Nooj, Baralai, and Gippal find all is not as it seems
This has more than a touch of AU. It was done on purpose since the story was originally written for a contest requiring a fanfic based on a given screen shot.
Not the Way
This is not the way it was supposed to happen, not to him and, especially not to the other two. It was supposed to have been a triumphant appearance with parades, cheers, awards, speeches - all the attributes of success, of victory. How had it come to this? Could he have done anything to make it otherwise? Could any of them managed to change the way things had turned out? At what point had it become impossible to redirect events?
It was a time of peace, the last Sin had been destroyed, the militias disbanded and there was time to pursue interests which did not relate to war. The people did not go in fear of destruction or death a any moment; Spirans could expect to live a normal span of many years and did not need to rush their growing up and the begetting of the next generation before time ran out. They had that most unexpected and rare gift from a benevolent providence - leisure. The ones who had come to maturity during the years of Sin's ravaging could hardly believe that their juniors could have time - time to explore, to investigate, to lie lazily in the sun, to study, to play, to do nothing if that was their choice. It was an unimaginable freedom.
With the dissolution of the military, many of the generation who had just recently attained their majority found themselves at loose ends. In the temple city of Bevelle, the man named Baralai had reluctantly accepted the position of Praetor and was bending his efforts toward rehabilitating the reputation of that besmirched religious establishment which has reconstituted itself as New Yevon. He would have preferred to start over completely with a totally different name but the decision had been made before he assumed the office and he was wise enough to pick his fights carefully, so did not protest. At the moment he was chiefly concerned in placating the other two factors which were poised to challenge New Yevon and he could spare little time for refinements of terminology.
Baralai accepted the fact that New Yevon was essentially old wine in a new bottle. Trifling differences in ritual, the use of different colors to indicate rank among the acolytes and priests, new formulations of incense, none of these made any fundamental alteration in the way in which the basic principals of the religion were practiced. He also accepted the idea that his function was to put a pretty face on the rotting carcass of the faith. Because it had been presented to him as his duty, he acceded graciously and did the best he could.
Of all the hypocrisies of the position with which he was burdened, Baralai felt most keenly his custody of the monstrous Vegnagun. Neither machina nor man, the horror crouched in the depths of the Temple, hidden from both the eyes and the knowledge of the average citizen. In fact, very few knew of its existence since most of those involved in its creation had perished in the latest Sin episode. However, lack of knowledge did not equate lack of danger. Within the bowels of the giant weapon lay the capacity to destroy not only cities and forests but the entire world of Spira.
Baralai was not altogether certain that simply hiding the device was the wisest decision. He had an inkling that if the citizens of the world-state knew of the dangers it posed, they might be shrewd enough to destroy the menace. He knew he would not stand in the way of such a course. With a sigh, he turned to his other duties, relegating the matter of a doomsday weapon to the back of his mind. There would be no need for such a tool to despoil the world if he and the others could not impose a sense of order on the country before a series of civil wars broke out. They could and would blow up the place without Vegnagun. He wondered if it was the natural state of men to fight since even the Great Calm had become a misnomer.
On the series of plateaus nestled in the heart of the mountain chain which bordered the Mushroom Rock Road, at the nomadic headquarters of the Youth League, quite a different problem confronted quite a different leader. The Youth League, that motley mob of misfits, culled from the remnants of the Crusaders and the other militias which had been formed to protect outlying settlements from the ravages of Sin, owed its fierce allegiance to Nooj. A more unlikely leader could hardly be found. He was a private man, maimed during the war with the monster and dependent upon the machina which had replaced his left arm and leg. He did not want to lead but, since those around him followed, he had little choice. After the Calm came, he had devoted himself to the study of the history of Spira, scrutinizing the spheres collected for him by the ones who named him their captain.
There remained one peculiarity about him which even he did not fully understand. Ever since a foray into the fetid hole dubbed the Den of Woe - which was fortuitously located in the honey-combed area beneath League headquarters - he had been subject to periods of unrest during which he seemed to hear the whispers of an alien spirit, one urging him to actions he found repugnant. Nooj was possessed of a strong will and, with some effort, was able to ignore these blandishments although they did intrude upon his studies and disturb his dreams. As a logical man, he dismissed the concept of such distractions as nothing more than a momentary disruption caused by overwork, worry or a bit of bad fish.
This day he was not considering the contrary thoughts which sometimes vexed him; he was concentrated upon the sphere in the player on his desk. On the flickering, half-obscured screen was the image of an enormous construction, bristling with projecting objects around what seemed almost to be a face. The shadowy figure might well have been alive, some sort of lurking fiend, were it not for the greasy gleam of metal which was evident even in the pictures on the deteriorating sphere. Was this the legendary weapon whose threatened use had cast doubts upon the last pilgrimage? Was this the thing the elders had called Vegnagun? He leaned back in his chair and thought. The object appeared to be located in the depths of the Bevelle Underground if the surroundings were to be believed. It might be time to have a talk with Baralai. Nooj wondered if the soft handed Praetor still held a grudge over that minor incident at the travel agency.
Nooj rubbed his forehead with his good hand. Now, just why had he shot the others there at the agency? He was certain he had a good reason at the time; it simply was not retrievable at the moment. Oh well, it had been a while and doubtless Baralai had forgiven,if not forgotten. After all, wasn't religion in the business of forgiving? With a half-smile he called his secretary and dictated a letter to the Praetor announcing that he would call at the Temple in two days time.
On the journey to Bevelle, the Meyvn sifted the various options he intended to discuss with Baralai. He had no doubt what he wanted but also no idea what his counterpart would consent to. That would have to wait for the meeting itself which was in the offing. There before him glittered the towers of the Temple City, just at the end of the dramatic sweep of the bridge. And there, in his elaborate robes, waited the Praetor of this citadel of clericalism.
"Greetings, Nooj. You are welcome in our city and our temple. We had not thought to see so public a heretic as you within these walls." Baralai was stiff. His use of the imperial 'we' signaled a less than whole-hearted greeting.
"Thank you, Praetor. I bring the compliments of the Youth League with the hopes that we may find a way to cooperate in an important venture." Nooj bowed awkwardly over his cane.
Baralai returned the bow, somewhat more fluidly, "Then enter, Meyvn. We are at your disposal." He swung the full sleeve of his outermost robe like a semaphore signal.
When the two men were facing one another across the wide desk in the formal office of the Praetor of New Yevon, that dignitary looked coldly at his former friend and said, "Well? It shows a certain courage for you to show your face around here after what happened the last time we were together."
"Spare me the theatrics, Baralai. What is past, is past and there's no use disinterring it." Nooj tapped the machina foot stretched out in front of him with the metal cane, making an annoying click which set the other's teeth on edge. "I would not be here in this pest hole of incense and superstition if I didn't have something serious to discuss."
"Will you ... stop ... doing that?" the white-haired man hissed. "All right, I'm here, you're here - discuss."
"I have reason to believe that somewhere in the depths of this labyrinth you call a temple is lodged the Vegnagun - the weapon ..."
"I know what it is but why do you think it is here?" Baralai tried to hide his surprise that the secret was out.
"I saw it on a sphere two days ago. You know it must be destroyed before it falls into unfit hands." The Meyvn looked up over his spectacles at the man on the other side of the desk.
"By 'unfit' I assume you don't mean your hands. Who other than you would be arrogant enough to think they could control such a thing - if it does exist?" He added the last belatedly, still unready to admit the truth.
"Whatever the issues between us, Baralai, I think we should put them aside and work for the good of Spira. Do not bother to dissemble; I know Vegnagun is under this building and must be destroyed. I also think we should include Gippal in this enterprise because he is likely to have the expertise to do the actual dismantling. I freely admit I have neither the knowledge nor the physical capacity for such an effort. And I think neither do you." Nooj looked steadily at his erstwhile adversary. He was neither alarmed nor insulted by the animosity, only annoyed that the priest would waste his time in such a way.
Baralai leaned forward on his forearms and muttered under his breath, "Want all your victims together again? Why not get Paine, too. Then you can have another go at killing us without chasing us down individually."
Nooj, who had the ears of a lynx, responded calmly, "I wouldn't need intricate schemes to lure you into my clutches; I can kill you whenever I wish. We don't need Paine and I have no intention of hurting anybody. I am trying to save the bloody planet."
"OK, say we do have Vegnagun here under the temple. Why do you think it has become a danger all of a sudden after all these years?"
For the first time, uncertainty flicked in the taller man's eyes. "I am not sure; I feel there is something about to happen. Something bad for us all. I know - I know - I don't usually talk like this but the feeling is too strong for me to shake off. The weapon will have to be disarmed someday. Why not now? Will you send for Gippal? I doubt he would answer my call."
Slowly, Baralai nodded, "All right, I'll do it. It will take him a day at least to reach here. Will you stay the night?"
"Yes, if it will be no inconvenience. I have said what I came to say; will someone show me my room and the location of your secular library?" Nooj with effort propelled himself to his feet.
Two days later the three men stood in the nave of the temple, looking at the lift which was prepared to take them into the catacombs beneath the building. Gippal had been briefed on what the other two had discussed and had no objections to at least taking a look at the monstrous weapon with an eye toward its eventual disassembly. The machine was undoubtedly dangerous, but from his experience Nooj was nearly as bad. He still had aches from the hole in his gut caused by the wound of two years before.
"So, we're gonna go down there, just the three of us and look at that thing? OK. I'll be able to see what's needed to take it down." He turned to face Baralai,"You been there lately, 'Lai?"
"No. Not since the Calm. I've been too busy and Nooj has never been there." The Praetor made an inclusive gesture.
"So when do you want to do it - call the wrecking crew, I mean? Or do you just plan to shoot it, Nooj?" Gippal was not one to hold a grudge but he did think he deserved an apology from his former friend.
"You always did think yourself the comedian, Al Bhed. Just do your job; I'll do mine." Nooj dismissed him with a glance.
"I don't know what you consider 'your job', Taydrcaagan. That's what worries me." Gippal glared with his one eye.
Nooj turned away with a disgusted snort. "Don't fear, I'll stay in front of you the whole time."
"As if I'd let you behind me," Gippal muttered under his breath. "Well, let's go see what we have to deal with." He led the way to the lift, swinging open the door for the others.
Baralai pressed the appropriate buttons and the platform started to descend. When the lower level was reached, the three exited into the gloom of the underground and followed the Praetor along the circuitous path to the chamber where the monster was housed. Just outside the entrance, Baralai held up a hand.
"Stop for a minute while I explain something," he was even more serious than usual. "This isn't the usual machina you are used to. It's not like your prostheses, Nooj and not like your robot weapons, Gippal. This is Vegnagun - a unique synthesis of mind and machina. It has a rudimentary consciousness and an ability to sense the intentions of those who come close."
Nooj scoffed, "A mind-reading weapon?"
"To an extent, yes. Be careful what you're thinking when you get near it. I don't know what it might do, attack, run away - I just don't know. The few records which mention it are not that specific." The Praetor shivered inside his heavy robes. "We had better go one at a time in order not to alarm it."
"Then I will go first. That way you two won't have to worry about me trying to kill you." The Meyvn sneered.
"Unless you plan to take over Vegnagun and turn that on us to make sure this time," Gippal responded.
"Oh be quiet! Yes, Nooj, lead on. This was your idea so you should have the honor of going first." Baralai had always been the one to calm the waters. He also had a somewhat sardonic sense of humor.
Nooj took a firm grip on his cane, checked to make sure both his knife and his side arm were within reach and started into the room. He had progressed about half way down the long tongue of the passage when he was abruptly seized by a bolt of excruciating pain which knocked him to his knees, sending the cane skittering across the ceramic floor. Disoriented, he fought to retain consciousness as a glitter of pyreflies filled his vision and he heard an insinuating voice in his ear.
"Thank you, my good and obedient servant. You have brought me to the exact place I have longed for during this millennium of loss. Now I don't need you anymore..."
"Wait!" Nooj gasped. "Who are you and what have you done?"
"I am Shuyin. You wouldn't know me. But you will. What have I done? More than you dare imagine. I shot your friends with your gun and have driven you from your first passions to search and find this Vegnagun for me. You have been a fine tool I am sorry I must break you." The voice had grown stronger and was now echoing throughout the wide chamber. It was now loud enough for the two cringing in the doorway to hear.
Nooj was faltering, drooping towards the floor as the pyreflies continued to abandon his body, like air leaking from an inflated toy. He was leaning heavily on his left arm, groping for his knife with his right hand. The lock of hair which fell across the right side of his face, obscured his vision and he had not the strength to toss it back. From a great distance behind him, he could hear the shouts of his two companions.
"Noojster! What's happening? You all right?" Gippal would have rushed forward had not been for Baralai's restraining arm. "You all right?"
Baralai scrutinized the flickering lights surrounding the fallen man's form. "Nooj, are those pyreflies? What hit you?" He turned his frantic gaze on the Al Bhed, "He's dying; those are pyreflies!"
Gippal, pale beneath his tan, shook his head, "He won't die that easy. Just watch. He'll get up."
Suddenly , Nooj pitched forward, sprawling full length on the surface as a cloud of glittering motes lifted from his body and formed itself into a spectral shape. The ghostly form stood over the fallen man, fists on the insubstantial hips, leering triumphantly.
"Now, Deathseeker, I've done with you and you may have your wish. I will give you the honor of being the first man killed by the reactivated Vegnagun." The coruscating cloud shot toward the massive structure at the end of the corridor, in through the eye-like orifice and reformed as an entity with appendages at the keyboard of the controls. The fingers of the shape flexed and took on substance, running an arpeggio seemingly at random. Slowly the great barrel of the weapon began to move, inching its way until it was fixed on the motionless body of the Meyvn. The music changed, became more of a rumble; lights on Vegnagun began to flash in a rhythmic sequence.
"Quick!" Baralai commanded. "We've got to get him out of there. Even if he's dead."
Without a word, Gippal raced toward his former captain. With the assistance of the Praetor, he grabbed the man and began to drag him to the exit. "Come on, 'Lai. We have to hurry."
Buffeted by the now nearly deafening sound of the music played by the Shuyin creature, the two men pulled the third out of the chamber just as a flare of light signaled the firing of the cannon. Gippal flung himself across the body of the unconscious Nooj and Baralai spread his robes over both the others in a largely symbolic gesture of protection. The blazingly brilliant blast ricocheted off the metal wall creating echoes of itself which blinded the men for the moment. When the smoke and glare had cleared, Baralai pushed himself up and stared with incredulous eyes.
"It's gone. Vegnagun's gone! There's nothing there!" He leaned against the door frame like a victim of an earthquake.
"What?" Gippal sprang to his feet, "Where did it go?"
"I don't know. The old documents said it was mobile. I didn't know they meant it could go off by itself."
"It is not by itself," a weak voice from the floor behind them interrupted. "It is being driven by Shuyin. He wanted access and I, a fool, gave it to him."
"Nooj! You're alive!" Baralai knelt and offered a supporting shoulder.
"Apparently." Nooj availed himself of the help to rise to his knees. "Is my cane still in existence?"
"I'll go look." Gippal crept cautiously into the now vacant weapons' chamber. "Here it is; it just slid away when you fell."
"Thank you." The Meyvn stood shakily, his face white as Baralai's hair. He adjusted the spectacles which had become skewed on his nose, "So it is gone, is it? I wonder where. Gentlemen, we have made - no, I have made a grave error. That horror has been unleashed into the world now and the thing we most dreaded has come to pass. We must track it down and destroy it - there is no alternative." He staggered as he ended his speech.
"Come on, let's get out of here. Do you have any potions, 'Lai? I think you'd better give one to Nooj." Gippal turned his back on the vast space once occupied by Vegnagun and set a decisive pace back the way they had come.
The remainder of the story is quickly told. It was to become a part of the legendary history of Spira. How Vegnagun, under the control of the repulsive Shuyin, devastated the countryside, destroying single homes and great cities with equal ease. How the three men: Nooj, Baralai, and Gippal attempted to track and stop the ravaging duo. How the end of Vegnagun and the redemption of Shuyin was accomplished by an inadequately clad trio of post pubescent females known as the Gullwings.
And, finally, how once the monster weapon was demolished and the causes of the debacle sorted out, how those responsible for the entire episode were identified. Not that they had tried to dodge their guilt; they had admitted all along that it was their misjudgment which had led to this pass. That is Baralai and Gippal admitted to following the lead of Nooj who, as always, routinely embraced martyrdom. After the younger two had finished pointing fingers of accusation at the Meyvn and the latter had made a taciturn statement which, according to those who understood it, took ownership of the crime and declared an end to the matter, the people of Spira threw up their collective hands and decided to blame all three. After all, they had abandoned their hapless followers to chase a will-o-the-wisp and were owed no further allegiance.
Thus, a grand show trial had taken place with a 'guilty' verdict assured and now the three convicted felons stood in the box before the court of the people of Spira, awaiting the handing down of their sentences. They stood before the microphone into which they would speak their final words to their judges: Nooj ready to respond the instant he was given permission, Baralai wondering how he had fallen so far and Gippal considering making a run for it.
No, this was not how it was supposed to have ended. Not for the other two but, especially, not for him. Not for Nooj, the reluctant leader, the master strategist, the greatest genius of his generation. Not this way. He disliked anti-climaxes.