?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Split in two parts due to length. You can find Part One here.

Title: Going off the Record
Part: 12/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate timeline, boom, stabbity.
[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, Second Half



The silence in the reactor compound was deafening. Muscles twingeing from the drop down the elevator shaft, Sol stepped off the platform, senses straining against the greater darkness. In the back of his head, the utter lack of sensation had formed into a solid throb that was urging him onward, drawing him in the direction of the reactor tower, as dead as the members of its maintenance squad.

He brushed past a console with a lab technician still sitting upright in his chair, his hands clenched around the circuit breakers, a look of frantic incredulity permanently etched onto his face. Several of the meters had cracked, needles and colored gauges remaining stuck at their uppermost end, and if he'd had any doubts left, the hull portholes had been left open, showing that the large crystal inside the central tube had turned into little more than a memory, vaporized when its magic hit the critical point. What he needed, then, was the second trigger, another device with a crystal at least the size of the reactor core to vibrate at the same frequency.

After circling around the reactor once and finding nothing, he began to follow the coil of pipes and cables leading away from it, each running in a different direction and all with the potential to serve as the connection that had triggered the cascade. Some ended in a cooling unit or a monitoring station, while the majority simply disappeared into the walls and ceiling, snaking off to places unknown. Of course, it was too much to hope that anyone would have left the plans for the electric layout conveniently lying around, and he couldn't afford to lose an entire week crawling through the ventilation ducts in search of anything that looked or felt dangerous enough to house the trigger.

Or maybe they just stuck it in an experimental sno-cone machine. All of this would be a whole lot easier if we could gauge the scale of megalomaniacal bugfuckery… here…

Sol stopped dead. There was something there. A sensation he didn't have the words for, the echo of an echo skimming the surface of his mind. At any other time, he would have thought he was hearing things, like the inmate in a soundproof room going crazy from the sound of his own heartbeat — the feeling was too weak and indeterminable to be real, but here, hip-deep in conspiratorial shit, he knew he wasn't imagining it.

The wave came again, and he quickened his step, allowing it to lead him along a pipeline, past a row of computer banks, and to a nondescript door. Ordinary metal, not even the suggestion of a sealing mechanism or insulation, anything that wasn't magic and might help to shield trigger B from trigger A. Either the forces of evil were on a tighter budget than the Order, or…

Or we're looking at a desperation move.

At a shove, the door swung open, leaving him to stare at something that simply couldn't be.

What the hell—?!

Crystal, crystal everywhere, growing from the floor and ceiling, blooming haphazardly from every piece of machinery and even stretching out into the empty air, a sea of spires that almost seemed to be reaching for something. Each one was glowing softly, giving off a pale violet light that flickered and waned with an unseen pulse.

Nobody had ever grown a crystal that huge, and with good reason. After a certain size, the mages simply couldn't control the forming process anymore — one tiny mistake, the smallest imperfection, and there wouldn't be anyone left to regret it. This entire hall should have blown up in their faces, long before the crystal had reached its current freakish size, and it was everywhere, no pattern, no structure, nothing that could even hope to contain the magic within.

Slowly, cautiously, Sol edged closer to the formation nearest to the doorway, curiosity driving him forward while the Gear's instincts were howling at him to back away from the thing that clearly existed in front of his eyes, but registered as nothing but a blank space to the rest of his senses. Whatever that crystal growth contained, it wasn't magic as he knew it, or he would've gone down from its punch before he ever opened the door.

Up close, he could see that the formation was even more impossible than he'd thought at first. The crystalline structure was more reminiscent of a piece of Swiss cheese, the grid riddled with holes as if air had gotten trapped inside. Either he was looking at the world's worst hackjob, though that was begging the question of why it hadn't killed the entire base a whole lot sooner, or… or what?

Taking a breath, Sol brought the blade of his sword close to one of the needles. He was bracing himself for the shock of magic jumping over, but the crystal didn't even react, just continued its gentle pulsing as if he hadn't just offered its contents the chance leave their damaged cage and force-bond with the nearest available object. With an inward shrug, he moved the sword closer still, until the tip touched the needle with a soft chime.

The reaction was instantaneous — with a shiver, the crystal structure shattered into a hundred tiny splinters, raining to the ground like remnants of a sugar sculpture. Sol blinked, nudging at the shards with one foot. If nothing else, he should have gotten a faceful of magic for that, but the structure was like an empty neon tube, not a single wisp escaping the broken base.

Well, fuck me.

Narrowing his eyes, he repeated the experiment with a few more needles, watching as they too crumbled like strobes of particularly fragile mood lighting. Not a coincidence, then. All of the formations were empty husks, which was just the icing on the goddamn fucking impossible cake. Magic couldn't just up and leave its crystal without destroying it in the process, which meant it still had to be in there somewhere. Throwing caution into the wind, he began to make his way to the far side of the room where the glow seemed the strongest. An idea was forming in the back of his mind, contrary to all established facts, the part of him that had lived through the end of the world chafing against that indelible nugget that was all science, all the way.

Past a thicket of spires that crumbled when the hem of his coat so much as grazed them lay a cylindrical tube that vaguely reminded him of an incubator. The upper half of the glass was cracked, a host of crystal protrusions jutting out of them as if trying to make a break for freedom. The source of the trouble, though, was a diamond-shaped gem no larger than the span between his thumb and index finger, held fast in a metal support brace. An ordinary core, just barely big enough to power a coffee maker, but the thing that made Sol stop and stare, made him suck in a breath through clenched teeth was its surface, its entire make-up. There was no crystal grid, no solid arrangement, just the impression of the entire stone shifting, flowing, like liquid compressed into a solid form.

Bending closer, he caught a glimpse of the cloudy center, tendrils of magic twining every which way. No, not twining. As he watched, they collapsed back into the center in a sudden seizure, the mist thickening, bloating, before expelling its outermost layer, a miniature supernova in the bowels of the Earth. The structure pulsed again, momentarily brightening in a rush of violet, before dimming once more.

Stunned, Sol stepped back, realization settling in his gut.

Dying. The crystallized magic was dying, disintegrating out of existence after it had consumed every last spark of energy it could reach — cores, electricity, life, until there weren't even bacteria left to start the process of decay. The resonance cascade had never spread outward; rather, it had worked in reverse, fueling this single core until it began to collapse like a plant choking on its own growth.

Worse than that, though, was the clarity that followed, the stab of awareness that he knew this, knew this fading death trap like the back of his own hand, had spent weeks and months trying to learn the secrets of a pair just like this one, testing them, observing them, until he'd managed to build for them the safest transport cases there could be — and because nothing he did would ever not come back to bite him in the ass, one of them was now strapped to the hip of the sixteen-year-old savior of the world, a beautiful, terrible guardian.

Raking a hand through his hair, Sol turned back towards the doorway. With just a little more time, the crystal chamber would cave in on itself and the army would be far enough away that nobody would even see the outliers of the firestorm melting this complex into so much scrap metal.

In the meantime, he needed to get a computer working.




Nothing made it quite so easy to take stock of his mistakes as a complex filled with an oppressive amount of past. Sol didn't need a time capsule to remind him, though, was free to pass any moment not spent murdering things by taking a trip down memory lane and picking out all the what ifs, all the should haves, right back to turning down that hot college sophomore who'd wanted him to triangulate her hypothenuse in favor of finishing up his graduate project, three years ahead of schedule.

If the apocalypse had instilled any kind of common sense in him, he would have tried to find a way to destroy those twin crystals, one an exact copy of the other, and both filled to the brim with the promise of a thousand deaths. It wasn't really a question of what the bastard and his new world order wanted them for so much as a question of the when and the where, and at the very least, he could have seen about tossing the cores into an undersea volcano before he'd had the brilliant idea of turning them into weapons for himself.

Sheer arrogance, that's what it was, and as with all his arrogance, it was based on solid science — the knowledge that he was strong enough, indestructible enough, to handle a magic that could cleave the sky in two. Somehow, inexplicably, losing the swords had never factored into it. Neither had getting shot in the face with a ray cannon, and by the time he'd woken up on a carpet of dead Gears, the swords were long gone, picked up by whatever idiot had happened to be poking through the debris at the time.

Nothing to do but to cut his losses and move on. Worst came to worst, he'd take them off the next walking doom fortress whenever it shambled into his path, keep an ear out for any tales of a pair of soul-sucking demon swords. By all rights, it shouldn't have taken as long as it did. He hadn't counted on anyone not using them, certainly not on anyone locking them up inside a lily casket for a hundred years like objects of worship, and perhaps least of all, he'd expected to next see the white sword sprawled across the kid's lap in the middle of the world's biggest mud puddle.

Though it could be argued whether Ky closing his fingers around the hilt was just as surprising.

/No, no it wasn't, because he's a goddamn walking savior complex and you keep handing him the tools to martyr himself into oblivion./

With a crack, the instrument console snapped clean in half, sending melted wiring and chipsets raining towards his face. Swearing under his breath, Sol shoved the front half aside and slid over to the next panel to try all over again.

He might not have needed a time capsule to remember, but it certainly wasn't helping him not remember, drawing his attention away from the task at hand with its mere existence. It didn't help that everything felt so goddamn familiar, either, the silicone keyboards, the tang of ozone, the fact that he was lying on his back with his hands elbow-deep in computer innards — funny, wasn't it, how some things never changed? Just like him, never getting any smarter, never just accepting the lesson the universe wanted him to learn.

If he'd been smart, he would've held onto that feeling, those brilliant, timeless few seconds when he'd been convinced he'd managed to kill the kid, completely without the help of the Gears — and then the light had died down, and the kid had still been standing, panting, an expression of breathless wonder on his face, and that was all Sol had been able to take in before Ky had taken off running, straight into the oncoming horde.

A dose of humility that had faded all too quickly when he'd seen Ky dance his way through each and every battle, his aura as fierce and unwavering as it had always been, unchanged, when having the sword overwrite his magic in an instant was the most painless kind of death Sol could have imagined. The Furaiken was too strong, its magic far too violent, and Ky was just a human, a skinny little stick of a human, yet the sword had yielded to him, accepting his power signature so completely that it couldn't be undone.

/And you thought it was safe, because hell, if he can charm the pants off a fucking sword, there's nothing else that could possibly go wrong, right?/

Gritting his teeth, Sol managed to slip off the next panelling without ripping the entire console from the wall. More sticky plastic melt, but beyond that, the parts looked like they'd survive the five minutes he needed to glean some useful information. The data, of course, was another matter entirely. Despite the fact that more than half the workstations in the control room looked like they'd been around to witness the birth of the microprocessor, someone hadn't let the end of modern civilization keep him from taking the next step in computing and replacing all the harddrives with a shiny set of data crystals. The theory for it had been around before the war, after all, and Sol could remember the shit cyclone brewing over Silicone Valley in those final few months, the entire industry terrified at the thought of having every data storage in the world become effectively obsolete. Magic was made for the next best thing to eternity, after all.

Now, though, it meant that all he had to work with now was a pile of dust, and the only thing he could hope for was that there was at least one good old-fashioned piece of magnet drive left somewhere in the depths of the system, and, if he wanted to use up all his luck for the next half-century, that the circuit breakers had been able to cut out the worst shock from the cascade.

Switching out the damaged wires, he rolled to his feet again, dragging the cables behind him. For the rest, he preferred to be standing, just to give the Gear one less thing to feel threatened by, being wedged into a tight space. The last time the gloves had come off had been about six weeks ago, and he could already feel certain parts twitching in anticipation, wings seeking to stretch, claws itching to sink into something soft. This would have been a lot less of a problem on a good night's sleep.

Steeling himself, he reached up to unlatch the straps keeping the limiter in its place.

An instant's quiet, as if parts of him couldn't believe their sudden freedom, before the rush snapped through him, fire boiling up in every cell. Placing a steadying hand on the wall, he worked to will the Gear into submission, the rash of scales on his forearms shivering back into his skin one by one. For a minute, he remained standing where he was to allow the flood of sensation to subside, drawing slow breaths to summon a calm he didn't feel. It really was better in battle, where the urgency of the fight shoved the backlash aside for later, and he didn't have to worry about collateral damage.

Pushing back from the wall, he placed the limiter on one of the consoles and set about hooking up its own delicate cables with the secured power cords. There was nowhere near enough time to test each computer on its own, and no way of disconnecting them all without the plans, anyway — even under the best of circumstances, he was expecting at least half the equipment to die a messy death at the surge of unfiltered energy, but he had to take what he could get. Rubbing a hand across the irritating pulse of the Gear mark, he flipped the casing shut and reached for the switch to close the circuit.

Well, here goes nothing.

A groan, followed by a series of rapid clicks, an acrid smoke rising in the room as the computers shorted out one after the other. Nothing. Sol stood in the darkness, listening to the sound of sparks fizzling in the depths of the instrument banks and debating the chances of a secret lab actually being stupid enough to leave a paper trail, when he noticed a faint gleam in a corner of the room. The machine was quiet, too quiet to be heard over the demise of the others, but as he watched, a monitor came flickering to life, displaying a single line on the black screen.

{{system_ready}}




The first time he'd seen them, they'd been in a tank surrounded by a perfect vacuum, each in its own chamber. Two identical shapes that seemed both liquid and solid, spreading their light around the hall, an impossible amount of power contained within their fragile shells. Wedged inside a ventilation duct, he'd been able to watch the proceedings around them, white coats flitting from station to station, checking readings, adjusting power levels, always careful to give the tank at the center as wide a berth as possible without looking like they were skirting around it. Seven layers of shielding and containment spells, packed so thick he could have punched through them, and the horde of little fuckers was afraid, still afraid of what they had brought into being.

He'd dealt them a blow when he'd taken the crystals. Maybe not enough to fully destroy their project, but as he was watching the column of smoke and fire rising from the ground, the transport case resting heavily against his side, he'd been sure that even if the research had survived somewhere, he'd managed to buy time. Time for himself, for the world, to figure out what these cores could do and how to stop them.

They would try again; something that could sleep in the ground for this long had a wholly different level of patience, and resources to keep trying as many times as it took, for as long as it took. Or at least, that was what he'd thought. The dying crystal in the vaults of this place didn't fit into the picture, too shoddy, too reckless, and there had been something not right about it beyond that, an eerie kind of dissonance that didn't match the steady aura of the Furaiken, resting so close to him for so many nights. That, at least, hadn't been the kid's doing, even though the sword now felt like Ky had shed a part of himself at the foot of the bed; its twin had been the same, radiating a quiet sense of power. By comparison, the thing downstairs felt like the degenerate cousin, a snarl of formulas gone awry, and Sol could almost, almost begin to entertain the notion that maybe the blow had been harder than he could have hoped.

Are you watching? Did that piss you off? You never could stand it when I was getting in the way of your schedule, you pedantic snotty bastard. So here's to development hell.

A sequence of beeps broke through his dark thoughts, directing his attention back to the computer screen.

{{Restore process complete. Some files could not be restored. Booting NATARAJA system in safe mode.}}


Looked like the bastard hadn't lost his penchant for giving poncy names to unimportant shit, either.

A persistent groaning started up in the depths of the computer, the system struggling to access the files resting on some damaged harddrive. A message flashed across the screen, welcoming User 923/2B6 back to the NATARAJA network without even asking for a password, but Sol had no time to spare for derisive thoughts about lab security because a moment later, the entire file tree came cascading across the screen. Hundreds of folders, many of them marked as damaged and non-recoverable, but the one labeled as most recently modified still seemed good to go.

Project O.U.T.R.A.G.E.

Definitely, definitely still loving the poncy names. He clicked on the project log, a massive list of time stamps scrolling by until the cursor came to rest at the bottom. The last batch of entries was dated over a week ago, and as he went rifling through the record, he could feel the transformation wanting to set in again, Gear instincts reacting to his sense of foreboding.

{{Growth formula still unstable.
Experiment 0 unresponsive.
Forceful breach of crystal stasis phase recommended.}}


And then, dated a few hours later:

{{Feedback loop established.
Reactor output stable.
Funneling magic to Experiment 0 tank at 0.01 µ/s.
Crystal growth rate increase by 1.5%}}


Sol didn't really need to continue reading after that, didn't need to see the bright red error messages printed in all-caps, every computer in the facility shrieking warnings at its operator as Gears started crashing against the barriers, the reactor output shooting up to cope with the attack, and then the magic going haywire, consuming everything in its path.

Crystal growth. The fuckwits had been experimenting with crystal growth, trying to get the goddamn things to self-replicate. Teaching the most volatile kind of energy to duplicate its own prison, something it could only be forced into in a days-long effort by a dozen mages. But they had tried, they'd succeeded, and, as an early Christmas bonus, it had killed them all.

With a shake of his head, he reached for the keyboard again. Something was going on here, something that he couldn't yet see or fully understand, but he hadn't believed in coincidences even when he'd still believed in the betterment of the world, not with this sense of unrest that had swept the Order in the past two months, filtering down through the ranks until even the enlisted men were walking on eggshells. Not with the hope that they might finally have a lead on the location of the queen bitch's stronghold. And there was his own odd feeling, too, that nagging sense of familiarity that had little to do with being back in a lab.

Prediction charts. Energy output graphs. Construction plans. Fragments of formulas that had been tested and discarded. Memo to engineers. Memo to floor personnel. Memo to reactor maintenance. Memo to cleaning staff. Memo to the jerk who stole my pudding cup.

Sol stopped, any thoughts at the pettiness of User 923/2B6 vanishing as he stared at the latest file spreading out before him. It was a fairly standard spectrometric analysis, the kind done to record the specific signature of any newly developed crystal, no two cores ever exactly alike. Even the twins he'd recovered had been different, one a mirror of the other, and he would have recognized this pattern anywhere — an exact copy of the way the first one had changed when he'd set it into the base of the fire sword.

Fucking hell.

That had been the unnerving vibe when he'd stood in the crystal chamber, twisted and buried and weak, but still too similar to the first core not to set off a little warning bell in the depths of his mind.

Claws clacked against the keys, and he exhaled slowly, once again straining for calm. If they were using the Fuenken as a template, he'd just have to find out where they kept the sword, and hope it was neither anywhere within range of the cascade or being used as a means of mass slaughter on the other side of the world.

/Fat chance. Fat fucking chance, genius. Should've thought of that before improving on their murder tool./

The file name told him nothing, and neither did the properties, but then his gaze settled on a pale gray stamp in one corner of the image.

The kid had once joked that the Order loved its official crest so much that it was a wonder they hadn't started tattooing it on all their soldiers. He had his own seal ring, a terribly girly piece of jewelry for Commander Candidates that bore a slight modification of the sword and crucifix crest at its center. Ky knew them all by heart, could tell who was writing even before he opened an envelope, just one more bit of ceremonial tackiness that Sol had never bothered to learn. He knew this one, though, knew the trouble it brought all too well, the twin rapiers laid over a stark red crucifix.

Fidel Defensor, the crest of the inquisitorial Bloodcross Knights.

He was looking at fucking Order property, the image taken from an official catalogue for objects recovered by the inquisition, complete with a neat little tag and number declaring it an out-of-place artifact. Not even Kliff as acting Commander had the clearance to go through the deeper vaults, or even certain knowledge of how far they spread, how many traps were waiting to poison or burn an intruder to death in the name of the Lord. That was a mystery on par with the Secret Archives in the Vatican, and if they had someone so far up the ladder that they had access to where even the old man couldn't reach, then…

Then fuck help us all, because all the directives are going through central command.

Closing the file, he continued scanning the contents of the folder, more and more convinced that the amount of effort couldn't have been just for the creation of an oversized gun. If they were desperate enough to track down the Fuenken to complete their data, and foolish or reckless enough to hook up the result to their own reactor, they were on a schedule. Appointment with Death at four.

The next subfolder went by the innocuous name of "field harmonics test," another ordinary procedure, but the spreadsheets inside proved to be anything but. Sol found himself sitting back again as if the distance could provide some perspective, could alter what he was reading so that it no longer seemed thoroughly insane.

A sealing spell was the odd one out in the magic system. It didn't depend on how much power a caster poured into it, but on how many variations he knew, in how many ways he could weave them together. A seal meant to hold a couple of months needed dozens of mages and days to complete, so much effort for something that was, in the end, just a lock that could be opened with the right key, the right spell to undo it all.

{{Spell modulation output: stable. Spell variance: moderate.
Seven cores optimum to achieve sufficient seal strength.
Critical: target must be subdued prior to procedure.}}


So this was it, then. This was why Justice had hit the compound as hard as she did, why there wasn't a single cornerstone left standing, the closest thing to a display of personal anger he'd ever seen.

Sol raked a hand through his hair, claws snagging on the tangles. Of course, this was it. He wasn't sure why he'd assumed for even a second that it would be anything else, when he'd already seen it so many times. It was never about freedom, or victory, or being safe from threat. Someone was always playing a different game, a tougher, more pragmatic, more ruthless game, and if they hadn't cared about letting the Gears loose on the world, they certainly wouldn't care about ending it. After all those years spent on creating an army that could be controlled with the flip of a switch, of course they'd want to get their switch back.

The noise startled him, a harsh, guttural bark that collided with the tile walls until the entire room was ringing with it, his chest heaving with a dark, soulless kind of humor.

End of the World, the sequel, with the last standing army as the unwitting extras.

He was sure Kliff didn't know. Kliff couldn't know and still be the man he was, so raw and real and full of gentle affection for the children he trained, hurting for every single one that didn't make it back. Hurting over Testament, whom Sol only remembered as a painfully rigid stick-in-the-mud, but whom the old man loved too much to ever return from battle without the loss as sharp and clear as it was on the first day. Sol had never shared his suspicions with Kliff, the idea that whoever had done in Testament must have had help, the kind of technology the world hadn't seen in two centuries, but it was just as well. Kliff already knew why it'd had to be his son.

And Ky, who could stomach damn near everything, bottle up all the wrongs and the infighting until Sol had to prod him into exploding, but if he'd known, he wouldn't have been able to be who he was, either, with his back so straight and his eyes always set on that crazy, distant hope.

Yeah, that'd go over well with both of them. Congratulations on taking a Gear to the face every other Tuesday, you'll help launch the next nightmare. Beautiful.

It would have been easier if he could've been sure they wouldn't believe him, if he could imagine dismissal and arguments about the integrity of the Holy Catholic Church, but he already knew there wouldn't be. Not with Kliff, who'd seen too much and experienced too much not to believe that everything was possible, and especially not with the kid and his amazing capacity for rolling with the punches. The kid would believe him about the Fuenken, too, righteously furious that an important war asset was being withheld, and wouldn't rest until he'd painted a fucking target on himself in a quest to secure the sword for use at the front lines.

/Let's not forget that this is /your/ goddamn business, and yours alone. If you don't screw it up, they'll never even have to know. What, don't care for the responsibility anymore, Frederick?/

A crackle told him that he was dangerously close to skewering the numerical set, even though that merciless inner critic was right, had yet to point out a single thing that wasn't true.

The next folder contained a set of blueprints, showing cylindrical containers linked together in varying arrangements, sometimes as few as three, sometimes as many as thirteen. The further down he went, the more streamlined the design became, until it had been reduced to seven cylinders arranged in the shape of a heptaeder. Seven cylinders for seven cores, four labeled complete, one as in-progress, two marked as lost, their project tags flashing erratically.

He clicked.

The first report was dated over a year ago, informing him that OUTRAGE component #1 had resurfaced as OPA-2081, sealed safely inside the high-security tract of the Order vaults. What followed was a list of proposals on how to retrieve it, each eventually dismissed, but what drew his gaze was the staccato of memos concerning OPA-2081.2, dated roughly four weeks after the kid had officially been granted use of the Furaiken.

{{URGENT.
OUTRAGE component #2 sighted in possession of KISKE, KY, candidate to the post of Supreme Commander in the Sacred Order of Holy Knights.
Advise on further procedure.}}


That was hardly surprising, after the kid had produced a light show visible from two countries away. It hadn't taken long at all for the propaganda machine to work the lightning sword into its very own Joan of Arc story, and by now Sol had heard every possible variation ranging from divine intervention to the kid bringing the sword into being through sheer willpower. Perhaps he would have derived more amusement from the thought of the bastard and his allies seeing their weapon named an instrument of God if he hadn't been able to detect the rising tension behind the words, the scrambling that ensued when they realized the sword had become bound to a fourteen-year-old boy.

{{URGENT.
Modification of OUTRAGE component #2 at the hands of KISKE, KY, confirmed.
Original signature deviation: 100%. Match to signature of KISKE, KY: 100%.
Process considered irreversible. Advise!}}


Sol narrowed his eyes. The kid never left the sword out of sight, and he was pretty sure any of the soldiers following his lead would sooner slit their own throats than betray their beloved Commander. The only time the mole freaks could have gotten close enough to check was when the brass had called him back in a frenzy, trying to reclaim the sword, though between the pissed old men in their pompous robes and the pinched inquisitors declaring the sword impossible for anyone else to control, there wasn't exactly a shortage of weasels who could've passed on that information.

{{Re: URGENT: Specimen K.
After careful deliberation, it has been decided that retrieval will be postponed indefinitely. Since attempts to study the bonding of OUTRAGE components and human proxies have consistently met with setbacks, it is proposed to concentrate our observations on the only successful proxy. Until further notice, all interference is strictly prohibited in order to ensure authentic conditions.}}


A project.

The sting of fangs digging into the inside of his mouth brought a measure of clarity, kept him from popping any extra appendages in a bout of incandescent rage that was more the Gear than him, had to be more the Gear than him because it couldn't possibly be a surprise that they were turning the kid into a motherfucking project. Sol wasn't sure why he'd thought he'd be able to see it coming, why, with everything he knew and everything that had happened, he'd ever managed to convince himself that if he just kept his eyes peeled, he'd be able to spot any suspicious activity and, with any luck, spare Kliff the prospect of standing in front of another grave with no body to put in it. As much as he would have liked to blame so much optimism on a bout of temporary insanity, that level of arrogance was almost certainly terminal by now.

Yeah, we never learn, do we. We never realize that it's always fuck o'clock.

On the screen, the search algorithm was grinding to a close, matches crowding into the tiny result box. Most of them were paperwork that bore Ky's signature, but the further down he got, the more personal it became — the minutes of meetings he'd attended, medals he'd earned, the results of aptitude tests he'd taken as a part of his training as a Candidate, medical records dated age nine, eleven, and fourteen. In short, they'd done everything except breaking into the kid's tent to watch him sleep.

{{Specimen K Risk Assessment
Status: rating pending
Findings: mastery over OUTRAGE component #2 confirmed; reassessment of combat capacities required
commands extreme loyalty as a soldier and figurehead; loss may prove to have destabilizing effect on military structures
insubordination confirmed in 57 accounts; strong aversion to civilian casualties may be considered control factor}}


It was easy, so very easy to imagine that meeting, men in suits bartering the kid's value in an austere corporate boardroom, deciding whether he was worth more alive or dead. Trying to determine what could be used as leverage against him, what kinds of measures would have to be taken if need be, and he could practically hear the conclusion, simple and matter-of-fact, echoing in the stillness of the room—

"So, what is his weakness?"

"…Everything."


It should have been the worst thing to know that Ky's Achilles heel was something he'd never, ever be able to cover, and in a way, it was almost funny that one of his first impressions of the kid should stay so true — one of these days, that goddamn bleeding heart of his was going to get him killed.

It should have been the worst thing, but it wasn't, because in the next moment, the cursor skipped to the follow-up message, a highlighted priority transmission informing the recipient that Specimen K's risk rating was to be bumped up to "A++". No further elaboration on the matter except for an embedded image, a snapshot taken while its subjects were unaware. Sol couldn't remember the occasion, some victory party or another with enough people milling about to miss the flash of a good old-fashioned piece of blacktech — and the kid, feigning interest in an untouched glass of wine but with his head cocked to listen to whatever inane comment Sol had felt like making at the time, his lips curling in an amused, private smile.

To anyone else, it would have looked like nothing. Just two soldiers engaged in polite conversation, indistinguishable from the rest of the party guests, but Sol could count the number of people who'd been privy to that expression on the fingers of one hand, reserved as it was for those rare, quiet moments when Ky was neither Commander nor savior nor any of the dozen other roles he could slip into so flawlessly, and was smiling only as himself.

And there was simply no way in hell that the association of ass-bastards hadn't figured out the reason.

Sol closed his eyes, the backrest of the chair creaking in protest when he sunk back against it. Out in the midst of the fighting, it was so damn easy to think of the front as an autonomous zone where the rules of engagement were dictated by convenience and common sense, where useless flag poles were chopped up for splints and firewood, knightly celibacy was at best the topic of jokes around the watch fire, and nobody gave a flying fuck about whether a handful of guys rolled out a mat during a very specific time of day and sat on it facing a very specific direction, so long as they could nail a Gear in the head. In a world where even orders could become suggestions at the drop of a hat, any sort of outside control seemed more like a distant inconvenience rather than a tangible threat.

"No obligations, kid. No protocol. This is between you and me."

Part of him, the part that really liked to pretend at being a hedonist, had wanted to believe the bit of hypocrisy he'd offered to Ky, and if the Russian lieutenant or the little Irish paperboy were shooting him looks like he was defiling the Virgin Mary, then, well, that was just part of the fun.

But that wasn't it, was it? That hadn't been it in a damn long time. He couldn't even say what had changed, when exactly it became difficult to fall asleep without the kid's feet like blocks of ice against his calves, when exactly five minutes of radio banter in the middle of a mud pit could easily become the highlight of the day.

/And wasn't it great how he ignored your little secret, let you play at being human for a little while longer?/

The warm tang of metal barely registered against his tongue, teeth clenching so tightly they were drawing blood. He'd had almost two hundred years to get used to the idea, and more than enough problems on his platter to feel much of a loss, and yet… And yet.

/Yeah, bullshit. He offered, and you jumped at it, and hey, let's run a tally! Amount of actual bonings versus, oh, everything else. Congratulations, getting your scaly dick between his thighs might just be the best fucking cover story of the century. Hey, if you just don't tell him, he never even has to live with the thought of giving it up for the guy who killed some four billion people./

Letting out a deep, shuddering breath, Sol straightened, concentrating on strangling the tangle of vicious thoughts that was trying to surge forward, threatening to drag him into a blind, snarling rage against his own stupidity.

He could still fix this. Somewhere along the line, he'd grown careless, veered off his intended course in favor of options that seemed easier or more comfortable than hunting on his own. He'd underestimated the part of himself that was constantly urging for compromises, always trying to latch onto fragments of a past he'd been sure he'd buried long ago. Being surrounded by people who fought and bled the same as he did, with the same drive to live to the next morning, he should have realized it would be harder to keep from getting involved, to remain by himself and just continue doing his own thing. A right mess, of course, but one he could still sort out if he went with the plan.

Rotating his shoulders, Sol closed the file without another glance and called up the search box again, allowing it to get cracking on the location of OUTRAGE component #1. In the resulting stream of information, it was easy to shut off the stupid reflex to consider Kliff, consider the war effort, consider the kid and his goddamn inquisitive gaze, prying his words apart for all the things he didn't say. The first order of business was to get his hands on the Fuenken, and then to take HQ apart piece by piece until he found the assholes who'd approved the plan to seal Justice. And then, well, he had the rest of eternity to hunt down the bastard, and see to it that the explosion would be big enough to end it once and for all.

His life might have gotten off track for a little while, but if he kept his eyes on the goal, things were going to be just fine.





-TBC-




A/N: This is the part where I drag myself up to the podium and wheeze out an apology for not updating this story in so long. Seriously, this shouldn't have taken as long as it did. It's my final year in the PhD program, so a lot of stuff is demanding my attention, but suffice it to say, I've got no intention of putting this story on hiatus. There's still a bit of chapter left after this, but in the meantime, C&C is much appreciated.

Notes for the bored:
- Bullshitting about everything magic-related. Bullshitting so hard.
- Yeah, no, none of that "Sol invented the OUTRAGE" stuff. Backstory's way too convoluted and vague on that thing, anyway.
- Changed Ky's risk rating. Seriously, a B? With the influence he has and the pissed-off Gears people he knows? XD




Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
verstehen
Jul. 9th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
As one ABD to another... totally worth the wait. ;)

(Now write the damn dissertation!)
aphelion_orion
Jul. 10th, 2012 05:19 am (UTC)
*laughs* Yes'm. I'll have to look into methods of cloning myself...
hatori8
Jul. 10th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
Woah hoo!! Thanks so much for updating! Can't wait to read the next part!
And good luck on your final year! :)
aphelion_orion
Jul. 10th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading. :) And thanks for the well-wishes, too!
(Anonymous)
Jul. 20th, 2012 07:49 am (UTC)
This story is always such a joy to read - and I love your bullshitted magic explanations 8D

I have a feeling this is going to be one of the bits I come back to read over and over again. Between the creeptastic dead compound, the magic explanation, the hints of Sol's Gear side, and the plot progression, it was definitely worth the wait.
aphelion_orion
Jul. 20th, 2012 07:59 pm (UTC)
Hehe, thank you. Glad all the technobabble didn't turn out boring, since there's just so much in that universe I have to make up from scratch.

Aw.<3 I'm happy you think it was worth it; now that all the major backstory points have been established, it should go a lot smoother.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )