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Title: Going off the Record
Part: 13/?
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) | Chapter XIII

Going off the Record
Chapter XIII

Let’s go out… let’s go out into the world with our heads held high, and grasp our future…

The saying had been Lacie’s, the words with which she met the day and the key to her good cheer. A promise to herself, and to them, to aim for something higher, something a little better than what they could expect to receive. A reminder that she whispered fiercely to Lara underneath their shared blanket, with the scraps of airship designs spread between them. A small defiance hissed at their father’s retreating back, and a gentle admonition, accompanied by a hand lifting up Lara’s chin whenever she would shrink into herself.

Let’s go out…

It was the sort of thing Lara had been expected to agree with, to smile and say, “Yeah, let’s!” in accordance with some unspoken law between sisters, even though she’d never quite managed to put her heart into it. She'd been convinced it was better to hunker down and take what they were given, rather than incur their father's wrath, their mother's disappointment or the vengeance of their older brothers.

Lacie would say it anyway, and roll up her sleeves, starting any of a hundred arguments anew — getting a cut of the shop’s profits the way their brothers did, keeping Lara in school, keeping Lara out of the hauling business, finding Lara an apprenticeship — though each of them ended the same way. All Lara could do was to press a cold washcloth against Lacie’s swollen cheek after every fight, to smile and agree when Lacie would whisper the promise to her again not five minutes later.

…with our heads held high…

Someday, she’d be able to do it, she’d promised herself that. Someday, when she was just a little older, a little more knowledgeable, when she possessed just a little more credit among her peers, she’d be able to carry herself with pride, sure that she’d earned her place in the world. Lara had gone through life on the certainty of that belief, and if the feeling failed to settle when she watched her fighters roll out of Zepp’s aerodromes, when she was given a warm handshake and a gold-star recommendation for her next prospective employment, even when she’d bought the Rim-side apartment that was housed in a real building, built by a real architect — if pride still wouldn’t come after this, well, then she just hadn’t reached the break-even point yet. A conviction that held up right until the moment she'd been forced to look Ky Kiske in the eye.

It wasn’t even him, not entirely — it was his gaze, calm and unfaltering, and the thousand gazes behind it, of all the people that served him, all those that had pinned their hopes on him. Nothing in Zepp was quite that good at teaching humility. She’d built ships, and guns, and missile systems, all the things the city needed to protect itself from the Gears, but she’d never thought about it in terms of responsibility. Responsibility for the young pilot strapped into her cockpit, for the gunman cowering behind her turret, the engineer crawling around in the maintenance tunnels of her ship. Responsibility for the people she passed by on the street, on her way to and from work, who all depended on her to make her weapons as safe and strong as they could possibly be.

Lara had always wanted power, to be the master of her own fate, and now she could admit that it had made her feel powerful to build those robots, that a small, ugly part of herself had felt a thrill every time she entered a command and saw it executed to perfection. Flawless, reliable, and in that, utterly not human. She hadn’t ever thought of this as a responsibility, hadn’t understood the burden she was taking on in the slightest — but Captain Kiske understood, and that was why he carried himself with that quiet solemnity, not proud but aware of what was riding on his every decision.

The revolver was Lacie’s, part of the standard equipment given to each pilot in training, and though she’d joked about pistol-whipping Gears with it, there’d been no denying the real reason for handing the pilots such a useless little thing, not when the chamber ever only held one bullet.

It would to hold a full six now, lined up neatly on the coffee table as Lara rubbed an oil-stained rag along the barrel to get rid of the years of disuse. Cleaning the gun was easy and familiar, taking apart and reassembling a machine, even though all she had to show for shooting skills was a bit of target practice on back-alley trash cans. Ridiculous to think that the gun would be of any use to her at all, that if she was caught, she’d be able to yank it from its holster and shoot any of the dozen gunmen on patrol, or that it would accomplish anything.

A new bid for power, in the middle of her living room.

But then, it didn’t feel like hers anymore, did it? Instead, it felt like coming back to a stranger’s place, someone who wore the same clothes and ate the same food, who kicked off her shoes in the same corner as she did and was always too tired to pull back the covers.

Maybe, Lara thought, she should have felt worse about it, some sense of loss at the way she’d managed to upend her own life, but she was glad that she didn’t. It meant that she could slip the bullets into place one by one and not question the insanity of what she was about to attempt, running counter to every single principle she used to live by. Keep your head down, stay quiet, and you’ll weather any storm.

Heroism was the path of fools and bright-eyed idealists like her sister, worse than fools because they were willing to risk everything for what they believed in. Lacie hadn’t wanted to die, and yet Lara couldn’t imagine her final moments as anything other than glad, relieved that she’d managed to keep Zepp safe for her little sister for one more day.

Reaching up, Lara brushed the hair out of her face, ignoring the smear of grease her fingers left against her temple.

She wasn’t even sure what she was going to do once she found what she was looking for. If she found what she was looking for. Tell Captain Kiske, who was already going toe to toe with the vipers of the clergy? Inform the council, which was a snake pit unto itself? And that, of course, was assuming Meirth didn’t receive his orders directly from the council, that the project hadn’t been signed and sealed by the president himself. And who was going to believe her, an accomplice, and someone who’d made contact, who showed such obvious sympathy for the people on the ground?

No Zeppian took so great a risk for something as simple as clearing their conscience. If they didn’t label her a traitor outright, could they even understand? She could hardly understand it herself, this need to do something, to do the right thing. Zeppians didn’t believe in the right thing, either — there was no right thing, only sides and perspectives. The right thing existed only on the ground, to stand in opposition against everything that wasn’t right, and perhaps she’d been contaminated after all, lured in by the young captain’s thoughtfulness and generosity. Or maybe she was just her sister’s sister, sibling to the greatest little fool in Zepp.

Carefully, Lara weighed the gun in her palm, and gave the chamber a spin. This time, she was going to hold her head high.

The gate ground shut with a low rattling sound, the surrounding wire mesh shivering with the reverberations. On the other side lay the industrial district, the day’s smoke and vapors slowly dispersing in the pale light of the street lamps. Ahead lay only the darkened landing pad, and beyond that, the polished front of the laboratory complex where she had spent the past eight years of her life.

A gust of wind came tumbling down the side of the building, and Lara took a deep breath as it swept past her, tugging at her hair and coat. Pushing at her, guiding her in the opposite direction. Back down the street. Back towards the home that felt like a stranger’s. Against the small of her back, she could feel the cool leather weight of the holster, unfamiliar and steadying.

She could do this.

It was too late, anyway, too late to turn back even if she’d wanted to. Her access code was already in the system, the opening of the front gate on file, and past the sliding doors up ahead, the front desk security guard was waiting for her to step inside.

The fool’s path it is.

The lobby was empty at this time of night, the lights dimmed to cast rectangular shadows across the floor, the polished flagstone swallowing her footsteps with barely a sound. No heels this time, no need to make herself taller than she was.

The guard tapped his hat in greeting. “Working late, ma’am?”

“Yes. I’m afraid it’s going to be another all-nighter.” It came out more naturally than she’d thought, even held a bit of the levity that fit a complaint about work, when she’d been so sure she’d have to serve up a half-transparent lie about having forgotten her notes in her office.

Officially, it was a vacation, an impersonal message on her communicator that managed to sound insincere even though it was only two sentences long. She’d expected it, of course, but it still stung to see the notice not five minutes after she’d stepped off the airship, to have the realization settle in her gut that it had all been planned — maybe not like this, and maybe not so soon, but if she’d ever needed proof that Meirth had hired her and all her credentials for mere grunt work, well, now she had it in black and white.

Lara managed an apologetic smile as she handed over her ID card, trying not to look like she was expecting the scanner to refuse it, and glad that the counter was high enough that she could keep her eyes from straying to the semi-automatic at the guard’s hip, something she’d scarcely noticed or cared about before.

“They never let you catch a break, do they?” the guard said, slowly dragging her card through the scanner and waiting for its light to turn green.

“I’m sorry?”

“Didn’t you just get back from some kind of… event or something? Dr. Meirth seemed pretty pleased with the way things were going, so I thought maybe you could afford to take it easy for a while.” Her displeasure must have shown on her face, because he dropped his gaze and cleared his throat. “Not that it’s… any of my business, ma’am. My apologies. Um, if you’ll just sign here…”

He slid a clipboard towards her, remembered a bit belatedly to include a pen. Lara risked a look at his face as she put down all the necessary information, date, time, security clearance code, the way his tongue was running along his front teeth behind closed lips, back and forth in small, involuntary jerks.

She’d never paid enough attention to the security personnel before, stern and silent in their dark, nondescript uniforms, glancing at her and the rest of the team from the corners of their eyes when they passed them in the hallways. In some ways, they’d felt like part of the furnishings, parts of a big, disinterested machine moving in synch, rarely showing emotion, rarely talking. Part of the package of what it meant to be the engineer in a project that was going to take humanity the next big step forward, but now, Lara was forced to consider that they knew as little as she did, and were being paid not to think about what was going on right in front of them.

In a way, it made her feel both better and worse.

“Don't worry about it,” Lara said as she slid the signed form back to him, taken slightly aback by the expression of sheer relief on his face as he ushered her past the checkpoint. She walked on towards the entrance to the lab, grateful that he seemed preoccupied with his own blunder instead of scrutinizing her more closely, and allowed herself a small sigh as the doors hissed closed behind her.

The lab was actually a host of halls and rooms spread out across several floors, test chambers, assembly rooms, hydraulics, electronics, firing ranges, the best and most generous equipment she’d ever seen out of any place she’d worked at, and just as many things that she hadn’t. Machines her team had to learn how to use from scratch, devices from before the Great Collapse that she’d only read about in tattered works of history.

It should have made her wonder more why the government was willing to throw so much state-of-the-art technology at a project that had been, for the longest time, a hazy pipe dream even for her. Just getting the robots to move, just getting them to perform a single task with perfection was almost more than she and her team could have hoped for, and yet, they’d never been wanting for money or supplies, when even the big, reliable projects she’d worked on in the past had to go groveling for funding every couple of months.

At the end of the main corridor lay the morgue, the place where failed components and prototypes were brought for analysis and record-keeping. It was Gaus’s domain, really, the playground of a fifty-year-old boy, data cables snaking all over the floor and dangling from the ceiling, power tools and discarded parts piling up on racks and in closets because Gaus could never throw anything away.

Between the screens and instruments, every spare bit of wall was plastered with samples of his prized collection, a vinyl-sealed homage to the great engineering feats of the past. Splotches of color in a crammed facility painted entirely in gunmetal gray, flame-painted, v-helmeted fortresses as tall as buildings, though now, she found the fiery swaths cut by their weapons far less intriguing than she once had.

After a moment’s hesitation, she reached for the keypad against the wall, locking the door.

On the center autopsy table, the remains of the six robots had been spread out, grouped according to their model number insofar as it was possible to tell. Limbs and launch tubes and thruster systems, blackened and half-melted, and Lara ruthlessly squashed the surge of dismay, some part of her still ready to indulge a bout of wounded pride.

Time to find out what had gone wrong, why her shutdown commands had been refused.

Lara flicked on the power, the surface of the table lighting up with the pale green glow of the grid. Freeing a chair from its load, she pulled it up to the instrument bank along the wall, drumming her fingers as she waited for the system to load. Whether he’d meant to or not, Captain Kiske had taken out their primary means of reconstructing the accident when he shorted out the monitoring equipment. She’d had time, though, more than enough time to organize her memories, to separate herself from them and retrace the events without fear or nausea, from the moment that brilliant blue flare had eclipsed everything.

No room for justifications, for convincing herself that she’d been on top of everything, that the preparations had been perfect, not when her creations had gone rogue and launched an attack pattern that didn’t exist within their programming.

With a soft hum, the row of screens brightened.

{{Welcome to NATARAJA.}}

Pushing her bangs out of her eyes, Lara grabbed the coils of uplink cables from the underside of the console, guiding them back to the table.

Out of the six black boxes, only two had survived, and even there, she couldn’t be sure whether the storm of magic hadn’t destroyed any chance of recovering the data. If worst came to worst, she would have to work with the original template, and any tampering would have had to occur between the final batch of tests in Zepp and the incident in Paris.

/Yes, because there’s no way the great Dr. Kahren would ever mess up./

Lara gritted her teeth and set about hooking up the black boxes.

He knew. The bastard knew something would happen.

There was no reply from her inner critics, and in a way, that was worse than the direct accusation — she couldn’t be sure, not one hundred percent, that it wasn’t her mistake. All she could be certain of was that Meirth had known something, and had simply chosen not to say anything because that was apparently the kind of man he was, the kind of support he had. In the end, it didn’t matter anyway because she had put the damn things together. She had made them real.

A quiet hiss startled her from her thoughts.

Perhaps it was because she’d expected alarms, the pounding of half a dozen steel-toed boots or something similarly dramatic, that it took her a second too long to recognize it as the sound of the morgue door opening. The sound of the locked door opening.

Stupid, stupid to believe she’d be able to pull this off, that Meirth with his insufferable ability to read people wouldn’t have foreseen this, and Lara knew, even as she whirled, that the guards would grab her before she had a chance to aim—

“Guys, guys, I got… it…”

The lanky figure in the doorway paused, eyes going wide as he noticed the barrel of her gun, pointing a good couple of inches above his head.

For a moment, they both stood in silence, long enough for her mind to stop racing through a hundred different what-if scenarios and register the garish shirt, the silly backwards cap and the youthful face, gaping open-mouthed.

“Um,” Miren managed, “hi, ma’am. Um. Surprise?”

“You—“ Lara dropped her arm, relief hitting her in the gut like the recoil from a grenade launcher. “Miren, what— what on Earth are you doing here?!”

Miren grinned, all at once full of teenage mischief now that the gun was out of the picture. “We wanted to talk to you, ma’am, but you weren’t home… and, no offense, ma’am, but there’s not too many places you’d go, so I said we should just follow you.”

“You…” Lara shook her head, face threatening to break into a smile in spite of herself.

“Well, okay, Gaus said we should just follow you. But I helped. Lots.”

“Wait a minute, Gaus?”

Still grinning, Miren rocked back on his heels to lean out into the hallway. “Guys, you can stop looking for a box-end wrench. I’ve got it.”

There was a shuffle in the corridor, leaving Lara just enough time to stuff the gun back into its holster before Miren was shoved forward, allowing the rest of the team to crowd into the room and Lara’s bearings to skitter even further out of her grasp.

“Black box still working?” Gaus asked, ducking past her to get a good look at the parts they hadn’t been allowed to touch since loading them onto the ship.

“Not sure,” Lara said automatically, too used to the electric eagerness that now filled the room as if it were just another busy workday, just another nut to crack. “I was going to run an endurance test first, but—“

Then, she caught herself, straightening and surveying the dozen expectant faces. “Hold on a moment. This is crazy. You shouldn’t be here. None of you should be here.”

Gaus glanced up from his inspection of the black boxes. “Getting right down to it, Chief, neither should you.”

“I’m here because this is my responsibility. I need to know what happened, for my own peace of mind if nothing else.”

A laugh from Anis, hoarse and tired. “Shit, ma’am, you expect us to go sleep off blowing up their archangel or whatever they call him? If we’re talking about responsibility, then each of us is in just as deep as the other.”

Lara frowned, uncertain whether she should find this encouraging coming from Anis, who had always been the first to blow off any mention of team spirit, cool-headed and driven and entirely too pragmatic to consider pretending to be colleagues when they were certain to meet again as rivals for future positions.

“C’mon, Chief.” Miren again, his voice just one note shy of a whine. “Besides, it’d be pretty cruel to go to all the trouble of breaking in only to have you kick us out.”

She looked at him sharply. “I won’t even ask why you would—“

“Well, we figured it’d be kind of suspicious if we all marched in by the front door, and since I know a guy who knows a guy who owes me a favor…” He held up his hand, dangling a security keycard and grinning like a loon. “…here we are.”

Shaking her head, Lara turned away. Another facet of that newfound wish to do right that she wasn’t sure she liked, the idea that she was responsible for more than quality control and meeting deadlines, and whatever she decided now might drag everyone else down with her.

“…Alright. Let’s get to work.”

It was a cold morning the day the great swarm came. It would go down in the annals as drab and gray, to match the records of battles fought by their ancestors, but it had been clear enough to see for miles. The cloud cover lay far below, blanketing the ground, enough to believe Zepp to be the only thing of consequence, enough to think the world at peace.

Later, it would become a point of criticism, the very thing that had allowed things to get as bad as they got. Word on the street was that the only reason the city had gone that high was because the council didn’t feel like approving the funds to deal with the snow, that the air patrol had been understaffed, that they had become complacent about maintaining the network of detection buoys because Zepp hadn’t seen a serious fight in over three months, only minor skirmishes.

As with so many things, it was a half-truth, made up of equal parts true failings and angry accusations, blame that gave the illusion of control — if only their leaders hadn’t been so short-sighted, if only everyone had been doing their jobs, even the swarm would have stood no chance against Zepp’s military might. It was easier than considering that the Gears might be getting smarter, better, that some new type of magic or armor might allow them to avoid detection until it was too late.

It was pure chaos when the shields fell. Fire, and running and screaming, people clogging up the aerodromes in their desperate search for shelter, grounding the reinforcements. Gears dropping from the sky to land on top of the fleeing masses, or hurling themselves into buildings like six-hundred pound warheads, the gases within their bodies erupting upon impact. Skyscrapers fracturing, splintering like plywood, until the city seemed a row of dominoes, towers collapsing against one another one by one.

Valenzio Ghor had a front-row seat to watch his city burn.

Nineteen years old and harnessed into a fighter jet with Gears swarming all around him, and every time he spun the aircraft, the sickening roll would reveal a new angle of Zepp engulfed in a sea of flame. Later, the pilots received their share of the blame for giving the Gears an opening, the chance to go for the outer floatation ring. A reprimand delivered by crisp clean suits who could observe anything from the comfortable distance of a command center. Silver-tongued analysts who’d never sat behind a stick, fingers jerking on the trigger in a desperate, impotent rage as salvo after salvo glanced off a megadeath’s wings.

The outer floatation ring hadn’t been an accident, not with the giant dragonflies going directly for it, but it didn’t matter what he’d seen or done to prevent it, and certainly not to the strategists in the council, who were all assembled under the command of one man. A man who sat there, stone-faced and impervious, who didn't ask or apologize or offer restitution but simply signed the proposal when the reading had ended.

The election of a sacrifice.

The loss of one ring out of three wasn’t enough to cripple Zepp, but it was enough to send it heeling, leaning like a ship with a broken mast. The outer ring wasn’t fully gone, just damaged enough to shift the weight of the landmass and send the city tilting a little bit further every day — 0.01, 0.023, until gravity would start tearing the main plate in two.

Repairs were a costly gamble that would require time and more luck than could be found in the back room of a rim-side casino. Nobody in Zepp had any idea how to go about trying, or what even kept the rings bearing several hundred times their own weight, yet another secret lost to the ages.

His had been the only voice in favor of trying, a nineteen-year-old head of house in a room full of old men, with none of the respect his father had once commanded.

Of course, everyone else would vote for the purge. Of course, they would discard Zepp's future.

The corona had been a construction project spearheaded by the House of Ghor, his father’s lifelong dream, a massive steel-strobed band of wind turbines stretching along the entirety of Zepp’s shield dome, enough to power an additional shield and supply every single household with power, right down to the poorest pits in the slums.

All of it, the millions of ducats and resources poured into it, dropped by a single signature down into the northern seas. Only a fool would believe that this wasn’t why the council vote had needed no debate, or that President Gabriel hadn’t been swayed by the idea of dealing a blow to his oldest and most powerful rival.

Valenzio Ghor was no fool.

He had worked, and fought, and scrounged, and quietly dismissed the humiliation from his thoughts, but he had never forgotten the cost, the short-sighted ease with which a bunch of scared old men had squandered the chance of a lifetime of peace and prosperity within Zepp’s borders. Protection. Renewable energy. An independence from the scarce coal mines they held on the ground. A solution to the problem of Zepp’s underbelly, who looted and stole and vandalized for electricity and fuel.

From his office, Ghor had a perfect view of the small ships shuttling back and forth, attaching package after package of explosives. It only took seconds to destroy what had taken decades to build, but even he wasn’t prepared for the long, shuddering groan that ran through every tier, the sound of Zepp having its new heart torn from its body.

It was all coming back to bite them in the ass now that they were no longer going through able-bodied fighters faster than their mothers could raise them. Now that the slums were starting to fill up with drifters and joy seekers, outlaws and expatriats from the ground who wouldn’t or couldn’t pull their weight — no skills, no connections, mostly hoping for a roof over their heads and the fairytale safety of Zepp’s fortifications. Now that the ground was on the advance, reclaiming territory, resettling sites Zepp had always used as supply caches.

More than thirty years had passed since the great swarm, and the new president was exactly like the old president, slow and ponderous and a fool, a Gabriel through and through. Ghor could no longer recall when and where he’d first heard the whispers of Isan Gabriel’s ideas of approaching the ground for talks, but they had gotten louder and louder during the last ten years of the war.

Alliance. Reconciliation. Support. Unification. The words were enough to scare any of Gabriel’s supporters into opposition. Under different circumstances, Ghor might have found it amusing to find himself the leading voice of the very men who had maneuvered Zepp into this situation in the first place, might have spared a little pity for Isan, who seemed so determined to ruin his credibility, but there was no getting around the fact that House Gabriel controlled the vast majority of the military, and that Isan, like his father, wasn’t afraid to do what he believed had to be done.

Lupus est homo homini.

Man is a wolf to man. He’d read the phrase in an old tome somewhere, an apt description of the ground crawlers if there ever was one, though Isan wanted to start talks regardless, give up their independence and safety and pride out of some vague, idiotic hope that the answer would be anything but sweet, cleansing fire. As if history had taught him nothing. As if it wasn’t the ground that had given them a choice first — death or exile in the name of their so-called Lord.

Even in a best-case scenario, there was simply no way Zepp wouldn’t end up with the short end of the stick; even if the Church stopped railing against heathens and devil worshippers overnight, what else could they want but access to Zepp’s vaults, its archives, the fruits of nearly two centuries of bone-crushing labor? What Zepp needed wasn’t to barter with a bunch of prehistoric partisans who were only waiting for the right moment to usurp all it stood for; what it needed was strength not just to endure, but to triumph, to stand tall as the shining star of future hopes and past glories.

And that was why, when They had approached him, Ghor had been willing to listen.

The man before him was the same as the last several times, a tall, dark-suited figure with eyes that rarely focused on anything in particular, as if whatever was worth looking at lay far beyond the confines of this office, beyond the airship models lining the walls and the floor-to-ceiling windows, and most certainly beyond his host’s face.

He had never volunteered his name and never called ahead of time to make appointments; instead, he simply appeared whenever he would and expected to be accommodated, though he had yet to arrive at a time when he couldn’t be. He rarely spoke, no pleasantries, no actual conversation, and no lingering on past events or meetings, only outlining the details of the next step. Always only the next step.

Ghor had to deal with his fair share of snakes and jackals in the council, was even forced to adopt their methods every now and then, but he’d never met a man like this before, someone he couldn’t place, someone who was clearly dangerous but only existed as a blank space in his mind, formless and indeterminable.

“This is it, then?”

The man rarely asked questions, too, but now he was leaning forward, examining the brooch inside its protective casket with an interest so keen it made Ghor wish he would go back to gazing past everything, just to avoid that unnatural intensity.

“It’s what he had on his person,” Ghor replied, sliding the casket towards his visitor.

Picking up the brooch, the man brought it close, and for a moment, Ghor could have sworn his right eye flashed, a circle of light briefly flaring up around the pupil. Then he blinked, and it was gone.

“It’s indeed the genuine article,” the man said, replacing the brooch and closing the lid. At any other time, Ghor would have taken his words as an insult, an insinuation that he wasn’t upholding his end of the contract, but instead, all he felt was relief. Through the lid, the design of the wing-framed tower was winking up at him, and though it had been cleaned of soot and ash, he still couldn’t see what made it different from any other house crest. Except, of course, for the fact that it had survived the firefight.

“The other half?”

Ghor frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We believe we explicitly asked for the complete set.”

“This is all that was recovered. You’re free to look through the list of what was confiscated from the estate, but it’s not there,” Ghor said, reaching into his desk drawer. “In fact, I believe we’ve more than fulfilled our part of the deal. If you wanted to search the bodies, perhaps you should have worked on the fine tuning of those things.”

The man’s lips curled, the expression too faint to name, but Ghor believed it was meant to be a smile. “Don’t try to alter the conditions of our agreement. There is nothing in your current arsenal that could even hope to scratch these emblems.”

Ghor didn’t answer, rifling through his memories of that morning, the way things had gone from a clean-hit mission to an unsalvageable mess in seconds, and all because Isan had to bring the boy along— 

He took a breath. “…The boy.”

His visitor didn’t say anything, merely tilting his head in a silent prompt.

“He brought his son, and the boy tried to escape in the glider—“ Ghor shook his head. “Your ‘gift’ blew that one to pieces.”

“The body?”

Ghor stared at him, trying to suppress his rising irritation at the man’s impassive tone, as if he were inquiring after a shipment of pan-head screws. “What body? Your robots fired a rocket right into that glider! If there’s even anything left, well…” He motioned to the windows and the sheer endless drop beyond. “There are the winds to consider, and even without those, that still leaves several hundred square miles of slum to choose from.”

“You will recover it.” There was no threat in his voice, not even an order, just a simple statement of fact that left no room for argument.


Without explanation, the man slid the casket back across the desk and rose, not a wrinkle in his suit, no wasted movement as he made his way towards the exit. With his hand already on the doorknob, he paused and turned around, his uncanny gaze fixed directly on Ghor.

“One more thing. We suggest you move swiftly, before others move to handle your politics for you.”

The first thing that came trickling back was the pain. Inch by inch, as if his mind couldn’t handle any more and was dividing the sensation into small pieces, all of them congregating, piling up, mounting—

Slowly, Aren opened his eyes, only to be met with total darkness.

For a while, he simply lay still, staring upwards into nothing, or at least what he believed to be upwards, a sense of space barely able to worm its way past the senseless howling of his nerves that kept finding and losing body parts, giving him legs or no legs or three of them from one second to the next.

Despite this, he felt oddly calm, almost peaceful, as if he were lying in bed at home, as if the pain and the darkness around him were nothing at all to be concerned about. He remembered stories, reports of pilots who were pulled from the wreckage of their fighters thinking they could still walk, soldiers who had kept fighting, never realizing the severity of their injury. Symbols of Zeppian bravery, that was how they were sold to the public, but now, Aren was pretty sure they hadn’t been much different from him, inhabitants of a body that was beside itself with agony.

The touch against his brow managed to startle him until he realized it was his own hand, groping around on autopilot for the ocular and coming up empty. He let it fall away, still too full of that strange serenity to really care, and a little bit too distracted by the odd emptiness in his chest, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to his sternum that left his breath whistling inside a hollow cavity somewhere to the left of his lungs. When he touched the place, though, there was nothing, no hole and no protruding bones, just a shirt that made wet suction noises whenever he moved, and a fresh jolt of pain whenever his clumsy fingers happened upon an open wound.

Cuts, lacerations that had already stopped bleeding, probably from when the inside of the glider was rushing towards him in a storm of glass and metal —

He should have been dead.

He should have been a streak of dirt on somebody’s rooftop, and thank the sky for Zeppian pragmatism, or else he would have had to worry about whether this was the afterlife, too.

Gingerly, Aren dragged himself upright, unable to suppress a moan when the change in position caused several new spots of pain to bloom along his back. The sound echoed, long and surprisingly loud, and he froze, listening for footsteps or voices.


His free hand hit something, the flat, smooth shape so familiar he was convinced for a moment that his mind was playing tricks on him. If Ghor’s men or anyone else had got to him while he was unconscious, they certainly wouldn’t have left him with his gun. His fingers curled around the barrel, surprised to find it as whole and straight as always, when the fall should have banged it up beyond repair.

/Forget the gun. That fall should have banged up /you/ beyond repair. This can’t be— this isn’t— where /in the blazes/ are we?!

The slums, it had to be the slums, and yet, it didn’t feel like the slums, no smoke, no waste, no heat from the ancient steam engines, no crying children or the clatter from a hundred scrap collectors. Just him and that vast, empty space, smelling of dust and stale air.

He staggered to his feet, the injured ankle throbbing in protest. At least, nobody was around to watch the once-proud heir of Gabriel flail about like an imbecile, and— That was what he was now, wasn’t it? The heir of Gabriel in the truest sense of the word, not just the son who would one day carry on his father’s legacy but the last surviving member of his house, and who knew for how much longer.

If he even managed to find his way out of here, he knew Ghor too well to expect to find the manor still standing upon his return; after all, if their roles had been reversed, he wouldn’t be taking any chances, either. If Ghor played his cards right, he could blame the murders on assassins or terrorists from the ground, point the military towards that distant, hated enemy to keep them occupied.

The only one who couldn’t be fooled or threatened into obedience was Potemkin, and all Aren could do right now was hope that the old war hound would know better than to try and make some kind of stand in his father’s memory.

/If they haven’t found him out already, you mean. They know you knew of their war machines, how long do you think a spy hunt would take them? He’s a soldier, not an agent, you /know/ he’d try to fight—

Aren cut off the thought. Some sight he’d make, a Gabriel fretting like a despondent child when this day had always been a possibility; there were more than enough Gabriels to look back on, more than enough other heads of house who had left their seats in a manner that was less than dignified, or clean.

Sliding the shotgun into its customary holster, Aren began to straighten himself out in order to give himself some time to untangle his thoughts and formulate a plan, some kind of fighting chance for himself. Trying to make his way to any of the Gabriel estates was nothing short of suicide, though there were a number of smaller safe houses that didn’t show up on any official record.

Unless, of course, Ghor bothered to go through the family vaults after the raid. I would.

Raking a hand through his hair, his fingers caught in a snarl, a thin leather strap entangled with the strands. The ocular.

He tugged it free, pleased to hear it click and whirr when he adjusted its metal frame. That, at least, meant he could start figuring out where he’d landed, and look for a way out. Then, the familiar green glow settled over his right eye, and all thoughts of escape fled from his mind.

All around him, walls of naked rock rose for hundreds of feet, forming a gigantic cavern. Here and there, he could make out parts of a steel rig jutting forward from the stone, beams or grates stretching across the empty space but abruptly ending nowhere. Aren stared, half-wondering if he had managed to fall into Zepp, some undiscovered hole in the surface platform, but no matter how much he craned his neck and adjusted the ocular, he couldn’t make out an opening.

He was ready to stop puzzling over it when he noticed a pale haze forming at the edge of his vision.

Frowning, Aren dropped his gaze, and started.

The floor was glowing. All around him, a subdued, misty light was rising in a circle, wafting gently upwards as if borne by a breeze. His first instinct was to cover his mouth and nose, but that was before he noticed the strange light was rising from him, too, passing through the fabric of his clothes with no effort at all.

On the inside of his coat, the small spot was gleaming, tendrils of that same pale light rising from its edges. The crest was twin to his father’s, a gift bestowed upon him on his eighteenth birthday to acknowledge him as the heir to House Gabriel. He’d never thought much about it, one of the less conspicuous ways to display familial pride without parading around in hand-embroidered capes.

Carefully, he reached up to rub a thumb across it, jerking away when the motion prompted it to light up like a star. Around him, the glow was becoming stronger, strong enough to see even with the naked eye — threads of light weaving across the circle in the ground, curling, joining and splitting again in an ever more complex pattern, until he finally realized he was looking at a spell.

A spell without a caster.

Aren stumbled backwards, very nearly tripping off what appeared to be a platform in his haste to get away. Spellcraft was a rare enough sight in Zepp, when most of the children who showed an aptitude were immediately conscripted into the production of crystals, and this wasn’t anything he recognized, none of the attack magic the Order had been so fond of in the war.

Up on the platform, the spell had stopped forming, the threads hovering aimlessly in the air. On the lapel of his coat, the emblem was still shining brightly, waiting for a command he didn’t know. Magic. Magic from a machine in the middle of Zepp, and— had his father known? Was that why he had refused to ever part with his emblem, and demanded Aren do the same? Was this why he had survived?

He closed his eyes, trying to remember the fall, but the howling of the wind drowned out everything else.

When he opened them again, the light from the platform had dimmed, pulsing in a slow, steady beat. The tendrils of light were retreating, revealing a shape in the center of the floor, though it took him a moment to understand what he was seeing.

The ground had opened up into a passageway, a small, dark rectangle in the floor, but what drew Aren’s gaze and made his breath catch in his throat was the glowing pattern that had formed around it, a shape as simple as it was impossible.

He was looking at a tower, surrounded by a pair of feathered wings.


A/N: I was trying to resist naming this chapter "Meanwhile, Near Zahadum..." because really, that's what it is. Many thanks to Twig for being all around amazing. ♥ And C&C is always welcome, of course.

- Of course Zepp thinks Gundams and Transformers were an actual thing.
- Zepp: One part Coruscant, two parts Laputa, and a gigantic clusterfuck of Kowloon.
- Next time, we're most definitely back with Ky. Finally.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2012 05:48 am (UTC)
The story lives! *Cheers madly*

Ooh, I like the way everyone has their own story. I'm beginning to really like Dr Kahren, here. Nice character development. And finally, Aren's alive~~ and promise of more Ky next?

Wheee, I'm so happy~~~
Oct. 18th, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
*laughs* Yes, it does. I just wish I had 72 hours in a day to get some writing done.

Thank you. It's getting a bit hard to justify all the characters who simply have to add their two cents, so I'm glad if they're coming across as believable.
Dec. 24th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
ahaha, i don't even know you replied until now OTL

Anyway, thing is, sometimes to keep a story focused you take several viewpoint characters and filter the story through their eyes. But the problem is that nothing, realistically, exists in a vacuum, and the alternative of not telling the things that happen with the loads and loads of minor characters is to gloss things over when the impact's finally reached the viewpoint characters.

Sometimes it's distracting, yes, but I won't say it's a bad things. I like knowing that things happen. And I won't mention that part in Avatar where I tear my hair out wanting to know how that rotund middle-aged person gets out of the palace's jail.
Dec. 26th, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
No worries, I regularly seem to miss alerts myself.^^

Yeah, pretty much. I just want to make that world come to life, have it feel like it's full of people for whom these conflicts matter.

*laughs* Yeah, that too. I'm keeping myself from going back and editing the early parts of this fic because so much developed over time and I kind of retconned myself in a couple of places (with the level of technology and all that), but that's the path to the dark side, and abandoned fanfics.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )