aphelion_orion (aphelion_orion) wrote in off_the_homerow,
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Going off the Record, Chapter XII (first half)

Title: Going off the Record
Part: 12/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now with 100% more end of the world.

[Chapter navigation]I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII Part One, Part Two | IX | X Part One, Part Two | XI Part One, Part Two | Interlude IV | XII Part One, Part Two, Part Three



Going off the Record
Chapter XII



"I checked your proposal."

The tone was mild, airy, a folder sliding towards him from the peaks of his carefully organized chaos, memos, print-outs, and research notes just one step away from collapsing in an avalanche of bureaucracy. A hand on the back of his chair, right beside his neck, and the familiarity of the gesture made his insides clench — except it didn't, not then, not yet. Here, in this time, it meant nothing, as easy and comfortable as the perpetual smell of sterility and coffee dregs, and his old self just leaned back, head tilted as far as it would go, and tried to pinch his vision into focus.

"It was sound until page twenty-three when you called your detractors a bunch of sputum-gargling shitweasels."

To his left, a chair scraped across the floor, the books it had been buried under joining the piles on his desk in an effort to prevent a cambrian shift. He winced, the smell of success — menthol cigarettes, aftershave and shirt starch — splintering into its components, chemicals on top of chemicals, but that was wrong, too, too early, and far too aware.

The him from back then simply snorted and drained the rest of his mug, down to the grit, didn't matter as long as it was caffeine. "I used sources."

"‘Your mom' is not a source."

"No." He grinned. "But yours is."

"And you wonder why we don't let you out to play with the other kids."

"Just does what it says on the tin." He pointed to his chest, where the emblazoned letters had adopted a faintly pinkish hue over the years. Warning, doesn't play well with others. The shirt had been a gag gift, back when he'd sent most of their fellow chemistry students to the consultant's office to see about switching majors. "You know what I think of this."

"We've been over this, Freddie. Making our investors cry means no more fancy toys for you." A poor attempt at a bribe appeared in his line of vision, and when he reached out to grab it, the fresh mug made a detour for the other chair. Always playing games. Little games to change the world.

"If you're that worried about me misbehaving, just tell Aria to wear a short skirt. Works beautifully as a preemptive apology."

Laughter, the amused, honest kind that would haunt him in the years to come. "No way. She'd kill me. Especially after last time when she got mistaken for my secretary." A sigh. "Look, just get some shut-eye. Remember to shave. Try not to get into a fight with their science consultant. There'll be a buffet afterwards. With beer. I promise I'll even help you with your tie."

He grunted, as noncommittally as he could to avoid having it sound like an assent, like he understood and agreed with the importance of sucking up to a bunch of corporate assclowns. He didn't, never had, though he would have plenty of time later, afterwards, to pick out all the ways in which he should have cared, all the closed-door deals, all the hidden meanings, all the ways in which he thought he'd been supported, and understood. All the ways in which the bastard might have thought the same.

Now, though, all it meant was a stuffy suit and three hours of his precious lab time wasted on explaining things to less smart people, to market himself as if his character had anything to do with the project. He was going to need another pot of coffee.

"Try not to make that face when you meet them."

"What face?"

"The angry goblin shark face. Please, Fred. It's taken me weeks to land them. Sweet-talked them off the Japanese project. If we cut a good figure here, we'll be able to leave the corporate labs in the dust." A rueful grin for the fate of the independents. "Then the money'll come in more easily and you can spend your days being a caffeine-powered people-hating machine again."

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered, rubbing a hand across his chin and finding that the five-o'clock shadow had turned into a five-o'clock-and-two-days-ago. "Fucking idiots. Afraid of the smallest risks."

"Most people aren't thrill seekers when it comes to their wallets. We're talking half a billion potential dollars here."

"No, generally." He made a half-hearted grab in the direction of the fresh mug, not really straining to reach it. On the desk, an entire printer roll's worth of equations rustled with the movement, half adorned with notes in the margins, the other half still awaiting their check. If he went back to them now, he could squeeze maybe another two hours of math out of his brain before it zoned out completely. Math was always the last thing to go, to the point where he'd started dreaming in numbers. He couldn't remember the last time he'd bothered to use his voice for anything that wasn't, "Yes," "No," or "Go away." The bastard would be able tell him. He always could.

"They're holding sit-ins in front of the Ethics Commission building downtown. Did you know? Actual singing-protest-songs-praying-together-ranting-about-the-laws-of-God sit-ins."

"You mean you haven't heard of that? Christ, Fred, where've you— actually, no. I know where you've been." A chuckle. "Guess they just haven't found out where you live, yet. Aria's had to erase her number from the directory, and I've… well. Let's just say the Lamborghini'll be needing a new paint job."

The whistle of a sigh, mourning the passing of a nicely polished car hood. It would be years before he could appreciate the sheer wrongness of that, in the light of everything that had happened, in the light of everything still to come.

"Well, shit. That's what I'm talking about, though. Change. Everyone wants it, but when it comes down to actually going through with anything, they can't clutch their pearls fast enough."

"The world's a damn complicated place, Fred."

"And run by idiots."

It was a conversation they'd had many times before, as far back as when they'd been spending Friday nights on the dorm roof, smoking, knocking back a few beers, and devising creative methods of driving their science teachers insane. An assessment they could both agree on, a secret handshake that meant they were both on the same page, that they knew exactly what was wrong with the world, how to fix it and what it would take. That they weren't afraid to be the ones to take that step over the edge, and into a new era.

More laughter. "Prerequisite for making everything so damn complicated."

"Hn."

"Well," a smirk, a clap on his shoulder, "if we all play by the rules for just a little while longer, pretty soon the world should be a lot less complicated."




Sol woke with a start, nostrils burning with the stink of disinfectant and stale memories. One hand wrapped around the hilt of his sword before he knew what he was doing, the other scrabbling at his forehead where the pain was buried under two inches of metal, throbbing in time with the blood in his ears.

He would have gone lunging off the cot, too, if the lizard brain hadn't kicked in, Gear instincts yanking his surroundings sharply into focus.

Familiar sounds.

Familiar scents.

Smoke from the watch fires. The footsteps of the night patrol. Morning frost on the air. Mud and horses and damp boots. The quiet exhalations against his side, a weight resting loosely around his middle, five splotches of warmth fanning out against his chest.

Not his tent.

Not his tent, goddammit.

Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to let the blade sink to the floor and lie back again, waiting for the rush of fury and adrenaline to subside. Panic, near panic. Convinced he was back at the lab. Thinking, with the power of dream omnipotence, that he might be able to change things. Believing even after waking, for just a fraction of a second, that the bastard was right there, that if he was fast enough, he could end it all in a single blow. Finding himself here instead, with the kid cozied up like he trusted Sol not to kill him in his sleep, was a little too much to cope with.

By some miracle, Ky had slept through his bout of murder, not even twitching at the sudden movement when he would usually start, wide awake and combat-ready, at the barest upset of the cot. More tired than he cared admit, even to himself. Not that Sol could blame him.

The forty-seventh division had joined up with them in the small hours of the morning, several battalions short and exhausted, with nothing to show for their efforts except soot-streaked faces, plunging the camp into a flurry of activity and the kid into a string of meetings that were as much about a change in strategy as they were about building up a bunch of demoralized officers.

For his part, Sol had felt that the little underfed deadweight clinging to his neck warranted more immediate attention, fingers wound so tightly in his hair that he was sure he'd have to hack it off to regain use of his windpipe. Better to let someone else deal with it, someone who didn't mind the feel of those tiny bruised fists, paper-skin and paper-bones, nails worn down to nothing from scrabbling at the cave walls for a week, trying to tear their way out. The little girl had been silent all day, refusing food, refusing sleep, pale as a wraith underneath all the dirt, and not budging an inch even when he'd gone clambering over piles of rotting Gears to chase down someone more suited for babysitting. She'd only started crying when the medic began extracting her fingers, and kept bawling down to the last strand.

He'd left for the caves, after that. Better he took care of it before the kid surfaced from reorganizing the troops long enough to take on that burden, as well, and he would, he always did. If Sol could spare him the clean-up of three dozen small bodies sealed up in the mountainside, in some hasty attempt of getting them to safety, then why the hell not.

Simply torching the place made a poor excuse for a pyre, but it was the fastest way, the only way to ensure there'd be nothing left for the scavengers to find. The best way in this crazy goddamn war that had long since given up on digging graves.

It was dark again by the time he finished, not even the blaze able to block out the scents from the caves, blood and piss and fear spelling out three dozen stories, informing him which of the children had gone first, and why, and how. Which of them had died in their sleep, drowsy with the dwindling oxygen, and which had gone more slowly, of thirst or hunger, tearing scraps of fabric from their clothes in place of food.

It should have been easy. Nothing he hadn't done a thousand times before, just blocked it all out and trudged on, the only sensible option. On the plain below, the pit in the center of the former town square had been marked by a cluster of torches to prevent anyone from stumbling to his death, the flame-ringed entrance to the underworld.

There's a hole in the world… who was it, who said that?

Nothing to it. Nothing he hadn't known for a long, long time, and thankfully the kid had turned back, decided that saving people and comforting orphans was more important than the sarlacc pit from hell. Sol wasn't sure how he would've held Ky back if their schedule had allowed him to indulge his damnable curiosity. No use pretending the hole wasn't what it was, that the kid hadn't understood its purpose on some level, too damn smart for his own good.

You don't want to see what's down there. Trust me.

Carpe diem, then. Grab the moment by the throat and disembowel it.

Instead of picking through the ruins, though, his feet had pointed him in the opposite direction, head too full with scent-stories to even notice until he was standing in the middle of the kid's tent, the easiest, stupidest, most natural thing to do. Maybe, if the kid had been a little more distracted or he'd had a little more common sense, he'd have walked out again, but then, Ky had looked up from his maps with that rueful, all too knowing little half-smile, and said, "Hey."

Suddenly, this had seemed like the better option.

/Weren't we going for sensible choices only? When did you become so goddamn delicate?/

Comfort. An alien concept, one of those things he'd left behind a lifetime ago, buried with the insufferable jackass who loved his fucking head pats, his coffee at petroleum consistency, the reassurance that he had the world figured out. It had been easy enough to ignore the thought while his head was still crammed and it seemed more important to push away those images, replace them with impressions of Ky's hair, and skin, and taste. Let those fingers work their magic, deft and sure, until his mind had calmed enough to fall asleep.

Like a fucking twelve-step program. Step one, blow up the world. Step two, fail to cope with the consequences. Step three, see about replacing most bodily fluids with something high-proof. After the inevitable failure of step three, move on to screwing a teenager.

Damn if it wasn't working, too. Working so well that he was hiding out here instead of manning up and pushing on, like he had the time to rest, like he had the right

/Haven't we been here before? Petri dishes, sixteen-year-old kids… amazing how two so disparate things can serve the same purpose, no?/

Gritting his teeth, he pushed back the blankets, Ky's arm sliding from his waist with no resistance at all. Still a few hours until dawn. Enough time to get down there, sift through the debris, hope that something had remained intact to give him at least a hint, some names, a map, anything that might tell him who could have an interest in employing a race of mole people, what exactly they were after. What it was that could drive the queen bitch to try and erase every last trace of the village that had been its cover. What could have wiped out the Gears, in and around the hole, long before the army ever got there.

"Sol?"

The voice was soft, husky with sleep, and enough to startle him into freezing, like a thief caught leaving the scene of a crime. Slowly, he turned around, shrugging into his coat as he did so, only to find Ky facing him, blue eyes sharp and clear, as if he had been awake for some time.

"Is something the matter?"

Meaning was there an eldritch abomination waiting to burst out of the ground and eat all their horses, and Sol was sure if he so much as gave an indication of a nod, the kid would be out the tent and into battle in five seconds flat.

"Nah. Just gonna have a smoke." He turned towards the exit, securing the straps of his back sheath and picking up his sword. "Maybe do a run of the perimeter, look for things going bump in the night."

The excuse wouldn't even have flown when they'd first met, the kid fresh and green and with way too obvious a chain to yank, but now he could easily take the ensuing pause for what it was, a tailback of two years' worth of questions packed in the moment between the kid letting go of the charge he'd been holding, and the rustling of the sheets as he settled back down.

"…We break camp in four hours. I want us moving before dawn. You—"

"Yeah, yeah," Sol muttered. "Don't bring anything back. Got it."

It was too damn early to muster a swagger, though he could pretend he wasn't doing half-bad as long as he ignored that gaze, its weight burning in the spot between his shoulder blades until the tent flap swung closed behind him.




The remains of the shutter came loose with a metal shriek, peeling back from the entrance like sandwich wrapping. Carefully, Sol moved to fit his left shoulder through, and decided that if he held his breath, he could probably avoid getting stuck between the wall and a carcass made entirely out of three-foot spikes. A whole host of smaller Gears had apparently not minded risking death via perforated lung in their haste to shove through the gateway, lodged between the spikes like a bunch of insects.

The tunnel ahead lay in darkness, the crunch of gravel underneath his feet a hundred times louder for the lack of any other sound, but what was making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end was the complete lack of any scent, nothing besides stale air and dirt and a lingering hint of acid Gear vomit. After more than a week of bodies merrily rotting away, his brain should have been trying to scramble backwards out of his skull from the stench of death and ass, not straining every last bit of his senses to try and find something. Anything to support the carnage spreading out around him.

In the back of his mind, the Gear was coiling restlessly, a bundle of impulses and instincts demanding reality line up with its expectations, demanding he snarl the air into submission like some kind of idiot. Whatever might help to take the edge off. It didn't have a mode beyond threat/no threat, certainly not any sort of standard response to an absolute nothing, but now it was getting to work compiling a third option, the urgent assertion that it did not want to be here.

Shoving away the urge to shake the tension from his neck, Sol started off down the tunnel.

After only a few yards, it was clear that whatever had gotten all the Gears in and around the hole had happened even swifter than he'd thought, most of the creatures looking as if they'd simply toppled over in mid-charge, nothing to show for injuries except a couple of superficial burn marks from a firefight.

He'd had ample time to ponder the implications on his way down, sliding and leaping down between the support struts and destroyed transport platforms, only once or twice landing on something that gave beneath his feet and sent him tumbling for a couple of yards. All Order weaponry was point-damage only, designed for that hell's chance of piercing a Gear's hide, and this hadn't been a cannon, or a missile, or even some kind of post-apocalyptic attempt at carpet bombing, this had been something that had hit everything at once, indiscriminately, and it had been fucking fast.

Magic, no question about it, though Sol couldn't for the life of him imagine how. There was nothing, no signs of scar formation, no kind of trail to follow, when it should have been all over, should have turned the kid and at least half the mages in their division into a nauseous mess the second they came anywhere near the fallout zone. Nothing, just a body count to do Oppenheimer proud.

Ahead of him, the tunnel narrowed abruptly, a barricade rising waist-high out of the gloom, twin protrusions jutting out like battering rams. It took him a second to realize that yes, he really was looking at a pair of state-of-the-art gatling guns, their massive rotary barrels cocked at the opening behind him like the world's unfriendliest hello.

Squinting, he climbed up on the barricade, bullet cases rattling under his soles, and grabbed a hold of one of the barrels to tilt it vaguely upwards him. The motion jarred something loose behind it, a shape slumping forward against the handlebars.

The gunner.

Swearing under his breath, Sol slipped to the back of the barricade to inspect the body. A young man, from the looks of it, though it was hard to tell with all the blood, his jugular torn so wide that his head was lolling freely, barely supported by the spine. Tipping the head back, Sol bent down to examine the wound more closely, disturbed to find not a hint of rot — the boy had died before most of the creatures littering the path to the barricade, and yet, whatever had happened had affected him retroactively, suspending all natural processes to preserve him as he'd been at the moment of his death.

Frowning, Sol left the barricade behind and continued on down the tunnel. Part of him wanted some biopsy equipment and an oscilloscope to check for any signs of a spell pattern, but the rest of him knew it was useless to try and apply science to the absolute sensory vacuum kicking his brain into overdrive. Whatever type of magic had done this, it wasn't here anymore.

A little further in, a few more Gears lay clustered in a morbid sort of checkpoint along with four capsized vehicles spilling their passengers every which way. All were wearing the same jumpsuit as the boy from earlier, and all looked exactly the same, too, untouched except for obvious signs of evisceration. The cars had been track-mounted, a cable running along their underside to feed them power, each stocked with an array of magic short-range cannons. With just a glance, he could tell that they were far different from anything the Order or a bunch of Zeppian grease-monkeys had managed to cook up — too refined, heat-resistant alloy, the whole shape adjusted for maximum output with minimum wear-and-tear.

His fingers hit upon the core cartridge at the base, curious to see what else was different, but when the hatch popped, he found himself looking at nothing, an empty slot in the power relay where a chunk of crystal should have been. His frown deepening, Sol started opening the cartridges one after the other, each as intact as the last and shining with emptiness.

So they… what? Took them out? Who the hell dismantles their guns in the middle of a firefight?

He would have nearly missed the glint, the barest trace of light flickering from the bottom of one cartridge. Experimentally, he ran his thumb along one socket, the glove coming away covered in a powder as fine as space dust, nearly transparent and able to cling to any surface, no matter how smooth.

Magic waste.

Sol stared hard, trying to will the discovery into making sense. The only thing powerful enough to disintegrate a core was a core explosion, and that tended to take everything in a radius between four feet and several miles with it, depending on the size. These cores, though, had been transmogrified out of existence, leaving behind a perfect void when the whole tunnel should have been teeming with radical, purposeless energy.

After a moment, he shook his head. Speculation was going to get him exactly nowhere.

Leaving the cannon carts behind, he continued on, the tunnel becoming less rock face and more industrial paneling the longer he walked. Bland and unassuming, the exact color scheme common to all research labs he'd ever been to, the kind that had made him retreat as far into his headphones as possible and leave his office in as much disarray as he could, just to be able to think. All these years, and he still couldn't quite get used to the banality of evil, when he'd once been so sure that he could tell anyone's intentions by the tip of their nose.

/Yeah, you weren't too good at the whole looking in the mirror thing, weren't you?/

Amazing that he could have ever been this apathetic, interested in nothing but the DNA fragments twining under the electron microscope, that he never thought to see where the money was coming from, never cared about the stone-faced government men with their briefcases walking in and out of the lab, the way the guards in the building suddenly went from four to forty and twice that number in semi-automatics.

CIA. NSA. NBA. Same thing for all he used to care, happy as long as he didn't have to stand in front of a podium and dispense platitudes. Happy to make concessions for the sake of pushing humanity into the next century. Happy with the reassurances, the claps on the shoulder, like a goddamn dog doing tricks, don't worry, Fred, it's just routine, it's not like we'll hand over our best toys. Just let me handle the details. You keep your eyes on the goal.

Son of a bitch. Is that what you wanted? Did you have all this worked out in your head from the beginning? Or did you think I'd just go along?

The thought wasn't new, far from it, but that did nothing to dull the shotgun burn in the pit of his stomach. The next blast door barely registered against his knuckles, flying into the deeper darkness as a smoldering sheet of tinfoil.

All those times they'd spent listing the many ways the world was going to shit in comfortable smart-ass indifference, taxes, the oil lobby, terrorism, all the big and small ills scrolling by on the ticker during the evening news. All those years, he'd believed they were on the same wavelength. All those years, the bastard had thought the same.

Ahead, the corridor was opening up into a dome area, heavy artillery positioned around the perimeter for maximum effectiveness. Gears everywhere, too, some taken out in an attempt to rush the bulwark, others crammed partway up the ventilation ducts or swinging from the struts close to the ceiling. Humans strapped into their tanks and huddled behind turrets, some of them still clutching their rifles, a look of intense concentration frozen on their faces. They hadn't even seen it coming.

There one moment, and gone the next. Funny how after so long, he'd come to prefer the carnage to the quiet, felt more at ease picking through a pile of mangled corpses than he did coming into a village only to find everybody gone, poisoned or dragged off into the night without a trace. Turning away from the frozen tableau, Sol set out to follow the one scent that seemed right in this place, the smell of ammonia and latex that a small, perversely Pavlovian part of him had picked up before all else, before the lingering scent of battle, before the lack of death.

It shouldn't have been so easy to find his way around, to proceed through the sterile antechambers and anticipate the blast of filtered air, always a few degrees shy of making his nose go numb, to step through the blast doors and expect to get doused in some kind of disinfecting aerosol. Not his world anymore, and yet it was. As if to make some kind of point, his feet got stuck on the hygienic mat.

Beyond the last door lay a control room, a front of full-length windows looking out onto the lab complex, split into sections by sliding glass walls. It gave the place an air of progress and futurism that the much of the equipment failed to live up to, as hopelessly bulky as if someone had dismantled NASA mission control in 1969 and tried to rebuild it after the apocalypse. As if even the mother of all conspiracies hadn't weathered the technological collapse as well as they would have liked.

So that was why.

Sol smiled darkly, running a hand a long a surveillance console as he walked, an Univac machine with oversized plastic buttons and a slot to feed punch cards into.

That was why they were taking such risks, hiding out in fuck-if-he-knew country instead of places better fortified and better protected. Out of all the hiding holes he'd found so far, each one had been crushed into the ground by Justice with barely a clue left to follow, and although they were just the tip of the iceberg, their loss had to be hurting someone, somewhere.

No matter how many there are, they're on the clock, too. And that clock's starting to tick down.

One of the exits was stuck half-open, a woman's body lying face down in the doorway. In one hand, she was clutching a print-out of a page-long list of values that meant nothing to him, followed by a graph that had been torn off halfway in her hurry to get the data somewhere. She was wearing a headset, yet at the moment moment of her death, it had been dangling around her neck, loosely, as if she'd abandoned it in favor of shouting…

Sol narrowed his eyes.

A resonance cascade.

He was looking at a resonance cascade, two parallel amplitudes running in rapidly decreasing distance to each other until they achieved a perfect overlap, a thin red curve spelling out disaster. Anyone who understood the least bit about magical harmonics knew that putting two crystals to work on the same thing was at best a gamble, at worst a recipe for instant scar formation, since the danger of the damn things going into synch rose exponentially with size and proximity. It still didn't explain what he had on his hands here; a cascade so big it killed the entire base should have been enough to turn everything in a twenty-mile radius into neat little piles of ash.

Stepping over the body, he took the stairs one flight at a time, driven by an inkling as to what the woman's destination had been.





-TBC-




A/N: Yeesh, this update's been a long time in coming. I swear 2012 has it in for me in more ways than one. Anyways, for those of you who're still around, thank you for your patience. ♥

- Yeah, I'm not going to give That Man a name. He's been "That Man" for so long, it'd be weird as hell to just call him Max or something. Max, Destroyer of Worlds.



Tags: going off the record, guilty gear, reboot 'verse, sol/ky
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