[identity profile] aphelion-orion.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] off_the_homerow
Title: Going off the Record
Part: Interlude, for worldbuilding purposes (war-era)
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.
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



Going off the Record
Interlude IV



"Watch your step."

The murmur returned as an echo of itself, a tinny multitude of voices bouncing back and forth between the walls. There was no need to turn, to cast a glance over his shoulder to know that the soldiers at his back had flinched, the nervous spike in magical power more than proof enough, though Ky did, anyway, a small sign to let them know their apprehension had been noticed, and understood. Unlikely that that they'd take the gesture's spirit for what it was even if they'd been able to fully see his face, the sudden sharpness to their movements enough to hint at their embarrassment, the thought that they'd managed to draw his attention at all.

Amazing, the thought that he could fault them when they had every right to be on edge, wedged along the outcroppings of a near vertical shaft, unable to properly draw their weapons and uncertain they'd do much good, anyway. It didn't even matter that they were as young as they were, broken in just enough for their hands to stop trembling in the face of a threat, when the stories they'd grown up on were the kind that stuck in a child's receptive mind forever, and were nearly as old as the war itself.

"Blast doors are blocked. Doesn't look like anything nasty's still inside."

The flash of a shape, a shift of rubble, and Sol was back up on the ledge beside him, crouched in the space between the tip of his sword and a wall made up entirely of jagged, dented metal. He seemed no less comfortable for it, perched like a gargoyle on top of a cathedral roof, and Ky was pretty certain that he could see perfectly, undaunted by the sparse light from far above. Leaning forward, Ky peered down the remainder of the distance, the walls of the shaft quickly giving way to a much wider darkness.

"Should be able to bust through... seems fine to light up, but you tell me."

Sol shifted, palm open to await his go-ahead, and the fact that he hadn't simply chosen to kindle a spell on his own initiative told Ky all he needed to know. It was the one thing he could pride himself on, the one thing he could best Sol in without pushing his body to its limits, though the migraines tended to render any actual feeling of triumph moot — another one of a lightning user's double-edged talents, a sensitivity to magic far beyond what a normal mage was capable of. The faint sensation against his skin had been a constant ever since they'd approached the crash site, not quite thin enough to be anything like air, not quite thick enough to be anything like mist, and entirely too much like the sixth sense trying to tell the difference between shadow and monster creeping in the night, making him reluctant to move his fingers away from the small depression near the hilt that would send the Furaiken sizzling to life.

A foolish urge, that, but it was enough that he could tell the difference, the invisible force brushing against the hairs on his neck speaking of danger but not violence. Not exactly the kind of warning he could have expected from such a place, altogether too subdued for a ship this size, and yet, it was the only reason he hadn't just ordered the placement of a beacon, and left the rest to any cleaning squads the Order might choose to send.

"It should be fine. Just go slow, and not all at once."

A hum of agreement, and then a small flame was climbing up between them, casting Sol's features in stark relief. Around them, the magic surged and steadied, the very air so saturated with its pulse that the slightest change prompted a reaction, like a sleeping beast shifting when disturbed. He couldn't even begin to guess what this meant for the reactor, if it even was at all like the reactors any of them were used to — a leak, most likely, perhaps only a partial core breach, or else he would have felt tempted to give up his lunch long before they'd gotten close enough for the chance to go up in a ball of iridescent fire.

If they have jettisoned it, and it hasn't been crushed into the ground, and what you're dealing with here aren't the beginnings of a scar.

"Something the matter?"

Sol, watching him, and it was hard to tell whether the flicker in his eyes was irritation at the hold-up or actual discomfort.

"No. Just thinking we should get moving again asap. I don't want us camping on this bit of land longer than we strictly have to."

"Scar?"

"It feels a little off, but... it's a possibility."

"Well, lovely." Sol grabbed onto the edge with barely any regard to his palms, swinging his legs into the darkness again. "Then let's get a move on. Unless you're looking forward to growing scales on your dick."

Ky rolled his eyes. "That wouldn't do, no. How much of a drop?"

"Just a bit over six feet." A smirk. "If you ask nicely..."

"I'd say you'll be fully occupied worrying about yourself." A spark would have been too much of a risk, and unprofessional at that, but that didn't mean he couldn't give Sol a good shove, and Sol was lazy enough to allow the push to send him down the hole again. "Alright, we're going in. Don't touch anything you're unfamiliar with, leave things where they are. I know Order protocol demands blacktech recovery, but I'd prefer to keep this low-risk. We're just here to catalogue, see if there are supplies we can use. Don't use spells unless you have to, stay alert, and report anything untoward."

"Yes, sir."

Echoed as one as Ky pushed himself back from the wall, sliding a bit to the left to avoid Sol's mockingly outstretched arms, and leapt, straight into the bowels of the Zeppian wreckage.

--------------

"Incredible... from here, the damage doesn't even look that bad."

He still hadn't dared to activate the Furaiken, the residue of magic curling more restlessly the deeper they went. All he had to see by was the palm Sol didn't seem to mind sacrificing as a torch, though he had little illusion that the man was just as deadly one-armed, or even that the sword on his back was little more than a tool, a slight modification to someone who could tear through steel blast doors like rice paper. Around them, the airship was a silent tomb, identical corridors running into and away from each other, streamlined in a way the Order engineers had never managed. Pipes half the size for twice the output, complex wiring meant to operate automated doors and seal them shut. Broken, of course, spilling out onto the floor a dozen at a time, paneling torn loose by the impact, but nothing that couldn't be fixed, nothing that came in any way close to the destruction he'd seen at an Order crash site, ruptured hulls, the insides burning out.

The Order might have known their magic better, had had more than enough time to craft the theory for the finest spellwork far and wide, but Zepp had the finesse, the gift to turn a lump of metal into an object of any size and strength they desired without even pausing for breath. Heresy, to hold admiration for the enemy. Commander Undersn had the stories that nobody wanted to hear told, stories of sleek, screaming dive bombers weaving in and out between Gears a hundred times their size, tales of breaking bread with a stray smuggler clan at dusk, a sense of wonder filling up the silence for their lack of common words.

The few and solitary as the basis of a society, a single caravan not even the size of a platoon but charged with accomplishing the same things, a single pilot locked in the cockpit of those silver birds, utterly alone inside a carapace that was no protection at all. It was impossible not to harbor a fascination for such people, though he'd never met even one of them, precepts of fear and the perverse crumbling like sand in the face of his own curiosity. A curiosity that demanded he think the unthinkable, and consider the impossible, and saw Zepp as by far not the most mysterious or the most dangerous out of all the things to contemplate.

"Nothing in here, either." Sol closed the door to a room the size of a walk-in closet, stuffed to the brim with a delicate grid of interlocking cogs. "Doesn't look like this place got turned into a Gear nest."

Not for a lack of signs that they'd been here, of course, had smashed their way inside in search of prey — long, inch-deep claw marks on the walls, the soot of a firefight all over. No bodies, not that the Gears would have left them, neither of the unlucky crew nor their own.

"That's what's worrying me..." Ky trailed off, trying to decide if a ship of this sophistication would also be packing significantly more power than an Order ship of comparable size. The Ignatius class carried twin crystals in its reactor chambers, each the size of a human torso and powerful enough to require days of preparation work to install them. He'd been present in the shipyard when they were putting one of the reactors together, to watch the mages weaving seal after seal to the point of exhaustion, a hundredfold containment spells linking with each other to form a field strong enough to keep the explosion from eating more than ten miles surrounding the yard, should anything go awry.

This reactor hadn't exploded, but was leaking its magic continuously into the ground, the air and everything in a radius of miles, enough to keep away the Gears for good and make the army mages develop varying degrees of headache, nature's warning of unpleasant consequences. There was a reason Order engineers lived as rigorously celibate as any monk, why so many villages had to be relocated entirely even if they had been saved. God's scar was the official term, as dramatic as it was appropriate, the directionless, artificial magic from the battle artillery seeping into every living thing, and, with enough time, irrevocably changing parts of the body.

"How long do you suppose it's been here?"

"Well, shit, boyscout," Sol muttered, shrugging his shoulders. "You're the magical chronometer, if you can't tell..."

"Not precisely, no. I'd like to find the log, if at all possible. I don't want to endanger anyone for a sealing unless we know for sure."

"And you'll be participating."

It wasn't a question. It never was, Sol entirely too smart and entirely too cynical not to know what he was thinking, when he was thinking it, and even after all this time the idea would still take him by surprise — the realization that Sol would be able to lead, even with his lack of subtlety, easily a Commander in his own right if only he would choose. A responsibility he claimed not to want, a role dismissed with the flick of a casual finger, and yet, Sol was doing it anyway, quietly, with the rank of a common soldier, calculating the same things, the number of mages it would take, the amount of time they'd all need to recover from the drain. Planning. Wondering. Worrying, somewhere deep down, for every single man, just as much as he did. Worrying, impossibly enough, beyond the desire to wring his neck nine times out of ten, about him.

And I don't think you realize, what it is... and if I told you, if I let it on, you'd have to find the next steady surface to bash your skull in.

"Nothing I haven't done before."

"Yeah, well," and here Sol shoved open another door, to a room with a table anchored to the floor and chairs smashed every which way, "it'll be me who has to babysit your unconscious ass after the fact."

A month or two ago, he would have scowled, rankled beyond reason at the insult to his competence, but now, he was fighting down a smile, the jab at his height or his skill or even the one time he had actually keeled over from drain symptoms a familiar beat, a way to keep the game going. Saying what they meant without ever saying it. "You seem to be rather stuck on that. Perhaps I should—"

"..ir? Sir?" The static from the earpiece nearly swallowed the soldier's voice, making him strain to listen.

"Kiske speaking."

"We found the freight rooms, sir. Three decks below you, sir, towards the rear. They've been sealed up, it's really weird, sir..."

"Understood. I'll be—"

A sharp, loud sound, its reverberations ringing through the ether both inside the radio and without, and he couldn't help but jump, instinctively seeking to duck.

"Private? Private!"

Static, no matter how much he tapped his fingers against the earpiece, and he looked over at Sol to find the same realization reflected in his eyes. Too weak to be the reactor, too aggressive to be the noise of a door closing or a container falling.

"Private, report!"

"....Sir? We... have a situation."

---------

When he'd been about twelve, Commander Undersn had taken him into the vaults far below headquarters for a lesson that required few words to grasp its meaning. Down, and down, past flights of stairs and crankshaft elevators, buried deep and good like it was the norm for Order business. Like most of them, it was an illegal lesson, anything that had to do with history, true history found outside books and pamphlets, but it didn't occur to him just how much the Commander might be risking until they reached the deepest level, and the seals drew back to let the heavy metal door swing open, revealing a secret as old as the first years of the war.

Cells, dozens of them, white and empty underneath the dust of disuse, and examination rooms that were just as white, filled with flat chrome tables and instruments, the faint smell of chemicals still holding up against the decay. The sisters at the orphanage had called magic a gift, a blessing from heaven to aid humanity in the hour of its greatest need. Under Commander Undersn, he'd learned to call it an aptitude, a word to show that magic could be studied, and wielded, and understood, but until that moment, he'd never realized what its rarity truly meant for the Order. The best, most efficient weapon against the Gears, distributed among only a fraction of its soldiers. All that power, stronger than any tool or weapon, and no one knew where it came from, or how, which children would manifest and which would go through life without so much as a flicker of divinity. It took little to imagine the reasoning, clean and efficient, discussed around a table with cushioned seats and little tea cups, the tallies with their numbers in black ink, as irrefutable as the slow, crushing realization that taking down the Gears was not a matter of months, or even a handful of years. They would have to prepare for the long run.

There was no telling how long it had taken the scientists to give up on the goal, and enough bunks to hold hundreds of test subjects. Little to no evidence as to their suffering — transfusions of mages' blood, exposure to magic fields, and, close to the end, in an act of sheer desperation, crushed crystal waste in their food and drink. Useless, all of it, their bodies trying to reject what they couldn't process, the magic forcibly bonding with anything it could latch onto, skin, hair, and internal organs, choking the soul until there was only madness left.

The man before him now wasn't a mage and had no power signature to call his own, just an ugly, writhing jumble of magic trying to assimilate into his body, staring at the world out of sunken eyes half-blind with a quicksilver sheen. Once upon a time, he would have been imposing, tall and broad-shouldered in his military fatigues, holding himself with the confidence of a veteran, but there was no way to say how long he'd been down here, weeks or even months, locked in near darkness with the burn of magic pushing him towards the edge of reason. In his hand, the gun was trembling, the slash of the barrel wavering from one soldier to the next, each poised for combat.

"Commander!"

The shout sent the barrel jerking towards him, the aim guided almost entirely by instinct, and he felt more than heard Sol huff at having their advantage ruined. Not that it mattered much, when rushing and tackling the man might very well transform the cargo bay into an inferno, the magic just waiting to resonate with something, anything at all, a small spark of terror or fury enough to set it off. The man might not have been able to cast a true spell, but his body had soaked up sufficient energy to cause serious damage. Taking off the edge was the most important thing right now, when he couldn't even be sure what the man was seeing, whether he could even still recognize them as people or whether the magic was already turning his surroundings into a series of ghostly glowing shapes.

With a wave, Ky signaled his men to stand down, but the Zeppian soldier barely seemed to notice, most of his attention fixed on him. Taking a breath, Ky stepped forward, summoning the beginnings of a containment spell as he did so. He'd talked drain-afflicted magic users out of going on a panicked rampage before, but not someone like this, and never someone to whom he was the enemy even outside a hazy fever dream. No telling if even the words would be too much, and if it came to that, at least he could keep anyone else from coming to harm.

"Please don't be alarmed. We are soldiers of the Sacred Order of Holy Knights, but we want to help. Do you understand?"

When there was no answer, he took another step, the second sequence of the spell twining with the first. "We didn't know anyone had survived the crash. We wanted to—"

"...Start scavenging, you mean."

Hoarse and spoken with great effort, but calm past anything he should have been capable of, a hint of disdain showing through his heavy accent. The man licked his lips, not really noticing when they came away dry.

"I won't deny that. But now that we know better, we want to offer our help."

The man started to shake his head, staggering when the motion was too much for him to take. "Is that... what you lot... call taking prisoners?" A click, the sound of another round chambering. "Leave, now."

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Ky said, the spell weaving itself to completion in his mind, ready to be released. "The area around this ship has become very dangerous. We'll have to take measures to ensure it doesn't get worse."

"Heh. You're not getting this ship, and you're not getting any 'heretics' for burning, either."

Bitter now, so very bitter, and Ky couldn't even refute the accusation in good conscience, Zeppian smugglers raiding villages under the cover of a Gear attack the same way the inquisitors would drag off stranded troops or sympathizers to stand trial, and being sentenced to a public whipping was usually the best any of them could to hope for. There was too much bad blood to even know where to begin, and the soldier wouldn't believe him, anyway, reassurances bearing little to no meaning coming from an enemy.

"You're very sick."

A simple statement, but it seemed to throw the man all the same, his brow furrowing as he tried to add up the words, looking for scorn or pity, and frowning more deeply when he couldn't find it. His attention was almost entirely on Ky now, enough not to see what the small shift in the atmosphere was telling Ky, that Sol had left his position at the entrance, blending with the greater dark of the cargo containers.

"...What are you talking about."

"You've failed to jettison the reactor core, and the magic is starting to contaminate everything around the crash site. Yourself included." Hard to believe that a member of the crew wouldn't know, or wouldn't have realized in time what was happening, when even the youngest, most backwater of farm boys couldn't pass their first day in recruitment without hearing all the ways in which magic was a heavenly light, and twice the ways in which it could ruin everyone's day. The man was hardly a low-ranking grunt, too keen and too strong-willed to let anything so basic slip his notice.

"Bullshit." He coughed, his entire upper body shaking with the force of it, and Ky didn't need to see the fist he'd pressed against his mouth to know that it was coming away dark and wet.

"You don't have to listen to me," Ky said quietly. "But you should listen to your own body. It's trying to shut down."

"That isn't—"

A weak moan interrupted his protest, startling them both.

"Was that—?"

"Stay back!" The gun jerked again, trying to aim for the center of his chest, but wavering between his left shoulder and the wall.

"...Sol?" Ky asked, not a notch above the quiet conversation they'd been having. "How many?"

There was a pause, Sol probably kneeling down to check for breath. "...Goddamn infirmary back here. Ten... no, twelve guys. Tell the medics to get their asses over here."

"Understood." Shuffling at his back indicated that the two soldiers were already moving, unbuckling their equipment packs as they went.

"Nobody move," the Zeppian crewman croaked, his arm trembling with the effort of holding the gun steady enough to try and pull back the hammer.

With a small gesture that sent the medics on ahead, Ky held out his hand. "Your loyalty is admirable, and I swear on my honor that we won't harm your comrades. But they need help, and fast, the same as you."

"Don't move... or I'll shoot."

"You won't do that."

"Name... name one good reason why I wouldn't."

With a small smile, Ky closed his fingers around the barrel of the gun, felt it give under his grip as if even holding onto it was too great a strain. "Because you know I'm right."

------

Zepp was another subject on the lesson plan of budding young commander candidates that would have gotten Kliff Undersn court-martialed thrice over if the Vatican could have found someone else to do his job. He had a gift for telling stories, not in a manner that was especially animated, but with a gentle kind of humor, making it easy for Ky to pick out the questions the Commander wanted him to ask, the things he wanted him to look out for. Never clear-cut, and never simple, questions of faith, and duty, and ethics, of trading off honesty and pride for cunning and cunning for kindness, and from their afternoon debates, it didn't take much to arrive at intelligence reports, at the minutes of closed meetings, where high officials deliberated in earnest how much it would cost to take down Zepp, how many months, how many troops, how many resources, even now. Whether it could be done swiftly, whether the city should be destroyed or taken, how to proceed with the civilians in such a case, should any even exist.

The decisions he would have to make, would be able to make, if such a proposal ever went through.

"You look dead on your feet."

The stack of papers came down on his head as something between a casual tap and an earnest whack, completely unconcerned with the nurse's glare as she had to readjust her scan spell to compensate for the intruding aura. Reaching up, Ky risked a glance at Sol's face, the mildly put-upon expression as if he'd been sent to the mess tent to ask about dinner instead of clambering around inside a wreckage while every available mage was busy throwing a barrage of sealing incantations at the place. Anyone else, and they probably would have dropped dead, but Sol looked none the worse for the wear as he handed over the crude inventory list, plus a small set of notes that appeared to be someone's diary.

"I hadn't noticed," Ky said, giving the nurse a nod of thanks as she withdrew to consult her chart. "A few more rounds and this area should be set."

"Define 'a few more'."

"Five or six. That wreck's been here at least three months. Three months... it's a miracle any of them are even alive."

"You're all set, sir." The nurse had returned to remove the tape around his arm, beaming. "But I want you back in here after the next round, or I'll have to send someone to fetch you."

"I won't let it come to that, I promise," Ky said as he rose from his chair, shrugging back into his coat and turning to Sol. "If you're still feeling gallant, do me a favor and check up on the sealing teams. I'm..."

"...not going to do anything sensible," Sol muttered as they made their way towards the tent exit.

"Going to check up on our guests," Ky corrected. "They moved our sharpshooter a little while ago. I'd like to see how he's doing."

"Like I said, not going to do anything sensible."

"If you're that worried about my getting into trouble for ignoring regulations, you might want to try breaking fewer of them, yourself."

Instead of the childish retort he'd come to expect, Sol chose to turn away, scowling at a spot in the middle distance. "You ever met a Zeppian, kid?"

"No. Have you?" Tilting his head, Ky regarded his profile, the tight set of his jaw usually reserved for inquisitors and especially unpleasant officials. In the first few weeks, the ease and experience with which Sol handled machinery both broken and illegal had struck him, to a point where he'd entertained the notion that he might have something to do with Zepp. A theory as good as any, or as poor as any, to explain the baffling inconsistencies around the man, but it hadn't taken him long to file it away in favor of even more glaring mysteries. Now, though, he was wondering again.

"All I'm saying is they're crafty bastards. If they see an opportunity, they'll exploit it. That's their way of doing business." Sol exhaled, and glanced back over his shoulder. "Don't give away anything you don't mind losing. They don't think much of your special brand of altruism up there."

It took him a second to realize that Sol was waiting for an acknowledgment, some kind of confirmation as if he'd been talking to a particularly wide-eyed child, when he would usually simply voice his opinions and walk away. Wrestling down the urge to answer with a perturbed scowl of his own, Ky reached for a faint smirk. "That doesn't sound too foreign, then. I'll just pretend I'm at a brass meeting."

-----------

The tent for the recovering magic users was quiet and mostly empty, save for a nurse restocking medical supplies near the entrance. For the moment, the wards had been toned down, enough not to excite the condition of their unusual patient, just a faint pinprick sensation as Ky ducked inside. The gunman was lying on a cot near the back, his eyes closed and breathing regular, cleansed from the coil of foreign magic. Despite that, the consequences of overexposure had been engraved on his body, the outside only an incomplete mirror of the inside — the white-bleached hair, the stark, bony veins bulging from his throat and temples, pulsing with an unnatural glow. His torso and arms had been wrapped in bandages, one reaching up to his elbow, the other all the way to his shoulder, a small kindness on the doctors' part to hide what they couldn't change, the peeling layers of scales starting to show under the rim of the dressings.

For just a moment, Ky found himself wanting to avert his gaze. For just that moment, he forced himself to linger, until the desire had passed.

"...They send them in for gawking, now?"

The man's eyes remained closed and his lips hardly moved, forcing the whisper out of his badly scarred throat.

"Forgive me. I meant no disrespect."

"Heh. You..." Turning his head, the man cracked one eye open to reveal something else the doctors hadn't been able to fix, the iris still bearing the same metallic sheen. "You're the one, from before..."

"Yes, we spoke," Ky said, giving him a smile of recognition, though it might as well have been a sneer. "Though I've failed to introduce myself. I'm Commander Kiske. The circumstances probably don't seem very pleasant, but for what it's worth... welcome."

"...Commander?" Choosing to ignore the greeting, the man squinted, straining for a clear image. "Whose son... are you, that they'd make a child commander?"

"I assure you that I've earned my position, and not by virtue of my birth," Ky said, watching the twist of the man's mouth, a kind of recognition in it that went beyond simple mockery. "Besides, I recall some among your crew who can't have been much older than myself."

"...My crew..."

"You're their captain, aren't you?" Ky asked, choosing to push onward. The tags on the foreign uniforms meant little to him, but the stranger had held himself like a leader, trying to defend the safety of his men. "May I ask your name?"

"My name's... none of your business," the captain croaked, trying to push himself upright. "Where are my men? I want to see them."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible for at least another day. Your crew are still undergoing treatment; if you were to expose yourself to the spells now..."

"Treatment, right," he snarled, exhaustion giving way to a sudden fury that pulled the skin taut against his swollen veins. "Treating the answers right out of them, I suppose. If you have to interrogate someone, at least—"

"I've given you my word that neither you nor your crew will come to any harm, and I stand by that. The cleansing process is quite difficult, so—"

"You really think I'm going to believe anything from the mouth of the Pope's dog?"

With a shrug, Ky leaned forward, meeting the piercing silver stare. "If we're going to play by these rules, captain, I should have gone in expecting this ship to be a trap set by a bunch of thieving Zeppian heretics... and where would that leave us?"

After a long silence, the captain averted his gaze, sinking back into the pillow.

"I think you knew very well that we were your only hope, even at the risk of captivity," Ky continued. "We have absolutely no reason to keep you and your crew apart, save your own health. I have to return to my duties now, but I'll instruct a nurse to take you to them as soon as it's safe for you to do so."

The captain didn't reply, his face turned towards the distant rectangle of the entrance, away from the proof of his own helplessness. In a way, Ky supposed, it would have been easier if he'd been younger, just a simple crewman frightened out of his wits by the changes in his body, the unfamiliar surroundings and any horror stories he might have heard, instead of this proud man, responsible for the soldiers under his command, ashamed at his own instincts for choosing survival.

"Hey." The call reached him just as Ky had been about to duck outside, turning back around to find the captain staring at him again, a challenge in his eyes. "What if the lying, thieving Zeppian heretic gets well enough to decide that nurse would make a fine hostage?"

With an easy smile, Ky drew back the flap. "Then you'll find our nurses to be well-trained in the art of inflicting painful, if not lasting damage on unruly occupants. Rest well, captain."

-------

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can even get its pants on. Unlike a message or report, rumors were designed to build on a lack of information, to cobble together vague notions and blend them with strong feelings, curiosity, superstition, fear. In his lessons, the Commander taught him not to listen to them, while listening all the same, using them to understand the unease that led them to spread. If Ky combined every last bit of gossip he'd ever heard about Zeppians, the bedtime frights, the angry sermons of the wandering preachers, the whispers and concerns at strategy meetings, he had to admit the creature they formed was a nasty thing indeed, somewhere between alp and imp, alternately a source of temptation and the bringer of misfortune. A ridiculous thing, too, and one he couldn't in all seriousness believe in, but now he found that some things had still stuck in his mind, their hooks too close to reality to simply be brushed aside.

He'd seen it on his own side entirely too often, the kind of thinking that saw people replaced by stacks of silver coins in a heartbeat, the ease of a lord's disregard for his own subjects, that he found himself frozen in surprise at the sight — the captain, his head bowed at the bedside of an unconscious crewman, murmuring encouragements in their strange, lilting language. Whatever prideful anger he had managed upon Ky's first visit was gone now, his shoulders slumped, his voice tired and raw, and in that moment, it was easy to imagine them, cowering in the near-darkness of a doomed ship with no one besides each other, their hope dwindling with every passing day that their distress signal might have found its way home.

"I can't get him to leave, sir," the nurse murmured, casting an anxious glance over her shoulder. "It was only meant to be for a short while, but... he's been here since this morning, without a moment's break. I'm worried..."

"The spells?" Ky asked.

"He doesn't know yet, sir, but..." She lowered her gaze. "He's deteriorated too far. They all are..."

"I understand. I'll talk to him."

The captain didn't move, barely looking up when Ky stepped to his side, his bandaged hands folded around the clenched fist of his feverish subordinate. "If you're here to tell me to leave, you'll have to send in the guards."

"I'm not. As long as you understand—"

"They said it was dangerous, because of..." He examined the bandages, the nerve endings too damaged to even feel the pain of the hardening and peeling skin. "...because of what's gone wrong with us."

A shrug, and when he glanced up, the guilt was visible in every line on his face, spelling out what he couldn't voice to an enemy — that he hadn't known, that he wished he'd known, that by the time he'd thought to think that anything was wrong, most of his crew had been too sick to move.

"What's going to happen to us?"

Not even trying for defiance anymore, nothing available past exhaustion, and the heavy realization that the country that had him flying supply runs through concentrated Gear swarms, every day for who-knew-how-many years, wasn't really interested enough in anything he was doing to tell him how to protect his own men. There should have been something to say here, anything besides the recognition of the steps to an old, old tune, all of the Commander's struggles to grant his own soldiers even a modicum of agency, but Ky couldn't think of anything that wouldn't be salt in an open wound.

"My superiors know nothing of this incident, and I intend to keep it that way," he said eventually, surveying the row of beds to give the captain time to collect himself. "If at all possible, I'd like for you to think of yourselves as our guests for the time being. We won't be able to repair your airship, but... I'd still like to do everything I can to help you return home."

"Your guests..." the captain repeated slowly, as if turning the syllables over in his mouth and finding them to have a strange aftertaste. "You would take the risk of letting us walk around and do what we please?"

"I've seen what I need to know," Ky said, eyes straying back to the captain's hands, still clasped around the young crewman's in a strange mirror of a priest's bedside manner. "The front doesn't exactly lend itself to hospitality, but you should be able to rest, and recover."

"...And your people feel the same way?"

"My people know their duties."

The captain had turned to face him fully, searching his expression for any hint of insincerity. "You're telling me a nice sum of money for turning in a bunch of heathens wouldn't sound tempting to any of them? To you?"

Ky only shook his head. If there was one thing inquisitors truly excelled at, it was turning their own would-be informants against them, so much so that even in an army whose main host consisted of underpaid farmhands, they found few desperate enough to cooperate. "I trust my men to carry out their orders."

With a quiet huff, the captain turned away again. "Where I'm from, that kind of thinking's bound to land you a dagger in the back."

Ky smiled. "So I've been told."

"Why do this, then? If our roles were reversed, you know I wouldn't do the same for you."

"I know. And I'd expect nothing else."

"Then why?"

"Because this world is full of fighting. I figure here might not be a bad time to stop."

-------

The sun was hanging low on the horizon by the time the last round of spells started to settle, a flock of tendrils that would have been invisible if not for all the wild magic it was reacting with, backlit by the red-gold glow of the sunset. At the foot of the ravine, the members of team three were high-fiving each other, giddy with coming off a high-adrenaline assignment, and Ky allowed himself a small sigh, able to enjoy the first cup of stew without the slightly disturbing sensation of a presence mingling with the steam.

The crunch of debris was more a courtesy than anything else, Sol's version of a warning before a metal canister came rattling down the mound beside him, so battered that it could hardly be described as cylindrical anymore. A second later, Sol followed, various tears in his uniform from carrying containers, clambering all over the crash site, and possibly taking that opportunity to venture into a few spaces not fit for a man of his size.

"Found it."

"Where was it?" Ky asked, turning over the signal buoy on its side to look for any signs of familiarity beyond its shape and finding none. Dials that meant nothing to him, no sign of a modulator, nothing to show that it was even still active beyond an array of lights at the front, flashing a faint green.

"Just half a mile to the east. It's still sending."

"I see." There was no point in asking how he knew. "Out of range, you think?"

Sol shrugged his shoulders, wincing a little when it seemed to irritate a muscle. "Depends on how generous you want to be. Could be just as easily that they decided a recovery wasn't worth it. The ship wasn't carrying too much of value, after all."

Just grain, and sugar, bales of flax, parts of weapons and machinery. Nothing that couldn't be replaced in a city such as Paris, relatively safe and away from the front, but for a small, isolated island without resources... "You really think they could afford that?"

Sol didn't reply, instead opting for a swig of his canteen. Just when Ky was about to return to his stew, he said, "Can't phone home with that, at any rate. If they weren't listening before, I doubt they'll be listening now."

"Yes, there is that. What do you propose we do, then? We can't exactly take the crew with us; they'd be arrested as soon as we get to the next town."

"Zepp's got its hiding holes all over. If they were doing business with the ground, then they should know a couple of spots."

"And lead an Order contingent there? Not likely," Ky said, downing the rest of his cup.

"That, boyscout, is your problem," Sol said, a glint of schadenfreude flaring in his eyes. "You want my opinion, though, tether the horses and double the watch on the weapons depot."

Cocking his head, Ky shot him a sidelong glance, catching the same hard set of his mouth, the same refusal to give up what he was getting at. This wasn't about the captain or the rest of the freighter crew any more than his previous warning had been free advice. "...You really don't like them, do you. Zeppians, I mean."

The blunt approach rarely worked, and he could see Sol deliberating what to tell him even as he gave another shrug, as casually as they came. "Place's got a few skeletons in its closet, is all."

"Such as?"

He knew, even as he posed the question, that it wouldn't get him an answer, that this was as much as Sol was willing to share, and so he wasn't too disappointed to have a small rain of pebbles skittering down the slope, signaling an interruption.

"Sir?" The soldier ducked his head briefly, realizing Ky wasn't alone. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir, but... that captain. He's been asking to see you. I wasn't sure if—"

"It's all right, private." Sol was already getting up, waving dismissively, and Ky was pretty sure he'd find him looking through the cargo later on, taking apart blacktech for parts. "Return to your duties; I'll be up in a moment."

"...Sir." A moment's hesitation, a hint of the unease now that their guests were making the transition from invalids to soldiers again. Everyone respected mages, what they could do and what they went through to do it, and patients with magic poisoning were more or less similar, a category of their own to be treated with care, no matter where they came from or how young and green they were. Under different circumstances, it would have been amusing, to see these boys raised on rumors and scares forget about them almost completely, and only remember tags like 'heretic' and 'Zeppian' once their guests were up and out again, wearing their strange uniforms and speaking in their strange accent, carrying strange secrets wherever they went.

"It will be fine, private," Ky said, lips quirking ruefully at the thought that another briefing might be due. It couldn't hurt to give them a reminder, reaffirm their trust in his decisions. "Remember, you're the one with the sword."

------

"Captain."

The greeting went unacknowledged, the captain's attention taken up entirely by the display ahead of them, the flashes of light intensifying as more of the magic became bound and neutralized, like far-off sheet lightning.

"It's amazing..." he murmured eventually, his voice just a note too breathless for a simple compliment. "It looks... it looks almost like the shield back home."

"The shield?" Ky asked, determined to keep his own tone casually interested. This was the first time the captain had chosen to reveal anything personal, too concerned about having anything he said end up as the basis for some kind of anti-Zeppian attack plan or weaponry. If nothing else, it was a cause for contemplation, this fierce, near-paranoid protectiveness — outside of secret brass meetings, the possibility of war with Zepp was barely discussed, but here was a mere freighter captain, sensing the possibility for all-out war at every turn. Not all that hard to imagine the need for so much fear and worry, an extreme mirror of what was going on at his own side, when things like ignorance and blind faith didn't make for very threatening enemies. Zepp thought them stupid, and it was a bit hard to argue with some aspects of it when there was so much bureaucracy, a hundred forms to fill out for every tiny request so that the request sputtered and died on the fifth copy, so many theatrics surrounding perfectly ordinary machinery, but above all, they were many against Zepp's few, sitting on top of everything the city might need.

"The shield around my city," the captain said, one hand tracing the vaguely dome-shaped arc of the seal. "When the sun hits it just right, it looks like this, like it's made of gold... it's hard to believe you got this done without any machines."

"I'm sure your mages are capable of similar feats."

"The few we have, they're trained as technicians, not..." He cut himself off, squeezing his injured arms as if to remind himself of where he was, and to whom he was talking.

Ky waited to see if he would continue, and, when nothing was forthcoming, gestured for him to follow to the small table that had been set up at the edge of the impact site, an improvised map pinned to its length to show the flow of the excess magic and any spots it was especially fond of pooling in. His dinner was still sitting there in its thermos, mostly untouched, and he grabbed the other cup that had come with it, pouring the stew and nudging it towards the captain.

"Where I'm from, a host spying on his guests is considered a rather shameful act."

Curling his hands around the cup, the captain smiled thinly. "Where I'm from, we have no word for 'guest'."

"No word, really?"

"The closest thing... well, I guess it would be synonymous with 'favor'."

Ky nodded, no need for further explanation. Help without any expectations was a rare enough concept even in a world that preached forgiveness and loving one's neighbor and all the other good, Christian virtues, but he couldn't even begin to imagine the world view behind such a decision, the removal of an entire concept from a language. The idea of an unbiased welcome, the safety of acceptance and rest without the worry of a price. He wondered if this had to do with what Sol had meant, when he'd alluded to skeletons.

"You would feel more comfortable, then, if I were to demand something in return for my hospitality?"

"I don't like what I can't see, Commander," the captain said slowly, and even through the permanent sheen the magic had left in his gaze, it was easy to see his deliberation. "Your people speak to an entity that doesn't exist, and give thanks to powers not their own. I've heard them speak of you like you're part of these invisible things, and then I look at you and see a child leading an army, and that should be it but it isn't." He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was low, a difficult admission to make. "I don't like this difference between what I know and what I can see."

"I understand. A contract, then." Ky extended his hand. "For any answer you choose to give, you may demand an answer in return, on anything excepting military secrets. Anything you tell me is for my ears only, and anything I tell you will be the same. If you're determined to regard your stay here as a debt, then I'll hereby ask for payment with the following: since your cargo has to be technically considered lost, that we may use your materials to repair our own weapons, and half of the provisions you were carrying. Does that sound fair?"

"You aren't asking for anything that wouldn't have been your due anyway, Commander."

"My proposal stands."

The captain raised his eyebrows, but when Ky showed no sign of changing his mind, he eventually reached out, grasping his hand in a shake that was as much cautious as it was his fingers unable to fully close. Hard to believe he'd ever fly again, that when the healing energy wore off, his life wouldn't be one of constant pain.

With a small nod, Ky pushed the thought aside for the time being, bending down to place the signal buoy on the table. It lolled slightly under the captain's astonished gaze, waiting to be stabilized. "I believe this belongs to you."

"This isn't part of our contract, Commander."

"I'm terribly new to this whole contract thing," Ky said, not entirely willing or able to hold back the glimmer of amusement. "I hope you're willing to consider it a minor violation."

It took a while for the captain to stop searching his face, and even longer for him to reach out again, placing his palm on top of the cylinder and pressing down. With a soft whir, the buoy went dead, its blinking lights going out one by one. After a long silence, the captain took up the cup, examining the contents. "That's... actual meat in there, isn't it?"

"Dried, yes. The supply lines have been holding up quite well for this time of year."

"We've been living on pickles for the past four weeks." A lopsided grin, to brush away defeat and loneliness and strangeness. "I really hate pickles."

---------

The first piece of blacktech he'd ever encountered had been the small, banged-up tea kettle that was part of Commander Undersn's marching gear, a metal pitcher sitting on top of a flat plate that had been wired to a chip of crystal, barely the size of a fingernail and enough to provide the heat for two cups at a time. It was there, on the porch of the candidate training compound with two steaming cups of peppermint infusion sitting between them, that he learned such a piece of technology had originally been called "electric," that he could take it apart and poke at its pieces and reuse them for other devices, as long as they followed the same basic principles. It wasn't until years later that he finally met the ill-tempered repairman responsible for the magical hybrid tea kettle, and came to recognize his handiwork in half of the still functioning guns in the regiment.

Sol didn't so much teach as he pretended he couldn't sense Ky watching whenever the mobile cannons broke down, or a casual stroll through an abandoned depot unearthed the blackest of blacktech, to be turned into heaters, torches or bits of radio equipment. He rarely gave instructions and hardly ever answered any of the million questions vying for attention in Ky's mind, what the parts were called, what they had been meant for, how he knew, what he knew, why so many pieces bore such an eerie resemblance to Order technology. If he hadn't known better, he would have said that Sol was simply enjoying his superiority, unwilling as he was to divulge any of his secrets, but every now and then, when Ky paused in taking apart the strange devices on his own and glanced over, he'd catch him watching in return, and sense the barest hint of approval.

"Does the Order know that its commanders are playing with — what was it again — devil tools?"

The captain's tone might have been sarcasm if not for the genuine surprise shining through, stepping towards him across the pile of crates and boxes. Ky looked up from the gun parts splayed across his lap to catch sight of a few of the soldiers tracking the captain's progress, but dropping their gaze when they noticed their Commander's lack of objection to his presence.

"It's all right," Ky returned cheerfully, holding up the bowl of clear water that was there more for the sake of appearances than anything else. "I've been performing exorcisms all morning."

At the confusion on the captain's face, he added, "Holy water."

"...your world view is a strange one, Commander." With a certain heaviness, the captain sat down on the container beside him, a sure sign that even the short climbing expedition was taking its toll more than he was willing to let on. "If this... god of yours made everything in this world, as you say, why does he make two kinds of water?"

"It's not quite that," Ky said, returning to taking apart the heavy magic rifle, its barrel alone a good deal taller than he was. The fine wiring for the output adjustment had melted partially, one of the side effects of the new cores — greater output at the expense of absolutely horrendous wastage of material. "It's more that we take water and perform rites to give it a particular purpose."

"So you offer to your god something you say he has given to you." The captain grinned. "In my country, we call this chutzpah."

Ky laughed, grabbing the pliers and extracting the wiring of the device he'd pulled from the machinery containers, a scratched casket with a handle on top and a dial at the front. He had no idea what it might have been used for once upon a time, a little oddly shaped and so quaint-looking that even the staunchest of inquisitors would have had a difficult time selling it to anyone as the work of Satan's own.

After watching him in silence for a while, the captain picked up the bowl, examining it for markings or anything that would show its contents as special. "And having this nearby will keep you safe, you think."

"Oh no, not at all," Ky said, far too entertained by the idea. "I'm not even supposed to be doing this. The actual procedure is, we catalogue, we report what we've found, we receive word what must be destroyed and what should be brought back for safekeeping, and then, technically, we all have to go to confession or undertake a ritual cleansing to save our souls from eternal punishment. I've just taken the liberty of... diverting the process into something more useful."

"So you are violating the code of your way of life."

"Just my organization's." Ky shrugged, pulling out the sooty mess and starting in on attaching the cables he'd found. "My teacher used to tell me that morality is for those with food in their mouths and money in their pockets. A lot of rules sound good on paper until you hit the field and realize just how much of it is an obstacle or doesn't make sense."

The captain nodded, a shadow stealing across his face momentarily. "Your teacher sounds like a wise man."

"He'd laugh if you told him that."

"Still, it seems he has managed to raise quite the cuckoo's egg. Do you know what this is, Commander?"

He patted the gutted casket, waiting for Ky to look at him expectantly.

"A waffle iron."

"You're joking."

"An electric waffle iron." For a moment, the flat silvery sheen in his eyes parted for an almost wolfish gleam. "You are using a two-hundred-year-old breakfast appliance to fix your magic gun. And this, Commander, means you've grasped the essence of what it means to be Zeppian."

-------

Ky's first month of field training had seen him flung to the far south, with a regiment of soldiers cobbled together from villages that no longer existed, who hadn't seen a commanding officer in over six months. His candidate's education ensured that he left headquarters proficient in seven major languages, could give orders and ask directions and calm down frightened refugees in just as many more, and all of them proved to be utterly useless. Out of the soldiers he was meant to lead, not one knew how to read a map or operate the equipment they had been left with, and barely two of them spoke the same dialect, a tangle of variants that was neither Greek nor Slavic, where half of the vocabulary of one seemed to classify as insults to the other.

A month of chafing against superstition and language barriers resulted in a corps of proficient gunners, quite a few soldiers with a newly awakened passion for anything mechanic, and a command language that was a mix of barely pronounceable English and the three dialects that were considered the least offensive to anyone around. It had been its own brand of fun, mentally double-checking every order to make sure he'd told them to take that hill and not to do unspeakable things to somebody's grandmother. Still, it had been something of a relief when the Commander's voice came scratching across the radio again, his French clear and grammatical and full of wry amusement, calling him back to a part of the army that wasn't unreasonably wary of headphones.

If he'd had any remaining doubts about the captain, they would have disappeared in that moment, watching the sheer joy on his face at being reunited with his crew. People he knew, people like him, with the same language and the same beliefs and all the same small gestures, unexpectedly returned to him in a land full of strangers. All of them awake, still groggy from their artificial sleep and reasonably wary, sneaking glances at their strange surroundings, the medical staff, and, during their captain's briefing-turned-story, also at him.

"They're stable for the moment, sir." The doctor had bent his head towards Ky, voice lowered to a murmur as he glanced towards his patients. "As long as they don't do anything to aggravate their condition, they should... well."

Ky nodded, sparing the doctor from having to say it out loud — that they'd done all they could, drawn out the excess magic, gotten their vital organs in working order again, but that there was no way to halt the transformation‚ let alone reverse it, not with patients so far gone. They would bear the mark of their ordeal from here on out, ever-expanding, ever-shifting, turning skin to scales and blood vessels to bone, and doing worse where nobody could see, deep inside the body, to heart and lung and soul.

"Do they know yet?"

"I've put off telling them for the time being. It could be too much at once," the doctor said, and Ky said nothing because there was no gentle way of telling someone that they would be losing their face, and voice, and, if worse came to worst, possibly their mind. "I should do some more examinations. Figure out if there's any way to build up a resistance, something. With your permission, sir..."

"Of course."

With a slight bow, the doctor made his way towards the soldiers, reaching for his instrument bag as he did so. After a brief exchange of words and some clipped instructions in Zeppian, the captain withdrew from their bedside, hesitating briefly in the space of uselessness at the doctor's back, before moving to join Ky near the entrance. For a long while, he said nothing, just watching the doctor move from soldier to soldier, returning the anxious glances of his men with quiet reassurance. His right hand hadn't stopped squeezing his upper arm, though, ever conscious of the change hidden under the layers of cloth.

"It's not stopping, is it."

His voice was soft, and final, less an earnest question and more confirmation of the inevitable.

"No. I'm afraid we don't know how, not at this stage," Ky said, biting down on further expressions of regret because he was certain the captain wouldn't have wanted them. "What are you going to do now?"

The captain took a deep breath, pressing his lips together. "...There's no way for us to return to Zepp. The way we are now... we'd frighten people. Couldn't go back to doing runs, anyway, with what the doctor said."

"Then..."

"I'm thinking we could make it to a smuggler enclave. Decide everything else later." He shrugged, his lips twitching. "They don't really mind how odd folks get, so long as they can dig and mine. It'd be a living. We might be able to get a message home, too."

"Are they far, these enclaves?" Ky asked, only to receive a flat look in return. "...I'll tell my men to see to provisions and horses, then."

"You can't stand to lose these beasts, Commander, and I wouldn't know what to offer in return, regardless."

"I'm not interested in returns, Captain. You should know that by now."

"And I still don't understand it."

"In my experience, it's all right to sometimes leave yourself to a mystery," Ky said, a chuckle in his voice as he turned to go. "If you're able to swallow your pride long enough, I'll even throw in a few riding lessons."

"...Sieg." He had almost ducked outside by the time the word reached him, faint but solemn.

"...Captain?"

"I didn't tell you, when you asked before. Sieg. My name is Sieg."






-TBC-

-------------

A/N: Heavens, it's been a long time. Didn't mean to drop off the face of the Earth like that, but 2011 has it in for me. Also, I realize this isn't what I promised, and that yes, this was, in effect, 10,000 words of filler. It'll all be important soon. Or not. Promise. XD Next time, actual things will proceed to happen. Yeah.

- I've got no idea what Zeppian is, really. Bit of pseudo-German, bit of pseudo-Russian. Not like canon can make up its mind about that country, anyway. Artistic liberty!



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Off the Homerow: Fanfiction Journal of Aphelion Orion

January 2012

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