What Quistis Did Next Book 2
By Lee Chrimes
The desk crashed down onto the floor and disintegrated into a thousand splinters. The three people in its way dived for cover as a volley of razor sharp wooden spikes rattled around them, slicing through the curtains, embedding into walls and stapling most of Quistis’ work to the chalkboard behind her. She stood slowly up from behind her teacher’s desk to survey the damage.* * * * * * * * * * *
"Redman, we are going to have to have words," she said sternly, glaring at the abuser of the desk as they floated serenely back down to earth. The two other students in the class peeked out from their hiding places then applauded loudly, prompting Redman to make a few mock curtseys for them.
Katya Redman was proving to be the biggest handful in the class right now. The girl had disarmingly innocent looks that did little to suggest the occasionally terrifying amount of raw power she commanded. A little over five foot four inches tall, a slim frame and shoulder length blonde bombshell hair, coupled with bright blue eyes and a perfect toothed smile, she had the looks normally associated with a fashion model or a teen pop star, and not with a magic user with the power to flip cars and hurl them dozens of feet into the air if she felt like it.
The two other students were both male, and in their own way were just as big a problem. Cevin McClewen was a martial artist who could probably make a comfortable living as a tournament fighter if he could only be bothered to. Tall and well built, with short, spiky red hair and tanned skin, he was a Balamb native like the other two but had already travelled around more than his seventeen years would suggest. The last student was Criss Brendan, a gunblade specialist who seemed to combine the cocksureness of Seifer and the moodiness of Squall into one often awkward package – quiet and sombre in lessons and socially, but loud and cocky when out in the field.
Quite how Quistis had gotten herself into this mess escaped her, but as Katya’s feet hit the ground again Quistis was ready with a rebuke for the destructive young cadet.
"What in the hell was that?" she yelled into Redman’s unresponding face. "I asked you to lift the desk two feet into the air and then put it down again, not detonate it and try to nail us all to the walls?"
"I’m sorry, Instructor," she said sweetly, "I guess I just got carried away." Katya’s expression was a perfect poker face, not giving away any hint of how much she’d obviously enjoyed that little display of power. Quistis seethed at her for a few moments then stalked away to the wreckage of her desk. Standing behind it, arms folded, she looked up and addressed the intercom above her in the ceiling.
"Computer, reset classroom, program Trepe-B3." The intercom bleeped its confirmation and the walls around the class shimmered and returned to their original state. Quistis and her class were inside one of Balamb’s brand new virtual classrooms, designed to give the students a good indoor environment to practice their skills. It took the form of a large room lined by holographic projection plates, similar technology to that used to hide the city of Esthar from outsiders, which could be set to display a variety of rooms and situations for the students to train in. Presently, Quistis was running a classroom simulation that gave her a large flat area in the centre of the room and desks all around the perimeter, so that she could let the students work out while watching them, and also allow the other cadets a chance to see what was going on. She looked over to the windows, the only ‘real’ thing in there, and sighed wistfully as the rain continued to lash down outside.
She’d let Katya into the middle of the room to work on her movement spells, mainly lifting both herself and objects around her and then moving them around the room. Redman had decided to put a little extra charge into the desk she was handling, however, blasting it into dust and spraying the room with fragments. Even though the room was essentially a holographic environment, the objects within still had all the necessary dimensions to be picked up, bumped into, tripped over and get impaled by, depending on what they were and who was using them.
"Look, the reason we’re in this room is because I didn’t want you lot to trash another room in the Garden, so don’t think that you’ve been given a free reign to smash this one to bits as well!"
"But Instructor, this isn’t a real room!" protested Cevin, answered by Quistis bouncing a chunk of desk off his head. As he rubbed the wound and sat back down, Quistis resumed her lesson.
"So as I was saying, the virtual classroom is a valuable teaching aid here but if you abuse it, I will not hesitate to confine you lot to practising your skills in the underbelly of the Garden, down in very, very small and extremely smelly rooms in the maintenance level. With any luck, there’ll still be plenty of critters down there to keep you company. Do I make myself clear?" The cadets murmured their consent. "Alright then. Now before Miss Redman decided to treat us all to a display of how strongly she dislikes the school’s furniture, she was actually putting on a very competent display of her powers."
Redman grinned smartly and poked her tongue out at the two boys. Quistis tried not to notice and continued.
"Movement, or rather your ability to do so, is one of the most important elements of any combat situation. An opponent who is having trouble moving will have trouble dodging or getting away, whereas if you boost your ability to get around a battle area quickly you’ll increase your effective combat ability and what is it, Brendan?" Quistis didn’t pause as she saw Criss’ hand pop up, but turned to face him instead, tapping a finger against her forearm impatiently.
"How will watching Kat throw desks around help us then, Miss?" he asked.
"I was getting to that. Katya was demonstrating that she has no problem manoeuvring small objects around, but movement spells can be used on allied targets as well. Katya, Cevin, step into the arena if you will." The two students stepped from their desks and down into the middle of the room.
"Now, Katya, lift Cevin into the air a little." Katya concentrated, gesturing with her arms as she started the spell she’d need. A green glow appeared around Cevin’s feet, and he was slowly lifted into the air. Then he went a little higher. Then higher still. He was six feet up when Katya saw Quistis glaring at her, and with a curt smile she lowered Cevin to a foot above the ground again. Quistis stepped out before them and readied her whip.
"Good. Now, move him out of the way of my whip as I try to hit him. Ready?"
"Hey, wait a minute, what?!" yelled Cevin, before ducking as Quistis cracked her whip inches above his head.
"Cevin! Stand perfectly still. Let Katya move you and you’ll be fine. Ready?" Katya nodded, her hands moving steadily around as she maintained the spell. Quistis snapped her whip to the left, and Katya sent Cevin darting out of the way. He complained loudly, but Katya was watching Quistis instead, anticipating her next attack.
Quistis went to the right, and Cevin was dodged out of the way again. Next, she went straight for his head, and Katya reacted by rotating Cevin horizontally, sending the tail of the whip cracking in the space where his head had been. Quistis gathered up her whip as Redman returned a shaken Cevin to the floor and dispelled the green glow.
"Very good, Katya. I’m also very glad that you managed to not blow Cevin up, students are hard to replace these days." Cevin shoved Katya lightly but she just giggled. The lesson bell rang outside the classroom, and Quistis headed back to her desk as the students gathered their bags. Picking up a remote control from her desk, she clicked a button and returned the virtual class to its natural state – a black room with broken white lines marking out the door frame and walls.
"I’ll see you all again in an hour, if the rain has stopped we can do some circuit training, if not it’s in here for a little pop quiz on something." The students groaned.
"Any idea what, Miss Trepe?" asked Katya.
"I don’t know," said Quistis with mock excitement, "but it’ll be a fun surprise, won’t it? Go on, scat, and try not to break anything," she said, jerking a thumb towards the door. The students filed out and disappeared, leaving Quistis alone in the room. The white lines lit the place up pretty well, so she rested against the teacher’s desk, the one solid object in the room, and closed her eyes to chill out for a second.
The three students were a high maintenance class, their attitudes bordering on insubordinate, their manners cocky and arrogant, their respect for authority non-existent and their concentration levels at zero. Despite the massive natural talent each one obviously had, Quistis was still working on how to beat it out of them. She heard the door open and looked up to see Xu in the doorway.
"Hey you. Got time for a bite to eat?"
"You bet," said Quistis, picking up her satchel and heading outside, "those little monsters really help me work up an appetite." She locked the classroom and headed out into the centre of the Garden with Xu.
Balamb Garden wasn’t much different, after all Quistis had only been away a few months. Squall and the others were no longer here but most of her old instructor friends were, so the transition back into teaching had been pretty painless. Quistis was on a part-time deal, spending between three and five hours a day with her class, and not having to teach any others unless there was a staff shortage. It was a pretty good deal; among other things it meant she could stay in the very nice temporary Garden apartments, which were normally reserved for visiting ambassadors and high-ranking Garden staff.
"Any progress today?" asked Xu brightly as the two girls headed for the cafeteria, the air-conditioned sub-tropical atmosphere inside the Garden contrasting with the black clouds and spattering of rain outside the huge glass domes overhead.
"How long has it been now?" asked Quistis.
"Uh, week and a bit," Xu replied, grabbing a salad from the self-service bar and heading out to grab a table for them both. Quistis followed her down with a tray packed with sandwiches, cakes and other high-energy goodies. Xu raised an eyebrow at her when she sat down.
"What? I need my stamina," Quistis protested. "Over a week already? Eesh. Feels like a lot longer," she said. Xu began to natter about the day’s gossip as Quistis munched through her food, half-listening to Xu but not really comprehending what she was saying. Her mind’s eye wandered back to the previous week, when she’d met her new class for the first time.
Cid had led her into an ominously quiet classroom, made for thirty but occupied by just three. Redman, Criss and McClewen were sat neatly behind desks, spaced out to fill the room a little better. After a few brief introductions, Cid had left, and Quistis surveyed the room for a few moments before she spoke. The bright colour scheme contrasted the obviously dark mood of her students.
"Good morning, class, such as it is, my name is Quistis Trepe and I’ll be your new Instructor."
"The Quistis Trepe?" asked McClewen. Quistis managed to restrain a grin.
"The one and only."
"I heard they kicked you out because you were no good. Is that why you’re teaching us now?" Quistis winced at Cevin’s remark, but she at least had the knowledge that his accusation was a false one.
"You must hear a lot of things, McClewen, anything else you’d like to share?"
"Plenty," said Cevin, sitting upright and counting off on his fingers as he spoke. "I heard you fell in love with a student of yours, I heard you were responsible for Seifer Almasy getting loose into the world, and I heard-"
"What you heard doesn’t mean a damn thing!" said Quistis, slamming both fists down onto his desk and towering over him. She saw a brief flicker of shock pass over his face. He hid it well, but she knew she’d seen it. These kids weren’t as bulletproof as they seemed to think they were. "You are here to start to make something of yourselves, and not spend your days filling your heads with idle half-truths!" She paced back to the front of the class and hopped up onto the desk to face the class.
"I’ve heard a lot about you three," she said. "Katya Redman, gifted magic user, enormous amount of potential but absolutely no inclination to harness it, content instead to play tricks on her classmates and generally be a pain in the butt." Katya smiled brightly. Another wiseguy. thought Quistis. "Cevin McClewen, martial artist first class, spends more time getting into fights he knows he can win than developing his skills in more challenging situations." McClewen sat back in his chair, trying not to appear rattled by Quistis’ confrontation with him moments ago. "And finally, Brendan Criss, gunblade expert but too arrogant to think he needs any actual training in it, wasting his talent blasting empty bottles off fences than learning how to shoot in the field." Quistis let that sink in before continuing.
"You’re with me because, frankly, you’re all useless in your present state. But the headmaster refuses to give up on you, and it’s my job to reward his faith in you all by turning you into the SeeDs you all have the potential to be. I get the impression already that this is going to be hard on all of us, but show me a little respect and we’ll get along just fine." She saw Brendan raise his hand. "What is it, Cadet Criss?"
"With all due respect, ma’am, we’re just trying our best to get expelled so we can get the hell out of this place as quickly as possible. Any way you want to help us speed that along is just fine by me." He settled back down smartly, accompanied by sniggers from the other two students. Not a great way to start.
Quistis came to and realised Xu was still talking. Looking down, she was surprised to see she’d eaten almost everything on her tray without noticing, and Xu certainly hadn’t seen that Quistis was fazed out for most of the past few minutes.
"And then, little Zoey Tyburn, you remember her? Well, she moved up into intelligence and I think she’ll do brilliantly at that, she still talks about you, you know, lots of them do- oh darn, look at the time, I’ve got to dash. See you later, Quistis!"
"Mm," said Quistis, watching Xu pack up and scoot off. Talking to Xu was simple, all you had to do was listen. She looked down at her watch. Half an hour until the next lesson with the monsters. With a final resigned glance up to the rainclouds, she sat up and headed off to the classroom they were scheduled for. Today was going to be a long day.
Quistis sat in the empty staffroom, watching the rain still pouring down outside, her head resting glumly on her hands. She’d moved her chair over to the windows to be able to stare blankly out over the playing fields of the Garden, so that she could relax her eyes and let her brain concentrate on filing away all non-essential information. The warm atmosphere of the staffroom was still present despite Quistis being the only person in there, with its thickly-carpeted floor and effectively soundproofed walls making it a haven from whatever was going on out in the rest of the Garden. The row of computer terminals against the left hand wall were all humming away quietly, running the Garden’s official screensaver which detailed the crest of Balamb and a motto underneath it in some old language Quistis never got round to deciphering.
She was reviewing the past week since her return. She’d asked Cid to keep it as low-key as possible, given the fanfare that was her departure. It seemed pretty gauche of her to expect a big welcome back from the people she’d so publicly taken her leave from, but to her relief everyone seemed glad to have her back, even in this reduced capacity. The fact that Squall and the others weren’t here had helped for sure, as they were the people she had the most ties to after all. Rack, Xu, Dallara and the other instructors just seemed happy to have her around again, and as a lot of her old students were now out in the field in various parts of the world she was effectively starting from fresh.
The sun was shining when she started the final approach to the Garden, the ferry ride over having been a little painful with the memory of meeting Justin for the first time still crystal clear in her mind. She’d been discharged from the hospital with a relatively clean bill of health about a week after moving out of the intensive care ward, the doctors warning her to take it easy to avoid aggravating her injuries but expressing pleasant surprise at how fast her body had healed up. Cid had given her a few more days to recharge her batteries before reporting back to the Garden the following Monday morning. Quistis spent the weekend at Nona’s before driving out again.
She thought idly about what Fujin and Raijin had gotten up to as she passed the harbour where she’d last seen them both, but elected to wait until she was at the Garden, then use its superior surveillance resources to track them down. Once she’d completed the drive up to the Garden’s front gates, she sat in her car for several minutes, trying to psyche herself up to re-enter. It had only been a few months but a lot had happened since then, and she wanted to make sure she didn’t look like she was crawling back to her job because she’d made a mess of life out in the real world.
There were a few random students milling around the perimeter of the Garden, not really paying much attention to Quistis as she drove slowly down the main drive and pulled into one of the overground staff parking spaces. Small security and maintenance drones buzzed overhead on their circuits of the premises, and the walk from her jeep down to the Garden entrance was as picturesque as it had always been, as Quistis walked down the marble steps into the quadrangle outside the main doors, past the fountain that framed the centre of the whole area and up into the main reception area. The mini-waterfalls and lush air-conditioned atmosphere inside, combined with the soft music piped through the Garden’s intercom system up above her head, gave the place the air of a health spa more than a training ground sometimes, not that Quistis was complaining of course. She was complaining slightly about the weight of the three bags she’d brought with her, but then that was her own fault for failing to leave anything of hers behind. Cid and Xu were waiting for her,
"Hello again, Instructor Trepe, welcome back." Cid shook her hand formally, chuckling to himself. "I hope your stay here is a little more to your liking this time round!"
"Thanks, Cid, but don’t forget I’m only here as a favour to you," she replied. "Once these students of yours graduate, I’m out of here again." Xu and Cid exchanged a brief glance before Xu started to speak.
"Welcome back, Q, we’ve got everything you need ready and set up for you. You’ll be staying in one of the executive suites for the duration of your stay," she said, starting to walk in the direction of the rooms over on the east side of the Garden, with Quistis and Cid in tow. "You should find everything you need in there, and all the old information on your students from their previous teachers is in there too."
"Just out of interest, how many other instructors have they had?" asked Quistis. Cid and Xu exchanged a look again.
"Er, twelve," said Xu quietly.
"TWELVE??" shouted Quistis, causing several passing students’ heads to turn as she stopped dead in her tracks. "Cid, what the hell have you talked me into here?" Cid held up his hands to call for peace.
"Don’t worry, they’ll be fine. The other instructors all tried different approaches with limited success, I brought you in because I know you’re the one who can get through to these kids." Quistis eyed him suspiciously for a moment, before deciding he was being honest and starting to walk again.
"Maybe I’d better see these notes before I make my mind up," she said.
A few minutes later they were in the VIP rooms, and Quistis whistled appreciatively at the luxurious comfort she was going to be lived in. Balamb Garden kept a suite of six expensively-furnished rooms in a separate, quiet wing of the Garden for visiting ambassadors, senior Garden personnel and other dignitaries, and to Quistis they had always seemed the Holy Grail of Garden accommodation. Now here she was, about to move into one! The room had a large set of windows overlooking the postcard-perfect green landscape of Balamb, with the beach and seafront glittering away just a mile or two away, and as the sun shone through into the room it lit up the spotlessly clean furniture like a dream. A springy double bed, a minty fresh bathroom, a small kitchen and worksurface that came ready prepared with every cooking utensil imaginable, and a computer terminal and desk that was already well stocked and loaded with the files and info Quistis needed to brush up on the history of her new students. Quistis dropped her bags by the door and looked round the room.
"This should be appropriate accommodation for you," said Cid with a sly smile, gesturing with his arm to show the room off like a gameshow host. "You’ll find everything you’ll need in here – the cupboards are stocked up so there’s no need to rely on canteen food."
"And the TVs in here get, like, a million more channels than the regular Garden broadcasts," enthused Xu, and the two girls laughed as Quistis turned the TV on and flopped down onto the bed.
"Leave me now," she said in mock exhaustion," the lady has had a long drive out here, and one needs to rest."
"Get settled in then, Quistis, and I’ll see you in my office in, say, two hours?" Quistis held up a hand with three fingers outstretched. "Three then," grinned Cid. "See you later." Cid and Xu filed out of the room and left Quistis sprawled across the bed, and within moments she’d dozed off into a light sleep, the TV making inoffensive noise in the background.
She came to a little while later and saw that she had just under half an hour before she had to go and see Cid, so she sat up, yawned and stretched and wandered over to her bags which still lay, unpacked, by the door. She grabbed the first smart looking outfit she found out of there, threw it on and made her way over to Cid’s office. Walking through the halls out of uniform was quite refreshing – there were plenty of new faces who didn’t recognise her, and the few who did were happy with a quick wave as she continued on her way.
Taking the elevator up to Cid’s office and then strolling through into the headmaster’s comfortably furnished study didn’t feel as awkward as she’d expected – in fact, it felt unsettlingly like home. Quistis realised that no matter how far she travelled away from here, she’d always have a connection to this place, and whether it kept drawing her back or she never came here again, she’d always feel like part of the scenery at the Garden. She rapped her knuckles lightly on the oak office door as she walked in, and Cid looked up from the newspaper he was reading as she came in.
"Temporary Instructor Quistis Trepe reporting for duty," she said, and Cid smiled and gestured for her to take a seat. "I didn’t get chance to check much of those files," she said, hoping the fact that she’d actually been asleep for the last two and a half hours wasn’t too obvious.
"Get a good nap, then?" said Cid, the disarmingly benign smile never leaving his face. Damn, thought Quistis, blushing involuntarily.
"Yes, thanks," she said dismissively. "So when do I start?" Cid put his newspaper down and stood up, wandering over to the windows overlooking the playing fields with his hands in his pockets thoughtfully. Quistis could sense another of those ‘old boys’ speeches coming and made sure she was sitting comfortably.
"Your first lesson with your new class is scheduled for tomorrow morning, so I’d advise you familiarise yourself with their files before then. I won’t kid you, Quistis, these students are hard work. They’re arrogant, rude, disrespectful, wild, unpredictable and generally very close to being a danger to themselves and those around them. Which is why I knew that you’re the only instructor I could trust with them."
"That’s pretty bold of you, Cid, what makes you think I could do it?"
"Quistis, I was prepared to entrust the fate of the free world to you when I sent you out with Squall, I think by comparison these three are pretty easy work," he said, that grin still firmly in place. Quistis smiled back at the compliment, trying not to listen to the voice in the back of her mind telling her that Cid was just buttering her up so she’d stay on.
"Alright, I’m sold already or I wouldn’t even be here," she said. "What do I need to know?"
"You’ve got a powerful but inexperienced and woefully undisciplined magic user named Katya Redman to deal with, a martial artist who keeps getting into streetfights called Cevin McClewen, and a gunblader with an attitude problem called Criss Brendan. Psychological evaluations have decided that Redman appears to suffer from occasional delusions of grandeur, mainly when using higher-level spells and powers. McClewen just has a big mouth and likes to push people into reacting to him, while Brendan is possibly bipolar – he swings from silent, stony faced moodiness to manic activity almost at random. We’ve tried to identify what triggers him but no luck so far." Cid turned round to see Quistis was staring out of the window thoughtfully. "Is everything alright?" he asked.
"Hm? What? Oh, yes, I was just, you know, processing the information," she said, spiralling a finger round her temples to demonstrate the flow of data. "Trying to work out what angle to approach them from. What’s going to be tricky is having all three in class at once – if I could tackle them one at a time I could tailor my approach to each one to suit their particular ‘issue,’ but I take it that’s been tried before?" Cid nodded.
"Splitting them up doesn’t help, I decided that keeping them together minimises the negative effect they have on the rest of the Garden’s students. Quite a few of the regular cadets look up to them, in that way that youngsters find rebellion so exciting, so I’ve been trying not to let them interact too much for the time being. They’ll make great SeeDs one day, but right now they could spread a dangerously dissident influence throughout my garden, and I do not want that to happen."
"Looks like I’m your girl, then," said Quistis, standing up and joining Cid by the window. She followed his gaze to three students sat a distance away from anyone else on the field, with a Garden Faculty member close by. "Is that them?" she asked. Cid sighed and nodded.
"I really don’t like to keep them apart from everyone else like that, but I’ve found it causes fewer problems. McClewen just gets into fights anyway," said Cid with a chuckle.
"I’ll do my best, Cid."
"I know you will, that’s why I asked you to come back. I’m glad you see now why I was forced to demote you in the first place, I can’t apologise enough for any stress that put you under." Quistis thought back to that night at the meeting place where she’d told Squall about her sacking, and how desperately worthless she’d felt that night. She tried to dismiss the thought with a smile.
"I was fine about it after a while," she lied. "Well, I’d best head back and start catching up on my reading," she said, "speak to you later."
Cid watched her leave then sat back down again. Once Quistis was out of the office, Cid looked over to one corner of the room as Edea’s form rippled out from the wall, solidifying as the sorceress dispelled the invisibility she’d cast on herself.
"Goodness, I thought I was going to fade away for good with how long you kept me hiding over here!" she said, self-consciously dusting her black dress down and checking her arms to make sure every part of her was visible again.
"Sorry about that, dear," said Cid apologetically, pulling up a chair next to him and patting it for her to sit on. Edea walked over and sat down, raising her legs to lie across Cid’s lap while he slipped off her shoes and began to massage her feet dutifully. Edea leaned back and closed her eyes, her long dark hair trailing over the back of the chair.
"It’s too warm in here," she said, absently waving a hand. Two of the small windows in the office popped open, and Cid smiled at his wife’s humorously casual magic use.
"Thank you for sticking around, though, I felt better having you in the room while I was talking to her," said Cid. "I wasn’t sure she’d agree to it all until she left just then."
"Even though nobody could see me?"
"Even though nobody could see you," he smiled. "Your presence is appreciated."
"Enough talk, more massage," she said, pointing to her feet. Cid grinned and carried on.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Well, hello there, class!" said Quistis with mock brightness as her three cadets filed into the classroom. They were in a regular room this time, as the rain outside meant that circuit training was temporarily off the agenda. Not that a good run around in the freezing rain wouldn’t be good for them, but Quistis had decided that hospitalising them with pneumonia probably wasn’t a great idea. Well, not at the moment, anyway.
"This is pop quiz time, I take it?" asked Redman as she sat down. Quistis nodded, then watched as Redman raised a hand and levitated a sheet of paper and a pencil off Quistis’s desk and brought them through the air to land neatly on her own desk. Damn, that kid’s good, thought Quistis. Brendan and McClewen went for the more traditional method of taking the paper from Quistis’ desk before sitting down.
"Today’s little exercise will, you’ll be glad to hear, be cancelled at a moment’s notice if the weather clears up, because I think pop quizzes are boring too. However, in the absence of a better plan, get your pencils ready, class." Cevin muttered under his breath while Criss started to write his name on his paper so heavily the lead in his pencil snapped. It didn’t stop him scrawling the rest of it out, however. Redman sighed and snatched the pencil out of his hand, waving a hand in front of it and using a tiny and well-controlled fire spell to sharpen the pencil’s nub again. Criss nodded his thanks and took the pencil back.
"The first question is a simple one – write down the one thing you’d like to do more of at the Garden. Be as honest as you can and write whatever you feel most strongly about." Quistis watched. Cevin and Katya thought for a second then scribbled a few lines down, but Criss sat, arms folded, staring at his blank sheet of paper.
"No ideas, Brendan?" she asked. He just shrugged. Looks like he’s in one of his less communicative kinds of moods then, thought Quistis. "Well, you don’t have to answer that one of there really isn’t anything you can think of right now. The next question is write down one thing you’d like to change about the Garden. Anything from the cafeteria opening times to adding more gun emplacements outside the gates."
"What exactly is any of this going to do, Instructor?" asked Cevin, reclining back in his chair and chewing on his pencil.
"It’s an exercise in diplomacy, McClewen," said Quistis, walking with folded arms over to the window to look out over the rain-soaked playing fields. "I want to get an idea of how the insides of your minds tick in certain ways, which is essential for me if I’m going to be able to teach you anything at all."
"If you really wanted to teach us, you’d find a way to help us escape from here and be far enough away to make it permanent before anybody noticed we were gone," said Cevin with a snicker, joined by chuckles from Redman and Brendan.
"Who says I don’t?" said Quistis without turning round. The laughter stopped, but in their reflections on the window before her Quistis saw Criss grin to himself before starting to write. She was starting to get a handle on how to deal with these kids – they’d been used to stuffy, authoritarian figures imposing rules on them left, right and centre, telling them what to do and where to stand 24/7. Quistis was more like them. She’d been a good student but she’d known when to work on the other side of the fence, when to bend the rules a little to get the job done. Add to that how she’d already shown these kids how she wasn’t going to be pushed around by them, or at least how she’d tried to show them that, and hopefully she’d start getting some results out of them soon. Time was getting on too, she had a few weeks before their first major written exam of this term, and after that the field exam was coming up so she had to make sure they were ready for that.
"The third and final question is a simple one too – write down one thing you’d change about me, or the way I teach you guys. We’ll be going over your answers when you’re done."
"I see what you’re doing here," said McClewen. "You’re trying to get us to tell you how to teach us, aren’t you?" Rumbled, thought Quistis. Better think of an answer fast.
"Not really, I’m treating this as a very basic psychological evaluation of you all. I know you’ve probably had enough psyche tests by now to be able to walk through them blindfolded, so this is my way of understanding you a bit more."
"What if we screwed around with the answers?" said Redman, with a cheeky smirk.
"I think I’ll be able to work that out. Plus, that’ll tell me what I need to know anyway! Now get moving. Once we’re done, if it’s brightened up we can run around in circles outside for an hour while I shout at you. And won’t that be fun?" she said as the three students put their heads down again. A minute or so later Quistis held three sheets of paper up before her, pacing round the classroom as she read from them.
"First off, Cevin. Cevin would like to spend more time being able to wander around and kick the stuffing out of anyone who looks at him funny, like most of the cadets here do. This is the edited highlights, you understand," she said, as Redman chuckled. "What he’d like to change at the Garden is make more room for people who don’t want to waste their day in lessons, and what he’d change about me is make me stop being so uptight about how obviously more talented we are all the time." Quistis paused while Cevin leaned back in his chair smugly. Quistis strolled casually past, still reading, and with one swift jab of her boot heel snapped his chair from two legs to four, jolting Cevin out of his gloat.
"What does that tell us that we didn’t already know about Kung Fu over there?" said Brendan.
"It tells me that we need to spend more time on giving you the combat training you’re looking for, or you’re just going to carry on wandering round the Garden venting your anger on whoever is unfortunate enough to pass you by. That is something I can easily sort out, so don’t you worry about beating any of those nasty boys up any more!" she said, patting Cevin on the head sarcastically and adopting the tone of a mother talking to a baby. Cevin reddened but stayed silent. "Next is the lovely Miss Redman. She would like to spend more time practising with her powers out in actual situations and not being stuck in virtual classrooms throwing desks around. What she’d change about this wonderful Garden is that she’d make it more exclusive, to get rid of all the quote unquote ‘timewasting normal people.’ Finally, she’d like me to stop holding her back in lessons all the time because she feels I’m stopping her from realising her potential." Quistis had made her way towards Redman’s chair, where the cadet was looking back at her, trying to guess Quistis’ next move.
"Not bad, Katya," said Quistis. "I agree that I’ve been holding you back a little, but have you stopped to ask yourself why that is?"
"I thought it was because nobody here can handle what I can do," she said self-assuredly, examining her fingernails. She looked up to meet Quistis’ unimpressed glare.
"Not exactly. You can’t handle what you can do yet, and the only reason I’m making you reign in your powers is because you stand a very good chance of injuring yourself and other people at the moment. You’re good, but you’re undisciplined, and you let your powers rage out of control. I’m going to help you with that, but I can only do so much. The rest has to come from you. As for making Garden more ‘exclusive,’ well, don’t you think that’d just lessen the variety we currently enjoy?" She left Katya with that thought and sat up against the desk in front of Criss.
"Finally we come to Criss Brendan, the strong silent type who managed to write so concisely that his sheet just has three words on it," she said, holding Criss’ paper up for the others to see. "When asked, ‘what would you like to do more of?’ Brendan answered, simply, ‘nothing.’ When asked ‘what would you change about the Garden?’ Criss wrote ‘everything,’ and when asked what he’d change about me, he added ‘anything.’ Ten out of ten for precision marking, and a further ten points for trying so hard to avoid letting me work anything out from your answers. However, despite writing so little you’ve told me the most about yourself, so well done on that. I’m going to keep my observations on you a secret for the time being, but suffice to say I think I know just how to get you working at the level of potential you’ve shown at last." Quistis walked back up to her desk at the head of the class and looked out of the windows. Fingers of sunlight were starting to dig their way through the murky grey clouds plastering over the sky, and despite a low wind kicking up all across the playing field Quistis could see that the rain had stopped.
"Looks like you’ve got a promise to keep, Instructor," said Redman.
"Indeed I do! Right then. Class, assemble at the gym block in your track outfits in ten minutes and we’ll see if we can’t make the most of the impending sunshine." Quistis turned round at the scrape of their chairs as the class got up and filed out. Criss paused in the doorway and turned back to talk to Quistis.
"Nothing. I was just wondering what you meant back there." Quistis turned to him with a smile.
"I used to know someone a lot like you," said Quistis, "and he had a bit of an issue opening up to people as well. I mean, you at least balance that out with the moods you have when you can’t stop talking, so that’s a start.." Quistis trailed off in thought. When she looked up, Criss was still in the doorway, looking quizzically at her. Quistis sighed and waved a hand at him. "Long story, never mind. Go get ready, I’ll see you three out on the track circuit in a minute." Criss nodded and closed the door as he left. Quistis let herself get lost in her thoughts for a few minutes before she headed out to follow them.
What was it about gunblade specialists anyway? They seemed to either be stoic moody types like Squall or cocksure bundles of arrogance like Seifer. And if they were like Criss Brendan, they somehow combined elements of both.. When in combat, Brendan was more like Seifer, all swagger and assuredness as he went about his work. Off duty, he clammed up and wandered the halls with his head down, just like Squall in the early days of Quistis knowing him, avoiding human contact as though it would burn his skin at the touch. Quistis thought there had to be something about the gunblade as a weapon that attracted those two very distinct personality types, but she had no idea what. It might be a good exercise to get each cadet talk through why they’d picked the speciality they had on day, although with Redman is was a bit more obvious – there was a long history of magic users in her family, and so much exposure to magical objects and spells can start to work its way into the DNA over the years, making each new generation more likely to be skilled in the use of magic, and thus more likely to take it up professionally.
Anyway, it was time for the track lesson. Quistis checked the weather before she left the classroom. The clouds were departing and the familiar rays of Balamb sunshine were doing their best to burn off the moisture on the ground, so with a smile Quistis made her way over to the gym block.
"Good afternoon, class, nice to see none of you managed to get lost on your way across from the classroom to the changing rooms," said Quistis as she stood on the pavilion overlooking the sports field, looking down at her three students in their gym outfits. Or, at least, as close to gym outfits as they could get – they were all wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but all non-regulation – Balamb’s dress code should have had them all in blue, but Katya was wearing a red t-shirt with some obscure fashion designer’s logo on it and white shorts, Cevin had on a black tee with his favourite rock band’s logo proudly emblazoned on it (and Quistis actually recognised them, which made her feel a little old all of a sudden), and Criss was wearing a lack long sleeved top which was pain except from one line of white lettering, which read ‘Freak.’ Teenagers, muttered Quistis to herself, trying t forget that she was still a few months away from turning twenty herself. She was dressed in almost regulation blue shirt and black shorts, but the band t-shirt she had on was inside out to hide the logo on the reverse.
"What’s the plan then, Quisty?" said Cevin, tongue firmly in cheek as he continued. "Want us to run around for twenty minutes so you can watch us sweat? I hear some of the instructors like that.."
"I’m not one of the other instructors, remember? I’m your own personal teacher. No funny stuff, McClewen, or I’ll fill the long jump pit with lava and get you to jump it with rocks tied to your trainers. Now then, class, a few warm up exercises first." Quistis started to run through some muscle limbering up exercises with them before walking them out to the edge of the track circuit. A 1500m circuit with various sections of the inside and outside of the track set up for long jump and high jump runs, the Balamb Track circuit hosted local athletics competitions around this time of year so was in good condition right now. Stands of seats ran round the perimeter but apart from a few students enjoying the sunshine they were empty.
"Right. We’ll do a few laps of this to start with. Well, when I say ‘we’ I mean you lot, I have the very important duty of standing here with my stopwatch to time you. Marks? Set! And get lost!" The three students dutifully started jogging round the circuit, gradually increasing their speed. Quistis noticed how easily Katya seemed to be moving, and closer inspection pointed out why.
"Redman! No levitation or you’ll have to run the whole thing backwards!" yelled Quistis, and Redman ran with both feet on the ground instead of just above it. She kept them running for a little while before trying out some long jumps, and finished the session off with some sprint training. Quistis dismissed the class when all that was done, and the three tired cadets sloped back to the changing rooms just as Rack led his class out for their training runs. He jogged over to her as she stood watching her three charges depart.
"How’s things going with the unholy trinity, then?" he asked. Rack’s class numbered about thirty, quite a contrast.
"Not bad. They still give me a lot of lip but I think I’m starting to work out where everyone else went wrong with them."
"Oh? Why’s that then?" The two started to walk slowly round the infield as Rack’s class jogged around the circuit.
"Everyone else tried too hard to make these kids follow the rules. That’s what they rejected and that’s why they were such a handful."
"You’re not doing that, I take it?"
"Nope, I’m making up a new set of rules just for them, which is something I have the luxury of being able to do! Each has their own needs and requires a different approach, but I’m starting to nail down what it is I need to do with each of them. It’s just a matter of time now, and as it happens tomorrow has something pretty unexpected in store for each of them," said Quistis with a knowing grin.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The hexadragon roared and bellowed a gout of lurid red flame out into the air, then swung its head down again, missing Brendan’s outstretched arm by inches as he shoved Katya out of the way. The huge black beast reared up in the air, two of its several pairs of legs buffeting the air before slamming down hard again, the shockwave throwing Redman and Brendan to the ground. Criss looked across to McClewen, unconscious and bleeding by their side, but he didn’t have time to think of what to do with his fallen comrade as the thick, spiked tail of the hexadragon slammed into him a second later, and he hurtled through the air to crash down heavily several feet away. His vision fogged and he could dimly hear Katya calling his name through the stars popping inside his head.
Brendan staggered to his feet, just in time to see the dragon galloping towards him. Redman was bravely trying to contain it using a gravity spell, but it was taking its sweet time working. Black tendrils of energy were looping round the monster but they weren’t slowing it up as much as planned. Criss’ hand reached down to his belt for his gunblade, but found nothing but empty air. he tore his eyes away from the approaching creature to look, and saw that in the melee it had been torn away and was lying on the ground several feet away.
Criss looked up again as the hexadragon loomed above him, its multitude of blue eyes reflecting him as it reared up for another strike. Katya’s spell had bought him just enough time to leap to the side, rolling as he hit the ground and picking up his blade. He skidded to a halt and crouched, ready to spring back to action. the beast had stopped and was turning slowly towards him, shrugging off the spell despite Katya’s visible exertion to maintain it. The effort finally overcame her and she wilted to the ground, exhausted. Criss locked eyes with the dragon as it regarded him coolly, waiting for his next move.
With a yell he sprang to his feet and rushed it, leaping into the air to avoid its tail and hopping to the side to dodge a burst of flame before leaping high into the air and bringing his blade down squarely on the top of the creature’s head, the force of his blow driving the blade deep into the dragon’s brain. With a roar it shook its head wildly around trying to dislodge the blade, succeeding only in casting Criss off. As its adrenaline lost the fight with the shock damage, the dragon slowed and stumbled, collapsing as its legs buckled beneath it to a heap on the ground. It breathed once more and then was still.
Criss walked over to Katya and helped her to her feet. She looked a mess – her hair was thick with sweat and she looked like something had drained all the colour from her body, but she was otherwise unhurt. McClewen was just coming round too, and he sat up clutching his head with a groan. Criss held out a hand but Cevin brushed it away angrily and tried to push himself to his feet. Criss shrugged and threw one of Katya’s arms across his shoulders to help her stand.
A solitary round of applause could be heard, and the three cadets looked round to see Quistis watching them, sunglasses on and a half-eaten sandwich in her hand from the picnic basket by her feet. They were out on the infamous Island Closest To Hell, so called because it was swarming with some of the toughest monsters anywhere in the world. Legend has it that biologists had introduced the various creatures there many years ago as an experiment to see how they would interact, but the monster population had spread over the years and the island was now a no-go area. Unless you were SeeD personnel with access to a helicopter, anyway. Quistis had led the recruits out here for a spot of hands-on combat training, deciding that the grats lurking in the Garden’s training centre were too weak for her class to practice on, so jumping in at the deep end here would bet the best bet.
"Well done, class, good marks. There were a few things I’d have done differently, but never mind that now." The class limped over to face her. The landscape of the island varied rapidly between dense jungle, open plains and rocky hillsides, another by-product of experimentation over the years. The tampering with the environment had brought on one pleasant side effect, however – the island was a plentiful source of magic energy, and a skilled user could draw power from here that could easily be converted into almost every spell known. Quistis had sat on a grassy embankment while the class squared up to the dragon in a thickly treed area, watching how they handled themselves.
"I’m glad we passed, miss," said Cevin, grimacing and holding his side. Quistis guessed he’d probably taken a few cracked ribs when the dragon had run him into one of the tress early in the fight.
"Oh, this isn’t an exam, this is just training," said Quistis through a mouthful of food. "Once you’re patched up we’re going to find something else to fight. The monsters here develop much more quickly than normal, it’s a side-effect of all the magic energy this place is filled with."
"It may take a while to ‘patch us up’ is all," said Katya through ragged breath, "that one took a lot out of us." Quistis picked up a drinks carton and took a slurp from it before continuing.
"Part of the arsenal of any SeeD is the ability to maintain combat effectiveness in the field. That boils down to being able to look after yourself when you get hurt. Now, it’s impractical to lug dozens of medical supplies around with you just in case you cut yourself on something, so you save those for emergencies. The rest of the time, either try not to get hit or get used to healing spells." She turned to Katya, who was just managing to stand shakily on her own two feet at last. "Reckon you can manage a few?"
"I’ll try, instructor," she said, "just give me a minute." Katya stood up straight and ran her fingers through her hair as she composed herself. She took in a deep breath and drew out a sphere in the air before her with her hands. As she repeated the motion, a soft blue light filled the space before her, which she then motioned towards Criss. He breathed in sharply as the healing spell took him, then visibly relaxed.
"It’s cold," he said with a grin.
"Very good, Katya. Glad to see you’ve been listening to me after all. Could you make a stronger one up for Cevin now?" Katya nodded and turned to Cevin, who backed away with his hands up.
"No way, I don’t need any of that magic stuff on me," he protested. "I’ll be fine." To prove his point, he flexed his muscles and tried to shrug off any pain that might cause him.
Katya and Quistis exchanged a look as Cevin squirmed in agony on the ground before them. Quistis motioned for her to go ahead with the spell, and with a nod she conjured up another ball of blue light, this one brighter and more intense. As that floated down onto Cevin, his squirming stopped and he pulled himself back up to his feet.
"Now the thing to remember is that healing spells won’t set broken bones or repair severed arteries or anything like that. What they will do is hold off the pain for long enough for you to fix it, as well as making sure your blood loss and tissue damage doesn’t get any worse. An enchanted wound won’t pick up any infection either." Quistis looked round at the class. Cevin was looking at the floor, obviously unhappy with needing to be helped out like that. Quistis made a mental note to work on that aspect of his character later before she addressed them all.
"On the whole, I was very impressed. Katya and Criss, you demonstrated teamwork and a good knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses – I liked your plan to slow the creature down so Criss could attack it, Katya, and how you went straight to help her once the thing was down. Full marks. However, McClewen," she said, standing before him. "Well, where do I start. You steamed in first without any kind of plan and got slammed facefirst into a tree for your trouble. You lasted exactly twelve seconds in that fight and were no help to anybody for the rest of it, largely because you were unconscious." She took another sip of her drink. "Actually, on reflection that may have been a benefit to the other two. We need to get all three of you working as a team or you’ll all be killed because of it."
"I lasted longer than twelve seconds, that’s just you being hard on me, I must’ve-" began Cevin, but he was silenced by Quistis, who without looking up had fished a stopwatch from her pocket and held it up for him to see. The timer didn’t lie, twelve point oh-one seconds. Cevin shut up and scowled again.
"Let’s take a minute to rest then go find something else." Quistis headed back up to the picnic basket and fished out an apple while the three cadets flopped to the ground.
The T-Rexaur bellowed, a combination of nerve-shreddingly loud noise, spit and the kind of breath that can only be achieved by a steady diet of raw animal flesh. It didn’t stop McClewen, however, who stood his ground before the huge monster as it padded slowly towards him. Cevin stood, hands on hips, as the creature advanced, its head bowed down low so it could get on an eye level with this intruder into its territory. Cevin waited until it was mere feet away from him, a faint smile playing across his lips as the t-rex’s eyes narrowed to slits and it examined him. It sniffed a few times, then stepped back.
Deciding that the creature before it many not be very big but smelt tasty and would do for now, the t-rex drew itself up to its full height and roared out a challenge to the sky, sending flocks of birds screeching away from the trees and causing most life on the island to respectfully fall silent for a few moments. Cevin was, deep down, a little on edge at squaring off bare-handed to such a fearsome opponent, but he had a plan and hopefully that plan wouldn’t get him killed.
"Come get some," he muttered as the t-rex hunched down and prepared to run at him. As soon as it began its first step, Cevin was on the move, zig-zagging towards the monster and catching it out, darting between its legs and past its swinging tail in seconds.
"Now!" he shouted, and on cue Katya, stationed in one of the trees overhead, used the energy she’d been steadily siphoning from the island and let rip with a binding spell that wrapped thick green ropes of magical power around the monster’s legs. With a confused growl the t-rex crashed headfirst to the ground, at which moment Brendan leapt out from the undergrowth he was hiding in and delivered a swift strike to the t-rex’s neck, triggering a gunblade blast at the same instant.
Quistis looked away from the resulting explosion, and tried not to hear the crunch and splatter noises that went with it. When she looked back, she saw her three students standing proudly by the decapitated t-rex, not a scratch on them. For a change. Quistis gave them a thumbs up from her vantage point and beckoned them over.
"Nice work, I think we can safely call it quits for today. Let’s get back to the chopper and head home, class." She turned and walked back to the helicopter station, with the cadets followed. McClewen jogged up to catch up to her.
"So, that was better, right? I mean, we took that thing out like, bam! Pow! Never even knew what hit him, right?"
"You certainly did, Cevin," said Quistis with a grin. "Don’t get too ahead of yourself, we still have a long way to go before you three are ready for the SeeD field exam. I think it’s fair to say we made a lot of progress today, though."
"Damn right we did," said Cevin proudly, hanging back to catch the others up. "Hear that? We did good today!" he enthused at them. Katya beamed back at him but Criss stayed quiet. "Felt good to get outside and kick something’s ass instead of sitting around at the Garden all day, huh?"
"Sure did," said Katya. She looked up to Criss but he remained silent, his eyes dead ahead. Katya sighed and nudged his arm, and he turned to look at her.
"We were just feeling proud of ourselves for a moment, feel free to join in anytime, you know," said Redman with a grin. Criss nodded.
"Yup." Katya and Cevin left him to his thoughts and carried on nattering until they reached the edge of the island. The helicopter pad was a floating platform a few hundred metres away from the island itself, accessible by a long walkway across the ocean waters inbetween. The island was visited by research scientists and SeeD personnel fairly often, so the pad was always well maintained. Quistis was waiting by it as the three students sauntered out of the jungle, but as they set foot on the walkway she climbed into the helicopter’s passenger seat and motioned to the pilot. He started up the engines, and as the students watched in horror the rotor blades fired up.
"Hey! What the hell?" yelled Cevin over the growing noise. Katya’s long hair started to whip up from the rotor turbulence, and Brendan started to run towards the chopper. They were all too far away, sadly, and the chopper lifted off before Brendan was even halfway along the walkway. It hovered overhead and Quistis’ voice spoke from the loudspeaker on its belly.
"Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you here for good. This is just a little survival exercise for you all. I’ll be back in a few hours to pick you up again, all you have to do is not get killed in the meantime. Good luck!" And with that, the helicopter pulled away and flew back towards the mainland, leaving the students staring, speechless, after it.
The pilot turned to Quistis as the island faded from view.
"You’re not actually leaving them all alone there, are you?"
"Of course not, they’ve all got tracking devices on them. I’ll never be more than a few minutes away whatever happens. They won’t know that, obviously," she said with an evil grin. the pilot laughed and shook his head as she replaced her sunglasses and sat back to enjoy the trip.
Back on the island, Katya and McClewen caught up with Brendan.
"She left us.. " managed Redman, "she left us here!"
"Bitch," snarled McClewen, "I knew this being nice thing wouldn’t last."
"It’s another test," said Criss quietly. The other two turned to him.
"Say what?" said Cevin.
"It’s another test. She’ll be back for us before too long, don’t worry."
"I wish I could share your optimism," said Redman, turning to look back at the island. As if on cue, something large and ugly hollered out from deep within the jungles. She shuddered and turned to the others. "Now what do we do?"
"Let’s head back and find some shelter," said Criss. He started to walk back towards the island. Katya looked at McClewen, who shrugged and followed Brendan. With a shake of her head, Redman jogged after them both.
Tonight would be a long night.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Hmm? Oh, milk and two sugars, please. Thanks," said Quistis to the offer of coffee. She was at the Island Closest To Hell’s observation outpost, located a little way inland from the island itself. she was sat behind a wall of monitors with a laptop computer running in front of her as well. The screens up before her offered her unrivalled views of every single part of the island, part of a network of surveillance cameras that not many people knew about. The scientists who’d set the island up had installed them to allow them to track the creatures roaming the landscape, but tonight Quistis was using them to keep a watchful eye on her students.
Leaving them stranded on the island like this had been a plan she’d deliberated over for some time – it was dangerous for them, and it was going against most of her instructor’s instincts to abandon her charges like this, but with the cameras keeping them within sight at all times and the added security of the tracking devices she was observing using the laptop, she felt in control of the situation. And besides, she’d decided that they needed to practice working as a team together without her watching their every move – well, without them knowing that she was watching their every move, at least. At the moment the trio were practising basic survival techniques – they were constructing a shelter using the plentiful natural resources, and Quistis had to admit she was impressed with the tactics they were using – Criss was chopping trees down and Katya was catching them as they fell using some levitation spells, so that Criss and Cevin could break them up as needed and carry them to the site they’d picked.
The outpost assistant who she was working with brought in two mugs of coffee and handed one to Quistis. She thanked him and sipped it while she scanned the monitors. The monsters on the island wouldn’t give them any trouble unless they drew attention to themselves, so if the students were smart enough to realise that then everything would be just fine.
"What was that?" whispered Katya. She was huddled up inside the shelter, her SeeD uniform’s jacket zipped up tight and stretched out to try and warm her up a little more. Between the three of them, they’d managed to cut down a few trees and use both the wood and the leaves to make a small, three person refuge from the approaching cool night winds, the entrance to which faced out towards the heart of the island’s jungle so that they had time to spot anything sniffing around. Criss had remembered to make sure they were downwind too, to avoid the scent of a trio of juicy meat snacks carrying into the nostrils of any nearby predators. It hadn’t helped Redman’s nerves much, however, and she was still jumping a mile out of her skin at the slightest noise. The one she’d just mentioned was a rustle in the jungle foliage up ahead. Criss scanned through the gloom but saw nothing.
"Just the wind," he said reassuringly. McClewen was still fuming to himself, shaken out of his brooding by Criss laying a hand gently on his shoulder. Cevin’s left hand shot up in a reflex action to strike out before he realised it was just Criss and relaxed.
"Jeez, don’t do that to me, man. I’m a finely tuned killing machine, remember, one wrong move and fwipp!" He snapped his fingers together for emphasis. "I’d have your head clean off."
"No, you wouldn’t," said Brendan calmly, and one look into his eyes told Cevin that he was being honest. Cevin shrugged off the cool confidence of his classmate and hugged his knees again.
"One thing I am going to do is cause Instructor Quistis some serious pain when she shows her face around here again," he muttered darkly. "This has to be the stupidest stunt anyone’s ever tried to pull on us, worse even than that time when Instructor Kudlow set a wendigo loose in our classroom." McClewen was jolted again by a slap on the shoulder from Redman.
"Wake up, stupid," she scolded, "this is one of those crappy ‘team-building’ exercises," she said, using her fingers to mime the quotation marks. "We’re supposed to come out of the other end of this more focused as a team, or whatever."
"The last thing I want to do is get focused at the moment!" snapped back Cevin. "What I want to do is get some sleep so I’ll be ready when she gets here." He hunkered down and curled up in one corner of the shelter, eyes closed. Redman and Brendan exchanged a look, and Katya sighed as she joined Criss at the entrance.
"He may have a point there, I can’t be sure but I think it’s getting pretty close to midnight already. We were here with Quistis for most of the day anyway, and I think we’ve been here alone for about two hours now."
"I’ll keep first watch then," said Criss, turning to her with a rare smile. "Get some rest." Katya smiled brightly – she wasn’t used to seeing Criss look like he was enjoying himself, but it put her at ease straight away.
"Right. If anything shows up and I hear some girlish screaming, I’ll assume it’s Cevin and wake up to save you both." She lay down at the back of the shelter and laid her jacket over herself as a makeshift blanket.
"I know you would, phoenix," said Criss as he watched her doze off. She didn’t hear the nickname he’d given her and just shuffled around as she tried to get comfortable. He turned his attention back to the jungle and checked his gunblade. Not much ammo left, best save it just in case. He dropped the shells into his pocket but came across something else as he did so. Lifting the item out for a closer look, he saw it was his SeeD ID card, but in the low gloom he could make out a very faint red light flashing on the reverse. He examined it more closely – it appeared to be some kind of small circuit board, and as he looked he could just about make out a brand name on it – TrackTech. Criss grinned. TrackTech were a world leader in small, discreet tracking devices and surveillance equipment. Seemed that Quistis hadn’t left them alone completely after all. He slipped the ID card back into his pocket, deciding that the other two didn’t need to know what he’d just found out. That way they’d learn the most from the exercise.
Back at the observation post, Quistis watched with alarm as a pack of anacondaurs slithered their way towards the shelter. They were just patrolling randomly, on the lookout for a meal, buts he’d watched Redman and McClewen go to sleep so if Criss didn’t spot them in time, things could get ugly. Anacondaurs had a poisonous bite as well as the strength they used to wrap themselves around a victim and literally crush the life out of them. A couple was within Brendan’s abilities but Quistis had counted five of them, and the noise from the fight was sure to attract more creatures. She stood up, ready to race to the helipad at a moment’s notice, but continued watching as the creatures drew closer.
Brendan had picked up the large snake-like monsters a little while earlier, and was watching from the shadows of the shelter, motionless, as they swished noiselessly through the long grass. For a moment it looked as though they’d pass right by, until one stopped and turned towards the shelter, its thick tongue flickering in and out as it smelt the air. Without taking his eyes off the creature, Brendan reached out a hand and gently shook Katya awake. She murmured softly as she came round before seeing Criss holding up a finger for her to be silent. She got up very carefully and followed his gaze to the pack of monsters outside. She nudged McClewen with her boot who snorted once and sat up with a grunt. The noise made two more of the creatures stop and listen, and Criss cursed inwardly.
Cevin sat up and was about to speak when Katya clamped her hand across his mouth. She waved a finger to say no, then pointed outside, raising the five fingers on her left hand to signal what was out there. Cevin looked and grinned, cracking his knuckles loudly at the prospect of some action. The noise unfortunately alerted the remaining two anacondaurs, and the pack started to advance on the hideout, tongues smelling the air to locate their prey. Criss threw a quick glare at Cevin before grabbing up his gunblade and tensing, ready to lead the attack. He was half a second from jumping out of the shelter and in to the attack when Katya suddenly grabbed his arm. He looked round at her, but she was staring ahead at something else, and used her other hand to motion that he and Cevin should back down.
As they did so, they watched the anacondaurs spread out and start to encircle their target – a large, fat rodent scurrying through the undergrowth and trying to escape its pursuers. The trio watched as nature took its course, and the monsters pounced on the unfortunate creature, one encircling it and crushing it and the others starting to tear chunks away from it. McClewen sagged and sat down with a welcome sigh, and they watched as the anacondaurs disappeared into the night again with their prize.
"Thanks, Kat, we owe you one," said Cevin to break the silence.
"Yeah, that could have been very messy," seconded Criss. Katya shrugged and returned to her sleeping position at the rear of the shelter.
"It was nothing, I just cast a quick scanning spell and picked up that little rat thing, and I figured the anacondaurs were going for that instead." She settled down to rest again. "G’night." Cevin looked at Brendan, a proud smile on his face before he too curled up again to sleep. Criss looked up at the sky. The stars and moon were out now, casting a little light on their surroundings. He returned to his vigil, listening out again for any more tell-tale sounds.
Quistis breathed a sigh of relief herself and sat down again. If nothing else, they were proving they could look out for each other and also not squabble anywhere near as much as most teams did. Cevin was still pretty hot-headed at times but the other two were starting to be able to keep him in check. There wasn’t an obvious team leader at the moment, as Katya and Criss both proved to have the right stuff at various times, but Quistis got the impression that once they’d forgiven her for dumping them there overnight, she could carry on with the last phase of the training she’d planned out for them and then they’d be ready for the exam. She stretched to wake up her tired muscles and swirled the last few drops of coffee round in the bottom of her mug, before slurping them down. Only a few hours till the sun came up, so at first light she’d head out to the island’s landing pad and take them back to Garden.
True to her word, as the first fingers of sunlight plied their way through the dense canopy of foliage above the student’s shelter, the sound of an approaching helicopter started to reverberate round the island, and Brendan was one of the first people moving out to see it. Using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, he watched Quistis’ chopper circle the island once and then come in to land. Katya and Cevin, roused by the noise, joined him at the lip of the jungle to watch her land. The helicopter landed and powered down, and Quistis stepped out of the passenger side door. She remained by the helicopter and called out to the students.
"Well! It seems you’re all alive and well, so I’m pleased to announce that we can move on to the last stage of your training. And let me assure you, this phase will give you ample opportunity to take any payback on me you feel is necessary for this little survival exercise." Nobody moved. Quistis put her hands on her hips and tutted impatiently, but the students took the hint at this and started to head along the walkway towards the landing pad.
"That was a pretty mean thing to do to us," said Redman as she passed and climbed into the rear section of the helicopter.
"Mean, yes. Effective, yes. I’m very proud of you all."
"It was actually kinda fun," said Cevin. "But not the kind of fun I’d like to have a lot of. What did you mean when you said we could ‘take some payback,’ Instructor?"
"You’ll see," grinned Quistis. "Everything alright, Criss?" she asked as he walked by. He just nodded.
"Insomniac boy here stayed up on watch all night," shouted Redman as the chopper’s engine started up again. "He was too daft to wake us up to change over." Brendan shrugged.
"It was a nice night, didn’t want to miss it," he said. Quistis shook her head and leapt back into the passenger seat. As the helicopter took off and started back towards the Garden, she turned round and spoke to the students, all of them wearing headphones to hear one another.
"That was, believe it or not, a legitimate combat training exercise. There will be times during your career when you will be left, without notice, in a hostile environment and expected to fend for yourself. Your troop carrier may be destroyed, your squad may be forced to pull out and not be able to wait for you, or you could just get separated from the rest of your unit. The fact that I left you three in one of the most inhospitable and hostile environments in the world, and that you’re all here now in one piece, won’t be forgotten. Top marks all round." Quistis saw Brendan playing absently with his ID card, and for a second thought he threw a quick glance of acknowledgement at her, but it was too quick to be certain.
"So what’s next, Instructor?" asked Redman. Quistis smiled.
"You’ll like this part. You get a few days off, first thing. Then, the last thing we’re doing before I decide whether or not to recommend you to Headmaster Cid for the field exam is a little combat training."
"What’ll we be doing this time?" said McClewen.
"Each of you will go one-on-one against me," she said, and turned back round to let that sink in. It was a bold move on her part, it would either set the level of respect between them for good or destroy the confidence she’d worked so hard to build. It was a risk Quistis was willing to take, however, because the only way she’d know for sure if they were ready would be to fight each one of them herself.
They were back at the Garden soon afterwards, and Quistis headed back to her quarters as the three students went their separate ways, with an order to meet back up in two days time. Quistis flopped onto her bed, drained from a night without sleep watching the students, and slept soundly, her dreams thankfully keeping quiet while her batteries recharged themselves.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Rain. Typical. The one day I have to really make a show of everything, to really put all my years experience to the test and take on possibly the most talented bunch of potential SeeDs I’ve ever seen, and it starts chucking it down with rain the moment I step outside, thought Quistis bitterly as she pulled her jacket collar up to try and stop the steady trickle of rainwater down the back of her neck. She’d managed to get the rest of the playing fields largely to herself for today, and she’d led her three students out to the rockier hills just past the field’s limits, just in case this all got a little out of hand. She passed the spot where Seifer and Squall had put each other in the infirmary and grinned to herself at the dramatic irony of it all – she was going to go up against a gunblade expert herself soon. She wondered if Squall could have lent her any tips.
"Right then, class!" said Quistis, turning to the three cadets as they reached a flatter area. The greens of the playing fields were a little way behind, and the rocky plains around them were a good place to start. Quistis could see crowds of cadets sneaking over to get a closer look but didn’t bring the cadets’ attention to it. "The object of today’s hopefully final exercise in your training is simple. Attack me with everything you’ve got. I’ll be grading you on speed, ferocity, tactics, the usual," she said as she paced up and down in front of them. They were also all in full SeeD uniform, shivering a little under the light but cold drizzle spraying across the fields and plains in the early morning breeze. It was just after 9am, and Quistis hoped to wrap this up by lunchtime if all went to plan.
"Which one of us goes first?" asked McClewen. Quistis grinned at him.
"Since you posed the question, McClewen, you can start." Cevin grinned and cracked his knuckles together. "Remember the rules. Don’t pull your punches and don’t hesitate to attack. Treat me like any other opponent out to disable you. I’ll be doing my best to take you down, you have to prove your combat skills to me. Ready?"
"I was born ready," said Cevin. The two struck up relaxed stances about ten feet apart, with Criss and Katya sitting down to watch. Quistis drew her whip and held it loose by her side, watching Cevin limber up and stretch his muscles.
"Whenever you’d like to start, McClewen," said Quistis with a mock yawn. Katya chuckled. With a final twist of his neck Cevin sprang into action, rushing forward to close the distance between the two of them as quick as possible. Quistis hopped neatly back and snapped her whip against the ground, kicking up a spray of dirt that hit Cevin in the face. As he skidded to a halt and began to wipe his eyes, he was surprised by a swift boot to his sternum and then a shove as Quistis threw him neatly to the ground. She stood back and waited while he picked himself up, wheezing.
"Remember, class," she said, addressing all three, "your enemy will use every means necessary to gain an advantage over you. Always keep an eye on your surroundings as well as who you’re fighting, they can be used against you if you’re not careful. Cevin, ready to continue?"
"Just a minute," he wheezed, leaning forwards with his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. Quistis smirked.
"Of course, in a real fight you wouldn’t get breaks, but you’re just warming up so I’ll forgive you," she said. Cevin coughed once and nodded to signal he was ready. He ran to the attack again but this time zig-zagged towards Quistis, dodging two whip strikes before getting close enough.
He started with a flurry of punches and chops, which Quistis used both her arms and whip handle to block or fend off, striking back herself when she could. Both combatants took a few blows before Quistis dropped to the ground and knocked Cevin off his feet with a low sweeping kick. He flipped back to his feet then backflipped completely to dodge and incoming whip crack. Once back on his feet, he leapt in the air for a kick, but Quistis sidestepped, grabbed his outstretched leg and flung him to the ground. As he crashed down she went to stamp on his hand, but Cevin rolled out of the way. Quistis paused as he picked himself up to address everyone again.
"Watch out for dirty moves like that, too. You should identify which parts of your attacker’s body are his most useful and disable them. Weapon users or fist fighters lose a lot of power if you disable their hands," she said.
Cevin tried a different approach this time, edging forward and ducking and weaving to avoid Quistis’ whip. When he was within range, he hunched down and leapt forward, tackling Quistis off her feet in one sudden spring. She tried to roll back but he clamped his legs down on her, holding her in place as he raised a fist to strike her. He paused, ready to strike a knockout blow but with a grin on his face.
"I take it this is a good time to hold it," he said. Quistis grinned.
"Very good so far, you demonstrated you could work out how I’d attack and adjusted your approach to suit. But I said to never hesitate, didn’t I?" she said, snapping one knee up squarely into Cevin’s groin. He gulped once, turned very pale and toppled sideways off her. She stood up, dusted herself down and held out a hand to help him to his feet.
"That was.. very.. very, very.. very sneaky of you.." he managed, obviously in some discomfort.
"I could have reached up and broken your neck with my legs if I’d wanted to," she said, "I think you got off lightly. Very good work though, Cevin, consider me impressed. Apart from that one mistake at the end top marks all round."
Katya slapped him on the shoulder with a giggle, but he was still too busy making sure he was in full working order. Criss stood up.
"Me next," he said calmly. Quistis gathered up her whip and stepped back a few paces.
"Okay then, Brendan, show me what you’ve got," she said, striking a defensive pose, half crouched and whip ready to flash out with one snap of her wrist. Brendan closed his eyes, almost meditating for a few moments before adopting a similar stance, gunblade held above his head. The rain had eased a little but was still dripping off them both, and Quistis’ eyes narrowed as she started to feel the concentration Brendan was drawing into himself.
Without a word he leapt forward, swinging his blade round in a slow arc which Quistis easily deflected with her whip. Without pausing, he span round and swung the gunblade round from the other direction, forcing Quistis to duck and roll neatly to avoid it. He hopped forward again, bringing the blade down towards her head, but Quistis was ready for it.
Copying a move she’d seen Squall pull off once, she grabbed the blade out of the air between her palms, and in the split second that Brendan hesitated after that, she flipped it to the side and out of the path of her head. A whip handle cracked across his knuckles made Criss drop the weapon, which she calmly booted away. It slid several feet away across the increasingly muddy ground, but Brendan leapt back and took up a defensive stance again, rather than risk losing a hand diving after the sword. Quistis sidestepped and put herself between Criss and the gunblade.
"That’s always a good tactic when faced with an opponent whose weapon is better than yours – get rid of it!" she said, and Criss nodded.
"And then prevent them from getting it back," he said, the cocky grin starting to spread cross his face a sure sign that his other, rarely seen personality was starting to surface. "At least, try to," he finished, and with a shout he jumped to the attack again.
The two of them danced through the air, sending fists and feet arcing round high and low, weaving, ducking and dodging each other, neither landing a blow for what seemed like several long minutes. Eventually, Criss saw a gap and lunged towards the ground, rolling as he hit and narrowly missing the barb of Quistis’ whip as she cracked it after him. He grabbed the blade and span round, using it to deflect two more whip strikes before assuming his defensive stance again.
Very good, thought Quistis, defensive play to make me move first. She knew a few tricks about that, however, and put one of them into use as she snapped her whip to the left, forcing Criss to duck, but it was a shallow attack and as he swung his blade round to her seemingly undefended side she brought the whip tearing back across his path at dizzying speed, so fast he barely had time to see it coming. Even if he had, he had no time to get out of the way.
Brendan crashed heavily to the ground, his blade skittering away out of his hands again. He got back up as far as his knees, panting with exertion and raised his hand to signal he was done. Quistis held out a hand and helped him to his feet.
"Very, very good, Brendan," she said as he went and sat back down next to a by now very nervous looking Katya, "intelligent attack and focused at all times. And that trick I pulled to beat you is the sort you only fall for once, make sure you remember it. Katya, you’re next," she said, gathering up her whip and taking a stand again. Katya gulped and stood, walking over to face off against Quistis.
Quistis was trying very hard not to break a sweat. So far, she’d managed it pretty well – she hadn’t given away to Cevin or Criss just how close they’d come to beating her – until he paused at the end Cevin had the opportunity to knock her out cold, and the last move against Brendan was only thanks to reflexes on her part. Katya would be a different matter entirely, and she wasn’t 100% sure she could beat the young magic user. The key here was making sure Redman didn’t focus her powers effectively – Quistis wanted her to learn that in order to get the most out of her skills she had to concentrate on them more, and this battle would prove that. So far, she’d taught the other two their final lessons – don’t let your guard down and expect the unexpected. Now she had about five seconds to work out how to teach Katya the art of control before the wannabe sorceress wiped the floor with her..
Katya started by clasping her hands together, eyes closed, drawing up any stray magical energy around her. The fields of Balamb were quite rich with the magical essences which those individuals lucky enough to know how to use them could gather up and form into a wide variety of spells, although luckily for Quistis the essences round here weren’t of the same power level as places like the Island Closest To Hell. As green beads of light started to materialise out of the air round Katya, however, Quistis started to crouch down, ready to duck and dive whatever attack came her way.
Katya’s hair started to billow out around her as though facing a strong breeze, although despite the rain there was no real wind out on the fields at the moment. The balls of light gathered around Katya’s clasped hands and became one solid shape, and as Redman opened her eyes Quistis tensed as she saw a grin spread across the cadet’s face.
The bolt shot out from her hands suddenly, hurtling towards Quistis and tearing a jagged rift in the ground behind it. Quistis threw herself to the side an dodged it, but knew better than to stay there and was up on her feet and running before a volley of bolts of lightning zapped into the ground after her. The storm overhead intensified, fuelled by the energies Redman was throwing about, but Katya was too busy concentrating on her target.
Quistis took advantage of this, hopping close enough to Katya to send out a quick whip strike at her legs which knocked the young mage to the ground. The green energy was dispelled as her concentration broke, and Quistis used the respite in the offensive to catch her breath while Katya picked herself back up.
"Excellent, Redman, but you have to be careful about leaving yourself open to strikes like that. All it takes is for your opponent to break your concentration once and you’re finished. There are ways around that, so let’s see if we can’t bring those out of you. let’s start over, but this time, try to stop me from attacking when I get close enough," said Quistis, assuming her stance again as Katya nodded, dusted off the dirt she’d picked up from the ground and closed her eyes to concentrate again. This time, blue energy started to form out of the air around her, with lines of yellow essence flowing from the ground by her feet to create a much more striking green ball of light before her hands. Katya’s lips were moving – Quistis realised she was using mantras to aid her focus, trying to shape the forces around her into what she wanted rather than just using what they gave to her.
Redman’s eyes flicked open, but by the time her first attack was away Quistis was already moving, closing the distance between the two and leaping to avoid the gouts of flame Katya threw at her. As she drew within whip range, Katya changed her stance to a defensive one suddenly, and moved one forearm in a circular motion around her. The energy before her switched from green to red, tracing her arm’s movements, and as Quistis’ whip snaked out it struck the red field before Katya with as solid a ‘thunk’ as if she’d attacked a brick wall.
Quistis braked and skidded to a halt, a faint smile on her lips. She knew that if she pressured Katya she’d force her to act on instinct instead of trying to show off, and that the magical essences pouring through her would start to guide her actions almost unconsciously. She’d seen Rinoa surrender herself to them during many battles once the teenager had learned of her powers as a sorceress, and despite the loss of a degree of conscious control, as long as you kept your head together you could let the magic do the work for you.
Indeed, as Quistis tried a few more exploratory attacks with her whip, but Katya moved as though Quistis was moving in slow motion, having the forcefield in place to block before the whip was even halfway there. There were a few more things she could try to see if she could break through her defences, before Katya worked out how to-
Quistis felt her stomach drop away, and as she looked down realised she was lifting off the floor. The faint glow around her feet showed her that Katya had worked out how to do what Quistis both hoped and feared – she could use an offensive power at the same time as defending herself. Quistis braced herself for impact, then closed her eyes as she felt herself rushing through the air.
She slammed hard into the muddy ground seconds later, rolling with the impact but feeling a sharp pain in her shoulder that felt like a torn muscle. Time to wrap this up a little. Quistis stood and raised a hand to stop the fight, just as Katya launched a black ball of energy at her. The collected crowd, now having crept to within a few metres of the battleground, gasped, but in the silence that followed, and as Quistis opened her eyes, she saw that Redman had paused the black blob inches away from her outstretched hand. She grinned and nodded once to Redman, who waved her hand once and dispelled the offending magics, which popped out of the air with a sound effect to match.
"I think," said Quistis, trying not to grimace from the worsening burning sensation in her damaged shoulder, "that we can safely wrap thing sup. There’ll be a formal declaration later, but for now, class, you’ve passed your training, and I’ll recommend to Headmaster Cid that we get you down to take your final field exam in the next few days. Class dismissed." Katya received the congratulations of her colleagues, followed by a cheer and a round of applause from the watching crowd, which had swelled to include dozens of cadets. Quistis let the cadets have their moment and started to walk back to the pavilion to change back into her civvies, waiting until she was safely out of sight before tenderly removing her jacket and shirt and testing her shoulder.
Yup, she thought as the searing pain almost made her cry out, settling instead with banging her free fist against the changing room wall, that’s definitely torn. Quistis made a note to go see Dr. Kadowaki at the infirmary once she was changed. She took the moment to sit back and reflect on the battles for a second. McClewen and Brendan had both come within moments of defeating her, but if she hadn’t pulled the plug on Redman’s fight when she did, they could well be scraping bits of instructor up off the floor by now. One thing I’m sure of, she thought as she packed her uniform away. Those kids are ready.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me how you got this?" asked Dr. Kadowaki as she gently massaged some soothing ralgexelite into Quistis’ wounded shoulder. Quistis just grinned at her.
"Training. It was worth it," she said. She’d gone to the infirmary to see the doc and get her shoulder checked out. Kadowaki had confirmed that she’d torn a ligament, a result of the heavy fall she’d taken during her battle against Katya Redman. The infirmary was still as pleasant as it had ever been, a clinical room but augmented by the open windows and lush greenery outside, bringing a gentle breeze and the scents of the outdoors in at all times. The office also faced towards the coastline, so the distant taste of sea spray and salt water drifted in from time to time as well. The rain outside had eased off but had left a deliciously moist texture to the air, aided by the almost tropical heat Kadowaki liked to keep the place at.
Quistis was sat up on the raised bed in the middle of the room as Kadowaki fussed over her. The matronly chief of medicine at the Garden was used to seeing all manner of injuries caused by over-zealous training exercises, but she expressly forbid the use of magic to heal anything in her office. It wasn’t natural, she always said, and wasn’t any good long term for the body to keep artificially sustaining it past the point of heavy injury.
Luckily, today Quistis wasn’t hurt too badly. Kadowaki advised her to rest the arm up and not take it on any exercises till it was healed. As Quistis gingerly pulled her arm back through the sleeve of her longsleeve top, Kadowaki leaned against the sink she’d just washed her hands in and addressed the young instructor.
"So how are things so far?" Quistis smirked.
"I’d forgotten you were the only person I hadn’t really seen since I got back," she said. Kadowaki nodded sadly.
"I only tend to see people when they’re bashed up or unconscious these days, it doesn’t make for great conversation. I take it you’ve settled in well with that new class?"
"Perfectly well. It took a few weeks to get a handle on how to deal with them, but after today I can safely recommend them all for the field exam."
"Oh, absolutely. They’re all massively talented kids at what they do, they just needed a little focus and discipline. I think I’ve got all I’m going to get out of them in that respect," she said, hopping down off the bed.
"I’ve heard about what happened at that village you were in for a while," added Kadowaki. "I was sorry to hear about that poor Justin chap." Quistis hesitated for a second then tried to carry on. She hadn’t really had time to think about Justin since she’d moved back, although all things considered that was probably just as well.
"That’s in the past now. I miss him, I think about him almost every day when I’m not trying not to get killed by my students," she said, sharing a grin with Kadowaki, "but there’s nothing I could have done to help him. I tried for a while but it made me realise I wasn’t helping myself." Kadowaki nodded and hugged Quistis lightly, avoiding her damaged arm.
"You take care of yourself and I’ll speak to you again soon," she said as Quistis left. The walk back to her quarters was filled with memories of Setton, and the weeks she’d spent trying to clear the town up after Justin’s death. Swiping her keycard and entering her room, Quistis elected to just get some rest and then go spend the night with her fellow instructors. There was a party at Dallara’s brother’s house so they were all piling into taxis and heading for Balamb town in about four hours. Quistis set her alarm and dozed off lightly, the pitter-patter of rain on her window proving to be a soothing soundtrack.
Her dreams were less than soothing. A flashback to the Dollet mission kept playing out in front of her, mainly the scene where she was manning the deck guns of the troop carriers to defend Squall and the others as they raced across the beach to safety. This time, Redman, Brendan and McClewen were in front of her, running across a never-ending beach, around the bodies of dozens of anonymous dead SeeD cadets and with the monstrous XATMOS killing machine in hot pursuit. Quistis was shouting them on towards the waiting troop carrier, its bay doors open and waiting for the cadets to leap on board. Despite the fact that the explosions all around her seemed to suggest she was in the middle of a warzone, Quistis’ ship was the only one on the beach, that seemed to stretch of for miles in either direction.
Redman was at the back of the trio, valiantly flinging blue bolts of electrical energy at the XATMOS but to no avail. As Quistis watched in horror, it pierced her to the ground with one of its huge metal legs/ Redman cried out once and was then still, but the machine didn’t pause or break its approach, instead clunking onwards towards the remaining two cadets, Redman’s blood glistening on one of its legs. McClewen was next closest, and with a yell to Brendan to keep going he turned and stood his ground against the monster. Leaping into the air and onto its head, his fists started to bleed with exertion as he pounded at the machine’s faceplate, trying to get through to the pilots inside. A blaze of yellow power ran across the machine’s surface, throwing Cevin into the air like a leaf in a hurricane. He landed in a heap further along the beach and didn’t get back up.
Quistis yelled to Brendan to hurry the hell up as the unstoppable robot steamed towards him. She opened up with the deck guns, peppering its front with bullet holes but not slowing it down. The troop carrier started to back away from the beach gradually, and Quistis screamed at Criss to jump for it. He leapt into the air, one arm outstretched to grab onto the ship, but in the blink of an eye the XATMOS shot forward one of it’s legs, impaling Criss through his chest. His expression didn’t change from the one of shock he’d worn the whole way down the beach, and as Quistis reached out to him the carrier continued to pull away, her fingers scraping at empty air just inches away from Brendan’s hand. She was pulled back out of reach, and the XATMOS lowered the skewered cadet to the ground with an air of finality. As the scene faded into the distance, Quistis collapsed on the deck of the boat and sobbed.
She awoke in tears, seeing on the alarm that she’d slept for four solid hours and that her pillow and bedclothes were stained with the tracks of her tears. She sat up in bed and hugged her knees for comfort, trying to banish all thoughts of the horrific nightmare. deciding that getting ready for tonight would be the best thing to do, she got up and headed over to her wardrobe.
An hour and a half later, Quistis was sharing a taxi with Dallara and Xu on the way over to the house party in question. Quistis was trying to take it easy on her arm, but as she was unlikely to do anything other than raise glasses to her mouth for most of the night she was sure she’d be fine. Xu and Dallara were nattering to each other but Quistis wasn’t really listening, staring instead absently out of the window as lights flickered past on their way through the outskirts of town. she became aware of somebody talking to her and dragged herself back to alertness.
"Sorry, what?" she said, knowing she’d been addressed but not by whom.
"I said, so do you think you might be getting any action tonight, Q!" said Dallara with a cheeky grin. Dallara had made it a mission of hers to get Quistis set up with someone ever since she’d returned to the Garden, stating to anybody who’d listen that ‘she’s a nice girl who just needs some cheering up.’ Quistis, of course, wanted none of this and was quite happy each day to wake up, do her lessons with the class and then go back to bed in the evening, but Dallara was the sort of girl who wouldn’t let up on an idea once she’d gotten it into her head, and her current idea was that Quistis Needed A Man.
"I don’t know, I’m not looking, remember?" she said, which Dallara answered with a chuckle.
"That’s how it gets you, you wait and wait and wait, then when you’re least expecting something to happen, then pow! There it is.."
"Not everyone’s as boy crazy as you are, you know," said Xu, coming to Quistis’ aid.
"Well, no, but we still have certain needs that need fulfilment every now and then, if you know what I mean," she said with a wink. Xu sighed and Quistis went back to looking blankly out the window and not thinking about anything. She was dressed modestly considering the evening – a maroon t-shirt with the logo of her favourite motorbike manufacturer on the front, and a pair of casually loose fitting combat trousers, the ones reserved for smart occasions. Dallara, on the other hand, was dressed for action in a short, pleated skirt and a red shirt undone to halfway, to show off the generous cleavage the creator had seen fit to gift her with. Xu always dressed to emphasise her slim figure, with a long, backless dark purple dress and her long, dark hair loose around her shoulders. Quistis always felt a little self conscious out with these two – Xu had an air of elegant beauty while Dallara just made sure she looked hot enough to burn at the slightest touch, so Quistis tended to dress inbetween the two of them. Reasonably smart but not letting everything hang out either..
When they arrived at the houseparty a few minutes later, Quistis was glad for a chance to disappear off into her own little world for a while. She liked having people around her, but the fact that she’d only know a handful of people here would make it easier for her to pick the moments when she was going to be sociable.
Dallara’s brother came bounding down the steps to his house, an impressively-sized building with a commanding view of the local countryside. The rest of the street was quiet, like most of Balamb’s residential areas, with trees lining a picturesque road with a small number of large, expensive looking houses. All the noise and activity was definitely centred on the house, however – every single light seemed to be on inside and Quistis could make out at least three different songs playing at once from various sections of the place.
"Hey! Hey, hey there, how you doing," said Kyrick, Dallara’s brother, shaking hands and nodding greetings all round. He was an office boy with a healthy interest in recreational activities – rock climbing, canoeing, all sorts of high energy physical stuff that left Quistis feeling exhausted just by the thought of it.
"Evening, Ky," said Quistis, having her knuckles squeezed by the energetic guy and following the other two girls up the steps and into the house. Inside, the place was heaving with people, and what was once a nice, tidy middle class home had been transformed into one part dancefloor, one part crowd with a multitude of people standing around drinking, talking, laughing and dancing. Thunderous music boomed out of speakers placed strategically round the house, and Quistis realised that she knew hardly anybody here, which was both a good and a bad thing. Conversations with random strangers were a lot easier the fewer people you actually knew were there too.
Xu and Dallara headed for the kitchen to get some drinks, with Quistis in tow. Kyrick’s house was actually surprisingly pleasantly furnished for a guy’s bachelor pad – Quistis got the impression a few of his past lovers had left their touches round the place and he’d never gotten round to removing them. The kitchen was all white surfaces and pine cupboards, but currently home to about thirty assorted bottles of spirits and nearly a hundred or so empty glasses. The sink was piled high with plates, giving the feeling that the party had started many hours earlier over food. Outside in the garden, people had arranged chairs and tables into little groups as well and were busy doing the mingling thing Quistis was so poor at. If Xu and Dallara were social butterflies, Quistis was one that had been pinned inside a glass case and hung on a wall in a room nobody ever went into.
She was roused from pondering on that analogy by Xu holding out a shot glass of suspiciously coloured liquid to her. Quistis held it to her nose and sniffed once, experimentally. Whatever had been mixed into it was masking the tell tale alcohol scent that would warn her how strong it was, which judging by the cheeky grin on Xu’s face she knew full well.
"On a scale of paint stripper to molten lava.." said Quistis, raising an eyebrow to get a reply. Xu just smiled and shook her head.
"No guesses, just drink. On three, ready? One, two, three!" The girls dutifully necked the shots as one, and as one coughed and spluttered. Xu fanned herself while Quistis just waited for her eyes to stop rolling. Dallara smacked her lips together, whooped once and grabbed a bottle of something off the table.
"Come on, girls! Time to let our hair down and part-ay!" she said, disappearing into the next room. The crowds of people parted and swallowed her up, leaving Xu and Quistis in the kitchen again.
"Are you gonna be alight tonight? I know parties aren’t really your thing but I figured you could do with letting off some steam after the week you've had." Quistis nodded and searched out a glass to pour out some beer for herself.
"I did have kind of a rough one, you’re right," she said. Xu patted her on the shoulder.
"The entire darn Garden is talking about the mano a mano you had with those three cadets of yours, it’ll go down in legend, I think!" Xu headed out for the main room with Quistis following.
"Of course, nobody here tonight will know about that so you can be safe in your anonymity," she said with a grin. Quistis returned it and followed Xu out into the living room.
A few hours into the party and Quistis had found herself a nice little spot. The house had three floors and a balcony, accessible through a skylight in the roof. She was perched on that, her feet dangling down into the house below but with a view of everyone in the garden out back and pretty much every room in the house as well. There were two empty glasses next to her in addition to the third she was currently sipping, Xu being her barmaid for the night and bringing her top-ups when needed. She was starting to relax at long last, peoplewatching and letting the party’s atmosphere rise into the night air and soak through her pores, washing away the stress of the last few days at last. Plus, up here she could say hello to people and have brief conversations with them as they passed her, but she didn’t have to worry about making small talk for too long.
That was, until he decided to show up..
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Mind if I sit here?" came a voice from over Quistis’ shoulder. She jumped, having been lost merrily in her own thoughts up to that point. She turned to see the source of the announcement, and was met by a spiky-haired blonde guy who was crouching down next to her. He must have walked up onto the balcony past her and then hunched down next to her without her even noticing.
"Erm, sure," she said, shuffling across a little to give the new guy some room. She was a little miffed at having to give up her spot like this, but if the guy turned out to be a jerk she’d just scoot off somewhere else and leave him to it.
"Oh, pardon me, allow me to introduce myself," he said, holding out a hand to her. "The name’s Vaughn, Vaughn Trevelyan." Quistis shook his hand but couldn’t stop herself grinning at his unusual name. He picked up on it straight away and grinned back. "Yeah, that’s how people normally react to the name. You can call me just Vaughn, it’ll be easier on everyone." Quistis chuckled, the guy seemed nice enough but she kept her alarm system on standby from him. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be hit on tonight or not, so she was going to see how this worked out first and make her mind up later. There was still the small matter of Justin, and Justin-related thought, bubbling round the dark recesses of her psyche to worry about
"So how are you enjoying the party tonight?" she asked. He sipped from his glass and motioned to the crowd.
"You know, I don’t know any of these people," he said, and Quistis laughed, the tension having been broken. "I just showed up because I thought I knew a guy downstairs but it turns out it was somebody else. So I’ve been wandering around, getting free drinks all night and finding out that I look just like somebody called ‘Will’ that everybody seems to know."
"I came here with a couple of friends," said Quistis, pointing down to Dallara and Xu who were busy socialising down in the garden. Dallara in particular seemed close to seriously socialising with a jock-type guy who was busy trying to impress her. "That blonde girl is the sister of the guy whose party this is," Quistis said, "we’re just here to cut loose a little."
"Forgive me for being so bold, Miss.."
"Quistis. Thanks. Forgive me for being so bold, but last time I checked sitting up on top of a house by yourself wasn’t exactly the dictionary definition of ‘cutting loose.’"
"And how would you know how I like to unwind?" said Quistis defensively. "Maybe this is my ideal night out, up here where I can dip into the party if I want to. I’m like a social sunbather with one toe in the water."
"You’re like somebody who’s forgotten how to enjoy themselves and is scared to try again," said Vaughn. Quistis turned to look at him, not sure whether he was being daringly cheeky or surprisingly truthful. His expression hadn’t changed from the guarded yet approachable grin he’d worn when he first sat down. Quistis looked the guy up and down, trying to work out a little more about him.
He was dressed in a pair of black trousers with a maroon shirt underneath a black jacket, a leather one that looked like it had seen better days. He was a wiry guy but was possibly into some kind of sport, he had that kind of unassumingly lean yet muscular physique.
"How would you suggest I reignite the spark of my now extinct social life then, o wise one?" she said. He grinned again.
"Come back downstairs with me and hang out, I think you’ll enjoy it. If you’re anything like me, you work much better socially when you’re a bit more, you know, loosened up," he said. She nodded, looking out across the glittering city lights that were in clear view from the rooftop vantage point.
"Maybe.. maybe I just felt like having people around me without needing to have to talk to them for a change. Sometimes you want to be all alone in a room of friends," she said distantly. He snapped his fingers to drag her attention back to him. She wasn’t sure if she was irritated or intrigued by this guy - perhaps a bit of both.
"And sometimes you’d surprise yourself by stopping being such a gloomy goth girl and trying to have a little fun instead!" said Vaughn. Quistis was halfway towards telling this odd man to get lost when something about the look in his eyes caught her attention. Maybe it was some distant flicker of honesty, perhaps she just felt strangely interested in him, but whatever it was made her pause, then hold out a hand so that Vaughn could help her hop down from the skylight opening and onto the stairs leading back into the top floor of the house.
"There you go, that wasn’t so hard, was it?" he said as Quistis stepped elegantly down into the house.
"Don’t push your luck," she said, holding her glass close as she scanned the landing they were on warily. "I may yet still bolt for freedom if something scary comes along."
"Relax, allow me to show you the wonders of the human race," said Vaughn, sweeping her with one arm into a large upstairs room bustling with people. "I think you’ll like them if you give them a chance!" Quistis followed Vaughn into the room, allowing herself to be swallowed up by the crowd. She wasn’t great in crowds, she’d suspected it was a mild form of claustrophobia as much as anything else, but having somebody reasonably familiar close by was strangely comforting to her. Vaughn found a more open area next to a set of sofa chairs and ushered Quistis towards it.
"Hey, Will, good to see you!" somebody said as they bustled past. Vaughn raised his glass.
"Thanks, mate!" he replied.
"Who was that?" said Quistis.
"No idea, that’s been happening all night," he said. They shared a chuckle as they flopped down onto the sofas, which were welcomingly squishy. Quistis sighed and stretched out luxuriously.
"Now this I can handle," she said. "Good chairs and nobody bothering me."
"Well, nobody but me, anyway."
"You I think I can handle," she replied.
"Oh, do you know? How do you know I’m not some kind of crazed stalker who just happens to be very dashing and charming at the same time?" Quistis was sitting back with her eyes closed and didn’t open them to reply.
"If it came to that, I could take you in a fight no problem," she said calmly, with a hint of a grin on her lips. Vaughn laughed once.
"Ha! You seem very sure of yourself, what is it you do for a living exactly? Wendigo tamer? Do you drag anacondaurs out of rich people’s swimming pools?"
"I’m a Garden Instructor," she said. She waited a second for his reply. None came, so she opened one eye to see Vaughn grinning back at her.
"Right," he said sarcastically.
"I am!" protested Quistis. "I quit for a few months but now I’m back at work again, same as the girls I came here with, Xu and Dallara! Ask them!"
"How do I know you’re not all in on this together?" he said with a smirk. "I have to admit it’s a pretty good story, though. Must get you a few drinks." Quistis stared at him. Was he winding her up? Did he believe her or was he just testing her? By rights she should be out in the garden smacking this guy down by now, but at the same time she felt like he was just testing the water with her, trying to see if she was someone he’d like to get to know better. She decided to play along.
"Alright then, so what do you supposedly do for a living?"
"I’m a ranger in Balamb Forest," he said. "I trained as a vet but found the office life a bit too.. well, quiet, really. So now I work to protect the forest from the outside world, and the outside world from the forest." Quistis tried to think up a witty comeback but her brain was stuck in neutral and rolling down a steep hill with no handbrake.
"Uh-huh," was all she could manage, but she tried to make it as sarcastic a ‘uh-huh’ as she could.
"See, now you don’t believe me either," he said. "Looks like we’ll have to prove it to each other somehow."
"What did you have in mind?" Vaughn looked around the party then out one of the nearby windows. He beckoned Quistis with one finger.
"Follow me," he said, getting up and heading outside. Quistis followed, choosing not to listen to the alarm bells currently ringing off in her brain.
"You want me to do what?" she said incredulously.
"Get to the top of that tree," said Vaughn calmly. He pointed up to one of the tall, swaying redwood trees that lined Kyrick’s whole street. If there was one thing that could always be said about Balamb, it was that it had enough trees to cover the whole world if it wanted to share them.
"You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?" she said. "I’m not climbing a tree to prove to you that I’m a Garden teacher. Look, I even have an ID card in here somewhere," she said, starting to rifle through her bag. Vaughn finished the cigarette he’d lit as they’d gotten outside and just pointed to the tree again.
"No, deadly serious. We’re both physically fit people, right? Would go with the territory. So therefore clambering up a tree like that will be child’s play."
"I can’t believe this - do you actually think I’m going to do that just to satisfy you?" She stood, hands on hips, waiting for an answer. Vaughn just took off his jacket and rubbed his hands together to warm himself up. Quistis rolled her eyes and motioned to her clothes.
"I can’t exactly climb in this outfit, can I?"
"If your clothes get ruined I’ll buy you some new ones," he said. "I forgot to mention that I’m also fabulously wealthy. You see, my dad is the chief landowner of Balamb Forest as well. You ready?" Quistis’ mouth hung open. This brash little man was the heir to the Balamb Forest legacy? The forest was a prestigious area of local land that had been passed down over generations, it’s lineage including some of the most influential and respected figures of Balamb’s community past and present. And now him. This guy, who’d walked into her life and seemed intent on starting a tornado inside the well-tidied bedroom of her mind, and who was currently racing towards the first of the tall trees without waiting for her.
Quistis sighed and looked down at her clothes.
"Well, let’s hope he wasn’t lying about the being rich part," she said to them, before cracking her knuckles and reaching into her bag for the one thing that never left her side.
Vaughn was actually making good progress up the tree, and as she watched his face of concentration was evidence enough that he was most likely telling the truth. well, either that, or he was just damn good at tree climbing. Either way, it was time to show him who was boss.
Hmm, almost there, guess she was making it up after all, thought Vaughn with some disappointment as he neared the summit of the trees. He was about to look round for Quistis to shout some encouragement, when he was aware of a rustling in the leaves around him that wasn’t anything to do with the light evening breeze. It was followed by a ‘whoosh’ sound, and Vaughn instinctively ducked, thinking surreally for a moment that a low-flying aircraft was about to hit him. He looked around for the source of the noise but saw nothing, so he carried on climbing.
Reaching the last climbable branch a moment later, he looked up and saw with surprise Quistis on the adjacent tree, sitting demurely with her legs crossed on one of the thicker branches, idly picking a few stray bits of dirt out of her nails.
"Took your time, didn’t you?" she said. Vaughn just laughed out loud.
"I’d reach out to shake your hand but I think I’d probably fall," he said with a quick glance at the floor beneath them, "and I’d ask how you did that but I know you’d never tell me."
"Right on both counts. Come on," she said, "I’ll race you to the bottom."
Observers of the event, if there had been any besides a handful of local wildlife, would have seen the following - a young man running towards and starting to climb a tall, thickly branched tree, leaving a blonde lady behind. She paused, then retrieved something glittery and metal from her bag that looked suspiciously like a steel bullwhip. She aimed carefully then snapped it towards the second tree, swinging gracefully through the air and arcing upwards in an almost loop, landing on a branch several feet above the still climbing man, giving her time to take a seat and catch her breath before he arrived at the same point as she was.
Quistis had tried to pick out the best branch to support the tension of her move, and had reasoned that if it didn’t pay off there was plenty of soft ground to land on. That, and the fact that her adrenaline kicked in as soon as the thought of how to beat him entered her mind, and she didn’t really have a clue what she was doing from the moment she opened her bag to the moment she opened her eyes and breathed in again as she was sat at the top of the tree.
Of course, she reasoned on the way down, this may well be the start of a beautiful friendship. Or, alternatively, this could possibly lead to one of the most infuriating experiences of my life thus far. Either way, at least he’s good-looking, she reasoned, because if he wasn’t nice to look at this would all be a lot harder.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"So, anyway, I’m not back at work for a few days yet, my class recently took their initial final exam so they won’t be doing anything for a few days yet. You want to come meet me in a day or two and go get a drink somewhere?" said Quistis. Vaughn opened his mouth to answer but she spotted the look on his face and beat him to the reply. "And no, that doesn’t mean ‘for sex.’" Vaughn laughed.
"The thought never entered my mind. Well, not for very long, anyway. You got a phone number or would you prefer it if you had mine?"
"I’ll take yours, that’s playing more by the rules," said Quistis, retrieving her clunky mobile phone from her bag. She liked to think of it as fashionably retro rather than several years out of date, which answered the trend-conscious Dallara’s cries for her to get it updated. She fiddled with it for a second before offering it to Vaughn for him to input his number.
"You know, you don’t strike me as somebody who plays by the rules all that often," he said as he typed in his contact details. They were stood outside Kyrick’s house, the party having dried out to the spluttering halt that all-night parties inevitably end in. Xu and Dallara were waiting in a taxi a few feet away, and Quistis had paused on her way out just long enough to have a last word to Vaughn, who was walking out to the train station nearby. Other stragglers were gradually filtering out of the house, thankful that it was still dark outside but scurrying home before the sun came up and reminded them just how long they’d been out for.
"Well, some rules stink but a few help a girl maintain her air of mystery," she said as he finished typing and handed the phone back to her. "So if you’re lucky, I’ll see you around sometime, Vaughn. Nice to meet you," she held out a hand and he took it, bowing respectfully before her.
"And maybe if you’re lucky, I’ll say yes when you ask if I want to come meet up with you," he said. He turned and walked away towards the station.
"See you later, then!" shouted out Quistis. He waved and turned on the spot to pace backwards for a few steps, grinning at her one last time before disappearing into the night. Quistis shook her head at how she always seemed to be able to meet odd men in houses filled with otherwise normal people and hopped into the taxi with the girls.
Inside, Dallara and Xu barraged her with questions about her mystery man.
"So who was that?"
"He looked nice. Did he chat much to you!"
"Did you give him your number?"
"Is he single?"
"Where did you two disappear off to?"
"Why does it smell like trees in here?"
"Girls, girls, girls," said Quistis, holding her hands up and asking for silence. "I will answer what I can. His name is Vaughn, he’s a park ranger at Balamb Forest, and he seems fine. A little sarcastic but in a good-humoured kind of way. No, I don’t know if he’s single, but we had a good night even if he isn’t. And I have his number, he doesn’t have mine. Is that everything?"
Dallara and Xu turned to each other with a raised eyebrow and a ‘mm-hmm!’ to show what they thought of it all. Quistis watched the landscape scroll by through the taxi windows as the girls started talking about what they’d been up to all night. Dallara demonstrated the fun she’d had with a likely looking arts lecturer in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
"That was a bit more graphic than I was expecting.." muttered Xu when she’d finished.
"What? I’ve got my clothes on.." protested Dallara. Quistis just chuckled to herself, her mind not really on anything at all apart from the fact that she’d actually met a reasonably nice-seeming guy for what felt like only about the third time in her whole life, although the likelihood of him being killed by monsters was still depressingly high. That hazard seemed to come along with her showing an interest in someone. She sighed heavily without realising, and noticed moments later that Xu and Dallara were both looking at her, tongues firmly in cheek. Dallara acted as the damsel in distress, Xu as the heroic park ranger.
"Oh, somebody save me!" said Dallara, wringing her hands to together for effect. "My poor widdle puddy tat is stuck up that tree?"
"Have no fear, fair blonde maiden," said Xu in as bold a voice as she could manage, "I’ll save her!" The two girls fell about laughing as the taxi drew to a stop outside the Garden’s front gates. Quistis just shook her head and stepped out, paying the driver as she was The Responsible One. Xu and Dallara staggered out, the mixture of alcohol and fresh air kicking back in at last as they giggled and stuttered their way up into the main Garden gates. It was late, the early hours of the morning to be precise, and although most of the students and staff were tucked up in bed there were a few lights on.
Since the business with the Faculty assistants declaring allegiance to Norg instead of to the Headmaster, they’d all been cleared off the premises and a selection of more senior students were given the old faculty duties. And none of those little whistles that called in monsters to attack from out of nowhere, because Quistis remembered that had been a particularly annoying element of the battles to clean out the Faculty members last time..
Quistis was trying to keep an eye out for any now, as the three girls snuck back to their dorms, as instructors were still liable to get in trouble if they were caught being drunk and disorderly on the premises. Xu wasn’t helping as she kept snorting loudly every few seconds as Dallara tried to shush her, finding the fact that she was trying not to laugh the funniest thing in the whole world in that way that only drunk people can.
They were most of the way back to the instructor’s dorms when a bright light suddenly shone on them. Quistis’ heart sank as she knew they’d been rumbled, but Dallara decided to complete their guilt by bursting into laughter as the bearer of the torchlight stepped forward to confront them. They were on the pathway which led up to the entrance to the instructor’s dorms, lined by pleasant greenery and a small water feature. The trickling noises were making Quistis need to visit the ladies’ room very urgently, so she decided she’d use force to end this encounter if it came to that. A girl needs to prioritise these things.
"Alright, what’s going on here?" said the warden, keeping the light firmly on the trio. Quistis shielded her eyes and tried to make out who it was, recognising the voice but not knowing where from.
"We’re just on our way to bed," she said, her lack of drunkenness promoting her to Ambassador.
"Well it looks to me like you girls need more than just bed. Like, perhaps, a few dozen cups of strong coffee and a cold shower. You know what the Garden regulations are for drunken behaviour in the grounds. No student shall be found-"
"-shall be found within the Garden boundaries exhibiting drunken or otherwise inebriated behaviour at any time, day or night," said Quistis, talking over the man as she quoted the regulation back to him. Garden protocol was one thing she knew a lot of.
"Well, unless this is part of a daring break in attempt, I guess I can also assume that you three are instructors as well, which is much worse, I’m afraid. You’re supposed to be setting an example to the other students, you know!"
"How old are you, exactly?" snapped Quistis. "We know the rules here perfectly well, thank you. Considering you’re the only person currently being exposed to our behaviour, I think we can rule out being a bad influence." The man paused for a moment then switched the torch off and stepped out to be illuminated by one of the overhead security lights. It was Steen, one of Quistis’ old cadets. He grinned as Quistis recognised him.
"Relax, Instructor Trepe, I’m not going to bust you. I was just playing with you, my apologies. It gets pretty quiet round here this time of night, nobody really bothers to break the rules as there are plenty of places hidden from patrols they can get up to no good in instead!"
"Steen? Is that you?" The ex-cadet and now senior student chuckled and ruffled his hair as he walked over to the staggering Dallara and lifted her up with one arm.
"The one and only. Come on, let’s get you girls inside before somebody who actually gives a crap sees any of you." He helped walk Dallara into the instructor’s dorms.
With a grunt of effort, Steen flopped the by now almost unconscious Dallara onto her bed. She was babbling quietly to herself, not really knowing where she was at all. He stepped back and looked over to Quistis.
"I take it we can leave her like this," he said.
"She’s used to it. At some point in the night she’ll click on to auto pilot, get undressed and get into bed. Hopefully before the cleaners show up in the morning," said Quistis, with a resigned sigh as she recalled the last time that had happened. Xu was a bit more coherent but was still relying on the doorframe for support.
"I’d quite like to go to sleep now as well," she said, "could somebody help me, please?" Steen stepped in and draped one of Xu’s arms over his shoulder as he walked her to her room. Quistis closed and locked Dallara’s door as she heard Xu chatting away as the duo rounded a corner in the corridor.
"You’re a nice strong boy, do you work out at all? I bet you do, you probably have all the ladies wanting you to carry their drunk teachers home at night.."
Steen reappeared a few minutes later, slightly red-faced. Quistis tapped a finger against her folded forearms as she asked if everything was okay.
"Oh, it’s all fine," he said, "she just forgot I was there and started getting undressed before I had chance to get out of there," he said. "There are some things a man should not se this late at night if he wants to get to sleep at all," he said, looking quite wide-eyed at the unintentional strip show he’d just witnessed. Quistis giggled and motioned for them to head outside.
"Thanks for helping out, Steen," she said as they closed the dorms main door. Quistis’ blocks were a little walk away, so Steen accompanied her over.
"No problem, I had a feeling you’d be out one of the nights this week to let off some steam after that last lesson with your class. How’s the shoulder?" Quistis realised her shoulder had stopped its aching - if anything was going to set it off, then using her whip to flip herself into a tree would have done so by now.
"It seems to be alright now, thanks for asking. How did you know I’d hurt it?"
"Well, not many people noticed how hard that last hit you took from Redman was, but I sure did. I’m glad it healed up, I wouldn’t want that little nutcase to think she was the toughest person here."
"Aw, now, come on, Kat’s a good girl underneath all that admittedly frightening magical power and occasional bouts of cockiness," said Quistis with a wry smile.
"Well, as long as you’re still teaching her I have a feeling she won’t get round to busting anyone up with all that juice she has," said Steen. They’d reached the entrance to Quistis’s dorms, so she unlocked the door and stepped inside.
"Thanks again, Steen, I owe you one," she said, kissing her two fingers and placing them against his cheek. He grinned and saluted.
"Any time." He headed off to continue his rounds and she made her way to her room. Within moments she was stretched out on her bed, boots off and the thick, comfy blankets of her double bed threatening to swallow her up into a world of fluff. Vaughn’s face popped into her head a few more times before she drifted off to sleep, but it didn’t really bother her. Whether there was any romantic interest there or not, he seemed like a good guy to get to know better. She curled up on the bed and let the air conditioning soothe her off to sleep, and within moments she was somewhere far away..
Very far away, as it turned out. Quistis was sitting on top of a tree, and below her was the canopy of a much larger forest that stretched as far as she could see in any direction. Her tree was several feet higher than any of the ones below it, but she was sat quite comfortably on top of it. It was a beautiful morning, blue skies and fluffy clouds all around. She could make out distant mountain ranges and sparkling lakes, but the forest seemed to lead right up to these without any breaks. It was a good place to be, though, she felt. Nobody to bother her and nothing to do but sit here and soak up the virtually silent air and fresh breeze blowing over her.
Until a shadow fell across her. She looked to her side, a little angry at this intrusion on her relaxation, and saw that another tree had sprouted up, rising slightly higher than hers but blocking out the sunlight as a result. She lifted a hand to her eyes to see if she could make out where the tree had come from, when she realised there was somebody else sat on top of the second tree. As she squinted, she seemed to be shifting closer towards it, until it was within arm’s length. It was a man in a black jacket with his back to her, sat down on top of the tree the same way she was. She reached out to tap him on the shoulder, but as her fingers stretched out through the air she suddenly felt herself falling away. Her tree was shrinking beneath her, and no matter how much she stretched she couldn’t reach the man on the other tree.
Within moments she’d disappeared underneath the treeline and was plunged into darkness as the leaves pressed in on her from all sides.
Quistis awoke with a start, checking her clock to see she’d woken up about two seconds before her alarm sounded, so she just had chance to catch her breath before-
Baap Baap Baap.
Well, it was a Saturday morning so all she had planned for the day was a spot of shopping in Balamb and another attempt to track down her old friends Izzy, Dex and Serena. She’d had to delay her search for them while the new class she had taken on had started to absorb every moment of her time, but with the reduced lessons she had in store for them next week as she prepared them for their field exam she had more chance to catch up to her buddies.
She drew herself out of bed and got dressed, ready to spend a day by herself, taking care of herself. That happened far too rarely these days.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"No, no, that’s okay. Thanks. G’bye." Quistis hung up the receiver and sighed, crossing another name off the sheet of paper in front of her. Her old friends had proven very, very tricky to actually track down, despite spending at least an hour now in the lounge area of the Balamb Town hotel, borrowing the phone and chasing some leads she’d managed to find out.
She knew the owners of the hotel fairly well, and in return for a few minutes of faked interest in the elaborate train set that decorated the lobby she was able to pull up a chair in one corner of the reception and make as many calls as she could.
So far, her search had told her that Izzy wasn’t actually living in Balamb any more as she thought, but that instead all three of them seemed to have upped and moved away to Kabernia to work together on some new firm that did.. something. What they were actually doing now was beyond her current inquiries, but she at least had a name to look up - NectarTech. Probably an electronics company, or something similar, she managed to get an address and phone number before seeing that the day was getting away from her, so she grabbed her things, said goodbye to the hotel staff and headed back into the town.
It was a bright and breezy Balamb day, and after grabbing a baguette for lunch Quistis headed down to the docks. She used to come her a lot to chill out on quiet days, and she’s missed the atmosphere. There was an old song her aunt liked about a guy who spends his days on a dock, watching the ships coming and going all day long, and right now Quistis could see the appeal. She say down on one edge of the main dock, her feet dangling in the air several feet above the glittering blue waters below, the midday sun bright overhead as seabirds swooped and cawed overhead, large cruise ships gradually sailing by as smaller, one-man boats wove their way inbetween them all.. It was absolute heaven.
Quistis sat back and soaked up some sun. She was in her dark denim skirt and white sleeveless Toxic top, her big chunky boots off her feet and sitting beside her so she could air her feet in the crisp coastal breeze, looking for all the world like some young rock chick on her lunch break from college. Her hair was loose and hanging round her shoulders, a big pair of retro sunglasses shielding her eyes from the sun. She wasn’t normally one to think it, but she had to admit she looked and felt damn good today. There was nothing to spoil it, nothing to get between her and-
"Well well, fancy seeing you out here like a cat lying in a sunbeam!"
"Hello Vaughn," said Quistis patiently, "you really couldn’t stay away could you?" She titled her head to look at him as he sat down next to her and started to munch on his own sandwiches, scattering crumbs down into the bay. Quistis could just about make out fishes flickering about beneath the water’s surface, hungrily snatching the flakes of bread and pastry that were floating down to them. Vaughn was also in sunglasses, with a dark blue sleeveless top and a light pair of trousers on to match the mood of the day.
"Oh, I wouldn’t say that, this is more one of those chance encounter things," he said. "I come here quite a lot, it’s a nice place to sit and think." Quistis grinned and went back to working on her tan.
"That’s alright then, I suppose. And yes, I haven’t been down here for a while, I’d forgotten how much I used to like it."
"I was always one for trying to get waves off the passing cruise liners when I was younger," said Vaughn, looking nostalgically out to sea. "These days I’m more likely to moon them if I’m in the right kind of mood."
"And I do hope you’re not in one of those moods today!" said Quistis. Vaughn just flashed his cheeky grin back at her, and she shook her head and sighed. "Why do I get the feeling I’m going to be seeing an awful lot of you from now on, Mr. Trevelyan?"
"I’m irresistible. And fun to have round. And I tell good jokes, too," he said with mock modesty.
"If you’re any good at tracing old friends, then that’d be perfect," said Quistis absently.
"Who are you looking for?"
"Hmm? Oh, three old friends of mine from my early days as an instructor. They all used to live locally, but since then they’ve moved to that big city, Kabernia, over on the mainland."
"I’m not surprised, it’s real boomtown at the moment," said Vaughn.
"Oh? What do you know about it, then? It seems to be a fairly new place, there’s not much info about it lying around." Quistis sat up as Vaughn spoke.
"Kabernia was founded about thirty years ago by Sebastian Kabernia, hence the name, a wealthy landowner who bought himself a few thousand square acres of land outside Galbadia, and set about turning them into the kind of bustling metropolis that puts Esthar to shame. He invited in other start-up businesses, established firms with money to burn, homeowners and settlers, military forces looking for more space, airline developers, anybody who could dial his number could buy a plot and get started. With that kind of interest, it didn’t take long at all for the whole place to fill up." Vaughn paused to take a bit from his sandwich.
"The thing to remember about this world we live in," he continued, "is that less than one quarter of it is actually populated, much less owned by anyone, so as long as you can work out who to buy it from there’s always plenty of land going for the right kinds of people. Take Balamb," he said, indicating all they could see with a wave of his arm. "Owned by the Duke of Balamb, Tyler Balamb, but sublet variously out to the businesses in the town, the Garden, and a few other private investors, a lot of whom look after the residential areas."
"Lacking enough cash to buy myself a homestead, let’s move the conversation back to Kabernia," suggested Quistis with a nudge. Vaughn smiled.
"Sorry, got a bit distracted. I did Economics and Geography at school, so I know a fair bit about stuff like that."
"Economics and Geography for a guy who’s now a forest ranger?" said Quistis suspiciously.
"I just meant at school," Vaughn replied, "I took Forestry and Natural Science at university."
"Aah," said Quistis. "Do carry on!"
"Where was I up to? Oh yes, Kabernia. Anyway, over the past thirty years the place has developed into a thriving city that stands proudly alongside Galbadia and other major cities worldwide. It’s a great place to live and work because everything there is new and exciting, and as a result people flock there from all around to make a fresh start with their lives."
"Hm, I could have done with knowing that before I tried to make my fresh start," she muttered. Vaughn didn’t hear her as he carried on.
"However, Sebastian was killed in a helicopter crash a few years back, and since then the governor of the city, a chap called Duras, has taken over the administration of the place. Nobody really complained because Sebastian let him handle the day-to-day running before his death anyway, and he hasn’t tried to change much. All he’s done is increase the number of military units in the city, and also he invited a lot more scientific and electronic companies to set up shop there, which everyone agrees is A Good Thing," he said, tearing off strips from the last of his lunch and throwing them up to the seagulls hovering overhead.
"And so now, this city’s like the Brave New World for anybody with the inclination to go out there?"
"Got it. It’s a developing city, still, but there is a stupid amount of money to be made and plenty of opportunities to be made in it. The residential areas of it are expanding every day, so construction work is also in high demand there too. I’m keeping an eye on it because I’m worried it’ll spread out to Timber and start affecting the forests out there."
The mention of the word ‘Timber’ suddenly lit a match inside the dim halls of Quistis’ memory, and it took her a second to work out why. Vaughn noticed her sudden change of expression.
"Something wrong?" he said, wiping the last specks of bread from his hands.
"No, no, you just reminded me of someone I haven’t thought of for a long time," she said distractedly. Quistis glanced at her watch and saw she still had much to do and less time to do it in, so she reached over to grab her boots. As she did so, she exposed enough of her belly to Vaughn for him to see the ugly scars that had been left on her from the lizardman attack a few months previously. His eyes widened but Quistis didn’t notice, pulling her boots back on and rising to her feet. Medical technology was advanced enough to mean that Quistis could have the severity of the scars lessened, but she was having to repair them a bit at a time, so she still had several reminders of that night dotted around her body.
"Well, I guess you have stuff to do," said Vaughn, still sat down and a little perturbed by her wounds.
"Yeah, but I have no doubt I’ll see you around. I will call you, you know, don’t worry. I just have a lot on this week. My students are about to take their last lesson with me, and after that their final field exam is pencilled in for the end of next week."
"I look forward to hearing from you, Q," he said amiably, saluting her. She grinned and walked away, not looking back despite knowing full well that Vaughn was watching her go.
She made her way back into the town and browsed the regular clothes shops for a while, stocking up on a few normal styles of tops and things that inevitably got ripped or damaged during her average day at work. Scorched and singed had become a new plague of her clothes since Redman had gotten used to fire spells, but Balamb wasn’t big on asbestos clothing just yet. Designer gear was pricey as it was imported from the mainland, but Quistis really just making sure she had something new to wear for when she next saw Vaughn. She prided herself on her almost selfish dress sense when it came to dates, or whatever it would be when she saw him again, because she didn’t think either of them quite knew what was going on, as she tended to dress for herself rather than to impress somebody else. That said, an excuse to pick up some new stuff on her generous pay packet was always welcome, so when she made her way back to the Garden some time later it was with a selection of shopping bags stowed away in her jeep.
The evening rolled around but was going to be a quiet one, which was probably just as well as Quistis hadn’t had much time to just sit down and relax so far this week. Her last lesson with Redman, McClewen and Brendan on Monday morning was already planned out and prepared for in her mind, and once that had finished all she had left to do was make the formal application to Cid for them to be entered into the next available SeeD field exam, and then hopefully she’d have three SeeDs thanking her for her time.
All of this had raised a slightly worrying question for her, however - what was she going to do when she finished training them? She’d been employed to tame the untameable, and had spent a lot of time and effort beating the raw materials she’d been given into three potential soldiers, but once they’d graduated she didn’t know what else, if anything, there was for her to do. She couldn’t exactly go back to Setton, the lid had been blown on her time there quite spectacularly, so she was facing the grim prospect of going back to square one with it all..
She picked up the phone in her room to call Cid. It was early evening so he’d be in his little apartment taking his evening meal at the moment, but as long as she could arrange a time to see him, that’d be a start. She dialled in his number and he answered after a few rings, his mouth still half-full.
"Hello, Cid, it’s Quistis."
"Ah, good evening, my dear!"
"You’re probably eating right now, I just wanted to check you were in tonight."
"I am, but give me a minute and I’ll set up.. well, let’s call it a conference call. Hang up, if you wouldn’t mind, I’ll speak to you in a moment."
"Er, alright. Bye." Quistis hung up, a little confused as to what he meant.
Suddenly, the walls of her room shimmered around her and rapidly faded into darkness, and Quistis felt a sensation that can best be described as somebody throwing a thick blanket over her brain. Quistis blinked a few times, and as she did, a scene faded up around her. She was seated on a sofa, and two more luxurious leather chairs materialised before her. They were all suspended in mid-air, with the air around them filled with blue and red swirls of colour. As she looked all around, trying to work out what was going on, Cid and Edea dissolved into view into the two chairs, and Quistis shook her head with a smile at the obvious telepathic powers that Edea was demonstrating.
"Cid could have given you a bit more warning, I’m sorry," apologised Edea with a sharp look at her husband. "We use this method of talking to people these days because we prefer it to using the phone all the time! Are you alright? People sometimes feel a little disorientated the first couple of times." She was dressed in a long, dark dress as usual, and Cid was in a pair of brown slacks and a loose-fitting grey shirt, looking for all the world like a normal middle-aged couple.
"Uh.. huh," said Quistis slowly, gripping the sofa beneath her tightly in case she could float off into space if she let go.
"Anyway, what can I do for you, Quistis?" said Cid, absently wiping his glasses on his shirt.
"Uh.. well," said Quistis, before shaking her head to gather her thoughts. "Sorry. This is just a little unsettling for me. I’ve never made a psychic phone call before."
"Oh, it works wonders," said Edea. "I can make us look however I want, so I always make sure my hair looks neat and tidy and I’m dressed in something flattering," she added with a grin.
"What I anted to ask was.. well, it’s more of a request, really."
"Go on," said Cid.
"What am I going to be doing round here when my class graduates? You know, I mean, I was brought in just to train them and now that’s almost over, so.."
"Don’t worry," said Cid, holding up a hand reassuringly. "I have plenty of opportunities to offer you once the class is graduated, all you have to do is decide which of them, if any, you wish to follow up."
"Oh, great," she replied, her fears temporarily eased. "I’ll, er, see you later then!"
And with that, Quistis’ room faded back into view.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Quistis paused, one hand on the handle of the classroom, and took a deep breath. Redman, Brendan and McClewen were all in there, sitting and chatting quietly, because she’d seen into the class as she’d walked round from the other side of the Garden. That made her suspicious straight away, those kids never just sat and talked quietly. Maybe they were planning something for their last lesson with her? Well, too late to worry about that now, she thought, and she turned the handle and walked inside.
The cadets quietened but didn’t stop talking entirely as Quistis walked in and sat down. She placed her bag down on the desk and drew up the chair, scanning the room to observe the looks on their faces. Katya looked chirpy as always, McClewen’s ever present smirk was all in order, and Brendan was just sitting quietly, not really looking at anything. She sat down and looked at them for a few moments, unable to stop a proud smile creeping across her face.
"Oh no, you’re not gonna tell us we failed after all now, are you?" said McClewen.
"Don’t be daft," she said, "I was just basking for a second in your collected egos." Brendan chuckled once but managed to contain the rest of it with a raised hand to apologise. Quistis ignored it and carried on.
"You three have all come a long way, and I’m very proud of you all. You managed to get over the slight inconvenience of spending the night on the Island Closest To Hell with flying colours, and the final combat exam was a success from all of you as well."
"How is the shoulder, Instructor?" asked Redman with a mixture of concern and glee. Quistis rolled her eyes and flexed her arm to show it was much better.
"I’m fine now, Katya, thank you for asking. Quite a bump you gave me out there!"
"Well, you did say not to hold anything back," said Redman.
"Yes, yes I did," admitted Quistis, "and boy did you three ever show me how little you actually do hold back.."
She stood up and paced over to the window, before turning back and seating herself on top of one of the desks to face the three of them.
"Today’s final lesson will take the form of a field trip, of sorts. As you may be aware by now, I plan on applying to Headmaster Cid for you to take the final SeeD Field Exam by the end of the week. I think you’re all ready, and I want you lot to graduate so I can stop worrying about what to do with you each day.." A ripple of laughter came from the students as Quistis carried on.
"What I propose for today, class, is a little visit to some less well-known parts of Balamb Town’s shopping district, to give you some new supplies and equipment in readiness for the exam. I have a sneaking feeling that Headmaster Cid is going to give us something pretty big to tackle, so I want to make sure we’re all ready for it! We’ll be heading out in about ten minutes, so grab your things and meet me by the front gate." Quistis stood to leave as Cevin raised his hand. She nodded for him to speak.
"Will we need any cash? And please say no," he added. Quistis smiled.
"Garden training budget account, so all expenses will be paid for. You pick the stuff, and within reason we’ll pick up the cost for you. Alright?"
"Alright!" said Cevin enthusiastically.
"Good, I take that to mean you’re all up for this, then."
"Why not, sounds like a plan," said Criss quietly.
"I’ll see you out front in ten, students," said Quistis, walking back out of the room and over to the car park.
She was waiting at the front gate with her jeep ten minutes later when the three of them came heading out. They’d loosened their dress code a little to reflect the fact that they were temporarily off duty – shirts were unbuttoned and t-shirts underneath were on display. It was a warm Balamb afternoon so Quistis had decided to join her students in making the most of it, with the sleeveless top and denim skirt combo similar to what she’d had on when she’d bumped into Vaughn the other day/
McClewen leaned a hand on top of the jeep and peered inside as Quistis was rifling through her cassette box for some suitable music.
"Is this what we’ll be travelling in?" he asked with a sarcastic smile. Quistis raised a finger to him for silence without looking up from the tapes.
"Insult ye not the jeep of Beep," she said, "lest ye fancy walking back from Balamb Town when we’re done." She made her selection and popped open the locks on the doors, so the three students clambered in and sat down. McClewen took the passenger seat, his boots up on the dash and one arm dangling casually out of the window.
"I’m sure it’s a.. lovely car," he said, his voice loaded with sarcasm, "it’s just not the kind of thing I’d normally drive in. I like things with a bit of kick to them," he finished. Quistis turned to him and grinned as she started the engine.
"Is your seatbelt fastened?" she asked.
Once they’d screeched to a halt outside the town entrance a few minutes later, and Cevin had prised his fingers out from where he’d dug them into the dashboard in terror, Quistis turned the ear-splitting volume of the stereo down and leaned round to the others. Redman was laughing still, the same way she had been since Quistis hit that first bumpy road, and the jeep had spent half of the rest of the trip airborne, whereas Brendan was sat quietly but with a relaxed smile playing across his lips.
"How was the ride?"
"Fan-tastic!" said Katya enthusiastically. "I love this thing," she added, patting the jeep’s interior.
"Criss? How about you?"
"I’m glad you’re a good driver," he said quietly, "because with anyone else at the wheel I may have been a little scared."
"Good," said Quistis with a bright grin, turning to Cevin who was still gradually returning his breathing to normal. "And what about you?"
"I.. would.. like.. some.. water.." managed Cevin. Quistis chuckled and swung the door open, and the three students followed her out. She’d parked up just outside the main shopping centre, but there were enough people milling about that a fair few people cast curious glances at their SeeD cadet outfits, off-duty as they obviously were.
"Right then, it’s a wonderful sunny afternoon in Balamb and we are here to shop. Any objections?" said Quistis, standing before the three of them and taking charge. Three shaken heads replied to her, so she carried on. "Today is a little different from most shopping trips, however – there are three very specialist shops I’d like to take you to, and I’m sure you’ll each find that one tailors to your unique specialities."
Quistis walked as she talked, winding through the crowds of mid-afternoon Balamb residents and shoppers as she turned past Zell’s old house and down into a quieter part of the town.
Turning down a side street and following a narrow alleyway to a small square, Quistis examined the three doorways before her that led to the best shops that Balamb had to offer. Ma Potter’s Magic Shop was the home of the venerable lady of the shop’s title, and also to every single spell ingredient and magical charm and item under the sun. Magic use was still a rarity in the world as it stood, especially beyond the natural ability to be able to draw up essences and energy from the ground around you to create spells and magical effects, but for people interested in doing things the old-fashioned way, Ma Potter had just about everything you could ever need.
And to the increasingly excited looking Katya Redman, realising as she gazed on the shop front that the stories she’d heard about this place were true after all, this looked like the only place in the world where she wanted to be at the moment.
The unmarked building to the left was the modest home of Sensai Arakashi, the martial arts teacher and expert that 99% of Balamb knew nothing about. He was rumoured to have travelled over here from either Esthar or the equally mysterious city of Akamatsu, both over on the eastern continent and both places that asked more questions than they cared to answer.
The sensei lived here, having fled from something back in his native land, and now dispensed his wisdom to those souls brave and smart enough to be able to seek him out, spending his time outside of teaching in quiet meditation and reflection. Quistis had the distinct impression that some time spent with him would iron out the last few dents in McClewen’s otherwise perfect armour. She’d realised by now that Cevin’s tongue-in-cheek cockiness was an integral part of his character and not something that training would remove, so she knew that more focus spent on his actual skills and discipline, rather than his attitude, would pay off richly.
The building to the left of the square was marked ‘Durgan’s Rifles’ but Quistis knew that it held much more than that. Durgan himself, the burly shopkeeper with the eye patch and the sharp tongue, was not only a master marksman but also a craftsman of the finest quality arms known to the world. Orders for his exquisitely crafted personalised firearms came in from every part of the globe, making him a very rich man despite the humble appearances of the shop front.
Quistis hoped that inside Criss would be able to either find his perfect weapon or have it made for him, feeling confident that the cadet’s ability would impress Durgan enough to award him the privilege of placing a custom made weapon order. She’d seen that the gunblade Brendan currently used was a second hand one, scuffed with obvious years of use and at times looking in danger of falling apart, so she viewed this as the best chance he’d get to tool up for the coming exam.
"Now then, students," said Quistis as the three eyed up their respective shop entrances greedily. "Head inside and shop around. Ask for anything you want, get demonstrations, make your choices. I’ll be back to see each of you in two hours’ time and at that time we’ll make the final deals for whatever you’ve decided on. Within reason, consider anything you see to be available to you. I want you to have the best, and this is the place to get it. Happy hunting."
With that, she turned on her heel and walked back up the alley and out into the main town centre, not needing to look round to know that the students had disappeared gleefully into the three buildings, and that she now had two hours of quality time to herself to head for the one place she wanted to visit.
Emerging back out in the main town centre a few moments later, Quistis blended back into the crowds of shoppers and made her way towards her destination – a similar turn down a side alleyway led her to it, though this time the alley passed the rear entrances of several other shops and so it took her longer to reach her target – a door set into an otherwise featureless building. She sighed to herself – advertisements had never been this place’s strong point, but she was glad she’d been led to it. One day, when she had some cash, she was going to buy it and then immediately open it up to the rest of the town, but for today just being a shopper would suffice. She walked up to the door and opened it.
The musty smell hit her as soon as she stepped inside, but she’d spent so much time here she was used to it. The door opened into a large, high-ceilinged room that despite its space was still crammed literally to the rafters with items. Light came in via a skylight and dirty windows that looked out onto the main town square, part of the previous shop entrance which was now boarded up and left shut.
The shopkeeper noticed her come in, and with a smile put his accounting books down and made his way over.
"Nice of you to drop by again, Miss Trepe," he said, his upper class accent making her name sound more distinguished and ladylike somehow. She nodded as they shook hands.
"And it’s good to see you again, Professor," she said, for the man she was talking to was none other than Professor Albert Gaunter, a retired adventurer and explorer who Quistis had read about as a child, and whose achievements in life included the discovery of at least a dozen new cities and civilisations, as well as research into new species of wildlife both before and after the Lunar Cry incident, which unceremoniously dumped a gaggle of new creatures onto the planet. Gaunter’s books had kept Quistis entertained for countless hours as a child, tucked away in a corner of Mrs Rusard’s bookstore, poring through the maps and field sketches of his travels and hoping that one day she’d either be able to meet him or better yet, work with him.
So when she’d discovered, many years later, that he was running an unassuming little store for adventurers’ equipment right here in Balamb, she wasted no time in turning up and getting on the good side of the venerable professor, who now seemed content to run this little shop and pass on his experience to others through both visitors to the shop and the memoirs and guides he was continually working on. Quistis also suspected that he was very, very, rich, but kept his wealth wisely out of sight for fear of attracting looters and treasure hunters.
He was a short, stocky man, permanently tanned through years in the sun and with a thinning hairline that betrayed his age, but his reading glasses and general scholarly appearance gave off the impression that here was a man who knew an awful lot about an awful lot of things.
"What can I help you with on this typically fine Balamb afternoon?" he asked after the introductions had been made.
"I’ve come for some supplies, Professor, and.. and a little advice."
"Two things I excel in, young lady, you just tell me where you’re going and I’ll help you find what you need!"
"The two things kind of link together, Albert," she said, casting her eye over the items littering the shop. Rickety bookcases overflowing with thick, leather bound volumes, tools of the trade including machetes, bullwhips and shovels, and hundreds of knick-knacks and oddments that she couldn’t discern any obvious use for. "I’m taking three students of mine on their final field exam, and I have a feeling we’re going to be sent somewhere pretty tough."
"Ah yes, you’re still at the Garden, aren’t you – although I seem to remember hearing that you’d left?"
Quistis sighed. Time to fill the Professor in on the last few months. This could take a while..
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Well!" was all Gaunter could manage when Quistis finally wound the story down. She’d covered the close of the Ultimecia saga and then on to her dramatic exit from the Garden, through the teaching at Setton and the subsequent discovery of the local mutated wildlife, which the professor made plenty of notes about to go and investigate at a later date, and then on to when she was attacked and hospitalised, and the lifeline given to her by Headmaster Cid. When she got round to describing the three students and that they were the ones about to go on the field exam with her, he nodded sagely, stroking his chin thoughtfully, and started to search through the overflowing desk in one corner of the room for a sheaf of papers which he spread out across a display table in the room’s centre.
"Your predicament sounds very similar to one I found myself in over in the jungle continent of Darastasia about twelve.. no, thirteen years back. I was leading an expedition out there to investigate a series of unusual animal calls that had been heard from the surrounding jungle, but after a while the natives carrying our equipment became too frightened and left us to run back to their village.."
Quistis made sure she was sitting comfortably, she’d heard enough of Gaunter’s stories to know that they could take a long time to tell fully.
"All I had in my party was myself," he continued, "and these three young apprentices out on their first field trip. They were cocky in that way only the young can be, but very skilled and filled with potential. I saw the trip as a chance for me to finally beat their youthful exuberance out of them and make them into the world-class explorers they had the capability to be."
"What happened?" asked Quistis.
"Well, they were all eaten, I’m afraid," said the professor. "We were attacked by the creatures making the calls, they turned out to be a new breed of marlboro that surprised us and took the three youngsters out before we could fight back. I barely escaped myself, and despite going back in after them as soon as I could, we never found them again.." The professor paused in his recap, lost a little in the nostalgia of the moment. He noticed Quistis’ shocked look and carried on. "Still, I’m sure you’ll be just fine, no flesh-eating plant monsters for you to worry about, eh?"
"Uh.." was all Quistis could manage. She shook her head to try and clear away a nasty lingering mental image of Redman being slowly chewed upon by a huge marlboro and rapidly changed the subject. "Professor, I need some equipment to make sure our trip goes smoothly."
"Absolutely, my dear," he said, hopping off his stool and wandering round to a row of glass fronted cabinets across one wall. A selection of fearsome weapons were inside – hunting rifles, knives, pistols, all manner of adventuring equipment – but Gaunter was heading for one in particular. He unlocked the cabinet and carefully removed the item inside, returning to the table Quistis was seated at and laying it down in front of her.
"Wow," she said, examining what was probably the finest whip she’d ever seen laid out before her. The tail of it was composed of a dark material that Quistis couldn’t recognise, but on its tip there was a lash that looked like a sting torn straight from some fearsome giant insect. The handle itself looked odd as well – a jet black handle that was curiously smooth, and didn’t look like it’d stay in her hand in the middle of a tough fight.
"This belonged to my father, Tobias, and he always used to tell me stories when I was a boy of how it had saved his life countless times – swinging him across ravines, fighting back hungry monsters, even one instance where he used it to disarm traps inside an old temple he was exploring."
"Yes, I’ve heard a lot about your father," said Quistis, her eyes greedily coveting the whip before her as she learnt who it belonged to. "He was as famous as you are when it comes to the whole adventuring business!"
"Were, my dear, were. My adventuring days are long past me now. When my father said those same words to me as he lay on his deathbed, he handed me the keys to the old chest he kept in the corner of his room, and along with the rest of his equipment this was one of the things I found in there. I always hoped to have somebody I could pass it on to one day, but as you may have heard, I’m quite hard on apprentices.."
He chuckled at the dark humour and Quistis found herself joining in. While the professor had never been short of applicants to join him on his many and varied quests around the world, the percentage of them who actually made it back to tell the tale was distressingly low. To his credit, Gaunter would always mount rescue operations when he could, and in any event would pay hefty compensation to the families of the unfortunate would-be explorers. Quistis had dreamed of working alongside him as a youngster, but thankfully Rusard and Nona had made it quite clear that she was not going to go gallivanting off into the wilderness to get herself killed, thank you very much.
"It’s nice alright," she said, still admiring it and hoping the professor was going to ask her what she thought he was, but trying not to get too ahead of herself just in case.
"So what I think this occasion calls for," he said, "is for this to find a new owner. It’s bee lying here in the shop for many years now, waiting for me to find it someone new to carry on its story." Quistis found she was unconsciously clenching her fists in anticipation – she wanted that thing.
And she got it.
"And so, without any formal ceremony but with all the due respect it deserves, I’d like to ask you, Miss Trepe, if you’d be so kind as to take charge of my father’s whip from now on." Quistis smiled broadly as she picked the weapon up, straight away finding the significance of the odd handle – as she gripped it, the black material moulded itself to fit her palm grip with a soft ‘shuck’ sound, and when she took her hand away, she saw it had left a perfect imprint of her grip there. The material was also surprisingly sticky too, taking away her concern that it would fly out of her hands mid-swing.
"What is this handle made of, exactly?" she asked the professor as she took a few shallow practice swings with it, impressed with the weight and balance of it.
"You know, I’m not sure," said the professor, keeping a careful eye on Quistis as she swung the barbed tail of the whip dangerously close to several very valuable artefacts and treasures around the room. "My father said he found it whilst on a trek through the mountain ranges on Centra, said that none of the locals wanted to touch it so naturally, being the way he was, he brought it home to show off. He found those moulding properties you just discovered and that’s how it found its way into his bullwhip."
"I’ll have to get it scanned at the Garden," she said, still absently swinging it around. "It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.. this is fantastic, professor! Are you sure that you want me to have this?"
"Absolutely," he said, dashing out of his chair to catch a priceless Shumi vase that was about to plummet from its shelf and on to the floor as Quistis kept wafting the bullwhip through the air next to it. "I can’t think of anyone better around here. At least, not someone who’d use the thing instead of selling it first chance they got, anyway.." He looked up. Quistis hadn’t taken her eyes off the whip since she’d first picked it up, and he allowed himself a satisfied grin, knowing he’d made the right decision in letting her have it.
"Wow. And wow, again. Thank you, professor, this means a lot to me, you know," enthused Quistis, tucking the whip up safely and placing it into her backpack.
"I know it does, my dear, that’s why I knew I could trust you with it." Quistis looked at her watch – the others would be leaving their respective shops soon, so she had to be heading back to the square.
"Professor, I have to go gather my students. I’ll come back and see you again after the exam, alright? And thank you again!"
"No problem," he said with a wave as Quistis darted out of the shop. "Just try not to get yourself killed using it, like my father almost did.."
Quistis arrived back in the quiet square just as, right on cue, Katya, Criss and Cevin came walking out of their respective shops. She grinned as she saw the contented looks on each of their faces.
"Alright, who wants me to go buy their stuff first?"
"Me!" said Redman, grabbing Quistis’ hand and dragging her into Ma Potter’s shop. The two emerged a few minutes later, Quistis coughing and sneezing as a result of the thick scent of the assorted herbs and potions invading her delicate sinuses. Redman was proudly carrying four brown bags filled with ingredients and tools of the trade, which she jealously guarded from the boys as they tried to peek inside. Brendan started to open one but Katya raised a hand to stop him, attempting to draw a quick burst of essence up from the ground to zap him with.
When nothing happened, she looked confused at her hand and then at Quistis, as if her hand was broken and she couldn’t cast any spells.
"Anti-magic barrier around the square," explained Quistis as she totted up the till receipts from Potter’s shop. "Ma Potter put it up as a safety measure with all the magic stuff in her shop, kind of like an automatic fire extinguisher."
"So what’ya buy then, Kat?" asked Cevin.
"Oh you know, just stuff," she said with a grin, "a few things that’ll come in handy for the exam. What did you see in there?" Cevin grinned and turned to Quistis.
"There are many, many cool things I would like from that shop, but the sensei and I spent half the time running through a few moves before he demonstrated some of the weapons to me. Care to step inside?"
"Gladly," said Quistis, following Cevin in. They returned with Cevin proudly toting a pair of nunchukas, expertly twirling the wooden sticks around before gathering them up in one hand and dropping them into an old bag the sensei had given him. They clinked as they slid in, obviously hitting a few more items in there, but Cevin kept the bag close by, each student seeming unwilling to share the secrets of what they’d bought just yet. Quistis turned to Brendan.
"Ready, Criss?" He nodded and walked into Durgan’s, and Quistis followed.
Durgan was a stocky man, muscular and a little sweaty, his eyepatch in place and his granite jaw still looking like you could crash an ocean liner into it. He was dressed in a combat jacket and khaki shorts, the heat filtering into the shop and giving it an almost tropical feel. He stood behind the desk of his shop, quietly polishing the scattered pieces of a complicated looking rifle as Quistis and Brendan walked in. Rows upon rows of guns of all description filled the walls – handguns, rifles, rocket launchers, anything the budding terrorist could hope for. In one corner of the shop, just out of view, Quistis saw the edge of the gunblade section, looking as exclusive as you’d expect it to. Durgan put the cloth and gun part down as Brendan stepped up to the counter.
"Welcome back, kid," he said, chewing the end of a fat cigar. He nodded to Quistis who half-saluted back. "So, you make your mind up what you want?"
"I’d like the Cobalt Blue," he said, his voice soft yet at the same time not sounding like he should be questioned. Durgan whistled and shifted the cigar around in his mouth.
"You sure, kid? I mean, that’s some pretty serious hardware you’re looking at. Pricey, too," he said, looking at Quistis with his good eye. She smiled.
"Whatever my student wants, he shall have. It isn’t coming out of my pay packet, after all." Durgan snorted and chuckled, nodding and walking into the back of the shop. He came back with a long, thin bundle of cloth which he laid carefully down on the tabletop.
"Legend has it that every shopkeeper has to tell some cheesy story before they attempt to sell one of these, to try and make sure it keeps up the mystical reputation it has. Me personally, I like to let the weapon do the talking," he said, slowly unwrapping the cloth to reveal the Cobalt Blue in all its glory.
Lying before her was the most exquisitely crafted gunblade Quistis had ever seen. She could tell where it got its name from – the blade was silver but with an odd blue tint to it that literally glittered, even in the dim light of the room. The handle and trigger were true craftsmanship pieces as well, the decals on them depicting lightning strikes and glaciers to add to the cold feel of the weapon.
"Now what you have here," said Durgan as Brendan lifted the blade into the air, "is one of the greatest gunblades ever made. There’s only about twenty or so of these in the whole world as far as I know, each one a hundred percent hand made, each one tough enough to slice a snow lion in half. Well, theoretically, anyway." Brendan made a few light sweeps with the blade through the air, and as it cut through the musty air of the shop it literally sang, vibrating gently as though someone far away was whistling quietly. Accompanied by a choir of angels, that is.
"And I take it that the cost reflects that?" said Quistis as Durgan started typing numbers into the till on the counter. He grinned and turned the display around to show her.
"See for yourself." Quistis read the very long number on the screen and gulped. Drawing out her Garden credit card, she passed it across to Durgan who started to ring up the price of the blade. Quistis leaned over to whisper in Brendan’s ear as he carried on sweeping the blade back and forth.
"Don’t you dare lose, break or in any way damage this thing, Criss, on your head be it!"
"Don’t worry, Instructor, I don’t think I could break it even if I tried.." He seemed mesmerised by it, but when Quistis paid up he slipped it quietly into its scabbard and followed her outside. Durgan called out to them as they left.
"Thanks, Quisty, I think I can safely retire now!"
The group reconvened outside.
"Everybody ready?" she asked. The cadets nodded.
"What did you get, Instructor?" asked Katya. Quistis smiled and patted her bag.
"Just a new toy, should come in handy." Cevin whispered a remark in Brendan’s ear and the two giggled, prompting Redman and Quistis to share a look bemoaning the childish humour of boys before they walked away.
"Hey, Instructor, you may need to bring some batteries along for the exam," said Cevin, the two boys still laughing as Quistis made her way back to the jeep, "because we may not be able to find a power cable long enough for, you know, your ‘toy’ to work.."
Quistis and Redman climbed into the jeep and drove away as Brendan and McClewen lay helpless with laughter, leaving the two cadets to make their own way back to the Garden. Sometimes guys could just be a real pain.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Cid looked down at the sheaf of papers which had just been plonked on the table before him. He adjusted his reading glasses and picked up the top most sheet. Squinting to read the finer print, he scanned over it then looked up at the person who’d brought it to him.
Quistis sat opposite him on one of his many office chairs as Edea slinked around in the background filing quietly, the fact that she’d been teaching Annabelle Mochika a lot recently very evident in the silent floor shuffle both of them had perfected.
"So they’re ready at last, then?" asked Cid as he flicked through the rest of the pages. Quistis knew that Cid wasn’t one for paperwork but he did know that it all had to be there, so he appreciated Quistis’ effort in making sure all the appropriate documentation for her student’s field exam was present and correct.
"Absolutely one hundred percent ready for action, sir," she said. She’d come to work today in her dress uniform, all smart navy blue blazer and skirt, to make sure Cid could see she was serious about all this. He smiled amiably and held the files up in the air, whereupon Edea levitated them out of his hands and through the air over to her, where she neatly filed them away along with the other papers she had. Quistis grinned but reverted back to attention as Cid carried on talking – he hadn’t even looked up as his wife had done that little trick, used as he was to her magic by now.
"Good, good. I have just the thing for them. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you when I say that the exam will be a specialised one, just you and your three cadets." Quistis nodded.
"Now this is no reflection on your teaching, but I’m not fully convinced yet that we can rely on them not to harm others in a combat situation. I mean, I have your recommendation and that’s almost enough, but to do this formally I do need them to pass the exam before I can fully support them." Quistis nodded again.
"Now then," said Cid, holding up a hand and waiting as Edea floated a folder across the room to him, "here’s the assignment I have in mind for them." He handed Quistis the folder and waited as she opened it and spread the contents out across her lap. It was a series of aerial shots of a large city, along with mug shots of various grizzly looking men and women, and some crime scene photos of burned out cars and buildings.
"What you’ll be doing," he continued, "is travelling out to the city of Kabernia. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now." Quistis looked up at the mention of the city’s name.
"Yes, the big new development centre just past Deling. Seems everybody’s going there these days!"
"Well, the governor has sent out a request to Galbadia and Balamb Gardens asking for assistance. Trabia Garden is still out of action as you may know, and Galbadia is taking its time getting a team together. I’m planning on sending other SeeDs out there once the situation has been fully assessed, but for now.."
"But for now that assessment is my job," said Quistis, finishing Cid’s sentence. He smiled and nodded. "So what’s the story?" she asked.
"It seems that certain groups have started up that don’t take kindly to the governor’s presence in the city. For whatever reason or motive, they have begun a campaign of terror against the city, attacking installations and businesses and causing mayhem wherever they go. The governor wants us to eliminate them before they cause any more destruction to the city. As you know, Kabernia is still in development, and this is a critical time for the whole city. If it starts to lose too much money as a result of these attacks, the whole city could fall apart, almost literally."
"What do these terrorists want?" said Quistis, scanning the photos for details.
"I’m not sure, but the governor seems convinced they’re just out to disrupt the place as much as they can."
"Well, terrorists usually have an agenda, is all – political power, revenge, perhaps they’re trying to make a statement about something. Has anyone.." Quistis trailed off as she looked up and saw Cid looking at her, a proud fatherly grin on his face as he leaned his head on one hand.
"That’s my girl," he said, "always asking questions. To level with you, I don’t know what these terrorists’ motivations could be either. It’s your job to go and find out, and stop any further attacks on the city."
"I think that’s within our limits," said Quistis, packing the information back into the folder.
"Get your cadets ready to leave in the morning," said Cid. "I’ll get anything else you need to know e-mailed to the computer terminal in your room. There’s a transport ship leaving Balamb Harbour at 7.30am sharp, so if you get on that you’ll be met at the port of Horatii on the other side by a contact from Kabernia, he should have a carrier ready to take you and your team to the governor’s mansion."
"All sounds fine to me, sir," said Quistis. "I spent some time with them yesterday getting some new equipment sorted out so I know we’re all fit for the trip." She stood up and saluted. "Thanks for this opportunity, Cid, they won’t let you down."
"I hope not," he said, settling his hands on his belly and reclining in his chair, "because those three cadets, attitudes aside, are still the three best potential SeeDs I’ve seen since a certain sullen teenager breezed into this place some years back.. The irony, if you want to call it that, is that both times I will have you to thank for turning them into the people they could be!" Quistis smirked at the compliment, never being one to take flattery too seriously.
"Well," she said, reddening slightly, "it’s not all thanks to me.."
"Don’t sell yourself so short, I have a lot to thank you for, and hopefully a lot more still to come," he said. "I’d like to think that you’ll stay here a while longer yet."
"Leave it to me, sir," she said, nodding to Edea and leaving the office.
Edea sashayed over and slid her arms round Cid from behind. He patted her forearm as he sat back in his chair again. She stood behind him, resting her chin on the top of his head.
"You think she’ll be alright?" she asked.
"She’ll be fine. The students are another matter," said Cid. "But, assuming they don’t all get killed or end up killing each other, I still stick by predicting great things for those three."
"Any idea what this situation at Kabernia is all about? It’s not like Galbadia to take so long to react to something so close by, after all."
"Yes, that had me stumped as well," replied Cid, picking up his copy of the files he’d given Quistis and looking over them. "Something about it doesn’t quite add up, but I’m confident that she can get to the bottom of it."
"You think a lot of her, don’t you," said Edea as Cid put the folders away again.
"I do. I’m still angry at myself for letting her leave because she thought she wasn’t needed, I should’ve handled it all better. It’s taking her a long time to build the trust in me she once had back up again."
"She’s not doing too bad if she took this on, though," Edea reminded him. "And now that she knows you want her to stay, I think all we need is for this to go well and she’ll be back to being a full-time Instructor again."
"I hope so, dear, I hope so," said Cid.
Midnight rolled around and Quistis was still awake, perched on her chair in front of her computer screen, the flickering light of the monitor reflecting off her glasses as she pored over the details before her again. As far as she could tell, the rebel attacks had started up a few months back, and were increasing in intensity as time went on.
However, she thought as she brushed back some stray hair and took another slurp from the milkshake she’d picked up from the drive-through restaurant just outside the town centre, following a short drive to clear her head, there was definitely a pattern. She was trying to work out what kinds of businesses these people attacked, and possibly get hold of a motive from there. Food distribution centres seemed to be a popular target, as well as anything that directly linked to the governor – seeing as he had a finger in every financial pie in the city, that meant quite a lot of places were viable for them. Thing was, why? Why did the rebels have such a beef against the governor? What was making them hit these targets in particular? And why did the straws in these drinks always taste like chicken?
Quistis leaned back, frowning as her brain tried to calculate several possibilities at once, when her phone rang. She picked it up absently, the straw from the now empty milkshake sticking out of her mouth as she chewed it thoughtfully.
"Mmyello?" she said.
"Ah, good, you are the sort of girl who stays up late, then," said Vaughn. Quistis spat the straw out in surprise before managing to compose herself.
"What was that noise?" he asked.
"Uh, a very large bug flew past," she said quickly. "So what can I do for you, Vaughn?"
"Well, if it isn’t too cheeky I was going to ask if you wanted to grab a late night bite to eat, I just finished work for the shift and can swing by in about ten minutes. Gives you chance to sort out your insect problem." Quistis grinned. If nothing else, he had a good sense of humour. She glanced down at her clothes.
"I’m not dressed up, hope that’s okay," she said, looking at her fluffy slippered feet. She was in an old short-sleeve shirt and jeans, her hair tied up at the back and her glasses on, giving her the look of an off-duty librarian. Vaughn chuckled.
"Just seeing you at all will be perfect," he said. "I’ll be at the front gate in about ten minutes, alright? See you there."
He hung up and Quistis finished off her drink with a series of slurps. She scratched her head once then flicked the monitor off, she’d had enough of trying to make her brain hurt for one night. With a yawn and a stretch, she stood up, slipped on a pair of trainers and grabbed some cash and her apartment keys. Her friendship with Vaughn seemed to be in a reasonably comfortable zone, which was about all she was prepared to let herself in for at the moment, especially with the field exam in a few days time. He didn’t seem the pushy type though, so she could enjoy his company for now.
And twenty minutes later that was just what they were doing. They were parked on top of a hillside overlooking Balamb Town, the glittering orange lights of the town’s streetlamps shimmering like an ocean below them. After he’d drawn up outside in his flashy looking high performance car, which he drove quite conservatively given that it could probably outrun a lightning bolt, they’d swung by a late night snack bar on the way up to the hill, and here they sat, the roof of his convertible car retracted back so they could breathe in the warm evening air as they munched away at their goodies. Quistis had gone for a hot steak sandwich, while Vaughn, trying to catch up on food after his long shift at work, had gone for a huge sloppy burger and fries, and was busy making a mess of it as he tore into it, thankfully saving his clothes from the mess by aiming all the escaping chunks of meat downwards into the burger’s styrofoam box. Quistis looked at him, one eyebrow raised, as she nibbled at her sandwich.
"What?" he said through a mouthful. "You have no idea how hungry I am at the moment."
"I think I’m getting a picture," she said, casting her eye over his uniform. If he wasn’t a park ranger, he’d done a good job of forging the uniform - light green shirt with darker green trim and dark green trousers, plastered with patches for Balamb Forest Rangers, he looked every bit the professional tree hugger he was meant to be – but Quistis noticed that he seemed to have a patch she hadn’t seen before on his shoulder, a kind of coat of arms of some sort. She peered at it as he finished the last scraps of his meal.
"It’s my family’s trademark," he said as he saw her looking. "Shows that I’m part of the clan and also that I don’t get stopped by park security when I go wandering round restricted areas."
"Must be very handy for getting into clubs and things," she said, holding up her wallet as though she was flashing an ID badge to a bouncer. "Hi, Trevelyan, Balamb Forest." He chuckled and she took another mouthful of sandwich.
"So what’ve you got planned next few days?"
"My class take their field exam first thing," she said, looking straight ahead and letting her thoughts drift away for a moment. "We’re shipping out to Kabernia to help the local governor fight off attacks by this rebel group in the city. Cid thinks there may be more to it, however, so we’re also investigating why the rebels are doing what they do." She absently picked off a chunk of bread and sat staring at it.
"You sound a little apprehensive," said Vaughn. Quistis nodded, still not looking up or at him.
"It was always a year between me going out on exams, as I’d take each class out to graduate and then wait till the next one were ready, but it feels like it’s been a lot longer this time round. I hope I’m ready."
"You’ll be fine," he said confidently, reclining in his seat and closing his eyes, his hands behind his head. "From what you’ve told me about those kids, they can handle themselves fine, and if you’re there to stop them killing each other then you’ve got even less to worry about."
"You seem very certain of my abilities!" she replied. He shrugged.
"I get that about you. I saw it first time I noticed you, it’s what made me come over and say hello. You looked like someone who knew how to take care of themselves." Quistis drew her legs up and hugged her knees, leaning her head on them and looking across at the peaceful form of Vaughn.
"Sometimes I wonder," she said quietly. He just grinned.
"Just sit and relax for a minute. Be like me, I make sure I spend at least five minutes every day not worrying or thinking about anything. They started thirty seconds ago, I suggest you join me."
Quistis smiled. Vaughn was a good guy to be around, very laid back when others around him were losing their minds. She shuffled back into a more relaxed position, closed her eyes and let the outside air wash over her. The distant hiss of traffic was faded away into the background, replaced by the rustle of leaves in the trees nearby, the faint whistle of the grass as the wind ran its fingers through it, odd scampering noises of local woodland critters and the ever present chatter of Balamb’s insect population.
A few minutes later, Vaughn opened his eyes and turned to Quistis.
"Right, five minutes are up," he said, before noticing that the young woman had dozed off, and was dozing softly in the chair beside him. He chuckled and very carefully fastened her seatbelt, then as gently as he could started up the car and reversed off the hill, rejoining the road that led back to the Garden. Quistis didn’t stir despite the odd bump in the road, Vaughn’s car’s expensive suspension making it a smooth ride home.
When he got to Garden, he parked his car outside the gates and got out, opening Quistis’ door and gingerly cradling her and lifting her out of it. He managed to avoid the Garden wardens on his way over to her apartment, and with a deft bit of pickpocketing he retrieved the key to her room and let himself in. Laying the still fast asleep form of Quistis on her bed, he threw the bedclothes over her and made his way outside, closing the door with a barely audible ‘click.’
Quistis slept on.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Quistis? Quistis, wake up. Quistis, can you hear me?"
A male voice, young, softly spoken. It was dark all around her, but it felt as though her eyes were open. Quistis scanned the gloom for some sign of her addresser, but couldn’t make out anything.
"Who are you? And why is it so dark?"
"You can’t see me, I’m not here."
"You need to find me, Quistis. You have to track me down. I can help you, but you need to find me."
"Well, where are you?" she replied, starting to get both confused and a little uneasy at the same time.
"I don’t know. But I’m close to you. Or I will be, soon. It’s hard to say for sure. You have to find me, you have to get me out of here."
"Out of where? What’s happened?" The voice was starting to sound familiar but she still couldn’t place it at all.
"Just find me, please. We don’t have much time.."
The man’s voice faded away into the blackness. Quistis was dimly aware of feeling her feet running, but she couldn’t tell whether she was moving or not. She waved her arms around before her but couldn’t feel anything, she couldn’t even tell where her arms were, all she could see was the blackness, and-
Baap Baap Baap.
Morning. Quistis’ eyes flicked open and she jolted upright in her bed, finding herself short of breath and having left her pillow and bedclothes the present of a night’s worth of sweat. Her room was cool thanks to the air conditioning, but a palm pressed to her forehead told her that she was ridiculously hot and in danger of burning up. That was one crazy dream, she thought to herself as she tried to mop up some of the sweat on her brow with her nightshirt sleeve. She checked the clock – it was coming up to 6.30am, so she’d have to sit and try to analyse it later on.
She swung her legs out of bed and tottered over to the bathroom, running herself a cool shower to try and chill her body down a little. This morning was a big day for her, she was meeting her class at the front gates in one hour before they headed off to catch the 7.30 ship from the harbour out to Horatii. They’d have chance to be briefed on the mission for the field exam on the trip over there, so that by the time the governor’s contact met them and got them on the carrier to Kabernia they’d be fully up to speed.
Drying off, she opened her wardrobe to start throwing some clothes on before remembering that she needed her uniform for today. It was still over the back of her chair from where she’d thrown it after the interview with Cid yesterday, so in moments she was looking every inch the highly trained SeeD instructor she seemed to have become once again. Grabbing a small kit bag, she packed away a few days’ worth of fresh clothes, toiletries and other accessories, as well as making sure her brand new, only-one-careful-owner whip was tucked away safely too.
Suitably tooled up, she slung her bag over her shoulder, grabbed a pair of shades, her favourite sun hat and her personal stereo, tucking the latter into her blazer pocket as she stepped out of her room. A few SeeD students were wandering round the grounds as she walked out into the sunshine, early birds probably out to either try and get hold of some of the cafeteria’s world renowned hot dogs, or just be first into their respective classrooms.
As she thought about it, Quistis realised she’d never actually seen anyone ever eating any hotdogs in the Garden. She’d heard about how there was always a rush for them, and that Zell always used to miss it, but she’d never seen with her own eyes anybody tucking into one of them. Maybe they didn’t exist at all? Perhaps they were a cunning marketing ploy made up to increase the number of students who came to eat there, or maybe-
Quistis wasn’t watching where she was walking, and had managed to stroll straight into the imposing form of Hatchett, one of the Garden’s sports team and a star pupil for every teacher who liked students that could run, swim, leap and throw.
"Oh, sorry, Hatchett, I was miles away," she said absently, righting her hat and getting ready to head off again. He reached out with one of his huge paw-like hands and placed one on her shoulder. There wasn’t much pressure, but she still felt that trying to move away would be a bad idea right now.
"You off on the field exam today, Instructor?" boomed his voice, which always seemed to be coming from somewhere ten feet above Quistis’ head.
"Yes, Hatchett, I am. I’m meeting Kat, Cevin and Criss by the front gate just now."
"Could you pass something on to Katya for me?" he said, reaching round in one of his pockets and handing a small bracelet across to Quistis. It was relatively plain but she could tell the big man had made it himself – it had that inescapably masculine look about it.
"What is this, Hatchett? It’s very pretty," she said, examining it and then tucking it away in her blazer. Hatchett shrugged.
"’S just for luck, really. She’s a nice kid, anything I can do to help her will make me feel better." Quistis smiled up at him and he reddened a little back. Seems like Katya was gaining herself a growing fan club round here as well.
"I’ll pass it on nice and discretely, Hatchett, don’t worry. I’d best be off now, see you later."
Quistis continued on her way and was at the front gate just before seven.
When her cadets finally arrived at twenty past, Quistis was already starting to fume but managed to rein in her growing anger as the three of them slouched up to the gates, yawning and blinking blearily in the early morning sunshine.
"What the hell is the matter with you lot! We’ve got a ferry to catch in less than ten minutes!"
"Sorry, Instructor, we’re not used to early starts, see.." yawned McClewen.
"Yeah, besides, we figured we can snooze on the way over and catch up then," said Redman. Brendan was quiet as always, but looked fresh. Fresher than the other two, anyway. Quistis was beginning to suspect that he never actually slept at all.
"Well, never mind that now," she snapped, rooting out her car keys and starting to jog over to where her jeep was parked up. "We’d better get moving. Get in and buckle up, this calls for some emergency driving." Quistis watched as Cevin slid lazily into the passenger seat again and grinned to herself. "If nothing else, this ought to wake you up," she said as she got in and started the ignition.
She screeched to a stop in the Balamb Harbour parking area exactly three and a half minutes later, having gotten the jeep airborne at least five times on the journey down from Garden. Cevin and Katya were no wide awake, luckily, but the ferry sitting in the harbour was moments away from departure as the group got out of her jeep. Quistis fumbled with her keys as Redman and McClewen walked up the ramp and on board. Brendan hung back.
"Criss, what are you waiting for? Go!" she said, finally locking up and racing on board as the ferry’s horn sounded and the harbour crew started to untie the mooring ropes. Brendan walked casually over to the ramp but it was pulled on board before he reached there. Quistis buried her head in her hands as Criss stood calmly at the edge of the dock.
"I don’t believe it, ten minutes into this and it’s already a disaster.." she muttered. She looked up, about to shout instructions at Criss to get the next ferry out and meet them there, when she watched as, almost in slow motion, Brendan take a few steps backwards, then perform a running leap that sailed him through the air, over the gap between the ferry and the dock and neatly onto the deck of the ship, to a round of applause from his two colleagues. Quistis shook her head and walked towards the interior of the ship to get her notes ready as her three cadets laughed about Criss’ spectacular entrance. This is going to be a long, long day, she thought darkly to herself.
"Okay then, here’s the mission in hand," she said a short while later once she had her three students’ attention. She’d booked up a small room inside the ferry to serve as a makeshift conference room for the four of them, and as they sat on two rows of seats she passed out each one a copy of the notes Cid had given her. They started to scan the photos and files as she spoke, a pleasantly semi-professional air starting to take over proceedings. They still obviously weren’t taking things at all seriously, unfortunately, but it was a start.
The room was small and cramped, but Quistis had enough space to stand and hold up the files as she discussed them.
"We’re meeting up with this guy at the other end of this trip," she said, holding up a photo of a respectable looking bearded man. "He’s one of the governor’s assistants, and it’s his job to fill us in on more of the situation as we drive from the port of Horatii out to the city."
"Any word on what we’re up against yet?" asked Criss.
"I was getting to that. These aerial photos," she said, holding up three pictures taken from recon planes, "show what is suspected to be a rebel base camp a mile out from the city limits. However, it is believed that they either have bases inside the city, or that there is a link somewhere inside from the base directly to the heart of the city. If we can find either of these, we’ll find our targets."
"What our basic plan is," she continued, steadying herself as the ferry crested a wave and the whole ship shook somewhat, "is that we arrive, gather what intel we an from the governor’s staff then head out and search the place by ourselves. The sooner we find some of these rebels the better, because both Headmaster Cid and myself have some suspicions that things are not what they seem here."
"Oh?" said Redman, seeming more interested all of a sudden.
"Well, it’s too soon to say which is why we need to get all we can from the governor’s people first, but from what I can make out there is a definite pattern to the rebel attacks, but not one that indicates the work of a group of terrorists."
"More like a group of.. well, rebels," said Brendan. Cevin snorted.
"That’s what she already said, stupid!"
"You know what I mean," retorted Brendan, "they seem more like a group of people with something worth fighting for, than a group of people just blowing stuff up because they feel like it. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise – there are still plenty of opportunities to find work, food and places to live in Kabernia, so why would they want to attack that?" Quistis grinned – for a quiet person, Brendan was pretty observant. She’d arrived at a similar conclusion before going out with Vaughn the previous evening, that the rebels must have some kind of agenda that either wasn’t clear or was being covered up by the governor’s people.
"Excellent deduction, Criss, but remember we are not to arouse any suspicion that we are carrying out our own inquiry into all this. The plan is we go in, take a look around and report back to Cid. If he decides we need to take control and move on, we do so with Balamb Garden’s full support which basically means we get diplomatic immunity from anything Kabernia might do to stop us." McClewen grinned and cracked his knuckles together.
"In other words, if they get in our way, we get to bust some ass!"
"Not exactly. One of the main objectives of this mission is to teach you three that combat is never the only answer to a problem, and that thought and diplomacy has won as many battles as out-and-out brute force." Quistis checked her watch. "We’ll be pulling into Horatii Port in about ten minutes, let’s get up on deck and make ourselves look presentable."
As the ferry began the approach to the port in question, Quistis and her three students were stood smartly on deck ready to begin the first phase of the field exam. Horatii was a quiet coastal town that handled a lot of traffic bound for Kabernia, the tall towers of the city just visible in the distance through the mist that shrouded the city. The surrounding landscape was green and pleasant at first, but quickly faded out into quite barren rocky wasteland, a clean sheet on which Kabernia had been drawn as if to fill in a gap that Nature had left behind. A few small buildings dotted the coastline, most associated with the port in some way. Anybody who had the money to do so had upped and moved out to the big city by now, leaving behind a skeleton crew to man the port.
Seabirds circled and cawed overhead as the ferry pulled up to the dock, the local workers throwing up the mooring ropes as the ship drew to a halt. The boarding ramp was lowered and the passengers disembarked to a small waiting crowd, some meeting up with loved ones or business colleagues, but for Quistis and the others there was just one man, dressed smartly and stood apart from the crowd, an expensive looking people carrier parked on the road just outside the dock. Quistis recognised him from his photo and walked over to shake his outstretched hand.
"Mr. Mawdsley? I’m Quistis Trepe and these are my three SeeDs, Katya Redman, Cevin McClewen and Criss Brendan."
"Pleased to meet you all," said Mawdsley, shaking hands with each student. Quistis was pleased to see them behaving themselves but still on springs in case one of them tried to pull a stunt of some sort.
"I understand we’re to head straight to meet the governor?"
"Yes, I’ll fill you in on the, ah, the situation," he said, carefully pronouncing the word, "on the way over. Governor Deakin is looking forward to meeting you."
Quistis nodded and followed Mawdsley as he began to walk over to the carrier. She turned to address her students as they followed.
"Lesson number one coming up – keep quiet and let them do the talking. I’ll ask questions but if anybody thinks of something I’ve missed feel free to speak out. And Cevin?"
"You pull one stunt and I’ll kick you out of this thing myself, understood?"
"Yes, miss," replied Cevin, unable to resist pulling a cheeky smile, which Quistis found herself unable to resist pulling back at him.
Phase one, underway.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"What seems to be happening at the moment," said Mawdsley from the front seat, "is that the rebel attacks are becoming increasingly dramatic, and we’re starting to run out of ways to stop them." Quistis nodded, enjoying the smooth ride of the top of the range people carrier as it sped down the narrow country lanes that led from the verdant surroundings of Horatii out into the blank canvas of what was rapidly becoming Kabernia. "Their technology is becoming more advanced, their attacks are getting more complex and harder to stop, and we believe that members of our own military forces are defecting to work with the rebels. The situation is in danger of getting drastically out of hand, Miss Trepe."
"Well, now you have some help, so we’ll have to see what we can do, Mr Mawdsley," said Quistis with a smile. "What can you tell us about the rebels?" Mawdsley sighed and retrieved a handful of folders from his briefcase.
"Not as much as I’d like to. They operate in small teams of no more than ten men and women at a time, appearing by their targets, staging the attack and then disappearing again. They tend to aim for targets that are military or official in nature – barracks, government buildings, records offices, things like that. They are also attacking food stores and distribution centres, so citizens are being deprived of their milk deliveries and shopping facilities." Quistis looked up, trying to read something about the situation from Mawdsley’s face, but the man was either an excellent actor or genuinely in the dark about it all.
"Any casualties? Eyewitness reports? Photographs or surveillance images?" Mawdsley pointed to the folders.
"All that we’ve got is in there. What we’d like you to do is basically get set up at the barracks closest to the governor’s mansion, then we’ll send some men out with you to recce some of the rebel’s recent attack sites, and after that whatever plan of action you choose to take is up to you." Quistis nodded and turned to look at her cadets – Redman and Brendan were giggling about something, while Cevin was busy reading the latest edition of Combat King magazine. Quistis coughed once, and with a roll of his eyes Cevin got the message and put the magazine away.
"Do try and concentrate, McClewen. I know it’s asking a lot from you but I’m sure it’d help," said Quistis with a scolding look to accompany her sarcasm. Cevin grinned and nodded once, taking a folder that Quistis passed her and starting to leaf through it.
"What kinds of facilities do we have access to?" asked Brendan. Mawdsley turned to look at him, then glanced at Quistis. Quistis nodded to say that it was alright to answer him.
"Criss is to be treated exactly as you would me, Mr Mawdsley, so there’s no need to okay things with me first," she added by way of explanation. Mawdsley nodded.
"You’ll have access to a sector of the barracks with all the usual bed and board facilities, and with regards to your mission you’ll have computer terminals that can access most of the files contained within the Kabernia Central databanks, as well as some light weaponry and vehicles."
"And as you said, we’ll get a few of your men to help us out," finished Quistis. Mawdsley nodded again.
"They’re trustworthy men, you won’t need to worry about them switching sides on you!"
"Wow, would you take a look at that," interrupted Redman, who was looking out of the window. The carrier was just cresting a large hill and gradually scrolling the panoramic view of Kabernia into sight. Mawdsley grinned and tapped the driver on the shoulder, who dutifully brought the carrier to a halt at the top of the hill.
"Why not step out and take a look?" he suggested. "Most people like to savour the first time they see our little city." He opened his door and got out, opening the passenger door for Quistis and the others soon after. Quistis looked at her cadets.
"Want to make a quick sightseeing stop?" Redman nodded, Cevin shrugged and Brendan stared out of the other window. Quistis rolled her eyes and called to him.
"Hmm? What?" he said, turning round and disturbed from his thoughts.
"I said do you want to take a look at the city?"
"Yeah, sure," he said quietly, unbuckling his seatbelt. Quistis slid out of the carrier and stretched lazily as the other three followed her.
She whistled appreciatively as she gazed out across the now infamous city of Kabernia. They were on top of a grassy hill looking down over the whole area. The landscape around them was plains and rocky ground, featureless and barren, but rising out of it like it had sprouted from the earth to fill the space were the towers and buildings of the city. It was put together from a bewildering array of shapes and sizes of buildings, some tall and rising to a point, others short and squat. A network of monorail tracks linked up the different sectors of the city, and even in the afternoon sun the city was gradually starting to light up, a twinkling blanket of little pinpricks of light peppering it. The heavy cloud overhead wasn’t really helping brighten the place up, but as Quistis scanned it she realised that the city’s streetlighting was reacting to the natural light available, brightening the darker areas.
"Very clever," she said out loud.
"Oh, you wait till you get in closer," said Mawdsley, lighting a cigarette. "I’ve looked out on the city from up here hundreds of times and I never get tired of it. Every time it’s something different, some new block has been built or some new sector developed. This place is amazing, Miss Trepe, simply breathtaking."
"Wow, look at all that!" said Redman, pointing over to the western arc of the city that housed its airport as one of the smooth silver passenger planes roared down the runway and took off, arcing gracefully into the air like a gigantic metal bird and passing overhead of the little group on the hill. Redman, a hand to her eyes to guard from the sun, craned her neck to watch it fly by, a smile on her face.
"I guess that part of the city’s still a work in progress," said Cevin, pointing to an array of scaffolding and construction equipment crawling up the skyscrapers to the east of the city like a wall of ivy. Mawdsley nodded, taking a drag from his cigarette and stubbing it out on the ground before answering.
"There’s always work going on somewhere. We basically own most of the land you can see from up here, so we’ve got plans to develop as much of it as we can."
"Very nice indeed," said Quistis. Kabernia looked like a giant ant hive in some ways, towers and spires rising all over and the signs of movement and activity covering every inch of its structures. The perfect kind of place where somebody could hide out if they wanted to, and full of opportunities for somebody who wanted to disrupt the city to do so..
"Shall we move on?" said Mawdsley, interrupting Quistis from her thoughts. She nodded and the team hopped back into the carrier, which was on its way back down towards the city in moments. There were many other roads leading in and out of Kabernia in all directions, ferrying everything from huge cargo trucks and supply convoys to small cars and families out to spend the day there.
"Looks like this place is pretty popular with tourists," commented Brendan.
"Yes, we have a very healthy income from our tourism trade, something we supply for with all the entertainment sectors you can find. The city’s laid out like a giant grid, essentially, so it’s very easy to get from one place to another. You only ever drive in straight lines, you see!"
"Somehow I think Instructor Trepe’d find a way around that," said Cevin, prompting a giggle from Redman. Quistis winked at them both.
"Here we are," said Mawdsley as they drew closer to the main city gates, "we just need to check in. The rebel attacks have resulted in increased security all over the city, plus it’s affected our trading and tourism levels, so as I’m sure you can appreciate we’re anxious to sort this out before it starts to destabilise the whole city!"
The main gates were an imposing pair of huge doors made from some dark metal, joining a wall that ran the entire perimeter of the city. Manned observation posts were dotted at regular intervals all around it, and the roads all had to pass through a checkpoint before they entered the city. There was a queue leading up to the gates, but the carrier pulled across into a lane marked ‘Official Use Only’ and sped past the waiting vehicles, arriving at the checkpoint gate in plenty of time. There was a smaller yellow and black striped barrier in the road ahead, controlled from a booth at the roadside. Armed guards stood all around as a grey-overalled official walked over with a clipboard to check them in. The driver wound the window down as he got nearer.
"Hello there Mr Mawdsley," said the official, "back with the hired help I see!"
"Hello Lancre," he replied. "Yes, this is Quistis Trepe from Balamb Garden with her three SeeDs, here to come and see Governor Deakin with me."
"No problem, sir, I just need a few signatures to check you all in." Mawdsley took the board and signed, handing it into the back of the carrier for Quistis’ party to sign. Quistis saw Cevin writing his name down as ‘Hugh Janus’ but managed to smack him on the arm in time, and with a chuckle Cevin crossed that out and wrote down his actual name instead. Quistis handed the clipboard back and with a salute and a wave the officer on duty signalled them on. The checkpoint gate before them trundled down out of the way and the driver manoeuvred into the city proper.
Quistis took another look round at the cityscape around her – the buildings seemed to stretch off into the sky forever, covering every conceivable acre of sky. The streets were packed with people, buzzing with life as they made their way around – some out shopping laden down with bags of supplies, some were tourists eagerly taking pictures of everything, others were businessmen and women and other suited professionals, conversing on mobile phones as they negotiated their way through the human traffic around them. Quistis thought of her friends who were a part of all this now, hoping that she may chance upon one of them as she was scanning the crowds around her.
Redman was sat back in her seat, her eyes closed and a smile on her face.
"There’s a nice feeling here, Instructor," she said. "The people here are happy, content. There’s a lot of ambition, a lot of excitement and thoughts of the future." She opened her eyes and looked across to her colleagues. "This is definitely the place to be right now."
"Your cadet knows her stuff," said Mawdsley from the front. "We get nothing but good reports from the citizens here."
"I’ll bet," said Brendan quietly but loud enough for Quistis to hear. "I wonder what they’d think if they saw more of the rebels that’ve got you all so worried?"
The carrier turned a corner and the governor’s mansion came into view before them. Quistis had always thought that Rinoa’s dad, General Caraway, had a pretty impressive place over in Deling City but it was nothing on this. The mansion towered into the air and was built up to resemble an antiquated city hall, with stone pillars supported by statues of bronze giants seemingly holding the whole thing together. It was framed by the trio of skyscrapers behind it that formed the middle of the city’s main business centre, holding as they did the offices of all the major companies in the city.
"Not bad," said Quistis. "Must be a bitch to pay the overheads, though." Mawdsley grinned.
"Governor Deakin combines his home with his work. Most of that building is the central council offices, he lives on the top few floors only."
"Probably saves on petrol money," said Katya with a cheeky grin.
"Is that where we’re headed then?" I was looking forward to-"
She was interrupted by a boom coming from a street to their right. The SeeDs crammed over to the right hand side of the carrier as it drove past the street to see what had happened – a security van had toppled onto its side and a fire hydrant had burst, spraying water into the air and mingling with the smoke rising from the underneath of the van. As Quistis watched, a manhole cover slid back and two figures dressed in dark, shabby clothing clambered up onto the street and disappeared into the back of the van, the doors of which had been left hanging open by the explosion. Cars screeched to a halt and passers by started to gather round, not sure what to make of what was going on, but within moments the attackers had emerged from the back of the van with sacks of what was probably cash in hand, vanishing back down into the sewers below before anybody had chance to react. A lone security guard extracted himself from the van, coughing, as Quistis’ carrier passed the street and removed the scene from their sight.
"What in the hell was that?" she said, but Mawdsley was already on his phone.
"Incident in sector twelve-b, repeat, incident. No casualties but get a team out there immediately. Out."
"I suppose that was the ‘problem’ you’ve brought us in for, then?" said Brendan with now trademark deadpan. Mawdsley sighed.
"Yes, yes it was. They’re moving around in broad daylight now, we have to start taking more decisive action."
"Shouldn’t we stop to help that guy?" said Redman with concern. Mawdsley shook his head.
"No need, trained professionals are already on their way." As if to back him up, an ambulance sped past the carrier moments later, sirens ablaze as it sliced through the thick inner city traffic, and seconds later two armoured police cars weaved along after it. Mawdsley was right, thought Quistis, they’re starting to lose this fight. At least the rebels didn’t hurt any civilians or the driver of the van, she added. Although that did strike her as odd – if they were trying to make a statement, wouldn’t they have made more of a scene? The operation she’d witnessed was obviously well planned, and just added more questions to the growing list in her mind of why these rebels were doing what they were doing.
She put further thought of it to one side as the carrier drew up to the council buildings, however. The car followed a private road down off the main city routes and below the buildings into an underground parking area. The driver brought the car to a halt next to the entrance to an unmarked elevator, and Mawdsley got out. Quistis nodded to Cevin and he did the same, the group assembling by Mawdsley next to the elevator. He retrieved a key from his pocket and used it to open the doors. It was a plush elevator, gold framed and lined with expensive-smelling carpet. The group stepped inside and Mawdsley selected the floor. The doors slid closed with a soft hiss before the lift started up towards the governor’s offices.
"What is it he’s going to say to us?" Quistis asked Mawdsley.
"He’s just going to check through what you plan to do, introduce himself and then just officially endorse your work here. A formality really, but the governor likes to do things by the book."
"Well, I’m sure I can get this situation resolved before too long. Right, team?" The cadets looked confused – this was the first time Quistis had referred to them as her ‘team.’ They exchanged a few looks before nodding as one. Quistis smiled at them as the elevator hit its floor.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Quistis stepped out of the elevator into a plush corridor, which led out into the kind of hallway you'd normally find in a luxury hotel. Delicate white marble archways arced up towards the skylight overhead, illuminated by the streaks of sunshine filtering through overhead and then reflecting off glittering mirrors and glasswork all the way to the floor, illuminating the whole chamber like a disco for an architect. In the centre of the hall was a large fountain, sculpted to resemble a beautiful woman, he hair billowing in some imaginary breeze as she poured the fountain’s water out from all two caskets she was holding.
Quistis raised a sceptical eyebrow – quite an elaborate display for someone so worried about the future of his city, but she got the impression already that the governor was more concerned with keeping up appearances so as not to raise the alarm. The hallway had one pair of large doors at its far side which were open, and as the group followed Mawdsley round the outside of the fountain, they got a look into the seat of power – the governor’s office.
A large bay of windows set into the far wall overlooked most of the inner city. The towers and air traffic rose into view like the spires of an insect hive, and framed before them was the governor’s desk – a fearsome looking administrative tool that seemed to double as a conference table and communications centre. It was a regular desk at one end, but a second, longer table led out from its centre to create a mini-board room, and at the left hand side of the desk was a huge array of computer terminals, monitors and screens displaying traffic control cameras, readouts from the city’s databanks and a few channels of local television. A large leather backed seat faced them all, although for a change the governor was sat in it, waiting for them to enter, rather than having his back to them then whirling round dramatically as they came in, which seemed to be de rigeur for people who owned those big chairs. The high-ceilinged room was finished by a thick green carpet and dozens of frames adorning the wall, s
ome with photos of the governor meeting local notaries and international leaders (Quistis spotted a few presidents and even Edea up there with him), others with certificates and blueprints for various parts of the city, and a few had national awards granted to the city for excellence and innovation in design.
The governor himself was a middle-aged man of medium build, blessed with a full head of thick, dark hair. He had a thin moustache that was drawn out to a point either side of his straight nose, which a pair of reading glasses were perched on the end of. He was wearing a dark shirt with a scarlet tie, which when added to his long hair tied back neatly in a ponytail gave him the look of an upmarket business executive instead of the governor of the fastest-growing city on the continent. He was leafing through several piles of documents on his desk and conversing with an advisor stood to his side, a nervous-looking man in a plain white shirt who looked as if he just wanted to get the heck out of the office before anything had a chance to go wrong.
"So what you’re trying to tell me is that we need to cut down on the spending in those areas by twenty-seven percent, or the whole thing’s going to crash down in about three month’s time?"
"Uh, yes, Governor Deakin," said the nervous man, looking as though he really didn’t want to be part of this conversation. Deakin grimaced, the information obviously not pleasing him.
"Well, can’t be helped. Add one percent of tax to twenty-seven of the larger businesses in that sector and that ought to cover it for a bit," he said, "and for god’s sake don’t tell anyone or I’ll have them all in here to deal with!" The nervous man nodded, gathered up the papers and swept out of the office without looking back. Deakin looked up at Quistis’ group.
"These are the SeeDs we sent for, governor," said Mawdsley, but as he opened his mouth to continue the large phone of Deakin’s desk rang, and he held up a hand to silence Mawdsley before tapping the intercom button.
"Governor Deakin, speak," he said sharply.
"Governor, it’s Police Chief Blasko, that situation down in residential sector 17-G is still going on, I’d like to get your authorisation for the use of additional force."
"Remind me what that situation is, Chief?"
"The, ah, riot at the clothing store that just closed its annual sale ten minutes early. Several shoppers had to be removed by the staff because they wouldn’t leave, and the situation escalated into a small riot." The sounds of a jeering mob, police car sirens and a multitude of shouting voices filtered through in the background of the call. Deakin sighed.
"Yes, chief, you may restrain and detain them as you see fit. Deakin out." He clicked off the call and turned his attention back to Mawdsley, who took a breath patiently to reset his speech before starting again.
"Governor, this is Quistis Trepe and her-"
The phone rang again and Deakin chuckled.
"It’s not your day today, is it, Karl?" Mawdsley smiled and shook his head. Deakin clicked on the intercom again, and out of the corner of her eye Quistis noticed her cadets looking restless and a little annoyed in the face of all this bureaucracy. Please, don’t let them start anything, she pleaded silently to whichever god of instructors was listening.
"Governor Deakin, speak."
"Oh, hello there, Governor!" crooned an old lady’s voice, sounding like she was an aunt ringing in to ask if Deakin wanted some freshly baked cookies bringing round. "This is Betina Gillingham of the Women’s Guild. We’re having a little charity event later on this evening, and the girls and I think it’d be absolutely wonderful if you could come along and speak a few words at our reception."
"I’ll see what I can do, Betty, I’ll get my secretary to call you back later, alright?"
"Why thank you, dear."
Without saying ‘goodbye,’ Deakin clicked off the intercom and buzzed his secretary, whose nasal tones came over the speaker.
"Rosanna, do I have room in my evening to attend a Women’s Guild gala event?"
"Absolutely not, sir, you’re booked in to see your children this evening."
"Alright then. Call back Mrs Gillingham and tell her I can’t make it. Thanks." He clicked the buzzer off again in one rapid motion and looked up at Mawdsley, intertwining his fingers and leaning forward. Quistis’ head was spinning from the speed at which the governor seemed to live his life.
"Ahem," said Mawdsley, patiently getting ready to start talking again. "This is Instructor Quistis Trepe and her team of SeeDs, governor, they’re here to assist us with our, ah, situation." Deakin nodded and stood, marching briskly round his desk to meet Quistis. He stood before her, hands behind his back, and looked her up and down before snapping a hand out for her to shake. Quistis looked down at it, a little bewildered, before shaking it. The governor had a grip of steel and she tried not to grimace as he rotated her knuckles a few times before taking a step back.
"Good afternoon, Governor Deakin," she said with a respectful nod of her head. "I trust that Cid Kramer has filled you in on what we’ll be doing here."
"Yes, yes, old Cid and I had a good chat the other evening. His wife set up this amazing.. well, I suppose you’d call it a conference phone call, but-"
"I know what you mean," said Quistis with a grin, and the governor smiled and nodded.
"He told me that I’m to supply you with whatever manpower and equipment you feel is necessary, and that you’ll be assessing what these rebels are doing, locating their headquarters and driving them out. Make no mistake, I’m not after a bloodbath here, Miss Trepe, I just want these people to stop what they’re doing. Perhaps I can get them involved with the city again instead of having them fight against it constantly."
"Once we’re settled in, I’d appreciate a quick tour round some of the sites of their recent activity," said Quistis. "That way, we can start to get an idea of their capabilities." Deakin nodded and sat back down, picking up his phone and dialling in a number.
"Absolutely, I’ll get one of my staff up here to show you round." He waited while the number he called rang, then a male voice answered.
"City Planning Department, Dexter speaking."
"Ah, Dexter, just the man. Could you come to my office right away? We have some visitors I need you to escort round for me."
"Right away, sir," said the man as Deakin hung up. Quistis was frowning, which Deakin noticed.
"Is something the matter?"
"No, it’s just- I used to know a guy called Dexter who moved out here, that’s all, I was wondering if it was him."
"You’ll be able to find out any second, the Planning office is just down the hall from here."
Sure enough, a few moments later the double doors opened up and in walked Dexter Malchisy, Quistis’ old friend, looking smart and respectable in his suit, shirt and tie but still instantly recognisable to her. She beamed and walked over to meet him halfway.
"Hello there, Dex! Long time, no see!" she said, shaking his hand enthusiastically and wondering whether it was appropriate to give him a hug or not. Dexter looked sideways at her, seeming thrown by this warm greeting.
"Uh, hello there.. I’m sorry, do we know each other?"
"Do we know.. Dexter, it’s me! Quistis! You know, Q-Dis? Balamb Garden?" Quistis grew exasperated as Dexter just shook his head blankly at her, his brow creasing sympathetically as she tried to make him remember.
"I’m sorry, I think you must have me confused with someone else," said Dexter, looking past her towards the governor. "Excuse me." He continued up to the governor’s desk, leaving Quistis where she’d met him, her eyes darting around as she tried to work out what the heck was going on. It had only been a couple of years since they’d last seen each other, neither of them looked any different, so why didn’t he recognise her? Quistis shook her head and turned to see that Deakin was already talking to Dexter, so she made her way over to the group again, her head turning over and over as it tried to figure out what was wrong.
"Thanks for coming over, Dexter, this is Instructor Quistis Trepe from Balamb Garden and her team of SeeDs. I’m afraid I didn’t get your names before.." said the governor, motioning to them to speak.
"Uh, Coholic," said McClewen. "My first name’s Alex, people call me Al."
"Very clever," said Deakin with a smile, "but what’s your real name, Mr Al Coholic?"
"Cevin McClewen," he said with a snicker. Quistis groaned and tried not to blush as Cevin showed her up in front of everybody.
"Right then. Dexter here will show you round the last few incident sites, but if you’d like to stop by the security office on your way out, you should be able to pick up any extra equipment you think you may need."
"Uh, thanks," said Quistis, still distracted and still staring at Dexter as if trying to mentally force him to remember her. "We’d best get moving, the sooner we know what’s going on here, the better." Dexter nodded and walked out of the office, and the cadets followed him. Redman hung back so she could walk alongside Quistis.
"I’ll speak to you later on this evening, Miss Trepe," said Deakin as she left the office. Quistis nodded and followed the rest of her group down the corridor leading to the lift. Redman tapped her arm to get her attention while they were out of hearing range of the others.
"What’s up, Instructor? You seem a little spooked."
"Hm? Oh, it’s just that Dexter guy, I swear that’s someone I used to be very good friends with, but he’s acting like he doesn’t know me at all. Very strange."
"Want me to run a little scan on him? I may be able to see if anything’s wrong with the guy." Quistis thought for a second. This was a very unorthodox and possibly illegal use of magic, but in the circumstances she decided to take an executive decision and allow it.
"Be very discreet about it," she replied. "Just a surface level check, see if there’s anything suspicious in his system or if he’s under the effect of any other kind of spell." Redman nodded as the two of them came to the elevator. Dexter had called it, and he motioned for the others to go on in as its doors slid open.
"We’ll head down to the garage and take a car out," he said as the doors shut and the lift started to head down. "The first few sites are quite close by, so I can give you all a mini-tour of the city while we go look." Quistis glanced round at Redman, whose eyes were closed and her head tilted back. Her lips moved faintly as she invoked the scanning spell, trying to check if something was affecting Dexter. Quistis glanced down and saw tiny pinpricks of soft yellow light hovering by her fingers, but luckily they were too small to be noticeable.
"So how long have you been here?" said Quistis to Dexter, seeing if she could do a little detective work of her own and hopefully open his mind up so Katya’s scan would be more effective. Dex looked upwards and counted under his breath.
"Oh, about a year and a bit now, the time’s gone by pretty fast! I moved out here from.. uh.."
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah, er.." Dexter scratched the back of his head and chuckled. "It’s the damndest thing, I can’t remember the name of my hometown! Anyway, I moved out here, settled in, got a job working at the council and the rest if history!"
The lift arrived at the floor and with a muted ‘ping’ slid open to lead them out into the garage. The area was essentially a large concrete runway with vehicles of all shapes and sizes parked along it. The garage was covered overhead by a large hangar style building, but at the far end a ramp led up into the main city streets, where honking traffic and pedestrian bustle could be heard. A manned checkpoint guarded the entrance, and other security guards patrolled the area, mingling with mechanics and other personnel who were milling around. Several tool shops and workstations helped keep the place in order, and Quistis whistled appreciatively at some of the high-performance machines on display.
"The governor has good taste in cars," said Dexter, "but I’m afraid we’ll be travelling in something a bit less glamorous today." He unlocked and opened the door of a plain saloon car which the group climbed into, Quistis taking the front passenger seat as Dexter drove out into the city.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Dexter waved a hand to the security guard as he drove out of the garage and onto the city street, merging with the city centre traffic as he headed towards their destination. Quistis took the opportunity to have another look at the city, and was still as impressed as before by what she saw. Tall, gleaming towers that glittered in the midday sun, reflecting the clouds overhead for the people on the street to watch, clusters of buildings offering every kind of service known to man – shops, cleaners, tailors, restaurants, bookstores, video game arcades and those big clothes stores that were like shopping centres all to themselves. Quistis never liked those much – they brought back too many childhood memories of getting hopelessly lost inside them.
The general architecture of the city was very clean and modern, lots of straight edges and strips of neon lighting to give the place a contemporary feel. Trendy national chains of shops had set up their homes here, huge buildings that looked like architecture student projects jostling for space amongst the smaller, neater buildings and the occasional bizarre sectors of olde worlde statues and carvings, as though the newer buildings were trying to assimilate an older city into themselves.
"The most recent attack, apart from the one I understand you witnessed on the way in, was at one of our local records offices," said Dexter as he drove through the streets. "They broke in through the sewer system, which is how we believe they’re moving around inside the city limits, and ransacked the place."
"Do you know what they were looking for? I mean, why hit a records office?" asked Redman.
"My point exactly," said Dexter. "I thought it seemed funny, so I had a look at.." His voice trailed off and he scratched the back of his head again. Quistis raised an eyebrow.
"You had a look at what?" Dexter looked a little flustered and shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
"Uh, I can’t quite recall at the moment. Sorry, I don’t know what’s the matter with me today." Quistis glanced quickly over her shoulder to Redman, who nodded once to show that her earlier scan spell had yielded results. Quistis turned back to Dexter, still not sure why he couldn’t recognise her but starting to form a few conspiracy theories about it.
"Well, we’ll take a look round and see what we can find," said Quistis reassuringly. She’d declined the offer to go pick some supplies up from the governor’s security department in favour of getting straight out there and taking a look at the sites, mainly because despite his efficient, pleasant demeanour, she’d picked up something funny about the governor from the first moment she’d seen him. The way he’d looked her up and down before shaking her hand kept sticking in his mind as well, as though he already knew her from somewhere and was just examining her for his own reference.
"Here’s the first building,’ said Dex, pulling the saloon up outside a plain-looking building, its coffee-coloured brickwork blending in with the surrounding offices. The team got out and stood outside as Quistis looked the place up and down. The damage caused was mostly on the inside, but the rebels had set fire to most of the insides of the place which had left ugly black smoke marks leaking from the windows, giving the building the appearance of having running mascara from its ‘eyes.’ She looked across to Redman, and for a second had a little swell of pride at the sight of her three cadets, all neat and smart in their navy blue SeeD uniforms, looking like they could take on the world.
"Katya, run me a scan over the building, see if you can pick anything up. The break-in wasn’t too long ago, so there may be traces of them still present. Don’t take this the wrong way, but maybe you can pick up a scent, if you know what I mean." Redman nodded.
"Not a problem, instructor," she smiled. McClewen smirked and made a dog howl until Katya clipped him round the ear with a glare. He laughed as the two of them filed inside the building. Brendan stepped over to Quistis.
"I’ll go take a look at where they came in, see if they left us anything," he said quietly, and Quistis nodded.
"Good call, go ahead." Criss walked inside as Dexter walked back over, stepping backwards as he surveyed the damage, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun as he scanned the building from the top down.
"Those bastards really turned this place over," he said. "What worries me is how efficient they were about it. They got in, overcame the security systems and torched the place before we even knew they were there. By the time the fire was reported they were long gone."
"Seems like they’re getting better equipped," Quistis remarked as she walked round to the back of the building, away from the main road. A small alleyway ran down the side of the office which was home to the bins and nothing else, but Quistis was scanning it for signs of entry. A manhole cover at the rear of the alley caught her eye. She pointed to it and called over to Dexter.
"Is this where they got in?"
"That’s one entrance to the system, I think there’s a drain in the basement of the office that they probably used to gain access. Why?"
"Hmm," said Quistis, and walked inside without another word. What she was thinking was that the rebels had clearly planned this to be some kind of covert operation, a way to gain access to this office quickly and quietly. You don’t do that if you’re just going to torch the place, she reasoned, you’d burn the place down as publicly as possible. What seemed more likely was that the rebels wanted something from in here, then set the fires to cover their tracks afterwards. However, Quistis didn’t want to say this to Dexter because she didn’t feel she could trust him. Something was definitely odd about his failure to know who she was, so as soon as she got chance to ask Katya what the scan in the lift had brought up, she could start getting to the bottom of all this.
Quistis opened the office’s side door and walked inside. Like everything else in the city, it was impeccably well-designed, from the neat, spacious interior design, to the way the rows and rows of filing cabinets were split across two floors into tidy rows, all signposted and marked out for easy access. At least, it was all spic and span before the place had been burned down. Now, the two floors were covered with ash and charred pieces of woodwork, wallpaper and plaster, with the filing cabinets tipped over and lying like burst piñatas, their contents spilling out onto the floor and mingling with the blackened soot around them. Upstairs, joined to the ground floor by a spiral staircase, the desk used for reading the thick folders of information had been reduced to fragments, leaving the place in a sorry state indeed. Water still hanging around from when the fire crews had put out the blaze dripped solemnly from the ceiling. The only sounds were the crunching underfoot of the mess by Quistis and her team.
Redman was stood in the middle of the room, eyes closed and arms cupping the air before her, a faint ball of yellow light starting to form in them as she drew up nearby essence and prepared to cast her scanning spell. Her hair began to stand on end through the static electricity she was producing, and a space cleared in the soot around her along with it.
"What’s she doing?" whispered Dex as he followed Quistis inside.
"Spell, to see if she can track the rebels who were in here." Quistis watched Redman turn her head from side to side before she opened her hands and let the ball of yellow light fly free. She opened her eyes and watched it swoop round various corners of the room before settling over one bank of cabinets. Quistis looked across to McClewen and nodded, the cadet taking the signal to head over and check it out. The ball of light headed back to the centre of the room, before shooting straight upwards to the skylight overhead, bouncing enthusiastically in the air next to a small balcony in the roof, reachable only by a single small set of stairs at the rear of the first floor.
"What’s up there?" asked Quistis, pointing. Dexter looked up and shrugged.
"Beats me, I don’t really know that much about this place."
"It’s where they got out," said Redman, her eyes flicking from side to side as though she was reading something out of the air before her. "There’s a corridor that leads out onto the roof, and they used that to get onto the rooftops and get away again." She closed her eyes, breathed in once and the air seemed to settle down around her. The yellow light overhead faded away and when she opened her eyes again it was clear the spell was over. She blinked a few times then beamed at Quistis. "All done," she said proudly. Quistis nodded.
"Good work. Cevin, get up there and see what you can find out, Criss, go check the basement for signs of entry. We believe they used the drains to get in so we may be able to pick up a lead down there." The two boys nodded and disappeared off upstairs and downstairs respectively, leaving Quistis and Redman together. Dexter had paced off to inspect the entrance to the building, so the two girls spoke in hushed voices.
"What did you find out about him?" whispered Quistis.
"Well!" said Redman, a cheeky grin crossing her face. "Seems your friend over there is still who he says he is, so he’s not a clone or anything."
"I never said he was!"
"No, but it never hurts to check. Anyway, what I did find was that there’s some kind of magic affecting his memory. I couldn’t do much because I only had a few seconds to poke around in there, but it seems that something has been cast on him to stop him remembering certain things. What those things are I couldn’t say, but that’s what I got." Quistis nodded.
"Very interesting indeed," she said thoughtfully, "but I need to know more about this.. I’m starting to get a plan form for what we can do next, but for now let’s carry on with this little investigation." Redman nodded and headed off as she saw Dexter approaching.
"So what now? I can take you to the other sites if you like," he said.
"I just want to check a few more things out here first," said Quistis, "build up a bigger picture of what we’re up against."
"Fine, no problem. Do you mind if I go wait in the car then? I have a few calls to make."
"Go ahead, we’ll be done here soon." Dexter smiled and walked back outside, and Quistis saw him get back into the car through the office windows. Once he was in, she headed down into the basement.
It was relatively untouched by the fire damage upstairs, but there was no sign of Brendan.
"Criss?" she called out. His muffled reply answered from round a corner in the low-ceilinged room, filled as it was with boxes of old papers and rusted filing cabinets.
"Just round here, Instructor," he said. "I’ve found the entry point and something else that’s interesting." Quistis headed round the corner and found Brendan crouched down before a grill that had been cut away, exposing a section of the local drainage system running beneath the floor.
"What did you find?"
"Two things," he said, lifting up the grating for her to look at. "See this? Very cleanly cut, most likely by a welding torch or something," he continued, pointing to the fused ends of the grate where it had been cut through. "Next thing is this that I found," he said, holding up a small scrap of fabric. "It was caught on the grate, one of them must’ve hit the sharp edges as they were getting out." He handed it to Quistis, it was a dark green piece of fabric with half of a logo stitched into it. Quistis couldn’t make it out and looked up at Criss with a raised eyebrow.
"What is it?"
"You don’t recognise it?" Quistis shook her head. "It’s what the guards here wear," said Criss. "It’s the same colour as the uniforms that the security teams at the governor’s place were wearing, and that logo is the same as the one I saw above the barracks on our way out of the city."
"And you can tell all that just from this?" said Quistis sceptically, holding up the green fabric. Criss nodded.
"Well, that and the fact that those bootprints you’re standing on have the Kabernia military logo stamped inside the sole," he said, nodding down with his head. Quistis looked down, and sure enough there were a set of bootprints just by the grate, that had obviously tracked mud up from the drains and into the room. She looked back up at Criss with a smile.
"Nice work, Criss. Let’s see what Cevin found out then get out of here!"
"Well!" said Cevin when Quistis, Criss and Katya had joined him out on the rooftop of the office. The roof afforded a good view of the city, hiding the surrounding wasteland with a screen of towers and office blocks. The patchwork of nearby rooftops would have afforded the rebels a good means of quick escape by simply hopping from building to building until they were safely out of the way.
"They got out here and ran for it," said Cevin. "From here you can get to the roads or even jump onto the monorail if you fancied it, so there’s no shortage of escape routes."
"Thanks, Cevin," said Quistis. "I think I’m starting to get an idea of this group’s capabilities, let’s pack up here and head for the next one. But before we do.." she said as they started to walk away, a thoughtful look on her face.
Moments later, all four of them were knee deep in soot as they searched through what was left of the filing cabinets on the ground floor. Streaks of black dust marked their uniforms and faces as they carefully separated the charred chunks of paper from the melted plastics inside the cabinets.
"This one!" announced Katya triumphantly, and the others crowded round here. "This is where the fire started, no doubt about it. Look, you can see here how the flames moved out and away from this point," she said, pointing to both the scorch patterns on the cabinet and on the surrounding floor.
"Alright, so what was in it? They must have started here for a reason," said Quistis, carefully wiping the soot away from the label on the front of the cabinet drawer to see what was inside. She made a ‘hmm’ noise as she read it.
"Personnel Files – Council Offices," it read, "K-M."
"Why would they get that?" asked Cevin.
"My friend Dexter’s last name is ‘Malchisy,’ McClewen, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he seems to be suffering some kind of forced memory loss and that he works for the council.." Quistis stood up and tried unsuccessfully to dust some of the mess off herself. "Something isn’t right about all of this," said Quistis, "and I think we need to get to the bottom of it. Don’t say a word for now, let’s go see the next site and then regroup back at our quarters later on."
Quistis headed back outside, followed by her team. Dexter raised an eyebrow as the three grubby SeeDs climbed back into his car.
"Been doing some very thorough work, I see," he said with tongue firmly in cheek.
"Oh you know, all part of the service," said Quistis nonchalantly. Dexter chuckled and started the car to drive on to the next site.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The second rebel attack site was a food distribution centre, a small factory a little way out from any of the main city centre districts, and so thus an easy target for the rebels to sneak in, lift some supplies and head home. A food dispensary still struck Quistis as an odd place to try and hit, so she was even more surprised to find that the place had also been burned half to the ground when Dexter pulled the carrier up outside it. The road that the factory was on was occupied by a few more buildings dotted around, but in general this area of the city was one that was still under development, and so was less densely populated. The surrounding plains could be seen more clearly too, giving Quistis a relief from the claustrophobic feeling of the tower-filled city blocks they’d left behind.
Dexter stepped outside and stood against the car again, scanning the building for damage. Quistis kept an eye on him, trying to see if he was just playing for time with them or doing anything else suspicious, but as he sighed, scratched the back of his head and absently fished out some gum from his pocket, she decided he was either an excellent actor or genuinely unaware of anything being wrong. Knowing Dexter like she did, and knowing that Katya’s scan spell had shown that somebody had possibly been tampering with his brain, Quistis settled for the second option. She took a piece of gum and joined him in surveying the damage as her SeeDs left the car, chattering to themselves about something.
"They hit this place pretty bad too," said Dex.
"Mmm," said Quistis as she chewed thoughtfully. "They’re awfully pyromaniacally minded for a small group of rebels."
"Maybe they like fires," said Dexter with a grin. Quistis returned it and stood up, calling her cadets over.
"Right then, kids, same drill as before. Head inside, scan for clues. I’m looking for a point of entry, where they started the fire, damage caused to the facility and some kind of record of what they took, either by counting empty shelves or getting an inventory and seeing what isn’t here." The team nodded and headed inside, opening the door of the cream-brick building, stepping over the tickertape put up by the police to seal the place off and walking inside.
Quistis and Dexter followed, the building being split into three main areas - the main entrance, a small hall with two doors leading off into first the processing room, an indoor area filled with clunky looking machinery and the smell of wet rusty metal, and the open air treatment and delivery section, with access to the road so that supply trucks could pull into the factory, pick up food as it was packed and head out again. Tyre marks criss-crossed the floor, which Criss took a few photos of using his small portable camera, occasionally gathering up some samples from the dirt and peering thoughtfully at them.
Katya was inside the machinery section, running her hands across the large vats that contained more liquid foods, a faint blue glow around them as she tried to pick up some kinds of images of what had happened on the night of the attack from the state of the machines. Cevin was over in the far corner of the same room, poking around inside a pile of rubble that had fallen at the far end of the hall, hoping that it would show him where the rebels had entered.
"I’m going to hang back and let you guys do your thing, if that’s alright," said Dexter, "I wouldn’t want to lean on something and bring this whole pack of cards down on us!"
"No problem," said Quistis, before a thought struck her. "Hey, Dexter?" she called.
"Do you know a girl called Serena DuCont at all?" Dexter looked up as he thought for a moment, before shaking his head.
"Nope, can’t say that I do. Why?"
"Oh, no reason, just an old friend I know around here." Dexter nodded and made his way back outside. Very interesting, thought Quistis, he can’t remember me or Serena, and I know for damn sure that he should do. She made a mental note to follow him later on that evening to see if she could get to the bottom of his selective memory loss.
Turning to Katya, she watched as Katya waved her hands through the air, a trail of soft blue light following her movements as she walked back and forth inside the main area of the workshop. Footprints and scorch marks dotted the floor beneath her, the signs of the mayhem that had been caused by the plant’s arson attack. Katya’s eyes started to glow faintly in the same colour as her hands, and as they did small sprinkles of the same blue light began to drift gently away from her hands, glittering as they fell like very fine snow through the air. She continued to move her hands through the air as she walked, and where the sprinkles fell they started to outline people, very indistinct, ghost-like images of people moving around. Men and women, in uniform and plain clothes, some running, some rushing, some armed and some without. Katya frowned as the air all around her filled up with these figures, as though she was conducting some kind of phantom ballet as they clustered in on each other.
"There’s a lot of interference here," she said, her brow creased in concentration, "I’m trying to just pick up the echoes of the night we’re after.."
"Um, not to cast a downer on things or anything, but what are you doing?" said Quistis, looking on in amazement as Katya conjured up these people out of thin air.
"Oh, it’s quite easy really - this place is quite good for essence and that kind of energy, so whenever people move round in it, they create ripples and trails in it that can be picked up for a long time afterwards." She was starting to reduce the number of figures moving around into two groups - one by the machinery she’d looked at earlier, and a second over by the rubble where Cevin was stood.
"What the?" he said, standing up and stepping back as blue-tinted spectres danced through the rubble in front of him. Quistis chuckled and turned her attention back to Katya, who’d closed her eyes as though she was listening to the shapes moving around her.
"This first group were in here, working by the machines," she said, and as the others watched some of the figures broke away and headed towards the large vats and processing machinery, moving around it and looking as busy as a group of insubstantial spirits could do.
"What were they doing?" asked Quistis.
"Uh, hard to say," she replied, "I think they were doing some kind of maintenance, they were adding something to the machinery, or doing.. something to it, anyway."
"And the ones by the rubble?"
"They seem to be waiting for someone.. no, waiting for something to happen." She gasped suddenly, and the figures flickered like a faulty television reception for a moment before she brought them back into focus.
"What? What is it?" asked Quistis with concern.
"Sorry, there was just.. there was an explosion. Those people were caught up in it. I don’t think they were expecting it to happen. And now.." She frowned again and moved her hands round to nearer Quistis, and as she did so four more ghosts showed up, well-built men who were in uniform and carrying rifles. They moved quickly towards the group by the machinery, and the two groups merged together in a mess of arms, legs and movement, as though a very blurred fight scene was unfolding before them all. Katya’s breathing sped up, short ragged gasps of air as she tried to hold the images together.
"Katya, what’s happening? Calm down and try to concentrate. What can you see?"
"There was a struggle.. those men.. they came in.. and they.." Her eyes suddenly snapped open with another gasp of shock, and as they did the images filling the room all blinked out of existence at once. Katya stood, shaking slightly as she gathered her wits again. Quistis walked over and put a comforting arm around her cadet as she caught her breath.
"Are you alright? I didn’t even know you could do that!"
"Oh, yeah," said Katya between gulps of air, "it’s nothing really. I read about in one of those books I bought from that shop you took us to in Balamb. Whew! They didn’t warn me about how.. well, intense the whole thing gets! It was like being in a very tight crowd of very noisy people," she said, her cheeks flushed but the trademark grin firmly back in place.
"Okay, now I’m scared of her. It’s official," said Cevin. He nudged Criss. "You scared?"
"A little," he said with a grin. "So what did you find out?"
"That first group of people were taking something from the machines, probably draining them or something similar," she said, pointing. Criss walked over to take a closer look. "After that, a group of armed men came in, fought and killed the first group and then set off a series of explosions that did all this," she said, with a waved hand to indicate the fire damage.
"She’s right," said Criss, knelt down by the vats and machinery. "There are very faint traces of a struggle down here - blood, scuff marks, a few bullet shells."
"Yeah, same over by that mess by the doorway," said Cevin with a thumb jerked towards the pile of rubble. "If there were any bodies they’ve been very carefully removed."
"What the hell is going on here?" said Katya, with a look to Quistis as though she was the one to put all the clues together and answer them.
"Well, I’m starting to get an idea.." she said, stroking her chin thoughtfully. "This first lot of people. They were extracting something from the vats here, right?"
"Right," nodded Katya. "They were working the machines but I don’t know exactly what they were doing."
"There weren’t any transport trucks nearby," said Criss, pointing to tyre marks running across the dirt outside. "Nothing had been near it for a day or so, the tracks out there are too old."
"Right. So in all likelihood, this first group were our mystery rebels, taking some supplies from the food processors." Katya nodded.
"Makes sense," she agreed.
"So then this next group come stomping in and take them out, and also attack this other group over there," Quistis continued, pointing at the ruined entrance, "which will no doubt tell us that they were part of the original group, and I’m betting that somewhere under all that concrete and masonry is where our rebel friends got into the complex."
"That figures," said Cevin, "I found some signs that a small, controlled explosion had taken place before the larger one that brought the roof down, there were marks of cheap explosive damage coming out into this area underneath the damage caused by the larger blast."
"Good work, Cevin!" said Quistis. She knelt down and ran a hand over the dirt on the floor. "And if my hunch is right, then the bootprints of the intruders down here will show us that-"
"Is everything alright in here?" asked Dexter, having reappeared silently at the main doorway. Quistis calmly stood up and brushed the dirt from her gloves, not letting her face give away what she was thinking.
"Everything’s fine," she answered. "We’re about done in here, so why don’t you get us back to our base so we can plan our next move?" She finished up with a sweet smile to make sure Dexter didn’t suspect anything. He grinned back.
"Right this way," he said, motioning for the team to head back out to the waiting car.
Dexter dropped them all back off at the governor’s troops barracks a short while later, Quistis managing to distract the conversation of the journey away from her findings at the two attack sites. Once the others were outside the main barracks building and Dexter had driven away, Quistis spoke to the others again as the four of them walked across the main quadrangle and into their quarters.
"I’ll bet you anything that the governor sent some troops in to bust that raid up, then blamed the damage afterwards on the rebels so he could cover it all up," said Quistis. "Katya, please try and pay attention," she scolded, as Katya was caught staring at the rows of marines limbering up for a field exercise in the centre of the quadrangle.
"But they’re hot!" she protested with a giggle.
"As I was saying," said Quistis, "that would tie in with the military-issue bootprints we found at the records office. What that doesn’t answer is why they were after those particular records, and to have made sure that they burned those ones first. It can’t be a coincidence that they would have included Dexter’s records, but then why Dexter? Is that something to do with the selective memory loss he seems to have? And why do.. hey!" Quistis realised she was muttering to herself as she walked, her cadets having veered off in the direction of the mess hall to get some well-earned food while she was lost in her thoughts. Quistis sighed and noticed she was almost at their quarters, so she headed inside.
The interior was modestly furnished - four beds, a few tables, a small bathroom at the rear of the large room and a pair of computer terminals. Quistis had a feeling that not only were the terminals linked up to someone keeping an eye on them at the council office, but also that the whole barracks were under surveillance, so she reached under her bed for the bag containing her wireless laptop computer, slung it over her shoulder and headed back outside, to find somewhere nice and quiet where she could look through the day’s findings.
She settled about twenty minutes later on a small grassy area, nestled neatly between the shade of a few smaller buildings as the afternoon sun crawled across the sky above Kabernia. The grass was populated by other people out to get back in touch with nature as best they could, given that the small greenland was surrounded on all sides by concrete and steel. Popping open her laptop and tapping away to access all the data she’d taken off the cadets on the drive back from the attack sites, she started flicking through the images, trying to spot a pattern or some kind of clue as to where the rebel’s movements indicated their hideout would be.
A shadow fell across her, and she put a hand to her brow against the sun as she looked up. The figure looming over her had the sun behind them so she couldn’t make out their face, but it didn’t look particularly friendly.
"The governor is wrong about a great many things," he said, definitely a male voice, "but you’re looking in the wrong places."
"Excuse me?" said Quistis, feigning innocence but realising that this person knew full well who she was and why she was here.
"Try here instead," said the man, dropping a folder onto the ground before her. Quistis looked down to the folder, then back up but the man had made a dash for it, and she lost sight of his retreating form in amongst the crowds on the streets. Carefully picking up the folder, she opened it and took a look inside.
Very interesting, she thought as she read on.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"So then, the minister says to the farm girl, ‘No, I thought I had to wear it instead!" Cevin howled with laughter at the punchline to his joke, while Katya and Criss just looked at each other, having either failed to understand it or find it spectacularly unfunny, although most likely a combination of the two. The three of them were back in their quarters, having eaten and headed home after the day’s field trip. As they were about to answer him back, Quistis plopped the folder she’d been given earlier down on the bed between them. The cadets looked back up at her.
"What’s this?" asked Katya, picking up the folder and opening it. Inside were a series of overhead satellite shots of the city’s layout, focusing in on one area in particular in sequence.
"Oh, nothing," said Quistis, taking off her bag and putting it on her bed. Criss opened his mouth to speak but she placed a finger to her lips and he stayed quiet. She pointed to the ceiling light and carried on talking as she scribbled on a sheet of paper from the one desk in the room. "I just thought I’d swing by the town, pick up a few maps and things so we know where we’re going," she said, holding up the piece of paper.
‘The room may be bugged,’ it read, ‘so follow my lead.’
"I think we should use the rest of the day to take a walk round, get used to the lay of the land, that kind of thing," she said, picking up her coat and motioning towards the door.
"Yeah, alright," said Katya, hopping up off the bed and heading for the door. Criss nodded and stood too, but Cevin shook his head and muttered under his breath before he got up.
"First conspiracies and now bugs in our room.. if I’d wanted to be a spy I’d have gone and worked for Galbadia," he mumbled.
"What was all that about?" asked Criss once the group was walking away from the barracks and along a street leading into the town centre.
"Something about this whole operation hasn’t seemed right since we got here. There are too many things that are raising new questions, and I think we need to start our own investigation to get to the bottom of it all," said Quistis. "That file you’re carrying, Redman, was given to me an hour ago by somebody who told me we were looking in the wrong places, and that the governor’s been lying to us."
"And you’re gonna to take the word of some random conspiracy theory nut as guidance for what to do next? Hey, while we’re at it, I think I saw some crop circles on the drive out here, maybe we oughtta go take a look at them?" said Cevin. Quistis glared at him before continuing.
"Those overhead sites are directing us towards a small cluster of nondescript buildings a few miles from the council buildings. That got me thinking of the old saying, ‘the best place to hide is in plain sight.’"
"Meaning that the best way to both stay undetected and keep an eye on the governor would be to set up base nearby?" said Criss. Quistis nodded as the group crossed a street and headed down back towards the council office.
"How do we know this isn’t a trap?" said Cevin. To answer, Criss tapped the hilt of his gunblade, hanging discreetly by his side in its sheath and smiled.
"I think we can handle ourselves if it comes to that, but I get the impression that we’re being asked for our help," said Quistis confidently. "Whoever gave me that file knew who I was and what we’re here to do, so they’ve basically made a play to intercept us."
"Well, I want to go down on the record as thinking this idea stinks," said Cevin.
"Duly noted," Quistis replied. "Now come on, the place in question is just down here." The group turned a corner, veering off the main road that led up to the imposing council buildings and down a side street that was home to some very bland looking buildings. Far from blending in, their nondescript appearance actually made them noticeable against the otherwise meticulously-designed city, but it didn’t take Quistis long to spot the place she was looking for in amongst them all. The street was long and curved back onto the main roads a way farther down, but dead ahead was the small, plain brick building that was their target. A sign outside marked the building as ‘Owen’s Hardware Supplies,’ exactly the kind of thing that would mean no-one took a second look at the place as they passed by. Quistis grinned and led her team up to the front door and knocked once. There were no lights on inside, but she heard sounds of movement and scuffling feet. A small hatch at eye level opened in the door, and a pair of suspicious eyes looked out at her.
"What do you want?" they asked.
"We’re here to pick up some, ah, supplies," she said. It was the best thing she could think of.
"We’re closed," said the eyes, sliding the hatch shut with a definite snap. Quistis frowned and knocked again. The hatch opened and the eyes reappeared.
"We’re looking for the person who gave me this," said Quistis, holding up the satellite photo that clearly marked the building in question. The eyes were silent as they examined the picture, before the hatch slid shut again.
"Well that worked," said Cevin. Katya shushed him before there was the sound of door bolts being pulled back, and with a slow creak the door to the building was opened. The building inside was dark, dimly lit by light filtering down from the windows, which were mostly boarded up or papered over, but Quistis led her team into the gloom. The door slammed abruptly behind them and Quistis heard the unmistakable click of several machine guns being trained on her and the cadets. She raised her hands slowly.
"Relax, we’re friends," she said into the darkness. She could make out about ten people surrounding them, and was already starting to calculate how to get out of this mess should things turn nasty.
"We don’t need friends that work for the governor," said one gruff voice to her left.
"Who says we’re working for him?" said Criss carefully.
"The fact that you’ve spent the day with Dex- with one of his lackeys," said a woman to Quistis’ right that sounded very familiar, with a noticeable hesitation when mentioning Dexter.
"And the fact that you’re staying in Deakin-controlled barracks. It doesn’t exactly help," said the first voice.
"Well, if you don’t trust us, why did you lead us here?" she asked. There was silence for a moment.
"You idiot!" said another female voice.
"I thought we could use her help!" hissed the same male voice that had spoken to Quistis a few hours ago when she’d been given the photos.
"So you led her right to us? Who’s to say she hasn’t brought a load of troops with her?"
"Forget it!" snarled the gruff voice, "let’s take ‘em out and then find out if we could have trusted ‘em." A gun clicked very close to her head, so Quistis decided it was time to take action.
She ducked down and snapped a leg out in a low sweep kick that knocked her opponent to his back. He hit the ground with a heavy ‘whoomph,’ prompting the cadets to spring into action as well. The room was lit by three flares of green glow in succession as Katya zapped electrical energy at her targets, sending them crashing to the floor several feet away with yelps of pain. The smell of burning pinched at Quistis’ nostrils as she grappled with the leader of the group, wrestling the gun out of his hands and slamming her open palm into his chest to knock him down.
Criss’ blue gunblade arced through the near darkness as he sliced through the rifles pointing at him, before a snap roundhouse kick floored another assailant. The sound of Cevin’s fists thudding into the last man standing signalled the end of the melee, and Quistis stood up straight as her three students stood ready for another round.
"Katya, give us a little light," she said, and with a nod Katya summoned a yellow ball of iridescent light above her, illuminating the inside of the building like a flare. The interior was pretty bare - a dusty concrete floor, stairways against the three back and side walls leading up to a mezzanine gallery floor overhead, and the sprawled bodies of ten groaning rebels on the ground around them. There were a few supply crates and boxes dotted around the floor, but in general the place looked fairly derelict.
The rebel leader, clad as the rest of them were in dark combat trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, sat up clutching a hand to his chest, coughing as he recovered from Quistis’ blow which had winded him. She pointed the handle of her whip at him, letting the rest of it fall to the floor to warn him not to try anything.
"Now, do we want to have this conversation again in a more civilised manner?" she asked.
"Yeah, or do you want us to try it your way again?" said Cevin with a crack of his knuckles. As if to answer him, floodlights flared into life above their heads, lighting up the whole of the building’s interior, and revealing around fifty other rebels, all armed and all aiming their weapons squarely at Quistis’s group.
"Bugger," she muttered quietly. Still a little breathless, the rebel leader got to his feet along with his colleagues. He held out a hand for Quistis’ whip, and with a last glance round the room she sighed and handed it over to him. Not much point trying to fight, they’d be dead before they landed the first punch. Katya lowered her hands and the yellow ball of light faded away, and Criss handed over his gunblade. Cevin just grinned at the rebel facing him and held up his hands.
"I’d hand these over, but I think you may have trouble getting them off me," he said with a cheeky grin.
"I think we should talk this over somewhere, Miss Trepe," said the rebel leader as a female joined him at his side.
"How do you know my- wait a second.. Izzy?" said Quistis, recognising the curvy brunette woman in front of her as her old friend Isabelle Takagi. She looked a lot thinner than the last time they’d seen one another, but it was still definitely her.
"Hey there, Q," she said. "Looks like you need to have a few things explained to you."
"If you’d like to follow me?" said the rebel leader, heading towards the back of the building. A thousand questions began racing each other around Quistis’ head as they neared a pile of crates, which revealed an underground tunnel entrance when they were heaved out of place by two more rebels. The leader walked down a set of steps into a long access tunnel, motioning for Quistis to follow. She threw a look back at the cadets and nodded that it was okay to continue.
"Great, now we’re being kidnapped," she heard Cevin mutter. "Next thing we’ll be freakin’ abducted or something.."
The tunnel was lit at regular intervals by a long string of lightbulbs mounted into the walls. And odd drips of water filtered down from above them. The main thing Quistis noticed was the smell, a faint but unmistakable odour of untreated sewage.
"I apologise for the smell," said the rebel leader, "but we have to make our bases where we can, and this old access tunnel happens to run below a sewage filtration pipeline for the city centre."
"I didn’t catch your name," Quistis said to him as they carried on walking, but he just grinned back over his shoulder at her.
"That’s because I didn’t tell you. We’ll answer all your questions in a moment, Quistis, just hang on." They were approaching a doorway set into one wall, guarded by two more heavily armed rebels in flak jackets. The leader nodded to them, and one opened the door to let the group inside. Quistis followed him in, with Isabelle and the others behind her.
The room was a small meeting room, with a large table in the middle surrounded by chairs, and some more high tech equipment in the form of computer terminals, monitors showing signals from what appeared to be traffic cameras, and a large map of the city laid out on a transparent board that covered most of one wall, with dots, lines and arrows drawn all over its surface. There were a few personnel in here, more office-looking types with glasses and clipboards, manning the various stations around the room. The leader pulled back a few chairs and motioned for the SeeDs to sit down. Quistis did so, and Criss, Cevin and Katya drew up chairs round her.
"I expect you’ve got a lot of things you need to ask me at the moment," he said, "and I’ll answer what I can. First I need to ask you one thing. If I find out that you’re working for the governor in any way, then I will not hesitate to have you all killed. All I need you to say is that you realise that things are not what they seem in this city, and that you want to find out the truth."
"Yes, and yes," said Quistis calmly, still tensed up in case another of the rebels took a dislike to her and another fracas ensued.
"My name’s Berne, by the way," he said with a smile to her. She relaxed slightly. What she’d been told about the rebels was now far different from what she’d worked out herself from analysis of their activities, and the attitude of this guy seemed to confirm that.
"Pleased to meet you, I’m sure," she said. "Now start talking." He grinned.
"Not a great time for chit-chat, is it?"
"It’s been that kind of day."
"Well then. The first thing you should know is that we are indeed the rebel faction that you’ve heard so much about. What you may not have been told is why we’re rebelling against the leadership of the city of Kabernia, and why we are targeting government property in our campaigns."
"I’ve got a few theories," said Quistis, "but I’d rather hear you explain it to me." She sat back, arms crossed, to show that she was ready to sit and listen to Berne until she could make her mind up about what was going on.
"Sebastian Kabernia didn’t die in an accident," said Isabelle as she took her place next to Berne. "It was set up by Governor Duras Deakin. He was murdered." Quistis sat up. Berne nodded sadly.
"The day we lost Sebastian was the start of the black days for this city. Deakin took over and everything went on as normal, nobody realising the real reason all those new science and electronics firms moved out here."
"Which was what?" asked Redman.
"Experiments. On animals and humans," said Berne, and Quistis felt a chill run up her spine.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"I don’t even want to know what kinds of experiments, do I," said Quistis, as Isabella was handed a file by one of the room’s office workers. She opened it and spread out a series of grim photos across the table before the four SeeDs, detailing humans and animals in various stages of horrific looking experiments, both alive and dead. Criss stared at them, while Cevin grunted his disgust and threw them back down and Katya looked away with a shocked look in her eyes. Quistis tried to stay calm.
"So what you’re telling me is that the governor had Sebastian killed so he could move these labs into the city unopposed?"
"Exactly," said Berne. "We have yet to work out what his plans are for all this, but somehow we don’t think he’s trying to find a shampoo that doesn’t burn your eyes."
"What ideas have you got?" said Criss, looking up from one particularly torturous image.
"Bio weapons, crude cybernetics, possibly some kind of super soldier program," said Isabella. "It’d tie in with the increased military units in the city and the disappearances as well."
"Disappearances?" said Quistis. Berne nodded.
"Normal people, officials, military personnel, all sorts. People go missing in the night, go out to work and never arrive, go away for holidays and go missing."
"And you think their disappearances are linked to all this?" said Quistis, waving her arm over the photos. "It’s a good theory, but what proof do you have?"
"Well, you met some of our proof," said Isabella.
"Dexter," she said, suddenly looking very emotional. Her vice trembled a little, and she looked down at the floor as she continued. "Dexter was working with us. His work for the council had uncovered some of the evidence we now have, and he was trying to work as an inside man for us all. But then, the, ah.. the governor found out, and he.. he just went away one day, and when he came back, he was.. he’d.." She was trying to hold back the tears, and jut shook as Berne placed a comforting arm round her.
"He’d had some kind of spell cast on him," said Katya, and Berne looked up at her with a nod.
"Whatever they did to him has affected his memory, now he can’t remember anything about what he found out for us, or even who most of us are anymore. We think they tried to get him to talk but he refused, so they just wiped his memory instead." Quistis shuddered.
"Is there anything we can do?" she asked.
"I’m not sure, maybe. Your cadet here seems to be an adept magic user," he said with a nod towards Katya, "maybe she can help."
"I’ll need to know what I’m up against first," she replied, "but sure, I’ll do all I can."
"So what can we do to help?" asked Quistis.
"Are you sure you trust us?" said Berne as Isabella was called over by one of the terminal operators.
"I believe my own eyes, and what you’ve told me ties in with what I’d already found out," she said. "Besides which, this involves friends of mine now, so that makes me involved whether I want to be or not."
"Hey, what about us then?" piped up Cevin. "I didn’t know any of these people?"
"Consider this an additional part of your exam," she said with a stern look. "Cid sent us out here to investigate the rebel attacks and that’s what we’re doing." She looked back at Berne. "We’re just following a different line of investigation now, that’s all." Berne grinned.
"There are other things that Deakin has his hand in - embezzlement, protection rackets, bribery, corruption - he’s turning this place into something out of a bad gangster movie, and nobody knows what he’s doing. His place will turn into a dictatorship before long if nothing is done about him," said Berne.
"I think that falls under our original mission, namely the ‘assist the people of Kabernia’ part," said Criss with a smile. Quistis glanced over as Isabella called out to Berne.
"We’ve got a transport on the move," said Isabella from over by the terminals, and two of the monitors flicked to show the same image, that of an armoured personnel carrier rolling steadily through the city streets.
"What’s that?" asked Quistis, standing and joining them by the monitors.
"We see these a lot," explained Berne. "The governor uses these to move his supplies and men around the city, masking it as troop movements."
"When what’s actually inside them is-"
"Lab equipment, research staff, and possibly the results of the experiments as well. Successful and unsuccessful," said Isabella coldly.
"We’ve been trying to keep an eye on them as they’ve moved around, see if we can trace their patterns and get a feel for where the bases are, because they must be hidden either underground or under cover of other buildings."
"Like this place is, you mean?" said Quistis. Berne nodded.
"So do you want me to go scout this out then?" she said. Isabella and Berne exchanged a look. "I mean, it’d show that I’m on your side and it’d also be something to help you all out." Berne stroked his chin then nodded again.
"Alright. Isabella, you go with her." Isabella smiled at Quistis.
"No problem. We’ve got some catching up to do anyway!"
"Actually.." said Berne, drawing everyone’s attention back to him. "We’ve been planning to break into one of these things for some time now," he said, "but we’ve never really had the right manpower to do it. Most of my people are ex-citizens, not soldiers, so I’ve had to steer away from any kind of military style offensive."
"But now that we’re on board.." said Cevin, one step ahead of Berne. Berne smiled and nodded at him.
"Exactly. It’s entirely voluntary, I’d like to add, but if you feel you could try and get inside that truck and either recce the contents or grab hold of some of it for us, I think that’d help us out a lot."
"It’d tell us what they ferry to these labs, for one thing, it may even hold details of where the network of them all are, and we could also-" said Izzy, but Quistis held up a hand with a grin to silence her.
"I get it, it’s okay. I’ll do it. I need a bit of action, anyway."
"Amen!" echoed Cevin.
"Let’s go," said Quistis, "I need some time to think up a plan."
"There’s a transport back up top that you can use," said Berne, "I take it your cadets are going with you?" Quistis smiled at them.
"Well, this would be a pretty daft field exam if they didn’t get to see some action," she said. "And besides, we all have new toys we want to try out," she continued, with a nod to Criss’ new gunblade.
A few minutes later, Quistis was sat in the passenger seat as Isabella drove her and the cadets out along the city’s busy road network to catch up with the troop carrier. A small tracking system fixed to the dashboard of the plain family car they were driving showed the carrier’s position with a small flashing red dot.
"So, anyway," said Quistis with mock chatty tones. "How’ve you been the past few years, Izzy? I mean, besides the whole ‘getting involved with a rebellion against one of the most powerful landowners in the world’ thing." Izzy looked sideways at Quistis then broke into a broad grin.
"Sorry about rushing you into all this," she said, turning a corner and closing in on the dot on her radar. "We’ve kept an eye on you since you got here, but I was pretty sure you’d help us once you knew what was going on. Especially when you met Dex."
"Yeah, that got my alarm bells ringing straight away," nodded Quistis, "he didn’t recognise Serena’s name when I tried it on him. Where is she, anyway? You three used to be inseparable."
"I don’t know," said Izzy solemnly. "The three of us got into this at the same time. Dex was working at the council, and Serena and I were approached by Berne while we were working for one of the big electronics companies. We were just lab assistants, but he wanted us to help him find out what the firm was really up to."
"Which was what?" asked Criss.
"Weapons testing in a top-floor, restricted access lab. Serena and I broke in there and grabbed some experimental weapons systems, but we had to split up as we made our getaway, and she never came back. I don’t know if something happened or if the governor’s men found her, but either way we haven’t heard from her for a few weeks now."
"That girl.." muttered Quistis, looking absently out of the window. "Always getting herself in trouble. I’m sure she’s okay, she’s probably laying low till she can safely get back in touch," said Quistis. Izzy smiled weakly - she wanted to believe that, too, but it probably wasn’t going to work out as optimistically as Quistis hoped.
"We’re coming up on the transport now," said Izzy, pointing through the queues of traffic ahead of her to a large, bulky truck moving slowly through the late afternoon herds of cars. Luckily for Quistis’ team, the heavy inner city traffic jams were keeping the truck in good sight, and Quistis had plenty of time to scan the nearby streets and come up with a plan of action.
"Right, Katya, you’re with me. Criss, Cevin, get out here, stay close to that truck on the pavements and watch for our signal."
"Which will be what, exactly?" said Cevin as the foursome climbed out of Izzy’s car. Quistis just grinned in reply, and Cevin shook his head, muttering darkly about plans never going right under his breath.
"What am I going to do?" asked Izzy as Quistis walked past her window.
"Stay and watch what happens, we’re probably going to need a quick getaway. Oh, and see if you can record it too, if I pull this off then it’ll look very cool," she grinned. Izzy shook her head as Quistis’ team darted through the pack of stationary cars and onto the pavement. The street they were gridlocked on, like most in the city, was flanked on both sides by towering buildings and shop fronts with a dazzling array of neon signs and glittering window displays, attracting the last of the day’s shoppers like insects to a streetlight.
"Right then, here’s the plan," she said, trying not to draw any attention from the civilians all around them. "Criss and Cevin are going to walk casually along this street, staying by the truck, ready for when Katya and I make our move."
"And what are we going to do?" asked Katya.
"Follow me," said Quistis, beckoning Katya away with a gesture of her finger. The two boys looked at one another, shrugged and then started to walk casually along the street, one eye on the truck as it tried to squeeze through the queues of cars, honking angrily at them without any success.
The duo headed off from the main street and down a side alleyway between two restaurants, Katya wrinkling her nose at the thick smell of both the kitchens and the bins as they combined in the air around her.
"What are we doing down here?" she asked. Quistis answered by just pointing down to the floor. Katya followed her gaze and saw a manhole cover, steam gently billowing out into the alley.
"Down the hatch," said Quistis, reaching down and trying to pull the cover up, straining with effort but not managing to shift it. Katya rolled her eyes and flexed her fingers, cracking her knuckle joints loudly to get Quistis’ attention.
"Stand back, this won’t take a minute," she said, and as she closed her eyes and breathed in, a green glow started to materialise out of the air around the manhole cover. With a slow upwards movement of her hands, the manhole cove rattled and then lifted smoothly into the air. Quistis smiled as Katya placed the cover gently back down on the ground and opened her eyes again.
"Nice work, Redman. When we first met, you’d have probably lifted that ten feet straight up and thrown it at a passing plane or something," said Quistis. Katya grinned.
"Oh, I did think about doing that, but the hassle that would have come with you shouting at me for it just wasn’t worth it." Quistis chuckled and knelt down, peering into the exposed drain system entrance.
"I spotted these covers running regularly along the street as we were driving out here," said Quistis, "and I figured that if we could get down underneath the street, then we might be able to-"
"We might be able to come up underneath that truck and bust in to it without the driver or anyone knowing we were even there, right?" said Katya. She beamed, but the smile faded as she looked down into the sewers below them. The manhole entrance led down to a long pipe, high enough for a human to move through without too much trouble, complete with running river of water at the base of the pipe. She looked back up at Quistis with a pleading look in her eyes.
"Yeah, I was hoping you could cook something up to do something about the smell," Quistis replied. Katya squinted as she tried to think of something, before standing up and wordlessly circling the air before her with her hand. A red disc of light began to form in front of her, but she shook her head and it faded away again.
"Wrong one," she said without opening her eyes, then she drew a circle around herself with her hand, this tome conjuring up a blue sphere that twinkled softly in the early evening light.
"Will that work?" asked Quistis.
"Should do, it’s a low level magical barrier kind of thing, designed to repel offensive spells. Let’s see if it works on offensive smells," she said, hopping down into the pipe with her tongue firmly in her cheek at her own pun. Quistis groaned and hopped in after her with a splash as she hit the water below.
Neither girl saw the figure at the far end of the valley that was keeping a watchful eye on both of them, stealing away into the crowds of people on the street as Quistis’ blonde hair flashed out of view.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Oh.. my.. god!!" screeched Katya within a few seconds of moving down the pipe. "It smells like a dragon’s toilet down here!"
"Just keep moving, Redman, we haven’t got far to go. I’m not exactly keen on the stink down here either, you know!"
The two girls were hurrying along the pipe as best they could, it’s slimy curved walls not being much help as they tried to keep their footing. Hunched over slightly due to the low ceiling, Quistis was glad of the good material her SeeD uniform boots were made out of, but less so about how her knee-length skirt was getting splashed with all manner of undesirable things as she splashed along.
"Make yourself useful, Redman, use a scan spell or something to make sure we’re underneath the truck, or at least get us ahead of it so we can co-ordinate our attack with the boys up top." Redman nodded, and with a wave of her hand the roof of the sewer pipe glowed a sickly yellow, before dissolving from view, exposing the street above, or rather the undersides of several slow-moving cars.
"Now that’s a neat trick, cadet, good work!" Quistis said, looking around for a manhole cover they could use. With luck, there was one a few feet away that would be directly underneath the truck they were after in a few moments. Quistis nudged Redman and pointed, and with a nod the two girls took their place underneath it.
"What now?" asked Katya.
"I’ll need your help again, I’m afraid," said Quistis. "I’ll need you to cook me something up that’ll bust a hole in the bottom of that truck so we can get in and out without any fuss. Be very careful with it, I don’t want to detonate the truck on top of us, just make enough of a boom to shut up any guards that might be in there and allow us inside without too much trouble."
"No problem," said Redman, closing her eyes and cupping her hands as an angry-looking blue sphere of essence started to form in the air before her. Quistis could feel the heat sizzling off its surface as the truck lumbered slowly over head, so she jumped up and used her whip handle to pop open the manhole cover overhead. Once the truck was over the entrance, she stepped back.
"Now!" she shouted, and Katya unleashed the blast of energy straight upwards, with an almighty roar as the power was directed upwards at the unsuspecting belly of the truck.
Inside the mobile laboratory above them, the four workers inside were keeping a careful eye on the two live specimens contained in the upright tanks of fluid in the corner of the truck, and were just starting to get a little concerned about the slow progress through the traffic when the floor of the truck’s interior exploded outwards, sending chunks of fuselage and chassis everywhere, severing power cables, smashing wall-mounted cabinets and toppling desks and racks of very expensive equipment. The truck screeched to a halt as half of its undercarriage was removed by the explosion, and instantly set off an enraged flurry of car horns as the large vehicle stopped dead in the middle of a busy street.
Cevin saw the thick plume of smoke starting to billow out from underneath the vehicle and turned to Criss.
"Does that qualify as a signal?"
"I think it just might," said Criss. With a shard grin the two SeeDs hopped down from the street and made their way over to the truck.
Down in the sewer, Quistis pried open here eyes again, her fingers jammed firmly into her ears, and looked up at Redman, who stood beneath the now much wider manhole entrance covered in soot and dust. She coughed once and met Quistis’ glare, clouds of the thick white dust billowing off her as she spoke.
"Erm, sorry," she said sheepishly.
"I said to just bust a hole in the bottom, not level the entire street!" she yelled. Katya opened her mouth to try and explain how she’d accidentally overpowered the spell somewhat, but Quistis was already up and pulling herself out of the sewer.
"Come on, Redman, we’ve got work to do," she said, reaching down a hand to help pull Katya up. Quistis stood and was already half inside the truck’s trailer section, such was the size of the hole Katya had blasted through it. She leapt up inside and scanned the carnage inside - the trailer held some kind of mobile laboratory, complete with a small operating table, now in two smoking halves either side of the makeshift entrance Quistis stood over. The walls held cabinets full of medical supplies - bottles of pills, packs of bandages and other kinds of things - while the main thing that caught her attention were the two upright tanks at the rear of the trailer, both filled with a strange-looking green fluid. Quistis saw that each one held a human figure, floating gently in the mixture with breathing apparatus attached to their face, although she couldn’t tell why they were supposed to be in there. Three of the four white lab-coated works inside were currently lying stunned on what was left of the floor, thrown
into different awkward positions like rag dolls by the force of the explosion, but the fourth was stood woozily on his feet, and as his eyes locked on to Quistis he lunged at her with a yell.
Katya climbed up into the trailer as Quistis was slammed into one of the walls by the man, fighting her with a frenzied strength she was having some difficulty handling. Redman started to draw up the essences to produce another energy blast, but Quistis instead scrabbled at her belt for her whip, jabbing it up sharply into the ribs of her attacker.
"Katya, no! You’ll blow me in half if you use that in here. Jut grab some files and get out of here!" Katya looked around her, unsure of what to pick up in the disarray all around. Quistis pointed towards a filing cabinet and a PC that lay on a desk next to it, its monitor now shattered.
"What do I get?" asked Katya frantically as Quistis’ assailant lunged at her again, pinning her with his hands round her throat. Quistis grimaced as she tried to pull his hands away, trying to yell across to her student.
"Take the hard drive of the computer and some handfuls of files! Quick!" She managed to force her whip’s handle against the throat of the attacker, a well-built young man whose strength was beginning to fade as the injuries he’d taken in the explosion started to overtake the adrenaline in his system. His lab coat was flecked with blood, and as Quistis pushed against him, he started to pant heavily with the exertion before suddenly stepping back, his eyes rolling up as he fainted dead away from shock damage at last. Quistis put a hand to her throat and gasped for air as Katya yanked open the drawer of the filing cabinet, grabbing an armful of papers. Scooping up the hard drive of the computer with her free arm, she wrenched it free of the wall with a determined heave and hurried back over to Quistis.
"Out the hatch and back to the alleyway, quick!" barked Quistis, and with a nod Katya jumped down into the sewer.
Outside, Criss jumped up into the cab of the truck, flinging the door open and laying the driver out cold with a well-aimed punch to his jaw, while Cevin did the same for the passenger, a security guard who was still fumbling with his rifle as the two leapt in to the attack. A hatch in the rear of the truck'’ cabin slid back and Quistis looked out onto the two of them through the small hatch.
"All clear?" she asked, her throat starting to well up with ugly red hand prints from the attack.
"Good to go. You alright back there?" asked Criss with a little concern.
"I’m fine, Katya just overdid things a little," she replied. "Get back to Izzy’s car on the double, Katya and I’ll meet you at the hideout later."
Quistis closed the hatch and turned back to the trailer. She stared at the people in the tanks at the back - what were they there for? Were they part of the experiments she’d been told about? Could she get them out of there or would trying to move them hurt them? The decision on what to do next was made for her by the wails of approaching police sirens, and so with one last glance at the captives in the tanks she jumped down through the hole in the truck.
She was halfway out when a secondary explosion ripped through the inside of the truck, triggered by something that had been left burning after the first blast. The detonation threw Quistis down into the pipe amongst a flare of flames, and she yelled in pain as her left leg cracked heavily against the wall of the sewer.
"Quistis!" yelled Katya, splashing through the water as she came back to her fallen instructor.
"Aw, damn!" cursed Quistis as she tried to stand up, falling back on to her knees. The fact that she was knee deep in sewage water wasn’t as important to her as the fact that she seemed to have just broken her leg, or at least it felt like it.
"Are you alright?" said Katya, trying to lift her to her feet.
"I’m fine, I’m fine, come on, we’ve got to go before they find us down here," said Quistis, wrapping an arm round Katya’s shoulders to steady herself and standing shakily to her feet.
"Alright, let’s go," said Katya, trying not to drop the bulky computer drive under her arm but failing to stop a few stray bits of paper from her hand fluttering down and disappearing into the murky water below. "I have a nasty feeling that the truck-"
A loud creaking noise above them made both girls look up, the sound almost deafening as it reverberated down the pipe. A few bricks popped out of the roof over them, landing with a thud and a splash, and as Quistis watched, the entire ceiling started to sag as the weight of the truck and the damage caused by the blasts started to take their toll.
"RUN!!" she yelled, and with an arm round Katya she hopped as fast as she could away from the looming disaster behind them. The roof continued to moan with the stress of trying to stay in one piece, then with a final groan it gave way, and as the two girls frantically ran, or as close to running as they could, laden as they were, the roof disgorged bricks down into the pipe, soon followed by the flaming shell of the trailer as it crashed through the ceiling, scattering brickwork and stray pipe sections all around them. Katya yelped as hisses of steam filled the tunnel from pipes that were caught up in the melee, but thankfully the two had moved just fast enough to avoid being flattened by the trailer as it came to rest in the bottom of the sewer, chunks of masonry settling amongst the dust and smoke.
Katya pulled Quistis up to a stop, and Quistis groaned again as the pain in her injured leg flared up.
"We’re clear, it’s alright, we’re clear," she said, leaving Quistis bent double and gasping for breath as she looked around for a way out of the sewer.
"Keep.. moving.." Quistis managed, "the police.. will be after us.."
"I know, I know, I just don’t know where to go next!" said Katya, getting a little panicked. She heard voices back from the direction of the sewer pipe and her head snapped back round as the voices brought along shadows to cast down over the huge hole in the pipe that the trailer had torn. She could make out five or six figures through the cloud of dust filling the way behind them as the light from the outside world spilled into the gloom around them, their voices calling down to see if anyone was still down there.
"How fast can you move?" asked Katya. Quistis tried to stand on her injured leg and shouted out in pain as she did. Katya looked up in alarm over to the hole in the tunnel, as the shadows seemed to grow in number every second.
"I’ll.. be fine.." said Quistis through gritted teeth, "so.. let’s go!" Katya tried to give her as much support as she could as the two splashed their way down the pipe, following the dirty green water at their feet in search of another way out of the system.
On the surface, Izzy watched on with alarm as the three police cars surrounding the collapsed trailer disgorged seven uniformed police officers, armed with torches and pistols, and they began to cautiously climb down into the tunnel. She saw the driver and guard from the truck’s cabin being interviewed by another officer, who was pointing the way for his colleagues to head. She’d watched the whole scene with some alarm - first, the explosion, then Criss and Cevin darting into the cabin and back out again, and next the second explosion and the slow descent of the truck into the sewer tunnel below. She prayed that Quistis had managed to get out of there before the truck had caved in on everything, and that she’d be able to stay out of the way of the police so she could get safely back to base. Izzy was still gridlocked in place, unfortunately, so she wasn’t going anywhere for the time being.
"What are we going to do?" said Cevin as he watched the squad of police officers climb down into the hole in pursuit of Quistis and Katya. He and Criss had retreated to the cover of a nearby building, clambering up the fire escape and settling on the roof overlooking the street to keep an eye on things. Criss was silent, frowning as he tried to think of a plan. Cevin nudged him and Criss glared at this interruption to his thoughts.
"Jeez, man, don’t look at me like that, sitting up here frowning ain’t gonna do a thing to help the girls, is it? Are you gonna let them get caught?"
"We don’t know what the situation is down there," said Criss calmly. "We should head back to base and wait for news. Isabella’s still down there as backup, I say we should-"
"The hell with that!" yelled Cevin, and Criss grabbed hold of the front of his shirt, incensed suddenly.
"Keep quiet, or they’ll be up here after us, you idiot!" he yelled. Cevin blinked a few times at this sudden change in demeanour, but as quickly as it had started, Criss’ mood swing changed back, and he released Cevin and looked down at the ground. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"That’s okay," said Cevin, smoothing out his shirt with a chuckle. "Heh, I never knew you had it in you!"
"Well, I do," said Criss bluntly, "and I like to keep it there." Cevin nodded and looked back down into the street. "Doesn’t answer my question, however. You got a plan yet? You seem to be the best at plans after blondie down there."
"Let’s try and get into the tunnels a bit further back towards base and see if we can find Quistis and Katya that way," said Criss decisively. Cevin nodded and slapped him on the shoulder.
"That’s my boy!" The two jumped up and back down the fire escape, heading round the other side of the building so as to avoid the commotion on the street and searching for another manhole cover to get down into the sewers.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Come on, faster, faster!" yelled Katya, almost dragging Quistis through the sewage water. Quistis coughed and spluttered, a combination of splashed water and the foul smelling sewer stench starting to overwhelm her senses. The burning pain in her left leg wasn’t helping her stay conscious, but at the moment she didn’t have the strength to do anything other than let Katya pull her along, trying to stay one step ahead of the police further back down the tunnels.
"I’m.. trying!" Quistis gasped, one arm round Katya’s waist and the other trying to feel along the tunnel walls for support. Katya glanced over her shoulder to see how they were doing - she couldn’t hear them, but faint pinpricks of torchlight were starting to catch up with them, and she knew full well that armed officers were at the other end of those lights. With a determined heave, she pulled Quistis half upright and carried on running, keeping a frantic grip on the computer hard drive and folders of stolen files under her other arm.
"Katya.. Kat.. KATYA!" Quistis yelled, and Redman stopped dead, panting for breath.
"What is it? We don’t have time to stop!"
"You’re going.. too slow with me.. leave me somewhere.. and come back for me.." said Quistis, wincing at every beat of her heart as it pushed more blood through her damaged leg.
"I’m not leaving you anywhere, Quistis," said Katya firmly. "There’s no juice down here for me to put a healing spell on that leg, and I can’t attack those police with anything either, so we either stay and get caught or keep running. And if we get caught, the governor will stick us in jail fast as he can and our mission will be well and truly over! Is that what you want to happen?" Quistis threw a dark look up at Redman, partly because she knew full well what would happen if they were captured, and partly because she didn’t feel comfortable taking orders from her students just yet. "That’s what I thought," said Katya, "so let’s go."
Quistis took a deep breath as Katya started off again, coming to an intersection in the tunnel and choosing to turn left. Quistis thought she could make out shouting voices just at the edge of her hearing - the pursuers were gaining. Time for a new plan.
Criss and Cevin continued to jog along the street, desperately searching for another manhole but finding none.
"What the hell is this?" yelled Cevin in frustration. "Is there only one sewer in this whole damn town?"
"Calm down and shut up, let me think!" barked Criss, standing still in the middle of the street as Cevin paced, muttering to himself. The road they were on was pretty quiet, bare of pedestrians or buildings that were open, one of many yet-t-o-be developed sectors of the city. The noise of the police sirens, the smoke of the explosion and the chatter of the gathered crowd from the trailer incident was still worryingly close by, but another entrance to the sewers wasn’t so forthcoming.
Criss looked up and saw a car approaching, tightening his grip on his gunblade in case it meant trouble. Cevin recognised the car and called out to his colleague as he started to jog towards it.
"Criss, come on, it’s Izzy! Let’s go!" Criss stood up as the car pulled over to him, jumping into the passenger seat as Cevin clambered into the rear of the car. Izzy looked back at them both as she pulled away., accelerating and driving out back towards the base.
"We can’t leave them down there," said Criss, not taking his eyes off Izzy. "They need help, they may be hurt."
"I know that, but we can’t do much against a whole police force, besides which, there are two of Deakin’s personal security soldiers down there now."
"Who?" said Cevin. Izzy rolled her eyes.
"Remember those super soldier experiments we were talking about earlier?"
"Yeah? And?" Izzy stared at Cevin for a few seconds as the facts sank in. "Oh.." he said quietly as the penny dropped.
"Exactly. I only hope that Quistis and Katya can handle themselves till we can come back with more men, otherwise we may have to bust them out of the jails here. And believe me, we’ve been trying to get people out of there for years," she said grimly. Criss’ knuckles whitened as he tried to think of what to do next.
"Kat.. Kat.. stop.. stop!" Quistis shouted, and Katya pulled up to a halt. Quistis slipped out of her grasp and fell against the tunnel wall, sliding down to a half-sitting position from the thickly-coated, slimy walls.
"Come on!" pleaded Katya. "We can’t be more than a minute ahead of them now, we need to keep moving!" Quistis gritted her teeth and drew her whip, cracking it down the corridor and creating an echoing ‘snap’ sound that reverberated back down towards their pursuers.
"Screw running! I didn’t get this far to let a bunch of lousy hired hand police officers stop me," she said, the red mist of anger and adrenaline starting to fall over her eyes. "We’ve got a job to do, and I will not let these people stop me. Now you can either stay and fight or keep running, try to get help, but make your mind up quick because we are out of time."
As Quistis stood shakily to her feet, limping forward a few steps and taking up a fighting stance, Katya glanced back down the tunnel. The torchlights were almost on them, which meant the police weren’t far behind. She could hear their voices and the tell-tale splashes of water as the officers jogged through it. She made out at least seven voices, maybe a few more. She threw one last look at Quistis.
"Make it fast, Redman! You don’t always get the luxury of time out in the field."
"Go! That is a direct order, cadet! Move!" Katya looked over her shoulder at the tunnel then back at Quistis one last time.
"Stay right there," said Katya, "and don’t get killed, okay?" Quistis looked over to Redman but she was already off and running. Quistis turned her attention back towards the squad as several torchlights fell on her, dazzling her slightly. She raised an arm to shield her eyes from the glare as the running feet pulled up. She heard gun safeties clicking off and tried to work out where her attackers were.
"Freeze! Hold it right there," one voice shorted out. "Don’t try anything, you’re outnumbered and outgunned."
"That’s just the way I like it," said Quistis with a grin.
"There!" shouted Cevin, and Izzy slammed on the car’s brakes, screeching the vehicle to a halt. Cevin had spotted a mucky-looking Katya climbing up out of a manhole about twenty metres away, and by the time Izzy had seen it he was already out of the car and running over.
"Hey! You alright?" he asked, before noticing she was alone. "Where’s Quistis?"
"I had to leave her back there, she ordered me to go for help! We have to go back for her, come on!" Katya heaved the files and hard drive up onto the pavement, papers and photos spilling out into the street as she grabbed Cevin’s arm and leapt back down into the sewers, Cevin falling out of sight with a yelp and a splash.
Izzy and Criss ran up to the entrance and shouted down.
"Where are you heading?"
"Follow me!" Katya shouted back, and with a glance and a nod Criss jumped down and ran after the other two, while Izzy gathered up the files and ran back to stow them away in the car.
"She’s just round here, come on!" said Katya, nearing the tunnel where she’d left Quistis. She stopped dead as she heard the unmistakable sound of gunshots echo round the tunnel, followed by yells and the sound of a whip cracking. "Oh no.." she muttered before starting to run again.
She rounded the corner and into the dazzle of the torchlights, shielding her eyes before realising the most of the torches were at ground level. She stepped forward cautiously and her foot connected with something solid, sending her stumbling forward. Cevin flashed out an arm to catch her, and as she stood she gasped once in shock, first at the slumped body she’d tripped over, then again as she looked up into the rest of the tunnel.
Quistis stood, heaving with exhaustion but alone in the tunnel, the unconscious forms of eight police officers and two crimson-uniformed security guards lying around her. She was cut and bruised, and a long wound that looked like a stray bullet was bleeding badly from her left arm, but she was still standing. She turned to face the others as Izzy and Criss caught them all up.
"How did.. but you.." stuttered Katya. Quistis smiled, blowing a stray lock of hair off her face and rubbing her injured leg.
"Like I said, I didn’t get this far to let a bunch of.. goons stop me!" she said with a gulp of air. "Those ones in the red outfits were pretty tough, but not all that bad once I’d let this baby loose on them." She patted her whip and smiled, stumbling to a sitting position in the dirty water and using her other arm to wipe the sweat from her brow. Criss walked up to her and offered a hand to help her up. She reached out an arm and smiled.
"Why thank you, kind sir," she said, "I could use a bit of help."
"Are you alright? Oh god, Q, you’re bleeding!" said Izzy with concern, looking over Quistis’ arm wound.
"Yes, it does hurt quite a lot, so does my leg, so if you could get me to a hospital, then that’d be.. great.." she said, stumbling and almost sliding out of Criss’ grip as she fainted dead away.
"Let’s get her back to base, we’ve got medical staff on site who can help patch her up," said Izzy. Criss nodded and hoisted Quistis up over his shoulders, and the two of them stepped carefully over the fallen bodies on their way back to the waiting car. Cevin and Katya paused to survey Quistis’ work.
"Wow," said Cevin. "And with a busted leg too?" Katya nodded. "Sweet," he said, impressed.
"Come on," said Katya, "let’s get out of here." As they walked away, one of the cops stirred and tried to get to his feet, but Cevin chopped him once on his neck and he feel back to the ground.
"Night night!" he said, following the others back to the surface.
"She’s sleeping now, but she should be fine. She took quite a beating down there," said the infirmary nurse as Redman, Brendan and McClewen stood at the far end of the rebel’s hospital unit. A makeshift hall that operated under the guise of being a local community centre, the rebels used the hall to care for their wounded soldiers, and judging by the volume of beds there were quite a lot of them. Redman looked around with concern - four rows of beds filled the cramped room with stolen and borrowed hospital equipment occupying the rest of the space. Heart monitors bleeped softly, respirators hissed and as the sunlight filtered into the room from the windows high up in the ceiling it caught the array of suspended IV drips and cast a tapestry of glittering patterns along the walls.
"How long is she going to be out for?" asked Criss. The nurse, a middle-aged woman with short brunette hair, consulted her chart.
"A few days, maybe more. She’s healing very well, a lot faster than expected, so we’re not expecting any problems. We’ll let you know when she comes round." The nurse smiled and walked to another bed to talk to the patient there, leaving the SeeDs by the hall’s entrance.
"What now?" said Cevin. Katya sighed and looked back over towards the sleeping Quistis, wrapped up in bandages as though they were the only things that were keeping her in one piece.
"I don’t know, I guess we help out best we can until she wakes up, I’m sure Izzy and Berne have some new plans after looking at the stuff we got from that truck."
"Yeah, let’s regroup. We should tell Cid what’s going on as well," said Criss. "I’ll go speak to him if you two want to go check in with Berne." The others nodded and left the hall, Criss heading for the makeshift communications room and Katya and Cevin for the operations centre which Berne was rarely seen out of.
The comms room was essentially an old tool shed that was crammed full of radio equipment. When the galbadians had managed to restore television waves as part of their long-winded plan to take over the world, it had literally opened up a whole new spectrum of communication possibilities, two of which Criss was about to put to the test with a live feed to Balamb Garden. The shed was currently empty, but the operator’s chair was in place and the racks of broadcasting equipment were switched on and warmed up, so it only took Criss a few moments to find a pair of headphones, switch the relevant switches and dial in the main Balamb switchboard number.
"Balamb Garden, how may I help you?" rang out the tones of Cid’s secretary, Rianna. Criss was staring at a blank monitor screen for now until he could patch into the screen in Cid’s office, but he knew Rianna’s face well and grinned to himself as he answered, putting on his best tones for her.
"Hello Balamb, this is SeeD cadet Criss Brendan reporting in from the field, over in Kabernia. I’d like to talk to Headmaster Kramer if I could."
"Ah, Criss! Good to hear from you. Just let me patch you through," she said, and after a few beeps Cid’s voice drifted across the airwaves.
"Hello, Cid Kramer?"
"Headmaster, hi, this is Criss Brendan."
"Ah, yes, one of Quistis’ students. What can I do for you?"
"Well, I’m just checking in really, but there are a few things that require your urgent attention." Cid paused for a moment and Criss heard him sigh, as though he’d been expecting the call saying there was trouble of some kind all along. "If you’d like to turn on your monitor, sir, I have some images I need to show you."
"Oh, just a moment," said Cid, and a second later the monitor in front of Criss faded up from blank grey to a monochrome image of Cid, receiver in hand. He smiled out at Criss, who nodded and continued.
"First things first, I’m afraid Instructor Trepe has been injured in the field," said Criss, carrying on as he saw Cid’s concerned look, "but she’s in a medical facility and making a quick recovery, so no cause for alarm."
"That girl will be the death of me yet," Cid muttered. "What else?"
"Our mission has been.. not compromised, the word is probably ‘complicated,’ sir," said Criss, reaching a hand round for the aerial photos he’d brought with him on his way over.
"Oh?" said Cid. "How, exactly?"
"Well, it seems that the rebels we were sent here to investigate do have a legitimate claim for their activities, We’ve been presented with evidence that suggests that this installation," he said, holding up an aerial shot of what Berne had described as an ‘experimentation facility’ before the screen for Cid to look at, "is in fact a research facility that has been conducting experiments on both local animal life and local civilians. We’ve investigated this today and retrieved files and a computer hard drive from a mobile laboratory unit on its way to one of these alleged facilities, and found more evidence that shows.. well, in a nutshell, sir, something bad is going down here."
Cid nodded sagely and adjusted his glasses as he thought for a few moments. When he spoke, his tone had changed, becoming more cold and authoritative.
"Cadet Brendan, your mission has changed to this - continue your investigation into the claims of the alleged rebel factions and find out what is going on in that city. When you have more evidence, contact me again and if I feel the situation merits reinforcements I’ll send them. And Criss?"
"Keep an eye on Quistis for me, will you?" Criss smirked.
"I think she’ll be keeping an eye on us once she’s back on her feet, sir."
"Good. That is all, Balamb over and out," said Cid, ending the call. Criss replaced the headphones and left the shed, heading back to tell Berne and the others the news.
* * * * * * * * * * *
You’re taking your sweet time in finding me!
Well, I have been a little busy.. and unconscious! It’s all very well being this mysterious, possibly telepathic voice I keep hearing in my head, but if you don’t give me a few clues as to who you are and where you are I can’t really do much about it, can I?
Two friends of mine are going to pay you a visit. They’ll help.
Well, it’s about time! Do I know them?
You certainly do.
Do I know you?
Hey! I asked you a question!
Time to wake up now.
"But I still don’t know!" said Quistis, waking up with a jolt and lurching upright in the bed. It took her a few seconds of scanning the hall around her to realise where she was, and then a glance to her side revealed a surprised-looking Katya, sat by the side of her bed with a magazine across her lap.
"Welcome back, Instructor!" she said brightly. "You’ve been asleep for about a day and a half, but the doctors say-"
"What the hell happened?" said Quistis, shaking her head and interrupting Katya. "Sorry to snap, but as you can see, I’m a little bit confused at the moment.."
"It was while we were being chased through the sewer tunnel. You hurt your leg," said Redman, and as if to remind her of it Quistis’ left leg throbbed once, "but when I tried to get you out you made me leave you behind, and then you-"
"Let me guess," said Quistis, holding up a hand to stop Katya mid-sentence. "I decided to stay and fight?" Redman nodded, and Quistis sighed heavily. "I wish I could stop doing that," she said sadly, "it really doesn’t do me any favours. I just get all.. defensive when I’m in that kind of situation, I become allergic to running away or something.."
"Anyway!" said Katya, deciding to interrupt Quistis for a change. "When we came back for you, you’d finished off the people who’d come after you," and as Katya spoke Quistis’ memory flashed up a few freeze frame images of the fight in the tunnel for her, fists connecting with jaws and howls of pain as her whip sent them packing. "You passed out after that, because you’d taken a bit of a beating, but we got you back here, and the doctors say you’re almost back to form again." Quistis peeled back one of the bandages on her shoulder, the one covering her gunshot wound, and frowned as she saw that her skin was completely smooth, no scarring or marks at all. The bandage was stained with blood but it was as though her arm had never been cut. And that couldn’t be right, because she remembered that the gunshot had damn well hurt.
"So what’s happening now? What was in those files you took?" said Quistis, looking around the medical ward for her clothes so she could get herself out of there.
"Plans, mainly, lab results and formulas that didn’t make much sense at first, till one of the boffins here took a look and worked out what they were."
"And?" Quistis replied, swinging her legs out of the bed and grabbing for a pair of blue combat trousers that had been brought in for her, along with a charcoal shirt and black vest top. She winced as she started to pull the trousers up over her injured leg.
"Chemical formulas and genetic code, but both of them with major modifications and alterations to them, as though someone had been making a progress chart of results on test subjects and elements. They’re up to some pretty heavy stuff in there, Q."
"What else do we know?" said Quistis, wincing again as she pulled on the shirt.
"Not much. Without something about what experiment the results were from, we can only guess at what we’re looking at. We need files that tell us about the experiments so we can fill in the blanks. We kind of know what happened, we just don’t know what they were trying to do."
"Well, if it’s files we want, it’s files we’ll get," said Quistis. "I have a new plan. Follow me." Quistis hopped down out of the bed and slipped on her trainers, walking a little shakily out of the ward. A nurse tried to block her path as she reached the entrance.
"And just what do you think you’re doing out of bed?" she asked sternly. Quistis glared down at her.
"Out of the way, sister, I’ve got work to do," she said, nudging past the nurse and out of the building. The nurse spluttered behind her but Quistis was too determined now - she’d wasted a day and a half in bed so she had ground to catch up on. Katya jogged back up beside her as Quistis walked out into the street and down the steps that led to the concealed tunnel entrance to the rebel’s underground network.
"Heh, you said ‘sister’ but if you think about it, she was a ‘sister,’ being a nurse and all.."
Quistis marched into the operations centre a short time later to find Berne and Izzy sat down, the files from the truck spread across a desk before them and the stolen hard drive plugged into a terminal with a technician operating it.
"Ah, Quistis. Feeling better?" asked Berne without looking up.
"Sure am, time to get back to work."
"We’ve had word back from Headmaster Cid," said Criss as Quistis took her seat.
"What did he have to say for himself?"
"He said we’ve got Garden approval to carry on with this investigation and find out what we can, and that you should just carry on doing what you’re doing," said Criss. Quistis grinned back at him.
"He makes a lot of sense sometimes. Alright, everyone, new plan!" said Quistis, raising a hand to get the room’s attention. "I’ve had some time to think about what to do next, and although I wasn’t conscious for most of it my brain seems to have been carrying on without me, because I now have an idea of what to do next. We need to hit the governor’s office."
"What?" spluttered Izzy.
"Quistis, we’ve tried that and lost people before now, it doesn’t get us anywhere," said Berne, shaking his head.
"You’ve never had four SeeDs try before," she replied, and after a brief pause Berne nodded in agreement. "I say that my cadets and I should hit the offices, raid their computer networks and see if we can’t find some kind of link to that missing info we need to go with the test results we have. If those files are anywhere, they’d be where Deakin has instant access to them, right?"
"Makes sense," said Berne, "but they’ll be heavily protected, both physically and electronically. One of my computer experts should go with you."
"We’ll get it set up, ready to go as soon as you’re ready," said Izzy.
"I’m ready as soon as!" said Quistis confidently. "I should probably go rest up for a bit first though, I have been in hospital when I think about it." Berne grinned at the humour and got up to make a few calls on the intercom system to the left of the room. Quistis was about to ask her cadets what they thought about the plan when there was a knock at the room’s door, and a young-looking rebel man walked in nervously.
"Uh, there’s someone - well, two people, here to, ah, see a Quistis Trepe?" he stuttered. Quistis stood up.
"That’s me, who’s after me?"
"We’ve, uh, kept them up top, you’d better follow me," he said, heading back out. Quistis threw a look back to Izzy and shrugged as she walked after the man.
Who knows I’m here? she thought as she headed back up to the abandoned warehouse overhead.
"Well, well, so you are here after all!" said a burly voice as Quistis walked out into the mezzanine gallery of the warehouse, and as she scanned for the owner of the voice she groaned to herself, her brain already telling her who she was about to see.
"Long time no see, Quisty, how ya doin’?" asked Raijin, still looking as beefy as ever, his rows of garish jewellery jangling together as he stepped forward to greet her. A rebel guard armed with a rifle kept a watchful eye on the man and his companion as Quistis stepped forward, having her hand shaken enthusiastically by Raijin.
"You didn’t answer the question, Raijin, and I’m going to need that hand back," she said, wary of both him and his colleague, the monosyllabic grey-haired warrior known as Fujin. She stepped forward and saluted, her short cut grey hair falling aesthetically over her eyepatch as she did.
"FRIEND," she said, holding out her hand and managing a small smile.
"Alright, now this is officially starting to creep me out, what the hell are you two doing here?" Quistis said. Raijin and Fujin shared a look before they spoke again.
"HELP," said Fujin simply.
"We called Cid and said we needed your help, you were the closest out of any of your posse from Garden, ya know? Plus, we figured you were most likely to help us out, because we fought you less times than the others."
"And Cid told you I was here, right?"
"Right!" said Raijin with a smile. "He said when you’d heard what we have to say, you’d be sure to lend a hand."
"Well, I’m kind of busy with what I’m actually meant to be doing right now," said Quistis curtly, "so this little errand of yours had better be good."
"We, ah, need your help to get a friend of ours back," said Raijin cautiously.
"You two have a friend?" said Quistis with a raised eyebrow.
"SEIFER," said Fujin, and Quistis’ heart skipped a beat.
"Seifer? I thought he was dead?"
"Nah, man, Seifer’s too tough to die!" Raijin chuckled and slapped Fujin on the shoulder so she could share in the joke. She glared back at him before turning back to Quistis.
"TAKEN," she said.
"Taken? Taken where?"
"Ah, this is where it gets kinda complicated, ya know? Maybe we oughtta go inside so we can talk better?" asked Raijin. Quistis looked them both up and down. She hoped they knew better by now than to try anything, and with a sigh nodded to the guard behind her.
"Let’s get them to operations, then," she said, and with a nod the doors leading back into the tunnels were opened up. Raijin nudged Fujin and smiled happily at her as the two followed Quistis back to the operations centre.
"Aw, man, what are those two jokers doing here?" said Cevin, leaping to his feet as Quistis led her two new arrivals in.
"At ease, McClewen, they’re here to ask our help," said Quistis, raising a hand to warn Cevin back.
"Man, you’ve got these little puppies well trained, Quisty! Lots of bite in ‘em, ya know?" said Raijin, playfully punching the air a little and grinning broadly at Cevin.
"You just try one thing, just one thing, joker, and you’re out of here in a box."
"Oo, scary!" laughed Raijin. "Pretty tough for a kid, huh?" he said to Fujin. Fujin waved a hand in the air before her for silence.
"ENOUGH!" she said.
"For once I agree with her," said Quistis. "They want our help so the least I can do is hear them out. Sit down and start talking," she said, and the two did so.
"Well, it’s like this," began Raijin. "After that whole Ultimecia thing, we never saw what happened to Seifer for a long time, ya know?"
"Last time I saw him I was busy kicking his ass," said Quistis.
"Yeah, well, seems after the sorceress was defeated, it caused some kind of major league psychic feedback in his head, ya know? He’d been given all this power through her, and then all of a sudden it just got wrenched away, so, like, his system went into shock."
"AMNESIA," said Fujin.
"Yeah, he apparently just got forgotten about in the ruins of the castle and went wandering back out, getting lost in all that freaky ass time magic before ending up back here in our world, our time, a few months back."
"About the time I saw you two while I was heading out to Setton?" said Quistis.
"’Sactly," Raijin replied. "He’d been found over in this place called Dreason, wandering the streets, babbling to himself like some crazy homeless guy. But this is Seifer, ya know? He was just a little confused, he’ll be okay in no time."
"Okay from what? Who found him? Raijin, I have to say, you suck at telling stories," said Redman. Raijin looked up at her, then to Fujin, who nodded once before Raijin continued.
"An asylum. He was kind of violent, crazy, and somebody called the police on him, and they had him committed. He was in there a few weeks before they found some ID and contacted us, and when you saw us we were on our way out to see him."
"Seifer? In an insane asylum? Well, I’m not normally one for poetic justice, but.." Quistis’ mind tried to take all of this in, but Raijin was about to add another complication.
"There’s something else. He’s kinda different now. All that power did something to him, I don’t think it’s all gone away. When we saw him, he was sort of confused, like he knew us but couldn’t remember why, He kept saying over and over, ‘she’s gotta find me, she’s gotta find me.’ I thought he meant Fujin, but I know now that he didn’t."
"Quistis? Are you okay?" asked Criss, noticing that she’d paled as Raijin had repeated Seifer’s words. Did this have something to do with the voice talking to her when she slept? Was she as crazy as those two?
"Hmm? I’m fine. Carry on," she said, not wanting to lose momentum. "How do you know he didn’t mean Fujin?"
"He told us. Well, I suppose in a way he did. See, when we went home after seeing him, that night, we heard-"
"You heard his voice, talking to you," Quistis finished. Raijin and Fujin shared a shocked look.
"VOICES," said Fujin.
"I’ve heard him too. At least, I presume now that it was him, I wasn’t sure. What did he say?"
"He, uh, he said that we should find you, that you’d be able to get him out of there, and that you had to hurry."
"Why? What’s going to happen to him?"
"THERAPY," said Fujin.
"They’re gonna hit him with some heavy duty psyche treatment," said Raijin. "Drugs, electroshock, the works. They’re gonna fry his brain, and they won’t listen to us telling them that he’s still in there, that doing all that won’t help him, ya know?"
"Well, we can’t help!" said Cevin. "We’ve got our own mess to deal with!"
"Please?" said Raijin quietly, and that caught Quistis’ attention.
"It’s your call then, Quistis," said Berne. "You can go help your friend out-"
"He wasn’t a friend," she answered quickly. Berne raised his hands defensively.
"Okay, whatever. If you want one of my people to take the mission, just say the word."
Quistis stood, deep in thought. Things had suddenly become much more complicated. She’d heard Seifer’s voice as plainly as if he was in the same room, asking her to help get him out of there, but then if she left the raid on the governor’s offices to somebody else it could all go horribly wrong, and she didn’t want to be responsible for any more deaths.
"Quistis?" said Izzy. "What are you going to do?"
Quistis made her choice and spoke.
END OF BOOK TWO
Lee Chrimes' Fanfiction