Dust caked his hair and face, and at times he forgot what color they each were. The old phantom pains were resurfacing, pinpricks and aches all down his side and arms and legs. His lips were parched, cracked and bleeding; a tongue as dry as the wasteland around him ran over them briefly, then subsided.


His step faltered, and he clenched a gloved fist. He wasn't going to listen this time. He wasn't. They couldn't control him any more, and he repeated it like a litany inside his head, trying to drown out the sound of the infernal directive. Not any more. Not any more. Not any more.

Taiga C1128513. Analysis: Unthreatened. Directive: None. Status: Incomplete. Directive: Recover helmet and shotel. Energy: Depleted. Directive: Feed. Location: Upper Kashkabald Wasteland. Directive: Return to outpost at Etam.

Not any more. Not any more.

Dust plumed up from where he set down his foot, heading west and south. A dry, hiss-click pattern froze him in his tracks, and he turned to see a Grand Mantis rising from its position in some halfway concealed lair. It advanced toward him, spikes and mandibles at the ready.

Taiga staggered sideways, regarding it with extreme distrust. So I'm going to die here? he wondered, feeling the stitch in his side increase as he tried to hurry away. The Mantis followed with a series of shambling sidesteps, faceted eyes reflecting a thousand distorted images of himself.

"I'm not fit for a meal," he rasped, waving an arm at the monster. It took a step forward, as if debating whether to charge. Taiga coughed raggedly, drawing a hand across his mouth. Blood spotted the back of his glove for a moment before running off the liquidproof surface. The rest of the uniform gleamed brightly in the heat.

Taiga C1128513. Analysis: Threatened. Directive: Attack.

Not any more.

Status: Incomplete. Directive: Disregard.

Not any more....

Synthesized hormones began to flow into his brain, released by some small valve in the collar of his uniform. Red began to cloud his gaze, and he tried to look away as his vision zoomed in to skip over each weak spot on the Mantis in detail. It fixed on one location, just behind the slashing mandibles, at the base of what could have been called the monster's neck--that is, if it had any part that could be identified as a neck. He sidestepped, waiting for the Mantis to charge.

It charged.

Sidestepping again, the hydraulics in his leg fired, delivering a crushing snapkick far beyond the powers of any normal human. His boot went clear through the exoskeleton and into the soft tissue beyond, and the Manits fell and twitched.

Another valve released in his collar, and the red haze vanished. Taiga stepped back, trying to put some distance between himself and the carcass. In his condition, he knew what directive would be next.

Taiga C1128513. Energy: Depleted. Directive: Feed.

Stepping forward, he ripped a section of exoskeleton away to expose the white muscle. One hand closed around one of the larger muscles that led to the legs, locking in place as he ripped the muscle out.

Not any more.

He tore into it, feeling the warm juice run down his face and paint moisture into the dust that already adorned it. With a shuddering cry, he threw the meat away, spitting out what he had already bitten. Standing, he shook his head and unclenched his hand.

Taiga C1128513. Energy: Depleted. Directive: Feed.

"Not any more," he protested, looking with disgust at the Mantis he had killed. Turning his back on it, he took the first few shaky steps away. "I'm a human. Human."

Taiga C1128513. Analysis: Unthreated. Directive: None. Status: Incomplete. Directive: Recover helmet and shotel. Energy: Depleted. Directive: Feed. Location: Upper Kashkabald Wasteland. Directive: Return to outpost at Etam.

Not any more.

Not any more.

Not any more.......

--- - - - ---
--- - - - ---

Squall woke up staring at the ceiling, and wondering if by staring long enough he could convince himself that the Sorceress War had never happened. The rising four-bell chime of the PA system interrupted his thoughts before they could develop beyond that point, and soon Cid's identifiable voice spilled from the speaker in the high corner of the room.

"Will Commander Squall Leonhart please report to the bridge immediately? Repeat, Squall, please come to the bridge immediately."

Squall rolled out of bed, smoothing the covers hastily. Changing into the first thing readily available--his formal SeeD uniform--he dragged a hand through his hair.

What's this about?

The hallways were deserted at this time in the morning, most of the students at class or eating breakfast. He didn't meet anyone on the trip to the elevator or up to the third floor; even the usual staff seemed to be absent from the bridge. Squall glanced around, noting the dearth of personnel quietly.

"Squall," Cid called, descending on the lift from the control platform. His hands were clasped behind his back, and he was smiling slightly. Glancing over Squall's attire, he chuckled and waved off a salute. "Quite the consummate SeeD, aren't you?"

Squall wasn't exactly sure how to answer that, so he merely said "Sir?"

"You've done an exemplary job," Cid said, and for a moment Squall was afraid that Cid was going to promote him to Headmaster or something. "Ultimecia is no longer a threat; nor, it seems, is Galbadia. And I have my wife back. It seems we owe a lot of thanks to you."

Squall frowned, and Cid raised a hand to prevent him from saying whatever it was he was about to say.

"I know this is rather unusual, seeing as the terms of the Timber Owls' contract are still in effect--"

"Forest Owls," Squall couldn't help but correct.

"Ah. Quite right. I know this is rather unusual, seeing as the terms of the Forest Owls' contract are still in effect, but I have another assignment for you."

Squall quickly masked a slight sense of disappointment. Already...?

"I need you to find Seifer," Cid asked, and Squall blinked. "He's still technically enrolled in Garden, despite all actions he's taken in the past few weeks. And because of those very actions, many of the world governments are searching for him. If he's caught, it's almost certain that he'll be imprisoned or worse. Which is why it is imperative that we find him before they do."

Squall digested that for a moment. Seifer... I wonder how he'll take this?

"Your orders are to find him and return him to Garden with all expediency," Cid said. "My sources place him in Balamb recently. Take whoever you think will be necessary."

To bring back Seifer? ...not Zell,was his first thought. Then something else nagged at the edge of his mind. "...sir? What about Fujin and Raijin?"

Cid seemed startled, as if he hadn't thought of that. "Oh? I assume they'll return if he does," he said. "Do you think that they're still together?"

Squall thought about that. They left before the Adel incident, he recalled, but I somehow doubt that they'd just abandon him. "It's possible, sir," he responded tersely.

"Hmm," Cid acknowledged. "Well, I'll leave it up to your good judgment."

I hate it when people do that. "Yes, sir."

With a final salute, he turned to leave and was almost surprised when Cid didn't call him back to add one more comment to the pile. Stepping into the elevator, he began to organize the lists of potential teammates before he had even hit the 1F button.