Smoke and Mirrors

by rei

A barely-stifled yawn slips from Jayce even as he taps his card against the logger - 10am, on the point as always, never so much as a blemish on his attendance record. The spotless white walls that greet him are the same as always, the rows upon rows of offices and conference chambers stretched out across the length of several corridors. Instant coffee in hand, he makes his way to his office - fourth door from the end, zero outward ornamentation to declare the place within as his save a simple plaque on the door. This is Project, after all, a place that prizes functionality, not pure aesthetics. 

 

“Morning, Kalmia.”

 

His co-worker doesn’t smile back this morning, seemingly preoccupied with the report in her hands. Jayce clears his throat. She looks up. 

 

“Oh, it’s you.” None of her usual chipper attitude, shuffling papers in her grip until they threaten to spill from the folder in her arms. Her eyes dart back and forth, settling at last on a point just above his shoulder. 

 

“Yes, me. Who else were you expecting?” A lighthearted joke, but the way she flinches back suggests otherwise. 

 

“No, of course it’s you,” she mutters, half-under her breath, though he’s close enough to hear it easily. Something must have gotten to her today, he muses, but what it is he can’t rightly say. Stress, maybe, but then again, didn’t she just receive a promotion the other day? You’d think she’d be happier.

 

“Hey, congratulations on that promotion last week-”

 

“Listen, I have a lot of things to do today. Gotta go.”

 

She hurries off down the corridor before he can even call her back. Chalking it up to a busy morning, Jayce shoves it out of his mind for the time being. Odd as her behavior is, she’ll come around eventually. For now, though, there’s work to be done.

 

The scent of lemon air-freshener greets him as he strides through the door, though something distinctly floral permeates the air of his office. Perfume, and the source of it is currently perched daintily on the edge of his desk, with several files resting in the crook of her elbow. 

 

“Would you kindly remove yourself from my desk, and explain just what you’re doing here?”

 

Selena turns from her seemingly deep-inspection of the view from his window, before swinging herself off the desk and lightly brushing herself off - like there’s any dust to be found there, Jayce internally huffs, knowing full well that the table is always kept spotless. 

 

“Oh, nothing, just thinking of how the view would be like from here.” She tosses him a sly wink, seemingly unfazed by his growing irritation, though she does extend a hand with several reports to him. “In all seriousness? Big boss told me to deliver these, figured I’d drop by on the way. Seems like a lot of new work, I sure wouldn’t want to be in your position right now.” 

 

“Right, thanks, now could you please-”

 

“Already going, no need to rush me.” A nonchalant wave of her hand, Selena pausing for a moment to chuckle lowly to herself. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you were afraid of me, Jayce, but surely Project’s Head Scientist wouldn’t be afraid of a mere scientist, would he?”

 

“That’s not-”

 

Her mocking laugh echoes in his ears long after the door swings shut behind her.

“Morning, Kalmia.”

 

“Morning to you too,” she greets, barely stifling a yawn. “I take it you finished those blueprints we were working on last night?” 

 

“Yeah, just needed to fix a few minor details. They should work now, without the previous errors our engineers were complaining about.” Something about the androids overheating too quickly and sapping up too much magical energy during the testing phase. A relatively easy fix, and he’d even managed to improve on the current magical converter this time round. Beaming with pride, he reached over to pick up the set of blueprints from his desk, blinking in owlish surprise when his hand touches nothing but empty air. 

 

They should be here. Under the coffee mug? Between the folders? Stuck inside a drawer, maybe? Checking each of them yields no results. Frowning, he does another quick sweep of the surrounding area, from the neatly-piled stacks of documents to the bookshelves lining the walls. Still nothing. 

 

“Now, where are those blueprints…?”

 

His desk is spotless as always. Finding something as mundane as a simple blueprint for the latest line of Project androids should be a piece of cake. In the doorway, Kalmia taps her foot impatiently, one hand outstretched and waiting - it had been her idea, his design, all that is needed is for the copies of the plans to be handed to the manufacturing crew, if only he could find the blasted thing. “I don’t have all day, Jayce,” she snaps, “either you have it or you don’t. Which is it?”

 

“Just a moment-”

 

“I’ve stood here for five minutes watching you search your empty desk,” she reminds him sharply, and he winces. They were here last night on this very table, he could swear as much, having worked on the blueprints himself into the wee hours of the morning. Sifting through his cabinets and thumbing through his bookshelves turns up nothing. Lifting up just about every object on his already barren desk doesn’t reveal it, either. He’s half-tempted to ask Kalmia to leave while he ransacks the entire office for it, but before he can say anything she’s already marching in to check for herself. 

 

“Goddamnit, Jayce, I thought you had it last night, what happened?”

 

Not even he can say anything to that when the facts speak for themselves - the blueprints are gone. Over an entire day’s worth of poring over designs and calculations, gone just like that. It’s small, in the grand scheme of things, but still, how could it simply have disappeared? Biting his lip, he is forced to admit defeat after another ten minutes of fruitless searching, even with Kalmia’s reluctant assistance. The plans can be redone, he supposes, but what a waste of time and effort. 

 

Strange, has he always been this forgetful? Just the other week, he could swear he’d scribbled down notes about a new and original use for magitech, only to find his colleagues working on the very same ideas no more than two days later and claiming they’d already submitted their plans to him - plans which never made it to his desk, supposedly. Or like that one time he’d gotten the specs of the upcoming models wrong somehow, only to find they’d supposedly been changed hours before “with his permission”. 

 

There is something different about their stares, now, whenever he passes them by in the hallways. A mix between pity and condescension, offering half-hearted queries about his health, perhaps he should take a break and recharge? The beach has fine weather this time of year, one colleague suggests, and he just barely resists the urge to slap the coffee cup out of her hands.

 

What nonsense. He’s well aware that there have been...more mistakes than usual, but all the more reason for him to continue doing what he can to make up for them. It’s not stress, neither is it poor health, so why do half his attempts at righting wrongs miss their mark? 

 

Something has changed, but he can’t quite put his finger on what.

 

“Have you been feeling alright lately? Your work seems to be slipping, wouldn’t want you to get demoted for that.”

 

Selena again, with the too-smug smile and eyes that glimmer with malicious glee, practically taunting him to fire back at her - but he is too old for such childish games. 

 

“If you have time to observe how I’m doing, then shouldn’t you be putting that time to better use by working, Selena? Or are they paying you to blow hot air at your superiors, now?”

 

Her eyes narrow, though the smile remains firmly fixed in place. “Just watching out for our beloved Head Scientist, is all I’m doing. It would be a terrible shame if something were to happen to you because of a few tiny errors.” The corners of her lips twitch upward, ever so slightly. 


“Such a terrible, terrible shame.”

All around him are familiar faces. 

 

It’s been awhile, since their last meeting. Project does like giving their employees plenty of freedom to strike out on their own experiments, provided they fulfill the general requirements. Normally, these meetings are saved for those with new proposals to bring to the board of directors, but there are no new faces here today - save one.

 

“First of all, I thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here today.”

 

Her smile is as sickening as ever - or maybe that’s just him. 

 

“There is no doubt that our androids are efficient, but there remain those who will refuse to use them. So what about helping dragons become just as efficient as androids, instead?”

 

There is a general murmur of interest across the table, some sitting up straighter in their seats. He does not like where this is going. 

 

"Prosthetics already exist to help those with a missing limb or two. Cybernetic implants are just an extra upgrade.” She pauses, sweeping them all with an imperious stare before continuing. “With our magitech, we could even enhance the magical potential of dragons, and imagine how useful that could be."

 

Not entirely untrue. The very basis for Project creating androids is to push the limits of technology - to enhance the lives of dragonkind and make the impossible not only feasible, but effortless

 

"But first we need samples. Cybernetic implants need something to be implanted into, obviously."

 

His eyes narrow sharply at that. Another excuse for more of her live experiments? “Just what are you suggesting, Selena?” 

 

"We need to know how these implants would function in an organic frame. Therefore we need samples, living ones, to test them.” She blinks at him owlishly, seeming almost puzzled by his question. “How else would we know if they're working?" 

 

“Don’t you think we’ve done enough live experimentation already?” It’s getting almost ridiculous, how far she’s taken these projects of hers - as if kidnapping innocent dragons and putting them through hellish procedures isn’t bad enough. The others are oddly silent, the weight of their gazes threatening to weaken his resolve. Not a single one has anything to say about the morality of her twisted tests. 

 

Cowards, every last one of them.

 

“You would have us stop here, after we’ve done so much? Just think of what we could do, what we could become if we explored this avenue of technological improvements. ” She cocks her head towards him, and he has the distinct feeling of shrinking into nothing under her stare. 

 

“Besides, why are you so suddenly against this now? I seem to recall a certain someone being on board with Project: Wetware…”

 

He flinches, the words a stinging slap in the face. “That was then,” he manages gruffly, scrambling to maintain some measure of composure, “and I-I’m just saying we shouldn’t draw more attention to us than we already have by taking those dragons against their will.” 

 

“We will be careful,” promises one of the directors while waving his concerns off casually. “It’s a small price to pay for further advancements, and if perfected, why, we could make every dragon just as efficient as an android with our tech. That’s what we’re here to do, Jayce, and you’d best not forget it.”

 

“This is wrong-”

 

“Who was it who said he would do anything for the sake of Project? Who gave me the go-ahead for Project: Wetware, and encouraged me to do what it took to attain results?” Her voice slices through the very air between them, sharp as a knife, and he winces, claws digging into the edge of the table. Those words were spoken a long time ago, by a younger and more foolhardy self, but the directors do not know that.

 

“But-”

 

"Think of the profits, Jayce." One of the directors stands, his entire expression alight with enthusiasm. "Her ideas have been nothing but good for business so far, and I'm not about to let a little morality stop Project from growing as a company."

 

Teeth gritted, he barely manages to find the words he needs, trying and failing to string together a coherent protest. Surely they can't all be blinded by their greed. Surely there has to be some sense left in them, some rationality that can be appealed to. Looking at them now, however, he's not even sure if they're the same dragons he used to work with, anymore. The thought alone leaves a bitter aftertaste in his mouth.

 

The director fixes him with a stern look, eyes now cold. 

 

“Unless you can think of a better idea, Jayce?”

 

Silence. He slumps back into his seat, humiliated and defeated. Across the table from him, Selena smirks. There is nothing he can use against her, and she knows it. 

 

There is no choice. She must be stopped, or Project will no longer remain the company he once devoted his heart and mind to.

 

"All in favour of Selena's proposal?"

 

All hands are raised in favour, except for one. 

 

"...approved."

“Mission report, Project L1RA.”

 

“Intruders spotted along the perimeter of Sector 51, and were positively identified as FL/GHT agents.” The android’s glassy eyes never leave his as it continues droning on, almost as if reciting from a written script. Unemotional, completely unaffected by the results of the patrol - but then again, why should it care whether living dragons live or die?

 

They’d lost two today. A promising scientist-engineer pair, accompanying the patrol to supervise the performance of the latest models. Jayce winces at the stray flecks of blood splattered across the robotic dragon’s cheek, fighting back the urge to wipe it off himself. Such losses are unacceptable. It pauses, indifferent to the bloodstains. “Is a more detailed report required, or will a summary be sufficient?”

 

Some things are better seen than described. “Play the mission footage for me,” he orders, reaching over to snag a cable and plug it into the projector beside him, sitting back with arms folded across his chest. Without another word, the recording begins to play onscreen, though for the sake of getting it over with he skips to the actual encounter itself. 

 

Nothing new here, he muses, looking on while androids grapple and clash, the Project employees nowhere to be seen. Most of it is skippable, until a dark splatter of crimson across the lens forces him to pause and rewind the clip back by another few minutes. 

 

They are cornered, the camera tilted sideways - presumably from this unit being knocked over at the time. The audio still comes in cleanly, though.

 

“One chance,” warns the leading wildclaw, bedecked in crimson and bronze armor. “Tell them to stop sending patrols here, or join us instead of them.”

 

“You’re just an android.” The scientist’s voice quivers in spite of his defiance. “What would you know of loyalty?”

 

“Is that a no?”

 

This time the engineer speaks, scowling darkly at the gathered FL/GHT patrol. “You robots were never programmed for freedom. Stop trying to act like you deserve it. I’d rather die than join a bunch of droids.”

 

He spits in the face of the other android. It hits and slides off the smooth metal of its cheek. 

 

(if Jayce had looked closer, he would have seen something almost akin to resignation in the wildclaw’s eyes.)

 

Faster than he can blink, taloned claws sink into the chest of the scientist, while a blur of scales whips past the camera to lunge at the sneering engineer. Blood sprays forth in a fountain of bright red, pooling around the collapsed bodies even as the FL/GHT patrol steps back to leave, their business complete. Heaving a sigh, he stops the video with a click and dismisses the android - but not before downloading the recording and mission log. Just in case, he tells himself, but for what, not even he knows.

 

What would you know of loyalty? 

 

Robots, nothing more. The offer of mercy is simply protocol for fallen or defenseless opponents, to reduce the unnecessary bloodshed that so many fear androids for. They are only machines, and incapable of processing actual emotion, much less being sentient. 

 

(that is what he tells himself, at least.)

 

A week passes, and still he cannot get the image out of his head. 

 

Have their androids always been capable of extending such offers? It’s not a particularly important detail, one that seldom sees any use, but to see former Project androids displaying mercy so openly…

 

No. He’s got better things to do than to get stuck on something like this. Shaking himself out of his reverie, he heads outside to receive yet another mission report, this time from a sleek skydancer unit looking somewhat worse for wear. Another skirmish, then?

 

“Mission report, Project R3YN4.”

 

“Intruders spotted within the heart of Sector 53.”

 

His jaw tightens. “FL/GHT agents?”

 

“Affirmative.”

 

“...let me see the mission footage.”

 

Again, he watches as androids lunge and snap at each other, some leaping into the fray barehanded, others wielding plasma weapons made from Project’s very own technology. Again, the offer of salvation is extended out and summarily rejected, a second scuffle about to break out anew before the leader halts them. 

 

“...not today,” is all he can make of the hushed conversation between the leading android and the apparent second-in-command - do they even have chains of command? They begin retreating, several working together to lift the bodies of their wounded - if you can even call damaged androids that. The recording just barely picks up on their voices as they leave, but what little he does hear is something that couldn't possibly be coming from the likes of them.  

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Can you stand? Here, lean on me if you need to.”

 

“Hang in there, the pain will pass.”

 

Curiouser and curiouser. Sitting up a little, he watches them retreat, noting how most - if not all - take the time to pick their way through the piles of discarded androids and scrap metal, instead of simply ploughing straight through them. Inefficient, despite being built to match the very definition of the word ‘efficiency’. Deliberately going out of their way - for what? It goes against all logic, all the rules, and that alone irks him immensely. 

 

He made them, made the very rules and programming laws that they abided by. With every model, goes his heart and soul, poured into its making, yet they continue to go increasingly awry - showing things like compassion, mercy, things that were never coded into them to begin with, things that defy everything he’s ever known. Are all of them this way? The prototypes, the first robot models, have they always been so? None of those had ever acted out, never so much as did anything without being commanded to, but then, what does that say about FL/GHT? Eyeing the robot standing still before him now, he’s never been so tempted to smash it open until something shows - something that is responsible for the birth of a consciousness that should never have been there at all. 

 

They are coded for practicality, built for efficiency, not… whatever they’re doing now. It makes no sense, that he could take every one of them apart and still find nothing wrong with them internally despite their abnormal behavior. That has always been his way, to take apart and scrutinize even the tiniest of components to find the problem lurking beneath the surface, but how is he supposed to do that when even taking them apart is akin to dismembering someone limb from limb? God, if they are able to feel, then he doesn’t even want to think about the controlled shocks, much less the tests. Surely that can’t be the case, surely Project would know better than to let them market sentient beings as robotic helpers.

 

... right?  

 

“Impossible,” he repeats under his breath, as if the word can change the footage into something more believable. It just doesn’t add up. It still doesn’t even begin to explain why, despite all factors saying otherwise, they appear almost genuine in their displays of emotion. All of them undergo regular maintenance and antivirus scans, for unwanted bugs or malignant software that might result in malfunction. Nothing in their code provides for anything remotely like what he’s been seeing. Everything he’s seen flies so far beyond the parameters set by their coding, that it can’t be possible, shouldn’t be possible, logically and scientifically. And yet… 

 

“Your orders, sir?”

 

“You’re not really sentient, are you?” Please say no. Prove me wrong

 

Don’t let this be true.

 

“What?” ‘What’, not ‘Affirmative’. Maybe it’s the fault of the vocabulary bank installed, but he doesn’t care. It hesitates, just a moment too long before it answers, and Jayce seizes it by the shoulders, shaking it back and forth violently. Don’t react, he pleads silently, don’t scream like they did. 

 

He releases it after several seconds, letting it stumble backwards, confusion evident within glassy eyes - no, he’s imagining it, it’s only recalibrating. Balance recovered, it stands still once more, staring straight at him with a perfectly blank expression. Docile. Unfazed by the sudden assault. As it should be, Jayce notes, preparing to heave a sigh of relief until his eyes catch sight of it.

 

Its hands are trembling.

Project R3YN4 is sent back for maintenance, while he spends the rest of the day locked away in his office, pacing back and forth in deep thought. 

 

Abstract concepts like emotion have no place in androids, much less their having a consciousness of their own. Designed and programmed for maximum efficiency, Project prides itself on the creation of unthinking, unfeeling mechanical beings made to serve every conceivable purpose - that is what has gotten them this far. Emotions, therefore, serve no actual use and would only get in the way of such programmed purposes. Machines cannot feel, just as the stone cannot cry out in pain. 

 

That is what they have always believed. 

 

How to explain such contradictory behavior from former Project creations, then? There is no set code for ‘feelings’, no such thing as a programme to install some digitized heart into something that isn’t even alive in the first place.

 

...unless there is?

 

“Lucian, Lucian,” and his laugh is a bitter-sounding thing, leaning back in the comfort of his office chair while staring out the window of his office - a place that would perhaps, in another universe, belong to him instead of Jayce. “You really were on to something, weren’t you?”

 

By all standards, FL/GHT is an organization of contradictions. Androids with feelings were simply never meant to be, and yet still they keep coming, throwing themselves against Project in raid after raid. The worst part: they're winning these skirmishes. If they are truly capable of such emotions, then there is no doubt that they hate him. 

 

He wouldn't blame them, really. 

 

But if they hate him, then they hate Selena even more, and that may just be the key to everything. 

 

“...perhaps it’s time I paid them a visit myself.”

Sector 51 is in ruins.

 

Heaps of junk and scrap metal are piled as far as the eye can see, reeking of rust. No living dragons inhabit this junkyard wasteland, but the distinct paths trodden into the dirt would suggest otherwise. Careful not to step on sharp debris, he picks his way through the winding paths, half-considering turning back and returning to Project. Coming all the way out here just for a far-fetched hypothesis isn’t his style, but there is too much at stake here to give up now. If he is proven right, then it changes everything - something not even he’s sure he wants to find out.

 

Is that why you left us, sister?

 

Only one way to find out. Besides, they won’t kill him right away, not from what he’s seen of their behaviors. Ask questions first, fight later. He clears away as much dirt as he can from the entrance of an old shack, noting with interest that it’s relatively well-maintained compared to the rest of the rundown slums. Someone lived here, once, but who would live in a place like this?

 

It is hours before the next patrol finds him, half-dozing off against the doorway of the shack. 

 

Project,” the leading spiral hisses, and Jayce simply tips his head up to stare at them, careful not to make any sudden moves, suddenly aware of just how much he could stand to lose in this instant. One mistake, and there goes everything he has ever worked and hoped for.

 

“I want to see your leader.”

 

“Why should we trust you?” The pointed tip of a trident is levelled at him, and he sucks in a deep breath. “What are you after, exactly, by hoping to see Ashe?”

 

“Peace,” another voice calls out from further behind, the ranks parting to reveal a pearlcatcher, who lays one hand on the spiral’s shoulder. “That is Ashe’s right to determine. Check the area for backup units while I contact her, and you,” now speaking directly to Jayce, “try anything, and I will not hesitate to strike you down myself. Are we clear?”

 

He nods meekly. 

 

Of all the things he is expecting - why are you here, what do you want, are you here to attack us - he is not expecting to be escorted inside the base itself and offered a seat just as if he is another guest coming to visit. The blindfold reduces the sense of welcome, obviously, but he supposes it’s as good as someone like him is going to get. At least they remove it once he’s inside, although he has no doubt that there will be more than one pair of ears listening in on their conversation here. 

 

The guards - a pair of androids each, though of significantly different make from each other - take up positions at the door even as Ashe herself strides in, and settles herself opposite from him. 

 

“Project Ashe-”

 

“Just Ashe, please,” she corrects him coolly, and he could swear he sees one claw twitch. 

 

“Fine. Ashe.” They sit in awkward silence for several moments, before she breaks it first. 

 

“Did you come here to see her? Your sister Glaze, I mean.”

 

For a moment, his face twists into something indescribable, pain and regret flickering across features before finally shaking his head. 

 

“I can’t imagine she’d want to see me again, not after what I did.”

 

“Everyone deserves a second chance.”

 

“You don’t know what happened between us!” He’s on his feet, eyes flashing bright with barely concealed rage, though it vanishes just as soon as it appears. Forcing himself to inhale deeply, he sits back down.

 

“You don’t know,” he repeats, too quietly, hands twisted within his lap. Ashe only studies him contemplatively, something akin to pity reflected in her mechanical eyes, and he fights the urge to bristle indignantly at that, swallowing his pride instead. Pitied by something thought to be incapable of emotion, how low can he possibly get? How Selena would laugh, if she were to see this.

 

“...I’m sorry.” It grates on his nerves, to even have to apologize to an android, but he is on foreign ground, and diplomacy is key here. 

 

It is her turn to shake her head. “I shouldn’t have assumed. Just...don’t be so quick to make assumptions about her feelings, is all. She’s still your sister, which is more than what most of us can claim to have.”

 

Unwelcome heat is prickling through his cheeks, teeth gnawing at lower lip to prevent himself from blurting out something he’ll regret. Getting a lecture from an android about how to handle emotions is nowhere near on his bucket list of things to do, but it’s a bit late for that now considering it was his choice to get involved in the first place. Besides, it only proves his theory - as madly ridiculous as it was - to be true. The dragon sitting across from him not only speaks unlike any other mass-produced Project android, but possesses a level of conscious thought process and the ability to empathize, something no machine should be capable of.

 

He supposes he’d better get used to it happening.

 

“So then, what brings you here to FL/GHT?”

 

Truth be told, he’s barely even prepared anything to say - he didn’t really think they’d let him get this far as a private audience with their leader herself. “I know you hate me for what I’ve done,” he begins, “but we share a common enemy, and her name is Selena.”

 

A beat.

 

“You would come to us, knowing full well the atrocities you committed in the name of science, and ask for our aid?”

 

He flinches.

 

“...you need my help. I need yours. I don’t blame you for holding a grudge against me, but Selena is far more dangerous than you could know.”

 

Before she can respond, he presses on with, “I don’t know if you know this, but most of Project isn’t even aware of the experiments she’s carrying out, and I can say with certainty they wouldn’t condone word getting out about it.”

 

Ashe starts at that, eyebrows raised with clear intrigue and a fair amount of confusion. “Is that so? We were under the impression that she had full permission. That all these...things are what Project wanted.” 

 

Jayce could almost laugh at that. As if. “Only the higher-ups, and not including me,” he hastens to add, before she can even mention his status as Head Scientist - a fat lot of good that title’s doing for him nowadays. “It would be bad for the company’s reputation if the public found out we were conducting illegal experiments on dragonkind, after all.”

 

“And you mention this because…?”

 

“I want to topple Selena. Put a stop to the experiments. They’re not what Project’s really about.”

 

She leans back in her seat, staring at him thoughtfully. “And what about after that, Jayce? What will you do then?” 

 

Just like that, his thoughts come to a crashing halt. What indeed? Stopping Selena’s cruel experiments is one thing. But now that he knows the truth - that androids indeed are capable of sentience - can he live with allowing them to be constantly treated the way they are on a daily basis? Their very existence goes against everything he’s worked for and believed in for years. Seeming to sense his internal dilemma, Ashe simply sighs and waves the question off. 

 

“Forget I asked. It’s too soon for such thoughts. What did you have in mind?”

 

Relieved to be off the hook, Jayce straightens himself slightly, tugging at the collar of his lab coat. “Maybe Project won’t do anything to stop her, but what if a third party got involved? A third party who doesn’t like androids, and would do anything to stop their creation.”

 

“Are you for us or against us, Jayce?”

 

This time he does laugh, even if it comes out somewhat strained. “I’m talking about making a third party. I’d be in control of it, and I’d think a leading android-making company is a bigger threat than an underground android rebel force.”

 

Surprisingly enough, her expression is deadly serious. “Aren’t your hands rather tied right now, being the Head Scientist and all? Being discovered...well, I don’t think I need to tell you how bad it could end up for you.”

 

“I know. But no one else will do it.” 

 

Her lips curl into the first hints of a toothy smile, and for the first time since he’s stepped inside, it feels like he’s caught a glimpse of the true Ashe. 

 

“For a moment there, I’d say you had the makings of a rebel. Very well, let us assume this third party joins the fray…”

 

They talk for hours, long enough that they have to pause to call for refreshments while working out the finer details. How to coordinate their raids, how they will communicate, who amongst their ranks will be privy to the knowledge of this secret alliance. It will not be easy to gain support, Ashe warns him, but if this is what it takes, then so be it. He’s tired of running, tired of treading on eggshells every time he steps into the labs - and so very tired of allowing Selena to get her way.

“Are you sure about this?”

 

The skydancer’s gentle voice makes him pause, already dressed and covered head to toe in shimmering blue fabric. It’s completely unlike his standard lab coat and dress shirt, but he supposes that’s the whole point of the disguise. Picking up the elaborate golden mask on the table, he eyes it contemplatively, before turning back to his second-in-command, Sergius. 

 

“We’ve come this far. Besides, if she isn’t stopped somehow, then who knows what she could get up to next?”

 

 Nodding solemnly, Sergius steps around him to tighten the fastenings on the mask, before flicking on the voice-changing device built into the mouthpiece and checking that it will not come free, stepping back with a satisfied hum. “I understand. Good luck out there, there’s already a small crowd waiting to see you.”

 

It’s only been about a month or so, but even then, they’ve made decent progress. A few staged fights, some leaked information about a former Project company gone bust allowing their androids to run rampant… the whispers are already beginning to fly. He straightens the collar of his shirt, feeling oddly self-conscious even as he steps out from the tiny office into the rented space that will serve as their meeting chamber from now on. Humble, hardly befitting an organization dedicated to toppling the best of the very best, but one has to start somewhere

 

The crowd quietens as soon as he enters, a solemn hush falling over them as he comes to stand at the very front of the room. 

 

“Ladies, gentlemen, dragons of Sornieth, I thank you all for being here today.

For millennia, dragonkind has existed on Sornieth. Ever since the gods bestowed unto us the gift of life, we have been fighting to protect that gift, to find meaning in it and make our mark in the universe. Countless civilisations have risen, most of which have fallen and been buried under the passage of time, and yet here we stand strong.

 

However, recently a new entity has reared its ugly head. Over the past 15 years, we have been cursed with the existence of PROJECT: a company dedicated to the progression of science and technology. On the surface, this may seem like a noble task: after all, without science and technology, dragonkind would never have been able to make it this far.” The room is awash with murmuring, and he catches sight of one or two stifled yawns. Cold panic threatens to freeze him where he stands, microphone and all. Breathe, he reminds himself, all in due time. 

 

“However, science, if left unchecked, has the potential to wipe out all of dragonkind in the blink of an eye.” He pauses for effect, gaze sweeping the room. Some nod. Others look unconvinced. 

 

“Those foolish scientists at PROJECT have been allowed to run amok, and have created an abomination of science and nature, a blight they call the android. These… things are designed with the sole purpose of replacing dragons, and as such are capable of much more than the average dragon. They can run faster, jump higher, hit harder. They do not need food, water, or rest.” Each point is ticked off a claw as he leans forward, and the audience follows suit, hanging on every word. 

 

“And worse of all? They do not feel pain. You may think that these androids are harmless to us as long as they do not feel the need to attack us,” a pause, shaking his head firmly before looking out at the crowd once more, “but unfortunately the truth is far darker than that.”

 

He of all people should know. 

 

"Not only have those scientists created replacements for dragons, they have failed to control said replacements. Androids were created as tools for dragonkind, and yet they have deviated - nay, rebelled against their creators.” Alarm ripples through wave after wave of dragons, their whispers piling up one on top of the other until he can barely even hear himself, the tension in the air thick enough to cut with a knife. Beside him, Sergius clears his throat loudly. The room settles back into some semblance of order. 

 

“You don’t have proof of this!” Someone yells from amidst the sea of heads, and Jayce squints to make out the owner of the voice. “Why should we believe your story about androids when we’ve seen none of these FL/GHT bots?” His outburst is met with a murmur of approval, and he swallows thickly. It would have been better, if he hadn’t had to play his trump card so early. 

 

“Two months ago, three bodies were found brutally torn apart in the junkyard of Sector 57.” Clutched in his upraised hand is a newspaper clipping from the Sornieth Times, and the crowd hushes, eager to hear what comes next. “The incident was said to be a freak accident, some machine operation gone wrong. But that’s not what really happened, is it?”

 

“See, they’ll give you all sorts of reasons, but they’ll never give you the truth.” 

 

“My sister!” Another voice cries, and Jayce suppresses the urge to smile - he’s not above using planted spies in the audience. Anything, to achieve his goals. She stumbles forward, shoving others out of her way and nearly falling to her knees at his feet, swaying unsteadily. “Please, you have to tell me, tell me what killed her, please!” 

 

Her convincing performance elicits sympathetic murmuring from the audience, one or two offering to lend a steadying shoulder, but she brushes them off in favor of clutching desperately at his clothes, eyes filled with glistening tears. 

 

Please,” she whispers, and for a brief moment he sees his sister in those eyes, begging for mercy. His breath catches.

 

Then the moment passes, and he extends a hand to help her stand upright. 

 

“I’ll tell you, alright. It was Project’s own androids who turned on those dragons, and ruthlessly slaughtered them without a second thought.”

 

Instantly the room breaks into a roaring commotion, demanding answers and ‘justice’ for those whose lives were lost. It takes several attempts from Sergius to quiet them down to an acceptable volume again, and even then they continue to mutter amongst themselves with barely-contained anger. All according to plan. He raises his voice, and they instantly fall silent. 

 

"Androids," he begins, "were created to be nothing more than tools to assist dragonkind. Yet they're rising to fight back against their creators, who are completely incapable of controlling the technology they developed." A disappointed shake of the head, the audience sighing in collective agreement as he continues. "They're too dangerous to be left alone, much less commercially produced, and their creators too irresponsible. How many more deaths must happen, before we decide it's enough?"

 

"No more deaths! Down with the androids!"

 

"And their creators, too!"

 

"Don't make them if you can't control them!"

 

He fights back the urge to smile, even though they can't see it from behind the mask. Time for the finishing touch. 

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, that is precisely why I have gathered you all here today. We can't allow uncaring creators to churn out androids that could turn on us at the drop of a hat, all for the sake of profit. If no one else will defend dragonkind, then we will. Together, we will protect what is ours, defend our future, and be the bastion of tomorrow."

 

"I am Salvador, and we are Unity."

FEATURED CHARACTERS

JAYCE
SELENA
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