The Jenova Project

Book I

The Mercenary


"There are no vacations for heroes. The world will never cease in its need." - Sephiroth


Chapter 1

"I went to a new doctor," the MP slung the semi-aut over his shoulder. His helmet and mask were slumped at the bottom of his locker. "This damn cough again."

Across the room, the other replied distantly, "Oh yeah?"

At the far end of the locker room, shuffling into his train attendant uniform, Ermer tried not to eavesdrop on the two MPs – at worst they might catch him and pull some dick move like make him do pushups at gun-point – or, at best, he would make himself upset just listening to them.

"They got all 'em doctors using materia now," the first shrugged. "They get the job done quick, but it keeps coming back. They ain't curing what I got."

"Yeah," the other was slipping the cloth ring around his head that served as their masks. Blue, like most parts of the MP uniform. Blue and silver. Military Police.

Ermer grimaced. 'More like Shinra Police,' he thought. Since the end of the war, Shinra Inc. had no work for their private army, so they fattened the city's armed forces with legions of the nutjobs. It was a small comfort that these two were the worst of the day shifters, and they were only ever in this sector on Thursdays.

The talkative one was the taller of the two, with a wide chest, he looked like he might make a candidate for SOLDIER, but he'd probably already tried and failed. He was taking his sweet time putting on the cloth mask, and when he got it over his face he pulled it down below his chin so he could keep yapping. "You hear about this robot shit?" he asked. "On the news? They made a robot that can fuckin' cry."

The other's voice was muffled behind the mask. "Babies cry. Let me know if they build a robot that can fuck."

"Heh. You been to Wall Market lately?"

"I don't mean a mechanical bull, I mean a straight lover." The MP paused before a chuckle escaped through the cloth. "Heh, heh. But yeah, I been down there."

They both laughed, but it was interrupted by Gary coming down the stairs into the locker room. He stopped on the stairs, startled by the presence of MPs.

They both clocked Gary, the chatty one swivelled his head at the stairs, and then back to his buddy. And then his head shot the other way, over in Ermer's direction, as if noticing him for the first time.

Ermer made whatever he was doing inside his locker look terribly important.

The MPs didn't say anything.

The obnoxious one pulled his scarf up, and it became a mask again. He lowered the silver helm onto his head. The two MPs passed Gary in silence on their way up to the street.

When they were gone, Gary gave Ermer a sick look.

"It's five-to," Ermer said flatly.

"I still have time," Gary shrugged, heading to his own locker.

"You'll miss the train."

"The train won't be here for twenty minutes. You're not my boss. If I want to sit and have lunch, I'm gonna sit and have lunch."

Ermer took his crimson cap off the rack inside the locker, closed the locker, put on the cap, and went up the stairs. He wasn't putting up with that kind of thing on Thursday.

Outside, it was dark and still – like night. Even though it was August, he was glad for the coat. He looked up at the blanket of smog blotting out the sun.

'The Shield is thick today,' he thought. He couldn't remember if 'Shield' was the official name or just something people started calling it.

Ermer turned away from the guardhouse towards the train station. He weaved through the lanterns and shadows of Sector 1.

It was never really dark in Midgar, though – the Shield reflected the city lights back at itself, and the reactors always churned out bright green-grey smoke on the outer borders of each sector. At any given moment Ermer could look up and count at least three of them.

The city was a perfect circle, and the reactors were like the points of an octagon.

The northernmost reactor loomed above the train station. Ermer watched it blow green embers up into the Shield until he entered the stairwell that took him down to the train platform.

There was only one platform here – cargo trains only came to this station twice weekly, but Ermer guarded the station every day.

At the bottom of the stairwell, the crimson-clad break staffers were leaning against the wall. They straightened when he came onto the platform.

He thought he ought to say something like 'You're relieved,' or, 'Hello,' but he just stood there until he had to step aside to let them pass.

He was alone on the platform for a while. There was no roof of the station – there was no need. It cut south through Sector 1 like a trench until it neared the center of Midgar, then it slipped into the tunnel that led underneath the city.

The tunnel was full of monsters – Ermer had never approached it, even when there were issues with the tracks. Repair crews were always escorted by MPs anyway, no need to needlessly endanger himself.

A free-standing steamclock marked the north end of the line. It was older than the city itself. Copper hands. Hand-blown glass. No trace of digital display. It was ten-past noon, and steam still drifted out of the whistles. The steam was generated by a mako engine – obviously – but it felt very old-world.

Then Gary strutted onto the platform – again, no one said anything. They waited as the minute hand on the steamclock crept past the number II.

It was another four minutes before anything happened.

The rumbling began in the tunnel. It rose quickly from nothing to a loud roar. The headlight climbed into view, plateauing on the horizon.

Then the train was bursting out of the tunnel with clouds of dust exploding out with it – as if the world underneath the city was coughing up smoke. The air seemed to pop around it.

Its wheels seemed quieter in the open air. Up here, everything competed to be heard.

The front car curved onto the flat track along the trench. Exhaust pipes wound about it. Steam hissed up out of them, obscuring the top of the train.

Ermer didn't know what else needed hauling up from underneath these days, but he told himself not to worry about it. Thinking about underneath was grisly work. He got ready to check the passports of every greasy crate-hauler in that train.

It was the same as always, but as he looked at the train, he felt like he'd forgotten to do something. Like he'd left the stove on. Something seemed off.

The train slid towards the end of the trench with a screeching of brakes and a scattering of orange sparks. It hissed to a stop just as one of the copper hands on the steamclock snapped to III.

The whistles on the clock erupted with a cloud of white vapour. A low loud whistle almost muted the shuffling sound.

Something moved on top of the train.

He looked up.

A boot clubbed his temple. The full weight of a person crumpled him to the platform. His shoulder blade cracked against the floor. All the air left his body.

His attacker stumbled but leapt off of him. All the attendant could do was gasp. His mind raced. He saw a red bandana. He saw dirty, pale skin.

Some slumling whelp had hitched a ride up to the Plate.

He reached for his nightstick, but he was sitting on it.

The door of the train car opened. The crate-haulers, they'd—

A lone woman ran out of the train. She was holding a pistol. She was wearing pauldrons – shoulder armour – and a red bandana.

Ermer tried to get up, but the woman was upon him. She was stronger. She threw him into the side of the train. His head hit an exhaust pipe.

Suddenly the world was on its side. He felt warm blood drenching his neck.

'That's my blood,' he thought.

He saw Gary on the ground nearby. He was dead.

Another figure charged out of the train – a black-skinned giant of a man. No bandana. His left arm was as big as a keg – it had ripped the sleeves off his leather jacket. The other arm… Ermer strained his eyes through the pain. The right arm looked like it had been replaced with a machine.

The giant barked at the people in red bandanas – there were three now – the third was fat. Ermer couldn't make the words out – he just heard a gruff booming underneath the ringing in his ears. They nodded at his orders, and ran up the stairs off the platform.

Ermer's vision cleared just long enough for him to take a look at the man's artificial arm. Just past the elbow, the skin had been fused to the edge of a metal limb – thick and straight. The end of the limb had been outfitted with six rotating chambers, and Ermer realized with horror that it was a kind of gun.

His head was already swimming again, his eyes darkening. But he had seen it clear.

'That's how I'll identify him,' Ermer thought, but the warm rush of blood on his skin wasn't going away, and he knew it wasn't good to be this dizzy.

Just when it appeared the giant was about to leave, another figure jumped – vaulted – off the train.

Ermer tried to raise his head, but his neck felt broken.

The last man made a three-point landing on the platform. A messy clump of yellow hair obscured his face. He had a two-handed greatsword clipped to a magnet on his back.

Ermer kept his eyes open, and hope started to return. Swords were a gentleman's weapon. Only a SOLDIER would dare to use one.

The blonde man looked almost too thin at first but his arms were thick and his chest was wide. His military uniform was a deep indigo, which signified a hierarchy Ermer couldn't remember anymore. The SOLDIERs eyes had that unmistakeable glow.

The cavalry had arrived.

The way the giant and the SOLDIER looked at each other, Ermer expected them to attack.

A moment passed.

Perhaps they were old enemies. Fights like that took forever to get going.

Another moment passed and still no one moved.

The ringing in his ears began to subside, and it was only then that he heard them talking – talking – to each other.

The giant huffed. "I told you, this area is clear."

"I heard you," the SOLDIER didn't move.

"So get a move on."

"No."

"You jes' gonna wait for the army to come down on our heads, s' that it?"

"Something like that."

"Shoulda known it. Goddamn saboteur."

"Believe what you want. I'm trying to make sure your job gets done."

Ermer's fear rose like a flame up his throat, keeping him awake. SOLDIERs did not – could not – go rogue.

The big man puffed up his chest and seemed to grow in size. "My job gets done if my crew does what—"

"Get down!" He pushed the giant into the wall.

A spray of bullets scattered where they had been standing. The two MPs had arrived at the platform.

The rogue drew the greatsword from his back, arcing it over his head. The blade was as thick as the cross guard – built like a giant kitchen knife. Two green gems were set inside holes that had been crafted into the blade's base.

A blade that big… with materia gems… It would be impossible for normals to wield it.

The tall MP was stunned for a moment. That was all the time the traitor needed. The sword twirled in the air as it came down.

The other MP tried to pivot and spray fire at the same time, but he stumbled when the sword cleaved his partner in half. The SOLDIER whirled the blade around with the ease of a twig.

The second MP fell apart before firing another shot.

Blood drenched the platform.

It fell to quiet again.

The train attendant struggled to stay conscious.

The rogue SOLDIER swung the sword up again and slammed it against his back. It held in place on the magnetic harness. He looked at the giant expectedly. "Don't tell me how to beat my own kind."

Ermer's eyelids slid shut. His hearing slowly faded. Hope wasn't enough to keep drawing in the breaths.

The giant grunted. "C'mon, newcomer. Follow me."