On Earth as it is in Hell Part 5
Chapter 18, Bitter Retrospect
"Seifer and I had always had a strange hot and cold relationship back at the orphanage, and the little game of insult and counter-insult continued when he returned. You'd think one of us would get tired of it after awhile, but we never did. Maybe we should have learned from that sooner."
-Quistis Trepe, The SeeD and the Sorceress
Seifer lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. The room brought back so many memories, some good, some bad. When had it all gone wrong? After the Sorceress Affair. Where it had gone wrong to start with was abundantly clear. When Time Compression had faded he had found himself on the Balamb docks. Fujin and Raijin had been there too, and that had been a good time, healing the wounds inside him. Then Balamb Garden had returned, and they had been forced to leave before some SeeD on leave found him there. Too many SeeDs knew him in Trabia, they couldn't get into Esthar. So it had been Deling City.
He had grown a beard and didn't cut his hair for a few months, leaving his trademark trenchcoat safely in the closet. It hadn't been so bad then, getting a low profile street job and spending the nights in bars with his only friends. But something had happened, somehow somebody found out.
They had an apartment downtown, it had been after midnight on a Saturday, all three of them basking in the warm alcoholic glow before the hangover and reminiscing on the old times that they cared to remember. Then the door was kicked in, and armored police swarmed the room like locusts.
If they had been prepared, then maybe things might have been different. Maybe Raijin wouldn't have stared in shock for a second too long and have avoided that shot to the head. Maybe Fujin would have reached her Pinwheel in time to kill the soldier in the entryway before he riddled her with bullets. Maybe Seifer would have been able to kill more than three of them before he was brought down from behind, the butt of a gun slamming into his skull.
He had been given a 'trial'. It had been nothing more than a sentencing. It had taken place in front of the top members of the Galbadian court. They should have killed him. Instead, he had been doomed to life in prison, sent to rot away in the bowels of the D-District holding facility. He supposed they had chosen not to kill him in light of twisted politics. He could have been useful someday if the public execution of a famous war criminal and SeeD would sway the people back in their favor.
The thoughts were like a burning crack in his brain, a bright light too painful to look at directly. Beneath it all were the harsh sounds of cold laughter and the barely remembered touch of black lacquered fingernails. What would he say if Cid ever asked him? 'Sorry Cid, I can't remember if I fucked your wife and my surrogate mother behind your back, and did I mention it's tearing me up inside?'.
Try not to think about it, roll over and study the glow of the digital numerals on the clock face next to the bed. Three-thirty in the morning. Three hours to go before daylight gave him respite from the torture inside his head. Maybe two hours and thirty minutes. Too long either way.
He tried to shift his thoughts to something else. Trepe. His new babysitter. He had been back for a day and she was already telling him what to do. Wonderful. His only comfort was that he could make sure she would hate it as much as he did. Push some buttons. Make it fun. For him, anyway.
In that frame of mind, he was almost looking forward to it.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Selphie tiptoed around the dorm getting ready for the day ahead, trying not to wake up the still softly snoring Zell in his bed. She giggled quietly at the sound. But she didn't have time to stay in bed today, she had people to lampoon into working on the Garden Festival, which was just six weeks away. And there were two people in the Garden she hadn't asked yet, Scott and Seifer. She didn't think Seifer would be amenable to the suggestion, but Scott seemed like a nice enough guy to lend a hand. And if he didn't want to, he seemed like a little bit of a pushover too. After all, they had brought him back to Garden, so he owed it to the Garden to help with the Festival, right? She thought so.
Keying open the door, Selphie looked at the piece of paper she had in her hand, on which she had written Scott's dorm number. '63' it read. It didn't take long to get there. She rapped out a cheery little beat on his door, and almost screamed when it opened.
To say Scott was disheveled was to say the least. He had bags under his eyes that were bigger than the eyes themselves, and his blond hair stuck out in every conceivable direction. Rough stubble adorned his face and it looked like he could barely keep his eyes open.
"Not a morning person, hmm?" Selphie asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Scott winced. How could anyone sound so alive and perky at this time of day? He was used to getting up early from his time in the service, but that didn't mean he was pretty about it.
"Well, cheer up!" Selphie chirped, making him wince again. "I've got just the thing to wake up sleepyheads like yourself!"
"How would you, like to be.... on.. the.. GARDEN FESTIVAL COMMITTEE!"
"The what now?"
"The Garden Festival Committee silly," Selphie said, beeping him on the nose. "It's only the best committee ever, and it's goal is one we can all enjoy!"
"Weeell... Every year we have a Garden Festival, which is the best party ever next to the Graduation Party, and between you and me, I think it's way better. Anyway, we plan and build a stage in the Quad, get a band to perform, arrange catering and bingo! We have a Garden Festival. I'm in charge, and I just need some volunteers to help me make it happen!"
"What do you need me for?"
"I knew you'd come through for us!"
"Whoa, wait, I didn't say-"
"Just show up this morning at ten o' clock sharp and I'll put you to good use!"
"Just a minute-"
"We're going to make this the best Festival yet!" She exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck in an impromptu hug. "Right Scott?"
Looking down into her excited green eyes, he knew it wouldn't matter if he said no. Looks like you got yourself a committee. "Right."
"Thaaat's right! Later!"
She skipped off down the hallway, no doubt to find some other people to 'ask' about the Festival. Oh well. It would take his mind off his other problems anyway.
Ten o' clock rolled around a few hours after he had forced himself to get dressed and eat something. He stopped to consult the directory before heading off to the Quad, descending the short flight of stairs into the large auditorium space. It was fairly bland now, not much happening scenery wise, but he could see construction had already started. He spotted Zell lugging timber into carefully stacked piles for the stage flooring and Selphie and Rinoa busy assembling the various attachable pipes that would make up the structure itself. From the amount of pipes still stacked in their various boxes, it was apparent it would take a long time. He sighed and rolled up his sleeves, walking over to give Zell a hand.
Over the next half hour a few more students rolled in to help out. Irvine had of course been roped in by Selphie, and Nida dropped by too. The whole situation seemed somehow bizarre in it's normality, just a bunch of people putting together a stage for a big show. Weird after all the other things he had been doing lately, like fleeing for his life out of Deling. Taking a break from the lumber, he walked over to stick some pipes together for Rinoa and Selphie, both of whom were crouched over a large blueprint of what it would all look like once completed, a extremely thick book of instructions lying unused nearby. That couldn't be a good sign. He could only hope Selphie might know what she was doing, having done this sort of thing before.
Soon he was lost in the incomprehensible jumble of seemingly unrelated pieces that would somehow form a stage. In order to preserve his sanity, he zoned out all distractions, concentrating fully on fitting together things that might be supposed to fit together but most definitely did not.
Close by Rinoa was talking animatedly to Selphie. "I don't know, I think those pieces might be in a box we haven't opened yet. Hyne, you'd think this would get easier after all this experience. I remember back in D.C.-"
That jerked Scott out of his stupor. "D.C.?"
"Yeah, Deling City."
"Oh...... Right, right- D.C. , of course."
She gave him a strange look. "What's wrong?"
Rinoa gave him another look before she turned back to the diagram, continuing whatever tale she was telling about 'D.C.'. He shook his head and tried to get back to the pipes at hand. Lousy pipes.
Nida had also quit hauling wood and was trying to put the stage together. His frustration was evident as he banged two pipe ends together in an attempt to force them to fit.
"These pipes suck ass!" He grunted, one of said pipes slipping from his grasp to clang noisily on the tiled floor. "We do this every year and we never learn a damn thing. Goddamn fucking pipes-"
Nida realized how ridiculous he sounded swearing at the pipes. He laughed at himself. "I suppose there's a morale to be learned in all of this."
"And that is?"
"Pipes suck ass."
They worked in silence for awhile longer before Nida spoke again. "I always love the Garden festival. You should have seen the prank Zell pulled last year with the cake. Well... Maybe it's better you didn't."
"What did he do?"
"I've been sworn to secrecy along with everyone else who witnessed it. If you really want to know, better ask Zell himself."
"You, uh, ever into pranks? Just cause you know, I'm partial to the occasional one."
"I used to run around and do stupid stuff on camera with my friends in High School."
"Good times, huh?"
"Not really. Well, when I was doing that it was. School was always boring for me. I skipped a lot of days, but always got good grades because I did everything."
"Rebel without a cause, huh?"
Scott laughed, and it sounded bitter.
"No," He said. "Just a dumb fuck without a cause."
"Well, it looks like you straightened out alright."
"I suppose so."
Another stretch of silence.
"Hey, Scott," Nida said.
"These pipes suck ass."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It had only been a matter of time before Spreading Sun finished the task it had been made to complete, and now the only remaining rebel factions left in Galbadia were decimated and leaderless. A strange sickness had fallen upon all of them, and the total loss of life was staggering. There would be no recovery for them, and the government troops that descended on them shortly after only finalized their doom. Galbadia was whole once more, and on the road to regaining it's full power. Julian was pleased.
He set the report aside, now turning his attention to the next matters of business. A city called Timber, and a recent escapee from the downtown prison, a Galbadian General named Caraway.
Caraway had killed the deposed Poleground, and had somehow overpowered a guard and escaped shortly after. While Caraway had been an important political figure at one time, Julian did not feel this was of any import at the moment. Caraway would only become a concern if he attempted to regain power, and should he resurface Julian would be quick to step on it before it became out of hand. He would still inspire loyalty in his troops, and Julian was disappointed, since he knew Caraway could not be persuaded to work for him even if he was recaptured. No matter, to be dealt with another day.
Julian knew Timber was a revolutionary state on the edge of Galbadia. Timber had been it's own country until annexed only a few decades past. Currently, it belonged to Galbadia only by paper alone, since all the forces that had been occupying Timber had slowly been removed, either by mutiny or legitimate order. Julian supposed he could order a reoccupation, but for what? While Timber had at one time been a rich source of wood, now it's thick forests were a thing of the past, and it's only real value lay in the railways. No, he would not waste time and manpower trying to conquer Timber. One country was enough for now.
So much had happened before he had come to take charge. The former government had left it's fingerprints everywhere, and Julian was still trying to sort through the aftermath of the sordid affair which had taken place during the nights leading up to the invasion, an attempted kidnapping of four SeeDs. All of the SeeDs in question had been implicit in the Ultimecia Affair, and Galbadia had good reason for wanting them removed, no doubt part of their larger campaign against Garden. A campaign whose remnants Julian planned to put to good use. The SeeDs had escaped, fleeing the city the very night Julian had entered it, their flight recorded by the city limits security. He found it fascinating how close things had come to turning out very differently. But it was another piece of information gleaned from the newly printed files that interested him. A fifth SeeD, someone not involved in ventures past. Someone the SeeDs had called Scott. Someone who had been inexplicably in Deling City. Julian had a photo of him.
He reached for the com on his desk, studying it for a moment before remembering how to correctly operate the device. It was just a phone really, but the dialing was a bit different, using lettered switches instead of numbered buttons. He wondered if it was different outside of Deling. The com rang only twice before there was a pickup on the other side.
"Michael. Something of interest has come up. I've found our wayward soldier."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After three hours, Quistis felt she would rather go another round with Ultimecia than face another pile of paper work. So many tests, so many new students. Gardens' population had increased nearly a hundred and twenty percent, and they were forced to turn away more students than ever, many capable enough to have made it in the past. The eventual reconstruction of Trabia Garden would ease some of the burden off Balamb, but that was years distant, the Gardens coffers still hurting from the recent trials.
Really, she would even like to go down and help Rinoa and Selphie with the stage, as nightmarish as she knew that would be. Still, it was good that Rinoa had joined the committee.
When she had first come back to Garden, the fact that she was a sorceress had caused quite a bit of trouble. Most of the SeeDs involved in the entire affair knew, but it was a fact kept from the newer students, and wisely so. Those that had been there knew that Rinoa had helped save the world. Those who hadn't would only see a Sorceress. The first few months had been rough for her, but with Squall's constant support she was eventually accepted. The Commander could do no wrong, and if it was okay with him, it was okay with everybody. Still, she was sure there were always a few holdouts, hate secretly seething under a facade. They knew this, so discretely one of them was always with Rinoa.
When she went down to the cafeteria every morning, Selphie or Quistis would talk to her. If she wanted to exercise in the training center, Zell would be innocently nearby doing some training of his own. If she was reading in the Library, Irvine just happened to be flirting with the girls behind the counter. And of course anytime he could wrench himself free from his work, Squall was attached at the hip with her. Even Nida was sometimes called upon to play watchdog. He may have often been ignored, but he was still a top-level SeeD, and a damn fine one.
She looked at her watch. Eleven thirty. Half an hour away from her extra assigned duty. Putting up with Seifer. She hated being handed the responsibility, but she knew she was the only teacher who could probably handle it. She knew Seifer better than anyone else from her time as his teacher. Now she would be his teacher and parole officer. Just like old times.
She spent the next half hour trying not to fall asleep at her desk. She had inadvertently slipped into a doze when she was rudely awakened by two booted feet dropping on her desk in front of her face. She looked up to see the now cleaned visage of Seifer sitting in a chair on across the desk, feet up, attitude on.
"Instructor," He began, trademark sneer gracing his face. "I didn't want to disturb you before since you were busy, but I see that was a misconception."
She looked at the clock in horror to find that it was twelve forty-five. She had slept unknowingly for over an hour, and of all the people catch her at it, it had to be Seifer. She didn't let any of her feelings reach her face.
"I didn't hear you knock."
"That makes sense, because I didn't knock. Should I assume this is nap time everyday?"
She didn't deign to reply. Getting up, she smoothed out her clothes and motioned for him to follow.
The Headmaster first wanted her to take Seifer to the training center and evaluate his present skill level. From the incident at the front gate, she could tell he was far from top form. The trip to the Training Center was left in an unusual silence, and Quistis began to think that it might not be as arduous as she had assumed. The halls were empty at the moment, for which she was thankful. No doubt some sort of trouble would have erupted had the students seen Seifer.
The Training Center was also devoid of other people, and they tramped through the thick underbrush towards the bridge. Halfway there, the bushes rustled and the telltale chittering of a Grat could be heard. Quistis stepped behind Seifer in a good position for support, and Seifer readied his gunblade.
The Grat burst forth from the foliage, tentacles waving in menacing patterns. Moving quickly, but without his former grace, Seifer easily ducked beneath it's guard and brought his blade up through it's torso in a crippling blow, the bullet speeding through whatever organs the Grat called it's own and out it's leafy back.
Arms still moving feebly, the Grat slumped to the ground and died. Seifer pulled back and she could see he was panting heavily. Even such a simplistic assault tired him at this stage. It was clear he would be no match at this point for the more powerful creatures that roamed the enclosed jungle. Making her notes on her clipboard, she looked up at Seifer as he turned around.
"I think that's all for today."
Even as she said it she could see the anger rise in his eyes. Seifer despised weakness, and none more so than his own. He would never admit he was exhausted.
"What the hell are you talking about Trepe?" He spat, eyes narrowing. "We just got here."
"I have enough information to make my repor-"
"You'd have more if you hadn't been sleeping on the fucking job. Stop trying to duck out of your work, Instructor, and instruct."
She stiffened, eyes flashing. "Perhaps I would have more to report if you had any skills worth reporting."
He almost winced. Almost. Like usual, she managed to hit him harder than anyone else. He opened his mouth to fire back but she was already walking away. He frowned. That was new. Usually she would fight him until they were forced to stop for some outside reason. He could remember back at the orphanage sometimes he would hurt her feeling enough to make her cry. She had outgrown that, and now apparently she had outgrown the need to bother with him.
He shook it off, sheathing his gunblade. He headed off to the weight room, a small smile on his face. Until we meet again, Quistis.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter 19 Irreverent Crusade
"Sometimes I feel there are those who would interpret our actions as some mechanism for the end of the world. A doomsday brought about by unnatural occurrence. Myth is rife with such things. 'And the wicked shall inherit the earth'. A charming sentiment for those who can afford it. But you and I must see beyond the customary black and white, and examine the shades of gray between. If history has anything to say, it's that nothing is ever justified. The conquerors and the conquered each have their own very different viewpoints, and each comfort themselves with the knowledge that they stand with the side of Good."
Starting today we will begin actions that many would condemn us for. Recognize this fact, and except it. Face the truth that what we are doing falls beyond the boundaries of standard morality. What the preacher in the pulpit gives forth can only apply to things smaller than himself. Like a man who sleeps with another man's wife and then calls her a whore, those who would judge us are themselves steeped in hypocrisy and lies. Abandon such thinking, and do not hold yourself to any standards but your own."
Over a thousand years ago a great Crusade was launched from Europe with the sole purpose of bringing the Middle East beneath its heel. Now we launch our own similar venture, but we will not be blinded by illusions of grandeur and the false righteousness instilled by religious fervor. We will not go forth in the name of a misguided attempt."
Today, Michael, we start the Crusade of Personal Gain, the only kind that makes sense."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter 20 Unforeseen Consequenses
"Progress is the Future, and the Future is infinite."
-TAA company slogan
As soon as he put his foot on the step, he knew something was wrong. Maybe it felt just a little too slippery, maybe his foot was on a slightly wrong angle. Whatever the reason, Scott found himself painfully tumbling head over heels down the first floor dormitory stairway. He shut his eyes just before his head impacted with the tile floor at the bottom. He lay there dazed, still half on the stairs. He figured it probably wouldn't be a good idea to get up until he could make out the light fixture on the ceiling above him. It was just starting to come into focus when a large object talking quickly in concern blocked his vision.
"Scott? Scott? Oh my Hyne, can you hear me?"
"Can you hear me?"
"I think so."
"Here, let me help you-"
He was slowly pulled up into a sitting position by a feminine pair of arms. He uncrossed his eyes and immediately recognized his savior. It was Michelle, the girl he had met in the cafeteria, Rinoa's friend. And maybe it was just the severe blow to the head talking, but-
"What?" She said, an uncertain smile crossing her lips.
He shook himself, mortified. "Uh, nothing. Thanks for the help, I feel pretty- Uh, really stupid."
"Oh.... Well, no problem. Did you slip?"
"Yeah, yeah, just slipped on the stair there...."
"Do you need to go to the infirmary?"
"No, no I'm fine. Just a little bruised...."
Michelle chewed on her lower lip, hoping he would say something else. She had been trying to talk to him again, but he had always been off doing something with Nida or working in the Quad. She had just helped him, the least he could do was ask her out, right? Totally.
Scott could see the way she was looking at him, he wasn't stupid. Well, not really stupid. He did owe it to her for taking the time to help him, but he didn't want to get involved considering the situation he was in. And Michelle seemed like the kind of girl he would want to involved with, too. He had seen her at the Garden every now and then. She was smart, and funny, and really hot, if sometimes a little bit of a ditz. Perfect. But.... No.
"Well, uh, thanks again," He said, getting to his feet. He held the railing for a second to steady himself. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Yeah.... Bye then." She said, obviously disappointed.
Scott quickly walked away. Now, where had he been going? Ah yes, Nida had wanted to show him some secret area in the Training Center. Now what was up with that?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Seifer grunted as he lifted the barbell, veins standing out on his arms. He was struggling to lift less than half the weight he had used to, and he wasn't happy about it. Getting in shape was going to take more time than he wanted to. It was embarrassing, really. There had been no gym in prison. Strange, since the thought of prison usually brought to mind the image of inmates pumping steel. They had it right over in Galbadia. Weak inmates equaled less resistance. The algebra of politics.
The gym was an extension of the Training Center, a small door to the left of the large steel doors that kept the creatures where they belonged. It was fairly large, but not very used, Garden policy being that fighting monsters was superior training to weight lifting. Sometimes classes did come in on rotation, but today the gym was empty save for Seifer, and he was glad of it. However, he had little doubt Quistis would be back to check on him periodically. Stupid bitch.
His solitude was interrupted as the door banged open, and Seifer froze when he saw the figure entering the room. Zell Dincht. This could only go downhill.
Zell also stopped in his tracks. His face registered several emotions before it settled on rage. Seifer struggled to keep his mouth shut, knowing whatever insult he uttered would only worsen the situation. As much as Seifer loved to give Zell a hard time, he also wanted to stay in Garden. And keep his ribs intact. Zell stared at him for a few seconds, fists shaking, before abruptly turning on his heel and leaving, slamming the door behind him.
Seifer let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. There was no doubt in his mind that if Zell had opted to stay there would have been trouble. He mentally thanked his newfound self-control. There were many at the Garden who would use any excuse to kick him out again, and a fight with Zell might have given them the ammo they needed.
Shaking his head, he went back to the weights.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
If Squall was a man given to outbursts of frustration, which he wasn't, then he would have no doubt been in a state somewhere near frothing at the mouth. After six hours of queries, waiting on hold, and more queries, he could make only one conclusion based on the information he had received- Dr. Odine did not exist.
No one had seen him. His laboratory was empty. His secretary could not be found, and every trace of his work was under lock and key. The only useful piece of information he had gleaned had been from an Estharian Home Front officer, indicating that it was quite possible the Doctor was no longer in the country. But not even the prestigious position of SeeD Commander could open any more doors. Odine had slipped into a hole and filled it shut behind him.
Squall was jerked out of his trance by the sudden opening of his office doors, and a female SeeD entered carrying a large bag marked as postage. No doubt something important that had come in the mail. He frowned, trying to remember her name. Michelle something. SeeD in training, currently a temp for one of the many secretarial positions needed to run the office side of Garden.
Michelle mistook his frown to be directed at her and, smiling apologetically, quickly set the bag down and left the office. Squall picked it up, finding it to be surprisingly light for a bag of its size. He opened it, and his eyes grew wide at the sight of its content.
It was their clothes. There was Selphie's yellow outfit and Quistis' pink vest. Irvine's trenchcoat took up most of the bag. At the bottom was the faded and tattered pants and shirt of Scott's jumpsuit.
Squall pulled out his leather jacket, relishing the texture of it. He would never admit it to anyone, but he had missed his old clothes. He just never could get comfortable in SeeD uniform.
He picked up the bag, turning it over. No return address. The report clipped to it stated it had arrived in Balamb on boat with the rest of the standard mail. With common sense Squall could deduce it had come from Galbadia, most likely from Deling City. Unless more clues could be gleaned from the bag itself, there would be no way to trace it back to the precise location it had been sent from or, much more importantly, under whose name it had been sent in.
Swiveling his chair back to face the desk, Squall pressed the intercom button.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The rest of the group had assembled in less than fifteen minutes, pulled away from their various teaching assignments, or in Rinoa's case, class. There was a minute of silence as Squall threw the bag on the floor in the middle, its contents spilling out on the floor. He was already dressed in his usual attire.
Selphie was the first to make a sound, squealing with joy as she pulled her dress out of the bag. Zell scratched the back of his neck, puzzled. Irvine was busy pulling his things out of the bag, and Rinoa was hiding a smile, noticing that Irvine was already wearing an exact duplicate of his lost outfit. Scott quickly dug through the bag, pulling out the pants before anyone else could touch them.
Quistis looked at Squall. "How did you get these?"
"Mail. Evidence already went through them. No bugs, no traps. No return address."
He sighed. "Yes. I don't even have an idea why they didn't just send this back with Seifer."
Scott turned his back to everyone else, panicking at the thought that someone might have looked at the manual. He reached his hand into his pocket. Sure enough, there it was. He yanked it out. On the front cover was a white plastic label that said, 'Assorted Propaganda A'. He let out a breath of relief. Apparently they had thought it was some sort of hero worship booklet.
Zell was pacing, a sure sign he was thinking about something or the other. "I don't get it man. They went through all that trouble to grab you, and now they're giving back your stuff?"
"Maybe they've had a change of heart!" Selphie chirped, laying her dress on the floor and smoothing out the wrinkles. "Maybe this is their way of saying sorry?"
Quistis rolled her eyes. "I don't think Galbadia is very sorry about anything."
Squall nodded. "And from what we saw, whoever tried to kidnap us were overthrown anyway. The new rulers are the ones sending back our things."
"So, maybe they're all cool with us then?" Zell asked, popping his knuckles. "Sending back our shit seems pretty friendly."
Selphie smiled delightedly at her dress again. "Well, I'm sold!"
Quistis frowned, still unsatisfied. "I don't know. How come they haven't contacted us then? If this was a peace offering they should have given it with the clear message that it was intended as such."
Squall put a hand to his forehead, not replying. It was all so puzzling. Who would bother to return clothing by mail? It was almost as if the new Galbadian government didn't want the clothes on their hands and decided to get rid of them by giving them back. Squall had attempted contact with Deling several times, to no success. Whoever was on the other end of the line wasn't talking back, and the steadily increasing lack of information on the Galbadian situation was becoming worrying. Nothing fit together, nothing made sense.
A great feeling of aggravation descended on him as he braced himself for the inevitable, which he had successfully stalled up until this point. He would have to talk to Laguna and see if he knew anything. He had learned what he could through strictly diplomatic channels, but now he would have to call in some favors. He winced in distaste at the thought of using his 'relationship' with Laguna for something like this.
First, however, the matters at hand. "I don't think we can learn anything else standing around. Get back to your classes, I'll tell you if anything else turns up. Anybody missing anything?"
They all replied with assorted negatives, every missing piece of clothing back in the hands of its rightful owner. "Good. Dismissed."
They all left the room, Rinoa giving him a hug and kiss on the cheek before heading back to her class. Squall turned back to the monitor, reaching for the dreaded com button to Esthar, when he noticed Zell hadn't left yet, hanging around the water cooler next to the door. He frowned yet again. What exactly had Zell been doing today? Surely he had been working on something or the other. Zell met his gaze, and Squall raised an eyebrow in question.
Zell kicked the floor sheepishly, hands in his pockets. "Hey, man, look, uh, I was wondering if maybe you wanted to, uh, hang out today, or something?"
Squall raised the other eyebrow.
"Well, you know, Sei-, uh, somebody else was already using the weight room, and Selphie is too busy today so we're not putting up the stage, and I'm tired of training by myself. It didn't look like you were doing anything, so I figured....."
Didn't look like he was doing anything? No Zell, I'll go waste time with you. Your right, I wasn't doing anything, just working my ass off over matters of extreme political import. Obviously, all I need to remove that pole up my butt is a half hour with you in the Training Center.
Squall almost smiled at his inner monologue. Almost. He sighed, rubbing his eyes. Wasn't everyone always saying he needed to take more breaks? What the hell. He would take the rest of the day off and then make sure in future that Zell always had something to do.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"Have you ever heard the saying, 'complete the motion if you stumble'? A wise choice. Try to keep some perspective. This is only a minor setback."
Hendrow shook his head, marveling that Julian could be so calm. He himself was shaking and sweaty, and no doubt would have been near panic if it weren't for Julian's calming aura. God knew the rest of the men were. And unless something could be done soon, there was no predicting what might happen.
Whatever the consequences, it was clear that at 4:14 Earthside Eastern time, the portal had folded in on itself and disappeared. There had been no warning, no messages of alarms from the lab. In a matter of seconds, the portal had lost integrity, wavered, shrunk into nothing but a dot and vanished. They had received word of the incident from base camp just a moment before, over an hour after the fact. And judging by the wording of the message, the atmosphere at the camp was fast going from bad to worse.
Julian folded the communiqué, a text message relayed by a hookup the base had established with the Galbadian communications system linked by the tower in Dollet. Voice and video were not yet available.
"Call up one of the APCs. We need to get back as soon as possible and make the best of this. I'm sure all we need is to give the people Earthside some time to reopen the portal, and the last thing we need is for panic to set in," Julian said getting up, confidence still in his posture. "I must address the men."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Lab was becoming more tumultuous by the minute, and the Agent was neck deep in it all.
From the strangled whispers and frantic mutterings all around, he had gathered that something was desperately wrong. The worst possible scenario had come true, and the Portal was in jeopardy. Technicians ran back and forth through that halls, wide eyed, lab coats flapping behind them. Reports were circulating and everyone had been called forth for active duty. And when things quieted down in the momentary lulls between the panic, the Agent thought he could hear alarms faintly blaring in the distance. And he knew what he had to do.
Summoning his courage, the Agent prepared to use the confusion to his advantage. He would attempt to penetrate the lock doors from which he had been turned away before.
It was now or never.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hyne felt a great load slip from her shoulders as the portal collapsed, and some of the damage wrought was righted. The pulsing tangle of the Knot still wore at her, but without the rasping presence of the Portal scratching at the back of her mind, she could deal with it better. But no matter what, she could only delay the inevitable.
She watched as the Outsiders left Deling. They would try and renew the Portal, and she wished them nothing but failure. She could see the movement of their army, their troops positioning themselves. Soon, this mighty force would be launched at her children, and she would be powerless to help them.
The tiniest spark of an idea settled in her conscience. Powerless, unless... Yes, it could happen. But it would have to happen just right.
Reaching out, Hyne began to put her grand scheme into motion. Once she was finished, it would be out of her hands and into the less capable ones of Fate. She could only watch, and wait, and hope.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter 21 Aberrant Perception
"Never before have I met somebody so thoroughly quixotic. She may be a dreamer, but she's my dreamer, my romantic, my innocent."
-Zell Dincht (Summer's Gone, Tio Rank P)
"Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand."
"Oh jesus, get ba-"
The sentence was never finished as the console exploded, sending the scientist flying through the air a blackened corpse. Lights flickered on and off, and sirens blared as various workers ineffectively sprayed the growing fires with extinguishers. It looked like the set of a bad disaster movie, and the Agent found himself in the middle of it all.
Trying to look like he belonged, the Agent weaved his way through the carnage, figuring he would be less likely to draw attention if he ran like everyone else. He saw a likely target in a young technician cowering in a corner. The Agent ran over to him, crouching down.
"You okay?" The Agent shouted. The technician took his hands off his ears, nodding a quick yes.
"Y-yeah.." He muttered, barely audible. The Agent scanned the room in a look of faked confusion.
"What's going on?"
"Ha-has anyone called the fire squad?"
"Yeah, I just did," The Agent lied, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder. " What happened?”
"The portal collapsed!"
"I said, the portal collapsed! Just vanished into thin air!"
"Just a minute ago! Everything was fine and then 'bang'! The whole place started shaking and now it's falling apart!"
The Agent frowned. "Just because of the portal?"
The technician looked at him suspiciously, but didn't question him. "When it went down it went without any control and the feedback fried our systems! Plus the shock of the Tunnel collapsing is raising hell with everything else!"
"What do you mean?"
"Think of it this way- if you collapse a real life tunnel, all the air that was in it is forced out, and the resulting shock wave is pretty big. A big tunnel just fell in on itself, and we were standing close by."
"So what's the effect going to be?"
"Anything and everything! We've never done this before, there's no way of predicting what the result of a collapse might be! This is all so new, we were unprepared!"
All further conversation was halted as one of the I-beams supporting the hangar ceiling jerked, wobbled, and then melted like butter. White hot liquid steel splashed down onto the floor and over several people, incinerating them instantly. The Agent grabbed the technicians arm, and they ran for their lives.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hendrow paced the plushly carpeted floor of Julian's office, the occasional bead of sweat finding its way down into his collar. How could it have come to this? It wasn't possible. Everything had been so perfect...
Julian sat unruffled behind his desk, languidly palming over several eyewitness statements of the incident. He frowned at Hendrow's pacing, disapproving of his panicked demeanor.
"Please, Michael. Sit down."
Hendrow complied, shakily seating himself across from the desk. The blinds were drawn, and he couldn't tell it was daylight outside, the only source of light being a dim desk lamp. Julian smiled slightly at his discomfort. "If anything Michael, you should be worried for the people Earthside. Since the lab there generated the portal, they are receiving whatever backlash the collapse resulted in."
"What kind of backlash?"
"Completely unknown. It might be nothing, it might be catastrophic. We'll simply have to wait and see."
"What's going to happen to us Julian? How we will get back home?"
Julian sighed, rubbing his temples. "Michael, do not worry yourself. There are two other facilities almost capable of reaching us, and for all we know the Oregon lab has already righted itself and is in the process of reopening the portal as we speak."
"But what about-"
"I no longer find this conversation enlightening," Julian said, eyes hardening. "I've told you there is little reason to fear. Now, why don't you get some rest."
"Yes... Yes, of course."
Hendrow left, but his doubts did not.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Squall returned from the Training Center tired and sweaty. He would have left sooner, but Zell had enthusiastically attempted to enthuse Squall with his enthusiasm until Squall had called it quits himself. Zell just didn't seem to know when to call it a night, and Squall supposed he was still down there right now. On his way to the elevator he saw Selphie walking down the stairs, most likely returning from substitute duty, and decided he might as well send her down to collect Zell.
She turned around, giving him one of her patented smiles. "Hey Squall!"
"I thought you might want to know. Zell is over in the Training Center. You'll probably have to make him leave."
Selphie giggled at the thought. Squall no longer found things like that as annoying as he had used to, as long as she didn't expect him to giggle with her. With a wink, she trotted off to retrieve Zell. Squall rolled his eyes, continuing to the elevator.
Nighttime was almost upon the Garden, shades of orange filtering in through the front entrance, tinting everything inside. Classes had been dismissed for the evening and most students had retired to their various dorms, a few of the more studious hard at work in the library. As opposed to the usual bustling noise of the day, now there was nothing but the deep omnipresent hum of the Garden machinery and the occasional echoing clack of footsteps.
Up in the office the deep hum was muted to a barely audible rumble. The soft noise of a keyboard being tapped filtered in from Xu's adjoining office, and he shut the doors. Settling in his leather chair, he glanced over at the closed door to his bedroom, light bleeding out from under the door frame. He assumed it was Rinoa, most likely studying for her classes.
He put a hand to his forehead, and, after a long suffering sigh, accessed the communicator main menu and connected to EstharNet. Using a special protocol reserved for SeeD, he went past the normal channels and was put through directly to the President. After waiting a few minutes, the screen flickered and came to life, revealing Laguna sitting behind his desk.
There was a moment of silence as the two stared at each other, Laguna's uncertain grin faltering and Squall's cold stare hardening. Laguna was the first to speak, running a nervous hand through his hair.
"Squall!" He said, forcing a little more joviality than was necessary into his tone. "What a pleasant surprise! What can I do for you?"
"Laguna," Squall deadpanned, jaw muscles twitching slightly. The man was already driving him insane, and he hadn't really done anything yet. "I need to make a request for information. Serving in the capacity of SeeD commander."
"Oh..." Laguna said, face falling. "Well, uh... Esthar is always willing to cooperate."
"It's about Galbadia. Do you have any idea what's going on?"
Laguna changed modes, dropping quickly into his role as President. "Interesting you should bring this up. There's been trouble over there recently. From what we can tell, a rebel insurgence captured De-"
"I know, we were there."
Laguna immediately became concerned. "Really? Is everyone okay?"
"Oh, well that's good. Anyway, if you already knew that, what do you need to know?"
"Which group took over Deling."
Laguna nodded, leaning back in his seat. "Well, that makes two of us. Frankly, we have no idea. And the new government hasn't let out a peep to anyone. However, I can supply you with photographs of the men we believe to be in charge."
"Send them over."
"Consider it done. And Squall," Laguna said, and Squall could see he had shifted back into regular Laguna. "I... Think we should talk, sometime. Maybe when this is all sorted out, you could come over to Esthar and-"
"Just think about it, that's I ask."
Squall didn't reply, canceling the connection.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The flooding stopped.
He was in a pressure cooker. A fly stuck to a windshield, there was a... Hallway? No. It was only a dream.
Some dream from a TV show. He remembered it now, a show about a secret agent in some lab. Sometimes it was dramatic, mostly it was funny. How did it end?
There never was....
Oh yes, there was. He remembered it now, some show about a spy in some bunker. Sometimes it was action packed, mostly it was sad. How did it end?
No, there wasn't....
Some show about a man who turned inside out all the time for no reason. Sometimes it was thought provoking, mostly it was shallow. Did it ever end?
"Oh fuck, wake up!"
Waking up was for chumps, especially on a Saturday morning like this. He'd better not get up until nine at least. That's when that one show came on. What was it about?
There was no show!
So insistent. Maybe it was time to-
The universe toppled, and the Agent fell back to the ground.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The humid atmosphere of the Training Center almost doubled the amount of work required to maintain the area, since it was prone to rust. A layer of plastic over the domed ceiling helped somewhat, but every now and then someone had to go and oil things up a little.
Zell however, did not rust, and as such there was no reason for him to leave. Easily kicking aside a Grat with a powerful roundhouse swipe, Zell roamed the dank arena in search of more challenging prey.
"Fuck!" He shouted, for no reason other than it felt good to do so. Maybe it was just him, but it was fun sometimes to yell stuff when no one was around. And it was because of the assumption that he was alone that he was so startled when a voice sounded behind him.
"Zell! Why in the world did you just say that?"
Zell spun around to be confronted by Selphie, hands on her hips, staring at him. "Uh, well, I-" He stuttered.
"Do you just go around screaming swears for no reason?"
He rubbed the back of his neck, sheepishly kicking the ground. "Not all the time."
Selphie rolled her eyes, walking up to him. She stopped a few feet away and wrinkled her nose. She pointed an accusing finger at him. "And you, Mr. Dincht, need to shower."
"Yeah, I guess I probably do."
Selphie took his hand and led him off towards the dorms. And as he listened to her mildly chastise him, Zell made a realization. He was totally whipped.
And he totally loved it.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter 22 Inevitable Desistance
"What Scott told us about the universe was a slap in the face to the standard scientific mind set. The dreamers were right all along."
-Quistis Trepe, What's Hyne Got To Do With It?
There was a land once called California, now a wasteland wiped clean by nuclear fire. There was a boy called Link. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was older, always he was fighting. There was a man who's name was a codeword, and he slipped through hallways, killing like a ghost. There was a bleak future ruled by machines, humankind used as batteries to fuel their mighty host. There was a man called Garion who's destiny was intricately tied to that of a stone. There was a spaceship ruled by an insane AI, haunting its metallic corridors. There was an unstoppable mountain of metal sixty feet tall that ran through a cityscape, the red Wolf emblazoned on its shoulder reflecting the light of burning buildings in its wake. There was a small creature who was thrust into a conflict of massive scale, bonded to fate by what rested around his neck. There was a boy called Ender who destroyed an entire race. There was a girl called Alice who went back to a familiar place that had become twisted and evil. There was a man called Caleb who believed it was all imagined, existing only in two dimensions on his screen.
There were worlds without end.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Scott gasped, exhaling the stale air of sleep in one explosive motion. He thrashed around in his sheets, throwing them aside to sit shaking and sweaty on the edge of his bed, head in one hand to steady himself. The last images of the dream faded from his mind, an unthinkably vast cosmos swelling the limits of his perception.
He frowned, trying to remember what he had seen. Nothing but the vague sensation of infinite, an endless horizon he had stood before. He shrugged, vocalizing his final thought as if to put it behind him.
The lukewarm water from the bathroom tap washed away the unpleasant aftertaste that breathing through the mouth while sleeping resulted in. He walked back into the main room and turned the light on, squinting his eyes against the sudden painful glare. The digital clock on the bedstand glowed 2:24. Early. Way too early.
Nothing to read, no TV to watch, unable to sleep. Scott sighed and leaned against the dresser, drumming his fingers on the top. Oh well. When in doubt, fall back on the old midnight stroll. Grabbing a pair of pants and throwing on a T-shirt, Scott wandered off into the dim hallways of the Garden.
Unlike some of the previous nights before the sky was dark, the moon obscured by heavy clouds. The Garden lights had been brightened to compensate and, while things were still bathed in a dim yellow, it was much easier to see.
Scott padded barefoot across the commons, gazing at the colorful architecture. Arbitrarily, he turned right out of the dormitory entrance, heading off towards the cafeteria. Maybe a late snack would make him sleepy. Until he remembered the cafeteria was completely closed off at night. In fact, by his recollection, the only two places open all night besides the dorms were the Quad and Training Center. There was no way he was going to the Training center, so he strode for the Quad.
The Quad was still filled with the various pieces of the stage that needed to be assembled. A few banners had been hung, the ladders used still sitting out. Several power tools lay on the ground, sawdust swept into piles by the equipment. It gave the air the familiar scent of lumber, lending the area a certain nostalgic atmosphere for Scott.
On a whim, he ascended the shaky stairs to the side of the platform and crossed the large stage, sitting on the edge with his feet dangling off the end. Alone with his thoughts, Scott lay back, relaxing his body. Of course, he'd have to be careful not to fall asleep-
Scott pushed himself up, head whipping around. There was nothing, the Quad still bereft of anyone save himself. He frowned.
"Hello?" He said quietly. "Anybody there?"
I will speak, and you must listen.
Scott lifted himself to his feet, looking behind him. "Oh, God, I know I'm not supposed to be out after curfew-"
I am not your God, Outsider.
"No, that's not what I meant," He laughed nervously, still trying to find the source of the voice. "It's an expression where I come from- Look, I'm not in trouble am I?"
Cease your nonsense and listen to me, for there is not much time.
"Okay, sure, just where are you?"
Soon there will be a time of choice. You must prepare yourself for what will be required.
Now he was starting to become angry. "How about instead you prepare to tell me where the hell you are?"
I have little patience left with you, Outsider. It is only by my grace that-
"Little patience with me?" Scott said incredulously. "I'm not the disembodied voice in this equation lady, don't start with tha-"
A sensation like a spear of lighting ripped its way through his brain and he fell to the stage floor, gasping in pain. The Quad was suffused in light, and he squinted against the brightness. When his eyes adjusted, what was revealed left him breathless.
She hovered over the stage. 'She' was so inadequate, it was so much more. It was a golden beacon, power given female form. It was glorious. And it most certainly silenced him.
Now you will listen to me, or I will revert you back to the matter from which you were formed.
Scott wheezed something that sounded like an affirmative response.
Soon the disease that your kind has brought will spread to Garden. It is building across the sea, and I am powerless to stop it.
The being burned brighter in anger.
Never doubt for a moment of your unnatural existence that if I had the power I would destroy you and your kind.
The heat faded somewhat, and Scott thought the being might have sighed.
Instead, I must use you. You will help right this wrong of your doing.
"What? I didn't do anything-"
Scott did his best to sink into the stage, huddling away from the awesome power.
Your lies only damn you further. Do not attempt to placate me with your falsities.
Willing or not, you must take part in this.
To reveal would be to destroy. What will come will come. At this time, I can only instruct you in a way to impact the future without speaking of it. Before it is too late, you must learn to control the power within you. You must harness that energy. It is the only chance.
Reach inside yourself. You will touch it. There is nothing else to say.
The light started to dim, and the image before him slowly faded.
"Wait!" He called out. "One last question!"
What is it, Outsider?
"Why are higher powers always so goddamn cryptic?"
Then I will phrase my response in a manner which you will understand.
With that, she was gone.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Irvine was awoken by a pounding on his door. He groaned, slowly rolling off the bed. Slowly making his way over to the door, he leaned against the frame and pressed the open button. With a slight hiss, the door slid to the side, revealing a wild eyed Scott.
Irvine squinted at him, contorting his face into a frown. "What the hell are you doing over here? It's 2:42 am."
"A God just told me to go fuck myself."
Irvine yawned, scratching his side. "That's great pal. Why don't you tell me all about it tomorrow over breakfast, okay?"
"No Irvine, I'm serious, I wasn't dreaming, this isn't a joke, some big shit just went down and I'm a little freaked out about it, okay!?" Scott said, voice rising. "I don't know what the hell just happened."
"Alright, alright. Come in."
After Irvine had woken up to at least a state of semi-awareness, Scott related the entire story. Irvine's reactions ran their course through a various range before settling on serious.
"Well," Irvine said, scratching his head. "I can't explain what happened, but considering all the cosmic stuff that's been going down I'm almost not surprised. I'll get everyone together tomorrow for a meeting, we'll figure this out."
Irvine stood up, leading Scott back over to the door. "Try to get some sleep. I'm sure this will make more sense when we talk it over."
Scott began the walk back to his room, mind still churning with the recent events. He turned back around when he heard Irvine call something.
"Oh and, Scott!"
"Don't wake me up again unless something else starts talking to you."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"We press forward."
"But the current concerns of-"
"Forward, Michael," Julian stated again. "It is the only direction available to us. The other labs need time to finish their respective portals, and I will not spend that time sitting here while our plans are on the verge of completion. If we have an even stronger hold on the world by the time the portal reopens, so much the better. Progress is not made by wasting opportunity."
"There are a things working in our favor. All our forces have gathered for quick deployment. With a little research, we found the personal webpage of 'Selphie Tilmitt', and we learned that Garden will be holding some sort of festival soon. That would be the most opportune time to strike. And while we had also originally assumed Galbadia Garden would be a stumbling block, it was decommissioned shortly after the events of the game."
Julian frowned. "However, because the portal is no longer available to us, we cannot bolster our forces with any more Earthside soldiers. We'll have to use more Galbadian men than planned."
Julian stood, walking over to a large map of the world he had pinned to the wall. Taking a red marker, he circled each country. Then he put an x through the circle of Galbadia. Capping the pen, he stood back and observed.
"After our hold on Galbadia is tightened, our main worries will center around Esthar. We can't be sure how they will react to the fall of Garden."
Julian put a question mark over Esthar.
"Trabia is much like Switzerland. What little we know of history has shown them to be neutral and isolationist. They will most like not involve themselves."
Julian put a horizontal line through Trabia.
"Likewise with the Shumi."
He put another line through the Shumi.
"Timber will be far too concerned with its own problems, and even if they did have a negative stance, they lack the power to strike us."
Yet another line was added to Timber.
"Dollet is another wild card, though not one on the scale of Esthar. They lack a strong military and have little political clout. Whichever way they blow, it won't effect the outcome much. The only real threat they pose is Dollet's possible use as a staging area for an Estharian assault."
Julian drew a question mark in the Dollet circle.
"And Centra isn't even a factor as it is for all intents and purposes depopulated."
Julian drew a last horizontal line through the Centra circle. He stepped back, studying the theater of war.
"I class Balamb with Balamb Garden, as they are practically one and the same. The locals will no doubt react to our invasion, and could hamper us if they organize. When we actually capture the Garden itself, it would be in our best interests to move it away from the island to avoid any more unnecessary conflict."
"Yes, quite, but do you think the men will be as willing to fight with the portal gone?"
"Some of them, yes, but I have no intention of solidifying the rumors. Officially, the portal is still operational. Speak nothing else in front of the men."
"Then we are ready. Come tomorrow, it is time."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The fog dissipated as if struck by a strong summer breeze. Odd, considering there was no breeze. Was there ever any fog?
The Agent came to.
He found himself in a hallway. Nothing unusual about that. It looked like any of the many other hallways that crisscrossed the complex. White tile, white drywall covering the concrete beneath. Simple light fixtures on the ceiling. A waist high table against the corner wall. He was lying on his back in just such a corner junction, the hall stretching off above his head and to the left.
He sat up slowly, uncertain what injuries he might have sustained. None. He wasn't even dizzy. Besides himself and the hallway, the only other thing present was the nameless tech he had accosted in the lab, huddling against one of the walls. Sweat ran down his face, and his eyes darted from place to place. The Agent stood up, walking the few feet over to him.
"Thanks," The Agent said, putting out his hand.
"For what?" Despite his appearance, the tech sounded calm.
"For getting me out of the lab. Was I knocked out by the concussion?"
"I didn't do anything."
The Agent frowned, unable to reconcile this with their new position. "Then how did we get here?"
"I don't know."
Perhaps they had been both knocked unconscious by some explosion and then left here by some as yet unknown staffer who had gone off in search of help. But first things first. The Agent knew that the best thing to do first was to secure a safe exit. Then if possible, reenter the facility and salvage whatever information he could. He looked down at the quaking tech.
"We need to get out of here. Where are we?"
"I don't know."
"We need to find a directory then. If we can locate a la-"
"You don't understand. I know every inch of the facility, and I have never seen this hallway before."
The Agent was worried at the hints of panic creeping into the tech's voice. The last thing he needed was a basket case on his hands in the middle of a crisis. The tech was a liability. His mission came first.
"You stay here," The Agent said, arbitrarily picking a hallway to start down. "I'll see what I can find."
The tech said nothing, just watching him.
The Agent started walking. The main priority was to find some sort of exit. Unfortunately, the facility had few paths to the surface. There was the main entrance, a large, almost hangar-like entrance through which most things came through, and then there was a smaller, secondary backdoor somewhere on the other end of the complex. Not knowing which end he was closest to, the Agent was unable to tell which direction would be the most likely to yield results.
At this point the Agent began noticing strange details about the hallway. For one thing, the lighting was strange. Despite that fact that the light fixtures on the ceiling were spaced, the hallway seemed to hold the same light level throughout. Also, not matter how far he walked, the end of the hallway wasn't getting any closer. He knew something was very wrong when he at last glanced down to see he wasn't casting a shadow, nor was there any reflection in the tiles. He stared at the floor for most of a minute, unable to comprehend the situation. He spun around-
-To find that the tech and the corner table were still no more than five feet away.
"What the hell?!"
"I told you."
"What the holy fuck is going on?!"
Not waiting for the tech to explain, the Agent began to run as fast as he could down the hall. After two minutes, he turned around. The table was still there.
In desperation, he slowly started to back away from the corner, keeping the table sight. It seemed to be working, the table slowly shrinking into the distance. Suddenly, he tripped on something, losing his balance and crashing to the floor. He pushed himself to his feet, and found himself looking at the table he had just tripped over, and the tech sitting next to it.
Gasping, he fell against the wall, sliding to a sitting position next to the tech. He stared at the tech, who gazed back with tired eyes.
"I can't entirely. This is beyond me, beyond any of us. What 'this' is, is the result of the portal collapse. We're stuck here."
"For how long?"
"God knows. I don't."
"Is there anything we can do?"
The tech buried his face in his hands, his attitude that of someone already doomed. "No. As you found out for yourself, we can't go anywhere. The only way this place will right itself is if the fracture in the universe, which we are currently sitting in, repairs itself, or at least just goes somewhere else. Even then we're fucked though. When the portal rupture disappears, so will everything that goes with it."
"But wouldn't that just mean the wires and stuff connected to the portal would vanish? What does all this concrete have to do with the portal, it's not part of it."
"It doesn't work like that. The portal takes up a lot of space dimensionally, if not physically. It's all very complex spatial calculations, you wouldn't understand. But the fact is, that when the portal goes away, so will a mile and a half wide sphere around it."
"Jesus Christ. A mile and a half deep crater in the ground."
"Not deep, wide."
"But you said it was a sphere."
"Yeah, but only in the relative Sphereverse. It overlaps."
"Sure, whatever. Can we stop it?"
The tech shook his head. "We can't even start it. I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do."
* * * * * * * * * * * *