It grabbed the attention. It was designed with that in mind, after all. The rare newcomer to the city inevitably noticed it before anything else.

The skyscraper towered over those that surrounded it. Where other buildings were broken down and dilapidated, this one was perpetually kept unsoiled. The billboard at the top of the building, which reached almost to the clouds of soot and smog that constantly hung above the landscape, announced the company's name.

AkumaTech.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a single person in this city -- "Red Line," population approximately 2,500,000 -- who hadn't heard at least some rumors about the experiments within those walls. Based on its press releases and products, AkumaTech was merely a massive bioengineering firm, experimenting with organ transplants, genetic modification, and the like. Security was incredibly tight, though, and wherever there have been secrets, mindless speculation has inevitably followed.

One rumor suggested that AT-hired thugs wandered the streets, looking for young men and women (and sometimes even stray animals!) to kidnap and take back to the laboratories. There, in what was known only as the "M.I." division of AkumaTech, they would be experimented upon and mutated in tests of the scientists' latest theories. Most of them died. Many of them wished they could. But a very lucky few not only survived the surgery and manipulation but came out of it with their bodies... improved. Strange abilities granted to them.

At least, that's what the rumors say. But seriously, how much of that can you really trust?

More than you might think.

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

Project O.N.E.
A One Piece Alternate Universe Fanfic by Shay Caron
One Piece and all characters therein belong to Eiichiro Oda

Prologue: Setting the Stage! The Past and Present of AkumaTech

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

18 Years Ago

There were some moments when Roger D. Aureus wished he'd just stayed on that assembly line. All he wanted to do tonight was go home to be with his lovely wife and adorable daughter -- he'd hardly managed to clear any time off from work since she was born two weeks ago. But the prospective merger with Doppler Imaging Labs had been having diplomatic troubles, and several investors wanted to see more results from the organ cloning research, so he'd had to pacify them, and in the middle of that a containment tank had ruptured on the twenty-fifth floor... AkumaTech was an incredibly difficult company to run, especially when you were as much of a control freak as Roger was.

The work might soon be proven fruitful, however. Roger had a prototype unit running overnight to see if it would create a usable lung for transplantation purposes. If it worked, AkumaTech would be able to start supplying cloning units to hospitals within the month. The human genome project was coming along very nicely as well.

'And then there's my secret project... Ah, but I shouldn't even think about that too loudly.'

It was past midnight; the moon was out and streetlights gleamed for miles in every direction. Roger stepped out onto the street, leaving the AkumaTech building behind. As well as his company was doing, he was thrilled to be able to get away and get home. He looked forward, specifically, to a really long hot shower. Hmm... Perhaps Hitomi would be willing to join him? This particular line of thought distracted Roger so much that he forgot to watch where he walked.

A hand gripped his shoulder, and the world spun around him until he found himself in an alley, arms pinned behind his back by a package of sausages masquerading as hands. "Who's there?" he shouted -- and winced as he realized how stupid that had sounded. Well, it wasn't as if he'd ever claimed to be eloquent... not without a few nights to prepare his speech beforehand, at least.

'Funny how the mind works,' he thought, lightheaded. 'I'm almost certainly about to be killed, and I can't seem to wrap my brain around the idea.'

A massive figure stepped forward, half-obscured by the shadows. "Good evening, Roger. I expect you're just heading home?"

"I might have known it would be you," Roger said. "I always did think you were a shifty reptile." 'Should have hired bodyguards, should have carried a weapon, stupid, stupid, stupid...' ran through his mind.

"How right you were," the figure laughed. "I'll be blunt. If you cooperate, I'll happily allow you to continue living. Otherwise... Well, as far as my plans go, sadly, you are expendable."

Roger's dry response was, "I'm hurt. What cooperation did you have in mind?"

The man stepped forward, brushed his thugs aside, and glared at Roger. "That secret experiment of yours. Your notes and data. I want them." A stray beam of moonlight glinted off his left hand.

Roger laughed mockingly. "My secret project? If you want it, you're free to take it. You'll just have to find it first." 'Yes, that was my death-warrant,' he thought, seeing the man's face twist into a snarl, 'but I can not allow him to get at Project O.N.E. under any circumstances. I've got insurance. Hitomi and Vivi will be able to take care of themselves. I just wish I could see them one more time.'

"Really funny, bastard," a thug spat. At the figure's nod, he continued, "Let's see ya laugh at this!"

Roger grinned even as the gun fired.

'No regrets.'

------

10 Years Ago

What surprised Shanks was how powerful the detonation was. After all, it was one thing to be told, "I can make my body explode." It was another thing entirely to feel the floor shake under your feet as the promised explosion went off. Still, he hadn't survived this long in Red Line by standing around with a confused expression on his scarred face. The instant the tremors died down enough that he felt safe moving, he ran down the AkumaTech hallway (2nd basement level, northeast section), hiding a limp 7-year-old child -- a child, in fact, who redefined the word "limp" -- underneath his black cape. Ben followed behind him, carrying -- of all things -- a crying baby reindeer.

Three guards turned the corner and stopped before the two groups collided. A punch from Shanks and two shots from Ben's gun and the trio went down without a struggle.

After a minute spent running (with intermittent hiding), a voice in their earpieces crackled to life. "It's not going too well, Straw Hat. They caught about half of us so far. They got some sort of neural disruptor that can knock people unconscious."

"Great. What about the escapees?" asked Ben.

"Lemme think... Goro and his girlfriend Valerie are still tearin' up the guards. Me an' Lucky are gonna catch up with you two; I'm carryin' a two-years-old girl. A-Tech still has the fat lady and the guy with the gray hair. As far as I know, that weirdo with the face paint imitated a guard and ran. Oh, yeah, no sign of your red-nosed buddy or the kid's brother."

Shanks cursed under his breath. "Look, just make sure everyone remembers the plan. No getting yourself killed or captured, right? Free the prisoners and run."

"Oh, of course. The gang's going for everybody who got caught. We'll be there to join you and Ben in a minute. Watch out for the security robot. I hear tell it's nasty. Yasopp out."

As they finally caught sight of the tunnel they'd dug to enter the building, the child in Shanks's arms let out a small sob. "Hey, there, Luffy," Shanks whispered. "We're almost out. How ya holding up?"

Luffy sniffled and wriggled around a bit. "I'll be okay," he said, in a soft voice totally unlike him.

"Hurts, doesn't it? Don't worry, Luffy, we'll getcha back to normal." Not for the first time that night, Shanks wondered what kind of mental disorders a person had to have to do to a child what had evidently been done to Luffy. He reminded Shanks of a boneless chicken; his bones had either been removed or given the consistency of -- there was no avoiding it -- rubber. Rubber was the operative word. Luffy drooped loosely over Shanks's arms, and somehow Shanks just knew that if he were to take Luffy's hands and pull, the poor boy would stretch like newly-made taffy. The worst part was that Luffy appeared to be in constant pain because of all this -- which wasn't particularly surprising, given what he'd been through, but...

Ben mused, "Why do you suppose we haven't seen any guards in this area?"

A voice from behind them suggested, "Probably Because I Am Sufficient."

A flash of gold was Shanks's only other warning before a fist put him through a wall.

'Dammit... The security robot. This is gonna hurt...'

------

One Week Ago

Clad in her customary tight black jumpsuit (after all, for a thief, it was traditional!), Choushou Nami crept carefully along the wall, balancing precariously on a minuscule outcropping. A hand-drawn map pulled together from downloaded schematics rested in her left hand; one particular window was circled with red ink. As she approached the destined pane of glass, she paused to review her infiltration plan.

'TenmaCom, a division of AkumaTech. Boy, that Aureus had a weird naming scheme for his creations. So I cut through this seventh-floor window, slip through where the security is weakest, and all I have to do is knock a couple of guards out to get my hands on those files.' Nami grinned -- in fact, she very nearly drooled -- at the thought of how much money those files would bring once she found the right buyer.

The steel-toed boot that smashed through the glass changed that plan somewhat.

Nami scrambled backward as a lanky boy about her age stepped through the shattered window, carefully carrying dozens of manila file folders. He wore a yellow straw hat over his messy black hair, but other than that, he was clad all in black. The boy glanced over at her and grinned childishly before stepping off the outcropping.

"Hey!! What're you doing?!" 'This is the seventh freaking floor!' Nami watched in horror as the boy plummeted to the alley below, hit the ground with much more force than those skinny legs should be able to withstand, throwing up a huge circle of dust around him --

-- and stood up and ran, as if the drop were nothing at all. She caught a glimpse of clumsily-scrawled white kanji on the back of his vest before he and the folders vanished.

Nami stared at the spot where he'd touched down. 'He cracked the cement when he hit! What the heck is he?!'

The sound of glass breaking beneath a shoe (thieves need to have very good hearing) caught her attention again. She heard a guard from inside say something along the lines of, "He came outta nowhere! He had like twenty fists or something!"

She sighed. Tonight's work was wasted, to put it lightly. There was nothing for her to do but head home, plan a new heist, and wonder... Who was that strange boy with the straw hat?

Nami was one of the first people in Red Line to ask that question. It wouldn't be long before every person in the city wondered precisely the same thing.

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

Project O.N.E., Prologue
6/15/2003 -- First draft
6/20/2003 -- Completed