Fandom: Guilty Gear
Warnings: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, now with boom and stabbity
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
The FIRC testing ground was the most modern facility money and technology had been able to build during the war, even though the construction itself was almost a hundred years old by now. Its outward appearance hadn't changed much, except for the occasional addition of a shed marking the entrance to a new research division or warehouse. They were easily dwarfed by the main complex, however, a metal dome rising in their midst like a large, flat tortoise shell with six radio spires sticking out from its corners, ever vigilant, ever listening. Despite its impressive exterior, most of its laboratories and test chambers were located underground, buried as deep as they could go when it first became apparent that Justice could, and would, execute air strikes to level the field whenever she pleased.
Fiat iustitia ruat caelum.
Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall. A grand name for a grand cause, given back in the days when causes still seemed more than just rhetoric, when it still seemed that with enough hymns, God could be swayed to take sides.
Conservative as the Order was, though, twenty tons of armor and bad attitude didn't care whether the crossbow bolts pinging off their hide were specially blessed or not. The inquisitorial visits were soon reduced from twice a day to once a week, to formally ensure that no heresy was being practiced in these hallowed halls, and the directive of FIRC became to build whatever was necessary — airship engines, gun turrets, shield generators. "Whatever works and doesn't get us killed," became a running joke among the soldiers, though the labs tended to skimp on the first part almost as much as the second. There were a number of spectacular disasters any veteran could name, coming out of FIRC.
For Andreyev, it was the Gear gas.
Although he'd lain in the mud, staring into the immense, bonelessly dripping maw of a slugworm with nothing but a prototype gun in his hands that wouldn't fire, and shipped out in an airship with an experimental reactor that had gone up in flames two seconds after touchdown, the gas was a sight to remember. Watching from the portholes as the bomb carpet went off, it had truly looked like the sky was falling, hundreds of capsules breaking open simultaneously to spread their sickly yellow veil.
Moscow was still off-limits, a dead zone, not enough life left in the earth to even plant something in it.
He'd been to FIRC a few times since in the line of duty, but each time had left a bad taste in his mouth. The immaculate tile floors, the polished reception desk with its politely smiling clerk, the drooping potted plants clinging to life in strategic corners to give the place an air of hospitality did nothing to erase the knowledge that somewhere underneath his feet, in the bowels of the complex, a set of empty tanks the size of a small ship was sitting, their contents scattered across a ruined city. In the back of his mind, he knew that it wasn't wholly their fault, that the researchers working here had little say in what their inventions were used for, but it was easier to be angry at a real, solid thing than something he couldn't touch, people whose names and faces he didn't even know.
Today, though, the tanks couldn't have been further from his mind.
Andreyev turned around to stare at the bringer of the small metal cup that had appeared in his field of vision, its curling steam smelling distinctly of black tea. He'd spent the past half hour counting the tiles, the only kind of meditation to be done in this place, trying to get himself to focus, and now his mind was slow to return, drifting back from that endless expanse of white squares.
"You looked like you needed one," the Commander said, smiling and tilting a thermos with his other hand. "Careful, it's hot."
"Thank you, sir," Andreyev said, and lifted the cup to his lips.
Assam to boost alertness. Milk and sugar to soothe. Steeped exactly three minutes for maximum effectiveness, but slightly more bitter now thanks to the wait. He wasn't a tea drinker, never had been, but you learned a couple of things being around the Commander for so long. This was the tea of late-night case-cracking and exceptionally irritating brass meetings, with a little extra sweetness, the closest thing there was to a Sir Kiske comfort drink.
He managed to scald his tongue despite the warning, grateful for the heat creeping into his system, hiding his blush. Embarrassing to think of himself as in need of comfort, more embarrassing to think that he'd been obvious enough to inspire the Commander's concern. More embarrassing still to know that he was happy about it.
"How are things?"
"Fine, I would say," the Commander said, moving to stand beside him.
From their vantage point, they were getting a good view of the single long-range cannon that adorned the entrance hall, its plating polished to a shine, the muzzle extending halfway across the room. A little plaque was proclaiming it to be the first of its type, a monument of science, testament to humanity's will, but they both knew that it was something closer to the tenth or fifteenth, whichever alteration of the test model hadn't exploded in the lab, but just given a weak fizzle and refused to start up again. A few ambassadors were clustered around it, gazing up at it in something like wonderment, wandering in and out between the stilts of the massive tripod base to grasp its size.
"Fine, sir?" Andreyev asked, letting the sweetness of another sip cling to the roof of his mouth momentarily.
"Well, the Dutch team's prototype engine caught fire during demonstration, so now they're claiming sabotage. The Catalanian delegation lost their interpreter and were ready to consider abduction when the guy turned up in the bathroom, sick with yesterday's buffet. Now they're considering an assassination attempt. The Germans are still ripping that water guy to shreds." The Commander shook his head, his smile close to becoming a smirk. "All in all, I'd say it's calculable amounts of insanity, so... things are fine."
Andreyev nodded, his thoughts hovering elsewhere. It was funny, how a part of him would have felt better if there'd been a rift, some kind of loss or distance he'd have to make up for. Instead, the Commander was speaking to him as if yesterday hadn't happened at all, the same friendly, near-informal lilt, and the guilt was all in his own head. He'd considered himself almost honor-bound to lose sleep over it.
"I think it might be a good idea to go down soon," the Commander said suddenly, the amusement vanishing from his tone.
"It could be beneficial for us to see the setup, plus, I'd really like to see this team in action."
Andreyev nodded, hating the surge in his gut when he got up. It was something he'd never managed to get rid of entirely, no matter how many battles he fought or how many threats he faced — the small, nervous quake that was tension and excitement and a tiny spark of dread all at once. He liked to avoid thinking of it as anxiety. "You think that'll tell us anything, sir?"
"It might. I'm not done asking questions just yet, and you've seen the way Meirth directs Kahren."
More like how he was moving her about like a game piece, but Andreyev couldn't imagine anyone blind enough to willingly endure such treatment. In the war, those had been the officers that nobody mourned, those that would suddenly find themselves out of a rear guard in battle and out of a funeral. In his experience, it was always a bad idea to needlessly antagonize the people whose stakes were greater than your own. The woman might not have been a battle-hardened soldier, but she seemed smarter than that; too smart to tolerate this without reason.
When he said as much, the Commander drew his brows together and said quietly, "Not without reason, no."
"Sir?" Andreyev asked, but he was already turning away, moving in the direction of the elevator platforms. Quickly downing his cup, uncaring of the sting, Andreyev hurried after him.
"There are many ways to ensure compliance," the Commander was saying, his voice lowered to a murmur when they passed by the delegates. "Even if it's an act, as you suspect, sooner or later one party will begin not to think of it as such. Belittlement schemes rarely work out to the schemer's advantage."
"You really think so, sir?" Andreyev asked. "That she's innocent?"
They reached the platform, the Commander adjusting the dial to go down to the security section.
"I don't know, Lieutenant. All I know is that there's a very determined man who admitted, to my face, that humanity bores him. I think we would do well to expect him to be capable of any number of things."
With a slow grinding sound, the elevator began to descend.
"Ah, Commander. So good of you to join us."
His arms spread wide, Meirth performed a shallow bow, like a ringmaster welcoming visitors to his arena. Outwardly, he appeared to be in his element, a show star orchestrating his moment in the limelight, but there was an erratic edge to his gestures that made them more than mere performance, his eyes gleaming with a certain kind of intensity that was different from last evening's cat and mouse. Now, he seemed almost impatient.
When he noticed the Commander's scrutiny, though, he immediately reigned himself in, the spark of imperiousness flickering and dying on his face. "I'm afraid we are occupying the best spot in the house, so to speak. Monitoring equipment, you understand."
He waved his hand towards the windowfront, where a row of foreign apparatus were sitting, a variety of gauges and dials mounted on top, emitting a loud hum. Each of the panes was protected by the flickering white glow of an energy field, and beyond the static, the observation bay opened up into a chamber at least three stories deep and the size of a small field. The protective covering on the walls had been replaced many times, the newer tiles a shade lighter, some of the surrounding ones still bearing the traces of scorch marks. A number of observation rooms along the other walls were similarly sealed by magic.
A testing field for explosive weaponry.
How very fitting, Andreyev thought, silently measuring size and depth with his eyes.The adrenaline was already starting to pump, a low thrum running through his body, making his fingers flex against his thighs. There was no sense in letting excitement cloud his judgment, but a part of him was going to enjoy taking one of these mockeries apart, anyway, show all those impressionable idiots that they were nothing more than cogs and wires on the inside.
No miracles to be had from these.
Meirth was still talking, evidently opting for the greatest possible amount of chutzpah. "Since this was organized on such short notice, I fear we don't have any detailed brochures. So... we'll start off with a demonstration of the specs, and then, I'd say, we'll move right to the main event. It really is too bad we couldn't reach an agreement, Sir Kiske. Seeing you fight in person would have been magnificent, indeed."
Keep talking, and I'll make sure you won't be able to piece your scientific wonder back together, Andreyev thought bitterly, clenching his jaw. The Commander would probably be displeased if he knew, but he refused to feel guilty about it. Even if that guy was looking to upset them, it was no use keeping it inside all the time, not with several hundred people in attendance and the reports they'd take back home.
Meirth must have seen him bristling, though, because he smiled and bowed again, this time apologetically. "Forgive me, Lieutenant. I did not mean to insinuate a lack of appreciation for your skills. It's just... how to put it... well, anyone would seem a poor substitute in comparison."
"I am not in the habit of considering my men substitutes, Doctor," the Commander said, and though his voice was quiet, his tone made the surrounding temperature drop by at least ten degrees. "Lieutenant Andreyev will be participating as himself, and no one else. You would do well to adjust your assumptions."
For a moment, something like genuine surprise flitted across Meirth's face, before it disappeared once again under his all-purpose smile. "Ah. Certainly, Sir Kiske, you are ever so right. Now then, may I invite you to watch the test from here? It might not be as comfortable, but, as I said, the best spot in the—"
The door slid open, the rest of Meirth's speech getting lost in the shuffle of the research team crowding into the room, carrying tools, all clad in a variety of labcoats and jumpsuits. One by one, they assumed their stations in front of the gadgets to make final adjustments. The giant was accompanying them, but he remained just outside the doorway, examining it for any hopes of squeezing through sideways.
"Oh, pardon me." Kahren's voice in the hallway, and then she swiftly slipped past her ostensible bodyguard, who had been trying to cautiously fit one limb through at a time, but now considered withdrawing altogether. She didn't seem to notice much besides her work, heading straight for one of the control panels to take a reading. "Robots are prepped and ready for launch, Doctor. We can start any time."
"Ah, splendid. I fear I was taking the wind out of your sails just now, Lara, when I suggested Sir Kiske might want to watch the demonstration from here. Come to think of it, this proposal would have sounded much better, coming from you."
She turned, not quite able to hide her wince when she caught sight of their visitors, and Andreyev barely managed to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. The Commander didn't seem to think it an act, but he couldn't see what else it could be, the discrepancy between the dramatis personae of the rational scientist and the guilt-ridden soul too great to belong to anyone who'd spent years building weapons in the image of someone else.
Then, she straightened, searching for a smile. "Good morning, Sir Kiske. Sir Andreyev. I'm sorry, my mind was elsewhere just now."
Andreyev decided to let the Commander's return greeting stand for both of them, his willingness to be polite already circling in the drain when Meirth spoke again. "Well, Lara, I trust you'll find some fitting seats for our guests. I'll be checking the sequences again."
"But I've already—!"
Before Kahren could finish her sentence, he disappeared towards the back of the observation room, waving other members of the team to join him as he went. She sighed, glaring after him when she was sure his back was turned.
"Doctor Meirth certainly has a way with his subordinates," the Commander noted conversationally, watching the proceedings.
"Oh, you don't know the half of it," Kahren said, in a tone that wouldn't melt butter. "I've checked the values twice already. Sometimes, I swear he's just doing it to—" Then, she remembered who she was talking to, because she cut herself off abruptly. "My apologies. We're all very high-strung right now... the doctor just wants to make sure everything will be going smoothly. Now, about those chairs..."
"Don't trouble yourself," the Commander said. "I'd rather be standing, anyway."
"Oh. Well. If that is all right with you, may I suggest over here?" She gestured to a free spot against the windowfront. "You should be able to observe everything from here. If you have any questions..."
The Commander glanced at him, but Andreyev shook his head. "No questions. Thank you."
"I... see." Across the room, Meirth beckoned her. "I must be going."
Despite her words, though, Kahren lingered, and when she spoke again, her voice was barely above a whisper. "Lieutenant, I... if you want to reconsider— we've never done something like this before. There's no data—"
"Lara, we're launching. Please go to your station now."
For a second, she looked ready to snap back an angry reply, everything in her body poised to do so, but then it vanished as she complied, a low "please be careful" her only words as she hurried towards her appointed seat.
They both stood looking after her for a moment, before Andreyev muttered, "A bit late to grow a conscience. And over a tiff with her superior, too."
"Whatever Kahren's reasons, I'm inclined to agree with her sentiment," the Commander said, his forehead creasing as he glanced out the windows.
The Commander had a few looks in his arsenal that could make a lesser man's breath stop in his throat, though Andreyev couldn't have said whether the Commander was aware of it or not. One was his smile, the kind that was reserved for those rare moments of true joy, the one you only got to see when you happened to walk in on an inopportune moment with a chocolate fudge cupcake or when he forgot himself enough to stop being the Commander for a little while. Then, there was fury, the kind of pure, holy fury that made Andreyev wonder whether the Commander hadn't been charged with defending something with a flaming sword in a previous life. He'd seen that look only once, just before the final battle, when the terrified radio sergeant had handed the Commander the receiver to let him hear for himself the grand plan to seal Justice away.
And now, there was this look, trust and raw concern cutting him to the quick when the Commander murmured, "Please, do be careful."
Andreyev nodded hastily, not all that confident in his ability to do anything else, before the spell was broken by Kahren's voice over the loudspeaker, echoing clearly throughout the observation bays.
"We are now beginning the introduction of project VG-0001, the autonomous humanoid combat machine. After more than five years, Zepp is proud to present the very first breakthrough in this sector, one we hope will benefit all of us in our continued struggle against the Gears. As you well know, current magic-based weapon systems are not sufficiently developed to be considered for reliable, large-scale protection of human settlements. The autonomous combat machine, however, has not only been outfitted with advanced systems to cope with continuous use, but has been programmed with human-based reflexes to ensure unheard-of efficiency."
As she spoke, four metal pillars began to rise from the ground in the test chamber. Two robots were perched on top of each, one facing the wall, one facing the center, and all perfectly motionless.
"The first test will be a simple demonstration of accuracy and destructive capability. In the event of explosions, please do not be alarmed, as you are perfectly safe behind the security shields. To further ensure your safety, we will be setting combat parameters to seventy-five percent of maximum."
From his vantage point, Andreyev could watch the reactions in the other observation bays, people straining forward and beginning to gesticulate wildly when they noticed the undeserved resemblance. The pillars slid into place, allowing everyone to get a good, long look at them. Sir Kiske's face wasn't betraying any emotion, but Andreyev liked to imagine that he wasn't alone in feeling sick to his stomach.
"Units One, Three, Five, and Seven, assume position. Two, Four, Six and Eight stand ready to provide cover."
One by one, their eyes lit up with a yellow glow. The inner robots stepped forward to the edge of their platforms, and despite their utter lack of grace, he could recognize their step all too well.
"Initialize combat protocol Gamma-Six-Nine, aerial assault."
"What the hell, aerial?" Andreyev asked, glancing towards the scientists. "What's she going to have them do, aim for sparrows?"
The Commander didn't reply, but he didn't have to — his entire body going tense even as one of the wall panels started to slide open, one hand reaching for the hilt of his sword almost subconsciously, and Andreyev had been a soldier entirely too long not to know what that meant.
In a cacophony of cries, a tangled blue-gray mass pushed forth into the room and dropped writhing to the floor. Dimly, Andreyev was aware of human screams as delegates leapt from their seats in terror, but his attention remained fixed on the unfurling bodies in the chamber, wings stretching to take flight, sleek, gleaming bodies rearing to reveal armored, shovel-like limbs.
"What is the meaning of this!" Sir Kiske's voice sliced through the room like a thunderbolt, the scientists flinching almost involuntarily.
"Bi-lateral cooperation, if you will, Commander," Meirth said, not a trace of nervousness in his tone, his eyes holding that gleam again. "Your country was most helpful in the acquisition of suitable targets. And before you ask me to stop it... I shall."
"This is madness!"
"Not at all, Commander, it's progress. The time when we were cowering in trenches from these beasts is now officially over." With a flourish, he turned to Kahren, who had frozen in her seat, staring between them. "Whenever you are ready, Doctor."
In the chamber, the Gears had fully disentangled themselves, but they didn't behave at all like Andreyev remembered them, merciless quicksilver shapes circling and diving by the hundreds, trying to rip through any airship in their path. Some were hopping half-heartedly on the ground, cocking their heads occasionally to emit shrill, bird-like cries. Others were flapping around, disoriented, receiving jolts from the magic barriers as they tried to ascend towards the observation bays.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Kahren continued, though she needed to clear the quaver from her voice first. "Please, remain seated. There is no cause for alarm. We will now begin targeting. Initiate maneuver."
In unison, the robots tilted their heads back, and then, the air was once again filled with the muffled cries of the Gears. They were twitching and curling in mid-air, clawing at nothing, and it took Andreyev a moment to realize why.
There was no warning, no indication of any kind. There was only the first, one Gear that stopped screaming, its wings folding close to its body as it dived. And then another, and another, the whole flock arranging itself into an attack formation and bearing down on the sources of their torment.
The robots barely even moved, compartments on their bodies sliding open, a hail of projectiles slamming into the oncoming wave and knocking it back against the walls. The Gears remained there for a moment, writhing, and Andreyev realized the sleek tubes hadn't been projectiles at all, but a type of magical grenade, even as their bodies erupted in flames.
"My God," Andreyev breathed, unable to do anything but stare as body after body fell.
"Indeed," the Commander murmured, his voice low and tense in a way he'd never heard before, and it didn't take much at all to imagine the same deadly precision tearing through rows of helpless people instead.
Undeterred, the second wave dived, even as the back row of robots began to twist, a metal frame unfolding from their shoulders. Andreyev had a momentary impression of small, sleek cannon muzzles, and then four blasts of white-hot energy tore through the onslaught, crippled and burnt Gears falling by the dozen. Through the smoke and fire, the other four leapt, swords drawn. Propelled by inhumanly powerful legs, they were practically soaring, effortlessly skewering the remaining Gears — not falling down with them, no, but using their tearing bodies like ledges, already reaching for the next target as the remains of the first smashed uselessly to the floor.
Amid the scatter of body parts, the four robots landed securely on their feet, the tiles denting under the force of their impact. Unfazed, they straightened, the glow fading from their eyes as they sheathed their bloody swords.
In the silence, cheering broke out among the team in the observation bay, scientists jumping from their seats to pump their fists and clap each others' backs. Andreyev knew he should have been doing something, perhaps scream them into silence to ask about their moral code, or grab the nearest one to shake them out of their self-congratulatory euphoria, but all he could do was gaze at them numbly, wondering whether they were all blind or simply didn't care, and which of the two would be worse. Kahren, at least, wasn't cheering, just sitting there and repetitively smoothing her hands down the base of the microphone, leaving a glistening sheen.
The Commander had turned, as well, stiff as a statue, a glimpse of that holy fury burning in his eyes now as he stared at Meirth, who merely gazed back, unconcerned.
Secure in his immunity, thinking he could do whatever he wanted. Thinking he'd managed to shock them into submission.
Andreyev shook his head minutely, not letting his hand stray from the hilt of his sword, noting that the Commander still hadn't let go, either.
Don't worry, /Doctor/. You're still on.
The sun was already standing low against the horizon when the first runners started coming in, bringing with them reports from the other battalions. Most of them were barely more than children, panting their way through the salutes, not sure whether to be more jumpy thanks to the mountains of carcasses piling up or thanks to being in the presence of the esteemed Commander, who had finally had a minute to sit down in the ruins of the town wall and bandage a gash on his arm.
Another battle won, another drop in the ocean, another city lost, but the Commander wouldn't have seen it that way, not with so many lives saved.
"Gears— exterminated— along the southern ridge, sir," one of the courier kids was saying, one of those fidgety green boys still determined to do everything according to protocol, when it was almost certain that some of the damp patches staining his pants weren't due to dirt. "Sir Badguy is— requesting permission to pursue— the scattered forces."
"Is he, now?" the Commander asked, his eyes gleaming with a private mirth.
"Um." The boy hesitated, coughing guiltily, and admitted, "Well, no, sir. He just... um. Started swearing at me, sir. And left."
"I thought as much. It's all right, though. This would have been my order, anyway." He smiled at the boy's wide-eyed stare. "You're dismissed. Try to get some rest."
"Does he... do that sort of thing often, sir?" Andreyev asked awkwardly, when the kid had gone off tripping and stumbling down the hillside covered in bodies.
He still wasn't sure whether this was even allowed, butting into the Commander's business, asking trivial questions. Everyone in the battalion seemed to treat him like something just shy of a prince, or perhaps a god, someone you tried not to bother unless there was no way around it, and Andreyev had seen glimpses of the intricate conspiracy that had formed around him, the way soldiers would offer their reverence in secret. The way the Commander would always be the last to sit down for a meal, and still receive a double portion because the lightning users tended to burn through food like it was nothing, their metabolism extracting every ounce of energy from a morsel and still craving more. The way he wasn't allowed to notice it was a double portion, either, or he'd try to offer it to someone else. The way things mysteriously found their way into his tent, things that seemed to belong to nobody but were meant to replace a pair of gloves that had become torn beyond repair, or a bag of herbal tea obviously lovingly concocted by somebody's grandmother for somebody's sore throat.
The platoons Andreyev had been a part of had had camaraderie, certainly, a sense of caring and closeness born out of the knowledge that these were the people standing between you and death, and therefore you'd better take good care of them. But not like this. Never like this.
The Commander didn't seem to mind his intrusion, though, any more than he seemed to mind the courier's mistaken sense of formality, because he said lightly, "Oh, constantly. Constantly. It's easier to just let him do things I don't explicitly disagree with. He hasn't disappointed me yet, though I doubt he'd care, either way."
"Oh," Andreyev said, because there was nothing else to say to that, and then, "You must be good friends."
It had been terribly indiscreet of him to say so, he realized as the words escaped his mouth. He wasn't even sure why he'd suggested it because Badguy seemed anything but friendly, the kind of person you tried to avoid but kept an eye on because there was no telling what he might do. The Commander, though, merely chuckled.
"I've never heard it called that, to be honest." He paused in contemplation, tying off the knot on his bandage and rising from the boulder. "More... a challenge. I think we know where we stand, with each other. It's good, having a person where one knows that, no?"
"Um," Andreyev said, not quite sure if he was meant to agree.
"I realize this must seem worrisome to you," the Commander continued. "But you're not a man easily swayed by words, are you, Lieutenant? So... all I can tell you is to wait a while. I think you'll see, in time."
Andreyev stared, not entirely certain why he was inclined to believe him, when such a vague answer would have formerly served to only make him suspicious. Before he could think of a reply, though, a soft, rasping moan came floating by on the wind, so faint that it could have been his imagination in any place but a battlefield — the Commander already sprinting off as the sound was joined by a chorus of human screams.
Past another hilltop, a group of townspeople came into view, all of them standing in a half-circle and screaming at the top of their lungs. It took Andreyev a moment to realize that they weren't trying to flee or defend themselves, their voices raised in yells of incoherent rage as they lunged forward, brandishing makeshift clubs or farming tools. The Gear was lying on its side, its legs cut off partway, its underbelly sliced open from throat to tailbone, the power bleeding from its massive body. It wasn't moving at all, not even when the scythes and knives were thrust into its skin, only emitting a low, keening groan when a lucky blow would strike its eye, or the people near its hindquarters would tug at the rope they'd tied around its leg, jerking at the half-severed flank to make it cry out.
Thrown for a loop, he hesitated, turning to look over at the Commander for an indication of what to do; but the Commander was ahead of him, sliding down the hill, the sword flashing from its sheath as he rushed towards the townspeople.
Its heart pierced, the Gear sank back, a final breathy moan gurgling to a halt in its throat.Some of the people stopped to stare at him, while others continued jerking at the carcass, causing fresh blood to spray from its wounds.
Another sword stroke cut through the rope, sending the men stumbling backwards.
"It's dead now," the Commander announced with finality, a flick of his wrist sending the gore slipping off the blade. "Let it go."
"What do you mean, let it go?!" a woman exclaimed, her voice close to tears, uncaring of the Gear blood staining her clothing. "That thing took everything we had!"
"There's nothing there anymore!" another man shouted, smacking a bloodied club into his palm. "Nothing! Let that monster feel what it was like to be my son, getting torn in half! Where do you get off telling us what to do, huh?! I haven't seen you tell those demons to stop killing our children!"
"No," the Commander said softly. "I can't plead with souls I can't reach."
"But I can plead with you."
He looked around, taking in the grief-stricken faces, a kind of solemnity settling in his own expression that should have belonged to someone much older, someone who'd seen much more than a scant fifteen years pass by, perhaps more years than there were in a lifetime. And it was that thing that made him appear so much taller, shrouded in an aura that even Andreyev could feel, and he wasn't superstitious at all.
"I can beg you to let it go. Not for their sake, but for your own." The Commander paused, drawing a deep breath. "Words are all I can offer you. My prayers, my wish that your loved ones may journey safely to Heaven, or whichever resting place their souls might choose. And I can only ask you... to carry their memory high, so that it shines in your heart above all else.
"These beasts have many ways of being cruel. But so do the beasts that lurk inside the heart. I beg you not to nourish them so... lest you become one of them."
To say Andreyev had never had any lost love for Gears would have been an understatement. Like so many others, he'd lost his home to them, and, bit by bit, his family, his parents and three younger sisters. After the war, he'd never been able to change his views of them the way the Commander had, treating them more like animals than hellspawn, instructing police troops on which were dangerous and which could easily be steered clear of towns and villages without any bloodshed. He knew there were people out there living off Gears now, herding them in place of their destroyed livestock, but the idea had always seemed too bizarre to fully register in his mind.
Watching as the testing field was cleared of shredded bodies, though, he couldn't help but remember the Commander's words from so long ago, about the beasts inside the human heart. Although he'd stood on the bridge of an airship as the same Gears had tried to tear it to pieces, there was a profound sense of wrongness about the spectacle — something that went past any concerns for the spectators' safety, something that kept straying back to the sight of these creatures, hopping and trilling in confusion, trying to find a way out — and he thought he could understand, at least a little bit, why the Commander had stopped the townspeople on that day.
"I've informed Jarre," the Commander said, striding back into the room and unhooking the radio headset from behind his ear. "He'll stop these cadavers from being disposed of until Bernard sends over the investigation unit."
"Let's hope it'll be enough," Andreyev murmured, watching as the last pile of bodies was carted out of the hall. The robots had remained where they'd landed, silent and unmoving, thought that didn't make them any less unnerving.
"Lieutenant, are you all right?"
"Huh?" Andreyev blinked, slightly discomfited at the realization that the only reason the Commander wasn't outright trying to hold him back was because he'd promised to trust him. "I'm fine, sir. Don't worry about me."
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you would please take your seats... we will now proceed with phase two," Kahren's voice echoed over the loudspeaker. She seemed to have fallen back into her role as presenter, though her face was several shades paler by now, her hands still squeezing the base of the microphone.
"Now it's already a phase," Andreyev muttered, grimacing.
"A close-combat simulation between man and machine. As the basic model has been designed in accordance with combat patterns derived from Sir Kiske, this match is meant to show its full efficiency, and a member of the international police has graciously agreed to assist us. Please keep in mind that this is a test; although the opponent is an experienced combatant himself, the machine will operate in simulation mode only to prevent undue injury. Unit One, initialize alpha-testing phase. Close combat simulation, all long-range weapons remain deactivated."
She looked at him. "When you're ready, Lieutenant, please proceed to the entry hatch ahead. Your opponent will be Unit One. Since it is the oldest, it possesses the most comprehensive data to draw from. Good luck."
Squaring his shoulders, Andreyev turned and saluted, before making his way towards the appointed hatch without another look back. At the control panels, one of the scientists pulled a lever, and it slid open, revealing the grating of a maintenance staircase. Descending, he could feel the stares from the audience bearing down on him, dozens upon dozens of curious diplomats that had apparently digested their shock over the live Gears, and were now looking to see what else the wonder machines could do. Briefly, he wondered whether the gladiators of ancient Rome had felt like this when they marched out the gates to face their foe, and what they might have thought of their audience, who couldn't have cared less what the fight meant for the men in the arena.
The robots had retreated against the pillars; all, except the first, which stood where it had landed in the center, sword at the ready and eyes glowing faintly.
When it spotted him, it fell into stance with a soft mechanical whirr, a stance so painfully familiar that a new surge of rage bubbled up inside him — sword held overhead, one arm ready for balance.
Go ahead. Make my day.
Breathing a kiss on the back of his sword hand, he charged.
He'd never been on the receiving end of one of the Commander's blows. Of course, they'd sparred in the ring a few times, fun and pastime keeping the strokes light, the pace slow, though he had no illusions of what Sir Kiske was holding back, had seen him fell Gears three times his size often enough to have at least an inkling.
This, though, was a blow backed by two hundred pounds of metal, and it felt like getting his arms torn out of their sockets, blade clashing against blade hard enough to shock them into numbness. Strong, so strong, forcing his sword towards the ground in a way no human could have done — the yellow eyes flashed, and then he was stumbling, pushed back like it was nothing and floundering for balance.
The second blow missed him only by a few inches, sparks jumping when the sword struck the floor.
Overhead, Kahren was saying something, rattling off specifics, but he tuned her out, all his attention on the robot. It had paused, gazing at its blade as if surprised at the result, contemplating what had gone wrong, and he decided to take his chance. Strength wouldn't win him this, but speed might.
Dashing forward, he struck again in quick succession, the robot parrying in synch — but it wasn't the parry of a swordsman, sword held to shield his vital regions, only a reasonable facsimile. Not the same instinct of self-preservation, not the same attachment a human had to his gut or lungs. When it lunged again, he danced quickly out of range, watching as it paused again briefly to examine its failure.
Imitation's only gonna get you so far.
His kick should have hit it square in the jaw, but he only had a split-second impression of the head bending unnaturally, in a way no human spine could have, before he dived under its swing. His blade struck against its leg, armored and hard, but not hard enough not to feel something give. A blow Sir Kiske would have never allowed, but the thing wasn't speed and grace, it was intimidation — just tried to pull out its big guns and power you down.
The robot staggered, its right leg slipping out from underneath it.
Its next strike came in uneven, and he ducked it easily, another roundhouse kick taking out its damaged leg completely. Sizzling, it stumbled backwards against the pillar, the light vanishing from its eyes as it collapsed on one knee.
"Unit One is down! Unbelievable! Truly an unexpected result—"
Kahren's voice again, sounding equal parts shocked and relieved, accompanied by a round of applause from the stands, though Andreyev could hardly hear it. His pulse pounding loud enough to eclipse all other sound, he turned slowly to face the science bay, unable to hold in a grin when he saw the Commander holding up his hand, signing complete annihilation.
He didn't look back at the fallen puppet again, just wiping the sweat from his brow and lifting his fingers in an affirmative signal. If he had, he might have understood why the Commander's eyes suddenly widened, why he was jerking two fingers in the gesture to break out to the side. He might have seen the yellow glow rekindling, might have seen its owner rise, rotate its leg as if shrugging off the damage. He might have felt the rush of air against his back, even if he didn't hear the rapid pounding steps past the roaring in his own ears.
As it was, he only felt a sharp, abrupt pain, so quick he wasn't sure if he'd imagined it.
Numbly, he gazed down at the tip of the blade protruding from his left chest, drops of blood slowly starting to trickle down its edge. A thought flitted across his mind, tinged with mild frustration — got the uniform cleaned for nothing — but it was drowned out by the odd sensation of inhaling water, not air, the rising bewilderment that he was gasping and not taking anything in, and then his vision burst into light.
Two things about the scene would stand out in Ky's mind forever afterwards. The first was the vision of Andreyev's contented grin, as the blade was slicing towards him. The second was Kahren screaming, amplified tenfold by the speakers — an anguished, wordless scream of horror.
For a second, time seemed to have stopped, every single person frozen in their seats, before the control room broke into confused shouting, scientists yelling and lunging for their equipment—
"Oh holy shit!"
"Shut it off, shut it the hell off!"
"Doctor! We have to—"
"Unit One, abort maneuver! Abort maneuver!"
"Why isn't it shutting down?!"
—even as the robot pulled out its sword, Andreyev slumping to the floor like a rag doll, and Ky just reacted.
A wave of lightning collided with the switchboard on the far right, levers dropping in the off-position as the scientists threw themselves from their seats to avoid the band of electricity racing through their instrument banks. The hatch swung open under a kick, and he was leaping down the stairs, taking entire flights blindly, all his attention on the robot that had pulled back, its sword rising for another blow.
More yells on the intercom, Kahren shrieking an abort code over and over to no avail, and then his feet hit the floor, another spell flying from his fingertips with barely any delay at all.
The robot had no time to act, a spear of lightning slamming into it head-on, sending it flying through the air and crashing into the pillar at its back hard enough to leave an indent. Before it could right itself, Ky was upon it, slicing its head off with one swing, a second thrust piercing its chest plating, the glare of electricity momentarily causing its eyes to shine bright blue. It crumpled against the pillar, wires spilling out onto the ground.
Ky whirled, pure instinct bringing the Furaiken around in time to parry a blow that would have sliced him open from shoulder to hip.
Three pairs of yellow eyes were staring at him from beyond the crossing blades, the remaining robots moving of their own volition to intercept the threat.
"Commander! Get out of there!" Kahren again, her voice hoarse and desperate. "We can't shut them down! The codes aren't working!"
The other two robots fell into mirrors of his own attack stance, poised to strike, mercifully ignoring Andreyev's lifeless body.
Dancing spheres of lightning lifted the first off its feet, knocking it back against one of its comrades as they charged. The third caught his roundhouse kick with one arm, hauling him off his feet, and Ky rolled, bringing the sword up to block an overhead blow. So, they had been watching, evaluating and devising responses to their opponents' strategy, but there was little point in worrying about it now.
The next shock of electricity was caught against the translucent dome of a shield spell, but it didn't extend to the robot's weapon, wrenching the sword out of its grasp with enough force to skewer the head of the second. It stiffened, limbs freezing in mid-step, and, like a tree being axed, capsized. The other robot seemed unperturbed by its newly weaponless state, because it was already twisting, two pairs of metal beams unfolding from its back, and it took Ky a moment to realize that they were arms, knuckles bent into deadly fists.
This is nothing. In the war, I've had much worse.
A somersault carried him out of the way of the first's blow, tile splintering under the impact and slicing his arm, but Ky could hardly feel a thing. He let momentum carry him backwards, one flip after the other to escape the reach of the punches. Cool metal at his back, and he dropped to the floor right as the fists connected with where he had been, the Furaiken piercing solidly between the third's legs. In the same instant, his other hand found the first's ankle, a lightning storm tearing it open from the inside out before it had a chance to move.
Panting, Ky clambered to his feet, rushing towards where Andreyev had fallen. Carefully, he moved his head, elation flooding him at the thin exhalations hitting his palm as he did so.
"It's okay, Lieutenant," he murmured, shifting to lift him off the ground as gently as possible without disturbing the wound further. "We'll get you out of here in a moment. Just hang on."
He fumbled with the radio unit at his belt, his wet fingers slipping, and then—
"—out of there! Get out of there!" Kahren shrieked, her voice bordering on hysteria. "They're running the aerial assault protocol! Commander, we can't stop them! Please!"
And then another voice, a technician screaming loudly enough to be heard over the intercom: "Oh sweet merciful fuck they're launching!"
Whether it was the magic grenades of the Order, or Zepp's feeble attempts at rocket launchers, projectiles had never been powerful enough to make an effective weapon against the Gears. The Stygeros was meant to change that. Sleek and compact in a way none had been before, the missile had been engineered to pack enough explosive power to smash through an armored Megadeath, and Ky stood at the center of the blast, cradling an injured man, as the world erupted into a sea of brilliant, all-consuming white.
A/N: Why yes, I'm exploiting the hell out of these cliffhangers. Thanks go to Tofu for combing through this, and thanks to everyone who's stuck by this fic. Comments are welcome. :)
- Order-tech = steampunk all the way.
- I admit I've revamped the Robo-Kys a little; they've become a fusion of their regular version and Isuka's MKII because robots armed with a faux version of Justice's Gamma Ray are scary as hell. So they look like the originals, but fire an appropriate amount of deadly lasers.
- Couriers are used for long-range communication in the field. The Order might have radio, but their portable technology really isn't good enough for anything that reaches very far.
- Anyone who's wondering why Andrey wasn't using magic, it's because he can't. I think magically gifted people are probably pretty rare in comparison to regular folks, particularly strong ones. Any squad in the Order would have contained several regulars who were taught very thoroughly to take good care of their mages, because they're the best bet in battle.
- Stygeros is a poetic name for Hades, lord of the dead. I couldn't very well keep the gag name. XD
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