Grazhir :: Final Fantasy :: Snafu :: 05

05

Selphie brought the car to a gentle stop just when they could see lights up ahead and twisted in her seat to look back at Squall. “Hm. Leave the car here and lock it? Find a place to sleep tonight?”

He nodded. “Maybe if we’re lucky we can drive it straight through town tomorrow and out the other side. If not. . . .” He shrugged and opened the door on his side, hitting the lock before closing it.

A short walk brought them to a technological marvel of a sight. Spread out before them to the north was a simply enormous, somewhat flattened, inverted hemisphere of solar panels, at the center of which was a house. Farther along their walk they could see the makings of an actual town, though everything looked depressingly grey and a bit grimy. He wondered if it was a reflection of where they had come from, or a revolt of some kind given what he knew of the people who had founded this place. Whatever. Seifer tapped his arm and pointed. There was a sign over one of the doors on the left side which said “Hotel”.

Inside Irvine asked the man behind the desk, “Do you have any available rooms?”

The man eyed the group and nodded. “Only got two rooms,” he said, “but they’re both available. Two beds in each, 30g per person per night.”

Irvine turned and looked at Selphie with raised brows. She nodded, so he fished out some coins and paid for two nights.

The man leaned out and pointed off to his right. “Up the stairs, room on each side. Keys are in the doors. The center door is a bathroom. And—” He stopped and eyed them again. “Folks, this town doesn’t tolerate violence. We discuss our problems and resolve things peacefully. Stay out of trouble and we’ll all get along fine. Now, I expect you’ve been traveling quite a while. It’s late, so the café is closed, but I can sell you a few things if you need any food, and there’s a hot plate in each room for simple meals.”

Selphie beamed a smile at him. “Thank you for letting us know, sir.” She grabbed Irvine’s arm and dragged him off toward the stairs.

Squall nodded to the—owner?—and followed. At the top of the stairs he grabbed the only visible key and opened that door, stepping inside to see a neat, impersonal room with two double beds and a tiny nook with the promised hot plate, a sink, a coffee maker, and a few other odds and ends. A window at the back was covered with filmy curtains and the beds were set to either side of it, against the walls. He choose one at random and sat down just as Selphie dashed in from across the hall.

“I have eggs and cheese,” she announced happily, then added, “I can’t cook to save my life.”

Squall snorted and wondered if she had somehow managed to stash a cow and some chickens amongst her other supplies to provide for those awkward times, or if she purchased them from the man downstairs. “I can,” he replied. “Guess I could make some omelets.” He bent down to remove his boots, then stood and took off his jacket, gloves, and blade, laying those on the bed. The sink provided a handy place to wash his hands and by then Selphie had produced a selection of goodies for him to work with. Now, so long as nobody started making jokes about Suzy Homemaker—he wouldn’t be adverse to cooking for them again. They had all been given lessons in field cooking, after all, even if some of them still couldn’t cook. A short time later they were perched on the beds eating.

“So tomorrow,” Seifer started, “we check out the town in pairs, see what’s available, see if anyone has information on getting to Esthar, and if we can drive instead of walk.”

“That about covers it,” Squall said after swallowing. “Somehow I doubt this place is as utopian as they would have us believe, so let’s stay alert.”

“With any luck we won’t be here long,” Irvine said. “A pacifist town is no place for people conditioned for battle readiness.”

They finished up quickly and Selphie and Irvine headed back to their room. Squall was about to wash up when Seifer grabbed his plate and fork and began to do it. “It’s only fair,” he commented. “The cook shouldn’t have to clean up. Oh, I noticed a terminal downstairs. I’ll check it in the morning to see if I got a response.”

He nodded and started rummaging through his supplies for something to sleep in. “Going to take a shower. Assuming it’s not already in use.” Indeed it was not, so he was shortly back in the room feeling much better. Seifer left and was back a short time later, looking as refreshed as he felt.

“I don’t know,” he said doubtfully once Seifer had stretched out on the other bed. “This place looks really run down, but it’s hard to see it clearly in the dark. If they haven’t been keeping the rail maintained we may have to walk after all.”

“Don’t stress out about it yet. I can already see your shoulders tensing up again. Let’s just get some rest and see what happens in the morning.”

“Hn.”

*

He came down the stairs and paused briefly at the sound of Selphie’s cheerful voice, then continued on to see her at the front desk chatting up the owner. Seifer was busy at the public terminal and Irvine was staring out the window. He walked over to stand near Seifer and wait.

“Oh, yes,” Selphie was saying. “I’ve always wanted to travel and now that I’m old enough—well, of course I was going to! It can be a bit scary out there in the wilds, though,” she said and indicated the nunchaku hanging at her waist. “But I have these to make the monsters go away. Nothing ruins a scenic picnic like a monster barging in!”

He noted that the owner seemed a bit charmed by Selphie’s personality and stifled a snort.

“There’s nothing like that around here, though, right?” she asked, and plowed on after the man nodded, “Perfect! So what’s there to do around here? I mean, we’re just passing through and all, but—”

Squall glanced over at Seifer to see him still busy typing away, and decided to join Irvine at the window.

“—guys must be really smart,” Selphie burbled excitedly.

“It still looks pretty grim,” Irvine murmured, “but what can you expect for a town built around a bridge?”

“—must have some really fantastic cooks if fish doesn’t get boring after—”

“She gotten anything of interest out of him, or did I get here too early?” he murmured back.

“Too early, unfortunately, but the café the guy mentioned is just two doors down.”

“—master fisherman! Really?”

Seifer wandered over with an amused expression. “You ready, Squall?”

He nodded. “See you guys at the café for lunch?”

Irvine tipped his hat in response, so Squall headed out with Seifer. ‘Hn, it really does look—’ They stopped by the café long enough to get some fresh pastries to eat while they walked around and set out to really explore. Almost the first thing he noticed was that some of the tracks were damaged, but there was a train station around the bend with wide, shallow steps leading up to it. Inside was more evidence of damage no one had bothered to do anything about, but the tracks themselves looked clear.

Back along the tracks in the direction of their vehicle they encountered a slight issue. There was an abandoned train car on the tracks near the solar panel dish—something he had mistaken for a building of some kind the night before—but there was enough room on the station side of it for their car to slip by and back onto the tracks themselves.

Once that was out of the way they stopped to admire the array. “That probably powers the whole town, and used to power the station.”

“It’d be like living in a fishbowl down there,” Seifer said with a snort. “Can you imagine looking out the window and being blinded by the reflected light? Hey, do you regret having quit?”

Squall faced him and shook his head. “No. If the plan’d had a chance in hell of working it might not have come to that, but I don’t regret the decision I made, even before I knew about matron. Working toward being a SeeD was all I ever really knew, but that first mission started me thinking pretty hard. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call happy at Garden anyway, but when your first mission is that much of a fuck up, and then you get completely nonsensical orders for another one. . . . I proved to myself I could do it—become a SeeD. I just didn’t lose my judgment and reasoning ability in the process like some others I could mention. The four of us will find something productive to do, even if we have to create the roles ourselves.”

“It’s a little ironic that I finally made SeeD, only to quit days later.” Seifer chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. “But I’m okay with it. You said what we were all thinking, ruthlessly outlining the flaws, voicing your suspicions. I couldn’t in good conscience stay a SeeD, not when we were being manipulated like that, not after you spelled it all out. Anyway, I got a response. They said they were going to pack up as soon as they hit send and would also see about grabbing some of the things we left behind if they could swing it.”

Squall arched a brow questioningly.

“Fujin is pretty damn small. She can fit through the ventilation system shafts,” Seifer explained with a grin. “The fact that we were assigned singles helps. No worrying about running into roommates while dropping in for a visit.”

“Nice,” he said admiringly. “Whatever she can manage I’ll be grateful for. I just hope Irvine didn’t leave anything precious behind.” He shook his head and started walking again, back into town proper. “I wonder where these people hide their other food sources. All I can see so far are docks, docks, and more docks. Maybe they export fish to the west and import other foodstuffs.”

“I spotted a bar earlier. How about we go eavesdrop for a bit. I’m sure we can both nurse a drink for an hour.”

Seifer started flirting with the barmaid after she started flirting with him and soon he was getting all kinds of interesting information out of her, though not much of it was relevant, unfortunately. An amused Squall just nursed his drink and listened to the conversations around him, not that there were all that many people present at that time of the day. Eventually they wandered off to the café and met the others, had lunch, and were soon enough back in Squall’s room perched on the beds.

“We can drive the car through,” he started, “with a little maneuvering. Not sure they’ll appreciate it, but it isn’t like we’d be doing any actual harm. I think if we left at first light there’d be less chance of anyone getting close enough in time to complain.”

“People enough come through here on their way to Esthar,” Selphie said, “and some even come through here on the way out. The guy I was talking to only added that bit after I went on about a movie I’d once seen where people kept trying to escape an oppressive regime to some place called Sanctuary and were, in reality, being captured by a crazy robot and being frozen. They all walk, though, and we’ll have to ditch the car on the other side.

“Anyway, there’s not a lot of land you can move around on otherwise because of the cliffs, so the only place you can really go is straight east into what they call the Great Salt Lake, and that supposedly ends in sheer drops too steep to climb down. There’s obviously a way through, though, but all I could get were coy hints like not everything’s at it seems. I know we can figure it out with a little effort,” she said confidently.

“All right. We’ll set out at dawn.”

*

They rented a car to speed up their journey to Balamb Garden and squealed to a stop outside just off the road. Quistis and Zell continued on foot, stopping in confusion before they got very far. The Garden Faculty up ahead was acting very, very strangely, and students were running around like mad, checking out every nook and cranny in sight. “Seize him! Kill him if you must!”

She cautiously approached the Garden Faculty and opened her mouth to ask some questions when it rounded on her and demanded, “Whose side are you on? Why aren’t you searching!? Cid must be found!”

“What’s going on? Did something happen?”

“Why are you asking questions? You must be on his side!” The Garden Faculty blew a whistle and when creatures appeared, pointed at Quistis and Zell. “NORG is the true ruler of Garden!”

She was still confused after the monsters had been defeated, but the Garden Faculty was no longer around to question. And at that, he’d probably just set more monsters on them. Quistis looked around for someone she could interrogate and spotted one of the Trepies. She narrowed her eyes and ran over, grabbing the girl by the arm and hauling her around so she could see her face. “What is going on?” she said slowly and clearly.

“Oh my gosh, you’re back,” the girl simpered. “It’s just crazy around here! The Garden Master has set the Garden Faculty to organizing a search for the headmaster, but we don’t know why. They’re demanding the students and SeeDs side with them and fights keep breaking out.”

“So you don’t know where the headmaster is?”

The girl shook her head.

“What about Xu?”

“Um. . . .”

“Never mind,” she snapped. “Start making sure the younger students are safely out of the way. Get some help from your friends. If you see Xu tell her I’m here and need to talk to her. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the girl cried, and snapped off a salute before racing away.

“We need to find Xu,” she muttered.

She and Zell canvassed the entire ground floor of the structure, battling monsters set upon them by Garden Faculty, and eventually headed for the lift. They had just finished investigating the last classroom on the first floor when Xu came into view. Strangely, Xu was acting awfully cautious considering they were best friends. “Thank Hyne,” Quistis said. “Xu, what’s going on? Everything’s already gone to hell with things over in Galbadia, and we come back to find this? This is a school and training facility, not a free for all arena!”

“Whose side are you on, Quistis?” Xu asked.

Quistis gaped at her. “I’m on whatever side you’re on! How can you ask me that? We had to flee for our lives from Galbadia. We have to update the headmaster. I’d give you the details right here and now, but not with all of this craziness going on.”

Xu shifted position, clearly thinking it over, then nodded. “I’ve never known you to lie to me, Quistis. Come on.”

The headmaster was in his office, which, according to Xu, had already been searched at least twice. When Xu tried to remain outside Quistis dragged her in anyway. She snapped off a salute to the headmaster and exhaled heavily. “Headmaster. I’m so glad to see you.”

Cid smiled and said, “It’s always nice to see you, too. What can I do for you?”

Quistis frowned slightly. Had he always been this . . . out of it? “Sir, I need to report on the joint operation in Deling City.”

Cid turned away and wandered over to his desk, taking his own sweet time before turning back and leaning against the edge. “Yes, yes, I heard there were some problems. Garden Master NORG seems to be in a bit of a pother over it. Why don’t you fill me in on the details, hm?”

‘O—kay. The Garden Master is trying to see you killed and you call it a pother?’ “Yes, sir. But bear with me while I include some additional information, as well. Zell and I arrived at Galbadia Garden with the joint operation orders and were waiting to see Headmaster Martine. We ran into Squall, Selphie, Nida, and Seifer, who appeared to be just arriving. They informed me that they had fled Timber when President Deling was assassinated, along with their client.”

Cid nodded absently. “I do seem to recall that Seifer went off to have a bit of a holiday before his first mission. He turned up in Timber?”

She nodded. “Apparently he visits there on a regular basis. I showed them to the guest suite and then met Headmaster Martine and turned over the orders. I came out of that meeting knowing where it would take place and that all of us would be taking part in it. The next morning we were briefed and the orders given to Squall, and provided with a sniper from Galbadia Garden. We left Garden and proceeded to Deling City, where we met up with General Caraway. He explained the details of the operation and gave us orders to return the next night to have the final meeting. We left and Squall issued orders to scout out the situation, giving each smaller team specific things to concentrate on, then we met back up a few hours later. This is where it all started to go haywire.”

Cid raised his brows and rubbed his nose with one hand.

“We gave our reports, he thought about it for a while, then picked the plan to pieces. He also asserted that it was obvious we were being set up to take the fall—Garden and SeeD, I mean. Things started to get nasty at that point, which is when the sniper from G-Garden informed us that we all, Nida excepted, used to be at an orphanage together and—” She stopped at the pained expression on the headmaster’s face. “Sir?”

Cid just waved his hand around vaguely. “Go on.”

“And our matron was the sorceress. Selphie obviously remembered something about it, Zell started to remember, and all hell broke loose at that point. The upshot is that the sniper and Selphie resigned, followed by Seifer, and then Squall, leaving me in charge.” She paused again briefly at the faintly panicky expression on the headmaster’s face. “Zell, Nida, and I returned to General Caraway with the news and to request more help from G-Garden. We also discussed some of the flaws that’d been brought up and how to counter them.

“The next night we had the final meeting and the two teams split up to get to their assigned locations. Everything went according to plan until the sniper took his shot. The sorceress blocked it. My team moved to join them in accordance with the plan, but the sniper fled as soon as we were back on the street. The Timber client, who had gotten involved without any warning to us and forced us to rescue her on our way into position, also fled.

“When I got to the target Zell was unconscious, Nida was completely under the thrall of the sorceress, and the guy from G-Garden was nowhere to be seen. I managed to get Zell and run before the situation got any worse. There was no way I could have taken her on by myself and lived. Zell and I fled to Dollet and took a train to Timber where we could just exchange, and came here.” She took a deep breath and exhaled. “Squall was right,” she admitted reluctantly. “The whole thing was a mess. And now I’m worried that Galbadia will come after Balamb Garden after the sorceress takes over G-Garden as her base of operations.”

Cid somehow managed to look both pleased and unhappy at the same time. “There may be a way,” he said slowly, “to protect ourselves. This building used to be a shelter, long before it was remodeled into the Garden we know. Here.” He produced a key from his pocket and held it out for her to take. “This will unlock additional floors for the elevator. Rumor has it that deep below the MD level is some kind of control system from when this was still a shelter. However, I have no idea what’s down there or what protection it might afford us. All I can ask is for you to do your best.”

An hour or so later she was frustrated beyond belief, having already almost died twice, but they had finally found the control center. Did any of it make sense? ‘Of course not!’ she complained.

“So what do we do?” Zell asked, looking over the panel in front of them. “I can’t read any of these labels. Can you?”

Perhaps it was time, just this once, to take a page from someone else’s book. “No, I can’t, and we don’t have time to find a translator.” She started pushing buttons at random and flipping switches. The next thing she knew the strange machinery farther ahead began moving, crackles of electricity crawling up and down it, and they were jolted as the platform they were standing on rose into the air. She grabbed a railing and held on for dear life.

The impromptu lift carried them up—and through the floor—into the headmaster’s office and a bit higher, carrying him and Xu along with them. It was then that they noticed the metal ‘halo’ above Garden had started to spin and descend. ‘But after just rising through the floor I can’t find it in me to panic over seeing this,’ she thought. They were severely jolted not long after it dropped out of sight and their view was blocked by thick clouds of dust.

“Are we moving?” Xu asked, hauling herself up from the floor. “Damn, I can’t see anything out there. Wait, yes. We’re moving!” She helped the headmaster up before looking outside again. “We’re—going to crash into the sea!”

“Oh no!” Zell squawked. “The ground floor will be flooded! We gotta do something!”

Cid looked up from where he had been examining the control panel and sighed. “I can’t seem to make it work. Quistis? Xu? Any ideas?”

Quistis stepped up and looked at the panel again, this time more closely. It still made no sense, but she could see where some of the controls were more worn than others. In particular there was a set of eight buttons in a circle. ‘Maybe directional control?’ She glanced up and saw the water straight ahead, and panicked. ‘Why isn’t there a big red button for stop!’ She started hitting things at random again, to no avail; they crashed into the ocean anyway.

Zell moaned and peered over the edge of the platform they were on. “Too high to jump!”

“This!” Xu said and stepped onto a portion of the floor which was different in colour and obviously separate. She looked around for some kind of control and stamped her foot in frustration after a moment, then wobbled precariously when the spot she was standing on lowered down the the office floor.

Quistis shared a look with Zell and moved forward, just as the lift came back up.

“Found a button down here!” Xu called. “Get on!”

They joined her a few moments later and raced off for the main elevator, taking it down one level. Quistis rushed out onto the walkway and leaned over the railing. To her surprise there was no water at all, except what was normally there. “Huh?”

Xu nodded, looking surprised and grateful, then shook her head. “I have no idea. I’m going back to stay with the headmaster. You two head down and see what’s going on. You still have a key to the elevator so you won’t have any problems getting back up. Hopefully all this commotion has settled everyone down.”

*

“This is it, the end of the road,” Selphie said dramatically, flinging her arm out to indicate the Great Salt Lake. “Yeah, there’s no way the car can get through any of that. Pfft.”

“All right, darlin’, we see it. Might as well break out some food before we move on. Not like we had much of a breakfast creeping around at oh dark hundred.”

“I’m kind of tempted to drive the car off the edge into the water back there. Not sure I want people knowing for sure that a car rented in Deling City got this far,” she replied.

“Nah,” Seifer said. “There’s a stand of trees in the distance to the south. We might be able to park it there and throw some camouflage up. If we can’t figure out the trick in getting to Esthar we might be grateful it’s still around.”

Selphie pouted, but nodded, and hopped back in. “I’ll be back in a few,” she promised, then pulled the door shut and drove off.

By the time she returned they had set up a decent enough meal, and they pressed onward afterward, down into the Great Salt Lake. Squall thought it was a creepy kind of place, and after fighting and winning a battle with an extremely peculiar undead creature, wondered how any normal person traveled the way safely. Eventually they came to a cliff overlooking yet more of the same territory and stopped, wondering whether they should try north or south.

Selphie turned things in their favor by attempting to sit on the edge and dangle her legs, only to smack straight into an invisible wall and fall on her ass. “Huh?” She got up stuck an arm out as though she was feeling her way blind in a lightless room and stepped forward again. “Yeah, that’s a wall,” she commented, knocking away at what should have been thin air. “This sort of thing doesn’t work so well against people who aren’t afraid of heights.”

“Excellent job, Selphie,” Squall said. “If there’s a disguised wall here, then there must be an entrance somewhere.”

“Selphie and I will check north,” Irvine volunteered.

“Then I guess we’re checking south,” Seifer said. They walked along the ‘edge’, tapping at the wall and hoping for a difference in sound which would indicate a hollow area, when Seifer tapped his shoulder. “Hey, look.”

Squall checked out where he was pointing and blinked. ‘No wonder I didn’t notice it. Seifer is much taller than I am.’ Above even Seifer’s head was a spot that kept flickering, almost as if— “A solid illusion?”

“There’s a ladder here, too. You just can’t see it.”

Squall stepped closer and ran his hand around where Seifer was and felt exactly what he meant. Part of the optical camouflage was hiding rungs, and they led straight up to the damaged area.

“I’ll be right back,” Seifer promised and quickly strode away north.

“I guess this explains the hints,” he muttered. And as tempting as it was to just climb on up he waited for the rest of the team. “Hm.” He crouched down and began feeling around to either side of the ladder, slowly rising, and paused when he felt an imperfection about four feet above the ground on the right side. A quick push and a mechanical whir sounded above his head. He looked up to see that a square opening had been revealed and the ladder rungs were now faintly visible.

The others arrived and clustered around, so Squall explained about the hidden control. “Nothing has come out, so I think it’s safe. Still, there might be a guard inside. Let’s stay alert.” He began the climb and peered through the opening before crawling in, and he was able to stand immediately. There was a walkway wide enough for two people side by side and off down to the sides were hundreds or thousands of what looked like upright black panels, some of which were glowing. He turned around and knelt so he could stick his head back outside. “It seems safe enough.”

After finding a control up top to close the opening—and presumably re-camouflage the exterior—they set off down the walkway. Farther in there were panels at their height and seeing them up close revealed that they were in fact transparent. A small console nearby provided the means to understand what they were seeing. The panels could display just about anything, including the sky.

“Which means that wall is probably made of these things and there’s a system somewhere to sync them up to complete the illusion,” Irvine ventured. “I imagine it takes into account weather, time of day, etc.”

“Very clever,” Seifer said. “Want to bet then that the high cliffs surrounding most of this continent is more of the same?”

“Oh, look.” Selphie pointed. “That almost looks like an airlock up ahead. This is all probably a combined egress and maintenance area. Maybe those panels down below are replacements in case of damage?”

Through the door was a large hexagonal platform made up of smaller hexagonal pieces, all transparent. There were thick rods with cabling attached running by two of the edges and affixed to the platform with hinged extensions. “No way out from here,” he muttered.

“Might as well give it a shot,” Irvine said. “Might be another hidden entrance.”

“I’m for it!”

Squall nodded and started to step forward, but paused. “Did anyone notice any cameras out there? I’m wondering if that platform is automatic. Or maybe, there’s someone monitoring this area and knows there are four of us, and operates whatever is in that room.”

“It does make sense for whoever this belongs to to keep an eye on this passage,” Seifer said. “I can’t exactly imagine an army trying to get through here, but it would be warning they’re going to have company.”

“I didn’t see any,” Irvine admitted. “Selphie?”

She shook her head.

“So you’re all good with trying it?” Squall asked. “Okay, let’s go.”