Look, I'm not the most creative person around. You want a quote, ask the Author.
The Author's cloak billowed out behind him as he plummeted towards the lower plate. It was still some considerable distance below him, although it did seem to be making a concerted effort to remedy this situation. Whether it was the extra weight of Cloud's hair gel or the fact that the Author's cloak served almost as a parachute was unclear, but the warrior seemed to be falling considerably faster.
"Nice one," muttered a gloomy voice from the Author's shoulder, emerging into the daylight near the end of the sentence as Mr. Big. "Why'd you go and do that?"
"Ice," the Author mused. "One of them effectively pushed me off. I think we have some candidates for FG now."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it," Mr. Big replied sarcastically. "Let's go back up there and arrest them now, shall we?"
"I don't know what you're worried about," the Author snapped. "You can do that helicopter thing with your ears. I'm the one who's going to hit the... oh, dear, there he goes."
Below them, Cloud narrowly missed a church-like building that would have cushioned his fall to a certain extent and crashed heavily into the dust beside it.
"Well, love to hang around," the rabbit continued hurriedly, doing as the Author suggested and spinning his ears as rapidly as is lapinely possible. "I'll see you down there, shall I?"
The Author looked up at him as his fall began to slow. "Wish me luck," he called, and went straight through the roof of the church.
Perigee coughed uncertainly. "Uh, maybe we should get out of here. I don't know whether they've disarmed that bomb we set or not. Sorry if this seems coldhearted, but there's nothing we can do about Cloud... or that other man. We've got to think about ourselves now." Not that Cloud's going to have any trouble, he added silently.
Tifa nodded her head slowly. "I suppose you're right," she said sadly.
Barret's brow unfurrowed, thoughts about the uncertainty of death being replaced by the much easier thoughts of command, and stamped his foot. The catwalk creaked slightly. "Okay. Meet back at the hideout. Move out!"
Are you all right?
"Ouch... I'm alive, if that's what you mean."
That'll do for now.
"I'm glad to hear you think of it that way."
Huh. Anyway, you'd better be getting up. Time's wasting away.
"To be honest, I think I'd prefer to stay here for a bit."
You won't be saying that in a few minutes if you do.
"Are you okay?"
"Oh, good. Now there's two people talking to me. This could get confusing."
No, only one. Note the lack of speech marks in my case.
"You're not speaking?"
"Oh, it moved!"
Nope. I'm just your thoughts. I bet you never knew you had a split personality before.
Oh. Well, I'd better get going then.
The Author stirred unwillingly and slowly opened his eyes. After a while the blurs in front of him settled down, and he found himself staring into an attractive yet worried female face. She smiled when she saw him looking at her.
"Are you an angel?" he asked weakly, because there are some conventions by which even Authors have to abide.
She laughed. "No, just a flower girl. My name's Aeris. Who are you?"
The Author managed to lever himself up into a sitting position.
"I'm the Author."
She looked slightly confused. "Is that your real name?"
"No." He shook his head. "The thing is, I've been the Author for so long now I haven't got a clue what my name used to be beforehand. People just call me Author."
She smiled again, stood up and helped him to his feet. "Hey, do I know you?"
The Author's memories stirred, rather tentatively in case they had any broken bones, but after realising they were intact, lined up for inspection.
He smiled himself when he realised.
"So you're the girl from Sector 1? It is a genuine pleasure to meet you. Again." He reached out, took her hand and kissed it tenderly.
Behind her and unseen to both of them, a black shape descended through the new hole in the roof and landed neatly on the floor. It raised its sunglasses in surprise when it saw the two talking and watched curiously.
Aeris stared thoughtfully at him. "What happened to your eyes?"
She realised immediately she shouldn't have said it, and clasped a hand over her mouth in embarrassment. The Author looked confused. "What about them?" He brought his hand up in front of his face, and noted the lack of light. Obviously he'd blown a fuse or something like that. "Ah. Don't worry, the lights are just for show. They stop most of the creatures where I live attacking."
"Oh." Aeris looked him up and down. He seemed harmless enough, although for all she knew he could be concealing anything underneath that cloak. No. She stared at his eyes. She hadn't been able to see it the first time they'd met, but there was a certain element of compassion about them. He didn't look like the sort of person the Shinra employed. And she had to admit that he was fairly handsome, in his own way.
It should be pointed out that this was one occasion on which her normally astute senses failed her. A survey conducted among all the women the Author had come into contact with would have provided the result that he was, by common consensus, about as sexy as a pencil sharpener.
She was about to say something when she noticed the medallion he wore around his neck, set with three faintly glowing orbs in a triangle arrangement. She guessed they were materia of some sort, but they were unlike any other she'd seen. One was a deep purple, the second an almost blood red, and the third... It seemed to evade her gaze, so that whenever she looked at it suddenly it was at the corner of her vision. Obviously there was enormous power in that one.
Suddenly she was suspicious. She'd never seen anyone with materia other than Shinra operatives. "What are you doing here?"
The Author pointed cheerfully towards the hole in the ceiling. "Just dropping in."
"Ouch," muttered the black shape at the abysmal pun.
"I do hope I'm not interrupting anything," interrupted a man in a dark blue suit, walking calmly into the church and leaning on one of the pews. "Aeris, you really must learn not to socialise with strangers."
"Who's he?" the Author whispered, examining this newcomer. Obviously this suit had the potential to be extremely smart, but somehow on this man it looked shabby. His shirt was untucked, his jacket loose. Even his red hair seemed to be doing its best to add to this appearance. It stuck up in literally all directions, beating even Cloud's to the award for 'most unpredictable hairstyle'.
"No time to explain," Aeris replied. She held out a hand to him. "Would you care to escort me out?"
"Hey, Reno!" A trio of soldiers entered, hauling Cloud's limp body behind them. "We found this one outside."
Reno looked scornfully at their latest catch. "Get these two as well."
The Author smiled at Aeris. "Love to. But first..."
She saw the purple materia on his medallion begin to glow more strongly as he turned away from her and walked calmly towards the uninvited guests, hands in the air. "I've always believed it's not reasonable to fight armed men when all I have is my fists. However..."
He whirled round, smashing one fist into the stomach of a soldier with so much power that the unfortunate man was sent hurtling backwards and crashed into the wall above the door.
The second soldier managed to raise his rifle in time to realise that the Author had vaulted expertly over his head and planted one foot firmly in the small of his back. He did not feel too much after that.
The Author spun round to spot the third and final soldier aiming directly at his head. He took a quick glance around him, and sprinted up the wall. Bullets spattered into the woodwork as he ascended, until he decided he had gained enough height and leaped down on top of the guard.
"Ignore reason temporarily," he finished, standing up calmly, the light in his materia slowly fading away. He felt rather than saw the burst of energy hit his back, but quite definitely saw the shimmering silver pyramid encase him. "Oh, damn."
Reno smiled as he stuck his 'Shinra Electro-Mag Rod, Mk. III' back through his belt. "It actually works! Try getting out of that if you can!"
He looked to the far end of the church, where Aeris was making for the back entrance. "Perhaps I should mention," he called out, "that this man may be classified as 'expendable' after what he just did. I would hate to have to dispose of him. It's always so messy."
The Author saw Aeris slow and look back over her shoulder. " ," he shouted, his words muted somewhat by the barrier around him. " !"
Aeris sighed. "All right. I'll come."
"Good girl." Reno stared from the Author to the three soldiers, who were by now beginning to recover. "I'm sure I can arrange for you two to share a cell or something like that. We'll have to take care with this one, though. I was quite impressed by that little display."
The black shape gloomily watched the soldiers collect their prizes and carry them out of the church. It had to admit, it had been impressed by the Author's sudden physical ability. Obviously that 'Mega Plus' materia (mastered, +200% to all stats, don't you know) he'd written beforehand had been worth the effort. But still, it hadn't been good enough this time.
"I'd better go inform the others," it muttered gloomily to itself, looking up through the hole in the ceiling and wondering what was the quickest route back to Sector 7.
Perigee was feeling rather content. Everything was going according to plan, and he was seeing scenes that had been originally omitted. Like when they went into that fast-food restaurant. That had been... different.
He was lying underneath Seventh Heaven's pinball machine, with a varied collection of outlandish tools scattered around him. Much of the innards of the unfortunate machine were dangling out from it, and occasionally a spark was reflected in his eyes. The others had retired to the basement where they were either trying to decide what to do about Cloud or just generally worrying, and so he had seized this opportunity to try and get the thing up and running again. It was one mini-game that hadn't made it into the final product, and he was determined to remedy that.
He had just started humming to himself when Mr. Big walked underneath the traditional saloon-style swinging doors and into the bar, looking rather less organised than he had before. An encounter with a group of unidentifiable pink creatures had ruffled his fur and generally unnerved him, but at least he'd gained a reasonable amount of experience from them. He idly readjusted his sunglasses with one ear and polished the lenses with the other. "Um... anyone home?"
Perigee sat up abruptly and hit his head on the underside of the pinball machine. Several brightly-coloured lights immediately started flashing, a tinny voice yelled, "Knights of the Round MULTIBALL!" and the machine dispensed twelve steel ball bearings into his face.
"Hang on..." he muttered, extricating himself from the various flippers and bumpers around him and trying desperately to prevent as many of the balls as possible from escaping. "Sorry, who is it?"
"The name's Big..." Mr. Big began, but trailed off once he realised that Perigee was looking straight past him at the gates, obviously expecting someone to enter. "Down here, you fool. The rabbit."
Perigee stared down at the creature. It couldn't be talking. That just didn't fit with the game.
"Yes, I'm talking to you," Mr. Big continued irritably. "Hear me? Reception good at your end?"
Perigee backed away. No... this rabbit couldn't talk. It was just a trick of his imagination. You didn't get talking animals in FF7... well, not apart from Nanaki, anyway. He had to get rid of the rabbit, quickly.
A tiny voice at the back of his mind kept insisting that he'd seen that rabbit before somewhere, but he ignored it and began looking for something to cover the rabbit with. A bucket would be ideal. Even a tea towel would do.
"Is someone here?" Tifa called, climbing up from the basement. "I thought I heard you talking to someone, Perigee."
Mr. Big sighed and cleared his throat. It was one of the things that the Author had taught him that, in situations like this, the most important thing was to take their attention away from the fact that he was actually talking and try to get them to concentrate on what he was saying. And experience had taught him the best way to go about this.
"Ah, how you doin', brethren?" he began, switching accents instantly from his usual cultured tones into something far, far coarser. "Me is seein' how you be lashin' dat machine up real good, you see what me is sayin'?"
The things I do for the Author, he mused darkly to himself.
"What did it say?" Tifa asked. Perigee shrugged.
"I think it was referring to the pinball machine," he suggested. "I was trying to get it working again, you see, and..."
Mr. Big couldn't hold back a grin. This was easier than he'd anticipated.
"Me is bringin' you news from dat slick feller Cloud," he interrupted. "Yo' friend, you know? Yah, dem Shinra breres, they is lockin' him up real good in their tower thing, innit."
"Did it just mention Cloud?" Tifa said, suddenly paying far more attention than before.
"I... something to do with the Shinra, I think," Perigee added.
"Yah," Mr. Big spoke up, anxious to get his message across, "dem Shinra folk is takin' Cloud to them home place. All de way over there, you knows? With me, brethren?"
"I don't follow it," Perigee admitted. Mr. Big sighed. Maybe he'd overdone the dialect a bit.
"Yo, what's up?" Barret shouted, joining them from below. "What're yo' two talkin' about?"
"Um... I don't really know how to put this, Barret..." Tifa began.
"There be a talkin' rabbit in yo' house, fella, see?" Mr. Big put in. "Yo' wid me? Yo' follow what me is sayin'?"
"Yeah," replied Barret cheerfully, completely unfazed.
"Slick," Mr. Big agreed. "Now, listen up, me boy. Them Shinra breres, they is takin' yo' Cloud friend off t' deir big tower place. Got me?"
"Yo' what?!" Barret yelled. He turned to the other two. "It said the Shinra got Cloud in that HQ of theirs! We gotta go rescue him!"
"Yah, spring that fella," the talking rabbit concurred. "He in major trouble, you know. Let's go hack the net, brethren."
"Yeah!" Barret continued. "If Cloud's in trouble, we're gonna go get him, yo' understand? I'm goin' to get the others!"
He leaped back down the hole into the basement, taking a sizeable chunk of the dismantled pinball machine with him. Tifa shook her head sadly. "I'll just go tell Marlene we're off again," she told Perigee, and disappeared.
Perigee looked down at Mr. Big and shrugged. Well, he supposed if they were going to do the raid on Shinra tower now, he wouldn't object. That whole business with Don Corneo and the Sector 7 plate was... hang on, if they were doing the tower now, then that meant Sector 7 wouldn't fall. He cheered up a bit at that.
Unfortunately, there was still the fact that, somehow, despite his best intentions, a talking rabbit had entered into the plot.
"What exactly are you?" he asked it, slightly suspiciously. "How do you know about Cloud?"
"Ah, yo' remember dat fella what almost saved Cloud?" Mr. Big replied. "He called the Author. Respect to the Author, brother. He hacks it reeeal good, man, you see what me is sayin'? Well, me is sorta his familiar."
It suddenly occurred to Mr. Big that all he was doing to create this daft speech thing was effectively using third person verbs for everyone and inserting a good helping of silly words into the sentences, and that this was basically how I, Caroussis spoke. He smiled inwardly and made a mental note to bring this matter up when the two met later on.
Perigee's expression froze. So this rabbit was something to do with 'FG,' was it? Well, it looked as though he had no choice now other than to play along, but when he came face to face with that plot saboteur, there would be an ugly confrontation, he was sure of that. Ugly, definitely, because he had, in various pockets in his lab coat, at least half a dozen test tubes containing corrosive, ionising, and just downright odorous chemicals. How'd FG like half a mole of 2,4-dimethylphenyl 3-oxypentanoate in his eyes, then?
"Now, I want you to be careful with this one. He's better than he looks."
"Whatever you say, sir. We won't disable the pyramid until he's in the cell."
"That's the spirit. Don't forget, put them both in the same cell."
"Yes, yes, I know. Not the most sensible thing, but I did promise her. I've got to keep my word. Code of the Turks, remember?"
"Yes, sir. By your leave, sir, I will call over two of the porters now."
"The sir here would like you to take these two and house them in cell... 7B. He says to be especially careful over this one."
"Don't look too much of a danger to me, if you want my opinion, but if you say so... Hang on, I know this girl. Seen pictures of her in some of the files. Who is she?"
"May I just check something? Would these be black-bound files -"
"Saying 'for the eyes of the Turks only' on the cover?"
"Um... nah, just something I read somewhere, can't remember where. Nothing important, honest. But... this woman, this... sorcerer. Why's she here?"
"I'm not meant to tell you that, you know."
"Oh, c'mon, mate. Just between friends. I don't know you, you don't know me, if you like."
"Perfectly true, I don't know you. Oh, well... she's an Ancient, according to our info. The good Doctor Hojo wants her for his 'experiments.'"
"Think I know just what you mean, mate. Well, off to work, eh?"
"Yes, get on with it. This thing's new, and I'm not entirely sure how long the pyramid'll last. I'd genuinely hate to see you get hurt."
"Point taken, guv, point taken. I'm off now. You can see me goin', right?"
"Remind me again why we're doing this?" asked Tifa.
"We need to get to the Shinra Tower. The only way is by train, and we know our IDs don't work," replied Perigee.
"Yeah, but there's got to be a better way than this."
He had to agree with her. They'd found a manually driven trolley, the sort that required two people to alternately lower the ends of a see-saw-like contraption fixed to the middle of the trolley. Wedge and Barret were working it, being the strongest. That rabbit had taken up residence on Barret's shoulder, and went 'waah' every time he stood up.
"So what're we going to do when we get there?" enquired Jessie.
"We gonna... bust on in. Show da Shinra...what we're made of," panted Barret.
"I don't think that would be such a good idea," warned Perigee. "Into the jaws of death, and all that stuff. Maybe it'd be better if we found a more... discreet route."
"We should sneak in. Like up the fire escape, or something," said Perigee, grinning.
Barret was silent, though whether it was due to outrage or fatigue was uncertain.
Aeris rolled over onto her side, clutching her head in both hands. She couldn't recall what they'd done to her, but by the splitting pain currently residing an inch or so above her left eye, it had involved something very heavy and also rather blunt.
Her vision wasn't exactly perfect, but she could just about make out her surroundings. There weren't exactly very many of them to take in. This seemed to be some sort of cell, about... she tried to judge the size... about eight foot square. The walls were made of a particularly boring grey metal, with absolutely nothing interesting about them. Even the inconspicuous door was just a flat sheet, without even a barred window to brighten the place up. The only light was provided by a tiny bulb in the ceiling which managed to illuminate the room just enough to let her see that she couldn't really see anything.
There was a hunched figure in the far corner of the room. It looked vaguely humanoid, but she couldn't make out too much detail. It seemed to be doing something complex and difficult, judging by the mutters of, "Damn," and, "Why am I bothering with this?"
She sat up unsteadily, opened her mouth to say something, and the room lit up. Brilliant white light mercilessly filled every corner, apparently emanating from the figure. She held one hand to her eyes to shade them from the glare and tried to work out what the shape was. She could tell now that it was a person, a man, judging by the hairstyle. He was wearing particularly unnoteworthy clothes - a pair of navy blue jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt of a similar colour. From what she could see of his face reflected in the walls, he did not look overly friendly.
He turned to face her, and she was almost blinded by the glare. She shut her eyes as tight as she could and held both arms in front of her face.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said a familiar voice, and gradually the light died away, leaving them once more in almost complete darkness. "I think I must have rewired them wrong. They shouldn't be this bright."
"Author?" asked Aeris shakily. She opened her eyes, and purple and green afterimages flashed across her vision. "You're okay?"
The vague silhouette that was all of the Author she could see moved in a way that she assumed was him nodding. "Pretty much, although I'm afraid they've taken the good stuff - my materia, and my cloak. I thought that was quite good, that cloak."
Automatically, Aeris' hand reached for her hairband. She breathed an audible sigh of relief when she felt the orb still attached there. Thank the Cetra they hadn't taken that.
"What are we going to do?" she asked. Memories of that strange man Reno's guys had hauled in with them came back to her. "Where's the other person? Is he okay?"
"Cloud? Haven't a clue." The Author waved one arm around to indicate the cell they were in, a gesture that was almost completely lost on Aeris. "He's not in here with us." He rapped on the wall next to him with one fist. "Cloud? You over in there?"
"Wh?" said a muffled voice from the other side of the wall. "Huh?"
"Oh, he's alright!" Aeris' relief was apparent. "I'm sorry!" she called. "I didn't want anyone else to get caught up in this!"
The Author shook his head. "Don't worry," he reassured her. "The Shinra were after him regardless of you."
Aeris sighed. Somehow, that didn't really help to make things any better.
"So what do we do now?" she enquired.
The Author grinned in the darkness.
"We wait for a guard to turn up," he explained. "Even without those materia, I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve."
"Hey, stop, we're here!" shouted Tifa suddenly.
AVALANCHE leapt off the cart, which carried on into the night. Shinra Tower rose imposingly above them, made of glass and only interrupted by the occasional vent. Two glass large elevator shafts climbed up the front, reaching to the penultimate floor. Anyone who had any experience in these areas would know that a complex system of keycards meant that only management could reach the 60th floor, executives the 64th, and the 70th was reserved for the President. Terrorists, civilians and other lowlifes were restricted to the ground floor, where the barracks was.
"Okay, let's try to find a fire escape," announced Perigee.
The others nodded, and they spread out. Shortly afterwards, a shout came from Wedge. He'd found a largeish door partially hidden behind some crates. A sign on the door said, 'Fire escape - Do not block.'
"Awright, let's get goin'," ordered Barret, dejectedly.
Unknown to AVALANCHE, Cloud was sitting in a cell on the 67th floor, feeling rather sorry for himself. He stood up, and nearly fell straight back over. He ran a mental check, and discovered that his huge sword was missing, throwing off his balance. Well, he thought, he could still defend himself. Shinra's training program was the best in the world, and though he was five years out of practice, he still knew how to fight unarmed.
Private Piete Vicks trudged lethargically up and down the dismal corridor between the two rows of cells on either side of him. It was a particularly dull task, made even worse by the fact that currently only two of the cells were occupied.
"Right, that does it!" shouted a voice from one of the inhabited rooms. "I've had enough of your cheek!" A few assorted thumps and clangs emanated from the cell after this, accompanied by what sounded like female cries of pain.
Vicks hurried over to the appropriate door, frantically swiped his keycard through the lock, and flung the door open. He found himself standing in front of an attractive young woman, who smiled innocently at him and waved.
"I'm so sorry," she said sadly. "It's not your fault."
Behind him, the Author stood up and raised a hefty book in the air, then brought it down with considerable force on his head. Vicks looked momentarily puzzled before he toppled over onto his face.
"That wasn't," the Author told him, spinning the book around his wrist several times before replacing it in one of his jeans pockets in a manner reminiscent of a highly educated gunslinger. Aeris caught a glimpse of the title, embossed in gold leaf on the cover: "Oxford English Dictionary, voluminous edition."
"I hope he'll be okay," she murmured, kneeling down by his fallen body and searching through his pockets.
The Author shrugged. "It's very hard to do lasting damage with a book," he observed philosophically. "He might have a bit of a headache for a few days, though. Don't worry about him. We've got more important problems at the moment."
Aeris nodded, standing up and handing the Author Vicks' thin plastic card. "How are we going to get out from here?"
The two of them stepped over Vicks' body and out into the corridor, the Author immediately going over to the cell next to theirs and unlocking it. "I hadn't really thought about that," he explained. "I normally just make things up on the spot, although it would make sense if we tried to find our stuff before going anywhere." It's always stored nearby, he reminded himself. The laws of literature wouldn't like it if it took us hours to get back what we lost.
The door to the cell next to theirs slid silently opening, revealing nothing in particular.
The Author shrugged. "Could've sworn he was in this one," he mused to himself, turning and starting to head towards the cell on the other side. "Still, everyone makes -"
He was cut off abruptly as Cloud charged out from where he had been hiding beside the door, grabbed him round the neck with both fists, and began doing his utmost to strangle him. The Author struggled, but without his Mega Plus materia he really wasn't strong enough to stand a chance.
"Get off me, you idiot," he gasped, raising an arm and elbowing Cloud in the face. "I'm rescuing you! Let go of me!"
"Yeah, right," Cloud muttered, tightening his grip and only releasing the Author when Aeris hurried up to him and slapped him in the face.
"Get off him!" she exclaimed. "We're here to help!"
"Huh." Cloud brought a hand up to his face and tenderly nursed the red patch on his cheek. "Whatever."
Aeris spun on her heel and walked over to the Author, who was currently collapsed on the floor and doing his best to breathe. He took her proffered hand and stood up shakily.
"That's gratitude for you," he observed darkly. "I don't know why I even bothered to save you back at the reactor."
"Hey, I'm sorry, okay?" Cloud replied. "I thought you were a guard of some sort. Thanks for back then."
"No problem." The Author held out his hand, obviously calming down once it was clear that it had only been a regrettable misunderstanding of the third degree (a first degree misunderstanding results in an exchange of views, a second degree one in an argument, and a third degree is defined as, 'a situation in which one or both parties are in danger of losing their teeth or suffering greater physical damage'). "My name's the Author."
"Cloud," Cloud said truthfully. "How'd you get out of your cell?"
"We exchanged a few words with the guard," the Author replied. Aeris suppressed a giggle. "Anyway, we don't really want to hang around here, and I've got... I had some stuff I'd like to get back. Follow me."
Cloud opened his mouth to point out that he had been in SOLDIER, you know, and he probably knew his way around this building better than either of the other two did. He got about as far as, "I was..." before he noticed that they had both disappeared round a corner, and hurried to try and catch up with them.
A few of the staff gave them odd looks, but most shrugged and turned back to their work when the Author waved cheerfully at them and asked them how things were going. If these guys were escaping prisoners then they should be running around and, well, escaping, not talking amiably to their captors.
Had Aeris been a few paces farther forward, she might have noticed the Author flipping a coin as they passed each door on either side. As it was, all she knew was that he stopped in front of one nondescript door so abruptly that she walked into his shoulder.
"This one," he announced, putting the coin in one of his shirt pockets. Ah, the wonders of literature. It hadn't really mattered exactly how he chose the room to investigate - as a point of interest, he'd decided beforehand that he would stop on the third head he flipped - all that mattered was that they did actually choose one. He was willing to give very generous odds that this room here would be where their stuff was temporarily stored.
He pushed open the door and walked calmly in, closely followed by the other two. A quick glance around told him he'd been right. Sitting opposite each other at a desk were two guards, and there was an inviting-looking metal chest in one corner of the room. It practically exuded an aura of 'open me, I contain items.'
"But," one of the guards was saying triumphantly, "I've got the queen and the three. That's a seasonally adjusted side-stepped flip!" He leaned back smugly in his swivel chair and spotted the newcomers. "Wait a sec, you're the prisoners! Jailbreak!"
"I'll go get the others!" his companion exclaimed, leaping over the back of his chair and making for the door. He hit the floor a few seconds later as Cloud calmly stuck one foot out in his path and proceeded to kick him until he stopped squirming.
The Author noted gloomily Aeris' expression of something approaching admiration at his actions. Why did female characters always go for the men with abundant brawn and generally deficient intelligence? Not that it bothered him personally, he had to admit. The last thing he wanted was to get... 'involved' with one of the characters.
"Ha!" the still standing guard shouted gleefully, reaching down to a drawer in the desk and producing a small pistol. "Got you now, you terrorist scum!"
"Terrorist?" asked Aeris pointedly.
The Author held his hands up in the air. "It's rather unsporting to shoot at three unarmed prisoners, isn't it?" he pointed out. "Have you no code of morals?"
"No," admitted the guard. "Come on, now, get back to your cells. Quietly now."
"Oh well." The Author lowered his hand and tested his grip on his dictionary. "Never mind. I did try to keep things friendly."
He flexed his wrist a few times and threw the book in a manner similar to a frisbee. It flew forwards in a perfectly straight line, hit the guard between the eyes, rebounded off at an angle and looped back into his hand.
"Whoah," said Cloud, genuinely impressed.
The Author shrugged modestly. "Practice," he explained, stepping over the guard's prone body and walking over to the chest. He knelt down next to it and hauled on the lid.
"Um..." he said after a while. "Perhaps if I could have some help here? This thing's rather stiff."
"Yeah, sure." Cloud ambled unhurriedly over and gripped the lid with both hands. Bracing one foot at the base of the chest, he heaved upwards and pulled the thing open after barely five seconds or so.
"Let's see now..." The Author reached into the chest and began relieving it of its contents. "We have one materia amulet... one black cloak... hmm..." He stuck one arm farther in and removed Cloud's five-foot long sword from a box only two feet square, trying not to think about the geometry of the situation. Literature again. "This is yours, isn't it?" After this came a simple wooden staff, again maybe five feet long or so. "Aeris?"
"Oh, yes." Aeris hurried over and took it from him. "I keep this with me just in case. The Turks can be quite persistent." She blushed. "I do try not to hurt them."
The Author shrugged. "Makes sense, I suppose," he agreed, putting his cloak back on and twirling once or twice. "Much better." Something that had been nagging at him finally made itself known, and he walked over to the prone guard by the door and removed him of his sunglasses. One lens was slightly crooked after his fall, but they were satisfactory. The Author put them on and adjusted them. It was fair to say that they didn't suit him in any way whatsoever.
"Are we ready, then?" he asked, fastening his amulet round his neck and smiling inwardly as he felt the surge of power from his Mega Plus materia flow into him. "Let's go fight our way out, shall we?"
Cloud trudged along behind his two rescuers. The man, he remembered, had said he was an author, but Cloud still didn't know his name. As for the woman... he'd never seen her before. She was good-looking, though. He quickened his pace a bit and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Hey... what's your name?"
She turned. "I'm Aeris. And you?"
"Cloud Strife. So..." He fished around for something to say. "...what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" He groaned inwardly. What kinda line was that?
A few metres ahead of them, the Author announced that he now hadn't got a clue where they were, and wandered off to ask a passing secretary for directions.
"The Turks have been after me for years," Aeris replied, either ignoring the cliché or genuinely not noticing it. "They finally caught up with me this morning."
Cloud blinked. "The Turks? Why're they after you?"
"I... I think they're trying to recruit me. I don't want to have anything to do with them, though. You know what they do, right?"
Cloud laughed. "Yeah, they're Shinra's goons. Assassins, thieves, they're basically just thugs. But you really think you'd be able to get in? The Turks don't accept just anyone."
Aeris grinned. "Now you're being mean. Don't you think I have what it takes?"
Thankfully Cloud was saved from having to answer that question by the Author, who thanked the attractive young girl he'd just met and hurried back over. "I've just discovered we've been going the wrong way," he informed them. "We're on the sixty-seventh floor. We need to take the escalators down to the sixtieth, then we should be able to just use a lift to get to the ground floor."
They about-faced and wandered back down the corridor, the Author leading the way. He was worried. There would be guards around the headquarters - there always were. They wouldn't be able to just walk out, that was for sure. While he was loath to do it this early, it looked as though he would have to get the others to help him out.
He reached into an inside pocket of his cloak and produced a mobile phone. Holding it to his ear, he started to talk into it, making sure he wasn't speaking loud enough for either of the other two to hear. The last thing he needed at this stage was for them to blow his cover, especially now he'd worked out a whole background for himself. "Hello, I,? Yes, it's me... Yes, again... Yes, I know you have better things to do... Would you just let me speak? Thank you..."
Cloud kept silent as they walked, while he worked out a couple of good lines. He didn't want to ruin his chances with this girl this early, and that little dialogue just now had not been a good start.
"You know -" he began, gathering his confidence enough to give it another go.
"Ah, here we are," the Author observed, putting his mobile phone back inside his cloak. "Come on, then. Down seven flights of these, then we're pretty much out."
They hopped onto the escalators and leaned awkwardly on the handrail, as everyone does in such situations, while they descended. After they'd gone down maybe three floors, another group passed them going up on the way, and Cloud turned and waved at them.
Hang on, he thought as he turned back to Aeris. They looked familiar... Some guards he'd known, perhaps... Who are they...?
"Hey, Tifa! Barret!" he shouted, suddenly realising. "Come back here! It's me!"
"Yo, there goes Cloud!" Barret observed as they went their separate ways. "How yo' doin', Cloud? Yo' lookin'..."
He carried on shouting something, but Cloud missed the rest as they arrived at the sixty-fourth floor. Without waiting for the Author or Aeris, he hurried over to the ascending escalator and started back up again after the other members of AVALANCHE. Resignedly, the other two followed him.
About halfway up they passed AVALANCHE again, this time going down.
"Cloud!" Tifa called after him. "Oh, I'm so relieved you're okay! Hang on, who's..."
Once they arrived back at the sixty-fifth floor, he was about to head down once more when the Author laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"How about we just wait here and let them come to us?" he suggested.
It took maybe ten seconds or so before the remainder of the terrorists joined them. Tifa immediately launched in with, "Who's the new girl, Cloud?", Barret cut her off with, "How'd you get out, then?", while Perigee tried, "Ah, thank God, they've finally met each other." Unfortunately, the sentences ran together to a certain extent and the overall effect was rather interesting, if completely incomprehensible.
Mr. Big and the Author met each other's gaze and both shrugged in perfect synchronisation.
Aeris examined Cloud's friends. The huge black man definitely seemed to be the leader, although she couldn't for the life of her work out why he had a rabbit sitting on his shoulder. It didn't really seem to fit with her initial impression of him.
The others seemed rather dwarfed by him, particularly as the other two men seemed to be hiding behind him. Aeris had to admit, though, she was slightly disappointed when she saw Cloud's reaction to one of the girls. She chided herself. A handsome guy like that, it would be rather too much to hope that he was single.
"Yah, Author, booyaka-cha!" the rabbit on the black man's shoulder began. "Make way for da AVALANCHE crew, they be da playas from da Himalayas! Booyak... hey, miss, don't I know you from somewhere?"
It took Aeris a few moments to realise it was talking to her.
"I... I don't think so," she stammered, quite shocked at this.
The rabbit bunched its muscles and leaped through the air, landing neatly on the Author's shoulder. "Let's leave that lot to their reunion," it suggested. "I don't think we'll get much interesting conversation out of them."
"Hmm..." The Author watched AVALANCHE for a few moments. True, they did seem to be crowding round Cloud and paying almost no attention to him and Aeris, but he couldn't help but notice that Perigee was staring at him out of the corner of his eye. That scientist guy obviously didn't trust him.
"I apologise for my friend here," he said to Aeris. "Mr. Big, meet Aeris. Aeris, meet Mr. Big."
"A true pleasure to make your acquaintance, my dear," Mr. Big said eloquently. Aeris blushed.
"You know each other?" she asked. It was quite a stupid question, she had to admit.
"I suppose you can think of him as my familiar," the Author told her. "As long as you don't let his endless lewd comments get to you, he's quite a good companion."
"Oh, thank you very much," replied Mr. Big sarcastically.
"Hey, Cloud," Barret shouted, so loudly that, not only could the Author and Aeris easily hear what he was saying, it was likely everyone in the entire tower could, "who're the new guys?"
Cloud pointed to the Author and Aeris in turn.
"I'm sorry," he said to the Author, "I didn't catch your name...?"
"I'm the Author," the Author informed him.
"Author?" exclaimed Barret. "What kinda name is that?"
"The name of the person who rescued your friend here," the Author replied, completely undaunted by Barret's attitude. "I am also in the process of helping him escape."
"Um, yeah," Cloud continued, anxious to prevent a disagreement, "this here is Aeris. She's helping me escape, too."
"Is she indeed?" Tifa put in automatically. She couldn't help taking an instant dislike to this other girl. Anyone with the potential to take Cloud away from her was bad news, in her books. By that rule, the man... the author, as he obviously liked to be known, was fine. He was trying to help Cloud, so she liked him.
"Aeris, Author," Cloud said, "this is Barret, Tifa, Perigee, Jessie, and Wedge."
"Are you really an author?"
Cloud turned back to AVALANCHE. "Now," he began, and stopped.
"Wha'?" Barret asked.
Somewhere in the distance, there was a faint kshing noise, such as might be made by a sword being unsheathed, followed by an abruptly interrupted scream.
Cloud turned slowly, his hand instinctively reaching for the hilt of his sword.
"...Sephiroth?" he muttered, striding off away from the escalators.
"Sephiwhat?" Barret asked. "What's up with that guy now?"
"Sephiroth, Barret," Perigee explained, trying not to smile. Ah, the plot was getting back on line already after the slight hitch at the start. "He said Sephiroth."
"Ain't Sephiroth that Shinra guy what got himself killed five years ago?"
"Yes." Perigee pointed in the direction of Cloud's retreating back. "Everyone, follow that Cloud!"
Warbling Croft looked up as someone knocked arrogantly on the door to his personal quarters. As far as he was aware, there was only one person in existence who could make even his knocks arrogant.
"Come in, Caroussis," he called. "The door's unlocked."
Without saying anything, I, entered and walked up to him.
"What are you doing?" he snapped.
Croft waved an arm expansively to indicate the packing cases scattered around the room. "Apparently I'm being posted to some place called... the 'Gold Saucer' for an indefinite period," he related. "There's no telling how long I might be there until the Author and his group appear and I can join them, so I thought I'd better take stuff to do. I'm leaving in a couple of days, apparently."
"The sooner the better," said I,, and it sounded as if he truly meant it. "That is beside the point. I have just received a phone call from the Author himself. Apparently he is in the building at this moment."
"Really? What's he doing here?"
"He allowed himself to get captured. It seems he will be heading down to the foyer shortly and escaping, and he would like us to arrange transport for him."
Croft stood up and stretched his arms.
"At least now I've got an excuse to get away from this packing," he replied cheerfully. "I seem to remember seeing a bike down in the entrance hall. Won't that do?"
I, gave him a disbelieving stare.
"There are nine of them," he retorted coldly. "How would you have them get on the same vehicle? Stunt riding?"
"On the other hand," I, continued as the two walked out of Croft's room and made their way towards the escalators, "I, does know of a certain truck that I believe may be of use to them."
The others caught up to Cloud at the elevators, where he was tapping his foot impatiently. "Sephiroth took an elevator up," he explained. "I'm waiting for the other one to get here."
The doors opened, and the group piled in. Although the elevator car was one of those fancy large ones with glass walls, with this many people it was beginning to feel rather... cramped.
The doors closed again, and Barret peered up through the ceiling. "Yo, t'other car's goin' up, Cloud."
"That looks like the 67th floor," commented Perigee.
Cloud, the closest to the buttons, pressed the appropriate button. As the car shuddered into movement, Wedge leaned over to Jessie and whispered something. She reddened, then whispered something back. Perigee blinked twice, and began to say something, but stopped as the elevator slowed.
"Hey, this ain't no 67th floor," announced Barret. "What's goin' on?"
"I think," answered the Author, "that someone else has called the lift."
He was correct. The doors slid open and three men wearing suits and sunglasses squeezed in. Aeris stifled a gasp, and ducked. One of the men, with the greenish light of the elevator reflecting off his bald head, pointed vaguely upwards and said, "Would you press 'Up,' please?"
"That's ridiculous," declared a small black lapine voice. "There wouldn't be an 'Up' button. You have to say which floor you want, not just indicate a general direction."
Ignoring the voice of reason, Cloud pressed the button labelled 'Up' anyway, and the lift shuddered into movement once more. The Author crouched down next to Aeris.
"What's the matter?" he enquired.
"Those are the Turks... and that man with the red hair is the one we met at the church."
The Author stood up and examined the redhead. He was pressed up against Tifa in this sardine-can of a lift, and was trying not to grin. The Author quickly dropped to the floor again.
"You're right," he said quietly. "I just hope they don't notice us. They won't know who the others are."
The car slowed again, finally stopping halfway between the 66th and 67th floors. The doors opened, and the Turks left as calmly as they had arrived.
"Bing! 67th floor. Contents classified."
AVALANCHE bundled out of the lift, completely disregarding the rules of 'ladies first' and 'one at a time', and looked around the new floor. There was an assortment of technological junk to the left, and a series of corridors to the right.
"This doesn't look promising," mused the Author. "This is the same floor we were imprisoned on."
"Hey..." said Perigee with growing interest. "This is one of Hojo's floors."
"Who?" asked Jessie.
"Professor Hojo. He's Shinra's lead scientist and researcher. Back when Professor Gast was still alive, the two of them were doing extensive research on the Cetra."
"Yo, Perigee," interrupted Barret. "Listen, I ain't followin' all this. There's Sephir...oth? An' now Hojo an' Cetra? You gotta 'splain some o' this stuff."
"Uh... are you sure this is the best time for that? We're in the enemy stronghold, and you want us to stop while I tell you a story?"
"Oh, look!" shouted Aeris. Perigee sighed in relief, thankful for the interruption.
"What is it?" asked Cloud.
But she was gone, running towards a large glass container that stretched from floor to ceiling. Cloud shrugged, and walked after her, followed by the others. The container was, Cloud assumed, a prison of some sort, his assumption borne out by the red, lion-like animal trapped inside.
"Look, it's on fire!" observed Aeris. "We've got to help it!" The tip of the animal's tail was, indeed, alight, although the beast itself seemed oblivious to it. Aeris pressed her hands and face up against the glass, and for a moment, the creature looked back at her. Then, the bottom of the container began to rise, moving up towards a hole in the floor above.
"Let's go! There's some stairs over there!" shouted Aeris, sprinting towards the aforementioned staircase. Wedge and Jessie followed her, but Perigee distracted the others by saying, "Hey, this is new. What the...?"
He was inspecting a large metallic lump in the middle of the room, looking somewhat like the top half of a diving bell. As such, there was a single porthole on the side of it, from which a pinkish glow emanated.
"Hey, let me see," ordered Cloud.
He looked in...
I have returned...
We are vigilant...
Yes, I know it's not 3D...
...or propane accessories?
I'm about to drop the hammer...
It all looks so different from this side...
...and dispense some indiscriminate justice...!
Cloud took a step back, dazed. "Jenova..." he mumbled.
(Perigee's note: Hum, there seems to be a hole in the spacetime/plot continuum. That shouldn't be happening at all. It looks almost as if... as if other stories are leaking through. What's that? Fusion, eh? I'll have to remember that...)
"Jenova?" asked Perigee incredulously. "That can't be Jenova in there. I mean, Jenova's supposed to be stored in Nibelheim," he lied. "Professor Gast was very strict about that."
"Listen, Mister Scientist," rumbled Barret, "once we get outta here, you're gonna tell us all about this stuff. But fer now, we'd better follow Wedge and Jessie."
Tifa laid her hand on Cloud's shoulder, and he snapped back to reality. "Nine Battlecruisers! Uh... yeah? Oh, right. Yeah, let's go."
"Don't you think this'll seem a bit out of place?" Croft called, leaning out of the window of the truck as he tried to manoeuvre it into a reasonable position. "After all, it's not often you get a truck in the main hall of a company headquarters, is it?"
"Back a bit!" I, shouted at him, waving his arms and doing his best to steer him away from anything breakable. Thankfully he'd been able to persuade the receptionists to have the rest of the day off. It was a wonder no one had noticed them doing this yet.
"I said," Croft repeated, turning to stare at I,, "DON'T YOU THINK..."
"Mind the -" I, began.
"Well," the finance director observed, looking thoughtfully at the remnants of what had been, until a few seconds ago, an attractive glass pillar, "I, supposes that destruction of such a scale pales in comparison to that which one can expect once the terrorists make their escape. You may as well leave it there."
"I still think someone'll notice," Croft insisted, opening the driver's door and hopping out onto the floor. "Oh, whatever. Shall I leave the keys in the ignition?"
"It would save them time if the engine were already running when they get down here," I, pointed out. "Leave it as it is."
Warbling Croft ambled over to him, and together the two stared up at the truck.
"The management isn't going to like this," Croft observed gloomily.
"What are they doing to that poor thing?" Jessie whispered, peering cautiously round the edge of the staircase at the large cylindrical glass holding chamber the lion creature was now trapped in. A couple of suited flunkies, under the order of a lab-coated man bearing more than a passing resemblance to a short-sighted owl, wandered round taking notes.
"I don't know," Aeris replied, "but we can't let them do it, whatever it is. There must be some way to get it out..."
The scientist gazed aimlessly around the room, and Aeris hurriedly ducked back behind the stairs. She could have sworn he was staring at her through the metal, and she only exhaled another ten seconds later when he returned his attention to the creature.
"Are the mako jets ready yet?" he enquired. His voice really was incredibly soft, nothing like the traditional mad scientist cackle one expected. Aeris could barely make out what he was saying.
One of his subordinates inspected a computer terminal and shook his head. "Another couple of minutes!" he called back.
The scientist shook his head and advanced up to the glass. "Such a rare specimen," he mused aloud. "All I need now is the second subject." He didn't even raise his head as three armed guards, having sneaked round behind Aeris and the other two, grabbed them and, with machine guns levelled at their chests, marched them forwards. "Ah, here it is now."
He straightened up and inspected Aeris critically, who blushed. "Hmm... slightly imperfect, but acceptable. Not the best I've seen, but you will have to do." He smiled knowingly. "I was wondering whether you would come to me or whether I'd have to dispatch a few of my underlings to fetch you. I suppose it was Sephiroth that made you come up, was it?"
"Sephiroth?" repeated Wedge.
Hojo waved a hand dismissively. "Please, don't try to distract me. Yes, Sephiroth. He came through here a minute or so ago. Went upstairs. Why?"
"Oh, um... no reason!" exclaimed Wedge, trying to seem innocent.
"No matter," Hojo remarked. He turned to the guards. "Put the subject in the testing chamber. These two can watch."
"Hey, da hell're those foo's doin' with Wedge 'n' Jessie?" shouted a Barrettish voice from the stairs. It was followed shortly by a Barret, who charged over into the centre of the room and waved his gun-arm around. "Who the hell d'you think you are?"
The scientist bowed extravagantly. "Dr. Melchior Hojo," he replied calmly. "You may refer to me simply as, 'Hojo.' And to answer your previous question, I intend to do nothing with these two. It's the one over there that holds my attention for the moment. A beautiful specimen, you must agree, but I'm going to... improve her. Cross-pollination is a wonderful thing, is it not?"
The rest of AVALANCHE hurried up as Hojo's peons hauled open a door in the side of the glass container and threw Aeris roughly inside. The animal inside made to escape, but a short burst from one of their machine guns persuaded it otherwise.
"Let her out!" Barret ordered, pointing his chaingun at Hojo. "C'mon, move it!"
"May I request you refrain from doing anything with that?" Hojo asked pleasantly. "You have no idea how long I have been waiting for those morons down in Operations to bring in this subject. The Cetra are a very rare breed, you know. Oh, and also," he added as he noted Barret's unsympathetic expression, "I'm the only one who knows how to get her out of there."
"Yeah? Well, I'm gonna show yo' another way!"
Barret spun round, already firing. A rain of bullets ricocheted off glass, not actually penetrating but doing quite considerable damage to the other devices in the room. Unfortunately, an alarm went off and some kind of luminescent gas began filtering into the chamber from jets in the ceiling.
"Help!" Aeris cried out. "Someone?"
Hojo sighed, watching resignedly as the group clustered around his experimentation chamber. "I suppose we'd better leave them to it," he ordered his subordinates. "Come on. There are other projects we can be working on for the time being. I'm sure we'll have other opportunities for our research on the Ancient."
"But, sir..." one objected. "Aren't they going to release her?"
Hojo shrugged. "We can recapture her," he sighed. "If we intervene now they'll just ruin more of our equipment than they already have." He beckoned towards a doorway at the back of the room. "Follow me. Let's go and see how the Engorged Flange Project has progressed since this morning."
"Aeris!" Cloud shouted. "Hang on, I'll get you out!" Behind him, Tifa did such a good mocking impression of him that even Mr. Big smiled in appreciation.
Taking his sword in both hands, Cloud swung it in a huge arc that nearly decapitated the Author and Jessie before bouncing ineffectually off the glass wall.
"It's the new type of glass!" Perigee called over from the other side of the room. "We were working on it before I quit! If you can make a regular or at least semi-regular lattice of silica and materiane, you end up with a material with almost two hundred times the compressive strength of normal glass! It's to do with disrupting the -"
"So what do we do to break this?" Jessie shouted back.
"Well," Perigee replied, "the only way we worked out - barring brute force, of course - would be to use some sort of gravity spell to effectively drag all the materiane into veins, thus giving perfect fracture lines! Of course," he hit a button on the terminal he was standing next to and grinned cheerfully as the door in the chamber slid open once more, "there's always a non-violent way, I find."
Aeris sprinted out of the chamber, hurtling straight into the Author. She was followed closely by the lion creature, although it stopped abruptly when Barret fired a few shots across its path.
"I'd prefer it if you didn't," it snapped. It had a very refined voice, as if it had taken elocution lessons at some point.
"It talks?" Tifa exclaimed in surprise.
"Hey, you saying there's anything wrong with talking animals?" Mr. Big retorted immediately.
The creature nodded towards him. "Ah, a kindred spirit," it observed. "A true pleasure to meet all of you. I feel I may have been in considerable trouble had you not arrived. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nanaki."
"What exactly are you?" Tifa asked.
"What I am is unimportant. All that matters right now is that I would not object to leaving this building. By your demeanour, I assume that you too will be doing the same thing before too long. Would anyone object if I tagged along?"
The Author looked down at Aeris and smiled at her.
"You're safe now," he said comfortingly, noting her scared expression. "Come on, cheer up."
Aeris clung to him for a moment, glad to have anything familiar to reassure herself.
"I'm sorry," she said after a while, straightening up but unable to meet his gaze. "I just..."
The Author shrugged, hoping he wasn't making too much of a fool of himself. He'd never been any good at sympathy. It was one aspect of his personality most people didn't expect. "Don't worry about it. It's nice to know you trust me like that."
"Aw, yeah!" Barret exclaimed, looking around. "Now, yo'... hey, where'd that science guy go?"
"Looks like he ran off, Barret," Perigee observed smugly. Everything was really going well now. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the Author and Aeris standing rather too close to each other for his liking. Everything except those two. He'd have to watch out for that Author person.
There was a faint sound from the floor above.
"Hmm... footsteps," Mr. Big commentated. Owing to his ears, he had by far the best hearing of anyone there. "Conversation... um... wait, sounds a bit like a sword scraping on something... more talking... more footsteps... getting quieter... pause..."
Something, sounding very faint as if it was two floors or more above, went thud. It was just about loud enough for all to hear, though, not just the rabbit.
"Um..." said Mr. Big. "Is anyone else thinking what I am?"
"Sephiroth!" exclaimed Cloud again, and immediately set off towards the huge staircase leading up. After a few seconds, the rest of the group trailed ineffectually after him.
"Who exactly is this Sephiroth anyway?" the Author wondered aloud as they followed.
Huh, thought Perigee darkly. As if you don't know.
"He's the guy who's gonna blow up the world or whatever," Mr. Big whispered. "The one we're meant to stop, remember?"
"Yes, I know that," the Author retorted, "but it'd be nice to know exactly who he is, wouldn't it?"
The next floor - the sixth-ninth - was not exactly interesting. The only things of any interest whatsoever were the escalators leading back down, and the large ramps leading up. The only practical reason for including it in the building seemed to be so the President's office could be on the seventieth rather than the sixth-ninth floor. There was, however, a rather obtrusive trail of blood leading up one of the two ramps, which Cloud promptly followed, the others hurrying behind him.
The huge hall above was far more ornate than... well, than the empty space below it. The floor was properly carpeted, and there were even one or two paintings hanging on the walls. A particularly plush red carpet led up to a desk, covered by miscellaneous sheets of paper. There was a metal seat behind it, currently unoccupied.
Perigee glanced around nervously. Where's the president...? he mused anxiously. That old man had to die now. The plot could get very different if Rufus didn't take over Shinra...
Aeris had wandered over to the desk and was checking to see if there was any paperwork about her. Her gaze strayed to the wrong place, and she jumped back in shock and gasped.
"What's up?" Cloud called, hurrying over to her. "Oh..."
Perigee joined the two of them, and couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. At least the old man was here. He'd just fallen off his seat, that's all. Sephiroth had even gone and left the Masamune here, just like in the game. So far so good.
"It says something on this sword," Jessie observed, apparently unfazed by the fact that the President was leaking on the floor in front of them. "'Made in Mideel. Imitation Masamune, R.R.P. 1500 gil.'"
Perigee grinned widely, then remembered himself and hurriedly put on a more sombre expression.
He noticed that Barret in particular seemed a bit confused by the situation.
"Yo, whadda we do now?" he asked. "What's gonna happen to Shinra now?"
Cloud shrugged. "Probably a power struggle between Heidegger, Scarlet, and Caroussis," he answered. "They'll just do the same thing as the President, but with less flair, that's all." He looked sideways sharply as a helicopter began to descend onto the balcony outside. "Oh, yeah. Forgot about him."
"Rufus Shinra. The old guy's son."
Through the tinted glass, a man in a light grey coat could be seen hopping out of the helicopter. He glanced down as a large black animal leaped down after him, then raised his gaze and gave AVALANCHE a searching stare. A few seconds later, the helicopter floated up again and began to make its exit.
"Better go meet him," Perigee suggested hopefully.
"...so you want to join the Turks then, Elena? What did you do?"
Elena shook her head in confusion, her cropped blonde hair swinging from side to side. "Do, Sir Tseng? I don't understand..."
Tseng raised his hand. "Please, call me Tseng. I insist. I can't stand titles. And as for what I mean, well... most applicants have been sent by a disgruntled boss, rather than suffer an overt punishment. You see, the test is grueling, and not many surv... are accepted. In fact, at the moment the Turks have only three members - Reno, Rude and myself."
"No sir, in fact, my boss begged me not to apply. But I want to join. The Turks are..." Elena waved her hand vaguely. "...my heroes. The few, the brave... the proud."
Tseng blinked. Of course, that was the propaganda they put out, but he'd never expected anyone to believe it.
"I..." The phone rang. "Excuse me a moment." He pressed a button that activated the speakerphone.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Sir, there appear to be some terrorists loose in the building. They have somehow managed to park a... a truck in the main foyer."
"Terrorists, you say? I was sure Rude was dealing with them." Tseng rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Elena, I'm sorry, but duty calls, I suppose." She nodded her head understandingly.
"Where are they now?"
"Sir, I think... the President is dealing with them."
"The President? Much as I respect the old man, I doubt he could take on a group of terrorists on his..."
"No, sir, I mean the... new President." The guard on the other end of the phone had been dreading this moment. "The old president has been... uh... killed."
"What?! Then... then... that idiot child of a Rufus is playing king with a group of terrorists? Alone?"
"Not quite alone, sir. He's got Dark Na..."
"His dog-thing. Wonderful. Contact Reno and Rude and tell them to meet me in the President's suite. That will be all."
Tseng broke the connection, and turned back to Elena. "Alright, you're accepted. As your first mission, you will accompany me to the 70th floor, where we're going to kill some rebels. It's only a few floors, so we'll take the stairs."
Rufus smiled humourlessly as he leaned on his shotgun and watched the party filing out, one by one. He reached down with his free hand and carelessly tapped Dark Nation, his pet dog/puma/strange magic-using monster, on its shoulder.
"So these are the terrorists we've heard about," he remarked, deliberately loud enough for them to hear. "I guess, seeing as we'll have to get rid of them sooner or later, we might as well do it now."
"How on earth did this guy get here so fast?" Mr. Big muttered. "You'd think he knew it was going to happen or something."
"We didn't kill the President!" Wedge exclaimed jumpily. "That's the great Sephiroth's doing!"
Rufus waved a hand dismissively. "I don't care who did it," he informed them. "As far as I'm concerned, if he's gone, I'm in charge. As simple as that. You just happen to be a nice convenient scapegoat to lay the blame on. And how ironic that I arrived just in time to avenge my father's death. Won't the headlines be wonderful?" He narrowed his eyes. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Cloud Strife, ex-SOLDIER."
"I'm from AVALANCHE, ya vermin!"
"Yeah, don't forget about me!"
"A flower girl from the slums."
"One of your 'research' specimens."
"I'm just a scientist, don't worry about me."
"The name's the Author, literary genius and incognito Cetra."
Mr. Big took a deep breath.
"Booyaka! Me be da rabbit in black.
Booyaka! Me don't be cuttin' no slack.
If ya want a piece a me,
Ya will see that me... can... be..." His voice trailed off as he felt the others' questioning stares on him. "Hey, what's the matter, never heard a rabbit rap before?"
Rufus stared impassively at them. He'd stopped listening after about the fourth or fifth introduction, although Mr. Big's had been almost enough to bring his attention back.
"I don't really care, you know," he informed them. "It's just that I don't really feel like killing you yet, either. Would you like to hear my inauguration speech?"
Aeris sidled over to the Author.
"What do you mean, you're a Cetra?" she asked indignantly in a loud whisper. Thankfully none of the others were paying them any attention. "No, you're not!"
The Author stared at her. "Oh, damnit, you're an Ancient, aren't you?" he muttered once he realised. "Look, I'll explain the whole business once we're clear of this, okay? Just don't blow my cover."
Mr. Big glared at Rufus. He'd been hoping for at least one compliment on his rap.
"No, we wouldn't," he snapped coldly.
Rufus shrugged. "Fine. Your loss. You won't get to hear it now."
Cloud turned to the others.
"Get out," he ordered. For the first time, it sounded as if he actually knew what he was doing. "I'll handle this. You just escape."
"A self-sacrifice for one's friends?" Rufus smiled. "Fine by me. Just as long as you don't all survive, I'll have at least one body to lay the blame on. Go on, the rest of you, get going. I'd rather not spend all day on this." He looked at his watch. "It's almost quarter past three. There are so many other things I could be doing right now."
"I'm not going anywhere until you explain what you're on about!" Aeris whispered. "Who are you?"
The Author glared at her. "Listen to me," he growled. "Unless you want me to knock you out and carry you over my shoulder, you will get moving. I have absolutely no intention of letting you die here."
"Yo, Cloud!" Barret called over. "You gonna be okay?"
Cloud nodded. "Yeah, I can take on this guy. You just get moving."
"He seems resolute enough," Nanaki commented, already padding back towards the door leading inside. "I would recommend we take his advice."
The others followed, Tifa looking back worriedly over her shoulder at the two men.
"So how do we get down?" Wedge asked.
"I know the way," Perigee replied. "Stairs down to floor 68, that rather unstable lift to 67, then we can use one of the proper ones to get back down to ground level."
They followed him as he headed down to Hojo's lab and began retracing their steps back towards the lift.
Bringing up the rear, the Author couldn't help noticing that Tifa seemed to be rather reluctant to leave Cloud behind.
"Worried about him?" he asked quietly, and smiled when she turned her rather concerned face towards him. "If it makes you feel better, I'll go back and look after him."
Tifa nodded silently, and he patted her gently on the shoulder. "I sincerely doubt he's going to get himself killed this soon," he reassured her. "Wait for us, won't you?"
Rufus twirled his shotgun a few times around his wrist, flipped it up into the air and caught it with both hands, one on the trigger, one on the barrel. "Do you want to try and attack me or shall I just shoot you now?"
Rather sensibly considering the circumstances, Cloud didn't bother answering. He charged forwards, bunched his muscles, and leaped eight or nine feet in the air. Holding his sword behind his head, he bore down on Rufus like a meteor.
The first blast knocked the sword out of his hands. He landed uselessly a foot or so in front of his adversary, his blade spiralling off until it smashed through the window and, rather neatly, skewered the old president.
The second blast hit him in the chest, launching him backwards until he hit the edge of the balcony.
Two pairs of eyes watched them from inside.
"I think this might be where he needs help," the Author suggested. He took the medallion from around his neck and placed both hands around the red materia set within. Crimson light spilled out from between his fingers and illuminated the room as he murmured, "Fury Shot."
"Fury shot?" Mr. Big repeated. "What on earth's that?"
The Author shrugged. "I haven't a clue, to be honest. This Summon Cameo Character materia just temporarily summons whoever's going to be the most useful in the situation. It sort of puts the words into my mouth."
Rufus calmly fitted another couple of shells into his shotgun and watched the prostrate figure squirm. "Nice try, I admit," he said consolingly. "If you would permit me to make a suggestion, though, perhaps a more direct attack might have been more successful. Would you like to try again?"
Cloud reached out for his sword. Once he realised it wasn't anywhere near, he placed both hands on the railing beside him and just about managed to haul himself back to his feet. He glared at Rufus with bloodshot eyes. This, combined with their usual mako green glow, made his stare particularly unnerving.
Rufus laughed harshly. "You want to try and run at me again? Beat me up?" He raised his shotgun and levelled it at Cloud. "Oh well. At least you can tell your friends in the lifestream you died for a good... what the...?"
He spun round as a blinding light suddenly burst forth from the ground behind him. Even with his hand in front of his eyes he could still see it, and afterimages flashed across his vision as it died down sufficiently to reveal the figure of a man.
The youth who emerged from the light was not overly imposing. His clothes were casual to the point of scruffy, consisting primarily of a pair of faded blue jeans and a loose, blood-red jacket. His hair was even more untidy than Cloud's, and appeared to be a deep shade of blue. He calmly carried a small long-barrelled pistol over one should, and he absently spun it around his finger as he sautered forwards.
"Isn't that a hand cannon?" Rufus asked, smirking. "Come on, those things can barely penetrate a T-shirt." He levelled his shotgun at this new arrival. "Now this is a weapon to be proud of."
Wordlessly, the youth considered this. Then, apparently seeing Rufus' point of view, he put the hand cannon behind his back and produced something a little heftier.
"A rocket launcher?" Rufus nodded in appreciation as the boy mounted the thing on his shoulder and sighted down the barrel. "Not bad, not bad. But..." In a similar manner to the youth, he switched his shotgun for a literally shining rifle. "This is a Silver Rifle. Only ten of them were ever made. It can penetrate armour plating at ten feet."
The Author and Mr. Big exchanged glances. They'd been in a suitable position to see how he'd switched weapons, but even so they still didn't have the faintest idea.
The newcomer pulled out a bazooka.
Rufus countered with another shotgun which he introduced as a 'Winchester.'
The youth produced a laser-type weapon and uttered the single word, "Phaser."
Rufus grinned. "You're well-armed, boy," he praised. "But... Even you can't rival this one..."
He brought out a huge weapon, looking vaguely like a rifle but with a ridiculously flared barrel. It looked absolutely ancient. Indeed, there was practically no metal visible that was not covered with rust.
"We call this one the Death Penalty," he explained. "No one knows where it comes from, or how powerful it really is. But powerful it most definitely is. One of the testers had his arm blown off while trying to fire it."
"You know," Mr. Big remarked under his breath, "that sounds awfully like... the..."
He and the Author exchanged glances.
"No," the Author said eventually. "It couldn't be..."
"Not a chance."
The two stared at each other.
"We've got to get out of here." The Author began hurrying over to Cloud. "After all, I did promise Tifa her guy wouldn't die yet."
The youth stared at the Death Penalty. Then, with great deliberation, he returned the bazooka behind his back and revealed...
Rufus' eyes widened.
"That's..." he gasped.
The boy smiled. "A fully upgraded Arc Smash," he elaborated.
Cloud didn't say anything as the Author gripped him firmly around the waist and slung him over his left shoulder. Cloud was not a slight man, and it was only due to the Author's Mega Plus materia that he was able to stay upright with the added weight.
He was just hurtling through the open door to the President's office - well, hurtling as fast as he could - as the stranger leaped into the air, shouldering the Arc Smash on his way up. For a brief moment energy concentrated in the barrel, in that special way energy does just before any powerful weapon fires, before a bolt of light burst down onto the balcony.
The explosion could be seen from Junon.
As Rufus disappeared skywards, if one listened carefully one could just about make out a cry of, "I'll get you next time, Strife... Next time..."
The Turks met briefly on the 70th floor.
Tseng said, "Rude, you were supposed to be taking care of AVALANCHE. What happened?"
"......," explained Rude. "......."
"Oh," said Tseng, mollified. "Well, okay, that's understandable. Reno, what's happening with Sephiroth?"
"He's long gone." Reno shrugged. "I think it was probably him and not those terrorists who took out the old man. But which would the public rather believe?"
"You've got a point."
"......," said Rude quietly.
"They're getting away?" asked Tseng rhetorically. "Then Sephiroth can wait. They're not going to get away with this! The public needs them!"
"And we have to avenge the death of the President!" said Elena devoutly.
Tseng glanced sidelong at her. "Don't get carried away, now."
"Hey...isn't that a...?" asked Jessie.
It was. Measuring thirty cubits by ten cubits by fifteen cubits, "...a Mark VII Ebulliant Onroad Juggernaut! This came top of the Road Rage Food Chain! They say you can hit a behemoth with this thing without even denting the bumper!" She broke down and began sobbing quietly into her hands.
"What's wit' her?" asked Barret bluntly.
"I think she's in love," replied Wedge.
"Wha'ever. C'mon, let's get outta this junkheap!"
"But what about Cloud and the Author?" asked Tifa.
"Aw, they can catch up with us. Let's go, I'm bored."
Tseng moved purposefully through the Shinra garage. Hardly anyone came down here, anymore. The trains were cheap and efficient, and every gil of profit they generated went straight to the company. Most of the employees had been persuaded to sell their vehicles to the company for scrap metal, but hardly any of them had been put to this purpose. This place was a storehouse for what was left, and the various sportsters, 4x4s and student cars were covered with dust and cobwebs in democratic equality.
The others were waiting for him outside. Reno had been scaring Elena with ghost stories about this place, so she hadn't dared come in. Reno himself stayed with her, as she was the only available female in close proximity. And Rude... well, Rude had decided to stay as well. Enough said.
Tseng opened a warped cupboard, revealing several twisted keys and a tattered sheet of paper. He scanned the paper professionally. As he had expected, it detailed which keys went with which vehicles, and in what state of disrepair those vehicles were.
"Hmm... not much of a selection." He stared at the sheet for a few seconds, before tapping a finger briefly on one entry. He took the appropriate key from its hook, and headed off into the gloom.
"Bing! Ground floor! Foyer, reception, and..."
The Author didn't bother waiting to hear what else was on this floor. He beckoned to Cloud to follow him, and stepped out into the main hall.
"I think your friend Barret happened here," he announced eventually. It can't be easy to knock down an entire wall, but somehow the others had managed it on their way out. He looked down, and nodded in satisfaction. There were quite distinct tyre tracks leading out through the wa... through where the wall had been, out onto the road running alongside the HQ. So, it looked like Croft and Caroussis had managed to find an escape vehicle. The Author made a mental note to thank those two when they got back together. Too bad Barret and co. hadn't waited for them, though.
"Looks like they got away," Cloud observed. "They probably thought we'd be able to get out on our own."
"Yeah, sounds right," Mr. Big agreed. "So what do we do now?"
The Author looked around, and opened his mouth to say something. He closed it abruptly and spun round, though, as a large motorbike hurtled down the main stairs into the foyer, making a loud badabadabada noise. There appeared to be four suited people desperately trying to fit on it - three men, and one woman. One of the men, a particularly tall guy who seemed to have outgrown his hair, waved at them and called out, "......!" as they passed.
The Author and Cloud turned in perfect synchronisation to watch them as they shot out onto the road, following AVALANCHE's tyre tracks.
"Well," said the Author eventually. "They're the... the Turks, aren't they?" Cloud nodded. "They're probably heading after our friends, then, aren't they?"
Cloud nodded again.
The Author looked around. "In that case, we'd better find some way of following them," he mused. "Travelling on foot won't be good enough - Cloud won't be able to run that fast. There must be something around here we can use..."
"How about that bike?" Mr. Big suggested sarcastically, pointing at it with an ear. The Author stared at it, and nodded.
"We'll fit both of us on there," he remarked. "It'll do. Come on."
"You can't be serious?" Cloud objected. "We'll never keep up!"
The Author hauled the bike out into the centre of the room. "Of course we will," he replied calmly. "Look, it's got two sets of pedals. With both of us at it, we'll catch them up in no time. Don't argue," he added as Cloud opened his mouth to do so. "Just trust me here, okay?"
"Could I just point out something, in case you haven't realised?" Mr. Big interrupted. "That thing is a tandem bicycle, not a finely-tuned motorbike with several thousand horsepower. Our friends are in something with," he glanced at the tracks on the floor, "twelve wheels, and those Turk guys are giving chase on one hell of a motorbike. How do you expect to keep up?"
The Author placed one hand on his materia amulet. "Mega Plus," he said as if it explained everything. "Speed +200%. Stamina +200%. Strength +200%. Let's see how well it works, shall we?"
A wide grin gradually spread across Mr. Big's face. He took off his sunglasses, polished the lenses, and put them back on.
"Let's burn rubber," he commanded.
"Jessie, where are we going?" asked Perigee innocently.
"Dunno," she replied. "I've never been on this road before. There don't seem to be any offramps, so we're just going where the road takes us."
Wedge spoke up, mainly to keep his mind off the zzing of the passing lampposts, "You know, I've been thinking - what's it like outside the city?"
Thank God, thought Perigee. They're showing some interest in the outside world. Much better than the original.
"It's a lot greener," answered Tifa, "and you can see the sky. I've been told that people who have lived in Midgar all their life tend to feel rather unprotected in the open though."
"Yo, this is sweet an' all, but we've got company," interrupted Barret, who was sitting towards the back of the juggernaut, watching the road appear from under the wheels. "There's someone followin' us on a motorbike."
Sure enough, there was a motorcycle close behind them. A group of people in suits... oh, never mind, we all know who they are. Tseng was steering, with Elena holding onto him tightly around his waist. Reno was holding onto the back of the motorcycle for dear life, and Rude was hanging onto Reno's ankles, flinging copious amounts of punctuation in all directions every time they went round a sharp turn.
"Uh oh..." Aeris murmured. "It's the Turks."
"Ain't they them Shinra goons?"
"Oh, right." Barret waved his gun-arm in the air. "Hey, yo' Shinra scum! C'mon an' do yo' worst!"
"Hang on, aren't they those guys from the lift?" Reno observed, gradually clawing his way forwards until he could, hopefully, find himself a seat on the bike.
Tseng raised his head. "Oh, no..." he muttered to himself. "Could we really have been that stupid?"
"......," agreed Rude.
Tseng took one hand momentarily off the bike and produced his PHS from within his jacket. "I'm currently tailing a group of terrorists down the R-3," he spoke into it. "I want the Gate 7 barricade set up."
"So what do we..." Reno's voice trailed off as he happened to glance back. "Uh, guys...?"
Approaching from behind and gaining on them at a frightening speed was... well, it was a tandem bicycle. Two sets of pedals and everything. The man at the front, who Reno recognised as the guy from the church, was pedalling so fast that his legs were literally no more than a faint blur. That Strife terrorist was sitting behind him, gripping the bike so hard his knuckles were white.
For some reason, there was a wire basket attached to the handlebars, in which a large black rabbit was sitting, enjoying the feel of the wind through its fur.
They rocketed past the Turks, the rear wheel of the bicycle leaving a cartoon-like trail of flame along the road behind it.
"Hey, Author?" Mr. Big enquired as they came up alongside the juggernaut, "I know I suggested we burn rubber, but I didn't mean it literally."
"What? Oh, you mean the fire? Don't worry, that's just this materia I wrote. 'Special FX,' mastered, you know."
"Remind me again what that one does?"
"Just makes things look more impressive, that's all. You know, more sparkly bits on cure spells and that sort of thing."
"Oh, right." Mr. Big looked back as they passed AVALANCHE's truck and continued away from it. "You know, we've missed them."
"Yeah, I know," the Author replied. "Don't worry, I've got a Plan."
"Da hell was that?" Barret asked, now sitting with his legs dangling out of the back of the juggernaut and giving the Turks a certain, 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough,' look.
"I think," Tifa suggested uncertainly, "it was the Author and Cloud."
"Gotcha." Barret shrugged and turned back to the Turks, as if that explained it all.
Already a couple of hundred metres ahead of them, the Author gripped the handlebars even tighter. "Hang on back there," he said to Cloud. "I'm going to try something to get rid of our pursuers."
Cloud nodded mutely. It wasn't the speed that bothered him right now. It was the fact that he was a passenger on a bicycle ridden by a lunatic who didn't seem to care how fast they were going that really got to him.
"Good. Here goes..."
The Author took a deep breath and twisted the handlebars to roughly ninety degrees for a split second. Still trailing fire, the back wheel swung round, until they were now headed back the other way.
Straight towards the oncoming lorry.
"Mmmnnn..." Cloud managed in terror.
"Um... Tseng, sir?" Elena piped up. "What are we going to do about stopping them?"
"I'm working on it," Tseng muttered under his breath. "Reno, Rude, you're going to have to be our boarding party."
"......?" Rude exclaimed, so shocked he almost let go of Reno.
"That big guy's gonna shoot us!" Reno added.
"Look," Tseng began reasonably.
What took place next happened so fast that, were this book a film, slow motion effects would have been necessary to show what actually occurred. The Author came barrelling down one side of the truck, reached the rear end, and pulled his bicycle into a sharp skid, taking it underneath the motorbike's front wheel. The Turks' motorbike stopped accordingly, while, unfortunately, the Turks themselves did not. All four were flung forwards into Barret, while the Author somehow managed to get his bicycle upright once more and began following at a distance.
Cloud turned his head to one side and was heartily sick.
The three senior Turks had considerable experience in situations like this and all managed to hit the inside of the truck rolling. Elena was rather less used to these matters and hit it face first.
"Hey, that does it!" Barret shouted, getting to his feet and flicking the safety catch on his gun-arm. "I pity da foo' who mess up my van!"
Reno rapidly drew his electro-mag rod, spun it a couple of times round his wrist with the ease that comes only from many long hours practising, and pressed a button at one end.
Like the Author before him, Barret suddenly found himself encased in a shimmering silver pyramid.
" '?" he shouted, firing randomly and pointlessly at it. " ?"
"Could you try to stop them getting this far?" Jessie asked, without even turning her head. "Only this is rather difficult to drive as it is..."
"Don't worry!" Wedge exclaimed, hurrying over to the nearest Turk, who happened to be Rude. "I'll make sure they -"
"......, ......," Rude muttered darkly, rubbing his knuckles. "......."
Perigee sized up their team. Cloud was with the Author, so that left himself, Tifa, Aeris, Nanaki, and We... no, not Wedge any more.
"Don't worry about the girl," he advised the others. "She's not much good compared to the other three."
"I resent that!" Elena exclaimed, picking herself up. She put one hand inside her jacket and took out a small cloth parcel, maybe half a foot square. "You know what this is? This could blow up the entire vehicle! I made it myself!"
Perigee nodded amiably to her, and produced a test tube from one of his pockets. "You know what this is?" he asked, and threw it at her.
The phial hit the floor at her feet and cracked, releasing a dense fog up into the air and soon obscuring her completely from view. They only heard the thud as the trichloromethane (or chloroform, to those of a less chemically-minded disposition) did its work.
"Most ingenious," Nanaki remarked calmly. "May I suggest we now concentrate our attentions on the remainder?"
"Yeah, you lot do that," Perigee replied, searching through the many pockets of his lab coat. "I'm sure I've got it in here somewhere..."
Without waiting for the others, Nanaki bounded forwards, claws at the ready. A couple of metres from the Turks he slowed, bunched his muscles, and leaped towards Reno.
He was met by the painful end of Reno's lightning rod, and suddenly the air was filled with the characteristic 'burning tin' smell of electricity.
"They're not very good, are they?" Reno commented. "I mean, already there's only four of them left."
Perigee finally found what he was looking for and turned his attention back to the Turks. "Right, everyone!" he announced. "I'll handle the bald guy. Aeris, go hit that pyramid around Barret. Tifa, you handle Reno. Okay?"
"Um... okay?" Aeris agreed uncertainly.
Rude looked his adversary up and down. "......, ...... ...," he commented scornfully.
"That's not particularly nice," Perigee retorted, waving another test tube around. "I bet you couldn't, even with both hands."
"......." Rude shrugged, then ran forwards, swinging a punch at head height. Perigee ducked easily under it, hopped to one side, and collided with the wall of the truck.
Aeris tried to seem small and inconsequential as she hurried towards where Barret was pounding on the inside of his pyramid and swearing inaudibly at it. What had Perigee said? Hit it?
Tseng caught the end of her staff as she swung it towards the translucent container.
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding almost genuinely remorseful. "I can't let you do that."
"But... why are you doing this? Don't you know what's going to happen? This is for -"
Tseng shrugged. "Yes, for the Planet, of course. Look, I'm just doing my job. You know me." He easily wrenched the staff from her grip and threw it over his shoulder, where it rolled towards the back of the juggernaut and, without attracting too much attention to itself, fell out. "Aeris, if possible I will let you escape, but the others need to be apprehended. Bear with me on this."
Perigee staggered back towards Rude, holding his forehead with one hand. The Turk smiled grimly at him, sidestepped round behind him, and took hold of him in a painful headlock.
"Let go of me!" Perigee shouted, flailing his arms about uselessly.
"......?" Rude replied innocently.
"Oh..." The grip around Perigee's neck was making breathing difficult. In a last ditch attempt to break free, he vigorously shook the test tube he was still holding, and, praying that he hadn't misjudged the ratio in the mixture, smashed the tube on Rude's leg, which was the only part of the Turk he could reach.
The blast sent both parties flying - Rude into the wall, and Perigee into Jessie, who said reproachfully, "Look, I'm trying to drive this thing."
Reno spotted Tifa and made his way over to her, dodging a flying Rude on the way. As he approached, though, he began to find his attention diverted somewhat from what he was meant to be doing.
By the time he got close enough to actually hit her, he'd decided that his orders could wait. He went shamelessly down onto one knee and flung both arms around her leg.
"I've always loved you!" he exclaimed. "Marry me!"
Tifa looked down, drew back her foot, and delivered it with some force into his groin. Reno gasped in pain, then, in response to the call of cliché, opened his mouth and uttered the immortal line heard in all such situations.
"I... I like a girl... with... spir... ugh..."
Tifa smiled and nudged him towards the back of the truck with her foot. As he rolled over the edge and hit the road, she turned back to the others.
Tseng's fist hit her in the face. Even as she recoiled from the blow, he delivered another two lightning-fast punches into her chest and finished with a roundhouse kick that sent her sprawling.
"Pathetic," he muttered, ignoring her as she fell and heading towards Jessie in the driver's seat.
He tried to spin round as he felt someone grip his shoulder, but he wasn't fast enough and Tifa had already twisted his arm round behind his back by the time he'd worked out what was going on. She planted one foot against his back and kicked out, pulling down on his arm at the same time. Tseng's legs shot forwards, while his body went downwards, so the net result was that he ended up on his back at her feet.
These scenes are rather difficult to describe in words. You'll have to imagine it as if it were a film.
Somehow - and it's a good thing, really, that this isn't a film, otherwise this next bit would be very difficult to do - Tseng managed to get his feet underneath him as he hit the floor. He sprung back up, flipped over her head, and smashed one shoulder into her back. Turning his back on her without even waiting to see whether he'd floored her, he strode hurriedly over to the front of the lorry.
"Now," he said calmly, drawing a pistol from his belt and holding it to Jessie's head, "everyone, just stay where you are." He turned to Jessie. "Stop the truck."
Jessie kept driving, concentrating so hard on the road ahead that she hadn't really noticed he was there.
Tseng sighed. "Look, my dear, I can drive this just as well as you. I'd prefer not to have to kill any of you, but I will if necessary. Stop now."
"Do what he says," Perigee told her resignedly, trying to pick himself up. Where had it all gone wrong?
Suddenly he realised. They hadn't had Cloud on the bike behind them. And why not? The Author.
Jessie turned her head to look at him. "I... um..." she stammered, spotting the gun for the first time. "If you shoot me we'll crash...?"
"Um, Jessie?" Perigee asked nervously, happening to look through the windscreen.
"That's why I'd rather not kill you," Tseng continued reasonably. "It could get messy. Okay, I will count to five. On five, I will fire. One."
"Jessie?" Perigee repeated.
Perhaps it should be explained what exactly was causing Perigee such concern. Readers with acute minds may recall that, a number of paragraphs previously, Tseng asked for the 'Gate 7 barricade' to be set up. This barricade turned out to be a huge tank-type contraption, at least twelve feet high and armed with all sorts of weaponry, sitting right in the middle of the road.
Not watching where she was driving, Jessie didn't even try to avoid it.
All in all, it was rather fortunate that they were driving such a powerful truck, as any lesser one would probably have crumpled under the impact. As it was, the juggernaut stopped abruptly, the tank was barged off the road and Tseng was catapulted straight through the windscreen.
The members of AVALANCHE still standing - that's Tifa, Aeris, Jessie, and Perigee - hopped out of the back of the juggernaut, with varying degrees of accuracy. Perigee was still rather stunned from his duel with Rude and took four attempts before he finally managed to get out. By chance, one of his misjudged leaps took him into Barret's pyramid, which shimmered one last time before fading away.
"...an' yo' mama was..." he was saying to it. "Heeey! I'm out! Did we win?"
"Yeah," Tifa replied, not entirely sure. "I think so."
Jessie was busy inspecting the juggernaut's engine. "Well, whoever won, we're not going anywhere in this," she said, trying to hold back tears. This was an emotional moment for her. "This... this isn't going to drive again."
"Oh!" Aeris gasped and hurried over to where the leader of the Turks was lying in front of the vehicle, face down. "Tseng!"
"Yeah, wha' about him?" Barret muttered dismissively, clambering out of the truck with Wedge and Elena over either shoulder and dragging Nanaki by the tail. "C'mon, girl, he's workin' for the Shinra, remember?"
Behind him, a tandem bicycle materialised through the gloom and rocketed towards them. It hit the back of the juggernaut and launched both its passengers into the truck with a cry of, "What? They've stooopped..."
Tifa hurried round to the back of the vehicle and peered in. "Cloud?" she cried. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks," replied the Author's voice, perhaps just a little nastily. "How's everyone?"
"We're okay," Tifa replied, as the two men got to their feet and walked slowly out into the open, "although Wedge and Nanaki got knocked out."
The Author hopped out of the back of the truck, closely followed by Cloud. "Would anyone mind if I supported myself on their shoulders for a bit?" he asked hopefully, looking around.
"Well, after all that pedalling, my legs are going to give up on me in a -" The Author's knees buckled under him and he collapsed, face first, onto the asphalt. "Ah, there they go..."
Completely oblivious to anything going on behind her, Aeris knelt over Tseng's body. There was a gradually spreading red patch on the road around him.
"Live," she whispered, placing both hands lightly on his shoulders. "Please, Tseng. Don't die."
For the moment, attention was focused around Cloud and the unconscious members of AVALANCHE, and so the only one to pay her much interest was Mr. Big, still stuck firmly in the bicycle's basket. He wormed his way out from under the mangled frame, and stared thoughtfully at her through his sunglasses. "Huh..."
"What now?" Jessie enquired. "We can't stay here. They'll send soldiers after us."
"We gonna head back to the hideout," Barret decided. "We done two reactors, but that still leaves six to go! We gotta... yeah, wha'?"
"Barret, Sephiroth is still alive," Cloud reminded him gently. "This is more important than the reactors."
"Huh? Who's this Sephiroth anyway?"
"We can explain later," Perigee interrupted, feeling that perhaps he should help keep the plot on track. "Sephiroth is a recognised menace. He's a danger to the Planet."
"I heard someone in the Shinra HQ say he was heading to the east, away from the city," Perigee continued, adlibbing remarkably well. "We need to..."
"...follow him," Cloud finished for him.
"Sephiroth..." Tifa murmured. Of course she knew about him - everyone had heard of 'the Great Sephiroth.' But... she imagined not many people had... 'first hand' experience...
She shuddered involuntarily.
"So... what's the decision?" the Author enquired, wandering up with Mr. Big on one shoulder and supporting himself on Wedge. It was clear he wasn't exactly finding it easy to prop even his meagre weight up.
"I... we..." Barret replied decisively. "I mean, Seph... aw, damnit! I dunno!"
"They were saying Rufus was going to head after Sephiroth," Perigee added, sensing that perhaps Barret could do with a little more persuasion. "I reckon this would give you a chance to meet him again."
Barret thought for a few seconds more, then looked up. There was a sudden light of determination in his eyes.
"Wha'ever!" he exclaimed. "Yeah, we gonna follow that Sephi... Sephiroth guy! But this is waaay over my head, yo' hear? Yo' can handle Sephiroth. I just wanna get my hands on that good for nothin' brat of a president..."
Phew, Perigee thought to himself. That was too close. Still, at least we're moving now.
I wonder where the others are, added the voice of his past. Kea, Kasuto, and Ess... I'd have expected to meet up with at least one of them by now.
"So you are leaving the city?" Nanaki remarked. "Hmm. Perhaps I shall accompany you. I too am -"
"Hey, hang on a damn second!" Barret suddenly announced. "Wha' about Marlene? We can't jes' leave her here!"
"Who's Marlene?" the Author whispered to Wedge.
"Oh." The Author turned to Barret. "If you like, I have some friends in the city I can get in touch with. They can take your daughter somewhere safe if you want."
"Huh? But..." Barret glanced at the others. "Aw, fine. Yo' know where she is?"
"I assumed you were going to tell me."
"We have a pub called the 'Seventh Heaven' in sector 7," Tifa put in. "She'll be there."
The Author nodded. "Excuse me," he said to Wedge, turning and staggering off. "Thanks for your help."
"No problem!" Wedge called after him.
The Author made his way round the other side of the juggernaut and took a mobile phone from his jeans pocket. It is one of the incontrovertible laws of literature that any fairly commonplace device needed only occasionally can always be found either inside one's jacket or in one's pockets. The same seems to be true of certain foodstuffs. In one particularly cold storyline, the Author and his group had survived in the Antarctic for three weeks by living off the miraculous supply of biscuits they'd found in Croft's coat.
He tapped a number into it, held it to his ear, and waited impatiently for a few seconds.
"Ah, I,," he said. "It's me again... Yes, we got out all right, thanks... No, they weren't too much of a problem. Look, is Croft there?... Well, could you get him for me? I have a little errand I need him to run for me..."
"Does anyone happen to know where we are, though?" Jessie asked. "I think we're below the top plate, but there weren't any signs and I don't even know which sector we're in."
"I know this place," Aeris interjected. "This is near my house. We're in sector five."
"So you can take us to the gate?" Cloud said. Aeris nodded.
"Yes, I think so. But..."
"Any next of kin going to get worried about you?" Perigee prompted her.
"Yes, my mother. Well, my adoptive mother. If no one minds, could we just tell her where I'm going? My house is just inside sector 6. It's not too far."
"Yeah, sure." Barret nodded as the Author approached from behind the truck. "Okay, everyone? C'mon, let's move!"
A matter of seconds after the group had disappeared out of sight, Elena of the Turks sat up and looked around her. She'd heard most of what they'd been saying, even if she hadn't quite followed the entire conversation. And where were the... other...
"Sir Tseng!" she exclaimed, hurrying over to where her superior was lying, face down. "Are you okay?"
Tseng mumbled something incomprehensible into the road.
Elena rolled him over onto his back.
"What was that, sir?" she asked.
Had he been in better condition, Tseng would most likely have found it nigh on impossible to avoid making a nasty comment here. However, all he was really bothered about right now was getting back to the Shinra building in one piece.
"Elena?" he said simply.
"I have a mission for you."
"Your next mission, Elena, is to get me back to the HQ. I don't care how you do it. Ingenuity and inventiveness will be commended, however the most important thing is the health of your leader. Understood?"
"Good," Tseng replied, and passed out.
Prologue: Writing of Wrongs
Part 1: For What We Are About to Receive
Chapter I: Editorial Changes
Chapter II: Insert Chapter Title Here
Chapter III: Biohazard
Part 2: Present Imperfect
Chapter IV: Ahead on our Way
Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...
Chapter VI: Feather in the Wind (reprise)
Part 3: World Travel
Chapter VII: Twelve Good Men on a Dead Man's Chest
Chapter VIII: Music of the Night
Chapter IX: Drawing Inexorably
Part 4: Crossroads
Chapter X: The Trousers of Time
Part 5: Calculus
Chapter XI: Differentiation & Integration
Chapter XII: The Sunrise and I
Chapter XIII: The Best Is Yet To Come
Part 6: Introduction to Destruction
Chapter XIV: Makes No Difference
Chapter XV: Second Impact
Chapter XVI: Judgment Day
Epilogue: Loose Ends
Return to index