Fandom: Guilty Gear
Warnings: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX
Summary: After the war, Ky finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy of unprecedented magnitude, with secrets that threaten to change his world forever.
Notes: Ky strengthens his resolve, we finally meet the elusive Doctor Meirth, and things still don't explode. Yeah, I should just stop making promises.
I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude I | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII (First Half, Second Half) | IX | X (First Half, Second Half)
Going off the Record
I know our antebellum innocence
Was never meant to see the light of our armistice day.
~ Vienna Teng, Antebellum
It was a bit hard to believe that it had really been two years. The day he'd last opened the door to the tiny closet seemed so very far away, the knob under his fingers creaking when he gripped it too hard, the white fabric strangely heavy in his hands, seeking to slip to the floor. And yet, when he was snapping latches and buckles closed with an ease born from routine, feeling the cool spread of the overcoat drape around his shoulders, clenching and unclenching his fingers in the confines of the well-worn gloves, it was as if no time had passed at all, as if the walls of his bedroom had vanished and been replaced by the whisper of a tent flap swaying in the wind, and if he turned, he would find his work cut out for him, clear and straightforward with no room for doubt or worry.
The illusion dispersed once he turned, the weight of his decision settling like another layer on the familiar flow of the coat.
Outside, the air was still warm and fragrant, the Parisian gardens scattering their scents in the evening breeze, the streets still lively, lanterns slowly being lit along the house fronts and stalls. Thankfully, no one seemed to take any special notice, most people too absorbed in their own private happiness to pay any heed to the walking anachronism that quietly passed them by, the momentary smile on his lips faltering at the thought that everything seemed like a veil, that the people with their laughter and tavern songs felt like a flimsy roll of gauze, stretched taut over something else entirely, something that was slowly prying the threads apart.
Shaking his head, Ky tried to push the idea aside.
Kliff had wanted him to think, always, to consider every piece of information right down to the earth and sand crunching underneath his boots, but to never take anything more than those thoughts out onto the battlefield, where everything else would be consumed and burn away, or possibly rise up to consume his men instead. Useful advice, comforting, even, to know that once the battle ended, everything of himself would still be there, locked in an unseen trunk, and if he so wished, he could use the spare moments to unlock the trunk again, snatch up the biting coil of anger and let it slip back into his veins for a few brief seconds, allow sadness to pool in his heart, or hold up joy like a sparkling gem and feel glad, so glad, for the people whose lives he had touched that day, and who had touched his in return.
Vital advice, allowing him to see things for what they were, to stand tall and make his decisions without losing sight of the important things, and now, it allowed him to cast off the paralysis like a useless garment, to stow rage and betrayal in the farthest recesses of his mind, to push away the clamor of disbelief and horrified fascination that kept asking "why why why," in an endless, useless chorus.
Study the field. Consider your options. Calculate the possible outcomes.
Kahren had seemed sincere, startlingly so, with the kind of direct gaze found in children and idealists, a confidence born from a purity of one's motives. She had built weapons, and had gone in knowing that this was what she would do, making peace with her own heart. All the more curious to see her crumble, then, to watch her fold in on herself until she seemed more girl than woman, struggling for words and composure. If it was an act, it was the most convincing he'd seen in a long time, lacking all the little idiosyncrasies that tended to give it away, the wrong notes, the practiced roll in the gestures.
And an act for what? His forgiveness? His trust? Both would imply a certain blindness; he was in no position to object to or halt the project, and Kahren certainly hadn't appeared very sure of her sales pitch. In fact, she had seemed like someone who desperately wanted an excuse to run away rather than explain to her unwitting research specimen that she had earned her money violating his dignity for any manner of so-called greater good.
If her guilt was real, though, had she simply hoped not to meet him, or not to be the one to break the news to him?
A memory came floating back to him as he walked, fragments of a conversation spoken in the gloom of his tent, and Sol's voice, caustic and bitter despite the warmth of the blankets. "Scientists... don't give a rat's ass about reality. They make up their own where they don't have to bother with all the pesky questions. Show them true reality, and they'll run screaming, pleading for the innocence of their immortal soul."
Ky couldn't remember what he'd said in response, whether he'd said anything at all or whether he'd simply turned, looked over his shoulder to study the expression on Sol's face, indecipherable and far away.
Was Kahren like that, content as long as she could live only by her own convictions, but unable to face that her project concerned real people, real lives with pasts and futures that had nothing to do with numbers on paper? Difficult to imagine, then, that she had chosen to come along, that she wouldn't have tried to distance herself and avoid the consequences of her involvement. And if it hadn't been her decision, if her discomfort had been real and her actions unexpected, not preplanned... then maybe the shadow of fear darting across her face hadn't been for him at all, but for the voice rising tinnily from her radio, amused as if it had known that Ky was powerless to stop them.
If Kahren was not in control, neither of her own emotions nor of the project, then someone else was, someone who had withdrawn from the confrontation to observe — not just him, but also his own people, someone who had known what was going to happen and had wanted to see it unfold. And if this setup had been deliberate, planned and acted out to satisfy mere curiosity, then none of the events leading up to it — the needless secrecy, the theatrics of the Church, the involvement of the government — had been a matter of chance. Someone had known which strings to pull, and how, just enough to see each party rush ahead with their own plans, and scramble to cover them up when they failed.
Determine the objectives. Negotiate the needs of the individual parties. Smile benignly and pretend you don't know what's going on.
Autonomous, artificial warriors. The very concept was alien, despite all the times he'd run into blacktech, despite all the foreign devices he'd turned over in his hands while listening to Sol's disgruntled, half-censored explanations. Some he'd understood, most he hadn't, but it had mattered little; Sol knew, somehow, and that was good enough, had to be enough at a time when he'd been forced to devote his mind to other things. It was just one of the things Ky had never asked about because he'd known he wouldn't receive an answer, might have even run the risk of losing his only source of information if he tried. Now, it made him wonder more than ever about the world that had crumbled into dust almost two centuries ago, and what its inhabitants had been capable of; whether they, too, had raised golems from metal and wire and taught them how to walk.
He had been the last; part of the last batch Kliff had trained personally, and the last of that batch to remain standing, and so it had fallen to him to carry, always, to become the pillar of stability humanity so desperately needed. It had become par for the course after a little while to discover his face on recruitment posters he'd never been informed about, to see his signature under speeches he'd never written, to find his existence reconstructed into the image of a divine savior. The Order's propaganda cult had never ceased to bother him, not least because it seemed like a tactical mistake, but he had learned to use the influence it gave him; to ask for favors in the right places, to forge connections, to champion unity where otherwise, there would have only been discord. At the end of the day, he couldn't honestly say that he had come to regret it, not for the hundreds of lives it had saved in turn.
This, though, was different. Machines with his features, his name, and, supposedly, his abilities. In the war, he might have considered such a project more readily, might have seen it as a chance to reduce loss and human sacrifice, but now... what need was there? An unstable world, to be sure, an uncertain future, and another dozen good intentions that might have swayed someone like Kahren, whose motives truly did seem innocent. And yet...
The word was a gauntlet, thrown to the ground in front of his feet as surely as it was carved upon the belt plaques. A threat, or perhaps a warning, something meant specifically for him, but again, for what purpose?
Sol had liked to call him ignorant of his own position, for all the times he'd protested being treated as special, but he would've had to be blind and stupid not to realize what kind of power he held, what kind of influence he could exert, if he so desired. The kind of influence he had exerted, to make reports disappear, to circumvent orders whenever it proved necessary. That was something to be feared or envied, surely, but now, after so many years...
The law of the courts was hardly the law of war, and the police wasn't the army. If it was about revenge, someone hoping to put him in his place, it certainly came late, and a threat... what was important enough to warrant something as outlandish, as downright bizarre as an array of metal automatons?
Oh, I don't know. Snooping around in the archives, keeping tabs on the Order, sheltering Gears... take your pick. Justice was willing to annihilate the human race just to get at whatever she was afraid of, whatever makes you think that anything here is going to make sense?
If someone was hoping for a shot at Sol, they were certainly barking up the wrong tree. And the girl... was safe. He'd reported her dead, faked the evidence, had made Sfondi swear on his life that he'd be responsible and keep her out of sight, because that was better than locking her up for the rest of her life. Sfondi would have sent word if there was something amiss with his children; in that, at least, he could trust the man.
And this... this wasn't a short-term project. This was complex science, not something hastily cobbled together in response to his actions. Something that must have taken years and years of planning and patience, and Ky was getting the distinct feeling that the whole charade was a part of it, too. Someone knew the value of sending a pawn out on the chessboard as a sacrifice, in order to bait the other player into making his move.
To what end, he wasn't sure. Unless...
Maybe it really was as simple as that.
Marble demanded composure.
It didn't lend itself well to running, or to a gait swayed by emotion, every tap of a person's feet able to reveal their mind and character. The confident ones who would let their steps echo, the worriers whose steps would falter every so often, the sycophants who always took care not to be heard or seen. The only way to walk on marble was to tread lightly and hold one's head high, to betray nothing, and to Ky, the resounding emptiness of a great building had always had a soothing effect, the halls so much vaster and older than any single human. It wasn't unlike stepping into a church, taking in the frescoes and the gold-rimmed statues, to inhale the scent of incense and feel a sense of serenity at the thought of the many lives that had passed through the aisles long before he'd ever come along.
Here, though, there was no incense, just the faint smell of floor wax and aged tapestry, hunting scenes and classical stories unfolding along the walls as he walked. Even through the war, the Louvre had lost nothing of its grandeur, its sprawling corridors and archways lit by hundreds of gas lights, their soft orange glow reflecting off the polished stone. From a distance, Ky could already hear the first notes of a dance tune, the ballroom orchestra warming up for a long evening, but they were muted by the many twists and turns, not really detracting from the sound of his own feet, measured and subdued, allowing the calm to settle in his chest completely, unable to be dislodged.
"It's a what?!"
The yell was enough to startle him, the familiar voice cutting through the air like a gunshot. Frowning, he set off down another corridor, his steps quickening when the shouting only seemed to grow in volume the longer he went.
In all the time Ky had known him, he'd never heard Andreyev raise his voice towards anyone. He'd read the reports, of course, had seen the file clippings with the fairly impressive array of red ink stamps marking official reprimands, remarks on his temper, his questionable loyalty, and a detailed note on an incident that once got him busted back to private, wherein he'd apparently threatened a CO to turn him into Gear feed if he didn't order an immediate retreat. Yet the man who had eventually found his way under his command had always seemed the exact opposite of what the files made him out to be, quiet and collected, someone who could be trusted to carry out an order to the letter, no matter how difficult or hazardous it was.
Now, though, it seemed like Ky had merely never given him cause for objection, a string of Russian expletives he couldn't even begin to translate echoing through the pair of thick oak doors to the office they had staked out as a retreat for personnel on break.
"/You goddamn son of a— no, no you listen/!" And then he seamlessly lapsed back into French, his accent growing more pronounced the more livid he became. "We have a goddamn right to know what's going on here! I want to know who's responsible for giving these bastards diplomatic immunity! No! No, I don't bloody care about your treaties! We're not in your jurisdiction so if we want these fucking tin men dismantled, then we'll fucking get a court to do it!"
A brief pause to draw a breath, and then, "Oh, don't you start with that bullshit, you bureaucratic /fuckwit/. I don't care who the hell you're friends with, if these things do anything, anything at all, then so help me I'll—!"
The click and static stopped his erratic pacing.
Hissing another curse, Andreyev slammed the receiver down on the cradle with enough force to crack the casing, grinding his knuckles against the wood of the antique desk.
Ky closed the door behind himself, but Andreyev didn't even acknowledge his entrance, drawing slow, shuddering breaths in an effort to rein himself in. Seeing the man so beside himself made him truly realize just how much strain the entire mess was placing on Andreyev, someone who had managed to face down wave after wave of grotesqueries without ever flinching. Loath as he was to admit it, just unveiling those machines was a genius strike in its own right, before anything ever came to pass — a blindside not just against him, but against everyone who knew him, everyone tied to him in some manner — friendship, gratitude, faith.
How many people... how many people will have cause for fear and anguish, no matter what it's used for? How many lives did I affect, whether I meant to or not?
Shoving the thought aside, he came closer, already knowing full well that he wouldn't be able to reassure Andreyev like most of his men, not with all the time they'd spent together. "...Lieutenant? What's the matter?"
Andreyev whipped around, the angry flush rapidly receding from his cheeks when he realized just who his audience was. Groaning, he collapsed back against the desk, digging his fingers through his hair. "You... heard that, huh, sir."
"It was a bit hard not to," Ky said, sure that the gentle reproach would elicit more remorse than necessary, allowing a hint of teasing to slip into his tone. "Do I want to know who's meant to be doing what to those cows?"
"I... you... I'm sorry, sir." Andreyev rubbed a hand across his eyes, still groping for some semblance of control. "I know that's not... acceptable conduct, but... just... /damn it it all to hell/."
"/It's still a bit early for that/," Ky said, leaning forward to get a good look at his face. "Now... what happened? Who was that?"
"...the Ministry, sir."
Sighing, Andreyev continued rubbing at his eyes, the lines of worry and fatigue plainly visible now that his anger was draining away. "Vaillant's office. They got wind of us trying to check the visas and... weren't happy."
"I see. I'm not sure anything can surprise me anymore, after this afternoon." Ky picked up the handset, futilely trying to reattach the broken receiver. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. I'm sure we'll get something figured out soon enough. The less we react to this circus, the better. Let's just concentrate on the things right in front of us, alright?"
Andreyev lifted his head, giving him an incredulous stare. "How can you be so calm, sir? You've... you've seen those things, they're— for Christ's sake, they're trying to sell the goddamn things as the future peacekeeping force! Peacekeeping, sir!"
"I know, Lieutenant." Ky set the broken receiver aside to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Believe me, I know. But indulging in personal feelings won't change the situation. I know that this... experiment is unsettling, and we're right to be on edge, but no matter how hard it'll be, I need you to keep your wits, Lieutenant. I need you to be exactly as I know you, if we want to get anywhere. Someone is playing with us, and the only way to avoid that is to avoid taking the bait."
Drawing a deep breath, Andreyev nodded. "...Understood, sir. I'll do my best."
"Thank you." Ky smiled, and set about putting the desk in order, gathering up the scattered papers. "Now, then. Any good news from your end?"
"None whatsoever, sir," Andreyev said bitterly. "They're holding so tight it might as well be the new national secret. I can't even get them to cough up the guy who approved their visas, never mind anything else. If I have to hazard a guess, I'd say that was an agreement behind closed doors over a nice dinner and a glass of champagne."
"I suspected as much, but thank you for trying."
"Just... I don't understand it. With the huge deal they're making... If they want to hide something, they're sure doing a poor job of it. It's like covering up someone's tracks by stomping all over them with steel boots. It doesn't make any sense."
"It does, if someone wants to prove a point," Ky said, pushing a stack of notes back into a folder. "That team obviously has a lot of funding from influential places, so if their great reveal is a success..."
"They'll have buyers."
"Exactly. So why not let the buyers work themselves into a frenzy trying to protect their investment? If you ask me, someone was looking to see a good show, and so far, we've all performed our parts admirably."
Andreyev paused, frowning deeply. "Sir... you think that's why those things look—"
Ky shook his head, and decided not to mention that any kind of public humiliation was the least of his concerns. "I don't know. But they're trying to rattle us pretty badly, and the best way to do that is to stand up and show their colors."
"You don't think—"
"I'm not sure," Ky murmured. "Someone wants us to pay attention to them very badly. One has to wonder why."
When there was no answer, he sealed the folder and handed it back to Andreyev, before motioning to accompany him to the exit. "At any rate, blind guesses aren't going to help us. I, for one, am interested in seeing whether the elusive Doctor Meirth has recovered enough to join the reception."
He held open the door for Andreyev to pass through, but the man hadn't moved away from the desk, staring at Ky's uniform as if seeing it for the first time.
"Sir, you're going to... I mean, like this?"
Ky smiled coolly. "Sometimes, Lieutenant, the best way to rattle someone is to stand up and show your colors."
If there was one thing Andreyev had never grown used to, it was the formal song and dance at parties. The tangle of regulations and protocol left him baffled and feeling out of place, wondering how on Earth people could spend so much time outlining who could talk to whom and when, how deep to bow, how long to look, and what to say. Honesty, he'd learned rather quickly, wasn't appreciated, when a couple of curious nobles inquired about life at the front lines, and were less than enthused to learn that it had precious little to do with polished steeds and waving banners. Usually, Andreyev was grateful whenever he got relegated from being 'the lieutenant' to being 'the Commander's escort,' as that allowed him to stay mostly out of the way, and possibly snatch a bite to eat.
He'd never mastered the art of eternal disgruntlement the way Badguy had, sticking out like a sore thumb but getting a wide berth whenever he deigned to move from his position against the wall, and he'd most certainly never mastered the ease with which the Commander navigated that human minefield, dispensing smiles and niceties as if he'd been born into that kind of standing.
This particular banquet left him feeling ill at ease for much the same reasons, even if he was now more worried about embarrassing the Commander than embarrassing himself. The hot sting of shame was still fresh enough to make him flush anew each time he thought back to the call, how easy it had been to drive him over the edge with a few well-placed threats and insinuations, reducing him to a pile of incoherent rage for the Commander to walk in on.
Not the high point of his career, but it was driving him crazy not to be able to see his enemies, to neither know their motives nor their true faces. With Gears, there wasn't anything to know, just four dozen razor-sharp fangs and claws the size of a man's trunk, and you could see them lunging at you from a mile off, dust and spittle spraying everywhere. Inquisitors were much the same, pedantry on two legs armed with a rule book and a pile of forms, and even if you couldn't always see them coming, you could certainly see them leaving, red-faced with fume billowing out their ears.
This, though, was entirely too much like hunting snakes in the potato fields back home; whenever you got one, a new one would slither out from underfoot, seeking to slip into your pants leg and forcing you to drop the one you were currently holding. Some kind of sick jab at the Commander, that's what it was, something that would eventually leap up to bite them in the ass, and he hated how he couldn't even get his mind to wrap around the concept — robots, that woman had called them robots, machines to stand in for man.
The Commander, of course, knew more than he was letting on, and Andreyev couldn't shake the feeling that it was connected to all the times he'd disappeared, alone, left on short notice only to come back a week later, battered and exhausted with something brittle shining through his reassuring face. All the times he'd handed Andreyev sealed documents to place in a hidden safe, in secret and good faith. He'd never looked inside, though now he was wondering if he should have, should have just torn them open so that the Commander could stop keeping secrets like the war had never ended, placing others' happiness above his own well-being.
They'd never been harmless secrets, simple secrets, and he could admit that the thought of this being bigger than it already was scared him, because if there was something big enough to worry the Commander, then it was likely to send a lesser man run screaming. Andreyev wasn't sure how much of a lesser man he was, but he'd thought about trying to find out often enough. After all, they couldn't all be like Badguy, who'd call a blazing inferno a bit warm and complain about boredom in the middle of the apocalypse, but that didn't mean they couldn't try.
He thought about trying now, as he was watching the Commander make the rounds, shaking hands, nodding pleasantly, ignoring the stares his uniform received. It should have been easy to take him aside and ask him to explain, because there was no way this wasn't going to blow up in their faces in the most spectacular manner, and when it did, it would hit the Commander hardest of all.
But the Commander would just smile, wouldn't he, the way he always did, smile and say that everything would be alright, because there was no way to change his mind once it was made up, and that made prying pointless; tactless, because it would force him to lie on top of everything else.
Heaving a sigh, Andreyev scanned the ballroom once again, trying to ease the knot in the pit of his stomach by observing the crowd. The ballroom had been split neatly in two, one end occupied by the delegates and the other by the research staff, people busy with their drinks and trying to avoid mingling with anyone from the 'other side,' the scientists in particular making sour faces whenever they were forced to talk to somebody who seemed to have no clue about their studies. Andreyev understood scientists about as well as he understood politicians, a haughty lot wrapped up in grandiloquent theories they couldn't be bothered to relate to their fellow human beings, but the Commander seemed to get along with them well enough, judging by the kid in the ill-fitting suit jacket who had now grabbed onto his hand, babbling and making sweeping gestures with his other arm the whole while.
Eventually, the Commander broke away from the congregation, moving to join him on the fringes of the ballroom.
"He got conscripted two weeks before the war ended, and now he's growing cold-resistant tomatoes," the Commander said, lips quirking in amusement as the kid scuttled back to his team, who looked just about ready to smack the grin off his face.
"I guess they do come in all flavors," Andreyev said, sweeping the open set of wing doors on the far side that remained, predictably, empty. "No sign of them yet, sir."
"As expected." The Commander folded his arms, backing up against one of the stenciled columns.
"You'd think they'd want to socialize."
"I don't think they care about contacts," Sir Kiske said, directing a polite nod of recognition at a former Lieutenant Commander turned Polish delegate. "Somebody just loves playing games, is all."
Andreyev looked at him, taking in his posture, the set of his jaw, not a trace of tension in the way he moved or spoke despite the fact that he couldn't possibly be comfortable. It was at times like this that he found himself wishing he could do the same thing, just shut off his responses and focus on the bare essentials, instead of counting down the minutes in his head and repeatedly flexing his fingers over the hilt of his sword, reducing the weapon to a type of deadly security blanket.
"You mean, that woman...?"
"I'm not sure, Lieutenant. I'm not sure. Whatever's going on, she's certainly involved, whether she wants to face it or not."
Andreyev didn't reply, not with part of him still longing to grab the next convenient person and shake some answers out of them, and not when he was looking back upon the morning with a certain childish nostalgia, trying to recall the feeling of when all they'd been worried about had been some kind of maniac with a grudge and a knife or a grudge and a fire spell, and the only inconveniences had taken the form of prissy diplomats and an unreasonable festival committee. It was this kind of thinking, he knew, that made him a poor candidate for the Commander's absolute trust, when he was trying to run away from something as banal as a confrontation with some no-name scientists. Not exactly confidence-inspiring as far as earth-shattering revelations went.
Then, his gaze fell upon the entrance again, and he stopped.
"...well, speak of the devil."
Even without knowing who she was, Lara Kahren stood out, her simple, dark dress in stark contrast to both the colorful decor of the ballroom and the other guests. She was lingering next to the reception desk, alternately smoothing out and twisting a lock of hair around her fingers as she waited to have her invite approved, a small, nervous gesture that belied her stance and bearing. When she caught sight of them, she froze momentarily, her eyes darting around for something else to focus on, but finding herself out of an excuse to stall. The receptionist returned her invite, pointing out various locations, but by then, Kahren seemed to have decided that there was no avoiding the inevitable, because she only nodded distractedly, and headed towards them.
"Sir Kiske." She bowed slightly, the tension visible in the set of her shoulders, as if a part of her was expecting to face repercussions despite the fact that she knew, had to know that neither she nor her group could be touched by the law. "...Lieutenant."
Andreyev didn't return the greeting; the only thing he could trust himself with was a curt nod. He'd never been able to deal with the polite sort that kept their intentions behind flourishes and pretty turns of phrases, and he was nowhere near as willing as Sir Kiske to just grant people patience and understanding.
"Doctor." The Commander inclined his head, watching the surprise flit across Kahren's face at his pleasant tone. "I trust you had no trouble finding your way here?"
"...No. No, not at all." She hesitated. "Doctor Meirth will be along shortly. He... fears that our introductions got off on the wrong foot, so he asked me to answer any questions you might have in the meantime."
She tried for a smile, but it didn't want to come out quite right, and Andreyev had to fight against the sudden urge to laugh. Send in a beautiful woman to smooth the ruffled feathers, trust that chivalry would let her off the hook. The oldest trick in the book, and it was a bit hard to believe that Kahren could really be that clueless, clueless enough to assume such an unsuspecting tone.
The Commander didn't reply, his gaze turning inward instead, and in the prolonged silence, Kahren pressed her lips together, frowning unhappily. "I... I should apologize, as well. For handling the situation so poorly. I didn't intend to upset your subordinates. Or you."
"Calling ahead might have helped with that," Andreyev said, sarcasm thick in his tone. He'd promised himself to stay silent and let the Commander do the talking, but it was growing harder and harder with every new apologia, each flimsier than the last. What had she thought would happen, really, if she lifted the curtain on some kind of mechanical mockery of the world's most beloved person?
Kahren shook her head. "I realize that now. But..."
"But when we first set out, we didn't even know if it was possible. You just... have an idea, and then you try to find the means to make that idea reality. We knew that what we were trying to do would seem frightening to many people. Our worlds might be different, but we aren't..." She paused, and turned to the Commander. "You have to understand, Sir Kiske. Our countries might have opted for different paths, but we want the same things. There's so much we don't know. So much we don't understand. Surely you've noticed by now how much there is missing."
"It is difficult not to," the Commander agreed, and Andreyev paused for a moment.
It was hard not to interest the Commander in something, no matter how small and mundane it might be, but he seemed to like the tough cases the best, things that didn't readily reveal their true nature, and privately, Andreyev suspected that that was at least half the reason for the relationship he'd forged with Badguy. This, though, was a bit more than mere interest, and if the Commander was talking about it so casually, then that meant he'd been looking around, digging for clues to the lost past.
For his part, Andreyev had never seen the sense in thinking too much about it, as forward had always been the only way to go, the only way to keep going. Now, though, he was starting to wonder.
Kahren nodded. "We're not... I know the things they say about us, but we don't... we don't know, either. All we have are these fragments, and we're trying to work with them the best we can. And we can't get anywhere with things as they are... there's so much chaos in this world. Barely a week goes by that we don't get a Gear warning, that there isn't some kind of squabble about resources. But if we had something to maintain a balance, keep the peace... there's so much we could accomplish. All of us, together. That was the idea behind the project, anyway."
Her fingers had found a strand of hair again, smoothing over it repetitively, subconsciously.
"A noble goal, certainly. And not easy to reach," the Commander said slowly, and Andreyev was pretty sure he hadn't imagined the undercurrent of criticism.
Judging from Kahren's reaction, she had misunderstood, because she nodded again, happy that he seemed to agree. "People are frightened by change, so... we thought this might put them at ease. I can't excuse our conduct, but we were worried about the kinds of reactions it would garner. Our countries aren't exactly on speaking terms, and..." She paused again, and when she spoke again, her voice was quiet. "All I can say is... we meant well."
"...That's your reason?!" Andreyev burst out, unable to help himself. Of all the inane, stupid things to say, it had to be this one, like the Commander wasn't a person but some kind of all-purpose tool that you could just take and throw at a problem, to let him work his magic. "He's done it once, he might as well do it again?"
"I'd really like to know why you thought anyone in their right mind would be okay with this. I don't know how it is in your country, but here, there's—"
The quiet, stern voice broke through his tirade, causing the words to shrivel and die on his tongue. The Commander was looking him in the eye, his expression sympathetic but unrelenting. "/Please, calm yourself./"
Sucking in a breath, Andreyev lowered his gaze, shame flooding back to override his anger. "/I'm sorry, sir./ I just find it hard to believe that that's— I mean, that can't be the reason."
"And the lieutenant would be correct," a new voice said, startling him enough to actually slip the sword an inch from its sheath before he could stop himself.
A thin, lanky man had approached them from behind, his piercing gray eyes lighting up at their reactions. He was dwarfed by another man, whose massive bulk was already subject to a fair amount of stares and whispers from the crowd. He was hunching forward, his head seeking to disappear between his bulging shoulders in a vain attempt at making himself smaller, but even if he had somehow managed, there was no way to make the fetters disappear, large, metal rings surrounding his wrists and neck.
A slave soldier.
Andreyev had heard about them, but like with so many stories about Zepp, he'd never seen one, men of unbelievable strength and stature bred purely for the battlefield in an attempt to match the power of the Gears. It had sounded all too fantastical even in a world that managed to produce giant, lightning-spewing aardvarks, one of those fairytales that sprung up whenever people ran out of bizarre topics for conversation. The man before him now didn't look at all like the mental images he'd used to roll his eyes at, though, almost bursting out of his suit and painfully aware of how out of place he was, his eyes shifting uneasily from side to side, as if to excuse his size.
"I apologize for my tardiness," the gray-eyed man said, making him jump once again. The guy had been watching the Commander the entire time, he realized, furious with himself for not paying attention, allowing himself to fall for such a basic lure.
"These magnificent halls simply demanded further inspection." The man smiled, and nodded appreciatively towards the gilded stucco. "It is a bit hard not to act like a tourist, when one finally gets the opportunity to travel."
The lie was an obvious one, but the man didn't even care enough to make an effort at being convincing, more interested in observing others' responses than in concealing the truth. Kahren already seemed to know, because she straightened self-consciously, unraveling the lock of hair from her fingers and brushing it past her shoulder.
"Allow me to make the introductions. Sir Kiske, this is our project leader, Doctor Meirth. Doctor, Sir Kiske and Lieutenant Andreyev."
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person," Meirth said, reaching out to shake the Commander's hand. "Though—" And he threw a surreptitious glance at Andreyev, "—it certainly feels we've known each other... much longer than that."
Andreyev stiffened, almost unable to believe that the guy could really be that brazen, but Kahren's slight wince told him all he needed to know. The Commander only raised an eyebrow, but Meirth just smiled again, as if satisfied with his lack of reaction.
"I'm sure you have lots of questions. I'll gladly answer what my assistant hasn't managed to."
"As a matter of fact," the Commander said, "Who is the gentleman with you? I fear we haven't been introduced yet."
A quick look at his face revealed that he was utterly serious, waiting for an answer as if everything else constituted mere trivialities.
"Well." Meirth blinked, and half-turned to his escort. "We were advised to take a bodyguard with us. The journey from Zepp is quite dangerous, after all. Now, then, if you will—"
But the Commander had already stepped forward, holding out his hand to the giant as if his presence wasn't the least bit surprising or unusual. And then, as if nobody could be expected to know who he was, "Ky Kiske. Welcome to Paris."
The giant was staring at him as if he'd grown another head, silent and unmoving, his gaze flickering from the Commander's face to his hand as if unsure what to do with it.
"...I know," he said eventually, when it became evident that the Commander wouldn't back down, the words a low rumbling sound emanating from deep inside his chest. "We all... did, in the battalion."
"I still regret that we never fought together," the Commander said, smiling. "I've heard much of your bravery. Might I ask your name?"
"GC-578-A— Potemkin. It is an honor," the giant replied, and, with a last questioning glance, gingerly took the outstretched hand between his thumb and index finger, each digit as thick as a man's forearm. He didn't dare to shake it properly, just holding onto it for a brief moment, before awkwardly withdrawing his hand.
"The honor is mine. I do hope we will get the opportunity to speak later," the Commander said, before returning his attention to the rest of them, and Andreyev could only console himself with the fact that as stupid as his own face had to look, at least this had succeeded in wiping the self-assured grin off Meirth's face, as well.
After a while, Meirth cleared his throat. "Well, Sir Kiske, you certainly are as they say."
"And what would that be, Doctor?" the Commander asked, a sudden, barely perceptible sharpness to his amiable expression.
"That you are a fascinating man," Meirth said, taking a moment to look him up and down. "I like it when people surprise me. It makes things so much less predictable."
"You certainly seem to live by your philosophy."
I believe the technical term is 'being an ass', sir, Andreyev thought, but didn't say anything. The Commander was playing hardball now, something iron behind his eyes that only Meirth didn't seem to recognize, because he was able to keep looking him in the eye.
"Forgive me. I find politics immensely dull, that's why I try to bother with them as little as possible. And that's why I fear my considerations are much less... lofty than my colleague's. I am only interested in results." Meirth paused, directing another sidelong glance at Kahren, who flushed at having her ideals mocked. "And the only thing that yields the best results are the best people."
"I am sure," the Commander said, "that there are many capable people in Zepp."
"Modesty becomes you, Sir Kiske, but it is unnecessary. I fear going into detail would find us here a week hence, but... suffice it to say that robotics — machines — are all about perfection. If a machine is not perfect, it can't fulfill its task with efficiency. Trying to create something as complex as a humanoid combat machine, it only follows that we must look for human perfection in combat, if we wish to surpass it."
"Naturally. I know it might be difficult to accept for an outsider, but even the most perfect human being is far from perfect in its efficiency. Humans get sick, need food and sleep. They are swayed by a hundred subconscious suggestions each day, and in this world, I fear, relentlessness is what we need the most."
"Doctor Kahren tells me you are hoping to utilize these... robots for maintaining peace and order. You speak of inefficiency, but I believe it is the human spirit that is most capable of adapting to new situations."
Or compassion, or mercy. Andreyev might not have understood what could drive these creations, but he had seen relentlessness in human beings before, and had stood in the ruins of the results, looking at the inconsolable survivors.
Meirth, however, appeared pleased at the concerns. "This would be the next step, of course. Our work is far from complete, as you rightly say. We do wish to eventually create robots with the ability to adapt. As a matter of fact... it would be marvellous if you would give us the chance to assess our progress."
"Pardon?" the Commander said, a chilly note creeping into his tone.
"Human against machine, Sir Kiske. It would be wonderful if you would partake in the demonstration tomorrow... a true challenge to overcome, if you will."
"Doctor!" Kahren protested, but Meirth paid her no mind.
"I must refuse." The Commander was shaking his head, his expression firm. "I do not feel that our ideologies are compatible."
If Meirth was disappointed at this turn of events, he didn't show it, just lifting his shoulders. "What a pity. Then—"
"I will," Andreyev repeated, still not quite able to believe what he was saying, trying to keep from holding his breath when Sir Kiske turned to stare at him, incredulity written all over his features. "You want that test, I'll do it. And then we'll see how much your talk of perfection holds up."
In the ensuing silence, Meirth smiled thinly. "Excellent. Sir Kiske, if you..."
But the Commander was no longer listening, his full attention now fixed on Andreyev.
"...Lieutenant. A word, if you will."
A/N: Phew, this got long. I fear my unreasonable love for Potemkin might be showing; he's one of my favorite supporting characters. Many thanks go to the usual parties for all their support, and C&C is much appreciated, as always.
- As for everyone who is wondering where the Sol/Ky is in this Sol/Ky fic... we're getting there. XD
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