Chapter VII En Passant
After being rattled by the doctor's false earthquake, the soldiers didn't need the further calumny of witnessing dissension between their leaders. So Jezikan murmured, when the president initially refused her suggestion of contacting the Garden.
"I'm their general, not you," Ferdid rumbled irritably, but he followed his wife and Lord Dahl up the narrow staircase to the main room of the Mayor's residence. His armored bulk seemed out of place among the fanciful creations and delicate windchimes. Individually pretty items, but the overall effect was an displeasingly eclectic decor, unhelped by the large, awkward machine taking up half the room for an obscure purpose.
Dahl put his back to the contraption distastefully. Ferdid ignored it. "Speak your piece. But don't put too much effort into it; I won't agree to this 'plan,' wife."
"It's only to buy us time," Jezikan said. "We have SeeD's head. What good's a hostage we don't use?"
"Kramer isn't a hostage. He's a guest of the Galbadian state. We're delaying him now to delay the SeeD. He may be useful for getting through to the Gardens--we might even ally with them, if we convince him--"
"Stop thinking in the past. Making allies--that doesn't matter now, Ferdid," said Jezikan. "The Gardens, SeeD--they no longer mean anything to us. You don't understand the doors opening to us here. The power. Once the Lunatic Pandora comes, the SeeD will no longer be a concern. Nor the country of the Shield, nor the rabble-rousing knight. His terrorists will be dust at our feet."
"And we'll be the terrorists in their stead. No," Ferdid refused. "There's no reason. The SeeD haven't attacked yet. We'll delay them for now--with persuasion, not threats. If they do strike, we'll defend against them like warriors. We have the strength to withstand a siege, at least until the Lunatic Pandora appears." He spoke of that arrival, not with Jezikan's exulted expectation, but almost spitting it. "This may be the last true battle we'll have. The SeeD commander is no fool. He'll realize we've summoned it. It was they who re-sunk it, remember, after they defeated the Sorceress. They won't want it risen again."
"I'd almost say you agree with them, husband," Jezikan remarked, lazily.
He stared at her, amber eyes narrowed. "Maybe I do. This fool plan has taken so much effort, I've rarely taken the time to consider its worth. Perhaps I should have sooner. Without the doctor's assurances and your arguments filling my ears."
"Maybe you'd rather not fight the SeeD at all."
"I'll fight them," Ferdid snarled. "On my ground, with swords and guns, as men are supposed to. Not from a god-spelled vehicle of the ancients. We're not gods, Jezikan, no matter what aspirations you have. This power we're courting might mean Galbadia's damnation."
"President Deling gets religion," Dahl marveled. "The high priest would be proud."
Ferdid wheeled on him. "Beware, Warlock, I'm tiring of you."
"I thought you tired of me long ago. I'm positively exhausted of you."
The president for an instant seemed ready to draw his gun, but caught himself. "Muzzle him, Jezikan," he said instead, coldly. "There's no time for this. We must prepare for the SeeD. And the Pandora."
* * *
Balamb Garden received nothing more from Fisherman's Horizon, though they signaled on a private SeeD band on the off-chance Cid might respond. He didn't. "If it's even getting through," Nida sighed dejectedly. "I think our radio's fixed, but..."
"Maybe his is down," Selphie suggested, at the desk's comm also trying to open a channel. "They were at ground zero."
"Keep trying," Quistis ordered tersely. Zell and Rinoa had retreated to a corner of the office and were discussing something in low voices, with lots of emphatic gesturing on Zell's part. The problem was that Rinoa looked like she wasn't restraining so much as inciting him. Recalling a certain highly elaborate plan to kidnap Vinzer Deling, and a daring attempt to bell the cat--or rather bangle the Sorceress Edea--Quistis felt a headache coming on. She wondered if Kiros had any aspirin on him.
How did Squall manage this whole leadership deal?
She didn't even want to think about what the Galbadians could be doing, though that should be at the top of her priorities. It might be worth trying to contact Seifer again, though even if she could get through she doubted he'd appreciate the interruption. Whatever he was up to. Conquering Deling City from the inside. Weren't knights supposed to be above treachery? Or was that only legend, too?
The lift outside the office hissed open, and a SeeD cadet entered. Quistis vaguely recognized her--one of the medical assistants? She saluted gingerly before speaking. "Dr. Kodowaki asked me to come up, since the intercom wasn't working. She said to tell you not to worry, but something's come up with Squall--"
Rinoa and Laguna, both usually the politest of people, made no apologies for nearly knocking down the cadet as they exited, and were in the lift before she finished her report. Quistis missed the rest of it herself, rushing into the hall to wait for the lift's return. It took far too long. Maybe it had been damaged as well. Finally it returned and she crammed in with the others, plus Kiros, and Ward, who filled almost half of it by himself.
When they reached the infirmary, Rinoa and Laguna were before the closed door to Squall's room. Ellone stood between them, looking as if she were trying not to cry. One hand was held to her forehead in a gesture so familiar Quistis wondered if she had picked it up from Squall, or Squall from her. "I was trying to touch him," she murmured, clearly not meaning physical contact. "I've never been able, not like that, but I was trying. For a moment I thought I had--I heard him. I swear I heard him. Then..."
"Then, what?" Zell demanded, harsh in his agitation. "What happened?"
"Hey, lay off," Irvine protested, stepping between them. "It wasn't Sis's fault, none of this--"
"He just wanted--" Quistis began.
"Dr. Kodowaki said not to worry." Rinoa's soft words silenced all of them.
The pause was broken by the door opening. Dr. Kodowaki looked them over wearily. "You can go in if you want," she said. "But not all at once. And don't touch anything."
"What is it?"
The doctor's face softened as she turned to Rinoa. "I put him on life support. He stopped breathing for a moment there. I don't think his heart quit, but it came close." She laid a gentle hand on Ellone's arm. "It wasn't you, either, girl. I'm not clear what it was, any more than I understand what brought this on to begin with, but you couldn't have made it worse. It might be a delayed reaction to the original stress, or a result of the coma. All I know is his brain activity decreased dramatically, and his body started shutting down." She wiped her hand over her face. "And damn, I don't mean to sound so cold. But that's all I have."
"Can I go in?"
At Dr. Kodowaki's approving nod, Rinoa slipped through the door. Laguna cocked his head inquiringly, received confirmation and put his arm around Ellone's shoulders, walking her inside.
A loud rattle made the rest of them jump. Zell had slammed both fists into the doctor's desk, denting the polished metal. Before anyone could speak, he twisted on his heel and tore out of the office.
Quistis caught up with him in the corridor outside the infirmary. Trembling, he jammed his balled fists against the wall, his head lowered between his outstretched arms. "We gotta go to FH," he said, his tenor dropped to a low growl. "Those Galbadian bastards are doing this, and if we don't stop 'em he's gonna--"
"We'll stop them," Quistis said, inwardly marveling at her own certainty.
He flung out his arm before she could touch his shoulder in comfort, shoving himself away from the wall. "Now, we gotta--"
"And do what?" Irvine snapped from behind them. "Ask 'em to stop buggin' our commander? Force a fight and blow up half of FH while we're at it? What if they're not behind this, what the hell do we do then?"
"We need a plan," Quistis said.
"Yeah," Selphie agreed. "And we need one now." She walked forward, for once with no bounce in her step. "I wanna get them too, Zell. But until we figure out what's going on, we can't help Squall."
"Or FH," Irvine added. "Or Cid, if he's in trouble."
"We need your help, Zell," Quistis said. "To help them."
Zell raked both hands through his short-spiked hair. "Okay. Okay. I'll keep my cool."
"Good," Quistis said, knowing he meant it. Though privately she wondered how long he could possibly keep it for.
But then, privately, she was amazed she was keeping it herself...
"Quistis!" Xu, hurrying down the corridor, halted when she saw their impromptu gathering. "Squall--I take it he didn't wake up?" She didn't wait for the obvious answer. "Then you're needed upstairs--we just got contacted by FH."
* * *
Quistis made it to the office first, sliding behind the desk as Xu put the channel through. She hoped to see Cid on the comm screen. President Deling appeared instead. "We apologize for not contacting you sooner," he said gruffly. "We've had communication difficulties."
"Relating to that powerful signal earlier?" Quistis demanded outright. "What was that about?"
"We don't know. It might have been caused by a resister in FH. Not everyone approves of our new alliance."
He was lying, and he did it so well Quistis would have been convinced, had she had less experience with politicians. She schooled her face into a trusting look. "The alliance is your business, but we also have business with FH. One of our Gardens is there."
"Yes," the president agreed. "The engineers here are still working on it, I believe. When they're finished, you can of course retrieve it."
There was the barest hesitation before he said 'when'. As if he were expecting an event between now and then, and she doubted it was Galbadia Garden's renovations being completed. Again, she didn't address it. And she didn't dare mention Cid, on the off-chance they hadn't found him. "Thank you," was all she said. "Sorry to interrupt your negotiations; I know you were secluding yourself to hammer out a reasonable accord with FH's Mayor."
She was perhaps a bit too heavy on the sarcasm; Deling's heavy brow lowered, but he forced some joviality into his reply. "I'd never want to disrupt our good relations with SeeD." He frowned slightly. "Though, if I may ask, where is your commander?"
Quistis felt her face freeze. "He's...indisposed at the moment," she managed.
Something crossed Ferdid's own expression. Not satisfaction. But he didn't look entirely surprised, either. "I see," he said. "If that's all, I wish you good journeys."
"Good luck in your negotiations," Quistis said lamely, and cut the connection.
"Liar!" Selphie cried the moment they were off the air.
"Let's hope so," Irvine said, a surprisingly precise echo of Quistis's own thoughts.
"Zell, get Rinoa," she requested. "This is important. If we don't do something soon, it could to be too late." For what--for who--she didn't say, nor needed to.
* * *
Once he broke the communication with the Garden, Ferdid found a pretense to order the two soldiers present away. Then he grabbed Dahl by the jacket and shook the lord like a dog. "The SeeD commander," he snarled. "Prey to your warlock tricks?!"
Dahl tore away, tossing his head back haughtily. "The SeeD are our only major threat. Less so now."
"You're no man," Ferdid seethed. "You're a witch. Take the curse off him."
"You're the one who demanded I fell the Sorceress," the lord reminded.
"The Sorceress. Not Commander Squall. Magic to fight mages; weapons to fight warriors. Remove your spell!"
"Your honor system was obsolete before my grandfather's birth," Dahl hissed. "And Squall wields a gunblade. The Sorceress's Knights are subject to the same rules as the Sorceress. Besides, it's already too late for him."
Ferdid glared at him, yellow eyes blazing, then whirled and stabbed at the com's keypad.
"What are you doing?" Jezikan had been observing from the corner, aloof as a dragon watching a cat and mouse that had strayed into its cave. Now she glided forward to place one hand over her husband's.
He shoved her back, roughly. "I'm contacting the Garden again. They can have the warlock. That should buy us the time we need, lady wife, while we wait for the Pandora." Ferdid laughed, a strangled, harsh sound. "Perhaps I'll tell them about that as well. Begin the battle now."
"No," Jezikan said firmly, taking his arm to pull him away from the com. "You won't."
"I'm your husband, not your child!" Ferdid tried to shake her off. When she clung, he backhanded her, his hand cracking against her cheek like a gunshot.
She staggered, but didn't fall. Releasing his sleeve, she drew herself straight, gold glittering in her auburn hair. Her hands remained at her side, not rising to slap him or touch her reddened cheek.
Dahl moved toward her, stopped when the larger man swiveled toward him. "Not even man enough to protect your lover," Ferdid spat. "By the Brothers, what company I've fallen to. I should give the SeeD your body. But they might want you alive, for their commander's sake." He touched the pistol holstered at his side. "Leave. But don't go far. They'll find you even if I can't."
"No," Dahl said, flatly.
Ferdid's fists were shaking. "Get out," he growled. "Both of you."
Dahl looked to Jezikan, tilting his head in a serene inquisition. Just as calmly, she nodded. A spark lit in the lord's eyes, black fire, and he turned back toward Ferdid. At the concentration writ on the warlock's aesthetic brow, the president grabbed for his gun.
He never reached it. His square fingers twitched spasmodically as his amber eyes widened in paralyzing terror. Slowly, almost gracefully, he crumpled to his knees, then with a choked gasp pitched onto his side. Jezikan watched intently, her lips pulled tight over her teeth. Even when aware of its cause, the fear contorting Ferdid's face was horrifying to behold. His head was twisted toward the ceiling and his eyes squeezed shut as he panted, rapidly and raggedly, as if there were too little oxygen in the air, struggling to draw breaths like a beached fish.
Three gasps, four, and then they stopped. A trail of scarlet-tinged spittle wound down his cheek from his open mouth.
Dahl leaned against the bank of computers, his white shirt looking dingy below his transparent face. For a long moment he gazed down at the fallen man. When he lifted his eyes, they were darker than the space between stars.
Jezikan gathered her skirts to crouch beside her husband and pressed two slim fingers to his throat. Standing again, she absently shook her hand, as if flicking off water. "Ferdid," she murmured. "He was never ambitious. Not as we are." She spared a glance at Dahl. "Will you be all right?"
"In a minute," he said, a bit unsteadily. "I knew him...well. It was...simple enough..."
She waited until he had caught his breath enough to stand upright. His wan aspect could be attributed to the situation. She felt nothing herself, except a faint pain in her cheek where Ferdid had hit her. It didn't feel sore enough to bruise; her porcelain skin was tougher than it appeared. She pinched her other cheek to induce a flush, then yanked her fingers through her hair to disarray the charms. With a final confirming glance at Dahl, she opened her mouth and screamed.
"Help!" the lord shouted over her cry. "Find a doctor!"
By the time the medics arrived, tears had marred her perfect complexion, and she was valiantly fighting back more as she knelt by Ferdid's body, her dress heedlessly tangled around her legs. Dahl stooped beside her, trying desperately to revive her husband; the lord had to be forcibly pulled away by one of the medics. The others bent over the president, working urgently while soldiers gathered in the doorway, their ready arms useless protection against the death which had already come and conquered.
It was only after the medics had confirmed this and soldiers, in stunned silence, had borne away his body that the Lady Jezikan pulled herself together. To the troops arranged around her in a sympathetic honor guard, she said, "The Brothers wouldn't have capriciously stolen such a strong man's life. My husband was in communication with Balamb Garden moments before he fell. Are not the SeeD are allied with the Edea, the Sorceress who murdered his uncle? Isn't the man we have here, their headmaster, that very Edea's husband? Could this be only a coincidence?"
"No," the soldiers answered. Still in shock, confused, they gratefully listened to the strongest voice of authority present.
"Bring Cid Kramer," Jezikan commanded. "And contact Balamb Garden again. If they had any part in this, they will be punished."
* * *
To say things were not going well would be an understatement so vast as to dwarf the moon. Nothing had prepared her for the past forty-eight hours; this latest development just capped it. Rinoa observed Quistis massaging her temples with no little sympathy. Her own head was pounding, but she ignored it. The throbbing had reached the point that nothing alleviated it as it were. "Can you play the recording again, please?" she asked.
Jezikan Deling's beautiful face flashed onscreen. The Lady Deling, not her husband. Where the President was she did not address. Nor did she offer any opportunity to ask.
"Balamb Garden," the lady proclaimed. "You will come no closer to Fisherman's Horizon. SeeD will make no attempt to enter this city, individually or in groups. Do not attack any of our vessels, coming or leaving FH.
"If you ignore these rules, we will be forced to take action. Supposedly you fight for just causes and the rights of people. The citizens of Fisherman's Horizon are under our power. We've established this control without bloodshed thus far. But if you make any move, or if we detect any of your people boarding, we will kill one person for each of your transgressions."
Jezikan smiled then. As uncomfortable as the expression looked on her husband's face, his smirk had been nothing compared to the cruelty in hers. "We are serious. This man will be the first to die."
She drew him into view. Cid Kramer, of course, looking mildly disturbed and more cross. Though they had all guessed it, the SeeD couldn't help but react, Rinoa no less than the others. Jezikan hadn't missed this. "We are serious," she repeated. "Do not test us." That was all. The last image they saw was Cid, who faced the camera squarely, shaking his head as if signaling them to ignore him.
Which was one option definitely out of the question. How much they could risk was less agreed. "We could sneak one vessel in underwater," Irvine insisted. "They can't be guarding every portal. Cloaking could hide a small ship, enough for a couple of us--"
"And what if you're caught?" Quistis demanded wearily. "What if you're recognized? Hell, what if you're just scanned--they're bound to have a magus or two. The one we met in Deling City was powerful enough to have a stock of scan spells. That would be enough to tell them you're SeeD."
"There's ways around that--"
"Yeah, but they take time," Selphie said. "You'd have to block fighting skills and everything--and no guardian forces; they'd be a dead giveaway. We'll have to go in without any magic--"
"No, you won't," Rinoa said. "I won't, I mean." She looked around at all of them. Selphie and Irvine matching one another in earnest intensity; Quistis fraying but still strong. Zell sat with his arms folded across his chest and one leg bouncing impatiently. Kiros and Ward were observing their discussion without comment; Laguna was still with Ellone and Squall. Where she would rather be herself, even if it did no good. She drew a breath. "I'm not SeeD. Technically I'm not forbidden to board FH. I should be able to block scans without much trouble. And I won't need a guardian force to cast magic."
"You might be recognized," Quistis protested. "By the soldiers, the President--"
"You'd all be recognized by him too, probably," Rinoa replied. "The soldiers won't know me. Even if some of them saw me with my dad, that would've been years ago. I'll dress like a Fisherman's Horizon girl and they won't know the difference." She met each of their eyes in turn, steadily. "Guys, you know this is the best way. For Cid, for FH, for Squall. Get the ship ready, and I'll go."
She knew there was a time, not so long ago, that she would have waited with bated breath for permission to undertake such a dangerous mission, would have craved the excitement almost as much as the honor of responsibility. A chance to prove herself, prove her devotion to the cause.
No need for proof now. Her friends understood it already, and she knew it herself, so deeply it truly did hurt. When the others agreed to her plan, it was not with triumph or vindication that she accepted the duty, but plain relief.
But the ever-present touch of fear that she had gone too far, promised something beyond her scope--that was still with her. Sometimes Rinoa wondered if she'd ever lose that last bit of self-doubt. And would she know herself if she did?
* * *
"What's wrong?" Dahl was on edge, both drained and stimulated by the first death he had purposely induced. He prowled the confines of the mayor's residence, finally finding a target for his agitation in Cid Kramer's unnatural calm. "Aren't you supposed to be cursing us? Insisting we'll never get away with this?"
Cid blinked at him, refocusing, as if his thoughts had been chasing monsters on the moon. "You won't," he said, matter-of-factly. "Why should I say it?"
"You don't know anything," the lord baited. "They'll be the ones to fail. Once we have the Lunatic Pandora, we'll grind all your SeeD to flour. If they come to save you, we'll kill them. Then you, to honor our accord. And who next? The mayor? Perhaps his bitch of a wife. Or maybe a child would--"
A soldier entered and Dahl immediately fell silent. The man saluted Jezikan respectfully, the lord less so. "It's true what you told us, my lady," he reported. "We've had no success contacting anyone in Deling City. Is it really a rebellion?"
"It is," she confirmed grimly.
"That bastard knight," the commander growled with feeling, then pulled himself straight. "My apologies, my lady, I meant no offense--"
"None taken, Commander." Jezikan waved one hand with an artful mix of exhaustion and elegance. "We can hardly be expected to watch our tongues, with so much else weighing on us. And Almasy deserves your title. But we'll stop him yet. My husband..." she faltered, bravely forged ahead, "My husband wouldn't have stood for this, and nor shall we. We fight in Ferdid's name."
"In the President's name," the soldier agreed respectfully, saluting again before departing.
Dahl turned to Cid once he was gone. "Is the Knight your man, too? The Sorceress was your wife--who is Seifer to you? Your son?"
Cid's eyebrows shot up at that. The lord would have pushed further, had not Jezikan snapped, "Dahl! We have greater concerns than Kramer or the knight. The doctor--"
Dahl reared back as if he had been slapped. "He knows...He'll guess how Ferdid--he must have already! Shiva's crystals, how could we--"
"Whether he puts it together isn't a concern," Jezikan told him irritably. "He won't care. Ferdid meant nothing to him except as a means to an end. He'll work for us alone as readily. It's only important now that his work does succeed."
"Indeed," Dahl agreed. The Lunatic Pandora out of control was a nightmare even the warlock was chary of contemplating. "And how do we assure this?"
"We wait," Jezikan said. Because there was nothing else to be done. This was the only thing that bothered her, the inability to direct this one stage of her plan. The helplessness gnawed at her nerves.
And justifiably; it concerned him as well. Still, Dahl felt some small satisfaction, seeing even her calm was not entirely immune to fear.
* * *
They gave her a few moments of privacy. Rinoa didn't have anything to say, didn't know if Squall even could hear her, wherever he was. Far, and getting farther with every breath the respirator pumped into his lungs. Its quiet hiss was the only sound in the tiny room; she couldn't ignore it.
In the end she only promised to return. A trite goodbye. His hand when she took it was cold; they had covered him with a thick blanket in the warm room, but the heat didn't penetrate his freezing fingers, bare of his customary gloves.
His brow was smooth, relaxing when he had dropped deeper into the coma. At least he had lost that tight look of pain. In the abnormal repose his face was beautiful, so young, untouched by its habitual shadows. She leaned over him, her hair falling against his cheeks.
"Try it," urged a voice in the doorway. When she whirled around, Irvine grinned at her, subdued but unashamed as always. "You know that nursery story?" he said. "The one about the princess cursed by a sorceress to fall asleep, until her prince comes and kisses her awake. They say there's truth in the old tales..."
"And I'm going to test this theory in front of you?" Rinoa archly inquired.
"Hey, it's nothing I haven't seen before." He pushed his hat back with one finger, cockily.
Rinoa eyed him askance. "You were watching us that night, on the balcony."
"We all were. If the battery hadn't run out we'd have it on video."
She had known, actually. Even at the time she'd been aware of them, on the periphery, all quiet and all approving. Her first real friends...she hadn't minded at the time; she didn't now. And Squall hadn't either, though he must have known they were there. SeeD's best fighter was always aware of his surroundings, and they hadn't been that quiet. And yet he'd still taken her hand, drawn her in, and they'd both forgotten everything around them in the kiss.
Just the memory made her blush slightly, and Irvine's sharp gaze didn't help any. Uncharacteristically, he didn't comment, only reported, "The vessel's prepared. Selphie's got the FH clothes in the other room. Whenever you're ready."
"I'm ready now." But she stood still for a moment, as if waiting, listening to the respirator's rhythm.
"We'll take care of him," Irvine said quietly. "Dr. Kodowaki's the best. And Squall's not going to walk out on a great girl like you. Even he's not that big an idiot."
Her ghost of a chuckle was almost a sigh. Irvine touched her shoulder lightly. "You sure you want to do this?"
"Yes." No hesitation in that.
"Thought so." He paused, considering before he spoke. "You know, my parents are Deusatva. My foster parents, I mean."
"No...I didn't know that sect was still active."
"Well, it's not something they spread around. Not in Galbadia. But they had an altar hidden under the stairs, and they taught me all about it." He grinned slightly. "They'd be totally scandalized if they knew how we use Shiva now."
"Wait. I have a point. Do you know much about Deusatva beliefs? Not the rumors about cannibalism and blood drinking. The real stuff. They believe everyone, everything alive, has a soul. And that soul can be reborn, over and over again, traveling along the wheel of Fate, until it earns salvation to leave. We're all on that wheel, each in our own tread, spinning around, each at our own pace." He orbited his hands around one another. "But sometimes, once in a while, souls will meet. People--not human beings, but what's inside us. They connect, and then they turn with each other."
He looked down at Squall. "I guess I'm not really religious. But I was thinkin' a while back, the way I know Selphie, maybe it's not all made up. And if it is true, you and Squall, you've gone around a lot of times together."
Rinoa was a long time in responding. "So we're having trouble earning salvation?" she finally inquired.
Irvine grinned. "Who needs it--this merry-go-round has more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, but I'm not looking to cash in my tickets!" He paused. "Uh, if you ever meet my folks, promise not to tell them I said so."
She actually laughed--which had probably been Irvine's goal all along. He stepped outside again, to check something with Selphie, ostensibly, but it gave her enough time to bend down and press her lips to Squall's forehead, whispering, "See you soon."
She said her farewells to Irvine and Selphie in the infirmary after she changed, and to Quistis and Zell on the walk to the garage, before they left to verify everything on the bridge. Laguna, Kiros and Ward were waiting for her in the garage, beside the small vessel. "I've put the access codes and stuff into the ship computer," Laguna said. "They'll allow you to dock at any underwater port in FH."
"Then I'll just sneak on and pretend I belong there." Rinoa glanced down at herself. "Think I look the part?" She struck a model's pose. The outfit Selphie had selected, blue overalls over a beige plaid shirt, felt bulky and unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, and her braided hair was an awkward weight tugging at her scalp. "I just need one of those knit hats."
"You'll pass without it," Kiros said, and Ward nodded mute agreement. "Doubt I'd recognize you in that get-up."
"Just as long as the soldiers don't, either."
The Esthar minister nodded. "What'd Quistis mean, saying they might?"
Rinoa shrugged. "I might have met some of them in Deling City, a while ago. My father's General Caraway."
Laguna looked at Rinoa sharply. He had been studying her costume critically, but now his eyes went to her face, and seemed to see it in a new light, finding something there he had never noticed before. "Who's your mom?" he asked, not quite casually.
"Julia Heartilly. She was a singer, before she met Dad--my father, and had me."
There was a momentary brightness in Laguna's eyes, but all he said was, "Oh."
Ward nudged Kiros and rumbled something indecipherable. Kiros's mouth quirked up as he whispered back, "It does seem that way...of course he's also Raine's son, that does give him the advantage..."
"Ignore them," Laguna told her hastily. "I actually saw your mother play, a couple times. Before she met your dad. She--she must have been proud of you."
"Yeah. I guess." Rinoa put her hands on the rim of the ship's portal, triggering the hatch to iris open. "Well, this is it."
"Rinoa." Laguna cleared his throat softly. "I'm maybe not the best one to say it--but be careful."
She nodded, then spun and gave him a quick hug. After a moment of surprise, he returned it.
Kiros and Ward waved as she entered the ship, Kiros wishing her luck. Right before the hatch closed behind her, she heard Laguna's farewell. "Thank you..."
Alone in the silent vessel, she seated herself in the cramped cockpit and activated the main engine's first stage. More displays lit around her like holiday sparklers as the motor hummed, a low bass vibration. She opened a channel to the bridge. "I'm ready."
"We'll set you down now," Xu said. "Good luck."
"Why does everyone keep telling me that?"
She heard Xu's smile in her response, then concentrated on the controls as the ship jerked into motion, carried on the tracks to the exit. The creaking of stressed metal signaled the garage doors grinding open, and then her vessel slid neatly from the Garden into the vast ocean.
She let the ship sink while she moved away from the Garden, the churning wake calming as she descended deeper. When she started the propeller, the water outside the small front portal was a deep blue, frothing into bubbles as the vessel pushed forward. Ahead and below she could see the ocean dropping into blackness, as infinite and deep as space.
Not the most comforting association. Rinoa purposely cast her eyes upward, to the sun reflecting on the underside of the waves, a shimmering, shifting barrier of light and air. She steered the vessel in a wide arc away from Fisherman's Horizon and Balamb Garden, so her origin wouldn't be clear if she was spotted through the water and cloaking. The engine's purr and the propeller's chopping were muted by the magic stone melded into the ship's hull; the radio was silent.
When she judged herself distant enough, she set her course back toward FH. As the city loomed nearer through the blue water, she tensed, expecting any moment to hear a demand for identification over the com, or see the glint of a missile rushing toward her. But there was nothing. Unheard, unseen, she slipped under the Galbadian ships patrolling the surface and dove for the submarine docks of Fisherman's Horizon.
* * *
At the first opportunity, Fujin and Raijin discreetly retired from the bridge to the quarters Squall had assigned them, before this whole mess blew up. Not their old rooms; those had been given to the SeeD from the other Gardens. The double was nowhere near as spacious as the single dorms they had occupied when on the Disciplinary Committee, but there was little room for guests in the Garden now. And they were both well aware of their low standing here.
Still, though the SeeD showed them none of the respect the Galbadian soldiers did, it felt good to be back, if only visiting. Familiar. Even if Seifer wasn't here, there was a sense of rightness, a re-establishment of the old, comfortable patterns. Though with her one eye Fujin clearly saw this was only a facade, and one crumbling fast. As it had a year ago, when the Sorceress had come and everything had fallen apart. Seifer himself had stumbled.
But he had rediscovered a path, a different road to his dream, and he walked it straight now, his head held high and depending on them to keep him from tripping, as he always did. He needed them, and Fujin would never deny him. Nor Raijin. There were too few real warriors and too few true dreamers in the world, and if many were blind to Seifer's value, it had always been clear to her. The first time she saw him, a boy three years younger than her, his gunblade almost as tall as himself--she had realized then his greatness. It was that understanding which inspired her to rebel against the mage she had called master, the human wolf who savaged his slave girl to prove his power. The fight had lost her an eye, but won her freedom. A worthy trade. When years later the man came for her again, Seifer stood before her. She would always be free now.
And always bound, in willing shackles, to the only one she loved.
With swift dexterity she entered the proper codes into the com, masking their transmission from the rest of the Garden and encrypting the signal. They waited in silence for the response they had failed to get twice before.
This time there was success. Raijin smiled broadly as Seifer appeared, rubbing one eye tiredly. His chin was flecked with gold stubble and his short hair mussed.
"APOLOGIES," Fujin said.
"Didn't mean ta wake ya," Raijin added. "We've been trying to get through for a while--"
"Forget it." Seifer gestured curtly. "You couldn't wake me. Haven't slept yet."
"How's it goin'?"
"Fine. We got the council hall totally surrounded. The ministers are holed up like rats." His smile had more than a touch of the feral. "We'll be flushing them out tomorrow, if they don't come willingly. A couple are on our side, and more will come over, soon as they get it through their thick heads we're gonna win. The whole city's together in this. Everyone's behind us." The triumph on his face faded, exhaustion returning to the fore. "This Fisherman's Horizon takeover was the last straw. Don't know what Ferdid was thinking, announcing it like that. Half the people got scared witless thinking Esthar's gonna retaliate, and the rest of 'em are fed up with missions abroad while the politicians ignore what happens here. Bad time for His Honor the president to skip town."
"That's where we are now, ya know," Raijin remarked.
Seifer narrowed puffy eyes. "Explain."
Raijin proceeded to do so, haphazardly but thoroughly describing what had occurred at the Shumi Village, Squall's collapse, and the signal from Fisherman's Horizon. Fujin kept her comrade on track with a few choice words. Seifer listened in silence, though his expression darkened steadily. When he heard of Jezikan's announcement and Rinoa's departure, he dropped his head in his hands, saying nothing after Raijin finished.
"Seifer?" Fujin queried softly.
His head came up, and he pushed one hand through his tangled hair, which only threw it into further disarray. "Rinoa went?"
"She was the only choice. 'Cause she's not SeeD, and is the Sorceress and all, ya know."
Seifer's eyes were bloodshot, dark lashes combining with shadows to make them look as if they were ringed in ink. "Yeah, I get it. Not many alternatives. If Jez's really got Cid... And Squall. Dammit. I didn't think..." He squeezed the bridge of his nose, fingers on either side of the scar. "Okay. You guys keep watching close, and help out. If anything new comes up, let me know. And try to protect Rinoa, any way you can. Cid, too, if there's a chance. Squall..." He shook his head grimly. "You can tell Quisty I don't know, even if she won't believe it. But Jezikan's gotta be behind it. If you have a chance to get to her--you find out, got it? Whatever it takes."
They told him they understood. He regarded them wearily for a long moment, then shook himself into action. "Be careful," he said, and the screen went gray.
"He looks real tired," Raijin observed.
"Yeah, but I hope he can rest a little. It's not healthy, ya know?"
Fujin nodded in emphatic agreement. But they had an assignment, of which futile concern for Seifer was not a principle part. With a sharp gesture to Raijin, she strode out of the quarters and headed back to the bridge to hear word of Rinoa's progress.
* * *
Rinoa was well into the lowest levels of Fisherman Horizon before she met any soldiers. The bottom of the city was a labyrinth of narrow passageways, low ceilings crossed in every direction with pipes varying from barely the diameter of her finger to larger than tree trunks. Portals swung open at the pull of a lever and clanged shut behind her. Few accesses were barred, but navigating the maze would have been difficult even with a map, and she had none. Down some passages she found more submarine ports like the one she had docked her vessel, some with ships beyond the airlocks, others leading only to pure blue depths.
Here underwater, in the bowels of the city, there was no sign anything was wrong. The low, pervasive hum of machinery never wavered, and the white lights shone steadily. Water shimmered on the pipes and droplets wound down the walls, but nothing was rusted. Her boots clanked on the metal grid floor. Squinting through the lattice she could see equipment working, pistons pumping and ventilators blowing. The planet itself might fall out of orbit, but the gears of Fisherman's Horizon would keep turning.
"Who goes there!" The shout from behind reminded her that this stability, like most, was only illusion.
She played it cool, casually turning to the pair of soldiers rushing up to her. "Yeah?"
The Galbadians looked her up and down. "What are you doing down here, girl?" one asked gruffly.
"Work." She balanced insolence with resentful courtesy in the monosyllable.
"What kind of work?" the other man queried suspiciously.
"Checking meters. Have to make sure the machines stay running."
"Now that'd be a real tragedy, all these fancy gadgets quitting." The soldiers shared a derisive guffaw. "You'd pro'ly throw yourself into the sea if that happened, wouldn't ya, girl?"
"Get out of here," said the other. "Work later. Take a vacation. The Lady Jezikan's orders, no one's allowed down here."
"Lady Jezikan?" Rinoa blurted before she could stop herself. "What about the president?"
Both soldiers stiffened. "Get," the first man snarled, all taunting humor gone from his tone. "Don't show your scrawny ass down here again."
Interesting. She tramped swiftly away, hoping she looked as if she were heading for a ladder. Once through the closest portal, she pressed her ear to the wall. She could just barely make out the soldiers' words, echoing through the hollow steel. "Why're we on patrol," the first man was complaining. "It's not like these flakes are gonna try nothin'. They're too nice and peaceful."
"The Lady don't want anything disturbing the doc's work," his comrade replied. "That's why we're here. He's doing what Ferdid brought him here to do."
"Show respect. President-General Deling. We obey Jezikan, but his spirit still leads us."
"May he find peace," the other soldier mumbled the traditional chant for the dead.
Rinoa pushed back from the wall, eyes wide. Now that, she hadn't expected to hear. She was tempted to find her way back to her vessel and report the president's untimely demise... Not yet. Wait until she had more information about those circumstances. She had learned more. There was something down here. Someone with important work.
She maneuvered the corridors with more caution now, listening carefully, avoiding any footsteps she heard marching over the metal grate and placing her own steps carefully to muffle the rattles. She systematically covered the level until she came across two stationary guards before a large portal near the city's center. After a moment's debate, she cast a sleep spell.
The magic caught them unawares. Immediately they crashed to the floor. Rinoa held her breath at the clatter of armor against metal, but no one came. Both men were deeply under, and would be for hours if nothing disturbed them; the spell had far more punch than it would have from anyone else's casting. She quelled the sensation of power, like electricity tickling her veins. Stepping over their snoring forms, she opened the portal.
The room was large yet cramped, ringing an enormous pillar and filled with a tangle of wires and pipes. Control consoles randomly dotted the walls, and the floor was scattered with indecipherable parts and pieces of equipment. Seated on a tall stool before a wide, round table, a single man worked feverishly.
She recognized him, even in plain Galbadian clothes. Before he could look up from his table, Rinoa exclaimed aloud, "Doc Odine?" She was at his side in an instant. "What are you doing here? You're working for the Galbadians?"
His hand slid across the table, toward the radio lying among the other indecipherable devices. She pinned his skinny wrist with ease and glared at him, reaching for the dagger under her shirt. Her shooting star would have been too difficult to conceal, but the knife was sharp. "You were there, weren't you. After they kidnapped me, when I was held in Deling City. I remember hearing your voice."
He squirmed. "Sorceress, I meant no harm! It was for science, only for science." She drew the dagger and his accented baritone raised an octave. "You cannot! I am unarmed! Helpless! Vengeance is a useless--"
"I'm not going to hurt you," Rinoa said. "You're going to come back with me to the Garden. We have questions, about what you're doing here, and about Squall--"
"Squall? What has happened to your commander?"
She told him, shortly, about Squall's collapse and Ellone's comments. He listened intently. "I see, I see. Quite obvious--"
"You know what's wrong with him?"
The doctor's face scrunched up thoughtfully. "Hm, mm, I do, I might. You would care to know?" He smiled at her, clapping his hands together. "Well! Well. You do not pick on Dr. Odine so much now, eh? Knowledge is important, the most important. These foolish Galbadians, they do not understand so well--"
Rinoa took his arm. "Tell me, now--"
He detached himself, a crafty look crossing his fleshy features. "You would like to hear what I know, yes? I ask a price. Assist me later. Agree to help, and I tell what I know."
She didn't hesitate. "Fine. I'll help you. If you help me now."
"Excellent, excellent!" He turned back to his table and reached for his devices once more. When she opened her mouth he raised a cautionary finger. "I have work still to complete. Listen now and I will talk as I assemble. What happened to your commander, so it sounds like, is the same as killed the lord president Ferdid--"
"So he is dead."
The doctor's head bobbed. "Quite, I am certain. My lady Jezikan would not make a mistake in that, no. He is dead. But Squall is alive?"
"Yes," she whispered. If barely...
"He is strong. Most strong. What killed him--or who, rather I should say--"
"Then it is someone like Ellone."
"Ellone. Ah yes, Ellone, my dear Ellone..." Dr. Odine's fingers paused in their busy manipulations, then resumed as he continued speaking. "They took her from Odine; they sent her away. I could no longer study her. But I had to know more. Her ability, so unique...I searched. Dozens I scanned, seeking another like her, with that power, with that potential. Such a mystery to pry apart. I needed to find another. Hundreds I tested.
"Then I found the boy...it was not the same, the pattern in his brain. But close, yes, the potential was there, unrealized. I needed to realize it. I brought him to my laboratory--"
"At his choice?"
"His choice? Bah. He was only a boy. Twelve years old. Too young to choose anything. His parents bade him go. They wanted him to learn from a genius such as Odine. And they were well-compensated, enough to stay silent. After the revolution settled, they all left me alone in my laboratory. To work with him.
"It took many trials, many different attempts, so many machines and medicines--but at last I managed to achieve it. Cleared the channels in his brain and released the gift. The power. So I thought. But it wasn't the same, not nearly. He could not do what Ellone could do. For much time I thought it was useless, this ability in him. But he kept learning, kept attempting to exercise it. Always pushing, reaching. Finally he made the breakthrough. Two of my assistants died, before I fully understood what he was. Before he understood enough to control it. And once he did--he had no interest in me. No interest in the work, the science. He did not care. After all I had done, all I had given him, he left. He abandoned the work."
"And went to the Galbadians," Rinoa said. "What does he do, exactly? You said it wasn't Ellone's ability--then what is it? Can he send to the future?"
"The future?" The doctor blinked. "Oh my, what a power that would be. If it were possible, if the universe is in truth so fixed...but no. He reaches into the minds of those he knows, but he does not send them to others as Ellone does. He cannot connect to elsewhere or elsewhen as she can. It is different than that.
"What does he do? He opens doors. The places inside where we will not tread ourselves; the dark places, the hidden places. For so long he worked to discover those places, until he learned how to find the way, in anyone. He knows where to locate that key, how to turn it. He opens the door you would keep locked, pushes you inside, shuts it behind you and traps you within. Then he waits for your demons to come. If he knows you well enough, he can lead them there. Otherwise he only waits. Until you have learned what he wishes you to learn. Or until it is ended."
"You wake up?" Rinoa ventured, knowing it wasn't so. Dr. Odine only shook his head, concentrating intently on the device in his hands. "But he can...open that door again? The one who does this--who's the man with this power? Where is he?"
Dr. Odine held up the object, so the ceiling lamp refracting through the faceted lenses threw miniature rainbows across the room. "He calls himself now Lord Dahl," he said. "He is here at Fisherman's Horizon."
He yelped as Rinoa nearly bowled over another of his mechanisms to snatch the radio. A single look made his mouth close so quickly his teeth clicked; then she switched the communicator on and selected the right frequency. "Balamb Garden, come in. This is Rinoa, and we've got work to do."
* * *
Selphie and Irvine left Laguna with Squall and shot to the lift as soon as Quistis summoned them. "What's the good news?" Irvine asked breathlessly as they entered the office.
"We've got word from Rinoa. She made it fine--and she found Dr. Odine in FH. He might know what's going on with Squall, and possibly what to do about it."
"Awesome! So what's the--"
"She's got a plan."
"I bet it's a great one!" Selphie said. "Rinoa's good at coming up with plans."
"Well, this is definitely one of hers," Quistis murmured.
Zell was wearing a track in the carpet in front of the desk. "It's risky as hell," he said, "but if Doc Odine's right about Squall..."
"And Ferdid," Quistis said grimly. At Irvine and Selphie's looks, she explained the president's fate. Then she outlined Rinoa's scheme.
Irvine whistled when she was through. "If she can pull it off..."
"She will," Zell said. "We already gave her the information she needed. Now, before we attack, she just needs us to be a distraction."
"She came up with that, too," Quistis said.
Selphie beamed when she heard the details. "That'll distract 'em, all right! What are we waiting for? Let's go!"
* * *
"What is this?" Jezikan snarled, stabbing at the computer keys.
"We don't know," the major she had summoned reported. "It's on every screen in FH--something with the central computer. Those are Fisherman's Horizons glyphs, but we don't have any translators. The citizens are all saying they're nonsense. Just a glitch, maybe."
"Bring the mayor, so he may confirm this personally," she ordered coolly. "Dismissed." As soon as the soldier was gone, she opened an audio line to the main lower laboratory, frowning when several seconds passed. When Dr. Odine finally answered, she snapped, "Doctor, I expect you to be punctual."
"Yes, my lady president," he babbled nervously. "I am busy, most busy--"
She made an effort to calm herself. He was the only one she dared not push too hard; he was the only one she needed. "I apologize, Doctor. I only wished to ask if you have anything to do with this--computer problem." She glared at the monitor before her, which like every other screen in the room and elsewhere in FH was filled with a series of incomprehensible symbols.
"Ah, yes, I apologize, I inadvertently tripped an old emergency system. Most sorry, most sorry for the trouble--"
"Is it interfering with your work?"
"Not at all. No. It continues quite excellently, my lady--"
"Fine. Then that is all, Doctor." She ended the communication before his obsequious chatter got the better of her patience. He sounded even more high-strung than usual. This close to fulfilling his dream--scientists. All he wanted was to see the Lunatic Pandora spin to his gadgets; what he could actually do with it didn't matter a whit. A foolish man, for all his genius. She looked forward to when he could be disposed of as well.
* * *
Rinoa barely dared breathe until Jezikan switched off the line. The doctor had promised not to reveal her, but she doubted he could hold the secret long against a sustained inquisition. "You aren't going to say anything?" she asked, as if she'd believe him no matter how many times he swore it.
"What do you take Dr. Odine for?" he demanded, outraged. "I will not reveal you--you are too important. Far too important to allow they to use you!"
"You didn't have any problems with it before," Rinoa remarked as she studied the floor plans on the desk comm again. She had the best route memorized, but if it proved too difficult to get around the guards she would need an alternative.
The doctor was sputtering about choices at the time and lack of options. He concluded, "You are more valuable if willing--you are willing, yes?"
"I said I was." A vow she was regretting more with each second. He was remarkably cagey about what he needed her for--she hadn't yet succeeded in working out what the Galbadians wanted. To control something--a weapon? But there were no weapons at Fisherman's Horizon. It didn't make sense. Nor did the glee in his expression as he regarded her. His fixed, evaluating stare was decidedly creepy; bugs under microscopes probably felt less scrutinized. She would be glad to escape it. "Okay. You're going to stay right here and keep doing whatever you're doing. Right? And be ready. This room is shielded, but take care. Got it?"
Once she had a final confirmation from him, she released the hook to lower the ladder on the ceiling. With a deep breath, she grasped the cool rungs and climbed, past the corner monitor blinking the same message as all the rest.
She couldn't read most of it, but she had triple-checked the glyphs with Quistis against the dictionary on the Garden network. Most citizens of FH would follow it without difficulty; the terminology was designed to be clear and concise, though few translations of the Shumi-based code existed to allow any outsiders to learn it. But for those with the knowledge, the symbols would read: SECRET [do not reveal]. PREPARE. [Upon] SIGNAL, [seek] HIDING [place, protected from] ELECTRICITY.
She hoped that was clear enough. Whether everyone would get the message in time was one uncertainty. She knew she could rely on the SeeD to provide the signal. Which meant all the other variables were up to her.
"Exciting enough for you?" Rinoa muttered under her breath to herself. Mounting the final rung of the ladder, she pushed open the grate above her head and pulled herself up to the next floor.