What shall we do with the *hic*... uh oh...
Mondo the One Man Pirate
"You know, I could almost forget all the troubles of the world out here," Aeris observed, standing at the stern of the cargo ship and staring out to sea. Junon was receding into the distance and just about disappearing over the horizon. "It's so peaceful..."
"WAHEY!" shouted Kasuto, hurtling past behind them on her seventeenth lap of the deck so far. There wasn't really much else to do, so she was amusing herself as best she could.
"All but one of the troubles of the world," Aeris corrected herself. Beside her, the Author smiled. He'd decided for the moment to keep quiet about the fact that, almost definitely, Sephiroth was on this ship with them. Somewhere. She looked too happy for him to spoil the mood.
"It's like another world, when you can't see the land, isn't it?" Aeris continued. "It's so much more tranquil."
The Author nodded.
"You should see the world from the air," he remarked absently.
Aeris turned towards him, wide-eyed.
"You've been up there?"
The Author opened his mouth, and hesitated. Drat. Of course he'd been in planes and other, less feasible flying contraptions more times than he could remember, but not in this world. Now how did he explain that comment?
"I... er... it'd surprise you where I've been," he managed lamely. At least that wasn't a lie, and Aeris seemed to accept it without question. Damnit, if only he could just tell her the truth! Things would be so much easier... assuming she could handle the fact that she was a character in a computer game...
He sighed. It took a certain type of mind to understand the principles of literature, the way fact and fiction merged seamlessly with one another. And much as he longed to tell her exactly who he was, he didn't want to risk losing what he had.
He was getting melodramatic in his old age, he mused.
"You want to go up, some time?" he asked, trying to break the short silence that had rushed in. Aeris nodded vehemently.
"Definitely!" she exclaimed. "I want to know what it's like to see the world from above. To look down on everyone."
Despite his sudden melancholy, the Author smiled again. "You will, don't worry," he reassured her. "Sooner or later. Even if you have to wait until this is all over, I can take advantage of a few favours for you. You'll see the world as you say. I promise."
"Heidegger," said Rufus, for the twenty-third time since they'd left Junon about an hour ago, "shut up."
Heidegger spun on his heel to face the President, and waved his cutlass at him. Rufus hadn't the faintest idea where the hell he'd found a cutlass, or, for that matter, why he was acting the way he was.
"Ahar!" the Director of Warfare announced loudly. "This be my ship, yer hear, an' I'll speak the way I likes it! Ye'll be fishfood if yer argues with me again! Arrr!"
Rufus sighed and wandered over to where the captain of the ship was doing his best to stare at the sea ahead and deliberately not notice what was going on behind him.
"You and me both," Rufus remarked, practically reading his thoughts as he joined him. Behind him, Heidegger spotted an unopened crate on the main deck and hurtled off with a cry of, "Ahar! Booty!"
"Is he always like that, sir?" enquired the captain nervously, not sure if he was speaking out of place but feeling that something was needed to fill the empty silence that followed Heidegger's departure.
Rufus shrugged. "Not usually. He just seems to go all nautical whenever he gets put on a ship."
Outside the cabin, Barret stared gloomily through the window at the President from his hiding place behind a barrel, presumably of grog or rum or some other piratical beverage. "Why can't I just waste him from here?"
"Because, Barret," Perigee explained wearily, "then they'd know that we were on board."
"And then we wouldn't be able to get at Sephiroth, would we?"
"An' Sephiroth's more important than the Shinra?"
"Hey, guys," Tifa called, hurrying up to them. "What're you doing?"
"We're spying on Rufus," said Perigee proudly. "You can't hear much, so you have to use your imagination about what's being said, but it's kinda fun."
Tifa shrugged. "Anyway, have you seen Cloud anywhere?"
"I think he's down in the cargo hold," Perigee informed her. "Last thing I saw he was searching through all the crates for secrets. You know, hidden potions or weapons or whatnot."
"Oh, thanks. I'll go look for him there."
Tifa turned and began to hurry off. Unfortunately, she only managed about four or five steps before a deafening siren sounded from the roof of the control room.
"Warning!" it announced in the traditional urgent monotone used for all such announcements. One has to wonder exactly who records notices like that. "Warning! An unforeseen disturbance has been detected in the engine room! Guards are to investigate!"
Tifa sighed. "Oh, Cloud..."
"Actually, that isn't Cloud they're referring to," said Perigee knowledgeably.
"Isn't it? How do you know?"
"Oh, I... er... that is... um... intuition?" Perigee suggested eventually. Whoops.
"What's going on now?" the Author enquired, running over to them with Aeris beside him and Kasuto bouncing along close behind. "Who's messed up this time?"
"Something's going on down below," Perigee explained as, one by one, the rest of the group joined them. Had anyone been watching, they might have seemed slightly suspicious. Worthy of the guards' attention, at the very least. "An 'unforeseen disturbance.'"
"Sephiroth?" suggested Ess.
"So do we get to go and beat him up?" Mr. Big asked hopefully. "I want to try out my moves."
"Well, once we've located -"
"Hey, guys!" Cloud shouted, sprinting up. "Sorry I'm late, I was busy. But look what I found!"
He held out a sword for them to examine. It had a serrated edge, and there were a couple of holes through the blade near the hilt. Perigee noted Cloud had already transferred his materia from his old sword to this one.
"You didn't find that in the cargo hold?" he said incredulously.
Cloud nodded. "Yeah, in a fish crate. It's amazing what you can find when you look."
"Yo," said Barret impatiently, "we gonna stand around here yappin' all day, or we gonna go kick some Sephiroth ass?"
"Innit!" Mr. Big agreed happily, switching into his 'rude boy' dialect. He had to admit to liking it, actually. It was strangely amusing. "We lash that bro real good! Pop a cap in his ass, ya know what me be... is someone talking like that again? That really gets on my nerves, you know."
The sudden switch in attitude was precipitated by the Author once more producing his Pokéball and hefting it pointedly. Mr. Big instantly reverted to his normal speech and tried to look innocent.
"Well," Barret announced, "I'm goin'! Ev'ryone, follow me!"
Barret stuck his head around the door to the engine room.
"Is he in there?" called Cloud from the other end of the corridor. He waited a short while for a reply, then walked down and clapped Barret on the shoulder.
"Hey, is he in there?"
Barret remained silent.
Cloud looked through the doorway.
The engine room was fairly small, and what space there was was filled by rusty machines, a giant monster and a nasty smell of oil.
"Whoa, yeah, I see what you mean," said Cloud. "It smells really bad in here."
Then he noticed there was a man in there as well.
The cloaked man met his gaze and smiled darkly.
"Me?" he asked, pointing at his chest and putting on an innocent expression. Had Cloud's attention not been focused entirely on Sephiroth, he may well have judged it noteworthy that the huge creature next to him performed exactly the same motion, albeit with a tentacle rather than a hand. "I suppose I am, yes. Who are you? You seem strangely familiar."
"Nibelheim, five years ago," Cloud said coldly. "You killed my friends and destroyed my home."
"Did I?" Sephiroth laughed harshly, and beside him, the monster let out a piercing screech. "Yes, I suppose I did, didn't I? I do apologise, how could I forget that day?"
Cloud took a few steps forward. Any trace of his previously jocular attitude had disappeared completely. "You must pay for that. I can't let you -"
"Oh, do shut up," Sephiroth snapped. "Spare me the sentimental rubbish. You were doing it for yourself."
"Sentimental? I think I... what?"
Sephiroth grinned widely. "You are as much to blame for the whole event as this is," he remarked casually, pointing once more at himself. "I sense a definite similarity. Perhaps you are worthy to join with the reunion after all."
"Reunion?" Perigee put in hurriedly, wanting to make sure they got this bit of the plot out of the way.
Sephiroth nodded, as did the creature beside him. "It is where I... where Jenova will return. The wound in the northern crater grows deeper even now. A new era will begin when she is revived fully." He gave Cloud a benevolent smile, and it looked like the creature beside him did its best to do the same. "You may attend too, if you wish. There're plenty of spare places. You can take your time getting there, though. I have a couple of stops I must make on the way."
"Well," Sephiroth continued, "I need a certain Black materia, which I have reason to believe is in the Temple of the Ancients. That's on the continent to the south-east," he added helpfully. "Please don't interfere. I would rather you arrived at the reunion in one piece."
He nodded towards the monster. "But first, I believe it is my duty to ask you to demonstrate whether you are powerful enough. This here is a small sample of my powers. Defeat it and you will have earned the right to attend. Fail and it will assimilate you, and you won't even need to attend, let alone be able to." He shrugged. "Have fun."
There was a brief, clichéd sensation of speed, and he simply vanished.
"You know," said the Author thoughtfully, "we do seem to end up in rather a lot of pointless battles, don't we?"
"Pointless?" Mr. Big retorted. "Don't be daft! This is where I get to try out my moves!"
"Really?" The Author raised an eyebrow. "I'm intrigued. Please go ahead."
"There's not going to be enough room in here for all of us," Cloud announced, eying the Jenova-thing cautiously. It seemed to be watching them curiously, content to wait for one of them to make the first move. After all, it wasn't its reputation on the line. It knew they would have to attack sooner or later – either that or be dishonoured in front of their friends, never to call themselves true heroes again. "Um... you, Roch, and you, Big, come here. Everyone else, wait outside."
"But I don't have a weapon..." Roch tried to say, but was cut off by Heidegger's arrival.
"By the kraken of the seven seas!" he exclaimed in shock. "What in the name of Redbeard's haddock is this doing aboard me ship? Yes, me lad?"
This last sentence was spoken to Roch, who had walked up to him and tugged on his tunic.
"Excuse me, sir," the boy began, "but might I borrow your sword for a few moments?"
"Eh? Oh, why not, me hearty!" Heidegger took his cutlass from his belt and handed it to him. "Turn that thing into sharkbait! I'd better go tell me crew!"
Roch hurried over to the centre of the room where Cloud was waiting. Mr. Big had taken up position on a small boiler nearby, for once reckoning he'd be better off somewhere other than sitting on someone's shoulder.
"Right!" Cloud announced. "Let the fight begin!"
"Er..." said Mr. Big after about five seconds. "Shouldn't one of us do something?"
"I thought I'd let one of you two have the first attack," Cloud explained generously. "You could try out a tech or something."
"Oh, right! Yeah!" Mr. Big cracked his ears loudly, and stared at Jenova.
"So how do I do these tech things, then?" he asked eventually.
"Oh, you just say the name out loud and things sort of come naturally after that," Cloud told him.
"With you. So how do you know what your techs are called?"
"You just... know..." said Cloud, sounding slightly less confident.
Jenova stared balefully down at the three of them. Okay, so there was no hurry here, but it would be nice if something happened. Perhaps it was necessary to give them a hint.
Within its capacious form, energy began to flow.
"Hyper rabbit cannon!" Mr. Big tried.
"How about 'Ear strike?'" Cloud suggested helpfully. Mr. Big tried this, with a similar lack of effect.
"Hey, wait a second!" he said suddenly. "Something's coming..." He took a deep breath and put on his most evil grin. "Bobsled faaaaaa..."
Cloud looked up at Jenova. "That was a bit spiteful, wasn't it?" he chided her. "Casting Stop on him just before he got to do his move. You don't need to be that nasty." Roch elbowed him gently in the ribs. "Yes?"
"We could always do something," he suggested softly.
Cloud nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah... Hey, you any good with that sword?"
"Yes," said Roch flatly.
"Do you know 'Dash & Gash'?"
Roch nodded. Cloud beamed. The two of them readied their swords in perfect synchronisation.
"X-Strike!" Cloud shouted.
Their blades seemed to burst into flame as the two of them charged forward, leaving faint crimson sparks hanging in the air behind them. What exactly happened as they reached the monster was unclear, but it looked as if they both passed straight through one another and Jenova, a faint red X hovering in the air behind them. There was a brief silence as they skidded to a halt, before Jenova screeched in pain and there was a loud thunderclap for effect.
Watching from the doorway, Perigee clasped a hand to his forehead in exasperation. Would the external references never end?
Jenova glared down at the two who had dared to hurt it. Okay, so its purpose here was to lose, but even so they didn't have to go quite so over the top about it. They would have to pay.
It drew back one tentacle and thwapped Cloud about the head. Normally this would have done little more than stun him momentarily, but he was off-balance from the double tech and so it caused him to stagger forward until he was halted roughly by a horizontal pipe at head height. His feet shot out from under him and he collapsed onto the floor, his sword slipping from his grip. It hit the panels a moment after him, the blade scything easily through the metal up to the hilt.
"Cloud!" Tifa cried, trying to run to help him.
Perigee placed a hand firmly on her shoulder. "This is his fight," he said softly. "He's got to win this one without us."
Roch let Cloud's fall hold his attention for barely a second before he returned to the task in hand. He sighed. So the rabbit had allowed itself to get stopped, and Cloud was now out cold. Why did he have to be the only one capable of staying on his feet for more than a few minutes?
It was a good thing his back was turned to the others as he began walking slowly towards Jenova. The expression on his face would have shocked them, particularly Ess. Determination, anger, even perhaps a trace of anticipation... Not the sort of emotions a five-year old should be experiencing.
As Cloud lay motionless, a black shape faded into existence. A black-cloaked figure. The hood was pulled over his head, but a few stray wisps of grey hair had escaped it and lay on his shoulders.
He reached inside his cloak and rummaged around for a few moments.
"Let's see... must be in here somewhere... why'd this thing have to have so much space anyway... ah..." He smiled, and produced a duck from his cloak. It held his surprised stare evenly and quacked briefly at him before he shrugged and hurled it over his shoulder. "Okaaay... um... this?"
This time his hand came out holding a soft toy. He sighed, and gave the thing a few experimental squeezes. It didn't make any noise, so he threw that away too. "Must be broken... don't tell me I forgot to pack it... ahhh..."
Grinning widely, he somehow extracted from one of his sleeves a huge scythe, the blade pressed up against the handle. He took the thing in both hands, and thumped one end on the floor. With a satisfying shhhing noise, the blade sprung out and glinted evilly in the light.
"Cloud Strife," he intoned solemnly, "your time has come. I hereby come to -"
Cloud opened his eyes and stared blearily up at the figure.
"Huh...?" he murmured. "You...?"
The figure sighed and returned the scythe to wherever it had come from. "Typical," he muttered. "Why couldn't you just die when you were meant to?"
Cloud looked confused. His gaze followed the figure as it strode grumpily off towards the... through the wall, which did not help his confusion much.
He got back to his feet and gripped his sword hilt with both hands. Okay, so that was how they were going to play, was it?
"Um... no, wait, don't do that!" Perigee shouted, spotting the thin trickle of water seeping in through the floor around the edge of Cloud's blade. But his warning came too late. Cloud hauled his sword out of the metal, and suddenly a jet of water spurted up through the hole it had left, reaching almost to the ceiling. The floor around the hole tore and buckled inwards, and within seconds the small fountain had turned into a geyser.
"Ack!" Cloud exclaimed. He'd been leaning over to get his sword out and thus had received the full force of the water in his face. "What? Ow! Help!"
"Hmm." The Author looked down thoughtfully at the water already beginning to lap at the toes of his shoes. "Should we seek higher ground, do you think?"
"Yo! After me!" Barret announced, hurtling off and beckoning to them to follow. "To da deck!"
"Barret, the stairs are that way!" Tifa called after him.
"That's where I'm goin'!" Barret continued, charging past in the opposite direction. "To da deck!"
"What about these guys?" Wedge enquired of Cloud and Roch.
"Yeah, c'mon, you slowcoaches!" Kasuto shouted at them, already retreating to the stairs. "We're getting all wet here!"
"Coming!" Cloud called back. He waded through the knee-high water to the door, then remembered and grabbed Mr. Big by one ear. "Roch! Hurry up!"
The boy turned and gave him a melancholy stare. "I'll be along in a minute! Just got to finish this off!"
When everyone else had left for higher ground, he returned his attention to Jenova. "We shouldn't end this yet," he remarked. "Come on." He cleared his throat. "Level Up."
Around the two of them, the waters parted, revealing their feet - well, Roch's feet and Jenova's... um... base - as they floated gently towards the ceiling. As their heads neared it, the metal peeled outwards to provide a suitably sized hole for the two of them to pass through, then folded back into place once they were through.
They landed neatly on the upper deck moments before Barret came thundering up the stairs.
"Hey! How'd that get up here?" he shouted in a mixture of annoyance and astonishment. "We can't get rid of the damn thing!"
The Author sighed as he arrived on deck and spotted Jenova still here. "Honestly, this battle's gone on for long enough," he muttered to himself. "Oh, I don't care what the rules of the game are. I'm going to end this."
He placed both hands around his materia amulet and closed his eyes. Crimson light spilled out from between his fingers as he whispered, "Princess Z Tri-"
A faint voice, carried on the sea breeze, wafted over to them, snapping him out of his concentration. His eyes widened in horror. Oh, no... Not now...
He could have sworn the voice had been saying, "I say, old beans, there's a whatsit over there! Not on, you know! Let's give it what ho, what?"
"Er," he said. "I think we should probably..."
The sea to one side of the ship exploded.
"...try and find a way off this ship as soon as possible," the Author continued as a fine salty spray showered him. "I hate to say this, but we're being bombarded."
"What? By who?" Ess asked.
Cloud pointed his sword skywards.
"Abandon ship!" he yelled, and promptly hurled himself overboard.
A second or so later, another shell hit and the sea erupted once more.
"Cloud!" Tifa cried, running over to the side of the deck. "Cloud!"
"Hey, you should -" he began before something went whumph and he was hurled skywards with a column of water and a cry of, "Waaaaaahhh..."
The Author barged his way through the others until he came to Aeris. Part of his subconscious noted absently that his first reaction upon realising that they were in danger had been to make sure she was okay.
"Look," he said firmly, taking her hand in his, "when this goes down, we're going to get sucked under. Whatever happens, don't let go of my hand, okay? I jump, you jump, and all that."
Aeris nodded nervously.
"Good." The Author led her to the edge of the deck. "Now ju-"
The ship exploded.
"Another unfamiliar ceiling," muttered Cloud. He was in that wonderful state of mind where he was sufficiently awake to think, but sufficiently asleep not to remember. The ceiling was rather an interesting one, being encrusted with rust. There was a single light bulb hanging from the centre, which swung idly from side to side.
As the rest of his senses kicked in, Cloud became aware of the sound of metal groaning under stress, the thick smell of salt, and somebody holding his hand.
He sat up, ready to shout... and memory flooded in. He relaxed, turned and said, "Don't worry, Ess, I'm not hur... Tifa?"
Fortunately for Cloud's personal safety, Tifa was actually asleep. Gradually piecing things together Cloud began to realise what must have happened. The ship had been fired at, and he'd been knocked out. Someone had survived the blast and brought him... here. Wherever here was. And obviously Tifa had been looking after him. Maybe there'd been something about her that he'd overlooked?
He shook her shoulder slightly. "Tifa?"
Tifa's eyes fluttered open, and she stared at him unseeingly for a moment.
"Cloud!" she sighed finally. "I was... worried about you."
"Hey, I was in SOLD... I could have been in SOLDIER, remember?"
"Oh, shut up," said Tifa weakly. "I couldn't stand the thought that you might be..."
"No, I've got to say this now, or I may never get the chance again. I..."
"I say! You're not blown up, old chap!"
Both heads turned to stare at the apparition that had appeared in the doorway, blocking out almost all light from the corridor. It was fairly short, but well rounded, to the extent that it barely fit through the door. It was wearing a green army tunic, brown trousers, and heavy black boots, polished to perfection. Across its chest an impressive line of medals stretched well beyond either shoulder, and atop the whole affair was a round leather hat with a six-inch metal spike in the centre. And it had a moustache, the likes of which Cloud and Tifa had never seen before.
"You two beans okay?" it asked, advancing towards them. "Looked like you were in trouble back there, eh? Nothing to worry about, though! We gave that blighter a dose of good old British firepower, what? Haha!"
"Er..." said Tifa nervously.
"Oh, how ungentlemanly of me! The name's the Major. Well, that's not my real name, obviously, what? Just what everyone on board calls me. Pleased to meet you, old girl."
"Er..." repeated Tifa, not entirely sure what to make of this situation. "On board...?"
"Oh, yes." The Major waved an arm expansively, presumably endeavouring to indicate the room they were in and everything beyond it. "The jolly old ship HMS Inflatable and its crew, at your service, what? Glad to have you on board!"
"Er..." added Cloud.
"Anyway," the Major continued, backing towards the door, "I'll leave you two beans to yourselves, eh? Dinner is available in the jolly old mess hall, but feel free to drop by the bridge if you're feeling up to it. Tally ho!"
He retreated back out and closed the door softly behind him. Such wonderful old beans to have on his ship...
"Afternoon, Major," said the Author, waiting for him in the corridor. The elderly officer spun round, saw who it was, and beamed widely.
"Ah, Author, old bean, old chap, old thing!" he exclaimed joyously. "Good to see you again! Been... such a dashed long time, what?"
"It has," the Author agreed, smiling. "So this is what you've been doing."
"Ploughing the ocean wave!" The Major grinned even wider. "Just the crew and me out here, you know. Good fun. We spotted a monster thing earlier today. Just before we picked you up, you know."
"Yes," said the Author flatly. "That was our ship you sunk."
"Oh, was it? Whoops."
"Don't worry about it, Major," the Author replied benevolently as the two of them headed down the corridor towards the bridge. "That battle was going on too long anyway."
The bridge, as it turned out, was a particularly spacious room with a number of control panels along two of the walls - these turned out, when the Author inspected them later, to be nothing more than seemingly random levers and buttons with no real purpose other than to look interesting and useful. The front wall was taken up by a huge window, affording a good view over the ship's bow and the waters ahead. The Author noted a couple of huge artillery cannons on the deck, one facing to either side.
There was only one person on the bridge for the moment - a tall but thin man who gave the general impression of owing his stature to being forcibly stretched at some point during his childhood. He wore a stereotypical sailor's uniform, but had a green beret instead of the standard cap. A pair of small circular glasses rested lightly on his nose.
"Good afternoonsah!" he said, saluting extravagantly when he saw the Major arriving. "Who's the visitorsah?"
"The name's the Author," the Author informed him. "I'm... an old friend of the Major's."
"Ah! A friend of the Major's is a friend of minesah!"
The Author raised an eyebrow. "And who are you?"
"Boatswain Sausagessah! Second in command of the HMS Inflatablesah!"
"Right." The Author shrugged. Well, he guessed, someone as eccentric as the Major was bound to attract other such characters. "May I suggest we get everyone up here to explain what's going on? I imagine after the ship was blown up under their feet, they'll be just a tad confused."
The Major nodded sagely. "Sounds like a jolly good idea, old boy." He turned to his subordinate. "Sausages? Tell all the blighters to come up here, what?"
Sausages strode over to one of the desks and picked up a small wooden microphone resting thereon. It crackled loudly as he raised it and rattled off a few abrupt phrases into it.
"Everyone to report to the bridge, under orders of the Majorsah!" he announced. "All crew and passengerssah! Hurrysah!"
"Oh, just one thing," the Author added. "Major, you have worked out an alias for yourself, haven't you?"
"Eh? Oh, yes, of course, old boy." The Major beamed happily. "I've been looking up everyone's background, you know. I'll fit in like a rug, don't you worry, what?"
"Er... yes. Whatever."
One by one the others filtered into the room, after much protracted wandering around the ship's maze of corridors. The Author lounged against the wall in one corner, watching and waiting, prepared to leap in and cut the Major off in mid-speech if it looked like he was going to say the wrong thing. The old bean may be well-meaning, but he wasn't entirely clued up.
He couldn't help but notice the absence of either Jessie or Wedge. He knew both had made it aboard - he'd personally hauled almost everyone else up onto the ship when it neared them. That Mega Plus materia of his had probably saved a couple of lives back there, including his. He shook his head sadly. Such a shame it had gone and sunk after all that. It'd take him days to write himself a new one.
"Have you seen Jessie or Wedge anywhere?" he enquired of the Major.
"Ah," called a portly sailor, waddling over to them. "Would ye be concernin' yerself aboot the large lad an' the lassie wi' brown hair?"
This newcomer was wearing a similar uniform to that sported by Boatswain Sausages, although his was stretched more horizontally and less vertically. He wore a pair of absolutely immense boots that looked like they were made of lead, and almost his entire face was obscured by a ridiculous black beard that stuck out in literally all directions.
"Yes, that's them," the Author said, turning to him. "You've seen them?"
"Ah, yes. The poor kid almost got himself turned to fishfood back there. He's restin' in his room, an' the lassie's lookin' after him."
"Oh, okay." The Author gave this crewmember a confused stare. "Are you... Scottish?"
"Ye kin tell?" The sailor beamed. "Pugwash's the name. Ah'm a pirate! Arrr!"
"Er..." was about all the Author could manage.
The Major drew a rusted sword from his belt and rapped it against one of the walls a few times to get everyone's attention. "Right ho, old beans!" he announced at the top of his voice. "Good to have you all on board the jolly old HMS Inflatable, what! The name's Major Zack Higginbottom-Haggis, but everyone just calls me the Major."
The Author slapped one palm to his forehead and groaned audibly. That was the last time he let the Major decide on his own alias.
"Zack...?" murmured Tifa.
"Wait a sec..." Ess mused. "Zack... couldn't be..."
"Brought up in some dashed small town called Gongaga," 'Zack' continued cheerfully. "I'll have you know I was one of those bally SOLDIER beans for several years. It all went a bit pear-shaped five years ago, though. Dashed shame."
The Author was impressed. It was actually quite unusual for the Major to bother looking up the background of the world to make sure he fitted in. He must really be taking this story to heart.
"Are you saying you're the Zack who was sent to Nibelheim with Sephiroth?" Ess enquired skeptically.
"Um... yes, I suppose that'll be me, old girl."
"No, it wouldn't," replied Aeris, Cloud, Ess, Perigee, and Tifa simultaneously. The Major looked downcast.
"What do you mean, old beans?" he asked, sounding really quite shocked. "You doubt the word of a chap like me? Why, that's just not on, what? I'll have you know, when I was in command of the HMS Irrational..."
"Zack was about three or four inches taller than you," Ess pointed out, cutting him off in mid-reminisce.
The Major was only about five foot nine.
"Zack had spiky black hair," Tifa added.
What hair remained on the Major's head was grey and thinning, and by the looks of it would have been hard pressed to manage even one spike.
"Zack always used that huge sword," Perigee agreed.
The Major did have a sword, although his was maybe three feet long and so unbelievably blunt that it bore more resemblance to a cricket bat than to a finely crafted weapon of war. It had a horrible tendency to go thud rather than shhhhhing when you attacked someone with it.
"Zack would be twenty-seven by now," Aeris put in.
It was fair to say that the Major was somewhat past his prime. In actual fact he was just over ninety-three, but at the moment he looked so downhearted and disillusioned that he could easily have passed for a hundred and twenty or so.
"But... but, old beans..." he stammered, "you can't see through disguises. That's what they're for, what?"
The Author decided that perhaps now was a suitable moment to intervene.
"My friends," he announced loudly, striding forwards towards the Major, "allow me to introduce the Major. He's not Major Anything. Just 'the Major.' Major, this is Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Aeris, Nanaki, Perigee, Ess, Kasuto, and myself you already know."
"So who am I, then?"
"You're the Major."
"Am I? Oh, yes, so I am, aren't I, what? Haha."
"Friend o' yours?" enquired Barret pointedly. He glared at Aeris, who was standing next to him and trying to stifle her laughter.
"Oh, yes, we go back decades." The Author put one arm round the Major's shoulders. "The Major here is the world's greatest spy."
"You can't be serious!" Cloud blurted out without thinking. He realised afterwards it was a particularly tactless thing to have said.
The Author shrugged. "Well, would you think he was a spy?"
"Okay, that's a very good point."
"He travels the world searching for Germans," the Author explained. "Of course, a master spy has to use all sorts of different aliases, and I guess it was just bad luck that, this time, he happened to choose one you were familiar with."
"Who are these Germans anyway?" Nanaki asked. The Author winced and brought his hands up to cover his ears at the precise moment the Major exploded.
"You don't know about Jerry, what?" he shouted. "Why, the scoundrels caused two dashed wars! Don't tell me you've forgotten about them already, eh? I'll just have to... yes, what is it, old bean?"
"Calm down, Major," the Author told him, patting him kindly on one shoulder. He turned back to the others and mouthed, 'I'll explain later.'
"Should I keep talking?" asked the Major.
The Author nodded. "Finish what you were going to say."
"Right ho." The Major cleared his throat. "I... um... I say, what was I going to say?"
"You were going to explain to everyone exactly where they were, and reassure them that they're in safe hands," the Author reminded him. "I don't think the latter part's strictly necessary now, though."
"Oh, yes, right, what? Okay, all you beans! When your dashed ship sunk," he had the decency here to look marginally embarrassed, "we rescued you, don't you know? If any of you chaps know which way you want to be going, then come and tell me and we'll be off, eh? Everyone else, my ship is your ship. Pugwash and Sausages can tell you where to go. Good old beans, both of them."
"Aye, laddie! Ahar!"
It took maybe a minute or so for the group to disperse. The Author hung around afterwards, to make sure the Major didn't make any more of a fool of himself than he already had, and he wasn't in the least surprised to see Perigee staying too.
"He is one of your team, isn't he?" the scientist called over, wandering up.
"Thank God." Perigee wiped his brow. "Before we decide where to go, could I just ask: where on earth did you get a battleship from?"
The Author shrugged. "Same place I get everything else from."
"Ah, now that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
"Dashed good ship, isn't she, what?" the Major put in, strolling over to join them. "Runs on socks, don't you know. And it's got guns! Five of the blighters, big ones too. Only one of them works, though."
"What's the point of having five if only... wait a second." Perigee paused. "Did you say this runs on socks?"
"Perhaps I can explain better than he can," the Author put in. "You know the whole E equals m-c-squared thing, right?"
"Energy and mass equivalence? Naturally."
"Well, do you know how much energy is contained within one sock?"
Perigee did a few quick mental calculations. "Oh," he said after a couple of seconds.
"Exactly. We've got a very good washing machine down in the hold that spins at just the right speed to convert a sock entirely to energy. Well, it's cheap, environmentally safe, it only goes through one sock every few weeks or so, and you can use it to wash your other clothes as long as you don't put them in when it's busy with a sock, otherwise it turns everything pink. It was Croft's idea originally. Took me quite a few rewrites to get it working, though."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll find out soon enough." The Author shrugged. "Anyway, where're we headed next? This Temple of the Ancients place that Sephiroth referred to, I assume."
"Sort of," said Perigee knowledgeably. "The thing is, we need to collect something called a Keystone before we can get into the Temple. That's stored in the Gold Saucer amusement park over on the west continent. It's quite a way inland, though, so we've got a bit of a walk ahead of us."
"Oh, that's no problem," the Author reassured him. "Didn't you see that huge airship back in Junon? I reckon we could go hijack that and save ourselves quite a bit of time."
"No, it's not worth it. We have to take a cable car up to the Saucer anyway."
"Well, we'll land by the cable car station then." The Author gave Perigee a pointed stare. "We will take that airship, okay?"
"Why're you so set on this?"
"Because I promised someone. Don't enquire further."
"Wh... oh. Right." Perigee nodded, remembering. Aeris' conversation with Cloud on board the cargo ship, where she'd asked him to take her for a ride on the Highwind... Of course she'd have had that talk with the Author instead. "Okay, I guess. But it might have left by now."
"We can find out easily enough. Major? Telescope."
"Oh, right you are, old bean."
The Major stuck one hand inside his tunic and produced a battered naval telescope. It was maybe a foot long, and was covered almost completely in a sheet of rust. He tossed it gently to the Author, who caught it easily.
Perigee stared out of the window. Junon was just about visible as a faint speck on the horizon.
"Something that size'll never get the resolution you need," he pointed out authoritatively. "You just won't be able to get the separation between the lenses."
"Really?" The Author shrugged. "Well, it's worth a go anyway."
He grabbed the end of the telescope and extended it. Then he extended it some more, and, almost as an afterthought, kept extending it. Boatswain Sausages helpfully hurried over to the window and opened it for him.
The telescope was now about twelve feet long.
The Author peered into the eyepiece. "Yes," he said happily. "The ship's still there."
"Well, then," boomed the Major, "let's go board the blighter! Tally ho!"
"Uh, okaaay..." said Perigee helplessly.
Time passed. A considerable amount of time, in fact - while the HMS Inflatable's sock-powered drive may have been good at covering long distances in a short time, it was not built for turning and it was doubtful whether any ship had ever attempted a seventeen-point turn before. Still, once they'd got it facing the right way it went like a rocket, or at least as close to going like a rocket as one can manage with a three hundred foot battleship.
Up on deck, the Author leaned on the rail, staring gloomily over the edge. Mr. Big sat happily on his shoulder, enjoying the breeze ruffling his fur. He kept his ears flat on his back, though; if he let them stand up straight then the wind sort of whistled in one and out the other, which was a rather strange sensation to say the least.
"Took me ages to write that Mega Plus materia," the Author was saying despondently. "I mean, I know how it's done now, but even so getting a replacement'll take... days, probably..."
"Why bother?" Mr. Big remarked.
"Well, you should just be yourself, shouldn't you? Honesty, and all that. Let 'em know what you're really like. I mean, you've used the Mega Plus thing to get you into the group when you rescued Cloud back in Midgar... sorta... so you don't really need it any more now, do you?"
"You have a point. Besides, I don't really like getting too powerful. Takes the fun out of the story." He glanced at his materia amulet, which now had a rather incongruous gap between the two remaining orbs. "Doesn't look right, though, does it?"
"Ah, well," Mr. Big cut in happily, "you'll be pleased to hear I've got something for you." He produced a small greenish orb, although where he'd been keeping it was anyone's guess. Behind his back, perhaps. "I... um... 'obtained' a Restore materia back in Junon while everyone else was busy."
"Restore?" the Author enquired, slotting the thing into his amulet.
"Yeah. It does healing spells, basically."
The Author raised an eyebrow.
"I'm sure you have a hidden reason for choosing that one."
"Well, of course!" Mr. Big grinned. "Nothing gets a girl to like you more than helping her out in her time of need. All you've gotta do now is to wait 'til she's getting beaten up in a battle, then you can heal her up and she'll be all over you after that."
The Author considered this.
"I can tell you mean well," he remarked, "but I can't decide whether I want to thank you or thwap you."
"The former would be preferable," Mr. Big suggested. "I'm just doing my best to bring a guy and a girl I like together. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"Not on the surface. But you always have a hidden agenda."
"Well, not very well hidden, anyway."
The Author nodded, and gently cuffed the rabbit on the back of the head with one hand.
"Oi!" he piped up, rubbing his head with one ear. "What was that for?"
"That's for when I find out what your agenda is."
It took some persuading to force the Junon authorities to allow the Inflatable to dock at the city. They kept waffling on about some dashed cargo ferries that were stuck there, but eventually they came to see the party's point of view. The argument was finally settled when Pugwash levelled one of the Inflatable's cannons at the dockside and the Major pointed out from the deck that he'd teach them a bally thing or two about getting whatsits stuck wherever if they didn't surrender.
Jessie came to see the group off.
"You sure you want to stay behind?" Perigee asked, inwardly relieved. Those two didn't add anything to the plot, they couldn't fight, and they had next to no character development... Good to be rid of them, really.
Jessie nodded. "Wedge still isn't doing too well," she explained demurely. "Someone needs to stay with him..."
"We understand," the Author told her reassuringly, hurriedly clamping a hand over Mr. Big's mouth. "We'll see you two later, then."
"Well, we'll be -" Cloud began before the Major appeared from the ship with a cry of, "I say, wait up, old beans!" and thundered down towards them.
"Oh, no," Perigee muttered. "He's not coming with us, is he?"
"Why not?" replied the Author. "He's well-meaning, he can be useful in a fight, he'll get us sympathy from the older characters, and above all, he's got the Blunderbuss. Now," he added, and stopped. "Major, where is the Blunderbuss?"
The Major shrugged. "Couldn't say, old boy. Sure I had the dashed thing one minute, next minute it was jolly well gone! Hope it turns up, what?"
"Probably for the best," the Author mused.
"What is this Blunderbuss anyway?" Perigee asked. The Author and Mr. Big gave him identical stares of doom.
"Do not question the Blunderbuss," said Mr. Big darkly. "It is a weapon of ultimate destruction. When it is fired, someone or something always gets blown up."
"Yes," agreed the Author. "There's no way to tell what will get blown up, though. The only things safe when the Major fires it are the Major himself and whatever he's firing it at."
"Ahoy there, Boatswain Sausages!" the Major boomed. A couple of seconds later, Sausages appeared on the deck and waved down at them.
"Take dashed good care of her, won't you, old chap? Don't want to get back and hear some blighter's been having a go at her, what?"
"So, old beans," the Major continued, turning back to the others. "Where are we off to now, what?"
Cloud pointed skywards. "Up, up and away!" he said happily.
Mr. Big groaned.
"Look," said the Author calmly, "it's not a particularly difficult concept to grasp. You just go and stand over in that corner for a minute or so. That gives us just about long enough to sneak aboard this airship, and then we can overpower any guards inside and steal it. Do you follow me now?"
The soldier waiting by the walkway up to the Highwind stood resolutely where he was. He'd faced madmen before, but somehow these guys seemed worryingly sane. Eccentric rather than mad.
"I could steal his clothes," suggested Kasuto helpfully.
"Well," Perigee considered this, "it would make him run away, but... no." It wasn't so bad when the victim was a sixteen-bit sprite, but when he was standing right in front of you the idea wasn't quite as appealing.
"I could just stab him," Roch pointed out. He'd 'borrowed' a bread knife from the Inflatable's mess and had tucked it neatly through his belt until he could find himself a proper sword.
"You see?" the Author continued reasonably to the guard. "We've got any number of ways of disposing of you. Now why don't you be sensible and take my advice, and that way you don't get hurt. Or embarrassed," he added, glancing sideways at Kasuto.
"I... er..." the guard began. "You..."
"Oh, just shut up and let 'em in, will ya?" snapped a voice from inside.
The guard spun round and bowed, intensely glad to have the decision taken out of his hands. "Right, sir, Mr. Highwind, sir! I'll just go now and... er... polish my rifle or something..."
He scurried off.
"Well?" the voice went on. "You guys comin' in or what?"
The source of the voice was, as the reader will by now have guessed, the pilot of the airship. He was leaning against the wall just inside the entrance, a cigarette sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and by the smell of things either he or the cigarette had been there for some time. The Author wafted a hand in front of his face to try and get the air moving, and Kasuto put both hands over her mouth and made Darth Vader noises.
"So," the pilot said flatly, "you guys want to steal this ship, right?"
"Yes," said the Author firmly.
"We're trying to save the world from an evil madman," Cloud put in. "This is far more important than any use you might have for it."
"Really?" The pilot raised an eyebrow. "What's the company got to say about this?"
"Shinra? I don't think they know. They probably don't want us to."
"Right? Well, in that case," the pilot extended a hand, "welcome aboard. The name's Cid Highwind. Where d'you guys want to go first?"
"You jes' gonna help us?" Barret enquired suspiciously.
Cid nodded. "Yeah. Got a problem with that?"
"No, nothing," Tifa interrupted, desperate to avoid a fight. "We're very grateful, Mr. Highwind."
Mr. Highwind laughed. "The name's Cid. No need for formalities with me. Now where're ya goin'? Only we should be off pretty quick before that twat outside goes and tells the authorities."
"We want to go to the Gold Saucer," Perigee told him. "On business, you understand."
"You too, huh? Well, I can take you as far as Corel. You'll have to take the cable car up to the Saucer, though. They don't have a place for this baby to land any closer."
"...Corel..." muttered Barret, unheard.
"That's fine with us," Perigee said. "Any time you can save us would be much appreciated."
"Yeah, whatever. Come on, hop in."
"So just why are you helping us?" the Author enquired. He was leaning up against one of the walls in the Highwind's control room, the only others present being Cid and his two trainee pilots. "You're a Shinra guy, aren't you? You do know we're those terrorists they've been after?"
"No," Cid admitted, "not that it matters. If you're gonna annoy Rufus, then you got my support. Damn jumped-up schoolboy..."
"Kid thinks he can just do whatever he wants now he's President. I go to him with a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and he tells me to get lost. Even tries to get me to be his personal chauffeur."
The Author shrugged. "To which your reaction was?"
"I told him to piss off."
"Ah. Understandable." The Author shrugged. "They're not going to be particularly pleased with you for just running off like that, you know. Especially if they find out you've been helping us out."
"Yeah, well, I'm thinkin' of goin' freelance now. Not as though I owe 'em anythin'."
Cid gave the Author a piercing glance. "You suckin' up to me or something?"
"Would I do anything of the sort? I'm just being a good listener."
"Go listen somewhere else then, would you? Just 'cause I'm helpin' you doesn't mean I like you, right?"
"Right, certainly. Could I just ask one question, though?"
"Can you get up on the deck while this thing's flying?"
"Yeah, of course." Cid looked marginally puzzled. "Why?"
"Oh, I think a friend of mine would appreciate being taken up there." The Author bowed. "Thank you for your time, sir pilot."
"The name's Cid, you know!" Sir Pilot shouted after him as he left.
"Well, this is Corel," Cid remarked casually as the group strolled into the town... or at least what had probably been a town at some point. "It ain't pretty, but this is where you head up to the Saucer. I can't take you any further in the Highwind."
"Whoa..." breathed Tifa, staring around her in disbelief. This place probably classified as a town only because people stayed here all year round. Sure, there were houses - or at least, there were run-down arrangements of concrete walls placed in close proximity to one another, so they would have to suffice - but that was about it. The ground was scorched - no sign of grass or any life there. The few inhabitants who still remained either sat around staring at the new visitors, or hurried back up to the makeshift stalls they had set up and tried to look businesslike. It was about as close to a ghost town as you could manage without slaughtering the villagers.
"What on earth happened here?" Ess asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. Perigee opened his mouth to reprimand her for not paying enough attention to the world briefing before they'd integrated, then caught himself in time and shut it again.
"I dunno," replied Mr. Big, sufficiently shocked to keep him from making unhelpful comments, "but I don't think I want to find out."
"Barret, didn't you say you were from..." began Cloud. "Hey, Barret, what the hell are you doing?"
"Wha'? Me? Nothin'!" said Barret innocently, doing his best to pretend that he was not, in fact, wearing a pair of oversized glasses and a bushy false moustache and beard. "Jes'... there might be spies hear, ya know?"
"Yeah... I guess..." Cloud agreed, scratching the back of his head thoughtfully. "I suppose they might recognise you, yeah... Whatever." He shrugged the matter off, not wanting to give it any more thought than was strictly necessary. "So where's this cable car, then?"
"Far end of the town," Perigee said resignedly, pointing. He had barely finished the sentence before Cloud had hurtled off with his now trademark, "Onwards!"
"Wow, he's getting even worse than before," Mr. Big observed coolly. "This Questing's really getting to him."
"Tell me about it," Perigee muttered. "C'mon, let's follow him."
The group began to head through the town, ignoring - in most cases - the vender's cries of, "Mythril bangle, going cheap!" or "One of a kind fire materia, mister, just for you!" Cloud, of course, stopped at each one and inspected their wares critically before realising that they didn't actually have all that much money.
"Yo, Writer boy!" Cid called after the Author, who was the last to get moving - bar Aeris, who was waiting for him, and Mr. Big, who couldn't be bothered to find a different shoulder to travel on. The Author looked back, and wandered over to the pilot.
"Yes?" he asked genially.
"Hey, that's quite a good one," Mr. Big was musing out loud. "'Writer boy.' I'd better remem-"
He shut up hurriedly as the Author whacked him firmly on the back of the head with his dictionary.
"I gotta ask," Cid went on. "Just what are you guys really up to?"
"Just what we said. Saving the world, basically. It's definitely a case of Us versus Them - where Them seems to consist of random monsters, those Turk guys, Sephiroth..."
"The Turks?" Cid raised an eyebrow. "You're up against the Shinra too?"
"Well, in that case, you might as well count me in on this. Not as if I've got a job to go back to any more - or as if I'd want to, anyway. And savin' the world sounds like it might keep me amused for a while. I'll tag along."
"[Cid] joined your party!" announced Mr. Big, who was beginning to get the hang of how this game worked.
Cid pointed at him. "Is he always like that?"
"Right. You should eat him."
The Author smiled. "You have no idea how many times the thought has crossed my mind."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you two're thinking of - hey!"
Under most circumstances the cable car ride up to the Gold Saucer would have been pleasant. The sun was just disappearing beneath the horizon, and the Saucer itself was beautifully lit up, almost like a very strangely shaped fairytale castle. Sadly, what with Kasuto hurtling round and round in circles, Roch brooding in one corner, Barret desperately trying to remove his now surprisingly obstinate moustache, and Mr. Big sulking loudly about how he didn't really feel like being eaten, it was not the most enjoyable journey ever.
In the Gold Saucer entrance hall, the car door slid smoothly open and the thirteen of them bundled out, then set about working where one person began and the others ended. Fitting eleven people, one lion thing and one rabbit in a cable car obviously designed for only three people had not been easy.
"Ah, good evening, dear sirs, welcome to the Gold Saucer," began the gate attendant, in a tone that made it perfectly clear she had said this far, far too many times. "I sincerely hope you enjoy your stay here, and that you take full advantage of all our reasonably-priced attractions. How may I help you?"
"You could get outta the way and let us in?" Cid suggested.
"But of course, dear sirs. Do you have a Gold Ticket?"
"Oh, dear me." The attendant shook her head sadly. "A Gold Ticket is permanent lifetime access to this wonderful centre for your entire party. If you wish to enter without one, you shall have to pay the full admission price."
"An' that is?"
The attendant's lips moved soundlessly in mental calculation. "Fifteen thousand Gil," she came up with eventually.
"...huh?" said all thirteen in perfect synchronisation.
"Three thousand for a party of three," the attendant reeled off, all joviality gone from her voice. "Thirteen of you, counting pets and animals as one member each, meaning you will need five tickets to enter. Have a nice day."
"Oh, why argue?" said Ess resignedly. "Just pay it and let's go in."
Suddenly all eyes were on Cloud, who, by common consensus a while back, had been chosen to carry their money and items.
"Er," he commented.
"Yeah?" Cid put in expectantly.
"I didn't know it would be so much!" Cloud wailed. "And they were selling some good stuff down there... Look!" He held his sword aloft. "I got a new weapon!"
"So how much have we got?"
Cloud did a quick count. "One thousand, three hundred and four Gil," he announced after a few seconds.
"Well, that really is unfortunate," the attendant began, "but -"
"Might I have a word?" the Author enquired. "One to one?"
"Of course, dear sir."
"Thank you." The Author motioned for the others to leave the two of them alone, and they did, after a few pointed glares at certain members. He leaned closer and put one arm round the girl's shoulders in a comradely manner.
"Tell me," he murmured conspiratorially, "have you heard of a certain I, Caroussis?"
She nodded. "The Shinra finance guy. Yeah, why?"
"Well... I happen to know he's been put in charge of planning the annual Shinra day trip this year. You know, when all the management down tools for the day and go enjoy themselves at a beach or hotel somewhere. Now, there are lots and lots of executives in that company, and I could always put in a good word for this place. If the staff turn out to be friendly enough. Follow me?"
"You?" The girl laughed curtly. "How would you know someone like that?"
"I'll demonstrate." From behind his back the Author produced a mobile phone and deftly tapped a number into it. He held it to his ear and waited.
"Yes?" said a harsh voice from it. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"Caroussis? It's me."
"Oh." The sheer joy of speaking to the Author was clear from I,'s tone. "What now?"
"I just need to show someone that you and I are really friends, that's all."
"Really." Caroussis sighed. "The privilege will not last if you keep this up. Good day."
The Author was about to comment when he heard an indistinct voice from the other end say, "So, is this that Author person, then?"
"Shut up and get back to bed," I, snapped. "I, will have need for you later."
He hung up.
The Author gave the attendant a brief smile. "See? That's about as friendly as he gets."
"Er... right, sir." The girl raised her voice for the benefit of the others. "So that's... five tickets, valid until you leave the premises, for however long you wish to stay. Here you are, sir. Have a nice stay."
"How did you manage that?" Nanaki enquired as the group convened once more and wandered through the huge gaping moogle's mouth that made up the entrance to the Gold Saucer.
"I just have a way with words," the Author explained knowledgeably. "I am the -"
"Da hell was tha'?" Barret exclaimed as the entire room shook violently, throwing Aeris off her feet. Rather predictably, she landed in the Author's arms, and the two of them shared a Moment before realising that now probably wasn't the best time.
Perigee hurried back to the entrance hall, and was somewhat taken aback. Already there was a cordon round the cable car, and a couple of mechanics in grease-stained outfits were half-visible underneath it.
"What's going on here?" he asked.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir," the attendant said, showing no signs of recognition, "but we're experiencing technical difficulties with the car. I don't think it'll be ready until the morning. Don't worry, though, all guests are being provided with free accommodation in our on-site luxury hotel."
Perigee thought about this. Must have been because they'd all left the screen... but why this now? That was only meant to happen when they went to the Saucer to pick up the... Keystone...
"Slight problem," he announced, heading back to the Central Square where the others were waiting. "The car's broken down. We're stuck here for the night."
"Oh, damn," Mr. Big said sarcastically. "You mean we're trapped in a theme park with nothing to do until the morning? How will we manage?"
"We do have to go get this Keystone," Roch reminded him.
"Well, that won't take all of us, will it? And it won't take all night, either. I say some of you guys go find this Keystone thing, and the rest of us can go have fun."
"I second that!" Kasuto put in instantly.
"That is actually a decent point," Perigee agreed. "Okay, er... Cloud, Barret, you want to come with me to get the Keystone?"
"Oh, I say, old bean," the Major put in, "don't leave me out of this! This Keystone whatsit sounds bally important, you know. Better let an experienced old boy handle it, what?"
"I don't think -" tried Perigee.
"Why not?" Cloud cut him off. "Sounds like a good idea to me. Barret?"
"Uh, yeah, wha'ever."
"So it's decided then," Cloud told Perigee. "Where do we go?"
"Follow me in a second," Perigee ordered resignedly. "Er... the rest of you, some of you had better go make sure they've got enough rooms for us. I guess everyone else can just wander around for the evening."
"I'll go sort it out," Ess volunteered. "Roch, you come with me."
"Yeah, I'll tag along," Cid added. "I want to make sure they don't give me some closet or something."
"I, too, will accompany you," concurred Nanaki. "I have no desire to sample the attractions of this place."
"Then we get to go have fun?" Kasuto asked, just wanting to make sure. Perigee nodded. "Woohoo!"
"So, babe," Mr. Big said smoothly, bounding over to Tifa's shoulder and waggling his eyebrows at her, "how'd you like to go have a good time?"
"Sapphire pendant: rumoured to be able to release magical seals," read Cloud, starting at one end of the display case and working his way round. "Crystal shard: supposedly belonged to the legendary Hero of Light... Medallion: bears an insignia of a roaring lion... Fish: a rotten fish..." Cloud looked up. "Wow, Dio's got a lot of cool stuff here!"
"Yeah, but it's just the Keystone we're after," Perigee reminded him. "It's got to be in here somewhere, unless Dio's put it somewhere else."
He realised afterwards that it was a bit of a daft thing to have said.
For some reason, adjoining the Saucer's famous Battle Square was a nondescript little room, in which Dio kept his prized possessions on display for the general public's approval. And in general the public did approve, although Perigee wasn't entirely sure why a fish was on display. Must be a Key Item, he decided. For that matter, all the things in here looked kinda familiar...
"Yo!" Barret called over. "This it?"
Perigee wandered over and read the plaque by the item in question. "Keystone: smooth round stone with connections to the Cetra. Yes, Barret, I think this is what we want."
"Yo, bros!" A relatively well muscled man came striding into the room, wearing nothing but a loose-fitting pair of swimming trunks and, as the cliché goes, a wide grin. "I see you're finding my collection too groovy, right?"
"Jolly good, what?" the Major agreed from the far end of the display case, inspecting what was, apparently, the, 'Einlanzer: a holy sword of the Dragoons.' "All bally impressive!"
"You're Dio, aren't you?" Cloud asked.
The stranger nodded. "Yeah, that's me, ya know. This here's my very own hangout. Far out, ain't it?"
"We need to ask a favour of you," Cloud continued, either deciding the question wasn't worth answering or - more likely - so set on getting his request in that everything else seemed unimportant in comparison.
"We need to borrow the Keystone."
"Hmm..." Dio considered this. "It's worth a bundle, ya know... Brought me hours of enjoyment... Still, I guess you bros'll do more with it than me. You want it, it's yours... on one condition."
"Wha'?" Barret blurted out. "C'mon, we need it!"
"I'm bored," Dio explained. "I want one o' you bros to amuse me... in the Battle Square."
"Oh, that's no problem," said Cloud dismissively. "I'll do that. Easy."
"Not so fast, bros," Dio cut him off, pointing. "I want... you to do it."
"Me?" The Major puffed out his chest. "I say, what a privilege, what? I'll give those blighters in there what ho, eh? Haha!"
"The black wind howls..." muttered Perigee.
"Oh, wow!" Kasuto hurtled towards the nearest arcade machine. "There are like, so many games here!"
The other four watched her as she practically ricocheted off each game, emitting an endless stream of, "Wow!"s and, "Yeah!"s. None of them were too bothered about the flashing screens and hideous synth tunes. Aeris and Tifa had never had a chance to try out these new 'video' games, as they were called, and to be honest could think of better ways to spend their time, the Author had only ever been good at adventure games, which didn't work very well in arcades, and Mr. Big simply took one look around at the punters already playing and decided that no one here would present enough of a challenge.
"I wonder if there's more further on?" Tifa mused. "I hope it's not all games like this."
"Read your fortune, pretty ladies?"
The comment came from a strange looking creature. If one imagined a moogle (a fluffy white cat-thing with wings, for the uninitiated), then stretched it to about four times its natural width and attached a black cat with a megaphone to the top of its head, then one would have a reasonable idea of what this thing looked like. It bounded awkwardly towards them, stopped a few feet away, and both cat and moogle waved happily.
"The name's... er... Cait Sith!" it explained. "I'm a fortune teller! Um... read your fortune? Anyone?"
"How much?" asked the Author suspiciously.
"Oh, no charge! Everything's free around here... oh no, it isn't, is it? Well, I'm free. Read your fortune?"
"You sound like a broken record," Mr. Big remarked.
"I know!" Aeris decided, taking the Author's hand. "Read our fortune."
"Our?" repeated the Author.
"Oh, it's okay, I can do two people at once. I think. Um... wait a second..." The moogle suddenly began flailing its arms around, nearly toppling Mr. Big from Tifa's shoulder. A couple of seconds later it stopped, and held out a hand. From a small slit in its wrist came a long strip of ticker tape, curling up in its palm.
The cat ripped it off and read it. "You will meet a tall, dark stranger. Ancient samurai philosopher Po Lti-Osu say, 'When tlee fall on woods, can't see woods for tlee.' Your favourite colour is blue. For your reference, today you will have: No Lunch."
"I don't call that much of a fortune," Tifa said.
"Yeah, me neither." The moogle scratched its head. "Er... perhaps I did something wrong. Let me try again."
This attempt read, 'He shall appear from an eastern land far across the sea. A young man who has yet to know his potential. This potential is a power that could either destroy him or realise his will. His courage shall determine his fate.'
"Very profound," said Mr. Big, nodding.
"But still not exactly relating to us," the Author pointed out.
"Don't worry," Cait reassured them, "I'll get it right this time. Here goes..."
The moogle threw its arms around as before, only far more violently this time. But it didn't stop, even as the tape began to wind out from its wrist. Its fevered motions grew faster and faster, and plumes of black smoke began to rise from its back.
The group all took one step backwards.
For a brief moment the cat took on a terrifyingly evil look as its eyes glowed bright red. Then the excitement obviously became too much for it, and it exploded. Loudly, and at great length. Tifa neatly swept Aeris' legs from under her and threw herself on the Author, bearing the two of them down to the floor as cogs, springs and more complicated bits of metal flew in all directions.
When the smoke cleared, which took some time, all that remained of Cait Sith was a collection of gears and electronics, a lot of white fluff, and a stunned man in a coat.
"How come you guys get to have all the fun?" Kasuto complained, wandering back to see what they'd been up to. "Do you think he's dead?"
"I'm... fine, really..." the man muttered, mainly to himself. "I... wonder what I did... wrong this time..."
"Wow, I never knew you two were like that," Mr. Big commented, gazing at the Author and Tifa and grinning widely. The Author had landed on his back, and was now staring up into Tifa's eyes, barely a couple of inches from him. The two of them disentangled themselves from each other, with a certain amount of embarrassment, after which the Author picked Mr. Big up by one ear and shook him vigorously.
"Ok-k-kay, I t-t-take it-t-t allllll back-k-k!" the rabbit managed. "Tha-a-at c-c-comm-m-ment-t-t was unc-c-called f-f-for!"
The Author stopped shaking him, smoothed off his ruffled fur, and put him back on his shoulder where he belonged. In the meantime, Tifa had helped Aeris back to her feet, and the three girls were now inspecting the man who had apparently risen from the moogle's ashes.
"So, just who is..." the Author began, joining them. "Oh, right. It'd have to be you, wouldn't it?"
Warbling Croft sat up, with a certain amount of help from Aeris. "Someone's got to be me," he said philosophically. "Hi. Who are you?"
The Author sighed. "Okay, these lovely ladies here are Tifa, Aeris, and Kasuto. Girls, this here is Warbling Croft. Yes, that is his first name."
"Another old friend?" Aeris prompted, a teasing smile playing across her lips. The Author nodded. "They do seem to keep popping up, don't they?"
The Author fixed her with his gaze and spoke softly. "There is a reason for that," he said, "and someday I will tell you. But not today."
"So what do you do, Mr. Croft?" Tifa asked politely.
"Me? I'm a Shinra spy, I think. They only promoted me to Undercover Operative a few days ago."
"A spy?" repeated Tifa, suddenly cautious. "Spying on who, exactly?"
"Um..." Croft considered this. "I think I'm meant to be spying on you guys. I think I should be trying to follow you around or something."
"Well, that seems a good argument to me," the Author put in. "Welcome to the group."
"Now just wait a minute!" Tifa objected. "If he's a spy, we can't have him coming around with us!"
"Oh, it's okay," said Croft happily. "I'm not a very good spy."
"Can't he come along?" Kasuto pleaded. "He's fun! He made that cat thing blow up."
"It was an accident!" Croft exclaimed. "They only gave me a few hours to learn how to use that thing, and there are... were so many buttons and levers in there... And whose idea was it to put a self-destruct button in anyway?"
"No," said Tifa firmly. "We can't have a spy tagging along with us. Who knows what information he'll be passing back to Shinra?"
"Oh, not much," Croft reassured her. "I've forgotten their telephone number."
"So what exactly will you be doing while you're following us?"
"Looking like I'm doing my job, and joining in with all the fun and exciting adventures you'll be having," Warbling Croft said matter-of-factly.
"Pleeeaaase?" said all five others at once.
"Oh, okay," Tifa capitulated resignedly. "But you'd better not let Barret find out about it. He won't be happy."
"Yay!" Kasuto leaped a couple of feet into the air. "Now we've sorted that out, let's go and have some fun!"
From within the Battle Square came a cry of, "Oh, I say!" followed shortly by an unhealthy sounding CRACK, the BOOM of a particularly nasty spell going off, and a loud WHUMP.
"Ouch," said Cloud, peering through one of the windows into the arena. "That looks awfully painful."
Something green and wet went splat against the glass.
"What I don't get," Perigee announced, to anyone who happened to be listening, "is how he's still going. I mean, his weapon's broken, his armour's gone, so's his accessory, he's got no materia, and his health has been halved. Twice. He should have lost two or three rounds ago."
"No worries 'bout that," Dio said coolly. "I'm cool with just kickin' back and watchin'."
A THUMP that shook the floor.
"Victory!" announced a monotone voice from within the arena. "Your current winnings are: 16,000 points! Your current estimated chance of success is: 3.7%! Your lucky number is: 3.7! Continue?"
There was a brief pause, followed shortly by an, "Oh, off course, old bean!"
"He's going on to the last round?" Perigee said in disbelief. "He can't possibly do it at this level!"
"He's kickin', I'll give him that." Dio produced a small walkie-talkie from somewhere about his person - none of those present wanted to enquire exactly where. He flicked a switch on it and held it to his ear. "Yo, Sharky? You there?"
There was a pause while the voice on the other end said something incomprehensible at great length.
"Glad to hear it," Dio went on. "Look, bring out number 24601, okay? Yeah, yeah, I know, but this guy in there's just tubular. I want to see if he's as seriously chilled as he seems."
"24601?" Perigee repeated as Dio returned the device to wherever it had come from.
Dio nodded. "We keep two sets of monsters in there," he explained. "Normally I only let real veterans go up against the second lot, but your bro in there looks like he's done this before."
"Enjoyin' his performance, then?" Barret enquired pointedly.
"Oh, yeah, right on. How forgetful of me." From the same place as the walkie-talkie came a small bronze key. "Keystone's yours, bros. Feel free to go get it."
"It's awlright, I'm goin'," Barret said, intercepting the key on its way to Cloud. "Be right back."
"Final battle!" came a muffled yet distinctly monotonous voice from the arena. "Constructed using the top secret blueprints from Shinra Project #24601... The Gold Saucer Battle Square presents... the Proud Clod!"
"Hey, I want to see this!" Cloud exclaimed, hurrying to the window. "What's a Prod Cloud?"
"Prood Clud," Dio corrected him. "It's -"
Cloud had spotted the enemy in question. It was twenty, maybe thirty feet high, and thus completely dwarfed the Major, who wasn't all that tall anyway. From every one of its blood red limbs, various guns protruded at all sorts of weird angles. On its back was a huge artillery cannon, such as might be used to level a small town.
The Major didn't look all that worried, although that was probably just because he didn't realise how hopeless a situation he was now in.
"Begin," announced the system voice, and the Major was promptly hit with a rain of bullets, lasers, rockets, flamethrowers, and several more esoteric weapons that didn't really fall into any conventional category.
When the smoke finally cleared and the floor was beginning to solidify once more, he could be seen standing in exactly the same place. He was wobbling noticeably, and his moustache was quite definitely charred, but he was standing his ground.
"Oh, I say, old boy," he said menacingly, adjusting his leather hat, "that wasn't called for at all."
From the arena emanated a series of quiet pings, the sort of sound one might expect a rusted and blunt battle sabre to make if struck repeatedly against the right leg of a thirty foot robot. It was followed shortly by a hail of firepower.
This was repeated two or three times more until the Major finally hit his limit break.
"Right ho, old chap," he growled, orange light spilling out from his fists as he reached over his shoulder with one hand to grasp the ancient weapon that always resided there, "about time you had a taste of the... Blunder... Oh, I say, I haven't got it, have I? Well, then..."
Quite a crowd had gathered to watch this old lunatic with no clue when to stop, and had been chatting amiably to one another or, in a couple of cases, making bets as to whether he'd make it through the next round. Now, though, they all abruptly shut up and merely watched.
The Major waved his sabre above his head and charged forward with a bellow of, "Tally ho! For the old country, what?"
Cloud and Perigee stared in growing amazement as a variety of metallic noises echoed from the arena. They seemed to be growing more and more distorted, as if cogs were coming loose and metal panels were buckling.
"He'll never do it," said Perigee knowledgeably. "I mean, that thing's going to... It's about to fire. It's going to blow his head off. It's... How on earth did he get it to shoot itself?"
"I told you he was good," Cloud informed him. "Look, he's got one of its arms off already."
"Yes, but... Why is he trying to hit it in the face with it?"
"He's managing it, though."
"There goes the other arm."
"It's on the ground now," Cloud commentated. "He's almost finished... It's about to fire its main cannon! It's going to fire! It's going to fire! It's going to..."
"How did he do that?"
Doink. Plib. Plib. Plib.
There was an all-engulfing silence in the Battle Square. Cloud got the feeling that, if he kept up his commentary now, he'd get lynched and probably thrown out of the Saucer, whether the cable car was working or not.
"Victory!" the system voice, a hint of surprise creeping into its otherwise expressionless tone. "Your current winnings are: 32,000 points! Congratulations! A winner is you!"
The Major stood unsteadily in the middle of a large pile of robotic bits and pieces. A gear stuck out from under his hat, and what looked like a fan belt was looped round his arm. But he was standing, and from the wide grin covering his face, he looked jolly pleased with himself, if rather blackened.
Behind him, the door to the square slid smoothly open.
"Your points may be exchanged at the desk to your left as you leave the arena," went on the voice. "Have a nice day. Do come back again."
Cloud, Perigee and Dio were waiting outside as he meandered happily out, to the sound of rapturous applause from the admiring crowd.
"That was amazing!" Cloud exclaimed. "You're really good! Can you teach me to fight like you?"
"Oh, right ho, old bean!" the Major replied cheerfully. "Bound to be time later, don't you worry, eh? I'll get you jolly well sorted out and ready for battle, what?"
"I've gotta say, bro," Dio cut him off, "you did pretty smooth in there. Cheers for keeping me amused. You can keep the battle points, if you want. Thirty-two big ones... You could buy Omnislash for that." He gave them a cryptic smile. "You might even be able to use it. Ciao, bros."
"I wonder what he meant by that?" Cloud mused.
"Omnislash is a legendary move," said Perigee. "Apparently -"
"It's a limit manual?" Cloud asked, his eyes beginning to light up. Perigee nodded.
"What in the blazes is a limit manual, old chaps?"
"Sometimes when a very powerful warrior comes up with a really nice technique," Cloud explained, "they write it down so other people can have a go at learning it later. You have to be really, really good to be able to understand it, though."
"Ah. Sounds like a jolly wheeze, old boy. I'll go fetch the dashed thing."
The Major scuttled off to the prize desk, and Perigee and Cloud exchanged glances.
"What's up with him?" Perigee wondered.
"You don't like him?"
"No, it's not that." Perigee shook his head. "It's just that I'm not sure he's really suited to saving the world or anything."
"He's a good fighter," Cloud objected.
"Here we go, old beans!" the Major called, hurrying back over with a rather hefty volume in one hand. "One Omniwhatsit, straight from the front lines, what?"
Cloud took it from him and began flicking through the pages. "It looks like a sword move," he mused. "It's too advanced. I can't use this yet."
Perigee smiled wryly.
"Let me have a look at the blighter," the Major said, taking it from Cloud and peering short-sightedly at the first page. "Doesn't look too bally difficult, what? Think I'll have a good read in bed tonight. Looks jolly interesting. I'll be using this Omniwhatsit on those critters out there soon enough, don't you worry, what? Haha."
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