What Quistis Did Next Book Three - Chapter One
Searchlights swept across the fields to the rear of the office complex, the beams of light falling lazily across the greenery and scaring the wits out of any woodland animals who happened to be scampering past at that moment. The complex itself was composed of several tall buildings, lights off for the night but row upon row of window panes glittering softly in what moonlight fell on them. They were fenced in by high walls and topped with barbed wire, as though if the mood took they may decide to uproot themselves and trample through the rest of the city.
The guard manning the East Wall search tower sighed with boredom. Another night with nothing going on. He began to wonder why this place has such a high security budget if nobody ever tried to break into anything, although when he thought about it, the high security probably put off most potential raiders, and if he was honest he didn't have the first clue about what went on inside the four office blocks' cream-painted walls, despite his attempts to date that girl with the black hair who worked in one of the floors his tower could look into.
If he'd have been scanning the fields that lay beyond the border of the complex more carefully, he may have spotted four camouflaged figures crawling through the undergrowth, darting from cover to cover as they wound their way forward. Luckily for the figures, the guard was half asleep already, so they managed to close to within ten feet of the base of the walls before they stopped. The four of them were dressed head to foot in green urban pattern camouflage suits, with large clumps of grass and greenery attached to their backs so that they could blend seamlessly into the environment as they crawled forwards.
They were now faced with the problem of climbing the forty-foot high wall facing them, however, so the group assembled in a small circle to plan their next move.
"Jeez, that wall's high," muttered one of them darkly.
"Hmm, I think I can get us up there," said another, female voice.
"You sure? It's a long way, and we haven't worked out how to distract the guards yet," said another, softer male voice.
"W-we're g-going where?" said the fourth voice, a timid sounding female who seemed to be scared out of her wits.
Cevin sat up a little so his head wasn't so close to the damp ground, and spat a few stray blades of grass out. Frowning, he turned to the others.
"You mean to tell me I let you talk me into crawling all the damn way over here, only to find we don't even have a plan to get into the damn place?" Criss looked up at him and shook his head as he replied.
"Be quiet, Cevin," he whispered, "you'll bring the whole place down on us if you're not careful!"
"Guys, I'm telling you, I can make that!" said Katya, blowing a piece of her camouflage shrubbery from her face. "All I need is a diversion so I can draw enough juice to float us up and over that thing." Criss studied the walls, taking in the armed guards at regular intervals, the barbed wire and the security cameras.
"Too risky," he said, "and it'll take too long. I've got a better plan."
"Look, I know you people must know what you're doing and all," said the fourth member of the party, "b-but just how are we going to get all the way up there?" The voice belonged to Trini Jabotsky, one of the rebels' computer experts whom Berne had assigned to the SeeDs to allow them to hack into the computer network inside the complex. She was a petite girl, unassuming to look at with large glasses and straight brown hair, but right now she was shivering from a mixture of the chilly evening wind and her own nerves, this being her first time out in the field. Katya smiled at her reassuringly, having already taken the hacker under her wing to make sure she was up to the job when the time came.
"Relax, Trini," she said, "this is just a minor inconvenience. Our job is to get you in there," she said, jabbing a finger at the blocks that rose into view over the rim of the walls, "and then watch your back while you do your job."
"Yes, yes, hack into the network and find out what I can about the experiments, I know," she said, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Criss shuffled over to the two of them.
"Okay, here's what I want you to do," he began.
* * * * * * * * * *
I must be out of my tiny little mind, thought Quistis as she sped towards Dreason a few hours earlier, her jeep bouncing along the dirt road that Raijin had insisted was a 'shortcut, ya know?' between Kabernia and the town where Seifer was being held in the asylum. Raijin and Fujin were along for the ride, Raijin clearly loving the trip as he whooped every time Quistis bounced the car into the air over the bumps and hills, while Fujin sat, stony and silent as always, in the back, hanging on for dear life. Raijin was nodding his head and tapping on the dashboard along to the loud music Quistis was playing, not noticing that she'd only put it on so she wouldn't have to talk to either of them.
"How much further?" she yelled. Raijin cocked his ear towards her.
"HOW MUCH FURTHER?" she bellowed into his ear.
"Uh, maybe another twenty minutes, the way you drive, ya know?" Raijin grinned and laughed, Quistis just rolled her eyes. Here she was, racing hell for leather down a deserted and very poorly lit dirt road in the middle of nowhere, leaving the bright lights of Kabernia behind, and leaving a vitally important mission to her SeeD cadets, who were all still cadets, she had to keep reminding herself, to be heading herself towards the rescue of one of the few men she'd hoped she'd never see again.
She cast her mind back to how she'd made her decision to the other cadets earlier that day..
* * * * * * * * * *
"You want to do what??" yelled Cevin as Quistis outlined her plan.
"I want you three to take the mission on the offices, and I'll go to Dreason with these two to bring back Seifer."
"Have you gone stone bonkers crazy, Quistis?" Cevin shouted again. "That man is a killer! He tried to kill you and all your team however many times, all the while serving some power crazy, time-travelling sorceress who wanted nothing more than to take over the whole damn world, and now you're dropping everything just so you can drag his sorry ass out of some nut house? Forget it!" Quistis raised an eyebrow at him.
"Cadet McClewen, did you just give me an order?" she said smoothly. Cevin stuttered for a few seconds, before flinging his hands into the air in frustration and marching off to the far side of the room. Raijin started to snicker until a glare from Quistis shut him up.
"While I'm not going to shout as much as Cevin," said Criss with a glance to his team-mate still fuming in the corner, "he does have a point. Seifer Almasy is a dangerous man, a renegade SeeD who sided with one of the greatest threats this world has ever known. Why should you jeopardise our work here to save him?" Quistis sighed, knowing that they weren't going to like what she was about to tell him.
"Because he asked me to. And I don't know what it is, some misguide sense of Garden loyalty or duty, or honour, or whatever, maybe it's pity, but the fact is I.. I just can't let him rot away in there. Maybe if I bring him out we can bring him before the Garden Council to answer for what he did at last." She scanned the room. They weren't buying it and she had to admit she didn't really blame them. If she was honest with herself, she didn't know why she should risk her neck to get Seifer out of there either. It was probably as much as he deserved. But there was still something.. she didn't know what, it was the vaguest feeling, like a tiny pinprick at the back of her mind, but it was there, a tiny disembodied voice telling her that she had to get him out. That he was different, that he was no longer a threat, and that once upon a time they'd been almost friends, they'd played together as children, and even despite all the terrible things he'd done, she did have a responsibility to help him.
* * * * * * * * * *
That thought kept rattling round the inside of her brain, almost as fiercely as she herself rattled round the inside of her speeding jeep as they hit a particularly rundown stretch of road.
"So, what's the plan when we, ya know, get there?" yelled Raijin over the noise of the revving engine. Quistis frowned. Good point. She'd been so wrapped up in persuading the cadets to take the mission alone, feeding them some motivational speech about how 'it was time for them to stand on their own two feet at last' that she knew they hadn't swallowed in the slightest, that she'd neglected to think up a suitable plan of action on how to actually get Seifer out of this place. Was she just going to walk up to the front door, knock, and ask politely?
"PLAN?" shouted Fujin, as if to remind her to answer.
"Well, we can't just waltz in there and ask them to let him go," she said, slowing a little so she didn't have to shout over the engine so much, "and besides which, if we try to do this officially there'll be forms to fill in, evaluations to run - the whole process could take months, and we need him out of there tonight if I'm going to be able to help my cadets out."
"Heh, they can look after themselves, ya know?" said Raijin. "That spiky haired punk, he seemed like a tough nut, he'll be okay."
"That's not the point, Raijin," said Quistis with a glare, "I'm their instructor, I'm supposed to be leading by example, and rushing off on a fool's errand like this is not what I'd call a good example!" Raijin shrugged and looked back out the windscreen. He squinted and pointed up ahead.
"There, that's the place," he said, and Quistis slowed down. The road they were on was shadowed by tall trees on either side, so Quistis didn't have a great view of the buildings up ahead, but she could see enough to know what it was.
The asylum lay about a mile up ahead, leading out onto fields to the back and a main road with a checkpoint that branched off from the road Quistis was currently on. It was a set of white buildings, lit from within through a variety of windows and divided into three different sections, presumably for the different wards there. Quistis could make out tall walls surrounding it, making any kind of sneak entry pretty difficult. She suddenly wished she'd brought her cadets along, she could have used their help just now. She brought the jeep to a halt, switched off the lights and rummaged around in her glovebox for the pair of night vision binoculars she had. Standard issue-equipment they may have been, but she'd rarely needed to use them so it took a few attempts to get the zoom working, with Raijin helpfully trying to tell her what to do before she figured it out.
She closed up on the walls, seeing that they were fenced from behind and topped by wicked looking spikes, a new windmill-like design that tore further in to whatever unfortunate intruder they got their teeth into in response to any movement. Scanning the windows, she grunted disapproval as she made out the bars covering every single one, and more significantly the fact that they all seemed to be secured from the inside. She swept her view across the buildings a few more times before putting the binoculars down and settling her chin against her crossed arms on the steering wheel.
"So, when do we go in?" said Raijin, clearly not one for strategy.
"We may as well wait till its gets a bit darker," said Quistis looking outside. The sun was half set already but there was thick cloud cover, with the wind kicking up and light spots of rain starting to dab at her jeep's windshield. If they waited maybe twenty minutes more, the sky would already be grey and dark, so by the time they reached the asylum buildings it'd be near as dammit pitch black night outside. That would have to do. There wasn't time for a reconnaissance sweep of the area, no time to pay a visit undercover to the place to get a good look round the inside - she was having to go in blind and she hated having to do that. She sighed as she started to ask herself what she'd gotten into.
She was disturbed as Raijin clicked the radio back on, blasting out loud music that must have woken up everything within a two mile radius.
"Raijin!" she screeched as she ejected the tape so fast it shot out of the cassette player and landed in Fujin's lap, who regarded it with a confused look. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I was bored, ya know? How much longer are we gonna be waiting?" Quistis threw a look to Fujin as if to ask 'Is he always like this?' to which the grey-haired woman replied with a nod and a roll of her one good eye. Quistis turned back to Raijin, fidgeting in the front seat like a naughty schoolboy.
"Raijin, we're going nowhere till the sun goes down. After that, wrap up because it looks like the temperature's dropping fast out there, because we're heading out on foot that way," she said, with a pointed index finger towards the back of the asylum. "I reckon that while the security won't be any less, there'll be less trouble getting into the complex from that side. After all, who wants to break in to an insane asylum? All the security is designed to stop people from getting out." Fujin nodded once in agreement, as did Raijin.
Twenty minutes of Raijin's intolerable fidgeting later and Quistis was about ready to strangle the burly man, when she looked up and decided at last it was dark enough. Raijin had been asking that every minute since they'd parked up so she was glad to be able to say 'yes!' at last and shut him up. Stepping out of her jeep with the others following suit, she pulled out her black hooded sweatshirt and zipped it up tight around her, pulling the hood up to cover herself from the icy early evening wind.
Dreason, the town where Seifer had been found, was three miles further down the road according to the signs they'd passed on the way. Quistis had managed to work out an escape route but the rest of the plan would have to be made up as she went along. She grabbed her whip and a few more accessories from the jeep before locking it and turning to Fujin and Raijin. Fujin had pulled on a long black coat although her hair was still defiantly uncovered, while Raijin didn't seem to have noticed the cold at all, his waistjacket still open-fronted.
"You two clowns ready then?" she asked. They both said yes, so she turned and started the walk towards the asylum.
* * * * * * * * * *
Book Three - Chapter 48
The metal teeth of the grappling iron clanked onto the top of the walkway, then clattered noisily along until they bit into the lip of the wall, holding fast after a few tugs on the rope attached to it to test it. Criss looked up. He'd managed to get close enough to get the lightweight rope and grapple up onto the top of the wall, aided by the small air-powered launcher he'd brought with him from the rebel's base. The trick now was how to scale the wall without being spotted by the searchlights, cameras or sentries patrolling the walls above him, and more to the point how to then get Katya, Cevin and the new kid Trini up there as well. With a resolved breath he grabbed hold of the rope, laid one foot against the wall and started to climb up it, hoping that Redman would follow her part of the plan.
Down on the ground, Katya looked up as Criss made his way up the rope, her hands knotted together and her brow furrowed in concentration. She was drawing up light blue-coloured essences from the ground around her, but she was trying to do so with the minimum amount of visual display. Managing to gather enough for what she needed, she pointed her fingers towards the first camera that Criss would come into range of in a few more moments, and willed a strand of blue light out to do her work for her.
In the complex's security control booth, a night-watchman sat with his feet up on the desk as a huge wall of cameras faced him, all their monochrome screens flickering slightly as they showed various parts of the complex. He was engrossed in a magazine and sipping a cup of coffee, so he failed to notice one of the screens blurring into static, fading back to normal again after around ten seconds.
One down, thought Criss as he passed the camera, two to go.
Katya turned her attention to the first of two searchlights, whose lazy ovals of illumination were crawling across the wall towards Criss. Another raised finger and another effort of will saw the light's bulb die and fade out, just long enough for Criss to climb safely out of its range, before it glared into life again and carried on as though nothing had happened. Katya looked down at the small bundle of blue energy in her other hand and grinned. Halfway there and still plenty of juice for the job, she thought.
The next camera followed suit, as did the next searchlight. After a few more moments of climbing, Criss managed to get one hand up onto the lip of the wall, straining his arm muscles as he lifted his head just high enough to take a look around and see what was there. This section of the wall was mercifully free of guards at this moment - they'd spent half an hour down below trying to get a feel for the patrol patterns, and so far this was exactly what they'd expected. Hoisting himself up onto the wall, he scanned around him quickly. The wall he was on led all the way round the perimeter of the complex, breaking off at regular intervals with walkways down to floor level. In the centre of the lot stood the three office blocks, a network of roads running round them. A few vehicles buzzed round the roads, but they looked like civilian cars instead of armoured personnel carriers full of guards. Which was a good thing, Criss decided.
His plan was to get down on ground level and head for an entrance the cadets had seen on the way in, so that he could let the other three inside without needing to set off any alarms or do any more rope-climbing, so he scampered long the walkway and silently down the first set of steps until he was down on ground level. Keeping close to the ground and in the shadow as much as he could, he was thankful for the many little barricades, electrics boxes and other obstacles jutting out from the wall because it gave him plenty of cover. Criss spotted the gate in question up ahead, a road bridge linking the civilian roads to the inside of the complex, one of several leading out from Kabernia. He headed over.
On the other side of the wall, Cevin, Katya and Trini were crawling into position, stopping just short of the start of the road bridge and within spitting distance of the checkpoint manning it. The bridge itself was only about twenty feet long, but there was a dip in the ground immediately after the checkpoint, causing the land to fall away before hitting the wall, leaving no way in except via the road. There was a guard at the checkpoint, idly smoking a smelly cigarette as he rubbed his arms to keep out the cold, his eyes scanning the empty night and wishing he could be amongst the warm, glittering lights of Kabernia in the distance. Cevin moved into position, as per the plan.
Back inside the walls, Criss stole towards the checkpoint booth on the other side of the road bridge, seeing the thick steel gate that had to be lifted by controls in the booth before anything could get inside. He jabbed his head into the booth then back again, taking in enough to see that there was one guard with his back to him. In one fluid motion he stepped inside, clamped a hand round the guard's mouth and chopped him once on the side of his neck, hitting a bundle of nerves and dropping the guard to the floor, doubled up and unable to move or make a sound. Criss pushed him under the desk out of sight, winking once at the guard's accusing glare, his eyes being the only part of him able to move after the chop.
Looking across the desk, he scanned over the row of CCTV monitors looking for the road bridge controls, finding the one he was after and hitting it. He raised the gate by about a foot then clanked it to a stop again, stepping back out of the booth and round to the side of the gate.
Outside, Cevin watched the gate clink upwards a few notches, then signalled to Katya and Trini to make their way towards it. The guard at the checkpoint heard the noise of the gate and turned to investigate, giving Cevin all the time he needed to silently rise to his feet and hit the guard in the back of the neck, dropping him to the ground where another swift punch took him out of play. Katya muttered about his heavy-handed tactics as she shed her camouflage outfit before grabbing hold of the side of the road bridge, using it as a balcony to make her way across towards the gate, her feet hanging in thin air as she worked her way along. Trini and Cevin followed suit.
Criss kept his eyes peeled, looking from side to side for anyone who might be heading over, hoping that he wouldn't have to knock anyone else out. So far, so good, he thought as he knelt down and looked out towards the bridge, seeing Cevin and the others make their way over.
"Katya! Katya!" whispered Trini halfway across.
"What?" hissed Redman, trying to concentrate on keeping her grip on the cold metal bridge.
"I.. I can't move!"
"You what? What's wrong?"
"I-I'm too scared!"
"What's the hold up?" said Cevin, catching up to them both,
"Trini's got stage fright," said Katya with a groan. "You sort her out, I've got to keep moving or my fingers are going to fall off!" She carried on and was at the gate entrance in moments, taking one of Criss' outstretched hands to pull herself up and into the complex at last.
"Come on, kid, we can't hang around here all night!" said Cevin, trying to stay calm. Trini was shaking, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
"I-I'm sorry, I.. I just can't!"
"Trini, listen to me," said Cevin with uncharacteristic sensitivity. "You've got three highly trained SeeDs as your bodyguard, nothing is going to happen to you while we're in here, okay? Do you believe me?"
"I.. I guess so," she murmured.
"But we can't do that while we're hanging out here, so I need you to keep moving, one hand over the other, you'll be there in no time."
"Trini, it's all good. I'm right here, nothing's going to happen. Can you try again for me?"
"I-I'll try.." Trini closed her eyes and took a deep breath, one hand over the other as she hung from the side of the bridge, finally managing to get up to the gate where Katya and Criss were waiting to pull her up. Once the team was safely reunited again, Criss nipped back into the control booth and cranked the gate shut, rejoining the other three back outside, the group huddled down out of sight.
"Right, phase one over and done with, time for the next step," said Katya.
"Right. What was that again?" said Cevin.
"Get into the offices, locate the computer network from an access terminal and let Trini do her thing," said Criss, looking at Trini who still seemed to be on the verge of fainting with nerves. He laid a hand gently on her shoulder and she jolted to alertness again.
"What?" she said, worriedly. "Is everything okay?" Criss grinned.
"Everything's fine. We're moving out to that building there," said Cevin, pointing to the closest of the office blocks, keeping a watchful eye on the patrolling guards and occasional vehicles lumbering around nearby. Criss noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of large, heavy goods vehicles considering this was only meant to be an office complex - he wondered if that had anything to do with the unusually high level of security here as well.
"What is it?" said Katya, reading that Criss was deep in thought about something off his frowning expression.
"Nothing really.. it's just those trucks there," he said, pointing to a pair of large cargo trucks moving out towards the back of the complex. "They seem a little out of place here, I wonder where they're going?"
"We can check that out later," said Cevin with a tap on Criss' arm to get his attention, "let's keep moving." Criss nodded and the group edged towards the nearest entrance to the building. Criss glanced up and around, checking the lay of the land. Where they currently were was behind a low wall that jutted out from the main complex wall, looking out across the road network and towards the building. The entrance to the building wasn't guarded but several of the patrols had a line of sight to it - the bright floodlights dotted all around didn't help matters either. Criss turned to Katya.
"If you can do something about those lights, I think we can make it to that door there, then all we need to do is pick the lock and we're in." Katya grinned.
"I can do better than that," she said. "Anyone watching?" Criss popped his head up over the wall to check there was nobody nearby.
"All clear," he replied. Katya closed her eyes and drew up a small reservoir of green energy from the floor around her. Trini watched, wide eyed.
"Wow.. I've never seen a magic user like her before," she whispered, "she just pulls all that stuff out of thin air like.. like.."
"Like magic?" grinned Cevin. "Told you we were the best." Katya opened her eyes, and held her hands up to her mouth.
"Now just relax," she said with an impish grin," because this will feel a little weird." She blew into her open palm and the green energy flowed out like a cloud, settling on all four of them. Cevin stifled a sneeze and Trini wobbled unsteadily on her hunched feet, but after a few moments the dizzying sensation passed.
"What did that do?" asked Cevin.
"Watch" said Katya, grin still firmly in place as she stood up wand walked boldly out into the road, directly in view of at least three guards.
"Kat!" hissed Cevin, starting to rise but Criss held him back with an arm on his shoulder. Cevin turned to look at him but Criss just nodded back towards Katya. She walked right up to the door of the building, then turned back round and waved to the others. Criss grinned and stood up.
"Invisibility spell," he said as he started walking over to her, soon followed by Cevin and Trini. "Nice trick," he said to her, and she did a mock curtsey for him.
"Why thank you, now all we need to do is get this door open and we're sorted."
"How long will this last?" said Trini, with worried glances towards all the guards nearby as Criss knelt down to start using his lockpick on the office block's door.
"Ooh, a few more minutes at least," said Katya, completely unworried by the whole thing. Criss grunted as he tried to get into the thick set security lock on the door, his efforts rewarded with a click and the door swinging open.
"Careful," he whispered, "we may be invisible but we can still be noticed, let's go. And stay quiet." The other three followed him inside.
The interior of the building was what you'd expect from a high revenue office centre - all neatly furnished floors, potted plants for 'atmosphere,' plain, unremarkable chairs and desks and neon strip light fittings that gave you a mild headache after a few minutes exposure to them. Criss led the way, padding silently across the carpeted floors down the access corridor that led from the front door, up to a reception desk that branched off into a larger lobby, with lifts and staircases heading off into the rest of the building from that. He scanned the list of office names and departments that was mounted on a plaque next to the desk.
"We're looking for something like 'Records' or 'Research,' or.."
"Lab Reports," said Trini, her finger against the entry on the plaque, spelt out in little white plastic stick-on lettering. "Floor 37, that's us."
"Well spotted. Now, we need to figure out what to do about the camera systems," said Criss, still scanning the lobby as he spoke. "There may be guards on patrol inside this building that we don't know about, but we can't rely on this spell to last long enough for us to do this and get us out here."
"'Fraid so," said Katya. "If I could have pulled up more essences then maybe, but as it is I could only get a little, especially when split four ways."
"Don't worry," said Trini with a smile, pushing her glasses back up her nose, "this is what I came along for. Just give me a few minutes." She made her way round behind the desk, retrieving a compact laptop computer from the small backpack she was wearing. Tying her hair back out of the way, she pulled forward the small CCTV monitor behind the desk and plugged a lead from the laptop into it. With a few deft button presses and a little high speed typing, the camera's signal was also showing on the laptop screen. Cevin nodded appreciatively.
"You do know your stuff, then, I'm impressed!"
"This ought to let us look through all the cameras, that way we can scope out the whole building from here and see where anybody's hiding!" Criss and Katya shared a grin. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all.
* * * * * * * * * *
This is going to be quite difficult after all, thought Quistis as her unlikely trio neared the foot of the wall at the rear of the asylum. The fields behind and around her were scarce of trees or anything they could use to gain access - there was some kind of logging factory a few miles away that had probably scoured most of the countryside for fuel before now. She looked up - the wall was a twenty foot high monument of white-plastered bricks, too thick to just barge through and probably not great to try and climb up either. She was looking round for another way in when she heard Raijin and Fujin muttering behind her. She turned to face them, strands of her hair sweeping back into her face as the wind blew them from underneath the protection of her hooded top.
"What is it?" she said, having to shout a little over the wind. Fujin carried on talking before Raijin nodded and turned to Quistis.
"We got a plan, ya know? To get us over the wall." Quistis looked from them, to the top of the wall, then back to Raijin.
"Which is what, exactly? Are we going to use you as a battering ram to bash a hole through the wall? Because, I'd quite like that, ya know," she said, mimicking Raijin's catchphrase.
"Naah, nothing like that. Guardian Force magic, yeah!" said Raijin, stepping back and letting Fujin step forward. Fujin held out a small, grey crystal which was glowing from within with a soft blue light. Quistis remembered the guardian force that Fujin used well - the air elemental spirit known as Pandemonia - as she'd briefly stolen it away from her whilst they were fighting in Balamb once, chiefly to stop it being used against her!
"So what do you plan to do, then?" said Quistis, but already starting to follow Fujin's line of thinking. Fujin pointed at the crystal, then the sky, then the wall.
"WINDS. FLY. OVER," she said, marking possibly the first time Quistis had ever heard her say more than one word at a time. Quistis looked back up at the wall. It suddenly felt an awful lot higher.
"You sure?" she said with a quizzical look. Fujin just nodded, then took a few steps back, the crystal held in the air.
"Heh, this always did make a good show," said Raijin.
"Aren't you two worried about the side effects of using guardian forces?" asked Quistis.
"What side effects?"
"Memory loss from using them."
"Using the.. oh, never mind," said Quistis, admitting defeat. The winds around them seemed to be intensifying, distant rumbles of thunder reverberating through the sky, accompanied by flashes of lightning cracks and a steadily increasing flow of rain. Fujin stood in the centre of it all, her crystal now pulsing with bright blue light, her eye closed and a calm expression on her face. She'd done this many times and was used to it by now.
The air seemed to thicken all around, and Quistis felt her ears pop as the air pressure suddenly dramatically changed. A dark cloud started to form over Fujin's head, and within moments it was the size of her jeep, changing to become a swirling vortex after a few moments. Quistis saw that the vortex looked like a tunnel leading off somewhere, and could distantly make out a speck of purple at the end of that tunnel.
"Here he comes!" yelled Raijin over the noise of the wind as it howled in protest, his jewellery rattling as it was buffeted all around. Quistis' eyes widened as the purple speck rapidly accelerated towards them, becoming a human-shaped purple.. well, thing, and soon enough it hit the edge of the vortex and burst free.
With a crack of thunder, Pandemonia appeared in all his majesty, the eight-foot tall alien-looking humanoid's feet slamming onto the ground as he landed from his escape from the vortex. The clouds died down a little as the vortex faded away, and Fujin, her hair and outfit now windblasted and haggard-looking, opened her eye and nodded with satisfaction. Pandemonia stood, chest rising and falling as his huge lungs took in gracious gulps of fresh air, his muscular body tensed for action.
Fujin walked and stood before him, and Pandemonia lowered his head to acknowledge his mistress. She pointed to him, then to the wall, miming with her other hand that she wanted him to get them over the wall. The creature nodded and stepped back, his footsteps sounding like the thunder still rumbling away overhead. Quistis hoped that the storm had hidden most of this disturbance from the asylum staff, or there'd be a hell of a waiting party for them when they finally got inside.
Pandemonia lowered his arm to the ground, and Fujin stepped forward till she as stood just past his palm, motioning for the others to follow. Quistis and Raijin joined her, and once they were in place Fujin nodded once to her guardian, who raised his hand slowly, lifting the three of them into the air as he did so. Quistis felt the winds tighten around her like an invisible hand, gently pulling her upwards, and as she looked back at Pandemonia she saw he was controlling their ascent carefully, lifting them straight upwards until they were at the lip of the wall. Fujin held out a hand to stop and they did, hovering in mid-air just below the top of the wall. Fujin placed a hand on the wall's lip and stood on her toes, just enough to peek over. Quistis joined her.
They saw down into the asylum's yard, a series of small gardens, carefully maintained by most likely the inmates, and beyond that the third building of the complex, roughly the size of a small house. Lit up from within, Quistis could just about make out a few silhouettes through the bolted-shut windows, their curtains drawn, but the weather had probably gotten any potential guards hiding away indoors. She looked down and saw a balcony a few feet below, probably a guard post so that someone could keep an eye on the whole yard. She nudged Fujin and pointed to it, who looked and nodded. With a hand out to help guide Pandemonia, Fujin had the guardian lift the trio serenely over the wall and down onto the balcony, where a staircase led down to the floor. Fujin waited while Quistis and Raijin started down it, looking back over the wall and saluting once to the creature below. There was another thunderclap and Quistis felt the wind die down instantly, signalling to her that the guardian force was back in whatever holding dimension it stayed in.
Within seconds, the trio were down in the yard, crouched down as they snuck closer to the main buildings, skirting round the edges of the floodlights' rays until they were pressed against the wall of the first building. Quistis edged forward until she could place her ear against the first window they came to, seeing what she could hear.
It was eerily quiet inside - background noise from people shuffling around, a radio was on somewhere playing some unrecognisable tune, and a distant television set hummed away, but nobody seemed to be saying much. Quistis tried to look through the curtains but they were too thick to see through, despite the bright white lights inside.
"What are we gonna do?" asked Raijin as Quistis knelt back down.
"I'm not sure, we have two options," said Quistis. "We either blaze in, all guns blaring," she paused as Raijin grinned and cracked his knuckles together, "or we sneak in quietly, get some disguises and try to locate Seifer without anybody noticing."
"BETTER," nodded Fujin.
"Well, looks like you're outvoted, Raijin, so you follow us girls in and try not to start punching anybody, okay?" Raijin shrugged and followed Quistis as she shuffled round the curved wall of the building towards a fire exit she'd seen. Standing and giving the door an experimental push, she frowned when she felt how securely locked it was.
"Hmm," she said, "anybody got a good way to quietly get in here?" Fujin looked at Raijin, who shook his head. Quistis sighed. "Well, here goes, then," she said, taking her whip and winding it tightly round her hand, then bracing herself before slamming her arm down hard on the door handle, whip first. The handle broke off and the door creaked open slightly - the damage had thankfully not made much noise. Quistis smiled brightly at the other two before taking an exploratory look either side of the door.
"Coast is clear," she said, "let's go."
Inside, the asylum was all white tiled floors and plain painted walls and ceiling, and as Quistis carefully wedged the fire door closed again Fujin tapped her on the shoulder and pointed down the corridor from them. The windows were fenced off so there would be no quick exit, but the corridor they were on was lined with doors either side so there would be plenty of places to hide if needed, and the one of these that Fujin was pointing at had a small sign that read 'Maintenance." Quistis nodded and headed over, trying the handle and seeing that the door was open. She disappeared inside, leaving Fujin and Raijin to scan the surroundings.
"I don't like this place, Fuj," said Raijin nervously. "Places like these always creep me out."
"DRAINED," said Fujin with a solemn nod, looking down the corridor from their current position. It curled away from them at either end, but given how far along they'd come, they knew that some kind of lounge area was just round the corner to their left, especially as the softly filtered tones of the radio made their way round to them.
Quistis reappeared out of the doorway moments later, three plain white sets of overalls in her hands.
"Take one and get into them. I've had to guess at your size, Raijin, but I got a big one so you should be fine. You're about the same as me," she continued, handing Fujin a set. Fujin looked down at them and raised an eyebrow.
"DISGUISE?" she asked. To complete the picture, Quistis handed each of them a mop and bucket from the storeroom.
"Yup. Now get out there and start cleaning the floors, first one to find Seifer comes and gets the rest of us, okay?" The other two nodded as they pulled on the overalls, Raijin twirling his mop round like a bo staff a few times when he was finished. "And most importantly," said Quistis sternly to get their attention, "absolutely NO fighting. I want this to be a quick in, quick out operation so I can get back to my cadets. Are we clear on that?" The other two nodded, and so with the final touch of three white peaked caps for each of them, Quistis bundled her hair up out of view and set off down the left hand corridor to see what she could find. Fujin and Raijin went right, splitting up when they reached another intersection.
* * * * * * * * * *
"There's another," said Trini, her finger pressed against her laptop screen as the hijacked CCTV signal on it showed another guard, a portly middle-aged man who was quietly strolling down one of the many corridors in the building, whistling tunelessly to himself. Cevin marked his position on a printed off copy of the building's blueprints that the young hacker had managed to locate for them.
"I think that's all of them, unless there are any more cameras, Trini?" asked Criss. She shook her head as she unplugged her laptop and stowed it away inside her backpack again.
"Not that I could find. We just need to head for floor thirty-seven now so I can get into the computers up there." Criss nodded and headed over into the main lobby. Trini placed a hand on his arm to stop him before he walked into view of a small camera mounted over the lift doors, holding up a small pen-like device she took from her suit pocket, aiming it at the camera and pressing a button on its side. The red light underneath the camera blinked out.
"Circuit jammer," she said to answer Criss' confused look. "Should stop the cameras from seeing us."
"Should stop them?" teased Cevin. She blushed and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
"Well, if they don't, that's what you three are here for, right?" Criss grinned as the lift doors chimed once and slid open in front of him.
"Let's go," he said, stepping inside and sending the group up to Floor 37.
* * * * * * * * * *
Quistis walked forward carefully, head down and mop sliding along the floor as she entered the first lounge area. There were two sections to it, one with a TV mounted on one wall, caged up and out of reach of any of the patients, with around ten chairs arranged in front of it, half of it which were currently occupied. All the inmates had the same dazed, slack-jawed expressions, most likely due to the large amount of drugs running through their systems. Over to Quistis right there were three old sofas set up with more relaxed looking patients sitting on or lying across them, their 'uniform' being whatever plain pyjamas and dressing gowns they had with them to wear. Messy hair and irregularly shaven facial hair seemed to be de rigeur amongst them as well. There were two tables set up in the room's centre, one with four men playing cards, and another with two old women drawing large, lazy circles in crayons on big sheets of paper, a look of extreme concentration burned into their faces.
Two attendants walked past chatting absently, their green shirts and trousers making them stand out from the whiteness of everything around them. Almost like somebody's sucked the life and colour out of everything here, mused Quistis as she continued her mock mopping of the floor. The inmates paid her little or no attention, allowing her to work past the guard on duty and into another quiet corridor, where she left the bucket and picked up the mop, scanning the nametags on each of the doors as she made her way down.
This corridor had twelve doors in each wall, each one a thick, iron-set fixture with a slide hatch for viewing and a larger one for food trays. Little noise was coming from them, so Quistis reckoned most people would be asleep by this late evening hour.
She stopped halfway down the right hand side when she read the name' Almasy, S.' on one of the doors. Quistis paused and took a deep breath before sliding back the view slot.
And there he was. Seifer looked tired - his blonde hair was long and messy, his eyes sported large bags and he looked like he'd lost a fair few pounds in weight, but she could still tell it was him. He was curled up on one corner of the very minimalist bed in the room, seemingly asleep. As she stared, he moved a little and lifted his head up. Their eyes met, and all Seifer did was smile and nod at her. Quistis nodded back, an unspoken communication between the two that she was here now, and the rest was up to her. Seifer settled his head back down as Quistis closed the slot. Time to find the other two and get their master out of here, she thought before a heavy footstep landed behind her and she froze on the spot.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Criss stepped out of the lift first, his gunblade up and ready as he scanned either side of the long corridor. Plainly furnished and with the walls painted in drab hues like the rest of the building, they could have been on floor 137 and he wouldn't have known the difference. He looked up - and there was the camera, gazing away silently as it swept its one unblinking eye across the intersection of two corridors at the corner up ahead. Criss nodded to Trini, who pointed her jamming device at it to switch it off, and once the path was clear all four of them exited the lift.
The corridor was lined with doorways which appeared to lead into the small maze of open-top cubicles that the corridors led on to - the wall facing them was just above head height so at a stretch Criss could see that despite the rows and rows of desks hiding away in their little box-like offices, and the varying levels of personalisation that the workers had made to their office spaces, there was nobody here.
"According to what we saw of their patrols, there won't be a guard round here for another thirty-eight minutes, so let's get moving!" he said, heading out into the office area. Trini scuttled past him, settling on the tidiest-looking desk she could and rapidly setting up and turning on her laptop.
"This shouldn't take long, all I need to do is gain access to their network server and then see how much I can download from here," she said, her fingers skipping across the keys as she typed in bewilderingly long lines of code. Reaching under the desk for a thick grey network cable, she yanked it from the back of the desktop PC and plugged it into her laptop.
Katya and Cevin watched her work, still poised and ready.
"So what do you think we'll find in here?" she said as she scanned the office, checking out the ways in which the workers here had tried to disguise the monotony of their jobs with whatever trinkets and distractions they'd brought in.
"I dunno, I don't even know what it is we're supposed to be looking for," said Cevin, picking up a squeezy stress toy from one desk and idly playing with it. Katya sighed.
"Do you ever actually listen in the briefings we have?" she asked, but with a grin Cevin just shook his head.
"Nope. I leave that stuff up to you pair," he said with a nod towards Criss. "I'd only forget something anyway, so my theory is if I have nothing to remember in the first place, there's nothing to forget!" Cevin smiled brightly and Katya was forced to grin back at her colleague's undeniably sensible thinking.
Trini frowned, and Criss leaned in closer to see what was wrong. Trini blushed as the admittedly pretty handsome Criss moved his head in close to hers, although he was staring at the screen and not at her.
"Problem?" he said in his usual subdued tones.
"Er, well, ah, we, ah, have a.." Trini closed her eyes, swallowed once to compose herself then continued. "I can't get access to the network from here," she said, pointing to a series of flashing red 'Access Denied' logos on her screen. "These computers must not have the right privileges to get onto the part of the server we need. We want this section," she said, aiming her mouse cursor at a greyed out selection of file folders on her screen, "because that's where all the lab reports are moved to after they've been processed here. And I can't hack into it from here," she finished, tapping in a password experimentally to demonstrate and watching as she received an error message. Criss frowned.
"So in theory, the computers that house or receive this information would have access, right? They'd need it to be able to read the files."
"Yes, that follows. They're located here," she said, unfurling the blueprints from earlier and pointing to a room on the fortieth floor. "We'd best hurry, according to these notes the patrols are more regular up there."
"Alright then," said Criss, clicking his fingers to get Katya and Cevin's attention away from all the desk toys they were currently engrossed in. "Three floors up, let's move."
"He's getting very bossy, isn't he?" whispered Katya as they followed Criss and Trini our of the room. Cevin chuckled.
"He's starting to take after her, I reckon." Katya nodded.
I hope she's okay at the moment, she thought to herself.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Who the hell are you?" came the gruff voice from behind Quistis.
Rumbled, she thought with a panic, and for a fleeting moment she thought of swinging her back leg out in an arcing roundhouse kick.. but she controlled the impulse and breathed deeply to try to calm the adrenaline racing round her body, keeping her back to her mystery accuser as she took one step back from the door.
"Cleaners," she said, trying to put on a thicker local accent in case it helped, "ah, I was a bit lost and just thought I'd sneak a peek into one of these rooms. You know, while no-one was here. I'm kind of new, I haven't seen many crazy people before, ya know?" Quistis groaned internally at having to borrow Raijin's speech patterns to try and make herself look stupid and harmless.
"You're very lost," said the voice, which Quistis could now tell belonged to a woman, albeit a woman who must have smoked forty cigarettes a day since she was a toddler. Quistis turned round slowly to check her out - the woman in question was a matron of the institute by her uniform, a white dress and peaked cap with a tatty brown knitted cardigan wrapped round her arms for warmth. She had the kind of creased face that can only be made through many years of frowning accusingly at co-workers, and her piercing eyes were currently scanning Quistis up and down as though she was being x-rayed.
"Yeah, uh, sorry, I'll, ah, get back to my work now," said Quistis, picking her mop up again and scanning round for her bucket. The matron stared coldly at her for a few moments while Quistis picked her things up and headed back towards the lounge area round the corner, and once she was safely out of view Quistis let out a deep sigh.
That was too close, she thought as she leaned against a wall and calmed her nerves. She knew that if she got rumbled walking around here, she'd have to fight her way out past those very scary-looking security guards, and if they got hold of her there was every chance she'd wake up drugged to the eyeballs, strapped tightly into a cell somewhere in here. She headed off back towards where she'd split up from Raijin and Fujin so she could use them to help get Seifer out of here at last.
* * * * * * * * * *
Criss tried the door handle. It didn't budge, so after a check up and down the corridor he bashed the handle off with the hilt of his gunblade and stepped stealthily into the darkened room beyond. The team had gone up to the fortieth floor and made their way to the main computer rooms without a hitch, but twice already since stepping out of the lift they'd had to dive for cover to avoid patrolling guards - obviously whatever was stored on this floor was much more important to the governor.
The other three members of the squad followed Criss through the door marked 'Central Network Computers' and made their way along in the dark, Cevin closing the door behind them all.
"Shall I shed some light on the situation?" said Katya, summoning a small blue ball of light which illuminated the room around them quite effectively, a tidier place than the offices below and full of much more organised looking furniture and equipment. Scanning the rows of neat desks and desktop computer terminals, Criss tried to find what they were after.
"We're looking for some kind of network server, it'd be a large computer on its own somewhere, probably next to some large data storage cabinets or something like that," whispered Trini. She pointed towards a door at the back of the room and tapped Criss on the arm. "Try in there, they'd need to keep it cool so it's own room with air conditioning sounds like a good shot." Criss nodded and padded over, finding that this door was unlocked and pushing it open.
"Is this it?" he asked Trini as she followed him inside to the brightly lit cool room, the gentle hiss of the air conditioning unit overhead keeping the whole area at a constant low temperature. A larger than normal terminal sat facing them, with a row of white data cabinets lined up against the left hand wall, tape reels hidden behind frosted glass but visible still, spinning away irregularly as they backed up what the main computer was doing. Trini nodded and sat down before the terminal, charging up and connecting her laptop to the back of it.
"This ought to do it, I just need a couple of minutes to gain access to the server and then I can find the files we couldn't reach before, re-route the main access codes so that I can directly download onto this PC, crunch the files up so we can store double the amount of gigabytes of info and then start running some post-encryption software to.." Trini trailed off as she realised Criss was grinning at her. "What?" she said, blushing yet again.
"You were doing that techie thing again."
"What techie thing?"
"Where you hit the jargon button and go off on one, saying lots of stuff that I'm sure is very clever but which goes over my head a lot," Criss grinned.
"Sorry, I don't mean to-" Criss held up a hand to stop her.
"It's fine. It's good, it shows me that you know what you're doing. I'm better with more hands-on stuff myself, I leave the software side of it up to people like you!" Trini smiled and nodded, turning back to her screen. Criss looked back out into the main room where Cevin and Katya were standing.
"What's the news?" asked Katya.
"Same as last time, stand guard and keep an eye out for patrols, we don't have as much time up here," said Criss. Cevin nodded and held up a walkie-talkie radio.
"Where'd you get that?" said Criss. Cevin smirked mischievously.
"Heh, took it from the desk downstairs, thought it'd help us listen in on the guards."
"Good idea, what have you got so far?"
"Well, luckily it was already set to their frequency so I've just been monitoring the patrol movements, so far nothing to-"
He was silenced as the radio crackled into life.
"Echo-Four-Whiskey, Echo-Four-Whiskey come in, come in, over." Everyone looked at Cevin, who very carefully made sure his thumb was nowhere near the 'Talk' button on the handset.
"What did.." Katya started but Criss shushed her as they radio crackled again.
"Echo-Four-Whiskey, we have a man down at the east side road gate, repeat man down, suspected intruder entry into the complex, stand by." Criss cursed. They'd found the guard he'd taken out at the road bridge checkpoint, which meant it wouldn't be long before the complex was crawling with more guards. He dashed back into the computer room, startling Trini as she continued to type furiously away on her laptop.
"What's wrong? You scared me half to death!"
"We have a problem. It seems the guards know we're here, they'll be on to us soon so you'd best get what you can now, I'm pulling us out of here in two minutes." Trini frowned.
"That won't be long enough, I'm only just getting into the server's files, we'd come away with nothing if we went now!" Criss paused for a second, then sighed.
"Alright, three minutes. Sorry to rush you, Trini, but we cannot be found here." She nodded and went back to her keys. Criss went back out to the other two.
"They'll start checking the buildings soon, it won't be long before they get this far. We need an escape route." Cevin nodded and retrieved the printed off blueprints they'd been using to mark the guard patrols.
"South side, there's an exit balcony which leads onto the roof, from there we may be able to jump across to this car park access ramp, and from there onto the wall and down."
"Jump across?" said Katya incredulously. "And what about the armed guards and searchlights, exactly? Don't we have a better plan than that?"
"It's the best one if you make a good diversion for us," said Cevin.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Well.." he said, filling her in on the rest of his plan.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Quistis located Raijin and Fujin at last, quietly mopping another identical corridor in the building. Raijin jolted when she walked up to them, almost kicking his mop over.
"Aw, man, you scared me, ya know! This place gives me the creeps something bad, I don't like it at all!" he said, clearly unsettled by the asylum's atmosphere. Fujin was characteristically silent, but couldn't look up off the floor at Quistis.
"Well what do you know, you two are scared of something after all," she said. "And how long have you two been cleaning? We're only undercover here, we're not actually going to be paid for anything we do!"
"We know, it's just.. I didn't want to have to keep looking at those people in there," said Raijin, obviously not used to being shaken by anything.
"SAD," said Fujin, looking back round to the edge of the lunge, where some of the pale-faced inmates could be heard shuffling around the room.
"Yeah, I know," Quistis said. "But listen, I have good news. I found Seifer." Both their heads snapped round to look at her, renewed vigour in their eyes. "There's quite a crabby-looking matron on patrol round there, but if one of us distracts her we should be able to get Seifer out of there no problem." Fujin nodded.
"DISTRACT," she said.
"Well volunteered. Raijin, the door's not hard to open but Seifer looks drugged up, he may be tricky to carry. Can you manage that?" Raijin's chest swelled with pride.
"For Seifer, I'd carry the whole world and everyone in it, ya know?"
"That's what I hoped you'd say," Quistis grinned. "Now let's go to work."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Criss bolted down the corridor as the alarms blared all around him, his team-mates close behind, rounding a corner and turning into yet another, disorientatingly identical corridor, he slowed enough to turn his head round and shout back at the others.
"Come on! There's got to be an exit just up ahead," he shouted, gunblade rattling against his leg as he ran. Trini was at the back of the pack, her laptop gathered up in her arms and a look of terror etched into her face. Her backpack was now sporting a couple of bullet holes from near misses and she was running on pure adrenaline to get out of this place.
Cevin and Katya were both frantic as well, Cevin not liking having to run from the face of superior odds and Katya having exhausted her energy for magic use. They followed Criss round the corner and were confronted with the sight of Criss locked in battle with two more security guards. Katya had no idea where so many of them had come from, but as she hesitated Cevin hit her and the two of them were knocked to the ground, Trini tripping over their prone form moments later and crashing to the floor, her laptop flying out of her hands to land a few feet away.
Criss kicked himself off from the wall and leapt into the air, lashing his other leg round I a vicious kick that brought down the guard facing him, before swiftly drawing his gunblade and slicing in two the shotgun that was being pointed at him. The guard looked down I dumb surprise at the half of his gun before a solid punch by Criss to his stomach sent him staggering backwards. He turned to see where the others were and saw that they were being held by more guards, the three of them having stumbled and been caught by the security officers who were in pursuit.
Cevin was held to the floor, hunched on his knees with his upper body forced shoulders first to the floor, hands held behind his back and a powerful looking taser gun pressed into the small of his neck. He glared up at Criss, looking angry with himself for letting himself get captured. Katya was sitting on her knees, hands behind her head and a pistol pressed against the side of her head. Trini had obviously put up less of a fight and was just being held by the thick arms of a burly guard, who was leering triumphantly back at Criss. The other two guards were shorter, plumper men, sweating with exertion but both keeping a careful eye on their hostages. The one behind Katya narrowed his eyes as Criss turned calmly to face them all.
"Hold it right there," he hissed, "you and your accomplices are under arrest for breaking and entering, physical attacks on Kabernia employees and suspected espionage and theft of industrial secrets!"
"Let us go now," said Criss without blinking, "and I won't hurt you. Much." The lead guard started to laugh, an awful, choking sound that made it seem like he'd just swallowed a particularly large piece of pie, something that happened a lot if his waistline was anything to go by.
"I've got a better idea, action hero boy," said the guard with a sneer. "Drop on the floor, hands behind your head, or your friend here," he said, clicking off the safety on the gun he had trained on Katya, "gets to pay the penalty for your heroics." Criss frowned. Things had been going so well until a few minutes ago.
A FEW MINUTES EARLIER
"You almost done?" asked Criss as he watched several bars slowly crawl along the screen of Trini's laptop. The hacker was looking pretty agitated - Criss had seen her chewing her nails, her hair, some pens lying around, even the corner of a floppy disk she was about to use - because she was seconds away from completing a download of everything she'd been able to find from the Kabernia servers. She'd hacked into things pretty effectively given the pressure she was under, and Criss was impressed by her, seeing as in the space of two minutes she'd been able to locate the lab reports they were after but also a cache of files relating to the governor's less legal dealings - arms trade, counterfeiting, drugs running even, and she was busy getting as much dirt as she could.
"I'm almost done, give me another ten seconds and I'll have as much as I can fit into the memory of this thing," she said, with a maternal tap on the laptop.
"Ten seconds is all I can spare, so let's hope that's enough," said Criss as he ducked back out into the main room. Katya was peering out through the blinds covering the windows, as shouted voices and the sounds of many pairs of running feet echoed around the complex.
"There's a lot of people down there now," she said, sounding a little concerned, "but they're not heading in this direction yet." As she finished, two torch beams shone up towards their window, and Katya ducked back as they swept past the blinds. She heard a shouted voice and cursed under her breath.
"What is it?" said Cevin, who had his head out the door listening for approaching security.
"I think they saw me," she said, "and there's too much interference inside here to make us invisible and get us out of here!"
"Interference from what?" asked Criss as he made his way to the window and peered out. Katya was right - there was a team of men racing towards the entrance to their building, armed and looking ready for trouble.
"I don't know, there's something inside the complex that's countering all the essences round here. There's plenty of the stuff outside the walls - I could feel it, the ground was literally swimming with the stuff - but in here it's like something's either repelling it or.."
"Or what?" asked Criss.
"Or something's sucking it up. Do you think maybe that-"
"That the governor's also got his hand in the magic theft business? I'd bet money on it," said Cevin, heading back into the room. "Right now, we got bigger things to worry about - there are definitely guards on their way, they're taking the stairs and making a lot of racket so I heard them no problem. We'd better get going."
His head snapped round as Trini walked out of the computer room, tucking her laptop into her backpack.
"Whew!" she said, wiping her brow. "That was close, I thought we wouldn't have time to- hey!" She protested as Criss grabbed her hand and made a run for the door with her in tow, followed by Cevin and Katya.
"Good work, Trini, but we've got to go, now!"
The group sped out of the door of the office and down the corridor, past the door that led to the stairway, from which the sounds of a team of security guards hurrying up to their floor could be heard.
"Katya! Time for that diversion!" shouted Criss, and Katya nodded. Jogging up to an open window, she cranked it open and looked outside. The window looked out across the centre of the complex, over a small square which linked all three buildings. The guard towers outside were bathing all the buildings in huge beams of white light as they searched for the intruders, and the walls and ground were similarly dotted with men on the lookout for them. Katya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to squeeze what magical energy she could out of the air around her.
Opening her eyes, her hair began to stand on end as flickering blue light started to crackle around her, running up and down her arms and gathering at her hands. Holding one hand up and aiming it squarely at the nearest searchlight, she let out a yell of exertion as the energy blasted away from her hand, zapping through the night air and onto the light, which detonated in a shower of sparks and glass, sending nearby guards running for cover. Alarm klaxons began to wail all over the complex.
Cevin stepped over to see if Katya was alright - she was shivering, and as he put an arm round her he saw that the hand she'd fired the electricity bolt from was blackened slightly.
"Heh, guess I need to work on that one a bit more," she said, blowing on her hand to try and cool it down. She turned to Criss. "How will that cause a diversion, exactly? Won't they now all come running over to this part of the building?"
"Maybe, but they won't be able to see us now!" said Criss, and he was right - Katya's bolt had overloaded the power on this part of the complex, and lights were fading and dimming all around them.
"Nice thinking," said Cevin. "Let's head for the roof, that looks like the ramp we want," he said, pointing to a flat ramp which curled its way alongside the building opposite.
Within moments, Cevin had kicked open the door leading out onto the roof, and the squad was looking out over the whole complex. Cevin walked to the edge of the roof and looked across to the ramp they were intending to jump onto.
"Ah, maybe we have a slight problem," he said as the others joined him. "I appear to have made a tiny miscalculation in my plans." The gap between the roof they were on and the edge of the ramp was several feet, and further than any of them had a hope of reaching. Criss shook his head sadly, looking down into the square below and seeing more guards starting to gather below them
"Nothing else for it," he said, opening his backpack and taking out his grappling hook. "I'll have to shoot this best I can and we'll rappel across."
"That's not the best idea you ever had," said Katya, "but I think you're right.." She watched as Criss shot the hook across the gap between the buildings, embedding it with a solid thump just above the top of the ramp. He attached his safety harness belt to the rope and prepared to zip across.
"Wish me luck," he said, before swinging off the roof. He sped along the line in seconds, landing safely on the ramp opposite and undoing his belt. The ramp led into the top floor of the building and from that they'd be able to get down to the ground floor and out again. Somehow. Criss waved the others on, and after some cajoling Trini followed next, eyes squeezed shut and a high pitched wail escaping from her as she flew through the air and landed at Criss' feet. He picked her up with a smile and then waited for Cevin and Katya to join them.
"See now? That wasn't so hard, was it," he said, and the trio disappeared into the top floor of the building, safely out of sight from the guards currently swarming into their previous location.
The group ran up to an access door on the top floor car park, down a set of stairs and straight into another set of office blocks and two patrolling guards, although Cevin saw them off in short order with a flurrying combo of kicks and punches that soon had both opponents sprawled on the floor before them.
"Come on, we can gloat about that later!" said Criss, jogging past Cevin and round a corner, desperately looking for a lift or a staircase to get them down and out of this maze of identical rooms, offices and corridors.
"There's got to be an exit just up ahead.." he shouted back to them..
Criss' mind raced through his options as he tried to catch Katya's eye. There was very little room for error here - in a few moments, more guards would show up and they'd all be done for, captured and brought before the governor. Cevin couldn't move and if Katya tried to cast a spell she'd be on the ground with a bullet in her brain before she had chance to point a finger at anyone. Trini seemed to have given up the fight, looking down at the laptop that lay at Criss' feet.
Which is when the idea hit him.
"You'll be needing this," he said, crouching and picking up the laptop in one smooth motion. The guards tensed at his sudden movement, but Criss stayed as cool and calm as ever.
"Why? Whatcha got there?" said the lead guard. Criss smiled, idly flipping the laptop between his hands.
"This is what we stole from your network, details of all the bank accounts and paying in details for every single employee here. With this info, we'd be able to wipe out the credit ratings of everyone who works at this place.. How do you fancy seeing what life on the streets is like?" bluffed Criss, grinning and hoping that the guards would buy his story.
His poker face could have won him millions in a card tournament, as the guards started to throw nervous glances at each other. Criss stepped over to a window and lifted it, moving despite more shouts from the security team, and held the laptop out of the window. They were still several floors up, and the drop would smash the little computer to pieces.
"Let them go," demanded Criss firmly, "or I drop it." The lead guard looked at his two colleagues, his pistol hand starting to twitch a little. Criss wondered if the guard was really going to risk what he thought was the financial security of everyone he knew for the sake of three prisoners? The guard looked away, and Criss made his move.
"Catch!" he yelled, throwing the laptop straight at the lead guard. What happened next was over in seconds.
The guard yelped, dropped his gun and made a scrabble for the laptop, his hands clawing through empty air until he grabbed hold of the airborne computer. The distraction allowed Cevin to jab his left leg out straight into the shin of the guard pinning him down, and with a crack and a yell of agony the guard hit the deck, giving Cevin chance to spin round, grab the taser from his hand and shock the guard into unconsciousness.
Katya whipped her elbow round into the face of the guard now holding the laptop, stunning him and sending him pitching backwards to the floor, his eyes glazed. Katya snatched the laptop back from his hands before he hit the deck with a muffled thump.
The trio turned on the third guard, Katya wearing a positively evil smile as she managed to summon up enough essence to just add a nasty crackle of electricity to her hands, for show more than anything else. It did the trick, as the guard holding Trini promptly turned tail and ran, not looking back until he was safely out of sight. His colleagues lay sprawled on the floor, one clutching his broken shin and moaning in pain, the other still out cold where Katya had left him.
"Nice work, everyone," said Criss. Katya nodded and dusted her hands off, dispelling the last bit of energy as she did so.
"Yup. Now let's get out of here before they send any more people after us," Cevin said, heading towards a door leading down to a basement level as the alarm klaxons continued their song in the background.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The cleaner swept her mop slowly back and forth across the asylum corridor, eyes on the ground and not making a single sound. Soaking the mop in her bucket again, she started to sweep until the mop head connected with a shoe. The owner of the shoe was standing firmly in front of the cleaner, who looked up and saw who was in her way. The asylum's matron stared down at her, hands on hips and a stern expression along her face, her uniform still neatly cleaned and pressed and her peaked cap bearing a badge of authority.
"And just what do you think you're doing? You know very well the ward for dangerous patients is off-limits to cleaning staff during these hours?" The cleaner just blinked at her. The matron reddened a little and tried again, sounding a little more tetchy already.
"I said, what are you doing here? Don't you people read the notices I put up for you? I haven't seen you here before, you're new, aren't you? Well, you can just about turn round and march straight back to my office, we need to have some words about your attitude!" The cleaner blinked again, and tilted her head to one side as though she was a dog staring at something she didn't quite understand. The matron became angrier and stepped forward so she was shouting right into the cleaner's face.
"Don't stare at me like I'm stupid, move it! Now!" Fujin smiled back at the matron, took one step back and carried on mopping the floor, manoeuvring round the matron and continuing on her way. The matron, stood, hands clenched, shaking a little with fury as she turned and prepared to unleash another blast at the disobedient cleaner.
Quistis and Raijin sneaked quietly past in the background as the matron's angry shouts echoed down the corridor to them. Fujin was obviously giving the old girl a good run for her money, but if this went on too much longer she'd be off to fetch security guards, and if they didn't have Seifer out by then they may have a problem. She walked up to Seifer's cell door and slid the hatch back to look inside. It was still very dark outside, but moonlight was filtering into Seifer's cell, tracing white fingers of light across the plain bed which the sleeping ex-SeeD was curled up on. The lights in the cells and around various parts of the asylum had been switched off about ten minutes ago, but the darkness was working to Quistis' advantage as she was able to wander round the halls unnoticed, making their rescue attempt that bit easier.
"Right then, Raijin, this is Seifer's room," she said, trying the handle but finding it locked. She sighed. "We're going to need a key to get in, this door's way too thick for us to just barge it open, I'm afraid." Raijin grinned.
"No problem," he said, starting to sort through the necklaces hanging round his neck. Quistis raised an eyebrow at him.
"Don't you think we have more pressing matters than keeping your jewellery in good order, Raijin?" she said. He just grinned back at her again as he found what he was looking for, lifting up a long, thin golden necklace and unscrewing the end of it to reveal a jagged edged lockpick.
"What, you think I just wear these things for show?" he said off Quistis' surprised look. "I'm prepared for anything, ya know?" He crouched down and got to work on the door. "Yeah, nice and simple, this one. No real need to keep people from getting in to the rooms, like you said, ya know?"
"Yes, I did, can you just hurry up and get him out of there, please?" said Quistis testily. She could still hear the matron shouting from round the corner and she didn't think Fujin would be able to hold her off much longer. Raijin fiddled with his lockpick in the door a little while longer, before there was a loud click, and with a satisfied chuckle he stood up and tried the handle. The thick iron mechanism clunked open, and with a victorious smile he swung the door wide open and motioned for Quistis to get inside. Quistis headed for the bed and tried to rouse the sleeping Seifer, her hands gently shaking his shoulders.
"Come on, blondie, time to wake up so we can all get the heck out of here," she said. Seifer's eyes flickered to life, and he turned his head slightly to look at this intruder into his dreams. His face twitched with recognition before he grinned widely.
"You came back, good. I see a lot of things in here," he croaked, his voice sounding dry and weak, "and I'm never sure which are real and which aren't.." Quistis helped him up to a sitting position, as Raijin hovered in the room's doorway, looking relieved almost to the point of running around yelling that his boss would soon be free again.
"Hey boss, long time no see, man! You good?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm good, Raijin," said Seifer, waving out a hand which Raijin took, helping Seifer to his feet. He was unsteady on his legs, wobbling slightly in his plain white asylum-issue pyjamas. "Careful, I've.. I've been given an awful lot of drugs while I've been here.. may not be brilliantly steady at first!" Seifer and Raijin took an arm each to keep him steady.
Raijin was right, she thought, he does seem different already. The old Seifer would have thrown at least three sarcastic comments my way by now. This guy actually seems pleased to see us! Maybe he has changed after all? She left any further thought until later as the trio managed to get Seifer out of his cell. Quistis looked back round to the fire exit she'd spotted on their way over. From there, she could see out through one of the nearby windows to the high wall outside, but this time they should be able to get round to the front gate no problem, and from there-
She stopped dead. The voice had sounded in her head clear as if someone was standing right next to her, but it sounded different, as though somebody had connected a phone line directly to her brain.. She turned and looked at Seifer, who was looking straight back at her, and she noticed for the first time that his eyes were a very pale shade of blue, almost as if the colour had been washed out of them.
He's blind, she suddenly realised, and she was surprised to see Seifer nod.
I have a lot of explaining to do, said the voice again, which Quistis now recognised as Seifer's. I didn't want Raijin knowing I was blind, it'd break his little heart! Just trust me, we can't go out that exit way, they'll spot us.
How do you know? Thought Quistis, trying not to think about how she currently appeared to be having a telepathic conversation with someone for the first time since that psychic phone call to Edea and Cid.
Because I can see it. Look, like I said, I'll explain it later, just trust me for now. Go straight back down the main corridor. I'll set up a diversion for us. Quistis looked back across at Seifer and was about to open her mouth and question him, when he just nodded once. She closed her mouth and started to walk him back towards the main corridor.
"Hey, what are we doing? Won't we get spotted going back this way?" said Raijin.
"We've got a diversion coming," said Seifer. "Quistis set it up earlier."
"Oh, oh, right, cool," said Raijin not wanting to question Seifer.
Fujin was doing her best to keep the matron busy, but the red-faced woman was on the verge of calling up security guards, which Fujin knew would be a bad thing. She hoped that Raijin and that Quistis girl had managed to get her Seifer out of that cell by now, because she was running out of options without resorting to physical violence. As the matron barged past her at last, heading back towards her office which would mean she'd walk straight past Seifer's cell, Fujin was suddenly struck by an odd thought. She grinned and raised her left hand, taking her guardian force's crystal out of her pocket with the other.
The walls of the asylum began to rattle and shake, the lights fixtures swinging from side to side. Quistis could hear a vicious storm starting to pound the walls outside, with howling winds and thunder accompanying the sudden pelting of rain that the whole complex was receiving. The ground itself felt as though it was being shook up, and staff members and inmates started running past Quistis, Seifer and Raijin, yelling to each other and trying to find cover. Quistis could hear roof tiles dislodging and then saw the effects as the rain started to leak into the complex, pooling up and down the corridors as the window frames started to rattle under the assault of the elements outside.
Quistis looked across to Seifer, who was grinning. "Would this be the diversion?" she asked, and Seifer nodded.
"Fujin can really cook up a storm when she puts her mind to it," he grinned. As if to back up his claim, there was a loud crack of thunder and a brilliant white bolt of lightning, after which every light in the building exploded, scattering glass and filament down onto the now screaming inmates below and plunging the entire place into darkness. "Now let's get out of here while nobody can see," said Seifer, and Quistis led the way, weaving between the groups of people running to and fro around them, making their way through the mayhem inside the complex out to the front gates.
It was a much simpler affair to just walk up to the main entrance, open the doors and head outside, Fujin joining them as Raijin hotwired one of the cars in the staff car park outside. Quistis looked up at the black storm cloud hanging over the asylum and then threw a look at Fujin.
"Nice work," she said. Fujin nodded as Raijin opened a car door for her.
"GUARDIAN," she said, jumping into the car. Quistis looked across at Raijin as he helped Seifer into the front passenger seat.
"D'you mind driving?" he said. "Only you're a much crazier driver than me, and besides, we only need this to get back to your jeep, then we can ditch it and keep moving, ya know?" Quistis nodded.
"No problem. Everybody better buckle up tight though, I think some high speed getaway driving is called for," she said, as she watched asylum staff spill out of the main doors and out into the rain-lashed parking lot, some pointing at the escaping SeeDs and starting to run towards them. Quistis leapt into the car and took off, her wheels kicking up a spray of dirty water as she shot through the main gates and down the road that led towards where she'd left her jeep.
Thanks, Quisty, said Seifer's voice inside her head. She looked across to him - he looked tired, a lot thinner than last time, but he still had that trademark smirk now that he was free again.
You owe me big for this, mister, she thought back at him. I haven't forgotten the last time we met, you know. Trying to kill someone does tend to leave a lasting impression with them!
Yeah, sorry about that, he conceded. Things have changed, Q, I've changed. I've got a lot of things to make up for, I just hope I can start with you. Quistis looked back at him, but his eyes were closing, and could sense that he was falling asleep. Further questions would have to wait until later, she thought. Now she had to get back to the rebel headquarters and see if there was any news on the cadets.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" said Criss as Cevin revved the car's engine a few times. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel tighter, his face a mask of concentration as he focused on the end of the ramp ahead. The group had stole into the basement parking area of the office complex and broken into one of the cars there, which Cevin was now aiming at the exit ramp that led back up to the road network running in and around the buildings.
"Of course, it will, as long as Katya's ready - you ready, Kat?" Criss craned round to look into the back seat, where Katya was glowing yellow, her hair billowing out all around her and her eyes burning a fierce orange colour. Her hands were clasped around a ball of yellow essence energy, which looked as though it was trying to escape her. She frowned as she tried to hold the energy still.
"I'm ready, just don't keep me waiting, the essences round here are plain nasty - like they're wild, or something." Criss turned back to Cevin, who dropped the car into gear, smoked the wheels as he floored the accelerator, and then dropped the clutch and sent the car hurtling towards the ramp. A handful of guards came jogging down the ramp, but scattered as the car hit it and shot forward, up and out into the complex outside. A few hastily fired pistol shots rang out after them, but Cevin was going too fast for them to be on target.
Landing with a thud on the roads, Cevin swerved round a large goods vehicle and quickly back to avoid a small car coming the other way, which mounted the curb and stopped, its horn blaring angrily. A road gate was dead ahead, but so was about twenty guards, alerted to the oncoming vehicle and hastily taking up positions and opening fire.
"Now, Kat!!" yelled Cevin, and on cue Katya opened her hands, releasing the energy she'd stored. It blossomed out, through the people in the car and out to surround the outside of the car like a shell. The incoming bullets ricocheted harmlessly away as the protection spell took hold, it's yellow-red patterns forming a giant bubble around the vehicle. Cevin kept on accelerating in response as Katya screwed up her face in the back seat, concentrating on keeping the spell going.
"You're sure you're sure this is going to work?" yelled Criss over the roar of the engine.
"If it doesn't, we can argue over it later!" said Cevin, as the car slammed through the makeshift roadblock the security team had set up and cannoned at full speed into the metal road bridge gate.
What happened next seemed to be in slow motion - the car struck the barrier but the protection spell held, being one that was designed to repel physical attacks, and the gate seemed to peel away before Criss' eyes like a huge metal fruit peel, exposing the freedom of the outside world beyond. The bridge itself back to the mainland was starting to retract, but the car's speed was enough to send it flying forward through the air, landing with a crash and a squeal of suspension as it sailed the few feet forward it needed to reach the other side.
Cevin looked back across at Criss as Katya gasped out, losing control of the forcefield and letting the yellow field pop out of existence around them.
"Like I said, I'm sure this is going to work," he grinned. Criss grinned back.
"I think we can safely say our first solo mission was a resounding success, then," he said. Trini laughed nervously as Katya got her breath back and patted her on the shoulder.
"So what exactly am I looking at here?" asked Quistis, her face blue as it reflected the computer screen she was staring at. Izzy and Berne stood either side of her, also staring hard at the rows and rows of white letters and numbers displayed before them, and looking similarly lost in all the data.
Quistis turned to Trini as the technician typed away with her usual rapid speed on the keyboard before her, trying to make more sense out of the data she'd downloaded from the office complex. She held up a finger to tell everyone to hang on a few moments, so Quistis scanned the rest of the room to try and read people's reactions.
She was back in the rebel headquarters, the two teams having regrouped after the rescue mission Quistis had led and the espionage mission the cadets had taken. Quistis had rushed back into the base, quickly handing Seifer over to the medical centre along with Raijin and Fujin, who were probably never going to leave his side again if Fujin had anything to do with it, and was relieved to find all three of her students waiting for her, safe and sound. She'd been mentally preparing herself for the sight of one, two or all of them not coming back, but the preparations hadn't gone very far so she was particularly happy that they'd all made it back home.
The room was filled with rebel members, some still in their everyday work clothes and others in the patchwork-looking uniforms that they wore, cobbled together from various stolen or borrowed items of old military outfits, but all universally crowded around the monitors in the small control centre, a hushed but tense atmosphere as everyone waited for someone else to start talking and explain what the hell was going on.
"There!" said Trini, sitting upright as a printer on the desk next to her started to spew out a long sheet with dense typing on it. She tore off the first sheet, stood up and almost fell off her wheeled chair as she did so, before managing to pass the sheet to Berne, whose eyes scrolled down it before he turned to the assembled crowd in the room with a serious look.
"Well?" asked Quistis.
"Yeah, tell us what we went to all the trouble to get for you already!" said Cevin, to a murmur of assent throughout the room.
"It's as we feared," said Berne gravely. "What we've managed to get hold of are the details of the initial experiments that our first mission was able to get the results for." He read some more of the sheet before speaking again. "It seems that what we uncovered was indeed the results of experiments, and according to this.." He threw another glance at Trini as though checking with her that it was alright to continue. She nodded once, and Berne looked up again. "According to this, we have details of human subjects who have been undergoing genetic modification and general experimentation, and it seems that a very small percentage of them were willing subjects. The disappearances we've heard so much about do indeed seem to be linked to this, and now we have something we can act on." He scanned the room, the silent faces staring back at him giving off an unmistakably worried air. "I'll be contacting all of you with missions and assignments so we can act quickly on all this, but for the rest of today we'll be going through the data here to get a better idea of what we're dealing with. Until then, you're all dismissed, but keep an eye on your communications because I'll be in touch soon."
The crowd gradually dispersed, people drifting back to the surface to rejoin their everyday lives and normal jobs, while Quistis and the cadets stayed behind to talk things over with Berne.
"So all those people just then.." said Criss, with a look at the last stragglers of the departing group as they walked out through the main doors.
"Yes?" said Izzy, looking up from the printouts which were still rattling out of Trini's printer.
"They all work and live in the city still? Are they some kind of undercover group?"
"Something like that, yes," said Berne. "A lot of the members of this rebel faction elected to try and keep up their lives as normal, handing down information to us and acting as our eyes and ears to what's going on in the city. Those of us who are down here permanently are wanted men and women, we can't really publicly show our faces because if we did, we'd find ourselves locked in a very small room getting everything we knew tortured out of us within moments." Katya threw him a sympathetic look, and Berne smiled back. "You get used to it."
"The lack of fresh air can be murder on your skin, though," said Izzy, trying to lift some of the tension that had settled on the room following Berne's announcement. Quistis grinned.
"So what are we going to do?" she said, looking up at Berne. Berne scanned the sheet before him, trying to squeeze everything he'd just learned into his mind so he could come up with a plan of action.
"Quistis, this.. this is getting bigger than us now. We're only a small operation, I don't know if we have the resources to fight something like this any more, and besides, we-"
"We have access to four SeeDs so maybe we should stop worrying and start thinking!" said Quistis, snatching the sheet out of Berne's hands. He started to speak but decided to stay quiet, letting Quistis read down the document for herself. When her face paled and she stopped mid-sentence, Berne knew he'd found the section he'd seen too.
"Look, we need to confirm all of this, we don't know what-"
"Oh no.." said Quistis, the paper falling from her fingers. Cevin reached for it but with a wave of her hand Katya grabbed the sheet telepathically and flew it straight into her fingers. Cevin glared at her but she just smiled sweetly back at him, before starting to read the file out aloud.
"Lab Results, Cell CD-03, Head Technician Jarno Llewellyn, concerning the genotype experiments on subjects G7 to G12," she read. "Well, it's not giving too much away, is it? You'd need a degree in professional jargon to get very far with any of this."
"Try skipping to the bottom of the page, the conclusion section," said Berne, trying to catch Quistis' eye but the instructor was staring blankly at the floor. Katya scanned down.
"I'm glad that everything has gone so well," she read, "the results are far beyond the initial expectations. A 100% survival rate in all subjects is far more than I could have hoped for, but we'll have to wait for the fitness tests to make sure the subjects continue to demonstrate the physical enhancements earlier subjects have shown. I wonder what old Cid Kramer would say if he could see me now, safe in his ivory tower over at Balamb Garden.." Katya's voice trailed off as she finished the sentence, and she looked up at Quistis. "Cid Kramer? That's.. that's our Cid Kramer, isn't it? But why would he be mentioned on all this?"
"That's what we've been trying to find out," said Berne a little sheepishly. Quistis looked up at him, anger flashing in her eyes.
"You mean you knew?" she snapped. "You knew Cid was involved in this, and you never told me?"
"I didn't want to compromise your mission, Quistis! We don't know much, we only have occasional references to Cid that imply he knows this Llewellyn guy, how well or in what manner we don't know. Quistis, look at me," said Berne patiently, as Quistis' head flicked from side to side as she tried to digest this new revelation. "Quistis, we were going to tell you as soon as we had something concrete, it isn't my policy to make idle accusations before getting all the facts."
"This is different!" she blurted out. "We're talking about the guy who sent us over here to help possibly being in the pocket of the guy we're fighting! That means.. I mean.. what if.. argh!" She yelled in frustration and stormed out of the meeting room, despite Izzy's calls for her to turn round and calm down. Izzy looked across to the cadets, hoping that they'd be more reasonable.
"Sorry guys, but she's our boss and we've got to stick by her. I'll go see if I can calm her down," said Katya, following Quistis out through the main doors.
"Maybe you could start by telling us what else you know that you've so far neglected to tell us?" said Criss, his arms folded defiantly as he stared back at Berne.
"That's everything, on my honour," said Berne, his hands raised defensively. "Cid gets mentioned a lot but there's nothing to directly say he knows about any of this. However, there's also nothing to say he doesn't know, so the door swings both ways on this until we know more."
"Maybe we oughtta just ask him?" suggested Cevin. Criss raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yeah, you know, ' er, 'scuse me, sir, but do you have anything to do with illegal genetic experiments being conducted on kidnapped Kabernian civilians?' or something."
"I think the instructor should handle this," said Criss patiently. "She knows Cid the best out of all of us so he'd be more likely to open up to her."
"Agreed," said Berne, "assuming she calms down enough to want to help, that is."
* * * * * * * * * *
"Quistis? Quistis, where are you?" called Katya. She'd spent the past few minutes wandering round the maze-like series of identical tunnels that made up the rebel's underground hideout without success, and she was starting to get a bit aggravated with her missing instructor. Holding up the palm of her hand, she breathed in deeply and drew up a few specks of purple essence from the earthy patches sticking from between the tiles and pipes running along the walls. The specks converged into one pulsing purple mass on her palm, which with a wave of her hand floated up into the air, hovering expectantly as though waiting for a command from Katya.
"Well? Don't just sit there looking pretty, go find her!" Katya ordered, and with a little dip the purple ball zipped off out of sight round a corner, forcing Katya to break into a jog to keep up with it. After a few more turns, the ball stopped before an unmarked door, bobbing up and down in the air to attract Katya's attention. She caught up to it, and with a grateful nod and a flick of her fingers the essences were dispelled back into the earth. Katya knocked once on the door.
"Quistis? Are you in there?" Silence for a few moments, but the scrape of a chair moving across the base's cold floor told Katya she'd found her. "Can I come in."
"Yeah.. yes, Kat, come in," said Quistis distantly, and Katya opened the door and stepped inside. Quistis had found herself a small room that looked like an old office, about the size of a large broom cupboard with a desk and shelves piled to the roof with books, manuals files and other dusty, long-forgotten tools of the trade. Quistis was sat behind the desk, her head in one hand, looking thoughtfully into space as Katya made her way inside.
"Mind if I intrude, then?" said Katya, and Quistis smiled back at her.
"Sorry, I went wandering off in a huff then before I knew it I was lost," Quistis explained, "so I found this room and decided to stay here for a minute or two, because I had a feeling you'd come after me if I waited." Katya grinned.
"You know me too well!"
"That's my job, Kat, remember?"
"Berne said that-"
"Berne probably said they have nothing concrete to go on, I know," said Quistis, interrupting her. "Doesn't change the fact that may have known about all this before sending us out here, and that he may have been using us to clean up one of his loose ends for him, hoping we wouldn't find out or link him back to it all."
"That doesn't sound like Cid at all," said Katya, and Quistis nodded.
"No, it doesn't, that's what I need to work out. I'm going to give Cid a call, I think, and see if I can use my investigative skills to get some kind of an answer out of him."
"Good plan," said Katya, moving back outside as Quistis stood determinedly and left the office, closing the doors behind her.
"Now, which way is out?" asked Quistis. Katya smirked and called up a little more purple essence.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Balamb Garden, how may I help you?"
"Headmaster Cid, please, this is Quistis Trepe reporting in."
"Oh, Quistis, how are you?" sang the ever-pleasant tones of Rianna, Cid's secretary. Quistis was trying to keep cool so she didn't give too much away in her impending conversation with Cid - she needed to find out what she could about his involvement with the dealings down in Kabernia without arousing his suspicion.
"I'm fine thanks, Rianna, a little busy down here but everything still under control at the moment."
"Good, good, I'll put you through. One moment, please." The screen in front of Quistis faded up from dull grey to the monochrome image of Cid's office, as the Headmaster sat down in his chair facing the monitor. Quistis was out in the comms room, her thick fake fur-lined coat on to keep out the draft that swept into the small shed.
"Hello, Quistis, good to see you out and about again! Criss told me about your brief stay in the hospital," said Cid, trying to hide his concern.
"I'm fine now," said Quistis. "I got a bit knocked about, but I've been hurt much worse. We've made some progress with the investigations now, though, and we think we can-"
"Yes, about that," interrupted Cid, catching Quistis off guard. "I've been giving it some thought, and I've.. I've become concerned that we may be getting in too deep with all of this. We were sent to investigate the rebels and that's been accomplished, but now we're risking starting an all-out conflict with Kabernia if we are found to be assisting the rebel faction." He sighed heavily and started to clean his glasses. Alarm bells were ringing all around the inside of Quistis' head - did Cid know they were on to him? Or was he pulling the plug because he was afraid they'd uncover him?
"Cid, there's still a lot we don't know here, we can't just-"
"I'm afraid I don't have much choice here, Quistis, I can't risk dragging Balamb Garden into another conflict so soon after the Galbadian trouble. Kabernia is a powerful city, we do not want them as our enemies. I'll contact you again later today to discuss this further, I need to make some calls now. Goodbye." Cid hung up, and Quistis was left staring at the blank screen at a loss for words. This was clearly going to be a much bigger operation than anyone had first thought. She clicked the monitor off and stood up to rejoin the others.
"So what did the big cheese say?" asked Katya as Quistis walked back into their quarters. Quistis had elected to return to the barracks that the governor had supplied for them - they hadn't been there for a few days and Quistis was conscious of keeping up the appearance that they were still working for the governor.
"Uh.. I'm not sure," Quistis lied, not wanting to spill the full details of Cid's surprise about turn to the cadets until she knew what to make of it herself.
"Did he say we should carry on as planned or not?" asked Criss, his cool blue eyes scanning Quistis as though he could tell she was hiding something. She didn't look back at him as she answered.
"He- That's to say, I- look, let's talk about this later. Let's just say things have gotten a little complicated and I need to think about them before I can make a new plan." She left it at that and her cadets wisely decided not to hassle her further. They hadn't been back at the quarters for long before Mawdsley, the governor's aide, came walking in.
"Ah, here you all are!" he said with what looked like surprise - Quistis was already watching him carefully in case he showed any signs of being on to their rebel-sponsored activities. "The governor has been asking about you, and seeing as you haven't been around for a few days, he was getting a little concerned.."
"Yes, sorry about that," said Quistis quickly. "We were out in the field, doing a little reconnaissance work, and well, I'm sure you know how it is when you just lose track of time, and, well! We're back now, ready to keep working on the leads we've uncovered," she said, talking quickly so that Mawdsley would get the hint and leave them alone again.
"Right, yes, well, good, good to hear," he stuttered. "Ah, I'll be leaving you to get on with everything then!" he said, turning to leave again. He paused by the door to the SeeD's room, turning back to face them all. "Oh, and one last thing - Governor Deakin would like you to stop by his office when you have a minute, just to have a chat about how things are going." He smiled pleasantly and left. Quistis tried to stifle a sudden hot flush of nerves that swept over her - was the governor on to them now? Or was this an honest check-up on them because they had been conspicuously absent for a few days?
"Well, that's one less thing to worry about," said Cevin, lounging back on his bed with his arms folded behind his head.
"What if.." started Katya, but a sharp look from Quistis and a glance at the ceiling reminded her that their room was probably still bugged. Katya glared at Cevin, hoping to make him see that the governor was quite likely on to them already, but Quistis put her coat back on and headed for the door regardless.
"I'd better get this over with, then," she said, "then we can get back to work." She nodded once at the others before closing the door and heading out. It was only a few minutes' walk to get over to the main council building from where the barracks were, but she tightened her coat round her in the chilly morning air as she strolled down the streets. The shops and businesses along the way were just beginning to stretch their legs and work their way into the day, but now that Quistis had opened her eyes to the dark underworld of this city (literally if you counted her fight in the sewers), there was something a lot less innocent about the whole place. She wondered how many of these shopfronts either knew about Deakin's plans or were otherwise manipulated by them, how many places there were in this whole sprawling city that were free of his shadow. She shook her head to try and clear her thoughts before she trotted up the marble steps that led to the halls' main entrance.
With a smile at the security guard, she was shown through to the elevators and took the swift ride up the governor's office. Closing her eyes to collect her thoughts as the lift shot smoothly towards the top floor, she tried to prepare herself for what could happen - either Deakin was genuinely just checking on her progress, or he'd started to realise that Quistis wasn't playing on his team any more and he was going to try and arrest her. She patted the whip hanging inside her coat just to make sure - whatever material it was made out of had the handy ability to not set off weapons detectors or show up on security scans, and for that she was thankful. She had a feeling she might be needing it.
"Ah, Instructor Trepe, do take a seat," said the governor as she strode into the office. The boardroom table that stretched towards her from the centre of Deakin's desk was littered with empty cups of coffee and plates - she'd obviously just missed one of those executive business breakfasts she heard so much about. Deakin himself was busy signing about twenty different documents, each one held out to him in term by a thin, pasty-faced advisor who stared down his nose at Quistis as she pulled up one of the vacant boardroom chairs and sat down. She cast an eye over to the wall of terminals to her left but wasn't able to pick up on anything from them - if Deakin had been spying on her she'd hoped to catch one of the screens looking into her barracks, but she was out of luck. Deakin signed the last paper and dismissed the advisor, who threw Quistis another dirty look as he left. Frowning, she turned back to the governor.
"I don't think that guy likes me," she said, jerking a thumb towards the departing advisor. Deakin grinned.
"He doesn't like many people. I'm afraid Mr. Freid is a workaholic who is a little.. let's say old-fashioned in his views of women." Deakin sighed and readjusted his reading glasses, crossing his fingers as he placed his elbows on his desk and leant on his palms.
"So what can I do for you, governor?" asked Quistis, trying to sound as innocent as possible.
"Oh, not much, really, it's just to see how things are going. You're probably aware, I expect, of the incidents the past few days.." He left the sentence hanging, testing Quistis to see how much she knew.
"Well, if you're referring to the attack on that truck and the subsequent fracas down in the sewers, I'm afraid we were following up our leads from those attack sites your man Dexter showed us round earlier that day," she lied, hoping he'd buy the story. "I hear that one of the trucks was basically dropped into the sewers, and there was some kind of struggle down in the sewers between the escaping saboteurs and a police team in pursuit."
"Yes, quite a messy business," said Deakin, standing and heading for the window to look out over the city as it finished waking up for the day. "I was most upset to find out how public the whole thing had been, it took a lot of work to quiet it all down again. My contacts in the press can only do so much!" he said, turning with a smile to Quistis. She returned it, secretly thankful that he'd let slip another piece of the puzzle - if Deakin had the media in his pocket then he could control what the city knew that bit better.
"I'm sorry we weren't there to help," said Quistis, "but if it's any help we managed to find out something by examining the evidence from the scene afterwards."
"We believe we have a location of the base," said Quistis, hoping the governor would buy the story she'd been cooking up all the way over.
"Good! Good, glad to hear it. What do you know?" said the governor eagerly.
"Well, we haven't pinpointed it but we believe they're operating outside the south-western part of the city, moving between areas by use of the sewer system. They can get access to pretty much any part of the city that way, and because it's such a large area, it's also almost impossible to patrol with putting dozens of men down there or spending a small fortune on security cameras!" Quistis had actually thought this would be how the rebels operated when she first arrived at the city, so their actual plan of hiding out in the middle of the business sector down the road from the council offices seemed a lot less exciting by comparison. The governor paced over to the wall of security camera monitors.
"Seems strange that I can keep an eye on so much from up here, yet so much still slips through my fingers," he said reflectively. Quistis' danger sense started to tingle - was the governor only acting? Did he actually know very well that she was making the whole thing up? She tried to calm her increasing feeling of unease as he turned on his heel and strode back over to his desk.
"My team plan to try and track the movements out through the sewer system, at great personal expense to our uniforms, no doubt," she said, trying to ease the mood with a wisecrack, "that way we should be able to locate their base precisely and decide whether we can take it or call for reinforcements."
"Well, as you mentioned, dozens of men and a small fortune are two things I have a ready supply of," grinned Deakin, although Quistis didn't find his disarming politician's grin quite so welcoming any more, "so I shall await more news from you. They've been quiet apart from that truck attack, I'd be on your guard in case they're on to the fact that someone is after them now." Quistis nodded and stood up to leave.
She was halfway to the door when Deakin's voice rang out again.
"How's the leg?" Quistis froze. She'd completely forgotten about the slight limp she was still sporting from her fractured leg, a souvenir of the blast in the tunnels a few days previously. Despite healing up at an alarmingly fast rate, she was still obviously walking on an injured leg. She turned to face Deakin as smoothly as she could, hoping that this wasn't the moment where he revealed that he did know everything about her defection, and security was about to storm in and arrest her.
"Hmm?" she said as obliviously as possible.
"Your leg, seems like you've got a bit of a limp there," said Deakin coolly, not giving anything away.
"Oh, that, well, just took a bit of a tumble while I was out the other day, just a sprain. Nothing serious."
"Good, good. You can always swing by the medical centre here if you need any supplies, you know," he said, and Quistis sighed inwardly with relief.
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind!" she said with a cheery smile, strolling out of the office with a spring in her step. Seems like she'd either gotten away with it thus far, or else Deakin was spectacularly patient. Quistis dwelled on this second possibility for a little too long, and by the time the lift reached the ground floor her mood was blacker than ever, worrying that Deakin was using her as a way in to the rebels so he could shut them down for good.
"How did it go then?" asked Cevin as Quistis returned to the barracks.
"Fine, fine, just a check-in," said Quistis, scribbling the words 'We're still in the clear' on a sheet of paper for the cadets to read.
"What now?" asked Katya. "It's still quite early, we may as well use the day proactively." She was pointing out of the barracks's window over towards the distant beachfront with an expectant look on her face. Quistis grinned.
"Why not. You three go have the afternoon off, I'll keep on our leads and go see an old friend. We'll meet back at the rendezvous spot at 6pm sharp." The cadets gathered up their bags and were out of the door in a bustle of laughs and jokes in a matter of moments, leaving Quistis alone in the barracks. She needed to hear a friendly voice but didn't want to call anyone here, where she was most likely being spied on. She grabbed her coat and wandered out into the town.
Finding a quiet spot just past the bustle of crowds in one of Kabernia's many spots of green fields, sown neatly in amongst the tall buildings to cut down on the feeling of inner-city claustrophobia, Quistis found a bench overlooking a medium-sized pond filled with contentedly honking onkos, small birds that spent most of their time in water, and dialled up the first number in her phone.
"Hello, Balamb Forestry Service, Connar speaking."
"Hello there, may I speak to Vaughn, please? Tell him it's Quistis."
"Just a moment, please." Quistis took a deep breath, hoping she wouldn't sound too stressed out. She just wanted a few minutes of light chat with Vaughn to help get her head back down from the clouds. She smiled to herself as Vaughn finally picked up the phone.
"Hello, Ranger Trevelyan speaking," he said, and Quistis could tell he was grinning.
"My, my, aren't you the formal one!"
"Well, I'm at work now, aren't I? Have to treat this as official business or they'll take away my phone privileges," he joked. "What's up, Q? You getting on alright over there?"
"Yeah, yeah, nothing I can't handle. I've sent the kids off for the day to the beach so they can make sandcastles and eat ice-cream, leaving me free to call some old friends and do a bit of retail therapy."
"Oh, I can consider myself an 'old friend,' now, can I? I'm honoured!"
"You should be, it's not something I do lightly!"
They chatted away for a few minutes longer, Quistis asking him how things were going over in the forest, and he trying and failing to get any information out of her about her work over there. Things were winding down when he said out of the blue:
"Anyway, I'm getting a few days off next week, if you're still around I was going to swing by and visit. I've never been to Kabernia but I hear a lot about it, figure I'd let you show me round the place, what with your government connections and all."
"Ah.. okay, sure," said Quistis, immediately wishing she hadn't. "Give me another call in a few days and we'll sort something out, okay?"
"Sounds great. Anyway, must dash, I can smell something burning outside and I don't think it's what's left of my breakfast. Catch you later Q!" He hung up and she put her phone back in her jacket pocket, silently cursing herself for agreeing to let him come and visit. What was she going to do with him? She was spending half her time sneaking around with an undercover rebel group, she couldn't exactly drag him into all of that. Since Justin she'd promised herself not to involve people she cared about in her business again, the risk was too great.
That was when she realised that she actually did care for Vaughn, that without even noticing it he'd snuck in and made a little space for himself inside the overcrowded recesses of her mind. Well, it could be worse, she thought. She wasn't sure how, exactly, but she was sure things could be worse. Things could always get worse where she was concerned.
She stood and gathered her things. She wanted to go and see Seifer before meeting the cadets and reporting back to Berne to see if they'd made any more progress with the lab results they'd stolen. Quistis knew they'd need a lot of evidence to be able to make a case against Deakin, especially with Cid's sudden u-turn on policy. That was something else she needed to sort out.
One thing at a time, she thought to herself with a sigh, setting off for the safe house where Berne had hidden Seifer.
"Hello, Quistis, take a seat," said Seifer, motioning towards one of the three chairs in the modestly furnished room Seifer was in. The safe house Berne had found for the disgraced ex-SeeD was in a quiet residential area, far from the prying eyes of the city's skyscrapers. Sunlight filtered in through the drawn curtains, but a window was open bringing a mild morning breeze into the white-wallpapered room. Children were playing in the street somewhere outside, mixing in with other sounds of suburbia to fill the otherwise silent room. Quistis noticed why it was so quiet as soon as she stepped inside.
"Where are the Goon Twins?" she said, looking round for Seifer's self-appointed bodyguards.
"I sent Raijin out to get me some food and things," said Seifer with a chuckle. "I can still only take that guy in small doses. Fujin went with him, I think. Either that, or she's still here and just being very, very quiet." Quistis looked round but saw no sign of the grey-haired girl, only to find Seifer grinning to himself, having tricked Quistis into looking.
"Made you look," he said. Quistis sighed and sat down opposite him. Seifer was wearing a plain grey t-shirt and blue denim jeans, his face and hair gratefully making a bid for freedom without the threat of the asylum nurses shaving them away every few days. He held a glass of water in his hands which he sipped as Quistis settled down.
"Nice look you're sporting there," said Quistis. "Kind of the casual, escaped-mental-patient-about-town thing."
"Thanks, maybe it'll be a trend one day," said Seifer. "You still seem a little tense, Quistis," he said.
"Well, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm still not entirely sure about how far I can trust you," she said. "Nothing personal - well, actually it is personal, but-"
"It's alright, I understand," he said. "You have every reason not to trust me, but I owe you my life for breaking me out of that place. I was two days away from the kind of electroshock treatment that you don't come back the same from."
"You haven't exactly come back the same anyway, maybe the shock would have put you back to normal?" she said, only half-joking. Seifer stood up and walked over to a coffee table in the middle of the room, picking up a small leather-bound book.
"I think I'm doing better now than ever," he said as he sat back down. "Losing my sight has given me a whole new perspective on things."
"Yeah, about that," said Quistis. "Among other things I've seen you do, exactly how did you manage to stand, get that book and sit down again just now? It was as though you could see where everything was.."
"That's kind of true," he said. "I can tell you, for example, that today you're wearing a pair of dark blue combat trousers with a black long-sleeve top, looks like it says 'Toxic' on the front of it, and you've got your hair back in a long ponytail that actually looks quite good on you, and-"
"Stop, stop!" said Quistis, alarmed. "What the hell is going on here? How can you see me?"
"Tell you the truth, I have no idea," he replied, opening up the book and leafing through its pages, looking for something. "I just can. It's not 20/20 vision by any means, it's as though I'm looking at the world through the bottom of a glass." He chuckled and continued. "Which is funny, really, because that's how my dad always said I'd end up looking at the world if I didn't get my act together."
"Well, I'm guessing that Raijin was right, that all that time around the sorceress has affected you somehow, but what else-"
"Thos children, playing outside," he said. "Go to the window and take a look out at them for me, will you?" Quistis stood and walked over to the window, moving the curtains to see. There was a group of six well-dressed kids racing around in the street outside, running up and down the street and competing against each other.
"There are four boys and two girls. The girls, one has blonde hair and is wearing a pink and white dress, the other has shorter brown hair and is in blue shorts and an orange t-shirt." He laughed. "The blonde one looks kind of like you did as a kid. The boys, well, you've got two brunettes and one with black hair, they're all in t-shirts and shorts, one's strapping on a pair of roller skates while the other two are watching the blonde girl," he continued, narrating the scene before Quistis' eyes perfectly.
"What do you think is causing it?" asked Quistis, watching with wonder as Seifer scrolled through the book in his hands, his eyes flicking across the letters.
"Probably the same thing that means I can talk to people inside their heads, and do stuff like this," he said, waving a hand. The window closed with a thud behind him, startling Quistis and making her hop out of her chair. He waved his hand again and the television set in the corner of the room switched on, and with a final gesture he slid the coffee table in front of him skidding several feet across the floor to a stop on the far side of the room.
"This is crazy, you're not a magic user, or at least not enough to do something like that! Seifer, what is going on?" said Quistis, her hackles up. "I mean, I could handle the telepathic phone call stuff, I could just about buy you being able to hide the fact that you were supposed to be blind to Raijin and Fujin, but seeing me and moving things around? This is starting to freak me out!"
"Sit down, Quistis, it's alright. I have to concentrate to be able to see, it's not always on. And I only found out about the telekinesis thing the other day. I knew I could talk to people telepathically not long after I got back, but it took me a while to work out how to use it properly."
"Where did you go?" said Quistis, sitting back down. "Raijin said that you were found wandering the streets of that Dreason place, not really knowing where you were or what had happened, and that you ended up getting arrested and thrown in that asylum." Seifer nodded slowly, as though recalling the events of the last few months.
"That's half the story, but yeah, that's what they know." Quistis looked sideways at him - there were obviously a few things he'd neglected to tell the other two.
"What's the rest of it then?" she asked. Seifer settled back in his chair, signalling to Quistis that this would be a pretty long story.
"You may remember the last time we saw each other, that fight in Ultimecia Castle." Quistis nodded - her memories of that day were mostly lots of shouting, running around and explosions, though she did remember Squall and Seifer going head to head and Squall seemingly finishing off Seifer, wounding the renegade SeeD badly and sending him tumbling over a balcony inside the castle into the darkness. She'd lost sight of him but the team had forgotten about him in their rush to stop Ultimecia.
"Squall hit you and tipped you over that balcony, that was all I saw," she said.
"Well, when I came to I must have fallen a couple of stories. I was pretty winded but otherwise okay - the sorceress was pumping so much magic through me that it took a shock like Squall sticking me with that ultimate gunblade of doom thing he had to take me down. I healed pretty quick though, and I was busy trying to get my bearings and make my way back through the castle when boom!" He mimed an explosion with his hands and Quistis recalled how the castle had detonated shortly after the fight was over, and she and the others had been thrown into the time compression stream and almost lost for good.
"You were still inside?"
"The castle went sky high and I went down - I fell into some kind of tunnel system underneath the castle which kept me out of the worst of the blast, but what happened to me while I was down there wasn't so lucky." His head hung low for a moment as he relived the experience. "When the sorceress bought it, she sent out some kind of psychic scream across space and probably time as well. That was bad enough, and left me writhing on the floor in the most agony I've ever felt, but seconds later, all her power just imploded on itself, sucking away from everything she'd used it on. What was left of the castle, all her spells, all her followers, everything had their power ripped away when she went. And let me tell you, Q, that hurt."
"And that'd be what left you in the state you ended up in," said Quistis. Seifer shrugged.
"Kind of. It was staggering outside, my ears, eyes and nose bleeding because it felt as though a firework had just gone off in my head, and walking straight into one of the stray pockets of time compression that really screwed me up."
"You did what?" said Quistis.
"When she went boom, her magic followed, but she'd used so much power to get the compression spells going that it took more time to go away. The landscape around the castle was filled with little escaping pockets of energy, and as I fought my way back up top, out of the rubble and away, I went straight into one of them."
"What was it like?" said Quistis, rapt with attention as Seifer recounted the story.
"Heh, hard to explain. I guess the nearest sensation I could use would be being trapped inside a very small boat during a typhoon - your body being thrown from side to side and at times feeling like it was turning in on itself, with you just a passenger to the forces toying with your body. How long that lasted for I don't know, but when I came to, I was in the middle of a lush, green forest, trees stretching into the sky above me all around, and the deafening sounds of local insects and wildlife chirping and purring away. I'm not sure how, but I knew at once that I was thousands of years in the past, before any of the cities or anything had been built, even though I was at the same spot geographically, if you know what I mean. I tried to get up and walk away but it felt like I was moving in slow motion, and then before I had chance to relax, zap, I was back in the blender."
"That's kind of what happened to us, I think - it's a little fuzzy, Squall's the only one who can remember it properly. He said he saw us being bounced around different time zones, but as he concentrated on it all we were all gradually pulled back towards the same place."
"You were lucky," said Seifer with a sad smile. "I only had myself to help me out, and I was still so messed up from what had happened that I didn't even know which way was ''up'' anymore. When I hit solid ground again, I was in some kind of desert, just as a sandstorm kicked off all around me. A few seconds of that and then back into the time stream didn't help the disorientation much! I started visiting moments from my own past, some from my own future - that fight with Squall where we gave each other our lovely scars," he said, tracing the line of his facial scar with one finger, "the moment Rinoa brought me back from the dead, I even saw you getting me out of the asylum, although I had no idea what all that meant at the time. I've seen man, many things, Q. Some I don't understand yet and others that I'm starting to see the signs of. I could tell that I was seeing lots of possible futures and pasts, events that may or may not have happened, depending on how certain chance events worked out." He took a gulp of water and watched Quistis as she tried to take all this in.
"So.. so what have you seen, then?" He chuckled.
"Too many things to remember. I can't be sure how long I was in that timestream, even though I eventually popped back out of it moments after I left in this time, but I know that I feel a lot older after it all. Maybe I was in there a couple of years, maybe just a few minutes. No way to be sure."
"What did you see from your own future?" she asked.
"A few things. Some have happened already, some may happen, depending on how time chooses to fall. I saw a reality where Rinoa was dead and you and Squall were lovers, I saw one where you guys failed to stop Ultimecia and the world was a fireball of wars and bloodshed, and I saw a world where.." He paused.
"Where what?" Quistis asked.
"Nothing. It may not even happen." Quistis sat back. Her opinion of Seifer was rapidly reforming as he carried on speaking - he seemed more mature, more wise, exactly how someone who's spent months, maybe even years at the mercy of the winds of time would be. The experience seemed to have prematurely aged him many years, although he didn't look too different. She was thinking about how she could put his new found talents to some good use when he stood up and walked over to the window.
"Raijin and Fujin are heading back, you'd best be going," he said. "Anyway, you need to think of some better ways to make use of what I can do, the few you'd thought of were a bit lame," he said, turning back to her with a grin. She blushed.
"So you can read minds pretty well, I take it?" she said, realising that he'd been listening in on the conversation she'd just had with herself.
"It comes and goes. Depends on how loud the person is thinking, too. If someone's got their mental guard up it can be much harder," he said. Quistis stood and picked up her jacket.
"I'd best be heading back then. I'll be in touch, Seifer, don't worry. I'm going to need all the help I can get to sort this mess out."
"I know you will, and I'll do what I can while I can," he said. Quistis stopped and looked back at him.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she said, suddenly suspicious. Seifer had sounded like he wasn't planning on being around for too long.
"Nothing, forget I said it," he said, holding his hands up defensively. "Remember what I said, I don't know which versions of what I've seen are going to actually happen. Maybe none of them will."
"There's something you're not telling me, isn't there," she said. He looked at the floor and that same sad smile crept across his face again.
"I'll handle it. Now go! Get gone before those two show up, will you?" She opened the door and headed out, dodging into the alley by the side of the house to avoid Raijin and Fujin's attention. Once they were inside, she darted across the street and back towards the city centre, back to the rebel headquarters and down into the depths for another meeting and briefing. She was beginning to wonder whether they'd ever make any progress with this whole affair, but Berne was about to deliver some very unsettling news to her..
"Cid paid for some of this?" said Quistis, putting the sheet of paper she held down and staring back at the sympathetic face of Berne in disbelief. "When? I mean, how? How was he involved?"
"I'm afraid there was so much information in the files Trini hacked for us that it took us a while to sift through it all," said Berne.
"Plus, a lot of it was encrypted," piped up the diminutive computer expert Trini from somewhere to Quistis' right, "I only managed to break the code while you were gone just now. This information is literally hot off the presses."
Quistis looked round the small operations centre that seemed to be getting both busier and gloomier every time she walked into it, with groups of rebels talking frantically over reams of printed off reports, more of which were spewing out of copiers and printers all around the room. She sighed and looked back down at the sheet Berne had handed her as she'd walked in - copies of receipts and communications between this Llewellyn guy and her own Cid Kramer, admittedly dating back some twenty-five years but still linking up to research now taking place inside the city, experiments that they now knew took the form of genetic modification of human subjects. Cid had known about this. He'd even put money into the whole thing. Quistis could scarcely believe what she was reading - the communications were patchy, they hadn't been kept in very good order so there were still large gaps in the flow of information, but there it was in black and white before her.
"I trust the investment I made in all this is going to plan?" said Cid's writing. "There are many reasons why I think I should get out of this now, but for the time being what you're doing intrigues me. It could be of great benefit to the world if we achieve some success with this, and so with that in mind yes, you still have my approval to proceed." It seemed to be the reply to a letter that had been sent to Cid making sure he was still on board with the research funding, dated back some six years before Quistis had even been born, but by that time Cid had already been in the administration of Balamb Garden for several years, even though he didn't become Headmaster until a few years later.
"So what does all this mean?" she asked. Berne turned to Izzy, who wandered over with a pen and yet another sheet of paper.
"We managed to pick out the following names from the documents so far, we were hoping you may be able to identify a few of them, give us something to work on," she said, handing the pen and paper to Quistis.
"You know Cid, that's a start. You told me that when you last spoke to him, he said he was pulling the plug on your mission?"
"In a few more words, yeah. It was as though he knew I was on to something and was trying to cover his tracks, or at least he suspected that I'd find out before too long so he took steps to stop me. Which, sadly, only makes him seem more guilty," she said with a heavy sigh. It was taking a lot of hard work to see harmless old Cid as part of the brains behind a thirty-year long illegal experimentation scandal.
"It does that," said Berne. "Listen," he continued, taking Quistis by the arm and leading her into a quieter corner of the operations room. "I know how hard this is for you, you've known this Kramer guy most of your life, haven't you?"
"He trained me, he taught me most of what I know, and he's been the closest thing I have to a father since I was a little girl," said Quistis. "So, yeah, I suppose you could say this is a little bit tough!" she said, struggling to contain her sarcasm.
"Which is why it's important that you take care of this for us. You're his best character witness, and he must trust you otherwise he wouldn't have left this mission up to you."
"Maybe he sent me out here in the hope I'd figure this out, but then he got cold feet about it?" said Quistis. Berne shrugged.
"There are several ways this could work out. For now, his trust in you is a big asset to us because it means he'll be more likely to speak to you about what's going on here, tell you what he knows. Even if it's not much, or that he doesn't know much, that'll take him out of our list of suspects." Quistis nodded.
"Leave it with me." Berne returned the nod and headed back to the main bank of terminals and screens as Quistis scanned down the list. Her eyes widened as she read through the names, and by the time she reached the end of it she was pale and almost shaking. Izzy had noticed this and came over.
"Hey, what's up?" she asked, concerned by Quistis' look. "You look as though you just walked into a haunted house and asked to see a ghost.."
"I.. It's just.. Where did you get these names from again?" she said, trying to pull her thoughts back together.
"From lots of places, they're names that were mentioned in lab reports or communications or things like that. We can't really work out who most of them are at the moment. They may all be staff, or some may be-"
"Some may be test subjects. For the experiments," she interrupted. Izzy nodded.
"Yeah, maybe." Her eyes narrowed and she looked at Quistis again. "Are you okay? Seriously, you look really spooked. Did you recognise any of the names?" Quistis paused for a long time before replying.
"Izzy, my name is on this list."
"It's what?" Izzy replied, snatching the paper off her and scanning rapidly down the page. She gasped when she saw it - Quistis Trepe, clear as day. "How did I miss this?" she said. "Q, I'm sorry, I should've seen it sooner.."
"Relax," said Quistis with a weary smile. "You've got a lot on your mind, you just scanned it and missed it. There's lots more names on here." Izzy went back to looking at the list again. "The names of the five people I saved the world with, for example." Izzy looked back up at Quistis and paled to the same colour as her friend.
Quistis sat in the street café a few hours later, an untouched mug of coffee slowly getting cold on the table before her. She'd left the rebel headquarters to get some air - too many things were hitting her all at once, and she needed to give her brain some downtime or it was going to fry like an egg on a hot pavement. Criss and the others were currently engrossed in helping the rebel's plan their next mission - an attack on a state-controlled television station. Izzy had this crazy idea that they could broadcast what they knew by hacking into the domestic television satellites and telling the public in Kabernia as much as they could. Well, that was before the troops burst in and massacred them all, anyway. Quistis was on support duties with a bunch of rebels outside to guard the station for the duration of the broadcast. She sighed and tried a sip of coffee, grimacing and putting the stone-cold drink back on the table.
It wasn't that it was a bad plan, it was just that it seemed so.. low budget, given the scale of things Quistis now knew they were up against. They needed to be finding ways to undermine Deakin's whole council, discrediting him and getting public opinion up in arms about what he was doing, so that he'd have no choice but to pack his bags and make a rapid exit. Then maybe she could find some way to restore Dexter's scrambled memory and find out what happened to Serena.
There were a lot of things to consider, she thought with a heavy heart. The TV station plan would probably alert a few people to what was going on, maybe inspire a handful more citizens to seek out the rebels, but Quistis knew they'd need something more substantial than a pirate broadcast to reach the minds of the citizens. They had it good, why would they believe a bunch of rogue soldiers over the governor who'd helped make the city so prosperous and successful?
Her phone rang, disturbing her from her thoughts. It was Vaughn's number, and Quistis realised she'd forgotten to call him back when she said she would. She answered, trying to push the thoughts zapping round her brain to a dark room in the back somewhere so she could concentrate on his call.
"Forgotten about me already, have you?" he said.
"Course not, I've just been busy. You know, official stuff," she said, pleased to find that she was already smiling broadly at the sound of Vaughn's voice again. For all his faults, Vaughn always seemed to cheer her up.
"Well then, Miss Official, if you'd like to give me a pointer as to where I can get a decent beer at this time of day in this striving metropolis of yours?" It took a few seconds for this statement to connect up in Quistis' addled brain.
"You're.. hang on, what?" Vaughn chuckled.
"Thought that'd surprise you! I got tired of waiting to call and my holiday came up, so I thought 'what the heck?' and drove out to see you. I'm standing at the corner of.. ah, Wulfrun Street at the moment, so if you can work out where that is, come and get me! If you're not here in ten minutes I'm going home again.." Quistis held her head in her hands in despair, but couldn't stop a laugh escaping at the same time. Maybe she could make something out of this after all.
Ten minutes later, she turned the corner to Wulfrun Street. It was just a short walk round the corner from the café she'd been in, but she'd spent a few minutes watching Vaughn closely, checking that he was just here to see her and that he hadn't brought a goon squad along with him. Now that she had a feeling Cid knew what she'd found out, she was getting a little paranoid that the benign headmaster would send somebody out to drag her back home. She was glad to see Vaughn stood casually, looking the tall buildings around him up and down like the tourist he so obviously was. She smirked and walked over to him, her sunglasses perched on the end of her nose against the mid-afternoon sun. He smiled as he saw her approach and stubbed out the cigarette he'd been smoking.
"That's an awfully bad habit for a forest ranger, you know," she said. He grinned.
"That's why I only do it when I'm far, far away from anything flammable," he said. "This place needs some more trees," he said, looking around and pointing out the small park area over the road. "Those little green bits look too much like they've just been imported and stuck in to fool the people here into thinking they're still in touch with nature."
"Oh listen to you, so cynical already! When did you get here?"
"A few minutes ago, I would've called sooner but I just wanted to drive round the place a bit. You know, get lost in the one way system and swear at other cars like a proper tourist should do."
"Well, this is Kabernia. I've been working over there, the barracks just by the government buildings. We're, ah, investigating some things," she said, wondering how much she could give away.
"You likely to be off duty much?" Quistis tried to think of what she could tell him, and more to the point how far she could trust him.
What the hell.
"Vaughn, we, ah, may need to chat about a few things, do you think we could find somewhere quiet?" Vaughn raised an eyebrow at her.
"Coming from anybody else I'd take that as a come on line, but from you I know it only leads to trouble.." He grinned. "My life's been depressingly trouble-free since you left town, however. Lead on." She took him by the arm and led him away from the busy streets, out towards one of the nicer parks she'd found on the outskirts of the city.
"So let me get this straight," he said a while later when Quistis had finished talking. They were sat by a large pool, watching groups of mothers and children throw crumbs of bread out to the honking crowds of ducks swimming around. "You came here to investigate these rebels, suspecting that the governor here wasn't whiter than white to start with. Right?"
"And when you did some digging, you found just that, including that an old friend of yours had been brainwashed and another had gone missing, right?"
"And this led you to the rebels themselves, who with your help stole a stack of research notes and discovered that the governor has funded secret experimental labs to be built in the city, for god knows what end, and that your own Garden headmaster may be involved in it all?"
"That's pretty much it." Vaughn lay back on the grass, hands behind his head. Quistis, kneeling next to him, looked down. He had his eyes closed, but Quistis could hear his mind ticking over, the mental image of a tiny chocobo running round a wheel to power his brain prompting a quick snort of laughter.
"Ssh, I'm concentrating," he frowned. A few moments later, he sat up again, opening his eyes as if it was the first time he'd ever done so. "Right, got a plan. You ready?"
"Guess so, we've got a plan already though. It's not great but it'll do for now. What's yours?"
"I come along on the TV station mission," he said, settling back down to rest on his elbows, absently watching the ducks quacking their way round the pond.
"That's it? That's your great plan?"
"You got a better idea? I can't just sit around here while you go racing off sorting everyone's troubles out but your own, and there's not much point me going back home yet because I'm still on holiday. Therefore," he said, lying back down, "I'll have to be made a temporary rebel so I can come help out. It's not like I'm a civilian, I can take care of myself, you know."
Quistis sighed again. People did seem to keep getting wrapped up in her affairs whether she wanted them to or not. Vaughn had a point - now that he was here and willing to help she may as well get him involved. She just didn't want him ending up like that last guy who'd tried to help her. Vaughn didn't know about Justin yet and she was reluctant to tell him, but now wasn't the time. Accepting that things were running their course beyond her own conscious control, she lay down next to Vaughn, closing her eyes and trying to relax for a moment.
"See," said his voice from next to her. "Told you it was a good plan."
"Don't push it," she said with a smirk.
"Now just sit quietly and let me do all the talking," said Quistis as she and Vaughn approached the abandoned building that formed the cover for Berne's rebel operation. "These people already had to use up a lot of faith to trust that the cadets and I weren't working for the governor, so me showing up with you in tow may take a little persuading.."
"Anything you say," said Vaughn, one hand up to defer to Quistis' authority. "You're the boss here, consider me hired help." Quistis made her way to the concealed side entrance to the building that she'd been shown, moving a few old boxes out of the path of a hidden door that popped open once a panel in the surrounding wall was pressed. Vaughn followed her into the gloom, listening out for her footsteps as she made her way across the dim interior of the building towards the hatch that led to the underground tunnels. Two sets of torchlights shone at her as she got closer.
"Hello, Miss Trepe," said the voice of one of the guards, a nervous young lad called Watkins. "Ah, who's this with you?" he said, the torchlights picking out Vaughn. Vaughn raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light as he held up his ID badge.
"Vaughn Trevelyan, Balamb Forest Ranger, I'm here at the request of Quistis to help you guys out." Vaughn could tell Quistis was glaring at him in the dark but he tried not to react.
"Is that all, ah, true, then, Miss Trepe?" asked Watkins.
"Yes. It's fine," said Quistis through gritted teeth, making mental notes of where to hurt Vaughn when she got him alone later.
"Right then, we'd best get you in, Berne's got a meeting about tonight's mission scheduled in about an hour or so." Watkins and his colleague opened up the hatch, and Quistis and Vaughn followed the illuminated steps down into the tunnel network. Once the hatch was shut behind them, Quistis turned on Vaughn, her voice scolding.
"I said, 'let me do all the talking!' Isn't that what I said?"
"Well, yes, but.."
"But what? Do you want these people to think you're a spy and shoot you or something?"
"Sorry, but I couldn't resist, that whole 'Forest Ranger' line sounded too good in my head not to use!" Quistis opened her mouth to speak, but realised that he actually had a point. With a mutter and a shake of her head, she took off down the corridor, heading for the operations centre.
"Ah, Quistis, just in time," said Berne as she walked in moments later. "We're just getting to the planning of the.. well, what do you know!"
"Vaughn?" Berne and Vaughn crossed the room as Izzy and Quistis exchanged a confused look, warmly man-hugging each other with a laugh.
"How the hell have you been, you old git, it must have been what, three years now?" said Vaughn.
"Four, nearly," said Berne. "Oh you know, this and that, moving to this place, exposing government corruption and organising and underground rebellion. You?"
"Safeguarding dad's forestry interests and quite possibly getting roped into all of this at the same time," Vaughn answered, the two men obviously well acquainted already.
"Er, excuse me," piped up Quistis. They both turned to look at her. "What.. I mean, how did.. I mean, where.." She stumbled for the right phrase, settling for just throwing her arms in the air and going "Huh?"
"Jules here and I went to the same university, we shared a flat with a few other people for about three years. I was doing forestry and he was doing.. what was it now?"
"Environmental biology," said Berne with a grin. "Vaughn and I were good friends back then, but we fell out of touch a while ago when I came here. Guess I got too busy!"
"Guess so," said Vaughn with a grin.
"So what the hell are you doing here, anyway?" said Berne. "If you got this far, I'm assuming Quistis filled you in on the situation round here.."
"Yeah, she asked me to help so I could hardly turn her down, could I? If I'd have known you were here too I'd have been round even sooner!" Quistis glared at Vaughn again, but he was too busy talking animatedly to Berne to notice. Izzy came over and took Quistis over to the wall of computer screens and monitors with a sympathetic look.
"They'll be going for hours, now. When Berne heard you were from Balamb he started talking about his 'old uni buddy,' and now we all get to him! He thinks a lot of him, you know. The fact that he didn't flip his lid at you bringing him down here should prove that."
"Lucky me," said Quistis darkly. "What's the plan so far then?" Izzy tapped in a few commands on the keypad in front of her, bringing up a series of wire-frame diagnostic diagrams and clips of video footage as she spoke.
"As you know, Berne's current plan is to hit this state-controlled television station," she said, pointing to a live closed circuit feed of the station. It lay just beyond a cluster of office buildings, with a single guard tower out front and one main access road. The station was one three-storey building, nondescript in its beige brickwork and squat design, and from the top of that stuck out the broadcast tower itself, a metallic structure some fifty feet high with satellite receiver dishes and aerials jutting out from it at irregular intervals. "The station itself isn't heavily guarded, so getting gin there won't be a problem. What will be a problem is that in order to guarantee people are watching, we're going to have to make sure we're on the air at around 7 to 8pm this evening."
"So that we catch everybody tuning in for the evening's news, right?" Izzy nodded and called up a screen which showed the current signal from the station.
"Kabernia has this one central station and a few independent ones, but this has the largest share of the viewing figures. Berne's plan is to hack into the signal and play a pre-recorded tape over the air for as long as we can get away with."
"What's on the tape?"
"A five minute loop, Berne reading out a few facts about how Deakin's stranglehold on the city's economy is affecting everyone, and as much data about the labs and the experiments as we could fit in. We'll be showing documents, video footage, anything else we can get our hands on to make it more believable."
"Let's hope it works, then," said Quistis, scanning the blueprints of the station.
"You don't sound too convinced," said Izzy. Quistis frowned and looked across at her old friend.
"I'm not. Where are we going to go when this is done? There's only one road that leads into any kind of cover, and that's straight back into the city. If we leave any other way we'll be on open ground in minutes, sitting ducks for whatever they use on us."
"That's the one thing we need your help with," said Izzy. "Berne was sure you'd come up with something." Quistis rubbed her chin as she studied a map of the streets around the station.
"Okay, here's something," she said, pointing to an underground train station a few streets away. "If we can get a schedule for these trains, we should be able to get out of the TV building and into that station between trains, using the tunnels to make some kind of getaway. I'll need more plans to get a route mapped out." Izzy grinned.
"I'll get someone right on it."
"I'm sure I can organise a diversion," said Quistis, looking across at Katya as the three SeeD cadets entered the operations centre. "So all we need to do now is make sure we can get from the studio to the train station without getting ourselves killed. How many people have I got to use?"
"I'm coming, you and your cadets, your friend over there too, I guess, and with Rexel and Graft that makes eight of us." Quistis nodded again.
"Give me a buzz when you've got those details and I'll see what I can work out," she said, heading over to the cadets. They were dressed in their civilian clothes, having returned back from their afternoon off.
"Afternoon, boss," chirped Cevin. "We had fun at the beach, thanks for letting us blow off some steam!"
"Have fun kicking sand in people's faces?" asked Quistis with a smirk.
"He bought us ice cream!" said Katya triumphantly, like a child with a new toy. Cevin reddened.
"Yeah, yeah, don't tell everyone.." he muttered.
"What about you, Criss?" Quistis asked. Cevin answered before Criss could speak.
"Ah, the pale rider here spent the afternoon lying in the shade, 'meditating' or whatever you want to call it," said Cevin. "I swear, man, you need to get a little active relaxation into your life or you're going to devolve into one of those combat zombies I was telling you about!"
"Combat zombies?" said Quistis.
"Yeah, troops, soldiers and things like that who only live to work. They can't unwind off duty so they just go into this kind of trance state, like zombies."
"I wouldn't say I'm that bad," said Criss quietly. "Just because I don't run around getting sunburn at the first sight of a blue sky doesn't mean I'm one of the walking dead." Quistis chuckled.
"You three, back to the barracks. Start pulling off what information you can from the computers there about the local trains and transport system. Specifically, I need to know how quickly we can get from the TV station on the east side of town back to here, without spending too much time out in the open. If anyone asks, you're researching for a mission that I'm out scouting for." Criss nodded once to confirm.
"We out on this mission tonight then?" asked Katya, her appetite for action obviously whetted by the trio's recent adventure in the compound.
"Yep, us three, my friend Vaughn over there, Izzy and two more rebels."
"Hello, who's your 'friend' then?" said Katya with a grin, eyeing up the still-chatting Vaughn.
"Er, he's.. well, he's just someone I know from back home," said Quistis, trying not to give anything away. Vaughn showing up could make things very complicated, she'd just realised, not least through how much her cadets would tease her when they saw the two of them flirting with each other. Criss and Cevin seemed thankfully oblivious, but Katya looked back at Quistis with a knowing grin before patting the two boys on the shoulders.
"Come on, you pair, back to work. Call us when you want us to head back out," she said to Quistis as the three of them left operations. Quistis headed back over to Berne when they'd left, finally managing to wedge a word into the conversation he and Vaughn were still having.
"Sorry to interrupt this touching reunion, gents, but we have work to do."
"Yes, yes, we do. Come on, Vaughn, I'll fill you in on the rest of what's been happening round here. Izzy here will help let you know what we're doing tonight. I'm calling a meeting in about half an hour to tell the troops what's happening tonight." Vaughn nodded and let Berne lead him over to Izzy. The two were introduced, with Izzy seeming to be a little too glad to see Vaughn. Quistis surpressed the sudden jealous twinge - now wasn't the time to start developing an interest in anybody, let alone somebody she'd have to be trusting to be part of her team in a few hours' time.
Berne called the general meeting of as many rebels as could attend a little while later. The small operations room was packed with about sixty people, the usual patchwork of young, old, have or have not as last time. Berne stood before two video projections of the plans and footage Izzy had gone over with her earlier.
"Good evening, everyone, thanks for making it on such short notice. I've come to the decision that before we make another offensive on Deakin and his goon squad, we need to try and wake up more of the populace of this city to what's happening around them. Last time we managed to make one of these broadcasts, we used our own equipment, reached a few pockets of homes and managed to gain maybe ten new members. Tonight we're going for the big money, hitting the main Kabernian TV network, broadcasting a looped video with enough evidence that's sure to open a few eyes round the city to what Deakin is really up to." Berne motioned for Izzy to join him at the head of the room, and she proceeded to use a remote control to show the maps of the area, complete with red lines and arrows showing the plan of action.
"Tonight, we're sending a team of eight people in to the TV station to set the broadcast going. We'll then pull back to this underground station nearby, and use the tunnels to gain access to the sewers, joining up with our eastern access route from there. The team will consist of myself and Quistis, her three SeeDs, our newest recruit Vaughn, and Rexel and Graft to round the squad off."
"We're moving out in two hours time, so I want everybody to be ready. We'll be helping the broadcast from here by tapping into the local fibreoptic transmission cables that the network transmits along, boosting our signal and trying to jam any attempt to stop us for as long as possible. At the absolute worst case scenario, I want the video to get one complete run, so that's five minutes of airtime. Anything beyond that is a welcome bonus." Quistis glanced at the faces around her as Berne spoke. The rebels seemed upbeat, quietly confident that this plan would win over another small chunk of the city for them. Quistis still had the feeling that the rebels were going to run out of time and be found and arrested by Deakin's soldiers before too long, so every mission was crucial at the moment. Vaughn caught her troubled look and nudged her, mouthing 'What's up?' at her. She shook her head and went back to listening.
"So that's the mission - the team hit the TV station, access the main broadcast channels and get our video on the air, then pull back and out before any troops show up, while we continue to help the tape reach the homes of Kabernia from back here. Any questions?" No-one raised their hand, prompting a satisfied smile from Berne. "Excellent," he said. "Dismissed."
"What was the matter?" said Vaughn as he caught up with Quistis once they were outside. Quistis shrugged, trying to move the two of them into a part of the tunnels that weren't filled with chattering rebels.
"Nothing, I just have a bad feeling about this. Plus, it seems a little small scale and I have a.. well, call it a bad vibe about how much time these guys have before Deakin roots them out."
"I have to agree. But we're in this together now, aren't we?" he smiled. "I always promised Berne that I'd help him out if he needed me for anything, and he does, so here I am. Now let's get suited up and get out there. Time's wasting!"
The city streets were fairly busy, this being a normal weekday evening, and as the sun set across the towers of Kabernia, and the city's streetlights and buildings illuminated in their usual tapestry of colour, there was a lot of activity going on - cars rushing along the roads, citizens milling along the streets - some on their way home, some on their way out. In the midst of all this, it was pretty easy for Quistis' small team to make their way out towards the TV station largely unnoticed. They were all carrying backpacks with their mission equipment in, but as they were spread out as they walked and all currently dressed in civilian clothes too, they had no problem blending in with the crowd. Vaughn was walking alongside Quistis, that ever-present smirk still firmly in place.
"So, do you do this sort of thing a lot then?" he asked.
"Secret undercover espionage missions?" She shrugged. "Sometimes, depends on what's going on. That was part of the fun of being a SeeD, always off doing something different every few weeks." She looked at him, trying to take in the fact that he was here, accompanying her on a mission.
"What?" he asked.
"I still haven't quite got my head round you being here," she said. "I mean, you and Berne being old friends I can handle, and you saying you'd always help him out if he asked, I can deal. The part where you end up on my team to hijack a television station in support of an underground rebel group.. that's the part I'm stuck on."
"You'd be surprised," Vaughn smirked. "I've done quite a bit of stuff in my time. Being a forest ranger is a rewarding job with plenty to do, but there isn't always a huge amount of danger or adventure tacked on along with it. So, from time to time, I seem to end up helping old friends out with whatever they need me for."
"This is basically terrorism, you know," she said. "You're trying to tell me you've done this kind of thing before?" Vaughn just grinned at her again.
"Well now, that'd be telling, wouldn't it," he said. Quistis was about to reply when Katya jogged up to them both, placing a hand on each of their shoulders to catch their attention.
"Hey! Uh, just to let you know, Instructor, we're almost there. We need to take this turning up ahead to get to the station."
"Thanks, Kat. Tell the others to follow my lead." Katya nodded and hung back to let the rest of the squad catch up. Quistis turned to Vaughn. "This is it. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?" He threw her a look as if to say she was crazy to question him. She smiled back. "Good."
The road up ahead branched off, one side leading back into the city block which they were coming to the edge of, and the other leading down past an industrial estate to the TV studio that was their target. Quistis had decided that a direct assault was too risky, so they were going to gain access to the underground car park that every major building in Kabernia had (a plan of Deakin's to maximise available space inside the city), and from there get up and into the building. Reconnaissance had suggested a minimal security force, so they shouldn't have any problems until the governor was alerted to their presence and sent out his goons to arrest them.
Quistis nudged Vaughn and without a word ducked down the road leading up to the TV station. It lay ahead of them, the ramp entrance down into the car park looking like some kind of mouth as the cold glass eyes of the building stared down at them, as though it knew what the group was planning to do and was scolding them for it. She pointed towards a pedestrian entry that led down into the park and she and Vaughn headed for it.
So far, so good she thought as the eight-person squad all walked serenely down into the underground park. The gentle purr of car engines roving around, looking for spaces or looking for the way out filled the concrete walls as the team headed for the elevator that gave access to the rest of the building.
"We can't use the public elevator because that won't give us access to the floors we need," said Quistis as the team found a sheltered corner of the park and changed into their all-black outfits for the rest of the mission. "We'll need to gain access to this staff elevator so we can get straight to the top floor in one pass, bypassing the security inbetween."
"No problem," said Izzy, motioning to Rexel and pointing at the sealed electronics box that controlled the lifts. "Rexel, do your thing and get that lift open." Rexel nodded and took a toolkit out of his backpack.
"Have it running in a jiffy," he said confidently, heading over and wrenching the cover off the box after a quick check that no-one was nearby.
"What do we do once we get to the top floor?" asked Criss as he finished suiting up.
"Katya here scrambles the cameras first of all," said Quistis, wincing visibly as Rexel's efforts with the control panel were producing several loud scraping and clunking noises, "and then we hit the floor and spread out. Find any security teams and neutralise them, then seal off any access to the floor except for this elevator, which we'll be using to make our escape once the video is on the air."
"Sounds good," said Izzy. "What about the staff?"
"We'll be using these," said Quistis, passing around several taser guns from her backpack.
"Hey, nice! Where'd you get these?" asked Cevin.
"I managed to get them out of Deakin's barracks," said Quistis with a quick grin. "I told him I was taking you three out to go do some recon on a suspected rebel hideout, and I needed weaponry to neutralise any that I could. He signed off these things for me straight away. State of the art anti-riot technology, they fire tiny darts that carry an electrical charge to the target. They can pierce body armour so there's no need to go for skin shots, and the charge will drop most people in seconds without causing any permanent damage. Of course, if you're as highly charged as someone like Katya already is, you may need a couple of shots," she said, tongue firmly in cheek. Katya stuck her tongue out at Quistis as the group chuckled. Another wrenching noise from Rexel's work was followed by a steady whirr and a triumphant bark from the burly mechanic.
"Got it!" he announced. "Come on then, it'll be here any second." He packed his tools away as the group gathered by lift doors. The lift pinged as it reached their floor, and the doors slid open to reveal a confused looking maintenance engineer.
"Damn lift kept moving around on me! I couldn't.. hey, who the hell are you people?" he said, confronted with the sight of eight black-clad rebels. Quistis and Vaughn exchanged a look before Vaughn zapped the engineer with his taser. Quistis gasped and caught the man as he fell to the ground.
"What did you do that for?" she hissed.
"Testing the guns. And, besides, it was quicker than trying to talk." Quistis glared at him as she helped the man to a sitting position against one of the nearby cars.
"Come on, let's get moving before anybody else sees us," she said, pulling on the balaclava that was the final part of the outfit. The team crammed into the lift and Quistis hit the button for the top floor, turning the key set into the panel to lock the elevator so it wouldn't stop at any other floor.
Moments later, the elevator hummed to a stop as it reached the tenth floor of the television studio, and the team sprang from the lift, guns poised, as the doors slid open. Quistis pointed to Criss and Cevin and then down the left hand corridor, to Rexel and Graft and then the right hand corridor, and back towards Vaughn to follow her down the central corridor that led away from the elevator doors. The group split off, Cevin leading as the two of them scuttled down, crouched over and padding silently along the carpeted floor as they kept an eye out for any guards. Quistis turned back to Izzy and Katya.
"You two go look for cameras," whispered Quistis, "and then take them out. When they're all gone, Katya, signal me somehow. Make the lights flicker or something."
"No worries," Katya replied. "There's plenty of essences round here, so juice for my spells won't be a problem."
"Vaughn, follow me, we're going to secure the studio and take out any staff in the way," said Quistis, scampering down the corridor with Vaughn right on her heels. They could hear the voices of the staff floating through the air, mixed in with the chattering of faxes and printers and other general office background sounds. People were moving around, but as the duo hugged the desks and kept out of sight, they were able to make it across most of the floor in no time. Vaughn tapped Quistis and pointed up to the wall, where she saw a sign marking out the directions to all the different departments of the floor. There was an arrow pointing dead ahead for 'Studio,' one aiming towards Katya's corridor for 'Maintenance' and one towards the direction she'd sent Criss and Cevin that was marked 'Security.'
"Let's hope Criss and Cevin can take care of the security without raising the alarm," whispered Quistis, keeping her head down as two studio staff passed close by the desk the two of them were hiding behind. The lights flickered once overhead, and as Quistis looked up she caught a murmur of alarm from some of the people nearby. The cubicle walls and dividers between sections of desks were providing good cover for now, but it was almost time to make the move to take over the station. Quistis leaned over to Vaughn.
"Ready for some action?" she whispered to him. He grinned and waggled his eyebrows, indicating that he was more than up for it. She smiled back, took a deep breath and then stood up, firing her taser once into the ceiling. She hit an overhead light fitting which burst in a shower of sparks, achieving just the right response.
Screams and yells from the station staff met the explosion as she stood up, joined by Vaughn, Katya, Izzy, Rexel and Graft in turn. She glanced towards the security section, which was actually just a desk with a middle-aged guard sat behind it, and was pleased to see that Cevin had the guard restrained without having to hurt him. Criss gave Quistis the thumbs up, and she nodded as she walked into the middle of the room.
"Alright, everybody be cool!" she said, quoting a line from one of her favourite old gangster stories. "We're taking command of this station, but we're not here to hurt anybody." She pointed her gun at a pair of female staff cowering nearby as she continued. "However, we will not hesitate to use force against any resistance. If you all behave yourselves and co-operate, this will all be over soon and you'll have a great story to tell your kids in years to come." Quistis scanned the floor. The large double doors that led through to the broadcast studio were clear, all the staff were either at their desks, hands over their heads, or on the floor, whimpering to themselves as they prayed that Quistis and her squad wouldn't hurt them. She had no intention of harming anyone, of course, but she couldn't let them think that or they'd be swarmed in seconds.
"Cameras are clear, communication lines are jammed too," said Izzy as she and Katya jogged over. "Nobody can call out from the building for the time being."
"How long will the jamming hold for?"
"Hard to say," said Katya, "but hopefully long enough!" Criss and Cevin headed over, the security guard having been tied to his chair and disarmed.
"Guard was no problem, I don't think he's see a day's action in his life!" said Cevin as he tossed the guard's gun to Quistis. She caught it and tucked it into the belt of her all-black outfit.
"Right then, phase two," she said, nodding her head towards the studio doors. "You two, watch them, anybody tries anything just take them down," she said to Rexel and Graft, being careful not to use anybody's real name while people were listening. Katya waved her hands and the studio doors burst open with a flash of blue light, prompting some more squeals of horror from the hostages on the main floor. The studio itself was empty - a newsdesk set up on one side and a half-built set from a popular local drama series on the other, with cameras and lighting equipment left lying around the floor. Kabernia's TV station imported most of its programming so the station wasn't in use much except to broadcast these outside shows, but the team still had access to every home that received the station in the city via the broadcast antenna on the station's roof.
Quistis and Cevin heaved the doors shut and sealed them by dragging the newsdesk across them, as Izzy headed for the producer's booth over to the left of the studio. Criss and Katya looked round the inside of the room, taking in the dazzling array of gadgets and gizmos that went towards making up the magic of television.
"Come on, you two, try and keep up," said Quistis as she finished with the doors. "It won't take the governor's men long to realise we've hacked into the transmission signal, so we need to be ready to make a quick exit when we've got the tape on the air. Criss, go with Cevin to secure us a quick exit. Katya, you're with me in the booth so we can help Izzy."
"What about me?" asked Vaughn, taking off his balaclava.
"Keep an eye on things, make sure Rexel and Graft out there are okay," said Quistis. "We'll be busy setting this up so your job is to make sure nobody sneaks up on us!"
"Roger that," said Vaughn with a lazy salute. Quistis followed Izzy into the producer's booth, a small rectangular room filled with a huge desk covered with sliders, buttons and controls for the various inputs going through it, and a wall of monitors which represented the station's output. From here, one person could control what the entire city was watching, assuming they could hack into the other network's signals and override them with whatever this station was showing. Which was, of course, exactly what the squad planned to do.
Izzy sat down at the desk and immediately started flicking switches and making adjustments, readying the output signal for the homemade video containing the rebel's message.
"You seem to know what you're doing!" remarked Quistis as Izzy settled in to working the desk in moments.
"Took a media training course while I was out here," said Izzy. "I had a half-hearted ambition of becoming a TV producer one day. That's why Berne picked me for this mission, although I never thought I'd end up needing my skills like this!" she said with a smile.
"Tape's ready," said Katya, poised over a videocassette player on the far side of the room. Izzy nodded.
"Slam it home then," she said, "I've got the signals ready to start broadcasting once it's on." Katya nodded and pushed the tape into the video player. It creaked and groaned in complaint a few times and Quistis' heart was in her mouth as she thought it might not be working after all this, but with a loud click the tape was home, and Izzy pushed up a slider to bring the signal online.
"Good evening, citizens of Kabernia," came Berne's voice over the studio's speakers, and Quistis allowed herself a small smile of victory as the tape began to play. "My name is Berne Witter, but you may know me better as Nash Kabernia, brother to the deceased Sebastian and rightful heir to the city of Kabernia," he continued, as his face faded onto the black screen with still images of the wreckage from Sebastian's helicopter crash behind him. Quistis, her mouth open in shock, looked down to Izzy, who looked similarly taken aback.
"He's.. he's Sebastian's brother?" she managed. "Did you know that?"
"No, no I didn't!" spluttered Izzy. "He never told anyone!"
"Well, he's told plenty of people now," said Katya. "We're live to pretty much the whole city!" Quistis couldn't take her eyes off the screen as Berne continued.
* * *
"First I should apologise to my colleagues, who will only just have found out my true identity," he said. "I'm afraid it's a long story and one that will have to wait for now. I have one simple message to give to you - the governor is lying to you. Governor Duras Deakin has been behind every kind of profiteering racket, criminal activity and illegal genetic experimentation that my fellow rebels have uncovered over these past few months. Deakin is also the man who arranged for my brother's 'accident,' and in so doing took away control of the city from my family so he could turn it into his own little haven." Berne's sombre tones were being accompanied by photographs and videos that catalogued the shady businesses Deakin had a hand in, from protection rackets and gun running, to drug dealers and electronics theft. Quistis and Izzy were staring, mesmerised, at the monitors before them, as Berne poured out a series of revelations that neither of them knew anything about. They were shaken from their vigil as Vaughn stepped into the producer's booth.
"We have a problem," he said.
"It was literally seconds after we got the transmission going," said Rexel as he heaved the desk back in front of the studio doors. He and Graft had got Vaughn to let them back in once they'd seen what was happening outside. "Flashing blue lights, police sirens - I think they've even got a couple of hoverships out there," he said, looking quite alarmed.
"We left the staff outside but they'll probably make a run for it now we're gone," said Graft, the tall man seeming as collected as always. "The lifts are still under our control but the stairs are still open, assuming they can get past the little barricade we set up."
"Barricade?" asked Quistis.
"Well, by 'barricade' he means we wedged the doors shut with a fire axe we found," said Rexel with a grin. Everyone looked up as the sound of a hovership passing overhead filled the studio, the loud roar of its engines finally getting through to the insulated and soundproofed room.
"How the hell did they get here so fast?" said Quistis. Criss shrugged.
"Tip-off. There's no other way they could have. Even if someone had tripped a silent alarm as soon as we got into the building, we should still have a few more minutes based on the police's average response times," he said.
"We'll have to worry about that later," said Izzy, emerging from the producer's booth. "We've got two problems here." Quistis and the others followed her back inside. The video was still playing, Berne's voiceover accompanying the lab reports Quistis and Katya had liberated from the mobile research vehicle. Izzy turned the volume up on the internal radio system, picking up the filtered voices of police officers as they made their way into the building.
"Copy that, targets are on top floor, hostages expected so shoot only when necessary," said a male voice, and Quistis groaned.
"Great, now we've got a siege on our hands. This is exactly what I didn't want to happen!"
"Do we have a plan B? Because, you know, now would be a good time to use it," said Vaughn. Quistis looked around, settling on a small bank of screens that showed internal cameras. Through them she could see teams of armed police officers making their way up the stairs towards them. They were in body armour and carrying automatic rifles, a sign that they were expecting trouble, or at least they were ready to start some.
"They've got bigger guns than last time," said Criss idly.
"You don't sound too worried!" said Katya. Criss shrugged.
"Enough, already!" barked Quistis. "Vaughn, did you find us another exit?"
"I think so, I didn't exactly have long to look," he said as Quistis glared at him, "but I think we can use this service door at the back to loop round to the elevator and get back downstairs."
"Right, let's go," said Quistis, ushering everyone out of the room. "Is the tape set to loop?" she asked. Katya nodded.
"Until they pull the plug, yeah it is."
"Let's move, then!" Quistis followed Vaughn's lead over to the maintenance access door, tucked away in one corner of the studio. He forced the door open, revealing a long, plain corridor that led round the outside of the offices and back to where the service elevator had landed a few minutes earlier.
"Elevator's that way," he said, pointing. Quistis took the lead and led the squad back round to the lift doors.
"Rexel, if you'd be so kind as to call the lift?" she asked, and Rexel plugged in the electronics kit he'd used to take over the elevator down in the parking area. The lift rumbled from the bottom floor as it started to crawl back up to them, the loud ticking of the cables joining the distant sounds of shouting voices from other floors. The office's windows were lit up as the searchlight from one of the hoverships scanned them, it's high powered turbine engines making everything on the floor rattle.
"Come on, come on!" muttered Rexel, as the lift finally arrived with a quiet 'ding.' The doors slid open as Rexel stood before them. "There you go, piece of ca-" he began, but he was silenced as a red-gloved fist zapped out from inside the lift and caught him square in the face, sending him staggering backwards.
"Spread out!" yelled Quistis as three of Deakin's red-suited personal security guards leapt from the elevator, their fists a blur as they launched into a melee attack on Quistis's squad. Tasers were knocked from people's hands as they struggled to fight the men off, three near-identical tall, well-built men in the red jacket and trousers that marked them out as Deakin's super soldiers.
"Take them down!" the lead soldier shouted, as he took on Criss and Cevin at once, his arms zapping from side to side as he blocked the duo's blows and tried to land some of his own.
Katya yelped as a sweeping kick from one soldier brought her crashing to the ground, and Graft and Izzy tried to fend off the attacker and help Katya back to her feet. Quistis and Vaughn found themselves with the third soldier, Quistis grabbing her whip and cracking it free as he circled her, his reflexes sharper than anyone's she'd fought before. Quistis had taken out two of these soldiers before, but she'd had the advantage of a massive adrenaline rush and pure, blind rage on her side back then, this time it was a more even playing field.
Criss landed a good right cross to his foe but was dealt a roundhouse kick back that knocked him off his feet, sending him slamming into the corridor wall and down to the floor. Cevin, a wide grin on his face, hopped from foot to foot, fists up in a fighting stance as he stared down the soldier.
"Let's mix it up, lap dog, come on!" he yelled, the two of them flying into a frenzy of punches and blocks that would have caught the breath of anyone who had chance to watch them.
Quistis, using her whip more like a club, cracked the handle hard against the forearm of her soldier as he jabbed a fist at her, but he seemed unfazed by the injury, slamming his palms into her stomach and sending her stuttering backwards. Vaughn called to her, getting distracted for long enough for the soldier to kick him to the floor.
Rexel tried to pull himself to his feet, but he was still too dazed to join in, as Izzy was knocked out by a vicious punch across her jaw. She hit the ground hard just as Katya leapt to her feet.
"You know, it really isn't nice to hit girls," she said, a mean grin on her face as red flames of energy danced around her, her hair starting to blossom out around her as she drew up a good chunk of essence. The soldier moved to kick her but with a lightning fast flick of her wrist Katya sent a blot of flame his way, hurling the soldier back against the lift doors which buckled under the impact. "We hit back harder," she finished.
"Will - you - just - stay - down!" yelled Quistis, panting with exertion as she tried to land a punch on her soldier. He was pushing her back against the wall, attempting to throttle her with the whip handle as she flashed her legs out, trying to kick him away. It was no good, he was too strong, and as the handle pressed against her throat, she started to see flashes in her vision as the oxygen was squeezed away from her brain. The world started to darken..
Then it all flooded back as the guard fell to his knees, a bloodied but unbowed Vaughn having struck the soldier squarely in the back of his neck. Quistis gasped for breath before slamming her whip against the side of the soldier's head. He fell sideways to the floor, out of the fight. Quistis nodded her thanks to Vaughn.
Cevin wasn't faring well against his opponent, his face already showing signs of having taken more blows than was good for him. He was still wearing his grin, however, his teeth showing through despite the blood running down from his nose.
"That the best you got? Come on! Hit me! Hit me!" he shouted, trading punches with the guard who still looked as fresh as when he'd started. The guard was grabbed from behind by Graft, who got the trooper in an armlock, but before anyone could react the soldier ran up into the air, using Cevin as a springboard, flipping himself over Graft's head and kicking Cevin in the head as he shot into the air. Cevin fell on his ass, dazed, and Graft had no time to move before the guard reversed the armlock and slammed his head into the corridor wall.
The soldier dropped Graft, who slid to the floor, and turned to face the remaining rebels. He wasn't expecting the blast of red energy that Katya sent his way, impacting in the soldier's chest and throwing him back down the service corridor, a confused look on his face. He skidded along the ground before coming to a stop, not looking like he was going to get up again soon.
"Thanks, Kat," said Quistis as she heaved for breath.
"No.. problem.." said Katya, suddenly woozy as the flames of energy died down. She began to faint but Quistis caught her before she dropped.
"Help me with her!" she shouted to Rexel, who helped the groggy cadet to her feet.
"Woo.. heh heh," Katya laughed softly, "think I may have used a teensy bit too much magical mojo just then.."
"Come on, Kat, focus! I need some healing spells on the double or we're not going anywhere," said Quistis, pointing down to the stricken Criss, Cevin, Graft and Izzy. "I know you're worn out but I just need them up long enough to get out of here." Katya's brow furrowed as she tried to draw up some more essence for the spells.
"It's.. gonna be a bit.. tricky," she said, her fists clenched as specks of green light started to gather round her hands. Quistis' head snapped round as she heard loud slamming noises and several shouting voices from the doors to the stairs a few feet to their right.
"That'll be that barricade then," said Rexel, wiping away a drop of blood from his nose. "That won't hold them long."
"Katya, come on!" urged Quistis, and Katya swept her hands over the fallen bodies of the others, dispersing the green light over all of them. Izzy groaned and stirred, followed by Graft and Cevin, the latter two being just stunned and not actually knocked out. The energies vanished as Katya let out another gasp, and this time she was out cold. Criss hadn't come round - the blow he'd taken was too much for Katya's low level spell to revive him. Quistis pushed Katya into Vaughn's arms.
"Vaughn, hang on to her! You guys alright? Can you move?" she asked of the others.
"I know I'm gonna hurt in a few hours, but yeah," said Cevin, rubbing his sore head as he stood up. Graft nodded once as Quistis used her whip to lever the elevator doors open.
"Come on, time to move!" she yelled, piling the rebels into the lift as the horde of police officers finally broke through the barricaded doors, a few just making it to the elevator as the doors closed. Quistis allowed herself a grin at them as they tried to stop the lift from moving, before realising with a shock that she may have been identified, and if she had then her cover working for the governor would be blown.
The elevator seemed to take an eternity to make it down to the car park, but when it did and the doors slid open, Quistis went to step outside before Graft grabbed her and pulled her back inside. She opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but he shushed her with a raised finger and pointed to the several police cars waiting at the entrance to the main access ramp, their lights flashing and bathing the parking bay in reds and blues.
"What now?" she said as she and Vaughn sneaked out of the lift, using parked cars for cover as they surveyed the area. There were about a dozen squad cars parked all around, and the sound of the hovership passing by overhead told them that it was going to be a lot of trouble making that quick exit Quistis had planned.
"We need a diversion," said Vaughn. "I reckon I can get to one of those cars, drive off and try and get them to follow me."
"No way," said Quistis. "I've got two people down already, I can't lose anyone else!"
"I'll go," said Izzy, shuffling up next to them. Quistis threw her a look.
"You're in no state to try and get yourself into a police chase," said Quistis, "you don't know how long that healing spell's going to keep you conscious for."
"I'll be fine," said Izzy, trying not to wince as she shifted her body round to look over towards the cars. "If you can cover me while I get into one, then I can loop round and meet up with you back at the base."
"Izzy.." started Quistis but Izzy held up a hand to stop her.
"Nobody else knows the city as well as I do," she said. "I can lose those cars in no time, give you long enough to get out of here." Izzy looked like she was about ready to pass out, but Quistis knew her well enough to know there was no point arguing with her.
"Alright," she said after a few moments. "But if you get caught, I'm not coming after you!" she grinned.
"Wouldn't want you to," Izzy grinned back, "a girl has to keep her pride, you know!" Quistis scanned the car park. There was a squad car close enough for Izzy to get to if she got a clear run, so all she needed was a diversion..
She jumped as a car opposite started up and started to coast towards the cluster of police cars, prompting shouts from the officers and raised guns. Quistis looked towards the lift to see Katya, her arm out and blue energy dancing round her fingers as she drove the car with magic towards the police. Quistis smiled as Rexel, holding the girl up, shrugged.
"She came round and heard you, I'm not gonna stop her!" The diversion did its trick, diverting the police's attention long enough for Izzy to dash over to the unattended car, start it up after a deft piece of hot-wiring and burn the tyres as she screeched out of the car park, past the police cars and onto the streets. Quistis could see up onto street level and saw the hovership swoop down and track the car, followed by all the cars that were waiting round by them. Once they were all gone, Vaughn smashed open the driver's window of a nearby people carrier and let Rexel start it up as he helped everyone into it. Graft drove, hurtling out of the car park and back towards the rebel base at full speed. Quistis threw a look out towards the distant searchlight of the hovership, hoping that Izzy would be able to catch up to them.
"It's up to her now," said Rexel, following Quistis' gaze, "but she'd made of tough stuff, that kid, I'm sure she'll be fine."
I hope so, thought Quistis, because I'm damned if I'm losing another friend to this city.
* * *
Izzy swerved again, car horns blaring at her as she zig-zagged between the rows of almost stationary cars crawling through the early evening traffic. Her vision was blurring and her hair was stuck to her skin with the amount she was sweating, but she kept her right foot firmly down on the accelerator of the stolen police car she was driving.
A quick glance in the rear-view mirror confirmed that the police waiting for the rest of her squad at the TV studio had taken the bait and followed her, but the dazzlingly bright light of the searchlight that the pursuing hovership was beaming down on her was making it increasingly harder to see where she was going. Izzy had started out with the brave plan of losing the pursuit, ditching the car and heading back to base on foot, but at the moment she'd been unable to shake the police so she may have to settle with just driving for as long as she could.
She wondered idly if her friend Serena had suffered the same fate when she'd gone missing a few months ago, chased down by a pack of Deakin's watchdogs as she tried to make a break for freedom. Wiping her brow and squinting through the glares of the assorted streetlights and car headlights around her, Izzy drove on.
"Where is she? Is she back yet?" blurted out a breathless Quistis as she burst into the rebel hideout's operations room, followed by Vaughn, still carrying the unconscious Katya, and Cevin, dragging the still knocked out Criss alongside him.
"What the hell happened out there?" said Berne. "We were told to switch the news on by one of our contacts, and we found ourselves watching live footage of a police raid on a 'notorious terrorist cell that have tried to hijack a local TV station!' " He quoted from the news report, which was still running on every monitor on the wall of TVs above the computer terminals against the right-hand wall.
"They were waiting for us," said Vaughn. "They arrived too fast, they knew we were coming."
"Yeah, we'd barely had time to put our make up on when they started kicking the doors down and gunning for us!" said Cevin, helping Criss down into one of the chairs, where he slumped over, his long frame propping him upright against the floor.
"Looks like you hit some trouble, then," said Berne, kneeling down next to Criss and opening his eyelids to peer into his blank eyes. "What hit you?"
"Three of those super soldiers we know so much about," said Quistis, throwing her whip down on the round table in the centre of the room and wiping the sweat from her brow. "They jumped us as we went to head downstairs, and Katya ran out of power as she was trying to heal everyone."
"Well, at least you're all back, and.." Berne paused as he did a quick headcount. "Where's Izzy?"
"Sir?" piped up Jabotsky from her position in front of the monitors. "Ah, you'd better come take a look at this.." Quistis, Vaughn and Berne walked over, staring in growing horror at the scene unfolding on the TV screens.
"And we're now live on the scene of this frantic police chase through the crowded downtown streets," said the announcer's voice, clearly revelling in the chance to narrate on some highly dramatic footage, courtesy of the news hovership that had joined in the chase of Izzy.
"Don't tell me.." said Berne as he realised what he was seeing. The news station was showing an overhead chase shot of a police car, speeding through the inner city traffic, pursued by almost a dozen more cars and a large, jet black police hover cruiser, their lights picking the car out as it tried to get away.
"So to recap the situation, after foiling an attempted hijacking at one of our TV studios, the police are now in pursuit of a suspect fleeing the scene in a stolen police vehicle, and we're reporting live from the chase itself to keep you monitored on it," said the news anchorman.
"Go, Izzy, go," muttered Quistis, her eyes frozen on the screens. "Isn't there anything we can do?" she asked of Berne. He shook his head.
"Not without risking the rest of us. She wouldn't want us to endanger ourselves."
"And what the hell makes you so qualified to know what she'd want? You've been lying to us all along!" yelled Quistis, shaking with anger and not caring who took the brunt of it.
"Quistis, I'm sorry, but I needed you to trust me and if I'd have told you who I was, you would have been less likely to go along with all of this," said Berne calmly. Quistis stepped right up to him, her hands balled into fists and her eyes narrowed as she stared him down.
"I do not have much patience with people who lie to me," she hissed, "and if anything happens to Izzy I will hold you personally responsible."
"Quistis, listen to me! I've kept my identity a secret all this time because I didn't think anyone would believe me if I told them. I knew I couldn't get this movement started by myself, so I hid my real name away to make sure I could recruit people free of any bias." Quistis stayed locked in front of him for a second, then with a sigh stepped back. Berne's explanation made a lot of sense - few people knew that Sebastian Kabernia even had a brother, much less that he was the rightful person to inherit the estate of Kabernia over the governor.
"I'm going back out there," said Quistis after a moment's pause to gather her thoughts.
"No, you're not, the police are all over this place looking for us!" said Vaughn, stepping in front of her as she made her way over to the door.
"Vaughn, step aside," said Quistis, locking her eyes on him and trying to show him that she meant it. Vaughn didn't budge.
"Sorry, kid, but I'm not letting you go out there and get killed. Izzy knows what she's doing." Quistis turned back to look at the monitors, but wasn't prepared for what she saw.
"And so, as the police close in we - oh my god! They've crashed! The suspect has crashed!" It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Izzy's car jinked to the left to avoid a civilian vehicle that braked sharply in front of it, but she was too close and clipped the rear of it, bouncing the car up onto two wheels. It arced onto its side, out of control, and ploughed straight into the back of another car close by, windows shattering into thousands of fragments as the stricken police car flipped onto its roof, and the hit civilian car veered sideways into the flow of traffic, collecting two more vehicles before the mess came to a stop. Izzy's car skidded along on its roof for at least twenty feet, sparks flying, before coming to a stop, its wheels spinning as though it was some kind of insect, frantically trying to right itself and get away.
The squad cars in pursuit pulled up and surrounded the vehicle, the whole scene lit up by the powerful searchlight of the police hover cruiser overhead.
"No!!" shouted Quistis as she leapt forward, as though she could reach into the screens and pluck her friend from the wreck in front of her.
"Well, that looked like a pretty serious smash there," continued the anchorman, his voiceover passing judgement on Izzy as armed police moved up to the car. "Let's hope none of those citizens hit were hurt too badly. The officers are moving in now, but I doubt they'll have much of a fight from the suspect there." Everyone in the operations room was crowded round the monitors as they watched the police break open the driver's side door of the flipped police cruiser and wrench Izzy free. Quistis couldn't tell if she was alive or dead, but Izzy looked in a bad way whatever had happened. The news camera was closing up on the scene as much as it could, but it was still impossible to tell how Izzy was. An ambulance screeched to a halt on the scene, and the officers carried the unmoving form of Izzy into the back of it as two paramedics ran over to help move her.
"Oh no.." said Quistis quietly, her hands over her mouth in shock. Berne couldn't look at the screen - he was already throwing orders out to his troops.
"Alright, prepare for an extraction. Trini, follow the ambulance using the camera network, find out where she's going. Sirjan, get the rest of Quistis' squad into the infirmary, they need some attention. Brindle, Tilson, get a team together, we've got to get Izzy out of wherever they take her before Deakin's men get to her. Move it!" Rebels darted off in every direction as the room emptied in moments. Quistis was still watching the monitors, which were now showing grim slow-motion replays of the moment Izzy's car crashed and overturned. Vaughn placed an arm round her shoulder.
"Come on, let's go. We need to get ourselves patched up."
"No! I'm going back out for her!" snapped Quistis like a petulant child being told to go to bed before she was ready. She shrugged off his hand, but Vaughn replaced it more firmly.
"Quistis, we can't help for now. Let the others do their job. We'll get her back."
"He's right, I'll lead the rescue team myself," said Berne. "I owe it to her, and to you."
"You'd better," said Quistis, her voice full of tears. "Because if you let them take her away, you'll be next, Berne. You'll be next." Berne kept eye contact but didn't answer as Vaughn led Quistis out of the room. He knew what needed to be done now.
Out in the corridor, Quistis waved an arm to shrug off Vaughn's hand again as she started to walk quickly towards the infirmary.
"Look-" he started, but she cut him off.
"I'm making sure Kat and Criss are okay and then I'm gone," she said firmly. "I don't leave my friends behind."
"What are you going to do, exactly?" said Vaughn. "I don't know about you, but I could do with lying down somewhere for a few hours and trying not to notice how many parts of me are bruised."
"I'm fine," she snapped back, realising as she said it that she actually did feel fine. She'd taken a few heavy blows from her scrap with the red-suited soldier, but she didn't seem to be feeling any pain from them, even with all the adrenaline still pumping round her system.
"What if you go out and get captured too?" said Vaughn to her as she left him behind. "Then who's going to get anything done round here? Me? The cadets?" Quistis stopped, and turned slowly round to look back at him. He'd stopped walking and was about ten feet behind her, looking expectantly back at her.
"I can't do nothing," she said. "I've lost two of my best friends to this place already, Vaughn."
"I know. And that's why we'll help get her back if we can. But you have to rest first or you're no good to anybody." Quistis laughed at the irony of it.
"I don't need to rest," she said. "I feel fine. I always feel fine. Guess I'm a fast healer."
"Either that, or you're just not noticing it, and one day your body's going to just seize up and expire on you," he answered. She threw him a look to tell him not to be so stupid, but he just stared stubbornly back at her.
"Fine," she said, admitting defeat. "I'll let the nurses give me a look over, but as soon as they say I can go, I'm back out there."
"Good," said Vaughn, smiling at last as Quistis walked back over to him. He held open the door that led through to the infirmary ward for her. They walked down towards the ward in silence, but Quistis felt a little better having him around. Maybe he had his uses after all.
"Goodness, you do keep showing up here in a state, Miss Trepe!" fussed Belina, the head nurse at the medical centre in the rebel base as she shone a pocket light in Quistis' eyes to check they were okay. Quistis looked round when she was done and took in Criss, Cevin and Katya all in their beds, and a pang of guilt hit her. They were her responsibility, her students who she was supposed to lead by example, and now here she was on her feet while those three were laid up in bed. Criss had come round at last but was still quite concussed, but Cevin was sleeping off his bruises. Katya was also still out cold, but her breathing and heartbeat were regular so she was just sleeping for now.
"Let me check that arm of yours then," said Belina, pulling Quistis out of her thoughts. Quistis held up her arm, her black outfit's sleeve rolled back to show an ugly purple bruise on her forearm from where she'd been blocking the super soldier's punches. Belina tutted as she pressed on the tender parts of the arm. "What have you been doing, hitting slabs of concrete?" Quistis winced - that was exactly what hitting the soldier had felt like. She didn't know what Deakin was feeding them but it was certainly making them tougher.
"Mark it down as 'in the line of duty," said Quistis with a grin, but the humour was lost on the serious nurse. Belina was middle aged, with her grey hair neatly tied in a bun behind her head, and faint liver spots on the backs of her hands as Quistis watched them check her for other injuries. Belina kept frowning as she examined her, listening at her chest with a stethoscope and scribbling some notes down on a clipboard.
"Well, you certainly seem to have come out of all this much better than the rest of your team," said Belina with a raised eyebrow. "No internal injuries, no fractured or broken bones and only minor cuts and bruises. You must be tougher than you look."
"Guess so," said Quistis absently as Belina moved away and headed for Criss' bed to check up on him. Vaughn hobbled over to her, Quistis noticing that he was limping for the first time.
"Damage report?" he asked.
"Minor injuries only," said Quistis distractedly. Vaughn looked surprised.
"Not bad, remind me never to get into a fight with you!"
"Yeah, whatever you say.." said Quistis, getting up suddenly and walking away as something had caught her eye on the other side of the ward. Vaughn watched her go, his mouth half open as he was about to speak again.
Quistis crossed the ward and stood at the foot of a bed in the opposite corner to where she'' been sitting. She recognised the battered body lying in front of her, hooked up to breathing apparatus and heart monitors and clearly in a bad way. And as she recognised it, a cold chill ran up her spine.
It was her friend Dexter.
* * *
"We found him a day or so ago," said Berne, suiting up and checking his rifle was loaded as Quistis interrogated him. Berne had a team of six men and women ready to move out and rescue Izzy from Stanford Hospital, which Trini had managed to track her to by following her ambulance through her hacked feed of the city's security camera network. The squad was ready to go, waiting by a black people carrier whose engine was running. ready to leave the small car park the rebels had leading from their underground network up onto the street. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, but things have been pretty busy round here, and besides, I didn't want you any more distracted before the TV station mission."
"You're not doing very well on this whole 'trust' thing with me, are you Berne?" said Quistis, hands on hips defiantly. Berne sighed.
"I'm sorry. Trini will be able to tell you more, I've got to go. That is, unless you want me to leave Izzy in that hospital while we stand here and argue about things." Quistis pursed her lips but looked down at the floor, knowing that Berne was making a lot of sense.
"Go. And don't come back without her," she said, and with a nod Berne hopped into the carrier, sliding the door shut. The vehicle revved its engine and shot up the exit ramp that led to the outside, which came up into an abandoned car park. She watched it disappear from view then turned and walked away, opening the hidden access door that led down into the tunnels.
"Yeah, we brought him in after we'd received a coded S.O.S. transmission a few days ago," said Trini after Quistis had caught up with her, following the young tech specialist around the base as she delivered reports and printouts to various sections of the base.
"What happened to him? I thought Deakin had gotten some kind of block put on his memory?"
"It appears to have faded away," said Trini. "and once he started remembering things he made contact with us again. That's when Deakin's men got to him. When we arrived he'd been beaten up pretty bad, but he hadn't given up our location." Quistis thought back to how loyal Dex had always been back in the old days, and allowed herself a small grin at his undying character trait.
"So how is he now?"
"I'm afraid he's in bad shape, but we've got him under observation and he should come round sometime soon. If we can get Katya onto him then we may be able to speed up his recovery a lot quicker."
"Once Katya wakes up, that is," said Quistis. Trini nodded, pushing her glasses back up her nose.
"Ah, Quistis, I wonder if, ah, there was something I could ask you," said Trini, suddenly seeming very nervous.
"Could you, ah, I mean could you just let me know, uh, when Cevin's ready to have proper visitors again, please?" Quistis grinned and Trini blushed a deep shade of crimson.
"So Cevin's got himself an admirer, has he?"
"Oh no, no, nothing like that," said Trini quickly, and Quistis surpressed the urge to chuckle at her. "I just, you know, wanted to make sure he was, ah, okay. You know."
"I know. You'll be the first to know, Trini," said Quistis, smiling and walking away. Quistis' thoughts overtook her as she strolled through the base, not really noticing people walking past her as the rebels maintained their activity. It seemed that the video had only been on air for ten minutes before the transmission had been cut, but at least that was something. Quistis doubted it was worth Izzy's life, though, hoping that Berne would be back soon with her in tow.
She hated waiting. One thing that was sure to get Quistis in a state quicker than anything was being left to wait for something to happen, or for someone to get back, because as a woman of action she always preferred to be out there doing rather than away from things and waiting around. There was also the worry that her cover had been blown with Deakin. It would be hard to stroll nonchalantly back into the barracks with her three cadets looking like they'd just lost a fight, especially so soon after her notable absence for the hijack attempt on the TV station. She also couldn't be sure that she hadn't been identified by the police officers who'd seen her as her squad had used the lift to get away, and if she had then her presence here was definitely compromised. She decided to call Cid and see if she could find out a little more about his part in all this.
"Balamb Garden, Headmaster Cid's office."
"Hello, Rianna, it's Quistis. Is Cid home?"
"Oh yes, I'll just put you through." Quistis waited patiently as the vid screen in front of her flashed up the 'Connecting, Please Wait..' message while Rianna patched her through to the videophone in Cid's office. After a moment, Cid appeared, seated at his desk with a sombre look on his face.
"Hello, Quistis," he said, and straight away Quistis could tell something was up. She tried not to notice and carried on.
"Headmaster. How are things at the Garden?"
"Quistis, we need to talk about your mission," said Cid, all business and that got Quistis' suspicions up straight away. Cid was never all business.
"Alright then, what's up?" Cid sighed, his fingers intertwined as he held his hands before him.
"I'm aborting the mission out there. Political issues are starting to raise their head, and it's not appropriate for a SeeD presence to be in Kabernia any longer."
"What kind of 'political issues' exactly?"
"The governor has been on the phone to me all morning so far," said Cid, not making eye contact, "because he believes you've sided with the rebels and are working against him."
"Well, he'd be right," said Quistis bluntly.
"Quistis!" hissed Cid suddenly. He grabbed a pen and paper and started to scribble something as he carried on talking. "I think I'm going to pull you and your team out of the area. Report back to me in one hour so we can make arrangements to get you picked up." Cid held up the paper as he spoke, and Quistis' eyes widened as she read it. 'My line's being monitored,' it read, 'someone's listening in. Stay where you are, I'll contact you soon.'
"I.. I understand, sir," said Quistis, nodding to show she'd read the message, even if she was a little bewildered as to what was actually going on. Cid nodded back and put the paper down.
"Balamb Garden out," he said, clicking off the video link. Well, I've been made, thought Quistis as she sat in front of the blank screen. Deakin's on to me and Cid must be under a lot of pressure to either turn me over to him or get me out of here. She stood and made her way back towards the infirmary to check on her students.
"Mornin' chief," said Cevin chirpily as Quistis entered the ward. He was sat up in his bed and looking much better, as was Criss. Katya was out and about already, sitting at the foot of Criss' bed.
"Morning, cadets," said Quistis with a relieved smile. "You had me a bit worried for a while back there, I thought you'd had the fight well and truly knocked out of you."
"Naah, takes more than a couple of bricks in red suits to keep us down! Especially with old 'Healing Hands' Redman here on the case," said Cevin, nodding towards Katya who smiled brightly.
"Been keeping the troops in one piece have we, Kat?" asked Quistis. Katya nodded, her gleaming smile firmly back in place again.
"Once I'd had a bit of a sleep I was fine," she said. "I woke up a few hours ago and zapped myself better again. This place is full of healing energies, it's obvious why they chose it for the hospital ward."
"Good to hear. Well, I've got good news and bad news, troops. Izzy's been caught but Berne's on his way to rescue her, and while all that's been happening my friend Dexter's shown up again, once he comes round he's bound to be a big help to us. I spoke to Cid who told me that the governor is on to us working with the rebels, but he also told me that his line is being bugged and he's going to contact me another way in a while."
"Wow, I must've slept longer than I thought," said Katya.
"Everything under control then?" said Criss. Quistis nodded.
"Well, apart from the fact that we appear to be getting increasingly involved in a situation we have no way of beating, our own headmaster can't tell us what the real situation is, you three are still in hospital and one of my best friends has been captured by the enemy," she conceded.
"Well, there is that," said Katya.
Quistis lay on the bed she'd been given in the temporary quarters she and her cadets had been given while she worked out what to do about their cover using Deakin's barracks. She was deep in thought, pondering on the many possible plans of action and potential outcomes of the next few days when she felt a prickling sensation at the back of her skull. She'd felt this once before, and this time she was ready for it.
She sat up and found herself in Headmaster Cid's office - or at least, a psychic projection of it courtesy of Edea. The walls were rippling slightly as though she was underwater, which made Quistis a little queasy so she tried not to look at them. Apart from that, everything else was perfect, even down to the fact that Cid was still wearing the same heavy hearted expression as when Quistis had spoken to him an hour earlier.
"Hello, Quistis," he said, with more warmth in his voice than before, which put Quistis a little more at ease straight away. "I think I have a lot of explaining to do," he said, with a glance over his shoulder towards Edea, standing behind him with a cross look on her face as though the two of them had been having a heated discussion all day. And one that Cid had lost.
"Well, that can wait, sir. First of all you'd better just let me know what's going on! What's all this about your lines being bugged?" Cid sighed and started to clean his glasses, the sign that this would be a long story.
"I've suspected for a while that there are certain individuals who make it their business to know what the SeeDs are doing," he said. "You know, to keep an eye on the political environments of other parts of the world, protect their investments, or just know where to sell arms and aid to in order to make a quick and easy profit. Not just Balamb Garden, either, I'm almost certain that Galbadia and Trabia are monitored as well."
"So what does all this mean?"
"Well, when I picked up a signal transmitting from my office back to Kabernia a few days ago, I sent someone out to track it, and their report told me that it was indeed linked to the governor's offices, so that led to only one logical conclusion." Quistis nodded.
"Makes sense," she said. "Who was the SeeD you sent to track it? Anyone I know?"
"Oh yes, you may have met him, nice chap. Not really a SeeD as such but I'm good friends with his father so he helps me out from time to time. Works over in the forest as a ranger, I believe," Cid continued, and Quistis did a visual double take as she realised who Cid was talking about.
"Don't tell me," she said, "his name's not Trevelyan, is it?" Cid brightened up.
"Oh, you know him? Jolly good." Quistis scowled. A few days holiday? Yeah, right, she thought, recalling the reason he'd given her for coming out to see her a few days ago.
"How long has he worked for Garden then?" asked Quistis, trying not to give away how well she knew Vaughn, and trying not to listen to the ugly voices shouting inside her mind, telling her that he was a filthy liar who deserved a good beating next time she saw him.
"On and off for six or seven years now, mostly recon work. Not much actual combat - he's got his skills but he's not a trained SeeD so I never risk him in out and out danger situations. Anyway, he's traced the bug for me and confirmed what I already suspected, that Governor Deakin is on to your work with the rebels there in Kabernia. Your mission's been severely compromised, Quistis, and I think we should carry on and pull the team out before this sparks off a national incident."
"Unless.." said Edea from behind him, as if prompting Cid to say something they'd been discussing earlier.
"Yes, dear," said Cid, nodding towards his wife. "Unless, of course, you feel you have a good chance of exposing what the governor's been up to since the alleged assassination of Sebastian Kabernia, and helping the rebels to restore Nash to his rightful position as head of the city. I know that's quite a tall order," he said, allowing a grin to creep across his face, "but if anyone could do it, then my money would be on you."
"Thanks for the support, sir," said Quistis, returning the smile. "I'll have to see what I can do about helping the rebels out, we managed to get a pirated video broadcast out last night that may have alerted some people to the truth behind what Deakin is up to, but I can't shake the feeling that we're running out of time here. A few of the rebels have been injured or captured already, and I don't think this base will stay secure for long."
"Sounds like you could use some help down there," said Edea, nudging Cid as if to remind him of something else he was meant to say.
"Oh yes," he said, trying not to show that he'd forgotten. "I've taken the liberty of sending you the locations and contact details of your old team, so I think a trip out to see them might be enough to persuade them to come over and lend a hand."
"You mean, Squall, Zell and the others?" said Quistis. She hadn't thought about them much since the situation in Kabernia had gotten more serious, but having them on her side would tip the odds in her favour pretty well.
"The very same. Well, we'd best be going, we have a presentation or two to attend this evening," said Cid, "but any time you want to speak with me, just close your eyes and concentrate. Edea's very good at picking up on things like that, and if she hears you calling we'll get a call like this set up in no time."
"Er, excuse me, Cid," said Quistis as Cid got up to leave the room. "What about this explaining you were going to do?" Cid sagged a little and sat back down.
"Blast. Oh well, no getting away from it any longer, I suppose. Settle down, Quistis, this may take a while," he said.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Quistis lifted her sunglasses up and looked out over the racing arena in front of her - she'd been driving along the scorched dirt road stretching out into the Galbadian desert for almost two hours before the road had dipped into a huge natural valley, exposing the circuit at last. She was following the first of the contacts that Cid had given her, tracking down Zell to the city of Talerin, a place which boasted one of the world's most famous racing tracks. There were several international racing championships that visited the various racecourses dotted all over during each year, and the Talerin Arena was one of the calendar's highlights.
Quistis stepped out of her jeep, dislodging lots of the dust that had gathered on it from her trip as she slammed the door shut. Taking a few steps forward, she surveyed the city before her. Like Dreason, it was a city built into a huge valley, but unlike the greenery of her old hometown, this place had been constructed onto the harsh yellow rock of the Galbadian desert, much like the Kabernia she'd had to temporarily leave behind.
Roads ran from the lip of the valley down to the city, which was the usual cluster of skyscraping tower blocks and smaller, residential sectors, although the houses stretched out and dotted themselves up the valley walls, defiantly clinging to the rock face like barnacles to the hull of a ship. She could hear the distant cheering of the crowd at the arena, built round the back of the city, from her position just outside the city limits, and as she looked out she made out the raised walls of the circular track, complete with a multitude of flags flittering in the mid-morning breeze. Stepping back into the jeep, she gunned the engine and headed down into the valley.
The streets themselves seemed like a pretty decent place - the city seemed to have a lot of money to go around, most likely courtesy of the strong tourist trade that the racecourse attracted, if the wealthy looking shopfronts were anything to go by. She passed a motorbike shop with a mouth-wateringly expensive selection of bikes on display, and a small business district with gleaming towers, giving off the glow that only a city that can afford to keep itself spotlessly clean can manage.
The road up to the circuit led through the city centre and out for about a mile before she reached the car parks, huge flat grey slabs of concrete with fencing and security patrols sitting outside the main circuit entrance, which was a huge archway in the style of a driver's steering wheel. Quistis pulled up to one of the pay stations, pushing her glasses down her nose so she could look up at the teenager on duty, his official course jacket open to try and shake off some of the heat that filled the air.
"Morning, madam, welcome to Talerin Arena. How may I help you?"
"I'm looking for Zell Dincht," said Quistis, holding up her Balamb Garden ID badge in the hope it would add a little authority to her request. "I understand he's part of the Garton team's personnel?"
"Uh, just a minute," said the clerk, dialling a number into a phone inside his booth. After a brief conversation with someone, he poked his head back out of the booth. "Can I ask who's looking for him?"
"Quistis Trepe, I'm an old associate of his from Balamb Garden," she said.
"Right, yes. He told us to always check before letting anyone in to see him, you see," said the youth. Quistis smiled - Zell had been paying attention in his classes after all, to be observing a basic security principle like that. After some more conversation, the guard waved Quistis on.
"Where am I headed?" she asked.
"Uh, follow the green arrows, down towards the team paddocks," said the clerk. "Just tell the guys down there who you are, they'll be expecting you."
"Thanks," she said, flashing him a smile as she drove away. Winding through the neatly parked rows of cars, she came to the barbed-wire fenced entrance gates to the team sections, where another wave of her ID got her through. Parking her car, she headed into the paddock after picking up a visitor's pass from the security personnel.
The paddock was filled with huge transporter trucks, home to the touring championship team's cars and staff, and various uniformed personnel in the respective colours of their team milled all round her - mechanics, press officers and the occasional driver, their jumpsuits plastered with sponsor's logos. She eventually found herself next to the large red trucks of the Garton team, and she made her way round them to see if she could see Zell in amongst the crowds of people working between the trucks and the pits.
It didn't take her long to spot the spiky blonde-haired SeeD, standing next to a handsome-looking driver who was grinning for the cameras of the assorted photographers clamouring around him. Zell was wearing shades too, along with a shirt and shorts in the team colours of red and black as he scanned the pits for any signs of trouble. When the photographers were done, Zell escorted his driver back into the team's motorhome, letting the driver climb the steps and out of sight inside the massive mobile office suite. Quistis cleared her throat to get his attention.
"Woo-hoo!" he yelled, leaping over and grabbing her in a bearhug, lifting her off her feet. "You made it! How the hell are you, Quisty?"
"Can't.. breathe.." she gasped, and Zell put her down. Still beaming from ear to ear, he looked her up and down.
"Damn, you're looking good. Life outside the Garden treating you alright then, huh?" Quistis smiled, leaving the story of her exploits these past few months till later.
"I stay in shape. I'm actually back at the Garden, Cid's hired me back as a part-time instructor."
"Really? Sweet! Hey, look, I've got some time to kill before I need to escort Rankin out to the pre-race press conference, let's go grab some food," said Zell, as bouncy and enthusiastic as always. Quistis followed him into one of the many colourful tents that were spaced out around the paddock area, each one belonging to one of the many teams down at the circuit for tomorrow's race. Team staff fed themselves from the buffets, the food quality seeming in direct relation to how successful the team was, which seemed to indicate that Zell's team was doing pretty well at the moment. Zell was busy piling on about three meals' worth of food on to his plate, when he stopped and looked at Quistis, who was watching him with a big smirk on her face.
"Heh, gives you a big appetite, this bodyguarding stuff," he said, grabbing a last few items, "but at least they always have hot dogs here!" He started to eat one of the snacks as Quistis grabbed a few things and joined him at a table. The sun shone in through the bunched up entrance to the tent, and a cooling breeze flowed through as she started the catch up talk with all that he'd missed.
Zell had finished everything on his plate by the time she'd gotten to the end of it all.
"So," he said through his last mouthful of food, "things have gone a bit full on for ya, huh?"
"Yes, I suppose you could say that," she said with a sigh.
"Well, what next? I mean, you've come all the way out here to catch up with me and left those three cadets back at the city, right?"
"That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, Zell. I know I've been a bit hopeless at keeping in touch with everyone since we all got reassigned.."
"Yeah, don't sweat it," grinned Zell. "I mean, it's easy to get wrapped up in what's around you, isn't it? For a long time we only had each other for company, I think we're all taking the opportunity to stretch our legs a bit, meet some new people."
"I'm certainly doing alright with all that," said Quistis, trying to keep track of all the new people she'' met over the past few months.
"You heard off Irvine, though, right? He calls everyone."
Yeah, we spoke a while back. I've been kind of unreachable for a while now though, so I've probably missed him a few times. What about Squall and Rinoa?"
"Heh, the lovebirds?" Zell chuckled and Quistis fought to suppress a sudden pang of jealousy. "They're still keeping the Timber forest safe from any and all monster activity. Squall's a regular hero out there, some kind of folk legend depending on who you talk to. He lives out in this remote little hut in the middle of the forest, doesn't come out much except to work. Rinoa's zipping off in a million places at once like usual, though. I think she helps him keep one foot in the real world, otherwise he'd probably end up one of those reclusive meditative types or something. You know how he is!"
"Yes, I do," said Quistis, and the two shared a smile about their softly-spoken team-mate. "Zell, I'm going to ask you something, and I want you to be as honest with me as you can."
"Righto," he replied.
"I'd like you to come out to Kabernia with me and help me bring down the governor." Zell was silent for a few moments as he turned this over in his mind. "I know that's a lot to ask, and if you can't make it then I understand, but you and the others are the only people I want to trust with this. I want you on my team, Zell," she said, hoping that would help.
"The thing is, Q," said Zell, and Quistis felt a swell of disappointment looming, "it's not that simple for me. I'm still on my assignment here for a while yet, I can't just walk out on Parker halfway through the season. This racing business has a lot more going on behind the scenes than you'd think, it's not unheard of for rival teams to arrange 'accidents' for opposing drivers to take them out of the title hunt."
"I had no idea," said Quistis, trying not to show how let down she was. "I'm sorry, Zell, I know it's out of the blue so I shouldn't be surprised." Zell nodded.
"If there's any way I can get someone to cover for me," he said, rubbing his spiky hair through with one hand, "then I'm out there like a shot to lend a hand or two, but at the moment I'm stuck here. Not that it's bad here - it's a good job and I'm hanging around with lots of cool people, sportsmen and women I've followed for years - it's just that I can't turn my back on my responsibilities, you know?"
"I know. It's okay, Zell," Quistis replied, smiling and patting his hand. "I know you'd help if you could. It was a long shot but I had to try at least."
"Yeah, that's you down to a 't' alright," Zell grinned. "You know the pit crews here have their own little league?" Quistis shook her head. "They hire out little go-kart tracks and have races, and there's even a hoverboard championship going. Which, of course, I am currently leading." Quistis chuckled and leaned back in her chair, her mind already starting to plan her next visit.
"At least I know I don't have to worry about you anymore," she said at last.
"Heck, you never have to worry about me, girl, I'm invincible!" said Zell, fists in the air defiantly. "Well, as long as they keep paying me to be, anyway," he said with a wink. "You gonna stick around for a bit? We've got qualifying in a few hours, you should at least stay for that before you head out. I'm guessing Irvine and Selphie are next on the list?"
"Yes they- hey, how did you know? I mean, Timber's closer but I was going to leave Squall till last.."
"Quisty, anybody with eyes could see that you and Squall had a 'thing' going on," said Zell, using his fingers to mime quotation marks as he said 'thing.' "I know nothing ever happened because of Rinoa coming along, and you making sure it didn't get in the way of the mission, but I could see the way you used to look at him. So it figures that it'd be hard for you to see him again with Rinoa there."
"I - well - how long have you known?" Quistis spluttered. This was turning out to be quite a day. Zell shrugged.
"A while. Like I said, was kind of obvious when you knew what to look for."
"Do the others know?" she said. She'd told Squall about her feelings that night back at the Garden before the team set out on their mission to Timber, where Rinoa had arrived on the scene and changed all their lives, so he knew. And now, it seemed, so did Zell.
"Yeah. Not sure about Rinoa, but Irvine and Selphie got it as well. Selphie always felt really bad about it, seeing you lock it all up here," he said, tapping the side of his head, "and carrying on as best you could. I think Rinoa kind of knew, but she knew you would never do anything to make things difficult between the two of them. I think that's why she likes you so much."
"Aw, come on, Q! Rinoa thinks you're the best thing on two legs! You can't have not noticed that!" Quistis shook her head. Rinoa had always been a little edgy around her, and Quistis had always put that down to the unspoken knowledge between the two that Rinoa had won Squall away from her.
"Really?" said Quistis, still not sure what to make of this news. Zell sighed and shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly.
"Yes, really," he said. "She couldn't stop talking about you when you weren't there. Every day, it'd be 'Did you see Quistis do this,' or 'How about when Quistis did that,' and so on and so on." Zell laughed. "She's like your number one fan!" Quistis sat quietly for a few moments as she took that all in.
"She did?" Zell burst out laughing and extended a hand to Quistis to help her up, jerking a thumb in the direction of the pits for her to follow him.
"C'mon, kiddo, we can go take up seats in the team's pits to watch the qualifying while you think about all this." Quistis followed Zell out of the hospitality tent and into the paddock area, smiling to herself as he exchanged nods, hellos and high fives with various team personnel as they passed.
She spent the qualifying session for the race in the back of the team's garage, headphones on as the team mechanics swarmed around her, making her feel like she was peeking into an ant hive. Some were hunched over computer screens, studying the car as it lapped the circuit to roars of approval from the crowds outside in the sun, some were assembling parts to change when the car next swung into the pits, its engine roar still devastatingly loud even with the headphones on. Her eyes watched what was going on but her mind was somewhere else entirely.
Rinoa really thought that much of her? She'd never even considered that before now, but apparently it was as common knowledge as her feelings for Squall. But what were those feelings now? So much had changed since she'd left - she was starting to like Justin before he put himself in harm's way one time too many, and now she thought she could feel the same about Vaughn, once she'd gotten over the fact that he'd been keeping so many secrets from her.
I guess I'll just have to wait till I see him again, she thought as Zell's team's car screamed into the pits again, the mechanics descending on it like angry hornets, power tools clanking and hissing as they changed fuel and tyres in a matter of seconds. The car powered away again, and Quistis turned her thoughts towards phase two - the trek out to Fisherman's Horizon to see Irvine and Selphie.
She tried to push these thoughts out of her mind as she rolled into the ferry port at Borough Harbour, the light fading from the day as the sun wandered over the horizon and left duck behind to cloak everything in a thin, dark mist. The lights of the harbour and the ships anchored there were like comforting nightlights, reds and blues bobbing gently up and down with the motions of the waves. Seagulls arced overhead, waiting for the last fishing boats to make their way home in the hope of catching an easy meal. Distant foghorns hooted like forest birds as Quistis rolled her car into the late ferry’s car parking area. It hadn’t been that long since she’d arrived here, fresh from her escape from Garden and ready to find her new calling in the world. She tried not to dwell on the irony of it all.
"Evening, miss, here for the last ferry out to Fisherman’s Horizon?" asked the harbourmaster, making his rounds of the clutch of waiting cars and taking the small charge each had to pay for passage on the ferry.
"Yes, I’m not too late, am I?"
"No, we’ll be heading out in about ten minutes, should be in the Horizon’s dock by about nine this evening."
"That’s great, thanks," smiled Quistis, paying the man and stepping back into her car. She wound the window down and let the fresh sea-tinted breeze of the harbour flow through her car, breathing in the slight taste of saltwater in the air. She closed her eyes for a moment to relax, but realised something was missing. As the streetlights round the harbour flickered into life, to hold off the rapidly falling night, she found what she was looking for - the tape of Cobalt Blue, a Trabian band who specialised in long, slow tempo songs with plenty of widdly instrumental breaks. And, as such, they were ideal road music and even better for moments of sitting somewhere peaceful for a few moments. The sounds of people moving around and chatting down in the harbour drifted over to her - she could make out the rows of lights from all the restaurants, cafés and bars on the opposite side of the bay, and she was suddenly reminded that she was damned hungry, having skipped stopping for lunch to make it into Borough before nightfall.
The lights of the ferry parked at the end of the car park flickered to life, and as its turbine engines fired up with a deep rumble, the loading ramp slowly descended and the attendants walked down to unhook the barrier and start waving the cars and lorries onto the ferry.
A few minutes later, Quistis was sat in the little restaurant on board the ferry, busily devouring a triple-decker hot meat sandwich with occasional breaks to stuff handfuls of potato chips into her mouth. Dining manners and etiquette were not something you followed when you were this hungry.
When the ferry touched down in the dock of Fisherman’s Horizon at a few minutes past nine o’clock, Quistis was first in the queue of cars waiting to get off. Driving down the loading ramp and into the small road network that circled the oversized shanty town, Quistis found somewhere to park and walked down one of the long ramps that led down into the middle of the town. Fisherman’s Horizon didn’t allow cars around its inner limits, so Quistis had to hop out, lock the jeep up and walk down towards where she’d been told Selphie and Irvine’s dojo was. Fisherman’s Horizon was closing down for the night, with the ships all in the dock and the crews making their way out to their houses, which were the clusters of run-down looking buildings that circled the large arena in the middle of the city. The mayor’s house was visible from where she stood, as was the bay where Balamb Garden had once docked when Squall had worked out how to get it moving again. Streetlamps pointed the way towards the dojo, and after a few moments walk she was outside.
Selphie and Irvine had obviously been busy - the building was a large, new construction that stuck out a mile from all the half-built and crumbling tenements around it, proudly displaying a snazzy logo of Balamb Garden that had Selphie’s handiwork written all over it. Citizens wandered up and down the streets as Quistis crossed over and up to the entrance, the street lighting giving the city the same cosy atmosphere as Borough Harbour. She could hear music floating over to her from down in the arena - there must be a concert on tonight.
After a few knocks and a chirpy ‘coming!’ the front door opened, and Selphie looked out. One second later, Quistis was grabbed in a bear hug that seemed much stronger than Selphie’s small frame would suggest, and she patted her old team mate on the back to try and return the greeting.
"You’re here! You made it! Yaay!" said Selphie, almost literally bouncing with excitement. She grabbed Quistis’ hand and yanked her into the building, kicking the door shut behind her. The interior of the dojo was mainly taken up by one large, rectangular room, with a series of rows of exercise mats on the floor and various items of martial arts equipment and weaponry attached to the wall. The place was built from varnished wooden planks, giving the place a fresh smell that mixed with the sea breeze outside. The rear of the room was bordered off by a pair of sliding doors, which swung open to reveal Irvine, his hair back in a ponytail as always and a grease-stained t-shirt on as he threw Quistis a lazy salute.
"Irvy, look! She’s here! She’s here!"
"I can see that, munchkin," said Irvine patiently, well used by now to Selphie’s unstoppable cheerfulness. With a grin he continued. "Good trip over? It’s a decent ferry ride, no rough waters so a good chance to get some sleep."
"Yeah, I chilled out for an hour and then here I was! The place looks the same as when I left it, really. Although this place," she said, looking all round the inside of the dojo, "is a welcome improvement." Irvine nodded.
"This is only half the story. C’mon out back, I’ll show you my half of the business." Irvine beckoned for Quistis to follow and she did, with Selphie still hanging on her arm. A short corridor, wooden like the rest of the building, led to a pair of steel doors that Irvine swung open to reveal the second half of the house - a fully equipped rifle range, with a long, concrete room with twenty or so little booths at the closest end of it, and targets hanging from mechanised rails overhead in line with the booths. Various shapes and sizes of handguns and rifles lay around, on the tables in the booths and mounted on the wall. Scores of bullet holes on the concrete walls showed Quistis that this place saw a lot of action.
"It’s all soundproofed," he said, tapping his knuckles on the thick wall, "so I can be in here firing a fully auto rifle and the guys in the dojo can do their meditation without hearing a thing."
"Very impressive indeed!" said Quistis, nosing around. "You must have had a lot of money to spend down here."
"Well, after the whole attempted invasion thing that we got mixed up in," said Irvine, referring back to the full team’s last visit to Fisherman’s Horizon, "the mayor decided to change the town’s strict no-violence policy round a little, and made it into a ‘defensive only’ stance. That means that FH would never attack another city but reserves the right to defend itself."
"With ninja style kung fu!" squeaked Selphie, throwing a few mock martial arts poses. Quistis chuckled.
"You two haven’t changed much, I see," she said. Irvine grinned.
"Neither has Zell, but you know that already. I’ve kept in touch with everyone except Squall since we got our new assignments," he said, heading back out into the corridor outside. "I talk to Rinoa a lot but Squall’s always either busy or off meditating somewhere. He sends me e-mails but that’s it."
"Yeah, he’s my last stop. I’m doing a little world tour of you guys at the moment," said Quistis, as Irvine headed up a staircase at the end of the corridor to the dojo’s top floor.
The second floor of the building was given over to the pair’s living quarters, with three rooms, a kitchen and a living room all fairly open plan and connected up. Irvine wandered into the kitchen and started making up some drinks for everyone as Selphie flopped down onto the big squashy sofa in the living room section. The décor was modest in places - muted colours and wallpaper - but dotted with Selphie’s touches, like cartoon character wall scrolls, huge bunches of flowers and piles of magazines scattered messily all over the floor.
"This place has got your trademark on it, alright," said Quistis with a wry grin as Selphie curled up on the sofa. Irvine headed over with three mugs of hot coffee, one for each of them.
"Black with two sugars, right, Q?" said Irvine as he handed one to Quistis. She nodded.
"Thank you, pookum," said Selphie with a bright smile as Irvine passed hers over. Irvine blushed a little.
"Honey, remember what we said about the pet names in public?" he said patiently.
"I know, I know," she said, poking her tongue out at him.
"So!" said Irvine decisively. "What can we do for you, Q? This is kind of a long way to head out just to pay a random visit."
"I need your help," said Quistis, sipping her coffee. "I’m sorry I haven’t done any of the random visiting before now, but things have been.. complicated since I left."
"Yeah, so we heard," said Selphie. "Mochika and Tyburn call me a lot from Garden, they keep me up on all the gossip. You’re back working there now, aren’t you?"
"Yes, yes I am," sighed Quistis, realising she had a lot to catch up on. "I’ve got three new cadets, we’re on a mission out in Kabernia at the moment."
"Oh, that new development city?" said Irvine. "Sounds like a pretty interesting place."
"Interesting’s one word for it," said Quistis.
It took her about an hour to recount all that had been going on recently, leaving both Selphie and Irvine very quiet when she’d finished.
"Wow," said Selphie. "I thought we’d been busy since we left, but.. wow." Irvine looked similarly lost for words.
"I knew you had a lot on when I spoke to you a few months back," he said, "but then, you never were one to talk about your problems, were you?" Quistis shook her head.
"I could barely work out what was going on myself, let alone talk to anyone about it," she said. "So you see now why I need some help?" They both nodded.
"Hey, if I were you I would have been out here even sooner!" said Irvine.
"I just don’t think we can at the moment," said Selphie, and Quistis tried not to show her disappointment at being turned down a second time. "We’ve got a new class starting in a few days, we can’t turn round and walk out on them now. I mean, we’ve been working hard to get this town taking up the classes, we’ve just started to get regular attendees and everything," she continued.
"I’m sorry, Q," said Irvine. "If you’d asked a few weeks ago we may have been able to delay the classes for a while, but as it is we’d have to refund too many people at short notice, and that’d really hurt our client base as well." Quistis nodded. She knew her request was a tough one.
"I understand," she said. "To be honest, I know I’m asking a lot of everyone but I had to try. The situation’s getting out of hand over there and I thought the old crew back together would help tip the scales."
"If there’s any way one or both of us can make it out there, we will," said Selphie. "Right now we can’t, but first thing in the morning we’ll look into it."
"Thanks, I appreciate it," said Quistis, draining her coffee mug.
"You staying over? You can’t really head back out again at this time of night. We have two guest bedrooms, after all!" said Irvine. Quistis nodded and yawned, her body suddenly remembering how tired it was.
"Yeah, okay," she said. "I’ll go find Rinoa and Squall tomorrow, see if they can help." Irvine nodded as Selphie stood up to start preparing one of the rooms for her. Quistis waited until she was out of earshot before leaning in closer to Irvine, a grin on her face.
"Things still going well between you two, at least," she said. Irvine chuckled.
"Q, that girl is magic. She makes every day a little brighter just by being in it. Everyone in this town loves her, when she walks down the street I’m half expecting people to scatter rose petals in her path!" Quistis chuckled.
"You two are good for each other. I always did say that."
"How about you?"
"Me?" said Quistis, settling back with a sad smile on her face. "Same as it ever was. Met a guy, he got killed. Met another guy, he turns out to be a secret agent. I’m thinking of taking a break." Irvine patted her hand as Selphie walked back over.
"Room’s all set!"
Quistis was settled in to the big, comfy bed when she woke up a few hours later. She was dog tired and her eyelids were trying to pull her back into the pillows, but her ears had picked up something and woken the rest of her up to investigate. Sliding out of the bed and pulling on one of the luxury silk dressing gowns, she padded across the wooden floor and out onto the main floor. Scanning left and right through the dark, she picked out a light from underneath the bathroom door, and the unmistakable sounds of someone sobbing. A girl sobbing.
Quistis sneaked over to the door and listened - it sounded like Selphie was in there, and she was pretty upset about something. Quistis knocked softly on the door.
"Selphie?" she whispered. The crying eased off, and Quistis heard Selphie walk across the bathroom and unlock the door. It slid open to show Selphie, looking very pale and unwell, her hair messy and her eyes red with tears.
"Oh, Quistis," she said, the tears not far away. Quistis instinctively reached out to hold her.
"Selphie, what is it? What’s wrong?"
"Quistis.." said Selphie again. "I’m.. I’m pregnant." Quistis froze. Selphie started to cry again, and Quistis wrapped her arms round her to comfort her. Looks like Irvine would have something else to keep him busy down here after all.
"So how long have you known?" asked Irvine, pacing up and down the bedroom as Selphie sat on the bed, Quistis rubbing her back to try and calm her. He didn't look angry, just a little shocked - the way all men seem to react when they're told their partner is pregnant.
"A week or so. I wasn't sure at first so I tried another test just now, and it came up positive again.. Irvy, I'm sorry." Irvine stopped pacing abruptly and knelt down next to her, taking her head in his hands.
"Sorry? What do you have to be sorry about?" His face cracked into a huge grin. "We're gonna have a baby! Us! Right here!" Selphie let out a short laugh, relief starting to wash over her face as she realised it was all going to be alright.
"What about this place?" she said. "Who's gonna run the dojo?"
"Aah, anybody can take over for a bit. You've taught a fair few people here everything you know so it won't be hard to find a temporary teacher. And I can still run the rifle range as before, right?" Selphie nodded and leant forward, burying her head gratefully against Irvine's chest. Quistis smiled, a few tears of her own starting to creep into her eyes.
"I didn't know what to tell you," said Selphie. "I didn't know if you'd be happy, or sad, or angry, or-"
"Ssh," said Irvine soothingly. "You never fail to surprise me, munchkin," he said with a smile. "Just when I think I've got things figured out, you throw something new my way. That's why I love you."
"I love you too!" she replied, wrapping her arms round him. Quistis took her cue to leave them be. She stood and patted Irvine on the shoulder.
"I'll see you both in the morning," she said, with a wink to Irvine as she left the room and slid the double doors shut, padding back round to her own room and settling down to sleep.
Life goes on, she thought as she drifted back off to sleep.
The next morning, she rose to the smell of a cooked breakfast wafting in from the kitchen, and made her way hungrily out there to find Irvine rustling up a big breakfast for the trio, with eggs, bacon, sausage and a variety of local fish all sizzling away as Selphie lay across the sofa, her feet up on a pile of pillows as she idly flicked through the TV channels.
"Mornin' sleepyhead," said Irvine as Quistis sat down at the kitchen counter. "Thought the smell of this'd wake you up!"
"Best start to the day I can think of," she said, nodding to Irvine as he pushed a cup of coffee her way. Quistis picked it up and joined Selphie on the sofa.
"Hey," said Selphie, still looking a little dazed from last night's revelation.
"Look at you," said Quistis proudly. "All grown up at last!" Selphie blushed and giggled.
"I wonder what kind of a mother I'm going to make?" she said. Quistis smiled.
"The kind who watches cartoons with her kid because she likes them too," she answered. Selphie smiled and rubbed her belly, looking down at herself.
"It's gonna be weird, seeing myself change like that," she said thoughtfully.
"You'll be just fine, you've got Irvy over there to look after you, and a business to run in the meantime!"
"I guess this definitely means I won't be able to help you out at the moment, Q, I'm sorry," said Selphie. Quistis shook her head.
"Don't worry about it. You've got more important things to think about now." Selphie smiled and settled back on the sofa as Irvine brought breakfast over.
Quistis was on her way again an hour later, driving back up to the ferry port as Fisherman's Horizon woke up around her. The fishing trawlers were chugging away from the docks as Quistis rolled onto the ferry, rolling off and into Borough Harbour again a short time later. Quistis drove to the start of the main road out towards Timber and took a deep breath. This was it. No turning back now, just one road all the way into Timber and then the much delayed meeting with Squall and Rinoa at last. She gripped the wheel tightly, stuck in a tape of Toxic and put her foot down, her jeep rattling along the bumpy road as she tore her way through the thick woods outside Borough and out towards the forest ahead.
She pulled up at the edge of Timber Forest about half an hour later. It was mid-morning, the sun high overhead and a light wind rustling through the thick leaves of the army of trees before her. Timber's ironroot trees were unique to the region, their trunks tough enough to withstand any attempts to cut them down. The forest was strictly controlled, with any removal and replanting overseen by the forest rangers, the group Squall was now working for. The town itself lay inside the boundaries of the forest, and as such was always on alert for any of the more unsavoury creatures living around there going for a wander round the town centre. Just like Setton, she thought to herself, except this time they're doing something about the problem instead of leaving it up to me.
There were two roads ahead - one of them led into the town centre, which she could just about make out the edge of in the distance, and the other over to the forestry centre, which included the rangers headquarters according to the directions she'd been given. Putting the jeep in gear, she headed off down a dirt track overshadowed by thick trees and soon arrived at a clearing with four small buildings in it. They were huts made out of timber, with roofs overhead sporting an array of communication equipment. Several green jeeps were parked up, bearing the Timber Ranger logo on them, and as Quistis parked up and got out she saw several of the uniformed officers walking between the buildings. One was heading over to her as she locked the jeep.
"Good morning, ma'am, may I help you at all?" he said. Quistis slid her sunglasses down her nose a touch and smiled at him over the top of them. Her hair was in a loose bun behind her head but the temptation to let the wind blow in on the drive down had left several strands down around her shoulders. She watched the nervous looking ranger gulped as she stepped over to him.
"Hello there, ranger.. Bryant," she said, reading off his nametag. "I'm here to meet up with the SeeD you have stationed here, Squall Leonhart? I wonder if you could help me find him?" The ranger nodded and called into his walkie-talkie.
"Uh, control come in, this is Ranger Bryant, over." He clicked off the transmit button and there was a buzz of static before base replied, the female voice on the other end sounding chirpy.
"This is control, over."
"We've got a visitor here asking to meet up with that SeeD guy, any chance we can get hold of him?"
"Oh, the good-looking one? Yeah, just a minute, Robbia." Bryant nodded and looked back at Quistis.
"Robbia Bryant?" Quistis asked, as the name sparked a flicker of recognition with her. "You're not related to a girl called Kalona Bryant, are you? Second year student at Balamb Garden?"
"Uh, yes, ma'am, Kalona's my little sister."
"Small world," said Quistis, holding out her hand. "My name's Quistis Trepe, I'm an instructor at the Garden." Bryant shook her hand.
"Oh yeah, Kal's mentioned you a few times. Didn't you leave recently?"
"Long story. I'm back part-time now. Squall's one of my old team mates, he asked me to drop by if I was ever in the area, and, well, I am." Bryant nodded again as his radio crackled.
"Bryant, come in, over."
"Bryant here, go ahead."
"That Leonhart guy's out on his little cabin again, apparently. Why don't you drive the guest out there?"
"Will do, Bryant out." Bryant holstered his radio and started walking over towards one of the jeeps, retrieving his car keys from his pocket. "Mr Leonhart has this small cabin just a mile or so from here," said Bryant. "He spends a lot of time out there, we don't see him all that much."
"Well, Mr Leonhart helps us out with all the normal things we rangers do," said Bryant as he pulled out of the clearing and off deeper into the forest, following a bumpy road. "If there's a forest fire, then he's around to help us get ahead of the fire and cut it off, if we have any trouble with the creatures living in here then he's there to help contain and repel them, and just generally to assist us in our duties." Quistis smiled - she found Bryant's referral to Squall as 'Mr Leonhart' quite funny anyway, but Squall taking charge of things again seemed to suit him. The guy was a born leader. A reluctant one, but a born one all the same. "So how do you know Mr Leonhart?" asked Bryant.
"Squall was my student at the Garden," said Quistis, prompting an impressed nod from Bryant. "We went on a few missions together but he ended up becoming the team leader once he'd graduated. I'm better at teaching than leading, I guess!"
"Well, we're almost here," said Bryant a few moments later, as he pulled the jeep to a stop in front of a seemingly impenetrable wall of trees. Quistis looked round for a 'small cabin' but saw nothing.
"You sure? I can't see anything," she said as Bryant stepped out of the jeep.
"It's just past the trees. We'll have to walk the last bit, I can't squeeze through there. Mr Leonhart likes his privacy." Quistis nodded.
"Yeah, don't I know it," she muttered as she hopped out and followed Bryant through the trees. The road came to an abrupt stop but she could make out a clearing on the other side of the thickly bunched trees, and after a few moments of stepping over the huge roots of the mighty ironroots she found herself out in another clearing, and faced with one of the most spectacular sights she'd ever seen.
The clearing opened up onto a lake, the most crystal clear stretch of water she'd ever seen, perfectly still with the reflection of the morning sun glittering across its surface. The distant mountain ranges, capped by snow and cloud, looked down into the little area, which was hedged in on all sides by the same slabs of treeline that she'd just weaved her way through. Just off the shore of the lake was a modest-sized wood cabin, a thin plume of smoke drifting up from its single chimney, and an old-fashioned rowing boat moored on the shore, the tide lapping gently at it. Quistis took a moment to soak the sight up - it was one of the most peaceful things she'd ever witnessed, miles from the nearest town and perfectly isolated from the outside world. Just the kind of insulated place Squall would pick for his home, Quistis thought.
"He'll be in there," said Bryant, gesturing towards the house. "Do you want me to come with you?"
"No, that's okay," said Quistis with a smile. "I'll get Squall to call you guys in when we're heading back out." Bryant looked a little disappointed, but tipped the edge of his hat to her in a half-salute and headed back over to where his jeep was. Quistis stepped up towards the steps leading up to the cabin's front door. Everything around her was still and quiet - the boat creaked slightly as it moved from side to side, overhead a flock of birds honked directions to each other, but there was no sign of life from the cabin itself. She stepped up to the door and knocked twice, the sound seeming to echo all around her.
It was a few achingly long moments before she heard the sound of footsteps inside, and Quistis crossed her fingers to hope that it'd be Rinoa who opened the door. It'd be a lot easier to face her first than Squall, mainly because-
"Hello, Quistis," said Squall as he opened the door. Quistis tried to stay calm.
"Hello, stranger," she replied. "Nice place you've got here. A little quiet, but at least the locals can't bother you." Squall let out a small smile and stepped back to let Quistis inside. Like Irvine and Selphie's place, the cabin was a clash of two different decorative styles. The minimalism of Squall met the girlishness of Rinoa head on, creating some odd contrasts with the plain walls covered with paintings, framed photographs and posters, and the various other ornaments and decorations dotted around the place. The front room was one large area with a sofa and TV set next to the window, a set of stairs leading to the next floor and a large kitchen and dining area through a door out back.
"It does the job," said Squall, heading back towards the kitchen. "I was just making a snack, you hungry?"
"Just a glass of water'll be fine, thanks, I ate before I got here," she replied. Irvine' breakfast felt like it was going to keep her filled up for a few days. She followed him into the kitchen and leant against the doorframe as Squall poured her a glass of water from a bottle kept in the fridge.
"Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?" she said, taking the glass from him. Squall shrugged.
"Selphie called a while ago, said you may be on your way over. Figured it was just a courtesy call." Quistis smiled as she gulped the water down - it was pretty warm outside and she was a little dehydrated.
"Where's Rinoa?" said Quistis, not sure now if she wanted her to show up while she had chance to talk to Squall alone.
"At the vet's," said Squall, slicing up some bread. Quistis resisted the urge to make a catty comment.
"She work there?"
"Yeah, there and the animal welfare centre. We had a fuel tanker crash outside the forest a few weeks back, she took charge of the clean-up operation from the wildlife that got stuck in it."
"Ever the conservationist," remarked Quistis. She paused before her next statement. "Squall, I need your help," she said bluntly. He stopped slicing and looked up.
"What is it?"
"In a nutshell? I'm in over my head with my current mission and I need some extra help. I've seen Zell, Irvine and Selphie already and none of them can help. You're my last chance," she said. Squall was silent for a few moments before he replied.
"I'll have to ask Rinoa," he said, "but other than that, yeah, sure. anything you need." Quistis lit up. He looked back over to her. "You are my instructor, after all. I owe you for that if nothing else."
"Boy, you sure know how to make a girl feel proud," she smiled, putting the glass back down. The front door slammed behind her and she closed her eyes as she knew who was home.
"Honey, I'm ho-ome!" rang out Rinoa's tones. And here goes phase two, thought Quistis.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Quistis!! You're here!" yelped Rinoa, leaping forward and throwing her arms round Quistis. Quistis wheezed as the breath was squeezed out of her, gasping for air when Rinoa let go and bounded across the kitchen to give Squall a peck on the cheek. Squall smiled at her, his usual stoic self around her boundless energy.
"Morning honey, I got those few things from the town for dinner tonight so I'll get started on that this afternoon when I get back from the surgery. How long are you in town for, Q?" said Rinoa, unbuttoning her coat and throwing it over the back of one of the dining room chairs.
"Ah, not sure, I just got here so a little while yet," said Quistis as Rinoa poured herself a drink, her cheeks flushed.
"Did you run all the way here or something?" asked Squall. Rinoa chuckled as she put her empty glass in the sink.
"No, silly, my bicycle! Best way to get around this place, don't keep getting stuck at those dead end roads that always have confused looking new rangers at the ends of them. So how are you anyway, Quistis?" said Rinoa, her rapid subject shifts keeping Quistis one step behind the conversation.
"Uh, oh, I'm fine, I'm on a quick leave of absence from my current assignment to visit a few old friends," she answered.
"Uh-huh? Seen the rest of the gang yet? How's Zell? Have you heard about Selphie?" Rinoa gasped, skipping forward to hold Quistis' hands as she nodded. Out of the corner of eye she caught Squall grinning, but Quistis kept a straight face and played along with Rinoa.
"Yeah, I went to see them yesterday. She seems to have spread the word pretty fast!"
"Oh, she's told absolutely everybody, you know what she's like. They're already planning a party at the Garden for her!" Rinoa glanced down at her wrist and saw the time on the watch. "Oop, look at that! I've got to get out of here in a bit, see you! Just got to get changed!" In a streak of motion, she was gone again. Quistis took a deep breath and looked over to Squall, who was wearing an uncharacteristically wry grin.
"She hasn't changed much, has she?" said Quistis. Squall shook his head.
"Same old princess."
"You must really love her," said Quistis, looking around the kitchen, "I know that living with her would have me taking a holiday away every few days!" Squall shrugged.
"Comes with the territory. I don't notice it. Besides, she's happy. She's doing what she loves, working down in the town with the local kids and animals. She may not be a SeeD but she's as valued round here as I seem to be."
"Yeah, I was talking to the ranger who brought me up here," said Quistis, walking over to look out through the kitchen window and soak up the view again. "Seems you're quite the action hero out here!"
"I do my part. It's what I'm paid for."
"And when you're off duty? I can see you spending a few hours sitting out on that lake, fishing but not really caring to catch much."
"Sometimes. Usually I'm upstairs meditating or doing some kata, things like that," he said, finishing his sandwich and taking a bite out of it. He munched quietly, giving Quistis chance to prepare her next question.
"Are you sure you can come to help me? I mean, seems like there's a lot to do round here."
"Not really," he replied. "The monsters are back under control at the moment, and barring a major forest fire which we don't get at all in this season, it'll be pretty quiet for a while yet. How long are you expecting your situation to last?"
"That I'm afraid I don't know," sighed Quistis. "I'm not even completely sure what the situation is."
"Have you asked Cid for some reinforcements?"
"It's complicated," said Quistis. "It's turning into a political thing, I'm basically working undercover at the moment to get things done." She spent a few minutes running through the Kabernia issue as best she could, and Squall was silent for a while afterwards as he processed everything.
"Like I said before, I'll have to run this past Rinoa, but I should be okay to meet you down there. I'll have to call you, let you know."
"Thought you never called anyone?" she grinned.
"People always call when I'm busy," he grinned back.
"Okay then. You do realise I'm not a hundred percent sure what it is you'll be needed to do," said Quistis.
"Did we know what we were getting into when we were first sent out to Timber? How things would end up with us fighting to save the whole world from a crazy, time-travelling sorceress?"
"I suppose things did go off on a tangent a little," admitted Quistis.
"So whatever it is you're into down there, it can't be that bad. Can it?"
Quistis hung around for a few hours more, sitting on the shoreline of the lake outside and chatting to Squall about the things he'd been up to, waiting for Rinoa to get back, but when the phone rang after lunch, Squall came back after answering it with an apologetic look on his face.
"She's tied up down at the surgery, someone's brought their two pet dogs in that got into a road accident together, looks like an all-nighter. She says she's sorry but she'll have to see you again some other time."
"Ah well," said Quistis, "gold star to her for her dedication, anyway."
"This means I can't give you an answer yet," said Squall, sitting back down on the bank of the lake next to her. Quistis sighed and hugged her knees, picking up a few pebbles from the ground next to her.
"You really need her permission?" said Quistis, a little sharply.
"No, but I need her trust, and the one thing that destroys trust is not being honest with people. If I went away now without explaining to her where we were going, or even asking if she wanted to join us, I'd destroy that. I don'' have any secrets from her anymore." Quistis skimmed a pebble across the surface of the lake, the ripples disturbing the still water and making the reflection of the sky overhead dance in front of them.
"You're really serious about this, aren't you," said Quistis, looking back at him.
"I have to be. I have to keep my thoughts as clear as my conscience. One tiny thing can start off a chain of events that will bring everything down. This may not seem like a big deal, but if I do it once, nothing will stop me doing it again, and again. The best way to avoid the slippery slope is to stay away from it altogether."
"Well, I guess I admire your conviction," said Quistis, standing up. "Looks like I'm heading back alone, then." Squall stood as well and walked with her back to the house.
"The others would come if they could. I'm not ruling myself out, either. I just can't give you an answer yet."
"I understand," said Quistis with a smile. "You always were the one with the code of honour thing going on, no reason why I should expect that to be any different," she said, hoping she could hide her heavy heart.
Quistis was back in her jeep and leaving the ranger's stations an hour later, after Bryant had been called out to pick her up again. She'd been silent the journey back, her mind rapidly replanning her next move back in Kabernia. She'd headed out to try and re-form her old team, to pull the group back together and return with an unbeatable team to take on Deakin and give Nash control of the city, the way it should be.
And now, she thought, as she gunned her jeep's engine and roared back inland towards the cold city of Kabernia, I've just got me, three cadets and a group of rebels who are all going to get themselves killed if they're not careful. She knew Izzy meant well, but the girl wasn't a trained fighter, and if it came down to it, she'd be in as much trouble as most of the volunteers who bolstered the core numbers of the rebels. She tried not to think about things too much as she sped back towards Kabernia, she wanted to keep a clear head for when she walked back into the rebel HQ empty-handed. At least they'd found Dexter again, she consoled herself, and with any luck he'd be awake again soon and would be able to fill in some of the blanks for them. Assuming, of course, the memory-blocking enchantment someone had placed on him hadn't left him with permanent damage.. Things really had taken a downward turn, she sighed.
She pulled up at one of the traffic control gates a while later, waiting patiently in line as the security guards checked out each car heading into the city. It was a necessary evil, partly to allow Deakin to keep tabs on who was moving in and out of the city, but also to stop any undesirable elements getting inside the city limits. In the latter respect, the scheme worked well, but as Quistis pulled up to the booth and handed her ID card over to the guard on duty, she was about to discover the darker side of the system.
"Could you step out of your vehicle please, ma'am?" asked the guard after a few long seconds of scrutinising her card. Quistis frowned but stepped out of her jeep, noticing with alarm that vehicles in the queue behind her were already being diverted towards the other gates.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, as the guard stepped down out of the booth and made a short, unintelligible call on his walkie-talkie to the main security base a few hundred yards away. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was starting its gradual descent through the sky, peeking out from between the thick forest of skyscrapers and casting long shadows over the buildings around her.
"Just wait by your vehicle for a moment, please," said the guard, looking over his shoulder as three more of the armed, dark blue-uniformed guards started to walk over.
Don't run, thought Quistis as her instincts started to kick in. You'll only look more guilty if you try to get away. Showing co-operation now would hopefully get her out of whatever it was she'd gotten into. The three guards joined the first and talked to each other for a few moments, showing Quistis' ID card around and nodding.
"Could you come with us, please?" said one, his hand resting on his submachine gun casually but showing that he was ready to use it if provoked. Quistis eyed the four of them suspiciously.
"Is somebody going to tell me what this is about? I'm on my way to the barracks to report to Governor Deakin," she said, hoping to bluff her way past them with the namedrop.
"It's the governor who wants to see you," said the first guard gruffly, grabbing hold of Quistis' arm and leading her towards a waiting police force truck. Quistis started to pull away from him but wisely decided not to, going along with it and letting herself be locked into the back of the truck. She tried to think of what could be going wrong as the truck started up and sped through the afternoon traffic, pulling up outside the council buildings a few moments later. All Quistis could think of was that one of her calls to Cid had been picked up and the governor had more reason to believe she was working with the rebels, and if that was the case then she was in very deep trouble indeed.
The truck stopped and the doors were unbolted and thrown open, and Quistis was led inside the building by the four guards from before. One short elevator ride up to the top floor, with people on all floors staring at her as she walked past, had Quistis outside the double doors leading to Deakin's main office. The guards left as the doors opened and Mawdsley walked out, a stern look on his face.
"Well! I have to say, I'm very disappointed," he said, his tone sounding like he was ticking off a naughty schoolgirl as he walked up to Quistis, clipboard in hand. "The governor will see you in just a moment so you can explain yourself."
"Explain myself for what? Mawdsley? Hey!" Quistis protested, but he was already walking away from her, and he disappeared round a corner and out of sight. The main doors through the fountain room to Deakin's office opened, the man himself standing before them.
"Ah, Miss Trepe. Please come in. And don't try anything, I have this place monitored and security can be here in seconds if you so much as breathe in a disagreeable manner." Quistis walked forward very slowly into Deakin's office, letting the governor close the door behind her.
"Governor, I'm afraid I have no idea what's going on here, I appear to be being treated like some kind of criminal," bluffed Quistis, "so the sooner someone can tell me what's up, then I can-"
"Cut the crap, Quistis," snapped Deakin, his businesslike exterior gone in an instant. Here comes the real persona at last, thought Quistis as Deakin stomped over to the chair behind his desk and sat down. "I know all about what you've been doing. I have contacts and eyes and ears everywhere in this city. I own this city, and don't think for a second that you or your little band of rag-tag 'rebels' can do a damn thing to change that," he said with venom. Quistis's eyes flicked from side to side, looking for an exit. There was nothing she could use - the room had one entrance and as Deakin had said, the blinking red light of the security camera overhead would have guards on the scene in moments if she tried anything.
"Governor, I'm afraid I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," said Quistis defiantly, not wanting to give in just yet. Deakin snorted, picked up a remote control from his desk and pressed a button on it, triggering a video screen that was part of the array against the left-hand wall. The home-made video that Berne, or Nash Kabernia as she now knew he was called, had broadcast to the city a few nights ago.
"Care to explain this little home movie?"
"That would be the work of the rebel faction my team and I have been tracking," Quistis said. Deakin nodded and pressed another button - the screen changed to show camera footage of the aftermath of the raid on the television station, with Quistis's team on the run from the pursuing security. Deakin paused the footage on one frame that clearly showed Quistis face, breathless, with Cevin and Katya next to her. Quistis sighed.
"Well, well, well," said Deakin, grinning like a freshly fed cat. "Do you have a clever excuse for this then?" Quistis was silent as Deakin hit a button on his desk, and seconds later two of his red-suited supersoldier guards entered the room. "Take Miss Trepe down to the cell blocks," he said, "and call in MacDowell. I have need of an expert interrogator." Quistis glared at him as she was led away. "It was nice to meet you, Quistis, it's a shame you decided to play for the wrong team." Quistis stayed silent as she was taken out of the room.
Great. Just great, she thought bitterly.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Medic!" yelled Berne as he threw open the doors to his truck. The rest of his squad leapt out, with the badly wounded form of Izzy on a stolen hospital gurney carried between them. His truck was parked by the hidden underground car park entrance to the base, and several of the people in the base scurried out to help carry Izzy out of the back of the truck as he hopped down from the driver's seat.
"Julian? What happened?" said Vaughn as he rushed over. Berne followed the rest of his team in as they headed for the medical wing.
"We got Izzy out, but I lost Harkon and Dewlis. Someone in the hospital alerted the security Deakin had put there to guard her, and they didn't make it out." Berne had a troubled look on his face as he left Izzy to be carried into the medical centre, nurse Belina rushing over to check over the wounded rebel.
"Did we hit some trouble?" he asked.
"We did. We got Izzy back, but at a price. She's still in a critical condition but at least we've got her back now," Berne replied, taking a deep breath as he tried to calm his adrenaline-charged system down.
"Any news on Quistis?" asked Vaughn.
"Not yet, she was due to be back at the base a few hours ago, she hasn't checked in with us yet." Vaughn frowned - he knew how punctual Quistis was, and he also knew that with Deakin suspicious of her, there was a good chance she'd landed herself in trouble trying to get back into the city. Trini came out of the communications room, and located Berne and Vaughn standing in the corridor.
"Sir! I-I think you'd better come and take a look at this," she said, heading back inside. Vaughn and Berne exchanged a worried look and followed her in. The communications centre was a small room filled with rows of listening devices, radio transmitters and recording equipment, and on the TV screen of one of these devices a message was playing. It was Deakin, talking into the camera.
"..and I repeat, in order to guarantee her safe return, I require the surrender of Nash Kabernia, also going by the alias of Julian Berne, and the disbanding of his terrorist organisation immediately. If these conditions are not met within twenty-four hours, I'm afraid Quistis Trepe will be tried and sentenced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act," said the on-screen Deakin. Vaughn punched the wall in frustration.
"Damn it," muttered Berne.
"That act basically gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants," said Trini to Vaughn, not helping his darkening mood. "I'm afraid he's got us."
"Get her cadets in here right away," said Vaughn. "We've got to get her out of there."
"No, no, we can't just keep throwing people away any more," said Berne with a sigh. "We need a different plan."
"So what are you going to do, just give yourself up or something?" said Vaughn. Berne threw him a look and Vaughn shook his head, cursing. "No way. No bloody way," he said, leaving to go and tell the SeeDs what had happened.
"Sir? What are we going to do?" said Trini quietly, looking up at Berne. Berne was quiet for a long time before he answered.
"We're going to finish this," he said, "once and for all."
"So let me get this straight," said Cevin as Vaughn stood in the SeeD's quarters. "Quistis has gone and gotten herself captured by the big bad governor, and Uncle Bernie is planning to give himself up to get her out?" He chuckled. "That guy's crazier than I am."
"That doesn't sound like Berne at all," said Criss from his position lying down on his bed. "He's done too much to throw it all away just for her."
"Exactly what I think," said Vaughn. "He's planning something, but if he's going to do what I think he is then he's going to get himself killed."
"What, pretend to surrender then try and take Deakin out once he gets close enough?" said Katya. Criss nodded.
"Either that, or try to publicly discredit him. Neither of which will work."
"He won't let Quistis die. Berne's got a very strong sense of honour, even for a guy who's been living a dual identity most of his life," said Vaughn. "I thought I went to university with the guy, but it was all just some kind of cover for him. I guess his brother knew he might die one day so he was trying to safeguard the family legacy."
"Or he just wanted to live and work in the real world without the stigma of being Sebastian Kabernia's brother," said Criss. Vaughn nodded.
"Makes sense, never really looked at it like that before," he conceded.
"So what now?" said Katya, standing and trying to instil some kind of action into her colleagues. "Are we just going to sit here and let Quistis rot in the prisons over there, or are we going to head out there and bust her out?"
"We can't just rush in," said Criss, still not moving, "Deakin will be expecting that. He probably wants to draw us out too so he can have the set. Then he can start up hostilities between Kabernia and Balamb and make a tidy profit from the arms trade that would result from that."
"I, ah, may be able to help," piped up a small voice from behind them. The foursome turned to see Trini standing in the doorway. She blushed and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
"He came to about an hour ago," she said as she led the group over to the medical ward. "He's still quite groggy but he's back to his old self. He's already made a pass at one of the nurses," she grinned.
"This is that Dexter guy who was one of Quistis' old posse, right?" said Cevin. Trini nodded.
"Dexter was working at the council building when we recruited him, along with Izzy and another girl, Serena DuCont. He was a great inside operative for us, but then one day someone found out he was a double agent and placed some kind of magical barrier on his memory," she explained. "When that lifted, he made contact again, but.."
"But someone got to him first," said Katya, "right?" Trini nodded as she pushed open the swing doors in to the hospital ward. Dexter was sat up in bed in the corner of the room, and waved to Trini as she came over.
"Afternoon, squirt," he said, lifting his arms up for a brief hug off his colleague. "Who are your friends?"
"They're with Quistis," she said, and at the mention of her old friend's name, Dexter lit up.
"Is Q here?" he said. Vaughn shook his head.
"I'm afraid it's a complicated situation," said Vaughn, offering his hand for Dexter to shake. "Vaughn Trevelyan, Balamb Forest Ranger and part time counter-espionage for Balamb Garden. These three misfits are Quistis' new SeeD cadet class." Katya waved, Cevin gave Dex the thumbs up and Criss just nodded his head slightly.
"Well, seems like we've been having a family reunion without me! I'm afraid I won't be much help till they work out how to fill in the blanks in my memory," said Dexter, "seems I've been sleeping with the enemy for a few months without even realising it."
"We'll get to that later," said Vaughn, "right now we need your help."
"Sure, anything for Quisty," he replied.
"We need you to help us get into the main council buildings so we can get Quistis back. She's been captured by Deakin and he's holding her to ransom, demanding that Berne gives himself up and dissolves the rebels within the next twenty-four hours." Dexter considered this for a moment.
"Alright, I'm in," he said. Vaughn smiled and shook his hand again.
"Rise and shine, blondie!" shouted the voice, and Quistis jolted herself awake. She was lying on her side in a cold, plain white cell, that as far as she was aware was somewhere in the depths of the council building itself. One door faced her, the only way in or out of the cell, and the single mattress suspended against the wall was as cold and hard as the floor she was lying against. She was only lying on the floor because that was where she'd been thrown, after the two supersoldiers had had a little fun with her. She tenderly pressed against the bruises forming on her face, and coughed up a stray bit of blood, its sticky redness standing out a mile against the clinical white of the cell floor. She looked over to the door and located the source of the voice - a single slot at eye level, currently home to a pair of grinning eyes looking down on her.
"Don't tell me it's breakfast time already?" she said back sarcastically, in no mood to let some basic level psychological warfare get the better of her.
"The doctor will be here soon to see you. Then we'll find out what you know. And even a few things you don't," the eyes grinned again.
"I'm not the only person who'll be seeing a doctor when I get out of here," she growled back, but the voice laughed and slid the slot closed. Quistis looked around. The cell was about eight feet square, cramped and not ideal for claustrophobics. The mattress jutted out from the wall and the door was sunk into the wall opposite, but the rest of the room was made up of plain white brickwork, soundproof and too thick to bust through without the aid of a tank. One very bright bulb lit the place up from a secure cavity overhead. Quistis checked her outfit - she was dressed in normal civvies, a t-shirt with a workshirt tied round her waist, and a standard pair of combats, but her phone was gone, along with anything else on her person that could be considered a weapon. Her whip was locked up in her jeep, which she guessed was impounded somewhere by now.
After she'd left Deakin's office, the soldiers had led her down a series of nondescript corridors, gradually winding their way down towards the basement, but after one turn down a dark maintenance tunnel, they'd turned on her, letting out some of the aggression she'd seen the three they'd met at the TV station exhibit. After a few minutes of pounding her into the ground, they'd picked her back up and dragged her the last few floors, throwing her into the cell and locking the door shortly afterwards.
She sat up and lay down on the mattress, her muscles protesting at her attempts to move them again. She knew somebody was coming by to 'interrogate' her, which meant she'd need to make sure she was prepared for whatever kind of unpleasantness they were about to throw at her. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of thoughts, to make sure she was calm and in control when this 'doctor' showed up.
They left her down there for a few hours before the slot on the door clanked open again, and the same grinning eyes from before peered down at her. Quistis kept her eyes closed, still in a very peaceful place inside her mind, and gave the guard the universal one-fingered salute of defiance. With a grunt, he closed the slot, and then with the sound of two large deadbolts drawing back, the door swung open. Quistis gracefully swung her feet to the floor and slowly opened her eyes, the bruises and cuts on her face giving off a dull ache but she made sure it didn't show. The darkness of the corridor outside was a painful contrast to the brilliant white of the cell, and Quistis could make out two more guards standing just behind the one who'd opened the door.
"Hello, boys," she said, cracking a smile, "come to see me at last, have you?" The two guards stepped into the cell and roughly manhandled her to her feet, pulling her out of the cell and down the dimly lit, grimy corridor. Quistis let her body go limp, letting them do all the work as she tried to take in some details of her surroundings. The corridor was poorly lit overhead by a yellow-green fluorescent light, with pipes running along the walls dripping foul-smelling water down onto the floor. The walls were patched with moss and fungus, giving the overall impression that not many people came down here. There were thick, rusty iron doors lining the walls, and as they came to the one that was open, the guards took a turn and led Quistis inside.
There was one chair, a high-backed leather affair that would have looked more at home in an operating theatre. A table sat next to the chair, and Quistis noticed with alarm that the chair had head, wrist and ankle restraints. The guards flopped her into the chair and tied her down - Quistis didn't struggle. She was a little weak from her previous beating and knew she couldn't take the pair of them the way she was. Once they'd tightened the straps and made sure she couldn't move, the guards went back out through the door. Her grinning friend appeared silhouetted in the doorway.
"Any last words?" he said, that crooked smile now on display.
"None that I'd use with a lady present," she said, shrugging as best she could.
"Doctor MacDowell will be down in just a moment," he said, closing the door. Quistis listened to his footsteps echoing away down the corridor, then closed her eyes and tried to find that peaceful place again.
It was about another hour later when the sound of footsteps came back, and Quistis opened her eyes and looked over to the door. It creaked open, and a robed figure walked in carrying a large leather satchel bag. The room she was in was lit by a single bare lightbulb overhead, so the new arrival's face wasn't immediately clear. The bag was placed on the table and opened up, although Quistis couldn't see inside it. The visitor undid their robes and walked to stand a few feet away from Quistis' side, just out of eye view.
"Don't tell me, this is the part where you say 'I don't care what you know, I'm going to torture you anyway,'" said Quistis, trying not to betray her growing sense of fear. She'd been captured a few times in her career but had mercifully avoided torture thus far. The visitor pulled up another stool and sat down so their mouth was inches from Quistis' ear.
"Hello, Quistis, nice to see you again," came a chillingly familiar female voice. Quistis skin went cold as her brain connected the dots and worked out who it was.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Got it in one," said Serena DuCont, Quistis' last missing friend from her teenage years. Quistis tried to look round but couldn't move her head because of the restraints.
"What the hell are you doing here?" said Quistis, her brain firing off in every direction as she tried to work out what was going on. "And why has everyone been calling you 'Doctor MacDowell'?"
"Quistis, Quistis," cooed Serena, leaning across to the sinister-looking satchel bag and starting to take out several small plain boxes, laying them out on the table next to her. "There are an awful lot of things that I never told you. About me, about my father, and about the family business."
"Family business? Your father was an electrician! What is going on around here?!?"
"My father was Tacklan MacDowell," said Serena, placing the now empty bag on the floor and arranging the boxes in some sort of order on the table. "You may have heard of him?" Quistis' memory ran a rapid search and quickly attached the name to someone she really didn't want to think about.
"Tacklan MacDowell," said Quistis, in a flat tone as though she was reading an encyclopaedia entry. "Expert biologist and medical lecturer, noted for his research into the pain tolerance levels of the human body. Went missing about twenty-five years ago, has been seen since then popping up in the service of all sorts of dictators and oppressive regimes. Believed to be dead."
"Oh, he is dead," said Serena calmly. "He died when I was a little girl, after my mother had left him, changed her name and moved away to get away from the sorts of people he was involved with." Quistis couldn't believe what she was hearing - she'd known Serena since she was a little girl, she'' known the man Serena had said was her father for years as well, could it all have been a cover story?
"Who was the guy you said was your dad then? I met him loads of times when we used to hang out together," said Quistis, an element of panic starting to creep into her voice. If Serena wanted to unnerve her, she was doing an excellent job.
"Him? That was Finn. Nice guy, my mother met him not long after we moved so for all intents and purposes he was my 'dad.' But you can't change the way you're born, Quistis, you can't escape who you are."
"What do you mean?"
"One day, I found out about my father's legacy. His work was kept on an old computer that my mother had kept upstairs, buried away in the loft of our house," said Serena, opening the boxes one at a time and revealing a variety of bizarre-looking tools, things that Quistis was trying not to focus on despite them all being purposefully in her eyeline. "Perhaps she couldn't get rid of it because it reminded her of him, maybe it was the last trace of him in her life, I don't know. I was renovating my mother's house, cleaning out the loft ready for it to be converted into a new room, when I found it. I snuck it into my own room and connected it up, and I think I spent about seven hours solidly reading about it."
"Your father was a sadistic murderer!" said Quistis, trying to anger Serena, distract her for long enough to plan her next move. "He sold his services to the highest bidder, making a living out of experimenting on live subjects and torturing political prisoners!"
"Yes, he did," said Serena with a proud smile. "At first I was shocked, but I couldn't stop reading his notes. There were years of information stored on there, details of his experiments, the things he'd found out, the plans he had, and most importantly a list of contacts, people he'd worked with and for over the years." Serena picked up something from the first box in line, a long and thin metal tube with a small point at one end. "One day, I sent a message to one of them, asking if they knew about my father. I heard nothing for weeks, and then one day a black limousine pulled up outside our house, and a man called Nevin walked in. Luckily for me, my mother was out, so I sat and listened as he told me everything I didn't know about my father."
"I guess you must have been pretty proud to hear how much he was feared around the world," said Quistis, mentally bracing herself for whatever Serena was going to do with her first.
"I certainly was. It was my little secret, something I never told anyone else about, even when I started doing the occasional job for my new employer." Quistis closed her eyes - she remembered how Serena was often away 'working' but her mother always said it was part of the part-time modelling contract she had. Serena was beautiful and knew it, but nobody ever suspected she was doing anything other than using her looks to make some cash. Especially as she spent the cash on her friends when she got back.
"How long has this been going on?" asked Quistis.
"Long enough for me to continue my father's work, and long enough for me to become at least his equal in what he did. What I inherited from my dad was the ability to not be affected by any of the pretty grim things he did to people. He was very good at his job, you know," Serena said matter-of-factly, as though her father had been a carpenter or repair man instead of an internationally despised interrogation and torture expert with a sideline in human experimentation.
"So that's how you ended up here? Working for a crackpot like Deakin?" Quistis was trying to work out the connection.
"I was approached by Deakin's men not long after I moved out here with Dex and Izzy," she said, picking up another unusual-looking device from the first box. "They'd already recruited me by the time the rebels approached us, so I saw it as a good opportunity to gather some inside info on things." Quistis bunched her fists up in anger.
"So it was you who sold them out," she said. "You made sure they knew Dex was a spy, and that Izzy was working with the rebels too."
"I did, very good!" said Serena, patting Quistis on the head as though congratulating a clever child. "It was simple to arrange for us to be split up and for me to go missing. Deakin's men dropped the ball and didn't catch Izzy, but that wasn't my problem. I oversaw Dex's little memory job, and since then I've been down here, working my way through the steady stream of rebels and political opponents Deakin gets down here for me." Serena lifted up a third tool, this one looking like two forks stuck back to back, and smiled, the light overhead glinting off the metal. "I must say, you're a bonus prize," she said, her smile starting to make Quistis' skin crawl.
"Well, you know me, always one for reunions," said Quistis. "What say you untie me and we go talk about the good old days over a few drinks/ There's this great café in town I found-"
"No more talking. At least, not at first," interrupted Serena. "I need to know where the rebels have got their little base so I can tell my boss, but at the same time," she continued, holding the device in front of Quistis' eyes, "I plan on catching up on the 'good old days' in my own special way." Quistis closed her eyes and made sure that she was far away in that peaceful place, as she felt the cold tip of whatever ungodly instrument Serena was about to use on her press against her cheek.
"Quistis! No!" yelled Katya, disturbing the briefing she was in. She was sat round the table in the operations centre with the others, including Vaughn, Berne and Izzy.
"What is it, Kat?" asked Cevin, as Katya held a hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding away beneath it. Everyone round the table was looking at her, even some of the other rebels working away in the background.
"She's in trouble," said Katya. "She's in pain, they're doing something to her.."
"How can you tell?" asked Vaughn, concern all over his features. Katya tapped the side of her head.
"I was looking for her. Trick I read about, I can send a part of me out, riding the natural currents of essences around here, searching for her. Everyone in the world has a unique body signature, it determines whether they can use and control the essence or not. I found Quistis but something hurt her, and it zapped back to me." Katya ran her hands through her hair and took a deep breath.
"So what, you surfed the waves of magic and found her? How can you do that?"
"Trade secret," said Kat, managing a small smile. "We have to help her. Fast."
"She's most likely being held here," said Trini, arriving at the table with an armful of blueprint rolls, unfurling one across the tabletop. It detailed the basement levels of the council building. Trini pointed to the lower levels. "We believe Deakin has cells down here where he keeps his prisoners, very heavily guarded and very tough to get in or out of."
"That's where we're going, then," said Vaughn. Berne shook his head.
"Too risky. We should wait till he moves her. Once he's finished questioning her-"
"Once he's finished?" interrupted Vaughn. "We can't just leave her down there!"
"I'm not throwing people away on a rescue mission that has no chance of success! He'll have to move her to a different location soon, so he can try her in public. That's when we can make our move."
"That'll take too long. She'll be dead by then," said Criss. Berne turned to glare at him.
"Deakin won't kill her, she's too valuable to him!"
"Even if he doesn't kill her," Criss continued, seeming not to have heard Berne, "we can't sit here and wait while our instructor is quite probably being tortured for information." Criss turned to coolly regard Berne. "She won't give you up but they'll do their best to make her try."
"I'm sorry," said Berne. "Quistis means a lot to me, she's been invaluable to me since she decided to help us, you all have. But you have to understand, I can't risk any more lives for her. The people here are looking to me for direction at the moment, and I can't keep sacrificing them."
"Then we'll go," said Cevin. "Just us three. We're not part of your 'rebellion,'" he said, miming the word with finger quotation marks, "and so we've got no ties to you or anyone else."
"Blockhead here's right," agreed Katya. "Our loyalty is to Quistis, and I'm afraid that takes priority over our mission here to help you." Berne nodded.
"Very well. It's not like I can stop you. What about you, Vaughn?" Vaughn was quiet for a few moments before looking across at the three SeeDs.
"I'm with them," he said, and Katya beamed back at him.
"All set then!" she said. "You do whatever you want, we're going to get our instructor back." Trini coughed to get their attention.
"Ah, sorry, I think I can help," she said, blushing as everyone turned to look at her. "These plans detail a few ways in to the underground complex that we may be able to get to," she said, pointing to a few long tunnel sections leading in and out of the basement.
"What are they?" asked Criss.
"Maintenance routes, air ducts, that kind of thing. Pretty inaccessible, but the best shot we have."
"Sounds like our best shot. I've got three highly-trained mercenaries to back me up, after all!" said Vaughn, turning to the SeeDs. Cevin chuckled.
"Don't kid yourself, wonderboy," he smirked. "We're in this for Quistis, we don't answer to anyone. Not even her, half the time."
"Oh, I know," said Vaughn. "But I am coming along, like it or not."
"Sure," said Criss, ending the discussion. "We could use someone like you." Vaughn grinned and turned back to Berne, who had a dark look on his face.
"I don't agree with what you're planning, but if anyone has a shot at it, it'd be you," he said. "Just don't get caught," he finished, standing up and leaving the room. Vaughn watched him go then turned to Trini.
"Now then, Trini," he said with a purposefully warm smile. "Tell us everything you can about these tunnels. Where we get in, where we go and how we get out."
"Oh, I'm sorry, did that hurt a little?" asked Serena, her ever-present smile in place as she examined the tooth she'd just freed from Quistis' mouth, letting a few drops of blood spatter down on Quistis already bloody t-shirt. Quistis' eyes were squeezed tightly shut as she managed not to let out any sound of pain.
"Nnd.. ntist.." Quistis mumbled.
"What?" asked Serena, dropping the tooth into a small bowl and leaning in closer to Quistis. Quistis spat out a mouthful of blood and shifted her gaze to stare coldly back into Serena's eyes.
"Bad dentist," she said. "Teeth were messed up anyway," she grinned. "So I guess you just did me a favour, saved me paying someone to get that taken out."
"Still got that sense of humour, I see," smiled Serena, but her smiles were more like that of a hungry lion stalking its prey than one old friend to another.
"Keeps me going," said Quistis, a little faint. There were scratches, cuts and lines of blood drawn across most of her face and upper body already, Serena having spent at least an hour getting to work on her. "So, are you going to ask me any questions at all? 'Cause, you know, I'm getting a little bored of all this torture stuff," she said.
"All in due time," said Serena, cleaning and packing away the tools she'd been using from the first box. "I think it's time to open the second box now."
"Big deal, more sharp things. Woo."
"You're hiding your pain and fear well, Quistis, my father would have had nothing but praise for you. You're a woman who is used to pain, I can tell," said Serena, lifting Quistis' t-shirt a little to expose some of the ugly scars she still bore from the lizardman attack that had nearly killed her.
"Yeah, me and pain, old buddies," said Quistis. "So what's the deal with the boxes?" she asked, here eyes on the ten small boxes on the table, each larger than the one before. Serena grinned as she opened the second.
"One of my father's lost treasures," she said. "Tools of the trade, an expert's kit that in the right hands can extract anything out of anyone. Literally," she finished with that evil smile again. "By the time I get to the fifth box, most people are telling me which of the girls on their street they had dirty dreams about as a child. No-one's made it past the eight one yet, which is a little disappointing, because the best toys to play with are in the last two."
"Well, I'll be happy to disappoint you then," said Quistis defiantly.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Okay. Simple plan. We get access to the basement, locate Quistis and get out. No confrontation unless absolutely necessary," said Criss as the team splashed their way along the murky drainage tunnels beneath the city streets. Trini had joined Vaughn and the three SeeDs, but only so she could guide them through the complicated network of passageways and tunnels, she wasn't joining the foursome in their strike on the base itself.
"I would have thought that was fairly self-explanatory," said Vaughn as he tried to keep up. Trini was out front, a powerful light mounted to a miner's helmet she'd borrowed from rebel HQ slicing through the darkness ahead and helping her point the way forward. The team arrived at a junction and she paused, checking both ways and looking down at a map in her hands. Cevin peered over her shoulder - the map seemed to be an impenetrable mess of lines, arrows and curves.
"Can you actually read that thing?" he asked, and Trini jumped, lost in concentration until he'd surprised her.
"Course I can!" she smiled back. "Just takes a bit of planning, that's all."
"Which way?" said Vaughn, a torch in his hands as he looked down both passages.
"Uh, that one," said Trini, pointing to the left. "The other way is a bit quicker but gets narrower, this way is much easier.
"Time isn't on our side here, Trini," warned Criss. "If there's a faster way, we're better off taking that one from now on." Trini nodded but started to splash through the knee-deep water down the left hand tunnel anyway. Cevin chuckled and started after her, shifting his backpack weight as the rest of the team followed him.
"Katya, any chance you can light this place up a bit?" asked Vaughn over his shoulder, as the ambient lighting of the tunnel started to drop away, leaving only the beams of torchlight. Katya held a hand up and closed her eyes, but frowned and shook her head.
"Nothing, sorry. Same kind of interference I was getting in that office compound a few days back," she said.
"That's something else we need to find out about," said Criss as he followed Trini. "If Deakin's managed to find a way to block magic users' ability to control essences, we're in trouble."
"Yeah, because wading through stinky green sewage water doesn't count as 'trouble,' obviously," muttered Katya.
"Oh, dear, how clumsy of me," said Serena as Quistis let out a yelp of pain. Quistis was currently on the fourth box of Serena's bag of tricks, and despite showing powers of resistance she didn't even know she had, things were starting to get pretty bad for her. The fourth box contained a little cloth package full of needles, slim wooden handled slivers of metal that Serena was sliding directly into pressure points around Quistis' body. She couldn't move without triggering spasms of pain running up and down her body, with one needle in her neck, two in her hand and another in her shin. The yelp of pain had resulted from Serena inserting one needle at a slightly awkward angle, which caused Quistis' whole body to erupt in flames of agony. Her fingernails were digging hard into the palms of her hand as she struggled to stay in control, drawing blood as she gritted her teeth against the pain.
"It's fine.." Quistis gasped, "easy.. mistake.. to make." She was staying one step ahead of Serena so far but she wasn't sure how much longer she could last.
"You're being very understanding, I must say," said Serena, her eerie voice seeming a million miles away from the quiet, well-educated tones of the Serena she was used to, the one she thought she knew. "I may even get round to asking you some questions soon but you're making things so interesting for me, I just don't want to leave!"
"Can I ask.. you a question?" said Quistis, sweat dripping down her brow and mixing with the blood from earlier cuts and wounds. Serena sat back, a bemused look on her face.
"That's a first," she said. "Go on."
"When did you realise.. that you'd never be as good at this.. as your father?" said Quistis, allowing a huge grin to drag across her face. Serena's face flickered for an instant, but she controlled the momentary burst of anger well.
"Good, very good," she laughed. "Reverse psychology. Very clever. Make me mad so I make a mistake. Textbook stuff, Quistis, but inventive all the same." Quistis kept her grin in place - she knew Serena was bluffing. That remark had incensed her, but she was hiding it well. Quistis needed to stay focused long enough to find out what else angered Serena, so she could force her into making some kind of error. Or, at least, to distract her for long enough to buy the time she needed to let her SeeDs come and rescue her, which is what she hoped they were doing right now.
"Right. Well. This definitely wasn't here before," said Trini, as the group stared at the huge metal grille blocking their path along the tunnel ahead. There was a distant light about thirty feet further down, but the grille was welded firmly in place, and a few experimental shakes from Cevin just proved that it was stuck fast.
"So what, they've been making a few home improvements?" he said as he turned back to face the others. "Now what?"
"We can't turn back, we're losing time already," said Vaughn, peering down the tunnel. "Katya, is there any way you can gather up some power to try and bust that thing open?"
"Are you kidding?" she said. "I'd need three day's sleep before I had enough mojo to blow something that big open."
"Stand back!" yelled Criss from behind them. The group turned round to see him draw his cold blue gunblade and adopt a kata stance, his eyes closed and his blade held against his head as he focused his thoughts and energies.
"Uh-oh," muttered Cevin, grabbing Trini and dragging her to the side of the tunnel, out of the way. Katya yanked Vaughn out of harm's way, as Criss' eyes flicked open and with a war cry he raced down the tunnel, dirty water splashing around him as he drew the blade back, his gaze locked on the grille before him. He leapt into the air, and Katya swore that the gunblade glowed a soft neon blue as he swung it through the air. Time seemed to slow down as the blade arced toward its target, and then the others turned their heads as a blinding white shower of sparks filled the passageway. When they looked back, they saw Criss standing still, looking up at the grille. Which was still firmly in place.
"Aw, man!" protested Cevin. "Dude, hit it harder this time!" Criss turned to regard his colleague, smiled and tapped one finger lightly against the grille, which creaked loudly and then fell backwards, sheared from the wall completely with the power of Criss' gunblade strike. It splashed down into the water and Criss stepped calmly through the now open tunnel, turning back to the others.
"We've got some time to make up, come on." With that, he jogged down the tunnel again, and with a shrug to Vaughn, Katya followed him.
"Well now, I think that means it's about time I started on a question or two," said Serena, calmly packing away the last tool from the fifth box as Quistis squirmed around on the chair in front of her, her fingers drawn in close to her palms as she tried to squeeze away the pain of what Serena had just been doing to her fingertips.
"Go ahead.." Quistis murmured, "Answer'll be the same.." Serena grinned as she wiped some of Quistis' blood from her hands with an elegantly-embroidered handkerchief.
"The first thing we want to know is-" Serena began, but a knock on the thick iron door to the room interrupted her. She turned on her seat as the door opened, with one of the supersoldiers looming in the doorway.
"The governor needs to speak with you," he said, and Serena tutted and turned back to Quistis.
"So hard to get anything done around here," she smiled, standing up and closing her bag. "I'll be back in just a moment, Quistis. Try not to pass out on me before I get back, because I have some very unorthodox ways of waking my patients up again." Quistis glared up at her, but Serena just patted her on the head and headed over to the door. Quistis closed her eyes and strained to hear what they were saying as Serena pulled the door almost shut and spoke in whispers to the guard outside.
She caught a few words but they didn't make any sense, and when the door was closed and bolted from the outside a few moments later, she was left alone. Quistis hurt. She hurt in ways she didn't know a body could, in places she didn't know she could. Serena had been having a lot of fun with her so far, with the needles, the knives, the pliers, the hot irons and whatever other messed up toys she'd been playing with. Quistis bit her lip to distract herself and felt it trembling.
Not now. Not here, she thought to herself as she fought back the tears. She tried to focus on something to keep her mind in one place, so she didn't show any signs of weakness, because as soon as she was free she was going to show Serena a new meaning of pain. Seifer! she thought, repeating his name over and over and hoping that he could hear her.
Katya paused as the team crowded round a small grille leading away from the drainage tunnels and off into the main air conditioning system. Criss noticed and placed a hand on her shoulder as Katya frowned, eyes closed and a hand pressed to the side of her head.
"What is it?"
"It's Quistis.. she's calling for someone," said Katya, moving her head round as though she was a radio trying to find a stronger frequency.
"Who?" asked Vaughn, but Katya shook her head.
"I don't know," said Katya, opening her eyes and sighing. "It's very faint. She's still up and running, at least," she said with a faint smile at Vaughn. He nodded.
"Trini, is this the best way in?" he said as Cevin and Criss pulled the grille away from the wall. They were up and out of the water now, the tunnel having split in two with the waters heading towards the rivers and this part of the tunnel leading up to rows of shielded electrical fuse boxes and access panels. Trini nodded.
"Straight line it from here and you'll reach an air duct over the main basement corridor," she said, reading off the still unintelligible map. "Then just pop out, find Quistis and get back out! Piece of cake."
"For you, maybe," grinned Cevin, "you haven't got to crawl through this very cramped duct with four very stinky people who've spent the past hour wading through sewage water!" Criss tapped him lightly on the shoulder and pointed towards the waiting air duct.
"Let's keep moving," he said, and Cevin nodded and hopped inside. The duct was large enough for them to crawl through, Cevin leading the way. Vaughn was last in, turning to Trini as she settled down to wait for them.
"We'll be right back," he grinned, "don't go running off, okay?" Trini managed a smile as Vaughn disappeared into the tunnel again.
"Try to keep up," smirked Katya as Vaughn joined the rear of the procession, working his way along the narrow pipe on his hands and knees as he followed the others. It took about five minutes of scraping along until a light started to fill the ducts from the basement level ahead, and the group were soon peering down from the grating over the basement corridor, with its dim lighting strips and lines of closed iron doors.
"What now?" asked Cevin, and in reply Criss leaned forward on the grating just enough for it to buckle under his weight, letting it fall open but catching it before it clanged against the wall. With one hand on the inside of the duct, he dropped out, landing silently on his feet, gunblade ready, eyes scanning the corridor for movement. Cevin turned to Katya, an eyebrow raised at his team-mate.
"I know, I know, he thinks he's a ninja," grinned Katya, lowering herself down to the floor and taking up a position behind Criss. She closed her eyes and reached out, trying to use the few scraps of essence to locate Quistis, but there wasn't enough energy lying around to allow her to penetrate the thick iron doorways.
"Anything?" whispered Criss as Cevin landed clumsily on the floor next to him. Criss grimaced as Katya surpressed a giggle.
"No, sorry," she said, "still no magical juices down here."
"Well, we do this the hard way then," said Criss, padding up to the first door and trying the handle. It was locked, so he stepped back and wedged his gunblade against the lock of the door, paused for a deep breath then shoved against it, popping the door open with an echoing clunk.
"Isn't he afraid that thing'll break?" said Vaughn, having finally dropped down to join the others.
"Naah, it's as thick as Cevin's head is," grinned Katya. Cevin threw a hand gesture at Katya but she just chuckled and followed Criss into the first room. It was a storage room, nothing but grimy walls and a few old, rotting wooden boxes.
"Nothing. Check the next one," he said, pointing across the corridor. Katya tried her weight against the door but it wouldn't budge, so she motioned for Criss to break that one open too.
"You'll have the whole base down on us in a minute!" hissed Vaughn, but Criss wasn't listening, moving on to the next doorway, then the third, and then the fourth in rapid order. Criss noticed something different about the fifth door and moved to investigate.
Quistis heard the handle turning of her room and opened her eyes again, ready to face whatever Serena had in store for her next. Then she realised that the bolt hadn't been slid back, and when it did so with a heavy thud, she tried to look round as light flooded into the room.
"Oh my god.." muttered a female voice, and Quistis managed a smile as her SeeDs and Vaughn ran into the room towards her.
"Quistis! Quistis, are you okay?" said Vaughn, rushing to her side and starting to undo the heavy restraints.
"Yeah, 'cause you look like crap," said Cevin, prompting a cross slap on his arm by Katya.
"I'm fine," she said, dazed but still in almost one piece. "Nothing I couldn't.. handle," she said, weak and tired. She slumped forward into Vaughn's arms as he released the head restraint, and he lifted her up onto her feet as he stood.
"Time to get you out of here," he said, but she held up a hand to get his attention.
"Wait.." she said faintly, "there's.. still some people.. down here.. maybe other rebels," she managed. "In the other rooms."
"We'll have to come back for them, instructor," said Criss, and Quistis saw the steely look in his eyes and knew he'd keep that promise. She nodded, and the foursome made their way outside again.
"And there they all are, right on schedule," came a male voice from further down the corridor as the group exited the room. Quistis closed her eyes, having already recognised it, as Vaughn and the SeeDs turned round to face their accuser.
Deakin stood, a wide grin on his face, flanked by Serena and four supersoldiers, guns aimed squarely at the team.
"Hello, Vaughn," he said, "glad you could make it." Vaughn was silent, but Cevin, Criss and Katya stepped forward, weapons drawn as Criss' gunblade sang through the air, Cevin cracked his knuckles and Katya raised the pair of nunchucks she'd borrowed from the base.
"Put them down," said Vaughn, not taking his eyes off Deakin.
"We can handle this, get her out of here," said Criss, his eyes locked on the soldiers. The sound of several more rifles clicking from behind them told them they were surrounded. Katya looked over her shoulder and there they were - another squad of armed soldiers, cutting off their exit.
"We have a lot to talk about," said Deakin, lighting a fat cigar. "Take them," he said, motioning to the soldiers. Quistis saw the red-suited guards step forward, but her body failed and she blacked out as they came within fighting range. She dimly heard sounds of a struggle before it all went black and stayed black.
* * * * * * * * * * *
END OF BOOK THREE
TO BE CONTINUED IN BOOK FOUR!
* * * * * * * * * * *