On Earth as it is In Hell Part 3
"I did feel out of place at first, but everyone made me feel welcome. Except Squall. Maybe that's why I kept getting drawn to him, he was a challenge. I'm glad I didn't give up on getting past those walls."
-Rinoa Heartilly, The SeeD and the Sorceress
If there was one thing the world would remember you by, if you could choose, would it be famous last words? A shout out, 'Victory or death', 'Remember the Alamo'. A defiance against the end you know is coming. Maybe it is only a way of expressing contempt for death, a vent for the defiant. Or the last attempt to make an imprint on the pages of history, so that someone will remember you. But how do you know you have been remembered, when your no longer with the living?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A terror, rain of fire. A maelstrom of Rob Zombie in his head, pummeling his senses and pushing him into utter fear. A shudder of dry bones and rotten flesh, the acrid reek of burning. Is this hell? He tumbled closer to the abyss, his mouth opening in a soundless shriek lost in the roaring chaos. Then he awoke.
Scott found himself laying face down in what appeared to be a ditch, dirty water clinging to his skin and soaking his clothes. Luckily, whoever had put him in the ditch had turned his face to the side so that he wasn't drowning. If anyone had put him there.
Vaguely, he thought he heard voices, muffled by the wind. The rushing air sounded almost like a large object was moving nearby, probably somewhere above his head. It reminded him of the black ball he had dodged in the hotel. During his stay in the sewers of Deling, Quistis had explained that the ball was a spell called, 'Demi'. She had said it had some sort of gravity effect. He didn't really understand it. I hope that's not the sound I'm hearing.
He tried to move, failed. Pain shot through his body, strange tingling pain that seemed to have no specific source. He tried again, and managed to open his eyes. This proved to be twice a bad idea, as this increased the pain and succeeded only in getting water in his eye. Blinking furiously, he managed to clear his vision enough to see what was going on.
He discovered that he was indeed in a ditch, but it was a concrete one. The rushing noise was not a Demi spell as he had feared, but rather a large ventilation fan turning slowly in it's setting. He was lying in a drainage tube to the side of a cement walkway. Voices echoed from the walls, and shifting light reflected off the water. Or at least it would have if the water hadn't been an uninviting brown. Placing shaky hands on both sides of his body, he agonizingly levered himself up into a sitting position.
The tunnel looked strangely familiar. He reasoned this particular environment must have been part of the game. He could hear the grinding of turbines in the distance, a grating sound on the nerves. He grimaced and rubbed his ears. He nearly died of a heart attack when Irvine decided to speak, previously sitting unseen.
"Annoying as hell, huh?" He tipped back his hat, smile still in place. "It's driving Selphie up the wall. Stay at least ten feet away or risk the bitch slap. Well, when she's up."
Scott opened his mouth to reply, only instead of words he released the contents of his stomach. Irvine stepped back in disgust as the vomit splashed, spreading it's cloying odor. Scott retched again and bent double, wiping his mouth. He was shaking violently now and had chills.
"Maybe you need to sit down. Uh, sit down more."
Irvine helped him up out of the ditch onto the walkway, where he collapsed. Scott wasn't sure how long it would take to recover, but this was the last thing he needed. Scott noticed Irvine had a distinct limp. A bulky slapdash bandage peeked from beneath his pant leg, seemingly constructed from what Squall recognized as tied pieces of Galbadian uniform.
When he could breath, Scott choked out a strangled laugh. "I hate this."
Irvine shrugged, not quite sure how to answer something like that. Shifting his weight uncomfortably, he glanced back at the ladder behind him as though still waiting for something.
"What is it?"
Irvine looked back at him. "What's what?"
Irvine raised a finger to the ceiling. "Right above our heads is a mansion that belongs to- a person we know. We might be able to get up and out that way."
"I don't know," Irvine painfully sat himself down. "Quistis and Squall are up there now."
Scott nodded, still winded. He turned his head slightly and had another start when he saw Selphie slumped against the other wall. She didn't moved when he raised an eyebrow. He thought he remembered her getting shot, which would explain her inactivity.
"Don't worry about her," Irvine whispered, trying not to disturb her. Scott saw she was asleep, or pretty close. "Her junctions softened the shot."
Scott felt somewhat envious. If he was shot, how come he couldn't sleep it off? Come to think of it, when in Rome...
"Hey Irvine, where do you get these junctions?"
Irvine looked at him in surprise. "Well, junctions are a pretty complex thing. I guess if you want it from the top, you need a GF."
I remember that much. "Yeah, but how do you actually junction one if you had it?"
Irvine leaned back, warming to the subject. "It's kinda weird, right? You just have this GF, kinda this presence you can feel on the corner of your mind, like a sixth sense, you know?"
"So you can just reach out and grab it with your mind, like it sucks it in or something. It's like reflexive. Your mind just does it when you want it to. You don't need any training or anything and anyone can do it... Which brings me to what I think you want."
"You got it."
Irvine turned serious. "These things aren't empty baggage. They come at a price. You might forget some things."
"I can't remember much anyway."
Irvine smiled again. "Fair enough. You can always keep a journal like the rest of us. Ohhh, how about I give you something gentle to start. You want Siren?"
Looks like some chick with wings or something... "Okay."
"Here ya go."
Irvine released Siren, sending her to Scott's mind. Scott felt a unfamiliar presence on a plane of his psyche he had never known existed. Then an image of Siren formed in his mind, coming closer to connection. The picture blurred and cleared. He had enough time to notice 'Nice tits.' before Siren was hurled away and the metal backlash hit his head like a sledgehammer.
Selphie awoke with a gasp as Scott grabbed his head in pain. His temples were racked with the worst headache he had ever had. He lost his balance and almost fell back into the ditch. Irvine grabbed his shoulders to steady him as the aching subsided.
When his vision cleared, Scott groaned. "I- I don't think it worked."
Irvine nodded, eyes wide. "No kidding."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hyne didn't have much time to be indignant, but her temper flared as she felt one of her children reject an attempt to be junctioned. She knew Siren didn't reject the joining on purpose. Instead, this Outsider was incompatible. As these thoughts filled her mind her attention wavered. Another star collapsed, shooting it's horrid dying light into an uncaring universe. The supernova drew her back to her business, and she fought to contain her quickly deteriorating worlds.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It wasn't so much the edging feeling of unease that bothered Zell, he could attribute that to the fact that the vehicle he had so easily hijacked was quickly running short on gas. Zell has hidden in the trees and used a Blizzaga spell on the tires as the jeep had driven past. What he had failed to take into account was inertia- the forward passenger had flown cleanly out the top of the car... The driver had gone through the windshield. The two men in back had been removed by a weak Aero spell, strong enough to send them flying into the air, but not strong enough to lift the jeep from it's trap. He had melted the ice with a quick Fire and that was that. But the broken windshield was now useless against the wind sheer. Squinting uncomfortably, he wished he had some goggles.
Even Rinoa's admonishments for his dangerous stunt, reminding him they had radios, was no damper on his mood. He had a jeep, he had a mission, but he really had to take a piss.
Upon later reflection he might have found it funny that such a little thing could ruin a otherwise perfect operation.
If only the jeep could run on urine. At this point he was pretty sure he could fill the tank. He would pull over, but Rinoa told him he was being pursued and had to make the city line fast. Considering how his bladder ached, he wouldn't be able to stop without wasting a lot of time. Plus, the horizon had turned a ominous gray, thunder echoing from the distance. The flatlands weren't a good place to be caught in a thunderstorm.
So clenching his legs and gritting his teeth, Zell drove on. It wouldn't be long now.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hendrow liked the look of the city before him- a panoramic setting perfect for someone's bedroom wall. Like a glittering crown Deling lay in the middle of the empty plains. And also like a glittering crown, it was a treasure to be had. A perfect launching point for the new order.
The cars on the streets looked like they did back home. From his perch Hendrow could see a tiny vehicle racing down a dusty strip of road a ways outside the walls. He idly wondered what the speed limit was. The jeep-like vehicle was lost behind a hill and Hendrow turned his attention elsewhere.
There. Yes, there was the City Hall. But the first target of the night would be a large house on the outskirts of the downtown area. The current leader of the Galbadian government was housed there. Roland Polground, 'The Head'. Julian had plans for him.
Hendrow settled back to watch the darkening sky, savoring the first moments before the storm.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Squall gently pushed the portrait aside. Thankfully, the room was dark. Motioning to Quistis behind him, they moved forward into the empty room. But something wasn't right. It was hard to tell in the low light, but it seemed to him that the room was in disarray, papers strewn over the floor and what seemed to be a desk laying on it's side.
The shadows cast from the street lights outside played tricks on his eyes, dark corners filled with moving creatures waiting to prey on the unaware. Squall permitted himself a small smile at his unfounded childlike fears. The mind seemed to go out of it's way to scare itself.
He gestured for Quistis to check the door as he reached behind the desk to take a handful of the strewn documents. A flash preceded the predictable rumble of thunder, briefly lighting the room. Squall could see holes in the wall, jagged punctures in the plaster. He presumed they were bullet holes.
If anyone had died in the mansion it hadn't been in this room. There was no blood or bodies to be found. If Squall had one hope he held on to, it was that General Caraway lived. Whatever else the man was, he was Rinoa's father, and probably the last hope for a sane government.
Quistis came back from a cursory scan of the other rooms on the floor. Technically, there was no need to whisper, but something about creeping around in a dark and empty house demanded it.
"There is nothing here," She said, hushed. "The rest of the rooms look like this, but I didn't see anyone."
Squall nodded shortly, suddenly engrossed in a interesting paper he had found beneath a chair.
Quistis looked around nervously. "Squall, what happened here? Could this have something to do with what happened at the hotel?"
Still wordless, Squall handed her the sheet. Quistis read it's disturbing contents as follows:
SPREADING SUN has been transferred from your jurisdiction. STOP
Relinquish all papers concerning SPREADING SUN. STOP
You have 24 hours to comply.
Quistis tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, digesting the information.
Squall put his hand to his head, deep in thought.
Deciding he couldn't ignore Quistis, Squall gave a slight shrug. He turned for the door, signaling her to follow.
Quistis hurried after him, voicing her thoughts as they descended the stairs.
"This order to Caraway obvious preceded a shift in power. We may have to face up to the fact that the General has been deposed."
Squall grunted noncommittally. Quistis rolled her eyes and they stepped off the stairwell and into the entrance hall.
"Poleground was ambitious enough to do something like that. Ambitious enough to get rid of Caraway, no matter how popular he was. Maybe even ambitious enough to-"
She almost ran into Squall, who was frozen in the entryway to the dining room. Her last word slipped out of her mouth in a breathless whisper as she saw what lay across the threshold.
A magnificent table lay in the middle of the war torn room, it's polished surface riddled with bullets, the walls and ceiling holding the same staccato patterns of destruction. Dishes were broken, painting torn, chairs shattered. And the bodies.
A man lay on his back in the far corner, shirt ripped open from multiple exit wounds and the carpet around him stained a crusty crimson. A woman sat in a chair, hands curled in supplication immortalized by rigor mortis. Everywhere, dead. Squall made it out to be at least twenty.
It was massacre. There was no evidence of returned fire, no weapons lying with the dead. Just the blood spattered walls and carpet that would never again be clean. It was obvious the General had indeed been deposed, and violently.
Quistis, took a step back, hand over her mouth in horrified stupor.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"A friend of mine once said, 'Life is like channel
surfing, you just flip until you find the right one
for you. That was okay for a while, but then I
realized the only good channels are the porno
ones, and I don't get those."
It is safe to say that Scott does not look to the future for he is afraid.
This statement in its own way is true, and yet it is not. Scott's experience works in him emotions he cannot understand. If you are fortunate enough to have fallen in love, then you might understand. In you arise feelings with which you have no experience and for which you have no name, save one, which is love. Scott has not experience but he has one sole name- fear. This is a simplification, but simple tags are not always put on simple things. And what lies beneath that tag belies the exterior.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The APC was dusty, bumpy, and, Hendrow thought, an eminently unsuitable vehicle for a Vice-King to be. He had wanted to ride into the city with more style, but Julian had insisted on entering with the troops, claiming it would boost morale. Hendrow would be the first to admit Julian cut an imposing figure, but he himself wasn't what the troops needed. Besides, for a man who had shown utter indifference to general morale and comfort back at the Headquarters, Julian was certainly taking a sudden interest the field. Hendrow had his own suspicions on why he had been so damnably insistent. Julian loved to see his ideas in action.
There was also a better reason for staying in the relative safety of the rear. The entire attack leaned heavily on the private armies supposed invulnerability to this 'magic', and the also supposed fact the defenders army relied heavily upon it. Julian's men were competent, but fifteen-hundred men does not an army make. This world seemed more sparsely populated than the one Hendrow called home, and Deling was but one city, so taking it wasn't going to be that much of a problem. But the real battles came later, and Julian had to have an edge that the enemy couldn't match. Magic. It had to be harnessed.
Hendrow's thoughts were shattered as the artillery opened fire in the hills, and he covered his ears as shells flew past, screeching to their deaths.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Zell was at the gate when the explosions started. Or rather, he was not actually in front of the gate, but instead viewing the maddening obstacle from a distance. And he hadn't much time to decide how to circumvent it. He couldn't go over it, there was no other way into the city besides the other gates, and a jeep couldn't drive through solid steel. These lines of thought all became arbitrary, when the gate detonated in a halo of flaming debris.
The shockwave sent the jeep spinning, hurling Zell against his seat and then flipping him over and out the top. In Midair his training reasserted itself and he landed and rolled like a pro, which he was, dispersing his inertia without breaking his body. He sat up, shaking his head, still dazed.
Another conflagration burst to life by the south gate, then another, and another. Soon a full blown shelling was taking place, targeting on the city walls and gates. Zell covered his ears and huddled to the ground, trying to keep below shrapnel radius. The roaring echoed all around, and he could not pinpoint where the fire was coming from.
Then suddenly, it ceased. The wail of sirens became clear and emergency lights lit up the lower cloud cover, giving the scene an eerie glare. Zell punched the ground, exasperated.
"Of all the times for another revolution! How the hell am I gonna get into the city now?"
Then of course, he realized he was sitting on a grate. Scrambling to his feet, he forced the grate to open and looked inside. He was pretty sure Deling had security alarms and stuff down there in case of intrusion, but with a full-blown fire fight raging above ground, who was going to be watching the sewer panels? Perhaps the sudden attack was more fortuitous than he thought.
Zell ducked into the grate, closing it behind him, and missed seeing the first APCs come barreling down the hills.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Squall was kneeling over one of the bodies when the explosions started. He was examining the body for any evidence, though the only clues thus far had been a clipboard and some blank pieces of paper. From the setting and appearance, Squall drew that these had been the Generals aides. Quistis was on the other side of the room, trying to find the General himself, if he was there.
Quistis finished, shuddering as she wiped her hands on a relatively clean patch of carpet.
"No sign of him," She said. "Nothing but his aides, and this."
She handed him a folded slip of paper. He opened it and read-
1127 RILEY ST.
BACK BASEMENT WINDOW
It was obviously a name and address, scrawled in haste, but he didn't know why it would mention a back basement window. He put it in his pocket. He now had a decision to make. The main focus was to escape, but SeeD also had a high priority for gathering information wherever possible, and if this had anything to do with what had happened at the hotel, then it probably should be followed up.
For the moment at least, it all became moot point as the ceiling above his head blew up.
Squall and Quistis were showered with fiery chunks of woods and plaster as the second floor roof fell in, taking off half the first floor ceiling. The noise was spectacular, and Squall, stunned, lay on the floor covered in dust. Pulling himself to his feet, he gained his bearings just in time to pull Quistis to safety before the stairway banister fell where she had been laying.
With a crack, what remained of the stairway plunged into the basement beneath it, effectively sealing their route back to the hidden entrance. Squall rolled Quistis over, checking her for serious injuries. Besides a gash across the forehead and a probable concussion, she seemed none the worse for wear.
However, she was unconscious, and that meant Squall would have to carry her. He picked her up and delicately slung her over his shoulder, grunting at the surprising weight. Moving as quickly as he could, he went for the front door, knowing that there could be police waiting right outside. Possibilities bubbled through his brain. Maybe they knew they were in the house and were trying to kill them, maybe they were demolishing the mansion and Squall had arrived at just the wrong time. It didn't occur to him that Deling was under attack until he looked out past the shattered wreckage of the front door and saw hell raining down on the city.
He noticed that the fire wasn't indiscriminate, but rather the walls were taking most of the beating. He saw the section of wall closest to the mansion has fallen in. Obviously, an errant shell had careened through the hole and planted itself in the General's house. Stepping gingerly around an unexploded shell in the front yard, Squall jogged around the mansion and into the back. Carefully hoisting Quistis into a better position, he clambered up the still smoking mountain of slag back into the upstairs, burning his fingers in the process. His spirits rose when he saw that the passage back to the sewer was not blocked. The stairway was somewhat crumpled and collapsed halfway down, but this would only delay him. Getting a firm grip on Quistis and the railing, Squall started his descent.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Scott was sleeping when the explosions started. He was dozing really, his tired and beaten body too exhausted to go on. Of course, it would be easier to sleep if Irvine hadn't been staring at him the whole time. It was obvious at least Irvine of the others had witnessed the events in the tunnel. But Irvine hadn't asked, and Scott didn't really feel like answering. As if he had any answers.
But what he did have was pain, and in abundance. Aching head, shooting pains through his legs and arms, dizziness, nausea. He leaned back and tried to block out the disturbing sound of Selphie's ragged breathing.
When the boom came, it reverberated throughout the whole tunnel system, shaking dust and small pebbles from the concrete ceiling and waking Scott and Selphie up immediately. Irvine jumped to his feet, swearing with pain as he did so. More and more sharp and loud sounds followed, the shaking become more severe.
Irvine ran over to the ladder and peeked up the stairwell. A roaring swell suddenly echoed from the ladder hole, and Irvine flung himself to the side as molten pieces of steel and chunks of brick fell down where he had been standing. Irvine sat up, gasping with pain and clutching his injured leg.
"The stairwell collapsed," He wheezed. "Or at least partly."
Scott saw his eyes fill with fear, but not for himself. He realized that the building above might have collapsed, taking Squall and Quistis with it. He looked over at Selphie, but the junctions that kept her alive also had put her back into a healing sleep.
He eventually broke the short silence with a question.
"So, what's blowing up?"
Irvine shrugged, sliding into a more comfortable sitting position against the wall. The ground continued to shake, dim explosions rumbling through the subterranean complex.
"Might be some massive fireworks," He said, rubbing his leg. "But I'd bet on some kind of artillery. The city's getting shelled." This was further punctuated with yet another distant roar.
"Why? Who would shell a civilian city? Is this place at war?"
"Galbadia has always been a hotbed of political turmoil."
Irvine savored the sentence for a minute.
"I've always wanted to say that. It's a textbook perfect sentence. Anyway, it could be any number of radicals making a bid for the city. If you control Deling, you control Galbadia. Although, why you would want to is the real burning question. This country is nothing but trouble."
"So what do we do?" Scott asked. "Just sit it out?"
Irving nodded, pulling his hat down over his eyes.
"We need Squall to get down here first. If he... If he doesn't get back in two hours, SeeD regulations say we get the hell out."
Scott thought he was just going through the motions.
"But you won't leave, will you."
It was a statement, not a question.
The waiting began, and lasted for eight minutes before Squall dropped down out of the shaft.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Julian Foss himself was holding the gun to Polground's head before he ordered the artillery to stop firing.
The attack had gone perfectly, and the city had fallen with almost no resistance. Julian's men had entered the city too quickly for orders to reach the Galbadian army. Now the government was Julian's, and so was the army. Hendrow had taken over many corporations in his time, some hostile takeovers, some not. But nothing gave you a sense of victory like taking a something with force. Hendrow thought it may have been the shortest conquest in history, but he wasn't sure of his facts.
Now it was all Julian's, and by association, his. Hendrow smiled as the former leader of Galbadia groveled under gun point.
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
The consequence of rash action was becoming abundantly clear to Zell. It might not stop him this time, but in the future it would prompt a somewhat deeper review of his actions ahead of the actual happening. He had indeed made it to the sewers, but rather than go into detail, it is suffice to say this. Zell went out for a walk, and ended up taking a swim.
Zell could remember more refreshing swims. In fact, these other swims were central in his thought processes. Perhaps it seemed to him that if he thought hard enough about the nice pools he had been in before, what he was really swimming in wouldn't seem so bad.
Well, whatever he thought, it wasn't working.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hendrow found Julian hunched over a large desk that looked like it was mahogany, formerly the property of Poleground. Hendrow could see most of the filing cabinets had been opened, and several of those that had been locked had been forced. Julian was flipping through piles of official documents. His browsing seemed random, but Hendrow knew Julian well enough to know that he was looking for something specific. Hendrow gently cleared his throat.
Julian looked up with a small smile. "Ah, Michael. I knew you'd be up here sooner or later, and now that it's later, you can appreciate the full benefits of my research. What you see here are all files of a secret operation aptly named Spreading Sun, one that might be not only of some interest to us, but also of use."
Hendrow pulled a battered armchair to the front of the desk and seated himself. The room itself was somewhat shabby, with tattered maroon wallpaper and matching carpet that was just as ratty. A single large painting hung behind the desk, and Hendrow saw it was the exaggerated likeness of Poleground himself. There was apparently no accounting for personal taste in decor.
"Now, from what I have here," Julian said, shifting the stack of files. "It is apparent that Poleground was little more than a glorified Governor. He had little saying outside of Deling, and in fact several factions of the army have formed areas of independence, free from any current political power other than their own. These groups are powerful only by force, and are not interested in what happens around here, so we shouldn't expect any serious military reprisals. However, this also decreases the amount of Galbadian troops we can command."
Hendrow absorbed this information, mulling over in his mind. While those other troops would be useful, they were not absolutely necessary in controlling and maintaining Galbadia. If an obstacle is immovable, the next best thing is to go around it.
Julian paused, giving Hendrow a few more seconds to thing it over, then continued. "The project 'Spreading Sun' was an ingeniously engineered operation, well above the capabilities of a man like Poleground. He obviously had many intelligent backers, no doubt whispering in his ear so the damn fool wouldn't foul things up."
Julian almost never swore, and it was clear he held Poleground in contempt as he did so many small men.
"It was a cleverly designed plot to topple various leaders of the separate factions so that they could be brought back into the fold, with the eventual long term goal of eliminating the Gardens. From what we've gathered it was an experimental project centering on some sort of biological weapon. According to Poleground's personal files some progress was made while the project was still under regular Army jurisdiction, commanded by a certain General Caraway, but the project didn't move fast enough for Poleground. It also says that the General objected quite strenously to the use of biological weapons. Eventually, the General was deposed and the project given to a defector from some other country, a sort of freelance scientist. Again, close details of the project have yet to be found. I assume they were hidden from the General's supporters."
Hendrow raised an eyebrow. "They really planned to take the Gardens?"
Again, the small smile. "This clearly makes no real tactical sense. While the recovery of the various factions might be considered a Governmental priority, it seems ridiculous to jeopardize the stability that would be achieved by retaking the fragmented population by attacking a difficulty enemy. Perhaps the Galbadians had some bigger plan for which the Garden infrastructure had to removed, but it seems to me that this is all part of a even larger grudge. Galbadia has a good reason for hating Garden, as they were a key part in the countries recent, ah, troubles. It is possible they hoped to reunite the country against a common enemy, but it may be entirely personal."
Hendrow shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "It seems a rather foolish way to run a country."
Julian decisively closed another folder. "Michael, we are dealing with some very foolish people. You will notice the takeover went flawlessly, an aspect that almost certainly would have been impossible in taking a much better governed state. Anyhow, as I said, this project could be used to our advantage. The Gardens seem to host many self-styled heroes, and heroes, Michael, save the day. We don't need any heroes here. Spreading Sun had already succeeded in taking two of the militant groups, and it would be in our best interests to keep the project running. It may be that in the future, we must either stop the Gardens from interfering with our projects, or simply put a stop to them entirely. Of course, we need the missing information to understand and utilize the project."
Hendrow phrased his next question carefully. "Taking a disorganized and relatively undefended country, and these were rather special circumstances, is something quite different from attacking a well defended and well trained base manned with an elite fighting force. Are you sure that would be wise, Julian?"
Julian leaned back in his chair and assumed the most relaxed pose the intense man was capable of. "As always, you are the careful voice of reason my friend. However, your concern is misplaced. I have done my research well, and I know what we're up against. You see Michael, the Garden does indeed nurture, train and sustain the most elite force on the planet. But what is also clear is that if this fighting force were to be imported to our world, they would be next to useless. Have you ever wondered, Michael, how this 'Squall Leonhart' can use his sword against men with machine guns? How can such medieval relics prevail in a world of very modern technology? The answer, as with so many things in this strange world, is magic. Garden students junction their weapons to divert bullets, or even give themselves the speed to block them. Using magic to junction spells to their bodies to increase strength, dexterity and other things, they also junction magic to swords and sticks to give the weapons firepower equal that of any gun, not to mention their extensive training in magic in and of itself, utilizing offensive spells like Firaga and even defensive magics too. All this combines to indeed make a formidable fighting force. But I see from your eyes Michael, that you already draw the obvious conclusion."
"Their magic," Hendrow said, smile widening. "Will be as always quite useless."
"Exactly. Against us the SeeDs will have a severe disadvantage. It will be men wielding pointed bits of metal, versus men who can spray death for hundreds of yards."
"But surely the SeeDs will have also been trained in more modern tactics too? Consider this Irvine Kinneas. He used what we consider to be modern weaponry."
"That well may be. But even so, we can crush them by sheer weight of numbers, and the Gardens will be an excellent asset to control."
Hendrow mopped his brow, sinking yet deeper into the chair. "An ambitious undertaking."
"And simply coming here was not? Great risks beget great gains Michael, and the gains here far outweigh the risks."
Julian allowed himself a small chuckle. "It may well be Michael, that in a matter of time we may take a tour of this famous Garden, first hand."
* * * * * * * * * *
"Back." Squall gasped, running as fast as he could from the stairwell entrance with Quistis over his shoulder. Scott was closest to Selphie and grabbed her as best possible, moving while still being puzzled as to why. Irvine stopped, confused for a second since he had already been halfway into the action of getting Selphie, but regained his composure quickly and hobbled after Squall. It seemed that it was barely a second after they had cleared the area when the stairwell collapsed completely in a shower of twisted metal, burying the small room behind them.
All of them halted, Irvine clutching his leg and Scott slumping to the floor to ease the spinning in his head, still holding Selphie in his arms. Squall did neither, but instead set Quistis on the floor and surveyed the still smoking wreckage as the choking dust cloud enveloped them and then faded. Scott thought he might puke again, and propped Selphie up against the wall to remove her from the splash zone.
Irvine however threw back his head and laughed as if the near death encounter was some sort of personal joke.
"And that, people," He said with a grin. "Is how we do that."
Squall rolled his eyes and turned away. Scott would have rolled his eyes, but this seemed like a risky proposition as it felt like they might fall out if he did.
As Scott and Irvine nursed their respective injuries, Squall scouted out the best possible route of escape. With the total chaos ensuing above, their best bet was to now head for the city limits since their chances of slipping past the walls had greatly increased. Judging from the noise and the direction of the intense bombardment, he judged that the attack was coming from the east, but the fastest way to the walls from their position would be south. Squall was torn between a faster way to an avenue of escape and a probable safer way. From the condition of his companions he was tempted to choose the safer route, but he wasn't sure they had that kind of time. Finally, he ascertained to move quickly, and swim out the sewege canals to the south.
He turned to his friends. "We need to move out through the southern sewage tunnels. The section of city above us is almost certainly taken by the rebels already, but they probably haven't assumed control of all the cities security structures, assuming they're still intact."
Irvine shook his head, pushing painfully to his feet. "Quistis and Selphie are still out, we need more time."
"We don't have it. We can carry them, fast as possible. Hopefully they might wake up soon enough to speed things up. We need to go now."
Irvine slowly nodded, working himself up to moving. He turned to haul up Quistis but Squall moved faster, shouldering her first.
"I can go faster carrying her, and Keyor can carry Selphie. You the only one with a leg wound."
In a perverse sort of way, Squall knew this was a damaging leadership policy for Irvine, spreading responsibility away from him and excluding him from the team. But they didn't have time.
They went down the tunnels, sometimes jogging, mostly limping, with Squall slowing for the others and sometimes going ahead to check around corners. It was on one such corner check that Squall found the monster.
He had just turned the corner when a reeking stench hit him full in the face, and simultaneously a green-gray monster of the purest nightmare reared back, shouting some sort of gurgling war cry. Squall reacted instantly with the reflexes of a seasoned veteran. He swung Quistis back out of reach and drove his fist into what he judged was the monster's torso. The creature reeled back, collapsing on the concrete floor. He had half opened his mouth to shout to the others when Squall made a stunning realization- the creature was sporting a familiar, if rather slimy, hairdo, and it hadn't been letting loose a fearsome bellow, but a human shout of surprise.
It was in this way that the Deling team finally met up with Zell, with him lying gasping on the floor covered in filth, and them cowering back from the stench.
Irvine was the first to gain power of speech.
"Zell!?!" He gasped incredulously, faltering on his wounded leg.
The slime-soaked martial artist choked back a reply, slowly pushing himself into a sitting position, almost hyperventilating in two-parts pain and relief.
"Yeah, it's me," He said, grimacing. "I came to see what happened to you guys. Oh, Squall?"
"Yeah?" Squall grunted, trying not to show his rising feelings of relief and happiness at seeing his friend again.
"Next time, just hit me on the head or something and not in the stomach, okay?"
Zell put out a hand for Squall to help him up, placing a generous amount of raw sewege on Squall's palm in the process. Squall looked at the offending mess and wiped on the wall.
Zell looked around at the five, assessing them. "Why are you carrying Selphie? What's wrong with her?"
There was a badly hidden tinge of panic in his voice. Squall raised an eyebrow.
"She was hit in the shoulder. Her junctions are healing her quickly, she'll be fine soon."
Zell shoulders noticeably sagged in relief. He saw Irvine and Squall were looking at him strangely, and he tried to shrug it off.
"Oh. So what happened to you guys? Who the hell is that? You look like crap."
That was rich, Scott thought, coming from a man drenched in the leftovers from a million meals. Obviously the use of the word 'crap', in all it's forms, was a mistake here. More importantly than playing word games, was the number of people present. Scott figured he could add, so subtracting him there were five good friends all around and he was the odd man out. But weren't there six heroes?
"Uh, hey," Scott said, trying to break into the conversation. "Isn't there some other person in your.... Group?"
Rather than answers, all he received was stares. He shifted his weight uncomfortably, trying to maintain a firm grip on Selphie, who seemed to be feebly wiggling without being fully awake.
"No, seriously," Zell said, pointing a finger at Scott. "Who is this guy and why is he asking about Rinoa?"
Squall looked over at Scott, eyebrows lowered. "I know who he is, but I don't know why he asked about Rinoa."
A wave of palpable suspicion was emanating from them all.
Scott raised his free hand in placation. "I just thought that there was someone else guys, I wasn't trying to offend or anything."
Irvine and Squall seemed to be willing to reopen the question later as haste was in the cards for now, but Zell was still slowly cornering him.
"Zell," Squall sighed. "Not now."
But Zell wasn't having it.
"Hey man, you know there are people interested in Rinoa, or what she is anyway. And now some dude here-"
Irvine interrupted before his tirade hit full swing. "Relax. Trust me, he doesn't know Rinoa. He's not from around here."
"Oh yeah? Where you from then pal?"
Scott kept a straight face. "Out of town."
Irvine snorted in laughter and Zell glared suspiciously at both of them.
Squall decided that precious time was being wasted, and without word started off. Scott and Irvine quickly followed, with a startled Zell running to catch up.
"Hey man, wait up!"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Rinoa floated somewhere between the world and space, surrounded by a breathtaking array of stars and galaxies. Myriads of lights flashed and her heightened senses could detect every delicate ray and every speck of interstellar dust. The beauty of this was lost on her as she focused all her attention not on the cosmos, but a single city, harder to see than all the universe.
Leviathan, soon now?
Rinoa squirmed mentally for another two seconds before the need became too much.
Quickly, Rinoa searched her mind for the GF's presence. Yes, it was still there.
And like the sun rising, Squall's essence came blasting into her senses, just outside of Deling. His was followed by Zell, Quistis, Selphie, Irvine and-
A burst of mental static crashed through Rinoa's psyche an instant after she touched the strangers mind. Instead of a human presence there was a vacancy, a terrible vacuous hole in the world. It was a miniaturized version of the dark spot over Deling, but centered around one small point. She realized her friends could not sense this thing. She had to warn them.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Squall was in the process of hauling Quistis out of a drain when he heard Rinoa. He almost dropped his precious cargo but managed to catch her before she hit the ground. He looked around wildly.
Zell grunted as Squall half dropped Quistis, forcing him to take most of her dead weight.
"What the hell man, hold your end up!"
Can you hear me Squall?
"Yes," He said, laying Quistis down and still scanning the nearby surroundings, with no sight of her. "Where are you?"
Zell misinterpreted Squall's sudden moves and shoved Quistis onto the grass, jumping up to his side. He crouched in a combat stance.
"Who's here man? Who's talkin'?"
"Rinoa?" Squall called again, ignoring Zell. Zell did a double take.
"Rinoa!? Where? I thought she was-"
Zell! Tell him!
The obvious answer occurred to Zell about the same time Rinoa asked it of him. Squall stared at Zell.
"Tell me what?"
Zell grinned. "Oh, cool, you can hear her too!"
"Right, right. Squall, dude, Rinoa can talk to your mind. Go ahead, talk back."
Tentatively, Squall did so. "Rinoa?"
There was obvious relief in her mental projection. Squall however, only frowned. When had Rinoa been able to do this?
"When did you learn this?"
Never mind that, your in danger!
Instantly, Squall unsheathed his gunblade and Zell put his fists up again. By this time Irvine and Scott were manhandling Selphie up out of the hole.
Squall and Zell spun around, but the only thing to be seen was Irvine and Scott setting Selphie down on the grass. Zell scratched his head.
"Uh, I don't see nothin' Rinoa."
No, it's right there! It's moving!
Irvine and Scott were staring at them as they appeared to be talking to thin air. Irvine opened his mouth to speak.
"Gahh!" Irvine yelped, jumping a good foot into the air. Like Squall and Zell before, he glared around. "Rinoa?! Where are you?"
Zell laughed at him. "She can talk to your mind man. Pretty cool huh?"
Irvine appeared to be stuck over this for a moment, but then accepted this new oddity with resignation. Everything had been crazy since he had been recruited from Galbadia. Nothing new here. He shrugged.
Now Scott was the only one left out of the loop, and he was very confused. He chuckled nervously.
Squall started to explain things to him, but Zell beat him to it.
"Yeah, we've got a friend who can talk in your mind."
Like Irvine, Scott figured there was nothing to do here but nod and pretend like he understood until someone could sit down and explain it to him. This was after all, a different dimension. Maybe telepathy was pretty common here. Mentally filing it aside for later examination, he moved over to pick up Selphie. Zell saw what he was doing and inexplicably ran over to beat him to it.
"Hey man, I got her," He said, hoisting her up and shifting her to a more comfortable position. "Relax."
What's it doing?
Squall shook his head. "Rinoa, I don't know what your talking about. There's nothing else here."
Yes there is. I can sense five of you and something else.
Squall raised an eyebrow. "There is nobody else here but Scott."
Hyne Squall, I heard you. Why can't you just volunteer information instead of it being dragged out of you? Who is Scott?
Squall tried to sound apologetic. After a somewhat long separation, this was not how he wanted to restart their relationship. "We met him in Deling. It's a long story. I'll tell you when we get back."
Where is he standing?
"Right of Irvine from where I'm standing."
I can't sense another person. There's nothing there but this- this hole in time and space. I thought you were in danger.
Everybody who was conscious looked at Scott. He smiled nervously.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"Rinoa was the best thing that ever happened to Squall, and I swear that sometimes he came within an inch of throwing it away. He better be thankful she loves him, if I was his girlfriend I'd never put up with that crap. Wait, that didn't sound good."
Hendrow was on site when the files were discovered, jammed into a windowsill in the basement. They had been found during a full search of Poleground's former residence, Poleground himself now incarcerated in the nearby police station. The files in question were in fact, as Julian had suspected, detailed information on Operation Spreading Sun. Now that the final pieces of the puzzle had fallen into their hands, Hendrow knew the next inevitable step was to apprehend the main researcher and scientific proponent of the project, this 'Odine'. This might prove to be troublesome as it was not yet clear whether the good Doctor was in Esthar or in Galbadia. If Odine was in fact back in Esthar, he would be unreachable. However, if this came to pass, Julian had his own team of scientists ready to tackle the problem. The takeover would be much slower that way, but it was better than nothing.
Hendrow personally dropped the files on Julian's desk for perusal. Julian looked up from his current work and slightly raised one eyebrow.
"The missing files on Spreading Sun. They found them lodged in a window, of all places." He sounded as if the very thought was ludicrous. "Nothing appears to missing."
Julian didn't even blink. "Of course."
He slowly leafed through the small pile, taking note of the important bits before closing it. He looked at Hendrow who had taken a seat in the chair opposite of him. Julian tented his fingers, bringing them up to his lips.
"Michael," He said, turning to look out the window. "We both know that our sudden presence in this world is marked by violence. And really, we are at war."
Hendrow concurred. "Yes, that is true."
"So you see Michael that in war regrettable things happen. The information here put to good use will give us a firm enough foothold to attack the Garden. It is sad, true. Children are always the victims of any conflict. But we cannot have them interfering, and in the end removing them will actually save lives. The men will be reluctant. No one wants to attack a school. We are soldiers, not monsters. But circumstances may force us to do monstrous things. I say this all Michael, so that when the time comes, are you with me?"
Hendrow let out a breath. It was unfortunate that the Garden had to removed. He would instruct the men to take prisoners and offer mercy to those who might surrender. Regrettable, but it seemed to him that Julian was in the right.
"Yes, I am."
"Good. I knew I could trust you to do what had to be done. We will spare who we can and put the entire thing behind us once it is finished. After all, our objective is not slaughter, but conquest."
Hendrow smiled. " 'And when he saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.' "
Julian chuckled, reopening the folder. "Indeed he did Michael. But we have something that Alexander could not have dreamed of. And with further progress, I think we will never run out of worlds to conquer."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Hyne shuddered in her reality. Truly, these Outsiders were mad.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Poleground sat in his cell, his only company his thoughts. It had all been taken from him, everything, in less than an hour. He had worked so hard to rise to the top. So many small people had been crushed with his dramatic rise, and now that he was deposed, he feared for his life. He had no real friends, a few supporters who abandoned him after the takeover, and an abundance of enemies. Now he was unprotected in a public jail. If his enemies didn't kill him directly, then the new government might succumb to pressure to do so in order to gain favor with the masses.
Of course, he knew nothing of the new government. It had all happened so fast. The walls had fallen, soldiers with equipment he had never seen before captured the city, and a man with cold eyes had walked into his apartment and put a gun to his head. It had been a bad day. Even the last official report he received had been bad- the captive SeeDs had escaped. By now they were probably out of the city and gone. If he had still been in power, this would have been some matter of concern- the attack on the SeeDs had been part of a larger plan against Garden, and with their escape Garden would be quick to move against Galbadia. It was all out of his hands now. Indeed, the fact that Garden would probably retaliate was a good thing. Let them cause the invaders some trouble. These musings were interrupted by wheezing chuckled emitted from somewhere to his right. He was startled, unaware that he had any sort of cell mates. He recognized the voice the instant it began to speak.
"So, Poleground," Caraway said, hauling his battered body into a sitting position in a neighboring cell. "Impaled upon your own sword. You do of course realize that you are the one who blocked all my city defense proposals so you could waste more money on your pet projects. Now you are imprisoned in your own jail as I am jailed by my own troops. Irony seems to be the thing these days. Tell me, who has violently inherited your empire? One of the independents?"
"Shut up," Poleground snarled. "Why do you care? Either way, you'll never get out of here. At least I might bargain my way free. What precious information can you offer the new regime, Caraway?"
"Nothing. But then, neither will you."
Poleground scurried deeper into the back of his cell, away from the terrible voice. "What are you talking about? I indeed might buy my freedom, perhaps with the whereabouts of your sorceress daughter...."
Caraway said nothing, but clanking sounds emanated from his cell. Poleground warily peered in his direction.
"What are you doing?"
"Something I should have done awhile ago," Caraway said, moving up to the bars between them. "It took awhile for me to make this. But you seem a more fitting target than a guard. After all, the guards are just doing their job. You are a leech on this country, sucking away the soul of the people, and growing fat on corruption. And you will say nothing of my daughter."
Poleground barely had time to scream as a sharpened piece of steel found it's way to his heart.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It had been awhile now and everyone was still staring at him. Scott fidgeted in place. He wondered if their invisible friend was talking with them. He really didn't think it was a good idea just to stand here. Every second spent standing around was one more that they could be discovered. For the moment though, he swallowed his urgency and waited.
Oddly, it was Squall who broke the silence.
"Who are you?"
"I told you, Scott Keyor."
"Then what are you?"
Scott held up his hands defensively, confused by the question. "I'm a person. Look, where is this going? I'm obviously human."
Zell opened his mouth to say something, but again uncharacteristically, Squall beat him to it. Irvine just kept one hand on his gun.
"We have a friend who... Sees without eyes. Looks at, essence, karma. You don't exist that way. Your just a hole."
Scott surprised them by only nodding thoughtfully. "Yes, that stands to reason."
Irvine frowned. "How so?"
Scott, without knowing it, lapsed into scholar mode, one hand stroking his chin, the other gesturing to emphasize points.
"Well, according to research done at the lab, the basic atomic structure of every universe differs greatly. Not so much as to make them completely incompatible, but enough so that certain structures existent in only one universe, would be nonexistent to a being from another. On the most basic level. So basically, in my universe this, for lack of a better term, 'ESP' that your friend exhibits doesn't exist. Therefore, I don't appear on their 'radar', theoretically speaking."
Scott nodded again. "Now that I'm thinking about it, this would also explain why the magic backfired on my torturer. Stuff like that isn't around where I come from."
Zell was still back at 'lab'. "Lab? What lab? Odine's lab?"
Squall and Irvine ignored him, thinking over what Scott had explained. Irvine spoke first.
"So, magic doesn't do anything to you?"
"Yeah," Scott said, tired of talking and ready to run. "I guess so."
"And you can't junction."
Irvine blew out a breath. "Well, that limits your options a bit."
"Uh-huh, say, shouldn't we be moving about now?"
Squall shook himself out of contemplation and concurred. They needed to move, now, with no more surprises. Of course, he wasn't quite sure where to move too. The Ragnarok was back at Garden and would take time to get to their location, but that was beside the point. A spaceship would be a too obvious and tempting target for the Galbadians. Or whoever the hell has this city.
They fled from the outskirts of Deling, staying low to the ground and traveling in the ditches by the tracks whenever possible. The going was easy, without anyone spotting them, and the low clouds dimmed the light to the point where it look like evening. The storm was still building, but fortunately, it only drizzled.
The going was easy, but not for Rinoa. She only followed with her mind, but the black hole that was Scott constantly distracted her and wore at her conscience. Sometimes she was tempted to shut down her perception entirely to block out the mental white noise, but concern for Squall and the others kept her ever watchful.
At the same time, she zoomed on ahead of them, searching for quick transport out of the country. With Deling recently falling, the trains would be out, so the best bet would be by boat. It would be best to avoid Dollet. The new establishment hadn't really had time to, well, establish, so while Dollet was still unaware of the recent news it was better to be safe than sorry. A SeeD ship pickup at the nearest beach would work perfectly, unless all the SeeD boats were out on call. One might be rerouted from a mission, but that might not be possible and would take a lot of time. As a last possible resort, they could try to make it to Timber where they could certainly find refuge with the rebels. Timber was a long ways away though, and there was no telling whether or not the new force in Deling would make a complete takeover as soon as possible. Of course, what Rinoa didn't and couldn't know, was that Julian Foss had no interest in taking over the rest of the country until his assets were firmly in place.
It was four hours later that the tired team found shelter under and outcropping of rock a ways off the road, and fell into an collective exhausted sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The man smiled at the gate, holding a fake ID.
The guard didn't smile, but let him in.
The man passed down white tiled hallways towards his destination.
The guards didn't suspect.
The man passed through a door into a large room.
The scientists ignored him.
The Agent took pictures of the portal.
* * * * * * * * * * *