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On Earth as it is in Hell Part 6

Chapter 23 Impending Conflict

"A naive young soldier enters a portal and finds himself in a video game that has become his fantastic reality. A cheesy plot in the cheesiest of 1950s sci-fi flicks. Sometimes in the middle of the night I lie awake and wonder if it was all real. Wouldn't you?"
-Scott Keyor, Worlds Unknown

Michelle happened to be stacking papers on Squall's desk when everyone assembled for another impromptu meeting, and with the present atmosphere she understood the need to leave. On her way out she gave Scott a small, perhaps hopeful, smile, which he rewarded with an uncertain one of his own. She closed the large double doors behind her, and all attention immediately focused on him.

He sighed, the situation all too familiar. "I had a run in with God last night."

Zell laughed, grinning widely. Everybody turned to stare at him and he shrank back, suddenly realizing that Scott wasn't joking. Selphie winced slightly, leaning over to whisper something in his ear. Zell shrugged sheepishly, embarrassed at his outburst. "Uh.. Sorry."

"Anyway," Scott continued. "I was walking around the Quad, when-"

"After curfew?" Quistis interrupted, tone somewhat disapproving. Irvine rolled his eyes.

"Not now, Quiz. Besides, we've all been out after curfew."

"It's no big deal," He added to Scott. "Keep going."

"So, I was in the Quad when I heard someone talking to me. I talked back a little bit, kind of made it angry when I wouldn't listen, and then it appeared over the stage."

Scott gestured with his hands, trying to emphasize the dimensions of what he saw. "It was big. Not so big it filled the whole room, but pretty damn big. And it glowed. Gold, actually. Bright gold. Basically, and I forget exactly what it said, but the gist of it was that something big is going to happen and that I was the only one who could do anything about it. It talked about some 'power' I have and told me I needed to use it to do the stopping in question."

The group was silent as they digested this. Squall was the first to speak, gauging Scott's reaction.

"Would this have anything to do with what happened in the tunnel?"

Scott gave a start, stammering a half formed response. "I, uh, well-"

Irvine grimaced, avoiding looking at Scott's eyes. "I told everyone when we got back. We didn't say anything because it was... Best that you were observed, rather than messing with it."

From a strictly militant point of view, Scott understood the rationale behind such a decision, but it still hurt him a little. He stared at the floor, unsure of how to respond to such a statement. The atmosphere quickly turned awkward.

Scott looked up, giving a small smile. "I... understand."

"Good," Squall said shortly with his usual tactlessness. "Now we want to try something. Rinoa."

Rinoa stood, walking over in front of Scott. He leaned back in his chair, not sure what to expect.

"I'm going to try to 'see' what's inside of you," She said, kneeling down until she was at eye level with him. "The minute you start feeling some sort of reaction you think might be bad, say something, okay?"

"Got it."

Closing her eyes in intense concentration, she put both hands on the side of his head. Everyone watched, tense and waiting for some sort of sudden backlash. Ten seconds passed, and nothing happened. The tension started to ease and the group began to relax. Fifteen seconds passed, and boredom began to set in, at least for Zell. Twenty seconds passed, and Rinoa leapt back with a gasp.

Squall was immediately on his feet, rushing over to her. The others were hot on his heels, and soon they crowded around a wheezing, pale Rinoa.

Squall glared up at Scott. "What happened?!"

"I, God, I don't know!"

"You didn't feel anything?"

"No, nothing!" Scott almost yelled. "I was just sitting there and she fell down!"

"Infirmary, now!" Squall ordered. Selphie was halfway to the door to open it and Rinoa was in Squall's arms when she began to feebly wave her arms about.

"No no, stop!" She gasped. "Set me down, I'm okay!"

Squall carefully complied, and everyone backed off to give her some air. It was several seconds before she could continue.

"I... I think all my GFs are out," She said dazedly.

"Well what the hell did that?" Zell asked, still filled with adrenaline from the short panic. "You were just sitting there, nothing weird happened. Well, besides the knocking out thing."

"Yeah, it was so fast!" Selphie seconded.

Rinoa made a face, recalling the details. "Ugh, it was like being sucker punched. This big wave of energy knocked all of my magic out, and me with it."

She felt around her subconscious, finding the familiar power sans the GFs. "It's back now though. I guess I can't touch whatever Scott has."

"Here," Squall grunted, lifting her to her feet. "You sit down for awhile."

He helped her into a chair, and she gratefully sank back into it. Scott knew he hadn't done anything, but he still felt a little guilty.

Quistis shook her head in frustration. "If we didn't need Odine before, we certainly do now."

Zell started to shadow box, hopping back in forth in one place. "I say we grab the Ragnarock and go find that little butt monkey!"

Irvine rolled his eyes. "Hell, that's a great idea. You go warm up the ship and we'll be right down."

"Kick ass! Hurry up though, it's almost-" Zell froze, and his eyes narrowed. He turned back to glare at Irvine. "Fuck you man. Fuck you up the ass."

"I'm sure you'd like that."

"Shut your cake hole, faggot."

"I'm not going to take being called a faggot from the guy who wanted to do me up the ass, you little turd burglar."

"Then how about you shut the fuck up you fucking hayseed-"

"Stop it, both of you!" Selphie shouted, stamping her foot. "We're not supposed to fight each other!"

Zell gestured angrily towards Irvine. "Why don't you tell that to Huckleberry over there?"

"It takes two to tango, butt pirate."

"You goddamn hick-"

"No, she's right," Quistis interjected, not a little angry herself. "This isn't helping anything."

Once again Zell started up. "But he was-"

"You're both done," Squall said quietly, instantly asserting control. "And so is this meeting. We can't do anything without more information."

Everyone who wasn't already standing did so to leave. Zell was the first to the door, and before he left he couldn't resist one last jab at Irvine.

"Right behind you, hillbilly," Zell said, making a grand sweep with his arm at the door.

"Ladies first ass face."

Squall put his face in his hands as the argument ignited again.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Sergeant Patrick wasn't a real Sergeant, but that didn't stop him from acting like one. If you fell behind, he'd be in your face. If you forgot something, he'd remind you less than gently. And if you should for one moment step beyond the bounds of your authority, he'd be sure to let you know. The end result of his harsh regime was the behind the back nickname of Punishing Patrick or, if he had done something to particularly piss the men off, the shortened version consisting of just the initials.

Perhaps in a regular army his discipline might have paid off in eventual grudging respect and improved battlefield performance. Unfortunately for Patrick, the combined mercenary forces of Julian Foss were a most irregular army. When every man under your command is used to fighting by himself or in smaller groups, and in decidedly different circumstances, it became extremely difficult to overcome the vigilante atmosphere. To make matters worse, the average merc hadn't necessarily seen actual combat. Not a few were fresh to the business, and many of the veterans had been bounty hunters or worked security. Patrick himself had been in several private armies in Columbia and had taken part in serious fighting, attacking neighboring drug plantations and gunning down members of rival cartels. That was why he was a Sergeant.

It was strange duty, to be sure. Assaulting and occupying an alien city. And the portal... Most of the men had refused to enter it. The staff on site had been forced to send several people back and forth to prove it was safe, and their pay had been increased. There had still been a few holdouts, but the scientists had put on a convincing demonstration and the pay was too good to refuse. Strange stars at night, strange weather patterns in the day. Strange people with strange clothes. A lot of things were familiar. Cars, television, streetlights and telephones. It was still hard to believe it could be real. But after awhile the city became ordinary and the business of guarding a new country routine. Anything could become standard if you were exposed to it enough.

But then something had happened, and things had started to move again. Official word from the top was that there would soon be smaller assault on another target. Rumors drifted around about what that target might be. Anybody who had ever played Final Fantasy VIII, of which there were few, became valuable commodities, often charging for information. Even more troubling rumors circulated that hinted at trouble with the portal. But Patrick wasn't paid to question. He was paid to fight.

And from the way things were accelerating, he would soon get his chance.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So anyway, what happened was-

Hyne shut her senses to the state of the universe and concentrated solely on the task at hand. It didn't matter now anyway. If she failed, all would be lost despite her administrations.

....Did I mention that she talked to Scott?

I think so.

You're probably right, I just couldn't remember. What about Rinoa?

What about her?

What was she doing?


Rinoa tried to concentrate on planning the upcoming Garden Festival, but the memory of her brush with Scott's mind nagged at her. Despite her failure to completely grasp what had happened, just before the feedback hit she had felt something. Something part of whatever was wrong with the world around Scott. If only she could get a handle on it, maybe something could be done.

Are you sure that's how it went?

Well, I simply assumed. I wasn't there after all.

I know I asked about her, but what does that have to do with anything?

...What do you mean?

It's pointless. It leads nowhere. She never fixed the Knot.

Yeah, but she thought about it.

Save it for your book, I want the real story.

My book is about me. How can I tell you what happened if I wasn't there for it all?

Alright, then explain this. How come the portal was completed and Scott was sent through in '98 and Julian didn't arrive until after '99, but Scott hadn't been in Deling for more than a few hours?

Funny story that. Lucky he doesn't remember.

You didn't.

Not quite. I never shared all that much. And I never talked to Hyne.

I never liked her.

Nobody did.

We're getting close to the reason I'm here. You knew about Scott, and you still didn't do your job.

I had my reasons.

Then I'd better hear them.

You just sat through all that and you still don't get it?

All I get is that if things had gone just a little bit differently I wouldn't be here questioning you, I'd be beating the hell out of you. You know the Council doesn't take kindly to this crap.

Maybe I felt Hyne could handle it.

Hyne was a minor deity with a bad track record. If that's true, I'd leave it out of your excuse.

I think the Council would do well to judge me by the end results.

I think you would do well to kiss your ass goodbye.

Once a Kharadjai, always a Kharadjai. What are they going to do, impeach me?

No Kharadjai has almost lost an entire universe before. You'd better think fast or they'll have you by the balls and squeeze.

Before you start threatening me again, at least let me finish the story.

Fine. But hurry it up, I need to check on A21b in awhile.

Really? What did Brian do?

Few problems with a black hole and a decaying orbit. Nothing compared to the shit you're mired in. Start talking.

Okay, so the Garden Festival was coming soon, and everyone was getting ready for it,

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And it wasn't so much that Scott didn't want to take part as the fact that he had no idea what to do. He wasn't particularly skilled at decorating or stage design, and he couldn't play any instruments. Not being much of a partygoer, he also wasn't sure what sort of food to serve. As such, he was fairly useless and spent most of his volunteered time hauling stuff around.

The stage had taken form and now whatever crew Selphie could pull together was trying to put together an acceptable sound system, a tall order for the inexperienced. So far, they had managed to get the subwoofers working and were now attempting to wire it all in to a main board. Wisely, Zell had been sent to see if one of the Garden's technical experts would oversee the setup.

Selphie was giddy in anticipation, nearing something Scott could only describe as hyper-giddy. He wondered if her diet consisted entirely of Oreos and Pixie Stixs, a private joke that quickly fell flat when he remembered that they didn't exist. Well, there would probably be some sort of equivalent anyway. So far all he had eaten was the basic hamburger\hotdog or salad with chips from the cafeteria, and a thing of nachos he had begged off a vendor in Deling. Those nachos hadn't been half bad. Scott suddenly found himself hungry.

Looking around the Quad, he found the most likely source of a quick fix in Nida, who was lounging on the stairs munching on some sort of snack bar. Scott strolled over to him and planted himself on the stairs next to Nida, who steadfastly ignored his obvious interest in the snack bar.

"So.... Nida..." Scott began. "Whatcha eating there?"


"I see. Got any more of that?"

"I dunno."

"You sure?"


"....Don't hold out on me man."

Nida sighed, reluctantly breaking off part of the bar bottom. Scott eagerly snatched it from him, savoring the taste. Sure, it was just granola, but it was something.

"So Nida," Scott mumbled through a mouth full. "When's this Festival going to be ready?"

Nida shrugged. "Selphie would know, I don't. But if things go the way they usually do, I'd say no more than another day, if not even. Once things get going it gets done quick."

"When's the Festival itself?"

"There actually isn't a set date, but it's always held somewhere in the same space of two weeks. One of those being this week. So if they do finish up, I'd say the day after tomorrow or the day after that."

"What do you do there?"

"It's a little different every year, but they always have a or DJ to play music, the dance floor around the stage and a bunch of food tables."

"...I think I'll just hang around the food tables."

Nida laughed, shooting Scott a look he didn't like. "Oh no my friend, I think not. If I know Selphie, and I think I do, you're part of 'the group' now, and she'll make it her sacred duty to see you hooked up for the Festival. Mark my words, you are marked for slau- Oh shit, here she comes now!"

Nida jumped to his feet, walking quickly off towards the main dome. "Later!"

Scott glared after him as Selphie closed in. Judas!

"Hey Scott!"

"Oh... Hey.."

Selphie plopped herself down next to him, smoothing out her skirt. "Well, we're almost done! Just a few finishing touches and then I'll arrange the catering, and we'll be set for the dance! You looking forward to it?"

"Well, I-"

"Great! So tell me, who's the lucky lady that will be accompanying Mr. Keyor to the dance, hmm?"

"I wasn't-"

"You don't have a date?!" Selphie squealed. "But you're so handsome! I'm sure there are a ton of girls who would love to go with you!"

"I don't know-"

"Don't worry," Selphie said, patting him on the back. "I'll find you the perfect match!"

"No, that's-"

"I could do nothing less for a friend! Any preferences?"

"Selphie, I-"

"Oh Scott!" Selphie laughed. "I'm flattered, but I'm already going with Zell!"

"I didn't mean-"

"Of course you didn't! So, no preferences then?"

"Son of a-"

"Okay then! Leave everything to me!"

With that, she skipped off, no doubt to find someone else to torture. Scott sighed, putting his head in his hands. Fuck.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 24 Time Tomorrow

The Garden festival was one of those events that you half looked forward to and half dreaded. The cons were 'volunteering' to work on actually putting the whole affair together, the fear of getting a bad date and the added fear that your friends might force you into getting a bad date. During the weeks preceding the event everyone always tried to lay low. If you could make it past that trial time without problem, you were free to enjoy yourself at the party."

-Irvine Kinneas, The SeeD and the Sorceress

A shut in.

That's what he was.

The whole fucking Garden was gearing itself up for a wild bash and he hid in his dim room, lifting weights like his life depended on it. The weights had been transferred from the gym for his private use under the bullshit excuse of, 'avoiding conflict with other students'. Really, he felt that a good fight would make him feel better. He needed to hurt something besides himself. He need something to distract himself from thinking. Books. Video games. Movies. Porn. Anything. Weightlifting was dull enough to allow his mind to work.

So boring.

Nothing to think about.

Nothing but-

The gun flashed twice and he was momentarily dazed by the proximity, ears ringing with the piercing sound of the twin blasts. The brutal sound of impact soon followed and shiny gray hair mixed with brain matter and blood blew over the couch-


The barbell flew across the room, smashing into the dresser and splintering several of the drawer fronts.

Seifer sucked in a deep breath and slowly exhaled, the memories blowing away with the air. He wouldn't go down that road again. He was stronger than that. Strong enough not to snap a second time.

There was a fighting spirit that drove him, that demanded he go against the grain. Oh, he would love to see the looks on everyone's faces if he strolled into the Festival with some babe on his arm. That would show them. The idea quickly fell flat since he knew there was no one who would consent to be his partner. Oh well. Maybe next time.


He had worked hard lately. On everything. On his workouts, training and tests. He didn't know why. Maybe he really felt this was his only chance at redemption, and that he should use it well. Maybe if he somehow pushed himself beyond the darkness he had slipped into he could find the light. Maybe he had nothing better to do.

The jarring buzz of the doorcom shook him out of his reverie, and with a grunt he pushed himself to his feet. After a quick look through the peephole, he resigned himself to the torturous few minutes ahead. Reluctantly, he keyed open the door.

"Hi Seifer!"

Selphie was, as usual, far too cheerful. Her mood gave him the exact opposite feelings. Now he wanted to break something even more. He didn't dignify her greeting with an answer.

"So, anyway," Selphie started, constantly hopping from one foot to the other, a small habit that drove Seifer mad. "As you probably know, the Garden Festival is coming up soon, and I need to take a roll call to see who's coming. Also, if you are coming, which I hope you are, it would be great if you would donate some small sum of gil to fund all of the hard work everyone has put into the whole-"

"Goddammit, will you stand still?!" Seifer exploded, startling her out of her speech. She stared up at him, green eyes wide. Forcing himself to calm down, he settled back into 'impassive mode'.


Selphie nervously started again, making sure to stand completely still. "...So, I was wondering if you were coming...."


To his fury, she once again starting jumping back and forth. "Are you sure? It'll be great, we've got a real band from Balamb coming in, a big catering service, a bunch of fancy lights and the stage looks really cool this year-"


"But I promise you'll have fun if you just-"

"And again, no."

Selphie gave up, turning to go down the hallway. "Okay, but just remember I asked you myself!"

"How could I forget."

Seifer keyed the door shut and walked over to the dresser, studying the damage. Not too bad, only the bottom drawer was inoperable. There was nothing in it anyway. Checking the clock by his bed, Seifer saw he had half an hour before Trepe would be after him with more work. Sighing, he went to shower.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"....Den, Den come in. This is Serpent."

"Copy Serpent. Verify."

"McDonald's, Britney Spears, Coca Cola."

"Copy Serpent. Status?"

"The party is tonight. Lots of preparation outside visible, I saw what looked to be a catering service pull in and there's a lot of buzz on the street. In order to confirm I bought a ticket. We're good to go."

"Copy that Serpent. Follow you're extraction procedure to Timber. We'll have a car waiting for you there."

"Copy. Serpent out."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

..........You're awake.

You already said that.

Things haven't changed since then.

Why did you say it?

Because you were doubting.

Who are you?

It doesn't matter.

.....I guess not.

Wait, then where's the tech?

Right next to you.

I don't see him.

What do you see?


But you're not sleeping.

I know. I died.

No, you didn't.

Then what?

Things are changing. You won't have to wait long.

For what?

The end.


I hope it happens soon.

....Are you near me?


Maybe I could see you.

No. You couldn't.

Can you get me out of here?

I am here.

...I know, but can you get us both out of here?

I am here.

You don't understand-

No, you don't understand.

I am here.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Scott nervously looked around the corner, scoping the area for any signs of Selphie. Clear. Taking a deep breath a keeping his head down, Scott walked quickly across the commons, trying to stick to whatever groups of people he could. Without incident he made it across to the dormitory entrances.

And of course just when safety was in reach, the telltale flash of yellow came barreling down the stairs and halted right in front of a dismayed Scott.

"Hey Scott!"

"Oh glory be, if it isn't Selphie."

"You bet!" She said, giving him her trademark 'v' for victory. "Guess what?"

"You've decided to let me be dateless."

"I've got a girl lined up for you!"

It didn't matter that he had been expecting it, his stomach dropped to his feet. No doubt Selphie had told this girl that he wanted to go to the Festival with anyone, which meant that unless he wanted to hurt someone's feelings, he was screwed.


"Oh, c'mon! You'll have fun!"

"Just tell me who it is."

"Not until you smile!" She said, wagging a finger at him. "You don't want to make her feel bad, do you?"

A low blow. Damn you Selphie. Damn you to hell. But he didn't say it.

"Please, just tell me."

"It's that one girl you like, Michelle Tranell!"

"Sweet mother of God."

"You should go talk to her, I think she's filing stuff down in Storage. It's a room right off the Library, just ask one of the staff. Talk to you later!"

Of all the people he could have been forced to go with, it had to be someone he knew and actually liked. Now what lay ahead was not simple humiliation, but a mental ass raping. What was he going to do?

"What am I going to do?"


Scott turned around to see Irvine walking up, heading towards the stairs. Irvine looked around in confusion.

"Were you talking to me?"

Scott shook his head. "Just muttering to myself."

"Ah. How come?"

"Selphie, uh... 'Helped' me get a date for the Festival."

Irvine winced sympathetically. "I know. I've been there. Well, actually, I haven't, but I've heard about it."

"What, she didn't bother you?"

"I get my own dates."

"I see."

"Hey, don't feel bad. Not everybody enjoys this kind of thing. You're just not a 'party' kind of guy."

"How is that possible? Back home I'm know as Scott 'Party-hearty' Keyor."

Irvine laughed, punching Scott in the shoulder. "I don't know then. Maybe it's just the air or something. Clearly, your party animal instincts have been dampened by inter-dimensional travel."


"So... Are you going to talk to Michelle?"

"Crap. The word's out, huh?"

"Oh yeah. I'm afraid you'll be getting winks all day. Often from people you don't know."

"This is my burden to bear."

"'Fraid so man. Maybe if you try to have fun, you will."


* * * * * * * * * * * *

As far as Quistis could tell, the only good thing to come out of Festival week so far was that her Seifer troubles paled in comparison to the hectic activity. At least Seifer was only one man, if uncontrollable.

Business had always come before pleasure, and she always paid the price for this lifestyle come party time. She would rather stay alone in her office than go with some random stranger Selphie found for her. And it wasn't so bad, really. It was hard to miss what you never had. Hard, but not impossible. She found things were much more comfortable if she didn't think about it.

It was too much to hope that Selphie understood her feelings on the matter. So far she had avoided the irrepressible girl, but it couldn't last forever.

What if she enjoyed going with a blind date? What was keeping her from just trying to have a good time? You don't know what a good time is Quistis. You never bothered to find out, she thought bitterly. And now everything she had become was nothing but a facade.

Buried deep as you can dig inside yourself,
And covered with a perfect shell,
Such a charming beautiful exterior.
Laced with brilliant smiles and shining eyes,
Perfect posture,
But you're barely scraping by.
But you're barely scraping by.
Well this is one time, this is one time,
That you can't fake it hard enough to please,
Or anyone at all, or anyone at all.
And the grave that you refuse to leave,
The refuge that you've built to flee,
The places that you've come to fear the most,
Is the place that you have come to fear the most.
Buried deep as you can dig inside your self,
And hidden in the public eye,
Such a stellar monument to loneliness.
Laced with brilliant smiles and shining eyes,
And perfect makeup,
But you're barely scraping by,
But you're barely scraping by.
And you can't fake it hard enough to please,
Everyone, Or anyone at all, or anyone at all,
And the grave that you refuse to leave,
The refuge that you've built to flee,
The places you have come to fear the most,
Is the place that you have come to fear the most.
Is the place that you have come to fear the most.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Time now. Time for action. The ships were in motion, the men were onboard. The unnatural war machine had drawn its first breath and the battle cry had been sounded. Time enough for reflection later. Little time to succeed. And succeed they would.

Hendrow had not wanted to take part in the assault, but Julian had been adamant. While they wouldn't take part in the fighting, they would watch from offshore until the Garden was secure. Too close for Hendrow. He would be far more comfortable hearing a report about it later. Julian always had been a front man.

And now there was only to see if they would win.

The final test of everything they had worked to make happen. Hendrow tried to calm his fluttering stomach, and settled in for the ride.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Song used is 'The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most' by Dashboard Confessionals.

Chapter 25 Time Today

"Whenever most soldiers talk about battle, they always describe how indescribable it is, and how horrific. It's strange, but for me battle was only frightening in retrospect. During the actual combat it was always as if I was watching a movie starring some look alike. I experienced it vicariously, and only later did it come back real."
-Scott Keyor, Worlds Unknown

"Oh, I get it. You don't feel anything at all. You're the type of guy that two weeks from now, you'll be stopped at a traffic light and all this will hit you and when it hits, it'll hit hard. It'll hit you so hard that your heart will burst into a hundred pieces."
-Homicide: Life on the Street

Lights out, curtain call. This play that unfolds itself upon the vast stage of the Multiverse draws near to a close like all things do. The finale is uncertain, the future of many undecided. Reality is a harsh script, and the ending is rarely fairy tale. Between scenes Fate rewrites parts on whim, the Actors often adlib, and Time constantly rushes them to continue without rest. The favor of the audience is fickle and one bad improvisation can turn the style to tragedy. And it takes a skilled Actor indeed to successfully manipulate the outcome...

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Now we're getting close to the finish.

It would appear that way, yes.

Pay close attention, because in awhile things will start moving very quickly, and some of it's confusing. After a certain point, I'm not sure what happened at all.

I suppose you'll blame that on Hyne?

Actually, she performed quite well. What happened in the end was an inevitable result. Unavoidable.

Maybe it will help if you keep telling yourself that.

I'm not going to argue. The facts speak for themselves.

And they speak a rather damning testimony.
Just listen. It was mid afternoon, and the Garden Festival was looming up ahead that night. Selphie had given up on Quistis, Rinoa was trying to get Squall to wear something other than his SeeD uniform, Zell was trying to swipe some hotdogs ahead of time, Seifer was holed up in his room, and Scott was on his way to talk to Michelle. He had a bit of trouble finding the file room, but after some direction from a helpful Library assistant, he had found-

The room through a small corridor in the back of the Library. You couldn't even see it unless you went around several bookshelves and wove through the study area. To say he was nervous was an understatement. He could barely breathe. His thoughts were alternately jumbled prayer and the desperate wish to be anywhere else doing anything else. Like going off Niagara Falls in a coffin. Conveniently packaged for the undertaker. Even this amusing thought couldn't make him smile. Dammit.

There was a rattling coming from a door to the left. The rattling of file cabinets. Cabinets being opened and close by pretty, feminine hands. The kind of hands he would be afraid to hold, like touching a delicate sculpture. And there she was. In her civvies today, not uniform. Tight but not too tight jeans and a red shirt that accentuated her great- I'm scared to death and I'm getting horny? He was having a strange physiological reaction to his intense fear. He thanked God for loose jeans.

She looked up with at him and smiled, a brilliant smile that brought him close to collapse. Surely, this was some mistake. She could not possibly want to go to the Festival with him. He was a loser. He was completely out of his league. He had no idea what to expect. So obviously, the unexpected occurred.

"Hi!" She said brightly, walking up to him still holding a armload of files. "So, was Selphie telling the truth? Did you... Want to ask me something?"

The hope in her eyes was too much. Whatever resolutions or intentions Scott might have had crumbled under that gaze. He collapsed like a house of cards.

"Michelle, would you like to go to the Garden Festival with me?"

The words came out easier than he had thought. He was rewarded instantly when her face lit like light bulb. She barreled forward to wrap her arms around him in an impromptu hug, not forgetting to set the files aside first, and all the blood that had been concentrated in a certain lower portion of his body quickly moved upwards to suffuse his face in a dark blush.

"Of course!" She squealed, smile making his knees weak.

"Cool," He lamely replied. "Uh, I guess I'll come get you before show time... What dorm is yours?"

"Girls dorms, floor two. It's a only a few doors down, number 32."

"Okay. Uh.. I'll be there when it's time to go."

"Okay! See you then!"

Scott left with large feeling of relief. Now he had several hours with which to prepare himself for the night ahead. The first thing on his list being to ask someone about getting a suit or something. With this in mind, Scott went searching for Nida.

He found him setting up trays in the Quad for the catering. With the Festival only hours away, the Quad was complete, now a glittering and elegant party room. Only the food had yet to be put out, and it wouldn't be until just before the party starting.

"Hey," Scott called. "Nida."

Nida stuck his hand behind his back and gave a sort of wave gesture, not looking up from his work. Scott walking about along side of him and peered over his shoulder.


"I didn't volunteer, believe me," Nida grunted, forcing a container into a slot that seemed too small for it. "Another one of those days."

"I see. Who are you going with?"

"One of the Library girls. I hear you scored a date with Tranell."

"You heard correctly."

"Nice!" Nida grinned. "She's a hotty."

"Indeed she is. Hey, I need a suit or something for tonight."

"Well, there are several places for that. But the best one is in Balamb, and you'll look cheap if you just borrowed a SeeD dress uniform. I'll drive you down there in awhile if you want. I should go anyway, since that really would be better than just wearing the uniform like I was going to."

"You cheap bastard. How could you do that to your date?"

"How dare you!" Nida laughed. On impulse, he grabbed a spork out of the buffet dispenser. "I challenge you to a duel!"

Scott followed suit, grabbing a spork of his own and issuing his own challenge with a southern gentleman's accent. "Sah' I say sah', I demand satisfaction!"

"And you shall have it, knave!"

"To arms sah'! And I shall prove your dishonor in single combat!"

Scott and Nida dueled with mock ferocity until Nida easily disarmed Scott with a twist of his plastic weapon. The spork clattered to the ground and Scott collapsed.

"Tell... Michelle that I love her..." He gasped, holding his side. "And that I'm sorry I couldn't make it to the Festival."

"How about you get up so we can go get you a suit instead."

"That works."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The last piece of Hyne's puzzle was ready to be placed, and she could not wait until the time was closer. Now, while she still had enough power to accomplish everything, she reached out and with all her might pushed through the Knot. And then she was stopped.
An unexpected anomaly. The Knot swirled around her and she couldn't choose a linear destination. Time was fluid and random. But she could sense what she needed. A weapon. Any one of them would do. She chose one, a weapon of some time past but still more than able to perform the task it was needed for-

Wait a minute.


Hyne wanted a weapon?


Then why did she go to another universe for it? There were plenty of weapons in her own.

You'll have to ask an Elder for a better explanation, but as I understand it, the deed had to be done with nothing but implements from the world of origination. Otherwise, if the Knot closed by the function of something unrelated, things might collapse entirely instead of just snapping back to the way they were before. It was a safety precaution rather than a necessity.


Can I continue?

Of course.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

He ran.

The sounds of machine gun and rifle fire echoed through the woods, the constant chatter of weaponry all around. It was distant, but at any time the fighting could erupt anywhere.

Private Randall ran.

He took a right, veering off into thicker trees. He spotted a team of two men manning a sentry machine gun position, and jumped down into the hole. He grabbed one of the men's shoulders, shaking him. The man turned around.

"You guys Baker?" He asked.

"Jesus, no, Able. Head down the line and you should hit Easy, and then I think Baker is down there."

"Fuck," Randall muttered, hauling himself out of the hole. "Should've got a jeep."

It was cold. Bitterly cold. A distant booming met his ears and he looked off to his left, the low clouds lighting up with the flash of explosions. Bastogne was being hit again. The men inside the city were enduring a heavy pounding. The men outside were surrounded by five divisions. With no reinforcements and little equipment.

Things seemed desperate on December 22nd, 1944.

He was walking in deep snow without winter uniform. And without bearing. He left the Able line back in the distance and had completely lost his bearings. He slowed to a stop, heart pounding. The firing in the distance had stopped, and the silence was complete.

He jumped suddenly, convinced he had heard something to his right. He peered across the clearing. There was nothing there. There it was again, a soft rustling. He swung his Carbine off his back and disengaged the safety, crouching next to a tree. The Krauts had been closing in all around for the past two days. Every now and then, a few would slip through somewhere and run across-

The mistake of not moving behind the tree became abundantly clear when the black muzzle of Kar 98 lifted with its owner from concealment in a trench covered with snow. The barrel stood out starkly against the white backdrop. The click of the trigger was loud in the silence. His mind was perfectly clear. He knew he was dead.

The gun fired in dead accuracy towards his brain.

But Randall was already gone.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"So," Nida began as they walked through downtown Balamb. "How did you manage a date with Tranell?"

"I'm big pimpin'."


"Selphie set me up."

"Ohhh," Nida grimaced. "One of those."


"Well, at least she found you something good," Nida said as he started to turn down a smaller lane. "You're lucky in that respect."


The store was small, but all the suits hanging in the racks behind the wood counter looked clean enough. The various prices were displayed overhead like a menu at a restaurant, and Scott realized that he had absolutely no money at all. He was living on borrowed goods. He carefully broached the subject.

"Dude... I don't have any money."

"It's cool, I got you covered."

"Uh... I don't know when I can pay you back..."

"Don't worry about it," Nida shrugged, fishing a handful of gil chips from his pocket. "Besides, I doubt your money would be of much use around here anyway."

Scott watched with interest, studying the chips for the first time. They were multicolored, made of durable plastic with various symbols on them and a number denoting the amount. A bar code was stamped into the back of each one.

"What kind of money do you guys use?" Nida asked, curious.

"Green bills."

"Green? What, like plants or something?"

Scott suddenly felt primitive. "Uh, no, paper. With cotton, I think. Makes a sort of really tough tissue. They're really detailed with all sorts of crap to make it hard to forge them. And they have pictures of famous politicians."

"Seems a little impractical. What happens if they get wet or torn?"

"You can dry them out. ...Badly. And if they tear they're worthless. But they make a lot of new ones all the time, and get rid of the old ones."

"Well, yeah, we do the same thing. Still, that would be weird carrying a bunch of paper around."

In his new surroundings, Scott couldn't help but agree. He leaned over the counter a little, checking out the selection. "Time to go penguin."

"What the hell is penguin?"

Scott made a mental note- No penguins around here either. "It's a bird. Well, sort of. It can't fly. It swims in really cold water, and it looks like it's wearing a suit."

Nida raised an eyebrow. "A bird that doesn't fly, swims like a fish and wears a suit."

"Yeah. And they shit all over their exhibits at the zoo."

"Sounds like a lovely creature."

"Actually, they're kind of cute, in a round sort of way."

Nida tried to imagine such an animal and failed. "Anyway, you see something you like?"

Scott shrugged, knowing he didn't actually possess real discerning taste when it came to suits. "I'm going to feel stupid no matter what."

"So, just a regular one for you?"

"Yeah. Nothing fancy."

"A good choice."

The money changed hands and soon they were each holding a tuxedo in plastic wrap. They stepped outside the shop and Scott held his up, examining it.

"You know," He said. "My theory is that your chance of scoring increases an entire ten percent when wearing one of these."

"Really? I would have guessed around nineteen percent."

"No, no, that's much too large an increase. They aren't that effective."

"I think you underestimate the tuxedo. Combined with cologne, a fifteen percent increase, and well groomed hair and facial hair, a sixteen percent increase, that makes an even fifty. Personal charm and looks make up the other half."

"But that percentage doesn't hold up with statistics. Not that many guys get laid."

"Well, then you get deductions. Let's say, just for mathematics sake, that you somehow possess a one hundred percent chance of getting laid. Perfect appearance, and super charm. But then you factor in the music being played, decrease if it's just not a good song, the atmosphere, possible smoke and ambient noise and lighting, and the woman in question. If she isn't easy or playing hard to get, this vastly subtracts from the percentages. Depending on what weighs against you, you might even come out with a negative chance of scoring."

"Now we're making sense. Plus, your personal history with her or even lack of can count for or against you."

"Exactly. So after all our deductions and sensible percentages, we come to the conclusion that without forehand knowledge of a many myriad of details, the game of getting laid becomes impossible to predict."

Scott held up a hand. "Ah, but we do know quite a bit about the rendezvous at hand. I think you and I stand a chance at calculating our success, although with a large margin of error."

Nida walked over to a bench and sat down, motioning for Scott to do the same.

"Okay, so we each have suits, so we each start with a solid nineteen percent," He began.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Apparently the saying, 'A watched pot never boils' also applied in, 'A watched sun never sets'. Hendrow could almost feel the seconds slip by with all the speed of a snail.

He was standing on the deck of a boat, a boat that was currently serving in the capacity of a landing craft. They were floating stationary off the coast of Balamb, just beyond sight of the land.

They would land by a landmark identified as some cavern used as a test of new SeeD candidates. From there they would proceed under the cover of darkness, surround the Garden, and begin a quick entry.

The main body of men would secure the front entrance, then push as quickly as possible into the Quad to capture the gathering of SeeDs there. At the same time the remaining forces outside would scale the Garden and infiltrate it from the top down, emptying everyone that might be present down to the main floor where they too would be held in the Quad. All extra forces would maintain the perimeter to prevent possible escape.

The force assigned to capture the Quad would consist entirely of Earthside men to prevent as many casualties as possible, while all other forces would primarily contain members of Galbadian Special Forces and regular Army.

The plan was sound, Hendrow had to admit, and the chance for failure slim.

With any luck, it would work that way.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Squall sighed, letting his hands slide off the keyboard. He knew he should finish the report, but he also knew he should be getting ready for the Festival.

Fall behind on his work, or face the wrath of Rinoa. Not much of a choice. But he had learned enough about relationships by now to know it was worth the effort. Getting to his feet, he crossed over into his room and opened the closet.

After renting a tuxedo for a few Festivals, he had finally given into convenience and bought himself one. He had let Rinoa pick it out for safety's sake. If it was up to him he'd show up in his leather jacket or even more preferably, not show up at all.

Ah, to be single again.

A line of thought he quickly dropped when he remembered what it was to be alone.

Anyway, by this point he was expected to be there, even if only as an authority figure. Like a Principal showing up at school events. But unlike a Principal, Squall enjoyed the popularity of being a living legend, although 'enjoyed' was not really how he dealt with it. Respect he could handle. Hero worship was like a rash or a bad rectal itch.

Just as his mind was so occupied Rinoa walked in. He glanced at the clock and was surprised at the time. He had been working longer than he had thought and she was out of her classes. She smiled and sat on the bed, most likely amused at the look he was giving the suit hanging innocently on its hanger, draped in plastic.

"Whatcha thinking about?" She asked, kicking off her shoes. Squall decided honesty wasn't the best choice, but the most amusing one.

"Rectal itching."

That raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"I hate parties."

She stood and walked over to him, gently putting her hands on his chest. "I know. And if you really don't want to, we don't have to go."

Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. He could be dense when it came to the personal side of life, but he wasn't stupid. She loved the Festival. It was quite clear she was bracing herself to make a sacrifice for the relationship by ditching the Festival with him in the same way he was ready to sacrifice by going. Guilt wasn't long in coming, and he knew he could never take her up on the offer.

He was silent for a minute, still contemplating the dreaded suit. He looked at her and in his way, made it clear they would still be going.

"It won't be that bad."

She understood his need to rationalize it to himself and played along.

"No, it won't."

"All my friends will be there."

"Yes, they will."

"The food is good."


"...You'll be there."

She kissed him softly on the mouth. "Absolutely."

A short game of repetition between them that made everything better again. And getting back to his original train of thought, it wasn't really the party or the company he wasn't looking forward to. It was the awe. Maybe if he buried himself in the back corner, hopefully behind the rest of his friends, no one would notice. That might work.

Or not.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Scott Keyor. A man separated from all he has known by uncrossable boundaries, a boundary that has now been breached. Through time his desperation has faded, and he has almost come to accept the strange state in which he finds himself. But Mr. Keyor is about to take a journey, a journey not only through space and time, but through another zone. A zone we call, The Twilight Zo-

That's quite enough out of you.

Hey, who's telling the story here?

At the moment, neither of us. Stop wasting time.

Clearly, you have no taste in television.

It was a scant few hours until the Festival began when Zell realized that he had simply assumed he was going with Selphie. The problem with this assumption came to him like a lighting bolt to his brain.

He quickly wracked his memory, searching through all of their recent conversations. He had to have asked her sometime. Had to have. How could he have forgotten to actually ask her after all this time? He had to have asked her.

He hadn't.

There was nothing to do but grit his teeth and face it. He was a hero dammit, he had faced Hell and high water for the fate of the world. And yet nothing seemed so frightening as begging Selphie, who in his mind was probably incensed, to go to the Festival with him. He just hoped she wasn't so mad that she would go with someone else. The thought sparked panic and he set out in a dead run.

"I suck!" He yelled, turning more than a few heads as he sped across the commons towards the Quad. He narrowly missed hitting Irvine, sliding on his heels in what he would have bet was an impossible maneuver, recovering and juking around Irvine to the left.

"Where's the fire Sparky?" Irvine called after him. Zell didn't bother to turn around, and flipped the bird over his right shoulder.

When he entered the Quad he slowed to a stop. moving nervously through the people there making the final arrangements for the night ahead. He spotted Selphie up on the stage, apparently giving a pep talk to the band. He stood in what he hoped was an unobtrusive position to the side, not wanting to interrupt. He was already in enough trouble.

The pep talk ended with a jump and skip from Selphie and a few rolling eyes from the band, and she hopped off the stage to find something else to micro manage. Swallowing hard, Zell took the opportunity.

Doing his best to saunter casually, he left his hiding spot and crossed the open space to her.


She turned around, face lighting up.

"Hi Zell!" She chirped, running up and throwing her arms around him. "What's up?"

Crunch time.

"I was just thinking, and...."


He blew out a breath. "I forgot to ask you to go with the Festival with me, and I was wondering if you would. ...Go. With me."

And she laughed. She laughed. He blinked.

"Of course Zell!" She giggled. "I already knew we were going together, but it's so sweet of you to ask me!"


"You're such a thoughtful guy!"

"I am?"

"Yes! Well, I'll see you tonight! Hope you like my dress, I picked it out just for you!"

With that she was bounding off to fulfill the rest of her Festival duties, and he was left gaping after her. He groaned and put his face in his hands.

He never knew anything.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes."
-Henry Kissenger

"'Shoot to incapacitate?' Tell you what then, I want twenty bucks a limb but I'll do the heads for free."
-Mercenary 'General' Reyland

Chapter 26, Hostage Reality

"Talk, this is One-Mike. Come in."

"Copy One-Mike, go ahead."

"We're in position. Front terrace is occupied by one Tango, stationed left behind the counter. Standing by."

"Copy One-Mike."

"Talk, this is One-Air. We're in position, standing by."

"Copy One-Air."

"Talk, this is One-Side. We're with Ten and in position. Standing by."

"Highground to One-Air. Tango nearing your entry on floor five. Exercise stealth options."

"Copy Highground."

"Talk to One-Open. Report."

"This is One-Open. We're nearing our position. ETA ten minutes."

"Copy One-Open."

"Attention all groups. This is Leader. The ships are now secure, and you will launching the attack shortly. Remember, shoot to incapacitate, and take as many prisoners as possible. Treat this as a police situation, but when the need arises don't hesitate to fire. Contain all prisoners in the area designated as 'Quad'. Good luck."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In yet another brief moment of panic, Scott wondered whether or not Sorceress's could read minds, because he was having impure thought after impure thought.

Needless to say, Michelle looked stunning, and he was salivating. Heavily.

At the moment he was standing by the buffet under the pretense of getting something to eat, while in fact he was attempting to discreetly check her out at their table from a distance.

The dress was some sort of blue shimmery thing with thin shoulder straps and a low back. Whatever. It wasn't the dress that was important anyway, but rather what it encased. And what it encased, to borrow a phrase, was looking 'supa fly'.

Good God. Did he just think of her as supa fly? Apparently he was slipping into some sort of pimp frame of mind he didn't known he possessed. They say this Scott is a bad mutha- Shut your mouth! But I'm talkin' 'bout Scott... Then I can dig it!

Taking yet another deep breath to fortify himself, Scott piled his plate high with assorted high fat snacks and set off back towards the table. On the way he was accosted by Nida, who looked like he was enjoying himself immensely. Nida grinned and slapped him on the back a little harder that Scott thought was necessary. He winced.

"Now that," Nida practically purred, shooting an appreciative glance towards Michelle.

"Is why we put up with this dancing shit."

"Please don't tell me I have to put up with this dancing shit."

"It's up to you. But getting laid is a war, my friend, and concessions must be made to achieve that final sweet, sweet victory. Besides, from the way she's been looking at you all night an unconditional surrender is within your grasp. If I were you, I wouldn't jeopardize it."

"When you put it that way how can I say no."

"Do you want to fuck this up?"

"If the urge to retreat is stronger than the urge to prevail, then the soldier cannot advance."

Nida quirked an eyebrow. "So the body is willing, but..."

"The heart is inexperienced and prone to bouts of failure."

"I believe in you."

"Then surely God is with me."

Nida laughed and swiped a chicken wing from Scott's plate, loping off into the crowd, no doubt to hook up with his potential all-nighter.

If only he were that lucky.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The upper floors were dark and silent, and the only sign that something was happening in the dim Garden was the faint roar of the party below. The floor tiles gleamed in the low lighting and the click of his boots seemed amplified

Seifer paced the upper floors alone not out of any required duty, but rather a need to remove himself from the dorm in which he spent most of his time like a caged animal. You could only pace the same stretch of floor before you needed somewhere else to rage. So he roamed randomly and almost silently, a ghost distanced from the life of the ongoing gathering. By choice and by necessity. There was no place for darkness amongst the bright lights and colors downstairs, and he was a walking bad memory.

And left with a few bad memories of his own.

Danger. The real problem with pacing was that it left your mind relatively free, and the last thing he wanted to be doing was thinking. Maybe he needed to take up a sport. Something suitably violent, of course. Boxing maybe. Pounding someone's face in legally had to be better than the punching bag.

A familiar door on his left caught his eye as he passed it. Trepe's room. His face contorted into a sneer. Seemed like everyone in the damn Garden thought they were an item. Because that was just what he needed, someone else as emotionally crippled as himself.

Another walking wounded. Fuck that shit.

Of course, he wouldn't be opposed if it was just about sex. Socially he was treated like a leper, and that didn't run well with the ladies. He didn't even try anymore.


He stopped, frowning. His skin was crawling, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Why? Seifer had always prided himself on his instincts, but he had seen nothing to provoke suspicion.

Then he heard it. A soft scraping noise, like something being dragged across glass.

Coming from Trepe's room. He retraced his steps, pausing just outside the door. There is was again. A quiet, squealing rasp. Probably just some stupid kids writing cuss words on the windows while everyone was at the party.

Then why did it scream of something darker?

Carefully, he drew Hyperion from its sheath, relaxing at the familiar comforting whisk of steel against leather. If it was just some kids, at least he'd scare the shit out of them. Slowly, he reached to key open the door. The door slid open before he touched the button.

And a man dressed in black stepped through, assault rifle cradled in his hands.

Seifer had been prepared for this from a young age.

There was no hesitation.

Seifer swung Hyperion upward with full force. With a wet 'chunk!' the blade parted the man's head from the base of his jaw to his forehead, the impact lifting him slightly off his feet. He collapsed without ever making a sound.

He instantly withdrew to take cover, no time to gloat over the clean kill, no time to ponder why there was an armed man in black entering the Garden through an upper level window. The moment he had killed the man the others within had warned him of their presence with several muffled swear words and what sounded like 'One-Air Three down!'.

Sliding with his back to the wall away from the entrance he slapped down the button to close the door, then smashed his blade through the mechanism in hopes of jamming it shut.

Without waiting to see if he was successful, he spun around and ran as fast as he could down the hall towards the stairway, knowing it would be foolish to use the glass elevator if the men should leave the room.

This plan became moot when another door down the hall slid open and more of the intruders poured out. The lead intruder saw Seifer and froze.

"Contact, Tango-"

Seifer didn't see the point in waiting for him to finish. Bracing Hyperion with both hands he raised it in a smooth motion and pulled the trigger.

The built in revolver released its tremendous charge, and the weapon bucked heavily in his firm grip. In the hallway the noise was deafening, and Seifer's ears at first ached, then felt like they were filled with cotton and he could hear nothing but a high pitched ringing. The bullet impacted into the man's body armor directly over his heart, disintegrating the first layers of cloth in a smoke like cloud before piercing the organ and lodging in the armor on his back. He spun with the force of it, falling to the floor.

Dazed and deaf, time seemed to slow for Seifer, everything taking place in a silent haze. He cast Protect on himself before looking back over his shoulder. The other enemies by the door scattered like a school of fish, some ducking back into the entryway, a few sprinting past their fallen comrade and going behind a wall alcove on the other side. There was a dull roar back the way he had come, and the door to Trepe's room blew outward with a blinding flash.

When his vision cleared the assailants had already made it halfway across the hall to more cover.

One of them was crouched in the doorway, aiming at him.

Not today, I think.

Seifer raised his arm and let loose a Firaga spell.

Momentarily the hallway was obscured by a raging explosion of flame. Bottled by the walls of the corridor it shot across the tile each way, swallowing everyone around Seifer in its deadly heat. Seifer felt the sweet exultation of victory surge through him. From what he had seen these enemies were nothing more than regular army. It would take someone with high magical power to survive a spell of that magnitude. And he should know. The spell faded and the smoke cleared as if it was never there.

And the soldier at the door hadn't moved.

What the fu-

The Heckler & Koch Mp5-A5 shook three times as the soldier flipped it onto its burst setting and squeezed the trigger. Seifer winced and braced himself for the painful shock that accompanied the impact of bullets on a Protect spell.

It never came.

But he felt the searing blow of 9mm bullets tearing their way through his flesh.

Somehow, in the space of seconds everything had gone terribly wrong. If time had seemed to slow before, now it stopped. His thoughts trickled through the haze of pain.

Somebody hit rewind, because I want to see that again.

Even anti-heroes aren't supposed to die.

But I seem well on my way.

Maybe I should have said I was sorry.

Maybe I should never have done it at all.

...No 'maybe' there.

I am actually sorry.

Why is it so cold?

...Fuck. Dying hurts.

Then it didn't.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

What Squall wouldn't have given to have been that man.

Because no one saw this coming.

Squall had been dancing with Rinoa (though at any later time he would deny it) when the first crash echoed over the noise of the party. He had turned, thinking someone had dropped a plate. This notion was dispelled as a narrow metallic cylinder rolled to a stop in front of him, glass shards skittering across the floor from the window it had been thrown through.


Squall squeezed his eyes shut and threw his arm over them a split second before the canister disintegrated, followed by the blasts of a few others that he hadn't seen. His quick thinking saved him from the blinding flash but his head pounded with the tremendous roar and his hearing dissolved into white noise.

He looked up just in time to see the olive drab orbs of grenades sailing over the crowds.

Rinoa was still next time him, clutching her head in pain, mouthing words he couldn't hear. He grabbed her and pulled her down to the floor, rolling over on top of her. He still couldn't hear the detonations, but he could feel them. Not fragmentation grenades, thank Hyne. Concussion. Anyone who wasn't already on the floor was flattened. His chest compressed and the air was painfully forced from his lungs.

The room was choked with dust and smoke, and Squall's vision blurred as his eyes water. He blinked quickly, trying to clear them. He felt something cold bounce off the back of his neck, and realized that the windows, or what was left of them, were shattering inwards. The now empty holes in the walls were quickly filled by men in black BDUs, assault rifles and submachine guns cradled in their black gloved hands.

He knew that he was one of the few SeeDs in the room still capable of resistance. He needed to buy some time for a few others to recover so they could repel the attackers. Casting Protect and Shell on himself and Rinoa, Squall hauled himself to his feet and summoned Shiva. The room seemed to quiver, and he felt suspended as if he were underwater. The transparent orbs circled his head before dispersing, and the summon began.

The column of ice broke through the floor, shattering the polished wood and sending splinters flying through the air. Squall shook his head, trying to see past the illusion. A summon only affected its target, and while it appeared to be destroying everything in its path the environment would be unaffected once the summon faded.

The pillar split in two and Shiva emerged. The men pouring through the windows froze in awe and terror at this Ice Goddess who had risen from the floor, glaring at the imperiously. It was one thing for them to know they would be unaffected. It was quite another to believe it in the face of such power. Shiva raised her arms almost lazily, then frozen death spewed forth. Later, Zell (who had been struggling to his feet with Selphie) would recall the strange invocation uttered by one of the soldiers closet to him.

"Oh Jesus."

The ice convalesced and hardened with a will of its own, and within seconds the enemies were encased. To Squall, standing invisible just outside the path of destruction, it seemed like some hideous diorama, little men in black posing in a sea of ice. Then as quickly as it had come, the ice faded.

And the men continued undaunted.

By the time everyone in the room had realized the attackers were unaffected by their magical attacks, six SeeDs lay dead and thirty-two were critically wounded.

And Squall could only watch as his Garden was taken from him.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Irvine was intimately familiar with firearms. He knew their make and method, all the types and models, could quote their rate of fire and how many rounds a specific magazine could hold. All this knowledge was not comforting in any way at the moment, for two reasons. One, he could not identify any of the weapons held by the enemy. Two, he knew exactly what his face would look like if the man pointing his gun at it pulled the trigger.

Helpless with hands in the air, Irvine waited like everyone else did, because the enemy was waiting. What they were waiting for he was not sure, but infrequently there was gunfire on the upper floors, and it was clear that these men were also penetrating the building from the top down. They were waiting for the all clear.

Irvine scanned the room. The background noise was a mixture of constant dim radio chatter from the soldiers and the soft groans of the wounded. The ones in really bad shape were pale and silent. He glanced worriedly towards the far corner window where Selphie was crouched over Zell, who was breathing fast and heavy, his face covered in a sheen of sweat. He had snapped the neck of one of the intruders with a spin kick before they had fired on him, and Irvine wasn't sure where or how many times he had been hit. His bleeding was under control since Selphie had slipped him a Curaga spell, but when the soldiers had seen the green and white light congeal around him they had brought their weapons to bear on her, making it clear that magic would not be allowed.

Squall hovered over Rinoa who was sitting on the floor, still in shock from the look on her face. When the first shots had been fired Rinoa had unleashed her Sorceress power, bombarding the incoming forces with spells at an incredible rate and power. For some reason they had singled her out though, and despite her rampage they never returned fire, instead surrounding her until she realized her offense was having no effect. Squall's face always looked cold to those that couldn't read him, but now it might as well have been carved from stone.

Quistis was still upstairs, and hopefully unharmed.

Scott was next to Michelle on the floor, propping her up against one of the chairs. She looked like she had taken a particularly bad hit from either a flashbang or the concussion grenades or both, and her head was lolling on her shoulders, the whites of her eyes showing a little more than they should.

SeeD training. That was the key here. In a situation like this, the best option was to wait for opportunity. Unfortunately, all the best plans of action didn't involve more than one or two armed assailants. It would be a little hard to slip away unnoticed standing in the center of the room, especially with all the exits guarded. And all the hand to hand combat skills in the world wouldn't help when every enemy wasn't within your reach and almost everyone who could help you was debilitated.

As far as he could tell, this was currently a no win situation.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Once again, as was becoming far too common these days, Scott was out of his depth. Except this time it was serious.

And possibly fatal.


Probably fatal.

He was also having an epiphany. There was no way to relate the information to anyone around him, but he had of course instantly recognized the weapons wielded by the assailants, a hodgepodge collection. Mp5-A5. M-16A2. M-60E3. HK G3A3. The occasional AK-74 and even a Sterling. The man closest to him was holding a SPAS-12. Pump or semiautomatic shotgun with an effective range of 50 meters. Seven rounds. He just hoped it wasn't the full auto French version. These weapons were definitely not native. And thus neither were the men holding them.

It was apparent that he was not alone after all. But given the circumstances, he wasn't sure he wanted to say anything to the rest of the home team.

His chain of thought was broken when the soldiers broke out into sudden motion, forcing everyone to their feet. One of them stood out in front, indicating the exits. His voice came from the speaker in his helmet, guttural and harsh.

"Everybody to the main entrance, lets go!"

Gingerly hauling Michelle to her feet, Scott complied with everyone else.

The soldiers herded them all into the concourse, grouping them in the middle and surrounding them in a circle of firepower. Scott started praying that they didn't plan to simply open fire on everyone in what would surely be a massacre.

As if on some invisible cue, the ranks of soldiers covering the entrance parted, and a group of men strolled through the opening. Then Scott received the biggest shock of the night yet.

The man in the middle was familiar to him.

His mind made the connections. He had come to know of Julian Foss during an operation for the FBI. The covert military team he had been a part of had been requested in a sting operation, intercepting several shipments in Silicon Valley, busting a ring of companies commandeering stolen overseas technology. Julian Foss had been the suspected head, the companies in question fronts for TAA. While the sting had been successful in recovering the technology for its rightful owners, the trail of evidence had never led back to Foss or TAA.

And now here he was, in the flesh. Scott had the sudden sickening thought that perhaps GPSS had been part of TAA all along. Had this entire thing been a ruse? Was he nothing more than a living crash test dummy, thrown into another dimension to pave the way for an invasion?

The turmoil in his mind was stopped cold as Julian drew a pistol, cocking it. He looked over the assembled crowd with eyes that looked more like granite. Then he shrugged apologetically.

"Frankly I find this distasteful myself, but... In order to kill a snake, the quickest was is to cut off its head, you understand. I apologize for this necessity, and will not hand off the responsibility to one of my men. No, this deed is required of me."

Julian pulled back the hammer of his gun, and shot Squall through the forehead.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Part 7

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