Chapter Three

     Cid Highwind replayed the footage from his Airship's external
security cameras one more time, still unable to believe what it

     "You sure that's the right footage?", he growled at the
crewman beside him.

     "Yes sir, Captain.", the man responded promptly.  "That's all
we have from the time period you specified."

     He took a puff of his cigarette as he replayed the footage
over and over, magnifying the corner of the tape, Barret's shoulder
just visible in the edge of the frame as he rushed forward to
tackle Cloud.  And then there is was.  The Ultima Weapon, spiraling
into the shot, falling to the dirt in the middle of the shot and
coming to a stop.  

     As he watched, the ground beneath the Ultima weapon seemed to
melt away, like mud, as tiny tendrils of dirt reached up and
wrapped around the thick blade of the weapon, dragging it into the
dirt and disappearing without a trace.

     "I can't believe it.", Barret commented from the seat across
the table from Cid.  "Damned dirt swallowed the thing right up!"

     "Strangest thing I've ever seen.", Cid commented.  "Well,
maybe not the strangest, but damn near close to it.  Whaddya
suppose happened to it?"

     "Think Messiah stole it?", Barret guessed.  "What would that
creep want with the Ultima Weapon, anyways?"

     "Dunno.", Cid responded.  "Dammit, I wish Cloud was here to
figure this stuff out like he always does.  Just when we need him
most, he has to go all wonky and pass out."

     "Not his fault, Cid.", Barret amended.  "He can't help it if
he don't know when to reject another's hospitality, no matter how
nice it may seem.  Me, I wouldn't trust no one else to feed me my
meals, but Cloud, well, he's a different sort.  It'd be a damn
shame if that spiky-haired freak buys the farm over this.  Damn

     "You almost sound worried about him.", Cid taunted.

     "Sure I am.", Barret answered, refusing to be riled.  "Course
I'm worried 'bout him, man.  He's my friend, even though he gets a
bit weird sometimes."

     "Amen to that.", Cid agreed.  "He'll be alright.  He's a tough
one, despite his young age."

     "Yah, young in comparison to us.", Barret said with a grin.
"We're the old men around here, ya know."

     "I know.", Cid said with a nod and a grin of his own.  "That's
why we gotta keep these younger people in line."

     "Heh.", was all Barret said in response.  "So how long to
Midgar, old man?"

     "'Nother few minutes.", Cid answered.  "Think there's anything
else we can learn from this tape?"

     "Doubt it.", Barret said with a shake of his head.  "I'd love
to know what that was that swallowed the Ultima Weapon up like
that, but we got bigger things to worry about.  Like Reeve and
walkin' straight into the middle of a mess of Shinra."

     They paused as Marlene trotted into the room, a curious look
on her face.

     "Daddy?", she asked uncertainly.

     "What is it, baby?", Barret asked, turning to her.  "What you
doin' away from the bridge?"

     "I got tired of watching them move those buttons and
thingies.", Marlene explained in typical childlike fashion.  "So I
came down to see what you two were doing."

     "Not much.", Barret admitted.  "I know it's boring here, baby,
but you know why we're here, right?"

     Marlene nodded.  "In case more bad men come."

     Barret moved over to her and gave her a quick hug.  "Right,
baby, and don't you worry none.  They ain't gonna' touch you while
I'm here."

     "I know Daddy.", Marlene said, almost as if she was offended
that Barret would think she believed otherwise.

     Cid merely puffed on his cigarette and stared at the ceiling.
He wondered at Marlene and Barret sometimes.  Underneath that rough
exterior, Barret had a softer side, and he only showed it around
his kid.  Briefly, Cid wondered if he was ever going to have kids
of his own, a prodigy to continue on the Highwind tradition. 
Didn't look like it, the way things were going with him and Shera. 
She seemed willing enough to settle down.  Cid was the one who
still wanted to travel.  He saw the way Tifa looked at Cloud, and
knew that Shera looked at him the same way.  And blast it, he did
feel for her, though she was a goddamned nuisance half of the time. 
Well, he'd worry about the future after they dealt with whoever had
come after them this time.  Cid thought back to simpler days, when
all he'd had to worry about was working on the spaceship, flying
around the Tiny Bronco and running Rocket Town.  And look at him
now, carting around the saviors of the world.  One of the saviors
of the world, in fact.  Wielding weapons and magic that he hadn't
even believed existed before he'd been exposed to them.  He'd come
a long way.

     He emerged from his contemplations to find Barret and Marlene
gone.  They'd wandered out while he'd been lost in thought. 
Sighing, he pulled himself to his feet and headed for the bridge. 
Enough thinking for one day.  Time to take action.

     "Descending into Midgar.", he heard the pilot he'd trained up
from a rookie say calmly as he stepped onto the bridge.  Barret
stood looking calmly out the forward window, with Marlene nowhere
in sight.

     "Captain on deck!", the navigator said sharply.

     "At ease.", Cid said with quick frown.

     "We're landing now, sir.", his pilot said calmly.  "Do you
want us to wait with the ship or accompany you into Midgar?"

     Cid thought for a second.  Walking into a vanguard of Shinra
goons with only Barret as backup was not very appealing, but
leaving the Highwind unguarded wasn't very appealing either.  It
WAS still Shinra property, after all, not that the legal concerns
of Shinra meant a damn to him.  Still, if he left it empty they
might be tempted to borrow it back.  

     "You and Jerry accompany me and Barret into Midgar.", he said.
"The rest of you stay with the ship and keep an eye on Marlene."

     A gentle bump told him that they'd touched down.  "Yes sir!",
his crew responded, the two men he'd pointed at grabbing their
weapons and preparing to move out.     

     "You ready for this, Cid?", Barret asked as they headed down
the landing ramp and the vast, ruined metropolis that was once
Midgar appeared before them.

     "Ready as I'll ever be.", Cid grunted.  "Let's get this over

     The ramp closed behind them, and they walked slowly towards
the south gate.  Two Shinra soldiers stood guard, standing
perfectly still until they came within ten feet of the entrance.

     "Halt!", one called out, stepping forward.  "State your

     "Cid Highwind.", Cid retorted.  "I'm here ta see Reeve.
Where's the ol' bastard holed himself up?"

     "Cid Highwind?", the soldier began.  "You're the guy that
stole our airsh..."

     The other soldier punched him in the arm sharply to shush him,
obviously a bit wary of the men standing before them.

     "What's your business with Reeve?", the other asked.

     "We're old friends.", said Cid with an evil grin.  "Just
wanted to see how he was gettin' along."

     "I'll have to clear you.", the soldier said, his voice unsure.

     "Then clear us.", Barret ordered from beside him.  "We ain't
got all day."

     The soldier glanced at him cautiously as Barret towered over
him, and quickly brought his radio to his lips.  After a quick
exchange with his commanding officer, he shook his head.  

     "You'll have to talk to my watch leader about this.", he said.
"It's out of my jurisdiction."

     "Then let's go.", Cid said.  "Like Barret said, we ain't got
all day."

     "My watch leader's on his way to escort you in now.", he said,
falling back into his position beside the door.  "He'll get here
soon enough."

     Impatiently, Barret tapped his foot, his arms crossed with a
dour expression.  Waiting around was not his strong point.  Cid,
for his part, relaxed, leaning on the length of his pike and
finishing off his cigarette.  As a Shinra soldier clad all in red
approached the gate, he threw it onto the ground and stamped it out
with one foot.

     The door hissed open and the Shinra watch leader eyed them
cautiously.  "What's your business with Reeve?", he asked.

     "We just told you that!", Cid said angrily.  "We want to talk
to him."

     "What about?", the watch leader insisted.

     "None o' ya business.", Barret put in from Cid's side.  "Now
are you gonna' let us in or do we have to start bustin' heads?"  He
cracked his knuckles, once, for emphasis.

     The Shinra watch commander gave Barret a quick evaluatory look
and blanched.  "I'll have to... clear you with my commander.", he
said, quickly regaining a measure of composure.

     "Shit!", Cid exclaimed.  "How far up the chain of command do
we have to go to get to talk to Reeve?  He wasn't so high and
mighty last time I saw him.  Fact was he was moving around a toy
cat on a big Moogle."

     The Shinra watch commander shrugged, at a loss.  "Orders are
orders, sir.  You'll have to speak to my commander."

     Cid sighed angrily.  "Fine, let's go."

     The Shinra watch leader turned and led him through the gates
outside Midgar, Barret and Cid's men right behind them.  After five
minutes they reached a security check point and the man stopped.  

     "Wait here.", he said, as he headed into the building.  Cid
and Barret waited, impatiently, for the few minutes it took the
Shinra watch commander to return with his superior.

     "These the people that are askin' ta see Reeve?", the Captain
asked, eyeing them cautiously.

     "Yes sir.", the watch commander responded.

     Cid stepped forward, his eyes burning with anger.  He was
tired of wading through Shinra bureaucracy.  When they'd been
funding his space program, he'd had to put up with their loads of
red tape.  Well, now he didn't owe them anything.  And he was tired
of being given the runaround.

     "We're here to see Reeve.", he said coldly, tapping his pike
on the cement floor with a short clanging sound.  "The guards at
your gate and this guy have been tryin' to hose us ever since we
got here.  Are you gonna' do the same thing, or are you gonna' wise
up and let us see Reeve before we have to hurt someone?"

     "Don't forget where you are, Mr. Highwind.", the Captain said
with a scoff.  "I doubt you and your three men are a match for the
entire Shinra army."

     "Shiiit.", Barret commented angrily, moving up to Cid's side.
"I could wipe my boots with you Shinra losers."

     The Captain was about to reply, and things might have gotten
out of hand, had Reeve not appeared at that moment, striding
towards the confrontation briskly, two bodyguards at his side.

     "Cid!", he said, greeting him with a warm handshake,
momentarily throwing him off-balance.  "And Barret!", Reeve added,
obviously pleased.  "I haven't seen you in forever!  How have you

     "Better.", Barret commented roughly, refusing to shake Reeve's
hand.  "We need to talk, Reeve."

     The other looked at him, confused.

     "In private?", Barret added, motioning with his eyes to the
Shinra Captain and his men standing nearby, angry expressions on
their faces.

     "Of course.", Reeve said quickly.  "Come with me."

     Leaving the befuddled Shinra Captain and his men behind,
Barret, Cid and his men followed Reeve and his bodyguards back to
the hovercraft that had brought them to the scene.  It was big
enough for a whole Shinra attack squad, Cid noted darkly.  The trip
to the Shinra tower was accomplished in a matter of minutes and in
relative silence.  Looking at it, it was hard for Cid to tell it
had been damaged.  With nothing to work from but the reserve power
from the gasoline generators in it's belly, the Shinra techs had
repaired it's exterior to such an extent that you could barely tell
it had been ravaged by Meteor and Holy's confrontation.  Only the
devastation around it showed how thoroughly those two opposing
forces had wrecked the city.

     As they walked into the building, Barret moaned as he saw
where they were heading.

     "We gonna' have to take the stairs?", he asked, praying for a
negative answer.

     "No choice.", Reeve said.  "The elevators take too much power
that's needed for other things.  It's good exercise."

     "Exercise my ass.", Barret responded sullenly.  "I already
climbed these stairs one too many times for my taste."

     "The first or second time you broke into the Shinra
building?", Reeve asked with a quick grin.  

     "Haha.", Barret responded, refusing to return the other's

     It took them nearly thirty minutes to reach the 65th floor,
and everyone except Reeve and his bodyguards were considerably
winded when they did so.  

     "I hate... goddamn... steps.", Cid panted, leaning heavily on
his pike.  

     "My office is just ahead.", Reeve said, overlooking the
other's fatigue, certainly showing none himself.  Corporate execs
were built to last, it appeared.  "We can talk there."

     "Fine.", Barret agreed, heading down the hall, Cid catching
his breath and falling in behind, along with his men, who hadn't
said a word since they'd entered Midgar.  

     Reeve's bodyguards accompanied him into the office, which put
Cid on edge.  "Send them out.", he ordered.  "I want to talk

     "Do you trust your men?", Reeve asked, motioning to the men of
Cid's flight crew who stood behind him.

     "Course I do.", Cid scoffed.

     "I trust mine as well.", Reeve said.  "They can stay.
Whatever you can tell me, you can tell them."

     "Fine.", said Cid, seeing that it wasn't worth arguing about.
"Why'd you send your men after us?"

     "What?", said Reeve, seemingly startled.

     "You heard what he said.", Barret added angrily.  "Three of
your Commandos came after my daughter, Reeve.  And two otha squads
went after Vincent and Yuffie."

     Reeve shook his head, clearly surprised and troubled by
Barret's words.  "Oh dear...", he said, rocking back onto his

     "Well, what about it, Reeve?", Cid asked angrily.

     After taking a moment to collect himself, Reeve seemed to
calm.  "You sure they were Shinra?"

     "Damn sure.", Barret said heartily.  "They were wearing your
combat gear.  I've seen enough of yer guys to know what they look

     Reeve shook his head slowly, thinking hard.  "First of all, I
want to make it absolutely clear that I had nothing to do with them
coming after you."  Receiving skeptical looks from Cid and Barret,
he paled.

     "You have to believe me.", he said with a swallow.  "Why would
I want to hurt any of you?  You saved the world, and my corporation
as well."

     Cid noted with caution how Reeve now referred to Shinra as 'my
corporation'.  Had he gone power mad like Rufus?  That might
explain why he had begun to launch attacks on his former allies,
though Cid still didn't see how that would benefit him.  Reeve and
Shinra had nothing to gain from killing any of the party, because
their main disagreement had been the use of Mako energy, and that
was no longer an issue.  None of their group had been opposing
Shinra in any direct way, and it didn't make sense for Shinra to
attack them out of spite, since the big Corp had no real reason to
bear them any animosity.  As Cid thought about it, it seemed less
likely to him that Reeve was actually involved in this.

     "Supposing we believe you", Cid began, receiving a sharp
glance from Barret, "what can you do to help us?  These are your
guys that came after us."

     "I'll do what I can.", Reeve nodded, relieved that Cid was
taking him seriously.  "First of all, did you get any unit

     "What?", Barret asked.

     "Unit numbers.", Reeve repeated.  "Most of the men that were
in SOLDIER and our Commando groups have numbers tattooed on their
necks to identify then in case their bodies aren't recognizable."

     "Shinra.", Barret spit.  "Treatin' people like canned goods."

     "It's no different from the dog tags you wear around your
neck, Barret.", Reeve pointed out indifferently.  "Just a different
method of identification."

     Reeve had him there.  Barret grimaced, but didn't argue the
point.  "Didn't see anything like that on the guys who attacked
us.", he admitted, grudgingly.  "We captured one, but he
'lectrocuted himself before we could interrogate him."

     Reeve's eyes narrowed.  "He suicided?  By electrocution?"

     "Yup.", Barret said.  "Zapped himself straight back to Hell."

     "That narrows it down.", Reeve said, his brow furrowing.  He
sat down at his desk and with several quick key presses brought his
computer online.  Cid noticed that the 'other things' that Reeve
had referred to when talking about power distribution included a
computer terminal in his office.

     Cid moved over to look at the computer screen, but one of
Reeve's bodyguards blocked his way.  About to push the man aside,
Cid stopped as Reeve motioned the man to back up.

     "It's okay.", he said.  "I trust them."

     Grudgingly, his bodyguard let Cid pass.  Glancing at him
disdainfully, Cid moved over to Reeve's shoulder and glanced at the
luminescent computer screen in front of him.

     A large table of names was scrolling slowly across the screen,
along with serial numbers and other miscellaneous information.  

     "Capture-avoidance.", Reeve murmured thoughtfully.  He typed
quickly on his machine, than sat back and waited for a few seconds
as it accessed.

     "Machine is slow with most of the system down.", he said
apologetically.  "This might take awhile."

     "Long as it works.", Cid commented.

     "It should.", Reeve assured him.  About thirty seconds later,
a new list of names appeared.  

     "Alright.", said Reeve.  "That narrows it down to about 350
men.  Can you tell me anything else that might help?"

     Cid looked at Barret, who shrugged.  "They were wearing black
camo and night-vision goggles."

     Reeve shook his head.  "Doesn't help.  All of our commandos
receive night-combat training."  He glanced at the console again. 
"Hmm.  About one-third of these soldiers are AWOL or MIA, meaning
we don't know what happened to them after Meteor hit.  We've lost
contact with most of them, as we have with a considerable number of
our outlying bases since the main system went down.  Want me to
narrow it down to the Commandos who are not currently under my

     "Keep them for now.", Cid said.  "Do you trust your

     Reeve pursed his lips, thoughtful.  "All of them?  With my
life?  No."  He paused again, thinking.  "But I can't think of any
who would have it out for you.  Most of them were stationed here in
Midgar when everything went down with Sephiroth and Meteor.  Unless
they've somehow shifted blame for Meteor's destruction of the city
onto you, I don't see why any of my men would order their men to
attack any of you.  They're too worried about keeping their own
power bases strong here in Midgar to be able to send troops after

     "That don't mean they didn't do it.", Barret insisted.  "There
was only three that attacked us.  Come after my daughter like the
spineless bastards they are.  I wouldn't think you'd miss three men
in this sprawling metropolis."  His last words were dripping with
sarcasm, but Reeve seemed unruffled by it.

     "You'd be surprised.", he commented dryly.  "Much of the force
that we have here is largely illusionary.  A good number of our men
were killed in the war against the Weapons and when Meteor arrived. 
Another good number deserted or disappeared.  Trust me when I say
that I doubt any of the Shinra commanders stationed here have the
manpower to spare for excursions into the rest of the world."

     "Hmm.", Cid commented, thinking hard.  Another thought hit
him.  "What about winter combat training?  The squad that attacked
Vincent wore snow fatigues and seemed to be trained in arctic

     "That would narrow it down considerably.", Reeve said with a
nod.  "Arctic combat training isn't standard, and is only given to
the troops that we station on the northern continent.  Sephiroth
wiped most of those out when he came through."  He turned and
punched the appropriate information into his keyboard.  They all
waited the few minutes it took the computer to track down the
correlations and print the list on it's screen.

     "Jackpot.", Reeve commented.  "There's about 30 names here,
tops.  How many attacked Vincent?"

     "Somewhere between 12 and 15.", Cid answered, squinting at the
computer screen and grimacing as he tried to read it's small print. 
"How many have you retained contact with?"

     "None.", Reeve admitted.  "We lost all contact with our
Northern bases after Sephiroth took that continent over.  All of
these men are MIA."

     "Well, that helps.", Barret said sullenly.

     Reeve shrugged, clearly at a loss.  "I don't know what else we
can try.", he said.  "Unless you can tell me something else about

     Cid said nothing, and Barret was at a loss as well.

     "Hmm.", Reeve said.  "Let's check these names for
correlations, squadron or base assignments, perhaps.  Maybe that
will help."  He punched in several more commands, and the computer
cycled for a few minutes, as they waited in anticipation.

     "Nothing.", Reeve said dejectedly.  "Nothing useful, anyway.
Three of these men graduated from the military academy in the same
year, another six received their arctic combat training under the
same officer.  Other than that, I don't see anything that relates
these men besides their training and MIA status."

     Barret joined Cid at Reeve's other shoulder, squinting as well
as he tried to read the small print on the computer screen.
"Huh.", he said, noncommittal.

     "Damn, I'm stupid!", Cid exclaimed suddenly, slapping the palm
of his hand to his forehead.  "What about the Messiah, Reeve?  Have
you heard of anything like that?"

     Reeve turned white.

     "That's right.", Barret said with an evil grin, taking
pleasure in Reeve's discomfiture.  "That's what that Commando said
before he zapped out.  For the Messiah."  He smiled sweetly at
Reeve.  "Somethin' about that bother you, Reeve?"

     Reeve turned back to the keyboard, his body stiff.  "Well...
he said slowly.  "See for yourselves."

     He began punching information into the computer, and Cid was
amazed as Reeve worked his way through a mess of encryption
barriers and typed in about fifteen different passwords on his way
to wherever he was going.  Finally, a large block of print appeared
on the screen.


     "What tha hell is this?", Barret asked.

     "I don't know for sure.", Reeve said.  "I've never looked at
it myself, only heard rumors."

     "You know the password?", Cid asked from beside him.

     "Course I do.", Reeve said.  "I'm the President now."

     He typed in the password and hit the button to enter it.

the screen printed.

     "Uh oh.", Reeve murmured.

     "You know that password?", Cid asked, raising an eyebrow.

     "No.", Reeve said, defeated.  "This information is the highest
classification, even above Sephiroth's file and the JENOVA
clearance.  I could access those files.  I can't access this."

     "What the hell is it?", Barret asked impatiently.

     "I don't know much about the file myself.", Reeve admitted.
"But I overheard President Shinra and his son talking about it,
once or twice.  All I could gather is that it had something to do
with wherever Sephiroth was and what he was doing during the period
between the time he supposedly died in the depths of the Nibleheim
reactor and when he reappeared and killed President Shinra. 
Something about someone called The Messiah tying in to his return
in some manner."

     "Damn.", Barret murmured.  "That would explain why this
Messiah has it out for Cloud and the rest of us.  If he was friends
with Sephiroth, he's trying to avenge his buddy."

     "That still doesn't explain why he used Shinra attack squads
to attack us instead of coming at us directly.", Cid complained. 
"If I remember correctly, Sephiroth didn't get along too well with

     "Understatement of the year.", Reeve said.  "He was a good
enough soldier, before he went insane."

     "Uh huh.", Barret grunted.

     Reeve shook his head again.  "I'm sorry I haven't been of more
help.  I'll keep looking in the records.  Maybe I can find
something else."

     "Can't you try some passwords on that security clearance?",
Barret asked.

     "I suppose.", Reeve said after a second.  "But we'd only get
two cracks at it.  If we mess up a third time the system will wipe
the file and reset itself."

     "Great.", Barret said.  "So what passwords do we try?"

     The three of them sat in silence and stared at the computer
screen for a few seconds.

     "Mako?", Barret hazarded after a second.

     "Too obvious.", Cid said.

     "You suggest something, then.", Barret retorted.

     Cid glanced at him, and then back at the computer screen.

     "I have no idea.", he admitted.  "There's too many goddamned

     Reeve was silent, seemingly deep in thought.

     "It may not even be a word.", Reeve said finally.  "The Shinra
President was notorious for his photographic memory.  It's probably
just a random sequence of characters that we can't hope to crack."

     "Well... damn.", Barret commented.

     "What about 'Rufus'?", one of the bodyguards hazarded from his
space off to Cid's side.

     All three men glanced at him, and he quickly returned to his
corner of the office. 

     "Sorry.", he muttered.

     "I'm stumped.", Cid admitted.  "But we might as well take a
few blind stabs at it.  Try, well, um... ducky."

     "Ducky?", Barret and Reeve said doubtfully, and then glanced
at each other, dismayed that they had spoken the same word at the
same time.

     "Sure.", Cid said defensively.  "Why not?  It's as good a word
as any."

     "Bah.", Barret said.  "And you said Mako was silly."

     "Well it was!", Cid insisted.

     "This is getting us nowhere.", Reeve said in exasperation.
"Give me a word, guys.  Let's get this over with."

     "Fine.", Cid said, angrily.  "Materia.  You got a problem with
that, Barret?"

     Barret glanced at him and shrugged.  "Works for me.", he

     "Alright, here goes.", Reeve said.  He quickly typed in the
word and hit the enter key.  The screen flashed and went blank for
a second.

     "Hell yeah!", Cid exclaimed excitedly.  "Was that it?"

     "No, that's just the machine rejecting the password and
resetting the security program.", Reeve explained.  "It's slow,


     Cid's elation faded.  "Dammit.", he muttered.

     "Any other ideas?", Barret asked.

     They exchanged glances again.

     "Wait a minute.", Reeve said suddenly.  "President Shinra's
first wife, Rufus' mother.  She died when he was only five.  What
was her name?"

     Cid shrugged.  "You think I know that?"

     "I'm only thinking aloud.", Reeve said apologetically.  "I
believe... I believe it was... hmm.  Susan.  That was it.  Susan!"

     "Susan Shinra.", Barret muttered.  "Just doesn't sound right,
if you ask me."

     "It's worth a shot.", Reeve said.  "Agreed?"

     "Go for it.", Cid said disinterestedly.

     Reeve slowly punched in the name, careful not to mistype it,
and hit the enter key.

     The screen went blank and cycled.

     "RESTRICTED ACCESS...", it began again, printing out the whole
entire spiel one last time.

     "Well, that's it for that.", Reeve said with a shrug.  "I'll
put my men to work on cracking that encryption.  I think they can
unlock it, given enough time."

     "How long?", Barret asked.

     "Um, a month or so, probably.", Reeve answered.

     "We could be dead in a month!", Cid said angrily.

     "I'm sorry.", Reeve said, looking sad.  "I wish I could do
more.  The least I can do is finish up the rest of those
computations on those men who attacked you."

     "Guess that's it, then.", Cid admitted dejectedly.

     Reeve nodded, then brightened.  "But the least I can do while
you're here is offer you a drink and some food.  Care to join me
for a quick supper tonight, before I get back to work?"

     Cid heard his stomach growl at the mention of food, but Barret
shook his head in a negative, his mouth a grim line.  "Sorry.", he
said.  "If that's all you've got to tell us, we'd best be on our

     "I do wish you'd stay, if only for a bit.", Reeve insisted
plaintively.  "I get so little time to relax with friends, busy as
I am with rebuilding Midgar."  Barret seemed a bit angry at being
called Reeve's friend, but didn't say anything out loud.  

     "I'm starved for news of the outside world.", Reeve insisted.
"I can't keep up anymore, you know.  I just want to know how all of
you are getting along.  How's Cloud, Tifa?  Red?  Yuffie?  Vincent? 
At least stay and chat a bit and tell me what's been going on."

     Cid sighed.  Reeve HAD been awfully helpful, even if his help
hadn't amounted to much.  And he was hungry.  And the Shinra did
serve delicious food.

     "Fine.", Cid agreed.  "I'll stay and talk, if you rustle up
some good grub."  Barret scowled as Cid turned to look at him. 
"What about you, old man?"

     "I'll eat out in the Airship with Marlene, thank you very
much.", he said.  

     "I'm sorry to hear that, Barret, but I respect your
decision.", Reeve said, obviously grateful that Cid had decided to
stay.  "I'll have my men escort you out."

     "I don't need no stinkin' escort.", Barret protested.

     "It's for your own good.", Reeve continued.  "Just in case
anyone here remembers you from your time in Avalanche.  I trust my
men.  They'll get you to the gate with a minimum of trouble. 
Besides, I know if any of my men tried to attack you they'd be
slaughtered, and I can't afford to lose the manpower.  Please,
accept my escort."

     Barret grumbled but finally agreed.  "See you later, Cid, when
the others get here.", Barret said as he walked out the door,
several Shinra soldiers moving in from outside to join him.

     "The others are coming here?", Reeve asked excitedly.

     Cid heard Barret curse from outside in the hallway, realizing
what he'd just given away.  

     "Yeah, eventually.", Cid admitted.  "But you said you'd get me
some food."

     "Of course!", Reeve said excitedly.  "Let's adjourn to the
sitting room.  I'll have the chef bring in the first course and
some good wine."

     "The first course?", Cid asked, his mouth beginning to water.

     "We eat well, here.", Reeve said with a grin.  "I'm glad you
decided to stay, Cid.  I know the others don't really trust me, and
I know you probably don't either.  But everything I've done I've
done because I thought it was in the best interest of the Planet. 
Even if we can't be friends, we can eat and talk, right?"

     "Right.", Cid admitted, warming to the man.  "So let's stop
talking and start eating."  He glanced at his men, who still hadn't
said a word.

     "Jerry, Ben, you stayin' too?"

     The two glanced at each other, and shrugged.

     "Why not.", Jerry said with a shrug.  Ben agreed as well.  It
appeared that Barret was the only one of their group who had
decided to resist the Shinra's hospitality.  Judging from his past
dealings with them, his decision wasn't surprising. 

     "Right this way.", Reeve motioned with another grin.

Three figures rode in silence, their steeds trotting along in a triangular formation, gold at the front, blue on the left, and green on the right. The fertile grasslands outside of Kalm had quickly given way to the starker, more barren earth through which they now rode. Reflecting on the terrain around them because there was nothing better to do, Tifa wondered suddenly if the disappearance of greenery had something to do with the fact that they were heading for the city of Midgar. She remembered how hard and black the ground around the city was, giving way to desert further out, then to the sparse plains through which they were now traveling, before finally returning to the smooth, green, grass prairies in the vicinity of Kalm and further out. Midgar was the largest city on the continent, and before Meteor and the Lifestream had silenced it forever, it had the highest concentration of Mako reactors of any spot on the planet. Eight to power the entire city, all stretched around it's perimeter like lights on a Christmas wreath. She wondered if the blackened land would ever heal. It seemed so obvious in retrospect. Mako reactors, burning the very blood of the Planet as fuel. It had begun by sapping away the life around Midgar, twisting and blackening the grassy plains upon which it had been built. Then it had spread, radiating outward in all directions from the walls of the great city. What would have happened, she wondered, if Sephiroth had never lived? In a way, he was partly responsible for saving the Planet, even though he had spent most of his life trying to destroy it. If he hadn't attacked Shinra when he did, if he hadn't brought the Planet so close to destruction that it finally emerged from it's shell and attempted to heal itself, what could have happened? Would the entire continent have rotted away as the Mako reactors that Shinra had scattered over it's surface burned it's energy to ash, until nothing was left but a dull, empty husk? The Planet would have died, not by a climactic collision with Meteor, but from simple exhaustion. And the people. How would they have lived, on the barren rock that the Mako reactors would have turned the Planet into? They would have died. It was as simple as that. It was strange to think about. Sephiroth had killed countless numbers of people in his bloody quest to destroy the Planet, but the final result of that quest, thanks to the intervention of herself and the others, had been the end of Mako energy and the collapse of the Shinra empire. The salvation of everyone on the Planet. Which was the bigger evil? Sephiroth was all too easy to blame, but Shinra was the real catalyst in everything, the dark force working all along in the background, in it's own insidious quest for power. Sephiroth had known what he was doing, reveled in the pain that his actions had caused. Shinra had been blind to the destruction their actions were causing, like a young child with a loaded gun. Given enormous power, but without the knowledge to wield it safely, they had either been too stupid to realize what their reactors were doing or decided not to care. What was the life of the Planet when they could make a quick buck? Sephiroth had been evil. It was as simple as that. He had surely not considered any of this when he had begun his quest to destroy the Planet. But it was fitting that a man who had done so much evil had been responsible for so much good. The great manipulator, manipulated himself by fate and chance. Forced to save the Planet as he tried to destroy it. It helped Tifa believe that almost anyone was capable of redemption, even a man as evil as Sephiroth. She smiled, secretly. What would Cloud think of her revelations? She found herself wondering. She would have to ask him, when she saw him again, after this was all over. Suddenly Goldie squawked in warning, braking to a halt so fast that he almost threw Tifa from the saddle. Sally and Zander, Goldie's grandparents, carrying Yuffie and Vincent, slowed as well, seemingly intimidated by Goldie's squawk of warning. "What is it, boy?", Tifa asked, as Goldie began to back up nervously, his head twitching back and forth under the reins. She quickly scanned the surrounding terrain, looking for what had set the Chocobo off. He was a remarkable creature, able to transverse any terrain, including the deep water of the sea. Riding on his back as his webbed feet ripped through the waves was truly a unique experience. If he had caught wind of something, Tifa knew to take his warning seriously. "What's got him so riled up?", Yuffie asked. Suddenly, Sally squawked as well, bucking angrily, fear in her green eyes. Yuffie clung for dear life, and Tifa's eyes widened in horror as she glanced behind her. The cause of the Chocobo's distress was all too easy to see. The ground below Sally's feet seemed to be sinking inward, dragging her feet down into the earth, black tendrils of dirt reaching upwards to latch onto her legs. Yuffie jumped off her mount just as the Chocobo tore one of her legs free from the sinking dirt, only to lose her balance and fall onto her side. The tendrils snaked over her body, dragging the mountain Chocobo into the dirt, as she squawked in horror, her eyes mad with fear. Then Zander did something that Tifa could not believe. Instead of bolting in fear, he charged, as Vincent flew backwards on his saddle, grasping one of his reins just in time to avoid joining Yuffie on the hard rocky ground. As Tifa watched in disbelief, Zander tore into the ground with his webbed claws, trying desperately to free Sally from the dirt. Then Goldie leapt into action as well, joining Zander as they furiously attacked the dirt that was swallowing their compatriot. "Yipe!", Yuffie cried as a tendril swiped at one of her legs. Suddenly her cross was in her hand, as she tore it apart, Vincent leaping from his mount to assist. Tifa dropped to the ground as well, not sure what she planned to do against the unknown threat they were facing, but refusing to sit by idly and do nothing. As her feet hit the ground, it gave way beneath her, and she instantly regretted leaving the safety of Goldie's back. Before she knew it she was up to her knees in mud, and rapidly sinking, some unknown force dragging her into the ground. With an cry of anger and fear, she began to smash at the surrounding earth with her gloved hands, but her efforts did nothing, and she had sunk to her waist before Vincent saw her predicament. He said something that she had never before heard him say in his life, and Tifa realized with detached clarity that they had finally found a situation that could make Vincent curse. Something hard bit into the back of her shirt, and she reached backwards angrily to knock it loose, halting at the last second as she realized what it was. Goldie! His beak tore at the back of her shirt as he vainly tried to pull her from the muck, his feet slowly sliding towards the sinkhole into which Tifa had fallen. Sally was almost completely under, only her neck and head still above the dirt. She had somehow managed to right herself as she was dragged, thrashing, into the earth. Zander had ceased attacking the dirt that was swallowing her and clung futilely to one of her reins with his beak, his neck straining against the unknown force pulling on her. Sally squawked in anger, and Tifa easily understood her frustration. "This isn't good!", Yuffie cried as she tore apart several tendrils of dirt that were questing for her legs. The ground seemed to be growing bolder, a living thing that grew more confident as it tried to suck the members of the party down into it's awful depth. "Do something, Vincent!", Tifa cried. "What?", he cried angrily. "Shoot the dirt?" A giant tendril of earth, far bigger than anything they had seen before, rose from his feet and smacked him in the chest before he could defend himself, knocking him into the air. He landed about ten feet away and rolled to his feet, drawing the Deathblow and sighting it at the monstrosity heading towards him. The massive weapon flashed as it blasted into the tendril, blowing it apart in an explosion that send dirt and muck flying in all directions. Undeterred, another massive tendril swept up into Vincent's knees, knocking him off his feet. He thrashed as he tried to roll to his feet and a third massive tendril wrapped around his hand, ripping the Deathblow from his fingers. "Dammit!", Tifa cursed, now struggling merely to stay afloat, up to her shoulders in mud. Sally had disappeared completely, and Zander was still clawing at the dirt in desperation, a piece of Sally's rein in his beak. "Flight!", Yuffie cried suddenly. As Tifa stared in disbelief, the young ninja shot into the air, evading another large tendril of dirt, a glowing green materia shard clutched in her fist. "Flight!", she cried again, and the shard flashed as Tifa felt another force take hold of her. She began to rise from the muck, and not stopping to question what was going on, she tore away at the earth with all of her might, desperately trying to free her legs. She heard Yuffie casting the spell again and again, and then she heard Goldie squawk in dismay, as he shot into the air behind her, losing his hold on her shirt. The tendril that Vincent was wrestling with broke away and came for Tifa, as Yuffie cast her spell on him as well, and his feet shot off of the ground. "Hold on Tifa!", he called as he struggled vainly towards her, stumbling through the air drunkenly in an effort to reach her. Tifa couldn't believe her eyes. Yuffie, Zander, Vincent and Goldie, all hovering around her like angels, as one dirty tendril after another smashed against her body, wrapping around her arms and her shoulders, around her waist and thighs, refusing to let her go. The sinking mud was gone from where Sally had disappeared, now concentrated solely around her, the sinkhole much larger than it had been before. "Dammit to hell!", Yuffie cried angrily, reaching into her pack once more. In a flash a grappling hook was in her hands. "Tifa!", she called loudly. "Catch!" Then the hook was flying towards her, and reacting instinctively, using almost all of her remaining strength, Tifa tore one of her hands from the muck that was holding it and caught the hook as it sailed towards her. Yuffie yelped as she was torn forward, having nothing to anchor her. A tendril burst against the side of her head, the impact as hard as a rock thrown from a sling, drawing blood. She was done for, and she knew it. But she'd be damned before she'd drag one of her friends to her grave along with her. "Tell Cloud I loved him!", she cried, as she released her hold on Yuffie's hook, throwing it away just as the dirt swept over her hand. Yuffie stared at her in disbelief as she sailed on over her head, one hand reaching towards her in a desperate attempt to save her. "And get this bastard for m...!", she cried angrily, before the muck rose up over her mouth and cut off her speech. "Tifa!", Vincent cried angrily as he struggled desperately to reach her. "Tifa!" Then the muck rose over her head and she disappeared into the earth. She could feel the dirt pressing against her body from everywhere, cold and damp, disgusting and suffocating. She fought against the terror raging through her mind. She didn't want to die like this! Not like this! But the earth pressing against her as she was dragged deeper and deeper into the ground, her lungs burning as they ran out of air, refused to offer any comfort.

Copyright November 1997

by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis

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