The FIRST HEART
A robot made by a lonely scientist
In almost every way a "miracle"
But this miracle wasn't enough
There was one thing it couldn't run:
A program called "Kokoro"
"Project: CH3R1, activate."
Her eyes flickered open, he held his breath amidst the quiet whirring of her systems starting up. The sleepless nights spent toiling on his newest creation, the countless hours of constant frustration and meticulous calculations, all of it seemed to fade away in this one moment. The sleek, metallic sheen of her streamlined body, the delicately formed crest of feathers atop her head, everything down to the very tips of her claws was nothing short of perfection. For a moment, his claws twitched, as if about to stroke her face, but he decided against it in the end.
Those eyes of hers focused on him at last, the sight made his breath catch in his throat.
“Affirmative. Project: CH3R1's systems are online."
He swallowed, forcing the lump in his throat down to focus on documenting the results of his work. "Can you read me, CH3R1?"
A frown creased his features. Affirmative was fine, but that would surely get boring soon. It lacked life to it. Was there something else she could say? Robots were programmable and usually designed to be functional instead of sociable, but with his knowledge of engineering there had to be something he could tweak about her. Even as he mulled over the possibilities, her unwavering, glassy eyes had not once shifted from him even once. Such a stare felt like it was boring a hole through his skull, and so with a hasty command he ordered her to shut down for now.
It wasn’t enough. Her motor functions and AI appeared to be up-to-scratch when compared to the standards of other androids he had created, but something was lacking. Everything else he had made for Project had been praised for their practicality, efficiency, but that wasn’t what he was trying to make this time. No, Lucian was after something else, a selfish mission of his own - but it couldn’t hurt to let loose and experiment a little, after all his contributions to Project, could it?
Project CH3R1: Progress Log Entry #1
Project CH3R1’s activation has been a success. All functions appear to be operating properly. Standard performance tests have been run, and CH3R1 has met the required criteria that all Project-brand androids must meet.
Companion-Bot programme has been installed and run. Project: CH3R1 is able to identify her designated partner via optic sensors and seek out their company. In addition, she is capable of carrying out basic tasks such as hugs, though other tasks have not been added into her programming as of yet. I will need to look into these other actions and figure out just how to code them into her Companion-Bot manual.
Perhaps I should look into installing a heating system for her, to mimic natural body warmth.
Project CH3R1: Progress Log Entry #3
New actions have been added into CH3R1’s Companion-Bot system - the ability to take hold of another dragon’s hand, as well as an additional option for Project: CH3R1 to snuggle up beside her companion. A marked improvement, but the motions lack fluidity and grace. At least the internal heating seems to be functioning effectively without risk of overheating.
I’ve run through her voice bank and tweaked each clip to have more inflection in the tone, to make her sound more lively and less monotonous. Try as I might, however, it’s impossible to replicate the speech patterns of regular dragons with technology alone. For the meantime I’ve had her attempt to read a piece of literature aloud, to get a feel for what I’m working with.
With a gusty sigh, Lucian let the pen slip free to roll across the desk, stretching out in his chair before glancing over as CH3R1 thumbed through the book he had handed to her - a volume full of poetry and prose, hardly something one would expect to find in a scientist’s desk, but something he owned nonetheless. It had been years since he had last leafed through its pages, however, and Lucian was content to close his eyes to listen to CH3R1’s voice while she read.
"You and I are the sun and the moon,
Whose paths never cross,
Whose lights are not seen by the other,
Save for once upon a time…"
In a heartbeat Lucian was up and on his feet, snatching the book from her grasp and frantically flicking through the pages, until at last he stopped on the page CH3R1 had been on. Those words had struck a profound chord inside him, dredged up emotions he’d almost forgotten existed - of all poems to read, why had she chosen that one?
With shaking hands he closed the book and tenderly slid it back into the desk drawer where it had once sat untouched for so many months. Today was not the day for such memories to be brought up, but even so…
"What is it?"
Senna turned to him, a leather-bound volume in hand, absentmindedly tracing over the flowing script with one claw. "Never thought you were into this stuff." On seeing his flabbergasted attempt to explain, she merely smiled and pressed a digit to his lips, shaking her head ever so slightly.
"But don’t worry, I love that part of you anyway. Here, I’ll read it for you…"
Warm, golden light bathed the side of Senna’s face as she read off the lines, trailing one claw across the page as she went. The work she was reading was one of his personal favourites - a poem titled "Mon Cheri" - but even that failed to awe him, not when the greatest work of art was standing right before him instead.
"You and I are the sun and the moon... "
Project CH3R1: Progress Log Entry #8
Project CH3R1 has shown remarkable progress towards mimicking an actual dragon, in terms of behavior and speech. I have been adding more actions to the list in her Companion-Bot manual - a tilt of the head here, a laugh there. She has taken to these well and performed them exactly as programmed, but it still doesn’t quite sound the same. She still needs to be verbally prompted to come over and issue comfort to her set partner, instead of it being automatically triggered by what she sees.
No matter. I can fix these issues. I can fix her, and I will.
Project CH3R1: Progress Log Entry #13
It’s not enough.
Day by day CH3R1 grows more lifelike with each tweak of her programming I make, but there is something about her that remains… untouchable. Her eyes, I think, it’s the way they always seem to look right through me, but never at me.
I’ve trained her to recognise and respond to visual and audio cues now, but they’re always so stiff. More of an automated response than anything that feels like genuine comfort. Having her sit by me doesn’t feel anything like having an actual dragon by my side, even if she feels warm.
How can I make her more… real?
Project CH3R1: Progress Log Entry #22
It’s no use. I’ve tried so many times now. Nothing works. Nothing I do can bring that spark of life to her eyes. She talks, she moves, but she does not live.
What can I do to bring her back to me? Why can't I bring her to life?
Down slammed the pen in his claws, Lucian forced himself to stop shaking before he snapped the writing instrument in half. After all he had attempted, after everything he had so desperately tried to alter in her coding, all the things he had programmed her to do…
Nothing felt right.
Another deafening thud, this time accompanied by the sound of shattering glass. Lucian’s eyes snapped open at the noise, but it took him a palpable moment to comprehend the fact that the warm, slick sensation on his palm was blood. His blood. Strange, how he could barely feel the stinging pain of the cut, yet the agony in his chest throbbed with an almost maddening pulse of its own.
Ah. That’s right… she needed to feel.
Days and nights passed, all blurred into one in his unseeing, uncaring eyes. Never before had Lucian ever stayed bent over his desk for so many hours at a time, but it was as if he were a dragon possessed, hell-bent on creating the perfect solution that would bring his precious CH3R1 to life. Document after document on previous findings were reviewed, it was hard to say whether his bed saw any use in those days. Even if his exhausted body screamed for him to rest, the restlessness of his mind kept him wide awake throughout the nights that he spent working on the flawless code. CH3R1 deserved nothing but the best from him.
The lights in his lab never went off…
Left all alone
The miracle robot pleads
“I want to know how he felt”
Working till his dying day
Making it for me
Ah, how many months had it been since Lucian had embarked on this solitary journey, one that took place within the four walls of his laboratory? Time and again his colleagues had attempted to coax him outside with promises of sweet rest, of laughter and company he had long forsaken in favor of his quest, but one by one Lucian had slammed the door in their faces. Fools, all of them. Could they not see that his work was so much more important than that?
Feather-light footsteps sounded from behind him, warm feathers pressing into his shoulder as CH3R1 nuzzled against him - another meticulously coded task Lucian had added himself. Absently, he reached up to stroke the side of her face, flipping through the collection of log entries he had amassed thus far, frowning when he noted that the first entry was dated a year ago. Had the time flown by so quickly, shut away as he was in his own world?
“Yes… this should be it.”
With trembling claws he finished the final touches on the new program, issued CH3R1 a soft command to shut down while he busied himself with transferring said program into her system. Had there been any flaws in his code? Would it work as planned? Would his theories prove to be correct in the end?
This had to work. It had to.
“Just a little longer, my dear.”
Loading system update…
Updating… 10% complete…
Updating… 34% complete…
Updating... 70% complete…
Updating… 100% complete…
It was with an anxious gaze that Lucian watched CH3R1’s eyes flicker to life, heard the familiar whirring of her systems starting up. So far, so good. Not crashing the instant she was restarted was definitely a good sign.
He just prayed nothing else had gone wrong.
Straightening his aching back, Lucian gave her a quick once-over, before clearing his dry throat - the last time he could remember drinking anything had been a cup of cold coffee - while attempting to keep his tone as level as he could.
“Project CH3R1. Do you read me?”
CH3R1 cocked her head to the side, mouth forming a tiny “o” as she blinked. One hand went to her chest, rested there for a moment before she raised her gaze to meet his questioning look.
“Yes. I do.”
‘Yes’. Not ‘affirmative’, but a clear and definitive ‘yes’. Another minor change from her previous self, but that had yet to prove whether those arduous months of toil had paid off or not.
“How are you feeling?” Such a loaded question, Lucian couldn’t help but hold his breath for the answer as soon as the query left him. Would she be able to feel? To what extent would these newfound emotions run in her? Would she be able to act independently?
For the longest of moments, there was no response. CH3R1 stood stock-still, frozen in place for so long that Lucian feared he had broken her somehow.
I should’ve known better to expect this to work, it wasn’t enough. Time to review the code and find out where I went wrong…
“I feel… strange.”
The suddenness of it took him aback, Lucian halted in the middle of gathering his research material to stare at CH3R1, who was shaking like a leaf.
Just now it started, a quickening miracle
For some strange reason the tears won't stop
Why am I shaking? The accelerating beat
Is this the "Kokoro" I wanted?
“I don’t know how to. My chest feels so warm, but… it hurts. Like something’s trapped inside me and can’t get out. It… it aches.” CH3R1 took a wavering step forwards, arms outstretched, silently begging.
Lucian caught her in his arms before she could topple over, patting her back until the violent trembling was over and all he could feel was the rapidfire pulse of her inner mechanisms, working in tandem with the newly installed ‘heart’ he had given her. Frankly, it was about all he could do himself not to dance for joy, not when she needed him. Celebration could wait until her condition had stabilized.
For many minutes after they sat on the floor of the lab, CH3R1 rocking back and forth in a shivering heap. Never mind the chill that seeped in through the tiles, it didn’t matter when CH3R1’s warmth was all he needed. Humming a little to himself, Lucian occupied himself in the meantime with smoothing down the ruffled ebony feathers on her head, a tired smile creeping across his face before he finally let himself drift into unconsciousness.
Once, he would’ve struggled to fall asleep, much less remain sleeping. His nights were often plagued by memories of his beloved Senna or even worse yet, nightmares - they always made his chest constrict so horribly, as if something twisted was creeping up his throat and strangling him from the inside out. More than once Lucian had awoken with her name on his lips, always grasping for the last remnants of her presence, but never succeeding.
That night was the first time he’d slept so soundly in years.
In contrast, however, CH3R1’s night was a sleepless one. Not that she had ever actually needed sleep when she ran off powered batteries. She knew Lucian had fallen asleep leaning against her, and took care to ease the exhausted scientist into a more comfortable position, before settling back against the wall herself to think.
The sensations she had experienced before her newest software update paled in comparison to what she felt now. Every step she took, every tiny bit of sensory input, all of it had new meaning. She found she quite liked the way her own feathers felt - jet black and silken smooth to the touch. She liked the quiet whirring sound the air-conditioning made, the cool air that washed over her and drew an appreciative shiver - she hadn’t even known she was capable of such a thing. Even the sound of her name, “CH3R1”, sounded almost musical, to her ears, anyway. It was as if she’d been living a half-dead lie the entire time, numb and blind to the wonders this world held for her.
But this? This was truly what it meant to be alive.
The next morning he awoke to a glowing emerald pair of eyes staring back at him. “Morning,” she whispered, reaching over to lightly caress his face, and in that instant Lucian fell in love all over again.
Sleep had done him a world of good, but nothing could compare to the emotion he felt tugging at his heartstrings when CH3R1 spun around to flash him an innocent smile, inquiring about the weather outside - though honestly, he was paying more attention to the sound of her rich laughter than anything else.
Maybe it wasn’t too late for a tired soul like him to enjoy life…
"What is it?" He was reclined in his chair, pen idle on the desk as he contented himself with watching her potter about the room, taking in all the foreign sensations as if for the first time. Perhaps there was other work he could be doing at the time, but none of it seemed as important as watching her.
“About that book…” She hesitated, before the words spilled from her in a breathless rush, as if she wanted to get it over and done with. “Why did you take it away? The words… they were so beautiful to read. But you took it away like I’d done something wrong.” Abruptly, CH3R1 halted, striding across the length of the room to take her hands in his, though he could still feel the tremors in her grip as surely as he could hear the falter in her voice.
“Did I? Do something wrong, that is.”
How could he resist those eyes? “No, you did nothing wrong. It’s just… I haven’t heard that poem in awhile.”
Perhaps awhile was an understatement. It had been 13 years, 8 months, and precisely 22 days since she had last read that poem to him. Lucian had never once lost track of time no matter how many years had passed. How could he, when her smiling face was still burned into his mind?
“What is it?”
“Don’t play dumb, I know you left this on my table. Is this another one of those mystery gifts?”
Senna’s tone was half-chiding, but the delighted beam on her face said otherwise - it made his chest ache to sweep her up and hold her tight, but for their sakes Lucian restrained himself. For now.
“Why don’t you open it and find out?”
Before he had even completed his sentence Senna had already flipped the book open, leafing through each crisp page with growing wonder. She liked it, Lucian rejoiced internally, she truly did!
“You and I...
You and I are the sun and the moon,
Whose paths never cross,
Whose lights are not seen by the other,
Save for once upon a time…”
Her voice startled him out of his internal celebratory reverie, her gaze was intently focused on the very last page of the book in her claws. Heat rose to Lucian’s cheeks instantly, he had never imagined Senna would care to read what he had scribbled at the back, not when it paled in comparison to the other poetry compiled within. Entranced, Lucian could do nothing but listen, spellbound by the sound of her rich voice, the way the words seemed to flow off her lips like water. Not once could he have thought mere scratches on paper could ever sound so enchanting, but for Senna, the words seemed to shape themselves around her voice, to fall like drifting snowflakes.
“Lucian, thank you. This book, I -”
“No, thank you, mon cheri.”
He blinked, and the fantasy was gone as soon as it had appeared. It was only when CH3R1 made a soft, concerned noise and reached over to wipe the tears off that he realised he was crying - even then he couldn’t be sure what he was crying for.
Her hand stopped moving, rested on the side of his cheek. The expression in her face was unreadable, though it softened when the corner of her lip curled upwards slightly.
Now I can say these words of truth
And offer them to you…
“Thank you. For making me. For giving me these… what’s the word for it?”
“Yes, those. They are strange, but… I like being able to feel. I like being able to like things.”
An amused chuckle. “And I like having you here. Don’t worry, you’ll get to experience many other things soon, I promise.”
For bringing me into this world
For the days spent together
For all you've given me
Forever I'll sing…
The following day was the first time he had set foot outside the privacy of his personal working space in months. He'd lived off what meager supplies he had stored under his desk, only coming out when he absolutely needed to restock and shutting himself away straight after. It felt odd to be striding through the hallways of the extensive Project headquarters like this after so many months of solitude, but at least he was finally free to take a break and hopefully spread the word of his newest creation to the others. CH3R1 was a masterpiece, a breakthrough in their technology, and was sure to be a success if others like her were created and marketed to the public - an intelligent, empathetic robotic companion who didn't require food or sleep, but was still capable of speech and all the other movements ordinary dragons could perform. With time and a few more experimental coding sessions, it was possible that dragons like CH3R1 could even be trained to handle specific tasks or take on occupations just as real dragons did.
Yes, he was sure of it, they would love her as much as he did, there was no way they wouldn't.
When Lucian rounded the corner towards the Project staff lounge, he was greeted by a group of his former(?) colleagues, all of whom appeared equally flabbergasted to see him out of his lab at last. Clapped on the shoulder and ushered into the lounge, they barely gave him time to sit down before bombarding him with all sorts of questions - what had he been working on all this time, why hadn’t he said a word to anyone, was he finished with the final product? Laughingly, Lucian waved their questions off with one hand, taking a sip of his coffee before he began detailing the creation of CH3R1 to them, from idea conception to fine-tuning to the final results. His colleagues’ expressions, however, soon lost their enthusiasm, one by one they had stopped nodding along to his rambling explanation until one at last held up a hand to halt Lucian mid-sentence.
“Lucian, you don’t seriously believe it has feelings, do you?”
“Wh- of course she does! Aren’t you listening? I gave her the ability to feel!”
Another shake of his head. “It appears to feel. Nothing more. This CH3R1 is a hunk of metal, and metal is no living thing, to be able to feel.”
“But nothing. Machines aren’t capable of emotion.” Beside him, a few of his colleagues nodded assent, one or two chiming in with, “it’s just not possible.”
Why could they not see it? Why did they refuse to see the truth he had unveiled before their very eyes? CH3R1 was just as capable of feeling emotions as they could! No matter what they said, he had seen her reactions for himself. The way her voice quivered when she had asked about the poetry book, the child-like glee in her eyes when she beheld the sun from the window for the first time, all of those had been real. Lucian forced himself to swallow down the bitter rage that threatened to overwhelm him and come bursting out in a tirade of words, he would not allow them to discredit his year of toil so easily.
“I’m telling you, Lucian, stop this nonsense. You’re only wasting your time and the company resources.”
“You mean to say you wasted an entire year on something that doesn’t even exist?”
“They’ll scrap her, you know.”
The last sentence was quiet, barely audible over the voices of the others, but it sent a spike of indignant fury through him. How dare they. CH3R1, scrapped? They wouldn’t dare.
Would they? A tiny voice in his mind echoed. Lucian flinched, his trembling hand lost its grip on the coffee mug and let it crash to the ground beneath. Ignoring all other protests slung at him, he turned tail and raced back to the sanctuary of his silent laboratory, heedless of the scalding coffee or the glass shards he nearly stepped on. They wouldn’t really scrap her, would they? He needed to go back and check on her just to be sure, what if they’d taken her when he’d stepped out?
But no, there she was standing in the corner of his lab, gazing out the window as always. CH3R1 turned to face him when the door slid open, about to welcome him back, but Lucian had crossed the room and thrown himself into her arms before she’d gotten a word out. The pulsing warmth beneath his hands, the sleek feathers tickling his chin, yes, this was her. She was safe, after all. Lucian inhaled deeply, basking in her presence, until his heartbeat had returned to its former rate, the alarm bleeding from his body and leaving him sagging against her. How could any sane dragon call CH3R1 a waste of time and resources when she was everything he’d ever needed? No, there had to be some way to change their minds, Lucian vowed, and he would see to it that it happened.
It was only an hour later that CH3R1 hesitantly ventured to ask what had gotten him so upset, and even then Lucian hadn’t the heart to tell her that Project would see her as an utter failure, that she would be turned into naught but scrap metal. So he made up a white lie, fed it to her in hopes that she would understand him well enough not to pry further.
No further questions were asked. Perhaps no other questions were needed.
They fell asleep entangled in each other’s arms, Lucian savouring the comforting warmth that radiated off her. For years he had spent his nights alone, either working till the sun rose or until he passed out at his own desk. His bed had lost much of its appeal when there had been no one beside him at night, leaving him stranded between the border of consciousness and oblivion. As he drifted off to sleep, his last lingering thought was, “just what new wonders shall I show her tomorrow?”
For her part, CH3R1 didn’t quite fall ‘asleep’ the way Lucian had - he appeared completely oblivious when she’d shifted underneath him. Her nights were simply another empty window of time for her to ponder over things, and she’d almost gotten lost in her own thoughts when her augmented hearing caught wind of something - shuffling footsteps, growing louder with every second.
A brief glance at the clock read 3am. Who would be coming here at this hour? CH3R1 gently slid herself free of Lucian’s embrace and padded over to the door. It swung open before she could reach for it, however, and she was greeted with a trio of unfamiliar faces.
Who were they, and why was one of them reaching into his pocket for a -
Burning, pulsating agony ripped through her senses, her system’s internal alarms were set off all at once. CH3R1 staggered heavily, hit the ground in a twitching heap, unable to do anything more but writhe, jaws agape in a soundless scream. Her limbs refused to obey her call. Move, damn you, CH3R1 howled, but even her voice-box failed to produce anything beyond fizzing static. Prickling pain stung her every nerve, made even worse when she was brusquely hauled out the door, with Lucian none the wiser.
CH3R1 had never once been outside of Lucian’s lab. The blinding white lights overhead, the chilly tile of the floor she was dragged across, all of it was foreign and as alien to her as the thought of her having flesh and blood. She could barely make out what the scientists - she assumed they were, anyway, since she knew nothing else of Project’s staff - were muttering, much less tell where she was being taken.
Abruptly, there was a muffled curse from one of the scientists, she could’ve sworn she caught something about “- coming this way, hide” before she was unceremoniously hauled into a dark room, lit only by the screens of the computers within. For several tense moments they kept still, waiting with baited breath for whoever it was to pass by, but CH3R1’s mind had been occupied with finding some way to escape - wherever they were bringing her couldn’t be good, if they’d done it without Lucian’s permission.
Minutes ticked by in utter silence, before one of the dragons holding her blew out a breath and waved for them to move out once more. Panicking, out of time, and with nowhere else to go, CH3R1 barely managed to lift one arm, her claws digging into the wires of the nearest computer.
Must get away…!
The world flickered around her, a dizzying blur of neon lights and muffled voices shouting in the distance. CH3R1 gasped aloud, attempting to swim through the haze, only for her vision to fade and darken at the edges.
Please, not like this…
Her eyes slid shut.
Uploading in progress… 25% complete…
Uploading in progress… 67% complete…
Uploading in progress… 99% complete…
Morning dawned on him much quicker than he’d expected. Lucian yawned, stretching an arm out as if to pull CH3R1 closer to him, before his eyes snapped open.
She wasn’t there.
Without a second thought he was on his feet, scanning the entirety of his lab for even a glimpse of her, but nothing. It wasn’t as if the place had many other rooms she could be hiding in. He was, without a doubt, alone.
“They’ll scrap her, you know.”
No. They couldn’t have. Lucian shoved the thought out of his mind, he was leaping to conclusions, perhaps she had simply wandered outside out of curiosity. Just as he was about to head out to search for her himself, a chime rang out over the intercom system.
“Lucian, you are called to Head Scientist Jayce’s office. Please report as soon as you can.”
Of all times, now? Lucian bit his lip, casting another glance around the room, half-hoping he’d somehow missed her in his blind panic, but to no avail. The urge to ignore the announcement was tempting, but this was the head scientist. Ignoring a direct summons from his superior would be folly. With an exasperated sigh, Lucian straightened out his lab coat and set off at a brisk pace towards Jayce’s office. With luck, it would be over in 5 minutes, and he could get back to searching for his beloved CH3R1.
Thankfully, his lab wasn’t located too far away, and it only took him one wrong turn before he arrived at Jayce’s office. He had better things to do than this, Lucian fumed, pushing the door open with a perfunctory greeting already on his lips -
And halted right in his tracks, staring at the lifeless body on the table.
They hadn’t scrapped her. But what was she doing here, then? They’d deactivated her somehow, those gleaming eyes of hers were no longer open. Why had she been brought her without his permission? Question upon question with no answer in sight, and the only one with the answers was standing right in front of him. White-hot rage surged through his veins, never in his life had Lucian wanted to rip someone apart as brutally as he did now.
“What did you do to her?!”
Jayce’s chuckle was as infuriating as he last remembered it being. “Nothing. She’s actually quite a marvelous creation. I’m surprised they told me it was nothing, but I just had to see her for myself.”
That took him aback. Jayce actually approved? His fury melted away instantly, replaced by fervent enthusiasm. Of course he would, of all dragons surely the head scientist would be able to recognise true potential when he saw it. If he had Jayce’s backing, then surely they would be able to make a success out of androids like CH3R1, and he would prove them all wrong about machines not being able to feel like they did.
Somewhere in the back of his mind a tiny voice was screaming that something was off, but Lucian overlooked it completely in favour of explaining CH3R1’s capabilities to Jayce, who stood and listened as if deep in thought. Finally, someone who understood his intentions, someone who supported his year-long efforts and loved the idea of CH3R1 as much as he did.
When all was said and done Lucian had to pause for a breather - it had been months since he’d been required to speak for so long without a break in between. Jayce ran a light claw over CH3R1’s unmoving wings, before glancing back up at Lucian again.
“Yes, sounds like you’ve made quite the discovery. I must congratulate you on that, I’m sure Project greatly appreciates your efforts.”
“Thank you, does this mean we can start making more models like her? I can provide all the blueprints, the coding programmes, everything -”
Jayce’s congenial smile hardened.
“I never said you would be involved from now on, Lucian.”
Quick as a flash Jayce had produced a plasma pistol from within his coat, the barrel aimed right at Lucian's face. It didn't take a genius to put together what the other had in mind.
A crackling bolt sizzled right past his ear as Lucian dove out of the way, scrambling for the exit. He stole a last, fleeting look back at the motionless CH3R1, just before he slammed the door shut behind him.
Then he ran for his life.
No more than mere seconds later the alarms were blaring, lights flashing bright red. Lucian tore down the hallway, skidding past several bewildered scientists just as the intercom crackled to life above their heads.
“This is a lockdown procedure. Intruders have been spotted inside the lab.”
Damn that Jayce. Lucian gritted his teeth and made another sharp turn to the left. The doors were heavy, they took at least several minutes to be sealed shut completely. Once shut, however, they were nigh impenetrable. It was escape or be caught.
He really didn’t want to think about getting caught.
Huffing, Lucian forced himself into a sprint, his sides complaining from the unnatural exertion. There was no time to rest, not when he needed to get to the nearest exit, fast. Another turn nearly took him straight into a wall. Righting himself, Lucian shoved past another group of scientists, who scattered as he bowled past them. His lungs burned for air, but he couldn’t stop. Not here, not now.
Thundering footsteps headed his way spurred him to racing towards the end of the hallway, Lucian sucked in a hasty breath - he could make it before they saw him, the door was just around the corner, if he pushed himself just a bit farther he could escape before the exit was sealed shut…!
Searing agony blossomed in his shoulder, Lucian’s steps faltered even as he slammed his palm into the sensor beside the door. It beeped once, sliding open even as the shutters began to lower. Another hiss, metal melting just inches from his foot from the superheated plasma fired at him.
“Don’t think that this is over, Lucian!”
Lucian risked a glance back as the shutters continued their inexorable descent. Jayce was charging up the pistol for another shot, its barrel still smoking faintly. Their eyes met.
“Screw you too, Jayce.”
He dropped to the floor and slid himself through the rapidly-closing gap. Not a heartbeat later the shutter hit the ground with a metallic clang. Any slower, and Lucian would’ve been crushed to death.
It was only after he was sure there wasn’t anyone lurking in wait to ambush him that Lucian dared breathe a sigh of relief. He hadn’t ever imagined needing to run for his life like that, but then again, plenty of things had already happened that he would never have once thought would be possible. CH3R1 was living proof of that.
He didn’t have much time. That much he knew. No doubt by now Jayce would be sending out androids or other dragons in search of him. The burning pain in his shoulder wasn’t helping to clear his thoughts, but Lucian forced himself to think - where could he go that Jayce wouldn’t think to look?
Somewhere that wasn’t surveilled by Project cameras, for sure. Easier said than done, considering that Project’s headquarters were usually tightly watched. Even now he couldn’t be sure if there was a hidden camera observing him. No, it had to be somewhere Project paid little attention to, a place that they would rather not acknowledge the existence of… like how they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that machines were capable of feeling emotion or being defective, Lucian mused.
They didn’t want to acknowledge that machines could be defective.
They didn’t want to acknowledge defective machines…
So where did these defective creations go?
“They’ll scrap her…”
Lucian’s eyes brightened. Perhaps there was somewhere he could hide after all.
Trekking through a seemingly endless, winding maze was not on his bucket list of things to do before he died. However, it was his safest option thus far. This was a dead zone, so to speak, a place where there was scarcely life to be found. How he would survive, Lucian wasn’t too sure yet, but what mattered more was staying out of sight for the time being. Grunting through the throbbing ache in his shoulder, he trudged through yet another misleading passageway, only to stop when his foot hit something.
A metallic exoskeleton grinned up at him from the ground, the eye sockets gapingly empty. Lucian recoiled instinctively, but bit back his misgivings and continued ever deeper. Soon, however, he found himself surrounded by piles of trash - on closer inspection, the heaps were comprised mainly of mechanical parts of all shapes and sizes. Some pieces were entire chunks of metal, others had been mangled beyond repair and lay twisted on the floor. It was only when he caught sight of a faded, triangular logo engraved on the side of what appeared to be an arm that he understood: these were the remnants of Project’s attempts, the trash-pile for their discarded remains. But for this much to have accumulated… just how many artificial beings had they scrapped?
CH3R1 might’ve been among these heaps, if anyone else had gotten to her.
The thought made Lucian shudder. Bad enough he’d had to abandon her back at headquarters. He didn’t even know what Jayce intended to do with her - scrap her? Experiment on her? His throat tightened uncomfortably, but Lucian forced himself to cast those thoughts aside. The first order of business would be seeing to his shoulder injury, even if he admittedly had no medical kit on him. Perhaps he could scrounge something from the piles of junk…?
As it turned out, the heaps contained nothing but machine components aplenty. Stiffness was already beginning to set in the joint, it wouldn’t be long before infection did too. Growling, Lucian roughly tossed aside another mechanical piece - useless, all of it. Nothing here would even remotely suffice as a bandage, not unless he was an android himself and could weld the hole shut.
Thoroughly disheartened and exhausted, Lucian sank to the ground, hissing through his teeth as his shoulder protested once more. Ignoring the problem wasn’t going to work. Only proper cauterization would cleanse the wound and prevent possible infection. All he had on him was his handheld soldering iron and the portable battery he used to charge it. It was still warm in his pocket when he took it out, but then it hit him.
Fumbling to switch it on, Lucian took another hesitant glance at his injury, before looking back at the soldering iron in his grasp, growing steadily hotter by the moment. It couldn’t be helped, he decided, and pressed the white-hot tip of it to the ruined flesh of his shoulder.
His agonized howl echoed in the depths of the junkyard long after the pain had faded.
Months flew by soon enough, and all seemed well. Project had not thought to search for him here, not with how vast this junkyard was. Lucian spent his days resting, built small machines to keep himself going in the meantime - a raincatcher to procure water, while he lived off the few small animals that infested the area. No easy feat, but he managed.
Not a day went by that he didn’t think of CH3R1, still trapped in Project’s headquarters. He couldn’t possibly hope to break her out himself, and so Lucian contented himself with the knowledge that at least she hadn’t been scrapped immediately. It was a meager sliver of hope, but one that kept him alive throughout the days of utter solitude and repetition. He found himself missing her company more by the day, would’ve given anything to know if she was faring well where he’d left her, but deep down he knew that Jayce wasn’t likely to have spared her any mercy. In his heart was yet another aching void that couldn’t be filled no matter what he did, and it would remain that way until the day he died.
Time had no meaning in a desolate place such as this. Lucian had fallen into his own cycle by the time his injury had healed, and quite frankly would have been satisfied to live out the rest of his life like this.
Until it showed up.
When or how it had gotten here, Lucian didn’t know. The hulking mass of metal was simply there the next morning, dumped on the outskirts of the junkyard. Astonishingly enough, this one still resembled a draconic being, and with a pang in his heart he noted the gleaming Project logo engraved on the android’s leg. So this was what happened to them when they outlived their usefulness?
Lucian took it upon himself to drag the limp body back to his makeshift shelter, huffing and wheezing all the way. The sun was already in the sky by the time he had it lying inside his little hut, but it mattered not. Here was something he could do at last, apart from idling away the time, regretting how he’d abandoned CH3R1. For hours he laboured over the reconstruction of the scrapped android, pausing only to head out and scavenge for the respective parts he needed - he’d come to realise that this place was a gold mine for mechanical components - until he sat back at last to admire his handiwork.
At least the android was intact, now. Experimentally, Lucian pressed the power button just behind the jaw, eyes widening in unexpected delight when the button began to glow a soft blue. A faint whirring noise emanated from the android’s chest, it was several long minutes before the eyes flicked open and swivelled to stare right at him.
“What… where am I?”
Whatever Lucian had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t that. No Project robot he’d ever known was programmed to speak like that. In fact, it sounded almost… genuine. Eyebrows scrunched in puzzlement, Lucian checked it over again. Everything was in its proper place, and he hadn’t altered it too much. What was the reason for the differing speech pattern, then? It sounded disturbingly like CH3R1 had been programmed to speak - with sincere emotions, and an independent consciousness aside from the standard AI.
“A junkyard. You were dumped here after scrapping, but I managed to fix you, I think.”
The android flexed one wing gingerly, before standing upright with only moderate difficulty. “Thank you, Lucian. I appreciate it.”
“How do you know my name?”
Bewildered, the dragon before him paused as well, appearing just as lost as he was. “I… I just know. A part of me knows you.”
Impossible. No one in Project would do such a thing. No one would make robots the way he’d made CH3R1, would they? While Lucian mulled it over, the dragon across him spoke up once again, this time with clear confusion in his voice.
“Hold on, there’s a new file in here that wasn’t here before…” He frowned. “It’s labelled ‘CH3R1.exe’.”
The words hit him like a crushing blow to the chest, Lucian staggered back in disbelief. It couldn’t be. How had a part of CH3R1 gotten into this robot, a being he had never seen before, much less had a hand in creating? His world was spinning dizzily, he had to sit down just so that his shaking knees wouldn’t give out beneath him.
“There’s a message in it.” The dragon informed him.
He cleared his throat, expression morphing into one of utmost concentration.
“Lucian. If you are reading this, then my attempts have succeeded. I managed to alter this android’s programming, to give him the ‘heart’ that you gave me.
I uploaded myself into Project’s systems the day I was taken from you. Since then I’ve been trying to lay low, and figured out a way to tweak the coding of the androids Project is now making. They’ll be like me, I suppose, able to feel and talk like I do.
I don’t know what’s happened to you, but I miss you. All I can do here is watch, and do my best to give every one of these androids a chance to experience life like I did. Please, stay safe.
When was the last time he had trembled like this? Years, months ago? To think that CH3R1 had discovered a way to survive as he had all this time… it gave him newfound hope, at least, for the future. Lucian exhaled shakily, looking back up at the android now shuffling his feet awkwardly in front of him. Yes, he could see it now, the way he blinked and swallowed nervously here and there, the way he held himself - all these were a result of the ‘heart’ programme he had made for CH3R1.
For the first time in long months, Lucian smiled.
After that, he made it his life’s work to repair any broken androids who wound up in the junkyard. It started off with one every month or so. Then three would come in the next month, and soon five more would follow in the next. Fortunately, the junkyard held no shortage of spare parts Lucian could use. The once deserted and silent trash heap was no longer empty, instead it slowly grew to be populated by the very beings who had been sent here to ‘die’. When his natural organs began to fail, Lucian had no qualms about augmenting himself with machinery, going so far as to modify a pump actuator to serve as a pacemaker, when his heart began having issues in his twilight years.
Not all of them who came to him knew his name. Lucian, he decided, was a name he wanted to leave behind along with his time of working for Project. These were peaceful times, and he did not wish to taint them with bitter memories of the past.
So he chose to go by the simple nomer of ‘X’, instead.
It was many years before anything remotely new occurred at the junkyard. By this time the entire place had become a sanctuary for those abandoned by Project, given a new chance at life through CH3R1’s ‘heart’ programme and his repair work. Only the oldest models at the junkyard remembered his true name, now.
Once, he had held hopes of these artificial dragons having a life of their own, the will to speak out and do as they wished. With every broken body he found, however, those hopes grew ever dimmer. Project was too strong a foe to fight alone now, having grown into a leading-edge company in terms of technological advancements.
Until she arrived.
Fresh from the lab, she had been, replesendent in steely blue with her bow at her side. X had seen her disillusionment in Project firsthand, watched the naive gleam of hope leave her, to be replaced by a grim determination. It was that alone that had compelled him to give up his pump actuator to save her life, when she’d been scrapped. This one, he firmly believed, would be the one who changed all things.
Perhaps he would never live to see what his final sacrifice had bought, but nevertheless, if it meant saving someone who would later champion the cause against Project…
He would gladly do it all over again.