The prompts come from the 64 Damn Prompts on LiveJournal (by rashaka). I will, most likely, be working through all 64. I will also include the song that helped me write it.
(On another note, imagine this is set in the future. [Hence the sci-fi classification.] So no complaining about my science!)
Prompt 42: Hope Is a Thing With Feathers
Music: 42, by Coldplay
It's cold and grimy, the lights muted from accumulated dust. No one has set foot in this place in over ten years, and Tabby can feel it right down to her bones.
This is a dead woman's lab.
By all rights, she shouldn't even be down here. The rest of the complex is still under renovation, waiting for Pangaea Industries to overhaul the building and implement their new, eco-friendly system of management. Tabby is only here in the lowest levels because her own lab is currently being upgraded, and she was curious about this area. The head of Tabby's department, a kind, gentle man named Gregory Martinez, had warned them all that, while Level 6 wasn't exactly off limits, there was nothing down there that should interest them.
Of course, the word "should" and the lack of a direct order to stay away had simply piqued Tabby's curiosity. She's a scientist, after all, and investigating is what she does.
This lab—Lab 15, from the plaque on the door—is one of the interesting things she found when she looked up the old rosters and assignments. It belonged, at one time, to a young scientist named Jean Wilder, considered a genius in her field of neuroscience and medical-specific robotics. Five PhDs and several Masters in extremely complex subjects to her name, and Tabby has to wonder how Pangaea ever managed to capture her interest. It's a large company, certainly, but with such credentials Wilder surely could have managed to find a place anywhere, even the elite Michelson Corporation or the vast Excalibur Incorporated.
But, for reasons unlisted in her file, Wilder had chosen Pangaea. She had come, and worked, and contributed to or made several incredible advancements in her fields. Even now, with more current advancements on top of those she made, Tabby can hardly grasp the scope of her original work.
So Wilder had come, and worked, and just when she had been on the brink of a huge medical breakthrough in cryotechnology and a good dozen medical procedures and cures stemming from that line of work, something had happened.
Ten years ago, at the height of Wilder's career, there had been an explosion in one of the other labs.
While an investigation into the circumstances had suggested that there was something suspicious about the supposed accident, nothing was ever proven. Despite a body never being recovered, Wilder had been declared dead. No one could even say that she had been the target of the explosion. It hadn't been her lab, after all, even though it was hardly a secret that she was assisting Dr. Christopher St. John with his nanotechnology project there. St. John himself hadn't been available for questioning after the fact, pulling up stakes and moving to Michelson immediately, where he took over as president. It was a move that had many crying traitor, but nothing could be done.
Wilder was dead, and all of her genius, with the possibility of saving so many, many lives, was lost.
Tabby is a scientist, but she still has a heart, and the story makes something deep within her twinge. She's spent hours, now, staring at the company roster's picture of Wilder, wondering what she must have been like in life. And she's suddenly feeling lonely, as though there's always been this empty, aching space right next to her, and she's never noticed until now. It's a space, she thinks, that could be filled perfectly by a quick temper, a dry wit, and distinctive copper hair.
In the picture, Wilder glares at the camera with sharp green eyes, genius all by vibrating through her skin, and Tabby knows that she would have been fiery, bright to the point of blinding, like a magnesium flare. Wilder would have approved of this new humanitarian approach Pangaea is taking—medicines instead of biological agents, cures instead of weapons—and she would have been the first to push for the change. She would have fought for it, and won, and Tabby finds herself wishing that she could have seen it, could have stood on the sidelines and watched the fire promised by Wilder's hair, by her eyes, flare up to scorch the old earth clear of greedy men's rubble. She would have led the charge to recreate the company, rebuilding it from the ground up, and Tabby can already see that she would have succeeded.
It feels empty, horrible, that Wilder never had the chance.
Nevertheless, something that Tabby can't name has pulled her here, drawn her down to the last place a dead woman went before she died. It's a little eerie, and a lot sad, and Tabby can find no rational reason for her presence but to drive the knife deeper, to exacerbate the sense of loss she feels. She sighs softly, disturbing the still, stale air, and reaches out to trail her fingers through the thick layer of dust on the computer console nearest her.
The soft whirr of machinery starting up is all but deafening in the silence.
Tabby jerks her hand back, feeling some strange mix of scientist-self-preservation and kid-with-her-hand-in-the-cookie-jar. This lab has been empty over ten years; there's no logical reason for this terminal to be on—to be working, even. Pangaea shut down all but basic power to this level when they first started reconstruction.
But the humming in the air tells a different story. There's power in the system, and a considerable amount for this model of computer to be able to run so quickly.
A sharp beep marks the completion of the startup. "This laboratory is restricted to authorized Pangaea personnel only. Please state your name and identification number," an automated voice says politely, and it's all Tabby can do not to jump and swear at it.
Instead, she fumbles for the ID badge all of the scientists wear and waves it towards the scanner on the wall. "Tabby Johnson, 692873, Section 4, Level 3." She's not willing to let the computer's security system call the guards just to indulge her fit of pique at being startled.
"Your voice doesn't match any of the files in my databases. When were you hired?"
For the second time in under two minutes, Tabby finches at the unexpected voice. This one comes from behind her, though, and she turns quickly, intending to defend her wanderings to one of her colleagues.
It's not a colleague, though. It's a woman who is now incredibly familiar to Tabby, in spite of being dead. Copper-red hair, green eyes, sharp features, brow furrowed in what most might have called a scowl, but Tabby thinks of as more of a warning to keep others at bay—all the pieces match. They fit the photos she's been looking at for days now.
Jean Wilder stares at her from across the open floor of the lab.
For one breathless, wild, heart-stopping moment, Tabby can't breathe for elation, for pure joy that this woman she's never known is not dead. She takes one sharp step forward, hand already rising to grab Wilder and—
But then the image flickers, just slightly, pixels becoming visible as the power fluctuates, and Tabby's heart turns to iron in her chest. A hologram. A computer system, probably programmed by Wilder to assist with research before her death. The woman is still dead, for all that she's standing here in front of Tabby, and it's heartbreaking.
"You're—" she starts helplessly.
The hologram looks at her with eyes that are far more aware than they should be, and takes a step forward, head tipping slightly to one side as she—it—surveys Tabby closely. "Program X65-AI, designed to run if Dr. Wilder didn't access the lab for over a year. What are you doing down here? Files say the complex is undergoing construction."
The voice sounds exactly like the audio clips Tabby has heard from interviews and lectures, and she has to forcibly remind herself that this isn't the woman she's been obsessing over for a whole month now. She steels herself to meet the AI's gaze and manages to hold back a flinch as she answers, "I was…curious. About Dr. Wilder and her work. Can you tell me anything?"
The AI looks briefly startled, and Tabby is just as startled to see the expression before her brain kicks in and helpfully reminds her that Wilder was an expert in robotics, and an incredible programmer; it's more than possible that she programmed this system to have basic emotions, especially if she based it off herself.
"Her work?" the hologram repeats. "You want to know more about her work?"
Tabby can't help but wonder why that's such a surprise. Wilder was a genius. Surely someone must have tried to pick up where she left off. With a frown, she leans back against one of the dusty tables. "You mean no one's tried to find out anything before? But…it's been ten years, and she's still the leader in the field, even if she's dead. Why hasn't someone—?"
For some reason, this makes the AI smile, and she flicks a hand at the large computer screen. With a flicker, it comes to life, and files begin to stream onto the surface. "Dr. Wilder was a doctor," she—it—says, and there's a lilt in the tone that suggests that this was, for Wilder, very much a belabored point. "Ten years ago, Pangaea was still focused on the manufacture and sale of weapons and biological agents. Dr. Wilder's work fell outside of their sphere of interest."
It makes sense, in a horrible sort of way. Only in the past two years has Pangaea begun to move towards the support of peace instead of warmongering. Wilder, as brilliant as she was, would have been seen as a side interest to the old CEO. Only now, a decade later, is her work being recognized as the amazing product of an incredible mind that it is.
The files on the screen pull Tabby's attention away from the conversation before she can say as much, however. The labels alone are fascinating, a glimpse of something that is years ahead of its time, even now. Cryogenics as a healing process, bio-scans to identify problems in the blink of an eye, surgical robots that Tabby can only imagine, even with her biochemistry and robotics degrees and years of working on complex nanotechnology—there's enough here to keep Pangaea in patents for a very long time.
The AI's voice—Wilder's voice—pulls her away from her gleeful contemplation of the wonders before her, and she blinks at the program, trying to pull her mind back from the sheer, beautiful science of it to focus on the real world. "Yes?" she asks after a moment, shaking off the numbers and formulas and programming codes spinning before her eyes. "What is it?"
"Why did you come down here?" Her—because, damn it all, Tabby can only think of the hologram as she—tone is soft, despite the sharp wording, and almost gentle.
For one moment, Tabby considers waving the question away with another non-answer about Wilder's work—but somehow, when faced with those clear, bright eyes, even secondhand, she can't speak the half-truth. What comes out instead is a soft sigh, and she turns to lean back against the bank of controls beneath the monitor, facing the projection. "I felt like…I owed it to her," she says slowly, tasting the words as they come out. They feel right, even though this is the first time she's admitted it, even to herself. "No one comes down to this level. No one thinks about her work, or what happened to her, or what she could have been, if she hadn't died in a stupid accident. I guess I felt guilty, especially since Pangaea's finally taken a turn for the better."
The AI stares at her for a long moment, and Tabby almost feels like she's being weighed, judged. But that's ridiculous, because the AI is a program, albeit a complex one. There's no way she's right.
Except that maybe she is, because the AI steps back a pace and nods, as though satisfied. Onscreen, the files begin to expand, a world of data and conclusions and connections, just waiting to be explored. "What would you like to start with?" the AI asks, and she's smiling again.
It's the most beautiful thing Tabby has seen since the first time she looked at a strand of human DNA, and she has to smile back.
In the back of her mind, she knows this version of Wilder is simply a program, a bit of complex coding, and a far, far cry from the real thing, but right now she really can't bring herself to care.
Tabby spends that first night in the lab, pouring over Wilder's research with all the greedy glee of a toddler given free rein in a candy store. She staggers home at nine the next morning, head spinning, eyes gone square from staring at a computer screen so long. She's back five hours later, running on only three hours of sleep and a cup of truly awful coffee, but armed with her personal laptop and a thousand ideas to broaden or add to Wilder's work.
The lab should feel empty and barren, like it had the first time she had set foot in it, but it doesn't anymore. Somehow, over the course of one night, Tabby's point of view has changed. Now she can see the marks that Wilder's personality has left on the lab, on her notes. There's a sharp temper in the pen stroke scratching out a set of false data. Fierce determination shows in the bold handwriting of the notes that support her conclusion. Her caring is obvious in the lists of diseases and symptoms the projects can cure or alleviate, pinned to one wall where it's clearly visible. Wilder isn't—wasn't—in this business for the money in the fame. She was a doctor, through and through.
The realization is like a fire in Tabby's blood, fierce and overwhelming. She can't leave now that she's found this. She can't let all these years of careful, meticulous work go to waste, not when she can use her position to push it out into channels where it will actually be used. It's a debt that she owes to Wilder, for Pangaea having never found out the truth behind her death, for St. John using her brilliance to jumpstart Michelson, for being alive while the other scientist isn't. There's no logic behind it, for all that Tabby tries to justify it, but it's what she feels, and she can't let it go.
The AI is another presence that keeps the lab from feeling quite so empty. For all that she isn't really there, her existence is like a tangible memory of Wilder. Tabby is awed by the complexities of her programming, by the breadth of Wilder's knowledge of her field. The program is the perfect research assistant, and she's been given what must be Wilder's personality—sharp, dry wit, a deeply rooted drive to do good, and a single-minded determination that puts Tabby's own work ethic to shame.
Watching the AI is almost painful, at times—Tabby can see exactly the sort of woman that Wilder was, and it aches that it isn't really her. Tabby knows that, were the AI real, were Wilder still alive, she'd fall in love in a heartbeat.
But maybe it's already too late not to do just that.
A month after her first discovery of the lab, up to her elbows in the notes and processes of a genius mind she can hardly follow, Tabby puts her head down on the table and laughs.
She has to either laugh or cry, because she's gone and fallen in love with a dead woman.
There's a presence at her elbow, the faint humming of the hologram equipment that marks the AI's existence. Tabby raises a hand to wave her off, still chuckling weakly.
"It's stupid," she says, shaking her head. "So stupid. You'd just laugh at me."
The humming sounds louder, and when Tabby lifts her head, she can see the faintly glowing outline of the system's hand hovering just over her shoulder, as though about to touch. The AI's gaze is on her, sadder than any bit of coding should ever be, and she murmurs softly, "Dr. Johnson, what's wrong?"
"I'm in love," Tabby tells her. "I'm in love with someone who doesn't even exist anymore."
She leaves, after that. She can't bring herself to spend another moment in a place so very haunted. But she'll be back.
She'll always go back.
It's another ten days before she manages to return, though. The builders are in the middle of upgrading her own lab, and can't seem to follow the simple instructions she left. Tabby has to oversee the installation of the new equipment herself, and the long absence from Lab 15 makes her sharp and a little irritable. She tries not to take it out on the workers, but the moment she has a free hour, she heads down to Level 6.
But when she arrives, the lights are already on, and the computer is humming away against the wall. Tabby frowns as she steps in, looking around the room. In the back, one of the machines has been moved, pushed out away from the wall, and a dark doorway gapes behind it. Frowning, Tabby turns, looking for the AI—because surely, no one would break into the lowest level of Pangaea to do some insignificant vandalism. The AI will know what's happened.
Tabby flinches and swears, spinning on her heel to berate the AI for—
But the words die unspoken in her throat. The figure standing in front of the computer is most definitely not the AI. This one is solid, and warm, and Tabby can feel her vibrancy from all the way across the room. Her heart stutters in her chest, sharp and uneven, and she staggers back a step.
Jean Wilder smiles wearily at her, bright green eyes brimming with good humor and a trace of that sharp wit Tabby's come to love so much. Her hair is a little longer than the AI's, her skin much paler, and she's sporting several new scars across the right side of her face. She's a little too thin, dressed in capris and a loose button-down shirt, but she's undoubtedly real.
"Yeah," she says, and it's tired. She wavers, and almost against her will Tabby finds herself stepping forward to catch the other man with an arm around her waist.
The first touch is a shock to both of them. Tabby feels it, and she can tell Wilder does, too. But Wilder is warm-hot under her hands, all soft curves and lean strength for all that she leans into the other scientist as Tabby seats them at one of the tables.
"Thanks." Wilder scrubs a hand over her face, and then flashes a crooked smile up at Tabby, wry and dry and a little hesitant. "How weird is it that I feel like I know you already?"
Tabby lets out a slow breath, her mind still spinning as she struggles to come to grips with this. Clearing her throat, she shakes her head quickly. "Probably…probably not as weird as me being in love with you even though we've never actually met."
Wilder snorts and leans into her, one hand reaching down to grip Tabby's. She pulls it up, guiding it to the back of her neck. There, half-hidden under her brilliant hair, is a small metal insert, about the size of a pinky nail. Tabby frowns, leaning forward to get a better look, and freezes as she realizes what it is.
A computer port, used on coma patients to connect their consciousnesses to computer terminals and allow them to interact with the outside world.
In an instant, everything connects. All the pieces fall into place. The scars must be from the explosion. Wilder was working on cryogenic healing pods right before she died. There's a hidden back room to the lab that Tabby's never seen before. It stands to reason that that room contains a prototype of the pod, and Wilder's been in it, frozen and only connected to the world through the Pangaea computers, for the last ten years.
"But…why?" she demands, breathless with the shock of knowing what happened, of knowing why this woman disappeared so abruptly so many years ago.
Wilder smiles at her faintly, but her eyes are grim. "St. John was stealing research from the company, transferring it over to Michelson. He was going to frame me for it and take all of my research on nanotechnology, turning it into something that could be used as a weapon. I caused the explosion in her lab, destroying his prototype, and then escaped down here, where I could block him from my databanks."
Tabby almost can't believe what she's hearing—but at the same time, she can. St. John was—is—a ruthless bastard, and Tabby can only imagine what lengths he would have gone to when Wilder's work was on the line. "Ten years," she breathes, trying to wrap her mind around it. "But…why now? Why come out at all?"
Wilder—Jean looks at her, mouth tilted in a little half-smile that makes Tabby's heart ache in good ways. "Do you really have to ask?" she says wryly. "You aren't the only one who fell in love, Dr. Johnson. I was the AI. Do you really think I don't feel anything for you? And St. John's safely gone now. The statute of limitations has run out on our work. He can't claim it anymore. I'm free to go home."
Tabby can't think of an answer to that, because Jean's hands are on her face, pulling her down until their lips meet, and it's a kiss that curls Tabby's toes, sends fire racing up and down her spine. She gasps into Jean's mouth and yanks the other woman forward, half-into her lap, and then wraps her arms around her. Jean makes a wordless sound of approval and kisses her again, simultaneously soft and fierce. It makes them both shudder, and Tabby pulls away, splaying her hand over the skin of Jean's back, underneath her shirt.
"Are you sure?" she asks, because she has to. "You want this?"
"Are you blind?" Jean growls back, dragging her head down again. Her other hand is fisted in Tabby's short brown hair, holding her in place. "Yes, Tabby."
It's the low order—the sound of her given name hissed in that beautiful alto she's been dreaming about for months now—that does it. Tabby tugs Jean's shirt up, sliding a hand under the edge of her sports bra and over the curve of her breast. It's a bit hesitant, light and delicate, but Jean presses into the touch with a wordless sound of want as she returns the touch, and Tabby isn't far behind. She keeps touching, keeps stroking, pressing their bodies together, entwining legs, and meshing their mouths. It's hot and anxious, borderline frantic, but when Jean comes around her fingers with a shudder and moan it's also the loveliest thing Tabby has ever seen. She drops her head onto Jean's shoulder, feels deft fingers twist at her nipple as another rubs her clit, and comes with a cry that feels a little like heaven.
"You do realize that we're absolutely ridiculous, don't you?" Jean manages after a few minutes, Tabby's head still resting on her shoulder. Her cheek is pressed against Tabby's pageboy hair, breath feathering the honey-brown locks.
Tabby is collapsed back against the table, loose limbed and pleasantly drowsy, and she only raises an eyebrow at the words. "You do realize that we're going to have to leave this lab someday, don't you?" she mimics with a faint grin. "As pleasant as it is in here, you've got a traitor to unveil and a life to reclaim."
Jean sighs, her breath a warm, humid kiss on Tabby's skin, and then pushes herself upright to look at the younger scientist. "Will you stay with me?"
Tabby smiles at her and pulls her down for another kiss. "Jean, you couldn't get me to leave if you tried."
"Good thing I'm not going to bother wasting my time, then, isn't it?" she murmurs, her own grin sharp against Tabby's lips.
"Yeah," Tabby agrees. "A good thing."
Good. Everything now is very, very good.