First thing Monday morning, James brought Heather up to his personal lab. She sat in the extra desk chair, her head and chest open while he took readings of her power core and ran the the routine stability tests.
She had scanned as much of the area as she could on her way up from the basement, but her thermal sensor was infuriatingly limited. One thing she did note visually on the way to James’ lab was there was a generator room at the end of the hallway, very nearby the entrance to his personal lab.
The more her thoughts turned toward escape, the more she visualized pulling a repeat of Larkspur on that generator, blowing the whole facility sky high.
She watched him putter around, his mind elsewhere, and she wondered if the change she had noticed a few days prior just meant he was officially too far gone.
She weighed her chances making a break for it. She’d have to time it when James took the tether off her ankle to escort her back to her cell. She could incapacitate him with a measured shock, and smash her way through the window. Sprinting, electrified metal would be hard to apprehend.
However, the fence outside could be electric, which was a problem if the voltage was too high. She also figured the polymer encasing her vitals wasn’t bulletproof. How she wished inorganic meant invincible.
James pulled open a drawer across the room and produced what Heather recognized as the pain simulator.
“Sorry, but I need to put this back in,” James said.
Heather buzzed a sigh, but sat still and let him access her neural network. He plugged in the device and snapped the protective frame back on. She waited for him to bring the toolbox over and retrieve the screws to secure it in place, but he didn’t.
“You can go ahead and close your cranial panels,” he said. “It’s done.”
Heather complied, giving him a confused look.
“Did it connect?” James moved across the room, where he proceeded to rifle through papers and boot up his laptop.
She searched reluctantly for the connection of the pain simulator. She wondered if she could consciously block it out, and therefore limit its influence. As her attention touched on the accessory, something pushed through in her mind, surprising her. It was text, forming a message:
Heather, it said, I’ve been horrible and scared and selfish, and I’m so sorry. You were right, obeying Benson isn’t protecting anybody. I want to help get you out of here, if you’re willing to work with me. If you don’t want my help, I understand, and I won’t stand in your way.
I have outfitted the pain simulator with a communicator, so when I test it in the next few minutes, you should be able to gain access to a communication satellite once the device is activated. I’ve programmed the coordinates to this lab, Empetrum, into the device too. Search for them and you’ll find them. When I test it, reach out to your parents, tell them where we are.
We’re far from civilization, and Empetrum is heavily guarded, so I’m not sure where to begin escape plans. It will be very dangerous, but I’m willing to try if you are.
I’m sorry it took me so long to listen.
Heather blinked, staring at him, repressing the millions of questions begging to be given voice. A very real hope after so much despair.
James glanced up to meet her gaze, shy and hopeful and tired. He had nothing to gain by lying to her.
Either way, she’d know for sure as soon as the pain simulator turned on.
He took the remote for the device off his desk, holding it like he feared it would burn him. “I have to test it again.”
Heather watched him, the volume of her voice very low, “Okay.”
She squeezed her hands together in her lap, and James activated the device. The signal buzzed oddly in her head, fading in and out like it struggled to translate into a discernible pain response. She glanced up at him, inquisitive, wondering if he had tried to dampen or eliminate it.
He kept his gaze on the remote, his lips pressed together. His thumb clicked the button again.
The pain signal smoothed out and flared. She winced. Then, somewhere, in the back of her head, she detected something else. Her attention started to fray, splitting between where she sat in James’ lab, and another piece reaching up into the stratosphere.
A weak connection, but it was there.
Hope swelled in her chest.
“Going up two,” he said quietly, and clicked it twice.
Heather stiffened as the pain intensified with sharp, unexpected stabs. She gripped the arms of the chair, closing her eyes with her shoulders tense. She felt James’ gaze on her, while he waited breathlessly for something to happen.
She gave a small shake of her head. She heard two more clicks of the button, and the pain ripped from her head down her spine and into her legs. She tried to remember her dad’s cell phone number, the easier of her parents’ numbers to recall. It was difficult to focus.
The signal was still too weak, though she reached out, invisible fingers extending blindly in the dark, trying to find purchase. Trying to find something that could translate her thoughts into a message, and beam it to her parents.
She opened her eyes and gave him a determined, meaningful look. He upped it to level eight and she stiffened. She pulled forward, an electronic, mistuning warble slipping from her voice box. She stared at James’ shoes in front of her, holding onto his presence like a lifeline, to keep her from ripping out the device or asking him to stop it, while she stood still in a barrage of confused, screaming pain, trying to listen. Her mind reaching, reaching, reaching.
Something caught and held.
Her eyes widened, her vision blurred out.
She threw words into a choppy message, struggling to keep out nonsense information and not certain of her success: Dad, it’s Heather we’re ok James and I are trapped at Empetrum but planning to escape nothing yet but if you could help that would be great please reply NOW.
She mentally shoved it away, pushing it toward her connection with the satellite, hoping that doubled as sending it out. Her dad usually had his phone on him. It would start vibrating on his desk, or in the pocket of his slacks, if he was at Larkspur. It was 9:34:46. 47. 48.
Heather waited. James stood by, his thumb on the remote’s power button.
Please hurry up, Dad, she thought. She clamped her hands behind her head, ducking it between her knees. Just one second longer. She told herself. One second longer.
HEATHER! A reply came from Richard’s cell phone number. The message was full of frenzied typing mistakes. im so incredbkt relieved tonhear from you yes we all want to help you and james ge tout of empetrum what can we do to help???
I don’t know. Heather replied, closing her eyes hard. The emotion was overwhelming, receiving the first words from her family in two weeks. Since becoming a machine. Since everything and everyone had fallen apart. We don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I’ll let you know as soon as we do. I’m sorry I can’t talk any more right now but I’ll contact you again as soon as I can. She felt the urge to cry. She wished she could. I love you.
She waited again.
I love you too.
“Okay,” her voice sounded small and crackling. “Okay too much. James please—” her tone broke. “Please turn it off—”
Abruptly, the pain cut off and Heather remained immobile, as if paralyzed. She stared at the floor for a few moments, trying to recover from the shock and gather her thoughts. Finally, her death grip loosened around the base of her head. She slowly straightened up and stared at the man before her in awe.
James looked so young in that moment, so vulnerable. “I—it worked okay?” he managed. “The bug fixes took?”
“Yes,” she said.
He nodded. “Good…” He breathed an unsteady exhale. He wiped a hand across his mouth, spent a moment in indecision, then moved to put the remote in a drawer of one of the counters across the room. “Good.”
I love you too.
Richard stared wide-eyed at his phone, having turned away from the counter where Sesame’s body was quickly taking shape. He felt light-headed.
Very quietly, the small box with the child’s voice attached to his laptop spoke, “Richard?”
He glanced up, and realized his colleagues were all looking at him.
It was all Richard could do not to react. He knew Benson had a surveillance tap in the lab they were in. Very slowly, as calm as he could even while his heart pounded hard in his chest, he got up and passed his phone to Eve.
Eve’s face went ashen as she read the message.
“It’s time,” Richard said.
“Director.” Benson’s administrative assistant found him in his personal lab, splitting cell cultures under a fume hood.
“Yes?” Benson continued to work. His right hand managed the automated pipettor, systematically driving a solution of detached cells and fresh media into eight new plates.
“Security has informed me that all your surveillance feeds of the Larkspur facility have been deactivated,” Walker said.
“What? When?” The director pulled the long plastic pipette from its device and tossed it into a nearby trashcan.
“Earlier today. They were removed from their positions and destroyed by Brophy and his colleagues,” she said as he proceeded to stack the plates and label the topmost of the two columns. “I’ve reviewed the last few minutes of footage, and Brophy reacted to something on his phone shortly before it happened.”
“That’s—sudden,” Benson said with quiet incredulity as he moved the small petri dishes to a nearby incubator. “We must have overlooked something.” He locked the protective glass panel, followed by the incubator’s heavily insulated door. “You said all the devices were deactivated?”
Walker nodded. “Everything has gone black. It seems they were able to locate all of them.”
Benson removed his gloves and snapped off the light in the fume hood. “Okay.”
“And this came for you.” Walker extended a small envelope. “Your father told Roberts to pass it along to you.”
The director plucked the envelope from her fingers and carefully opened it up, revealing the folded square of cardstock tucked inside. After flipping up the top of the note, the diminutive capital letters inside elicited a sudden frown and startled leaning of his face toward the paper.
Dear Dr. Director,
Your kingdom’s coming down.
Benson pounded on the door of his father’s dingy single apartment. After an eternity fuming in the corridor alone, the door unlocked and his father appeared, his countenance braced for impact.
“What do you mean by this?” Benson demanded, shoving the envelope into his father’s chest as he barged unbidden into the apartment and shut the door.
“You look well, Michael,” Henry said. He turned the card in his hands, smiling bitterly. “A little pale, though. Spending too much time in the lab?”
“You said I was wasting my time continuing to consider you a threat!” Benson said. “I can’t believe you’ve been helping them. As if I wouldn’t have found out on my own, but why would you wave it in my face?”
Henry’s gaze fell to the card. “I told them,” he said quietly, and he sounded old, used up. “About us, your grandfather. About you and Empetrum. Everything.”
Benson stared, eyebrows raised. “Do you have a death wish?”
“What on earth did you do to Brophy’s daughter?” Henry asked. “Empetrum’s in the business of kidnapping children now?”
“I don’t have to explain anything to you.”
Henry moved toward the kitchen. “I have something else for you.” He pulled a short stack of papers off the counter and extended it.
Benson snatched it from his hands, exasperated.
“This is a printed copy of the information I gave them,” he explained as Benson glanced through the pages. “If anything happens to me, I told them to take this information to the press.”
“Ah, there it is, the self-preservation,” Benson muttered, tossing the stack back onto the counter in disdain. “You think I’m afraid of some bad publicity?”
“You should be. Maybe the Conxence will take up their case. You should let your prisoners go before this gets any worse.”
Benson cracked a wan, spiteful smile. A panicky tightness pulled in his chest at the mention of the rebel militia. “Go ahead and try it. We can deal with unwanted visitors.”
“That sounds like a bluff to me.”
“I really should just drag you back to Empetrum and give you that mindwipe,” Benson snapped. “If you’re determined to be a problem.”
So soon after the death of his mentor, Benson hadn’t had the heart to lose his only remaining family member. Even if it was his gloomy, deadbeat father. Enough of his sentimentality should have worn off by now.
“Do it then,” Henry said, stepping toward him, eyes burning. “By all means, don’t be shy! Give me the Q-13 if it’ll make you feel in control.”
Benson shifted back. “What the hell do you want from me?” His face softened into a surprised smile as he pieced it together. “Oh, you want out.” He laughed. “You had me there for a second, I almost thought you were trying to make amends or stand up to me, in your own pathetic way.”
“I am trying to make amends,” Henry said. “I want things to be different. I want there to be more to you and me than shadows, staring back at all the horror we’ve caused. What is all this for, Michael? Money? Power? To nurture some void in your vacated soul? Victimizing your peers and destroying lives will not give you what you’re looking for.”
“And what am I looking for?” Benson managed to keep his voice steady, despite the immense weight inside his chest, the terrible memories clawing through his mind. He did not fear them anymore. “I’m very curious what you think that is.”
Henry didn’t answer.
“So you want me to adopt toothless, ineffectual ideas about the world,” Benson said. “By taking up my grandfather’s work, I’ve failed you, is that it? You blame me?” Heat spilled into his tone, inundating his waning efforts to curb it. “You were the one who brought me to Empetrum in the first place. It was you who drove my mother away and left me alone. Grandfather was the only one in our family with purpose after Louis dragged our name through the mud. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he worked hard for it until the day he died, and then he left it in my charge. He was the only one who saw any worth in me, so how on earth could I have turned out any differently? Why would I want to be anything else!”
“I know you loved him, but you don’t have to follow his path,” Henry pleaded. “You can still be free of this.”
Benson scoffed. “You’re assuming a lot. I don’t regret anything.”
“Then show me.” Henry squared his shoulders. “Show me you can follow through—that you became the perfect man to lead that hell you call a research facility. Prove you aren’t a coward as your grandfather accused of absolutely everyone. See, being away from that poisoned air, I finally figured it out. Real cowardice is playing along. And even though he’s dead and gone, you’re still playing his game.”
“Shut up.” Benson’s inherently soft features lowered into a glare behind the narrow lenses of his glasses. “I did this because I wanted it.”
“Did you? You were just a child. I watched as he traumatized you, desensitized you—”
“You’re right, you just watched!” Benson snarled.
“And I’m sorry!” Henry said. His voice shook, and Benson was disgusted by it. “I was wrong, and selfish, and afraid. I failed you, and I’m so sorry. But Empetrum is yours now, Michael, not his. You don’t have to be bound by your grandfather’s cruelty. You don’t have to make that your legacy.”
“Don’t you dare make me out to be the victim in all this,” Benson said. He shook his head, and the side of his mouth twitched up to form what he hoped was a confident smile. “You are so obsessed with bringing out this person that doesn’t exist. Don’t you understand? There isn’t anything there.”
Henry wanted so badly for his greatest mistake to fix itself. This wasn’t about Benson. His father had only ever looked out for himself, and Benson had never needed his concern, or his remorse. Benson would never give him the reconciliation he wanted. It was too late, anyway, but Benson wasn’t broken.
Maybe he wanted to be a monster.
Benson turned. “I’m done here.”
“I crossed you in the most blatant way possible, yet you’re just going to overlook it.”
“I haven’t overlooked it.” Benson paused. “In fact, I hate you all the more for it.”
“But not enough to do anything to me?” It was more a statement than a question.
“It doesn’t matter what you told Brophy or Louis, or what they do with the information,” Benson said. “No one is going to help them, and I’m not going to do you the service of taking those memories that haunt you so much, or relieve you of your failed life. Rot in your guilt for all I care.” He opened the door, glancing coldly over his shoulder as he left. “Nobody can touch Empetrum.”
James paid greater attention to his surroundings. Cameras lurked in every corner of the facility like an invasive species—except in the elevator, which could prove useful. He hadn’t found anything overt in his apartment, but he suspected his living quarters were still being monitored in some way.
Regardless, his apartment was probably the safest place to work on escape plans, as well as the devices he considered making for self-defense. He hoped he wasn’t incurring suspicion as he leaned against the kitchen counter with a composition book, drawing out plans to orient his thoughts, refraining from too much specification and labeling things incorrectly, in case the director happened to get a hold of James’ illegal plans.
Benson was a biochemical geneticist, not an engineer. Hopefully his notes were sufficiently vague.
He and Heather had managed to communicate enough while under surveillance to work it out. Late the next evening, he would activate the pain simulator remotely for two fifteen-minute intervals so Heather could collaborate with her family. Over the weekend, while setting it up with a communication signal, he hadn’t been able to completely disentangle the pain signal. They didn’t have a lot of time for trial and error.
His pager beeped from the other end of the room, and he paused and looked up. Closing his notebook, he stole over to the table and picked up the device, where there was a message from the director.
Please come to my office.
James confirmed, found his ID, slipped on whatever shoes he had by the door, and left. Benson had postponed their followup at the end of the work day. He’d had an errand to run.
James took a slow breath. The days of late summer brought long, warm dusk, in which the air smelled like heated earth and green leaves. It was sort of calming, even here, and he tried to remind himself all over again of the world outside.
On the off chance he and Heather succeeded, leaving the grounds wouldn’t rid him of Empetrum. Michael Benson was just the gate, the guillotine. If he didn’t drag James back into the shadows, James would have to stand in the light, utterly exposed to the repercussions of what he had done. There would be nowhere for him to hide.
He would have to face Richard and Sue. Eve, Chelo, Greg, Addie. He would have to face himself, with no buffer, no padding. Nothing for him to steady his hands, to keep him pushing forward.
A full stop awaited him. But he hadn’t turned to stone yet. This was about Heather.
There was the question of Davenport too. They couldn’t leave her behind, but James didn’t have access to her cell. He was spending more and more time with Yeun’s research, though, so it was only a matter of time before he did. Security guards, however, appeared to have universal clearance.
The director’s office was open. James ventured into view, knocking furtively on the door.
Benson stood in front of the window at the back of his office, considering the lab below with his hands clasped behind his back. He turned. “Good evening, Siles,” he said. “Please take a seat.”
Benson didn’t move from the window.
“How did it go today?”
“I ran diagnostics with Heather, reinstalled the pain simulator after making some bug fixes that would have interfered with the integrity of the pain response,” James said. “Then I shadowed Yeun and studied Compatible modulators.”
Benson nodded. “Good, good…” Finally, he came forward and took a seat behind his desk. “I wanted to talk to you about Larkspur.”
James’ face went cold. “Okay.”
“Are you aware of anything that’s been happening over there in your absence?”
“No,” James said. That was truthful, he didn’t.
Benson paused, looking him over. James felt his gaze like a vice around his neck.
“I know about what you actually did with your first test subject,” Benson said finally. “You call it ‘Sesame,’ right?”
James’ heart squeezed, and adrenaline flushed up the back of his neck. “Yes.”
“You pulled its neural network and left it for Brophy to find,” the director went on. “Which he did.”
James didn’t have to ask how he had gotten ahold of this information, he just wondered how long Benson had known.
“He plugged it into his laptop, and it found the Internet, upgraded its intelligence, and now they are building it a humanoid body in exchange for information.”
James stared at him, surprised. “What?”
“You really didn’t know about any of this?”
“I can’t help but wonder what else you’ve blatantly lied to me about?” Benson said.
“That was around the time of the transfer,” James struggled to keep his voice steady. “It was a frightening transition for me, and I was reacting defensively.”
Benson studied him for a moment. He pushed up on his glasses. “But not anymore?”
“That’s correct,” James said. “I understand the situation better, and I have chosen to embrace it.”
Benson cracked a wan smile. “More or less.”
James’ gaze fell. “I’m getting there.”
The director nodded, thinking. “That’s all I needed. Thank you.”
James hesitated, then stood up, lightheaded. He felt the director’s icy gaze on his back as he left his office and escaped down the hallway. It was all he could do not to break into a run.
By Tuesday evening, the Larkspur engineers had finished Sesame’s body.
“It’s beautiful,” Sesame said, using the laptop’s automated voice as Richard transported his setup to the counter beside the android’s open cranium. The black facial panel lay dormant in the light gray head.
“All right, Sesame,” Richard said. “Ready?”
“I’m going to unplug everything in order to put you where you need to be,” Richard explained. “But don’t worry. If there are any major hitches, I’ll just hook you back up so we can figure it out.”
“Here goes…” Richard gently pulled the chord connecting Sesame’s neural network to his laptop.
Eve and Chelo propped the android up and kept the head from drooping as Richard carefully fitted Sesame’s neural network into the cushioned frame inside. He craned his hands into the tight space, plugging in wires, taking care to unite the wire leading to its power core last.
As soon as the last connection clicked in, the robotic body jolted. The facial screen switched on, completely white.
Richard snatched the last piece of the frame off the counter and snapped it in over Sesame’s neural network. His colleagues returned the android to a supine position on the counter, and they all stepped back.
The robot lay still for several long moments. Slowly, the cranial panels closed, sealing the neural network inside. A fan in its chest began to hum softly.
The light of the face panel flickered, the visual screen glitching in multicolored bars of pixels as it tested its connection. Then it faded from white to dark gray. Large cartoonish eyes opened from the dark background, and a simple black line for a mouth materialized on the screen.
“Woah…” Sesame’s voice tuned until it found the tone he had chosen a week before. He stared up at the ceiling, stunned. Very carefully, he planted his robotic hands on the table and pushed himself up to a sitting position.
“How do you feel?” Richard asked.
The robot looked at its hands, turning them one way, then the other, curling and opening the fingers. It turned its head to look at him. The face glitched and materialized a few times. Finally, it figured out how to smile, and the virtual mouth matched the words as it spoke. “I feel good.”
Addie stepped forward to help him steady the robot as it twisted, dangling its legs over the edge of the counter. Together, they helped it down to the floor.
Sesame stood still, his head just above Richard’s elbow, staring at his own feet. “I’m so tall.”
“Welcome to the bipedal body plan.” Chelo smiled, crossing her arms.
He shot her a virtual grin over his shoulder. Experimentally, he put a foot forward, faltering. Addie and Richard reached out to support him as he tried to walk on two legs for the first time.
Sesame watched the floor. He smiled. “I like this.”
“Everything feels functional?” Eve asked.
“Yes, as far as I can tell.” Sesame kept his hand on Richard’s forearm to steady himself. “Is there a mirror?” he asked eagerly. Even though he’d used his voice a little prior to this, Richard was still unaccustomed to it. Expressive, humanoid, speaking more and more naturally every day. “I want to look at myself.”
Richard accompanied him to the restroom on the first floor, and Sesame was walking on his own well before they reached it. The android gripped the sink and stood up on his toes, peering into the mirror. Another smile spread across the dark screen of his face.
He changed his eye color from the default black to a range of different hues, and finally settled on a teal color. He threw a smile at Richard and the other engineers, who had congregated by the open door.
Watching Sesame operate his new body brought Richard a strange combination of emotions; relief that they had held up their end of the bargain, along with dread and the uncertainty of how to move forward with it. This creature that had loosely adopted the visage of a human child currently played the part of friend or ally, as long as they kept its trust. Now that it had intellect and independent physicality, Richard had no idea what its next actions would be.
Sesame inspected other aspects of his body, opening and closing his chest panel and touching his fingertips to the blue light beaming modestly from his right shoulder.
“What do you think?” Richard said.
Sesame turned and threw his arms around him, squeezing him a little too tightly. “It’s perfect! Thank you!”
Then he ducked under his arm to go hug everyone else in turn. “Thank you so much! I love it.” He ran a few steps into the lobby, losing and regaining his balance as he took a wide look around. He raised his hands high and gazed through his fingers at the ceiling. He twirled again, laughing. “I can’t believe this is mine!”
Richard felt like he was only dreaming this. So much had changed in such a short time and in such unexpected, impossible ways that it felt like his daughter had been missing for two years instead of two weeks.
After Sesame had flitted around and experimented some more, he consented to staying still long enough for the engineers to double-check his body’s functionality. Then, he helped them clean up, immensely enjoying himself. He smiled constantly, listened well, and talked whenever he had the opportunity, and Richard found his tension toward the android beginning to lessen. Foolishly, perhaps.
Before long, Sesame was walking with Richard to the car, holding his hand, but not for support. Richard opened the door to the passenger seat for him and Sesame got in.
“I was here when I was with the laptop, right?” Sesame said, looking around. “Your car is different than James’.” He opened the glove compartment as Richard slipped into the driver’s seat and shut the door. Sesame mimicked his movement and pulled his own door closed. He curiously pulled a car manual from the glove compartment.
“Leave everything in there, please,” Richard said, fastening his seatbelt.
Sesame replaced his find and, watching Richard closely, he located his own seatbelt and pulled it over his chest.
“Like this?” he asked, fumbling with the latch.
Sesame pushed up the door to the glove compartment and gazed up at the sky through the car window.
“When Heather and James come home, I wonder what they’ll think of my new body,” he said as Richard started the engine.
Richard backed the car out of his parking spot and navigated toward the main road.
“I think they’ll be happy,” Sesame decided finally.
“Yeah,” Richard agreed, a lump in his throat. “I think they will.”
Heather watched her internal clock in acute apprehension. She paced, listening to the rhythmic hum of her movement and the click of her bare feet on the floor.
In two minutes, James would activate the pain simulator. He was across campus in his living quarters, but the remote had a wide area of influence. It had to. It was for controlling her, after all.
After so much time spent waiting, certain that no risk was too high to keep her from attempting escape, she found herself afraid. Of contacting her family, of getting caught, of having decided to trust James again.
She didn’t know what she felt toward him anymore. Less hostile, perhaps. A willingness to work with him. She was embarrassed to realize she wished he was with her at that moment, offering moral support while she waited to grapple with the pain simulator again. As she finally told the people she loved what had happened to her.
She paused to regard herself in the small mirror in the far corner above the sink. She still somewhat expected to see herself as she used to be, and the empty gray face was forever a bitter surprise. Even if she and James really did manage to escape, she couldn’t imagine confronting the long, dysfunctional life that awaited her because of him.
Still, she wanted the chance to see what continuing to live could be like. Despite James, despite everything.
With her time running out, she lay down on the bed against the wall. She knew she was being monitored, so she would have to give as few visual cues as possible to the watchful cameras.
She folded her hands across her middle and stared at the ceiling, trying to focus. She had already considered what she would say. Fear welled up through her circuits at the thought of having to go through with it. Her parents deserved to know what would be coming home to them, as much as she wished she could hide it from them forever, to continue being the Heather they knew, and not this unnerving hybrid of metal form and organic memory. She kept thinking there had to be a way to take all this back, but the door to her old life, the only thing she truly wanted now, had closed forever.
Gradually, a headache reared into existence, a warning from James.
Heather closed her eyes. Bring it, she thought.
Soon, the pain increased and Heather focused on the communication signal. The pain wasn’t real, she reminded herself. She couldn’t feel real pain. Without this device, she could cut off her hand and only feel a breach of her electromagnetic field before it moved in over the gap.
Level eight wasn’t as hard to bear the third time she had experienced it. The communication signal was tenuous in the concrete confines of her cell, but it was functional enough. She had fifteen minutes.
Dad, are you there?
Richard’s phone vibrated from where he had left it on the kitchen table while he and Sue made a late dinner, with Sesame as happily underfoot as a toddler.
Richard read the message, then brought the virtual keyboard onto the screen.
Yes we’re here. What’s the status? Are you all right?
Heather felt a smile wash through her, despite the pain that strove to consume her attention.
I’m ok, she replied. I have 15 minutes, but I’ll be back in about 10 after that for another 15—if that makes sense. Sorry. Contacting you is hard.
Richard scrolled through the message, Sue at his side. Sesame craned his neck to read it too. Richard lowered it a bit so the android could see it more easily.
“How is she texting so fast?” Richard muttered.
Why? he texted.
Long story, came the reply. Later.
Sesame hopped up and down. “Plug me in! We could do this so much faster.”
“Where’s your phone charger? And that cord you used to plug me into the laptop? You could splice them together and I could mediate!” Sesame was already on his way down the hall to grab Richard’s briefcase from the home office. “It wouldn’t take long at all.”
Are you at Empetrum because of James’ neural transfer project? Richard typed as Sesame reappeared.
“Do you have tools here?” The robot planted the briefcase on the table. “Please tell me you have stuff.”
Richard dug out the wrapped neural cable and extra charger cord. “They should be in that drawer.” He pointed to one on the far end of the counter.
Richard’s cell phone vibrated again.
Yes, but they want him for something else now. How much do you know?
Sesame helped us find info about Empetrum’s origins and the people who run it, Richard replied. Sue brought the whole narrow drawer to the table. But nothing about why you and James disappeared.
“Why is your phone a heat-sensitive touch screen?” Sesame whined, reading the text as Richard set the phone aside to work with the wires. He found the tools he needed, clipped the heads off each cord, and took to stripping the insulation.
His hands were shaking.
I was leverage. It hurt to remember. James, trying to explain the unexplainable. James told me they were threatening to kill you and me, and that night when I went down to the lab, I walked in on him arguing with a security guard who worked for Benson. So they took me instead of you to make sure Benson wouldn’t just kill me anyway.
Grief bloomed in her chest, pushing oddly against the fake pain signal radiating through her frame. She didn’t want to tell them. She couldn’t tell them.
This is Mom, came the reply. We’re gonna plug Sesame in so he can talk to you, make this go more smoothly.
Ok, Heather sent. Then what her mom had said registered, and she opened her eyes, confused.
“Okay…” Richard said. He severed a strip of electrical tape and wrapped it around the newly united wires. “I’ve got it.”
Sesame was already opening the top of his head and inclining it forward.
Sue handed over the phone, and Richard attached it to one end of the spliced cord. Unlatching the top of the protective frame inside Sesame’s head, he pushed the other end into the port he had used to connect him to the laptop.
Sesame propped himself up onto the nearest chair. His face panel went blank and the words of their text conversation showed up white against the dark gray.
“How do I connect with her?” Sesame asked.
“I don’t know.” Richard pulled up a chair and took a seat in front of him. Sue stood very close beside him, silent and nervous. “I’m not even sure what she’s messaging with.”
Wait—Sesame’s going to talk to me? Heather texted. He talks now?
“There she is,” Sesame said, a watermark smile flashing behind the words on his face panel. The brief visual lit up on the phone beside him.
HEATHER!! Text burst into her mind almost immediately. It’s Sesame! Hello! I’m an android now!
Heather’s eyes widened. What?
More excited words inundated her.
James left me behind so Richard and everybody could tap into my memories, but when Richard plugged me into his laptop, I found the Internet and updated myself! I have an android body now and I can talk to people and everything! I’m not a mouse anymore. It’s great!
Wow. Heather didn’t know how to reply. It was hard to imagine Sesame in a body like hers. That’s great, Sesame. I hope we’ll get to meet again soon.
Me too! Sesame said. How are you making contact? This isn’t James’ number.
Yeah, I think they took his phone. Heather hesitated. He made a different sort of communicator, but it’s disguised so we don’t get in trouble—so it’s hard to use.
She stared up at the ceiling, warring with herself, distracted by the pain signal. She couldn’t bear to tell them, but waiting would only make it harder.
There’s something I need to tell you, she said. Benson…he made James transfer me. My body is gone. James put me into Larkspur’s android, because the other body he was building for his dad wasn’t finished yet and they didn’t give him any more time.
Richard read the text scrolling across Sesame’s facial panel, and his heart sank so quickly it felt like it had imploded in his chest.
“Oh no…” Sue said.
Dad, do you know Benson? Heather went on. Why would he do this to us?
“No,” Richard gasped, removing his glasses to rub a hand across his eyes. His throat tightened. “No no no…”
“So he did do it,” Sue murmured. “That bastard…”
Your mom says James is a bastard, Sesame said.
“Don’t tell her that—” Richard straightened up, horrified.
Heather decided not to tell them that she agreed.
I don’t fully understand the details of why all of this happened, she messaged. They could deal with the rest of the emotional fallout when she was home. She clung to that hope. James isn’t able to offer enough information while under Benson’s thumb, but what’s important right now is James knows more about the inside of Empetrum than any of us, and he’s promised to help.
There was a pause, and she hated to think what her loved ones were going through in that moment, dealing with an impact she had since been processing for two weeks.
Sue crossed her arms, her face stony. “If he’s helping her, I guess he’s on our side for now. I’ll respect that.” She shook her head with a bitter scoff. “First he almost gets you blown up, Richard, and now he does this to Heather. That man is a curse.”
Your parents will work with him, Sesame translated, generously.
Thank you. Heather said. My time’s up for now. Please stand by, I’ll be back in 10 minutes. I just need a break from using this device. It creates a pain signal—Benson made James make it.
“What?” Richard leaned forward indignantly. “She’s in pain?”
You’re in pain? Sesame asked, but he didn’t receive a reply. “Ohp, connection’s lost,” he said, his face re-materializing to replace the text.
Heavy silence suffocated the kitchen. Richard stared at the phone on the table, eyes wide, feeling like his soul was leaving his body.
“Is this real life?” Sue said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Is this actually happening?”
Richard glanced up to see she was in tears. He stood up and wrapped his arms around her, on the verge of sobbing himself. Sesame looked like he might want to join the hug, but he remained where he was, troubled.
“I can’t believe that he—” Sue’s voice cracked as she buried her face in Richard’s shoulder. He held her as she broke down. “Our daughter…”
Richard wanted to offer a bright side: Heather was alive, and communicating with them, and James had agreed to help from the inside. But all their private, crazy fears about the situation had just been confirmed and he was drowning in the agony of it. He bowed his face, and his grip on his partner tightened as he, too, broke down.
It was Sesame’s childlike voice who spoke in the dreadful quiet. “It’ll be okay,” he said softly. “We’ll bring her home soon. You’ll see.”