Heather was still very uncomfortable being where strangers could see her, especially in the heart of the capital, where the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation resided. As she got out of the car, she felt like it was obvious she wasn’t human, covered from head to toe to keep anything robotic from showing. She wore a surgical mask shrouding most of her face, and a short wig under the pulled up hood of her sweatshirt to create a decent illusion for bystanders not paying much attention.
It had taken weeks for the fiasco at Empetrum to reach the head of the Bureau’s attention. Her dad and Eve had assumed Dhar already knew and was opting to play dumb, and they were quietly taking steps to try to separate Larkspur from the government. None of them were expecting the call from him three weeks after Heather and James had come home, asking for clarification of what on earth Benson had done to them over the last month, dead set on offering some form of compensation.
At first, Heather had outright refused. They were much better off just pulling out from the whole thing, even when Dhar tried to tell them he hadn’t meant for anything like this to happen to them. Empetrum, apparently, had special permission to operate however they wanted as long as they produced the results other labs too often refused to pursue. That power had obviously gone to Benson’s head.
That still left James as an incidental human sacrifice to the government, but James wanted to hear what Dhar had to say.
She walked between her parents, her mother’s hand comforting and steady on her back. James walked with his cane on Richard’s other side, bundled up in two sweaters, an overcoat, a scarf, and the now familiar knit beanie on his head. His hair was growing back after he’d burnt it all off at Empetrum, but it was still extremely short, which only contributed to the persistent chill he suffered. Heather had half expected his hair to come in the same jet black color the Q-13 had branded into his skin, but when it started to return, it was its natural warm brown. She took comfort in that, somehow.
As they entered the Bureau and made their way up to the reception desk, Heather ventured a look James’ direction. He met her gaze and his lips tightened in a nervous, hopeful expression.
Richard gave his name, stating they had an appointment with Mr. Dhar. Heather kept her face down, letting the silky, straight strands of her wig fall forward and help obscure her face. She didn’t want anyone seeing her eyes, large and robotic and unnatural.
The receptionist checked them in, and then escorted them to a conference room down the hall.
Heather couldn’t believe they were even doing this, meeting with her dad’s boss, the man who funneled funding to both Larkspur and the lab that had ordered her transfer and kidnapping, who had turned James into a murderer and an experimental human weapon.
They were asked to take a seat at the long dark conference table, and left alone with the promise that Dhar would be in shortly. As they complied, Heather thought she would be sandwiched between her parents, but then Sue moved and waved James over to have the both of them sit together, bookended protectively by Richard and herself. James sheepishly obeyed.
Heather wanted to reach out, to squeeze his arm, offer something encouraging, but cold, breathless anxiety pulled through her circuits in a steady, cycling stream. She still couldn’t tell if touching him made him uncomfortable. He still wasn’t used to accepting affection when he wasn’t a complete emotional wreck. He was certainly uncomfortable giving it.
Heather had acquiesced to letting him and her dad start planning to build her an organic-passing body, even though it required time, resources, and professional consultation they weren’t even sure where to begin arranging. Dhar was about to offer these assets, and even though the idea of exchanging her anachronistic, robotic exterior for something resembling her rightful body was tempting, Heather still didn’t trust any of this.
She supposed she and James still had the firepower to force another escape if this meeting went south.
Slowly, she pulled down her hood, removed the wig and surgical mask, and laid them on the table. She intended to hold her head high. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” she muttered to James. “Money’s not going to fix anything.”
James nodded slowly. He was massaging his hands, staring at the door and breathing quietly and carefully.
Heather followed his attention, wondering what sort of person Dhar was. If he was mousey and well-mannered with glasses, Heather was going to stand up, grab James, and storm out.
“If there are strings attached,” she said. “We’re leaving.”
“Okay,” James said softly, and something in the way he said it made her feel like he wasn’t sure.
“He’s not gonna try to attach strings to me, James,” she said, warning. “It was you that Benson did everything he could to keep tied to Empetrum.”
“Yeah, before he got fed up and tried to kill me,” James said. “I have a feeling Dhar is just doing damage control. I want to see what we can get out of it.”
Heather crossed her arms and leaned back a little in her chair.
“I’m going to ask him about the ICNS,” James said.
Heather opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again, leaving her voice box inactivated. She wanted to backpedal on that prospect as well, even though they’d talked it over several times by then. Now that they knew about the six other kids caught up in all of this, they couldn’t just leave them. James would never forgive himself if he did, and even though Heather knew no one would hold it against her if she distanced herself from it all, she felt responsible as well. She ached to make their trauma worth something, but she feared James wouldn’t survive a second collision with the government.
If James asked about the ICNS, it would be obvious to Dhar what his motives were, but he could at least bring it up and see what would happen.
She was considering joining the Conxence when she was confident enough in her new reality. Erika liked them, and they had fought for their family. Heather’s parents would try to discourage it, though.
“If he offers resources for another body, but on the condition we not interfere anymore,” she said. “We’re not taking it.”
“Okay,” James said.
The door opened, and Heather stiffened as Vihaan Dhar, a middle-aged man with a black mustache and soft, concerned eyes, entered. He paused as his gaze met hers, traveled to James, then to Richard and Sue with increasing dread.
Heather wished Sesame was with them, so she didn’t have to be the only inorganic person in the room, but she also took a grim sense of pleasure that her very presence forced Dhar to confront what he had done. What he had let Benson do to her through James.
“Good morning,” Dhar said, pulling out a chair and taking a seat across from them. He folded his organic hands on the table. Heather squeezed her gloved, robotic ones together in her lap underneath it.
“I am so sorry for what’s happened,” Dhar said. “I knew the last few months have been stressful on Empetrum, but I didn’t realize how desperate Benson was. I thought what I was arranging when I recommended you to him, Siles, was a simple prospect, a chance to let you thrive in your unique expertise and make the higher-ups happy…” He looked at James, then, whose narrow, stained face was stony, his golden eyes sad. “You should have been allowed to resign from Empetrum with grace. None of this should have ever happened. But, now that it has, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to try to offer excuses. I want to help ease some of the effects, if at all possible. No special conditions attached. This is simply an offer.”
James and the Brophys exchanged glances.
“Richard tells me you’ve been talking of building a more suitable body for Heather,” Dhar said. “I want to provide you the funding and resources to do that.”
Heather stared him down, trying to detect any insincerity.
Richard spoke up to her left, extremely serious, “When James crossed over fully to Empetrum, taking my daughter with him, why didn’t you interpret any of my frantic efforts to find her as an obvious sign that Benson had crossed a line somewhere with my family?”
“Benson was omitting information,” Dhar said. “I heard no other outcry, so I assumed the transition went smoothly and James had parted with Larkspur on good terms. The only clue I had was your request to rebuild the android, but I was told it was damaged due to a malfunction.” He paused, then added, hastily, “Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that anything about this terrible situation was your fault. You rightfully assumed I was complicit, and therefore it was completely understandable you thought I wouldn’t help you if I knew what was really going on at Larkspur in the days that followed Heather’s disappearance.”
Richard had given him the whole story by then, omitting that they had ultimately gone to the Conxence for help. They would have liked to keep Sesame’s involvement out of the narrative too, but Benson had offered up that information to the Bureau at some point. When asked what consequences would fall on Empetrum’s director for all this, Dhar simply said he would be dealt with. Heather’s gaze fell as they discussed.
“So,” Dhar said. “Do you have a ballpark on what you’ll need for this project? I can also allow Larkspur full reign for a year to get this taken care of. If you need to contact specialists for the finer details, I’ll be glad to refer you.”
James and Richard looked at each other. Richard gave Dhar a number, rounding it very high, enough to build both Heather and Sesame new bodies.
“Done,” Dhar said.
“Mr. Dhar,” James said. “If we accept this from you, I have another request I’d like to make.”
Dhar paused, wary. “Yes?”
“How much influence do you have with the ICNS?”
Dhar blinked. “The ICNS is further under the military umbrella, but the Bureau essentially supplies the biotechnology that keeps it running, so quite a bit. Why?”
Heather could feel James trembling. Under the table, she reached for one of his hands and squeezed it. His hand tightened in hers.
“When I was with Empetrum,” James said, “the facility coordinator, Anusha Varnet, offered me a teaching position if I was ever interested. I wanted to take her up on it.”
Dhar’s eyebrows lowered in confusion. He searched James’ haggard face for a moment. “Why in the world would you want to go back after all this? Empetrum scientists operate there too, you know. Varnet knows what happened between you and Benson.”
James’ jaw tightened, stubborn and determined to be brave. “I feel responsible for the six Compatible recruits.”
“I understand, but they aren’t your responsibility,” Dhar said.
“They’ve entered the field after only a single year of training,” James pursued. “I know I’m not the only one expecting things to come to a head with the Conxence in the next several months.” Heather realized he had straightened his posture, and the shaking in his hands had subsided. He looked at her dad’s boss, steady and determined. “When that happens, those kids will need someone on the inside looking out for them.”
“You mean, you want access so you can do everything you can to undermine the ICNS.”
Heather felt her shoulders tighten.
“I will put the wellbeing of the recruits first, of course,” James said. “But I’m willing to work with the ICNS, to strike a compromise.”
Dhar sighed. “I’d highly suggest you distance yourself from all this. You’re still young, Siles. Give yourself time to recover, and then move on with your life. Our contention with the rebel militia is no longer your concern.”
“Don’t I get to decide that?” James said. “Benson destroyed my life and Heather’s over it.”
Dhar cracked a wan, testy smile.
“This is something I need to do.” James stared him straight in the eye. “If you bar this avenue, I’ll find another one.”
Heather hoped the implication of that was clear to Dhar. Judging by the latter’s expression, staring back at James, it was. Heather and her parents waited, nervous, for Dhar to finally outright forbid him from having anything else to do with Empetrum or the ICNS. Heather prepared to stand up and pull James out the door after her. If Dhar refused them this, he was just trying to throw money at them to ease his own conscience. She wanted nothing from someone like that.
Finally, Dhar spoke, “You understand it will be hard to convince them. Varnet might consider it, but she may ask Benson for his opinion, since he was your former employer, and both he and Dr. Hill will do everything they can to block your affiliation with the ICNS.”
James nodded. “I know.”
Dhar sighed again. “Well, I can put in a good word for you and set up a meeting. You bring the expertise of an Empetrum scientist with the ethic of Larkspur, which may interest Varnet. And she is the one who will have the final say, so you may have a chance, depending on her personal opinion of Empetrum’s recent activities. I think you should get as far away from this as you can, but if this truly is something you need to do, I won’t be the one to stand in your way.” He fidgeted with his tie. “And I agree with you. Those kids could benefit from having someone looking out for them who understands what they’re going through. I don’t know how much of a chance you got to interact with Varnet, but I’ll give you some advice. If you’re aiming to score brownie points with her, she appreciates candor, and she can always tell if you’re lying to her. If you do somehow manage to convince her, be careful. She is very good at finding out what people want, and making it useful to her. Predictably, none of the recruits’ families wanted to surrender their children to the program, yet they all signed them over in a matter of one week after their discovery. That’s Varnet’s job. She will have terms, and if you want in with the ICNS, you’ll have to agree to them. I just want you to be prepared for that.”
Heather glanced aside, watching James’ face in her peripheral vision. She clicked on the heat sensor in her head, and in a secondary visual feed, James lit up beside her in reds and yellows and greens. The black in his skin was the coldest parts of him, pulling colder with his mounting anxiety. She squeezed his hand again, supportive.
“I understand,” James said. “Thank you.”
James pulled up to the security checkpoint at the Institution of Compatible National Security and handed over his ID to the guard who stepped up to the car window.
He waited, silent and extremely sick to his stomach as the guard looked it over, then pulled her two-way radio up to her mouth and relayed a message, asking if Varnet was expecting a James Siles.
A garbled reply confirmed. The guard handed his ID back and waved at her colleague in the guard booth, who raised the barrier. James guided Richard’s borrowed car down the marked road, mimicking the way Benson had gone on their earlier visit while he was still under Empetrum’s control, except he made sure he turned right, following the signs indicating “Visitors,” and not “Personnel.”
Before long, he had found a place to park and showed his ID to yet another guard, who let him into the building. He felt like the dark polished floor of the ICNS lobby was made of trap doors, and everything James had shoved down, trying to tell himself he was ready and brave and still not immensely traumatized, came welling up to the surface.
A guard just inside the doors told him to take a seat on the cushioned benches in the center and wait until Varnet called him back. He complied, grateful for a few moments to catch his breath, trying to get the Q-13 to back down before it started glowing. Awakened by his immense anxiety, the splintering ache of his altered physiology throbbed down his arms and through his jaw and left cheekbone. He pulled a slow breath in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. It helped only a little.
He just wanted to get this over with.
A door at the back of the lobby opened, revealing Anusha Varnet, the coordinator and warden of the ICNS. James stood up, hastily fixing his sweater. He had tried to make it on a collared shirt and tie alone, but even that was far too few layers for the perpetual icebox his body had become.
“Dr. Siles, good morning,” Varnet said. She stepped aside and gestured for him to enter. “Please, follow me.”
James obeyed, and she led him to her office. She motioned to a chair in front of her desk. “Take a seat.”
“So,” she said, sitting down behind her desk. One of her neat eyebrows arched, skeptical. “I’m told you want a job?”
“Yes,” James said quietly.
She folded her hands on her desk. “You know, I was surprised when Dhar called to set up this appointment,” she said. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I know all about what happened to Empetrum because of you.”
James swallowed and nodded.
“Modulator research isn’t cheap, or expedient,” she went on. “But the government is extremely impatient to get its hands on those ready-made Compatibles all the same.” James winced at the term, uttered without a hint of discomfort. “You’ve given Empetrum a lot of recovery work to do, having thrown the biggest wrench possible into our operation to date.” She leaned forward, steepling her fingers. “So tell me, why should I let you anywhere near my recruits?”
James carefully took to massaging his hands, reminding himself to keep taking deep breaths, to be candid. Varnet wasn’t Benson. Trying to spin the truth wouldn’t help him here. “None of that would have ever happened if Benson had just let me resign like a regular human being,” he said. “I’m guessing when he briefed you of the situation, he neglected to mention the part where he forced me to experiment on my friend, a fifteen-year-old kid, under threat of killing her and her father if I didn’t.”
Varnet tilted her head in concession. “He framed it differently, but I figured that’s how it happened.” She studied him, her expression calm and searching. “Dhar says you feel responsible for our Compatibles.”
James’ face reddened. “Yes.”
“You’re acquainted with Erika Davenport, correct?” Varnet said. “Benson suspects she was with the Conxence. I don’t like my employees being sympathizers with the very group we’re training our recruits to resist.”
“I’m not with the Conxence,” James said.
“Yes, but considering the last few months, I assume you’d jump at the chance to help them, if ever given the opportunity.”
James swallowed. He didn’t know how to respond to that because she was absolutely right.
“Dhar also mentioned you think things are going to come to a head between us and the Conxence soon?”
“Yes,” James said.
“Any specific theories?”
James shook his head. “I don’t know enough about the Conxence or their activities for that. I just know Empetrum was under a lot of pressure to fortify the ICNS before the resistance gains too much traction. I’m hoping to take you up on that offer of a teaching position, to be a source of moral support for the recruits. I imagine they’re dealing with a lot.”
“You’ve only seen the recruits in person once, right?” Varnet inquired, amused. “Yet you’re willing to dive back into the system you fought tooth and nail to escape just to provide moral support? Forgive my skepticism, but I’m just not buying it, Siles.”
James stared at his hands. The idealism that had gotten him mixed up with this in the first place was probably showing. He marveled that he still had some of it left, after everything.
He didn’t know where he was supposed to go from here. He could almost predict what the Brophys’ reply would be when he came home with the news that Varnet had turned him down. Well, all you could do was give it your best shot, and you did.
But that wasn’t good enough.
“Does Benson know about this meeting today?” he asked, preparing to be told to leave, or worse.
Varnet nodded, smiling slightly. “He’s furious that you’d even think about coming back.”
“I’m not asking to go back to work for Empetrum,” James said. “Just the ICNS.”
Varnet paused at that. She raised a hand to her chin and sat back, regarding him. Her eyes flicked to the lower left of James’ gaze, and he knew she was looking at the black stripe of the Q-13.
“Even if you prefer to concentrate on the teaching position, I do like the idea of having my own specialist on board that doesn’t answer to Benson,” she mused. “You may have guessed already, but Benson and his lot can be hard to work with.”
James cracked a wan, tired smile in agreement.
“If I were to hire you,” she went on, “you would answer to me and Victor Gresham, the recruits’ trainer and operation manager. Benson and Hill would have no jurisdiction over you, outside of the scientific side of things, of course.”
“I admit I like the sound of that,” James said quietly.
“How much have you actually worked with modulator technology?” Varnet asked.
“At the time of my falling out with Benson,” James said, “I was up to date on theory and methodology, and had started shadowing Yeun, but hadn’t yet done any major hands-on work.”
“But you do know enough about how it works, how to manage it, guidelines for dosages and procedures, and so on, to be useful?”
James nodded. “Yes.”
She sized him up again, and took a piece of paper off her desk James hadn’t noticed. The way the light passed through it, he could see the composition of the text on the page and recognized the configuration as that of his resume. Dhar must have passed that along too.
“How old are you, Siles?”
“Twenty-one,” James said. His birthday had passed while he was trapped at Empetrum, though he’d forgotten until later.
She nodded, looking at the page. “Yet you already have a doctorate and two years on-the-job experience with Larkspur. I’m going to tell you up front, I’m not impressed by the ‘boy genius type’ in any capacity. In fact, I see it as a hazard.”
“I understand,” James said. He had come to see it as a hazard too.
“Your feud with Benson aside,” she said, “do you play well with others?”
Her lips tightened, thinking. “Contrary to what you may think, we care very much for the wellbeing of our recruits,” she said, returning his resume to her desk. “From what I know of your activities over the last few months, it sounds to me like you’ve been forced to make some impossible decisions, and have done everything in your power to make amends. And, judging by how hard your friends worked to bring you home, it seems you have a strong network of people that care about you, which makes me think maybe you’re a good person, someone that might—” She lifted a manicured finger, pausing for emphasis. “—might—be an asset here at the ICNS.”
James stared at her, trying to figure out what that all meant.
“You mean…you’re considering it?” he asked, incredulous.
“Do you have teaching experience?”
“Some,” James stammered. “I tutored physics and digital logic in college.”
“I would need you for science and mathematics,” she said. “Algebra through calculus, physics, and biology. Given your previous vocation, I assume you can handle those?”
“Yes,” James said. He thought he had to be missing something. It didn’t sound logical enough that she was willing to hire a transparent Conxence sympathizer ex-mad scientist just so she could have a bioroboticist under her personal jurisdiction. There had to be another reason Varnet wanted him around.
“There is also the question of what to do about this,” Varnet said, motioning to the left side of her face in a curling motion. “The first viable strain of the Q-13. You’re lucky to be alive.”
James glanced down at his hands, and tucked them into the pockets of his wool jacket. “Yeah.”
“And I hear it’s functional, no less.”
“Kind of,” James said, nervous. For a terrible moment, he thought she was going to ask him to show her. “It’s a huge strain on my body. I avoid using it.”
Varnet nodded thoughtfully. “If I bring you into the ICNS, I’m going to have to ask that you let us continue to study it.”
Varnet held up her palms in a pacifying gesture. “Of course, this will only look like routine health checkups, and occasional moderate demonstrations to see how its functionality develops over time. I’ll never let you in a room alone with Benson. Like I said, as an employee, you would be under my jurisdiction, and, therefore, my protection. Benson will not have access to you except through me. To be honest, he’s only grudgingly letting the ICNS take interest in the Q-13 as an alternative to Compatibilities.”
James stared at her, a low, muffled throbbing starting up again in his bones. “I don’t understand.”
“Well, it was his grandfather’s baby. Now that it’s finally drawn breath, it seems he’s afraid to share.” She tried to smile. “Don’t worry, Siles, I’m told there was nothing especially miraculous about your physiology prior to infusion. Requiring your cooperation in this is more a favor, a peace offering to Empetrum for my interest in bringing you on. Benson didn’t lose data in the ‘accident.’ He can finish the Q-13 without you. It’ll just take more time than it would without this favor.”
“I see,” James murmured. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or even more concerned. Essentially, either way, Empetrum would continue. Even though James had known destroying the facility wouldn’t truly bring it down, he was still disappointed. There was still time, however, as Richard had said. Dhar was horrified at what Benson had done to them, so maybe further corrective action would be taken, if they were lucky. Though, James didn’t have to be well-versed in corporate politics to have an idea of how these things typically went.
At this point, James would have to compromise.
“I’ll consent to medical checkups,” James said finally. “So long as I’m kept informed, and I’m not left alone with Benson. This position would mean a lot to me, but if I feel unsafe, I do reserve the right to defend myself.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Varnet said.
Not that they couldn’t easily apprehend him, James thought. Q-13 or not. If Empetrum had been prepared like the ICNS likely was, he, Heather, and Erika would have been trapped there forever. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach at the thought. Why was he doing this again?
“We have very specific protocols and requirements,” Varnet went on. “We’ll provide that training here. If you want to take a stab at it, make yourself available next month to complete the program. If training goes well and after that trial period you decide this is really something you’re up for, the position’s yours. You would start in January.” She cracked a wry smile. “Provided you don’t try to destroy the ICNS first.”
James managed a nervous laugh, unsure if that was a joke or a threat. “No need to worry about that,” he said.
Varnet pulled open a drawer and produced a folder, which she extended across her desk. James stood up to take it.
“Here’s the basic information about what your position will entail, the dates of training, and so on,” she said. “The recruits’ trainer will conduct his own screening during this period.”
James nodded, glancing through the folder.
“Do you have any questions for me?” Varnet said.
The most burning questions he had, only time could answer: Was this a massive mistake? Would he be able to be there for the recruits when they were counting on him? Would this ever be worth anything?
“Not at this time,” he said. “I’ll save it for the training period.”
“All right. Well…” She stood up and rounded the desk to shake his hand. “Thank you for meeting with me today. Good luck.”
James tucked the folder under one arm to meet the gesture with the other hand. Stark, unnatural black against brown. “Thank you.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this.” She smiled, showing him to the door, and James felt a thrill of relief that the meeting was finally at its end. “Let’s hope it works out.”
James waited anxiously in the elevator of an urban apartment building, bundled up as usual, leaning on his cane.
“Be patient,” he sighed, reminding himself what Richard and Sue had said when he had asked them for advice on how to face his parents. How to tell them what he had been through and what he had done. “Be kind. Maintain your boundaries.”
He fidgeted with his knit beanie as the elevator arrived on the sixth floor and he stepped out. The sage-colored walls and white wainscoting brought back countless memories, impressions of leaving and returning through the corridor for errands, days shadowing his father at the university, the occasional onsite college course, feeling endlessly cooped up behind the door at the end of the hall.
His last presence there had ended in a fierce argument. They had tried to discourage him from accepting a permanent robotics position at Larkspur, believing instead he should seek out something with more biomedical leanings, following in his father’s footsteps. There had been threats, guilt, attempts to claw down the tiny spark of independence James had cultivated for himself. He had left, fuming, swearing he would never come back, that he would never speak to them again, never give them another second of his life.
How tangled up things had been in his head back then. He had convinced himself he was free of them, while he still scrambled, privately, dangerously, to please the version of them he carried around in his own mind.
He had grown bitter, isolated, and he had been content with that, believing it a necessity. He thought that everything he had been through should have made this easier, but he felt more and more unprepared as he neared their door, as if with every step, he regressed one year. Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen…
He stood at the door, his heart pounding in his chest. He took several long, steadying breaths, and solemnly pressed the doorbell.
Brisk footsteps came up the wood entryway. His mother, he guessed. Everything she did was calculated and well-timed. A tightness crept up into his throat as he waited.
The door opened, revealing Allison Siles’ thin frame and hazel eyes, her expression both worried and relieved. Now that James was lucid and could see her clearly, he noticed she looked older somehow. Strained, exhausted.
The year he’d been away had not been kind to any of them.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hi, Mom,” he managed.
“Please come in,” she stepped aside and James entered. His dad was standing up from a recliner in the living room, coming over to receive him.
“James,” Jonathan said, extending a hand.
James accepted it, thinking how he used to think this formality, this awkwardness, was normal. That everyone’s family was like this. He realized that even though his parents were controlling and cold, he had hurt them when he had shut them out. He had wanted to hurt them, revenge for all the times they had made him feel stupid and childish and small. For all the times they had reprimanded him for his fears, overrun his needs. Even when he had tried to put his foot down, they were so good at uprooting him.
He worried now that they would pressure him, and he would give. Either they controlled him or he couldn’t have a relationship with them, and he wanted better than that.
As he left his cane by the door and took a seat in the living room, his mother strode off to the kitchen, volunteering to make tea.
James clasped his hands on his knees. Awkward silence closed in between him and his father. They sat still, listening to the sounds of the sink turning on, mugs clinking as Allison took them out of the cupboard.
It struck him how similar he and his dad looked in that moment: drained, cold, trying to heal. They were even almost sitting the same way, hands on knees.
“So, uh,” James spoke up, surreptitiously trying to find a different way to position himself. “How many treatments do you have left?”
“Twelve,” his father said.
“And it’s still working?” James fumbled. “I mean, you’re going to be okay?”
“Seems that way.”
James nodded, his gaze on his hands in his lap. “Good.”
“And you?” Jonathan said. “Going to pull through?”
“I think so,” James said. “I finally went to the doctor to get checked out. My metabolism’s messed up, among other things, but it’s showing signs of stabilizing.”
After his meeting with Varnet, when it seemed Benson wouldn’t swoop in and drag him back to whatever borrowed lab space currently harbored Empetrum, James went to take stock of his medical situation. He had come home from the doctor with a laundry list of afflictions and went straight to bed with an electric blanket. At least he was improving, however slowly, though it wasn’t likely his health would ever return to what it was before the Q-13.
Jonathan nodded. “Good to hear you’re stabilizing.”
James nodded too.
Allison joined them while the kettle heated.
In the hushed silence, perforated only by the ticking of the clock on the wall, James gathered his nerves and said, “I’m sorry I shut you out. I didn’t know what else I could do at the time.”
Jonathan tried to smile. “We deserved it, didn’t we?” He paused, then grew serious and uncertain. “When I was in the hospital, all I could think about was how hard we pushed you. How—” He faltered. “How scared you were of me…”
James remained silent. He still wasn’t used to his parents admitting mistakes. The Jonathan and Allison of his past simply rationalized situations and stood their ground until James couldn’t think of any more rebuttals, even if they knew they were wrong.
“I’m ready to tell you what happened,” James said finally. “Just, before I get into it, I want you to know that it’s been handled, and I’m taking the steps forward that I feel are necessary. I ask that you honor my choices.”
There was a long silence. James’ heart thudded hard in his chest, throbbing in his ears.
“Okay,” Jonathan said. Allison nodded. The kettle started to whistle, making James jump.
He felt a pull from his scars and at first he thought it was just a minor twinge, but then his arms started going cold. He stood up with a thrill of panic.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said, his voice ticked up a notch. He retreated down the hallway, shut himself in the bathroom, and braced his hands on the counter, trying to breathe.
“You’re fine,” he whispered. “You’re okay.” He ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s not that hard to say. ‘I built you a machine.’” He couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t. “‘It was the wrong answer but I wasn’t ready to face you without it.’”
The Q-13 hurt enough that he thought he might have started glowing, but he was afraid to open his eyes, to see himself as he was in a mirror that had known him as a child. That bore witness to what he had become. When he was much younger, he’d had a strange idea that perhaps mirrors recorded what happened in front of them, and could betray his most private moments to those who knew how to access them. Even back then, he knew it was crazy, but he felt like his parents somehow could.
He clenched his hands into fists, breathing deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth. Finally, hesitantly, he opened his eyes. The marks weren’t glowing, but his irises were.
He stared into them, trying to see himself in them. Trying to imagine what the Brophys saw when they looked into them. It was still hard for him to see past the surface, past the gaze of a monster that had gotten what it deserved.
James kept thinking of his outward scars as his misdeeds branded into his skin, a testament to his cowardice and failure. But he knew they were a byproduct of his efforts to make things right. The Q-13 was a punishment he had harnessed to free himself and help his friends. The marks were a badge of courage, not of shame.
He allowed himself a few more minutes, waiting for his pulse to calm down, for the pain to ebb. There was nothing he could do about the glowing. When his eyes did that, he had found, it usually persisted, and he could only hope it wasn’t noticeable in the light.
He took another breath, straightened his shoulders, and forced himself to open the door, to go back to face his parents.
A cup of tea waited on the coffee table for him, and he was surprised by its cream-like quality. When James was a child, he preferred it this way, with milk and sugar, but his mother had always given it to him black. It was more grown up, she used to say.
He stiffly lowered himself onto the couch before it, and took the warm mug in his hands. He thanked her, his throat tight, and they all sat in silence. He expected his parents to speak up, to prod the conversation forward, but they didn’t. They didn’t take command of the situation. They waited for him to initiate. He wondered if the Brophys had been secretly coaching them as well.
James took a sip of tea. It didn’t matter how they reacted, he told himself. What mattered was that he was taking the step to let them in of his own volition, and they were finally giving him the space to decide.
He considered telling them he wasn’t ready after all, and was going to hold onto the truth for a while longer. Except he didn’t want to. He wanted them to know, as much as he feared it. He knew he would never have a relationship with his mom and dad like Heather had with hers, but through them, James had caught a glimpse of the possibilities. Of what could be, in whatever form that took with his pragmatic, formal parents.
Finally, staring at the mug in his hands, James said, “I’m sorry, this is very hard for me. But I’ll do my best to explain it.”
“Take your time, James,” Jonathan said, settling in. “We’ve already waited this long. A few more minutes won’t kill us.”
James scoffed unsteadily. “Well, brace yourselves, I guess.” He spent a few moments more, taking slow breaths, considering where to begin. “When you called, Mom, to tell me Dad had cancer, I wasn’t ready to see either of you. But I did want to help somehow, to buy more time. I came up with an idea for a machine, and over the next month or so, I figured out how to make it work.”
As he talked, his parents sat still, their attention undivided. He expected interjection, unsolicited instruction, deep, volatile disappointment, but they just sat and listened. Surprised, maybe even horrified. He got to the part about the Q-13, and he steeled himself for the moment where all this just became too complex, too improbable. When one of them would tell him to stop lying and tell them the truth.
But they didn’t ask for that. They seemed to accept his narrative as it was.
“So those black marks,” his mother spoke up during a lull in his account. “The sickness you had…”
James nodded and took a drink of tea to soothe his dry throat. “Q-13. My body was acclimating. Seems like it almost didn’t.”
When no other questions followed, he finished his story, quietly, and was met with a long silence.
“I’m sorry, James,” Allison said finally.
James leaned forward, setting his mug down. He rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. He couldn’t believe he’d made it all the way through.
“It’s unfortunate organorobotic transference was too easily abused,” Jonathan said. He hesitated. “You really made that machine for me?”
James nodded. His stomach was in knots, and shame sat heavy and suffocating in his chest.
“Wow…” Jonathan said quietly, humbly.
James carefully sat up, beginning to massage his aching hands. “Well, I figure life is just too fragile for grudges, isn’t it?”
His parents looked at each other.
His mother managed a smile. “Yes,” she said, tucking a strand of straight brown hair behind her ear. “It certainly is.”
October thirtieth was Heather’s sixteenth birthday, and she didn’t feel like celebrating. The whole month had been transition after transition, millions of reminders she railed dutifully against, refusing to give in to the feeling that James’ selfish mistakes would define the rest of her life.
She had spent so much time over the last few weeks trying to figure out how to reintroduce herself to the new form her life had taken—breaking the news to loved ones and trying to get them to believe her, still wanting school and a social life, college, a career. A spouse and family of her own down the road.
How did a mechanical body process trauma? Could robots go to therapy?
Her human face stared back at her from all the photos on the walls downstairs. Eventually, she had asked if they could put them away. Her parents honored her request, but it felt like a defeat.
They replaced her bed with a futon and set up a charging station nearby. It felt better to her that way. Her parents bought a generator strong enough to support both her and Sesame’s energy needs in the event of a power outage, in preparation for winter. She couldn’t use touch screen cellphones, so she traded hers for an older model with buttons.
Her old clothes were too big for her now. After weeks of trying to make it work, her parents shyly suggested updating her wardrobe, which set her into a whole new wave of grief and denial. Having to reorient her life around her hijacked robotic body felt like a steady stream of failings, staring into the endless abyss of a future that confused and scared and disappointed her. She wanted to like going outside, but she felt so odd and wrong in public, and inevitably drew suspicion everywhere she went. The locals of Knights Bridge were very acquainted with Larkspur’s tumultuous past, and didn’t appreciate its weird science leaking back into their town.
James and Sesame stayed with them while James got back on his feet, looking for work and housing, and got used to managing his condition. He was getting his color back, save for the black marks, which remained darker than ever.
They were all hopeful that the effects of the Q-13 would fade, and perhaps, in time, leave his system altogether. She still feared, privately, that they would lose him, but every day he hung on, improving little by little. She tried to be grateful for every day they had him.
He had grown quiet over the recent month, and had become someone she could talk with about anything. They both intended to live, and they promised to help each other in that ongoing goal.
In the days leading up to her sixteenth birthday, it occurred to her that she could think of it as a rebirth. A rising from the ashes.
But it was so hard to make those thoughts stick, as, minutes before a modest party was to take place, she stood alone in her bedroom in front of the mirror, taking in the sight of a robot in a short floral sundress.
Trying to play human.
She wanted to just give up and don the usual running shorts and t-shirt combo she’d worn almost exclusively since coming home. It felt makeshift, appropriate for something like her. Existing and okay, but not trying for more. Not expecting any more than okay.
She had just made up her mind to abandon the dress when Sesame poked his head in. He gasped in delight, preferring to make it mimic a human gasp. He did the same thing with sighs, while Heather didn’t see the point in imitation.
She resented that she had to mimic to express herself the way she had before.
“What?” Heather turned away and made for the futon, where her shorts and t-shirt lay waiting. She picked up the latter. “I’m not wearing this downstairs.”
“What do you mean?” Sesame declared. “It’s adorable!”
Heather paused at the futon, squeezing the shirt in her robotic hands. Sesame always thought everything was great. His body didn’t make him feel ugly or wrong or lost.
She shook her head.
“I’ll get James,” he said. “Second opinion. You’ll see.”
“No.” Heather turned. Sesame stopped in the doorway. She sat down on the futon, tossed the shirt aside, and hid her face in her hands. “Please don’t.”
There was a pause. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just—it doesn’t fit. Nothing fits…” she curled forward, her voice fizzling and quiet. “It’s always just me, trying to shove myself back into a dead girl’s life. It’s so gross.”
She felt Sesame take a seat beside her. “But this is your life, and you aren’t dead.”
“I might as well be.”
Another pause. Then, matter-of-factly, Sesame said, “Well, then it’s all right for you to wear a cute dress on your birthday.”
Heather buzzed a short, emotional scoff. “How is that?”
“If you might as well be dead, then you equally might as well live,” Sesame said. “You want to live, right?”
“Well, yeah…” Heather’s gaze fell. “It’s just hard to see the point of all this trying.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he said, offering a smile. “You have us. We’ll all figure it out together.”
Heather cracked a wan smile back.
He got up, took her hands in his and pulled her up too. “Let’s go downstairs.”
She hesitated, but let herself be led out of the room. It was somehow easier than appearing by herself at the top of the stairs.
“Are you sure this is okay?” she asked, keeping the volume of her voice very low just before they emerged where everyone else could see her.
“Of course it is,” Sesame said, smiling.
It was a small gathering, just her parents and James and Sesame. Sue had James planted at the kitchen table, folding multicolored streamers into each other, making an origami ribbon to hang from the ceiling like a chandelier. Her parents were cooking. She had encouraged them to make a dinner out of it, even though she wouldn’t be able to eat it. After three months without her organic body, she was beginning to lose her taste for it, anyway.
Her joining the group was unassuming, with little fanfare, and it somehow reminded her all over again why she loved these people.
Her mom broke off from party preparations to give her a hug. “I love that dress,” she said.
“Thanks,” Heather said, embarrassed. It was a dress she’d gotten when she was organic. It had an elastic bodice and a gathered skirt, so it fit her even in her new form.
When they sat down to dinner, her parents set a small wrapped box in front of her. She hesitated.
“Open it,” her dad said, smiling.
Heather gingerly pulled off the top. Inside was a plastic frame that contained a small bundle of soft blue polymer. She unfolded what looked like the beginnings of a glove, with two finger sleeves and a strip that hung down, ending in a soft open ring. Wires laced the device.
“What is it?” she asked, looking between James and her dad.
“A prototype,” Richard said. “It’s embedded with hundreds of tiny temperature and pressure sensors. We wanted to start experimenting with creating sensation. James built the program, and Addie steamheaded the nanotechnology parts of it, as is her specialty.”
Heather smiled. “Can I try it out?”
“Please do,” Richard said.
She slipped her right hand through the loop at the bottom, inserting her first two fingers into the sleeves. She unwound the long, thin cord, locating the end. “Does this go in my head?”
“Yes.” James stood up, carefully. “May I?”
Heather opened up her cranial panels as he came over, and passed him the end of the cord. He craned his hands into her head and she felt a push as he inserted the cord into one of the ports in her neural network.
“We tested this on Sesame,” he said, making sure the cord wasn’t caught on anything. Heather felt a connection, and a thrill of pins and needles bloomed in the cloth over her hand. “It’s a little buggy still, but it’s on its way.”
Heather slowly curled her hand into a fist. The sensation wasn’t nearly as sensitive as she remembered in her organic body, and it was anchored in a thinner medium so it didn’t exactly feel “real.” Not yet, anyway. But it was much more sensitive than she’d grown accustomed to in her body as it was.
Fascinated, she pressed her two covered fingers to the table. It was cool to the touch. She reached out for James’ hand. It was warmer. She pulled his mug of tea closer to her, pressing her hand against it. It was hot, though the sensation was devoid of the comfort she used to feel from cupping her hands around a hot drink. She no longer had a body that preferred a narrow temperature range. Feeling pleasure from warmth would be something they’d have to program in if she wanted it, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized how incredibly complex a task it would be to build her a body that felt even remotely like her rightful one.
“What do you think?” Richard asked.
Heather smiled at the device on her hand. “It’s amazing. Thank you.”
“Our goal is to have your body done by the fall next year,” Richard said. “So you can go to school, like you’d mentioned.”
She looked up, surprised. “Really?”
“I’m worried, though,” she said. “If the Bureau’s paying for it, doesn’t that mean the work we do will belong to them, and, by association, the government? I know you were wanting to take Larkspur private whenever possible…”
“We considered that,” Richard said, standing up. He retrieved a black folder from the home office and handed it to her. It was a legal document. “We got it in writing. The Bureau is paying for it, but the technology belongs to its developers. Namely, us, and the other Larkspur engineers.”
“We wanted to make sure we were free to build upon and develop the technology,” James said. “As well as to maintain it, even if Larkspur decides to privatize.”
“Plans we purposefully neglected to bring up,” Richard said. “Though Dhar’s probably suspecting it, considering the situation.”
James nodded. “And while this isn’t a guarantee that the government won’t overrun it, it’s more protection than we would have had otherwise.”
Sue scoffed. “Instead of depending on their ‘good will’ alone.”
James cracked a cynical smile at Heather’s mom in agreement.
Heather’s gaze fell. She flipped through the document, skimming the tightly typed pages of definitions, guidelines, and technicalities, committing them to memory. She wanted to ask why they were going through all this trouble for her, why she deserved to be one of the rare recipients of federal restitution.
It was because of Eve, she knew. Eve and Dhar went way back. She wasn’t sure exactly how far back, or why Larkspur was allowed to operate how it did while Empetrum was under so much pressure in the human weaponry sphere, as Dhar had mentioned. She supposed she’d never know completely.
Instead of voicing any of these questions, she cracked a sideways smile, as best as she could with her simplistic, robotic face, and said, “Mr. Dhar must feel really bad about this.”
James felt like he was trespassing as he walked across the Larkspur lobby with Richard and Heather. His notebook was already saturated with ideas and he was eager to get a head start before beginning orientation at the ICNS only a few short days away.
He had carpooled with the Brophys, even though, miraculously, he’d gotten his car back from Empetrum. He had received an email from a local storage company saying he had one month to collect his possessions. When he’d wandered over to the location to see whether it was legitimate or not, he had been given two keys: one to an auto unit and the other to one that he had found contained everything from his apartment, including a few extra boxes from his housing at Empetrum.
Varnet must have ordered Benson to give his stuff back. He took it as a good omen.
James’ thoughts were interrupted by an arm catching him around the head, and he uttered a soft yelp of surprise.
“Long time no see!” Greg said affably. James felt his knit hat being pulled off. “Hey, your hair’s growing back.”
“Yeah.” James pushed up on Greg’s arm and his former colleague released him.
Greg handed his hat back. “Is it fireproof now?”
“Yes,” James said, pulling the beanie back on. The question of his altered physiology had gotten to him one day and he’d finally grown enough of his hair back to try it. He had figured out how to activate the Q-13 in just one hand and pinched the top of his hair. It hadn’t even singed.
He had found, in fact, that he was impervious to heat damage in general, not just the Q-13’s fire. Later that same day, Sue had walked in on him curiously placing his palm onto a red hot stovetop burner. That hadn’t blown over well with her.
Greg nodded. “Good, good.” He moved on to greet Richard and Heather.
James paused in fixing his hat, watching them chat. He felt like he must be dreaming. A month ago, after managing to stay alive, he was bracing himself to start over from scratch, disconnected from everything he had valued. He still felt a small, panicky tightness in his chest to be standing among his old colleagues, like he’d somehow assumed it was all right to come along when everyone was actually still waiting for him to get lost. Robotics had become a sore, complicated wound in his soul, but the chance to help build Heather’s organic-passing body felt like a step in a positive direction. He was grateful for the opportunity.
It made him feel like maybe he could face the ICNS.
James hunched his shoulders against the late November cold as he walked to his car in the ICNS parking lot. The last month of training had thoroughly worn him out, and he was already lining up his plan of action: sleep off the last month at the Brophy’s house and then devote all his energy to working on Heather’s body before he had to get situated in an apartment in the capital and prepare lesson plans for the recruits.
The capital was an hour from Larkspur, so once classes started in a little over a month, it would be more difficult to collaborate in person, especially with the added barrier of chronic pain and fatigue he still battled with the Q-13.
Pushing the folder containing his teaching certification under his arm, he searched for his keys with the other gloved hand, eager to get back to his found family, where there were tea, electric blankets, and moral support. Living alone in temporary housing near the ICNS for a month had been tougher than he’d expected. He had always been perfectly happy living alone before.
Completely unprompted, Sesame had volunteered to live with him in the capital. When asked if he wouldn’t rather stay with Heather, the little robot’s reply was, “Somebody’s gotta make sure you eat food and come home once in a while.”
As James unlocked his car, he smiled to himself, remembering.
Someone called out behind him, making him jump. It was a voice that still appeared in his nightmares, that haunted his waking thoughts, “Of all things, I really didn’t expect this from you, Siles.”
James whipped around in fear. The Q-13 affronted his left eye with light as his body instinctively braced itself for defense. The director of Empetrum approached, calmly, his hands in the pockets of his coat and a tired, exasperated expression on his face.
James covered the glowing stripe on his cheek with his hand. “What do you want?”
“Simply to ask what you’re playing at,” Benson said, scorn in his gray eyes. James hadn’t seen him since Heather had destroyed his lab. The wound on his cheek had mostly healed, leaving a thin, silver scar. “You’re lucky Varnet doesn’t like me very much. Otherwise, your little interview last month would have gone very differently.”
James’ careful exhales billowed into the chill air before dissipating away. Relief washed through him as the Q-13 started to calm down and the sharp pain began to fade.
“Getting a proper handle on it, I see,” Benson remarked. “That’s probably a good thing.”
“What’s happening with Empetrum these days?” James asked, warily.
Benson scoffed. “Like I’d tell you.” He crossed his arms. “I know you’re here to try to get in the way.”
James pulled his scarf closer. “Not necessarily.”
“Oh, right, it was because you wanted to be moral support.” Benson made quotations with his fingers. “You know Varnet didn’t hire you because she appreciates your bleeding heart, right?”
Benson paused, studying him for a moment. James stood his ground.
“You are still so young,” Benson said. “Someday, you’ll have finally grown up enough to realize how childish and futile this savior complex of yours is.”
“What do you mean by that?” James said, his eyebrows lowering. He felt the Q-13 stirring again, and he tightened his grip on his scarf. The weather suddenly felt colder, cruel and frigid.
“You can’t move forward without getting your hands dirty,” Benson said. “Progress doesn’t happen that way. You don’t happen that way.” He readjusted his glasses. “Soon enough, your honeymoon with the Brophys will end, and the person you are is still in there, waiting to resurface. You will still crave everything you left behind to try to follow their ideals, and Brophy and his daughter will try to stand in your way when you inevitably start to deviate. They’ll disapprove of your ideas, call you obsessed. They’ll try to force you to slow down, and you will grow to resent their small-mindedness. Mark my words, Siles. Something else will come up, something you can’t resist. And I look forward to watching you turn.”
James shook his head, fear pounding in his ears. He clutched his keys close to his chest. The black in his skin throbbed, close to tipping, and his gaze fell to his shoes on the cold, rain-soaked pavement, waiting for the sting of Benson’s prediction to wear off. It kept occurring to him over and over again that the unassuming, soft-spoken person before him had tried to kill him, and had almost succeeded. Some days it felt like he had dreamt the whole thing.
You will regret crossing me, coward, James frequently heard those words at the back of his mind, as clear as if Benson were repeating them himself. If you survive this, you will regret it every day for the rest of your wretched, wasted life.
“I’m not that person anymore,” James said. He opened his car door. “Thank you for returning my belongings. And for leaving us alone.”
Benson glanced aside, aloof. “Well, I didn’t want them. Didn’t care to invite any more of Dhar’s wrath, anyway.”
“So there was disciplinary action?” James said.
Benson cracked a wan, bitter smile, his gaze flicking back to James’. “Now that, is none of your business.”
James shrugged and stiffly climbed into his car. “See you in January, Dr. Benson.”
Benson tilted his head in concession.
James shut the door, started the engine with shaking hands, and left the ICNS, refusing to glance in his rearview mirror until he was at least several streets removed. He turned the heat in his car on full blast and tried to get himself to relax in time to merge onto the freeway.
He didn’t really have to work with Benson, he reminded himself. He was working with the recruits, answering to Varnet. He’d have to put up with a monthly Q-13 checkup, but he was otherwise free of Empetrum.
James’ life was his own. Not wretched, not wasted.
The ringing of his cell phone chimed through his stereo speakers. The display read “Heather.” He pushed a button on the console to answer it, excited to tell her he was finally on his way.
Sesame volunteered to ring the doorbell. James stood beside him, a short stack of boxes balanced in one arm, a large wrapped bowl in the other, and a duffle bag with his cane in the strap hanging from one shoulder. They were staying the weekend.
The soft tone sounded behind the door, and James tried to ignore the cold seeping through all his layers, including the bulky knit scarf pulled up over his chin.
Was this okay? he still wanted to ask Sesame. No matter what the Brophys said, or how much time he had spent with them, was James’ presence here really okay?
Sesame stepped back, fixing his bright turquoise sweater. He flashed an eager smile up at James.
The door opened, revealing Heather’s smiling robotic face. “Hey!”
James smiled back as she invited them in. “Hi.”
Heather gave them each a hug. James awkwardly attempted to return the greeting with his arms full.
“Can I put the presents under the tree?” James asked, nudging the door shut with his foot.
“Yeah.” Heather eyed the boxes. “You got us presents?”
“Of course!” Sesame cried. “We went to a big shopping center in the capital and James didn’t like any of my gift ideas.”
“I didn’t turn all of them down,” James said.
Heather paused. “You both went to a mall?” In an enclosed space, with hundreds of people that might see, might get curious.
Sesame nodded. He pulled up the collar of his sweater to illustrate as he said, “I had my hood up and kept my face turned off if people were looking. We don’t get approached that way. I think people think it’s a mask.” He tipped his head back. “James is still so uncomfortable in public.”
“No, I’m not,” James protested, embarrassed.
Not attracting attention among civilians was still an unmastered art for all of them. When they did get approached by strangers, Sesame was the first to tell them he was simply A.I. on a test drive. He even made his voice sound a little disjointed, and purposefully neglected to respond to social cues, as if he weren’t nearly as self-aware as he actually was.
The world just wasn’t ready for hybridized A.I., for human weaponry. Though, ready or not, everything Empetrum had prepared was about to crash land into the public eye. James could feel it growing nearer every day.
“You’ll find something over there for each of you two as well,” Richard called from the kitchen, and Sesame gasped in delight.
James handed Sesame the boxes. He maneuvered the bag from his shoulder and slipped off his shoes, heading toward the kitchen. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Richard turned his attention away from the stove to smile at him. “Of course we did! You’re part of the family.” He reached out for the bowl in James’ hands. “Oh the salad, thank you.” He took a closer look at it as James handed it over. “Tangerines and almond slices too? Looks great, James.”
“That was Sesame’s idea,” James said, rubbing the back of his neck. “He has way more talent for food preparation than I do.”
Richard laughed, stowing the salad in the fridge to wait for dinner. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
Sue emerged from upstairs. “I thought I heard a couple of new voices,” she said. She pulled James into a gentle side hug. “How are your parents?”
“They’re good,” James said. He had gotten together with them the day before for a little holiday celebration of their own. It was still awkward with them, but it was getting easier.
“I just finished making mulled wine, if you want some,” Richard said. He gestured at the stove. “You’re twenty-one now, so you have to try it.”
“Okay, sure.” James cracked a shy smile. “Thanks.”
He backtracked to retrieve his duffle bag and cane from the door and carry them down the hallway to the guest room, which had been prepared for him. He could hear Sesame telling Heather what the two of them had been up to since the last time they had talked, how they had figured out that applying heat helped James when he was having an episode, which was good because James said he didn’t want to make the neighbors at their apartment suspicious or burn holes through the floor. He could normally make it go away, but if it got bad, he could stand under the cold shower. They kept a bucket of water ready in the refrigerator just in case and one time Sesame had to douse James in the kitchen and James was mad but Sesame was pretty sure it was at himself for not being able to control it…
James heaved a sigh and dropped his belongings by the bed.
“Hey—Sesame, I haven’t had an episode in at least a week and a half,” James said as he reemerged from the hallway. “And I’m better able to control it than before.” Richard handed him a mug, catching him off guard. “Oh—thanks.”
Richard turned down the stove and ladled some wine for Sue, then himself.
“Do you want any help with dinner?” James asked. The mug warmed his hands. Whatever was in the oven smelled amazing, and there was a covered bowl of something in the microwave.
“We’re fine.” Richard waved him into the living room. “Go ahead and relax. The main course has a few minutes left in the oven, and then we’ll be all set.”
James took a sip of wine. He paused and looked at it. It was sweet and dark, with cinnamon, orange peels, and cloves, and a warm bite that reminded him of cough syrup. Wine was an acquired taste, he thought.
“What do you think?” Richard asked.
“It’s good,” James said, and cleared his throat. Sue laughed.
“You get used to it,” she said. She moved toward the living room to greet Sesame, who was admiring the Christmas tree. Heather was telling him stories about some of the ornaments.
James glanced at Richard, who made a gentle shooing motion toward the living room. James wandered over and sat down on the couch, trying not to immediately doze off in the soft cushions while he listened to the conversation around the tree. It had been a busy week of planning. He couldn’t believe his start date was so near.
He hadn’t seen much of the recruits while he was training. They were on a tight schedule on the upper levels of the facility, while James’ activities mostly stayed on the first floor. He hoped they wouldn’t remember him. His first impression had been awkward: an exhausted, traumatized Empetrum scientist watching them from afar with what James suspected had been an expression of thinly-veiled horror.
Heather took a seat next to him. “So? How are you feeling about starting in a week?”
“Very nervous,” James said quietly, staring into his cup of mulled wine. “I hope they like me…”
“They will.” Heather offered a reassuring smile as she leaned back into the cushions.
“I can’t believe I consented to spend any time around Benson.”
“I’m glad Varnet’s standing between you and him,” Heather said. “Sounds like Benson doesn’t hold a lot of direct influence in her domain, despite everything.”
James nodded, troubled. When they were trapped there, it had felt like Empetrum controlled the whole world.
“You’ll be okay,” Heather said. She shifted position and laid her head against his arm. “Empetrum has no power over you anymore. And you have us now.”
James swallowed and nodded again. He sighed. “So, what did you study this week?”
Heather had been teaching herself engineering, so she could be helpful in building her new body. James suspected she would build the whole thing herself to avoid being fussed over, if they let her.
“Started some electrical engineering 101,” she said, nonchalant. “A little coding too.”
James nodded. “I think I still have some of my textbooks and notes from my college classes if you’d like me to bring them over.”
“Sure,” Heather said. “Thanks. Absorbing the information is easy, but applying it is harder. Physics for mechanical engineering has been a trip.”
Whenever he went over to the Brophy’s house, a new stack of library books often towered on the table by the door. With how quickly her neural network integrated information, he thought she would probably be bored in school, but he would never tell her that. He knew it wasn’t about the education. It was about life, community. The chance to choose where she would spend her time and energy, to build a future.
The prospect of said future was intimidating for all of them. There could be a great deal of trouble ahead, with Larkspur trying to privatize, building Heather a body that not only looked, but felt real, and with James working at the ICNS while loosely connected with the rebellion.
Before his certification training at the ICNS and his move into an offsite apartment in the capital when his activities would become easier to track, he had driven out to Erika’s house in the country to meet with her and the Conxence member who called himself Ganymede, to discuss the particulars of Empetrum and the ICNS. Their conversation was private, off the grid and out of earshot of any electronic devices. Ganymede wore a black surgical mask and a baseball cap, upon James’ request that he remain as anonymous as possible.
James appreciated the rebellion’s willingness to fight for them, and hoped the information he offered could help them safely navigate the situation with the ICNS recruits. Once James started at the ICNS, all contact with the rebellion would have to cease, and if Varnet ever found out the Conxence knew as much as they now did, she’d know exactly who was responsible.
Richard joined them in the den. Their conversation meandered from one subject to the next, with banter and laughter, and James sat there in the midst of it, quietly trying to lay out the variables in his own mind. To string them together, figure out how the culmination of his mistakes could have landed him here. How this was even an option.
Benson’s ominous prediction lurked continually in the corners of his mind. Reversion felt impossible, but he was terrified of its potential. Like Heather had said, old habits die hard.
He only knew he would do anything in his power to make it up to the Brophys, to protect them, to fight for them, to strive to become someone worthy of their care. On some level, he would always be chasing recompense. He felt like he was starting over in completely new territory, and he had very little to offer, nothing he could promise with confidence.
All he could do, the only thing that felt appropriate in that moment, was to be there, gratefully. In the cordial glow of holiday lights, enjoying the company of his loved ones undeserved, a soft smile stole unbidden across his features, and he let it linger.
Maybe, for now, this was enough.