime later?” Patrick had no innate abilities. Nothing came naturally to him.

“Not on their own, no. But they can be activated artificially.”

“…Why?” Patrick said, lightheaded.

“The government needs people like you, for a special project.”

“The government?”

Yes. Look, you’ll get used to the idea as things get going.” The attendant impatiently sealed the lid of an insulated plastic tub. “Expect a call very soon. That’s it for now.” He pushed the tub aside and brandished a big biohazard bag full of discarded screening cartridges. “Don’t tell anyone but your parents. Government secrets and all.”

Patrick nodded, numbly. 

“Go catch your bus, kid.”

Patrick turned and left, emotion high in his throat.

“Oh no…” he kept muttering under his breath. The school hallways felt dark and empty and close. He winced in the sunlight as he opened the door to join the crowd of kids headed home. “Oh no…”



It’s been quiet around here since posting the last few chapters of The Bioroboticist. You may be wondering, what’s next?

Well, there’s a spin-off! It revolves around the ICNS and revisits many of the characters we’ve met in The Bioroboticist.

It’s still in editing stages, behind a couple more projects I’m working on (read my webcomic!). I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, here’s a little synopsis information, and stay tuned for a preview of the first chapter next Monday!

Find me on Instagram for updates and art stuff. Concept art for this story is logged under #snDragonfly.

One of my big goals since 2022 has been to get more of my work out into the world, instead of sitting on it and waiting around trying to do it “the right way.” I’ve loved finally being able to share these books with you.

Thanks for reading! ❤



The resistance is advancing. The government has issued blood tests in every high school across the nation and a socially awkward teen named Patrick Everhart tests positive for latent superhuman abilities. The genes are rare, and with only five other kids, Patrick is unwillingly shipped off to a specialized military facility for anti-rebel task force training. He must embrace it to protect his loved ones, but while each of his new teammates’ abilities is more powerful than the last, Patrick is horrified to discover his own genes simply produce a growth spurt and an extra pair of arms. However, keeping up with his teammates soon becomes the least of his concerns. When the rebellion makes a ruthless counterstrike to get ahead of the fight, he and his sabotaged teammates’ role within the military begins to change, and timid, four-armed Patrick must make an impossible decision as his faith in compliance begins to break.



Heather was still very uncomfortable being where strangers could see her, especially in the heart of the capital, where the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation resided. As she got out of the car, she felt like it was obvious she wasn’t human, covered from head to toe to keep anything robotic from showing. She wore a surgical mask shrouding most of her face, and a short wig under the pulled up hood of her sweatshirt to create a decent illusion for bystanders not paying much attention.

It had taken weeks for the fiasco at Empetrum to reach the head of the Bureau’s attention. Her dad and Eve had assumed Dhar already knew and was opting to play dumb, and they were quietly taking steps to try to separate Larkspur from the government. None of them were expecting the call from him three weeks after Heather and James had come home, asking for clarification of what on earth Benson had done to them over the last month, dead set on offering some form of compensation.

At first, Heather had outright refused. They were much better off just pulling out from the whole thing, even when Dhar tried to tell them he hadn’t meant for anything like this to happen to them. Empetrum, apparently, had special permission to operate however they wanted as long as they produced the results other labs too often refused to pursue. That power had obviously gone to Benson’s head.

That still left James as an incidental human sacrifice to the government, but James wanted to hear what Dhar had to say.

She walked between her parents, her mother’s hand comforting and steady on her back. James walked with his cane on Richard’s other side, bundled up in two sweaters, an overcoat, a scarf, and the now familiar knit beanie on his head. His hair was growing back after he’d burnt it all off at Empetrum, but it was still extremely short, which only contributed to the persistent chill he suffered. Heather had half expected his hair to come in the same jet black color the Q-13 had branded into his skin, but when it started to return, it was its natural warm brown. She took comfort in that, somehow.

As they entered the Bureau and made their way up to the reception desk, Heather ventured a look James’ direction. He met her gaze and his lips tightened in a nervous, hopeful expression.

Richard gave his name, stating they had an appointment with Mr. Dhar. Heather kept her face down, letting the silky, straight strands of her wig fall forward and help obscure her face. She didn’t want anyone seeing her eyes, large and robotic and unnatural.

The receptionist checked them in, and then escorted them to a conference room down the hall.

Heather couldn’t believe they were even doing this, meeting with her dad’s boss, the man who funneled funding to both Larkspur and the lab that had ordered her transfer and kidnapping, who had turned James into a murderer and an experimental human weapon.

They were asked to take a seat at the long dark conference table, and left alone with the promise that Dhar would be in shortly. As they complied, Heather thought she would be sandwiched between her parents, but then Sue moved and waved James over to have the both of them sit together, bookended protectively by Richard and herself. James sheepishly obeyed. 

Heather wanted to reach out, to squeeze his arm, offer something encouraging, but cold, breathless anxiety pulled through her circuits in a steady, cycling stream. She still couldn’t tell if touching him made him uncomfortable. He still wasn’t used to accepting affection when he wasn’t a complete emotional wreck. He was certainly uncomfortable giving it. 

Heather had acquiesced to letting him and her dad start planning to build her an organic-passing body, even though it required time, resources, and professional consultation they weren’t even sure where to begin arranging. Dhar was about to offer these assets, and even though the idea of exchanging her anachronistic, robotic exterior for something resembling her rightful body was tempting, Heather still didn’t trust any of this.

She supposed she and James still had the firepower to force another escape if this meeting went south.

Slowly, she pulled down her hood, removed the wig and surgical mask, and laid them on the table. She intended to hold her head high. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” she muttered to James. “Money’s not going to fix anything.”

James nodded slowly. He was massaging his hands, staring at the door and breathing quietly and carefully.

Heather followed his attention, wondering what sort of person Dhar was. If he was mousey and well-mannered with glasses, Heather was going to stand up, grab James, and storm out. 

“If there are strings attached,” she said. “We’re leaving.”

“Okay,” James said softly, and something in the way he said it made her feel like he wasn’t sure.

“He’s not gonna try to attach strings to me, James,” she said, warning. “It was you that Benson did everything he could to keep tied to Empetrum.”

“Yeah, before he got fed up and tried to kill me,” James said. “I have a feeling Dhar is just doing damage control. I want to see what we can get out of it.”

Heather crossed her arms and leaned back a little in her chair.

“I’m going to ask him about the ICNS,” James said.

Heather opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again, leaving her voice box inactivated. She wanted to backpedal on that prospect as well, even though they’d talked it over several times by then. Now that they knew about the six other kids caught up in all of this, they couldn’t just leave them. James would never forgive himself if he did, and even though Heather knew no one would hold it against her if she distanced herself from it all, she felt responsible as well. She ached to make their trauma worth something, but she feared James wouldn’t survive a second collision with the government. 

If James asked about the ICNS, it would be obvious to Dhar what his motives were, but he could at least bring it up and see what would happen.

She was considering joining the Conxence when she was confident enough in her new reality. Erika liked them, and they had fought for their family. Heather’s parents would try to discourage it, though. 

“If he offers resources for another body, but on the condition we not interfere anymore,” she said. “We’re not taking it.”

“Okay,” James said. 

The door opened, and Heather stiffened as Vihaan Dhar, a middle-aged man with a black mustache and soft, concerned eyes, entered. He paused as his gaze met hers, traveled to James, then to Richard and Sue with increasing dread.

Heather wished Sesame was with them, so she didn’t have to be the only inorganic person in the room, but she also took a grim sense of pleasure that her very presence forced Dhar to confront what he had done. What he had let Benson do to her through James.

“Good morning,” Dhar said, pulling out a chair and taking a seat across from them. He folded his organic hands on the table. Heather squeezed her gloved, robotic ones together in her lap underneath it.

“I am so sorry for what’s happened,” Dhar said. “I knew the last few months have been stressful on Empetrum, but I didn’t realize how desperate Benson was. I thought what I was arranging when I recommended you to him, Siles, was a simple prospect, a chance to let you thrive in your unique expertise and make the higher-ups happy…” He looked at James, then, whose narrow, stained face was stony, his golden eyes sad. “You should have been allowed to resign from Empetrum with grace. None of this should have ever happened. But, now that it has, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to try to offer excuses. I want to help ease some of the effects, if at all possible. No special conditions attached. This is simply an offer.”

James and the Brophys exchanged glances. 

“Richard tells me you’ve been talking of building a more suitable body for Heather,” Dhar said. “I want to provide you the funding and resources to do that.”

Heather stared him down, trying to detect any insincerity.

Richard spoke up to her left, extremely serious, “When James crossed over fully to Empetrum, taking my daughter with him, why didn’t you interpret any of my frantic efforts to find her as an obvious sign that Benson had crossed a line somewhere with my family?”

“Benson was omitting information,” Dhar said. “I heard no other outcry, so I assumed the transition went smoothly and James had parted with Larkspur on good terms. The only clue I had was your request to rebuild the android, but I was told it was damaged due to a malfunction.” He paused, then added, hastily, “Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that anything about this terrible situation was your fault. You rightfully assumed I was complicit, and therefore it was completely understandable you thought I wouldn’t help you if I knew what was really going on at Larkspur in the days that followed Heather’s disappearance.”

Richard had given him the whole story by then, omitting that they had ultimately gone to the Conxence for help. They would have liked to keep Sesame’s involvement out of the narrative too, but Benson had offered up that information to the Bureau at some point. When asked what consequences would fall on Empetrum’s director for all this, Dhar simply said he would be dealt with. Heather’s gaze fell as they discussed.

“So,” Dhar said. “Do you have a ballpark on what you’ll need for this project? I can also allow Larkspur full reign for a year to get this taken care of. If you need to contact specialists for the finer details, I’ll be glad to refer you.”

James and Richard looked at each other. Richard gave Dhar a number, rounding it very high, enough to build both Heather and Sesame new bodies. 

“Done,” Dhar said.

“Mr. Dhar,” James said. “If we accept this from you, I have another request I’d like to make.”

Dhar paused, wary. “Yes?”

“How much influence do you have with the ICNS?”

Dhar blinked. “The ICNS is further under the military umbrella, but the Bureau essentially supplies the biotechnology that keeps it running, so quite a bit. Why?”

Heather could feel James trembling. Under the table, she reached for one of his hands and squeezed it. His hand tightened in hers.

“When I was with Empetrum,” James said, “the facility coordinator, Anusha Varnet, offered me a teaching position if I was ever interested. I wanted to take her up on it.”

Dhar’s eyebrows lowered in confusion. He searched James’ haggard face for a moment. “Why in the world would you want to go back after all this? Empetrum scientists operate there too, you know. Varnet knows what happened between you and Benson.”

James’ jaw tightened, stubborn and determined to be brave. “I feel responsible for the six Compatible recruits.”

“I understand, but they aren’t your responsibility,” Dhar said.

“They’ve entered the field after only a single year of training,” James pursued. “I know I’m not the only one expecting things to come to a head with the Conxence in the next several months.” Heather realized he had straightened his posture, and the shaking in his hands had subsided. He looked at her dad’s boss, steady and determined. “When that happens, those kids will need someone on the inside looking out for them.”

“You mean, you want access so you can do everything you can to undermine the ICNS.”

Heather felt her shoulders tighten.

“I will put the wellbeing of the recruits first, of course,” James said. “But I’m willing to work with the ICNS, to strike a compromise.”

Dhar sighed. “I’d highly suggest you distance yourself from all this. You’re still young, Siles. Give yourself time to recover, and then move on with your life. Our contention with the rebel militia is no longer your concern.”

“Don’t I get to decide that?” James said. “Benson destroyed my life and Heather’s over it.”

Dhar cracked a wan, testy smile.

“This is something I need to do.” James stared him straight in the eye. “If you bar this avenue, I’ll find another one.” 

Heather hoped the implication of that was clear to Dhar. Judging by the latter’s expression, staring back at James, it was. Heather and her parents waited, nervous, for Dhar to finally outright forbid him from having anything else to do with Empetrum or the ICNS. Heather prepared to stand up and pull James out the door after her. If Dhar refused them this, he was just trying to throw money at them to ease his own conscience. She wanted nothing from someone like that.

Finally, Dhar spoke, “You understand it will be hard to convince them. Varnet might consider it, but she may ask Benson for his opinion, since he was your former employer, and both he and Dr. Hill will do everything they can to block your affiliation with the ICNS.”

James nodded. “I know.” 

Dhar sighed again. “Well, I can put in a good word for you and set up a meeting. You bring the expertise of an Empetrum scientist with the ethic of Larkspur, which may interest Varnet. And she is the one who will have the final say, so you may have a chance, depending on her personal opinion of Empetrum’s recent activities. I think you should get as far away from this as you can, but if this truly is something you need to do, I won’t be the one to stand in your way.” He fidgeted with his tie. “And I agree with you. Those kids could benefit from having someone looking out for them who understands what they’re going through. I don’t know how much of a chance you got to interact with Varnet, but I’ll give you some advice. If you’re aiming to score brownie points with her, she appreciates candor, and she can always tell if you’re lying to her. If you do somehow manage to convince her, be careful. She is very good at finding out what people want, and making it useful to her. Predictably, none of the recruits’ families wanted to surrender their children to the program, yet they all signed them over in a matter of one week after their discovery. That’s Varnet’s job. She will have terms, and if you want in with the ICNS, you’ll have to agree to them. I just want you to be prepared for that.”

Heather glanced aside, watching James’ face in her peripheral vision. She clicked on the heat sensor in her head, and in a secondary visual feed, James lit up beside her in reds and yellows and greens. The black in his skin was the coldest parts of him, pulling colder with his mounting anxiety. She squeezed his hand again, supportive.

“I understand,” James said. “Thank you.”


James pulled up to the security checkpoint at the Institution of Compatible National Security and handed over his ID to the guard who stepped up to the car window. 

He waited, silent and extremely sick to his stomach as the guard looked it over, then pulled her two-way radio up to her mouth and relayed a message, asking if Varnet was expecting a James Siles.

A garbled reply confirmed. The guard handed his ID back and waved at her colleague in the guard booth, who raised the barrier. James guided Richard’s borrowed car down the marked road, mimicking the way Benson had gone on their earlier visit while he was still under Empetrum’s control, except he made sure he turned right, following the signs indicating “Visitors,” and not “Personnel.” 

Before long, he had found a place to park and showed his ID to yet another guard, who let him into the building. He felt like the dark polished floor of the ICNS lobby was made of trap doors, and everything James had shoved down, trying to tell himself he was ready and brave and still not immensely traumatized, came welling up to the surface.

A guard just inside the doors told him to take a seat on the cushioned benches in the center and wait until Varnet called him back. He complied, grateful for a few moments to catch his breath, trying to get the Q-13 to back down before it started glowing. Awakened by his immense anxiety, the splintering ache of his altered physiology throbbed down his arms and through his jaw and left cheekbone. He pulled a slow breath in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. It helped only a little.

He just wanted to get this over with.

A door at the back of the lobby opened, revealing Anusha Varnet, the coordinator and warden of the ICNS. James stood up, hastily fixing his sweater. He had tried to make it on a collared shirt and tie alone, but even that was far too few layers for the perpetual icebox his body had become.

“Dr. Siles, good morning,” Varnet said. She stepped aside and gestured for him to enter. “Please, follow me.”

James obeyed, and she led him to her office. She motioned to a chair in front of her desk. “Take a seat.”

James complied.

“So,” she said, sitting down behind her desk. One of her neat eyebrows arched, skeptical. “I’m told you want a job?”

“Yes,” James said quietly.

She folded her hands on her desk. “You know, I was surprised when Dhar called to set up this appointment,” she said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I know all about what happened to Empetrum because of you.”

James swallowed and nodded.

“Modulator research isn’t cheap, or expedient,” she went on. “But the government is extremely impatient to get its hands on those ready-made Compatibles all the same.” James winced at the term, uttered without a hint of discomfort. “You’ve given Empetrum a lot of recovery work to do, having thrown the biggest wrench possible into our operation to date.” She leaned forward, steepling her fingers. “So tell me, why should I let you anywhere near my recruits?”

James carefully took to massaging his hands, reminding himself to keep taking deep breaths, to be candid. Varnet wasn’t Benson. Trying to spin the truth wouldn’t help him here. “None of that would have ever happened if Benson had just let me resign like a regular human being,” he said. “I’m guessing when he briefed you of the situation, he neglected to mention the part where he forced me to experiment on my friend, a fifteen-year-old kid, under threat of killing her and her father if I didn’t.”

Varnet tilted her head in concession. “He framed it differently, but I figured that’s how it happened.” She studied him, her expression calm and searching. “Dhar says you feel responsible for our Compatibles.”

James’ face reddened. “Yes.”

“You’re acquainted with Erika Davenport, correct?” Varnet said. “Benson suspects she was with the Conxence. I don’t like my employees being sympathizers with the very group we’re training our recruits to resist.”

“I’m not with the Conxence,” James said.

“Yes, but considering the last few months, I assume you’d jump at the chance to help them, if ever given the opportunity.” 

James swallowed. He didn’t know how to respond to that because she was absolutely right.

“Dhar also mentioned you think things are going to come to a head between us and the Conxence soon?”

“Yes,” James said. 

“Any specific theories?”

James shook his head. “I don’t know enough about the Conxence or their activities for that. I just know Empetrum was under a lot of pressure to fortify the ICNS before the resistance gains too much traction. I’m hoping to take you up on that offer of a teaching position, to be a source of moral support for the recruits. I imagine they’re dealing with a lot.”

“You’ve only seen the recruits in person once, right?” Varnet inquired, amused. “Yet you’re willing to dive back into the system you fought tooth and nail to escape just to provide moral support? Forgive my skepticism, but I’m just not buying it, Siles.”

James stared at his hands. The idealism that had gotten him mixed up with this in the first place was probably showing. He marveled that he still had some of it left, after everything.

He didn’t know where he was supposed to go from here. He could almost predict what the Brophys’ reply would be when he came home with the news that Varnet had turned him down. Well, all you could do was give it your best shot, and you did.

But that wasn’t good enough.

“Does Benson know about this meeting today?” he asked, preparing to be told to leave, or worse.

Varnet nodded, smiling slightly. “He’s furious that you’d even think about coming back.”

“I’m not asking to go back to work for Empetrum,” James said. “Just the ICNS.”

Varnet paused at that. She raised a hand to her chin and sat back, regarding him. Her eyes flicked to the lower left of James’ gaze, and he knew she was looking at the black stripe of the Q-13. 

“Even if you prefer to concentrate on the teaching position, I do like the idea of having my own specialist on board that doesn’t answer to Benson,” she mused. “You may have guessed already, but Benson and his lot can be hard to work with.”

James cracked a wan, tired smile in agreement. 

“If I were to hire you,” she went on, “you would answer to me and Victor Gresham, the recruits’ trainer and operation manager. Benson and Hill would have no jurisdiction over you, outside of the scientific side of things, of course.”

“I admit I like the sound of that,” James said quietly.

“How much have you actually worked with modulator technology?” Varnet asked. 

“At the time of my falling out with Benson,” James said, “I was up to date on theory and methodology, and had started shadowing Yeun, but hadn’t yet done any major hands-on work.”

“But you do know enough about how it works, how to manage it, guidelines for dosages and procedures, and so on, to be useful?”

James nodded. “Yes.” 

She sized him up again, and took a piece of paper off her desk James hadn’t noticed. The way the light passed through it, he could see the composition of the text on the page and recognized the configuration as that of his resume. Dhar must have passed that along too.

“How old are you, Siles?”

“Twenty-one,” James said. His birthday had passed while he was trapped at Empetrum, though he’d forgotten until later.

She nodded, looking at the page. “Yet you already have a doctorate and two years on-the-job experience with Larkspur. I’m going to tell you up front, I’m not impressed by the ‘boy genius type’ in any capacity. In fact, I see it as a hazard.”

“I understand,” James said. He had come to see it as a hazard too.

“Your feud with Benson aside,” she said, “do you play well with others?”


Her lips tightened, thinking. “Contrary to what you may think, we care very much for the wellbeing of our recruits,” she said, returning his resume to her desk. “From what I know of your activities over the last few months, it sounds to me like you’ve been forced to make some impossible decisions, and have done everything in your power to make amends. And, judging by how hard your friends worked to bring you home, it seems you have a strong network of people that care about you, which makes me think maybe you’re a good person, someone that might—” She lifted a manicured finger, pausing for emphasis. “—might—be an asset here at the ICNS.”

James stared at her, trying to figure out what that all meant.

“You mean…you’re considering it?” he asked, incredulous.

“Do you have teaching experience?” 

“Some,” James stammered. “I tutored physics and digital logic in college.”

“I would need you for science and mathematics,” she said. “Algebra through calculus, physics, and biology. Given your previous vocation, I assume you can handle those?”

“Yes,” James said. He thought he had to be missing something. It didn’t sound logical enough that she was willing to hire a transparent Conxence sympathizer ex-mad scientist just so she could have a bioroboticist under her personal jurisdiction. There had to be another reason Varnet wanted him around.

“There is also the question of what to do about this,” Varnet said, motioning to the left side of her face in a curling motion. “The first viable strain of the Q-13. You’re lucky to be alive.”

James glanced down at his hands, and tucked them into the pockets of his wool jacket. “Yeah.”

“And I hear it’s functional, no less.”

“Kind of,” James said, nervous. For a terrible moment, he thought she was going to ask him to show her. “It’s a huge strain on my body. I avoid using it.”

Varnet nodded thoughtfully. “If I bring you into the ICNS, I’m going to have to ask that you let us continue to study it.”

  James stiffened.

Varnet held up her palms in a pacifying gesture. “Of course, this will only look like routine health checkups, and occasional moderate demonstrations to see how its functionality develops over time. I’ll never let you in a room alone with Benson. Like I said, as an employee, you would be under my jurisdiction, and, therefore, my protection. Benson will not have access to you except through me. To be honest, he’s only grudgingly letting the ICNS take interest in the Q-13 as an alternative to Compatibilities.”

James stared at her, a low, muffled throbbing starting up again in his bones. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, it was his grandfather’s baby. Now that it’s finally drawn breath, it seems he’s afraid to share.” She tried to smile. “Don’t worry, Siles, I’m told there was nothing especially miraculous about your physiology prior to infusion. Requiring your cooperation in this is more a favor, a peace offering to Empetrum for my interest in bringing you on. Benson didn’t lose data in the ‘accident.’ He can finish the Q-13 without you. It’ll just take more time than it would without this favor.”

“I see,” James murmured. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or even more concerned. Essentially, either way, Empetrum would continue. Even though James had known destroying the facility wouldn’t truly bring it down, he was still disappointed. There was still time, however, as Richard had said. Dhar was horrified at what Benson had done to them, so maybe further corrective action would be taken, if they were lucky. Though, James didn’t have to be well-versed in corporate politics to have an idea of how these things typically went.

At this point, James would have to compromise.

“I’ll consent to medical checkups,” James said finally. “So long as I’m kept informed, and I’m not left alone with Benson. This position would mean a lot to me, but if I feel unsafe, I do reserve the right to defend myself.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Varnet said. 

Not that they couldn’t easily apprehend him, James thought. Q-13 or not. If Empetrum had been prepared like the ICNS likely was, he, Heather, and Erika would have been trapped there forever. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach at the thought. Why was he doing this again?

“We have very specific protocols and requirements,” Varnet went on. “We’ll provide that training here. If you want to take a stab at it, make yourself available next month to complete the program. If training goes well and after that trial period you decide this is really something you’re up for, the position’s yours. You would start in January.” She cracked a wry smile. “Provided you don’t try to destroy the ICNS first.”

James managed a nervous laugh, unsure if that was a joke or a threat. “No need to worry about that,” he said.

Varnet pulled open a drawer and produced a folder, which she extended across her desk. James stood up to take it.

“Here’s the basic information about what your position will entail, the dates of training, and so on,” she said. “The recruits’ trainer will conduct his own screening during this period.”

James nodded, glancing through the folder.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Varnet said.
The most burning questions he had, only time could answer: Was this a massive mistake? Would he be able to be there for the recruits when they were counting on him? Would this ever be worth anything?

“Not at this time,” he said. “I’ll save it for the training period.”

“All right. Well…” She stood up and rounded the desk to shake his hand. “Thank you for meeting with me today. Good luck.”

James tucked the folder under one arm to meet the gesture with the other hand. Stark, unnatural black against brown. “Thank you.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this.” She smiled, showing him to the door, and James felt a thrill of relief that the meeting was finally at its end. “Let’s hope it works out.”



James waited anxiously in the elevator of an urban apartment building, bundled up as usual, leaning on his cane.

“Be patient,” he sighed, reminding himself what Richard and Sue had said when he had asked them for advice on how to face his parents. How to tell them what he had been through and what he had done. “Be kind. Maintain your boundaries.”

He fidgeted with his knit beanie as the elevator arrived on the sixth floor and he stepped out. The sage-colored walls and white wainscoting brought back countless memories, impressions of leaving and returning through the corridor for errands, days shadowing his father at the university, the occasional onsite college course, feeling endlessly cooped up behind the door at the end of the hall.

His last presence there had ended in a fierce argument. They had tried to discourage him from accepting a permanent robotics position at Larkspur, believing instead he should seek out something with more biomedical leanings, following in his father’s footsteps. There had been threats, guilt, attempts to claw down the tiny spark of independence James had cultivated for himself.  He had left, fuming, swearing he would never come back, that he would never speak to them again, never give them another second of his life.

How tangled up things had been in his head back then. He had convinced himself he was free of them, while he still scrambled, privately, dangerously, to please the version of them he carried around in his own mind. 

He had grown bitter, isolated, and he had been content with that, believing it a necessity. He thought that everything he had been through should have made this easier, but he felt more and more unprepared as he neared their door, as if with every step, he regressed one year. Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen…

He stood at the door, his heart pounding in his chest. He took several long, steadying breaths, and solemnly pressed the doorbell.

Brisk footsteps came up the wood entryway. His mother, he guessed. Everything she did was calculated and well-timed. A tightness crept up into his throat as he waited. 

The door opened, revealing Allison Siles’ thin frame and hazel eyes, her expression both worried and relieved. Now that James was lucid and could see her clearly, he noticed she looked older somehow. Strained, exhausted.

The year he’d been away had not been kind to any of them.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Hi, Mom,” he managed. 

“Please come in,” she stepped aside and James entered. His dad was standing up from a recliner in the living room, coming over to receive him. 

“James,” Jonathan said, extending a hand.

James accepted it, thinking how he used to think this formality, this awkwardness, was normal. That everyone’s family was like this. He realized that even though his parents were controlling and cold, he had hurt them when he had shut them out. He had wanted to hurt them, revenge for all the times they had made him feel stupid and childish and small. For all the times they had reprimanded him for his fears, overrun his needs. Even when he had tried to put his foot down, they were so good at uprooting him. 

He worried now that they would pressure him, and he would give. Either they controlled him or he couldn’t have a relationship with them, and he wanted better than that.

As he left his cane by the door and took a seat in the living room, his mother strode off to the kitchen, volunteering to make tea.

James clasped his hands on his knees. Awkward silence closed in between him and his father. They sat still, listening to the sounds of the sink turning on, mugs clinking as Allison took them out of the cupboard.

It struck him how similar he and his dad looked in that moment: drained, cold, trying to heal. They were even almost sitting the same way, hands on knees. 

  “So, uh,” James spoke up, surreptitiously trying to find a different way to position himself. “How many treatments do you have left?”

“Twelve,” his father said.

“And it’s still working?” James fumbled. “I mean, you’re going to be okay?”

“Seems that way.”

James nodded, his gaze on his hands in his lap. “Good.”

“And you?” Jonathan said. “Going to pull through?”

“I think so,” James said. “I finally went to the doctor to get checked out. My metabolism’s messed up, among other things, but it’s showing signs of stabilizing.”

After his meeting with Varnet, when it seemed Benson wouldn’t swoop in and drag him back to whatever borrowed lab space currently harbored Empetrum, James went to take stock of his medical situation. He had come home from the doctor with a laundry list of afflictions and went straight to bed with an electric blanket. At least he was improving, however slowly, though it wasn’t likely his health would ever return to what it was before the Q-13.

Jonathan nodded. “Good to hear you’re stabilizing.”

James nodded too. 

Allison joined them while the kettle heated.

In the hushed silence, perforated only by the ticking of the clock on the wall, James gathered his nerves and said, “I’m sorry I shut you out. I didn’t know what else I could do at the time.”

Jonathan tried to smile. “We deserved it, didn’t we?” He paused, then grew serious and uncertain. “When I was in the hospital, all I could think about was how hard we pushed you. How—” He faltered. “How scared you were of me…”

James remained silent. He still wasn’t used to his parents admitting mistakes. The Jonathan and Allison of his past simply rationalized situations and stood their ground until James couldn’t think of any more rebuttals, even if they knew they were wrong.

“I’m ready to tell you what happened,” James said finally. “Just, before I get into it, I want you to know that it’s been handled, and I’m taking the steps forward that I feel are necessary. I ask that you honor my choices.”

There was a long silence. James’ heart thudded hard in his chest, throbbing in his ears. 

“Okay,” Jonathan said. Allison nodded. The kettle started to whistle, making James jump. 

He felt a pull from his scars and at first he thought it was just a minor twinge, but then his arms started going cold. He stood up with a thrill of panic.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said, his voice ticked up a notch. He retreated down the hallway, shut himself in the bathroom, and braced his hands on the counter, trying to breathe. 

“You’re fine,” he whispered. “You’re okay.” He ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s not that hard to say. ‘I built you a machine.’” He couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t. “‘It was the wrong answer but I wasn’t ready to face you without it.’”

The Q-13 hurt enough that he thought he might have started glowing, but he was afraid to open his eyes, to see himself as he was in a mirror that had known him as a child. That bore witness to what he had become. When he was much younger, he’d had a strange idea that perhaps mirrors recorded what happened in front of them, and could betray his most private moments to those who knew how to access them. Even back then, he knew it was crazy, but he felt like his parents somehow could.

He clenched his hands into fists, breathing deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth. Finally, hesitantly, he opened his eyes. The marks weren’t glowing, but his irises were.

He stared into them, trying to see himself in them. Trying to imagine what the Brophys saw when they looked into them. It was still hard for him to see past the surface, past the gaze of a monster that had gotten what it deserved. 

James kept thinking of his outward scars as his misdeeds branded into his skin, a testament to his cowardice and failure. But he knew they were a byproduct of his efforts to make things right. The Q-13 was a punishment he had harnessed to free himself and help his friends. The marks were a badge of courage, not of shame. 

He allowed himself a few more minutes, waiting for his pulse to calm down, for the pain to ebb. There was nothing he could do about the glowing. When his eyes did that, he had found, it usually persisted, and he could only hope it wasn’t noticeable in the light.

He took another breath, straightened his shoulders, and forced himself to open the door, to go back to face his parents.

A cup of tea waited on the coffee table for him, and he was surprised by its cream-like quality. When James was a child, he preferred it this way, with milk and sugar, but his mother had always given it to him black. It was more grown up, she used to say.

He stiffly lowered himself onto the couch before it, and took the warm mug in his hands. He thanked her, his throat tight, and they all sat in silence. He expected his parents to speak up, to prod the conversation forward, but they didn’t. They didn’t take command of the situation. They waited for him to initiate. He wondered if the Brophys had been secretly coaching them as well.

James took a sip of tea. It didn’t matter how they reacted, he told himself. What mattered was that he was taking the step to let them in of his own volition, and they were finally giving him the space to decide.

  He considered telling them he wasn’t ready after all, and was going to hold onto the truth for a while longer. Except he didn’t want to. He wanted them to know, as much as he feared it. He knew he would never have a relationship with his mom and dad like Heather had with hers, but through them, James had caught a glimpse of the possibilities. Of what could be, in whatever form that took with his pragmatic, formal parents.

Finally, staring at the mug in his hands, James said, “I’m sorry, this is very hard for me. But I’ll do my best to explain it.”

“Take your time, James,” Jonathan said, settling in. “We’ve already waited this long. A few more minutes won’t kill us.”

James scoffed unsteadily. “Well, brace yourselves, I guess.” He spent a few moments more, taking slow breaths, considering where to begin. “When you called, Mom, to tell me Dad had cancer, I wasn’t ready to see either of you. But I did want to help somehow, to buy more time. I came up with an idea for a machine, and over the next month or so, I figured out how to make it work.”

As he talked, his parents sat still, their attention undivided. He expected interjection, unsolicited instruction, deep, volatile disappointment, but they just sat and listened. Surprised, maybe even horrified. He got to the part about the Q-13, and he steeled himself for the moment where all this just became too complex, too improbable. When one of them would tell him to stop lying and tell them the truth.

But they didn’t ask for that. They seemed to accept his narrative as it was.

“So those black marks,” his mother spoke up during a lull in his account. “The sickness you had…”

James nodded and took a drink of tea to soothe his dry throat. “Q-13. My body was acclimating. Seems like it almost didn’t.”

When no other questions followed, he finished his story, quietly, and was met with a long silence. 

“I’m sorry, James,” Allison said finally.

James leaned forward, setting his mug down. He rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. He couldn’t believe he’d made it all the way through.

“It’s unfortunate organorobotic transference was too easily abused,” Jonathan said. He hesitated. “You really made that machine for me?”

James nodded. His stomach was in knots, and shame sat heavy and suffocating in his chest.

“Wow…” Jonathan said quietly, humbly.

James carefully sat up, beginning to massage his aching hands. “Well, I figure life is just too fragile for grudges, isn’t it?”

His parents looked at each other. 

His mother managed a smile. “Yes,” she said, tucking a strand of straight brown hair behind her ear. “It certainly is.”


October thirtieth was Heather’s sixteenth birthday, and she didn’t feel like celebrating. The whole month had been transition after transition, millions of reminders she railed dutifully against, refusing to give in to the feeling that James’ selfish mistakes would define the rest of her life.

She had spent so much time over the last few weeks trying to figure out how to reintroduce herself to the new form her life had taken—breaking the news to loved ones and trying to get them to believe her, still wanting school and a social life, college, a career. A spouse and family of her own down the road.

How did a mechanical body process trauma? Could robots go to therapy?

Her human face stared back at her from all the photos on the walls downstairs. Eventually, she had asked if they could put them away. Her parents honored her request, but it felt like a defeat.

They replaced her bed with a futon and set up a charging station nearby. It felt better to her that way. Her parents bought a generator strong enough to support both her and Sesame’s energy needs in the event of a power outage, in preparation for winter. She couldn’t use touch screen cellphones, so she traded hers for an older model with buttons.

Her old clothes were too big for her now. After weeks of trying to make it work, her parents shyly suggested updating her wardrobe, which set her into a whole new wave of grief and denial. Having to reorient her life around her hijacked robotic body felt like a steady stream of failings, staring into the endless abyss of a future that confused and scared and disappointed her. She wanted to like going outside, but she felt so odd and wrong in public, and inevitably drew suspicion everywhere she went. The locals of Knights Bridge were very acquainted with Larkspur’s tumultuous past, and didn’t appreciate its weird science leaking back into their town.

James and Sesame stayed with them while James got back on his feet, looking for work and housing, and got used to managing his condition. He was getting his color back, save for the black marks, which remained darker than ever.

They were all hopeful that the effects of the Q-13 would fade, and perhaps, in time, leave his system altogether. She still feared, privately, that they would lose him, but every day he hung on, improving little by little. She tried to be grateful for every day they had him.

He had grown quiet over the recent month, and had become someone she could talk with about anything. They both intended to live, and they promised to help each other in that ongoing goal.

In the days leading up to her sixteenth birthday, it occurred to her that she could think of it as a rebirth. A rising from the ashes. 

But it was so hard to make those thoughts stick, as, minutes before a modest party was to take place, she stood alone in her bedroom in front of the mirror, taking in the sight of a robot in a short floral sundress.

Trying to play human.

She wanted to just give up and don the usual running shorts and t-shirt combo she’d worn almost exclusively since coming home. It felt makeshift, appropriate for something like her. Existing and okay, but not trying for more. Not expecting any more than okay.

She had just made up her mind to abandon the dress when Sesame poked his head in. He gasped in delight, preferring to make it mimic a human gasp. He did the same thing with sighs, while Heather didn’t see the point in imitation.

She resented that she had to mimic to express herself the way she had before.

“What?” Heather turned away and made for the futon, where her shorts and t-shirt lay waiting. She picked up the latter. “I’m not wearing this downstairs.”

“What do you mean?” Sesame declared. “It’s adorable!”

Heather paused at the futon, squeezing the shirt in her robotic hands. Sesame always thought everything was great. His body didn’t make him feel ugly or wrong or lost.

She shook her head.

“I’ll get James,” he said. “Second opinion. You’ll see.”

“No.” Heather turned. Sesame stopped in the doorway. She sat down on the futon, tossed the shirt aside, and hid her face in her hands. “Please don’t.”

There was a pause. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just—it doesn’t fit. Nothing fits…” she curled forward, her voice fizzling and quiet. “It’s always just me, trying to shove myself back into a dead girl’s life. It’s so gross.”

She felt Sesame take a seat beside her. “But this is your life, and you aren’t dead.”

“I might as well be.”

Another pause. Then, matter-of-factly, Sesame said, “Well, then it’s all right for you to wear a cute dress on your birthday.” 

Heather buzzed a short, emotional scoff. “How is that?”

“If you might as well be dead, then you equally might as well live,” Sesame said. “You want to live, right?”

“Well, yeah…” Heather’s gaze fell. “It’s just hard to see the point of all this trying.”

“You’ll figure it out,” he said, offering a smile. “You have us. We’ll all figure it out together.”

Heather cracked a wan smile back.

He got up, took her hands in his and pulled her up too. “Let’s go downstairs.”

She hesitated, but let herself be led out of the room. It was somehow easier than appearing by herself at the top of the stairs. 

“Are you sure this is okay?” she asked, keeping the volume of her voice very low just before they emerged where everyone else could see her.  

“Of course it is,” Sesame said, smiling. 

It was a small gathering, just her parents and James and Sesame. Sue had James planted at the kitchen table, folding multicolored streamers into each other, making an origami ribbon to hang from the ceiling like a chandelier. Her parents were cooking. She had encouraged them to make a dinner out of it, even though she wouldn’t be able to eat it. After three months without her organic body, she was beginning to lose her taste for it, anyway.

Her joining the group was unassuming, with little fanfare, and it somehow reminded her all over again why she loved these people. 

Her mom broke off from party preparations to give her a hug. “I love that dress,” she said.

“Thanks,” Heather said, embarrassed. It was a dress she’d gotten when she was organic. It had an elastic bodice and a gathered skirt, so it fit her even in her new form.

When they sat down to dinner, her parents set a small wrapped box in front of her. She hesitated.

“Open it,” her dad said, smiling.

James fidgeted.

Heather gingerly pulled off the top. Inside was a plastic frame that contained a small bundle of soft blue polymer. She unfolded what looked like the beginnings of a glove, with two finger sleeves and a strip that hung down, ending in a soft open ring. Wires laced the device.

“What is it?” she asked, looking between James and her dad. 

“A prototype,” Richard said. “It’s embedded with hundreds of tiny temperature and pressure sensors. We wanted to start experimenting with creating sensation. James built the program, and Addie steamheaded the nanotechnology parts of it, as is her specialty.”

Heather smiled. “Can I try it out?”

“Please do,” Richard said.

She slipped her right hand through the loop at the bottom, inserting her first two fingers into the sleeves. She unwound the long, thin cord, locating the end. “Does this go in my head?”

“Yes.” James stood up, carefully. “May I?”

Heather opened up her cranial panels as he came over, and passed him the end of the cord. He craned his hands into her head and she felt a push as he inserted the cord into one of the ports in her neural network.

“We tested this on Sesame,” he said, making sure the cord wasn’t caught on anything. Heather felt a connection, and a thrill of pins and needles bloomed in the cloth over her hand. “It’s a little buggy still, but it’s on its way.”

Heather slowly curled her hand into a fist. The sensation wasn’t nearly as sensitive as she remembered in her organic body, and it was anchored in a thinner medium so it didn’t exactly feel “real.” Not yet, anyway. But it was much more sensitive than she’d grown accustomed to in her body as it was. 

Fascinated, she pressed her two covered fingers to the table. It was cool to the touch. She reached out for James’ hand. It was warmer. She pulled his mug of tea closer to her, pressing her hand against it. It was hot, though the sensation was devoid of the comfort she used to feel from cupping her hands around a hot drink. She no longer had a body that preferred a narrow temperature range. Feeling pleasure from warmth would be something they’d have to program in if she wanted it, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized how incredibly complex a task it would be to build her a body that felt even remotely like her rightful one.

“What do you think?” Richard asked.

Heather smiled at the device on her hand. “It’s amazing. Thank you.”

“Our goal is to have your body done by the fall next year,” Richard said. “So you can go to school, like you’d mentioned.”

She looked up, surprised. “Really?”

He nodded.

“I’m worried, though,” she said. “If the Bureau’s paying for it, doesn’t that mean the work we do will belong to them, and, by association, the government? I know you were wanting to take Larkspur private whenever possible…”

“We considered that,” Richard said, standing up. He retrieved a black folder from the home office and handed it to her. It was a legal document. “We got it in writing. The Bureau is paying for it, but the technology belongs to its developers. Namely, us, and the other Larkspur engineers.”

“We wanted to make sure we were free to build upon and develop the technology,” James said. “As well as to maintain it, even if Larkspur decides to privatize.”

“Plans we purposefully neglected to bring up,” Richard said. “Though Dhar’s probably suspecting it, considering the situation.”

James nodded. “And while this isn’t a guarantee that the government won’t overrun it, it’s more protection than we would have had otherwise.”

Sue scoffed. “Instead of depending on their ‘good will’ alone.” 

James cracked a cynical smile at Heather’s mom in agreement.

Heather’s gaze fell. She flipped through the document, skimming the tightly typed pages of definitions, guidelines, and technicalities, committing them to memory. She wanted to ask why they were going through all this trouble for her, why she deserved to be one of the rare recipients of federal restitution.

It was because of Eve, she knew. Eve and Dhar went way back. She wasn’t sure exactly how far back, or why Larkspur was allowed to operate how it did while Empetrum was under so much pressure in the human weaponry sphere, as Dhar had mentioned. She supposed she’d never know completely.

Instead of voicing any of these questions, she cracked a sideways smile, as best as she could with her simplistic, robotic face, and said, “Mr. Dhar must feel really bad about this.”


James felt like he was trespassing as he walked across the Larkspur lobby with Richard and Heather. His notebook was already saturated with ideas and he was eager to get a head start before beginning orientation at the ICNS only a few short days away.

He had carpooled with the Brophys, even though, miraculously, he’d gotten his car back from Empetrum. He had received an email from a local storage company saying he had one month to collect his possessions. When he’d wandered over to the location to see whether it was legitimate or not, he had been given two keys: one to an auto unit and the other to one that he had found contained everything from his apartment, including a few extra boxes from his housing at Empetrum. 

Varnet must have ordered Benson to give his stuff back. He took it as a good omen.

James’ thoughts were interrupted by an arm catching him around the head, and he uttered a soft yelp of surprise. 

“Long time no see!” Greg said affably. James felt his knit hat being pulled off. “Hey, your hair’s growing back.”

“Yeah.” James pushed up on Greg’s arm and his former colleague released him. 

Greg handed his hat back. “Is it fireproof now?”

“Yes,” James said, pulling the beanie back on. The question of his altered physiology had gotten to him one day and he’d finally grown enough of his hair back to try it. He had figured out how to activate the Q-13 in just one hand and pinched the top of his hair. It hadn’t even singed.

  He had found, in fact, that he was impervious to heat damage in general, not just the Q-13’s fire. Later that same day, Sue had walked in on him curiously placing his palm onto a red hot stovetop burner. That hadn’t blown over well with her.

Greg nodded. “Good, good.” He moved on to greet Richard and Heather.

James paused in fixing his hat, watching them chat. He felt like he must be dreaming. A month ago, after managing to stay alive, he was bracing himself to start over from scratch, disconnected from everything he had valued. He still felt a small, panicky tightness in his chest to be standing among his old colleagues, like he’d somehow assumed it was all right to come along when everyone was actually still waiting for him to get lost. Robotics had become a sore, complicated wound in his soul, but the chance to help build Heather’s organic-passing body felt like a step in a positive direction. He was grateful for the opportunity.

It made him feel like maybe he could face the ICNS.



James hunched his shoulders against the late November cold as he walked to his car in the ICNS parking lot. The last month of training had thoroughly worn him out, and he was already lining up his plan of action: sleep off the last month at the Brophy’s house and then devote all his energy to working on Heather’s body before he had to get situated in an apartment in the capital and prepare lesson plans for the recruits.

The capital was an hour from Larkspur, so once classes started in a little over a month, it would be more difficult to collaborate in person, especially with the added barrier of chronic pain and fatigue he still battled with the Q-13.

Pushing the folder containing his teaching certification under his arm, he searched for his keys with the other gloved hand, eager to get back to his found family, where there were tea, electric blankets, and moral support. Living alone in temporary housing near the ICNS for a month had been tougher than he’d expected. He had always been perfectly happy living alone before.

Completely unprompted, Sesame had volunteered to live with him in the capital. When asked if he wouldn’t rather stay with Heather, the little robot’s reply was, “Somebody’s gotta make sure you eat food and come home once in a while.”

As James unlocked his car, he smiled to himself, remembering.

Someone called out behind him, making him jump. It was a voice that still appeared in his nightmares, that haunted his waking thoughts, “Of all things, I really didn’t expect this from you, Siles.”

James whipped around in fear. The Q-13 affronted his left eye with light as his body instinctively braced itself for defense. The director of Empetrum approached, calmly, his hands in the pockets of his coat and a tired, exasperated expression on his face.

James covered the glowing stripe on his cheek with his hand. “What do you want?”

“Simply to ask what you’re playing at,” Benson said, scorn in his gray eyes. James hadn’t seen him since Heather had destroyed his lab. The wound on his cheek had mostly healed, leaving a thin, silver scar. “You’re lucky Varnet doesn’t like me very much. Otherwise, your little interview last month would have gone very differently.”

James’ careful exhales billowed into the chill air before dissipating away. Relief washed through him as the Q-13 started to calm down and the sharp pain began to fade.

“Getting a proper handle on it, I see,” Benson remarked. “That’s probably a good thing.”

“What’s happening with Empetrum these days?” James asked, warily.

Benson scoffed. “Like I’d tell you.” He crossed his arms. “I know you’re here to try to get in the way.”

James pulled his scarf closer. “Not necessarily.”

“Oh, right, it was because you wanted to be moral support.” Benson made quotations with his fingers. “You know Varnet didn’t hire you because she appreciates your bleeding heart, right?”


Benson paused, studying him for a moment. James stood his ground.

“You are still so young,” Benson said. “Someday, you’ll have finally grown up enough to realize how childish and futile this savior complex of yours is.”

“What do you mean by that?” James said, his eyebrows lowering. He felt the Q-13 stirring again, and he tightened his grip on his scarf. The weather suddenly felt colder, cruel and frigid.

“You can’t move forward without getting your hands dirty,” Benson said. “Progress doesn’t happen that way. You don’t happen that way.” He readjusted his glasses. “Soon enough, your honeymoon with the Brophys will end, and the person you are is still in there, waiting to resurface. You will still crave everything you left behind to try to follow their ideals, and Brophy and his daughter will try to stand in your way when you inevitably start to deviate. They’ll disapprove of your ideas, call you obsessed. They’ll try to force you to slow down, and you will grow to resent their small-mindedness. Mark my words, Siles. Something else will come up, something you can’t resist. And I look forward to watching you turn.”

James shook his head, fear pounding in his ears. He clutched his keys close to his chest. The black in his skin throbbed, close to tipping, and his gaze fell to his shoes on the cold, rain-soaked pavement, waiting for the sting of Benson’s prediction to wear off. It kept occurring to him over and over again that the unassuming, soft-spoken person before him had tried to kill him, and had almost succeeded. Some days it felt like he had dreamt the whole thing.

You will regret crossing me, coward, James frequently heard those words at the back of his mind, as clear as if Benson were repeating them himself. If you survive this, you will regret it every day for the rest of your wretched, wasted life

“I’m not that person anymore,” James said. He opened his car door. “Thank you for returning my belongings. And for leaving us alone.”

Benson glanced aside, aloof. “Well, I didn’t want them. Didn’t care to invite any more of Dhar’s wrath, anyway.”

“So there was disciplinary action?” James said. 

Benson cracked a wan, bitter smile, his gaze flicking back to James’. “Now that, is none of your business.”

James shrugged and stiffly climbed into his car. “See you in January, Dr. Benson.”

Benson tilted his head in concession. 

James shut the door, started the engine with shaking hands, and left the ICNS, refusing to glance in his rearview mirror until he was at least several streets removed. He turned the heat in his car on full blast and tried to get himself to relax in time to merge onto the freeway.

He didn’t really have to work with Benson, he reminded himself. He was working with the recruits, answering to Varnet. He’d have to put up with a monthly Q-13 checkup, but he was otherwise free of Empetrum.

James’ life was his own. Not wretched, not wasted.

The ringing of his cell phone chimed through his stereo speakers. The display read “Heather.” He pushed a button on the console to answer it, excited to tell her he was finally on his way.



Sesame volunteered to ring the doorbell. James stood beside him, a short stack of boxes balanced in one arm, a large wrapped bowl in the other, and a duffle bag with his cane in the strap hanging from one shoulder. They were staying the weekend.

The soft tone sounded behind the door, and James tried to ignore the cold seeping through all his layers, including the bulky knit scarf pulled up over his chin.

Was this okay? he still wanted to ask Sesame. No matter what the Brophys said, or how much time he had spent with them, was James’ presence here really okay?

Sesame stepped back, fixing his bright turquoise sweater. He flashed an eager smile up at James.

The door opened, revealing Heather’s smiling robotic face. “Hey!”

James smiled back as she invited them in. “Hi.”

Heather gave them each a hug. James awkwardly attempted to return the greeting with his arms full.

“Can I put the presents under the tree?” James asked, nudging the door shut with his foot.

“Yeah.” Heather eyed the boxes. “You got us presents?”

“Of course!” Sesame cried. “We went to a big shopping center in the capital and James didn’t like any of my gift ideas.”

“I didn’t turn all of them down,” James said.

Heather paused. “You both went to a mall?” In an enclosed space, with hundreds of people that might see, might get curious.

Sesame nodded. He pulled up the collar of his sweater to illustrate as he said, “I had my hood up and kept my face turned off if people were looking. We don’t get approached that way. I think people think it’s a mask.” He tipped his head back. “James is still so uncomfortable in public.” 

“No, I’m not,” James protested, embarrassed.

Not attracting attention among civilians was still an unmastered art for all of them. When they did get approached by strangers, Sesame was the first to tell them he was simply A.I. on a test drive. He even made his voice sound a little disjointed, and purposefully neglected to respond to social cues, as if he weren’t nearly as self-aware as he actually was.

The world just wasn’t ready for hybridized A.I., for human weaponry. Though, ready or not, everything Empetrum had prepared was about to crash land into the public eye. James could feel it growing nearer every day.

“You’ll find something over there for each of you two as well,” Richard called from the kitchen, and Sesame gasped in delight.

James handed Sesame the boxes. He maneuvered the bag from his shoulder and slipped off his shoes, heading toward the kitchen. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Richard turned his attention away from the stove to smile at him. “Of course we did! You’re part of the family.” He reached out for the bowl in James’ hands. “Oh the salad, thank you.” He took a closer look at it as James handed it over. “Tangerines and almond slices too? Looks great, James.”

“That was Sesame’s idea,” James said, rubbing the back of his neck. “He has way more talent for food preparation than I do.”

Richard laughed, stowing the salad in the fridge to wait for dinner. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

Sue emerged from upstairs. “I thought I heard a couple of new voices,” she said. She pulled James into a gentle side hug. “How are your parents?”

“They’re good,” James said. He had gotten together with them the day before for a little holiday celebration of their own. It was still awkward with them, but it was getting easier.

“I just finished making mulled wine, if you want some,” Richard said. He gestured at the stove. “You’re twenty-one now, so you have to try it.”

“Okay, sure.” James cracked a shy smile. “Thanks.”

He backtracked to retrieve his duffle bag and cane from the door and carry them down the hallway to the guest room, which had been prepared for him. He could hear Sesame telling Heather what the two of them had been up to since the last time they had talked, how they had figured out that applying heat helped James when he was having an episode, which was good because James said he didn’t want to make the neighbors at their apartment suspicious or burn holes through the floor. He could normally make it go away, but if it got bad, he could stand under the cold shower. They kept a bucket of water ready in the refrigerator just in case and one time Sesame had to douse James in the kitchen and James was mad but Sesame was pretty sure it was at himself for not being able to control it…

James heaved a sigh and dropped his belongings by the bed.

“Hey—Sesame, I haven’t had an episode in at least a week and a half,” James said as he reemerged from the hallway. “And I’m better able to control it than before.” Richard handed him a mug, catching him off guard. “Oh—thanks.”

Richard turned down the stove and ladled some wine for Sue, then himself.

“Do you want any help with dinner?” James asked. The mug warmed his hands. Whatever was in the oven smelled amazing, and there was a covered bowl of something in the microwave.

“We’re fine.” Richard waved him into the living room. “Go ahead and relax. The main course has a few minutes left in the oven, and then we’ll be all set.”

James took a sip of wine. He paused and looked at it. It was sweet and dark, with cinnamon, orange peels, and cloves, and a warm bite that reminded him of cough syrup. Wine was an acquired taste, he thought.

“What do you think?” Richard asked.

“It’s good,” James said, and cleared his throat. Sue laughed. 

“You get used to it,” she said. She moved toward the living room to greet Sesame, who was admiring the Christmas tree. Heather was telling him stories about some of the ornaments.

James glanced at Richard, who made a gentle shooing motion toward the living room. James wandered over and sat down on the couch, trying not to immediately doze off in the soft cushions while he listened to the conversation around the tree. It had been a busy week of planning. He couldn’t believe his start date was so near.

He hadn’t seen much of the recruits while he was training. They were on a tight schedule on the upper levels of the facility, while James’ activities mostly stayed on the first floor. He hoped they wouldn’t remember him. His first impression had been awkward: an exhausted, traumatized Empetrum scientist watching them from afar with what James suspected had been an expression of thinly-veiled horror.

Heather took a seat next to him. “So? How are you feeling about starting in a week?”

“Very nervous,” James said quietly, staring into his cup of mulled wine. “I hope they like me…”

“They will.” Heather offered a reassuring smile as she leaned back into the cushions.

“I can’t believe I consented to spend any time around Benson.”

“I’m glad Varnet’s standing between you and him,” Heather said. “Sounds like Benson doesn’t hold a lot of direct influence in her domain, despite everything.”

James nodded, troubled. When they were trapped there, it had felt like Empetrum controlled the whole world. 

“You’ll be okay,” Heather said. She shifted position and laid her head against his arm. “Empetrum has no power over you anymore. And you have us now.”

James swallowed and nodded again. He sighed. “So, what did you study this week?”

Heather had been teaching herself engineering, so she could be helpful in building her new body. James suspected she would build the whole thing herself to avoid being fussed over, if they let her. 

“Started some electrical engineering 101,” she said, nonchalant. “A little coding too.”

James nodded. “I think I still have some of my textbooks and notes from my college classes if you’d like me to bring them over.”

“Sure,” Heather said. “Thanks. Absorbing the information is easy, but applying it is harder. Physics for mechanical engineering has been a trip.”

Whenever he went over to the Brophy’s house, a new stack of library books often towered on the table by the door. With how quickly her neural network integrated information, he thought she would probably be bored in school, but he would never tell her that. He knew it wasn’t about the education. It was about life, community. The chance to choose where she would spend her time and energy, to build a future.

  The prospect of said future was intimidating for all of them. There could be a great deal of trouble ahead, with Larkspur trying to privatize, building Heather a body that not only looked, but felt real, and with James working at the ICNS while loosely connected with the rebellion.

Before his certification training at the ICNS and his move into an offsite apartment in the capital when his activities would become easier to track, he had driven out to Erika’s house in the country to meet with her and the Conxence member who called himself Ganymede, to discuss the particulars of Empetrum and the ICNS. Their conversation was private, off the grid and out of earshot of any electronic devices. Ganymede wore a black surgical mask and a baseball cap, upon James’ request that he remain as anonymous as possible.

James appreciated the rebellion’s willingness to fight for them, and hoped the information he offered could help them safely navigate the situation with the ICNS recruits. Once James started at the ICNS, all contact with the rebellion would have to cease, and if Varnet ever found out the Conxence knew as much as they now did, she’d know exactly who was responsible.

Richard joined them in the den. Their conversation meandered from one subject to the next, with banter and laughter, and James sat there in the midst of it, quietly trying to lay out the variables in his own mind. To string them together, figure out how the culmination of his mistakes could have landed him here. How this was even an option.

Benson’s ominous prediction lurked continually in the corners of his mind. Reversion felt impossible, but he was terrified of its potential. Like Heather had said, old habits die hard.

He only knew he would do anything in his power to make it up to the Brophys, to protect them, to fight for them, to strive to become someone worthy of their care. On some level, he would always be chasing recompense. He felt like he was starting over in completely new territory, and he had very little to offer, nothing he could promise with confidence.

All he could do, the only thing that felt appropriate in that moment, was to be there, gratefully. In the cordial glow of holiday lights, enjoying the company of his loved ones undeserved, a soft smile stole unbidden across his features, and he let it linger.

Maybe, for now, this was enough. 





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.




Through a haze of fever, pressure, and pain, James heard his name.

“James…” the voice sounded like Richard. “We called your parents. They’re here to see you.”

He opened his eyes, dread stirring painfully in his tortured insides. 

“What?” he croaked. “No—”

His slow gaze found the door and he realized his parents were already standing in the open doorway. His father tall, and his mother serious.

Weakly, painfully, he gripped the covers and pulled them up over his head.

“James, please,” Richard said. “They’re worried about you.”

James’ breathing was disturbed, his eyes wide under the shelter of the blankets. They couldn’t see him like this.

“James,” his father spoke. “I know you don’t want to see us, but Brophy and his family are worried you’re not going to make it.”

James heard movement. They were coming closer.

“You need a hospital,” Allison said.

“I can’t,” James managed. “It’s not safe.”

“Don’t die for your pride,” Jonathan pleaded, fear masked in anger.

James set his jaw. Pain flared in his abdomen and he curled up into fetal position with an arm across his stomach and a hand to his mouth, staving off the urge to vomit.

“It’s not pride,” Richard explained quietly. “It’s—complicated…”

Jonathan sighed, the old, disapproving exasperation James knew. That sigh was branded into the back of his mind, always demanding, never satisfied. Richard had brought it into the house, into his sickroom. 

“What could he have done that was so complicated you can’t tell us?” Jonathan said. “Obviously, he wants to keep it from us, but whatever it is is killing our son and don’t we have a right to know?”

“What are those black marks?” Allison said. “Tattoos? Did he join some kind of cult? Did they do something to him?”

James closed his eyes, tightly.

“James, may I tell them?” Richard asked.

“No,” James said.

“They think you joined a cult,” Richard emphasized, frustrated. 

“Didn’t I?” James wheezed. It stung that his cerebral, academic parents’ first thought was that he’d joined a religious cult, but that was better than knowing he was a murderer too.

“At least let us see you,” Allison said, very quietly. “We were so worried when you disappeared.”

James thought it over. He was too tired to fight this anymore. If he just gave them what they wanted, maybe they’d leave. He would never be brave enough to tell them the truth.

Finally, he slowly brought the covers down, revealing his face. He painstakingly uncurled himself and settled in, his body throbbing and aching. He took a slow breath, staring up at the ceiling for a moment, before looking at his parents. Their expressions gave way to a kind of awed despair at the sight of him, and he couldn’t bear their pity.

He wearily observed his father, whose own face was ashen and haggard. He wore a knit hat as well, and now that James paid more attention, he realized Jonathan was bundled up a little more than usual. And he remembered what had begun all of this.

“How are you feeling, Dad?” James managed.

Jonathan hesitated, surprised. “Oh. Better.”

“I got your voicemail,” James said sluggishly. His energy was spent and he could feel his consciousness waning. “But I didn’t have a chance to call you back. My phone was taken. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Jonathan nodded, his lips tight. 

Richard took a step toward the door. “I’ll give you three some privacy…”

When they were alone, no one knew what to say to each other, what to do. Finally, his parents pulled up a couple of spare chairs that had been folded against the wall and took a seat near his bed. James closed his eyes, trying to relax. This was okay, he told himself.

But every time he glanced at his father, he wanted to confess, to tell him about the machine he had built for him, the terrible things it had led to. But if he started talking, he wouldn’t stop, and before they knew it, they’d probably be yelling at each other. For the past, the present, and the future. His parents would dig their heels in, and then they would assert their dominance and call an ambulance, or the police, to take James to the hospital by force. 

So he didn’t say anything, and his parents didn’t ask. They just sat there together in silence, wondering if maybe this would be the last time.



Heather sat with James all that night, holding his feverish hand as if that could keep him tethered to his body.

She hoped on some level he knew she was with him, though he stayed unconscious except for when he suddenly sat up, incoherently searching for somewhere to vomit. It was usually the black stuff that came up, bleeding from his nose at the same time. Trembling and gasping, he groped for the glass of water after, and Heather helped him wipe the bile off his face, and tried to get him to drink an electrolyte mix. He kept it down, which she took as a good omen.

“You don’t have to do this, Heather,” her mom had said before bedding down on the couch for the first watch. “Your dad and I can look after him.” 

“I asked him to make a shield with the Q-13 at Empetrum,” Heather confessed, quiet and broken. “He pushed himself too far because of me.” 

Sue hugged her. “None of this is your fault, sweetie. You each did what you had to do, and James made his choice.”

Heather stayed at his bedside anyway. She refused to give up hope, though it was a tiny, exhausted flame, holding vigil over her friend’s failing body. She couldn’t imagine facing the aftermath of Empetrum without him, but more and more she feared she would have to. 

Sesame dropped by every couple of hours to check in. He watched the house at night, vigilant for trespassers and unafraid of the dark. They still didn’t know what Benson planned to do next, and of course no one was about to drive up to Empetrum to ask as the days dragged on without sight of their adversaries.

Heather had asked if Sesame knew how to channel electricity from his core, and he proudly showed her. He was happy to feel like part of the team, and it was a comfort to not be the only robot in the house.

She jerked suddenly awake. She hadn’t realized she’d fallen into hibernation, and her circuits lurched with desperate dread of what she might have missed. Whether James had slipped away.

Instead, she found his face startlingly close to hers in the modest morning light, his naked brow constricted in weary concentration as his stained fingers carefully pushed inward on the extension cord hooked to her chest, checking its connection. He glanced up, inquisitive and relieved to see her awake.

Heather stared at him, eyes wide and emotional as he checked the clamp holding it in place before he withdrew. She gently caught his hand, gazing into his lucid golden eyes. Her temperature sensor clicked on.

His fever had finally broken. 


Erika fought to ignore the knot in her stomach as Richard drove down the long gravel lane. Pastureland spread out around them.

They passed the barn.

Richard stopped at a small yellow house. She was both relieved and terrified to see the family pickup truck sitting in the driveway. They knew she was coming today.

“Doing okay?” Richard asked.

Erika nodded and flashed an uncertain smile. “Thanks for taking me all the way out here. It really means a lot.”

Richard smiled back. “My pleasure.”

She had stuck around for a week, making sure everything was okay, and as soon as James’ condition started improving, with no sign of retrieval efforts by Empetrum, Heather encouraged her to go home, to reunite with her own family. There would be time to talk about Non-Comp’s progenitors later. 

The Brophys were kind people, she thought. Siles was in good hands.

Erika drew a steadying breath and opened the door.

“Goodbye,” she said, smiling.

“Come back and visit anytime,” Richard said. “You’re always welcome.”

Erika nodded. “Thank you.” She maneuvered herself out of the car, carefully pulling her accessory arms after her. So much had changed. 

Anxiously, she crept up the walkway to the front door and rang the bell. The baying of the family bloodhounds erupted from inside the house.

“Coming!” a voice called from within. Tristan. Her sister.

Erika’s throat tightened.

The door opened. Tristan’s expression gave way to raw shock. The dogs pushed past her legs, rushing out to greet the newcomer on their way to the grassy front yard.

Erika waited for something to happen, her face ablaze with shame and apprehension.

“Erika,” Tristan breathed, opening the door further. Her attention found her sister’s extra arms before she looked on, watching Richard’s car back up and turn around. 

“I warned you it would be weird—” Erika began, but her voice cut off in surprise as her sister threw herself at her. 

Tristan’s lean arms clamped around her. “I don’t care if it’s weird.” She whipped her face back. “Dad! It’s Erika!” 

Her father’s feet slid on the floor in his haste to round the corner. His wide brown eyes brimmed with tears as he stepped forward to join the embrace. He didn’t even glance at the arms. “Erika.”

The scent of the farm still lingered on their clothing, mingling with their sweet, natural aromas. Erika’s composure shattered.

“I’m home,” she sobbed into her father’s shirt. She squeezed them both tighter. “I’m home.”


James ventured out into the hallway, rubbing his eyes. For the first time in what felt like forever, it didn’t hurt to be awake. His vision was steady, though his balance was fragile, and sudden movements stirred up the sticky fire in his joints.

Sesame and Heather had set up camp in a blanket fort by the electrical socket in the kitchen, and Sue sat at the table with a book and a cup of coffee. James blinked in the sunlight streaming through the window. He had been free of fever for a day, but this was his first time venturing out into the open on his own. 

Sue looked up, surprised. “Good morning, James.”

“Morning,” James said quietly, rubbing the side of his face, rough with patchy stubble. “What day is it?”

Sesame poked his head out of the fort. “It’s Sunday! You’ve been asleep for almost a whole week.”


Heather’s face appeared next to Sesame’s. She and James stared at each other in awkward silence for a few moments, unsure of what to do with each other now that he was livelier.

“Have a seat,” Sue said. “Are you hungry?”

“I think so.” The last five days had been a blur of darkness, bile, and pain, interrupted once by Heather arguing with her parents out in the kitchen and coming in to sit with him. He almost thought his own parents visiting had been a fever dream, but knew that had actually happened. Erika had come in the evening before to say goodbye, but she mentioned she’d be back soon. There was something she wanted to discuss, as soon as he was feeling better.

Sue stood up from the table. “Egg on toast okay?”

“Yes,” he managed reservedly. “Thank you.” He felt odd and useless sitting still while Heather’s mother served him. “W—would you like any help?”

“No, you’ve done enough, thank you,” Sue said. 

James sank a little into the chair, rubbing the back of his neck and averting his gaze.

“Mom.” Heather climbed out of the fort, holding the wires in her chest. “Please be nice to him.”

“I’m sorry.” Sue turned her back, busying herself with putting bread in the toaster. She sighed. “It was just—easier when he was asleep.”

James studied the wood grain of the table.

Sesame hopped up into the chair beside him, a big paperback in his hands.

“What are you reading?” James asked, trying to change the subject. 

“A book!” Sesame said, proudly showing him what looked to be a young adult novel. “Sue brought us back a whole bunch from the library.”

“That was nice of her.” He glanced at the stacks inside the blanket fort, wondering how Heather was holding up in the mountain of change she faced, whether she’d tell him if he asked.

Heather gingerly arranged herself and the cords at the table across from him. Most of the charring had been cleaned off her body, and she’d exchanged the tattered, burnt Empetrum garb for a pair of magenta running shorts. Her missing leg had been replaced. His gaze found the wires in her chest.

Heather followed his attention. “Dad’s working on a new battery in between other stuff at work. He hasn’t told the Bureau what happened.”

James wished he could have helped sooner. “I wonder if they already know,” he said, idly kneading his aching hands. “Unless Benson didn’t feel like admitting what he was doing.”

Heather shrugged. She considered his face, and her mechanical features adjusted into a soft smile. “You’re so alert today. That’s a relief.” 

James offered a wan smile back, and jumped when Sue planted two tall glasses in front of him: one of water, the other of brightly colored sports drink. 

“Drink both of those, please,” Sue said and curtly returned to the stove. “You need fluid and electrolytes.”

“Okay.” James fussed with the edge of the beanie on his head. He still wasn’t used to being bald, but a week had produced enough of a shadow to make him hopeful his hair was growing back. “Where’s Richard?”

“Taking Erika home,” Heather said. “He’ll be back soon.”

“And after breakfast,” Sue said. “You’re calling your parents.”

“Okay,” he said again, quietly, reaching for the glass of sports drink.

The idea of contacting his parents again filled him with dread. Now that he was no longer actively dying, the buffer would be gone. They’d demand a full explanation, and his being unprepared to divulge the whole humiliating story would never be good enough for them. The last few months had transformed him into the very antithesis of everything he had once emulated, and he didn’t know what to do with the flaming, inky mess he had become. It was unprofessional. His parents would disapprove.

“Is your dad feeling better?” Heather asked. “I’m surprised he was strong enough to visit.”

“He’s been on this new treatment that’s been helping—” James cut himself off, remembering all over again the horrible timing. It occurred to him this was the first Heather was hearing about it. His parents must not have lingered much to chat. He wondered if she and Sesame had made themselves scarce when his parents were there, or if they’d already heard some version of the story.

Heather stared at him in slack, painful disbelief. His gaze fell to the table, knowing the thoughts that must be washing over her: If he had only waited three months, none of this would have happened. They both knew he would never pick up the project again as long as he lived. Her neural transfer was all for nothing. A useless, life-destroying exercise.

The room grew extremely quiet.

“When did you find that out?” Heather said finally, the volume of her voice very low. 

James forced himself to look her in the eyes. “The night of the transfer. While I was waiting for you to wake up afterwards…A guard played me a voicemail my dad had left on my cell phone after it had been confiscated.”

Her shoulders slumped in disbelief. She sat back and looked away.

“I’m so sorry, Heather.” James said. He bent forward and cradled his aching head in his hands. “I’m so sorry…”

“I know,” Heather said, quietly. “I hope your dad’s going to be okay.” 

Sue was right. It had been easier when he was asleep.

“I—I can give you some space,” he said, carefully bracing his hands on the table to help himself stand. Every muscle in his body protested.

Heather’s face snapped up, surprised. “No. No, that’s okay. Stay. Please.” 

James hesitated, but sat back down. Sesame went over to sit next to Heather. He leaned against her, and she flashed him an appreciative smile.

“How are you doing, Heather?” James ventured, uncertainly. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help with anything.” She had so much to adjust to, so many questions to which no one knew the answers. Maybe she wouldn’t have even wanted him around in the first days back home, to give her time to process with her family without him haunting their interactions. He thought maybe that was better.

At least she had Sesame to keep her company over the long nights. O.R.T-1 seemed to be helpful. James was still nervous around it, but the little robot was already starting to grow on him.

“You’re here now,” Heather said, trying to look reassuring. “It’s been okay.” She considered his face. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you pulled through. We’ve been really worried.”

He nodded, uncomfortable. He didn’t want to think about what must have gone through everyone’s minds as his health took a dive, the possibility of having his corpse on their hands.

Sue gave him the egg on toast and he thanked her. He gingerly took a bite, chewing slowly. Even the muscles in his face were sore.

The house seemed peaceful now, but heartache soaked the air, suspended in a limbo between tragedy and forward motion. James had murdered his friend, yet she still lived, and they weren’t sure how to process the complexity of that loss. He didn’t know where he was supposed to fit in the aftermath, still surprised to have woken up that morning alive. 

He finished his breakfast and then excused himself and headed for the bathroom.

As he was about to shut the door, he heard Sue speak, “Why do you defend him, Heather?”

James let the door close, but he lingered next to it as their voices filtered through. 

“He’s not a bad person,” Heather said. “He’s trying.”

“That doesn’t give him a free pass,” Sue said. “It was his good intentions that got us here.”

“He’s aware of that too.”

“I don’t think you should be so gentle with him. As soon as he’s well enough, he’ll go right back to being a danger to our family.”

“He won’t, Mom.”

“You can’t know that for sure.”

There was a long pause. James sat down on the linoleum, his back against the door.

  “I really thought you and Dad were on the same page about James,” Heather said finally, injured.

Her mother sighed. “I’m trying to be,” she said. “It’s just, I look at him, sitting there, and at you, having to deal with what associating with him has done to you. The way he looks at you makes me want to punch him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like he cares for you,” Sue said. “Well, he doesn’t get to. He doesn’t deserve—” She cut herself off, her voice wavering.

“Mom,” Heather said. James heard a chair scoot across the floor. “Mom, it’s okay…”

James closed his eyes and bowed his head.

The Brophy’s house was the safest place for him to be at the moment. He wasn’t strong enough to strike out on his own, his parents would immediately ship him off to the hospital, and if Benson showed up at the Brophy’s doorstep, James needed to be there to stand in the way, or to offer himself up in a deal to make him leave them alone once and for all.

With a slow, unsteady breath, he stood up and ventured to the bathtub, turning the faucet.

He didn’t know how long he hid in the shower. He wished the hot water could wash away the scars, the guilt, the pain. There was no way to undo everything he had done. All Benson had driven him to. 

A knock came at the bathroom door as he stood in front of the mirror, a towel wrapped around his gaunt waist, dismally examining the black markings and the golden color of his irises. He had lost weight in the week he had spent unconscious, his angles sharper, his face hollow and drawn, as if the Q-13 sapped his very life force, drove his metabolism to burn itself up.

When he opened the door, he found a pile of folded clothes on the floor. He picked it up, wincing.

“Thank you—” he called furtively down the hallway.

“You’re welcome,” came Sue’s voice from the kitchen. “Shaving supplies are in the bottom left drawer.”

James closed himself inside the bathroom again. He leaned against the door with an unsteady sigh, hugging the bundle loosely against his chest. 


Richard returned in the afternoon. By then, James had been coaxed into joining the fort with Heather and Sesame. They didn’t have to press him much, and he had even fallen asleep among the blankets and pillows for a while.

A part of him thought it was pathetic to allow himself to accept their invitation. But as hard as James had tried to pattern his life after individualistic practicality, as much as he felt like he no longer deserved any good thing that came to him, he was a wreck.

And he didn’t rightly care about saving face anymore. He had almost died, for pity’s sake. Heather had almost died too, and Sesame had played a key part in bringing them home. James didn’t deserve their companionship, but if they wanted him in the fort with them, he wouldn’t deny them.

He wouldn’t deny them anything.

His chat with his parents had gone about as he had expected. He still wasn’t ready to tell them what had happened, so it had ended up a short phone call.

Heather had been very quiet all day, and continued to brush off attempts to inquire about her feelings, so he stayed close as long as she asked. It was all he could do.

“Hello.” Richard smiled, bending down a little to see the inhabitants of the fort. 

James felt like he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, but Sesame had found his way into his lap, so he couldn’t escape. 

“James, glad to see you awake and cleaned up,” Richard said, before turning his smile to Heather. “You inducted a new member into your fort.”

Heather smiled back.

“Hey, so starting next week, I’ll be able to devote a lot more time to fixing you up,” Richard told her. “You’ll be able to get rid of those wires in a couple of days.”

“I’ll help,” James said.

Richard paused. “Everything’s at Larkspur…”

“I know.” He cringed to think of facing his old colleagues, but the reunion was necessary, inevitable. “It would give me the opportunity to tie some ends there.”

“You’re resigning, then,” Richard said. “Of your own accord.”

James blinked, confused.

“I received your letter of resignation,” Richard said. “But I figured it was Benson, not you. Even though you appeared to have signed it.”

“Oh.” James’ gaze fell. “Yeah, that was Benson, but I assumed it was binding. I had better, anyway. To save you the trouble of firing me. You don’t need my kind at Larkspur.”

“Your kind?”

“You know,” James paused, searching for words. “The mad scientist kind. Narcissistic, naive, prone to obsession…”

“James,” Heather tried.

“You’ll find someone better to replace me,” James said. “Someone more stable.” He lifted a jet black hand, managing a melancholy smile. “Not as weaponized.”

He was trying to crack a joke, but Richard just looked concerned. “What will you do, then?”

“I don’t know,” James said. “But I should be out of the way as soon as I can.”

“Take your time to rest and recover,” Richard said, gently. “Stay here as long as you need, okay?” 

Heather was nodding in agreement.

“Would you possibly be willing to take me to run some errands?” James asked. He tugged on the collar of the sweatshirt he was wearing. “You probably don’t want me to keep borrowing your clothes.”

“To get your stuff from Empetrum?” Richard asked, uneasy.

“No, that’s definitely off the table,” James said. “Too dangerous.”

Richard nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He was mainly frustrated about his computer, and all the legal documents he’d have to get replaced. But he had been prepared to leave everything behind on the first escape attempt. “I’ll just start from scratch.”

Richard smiled softly, that fatherly expression James felt unworthy to have trained on him. “Well, let me know when you’re feeling up to errands elsewhere.”

James felt his face redden. “Thank you. Maybe tomorrow after you get back from Larkspur?”

Richard scoffed. “Tomorrow? You just graduated from bedridden to blanket fort. Are you sure you’re going to be strong enough?”

“I’ll be fine,” James said. “I’ll make as many phone calls as I can today to streamline the process about getting my various ID’s replaced too.” He felt Heather’s disapproving gaze on him.

“Okay,” Richard’s voice lilted skeptically. “Just, please don’t push yourself too hard.”



“Heather, are you hibernating?”

Heather opened her eyes to the ceiling of blanket fort above her. The kitchen was dark, but a nightlight glowed across the room. Sesame sat perched crosslegged on a pillow nearby, the light of his facial panel turned low so that it was visible but not blinding in the dark.

“I guess,” she said.

“Do you go dormant at night because you’re used to sleeping?”

“Yeah,” Heather said, folding her hand across her middle, careful not to get it tangled in the wires. She looked forward to being free of them soon. “I don’t know what to do with all this time.”

“I do,” Sesame said, standing up with an eager smile. He ducked out of the fort. “Come on.”

Heather sat up, not really in the mood. It was hard enough to be conscious for sixteen hours a day, much less spending any time awake during the night when it was as dark and still as her artificial body. She couldn’t stand how empty it made her feel. 

But she followed him. When she emerged from the blankets and pillows, Sesame was pulling open the sliding glass door to the back yard.

“I can’t go far,” Heather said.

“I know.” Sesame waited for her to step outside. The night was mostly clear for now, but clouds were moving in quickly. Leaves were starting to fall from the trees, and a breeze stirred. It occurred to her an organic person might have considered it cold. She, however, felt nothing.

Sesame took a few steps out onto the patio, surveying the yard with his hands on his hips.

Heather ventured up beside him. “Is this what you do all night?”

“Sometimes,” Sesame said. “It looks different at night. It’s like the world is upside down.”

Heather looked off into the darkness of the backyard, and the shadowy trees beyond. It was kind of creepy. “I guess.” After a long period of silence, she said, “Do you like how you are now, Sesame?”
“I do,” Sesame said. He looked down, touching his mechanical chest. He was wearing a oversized purple sweatshirt he had found in Heather’s closet. “This body gives me way more than I ever had as a mouse. I’m happy with it.”

Heather’s gaze fell. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel like you do about this. About James’ machine.”

“That’s okay,” Sesame said.

“Do you remember your transfer?”

Sesame nodded. “It was scary, but I’m grateful for it now.”

Heather nodded too, slowly. Even though Benson might otherwise have killed her for seeing something she shouldn’t have, she would never be grateful for it. None of this should have ever happened in the first place. “Now that you’re humanoid, you can change your name, if you want. I won’t mind.”

“Why would I want to change my name?”

Heather shrugged. “I didn’t know if you felt it still suited you. You know, after the upgrade…”

Sesame shook his head. “I like my name. You gave it to me. I want to keep it.”

“Oh.” Heather flashed a wan, reserved smile.

“Maybe the one James gave me could be my second name,” Sesame said. 

“Maybe,” she said, hesitating. After another long silence, she said, “What do you think of him? Of James?”

“You want to know if I think he’s still dangerous?” he offered. “Like your parents do?”

Heather nodded, embarrassed that Sesame was paying attention to the nagging question plaguing her and her family, of what to do with James. Most of the time it seemed to her that Sesame was just along for the ride.

“I think he would do anything for you,” Sesame said.

Heather groaned and sat down crosslegged on the patio. “That’s the problem. He feels so guilty, he won’t tell me what he actually wants.” She buzzed a sigh, pensive.

“What do you want?” Sesame asked.

“Right now?” Heather looked at the wires in her chest. Her eyes narrowed sadly. “The impossible.”

“Can you get another organic body?” Sesame asked.

Heather shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. Even if we could make a clone or something, I don’t think there’s a way to download memories to an organic brain. Even if there were, it would just make another copy. I don’t know if the real me even exists anymore.” She shook her head again and stood up. She didn’t want to think about this. Organorobotic transference was a one way trip and there was no way to get her old life back. The sooner she accepted that, she thought bitterly, the better. “I should check on James. Thanks for showing me this, Sesame. I appreciate it.” Even though she didn’t really get it. 

Sesame smiled at her. “Anytime.”

Heather maneuvered the extension cord back into the house with her, carefully making her way down the hallway to where the door to the guest bedroom remained open a crack. She thought James would have started closing it, now that he was feeling better, but maybe he was aware it would give off the impression he was hiding from them. She would have wanted to hide a lot more than she already did if she were in his position.

Heather slowly pushed the door open a little more to peek in, to make sure he was okay and sleeping.

He moved, and Heather froze. His face turned and she saw the slight glow of his Q-13 infected irises as he sat up a little, confused.

“Heather?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Are you okay?”

She hesitated, debating escaping back down the hallway and pretending she hadn’t just been caught. “Yeah. Sorry—I didn’t mean to wake you.”

He sat up further with a soft grunt. “It’s okay. I was already awake.”
Heather ventured into the room, approaching the bed. “Nightmare?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. He tried to smile, though his eyes were haunted. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“May I sit down?”

James repositioned himself, moving his legs over to give her more room as she took a seat on the edge of the bed.

Earlier that evening, he had only barely managed to make it through errands with Richard, promising to pay him back as soon as he had regained access to his bank accounts. Richard had made him use a motorized grocery cart despite his stubborn and unfounded insistence that he was fine to walk by himself. Along with a modest set of basics from a sporting goods store, Richard bought him a cane. James came back exhausted and upset, bitterly lamenting his imprisonment in his weak, poisoned body, and refused to be comforted. 

“I can’t do anything!” he had cried. “It’s like I’m dead.” 

He had left the cane propped by the front door. He couldn’t stand to look at it.

They were going to finish Heather’s new power core and install it the next day. James was determined to come help even if it killed him. 

“Heather,” James said, hesitating as he broke the silence. “I’ve been thinking a lot about building you an organic-passing body…”

Heather stared at the beige carpet off the edge of the bed, unmoving. His words were uttered neutrally, and she hadn’t expected them to scare her. Under all his shattered countenance, the eerie physiological effects and immense fatigue from the Q-13, he was still there: the James that never stopped, that pushed too hard, that couldn’t live if he couldn’t be useful. An ambitious, restless soul that still couldn’t leave things well enough alone, because nothing he did would ever be enough for him. So soon after more than one very near brush with death, he already stumbled after the urge to keep his dangerous mind busy, and she wanted to say something, but couldn’t bring herself to reply.

“Did I say something wrong?” James asked softly.

Heather shook her head. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to hear that yet, from you.”

James hugged his knees, troubled. “I’m sorry.”

A long silence sat between them. 

“And I’m wondering,” Heather added. “If you were to act on that, where would you get that kind of money? Who else would you have to sell your soul to?”

James shrugged, looking away.

Heather studied him for a moment, his arms folded on his knees, disquieted, ashamed, and she didn’t know what to do. She felt such a strong attachment to him, but she couldn’t tell if it was safe or productive, something that should be allowed to continue. Her mom, justifiably, felt it wasn’t. Her dad wouldn’t give her a straight answer. Let’s take it one day at a time, he kept saying when she asked. One day at a time.

Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe she was holding onto James because she was too afraid of what would happen if she let him go—whether he would unhinge in the face of his trauma, and what she would become without him.

Her loved ones asked how she was and she wanted so much for things to be okay that she couldn’t bring herself to be honest with them. They could relate to her situation in their own ways, but she still felt incredibly alone trying to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. However, James deeply understood what Empetrum had done to both of them. She didn’t have to shield him or try to explain the pain of it to him. He already knew.

But the question remained. As she tried to figure out how to move forward, was he a hand to hold or another accident waiting to happen?

“What did Erika want to talk about?” James asked quietly.

“The other kids,” Heather said. “The ones still trapped in the system.”

James stared at the end of the bed. “Oh.”

“Is there a way to help them?” Heather ventured. 

“I hope so.”




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.”

“Or two.”

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.”

“I know…”

“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. 

Heather nodded.

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.




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.




They met in a parking garage in the southern sector of the capital, one with four levels and a single camera at the entrance of dubious functionality. 

The gray hatchback they were told to look for was already on the third level when they arrived, the only other vehicle there at that hour, with two men waiting outside. One of them, middle-aged with ash blonde hair and a roman nose, was smoking. The other wore a black surgical-style mask over the lower half of his face.

“Is that them?” Sue said as Richard parked a few spaces down.

“The car fits the description,” Richard said, trying not to stare at them too directly. He felt like they were walking straight into a trap, into a world that would eat them alive.

“Wait here, Sesame,” he said, undoing his seatbelt. 

“What?” Sesame whined. “I want to talk to them too.”

“Sentient robots aren’t really—a thing people know exist right now,” Richard said. “I’d like to make this as safe and streamlined as possible.”

“You’ll be talking about Heather,” Sesame protested. “It’s gonna come out anyway.”

Richard glanced in the rearview mirror and realized Sesame was waving to the two men. They exchanged a glance, surprised. The younger of the two, a twenty-something with black hair, several ear piercings, and the face covering lifted an uncertain hand in return. The older one put out his cigarette under his boot.

“See, they’ve seen me,” Sesame said. “It’s okay.”

Richard stifled an extremely heavy sigh and undid the child lock. “Okay.”

Sesame was already on his way out of the backseat.

Richard took a steadying breath and got out of the car. The rebels waited until they were close. 

The young one spoke first, “Are you Susan?”

“Yes, that’s me,” she replied. “Call me Sue.”

The man’s eyes narrowed in a warm smile and he extended a hand. “I’m Ganymede. We spoke on the phone.”

That really had to be an alias, Richard thought. It made sense, but it only increased his anxiety about trusting these people.

Sue accepted the handshake. “This is my spouse, Richard, and this is Sesame.”

Sesame shook Ganymede’s hand, eager to participate. The rebel didn’t question it. He likely assumed an explanation would come up eventually.

The older one also shook hands, considerably more serious. “Noran Kaczmarek. Friends call me Rann.”

Richard nodded, trying to suppress an urge to look at Sue. She’d read him as much as she could dig up about the Conxence during the hour and a half drive to the capital. Kaczmarek was the leader of the entire operation. 

“Thank you for meeting with us so urgently,” Sue said. 

“Of course,” Kaczmarek said. “So, run us through the situation in a little more detail. What are we up against?”

Sue reviewed the background information through what had happened that night, leaving out the parts about organorobotic transference as before but including James’ infusion. Sesame was right, it was going to come up, but neither of them were ready to tell complete strangers about the complicated subject of their daughter’s trauma. As they spoke, Richard sent a text to the number of the device they’d been using to communicate with Heather: Meeting with the Conxence right now. We’ll keep you posted.

He hoped she would check in soon. Even minutes spent not knowing what was going on at Empetrum was far too long. He couldn’t get Sesame’s observation of Benson out of his mind: He looks surprised…

They were taking that as a good sign. 

“They attempted to escape tonight, but failed,” Sue was saying. Her throat tightened and she paused, taking a moment. Richard put a hand on her arm. “They were recaptured. Something was done to James, we think injected with Q-13. He, uh, burst into flames. Heather was connected with us at the time, so Sesame relayed the video footage to us, when you called me earlier.”

The Conxence members exchanged a glance. 

“And you’re still not sure if Siles is dead?” Ganymede asked, surprised.

Sue shrugged, and Richard offered, “He can be very stubborn.”

“Do you have a photo of him and your daughter?” Kaczmarek asked.

“Yeah…” Sue pulled out her phone and searched through the photos, finally handing it over. On the screen was a snapshot they had taken at the beach, just a couple of days before she was kidnapped. Heather had roped Richard and Sue into a selfie, despite Sue’s protestations at not knowing how to take a proper one. Richard was content just to be with them, though he wasn’t photogenic. Heather had made it her mission that weekend to get a good picture of him, and she had been proud of this one. 

The three smiling faces in the photo had no idea what horror awaited them.

With shaking hands, Richard searched through his own photos. He landed on a department photo and zoomed in. “And this is James.” 

Kaczmarek and Ganymede leaned in, and Richard realized they both had a common scar in the cartilage of their right ears, like a large hole had been clamped out of it. Ganymede wore a silver ring in his so that it accented his other earrings, while Kaczmarek had left his to scar.

“Young,” Kaczmarek commented. “He looks like an undergrad yet he was one of your full time engineers?” He glanced at Richard. “Prodigy type?”

“He didn’t like the term,” Richard said quietly. “Or—doesn’t. I shouldn’t talk about him in the past tense.” Even though it was so difficult not to. People didn’t often burst into flames and survive. 

“Did you approve of your daughter’s friendship with him?”

Richard hesitated. “Yeah, I guess. James was shy, and consumed with work, but I believed he was a good person. After the move, Heather didn’t have any local friends, and they were closest in age. She pestered him a bit, but I think she looked up to him, and she was interested in his work, which meant a lot to him.” He could feel Sue’s gaze on him. She, too, had known James and Heather were friends at work, but didn’t think he was nearly as dangerous as he had proved to be. “And she brought him out of his shell, so he seemed to appreciate her company too.”

Kaczmarek nodded, thinking. “Supposing our rescue is successful, what will you do with him, as the one that dragged your family into this nightmare?”

Sue crossed her arms.

“We honestly haven’t thought that far ahead,” Richard admitted. “He says he didn’t mean for all this to happen.”

“Hm,” Kaczmarek grunted, whether pensive or skeptical Richard couldn’t tell.

A long pause set in. Itching to shift the subject, Richard spoke up. “If I may ask,” he said, indicating his right ear. “What are those marks? Some kind of group signifier?”

The leader of the Conxence and his associate paused. Kaczmarek cracked a wry smile.

“Oh this?” he said, tugging on his ear and turning his head so they could see it better. “Gift from the government, bestowed upon anyone arrested under political circumstances. Tags you as a threat.”

Richard hesitated. He looked at Ganymede, who nodded. The latter came as a surprise. Kaczmarek exuded the calculating confidence of a seasoned rabble rouser, but Ganymede’s soft voice and gentleness of expression made him nearly impossible to imagine doing anything deviant enough to get arrested.

“Still up for associating with us?” Kaczmarek asked.

“Yes,” Sue said, and Richard nodded, readjusting his glasses.

“Good,” Kaczmarek said. “So, a high profile extraction. I’m sure Ganymede here has already warned you that we’ve never done a job quite like this, and that preparing for it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, is your daughter reasonably safe, at least?”

“We don’t know,” Sue said.

“I see. And we’re not giving up the possibility Siles survived whatever Empetrum’s director did to him?”

Richard nodded along with his partner, trying to swallow the tightness in his throat. “Also, there’s another prisoner James and Heather wanted to break out. So the extraction would need to be for three people, if we can manage it.”

Ganymede blinked and Kaczmarek’s lean face broke out into a surprised grin.

“Well, we got our work cut out for us, then,” Kaczmarek said. He looked at Sue. “In planning tonight’s escape attempt, I don’t suppose you picked up any of Empetrum’s security protocols that can help speed this along?”

“Not that specific,” Sue said. “But Heather might, if she’s in a position to check in.”

Sue handed over a folder from her bag containing a stack of printed pages, which held the contents of the flash drive Henry Benson had given them. “The defector we spoke with gave us this. He told us as much as he could, but he hasn’t been near Empetrum in three years.”

Ganymede flipped through the pages while Kaczmarek read over his shoulder, arms crossed. Richard held his breath as the speakers for the Conxence read up on the nightmare lab he and his family had been pitted against.

“Human weaponry…” Kaczmarek mused. “Have you come across anything mentioning the ICNS?”

“No,” Richard said. “Though James mentioned they were steering him into something other than the project he came in with. Could that be related?”

“Possibly.” Kaczmarek said. “Hope he really did make it. I’d like to talk with him and see what he knows. The government’s released what I guess you could call ‘human weapons’ just recently, and we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with them.”

“How recently?” Richard asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“About a week,” Ganymede said.

“But they’re not—” He glanced at Sesame, who knew where this was going. “—robotic, in any way, are they?”

The rebels looked at each other.

“No, they’re very much organic, as far as we can tell,” Ganymede said. “Why?”

Richard and Sue hesitated. Sesame shifted from foot to foot, and Richard thought if he or Sue didn’t speak up, the mouse would.

Richard took a breath. Then he told them about organorobotic transference. About Sesame’s journey, about Heather. 

The two stared at him. Even Kaczmarek looked nonplussed, and he seemed to Richard someone who didn’t truly surprise easily.

“I’ll admit, most of what I’ve heard about the Conxence is from the news,” Richard went on, before that information could sit for too long. Heather’s transfer was done. Reversal was impossible, and what mattered that night was bringing her home. “They say you’re a gang of anarchists and vigilantes…”

“And what do you think?” Kaczmarek said, eying him, as if sizing him up, looking into his soul and assessing what he saw there. Something about this man seemed dangerous, but Richard wanted more than anything to trust him. The leader of the rebellion, perhaps the only person left with the resources to organize a successful rescue mission, who also, miraculously, both believed them and seemed willing to help.

“Unless she manages to escape on her own,” Richard said. “I think you may be our only hope of getting our daughter home.” 



After the initial meeting with the Conxence, Kaczmarek and Ganymede took the Brophys and their robotic charge to an unmarked brick building in a decrepit industrial district of the capital. Ganymede drove the Brophy’s car so they didn’t have to tell them exactly how to get to their base of operations. The closer they got to the location, the closer Richard got to calling it off, especially when Ganymede turned the headlights off to drift down the street, passing dark, condemned houses with overgrown yards, and long stretches of homeless encampments.

The outside of the building didn’t look much better, and Richard held his breath as they followed Ganymede and Kaczmarek through a back door and up a narrow stairwell, landing on an old wooden hallway that seemed sturdy, at least. They went to a large meeting room on one side of the hallway to start setting up for planning, but Richard and Sue were starting to feel the strain of everything that had happened that night, and Ganymede suggested they rest and pick things up the next morning.

“That’s a good idea,” Sue said. “We’re no help to Heather and James with stripped nerves.”

Ganymede directed them to a room on the other side of the hallway, in which they found a couple couches around a central coffee table, and a mini fridge in the corner. Sesame plugged himself into an outlet, and Richard and Sue made up a bed on a pullout couch with clean sheets and pillows from a nearby closet. Ganymede had said they were clean, anyway. They just had to take his word for it.

Richard lay still in the dark, listening to the soft rumble of voices across the way as the rebels regrouped, and prepared to sign off for the night as well. Footsteps creaked down the hallway, and the foreboding sound of sirens wailed in the distance.

Richard closed his eyes, breathing a shaky sigh. Sue lay her head against his shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” Sesame said quietly from where he sat hooked up to the electrical outlet. “I’ll stay awake and keep watch.”

“Thank you, Sesame,” Sue rasped.

“Do you trust them?” Richard didn’t know why he was asking. He wondered maybe if Sesame had somehow retained the intuition animals were known to have, if he could tell something about Kaczmarek and Ganymede that he and Sue couldn’t.

“I don’t know,” Sesame said. “I want to, though.”

“Me too,” Richard said.


James felt the pain before he even knew he was awake. His head throbbed, and his eyes felt hot and sticky in their sockets. As for the rest of his body, his first thought was the Q-13 had either blown his limbs off or turned his bones to ash within them.

A heart monitor beeped languidly beside him, the sound oddly muffled. He thought the wires running across his chest had been fused to him, because there was something very wrong with his skin. When he tried to move, he felt it stitching, as if all his tissues were melted together, held intact by tiny metal barbs. His mouth tasted like copper.

He managed to crack open one eye, and the air needled cruelly on its dry surface. Slowly, he turned his head and opened the other eye, craning his painful, stitching neck to take stock of himself and expecting a charred mass. He vaguely remembered being on fire.

There were electrodes taped to his bare chest, but they weren’t melded to him. Jagged patterns of dark unnatural black engulfed his intact ribcage, like ink spilled under the skin. Dimly, wincing, he raised his trembling arms to find them swirled and zigzagged with the same dark hue. His hands completely drowned in it. Anything not claimed by the stain was red and swollen and peeling like a bad sunburn.

He realized then, that he wasn’t strapped down. Instead, he was enclosed in a cylindrical chamber with a transparent, domed lid. Some kind of pressurized oxygen chamber, he guessed. 

He stared up through it at the paneled ceiling in dumb, emotional shock. As he slowly grew more lucid, he could only despair about what they were supposed to do now. Where was Heather? How could he get to her?

And how in the world was it possible he had even survived the infusion? No one survived the Q-13, Yeun had said. Not even Benson had expected him to make it.

He lifted a hand to his jugular to feel his heartbeat for himself. He really was alive. But now would come the tests and humiliation, the poking and prodding and dissection if necessary.

He closed his aching eyes. Being a test subject meant he wouldn’t be able to control his access to Heather like he could before. Benson would never let him near her unless he was using her as leverage against him, or him against her. The time for mind games had passed. The director would likely give him black and white options from here on out: Comply or die.

He couldn’t believe that after everything, Heather had refused to leave him behind. The whole purpose of their escape attempt was to get her home. She didn’t owe him anything. 

Why couldn’t she have just left him behind?

He thought he heard a sound, greatly impeded by the transparent acrylic chamber. He opened his eyes to see Benson enter the room with a couple of guards. James blinked and returned his gaze to the ceiling, pain rising in his chest.

Benson reached down to a panel on the outside and produced a black telephone receiver. He put it to his ear, and his voice purred clearly in James’ enclosed bubble, making him feel increasingly claustrophobic. “You even made it through the night. I’m impressed.”

James winced, turning his head just enough so he could see him. He felt like if he did anything quickly, he would disintegrate.

Pinning the receiver between his ear and shoulder, Benson slid a clipboard off a nearby cart, consulted the panel at the base of the oxygen chamber, and made notes. The heart monitor continued to beep.

“Your vitals seem to have stabilized,” Benson muttered, as if mainly speaking to himself. “I look forward to finding out why.”

James swallowed with difficulty. It hurt. It hurt to breathe, to see, to think.

“Where is Heather?” he rasped.

“In her cell.”

“Have you…”

“Not yet,” Benson said. He replaced the receiver, set the clipboard aside and moved to the head of the chamber outside James’ field of vision. He heard clamps pulling back. The panel came free with a hiss of air. 

“Don’t move,” Benson warned. He motioned for the guards to come over. They took hold of the edge of the frame holding up James’ thin inclined mattress, unhooked some safeguards, and carefully pulled the setup out of the chamber. The air outside was freezing cold, penetrating deep into his bones. 

“Why was I in there?” James asked, shivering.

“Didn’t think it wise to hook much up to you, with the state your integumentary system is in,” Benson said, tugging straps out from under the mattress. The right side of his face was swollen and bruising under the bandage. He only worked with his right hand, which was already gloved in blue latex. The guards washed their hands and donned gloves and lab coats of their own. James dimly wondered if he was vulnerable to infection.

Benson turned off the heart monitor and carefully took to removing the electrodes from James’ stained chest. The adhesive was very mild, yet removal still ripped skin, sending cruel, stinging pain radiating out along the surface, and pushing deep like a taproot straight inward. James gasped.

Benson’s lips tightened in annoyance. Once it became obvious there was no way to remove the electrodes without damage, he took less care in removing the others. James braced himself, his nerves screaming in the strain. He grit his teeth to avoid from crying out, but tears clouded his eyes. 

The director disconnected the electrodes from the wires and put them in separate specimen bags, while James lay back, short of breath and sweat standing out on his forehead. He closed his eyes, all his strength gone.

He faded in and out of consciousness as he felt the guards slip gauze around his wrists first, then straps. Benson made a physical examination, listening to his breathing, heartbeat, testing the quality of the stained and unstained parts of his skin, swabbing his mouth and pricking his finger. Finally, he took a series of photographs, and then James was being wheeled out of the room and down a hallway on the lower level.

They took him to a cell, the one next to Davenport’s, and a jolt of anxiety splintered up James’ spine. With Benson overseeing the operation from a distance, they took him inside the cell, up to the stationary bed, where they lowered the mobile one and undid his restraints. 

The guards helped him sit up, the touch of their hands stinging and painful on his seared shoulders. He slipped his legs over the side of the bed, and, bracing his arms on theirs, they slowly raised him up.

James set his jaw, struggling to breathe. His vision swam. They practically dragged him over to the other bed, where there sat a change of clothes and blankets.

“How nice,” James muttered, weak and winded. “Thought a concrete floor was going to be it for me…”

Benson scoffed as he and his assistants took their leave. “Don’t push your luck, Siles.”

The door closed behind them, leaving James alone. He sat still for several long moments, then found a sweatshirt in the pile of fabric and pulled it on. The fibers scratched against his tender skin, but James was so cold. Nothing helped it.

Carefully, agonizingly, he planted his feet apart and very slowly stood up, his attention on the acrylic mirror mounted above the sink. He was extremely dizzy and sick to his stomach, but he managed to shuffle across the room. Now that he’d been awake for more than a few minutes, he had begun to feel desperately thirsty.

He managed to make it to the opposite wall, but he was afraid to look in the mirror. He instead focused on the faucet, insulating his hand with the sleeve of the sweatshirt before pulling the lever. The action sent deep, groaning pain stitching up his hand and arm. He cupped his stiff, fragile hands under the modest water stream and endured the pain in his back enough to bend over and bring the water to his lips. It cooled his dry throat like liquid hope. And for just a moment, he felt relief.

He lifted his gaze to the small mirror above the sink, and that relief gave way to blank despair as he saw his reflection. The black stood out starkly against his pale skin. A curling stripe of it claimed the left side of his face, webbed and veiny at the edges as it ran over his cheek, down the side of his throat and under the collar of the sweatshirt. The ebony skin was smooth and cool to the touch, and everything else was swollen and tender, with burst blood vessels that were more black than red.

Patches of his brown hair had been burnt off at odd angles. Anywhere the fire had contacted, he supposed. His left eyebrow and the eyelashes had met the same fate, everything above the black stripe burnt clean.

Upon closer inspection, he realized his hazel irises had turned gold, reminiscent of the color of the Q-13 before it had entered his veins. As if he had become a manifestation of the substance itself. 

He took hold of both sides of the sink, his face going cold and a sudden high pitched ringing in his ears. He heard his breath rushing muffled and strained in his head. He tried to sit down on the floor, his joints cracking and protesting, sending sharp barbs of pain through his muscles.

He lost his bearings and sat down hard, his shoulders hitting the concrete panels of the wall. A shiver of needles radiated from the contact point, then heavy pain like the grinding of cinder blocks between his bones bloomed icy and overwhelming in his torso. His chest and arms seized up and he collapsed into fetal position, a snarl of utter agony pulling from his throat.

After several eternal moments, the sensation began to fade, and James lay panting on the floor, the sound of water running in the sink keeping him dimly tethered to consciousness. Behind its obnoxious spluttering, a voice filtered into his cell from above.

“Hello?” it said. “Anyone alive in there?”

James opened his eyes. The prisoner cells were encased in concrete, but at the top of the walls dividing them spread a narrow span of empty space covered in a mesh of metal.

He realized the voice had to be Davenport’s. Everything was hazy.

“I think so…” he said, wincing from the exertion.

“Who are you?” Davenport asked.

Very slowly, he forced himself to sit up, and leaned against the wall. His throat tightened, and tears welled up in his eyes. He exhaled, trying to get ahold of himself. 

“Please tell me your name,” Davenport said. “I know you must be scared, and unsure of what’s happening to you. But you’re not alone. I’m Erika.”

If he acted like he knew her in any personal capacity, Benson would suspect she had somehow been a part of the escape attempt. He refused to bring consequences on her, when she had made such a hard decision to avoid that in the first place.

“My name is James,” he said finally.

An extremely long silence answered him.

He carefully drew his knees to his chest. Bowing his forehead on them, he crossed his aching arms over his stomach.

Finally, she said, “Yeun’s lab partner?”

“Yes, but not anymore,” James said. 

“What happened?”

“I tried to get my test subject out, but we got caught,” James said, hoarsely. “Benson injected me with his pet project.” His voice wavered. “I don’t think I was supposed to survive it. I don’t know if I have yet.”

Another long silence ensued, as she grappled with what both of them knew they could not say where someone could hear them. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” James said. He didn’t know if his survival was a second chance, or just a slow death. He wanted to hope the former, but it was only a matter of time before Benson wanted to see if his serum worked. 

In the silence, he debated asking Erika to take care of Heather after he was gone.

He almost did.



Heather activated the pain simulator intermittently to check in. She received a text from Richard saying they were meeting with the Conxence, and then later, that they had agreed to take up their case. She couldn’t believe the very same rebel militia she had been afraid was after her dad at the beginning of the summer had become their allies. She hoped Benson was as afraid of them as she suspected. 

Since James’ traumatic infusion, the director seemed to be ignoring her for the most part, and she spent her time trying to squirm out of the rubber straightjacket binding her limbs, and wracking her brains on what her next steps were. Benson might have thought he’d already won, but this would never be over until one of them destroyed the other.

A faint sound attracted her attention, filtering through the vents at the top of the prisoner cells. A cry of pain. Heather tipped her face up, her eyes wide. She accessed the memory and replayed the sound several times in her mind, trying to figure out what it was, and it simultaneously broke her heart and made her dizzy with relief to find she recognized the pitch of that howl. James had survived.

Heather climbed up on her cot close to the vent, turning up her hearing as high as she could and listening hard. She heard Davenport’s voice, “Hello? Anyone alive in there?”

Then James. “I think so…” He sounded weak, frustrated, but coherent.

The conversation was short and basic, and then silence settled in. After listening longer, with no change, Heather adjusted her hearing back to baseline and sat down on the bed, activating the pain simulator to let her family know James was still a factor in further rescue efforts. She clung to that tentative spark of hope and relief, that all three of them would see freedom if they could just hold on. 


Planning began the next morning. A young woman with large rimmed glasses and a bomber jacket who introduced herself as Jaeger joined them. Richard gleaned that she was Kaczmarek’s intelligence and technology specialist, and together, they began outlining and consolidating all the information they had at their disposal, trying to identify more about the grounds of Empetrum, what the potential angles of entry would look like.

At one point, Sesame managed to make contact with Heather and spent the next hour downloading over their spotty cellular connection her visual memories of the escape attempt, along with other information about the setup so they could construct a better idea of the layout, such as where the prisoner cells were, and what it took to get to them. During this process, she had disclosed the name of the other prisoner, which all the Conxence members present were shocked to recognize.

“I told her not to go anywhere near that place,” Kaczmarek declared. “Of all the stubborn, reckless—” He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Ganymede crossed his arms on the table, troubled. “There was a death in the family, and she told us she was going to stay with them, so I never thought to check. I wonder how long she’s been there. Her family must be worried sick. Do we have their contact information?”

“Heather does,” Sesame said. Heather was still connected, participating in the planning as much as she could stand, though she had to take breaks from the pain simulator. “Erika gave it to her.” 

Sesame relayed the phone number, and Ganymede excused himself from the room to make the call.

It was all so hard for Richard and Sue to swallow. Heather tried to omit parts and pull punches in her own narrative, and Richard suspected Sesame further cleaned it up before passing it along, possibly even by her request. Richard wished she would be more open with them, so they could attempt to comfort her across the distance.

But Heather wasn’t looking for comfort in that moment. There would be time to grieve when she was safe at home, with James and Erika in tow.

Finally, having finished looking over the data, Kaczmarek sat back with crossed arms. “We’ll have to stake out the location from a distance before we even think about getting close. Stealth would be the best way to go, but it may be impossible to get back out with three prisoners without a massive show of force involving tranquilizers, which we’ll have to acquire from elsewhere—I think I know how to get my hands on those, but that’ll be its own step. Not to mention we’ll probably need bootlegged access badges to get anywhere within Empetrum.”

“For that, I’ll need to gain access to their systems,” Jaeger said. “We may need one tiny, successful infiltration, and then stage the larger one. Or perhaps collaborate with Heather from the inside in a way that we can safely meet in the middle. What kind of device is she using to communicate?”

“She doesn’t know the nature of it,” Sue said. “We’d have to ask James for that, and as far as we know, he’s alive but inaccessible.”

“We’ll make do,” Kaczmarek said.

“I don’t mean to sound rude by asking this,” Richard spoke up, “But, why are you helping us so readily on something so dangerous? How are you benefitting from this?”

Ganymede glanced at the leader of the Conxence, who looked at Richard, his dark eyes steady and calculating. Kaczmarek leaned forward, lacing his fingers together on the table.

“I want,” Kaczmarek said, choosing his words carefully, “a country where government labs don’t take children. I want a country where you can hold the powers that be accountable and not get tagged as a threat, a government that maybe isn’t perfect but does its best to be honest and do right by its citizens.” He smiled. “Of course, we’re always glad to earn the aid of sympathizers all across the board, but participation in Conxence activities is as complex as it is optional, and the information we’re getting in helping you with this ordeal will likely prove useful later on, not to mention we’ll be retrieving one of our own. So, overall, you could say I’m looking to karma for compensation on this one.”

Richard nodded and exchanged a glance with Sue. Sesame sat next to her, watching Kaczmarek especially closely.

The door opened behind them, and a voice spoke up, “I’m here! Finally. How far did we get?”

Richard, Sue, and Sesame twisted around to look at the athletic young woman who had just entered. She was a seeming incarnation of everything Richard had stereotyped the Conxence to be. A black face mask covered her face as well. She had short, reddish brown hair that was shaved close on the sides and burst out from under the front of a baseball cap in a wavy side fringe, a black and red jacket with a skull on the lapel, black skinny jeans, and a large dark bruise on her eye socket.

Ganymede’s expression clouded with worry for a moment, his attention on her black eye. Then he smiled, gesturing her way, “This is Io, one of our main squad leaders. She’s agreed to work on this mission too.”

“Hey,” Io said, shaking Richard and Sue’s hands with a firm grip, on her way to find a seat at the table. When Sesame extended a hand, she grinned and shook it too.

“Sorry I’m late, had work I couldn’t get out of,” Io said, dropping into the empty seat beside Ganymede. “Sounds like there’s been a lot going on today. So, bring me up to speed. Where are we at?” 


Erika had a physical therapy session with Yeun that afternoon, and from the moment he appeared in her cell subdued and exhausted rather than his sunny, chatty self, she mulled over how wise it would be to ask him about James.

She burned with curiosity. Benson’s biggest threat to her had been to take her memories and sell her off to the military’s existing Compatible squadron. Siles’ actions, however, had earned him swift and explosive attempted homicide, and Erika wondered how anyone could have riled up the cold, invulnerable director so much. Empetrum was enough of a cult that she would have thought it standard protocol, except for how much it had disturbed Yeun.

“I heard your lab partner was a turncoat,” she said finally, once they were a few minutes into the session.

Yeun winced, handing a weighted ball to her right accessory arm. She sympathized with James and the robot, but it was also morbidly satisfying to watch how much drama their uprising had created among the other scientists.

Yeun didn’t answer.

“Benson did something to him and dumped him in the cell next to mine.” Erika said. “That’s weird, isn’t it? He was supposed to help you fix my modulators, and after a single misdemeanor, he’s even worse off than me? What kind of dumpster fire are you guys running here?”

“It wasn’t a single misdemeanor,” Yeun said, his voice a tired, worried monotone, as if trying to justify it to himself. “But that’s the director’s business.”

Silence sat between them as Erika worked. Her arms were finally starting to feel remotely useful. 

Yeun stood by, brooding. She hadn’t known it was possible for cheery sunflower Elias Yeun to brood. 

“Have you spoken with him at all?” Yeun asked finally.

“A little.” If she denied it, they’d find out she was lying anyway. They hadn’t said anything incriminating, and the resources James and the robot had given her were still safely stashed under the sink.

“What did he say to you?”

“Not much. He said he was sorry.”

“I bet he did,” Yeun muttered. As she finished a set and switched to a new exercise, she considered the dark rings under his eyes. 

Even though the escape attempt had failed, James had changed something. Broken something. 

“It seems like what happened actually affected you,” Erika said.

“Well yeah,” Yeun rubbed the back of his neck. “He was going to be my lab partner. He was a brilliant engineer and a decent person. I liked him.”

“You’re talking like he’s already dead.”

“He crossed the director,” Yeun said, not looking at her. “He might as well be.”



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

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

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

He extended his hands over the keyboard, pausing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, I hate doing this, he typed.

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

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

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

That had to be Sesame.

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

Ok. Hi James.

James hesitated. Hello, is this Sesame?

Yep, cool, right?

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

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

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

Richard says yes. Without a doubt.

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

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

Richard says,“I understand,” Sesame mediated. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would be over soon.

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. Siles, you’re still here?”

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

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

“Where’s your escort?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James nodded. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alarms started to blare, making them all jump.

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

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

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

Focus, he reminded himself. He had to focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heather drew her arm back and whipped it forward.

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

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

His legs buckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry, Heather.

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

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

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

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

They were so close.

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

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

She glared savagely at the guards as they encircled her.

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

They heeded her warning, waiting.

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

Benson. He should have still been unconscious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She felt herself begin to fall.

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Heather made contact?” Sue said.

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

“What is it?” Richard pressed.

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

Sue put a hand to her mouth. “Oh no…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all their remaining options would take too much time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They might,” Richard murmured.

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

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


James opened his eyes to watchful lights and silence.

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

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

Heather—Where was Heather?

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

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

Benson got to his feet.

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

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

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

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

“Just yours.”

“For merely trying to escape?” James gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What have you done with Heather?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James’ face went cold.

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

“But what, Yeun?”

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

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

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

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

“We must uphold a standard,” Benson said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Her brow furrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Define weird?”

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

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

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

“Good to know,” he said.

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

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

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

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


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

“Already sent your way.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a coward,” James rasped.

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

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

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

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

Yeun shrugged and turned away.

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

Yeun paused, his gaze lowered.

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

But their last chance at survival left the room.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speaking,” Sue said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see…”

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

“She has a way to contact the outside?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heather, what’s happening?”

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

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

It was James. The Q-13.

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

“Where’s Benson?” Sue said.

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

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

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

“Is he dead?” Sesame asked quietly. 

There was no audible answer from Heather.

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

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

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

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

“We love you,” Sue said. 

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sesame nodded. 

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

Richard opened the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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