“Agent JUDA5, you have your orders. FL/GHT is counting on you. Good luck."
The voice crackling in his ear drew a soft sigh from the agent, how many times had he heard this pre-recorded message? A cursory check of his equipment and communications devices later and he was off, striding towards the building that loomed ominously over him, a sleek hulking mass of polished steel panels. This would be his home for the next few months, Juda mused, he supposed he had better get used to how it looked. At the gate, a simple wave of his forged ID card against the sensor was enough to get him in - they had the Infiltration team to thank for that, a proper access pass made things much easier to get in and out without attracting undue notice. Unfortunately, it wouldn't give him clearance to access much, but that was his purpose in coming here - to win over the trust of the staff and work his way past those barriers somehow to find out just what exactly Project was up to.
It wasn't long after he stepped inside that he was greeted by another scientist, peering at her tablet.
"They told me to expect a new partner coming in today. I assume that's you?"
He dipped into an exaggerated bow. "Juda at your service, miss…" he trailed off, arching a questioning eyebrow at the other dragon.
"Selena." Ah, one of those types, was she? Juda could see it in the way she held herself, how she barely even spared him a glance apart from confirming his identity. Gaining her trust would be no easy feat, but he hadn't been chosen for this mission for nothing - was she already walking away? Juda hastened to catch up to her retreating figure, falling into step beside her moments later.
“So, how may I serve you?” Juda drew the word out, peering over her shoulder to sneak a peek at her tablet, only to be irritably brushed off. It hardly bothered him any, all he did was flash her a winning smile - even if her only response was to turn away and gesture for him to follow her through a set of pass-encrypted doors. Her keycard was enough to get them through, Juda wincing under the sudden dazzling glare of the lights that flickered to life when they entered. Only when she had led him to the empty desk in the corner of the room that he understood - this was the space he would occupy during his time here. That meant the desk opposite likely belonged to Selena, sure enough, it was cluttered with towering piles of books and stacks of research materials.
“Starting from today you’re my assistant. You’ll document results, type up reports, handle administration duties and the like.” Selena’s tone brooked no nonsense, already she was back at her desk sifting through the mountain of documents stacked atop it. No other form of background knowledge given. Juda restrained the urge to puff out a sigh - he could already tell working with her was hardly going to be the most pleasant experience. A slim folder was pressed into his hands, Selena nudged him towards his seat with curt instructions to “read and summarise the contents in a report.”
This wasn’t so bad, Juda mused, leafing through the papers and thanking the gods that he’d undergone some measure of education in engineering and physics before this. It made his task that much more bearable, if no less mundane. She was testing him, Juda realized, this was the perfect chance to prove his ability to her and hopefully earn her respect. What he had been handed were direct notes scrawled in a messy hand, observations of a certain subject. Putting the points into a coherent report was hardly a challenge for him, not when all the information he needed was right there. All he needed to do was to set up an account on the computer provided and start typing.
Two hours and one cup of water later - Selena had brought it to him sometime in the midst of his work - Juda was done, clicking ‘print’ with a satisfied huff and spinning himself around in his chair to face the other dragon, who was perched at her own desk. Fishing the paper from the printer, the folder was handed back to Selena with the same proud flourish that marked most, if not all of his actions. It was wordlessly accepted, examined, and set on top of another steadily growing pile of papers beside her.
“So… was that all?”
That finally got a reaction out of her. Beady eyes paused in their scanning of another document, Selena scrutinized him silently for several long moments, though not once did Juda show discomfort under the heavy weight of her stare. He was accustomed to such examination - he knew he didn’t appear to be the studious type, not with the bright colors splashed across his wings and body. Shrugging, all he could really offer by way of explanation was “I’m used to scientific jargon.”
“That was just the beginning, Juda. Come, this way.”
Without another word she got up and led him out through a veritable maze of winding passageways - Juda counted 3 left and 2 right turns before he stopped trying to remember them all - halting right before another room labelled ‘Parts and Service: Assembly’.
The doors hissed open, a blast of air-conditioned air hit him as Selena marched him inside. As far as the eye could see there were tables upon tables - some empty, but most occupied with some form of machine or android piled on top, spare parts strewn across the surfaces like glittering gems. Scientists and engineers alike bustled to and fro like bees swarming around a hive, a sense of frantic and feverish activity permeated the very air in this place, along with the none-too-subtle odor of mechanical grease. There was no inaction to be found here, almost everyone had their hands full in some way whether be it taking something apart or putting it together. Still, the scale of the workshop chamber frankly astounded Juda, it was nothing like he’d seen back in the FL/GHT base he’d come from. He would’ve much liked to stay and gawk a little longer, note more details that would be of use in his report back to FL/GHT, but Selena was already chivvying him towards another door inside.
“You can see that any day you choose to come here. That’s not what I wanted to bring you in for, anyway.” Selena paused to scan her keycard once more, the lock beeping in assent as the doors slid open.
In contrast, this room was far quieter than the workshop they’d left behind. Fewer scientists, the murmur of their voices mingling with the soft incessant beeping emanating from the central control panel in the middle. Before Juda could even begin to wonder why one would possibly need that many buttons to push, his attention was caught by a slender figure so entangled in wiring that it almost appeared trapped. Maybe that’s the point, his mind whispered, but Juda shoved aside the misgivings in favor of following Selena - though his heart sank when he realised they were headed right towards said figure.
A trio of scientists who had been huddled around the dragon - no, android, Juda realised as soon as he saw the metallic sheen of the wings - soon noticed their approach, parting to grant them access. The longer he looked the more cables he observed poking from just about any crevice he could find on the android’s body, built to resemble a pearlcatcher, even with a matching pearl in its unmoving claws. Juda had seen many of these before, many of them now roamed the halls of FL/GHT’s sanctuaries, but to see one in this sort of situation was something else entirely.
“Project: Memory v2,” Selena explained quietly, gesturing at the pearl. “A modified version of the ones which were taken from us, and designed as an electronic storage device for the lair.”
With a nod to one of the scientists standing by obediently, a switch was thrown back. Instantly the markings along the pearlcatcher’s body sparked to brilliance, cyan suffusing the pearl it held until it glowed with a steady, pulsating luminance. The eyes flickered open, slits of matching neon, fixated first on Juda - was that bewilderment he sensed in those split seconds their gazes met? - before locking back onto Selena, who seemed content that the android’s booting-up phase was complete.
“Begin testing sequence of Project: M2.”
The scientist nodded, and began typing in a sequence of commands into the system. From what Juda could make of the text, they were sending files to the device labelled “M2.exe” onscreen, as well as transferring different files out of it. A second panel indicated a graph with a pair of wavering lines, and as he watched they would fluctuate on occasion, but for the most part remained parallel. Those lines represented the upload and download speeds of M2.exe, Selena informed him, though her lip curled in distaste as she peered at the exact numbers on the screen. Clearly, M2.exe wasn’t quite performing up to expectation today.
And everyone knew what happened when androids failed to meet expectations…
Juda repressed a shudder, praying this one wasn’t sentient - he’d heard that not all of Project’s androids had the code compatible with the one that granted them sentience and the ability to feel as a normal dragon would. From the stories he’d been told, he already had a sinking feeling as to what exactly was coming next.
“Selena, M2.exe’s transferral rates are falling below its average speed.”
“Authorization to apply controlled shock granted.” Grim, unyielding, business-like - as if it meant nothing to her that such an extremely painful measure had to be taken in order to achieve results. Juda swallowed past the tightening lump in his throat, forced himself to don an expression of bland interest. Of course he’d heard the horror stories, seen the scars on some of the others back home, but having to witness it firsthand wasn’t something he’d ever actually had to do on previous missions.
The android stiffened abruptly, head jerking backwards and jaw gaping open in a soundless howl. No sparks flew, but it was enough to tell him that they’d made good on that authorization. Ensnared as it was amidst the tangle of thick wires, Juda could barely make out the faintest twitching of android’s tail, the scrape of its claws against the tile.
“Running test sequence again.” One of the scientists called out, fingers already flying across the keyboard as he keyed in the sequence codes.
So soon? Juda had hoped they would give the poor creature a break, but it seemed no such mercy was to be found here. He risked a glance at Selena, whose face appeared impassive. It made his heart sink even further. Not a sympathetic soul to be found here, apparently. That pearlcatcher’s reaction had confirmed all he had needed to know - here was another one in need of FL/GHT’s saving, trapped in yet another prison. How many others were there in this facility alone, Juda briefly wondered, before deciding it was better not to think about it.
Several minutes passed in relative silence while they awaited the results of the next test. With a start, Juda realised he hadn’t even been taking any notes whatsoever, neither had he been given any instructions to follow. Surely Selena wasn’t expecting him to write down his observations of this android, was she? He quirked a questioning eyebrow at her, mouthing the words “anything for me to do?”, though all she answered with was a dismissive flick of her tail. Somewhat disgruntled, Juda left it at that.
“Upload speed has increased, but download speed remains the same.” The report drew a collective sigh from the group, though Juda was sighing for a very different reason altogether. Two mistakes in such a short time period? He really didn’t want to know what they’d do if a third slip-up were to occur. While the others were discussing their next step, he sidled over to the android and gave it a gentle pat on the head, wishing he had something, anything to say that could be of comfort. He could feel the faint trembling beneath his palm, bit his lip to keep from blurting anything that would give him away.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Selena shooting him a perplexed “what are you doing” look, automatically withdrawing his hand before anyone else noticed him and stuffing it hastily into his coat pocket. Heat rose to his cheeks, he hadn’t expected her to be that eagle-eyed, but it seemed he had to be more cautious from now on. No words were spoken, though Juda felt the weight of her curious stare burning into his back long after he’d turned away from her.
Fortunately, it was decided that the problem was due to an external malfunction on the system itself and not the android. Juda barely dared to utter the sigh of relief he’d been holding in for what felt like an eternity as Selena dismissed the other dragons. Silence fell once again, with nothing but the ambient whirring of the air-conditioning and the beeping he’d already gotten used to hearing. No doubt about it, she wanted to know why he’d been caught petting the android, treating it as if it was ‘real’. Juda braced himself for the inevitable reprimanding he knew would come forth, someone like Selena surely wouldn’t accept the notion of androids deserving to be treated well -
“...I understand it might be hard to distance yourself from them. They look just like us, after all.”
What? Juda blinked at her in mild confusion, mouth opening and closing awkwardly. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all, wasn’t this the point where she started going on about not letting sentimentality cloud his work? That was what he’d been trained to expect, after all.
Seeing his visible bewilderment, Selena gestured at the now-inactive pearlcatcher android. “She’s built to look like a dragon. It’s natural you’d empathize with her, but she’s just a machine. It is a machine.”
Maybe this was a chance to test the waters a little. “But if she could feel like regular dragons did? Would that still make it right to treat her like that?” Juda ventured, quite encouraged by her less-than-negative response thus far. Perhaps she was more compassionate than her behavior had suggested.
Her answer was an immediate shake of her head, Selena rounding on him as soon as the words left his mouth. “Of course not. That’s taking it too far, that would be like experimenting on actual dragons. Are you saying these androids are capable of feeling pain, Juda?”
Such a weighted question. Juda knew well the consequences of giving an ‘incorrect’ answer to that. At least he’d successfully brought up the concept of androids being able to feel like regular dragons, that was more than what he’d expected to accomplish in one day. Hands raised in mock-surrender, Juda backed off a step or two, shooting her a coy wink.
“What do you think?”
Selena regarded him for several long moments, before puffing out an exasperated sigh and turning her back on him. “I don’t have anything else for you to do, but you’re free to explore the facilities if you wish. Make yourself at home,” with another parting wave she bent her head over the android, face hidden in shadows from where he stood.
“What’re you working on this time?”
Selena had her face buried in her files once again, but withdrew for a moment to peer up at him from over the rim of her glasses. When Juda repeated the question, she fished out a single sheet of paper and mutely handed it to him. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a letter from her superiors, more of a memo directed towards staff of Project at her level.
“We’ve received complaints about Project androids malfunctioning to severe extents when sent to the mines in Arcane territory. Needless to say, this defeats the purpose of sending them there in replacement of actual dragons. The malfunctioning androids have been recalled and dealt with accordingly.
This problem must be looked into, and I want a solution or an alternative model built for this one by the end of the month, else we risk losing our clients in Arcane.”
Juda quirked an eyebrow at her once he finished reading, leaning over her desk to study the sketches she had already drafted. It wasn’t just that one sheet of paper she was working on, either, he spotted the remnants of several other crumpled sketches lying forlornly beside her table, likely cast aside in her frustration. A month was far too tight a deadline for a solution of the scale that was being asked of them, Juda’s chest ached with sympathy at the stress Selena was no doubt under.
In the time that he’d worked under her, he’d come to understand that she wasn’t really all that bad of a dragon. Tight-lipped at times, but not once had she ever made him feel unwelcome or fearful of mistakes. The fact that she appeared to be against experimenting on androids if they had the capacity to feel was also another plus factor in Juda’s opinion. Who knew, perhaps he’d be able to sway her into joining the cause.
If there was anything one could say about Selena, it was her dedication. To have such a demanding schedule forced down one’s throat was something few could handle the stress of, but not once had Juda heard her complain. In fact, she’d already started on said drafts of solutions, when other scientists he’d encountered were otherwise occupied with their grumbling. He couldn’t help the surge of newfound respect that welled up in him just watching her work, it made him want to pull up a chair and support her as best as he could - it wasn’t as if he had anything else better to be doing, anyway.
“The problem is the ambient magic that’s seeping into them.” Selena murmured absently, reaching over to grab one of the towering books stacked on a corner - Juda hastily snagged hold of it and passed it to her before the precarious balance of the books could be upset. Muttering a short “thanks”, she flipped the volume open and began poring over the pages, all full of cramped text, with the occasional diagram of some complicated device.
“You mean from the mines themselves?” Juda queried, forcing himself to look away once the words began blending into each other. Reading had never been his strong suit, and even now he vastly preferred tinkering with machines in favor of reading up on theoretical methods. Still, surely there had to be something he could think of that could help.
Selena gave him a slight inclination of her head, but continued reading.
Juda began pacing the room, tapping a steady beat on one arm as he went. “What’s even making them go haywire from magic? Sornieth’s full of the stuff, you’d think they could handle a bit more from the mines.”
“Juda, the mines are so suffused with ‘the stuff’ that only Arcane dragons can stay in prolonged exposure and not get sick from it.”
Oh. Fair point. Juda halted his pacing for just a moment, frowning. Arcane dragons were only able to tolerate the high magic concentration in the environment due to their innate resistance to magic, which also tended to enable them to utilize magic much more effectively than dragons from other flights could. That still didn’t explain just why Project androids were having trouble with it, it wasn’t as if they had internal biological systems that could be infected or mutated via extended exposure. When he voiced as much to Selena, she confirmed it with a gusty sigh.
“That’s exactly the problem. All we know is that they started jittering, and their sensors showed extraordinarily high power spikes in the area despite no one else being around.” The book in her grasp was slammed shut, Juda wincing in sympathy for the poor tome. Strange, though, that androids would react to magic at all - he’d thought it was something that only happened to organic beings.
Power spikes registering on their systems despite no other sources being around was indeed unusual, and definitely a cause for malfunction. Androids would naturally seek out the source of the perceived power in order to either eliminate the disruption or investigate it further, depending on its programmed orders. The only thing present in those mines was magic, unless that was what they were picking up on? Juda hadn’t imagined it was possible for machines to detect magic at all given that they ran purely off electricity, but if one considered that magic was commonly used as an alternative source of power…
He hadn’t even realised he’d been speaking aloud until he’d come back to his senses and found Selena gazing at him with an intensity he hadn’t known the other was capable of. For a moment, he faltered, thinking he’d said something foolish, but Selena instead held up a hand to gesture for him to halt.
“Suppose you’re right about that. The problem would simply be an overabundance of power that they can’t process, making their systems struggle to cope with energy they don’t know how to deal with,” Selena paused, one fine eyebrow arched. “We just need to build them to handle that power.” Her eyes flicked back to the texts and the sketches on her desk, sweeping them aside before tapping the tip of the pencil against her chin thoughtfully.
If she put it that way, however… then didn’t that make the solution much simpler? If machines were prone to failing when exposed to water, then make it water-resistant, or better yet waterproof. Overloaded circuitry could be fixed by building a transformer that allowed the excess power to be safely drained out. Who was to say similar concepts couldn’t apply here? If the problem was too much magic being absorbed, then…
“Make them magic-resistant.”
Yes, it was coming to him now. Juda snatched a pen from the desk, scribbling down notes as his thoughts whirled. “If there’s too much magic in the environment, then make the androids magic-resistant. Give them something that repels or absorbs magic harmlessly and they’ll work fine.”
Selena was catching on, head bobbing almost furiously as she added her notes to his. “A magic-to-power converter installed within their bodies would work too, and provide an extra power source if needed.” A hasty sketch appeared beside his handwriting, roughly labelled in her messy scrawl.
“We could use kunzite, since we know it can absorb magic pretty well.” Juda suggested, hastily writing the name down and adding a question mark beside it.
“But why stop there?” Selena mused, tilting her head back to meet his eyes. “We could make this converter you spoke of if we tested things out and found a way to convert magic into other forms of usable energy instead of using it right from the source, since our androids can’t process magic otherwise.”
“And if we make that converter…” Juda began.
“Then it should prevent androids from malfunctioning due to ambient magic,” Selena finished, beaming proudly at him as she set her pencil down. Juda could’ve flushed with joy, it was exhilarating to think that his own ideas had led to a possible resolution of a problem that would otherwise be near-impossible to solve - within the given time limit, anyway.
Several days and many cups of black coffee later, they’d finally finished drawing up the rough plans for a portable converter that could easily be fitted inside the body of an android, as well as detailing roughly how it would work. In addition, they’d even devised a battery of sorts, made to absorb ambient magic in the environment and store it safely within the android’s body. This magic could later be tapped on with the help of the converter. Magic, as Juda explained, was simply another form of raw energy waiting to be tapped on. If light was comprised of millions of particles - photons - then magic was simply comprised out of tiny particles of magic. Mages learnt how to manipulate those particles and focus it, channelling it according to their will. If kunzite could store magic, then all they needed was a way to convert it into a viable power source.
After all their brainstorming and the research they’d needed to pull out to verify their theories, one would’ve expected Selena to naturally want to present these findings to her superiors as soon as possible.
Which was why Juda was pleasantly astonished when he woke up the next morning to find Selena standing at his room door, offering the results of their research to him. Him, her assistant, of all dragons.
“It was your idea, so you should get the credit of presenting it to them,” she’d explained, even while escorting him to the offices of those among the higher echelons of Project’s hierarchy. She offered him a comforting pat on the shoulder even as she’d pushed the office door open, announcing their presence with a respectful “Good morning, sir”.
Lavish. That was the first thing that struck him about the office the moment he was pushed into it. What else did one describe the plush carpet as, the rich mahogany desk, the fanciful decorations littering the bookshelves on either side of the room? Here was luxury he had never dreamt of savouring in his life, so openly and casually displayed that it could only mean one thing - the occupant of this place was clearly not someone to be trifled with.
“Head Scientist Jayce. Regarding that memo you sent us about the malfunctioning androids, we might just have an answer to that problem.”
One eyebrow quirked in intrigued interest as he leaned forward, both elbows on the desk.
Perhaps they should’ve at least built a prototype for display purposes, now that Juda thought of it. Still, it was a little too late to be doing that when the Head Scientist himself was asking to see what they had in mind. All he could do was spread out the sketches they’d created and explain their hypothesis, point out the corresponding research they’d done to back up their claims. Simple in theory, but they all knew that creating such a converter would be the true test, so when Jayce merely shook his head Juda knew it had been foolish to get his hopes up in the first place.
“Listen, what you’re proposing means delving into an entirely new aspect of science that we know close to nothing about. We don’t even have the funds to cover that sort of large-scale experimentation,” Jayce told him, snorting as if Juda had just told him the answer lay in unicorns and cotton candy. “Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, you’re just an assistant, you lack the authority and funding,” he added, tossing the files back towards Juda, who fumbled to gather the precious documents in his arms. Heat was rising rapidly in the back of his throat, he itched to spit back a retort that Project could well-afford this sort of thing if Jayce could afford a grand office like this, but for the sake of retaining his ‘job’ he reluctantly held his tongue.
“He’s not wrong, Jayce. You just don’t want to acknowledge the presence of magic and how powerful it can be.” Selena’s voice rang out clear as a bell in the confines of the enclosed space, several short strides brought her right in front of the visibly- startled Jayce.
Her claw jabbed accusingly in his direction, inches from his face, Selena barely gave him a chance to speak before continuing her relentless verbal assault. “Magic is a part of Sornieth and all of us know it. Project as a company will not survive if we don’t accept magic for what it is, if we fail to embrace its limitless potential and work off it.” For a brief moment, she turned to glance back at the speechless Juda, winking slyly at him and turning back to the head scientist.
“If you will not endorse it, I will find a company who will, and I’ll bring them an offer from Project - a collaboration. You,” this time her claw poked him solidly in the chest, Juda just barely saw the dragon flinch, “will get no part of the credit for the breakthroughs Juda and I will make. Not unless you change your mind now and allow us permission to pursue this.”
“What say you, Head Scientist?”
“...Fine. You have my permission to proceed.”
The moment both of them left the room - barely able to contain the stifled glee on their faces - Juda caught Selena in a tight hug, whispering a muffled “thanks for stepping in” before releasing her, cheeks still hot. Talking back to the head scientist like that had been something he’d never dreamt Selena would dare try, but look where that attempt had gotten them! Truth be told his heart was still racing from just how close a call that had been, though it had been entirely worth the flabbergasted expression on the head scientist’s face. Juda couldn’t help the snicker that spilled from him, morphing into a fit of giggling, and then outright guffawing that made his chest ache so much he had to lean against the wall to steady himself. Beside him, Selena’s triumphant smirk soon evolved into a steady stream of hiccuping laughter, it wasn’t long before she too was reduced to using the wall as a means of balancing herself.
“That was certainly worth it,” Selena managed to gasp out, still fighting to catch her breath.
Juda could only clap her on the shoulder, too busy wheezing to generate a verbal response apart from “definitely”.
The next few months certainly kept them busy enough, what with all the information he needed to compile and pass along to FL/GHT. With Jayce’s permission and authority they’d tracked down a smaller company known for their expertise in fusing magic with their own brand of technology, by the name of the Praenuntian Biomechatronics Department(PBD, in short). Proposing a collaborative project for them to help further enhance Project’s androids in exchange for Project staying out of their current target markets proved to be the right call. Days later the PBD’s representatives showed up at Project Headquarters themselves, Selena ordering for them to be made comfortable before they began work proper.
“Ah, so you store lightning magic in here and then the androids can use it at their own will?”
“Acts as a backup power source when regular systems fail, too.”
The bogsneak, Duco, seemed particularly proud of himself, explaining the usefulness of his work with glee.
"Not that the main systems will fail." The leader of the group, a wildclaw named Dominor, interjected. "You underestimate the quality of our work."
Duco snorted, his expression implying this was a conversation they had repeated many times before. Even by now Juda and Selena had been subjected to the same words at least half a dozen times in the last week alone.
“Finally. I think it’s working now.”
Juda poked the compact, nondescript box almost hesitantly. Hard to believe that within that plain casing lay the fruits of their 6-month long efforts to create a working, power-efficient converter. Yet the results before their eyes spoke for themselves - a mage(courtesy of the PBD) channeling lightning magic into one end of it, with the other end plugged into a small lamp, which was currently glowing quite brightly. Cheers resounded from all around the workshop table, handshakes and shoulder-claps warmly exchanged as they basked in the success of their creation. Selena was making copious notes on the dimensions and the materials needed, but set down her pen soon after to flash him a brilliant smile.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without you, Juda.”
Juda choked on a stammering protest as he waved the compliment off. “I wouldn’t have been able to get the authorization if it weren’t for you backing me up, let’s not forget that,” he reminded her. When the others nodded and murmured their agreement, he was quick to brush it off. Still, though, that brought to mind the next natural question - would it work with an actual android’s body?
Unfortunately for them, Project had already scrapped the original malfunctioning models in favor of creating new ones that would be vessels for these converters should they have succeeded. The PBD’s role here, however, was complete, and it was with some measure of fondness that Juda bid the group of representatives farewell. The only issue was that these models were still in the manufacturing process and hadn’t exactly been top on the priority list, given how they’d essentially bullied the head scientist into giving his assent. Trust him to make things difficult for them.
“No matter,” Selena assured him. “We’ll find other things to make do.”
The delay wouldn’t be for long, or so he had assumed. On one hand, Juda was positively itching to see the results of their work firsthand. On the other, he was well-aware that Project would likely use these enhanced androids against FL/GHT, and any delay meant more time for FL/GHT to prepare the necessary countermeasures. It was his duty to report such vital information back to them, he’d been neglecting to include sufficient detail in his more recent communications lately. Whether it was out of a sense of loyalty to Selena, or Project, or perhaps he simply wanted to see his work come to true fruition, Juda couldn’t quite tell.
Whatever it was, he found that with each passing day he grew less attached to the FL/GHT of his dreams, and ever closer to the reality that awaited him every morning he awoke in Project’s facilities.
It was easily another month or so before those androids came anywhere near completion, and even then they needed time to be subjected to the standard testing that all Project androids went through. Selena was growing impatient.
Quite frankly, Juda didn’t blame her, not when he was equally as eager to test out the converter and the magical battery they’d invented.
Just another month.
The night they received word of the androids being ready for testing in a month’s time, they threw a little celebration party of their own. Late at night, long after the PBD representatives had retired to their own chambers, their shared office was awash with the finest foods they could buy - Selena’s considerably heftier paycheck had covered most of it - they’d even splurged a little on bubbly champagne and a fruit basket. It had been Selena’s idea, a way to reward themselves after all that hard work, she’d remarked.
After countless nights spent hunched over a worktop, peering at the tiniest of details and fussing over whether this component would work right or that part would fail… being able to relax felt almost like a dream. Juda was sprawled in his chair, absentmindedly swirling the pale amber liquid in his glass while watching the bubbles swirling to the surface like tiny comets. For once, his thoughts weren’t concerned with the progress of their innovations, at last he could simply sit back and let his mind drift.
“Cheers, Juda,” Selena raised her glass in a toast. “To our success - present and in the future.”
A short chuckle burst from Juda, but he obligingly clinked glasses with her all the same. “To our success,” he echoed, before tipping the drink back smoothly and letting it wash down his throat. Tantalizingly sparkling, with citrus undertones and just a hint of red berries, just the way he liked it. Rare were the occasions Juda had touched alcohol, it wasn’t something commonly indulged in back in FL/GHT. Yet here he was sharing drinks with a Project scientist - someone who in any other situation would be named his nemesis. The two sat in quiet contemplation for several minutes, each savouring the distinctly light flavor, before Selena broke the silence.
“Listen, I know I’m not the best boss to work for, but,” she hesitated, “I really appreciate what you do here. You’ve been the best partner I could ask for, even if you’re technically my assistant.” Her eyes darted towards him for a second, toying with the stem of an apple, as if a tad mortified at the confession. Juda’s only response was a roguish grin, about to brush it off as “just doing my job, miss”, though Selena stopped him halfway through with a more meaningful look on her face.
“I mean it. Without you, this,” she gestured to their inventions, “would never have happened at all.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m sure you would’ve hit on the idea eventually -”
She shook her head vehemently. “Not as likely as you might think. Either way you saved us all a lot of time.”
Juda had to admit she had a point there. “...it wasn’t anything much, really.”
One elegant eyebrow arched questioningly. “Still not convinced?”
“Nope. You said it yourself, all I did was save you guys some time.”
Selena heaved a sigh, took another slow sip of her champagne. “Thanks to you, Project may well be looking into an entirely new field of research - what I like to call magitech.” Upon noting his bafflement, she simply pointed towards the converter and the battery. He got the hint.
“This is huge, Juda, we’ve made a groundbreaking step into tech advancements and we’ve got the proof to show it. Think of what we could achieve by fusing magic and Project’s technology, think of the possibilities!” Her voice rose, almost breathless in her feverish excitement. “You and I could be the pioneers of something great for Project, take things far beyond what the PBD has accomplished. We’ll be hailed as heroes for this, Juda, mark my words.”
Selena was shaking visibly when she finished her sentence, Juda was quick to pat her on the back and urge her to steady herself with another sip of champagne. Despite his own reservations just moments before, he had to concede she was quite right about the new developments - surely Project wouldn’t pass up such a fantastic opportunity to study and implement new methods? If so, then it made sense for them to be the ones in charge of such research.
“We’ve come so far together, Juda. We just have a little more to finish, and then we’ll finally see the fruits of our labour.”
He paused, the faintest tints of pink creeping into his cheeks. This sense of pride and accomplishment… did he truly deserve it? Then again, Selena wasn’t the type for empty praise. A true smile spread across his face even as he refilled their glasses with a steady hand, tilting his glass towards her.
“To our success and our partnership.”
Her smile could’ve melted even winter’s icy chill.
Just another month, before their dreams could come to life.
So when they were delivered the news that Head Scientist Jayce wanted to cancel their project and not provide them with the android subjects they needed due to ‘lack of overall funding’, that was where they drew the line. They’d come so far now, there was no way they were letting them pull the plug like this, yet what could either of them do? It seemed Jayce had finally had enough of being pushed around and decided to stand his ground at the worst - or best, if you considered FL/GHT - of times.
All they needed was a vessel. A subject to test what they had made, in order to prove its success. Right now they didn’t even have that much. Night after night Juda paced in their shared office while Selena immersed herself in her documents once more, seeking some way they could build their own working vessel from scratch.
“... what if we found someone willing to undergo the experiments?”
Juda whipped around to give her a disbelieving look, wincing as his neck cricked from the unnatural movement after having hunched over his desk for several hours. Was he hearing her right?
“Did you just suggest experimenting on an actual dragon?”
It was Selena’s turn to eye him grimly, barely batting an eyelid at his incredulity. “Does it look like we have any other choice? Project’s already given up on it. On us.”
Before she could even finish the sentence Juda was already shaking his head, that was taking it too far. Even if the subject was ‘willing’, according to her. He’d joined FL/GHT to protect androids who were being cruelly mistreated, how could he ever stand for the same thing happening to other dragons like himself? Granted, he felt her anguish and her frustration as much as she did, having toiled for many sleepless nights over the converter and portable battery along with her. That didn’t mean it was acceptable to stoop to such means to test them out.
“I’m not letting anyone else get hurt just because Project wanted to be stingy and you couldn’t give up on it - ”
“Unless you want to take on that role, then?”
Juda nearly choked. “Excuse me?”
“You said you didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. But if you were to be the first subject… that would be the greatest sacrifice of all in the name of science. Think about it,” Selena spread her fingers wide, counting the points off, “no one gets hurt, we get to see the success of our innovation, prove Project wrong and you get the honor of being Project’s first magically enhanced creation. What else is there not to like about this solution?”
Using himself as a test subject? Now there was a notion that hadn’t even crossed Juda’s mind. Ridiculous, ludicrous to the point where it bordered on insanity, yet he couldn’t bring himself to dismiss it immediately despite the obvious risks it had. Selena was right, and they knew it. If Project wasn’t willing to supply them with the means they needed, and if he didn’t want Selena to resort to coercing other innocent dragons into agreeing, then this was the only other plausible alternative.
Besides, he’d worked alongside her for at least a year or so now. He had seen the extent of her passions, and understood how she operated. Her ambition and resolve to achieve said ambitions were nothing but admirable in Juda’s eyes. Compared to her and everything she’d accomplished before he’d even arrived at Project, compared to everything she’d carefully guided him through, could he really say no?
“...I’ll do it.”
As expected, Selena’s resulting smile was so dazzling it almost hurt to look at it.
Mere hours later he found himself on a makeshift operating table - more accurately, his barren desk after she’d shifted everything off it - with Selena hovering over him, scanning his face for any sign of discomfort. She’d given him heavy painkillers to take the edge off in lieu of any proper anaesthetic, apologising constantly until Juda had knocked them back just to make her stop fretting. As he was right now, his limbs were completely numb and felt far too heavy to even consider lifting.
A rustle, Juda barely managed to look up at her as she finished fastening his limbs to the table. In case of thrashing or any disruptions, she’d informed him. His hazy vision could just barely make out the scalpel gripped in her claws, before sluggishly focusing on Selena’s face and the words she was saying right before his consciousness was dragged into the depths of the abyss.
"Don't worry, you'll see all your friends back at FL/GHT soon. I promise."
Had he still been conscious, he would’ve noted the unnaturally cruel grin curling at the corners of her lips as she set to work.
“Agent JUDA5’s communications link with FL/GHT has been terminated.”
“...Damn. Agent MAR1, your orders are to seek out Agent JUDA5 and find out why he failed to report back to FL/GHT.”
“Affirmative. I will keep my comms on, just in case.”
“Alright. We’ll be watching from here.”
Tracing the last known whereabouts of Agent JUDA5 wasn’t hard. FL/GHT had already provided her with the necessary coordinates, and she’d seen him emerging from what she assumed was his quarters more than once. He had a co-worker, but she’d just left for a board meeting.
Agent JUDA5 had not gone with her.
Hacking the door lock on the spot wasn’t easy, but she managed well enough with some assistance from FL/GHT staff back on base. It was another 10 or so minutes before the door hissed open to reveal nothing but darkness around her when she stepped inside. Mary squinted, fumbling for the light switch to flick it on, before she froze.
A pair of glowing green eyes were fixated on her, seeming to float in the eerie blackness. From within that pitch-black abyss emanated a menacing growl unlike one she’d ever heard before.
When a bolt of lightning struck the ground inches from where she stood, Mary instantly gave up on trying to investigate the room and turned to flee, hoping the doors would close before whatever that thing was got to her.
She was dead before she even reached the door.
Back at FL/GHT, RAM swore furiously as the line cut off into crackling static. She’d been the one monitoring Agent MAR1’s live status, but all they’d gotten for their efforts was a thunderous crackling noise before the line had gone dead entirely. When it became clear that Agent MAR1 wasn’t going to reconnect anytime soon, RAM immediately forwarded the audio recording to ROM and hit the call button for Ashe’s office.
No less than an hour later a full patrol squad had been assembled, with Ashe and Tryndamere at its head. Two agents gone missing in such a short period of time was no laughing matter, especially given how Agent MAR1 had lost contact with them at the last moment. The mission briefing had been…brief, to say the least. Ashe’s expression betrayed none of the trepidation she felt at the thought of two of their members being lost - likely captured, possibly dead, perhaps even worse.
“Our primary objective is to investigate the disappearance of Agents MAR1 and JUDA5. Combat is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, focus on getting in and out with what we need to know before they catch us first.”
And so here they were.
Getting in had not been a problem. CIPHER knew the ins and outs of Project’s Headquarters like the back of her hand, it was where she’d been created, after all. It was she who moved ahead of the team, flitting from device to device to check for potential threats in their path. Agents MAR1 and JUDA5’s last known locations were within the exact same area, and it was to this very room that they were headed.
Ashe did not want to think about the implications of both agents going missing in the same place.
No words were exchanged throughout their silent trek through the pristine facilities. With the map ERROR had crafted for them, it was a simple matter to find the office Juda had once occupied. Nondescript and painted in the same dull grey, it appeared no different from the numerous other doors they’d gone past on their way here.
Apart from the scrap of torn cloth stuck in the doorway, that is.
The door was unlocked. Ashe sent a silent thanks to Agent Mary, no doubt she had been the one to disable the lock when she’d entered. With a practised flick of her tail she signalled for one of the other members - a promising nocturne named Ether - to go in first, her bow ready to return cover fire should things go awry. Unlikely, given Project had seemingly not noticed their entry, but there was something nagging her about that shred of fabric, so out of place in an otherwise spotless environment…
Darkness was all they were met with, but that was not a problem when they had mechanically-enhanced vision. One by one they slipped inside, Ashe quietly shutting the door to avoid suspicion from any passersby outside.
That turned out to be their first mistake.
A bloodcurdling snarl, followed by a terrified shriek as something lunged out of the shadows and bowled Ether over in a thrashing pile of raking claws and snapping jaws. Metallic screeching pierced their ears along with agonized howling. CIPHER hit the light switch, flooding the room with brilliance - and newfound horror.
A monster. That was what they saw, viciously ripping at the remains of Ether’s mangled face and chest. Cyberus roared with outrage and tackled it off the limp nocturne, startling all of them out of their horrified reveries.
“CIPHER, get Ether out of there,” Ashe began, but the sleek imperial was already darting towards the struggling duo. They needed to end this fight and get out, fast. Whatever it was, this was a new threat beyond their comprehension. Cyberus’ pained cry snapped her back to attention even as CIPHER hauled Ether back to safety behind them. Without thinking Ashe raised her bow and fired one arrow, two, three right into the creature’s neck. To her dismay, it barely reacted, instead began tearing at Cyberus even as he resisted - and froze completely.
With a triumphant growl the dragon dove for the killing bite, only to rear back at Tryndamere’s answering bellow. A second later, Tryndamere’s spinning slash sheared its arms right off. Dark blood splattered on the ground. Cyberus was freed, and stumbled away clutching at his head - even though he hadn’t been wounded there. There was no time for Ashe to ponder his behavior.
She nocked another arrow and drew it back. Held her breath as she took aim.
It connected with a solid thunk in the dragon’s chest. A hideous screech tore through the air as the paralytic charge activated, sent it staggering back a step. Tryndamere wasted no time, sword singing with deadly intent as he lopped the dragon’s head clean off. A fountain of dark crimson sprayed forth as the body juddered erratically. Where there was once pristine tile, blood pooled in gruesome puddles at their feet.
Only then did she notice the face on the recently decapitated head. Her throat tightened painfully, her grip on her bow unforgiving.
The headless neck sparked briefly. With dull eyes Ashe turned away from the grisly sight, forced herself to repress the urge to vomit - even though she wasn’t physically capable of doing so. Beside her, Tryndamere uttered a disgusted oath, it seemed he too had noticed. Cyberus’ heavy breathing was the only noise in the room, even that seemed deafening in the silence that had fallen.
Lightning magic arced from Juda’s twitching claws as his body shuddered back to life, a hulking figure neither fully robot nor fully dragon.
A stray bolt struck CIPHER, tearing a weak yelp from her. Another bolt would’ve struck Ashe herself had Tryndamere not blocked it for her, his bulk dropping like a stone the moment it touched him. With Cyberus’ help they managed to drag him back, before Cyberus scooped CIPHER up easily and dove for cover behind the desk. The rest of them followed suit. Only Ashe stayed long enough to take a second glance back at what remained of Juda’s body.
Then she saw it.
An unassuming box, implanted in the chest cavity. Exposed by what she assumed were Cyberus’ claw marks, it veritably buzzed with pure magic. No doubt the source of the lightning magic he was casting. Left without other options, Ashe fitted an arrow to her bow, counted down the seconds.
She slid herself out from behind the desk, sent the missile streaking towards its target. Time slowed as it whistled through the air. Ashe ducked behind the desk, awaiting the explosion she assumed was sure to come.
Tentatively, Ashe peeked out from over the desk. Juda had gone completely still. No sparks, no lightning, no sign of life save for the blood steadily flowing from the severed neck. So this was what it had come to?
One by one they picked themselves off the ground, Cyberus lending CIPHER a helping hand when she struggled to stand. Ether’s lifeless body lay still, blackened by what she could only assume had been multiple bolts of lightning magic. There would be no returning home for him.
They filed out of the devastated chamber without another word, all but Ashe, who stopped beside Juda’s - or what used to be his - head. The eyes were still open, glaring emptily at nothing. Ashe closed his eyes for him.
"I wish we'd parted on better terms, Juda."
They left. This was no place to grieve.
When they returned to FL/GHT’s headquarters it was immediately obvious that something had gone terribly, inexplicably wrong. Not a single member dared ask just what exactly had transpired in the short duration of their mission. The air fell still, heavy with the weight of somber silence and the stench of death. All of them were covered in Juda’s blood. None of them made any effort to clean it off.
Without an explanation, Ashe called for an emergency broadcast meeting. What she had secretly feared had come to pass, and it was time that FL/GHT started preparing for it. In the time that it took to contact all their bases across Sornieth Ashe declined any offers to get herself cleaned and prettied up for the camera. Let them see the grim and bloody truth before their eyes. Let them realize just how dangerous Project would and could become if left unchecked.
"Members of FL/GHT,” she began, clearing her throat and wishing it wasn’t quite so strained.
“We face a bigger threat than we've ever known. Project has begun fusing magic with technology, and the results as we saw for ourselves... are devastating.” She wasn’t about to go into detail about how they’d twisted Juda. They didn’t need to know. Quite frankly, Ashe doubted even she fully understood just what had been done to him - or perhaps what he allowed them to do to him, her mind whispered.
“We would like to honor the deaths of agents Mary, Ether and Juda. Thanks to them we now know the extent of what we face from Project's newest creation,” Ashe swallowed thickly, fighting down the urge to laugh bitterly, “a lesson taught to us by the deaths of Mary and Ether.”
She closed her eyes. Took a deep, steadying breath. Opened her eyes to stare straight into the camera.
“Project must be stopped. We’re the only ones who can do it.”
Seated quite calmly in Project’s board meeting room, Selena simply studied the corpses left behind from the monitors, smiling at the freshly-printed memo in her claws.
"From this day forth, Selena R. Dahlia will be in charge of Project: Magitech."