Sabo had been sent to infiltrate the marines’ secret lab months ago. He’d taken half that time just to get clearance in order to get his foot in the door, and the rest building up trust from his colleagues. Everything about the facility was clean: blue tile floors, chrome tables, white walls and ceilings. It even smelled clean, so much so that Sabo’s nose often burned for the first ten minutes of his work day. The lab had three main spaces: Laboratory 1, Laboratory 2, and Laboratory 3, respectively. There were other spaces, lower spaces, basement levels—but Sabo wasn’t there yet. He needed more time.
Right now, he was working on synthesizing new types of Sea Stone in Lab 3. He’d long since claimed this back corner for himself, and no one ever bothered him here. Of course, the marines didn’t have to know that Sabo was repeating research the Revolutionaries had tried years ago. Sabo knew already that his experiments would fail. The marines did not. The interim between those points was all the time Sabo had to investigate this facility, which was hidden away in a perpetually-foggy sector in the Grand Line.
Sabo hated the island. He hated the labs and the scientists that worked them. There was no spark, no life. These people were completely consumed by their research. Sabo doubted that any of them even understood the ramifications of what they were doing.
“Dr. Laurenotiovy,” someone called. Sabo glanced up at the call. “Laurenotiovy” was his false identity—to be more accurate, Dr. Argent Laurenotiovy. It was an obvious trick, but in a room full of geniuses, not one had realized it.
“Yes?” Sabo replied, turning to see a short, balding man in a white lab coat approaching. “Can I help you?”
“You’ve been reassigned,” the scientist said. Sabo raised an eyebrow, setting down the samples he had been working with and fully facing the new arrival.
“Reassigned? I have not finished my research here.”
The man nodded. “Yes, we realize. Walk with me?”
Without much choice, Sabo acquiesced. “So, my reassignment.”
“Indeed. The higher-ups and myself—the head of your new research project—have decided that your skills with Sea Stone and interpersonal maneuvering—don’t think I didn’t see you work your way to that corner—would be better suited for a different project.”
The scientist opened one of the restricted doors within Lab 3. Beyond was a simple hallway, flanked with some offices and bookended by another doorway at the far end. That doorway was heavy steel, tinted just blue enough that Sabo guessed that it wasn’t pure metal. There was Sea Stone in it.
Sabo felt a thrill of fear run up his spine. Was he discovered? Was this scientist walking him into an ambush?
“What is this about?” Sabo asked carefully.
“I’m afraid I cannot tell you anything until we reach a less public area,” the scientist replied. Concerns not at all assuaged, Sabo could only follow him down the hallway. This entire operation had been one calculated risk on Dragon’s part; what was one more?
They went to the door. Sabo watched the scientist insert a key and then enter a passcode to open it. Combined with the heaviness of the door, it was the most security Sabo had ever seen in a marine base. A camera watched with an unblinking eye while Sabo followed the scientist through. The door closed behind them; the only way forward led to the elevator several yards away.
They stepped inside and the scientist hit the down button. There were no individual floor numbers. Only up or down. The elevator jerked into motion.
“Now that we’re away from eavesdroppers,” the scientist said, startling Sabo out of his observations, “I can go into more detail.”
Sabo clasped his hands behind his back and offered a cool smile. “Please.”
“The project is known as Project Ember. It’s been running for just over a decade, with a single subject that we have been cataloguing observations of.”
“Only one subject?”
“Yes. One subject, kept in a maximum security room for all of our safety.” The elevator came to a halt and dinged. “Trust me, seeing it will be believing it. This way.”
Sabo followed the man down a few hallways. They split off to the right at the next fork and the scientist once more entered a passcode to open the door—the same code as the first door, if Sabo wasn’t mistaken. Beyond was a simple room filled with monitoring equipment, but none of the equipment was focused on the observation room. Rather, it was focused on the space separated from the observation room by a thick pane of glass.
Beyond that pane was fire. Sabo stepped forward, curiosity piqued. It was a room, easily thirty feet square, with a completely white walls. The whole things appeared to be on fire, but Sabo saw no smoke. What was this?
As though to answer the question, the scientist approached the glass and tapped it. He glanced at Sabo. “Just you wait. He hates me more than anyone; you’ll see quite the demonstration when he realizes just who’s come knocking.”
Unsure how to respond, Sabo stepped up to the glass as well.
The fire suddenly splashed down to the center of the room and then rushed the glass, breaking against it like a wave. Sabo flinched back on instinct and then heard the other scientist chuckling, entirely unfazed.
“Oh, don’t worry. He does that all the time. He won’t get out.” He? The first instance clearly wasn’t a mistake, then. Ignorant of Sabo’s unasked question, the scientist tapped the glass. Upon closer inspection, Sabo could see little blue veins running through it. “Laced with Sea Stone, designed specifically to hold him in. And, if he gets too rowdy…”
On cue, a warning light flared to life on the far wall inside of the cell. The fire, which had smashed against the glass another three times, dispersed around the room but kept several feet away from the light. Sabo took a step forward, transfixed.
“What’s happening?” he asked. Movement below caught his eye and he glanced down. Horror flowed through him, barely contained behind the mask of the intrigued scientist Sabo had plastered on his face to hide it. “Seawater?”
Small holes had opened up in the floor and water was gushing out of them. The fire went higher and higher, but more holes opened up in the walls. With nowhere to go, it was only a matter of time before the fire made contact. The second the water touched it, the fire all concentrated in one spot and faded. Confused, Sabo blinked. There was a man there now. A young man—probably Sabo’s age, in his late teens or very early twenties. He was clothed in simple pants and a shirt. For a single second, he remained on his feet with the water pooling around his ankles. Then he staggered, one arm flailing for support and finding none, and fell. The water splashed around him. He made no move to rise.
“Is he going to drown?” Sabo asked, his clinically detached tone betraying none of the revulsion beneath.
“Oh, of course not,” the scientist said. He pushed a button and the water began to drain away the same way it had come in. “He is far too valuable a test subject.” As the water trickled away, Sabo examined what he could see of the man’s features. Sun-kissed skin, black hair, but musculature that indicated heavy exercise.
“Do you exercise him?” Sabo asked. “He appears to be in very good condition.”
“Yes, we do,” the scientist replied. “See the marks on his wrists?” Sabo did: tan lines. “When we bring him to the exercise yard, he has to wear Sea Stone cuffs. It keeps him from getting any ideas, though he’s had some in the past.” Sabo’s eyes finally picked out the scars on the man’s skin. There were many. “He is designated as subject A-7. We caught him…oh, nine, ten years ago? Fed him the Mera Mera no Mi, and have been observing him ever since. Logia types are among the most powerful of Devil Fruits, so we’ve been experimenting with ways to combat them with all types of Sea Stone.”
Pushing through his hesitation, Sabo asked, “What kinds of types?”
“Oh, the works. The usual cuffs, bullets, blades, blunt weapons, gas. I believe the most recent round was injections, which are extremely effective but seem to have no consistent effects. Nearly killed him with those, and that would’ve been a waste.”
“Yes, truly,” Sabo agreed on autopilot. He was staring at the subject, the man, again. He had shifted, slowly getting his arms and knees under him before he pushed himself up. Seawater dripped from his hair. From what Sabo knew about Devil Fruits, there was no way for him to activate his Devil Fruit powers until dry. Sabo waited for him to just turn his back to the glass but, to his surprise, the man faced them. His eyes skipped right over Sabo and focused on the scientist.
And his eyes. They burned. Not literally, not with the seawater, but there was a maelstrom of hate raging within them. Sabo snuck a glance at the scientist; for all that he had flippantly brushed aside the subject’s earlier anger, he was clearly shaken by this.
The man got to his feet. He swayed for a moment and then steadied himself. Slowly, one step at a time, he approached the glass. When he got close, he slammed an open hand against it, right at the scientist’s face. The subject growled something, face contorted in hate, but there was no sound.
“It’s soundproofed,” the scientist said, giving Sabo a shaky smile that was obviously meant to be encouraging. Clearing his throat, the scientist turned his back on the subject and walked over to the nearest terminal. “This way. I’ll show you what we have to far and what we want you to do. The guidelines are very loose. I have a multitude of other projects to oversee; you’ll be on your own here, but if there are any problems, please,” his gaze turned hungry, “inform me.”
“I will,” Sabo said. He most certainly would not.
The briefing passed quickly. Every now and then, Sabo snuck glances over his shoulder while the scientist was distracted. The subject was still at the glass, but not touching it. Just standing there. The contact he’d made with it earlier had made him visibly pale, and while the concentration wasn’t enough to incapacitate him like seawater, it was enough to deter him from prolonged or repeated contact. He just watched, and every time Sabo looked up, they made eye contact.
Sabo couldn’t read anything from him except rage. It was chilling.
“And that’s all,” the scientist finished. “Any questions?”
“Just one,” Sabo said, recalling one inconsistency he’d heard. He pointed to one of the spreadsheets spread out on the nearby table. “This is the spreadsheet for the fourth round of testing, correct? It appears that whoever did the data entry put in the same data for the fourth as they did for the third. Would you like me to correct it?”
The scientist blinked. “Ah.” Sabo immediately knew that this man had been the one to make the mistake. “Actually, the fourth trial must have been a misfile. Please erase the fourth trial entirely.”
“Do that, and you can be done for the day,” the scientist said. He rummaged around in his lab coat and pulled out a key. “Here’s your key. The access code is 7-3-3-1-8. Don’t forget.”
Sabo inclined his head. “Of course.”
The instant the scientist left, Sabo did a quick check of all the surveillance equipment. Just as he’d expected, there were no devices set up to monitor the observation room. For all intents and purposes, he was invisible.
Ignoring the feeling of A-7—no, the man, because the designation was dehumanizing and Sabo didn’t need to contend with that in his mind—staring at the back of his head, Sabo quickly set about doing what the scientist had asked him to. The task took no time at all, but Sabo had always been a quick study with new technology. He had twenty or so minutes before his continued presence became odd.
He shut down the computer and stood. There were scattered papers and some pens on the nearby table. Sabo quickly took a pen and scrawled out a message on the paper. It read: Name? And then, below that: You are being watched. There is a blind spot at about chest height where you are currently standing because I am in the way.
Finished, Sabo took his paper and, after angling himself to block the camera—making sure to make it look casual and unintentional—he pressed the paper to the glass.
The man’s eyes immediately switched from Sabo’s face to the page. His brows furrowed, the anger dissipating into suspicion mixed with confusion. Sabo watched him read and then, when he assumed the man was done, tapped the Name? request.
It had been a gamble as to whether or not the man could read, but apparently he could. The man’s gaze flicked between Sabo’s eyes and the paper a couple of times. Sabo kept his expression neutral and didn’t move. After several seconds, the man narrowed his eyes. He lifted a finger and wrote in the air above his chest, reversed for Sabo’s benefit: A-C-E. The burning letters quickly vanished, but Sabo had gotten them. He nodded once and then looked up at Ace. He could make no promises now, but there was a plan forming in his head.
Sabo couldn’t contact the Revolutionary Army on this island without blowing his cover. He would have to be sure about Ace before he did anything drastic, but he knew in his gut that Ace was the greatest secret this facility was hiding. The marines would do anything to hide that they were doing human experimentation. No wonder the observation room wasn’t monitored; they didn’t want the identities of the scientists exposed if things did get out.
Ace, not clued into Sabo’s thoughts, frowned. He seemed to be expecting more. Sabo shook his head slightly and quickly destroyed the paper. He’d hidden it from the cameras and kept it hidden while he cleaned up. He didn’t look at Ace before he left the observation room and shut the door behind him.
The next day, before engaging at all with Ace, Sabo checked the computers. Sure enough, there were old files about Ace receiving a rudimentary education. More than once a researcher had remarked about Ace’s intelligence, or his ingenuity. This was no dulled genius; Ace was keeping his mind sharp.
The night of thought and rest had further solidified Sabo’s intentions. Ace was a prisoner, a torture victim, imprisoned here against his will under so much secrecy that Sabo doubted there was anyone outside of this place who knew he existed.
But, beneath that cold logic, there was something else. Something familiar about Ace and the rage in his eyes. That was all emotional, however, and not reason enough on its own.
Ace remained dispersed as fire while Sabo investigated the computers. Sabo began a new document for field notes that the head scientist would undoubtedly be checking. He put in some lies about checking ‘Subject A-7’s’ mental state through written commands and questions and then grabbed a paper, pen, and clipboard.
Seeing Ace form out of the fire was less disconcerting when he did it willingly. He strode up to the glass, eyes flicking to the nearest camera for a second before landing on Sabo’s with a question in them. The suspicion was still there, and it was warranted.
Sabo scrawled out another note. This one described the fake ‘research’ Sabo was doing. Sabo held up the notepad and then, before Ace could break eye contact to read it, meaningfully jerked his head at the camera. The message was clear: Ace was being watched.
Ace’s eyebrows dropped low over his eyes. This close, Sabo could see every detail of the scars stretching over his skin. They were numerous and varied in type; some were even and clean, clearly caused by bladed weapons, while others were messy knots. There were a few clear burn scars on Ace’s left arm, but when Sabo looked closer, he realized that the burns formed letters.
It hit him all at once. Ace had burned those letters into himself: A-S-C-E, with the ‘S’ crossed out. Some kind of reminder about his past?
Ace finished reading and looked back up at Sabo with a blank expression. If he was acting, he was damned good: Sabo could not tell whether the anger in his eyes was real or faked. Probably both.
Following the directions Sabo had written, Ace backed up five steps and then, per the instructions, did a handstand. He held it for precisely twenty seconds before dropping down and doing ten perfect push-ups. Sabo made a note on his clipboard like the scientist he was pretending to be that Ace understood commands and numbers. Ace stood straight and walked back over.
Sabo wrote out new commands and held them up.
So the day passed. Ace never seemed to tire, as though whatever exercises Sabo had him do were well within his physical capabilities. At precisely 12 o’clock noon, a slot opened up in the far wall of Ace’s cell and food dropped out: bars, some fruit, and a few other things that Ace ate too quickly for Sabo to identify. There was also another slot in the wall that opened whenever Ace approached that would dispense water in a fountain. Ace would drink and walk away, and the water would automatically stop and the slot would close.
The longer Sabo spent with Ace, the more disgusted he became with the way the scientists treated him. Over the next week, multiple other scientists involved with the project stopped by the visit. As Sabo was still under the pretext of gaining a complete physical understanding of Ace, he could deflect any of their requests or pushes for more invasive ‘testing.’ His stomach curled every time.
At the same time, the more Sabo worked with Ace, the more Ace seemed to trust him. So, during the middle of the second week, when Sabo put up his latest message, Ace hid his surprised reaction within a second. He glanced up at Sabo, as though to make certain. Sabo, his back to the camera, grinned.
The next day, Sabo set his plan in motion. He’d been building up to it for days now, setting all the seeds of destruction he needed, and a few extra for good measure. All the pieces were ready. He just had to set them in motion.
Nerves sparking with excitement and mind awash with eagerness to finally escape this place, Sabo approached the glass with his clipboard for the last time. There was only one word written on it: Now.
The second after Sabo held it up for Ace to see, the facility’s power cut out. Ace immediately turned one hand to fire so Sabo could see in the otherwise pitch-black, windowless space. Sabo drew his hand back and then struck the glass with his signature Dragon Claw style. The glass cracked. One more blow shattered it, and the shards rained down.
Ace whistled, startling Sabo. He’d never heard Ace make a sound before, an observation that had never properly struck him until now. “Impressive,” Ace said. His voice was deep and a little rough around the edges, with the hint of what Sabo guessed was an East Blue accent. “I guess you were serious.”
Sabo nodded. “I am. Now follow me. We have little time.”
“On one condition,” Ace said, stopping Sabo.
“What?” Sabo asked irritably. Ace had been perfectly fine with the plan after Sabo explained it to him the first time, and he’d gone into painstaking detail on all those pages.
“Whoever we run across,” Ace said, whole body seeming to pulse with heat, “whoever they are to you, they’re mine.”
Sabo had no pity to spare. He nodded.
They exited into the hallway. Sabo led the way, his route locked into his mind. Ace turned any scientist he saw to ash immediately. Without power, there was no way for them to raise an alarm. Sabo opened the door at the top of the stairwell, strode down the hallway, and then paused before the final door that led into Lab 3. Using his Haki, he counted the number of people in the room. Twenty-eight.
“Ace,” he murmured. “There are a lot of them. The whole room is a lab dedicated to studying Sea Stone. If one of them gets to it before you get to them—”
Ace’s eyes glimmered in the firelight from his hand. “They won’t.”
He slipped past Sabo and, to Sabo’s surprise, shut the door in Sabo’s face. Sabo resisted the immediate urge to open the door and waited. Light and heat streamed into the corridor around the door’s edges. Sabo held a hand up to the door but did not touch; the heat emanating from the metal was enough to hurt even without direct contact.
After a minute, the light faded and the door opened. Ace was back to just burning his hand, limiting Sabo’s ability to observe the room with his eyes, but Haki provided a more than adequate answer to his questions. Ace had spared no mercy.
“Where to now?” Ace asked.
Sabo led the way to the other off-limits door. It had taken hours of careful hacking to find the facility’s blueprints, but the effort had paid off. This door led to a private dock reserved for high-level visitors. Right now, there weren’t any, but several upper-echelon scientists kept private craft there—most likely, in case Ace broke out.
Ace paused once they went through the door. Sabo did too, wondering if the shock of the open air was too much for him. “Ace?”
“One sec.” Ace held his hands by the edges of the steel door and they glowed with heat. The metal soon began to melt. Within a minute the door was fused shut.
“Nice planning,” Sabo commented. Ace smirked.
“I’ve been thinking about escape for a while. This was just one of my ideas.”
“Not applicable. Are we going or what, traitor scientist?”
“Sabo,” Sabo corrected. “My name is Sabo.”
Ace froze. “What?”
Hearing noise on the other side of the door, Sabo grabbed Ace’s arm and yanked him down the dock, which was shrouded in fog that had seeped in through the boathouse’s open entrance.
“Freeze later, move now,” he said.
Most of the craft wouldn’t last on the Grand Line’s seas, but Sabo found the one that two people could reasonably sail and quickly boarded. He’d loaded it up with supplies the previous day, swimming through the shallow waters nearest to the island.
Only after they’d escaped onto the open water did Sabo realize that he’d actually touched Ace. He had felt completely human; his skin was warmer than someone else’s might be, sure, but that was all.
Sabo’s grip on the wheel tightened. Those scientists had known exactly what they were doing. Sabo didn’t regret what would happen next at all.
Some ten minutes after the facility was lost to sight in the fog, when Ace had joined Sabo in the wheelhouse, they both heard a muffled boom and then, a few seconds later, a massive wave rocked the boat. Sabo, expecting it, was unfazed. Ace nearly fell but caught himself. Sabo kept his face carefully blank while Ace stared. Finally, Ace shook his head.
“You’re not a marine,” he said. “Not even a traitor. And you’re definitely not a pirate. Who are you?”
Sabo locked the wheel into position and then faced Ace. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Ace crossed his arms. Outside of the facility, with natural light softening his features, he looked completely human. Sabo finally realized that he had freckles dotted across his face, a feature that had escaped him until this point. “I do,” Ace said. “You broke me out. Why?”
“My mission,” Sabo said, “was to infiltrate that secret facility and ascertain its purpose. Basically, I was sent to find out why the marines were going through all the trouble of keeping it hidden. It took me months to get inside in any position of value.”
Sabo nodded. “My mission. Turns out the reason was you, which is why I was so quick to break you out.”
“And why you’ve held on to printed out records,” Ace said dryly, jerking his chin at the papers in the satchel by Sabo’s foot.
“Exactly,” Sabo said.
Ace ran a hand through his hair, dislodging some of the water droplets that had accumulated there thanks to the fog. “So, who sent you on this mission? You never answered my question.”
Blunt. “I am a member of the Revolutionary Army,” Sabo said. Ace’s brows furrowed.
“How long have you been with the Revolutionary Army?”
“Roughly ten years.”
Something was going on behind Ace’s eyes, but Sabo couldn’t figure it out. “What were you doing before that?”
Sabo shrugged, returning his gaze to the ocean stretching out in front of their boat, now visible through the thinning fog. “Dunno. There was an accident; I lost my memory.”
Ace closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He stayed like that for several seconds, and Sabo couldn’t figure out why. When he glanced up, his expression was clear. “So, Mr. Sabo-the-Revolutionary-Agent, where are we headed?”
It was a change in subject, but not one that Sabo minded. He smiled.