Another chapter is here!
Seta88: Yeah. Let the man make his appearance soon.
The Green Man: Yes it will.
Crimson felt nauseous as her body abruptly regained form and weight, her legs nearly giving out as she struggled to stop the world from tilting. The war had begun between Heidegger and Rufus as they deployed their forces to the eastern and northern shores to storm the beaches. That was where the majority of the battles were taking place, with Kalm under the protection of whatever forces Reeve could supply while they handled the infiltration.
Ultimately, Heidegger was the greater threat at the moment so they would neutralize him once and for all by taking him, Hojo, and their base of operations out of the picture here and now. However, there were still troops lining the perimeter of the city and they couldn't afford to be spotted so soon. So they relied on Aerith again to get them inside like she did in the Underwater Reactor, only through the gap in the ring of reactors around the city created by the reactor Cloud and the others blew up. It hadn't been repaired since then, so it should have been the perfect entrance.
"Ugh…" She took a step back only for her foot to hit the ledge of what turned out to be the train platform and nearly sent her over the edge. A powerful set of hands, Cloud's hands, grabbed her before she could.
"You okay?" he asked, pulling her closer to him and away from the ledge.
"Just a bit dizzy." She gently freed herself from his protective grasp at the sound of Yuffie vomiting. Looking at the group as a whole, they were all disoriented to some extent and struggling to regain their bearings as well. "Aerith, what happened? Weren't we supposed to slip into Deepground?"
"I'm sorry everyone. I think that they increased the amount of mako that they pull from the surroundings to compensate for the output decreasing, and that increased the flow?" Aerith guessed while clutching her Princess Guard tightly as it supported the majority of her weight. "It took everything I had to avoid us being pulled apart, and there's… something in the reactor below us."
"We'll just have to make due from here then," Crimson told her as she crouched down and opened the bag she had slung over her shoulder, containing her Rekka among their other supplies. She tossed Yuffie the nausea medicine she had for motion sickness, since the disorientation hit her the hardest, and then passed the earpieces that Reeve had given her to everyone else.
"Connection has been established," said an almost robotic voice on the other end once everyone slipped them onto their ears. It was Shelke's voice.
The nausea that plagued Yuffie was banished by fury faster than any medicine could do as she jumped up and shouted into her earpiece, "I thought they locked you up!?"
"Mister Tuesti and my sister convinced me that it would be in my best interest to align myself with you in your endeavor to bring down Heidegger. My ability to utilize an SND allows me to monitor your position and access the various systems within Midgar to an extent remotely. Therefore, I will be acting as your support in infiltrating Deepground and apprehending or terminating the priority targets."
"How can we trust you after what you did in Junon?" Yuffie demanded. It was a fair question, all things considered. They had offered her an olive branch before and she'd tried to kill them all.
Shelke seemed unbothered by that. "I will assist you to the best of my abilities because I have been instructed to do so. Trust and personal feelings on the matter are not relevant to the mission. Much less those from the most immature of those involved."
Yuffie grew infuriated at the insinuation. "I'll show you immature, you—"
"Try to put aside whatever grievances you have for the moment," Cait Sith interrupted before they could escalate further. "We've offered to work on treating her condition for her cooperation, since her abilities will be essential, and she's constantly being monitored. Besides, she has no reason to betray us now that the chip inside her has been removed and Heidegger has already written her off."
The kunoichi was clearly not fine with it, but relented.
"Now that that's settled, what's the situation here now?" Crimson asked into the earpiece.
"Heidegger has enacted a curfew after the riots that followed shortly after the information leak. With the war now ongoing, all civilians have been instructed to remain indoors and various mechanical units have been deployed in each Sector to enforce it. I can spot three within the station building you are next to using the security cameras."
Crimson cautiously opened the door to check and found the station to be a mess. The windows inside were broken, debris scattered around ranging from glass to metal to cans. Some of the lockers in the station were tossed downwards, while others had holes punched in the steel from bullets.
The whirring of gears drew her eyes to their source. A machine moved back and forth with a pair of treads, armed with a shield in front of it. There was a gun-barrel mounted on the head, with a camera lens on top of it to monitor its surroundings.
Crimson activated Sense and let the information feed into her mind as she spotted the other two on the higher level of the station, leading out to the street. Then she pulled back as one turned in their direction and spoke into the earpiece. "Can you disable them?"
"Their network is connected to a secured mainframe within Shinra Headquarters," Shelke responded. "The best I can do at the moment is mask the loss of the signals if they are destroyed and create a loop so that you remain undetected on the security monitors. I need for Cait Sith to connect the transceiver it has into the main system before I can shut them down."
"In other words, we have to get through the city and storm Shinra's place," Barret said as he adjusted his new gun-arm. "That means we have to take out these tin-cans along the way, right?"
"Engaging in combat is fine, so long as you remain undetected. Something that can be seen by the few actual Deepground members remaining above the surface will likely draw attention and increase the likelihood of the priority targets escaping."
"We'll leave the station and then take the side-roads and alleys to avoid being spotted by anyone who can radio it in and fight only when necessary," Crimson said, turning to party. "Cloud, you shouldn't have much trouble tearing through them since they weren't made for dealing with SOLDIER. Lockhart, those models in particular are composed of metal that's electric-resistant, but they're vulnerable to extreme changes in temperature. Your fire and ice magic will do the trick."
"I'll take out the one on the ground floor and draw their fire," Cloud said, pulling his heavy blade from the magnetic holster on his back.
Tifa cracked her knuckles. "Then the two on the top are mine."
Once the unit on the ground shift its lens away, Crimson opened the door wider and gave them the signal to move. She then briefly lost sight of Cloud as his enhanced muscles sprung forward. In the span of a second he'd jumped in while bringing the thick steel down, filling the air with the sound of crunching metal as the Alert Head was sheared in twain.
Both of the remaining machines shifted towards the sound picked up by their microphones. Then they opened fire at him. He brought his blade around to shield himself as he moved ahead and kept their attention.
Tifa darted in next, a throbbing sphere of fire in one hand and a white-and-blue cannonball of frigid cold in the other. She flung the blazing sphere first. The Fire 2 spell ruptured on contact with one, blowing it apart as metal bits scattered from the internal fluids combusting.
The Ice 2 spell left a trail of frost as it followed, smashing into the second and encasing its outer shell in a layer of greyish rime while everything inside was frozen solid. She then jumped off the row of lockers and up to the upper level, slamming her fist into the machine and shattering it to bits. "Done."
The others made their way inside and quickly ascended the stairs. When they reached the street exit they found that it wasn't only the station that was a mess. Sector 1 as a whole had seen better days.
Rubble from buildings was scattered about and scorch marks could be made out on the concrete. Power lines were toppled, cars were overturned or riddled with dents and holes and broken windows. Most of the buildings looked like they had been broken into as well and more mechanical foes roamed the streets.
"This place looks like a warzone," Cid stated as they ran out of the building and turned a corner to slip into the alley there.
"The riots must've gotten really bad." Tifa frowned. "I wonder how many people were hurt?"
"It was estimated that more than 2,000 were killed during the mass unrest, with thrice that in injuries," Shelke volunteered.
"There's been more than that," Aerith said they came to a standstill when they found another Alert Head obstructing their path around a corner. Yuffie pulled out and flung her paper crane, slicing through it cleanly before returning to her hand. "I can hear a lot of restless souls unable to move on."
"The number of those who may have perished from injuries and the fallout hasn't been accounted for yet. Most of the participants are thought to be residents of the Slums, incised by the increase in the energy costs and the casualties of the Plate Fall."
"It's a travesty that it came to this," Cait Sith said as he rode on Nanaki's back as they continued to move through the Sector. "Midgar itself may end up being abandoned once all is said and done."
"Most likely," Vincent agreed.
"Why's that?" Yuffie asked him. "We're just bringing down these guys, so why would the entire city be abandoned?"
"Much of Midgar's infrastructure is tied into Shinra, including the government, and its prosperity was due to being responsible for most of the world's energy supply," Vincent explained. "All the losses and damages can't be repaired without significant capital. More than even Shinra can bring to bear alone. Their only recourse will be to increase the prices of energy world-wide and then try to enforce that increase through military force or political pressure."
"Except now they can't," Cait Sith added. "With all their secrets out, no one will be willing to bear with the stigma of working alongside of them legally and the amount of political pressure they can apply will be eroded. And while people who weren't directly involved are willing to stomach their acts for the sake of convenience, the moment that energy stops being cheaper and safer than the alternative power sources that were used before, people will stop using it. So once Midgar loses its primary source of economic activity, there's no way for it to keep functioning when the costs exceed the profits. Various businesses will leave it behind and the citizens will follow."
"But what about the people who can't move, huh?" Barret asked. "Most people who lived in the Slums stayed there because they couldn't find another place to go. I doubt most of 'em will be able to even cross the wastelands, let alone find someplace else they can afford. Same happened to Corel when it burned down because of Shinra."
Cait Sith nodded his head, acknowledging that fact. "I've been working on a relocation program in the months since the Plate Fall, among other things. The main problem with establishing new settlements is that most suitable locations are too dangerous due to monsters, which is a part of why I've been seeking talented and willing individuals like Miss Rui to replace the need for reliance on Shinra's forces. We can see if the citizens of Corel would be willing to relocate as well once it's up and running."
Barret let out a low grunt in response, but nothing else that indicated he was hopeful that it would bring some relief to the people of his home. Even if they blamed him, he was still willing to do what he felt was best for them. He wouldn't be able to face Dyne and his wife in death otherwise.
The conversation died there as they made their way to the outskirts of the Shinra Headquarters. Unlike the streets before, there were both armed guards and mechanical forces assembled. And inside of the building, on the first floor, was what looked to be a battlesuit like what Heidegger used in Costa del Sol.
"I can't see a way to get in through the front without being spotted," Cloud stated. "Do we fight our way in?"
"No, we shouldn't…" Crimson lowered her head and thought on it for a bit. "We can use the elevator in the underground parking lot that we used the last time to get inside, but we getting there will put us in the line of sight. I could try using putting the guards to sleep, but it won't stop the machines from causing a ruckus and alerting the rest inside. Does anyone else have any suggestions?"
A silence hung in the air as they considered their options until Cloud came up with the solution. "Does everyone remember the battle on the Cargo Ship, with the first Jenova Spawn we fought?"
"Yes. Why—" Realization dawned on Crimson mid-question and she turned to Aerith. "The spell it used on us that frozen half of us in time. We weren't aware of anything while under it, so if you could use that we could get past them."
"…I don't have that knowledge personally, but maybe I can access it." She pointed to one of the materia on her bangle. "Can I borrow your Time Materia?"
"I'm not sure the spell is accessible if it's there," Crimson said as she passed it off to her.
"The Time Materia already contains the knowledge of how to use personal time manipulation, it just hasn't been unlocked yet since it hasn't been mastered," Aerith explained as she slotted it into her Princess Guard along with the All Materia. "But as I am now, I should able to draw out that knowledge myself and use it to freeze them all in time for just long enough."
She took a deep breath and then concentrated, causing her features to scrunch up as a phantasmal clock appeared beneath the various foes. Then they all stopped moving, frozen in a moment of time. "That should hold them for a minute or two."
"Then let's go." Crimson broke cover and the others followed as they quickly made their way to the entrance of the underground parking lot and the elevator there. She pulled out the card that belonged to Hojo's assistant and used it. The metal shutters parted and the grate sealing it off moved to reveal the elevator platform leading upwards.
"We'll head up first to access the President's console," Cait Sith said as they climbed inside of it and Cloud pushed the button to get it moving before the Stop spell ended. "That should give Miss Rui access to the rest of the systems and Deepground."
As she rode the elevator into the company she had served for the first time in a long time, Crimson considered everything that was said earlier. If things went well, it really would be the downfall of Shinra no matter what. They couldn't cover anything up when it came to what the mako reactors did to the surrounding lands and the various crimes against humanity they committed anymore.
Providing Rufus survives this, he'll likely nearly-everything to just keep a fraction of his wealth… Her thoughts trailed off as something else came to mind and she reached for her earpiece. "Shelke Rui, when we plug in the transceiver can you copy and delete data off Shinra's mainframe?"
"Then download every location of where Shinra has weapons stored for us to destroy later and delete their weapon blueprints, records related to the SOLDIER program, and anything else related to bioengineering. We can't risk someone else arming themselves using that information ever again."
There was a prolonged pause before she responded, "…I have received authorization to do so within certain specifications."
Crimson shifted her gaze over to the Cait Sith doll at that, looking for an explanation through the man's proxy.
"While I agree that getting rid of the things that cross moral boundaries and related to the SOLDIER project are for the best, some of that data may be necessary in the future and those armaments could be repurposed for defense of the new settlement I mentioned," Cait Sith stated. "Still, it was a good catch. Tell me, what do you plan to do after all of this is said and done?"
"Dealing with Sephiroth and the remnants of Jenova. After that…" Her eyes flickered between Cloud and Aerith for a moment. "I'm not fully sure."
"Then would you be interested in joining my Intelligence department?"
Crimson actually looked surprised at the offer. "You want me to work for you?"
"Your expertise would be invaluable as head of the department," he explained. "I'll need people that can be relied on to prevent things like this from happening again and won't be subverted or corrupted. Who better than those gathered here, doing what they can against all odds?"
To be honest, she wasn't sure if she wanted to get back in the same line of work that she just left behind. Sure, she did have the experience from being raised since childhood to investigate and gather intelligence. But, at the same time, she was worried that it might be too easy to fall into the same mindset that she had previously, where everything was excusable because it was for the greater good.
Yet, once Shinra was gone, someone else would attempt to fill in the gap left behind. If she was in a position to find out prematurely, she could prevent that from happening and make sure that no one undermined their efforts. And if it meant she could stop others from ending up like she did, wasn't that worth striving for?
"…I'll consider it, but only after everything is said and done," she said, ending the conversation. It was a big decision, and not only hers to make since she'd chosen to be with Cloud and promised to help Aerith deal with Jenova.
But none of it mattered if they all died, so they needed to keep their focus on the battles ahead for now.