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Chapter 4

Lucas strode out his office down the hall, as he listened to Brooke stumbling along awkwardly behind him in her oversized heels. Rolling his eyes to himself without turning around, he just kept on walking purposefully, down past Trent’s office, Ryan’s office, and so on. He knew that he was going to be stuck with Brooke, more or less, for the rest of the day — the sooner he got this tour over with, the better. Then he could finally settle down in his office and do some meaningful work, perhaps after giving Brooke some simple, mundane task to do that would undoubtedly take her the rest of the day to complete. 

‘Maybe that’s how I can do it,’ he thought to himself, ‘Maybe, when Dave and Bill ask how she’s doing…if they even do ask…I can just tell them what she’s done…or not done…and they’ll finally see how unqualified she is and let her go…and let me off the hook.’

He passed Olivia in the hallway, giving her a knowing, wide-eyed look and tipping his head back behind him, as if to say, ‘Yeah, I’m stuck with her,’ only to have his eyes travel inevitably down to her cleavage, which was even more obvious whenever Olivia was moving. Her big breasts were already plainly obvious to anyone when she was sitting down, but when she was walking, they stood out even more, since they bounced and jiggled up and down with every sway and sidle of her athletic, curvy body. How could Lucas not stare!? It wasn’t really a conscious choice on his part — at this point, it was almost automatic. Her medallion was nowhere to be seen, buried deep down in the chasm of her cleavage, swallowed up by the bountiful, bodacious breast flesh on either side, squeezing together in the inadequate space of her top, seemingly threatening to burst out at any moment. Olivia blinked and shook her head a little, tilting her head to the side and giving Lucas a playfully censuring glance, before smiling warmly at Brooke and continuing on her way. 

‘What’s with the women in the office, making a point of being so sweet to her?” thought Lucas, with a bit of frustration. ‘First Sophia and now Olivia…being all buddy-buddy with her. Probably just trying to spite me, is all. I know that’s what Sophia’s doing…she probably had a little chat with Olivia and put her up to it too. That would totally be something she would do.’ 

Ever since he and Sophia had been briefly involved together, Lucas saw every aspect of their interaction like a game…or more specifically, a chess match. The stakes had dropped considerably, ever since they had stopped dating, but the game had continued, though with no real end goal in mind. The two of them were simply used to that peculiar mode of interaction: flirtation that took the mode of incessant teasing, mocking, and scheming against one another. At least, that’s how Lucas saw it. 

He turned the corner in the hallway, glancing over his shoulder as he did so. He saw that Brooke was farther behind him than he had thought, causing him to slow his pace down a little as he sighed in frustration. He knew that he really needed to get a handle on his irritation if these next few days…or weeks…were going to be remotely manageable. But really, how was he supposed to act when every single aspect of his existence had been slowed, restricted…curtailed…by the presence of this utterly inadequate girl? 

“S-sorry, Mr. Minuar,” Brooke said, mispronouncing his name again as she kept him waiting. “It’s…uh…hehe, I’m p-pretty clumsy in…in these shoes.”

“Then find some better ones to wear,” muttered Lucas under his breath. 

“Huh? Wh-what…what was that?” asked Brooke, finally catching up on him. “Hehe, I, uhh…I have a little tinnitus in my ears , s-so,, uhh…hehe, yeah. Sometimes I c-can’t hear as well.”

‘Of course you have tinnitus,’ thought Lucas to himself, but he smiled outwardly, making a point to do his best impression of Sophia and Olivia’s kindness. The women didn’t have a monopoly on empathy in this office, he reminded himself. 

“I said, maybe Sophia can take you out shopping sometime soon,” he replied, cringing at the thought that he was playing into his colleague’s game. But even though Lucas didn’t care what this new temp-intern-whatever thought of him, he didn’t want her to labor under the knowledge of his own frustration and irritation with her. He didn’t feel this way because he cared about her — it was entirely to do with her performance…and her nervous energy. If she knew that he was frustrated with her, that would doubtlessly only make her more nervous, and would lead to her being even more incompetent and awkward. The last thing that Lucas needed was for this girl to make his life even harder…but really, how much farther down could she go? 

‘She already stutters every other word,’ thought Lucas, resuming his trudge down the hall toward the laboratory, where they were going to get Brooke her security clearance. ‘And she’s already clumsy enough as it is. If she was more nervous, then she probably wouldn’t even be able to get a word out of her mouth…she’d be tripping and falling every step she took!’

The thought was so absurd that it actually made Lucas chuckle out loud. He shook his head without turning around as he continued walking. Brooke wouldn’t know that he was thinking about her; as he turned another corner, he saw her several paces behind him, her eyes intently focused on the floor directly in front of her. 

‘Wow, she’s making sure she doesn’t fall, every step she takes,’ thought Lucas. ‘Poor girl.’ 

He actually did feel a little sorry for Brooke, even if his empathy for her was far outweighed by his empathy for himself at having to put up with her. He realized, around this moment, that he had been walking silently in front of Brooke, and that he should probably try to engage her in some kind of small talk to make everything seem normal. 

“So…Brooke,” he said, his pleasant, conversational voice sounding oddly out of place in the situation, “How did you first…uh, get into software engineering?”

“H-how did I, uhh…g-get into it?” she asked blankly from behind him. It sounded to Lucas that she was already out of breath…from walking a little bit down the hall? Maybe it was just her nerves. 

“Yeah!” said Lucas, glancing back at her again and giving her a forced smile as they turned another corner. “Like, I don’t know? What got you into this business in the first place?”

“Oh! Oh y-yeah!” said Brooke, her face brightening as she looked up at him. Now that she was looking at Lucas, she wasn’t quite watching where she was going, and she took the corner a bit too sharply, her bony hips smacking a little into the corner of the wall. 

“Ow!” she exclaimed, rubbing the protruding bone.

“You ok?” asked Lucas.

“Y-yeah…yeah I’m, uh…I’m used to it. Umm…umm…” She seemed to have forgotten about what they were talking about. 

“So…how you got into software engineering?” asked Lucas helpfully, privately not quite able to grasp how easily her mind trailed off. 

“Oh yeah! Uh…w-well…I…I’ve always been interested in, um…in computers,” she began, looking back down at the ground in front of her, preparing to dodge any obstacles that came her way. 

“Mmhm,” nodded Lucas, turning another corner and looking at the steel-reinforced laboratory door down the far end of the hallway. 

“And…and, uh…I…I always p-played computer games…when I was a kid,” she continued. 

“Mhm, yes…most people have,” replied Lucas. He quickly realized that his comment could be taken as rude, and so he quickly added, “But I’m sure you were really good at computer games, huh?”

“Uh, hehe…I, uh…I m-mean, not really,” said Brooke, blushing. “I was, um…n-never really that good, uh, actually.”

“But you enjoyed them,” said Lucas, coming up to the laboratory door. It was an imposing door, to be sure, its steel glinting strangely in the hallway light. Everything else in the office suit looked more or less like a normal office, with normal modern decor. But the heavy laboratory door, kept secure with a code panel and fingerprint scanner, made it clear that there were extraordinary things going on in this office…things that needed to be kept guarded…and secret.

“Y-yes…I did,” said Brooke, trailing off a little as she looked up at the door. “Wh-where…uh…where does this lead to?”

“This,” said Lucas impressively, not wasting an opportunity to show off Braden’s, “is the entrance to the laboratory. It’s where most of our cutting-edge research happens…you know…our important research?” He had realized that Brooke might not even know what “cutting-edge” meant. He looked at her, and she seemed to nod her head, even though her face was blank. 

“Here at Braden,” continued Lucas, typing in the code and inserting his finger into the scanner, “We’ve been doing a lot of research on next-generation technologies. Software engineering is going to be key for the major inventions of the future, you know. I’m talking about things like nanobots, you know? Remember those?” 

“I…th-those…those things that, uh…that I w-was reading about…on…on w-wikipedia?” asked Brooke.

“Yes, those exact things you were reading about…on wikipedia,” said Lucas, smiling a little to himself at how slow this girl was. It was almost ridiculous. ‘Maybe she’s just nervous,’ he reminded himself, as his fingerprint was accepted and the laboratory door opened with a robotic “unsealing” sound. Brooke jumped back a little, apparently startled at the abrupt noise. 

“Haha, oh yeah, sorry,” chuckled Lucas, looking back at Brooke as she gathered herself. “Shoulda warned you about the noise the door makes. All very high-tech, no? Haha, anyway, ok, let’s go in, shall we?”

“B-but…but I don’t have…a security clearance,” said Brooke, holding back with trepidation. 

“Yes…yes I know that,” said Lucas, nodding his head with exaggeration at her, as if he was speaking to a child. “But that’s why we’re going in here right now…to get you one. Don’t worry, Brooke, you’re with me. You’ll be ok.” 

And, almost as if by accident, Lucas extended his hand toward the timid girl, bidding her to follow him. Brooke looked at his outstretched hand, and then, right after blinking a couple times, she shuffled forward in her bulky heels and reached up, taking Lucas’s hand in her own. Lucas hadn’t expected her to actually take his invitation so literally — he hadn’t been intending for her to actually take his hand. Instead, he had just been gesturing with his hand, encouraging her to follow him. But apparently, Brooke had misinterpreted his intentions, and had taken the opportunity to actually reach up and grasp his palm. 

Lucas shuddered at her unexpected touch — her palm was cool and sweaty, and her small, waifish fingers felt strange and unwelcome against the skin of his hand as he felt them moving slightly...it felt like she had just washed her hands, and forgotten to dry them. His immediate instinct was to yank his hand out of hers, but he was able to control this urge and chuckle a little, gesturing with his other hand that they should step on into the lab. As they did so, Lucas felt Brooke’s hand tightening around his own. It was clear that she didn’t have much of a strong grip, but her squeeze let him know that she was especially nervous about going into the lab. 

“Hehe, don’t worry Brooke,” he laughed mildly, taking the opportunity, once they were inside, to let go of Brooke’s hand and busy himself pretending to pull the door to and latch it shut. In reality, the lab door closed securely just fine on its own, but Lucas needed a quick excuse to stop holding hands with her. 

“No reason to be nervous in here,” he continued pleasantly, turning around and proceeding past her and making sure she was following him. “Do…uh, do laboratories make you nervous?”

“I…I d-don’t know,” said Brooke, her voice shaking a little. “I…I’ve just…uh…j-just never been…anywhere th-this…this imp…important before.”

“Aw, well…” said Lucas, feeling a little proud that he had at least managed to convey to the girl how essential and serious the laboratory was to Braden, “Well…yes. Yes, it’s true that a lot of important things happen here. Very true, in fact. But no need to feel scared!”

“I j-just…just don’t want to…t-to mess anything up,” stammered Brooke, struggling a bit to keep up. 

‘Well, I’ve gotta give it to her — the girl knows that she’s clumsy,’ thought Lucas amusedly to himself. 

“Aw, Brooke, don’t worry about anything like that. There are safety protocols out the wazoo here — we’ve made sure of that. And besides, you’re with me, remember? The manager of the whole office? I’m pretty sure everything’s gonna be fine.”

Brooke seemed to be heartened by Lucas’s reminder, and they proceeded along silently for a few more moments. The lab was dramatically different from the rest of the Braden office; its walls were all made of shiny steel, as if they housed some kind of strong, secret invention or being that was threatening to break out. A sterile, metallic smell infused the air — it wasn’t really all that unpleasant, especially to Lucas, who personally loved the smell. He knew where it came from: the manufacturing of the thousands and thousands of nanobots that they were currently in the process of perfecting. Still, though…there was a long way to go..a long, long way. 

“So if you look to your left there,” said Lucas, passing a room with the door open, “You’ll see the animal testing wing of the lab.”

“A-animal testing!?” asked Brooke, her voice sounding a bit strained. 

“Yeah...yeah, animal testing,” said Lucas, looking back at her, a bit puzzled at her tone. She looked like she was suddenly in a bit of distress. 

“We, uh, we test a lot of our new inventions, particularly the nanobots, on animals here at Braden,” he said. 

“D-do…do the animals get hurt?” asked Brooke earnestly, her dark eyes suddenly seeming even bigger. 

“Um…I, uh…I mean, sometimes yes,” answered Lucas honestly, sighing inwardly. The truth was that, far more often than not, a large concentration of nanobots ended up killing its host. But that didn’t matter; they were making progress! Was this girl one of those flower-girl tree-hugging vegans who pretended like she didn’t routinely consume products that had been tested on animals? 

“Oh…ok,” said Brooke quietly, bowing her head a little. Lucas was glad to realize that if she had any strong convictions, then she was far too timid to express them here and now. He decided to just skip over any kind of justification he had been preparing in his head. 

“So yeah…the animal testing is there,” he said, coming up on another open side door, “And this room on your right is where most of the mechanistic development happens.”

He could tell that Brooke was about to open her mouth and repeat the phrase “mechanistic development” in stuttered, confused syllables, so he stepped in and continued: “Basically just a fancy term for robot-building, or nanobot-building. Essentially, just…where we actually manufacture and create the components that make our AI work.”

“AI?” asked Brooke.

Lucas stopped walking and turned to her, staring at her. She had to be pulling his leg. She couldn’t be this dense. 

“You don’t know what AI stands for?” he asked, point-blank, not bothering to hide his disbelief. 

“I…w-well…w-well…I u…used to,” she stuttered, turning bright red, “b-but I f-forgot!” 

“Easy, eeeaasssy,” said Lucas, immediately regretting his bluntness, for his own sake. “Let’s jog your memory a bit: “A” stands for “artificial,” right…? And “I” stands for….?”

Brooke stood there for a moment, stooped in thought, and then, suddenly, she gave a great whoop.

“Intelligence!!” she cried. “I remember now!” 

“There you go!” laughed Lucas, his eyes still wide as he stared at her with a smile that was slightly too wide. ‘Jesus…fucking…christ,’ he thought.

“Haha, I knew I remembered that from somewhere!” laughed Brooke, smiling toothily, reminding Lucas of her overbite as she did so. 

“Hehe, I’m sure you did,” Lucas said, in a forced laugh. He noticed Brooke’s voice had sounded a little raspy. Maybe that’s how she sounded whenever she got excited. But right then, she gave a little cough. 

“You all good?” he asked.


“Uh, y-yeah,” Brooke laughed apologetically. “I j-just…uh, *coughcough* maybe I got a little t-too excited there.”

“Need some water?” asked Lucas.

“Uh, n-no…no I’m…I’m fine,” she answered. 

They continued to make their way down the hall, until they stopped at a final door to their left. 

“Now this is the storage sector,” said Lucas, punching in another code and scanning his fingerprint again. “This is where we store a lot of our supplies, the original prototypes for our inventions, and the various works-in-progress that we’re developing. This is also where a lot of the lab paperwork gets done, so that’s why we’re here -- it’s where you get your security clearance.” 

The door opened up, and they walked into the storage area, the main room of which was much bigger and more open than the other rooms. All around, there were tall shelves that reached all the way up to the ceiling. A long steel table was in the middle of the room, and, standing with his back turned, was a scientist in a white lab coat, who appeared to be writing down something on a clipboard. The door shut, and he abruptly turned around. 

“Lucas!!” shouted the scientist, spreading his arms wide as he hurriedly scooted himself around the table, making his way toward them. “I’ve gotta show you something!”

“Hi Rick!” exclaimed Lucas, a bit taken aback by his colleague’s enthusiasm. “What’s up?”

“You’ve gotta see it to believe it!” said Rick, almost out of breath with excitement. He was looking straight at Lucas, and didn’t seem to have even noticed Brooke. Lucas barely registered that Brooke had started coughing again — he was far more interested in what Rick had to show him. 

“Is it about…the…?” he asked Rick, raising his eyebrows. 

“Oh yeah,” said Rick, nodding his head impressively. “It may not be as dramatic as we think, but I was analyzing the data this morning, and…Lucas, let me just say, there’s every reason to believe that it’s pointing in a positive direction. Like, far more positive than we ever thought before.”

“So, like, you mean…” said Lucas, feeling his heart beat faster as he got excited, “Like…we might be able to move testing forward…in…huma — ”

“Don’t say it!” cried Rick, laughing as he dramatically put his hand to his forehead. “Don’t say it out loud! Or you’ll jinx us!” 

“Haha, “jinx”…very empirical of you, Rick,” laughed Lucas. 

*Coughcough* Brooke was getting a little worse.

“Hey, we don’t know everything, you know,” said Rick, finally looking at Brooke for the first time. His eyes went over her quickly, and the information he gathered quickly produced a puzzled expression on his face. 

“Oh, so this is Brooke,” said Lucas, indicating to her. “She’s a new…employee here. We’re actually here to get her a security clearance, so…”

“Can it wait just a minute?” asked Rick, having sufficiently introduced himself to Brooke with a curt, impersonal nod. “I really, really want to show you this data.” 

“I…uh, yes! Yes, ok!” said Lucas, feeling himself getting more and more excited. 


“Oh, uh, Brooke, why don’t you, uhh…just sit tight here for a minute, ok?” asked Lucas. He knew that he should probably bring Brooke with him, so as to not leave her all alone in the big scary lab room, but he didn’t want her impeding his conversation with Rick. Besides, she technically didn’t have a security clearance yet anyway, so…

“Uh, o-*cough*, o-ok,” she said with difficulty. 

“You all good there?” asked Lucas, turning to leave. It wasn’t lost on him that he had asked Brooke some version of that same question three times already this morning. 

“I’m...I’m f-fine,” she said. “J-just...just maybe need to...g-get a drink or something.” 

“Well, uh, you can get yourself something over there,” said Lucas, flippantly gesturing toward what he meant to be the vending machines in the corner. Unbeknownst to him, however, Brooke had followed his gesture with her eyes, and had then fixed her gaze on a seemingly-innocuous glass of water that was sitting on the smooth metal laboratory table, close to where Rick had been standing when they walked in. 

“O-*cough* ok, th-thanks,” she said, walking over toward the glass. By the time she reached it, Lucas and Rick were already gone. Without even thinking, she picked up the glass, nearly spilling its contents in her haste to quench her cough. She tipped the glass back and drank deeply, loudly gulping the water down in just a few seconds. She noticed that the water had a slightly metallic taste to it, but she didn’t think anything of it — she had learned, over the course of her life, not to trust her senses. She glanced around anxiously for a sink to wash the glass in, since the last thing she wanted was for Lucas to feel like she just left dirty dishes around. She found a sink in the corner, washed off the glass, dried it with a paper towel which she then threw away, and finally put the glass back on one of the shelves, along with hundreds of other empty glasses that looked just like it. 

A few minutes later, Lucas and Rick came back, chattering excitedly. 

“I mean, if we’re taking the standard deviation into account,” said Lucas, “Then there’s no question that we’re onto something serious here.”

“Well yeah, I mean, we definitely can’t forget to divide it all by the population,” enjoined Rick enthusiastically. “This is basic high school stuff, haha!” 

“I knew we made straight A’s back then for a reason!” laughed Lucas. He looked at Brooke for a few moments, and it took his mind a little extra time to adjust from what he had been talking about to the reality of dealing with her.

“Ok…well…ok, Brooke — all ready for the security clearance?” he asked.

“Uh, yes, definitely!” she chirped. 

“Well, so, you ready, Rick?” asked Lucas, noticing that Rick had been staring, looking a bit puzzled, where the glass of “water” used to be. 

“I, uh…yeah! Yeah, I’m ready. I just thought…that…” he muttered.

“Thought that what?” asked Lucas, peering at him.

“N-nothing…nothing,” Rick said, shaking his head, blinking, and smiling. “I’m so excited that I must be losing my mind. Never mind all that — let’s go.” 

They all went back into one of the rooms to file away paperwork, none of them aware of what had just happened. The glass of water that Brooke had gulped down was not just water. It was 99% water, and 1% animal-tested, cutting-edge, Braden-Premium nanobots. There were now 25,000 of them…inside her body.

Chapter End Notes:

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