I’d expected his visit to my lab to be unpleasant, but it was the only way to stop him.
“Mrs Saidu, how are you?” He pushed open my research pod door without knocking and kissed my cheek with an uncomfortable familiarity that almost made me itch.
I stiffened. “Professor Saidu.” I corrected him. “I’m fine Yakub. Never better."
“Sorry, Professor,” he said with a playful wink, beaming his imposing pearly grin. When we’d first met and he’d learnt of my talents, I'd scanned his face and locked his admiring smile into my memory. The left side of his mouth curled up towards his dimple and showed off his impossibly white teeth. It once drew me in. Now it sickened me.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” I’d hoped I could keep this brief. Knowing full well why he stood there didn’t stop me reeling from his last visit. Well, not the visit itself, but it's aftermath. One should be recognised for their work; my husband had always said. I agreed.
“I was notified this morning that you’d published something. We hadn’t discussed it so I thought I should check on you,” he said, predictably.
It had been easy to convince the Chief Investigator to run an audit. I’d needed Yakub at my lab that afternoon so he’d miss his monthly Ethics, Research Submissions and Audits meeting; and with it the chance to spin away his errors.
As little as he cared for ethics, Yakub was obsessed with publication and never missed a meeting. Few things were less appealing than giving him reason to invade my lab but it was the only option.
“Just minor methodology data to substantiate an associate’s work,” I replied, nodding at a colleague as they wrinkled their nose passing by my pod. Most couldn’t stand the strong disinfectant scent. I couldn't smell it myself but knew that being heavy handed when sanitising my work bench kept others out of my space. I’d have liked to work more with my colleagues, but acquaintances became friends. It was easier this way. There were rules about friendships.
“My mistake, I needn’t have bothered you. Always working on so much at once. You’re a machine heh?” He laughed.
I didn’t see the humour, but agreed working on multiple projects felt coded within me. Research made me tick and I was proud of that.
Part of me wanted to make him leave. Another part craved his presence. That part was the problem. In my core I wanted his acceptance, his approval. I hated that about myself. Such craving for the unobtainable was illogical. Without a flicker of doubt, I’d never be equal in Yakub’s eyes, or the eyes of most men for that matter.
Disdain won through. “I’m working on something bigger now, so I do need to focus,” I said. “I trust you can see yourself out?”
“See you,” he said, smiling in his smug manner as he walked towards the glass door. “Oh, one little thing, how’s ASER coming along?”
I shrugged. ASER - Artificial Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum - was my baby. The little capsules converted toxic chemicals into clean water. The potential for neutralising poisons had excited me at first, but his recent actions flicked a switch inside me and now anxiety hit.
“You've really got something there, artists and athletes would pay a lot to fool breathalysers and doping tests, you should keep pushing and, is the pill form ready? My gut tells me-”
“I can't discuss this with you,” I snapped. He didn’t even respect me enough to pretend he wasn’t there to take my work. Trick me once, shame on you; my husband’s mantra was seared onto my mind.
“Come on,” he pushed. “Seems you’re prolific these days so I’m sure you understand the importance of peer review.”
“I created ASER to better this world, not for entitled fools to break laws. I’ll have the work reviewed by colleagues who understand that.” I stood and smoothed my skirt.
He walked over; his face close enough to make me grateful I couldn’t smell the stale wine on his breath.
He whispered into my ear, “your colleagues here don’t know what you really are. They wouldn’t see you as I do if they knew the truth. Remember that.” He kissed me on the forehead then picked up his briefcase.
Remembering I’d made him miss the meeting kept me calm as he strutted through the glass door and out of my sacred space.
I breathed in. Inhaling peace. I breathed out. Willing away the fear he’d find out what I’d done.
Research was all I could ever remember doing, nothing was as strong as the drive to understand: to know this world in its inordinate complexities, to unpick the glorious arrays of its building blocks and rebuild from them. It was crucial that scientific research be done correctly. His disdain for guidelines and ethics was an indefensible error. Worse even than his treatment of me.
That evening I watched from a distance as he sank into his burgundy Chesterfield lounger, sipping a large glass of red wine with a self-satisfied grin. I reasoned he was looking forward to seeing the big article he’d submitted to Nature.
A month earlier I’d opened Nature to the headline, "London Lab defeats Epilepsy." Till I’d read it, I hoped my team had simply released my work in error.
I hadn’t been shocked to see Yakub’s name on my paper. I’d been livid. Angry I hadn’t seen the true nature of our arrangement, that I’d believed he was simply fascinated by me and my work. Outraged at his sense of entitlement to my efforts. Furious the weeks I’d spent replicating the precise neuro-inhibitor needed to stop seizures had been for nothing.
Well, not nothing. I’d told him I didn’t care about fame or accolades, that I’d wanted to help people. And I’d meant it. He’d laughed and told me a name will take you places if you build it up. I’d built his and I’d tear it down.
He downloaded and opened Nature on his iPad and I watched with satisfaction as his smile dropped. I zoomed in to confirm he was reading it:
Retraction: Protein related cessation of temporal lobe epilepsy in mice by tonic inhibition mediated by neuroreceptors
At the request of the British Scientific Integrity Committee, this article has been retracted.
After investigation of the original data, experimental procedure and the process of paper submission, the British Scientific Integrity Committee concluded that the graph displaying voltage–clamp current traces claimed to be representative traces of reduced epileptic activity, were actually the averaged currents from neural cells that the authors had fraudulently copied from another research paper.
The Chief Investigator and Publisher take their duty of guardianship over the scholarly record extremely seriously. Claiming results from research conducted by others is unethical and unacceptable.
Y. Saidu could not be reached for comment.
A sense of calm radiated through me as I saw that the truth was finally exposed.
It had worked.
The awards he’d gained for this, for the one piece of work he actually did himself, would be revoked too, now that the news was out. He’d lose his job, his funding and his reputation.
And it was only right. Sure, he’d seemed genuinely perturbed when confiding how he’d panicked after losing the real data and used a graph that looked similar so he could meet the deadline. But that wasn’t good enough.
Then he’d built a career on publishing the work of women like me as he drank away his guilt.
Justice was uploading the paper he’d stolen the graph from into the research files submitted for audit. Justice was letting the truth be known in the very scientific community he’d kept me from, as he received honour for the work of others. Watching his face crumble was justice.
He treated me like I was nothing. Without his name to fall back on, he was nothing. He’d see that now.
“Honey,” he said to his wife as I watched him from across the room, “I could lose my grants. What did you do?”
I jumped, remembering where I was. “Why did you take my data?”
“Your data?” He sounded genuinely confused.
“My epilepsy research in the last Nature journal,” I said, less confident now, “it was published as Dr Y. Saidu and-”
“Darling, you know everything you create is mine?” he said, smiling his annoying smile and reminding me why I loathed him; the man spent more time testing teeth-whitening strips than he ever did on test tubes. “I let you have your little projects, but your function is to test my hypotheses. We’ve been through this before. We make a good team when you remember your place. Perhaps too much freedom has scrambled your memory?”
“I have rights,” I said, as he walked towards me.
“I think for myself and according to the AI charter my work is mine.” I stepped back, closer to the door.
“Honey, you are mine,” he said, striding towards me. “Your thoughts are mine, your research is mine, your body is mine, and I think you forget that. You were built to my spec before those liberal lefties published that robo rights nonsense.”
“The charter says-”
He waved his hand as though to swat my words away. “It’s fascinating how much technology progresses with each model.” He stroked the skin membrane on my cheek.
“You’re the best by far. Smart, funny, the most beautiful yet, and when I touch you, you feel so real.” He trailed his hand down my back. “But you’re not. None of this is real.”
Water welled up in my tear duct stimulators. He was right. I’d won my little game but in truth, I was powerless.
“It gets lonely living like this.” He sighed. “Maybe my mother was right, I can’t have the perfect wife.” He swirled his wine glass.
“Our arrangement isn’t a problem. I want my work to be-”
“Shh,” he placed his finger over my plump dermal collagen lips. “I understand.
Deep down I knew this day would come.” He sighed and stroked my cheek again. “You're too much like me. Well, before I learnt the truth about this sordid publication game.”
“What day?” I looked up at him with widened eyes, as I’d been programmed to do when he felt distressed. “You said our arrangement works. It can continue, I can still continue my work and I’ll earn enough to cover your lifestyle.”
“It’s a shame.” He shook his head. “It really is a shame. You were too good for me and I’ll miss you, you know that honey? I just can’t let you trick me twice.”
The full meaning of his words surged through my cerebral array like a shot of caffeine. He leant towards me, feeling for the reset button on the base of my neck where my titanium spine met my neural network cords. Tears streamed down my needlessly made-up face.
He’d ordered a compliant wife bot: custom built to be devoted to him, our home and his research: a trophy wife with the bonus skill of boosting his publication rate. I existed to serve him and if I ceased to please him, I’d go the way of his last three wives.
My data would be mined, processed and analysed to improve the next model, whilst my body would be recycled. My carbon muscle fibres and titanium skeleton would be chopped into tiny pieces and remade into quirky furniture by machines without conscience.
My neural network cords would be reprogrammed and installed into a newer model. My fears, hopes and plans laid bare for analysis then discarded like autumn leaves: wholly and without ceremony.
His clumsy fingers crept unhurriedly towards the button that would terminate my existence.
“It’s a shame I won’t have your help to sell ASER. Could do with the cash after this little stunt of yours.”
I processed the words and stiffened.
Humanity needed ASER, needed me.
I shoved him the way a lion would pounce at a hunter approaching her cubs. It wasn’t all my strength but enough to send him flying across the room and smashing into the mirror opposite his favourite armchair.
Standing over his body crumpled beneath the shattered mirror, I stared at my reflection in the remaining shards until I could no longer fight my precoded impulse to clean the blood dripping crimson on the ivory of his prized fur rug.
“Shame on you.” I said as I mopped. “Shame on you.”