Chapter X Endgame
Don't be fooled by the chapter title...we're entering the closing moves of this little tale, but the story's not quite finished yet. Hopefully even with the allure of FF9 a few brave souls will bear with this 'til "the end"...
"Laguna?" Squall repeated in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Laguna told him.
"Why?" Squall's expression shifted to anger, his hand groping for his gunblade's holster--which was not on his belt, Laguna noted. The SeeD took a step back, braced for battle. "Are you with Seifer? Why are you hunting me?"
"I'm your father." But that wasn't enough of an answer, not for Squall. Unable to face the censure in his son's eyes, Laguna surveyed the jagged mountain peaks, the bleak sky. "You should've done like I suggested and come to Esthar for a vacation. This place is way too...lonely."
"I'm not supposed to be here!" Squall snapped. "I'm trying to find my way back--I've looked everywhere, gone everywhere--I need to get back. I need to stop Seifer."
"Stop Seifer?" Laguna frowned, then recalled that Seifer was that other gunblade specialist, the SeeD cadet who had served Ultimecia. "What's Seifer doing now?"
"You don't even know?" Squall made a short, strangled sound, a tortured chuckle. "He brought down the Garden--he killed them. He killed all of them. They're dead and I was too late, and he defeated me, but I'll find a way to stop him. I'll avenge them, I have to. They need me--"
He was raving, his eyes wide, his narrow face gaunt and far too old, and Laguna could only stare at his son in helpless confusion until he suddenly understood. Oh gods, oh deities and devils. "Squall, it wasn't real, it didn't happen. It was a trick. Lord Dahl of Galbadia, Jezikan's consort, he has this power, see, it's like Ellone's, only instead of putting you in the past it puts you in your own head, into nightmares. He was trying to hurt you, but none of it was real, it was all imaginary. It was only a vision."
"I saw them. I saw them dead, I saw them die." Squall swayed where he stood, one hand going up to cover his face. "Rinoa..."
"It was all in your mind. They're fine." At least they had been; Laguna didn't think it was the time to admit there were no guarantees, given the situation he had left them in. "You're who they're worried about."
"But...Seifer...I saw her die. I watched..." A shudder racked him.
This time Laguna didn't resist the temptation. He wrapped his arms around his son and rubbed his back soothingly, just as he used to comfort Ellone when she was a little girl, crying for her lost parents. Squall shed no tears, but his whole frame shook with suppressed sobs. "Hey, it's okay," Laguna said quietly. "They're all alright, Zell, Selphie, Irvine, Quistis, Xu, your pilot, what's his name, Nida--all of them. And Rinoa. She was there when Ellone sent me here. She's with you now, waiting for you to wake up. It wasn't real."
He didn't know if Squall was listening, but he knew he would be believed. Nearly anything was so preferable to such a nightmare that it would be accepted even if it were a lie; and the truth would be obvious, in this false dreamscape. Patiently Laguna waited, holding him, until the shaking slowed and stopped. Squall stiffened, then pushed his father away. His eyes were clear, without that frightening glitter of delirium, but flat, cold. "If I can wake up, then I'm still dreaming. You're a dream." It wasn't an accusation but a simple statement.
"No. ...Well, yeah, kind of, but not exactly," Laguna said. "I'm not actually physically here, maybe, but it is really me. In spirit. Ellone put me here. We didn't know how else to reach you."
"If this is a dream, then I don't know what will be real when I wake up."
"That's why you need to wake up."
Squall considered this for a long moment. "You said Lord Dahl did this to me."
"It's his ability, giving nightmares. He can...kill with it. But Ellone stopped him."
"I thought...Seifer killed me. I thought I was dead." I wanted to be. Though unspoken, the words hung in the air as if pronounced.
Laguna contained a horrified shiver. "You have to come back. Before you are dead. You gotta wake up."
"How?" Squall stared at him sharply. "I've tried. I know I need to go back. They need me...I need them." He paused, then spoke so softly Laguna could barely hear him. "You're right. It's too lonely here."
"I don't know how to get back. You have to find your own way."
"...You don't know?"
"I'm not an expert on this mental stuff. That's Elle's area, though even she didn't understand much about what Dahl does. We're all going on guesswork. But this is your mind. You should know your way around."
"How are you getting back?"
"Dunno." Laguna shrugged. "It was a risk."
"You don't know?" Squall was close to shouting. Here he lacked the control that served him so well in waking reality. Emotion slipped past his barriers. "If I don't wake up, I'll die. That's what you said. Does the same goes for you? How could you take that risk? You have responsibilities. You're a president, Laguna."
"I'm your father, Squall. That's a responsibility, too."
Gray eyes narrowed. "Not one you ever took."
He didn't let it hurt him--he couldn't, though it stung harshly. "I'm sorry. I told you before and I'll tell you now, even though it doesn't change what was. But I am sorry. I didn't know, I didn't even guess. If I'd imagined Raine was pregnant--if I'd ever heard you were born--"
"But you didn't." It would be less painful if he sounded more indicting, not so damnably rational. "We're not family. You have a family. Ellone's your daughter. You have a whole nation that needs you--"
"And I have a son. I shouldn't love you, just because I didn't know? I have a country, you said, all those people who rely on me--" As crazy as that might be. "But how am I supposed to care about any of them, if I don't care about you? How could I possibly love a whole nation, if I don't love my own son?
"Esthar needs me, maybe, but you do too, Squall. I wasn't there for you for years and years, but then I could help you, so I did. It wasn't because I had to, it was because I wanted to, because I was the only one who could. I was glad I could do something for you, finally. For your friends, too--they're all so upset. I can guess what it's like, I remember waking up in Winhill after escaping the Lunatic Pandora, when I thought Ward and Kiros might be dead, and it really hurt. And Rinoa--she loves you, I've watched her with you, she loves you so much. You can't leave her, maybe I left Raine but you can't leave her. You're better than me."
"I don't want to leave her," Squall whispered. "I don't. I...I need her. I love her. All my friends..."
"Your family," Laguna murmured, understanding. "They need you, too--"
He didn't think he had said too much, but Squall's head snapped up, eyes alight with comprehension. "They're in trouble. That's why they need me to wake up--I need to get back there, help them--"
"No!" Laguna cried. "That is--yes, there's trouble, and yes, they could use your help. But that's not why they want you up and awake and alive. Rinoa wouldn't care if you never fought again, if you quit SeeD the second you woke up--neither would any of the others. They love you, Squall, not what you can do. You're part of their family, like they're part of yours. I know you're scared to be so close to them, but that's true for them, too. Caring about people like that, it goes both ways--it's not only that you're dependent on them; they also depend on you. I don't mean fighting and strategy and all that work being commander. I mean as friends. They wouldn't be your friends if you weren't their friend--you wouldn't love Rinoa so much if she didn't love just as much. Which she does. Go back for them. Go back for her." He stopped to draw a breath, muttered to himself, "I always talk too much."
"...Maybe." But one side of Squall's mouth quirked up.
"Come on, isn't that enough? Get going." Laguna waved at him, as if he could sweep him back to the waking world.
Squall shook his head. "I don't--I don't think I can, by myself." He took a step forward, inclined his head with bare, honest respect. "Can you help me...Father?"
Laguna blinked rapidly, cleared his throat. "'Dad.' Please. I don't need any more titles." But Squall was frowning faintly, a worried, very young look in the back of his eyes. "Forget it," Laguna said. "So what do we do? Pinch each other? Hold hands and chant? Click our heels together three times?"
"I don't know." But he took Laguna's hand and closed his eyes, concentrating.
Laguna followed suit, thinking as fast as he could. Squall was counting on him, here--his son, who never relied on anyone but himself if he could help it. But he needed help, knew he needed help, and he believed in Laguna--he'd never thought that would happen, for his son to trust him so much. It was the most incredible pride he'd ever experienced.
And the most terrifying responsibility. Think, Laguna. Can't fail him. His head was pounding in earnest. Ellone, bring us back. But they were beyond her reach...
No. They couldn't be. When Ellone sent people into others' pasts, she stayed with them, underwent whatever they lived through in both minds. They weren't nearly as far away as the past now, however deep inside they might be. Moreover, Laguna was still here. He knew he had no psychic talents of his own, but Squall's mind was not his. He would not have an existence here, unless Ellone was holding him, keeping him present and whole.
He remembered passing through the void, nearly losing himself...but he hadn't. Ellone had said she felt a darkness, an emptiness, whenever she tried to send someone into Squall. Could that emptiness have been the void, which he had penetrated? With Ellone's help--and she must still be with him, for him to be here. And both of them alive. The blackness wasn't the veil of death; it was merely a wall, blocking Squall from consciousness. It could be cracked, if they could but reach it...if they could perceive it.
"Reach out," he told his son. "There's a wall in front of us, a wall we have to break through. You feel it?"
Squall shifted, not letting go of his hand. "Yes."
Laguna opened his eyes.
The wall stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, towered above them to almost touch the slate sky. It was made of giant, smooth, jet-black stones, fitted together so neatly there was no chink wider than a hair between them. Squall's hand was pressed to the largest block, a boulder as vast as a skyscraper.
Laguna smiled. "Good. Now we just gotta knock it down."
"All right." Squall sounded neither surprised nor frustrated. Motioning his father away, he took a few paces back, then raised one hand to his brow. The other he extended toward the wall, and chanted under his breath.
Reality--such as it was--flickered. Squall faded, to be replaced by a pillar of faceted stone almost as tall as the wall. At the summit rose a being like a serpent of living crystal, enormous, impossibly graceful. Laguna's jaw dropped in amazement--this had to be a production of Squall's imagination. He had heard stories of Leviathan, but surely the real guardian force could not be so beautiful, so powerfully perfect.
Imaginary or not, at the serpent's roar, water clearer than glass flowed over the stone tower, a deluge pouring down to crash against the wall. White froth splashed to the heavens, as the currents seeped between the cracks and the waves beat thunderously at the rampart. The force of the flood pounded like a score of battering rams. Under the onslaught the giant center block shifted, and finally spun away with the torrent.
The water vanished, along with Leviathan's tower. Squall reappeared, shouting, "Father!" He lunged forward, and Laguna reached for him--
And the rest of the wall came tumbling down. They fell with the stones, about to be crushed beneath a cascade of boulders, plummeting into a vast abyss.
"Ellone," Laguna hollered, "get us out of here!" He held onto his son's hand, determined not to let go as the tumbling rocks hammered him. Squeezing his eyes shut, he repeated to himself that the avalanche was only symbolic, it was all in his head, it was all in their minds...
Silence. He wasn't falling anymore, though he didn't remember hitting the ground. And he no longer gripped Squall's hand.
He sat up--or tried to, only his body was stiff, unresponsive. When he opened his eyes he was blinded by light. "Hold on, stay calm," commanded a soothing alto. Cool, gentle hands pushed him down.
"It's about time!" said another voice.
"Kiros?" Laguna asked, and then it all came back. He sat up again, ignoring the doctor's restraining hands and his own cramped muscles and spinning head. "Ellone? Squall? Where's Squall? How's Squall?"
"He's waking up. He should be fine."
Squall heard Dr. Kodowaki's words, took a second to process them, and another moment to deduce that they might be referring to him. He levered open his eyes. Blurs of motion gradually resolved into shapes, colors...figures.
"Come on, Squall!"
"Give the man some space, Zell."
A face, leaning over him, blue eyes fixed on him with open worry. He knew those eyes, that dark tattoo, last seen on a bloodied corpse, but vital now. "Zell!"
Squall surged up and grabbed him, to verify his existence. He was solid. Real. Alive.
Zell for his part automatically returned the hug with wholehearted relief. Only belatedly did it register which friend this was, who usually avoided such displays at all costs, who now was trembling in his embrace, barely but perceptible. "Uh...Squall? Hey, man..."
Squall yanked back as if he had been hit, muttering an apology under his breath. The excuse died on his lips as Quistis tentatively laid a hand on his arm, as Selphie and Irvine reached across from the other side of the bed. "You--you're all alive," he whispered. "He was right. You're alive." A small, rare smile spread over his face, exquisite for its singularity. Then his composure locked in place. Seriously he asked, "Where's Laguna--and Ellone?"
"We're here, Squall." Ellone sounded beyond tired, exhaustion dragging at each word. But her eyes glowed with satisfaction, even as she leaned against Laguna, who put his arm around her shoulders.
Squall nodded, the smile flaring across his features and vanishing again. He scanned the room, noting Dr. Kodowaki, Kiros and Ward--when had they all come on board?--and several other SeeD, peering in from the medical bay's entry in hope of glimpsing their revived commander. But there was one missing...
He frowned, unease twining around his heart. "Where's Rinoa?"
Zell stepped forward, his expression solemn, and the unease exploded into true fear. He fought it down as Zell pointed at the window, saying, "She's...out there."
"Where?" Squall swung his legs off the bed, uncertainly found his balance. Quistis and Irvine both moved to offer assistance, then stopped as he walked on his own to the window. The sun was rising from the sea, the clouds still touched with the last rose of dawn. High in the sky above, a final star shone, fading into daylight.
He squinted at that single celestial point. Too far above the horizon to be the morning star, it almost appeared to move, climbing higher as it dwindled.
"What is that?" he asked quietly.
"They brought back the Lunatic Pandora. We had to stop it," Zell said. And had no need to continue.
Squall pressed his hand to the glass, willing his eyes to still see the false star, even as it was swallowed by the sun's glare, even as he felt his own heart fly with it to be lost to the light. "Rinoa..."
"The moon? Is she--" Laguna recalled his son was still in the medical bay with them and hastily lowered his voice, "is she nuts?"
Kiros shrugged even as Ward grunted an assent. "That's what I thought," the minister murmured in an undertone. "But it's working. Rinoa can control the Pandora, being a Sorceress, but even that isn't enough to stop it from summoning a Lunar Cry. So she's taking it to the one place a Lunar Cry won't destroy."
"The moon. Bahamut's Flame." Laguna ran his hand through his long hair. "Couldn't we get her out of there? Once the Pandora's down..." He trailed off, realizing the impossibility. Over the years Esthar had tried to land multiple ships, both unmanned and crewed, on the moon. None had ever successfully penetrated the corrosive lunar atmosphere, and more significantly the monsters which inhabited both land and 'air.' Anything that fell to the moon was never going to return.
"But before the Pandora's hit the burning zone, when it's just been caught in the lunar gravity, couldn't we send a ship to pick up Rinoa? It'd be a small window of time, but it should be enough--"
"If we could get close enough," Dr. Kodowaki joined the conversation. She spoke loudly enough to be heard across the room, directing a meaningful look at the silent SeeD commander. "But from what Esthar has told us..."
Kiros heaved a sigh. "I've been in contact with Dr. Lapier and the spacestation researchers. In the last few hours they've been taking readings like crazy. When the Pandora took off, a powerful electrical field went up around it. Not only is it scrambling every kind of radio and electromagnetic signal they've tried, it destroyed the two probes they sent in. The scientists don't know if the Pandora's reacting to space, or the Sorceress, or what--for all we know Rinoa's just overheating the damn thing. But we can't get through that field; any ship that tries will be dead in space, if it doesn't just explode on contact."
"If only we could get through to Rinoa, tell her what's going on, maybe she could put it down..." Selphie suggested tentatively.
Quistis shook her head. "You heard Kiros. No radio. We've tried."
"And would she listen even if we could," Irvine muttered. "You know Rinoa--she knew damn well rescue was going to be dangerous, if not impossible. This was her choice." He looked stricken, but went on, "She might've even put up that shield, to keep us from trying something stupid--"
"It wouldn't be stupid--it'd save her life," cried Zell. "She wouldn't do that. She's nuts sometimes, but she wouldn't just...just throw away her--"
"She's saving the world!" Irvine snapped back. "She always wanted to make a difference--"
"But she couldn't--" Selphie protested.
"She might," Quistis raised her voice to speak over Selphie, "but it's an idiotic, irresponsible--"
"Don't you even care--this is Rinoa's life--"
"We know, and she cares as much as I do, but you gotta admit--"
The soft question instantly silenced the SeeD. Still standing by the window, their commander met their distressed, grieving eyes coolly. "How long?" he repeated.
Kiros was the only one with the presence of mind to check his watch. "Given the Pandora's current speed, about five hours before it enters the lunar atmosphere."
"Squall..." Laguna began uncertainly.
His son barely looked at him. "Forgive me, Father. Everyone." He closed his eyes for an instant, hardly more than a blink. "I...need to be alone. For a little while. I'll meet you all on the bridge. We'll figure out what to about FH and Galbadia and...everything else, then."
In silence he walked by them. Zell made an aborted motion toward his commander, halted before he blocked his way. "I'm sorry," the SeeD muttered under his breath. "Dammit, Squall, I'm sorry..."
If Squall heard, he passed without responding. The doors to the medical bay slid shut behind him. Selphie pressed her fist to her mouth in mute denial. Irvine made no effort to comfort her, his hat pulled low so the brim hid his eyes.
Quistis stood stock-still for a long moment, then, with a half-shake of her blonde head, also left the office.
Laguna sat heavily in one of the available chairs. He felt a solid hand on his shoulder, looked up into Ward's solemn, understanding face. His friend shook his head slowly.
Laguna nodded. "I know." There wasn't anything he could do for his son, that he realized. It didn't make it any easier to take.
Squall went to his quarters. No one followed him; the SeeD previously gathered outside the hospital wing dispersed like autumn leaves when he emerged, drifting back to their assignments. The residence corridor was deserted.
He was grateful for the solitude, though he felt a twinge of guilt for using their compassion. No matter. He had only been honest; he did need to be alone. Not one of the SeeD, among his friends or his greater command, would willingly let him do this. But he had no choice.
Lionheart was still in its case. He buckled its sheath around his waist, suppressing a shudder at the smooth fit of his fingers around the hilt. The last time he had wielded the gunblade...
No, that had just been a dream. A trick. This was real. The Pandora. And Rinoa.
Reality was not a nightmare. In reality there always existed hope.
He lingered by the 'com on his desk, considered calling Cid on Galbadia Garden, where he and Xu were holding down the fort. But his friends could handle the FH situation without his help, as they had been doing already. And Cid would guess. The headmaster knew him too well--better and for longer than his real father. Though Laguna was as important to him. He couldn't deny that anymore.
Both would try to stop him, if they knew. He didn't use the 'com. Instead he left his quarters and continued down the empty hall, avoiding the central hub by sticking to the small, less-used side passages. Finally, unseen by anyone, he reached the garage.
Behind the autos and other SeeD transports, the great, angular contours of the Ragnarok rose into the shadows, its pinions nearly piercing the high ceiling. Squall headed for the airship's entrance ramp.
Only to find someone already standing before it, her arms crossed and one brow arched sardonically.
Squall stopped, one hand going to Lionheart's hilt. "Quistis."
"Squall." She sighed, shaking her head. "You're pretty predictable, you know that?"
"...Whatever." He strode to the ship, ready to retaliate if she tried to block his way.
She didn't. "Let me come with you."
"Because it's too dangerous for me?"
"Yes." He started up the ramp.
She couldn't have restrained him with her whip or her spells, but at that low tone he stopped, turned around.
Quistis reached out and cupped his cheek, long fingers pressing lightly in almost a caress. "Good luck," she whispered.
And he felt a gift flowing from her into him. The empty crevices in his mind were filled with the powerful presences of the guardian forces, Eden and Quetzalcoatl, the newest and the oldest of their harnessed deities. He had missed the reassuring strength of their energies, without realizing the loss until this moment they were returned to him.
"Thank you," Squall said, and Quistis bowed to him. Not the polite, slightly ironic nod to her commander that she usually practiced, but a deep, respectful bow from the waist, her hands clasped before her.
He returned the honor. Then he finished the climb into the Ragnarok and closed the portal behind him, leaving Quistis standing alone among the lesser vehicles in the garage.
Nida followed Zell's pointing finger and frowned at the diode newly lit on the console. "That's the garage gates, but they shouldn't be--"
An electronic signal chimed and faded. Selphie lifted her head from her pacing around the office's perimeter and shot over to the 'com. "Hey, that sounded like the Ragnarok's flag."
Nida nodded. "I think--what the hell? It's taking off! Ragnarok, come in--"
Irvine swore. Selphie looked to Zell, color draining from both their faces as they realized it together. "Squall."
Hours later, Quistis stood on the ledge in the training compound, her elbows on the rail. She gazed up at the blue, blue sky, breathing in the salt-laden breeze from over the ocean. FH and the long train tracks stretching toward either horizon marred the otherwise perfect symmetry of sea and sky.
She heard footsteps behind her, turned and started in surprise. Not one of the SeeD, but Kiros Seagil, picking his way carefully over the bridge. He hailed her, "Good hiding place, eh?"
She shrugged. "Not really. Everyone knows about it."
He eyed her shrewdly. "There's lots that can't be hidden from, as it is."
"They haven't been able to contact him yet, have they."
Kiros shook his head. "Everyone's about to give up. Either he broke the radio or he's just refusing to respond. He's almost beyond the horizon as it is."
She squinted at the bright sky, trying to catch some slightest glimpse, any sparkle that could possibly be the Pandora's energy field or the Ragnarok's thrusters. But the sun drowned anything she might have seen. "How close is he?"
"He might have caught up with the Pandora already. That airship of yours can really fly."
"And the Pandora won't reach the moon for another couple hours."
"According to our scientists, yeah. So he hopefully has time to do whatever he's going to do."
"Good." She gave up straining her eyes and leaned on the rail again.
"Quistis," Kiros said, lowering his voice. "I wanted to ask--why didn't you stop him?"
Quistis was hard-pressed not to stare. Thanks to Ellone, she had spent time inside this man's head, a fact she still found disconcerting to contemplate, but for him to know her just as well... "I already told everyone, I got there too late," she said. "Squall was already onboard the Ragnarok when I reached the garage."
"That's what you told everyone, yeah. But could you have stopped him?"
She met his eyes, obsidian dark and warm with an empathy she couldn't interpret. "You were there when Laguna had Ellone send him into Squall. Could you have stopped him?"
"No." Kiros smiled ironically. "I wouldn't have tried."
Quistis nodded, saying nothing.
And Kiros snorted, almost a chuckle. "How do they do it," he murmured. "Do you ever wonder?" He stepped up to overlook the sea beside her, shoulder to shoulder. "One thing," he said, "one thing you can't forget--they always manage. The Loires, they don't give up, and they don't fail. And they always come back."
"And we'll always wait for them," Quistis whispered, so softly the wind stole her words.
"You can't do anything for Squall now," Kiros said. "Maybe later, from what your headmaster's been saying. But right now we could use your help down here. Cid's negotiating with FH, trying to convince them the Pandora's no longer a danger, and there's certain other matters..."
"Their broken generator," Quistis recalled Rinoa's ploy.
"The Mayor's not too happy about that, for some reason. Laguna's trying to calm him down, but Laguna is, er, not exactly a diplomat. He's my best friend, but he's got all the political instincts of a sleepy wombat. If I abandon him to negotiating too long he'll end up pledging Esthar's entire treasury to FH for reparations. And they're supposed to be our colony."
"What about the Galbadians?"
"That's a whole other story. Your SeeD are rounding up the troops who haven't already fled for home, but then there's the Deling City issue, whatever your ex-Knight pal is up to there..."
"Sounds like trouble."
"You could say that. Lots to keep us busy." Kiros pushed away from the rail and extended his hand to her. "Come, my lady. Duty awaits."
She accepted his courteous assistance down the slope, pausing once to look back and try one last time to pierce the veil of sunlight and clear sky to the stars beyond.
"Courage, Quistis," Kiros murmured, for only her ears. "Trust them."
"I do," she said, and was reassured to find it was true.
Through the soundless vacuum of space roared the Ragnarok. The drone of its engines vibrated the cockpit, driving back a little of the tremendous oppression of the nothing. Here, outside the planet's atmosphere, the stars were brilliant but cold, no longer twinkling points of light but suns burning impossibly far away. Brave, incredibly brave, the ancients had been, if the legends were true and they had left the world to seek new homes across that inconceivable distance.
Squall shoved the atavistic fear of such immensity to the back of his mind. He kept his eyes off the stars and on the slowly-expanding contour of the Lunatic Pandora, a small black rectangle against the blanched moon, even its enormous height dwarfed by the planetary body.
He tried the radio again. "Rinoa? Are you there? Can you hear me?"
The Pandora had the capability, woven into its organic crystal walls, to pick up any transmission on the electromagnetic spectrum; but the only answer he got was static, hissing louder the closer he drew. Already the Ragnarok's instruments were starting to go on the fritz, buzzing and blinking flashes of false data. The compass spun, though it should have stayed steady on the great blue-and-white globe glowing like a lamp below. The electric field around the Pandora disrupted the equipment, Esthar's best, even through the Ragnarok's formidable shields. Another ship would not have made it this far.
To reach the Pandora, he would have to cancel that field. The Ragnarok lacked the necessary power. But he had other resources, if they were strong enough.
The airship began to founder as it neared the Pandora, its stabilizing thrusters firing out of synchronization. Squall switched to manual override and guided the Ragnarok closer. Upon approach he had to match its acceleration. His fingers cramped in their tight grip, the necessary minute adjustments made barely in time. Selphie, with her natural affinity for the airship's controls, would have had a much easier time of it. But he couldn't have asked her, even if she probably would have agreed to come in an instant; he hadn't dared risk anyone on this mission. Bad enough that he had likely lost the SeeD their most advanced vehicle. They couldn't afford to lose any more people as well.
They probably were furious with him anyway.
The monitors of the cockpit flickered and died one by one as the Pandora became steadily larger through the thick titaniglass window. Sparks flashed around the hull, electricity dancing like scattered confetti. When the thrusters began to fail, he knew he had reached the limit. Any closer and the energy field generated by the Pandora would crack the airship apart, as it had Esthar's probes. He had maneuvered the Ragnarok well enough to maintain velocity with the Pandora, falling with it toward the moon.
Hopefully they would not drift too far apart while he sought to dispel field. He tried the radio one last time, to no avail. It wouldn't turn on. Rinoa couldn't hear him. Though for a moment, as he looked long at the shimmering slab deceptively small outside the window, he almost thought he could see her, trapped in the Pandora's brilliant heart, a speck of living warmth behind the impenetrable walls of ice and power.
Unstrapping himself from the pilot's chair, Squall moved back to the center of the darkened cockpit, lit now only by the moon and the Pandora. He floated in free fall above the floor, orienting himself with little difficulty in the still air. Eyes closed, he brought up one hand to his face, pointed the other toward where the afterimage of the Pandora lingered under his lids. Focused as he was, the incredible magic of the thing washed like a sea around him, barely perceptible to his conscious mind, flowing with the natural energy of the field.
He reached inside himself, and called forth the ancient king of those forces, the master of the storm's power long before humans had learned to control it with magic or machines. At his summons, Quetzalcoatl, the snake god, the god of lightning, came.
The Guardian Force poured from him, rising up out from the ship's confines, and Squall ascended with it, caught as always in the commanding current of its might. Mankind supposedly had tamed the Forces, but to call them forth was not to order but to request, and then to be swept along with their manifestation. There was no control, except the slightest direction of who should be attacked, protecting allies and striking enemies; otherwise the Forces did as they would. Their very presence in the mind granted use of magic and other abilities, and the Forces in turn gained strength and wisdom. But to summon their being was to give one's will entirely over to them, if briefly.
So Squall had always fought, never questioning their right, profiting for their gifts and accepting the cost, the loss of memory from leasing out part of one's mind. The Forces grew stronger with him, even more powerful, and he had tamed others, following the rules of capture and combat laid down eons before any city on the planet had been built.
Now, for Rinoa's sake, he broke those rules. No visible foe, no obvious target, and through their mental link he sensed Quetzalcoatl's confusion, a quandary easily leading to anger. Before it could, he pushed his own self to the fore, impinging on the guardian force's right of possession in order to explain, to request.
But there was no need. The moment he attempted to clarify himself, Quetzalcoatl engulfed him, filling his mind, differently than all his previous experiences. Not merely manifesting from a single small corner of thought, it instead wrapped around his very spirit, until he was lost in the intensity of its being.
Then they were one, as they had never been. Quetzalcoatl's power was not an outside presence but essential to his being, electricity flowing through his blood, his skin both flesh and scales, his limbs wings and tail as much as arms and legs. He hovered in cold space and felt none of its chill, only the flicker of energy. Was this what it was for Rinoa to possess the Sorceress's gifts, to wield not borrowed magic but undiluted power?
Only he was not the true owner of this power. He was aware of the other presence--more than aware. He cowered in the shadow of a being as great a phenomenon as the stars, even as he existed as that being's very nature. He wondered how he had even dared to hold one such creature, much less the many they had accrued. How had mankind ever believed themselves worthy of even requesting brief favors of them? If he had fully realized the reality of the guardian forces...
And Quetzalcoatl knew him as intimately...as so much more. For how could he truly understand a god; and how could a god fail to understand completely his transient, minuscule existence. He knew Quetzalcoatl comprehended his request, and was all too aware of how insignificant it must seem. Emotions, attachments, everything important in life...how little they must matter to an existence old as the universe. What could mortal love mean to an eternal?
//What could a mortal mean to a god?//
It was a voice beyond speech. There were no words, only the essence of the question.
//What could a god mean to a mortal?//
//You gift us with more than we could ever offer you. We serve you gladly for the lessons you teach...for the teachings you learn yourself, and we with you.//
Through the silence of space he heard laughter, deep and rich and inhuman in its power, in the purity of its feeling.
//Our love to you, Master. We do all we can.//
And he felt Quetzalcoatl emerge from him again--the combined aspect of their being called forth, so what was summoned was not a mere guardian force, no temporary manifestation from the otherstate, but the god itself.
It rose from the world and stretched toward the moon. Its feathered wings spread wide enough to envelope the stars; its smooth scales reflected every shade and hue of light. It hurt to look upon, yet once seen one could not look away. The Ragnarok was nestled in the heart of its serpentine spiral, and before it, a single die rolled in space, fell the Lunatic Pandora.
Quetzalcoatl's great wings swept forward to encircle the Pandora, but before the tips met, energy sparked along the shimmering feathers. The snake god writhed, incredible length arching backward as its tremendous jaws gaped in a soundless scream. Electricity crackled as it brought its own power to bear, space itself warping and darkening into impossible storm clouds.
Then the lightning came, a bolt to cleave the world, arcing from the globe below to strike the Pandora. All the heavens flashed, the universe entire bright as the sun for a single blink.
Following it, a shriek, not the god's but human, a girl's voice torn asunder. Rinoa!
He felt pain, but whether it was his body's, or hers, or an echo from his link with the god around him, he couldn't tell. It was not enough to dissuade him. "Rinoa," he begged, "hold on. I'm coming. Hold on!"
But his was not the only wish. He felt it through Quetzalcoatl, a force almost equal to the god's. Not wise, not knowing, but as profound. A pressure, a pulling, a desperate grip which trapped her, as an eagle's talon closed around a rabbit, or a torama's claws sunk into a mesmerize's body.
She would not be devoured; she would not be its prey, not while he still existed. He fought, without weapons, without body, with nothing except his determination.
Backed by Quetzalcoatl's unfathomable power.
Feathered wings closed over the Pandora, and energy coruscated through both god and machine. The backlash burned him, flung him back.
Squall gasped as his head slammed into the steel girder of the Ragnarok's frame, one hand going up to feel the bump... He stopped, stared dumbly at the hand, the five fingers where he had unconsciously expected iridescent plumes, at the cockpit around him where there had been frozen vacuum. Setting his boots against the wall, he pushed off toward the window, catching the crossbeam to halt his zero gravity glide.
There he watched in awe as the snake god, whose power still throbbed within his own mind, coiled around the Lunatic Pandora. The great pointed head dipped down, as if in a kiss of blessing. At the point of contact sparks exploded, and space was set afire with raw energy.
Squall blinked. When he squinted open his eyes, the Pandora was jet black against the white moon, and Quetzalcoatl was gone. He searched the recesses of his mind. Eden was still present, dormant, but of Quetzalcoatl there was no trace, not a vestige of the guardian force's powers or abilities.
All that remained was the thinnest thread in his mind, and at its other end he sensed, not the god, but a living being. A heart beating in another breast, fast with fear and effort.
Hold on, Rinoa!
And felt her reach out to him, extend her frail hand through the emptiness dividing them.
The Pandora was dark, the energy field momentarily dispersed. Squall shoved off the window and shot toward the pilot's seat, catching the headrest and swinging himself into it as he stabbed the controls for every thruster available. Only a few responded, and the Ragnarok lurched forward, picking up velocity as he pressed every still-working system to its limit. A lone proximity alert chimed in hesitant alarm before failing, and the Pandora's black wall swelled before him.