A.N.: Finally I got some inspiration for this chapter...and I hope it reads OK to anyone who knows more about warfare than I do. The terms 'sledgehammer' and 'cracking a nut' came to mind when I was writing it, but I guess you have to keep in mind what the troops are really meant to be doing rather than dwelling on the incidentals they're expecting to encounter along the way. And yes, everyone in my FFVIII world drives on the left. Deal with it.
Beware of the incredible shifting viewpoint below. In case it's at all unclear, it goes Irvine-Selphie-Zell. Shifting perspective is the way I normally write; I've been trying to keep it straight (so to speak) in Darkened Sunrise but this chapter really needed to be told in bits because of the nature of the action. I hope you all agree it works.
(And yes, what Seifer did at the start of the game's second disc will eventually come out and cause lots of trouble. Just how much remains to be seen.)
WARNING: Some shounen-ai mentioned at the end, bad language, mildly violent situation, the terrible spectacle of Rinoa improvising on the FFVIII rules of magic. (She's a sorceress. She can write new spells if I want her to.) And yet another cliffhanger - not suitable for young, excitable or pregnant readers, or those with heart conditions...
DISCLAIMER: One mad author steals one fantasy cast to create one free-to-view story. All I get out of this is experience and nice reviews (please...).
Chapter Twenty-One - Of Passing By
They'd crossed the ocean by troop ship overnight and had travelled all day under the hottest Galbadian skies. Irvine cursed his homeland and the people who had made it their business to drag him across its widest expanses in the shortest time possible. He gazed at the western sky, no longer bothering to shield his eyes, and told himself for the umpteenth time that whether or not this next hill was the one shielding the WFFC encampment, the rebels would still be there when the Estharian forces arrived.
But Quisty said there might be a mole in the government -
Selphie wriggled again. She was staring out the truck window, fascinated, taking in all the little differences between here and Trabia, Balamb, the Protectorates and every other place she'd ever spent time in. Every so often she would stretch out one little hand and touch him, at wrist, waist, shoulder or face, as if to reassure herself that he was still alongside her. Not everything about this trip was a nightmare.
The curtain that divided the cabin from the rear of the truck was swept aside. "Why is this taking so long?" Rinoa demanded. "Honestly, these things are too sluggish. Pytor could have moved It out easily by now, if he had any warning at all."
Right on cue, enter the Wicked Witch of the West, stage right. Irvine glanced at the speedometer. Sure, the army trucks weren't Rinoa's sports car, but seventy was a decent speed by most people's standards, especially considering that this was the Estharian equivalent of tank-pace. "Where to?" he asked in as reasonable a tone as he conjured up. "Even if he'd had a warning, where'd he have put the thing?"
"He might have sent it to Deling City, or he could have set it at Esthar like you were supposed to be doing - honestly, Irvine! It's a Weapon. That kind of suggests that it might get used in an emergency." She leant over the back of the seat and squinted at the western horizon, then eyed their taciturn driver like it was his fault they weren't there yet rather than the fault of the poor state of the local motorways. Irvine hoped she wouldn't try to enter the cabin to encourage the guy to do better. Selphie was half on his lap as it was. With three of them squashed into the single passenger seat it might get - interesting.
The Wilburn junction sign loomed up on the right. The driver glanced at Irvine for a nod before pulling into the left-hand lane, and the massed regiments moved onto the trunk road. As they trundled along past intimidated little hamlets and through almost deserted truck-stops, the landscape started subtly changing from the grassland plains so characteristic of central Galbadia to alternating stretches of woods and farmland that seemed far more homey, more welcoming of the casual traveller.
More welcoming of the casual terrorist...
Rinoa had withdrawn into the shade of the truck. Selphie had started to count squirrels - the little things were bouncing around the roadside trees, just so many rats with tails. Irvine's hand didn't leave Exeter but he felt the professional concentration that he'd kept up at so much cost since they'd hit Deling City to pick up the Galbadian units start to waver. The area felt too much like a home. The situation felt too much like a given.
That was never going to be true. Sure, they had a hell of a lot of units: Laguna hadn't given the Weapon-crushing force quite half of his troops in the end, but he had sent a full army of ten divisions, and President Salvador had added two Galbadian infantry divisions. But that wasn't the point. The point was that the thing they were travelling to destroy had survived ten million years of hibernation, had a skin so thick it might as well be armour-plated, could function perfectly happily minus most of its limbs and over half the blood in its body, could call on powers that only Rinoa could even start to emulate...
And they would have to go through a disciplined, motivated, well-armed terrorist band before they could approach the Weapon. By which time it would probably have been woken up to come join in the fun. Beating a Weapon in battle absolutely required being on the front foot to start off with.
The afternoon light broadened into sunset. The army thundered on. Soon the trunk roads they had been using narrowed into byways, then into lanes they had to traverse in single file. Irvine - with occasional inputs from Rinoa - continued to direct the forces closer and closer to the WFFC hideout. It was not yet twilight when they finally pulled off the last road into the track that led to the compound.
There wasn't a hope of taking these guys by surprise and there never had been. There simply wasn't time to move carefully. The best plan they'd found had been to send three elite brigades round the back. The problem was that Irvine, while able to navigate to the base, had been unable to pinpoint it on a map, and Rinoa, who knew the area far better than the SeeD, had managed only to narrow the location down to within a mile-wide radius. The encircling troops were spread out as a result and Irvine questioned their usefulness for anything other than stopping a retreat. Still, anything was better than nothing in this instance. If Eternity Weapon came the way of the rearguard, they were under orders to withdraw to a safe distance and call for help. Only the main army had the firepower to take it down with minimal losses.
But maybe nothing can take it down...
Their truck pulled off to the side to allow the armoured divisions to take the lead into the base. Half the troop trucks swung in to follow them. The remaining trucks were disgorging battalion after battalion of cyborg soldiers, each company striking out to one side or the other under the captains' direction to provide a last backing line for the tanks that now forged ahead indiscriminately across track, copse and farmland. Irvine stared after them and wished he'd hitched a ride in a tank instead. He wanted to be in there. He wanted to know what was going on and how and where and why.
Their Logistics Corps driver knocked the truck into gear and gunned it through a hole in the fence left by one of the tanks. I'll get my wish, then, but be just far back enough to stay out of the line of fire. Why does that make me feel guilty? Ahead, the tanks had already crested the hill and the trucks were stopping to let out their loads. The mixed Estharian and Galbadian soldiers scurried over the rise. Irvine visualised them dropping down into the deep valley cleft, spreading out across the back to wait for the battle against the Weapon to start.
The truck reached the top of the hill and Irvine peered down at the scene he'd so effortlessly imagined. Strange, though, that the tanks weren't being shelled yet -
The cliffside erupted. Half a ton of boulders broke free and rained down onto the leading companies. A thousand tanks hit their brakes at once. For a moment Irvine thought the initial attack was over, then wondered if the Weapon was being prodded through the hole to come at them. But no prehistoric monster appeared to make a strike.
The armoured divisions started to regroup to prepare for an attack from above. As they did so the outermost platoons swung closer to the WFFC's buildings. Before Irvine could wonder what the rebels had planned, before he could notice anything odd or out of place about the encampment, a tank backed too close to the armoury. The valley hung there in perfect serenity for another moment, then the armoury complex exploded.
Irvine watched the fireball rip through the 3rd Armoured Division, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach. Maybe the tanks' adamantine plating would keep the soldiers inside safe from the shock of the explosion. It probably had saved them from taking any damage from the landslide. But whether it was heat-proof enough to stop them being cooked inside their own private ovens...he couldn't stand to think of it.
Swallowing his nausea, he climbed over an unusually silent Selphie and jumped out of the truck. The tanks below him weren't moving but he could see they hadn't suffered as much damage as non-Estharian forces would have under the same circumstances. But there was no way they were going to charge in like they had been doing. In fact, he could see the captains radioing in for infantry backup. A couple of scout platoons were heading for the front line. As soon as they hit the blast edge they started to search every square inch of ground for more booby traps.
They worked on through the summer evening, gradually creeping closer and closer to the Weapon's cave. The continuing failure to hit any opposition, either human or mechanical, told Irvine in the clearest of terms that the WFFC had moved out before the army had arrived. And when the first edge of the encircling brigades broke over the opposite edge of the valley, he started trying to come to terms with the fact that the rebels had fled long ago, before the opposing forces moved anywhere near to being in range.
Behind him, inside the truck, he heard Selphie talking into an Army walkie-talkie. He went back in time to hear her sign off. "Any news?" he asked her.
"The scouts got to the cave. They can see where the Weapon was, but it isn't there anymore." She looked upset, like she couldn't understand why their plans hadn't worked. "They're going to finish searching the area then start trying to track the escape route. But it's kind of obvious the Weapon didn't walk it and they can't track a flying thing and they've not heard of any sightings anywhere and they think they would have been told so they could try to go sort it out before it ate all the people and they don't know what they're going to do -"
"Hope it falls asleep again. I would." Irvine started. He hadn't even noticed Rinoa had taken the driver's place in the front beside Selphie. She was staring into the valley with an intense expression on her pretty little face. It was the kind of look that was about as far from vacant as anything went, like she was thinking in fifth gear. "That, or hope the people forcing it along make a mistake and get eaten themselves. Isn't that what you were hoping, Irvine?"
Kind of. It was more like what he'd been praying Hyne would grant. Because if the thing didn't turn on its controllers, it would most likely descend on Galbadia or the Protectorates, and if there was one thing Irvine feared more than any other it was Weapon, rampaging, uncontrollable, unstoppable. Ultima and Omega had powered his worst war nightmares for years after he'd stood shaking in his cowboy boots in front of them. He imagined Eternity Weapon stomping up to one of the isolated villages on the Lallapallooza Plains; sheep and chocobos stampeding their farmers in order to escape, families piling their possessions and their children into vans and trailers, landlords fleeing their pubs and priests abandoning their chapels - and the Weapon bearing down on one straggler after another, snapping them into its jaws. He could hear the screams - see the blazing buildings...
Breathe. Remember to breathe. He leant on the passenger door, letting himself enjoy the sensation of Selphie's hand in his hair, till he'd pulled himself somewhere close to together. The commanding general would have called Esthar and Deling City already. If he was right it was somewhere close to dawn over in the desert metropolis; Seifer and Zell would be up soon, Quistis would be up already if he knew her at all. They would warn the four Gardens. The planet would prepare for the disaster. Maybe the people would be saved. Maybe everything would be all right.
A shout went up from somewhere behind them on the east flank. Irvine turned -
And saw a Balamb Garden armoured car coming into view on the horizon.
What the fuck is SeeD doing here? One carload wouldn't be any help - so...
"Irvy!" Selphie exclaimed, her eyes wide with alarm. "They must know you jumped post to help! They're coming for you, you've got to hide!"
Rinoa muttered something under her breath, leaning out past Selphie to see for herself what was going on. "Get in. We'll cover for you." She pulled back and leapt out of the driver's door, running round to the passenger side rather than obstructing Irvine.
He couldn't say he hadn't been expecting something like this, but he'd banked everything on there being an obvious threat that it would be his duty to Garden to report. But the Weapon was gone and he could so easily be made to look the idiot for doing what he'd done. Not just an idiot - a traitor. A traitor to the ideal of SeeD as a neutral mercenary association. And traitors to armies faced courts martial. Selphie wriggled back to let him into the truck; Irvine clamped his hat harder onto his head and jumped in next to her, praying there was some chance he wouldn't be found in the back.
He stopped halfway in. "This is mad. They'll search, even if you say I'm not here. I'd be better hiding in Eternity Weapon's cave."
"They'll look there too." Rinoa frowned. "I've got it. Selphie, move up. Irvine, sit still. I'll whistle up a spell to hide you."
"Some invisibility-status spell? Great."
Selphie was frowning. "I didn't think people could -"
"That's why I'm a sorceress and you aren't. Now, be quiet." Rinoa leant on the truck door and closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.
Irvine couldn't see the SeeD car anymore but he could hear the distinctive whine of its Roni-Cole engine. He clenched his hands in his lap and waited for Rinoa to do something.
The car trundled over the now-useless cattle grid two hundred yards from the truck's position. Magic energy crackled over Irvine, and he looked down to check if he'd vanished, but he could still see himself. That didn't have to mean anything, but then Rinoa opened her eyes, took one look at him and sighed in frustration. Selphie leant out of the driver's window; "They're almost here!" she fretted.
"I'm trying something else," Rinoa answered calmly. "Here goes." She raised her hands and chanted a single word.
Irvine's skin tingled. His hair stood on end, alive with static electricity. Light flashed up around him and he closed his eyes reflexively. An intense creeping feeling, deeper than any touch should go, ate into him and under him and around him. He shivered and shook and waited for the world to end.
Then, very suddenly, it all stopped. He felt almost normal - a little chilly, perhaps, but something odd was only to be expected if he was invisible. Maybe he was inaudible too; he ought to test it out. "Hey, Rinoa, did it work?" he asked.
Or tried to ask. Because what he actually said was :-crrrrroaaaakk-:
He opened his eyes, startled. The first thing he noticed was that he was way too close to the truck seat. The second was that Selphie was making a noise like a strangled hedgehog. The third was that there was a green snout protruding from his lower jaw, and a pair of slimy little flippers folded before him on the leather cushion, and that he wasn't wearing his hat anymore...
"Holy shit, woman! What in Hyne's name have you done to me?!"
But all that came out was :-ribbit, ribbit-:
She's turned him into a frog of all things, I mean a frog, what can a frog do to save himself from anything, how dare she, she's horrid, I hate her, I love you, Irvine, even if you are a frog, I want you to change back right now -
"Xu! Long time, no see; how've you been?" Rinoa was retreating in the direction of the SeeD car, sounding far brighter and happier than anyone should when she'd just done something terrible to someone else's boyfriend -
"I'm well. I'm looking for Irvine Kinneas; do you know which company he's with?"
"We were looking for him too. I was hoping he'd had the sense to leave Pytor Capanni before he ran off with that Weapon he found. But he's not here and Pytor's not here and I'm starting to worry about Irvine."
Selphie mentally rewound the script for the last few seconds. Outside she fancied she could almost hear Xu's brain looping the loop. "You mean he didn't come with these Estharians?"
"Well, of course not, or why would I be wondering where he is?" Rinoa answered reasonably.
"We heard he'd broken his contract with the rebels. We heard he was leading this army over here to destroy them."
Selphie stared at the corner of Rinoa's wings that was visible round the door, then she turned back to Irvine-the-frog, who was bouncing round the seat and ribbiting in panic. His hat had flown off his head in the middle of his transformation. Selphie scooped it off the floor and picked up Irvine. "Don't worry," she whispered. "It's OK. Just shush, and we'll change you back when Xu's gone." The alarm on the little froggy face didn't fade, but at least he stopped croaking so loudly.
"That's nonsense," Rinoa was saying. "The army came to destroy a Weapon I found here. Laguna was nice enough to lend the soldiers to me, and he persuaded the Galbadian president to send some too. Only it isn't here and we don't know why. Who in the world told you Irvine did those silly things?"
"Confidential." Now she sounded bothered. "Do you have a mobile I can borrow to call Garden on?"
"Yes, of course - but it's in the truck, I gave it to Selphie - Selphie? Have you finished with my phone?"
What phone? The curtain to the rear of the truck was open. Selphie saw Rinoa's bag lying on the seat. She reached over and pulled out the phone. On impulse she stuffed Irvine and his hat into the bag, then closed the clasp and bounced out of the truck just in time to run straight into Xu. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "Are you OK, Xu? Sorry, I didn't look where I was going -"
"That's OK." Xu turned on the mobile; "Weren't you in Esthar?" she asked while the mobile was warming up.
Selphie nodded enthusiastically. "I'm working for Sir Laguna. But Rinoa needed help so he let me come with her. I was hoping we'd see Irvy. But he's not here," and she pouted with absolutely real annoyance. If Xu hadn't come, Irvine wouldn't have had to be turned into a frog, and she would be cuddling up to him right now -
"I suppose it's up to your employer how you serve," Xu shrugged, glancing into the truck as she dialled the Balamb Garden number without looking. "If you'll excuse me." She nodded to Rinoa and Selphie and moved off.
Selphie let her eyes wander over the group of SeeDs waiting in and around the armoured car, their faces marked by different amounts of worry and indecision. She knew Kyah, of course, and Mario too, but who were those others? She'd never seen the two men before. And they were in Balamb uniforms. Maybe they'd just transferred from somewhere else.
Xu's voice droned on and on into the mobile. Selphie concentrated, but she couldn't hear a word the woman was saying. Then Xu straightened up and shut off the phone and turned back to Rinoa. "Sorry about that. Will you need extra assistance here?"
"Well, we can't find the Weapon," Rinoa frowned. "We're alerting all the Gardens and every country's army, so you need to be on standby too. But honestly you may as well go home. You'll be as likely as anyone else to run into it."
Xu didn't look too happy about that, but she nodded in acceptance. "Goodbye, then." She went back to the car, called her SeeDs together and climbed into the driver's seat. Selphie and Rinoa stood and watched as the Balamb party drove away.
The car eventually vanished over the horizon. "Well, that really worked, didn't it?" Rinoa remarked, smiling broadly.
Selphie stared at her. "Irvine is a frog, Rinoa."
"So I'll change him back with an Esuna. He hasn't hopped off, has he?"
"He can't have. I put him in your bag."
"Eww!" Rinoa shivered. "That's nasty. Go get him out, now!"
"Well, you were the one who picked frogs!"
"I don't mind looking at the things. But touching them - ugh."
Selphie threw the sorceress a barbed glance, which didn't even scratch her armour. She stalked off to the truck, hoping all the way that Rinoa noticed how cross she was. Well, it didn't really matter. Irvine would give her a lot more than a piece of his mind, just as soon as he could say more than 'ribbit'. Selphie looked forward to listening to that. Specially with the way Rinoa had been eyeing him for the past couple of days. She didn't like that at all. It would serve the sorceress right to get a nice-looking man like Irvine upset with her.
She clambered back into the truck, retrieved Rinoa's bag from the back seat and gingerly opened the clasp. Irvine jumped straight out and onto the dashboard. Selphie eeped, then told herself it was just Irvy and he was probably scared and certainly cross and he needed her whatever shape he was in. "Come on, Irvine," she said to him. "Rinoa's going to turn you back, so can you jump out where there's more room?" She gestured to the open passenger door. Irvine looked at her, then hopped along the dash and out into the road. Selphie hurried after him.
Rinoa closed her eyes and stretched out her arms. The white-blue flashes of Esuna magic surrounded Irvine-the-frog so brightly that Selphie had to look away. When she looked back -
- there was still a small green frog sitting in the middle of the track.
"Rinoa," Selphie said warningly.
The other girl was frowning, puzzled. "Can't imagine why that happened. I know! I cast it as a defence, so it doesn't come off with Esuna, but with Dispel. Hang on, Irvine." She raised her hands again. This time Selphie watched as a familiar purplish bubble appeared out of nowhere, dripped itself away all over Irvine, and spectacularly failed to achieve anything.
"Why isn't it working?" Rinoa demanded. "Oh, well, I suppose we could take him back to Esthar and set Edea or Odine on him. One of them should come up with some idea or other. I guess it doesn't matter for now."
Selphie stared at her, feeling angry and scared and altogether disgusted. "It doesn't matter. You do something like this to Irvine, and you don't know if it'll ever come off, and it doesn't matter?"
"That's what I said. It might even be a good idea, if those SeeDs come back for him. You'd better find something other than my bag for him to ride in, though. I don't want him there all journey."
"Fine," hissed Selphie. She bent down and picked up Irvine, who was looking as confused as any amphibian ever had in the history of the world. "We'll find another solution. Won't we, Irvine?" She stomped over to the truck, fuming, and temporarily dumped the frightened frog in what had been his hat while she settled down to think. She might not be a sorceress but she used magic more than most SeeDs. There had to be a way to cancel the spell - there had to...
The air above Esthar's evaporitic flats would be shimmering by mid-morning and translucent by noon. Now, in the sparkling but chill light of the false dawn, Zell could see their full extent, stretching out for miles beyond the city's western edge. That was wasteland, far more so than the vast desert to the east. In the salt flats nothing could grow, nothing could live. Laguna dreamt of draining the flats of their precious minerals and regenerating the area. That was as impossible a goal as reclaiming the arid lands behind the city by persuading the Grandidi Forest to spread.
Zell turned and faced the desert, stared at the lightening eastern sky. Normally he hated to be up even by noon unless he had to but this was worth it. The city lay spread out beneath the Palace, making the huge spider-like building seem far smaller, but the dunes that were beyond the city limits dwarfed humankind's greatest architectural work with an ease that forcibly informed anyone who looked of the ultimate insignificance of their species. The faint sounds of cars and lifters drifting from the city below felt like desecration of this beautiful dawn.
He half-turned at the sound of a footstep ringing on the iron stairs behind him. "Hey, Seifer," he called, keeping his voice down as low as he could and still be heard. "You're up early."
"Yeah, well, two days of twiddling his thumbs and Squall's demanding to do something," the taller blond answered, striding through the roof garden to Zell's place on the balustrade. "Quisty started up at six-thirty - of course - and Squall's gone to find her and tell her to give him something useful to do that's got nothing to do with the WFFC, or Pytor Capanni, or evidence against certain double agents I could mention." His voice grew darker as he finished, and Zell shivered, looking up at Seifer's face as he came closer.
"Do you just mean Lamond?" he prompted, thinking of all the things he didn't know about what had happened yesterday.
"No." Seifer shook his head. "I mean that Silvar Morris is for the jump if he can't explain not only why he had the ashes of six confidential reports in his incinerator but why he had a cute little photo of Squall in a hidden drawer in his desk."
Zell shivered. The more they could keep Squall out of this whole investigation, the better. But they were starting to realise they probably needed him. "He was the one who left those letters in your room?"
"It's looking that way," Seifer confirmed. "As for the other three - no signs yet. By ten this morning, someone's got to decide whether to let them go or charge them. And we can't charge the lot -"
"- in case we screw up, let the wrong one go for lack of evidence, find evidence later and want to charge them then."
"Fuck double jeopardy," Seifer muttered. "It's a stupid law."
Zell grinned wholeheartedly for the first time in almost three days. That was more like Seifer, railing against rules. He turned back to the eastern horizon. "It'll be dawn in a few minutes. Want to stay up here and watch with me?"
"Sounds good, Chickie."
"Don't call me that."
"Of course not, Chicken-Wuss." Zell rolled his eyes heavenwards.
They stood there, staring out at the desert and the growing patches of light that beamed across it. The sun hovered there, just below the horizon. It was just waiting for someone to pay homage to the dawn goddess before it made its entrance, Zell was sure. Too bad there were storm clouds building up over there too. He held back a laugh. Storm...Squall. Easy to see how Raine had picked her son's name, then Laguna was daft enough to extend the symbolism -
He jumped, stared up at Seifer. "What's up?"
"Which way's the wind blowing?"
He licked one finger and held it up. "From the south-west."
"Then how come that cloud's coming straight in from the east?"
Zell looked. Sure enough, the storm cloud he'd noticed earlier was moving fully westward towards them. He frowned as he watched it slowly approach the city. There had to be another cloud or two around he could compare it with - maybe there were weird thermals in the upper atmosphere. But it seemed kind of low for cumulonimbus. Yeah, they hung just over the treetops sometimes, but they normally towered up through miles and miles of otherwise empty sky, and this one was kind of long and flattish, not quite lumpy enough to seem real.
The breeze lifted, freshened, changed direction. The thunderhead's trajectory didn't move an inch. Zell and Seifer stood frozen on the Palace roof as the cloud that wasn't really a cloud at all bore down on Esthar.
The dawn broke at last. Light should have flooded the plains and all that was in, on or over them. The SeeDs watched as Eternity Weapon darkened the Estharian sunrise.
(to be continued...)
Return to Archive | next | previous