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Excerpt for Mercury Eye: A Novella by , available in its entirety at Smashwords
  1. Mercury Eye


A Novella


*


Megan Leigh


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2005 Megan Leigh


All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


First published as ebook 2019


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ml.proverbs@gmail.com


Cover design original artwork by Megan Leigh





Mercury Eye





145 DEAD IN SUICIDE DRAGON ATTACK


145 people were killed and 16 seriously injured when a dragon crashed into the old Skye Industries building early yesterday evening.

The victims were all squatters on the 20 – 25th floors of the otherwise abandoned building. It is believed the dragon survived the initial impact, but was killed (along with its victims) when five floors above it collapsed due to structural failure.

Eyewitnesses say the attack came completely without warning, the dragon’s only apparent motive being to kill everyone inside.

The military denies allegations that it was responsible for the incident, claiming it had no knowledge of an impending attack and no weapons were fired.

Mayor of Considia, Burnie Stein, said at a press conference early this morning that dragons crashing into buildings were not an unusual occurrence – but was more often attributed to accident.

"Since these attacks began six years ago, our main threat from the dragons has been fire-bombing," the Mayor said. "We’ve had plenty of dragons crash into buildings in the past, but this latest attack is the first time a dragon has purposefully flown into a building with the sole, chilling intent of murdering the people within."

President of IntelliTech Inc., Raymond Mollier says the attack is an alarming new development. "If these dragons are willing to become suicidal in order to destroy humans, we have one hell of a big problem."

Some believe our only real hope of winning the war against these terrifying creatures lies in the success of the Mercury Project – an ambitious new weapon being developed by the world’s leading manufacturer of Super Intelligent Robots.

When questioned about the progress of the Mercury Project, Mr. Mollier replied: "The Mercury Project has been suspended. IntelliTech is concentrating on developing a much safer defence system involving high powered lasers."



Bryce Williams let out a long sigh and slumped back in his chair. Lasers, he thought dismally. That was their great alternative? He glanced over the glare of his holographic monitor at the darkened, titanium mesh-reinforced observation window that occupied the entire far wall.

His laboratory was silent apart from the usual quiet hum of computer equipment. Bryce screwed up his eyes in frustration. They were going to rely on a system that wasn’t even out of the planning stages yet, when the Mercury Project had been completed and sitting here idle for several weeks?

Why can’t IntelliTech have a little more faith in my invention? he thought angrily. They won’t even let me test it!

He slammed his fist onto his stainless-steel workbench. Several bolts jumped and rolled with a clatter onto the floor. Bryce listened to the silence as the noise died away. Then he sighed again; the anger was trickling away, only to be replaced by familiar, empty despair. He turned resentfully back to his holoboard and tapped a key, hoping to find something more cheery on the second page of the newsfeed.

He was disappointed. Page 2 contained an article on the second greatest threat to public safety; SDS, or Sudden Death Syndrome. The story was identical to every other that had gone before it; the only facts that had changed were the place and the numbers. This time thirty-nine university students had literally dropped dead for no apparent reason in the middle of a lecture.

Bryce didn't bother to read the rest of the article to see if there had been any new developments in the search for a cause (or a cure). He knew there hadn't. SDS had been around for as long as the dragons, and still no one had the faintest idea what was causing it.

The latest theory was that the dragons gave off some sort of biochemical that was toxic to humans. A good theory – except that it failed to explain why most cases of SDS occurred indoors to people that had never had contact or exposure to dragons, or ever been in the vicinity of one.

Bryce shut down his newsreader and gazed blankly at the wall, as though waiting for it to suddenly start speaking and provide him with the solutions to all his troubles.

The wall remained resolutely silent. Bryce sighed yet again. Storm blue, he thought dryly. He wished they had just painted it white. No one painted anything plain white any more. These days everyone seemed to be obsessed with colour.

He glanced down at his clothes. He didn't think much of the lab coat he had been given to wear, either. It was a pale, delicate shade of pink. He often wondered if someone was trying to tell him something, or if the cleaners had accidentally washed it with the coloureds and hadn't bothered to get him a new one. He wouldn't be at all surprised. That was just the sort of organisation this was – it poured billions of dollars a year into high-tech research projects, but wouldn't spare a blue cent for its human resources.

Bryce didn't care much. He had far more important things to worry about than his appearance. Besides, no one ever saw him down here anyway except Mollier and the occasional auditor.

As if in answer to his thoughts, a sudden metallic hum invaded the silence and Bryce started and blinked. He swivelled anxiously in his chair to see who had entered his lab.

A young lady swaggered through the doorway with a mischievous grin on her face. Her sun-blond hair was streaked with navy blue and pulled back into a two-foot-long ponytail. She wore a reflective silver jacket over a plain black t-shirt and work trousers.

"Lauren!" Bryce exclaimed in surprise, leaping at once to his feet.

"Hey, Bryce!" Lauren greeted cheerfully. She looked around interestedly at the quiet lab as she approached. "Not gettin’ too lonely down here for you, I hope?"

Bryce shook his head. Lauren’s grin was infectious. "No, I’m too busy to get lonely."

A mock-severe expression suddenly crossed his friend’s face. She strode purposefully forward and tapped the oval glasses perched across his nose. "Still haven’t got your OEDs yet, I see," she said in an accusatory tone.

Bryce adjusted his glasses self-consciously. He turned away and sat back down at his bench, pretending to look for something amongst the jumble of circuit boards and computer chips scattered across it. "No, and I don’t intend to," he muttered.

The loose parts rattled on the metal as Lauren jumped up to sit beside him. Bryce concentrated on avoiding her gaze. He knew what she was going to say, and he didn't feel like getting into another argument about it.

"Don’t you think its just a bit hypocritical that the only person on the planet that won't wear them is their inventor? Hmmm?" she said, proving his assumption correct.

Bryce snatched up a tangle of wires as thin as hairs and attempted to extricate one by yanking on it forcefully. "As their inventor, I know their flaws," he said stubbornly. He shook his head. "I never fully approved them for mainstream use, you know."

Beside him, Lauren rolled her eyes, and her head. "Bryce, come on!" she said in exasperation. "It’s been ten years! If something was seriously wrong with them, we would have found out by now!"

Bryce frowned at the mess of wires in his hand. He had to concede she had a point. Everyone had Optical Enhancement Devices these days. Even people who’d had perfectly healthy eyes to begin with had had them removed and installed OEDs instead. His invention had been deemed one of the greatest technological advances in history. The OEDs had practically eradicated all forms of blindness, and there had been very few side effects. There had not been any problems so far that could not be easily fixed.

Yet still his instinct told him there were faults. Even if they were insignificant to the rest of the population, he knew they were there.

And until he discovered what those faults were and fixed them, he was not going to have his biological eyes (no matter how imperfect) replaced with a couple of computerised devices.

"So," he said without looking up. "I take it you didn't come all the way down here just to badger me about getting some OEDs." A sudden thought struck him and he jerked his head up in alarm. "Wait a minute! Do you even have authorisation to be in here?"

Lauren laughed, and the sudden sharp sound after so many months of near silence caused him to flinch instinctively. "Hell no!" she replied, grinning. "Actually, I was heading back from fixing a screwed-up MemScan on D level – but I couldn't resist schmoozing in here to annoy you."

Bryce was staring at her with his mouth open. "What?" he said incredulously, glancing quickly at the door. "How did you get past my MemScan?"

Lauren grinned, and patted a small black box amongst the curious tools attached to her belt. "Code Scanner," she replied. "I needed it to fix the MemScan on D level, but the temptation to use it for evil purposes was just too great."

Bryce’s eyes flicked in panic to the corners of the high ceiling. "Are you insane?" he hissed. "What about the cameras?"

Lauren gave him a ‘are you thick or what?’ look. "Helllooooo?" she said. She twisted around so he could see the words SECURITY TECH printed across the back of her jacket in eye-blinding crimson letters.

"I’m a SecTec!" she said. "The cameras are my babies!"

At the anxious look on his face, she laughed again and said: "Don’t worry about it! I set them on a time-loop for thirty minutes. No one’ll notice a thing."

Her silver jacket rustled as she shrugged suddenly. "Besides," she added. "I hardly ever get to come down here. And this may be the only chance I’m gonna get to see your baby before they crush it like the first Merc."

Bryce gave her a helpless look. "Lauren, you know I’m not allowed to– "

"Oh, come on Bryce!" Lauren pleaded, cutting him off. "Come on, please?"

Bryce looked up into her blue eyes. The laughter had faded from them, now replaced by a longing so deep it hinted at tears.

"You wouldn't let me down after all the trouble I went through to get in here, would you?" she said with a small smile.

Bryce hesitated. His career was balanced on a knife-edge as it was – after the devastating failure of Mercury I, he had given himself migraines trying to convince Mr. Mollier that the Project was worth continuing. If the CEO found out that Bryce had given someone unauthorised access to Mercury II, his employment with IntelliTech was well and truly in the toilet.

Yet he saw the hope shining in Lauren’s eyes, and knew, with a pang of sympathy that if he were in her position he would have sacrificed his soul for a glimpse of Mercury II.

Bryce screwed up his face and made a sound of annoyance. Lauren merely continued to stare at him expectantly.

At last he sighed in deep resignation and pointed at her. "You owe me. Big time."

The familiar mischievous smile flashed back onto Lauren’s face. She made a fist. "Yes!"

"Five minutes," Bryce warned her, grabbing his holoboard. "Then you’re out of here."

His fingers began scuttling over the glowing, semi-transparent keyboard. On the computer screen in front of him, several windows flashed up. Most of them showed live video feeds of complicated-looking security panels. One of the windows was completely black – that camera was mounted inside the darkened observation chamber.

Bryce maximised one of the windows and started to type in a code when he realised Lauren was peering eagerly over his shoulder.

He paused and cleared his throat loudly. Lauren whinged and slid sulkily off the bench.

"Go and wait over by the observation window," he told her. "He should be appearing any minute."

"He?" Lauren said inquiringly as she walked across the room. "You made it a he?"

"Actually, no. Its a robot: it doesn’t have a specific gender. It can be a she if you like."

Lauren looked thoughtful as she leaned against the security glass. "I’ll wait and see how sexy it is first," she said.

Bryce couldn't help but grin.

Once he had entered all the necessary security codes, Bryce switched off the lab lights, plunging the room into pitch darkness. A second later, four long rows of circular, pale blue panels blinked on beyond the far wall, chasing the darkness and revealing an enormous, empty chamber. It resembled an underground aircraft hanger.

Bryce joined Lauren at the observation window. Ghostly blue light bathed her features as she peered expectantly into the chamber.

At the far end of the room, about a hundred metres away, a thick black line traced itself across the floor as a massive hatch slid open. They waited in expectant silence.

It was so quiet Bryce could count his heartbeats. After twenty of them had thumped away and nothing had appeared, he lifted a small, elliptical device embedded with a tiny glowing screen and spoke into it.

"Merc, can you come out please?"

There were a few more moments of silence, and then the sound of distant echoes. Lauren leaned closer to the window as something silver broke the darkness of the hatch. Bryce heard her slow intake of breath as Mercury II rose into view, like a great spirit awakened from the silence of the earth.

It was a magnificent, enormous dragon. Mercury II was thirty-two feet tall at the head and seventy long, including the tail. If it were to turn sideways, its wings, at full stretch, could span the entire chamber from observation window to far wall with ease. Its body was entirely formed of mirrored, titanium-alloy plates that fitted together so seamlessly there was not a rivet, screw or crease to be seen, its gleaming metallic skin as organic-looking as a real dragon.

The only part of the robot that was not artificial were its eyes. Bryce’s distrust of his own OED technology had heavily influenced his decision to use the corneas from a real dragon instead. The added advantage of this was that he hadn't had to undertake the mind-bending task of replicating the complex structure of a dragon’s eye by artificial means. A dragon’s eye was much more complicated than a human’s.

Though Bryce had created Mercury II, had painstakingly fitted every circuit and wire, every switch and piston; he never failed to be astounded at how extraordinarily beautiful it had turned out to be.

As the dragon prowled unhurriedly towards them, its body rippling with reflections, its movements were exquisitely fluid and natural. If it wasn't for the faint pneumatic swish of the hydraulics that drove its artificial muscles, even Bryce himself could have believed that this was a real, flesh and blood animal.

The dragon stopped a few metres from the observation window and stood waiting patiently.

Lauren was now pressed so close to the window her breath was fogging the glass. "He," she breathed. "Definitely a he."

Bryce smiled and lifted the intercom to his lips once more. "Hey, Merc," he greeted. "I’ve brought you a visitor."

Mercury II turned its huge, glowing orange eyes to Lauren, reflections gliding over its surgically-polished snout. "Who is this?" it said.

Lauren gave a start and an astonished gasp. The Merc’s voice was rich and deep, though could not be identified as either male or female. It spoke perfect, fluent English, with not a trace of the jerkiness usually associated with AI speech, though its voice had a distinct metallic ring to it that was not entirely the fault of the intercom speakers.

"He can speak?" Lauren said, turning to Bryce excitedly.

Bryce nodded slowly. "Yes," he replied, looking up at the Merc with a look in his eyes that was somewhere between anxiety and awe. "Except I didn't program him to. Merc, this is Lauren," he said, momentarily ignoring his friends startled expression.

"Lauren," Mercury II repeated. "Why are you visiting me, Lauren?"

"She’s an old friend," Bryce explained. "Normally, visitors are forbidden in here, but in this case I made an exception, because…" his voice trailed off uncertainly. Because you’re going to be crushed tomorrow and this could be her last chance? "Because she… really wanted to…" he ended lamely.

Mercury II blinked at him slowly but said nothing.

Lauren was still staring at Bryce with a dumbfounded expression. "Bryce, what do you mean you didn't program him to speak?"

Bryce hesitated for a moment, glancing up at Mercury II. Then he slid his thumb over the glowing screen on his intercom, muting the speakers so that the robot would not hear what he was about to say.

He glanced nervously at Lauren. "The neural connectors in the Merc’s CPU are based on the structure and composition of an actual dragon’s brain," Bryce told her, his voice lowered as though concerned that Mercury II might still be able to hear him. "That is, after all, the whole point of this project – to replicate a dragon’s behaviour and thought patterns as accurately as possible.

"But I intentionally simplified, and even left out altogether certain key elements of the design relating to emotion, desire and self-will. The project brief was very explicit in this respect – Mercury II was not, under any circumstances, to become self-aware. It was to be designed as a weapon, to follow orders, and nothing more."

Lauren nodded cynically. "You were to make him intelligent, but not too intelligent, right?"

Bryce gave a wry smile. "Right," he replied. "After Mercury I went psycho and injured all those people, the company became afraid. They were afraid that replicating a dragon’s brain meant replicating its desires and instincts as well – thus a robot dragon would begin attacking humans just like all the others. It was an immense challenge for me to create a robot that was intelligent enough to learn from its mistakes, yet have no will of its own."

"If they were so afraid of what the Merc might do, why didn’t they just ditch the project?" Lauren asked.

Bryce sighed and rocked his head back, the blue light glinting off his glasses. "That option was heavily considered, trust me," he replied. "But the simple fact was that IntelliTech had run out of options. All the military’s conventional weapons were failing. The Mercury Project was the only one that showed any promise. They had to find a way to defend our cities against the dragons. They were desperate; so despite the casualties, they continued the project."

Lauren huffed in frustration. "So, what’s changed? Why cancel the project now?"

"Cold feet," Bryce muttered bitterly. "Mollier must have decided he just doesn’t want to take the risk that this Merc could go berserk like the first one."

"Idiot," Lauren said, scowling. "How could he destroy something so gorgeous?"

Bryce merely looked up at his creation sadly and did not reply.

"Hang on Mister!" Lauren said suddenly in an accusatory tone, putting a hand on her hip. "You didn't answer my question! How can Merc speak if you didn't program him to?"

Bryce shrugged and looked at her, but there was a glitter in his eyes now. "I… honestly don’t know. One day I came in here and he just started speaking. Apparently he had been self-aware for quite some time, silently observing me and learning human speech patterns."

He looked back up at Mercury II, his lips curling into a small smile. "And do you know what’s even more fantastic? I never installed a voice box!"

Lauren’s mouth dropped open. "Are you serious? Then how?"

"I have absolutely no idea!" Bryce replied, grinning openly now. "I can only assume that he somehow adapted an alternative method for making sounds."

Lauren looked awestruck. "Wow," she breathed.

Silence fell as they both stared up in admiration at Mercury II.

"Oh, damn!" Lauren exclaimed suddenly, clutching the holowatch on her wrist. "The time loop! I’ve gotta get going."

Bryce quickly tapped the speakers back on and spoke into the intercom. "Thanks, Merc. You can go back to your chamber now." He hurried off across the floor after Lauren, stopping at his computer to switch the lights back on so they could see where they were going.

"Do you know what this means?" Lauren said as he drew level with her. Her eyes were wide with excitement and she was grinning. "You haven’t created an intelligent robot, Bryce – you’ve created artificial life! They can't crush the Merc now, it’d be murder!"

"I don’t think management will care about that," Bryce said darkly. "In fact, when they find out the Merc is self-aware, I doubt theyll even bother with the crusher. They’ll just send a couple of nukes down – what’s that?"

Bryce slowed and stopped, staring at a bank of computer equipment with a concerned expression on his face.

Lauren stopped as well, and looked around. "What’s what?"

Bryce didn't answer. He walked over to the wall, peering at a gap between two quietly humming supercomputers. A white, gaseous substance, rather like mist or smoke, was curling slowly from between them. Alarm pierced his chest and he quickly placed his hands on both of the computers, but neither of them felt as though they were overheating.

Puzzled, he leaned into the gap, trying to see where the odd white mist was coming from.

"What’s wrong?" Lauren asked from behind him.

Bryce stepped back and stared anxiously at the white mist. "What do you suppose that is?" he asked.

Lauren peered at the computers. "What what is?"

Bryce pointed at the mist at their feet. "That white misty substance." He frowned at the wall behind the computers. "Damn. I hope it’s not a chemical leak from the next lab…"

Lauren was frowning in puzzlement. "What white misty substance?"

Bryce turned and stared at her in incomprehension. "What do you mean, what white misty substance?" He looked down. The white mist was thickening and spreading across the floor. He pointed again. "Look. Its everywhere."

Lauren put her hands on her thighs and leaned forward, peering intently at the place Bryce had indicated. She straightened and looked at him as though he was losing his mind. "What are you talking about? There’s nothing there!"

There was a sudden, enormous crash from the far end of the room, and both of them jumped.

"GET AWAY!" a voice blasted through the intercom speakers – Bryce had forgotten to turn them off.

Both of them looked up at the observation window in alarm. As they watched in horror, Mercury II threw himself against the security glass. The window shuddered, but held.

Bryce lifted the intercom quickly. "Merc, calm down!" he said. His heart had begun racing and a terrible dread filled his stomach. This can't be happening again, it can't be

"GET AWAY FROM THE MIST!" the robot screamed again, and once more hurled himself at the window as though desperate to escape.

Bryce looked down. The strange mist was flowing all over the computers now, and was centimetres from their feet. Bryce grabbed Lauren’s arm and pulled her back with him.

"Bryce, what the hell is going on?" Lauren said, her eyes wide in fear.

Yet another deafening crash echoed through the speakers. Clouds of cracks were appearing in the security glass now.

"Merc!" Bryce said into his intercom, struggling to keep his voice steady. "Do you know what this mist is?"

"GET AWAY!"

"Merc, listen to me–"

Mercury II stepped back from the window and opened his jaws. A second later a wall of fire slammed against the glass, flooding the lab with glaring orange light. A livid red gridwork of lines appeared all across the window as the titanium mesh glowed with the intense heat.

Bryce grabbed Lauren again and pulled her back against the door. The flames in the observation chamber receded into thick black smoke, and the Merc threw himself at the window once more.

This time there was a loud cracking sound and a squeal of metal as the security glass began to buckle.

"Merc!" Bryce yelled desperately into his intercom.

The security glass shattered, and there was an ear-splitting screech of metal as the enormous dragon tore his way into the lab. At the same time, the cool blue lab lights blinked to deep red and a siren began to blare intermittently.

"Bryce!" Lauren screamed.

Bryce slammed his hand on the door control panel and yanked Lauren out just as an explosion of flame filled the lab.

They staggered backwards against the corridor wall, their hearts pounding. The concrete floor vibrated with the shock of exploding equipment. "Merc, listen to me!" Bryce yelled in vain through the open door of his lab.

There was no response save the crash of metal and the scream of the alarm.

"Bryce, forget it!" Lauren yelled over the noise. "He’s gone psycho! We have to get out of here!"

Bryce barely heard her. His head was throbbing. All other sound seemed to have diminished; the world receding until there was nothing but the doorway before him, filled with fire. He caught glimpses of silver amongst the flames, liquid and alive like molten metal in a forge.

Why? A voice echoed through the pounding heat. Why did this happen? I tried so hard to create a robot that was not self-aware… my career is finished…

The sound of running feet brought him abruptly back to reality. He turned his head dazedly.

A squad of half a dozen black clad men was sprinting down the corridor towards them. They were wearing fire-resistant armour and helmets, and carrying state-of-the-art EMPRs (Electro Magnetic Pulse Rifles).

Bryce felt a coldness prickle down his back. He recognised those weapons immediately. They had been specifically designed to subdue rogue robots. They worked by firing controlled bursts of extremely powerful electromagnetic energy, which effectively killed the electronics in a robot’s CPU.

Those same weapons had been used with sinister efficiency against the ill-fated Mercury I.

When the security guards reached them, they quickly assumed positions around the lab door, completely ignoring Lauren and Bryce.

Bryce opened his mouth to yell at them, but to his surprise, Lauren stole his words.

"Don’t hurt him! He’s not a robot, he’s a living creature!"

Bryce turned to her, dumbfounded. She merely glared back at him with a determined fire in her eyes.

The guards showed no sign that they had heard her. One of them darted his head around the doorframe, then made a signal to the others. The men pointed their guns into the room and fired.

"NO!" Bryce screamed.

The wail of the alarm was accompanied by a succession of snapping, fizzling noises, and flashes of blue-white light illuminated the guards reflective black helmets. There was an enormous crash from inside the lab.

The men stopped firing. One of them (whom Bryce assumed was the leader) spun into the lab, waving to the others to follow.

Bryce and Lauren rushed anxiously after them.

The lab was completely destroyed. Fires glowed eerily red in the emergency light, and charred, twisted metal was strewn all over the floor. Showers of sparks spewed from wrecked computer equipment.

But the lab was empty. Mercury II was gone.

Bryce looked around in confusion until he noticed that the security guards were all standing in the centre of the room with their EMPRs pointed upwards.

Bryce raised his eyes.

There was a huge hole in the ceiling. Pipes, cables and the twisted ends of metal support beams protruded from its edges like bones and nerves from an open wound. The severed ends of wires sizzled and snapped in flashes of blue and white light.

"It’s heading for the surface!" the lead guard shouted. "Well catch it on A level! Move out!"

The men rushed past Bryce and Lauren as though they didn't exist and disappeared down the corridor.

The two of them were left in silence, staring up at the gaping hole and listening to the blare of the siren and the crackle of the flames.

Lauren looked at him sympathetically. "I’m sorry, Bryce," she said softly.

Bryce did not reply. He lowered his eyes to the now useless intercom he still held in his hand, and his fingers tightened around it.

Without warning, he spun and raced for the door.

"Where are you going?" Lauren yelled after him anxiously.

"I can talk to him!" Bryce called back without turning. "He’ll listen to me!"

"Bryce, no!"

Bryce ignored her warning. He sprinted down the red-bathed corridor, his lab coat flying out behind him. He reached a junction at the far end and turned right.

Other technicians were darting out of their labs all around him. One or two tried to ask what was going on, but he shoved them unkindly aside and kept running. He skidded around a corner to the left and raced down an empty corridor.

I have to get to the Merc before the guards knock him out with their EMPRs, he thought. I can… I can make him calm down. He’ll listen to me… he’ll listen…

Another right turn, and he saw the elevator dead ahead. He charged down the corridor towards it.

"Ground floor!" he screamed at the elevator as he ran, and the doors slid obediently open. He charged into the elevator so fast that he careened into the back wall.

"Bryce, wait!" a voice yelled.

Bryce turned, panting, to see Lauren sprinting down the corridor towards him. She threw herself into the elevator just as the doors began to close.

There was a silence, filled only with a soft metallic hum and their own laboured breathing – and then the doors slid open once more.

Bryce spun out, with Lauren right on his heels.

They emerged into a gleaming, marble-floored corridor (with walls painted in what Bryce could only assume was supposed to be a very chic shade of orange, but did nothing for him except turn his stomach). They spun right into a spacious hallway, passing neat, yet strangely-dressed executives walking with calm determination towards the huge entrance foyer, which was crowded with people and echoing with anxious chatter.

Bryce’s thoughts were rushing so fast he barely registered the oddness of their attire.

As the two of them dodged towards the far end of the hallway, Bryce heard a sharp, authoritative voice call out his name, but he didn't bother to stop. There would be repercussions, inevitably, but he no longer cared. He was so far deep in trouble that he had hit the bottom – he couldn't sink any further.

They spun around two more corners and raced down another long corridor, passing deserted offices, and Bryce skidded to a sudden halt as the corridor shook with what sounded like an explosion beneath his feet.

He barely had time to get his breath back before the floor in front of him erupted in a shower of broken marble.

Bryce and Lauren stumbled backwards in terror as the enormous, silver head of Mercury II burst through the floor, quickly followed by its neck and forearms. One great, gleaming, taloned paw smashed through a wall as the Merc sought a purchase to pull himself up. Long cracks sliced through the marble floor beneath Bryce’s feet.

Bryce took a shaky breath, trying to pull himself together, and then said in his most commanding voice: "Merc, stop!"

The dragon hauled itself out of the hole in an avalanche of broken stone, dripping multi-coloured wires and dusted with plaster. He paused, fixing his terrible fiery eyes on Bryce. "STAY AWAY FROM THE MIST!" he boomed, and swung his great, metallic head towards the ceiling.

"MERCURY II, I ORDER YOU TO STOP!" Bryce screamed.

The Merc’s head burst through the ceiling in a shower of plaster dust and a crash of metal, and the dragon began pulling himself up through the hole.

Bryce watched him in furious silence for a few seconds, then spun on his heel and raced back towards the elevator. Lauren followed in exasperation. "Bryce, this is insane!" she yelled.

Bryce did not reply. He hurtled around the corners, oblivious to everything except his desperate need to stop Mercury II from escaping. "Floor 20!" he yelled breathlessly as they charged towards the elevator once more.

"Floor 20?" Lauren gasped as they hurled themselves inside and slumped against the wall.

"He’s trying to get some height, so he can take flight," Bryce panted.

Lauren looked incredulous. "How do you know that?"

"Because he’s a dragon, damn it!" Bryce snapped.

The doors opened and they began running once more. The walls here were olive green, and the carpet looked as though it had been designed by someone with severe colour-blindness and no artistic sense whatsoever. Who the hell chose the décor in this place? Bryce thought. They passed people fleeing from their offices – obviously they had just been informed that Mercury II had escaped.

Bryce darted down a corridor to their right and then slowed and stopped at a four-way junction, clutching a stitch in his side and looking around breathlessly. As far as he could tell, the Merc should come out here if he kept smashing his way directly upwards.

Bryce swallowed several times to moisten his dry throat and rubbed his forehead wearily with his hand. Lauren pounded to a stop behind him, collapsing against the wall. "I can't believe this is happening again," she moaned when she had collected her breath.

Bryce simply gazed down an empty corridor and said nothing.

"And what the hell was all that weirdness about mist?" Lauren demanded.

Bryce turned and looked at his friend in concern. "You couldn't see that mist in the lab?" he asked.

Lauren looked irritated. "No!"

Frowning, Bryce took a couple of steps forward, peering into her eyes. "Your OEDs could be faulty," he said.

"Screw you!" Lauren exclaimed angrily, pushing him away. "I only had ‘em serviced last week! If anyone’s eyes are faulty, its yours!"

A deep silence fell as they stared at each other. Bryce tried to think back to the first time he had seen the strange white mist in the lab. His eyes had not failed him. And he hadn't been hallucinating, either. That mist had been as real and obvious as the sun. He had seen it, and so had the Merc. But Lauren hadn't. Why?

And why was the Merc warning them to stay away from it?

A distant rumbling sound brought his attention back to his more immediate problem.

He and Lauren stood tensely, listening to the rapidly increasing sounds of destruction as the rogue robot dragon forced a path upwards through the heart of IntelliTech Inc.

Bryce’s brain felt as though it was made of mashed potato. His heart still thumped as hard as it had been when he was running. Fear burned through his veins like the electricity that powered the Merc, sizzling into his heart and clawing the breath from his lungs. He didn't know what to do. The Merc wouldn't listen to him, and he had no idea how to stop it.

A powerful sense of déjà vu swept over him. Three years ago, the security guards had managed to subdue Mercury I before it reached the surface. But this Merc was different. This Merc was much more intelligent and much more powerful than its predecessor, because this Merc was alive.

He felt as though he was being crushed under the weight of his own destiny. What would happen if Mercury II escaped into the city?

How many people would die?

He has to listen to me, Bryce thought ferociously. "I am his creator. He has to listen!"

Lauren looked at him, surprised by the fierceness in her friend’s voice. "He’s a living creature, Bryce," she said quietly. "He has a will of his own. You can't control him any more. He won't stop if he doesn’t want to."

Bryce just stared at her, not knowing what to say.

The floor vibrated sharply beneath their feet. They braced themselves. Bryce’s hands felt sticky with sweat. This was his last chance. But what could he do? If only he knew what had gone wrong, why the Merc was so desperate to escape…

There was a loud crash and the Merc surged into view once more, tearing up the carpet and underlying floor.

This time, however, he did not attack the ceiling. Instead, he swung his massive head from side to side, ignoring Bryce and Lauren, looking for something else. He turned awkwardly in the narrow space and plunged through the wall of an office.

Bryce stumbled over the debris ringing the hole in the floor and hurried after the dragon, not knowing why, just knowing that he couldn't stand there and do nothing.

Mercury II was faster than even Bryce had believed possible for such a huge robot. He crashed effortlessly through the walls as though they were made of rice paper. Bryce followed as quickly as he dared, trying to keep out of the way of the huge, slithering tail.

The tail slid to an abrupt halt, and Bryce slowed and proceeded more cautiously until he saw the reason for the dragon’s hesitation.

On the far side of the room was a huge bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, tinted against the glare of the sun. Beyond was the glimmer of skyscrapers and the deep, fathomless blue of the open sky.

The Merc was staring at the windows, completely still and silent.

Bryce felt cold all over. That single, thin wall of glass was all that stood between Mercury II and freedom.

"Merc," Bryce said, but even as he spoke the words he knew that they were empty and futile. He knew that there was nothing he could do, nothing anyone could do to stop what was about to happen. "Merc, please don’t."

Mercury II turned his head to look directly at Bryce, and for an instant Bryce thought the dragon understood. But then the Merc turned away, and he saw artificial muscles shifting beneath his sleek, metallic skin as he prepared to leap.


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