Chapter Four

     Nanaki rose to his feet cautiously, regarding Cloud with a
mixture of curiosity and disbelief.  The young warrior's eyes had
suddenly opened, blank and empty, staring at the ceiling, his mouth
moving silently, saying words that even Nanaki's sensitive hearing
could not discern.  Nanaki's disbelief was due to the fact that
Cloud was filled with enough tranquilizers to subdue a Hierophant,
and was still able to move.  His curiosity regarded how this was

     Nanaki slowly backed away as Cloud pushed himself into a
sitting position on the couch, his eyes still blank and devoid of
emotion.  As Cloud's head turned slowly, mechanically, to face him,
Nanaki searched his blank eyes for any trace of the red glow that
had appeared there when he had attacked Tifa.  Cloud's mouth
continued to move, mouthing words that he couldn't even begin to

     "Cloud.", he said loudly, trying to break through the other's
drugged state to whatever it was that was causing him to move. 
"Cloud, can you hear me?"

     Cloud answered by pushing himself off the couch, slowly, like
a zombie, and rising to his full height.

     "Sit down, Cloud.", Red warned, regarding the other
cautiously.  "You're not well."  Silently, he tried to figure out
what had gone wrong.  Had he misremembered Bugenhagen's formula? 
Surely not!  Had he chosen the wrong ingredients?  Another
negative.  Maybe the ingredients themselves had been faulty.  Maybe
they had been in the cabinet so long they had lost some of their
potency.  Maybe there had been something in the water.  Well, no
use worrying about it now.  He had to subdue his charge before he
got out of control again.  He crouched, preparing to spring upon
Cloud and push him back to the couch, strap him to it if necessary.

     "......fa.", Cloud murmured.

     "What?", Nanaki asked, pausing, cocking his head curiously.
Had he heard Cloud right?

     "Ti... fa...", Cloud said again, his eyes still glazed and

     "Tifa.", Nanaki agreed, amazed that Cloud was able to talk.
Maybe he was breaking free of whatever had a hold on his mind! 
"What about Tifa?"

     "Dirt.", Cloud mumbled.  "Dirt... stole her."

     Nanaki blinked, not understanding.  The dirt stole Tifa?  Why
did Cloud think that?  More fever dreams, evidently.  It appeared
this was merely another symptom of whatever ailment had afflicted
his friend.  Crouching, Nanaki again prepared to leap and knock
Cloud back down.

     "Must...", Cloud began.  Nanaki leapt.

     Cloud's fist struck without warning, incredibly quick,
knocking him out of the air in mid-leap.  He yelped as he flew into
one of the cabinets nearby, breaking it apart with the weight of
his body and crashing against the wall.

     "Must... find Tifa.", Cloud concluded.

     Nanaki slowly got to his feet, shaking his head in an attempt
to clear the stars from his vision.  

     "What are you talking about?", he asked in frustration.  "Tifa
is with Cid and the others!  Why do you need to find her?"

     Cloud mouthed something, but Nanaki couldn't make it out.  The
blond-haired warrior turned to the door, taking a slow step

     Nanaki quickly ran forward to bar Cloud's way, baring his

     "You can't leave here, Cloud.", he said, trying to break
through the blankness in the other's eyes.  "Where will you go? 
We're in the middle of nowhere.  At the rate you're moving, you'll
die of heat exhaustion before you get more than a few miles."

     "Dirt took Tifa.", Cloud insisted, walking towards him without
flinching.  "Must find Tifa."

     Nanaki saw that it was useless trying to reason with him.  The
fever had too strong a hold on his mind, along with whatever other
mysterious force was at work here.  He crouched again, more
cautious this time, watching for an opening before making his move. 
Cloud gave him none, and soon his back was against the door.

     "Stop, Cloud!", he growled, but Cloud didn't seem to hear him.

     "Fine.", Nanaki said.  "Go, then!"  He moved aside, getting
out of Cloud's way.

     "Must find Tifa.", Cloud agreed, reaching for the door handle.
And giving Nanaki the opening he needed.

     He leapt, lightning quick, knocking Cloud to the ground with
the weight of his body, careful not to dig any of his claws into
his friend's chest or face, but pinning his arms at his side.  He
was much stronger than Cloud, especially in his weakened state, and
he was sure he could hold him down until he tired, then drag him
back to the couch.

     Red light flashed in Cloud's eyes.  And then he was pushing
Nanaki away.  He struggled, batting at Cloud's face with his paws
in an attempt to knock the other out, but handicapped due to the
fact that his claws were retracted.  Calmly, impossibly strong,
Cloud wrapped his hands around Nanaki's torso and lifted him off
his feet, getting up slowly.  Writhing in the other's grip, Nanaki
felt two of his ribs snap under Cloud's grip.

     Growling angrily, he smashed his hind paws into Cloud's
wrists, loosening the other's hands enough to push himself free. 
He fell away onto his back, rolled, and then leapt to his feet,
charging Cloud in one last attempt to subdue him.  The other merely
swung his fist once more, and Nanaki was unable to avoid it.  He
heard the sound of one of his forelegs breaking as he was ripped
off his feet and send flying back into the house.  He landed on his
side and skidded several feet.

     His ears ringing, he heard the doorknob turning and the sound
of the door swinging open.  Baring his teeth against the pain,
growling loudly, Nanaki slowly got to his feet and limped forward
on his three good legs.  Cloud... could not... leave!

     The other descended the steps outside the door and walked
slowly towards the ladder leading down into Cosmo Canyon.  Nanaki
stumbled after him, calling for help.  Cloud was strong enough to
push him off, but he remembered that Barret, Cid and Vincent had
managed to hold him down.  Their ape-like limbs were far more
efficient in that respect than his own, and surely there was no way
that Cloud could make it past everyone in Cosmo Canyon.

     "Nanaki!", someone yelled from the bottom of the ladder.
"What's wrong?"

     "Cloud's coming down!", Nanaki roared back, not recognizing
the voice.  "Don't let him past!  You'll need several more men to
subdue him!"

     "Got it!", the other yelled back.  He heard the man calling to
others, and nodded with satisfaction.  There was no way Cloud could

     Then Cloud stopped, just before the ladder, and turned to the
right, staring towards the edge of the mesa upon which Bugenhagen's
observatory was built.  Nanaki stopped, regarding him wearily,
trying to ignore the pain burning in his chest and his broken leg. 
At least the red had faded from his eyes.  They were blank and
lifeless once more.  Then Cloud began to move forward, heading for
the edge of the mesa.

     "Quick!", Nanaki amended, stumbling forward.  "Get up here!
I think he's going to try and go off the edge of the plateau!"

     He heard the sound of a person clambering up the ladder
towards him, and stumbled forward once more to bar his friend's
way, even though he knew that he had no chance of stopping Cloud by

     "Cloud!", he roared loudly.  "Listen to reason!  You cannot

     "Must find Tifa.", Cloud replied blankly.

     "Then let's go find her!", Nanaki said eagerly.  "I know where
she is!  She's right below us!  Right down there at the bottom of
the ladder.  Look!"  He motioned with a flick of his head.  Cloud
stopped, and turned.

     Then a blast of electricity tore into the hole leading back
into Cosmo Canyon, and Nanaki heard a shriek as the ladder and the
opening were blown apart.  

     Cloud's blank eyes rose to the sky, and Nanaki's followed,
widening in dismay.  A glowing... something... was descending from
the air, the space around it crackling with electrical energy. 
It's form was hard to make out, the only trace of it's presence the
electricity crackling around it and a translucent distortion that
seemed something more than empty sky.  A new threat, just when he
hadn't believed things could get any worse.  It was obviously here
to kill Cloud.  He had to protect him!

     He stumbled towards the being as it settled to the ground on
top of the rubble that had once been the access to the observatory
from below, preparing to fight it off, but his knew his broken leg
was going to severely hinder him.  Still, he did not hesitate. 
Cloud's life was in his hands, and he would die before he would
relinquish that trust.  

     He darted to the side as the strange creature send a burst of
electricity towards him, blasting a hole into the ground to his
right.  The creature discharged again, and he barely dodged it's
second attack, cursing as the pain from his broken leg and ribs
ripped through his body, slowing him.  Still, he leapt for it,
teeth bared, claws extended, not even knowing if he could damage

     Then it blasted into him with another terrifying burst of
energy, and knocked him to the ground, his vision momentarily going

     He woke, an indeterminate time later, to find the creature
advancing on him.  Cloud stood to his right, his eyes still blank,
making no attempt to flee.  He was paralyzed, numb everywhere.  He
wondered if his spine had been broken.  His one good eye rolled
desperately in it's socket from Cloud to the creature, but he knew
that he could do nothing else.  He was at this thing's mercy.

     The creature seemed to raise it's arms, and Nanaki noticed for
the first time that the distortion was humanoid, now that he could
see it against the wall of the observatory and not against blank
sky.  It raised it's arms and hissed angrily, seething with energy.

     Then Cloud stepped between them, his head slowly turning to
face the creature.

     "No.", he murmured.

     The distortion hissed, and Nanaki prepared himself to die.  It
would take them both.  But it heartened him that Cloud, no matter
how deep he was into whatever force had taken him over, still cared
about his welfare.

     The distortion didn't attack, seeming to size up it's new
adversary.  Maybe it hadn't expected this.  But why didn't it
simply kill them?

     It moved to the side, walking slowly around them, as if trying
to get a clear shot at Nanaki.  Then a strange thought hit him. 
What if this thing didn't want to kill Cloud?  What if it only
wanted to capture him?

     Cloud mirrored the other's movements, his eyes still blank and
staring, staying between it and Nanaki.  The creature flared
threateningly, frustrated, but still did not fire.

     "That's it Cloud.", Nanaki thought desperately.  "Take it

     Then Cloud began to advance on the creature.  Would it still
hold it's fire?  Nanaki prayed that it would.  He was helpless to
do anything to hinder it, now.  Perhaps Cloud, even in his
zombified state, could do something to stop it.

     Cloud reached forth his hand, and the creature hissed
guardedly.  Then, the field of electricity about it seemed to fade. 

     "What the devil is he doing?", Nanaki thought in dismay.

     The distorted, almost invisible being took a step towards him,
and Nanaki saw it's own invisible appendage rise to meet Cloud's. 
Then Cloud's hand seemed to clasp whatever the other had offered,
and they shook, like two Shinra businessmen agreeing on a deal.

     "And what the hell does that mean?", Nanaki thought angrily,
confused and betrayed.  Would they both turn on him now, and finish
him off?  Well, he was ready.  Perhaps he would join Bugenhagen
sooner than he had planned.  He had done his part, protecting his
charge just as his father had done as he died protecting the
Canyon.  He was just frustrated that he had been unable to do
anything more!

     Then Cloud turned to face him, and Nanaki's eye widened.
Cloud's face was still numb, devoid of emotion.  But something
glistened wetly from the corner of his right eye.  Nanaki realized
belatedly that it was a tear.

     The strange creature that had disabled him walked forward and
grasped Cloud's arms with it's invisible hands.  Then, it rose into
the air, crackling with energy, and flew off to the north.

     Nanaki watched it go, still paralyzed, helpless to stop it
from taking Cloud.  Angrily, he blinked away a tear of his own.  He
had failed.

The ringing of the PHS interrupted whatever Reeve had been about to say, and Cid grimaced with annoyance. Finishing his mouthful of fried chicken and swallowing, he politely asked Reeve to shut the hell up for a minute so he could answer the phone. "Cid.", he said, flipping the PHS open and bringing it to his ear. "Cid, you moron!", he heard Yuffie yell from the other end. "Get your ass over here! The damn ground just swallowed Tifa!" "What?", Cid asked, confused. "Something attacked us, you dolt!", Yuffie continued angrily. "The ground attacked us! It stuck out it's tendrils and sucked up Tifa and Sally! We need the Highwind to pick us up! It ain't safe to walk around out here!" Cid blinked, suddenly remembering the security tape from the Highwind, and what had happened to the Ultima Weapon. "Shit!", he exclaimed, leaping to his feet. "Where are you?" "I don't know!", Yuffie exclaimed angrily. "Use the homer on the PHS to find us! We're just outside Midgar! And hurry! That thing might come back before my flight spell wears off!" "Something the matter?", Reeve asked, concerned. "You don't know tha half of it!", Cid exclaimed angrily. "Jerry, Ben, on your feet! We gotta' go!" He spoke into the PHS again. "Yuffie, hang tight. Keep that homer goin'. We'll be there as soon as we can." "What is it?", Reeve asked again. "Can I help?" "I don't think so.", Cid said grimly, already heading for the door. "Thanks for the drink, Reeve. Be seein' ya." Reeve rushed after him as he and his men hurried out the door. "Is someone in trouble?", he insisted. "I can help!" "You got yer hands full here.", Cid said irritably. He balked at the door to the stairwell with a curse. "Goddamn stairs! We don't got no time!" "Would a chopper help?", Reeve asked. "It's only five flights to the roof." Cid looked at him like he had suddenly grown another pair of arms and started singing opera. "Boss!", Jerry protested. "Yeah.", Cid agreed, collecting himself. "A chopper would be great. We need to get to the Highwind, on the double." "You got it.", Reeve agreed. "Let's go." He pushed open the door to the stairwell and started up, Cid, his bodyguards and the Airship crewman all filing up behind him. "Ops, this is Reeve.", the Shinra President said briskly into a radio he had produced from somewhere in his sports coat. "I need a chopper gassed and ready to go in five." "Yes sir!", the person on the other end replied. Cid shook his head. "Can't fault the Shinra for their efficiency.", he thought. The trip to the roof took only a few minutes, far better than the thirty it would have taken to descend. As they burst from the stairwell onto the roof, a blast of wind hit Cid, from the already whirring blades of a Shinra helicopter. A Shinra soldier slid open the door of the chopper, and their party hurried inside. "Get to the Highwind.", Reeve ordered it's pilot. "On the double!" Cid sat down quickly, the floor tilting forward as the Shinra pilot powered his craft up and lifted off. Jerry, Ben and Reeve's bodyguards all grabbed the nearest handgrip, and Reeve dropped into the seat beside the pilot. Ten seconds later Cid saw the Highwind in the distance, and had to admit that Reeve had had a good idea. As they descended, Reeve turned to him. "Anything else we can do for you?", he asked. "Keep checking those records.", Cid said, as the pilot landed his craft about five meters from the Highwind. Cid saw the door open, as Barret stepped out cautiously, shielding his eyes from the dirt that the helicopter was blowing up. "And see if you can find out anything else about this Messiah!", he yelled over the roar of the helicopter's blades, as he slid open the door. "Go go go!", he roared at his men. They leapt past him, and began to run towards the Airship. "And Reeve!", Cid finished, before he jumped out. "Thanks." "Don't mention it.", Reeve said. "Come back and see us sometime." Cid was already out the door before Reeve finished his sentence. "What tha hell is goin' on?", Barret said angrily as Cid reached the Airship. "That thing that swallowed the Ultima Weapon got Tifa!", Cid yelled as he rushed past Barret up the ramp. "We gotta' move!" Barret rushed up behind him. "What?", he asked in disbelief. The door slammed shut behind them as they both dashed for the bridge. "Lift-off!", Cid yelled as they burst onto the flight deck. The pilot immediately complied, powering the Highwind's engines up. "Where too, Cap'n?", he asked calmly. Cid rushed forward and roughly pushed the navigator out of his seat. "Sorry.", he said in a rush as he quickly keyed in the Highwind's computer to the homing transmitter inside Yuffie's PHS. "Get moving!" The Highwind set off at once for the transmitter's location, it's jet engines roaring loudly. "Whaddya' mean that thing took Tifa?", Barret asked in confusion. "You mean she got swallowed up like Cloud's sword?" "That's what Yuffie said.", Cid said angrily. "Goddamit, I knew we shoulda' come back to get them. That Chocobo idea was stupid!" It took them barely a minute to reach the transmitter's point of origin. "Bring us down.", Cid ordered. "Slow. And whatever you do, don't land!" "Sir?", the pilot asked, confused. "You heard me.", Cid grumbled. Sighing, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a cigarette. "You think that thing could swallow the Highwind?", Barret asked. "I ain't takin' no chances with my ship.", Cid said, lighting his cigarette and taking a long drag, letting the smoke in his lungs soothe his frazzled nerves. "Look Cap'n!", Jerry said, pointing out the window. "Sweet mother a mercy.", Barret cursed in wonder. They were almost to the ground, but per his orders the pilot didn't land. "How are they doing that?", Jerry asked in confusion. Outside, Yuffie, Vincent, and two Chocobos were floating about eight feet off the ground, the Chocobos not looking very happy with their predicament, Yuffie looking positively livid, and Vincent calm as ever. "Slide over toward 'em.", Cid ordered. "Barret, go open the door." "Right.", Barret said. He turned and headed off the bridge towards the landing ramp. "That ain't gonna' work, Captain.", the pilot commented. Cid cursed as he saw that the wake from the Highwind's engines was blowing the people and animals outside away from them. "Damn it!", he cursed. "Fine, land us. But I want full power to engines the second something goes wrong." "You got it, Captain." Every second they remained on the ground Cid was sure that they were going to get swallowed up by whatever that thing was that the Highwind's security cameras had taped, but Yuffie and Vincent made it onto the bridge without incident, Barret in tow. Cid turned to face Yuffie and then had his cigarette knocked from his mouth as she knocked him out of his seat. "What didja think you were doing there, Cid?", she yelled angrily. "You nearly blew us all away!" "How was I supposed to know you was gonna' be floatin' in the air like friggin' loonies?", Cid roared back, rising to his feet. "Stop.", Vincent said, stepping in between them and waiting patiently for them to come to their senses. The two of them glared at each other for a few more seconds, and then Cid turned his attention to his pilot. "Lift-off!", he ordered. The pilot complied, and he turned his attention back to Yuffie. "Sorry.", he muttered, turning back to Yuffie. "I wasn't thinkin'." "Damn straight you weren't!", Yuffie replied, but seemed satisfied with his admission. "Anyways, we ain't got time to argue. We got bigger problems." "Where's Tifa?", Barret demanded. "Swallowed.", Yuffie replied angrily. "Some thing attacked us, swallowed Sally and Tifa right up. Woulda' had all of us, if I hadn't activated my Flight materia." "Where in da hell did you get that?", Barret said. "Forget it. Whaddya mean swallowed?" "I can't think of any other way to describe it.", Vincent said, shushing Yuffie with an upraised finger. "The ground came alive, like quicksand. It sent arms of dirt at us and tried to drag us down. It took Sally first, then Tifa. Then it just disappeared. I guess it couldn't get at us after Yuffie cast her float spell." "Jerry!", Cid ordered. "Gimme a scan of the area. If there's even a rabbit out there doin' somethin' it shouldn't be, I wanna' know about it." "Right Cap'n.", Jerry said, turning to his station. "We saw the same damn thing happen to the Ultima Weapon.", Cid put in, puffing on his cigarette viciously. "When we watched the Highwind's security tape from when Cloud went wonky. Ground just came alive and swallowed it. We didn't know what to make of it, then. I didn't think it was big enough to swallow a person!" "You coulda warned us!", Yuffie said angrily. "We didn't know!", Cid protested. "'Sides, it was Tifa's fool idea to take Chocobos to Midgar." He turned to Vincent. "And she wouldn't have had ta do THAT if you hadn't gone and disappeared like some sorta' wraith." Vincent shrugged. "Shifting blame around solves nothing.", he said. "We need to remain calm. There might still be a chance to save Tifa." "Scan's back, Cap'n!", Jerry called from his station. "Nothing unusual in the area. It's clean." "Damn.", Cid mumbled. "How deep didja go? Any bodies?" "Three miles down, that's the edge of our range sir.", Jerry answered. "And no bodies. If Tifa or anything else was down there, they aren't there anymore. Either that or they got dragged deeper than three miles." "That's something.", Vincent said. "She might not be dead." "She ain't dead!", Barret said angrily. "Tifa wouldn't go out like that." Cid and Yuffie's PHS units rang simultaneously, and both reached for them immediately. "I got it!", Cid barked. "Fine.", Yuffie sulked. "Cid.", he answered, wondering who was still left out there to call him. Had Reeve gotten his hands on a unit of his own again? "Hello?", someone said uncertainly on the other end of the line. "Who is this?", Cid demanded. "Taylor, from Cosmo Canyon.", the voice said. "You gotta' get over here, right away. Nanaki's hurt bad!" "Who?", Cid asked in confusion. Then it clicked. "Where's Cloud?", he asked immediately. "Disappeared.", Taylor said. "Look, Nanaki's hurt pretty bad. I don't know what we can do for him." "What now?", Barret asked. "Cloud's gone.", Cid answered, shaking his head in anger. "What?", everyone asked simultaneously. "He musta' busted up Red and gotten away.", Cid said. He turned and punched a nearby bulkhead in anger. "Dammit, everything's goin' to hell! First Tifa, now Cloud and Red! We're gettin' ripped apart here!" "This can't be happening.", Yuffie said softly, shaking her head, her eyes wide. "This can't be happening!" "Helm, set a course for Cosmo Canyon.", Cid ordered, his face pained. "And step on it." "We ain't licked yet.", Barret said grimly. "Calm yo' ass down, Yuffie. We still got the four o' us, plus Red if he ain't busted up too bad. We still got more than enough of us to take out Messiah, wherever he is." "Yeah, right!", Yuffie exclaimed is frustration. "You know damn well that Cloud, Tifa and Red are the only ones in our group with any knack for strategy. And now they're all gone! I didn't sign on for this, man! Huntin' materia and kickin' ass, I can do that. That's different. But this is impossible! We don't even know what Messiah looks like, let alone where he is or how to beat him! Assuming, for a moment, that that's even the name of whoever's after us!" "Shut up!", Cid barked. "I need to think." "Oh, scuuuuuuse me!", Yuffie said with an overdramatized shrug of her hands. "Try not ta hurt yourself, kay?" "Yuffie, you aren't helping.", Vincent said calmly from her side. "You need to calm down." "Oh sure!", Yuffie yelled angrily, her eyes flashing as she turned on him. "Sure you can be calm, ice man! But you aren't responsible! You ain't the one that let that thing eat Tifa!" "Is that what this is about?", Vincent asked, with a raised eyebrow. "No!", Yuffie said angrily, but it was suddenly obvious to everyone present that she was lying. "It wasn't your fault, Yuffie.", Vincent said softly, his eyes seas of calm slowly extinguishing the fire in Yuffie's own. "Tifa knew that there was nothing else any of us could do to help her. She let go of your grappling hook because she didn't want you to be dragged into that thing with her. Her disappearance is not your fault." "Of course it is!", Yuffie yelled, her voice cracking. Cid looked up from the computer station he had turned to as he thought, amazed to hear Yuffie on what sounded like the verge of tears. "I shoulda used my materia sooner! I coulda saved us all!" "None of us knew, Yuffie.", Barret said from her side. "Messiah been blindsidin' us from day one." "You saved us.", Vincent said, his voice still unnervingly calm. "That trap was obviously intended to take all of us. It would have, too. If you hadn't kept your wits about you and used that materia, none of us would be standing here right now." "Oh... fuck it.", Yuffie said, turning away, crossing her arms. Her face was pinched, her eyes moist. "I'm going for a walk!", she said suddenly, turning away and stepping briskly for the door. "I need... to clear my head." They watched her go, no one saying a word or making a move to stop her. As the door hissed shut behind her, Cid whistled softly. "Well don't that beat all.", he said. "No wonder she was so pissed off. I guess I ain't mad at her anymore." "She's changed a lot since she joined up wit' us.", Barret commented with a shrug. "She was cold when we first met her, man. Faked us out, grabbed a buncha gil and disappeared into the forest like a snake. Not anymore, tho." "Sir, we're approaching the Cosmo Canyon area.", the helmsman commented from his station. "Where do you want me to land?" "Man, we ain't got time to hike all the way through the Canyon from the plains.", Barret said. "You said Red was busted up bad, right? We gotta' get to him as quick as possible." "Right.", Cid said, looking thoughtful. He turned to the pilot, an evil glint suddenly appearing in his eye. "Well, Mitch? You feel like you've got enough practice time in with the tow cables?", he asked, taking a puff of his cigarette. The pilot glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. "I could give it a shot." "Don't give it a shot, Mitch.", Cid warned. "Do it right." The pilot nodded. "Yes sir." Then, he turned back to his controls, flying them straight for the center of Cosmo Canyon. "What you two talkin' about?", Barret asked nervously. "I thought you said we can't land in the Canyon." "That's right.", Cid agreed. "Radioactives in the Canyon floor would play hell with the crystals powering the engines, ruin them for sure." "Then where we headed?", Barret asked, confused. "Straight for the center.", Cid said, that evil glint returning to his eye. "We're gonna' put down right next to the city." "I take it you've found some way to shield the engine crystals from the radioactive elements in the area?", Vincent asked cautiously. "Nope.", Cid said with a shrug. "Then what the hell we doin'?", Barret exclaimed angrily. "Dammit Cid, I hate it when you get that look. Why don't we just take Chocobos in like last time?" Cid smiled and took a long drag of his cigarette. "You wanna' get on a Chocobo with that thing out there swallowing people up?" Barret blinked and quickly shook his head. "Hell no." "Well there ya go.", Cid said, exhaling a long breath of smoke straight in Barret's face. "Watch and learn, boys.", he said, as Barret coughed and swatted at the smoke angrily. "Mitch here is the best. After me, a course, since I taught 'em." As he spoke, the Airship dipped forward, as Cid's pilot slowly descended towards the city below. They could see the town of Cosmo Canyon rapidly approaching, the observatory at it's top stretching towards them prominently, like a flag placed on top of the mountain by a triumphant explorer. Then the Airship turned to the side, moving slowly away from the city, but still descending. Mitch's eyes were glued to the readout at his station, as his hands seemed to almost unconsciously maneuver the ship safely through the jutting spires of the mountains that made up Cosmo Canyon. Barret watched nervously as the jagged rocks slid past only a few meters from the left side of the Airship, as it continued to descend. Then the Airship began to shake with turbulence, as they neared the edge of the radius of the radioactive elements in the canyon floor. At this height, it wouldn't do much more than destabilize the engines, but if they got closer or, heaven forbid, landed, the interference would destroy the engines completely. "You sure...", he began, but Cid cut him off with an upraised hand. Finally, rocky spires all around them, the Highwind stopped it's descent, only about ten meters from the ground below, rocking like it was caught in a strong wind. Cid leaned against a wall, his arms crossed with a smug expression, and Barret and Vincent held on for dear life to a nearby guard rail. The rest of the Airship crew seemed as unaffected by the unstable rocking as Cid, and Mitch seemed to be holding the unstable ship steady with barely an effort. The rocky walls of Cosmo Canyon were suffocatingly close on either side, less than thirty feet, by Barret's judgement. The door to the flight deck hissed open and Yuffie stumbled in, her eyes dry and her expression pained. "What the hell are you guys doin'?", she exclaimed. "You tryin' ta make me hurl?" "Looks good to me, Cap'n.", Mitch commented, glancing around at the rock walls of the canyon speculatively. "We're as close as we can get to the edge of the field those radioactives are putting off without damaging the engines. Your assessment?" Cid nodded in satisfaction. "You're cleared to deploy, Mitch." "Yes sir.", the other nodded. He reached for his station and flipped up a red protective cover on the far left, revealing four small metal switches, all in the off position." "Deploying forward tow cables in 3, 2, 1..." Barret, Yuffie and Vincent all waited expectantly, but they still weren't prepared for what happened as Mitch completed his countdown and hit the first of the four switches. With a loud crack of decompressing air, two wicked looking metal hooks, each affixed to a long, thick length of steel wire, shot from just below the forward window of the airship, rocketing off to either side. Almost simultaneously, the hooks slammed into each opposite wall of Cosmo Canyon, sinking deep into the rock. Mitch flicked the second switch, and they heard another hiss of compressed air. "Forward tow cables secured.", Mitch stated calmly. The Highwind's unstable tilting stabilized almost immediately, though the rear of the ship was still sliding back and forth in mid-air. "Deploying aft cables in 3, 2, 1..." They heard another crack of decompressing air as Mitch flicked the third switch, and heard rather than saw two more hooks with steel wire slam into the rock walls on either side of the rear part of the Highwind. Mitch flicked the fourth switch, and then shut the protective cover as another sound of compressed air echoed over the flight deck. "Aft cables secure, sir.", Mitch said calmly, as if this was routine. The others, all save Cid, stood wide-eyed in amazement. The only way that they could tell that the Highwind was still being destabilized by the radioactives in the canyon floor was by a barely discernable, slightly changing tilt of the flight deck. "Good work, Mitch.", Cid said with a nod. "Shut down the engines." "What?", Yuffie exclaimed. Mitch nodded, and began to throttle back the power to the Highwind's jets, the only things keeping them from crashing to the floor of the canyon and exploding in a colorful fireball. "Hold on just a sec...", Barret began, but Mitch had throttled all the way down before they could finish, and they heard the sound of the engines shutting completely off. There was a sound of stretching metal, and everyone waited in terror for the Highwind to plunge to it's doom on the rock of the Cosmo Canyon floor. "Hot damn, it worked.", Cid said with a grin. "I knew it would." "Never doubted ya, Captain.", Mitch said with a shrug. "Sweet mother a mercy.", Barret said, staring out the forward window of the Highwind, down the length of the steel cables stretching from it's nose, their hooks sunk deep into the rocky walls on each side, the lines stretched taut, but holding. Strong winds whistled over the cables and ship, clearly audible against the distinctive silence of the Highwind's engines, but the ship seemed unaffected, the tension on the four cables holding it secure ten meters above the rocky ground. "You mean it's just gonna' sit here like this? How we gonna' get down?" "Rope ladder.", Cid said with a shrug. "Ain't nothin' new." "You installed grappling hooks to anchor the Airship to the walls of the Canyon, so we could come down near the city without landing.", Yuffie said curiously, crossing her arms. "I hate to admit it, but that's pretty slick, Cid." Cid beamed, and the last of the tension between them seemed to disappear. "C'mon.", he said roughly, after a second. "Let's climb on down and go see about Red."

Copyright November 1997

by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis

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