Is this hell?
Cid crawled through the wreckage of what had once been a house, keeping his head low as he eased his way forward on aching muscles. The rolling sound of distant explosions washed over him while the force of not-so-distant ones shook the ground and rattled his teeth. He could also pick out the whine of M-Tek weaponry intermingled with autocrossbow fire. It sounded like there was fighting only a few streets over, possibly moving this way. Still, there was nothing for it but to keep going. It wasn't as if his home was safe, either.
Ouch! A jagged hunk of wreckage had stabbed into the side of his hand. Grimacing, Cid tugged the large wooden splinter - apparently the broken remnant of a picture frame - free, clamping a handkerchief against the wound to staunch the flow of blood. He managed to crawl a few more paces before he had to stop and lean against a partially crumbled wall. Cid had been working his way across the remains of Vector for almost three hours, and he was exhausted. Even if it meant risking death, he had to stop and rest here for at least a few short moments.
Breathing heavily, Cid surveyed the area around him. The sky was murky, smoky, fueled by dozens of dark columns that wound their way up from the devastated buildings of the city. Few of those buildings were still standing; their shattered remains littered the streets along with the bodies of the dead. Others, reduced to mere skeletons of metal framework, seemed to reach towards the heavens as if begging for relief from their emaciated condition. Yet their hopes were in vain. No help was coming from that dull sky. Imperial Air Force craft could be seen streaking overhead, on their way to unleash destruction on their hapless targets. Explosions also blossomed in the clouds, beautiful death-flowers in a slaughterhouse sky.
In retrospect, it had taken very little to tear the Empire apart. It was almost interesting, in a scientific sort of way.
A week ago, Kefka, Gestahl, and two techs were found dead, burned to cinders. Coming as it did days after the South Figaro Expeditionary force had departed with a large amount of Imperial hardware, the vacuum in leadership hit hard, though many did not mourn Kefka or the aging Gestahl. Immediately the highest ranking Imperial officers had met to establish a council to govern Vector and the affairs of the Empire until such time as a more permanent mode of government could be worked out. They met on the afternoon after the demise of Gestahl and started preliminary motions to secure order.
Before the sun rose again, they were all dead, reduced to nothing more than ashes. Over the next few days, different leaders attempted to seize power with varying degrees of support, most of them winding up dead, murdered by rivals or burned just like the others. As the structure of command collapsed, a number of mid-ranking officers saw a chance to rise to the top and gathered their most ardent supporters to help them achieve that task. It did not take long for conflict to develop between these groups; at first, the arguments were confined to meeting rooms, but they soon spilled over into the streets. Verbal quarrels were replaced by autocrossbow fire, and the Empire began to feed off of itself as a dozen or more separate factions began to fight it out for control.
Things only got worse when the Albrook garrison arrived, the commander determined to secure the Imperial Capitol for himself. His force had proved to be a danger for a day or so, but eventually it too had fragmented as key leaders seemed to disappear. The battle now raged within the city and without, Imperial against Imperial, a vast, chaotic civil war.
Cid had an idea that he knew what had happened to the men who had tried to establish order. He was afraid he was going to share their fate; after all, he had been central to the Empire, and most of the people who were had already been killed. He shuddered to think what might have happened to him if he hadn't been lying low ever since he heard the news about Kefka and the Emperor's deaths.
The girl... it had to be the girl...
He thought of telling someone, anyone, but once again his cowardice prevented him from acting. He was partly responsible for her madness. Kefka had goaded him, but Kefka was dead now, and Cid would be an all-too-visible scapegoat. They would blame him for the subject's actions, torture him, kill him. And then, there would be no one to protect Celes...
How long are you going to keep lying to yourself, Cid? Celes doesn't need you. She can take care of herself. Admit your cowardice. You are afraid to die.
Perhaps that was the truth. Perhaps all he cared about was surviving. Once, the dominating force in his life had been the will to know, to understand all that he could of the world around him. Over time, that will had been subverted and twisted, shackled with fear until his main goal seemed to be nothing more than the preservation of himself and Celes. He would do anything to achieve those ends, follow any order, no matter how twisted.
Cid was tired. Tired of crawling through the wreckage, tired of fearing for his life, tired of following orders.
He was just glad that Celes was in South Figaro with the bulk of the Imperial assault forces, safe from this mayhem for now. She held great weight in the Empire and was in control of a vast army. She could fix things, restore order, if only he could reach her.
With an earsplitting shriek, an Imperial fighter came screaming down the street at rooftop level, its left VTOL engine spitting flame and smoke. As it passed Cid, it went into a forward tumble, spinning end over end until it crashed into the remains of an inn at the end of the street and geysered into a fireball.
Time to be moving on, Cid thought, shielding his face from both the glare and the bits of shrapnel that peppered the wreckage all around him. I think the fighting is getting closer.
He began to move again, making his way onward at the same agonizingly slow pace.
The Empire was dead, at least in Vector. It was time to get out. But first... first... he had to take care of his unfinished research.
And that meant stepping into the heart of the combat zone.
From the beginning, the Magitek Research Facility was a prime target. There was not a single faction that did not want control over it and the treasures that lay within. Seizing control of both a large cache of M-Tek weaponry and the means of producing it would go a long way towards securing victory for any group. Fortunately, both Gestahl and Cid had realized that such a thing might some day occur. As a result, the emperor had pushed for an almost fully automated defense system for the Research Facility, activated by a passcode that only he and Cid - and probably Kefka, Cid belatedly realized - had knowledge of.
That was the first factor that had allowed the facilities to resist infiltration until now. The second was that Cid had ordered his most loyal subordinates in the Research Facility to evacuate everyone from the building (forcibly, if necessary) and to activate the defense systems immediately after the Empire began to break down, when he still had some shreds of authority. Now, that authority was certainly gone, but it didn't matter; the system could not be shut down. Hopefully, it could hold off anyone seeking entry.
Cid saw the soaring jumble of spires and columns that marked the Magitek Research Facility long before he reached them. Though it had to have taken at least some damage in the fighting, it was not discernable at this distance. The bombardment had been very light; it would do no good to crack this shell only to find that the blow had ruined the nut inside. However, the Facility was also heavily fortified, presenting those who sought access a difficult problem. Strike too lightly, and they would never get inside. Strike too hard, and they would make the act itself meaningless.
Still, this problem didn't stop the factions from trying, and as Cid crept to the last shattered ring of buildings that fronted the wide space before the Facility, he could hear the sounds of men and machines in motion; sure sign that an attack was underway.
Summoning up what dregs of bravery he still possessed after years of being dominated by fear, Cid crept forward across the foundation of one building that still had three of its walls. He crawled to the wall nearest the battle and peeked out a ragged hole at the carnage beyond.
The plaza fronting the Magitek Research Facility had once been immaculately clean, if rather bare and not very aesthetically pleasing. Now, it was a war zone. Corpses in Imperial garb, some of them days dead, were sprawled all over, two or three deep in places. In other spots were wrecks that might once have been functioning Magitek suits. The pavement was scarred, cratered, and littered with empty autocrossbow quarrels and spent slugs.
The attackers had marshaled a considerable force; five standard Magitek suits and at least 50 men armed with autocrossbows, and, in some cases, grenades. They were moving forward slowly across the devastated plaza towards the Research Facility, arrayed in battle formation with the five suits out front and the men in ordered lines behind them. Cid cowered back into the shadows for a second, fearing he would be seen. Then, he realized that there was not a pair of eyes among the group that was not focused straight ahead at the entrance to the Research Facility. He followed their gaze and became mesmerized as well.
They were called Guardians.
The latest and most powerful Magitek design, the lumbering machines weighed in at nearly 10 tons each. Wide, club-shaped feet were topped by thick legs that supported a rectangular chassis. The body itself bristled with sensor equipment, rocket caches, and weapons ports, but was dominated by a pair of massive gatling cannons, one mounted on each side like rudimentary arms. Deep within, shielded by four layers of armor, was the computer brain that drove the Magitek titan in its quest to protect and destroy.
Two Guardians stood before the barred doors of the Facility, and they had been ordered to destroy everyone who approached; an order both simple and brutally effective. With these guards there could be no bribery, no clever witticisms, no convincing arguments. There could only be death, swift and impassive.
Cid started to turn away, but found that he couldn't. His inquiring mind wanted to view the Guardians outside of a controlled test. He had to see. He had to know.
The attackers fired first, the M-Tek suits breaking into a run and releasing a swarm of tekmissiles that streaked ahead of them on tendrils of smoke. The missiles impacted on and around the Guardians in a series of spherical explosions that were so dense that they enveloped the metal titans, blocking them from view. A second volley of missiles followed, then a third, the rapid detonations coming so quickly that they blended into a single ballistic scream. Inky smoke drifted up from the shattered pavement like a death shroud, obscuring the far end of the plaza entirely.
The suits kept advancing, switching to beam weapons now and firing bursts of pure elemental energy blindly into the smoke. The beams stabbed into the dark cloud like lances, strobing, quick, changing positions several times a second. Cid half-averted his gaze, wishing that he had packed his goggles; he didn't want to miss any of this, but he didn't want to risk burning out his retinas, either.
That would be fitting, Cid. It always was your curiosity that got you into trouble...
Whir-r-r-r-r.... Even over the constant whine of the Magitek beams, the sound was clearly audible; cannons, cycling up to fire. The men advancing seemed to cringe, some running away or throwing themselves to the ground but most continuing forward grimly. The suits didn't even stop their firing. If anything, the crisscrossing torrent of beams only became more frantic.
With a sound like tearing cloth amplified a hundredfold, the Guardians opened up with their cannons, and steel slugs as long as candlesticks and as thick as clenched fists were hurled from the cloud of smoke at high velocity and smashed into the approaching Imperials with devastating force. Magitek suits provided protection against many types of ordinance, but their reinforced armor might as well have been paper when it met the wall of fire thrown out by the Guardians. First one, then two, then three of the suits took hits, the dense bullets shredding armor and flesh alike. So powerful was the force of the impact that the suits were buffeted like living creatures by the bullets, one exploding as its core was breached, the other two flying back into the ranks and crushing a half dozen soldiers in their ruin.
The other two pilots slowed their machines slightly, sweeping out to either side of the plaza in an attempt to evade. One slid his suit neatly out of the path of the gunfire only to meet a corkscrewing missile head on. The ensuing explosion strewed parts of man and machine over a hundred foot radius and left a smoking crater in the pavement.
The last pilot had time to fire his suit's bolt beam once more before he was caught by both Guardians, four separate streams of bullets converging on him at once. To Cid, the suit seemed almost to shiver as it was struck by the withering hail of gunfire, individual impacts hammering holes in the armor and severing hydraulics. Finally, several shots pierced the M-Tek core and the suit exploded, immolating the already dead pilot.
The smoke at the end of the plaza began to thin and the two Guardians stepped forth, their metal skins smudged and scratched in a few places but still intact. In unison, they swiveled sensor-studded spines first one way, then the other, taking in the small army of brown-clad Imperials that was still heading towards them. Then, they opened fire.
The men closest to the barrage seemed to simply disintegrate into clouds of red mist. The ones behind them were caught by the force of the bullets and torn to shreds, their bodies tumbling like rag dolls as they went down. Most of them didn't even have time to scream, although Cid doubted he could have heard it over the roar of the battle.
To their credit, the troopers tried to fight, though there was little else they could do; being isolated in the open space of the plaza, there was no cover that they could hope to reach before being cut down. Still, desperation and bravery counted for only so much; where missiles and M-Tek had failed, autocrossbows and grenades could not hope to succeed.
A trooper with two grenade belts crisscrossing his torso and another around his waist somehow got close enough to one of the Guardians to clamber up a leg and climb on top of it. With a maniacal yell, he yanked the pins off a half dozen of his personal bombs at once and held onto the machine for dear life. The explosion, when it came, splattered crimson across the metal titan like war paint but seemed to have no adverse effect. Not once during the entire exchange did the machine stop firing.
Ultimately, the fight did not so much end as simply wind down. Gradually, there seemed to be fewer and fewer men moving in the courtyard, and finally, there were none. As the massive guns of the Guardians slowed to a stop, the silence sounded louder than the roar of battle had been.
For a moment, the two Guardians stood silently in a sea of broken bodies, wrecked machinery, and spent bullets, their sensor spines scanning for motion of any kind. Then, they pivoted with machine precision, stepped heavily back to the entrance of the Facility, and resumed their guard positions.
Cid could only stare, vaguely aware that he was shaking like a frightened Leafer. The destruction wrought by the Guardians was all so beautiful and yet so terrible, a result of his diligent work and application of esper magic. He felt a mixture of horror and pride in the machines that was impossible to define.
They... they were so efficient... but I never imagined... I... all those people...
But the worst thing of all wasn't the field of dead men before him, or the knowledge that he had been partly responsible, no matter how indirectly. It was the knowledge that he would have to walk across that field of carrion, that he would have to meet those thundering titans face-to-face.
Still thinking of yourself. How like you, Cid. How very, very like you.
Shoving that thought aside, Cid stood up, reached into his pocket, and pulled forth a small, rectangular transponder the size of an Imperial Postage Stamp. He pressed a button, causing it to hum to life. The device sure didn't look like much protection from the Guardians out there, not when they had eviscerated Magitek armor, but it was all he had. If it worked, he would be safe. If not, who would notice one more body in the streets?
Cid didn't remember walking through the mass of corpses later, though the blood on his shoes and tunic told him he had. He seemed to shut the event away, seal it off from his mind, and later he could only summon a murky recollection of the smell. The terrible smell, raw decay overlaid with gunpowder and the stink of burning metal. The smell of death laced with panic and chaos.
His next clear memory after he took out the transponder was standing before the pair of Guardians, the machines looming over him like metal idols. The two Magitek monstrosities remained motionless, their sensor spines locked onto the device that was held in Cid's white-knuckle grip. They did not fire. Cid couldn't believe the tiny transponder really worked, that something as simple as an encrypted signal could keep these beasts at bay. For a moment, he thought he might wet himself in sheer relief.
One of those bullets could tear me in half...
Cid walked between the two machines and stopped before the massive portal that led into the Research Facility. The doors themselves were fifteen feet high and several feet thick, braced and reinforced with the strongest materials that the Empire's metallurgists were capable of producing. They were sealed so tightly that they appeared almost seamless, save for the small keypad and speaker mounted low on the left door.
It was to this keypad that Cid walked, the Guardians swiveling sensors to track his every movement. He had to actually walk between the pair of robots to get there, and that was an experience he hoped he never had to repeat.
Cid rapidly pressed a series of buttons and the speaker crackled to life.
"Access Code?" The voice was feminine, pleasant, a stark contrast to the industrial battlefield that was Vector.
"O-open entry," Cid said, his voice shaking. "Access c-code 'Magitek Army Gigas Indigo.'"
"Access Code confirmed. Voiceprint analysis confirmed. Good morning, Cid." The voice trailed off, and the door locks disengaged with a hiss. There was the hum of gears and rotors, and the massive doors swung inwards.
The Magitek scientist hurried within, the doors thundering closed and resealing themselves behind him.
It was time to get to work.
It was time.
The warehouse squatted on the outskirts of Vector and was heavily dilapidated, the roof worn right through in places. It contained nothing of importance and looked so run-down that anyone passing by would likely think that it had never contained anything of importance.
That was as she had intended. It was amazing how few of them bothered to check the basement.
Terra ran gloved hands over the smooth, unmarred surface of the M-Tek armor suit before her, reveling in the feel of fine craftsmanship. It was a well-constructed war machine, suitable for carrying out the next phase of her plan.
From the beginning, she had realized that she could not face the unified front of the Empire alone, not yet. She had been forced to hide, to selectively strike at the targets that presented themselves as most vulnerable. And her plan had worked; her enemies were now fighting each other. The city was virtually deserted now except for those engaged in the conflict, and they were too concerned with their petty struggle for power to pose any threat to her.
Vector was hers for the taking
Yes, first, she would have to gain access to the Magitek Research Facility. With the magic stored there, she could grow stronger, strong enough to crush Vector and all other cities into powder. Strong enough to wrest control of this world as her esper instincts told her she would, told her she <i>must</i>.
Burn... burn.... burn and blood... burning blood they'll all burn I'll burn it all....
She shivered in pleasure at the thought of a world in flames.
She had not been happy when she had found the Magitek Research Facility closed to her and guarded by those huge machines. Against such massive weapons, she was not certain even her power could ensure victory. It was the scientist's doing, she was certain.
Nevermind. When she found him, he would burn, too.
Terra looked up at the Magitek suit, a strange sort of affection filling her as she gazed upon its twisted form. It was a suit of officer's armor, slightly modified with a pair of external missile pods that perched behind and to both sides of the cockpit like bizarre birds. Each of the pods contained fifty armor-piercing Tekmissiles, hopefully more than enough to put down the machines guarding her goal.
Terra climbed into the cockpit and sealed the canopy. As she ran her hands over the console, beginning the startup sequence, she gave a deep, satisfied sigh. The M-Tek suit was more than simply a means to an end; it was her partner. She and the machine would soon become one, bound up in the savagery of combat. It would be beautiful... oh, so beautiful...
The M-Tek core started up with a thrum, and Terra leaned back, her eyes half-lidded with the sheer thrill of it all. Destruction, power, pure and sweet.
Mine. Mine all mine.
Floating twisting spinning
In the gyal, time had no meaning. Night and day ceased to exist, replaced by the artificial lighting of the labs. The boundaries between seconds, hours, and days blurred together into one amorphous, lifeless mass.
In the gyal, feeling had no meaning. The gel-like fluid was numbing, dampening the body and the mind that operated it. It contained suppressants that kept the espers from using their magic, and for an esper that was a sort of living death. The only break in the monotony came in the form of the painful "extractions" that they periodically suffered.
In the gyal, rage had no meaning. If it did, surely the espers could harness it, use it to destroy those who held them captive and drained their souls. There must certainly be enough rage in them all to knock this hateful place to the ground and repay their years of suffering in kind.
Years? Have I... really been... years?
In truth, Maduin could not say how long he had been here. It felt like an eternity, and from the changes he observed in the men outside, it had certainly been a number of years, but how many was unclear. Everything seemed to blend together, countless days and nights spent floating in the gyal all combining into one living nightmare. He had come to welcome the pain of the extractions, in a way. Though they weakened him, the pain cleared his mind and helped him focus.
Not that focusing seemed to help. It had taken this "Empire" time to learn about his kind, and they had still not learned everything, but what they knew was enough. The espers never left the gyal-filled capsules that kept their powers at bay until they were utterly depleted. By then, it was too late for them to resist being dumped into the trash bins. Escape seemed hopeless, but Maduin found that he simply could not give up, even in the face of impossible odds.
She taught me that... He had once thought that love between a human and an esper was impossible, too. That thought brought another to his mind.
Terra.... what are they doing to you? Where are you?
Though Maduin did not trust his sense of time, it seemed like days since any technicians had been around or any extractions had taken place. He could not shake the feeling that something was wrong, and Ramuh, his closest tubemate, had signed a similar thought as best he could.
If ever there was time for an escape, it was now. Still, it would be far from easy. The jailors might be absent, but the prison was still intact; the tubes seemed to run fine without observers. However, if the gyal could somehow be drained...
Maduin did a slow spiral and turned himself upside down in the dense fluid, running his gaze all around the bottom rim of the tube and groping with numb fingers at the juncture where glass met base. If he could just find a small imperfection, make the tiniest of holes... but it was useless. The seal was as tight as ever.
He quickly righted himself as he heard the door at the far end of the chamber clanging open. So someone was here. It would not do to be spotted attempting escape.
Maduin recognized the short, harried man that entered the chamber. It was Cid, the head Magitek scientist, and he was looking even more worn down and stressed than usual; torn clothing, grime-streaked face, haunted eyes. The esper could not help but smile in grim satisfaction. Perhaps the scientist's damnable curiosity had finally gotten him into something he could not get out of.
Unlike most of the other espers, Maduin did not see Cid as a true Magitek Devil, responsible for all the actions of the Empire. He saw him for what he was, a mere puppet, in his way as trapped as the espers. He could not forgive the scientist his faults, however. It was Cid's curiosity that was responsible for the development of the extraction technology and his weakness that allowed its continued use. Puppet he might be, but a dangerous one. Maduin thought that if he got the chance, he would kill him and not feel too guilty about it.
I will escape... I must escape... Terra... I will find you. If you are alive, I will find you. And if you are not... you will be avenged.
Cid did not like the way the esper smiled at him.
There was a healthy measure of dark amusement in that smile, as if the esper was gazing into the depths of his being and judging him weak and unfit. He did not remember any of the creatures looking upon him that way before. Certainly with hate or with fear, but never with a smile. Still, as disturbing as that grin might have been, it was the least of his worries at the moment. He had a number of loose ends to tie up.
Moving quickly to the massive computer console at the far end of the room, Cid booted up the operating program and removed a packet of discs from the pocket of his tunic. Fortunately, they were still intact after the long trek through Vector.
It was but the work of a moment to enter his command-level password, cue up the appropriate files, and start the rapid-speed data dump. Almost as quickly as Cid could replace them, the discs filled up with all the secrets of Magitek- theories, schematics, and equations spooling from the hard drive and onto the wafers. A scarce five minutes after it began, the transfer was complete. It took even less time to start up the program that would delete the files entirely from the hard drive. As he set it in motion, Cid gave a contented hmm. In another few minutes, no one would be able to tell the files had ever existed.
Cid pocketed the discs and zipped the compartment up tightly. Something told him that it might be best to destroy them entirely, but he could not. They represented his life's work, and destroying them would have been like destroying himself. Perhaps someday the information within could be put to use again, and at the very least he could keep it out of the wrong hands.
There was only one thing left to do.
His hands danced across the console again as he made his way through one password lock, then another, then another, and another still. Something in the back of his mind told him that time was running out, that he had to hurry, and his typing became even more frantic. There were a number of failsafes to be bypassed, but he worked as quickly as he could, and soon the self-destruct system was primed to go.
The idea of destroying the place where he had worked for most of his life was painful, as well. He had spent his most rewarding years here, discovering the secrets of Magitek. This place would soon be gone. Everything would be annihilated. The labs, the production facilities, the new prototypes-
He felt a dagger of ice enter his heart. What was he going to do about the espers?
The rational side of his mind told him that he should leave them as they were, to be incinerated in the explosion that would soon engulf the Facility. But the side that was starting to emerge from its shell of weakness told him something else. It was insane! He couldn't do that.. he couldn't...
Let them go...
Didn't he at least owe them that? He had always been concerned with science, with the thrill of discovery. He had eagerly pursued the legends about the War of the Magi and magic and produced the facilities to hold the espers. He had gleefully examined those subjects returned by the Imperials who had gone on the harvesting mission in the Esper World.
And then, somehow, things went wrong.
Science wasn't supposed to be about torture... His mind said.
No, it's about knowledge. However it is obtained! Was he actually arguing with himself?
Fear had been a large factor in his actions, he knew that. At every turn he was confronted with demands from Kefka or Gestahl. Though he believed he was too important to kill, refusal surely would have meant torture for himself or for Celes. That was something that he was unwilling to face.
Yet at the same time, he had been motivated by a ghoulish need to understand, to know everything about these creatures. The experiments, the extractions, the creation of such things as the M-Tek cores, all of these filled him with a sense of triumph that was diminished, but not killed, when he looked upon the dying espers. Though they were monstrous in form, perhaps he was more of a monster than they could ever be.
His shackles had been removed. He could make some meager amends for his horrible actions, simply by letting the espers free. It was not as if there was anything left of the Vector that was worth saving. He wouldn't even have to be here; he could set the tubes to drain, cue the self-destruct system, and be on the way to his private plane before the espers even knew he was gone. They would not know who had freed them, but at least his conscience would be eased slightly.
But if you free them, you will be responsible for their actions. You've sinned enough already, Cid. Do you really want a second War of the Magi on your hands?
The console gave a loud beep, and Cid turned to read the screen. Flashing words scrolled before his eyes:
SELF DESTRUCT SEQUENCE CANNOT BE ACTIVATED - MANUAL OVERRIDE
Cid pounded the side of the console with his fist, the frustration almost unbearable after all he had already gone through. The manual override was on a sublevel of the complex, and traveling there to disengage it would take precious time. Every second he wasted here brought him closer to death.
At the very least, his scientific side put in, This will give you more time to consider what to do with the espers.
For what felt like the thousandth time in the past week, Cid broke out in a run, heading for the elevator that would carry him to the sublevels.
The modified suit of Officer's Armor stood amidst the last ring of buildings around the Magitek Research Facility, its twisted form giving it the look of a dark predator, lying in wait for the next careless victim. It appeared to thrive in the wasted city around it, an adaptable beast at ease in the harsh new environment.
The young woman known as Terra reclined easily within the cockpit, both beautiful and deadly in a streamlined, low-cut black pilot's suit. She curled her mouth up in a smile as she surveyed the area. Before her stretched the devastated plaza, a carpet of warped metal and dead men, abstract art by death's own grotesque hand.
It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Farther ahead still was the entrance to the Magitek Research Center and the two massive machines that stood watch, one of them smeared a dark red. They, too, were beautiful in their own way. A shame that she had to destroy them.
The constant low whine of the M-Tek core spiked sharply as Terra adjusted dials and pulled levers, amping the machine to near-dangerous level. The entire frame began to shake violently as she primed the weapons systems. At power levels like this, the machine might very well shake apart, but she would have to wring every ounce of power out of the suit to stand up to those titans ahead. Besides, the danger only made her realize she was alive.
There was a sudden jolt as the suit barreled forward, its massive feet churning the sea of corpses, trampling some and kicking others out of the way. Huge strides chewed up the distance between Terra and the two Guardians at an incredible rate. As the machines swiveled their sensor spines to assess the new threat, a warm chime in her headset confirmed that they were within her firing range. With a laugh of triumph, she depressed the firing trigger.
Even within the enclosed cockpit, the roar of the missiles that tore from the shoulder-mounted pods was almost deafening. The projectiles zoomed by on either side of the canopy in a seemingly neverending torrent of fire and smoke. As the pods disgorged a payload of a hundred tekmissiles, the intense pyrotechnics raging all around obscured Terra's vision entirely. The suit charged on.
Finally, the thick fog of war wafted from the front of the transparent bubble and the results of her handiwork were visible.
The pair of scarred Guardians opened fire, cannons chattering as if scolding her, providing a lesson in destruction.
Unbelievable! Terra yanked the control stick to the side, swerving out of the way of the twin streams of bullets. These things had taken an anti-armor missile bombardment and suffered nothing more than cosmetic damage. This was going to be more difficult that she thought. She could very well die.
Even that thought only brought another stab of delight. There were few things an esper loved more than a worthy opponent.
The streams of bullets were drawing ever closer, fire nipping at the suit's heels and shredding the pavement just behind it. She couldn't stay ahead of them much longer, and there was only one place to go.
Augmented jump thrusters on the feet of the suit kicked in, sending it towards the two Guardians in a massive leap as pair of rockets blasted a crater where it had been only seconds before. Terra fired in midair, raking both of the machines below with high intensity bolt beams. There was no visible effect aside from a few sparks.
Very well, then, if her weapons could not hurt them...
With minute adjustments to the maneuvering thrusters, Terra guided the suit to the patch of ground directly between the two Guardians. As the suit crashed down, she was tossed forward in the seat, her emerald hair flying as her head almost impacted on the console.
The two Magitek titans swiveled to face her, their arm cannons cycling up again. There was only a second to act, to
Terra gave the thrusters all she had, sending the suit flying up and back at an acute angle as the Guardians opened up. There was the horrible shriek of twisted metal as the pair hit each other with a torrent of bullets at near point-blank range. Though they tried to cut off their fire almost immediately, they were not quick enough. Armor plating was pierced, sensors smashed, and vital components torn to ribbons in seconds.
The Magitek suit crashed back to the ground, dropping into a crouch as the shock absorbers took most of the impact. The Guardians stood motionless for a moment, their cannons silent, smoke boiling from numerous rents in their metal hides. Then, they toppled in unison, bursting into twin fireballs.
Her plan had worked as well as she could have hoped; nothing could stand up to the armor piercing slugs, not even the machines that fired them. The way inside was clear.
Gaining access could hardly have been more simple. A blast of bolt beam to short out the locks, a few kicks to break the doors down, and she was within, the suit moving down the wide corridor that led to the core of the Research Facility. Eventually, she would have to abandon it, but for now it could still prove useful.
She was so close now, close enough to feel the throbbing of the collection chamber where the siphoned magical energy was kept before being infused into the M-Tek cores. It radiated across the edges of her consciousness like the brush of a ghost's fingers, growing stronger the closer she got to the source. She would find it soon, and once it was hers, once she had begun to absorb that power, no one would be able to stop her.
Belatedly, alarm sirens began to blare and red lights to flash as the defense systems picked up the presence of an intruder. With a clang a trio of spheroids hanging on chains dropped from the roof above her, small but deadly cannons unloading a rain of tekbeams at her craft. Terra recognized these machines.
Trappers. It would take more than these second-rate security drones to stop her. A simple wave of her hand, and the robots flew apart, immolated in a firestorm.
More forms moved out of the shadows ahead, tiny Pipsqueak drones and larger crablike robots. She trained her suit's weapon systems on them and fired away, tearing through their ranks with beams of pure force. Carnage swirled around her as she advanced, smashing down all opposition.
What a wonderful day to be alive....
It had taken Cid several minutes to find the correct panel, crack it open, and begin his search for the manual override. Midway through, the alarm had gone off, but he had continued his work, too fearful to check the monitors. His only hope was that the internal security systems could fend off the intruders long enough for him to finish here.
Not intruders, he amended. Intruder. It has to be her... who else could have gotten past the Guardians?
The thought of facing the test subject again was almost too much to bear, but at least fear caused him to move faster. His shaking hands found the manual override switch buried deep within a mass of wires. Immediately after tripping it, he slumped to a sitting position on the floor, shaking with relief.
Almost done... Now he just had to head back to the lab to trigger the sequence and get the hell out of here. That is, once he decided what to do about the espers.
I can't just kill them!
The espers were weakened, depleted. They didn't look as if they were capable of walking, much less casting spells. Destroying them would only complete his cruelty.
... but I can't let them go, either...
If the girl found the captive espers, she would gain vast amounts of information and a number of potential allies. Together, they could start another war like the disastrous one that had ravaged the world a thousand years ago and had almost brought humanity to extinction. He could not allow that.
The explosion that shook the building caused him to push aside his thoughts and move to the nearest security station. That sounded like it had come from directly above him...
Keying in a quick password, Cid accessed the security cameras in the lab. When the image appeared on the small monitor before him, he nearly fainted.
She was there, standing serenely amongst the esper tubes, looking at the creatures trapped within, her expression coldly detached.
There was no question of going back there now. He had to get out of here before it was too late, get to the isolated chamber where his private transport craft was waiting for him. He had to survive this. Celes and the others had to be warned of the threat so that they could deal with it properly. If he died, they would have no way of knowing what happened.
Keep telling yourself that, Cid. Coward. Coward.
"I tried," he said to no one in particular, breath rasping in his lungs as he stood up again. He began to run towards the elevator that would take him to his escape craft. "I tried, I tried! Doesn't that count for something? Anything?"
The empty halls gave no answer.
Terra stood in the middle of the chamber, her eyes wandering over the containment tubes and the fanciful creatures that floated within. Some, like her, were vaguely humanoid. Others were strange, like nothing she had ever seen, bizarre fusions of man and monster. So these were espers, her kin.
They were pathetic.
As she gazed upon them, Terra felt hate seething through her veins. They were horrible examples of a once proud race, reflections of weakness and uselessness. Reflections of what she would become if she failed.
They looked so haggard, so empty, so exhausted. Worthless. They were not fit to fight alongside her. They were not even fit enough to worship her.
The one in the tube closest to her annoyed her the most, for he looked at her and made frantic gestures that were apparently supposed to mean something. For a moment, she almost thought she did recognize something about him... that hair color... the lines of the face...
No, the fleeting impression was gone. And of no consequence, regardless. These espers had forgotten what they were. They had forgotten their purpose, their reason for existence. It was high time that she reminded them firsthand.
Terra waved a hand, summoning up her reserves of magic. Grappling and shaping the internal force in her mind, she focused and pushed. Fire exploded around all of the tubes at once, shattering the glass and spilling gyal fluid and espers onto the floor.
The espers writhed amid the mass of shattered glass and gel, some of them managing to rise to their knees or even stand but most simply lying there vacantly, only their eyes looking up at her. They were almost dead already. Finishing them off would only be speeding up the process.
"You are espers," she said, her voice cold. "You are not meant to serve as lab animals. You are not meant to die this way. You are meant to fight."
"What?" asked one of the espers lying on the ground. It was a fanciful beast, a horse with a horn sticking from its forehead. "Who are you?"
"You have forgotten." She smiled again, her eyes lighting up with a fierce glee. "Allow me to remind you."
Her hand flashed out, and a column of flame erupted from beneath the esper that had spoken. It gave a long, whinnying scream as it was almost instantly reduced to a pile of ash. A pile of ash in which a crystal shard glimmered...
"No!" It was the one that had been signaling her earlier. The one she thought she recognized. "Terra, no!"
How does he know my name? How-
An ice spell flew her way, throwing her off balance for a second as she dodged a shower of razor sharp frozen particles. She spotted the blue esper that had launched it and responded in kind, incinerating this one as she had the first.
"Come to me, espers!" Terra laughed. "Show me you are fit to live!" She lunged forward, fire streaming from both hands and immolating two more espers. The dancing flames were reflected in her eyes
Some of the espers simply fled, but a handful tried to counterattack, hurling weak spells her way. Terra threw up defensive wards, absorbing crackling arcs of electricity, shunting aside fireballs, and dodging what looked like a low-grade poison spell. She answered with fire spells of her own and was rewarded with screams of inhuman agony. This was almost laughably easy.
"You are not fit to live." There was a gleeful edge to the young esper-woman's voice. This was the most fun she'd had in days.
Still, entertaining as it was, Terra wished to finish the battle before any more of the espers tried to escape. Perhaps one final strike would suffice. It would be a risky move, but the collection chamber was heavily shielded. It should be able to take the blow.
"You are nothing."
Terra concentrated briefly and fire burst out from her in all directions, turning the room into an inferno. The espers gave tortured screams as they were devoured by the flames, but Terra did not relent. She fed in more power, pushing her limits to the maximum. The floor and walls began to buckle and warp from the intense heat, but she remained safe at the center of the raging firestorm.
Finally, she released the power, letting the spell fade. With no further magic to support them and no real fuel to burn, the flames died quickly, revealing a room that was blackened and misshapen. Only the collection chamber appeared unharmed, the rest of the room reduced to a smoldering wreck.
Here and there amongst the wreckage were the magicite shards, remnants of the dead espers. They had survived the inferno perfectly intact. Terra felt the raw energy radiating from them and walked to the nearest one. She picked it up, turning it over and over in her hands, gazing into its crystalline depths and marveling at the power locked within.
So much power.... so much... and it is all mine.... These shards would serve nicely to augment her already growing strength. In time, all would fall under her sway.
Terra pressed the shard to her chest, nestling it between her breasts. She shivered with ecstasy as smooth crystal touched bare flesh, sending ripples of bliss all through her body.
They were warm to the touch.
Author's Note: Well, longest chapter yet. A very disturbed individual, that Terra. Anyway, next chapter coming soon, hang around.
Reviews are appreciated, as always.