On Earth as it is in Hell
by Caleb Nova
Chapter 21: Abberant Perception
"Never before have I met somebody so thoroughly quixotic. She may be a dreamer, but she's my dreamer, my romantic, my innocent."
-Zell Dincht (Summer's Gone, Tio Rank P)
"Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand."
"Oh Jesus, get ba-"
The sentence was never finished as the console exploded, sending the scientist flying through the air a blackened corpse. Lights flickered on and off, and sirens blared as various workers ineffectively sprayed the growing fires with extinguishers. It looked like the set of a bad disaster movie, and the Agent found himself in the middle of it all.
Trying to look like he belonged, the Agent weaved his way through the carnage, figuring he would be less likely to draw attention if he ran like everyone else. He saw a likely target in a young technician cowering in a corner. The Agent ran over to him, crouching down.
"You okay?" The Agent shouted. The technician took his hands off his ears, nodding a quick yes.
"Y-yeah.." He muttered, barely audible. The Agent scanned the room in a look of faked confusion.
"What's going on?"
"Ha-has anyone called the fire squad?"
"Yeah, I just did," The Agent lied, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. "What happened?"
"The portal collapsed!"
"I said, the portal collapsed! Just vanished into thin air!"
"Just a minute ago! Everything was fine and then 'bang'! The whole place started shaking and now it's falling apart!"
The Agent frowned. "Just because of the portal?"
The technician looked at him suspiciously, but didn't question him. "When it went down it went without any control and the feedback fried our systems! Plus the shock of the Tunnel collapsing is raising hell with everything else!"
"What do you mean?"
"Think of it this way- if you collapse a real life tunnel, all the air that was in it is forced out, and the resulting shock wave is pretty big. A big tunnel just fell in on itself, and we were standing close by."
"So what's the effect going to be?"
"Anything and everything! We've never done this before, there's no way of predicting what the result of a collapse might be! This is all so new, we were unprepared!"
All further conversation was halted as one of the I-beams supporting the hangar ceiling jerked, wobbled, and then melted like butter. White hot liquid steel splashed down onto the floor and over several people, killing them instantly. The Agent grabbed the technicians arm, and they ran for their lives.
Hendrow paced the plushly carpeted floor of Julian's office, the occasional bead of sweat finding its way down into his collar. How could it have come to this? It wasn't possible. Everything had been so perfect...
Julian sat unruffled behind his desk, languidly palming over several eyewitness statements of the incident. He frowned at Hendrow's pacing, disapproving of his panicked demeanor.
"Please, Michael. Sit down."
Hendrow complied, shakily seating himself across from the desk. The blinds were drawn, and he couldn't tell it was daylight outside, the only source of light being a dim desk lamp. Julian smiled slightly at his discomfort. "If anything Michael, you should be worried for the people Earthside. Since the lab there generated the portal, they are receiving whatever backlash the collapse resulted in."
"What kind of backlash?"
"Completely unknown. It might be nothing, it might be catastrophic. We'll simply have to wait and see."
"What's going to happen to us Julian? How we will get back home?"
Julian sighed, rubbing his temples. "Michael, do not worry yourself. There are two other facilities almost capable of reaching us, and for all we know the Oregon lab has already righted itself and is in the process of reopening the portal as we speak."
"But what about-"
"I no longer find this conversation enlightening," Julian said, eyes hardening. "I've told you there is little reason to fear. Now, why don't you get some rest."
"Yes... Yes, of course."
Hendrow left, but his doubts did not.
Squall returned from the Training Center tired and sweaty. Zell just didn't seem to know when to call it a night, and Squall supposed he was still down there right now. On his way to the elevator he saw Selphie walking down the stairs, most likely returning from substitute duty, and decided he might as well send her down to collect Zell.
She turned around, giving him one of her patented smiles. "Hey Squall!"
"I thought you might want to know. Zell is over in the Training Center. You'll probably have to make him leave."
Selphie giggled at the thought. Squall no longer found things like that as annoying as he had used to, as long as she didn't expect him to giggle with her. With a wink, she trotted off to retrieve Zell. Squall rolled his eyes, continuing to the elevator.
Nighttime was almost upon the Garden, shades of orange filtering in through the front entrance, tinting everything inside. Classes had been dismissed for the evening and most students had retired to their various dorms, a few of the more studious hard at work in the library. As opposed to the usual bustling noise of the day, now there was nothing but the deep omnipresent hum of the Garden machinery and the occasional echoing clack of footsteps.
Up in the office the deep hum was muted to a barely audible rumble. The soft noise of a keyboard being tapped filtered in from Xu's adjoining office, and he shut the doors. Settling in his leather chair, he glanced over at the closed door to his bedroom, light bleeding out from under the door frame. He assumed it was Rinoa, most likely studying for her classes.
He put a hand to his forehead, and, after a long suffering sigh, accessed the communicator main menu and connected to EstharNet. Using a special protocol reserved for SeeD, he went past the normal channels and was put through directly to the President. After waiting a few minutes, the screen flickered and came to life, revealing Laguna sitting behind his desk.
There was a moment of silence as the two stared at each other, Laguna's uncertain grin faltering and Squall's cold stare hardening. Laguna was the first to speak, running a nervous hand through his hair.
"Squall!" He said, forcing a little more joviality than was necessary into his tone. "What a pleasant surprise! What can I do for you?"
"Laguna," Squall deadpanned, jaw muscles twitching slightly. The man was already driving him insane, and he hadn't really done anything yet. "I need to make a request for information. Serving in the capacity of SeeD commander."
"Oh..." Laguna said, face falling. "Well, uh... Esthar is always willing to cooperate."
"It's about Galbadia. Do you have any idea what's going on?"
Laguna changed modes, dropping quickly into his role as President. "Interesting you should bring this up. There's been trouble over there recently. From what we can tell, a rebel insurgence captured De-"
"I know, we were there."
Laguna immediately became concerned. "Really? Is everyone okay?"
"Oh, well that's good. Anyway, if you already knew that, what do you need to know?"
"Which group took over Deling."
Laguna nodded, leaning back in his seat. "Well, that makes two of us. Frankly, we have no idea. And the new government hasn't let out a peep to anyone. However, I can supply you with photographs of the men we believe to be in charge."
"Send them over." Squall hesitated for a moment, deciding his role as SeeD commander outweighed his personal feelings. “We have some information concerning the insurgent leaders, or leader. There is one man clearly in charge, described as having dark green eyes and a large physique.”
“The description would match one of the men in the photographs. Where did you find this out.”
“Seifer Almasy was returned to Garden as a peace overture.”
Laguna was clearly taken aback. “Seifer. That is unexpected. We haven’t received any overtures here, but I’ve been keeping the lines open.”
“Send those pictures, I’ll be sending you a summary of everything Seifer was able to tell us.”
"Consider it done. And Squall," Laguna said, and Squall could see he had shifted back into regular Laguna. "I... Think we should talk, sometime. Maybe when this is all sorted out, you could come over to Esthar and-"
"Just think about it, that's I ask."
Squall didn't reply, canceling the connection.
The flooding stopped.
He was in a pressure cooker. A fly stuck to a windshield, there was a... Hallway? No. It was only a dream.
Some dream from a TV show. He remembered it now, a show about a secret agent in some lab. Sometimes it was dramatic, mostly it was funny. How did it end?
There never was....
Oh yes, there was. He remembered it now, some show about a spy in some bunker. Sometimes it was action packed, mostly it was sad. How did it end?
No, there wasn't....
Some show about a man who turned inside out all the time for no reason. Sometimes it was thought provoking, mostly it was shallow. Did it ever end?
"Oh fuck, wake up!"
Waking up was for chumps, especially on a Saturday morning like this. He'd better not get up until nine at least. That's when that one show came on. What was it about?
There was no show!
So insistent. Maybe it was time to-
The universe toppled, and the Agent fell back to the ground.
The humid atmosphere of the Training Center almost doubled the amount of work required to maintain the area, since it was prone to rust. A layer of plastic over the domed ceiling helped somewhat, but every now and then someone had to go and oil things up a little.
Zell however, did not rust, and as such there was no reason for him to leave. Easily kicking aside a Grat with a powerful roundhouse swipe, Zell roamed the dank arena in search of more challenging prey.
"Fuck!" He shouted, for no reason other than it felt good to do so. Maybe it was just him, but it was fun sometimes to yell stuff when no one was around. And it was because of the assumption that he was alone that he was so startled when a voice sounded behind him.
"Zell! Why in the world did you just say that?"
Zell spun around to be confronted by Selphie, hands on her hips, staring at him. "Uh, well, I-" He stuttered.
"Do you just go around screaming swears for no reason?"
He rubbed the back of his neck, sheepishly kicking the ground. "Not all the time."
Selphie rolled her eyes, walking up to him. She stopped a few feet away and wrinkled her nose. She pointed an accusing finger at him. "And you, Mr. Dincht, need to shower."
"Yeah, I guess I probably do."
Selphie took his hand and led him off towards the dorms. And as he listened to her mildly chastise him, Zell made a realization. He was totally whipped.
And he totally loved it.
What else did he love about her, he wondered. He was in the shower in her dorm while she went over some papers from the day. He idly passed the soap from hand to hand, thinking about it. There were all the obvious things, her smile, her hair, how smart she was and how much she seemed to care about him. Then there were all the things he had only recently come appreciate, like how she would run her fingers through his hair sometimes for no reason, or how her eyes turned a deeper green when she was aroused. He tried to place it. A little darker than leaves. Emerald maybe. Uncut emerald. Had he ever seen an uncut emerald? He thought he had. Maybe he should look it up.
Uncut emeralds suddenly became entirely unimportant when she slipped into the stall behind him and wrapped one strong little hand around his dick. He distantly imagined that if he could summon the motor power to turn around, her eyes would be about that color right about now. He was saved from making any sudden moves when she slid to his front, wrapping her arms around his neck, straddling him and attacking his mouth with an intensity he might have found disturbing if it wasn’t so delicious. Speaking of delicious, her breasts were flattened against his chest and he could feel delightfully hard little nipples abrading against his own. He decided to be a pal, and moved his hands down to cup her ass so she didn’t have to support all of her own weight. It was only the friendly thing to do.
Coherent thought ceased when she reach down and guided him into her, and from there on out Zell wasn’t sure where he was, but it was somewhere wonderful.
Chapter 22: Inevitable Desistance
"What Scott told us about the universe was a slap in the face to the standard scientific mind set. The dreamers were right all along."
-Quistis Trepe, What's Hyne Got To Do With It?
There was a land once called California, now a wasteland wiped clean by nuclear fire. There was a boy called Link. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was older, always he was fighting. There was a man who's name was a codeword, and he slipped through hallways, killing like a ghost. There was a bleak future ruled by machines, humankind used as batteries to fuel their mighty host. There was a man called Garion who's destiny was intricately tied to that of a stone. There was a spaceship ruled by an insane AI, haunting its metallic corridors. There was an unstoppable mountain of metal sixty feet tall that ran through a cityscape, the red Wolf emblazoned on its shoulder reflecting the light of burning buildings in its wake. There was a small creature who was thrust into a conflict of massive scale, bonded to fate by what rested around his neck. There was a boy called Ender who destroyed an entire race. There was a girl called Alice who went back to a familiar place that had become twisted and evil. There was a man called Caleb who believed it was all imagined, existing only in two dimensions on his screen.
There were worlds without end.
Scott gasped, exhaling the stale air of sleep in one explosive motion. He thrashed around in his sheets, throwing them aside to sit shaking and sweaty on the edge of his bed, head in one hand to steady himself. The last images of the dream faded from his mind, an unthinkably vast cosmos swelling the limits of his perception.
He frowned, trying to remember what he had seen. Nothing but the vague sensation of infinite, an endless horizon he had stood before. He shrugged, vocalizing his final thought as if to put it behind him.
The lukewarm water from the bathroom tap washed away the unpleasant aftertaste that breathing through the mouth while sleeping resulted in. He walked back into the main room and turned the light on, squinting his eyes against the sudden painful glare. The digital clock on the bedstand glowed 2:24. Early. Way too early.
Nothing to read, no TV to watch, unable to sleep. Scott sighed and leaned against the dresser, drumming his fingers on the top. Oh well. When in doubt, fall back on the old midnight stroll. Grabbing a pair of pants and throwing on a T-shirt, Scott wandered off into the dim hallways of the Garden.
Unlike some of the previous nights before the sky was dark, the moon obscured by heavy clouds. The Garden lights had been brightened to compensate and, while things were still bathed in a dim yellow, it was much easier to see.
Scott padded barefoot across the commons, gazing at the colorful architecture. Arbitrarily, he turned right out of the dormitory entrance, heading off towards the cafeteria. Maybe a late snack would make him sleepy. Until he remembered the cafeteria was completely closed off at night. In fact, by his recollection, the only two places open all night besides the dorms were the Quad and Training Center. There was no way he was going to the Training center, so he strode for the Quad.
The Quad was still filled with the various pieces of the stage that needed to be assembled. A few banners had been hung, the ladders used still sitting out. Several power tools lay on the ground, sawdust swept into piles by the equipment. It gave the air the familiar scent of lumber, lending the area a certain nostalgic atmosphere for Scott, though he wasn’t certain why.
On a whim, he ascended the shaky stairs to the side of the platform and crossed the large stage, sitting on the edge with his feet dangling off the end. Alone with his thoughts, Scott lay back, relaxing his body. Of course, he'd have to be careful not to fall asleep-
Scott pushed himself up, head whipping around. There was nothing, the Quad still bereft of anyone save himself. He frowned.
"Hello?" He said quietly. "Anybody there?"
I will speak, and you must listen.
Scott lifted himself to his feet, looking behind him. "Oh, God, I know I'm not supposed to be out after curfew-"
I am not your God, Outsider.
"No, that's not what I meant," He laughed nervously, still trying to find the source of the voice. "It's an expression where I come from- Look, I'm not in trouble am I?"
Cease your nonsense and listen to me, for there is not much time.
"Okay, sure, just where are you?"
Soon there will be a time of choice. You must prepare yourself for what will be required.
Now he was starting to become angry. "How about instead you prepare to tell me where the hell you are?"
I have little patience left with you, Outsider. It is only by my grace that-
"Little patience with me?" Scott said incredulously. "I'm not the disembodied voice in this equation lady, don't start with tha-"
A sensation like a spear of lighting ripped its way through his brain and he fell to the stage floor, gasping in pain. The Quad was suffused in light, and he squinted against the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, what was revealed left him breathless.
She hovered over the stage. 'She' was so inadequate, it was so much more. It was a golden beacon, power given female form. It was glorious. And it most certainly silenced him.
Now you will listen to me, or I will revert you back to the matter from which you were formed.
Scott wheezed something that sounded like an affirmative response.
Soon the disease that your kind has brought will spread to Garden. It is building across the sea, and I am powerless to stop it.
The being burned brighter in anger.
Never doubt for a moment of your unnatural existence that if I had the power I would destroy you and your kind.
The heat faded somewhat, and Scott thought the being might have sighed.
Instead, I must use you. You will help right this wrong of your doing.
"What? I didn't do anything-"
Scott did his best to sink into the stage, huddling away from the awesome power.
Your lies only damn you further. Do not attempt to placate me with your falsities.
Willing or not, you must take part in this.
To reveal would be to destroy. What will come will come. At this time, I can only instruct you in a way to impact the future without speaking of it. Before it is too late, you must learn to control the power within you. You must harness that energy. It is the only chance.
Reach inside yourself. You will touch it. There is nothing else to say.
The light started to dim, and the image before him slowly faded.
"Wait!" He called out, feeling belligerent in the wake of so many unexplained commands. "One last question!"
What is it, Outsider?
"Why are higher powers always so goddamn cryptic?"
Then I will phrase my response in a manner which you will understand.
With that, she was gone.
Irvine was awoken by a pounding on his door. He groaned, slowly rolling off the bed. Slowly making his way over to the door, he leaned against the frame and pressed the open button. With a slight hiss, the door slid to the side, revealing a wild eyed Scott.
Irvine squinted at him, contorting his face into a frown. "What the hell are you doing over here? It's 2:42 am."
"A God just told me to go fuck myself."
Irvine yawned, scratching his side. "That's great pal. Why don't you tell me all about it tomorrow over breakfast, okay?"
"No Irvine, I'm serious, I wasn't dreaming, this isn't a joke, some big shit just went down and I'm a little freaked out about it, okay!" Scott said, voice rising. "I don't know what the hell just happened!"
"Alright, alright. Come in."
After Irvine had woken up to at least a state of semi-awareness, Scott related the entire story. Irvine's reactions ran their course through a various range before settling on serious.
"Well," Irvine said, scratching his head. "I can't explain what happened, but considering all the cosmic stuff that's been going down I'm almost not surprised. I'll get everyone together tomorrow for a meeting, we'll figure this out."
Irvine stood up, leading Scott back over to the door. "Try to get some sleep. I'm sure this will make more sense when we talk it over."
Scott began the walk back to his room, mind still churning with the recent events. He turned back around when he heard Irvine call something.
"Oh and, Scott!"
"Don't wake me up again unless something else starts talking to you."
"We press forward."
"But the current concerns of-"
"Forward, Michael," Julian stated again. "It is the only direction available to us. The other labs need time to finish their respective portals, and I will not spend that time sitting here while our plans are on the verge of completion. If anything, current events call for an acceleration of our plans. If we have an even stronger hold on the world by the time the portal reopens, so much the better. Progress is not made by wasting opportunity."
"There are a things working in our favor. All our forces have gathered for quick deployment. With a little research, we found the personal webpage of 'Selphie Tilmitt', and we learned that Garden will be holding some sort of festival soon. That would be the most opportune time to strike."
Julian frowned. "However, because the portal is no longer available to us, we cannot bolster our forces with any more Earthside soldiers. We'll have to use more Galbadian men than planned."
Julian stood, walking over to a large map of the world he had pinned to the wall. Taking a red marker, he circled each country. Then he put an x through the circle of Galbadia. Capping the pen, he stood back and observed.
"After our hold on Galbadia is tightened, our main worries will center around Esthar. We can't be sure how they will react to the fall of Garden."
Julian put a question mark over Esthar.
"Trabia is much like Switzerland. What little we know of history has shown them to be neutral and isolationist. They will most like not involve themselves, especially as the country now lacks a Garden."
Julian put a horizontal line through Trabia.
"Likewise with the Shumi."
He put another line through the Shumi.
"Timber will be far too concerned with its own problems, and even if they did have a negative stance, they lack the power to strike us."
Yet another line was added to Timber.
"Dollet is another wild card, though not one on the scale of Esthar. They lack a strong military and have little political clout. Whichever way they blow, it won't effect the outcome much. The only real threat they pose is Dollet's possible use as a staging area for an Estharian assault."
Julian drew a question mark in the Dollet circle.
"And Centra isn't even a factor as it is for all intents and purposes depopulated."
Julian drew a last horizontal line through the Centra circle. He stepped back, studying the theater of war.
"I class Balamb with Balamb Garden, as they are practically one and the same. The locals will no doubt react to our invasion, and could hamper us if they organize. When we actually capture the Garden itself, it would be in our best interests to move it away from the island to avoid any more unnecessary conflict."
"Yes, quite, but do you think the men will be as willing to fight with the portal gone?"
"Some of them, yes, but I have no intention of solidifying the rumors. Officially, the portal is still operational. Speak nothing else in front of the men."
"Then we are ready to begin the preparations.”
The fog dissipated as if struck by a strong summer breeze. Odd, considering there was no breeze. Was there ever any fog?
The Agent came to.
He found himself in a hallway. Nothing unusual about that. It looked like any of the many other hallways that crisscrossed the complex. White tile, white drywall covering the concrete beneath. Simple light fixtures on the ceiling. A waist high table against the corner wall. He was lying on his back in just such a corner junction, the hall stretching off above his head and to the left.
He sat up slowly, uncertain what injuries he might have sustained. None. He wasn't even dizzy. Besides himself and the hallway, the only other thing present was the nameless tech he had accosted in the lab, huddling against one of the walls. Sweat ran down his face, and his eyes darted from place to place. The Agent stood up, walking the few feet over to him.
"Thanks," The Agent said, putting out his hand.
"For what?" Despite his appearance, the tech sounded calm.
"For getting me out of the lab. Was I knocked out by the concussion?"
"I didn't do anything."
The Agent frowned, unable to reconcile this with their new position. "Then how did we get here?"
"I don't know."
Perhaps they had been both knocked unconscious by some explosion and then left here by some as yet unknown staffer who had gone off in search of help. But first things first. The Agent knew that the best thing to do first was to secure a safe exit. Then if possible, reenter the facility and salvage whatever information he could. He looked down at the quaking tech.
"We need to get out of here. Where are we?"
"I don't know."
"We need to find a directory then. If we can locate a la-"
"You don't understand. I know every inch of the facility, and I have never seen this hallway before."
The Agent was worried at the hints of panic creeping into the tech's voice. The last thing he needed was a basket case on his hands in the middle of a crisis. The tech was a liability. His mission came first.
"You stay here," The Agent said, arbitrarily picking a hallway to start down. "I'll see what I can find."
The tech said nothing, just watching him.
The Agent started walking. The main priority was to find some sort of exit. Unfortunately, the facility had few paths to the surface. There was the main entrance, a large, almost hangar-like entrance through which most things came through, and then there was a smaller, secondary backdoor somewhere on the other end of the complex. Not knowing which end he was closest to, the Agent was unable to tell which direction would be the most likely to yield results.
At this point the Agent began noticing strange details about the hallway. For one thing, the lighting was strange. Despite that fact that the light fixtures on the ceiling were spaced, the hallway seemed to hold the same light level throughout. Also, no matter how far he walked, the end of the hallway didn’t seem to be getting any closer. He knew something was very wrong when he at last glanced down to see he wasn't casting a shadow, nor was there any reflection in the tiles. He stared at the floor for most of a minute, unable to comprehend the situation. He spun around-
-To find that the tech and the corner table were still no more than five feet away.
"What the hell!"
"I told you."
"What the holy fuck is going on?"
Not waiting for the tech to explain, the Agent began to run as fast as he could down the hall. After two minutes, he turned around. The table was still there.
In desperation, he slowly started to back away from the corner, keeping the table sight. It seemed to be working, the table slowly shrinking into the distance. Suddenly, he tripped on something, losing his balance and crashing to the floor. He pushed himself to his feet, and found himself looking at the table he had just tripped over, the same one he had been keeping in sight, and the tech sitting next to it.
Gasping, he fell against the wall, sliding to a sitting position next to the tech. He stared at the tech, who gazed back with tired eyes.
"I can't entirely. This is beyond me, beyond any of us. What 'this' is, is the result of the portal collapse. We're stuck here."
"For how long?"
"God knows. I don't."
"Is there anything we can do?"
The tech buried his face in his hands, his attitude that of someone already doomed. "No. As you found out for yourself, we can't go anywhere. The only way this place will right itself is if the fracture in the universe, which we are currently sitting in, repairs itself, or at least just goes somewhere else. Even then we're fucked though. When the portal rupture disappears, so will everything that goes with it."
"But wouldn't that just mean the wires and stuff connected to the portal would vanish? What does all this concrete have to do with the portal, it's not part of it."
"It doesn't work like that. The portal takes up a lot of space dimensionally, if not physically. It's all very complex spatial calculations, you wouldn't understand. But the fact is, that when the portal goes away, so will a mile and a half wide sphere around it."
"Jesus Christ. A mile and a half deep crater in the ground."
"Not deep, wide."
"But you said it was a sphere."
"Yes, but only in the relative Sphereverse. It overlaps."
"Can we stop it?"
The tech shook his head. "We can't even start it. I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do."
Chapter 23: Impending Conflict
"A naive young soldier enters a portal and finds himself in a video game that has become his fantastic reality. A cheesy plot in the cheesiest of 1950s sci-fi flicks. Sometimes in the middle of the night I lie awake and wonder if it was all real. Wouldn't you?"
-Scott Keyor, Worlds Unknown
Michelle happened to be stacking papers on Squall's desk when everyone assembled for another impromptu meeting, and with the present atmosphere she understood the need to leave. On her way out she gave Scott a small, perhaps hopeful, smile, which he rewarded with an uncertain one of his own. She closed the large double doors behind her, and all attention immediately focused on him.
He sighed, the situation all too familiar. "I had a run in with God last night."
Zell laughed, grinning widely. Everybody turned to stare at him and he shrank back, suddenly realizing that Scott wasn't joking. Selphie winced slightly, leaning over to whisper something in his ear. Zell shrugged sheepishly, embarrassed at his outburst. "Uh.. Sorry."
"Anyway," Scott continued. "I was walking around the Quad, when-"
"After curfew?" Quistis interrupted, her tone somewhat disapproving. Irvine rolled his eyes.
"Not now, Quiz. Besides, we've all been out after curfew."
"It's no big deal," He added to Scott. "Keep going."
"So, I was in the Quad when I heard someone talking to me. I talked back a little bit, kind of made it angry when I wouldn't listen, and then it appeared over the stage."
Scott gestured with his hands, trying to emphasize the dimensions of what he saw. "It was big. Not so big it filled the whole room, but pretty damn big. And it glowed. Gold, actually. Bright gold. Basically, and I forget exactly what it said, but the gist of it was that something big is going to happen and that I was the only one who could do anything about it. It talked about some 'power' I have and told me I needed to use it to do the stopping in question."
The group was silent as they digested this. Squall was the first to speak, gauging Scott's reaction.
"Would this have anything to do with what happened in the tunnel?"
Scott gave a start, stammering a half formed response. "I, uh, well-"
Irvine grimaced, avoiding looking at Scott's eyes. "I told everyone when we got back. We didn't say anything because it was... Best that you were observed, rather than messing with it."
From a strictly militant point of view, Scott understood the rationale behind such a decision, but it still hurt him a little. He stared at the floor, unsure of how to respond to such a statement. The atmosphere quickly turned awkward.
“We also, well, just didn’t know what to do about something like that,” Irvine quickly added.
Scott looked up, giving a small smile. "I... understand."
"Good," Squall said shortly with his usual tactlessness. "Now we want to try something. Rinoa."
Rinoa stood, walking over in front of Scott. He leaned back in his chair, not sure what to expect.
"I'm going to try to 'see' what's inside of you," She said, kneeling down until she was at eye level with him. "The minute you start feeling some sort of reaction you think might be bad, say something, okay?"
"Got it," He said, not at all sure that he did.
Closing her eyes in intense concentration, she put both hands on the side of his head. Everyone watched, tense and waiting for some sort of sudden backlash. Ten seconds passed, and nothing happened. The tension started to ease and the group began to relax. Fifteen seconds passed, and boredom began to set in, at least for Zell. Twenty seconds passed, and Rinoa leapt back with a gasp, jerking as if she had been electrocuted.
Squall was immediately on his feet, rushing over to her. The others were hot on his heels, and soon they crowded around a wheezing, pale Rinoa.
Squall glared up at Scott. "What happened?"
"I, God, I don't know!"
"You didn't feel anything?"
"No, nothing!" Scott almost yelled. "I was just sitting there and she fell down!"
"Infirmary, now!" Squall ordered. Selphie was halfway to the door to open it and Rinoa was in Squall's arms when she began to feebly wave her arms about.
"No no, stop!" She gasped. "Set me down, I'm okay!"
Squall carefully complied, and everyone backed off to give her some air. It was several seconds before she could continue.
"I... I think all my GFs are out," She said dazedly.
"Well what the hell did that?" Zell asked, still filled with adrenaline from the short panic. "You were just sitting there, nothing weird happened. Well, besides the knocking out thing."
"Yeah, it was so fast!" Selphie seconded.
Rinoa made a face, recalling the details. "Ugh, it was like being sucker punched. This big wave of energy knocked all of my magic out, and me with it."
She felt around her subconscious, finding the familiar power sans the GFs. "It's back now though. I guess I can't touch whatever Scott has."
"Here," Squall grunted, lifting her to her feet. "You sit down for awhile."
He helped her into a chair, and she gratefully sank back into it. Scott knew he hadn't done anything, but he still felt a little guilty.
Quistis shook her head in frustration. "If we didn't need Odine before, we certainly do now."
Zell started to shadow box, hopping back in forth in one place. "I say we grab the Ragnarock and go find that little butt monkey!"
Irvine rolled his eyes. "Hell, that's a great idea. You go warm up the ship and we'll be right down."
"Kick ass! Hurry up though, it's almost-" Zell froze, and his eyes narrowed. He turned back to glare at Irvine. "Fuck you man. Fuck you up the ass."
"I'm sure you'd like that."
"Shut your cake hole, faggot."
"I'm not going to take being called a faggot from the guy who wanted to do me up the ass, you little turd burglar."
"Then how about you shut the fuck up you fucking hayseed-"
"Stop it, both of you!" Selphie shouted, stamping her foot. "We're not supposed to fight each other!"
Zell gestured angrily towards Irvine. "Why don't you tell that to Huckleberry over there?"
"It takes two to tango, butt pirate."
"You goddamn hick-"
"No, she's right," Quistis interjected, not a little angry herself. "This isn't helping anything."
Once again Zell started up. "But he was-"
"You're both done," Squall said quietly, instantly asserting control. "And so is this meeting. We can't do anything without more information."
Everyone who wasn't already standing did so to leave. Zell was the first to the door, and before he left he couldn't resist one last jab at Irvine.
"Right behind you, hillbilly," Zell said, making a grand sweep with his arm at the door.
"Ladies first ass face."
Squall put his face in his hands as the argument ignited again.
Sergeant Patrick wasn't a real Sergeant, but that didn't stop him from acting like one. If you fell behind, he'd be in your face. If you forgot something, he'd remind you less than gently. And if you should for one moment step beyond the bounds of your authority, he'd be sure to let you know. The end result of his harsh regime was the behind the back nickname of Punishing Patrick or, if he had done something to particularly piss the men off, the shortened version consisting of just the initials.
Perhaps in a regular army his discipline might have paid off in eventual grudging respect and improved battlefield performance. Unfortunately for Patrick, the combined mercenary forces of Julian Foss were a most irregular army. When every man under your command is used to fighting by himself or in smaller groups, and in decidedly different circumstances, it became extremely difficult to overcome the vigilante atmosphere. To make matters worse, the average merc hadn't necessarily seen actual combat. Not a few were fresh to the business, and many of the veterans had been bounty hunters or worked security. Patrick himself had been in several private armies in Columbia and had taken part in serious fighting, attacking neighboring drug plantations and gunning down members of rival cartels. That was why he was a Sergeant.
It was strange duty, to be sure. Assaulting and occupying an alien city. And the portal... Most of the men had refused to enter it. The staff on site had been forced to send several people back and forth to prove it was safe, and their pay had been increased. There had still been a few holdouts, but the scientists had put on a convincing demonstration and the pay was too good to refuse. Strange stars at night, strange weather patterns in the day. Strange people with strange clothes. A lot of things were familiar. Cars, television, streetlights and telephones. It was still hard to believe it could be real. But after awhile the city became ordinary and the business of guarding a new country routine. Anything could become standard if you were exposed to it enough.
But then something had happened, and things had started to move again. Official word from the top was that there would soon be smaller assault on another target. Rumors drifted around about what that target might be. Anybody who had ever played Final Fantasy VIII, of which there were few, became valuable commodities, often charging for information. Even more troubling rumors circulated that hinted at trouble with the portal. But Patrick wasn't paid to question. He was paid to fight.
And from the way things were accelerating, he would soon get his chance.
So anyway, what happened was-
Hyne shut her senses to the state of the universe and concentrated solely on the task at hand. It didn't matter now anyway. If she failed, all would be lost despite her administrations.
....Did I mention that she talked to Scott?
Yes, you did.
You're probably right, I just couldn't remember.
I bet. We both know you possess an eidetic memory, and you’re the only one here who thinks you’re funny. What about Rinoa?
What about her?
What was she doing?
Rinoa tried to concentrate on planning the upcoming Garden Festival but the memory of her brush with Scott's mind nagged at her. Despite her failure to completely grasp what had happened, just before the feedback hit she had felt something. Something part of whatever was wrong with the world around Scott. If only she could get a handle on it, maybe something could be done.
Are you sure that's how it went?
Well, I simply assumed. I wasn't there after all.
I know I asked about her, but what does that have to do with anything?
...What do you mean?
It's pointless. It leads nowhere. She never fixed the Knot.
Yeah, but she thought about it.
You’re supposed to be providing me with evidence that you should not in fact hang for all of this. You’ve done a remarkably poor job so far.
I guess that’s a matter of opinion.
You still haven’t convinced me that you planned to do anything at all about it.
I felt I should at least give Hyne the benefit of the doubt.
I never liked her.
We're getting close to the reason I'm here. You knew about Scott, and you still didn't do your job.
I had my reasons.
Then I'd better hear them.
You just sat through all that and you still don't get it?
All I get is that if things had gone just a little bit differently I wouldn't be here questioning you, I'd be beating the hell out of you. You know the Council doesn't take kindly to this crap.
Maybe I felt Hyne could handle it.
Hyne was a minor deity with a bad track record. If that's true, I'd leave it out of your excuse.
I think the Council would do well to judge me by the end results.
I think you would do well to kiss your ass goodbye.
Once a Kharadjai, always a Kharadjai. What are they going to do, impeach me?
No Kharadjai has almost lost an entire universe before. You'd better think fast.
Before you start threatening me again, at least let me finish the story.
Fine. But hurry it up, I need to check on A21b in awhile.
Really? What did Brian do?
Few problems with a black hole and a decaying orbit. Nothing compared to the shit you're mired in. Start talking.
When did you start using that sort of language?
I’m having a bad day.
Okay, so the Garden Festival was coming soon, and everyone was getting ready for it,
And it wasn't so much that Scott didn't want to take part as the fact that he had no idea what to do. He wasn't particularly skilled at decorating or stage design, and he couldn't play any instruments. Not being much of a partygoer, he also wasn't sure what sort of food to serve. As such, he was fairly useless and spent most of his volunteered time hauling stuff around.
The stage had taken form and now whatever crew Selphie could pull together was trying to put together an acceptable sound system, a tall order for the inexperienced. So far, they had managed to get the subwoofers working and were now attempting to wire it all in to a main board. Wisely, Zell had been sent to see if one of the Garden's technical experts would oversee the setup.
Selphie was giddy in anticipation, nearing something Scott could only describe as hyper-giddy. He wondered if her diet consisted entirely of Oreos and Pixie Stixs, a private joke that quickly fell flat when he remembered that they didn't exist. Well, there would probably be some sort of equivalent anyway. So far all he had eaten was the basic hamburger\hotdog or salad with chips from the cafeteria, and a thing of nachos he had begged off a vendor in Deling. Those nachos hadn't been half bad. Scott suddenly found himself hungry.
Looking around the Quad, he found the most likely source of a quick fix in Nida, who was lounging on the stairs munching on some sort of snack bar. Scott strolled over to him and planted himself on the stairs next to Nida, who steadfastly ignored his obvious interest in the snack bar.
"So.... Nida..." Scott began. "Whatcha eating there?"
"I see. Got any more of that?"
"....Don't hold out on me man."
Nida sighed, reluctantly breaking off part of the bar bottom. Scott eagerly snatched it from him, savoring the taste. Sure, it was just granola, but it was something.
"So Nida," Scott mumbled through a mouth full. "When's this Festival going to be ready?"
Nida shrugged. "Selphie would know, I don't. But if things go the way they usually do, I'd say no more than another day, if not even. Once things get going it gets done quick."
"When's the Festival itself?"
"There actually isn't a set date, but it's always held somewhere in the same space of two weeks. One of those being this week. So if they do finish up, I'd say the day after tomorrow or the day after that."
"What do you do there?"
"It's a little different every year, but they always have a band or DJ to play music, the dance floor around the stage and a bunch of food tables."
"...I think I'll just hang around the food tables."
Nida laughed, shooting Scott a look he didn't like. "Oh no my friend, I think not. If I know Selphie, and I think I do, you're part of 'the group' now, and she'll make it her sacred duty to see you hooked up for the Festival. Mark my words, you are marked for slau- Oh shit, here she comes now!"
Nida jumped to his feet, walking quickly off towards the main dome. "Later!"
Scott glared after him as Selphie closed in. Judas!
Selphie plopped herself down next to him, smoothing out her skirt. "Well, we're almost done! Just a few finishing touches and then I'll arrange the catering, and we'll be set for the dance! You looking forward to it?"
"Great! So tell me, who's the lucky lady that will be accompanying Mr. Keyor to the dance, hmm?"
"You don't have a date?!" Selphie squealed. "But you're so handsome! I'm sure there are a ton of girls who would love to go with you!"
"I don't know-"
"Don't worry," Selphie said, patting him on the back. "I'll find you the perfect match!"
"I could do nothing less for a friend! Any preferences?"
"Oh Scott!" Selphie laughed. "I'm flattered, but I'm already going with Zell!"
"I didn't mean-"
"Of course you didn't! So, no preferences then?"
"Son of a-"
"Okay then! Leave everything to me!"
With that, she skipped off, no doubt to find someone else to torture. Scott sighed, putting his head in his hands. Fuck.
Chapter 24: Time Tomorrow
"The Garden festival was one of those events that you half looked forward to and half dreaded. The cons were 'volunteering' to work on actually putting the whole affair together, the fear of getting a bad date and the added fear that your friends might force you into getting a bad date. During the weeks preceding the event everyone always tried to lay low. If you could make it past that trial time without problem, you were free to enjoy yourself at the party."
-Irvine Kinneas, The SeeD and the Sorceress
A shut in.
That's what he was.
The whole fucking Garden was gearing itself up for a wild bash and he hid in his dim room, lifting weights like his life depended on it. The weights had been transferred from the gym for his private use under the bullshit excuse of, 'avoiding conflict with other students'. Really, he felt that a good fight would make him feel better. He needed to hurt something besides himself. He need something to distract himself from thinking. Books. Video games. Movies. Porn. Anything. Weightlifting was dull enough to allow his mind to work.
Nothing to think about.
The gun flashed twice and he was momentarily dazed by the proximity, ears ringing with the piercing sound of the twin blasts. The brutal sound of impact soon followed and shiny gray hair mixed with brain matter and blood blew over the couch-
The barbell flew across the room, smashing into the dresser and splintering several of the drawer fronts.
Seifer sucked in a deep breath and slowly exhaled, the memories blowing away with the air. He wouldn't go down that road again. He was stronger than that. Strong enough not to snap a second time.
There was a fighting spirit that drove him, that demanded he go against the grain. Oh, he would love to see the looks on everyone's faces if he strolled into the Festival with some babe on his arm. That would show them. The idea quickly fell flat since he knew there was no one who would consent to be his partner. Oh well. Maybe next time.
He had worked hard lately. On everything. On his workouts, training and tests. He didn't know why. Maybe he really felt this was his only chance at redemption, and that he should use it well. Maybe if he somehow pushed himself beyond the darkness he had slipped into he could find the light. Maybe he had nothing better to do.
The jarring buzz of the doorcom shook him out of his reverie, and with a grunt he pushed himself to his feet. After a quick look through the peephole, he resigned himself to the torturous few minutes ahead. Reluctantly, he keyed open the door.
Selphie was, as usual, far too cheerful. Her mood gave him the exact opposite feelings. Now he wanted to break something even more. He didn't dignify her greeting with an answer.
"So, anyway," Selphie started, constantly hopping from one foot to the other, a small habit that drove Seifer mad. "As you probably know, the Garden Festival is coming up soon, and I need to take a roll call to see who's coming. Also, if you are coming, which I hope you are, it would be great if you would donate some small sum of gil to fund all of the hard work everyone has put into the whole-"
"Goddammit, will you stand still?!" Seifer exploded, startling her out of her speech. She stared up at him, green eyes wide. Forcing himself to calm down, he settled back into 'impassive mode'.
Selphie nervously started again, making sure to stand completely still. "...So, I was wondering if you were coming...."
To his fury, she once again starting jumping back and forth. "Are you sure? It'll be great, we've got a real band from Balamb coming in, a big catering service, a bunch of fancy lights and the stage looks really cool this year-"
"But I promise you'll have fun if you just-"
"And again, no."
Selphie gave up, turning to go down the hallway. "Okay, but just remember I asked you myself!"
"How could I forget."
Seifer keyed the door shut and walked over to the dresser, studying the damage. Not too bad, only the bottom drawer was inoperable. There was nothing in it anyway. Checking the clock by his bed, Seifer saw he had half an hour before Trepe would be after him with more work. Sighing, he went to shower.
"....Den, Den come in. This is Serpent."
"Copy Serpent. Verify."
"McDonald's, Poppin’ Fresh, Coca Cola."
"Copy Serpent. Status?"
"The party is gearing up. Lots of preparation outside visible, I saw what looked to be a catering service pull in and there's a lot of buzz on the street. In order to confirm I bought a ticket. We're good to go."
"Copy that Serpent. Follow you're extraction procedure to Timber. We'll have a car waiting for you there."
"Copy. Serpent out."
You already said that.
Things haven't changed since then.
Why did you say it?
Because you were doubting.
Who are you?
It doesn't matter.
.....I guess not.
Wait, then where's the tech?
Right next to you.
I don't see him.
What do you see?
But you're not sleeping.
I know. I died.
No, you didn't.
Things are changing. You won't have to wait long.
I hope it happens soon.
....Are you near me?
Maybe I could see you.
No. You couldn't.
Can you get me out of here?
I am here.
...I know, but can you get us both out of here?
I am here.
You don't understand-
No, you don't understand.
I am here.
Scott nervously looked around the corner, scoping the area for any signs of Selphie. Clear. Taking a deep breath and keeping his head down, Scott walked quickly across the commons, trying to stick to whatever groups of people he could. Without incident he made it across to the dormitory entrances.
And of course just when safety was in reach, the telltale flash of yellow came barreling down the stairs and halted right in front of a dismayed Scott.
"Oh glory be, if it isn't Selphie."
"You bet!" She said, giving him her trademark 'v' for victory. "Guess what?"
"You've decided to let me be dateless."
"I've got a girl lined up for you!"
It didn't matter that he had been expecting it, his stomach dropped to his feet. No doubt Selphie had told this girl that he wanted to go to the Festival with anyone, which meant that unless he wanted to hurt someone's feelings, he was screwed.
"Oh, c'mon! You'll have fun!"
"Just tell me who it is."
"Not until you smile!" She said, wagging a finger at him. "You don't want to make her feel bad, do you?"
A low blow. Damn you Selphie. Damn you to hell. But he didn't say it.
"Please, just tell me."
"It's that one girl you like, Michelle!"
"Sweet mother of God."
"You should go talk to her, I think she's filing stuff down in Storage. It's a room right off the Library, just ask one of the staff. Talk to you later!"
Of all the people he could have been forced to go with, it had to be someone he knew and actually liked. Now what lay ahead was not simple humiliation, but a mental ass raping. What was he going to do?
"What am I going to do?"
Scott turned around to see Irvine walking up, heading towards the stairs. Irvine looked around in confusion.
"Were you talking to me?"
Scott shook his head. "Just muttering to myself."
"Ah. How come?"
"Selphie, uh... 'Helped' me get a date for the Festival."
Irvine winced sympathetically. "I know. I've been there. Well, actually, I haven't, but I've heard about it."
"What, she didn't bother you?"
"I get my own dates."
"Hey, don't feel bad. Not everybody enjoys this kind of thing. You're just not a 'party' kind of guy."
"How is that possible? Back home I'm know as Scott 'Party-hearty' Keyor."
Irvine laughed, punching Scott in the shoulder. "I don't know then. Maybe it's just the air or something. Clearly, your party animal instincts have been dampened by interdimensional travel."
"So... Are you going to talk to Michelle?"
"Crap. The word's out, huh?"
"Oh yeah. I'm afraid you'll be getting winks all day. Often from people you don't know."
"This is my burden to bear."
"'Fraid so man. Maybe if you try to have fun, you will."
As far as Quistis could tell, the only good thing to come out of Festival week so far was that her Seifer troubles paled in comparison to the hectic activity. At least Seifer was only one man, if uncontrollable.
Business had always come before pleasure, and she always paid the price for this lifestyle come party time. She would rather stay alone in her office than go with some random stranger Selphie found for her. And it wasn't so bad, really. It was hard to miss what you never had. Hard, but not impossible. She found things were much more comfortable if she didn't think about it.
It was too much to hope that Selphie understood her feelings on the matter. So far she had avoided the irrepressible girl, but it couldn't last forever.
What if she enjoyed going with a blind date? What was keeping her from just trying to have a good time? You don't know what a good time is Quistis. You never bothered to find out, she thought bitterly.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, she shook her head and turned back to the paper work in front of her.
He was crazy. One hundred and ten percent out of his fucking gourd, he decided. Because there was no other explanation for why he was walking down the hallway in one of the levels in the women’s dorms, searching for a room number he wasn’t sure he wanted to find.
He tried to remind himself why he was doing this. Ah yes, pride. Anger. The need to show those self-righteous little bastards downstairs that he wasn’t what they thought he was. Such great reasons, Seifer Almasy reflected, to ask Quistis to the Garden Festival.
She’d see right through him, he knew. At this point, he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to spend another goddamn night locked in his room, tortured by his own thoughts. He was going to the Festival, and he was going to grin like he didn’t give a shit at every sideways look he drew, every muttered comment that followed him. But he couldn’t go alone.
He reached out and hit the doorcom.
Quistis was startled from her half doze by the sudden buzz of her doorcom. She quickly rubbed her eyes, sighing. It was most likely Selphie, coming to her door in one desperate last ditch attempt to persuade her to go.
Standing on slightly unsteady feet, she crossed her room and keyed open the door to find the person she least expected looking back at her.
Seifer met her eyes for a second, his customary mocking grin nowhere to be seen. Almost solemnly, he nodded at her.
“Quistis,” He choked slightly on the next words, but forced them out anyway. “I’d like you to go to the Festival with me.”
Quistis spent a moment in stunned silence before her mind kicked into gear. She harbored no illusions on his intentions. This was a giant ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the Garden. He wasn’t asking her to be his date. He was asking her to be his accomplice. And he was asking her to give him back whatever small measure of his pride could be salvaged by the presence of the two of them at the Festival.
Ironically, this opportunity was exactly what she had been looking for. Sometimes a girl found herself doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. This, Quistis reflected, was one of those times.
“Seifer,” She said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I’d be delighted to go.”
Time now. Time for action. The ships were in motion, the men were onboard. The unnatural war machine had drawn its first breath and the battle cry had been sounded. Time enough for reflection later. Little time to succeed. And succeed they would.
Hendrow had not wanted to take part in the assault, but Julian had been adamant. While they wouldn't take part in the fighting, they would watch from offshore until the Garden was secure. Too close for Hendrow. He would be far more comfortable hearing a report about it later. Julian always had been a front man.
And now there was only to see if they would win.
The final test of everything they had worked to make happen. Hendrow tried to calm his fluttering stomach, and settled in for the ride.
Chapter 25: Time Today
"Whenever most soldiers talk about battle, they always describe how indescribable it is, and how horrific. It's strange, but for me battle was only frightening in retrospect. During the actual combat it was always as if I was watching a movie starring some look alike. I experienced it vicariously, and only later did it come back real."
-Scott Keyor, Worlds Unknown
"Oh, I get it. You don't feel anything at all. You're the type of guy that two weeks from now, you'll be stopped at a traffic light and all this will hit you and when it hits, it'll hit hard. It'll hit you so hard that your heart will burst into a hundred pieces."
-Homicide: Life on the Street
Lights out, curtain call. This play that unfolds itself upon the vast stage of the Multiverse draws near to a close like all things do. The finale is uncertain, the future of many undecided. Reality is a harsh script, and the ending is rarely fairy tale. Between scenes Fate rewrites parts on whim, the Actors often adlib, and Time constantly rushes them to continue without rest. The favor of the audience is fickle and one bad improvisation can turn the style to tragedy. And it takes a skilled Actor indeed to successfully manipulate the outcome...
Now we're getting close to the finish.
It would appear that way, yes.
Pay close attention, because in awhile things will start moving very quickly, and some of it's confusing. After a certain point, I'm not sure what happened at all.
I suppose you'll blame that on Hyne?
Actually, she performed quite well. What happened in the end was an inevitable result. Unavoidable.
Maybe it will help if you keep telling yourself that.
I'm not going to argue. The facts speak for themselves.
And they speak a rather damning testimony.
Just listen. It was mid afternoon, and the Garden Festival was looming up ahead that night. Selphie had given up on Quistis (unknowing of Quistis’ true plans), Rinoa was trying to get Squall to wear something other than his SeeD uniform, Zell was trying to swipe some hotdogs ahead of time, Seifer was holed up in his room, and Scott was on his way to talk to Michelle. He had a bit of trouble finding the file room, but after some direction from a helpful Library assistant, he had found-
The room through a small corridor in the back of the Library. You couldn't even see it unless you went around several bookshelves and wove through the study area. To say he was nervous was an understatement. He could barely breathe. His thoughts were alternately jumbled prayer and the desperate wish to be anywhere else doing anything else. Like going off Niagara Falls in a coffin. Conveniently packaged for the undertaker. Even this amusing thought couldn't make him smile. Dammit.
There was a rattling coming from a door to the left. The rattling of file cabinets. Cabinets being opened and close by pretty, feminine hands. The kind of hands he would be afraid to hold, like touching a delicate sculpture. And there she was. In her civvies today, not uniform. Tight but not too tight jeans and a red shirt that accentuated her great- I'm scared to death and I'm getting horny? He was having a strange physiological reaction to his intense fear. No doubt it warranted some sort of further study but it really wasn’t the time.
She looked up with at him and smiled, a brilliant smile that brought him close to collapse. He was momentarily distracted by the subtle curve of her lips. She had blowjob lips. He had no idea where that thought and term had come from, but somewhere deep in the attic of his mind he was certain a pervert was laughing. Surely, this was some mistake. She could not possibly want to go to the Festival with him. He was a loser. He was completely out of his league. He had no idea what to expect. So obviously, the unexpected occurred.
"Hi!" She said brightly, walking up to him still holding an armload of files. "So, was Selphie telling the truth? Did you... Want to ask me something?"
The hope in her eyes was too much. Whatever resolutions or intentions Scott might have had crumbled under that gaze. He collapsed like a house of cards.
"Michelle, would you like to go to the Garden Festival with me?"
The words came out easier than he had thought. He was rewarded instantly when her face lit like light bulb. She barreled forward to wrap her arms around him in an impromptu hug, not forgetting to set the files aside first, and all the blood that had been concentrated in a certain lower portion of his body quickly moved upwards to suffuse his face in a dark blush. The process began to reverse itself as his mind quickly assimilated which wonderfully soft parts of her anatomy were pressed against him.
"Of course!" She squealed, smile making his knees weak.
"Cool," He lamely replied. "Uh, I guess I'll come get you before show time... What dorm is yours?"
"Girls dorms, floor two. It's a only a few doors down, number 32."
"Okay. Uh.. I'll be there when it's time to go."
"Okay! See you then!"
Scott left with large feeling of relief. Now he had several hours with which to prepare himself for the night ahead. The first thing on his list being to ask someone about getting a suit or something. With this in mind, Scott went searching for Nida.
He found him setting up trays in the Quad for the catering. With the Festival only hours away, the Quad was complete, now a glittering and elegant party room. Only the food had yet to be put out, and it wouldn't be until just before the party starting.
"Hey," Scott called. "Nida."
Nida stuck his hand behind his back and gave a sort of wave gesture, not looking up from his work. Scott walked along side of him and peered over his shoulder.
"I didn't volunteer, believe me," Nida grunted, forcing a container into a slot that seemed too small for it. "Another one of those days."
"I see. Who are you going with?"
"One of the Library girls, Rachael. I hear you scored a date with Michelle."
"You heard correctly."
"Nice!" Nida grinned. "She's a hottie."
"Indeed she is. Hey, I need a suit or something for tonight."
"Well, there are several places for that. But the best one is in Balamb, and you'll look cheap if you just borrowed a SeeD dress uniform. I'll drive you down there in awhile if you want. I should go anyway, since that really would be better than just wearing the uniform like I was going to."
"You cheap bastard. How could you do that to your date?"
“I don’t know my date that well, but I’m intimately acquainted with my wallet.”
“That makes a certain sick sense.”
“Anyway,” Nida abandoned the trays. “Lets head out before all the good ones are taken.”
Scott had a brief horrifying image of himself in a Pepto Bismol pink suit. “Sounds like a plan.”
The last piece of Hyne's puzzle was ready to be placed, and she could not wait until the time was closer. Now, while she still had enough power to accomplish everything, she reached out and with all her might pushed through the Knot. And then she was stopped.
An unexpected anomaly. The Knot swirled around her and she couldn't choose a linear destination. Time was fluid and random. But she could sense what she needed. A weapon. Any one of them would do. She chose one, a weapon of some time past but still more than able to perform the task it was needed for-
Wait a minute.
Hyne wanted a weapon?
Then why did she go to another universe for it? There were plenty of weapons in her own.
You'll have to ask an Elder for a better explanation, but as I understand it, the deed had to be done with nothing but implements from the world of origination. Otherwise, if the Knot closed by the function of something unrelated, things might collapse entirely instead of just snapping back to the way they were before. It was a safety precaution rather than a necessity.
Interesting. And scientifically, nonsense.
Most of what we do is scientifically nonsense. Can I continue?
The sounds of machine gun and rifle fire echoed through the woods, the constant chatter of weaponry all around. It was distant, but at any time the fighting could erupt anywhere.
Private Randall ran.
He took a right, veering off into thicker trees. He spotted a team of two men manning a sentry machine gun position, and jumped down into the hole. He grabbed one of the men's shoulders, shaking him. The man turned around.
"You guys Baker?" He asked.
"Jesus, no, Able. Head down the line and you should hit Easy, and then I think Baker is down there."
"Fuck," Randall muttered, hauling himself out of the hole. "Should've got a jeep."
“Hey, keep your head down buddy,” One of the men yelled after him. “Jerry won’t be just sitting out there forever.”
It was cold. Bitterly cold. A distant booming met his ears and he looked off to his left, the low clouds lighting up with the flash of explosions. Bastogne was being hit again. The city was enduring a heavy pounding. The men outside were surrounded by five divisions of the enemy. With no reinforcements, and little equipment.
Things seemed desperate on December 22nd, 1944.
He was walking in deep snow without winter uniform. And without bearing. He left the Able line back in the distance and had completely lost track of his path. He slowed to a stop, heart pounding. The firing in the distance had stopped, and the silence was complete.
He jumped suddenly, convinced he had heard something to his right. He peered across the clearing. There was nothing there, but God knew anything could be sunk into the snow out here- there it was again, a soft rustling. He swung his Carbine off his back and gently disengaged the safety, crouching next to a tree. The Krauts had been closing in all around for the past two days. Every now and then, a few would slip through the line somewhere and run across-
The mistake of not moving behind the tree became abundantly clear when the black muzzle of Kar 98 lifted with its owner from concealment in a trench covered with snow. The barrel stood out starkly against the white backdrop. The click of the trigger was loud in the silence. His mind was perfectly clear. He knew he was dead.
The gun fired in dead accuracy towards his brain.
But Randall was already gone.
"So," Nida began as they walked through downtown Balamb. "How did you manage a date with Tranell?"
"I'm big pimpin'."
"Selphie set me up."
"Ohhh," Nida grimaced. "One of those."
"Well, at least she found you someone good," Nida said as he started to turn down a smaller lane. "You're lucky in that respect."
The store was small, but all the suits hanging in the racks behind the wood counter looked clean enough. The various prices were displayed overhead like a menu at a restaurant, and Scott realized that he had absolutely no money at all. He was living on borrowed goods. He carefully broached the subject.
"I, uh, I don't have any money."
"It's cool, I got you covered."
"I don't know when I can pay you back..."
"Don't worry about it," Nida shrugged, fishing a handful of gil chips from his pocket. "Besides, I doubt your money would be of much use around here anyway."
Scott watched with interest, studying the chips for the first time. They were multicolored, made of durable plastic with various symbols on them and a number denoting the amount. A bar code was stamped into the back of each one.
"What kind of money do you guys use?" Nida asked, curious.
"Green? What, like plants or something?"
Scott suddenly felt primitive. "Uh, no, paper. With cotton, I think. Makes a sort of really tough tissue. They're really detailed with all sorts of crap to make it hard to forge them. And they have pictures of famous politicians. We have plastic money too, just not, you know. Currency. Credit cards and stuff, those are plastic."
"Seems a little impractical. What happens if they get wet or torn?"
"You can dry them out. ...Badly. And if they tear they're worthless. But they make a lot of new ones all the time, and get rid of the old ones."
"Well, yeah, we do the same thing. Still, that would be weird carrying a bunch of paper around."
In his new surroundings, Scott couldn't help but agree. He leaned over the counter a little, checking out the selection. "Time to go penguin."
"What the hell is penguin?"
Scott made a mental note- No penguins around here either. "It's a bird. Well, sort of. It can't fly. It swims in really cold water, and it looks like it's wearing a suit."
Nida raised an eyebrow. "A bird that doesn't fly, swims like a fish and wears a suit."
"Yeah. And they shit all over their exhibits at the zoo."
"Sounds like a lovely creature."
"Actually, they're kind of cute, in a round sort of way."
Nida tried to imagine such an animal and failed. "Anyway, you see something you like?"
Scott shrugged, knowing he didn't actually possess real discerning taste when it came to suits. "I'm going to feel stupid no matter what."
"So, just a regular one for you?"
"Yeah. Nothing fancy."
"A good choice."
The money changed hands and soon they were each holding a tuxedo in plastic wrap. They stepped outside the shop and Nida held his up, examining it.
"You know," He said. "My theory is that your chance of scoring increases an entire ten percent when wearing one of these."
"Really? I would have guessed around nineteen percent."
"No, no, that's much too large an increase. They aren't that effective."
"I think you underestimate the tuxedo,” Scott countered. “Combined with cologne, a fifteen percent increase, and well groomed hair and facial hair, a sixteen percent increase, that makes an even fifty. Personal charm and looks make up the other half."
"But that percentage doesn't hold up with statistics. Not that many guys get laid."
"Well, then you get deductions. Let's say, just for mathematics sake, that you somehow possess a one hundred percent chance of getting laid. Perfect appearance, and super charm. But then you factor in the music being played, decrease if it's just not a good song, the atmosphere, possible smoke and ambient noise and lighting, and the woman in question. If she isn't easy or playing hard to get, this vastly subtracts from the percentages. Depending on what weighs against you, you might even come out with a negative chance of scoring."
"Now we're making sense. Plus, your personal history with her or even lack of can count for or against you."
"Exactly. So after all our deductions and sensible percentages, we come to the conclusion that without forehand knowledge of a many myriad of details, the game of getting laid becomes impossible to predict."
Nida held up a hand. "Ah, but we do know quite a bit about the rendezvous at hand. I think you and I stand a chance at calculating our success, although with a large margin of error."
Nida walked over to a bench and sat down, motioning for Scott to do the same.
"Okay, so we each have suits, so we each start with a solid nineteen percent," He began.
“Ninety percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.”
“Just work with me here. A start of nineteen percent-“
Apparently the saying, 'A watched pot never boils' also applied in, 'A watched sun never sets'. Hendrow could almost feel the seconds slip by with all the speed of a snail.
He was standing on the deck of a boat, a boat that was currently serving in the capacity of a landing craft. They were floating stationary off the coast of Balamb, just beyond sight of the land.
They would beach by a landmark identified as sort of cavern used as a test of new SeeD candidates. From there they would proceed under the cover of darkness, surround the Garden, and begin a quick entry.
The main body of men would secure the front entrance, then push as quickly as possible into the Quad to capture the gathering of SeeDs there. At the same time the remaining forces outside would scale the Garden and infiltrate it from the top down, emptying everyone that might be present down to the main floor where they too would be held in the Quad. All extra forces would maintain the perimeter to prevent possible escape.
The force assigned to capture the Quad would consist entirely of Earthside men to prevent as many casualties as possible, while all other forces would primarily contain members of Galbadian Special Forces and regular Army.
The plan was sound, Hendrow had to admit, and the chance for failure slim.
With any luck, it would work that way.
Squall sighed, letting his hands slide off the keyboard. He knew he should finish the report, but he also knew he should be getting ready for the Festival.
Fall behind on his work, or face the wrath of Rinoa. Not much of a choice. But he had learned enough about relationships by now to know it was worth the effort. Getting to his feet, he crossed over into his room and opened the closet.
After renting a tuxedo for a few Festivals, he had finally given into convenience and bought himself one. He had let Rinoa pick it out for safety's sake. If it was up to him he'd show up in his leather jacket or even more preferably, not show up at all.
Ah, to be single again.
A line of thought he quickly dropped when he remembered what it was to be alone.
Anyway, by this point he was expected to be there, even if only as an authority figure. Like a Principal showing up at school events. But unlike a Principal, Squall enjoyed the popularity of being a living legend, although 'enjoyed' was not really how he dealt with it. Respect he could handle. Hero worship was like a rash or a bad rectal itch.
Just as his mind was so occupied Rinoa walked in. He glanced at the clock and was surprised at the time. He had been working longer than he had thought and she was out of her classes. She smiled and sat on the bed, most likely amused at the look he was giving the suit hanging innocently on its hanger, draped in plastic.
"Whatcha thinking about?" She asked, kicking off her shoes. Squall decided honesty wasn't the best choice, but the most amusing one.
That raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"I hate parties."
She stood and walked over to him, gently putting her hands on his chest. "I know. And if you really don't want to, we don't have to go."
Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. He could be dense when it came to the personal side of life, but he wasn't stupid. She loved the Festival. It was quite clear she was bracing herself to make a sacrifice for the relationship by ditching the Festival with him in the same way he was ready to sacrifice by going. Guilt wasn't long in coming, and he knew he could never take her up on the offer.
He was silent for a minute, still contemplating the dreaded suit. He looked at her and in his way, made it clear they would still be going.
"It won't be that bad."
She understood his need to rationalize it to himself and played along.
"No, it won't."
"All my friends will be there."
"Yes, they will."
"The food is good."
"...You'll be there."
She kissed him softly on the mouth. "Absolutely."
A short game of repetition between them that made everything better again. And getting back to his original train of thought, it wasn't really the party or the company he wasn't looking forward to. It was the awe. Maybe if he buried himself in the back corner, hopefully behind the rest of his friends, no one would notice. That might work.
Scott Keyor. A man separated from all he has known by uncrossable boundaries, a boundary that has now been breached. Through time his desperation has faded, and he has almost come to accept the strange state in which he finds himself. But Mr. Keyor is about to take a journey, a journey not only through space and time, but through another zone. A zone we call, The Twilight Zo-
That's quite enough out of you.
Hey, who's telling the story here?
At the moment, neither of us. Stop wasting time.
Clearly, you have no taste in television.
It was a scant few hours until the Festival began when Zell realized that he had simply assumed he was going with Selphie. The problem with this assumption came to him like a lighting bolt to his brain.
He quickly wracked his memory, searching through all of their recent conversations. He had to have asked her sometime. Had to have. How could he have forgotten to actually ask her after all this time? He had to have asked her.
There was nothing to do but grit his teeth and face it. He was a hero dammit, he had faced Hell and high water for the fate of the world. And yet nothing seemed so frightening as begging Selphie, who in his mind was probably incensed, to go to the Festival with him. He just hoped she wasn't so mad that she would go with someone else. The thought sparked panic and he set out in a dead run.
"I suck!" He yelled, turning more than a few heads as he sped across the commons towards the Quad. He narrowly missed hitting Irvine, sliding on his heels in what he would have bet was an impossible maneuver, recovering and juking around Irvine to the left.
"Where's the fire, Sparky?" Irvine called after him. Zell didn't bother to turn around, and flipped the bird over his right shoulder.
When he entered the Quad he slowed to a stop. Moving nervously through the people there making the final arrangements for the night ahead, he spotted Selphie up on the stage, apparently giving a pep talk to the band. He stood in what he hoped was an unobtrusive position to the side, not wanting to interrupt. He was already in enough trouble.
The pep talk ended with a jump and skip from Selphie and a few rolling eyes from the band, and she hopped off the stage to find something else to micro manage. Swallowing hard, Zell took the opportunity.
Doing his best to saunter casually, he left his hiding spot and crossed the open space to her.
She turned around, face lighting up.
"Hi Zell!" She chirped, running up and throwing her arms around him. "What's up?"
"I was just thinking, and...."
He blew out a breath. "I forgot to ask you to go with the Festival with me, and I was wondering if you would. ...Go. With me."
And she laughed. She laughed. He blinked.
"Of course Zell!" She giggled. "I already knew we were going together, but it's so sweet of you to ask me!"
"You're such a thoughtful guy!"
"Yes! Well, I'll see you tonight! Hope you like my dress, I picked it out just for you!" She said, almost, he thought, lasciviously.
With that she was bounding off to fulfill the rest of her Festival duties, and he was left gaping after her. He groaned and put his face in his hands.
He never knew anything.
Contine to Part 5