Chapter Seventeen: Magic Flight
Cloud and Snow got another mention in the papers, somewhat more prominently.
The papers talked about the skirmish. As though it had been a triumphant victory over hordes of Wutai troops. From them, Cloud wondered if there had been some different battle with another Cloud Strife in it. The narrative seemed to regard it as an act of triumphant revenge against Wutai.
Their victories were exaggerated. Whenever a defeat was suffered, it was downplayed. And when they couldn't downplay, they exaggerated a smaller victory and called it revenge.
Midgar was in an echo chamber. So Cloud reflected as he leaned in his seat in the train car, flipping through the pages.
The sound of two sodas opening drew Cloud's eyes away from the paper. He took the drink Snow was offering it and sipped it. Snow was dressed in a white trenchcoat and black winter hat. He thought he looked cool.
"So, I guess we're on paid leave, then," said Snow. "Think the war is gonna be over soon?"
"Definitely," said Cloud.
"You sound pretty sure," said Snow.
"It's in the subtext," said Cloud. "The papers are treating that skirmish we were in as a triumph. We defeated the legions of Wutai after taking a fortress. Or so the article leads you to believe.
"They don't say that we faced off against enemy summons per se. But they say that the Wutai army uses summons and mentions the number of troops in Fort Tamblin. Completely unrelated facts that lead someone to think that they were involved.
"My guess is that the King of Wutai is cutting his losses, and President Shinra doesn't want to waste any more men. Barret played this beautifully."
"You know a lot about this stuff, don't you?" asked Snow.
"It's a skill, not a gift," said Cloud. "During my training in boot camp, Dad sent me some reading material. From it, I learned how to think. How to see what a man is thinking based on what he does and says.
"Most people mean something different from what they say. And most people are a different person than they think they are."
"Well, it's pretty good," said Snow. "Then I guess we can kick back at Hollander's lab. Guard duty and all that."
Cloud realized then that he was at a crossroads. He suspected he and Snow were being sent away but didn't think he'd be killed. Why create a corpse when you can have a person do guard duty for a few months? So he could cut his losses here.
But Cloud decided that he didn't want to. To let his battalion go unavenged would be too heartless. "I don't buy it."
"Hmm?" asked Snow.
"Why would Angeal just move us out here?" asked Cloud. "This makes no sense."
"Huh, what do you mean?" asked Snow. "He sent us out here because we're doing a good job."
"Think, Snow," said Cloud. "First, we arrive as ordinary infantrymen. Our ship gets shot down, and we barely get out alive and destroy Barret's ammunition. Then we get congratulated and sent with Angeal on a mission. We're the only people assigned to him, and we fight a full-scale enemy.
"So then we get put in the papers and congratulated for our heroism. Then we're sent here to a Mako lab. We get the Medal of Bravery and are shipped off. There's got to be dozens of other guys with a more impressive record in the army. Why are we special?"
"What's your point?" asked Snow.
"If we're just two random soldiers, we ought to have been sent into a new squad," said Cloud. "If we're heroes, why not keep us with Angeal or promote us. Or give us some interviews to tell the public our stories. It would be good PR.
"Instead, Lazard gives us an offhand mention and then shoves us as far away from the conflict as possible." Cloud considered what kind of experiments Hollander would do. Then he considered the mental effects the Mako treatment had on Zack and Genesis. It wasn't far off from mind control.
Lazard was working with Wutai. All those disappearing SOLDIERS had to be going somewhere. If so, some kind of brainwashing process? It would give Lazard an army loyal to him. "I..." How to tell Snow. "I think we're being kicked upstairs.
"You remember when we met with Lazard? After we told him about Barret, he and Angeal looked at eachother. Like we'd said something that worried him."
"'You're a very dangerous young man, Cloud Strife.'" said Snow, quoting him.
"Right, why would he say that?" asked Cloud.
Snow frowned. "Where are you going with this?"
Cloud sighed. Snow wasn't going to follow the full details, and he didn't want to know the truth. Most people had mental barriers. Illusions they created to prevent them from seeing the awful things that happen in day to day life. Cloud had those broken for him on his journey, and it had helped with his training a lot. "Barret disobeyed orders, Snow. He was supposed to shell the ships as they came in. Whoever he was working for let him get up there.
"Genesis didn't show up there right away, did he? No, he only showed up after Barret started shelling the base."
"What would Lazard get out of killing his own men?" asked Snow. "Come on, that's crazy talk."
"Nothing," said Cloud. "But he might get something out of killing men whose loyalty he hasn't assured. And Barret had a connection to Wutai, who Lazard is negotiating with."
"But why would he do any of this?" asked Snow.
Cloud considered what he knew about Lazard. The events that led to this point were centered around a single thing by all accounts. Any normal person with Lazard's authority and ability wouldn't rock the boat. Even an ambitious and evil man who wanted to take down Shinra could have used more subtle means.
This level of escalation implied Lazard was lashing out. Perhaps seeking revenge. And there was only one possible motive he could find. "...Because he's my half-brother, Snow. That means he's the half-brother of Rufus too.
"Lazard is the Director of Project SOLDIER. It is one of the most successful programs in Shinra history. He's a son of President Shinra and worked his way up from nothing. Rufus, meanwhile, got handed his position out of nowhere.
"If I were Lazard, I'd be furious.
"I am furious. My reaction was to try and prove myself even more, but Lazard, he's already proved himself. He's the head of the most powerful super-soldier program ever created. He thinks Dad owes him."
"Do you think he's planning to knock off his old man? How's he going to do that?" asked Snow.
Cloud considered the unknown elements. He concluded that he didn't have enough time to speculate. "I don't know.
"But, he regularly works with the most powerful people on the planet. Sephiroth, Angeal, Genesis, Zack? Anyone of these guys is a one-man army.
"Maybe he deliberately threw Wutai a bone.
"The King of Wutai gets a major victory, and Lazard gets an excuse to give him generous terms."
"So why the promotion?" asked Snow.
Here it came, the final plunge. This was the part where Snow either accepted the theory or got angry and refused to acknowledge it. "We were supposed to die, Snow.
"When we were sent with Angeal, we were supposed to get killed off like mooks. That plan of his should never have worked. We'd be gunned down by the machine gunners, then Angeal would kill them all.
"Nobody would have done more than raise an eyebrow.
"But the Wutai soldiers got so panicked that they focused completely on Angeal. They got tunnel vision, and we won. And all of a sudden, we were the heroes of the hour and got our pictures in the paper.
"Lazard can't rub us out without risk; it would draw attention. And right now, whatever he's doing, he needs secrecy.
"So he's sending us to this Mako lab where he can keep us out of the way and keep an eye on us."
Snow looked at Cloud long and hard. "So, what are we going to do about this?"
Cloud sighed. "...Barret mentioned that Lightning had done something with her garrison. It wasn't killing them. Maybe some kind of experiment with Mako, brainwashing, or something. It would be in Lazard's means, I guess.
"So this Mako lab, run by Hollander, we might just be able to pick up on things."
"You don't think they're planning to do it to us, do you?" asked Snow.
It all clicked.
Cloud had made the oversight and assumed he and Snow were untouchable by his premises. However, there was no good reason Lazard couldn't do whatever he did to the garrison to them. Less reason. And that was why Angeal was on the train as well.
They had to get off this train.
Looking out, Cloud saw the barren lands flowing out beside them. Distantly, he could see Hollander's Lab. It was a tall building built next to a Mako Reactor. The land around them was dying but not yet dead.
"It doesn't matter if they are or not," said Cloud. "We need to raise the alarm."
"Who do we talk to?" asked Snow. "Lazard runs this place."
"No one on this continent," said Cloud. "And they are probably going to listen in on any phone calls we make.
"Sephiroth doesn't usually work in the wars. Most of his time is spent hunting monsters these days. I heard they planned to bring him in for the end of the war, but he takes President Shinra's orders. They probably haven't brought him in on this yet. I think I might be able to warn him."
"Why not call your old man?" asked Snow. "Or the Turks?"
"It's not an option," said Cloud. "Any conversations we have are going to be recorded. If I asked to talk to him... what am I supposed to say? They could just laugh me off.
"Sephiroth, though..." Cloud considered revealing the truth and decided not to. "I'm a fanboy. A fanboy who might just warrant the conversation."
"So what now?" asked Snow.
Cloud considered their options. Then he drew one of the bombs Jessie taught him to make out of his bag. "...I need to talk to Angeal. You need to get off this train now."
"What, now?" asked Snow.
"Yeah," said Cloud, finishing his soda. "If I do this, I'm probably going to end up in prison. Or dead. If I end up in prison I need someone to bail me out."
"Hang on a sec, what if we both jump the train? Head home together?" asked Snow. "Lazard won't care if we don't rock the boat. What do we owe President Shinra anyway?"
"Snow, an entire battalion of our comrades, were massacred," said Cloud. "Slaughtered by gunboats as they drowned, or pulled into the depths. And either Lazard did it, or he's refusing to investigate it. And he almost certainly knows something is going on."
"Nobody would ever know if we walked," said Snow, and the bravado was gone for a moment.
"We'd know," said Cloud. "Finish your drink, get your stuff, and get off the train."
Snow nodded and smiled. "Yes, sir."
And he headed out. Cloud waited a moment to give him a head start, then he stood up. Quickly going to the bathroom, he put together all his stuff. On a whim, he took out a picture he'd had framed. It was a picture in the papers of Cloud, Snow, and Angeal posing victoriously.
He'd been scowling in it, with Snow having an arm around him. Cloud had known what was going on and hadn't been able to control himself. With a sigh, he put it back and made his way into the next car.
Angeal was leaning back in his seat, sword unsheathed, and leaned up against the table. He was watching the landscape with a solemn look. Cloud wondered if he had regrets but decided to use the opportunity. Opening a trash bin with his foot, he slipped the explosive into it. It was right near the wall.
With any luck, he could fix both problems at once. His Lightning Materia was ready.
"Excuse me, Angeal?" asked Cloud, putting on a nervous face.
Angeal looked up. "Oh, Cloud, there you are. Enjoying the free ride?"
"Well, as much as I can," said Cloud, shifting. "Hey um, I was wondering, could you put me in contact with Sephiroth."
Angeal blinked. "Why do you want to talk to Sephiroth?"
"Well, I..." Cloud paused. "I'm a huge fan, and he saved my life before. And he did remember me. And, well, I've been dreaming about having a conversation or something. I'd really love to tell him how he inspired me."
Angeal smiled, and it was genuine. Somehow, though, that just made what Angeal had done even worse, though. It showed he was still human but had done what he did anyway. "...Fine, just make the call where I can see you. No offense, but this phone is expensive."
Angeal stood up and flipped out his phone. As he did, Cloud moved past him, so the trash can was between him and Angeal.
"Thanks," said Cloud. He moved to take the phone, but Angeal stepped back.
"Let me just introduce you first, and uh... be prepared for disappointment," said Angeal. "Sephiroth isn't exactly a social person."
This was it. Cloud realized that Angeal was going to watch him make the call. He'd have no time to explain what was happening. As soon as he started, Angeal would snatch back the phone and have an excuse.
Cloud had to be fast.
Sephiroth was counting on him.
"Hey, Sephiroth, yeah, sorry for the call," said Angeal, having dialed in. " I have a newly minted war hero here who wants to tell you how much your inspiration meant to him. It's that kid you saved from the dragon, believe it or not.
"Humor him, okay. His name is Cloud Strife."
Cloud was offered the phone and calculated what words to say. The world seemed to slow down as he reached for it. If he told him Lazard and Angeal were in on it, Sephiroth might refuse to listen. Cloud wouldn't have time to explain.
Cloud could not reveal what he'd learned.
But he could tell Sephiroth enough for him to learn it himself. The information was all there in the reports.
The phone went to his ear. "Hello?"
"I believe we met earlier, Cloud," said Sephiroth.
Now was the moment. "Lightning wasn't working alone. There is a conspiracy in SOLDIER.
"They massacred my entire battalion with guns inside the perimeter of our base. An entire division has disappeared, and someone is trying to cover it up. They have me on a train to Hollander's Lab, and they're going to kill."
The expression on Angeal's face removed any doubts Cloud might have had. His stoic features turned to panic for a single, beautiful moment. Clouds smiled.
"What?" said Sephiroth, voice shocked. "What is-"
Angeal snatched the phone at lightning speed in a panic. "Sephiroth, hang on a sec! Uh, keep in mind, this kid was diagnosed with some major mental illnesses! Don't judge him too harshly; he's just been through a warzone!
"No, nothing is going on! Everything is fine; he's just seen too much!
"Right, um, I'll give him your regards."
Then Angeal hung up and raised his sword. Cloud wondered if he was about to die and set a hand to his own blade. "...Lazard was right about you, Cloud. You are dangerous.
"I might just have to cut this trip short."
"Oh, you don't want to do that, Angeal," said Cloud, smiling broadly.
"Why not?" asked Angeal.
"Because Lazard is going to need me," said Cloud. You're a very stoic person, and Sephiroth knows you better than anyone. And given that you just broke into stammering, I'd say I touched a nerve.
"And Sephiroth does too.
"He's not in on the conspiracy. Is he?"
Angeal scowled at him. "Need to know basis, as they say. Why does Lazard need you?"
"Sephiroth knows something is up now," said Cloud. "You're only hope is that he either comes over to your side. Or if he refuses to investigate and ignores his common sense. If I end up dead or disappeared mysteriously...
"That's a hell of a red flag, isn't it? Could hurt your chances."
Angeal looked at Cloud, now directly in front of the trash. "...Maybe I should explain the situation."
"Explain?" asked Cloud, and suddenly he felt angry. "Are you going to explain why you massacred thousands of your own men! Not to mention the sailors and civilians onboard! Are you going to explain why you are working with terrorists?!"
"You worked with Barret Wallace," noted Angeal.
"That was different, and you know it!" snapped Cloud, drawing his sword. "I was a child in the middle of a warzone with an army bearing down on me. And I was helping villagers defend their land from invaders I had no obligation to.
"Those men you murdered were your comrades, Angeal! Men who swore an oath to you, who you swore an oath too! You led them into a trap and massacred them as a bargaining chip! And for what, so Wutai will support your new world order!
"Dreams and honor... where is your honor, Angeal?!"
"Do you have any idea what Shinra has done to these people?!" snapped Angeal. "What I've watched happen by order of our glorious corporate overlord?"
"That's not my problem," said Cloud flatly. "My problem is what I do. And what's your problem is what you do.
"What are you doing, Angeal?! Right now! What have you been doing for the past year?!"
And then he sent a bolt of lightning at the trash. Angeal raised his sword to block the bolt and flinched when it passed him by. The trash exploded, and the wall was blown apart. Angeal was thrown forward, and Cloud rolled away.
Even as Angeal fell, however, he righted himself and snatched up his sword.
Cloud leaped for the hole in the wall where he could see the barrens. Even as he did, Angeal swung his sword. For a moment, time slowed as Cloud neared the outside, and Angeal's blade arced forward. It missed by inches, and Cloud was through.
Landing in a roll, Cloud slid to a halt in the dirt as the train shot on.
Breathing heavily, Cloud saw Snow leaning against a stone. Picking up a stone, Snow hurled it across the desert. "Didn't think you'd make it?"
"We haven't made it yet," replied Cloud.
Now came the hard part.