His booted footsteps echoed through the empty corridor, lined with door after door of boardrooms, all emblazoned with Project’s logo. He was never one for meetings, but when you were the Head Scientist, such things were inevitable.
Someone had filed an application to start on a new company-funded project, and while normally Jayce was content to handle such applications on his own, this one warranted the attention of the board of directors - not even he had permission to sign off on something quite as expensive as this. Given the choice, however, he would’ve preferred to reject it completely, considering the name scrawled in graceful, looping cursive.
Selena R. Dahlia. What are you up to this time?
Only one way to find out. Halting before Boardroom 7, Jayce straightened his lab coat once before pushing the door open, nodding respectfully to the gathered dragons - all of whom nodded back in greeting - save for one sitting with her hands primly folded in her lap. They locked gazes, her eyes glittering with barely-contained glee, and Jayce forced himself to look away even as the Chairman cleared his throat.
“We’re here today to hear the proposal of one Selena R. Dahlia, with regards to her latest application to embark on a rather...extensive project, from the sound of it. Selena, if you’d please?”
She rose gracefully, dipping her head in brief acknowledgement as she strode past the chairman to stand before them, sweeping the room with an imperious stare before nodding to herself, satisfied she had their attention.
"Our androids are efficient as always, but there will always be those who refuse to use and continue to fear androids - just look at that activist group that’s been up and about lately, Unity, prattling on about how the world will end if our own androids turn against us.”
Jayce shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Selena continued on without so much as glancing at him. “So what about androids that are virtually indistinguishable from dragons?”
They were leaning forwards now, one or two exchanging intrigued looks, some whispering to each other while casting excited glances at Selena, who only smirked. She had their attention, even Jayce was forced to admit he was somewhat curious about what she had up her sleeve, raising a questioning eyebrow.
“I’m talking about androids that completely resemble dragons, down to the very skin and flesh, identifiable only by a digital chip in their brains. A body to mimic ours, to better appeal to buyers who find the mechanical appearance unnerving, as well as fly under Unity’s radar.”
The room erupted into instant uproar.
“How would the organic tissue be sourced-”
“What mechanical components would be included-”
“This is too much to ask for-”
“Are you sure that’s even possible?”
“We’ve done it once, we can do it again.” Her smile was triumphant, fierce even. She stared down the director who had dared outright question her proposal, until the other sat down once more with a disgruntled huff. “Essentially, we’re still making cybernetic implants to be inserted into an organic frame, instead of a mechanical one.”
“A lot of progress has been made since our last meeting with regards to these implants,” she continued smoothly, “and I believe we’re ready to take the next step - creating organic bodies compatible with these implants.”
Jayce paled sharply at that. “Cybernetic implants into a fully organic body... You do realise what you’re suggesting, right? Have you forgotten what happened to Juda already?”
Her lip curled into a contemptuous sneer. “He gave his life for what he loved, which is more than I can say for most.”
“Juda is dead because of you, Selena!”
“I didn’t kill him, FL/GHT did.”
“He trusted you-”
“That’s enough!” The chairman’s stern voice cut through their heated exchange, Selena looking very much as if she’d wanted to say something else, but prudently keeping her mouth shut. “We’re here to discuss the validity of her application, nothing more.”
Validity, not morality. Since when did we lose sight of that?
Silence, broken only by the whispers of the directors, their words too hushed to be heard even by Jayce. One of them leaned towards him, glancing furtively at the others assembled around the table.
“Between you and I, I’m not sure about this project myself, it’s not really what we usually do…”
Intrigued, Jayce turned to face him properly, noting the uneasiness in his eyes. So not everyone was under her spell. There was still some hope left. Six directors, not including himself - a vote for approval required the majority to vote in favor of allowing Selena’s application. Still, they needed at least two more dissenters.
“Do you think any of the other directors see things your way?” He asked, urgency slipping into his voice, although he swallowed it down. No one else was meeting their eyes, even as he watched, Selena handed over a stack of documents - presumably containing details of her plans - to the chairman himself, who flipped through them with clear interest. A shake of the head was the only answer he got, and Jayce withdrew, disheartened. Would no one speak up against her?
“Those in favor of approving Selena’s application, raise your hand.”
He didn’t have to look to know his was the only hand not raised.
“The majority have spoken. Congratulations, Selena, your application has been approved. We look forward to seeing the results of your endeavours.”
One by one, they filed out of the boardroom, until it was just the two of them standing face to face, with only the quiet whirring of the air-conditioning to fill the silence between them.
“You know, Jayce, I really have to thank you for what you said in that meeting.”
He frowned, taking a defensive step back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I was just wondering what I wanted to name this new project of mine, you see, and you gave me the perfect idea.” Her eyes narrowed with devious mirth, a cruel smile splitting across her face.
“Welcome to Program: Juda.”
He stood alone, outside a pair of gleaming steel doors. Hard to think that months ago, their headquarters had been reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble, and yet they moved on with frightening efficiency - picking up the pieces and rebuilding what was once lost, carving out a new niche for themselves within the span of mere months. Efficient, just as they had been built to be.
It wasn’t his first time visiting FL/GHT Headquarters, but it would never cease to be a nerve wracking experience. One hand tugged at the corner of his hood absentmindedly, praying that the cloak and tinted goggles would be enough. He’d been standing out here for a solid ten minutes now, willing up the courage to enter, heart pounding in his chest despite himself. Breathe, he reminded himself, forcing in a deep breath and letting it whistle out slowly through his nose. They had been expecting him, after all, there was nothing to fear.
Except there was. One wrong move, one slip of the tongue, and he risked everything he’d ever worked for, both at Project, and with Unity. FL/GHT would offer no sanctuary either, despite the kindness of its leaders. It was a dangerous game, and as long as he continued to carry out this ruse, he would perpetually walk the tightrope of being found out - what then? Would they fire him? No, he knew too much of Project’s secrets to be let go without a fight.
With a shudder, he thought back to those who had been fired, only to ‘disappear’ mere days later - those whose faces he had seen in the depths of the labs, where Selena conducted her cruel experiments - and knew that he too, would one day share their fate.
It would almost be better if he ‘vanished’ first, perhaps.
If the rest of FL/GHT discovered who he truly was, there was no guarantee what would happen next. He had Ashe’s protection, but she’d warned him to keep a low profile - something about not all of FL/GHT’s supporters being as understanding as she was. As it stood, waltzing straight into the enemy’s base alone was foolishness, and yet here he was.
The enemy. Is that what FL/GHT really is?
True, he’d only sided with them in order to take Selena down, but the more he saw of them, the less certain he was that these androids were the same unthinking, unfeeling machines he had helped create. For years, he had operated on that basis - that they were mere robots, incapable of feeling anything, much less gaining a sentience of their own. It was only recently that he’d been forced to admit the opposite was true, and that everything he had ever stood for - ever believed in - had been a complete lie.
After that particular discovery, he wondered if he could ever really believe in anything again.
Drat. He’d been standing out here for far too long. A check of his watch showed that he was five minutes late to his meeting with Ashe, and Jayce cursed, scanning the guest keycard he’d been given before rushing inside. Boardroom 3, Boardroom 3... where was it? So absorbed was he in getting to his destination that he nearly ran smack into a pearlcatcher, who stumbled back with an “oof”.
“Jeez, watch where you’re going, will you?”
“Sorry! I’m in a rush - do you know where Boardroom 3 is? I’m supposed to be there for a meeting with Ashe.”
She squinted at him sharply, and he could practically hear the gears churning in her head. Actually, now that he thought about it, was that actual clockwork he could hear, ticking away inside her body? Surely she couldn’t have been made by Project, they’d never used clockwork for even their oldest models. Maybe from that one affiliated company, Leviathan-Wheeler Labs and their Clockwork Souls, perhaps?
There was no way she could have seen him before, right?
Seconds ticked by even as she continued to stare him down, her gaze veritably drilling holes into his skull. Jayce fought the urge to adjust his goggles, knowing it would only invite more unwanted suspicion. Sweat trickled down his back. She hadn’t blinked.
Then she relaxed, pointing him towards the corridor on the left. “Down that way, take a right, you should find the boardrooms there-”
Jayce was dashing past her before she even had the chance to finish her sentence, calling out a hurried “thank you!” as he went. That had been too close, he decided, wiping the beading sweat off his forehead as he came to a screeching halt outside the designated meeting room, one hand on the door to push it open-
“- I told you, we can’t trust him!”
“Enough, ROM, he’ll be here any moment now.”
“Call it off, Ashe. It’s not too late to stop this.”
A frustrated hiss. “Stop it. I know your feelings towards Project scientists, ROM, but what do you want me to do now? Refuse to see him and lock him out? He could bring all of Project down on us if he wanted, but he hasn’t.”
“Not just any scientist, Ashe, he’s Project’s Head Scientist. I can’t forgive what he put RAM - put us - through, and you’re telling me we have to work with him?” Something heavy slammed into the wall inches from where Jayce stood, and he winced.
“Forging an alliance with one of their key personnel - I can’t believe you, Ashe. What’s stopping him from spying on us, taking all this information back to Project? How could you trust someone who doesn’t even view us as sentient beings?”
“I trust him, ROM. Things have changed us all, and it looks like they’ve changed him too. Besides, it’s not like he doesn’t have anything to lose by doing this.” Ashe’s voice softened, lowering almost to a whisper - he had to strain his ears to catch her next words.
“...if anything, he has more to lose than we do.”
He’d heard enough. Clearing his throat, he pushed the door open, internally delighting in the look of utter horror on the other android - ROM’s - face. To her credit, Ashe took charge of the situation swiftly, nudging ROM along with a quiet but firm, “You’re dismissed for now.” ROM’s ensuing scowl was dark enough to silence any forthcoming speech from either of them, shouldering past Jayce with just enough force to shove him back a step.
“Don’t think you’re forgiven just because you’re working with us now,” he spat, venom lacing every word. Before Jayce could even respond, he was storming off down the hallway, scattering startled androids in his wake. As to be expected. He could hardly blame them for their hatred, not when they’d been the ones responsible for causing it in the first place. It had seemed so easy, to proceed with tests and electric shocks, to take them apart as if they were mere child’s toys - they had been nothing more than machines, until they simply weren’t.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, Ashe guiding him into the boardroom and ensuring the door was shut tight before settling in a seat directly across, hands folded neatly in front of her.
“The raids are going well-”
“I have more urgent news that concerns us other than the alliance,” he interrupted sharply, and Ashe frowned, mouth opening to protest before he silenced her with his next sentence.
“It’s about Selena.”
She stiffened instantly. “What about her?” she pressed, steely eyes searching his face for any hint of expression.
“Cybernetic implants into an organic body. Sound familiar?”
“An organic body…” she trailed off, eyes widening in horror even as her claws dug into the table’s surface, knuckles trembling faintly. “No. Not again. She can’t seriously be planning something like that again.”
Ah, he’d almost forgotten. Juda had been one of theirs. A single sparking arrow had been found buried in his body, and he knew without even looking that it had been Ashe’s. To shoot down one of your own...what had gone through her mind in that instant? Regret? Pity, perhaps? Whatever Selena had done to him, it could not be allowed to happen again. Juda had been a spy, true, but he’d also had a brilliant mind - one that had gone to waste when he’d been used as a living science experiment.
“She’s not going to stop until she succeeds,” he remarked grimly. “The higher-ups have already given the go-ahead. I don’t know how she intends to make it work, but it’s no different from slavery, in my opinion.”
“And you creating us to do your bidding was not slavery?” Ashe pointed out, one eyebrow raised questioningly. Jayce flinched.
That was different, he yearned to say, you were never meant to be sentient, or have free will. Yet when cast in that light…
Who was the real monster here?
His words failed him, tongue working furiously for some sort of excuse while his gaze darted off to the side - something, anything to avoid the steely eyes that seemed to stare into his very soul. He had nothing.
“...you’re right. It was.” The words came out as a defeated sigh, Jayce sinking back into his chair, massaging his temples with one hand. He could already feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. What was this world coming to? Androids coming to life, immoral experiments, a secret alliance with the very beings he had helped create - it all felt like something out of a fever dream. Anything to stop Selena, he reminded himself, anything to keep the company he’d known and loved from falling into disaster.
He could decide how he felt about androids later.
Ashe’s brow furrowed in concern, claws clicking annoyingly loudly on the desktop. “We need to learn more about this plan of hers and how it will work, before we can come up with a way to shut it down,” she mused, continuing to drum her claws against the table before her eyes lit up.
“I know someone who might be able to help. You’re still going by the name ‘Lucian’ here, right?”
Go see someone named Bliksem, she said. Finding him would be easy, she said. What Ashe had neglected to mention was that the Innovation wing was deliberately located a fair distance away from the other faction wings - although he could see why the distance was necessary, judging from the booming explosion coming from the door to his left. Cracking the door open ever so slightly, Jayce was startled to catch a glimpse of a trio of engineers with soot-stained lab coats exchanging victorious hi-fives, chattering away excitedly about the volatile results.
“Finally, something exciting is happening here!”
“I’m very glad this lab is rather sturdy, heh.”
“Oooh, that was fun. I’ll have to write that recipe down for next time.”
“Excuse me,” he began somewhat awkwardly, attempting to look as though he were very much not lost. “I heard something exploding in here, is everything alright?” At Project, such occurrences usually warranted an obligatory report as to the whys and hows of such a blast, but they seemed oddly carefree about it. He was met with three startled faces, each with protective goggles over their eyes. Even androids valued lab safety, at least, though why they would need such things when their eyes could easily be replaced was beyond him. Self-preservation was something that had been programmed into them, was his best guess.
“Everything’s alright, that was meant to blow up!” A calm snapper waved at him nonchalantly, eyes gleaming with mischief. Beside her, a skydancer coughed into her fist, barely suppressing her own laughter, though she soon calmed enough to speak as well.
“All according to plan,” she reassured him, although Jayce was less than convinced as to what that plan had actually been. What sort of laboratory actively encouraged blowing things up? The idea of it seemed completely ridiculous, but judging from their expressions, they clearly thought otherwise.
“What were you even doing that involved things exploding, anyway?” He queried, eyeing the sizzling remnants of wires and soldered metal on the table with some trepidation. Chuckling, the snapper simply waggled an eyebrow at him, while the wildclaw was nearly doubled over laughing, recovering only to nearly trip over a stuffed fish lying on the floor.
“Jeez, Glimmer, don't just leave those cat toys everywhere, at least keep them all in one spot-”
“Hey, Musa, is that your ribbon on the floor as well?"
“Pfft, says the one who clutters the desk with her seashell collection…”
Jayce cleared his throat, feeling rather out of place amidst their casual banter. “Ashe knows about these...experiments, right? What even goes into those things, anyway?”
“A little bit of this and a little bit of that,” was the equally vague response, the other engineer leaning over to pluck said ribbon from the table before chiming in with, “Don’t worry about it, we’re allowed to mess around like this in our free time.”
How unusual. Project scientists were dedicated to their work, you seldom saw any actively wasting resources for the sake of a little fun. He would’ve thought FL/GHT would be stricter on resource usage, given their less-than-ideal budget, but apparently not. Curiosity piqued, he stepped inside to take a closer look at the smoking chunk of metal, but something just off to the side of it caught his eye instead.
A simple photo frame, with a picture of an innocently-smiling fae within. On closer inspection, it wasn’t even a picture - someone had drawn his face with painstaking care, so realistic that he’d mistaken it for a photograph. Written in light blue curling letters on the front of the frame was the word “Hoshi”. Frowning, Jayce took a step closer, peering at the little wooden frame. No matter how you looked at it, it felt strange for androids to possess such things - they were meant for the remembrance of others, to remind one of what was once beloved. With their perfect recollection, androids needed no such thing for reminder’s sake, yet here it was all the same, signifying some purpose other than for mere decoration. The only other reason for such an item’s existence was equally troubling.
After all, what would androids know of sentimentality?
Noticing his brief pause, the skydancer glanced over to see what he’d been staring at, smile fading just the tiniest bit as she reached out to run a tender finger over the framed picture.
“That is...was Hoshi,” she told him, sounding almost wistful as she traced loving circles over the glass. “He was the only good thing in my horrible past with Project, the only one who made me feel happy and loved.” Her voice shook as she picked up the picture frame, holding it close to her chest as she continued, her gaze hardening.
“But to them? He was just another useless android.”
The other two had fallen silent, oddly somber looks on their faces. Fishing in her pocket for tissues, the snapper came up with nothing, but laid a reassuring hand on Kinath’s shoulder nonetheless. Jayce fought the urge to squirm despite himself, strangely fascinated by this turn of events. Here was a side of history that would always remain buried from the public eye, a glimpse into the eyes of the creations they had brought into this world. All this time, he had thought nothing of how androids were treated, but to hear one speak so bitterly about the loss of a loved one...
“So they took him from me. I can still hear his pleas for mercy, before he was dragged out of the room. I never saw him again.” Her eyes fluttered shut, lips drawn into a thin, tight line, as if suppressing the onset of tears threatening to burst forth. What was one to say, in this sort of unpredictable situation? Rooted to the spot, he cast about for something, anything he could offer in the face of her raw grief - even as Musa pulled the trembling Kinath into a tight embrace and Glimmer shook her head silently - three pairs of expectant eyes on him.
“...that’s rough, buddy.”
Instantly, he cringed, the words only ringing hollow in his ears. What was he doing? Only an idiot would be stupid enough to say something like that, and he wasn’t about to let this ruin what could be their first impression of him. “I’m sorry,” he hastily added, internally cursing himself for being such a damn fool. “Just, I didn’t expect to hear this, but...that’s terrible. I’m sorry for your loss.”
An emotion he’d never thought them to be capable of. Maybe now would be a good time to back away and leave them to their business. “Actually, I was looking for someone named Bliksem, would you know where I can find him?” he queried, wishing not for the first time he had something else of comforting value to offer the still visibly emotional Kinath. In response, Glimmer cocked her head to the side, before pointing him out the door and to the left corridor. “Follow the trail of destruction,” she told him cryptically, before shooing him on his way, the other two waving him off as well.
Trail of destruction? Nonplussed, he allowed himself to be sent off without another word, taking the left corridor as instructed, still wondering just what exactly she’d meant by those words. Surely this place couldn’t be in that poor shape. As he caught sight of several odd indentations in the walls, however, he began revising that opinion soon enough. They looked like someone had taken a hammer to them in hopes of flattening them out, but failed to smooth it out entirely.The further he walked, the more telltale the signs - scorch marks seared onto the walls here, more dents in the floor there - had the matter been less urgent, he would have turned back and demanded to know what sort of madman he was being referred to. As it was, he had no choice but to hope this Bliksem was capable of providing the insight they so desperately needed.
For years, their excuse had simply been that their creations were no more alive than a rock was, but now he knew the truth. They loved, they laughed, they’d lost, but how could that be so, when they were never meant to be alive in the first place? Their androids had never been meant to be capable of feeling emotions, let alone display empathy, yet they were more dragon-like than other dragons he’d met. Compared to them, Selena was ruthless, brutally efficient - more akin to a machine than the flesh and blood dragon she was.
Focus. There would be time to think this through later. Selena had to be stopped, first and foremost. What androids could or couldn’t do wouldn’t matter if she destroyed them all. Quickening his pace, Jayce rounded a corner, halting just outside the room Bliksem was presumably in.
“Whoops, shouldn’t have crossed those wires! KWEHEHEHEHE!”
What in the world? Seeing as the door was wide open, Jayce stepped right in - and was promptly forced to duck as a Highland Gem Guardian whizzed right over his head, shrieking in an almost indignant tone. In the middle of the somewhat cluttered room stood a rather unusual-looking ridgeback, as well as a table with several miniature robots on it. One in particular, was still smoking from its cracked and half-melted remains.
“It works! It exploded, but it WORKS! KWEHEHEHE!” Cackling wildly to himself, the still-sparking ridgeback barely even spared him a glance until the Gem Guardian began tugging at his arm, chittering loudly.
“What’s that, Geary?” The little familiar appeared rather unamused, until the other finally turned around and caught sight of Jayce, still standing frozen in the doorway. Was this who he’d been sent to find? Only one way to find out, he supposed. Before he could even say anything, however, the ridgeback was already striding forward to seize hold of one hand, shaking it up and down rather enthusiastically.
“Oh, a visitor! You must be Lucian, Ashe told me you were coming. Welcome to my lab!” At the somewhat incredulous look on his face, Bliksem was quick to continue. “Don’t worry, I may be rather shocking, but I promised you won’t be zapped! KWEHEHEHEHEHE!”
He was offered a seat on one of the empty benches, Bliksem hurriedly dusting its surface free of soot before nudging him towards it - for some reason, it was nailed down to the ground. On closer inspection, most of the fixtures were similarly reinforced. “Sorry about the mess, I don’t usually get visitors at this hour - actually, I don't usually get visitors at all! Might be my electrifying presence, or my shocking personality - but hey, who likes being grounded? Not THIS dragon!"
Guffawing heartily, he stuck out a metal-encased arm, still sparking occasionally with electricity. "As you can see, I have plenty of first-hand experience, not to mention first-arm, first-foot, first-leg, first-head - heck, first-body experience, really! KWEHEHEHEHEHEHE!!”
Were all engineers in FL/GHT so inclined to ...explosions? On top of that, such a messy working space would normally have resulted in orders for the responsible party to clean up, yet clearly no such rule applied here. Attempting a weak smile at the pun - while ignoring the smacking noise of the Gem Guardian’s palm hitting its tiny forehead - Jayce decided to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand. “Right. Selena’s looking into ways to implement cybernetic implants into organic frames, and I need more information on how those would work?”
Clapping him on the back - Jayce fought the urge to cough, given the enthusiastic force behind it, but forced himself to laugh it off - Bliksem proceeded to explain in greater detail. "The biggest issue is implant rejection! Admittedly, it's not a problem I've really had to deal with - usually I have to worry more about blowing them up - and making sure they can withstand explosions too, heehee! Braking is such a hassle."
Rejection made sense, in light of Project: Wetware’s key failures, wherein the mind had rejected the new body given to it- wait, had he just said ‘explosions’? Snapping out of his own musings, Jayce glanced down at the bulky mechanojets, then back at the still-talking Bliksem, jaw visibly dropping open. Had he never heard of safety precautions? It seemed the feisty little Gem Guardian objected to that notion as fervently as he did, chittering shrilly at the unrepentant Bliksem, who merely snorted in amusement.
"Oh, don't worry Gears, it's not like I'll break if I don’t brake! KWEHEHEHEHE!” Whatever Gears had said, he hadn’t the faintest clue, but as it erupted into another fit of indignant shrieking, he decided perhaps he was better off not knowing. "Fair point, heehee!" Bliksem cackled to himself for a good moment or two, before resuming his explanation.
"Then there's integrating the implants! When done right, you can do a lot with them - like writing!" To demonstrate, he picked up a pen with one of the voltaic stormclaws attached to him and began scrawling notes on a nearby piece of paper, still gesturing wildly with the other claw. "Of course, compatibility is affected by element - Lightning dragons such as myself have an easier time accepting certain types of implants!"
Intriguing. “I’ve never thought of elemental compatibility,” he admitted, tapping one finger thoughtfully. “We’ve always just used metal since androids don’t have elemental affinity, but I imagine it’s different if you’re using an organic base frame, right?”
"Well of course! You can't just stick iron-based implants in a water dragon; it'd corrode before you know it! Fire dragons have higher core temperatures, so you'll need something with a high melting point,” Bliksem wagged a finger at him in mock-disapproval, shaking his head. “And don't get me started on Arcane, raw Arcane magic is even more chaotic than I am - not to mention explosive too, heehee!"
He was beginning to wonder if he should’ve brought a pair of earplugs to this meeting - the ridgeback’s booming laughter was starting to make his ears ring. Still, he needed information, and he wasn’t going to leave without it. Anything and everything they knew about such implants would be crucial to understanding how and where mistakes could be made, even if Selena hardly seemed inclined to make them - no one was perfect, after all. Glancing at the bulky jets encasing Bliksem’s feet, he very nearly bent down to examine them before remembering they were still attached to their wearer, although the ridgeback barely seemed to mind.
“Are those implants, as well?”
“The mechanojets? You bet they are, get a look at these!” Grinning broadly, he reached down and popped them right off, sticking his foot out while wiggling the toes. Strangely raised nubs dotted the skin, circling the ankle and running straight down the middle of the foot. As Bliksem turned, more of the little nubs were revealed, extending from the heel to above other square-shaped ports - one on the heel, and two on either side of his foot beneath the ankle itself. What struck him as out of the ordinary, however, was how all of them appeared to be formed out of his own flesh, instead of machinery. How he’d managed that, he wasn’t entirely sure - his best guess would be that the flesh had been allowed to grow around the wiring, somehow - but why not use metal instead?
When asked, Bliksem merely slapped his leg heartily and replied with, "There's a risk of infection - when implanting a mechanical port, you're basically making a deliberate, permanent opening in the skin. That's why I stick with biological interfaces! This bad boy can fit so many ports in it! KWEHEHEHEHEHE!” Hovering above them both, Gears made an odd noise, smacking its little forehead once more before doing the same to Bliksem.
“So you’re saying it’s easier and safer to use organic ports, instead of, say, plugging a new device into the body?” That made sense, to some extent. The body was less likely to reject something of organic origins as compared to something mechanical, and they’d all seen what had happened with Juda. To think Selena fully intended on repeating that experiment again... he shook the ominous thought away. This wasn’t the time. “What about your implants, then? I’m guessing your flesh grew around internal wiring, but I may be wrong.”
"Oh, not for my mechanojets - or most of my external implants, really!" One stormclaw gestured vaguely at the glowing bulb sprouting from his forehead. "That’s the only one where flesh grows around wiring - and I made sure to use biocompatible materials! Of course, that category is much larger for me than it is for most, so I've got plenty of leeway!" Off to the side, a minibot beeped, Bliksem pausing to check whatever it was before turning back to Jayce.
"Basically,” Bliksem ticked the points off each claw, including the metallic ones, “watch what materials you're using, biocompatibility is a must, make sure you have time to recover and get used to your implants, the interfacing method will vary depending on the case, and you WILL need to tailor each implant to some degree!” A pause. “If you got all that, I’m supposed to direct you to…” he squinted at the minibot’s now-unfolded screen, “Lab 6, that’s a few doors down. Ashe’s orders.”
Huh. Ashe hadn’t mentioned anything like that earlier. Still, if it was nearby, no harm going along with it. “Thanks for everything you’ve mentioned,” he said, still feeling rather out of his element, although Bliksem’s friendly nature had lessened the tension somewhat.
"My pleasure! I hope you weren't too shocked, heeheeheehee! Well, guess you'd best get moving! I'd tell you to go out with a bang, but it's only metaphorical for most! KWEHEHEHEHEHE!”
Bliksem’s booming laughter followed him down the hallway even as he offered a last parting wave back at the eccentric innovator, still mulling over what he’d learnt on his way to Lab 6. All his life, he’d worked with mechanical objects, had never so much as touched biological experiments until Selena had come along with her cunning ideas and manipulative speeches. To think that there was still so much more to learn about science was humbling, to say the least.
So lost in thoughts was he that he nearly walked past Lab 6 altogether, halting mid-stride to double back. Knocking on the door once perfunctorily, he pushed it open -
Silence. Her back was still to him, though her hands had stilled in their tinkering.
"Maybe. We've figured out that doesn't mean anything, though, huh?"
Just like that, it all came rushing back - their time together at Project, her pulling him aside, her insistence that the androids they made were alive, the tears that had spilled down her face even as she begged him to step down with her, to leave this forsaken place -
The look on her face when he’d shoved her backwards and told her to get out.
One hour. That was how much time he’d given her. One hour to pack her life up into a little bag, and run away from everything she’d ever known and loved. What had she been thinking, back then? He would’ve given everything to know, but it was too late for such regrets.
His ensuing silence spoke volumes, apparently. "... if that was all, I... have to get back to work,” she said aloud, speaking to the room at large as if he wasn’t standing right there in the doorway. It hurt more than it should’ve, to be addressed so coldly. Not that he didn’t deserve it.
“Wait.” There were so many questions brimming beneath the surface, too many things left unsaid that he should’ve said long ago. Not a single one of those words successfully made it past the growing knot in his throat. “Are they… treating you well here?”
"... yeah." A brief nod as she turned her head slightly, still not quite meeting his eyes. Her hands were shaking. "Canary, too. Remember her?"
How could he forget? She’d been so excited to work on that. An early warning system, capable of detecting environmental threats and alerting their owner, Canary had been one of Glaze’s most beloved projects. Canary had disappeared along with his sister, and frankly, he wasn’t the least bit surprised that she would take the robot with her. "I guess giving you an hour to leave was the right call, then,” was all he could think to say, knowing damn well it had been the worst decision of his life.
"There was no time to grab my belongings,” she continued tonelessly. “I'm sure you still saw the pictures on my desk? Well. I don't think I would have taken those anyways, but losing my life's work was quite the pain."
Your pictures are safe, he yearned to say, I never let them throw those out. They were all he’d had left of her. Standing before her now, she’d never felt more like a stranger to him in his life. Stranded, helpless to bridge the abyssal gap that yawned wide between them, he fumbled for some common point instead - I was wrong, FL/GHT is not what I thought it was.
“You were right.” It stung, to have to admit as much. He’d never been one to admit fault. Even now it still grated on his nerves, to have to swallow his pride, but it was the only way forward. At those three words, her hands stilled from their incessant fidgeting, and she quietly put her screwdriver down, her back still turned to him.
“Androids.” Was she really going to make him spell it out? “You were right about them. Being sentient, I mean. If I’d known, I would never have gone on to…do what I did. I couldn’t have.” How could he have ignored the signs for so long? They were so obvious, in hindsight.
“What changed your mind, in the end?” He could almost taste the bitterness in her tone, the unspoken ‘I told you’ hovering in the air between them.
“I don’t really know.” It was as honest an answer that he could give for the moment. He’d only chosen to work with them because he’d needed an ally against Selena, and they’d been his best bet. Selfish, for certain, but what other choice had there been? “They’re like us. I never really saw that before now, but they’re not all that different from regular dragons like us. I never imagined that they were capable of things like these, but the truth is that they are.”
Silence. The sound of the clock ticking had never quite sounded so loud before. “They really are, huh?” Glaze mused, turning at last to face him stiffly, her gaze steely and cold, fists clenched by her side.
“Do you know when I learned, Jayce?”
"I found her a week later during a power outage and found her shivering in the dark. She... would have been crying, if she could. And even then, she was forcing herself to try and act natural, like some- emotionless husk." Her jaw tightened, ever so slightly, the faintest notes of pain lacing her words. "... it would’ve been so easy to chalk it off as an AI malfunction. It would have been so easy to lie to myself like you did."
"But I couldn't, and I had to accept that I was the monster all along.” She spat the last sentence out with startling force, shaking her head vehemently, and he forced himself to stay put. The hand that had been reaching out to pat her head fell pathetically to his side. Old habits died hard. She wasn’t the starry-eyed younger sister he’d brought along with him to Project, not anymore. She hadn’t been, for a long time.
“Listen, about that, I’m sorry-”
“What would you know?” Rounding on him abruptly, she glared at him with eyes that stripped away any excuses he might’ve had, trembling visibly with barely repressed rage. “You’re sorry? Sorry? Like that’s going to make up for anything. You think it’s that easy to say you’re sorry and call it quits, Jayce?” For a moment, he was sure she was about to strike him, bracing himself for the inevitable impact, but then she deflated, the anger fading away as soon as it had appeared.
“Just so you know, I kept those photographs.”
Her jaw dropped open in bewilderment, eyebrows furrowing as she simply stared at him, still struggling to catch her breath from the previous outburst. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded, chest heaving even as she jabbed an accusatory finger in his direction, but her bluster was wavering.
“I kept them,” he repeated, each word measured with care, “because I missed you, and I know it’s late, but I’m sorry for what I did.” Feeling suddenly very awkward, he coughed into his hand, before continuing. “I just thought you should know that.”
A snort. “At least you can admit it.”
“I’ve had to admit a lot of things lately.”
“...and it never gets easier. Feels like it should.” Another pregnant pause, shoulders slumping, her entire body seeming to curl in on itself as she leaned against the wall with all the weariness of one who has forgone sleep for weeks. An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them, thin and transparent as a bubble, until she spoke again, her voice thin and not quite steady.
“I have…a lot to work on.”
Yourself, or your inventions? He wisely chose not to say those words aloud. Instead he simply nodded, prepared to pull the door shut and bid goodbye to the only family he’d ever had.
“...this can be our last meeting, if that’s what you want.”
Seconds ticked by. She did not move, nor make any sound to acknowledge she’d heard him. He was about to reach for the door handle before she cleared her throat at last.
“I don’t...no. I don’t think I want that.”
“Then it won’t be. I’ll see you again someday.”
Strangely enough, he felt better. Forgiveness had been too much to ask, but to see her safe and sound was better than perpetually wondering how she was doing. Maybe things would never quite be the same between them, but who knew what the future held?
They just needed to survive whatever Selena had to throw at them next.