Nooj explains about Vegnagun and Shuyin. Isaaru and his Al Bhed allies re-board Gippal's airship to pursue Shuyin's latest victim. Rikku calls home to tell her family what's happened.
The three men squinted as they emerged from the airship's corridors into bright sunshine pouring through the clear walls of the flight deck. The ocean raced by beneath them, a great hammered mirror of pink and gold. Shreds of yellow cloud wove a luminous ceiling just overhead. On the horizon, a star that was no star flared in the late afternoon sun as Gippal made a slight course adjustment. Sea to sky was painted in warm pastels bold enough for Cid's gaudy yacht.
Auron smiled sourly. After so much time spent chasing Sin, he was used to the weather registering every grim twist of fortune. This tropical beauty felt treacherous. Just what are you up to, Lulu? But she was far away, tending other gardens now.
Elma and Isaaru parted at the sound of the doors opening behind them, the Crusader flinching at the hiss of pneumatics, the summoner stepping smoothly to one side. Isaaru turned to inspect Maroda and Auron, apparently checking them for damage.
"What's our status?" Auron said.
"Hurry-hurry-he's-getting-away-and-this-bucket-can't-go-any-faster-rific," Rikku said, fidgeting on her feet next to Shinra, who was bent over the engineer's console.
A blue glowing sphere floated at his elbow, tracking faint outlines of islands and two yellow dots creeping across its surface. Shinra, however, was intent on a small flat screen under his nose. "Cid's ship is eighty miles ahead. Bearing north-northwest. He's outrunning us, but we should be able to monitor his progress with the scanner."
"Take over for me, Rikku," Gippal said, hopping down from the pilot's seat and jogging back to relieve Auron of his burden. "Thanks, old man. I was beginning to wonder if you'd had a heart attack back there."
The Al Bhed slipped under Nooj's arm, winking at Maroda and jerking his chin towards the nose of the cockpit. Together they guided Nooj to the navigator's seat and strapped him in. A tense semaphore unfolded between old friends: Gippal's gestures zealously casual, Nooj politely impassive, distancing himself from the men manipulating his limbs.
"Nice spread," he said finally, eying the four stations that seemed to soar through the sky in perfect formation.
"Didn't quite turn out the way we'd planned, did it?" Gippal said. He jabbed a thumb towards the seat where Rikku was perched. "That's yours once Shinra's fixed you up, Nooj."
"You'd make me the pilot?" Nooj's mouth tightened. "What about Paine?"
"Well, I reckon she'll want the gunner's station." Gippal smiled. "She's alive, Nooj. I haven't seen her in years, but Baralai says she's okay. So... you gonna tell us what this is all about? And give me some reason to stop watchin' my back every time I check up on you?"
"Ah." The broad-chested man relaxed. "For a moment there, I thought you were being too trusting. But first, let me apologize. To you and to Shinra. And to you, Rikku. I fear your father's in for a rough ride."
"But what's happened to him?" she said. "I didn't think psycho-Noojie-cooties were catching!"
"Not that, at least." He beckoned Isaaru and his guardians closer. "It's something older. Shuyin, a man from Zanarkand killed in the machina wars a thousand years ago, whose soul still cries out for vengeance."
"A ghost?" Rikku said.
"Unsent," Auron said.
"So what's Vegnagun?" Maroda said. "Another unsent?"
"Let me start at the beginning," Nooj said. His expression hardened, eyes locking with Isaaru's. "Thirteen years ago, just before the last Calm, Yevon hatched an ingenious way to rid itself of undesirables: Operation Mi'ihen."
"For which we are still atoning," Isaaru said, resting a hand on Elma's shoulder. The woman's hands had balled into fists.
Nooj's eyes flicked to the Crusader, measuring. "You know of the Crimson Squad, then."
"We've... heard the name," Isaaru said, compassion coloring his quiet voice with sudden warmth. "I do not know what happened, Nooj, but it is a shadow which haunts Maester Baralai. I gather that his whole squadron was massacred, and he holds Yevon responsible. You were there?"
Nooj nodded. "Baralai, Gippal and I were on the same team. The Crimson Squad was an elite corps being trained to assume command of Crusader lodges and chapters."
"What?" Elma bristled. "We had fine officers. It was the maesters who were incompetent!"
"Incompetent, or corrupt?" Nooj said. "Yevon wanted to break you, then control you. But I suspect our mission's true purpose was simply to eliminate those who did not fit Yevon's mold." Again he stared at Isaaru, a note of challenge in his voice. "Like the pilgrimage."
"Jackasses," Gippal said under his breath.
Rikku jiggled impatiently. "Um, I get that you guys hate Yevon and all, but what's this got to do with Pops?"
"I'm getting there," Nooj said. "On our last training mission, we were assigned to explore the catacombs under Mushroom Rock Ridge. That's where the entire Crimson Squad was cut down... by one another."
"What?" Isaaru paled. "In Yevon's name--"
"In Yevon's name," Nooj shot back, "we were pitted against an unsent with the power to enter our minds and drive us mad. And Yevon furnished us with machina weapons to make us more lethal than fiends."
Elma groaned, turned away to press her palms against curving glass. "Maybe the Cult of Sin's right. At least they know their god's out to get them."
Auron gave her a wry look.
"All those pyreflies...that was Shuyin?" Gippal hooked his hands in his suspenders, chewing on Nooj's words. "I remember, back in that cave, it felt like somebody else's feelings came crashing over me. I always figured that's what made you short out, Nooj, but I could never work out what it was."
"Shuyin," Nooj said. "An unsent so obsessed with revenge that it's kept him from becoming a fiend for a thousand years. Or rather, he's become something worse."
"Damn," Maroda said. "How did you three survive?"
"Four." Nooj's eyes went distant. "We almost didn't. Paine -- the sphere recorder assigned to monitor our team -- stopped us from shooting each other. But it was too late. Shuyin had already claimed me, although I didn't realize it at the time. By the time I became aware of him, I was too weak-willed to fight him off."
"C'mon, Nooj," Gippal said. "You think Elder Cid's a wimp? Seems to me this Shuyin guy targets major buttheads."
"Not quite," Nooj said. "Shuyin feeds on anger and despair."
Rikku drummed her fingertips on the steering yoke. "Pops was pretty pissed, with Home getting blown up and all," she said glumly. "D'you think Shuyin would let him go if we could, y'know, cheer him up?"
Nooj laughed. "It won't be that easy. I'm afraid the best way may be to fight your father, disable him, and present Shuyin with another host. Someone expendable--"
"I'm not liking where this is going, Nooj," Gippal said.
Auron watched the exchange impassively. "What about Vegnagun?"
"A doomsday weapon built by Bevelle, which Sin -- contrary to the fairy tales we're fed in temple -- was summoned to counter. When Bevelle demanded unconditional surrender, threatening to use its ultimate weapon, Zanarkard's ruler responded by unleashing Sin as a final, suicidal act of defiance. That ruler was named... Yevon."
"Yu Yevon," Isaaru corrected gently.
Elma sighed. "Not this again."
"You knew?" Nooj's eyes narrowed. "That's right. You're a maester."
"I did not know," Isaaru said, "although I had begun to piece together clues from the archives. Sir Auron confirmed my suspicions about Sin--"
"--but this is the first we've heard of Vegnagun."
"For thirteen years I've searched for it," Nooj said. "There's no sign of it under Mushroom Rock, in the hidden base where it was constructed. But Shuyin is convinced it still exists. He means to use Vegnagun to avenge himself and Lenne, the woman he loved, shot before his eyes by Bevelle's forces."
"It's in Bevelle," Shinra said, looking up from the files he'd been annotating. "Beneath the Tower of Light."
"Under the temple?" Maroda said, staring. "No way."
Nooj chuckled. "I see I wasn't the only one with secrets. Well done, Shinra."
"Don't look at me." Shinra gestured towards the screen on his console. "Baralai sent Cid all his notes on Vegnagun about two weeks ago. He asked us to help him find a way to disable it. He also asked us not to tell you."
"So that's what Baralai's been hiding," Isaaru said, exchanging glances with his brother. "A pity he could not trust us in this matter."
"And now Shuyin knows what Cid knows," Nooj said. He ponted at the sphere floating above Shinra's console. "He's heading to Bevelle -- count on it. If we don't stop him before he reaches Vegnagun, Sin won't find anything left to destroy."
"Maybe we don't want to disable it, though," Maroda said slowly. "Maybe we could use it to fight Sin... without anyone getting killed."
"Except Lulu," Rikku said, giving Auron a pleading look.
"Are you /crazy/?" Elma said. "Even if the teachings are a great steaming pile of chocobo chips, we still shouldn't be messing with powerful machina we don't understand! Baralai probably kept this to himself to make sure nobody was stupid enough to try!"
"First things first," Rikku said doggedly. "If an Al Bhed ship shows up in Bevelle, they're gonna super-freak. And Shuyin might start shootin' off missiles just for kicks. If we can't head him off, we'll have an Al Bhed-Yevon war on our hands. Shinra, can you contact Maester Baralai?"
"Negative. He and Cid always used a courier."
"That'd be me," Gippal said. "And we're already pushing this rig as fast as it'll go. Cid's a tough guy, Rikku. Hopefully Bevelle's defenses can keep him occupied until we catch up with him."
"I will vouch for you to the other maesters," Isaaru said. "My colleagues have no wish for conflict between our peoples. Shelinda does not trust the Al Bhed, but Baralai does."
"Or did," Nooj said.
"Yeah." Rikku sighed. "Well, anyway, I can knock Pops out with a nightcap when we find him. If it worked on Sir Blockhead, it'll work on anybody."
"That still leaves Shuyin," Nooj said.
"If he's an unsent," Auron said gruffly, "he can be sent."
Isaaru turned to him, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Are you sure about that, my friend?"
"You're not much of a summoner," Auron said, earning a glower from Maroda. "But you've performed more sendings than anyone in Spira. That's your talent."
"He has a point, actually," Maroda said, suddenly subdued.
Isaaru gave his brother a warning glance. "Indeed."
"Sounds like a plan." Nooj said. He shook his head. "Assuming any of us survives this, we can argue over what to do with Vegnagun afterwards. If Cid's attack doesn't start a war, that just may."
With roughly ten hours before they reached Bevelle, there was nothing to do but secure a meal -- requiring a certain amount of haggling, not to mention reimbursement for the first aid supplies Elma had "commandeered" -- and snatch a few hours of sleep. The Crusaders had retired to the ship's hold to spar: Elma said she needed to punch something the captain wouldn't charge for breaking, and Maroda had rashly volunteered. Gippal, meanwhile, had taken Nooj and Shinra down to his on-board machine shop to jury-rig something for Nooj's artificial leg. That left Isaaru to meditate in the relative peace of the flight deck.
Rikku, back at the ops station now that Gippal had activated the autopilot, waved Auron over. "Hey, Auron. Keep an eye on the scanner, will ya? Make sure Pops doesn't stop off in Luca for take-out. I gotta make a call."
Auron moved to stand at her elbow, watching the blue sphere and two lights inching over its surface. They were flying over open ocean now, with Bikanel creeping past many miles off the port side.
Rikku fussed over the controls for several minutes, muttering about Wakka leaving the sphere off the charger again. Finally, the forward windows shimmered and turned semi-opaque, projecting an image of Rikku's living room. The view shook violently, covered for a moment by a large hand setting the sphere on its stand. Then the view stabilized to reveal Wakka slouched on the sofa, three of the children clambering over him, and a pair of bare feet just visible in the deep-set bay window behind them.
"Hey, Rikku! We were gettin' worried. What's up?"
"We are," Rikku said ritually, eliciting squeaks of laughter from the children. "Bad news, Wakka. You know how Nooj kept going on the fritz? He's given it to Pops."
"Huh?" Wakka leaned forward, squinting anxiously. "You okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. Pops shot things up, but we're all fine. He took off on the /Fahrenheit/. We're going after him."
"Can't Brother go?" He frowned, still peering at the sphere. "And what are dey still doin' there?"
"Pops is headed for Bevelle, so we're giving them a ride. He's got a huge head start, Wakka. Brother would never catch up. Anyway, Brother's a doofus; he'd totally screw this up."
"But--" Wakka began.
"Etta ate some kak-tar seeds!" the youngest girl said. "He's gonna be a kak-tar!"
The feet in the window behind her wiggled. "Zap zap zap!"
"Then Mum's gonna have to give him tummy-medicine when she gets back," Rikku said.
"Told ya," said Vidina, sprawled across his father's legs.
"Wakka," Rikku said. "We can handle it. Long story, but basically...some wacky unsent has been riding around in Nooj's head. It jumped to Pops, made him even grouchier than he is already. Sound like anyone else we know? But this one isn't as bad. All we have to do is get somebody near Pops who can send, and he'll be fine."
"Oh," Wakka said, nonplussed. The chatter of the children rained around him while he digested this. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, you gotta take care o' your Da. You be real careful, okay?"
"Promise," she said, blowing a kiss.
"Is Auron there?" Yuna Junior said. All that could be seen of the girl was a thistle-top of orange hair sticking up behind Wakka's shoulder.
Auron moved to stand behind Rikku. "I'm here."
Yuna stood on tiptoe, peeping out shyly. "The Lady says she's gonna go talk to the birds and the bees. After that, she's gonna go visit the dragon boy. But you'd better hurry up, 'cause she's running out of ice cream."
The corners of Auron's mouth twitched. "Understood," he said, after a moment's pause. "Thank you, Yuna."
"Okay!" she said, diving out of sight again.
Wakka folded his arms, his glare magnified to alarming proportions by the ship's forward projectors.
"Kids," Rikku said, "Mummy loves you /tons/, but I've gotta be gone a few days to help Pops. You listen to Da and pitch in with chores, okay?"
A chorus of mumbles seemed to satisfy her.
"Rikku, Wakka said, cheeks reddening. "I love you lots and lots. Come back soon, ya?"
"I love you too, hon," she said. "Try not to worry too much." She cut the connection and leaned back, slumping after the image of her boisterous family had been replaced by empty sky.
"'The birds and the bees'?" Isaaru echoed quizzically.
"Remiem Temple," Auron said.
"Oh!" Rikku perked up. "The chocobos. Of course."
"And then to Bevelle, no?" Isaaru said. "I suppose your friend is sending us what warning she can, without disturbing the child."
"Or Yu Yevon."
The summoner's brows lifted. "I...see. Then we must use the time she has given us wisely. So, what is your counsel? Is Vegnagun the answer?"
"It will have to be," Auron said. "Once the aeons are gone, there will be nothing left to stop her."
"Auron!" Rikku said, swiveling in her chair. "Lulu's family too, y'know? You can't just give up on her!"
"I haven't." Auron's gaze flicked downward, meeting Rikku's pleading eyes. Without the armor of his glasses, the haunted strain in his face was easier to discern. "Rikku, listen. I guard Lord Isaaru. But Lulu guides our pilgrimage, just as she guided Yuna. She knows more of Sin and Yu Yevon than anyone. We have to solve the puzzle she's set for us."
"Are you certain it's your friend, not Sin's master, who steers her course now?" Isaaru asked gently. "The Lady is a prisoner, just as Nooj was. Who knows what part of her mind remains her own, after thirteen years?"
"That message did not come from Yu Yevon," Auron said irritably.
"Seems pretty clear Lulu's just trying to end your pilgrimage," Rikku said. "She's cleaning out every temple in Spira."
"The story can't end there, Rikku." Auron sank behind his collar. "I have to free her...one way or another."
"You know, maybe Maroda was right about you two, kinda," Rikku said, tapping her teeth thoughtfully. "You were always on the same wavelength: grump point cynic two five. But you were both so busy being bad-ass know-it-all uber-guardians that you never stopped to realize there's more to life than boom and smash and self-sacrifice. It's too bad. You two would've absolutely owned Spira's Hottest Celebrity Couples spherecast."
"Auron." She cocked her head with that same focused look that used to come over her, just before darting in to pluck out some tiny mechanism that caused an armor-plated fighting machine to collapse into a pile of scraps. "You miss her too, don't you?"
He stared past Rikku's keen scrutiny to a horizon that was darkening to lavender. He had never been sentimental about sunsets, but that shade was another bittersweet reminder of other things he had not permitted himself to be sentimental about. Almost he yielded to Rikku's strategic pestering. Whatever answer he might have given, however, was curtailed by the presence of the summoner behind them.
"We'll get her back, Auron. Pops first, then Lulu. I know we will." Rikku reached out to pat his bare hand. "I promise."