On Earth as it is in Hell
by Caleb Nova
Chapter 26: Hostage Reality
"The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes."
"'Shoot to incapacitate?' Tell you what then, I want twenty bucks a limb but I'll do the heads for free."
- Mercenary 'General' Reyland
"Talk, this is One-Mike. Come in."
"Copy One-Mike, go ahead."
"We're in position. Front terrace is occupied by one Tango, stationed left behind the counter. Standing by."
"Talk, this is One-Air. We're in position, standing by."
"Talk, this is One-Side. We're with Ten and in position. Standing by."
"Highground to One-Air. Tango nearing your entry on floor five. Exercise stealth options."
"Talk to One-Open. Report."
"This is One-Open. We're nearing our position. ETA ten minutes."
"Attention all groups. This is Leader. The ships are now secure, and you will launching the attack shortly. Remember, shoot to incapacitate, and take as many prisoners as possible. Treat this as a police situation, but when the need arises don't hesitate to fire. Contain all prisoners in the area designated as 'Quad'. Good luck."
In yet another brief moment of panic, Scott wondered whether or not Sorceress's could read minds, because he was having impure thought after impure thought, and if that was indeed the case then he didn’t want Rinoa anywhere nearby while he was busily coveting Michelle’s thighs.
Needless to say, Michelle looked stunning, and he was salivating. Heavily.
At the moment he was standing by the buffet under the pretense of getting something to eat, while in fact he was attempting to discreetly check her out at their table from a distance. The dress was some sort of blue shimmery thing with thin shoulder straps and a low back. Whatever. It wasn't the dress that was important anyway, but rather what it encased. And what it encased, to borrow a phrase, was looking 'supa fly'.
Good God. Did he just think of her as ‘supa fly’? What the hell was that? Apparently he was slipping into some sort of pimp frame of mind he didn't known he possessed. They say this Scott is a bad mutha- Shut your mouth! But I'm talkin' 'bout Scott... Then I can dig it!
Taking yet another deep breath to fortify himself, Scott piled his plate high with assorted high fat snacks and set off back towards the table. On the way he was accosted by Nida, who looked like he was enjoying himself immensely. Nida grinned and slapped him on the back a little harder that Scott thought was necessary. He winced.
"Now that," Nida practically purred, shooting an appreciative glance towards Michelle. "Is why we put up with this dancing shit."
"Please don't tell me I have to put up with this dancing shit."
"It's up to you. But getting laid is a war, my friend, and concessions must be made to achieve that final sweet, sweet victory. Besides, from the way she's been looking at you all night an unconditional surrender is within your grasp. If I were you, I wouldn't jeopardize it."
"When you put it that way how can I say no."
"Do you want to fuck this up?"
"If the urge to retreat is stronger than the urge to prevail, then the soldier cannot advance."
Nida quirked an eyebrow. "So the body is willing, but..."
"The heart is inexperienced and prone to bouts of failure."
"I believe in you."
"Then surely God is with me."
Nida laughed and swiped a chicken wing from Scott's plate, loping off into the crowd, no doubt to hook up with his potential all-nighter.
If only he were that lucky.
Well, he wasn’t going to be making any time by just standing there. Girding his loins, and mentally asking them to behave, he went back over and took his seat next to her, not for the first time wondering exactly how it was that smile she gave him had him sporting instant wood.
That damnably arousing smile still plastered on her face, Michelle impulsively reached over and grasped his hand. “There you are, I was afraid you had slipped out on me,” She teased him.
Small talk, Scott was afraid, usually eluded him. The feel of her small warm hand in his was highly distracting. He opened his mouth to make some sort of uselessly inane reply when his attention was once again pulled away as she crossed her legs. Why, he thought, why did something so simple draw his eyes like a magnet. There was something so subtly feminine about the motion he supposed, and the extra few inches of thigh it exposed through the slit in the side of the dress didn’t hurt either.
Michelle tugged on his hand. “Scott?”
“Sorry,” He gave a start. “I was thinking.”
“What were you thinking about?” The look in her eyes obviously said she hoped it was her.
Feeling like there was no point in struggling further against the current, Scott decided to confirm her hope only to be silenced as she crossed her legs again. The urge to speak was temporarily submerged as he wrestled with the need to plant his face between her legs. Considering the location and circumstances, he didn’t think it would go over too well if he went down on his date underneath the table cloth.
Tempting though. Very, very tempting.
“Us,” He desperately blurted. “I was thinking about us. It’s nice to be here. Uh, with you.” And, he mentally added, with your vagina. I’m really glad we could be here with your vagina tonight, it’s been great.
“Yeah,” She sighed. He choked back an entirely inappropriate laugh as she seemed to respond to his silent deranged joke.
He could tell it was going to be a long (no pun intended), and hard (what the hell was wrong with him?) night.
He was not, under any circumstances, going to hold her hand. However, the situation and his own gut reflex to stick to everyone at the party demanded he at least stand close enough to make it clear he was in fact her ‘date’, minus all the usual connotations of the word, such as friendship or affection. The looks they had received upon entering the ballroom had been deeply satisfying, a feeling he had been hard pressed to remember. He would have given anything to erase the past decade of his life. But he’d settle for shocking the hell out of this year’s batch of Garden Festival Attendees. So far it looked like he had succeeded on that score.
Quistis was wearing some sort of slinky red thing, an inexplicable female device that somehow made her look taller. Her new height was an optical illusion only though, and Seifer smugly used his elevated vantage point to look down the front of her dress at all opportunities, not so much out of lust than the fact she was well aware what he was doing, but her pride and practically combative stubborn tendencies when it came to him prevented her from telling him to stop.
They were haunting a corner of the room by one of the large balcony windows. Seifer was in some strange way proud of the fact that they were both cool and collected enough to stand next to each other without looking completely uncomfortable. Quistis was sipping sort of girly drink while he was wishing for some of the hard stuff, standing silently as the occasional student or friend talked to her. They of course all studiously ignored him, and while she was otherwise occupied he leered at the small clusters of Trepies that stood awkwardly around them, not brave enough to approach Quistis while he hovered nearby.
All in all, it wasn’t the disaster he had imagined. He still could have used a drink though.
Naturally it was no sooner that he had thought that when Zell strode over to them, his face dark. Seifer kept his expression blank, wishing again for that drink.
Zell took Quistis’ arm, glaring forcefully at Seifer. “Quistis,” He grated through teeth that were all but clenched. “Would you care for a dance?”
The last place Quistis wanted to be caught was between Zell and Seifer, but refusal could result in a potentially dangerous situation, judging by the number of veins standing out on Zell’s forehead. She didn’t at all want to be dragged to one side or the other of their feud, as her relationship with Seifer was tenuous enough as it was. Sighing quietly, she handed her drink to a blessedly silent Seifer and followed Zell out onto the floor.
It didn’t take him long to get to the point. “What the hell are you doing Quistis?” He hissed as they slowly circled in the age old waltz.
“He needed a date, I needed a date,” She explained carefully, as if talking to someone down in a hostage situation. “We decided to go together.”
Zell’s right eye twitched involuntarily. “That’s so great how you can pretend that it’s so fucking normal for you be standing over there with him-“
She had hoped to avoid this sort of situation but her anger was building at his unthinking accusations. “I think you need to calm down, Zell.”
“It’s Seifer, Quistis, Seifer!” Zell was on the verge of explosion. “How the fuck could you even think about coming here with him? There are so many other guys who you could have come with-“
“But none of those other men asked me, Zell,” Quistis said coldly. “Seifer did. There are other reasons, but frankly I don’t feel like explaining them to you.” She let go of his hands and stepped back. “I’m not going to have this fight with you in the middle of the Festival.”
She turned and started walking back to the corner where Seifer was still waiting. Zell took two angry steps to follow her when he was intercepted by Selphie, who grabbed his arms and hauled him back to the dance floor, whirling him around to shoot a worried look at Quistis over his shoulder. Quistis returned the look gratefully, knowing Selphie would keep Zell in check for the rest of the night. She didn’t need any distractions since she would be doing the same for Seifer, although he had been surprisingly calm so far.
Seifer silently returned her drink, which she proceeded to finish in two gulps, much to his amusement. He idly wondered if the ice sculpture standing next to him would melt if she drank enough liquor. Some devil within him quirked his mouth up in a small smile, feeling some small need to at least pose the question. “Do you want to dance?”
The look she gave him was wary and questioning. He hadn’t sounded mocking, but it could be difficult to tell with Seifer, especially this new introverted Seifer. “Do you?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
Her gaze returned to the party swirling around them as she reached and hooked another drink off a passing tray. “Then let’s not.”
Selphie sighed to herself, resting her head against Zell’s chest as they moved back and forth in a slow dance. She knew without looking that he was still glaring at Seifer, angry both at him and at Quistis for a perceived betrayal on her part. Selphie herself didn’t understand why Quistis had come with Seifer, but she wasn’t going to allow Zell to make a scene just to satisfy that curiosity. She tried to ignore the situation and enjoy the feel of his strong hands on her waist, but his body was obviously tense against hers, and she felt with not a little annoyance that he might try to pay a little more attention to her.
“Zell,” She said, moving her head to look up at him.
“Yeah,” He replied, but didn’t look down to meet her eyes. She frowned.
“What Selphie?” He said, this time looking at her but still obviously distracted. Rather than get on to him about it she decided to try a different tack.
“Can’t you just forget about them for now?” She said softly, pressing herself closer against him. “Let’s just enjoy the Festival. I put a lot of work into making this happen, I’d hate to see it go to waste.” She noted with some satisfaction that he now looked somewhat guilty.
“I know Selphie, but I just don’t get how she could- could,“ He faltered as she placed a soft kiss against the side of his jaw, the touch of her lips against the sensitive skin making him shiver slightly. “Well, you know..”
Selphie rolled her eyes. “She’s standing over there in the corner Zell, not fucking him in public.”
“Selphie!” Zell was a little shocked at her words.
“Oh, you can say things like that but I can’t?”
“No. I mean, no of course you can, just, you usually don’t,” Zell stuttered. “I don’t know, I just never imagined you doing that.”
“You never imagined me fucking?” Selphie said innocently. “That’s strange, I often imagined you.”
“Saying that Selphie! Hyne, you trying to kill me?” Zell nervously looked to the closest couple, trying to see if they had overheard. He thought she had picked a hell of a place to talk dirty to him. The middle of a dance floor was not the greatest location to become obviously aroused.
Selphie knew she should probably stop but didn’t really feel like it. It was her party, and she’d flirt if she wanted to. She pouted appealingly. “So you never fantasized about me Zell?” She saw with a certain pleased detachment that he had begun to sweat.
The collar of his suit suddenly seemed too tight. “I- I don’t think this is really the place to talk about this.”
“So that means no?” Selphie did her best to look sad. “But I thought you wanted me, Zell.”
In truth, he was thinking the space behind the heavy curtains over the balcony windows would be a great spot for a quick shag session. “I do, Selphie, you know I do baby,” He said, trying out the pet name. It earned him a raised eyebrow and he decided to put the term on the back burner. “But we are at a party and all, I don’t think this is the best place to prove it.”
A good enough reply for now, she felt. But she’d be sure to pursue the question later. Laying her head back on his chest, she hummed contentedly and continued to move to the soft music. Zell lowered his head and pressed his face to her sweet smelling hair, glad of the reprieve from the difficult questions. She really did look gorgeous tonight, he thought to himself.
“Selphie,” He said quietly. She raised her head and her luminous eyes met his own. “Tonight, you really look-“
She never found out what she looked like, as his compliment was drowned out by the cacophony of shattering glass.
The upper floors were dark and silent, and the only sign that something was happening in the dim Garden was the faint roar of the party below. The floor tiles gleamed in the low lighting and the click of his boots seemed amplified on the cold tile floor.
The door to the classroom clicked open and he peered inside, flipping on the lights and scanning the area before darkening the room again and closing the door, locking it behind him. Gerce wasn’t all that fond of parties, so he didn’t mind this extension of his usual janitorial duties that much. He was making his rounds on the upper stories, checking the empty classrooms for any students that might have decided to sneak out to do any number of things.
He had been a soldier once, but that was a long time ago now. He was an old man, getting older, and he was glad of the work he was given in the Garden. The hours weren’t bad and it was easy enough, especially since it was his job as Supervising Custodian to give the hard jobs to the other janitors. He didn’t think his back could handle it anymore anyways.
A familiar door on his left caught his eye as he passed it. Instructor Trepe's room, he thought. A nice young lady, never looked down on him like some of the other teachers. He knew she kept her room locked at all times, after all those incidents where some of her personal items had been stolen. He shook his head. Poor girl shouldn’t have to deal with crazy attention like that, these Trepies and such. He’d pass her room over like usual, no use in disturbing her things. He moved past the door.
He stopped, frowning. His skin was crawling, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Why? It was a feeling he could place from a long time past, when the world had been a crazier place. The creeps, they had called it in the Regulars. He could remember that feeling, in the forests when they would climb up in the trees. Those damn eyes would slide over him and he knew, just somehow knew they were watching. Things usually went bad after that. The good Hyne knew he had spent enough nights trying to forget how bad.
Then he heard it. A soft scraping noise, like something being dragged across glass. Coming from Trepe's room. He retraced his steps, pausing just outside the door. There is was again. A quiet, squealing rasp. Probably just some stupid kids writing cuss words on the windows while everyone was at the party.
Then why did it scream of something darker?
He may have been old, but his hand was steady as he reached under his shirt and gripped the handle of his Carver knife. It had been many a year since he had pulled the knife with the intent to use it, but the skills were burned into the back of his mind like so many things. He had earned them, and the knife. He had never told anyone at the school, content to leave his past and the knife buried. But he had been a Carver, and he had slipped through the wet leaves like a cat to strike where spells could not save a man, where a channeled Sorceress’s power was no protection from his sharp blade. His knuckles whitened momentarily as he vividly recalled the feeling of a man’s life blood spilling over his fingers, pouring from cleft in his neck. He had been feared once, like all the other Carvers. And tonight, he trusted his instincts, however aged they were, and moved with a deeply remembered grace to flatten himself against the wall.
The door to the classroom slid open.
And a man dressed in black stepped through, assault rifle cradled in his hands.
There was no hesitation.
Gerce swung the heavy knife upward with full force, deftly rotating his wrist with a subtle movement that sliced cleanly through the man’s throat. The man in black collapsed with a choked gurgle, feet kicking in agony.
He instantly withdrew to take cover, no time to ponder why there was an armed man in black entering the Garden through an upper level window. The moment he had killed the man the others within had warned him of their presence with several muffled swear words and what sounded like 'One-Air Three down!'.
Sliding with his back to the wall away from the entrance he slapped down the button to close the door, then smashed his blade through the mechanism in hopes of jamming it shut. His bones already ached with the strain but he was back in the brush, trained to kill like only a few could ever know. Without waiting to see if he was successful, he spun around and moved in complete silence, vanishing into the shadows of an alcove.
There were too many, he thought with dismay as more men filed out of the door. He had not been successful in jamming it. He would never be able to reach the stairwell with all of them. Maybe once in his life he might have done it but he was an old man now, and those day were long gone.
Perhaps, he thought slowly, perhaps they were gone. Those poor kids, downstairs. They didn’t know. He knew that was why these men were here, SeeD had many enemies. His grip on the knife gradually tightened. Those days might be gone, but he could still have one last hour. He would buy some time.
He was not afraid. He had expected to die as a Carver should, with his knife in his hand and the blood of his enemies running deep. And now he would, it just took him a little longer to reach that point than the rest of his company. Death was an old friend, and it was Gerce’s turn to take his hand. To die with honor, like he should have those many years ago.
The second soldier to die had time only to see an old man with cold killer’s eyes before the knife cut through his neck. Before his body had even hit the floor Gerce had whipped a backhand slice through the next man’s neck. It was a dance, he remembered. He was detached from the carnage he caused, never pausing, smoothly transitioning from one blow to the next. He would die when he reached the end of this group, he reasoned, when the distance between the last man and the next was too great to cross.
It was a matter of moments before that inevitable ending occurred. The last man of the group had his gun kicked from his hands and his life reft from him as the Carver knife slipped through the thin flesh of this windpipe. The second group had emerged from the next door down, watching with disbelief as the entire other unit was cut down with a terrifying efficiency. The display was almost hypnotic in nature, a deadly show of power. Gerce was pleased at the looks of stunned horror upon their faces, wishing that he was still in his prime so they could see what a Carver at his best looked like.
Then the leader of the second team gathered the presence of mind to raise his weapon and fire, sending Gerce spinning to the floor.
There was no pain, surprisingly. Gerce experienced a quick moment of panic, but once he felt the familiar weight of the Carver knife in his hand, he relaxed. This moment had been a long time coming. It was only right, that he should die this way.
Gerce died with a small smile on his face, his knife in his hand and the blood of his enemies running deep.
Squall had been dancing with Rinoa (though at any later time he would deny it) when the first crash echoed over the noise of the party. He had turned, thinking someone had dropped a plate. This notion was dispelled as a narrow metallic cylinder rolled to a stop in front of him, glass shards skittering across the floor from the window it had been thrown through. A bolt of recognition shot through him.
Squall squeezed his eyes shut and threw his arm over them a split second before the canister disintegrated, followed by the blasts of a few others that he hadn't seen. His quick thinking saved him from the blinding flash but his head pounded with the tremendous roar and his hearing dissolved into white noise.
Removing his arm, he looked up just in time to see the olive drab orbs of grenades sailing over the crowd.
Rinoa was still next time him, clutching her head in pain, mouthing words he couldn't hear. He grabbed her and pulled her down to the floor, rolling over on top of her. He still couldn't hear the detonations, but he could feel them. Not fragmentation grenades, thank Hyne. Concussion. Anyone who wasn't already on the floor was flattened. His chest compressed and the air was painfully forced from his lungs.
The room was choked with dust and smoke, and Squall's vision blurred as his eyes began to water. He blinked quickly, trying to clear them. He felt something cold bounce off the back of his neck, and realized that the windows, or what was left of them, were shattering inwards. The now empty holes in the walls were quickly filled by men in black BDUs, assault rifles and submachine guns cradled in their black gloved hands.
He knew that he was one of the few SeeDs in the room still capable of resistance, the majority of the others present in the room still struggling to recapture their breath. He needed to buy some time for a few others to recover so they could repel the attackers. Casting Protect and Shell on himself and Rinoa, Squall hauled himself to his feet and began to summon Shiva, praying he had enough time to do so. The room seemed to quiver, and he felt suspended as if he were underwater. The transparent orbs circled his head before dispersing, and the summon began.
The column of ice broke through the floor, shattering the polished wood and sending splinters flying through the air. Squall shook his head, trying to see past the illusion. A summon only affected its target, and while it appeared to be destroying everything in its path the environment would be unaffected once the summon faded.
The pillar split in two and Shiva emerged. The men pouring through the windows froze in awe and terror at the Ice Goddess who had risen from the floor, glaring at them imperiously. It was one thing for them to know they would be unaffected. It was quite another to believe it in the face of such power. Shiva raised her arms almost lazily, then frozen death spewed forth.
Later, Zell (who had been struggling to his feet with Selphie) would recall the strange invocation uttered by one of the soldiers closet to him.
The ice convalesced and hardened with a will of its own, and within seconds the enemies were encased. To Squall, standing invisible just outside the path of destruction, it seemed like some hideous diorama, little men in black posing in a sea of ice. Then as quickly as it had come, the ice faded.
And the men continued undaunted.
There was no time for disbelief. Squall kicked over the table closest to him and dove behind it, pulling Rinoa with him. The summon had given many of the other SeeDs time to recover, and the wave of attackers were met with a wall of spells. Fires blacked the floor and scorched the walls, ice exploded in crystalline conflagrations, lighting crackled and roared through the air to twist and burn everything it touched.
But none of it harmed a single invader. Squall’s heart sunk within his chest as the men raised their strange weapons to return fire.
The first casualties began to drop as the bullets smashed through wood and ornate glass, sending the splinters and dust of both thick through the air. The invaders were not without losses- several of them had been hit by hurled objects or dropped in close quarters combat with those SeeDs that had managed to close the distance. But Squall knew that if they decided to truly open fire it would be a slaughter. With their magic rendered useless the ranged offensive capabilities of the SeeD forces were all but gone.
When the guns at last fell silent, six SeeDs lay dead and thirty-two were wounded.
Irvine was intimately familiar with firearms. He knew their make and method, all the types and models, could quote their rate of fire and how many rounds a specific magazine could hold. All this knowledge was not comforting in any way at the moment, for two reasons. One, he could not identify any of the weaponry held by the enemy. Two, he knew exactly what his face would look like if the man pointing his gun at it pulled the trigger.
Helpless with hands in the air, Irvine waited like everyone else did, because the enemy was waiting. What they were waiting for he was not sure, but infrequently there was gunfire on the upper floors, and it was clear that these men were also penetrating the building from the top down. They were waiting for the all clear.
Irvine scanned the room. The background noise was a mixture of constant dim radio chatter from the soldiers and the soft groans of the wounded. The ones in really bad shape were pale and silent. He glanced worriedly towards the far corner window where Selphie was crouched over Zell, who was breathing fast and heavy, his face covered in a sheen of sweat. He had snapped the neck of one of the intruders with a spin kick before they had fired on him, and Irvine wasn't sure where or how many times he had been hit. His bleeding was under control since Selphie had slipped him a Curaga spell, but when the soldiers had seen the green and white light congeal around him they had brought their weapons to bear on her, making it clear that magic would not be allowed.
Squall hovered over Rinoa who was sitting on the floor, still in shock from the look on her face. When the first shots had been fired Rinoa had unleashed her Sorceress power, bombarding the incoming forces with spells at an incredible rate and power. For some reason they had singled her out though, and despite her rampage they never returned fire, instead surrounding her until she realized her offense was having no effect. Squall's face always looked cold to those that couldn't read him, but now it might as well have been carved from stone.
Quistis was clutching her ankle, slumped near Seifer who was cradling a pierced hand. The pain he was in didn’t dull rage filled glare he was fixing on the solider nearest him.
Scott was next to Michelle on the floor, propping her up against one of the chairs. She looked like she had taken a particularly bad hit from either a flashbang or the concussion grenades, or both, and her head was lolling on her shoulders, the whites of her eyes showing a little more than they should and blood from her nose soaking the front of her dress.
SeeD training. That was the key here. In a situation like this, the best option was to wait for opportunity. Unfortunately, all the best plans of action didn't involve more than one or two armed assailants. It would be a little hard to slip away unnoticed standing in the center of the room, especially with all the exits guarded. And all the hand to hand combat skills in the world wouldn't help when every enemy wasn't within your reach and almost everyone who could help you was debilitated.
As far as he could tell, this was currently a no win situation.
Once again, as was becoming far too common these days, Scott was out of his depth. Except this time it was serious.
And possibly fatal.
He was also having an epiphany. There was no way to relate the information to anyone around him, but he had of course instantly recognized the weapons wielded by the assailants, a hodgepodge collection. Mp5-A5. M-16A2. M-60E3. HK G3A3. The occasional AK-74 and even a Sterling. The man closest to him was holding a SPAS-12. Pump or semiautomatic shotgun with an effective range of 50 meters, seven rounds. These weapons were definitely not native. And thus neither were the men holding them.
It was apparent that he was not alone after all. But given the circumstances, he wasn't sure he wanted to say anything to the rest of the home team.
His chain of thought was broken when the soldiers broke out into sudden motion, forcing everyone to their feet. One of them stood out in front, indicating the exits. His voice was slightly accented with what Scott thought was something South American.
"Everybody to the main entrance, let’s go!"
Gingerly hauling Michelle to her feet, Scott complied with everyone else.
The soldiers herded them all into the concourse, grouping them in the middle and surrounding them in a circle of firepower. Scott started praying that they didn't plan to simply open fire on everyone in what would surely be a massacre.
As if on some invisible cue, the ranks of soldiers covering the entrance parted, and a group of men strolled through the opening. Then Scott received the biggest shock of the night yet.
The man in the middle was familiar to him.
His mind made the connections. He had come to know of Julian Foss during an operation for the FBI. The covert military team he had been a part of had been on loan from the DOD, requested in a sting operation to intercept several shipments in Silicon Valley, busting a ring of companies commandeering stolen overseas technology. Julian Foss had been the suspected head, the companies in question fronts for TAA. While the sting had been successful in recovering the technology for its rightful owners, the trail of evidence had never led back to Foss or TAA.
And now here he was, in the flesh. Scott had the sudden sickening thought that perhaps GPSS had been part of TAA all along. Had this entire thing been a ruse? Was he nothing more than a living crash test dummy, thrown into another dimension to pave the way for an invasion?
The turmoil in his mind was stopped cold as Julian drew a pistol, cocking it. He looked over the assembled crowd with eyes that looked more like granite. Then he shrugged apologetically.
"I find this distasteful myself, but... In order to kill a snake, the quickest is to cut off its head, you understand. I apologize for this necessity, and will not hand off the responsibility to one of my men. No, this deed is required of me."
Julian pulled back the hammer of his gun, and shot Squall through the forehead.
Chapter 27: Time Again
At some point, Scott realized, he must have lost his hearing, because Rinoa was screaming but he couldn't hear a thing.
It was also odd, he could see, that nobody was moving. Of course, neither was he.
In a matter of seconds the darkness blotted out the sight of Squall lying dead on the floor.
It was raining.
Simple a statement to make, it would seem, but the embodiment of the scene that lay before him.
He stood on a pile of broken mortar, raindrops splashing and dribbling down the cracked and worn lines of what might have been a great structure. Before him rose the silhouette of a hulking shape, blotting out the sky for several hundred feet, what surely must have been a mighty monument, but still fragile as anything created by man. Broken girders framed a collapsed roof, sticking out at jagged angles towards the gray sky, looking for all the world like a mouth screaming in final agony. And all around him were other littered pieces of destruction, offering no hint as to what they may have been.
As he walked towards the monolith, he began to see twisted walls and sloped floors covered in bricks, walling, shingles, and glass. Pushing past these obstructions, he reached the center: a hollow, burnt-out gutted space seared by unimaginable fires. On the ground before him lay an object, a large sign, with inscriptions on it, words smeared by soot or broken by ways unknown. He could decipher one or two: Library, Cafeteria, Quad...
What happened here? What forces broke this place, turning it into the debris-ridden skeleton of what it once was?
Why was he in the middle of a destroyed Garden, and how had he come to be here?
Everything in his life of late had been a question without answer.
Scott cupped his hands around his mouth, the rainwater dripping off the tips of his fingers.
The shout echoed briefly, before fading back into the soft roar of the rainfall. Shoulders slumped, Scott sat on the edge of a broken column, dazed and confused. He was pretty sure he had just been in the middle of this very building, but it hadn't been destroyed, and it hadn't been raining. Squall had been shot. There were men with guns everywhere. And now he was alone in a pile of ruins.
His solitary contemplation was broken by soft voice behind him, and the unmistakable prod of a cold gun barrel into his back.
"Stand up. Keep your hands where I can see them. No funny stuff."
Slowly, Scott complied, not daring to try and look over his shoulder.
"You fucking Krauts should have taken my gun. Now you’re gonna squeal, my little sharfshutze.”
Still moving slowly, Scott pivoted to face his assailant. The man was slightly shorter than him, pale, with close set green eyes and a wide mouth. He was clothed in a drab green jumpsuit, a large pack resting on his back and a webbed helmet of the same color on his head. The outfit was unmistakable. He was dressed like a World War II GI.
Like a goddamn World War II GI.
It was too much. Scott couldn't hold back the hysterical laughter that bubbled up out of him. So he didn't. He laughed, laughed until tears ran down his face and mingled with the rain water, the peals of the sound reflecting up and down the walls of the structure until he was out of breath. The GI simply stared at him.
"I'm sorry," Scott gasped. "But I can't tell you how fucked up things are right now."
The gun barrel lowered slightly. "You’re not a German."
"No," Scott said, hysteria fading. He wiped his face with his still raised hands. "Who are you?"
"First Class Private Randall, 35-367-907."
Name, rank and serial number. Just like the movies.
"I'm Scott Keyor," Scott replied, holding out one hand to shake but keeping the other raised. "And as of late, my life is a joke."
There was nothing to do but sit and compare stories, two men with nothing in common but the method of arrival to this strange place. The rain seemed ceaseless and they took shelter under a fallen slab of concrete.
"So," Randall said, using his trench shovel to clear a small space to sit. They did so, shivering in the damp chill, and Randall dug through his pack, handing Scott a ration bar, which he accepted. He eyed it warily, unsure of how edible it really was. He also got the distinct impression that Randall wasn't taking him all that seriously. "This 'Hyne' thing, you think that was what brought us here?"
Scott bit into the bar, grimacing at the taste but eating it anyway.
"Then I guess I owe it some thanks. I'd be on my way back home in a box if I wasn't here."
"Mm. Yeah, I know what you mean-"
Listen well, for there is not much time.
Randall's eyes were wide. "What the hell was that?"
"That God I was telling you about."
Do not make me impress my power, Outsiders. Simply listen, and listen well.
Randall's ration bar dropped from his shaking fingers. "Jesus!"
No, I am not He. I am Hyne. And you will do my bidding.
Scott nodded in resignation. "I'm listening."
I have brought the other here, this soldier of the past so that you may use his weapon for your purposes. You will need it to reverse what has been wrought by you and your kind. Soldier, give him your instrument.
Randall didn't move, eyes still darting wildly about the small confines of the makeshift shelter. Scott sighed, simply reaching over and pulling the gun from Randall’s limp fingers.
Right now, Outsider, you are in the Future. This is the future that would be seven of your years from the time I took you from. This must not come to pass.
Scott shook his head. "It's too late. The Garden is theirs. They killed Squall."
It is not too late by the virtue of my plan. I would have you know that at this very moment, it is within my power to send you back to your home.
No. It could never be that easy. "What's the catch."
The 'catch', Outsider, is that I will do no such thing. I have the power to send you back to your world, or the power to send you back seven years into mine. I cannot do both. So do not doubt, that you will do as I require of you or you will be left in this bleak future to rot as mortals do.
"Rather petty of you."
There is nothing petty about the destruction of a universe.
"So how the hell do I reverse everything with an antique M1 Carbine?"
I have prepared for this moment. At this moment in time, seven years past, everything has come into order to save my universe. Their portal has ruptured, eliminating the means of transport. The rupture has accomplished many things, but the most important of these is that now the other Outsiders have devolved into Knots like you.
A Knot. A tear in the fabric of the cosmos. The tear that surrounds you is slowly destroying my world.
"Then why the fuck did you make more of them? A lot more, I might add."
Because by the time the many other Knots would accomplish their true damage, they will be gone if my plan succeeds.
Scott's head was reeling, trying to put the concepts together. "I don't get it."
You are a Knot, and now all the other Outsiders are Knots. You are the largest Knot, the originator, and I manipulate you only at the risk of all. I will send you back to the Garden with your weapon, to the moment before one of my children, the one you call Squall was killed. You will destroy the head Outsider. You will not have much time to do so. Make sure you do it well. The death of one with result in the collapse of all. The Knot will explode, and consequently so will all others.
"Which means I will also explode. What happens then?"
If you should succeed, I will use the last of my power to prevent the Knot around you from destroying itself in payment of your act. If I am strong enough to do this, the Knot will be propelled by the bottled energy into a cosmos unpredictable.
"So I'll die."
No. The Knot will travel until the energy is gone, then it will settle.
"So I could end up absolutely anywhere. Not home."
It is that or die, Outsider.
The panic settled deep in his gut. "Oh no. Oh, fuck no."
There is no time for your fears. We must act now.
There really were no good choices. He would live, but he couldn't know where. What if death would be preferable to the world he found himself in? But this world held nothing for him either. And his friends would die because of him. It was no win, no matter what.
But maybe sometimes, when there was only one choice, it was time to accept it.
"I always wanted to go out in a blaze of glory."
I will put in a good word for your soul. Now stand in the-
"Wait, wait!" Randall choked, snapping out of his Hyne-induced stupor. "What about me?"
You have served your purpose. Begone.
And he was. Scott blinked, disconcerted by Randall's sudden disappearance. "You didn't kill him, did you?"
No. I have placed him in a transit world until I have the strength to send him home. He will be cared for. Now, stand in the open, and prepare your weapon. It is time to set this right.
"Everybody to the main entrance, let’s go!"
Scott gasped, his vision clearing from what he perceived to be a bright flash of light. The situation that met his eyes was familiar. He was standing on the bridge from the elevator to one of the upper stories, rifle clutched in his hands. His mind raced as he remembered the precise order of the events that had happened, or rather, what would happen.
Julian would be standing in the center of the main entrance. He looked at it over the edge slowly, trying not to draw the attention of the guards there. This was a good spot for shooting, but he would be spotted.
He also knew that soldiers were coming in from the top down, and would no doubt see him from the upper connecting hallway. There was only one obvious way to go.
He slipped into the elevator doors, letting them gently close behind him. He looked up, and sure enough, there was a hatch on the top. Gingerly snapping the latches, he slid the hatch open and clambered out on top of the elevator.
The shaft was surrounded by glass, but it was partitioned, with tiny slats. That would be his field of fire. Laying down on top of the elevator, he waited.
The soldiers herded them all into the concourse, grouping them in the middle and surrounding them in a circle of firepower.
Scott watched as his friends came to a stop. To his relief, he didn't see himself. Which didn't make sense according to time travel as he understood it. Then again, this was all being orchestrated by a God. More impossible things had happened.
As if on some invisible cue, the ranks of soldiers covering the entrance parted, and a group of men strolled through the opening. Scott's finger tightened on the trigger. He still waited for Julian to come to a complete stop. He might not get a second good shot. He couldn't miss. He decided to aim for a broader target and shoot for the heart.
Julian drew a pistol, cocking it. He looked over the assembled crowd with eyes that looked more like granite. Then he shrugged apologetically.
"I find this distasteful myself, but... In order to kill a snake, the quickest way is to cut off its head, you understand. I apologize for this necessity, and will not hand off the responsibility to one of my men. No, this deed is required of me."
Julian pulled back the hammer of his gun, and was shot through the chest.
The muffled blast of the carbine rang through the concourse.
Julian Foss fell back from the force of the shot, hitting the ground to land in a sitting position. The wound over his heart was just starting to bleed. He looked at it curiously, before gazing up at the elevator. Scott stared back at him through the tinted glass.
"I see," Julian said in a tone of voice filled not with shock or horror, but quiet understanding.
There was a brief moment of stunned silence.
Then everything went to hell.
Brilliant flashes of white light filled the room, and an incredible noise boomed throughout it. And with every flash and roar, a mercenary disappeared. The SeeDs huddled to the floor, shock waves blasting them from every directing.
Hendrow was thrown to the floor, a feeling of incredible dizziness overcoming him.
"What is happening?" He gasped, voice lost in the cacophony. Then in another flash and thunder and he too was gone.
Then it was over, and the noise faded into silence. The room was blackened and torn, pieces of the walls, floor and even the ceiling littering the cratered area. Stunned, the SeeDs rose to their feet, astounded by the damage.
Everybody jumped when Zell was the first to speak.
"What the fuck was tha-"
At Rinoa's cry everyone turned to see Scott stumble out of the elevator. Nida began running towards him, a smile of relief spreading across his face.
"Scott, we thought they had..." His words died as he drew closer.
Everyone could see him, but his appearance jerked and sputtered, fading in and out of transparency. His mouth moved but no sound came out. There was another flash of light and he fell to his knees. He raised his head to meet their eyes, shaking as if fighting against intense pressure. He lifted a trembling arm, hand outstretched in supplication.
Then he wasn't there anymore.
Chapter 28: Excerpt
...claimed not to have been at the scene at the time. In other news, the government has closed off Granite Peak, Utah after what officials have described as the biggest sinkhole to date collapsed, resulting in a land dip over a mile and a half wide. Officials say that no loss of life has been reported, and that there are no signs of any other potentially dangerous sinkholes in the area. Currently there is an investigation underway as to how this might effect the local environment. New research suggests that carcinogens...
Chapter 29: Conversation
...And that's that.
You mean and that's how you let Hyne do, and do badly, I might add, what you should've done in the first place.
Well, when you put it that way...
It makes you look like the negligent piece of crap that you are.
Something like that.
I don't know why you think you can be so nonchalant about this, but I don't care anymore. I have a few more questions and then I get to leave, hopefully never to see you again.
The fact that the actual person who fixed everything in the end was not rewarded looks very, very bad. What have you done about that?
You mean Scott. Don't worry about that, I redirected him.
To his home.
That was implied.
And what about the other portal installations that Foss had. Those are a potential threat.
Like I made clear, the American government was well aware of them, and they are now no longer an issue.
Well, good. The fact of the matter remains however, that this event was dereliction of duty in the extreme.
I don't see it that way. I used Hyne to get the job done. I worked through her.
No, you didn't. You sat back and prayed it all worked out. That is not how you watch a universe. Our job as Kharadjai is interfere with the day to day things as little as possible, and jump in when something major happens, like say, oh, I don't know, the actual possibility of the complete destruction of an entire universe.
All's well that ends well.
Save it for the trial.
Contine to Part 6