Since it's been so long, here's a quick recap: ShinRa, led by Scarlet, has now openly turned on the Turks. Knox and Rosalind were arrested after being framed for trying to assassinate Scarlet; Tseng and Reno were briefly held prisoner in Hojo's labs, but escaped thanks to Reeve's somewhat unwilling help. While in Shinra's custody Rosalind was brutally tortured and then sold to Don Corneo; however, it turns out that Corneo has heard rumours that Rufus is alive, and so he hands Rosalind over to Cissnei and Mink, hoping that this will gain him the goodwill of the future President. Knox remains missing. Since it's too dangerous to try to move Rufus anywhere, he, Reno, Rude and Tseng have hunkered down in the bunker inside the plate, while the rest of the Turks have set up shop at a bar in Wall Market owned by Two-Gun's cousin. Rosalind's sister, the military academy drop-out Elena, also works at this bar, and she isn't happy about the Turk invasion. Meanwhile, over in Corel, Aviva has teamed up with Veld and the ex-Avalanche operative, Shears. Though they failed to save Shalua Rui, they have managed to recover the last of the support materia needed to free Veld's daughter, Elfe, from the summons that is slowly draining her of life. An underground cave-in has left Aviva and Veld trapped inside the Corel mountains; Veld's leg was injured when he fell. Shears went to see if he could find some other way out of the caves, and Aviva and Veld now have been waiting for over a day for him to return...

.

CHAPTER 71: WHEN YOU FALL BETWEEN WAKING AND SLEEPING


"Oi oi!" Shears' voice echoed round the cavern. "Anybody there?"

Aviva lifted her head. She hadn't been asleep, exactly - more like drifting inside the big empty spaces of her mind. The weight that had been crushing her heart was gone. She had cried and cried until she had no tears left, and now she felt as if nothing could ever make her cry again. It wasn't a happy feeling, but it was peaceful.

The Chief's arm still lay around her shoulders. His eyes were closed. She tugged at his sleeve. "Commander, Shears is back."

"Hey! Pete! Little Turk! Can you hear me?"

"We can hear you!" she answered. "Shears, we're right here!"

Shears kept calling out, his voice growing louder and louder until at last he came into sight, squeezing himself through the narrow cleft in the rock to stand on the ledge ten feet below them. "You all right there?" he asked. Along with his rope he'd brought a bucket, some pitons, a hammer, and a heavily-laden plastic bag. From this bag he produced two apples, tossing them up to her waiting hands. "Sorry I took so long," he said. "Had to go back to the bike to get these - " He indicated the climbing equipment. "Came across a couple of Ravens sniffing around. I put one down, but I couldn't shake the other. I didn't want to lead him back to you. Took me hours to lose him. Then I had to grab some shut-eye. Taste good?" he asked Aviva, seeing her make short work of the apple.

She wiped her mouth. "Yes. Thank you."

"What time is it?" asked the Chief.

"Not far off noon. Eat. Get your strength back. Then we'll go."

It wasn't easy getting the Chief down to the lower ledge. His injured ankle made him clumsy. She and Shears had to push and pull him through the narrow cleft; he never made a sound, but Aviva could tell he was hurting badly. Shears saw it too - and unlike Aviva, he had no problem telling the Chief what to do. "You better lean on me now, Pete," he said. The Chief tried to object, saying he was fine, it was nothing, he could manage, but Shears wasn't in the mood to argue: he just draped the Chief's arm round his shoulders and gripped his wrist tightly to keep him there. Aviva thought that Shears was probably strong enough to throw the Chief over one shoulder and carry him - and he would too, if he had to, and the Chief knew it.

Still, even after Veld stopped fighting their efforts to help him, he couldn't move much faster than a hobble, so their progress was inevitably slow. They talked as they walked, discussing what to do next. Aviva wanted to see if they could find a way down to the river. She thought there was a chance Dr Rui might still be alive. Shears and the Chief refused to even consider it. No one, they said, could possibly have survived such a fall.

"Let's worry about the living," said Shears.

"Fuhito will come after the materia now," said the Chief. "We don't want him targeting Midgar. Aviva, I'll need you to bring me the two materia you've been keeping in the office."

"I don't think Tseng would let me do that, sir."

The Chief's face darkened. "Tell him that if he really wants to help me, he'll give me the goddamn materia."

"I think he'd want to bring them to you himself, sir."

"Tell him not to be such a bloody idiot. He can't afford to compromise the department any further. He needs to keep right out of it. Tell him I said so - No, tell him it's an order, Veev. Understood?"

They had come to the mouth of the cave. "Be on your guard," Shears reminded them. "Watch out for Ravens."

One by one they stepped into the dazzling sunlight, blinking and shading their eyes. Brilliant white clouds scudded across a sun-bleached sky. In the middle distance hung Gold Saucer, scintillating in the desert heat; a pink haze of dust encircled the far horizon. Aviva thought she had never seen such a beautiful day. She filled her lungs with the fresh air and closed her eyes, revelling in the warmth of the breeze as it moved across her face.

"Fuck," said Shears beside her.

Her eyes flew open.

"Hah - there they are!" a woman's voice rang out from the bottom of the hill. "Soldiers, move out. Surround them!"

The hillside sprang to life: Shinra infantrymen in camouflage fatigues darted from rock to rock with their rifles at the ready. "Where the fuck did they come from?" exclaimed Shears. He turned to Aviva, murder in his face. "You – "

She already had a knife in each hand. At this range, she trusted her knives to be more accurate than her gun. "Get back in the cave, Chief," she cried. "I'll cover you."

"Oh, goody," said the woman, her voice loud and clear in the dry mountain air. "They're going to resist. This will be fun; I'm so glad I came."

Before she'd finished speaking Aviva's eyes had picked her out. Scarlet was standing in the shadow of a dead tree, dressed in an army flak jacket, a pencil skirt, and red patent leather lace-up jackboot, a megaphone in her left hand. Standing by her side was someone Aviva could hardly have failed to recognize at any distance: Colonel Hugo Viljoen.

"Halt, men," Scarlet ordered. The soldiers instantly dropped behind whatever rock or log was nearest. Scarlet raised the megaphone to her lips.

"Pieter Veld - " the air around them seemed to quiver from the impact amplified voice - "I know you can hear me, you mad old dog, so pay attention. You have been condemned on charges of fraud, terrorism and treason. The sentence is death. Your companion has been found guilty of similar charges. Turk, do your duty and arrest those two men."

Shears' big hands made fists. "I should have known -"

"It wasn't me," Aviva protested. "I didn't bring them here. She hates us. He, Colonel Viljoen, he hates us even more."

"Then how'd they know we were here?"

"I don't know. "

"Shut up," said Veld. "Both of you." He had propped himself against a rock, half-sitting, half-leaning, bad leg stiff as a plank. His gun was in his hand.

"Not going to cooperate?" Scarlet boomed. "I would say I'm sorry, only my mother taught me it's wrong to tell lies. All right, men, give it some welly."

Aviva cast a knife at the nearest infantryman, and without waiting to see if it found its mark she threw herself on the Chief, rolling him safely to the ground as the first bullets came zinging overhead. Shears crouched behind another rock, reached inside his shirt, and pulled out a revolver.

From the start Aviva knew this was a fight they couldn't win. Three against a whole battalion? Not even Zack Fair had managed to beat those odds. Her party had the advantage of the high ground, it was true, and the rocks around them offered plenty of cover. But their ammunition was limited, and as Reno had once so memorably observed, knives made crappy ranged weapons. Plus, she had seen what a confuse grenade could do. If even one of Scarlet's soldiers got close enough to cast confuse on them, they were finished. Their only hope was a tactical retreat.

"Over there!" said Veld.

He shot and missed.

Her knife, which left her hand a split-second after he pulled the trigger, did not miss, but she felt no pleasure as the man went down, only anger. Why were they being forced to do this?

If they couldn't win, wouldn't be better to surrender now, so that no one else needed to die -

Quickly she pushed the subversive thought away.

"Don't kill the old Turk," Scarlet shouted through the megaphone. "I want him taken alive."

Glancing to her left, Aviva saw one of Shear's bullets strike an infantrymen in the chest. The force of the bullet's impact sent his body flying backwards, arms flung wide as if to welcome home a loved one, although in fact he was already dead.

"It's not worth it!" Aviva yelled.

"She can't hear you," said the Chief.

"But this is so stupid!"

She didn't want any more of these soldiers to die. She couldn't bear to take their lives. This wasn't why she had become a Turk. They were not her enemy; they were Shinra, and so was she. No, if anyone was going to die it should be Colonel Viljoen; he was the one who had brought them here. And what about Field Marshall Heidegger, squeezed into his big leather armchair behind his desk in Midgar, who had given Viljoen the order? Why didn't he put himself in the firing line? Why didn't Scarlet come get them herself if she wanted them so badly? But of course the Director remained safely out of range.

Aviva ducked down behind the rocky cover she was sharing with the Chief. "We can't hold them off forever," she said. "We have to go back inside the cave, sir."

Before he could answer, Scarlet's voice rang out once again. "Men, hold your fire. Well, Veld, was that little hors'd'oeuvre to your taste? Can I tempt you with a second helping?"

"I'm the one she wants," said the Chief. "You go. I'll draw their fire."

"With all due respect, sir, that is not going to happen."

From the bottom of the hill came a heavy, rhythmic clanking. Aviva knew that the sound: one of Scarlet's killer machines was maneuvering itself into position. The Chief recognised it too. His face grew even grimmer.

"I can't run," he said. "I can barely walk. If you stay with me we'll both be captured. I won't let that happen."

"What are you two talking about?" Shears demanded from behind his own rock half a dozen metres away.

"Here's a little something I whipped up earlier," Scarlet trumpeted through the megaphone. "It's merely a prototype, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."

Aviva risked peeking over the rock to make a quick visual assessment of this new danger. At first glance, it didn't look very threatening, just a cannon barrel suspended between a pair of spindly jointed legs. The whole thing had been painted a dark oil green, but someone with an artist's eye had added orange and yellow flames around the cannon's mouth, and dragon claws on its two big, clunky pyramid feet. It looked more like a child's cheap toy than an engine of war.

"Gunner, prime your weapon," Scarlet ordered.

All the sophisticated engineering for which this woman's department was famous was located at the rear end of the machine: Aviva could see a large metal bulb, when she guessed contained the firing mechanism, set below a prism, or lens, which she thought must be some kind of concentrator. A slot in the prism held a single materia.

At Scarlet's command, the soldier in charge of the weapon stepped smartly forward and turned a switch. A low mosquito hum filled the air, rapidly rising in intensity. Within seconds, Aviva's ears were hurting. Was that what this new weapon did? Some kind of sound attack?

"What do you think of my new baby, Veld? Isn't she beautiful?" Scarlet's ringing tones echoed off the hillside. "The field trials have been very encouraging, but I'm sure you'll agree with me that nothing beats testing in an authentic battle situation. Gunner, prime the weapon."

"Is she going to fire that thing?" said Shears. "There are injured men on this hill. Hey, crazy Shinra lady," he shouted, "You got wounded men here."

"They look pretty dead to me," Scarlet laughed.

Colonel Viljoen chose this moment to object: "Director Scarlet, please. My men are up there. If you could delay - "

"Silence! There's no time."

The materia was glowing now, hot with concentrated energy. The cannon began to throb. Aviva's head felt like it was about to explode.

"We need to get in the cave, sir," she cried. "Quickly -"

She made a lunge as she said this, grabbing the Chief by the elbow and using all her weight to haul him backwards. Shears followed right behind them. They flung themselves sideways, out of the direct line of the blast. "Cover your ears," warned the Chief.

A blinding light filled the cave, followed by a searing heat. The earth heaved. Rocks burst asunder with machinegun-fire cracks; stalagmites crashed to the ground and shattered; chips of stone shaken lose from the ceiling rained like hailstones on her back, neck, calves. A splinter of rock nicked her forehead. Blistering, sand-filled wind rushed passed her face, stinging her cheeks and the tips of her ears.

The light faded. The earth settled. The wind died.

"Are you all right?" said the Chief.

"Yes," said Aviva shakily, getting up onto her knees. "You?"

"Leg's completely buggered. Shears?"

Shears coughed and spat. "Ugh. Got sand in my teeth."

Both his face and the Chief's were freckled with tiny burns from the white-hot sand. Aviva supposed her own face must look the same. By some mercy, none had gone into her eyes, or theirs. And at least they were all still alive.

Outside, on the hill, things were ominously quiet.

"I don't believe it," said Shears. "She killed them. She fuckin' killed them. Her own men - "

"Coo-ee," called Scarlet. "Did the earth move for you too, Veld? Come out, my little chickens. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Don't you want dessert? Mother made it specially for you."

"Great god almighty," said Shears. "And I thought Fuhitowas a fuckin' psychopath."

"We can't let Elfe's materia fall into her hands," said the Chief. "Shears, you must go. Take Aviva with you – "

"No!" she cried.

"Yes. You can't be caught with me. They'd use your treason as an excuse to annihilate the entire department."

"But sir, Scarlet's already seen me - "

The Chief ignored her. To Shears he said, "I'll hold them off as long as I can. With luck you should be able to lose them in the caves. Try to find another way out. Go now, quickly."

Aviva grabbed his sleeve. "I'm not leaving you."

"You'll do as you're told. Shears, get her out of here."

Shears grabbed Aviva by the wrist, and held his other hand out for the Chief to clasp in farewell. "I don't like it, Pete, but I ain't arguing with you. And don't you worry. Elfe's going to be all right, I'll make sure of that. She'll know what you did for her."

"Don't drag this out," said the Chief. "Just go. And Veev, tell Tseng I want him to remember his duty. No heroics. No one dies for me. You make sure he knows I said that. Now bugger off, both of you. Move!" he roared.


Meanwhile, over in Midgar, Cissnei was jolted from a deep, sweet sleep by a fist whacking her hard across the face.

"No, Tseng - look out! Reno - " Her voice hoarse with terror, Rosalind thrashed wildly, trying to kick off the bedsheets that were tangled round her legs.

Cissnei's first instinct was to throw her arms around her friend, hold her tight, calm her down - but any attempt at constraint only made the panic worse. "Let me go, please, please," Rosalind begged, eyes fixed on the empty space between Cissnei and the wall, staring at something only she could see. "Please don't, please don't. Tseng! Reno!"

"What?" cried Cissnei.

"I can't. Don't make me. They're dead. They're dead!"

"What are you talking about? They're not - oh, my god," Cissnei gasped as understanding dawned. "Is that what those bastards told you? Did they tell you Reno and Tseng are dead?"

Torture took many forms; a Turk knew that better than anyone. Cissnei felt a old rage ignite deep inside her, an overwhelming desire to maim and kill that she had not experienced since childhood. Yet she managed to speak soothingly. "Roz, Roz darling, look at me. It's okay. They're not dead."

For all that her eyes were wide open, Rosalind was still asleep, the prisoner of her own nightmare. "Don't lie to me. Tseng! Reno! Oh - "

Cissnei slapped her. She didn't know what else to do. "Wake up!" she shouted. "Roz, it's me, Cissnei. You're having a dream. Wake up."

Rosalind blinked. Her struggling ceased. Like a blind person, she pointed her face in Cissnei's direction, but her eyes remained glassy, unfocused. "Ciss?"

"Fucking listen. Tseng and Reno are alive, okay? They're not dead. They were captured for a while but they escaped. They're not dead." She gave Rosalind's shoulders a good shake, and added, "You must believe me."

Rosalind was looking at her now, really seeing her. "You came back?" she said as if she didn't dare believe it; as if this was the dream.

Cissnei longed to hug her, but was afraid of setting her off again. "Did you hear what just I said? Tseng and Reno are alive."

Rosalind smiled. "I knew you wouldn't betray us."

The moment the words left her mouth she sank back onto the bed, closed her eyes, and was instantly asleep again - if she had ever really been awake.

Cissnei stared at her, shaken. Did that actually just happen? Or am I the one having the nightmare?

No, she was definitely awake. Her heart was racing as if she'd run a mile; there would be no more sleep for her. Outside the window the sun was shining. Morning already, she thought, before remembering that she wasn't in Gongaga any more; she was in the slums of Midgar, where the light wasn't really sunshine, and morning was the same colour as night. She had no idea what time it was, but she felt as if she'd been dead to the world for hours.

Downstairs people were moving about, talking. She recognised the voices of her fellow Turks. Plates were being scraped, chairs pushed back. The air was full of such good smells - fried onions, hot bread, bacon, coffee, beer - that her mouth began to water, and she realised she was very, very hungry.

Footsteps were coming up the stairs. The door had been left slightly ajar, but all the same her visitor knocked before pushing it open just enough to show his face. "Skeeter," she said.

"We heard shouts. Is everything all right? Is Roz okay?"

Cissnei looked down at her friend, curled on her side as peaceful as a sleeping child, both hands tucked under her cheek. "She had a bad dream. It's over now."

He came in, shut the door, walked over to the bed, and stood for a while just looking at Rosalind, before reaching out with gentle fingers to stroke her ruined hair. His eyes were suspiciously bright. "If I ever get my hands on the ones who did this," he said thickly, "I swear on my mother's grave, they're going to wish they'd never been born."

"Not if I get my hands on them first, buddy," said Cissnei. "I don't plan on leaving anything for you. Where'd Mink go?"

"Out with the others, working. Now that we've got Roz back, we can focus all out efforts on finding Knox."

"Do you honestly think he's still alive?"

"Of course!" Skeeter exclaimed, looking shocked that she could even suggest such a thing. "Why wouldn't he be? Roz is."

Cissnei felt a prickle of irritation. Didn't this kid know anything? Always assume the worse: that was the first rule of survival. Never hope. Or if you couldn't help yourself, then fucking well keep quiet about it, and above all don't go rubbing it in people's faces.

Did Skeeter think she wanted to believe that Knox was dead? Fuck you, she almost snapped, he was my friend too. But don't you see? The only reason Heidegger didn't kill Roz is so he could humiliate us by selling her off to a whorehouse. What could he do with a guy like Knox? What reason could he possibly have to keep Knox alive?

She didn't really understand what made her bite her tongue. Maybe she was just being superstitious: as long as one person truly believed that Knox was still alive, he wouldn't die. Or maybe it was because she liked Skeeter and didn't want to be the bitch who crushed his optimism. He wasn't a bad kid. Or at least... Well, probably it would be truer to say that he must have been a good kid once, and still carried the golden glow of that happy childhood around him like sunshine wherever he went. Cissnei didn't really understand how the product of a happy childhood could possibly be made over into a successful Turk, but apparently Skeeter was the living proof that it could be done. Not that he looked the part right now, standing there dressed in his jeans and t-shirt, with that scarf wrapped round his neck like some kind of foppy art student. You had to look into his eyes. Then you could see it.

"Hey," he exclaimed, slapping his forehead. "I completely forgot! It's mid-afternoon already; you must be starving. Why don't I take over here, and you can go get yourself something to eat? I'd love to sit with Roz for a while. It makes me happy just to look at her. I can still hardly believe she's back with us, safe and sound."

Cissnei knew that if she was to find a place for herself among Tseng's Turks (Tseng's Turks! How strange that sounded), she needed to honour the bonds they had forged between themselves in her absence. Rosalind and this curly-haired, baby-faced boy had been through things together and shared experiences in which she had no part and never would. If she couldn't accept that, then she no longer belonged here.

So she stifled the little niggle of jealousy (again! She was getting good at this!) yielded her friend to her colleague's care, and went downstairs, first to make herself a toasted cheese sandwich and then to call Tseng, ostensibly to see if he had any new orders for her but really just to hear his voice. And update him on Rosalind's condition; he would definitely want to know about that. And maybe, if she could summon the nerve, if she could make the inquiry sound casual enough, she'd ask after Reno, too.

.

Shears hurried from cavern to cavern, dragging Aviva along by the wrist. She tried to dig her heels in, tried to twist herself free, but his grip was like a vise.

"You can let go of me now," she cried at last.

"No chance. You heard what Pete said."

"Yes I did," she snapped back. Getting angry with him seemed preferable to breaking down in tears. "Don't worry. I won't go running back. I know how to take an order."

Shears hesitated. "All right," he said, and released her. Aviva rubbed her wrist vigorously. "Here." He handed her the torch. "You go first. I'll bring up the rear."

Soon they came to a place where the tunnel split. "Which way now?" she asked him.

"Your guess is as good as mine, little Turk. You pick, I'll follow. "

She picked left.

Some hours later, after many wrong turns and dead ends, they stumbled out onto the mountainside and paused to rest for a few moments, filling their lungs with deep gulps of fresh air. The sun had begun to set: its slanting rays turned the peaks of the mountains to gold, and plunged the valleys deep into purple shadow. Less than an hour of daylight remained. Aviva scanned the horizon, searching for a landmark she recognised.

"Look," she said, pointing north at a tiny, cloud-like plume of steam rising from what must be the reactor.

Shears had already set off down an overgrown path. "This way," he called back over his shoulder.

Two hours of vigorous hiking followed. The sun set; darkness fell, and when they finally came to the place where he had hidden the bike, it was by the colourless light of the full moon that they were able to see the Raven before it saw them.

It sat straddling the bike, gloved hands on the handlebars, turning the wheel from side to side as if it were a child playing with a toy, or a lost soul trying to remember what it had once been. Its ears were inhumanly sharp. When Aviva's foot crushed a dry leaf, it immediately stopped what it was doing and turned towards them, head swiveling on its neck like an owl.

The first shot from Shear's mako gun burned a hole clean through the Raven's spine. It crumpled to the ground, temporarily paralysed. His second shot, delivered while he was standing over its fallen body, vaporised everything from the shoulders up.

"Will that be enough?" she asked.

"Should be. I ain't sticking around to find out. Let's hope it didn't empty the tank."

He checked the gauge. The fuel hadn't been touched. "Can't they think?" asked Aviva.

"They do what they're told to do. That's all."

"What are they? How do they get like this? Why does he call them Ravens? What does he do to them?"

"Long story. We gotta make tracks now. You're riding pillion. This is gonna be a rough ride, so wrap your arms round my waist and hold on tight."

All through the night they rode across the mountains, making a wide detour west of the reactor, coming down onto the coastal plain just before dawn. The need to call the Boss had become a hunger in Aviva's belly; it was all she could think of. She had assumed they would make straight for Costa del Sol, so when Shears turned off the main road onto a dirt track heading north, she protested that he was going the wrong way. He turned his head to shout over his shoulder, "We ain't takin' the Shinra ferry. They got soldiers everywhere looking for us. If we're gonna get to Midgar we gotta sneak in. Trust me."

The bike's fuel ran out within sight of the sea. "Guess I'll have to push it from here," he said. "You okay to walk? It's not far."

When they came to the crest of a hill, Shears stopped, and pointed down at a little fishing village snuggled into a cove about a mile away. "That's where we're going," he told her. "Their head man owes me a favour. A couple of years ago me and Pete was out west in that chocobo country over beyond Rocket Town - we had some money, right, so we'd hired a car, and on the way we met this kid hitch-hiking, and we could see right off he weren't any more'n thirteen. We asked him where he was heading and he said he didn't care, he'd go as far as we would take him. So we let him ride with us, just chit-chatting, you know, and Pete's doing that thing he does, prying, trying to find out what this kid's story is, and after a while it all comes out: he's run away from home to join Avalanche. Long story short, we let him knock around with us for while till he'd got it out of his system, and then we brung him home, and his old man was so damn grateful he kissed me. He'd thought his son was dead for sure. We'll be safe there, little Turk, don't you worry. Those people'd do anything for Pete and me."

He spoke truth. The whole village turned out to greet them. Food and drink were laid before them; hot baths and beds were offered; no favour Shears could ask would be too great. A change of clothing to replace Aviva's ruined suit? They would bring her a range to choose from. A boat and a pilot to sail them east across the Inland Sea to Midgar? No problem: the headman would consider it an honour if they would let him be their guide. A phone to call the office? Alas, they regretted it was not possible; their unworthy village was too remote for network coverage.

"I'm gonna get some shut-eye now," Shears told her, pointing in the direction of the hammocks that had been provided for their use. "You should do the same. We got a long night ahead of us."

Aviva was so tired she was almost beyond sleep, sinking instead into that strange state of semi-conscious dreaming, halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Images over which she had no control chased one another through her mind: the Chief handcuffed, bruised and battered, locked in the cargo bay of the Gelnika; Tseng's angry face; Reno's shock and disbelief: You abandoned him? Before she could answer, Reno turned into Shalua Rui, writhing like a fish on the tooth of the landworm, and that Shalua became Shalua dressed in one of Hojo's labcoats, smiling as she watched something that had once been a man bob up and down in a tank filled with mako - and then the glass shattered and a Raven burst forth, and Shears blew its head off and it became a little girl with brown eyes like the Chief's eyes, and when Aviva looked into those eyes she saw a monster staring back at her, silently mouthing the words Help me. She couldn't tell if she was dreaming or remembering.

Between one heartbeat and another she felt herself slip and fall, like Shalua had fallen. Had been allowed to fall. And as she fell, the unformed thought that had been hovering in the back of her mind for the last two days finally took shape:

He knew I had the materia. Did he let go of her to catch me?

The thud of her heart contracting sounded like a body hitting the ground; she jerked awake, staring wide-eyed into Shear's face. His hand was on her shoulder. "Sorry," he said, "Didn't mean to startle you. Tide's turning, little Turk. Time to go."

They arrived at the dock to find the headman and his son tying the last knot in the ropes they'd used to lash the bike amidships. "Come help me hoist the sail," the headman beckoned. With the bike on board there was no room for extra bodies. Aviva and Shears would be both passengers and crew.

"I have to let Tseng know," she told him as they cast off. "It can't wait till we get to Midgar. I have to find a phone."

Shears nodded agreement. "We'll put in somewhere on the Costa. You can call him from one of the hotels."

It was a beautiful, chilly night; Aviva soon had reason to be thankful for the thick cable-knit jumper her hosts had insisted she take. The sky was clear, the moon bright, the wind strong from the southwest: perfect sailing weather. As they rounded the chalk cliffs at the northern cape of the Sol peninsula the holiday coastline came into sight, its long sandy beaches pale in the moonlight, its restaurants, bars and hotels glittering like a shoal of stars. The headman steered their boat into a little marina, and Aviva jumped out onto the dock. "If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, leave without me," she said. Then, clutching a handful of gil coins, she went running up the hill to the inn.


It had taken Tseng, Rude and Reno the best part of two days to build an escape route from the bunker. They began by dismantling the drywall in the second bedroom and unscrewing the metal plates from the steel girders. Rufus's cat was the silent witness to their efforts. It sat on one of the top bunks, watching them through slitted eyes while they struggled and swore and sweated, and occasionally twitching an ear just to prove that it hadn't been turned to stone.

"Thinks it's our fucking supervisor now," Reno grunted.

Behind the metal plates they found a concrete wall, which Rude guessed to be about a foot thick. "Now what?" said Reno.

All three of them thought for a bit.

"Ice," said Tseng at last.

His plan was to use the materia to erode the wall. Blasting through it with Fire or Earth might have been quicker, but Ice had the advantage of being almost completely silent, and the force was easier to contain. The downside was that it took hours. With each re-casting, the Ice froze anew and expanded a little further, slowly fissuring the concrete with a spider's-web of minute cracks.

While this demolition work was going on, Rufus mostly remained at his computer. Only once did he come to lean against the door-jamb, arms folded, watching them, but Tseng never acknowledged his presence and Rufus never uttered a word, and after a couple of minutes he went back to his keyboard. Reno could have sworn he heard Tseng let out a sigh of relief, like he'd been holding his breath the whole time Rufus was standing there.

They consumed a case and a half of ether trying to break through that concrete wall. When it finally started to crumble, they were mentally drained and physically exhausted. Still their work wasn't finished. First they had to make the hole big enough for the biggest of them - Rude - to pass through, and then they had to conceal the hole behind an arrangement of whatever crates, sacks and barrels they could scavenge from the corridors nearby. When this was done, they staggered back to the sitting area and collapsed onto the sofas.

"I am completely and utterly shagged out," said Reno. "Beer?"

"Unh," Rude grunted, shutting his eyes.

Tseng had stretched out full length on the kitten sofa, one arm flung over his eyes as if the light hurt them. His sweat pants were filthy, his singlet drenched with sweat; his hair, which had worked itself lose from its tie, was grey with powdered concrete. Heh, thought Reno. He wished he had a camera. Then again, he wasn't looking so good either: he hadn't shaved for the last two days, his stubbly cheeks were itching like crazy, his hair felt all crusty, and he could feel the streaks of mingled sweat and dust hardening like clay on his own pale skin.

In the background Rufus's clean fingers went tap-tap-clickety-tap.

Reno lifted an arm and sniffed his armpit. "Oh, man. I reek. Fight you for the shower, boss."

Tseng's only answer was a vague wave of the hand. You go first.

Right. You had to pass by the computers to get to the bathroom, and so Tseng avoided using it whenever Rufus was working in the office. Reno had to hand it to them: in such a confined space, it was pretty impressive how they managed never to come face to face with each other. He knew how they were doing it, too. Each of them was constantly thinking about the other. At any given moment, each one knew exactly where the other one was; there wasn't a single square inch of the bunker that wasn't filled with their mutual awareness. Sometimes Reno felt like he was being squeezed out of air to breathe.

"So," he said to Rude, "Beer?"

Rude's only answer was a snuffling snore. The big Turk had fallen asleep with his mouth open, sunglasses slightly askew.

"O-kay," said Reno. "I'll get the beer then, shall I?"

Tseng didn't react, so after a moment Reno heaved himself up and slouched into the kitchen. The clock on the cooker said 2.15. Did that mean a.m., or p.m? Funny how quickly you lost track of night and day. Opening the fridge, he helped himself to a beer from Rude's ration. No more sitting ducks in loser sauce for you, fat Field Marshall, he thought triumphantly as he popped the cap with his teeth. Turks always find a way. Aloud he said, "Cheers, partner," and raised the bottle in a brief salute before tipping the ice-cold liquid down his parched and dusty throat.

Bliss.

Reno was allowed precisely ten seconds in which to savour it. Then he heard Rufus say, "Tseng - "

It wasn't just the fact that Rufus was addressing Tseng directly, though that alone would have been enough to set off an alarm in Reno's hypervigilant mind. It was the way in which he said it: not loud, and perfectly calm, too calm - urgent, commanding, completely different from his customary princely drawl. Come here and listen to me right now was the message his tone conveyed, and it never occurred to Reno to do anything other than obey.

Putting down his beer, he returned to the other room. Tseng had sat up and was trying to brush the dust-matted hair out of his eyes, while Rude yawned and scratched his scalp. Rufus stood beside the folding screen that separated the office area (his territory) from the three sofas (Tseng's territory), waiting patiently for the two of them to finish waking up. When Reno came in, Rufus automatically glanced his way. Their eyes met.

"What?" said Reno.

Rufus didn't answer, and turned back to look at Tseng, apparently checking to see if he was sufficiently awake now.

Tseng rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm listening."

Still Rufus hesitated. Reno had never seen the V.P. look so unsure of himself before. It was almost as if he wished he hadn't spoken; as if that quiet, urgent "Tseng" had burst from him against his will, and now he didn't know how to stop the chain of events that was about to unfold.

"Go on," said Tseng. He sounded short-tempered, but it was probably just the tiredness talking. From where Reno was standing, the V.P. looked as if he was about to be sick. Tseng couldn't see this, because he was sitting with his back to Rufus.

Rufus said, "Something's happened. Something that changes everything."

"Your Old Man's dead," said Reno. He thought that was what it must be.

Rufus shook his head. "No. It's Veld. He's been captured. I read it just now, in the Board memorandum. Scarlet took an army to Corel and brought him back here. My father's scheduled his execution for the day after tomorrow."

Rude sat speechless. Tseng, grey-faced, grey-haired, hollow-eyed, seemed to have aged twenty years in an instant.

"It gets worse," said Rufus. "Apparently Aviva was seen with him, and Shears too, although they managed to avoid capture. Tseng, if you've been in contact with him all this time and never told me..."

He didn't bother to finish the sentence.

And then, before anyone else could speak, Rude's phone rang.


Dear readers and followers, I'm so sorry for the long delay. I'll try not to let it happen again.

In case anyone finds Rosalind's nightmare a bit unbelievable, I just wanted to say that my younger son acts in exactly the same way when he experiences his (thankfully rare) night terrors. Of course, he hasn't gone through anything like Roz's trauma, so his nocturnal rantings, though bizarre, are usually quite funny - and often about football. "Ref! Ref! Noooo! Are you blind?" In this state you can have quite rational conversations with him, but when he wakes up he can't remember anything he said.

Oh, and it's Aviva calling Rude's phone, in case you haven't guessed. First she tried calling Tseng, but got one of the army operators; then she tried Reno's number and got the same thing. As you can imagine, this threw her into a bit of a panic. Plus, she's using a hotel pay phone and she's almost out of coins. I tried to work all of this into the chapter, but no matter what I did it remained stubbornly long-winded, repetitive, and predictable, so it had to go.

I'll leave it to you to imagine how happy she is when she finally hears Reno's voice.