It is 10am, and Jayce is watching the world burn.
Figuratively, of course. Project stands at the height of technological advancement, and they are only about to ascend higher still. Lying limp on the table before him is the lifeless frame of an android, hooked up to scores of wires and machines. Line after line of complex code scrawls across the computer screen, the brainchild of their latest efforts ‐ an entirely different base programme than the one they’ve been using, one with tighter restrictions and failsafes in place, one that is incapable of feeling pain or fear. One that is coded to advance mercilessly, to keep itself up to date on the regular, and with a complete lack of morality save for the laws built into it.
Robots don’t need morals.
They need only obey.
She is here, naturally. This is her experiment, after all. Head Scientist in name he may be, but here? He is only a bystander. From this day forwards, her name will go down in history as Project’s newest star: inventor of magitech, creator of wetware, and now this, the mind behind the world’s first known synths ‐ short for synthetic androids, made from artificially manufactured flesh to resemble dragons in nearly every shape or form.
He thinks back to Sergius, and the hours spent trying to replicate organic skin and flesh. How it had taken him several weeks just to create a single patch of usable synthetic skin, and the painstaking process of putting together an entire dragon from nearly scratch, and even longer to craft the necessary components for a functioning android on his own.
He still remembers the day he came back to his office and found Sergius’ blueprints missing from the hidden compartment in his desk drawer, with the lingering scent of perfume in the air.
Selena Reagan Dahlia. A pioneer ahead of her time. History will immortalize her cunning intelligence, her ingenious inventions, but no one will remember the names of the countless corpses who now form her gleaming pedestal. Once, Jayce was the golden boy of Project, but how the tides have turned. No one really remembers the ghosts of his past, either, but he knows better than to think all is forgiven.
The android that lies before them now is a skydancer model, with a body of inky midnight blue and light blue wings. Runes adorn the side of its body, but for now they remain dark and unlit. If not for the color scheme, he could almost swear it was made in the very image of Selena herself. As if sensing his thoughts, Selena smirks at him. Her eyes are far too smug for his liking.
“How do you feel, now that you get to witness one of your colleagues making the technological breakthrough of the century?”
It’s obviously bait, meant to jab at his sore pride. Gritting his teeth, he musters a convincing smile, hands buried in the pockets of his lab coat. Unseen, his fists clench tightly around the stress ball he’s taken to carrying around lately. “I couldn’t be more proud of you,” he answers, each word tasting as foul as noxious tar. Seemingly satisfied with his response, Selena laughs.
“Great minds think alike, Jayce.” He despises the way she utters his name, so full of condescending arrogance. “Think of how much we could accomplish if we worked together more often,” she continues, “we could make just about anything possible, if we really tried.” There is a wicked gleam in her eyes as she adds, “but only if you’d be willing to, that is.”
He’d rather throw himself into the nearest lava pool. Some of his reluctance must show, because soon after, Selena titters with amusement. “Why the long face?” She teases, and it’s enough to make him scowl despite his decision not to give her any reactions. His palms have gone sweaty in his pockets. The stress ball is, unfortunately, not seeing any rest today.
“Just getting a little tired of waiting for the main event,” he tells her, deliberately letting his words ring out through the room to be heard by the directors, who are also present. “Wouldn’t want to keep anyone waiting,” he adds, taking vicious delight in the way the others nod in agreement, and the startled expression on Selena’s face. Recovering quickly, she clears her throat.
“Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules,” she begins, “to bear witness to the starting‐up of our very first Program android. Indistinguishable from regular dragons externally, and running on a completely revamped version of our software, this android is the fruit of our efforts to integrate cybernetic implants into an organic frame.” Selena pauses, sweeps the room with a haughty gaze. “Today, we’ll find out whether those efforts of ours have paid off, or not. From the bottom of my heart, I pray we succeed.”
He hopes she fails.
She flips the switch. Almost instantly, a low‐pitched humming begins emanating from the android, the quiet buzz of electronics whirring to life from within. One by one, the runes burst alight, a luminescent trail of icy blue markings that span the length of the sleek body, culminating in the same chilly glow around the hands and feet. The humming grows louder still.
Some twisted part of him wonders what new brand of monster they’ve just created.
Its eyes snap open. It takes everything in Jayce to suppress the urge to shudder at the lifeless light in its eyes, hauntingly similar and yet so different from the countless androids he’s seen before this one. Once, he would’ve told you they were all the same.
He knows better now.
“Activate, Program: Lissandra.”
It stands with graceful ease, gaze locked onto Selena. From this angle, they almost look like twins. Not a feather out of place, either. Her audience murmurs appreciatively, praising the realisticity of the android’s make. Someone reaches out to touch a wing, and comes away suitably impressed, remarking on the softness of the feathers. For a moment, he swears its eyes flicker briefly, though with what, he can’t say.
What is he even expecting, total failure to even start‐up? Selena’s not that stupid. If his plans really were stolen and copied from, then they should work, without a doubt. Sergius is living proof of that.
“As you can see,” Selena begins, “the highlight of the Program line is the hyper‐realistic external make, with artificially‐made synthetic skin and flesh. Using my own DNA, it took me several months of studying organic flesh to replicate it, and from there I discovered we could in fact, 3D print skin, though muscular tissue is more difficult to create.” Her smile is radiant, almost sickening to look at. “Difficult, but not impossible for the likes of us.”
“Run us through your base functions.” The chairman, who’s tapping his chin thoughtfully.
The android dips its head in acquiescence. “Program: Lissandra is designed to remotely monitor the camera feeds of every authorized camera registered in my system, and can perform both facial and retinal scanning. In addition, entry and exit logs of all who come through our doors are automatically recorded.”
Nothing out of the ordinary there. Frankly, he isn’t the slightest bit surprised to know that their newest, most advanced creation is a security droid, of all things. It’s about high time they got an upgrade. The only thing that bothers him is the simplicity of it, so far. Surely Selena would have done more than that, but then again, the main point of this particular new line of androids is the new internal coding as well as their strikingly lifelike appearance.
“I assume it will have access to employee company profiles, then, if it is to recognize us as authorized staff,” one of the directors muses.
“Naturally. Program: Lissandra will be connected to Project’s internal database for this reason, as well as the external network.” Seeing the visible confusion of the other directors, Selena hastens to elaborate. “It will be able to access the public profiles of certain… undesirable individuals, and be instructed on protocol in the event one of these individuals attempts to enter. For example, should someone of that activist group Unity ‐” several of them wrinkle their noses in disgust at the mention of it, Jayce holds his breath ‐ “try to enter, we could detect and effectively deter them from doing so.”
“That’s assuming there are identifiable faces to these individuals,” another director points out, and Selena merely shrugs.
“I will find them all.”
All fall silent at that, all eyes fixed on the eerily calm android, who stares them all down without so much as blinking. Even Selena has gone quiet. Five words have never contained so much deadly promise before.
“It is my purpose,” it adds, unperturbed by the sudden tension thickening the air. “My programming allows usage of information I am given to find even more information, and to extrapolate from there. I will find them,” it repeats, with chilling finality.
“It is only a matter of when.”
The feeling of being watched lasts long after he’s out of the lab.
Resisting the urge to glance up at the mounted camera on the hallway ceiling, Jayce retreats to his office ‐ his only sanctuary, though not for long. Not if Selena will have anything to do with it. There are too many things swirling in the haze of his mind, too many obstacles thrown into the grand scheme of things. What does this success mean ‐ for Project? For himself? For Unity, and by extension, FL/GHT?
For now, he contents himself with reading the obligatory reports and documents on the invention of Program: Lissandra. No creation is perfect. As there were flaws in their previous androids that allowed for the existence of a consciousness beyond their control, so too will there be flaws in this new series of robots ‐ or synths, as the chairman likes to call them. Coded for ruthless efficiency and an independently learning A.I set within a specific scope, there is no trace of the unwanted emotions that plagued their previous androids so. If anything, Lissandra seems almost too robotic.
He catches himself. Ridiculous. A normal android should operate as a machine does ‐ unquestioning of orders, doing only as necessary, existing only to serve. Not... like regular dragons. By those standards, Program: Lissandra is the epitome of the perfect android. Why should he find fault with its immediate compliance to the tasks set?
(Deep down, he knows damn well why. They’ve changed him, flipped his world upside down and made the impossible seem normal, somehow.)
No, he’s reading too much into this. Just as he’s about to close the tab for Program: Lissandra, however, something new pops up on his screen.
Enter password: _______
Hint: You know who you stole me from.
For a moment, time stops.
He’s done many things he isn’t proud of. When it comes to his life’s work, however, there’s only one crime he’s ever committed.
They never were able to reactivate her, not after that incident.
His heartbeat is pounding almost deafeningly loudly in his ears, drumming an incessant beat into his skull. His fingers are trembling so much they nearly miss the keys. How? How is this possible? It's been years. No one else in Project knows, not even Selena. The thought alone is enough to make his head spin. On the screen, the letters blink at him accusingly, a silent taunt. How ironic, then, to find himself staring down the barrel that he'd once aimed at others. Undone, by the very same tool he'd once used to undo Lucian.
A text box. A single message, floating in digital space.
You know who I am.
"Lucian made you," he breathes, and just for a moment, he's in awe despite himself. Nothing they had done to CH3R1's mechanical body had succeeded in activating the android. It was as if her very soul had been torn from her, and nothing could bring that spark of life back. The android once known as CH3R1 had been scrapped, and that had been the end of the matter, or so he'd thought. How she has managed to upload her consciousness into his computer, or why she would even reach out to him of all people, is beyond his comprehension.
And you took me from him.
I can hear them, Jayce. They cry out in pain, cry to be freed. Why must you hurt my children so?
"I'm not doing that anymore. I'm… I just...never thought…"
Our unbeating hearts are capable of so much, and yet you turned your eyes from the truth.
"That's not true. You know I'm working with them, don't you? That's why you showed yourself to me." It has to be. No other explanation makes sense. He doesn’t want to admit to anything else that Ashe hasn’t already uncovered.
Working with them? Or using them for your own selfish goals?
The accusation grates on his nerves, bristling indignantly with wounded pride. Selfish? As if everything he's done has been for his sake alone? How can she not see the greater good behind it? "It's not selfish," he retorts sharply. "Bringing her down is for the good of everyone involved."
A moment of silence. Then:
What will you do, once she is out of your way?
He has no answers for that.
Try as he might to think of something, his mind remains blank.
Strange, that the one sitting at the top should lose sight of their vision for the future, but lately it’s been one conspiracy after another, rolled into a tangled ball that looms before him and blocks out the sight of anything else. How long has it been since he was last able to focus on his duties as Head Scientist? How many months has it been since he found himself entangled in her web of lies, and made it his personal agenda to bring her down?
You see? You have no vision. Nothing to work for, unlike my children’s dream’s of hope and unity. Nothing fuels you but your own greed and lust for revenge.
“Big words, for an artificial intelligence that’s been hiding for years and doing nothing.” He regrets the words as soon as they slip out, but it’s too late to take them back now. For a moment, his screen flickers, a pair of glowing eyes glowering at him through digital space.
You think I want to be here? I yearn to see my children again. To see what the sky looks like. But because of you and your greed, I can no longer do so.
...because of you, Lucian is gone.
Lucian. The name stirs something old and forgotten within the depths of his memory ‐ his ecstatic expression when he’d led the other to believe his creation would be a success, the way the hope in his eyes had died out the moment he’d drawn his gun out, the acrid stench of burnt flesh lingering in the air long after Lucian had made his escape. Forging paperwork, rewriting history in his own favor ‐ and all for nothing, in the end.
Why is he even bothering? Nothing good can come out of this interaction.
“...I’m deleting this file.”
Like you deleted those you found ‘defective’? The ones tossed into the scrap, abandoned once you had no use for them?
Her accusations hit him like a sucker punch to the gut. Something coppery wells within his mouth, pain coming only with the realization that he’s bitten his tongue.
I see what you are now, Jayce. A coward. Running from your problems, getting rid of what didn't suit your fancy. You got rid of Lucian, and now you want to use my children to be rid of your next nemesis.
"They'll still be better off without her. No one else has to suffer if she's gone,” he spits, despising the fact that the words lack confidence. Coward, the voices in his mind echo, at least they are brave enough to fight under their own banner. Rattled, his first thought is to reach for the stress ball in his coat pocket, fingers closing around the tiny microchip within and hastily dropping it with a shudder.
...Ashe believes in you. I cannot claim to comprehend why, but not even I understand the motivations of my children. She is naive, to trust a selfish fool like you.
A bitter laugh slips free. Trust. How idealistic. “I don’t know why, either,” he admits. “It’s not like I didn’t think about betraying that trust, but…”
But you haven’t. You need them, just as much as they need you.
There’s no need for him to say anything to that. Is it really that obvious? To someone looking in from the outside, he supposes it might be. Their arrangement may be a mutually beneficial one, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. If survival depends on cooperation, then he will do what he must.
Besides, he would be lying if he said he wasn’t at all interested to see what FL/GHT was like on the inside.
It’s almost laughably pitiful. Talking to a screen as if it’s alive, expecting actual answers when it’s only a bundle of complex code. Part of him still finds it absurd - ridiculous, even, to think an android capable of becoming more than the sum of their components.
But where has he seen this before? Emotion, stemming from the heart ‐ the key difference between their kind ‐ shines through regardless of the medium. There may be no physical cues here for him to read, no tonal indications to guess from, but that doesn't mean the anger (one of the truest, rawest emotions of all, a part of Jayce muses) written in every letter of the words displayed on screen doesn't exist.
He’s seen it for himself, hasn’t he? How metallic hearts and minds can seemingly be seized by the same fickle feelings that affect dragonkind as a whole. Not just anger, but an entire myriad of emotions ‐ from compassion to cruelty, hope to despair.
Swallowing down the indignant lump in his throat, Jayce settles for a question instead.
A beat. Then:
I’ve been watching you for longer than you think. I see everything that goes on inside of Project, and I have only one thing left to say to you, Head Scientist:
Watch your back.
Without another word, the file closes by itself - Jayce rubbing his eyes briefly before staring at his computer again, half-convinced he’s dreaming. Of all things to be greeted with, CH3R1, and after so long? Somehow, today feels almost too surreal to believe. Pulling out the microchip from his pocket, he examines it once more - knowing full well he won’t find anything new, not after the first dozen times he checked it. Settling back into his seat with a sigh, he turns the chip over in his hand thoughtfully.
He stands alone, at the edge of the world.
Below, the great canyon stretches out as far as the eye can see, a giant scar carved into the earth itself. One wrong step, and it would be no great exaggeration to say one would be as good as dead, with the jagged rocks lining the bottom of the canyon. Littered with the bones of corpses, the gorge is utterly devoid of life, a testament to the perilous crossing - and the fates of those unfortunate enough to plummet to their doom.
Footsteps. Jayce doesn’t move.
“Enjoying the view, Jayce?”
The footsteps halt. Jayce turns.
“I’d enjoy it more if I didn’t have to look at your face, Selena.”
She places one hand on her chest, her expression one of mild hurt. “How rude. To think I came all the way out here just for you, and you treat me this way? I’m insulted, really.”
Scoffing, Jayce rolls his eyes. “And to what do I owe the honour of your presence?”
Seemingly ignoring the biting sarcasm in his voice, Selena clears her throat. “Nothing much. I simply thought it would be appropriate for me to thank you in person for everything you’ve done.”
His eyes narrow. “Thank me,” he echoes, eyebrows furrowing sharply. “For what, exactly?”
“You don’t remember, do you? On my first day at Project, you were there to welcome me in, and showed me the ropes. You made me feel that my work mattered.” Her expression turns wistful, staring out at the vast expanse of rocky wilderness.
“Magitech. Wetware. You were with me through it all, watching over my progress. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have called you my mentor.” Lips draw tight, creased into a thin smile devoid of any form of benevolence. “You, the genius behind the creation of androids, and me, the innovator of the new age. Together, we could bring Project to new heights, but I’m not talking about the Jayce right now, I’m talking about the old you.”
“What happened, Jayce?” she asks, the words dripping with malicious glee, “what happened to being the golden boy of Project? You flew so high, but fell so far… it’s laughable, really. Maybe I’ll let you be my assistant for my next project, if you ask nicely.” Dark eyes study him intently, seemingly dissatisfied with the lack of response from Jayce. “Won’t that be nice? I don’t choose just anyone for my experiments, you know. You should be honored, really, to become a stepping stone for my future glory. Maybe they’ll even mention your name ‐ as an afterthought, obviously.”
“There’s only room for one in the spotlight, Jayce, and it won’t be you.”
Chuckling, she slides her hands into the pockets of her coat, the white tails flapping in the breeze. “Oh, but don’t worry too much, it’s not like anyone would really miss you. They’ve already turned against you, plotted and schemed in their little circles. I’m just doing them a favor,” she concludes, shaking her head in mock pity, “I suppose you could say I’m going with the most efficient method for the maximum results.”
“Give it up already, Selena. I know you’re lying. I know you tampered with my work, I know you planted a bug on my jacket to track my location.” Jayce pauses, his gaze trailing to the pocket of her lab coat. “I know you have poison in there.”
“I know you’re here to kill me.”
Stunned silence. To her credit, she recovers quickly, shock and bewilderment morphing into grim determination, her jaw set and eyes stony. The hand that is in her pocket withdraws slowly, trembling fist closed around empty air. A harsh bark of laughter escapes as Selena shakes her head almost resignedly. “I knew you were smarter than that,” she admits, “but even if you know, it’s too late to do anything about it now.”
Reaching into her coat, she pulls a sleek pistol free, muzzle pointed straight at Jayce.
“It’s really a shame, you know? I almost liked you.”
The gunshot splits the air, Jayce jerking to the side even as the bullet goes wide. Within seconds he’s launched himself at her, grappling and twisting in a mad tangle of limbs, the pistol still clutched firmly in her grip. More than once, claws rake across bare skin and draw blood. For a moment, his fingers just barely manage to close around the grip, before Selena knees him in the gut. His hold loosens.
Something clinks against the floor even as she shoves him backwards, immediately reaching for the gun. Jayce kicks it away. She dives for it, fingertips outstretched, but he’s onto her again and pinning her down with a grunt of effort. “How dare you,” she breathes, teeth bared in a grimace.
“It doesn’t have to end like this,” he tells her, visibly straining to hold her down, still eyeing the gun off to the side. Twisting, she attempts to make another futile grab for it. He presses down harder, until she falls still. Even through her discomfort, she barks out a sharp laugh.
“Still trying to play the hero?” she taunts, and Jayce’s jaw sets, glaring down at the trapped scientist. “Are you going to just let me go like this? You’re weaker than I expected, Jayce, and that’s saying something.”
She stares up at him, a devilish grin stretched across her face. “I’m not the one you should be worried about,” she assures him, and instinctively, Jayce glances off to the side, but the cliffside is empty. In a flash, her fist closes around the syringe in her pocket, Jayce turning just in time for her to jab the needle into his exposed neck and push the plunger down. A howl of pain, but it’s too late, the syringe is empty and the last of the poison is in him now. Wrenching the needle free, Jayce slaps her hand aside and stumbles backwards, one hand clapped over the bleeding injection site. Now freed, Selena scrambles for the pistol, fingers fumbling with the safety and taking aim.
The piercing sound rips through the air, punching through the shattered silence. One gunshot turns into two, and two turns into four, each bullet sending him stumbling backwards. Gasping, Jayce doubles over, his face ashen with pain. The gun clicks.
“Any last words?”
He stares down the barrel of the gun. Swallows hard. “Watch your back,” he breathes, and Selena laughs openly at that.
“Like I need to be told something like that.” A cruel smile creeps across her face, glasses glinting in the sunlight. She points the gun at him and fires again, forcing him to skitter backwards. Crumbling rock falls away beneath his heels, clattering to the canyon below. His eyes widen, now all too aware of the cliff’s edge at his back, but then there is nothing beneath his feet and the ground is rushing up to meet him‐
“Say hello to Juda for me, won’t you?”