Project: Wetware

by rei

The first voice in his head was none other than his own. 

 

My name is Kype.

 

Yes, that was him. He remembered seeing his name printed in neat black letters on the nametag he’d been given, when he’d first started work at Project. How proud he’d been to pin that tag on the lapel of his coat, to display it openly on his chest that he was a member of an esteemed company such as this. Strange, that those days felt so distant now. 

 

He’d been assigned to Project: Magitech on his first day, having been told that they were short-handed at the time and could use all the manpower they could get. Kype had been more than eager to delve into the details - how fascinating, the idea of fusing magic into such cutting-edge technology, just think of what technological limits they could surpass with magic- and taken to his work with relish. This was what he had come here for: to be part of the leading edge of technology, to break through what the world deemed ‘impossible’ and prove the doubters wrong. 

 

Once, he had been shunned for such lofty ideals, told to “grow up”, to “quit dreaming and get an actual job”. Once, his idealistic sketches had been ripped out of his hands, torn to shreds before his very eyes and set ablaze with a puff of fire magic. Kype hadn’t cried then. He knew what he was proposing was possible, just not at this point in time. The technological advancements that he’d needed had only come much later, when Project had grown to dominate the tech industry with their mechanical creations.

 

What other choice did he have but to apply for a job at Project?

 

Kype threw himself into his research with a fervor that surprised even those around him - few were as enthusiastic as he was to sacrifice coffee breaks in favor of setting up new experiments, building new prototypes. All the ideas from years ago, even the ones that had been burnt to ashes, not once had Kype ever forgotten them. Here, he was at home, no one questioned what he did. On the contrary, they praised him for his innovative genius, were more than happy to work with him to further develop the creations of his childhood dreams. Once or twice even their project leader, Selena, would grace him with an approving nod here or a comment there. 

 

He’d heard plenty about her. Famous for her innovations in the magitech field, Selena had been the first to dream up the concept of combining magic and Project’s existing technology to create nearly indestructible androids. It had only gone uphill from there - if androids could absorb and wield magic like dragons did, then what other practical uses could they be put to? What physical limits could they break? She’d become the head of Project: Magitech, and under her leadership the development team had been busy exploring magitech’s seemingly boundless limits, made a startling number of unexpected discoveries in that short time. 

 

To think that a rookie like himself would earn the approval of someone who had achieved so much, so soon…

 

The first signs only appeared after he was a year into his working life at Project. It was odd, to think that magitech had only existed for such a short time, yet had been put to use in so many ways. Project was thriving, but with that period of prosperity came the first hints of unease. 

 

“Do you think she’d ever take on an assistant?” Kype asked wistfully, biting on the tip of his pen and watching Selena stagger past with a towering stack of documents to disappear into her office. 

 

The dragon beside him snorted. “I doubt it. She’s always worked alone.”

 

“Really?” Funny. She clearly had far more on her plate than most Project scientists with assistants did, it seemed strange to not assign her some hired help. 

 

“Yeah, as far as I can remember, anyway,” his companion paused, lips pursed in thought, “though I’ve heard some talk about her ex-assistant.”

 

Kype’s eyebrows quirked upwards in curiosity. This was news. 

“What happened to him?”

 

“No one knows. He kinda just… up and vanished one day. They hushed it up real good, if you ask me.” She wiggled a conspiratorial eyebrow at Kype, who simply fell silent and returned to his work. 


 

The next indication came in the form of an email from an anonymous sender. Re-routed through a third-party site, no doubt, but Kype wasn’t well-versed enough in that form of cybersecurity to trace things back. Besides, what bothered him more were the contents of the message. 

 

‘She is not to be trusted. Everything is not as it seems. 

Let no one know of this message, if you want to stay safe. Especially not her. Now, if I were you, I’d delete this. 

Arcanist’s blessings upon you.’

 

For once, Kype was glad he’d been alone when he’d checked his inbox. Opening such a dubious email in front of his colleagues would surely result in disastrous consequences for his flourishing career. He could delete it, but what if the sender found other ways to harass him? Besides, whoever they were, they were clearly talking about someone inside of Project - though what exactly was suspicious, he couldn’t for the life of him tell. Surely they couldn’t be referring to - no, that couldn’t be, they couldn’t possibly be talking about her, that was impossible and made no sense whatsoever. 

 

...was it?

 

Kype dismissed it with hasty shake of his head. Now was no time to be doubting anyone here, not when they’d been nothing but encouraging and patient with his progress over the past year. Most likely some hacker trying to mess with him, he presumed, hovering a claw over the ‘Delete’ key. 

 

...he couldn’t do it.

 

Maybe deleting it would be a mistake.

 

The next day he found himself alone at his workbench, his partner from the day before had apparently been transferred to a different sector. With a contented hum, Kype spread out his blueprints and got to work as per usual. Around midday, however, the intercom above their heads crackled to life. 

 

“Kype, your presence is requested in Selena’s office.”

 

He almost dropped the wrench in his claws at that. The Selena was calling for him, and him alone? They’d barely even spoken - passing compliments or criticisms hardly counted for interaction, after all. Still, it wasn’t as if Kype was in any position to refuse a direct summons from his superior, and a superior he held in high respect at that. Abandoning his work for the time being, Kype scrambled to pack his things - screwdriver clamped in his jaw, papers hastily stuffed into his pouch - before making for Selena’s office with haste.

 

She greeted him as soon as he crossed the threshold, waving him over to her desk. Still half-stumbling over his words, Kype obeyed. 

 

“I just wanted to congratulate you for your hard work recently,” she began, smiling warmly at him. Before Kype could even think to stammer out a reply, however, she held up a hand to halt him. “On behalf of my colleagues and I, I’d like to invite you to work on a top-secret project my team has been working on for awhile now. What say you?”

 

Top secret project? Run by the innovator Selena? How could he say no to that? Kype nodded his head up and down eagerly, already babbling feverish thanks - “it’s such an honour to work with you”, “I can’t believe you’d choose me for this”, “thank you so much”. Selena was out of her seat the moment he accepted, beaming radiantly and extending an arm to shake his hand. Her grip was much firmer than expected, Kype noted almost absentmindedly, before it tightened and yanked him forwards hard

 

The last thing he could remember was the prick of a needle at the back of his neck before the world began to fall away around him into pitch blackness, and the sound of Selena’s delighted laughter.


“Thank you for your contribution, Subject: K.”

Voices drift in and out of his consciousness like so much debris washing up on a beach. Bright lights. The distinct stench of medical anaesthetic and rubber gloves. The bitter tang of iron on his lips, pain flashing across his senses like a bolt of lightning. Awareness returns, just for a brief moment.

 

“Hold him down-”

 

“Subject is hyperventilating-”

 

“We can’t lose him-”

 

He struggles. His limbs refuse to coordinate, twitch and thrash jerkily like a puppet with its strings cut. Something beside him drops, shatters on the ground with a splintering crash. Hands, so many hands are upon him, shoving him back down, keep his head from slamming into the wall behind him. Bereft of all movement, Kype can only howl - but even the sound is muffled by the gas mask clapped over his face, a muzzle to keep him docile with chemicals. 

 

This isn’t right

Stop it, stop it, let me OUT-

 

Fight or flight, his instincts scream, but what can he do? Kype writhes, flexing against the restraints. For one miraculous, blessed moment he is free - then a sickly sweet smells his nostrils, fogging up his mask. Too late, he realises his oxygen-starved body has betrayed him, taken an unwitting deep inhale before he can think to hold his breath.

 

It’s useless. The gas steals away whatever adrenaline-induced strength he had in his limbs, shuts his mind down to nothing but a foggy emptiness. Kick or squirm as he might, Kype cannot help it when his body falls limp, compliant to their invasions with surgical steel. Just above him appears a familiar face - rimmed glasses, unflinching grey eyes, he knows her before she even opens her mouth to speak.

 

“Do what you must,” she orders, and that is all he hears before he sinks back into the abyss that awaits him.

So heavy. Closed eyelids flicker open, squinting at the abrupt brilliance that blinds his too-sensitive eyes. It’s all Kype can do to keep them open just a crack, much less move, while his mind kicks into overdrive, filling in the blanks in his memory. 

 

Selena. An offer to join a top-secret project team. Sudden pain in the back of his neck. Being restrained atop an operating table. Betrayal, a voice in his mind snarls, and Kype agrees with it wholeheartedly. All he has worked for, all he has believed Project to be - does it all mean nothing now? Has it all just been a front, and for what? His research, his prototypes, what will become of those? Questions upon questions, but none of them come anywhere close to being answered. All he knows is that there is a horrible throbbing in his head, but it doesn’t even begin to match the hollowness that gnaws away at him, the thought that he means nothing to the ones he once respected. 

 

Selena did not want him for his talent, his achievements. Kype sees that now. In her eyes, all she’d seen was a test subject all-too-willing to follow her without questioning the whats, whys and hows. 

And like a fool, he’d walked right into the jaws of her trap.

 

For once in his life, Kype regrets chasing his dreams of working for Project. He gave them everything he had, worked as hard as any other dragon to get here, and this is how they repay him - a needle in the neck and unwanted surgery to do god knows what to his body. Heat prickles behind his eyes, forcing him to blink. The world comes into sharp focus around him, sterile whites and greys that blend into a monochrome canvas. Yet there is no beauty to be found here, only polished edges and pure functionality. The room is empty, save for cameras stationed in the corners, though if he looks carefully the concealed barrels of several mounted guns make themselves painfully apparent to his eyes. 

 

A faint whirr sounds from just behind him, Kype immediately twisting around - or, attempting to - before it comes to his attention that something is sorely wrong with him. His body feels far too heavy for him to bear, even something as simple as turning around proves to be an arduous task that takes him thrice as long as it should have. As cumbersome as his limbs feel, however, his other senses are quick to recognise the face that comes into view seconds later as she strides in front of him, digital tablet in hand. 

 

You,” Kype growls, the sound both a threat and a promise of imminent death. Instinctively, his claws flex, legs preparing for a lunge that will take him to her open throat in seconds, allow him to rip the flesh open and let her blood stain the pristine floor. Instead of propelling him through the air, however, his new body stumbles, hitting the ground with a jarring thud - why can’t he move?

 

Before he can stagger to his feet Selena presses something on the tablet. Raw, searing agony pulses white-hot in his temples, bringing with it the inevitable urge to retch emptily. Too much. Too loud. It beats a concussive rhythm into the depths of his brain, scattering his thoughts the moment he draws them together. His skull feels like it’s on the verge of cracking open from the throbbing pain assaulting his every nerve, not even squeezing his eyes shut eases the crushing pressure that forces him to the ground. For a moment, vivid spots of color dance across his vision, before Kype blinks - and then it’s just Selena, staring down at him.

 

“Know your place,” she hisses, the words sounding garbled through the haze of pain. Back and forth Kype rocks, curled up into a defenseless, shivering ball at her feet. “You are but a pebble, to be kicked aside to create my path to glory,” she continues, before her lips curl into a vicious grin of all teeth and no warmth, “but don’t worry, if you’re good enough you might just be used in the stairway to my throne. Until then, though, remember this.”

 

“You are nothing.”

 

A booted foot presses solidly into the side of his head, pinning it to the ground - he can’t move even if he wanted to. “Nothing,” she repeats, grinding her heel against his head, and helpless as he is, who is Kype to dispute her claim?

 

She leaves him be afterwards, with only the hiss of the door sliding closed behind her to mark her exit. Left to his thoughts, it isn’t long before Kype becomes acutely aware of a new sensation entirely - a light tickling sensation on his arm, barely noticeable at first.

 

It starts off as a mild itch. Easily remedied. All he has to do is raise a hand to scratch it off, and that’s that. The second that itch goes away, however, a new one arises - this time it’s his neck, and the screeching noise that his claws make against metal is almost enough to make him consider leaving that one be. There is no mirror here, nothing to let him see for himself just what they’ve done to him, but examining his own hands tells him enough.

 

They’ve modified him somehow. How much of him remains in this new body? It weighs so heavily on him, a burdensome cage that traps his mind in a form he can’t quite move properly just yet. Small movements are possible, but things like lifting a hand, turning his head to the side, they shouldn’t take this much effort. It’s almost like he’s underwater, dragging himself through the depths, but every inch of him feels as if it’s been frozen in time. 

 

Experimentally, Kype flexes his claws, watches with odd fascination as the digits move according to his command seconds too slow. He takes the time to test out his range of movement - at least he still has a body, he muses, repressing the revulsion that creeps up his throat at the thought of what exactly they did to him. Until the time comes that he can learn more about what’s become of him, until the day he can escape from here- 

 

His thoughts are interrupted by the growing need to scratch himself again, Kype shifting restlessly in the confines of his holding cell. His skin is crawling, there are millions and millions of insects trailing along his limbs and down his spine, yet when he looks there is nothing but burnished metal staring back at him. Try as he might to resist the urge, he finds his hands moving of their own accord, clawing uselessly at the smooth surface. It is everywhere and everything at once, an unbearable burning that spreads the more he tries to rid himself of the prickling sensation. His claws can find no purchase on the sleek skin he now wears, Kype going so far as to attempt to bite down on the offending limb - how dare you make me feel like this, how dare you torment me with something I can’t ever get rid of. 

 

Hours pass. Days. Weeks? He’s lost count - all Kype can think of is the overwhelming, maddening need to rip his skin off, perhaps if he removes this outer layer he could scratch himself better, he thinks. 

 

From time to time he gets visitors, scientists clothed in white as pristine as the walls that surround him, though they’re always so careful to maintain a wary distance from him. Like he’s infectious. Maybe he is, if the relentless itch plaguing him is anything to go by. They put him through tests of stamina, strength and speed, push him to the absolute limits that this new body affords him and then some. Kype does not pay attention to the numbers they call out to each other, for even moving is a chore but as he’s learnt from the very beginning, disobedience brings with it harsh consequences.  

 

Too slow. Always so sluggish, like a sloth. Kype hates that he cannot move faster, has to account for the delay between his brain generating the mental command and his body carrying it out. The sheer weight of the metal plating that encases him is something he’s been forced to get accustomed to, but try as he might, his body’s always several steps behind his thoughts. His claws dig into his arm and rake downwards, but as always it is fruitless in the face of the incessant prickling that stings him. It’s never enough, nothing he does ever works to soothe the itching that torments him and keeps him perpetually awake, staring at the empty ceiling.

 

Then rip it off. 

 

Kype pauses, head cocked to the side as he considers the thought. 

 

If it bothers you so much, then get rid of it. You’ll feel better. 

 

One hand traces the metallic joint where his shoulder meets arm. Kype curls his claws around his arm, contemplating. Can he? Will that ease the insufferable itching for good? It makes sense to some extent - no arm, no more sensation in it, right? He almost marvels at how simple the solution seems, a beatific smile stretching across thin lips. He tightens his grip on his arm, claws digging almost cruelly into the steel as he yanks -

 

… 

 

… … 

 

… … … ?

 

He can’t move. His hand is frozen in place, resolutely refusing to budge even as Kype strains to break free of the sudden, total paralysis that’s fallen over him. He tries again, but only his thoughts race - his body remains immobile.

 

Why?

 

Of all times, his body betrays him again now?

 

Move, move, movemovemovemove-!

 

Be still. 

 

Another voice. If he could move his jaw, it surely would have dropped by now. Who is this stranger speaking in the depths of his mind, and why is his body stuck under their spell? It’s not normal. It can’t be normal. Is he dreaming? He can’t even pinch himself to make sure. 

 

Get out of my head, this isn’t real, it can’t be-

 

Can’t move can’t breathe can’t think-

 

Peace. I mean you no harm.

 

Who the hell is this? Before he can even begin to collect his haphazard thoughts the paralysis ends, Kype almost crumples to the ground when his knees buckle beneath him at the unexpected shift. Every inch of him is trembling, it is all Kype can do to prop himself upright, hunching against the wall - for once he’s grateful for the unyielding support it provides. Hands hesitantly reach up to touch his skull, as if probing it from the outside might reveal answers about the mystery inside his head.

 

“You stopped me,” Kype breathes, the words no more than a shaky whisper. It makes no sense, but who else can he blame when every part of him desired - still desires - to tear his itching limbs off? 

 

I did. I cannot let this body come to harm.

 

“It’s my body. You can’t - I won’t let you do that again.” His voice rises an octave, the words come out pitifully thin and strained. Bad enough that he had no say in what happened to his body. Now he has no say in controlling it. He is trapped, a prisoner in a cage he can never hope to fly free from. 

 

It’s so pathetic that it almost makes him want to laugh.

 

Not just yours. Ours. I am as much a part of this body as you are, and I will not let you hurt it for your selfish wants.

 

This time Kype does laugh, a dry and horribly raspy noise that bubbles from his throat before he can think to control it. Selfish. Maybe the voice is right, but does it look like he cares one bit what it thinks of him? 

 

You are nothing, Selena’s voice echoes in the back of his mind, a ghostly taunt. You have nothing, the whispers in his head hiss. If it’s come to this, then Kype would rather have died in the operation than survived to live a life as a captive in his own body. Worthless, the maniacal demon cackles, disposable, replaceable, doomed to be a prisoner-

 

Not so. I can and will help you get used to our shared body.

 

“Why?” His voice cracks on a high note, Kype forces himself to take a dry swallow. This body is his, no one else can have it, no one else must be allowed to meddle with it ever again. An image of gleaming surgical scalpels hovering above him flashes into mind’s eye and is gone again as soon as it appears. Kype flinches. 

 

It doesn’t make any sense. Nothing does. This new body of his, all shining steel and smooth bulk. The tests they run on him, always poking and prodding, ordering him to do this or that with nary an explanation to the wiser. The accursed itching that’s bothered him since day one. Now this, another consciousness in his own head with the ability to halt him in his tracks. 

 

It’s too much. Kype draws in a sobbing breath, buries his head in his hands and tries to block out the unforgiving light seeping in between his fingers. Maybe if he can’t see, then this will all be fake. A horrible nightmare, nothing more. The voices in his head, the unspeakable urges, all of them will cease to exist.

 

Please let it all be fake.

 

Let me help you, Kype. 

 

Help him do what, escape from here? He is just one dragon - no, not even that anymore, not after what they did to him - with one too many voices in his head. Kype cranes his head upwards, searching for something to address aloud, even if this stranger speaks only in his mind.

 

“How?”

 

I will show you. Walk with me. Take a step forward. 

 

Blindly, unthinkingly, Kype obeys. This time, however, the movement is smoother, more fluid - mind and body working together in tandem to see the action through to its completion. By no means perfect, there is still some clumsiness in the way he sets his foot down again, but so much better than before. He tries another step. Then another. Faster, step after step after step until he crashes again on the ground after a misstep, but for the first time since he’s awoken he’s smiling broadly, almost giddy with relief.

 

Never before have such simple actions brought Kype so much joy. The next few hours are spent testing his newfound motor control, pacing back and forth. With further coaching from the second voice in his head - whom Kype has dubbed Ae, short for Alter-Ego - they figure out how to work together to command the body they both inhabit, until Kype can finally run again with barely a hitch in his stride. 

 

Sometimes, the demon in his head returns. It’s controlling you, tricking you into thinking you have a say in what you do. Look at how it only allows what is best for itself, stops what Kype wants to do, it cackles with vicious glee. 

 

Do what Kype wants, not what it wants. Take this body back, replace every part, everything’s been infected by that thing, the only way to be you again is to remove everything and start all over.

 

His hand creeps towards his leg, wrapping around the upper thigh and beginning to pull-

 

Just as swiftly as he’s begun, he’s halted, locked in place. Kype starts guiltily, loosens his grip. Seconds later, the paralysis ends, and Ae’s voice rumbles in his head. 

 

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

 

Kype huffs out a breathless laugh. “Thank you,” he declares aloud, heedless to the fact that anyone else looking in on him through the cameras will see no one save him in the room, talking to himself. Ae’s ensuing chuckle is in itself all the reward he needs. 

 

Once Project sees that he’s faring much better, they waste no time in putting him through simulations. Mostly for combat, to test how well Kype can hold his own against one opponent, then two, then multiple at a time. The answer, unfortunately, is not well, considering the phantom itching or the demon in his head are liable to return at any time - once, his wing got dented because he started trying to rip it off mid-fight, when it itched as if he’d rolled in a den of fire ants. The simulation had been called off immediately, scientists rushing in to examine the damage done, discussing between themselves just why that had even happened. When they’d tried to ask Kype, Ae had locked his jaw shut. 

 

If they know about me or the other voices, or even the itching, they will destroy you.

 

Even so, they’d straightened out his wing easily enough. Less than an hour after the repair works had been concluded he was back in another simulation, battling against holograms amidst projected backgrounds.

 

They want to push your limits, break you into pieces and study you like an insect, the familiar hissing in his ear points out days later, Kype gritting his teeth as a heavy-handed blow slams into his shoulder - maybe the voice isn’t too far off the mark, he muses, any other dragon would surely have broken for the lack of rest. Kype, however, is no dragon, and only requires several hours of rapid charging before his body is energized once more. The movements grow dull even with Ae’s guidance: dodge, kick, block, bite, rinse and repeat with only minor variations of the same actions.

 

This time he’s up against a looming imperial easily triple his size. It lashes its tail towards him, Kype throws himself into the air just as it narrowly rushes by, just barely tickling his toes. Eyes, always go for the eyes first, how many times has he done that when outweighed by an enemy bigger than him? Kype draws in a steadying breath, weaves under the grasping claws that could crush him into shards, talons outstretched in preparation to dig the imperial’s eyes out- 

 

Cold steel digging into his flesh, prying him open. Bloodstains on the sheets. The reek of anaesthetic and alcohol swabs.

 

Kype draws up mid-flight, bewildered at the sudden flash of images across his mind’s eye. 

 

What was that? 

 

Too late he realises his fatal error - the crushing weight of a clawed hand slams him to the ground seconds later, metal plating groaning under the pressure but refusing to yield. His mouth opens to utter a feral snarl-

 

They are holding him down again. Solid metal around his wrists and ankles, cutting into exposed skin. Needles and scalpels and sharp edges, pain slicing across his consciousness. They cut him open, over and over again, lay his skull bare to chilly air. Blood pools dark and coppery in the corners of his mouth, soured with hints of bile. Kype screams, but no sound escapes - trapped, caged in the corner of his own mind, helpless, vulnerable, useless.

 

As if he’s been scalded, Kype flinches back, hands shaking. His head throbs with a pounding rhythm that threatens to split it open, the world is a haze of voices and blinding lights, too much, it’s all too much for his senses to handle. 

 

Get out, get out of my head! 

 

“Halt the simulation, subject’s malfunctioning-”

It hurts. Talons scrabble wildly at his face, the screech of metal on metal jars his ears. The noise is too loud, a sea of crackling static and howling voices that wail for attention. Get rid of them, if you can’t hear everything will be quiet- it doesn’t stop, grows louder the more he tears at himself. 

 

Thud. Please, save me-

 

Thud. Need to get out of here-

 

Thud. I hate this, I hate you, all of you-

 

Why won’t you leave me be?!

 

A hollow rhythm of head slamming against the wall. There are voices in the background, hands trying to hold him down. They echo in his mind, over and over and over- Kype screams, terrible and inhuman, don’t touch!

 

One hand seizes hold of someone, drags himself face to face with a terrified scientist. “Please,” he croaks, “take me apart.”

 

The scientist yanks himself free with a horrified gasp, turns tail to flee.

No, no, don’t go, I need you, need your help-


“The noise in my head make it stop it’s too loud it’s going to tear everything apart it hurts please please please just make it go away-

 

It crawls, twists inside his ears and burrows inside his brain like a hideous centipede. Claws rake mindlessly at the outer plating, prying, tearing until it comes off in his grasp. Scratch after scratch after scratch and it still won’t come out, his breath hitching on a frustrated howl. Like a thousand rusted needles piercing his head in unison, all moving erratically yet succeeding in their common purpose - to drive him mad.

 

Go out of the body, go out of my mind. 

 

Tired. He is suddenly so very tired. 

 

It still itches, deep inside his brain where no one can reach, but he lacks the strength to dig past the metal and into the flesh, to root out the source of corruption and destroy it at its base. He can feel it burrowing into him, the crawling sensation bringing with it the urge to retch. Unsteady, Kype reaches out to brace himself against a wall - only for the wall to not be a wall, but a trick of the mind disappearing right before he touches it- he collapses in a heap of clanking metal, the noise makes his head throb unbearably once more, and he winces. 

 

Eyes squeezed tight, it is all he can do to wait, to hold still while the world falls apart around him. 

 

-pe. Kype!

 

Ae. He’d forgotten. Tentatively, Kype cracks one eye open, satisfied that his head doesn’t sound like it’s full of radio static anymore. He doesn’t recall ever sitting down, or curling up against the wall, but maybe they’d shifted him. The walls have returned to normal, no longer painted over with digital backgrounds. 

 

“Ae,” his voice is raspy, a barely audible croak as he pushes himself into a more comfortable sitting position.

 

Kype, thank god. I couldn’t reach you at all just now, what the hell happened?

Concern is etched into every word, yet all the same a tiny part of him screams “it’s using you, only cares because it needs you to get out”

 

Kype? Talk to me, please. 

 

No. You only care because I’m sharing this body with you, isn’t it?” Kype spits the words out like they’re poison, hates the way accusations and insecurity taste on his tongue - bitter, hollow, with an unpleasantly sour aftertaste. The voices are right, of course they are, what other reason could Ae have to bother with the likes of him?

 

I see... so that's how you think of me?

 

I suppose that is an understandable conclusion, considering the only reason I exist is to act as a bridge between your mind and this body. You have no reason to trust me, and I do not have anything to present to you to convince you otherwise.

 

“So you’re just using me.” The whisper is hoarse, his throat too sore to even consider raising his voice. 

 

Silence. 

 

Kype squeezes his eyes shut, bites down on lip just to restrain the instinctive retort that threatens to spill out. There is no use. Without Ae, he has close to zero control over this physical body of his. Once again, he has no choice but to let himself be used. 

 

He hates every single second of it. 

The concept of time is foreign to him, enclosed within four white walls that tell him nothing of the world beyond. Simulations, recharge, rinse and repeat. Once, he tried counting the minutes - but lost track after the 379th, when they forced him to shut down for ‘updates’. More, more, more, always demanding more than what he can give, pushing past the limits of rationality and physics. When he cannot perform, they crowd him with their tools and their questions, always asking: why, why, why? It is so much easier to simply ensure he matches their standards. Anything to avoid their curious eyes, their fingers itching to take him apart piece by piece. No matter how many times Kype sees it, he will never be accustomed to their stares boring holes into him day in and day out.

 

The first time this monotony is broken is also the last. Sirens blare, cutting the air with their high-pitched warning cry. Above his head, the speaker crackles to life. 

 

“The facility is under attack by FL/GHT rebels. Deploying military units.”

 

FL/GHT…

 

“You know of them, Ae?”

 

Only that they are not our enemies. His voice deepens with urgency. Kype, we need to make our move now, before it’s too late.

 

Before he can even think to respond the door crashes open with a thunderous boom, startling him into an undignified yelp. Two strangers enter, their sleek shine and gleaming markings almost akin to his own - are they androids as well, Kype briefly wonders, before they are upon him. Quick fingers make short work of the restraints that bind him by the ankles and wrists, Kype’s jaw dropping in astonishment as they soon hang loose. Freedom. After so long, he isn’t quite sure what to make of it.

 

“Thank you-”

“No need,” the skydancer interrupts, already halfway out the door. “Find FL/GHT, and thank me there.” With those parting words, he and his partner are gone. 

 

Free. Free! Run wild and rampage, kill all in your way! They deserve it for locking us up, for putting us through everything they did, the voices hiss, Kype reaching up to bat at his ear irritably, although the dark temptation remains - alluring, promising of bloody vengeance exacted tenfold on his would-be captors…

 

Move!

 

He obeys without second thought, arms and legs pumping in unison to propel him out the open door - to nothing but chaos outside. Screaming rings throughout the building, he catches the duo who freed him exiting out another cell just two doors down with another prisoner in tow. The rhythmic thudding of heavy footsteps echoes down the hallway, the other direction leads to a dead end. 

They are trapped.

 

Towering metallic behemoths loom ahead, blocking off the only way out. Their arms form a pair of cannons each, spewing forth blazing gunfire in continuous rattling bursts. The pair split up, each weaving an elaborate dance amidst flying bullets, the groan of metal being dented in drums a throbbing pulse behind his temples. One of them, the coatl, catches sight of Kype standing frozen in the doorway. 

 

“Run! We didn’t free you for nothing!”

 

“But the bots-!”

 

“Leave that to us, just run!

 

The nearest sentry bot wheels around at the sudden disturbance, cannon-arm raised to fire at Kype - there is nowhere to run, save back into what will surely be his grave. Ae screams wordlessly, the sound ringing raw and hollow in his head.

A blur of motion streaks across his vision - the coatl, throwing himself at the bot easily twice his size, grappling with it uselessly. One mechanical arm raises-

 

-and falls, leaving behind nothing but pieces of crushed metal and wiring to prove it was ever there in the first place. 

 

An anguished howl rips from the skydancer’s throat as he lunges for the robot’s head, claws outstretched -

 

-there is a terrible screeching noise, as a hailstorm of bullets tears the android apart, metal plating giving way to expose sparking inner circuitry. For a moment, their eyes meet, a silent plea is exchanged. Then there is nothing, and everything, the voices writhe and twist in the depths of his mind - give in,  they howl, let us out!

 

The surge roaring behind his ears is akin to a raging tempest, a maelstrom of vicious destruction that sucks him in and leaves him grasping wildly - desperate for a grip, slipping with every passing second-

 

-fading to black. 

 

Time has no meaning to him. When his eyes next flicker open, it is only the constant wailing of alarms that tells him several scarce minutes have gone by.  

 

All around him, the world lies in ruin.

 

What was once several gigantic hulking masses of metal now lies in scattered pieces on the ground. Viscous tendrils of dark matter writhe amidst the wreckage, grasping at empty air as if to pull in anything within reach. Even as he gapes, dumbfounded, the lurking shadows retreat from the broken remains of the sentry bots, pooling beneath his feet. 

Waiting. 

 

Nothing makes sense. His head is pounding horribly, his ears are ringing with the continuous whine of sirens. How is such destruction possible?

 

This is what happens when you let us out…

 

Wicked cackling. Kype snarls, bloodlust rising from a deep and forbidden source in him. More, more, more, there is so much more he can do with this newfound power running through his veins. It sings to him - of alluring promises and dreams come true, of limitless freedom wrested by his own hands. With it, he can do anything he wants, run as far as he can without ever stopping, let nothing stand in his way for fear of being torn apart-

 

Kype. Get a hold of yourself.

Ae’s voice is his anchor - Kype clings onto it like a drowning rat to a rock, the unwavering coolness of his tone slaps stinging sense into his mind once more. Move. Yes. He needs to move, and do it quickly. The question is - to where?

 

Doesn’t matter. Just keep moving, and things will be alright. Step by faltering step Kype wanders, guided only by Ae’s directions and bright neon exit signs - how he knows when Kype does not, he dares not question. Every step he takes is another weight shed from his body, faster and faster does he race in search of his ticket to freedom.  

 

Soon. Soon he will be able to bask in the sunlight, feel its warmth upon his face while watching it rise. Soon he will be one with the wind itself, free to soar upon its guiding currents and glide to heights never known in the likes of Project’s facilities. Soon he will feel the grass beneath him, soft and as ticklish as a feather, smelling of morning dew and nature itself. Kype quickens his footsteps, whipping past fleeing scientists and overwhelmed guards, surely he can’t be too far off now.

 

Bullets strafe across his face, pain exploding throughout his senses even as Kype staggers back. His eyes dart from the empty hallway to the walls, then to the ceiling as another spray of gunfire bursts from mounted turrets emerging from beneath the white tile. Hide, screams his instinct, but there is nowhere to go but forward. Forwards, into death, into what will tear him apart-

 

-he is falling, the shadows at his feet open wide in a gaping maw to swallow him whole

 

-into an endless abyss, cradled by comforting darkness

 

-safe, he will be safe here, nothing can touch him

 

Kype reaches out, a blind man’s instinct to seek the sun no matter where it goes, paradoxical in his own desires - he longs to stay where the light dwells, yet finds comfort only in the deepest of nights. 

 

He touches nothing but empty air. Eyes snap open, beholding the cracked plastic and bits of scrap metal on the ground, the distinct stench of sulfur chokes him. Deflected bullets litter the ground amidst pools of swirling shadows, yet not a single one has touched him save for the initial few. Like a cloak, the darkness gathers to enfold Kype within its protective shroud.

The turrets are no more. There is no reason to stay. 

 

Onward. This way, Kype. 

 

As if stuck in a dreamlike trance, Kype unerringly obeys. Past the turrets, past the whisperings in the back of his mind, following a map of glowing exit markers. The screaming has died down, replaced by the occasional thunder of booted feet as security rushes by. Not once do they stop to pay attention to him. Kype ignores them - he is this close to freedom, no one is allowed to get in his way.

 

There. He sees it now - a sealed door marked by an exit sign above it. It lies just within sight, open and unguarded. With an exultant roar Kype charges for it, but cries of alarm sound from the corridor behind him when he’s halfway across.

 

“There he is!”

“It’s one of the escaped subjects!”

“Quick, after him!”

 

No, no, no! Kype strains, forces himself to cover the last few lengths between him and the gateway to freedom. His claws just barely brush the sensor when a heavy weight slams into him, pinning him down by the arm. A heartbeat later another dragon seizes him by the neck, claws curling in a grip crushingly tight. He is trapped, held captive beneath their combined holds. Kype thrashes wildly, they will not take him alive, they will not take him alive again, never again-

 

Metal shackles. Blood and froth on his lips, babbling nonsense. Iron grip pries his jaw open, bitter chemicals flood his mouth. Choking him. Air. He needs air. The world is spinning, a child’s toy in the palm of their hand. 

Screaming. So much screaming. Is it his? Someone else’s? More hands, more chains. Where are they taking him?

This is hell. Burning, prickling with a thousand needles under the skin. Whispering, cackling, howling, all in his head, all trapped in his mind, never going away. The room is empty, the walls twist into faces that mock him. 

They are laughing at him. One twists his arm, wearing the mask of the devil. Jeering, wild with maniacal glee, the demons have caught their prey. His neck twists, stretching, tearing.

He opens his mouth-

 

-and he howls.

 

Darkness incarnate explodes from his body, spilling over the edges of his control. Terrified shrieking rings out, the weight on him abruptly lifted. Several solid thuds resound at once, followed by a single beep.

The darkness lifts, shadows slithering back from the bodies of the fallen. For long moments, Kype is rooted to the spot, enthralled by morbid curiosity. 

One of the guards groans, attempts to push himself upright.

 

Kype runs.

 

Where he goes doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he is free, unbound by Project’s shackles. He trips, crashes to the ground, picks himself up and keeps running. One foot in front of the other, the wind in his face and the thunder of his own feet hitting the ground is all Kype knows for a long, long time. Time has no meaning for him - has it been an hour? Two? A day, perhaps, since he fled out the doors of his former prison? 

 

Kype. Stop. Look around you.

 

He stills almost instantly. Ae’s voice has not surfaced once since his escape. For the first time, Kype takes the time to survey his surroundings, even if the exhaustion dragging at his every limb screams for him to collapse on the spot. 

 

Mountains of trash and scrap metal lie in towering heaps as far as the eye can see. Appliances, broken robotic parts, skeletal remnants of once-whole androids, all this and more lie discarded amongst piles of junk. 

Yet there are signs of recent activity here. Amidst the trash lies a well-beaten path carved out amongst the corpses of machines, with clear tracks embedded in the dirt. No more than a week old, his sensors confirm. 

 

Find FL/GHT.

 

The words echo in his mind, as haunting as the grisly image of the speaker being ripped apart by gunfire. Ae’s approving hum is all the encouragement he needs.

White coat flutters as she strides past cell after empty cell, devoid of their former prisoners. After all the trouble Project has gone to for their sakes… all their efforts, wasted. Anyone would be devastated to see the glorious fruits of their progress vanish without so much as a trace.

 

Yet there is no trace of frustration to be found on her expression. No, as the light falls on her features from overhead… it is obvious that she wears a smile bright enough to rival the sun’s brilliance. 

 

“Run as far as you can. You have only delayed the inevitable.”

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