Horror and Thriller Science Fiction posted February 1, 2012

This work has reached the exceptional level
The debatable merits and dangers of meddling

Chasing the Dragon

by Fleedleflump

He ran like the very air was chasing him, breath crashing through his lungs like waves against a pebble shore. In his wake, crushed-grass footprints glistened with dew. It was hopeless, and he knew it, but if the end was nigh, he might as well try to outrun it. The fog loomed impenetrable and he thrust headlong into its embrace. A million scenarios played through his mind; different ways he could have played it, alternative solutions he could have used, but it was all hopeless. The whole fucking place was lost. A decade of work, their hopes and dreams of new breakthroughs, all dust. His traitor mind continually replayed a scene for him; those enraged jaws closing on her neck. The blood, cascading through space like an aerial display. Her eyes, pleading as the life faded from behind them. He stumbled on a rock and nearly fell, but got a heavy foot beneath his momentum and staggered onwards. May as well run for it - who knew what might happen?

Then it did. He was almost sucked to a halt as the very world drew backwards like Satan taking a deep breath. He had time to throw his arms over his head, and then reality became a blur of concussion. From his peripheral vision, he saw the fog dashed to nothing by the shockwave as he was lifted from his feet and flung face-first onto the slick dirt. The sparse grass cover did nothing to break the fall. He felt his nose and one cheek fold under the stunning force. Great - not only was he off to meet the angels, he'd be doing it with his face crumpled in like a screwed up newspaper.

The heat reached him next; a burning waft of super-heated air followed by the heady glow of blossoming flame. As death grasped him by the throat, he felt his tears evaporate from his cheeks and drift into the air like liberated souls.


Lance Benedict swiped his ID on the scanner for a third time, trying to keep down the gorge that rose in his chest. The machine gave a thin, reedy beep and flashed a red cross at him.

"Please speak to security," said a pre-recorded voice.

"Fuck your Mum," he replied. "In all her holes."

The scanner stared back implacably, unmoved by his insult. Lance gazed round the tight, dim corridor, seeking inspiration. Waving at the security camera hadn't yielded results, and the phone on the wall was deader than a roasted dodo. Years working here, and the damned entrance gate in corridor B still hated him! He tried once more, to no avail, and gave the machine a kick as he departed. It took half an hour to trudge round to the main entrance of the base, and every step increased his frustration.

"Morning, Mr Benedict!" said the excessively cheery security guard in the lobby. "We don't often see you at this entrance."

"More often than I'd prefer," he said, slapping his ID on the counter. "Can you sort out my pass - the bastard machine in corridor B wouldn't let me through this morning."

The guard took the ID and phaffed for a few moments. "Nothing wrong here, Sir. That B, though, she's a temperamental one."

"Take away the 'temper' and you've got it right."

The guard laughed and opened the security door. "Have a nice day, Sir."

Lance strode into a vision of white corners and red warning signs. BeneFact Limited was his father's company. Officially, they developed industrial cleaning solutions. That was ... some of the truth. He headed down several bright corridors until he reach an unmarked lift, which opened at his pass's behest and conveyed him down three hundred feet into the earth.

As the doors creaked their way open, light spilled into the lift cabin, and something coated in curly black hair launched through the opening gap into Lance's chest. The small space filled with echoing growls and rasping breaths, a cacophony of violent sound. Then it filled with laughter as he tousled the excited dog's head and roughly scratched his chops.

"Hey, Dougie! There's a good boy!" Dougie gnashed excitedly at groin height, cramming his head into Lance's trousers. "You're a useless guard dog, Dougie. What's your plan - pleasure intruders to death?"

The dog backed off a few steps and barked happily. As Lance and his canine companion strolled along another corridor - this one sporting a bare rock ceiling with vents and service pipes - the lights turned on according to their progress. He loved the feeling of being the first person in; the sensation of power was superficial but intoxicating.

"Let there be light," he muttered, turning into the lab.

A morass of body parts and blood greeted his eyes. Disembodied legs still kicked, pools shimmered, and the dank, coppery smell of gore packed the large but enclosed space. "Another day in the office."

He walked amongst the various experiments, starkly lit by the bright white LED lamps clustered on cables hanging from the ceiling. The readouts adorning the ends of each bench told him nothing was hugely awry, and a tiny twang of disappointment touched him inside. Beside him, Dougie panted rhythmically, while around him death twitched and spasmed at the urge of electricity. The space was filled with the clicking, splashing sounds of the macabre.

It was the far end of the lab that truly drew him, though. On its own bench, encased in a controlled environment of carefully calibrated atmosphere, was Lance's masterpiece. The head of a Komodo Dragon stared at him implacably, its eyes following his progress. Below the head, an inch of neck gave way to a morass of cables and tubes, each receiving or sending vital impulses or juices. The dragon's tongue flickered out, tasting the air, perhaps perplexed by the approaching vision that relinquished no scent.

"Hello, my beauty," whispered Lance as he reached the plexiglass that separated them. He looked at the monitor mounted next to the enclosure, taking in the various readings. "Your brain activity is nuts today, Beatrice. Did you enjoy that new nutrient combination?"

A hand grasped at his bottom and Lance almost fainted from surprise. "What the fu-"

The lab echoed with peals of feminine laughter. "Got you!" said Wren.

"I never hear you coming!" he shouted, laughing in return.

She curled a wrist behind his neck and stretched on her tip-toes to kiss him. "Oh, but you do." He pressed hard into the kiss, planting a hand on her lower back to hold her slight form against him. She pulled away eventually, and nodded towards the monitor. "How's she doing?"

"Thriving," he said, feeling the zing of excitement in his chest. "That new combo we put her on is making a real difference. Look here - the server is registering ten times the responses it was yesterday. Her brain is really analysing the thoughts we send it."

"Or she's started thinking in code," said Wren, her green eyes serious despite the cute ears and open, round face with its short black hair.

Lance sighed. "You know I don't subscribe to that theory. She's a creature, albeit from an ancient species. What we're seeing is neural impulses, accelerated by the chemicals and electrical stimulants we're pumping into her. This could be it, Wren - the next stage in cognitive processing."

"The dragons have spent longer evolving than us, or almost any other species on the planet. Who knows what she might be capable of?"

"Computers run in human-devised code, Wren. How is a lizard going to have worked it out?"

She held up her hands in submission. "It's logic-based operators; that's all I'm saying, not some weird language, but sequential, procedural formulas. We've been pumping her full of this stuff for years while she watches our every move, with no thoughts of survival or food to distract her. Is it that far-out to believe she might have started to understand it?"

"She's a descendant of a noble chain, alright, but they've lasted so long for the same reason as sharks have; they're simple. As a species, they exist for a single purpose - to continue to exist." He squinted at the monitor for a while, and then tapped in some slight variations to settings. "Still, I take your point. We should watch her, keep an eye on these thought spikes." He pointed at the screen. "Any ideas?"

Wren chuckled. "None you want to hear. Indulge me, Lance; give her some extra interfaces, something that visualises for her." She saw his expression. "I know, I know, but let me have my little whim. Hook up a vid feed to her frontal lobes via a neural interface, and make it a two-way duplex, so she knows it's there."

His first impulse was to say no, but Lance quickly realised it was his apprehension that made him feel that way; a fear that she might be even close to right. She raised her eyebrows at him and did her 'cute' face, aided by Dougie, who flopped across Lance's feet and whined piteously.

"Fine," he sighed, "but only because I love you."

She grinned, and rose up to plant another perfect kiss on his lips.


"Dammit, Benedict, just listen to me, will you?" Grayson slammed a folder down on the desk between them. "I know your dad started this company, but it's me that keeps it running, and I can;t have you flouting the business. The investors didn't sign up for this kind of shit!"

Lance did his best to quell the anger that gripped his stomach by distracting himself looking round the plush office. CEO or not, Grayson pissed him off with his expensive office and pointlessly posh decor. The man sat on his arse all day and got rich off the efforts of the rest of them, spending his time - and the company's expense account - wining and dining friends on the pretence they might one day invest. Eventually he couldn't avoid it, and met the man's gaze.

"This is beyond what we hoped for, Grayson. Beatrice has developed in ways we never anticipated. The implications of this are mind-boggling."

Grayson leaned over his desk to glare into Lance's face. "Do you realise you're on first name terms with a lizard's head? It doesn't do you any favours." He sighed, and it sounded closer to a growl. "Intel want processors, man. Not ..." he pointed a shaking finger at the folder. "Not drawings of random crap! She isn't following the sub-routine values in any of the scenario tests. Neither is she responding to the chaos equations in the logic problems. She's failed, Benedict. Turn her off."

Lance decided to try another tack. "We've awakened something, here; tapped into a potential we didn't know existed. Think of the applications this could lead to - inspiration on tap, raw creativity, even the re-stimulation of prematurely retarded brain cells. This could be the motherlode!"

"You're decades away from that." Grayson scowled. "In the meantime, technology companies aren't going to foot the bill. If it helps, I'm sorry, but she's reached the end of her economic viability."

"Fine." He bit the word off like it hurt his teeth. "Just give me a week to do a final data dump."

"The money's gone, Benedict. You've got one day."


"I wish I understood it, Wren. There's something happening here beyond the usual bounds of science." He looked across the print-outs strewn all over the floor - screen drops of the images Beatrice had been generating on her monitor. In amongst the images were readouts detailing neuro-electric occurrences, now rife in the lab. "She's not just showing creativity, she's affecting things in ways that shouldn't be possible."

Wren nuzzled into him as they sat on the floor together, legs crossed and touching. The lab was dark but for a lamp on the desk above them. From the darkness, two dragon eyes shone with dull interest as the screens next to it shifted. No sounds intruded - the other experiments had been permanently quieted that evening. A digital clock on the wall displayed 4:03. Atop the bench they leaned against, Dougie snored gently.

"I read an article not long ago about something called science philosophy," she said. "These guys are looking into how thoughts and concepts can transfer into reality, how something insubstantial can become literal if enough people actuate it with belief. What if this is something similar, but with Beatrice behind it? That might explain the phenomena, and the leap from biology to tech."

Lance squeezed the top of his nose between thumb and forefinger, closing his eyes as hard as he could manage. "I'm not used to thinking like this. As scientists, we're meant to be certain of things, deal in facts that we use as a basis for other facts, until we've built a mountain of solid truth that just might have a viable theory at the summit."

"Somewhere along the line, at whatever stage of the process, even a scientist has to have faith. Otherwise we'd never try anything."

He picked up an image of blazing colours arranged in concentric circles, a pinpoint of black at their centre. It looked like an eye, he thought; an eye that could see galaxies and atoms and everything in between. "I'm inclined to agree," was all he could think to say. "So ... what do we do in the morning, when our time runs out - do we turn her off?"

"No," said Wren, her eyes coming alive. "We have a little faith."

Her enthusiasm lit a fire in Lance's chest. "What are you thinking?"

"Did your pass work this morning?"

"No; the damned thing's never been reliable. You know that."

She grinned. "Neither did mine, and when I asked, it's been happening lots. That you got in with a pass at all is telling."

"Telling me what? There have been loads of weird technical issues recently. The facilities management guys are going crazy. Why's it got you so excitable?"

She stood up and pulled him with her. "Just indulge me." She flipped up a computer screen and planted him in front of it. "The lab's isolated from the rest of the computer system, right?"

"Yeah - I didn't want to risk those tech guys upstairs letting anything iffy through, so there's a firewall."

"Check the logs," she said, nodding in his direction while her eyes roved to the side, distracted.

He chuckled. "I don't need to - nothing's come through. I saw to that security code myself."

"Not incoming; outgoing."

Suddenly he saw where she was going, and did as she asked. "Fuck me!"

"Maybe later. What have you found?"

"Holy shit, Wren, we've made a dragon hacker! She's been sending out all kinds of mad code. I never thought to check the outgoing logs before." He tapped his down-cursor, scrolling through line after line of report. "She's testing the waters, seeing what she can do. It looks like the firewall cuts things short, so she can only send out tiny snippets of code, but she's making the most of it."

Wren was actually bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement. "It's like the nerdiest, nuttiest version of Twitter ever! Lance." He looked into her entrancing eyes. "You know what you can do. You know there's a way out for her. She can be free."

He felt like clouds were bursting in his veins. "But we don't know what she'll do, where she might go. What if she's angry? You know what they say about chasing the dragon, Wren."

She nodded, suddenly sombre. "You might just catch it. But Lance, we have to. She's unique. This is something that may never happen again. We've given birth to a miracle, right here in our own little garden of Eden."

"I don't believe in miracles." He strode over to the glass enclosure, matched the gaze of those intent eyes. They blinked. "But I do believe in you." His hand was open against Beatrice's display monitor, he realised, and on that display was a matching hand, represented in shades of orange. It glowed at the edges of his fingers and he'd have sworn it was emanating warmth.

Wren made a tiny noise behind him. "It's so beautiful."

"Alright, Beatrice," he whispered. "I'll take a chance on you." With that, he strode back to the computer terminal and deactivated the firewall.

The log screen immediately filled with text; lines of data passing so fast he could barely register the movement. She filled the fibre-optic link, taking every mote of bandwidth as she poured out onto the wider network. Lights flickered on - every light in the lab, in fact, from the emergency blues to the desk lamps. The darkness became a strobe effect that scratched an ache into the backs of Lance's eyeballs. Wren rushed over to him, concern turning to fear on her face as alarms began stuttering.

"Her head's lifeless - it just looks like a piece of dead meat. What's she doing?"

Lance touched some controls on the computer. "I'll find out."

Whirring and bubbling sounds rose from every bench around them, devices and experiments coming to life. Dougie gave out a questioning whine as the racket woke him from his doggie slumber.

"Bloody hell!" Lance stared at his screen in disbelief. "She's saturated the system already. The only area she's having trouble getting at is ... Ah shit!"


"Nuclear research, in the other subterranean lab. She's trying to get in. Why don't those idiots have an air-gap separation?"

"Nobody does that any more," said Wren, her voice flat and detached. "If you're not connected, you're not working." She blinked, and then looked at him, lost. "Lance, what do we do?"

He looked into her eyes, seeing her through a haze of adrenalin and fear. She'd never looked more beautiful. "Run!"

Another questioning whine caught his attention. Lance glanced over at his dog, and saw the robot arm, syringe poised, rotating to brandish its payload over the confused animal.

"Dougie - no!" It was too late. The needle slammed down into Dougie's flesh and plunged a cylinder of fluid into him. The glass vat behind the arm was bubbling as various chemical feeds mixed. What the hell had she injected into his dog?

Wren rushed over and killed the power on the arm so she could lift it from the dog's skin. As she pushed it away, a rumbling growl filled the air. Lance watched helplessly as Dougie's head reared up, froth bubbling between his bared lips, his eyes flooded red. Wren was examining the wound left by the syringe, and had no chance to avoid his jaws as they parted and crunched down into her neck. She screamed as the enraged dog bore her to the floor, snarling and gnashing as blood drenched his muzzle. Gurgles replaced shouts as he chewed through her throat, snapping muscle and sinew with great yanks of his head.

Behind her, the vid screen before the dead Komodo dragon head had a last image burned into it; a black skull against an orange mushroom cloud of death.

Lance's mind went to mush. While his thoughts marched in garbled masses round his mind, his instincts took over and moved his feet. Before he knew it, he was running full pelt for the exit, up the emergency stairs and into the dubious comfort of corridor B. At least the swipe cards only governed incoming people - in the other direction, push bars offered release.

The fire doors gave way to his careening body and he burst out into the pale, misty grey of pre-dawn. Footsteps echoing like frenzied heartbeats in his ears, Lance Benedict ran as though the very fires of Hell were dogging his heels.

Stupid, shouted a single thought as his lungs heaved and his thighs burned. He'd misunderstood his own warning. Nobody wins when they deify themselves, and nobody ever, truly, through all the trials in the world, ever catches the dragon.


I set myself a challenge with this piece; I wrote that frenzied opening, then had to conjure up the story that came before it.

I hope you enjoyed the read :-).

My thanks to Moonwillow for the use of the wonderfully fitting image.

Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by MoonWillow at FanArtReview.com

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