Rinoa could sense it. Each time she intervened - to take Squall's place, or to free him - it lasted just a little bit longer. She no longer waited for Squall to suffer before she tried to free him again - she hadn't liked that approach in the first place. Now, as soon as the world placed him back in chains, she blasted them free of their moorings. Sometimes, this meant that she would be placed in chains instead of Squall.
On those occasions, her magic would not free her. The chains were breakable only if she were not in them. In them, she was as helpless as Squall had been. But when this happened, Squall would be nearby, fully clothed and fully armed, and extremely pissed off. Lionheart would make short work of the chains, and things would be as before. So far, the longest she'd been in the chains herself at a single time was about thirty seconds - and that had only been on the first time it occurred.
That was when she had learned Alicia's power. In this strange non-reality, Alicia reacted to both of them equally. When Rinoa had tried to focus on Squall, she had felt the touch of Alicia's power pulling her attention very forcefully to the invasive presences on every side. But touch was not Rinoa's nightmare, so it didn't affect her as badly, even though a few of the presences were very uncomfortable. Then Lionheart had sliced through the chains, and the spell was broken.
Once Rinoa was in the 'observer' position again, she added this new knowledge to the old rumors that had circulated about Alicia in Deling City. The conclusions she came to were not reassuring, but she would pass them on to Xu and Quistis nonetheless.
The sequences seemed to be moving forward in time. Squall was only aware of her when she freed him, and when he was bound would only respond rarely and at the beginning of the sequence. Slowly more bruises appeared on his body. Slowly more people were added, slowly the things they did to him were rougher and more cruel, slowly his reaction to Odine's injections grew more severe. Even using her power to constantly break the chains shortly after they came back, this kept happening. Rinoa suspected that what she was doing was forcing the scene forward rather than changing it, from Squall's point of view. She wondered what he saw when she took his place.
Well, if the only way to get him back was to force the scenes forward in time, Rinoa was willing to do that. But the process was slow. Eventually she realized that her first approach had been the most effective; to break the chains only when it looked like Squall was close to madness. She could force the scene forward from that point and it would not replay. And when she took his place, it seemed to give him energy. But whether she took his place or not did not seem to be a choice she had any control over.
She would do this as long as it took.
"We've GOT 'em!" cried Zell as he burst onto the bridge, where a recuperating Quistis and Xu were comparing notes. "Rinoa's found a way to talk with Squall, and she's working on bringing him back. She said to tell you the book was a big help."
"Glad to hear it," said Quistis with a smile. "Got who?"
"Didn't I say?" asked Zell, and at their shaking heads he said, "Oh. Anyway...Rinoa said she saw this Alicia girl while she was doing whatever she's been doing to reach Squall...didn't really understand that part," he hesitated. "Anyway...she recognized the girl. She said Alicia is the eldest daughter of a wealthy Galbadian family. Which probably explains why Odine would work for her, 'cause she can pay him. Anyway, Rinoa says Alicia's been a problem for years. Spoiled rotten, you know. When the Delings were in power, all Alicia would talk about was how her family was more worthy, yada yada, and now that Galbadia's in chaos Rinoa thinks Alicia's trying to build a power base."
Xu blinked, puzzled. "Then why turn these people loose in Centra?" she asked.
"Word will get around," said Quistis grimly. "Most of the Estharian troops have fought her people by now, and casualties are sometimes heavy. Anything that can do this kind of damage to Estharian troops would scare the Galbadian generals very badly." She shook her head. "Laguna's going to have trouble if we can't stop this. Esthar's had peace for years because everyone accepted it as the strongest nation."
"What else did Rinoa tell you?" asked Xu.
Zell paused, running down a mental checklist. "Oh yeah - she thinks Alicia may have a power like Ellone's. Except that instead of being connected to the past, Alicia's is connected to the present."
"Is that useful?" asked Xu. "Anyone can see the present."
But Quistis was thinking hard. "Actually, it's the strongest power anyone could get," she said at last. "Think about it. Ellone knows what you're thinking when you go into the past - so Alicia could know what you're thinking now. When Ellone sends you into the past, all you know is that past world. Alicia might be able to do the same thing with the present - make you focus on one thing, to the exclusion of everything else."
"Good guess, Quisty," said Zell. "Rinoa said when she ... did whatever it is she does to talk to Squall, Alicia used her power. Rinoa said Alicia can intensify a moment or lock you into it. She thinks that's what Alicia did to Squall - locked him into a moment of pain, so that's all he knows. She's working on breaking him out of it, but it'll take time. She has to find out exactly where the lock is, to break it. Or rather, exactly when."
Xu frowned. "While it's good to know what happened to Squall, I think this means we have trouble. How can we find someone who can read our minds, sense our thoughts? How do we sneak up on her?"
"Well, Rinoa forwarded a photograph," said Zell, and handed it over. "But as to anything else, heh. You're the Headmaster and the Commander. I'm just a lowly SeeD." And in his voice, they could hear a clear thank the Hyne!
Quistis tapped a pencil down on the table, thinking. "I think we owe Fujin and Raijin an apology," she said. "Assuming Rinoa is completely correct in her estimations of Alicia...she really could do to Seifer what Raijin claimed she did. Although I must admit it's difficult to consider Seifer as a candidate for sexual slavery," she finished with a smile.
Zell grimaced. "You mean we really do have to save him?" he said sourly. "Man, that just killed my day, you know that? Saving Seifer!"
"I suspect it's just temporary brainwashing," said Quistis. "But it depends on how long Seifer stays away from her. I'd recommend we send a 'capture' order out to the squads if the trio turn up again. Let them know to use water, and water-based magic."
"I for one hope we don't find them," grumbled Zell.
"You should hope we do," retorted Quistis. "Otherwise, they're probably after Squall and Rinoa. If Alicia is really building a power base to take control of Galbadia, she'd want to take Rinoa's Sorceress powers if she could - or at the very least prevent Rinoa from choosing sides. And what has she done so far? She's taken Rinoa's Knight out of action, forcing Rinoa to stay in one place. And without her Knight, Rinoa risks falling into misuse of her powers. If she does that, her influence as Sorceress is finished; everyone in the world would be trying to kill her. And," Quistis finished, "if Rinoa became the world's enemy, then Alicia could kill her, inherit her power, and become the heroine of Galbadia in one fell swoop."
"That's a lot of ifs, Quistis," said Xu doubtfully. "We can't be sure that's what she's planning."
Quistis retorted, "It fits all the data we have. Alicia's been a very careful player - we didn't even know her name until recently. She doesn't have to turn Rinoa evil, nor does she have to take Rinoa's powers for her grab to succeed. All she really has to do is keep Rinoa from getting involved - something which otherwise would have been very likely, given that Galbadia is Rinoa's home country. And at that, she has succeeded. Rinoa is in Esthar, and doesn't dare leave. Alicia can build her power here, and show up in Deling City in force. She doesn't know her GF-material kills. She could personally have the powers of every known GF, and only the Sorceress would be strong enough to defeat her."
"And then we wait a few months, and she's dead of her own experiments," said Zell. "Why are we worrying?"
Quistis leveled a look of contempt at Zell. "It doesn't matter how long she's in power, Zell," she said. "To take power she'd have to completely overthrow the existing government, which is teetering on the edge of collapse as it is. When she goes, the power vacuum could foment civil war, or even a continent-wide war if Dollet and the other cities on that continent try for a land grab."
"And if Alicia finds out her GF-stuff kills?" asked Xu.
"Odine would want to head back to his labs in Esthar, since it would be impossible to do research here, so far from civilization," considered Quistis. "Alicia would go with him - she would be depending on Odine for her life at that point. But we won't know if or when she might find that out."
"So, what's the plan, then?" asked Zell. "We still don't know where her base is."
"Keep looking," was all Quistis could say. "We have got to find it. And alert Esthar to the possibility of Odine and Alicia visiting."
Laguna had entered Odine's lab without any problems, even though it was late at night. He didn't often pull rank on anyone, he'd found that most of Esthar knew him on sight. They seemed to enjoy embarrassing him by doing silly things like saluting or bowing. Deep in his heart, Laguna felt that the Presidency was just a job that had to be done, and if he were left alone to do a decent job of it, that was enough.
The guards at the Lab's entrance had saluted smartly as he passed, which was better than being stopped. But then, the guards weren't Odine's idea. They were Kiros', to make sure just anybody didn't make off with Odine's often-dangerous work.
He'd told them that the lab was officially closed to everyone, Odine included, pending an investigation. He'd get around to starting an official one when he got back. Right now, the sight of his son's cold, still face was driving Laguna in the direction of Wanting Answers Now.
Pity Odine had never gotten the hang of basic organizational skills. There were stacks of papers everywhere, on every available flat surface. The only clear spots were near burners. With a sigh, Laguna chose a stack at random and started sifting through it.
"Hey man, you trying to get yourself killed?" called a familiar voice. Laguna jerked his head up from Odine's papers with a start, realizing by the shift of light in the room that he'd been at this for hours. Kiros was standing in the doorway, dressed in his old combat gear, katal at his side. Reflexively, he caught his old machine gun as his friend tossed it to him. He noted that Ward was there too, similarly garbed with his harpoon at the ready.
"Where'd you get the idea I'd need this?" asked Laguna, puzzled. "We're in the middle of the capital."
"One of your son's friends got me up hours before dawn with a damn fine line of reasoning," said Kiros. "Namely, that the lady that did the fun stuff to Squall is just one fact away from coming here, and if she does come here it won't be alone. The President of Esthar would make a good hostage, don't you think?"
"There's guards outside the door," shrugged Laguna.
"Man, you are way too trusting," said Kiros. "Those guards are there for show, and you know it. Come on - guard duty on a lab that's usually empty, in the middle of the capital city? Irvine gave me a good rundown on the people with this Alicia - if she shows up here, trust me you're gonna be glad I brought your gun."
"Like I've had lots of time to go to the range in the last fifteen years," said Laguna absently, but slung the strap of the machine gun over his shoulder to free his hands up. "Well, as long as you two are here, you might as well give me a hand. Rinoa said Odine was responsible for the stuff that's killing Squall - I'm looking for any information he might have left behind on what it is, how he developed it, what we can do about it - anything." Both of his friends heard the urgency in his voice.
Ward set his harpoon down within easy grabbing reach, and joined Kiros in picking up a stack of papers.