Title: Going off the Record
Part: Interlude (between 7 and 8)
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Warnings: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now contains 100% more Ky-whumping.
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
All her life, Lara Kahren had thought herself to be intimately familiar with death.
It was hard not to feel that way, growing up in a city that wasn't so much living as it was hanging on, constantly teetering on the edge of ruin. Not a day went by without a sortie, the gunships leaving port for a desperate and bloody battle that would send metal and bits of flesh raining out of the sky, sometimes human, sometimes Gear. Not a day that the familiar faces wouldn't be fewer and the streets feel emptier, another friend missing from the back alleys they'd sneak into and play during work breaks, another shop closing its shutters forever, the goods distributed evenly among its neighbors — engine parts, float stone fragments, memorabilia from a world that nobody could remember quite right.
Not a day without waking up to the fear that the shields might fall, that the next assault would rip away that flimsy dragonfly wing of security and send hell's legions plunging down between the buildings, tearing apart the only home there was. No one in Zepp was religious, a principle more than a personal choice, an opposition to the world of foolishness and blind faith that was stretching out so far below them, but there was little else to call the Gears, no other word than that of a bunch of make-believe from centuries ago that could encompass their full horror.
It had happened twice, the shields falling. The first time was so long ago that it had found its way into a children's story, the Legend of the Falling Sky. The second time was a lot closer, though Lara had been too young to have any real memory of it, only had the quavering whispers of her elders to go by and the devastated parts of the city, but they were enough to paint in her mind pictures of what it must have been like — Zepp's entire foundation trembling as one of the base reactors went up in flames, buildings crushed to dust under the monstrous bulk of the galleon Gears, carrying on their backs the small lizard creatures that would then proceed to tear through the fleeing masses in the streets. She knew the stories of people who had jumped, who'd been pursued by the Gears like hares in a hunt right until they hit the edge, and there was no more shield to keep them safe, no more shield to prevent them from leaping out into the empty air.
Gone, one of her instructors had said, an old man training the district children in the art of smelting, gone to be one with the wind. It was the closest thing to a good luck symbol Zepp had, dependant as they were on the whims of the wind, slipstreams pushing against the power of the engines, breeze and turbulence the only way to move the windmills and generate power, to bring the rain clouds and replenish their water supplies. And yet, Lara still remembered the way the old man had said it, head bent over the crucible, the molten copper collecting at its center and casting an orange glow on his face. His voice had been soft, barely audible over the snap-crackle-pop of the furnace, his eyebrows drawn and gaze intent as if sharing a precious secret.
It wasn't until she was older that she'd come to fully understand the implications, that expressing these sorts of sentiments came dangerously close to the despicable ideology of the ground-people, the very thing responsible for casting the world into a new stone age. But even before that, she'd known that the old man was talking nonsense, that the people who had jumped hadn't found their end with the wind.
Death was the driver on the engine of humanity, permeating even the most innocuous conversations in the form of a gloomy undercurrent, directing hundreds of anxious glances towards the transparent glint of the shield every day, and every hour of the day. Death was permanent, the only constant in this world, and what mattered wasn't that people died, but when, and how, that they gave death as good a run for its money as they could.
Lara understood that as well as everyone else, knew what it was like to lose someone and what it was like to flinch, involuntarily and instinctively, every time the ground shook, even if it was just the unexpected push of the engines. She had never been forced to take up a weapon herself, but knew, or thought she knew, what it was like to fight and what it was like to kill, for every time she'd helped to pull a wrecked gunship back in and saw the pilot, burnt and twisted beyond recognition, bleeding out under the hands of the medics in attendance.
It would take her years to realize just how wrong she had been.
Zepp was less a planned city and more something that grew in the making, streets that meandered for miles until they lost themselves in a nameless backyard, buildings that sprouted out of other buildings like mushrooms, held in place and stabilized by whatever means necessary, fence posts, chains, bits of old piping. Room was sparse, and yet, the city was shifting constantly, moving to accommodate everyone's need for a space of their own. It wasn't rare to claim a top-floor spot only to wake up a few days later to someone clambering around on one's roof, carefully laying out new foundations on an already precariously balanced construction and mumbling hi around a mouthful of nails, lovely place you've got there, good view, we'll be your upstairs neighbors.
Lara grew up in a place squashed between a barber's shop and a windmill engineer's atelier with several dozen fans plastered to its walls, though the outside staircase stopped at the barber's and from there on out, it was ladders along the sides of the building and, if you were fancy, small, crank-operated platforms that had to be worked by hand. People tying their washing to the guardrails was a constant reason for bickering among the tenants, as the water tended to come dribbling down chimneys or air holes whenever the wind was a little above a mild breeze, which was to say, all the time.
The base of this particular tower consisted of several small establishments, one of them being a worker's soup kitchen that would send the most tantalizing smells wafting up along the walls, a constant beacon for her and her siblings, who lived on a lunch break at two and dinner after dark. Her father ran a salvage business for rare artifacts, which he dug up or snatched from the witch-hunting priests at the risk of his life, and took back to fix them up in his shop. What constituted rare was somewhat open to interpretation, as he certainly didn't discriminate regarding the things he brought back — nobody did, really, when any scrap could prove to be a valuable clue to the past, any moldy, shredded book a treasure trove of information.
School started before the break of dawn and went for three hours, divided between the reading lessons of her mother and whatever one of the district people had to teach, smithing, basic mechanics, history lessons that were more gaps than substance. After that, it was off to the shop for all five of them, to man the counter or help fix the salvaged goods or run errands in the neighborhood. Lara, still too small to reach the workbench by herself, was mostly paired with her older siblings, though her brothers liked to use any excuse to sneak out and leave her stranded, on the receiving end of her father's wrath when he thought to check and found half his children gone.
He wasn't an unkind man, just very industriously minded, and there was nothing he hated more than slacking off on the job. Her brothers had long since learned to stay out late enough to avoid his tirades, and didn't mind going without supper because they had managed to charm some neighborhood girl or another out of some extras.
It was her sister who took pity on her, who would drag her aside when it came to splitting the day's chores and who, come nightfall, would gleefully raid their brothers' pockets for apples or sweets as reparation payments. Lacie could get away with it because she was older by a good six years, taller and quick with the wrench so that the boys had learned not to pick fights with her. Lara liked her much better than her brothers, because she wouldn't talk down to her or pull her hair and make her take the blame for things she hadn't done. Instead, Lacie let her sit on the high chair when they had to mind the shop and split the coins evenly whenever a customer patted them on the head and muttered, "Keep the change."
"Gotta put something aside for the future," Lacie winked as she made the extra cash disappear in the seams of her and Lara's clothes, swift like a thief so no one would notice. Their father would have been furious if he knew, as all the money was family money and family money was to be used to improve the shop, but Lacie rolled her eyes and said, "That's not family money, just men's money," and scrounged up spare coins wherever she could.
Lara wasn't sure what kind of future she was meant to be saving for; the wireman down the street had seen her work on the engines and circuits and offered to take her on as an apprentice, said she was a natural and that he had connections, that she could easily be working for the big names in two, three years' time, but her father had refused. A sycophant that guy was, he said, just looking for discounts with a bunch of false compliments, and anyway, family business needed a family to run it.
Lacie seemed to know what she wanted, though she'd extracted a life oath before she'd shown her secret to Lara. Drawings of airships, dozens and hundreds of them, amassed over the years in unsupervised moments, scribbled on whatever piece of paper she happened to have on hand at the time. From then on, it fell to Lara to make them real, to take her sister's wild creations with the broad wings and massive rotor blades and lift them into the sky, sketching in the engine schematics under their shared blanket while Lacie clutched the oil lamp tightly because there was no sneaking electricity for unreasonable late-night conspiracies. It had been clear even then that their ideas wouldn't amount to much, that the business and the money would go to their older brothers, but neither of them had seen any harm in reveling in these midnight vigils, heads filled with dreams and brilliant birds.
It all went to pieces much faster than it should have. One after the other, their brothers were drafted to join the gunners in their struggle, and one after the other, they managed to get themselves shot out of the sky within six months of starting service. It left their mother wilting just a tiny bit more with every knock on the door, every time the air corps came calling with a folded flag, caps and hats shoved under their armpits, scratching their heads and saying sorry ma'am and our condolences ma'am and here's three months of your boys' pay in advance, we know you've got it rough, ma'am. Eventually, she'd shriveled into nothing, pale and small and not at all the woman who'd laughed at their father's dirty jokes and handled the unloading of the cargo boxes.
Their father refused to attend the funeral. He felt that she'd betrayed him by deciding to leave while he was still in this world, like the dead meant more to her than the living. He hadn't been the most affectionate man before, but now, his face turned hard and his words bitter, and if Lacie told him to stop cursing their mother, she got a slap for her trouble.
In the end, that, too, changed faster than it should have, when he went out on a salvage mission one day and just didn't return. They never learned what happened, though that was the way things tended to go for most salvagers, a run-in with a stray Gear swarm on the trade routes, or possibly some zealot with a crucifix and a pyre.
It fell to Lara and her sister to keep the shop running, to turn a respectable repair business into a junk dealer to see that some sort of money was still coming in. They were able to keep it going for a while longer like that, mostly supported by their father's old acquaintances, until one morning when Lacie took a look into the cashbox, slumped her shoulders, and decided to follow in their brothers' footsteps.
The military wasn't picky about where it was getting its gunners from. The air corps uniform made her look more girlish boy than boyish girl, brass buttons and stuffed shoulders and her hair cropped short just beneath the nape of her neck, the cap cocked at an angle the way all the pilots wore it. She'd smelled of engine exhaust and oil when she'd bent down to hug Lara goodbye, an embrace that was tighter than it should have been for all the upbeat words, chin up, write me, I'll be back before you know it.
She'd lasted almost a year.
It didn't help when they sent back her things, a small black case for her medals balanced on top, the Silver North Star and the red-striped ribbon for bravery and a laurel-framed brooch spelling "NATO" and nobody knew what that meant. It didn't help the gnawing feeling in the pit of Lara's stomach, knowing that she'd broken the promise, that she hadn't answered any of her sister's letters, unable to say anything in response to the lavish descriptions of the sky before dusk and the bubbly gossip about the attentions of one or two young men, because in the end, well... what difference did it make?
None at all, she decided, and there was no sense in staying and grieving for people who were irrevocably gone, their lives erased from the fabric of existence, so she packed up her schematics, stuffed the bills from her sister's pay into her pockets, and went to ask the wireman down the street about his connections.
She never thought twice when Meirth made his offer.
Lara hadn't known him all that well, someone who came and went in the weapons lab she was employed in at the time. What he was doing there was anyone's guess, usually slipping in and out of management offices she never cared to visit unless she had to, carrying his arrogance the way others carried their briefcases. Under different circumstances, she never would have chosen to work for him. He had the cutthroat persona of a salesman and that alone was enough to get him in the bad books with most engineers, who found marketing to be the natural enemy of imagination. No one seemed to know where he was from, either, who his affiliates were and what kind of reputation he had.
Most businesses in Zepp depended upon reputation, not just in terms of skill but reliability, trustworthiness and personal leanings. Nobody handed over their machinery to a workshop run by a drunkard unless they wanted to get blown to smithereens along with it, and someone who was offering too many discounts was sure to be selling poor quality merchandise. It wasn't any different for engineers. Lara had worked her way up almost solely by word of mouth, by doing favors to the friend of a friend of her employer's and having them drop her name elsewhere. She was good at what she did, intense and driven and everything else that came with the job, but places like the big idea labs of the Zeppian military would have been forever out of reach without her cred.
Someone who had no cred was bad news.
And yet, when Meirth came to see her one day with all the deceptive casualty of someone who was staking out a target, she found herself unable not to listen to his proposal.
Mechanical replacement warriors. Something better than flesh and blood, to throw at the Gears instead of irreplaceable lives.
On a certain level, Lara knew that the plan was ridiculous even by Zepp's standards, when even the simplest of robots took months to build and were about on par with children's gadgets in terms of general usefulness. Meirth seemed to know what he wanted, though, wasn't the type to joke around or waste money on a pipe dream, and the allure of the impossible was too hard to resist.
She got her own lab in a fenced-in compound, the type with guards posted outside and seamless doors that would only open with the right security clearance — a step up from the places she'd worked for, but not all that surprising given what she was meant to bring to life. The core team consisted of just twelve people who proved to be hard-working and dependable, able to fulfill any task with a minimum amount of questions. All of them without family, just like her, which made her suspect that maybe she'd been profiled, chosen not just because of her reputation but because there were no personal distractions in her life. At the time, she didn't pay too much attention to it, as inundated with work as she was, her mind overflowing with ideas. In retrospect, though, it seemed like a warning sign.
Meirth barely contributed anything beyond the initial concept and was hardly ever around, would only show up every few weeks for a progress briefing and to deliver data they were to use as the basis for the prototype's combat reactions. Lara didn't care where the data was coming from. It was a means to an end, a tool to accomplish a vision, and she found herself too absorbed in the actual experience of creation to worry much about the peculiarities. Just watching the first sign of life flicker through the metal held a sense of childlike wonder, teaching the bony fingers to curl and uncurl in response to her gestures and feeling that she was working closer to a solution, something that was going to change the world for the better.
The man by the name of Ky Kiske meant nothing to her at the time, just someone on the other side, hardly worth a thought. Meirth called him the best, a perfect soldier, and a perfect model for a machine that was meant to surpass anything a human could do, but that was as far as it went. It seemed like a good enough reason to choose someone, and no one in Zepp was particularly big on philosophy and ethics, certainly not when it came to dealing with the Church. This was the organization that thought gas lighters were the devil, and every child grew up on the idea that spiting dictatorial idiots was all within the line of patriotism.
The end of the war changed very little; though the overwhelming threat of annihilation had disappeared, there was still more than enough reason to keep going, more than enough dangerous Gears that posed a risk to Zepp, and a good number of pirates and other greedy groundfolk to attack the trade routes for cargo or beliefs. The project was to proceed according to schedule, and if she heard anything about Ky Kiske in the meantime, that he was the hero who had saved the world, the vanquisher of evil, the radiant star of the future — well, then it was an admirable feat that he'd managed to win the respect of Zepp's populace, but other than that, he remained what he was, a template on paper, a member of the organization that wanted to see her city burn.
She thought they were making good time, too, that the sponsors she never saw were pleased with their work, so she was stunned to come in to work one morning and find Meirth occupying her seat at the project table, spreading out an entirely new set of blueprints that had very little to do with her vision.
The robot's size was to be reduced by a good twelve centimeters to the irregular height of one-hundred seventy-eight, which threw everything off schedule and gave Miren and Gaus an aneurysm when they discovered that they'd have to find a way to further compress the fuel cells in order to cope with the alterations. The extendable raygun structure turned out to be too heavy to aim and fire correctly on the new model, and had to be completely overhauled to fit. Whole chunks of wiring had to be moved to compensate for the difference in weight distribution, and Meirth proved to be irritatingly inflexible when it came to compromises. He wanted all of the changes, and none of the loss in power.
Lara, already feeling angry and slighted, had a heated disagreement with him when he pushed to introduce a whole new set of ludicrously specific skills, swift overhead strikes and light-footed leaps better suited for a dancer than over a hundred kilograms of metal. Eventually, she had to cave and install a series of thrusters to even get the thing off the ground, which demanded an entirely new hydraulic system to prevent the circuits from overheating.
"If you find the changes so objectionable, by all means..."
There wasn't much to say in response to such an open threat, not much to do except stew silently over the amusement she'd glimpsed in his eyes, loathing the fact that she'd been stupid enough to think it was her project, and loathing the fact that Meirth knew she was berating herself more than him. She'd be damned if she quit and let him win the laurels, though, and Meirth knew that, too, knew that she was too stubborn not to put up with being reduced to his assistant. Lara took a small amount of satisfaction from the fact that most of the team didn't seem to like him much, either, his condescending behavior grating on everyone's nerves the more unreasonable the changes became.
It made her wonder why he'd bothered to get involved now, of all times, why he hadn't stayed on from the very beginning if he'd had such a specific picture in mind, why he wasn't interested in hearing that the fragmentary close-combat data was messing with the modules for the long-range weapons, why he refused to have another swordfighter lend his moves as a template in order to iron out the flaws. The robot was working, and much better than she'd expected for a prototype, but there was simply no way it would be able to copy someone's mannerisms so completely, and no need for it, either.
At least, that was what she thought for the longest time, right until she saw the new exoskeleton.
Making it human had never been the objective. Making it function was the primary goal, able to maneuver around obstacles, fast and powerful enough to reliably take down a Gear. A tank that could take a hit and keep going, that could analyze a situation and select the appropriate strategy from its programming. As much as machines were a part of her world, something had nonetheless instinctively kept Lara from making the robot resemble a human beyond a very superficial level, the bipedal basis was all she'd meant to borrow.
The original plating was featureless chrome, along with a harness that could carry additional ammo and the rocket launcher. Meirth had demanded that all extras be moved to the inside, something that had caused the team more than one sleepless night, but now she could finally see why. The new plating was modeled to resemble the human physique, right down to the small dips of the muscles, the fine stenciled outline of the fingernails. The only thing that wasn't human was the face, a flat, grotesque toy mask that made her uncomfortable for reasons she couldn't quite pinpoint.
"Makes you not wanna meet it in a dark alley," Anis joked when they put the face plating in place, though he didn't quite want to look at it, either, and Lara thought maybe that was what made them all avert their eyes, the human body paired with the inhuman face.
She couldn't fathom the reasons for such a choice, but was willing to keep making excuses for it anyway. Excuses were what she'd built her life on, half-truths that made it easy to shake off responsibility for the past — she'd been too young to stand up for herself and her sister had thrived more in the protector role than she did as the protected, she'd learned not to question her elders, so she couldn't interfere with Lacie's decision to go, she'd accepted Meirth's proposal for the challenge it posed, not because of the safety that success promised, the fairytale hope of a world free of conflict.
It was why the redesign had to be just an idiosyncrasy, a way to make it stand out, and the head partition only needed to house the sensors anyway, so there was no need to make it correspond. Lara could keep working on it as long as she managed to silence the voices of doubt, could see the project come to fruition and not have to face up to the fact that she was standing on top of a tower of lies.
"No rest for the wicked, I see."
Slowly, Lara turned from her position at the table, careful to school her features into an expression of neutrality. The darkness of the lab aided the illusion, the cool, greenish glow of the nighttime lighting casting criss-crossing shadows in the room. She'd learned a long time ago that Meirth positively delighted in startling others and wasn't at all above something as cheap as sneaking up on them, so the least she could do was not give him the response he craved. If anything, it only seemed to amuse him more.
"Just checking the containers," she said, working to keep the defensiveness from her tone. He liked to throw around phrases like that, cryptic enough to puzzle people and just ambiguous enough to make the words seem accusatory. "It's going to be a long trip, and I don't feel like sacrificing the project to poor storage conditions."
It was a lie, of course, but one she hoped he wouldn't see through immediately, as determined as he was to view others as simpletons, and her as a little girl. The integrity of the cargo containers was the last thing on her mind; instead, she'd been engaged in a staring contest with the prototype, which was to remain unpacked until tomorrow for last minute measurements, trying to will herself not to feel creeped out by her own handiwork.
This was the thing that had given her so much joy for the longest time, into whose creation she'd poured all her creativity and energy, and yet, looking at it now was looking at something that wasn't hers at all, something alien that made her feel like its target instead of its master. But how couldn't she, when practically every aspect was beyond her control?
With a flick of her wrist, she slid the notes back into their folder, glad that she'd forgone turning on the desk lamp because it meant Meirth couldn't make out the contents from where he was leaning against the door frame, couldn't see that she'd been looking over papers which she'd swiped from his office. A stack of reports, a detailed profile and a photograph, taken while its subject was unaware, blue eyes, blond hair and flowing white clothes, the unmistakable original to the metal copy that was standing on its pedestal in the middle of the room, a travesty through difference.
Blurred though it was, the boy in the picture couldn't have been any older than Lacie when she'd left, nowhere near old enough to be called an adult. It was funny in a sad way how having a face to a name could change a situation, make it real in a way it hadn't been before, and send the doubts flooding back in. Ky Kiske's data was different from Ky Kiske the person, and Lara had spent the past few hours asking herself what a boy like that could possibly mean to someone like Meirth, to anyone whose interests he represented, and what it meant that the team was going to depart for Paris come morning, where they were sure to meet him.
"I wouldn't have pegged you as the type for stage fright," Meirth said, pushing away from the door and stepping closer.
She hadn't realized that she was clenching her hands, nails biting into the palm, and quickly flexed her fingers. "You know what I think of this."
"And I've been telling you to broaden your horizons, Lara. The world is more than just Zepp. We're at the dawn of a new age now, so it would be most foolish to remain so... set in your ways."
She shook her head, absurdly glad that her heels were giving her the advantage in height, that Meirth was forced to look up to meet her gaze. He didn't like it, which was precisely the reason she had started wearing them, knowing that he knew why she was willing to sacrifice the comfort of her feet for those extra two inches. "Then why bring it up again?"
They'd been cycling through the same argument for the past few weeks now, ever since Meirth had decided the robots were to appear at the World Fair, something neither Lara nor anyone else on the team felt comfortable with. They'd all been working to create something for Zepp, and past any feelings for their home, there were so many other concerns, so many disturbing ways in which it could all go horribly wrong; the matter of landing smack-dab in the middle of enemy territory, the idea of showing off a walking, thinking metal man to an audience of people who were barely educated enough to view fire as a tool, the idea of what the robots could do in the hands of any greedy, prejudiced ground lord. In comparison, the fact that she was going to have to look a young man in the eye and explain to him exactly why he was going to have to live with the existence of his artificial doppelgangers shouldn't have mattered as much as it did.
Meirth merely smiled, a facsimile of the real expression, airy and removed from such concerns. "Isn't that the duty of a leader?"
No, she wanted to say, no, that was /my/ duty, you supercilious bastard, but didn't.
"Just look at it this way. If tomorrow goes smoothly, you will be remembered as the woman who ushered in a new era."
Lara turned back towards the prototype, gazing into the dim yellow of its eyes.
That, of course, is the whole problem.
The biggest and most obvious lie, and the one Lara Kahren kept hanging on to until the very end, was that it would be all right.
Clinging to a bit of desperate make-believe was the only way she could even begin to act out the charade, bow, smile, go over a hundred convenient explanations in her head, and simply hope that by some miracle, it wouldn't all end in disaster. For a short while, it went so unexpectedly well that she almost thought the crisis averted, when Ky Kiske turned out to be a reasonable man, composed and understanding and all the things she hadn't thought someone on the other side could be, that she was almost convinced she had gained an unexpected ally, someone who wanted to see things go to pieces as little as she did.
Now, in the middle of an underground test chamber a thousand miles from home, she had ample time to understand that it wasn't true, for the realization to slowly filter down from the top of her head like a trickle of sand, coarse and unwanted, to have it flow along her spine, between her ribs and past her belly, right down to the very tips of her toes.
It didn't matter that the controls under her fingers had locked up, that smoke and sparks were spewing from the instrument banks all around her, that her own voice was ringing in her ears as the harsh, terrified shriek of a madwoman. All that mattered, as she watched the missiles describe a perfect arc through the air, was the comprehension that she didn't know death, not like this and not at all, that none of her ideals or intentions were worth a single thing because two men were going to die, as surely as if she'd pulled the trigger herself.
The instant of the explosion only held room for a single thought, before she was thrown to the ground under a rain of glass, but it was sharp and clear like nothing else had ever been — it didn't matter what would happen from here on out, if the people of that world would ever forgive her for what she had done, because she wouldn't be able to forgive herself.
A/N: I love my shades of gray. Many thanks go to Twig, who has to live with my ramblings, and C&C is much appreciated.
Notes for the Bored:
- More worldbuilding, now with Zepp as a city. I'm sort of borrowing the Laputa concept for it because I like the aesthetic along with all its problems. Other tweaks to follow.
- Getting back to the asskicking soon. And the slash. Yep, I said slash. XD