Only a transparent barrier separated the boy from what was happening. The light on the other side of the thick glass flared like a firework, the fire stretching and sparking out of control. Even with his tinted, protective goggles, the boy squinted.

An agonized scream tore from the center of the heat and light, and he stiffened in horror.

“It’s hurting him!” he cried, turning anxiously to the man beside him, the only other person in the compartment behind the glass. “Can’t we stop it?” He didn’t receive an answer. “Grandpa?”

“Let it run its course,” was the calm reply. “Let’s see if he comes out of it.”

The boy could barely make out the shape of the figure generating the energy surge, especially as it began to disintegrate. He felt sick. Sicker than he had ever felt before. His glasses fogged up inside his goggles from the gathering tears. He whipped around toward the wall with a strangled gasp, clutching at his mouth, sure he was going to vomit.

“What are you doing?” His grandfather’s hand gripped his shoulder, turning him around and drawing him closer to his side.

“I’m scared.” The boy fought the intense urge to pull away. He knew his grandfather wouldn’t let anything happen to him, but he couldn’t stay. He felt trapped.

The touch became mellower as his grandfather placed another hand on his other shoulder, guiding him to resume facing the experiment.

“No Michael,” he said gently. “Don’t turn away.”


James turned on the light in the chemistry lab. He strode toward the black soapstone counter, retrieving the fire extinguisher from the wall on the way past.

He moved all the pieces of the energy unit to one of the fume hoods in the back of the room and carefully set to work, gathering the chemicals he had purchased and stored in the lab. He had every step worked out, written down, and memorized. If he didn’t make any mistakes, he’d be fine.

“Here goes,” he breathed, buttoning up his lab coat. He threw a furtive glance behind him. The old Larkspur facility was creepy at night.

With grim determination, he situated his goggles on his face and pulled on a pair of fireproof gloves.

He arranged the components of the energy unit in order of assembly, and prepared the chemicals in two clearly labeled beakers. He began to solder, adding the substances at intervals and attaching the subsequent elements of the core. The heat from the soldering iron encouraged a more enthusiastic reaction, but he pushed forward, even at the sight of minute, inquisitive sparks.

He knew it was foolhardy to do this alone, but everything was under control.

He took the tip of the soldering iron off the device and waited for the hood to suck some of the excitement from the reaction. He prepared another pipette and drew a sharp smelling substance from the other beaker.

Directly after sealing the edge of the ring inside the square outer layer, he applied a few final drops to the delicate center.

A blinding light burst from the core. James jerked his face away in surprise. He hesitated for only a second, his mind racing. He removed all chemicals from the area and pulled the front panel of the fume hood as far down as he could while still retaining the ability to reach inside. He rushed to the nearest drawer and tugged on a pair of thicker gloves. There still remained two pieces to attach: one to contain the middle of the core, and another to complete the outside layer. He absolutely refused to have to call it and destroy everything with the fire extinguisher.

He picked up the notched, concave piece, hoping the bitter, smoky smell stayed well enough inside the hood and wouldn’t set off any alarms. His project was as good as dead if he put the facility in danger.

Fortunately, clamps held the device in place, so nothing fell over as he scrambled to contain the reaction. Impulsive and desperate, he reached into the thick of the heat and placed the cap on the inner core. He twisted it so the wires moved into their correct places, and the heat bit at his fingers through the gloves as he hastily soldered around the edge.

The end result was sloppy, but sturdy. Given the circumstances, he would have to be satisfied with it. The light quieted.

He heaved a weary sigh and dropped back onto a nearby lab stool.

However, his relief was short-lived. The fingers on his right hand started to sting with renewed vehemence as his smoking glove ignited.

With a yelp, he tore it off and sprayed it with the fire extinguisher.


Heather was far too perceptive.

“What did you do to your hand?”

James sighed and ceased soldering to examine the affronted hand, on which his fingers were bandaged from the first joint to the tips. “Just burned it a little last night.”

“On your personal project?” she asked.

“Yes,” James said defensively as tightness rose in his chest. “I imagine Richard’s already answered all your questions about it by now.”
“I haven’t asked him,” she said. “I’m waiting for you to tell me yourself.”

James looked up at her, his eyebrows pinched in a confused, incredulous expression.

“What?” she asked uncomfortably.

James shook his head and returned his attention to his work. “I’m just not used to that, I guess.” He readjusted his grip on the soldering iron. “Thanks.”


The android’s body had begun to materialize into more than a collection of disjointed devices, finally taking on a vaguely humanoid shape. Its inner machinery consisted of a great deal of wiring, stabilized on metal frames. Assembling it was a colossal pain, prompting several headaches and groans of frustration. On more than one occasion, the Larkspur engineers spent hours piecing together the components, only to discover one stray wire that should have already been in the center of the bundle.

Heather was allowed to help, learning how to splice wires and relaying directions while her mentors had their hands busy. She even got to participate in a bit of the construction herself.

Stringing the android together like a metal rag doll was harsh on James’ injured fingertips. By the end of the day, he decided to go home instead of injuring it further. He had to catch up on some project records anyway. Two weeks of his personal timetable for organorobotic transference had already flown by. More than ever, he felt every second ticking away, loud and insistent while his deadline loomed steadily nearer.

Two weeks left.


Yeun had moved Erika from her cell to a private medical room. Treatment often left her sore and fatigued, and she had to be careful not to dislodge the cannula in her lower back.

“Good morning Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said, entering the room. “How are you feeling?”

Erika opened her eyes, grudgingly. “No developments.”

Yeun moved to prepare the stem cell injection. “Treatment number four today,” he said cheerily. “We made it.”

“How many of these are we doing again?” she sighed.

“Nine.” He punctured the seal of the first with a syringe and drew up the liquid into the barrel. “We’re about halfway there.”

“Lucky me,” she rasped.

“After we let this one settle for a day or so, I’ll need to take a blood sample to see if this is going to work out,” he said. She let him connect the syringe with the cannula and introduce the serum.

As he prepared the one to be administered to her neural stem cell supply, Erika asked, “Is today the day? Are you going to keep your word?”

“Of course,” he said. “You’ve kept yours.”

He finished up the stem cell injection and pulled a small, pre-loaded cellphone from his lab coat. “All cleared with the director.”

He connected a wire to the charging port on the cellphone and handed it over. At the other end of the wire was a remote with a button, which he kept. “Here you are. Do you know their number?”

“Yes,” Erika said, turning over the phone in her hands.

Yeun squeezed the remote, and it powered up. “It’ll be online and functional as long as I keep this depressed,” he explained. “Make sure you just tell them you’re okay. If you try to say anything to try to lead them here—” He released the button and the phone went dark. “—instant disconnect.”

“I understand,” Erika said. She readjusted herself in the bed with a wince. He had her on supplements to help compensate with the side effects of treatment, and to increase the odds of her body accepting and integrating her altered stem cells, but her system still struggled to keep up. Each new time he took readings of its progress, she hoped he would return disappointed. But it just continued, endlessly.

Yeun pushed the button again. “I’ll give you one minute, starting as soon as they answer.”

She typed in the number, put the phone up to her ear, and waited. Yeun listened to it ringing, ready. Anxiety pulled in Erika’s ribs. She’d been rehearsing in her mind what she would say to them, but had no idea how to keep enough control of the call. Emotion sat high in her throat as the phone reached its final ring.

Her dad’s voice piped up in her ear. Voicemail machine. Erika’s hopes twisted. She looked at Yeun, and glanced at the remote in his hands. He kept it activated.

“Go ahead and leave a voicemail,” Yeun said, quietly.

After the beep, she licked her lips, took a breath. When she spoke, her voice shook. She felt defeated. “Hi Dad, hi Tristan. It’s Erika.” She looked at Yeun again. “I—I’m sorry I haven’t been able to contact you until now. There’s something I got wrapped up in, unexpectedly.”

Yeun’s fingers twitched nervously, but she lifted an urgent hand, signaling him to keep the activator depressed. He complied.

“I can’t come home right now,” she went on. “But I’m fine. I’m okay, and I’ll come back as soon as I can.” She clenched her jaw, holding back tears. “I love you both. I’m sorry.”

She took the phone from her ear and hung up, averting her gaze. Yeun let the phone deactivate.

“Do you want to try again?” he offered, as she stared at the phone in her lap.

“What’s the point?” Erika said slowly. “If they pick up, they’re gonna ask questions, and you’re gonna cut me off.”

“Wouldn’t you like to hear their voices?” Yeun said. “It may comfort you.”

Erika glared at the cannula in her arm. “What do you care?”

But neither of them moved. She didn’t offer up the phone, and Yeun didn’t take it from her.

Finally, she extended it. “Forget it. I’m too tired now.”

“Maybe we’ll try again later,” Yeun said, accepting the phone. “When you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah,” Davenport leaned back and closed her eyes wearily. “Sure.”

“I’ll get you some coffee,” he said, taking his leave.



James planned to head to Larkspur early Saturday morning to continue work, but the afternoon was in full swing by the time he regained consciousness. His throat felt like flaming sandpaper, and his head throbbed against hot, congested sinuses. When he finally dared to roll over and look at the clock, he cringed at what he read.

“No…” he moaned, burying his face into his pillow, only to lift it out again because he couldn’t breathe.

James rolled over and ran a hand through his bedhead and relaxed his arm with an exasperated sigh. Staring blearily at the ceiling, he considered taking the day off.

But he got up. He took a heavy dose of vitamin C, downed revolting liquid cold medicine, and planted himself at the kitchen table. He spent what was left of the afternoon with his laptop and his notes, consuming a nearly constant supply of tea as he wrote programs for the scanner and its various parts.

These components would detect the individual to be transferred, copy their organic neural network and send the information to the mechanical network to be electrically reconstructed. A collection of devices attached to the head would then transfer everything over while commanding and absorbing all the electrical signals at once, shutting down the organic brain as the mechanical network activated.

The transfer itself was the persistent question of plausibility, but he was finally beginning to feel like he was pinning it down.


Again, James was absent from the group come lunch hour. He had been doing this for two weeks straight, but none of his colleagues seemed surprised.

“It’s a known habit.” Chelo said simply when Heather mentioned it.

“Do you think he gets lonely down there?” Heather asked.

“Doubt it,” Greg said. “You’ve seen him when he’s working.” He tapped the side of his head. “Nothing else exists.”

Chelo nodded. “He’ll be social if he wants.”

“Sometimes he surprises you,” Greg agreed.

“But he has been particularly keyed up lately,” Addie said.

Heather glanced at her dad, who replied as nonchalantly as he could, “He’s working on a personal project. I’ve granted him use of the equipment for it.”

“He’s running himself into the ground again,” Eve murmured, concerned.

“He’ll grow out of it in a year or two,” Chelo said.

Heather stood up. “I think I’ll go see what he’s up to.”

As Heather slipped down the staircase, she heard Greg say, “So, a side project, huh? What is it this time?”

James wasn’t in either lab. Heather found him at a spare counter in the back of the equipment room. She knocked softly on the door. James straightened up and twisted around. She worried he might be cross to have been caught off guard again, but he just looked at her, inquisitive.

“Hi,” she said quietly. “I thought I might keep you company, if that’s all right.”

James’ expression lowered a bit in suspicion. He blinked, then shrugged as he returned to his work. “Sure, I guess. Not much to see today.”

“That’s okay.” Heather ventured closer. His hands were inside a metal, rectangular container the size of a breadbox, attaching pre-fabricated inner components.

He groped for the tissue box and managed to catch a sneeze. His shoulders slumped.

Heather smirked. “You made yourself sick, didn’t you?”

“It’s on its way out,” he said, indifferent. He still sounded stuffed up.

“You should go home and rest, James.”

“No thanks.”

She watched him in silence for a while, trying to guess the connection between the wire-laden chips, the square device he had worked on the week before, and this box. “Is this still a secret?”

“…That depends.”

“On what?”

He didn’t look up. “On how open your mind is.”

“It’s super open,” she insisted. She pulled a granola bar from her sweater pocket. “I won’t make a big deal about it or anything. I know it’s really important to you, but that Dad must have been discouraging. I won’t tell anyone without your permission.” She placed the bar on the counter. “I’m safe. You can tell me.”

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he considered her offering. “Is this a bribe?”

“No.” Heather crossed her arms, her face flushed. “I just figured you might be hungry, skipping lunch and all.”

He remained very still for a few moments, staring at the bar. He looked up at her, and Heather was surprised by how vulnerable he appeared in that moment. “You swear?”

“I absolutely swear.”

He hesitated again. Then, finally. “Okay.” He picked up a fine-tipped screwdriver to continue working. “I call it ‘organorobotic transference…’ It’s a means of consciousness transfer, from an organic vessel to a mechanical replacement.”

Heather blinked. She hadn’t been expected something that drastic. “You mean like body switching?”

“Yeah…to be used clinically to prevent premature death.” He crossed his arms, his shoulders tense. Did he really care what she thought? “Like as a last resort, a failsafe.”

“Sounds neat,” Heather said.

He paused, surprised. “Really?”

“Of course,” she said warmly. “How far along are you?”

“Pretty close with the first prototype, actually,” he said. A shy smile brightened his face.

“How’s it work?”

He fumbled, but once he started talking, it all started spilling out. He even explained technical jargon he might not have in his usual, guarded state, as if he really wanted her to understand the process, how possible it was.

She was beyond impressed, but mainly, she was just happy he was finally talking to her.

At first, he was apprehensive, but as Heather asked thoughtful questions instead of backing away, his posture straightened and he became more animated.

“What inspired you to tackle something like this?” Heather asked.

James blanched. “Is it okay if I don’t answer that?”

Dread stirred in Heather’s stomach, concerned for James’ health and safety, but she said. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

And for whatever reason, that final piece disarmed him completely. A weight seemed to lift off his shoulders, and for the first time since their conversation on the airplane, she saw her presence was welcome.


A few days later, James was back to full health and able to resume neglecting his body’s basic needs in favor of work. As he opened the door to his office, Heather flitted into the hallway. “Good morning!”

He returned the greeting much more quietly as he entered his office. He set his briefcase on the desk. “Hey, look.” He bobbed up a small paper bag. “Food. Aren’t you proud?”

Heather smiled. “So proud.”

“Oh, and I finished the scanner last night and made good headway on some of the accessory devices.” He couldn’t help smiling back. He hadn’t expected how good it would feel to have someone to share his victories with, instead of getting stuck in his own head. Perhaps he should have trusted her earlier. “I should be able to finish it soon.”

“That’s great,” Heather said. “Dad says he has to stay late tonight to finish the weekly report for the Bureau. Can I hang out with you after work?”

He hesitated. “Fine with me, but you should ask your dad first.”


“Will it hurt?” Heather watched as James connected wires to an adapter and plugged the setup into his laptop. The wires ended in two electrodes and a small, rectangular device.

“No,” he said. “These are just brain wave sensors.” He stuck the electrodes on his forehead and held the additional device to the back of his head. “I wish I could’ve made this full-sized so I could really see how well it works—but that would take too long, as size-specific as this part of the project is.”

He pressed the spacebar on his keyboard. A suite of windows popped up on the screen. On a black bar across the top, a white line carved a variable path along the centerline as signals registered from the electrodes. A window in the lower right corner displayed a blurry visual replication of the laptop, translating visual information James’ brain was currently processing. Error messages barred the other windows.

Heather intently looked between James and the screen. “Woah.”

James’ brow furrowed as he moved the sensor and watched the signal waver and cut out. He put the receiver above his ear, and the occipital window lost signal while another labeled Temporal began transmitting a subdued mix of waves and hazy shapes. Continuing to move the device, he was able to generate transmission for two more windows, but not all of them.

“Because the receiver’s so small, the signal’s narrow and weak,” he commented, half to himself. “And I’m only getting information from the cerebral cortex.” He sighed, closing out the program and pulling the electrodes off his forehead. “I can’t wait to make the real thing.” He considered building larger, more powerful sensors just to have on hand for the eventuality, but it would take too much time.

“Did you feel anything when those things were on your head?” Heather asked. Her cell phone chimed beside her.

James rubbed his hand over the top of his head, where he had last held the device. “Yeah, it’s a little like pins and needles.”

“Weird.” She scrolled her phone’s touch screen and tapped back a reply. “Dad’s ready to go.” She hopped off the counter and headed for the door, swinging back around. “Thanks for letting me bug you for a while, James.” She hesitated, smiling. “And for letting me in. It means a lot.”

James blinked, surprised and a little embarrassed.

“Yeah—no problem,” he fumbled.

Heather beamed. “Later.”

“Bye.” He closed his laptop and stood up to locate his supplies for the targeting system, which would read and process a sample of DNA to ensure the machine locked on the correct subject.

“Thanks for taking such interest,” he murmured with a soft smile.



James was well immersed in programming Sunday afternoon, tucked away in a silent corner of the lab with all the completed structures sprawled before him when his cell phone startled him.

Private caller, the caller ID reported, with no number.

“Hello?” He answered it grudgingly, prepared to hang up.

“Hello. Is this Dr. James Siles?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“My name is Michael Benson,” the man explained coolly. “I am the director of Empetrum, another laboratory under the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation, same as Larkspur. We’re very impressed with your work, and I wanted to extend an opportunity to you, if I may claim a moment of your time?”

“Oh. Thank you.” James straightened up. “How have you heard of my work?”

“Through the Bureau, of course.”

“Oh, of course. You have my attention, sir.”


James reached over and grabbed his project notebook, opening it to a blank page as Benson continued, “Empetrum’s research spans biochemisty as well as engineering. One of the head scientists in our biorobotics division resigned, and that position isn’t something we can offer to just anyone. We’ve heard of your brilliant innovations and tireless work ethic, and it sounds like you’re exactly what Empetrum needs. I would like to offer you a position here, if you’re interested. You would have your own personal lab and complete creative freedom, as well as a considerable raise.”

“Thank you,” James said, taken aback. “Excuse my hesitance, but I’ve never heard anything about Empetrum before…”

“I appreciate your caution,” Benson said. “As you know, Larkspur has spent most of its life hidden from the public. Empetrum’s work is even more federally sensitive, so for extra security, it has been concealed from even your branch of Larkspur. However, I have clearance to reach out to you specifically, to see that you have continued opportunity to flourish. Director Brophy has expressed misgiving about your recent project, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” James admitted, his eyebrows lowered. Had Richard seriously told on him to the Bureau about his personal project? Benson couldn’t have known about it otherwise.

“Does it worry you?” Benson asked.

“It does,” James said. “But Brophy has given me permission to pursue it. He wouldn’t arrange to rescind it without telling me…”

“Would he?”

James hesitated. Maybe if Richard worried James’ project would ultimately endanger himself or his peers, he would change his mind.

But Richard trusted him. He would never allow his daughter to be alone with James in a soundproof lab if he believed he was unstable.

“At Empetrum, you’d have been encouraged to work on it during business hours, and receive pay for your efforts.”

Benson’s words sank in like an anchor drop. James had repeatedly run himself into the ground trying to balance this project with work over the last few weeks. Maybe he wouldn’t have burnt himself preparing the power core if he hadn’t had to do it in isolation. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten sick. It hurt to be awake, and he felt like he was losing his mind at the pace he had been going.

“I know how suspicious an unexpected solicitation like this must be,” Benson added. “Please contact the Bureau yourself to put your mind at ease.”

“I will,” James said. “And I’ll be sure to consider your offer.”

“Great. Take all the time you need,” Benson said. “Give me a call at this number when you’ve made your decision. And please don’t discuss this with anyone.”

“I understand. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. I hope to speak with you again soon, Dr. Siles.”

When the call ended, James set his phone aside. He rested his elbows on the counter and laced his fingers under his nose, narrowing his eyes at the wall.

His own lab. Complete creative freedom. Richard wasn’t aware of what the project meant to him, but James certainly felt stifled by his reservations. Finally, he could admit it to himself.

And perhaps his project wasn’t as secure under Larkspur as he had hoped.


After over fifteen hours of exhaustive programming, all components were finally connected, calibrated, and ready to test. James wanted to run the conversion procedure at least once before heading home to pass out.

The scanner whirred softly from the counter. The program stood open on the screen of his laptop, which he had modified in his spare time before moving to Worthing to wield much more power than the average computer. The power core rested nearby, attached to the scanner with four thickly insulated wires.

James selected a command from the program on his screen: Input Target. A panel slid out from the scanner’s flank, light glinting off the polished metal disk inside.

He disinfected a needle he had pilfered from a repair kit in his sock drawer, using it to draw blood from one of his fingers.

He pulled a hair from his head, checked for the follicle, and set it in the scanner. He closed the lid and again attended to the computer. Target. The machine hummed as a blue light roved inside, leaking slightly from underneath the lid.

An image of the hair with the base highlighted materialized on his laptop screen, along with the prompt, Confirm Target?

Yes. The window retreated to the back of the others, and James unchecked a box at the top of the command window, fading out an entire section having to do with the neurological transfer. A pop-up requested confirmation. He was only testing the matter-to-energy conversion.

Ready for conversion. The button became a loading bar after he selected it, and the machine’s humming grew more decisive. James reached aside and strapped on protective goggles.

Ready. The bar filled with green. A corresponding green light flicked on near the base of the scanner.

Begin Conversion.

The machine eased into action, the humming growing louder but muffled by the tightly clamped lid. Despite his already established confidence in the core’s stability, he closed the doors around the lab.

The lights dimmed as the smooth metal box emitted sharp snapping sounds and electricity surged through the wires into the dormant cube attached to them. James watched breathlessly. The conversion took only a few seconds, as the mass was small.

Conversion Complete, a pop-up on his computer said. He returned to the scanner in anticipation, waiting for the humming to cease before undoing the warm clasps. Nothing remained between the concave surfaces of the scanner. The power core reported the additional energy.

James closed his eyes. Burying a relieved hand in his hair, he tipped a haggard smile toward the ceiling. He exhaled heavily, then moved to pack up and head home.




Heather searched for something to talk about, anything to offset the strained atmosphere, though she couldn’t decide what James needed. He seemed to be at least relatively okay, drinking his black coffee and staring at the floor. 

He absently left his place against the counter and headed back down the hallway. “Thanks for the coffee.”

As he passed the opening to the stairs, he directed a flick of his hand to whomever was on their way up. He entered the first office on the right, leaving the door open.

The footsteps on the stairs produced a freckled face, which brightened with a smile as he caught sight of Heather. “Good morning!” His full height emerged from the stairwell, and she realized the man towered over her. “You must be Heather.”

She nodded, flashing a wan smile. She glanced to his side, toward the open door of James’ office.

The newcomer crossed the space between them in few strides and extended a huge hand. “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Heather said. She gestured back toward the coffeemaker. “I made coffee, if you’d like some.”

Greg bobbed his own disposable coffee cup. “I’m already covered, but thanks for the offer.” He glanced down the hallway. “I should get situated before Richard’s ready to rock and roll.”  He flashed another smile. “Glad you could be here today.”

“Thanks.” Heather smiled.

Within a few minutes, two women arrived and introduced themselves as Chelo and Addie. They welcomed Heather amiably, but soon after they met, the director’s door opened and Richard and Eve entered the hallway. Richard held a thick file of papers.

“Let’s head down to the lab everyone,” Richard said. His demeanor offered Heather no insight into his meeting with James.

“I’ll meet you down there,” Chelo said.

“I’ll just be a minute as well,” Addie’s voice was soft and gentle, as if she had never raised it in her life.

James slipped into the hallway and trailed behind as Heather followed Richard and Eve down the staircase and around to the double doors in the adjacent wall. Heather glanced over her shoulder, but James’ gaze was on the steps.

“What are you working on today?” Heather asked her dad, pausing to take in her first sight of the pristine, polished laboratory.

James wordlessly stepped around her.

“Going back over the details of our most recent project.” Richard planted the file on the nearest counter and opened it up. He spread the pages across the chrome surface. “We’re going to let the generator project cool off for a while.”

“What’s the new project?”

“Android,” James finally spoke up, choosing a page and reading it over. “Artificial intelligence.”

“Cool.” Heather ventured up to the counter. She tilted her head at the nearest page—a diagram of a square device, with multiple renderings of intricate interior components. “Was this what you were sketching on the plane, James?”

“No,” James replied. “Though I did have to re-draw that over the last month. We lost some data in the accident.”

“And prototypes,” Chelo’s voice said. Heather glanced back to see her enter the lab, followed by Greg and Addie. “Glad to have all that mess behind us.”

James nodded, his attention fixed on the file’s contents, brows lowered. Chelo planted a comforting hand on his shoulder as she and the others joined the countertop. 

Heather perused the assortment of notes and labeled diagrams as the engineers launched into their work. She pulled a black stool out from under the opposite counter and took a seat, watching the activity.

Comments and clarifications passed back and forth as the group industriously reviewed and ironed out a consensus for all proportions and methods of construction. Notes were penciled in margins, diagrams completed or modified.

Heather scooted closer and rested her elbows where the counter peeked through. She found herself watching Eve, James, and her dad more than the others, wondering all over again what had happened in their meeting earlier. James’ behavior when he appeared from Richard’s office made her think it hadn’t gone well, whatever it was.

Eve was outgoing and upbeat, conversing easily with her colleagues. Richard tried to mirror that energy, but Heather knew her dad well enough to know when he was overcompensating.

James was very quiet, and anything he did say was clipped and businesslike, not unkind but certainly no-nonsense. She didn’t think he was avoiding Eve, but he was so minimalistic with everyone, it was hard to figure out if it was business-as-usual or not.

None of their colleagues seemed to notice anything amiss. Or if they did, they weren’t showing it.

Finally, the engineers confirmed their respective components of the project and left to get to work. James plucked a few pages from the table. Crossing the room, he donned protective glasses before disappearing behind a door at the back of the lab.

“What’s through there?” Heather asked.

“All the equipment,” Richard said. “Though this lab’s soundproof, so you won’t be able to hear it working.”

Remaining at the counter, Greg and Richard continued to collaborate on the power system for the android. Heather couldn’t make much of their robotics and chemistry jargon, but she listened anyway, excited when some details made sense.

When they were also ready to begin assembling, they encouraged her to try on one of the blue fireproof lab coats as she followed Greg and Richard into the equipment lab.

Immediately, the silence of the first lab gave way to the raucous humming taking place in the corner of the other. The scents of metal and smoke tinged the air, and James stood by a machine at the back, supervising as it cut across a sheet of metal. 

Drifting with her guides past a garden of other machines, Heather found herself in an annex of the back wall.

“Woah…” She lagged behind. A myriad of shelves, containers, and compartments crowded the musty walls of the long, narrow space. Lights hung low from the ceiling, but not so much that Greg seemed concerned about hitting his head. “What is this?”

“Supply stockroom. Feel free to snoop,” Greg said as they checked through the tags of metal sheets lined up along the shelves.

“But be careful,” Richard added. “Watch out for sharp edges.”

“What are you looking for?” Heather peeked into the labeled drawers of a nearby storage box. Most were filled with screws and bolts.

“A specific metal reserved for projects like what we’re working on, an alloy capable of handling large amounts of energy.”

Heather nodded thoughtfully, crossing her arms as she turned to regard the sheets of plastic slotted into the wall behind her. Curious, she pulled a thick white sheet slightly out from its counterparts and ran a hand carefully along its rough edge.

“Heather, are there spools of polymer filament labeled UI2-6 over there?” Greg asked. 

“Spools of what?”

“Those black crates to your right,” Richard clarified. “They’re full of thin cords of different materials, and UI2-6 is a type of plastic. It’s for 3D printing.”

“Ah.” Heather located the open bins full of big spools. There appeared to be a container reserved for each filament type—some were metal, some plastic. She checked the tags, repeating the name under her breath as she searched. “No, I don’t see it.”

“Thought so. Thanks, Heather.” Greg helped Richard pull a large sheet out into the aisle further down. “We’ll have to order that, then, before we’re ready for the android’s outer shell.”

They brought the metal from the stockroom to the second CNC mill, and Heather watched with the utmost intrigue as her dad entered the machining parameters and set it to work. 

When all partitions had been cut, and the sharp edges filed smooth at the nearby lathe, they brought their spoils out into the lab. James had since set up his work station on the other available island, so Greg and Richard continued to the lab on the other side of the frosted glass barrier.

Heather lingered on her way past. “How’s the voice box coming? That was what you were going to work on, right?”

“Yeah.” The bulk of his attention remained on what he was doing. “It’s going all right.”

“What will the robot’s voice sound like?” She spoke over the gentle spitting of James’ soldering iron.

“The voice simulator will be able to produce a wide range of frequencies,” he murmured, distraction dominating the quick, intelligent cadence of his voice. “So we’ll be able to program whatever tone of voice we want.”
“So it can have any voice you want? Could you make it sound exactly like your own?”

“I could, but that’d be kind of creepy, don’t you think?”

“I wonder what kind of a voice would suit a robot,” Heather mused, watching the thin trail of smoke curl up from where the iron knitted two pieces together.

“One that sounds human,” James replied casually. “Just not mine.”

“We should make it sound like Greg.”

James smiled, albeit slightly. “He’d have fun with that, but I think one of him is enough.”

As if on cue, the glass door separating the labs opened and Greg strode between the counters on his way to the equipment room. “So this is where you wandered off to, Heather. We turned around and you were gone.”

“Sorry, I’ll be there in a minute,” Heather replied, embarrassed to have already been caught wandering away from her supervisors. When she returned her attention to James, he had slipped back to his work. His movements were steady and precise, as if he ran on autopilot, incapable of error.

Heather took a step in that direction. “See you later.”

James was far too engrossed in his work to answer.

In the other lab, Addie, Chelo, and Eve were submerged in the initial stages of their own concentrations.

“What are you working on?” Heather ventured next to Eve to watch.

She soldered small wide bases to two stiff wires on either end. “I’m making fingers.”
Heather blinked. “Just fingers?”

“Well, I’ll build them out to the rest of the hand,” she chuckled.

Greg returned from the stockroom, handing Richard a box of supplies and, as the director thanked him and continued his own soldering, Greg leaned on the counter.

“You know what would be cool,” he said, and Heather thought he was going to say something serious, “we should be a little more creative with this project. We could give it like three eyes or something, that’d be awesome.”

“That would be awesome,” Heather agreed, smiling. “What do you think, Dad?”

Richard just scoffed.

“Yeah, that’d be something,” Chelo spoke up from the counter against the wall. “We should give it extra limbs too.”

Greg raised a hand to his chin. “We should! Richard, would you spring for that?”

“And laser vision?” Chelo pursued.

“Now you’re making fun of me.”

She smiled, her broad nose scrunching up as she glanced back at him. Greg waved her off on his way to the door.

Sticking his head into the adjacent lab, he announced, “Hey James, just to let you know, we’re putting three eyes in this edition, so you might want to make your voice box smaller to make room.”

“Okay,” he grunted, then paused. “Wait, three? Greg.”

“I am dead serious,” Greg said.

“I’m sure you are.”

“I am.”

“Don’t you have something better to do?”

“Ask Richard. We’ve all been collaborating in here,” Greg said, his tone lilting.

Heather stifled a laugh.

“Okay, tuning you out now,” James droned.

“Ah well, it was worth a try. You’re not as gullible as you used to be. Hey, why are you all isolated in this lab anyway?”

“This is just where I ended up,” came the apathetic reply. “Too much trouble to pick up and move now.”

“Sure, sure,” Greg said, closing the door. As he rejoined his colleagues, he jerked his thumb back over his shoulder with a patient sigh. “Looks like somebody pulled an all-nighter again.”

Heather glanced at her dad, who pretended to be focused on soldering.


Work ended at five o’clock.

“What did you think, Heather?” Richard asked as she helped him collect the unfinished pieces for storage.

Heather smiled. “Can I come back tomorrow?”

“Sure you can,” Eve said as they entered the other lab. She sounded genuinely pleased.

“You’re welcome any time,” Greg said, and Chelo affirmed.

“I’m really glad you enjoyed yourself,” Addie said.

“What do you think, James?” Chelo asked.

James gave a distracted thumbs-up as he carried a plastic container of robot parts into the equipment room.

Richard had been so reluctant to tell Heather about Larkspur. When arriving at the facility, Heather had expected her presence to be simply tolerated, or received with wariness. The   of her dad’s colleagues came as a surprise.

She wondered what could have happened to drive such a place to withdraw from the world.


James had intended to go home and continue planning and researching, but fatigue rushed him upon opening the door to his apartment. He fell asleep on the couch waiting for the coffee maker.

He woke up at ten, forced himself through four hours of work, and then went to bed. James frowned at the digital clock on his bedside table as he pulled the covers up to his chin. He wished he could just plug himself into the nearest electrical socket.

Sleeping took too much time.



If Heather stepped foot in the upstairs chemistry lab, Richard insisted she wear protective goggles and gloves and keep her lab coat buttoned all the way up. But from as far away as he wanted her, she couldn’t see anything as Greg and Richard put together a potent mixture of chemicals under the fume hood.

Perhaps it would be better if she weren’t there to bother them at such a delicate stage in the project. “I’m gonna see what everybody’s doing downstairs,” she said, careful not to startle them as they began to add the concoction to the half-constructed energy unit. 

She stood up, peeling the unused gloves from her hands and hanging her goggles on a nearby rack.

“Okay,” Richard said.

  Trotting down the stairs, she unbuttoned her lab coat and ran her fingers through her hair to fluff out crimps from the goggle straps.

She’d made it to a miraculous third day shadowing at the facility, and she figured she was probably on the brink of overstaying her welcome. She needed to make herself more useful.

In the equipment room downstairs, James was hard at work again, scribbling in a notebook as he monitored a machine’s fine-tuning of the voice simulator’s entrails. The rest of the sleek, square device with a circular bloom of holes in the front panel rested beside James at the compact computer station.

“That’s really cool.” Heather moved closer to the machine to examine it.

“Thanks,” he mumbled. “Keep back from the machine, please.”

Heather stepped back, even though she had been only a single step beyond James himself. “Do you want help with anything?”
“No, thanks,” he said, his gaze still focused on the mechanical parts before him.

Heather left him in search of the other engineers. James was easily the first to feel imposed upon, and she didn’t want to risk it.

She found Addie stationed at the counter along the wall in the nearest lab. A large magnifying glass stuck out in front of her face as she worked. As soon as the door sealed behind Heather, the din in the equipment room snuffed out.

“How’s it coming?” Heather asked.

“The camera’s getting there.” Addie had arranged an orderly line-up of constituents on the countertop. She raised her eyebrows at Heather. “Soon I’ll get to start making it look more like an eye.”

Heather examined the scattered mosaic of pieces.

“What have you been up to this morning, Heather?”

“Just following my dad around,” Heather said. “He wanted to include me, but I think the chemistry lab was out of his comfort zone.”

“I see.” Addie glanced at her watch. “Well it’s almost one. We should be breaking for lunch soon.”

“Can I help with anything? Get parts for you or something?”

“Bored?” she asked with a smile.

“Just looking to be of some help.”

“Ah. I’m fine for the time being. This little pile will keep me busy for hours to come. Thanks, though.”

They were all so self-sufficient. “Do you mind if I watch for a while?”

“Go for it.” Addie’s blue eyes trained steadily through the magnifying glass.

Laughter burst from the other room. Heather could easily pick out Eve’s warm enthusiastic chuckle, joined by Chelo’s more boisterous guffaw. Addie exchanged an amused glance with Heather and the room fell tranquil again, the directionless hum of the air-conditioning accenting their colleagues’ muffled conversation.

“I thought the lab was soundproof,” Heather said.

“That wall isn’t,” Addie replied without looking up. “I think it was added later.”


After a period of quiet focus, Addie sighed and sat back from her work. “Well, I’m ready for a break.” She rolled her shoulders in relief and smiled at Heather. “Shall we go?”

Richard and Greg were the last to join them upstairs.

Chelo planted herself at the table across from James and rolled a mandarin orange to him. “Hey, quit brooding.”

“I’m not brooding,” he murmured, regarding the fruit like a foreign substance. He picked it up.

“I know you’re particularly fond of the things,” she said, gesturing to her offering. “I hope the vitamin C brings you out of your stupor.”

“Thanks.” He favored her with a faint smile.

“You getting enough sleep?” she said.

James shrugged, busily peeling the orange. 

“That’s a no?”

He stuck a slice in his mouth. “I just have some design stuff to get out of my system. It’s no big deal.”

Chelo eyed him. Heather watched the exchange closely.

“Okay…” Chelo drew out, skeptical. 


James set out directly after work, armed with an exhaustive list of supplies. After years of amateur robotics supply hunting, he knew exactly what kinds of places sold what he needed, no matter what side of the country he was on. He had already ordered with express shipping those supplies he couldn’t get without permission. He was grateful to Richard for approving these requests without comment.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, resolute.

One month. That was his goal.



Although miniaturizing the prototype initially lowered the costs of supplies, it didn’t compensate for James’ impatience. Next-day shipping rates were a necessary evil.

James finished acquiring his supplies as early as possible Saturday morning, and then transported what he had collected to Larkspur. The security guards seemed surprised at the sight of him, clad in a t-shirt and jeans, a plastic container of 3D printer filaments and a bursting notebook under one arm, and four canvas bags heavily weighing down the other.

“Do you—want help with some of that?” one of them tried, standing up from the desk as James somehow managed to get through the door unaided.

“No, I’m great, thanks Alder,” James said, treading carefully across the lobby to the nearest lab entrance, where he managed to balance everything enough to slide his card and pull the door open. 

James planted his supplies on the nearest counter, separated his notebook from the pile, and headed back out to his car for another load.

On his second and last trip through, he caught the guards watching him. “I’ve arranged some additional supplies to arrive here today,” he said. “Could you keep a lookout and let them through? And if you could call me when they arrive, that’d be great.”

“Yeah, sure,” Alder replied. “No problem. Are you getting a head start on a project?”
But James had already disappeared into the lab, carrying his supplies to a shadowy corner of the supply room.

He worked all day and late into the night, returning early the next morning for another full day in the lab.


Heather wandered along the outskirts of the backyard in the summer heat, gazing up at the tall pine trees lining its edge. She was just beginning to consider building a treehouse in one of them, trying to resign herself to the abyss of unbroken free time she faced for the rest of the summer now that she couldn’t justify any more visits to Larkspur.

She realized her dad was calling her. As soon as she stepped through the sliding glass door into the kitchen, Richard handed her his cellphone.

“It’s Eve,” he said.

She gave him an inquisitive look as she took the phone and put it up to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hi, Heather,” Eve said. “How did you like visiting Larkspur this week?”

“I loved it.” She paced to the edge of the kitchen, aware of both her parents’ hushed expectation. Butterflies stirred in her stomach. “Thanks for letting me do that. It was great.”

“I’m glad. It’s been a pleasure to have you at the facility. I wanted to ask you what you think about us taking on a new intern?”

“A new intern?” Heather raised an eyebrow at her father, who smiled and readjusted his glasses.

“You. If you’re up for it.” Before Heather could respond, she continued, “Your dad and I have been thinking. I know you’ve only been at the lab for a few days, but we like having you around, and you seem really interested in learning. So, care to see how the summer goes with us nerds?”

An incredulous smile lit up her face. “I would love that! All summer?” 

“All summer. You can start Monday if you like, sign some forms, make it official.”

“Okay.” She wished she had a more intelligent reply than that.

“All right, then. See you tomorrow.”

“Thank you so much.”

The phone slumped from Heather’s ear as she gaped at her parents. “Intern?

Richard nodded, grinning. “What do you think?”

She beamed at her parents. “I can’t believe it.” 

Intern. At Larkspur. She’d made it in.

“Too bad I can’t put this on my college resume,” she said, half joking.

“Who knows, a lot can happen in three years,” Richard said. “Maybe by that time, it won’t be a problem.”

“You mean Larkspur’s going to come out of hiding?”

“We hope so,” Richard said. “We’ll certainly be working on it, though it’s somewhat precarious. You’re the first step in that.”

Heather smiled. Finally, she had a role in her parents’ secret world.

And her involvement could make a difference.


Heather arrived at the facility practically vibrating with anticipation. James was happy for her. He hoped she enjoyed spending more time at the facility.

He remembered his first day at Larkspur, learning of the their interest in him and being offered a place in their engineering paradise. His heart had nearly exploded while riding down the elevator with Richard and watching the brightly lit corridor open before him for the first time.

He missed the old facility, as well as the days he had spent inside it, pursuing his goals relatively unhindered. As always, he’d had to use some discretion for which projects he merely tinkered with and those he chose to submit a formal proposal for. But he hadn’t minded much.

He had thought only of work, release from his doctoral studies and social insecurities. Escape from his parents.

But in the last few weeks, something had shifted. This blasted turn in his father’s health blocked him from settling back down. His project chafed constantly at the edges of his attention. No amount of effort was enough.

James skipped lunch to work on it. Alone in the lab downstairs, the components of the device steadily continued to take shape under his careful but impatient hands. Through the oblivion of focused concentration, he barely noticed the subtle change in atmosphere. The feeling of being watched.

He looked up and startled. Heather stood in the doorway.

He readjusted his grip on the soldering iron and returned his turbid attention to the metal chip snaked with wires. “Shouldn’t you be upstairs?”

She shrugged. He caught the movement in his peripheral vision as she neared him. “I finished eating. What about you? Skipping lunch?”

“I’m not hungry,” he muttered.

She paused. “Are you okay?”

Yes. Why do you all keep asking me that? I’m fine. Everything’s fine. ”

She fidgeted. “Sorry. I won’t ask anymore if it bothers you.”


She didn’t say anything for a long while. James willed her to leave him be, but she wasn’t a telepath. She remained on the other side of the counter.

“Does your dad know you’re down here?” he said finally.

“Yes.” After watching him for a moment, she said, “Do you ever get tired of that?”
“Of what?” He gathered up the pieces and moved toward the equipment room.

Heather followed him. “Soldering—staring so intensely at everything all day.”

“Never.” He deposited the chips on the computer counter near the machine he had used for the voice simulator’s finer mechanics. After taking one of the chips to the machine, he returned to the computer, consulting his open notebook.

“Even if you did it for months straight?” Heather craned her neck to see the pages. He shifted the notebook away from her without looking up.

“Never,” he said again, flatly. “Do you ever get tired of breathing?”
Heather smirked, crossing her arms. “Yes, in fact I do.”

He cracked a wan, tired smile of his own, glancing up at the computer and back down, entering parameters.

Heather took one of the chips in her fingers to examine it. The light shifted and reflected on the copper and silver wires in its smooth base. “Is this part of the android?” 

“No. Don’t touch, please.”

She replaced it. “What is it, then?” 

He deliberated for a moment. “Secret.”

Heather considered the machine ahead as it eased to life under James’ direction. “Why is it a secret?”

“It’s just personal,” James said. Internship didn’t give her access to everything.

“Does my dad know what it is?”

James closed his notebook. “You sure ask a lot of questions.” 

The subject matter of his project already worried him, and he didn’t need the doubts of even one more person to help compound it. He didn’t need her unsure about him too.

Her face flushed. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he said, shame rising in his throat. “Don’t worry about it.”

He tried to think of something to reverse the atmosphere he had created between them, but nothing came to mind. He was too frustrated, too embarrassed. It was never his goal to alienate her.

James glanced at his watch. “The others will be down soon. I should switch gears.” He still had ample time, but any attempts to get much else completed that afternoon was pointless. He couldn’t work with Heather spying over his shoulder, and he didn’t have the heart to outright tell her to go away.

“Want help cleaning up?”

He considered her hopeful face. “No, I’ve got it. Thanks.” The chips fit in one hand, each of the remaining four being about half the length of his palm. The chip being processed would finish soon and he could attend to it then.

As soon as the door to the stockroom closed behind him, James allowed himself an exasperated sigh.


It was three in the morning before James left the facility. Building the neural network proved much more intricate and time consuming than he had hoped, and he had a headache from straining his eyes for so long, but he was almost satisfied with the structure. The next chance he had to work on it, he’d be able to finish and start programming.


Heather quickly integrated herself into the events of the lab. She wasn’t yet allowed to work on anything big, but Eve let her try a small amount of soldering as she put together the android’s extremities, teaching her how to hold the iron and apply a steady pressure. She never seemed to tire of watching them work, and she enthusiastically kept herself on hand to assist whenever needed. The life of an intern suited her well.

After their disagreement earlier that week, she was careful to keep out of James’ way, but she didn’t keep her distance. She gravitated to him more often than to the other engineers. He suspected it had to do with them being closest in age, or their meeting outside of Larkspur, because it was unlikely she just enjoyed his company. He talked little and focused totally on his work. He didn’t think himself interesting or fun to talk to, and he kept letting surly comments slip if she asked too many questions.

Still, she regularly returned to see what he was up to.

By Thursday, James was struggling to program the neural network to handle limitless accommodation. He needed to rework it yet again, but he was on the clock. That afternoon, he finished programming the voice simulator, and showed Heather how it worked. He had to teach the intern something, at least.

He let her play with it for a while, changing the frequency and typing phrases for the simulator to put voice to. She took to it instantly, and soon, strange voices murmured from the device connected to James’ laptop on one of the chrome islands. She turned up the volume. 

He found himself conversing with her through it.

“What are you working on right now?” a high-pitched voice warbled from behind him.

“I’m helping Addie,” he humored her. Heather’s rampant curiosity irked him at times, but she usually meant well. She was a good kid, and bright too. He held nothing against her.

“I know. I’m watching you,” the voice simulator growled.

Addie, working beside him, cracked a smile.

“If you knew, why did you ask?” James said.

“I see everythiinngg,” it started low, but as the word extended, the pitch increased exponentially so that it turned into a twisted sort of question.

“Gross,” James said.

“Rude,” the pitch dipped back down into the high end of a male voice range. “Keep talking.”

“Why? What do you want me to say?”

“Anything,” the pitch descended a few hertz further.

James worked with minute tweezers and a fine-tipped soldering iron, attaching blue, scale-like pieces to a small, curved ellipse. His shoulders ached from prolonged tension. Building the irises was very precise, and horribly tedious. Addie didn’t fidget as much as he did. Why couldn’t they just get the computer to do this?

“I know where this is going, Heather,” he muttered.

He heard a close electronic replica of his voice drone behind him, “I know where this is going, Heather.” She made slight adjustments to the pitch as it talked.

Addie chuckled. “She’s plotting to replace you, James.”

“She would never do that,” after a quick spurt of typing, the voice simulator replied for him.

James twisted around to face the intern. Staring at him, shoulders erect, Heather’s fingers flew across the keyboard without evident direction and she pressed the enter key. James’ eyes widened.

The voice simulator belted a seizure of raucous sounds as it attempted to make literal sense of the chaos she had told it to articulate—in James’ voice.

He hunched his shoulders, thoroughly horrified.

As the ugly sequence went on, Heather and Addie burst into peals of laughter and James lifted his hands to his reddening face.

“Sorry, James,” Heather laughed when it finally ended. She tucked her hair behind an ear. “I’m done.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” James turned back around. “Why don’t you go target Greg now?”

Heather scoffed and readjusted her perch atop the lab stool. “Call him in here and get him talking, and your wish is my command.”

Addie tilted her colleague a wry smile. James rubbed a hand across his mouth, allowing himself a scoff.


Two weeks after Yeun extracted stem cells from Erika’s bone marrow, the next phase was underway.

She lay on a supinated hospital bed in fetal position, her back exposed and cold from liquid antiseptic. Yeun’s gloved fingers felt for the crest of her pelvis on the left side, identifying landmarks to hone in on the point of entry among her lumbar vertebrae. After a series of injections, the whole area was numb, but she could still feel the pressure.

She tried to stay still, staring at the thin, capped tube of the cannula in her arm, waiting to be hooked up for injection as soon as the other cannula was installed. Transparent bags of solution waited on an IV pole, looming behind them.

“Have you done this before?” she asked quietly. 

“Yes,” Yeun said. She heard a soft metallic sound as he took the needle off a nearby tray. “Hold still. This will be over in a few seconds.” 

He gently counted down from three, and Erika felt a burst of pressure in her lower back as he pushed in the needle. She tried to breathe, though coldness prickled at her temples. Now the unnecessary stem cell therapy could begin. 

As the Empetrum scientist taped up the cannula to keep it in place, the desire to attempt violent escape rose. She had watched and waited for two weeks, but no opening had presented itself. From her cell, she hadn’t been able to learn much about anything, not the guard rotations or even Yeun’s opinion on the director or his workplace. He had been somewhat scarce as he busily cultured her cells elsewhere.

Now, he was going to start trying to alter her genetic code somehow. And she was lying there letting him.

“After this,” she spoke up, “may I at least call my family, to tell them I’m okay?”

Yeun pulled the IV setup closer to the bed. He was quiet as he connected it with the tube in her spine. “I’ll see what I can do. Here, you can roll over onto your back. But be careful.”

He helped steady her as she complied.

“You mean that’s something you’ll consider?” Erika asked.

“Yes.” Yeun prepared to connect the other IV to the cannula in her arm. “We can do it safely, if you earn it.”

“Haven’t I earned it?” Erika said. She watched the fluid from the IV bags approach, and a spike of fear seized her throat. “I’m letting you do this right now.”

“It’s still too early,” Yeun said, watching her closely. “We’ve barely begun the first treatment. Rewards are something I think we should wait until treatment number four at least, don’t you think?”

“Once I’m too far to go back, you mean.” 

“Once we have more of an understanding,” he said. “I would like to make this worth your while, even though you came to us under questionable circumstances.”

“So I’m being punished…” Erika watched the fluid enter her system. Her head hurt.

“I believe much more in positive reinforcement.” He removed his gloves, pulled out a cellphone, and sent a short text. “We’re both adults here.”

A long silence ensued, during which a guard came in with two cups of coffee. Yeun offered her one.

At Erika’s venomous look, he said, “It helps keep with the headache after the spinal tap.”

After some hesitation, she accepted it, and Yeun sat back in a chair with his own cup to monitor the treatment session.

“So…” Erika said finally, wearily. “How long will it take to get to treatment number four?”

“A week from today,” Yeun said. He looked at her. “Do we have a deal, then?”

Erika stared into her coffee, pain blooming in her chest. Survive, she told herself. Just try to survive

“Yes,” she said. “We do.”


By late Friday night, James had torn apart the old prototype of the neural network and constructed and programmed a completely new one. Its original data capacity sat at one gigabyte, which would be all too easy to max out.

That was, of course, the point.

Stifling a yawn, he plugged the small, segmented device marbled with wiring into his computer with a modified sync cord. He watched with a prick of relief as the network’s program materialized on the desktop. A promising start, at least.

When he clicked on the icon, a window came up and partitioned into a variety of different areas simulating the memory centers of the brain. Each compartment had a short capacity bar at its core. He located his prolific documents folder, highlighted everything, and pulled it all over into the window.

Then he waited.

The transfer lagged a bit, but the capacity bars of a couple centers began to fill. Then it froze, immobilizing the rest of his computer screen.

He waited in breathless silence, staring at the immobile pixels. When minutes passed and nothing else happened, he groaned and hunched forward, resting his forehead against the counter.

Another failure.

And this was only a part of the interlacing network of programs needed for the project. His fruitlessness with this component stalled the entire project until the program could be straightened out.

After all that time spent studying the brain and its electrical processes, all the feverish planning of how to convert it to an electrical model, he thought he had finally figured it out. The nagging fear welled up stronger than ever: What if he worked to the end of his strength and sanity and still ran out of time?

James stared at the floor, the counter cold against his forehead. His brow furrowed, and he closed his eyes.

I’m really proud of you. His father’s words haunted him. To be James was to live under an unbearable weight, and those words had only increased it.

James would never know peace at this rate.

He could have fallen asleep slumped over the counter, utter exhaustion imminent, but then his computer beeped. James lifted his face, squinting at the bright light of the screen for a moment before his gaze fell on the capacity bars.

Sixteen gigabytes of free space existed wherever a transfer had been made.

“Transfer complete…” he read slowly, hardly believing his own voice. As the full meaning of the words took hold, he leapt into activity with mouth agape, dumping whatever else he could onto the device. Each round of information transfer occurred a little more quickly than the last, and the device accepted all of it, each time reporting more and more available space. He sifted through the device’s archives, finding it had correctly sorted the various types of information into the appropriate memory centers.

He stood up and turned from the computer, both hands flying to his head in incredulity.

“It works,” he laughed to the dim, empty lab. “It works!”




“Your midterm grades should have come out by now. Why haven’t we received them?”

James opened the door to his residence hall. Regardless of his already impressive credit count, the university refused to let him upgrade his living arrangements because he was still a minor.

He halted in the stairwell. “Because I asked registrar not to release them to you.”


“Because I just want it that way. Relax, I’ll show you the numbers at the end of the year.”

“You can’t do that.”

“But I did, Dad,” James said. “My grades are fine. I’m trying to take accountability for myself. I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Your performance will slip without oversight.”

“That’s what I have professors for.”

“Is the registrar office still open?”

“Dad, I won’t slip.”

“You need to go straight over there and change this.”

James steeled himself. “No. I want it this way.”

“If you remove your mother and I from your academics, we’ll withdraw your financial support. Good luck getting loans at your age.”
James stiffened. “You wouldn’t do that!” Another student came down the stairwell and James avoided his gaze. James started up the stairs, readjusting his grip on his phone.“Dad, you can’t do that.”

“I’m heading out to the bank right now.”

“I’ll get another job, then!” 

“With your major?”
“I can do it.” He was already tutoring ten hours a week, but that wasn’t enough to fully support himself.

“You’re willing to compromise the quality of your education for an upstart bit of pride? You’ll exhaust yourself. You won’t go to graduate school like we’d all hoped, and you’ll be forced into a menial line of work and waste your talents for years at best.”

“That won’t happen.” James said, his conviction forced.

James thought he heard the sound of the elevator of the apartment building where his parents lived, and he froze just as he entered the hallway of his own residential floor.

“It’ll be a nice load off our shoulders, I guess,” Jonathan sighed. James couldn’t speak. In that moment, wary dislike of his father gave way to full blown hatred.

“Last chance, James.”

“Fine!” James spun around and tore the door open again. His voice cracked, “I’ll go down there. You win.”


Erika didn’t sleep most of the night. Morning came and the dimmed artificial lights of her cell brightened to normal strength. She watched the clock, hungry, bored, and cross. 

A meal never arrived. 

She was beginning to consider figuring out how to summon Yeun when guards arrived and took her down the hall to some kind of examination room. The guard told her to sit down on the examination table, so she did. The door closed and he positioned himself in front of it, arms folded across his chest, waiting.

The silence was deafening. She’d been drowning in silence since she got here.

Finally, Yeun arrived, slipping into the room with a quiet greeting.

“Got a busy day for you,” he said. “Ready to extract some stem cells.” 

Erika stared at the floor, her brow tight. “For what?” 

“For culturing,” he said.


He opened up the cabinet under a small sink in the corner, pulling out a hospital gown and a shower cap, both a depressing shade of light blue. He placed them on the counter. “Change into these. It’s a simple bone marrow extraction. We’ll put you under, and have you in and out before you know it.” 

Erika looked up at him. He was already on his way out.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” he said. He beckoned to the guard to follow, and they left Erika alone. 

Her attention went immediately to the sink, wondering if it held anything of use, knowing he wouldn’t have left her unsupervised if that were the case. She glanced up at the security camera in the ceiling.

What would she have found that would have been useful enough, anyway? A scalpel? Empetrum guards had tranquilizers. She’d seen enough guards in the last few days to start recognizing the rectangular infuser strapped to the back of their belts, near the handgun. 

Maybe Yeun was testing her. Better to keep playing along for now. Either way, she didn’t want to go under anesthesia right after making Yeun angry.

She still had time.

Slowly, she stood up, wrinkled her nose at the gown and shower cap, and turned her back on the camera to get dressed.


James’ cell phone buzzed fitfully from the coffee table.

Grudgingly, he extricated himself from a sea of open moving boxes and picked his way across the apartment to access the device. He froze when he read the caller ID.

“What do you want?” he muttered. He stared at the screen until the vibrating ceased.

If they really wanted to make contact, they could leave a message. They could communicate on his terms.

His phone began to vibrate again, and again the familiar name and number glared from the screen.

He groaned, tapped the answer button and brought it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello, James?” a woman’s voice sounded formally from the other line.


“It’s been a while.”

“Yes it has.”

“How have you been?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Everything’s good.”

“Your father and I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”

There was a reason for that. “Yeah, I’ve been busy with work.”

“Oh yes, your all-consuming secret occupation.”

James narrowed his eyes at the wall. Nothing had changed in a year.

She sighed. “Look, don’t worry about lining up your excuses, I just wanted to fill you in on what’s happened.”

Foreboding prickled on the back of James’ neck. “What’s happened?”

“Well, your dad hasn’t been feeling well for a while, so we went in to the doctor to check it out.” Her voice snapped, almost angry. “He has pancreatic cancer.”

James’ face went cold. “Cancer?”

“It’s not responding well to treatment,” her tone wavered slightly before she curbed it.

James swallowed, his throat dry. “How long have you known?”

“Several months.”

Several months?”he demanded. “Why on earth didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“Why did you cut us off for an entire year?” she demanded back.

James winced. He waited for the sting of her words to subside before speaking again, “That was the purpose of the delay?” They still had his cell phone number. They could have called him earlier. Why did they wait a whole year without leaving so much as a message, and then give him grief as if it was all his fault?

“No,” she admitted after a pause. “We didn’t think it worth calling your attention from the clandestine matters of your life. We were dealing with it.”

James thought he heard his father say something about leaving him alone about his job.

“I would have wanted to know immediately, Mom,” James said. “Even if you were dealing with it.”

“Could you come home?” the question came abruptly, uttered in a formal, business-like tone, as if she were requesting a report, and not something much greater. “Just to visit?” This was as close to pleading as she came.

“No, I—I can’t right now,” James struggled. He sat down on the floor. “My job just relocated me and I’ve only just arrived. There’s still a lot of work to be done. I don’t know if I can step away right now…”

“When you can, then. Soon?”

“Yeah, but we’ll have to see. Sorry, Mom.” He was technically much closer than he had been for the last year. But he had only just escaped from his domineering parents. He didn’t know if he could bring himself to come back. Even for this.

“Do you want to talk to your father?”

James opened his mouth to refuse, but thought better of it. Talking to his father only brought trouble—but it could be the last time he heard his voice. If James had any sort of heart, he could tolerate it, at least.

“Yes,” he said finally, bracing himself for the worst.

“Okay,” came the soft reply. The phone switched hands.

“Hello, James,” Jonathan Siles’ voice, normally crisp and direct, sounded haggard.

“Hi, Dad,” James said quietly. “How are you holding up?”

“Fine. Don’t worry about me, okay? I want you to concentrate on your work. You’ve worked hard for this, and I don’t want to get in the way.” He paused. “I know you usually refuse to talk about it, but are you happy there?”

“Yes.” James fidgeted. “I am.”

“Good. So, James—” his father hesitated, as if the words he was about to utter pained him. “I don’t know how much longer I have, so I think it’s appropriate to tell you now. All this time in the hospital has given me time to reflect. To, um, to come to terms with some things.” Again, he faltered. Very unlike him. “And I just want to get this off my chest. I wished you could have been here these harrowing months. I know I’m to blame for your absence.”

They should have called earlier.

“I just wanted the best for you. I went too far. I’m sorry.”

James’ eyes widened. An apology? Jonathan Siles was apologizing?

“I admit it was tough—” James said uncertainly. “But the challenge was good for me.”

James surprised himself for defending what his parents had put him through, but he couldn’t suppress the compulsion as he fought to make sense of what had just met his ears. His father always had a highly practical reason for everything. Yes, maybe he was apologizing, but not just from the goodness of his heart. This was a goodbye. 

“I drove you away,” his father said. “This distance between us is my fault. I’ve understood this for a long time, but I was too proud to admit it. Or to do anything about it. I’m so sorry, James.” His voice wavered, and James felt his body begin to tremble. “Don’t feel obligated to let me back into your life. I just wanted to let you know I finally understand.”

“Jonathan,” James heard his mother say. “You don’t mean that.”

James swallowed with difficulty. “That means a lot to me, Dad,” he managed, hoarsely.

“So, like I said, don’t worry about me,” Jonathan went on, resolute. “Work hard instead, as you always have—as we taught you to.”

“Only if you pull through this,” James said. “Don’t go passing away before I can get there, okay?” This would not be a goodbye. Not if James could help it.

“I can’t make any promises…” 

“How long do the doctors think?”

“Six months maybe.”

“I see.”

Silence closed in on both lines. James couldn’t bring himself to say anything else. A single phone call couldn’t wipe away the scars, but his parents’ impossible stubbornness had been breached. There might finally be hope of repair.

But he might not have the opportunity with his father.

“Well…I guess that’s all. I should let you go now,” Jonathan said finally.

“Okay,” James said, his voice very quiet. “Take care, Dad.”

“Take care. I’m really proud of you.”

“Thanks.” James had always ached to hear his father say that. Growing up, everything James did was to earn his parents’ approval. And here his father had uttered it. That phrase. Finally. The supposed culmination of everything James had ever strived for, the highest honor he could ever earn. And James should have been happy, relieved.

But he felt cold, thwarted, void. Like the bar had simply been lowered because time had run out.

James let his father hang up, then slowly returned his cellphone to the table. He got to his feet. 

James had finally managed to smother the past in his work. He’d started to think he wouldn’t have to worry about his parents anymore. He hadn’t considered what would happen if he actually lost them. He had foolishly assumed everything would hold true until he was ready to return on his own terms, measured in decades rather than months.

He raked a shaking hand through his hair as he began to pace.

And it had only been a year. James just wanted to explore life separate from his frigid, controlling parents, but his father had found a way to get back to him in a way James couldn’t ignore. Of course, his father’s cancer wasn’t a ploy to regain influence over his life, but it certainly felt plausible.

Time limit or not, James wasn’t prepared to associate with them. If he tried now, he would make matters worse. But he couldn’t bear to lose the chance.

He felt sick. There had to be something he could do, but he was an engineer, not an oncologist.

And six months was only an estimate.

With a growl of exasperation, James leaned his forehead against the wall.

It was impossible, but he couldn’t accept impossible. That’s what his parents had drilled into him. Brilliance wasn’t allowed to be at a loss. He just had to think. Identify the problem and string together a solution with the options at hand. It had always worked for him in the past.

The issue: His father was dying—or rather, his father’s body was dying.

So, then the objective would be to slow it down or reverse it. Keep it from dying. Keep Jonathan from leaving.

He tapped his forehead a few times on the wall, scanning through his knowledge of anything remotely useful. He paused and straightened up as his search suddenly landed on an idea. He skirted the wall to his office, grabbing a stray piece of printer paper from the mass on his desk. With the first writing utensil his hand contacted, he began a crude diagram, more of the concept than how it would actually work.

What if he could get his father out of the failing body, into one that wasn’t dying? A sloppy fix, James supposed, but sturdy.

Full body replacement was simply a step up from prosthetics. He didn’t know if an organic-to-mechanical swap was even possible. He would have to do quite a bit of research to gauge its feasibility, but in his mind, it was more a matter of how.

It helped to have an extensive background in the biological sciences at his disposal. How appropriate that Jonathan Siles’ incessant focus on neuroscience in James’ studies would one day save his life. James would have laughed at the irony, if he didn’t have such a lump in his throat.

James would show his father he deserved his acceptance. Not because Jonathan was dying, but because James would prove once and for all that he had lived up to everything his parents had obsessively pushed him to be. Objectively. Undeniably. He could simultaneously save a life and change the world.

In fervent inspiration, James scrawled two words over the disjointed sketches:

Organorobotic Transference.



A towering fence herded the original Larkspur facility into a restricted unit. Despite the barrier plastered with forbidding signs, the construct beyond seemed friendly enough.

The cracked asphalt of the parking lot stood mostly empty, its generous size in stark contrast with James’ memory of the modest slab of concrete and steel barn that had graced the former facility. As he parked in a space along the front of the weathered building next to Richard’s car, an unexpected wave of nerves cramped in his stomach.

It was eerie, to have returned to Larkspur’s birthplace. As James got out of his car, contemplating the front entrance stripped of all identification, it felt as if the building itself had tried to forget.

But it was mainly anxiety of a different source that held a tight rein on the edges of his mind. The majority of his attention clung to organorobotic transference, and he had devoted every spare moment to research since conceiving the idea. But while he had dug up a huge volume of data in the last thirty-six hours, he still hadn’t managed to piece together anything decisive, and having to go back to Larkspur and set up the lab felt like so much wasted time.

Even though it wasn’t, he knew. He had already fried his brain many times over reading mountains of peer reviewed material and planning how to move his newest preoccupation forward. Maybe the busywork would be good for him.

The air conditioning gusted him with icy air as he stepped into the lobby. He lingered by the door, letting his gaze wander. Across the room, Addie and Chelo chatted with the security guards as they received their badges. A wide staircase at the right side of the lobby led up to a partially open second level, and wide paneled windows stretched across the whole front of the building. A wan, impressed smile tugged at the edge of his mouth. It would be nice to be above ground.

“Morning Jim!” An arm seized his head, and James uttered a surprised squawk. 

“Morning, Greg,” James grunted, attempting to pry him off with one hand. The other, he hoped, wasn’t spilling his coffee. Greg’s arm held fast, unyielding as a spring clamp.

A door opened across the lobby. “Good morning!” Eve’s cheerful voice boomed. Richard walked beside the former director, coming from the lab beyond. “I feel like I haven’t seen you people in ages. How are you all? Settling in well?”

“Yes ma’am,” Greg beamed. He finally released his squirming colleague. “I’m so ready to start building stuff again.”

“Seconded,” James muttered, attempting to smooth down what forever looked like bedhead, which Greg’s antics had only exacerbated.

“Oh stop, it doesn’t look that different,” Greg said. James shot him a look.

Richard cleared his throat, “I’d like to start today with a short meeting to discuss a few changes to security protocols, but after that, it’s up to you. Today, the main objective is setup, doing whatever we need to do to get ready to start work tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds great,” Chelo said.

“Good.” Richard surveyed his colleagues, relieved to see them in high spirits. “Let’s get to work.”


The engineers spent the majority of the morning exploring the labs, taking inventory, setting up their offices on the top floor, and calibrating the equipment downstairs.

As Richard and Eve systematically imported the digital information from the Bureau’s database onto the computer in the director’s office, Richard asked, “What was Larkspur like before it went underground?”

He adjusted the status bar on the computer screen and reached for his phone, only to realize he had just checked it. Perhaps this wasn’t a conversation he should have started.

But Heather would kill him if he failed to say anything.

“Busy.” Across the room, Eve opened one of several boxes and pulled out hardcovers to populate the bookcase. “There were more of us, covering a wider field of expertise, and the general public could schedule appointments to come visit and see what we were up to.” She breathed a soft sigh. “It was really lively. I wish you could have seen it. You’d have enjoyed it.”

Larkspur had already been operating underground for nearly a decade by the time Richard had entered the scene. Eve had disclosed the basics of what had happened, but not much else. What the other co-founder had done wasn’t relevant after all that time, she had said, and Richard hadn’t thought it appropriate to pry.

“Do you think there’s a chance we can get back to that someday?” Richard asked.

“Maybe.” Eve mused. “My original vision for starting Larkspur was half research, half education.” She paused, staring intently at the book in her hands. “But it just wasn’t meant to be, perhaps.” She pushed the book into place and grabbed another one from the box. “I get fulfillment in that other half elsewhere, Richard. It’s been twenty years.”

Eve had once been the director, but after passing it off to Richard, she split her time back east between Larkspur and the local university in Dunesborough as an adjunct professor. She was over retirement age, but she liked to keep busy.

“Still, I’ve been thinking,” Richard said. “What if we took this opportunity to move toward that direction, as Dhar mentioned?”

Eve hesitated. She stood up with a soft grunt. “I don’t know, Rich. It would be our last chance. If we try it and it doesn’t go well—” She faltered. “There’d be no way to take it back. In light of current events, it might be safer to lie low a bit longer and feel things out.”

“Well, I mean we wouldn’t be launching an advertisement campaign or anything.” Richard offered a smile. “But what if we used our obligatory resurfacing to cautiously begin restoring Larkspur to its former glory?”
Eve didn’t answer.

Richard initiated another download and swiveled his chair around so he could fully face his colleague. “The other day, Heather asked me if she could visit Larkspur. What if we let her? What if her involvement could serve as a trial period?”

“Heather wants to visit?” Eve raised her eyebrows, surprised.

Richard nodded. “Very badly. She made sure I didn’t forget about it before I left this morning.”

Eve considered her friend’s words, her expression soft. 

Finally, she smiled, apprehensively, but it was a smile nonetheless. “Why not?”


James brought a thick notebook to the lamplight.

He booted up his desktop computer and accessed the extensive list of online academic databases he had subscriptions to, gearing up for another full night of research and planning.

How could he safely transfer the entire essence of a human being into a different body?

The physical aspect of emotions, memories, and personality resided in the brain. Perhaps he could transform these physical signaling networks into electrical ones, which could then be downloaded into a highly specialized mainframe.

But it wasn’t enough to transfer just the physical.

James flipped to pages he had filled on previous research binges, reviewing what he had gathered and where it had left him.

Where did the spirit reside? Many scientists said it didn’t exist, but its potential could be the deciding factor on whether or not the project could continue. Without every element accounted for—even only a potential element—the transfer would produce nothing more than a copy of the transferee’s identity, and that wasn’t good enough.

It had to be a transplant, not a clone.

James’ father would be irked to learn he was exploring the abstract. Both their cores were rooted in science. Reality was systematic, observable, measurable. If a phenomenon couldn’t be proved by factual evidence, it didn’t exist, or science had yet to advance far enough to offer an explanation. James believed the latter about the supernatural. The science was still in its infancy, but existing empirical data suggested the paranormal had something to do with electromagnetic energy or string theory.

It mattered to him to guarantee that, after the transfer, the consciousness supported by the mechanical replacement was, indeed, his father in body, soul, and spirit.

As yet another night grew long, James burned through pages of information, skimming abstracts before consuming many of the scientific journal articles in more detail, picking through e-books and pilfering their sources. He made notes on whatever seemed interesting, and the integrity level of each study.

The spirit remained within a body as long as the body was alive and functional. Doctors frequently brought people back from death in the emergency room. It only required timely repair or re-stimulation of the failed biological component. 

If the artificial cognitive network closely resembled the organic one, and had a powerful electromagnetic snare, perhaps the metaphysical components could be tricked to accept and integrate with the mechanical body.

Then the question would be where to tether the snare. Was the essential life force restricted to a specific area? The only region James could think of was the brain, whose functionality afforded consciousness, connecting an individual to the rest of the world.

But the whole body was innervated. And every cell possessed a form of life.

He turned his gaze to his hand. Pensively, he closed it into a tight fist, concentrating on the sensation of his muscles straining and contracting before opening it again. Staggering in number, each alive itself, but all somehow linked to form cohesive, cooperative tissues, as if they weren’t really individual at all. Did he need to extract the life from each cell, or could he safely focus on the nervous system alone?

He sighed, resting his head in his hands, his brain muddled from lack of sleep and too much conjecture. He wondered if this would ever make it beyond a mere philosophical exercise.

What if cells had an innate identity, enabling the acceptance of the metaphysical entities, and were moveable across organic hosts like in organ transplants, but not mechanical ones? Would he have to incorporate an organic component to the new body so those elements he wanted to preserve would accept it?

He narrowed his eyes at the screen, greatly disliking the idea of organic transplant. Sustainably preserving functional organic tissue inside an artificial container would be messy. James had a decent amount of experience handling brains and nervous tissue, thanks to his father’s insistence on familiarizing him with his profession. He wanted nothing to do with it.

He straightened up, stretching his shoulders. His back popped, hunched over his desk for too long.

Ideally, organorobotic transference would have to be a clean process, even with an organic body left behind. Mass was itself a form of energy. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle, even a small particle of matter equated to a large amount of energy, as Larkspur had begun successfully employing with their suspended generator protoype.

A slow smile crept over his face as he leaned forward again and began a diagram, jotting down a few equations he knew off the top of his head that might provide a feasible route toward a miniaturized version. The mass of the failed organic body could be converted to energy and used to power the new mechanical one. If that was true, then the individual would likely never have to recharge. That much energy would last an eternity.

That was, assuming he could design a portable device that could support such overwhelming power, which was a challenge more suited to his expertise. Perhaps a blend of the generator and the energy core for the A.I. project in development at Larkspur could provide a viable solution. He scribbled a note in the corner of the page to review Richard and Greg’s work on that front. At the moment, he and his colleagues were planning something more rechargeable with a focus on longevity, but perhaps he could tweak the design.

Information accommodation was a hurdle as well. The new neural container would have to be able to mimic the capacity of the human brain. The organic brain could make an unlimited amount of new connections and shortcuts and reroutes, operating in chemical gradients and electrical impulses. Reproducing it mechanically came with high risk of processing overload. Perhaps photonics was the way forward there.

As the night marched on toward morning, he browsed the online research databases for modern developments in mechanical and electrical engineering. He located some promising articles about memory function, networking programs, and artificial intelligence. The articles added to the ever-growing collection on his computer.

James hardly noticed as the rising sun slowly diluted the darkness from the sky. He pushed the keyboard aside and spread out his notes, setting to work consolidating the main points and their supporting information. After a week of obsessive sleep deprivation, he was finally getting somewhere. He had yet to straighten out a few hitches in the project, but he had enough information for a proposal, at least. He couldn’t wait any longer.

He lifted the page with the abstract up in front of his face and turned so that the cool light of the early sunrise glowed behind it. Relief and inspiration washed through him as he lay the page down, stood up from his desk, and crossed the room to the window. 

He ran a hand over his tired eyes and smiled down at the busying street below. He’d get a power nap in before work, and then he’d pitch the idea to Richard as soon as he arrived at the facility.

Whatever it took, James resolved to make impossibility reality. And if medical science failed and Jonathan wasn’t willing to accept premature death, his son would be ready with a revolutionary failsafe.



James was wired when he arrived at the facility early, pulling up to the building shortly after Richard.

Heather ventured a polite wave as James got out of his car, and he lifted a hand in return, recalling the brief meeting the day before for the purpose of sanctioning Heather’s visit. He hoped she enjoyed herself, but stayed enough out of his way.

They weren’t in an airplane anymore. James had work to do. 

“Good morning, James.” Richard smiled as he shouldered his bag. “You’re here early.”

“Restless night,” James said was he held the door open for the director and his daughter.

He wished he could present his project immediately, idly insert it into conversation instead of making a frontal assault. The urgency sat like a weight in his chest, but he proposed to tamper with things people typically left alone. He couldn’t take any step in this process lightly.

Not to mention, he wasn’t sure where Richard stood on the subject.

Heather was the embodiment of enthusiasm as her awed gaze swept over the lobby. Her attention landed on the stairs. “Are your offices up there?”

“Yes,” Richard replied. Heather walked with such a spring in her step that James expected her to twirl a few times on her way to the staircase. Richard glanced at him and smiled, a tender, fatherly expression James had seen hints of before, but never with such clarity on the director’s face. 

Richard admired his daughter. For her curiosity and excitement. For learning and exploring. For existing.

James readjusted his grip on his briefcase.

Heather started up the stairs. “Can I make coffee?”

“Sure.” Richard smiled. “Thanks, Heather. Everything should be upstairs to the right.”

At the top of the stairs, she swung around the railing and made for the counter at the other end of the kitchenette. She spun around. “James, do you want a cup too?”

“Yeah, thanks,” James said haltingly. He would soon welcome the caffeine, if it would even help at this point of exhaustion. “Hey, Richard? Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course.” Richard strolled down the hallway, opening his office door to the left. “What’s on your mind?”

James took a steadying breath as he closed the door behind them and ventured toward Richard’s desk. The director’s belongings only sparsely decorated the larger, updated space. There was too much air. James felt exposed.

He set his briefcase up against the desk and pulled out the notes he had consolidated earlier that morning. “I’ve come up with an idea for a new project.”

“Another one?” Richard laid his own bag in an extra chair nearby. Picture frames fringed his desk. He dropped into his chair with an accommodating smile. “Let’s hear it.”

With a thrill of hope and nerves, James scanned the front page of his notes, deciding which angle to take. He looked up. “I think I’ve devised a potential method to save people with terminal medical conditions. It’s still somewhat theoretical right now, but it’s shaping up to be very promising.”

He handed Richard his notes.

“Something in the medical field? What is this method?” Richard asked quietly, looking over the first page. “‘Organorobotic Transference?’”

“Yes.” James’ neck hurt. He must have slept on it wrong. “I believe there’s a very plausible method of transferring a human being out of their failing body into a replacement one.”

Richard moved the top page to the back. “And this replacement would be…”

“Mechanical, of course.”

“Completely mechanical?” Richard’s careful tone failed to convey the approval James needed. “How?”
“I plan to design an electrical network that will work just like the human brain,” James spoke quickly and talked with his hands, more so than usual. “Including its ability to make unlimited connections. The network will house a program that will basically download an individual’s consciousness, so that everything will be the same as if they were in their old body, but simply in a different medium. I’ve already considered the question of whether or not the whole person could be transferred—that is, their nonphysical self as well as the physical—and I think there’s a way to do it. If the transfer could be performed quickly enough, with a mechanism to pull the electromagnetism-based spirit, and if the electrical neural network has enough of the same signatures as the original organic one, it would be just like temporary death and revival, like resuscitating a flat-lining patient. And the mass from the failing body can be converted to energy to power the replacement.” James took a sorely-needed breath.

“How do you plan to build this electrical network?” Richard said. “And how will the consciousness be transferred, exactly?”
“I haven’t quite worked everything out yet.” James idly kneaded the complaint in his neck. “Like I said, this is still in its early stages.”

“It does seem a little far-fetched,” Richard said carefully.

“I know. But I can find a way to make it work. This could really help people.”

“Have you thought about how this could be abused?”

“I suppose a few could try to use it to immortalize themselves, but anything can be used for the wrong reasons. But certainly, the benefits would outweigh the dangers.”

“If successful, technology like this would introduce a whole new facet to society, with so many possibilities for unintended consequences,” Richard said. “Could it be controlled?”

“I believe it could,” James replied. Richard was just being pessimistic. He barreled on before Richard could stop him. “But we can tackle the political questions later in development, long before societal introduction.” 

Richard studied him for a moment. “Were you hoping for this to take top priority?”

“Well no, not really,” James lied. Of course he wanted to devote all his time and attention to the project, but he needed to accept that his prior obligations with Larkspur took precedence. He had to be willing to be flexible to increase his chances. “It would be more of a personal project, and I could work on it almost exclusively in my free time, if necessary. I understand we have a lot of work here to catch up on.” He cringed inwardly.

What was he saying? With his personal deadlines, that was suicide.

A long silence followed, and James didn’t like the look on Richard’s face.

“I don’t know, James,” Richard said finally. “I’ll admit I’m not very comfortable with something like this. It seems too dangerous. Too much can go wrong…”

“I’ll work out every detail and make sure there are absolutely no problems before ever considering it for clinical trials.”

The doubt didn’t leave Richard’s soft countenance. He narrowed his eyes indecisively as he continued to flip through the papers. “We don’t really know if the nonphysical self, as you said, will transfer to the mechanical body. I don’t think you can apply logical conclusions to this, James. The supernatural is outside science’s grasp. We have no idea, no way to predict anything.”

“Which is why I’m asking you to let me pursue this, to develop and experiment, so we can have an idea. We won’t know until we try,” James insisted. “If it works, think of the benefits this could offer. It won’t have full validity until clinical trials, but for those who have no other fallback and are willing to try, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Richard exhaled slowly, considering James’ written notes. “Let’s ask Eve what she thinks about it.”

That wasn’t a no. “Okay,” James said, backing toward the door. “Thank you, Richard. I’ll check if she’s here.”

James felt sick to have to take this up with Eve, whose approval was even less likely. Still, James had to try.

Eve had arrived, but her input was startlingly negative. “James, I can’t promote this.”

Now James could panic. “But it could be invaluable to—”

“Something so drastic,” Eve cut him off. “It really doesn’t sit well with me. Nothing good can come of something like this.”

“Isn’t saving lives good?” James asked, his voice taut.

Eve was shaking her head. “Better leave things as they are this time.”
“But we’re scientists! Isn’t our whole purpose in life to make things better?” James insisted anxiously. “To not leave things as they are?”

“Yes, but we’re not looking for ways to cheat death, or to play God,” Eve struggled. She paused, collecting her thoughts. “I understand your logic, and I commend your good intentions, but I just don’t think this is possible. Pursuing it could cause a great deal of harm.”

“How so?” James brushed off the stab to his pride. A few lab rats for testing, and then some successful clinical trials. Where was the detriment? “I can make this work.” He looked at Richard for some kind of support, but Richard didn’t say anything. James wouldn’t be able to honor the director’s decision if he didn’t let him pursue this. It meant far too much.

But what was he supposed to do without resources?
“Please,” James pleaded. “At least let me try. Nothing bad will come of it. I promise.”

“It’s a little early to start up new projects, and this one sounds expensive,” Richard said, indecisive. “I want to say yes, James, but I just—I can’t comfortably allocate Larkspur resources for it.”

James fought to calm the distress rising in his chest. “What if you didn’t? What if I just used the equipment here, but used my own resources to acquire supplies? If I can make a miniaturized prototype and prove it’s perfectly safe, would you change your mind?”

Richard hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyebrows drawing together in concern. “Why the urgency?”

James froze. They wouldn’t understand. “I just thought this has the potential to do a lot of good,” he stammered. “And I wanted to get started as soon as possible.”

Richard narrowed his eyes, unconvinced. “What do you think, Eve?”

Eve sighed. “I’d prefer you forget about this, James. Concentrate on some of your other projects. But, Richard, you’re the director. It’s not my call.”

Richard turned to look out the window. Heavy silence closed in on the room as he thought it over. James fidgeted with his tie, afraid to breathe.

A knock sounded at the door, making everyone jump. Heather stuck her head in. “Hey, coffee’s ready.”

“Thanks, Heather,” Richard said, flashing a grateful half-smile.

Fortunately, Heather detected the tension and didn’t ask any questions before returning Eve’s friendly wave and closing the door.

James’ gaze shifted between them as the director continued to deliberate, and the former director waited for his verdict. Finally, Richard sighed and offered Eve an apologetic expression. “I think I’ll actually allow your proposal, James.” He faced his young colleague, who realized he had been literally holding his breath. “I won’t forbid you from pursuing it on your own time with your own resources, and I’ll even go as far as to grant you access to the equipment here at the facility. If it works as you say it will, then we’ll talk about this again.”

James didn’t dare glance Eve’s direction. “Thank you so much, Richard.” He turned to leave. “Everything will turn out all right. You have nothing to be concerned about—”

A restraining hand landed on his shoulder, surprising him. Pulling back, James twisted around and found himself staring straight through Eve’s glasses into her serious brown eyes.

“Be careful, James,” she ordered softly.

James wasn’t sure what to make of her uncharacteristically grave demeanor. He cracked an uneasy smile. “Don’t worry.”

James detached himself from his colleague as unassumingly as possible and escaped into the hallway. Leaning against the wall, he raised his face to the ceiling and closed his eyes, allowing himself a sigh of relief. His colleagues remained behind the closed door, and James didn’t care to hear what words they would exchange about him.

Out in the kitchenette, Heather handed him a mug without comment. Despite the curiosity burning in her face, she didn’t pry.

“I didn’t know how you like it,” Heather explained, retrieving a small container from the refrigerator. “Here’s some creamer if you want. Does this belong to anyone, or is it kind of fair game? I didn’t find a name on it.”
“Thanks, but it’s fine like this,” James said quietly. He didn’t usually drink his coffee black, but this morning, the bitterness seemed appropriate.

His heart still beat too hard behind his ribcage. James filled his mouth with coffee, focusing on the sharp taste. He had come so close to having to go against Richard. His colleagues didn’t like his project, but James had received permission regardless.

So he would pursue it. He would save his father if it came to that, and he would do it guiltlessly, despite their anxieties. He would show them all how possible, how necessary it was.

Heather studied his demeanor. “Does it taste okay?”

James nodded and took another draught, a thin, relieved smile brightening his features.




They arrived at the airport.

Everything was final. Goodbyes said, possessions sent off.

After clearing security, the Brophys skirted a corner into a wide hallway. The whole corridor smelled of carpet cleaner and greased escalator panels, marked off like a ruler with gate numbers and restrooms.

Her parents talked very little, and Heather busied herself with keeping up, contemplating the lingering grief for her old life and telling herself it would pass. She was relieved to finally just get the move over with.

She sleepily traced the garish pattern in the carpet as they advanced. The rumble of a jet taking off attracted her attention to the window spanning most of the far wall.

“By the way, Heather,” Richard said. “I invited another one of my colleagues to travel with us, so he’s on the same flight. Maybe you two will get to talk.” 

Heather snapped her head around to look at him. “What? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” She checked the elastic band haphazardly keeping her hair at bay. She hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. There were too many thoughts and anxieties running through her mind, crowded up against the edge of starting over.

“I didn’t want you to be nervous,” Richard said. “Oh, E17—this is us.” Heather trailed behind her parents into the hushed waiting area, glancing around for any overtly nerdy middle-aged men that seemed to recognize them. Richard caught the gaze of a young man in a hoodie and jeans, seated by the window with a black journal balanced on his knee. Richard waved. “And there he is.” 

The man lifted a hand in return and set his journal aside as they arrived. 

“Good morning,” Richard greeted him cheerily.

The colleague stood up. “Morning.” He nodded at Sue and Heather, seeming to spread the greeting to them too. “This must be your family?”

He was long-proportioned like a scarecrow, with wayward brown hair and dark circles under astute hazel eyes. Something about him seemed restless, an urgency of spirit barely controlled, loosely tethered under the surface. 

“Yes,” Richard said. “This is my partner, Sue, and my daughter, Heather.”

“Pleasure to meet you both,” the man said with a tired smile. He shook Sue’s hand, and then he was holding his hand out for Heather. She almost jumped as his eyes flicked to hers. “I’m James.”


Erika woke up in a tiny holding cell. She sat up with a groan, pivoting to plant her feet on the concrete floor and cradling her pounding head in her hands. She blinked, staring between her knees at socked feet.

“What…” She felt her pockets. All empty. Her bag and outer jacket were gone too.

A bandage hugged one finger that hadn’t been there before. Had they taken blood?

She stared at the blank white wall across the room, her heart starting to pound as the full realization of what had happened dawned on her. Where she was. 

“No…” she breathed. She brought her fists down on her knees with a harsh, hissed, “Shit!” 

She hoped against hope she was in jail. Prison would have been exponentially better than what she suspected. She felt her right ear, checking for the punched hole police gave captured political dissenters, but found it undamaged. 

She scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to get a hold of herself.

The door’s heavy lock clicked back. She stood up quickly, and almost lost her balance to dizziness. She ran a hand along her head. Her black locs were still tied back. Her limbs held.

A guard in a dark uniform entered the cell. 

“Turn around,” he said, pulling a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Hands on the wall.”

Erika glanced passed him to the open door, blocked by the stony, warning face of another guard. She decided to comply. 

After restraining her, the guards took her out into a wide hallway lined with cell doors, down a corridor that looked more like a hospital than a prison, and into a room that held nothing but a table and two chairs. They sat her down in one of the chairs and fixed her restraints to it.

Silence reigned as she waited for something to happen, a tight knot in her stomach. One of the guards waited outside the door, while the other stood behind her chair, his presence oppressive.

Finally, the door opened. A man came in, unassuming and calm. He wore business attire, sporting a burgundy dress shirt, narrow, rectangular glasses, and professionally managed brown hair. His round jaw and even features afforded his face a docile, almost pleasant resting state.

Very quietly, he pulled out the chair opposite her, settled into it, and folded his hands on the table. Despite his thirty-something babyface, he had a perpetually tired look about him. 

Not much of a mad scientist vibe, Erika thought. He was probably some administrative assistant—maybe even the director’s main toady—strapped with gleaning information on the intruder first thing in the morning. A security camera hung from the opposite wall, pointed straight at her. His employer was probably watching.

“Well, Ms. Davenport,” Toady began. His voice was soft, easy to listen to. “Care to explain your presence here?”

Erika frowned at the table, refusing to answer. Her reflection stared back at her from the chrome surface, cold and washed out in the fluorescent lights. Her head was pounding so hard it hurt to keep her eyes open.

“Were you alone?”

Silence sat between them.

He sighed, picking a speck of lint off his black tie. “How is it that you had the coordinates to this facility?”

They’d obviously looked through her stuff. Her wallet, phone, GPS bearing the incriminating coordinates—She tried to remember if she had anything that would trace back to the Conxence. Everyone she knew in the resistance were listed under a personal cypher that revealed only part of their codename if translated. Hopefully that was buried enough.  

She cringed at the thought of one of Empetrum’s lackeys snooping through her phone. Or worse, the director themself.

“Should we be expecting anyone else to come knocking at our door?” Toady prodded.

“I got lost in the woods,” Erika said, her gaze steady and hard. “That’s all.”

He scoffed and adjusted his glasses. “You have absolutely nothing to gain by lying to me.”

“I have nothing to gain from this situation, period,” Erika said. They were probably going to get rid of her either way.

She felt unbelievably stupid. She should have been with her father and sister, not following a vendetta. She’d known this was not worth the risk, but she had been angry. The Conxence was an outlet. Empetrum a target.

And the house was so quiet these days, after her mother’s passing.

“I can’t promise anything,” Toady was saying. “Trespassers with ill intent are not taken kindly, though.”

Erika narrowed her eyes.

“You obviously have a pretty good idea of where you are. Who gave you our location? What did you hope to accomplish last night?” Toady watched her, closely. “Journalism? Conxence? Little far from the capital, aren’t we?”

Erika glared at him, her jaw set.

“I’d come clean, if I were you. And I’d choose my words carefully,” he spoke coolly, as if he were bored of the whole situation. “It’s really in your best interest.”

“You don’t scare me,” Erika said. “Who’s in charge of this place?” She looked into the security camera. “If your boss wants information, they’re gonna have to grill me personally.”

Toady cracked a thin, patient smile.

There came a buzzing from the pocket of his slacks, interrupting the tension in the air. He pulled out a slender, black cellphone and looked at it. His eyebrows raised.

“Oh. Your genetic profile has come out. Dr. Yeun wants to take you on.” He stood up. “So. Looks like you won’t be interrogated and mindwiped today, Ms. Davenport. Lucky you.”

Erika blinked. “What—?”

He addressed the guard on his way to the door, “Take her back to her cell. Have one prepared for long term holding, according to Yeun’s specifications, and transfer her to it when it’s ready.”

“Yes, Director,” the guard said.

Erika stiffened. She twisted around after him. “You’re the…”

The director paused at the door. He smiled. “Take it easy today. We have important work for you soon.” 

She stared at him, mouth hanging open.

Once the door had closed behind him, the guard proceeded to undo her restraints from the chair.



“Hello? Dad?” Thirteen-year-old James couldn’t believe his father had answered the phone.

The boy sat alone outside the back of his residence hall, his face hot and puffy from crying. Drawing his stretched, spindly legs up onto the bench, James pulled his sweatshirt up to his nose to ward off the nighttime chill.

“James? Do you have any idea what time it is?” Jonathan Siles’ voice was not magnanimous.

James shrank even further into his sweatshirt. “Sorry…”

“Is something wrong?”

James’ throat tightened again and he fought to choke back enough control of his voice to speak properly—as if it weren’t hard enough with the braces clogging his mouth. “Can you come get me?”

“Of course not,” his father said incredulously. “Why would you ask something like that?”

“I don’t like it here.”

“It’s only been a couple of weeks.”

“I don’t like it,” James insisted. “The classes are crazy. Everyone’s so much older and different. I think this was a mistake.” Tears began to spill down his face again, despite his best efforts to stop them. “I want to come home,” he squeaked. “Please, Dad, let me come home.”
“You’ll figure it out.”

“Can’t I come back and try private high school instead?” James said.

“No,” his dad barked in his ear, exasperated. “You’ve been taking college coursework for three years now! You’d be bored and stifled.”


“You got a perfect score on both the state assessment and the entrance exam. You’re going to throw all our progress away because you don’t fit in with your adult classmates?”

James rubbed the sleeve of his sweatshirt under his nose. “I—I don’t know.”

“You’re more qualified than any of them will ever be. We sent you to that school to get an education, to make something of yourself. Not to make friends.”


“Look, James, I know you’re overwhelmed right now, but give it time.”

James couldn’t answer for several long moments. He slumped against the back of the bench. “Okay.”

His parents knew best. James couldn’t waste his talents. He had to push himself far beyond anyone else. 

Anything less was mediocre.

Mediocrity wasn’t an option. Failure wasn’t an option. His stubborn instincts for capability and survival bloomed like a black hole behind his ribs. The tightness burned, and he embraced its life.

His parents knew best.


Richard’s daughter regarded him with interest. James studied her right back. He wasn’t in the mood.

Heather looked like her father, mostly. Curious brown eyes, springy dark hair, a softness of complexion from her mother. He’d seen photos of her before, of course. But when she shook his hand, the grip was welcoming and self-assured, and the sullen, sleepy grayness he’d caught on her face moments earlier vanished for a warm, easy smile. 

A person with a strong filter, he thought.

“James is another one of my coworkers,” Richard was saying. “He’s only been with us for a year officially, but it feels like he’s been with us much longer than that. He’s highly trained in both electrical and mechanical engineering, with a doctorate in robotics to top it off. And he’s only twenty years old!”

James managed a nervous laugh. “I should bring you to interviews, Richard.”

At least Richard hadn’t completely lost faith in him after what had happened to the old Larkspur facility. He suspected inviting him to travel with them was Richard’s way of trying to say there were no hard feelings.

“So you waited a while to move too?” Richard said.

“Yeah.” James rubbed the back of his neck. “Had some trouble getting a place.” Arranging housing long distance was a pain, and he had lost a lot of time trying unsuccessfully to identify the key to their old workplace’s demise.

“I see.” Richard readjusted the strap of his duffel bag. “All straightened out now?”

“Yes,” he tried to smile. “Thankfully.”

“Hey, you should come see the new house sometime,” Richard said. “We should have a barbecue or something with everyone.”

“Sure thing.” James wasn’t sure about it. Heather shot her dad an odd look.

“May we join you while we wait?”
“Of course,” James said, and returned to his chair.

Although he would have liked to resume the train of thought he was following in his journal, James made idle conversation with the Brophys until it came time to board the plane. Sue asked how he was, whether he’d sustained any injuries in the accident, how he was getting on replacing his equipment, how much data they had lost… He tried to be nonchalant in his answers, and avoid rehashing the frustrations of the fiasco. 

Not to mention she’d probably heard about his reluctance to leave the generator—how he’d almost gotten Richard blown up that night.

It occurred to him that Susan Brophy might not like him much. 

Heather played with her phone, pretending not to be listening as closely as he knew she was. He’d done the same in the presence of his own parents and their colleagues enough as a kid to recognize the hallmarks.

Finally, boarding began, and he was able to escape further interrogation. He took up position in line behind the Brophys. He checked and double-checked his pockets, making sure he had his carryon bag, while scraps of incomplete formulas and technical sketches nagged at his attention.

After finding his seat on the jet, James’ row failed to fill up with other passengers. He’d expected to be relegated to his narrow aisle seat, trying to keep his elbows and knees in check for six hours. He liked this better.

When it seemed he really would have the row to himself, he moved to the window seat. Stifling a yawn, he pulled out his journal to continue working.

“James,” Richard said from across the aisle. He had booked their tickets all together, and put everyone in the same row.

James leaned forward to see around a passenger loading their bag into the overhead bin.

Heather was trying to dissuade her father with wide, urgent eyes as he said, smiling, “Mind if Heather sits with you? She’d love to chat.” 

Dad…” Heather hissed. 

He kind of would mind, to be honest, but he flashed a good-humored smile. “Not at all.”

Heather looked at him, surprised. Richard slipped out of his seat to let her pass. He had to coax his daughter a little before she consented to swapping sides. She settled into the aisle seat on James’ side, face flushed and hugging her backpack close.

Richard laughed. “Come on, he doesn’t bite.” He smiled at James. “Do you?” 

James shrugged and closed his sketchbook, amused. 

“I’m sorry,” Heather said, voice lowered. She stowed her bag under the seat in front of her. “My dad…you know.”

“Yes,” James scoffed quietly. “I know your dad.” He stuck his mechanical pencil behind his ear.

She searched for something to talk about. James debated getting back to work, in the interim.

“What are you working on?” she asked finally.

James threw an inquiring glance at his boss, who nodded, before handing over his sketchbook. “Just bits and pieces of stuff I’ve been thinking about.”

Heather flipped through it. “Wow. Where did you learn to draw like this?”

“Practice? I don’t know.”

“You never took classes?”

“Not really,” he said. “But don’t ask me to draw anything non-mechanical. You’ll be disappointed.”

“That’s still awesome, though.” She handed it back to him. “Someday, I might be able to tell what all that stuff in there means.”

“Of course you could,” he said, idly ribbing the pages with his thumb. “It’s not all that difficult with some background.”

“Really?” She folded her hands in her lap. “Dad says you’re some kind of genius.”

James glanced out the window. “So I’m told…” he muttered.

The term had always seemed sour to him. James. That kid. The prodigy. Who beautifully understood facts and concepts and data, but not much of interpersonal importance beyond professional relationships. Prodigies had to be stimulated, after all. Honed, trained, pushed too far—because he couldn’t let his gift go to waste. As if he were some secret weapon.

Like the fate of humanity somehow rested on his constricted shoulders.

“Where are you from?” Heather asked. 

“Northwest,” he said. “Rothspeak, if you know where that is.”

“That’s sort of where we’re going, right?”

“Yeah, sort of,” he said.

He had enjoyed living in the east. The location of the recently deceased Larkspur facility had been fairly close to a university town out in the countryside. It was an hour from a major metropolitan center, but he hadn’t often found it necessary to go to the latter. His days had been filled with nice air and engineering, and that had suited him just fine.  

Much nicer than his parents’ apartment on the west coast where they were headed now, stacked in a frantic suburb north of the capital. Living on his own, far away from them and their dictatorship was the best part of the arrangement. 

“So you have family over there?” Heather was saying.

“Yeah, my parents.”

“Do you get to see them very much?”

“Not really.”

“It’s nice you’ll be closer then, so visiting them will be easier. Do you miss them?”

James hesitated. He fidgeted with his notebook. “We don’t really get along that well.” 

“Oh,” Heather said, realizing her mistake. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No—no, it’s fine,” he responded quickly. He tried to smile. “Please, don’t worry about it. It’s not that bad.”

Heather fell silent and watched the activities of passengers settling in several rows up, unsure of how to proceed. “So—uh, how did you become an engineer so young? I thought that kind of thing took forever. I bet there was a lot of college in there somewhere.”

James inhaled slowly, searching for a way to be unassuming about it. “I started really early, taking on the most challenging course material I could handle for as long as I can remember. My dad’s a neuroscientist and my mom’s a mathematician, so I guess I was kind of meant for it since the beginning. By the time I was ten, I was taking college courses online, and I’ve always been interested in robotics, so I often studied it for fun.” 

He was lucky, he supposed. If he hadn’t already had an obsession of his own, it would have been easier for his father to steer him into neurobiology. Not that his dad hadn’t tried. James probably knew enough to have an unofficial degree in it by now.

“You were homeschooled, then?”

He nodded. “Very homeschooled,” he said. “Then I went to college at thirteen and kept up with the program from there.”

Heather blinked. “Wow. Did you like it?”

“Uh, yeah…” He pushed up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. “Not amazingly recommended, though. University isn’t just academics. Going through puberty among twenty-somethings was—jarring.”

Heather winced. “Why did you decide to start so early, if it was that rough?”

“I was already near that level academically, so it seemed like a logical next step,” James replied. “I needed the social experience, anyway.” And it had been his parents’ decision, not his.

“Are you glad you did it?”

He looked at her, and he wasn’t sure what to make of those earnest brown eyes. He paused, weighing the question. “Yeah, I suppose I am. I don’t think I’d have wanted to wait.”

“Are you happy at Larkspur, working with my dad and the others?”

A smile came much more naturally than the previous ones. “I am.” Larkspur was home to him. Being so near to settling into the lab and working again filled him with a longing evoked by nothing else.

“So, Dad said you have a doctorate in robotics?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s your last name?”


“So I could call you ‘Dr. Siles,’ then.”

“You could, I guess.” James thought the name made him sound old and stuffy. He had frequently heard the title used for his father, who had a couple of doctorates himself. “It would be inefficient, though. ‘James’ is only one syllable.”
Heather snorted, surprising him.

“What?” he said.

“It would be,” she laughed. “Inefficient.”

James smiled, despite himself.  


Erika was surprised to find her bag sitting on the wire-frame bed of her “long term holding” cell. The guard removed her restraints and left her alone.

She lurched to the bed. She unzipped her bag and shook it upside down to take inventory.

Journal, pencil stub, chapstick, granola bars, extra socks, sunglasses, wet wipes, map.

Of course, they’d taken the important stuff. Missing items included her cell phone, portable charger, GPS, pocketknife, wallet, water bottle…

She stared at the meager, scattered remains of her supplies, her face cold. She twisted around, observing the cell.

It was a strange one. On the wall adjacent to the door hung a small, empty shelf. The bed was near the door, and a pane of thick, semitransparent polymer partitioned a shower and bathroom area off from the rest of the cell. Near the divider crouched a sink, complete with a dull mirror—also some kind of plastic, she guessed—and a small cupboard beneath, in which she found basic hygiene supplies. Nothing controversial though. No razors or ibuprofen or anything like that. 

Off the front of the bed sat another plastic bi-level shelf, the top of which held an extra blanket, pillow, and a white towel—all of which smelled freshly washed.  

A small black orb hung from the middle of the ceiling. She wondered if its view reached into the bathroom area. She stared up at it and leaned back, calculating the angle. 

Mostly, she guessed.

What sort of prisoner’s quarters was this, anyway? She had thought she was being punished.

She was pacing the concrete floor when the door opened.

Erika backed away, scrambling to figure out how she would respond. For a few crazy moments, she considered fighting her way through and seeing how far she could get before she was tranquilized again. Or worse.

A man with a friendly face and short spiked hair entered the room with a guard. He held a tray with a bagel, scrambled eggs, and a cup of coffee, judging by the aroma. He smiled. “Hello, Ms. Davenport.”

The guard shut the door behind them and positioned himself in front of it, thick arms folded. 

Erika kept her distance.

“Brought you some food,” the man bobbed the tray before setting it on the empty shelf by the door. “My name is Elias Yeun.” He looked to be early thirties, like the director. Average height, pudgy, broad face. Well kept and upbeat. In any other situation, he’d have been the least threatening person in the room.

For some reason, she had expected Dr. Yeun to be a crusty old man. Putting this face to the name didn’t make her feel any better.

“Who are you?” Erika said warily. “What do you do?”

“I’m a biochemical engineer,” Yeun said.

“I’m told you want my DNA.”

“In a way. I still have a lot of analysis to finish up before we can begin. But from what I can tell so far, you’re a great candidate for this project. Nice long telomeres, healthy BRCA1 and 2, no Li-Fraumeni Syndrome—Of course I’ll have to do more digging into your epigenetic signature before we start, to get a better feel for what we’re dealing with.”

“What project?” Erika said.

“We’ll get to that later.” He gestured to the food. “For now, rest, relax. Let the rest of the tranquilizer work its way out of your system. You’ll be here for a while.”

“No,” Erika insisted. “You need to let me go. I can’t be here. I have to go home. My family will think I got lost in the woods. They’ll think I’m dead.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said. “You can’t have any contact with the outside world right now—”

“But they’ll look for me!” she cried. “We’ve already been through so much. I can’t do this to them—”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, gently. “In time, if all goes well, you will be reunited with your family. But we have work to do in the meantime.”

“No,” Erika said, firmly. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “I will not give my consent. As a medical institution, you are legally obligated to honor that. Let me go.”

“I’m sorry, but those rules don’t apply here,” Yeun said. “Please, I’ve been stuck dealing with experimental groups at the prisons that just aren’t responding to treatment. If your system doesn’t respond either, I’ll have you sent to be mindwiped and we’ll let you go. How’s that?”

“I don’t see how that’s any better.” 

“Don’t worry,” Yeun said. “Mindwipes don’t have to be total. They’re not too exact either, but I’ve done enough of them that I’m pretty good at getting close. You just lose the days that have anything to do with Empetrum. You fall asleep, we drop you off at a local hospital, you wake up, and find your way home.” He splayed his fingers like small fireworks. “Voilà.” 

“And the medical problems your tests bring about,” Erika said, fixing him with a weary glare. “They’ll kill me later or what? Best case scenario, I spend the rest of my life with unexplained scars and dysfunction? You can’t make me do this.”

Yeun looked apologetic. “We can. It’s really in your best interest to go along with it, since you don’t have any other options at this point. The best I can offer is wiggle room.”

Erika’s eyes narrowed. “How do you mean?” 

“If you cooperate,” Yeun said. “You’ll be kept informed of the entirety of the procedure. You’ll be allowed anesthesia when necessary, if we get to a stage that requires it. Privacy, comfort, three square meals a day plus snack privileges. You can request reading material or other activities to keep yourself occupied in the off hours. You may even be allowed time outside with supervision, if the weather’s nice.”

Erika stared at him, disgusted and confused.

“But if you fight it,” he gestured at the frosted pane at the back of the cell, “this all goes away. You become a test subject only. Your days will be filled with boredom, isolation, invasion, and pain. Two very different roads to the exact same outcome.”

“And what outcome would that be?” Erika clenched her jaw to keep it from trembling.

“A good one, I hope.”

“Nothing good could come of this place.” 

“Well, I admit I’m hoping for a positive outcome for both of us. But you’ll be out of here sooner if it doesn’t work,” Yeun said. “This project, you see, it’s not really an ‘all or nothing’ deal like some of the other projects here. It’s slow, gradual. There are milestones. But if your body rejects them, I’ll know right away, and we’ll stop treatment before anything really happens. Your system will remain normal, but will be considered compromised and, therefore, unusable for other experiments, so we’d send you on your way. Just like that.”

“What is the treatment for?” Erika said, warily.

“You have to agree to help me first,” Yeun said.

“As if I would,” she snapped. “You can’t offer me my right to myself as a privilege. You’re all just a bunch of monsters pretending to be people.”

Desperate emotion welled up in her throat but she bit it back. She was afraid now, and angry. She hated this place, these people. She hated herself for getting mixed up in it. This amiable sunflower man, pretending to be on her side, asking her to submit herself to his will. She hated him too.

“You’re all selfish, toxic, and cruel, and you can act as nice as you want,” she found herself shouting without having made up her mind to do so, “but you’re gonna have to show yourself for what you are because I’m gonna fight you every step of the way!”

Yeun’s hopeful face clouded with disappointment. “I think you’ll find it’s not a matter of mere comfort, Ms. Davenport. But of survival. A little hurt pride—”

“In exchange for utter violation,” she spat. “I don’t assume you’d choose it either, if we switched places.”

His lips tightened. He sighed through his nose and glanced at the ground, thinking. 

As silence opened up between them, she waited for his amicable facade to melt from his features like candle wax. It would have made it easier, in a way.

“Well,” he said, looking up. He took a step back to go. “I’ll treat you with as much care as I’m allowed, under the circumstances. You can reconsider at any time. I won’t rub it in.”

Erika glared at him, considering taking a swing at his face.

Yeun gestured at the tray near the door. “Don’t let your food get cold. Enjoy the rest of your day. I’ll come back this evening with some questions, after you’ve had some time to think all this over. I know it’s a lot to take in.”

Erika sat down heavily on the bed as Yeun and the guard left. The door closed and locked, and she breathed a shuddering sigh, cradling her face in her hands. Tears welled up in her eyes and she ducked her head as the full weight of this colossal mistake crashed in around her. 

Erika Davenport would become a face on a missing poster. The Conxence, suspecting of her location, would be unable to act. Her father and sister, already deep in grief from the recent passing of her mother, would be forced to grieve for yet another loved one. Or at least worry, if the Conxence reached out to them with their inevitable suspicions. They had better reach out, she thought.

Until she survived and came home, at least. Somehow.

She resolved to survive.


After the safety demonstration, the breathy, high-pitched whine of the jet’s engines became more fervent, filling Heather with giddy expectation. She hadn’t been on a plane in ages, and she looked past James out the oblong window on his left as the aircraft taxied to the runway.

“So what about you?” his voice broke her distraction.

Heather startled. “Me?” 

He nodded

She hesitated. He was just being polite.

At her silence, he said, “So, you’re in high school, right? Freshman? Sophomore…?”

“Sophomore.” Heather’s face heated with a sharp stab of self-consciousness. “Or—I’m gonna be, in the fall.”

“How did your finals go?”

She shrugged. “Fine. My parents said I can try private school this year.”

“And how do you feel about that?” he said, curiosity tinging his calculated gaze.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she replied. “I think. I hope I can make friends.”

“You will,” he said with a reserved smile.

Heather sighed. “I don’t know. I didn’t really fit in at my old school.”

She chided herself on telling him this. They were only five years apart, but he was an engineer with a doctorate. He wouldn’t care about teenager stuff.

“I find that hard to believe,” James said.

She looked at him, surprised. “You do?”

“Yeah. You seem nice.”

“They all thought I was a teacher’s pet.” Heather thrived in academic settings, and was able to learn and apply information quickly, so people came to her with homework questions, but kept their distance otherwise. “An overachiever, through and through.”

They also didn’t understand what was so great about obscure scientific facts far beyond the curriculum level, which was endlessly thwarting. James could probably relate. She wished she could have gone to school with people like him and Eve and her dad. 

“But are you an overachiever?” James said.

“Well, yeah.”

James scoffed. “No shame in that.” He fidgeted with the drawstrings in his sweatshirt, making sure they were even. “If you like learning, that’s an asset. Private school sounds like a good move for you. I think you’ll be happier in that environment.”


James nodded.

She really hoped she wasn’t annoying him. She had already hit a sore spot, making assumptions about his relationship with his parents. Now she was venting at him, but it was hard not to. She felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone about this. Her parents wanted to support her, but they were biased. No one else could know the details of why they were relocating, and she was tired of feeling so stuck in her own head.

“Thanks.” Heather willed her face to stop feeling so warm. “It’s been hard, moving.”

“Yeah,” James sighed. “This whole thing has been a pain.”

“And my parents keep treating me like I’m too young to handle anything about Larkspur,” she said. “It makes me think maybe as soon as we get settled, they’ll try to make me forget all about it.”

James blinked. “Your dad encouraged us to chat, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, and I even met Eve a week ago,” she crossed her arms. “I don’t really get it.”

“Sounds like he wants to include you.” James idly scratched the edge of his jaw. “We just have to be careful who we tell what. NDA’s, you know.”


“Non-disclosure agreement,” he said. “A ‘don’t tell people stuff’ contract. Until recently, Larkspur’s been buried under a lot of them.” 

Heather perked up. “Until recently?” 

James’ shoulders tightened and he glanced at Richard, who was eavesdropping. Heather was careful not to look his way. She hoped he hadn’t heard what she’d just confided in his young colleague.

“I…shouldn’t be the one talking about this,” James laughed nervously. “You should ask your dad.”

“Oh.” Heather’s hopes faded. “Okay.”

“So, uh, what’s your favorite subject in school?” he asked.

“Science,” she replied, deciding to have mercy on him and allow the subject change.

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Appropriate. Which one?”

“I don’t know. I’ve only taken biology so far. My old school was slow that way, I guess.”

James shrugged, in a way an old man might before advising her to enjoy her youth while it lasted.

“I do like biology though,” she said. “It’s cool. I like to get books about cell bio and stuff at the library. I could just sit there for hours, exploring the science section.”

“I loved doing that when I was a kid.” James smiled, and Heather was startled by the sudden informality. “Those were the days.”

Her heart beat a little faster. She’d never met anyone remotely close to her age who related to her like that. 

“What about you?” she said. “Robotics is your favorite, right?”

“Yeah. I like the challenge of it,” he said. “Tinkering with things, finding out what’s possible. I think it would be fun to combine biology and robotics someday. I have all this neurobiology stuff from my dad’s work just sitting in my brain. Maybe it could combine well for prosthesis research, you think?”

“You’d be good at that,” Heather said. “Is Larkspur heading that direction at all?”

“Not that I know of,” he said.

Not that he’d be able to tell her if they were, she thought. Drat those NDA’s. 

Their conversation took a short hiatus while the plane sped up along the runway and lifted into the air. As the jet climbed higher and higher into the sky, Heather stared rapturously out the nearby window—as best as she could, anyway.

“Do you want to switch spots when we level out?” James ventured. The calculated politeness was back in his voice.

“That’s okay,” Heather said. Truth be told, she would have loved to be by the window, but she could tell James enjoyed the view too. He had prior claim anyway.

He watched the sea of clouds below, and Heather studied him for a moment. Now that she knew his cool-headed manner of conversation was a front, she watched for its weak points, as if for visible entities. She wanted to see what the real James looked like. What sort of people were the Larkspur engineers really? Paying close attention to his reaction, she said, “Speaking of cell biology, did you know there’s a protein in the mitochondria that triggers the programmed cell death response if it gets out into the cytoplasm?”

James turned his head to look at her, his eyebrows raised. “You know, I think I’ve heard that somewhere.” His face brightened as he considered the information. He looked out the window again with a smile. “Fascinating.”

“So you learned all the biology stuff from your dad?” she said.

James nodded. “He was not-so-privately hoping I’d make it a career someday. When I built cars with plastic bricks, he tried to get me to map neuronal pathways.”

“You liked those toys when you were a kid?”

“I had a preoccupation with the things.”
“What sort of stuff did you build, besides neurons and cars?”
“Airplanes, robots, stuff like that,” he said. “The more movable pieces, the better.”

“I used to like building towers,” Heather mused. “I tried to get them as high as possible, and I kept getting caught standing on the table to do it.”

“My parents would have killed me if I did that,” James said.


“I like to think so.”

“Do you have brothers or sisters?” Heather said.

He shook his head. “No, just me.”

“Same,” Heather sighed. “I always kinda wished I had siblings. Would be nice to have someone to do stuff with, you know?”

“You don’t have friends to do stuff with?” James said.

Heather looked at her fingers laced together in her lap and shrugged.

“Oh—sorry,” he tried, realizing his mistake. They were on a plane, headed clear across the country. Any friends Heather had, she was leaving behind. “I’m sorry, I completely wasn’t thinking. That was really insensitive—”

Heather began to laugh, and his attempts to apologize faded in confusion.

“Guess that makes us even, huh?” she chuckled.

James blinked, his expression a blank question.

“We both managed to find a sore spot in under an hour,” she said. “Must be talent.”

James smiled ruefully. His face reddened, something Heather wasn’t expecting.

She took a breath and tucked an errant curl behind her ear. “At any rate, I’m hoping this can be a new beginning. I finally know about Larkspur. I’m switching to private school. I think things are gonna be good.”

James nodded. “They will be.”

She offered a grateful smile. She could feel an awkward silence imminent and refused to let it have the last word. She reached for her backpack and pulled out her earbuds and a novel. “I should let you get back to what you were working on. Can’t be a chatterbox the whole flight, can I?”

“You’re fine,” James said. Nevertheless, he opened his sketchbook to a half-finished page, and when she neglected to strike up more conversation, he pulled the pencil from behind his ear and set it to the paper.

Heather watched him from the corner of her eye.

James worked tirelessly, instantly absorbed in his equations and diagrams. Every now and then, he paused gazed out the window, thinking, then continued writing with renewed inspiration. Heather wondered how long he could keep that up. Once he got started, she was afraid to disturb him.



The west coast had a ridiculous amount of trees. Worthing rose high above the surrounding landscape, a winding metropolis of skyscrapers butted up against old brick buildings, widespread artistic influence, and every block covered in landscaping. Heather almost wished their new home was closer to the city. 

Instead, they were going to live out in the country, which Richard told Heather was actually closer to the facility than downtown Worthing. She liked the idea of quiet, but maybe not that much quiet.

Ten minutes outside Knights Bridge, the small town with which their new postal address was affiliated, they turned off the narrow road to a winding gravel driveway.

Before Richard had a chance to kill the engine, Heather had already stepped out to take in her first impression of their new house. New to her, at least. Moss spattered the gray roof, the newly painted white paneling a checkerboard of older and newer wood, and the porch boards uneven. It certainly had more character than their previous house deep in suburbia, which had been much newer, and had resembled a lot of the neighbors’.

She mindfully ventured up the steps to the front door, as if the house itself were alive and her first movements toward it were her formal introduction. As her parents emerged from the rental car, Heather explored the porch, leaning over the side railing to peer into the backyard of unkempt green grass and apple trees.

As soon as Richard unlocked the front door, Heather was inside—inhibitions about liking the new arrangement waning as the odors of wood and dust filled her nose. Across the room, she spotted long curtains covering what must have been a sliding glass door in the empty kitchen. Treading past a wooden staircase to her right and a hallway further in on her left, she pulled on one of the heavy curtains. Light spilled into the house, riding on swirling eddies of dust.

“What do you think?” Richard called after her.

She turned a smile on her parents. “It’s larger than I thought it’d be.” Crossing the kitchen, she swung around the corner into the hallway and disappeared into the shadows, poking her head into each of the rooms.

She found the master bedroom upstairs, but passed it by. After a short assessment of her more likely bedroom options upstairs, she chose one at the end of the hallway, a room with soft carpet and a large window overlooking the tops of the fruit trees out back.

Heather trotted back down the wooden stairs to locate her parents, who were being much more methodical in their perusal.

“Ready to start bringing stuff inside?” Richard asked, opening one of the wooden cabinets over the counter and investigating its interior.

Heather tipped her head back in displeasure.“Sure.” She’d have liked at least more than five minutes’ break before continuing the moving slog. “If I settle down now, I won’t get up again.”

“And there’s only blank floor to settle on at the moment,” her mom agreed with a smile as Heather dropped her bag in a corner of the kitchen and followed them outside. “I want to at least get beds and a sofa in here before we crash.”


Later that evening, Richard brought back takeout from town, and they sat outside on the porch enjoying the aging heat of the day. The sunset cast yellow light on the empty transportation pod stationed along the side of their driveway.

The west coast time difference had made the day feel eternal.

Heather sighed and lay back, staring up at an abandoned mud wasp nest under the eaves. “Hey, Dad?”

“What would you say if I asked to visit Larkspur?”

“That would depend on whether you were actually asking,” he said, his voice soft and disarming.

She docked her hands behind her head. “I am.”

He regarded her for a moment, then removed his glasses to examine them. “I’d have to talk to Eve about it.”

“Oh. Well, could you?”

He nodded slowly, thinking as he cleaned the repaired lenses with the edge of his shirt.

“It’s cool that I can know the gist of Larkspur and all, but is that it?” Heather asked, glancing at him. He was looking off into the yard. “Am I really not allowed to know any details of what you do? James said some NDAs were lifting.”

“Yeah, I heard him say that,” Richard sighed. “But that doesn’t mean what you think it means. We haven’t had a visitor in a while.”

“So you do allow visitors then?”

“Not since James came to check out the facility prior to confirming his internship. That was a couple years ago.”

“It sounds like you’re overdue for another outsider.” Heather smiled, hopefully. “It’s okay if you can’t tell me about Larkspur’s past, but can’t I at least know about its present? There’s nothing sketchy about it that, right? It’s just secretive because the government’s involved?”

“I guess so,” Richard mumbled. “Tell you what, I’ll think it through, talk about it with some people, and see what I can do. Sound fair?”

“Thanks, Dad.” His tone didn’t inspire confidence, but at least she had made the first step.

Richard had been sending mixed messages, offering only ambiguous information about Larkspur, yet allowing her to meet two of his colleagues. Heather wanted to tease out the promising thread. Maybe someday he’d trust her enough.

This was her new reality. 

She was determined to explore it for all it was worth.


As promised, Dr. Yeun came back that evening with a clipboard. A digital clock hung high above the door, out of Erika’s reach, which she had been more or less watching for something to do.

“Good evening, Ms. Davenport,” he said, smiling as if he had no recollection of how their earlier conversation had gone. “Are you ready for questions?”

Erika remained seated on the bed, staring at him. “You gonna ask my favorite color or what?”

“Let’s start with ‘How old are you?’” he said, smiling nicely, but she noted tense shoulders. He was bracing himself.


Erika blinked. “Sixty-five.” 

He smiled and wrote something down. He probably already knew it from the driver’s license in her confiscated belongings. “Any allergies?”


He scoffed, and seemed genuinely amused.

Erika scooted back to lean against the wall. “So what’s the deal with the director?”

“What about him?”

“He doesn’t look the part.”

“What were you expecting?” Yeun cracked a sideways smile. “We’re getting off topic. Do you smoke or drink alcohol regularly?”

“All of the above,” Erika said, settling in, her nose in the air. “Drugs too. Love them hallucinogens and—amphetamines and whatever. Beta amyloids…”

“I’ll take that as a soft no,” Yeun was writing. “Beta amyloids, huh? Where are you picking up neural pathophys. terms? Are you a university student?”

Erika shrugged. “Well not anymore, am I?” She had been out of undergrad for a few years, working the front desk at a local pediatric clinic, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m supposed to be your lab rat, remember?”
“If you want to call it that,” he sighed. “Do you have any conditions that require hormone supplements?”

“Didn’t you get all the information you needed from my blood?”

“It’s faster this way. The director has me working around the clock to get this trial set up, and I’d rather not drag anything out any longer than necessary,” his polite, dusty voice was growing slightly exasperated. “And you want to go home as soon as possible, don’t you?”

Erika frowned at her knees. “Yes.”

“So?” Yeun said. 

“No,” Erika replied, darkly. “No hormone supplements.”

Yeun wrote it down. “Thank you.” He docked his clipboard under his arm. “That’s all the questions for now. Did you decide on whether you’d help out graciously?”

“Sell my soul, you mean.”

“We don’t require your soul.”

Erika glared at the frosted polymer at the back of her cell, considering the drawbacks of her so-called privileges being rescinded. The inevitability of it all.

“I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“I’ll be honest,” Yeun replied. “You don’t. But your stay will be nicer this way.”

A long silence followed.

“Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll cooperate.”

Erika was disgusted with herself, but she needed to survive. She was already steeped in grief. There was no sense in compromising her psyche and morale even more by making things unnecessarily hard for herself.

She’d gotten herself into this, and she’d get herself out. By seeing it through or, better, trying to figure out how to escape somewhere in the middle once Yeun trusted her enough to start cutting corners with security protocols.

“Thank you,” Yeun said, and he actually seemed relieved.

“Now can you leave?” Erika said. “I want to be alone.”

“Of course. Can I get you anything?”


“Okay.” He took a step toward the door. “Enjoy the rest of your evening. I’m really glad you’re starting to see things our way.”



A subterranean pulse shattered the rural quiet. Like the lag time between injury and pain, a single sleeping field nestled among a dark landscape of identical plots erupted in a fountain of flaming debris.

The giant, smoldering crater, lanced with the twisted remains of the building beneath, caused a great deal of commotion until the head of the local police received a phone call from a man named Vihaan Dhar.

No one knew the facility existed. Perhaps no one would have ever found out.



An hour past midnight, Heather Brophy heard her dad’s car in the driveway.

She jolted up from the couch and climbed on her knees, shoving the curtains back and peering out the window behind it. The car sat in front of the garage for several long moments. The headlights turned off, and the silhouette of her father sat in darkness.

Long night just got longer, read the last text her mom had received from him two hours ago. Don’t wait up. 

But Sue had, and Heather had woken up to see light from the living room still seeping under her door, so even though it was a school night, she had waited too.

“Is it him?” Sue asked from the adjacent couch, nervous.

“Yeah, he’s just sitting there.” She perked up. “No, wait, he’s getting out.”

He wandered up the walk, idly favoring his shoulder. The porch lights caught the edge of his glasses, glinting off a jagged crack in the lens and flooding a bloody, bruising scrape on his face. 

Heather pitched back, nearly catching her foot in the cushions and falling off the sofa in her haste to get to the door. She unlocked the bolt and threw it open. “Dad, whathappened?”

“Uh…” Richard Brophy ran a hand through his short black hair. Stray pieces of dirt and grass fluttered to the floor. He stepped into the house, tried to put his keys in his pocket, but he kept missing. He squeezed them in his hand instead. Tightly. “Sue, can we talk in the bedroom?”

Sue glanced from him to Heather, whose shock gave way to dismay. Sue gave him an apprehensive nod.

Richard sidestepped his daughter and ducked into the hallway, leaving Heather standing by the door, aghast and betrayed.

As soon as the door closed, the muffled voices started up. Heather waited until the cadence stabilized, and then crept forward. She snuck into the nearby doorway of her bedroom and leaned against the frame. She still couldn’t hear her parents well, but well enough. 

“Please just tell me what happened,” her mother said. 

“Larkspur exploded…” Richard said, his voice hoarse. “Can you believe that?” He was further from the door. She heard the faucet turn on in their bathroom.

Exploded?” Sue gasped. “How? Why?” 

“We don’t know. James was with the generator when the alarms started going off, but he didn’t get enough of a chance to figure out what had happened to it before we had to evacuate.”

“I thought you were signing off on that prototype tonight,” Sue said.

“We were. Anything with energy of that caliber is something you have to be careful with, but…” His voice turned hard and shaky. “But darn it, Sue. It wasn’t dangerous like that.” A pause. “Not like that…”

Heather held her breath. Her heart pounded so hard she worried it would give her away. 

Richard spoke again, “One moment we were almost ready to go home, the next…Boom.”

“But everyone got out safely?” 


“Looks like you cut it close?” 

“James couldn’t bring himself to give up on it. I had to pull him away.”

Sue scoffed bitterly. “Attached, was he?”

“We all were,” Richard sighed. “He insisted he could fix it in time but—well, you can imagine. I don’t understand how this could have happened.” His throat tightened and Heather shrank further behind the doorframe. “How can it all be gone?”

“I’m sorry,” Sue said. They sounded like they were both sitting on the bed now. “But you all made it home safely. That’s what matters.”

After a long silence, she said, almost too quietly for Heather to catch, “We can’t keep Larkspur from Heather anymore.”

“I’ll tell her tonight.”

“She can do with a promise tonight. Give yourself time to gather your nerves, at least.”

“I’m okay. Sooner than later’s probably best. But I have to make a few calls first.” 

The bed creaked as he stood up again, and Heather hastily took that as her cue to head back up the hallway and pretend she wasn’t a brazen eavesdropper. She couldn’t believe what was happening.

They were finally going to tell her. 


James Siles stuck his hand into the darkness of his apartment, clumsily searching for the light switch. 

Every muscle in his body hurt.

He thrust the door shut with his foot and kicked off his shoes. He smelled like smoke and earth. He was starting to feel the scrapes and bruises too, now that the rush and panic were wearing off. His hip especially smarted.

He had never been good at running.

James dropped his gaunt frame onto the couch with a grunt and frowned up at the ceiling fan, watching its sluggish revolutions as he gently kneaded the pain in his upper arm.

His work was gone. His equipment, prototypes, the better portion of his most recent projects that had yet to undergo routine backups…. The sketchbook he kept with him at all times had perished as well, along with his laptop, which he had babied and upgraded and enhanced since the first day of graduate school. 

Everything. Burned and buried.

James stretched his arms behind his head, wincing at the sharp tweak from the affronted limb. 

The matter-to-energy conversion generator had been electrochemically stable, and supplying ample, clean power to the entire underground building. That night was supposed to be the final vigil to see if their efforts to smooth minor snags in the design would hold true. I would have revolutionized the future of electrical infrastructure, had it survived.

James had been calculating and recalculating the variables, but nothing about that night was adding up. The generator wasn’t supposed to be explosive. The failure of the thermoregulatory system on its own was extremely unlikely, and under normal circumstances, the generator would have simply shorted itself out. Maybe a few lightbulbs and subsidiary circuits would have been blown out in the process, but certainly not anything near the annihilation of a fifty thousand square foot facility. 

The cooling system had to have been sabotaged, he thought, along with a volatile foreign contaminant introduced to the generator’s sensitive core. He had no proof, of course, but he knew it. What else could it have been?

Larkspur didn’t seem to him the type of company to attract enemies. As part of his work contract, he had to keep details about his clandestine workplace to himself, but that was just protocol. Nothing about the organization or the other engineers had raised any red flags. James certainly hadn’t worked there long enough to hear any dark secrets about why the lab was so far removed from the public eye—or why it was literally underground. He hadn’t thought it important before. 

Maybe Eve could lend some insight, as soon as Richard got a hold of her. James knew her as one of the engineering team, but Evangeline Louis had co-founded Larkspur many years before, and had even been the director before Richard. If anyone knew if Larkspur was under fire, it would be her.

James dragged himself to his feet and stalked to the small kitchen to brew some tea. Listening to the kettle creak as it heated on the stovetop, he massaged his temple and contemplated the assortment of boxes in the small cabinet nearby.  

Definitely peppermint.



Heather sat at the empty kitchen table with her legs propped on the opposite chair, waiting for her parents to reemerge, and trying to stay hopeful.

She didn’t feel sorry for eavesdropping. Over the years, she had tried both pestering them for answers and respecting their privacy, trying to be understanding of their reasons for keeping it from her. Nothing worked. 

Younger kids couldn’t keep secrets, but Heather was fifteen now. Her parents were stubborn and determined to shelter her but tonight, more than ever, she had a right to know.

She didn’t look up as the door to her parents’ bedroom opened down the hallway.

“Okay, Heather,” Richard sighed, pulling out the chair across from her. She rescinded her legs, and her dad eased himself into the seat. “Tonight the secret ends.”

She glanced at her mom, then back to him. “Really?” 

Richard nodded. “We can’t keep this from you any longer, especially as what happened tonight might end up—changing some things.” He folded his arms on the table. Before Heather could ask what that meant, he continued, “So—to be brief, I’m a mechanical engineer, which I’m sure you’ve already figured out by now.”

Heather bobbed her head in concession. She had long suspected her father’s work had something to do with his acute fascination with the mechanical. There was usually something around the house he was taking apart, or tinkering with. While acting as a chaperone for her fourth-grade field trip to a bread factory, he had inadvertently spent the entire tour plaguing the guide with highly technical questions about the machinery.

“I’m the director of an engineering laboratory called Larkspur,” he said. “Tonight, our latest project—a generator prototype—overloaded somehow, and it destroyed the entire facility. My workplace was stationed underground, so evacuation was…messy.”

Heather stared at him. 

“But everyone was okay.” He held up his palms. “Honest.”

Silence closed in on the kitchen. Richard removed his glasses, fidgeting with the rims. 

He used to be a university professor, Heather knew. Shortly after her eighth birthday, he had started working longer hours. They moved into a better neighborhood and her mom left the workforce. He’d accepted a different job, but no one would tell her what it was.

“Why did you wait until something horrible happened to tell me?” she asked finally.

“Because we had to be sure,” Richard said. “Larkspur has to be kept a secret.”

And because we couldn’t trust you, Heather wanted to add. “Why?”
“Government nondisclosure agreements, mostly. When you’re making new technology, you have to be careful no one steals an idea and patents it first,” he said. 

“The whole facility has to be a secret just so you can get a patent?”

Richard hesitated. “No. Something also happened a long time ago in Larkspur’s younger days that stirred up some trouble. So, right now, the company’s obscurity is just an an all-around better situation.”

“What did you guys do?” Heather asked.

“It was before my time,” he said. “And it’s not really my story to tell, anyway.”

“But you do know the story.” Heather studied him. “How bad was it?”

“Please don’t worry, Heather. It’s all in the past and Larkspur’s moved on. It had nothing to do with what happened tonight.”

Ambiguity only triggered more questions. His workplace had some kind of past and, tonight, he was put in extreme danger by its sudden destruction. Refusing to elaborate pushed the assumption toward culpability on Richard’s part. 

Heather had always trusted he meant well, but now she couldn’t be sure her warm, geeky father was all he professed to be.

“If it’s in the past,” she said, “it really shouldn’t matter if you tell me anymore, should it?”

“I’d be betraying the trust of a friend,” he answered gently, though there was a cornered edge to his voice. “Just as, now, you must honor my trust in keeping my job a secret.”

Heather folded her arms on the table. She knew honoring wishes well. The last seven years had practically suffocated in it. Don’t talk about Dad’s work. Not even about it being a secret. Because it’s important that it stays a secret. No, you can’t know why. 

Nothing had changed. 

“You know,” she said, staring moodily at the table, “when you said you were going to tell me about Larkspur, I thought you actually meant it.”

“I do mean it. I don’t like keeping things from you,” he said earnestly. “Don’t you think I wouldn’t love to tell you all about my work if I could? But there are rules, protocol above even my pay grade—”

Heather’s expression only darkened in exasperation.

Richard gave up. He reached under the un-cracked side of his glasses and rubbed his eye with a heavy exhale.

“Heather,” her mom said, rubbing her shoulder, “give your dad some time. He’s been through a lot tonight.”

“I know,” Heather sighed. “Sorry, Dad. It’s just…with all this, I feel like I don’t know you.”

“You do know me,” Richard said. “If I get more clearance, I can tell you more. I just really don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. We’ll just have to see, okay?”

Heather’s gaze fell. “Okay.” 

After a long silence, Richard stood up, shakily. “Come here…”

Heather dragged herself out of her chair and met him halfway. He wrapped his arms around her.

“I’m glad you’re safe, Dad,” she said, hugging him back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to start grilling you.” It was sinking in that he was lucky to have come home at all.

“It’s okay,” he said softly. He kissed her head and docked his chin on top. He sighed.

Sue joined the embrace. 

“Can I stay home from school tomorrow?” Heather asked.

“No, sorry,” both her parents said in imperfect unison.

“We don’t know how fast this will spread,” Sue said. “You turning up absent might not be the wisest move we could make right now.”

“No one will notice I’m gone,” Heather muttered. High school hadn’t been good to her so far. She wasn’t at all popular and her one friend from junior high had recently moved to a different state.

“They will,” Sue said. “You normally have such good attendance. It might be too much of a coincidence.”

Heather groaned.

She guessed people noticed when the overachiever of all her classes turned up absent. But overachievers got sick sometimes just like everyone else.

Maybe this really was all so much worse than anyone would ever tell her. 

“Okay,” she said finally. “Whatever you need, Dad. If it’ll help.”

“Thank you.” He kissed her again and the hug fragmented. “Now, bedtime for me,” he said with a weak smile, already on his way out of the kitchen. “I’m exhausted.”


Word traveled quickly at school, incited by the students whose households watched the early morning news. Homeroom became an impromptu political club and Heather stayed silent. Whatever was going on with her dad, she didn’t want to make it worse. 

“I bet it was a secret headquarters for some government agency,” one of her classmates said, perched on the desk across from her with his feet on the chair. “My dad says President Ferrens is up to something super shady these days. We’re all gonna pay for it soon.”

“Please, Beni,” Laura groaned from the desk beside Heather. “It’s too early in the morning for this.” 

“Never too early!” Beni said. “It’s a strain on the economy, and we’re already practically in a dictatorship, mark my words.”

“You’re talking like you’re gonna join the Conxence yourself or something.” Another classmate who’d just arrived cuffed his arm on his way past. 

Beni straightened, suddenly. He snapped his fingers. “That’s it! Mason, I’ll bet you anything it was them! Last night.” He swiveled around to face the newcomer, throwing his arms out. “What else could it be?”

Heather glanced at the doorway, but their teacher had yet to appear.

“Conxence?” Laura droned, skeptical. “This far east? Not a chance.” 

Heather silently agreed with her. The Conxence—formerly the non-militarized “Conscience Movement”—was established by civilians with the purpose of calling the troubling political climate to accountability. Currently demonized as an uncontrollable rash of vigilantes and terrorists, the Conxence was mainly active in the nation’s capital, at least three time zones west.

“They do like blowing stuff up when they can,” Mason said.

“I’m sure whatever happened last night was just an industrial accident,” Laura said.

“Didn’t you see footage of the site?” asked Mason.

“It was crazy!” Beni grinned at him. He turned it on Laura, who remained unconvinced.

As Beni proceeded to describe the video coverage of the aftermath with as many sound effects as possible, Heather tried to act like her hackles weren’t raising. 

A crater, he said. The facility’s demise had made a crater. In a rural area. Small towns, farmlands. 

A charred, skeletal, crater.

The one that had almost claimed her dad’s life.
Heather should have thought to watch the news that morning—but she had barely caught the bus. And maybe her dad wouldn’t have let her near the TV or internet anyway. She didn’t know what she’d find when she returned home that afternoon. 

She started making plans to spend her lunch hour in the library at one of the computers. Maybe it was good she was at school, where her dad couldn’t interfere. 

Still, if Larkspur was tied up in the government, that first confused local news story would be all the information to get out.

Heather fidgeted with the edge of her sea green hairband. She opened her notebook and tried to look busy.

Did her parents think they were protecting her by pushing her to the margins and rejecting her from a key part of their world? Especially now, when she had no idea what they were dealing with and had no ability to prepare. Was the Conxence after her dad?

He’d probably never tell her if they were.



A short stack of printed pages slapped down on the table in front of James, over top of where he sketched cartoon robots on loose paper. The eight-year-old halted and picked up the foreign pages, reading over the impossibly long title. “What’s this?” 

“Scholarly journal article,” his father said, planting himself at the table across from James with a mug of black coffee.

The boy perused the excruciatingly small print. “What’s it for?”
“It’s a primary document. I’ve told you about them,” came the curt reply. “You remember what they are, right?”



“I mean yes,” James amended. “It’s a report from research someone did themselves, isn’t it?”

His father nodded, reclining back with an air of indifference. “Very good. We’re going to go over one of these every day.”

Dread pricked at James’ insides. “Why?” 

“Because you need to learn about my field. And you need stimulation worthy of your gifts.”

“Oh. Okay.” James flipped a page over and scanned the thick, unintelligible columns. Even the graphs of the results made no sense to him. “What is—” He paused as he thought about how the word might be pronounced, “Ace-till-cho-line?”

“It’s pronounced ‘uh-seetul-koh-leen,’” his father’s tone snapped slightly. “Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter.”

“Oh.” James had heard about neurotransmitters.

“It seems we have our work cut out for us,” his father sighed, looking at his watch. He stood, washed the rest of his coffee down the sink, and strode to the door. He donned his coat and shouldered his black briefcase.“We’ll go through that when I get back. Concentrate on your studies today, all right, James?”

“All right.” James watched him go, then got up and pulled the schoolwork list off the refrigerator. Words overwhelmed the strip of paper, as usual. Luckily, his mother had written this one.

She had better handwriting.


James sat pinned between the wall and the conference table, distant and disillusioned.

“Now, let’s sort all this out, then.” Vihaan Dhar, a middle-aged man with sturdy posture and a well-kept black mustache let his gaze wander around the table. “What happened?”

The engineers exchanged uncertain glances, seated across from Dhar, Richard, and Eve.

Dhar’s attention rested squarely on James. “Siles, care to start us off? Since you were most directly involved?”

“I’d love to,” James sighed. The particulars of the event had kept him awake most of the night.

“With as much detail as you can,” Eve added, pushing her square glasses higher on the bridge of her wide nose.

James laced his fingers together on the table, wondering if they were discussing a fireable offense that morning. “Okay…Well, I went in the generator room to make the last checkup of the night, and I noticed the room was warmer than it was supposed to be. I only had time to pull up the status screen for the generator and thermoregulatory system and see it had frozen up before the alarms activated.”

“What time was this?” Dhar asked.

“11:46pm.” Every feature of that glitched screen sat etched in his memory.

“So there were no prior warnings that something was malfunctioning?” Eve asked.

“Everything was fine when I’d checked it just an hour before, and none of the sensors went off,” Addie Matthews spoke up to James’ left.

“The cooling system had been damaged somehow,” James said. “The pipes were too quiet. And the automatic failsafe should have easily triggered at the temperature the core hit. I didn’t get a chance to check if it had been disconnected.”

“So, you think the safeguard had been manually deactivated?” Eve asked.

“I don’t know how, but yes,” James said. “I tried to flood the system with the emergency water valve, but even that wheel was jammed.” He gestured to Richard. “That’s when Richard found me and made me leave it.”

Richard glanced at him. 

James couldn’t meet his gaze. Never in his life would he have expected his superior to have to all but drag him off the platform. James should have had more maturity, more self-restraint, even though he hadn’t realized this particular evacuation was a matter of life or death.

“I’m told you think it’s sabotage,” Eve said.

James felt like a bullseye as all attentions trained on him again. “Nothing about the generator’s design or the limits of its safeguards suggested it would behave the way it did.” He pushed aside a memory of the unresponsive valve under his desperate hands, alarms screaming in his ears, Richard’s voice failing to clear the din. “Someone had to have tampered with it. Blocked the pressure outlets, fed it an unstable source material for conversion. Something.”

“Could there have been a problem with the irrigated water supply?” Eve asked.

“Still waiting to hear back on that,” said Dhar. He looked around the table. “And where were the rest of you while this was going on?”

Greg Harper, a tree of a person with a heavily freckled face, spoke up, “We were all in the main lab powering through blueprints for the new A.I. project commissioned last week. It was James’ turn to check the generator, so he stepped away for a bit.”

“How long was he gone?”

“A few minutes?”  

“Did any of you see anything out of place before this point?”

“No,” Chelo Fernandez said. She glanced around at her colleagues. “It was just the five of us out there, wasn’t it? Nobody was on security duty?”

“The last shift of the night had ended over half an hour before,” said Addie, reaching behind her head to gather her long blond braid and pull it over one shoulder. She cracked a thwarted smile. “I would suggest we check the video surveillance recordings for anything suspicious, but of course we can’t.”

A similar expression tugged at the edges of Chelo’s features.

“Larkspur doesn’t have any enemies, does it?” Richard glanced at Eve. James perked up.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Eve replied. “We don’t do anything to warrant animosity from anyone. As far as I know, most everyone who still remembers Larkspur thought we went under almost twenty years ago.”

“This is the worst sort of thing to happen if we wanted to stay behind the scenes,” Greg mused. “Did any of you see the news this morning? I agree it seems out of left field, but we have no apparent perpetrator. James, are you absolutely sure it wasn’t just an accident, because it’s perfectly fine if—”

“It wasn’t an accident,” James said. “We’re smarter than that.”

“Mistakes can be made by any of us,” Greg said. “Even you.”

James bristled. “I didn’t do anything to it.”
“We didn’t say you did,” Richard said gently, pushing up on the bridge of his broken glasses. “We just have to consider every possibility.”

“You can safely consider that possibility a dead end,” James said, avoiding looking too long at Richard’s glasses.

“But you do actually believe it was sabotage?” Greg pressed. “Despite a deafening lack of evidence?”

James threw up his hands.

After a beat of charged silence, Dhar checked his phone and pushed his chair back. “Well, I’ve received word about where we’ll set up shop next. I’ve had my administrative assistant making phone calls and looking into the Bureau’s assets still invested in this little engineering lab of ours. Seems like the outlook is promising. Talk amongst yourselves until I get back.” He paused at the door. “I know you’re all shaken by this, but let’s try to work together, all right?”

Richard studied the friction between James and Greg in concern. Chelo and Addie exchanged a glance. James crossed his arms and Eve sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Thanks, Greg,” James muttered as soon as the door closed behind Dhar. “I can always count on you to make me look bad in front of the head of the Bureau.”

“You’re the one who got defensive,” Greg said, failing nonchalance. “I haven’t gotten a rise out of you like that in quite a while. Is there something you aren’t telling us?”

James frowned at him from the corner of his eye. “Like how I’m aware that, since I largely designed that monitoring system, this makes it my fault? And that there’s no way to recover the technology to get some sort of readout of what exactly happened to it?”

“You said it, not me,” Greg retorted over Chelo and Addie’s heads.

Chelo dealt Greg a sharp elbow to the arm. “Stop bickering.”
“Sorry,” Greg mumbled, shifting away. He massaged his arm, redirecting his attention to the brooding James. “All I’m getting at, Surly, is there’s really no evidence for or against you. I don’t doubt your confidence in your work. It’s always super high quality. But accidents do happen, so you can be as adamant as you want but we’ll still never know for sure. At any rate, crying ‘sabotage’ isn’t helping you.”

“So we’re just going to ignore the possibility,” James muttered. “How responsible.”

“You’re being paranoid.”

“James…” Addie said softly as Chelo gave Greg another warning expression. “I know what it looks like, but nobody had reason—”

“I collaborated on those designs and signed off on them,” Chelo said. “For all we know this could be my fault.”

“There was nothing wrong with that system.” James leaned forward so he could see her better, his hazel eyes hard and stubborn. “You of all people should be backing me up here.”

Chelo looked at the table.

“Will we receive results of the investigation?” Addie addressed their superiors across the table.

“Yes,” Richard said. “I don’t think they’ll find anything, though.”

James crossed his arms and sat back, morose.

In the ensuing silence, Eve said, “It’s only the first day. Things will start looking up soon.”

Dhar entered with several sheets of paper in hand and said, “Looks like you’ll be moving back to the old facility near Worthing.”

He was met with blank stares.

“Worthing?” Greg said, worried. “Like west coast Worthing?”

“Afraid so,” Dhar said.

“That’s a good facility,” Eve said. “And above ground too, which sounds perfect to me.” She smiled. “Underground was nice and secretive at first, but now I’m not sure it was such a great idea in the long haul.”

Richard flashed a reserved, lopsided smile of his own. “I’ll admit I agree with you there. Though I think we’re all a little worried about the distance…”

“It’ll be advantageous to have you back near the Bureau’s main office again.” Dhar handed James copies of the location information, who received them wordlessly, took one sheet, and passed on the rest. 

“The original facility’s been closed down for years.” Eve scanned the page. “How extensive will the renovations be?”

“I’ll take care of that.” Dhar returned to his seat next to him. “How much time will you all need to relocate?”
Again, silence closed in on the narrow room. Worthing was on the opposite side of the country. Over two thousand miles away.

James decided to let the others figure out what they wanted to do. By the end of the week, he’d have already gone through work withdrawal and taken up tinkering with other projects on his kitchen table. He didn’t have anyone else to move but himself. It wasn’t his call.

He didn’t feel like arguing anymore, anyway.

“Heather will be out of school for the summer in about three weeks,” Richard said, thinking. “I’d hate to pull her out that close. Would a month be too long?”

“A month should be fine.” Dhar jotted notes on a legal pad. “The danger of complete exposure isn’t particularly high. If the Dunesborough Police Department isn’t releasing information—which they have express federal orders not to—people can speculate, but nothing will be able to be traced back to us.” He considered everyone around the table. “Would a month work for the rest of you? We’ll compensate you for moving expenses and any lease breaking fees.”

James nodded. The remaining engineers confirmed, numbly.

“Great.” The head of the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation pulled out his phone. “Mark your calendars, then, for Monday, June twenty-fourth as the date to report to the new facility. Let me know if you have any questions.”

The engineers looked at their handouts, exchanging uneasy glances. 

“I know it’s a lot to ask of you,” Dhar said. “But I do think this will be a good move. Twenty years is a long time under the table. Maybe after relocating, Larkspur can start expanding again, resurfacing. We’ll shelve the generator for now until we have more information, but with this A.I. project you’re moving into, I think you’ll soon find a lot more resources coming your way, if I have any say in it. I’m pretty partial to this group, to be honest.”

“Thank you, Vihaan,” Eve said.

James stared at the table, pensive. He hadn’t been at Larkspur that long, so he knew nothing about its origins, or what resurfacing meant.

He guessed he would soon find out.



No sooner had Heather stepped through the front door than her mother asked her to take a seat in the living room.

A hard knot sat in the pit of her stomach as her parents settled down on the adjacent couch.

At school, she’d tried to access what the news was saying about Larkspur’s demise. Homeroom’s gossip had about summarized it, and by lunch hour, the urgency of the event had been quelled. Just a non-radioactive industrial accident, local police said. A little embarrassing, but nothing to worry about.

“I had a meeting with my coworkers and my boss today,” Richard began quietly. “There’s no way to recover anything from the remains of the facility, and we don’t want to kick up any more dust. It’s looking like it would just be better if we relocate, instead of trying to rebuild.” He adjusted his broken glasses, and looked up to meet her gaze. “We’ll be moving to a vacant facility outside Worthing, an hour south from the national capital.”

Heather straightened up. “We’re moving to the west coast?”

Richard nodded. “In a month. I’m sorry, Heather.”

“There have to be other labs around here that would work,” Heather pleaded, indignant.

“It would take too much time.”

“Too complicated and expensive, you mean.” Heather snapped. “The government can better cover for you if you’re closer to them, right?” 

Richard straightened up. “What? No—I mean, sure Larkspur is federally funded, but it’s just we already own that other facility. There would be no property hunt, no leasing papers, no down payments on top of replacing all our equipment—Heather, stop looking at me like that…”

“Like what?” Heather crossed her arms.

Richard gestured at her. “Like I’m…plotting world domination or something.”

“Well how should I know you’re not?” Heather retorted. “Why won’t you tell me what’s really going on?” Her life was here. If they took that, she would have nothing but old secrets and a new barrier of anonymity to suffocate behind. “I’m part of this family too. Why am I the only one that has to be kept in the dark? Like I’d be okay with getting dragged into the fallout when your secrets come back to bite you.”

“Heather—” Sue said firmly.

“Did the Conxence destroy Larkspur?” Heather pressed. “It’s all right. You can tell me!” Richard looked up, startled. “Dad, this isn’t protecting me from anything.” 

“You’re not in danger,” he said. “What happened at the lab last night was just an accident. Nothing more.” He met her gaze. “Heather, I don’t tell you everything you want to know about Larkspur because some of it just isn’t relevant anymore, and I don’t want to pull it up again. My job still requires a lot of secrecy. It’s something I didn’t put into place, but it’s something I need to honor. Please, believe me.”

Heather glanced aside, glaring at the far arm of the couch.

“I know asking you to give up your life here for something I’ve kept from you is incredibly unfair,” Richard went on. “But this is how things are right now, and I need you to trust me that things will be okay. And you know, maybe things will change for the better…” 

Heather sank further into the couch, hunching her shoulders, refusing to look at him. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself too. 

“We can find a nice house in a quiet area, maybe out in the country,” Sue offered, attempting a reassuring smile. “You can choose whatever school you want. What about private school? The west coast is known for its high caliber academics, and we know how bored you’ve been at school this year.”

Heather glanced at her, warily.

Academia she could get behind was tempting. She didn’t have friends anyway. But this wasn’t just about moving away. Dunesborough was what she knew. For so long, Heather had ached to be a part of her parents’ reality, but they had refused to let her in. They had created this one for her instead. They couldn’t dangle a new one in front of her face and think she’d instantly grasp for it. 

She looked at her dad. He sat still, his eyes tired and melancholy behind the round lenses of his glasses. He was massaging his shoulder.

“You’re sure you’re not in trouble?” Heather asked.

He cracked a wan smile. “Not the kind you think I’m in, apparently. Things are confusing right now, but we’ll make sense of them together.” 

“Yeah…” Heather stood up and went to the door. She grabbed her bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. “I have homework I need to get to.”

“Okay,” Richard said, quietly. “We’ll be sure to keep you included in the details of the moving process. We’d like your input.”

“Thanks.” Heather stepped dismally into the shadows of the hallway.

She didn’t believe him.


The night was far too warm. James opened every window in his apartment, intending to spend most of the night under the largest of the four. Glaring at the broken thermostat on his way through the living room, he planted a box fan in the window next to his desk.

Bombarded by its raucous hum, James set to work on his desktop computer sifting through the files on his backup external hard drive. He was relieved to find he’d kept it up to date with data related to their errant generator. The accident had incinerated his notebooks reserved for the project, but at least he had this. He combed through endless lines of coding having to do with the project’s regulation systems and failsafes, searching for typos, faulty logic pathways, anything.

He heaved an exasperated sigh, and cradled his head in his hands. They’d tested and re-tested the system’s integrity before building it to scale and employing it to power the facility. It had been functional in the shorter tests in the two weeks leading up to the night it perished.

He could still picture every detail of Larkspur’s last few minutes. Checkup, rise in temperature, malfunctioning screen…

There was nothing wrong with his and Chelo’s program.

The investigation into the accident had turned up nothing helpful, as expected. Nothing salvageable remained. No trace of an explanation. James knew he was alone in thinking it was anything other than an accident.

Trying to convince them any more would only work against him. Sabotage or not, the facility’s destruction was senseless, and they were already going to increase security just in case.

He wasn’t at Larkspur to defend its interests, anyway. He was only there to create, to manufacture progress. 

So, James could let it go, he told himself. He had to. He was already overzealous about his work, so he might as well keep that reputation from bleeding into straight up neurosis. He knew he was right, but he also knew that didn’t matter. 

Unfortunately, accepting it also meant accepting his colleagues still wondered if it was his fault.

And wondering what Richard must think of him in that light made James sick to his stomach.


Heather knew this was a peacemaking gesture. 

She peered out the car window at the yellow, two-story house and the looming cherry trees. While she appreciated the prospect of meeting one of her dad’s colleagues, the arrangement still felt patronizing. 

A large white storage pod blocked the driveway at the edge of the verdant yard. 

“Are you sure about this?” Heather asked as Richard killed the engine. “This seems like a breach of code to me.”

“Eve and Jida are excited to see you.” Richard opened the door. 

Heather sighed and got out of the car.

“So she’s your colleague?” she muttered, following her parents up the driveway, past the pod, and to the top of the porch steps.


“Is she the ‘friend’ you’re protecting?”

“Heather…” Richard rang the doorbell. “Just forget about that, please.” 

Heather’s lips tightened. Richard couldn’t tell her about the past, yet she was meeting his colleague—who didn’t even live all that far away from them. Her dad had offered Evangeline Louis’ name, but when Heather asked about other people he worked with, he had brushed aside the question with another excuse. So what was different about Eve, she wondered.

She was beginning to think her dad was making all this up as he went along.

The door opened to reveal an older woman with broad shoulders, very short coiled hair, and square glasses, whom Heather presumed to be the colleague.

“Hello there, Brophys!” she greeted. Her warm, husky voice sounded like it came straight from an old radio show. A petite woman wearing roomy overalls and a bright pink shirt appeared in the doorway beside her. Eve extended a hand. “Nice to see you again, Sue.” 

As Sue shook it, Eve’s smile rested on Heather. “Hey Heather, how’s it going? You were only this tall when I last saw you!” She held her hand to knee height. “Do you remember us? I’m Eve, and this is Jida.”

Heather nodded and put on a smile. She had to have been taller than Eve’s gesture. She vaguely recognized their faces. She might have been eight years old when she met them, but at the time, she had just thought they were acquaintances or professors from where her dad used to work.

Eve threw an arm across the other woman’s shoulders as Jida extended a hand. She had a surprisingly firm handshake. “Great to see you again too, Heather. My, aren’t you grown up! How old are you now?”

“Fifteen,” Heather said.

“Wow,” she looked at Heather’s parents. “Growing up so fast.” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her overalls, glancing back into the house. “Thanks for coming over. We can definitely use the extra elbow grease.”

“Our pleasure,” Richard said brightly, as she waved them inside.

Heather’s gaze wandered the emptied walls. She almost tripped over a pile of boxes stacked in the living room.

“Careful there,” Eve reached out to catch her if she fell, but Heather stopped with her balance intact. 

Jida headed toward a sunny doorway at the back of the house. “I’ve been packing up the kitchen, if Sue and Heather want to help me with that.” She glanced at her spouse. “Did you and Richard want to start hauling furniture to the pod?”

“Yes ma’am,” Eve said. Richard nodded, and Heather wordlessly followed her mom through the city of boxes to the kitchen, pulling her thick hair back into a ponytail.

Richard and Eve launched into figuring out how to haul the furniture outside and efficiently stack it in the pod. Heather helped Jida and Sue wrap dishes in newspaper, pack them into boxes and label them. Richard and Eve filtered in and out of the main room, having jumped to a completely different subject every time Heather saw them from the doorway.

She was taping up a box when they came back in for the eighth time.

“I guess the others are leaving too, in a few days,” Eve said. She and Richard disappeared down the hallway. “Haven’t heard much from James, though.”

Heather strained to hear, trying to keep the tape in her hands as soundless as possible. Her mom was talking with Jida, which made the engineers’ conversation in the other room even more difficult to make out.

“I talked to him yesterday,” Richard said. “He hasn’t started packing yet.”

Eve scoffed. “Is that so?”

A thump interrupted their conversation. 

“Watch that corner—” Eve said.

Heather pushed a box aside and pulled another in front of her.

“So Heather,” Jida spoke up, making Heather jump. “Your mom tells me you’re finishing the ninth grade?”

Heather nodded, still listening for further mention of James or others, but they weren’t talking much anymore.

“How are you liking high school so far?” 

“It’s okay.” Heather took a plate from a stack on the table and wrapped it in newspaper.

She wanted to ask Jida about Larkspur’s past, but Sue was there. And Eve was near her dad. Heather didn’t dare broach the subject with her parents within earshot. 

But as she continued packing and talking with Eve and Jida, an idea took shape. An idea her dad wouldn’t like, but one she decided to pursue anyway.



Erika Davenport had been trekking along an unmarked logging road for miles now. The hills between the valley and the coast held a deeply reverent place in her heart, the dark green and mossy brown of the flora, the misty hush that cradled every inch of the cold, soft soil. 

So soon after her mother’s passing, more than ever, she needed this place to be her refuge. But to learn the government’s rumored gestating ground for human weaponry research lived here too, her grief twisted into a sharp black knot in her chest and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

Empetrum. 44º15’01” N 123º49’28”W

The name and coordinates were all the Conxence knew so far. Infuriatingly, it was all the information the head and second-in-command were content with for the time being. 

“Your energies are better spent here,” the former had said. Kaczmarek wasn’t a mean person, but his bluntness was often frustrating. He had everything mapped out. When he looked at her, she felt as if he were looking into her brain and trying to map her out too. “There are probably dozens of similar labs hidden around. No sense stomping off into the woods after one federal stain with so little information. ” 

“The facility’s got to be highly secure,” the second-in-command added, soft and earnest. Derek was a young man but an old soul, who had succeeded to his mother’s position in their ragtag resistance movement upon her abduction by the state. “It’s too much of a risk. We should wait, concentrate on more pressing concerns until we have more information.”

“Drop it,” Kaczmarek said. “You’re not combat trained, and it’s a conflict of interest besides.”

“I know this is important to you, but just give it time,” Derek said, trying to smooth it over. He was always trying to smooth everything over. “I’m sure it will show up again, and we’ll be better prepared to deal with it.”

Kaczmarek was a control freak and Derek was a worrywart, Erika thought with a huff as she trudged on. With pressure tightening, no one was sure what they were up against, what was festering under the surface. Any new development could be too late. The sheer possibility that human weaponry was becoming a variable was outrageous, and they couldn’t deny the government would keep its secrets unless someone dug them up.

Erika stepped around a large puddle in the road. The frogs were out, chirping in the saturated stillness. The air smelled so good here. She double checked her GPS. She was on track, moving closer. Soon she would have to take it much slower, leave the path and skirt a circle around the spot, moving slowly forward until she caught a glimpse.

At the very least, she needed to see what this abomination of a facility looked like.


Night had long since fallen by the time Erika got her first glance of Empetrum. 

A tall, chain-link fence wrapped the perimeter in a grid punctuated by narrow brick pillars. Snarls of barbed wire stretched across the top, and the light of the waxing moon glinted off thick, ugly shards of glass set into the tops of the pillars.

Signs severely warning off trespassers dotted the fence, as if the barrier weren’t already sinister enough.

Beyond the fence lurked more trees, with no man-made sounds to disturb them. She could see no signs of installation except for a single distant light, winking in and out as the wind stirred the foliage. After skirting the fence for a while, hoping the facility was visible at some point, she came upon something even better—a fallen tree, smashed straight through a portion of the fence from a recent storm. The supports on one side had snapped free of their toothy pillar, just wide enough for her to squeeze through.

Coyotes yipped and cried, miles away. Erika pulled the cuffs of her jacket closer and stood still, listening, watching.

Another half a mile of uninhabited land and beyond another fence, at the back of an open concrete courtyard, lay the facility: a stoic bulk of brick and steel with tall, thin windows. Accessory buildings hunched in the eerie darkness beyond, still and silent, peppered with illumination from the inhabited rooms within. Crouched close to the barrier, she watched the figures of guards patrolling the grounds. Monstrous flood lights stood dark and waiting, perched on top of thick poles planted throughout the courtyard.

A sudden light from the side blinded her as a voice barked, “Hey! You there!” 

Erika took off.

Footsteps pounded behind her. Two sets: one closer, one farther. The angry beam of a flashlight shone dead on her as she dodged between the thinner trees in the section, making a beeline for the breach in the fence. Her lungs were strong, the trees crowded close together beyond the fence. If she could just slip through…

She heard a pop, and something sharp embedded itself in the meat of her shoulder. She gasped, but she had no time to check for a wound. 

One moment she was close to freedom, her gaze locked and determined, thinking maybe she wouldn’t tell anyone about this—especially not the Conxence. The next, her legs were buckling and she collided with dirt. Ferns and sticks whipped her face on the way down.

The guards caught up. A beam of light pointed in her face. Erika grasped fistfuls of leaves and mossy ground, trying to get her limbs to move, to drag herself forward, but her body wouldn’t respond. Her eyes lost focus. A high-pitched ringing filled her ears.

The earth pressed damp and cold against her face as she succumbed.