"The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
the vapours weep their burden to the ground,
man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
and after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality consumes;
I wither slowly in thine arms,
here at the quiet limit of the world."
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'Tithonus'
The Last Baron
The storm had come, and a bitter wind howled throughout the ruins atop the underground sanctuary. The Highwind stood at the edge of the fallen city, enveloped by the cold rain and the encroaching darkness. Inside, the Avalanchers sat gathered around the briefing room table, save for Vincent, who stood in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, and Cid, who was slowly pacing the floor in front of the main display panel, muttering to himself and shaking his head. Aside from the faint luminance provided by the holographic display in the centre of the table, the inside of Avalanche's mobile headquarters was nearly as dark as the outside. For a long time, no-one said anything. The events of the day still weighed heavily on all of them, as did Alamore's revelations about their enemy's true intentions. They had been dealt a severe blow, and it had cast a hush over the whole group.
Yuffie looked across the table at Cloud, who was seated opposite her, hands folded in front of his face, the same posture he would often adopt when turning something over in his mind. Despite her earlier words of encouragement, it seemed that he was still intent on blaming himself for the attack on the underground city. It was simply in his nature to do so, she knew, but she still wished she could say or do something to lift his spirits. In truth, however, she was no better off, herself. Right now, levity was about the furthest thing from her own thoughts. Like everyone around her, she knew full well that they were in a dire situation, and that there was little that she or anyone else could do to change that. In the end, she settled for a simple gesture of solidarity. She reached her hand across the table, offering him a sympathetic look as she did. He returned the gesture, and a fleeting smile crossed his own features, before he withdrew his hand again.
"You've all given thought to the notion, haven't you?"
The others looked up as Vincent broke the silence at last. The former Turk uncrossed his arms, moving up to the far end of the table as he spoke. "I know it is unpleasant to contemplate, but it would be remiss had it not crossed your minds by now," he added, looking each of his comrades over to ensure that he had everyone's attention before continuing.
"Comus has Aya. You know his methods as well as I do. There is no hesitation in him. No remorse. Certainly nothing one could term a conscience. He'll do whatever it takes to succeed."
No-one else made a reply just yet. Instead, they waited as Vincent completed his train of thought, though by now most of them suspected where it was headed.
"He took Aya because she has information that he wants... or so he thinks," Vincent continued, circling the briefing room table as he spoke.
"To get that information, he'll torture her," he added, coming to a halt just opposite to Cloud. He gazed at Avalanche's leader with intent, as though waiting for him to acknowledge the obvious, and unpleasant, truth. "And when she gives up the information he wants, he'll.."
"...kill her," Cloud finished, looking up at Vincent. "I know."
"So we need to move quickly," Vincent said.
"Agreed," Cloud replied, getting up. "But we can't just rush in blind, either. We do that, we're as good as dead, and the battle's already lost. The same goes for Aya and the Cetra, to say nothing of wherever Comus decides to strike next."
"Be that as it may," Vincent said, "every minute we spend licking our wounds is one more minute our enemy has to prepare for our counter-attack. If we don't act soon, we may lose the chance for a retaliatory strike altogether."
"So... what's the plan, then?" Cid asked. "I dunno about the rest of you, but I'm gettin' a little tired of sitting on my ass here while that undead fuck does whatever it is that he's planning to do."
Cloud sighed heavily, gripping the sides of the table as he leaned over the holographic grid built into its centre. Everything, he knew, was riding on the choices they made now, in the next few moments. Life, death, victory, defeat... It didn't matter how far they had come. One bad decision on his part, and it would all be forfeit.
He felt his friends' gazes weighing upon him as he went over the upcoming battle in his mind. Pushing himself away again, he hit the switch underneath the side of the table. Once again the cold blue light pierced the umbra of the briefing room, tracing out the map of the battlefield. "The plan stays the same. Mostly. We hit them hard, extract the prisoners, destroy the fortress and head back home."
"Simple as that, huh?" Cid asked.
"It's never that simple," Cloud replied, "but it's a start."
"That's our overall plan, anyway," Vincent said. "The rest comes down to the details."
"So, what's the difference between the old plan and this one?" Reeve asked.
"The Highwind," Cloud said. "They won't see that coming."
"Are you suggesting we jump the ship right on top of them?" Nanaki asked.
"No," Cloud said, "that won't work. They'll tear us to pieces if we try to just land on top of their fortress. Unless we get their anti-aircraft guns offline, we won't be able to close in from the sky."
"So, how exactly is the Highwind going to make a difference?" Reeve asked.
"The fortress is hardened on the lower levels," Cloud said. "But the upper floors are weaker. If we can draw their main forces out into the city streets and box them in, we might be able to sneak a small team inside to do some sabotage. After that, we move in with the Highwind and hit them with everything we've got."
"Turn it into an aerial assault," Cid said. "I like it."
"Then we bust the prisoners out, get them back on board the Highwind," Cloud said, moving the holographic map's abstract representation of Avalanche's airship from the fortress down to the far side of the city. "After that, we fly the Highwind back to the gate in the city centre, scuttle the ship, and get everyone through to the other side. Then we destroy the gate on our side, so they can't come after us."
"So we need three teams," Tifa said. "One to break out the prisoners, one to set the mako bomb, and one to secure our escape route."
"And someone to infiltrate the lower levels," Nanaki pointed out.
"Okay, but how exactly do we take those guns offline?" Reeve asked.
"Simple," Cid replied. "We cut the power."
"How do you know that'll work?" Tifa asked.
Cid shrugged. "They're just guns. Mechanical things. They'll need a power source, just like anything else. It's just a matter of figuring out how to cut it off."
Reeve nodded. "Makes sense."
"Barret and I will lead the ground assault," Cloud said. "The rest of you guys stay on board the Highwind and guide the battle from up there. Once the guns are taken care of, you move in and hit them with everything you've got. Sound good?"
"You do realize that this plan of yours involves sneaking through a war zone?" Vincent asked, looking at Cloud.
"We've got no other choice," Cloud said. "I can slip past the enemy once the fighting is underway, but then there's the matter of getting inside."
"That entrance is going to be heavily sealed," Cid said, pointing out the doors to the vehicle storage bay at the base of the tower. "Once they see us coming, they'll put the whole base on lockdown."
"So, whoever is going to infiltrate the place would have to go through the upper levels," Reeve said, indicating the damaged area above the main entrance. "There's a whole bunch of tunnels and shafts up here. No way they can seal them all off in time."
"Christ... that's a good twenty storeys up.." Cid said. "Who's going to make that climb?"
"I can do it," Yuffie said, rising from her seat as she volunteered for the task.
"Yuffie?" Cloud asked.
"I can do it," she repeated, with more confidence this time.
She and Cloud looked at one another for a moment. They each knew what the other was thinking. He hated the idea of sending her out there alone, but he knew that any protest on his part would be futile. Her mind was set on the task, and there would be no talking her out of it. There was a look of determination in her eyes, but also one of assurance. She was asking for his trust. He knew she could handle herself, but nevertheless he still feared for her safety. But it was now or never. He knew that he simply had to hope that no harm would come to her.
"She's our best climber, no doubt about that," Reeve said. The others, too, assented to the idea, by the looks on their faces.
"Okay, then," Cloud said, nodding and turning his attention back to the map. "It's decided. We have our plan."
"Hang on a second, princess," Cid said, looking over at Yuffie. "We ain't talking about scaling some rinky-dink wooden pagoda here. Those little pitons of yours cut through steel?"
Yuffie drew one of the kunai arrayed on the side of her belt, examining it for a second, before driving it into wall next to her with a backhanded thrust. The blade went in deep, piercing the metal with little resistance. "Yes," she replied, a mischievous grin plastered on her face.
Cid glared at the teenaged girl, wide-eyed, looking as though he might have a heart attack. "...my ship," he croaked.
"Sorry," Yuffie said, yanking the kunai back out. "Had to be sure."
"Needless to say, this all has to go off without a hitch," Cloud said, bringing the team's attention back to the plan at hand. "Once we jump the Highwind over to the Astra homeworld and launch our attack, it'll be a race against time. Our enemy outnumbers us by a substantial degree, so we have to outmanoeuvre and outsmart them. Pick our fights well, and focus on their weak points."
"So... you really think we have a chance?" Nanaki asked.
"Our enemy is dangerous, yes," Cloud said. "But he's not invincible. It's time we reminded him of that."
The others all gave indication that they agreed, and he was heartened to see the determination written upon their faces.
"I'll make sure our forces are ready," Vincent said.
"And I'll get our rides up and running," Barret added.
"All right," Cloud said, looking the rest of the team over. "We all know what we need to do. Let's get to it."
The others nodded their assent once more, then began to filter out of the briefing room. Cid remained fixed in place, however, still staring at the spot where Yuffie's makeshift piton had left its mark.
"Come on, Cid," Reeve said, clasping a hand on his shoulder, dragging the reluctant captain out of the room with him. "Cid, are you all right?"
"...She stabbed my ship," Cid muttered, still in shock.
Reeve laughed, patting the poor captain on the back. "Come on. We've got work to do."
"Malthus," Comus said, "I take it your excursion went well?"
"I have the girl," Malthus replied, ushering Aya into the chamber. He left her in the centre of the room, surrounded by armed guards, before approaching the awaiting warlord.
"Good," Comus said.
"Do you really think she can help us complete these gates?" Malthus asked, looking over at his half-finished designs and prototypes scattered all about the spacious laboratory.
"Pray that she does," Comus replied. "You have consistently failed to achieve the results we require. Furthermore, your attempts to... motivate our last subject to further co-operation has left us without anyone who possesses the knowledge to construct them. So for your sake, I hope that she shares her brother's ingenuity in that regard. If not.."
Malthus was already perspiring under his master's cold gaze. "...There's just this one kink I can't work out," he uttered in a weak attempt to defend himself.
"And once it's taken care of?" Comus asked.
"As I said before, all the main construction is complete," Malthus said. "We're nearly ready to launch. Once we figure this one little thing out, then we'll be all set."
"Then we'd better solve that little problem, don't you agree?" Comus asked, moving in a little closer than Malthus would have liked.
"Y-yes, sir," Malthus replied. "Do you want me to get it out of her?"
"No," Comus said. "I will handle this."
Malthus swallowed hard. He'd gotten used to turning a blind eye to his subjects' suffering, but Comus's methods of extracting information made even his stomach turn.
Turning away from the scientist, Comus marched over to where the little girl stood, his heavy footsteps echoing throughout the chamber as he approached her. He stood before her for a moment, studying her face.
"Do you know who I am?" the guttural voice came, after a long silence.
Aya looked up at the towering figure standing before her. "You're the bad man," she replied. Though he towered over her, her voice did not falter, and her gaze never wavered. She spoke in an even tone of voice, betraying no fear or reserve as she examined her captor's pestilential visage. The warlord showed no sign of taking umbrage at her remark.
"Am I?" Comus replied. He turned aside for a moment, as if giving serious consideration to her humble reply. "I suppose I must be," he said, turning back to her.
"What is your name?"
He gestured for her to follow him down to the far end of the chamber, towards a sunken part of the floor, indicating a complex piece of machinery from which thick cables and wires extended in every which direction, reaching into the floor, ceiling and everywhere in between, all twisted and bent around a central torus made of crude, jagged metal.
"Tell me, Aya... do you know what this is?"
Aya looked at the machinery for a moment, studying the alien design. "A portal gate," she replied.
"Very good," Comus said. "But this is not just any gate. This is your brother's creation."
"My brother?" Aya said, becoming more animated upon hearing of Delos. "Is he here? Can I see him?"
Comus exchanged a knowing glance with Malthus. The girl, of course, knew nothing of her brother's untimely fate, and he intended to keep it that way. He knelt down next to her, eyes level with hers. "I'll tell you what. If you can help me to finish this, I will let you see him. Is that a fair trade?"
Aya looked away for a moment. She was resistant to the idea of helping him out, but ultimately her desire to be reunited with her brother overwhelmed any reservations she had about assisting her captors. She looked up at Comus again, nodding, though by the look on her face, she remained hesitant.
If any emotion could have been discerned on the old warlord's features, it might have approximated a smile.
He rose up to his feet again, giving a curt nod to the soldiers as a token of dismissal. "The lab is all yours," he said to Aya, offering her free rein of Malthus's workspace. She walked away from him to approach the portal gate, examining it in greater detail.
Malthus sidled up to his master again. "What do I..." he began, before Comus cut him off.
"Give her room to work, but keep an eye on her," Comus said, watching Aya as she pored over the gate's architecture, already oblivious to her captors' presence, caught up in picking apart her brother's design. "Let us see what our little prodigy comes up with."