Dr. Vidali gently dabbed a wet cloth on the burns on VTI-2’s neck, making sure they weren’t too severe before wrapping them in soft bandages. VTI-2 swung her feet, calmly nibbling on a lollipop as he examined a bruise on the back of her neck. “VTI-2, what happened here?” he asked, typing something into a computer.
“She says she was playing with her new family and tripped down the stairs,” Australia said. Dr. Vidali sighed, pressing down on the bruise and taking notes as VTI-2 flinched.
“Well, I’ll talk to them about being more careful with her,” he said, taking a blood sample just in case it was a symptom of something else. The six year old had a bandage wrapped around her head from an earlier surgery and Dr. Vidali unwound it, checking the incision site for any sort of bleeding or trauma thanks to the fall. Finding nothing, he cleaned out the wound another time before applying a new bandage. “Her second surgery is scheduled for tonight,” he said, zipping up the sleeve of her white jumpsuit and scanning the barcode on it.
“She wants to know if it’ll hurt,” Australia said and VTI-2 nodded, curling up next to him. Dr. Vidali shook his head.
“We’ll give her sedatives and some topical anesthetic before the brain surgery and then put her completely under for the rest,” Dr. Vidali said. “It’ll hurt a bit after, but she’ll get some painkillers then,” he added, helping VTI-2 to lie back down. Australia stayed next to her, still holding her hand.
“Like I’ve told you since we were kids, the future is in cybernetics, not your little alphabet gene games,” a woman said, stepping into the room. Dr. Vidali sighed, pulling off his gloves and turning to look at her.
“And I’ve told you, as incredible as your little games with nuts and bolts are, you can’t implant chips in everyone,” Dr. Vidali said, taking out a chair and sitting down next to the hospital bed before looking at Dr. Kal.
“Yes we can,” Dr. Kal said simply, going over and crouching down close to VTI-2. “Hi there!” she said warmly, waving to her. VTI-2 waved back, nibbing on the fingernails of her good hand. “Are you excited, hum? We’re going to take you over to the institute for a little bit and you’ll meet lots of new friends.”
“VTI-2 wants to know if I can come too,” Australia said quietly, squeezing her hand. Dr. Kal glanced over at Dr. Vidali, who shrugged.
“Well, if your mother signs off on it, then yes, you can come,” she said. She connected her tablet wirelessly to the table in the center of the room and projected a little figure that looked a bit like VTI-2. “So, you said the damage was to the periphery nerves in her arm and portions of her brain?”
“Yes,” Dr. Vidali said, looking a bit defensive. A few weeks earlier, VTI-2, Sarmin, and Australia had gotten away from their minders and into the marine life laboratories, where they’d met Hal.
Hal was a genetically engineered jellyfish that injected and secreted dangerous neurotoxins onto and into anyone that dared to touch him.
VTI-2 didn’t know that.
What she knew was that he looked lonely, so she’d given him a hug. A few screams, a quick rescue by Australia, and an infirmary visit later; they’d opted to try organic replacements, first by using donor nerves and next by using nerves grown from VTI-2’s stem cells. The neurotoxins had destroyed the transplants and infected her bloodstream, causing more damage than the doctors at the National Institute for Human Genetic Research could handle on their own. So, with a good deal of reluctance, they’d turned to their rivals, sometimes allies, and colleagues at the National Institute for Cybernetic and Robotics Research. The scientists at the cybernetics institute had agreed to enroll VTI-2 in one of their experimental programs, which meant that night she’d be travelling to the other facility.
“Well, we’ll be starting by removing the damaged arm,” Dr. Kal said, gesturing to the image. “We are going to be replacing it with an enhanced model, meaning we’re also going to be reinforcing her spine,” she continued, bringing up an image of the arm they were going to attach. It had a silvery base with a swirly gold and jeweled design. “We’ll infuse the gems with magic in order to keep the limb in a good working condition,” she added.
“Pretty,” Australia whispered and VTI-2 nodded.
“Indeed,” Dr. Kal said. “From there, we’re going to move to her eyes for the experimental portion and replace her retinas with cybernetic versions. There’ll be a wifi hotspot in her arm, enabling her to use the cybernetics in her eyes to send messages, go on the internet, receive alerts, and generally what one would use a tablet for.”
Will I be able to see bunnies? America asked, touching Dr. Kal’s hand.
“If you wish,” Dr. Kal said. “Then we’ll move on to her brain. We’re going to be removing the damaged portions and replacing them with new, enhanced cybernetic models as well as connecting the sensors in her arm and eyes to her brain. Since we’ll already be in there, and, I mean, why waste operating table space, we’ll make sure that the new portions function more efficiently and with more resilience than the old ones. From there, we can finish up by adding in the necessary spinal reinforcements!”
“Don’t be so flippant about this,” Dr. Vidali said, giving Dr. Kal a long look. “VTI-2’s brain is worth millions to this institute, we’ve been—“
“If it’s worth so much, why is it damaged so easily?” Dr. Kal asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Because that’s how organic material works,” Dr. Vidali sighed.
“Well, if it was cybernetic, a jellyfish sting wouldn’t have ended up with little VTI-2 in the hospital, now would it have?” Dr. Kal asked, giving VTI-2 a little smile.
“No, we wouldn’t have needed the jellyfish, a bit of water would have been enough,” Dr. Vidali said and Dr. Kal rolled her eyes.
“Please. Water doesn’t pose a problem to us anymore,” she said, standing up and brushing off her lab coat. She helped VTI-2 into a small wheelchair. “Do you have her things ready?” she asked, glancing over to Dr. Vidali, who nodded.
“All set in the hovercar,” he nodded. He was supposed to go along, since he knew the work that had already been done on VTI-2. She’d been part of the [find experiment group name] designed to perfect level `1-A* genetic enhancement and as such had already undergone multiple surgeries, a few cybernetic, although no experimental cybernetic ones at that point.
After checking with Dr. Shurti, Australia’s adoptive mother, the group headed for the headquarters of the National Institute for Cybernetic and Robotics Research. Located in the Kalendrain countryside, the institute was part of a Kalendrian military based and focused on both civilian and military applications of cybernetic and robotic technology and had been where the first level A android had been developed.
Very shiny, VTI-2 said, holding Australia’s hand as she was wheeled into the institute. The main building was built almost entirely out of glass and silvery spheres in varying sizes zoomed about, carrying information and directing tours around the area. A few scientists in purple lab coats walked past, a group of spheres following them, while robots with varying levels of similarity to humans milled about.
“This is my son, Malan,” Dr. Kal said as a young boy came over, giving his mother a hug before bowing to the group. He looked to be about eight years old and had bracelet with a small barcode on it similar to the one on VTI-2’s jumpsuit.
“Nice to meet you all,” he said.
“And you as well,” Dr. Vidali said, bowing back as VTI-2 and Australia waved.
“Now, we are going to take VTI-2 off to get prepped for surgery, Malan, can you show Australia around?” Dr. Kal asked and Malan nodded.
“I can’t go with her?” Australia asked, his expression fading.
“You’ll be there when she wakes up,” Dr. Kal promised before wheeling a very sad looking VTI-2 away.
“Are you one of her minders?” Malan asked curiously, glancing over at Australia. It was common in some of the larger institutes to assign supervisors to the experiments in order to keep them from getting into trouble. “Mine are all spheres,” he said, glancing to the two silver spheres hovering close to him.
“Oh, no, Sartak and Eve are her minders,” Australia said, glancing to the two people following the doctors away. “Do the spheres talk?” he asked curiously, reaching up and trying to poke one. “Hey!” he huffed as it moved away before swooping down and flying around his head. “Not fair!”
“They only really talk if you’re doing something bad,” Malan said, patting the little sphere. “Well… most only talk then. You hafta watch out for the ones that talk at other times…” he said, lowering his voice.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Australia promised. “Hey, are you an experiment too?” he asked, looking at the barcode.
“Kinda!” Malan said brightly. “I’m an android, level B. My design isn’t really experimental anymore, but I’m part of an experiment to see how androids develop and mature and things. People keep saying I need to watch out for puberty,” he said, suddenly looking worried. “I don’t know what they mean.”
“It’s okay,” Australia said, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m scared about it too.”
“It seems like a weird time,” Malan whispered, looking around.
“Are all the spheres… captive?” Australia asked suddenly, looking up as a tiny one zoomed overhead.
“For the most part!” Malan nodded. “Although sometimes when some of the scientists get bored, they make small ones and let them go around freely. They say whoever catches them can keep them, it’s a pretty good deal!” he said, looking over at Australia. At almost the same time, they boys’ expressions turned into smirks.
“Let’s go sphere hunting.”
A few hours later, in one of the recovery rooms, Dr. Vidali and Dr. Kal looked at each other from across VTI-2’s bed. The girl’s face was pale and she was attached to a ventilator. Her brain function on the monitor behind them was minimal but still there, although that didn’t give Dr. Vidali any cause for celebration.
“I told you—“ he began before cutting off. He ran his hands through his hair before pressing one hand to his mouth and taking in a deep breath. “I told you that you were doing too much too quickly.”
“And I could have concentrated more if you’d stopped trying to tell me so many things,” Dr. Kal hissed, pacing back and forth. “I know what I’m doing, Vidali! As shocking as it may seem to you, I’m actually good at this!”
“Oh, this isn’t about your ego!” Dr. Vidali yelled.
“Oh? So, it’s about how much money I’ve cost NIHGR, right?” Dr. Kal snapped, turning around to face him. “How I’ve ruined one of your pet projects, you always loved to blame me for messing up your little experiments back in school, do you think I’m still a useful scapegoat for your stupidity?! This wouldn’t be the first experiment gone wrong, right? How many of the GXN ones did you have to euthanize?”
“That- they were not under my care,” Dr. Vidali hissed, glaring at her. In the bed between then, VTI-2 groaned weakly, her brain function spiking for a moment before dropping back down. “She- she was a piece of genetic art and you decided that your little ideas had to come before my work yet again!”
“My little ideas?” Dr. Kal demanded. “Oh, I’m not the one that called up a favor because I couldn’t keep my experiments under control! And you could have given VTI-2 a traditional cybernetic replacement, but no, no, the great Dr. Vidali couldn’t handle the idea of one of his prize specimens being so average, now could he?”
“T-that’s not it,” Dr. Vidali said, pointing at her. “That is not it and you know it—“
“Please!” Dr. Kal yelled. “We all know what you’re like, Vidali! 1-A* genetic engineering, it was what you’d always worked for, it was what made you a household name, and you didn’t want to go to whatever your next presentation was going to be with a specimen with average genetic enhancements. You needed something special—“
“And you wanted to provide it!” Dr. Vidali yelled. “It’s not like I came here with a gun to your head and made you slice her open! You wanted to do this, you- you came up with the ideas for what to do! And now you’ve cost me one of my most successful experiments! Do you know how long it’s going to take to go back and start this over? Find a good egg and sperm, reprogram the genetics, monitor the gestation—“
“Come on, it’s takes time, sure, but do you know how much effort what I’m doing takes?!” Dr. Kal demanded. Both doctors by then were so load, VTI-2’s quiet moans and whimpers of pain went unnoticed. “And is that your plan, huh? To just let her go, start again?”
“Of course not!” Dr. Vidali said. “This is far from the worst thing that’s happened to her in the course of our experiment. But you had better be able to fix her or else—“
“Of course I can fix her!” Dr. Kal began before a loud beeping interrupted her thoughts. “Oh—“ she hissed, watching as VTI-2 started to convulse. She quickly turned the girl onto her side, pressing a button to call for help. A few doctors ran in and one pushed Dr. Kal away.
“I heard the yelling,” she said, watching her colleague carefully as the others worked on stabilizing VTI-2. “I know the procedures, I’ll take it from here,” she said. Dr. Kal began to open her mouth, but the other doctor just shook her head. “Both of you, out! You’re acting no better than a group of children fighting over a toy! If you can’t respect the science you do, at least pretend to!” she said before pushing the two doctors out of the room.
“Will… VTI-2 be alright?” Dr. Vidali asked softly, looking back at her.
“We’ll do what we can.”
Meanwhile, a few floors up and completely unaware of what was going on below them, Australia and Malan hid huddled in a small supply closet. Australia clutched a box with a small robosphere close to his chest, unwilling to let it go. It’s for Lala, he told himself. To cheer her up and ‘m not letting some bully take it away from me.
“W-what was the big one called again?” he whispered, looking over at Malan.
“Robespierre,” Malan whispered, a note of deep fear hidden in his voice. Legend had it that years ago, an intern at the cybernetics institute had traveled to another universe to a time of great political turmoil. There, he’d witnessed the death of a great but terrible man and the soul followed him back to the institute, where it had infused itself into the largest of all robospheres. It commanded the fleet of tamed ones, hunting down those that tried to catch the roaming babies.
Malan and Australia jumped back as gunshots sounded from outside.
“T-that i-isnt’ Robespierre, is it?” Australia whimpered and Malan shook his head. “I- I need to get to Lala,” he said, his eyes going wide. She won’t talk to anyone but me if she’s scared, I need to make sure he’s okay—he thought frantically before racing out of the closet, Malan close behind him.
“W-what are you doing?” Malan demanded as they ducked past people trying to usher them into a safe location.
“Need to find Lala!” Australia said. “S-she’ll be scared, I need to protect her!”
“Then I’m coming with you!” Malan said before a man stepped in front of them. He was dressed in a white lab coat, which Australia recognized as tradition in some other countries, although not in his.
“Back in here,” he commanded, shoving them into a small room and not wanting to shoot a bunch of children that had no visible enhancements. “Don’t come out. If you do, I’ll shoot you both in the head.”
“B-but- m-my sister!” Australia protested. The man just pointed the gun at him in reply.
“Go in, or the only you your sister will be seeing is your corpse.”
Down in one of the operating rooms, Dr. Savan had managed to repair the damage to VTI-2’s brain. It hadn’t been too severe an error, just a simple miswiring that caused more issues than expected, and she’d redone the wiring and replaced the remaining damaged tissue before waking VTI-2 up to continue the brain portion of her surgery.
“VTI-2?” she said and the girl weakly squeezed the hand of one of the nurses next to her.
“She says hello,” he said. The doctor nodded approvingly.
“Can you lift the pencil across the room?” she asked and VTI-2 immediately did so, making the pencil do a little dance in the air. “Good girl—“ she began, freezing as a pair of armed men stepped into the room and pointed a gun to her head. “What’s this?”
“Is this girl part of an experiment?” one of the men asked, pointing a gun at VTI-2, who was staring at them with wide, terrified eyes. The doctor nodded, going back to her surgery. “I need you to stop and step away from your captive.”
“I have a girl’s brain exposed, I’m not stopping,” the doctor said, not flinching as both guns were pointed up at her. “What do you all hope to gain from this?”
“We want to help a young girl and the hundreds of others like her that were born and raised in your abusive captivity,” the man said.
“If you want to help her, let me finish her surgery,” Dr. Savan said, inserting a small chip into a portion of VTI-2’s brain.
“Let the girl go, or we shoot,” the man repeated and Dr. Savan shook her head.
“I’ve already explained why I can’t—“ she started before two shots rang out and she dropped to the ground, a pool of dark red blood collecting on the floor.
VTI-2 let out a soft whimper, clinging to the nurse next to her’s hand. “Hi there,” one of the men said, going over and bending down in front of her. “What’s your name?”
VTI-2, she told him, poking his hand with one finger.
“No, no, your real name,” the man said, looking more than a little annoyed and quite a bit freaked out. The girl was looking directly at him, yes, but her eyes went through him. He shuddered, trying to pull his hand away before she grabbed it, her nails digging into his flesh.
You’re being mean, she told him and he let out a high-pitched scream. You should stops, before more people get hurt, she added, lighting his chest and abdomen on fire. His friend backed away, wanting to shoot but fearing that his friend would die if he did. Are you sorry?
“We’re doing the right thing!” the man managed to yell before letting out another scream.
No, you’re sorry, VTI-2 said firmly, a small, green light encircling the man. Very sorry. Never going to do something like this ever again, right? Her voice had gotten a darker undertone and seemed to reverberate inside the man’s head. He dropped to a knee, nodding.
“S-sorry,” he mumbled, feeling the fire inside him fade. “I… sorry… I- I’m sorry,” he whispered, not fully sure if the words were his own.
“Get your hands off of him!” his friend yelled, pointing the gun at VTI-2, who shook her head, still clutching the man in front of her’s hand.
Tell your friend is time to stop, she told him.
“Stop,” he said weakly, turning to his trembling accomplice. “We- we have to… stop. We need… to be sorry. Need… to make it all better,” he whispered.
“J-just let him go and then we can leave you?” the man said, tightening his finger on the trigger.
Ask him if this means he’ll leave, VTI-2 demanded.
“W-will we go, after that?” the man whimpered.
“I—“ his friend began and the man let out another loud, pained scream. “Let him go!” he shrieked, firing a few shots into VTI-2’s chest.
“G-good,” he whispered, helping his friend up and jumping as the door slammed open and a set of armed guards, accompanied by robospheres, entered the room.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Vidali murmured as he and Dr. Kal sat locked together in a supply closet a few floors up. “I… I really am, I made this more personal than it needed to be.”
“I’m sorry too,” Dr. Kal said as a robosphere beeped quietly overhead. “I… shouldn’t have acted like you were being arrogant.”
“I was,” Dr. Vidali said. “I mean, I did want the best for her, I do want the best for her, but I also did think I knew better than you. We’re going to get shot now, aren’t we?”
“Not as long as we don’t hug,” Dr. Kal said seriously. “That’s the cliché, r-right? You hug, make up, then die?” she joked weakly; going pale as another shot rang out from outside of the closet.
“I think it’s the opposite, we hug then we live because we dealt with our problems,” Dr. Vidali whispered and Dr. Kal nodded, giving him a small, quick hug. “There are good protocols here, right? In case of intruders?”
“The military gets involved then, if it’s particularly bad,” she said softly.
“How’d they get in?” Dr. Vidali asked and Dr. Kal sighed.
“To… to get on the base, all you need is a valid ID. It’s the same to get a tour here, they could have tried to go on one of the tours for the public then gotten away,” she said, staring up at the robosphere. “We’ll tighten security after this, but…”
“Yeah,” Dr. Vidali said softly, scrambling to his feet as the door swung open and light streamed in.
“The building is secure,” a man said, dressed in a Kalendrian military uniform. “You can go now.”
By the next day, the blood had been cleaned away. Six people were dead (four scientists and two attackers) and 12 were injured. One robosphere had been destroyed along with a good bit of data. But everyone had to continue on.
“I got you a robosphere,” Australia mumbled, curled up next to VTI-2 in her hospital bed, taking care not to disrupt the IVs or wires connected to her. VTI-2’s head rested on his chest and he could feel her slow heartbeat. “’S tiny but cute, I think you’ll like it,” he added as the baby robosphere flew around overhead. “Doctors say you’ll be okay.” He rested his head on hers and closed his eyes.