The Jenova Project

Book I

The Mercenary


Chapter 29

He didn't dream.

When his mind came around – a few seconds before he regained motor control – he instinctively checked his senses to see if he could perceive danger before being able to open his eyes. He couldn't, and his mind relaxed as his eyelids began to slide open.

It was for the best that he hadn't dreamt. These days, the only dreams he had were of the past, and that voice…

His eyelids were open. Tifa slept soundly on the cot – it looked like a slab of metal, but she bore it well. She couldn't have become a martial artist without learning how to deal with sleeping on boards.

Master Zangan probably had his hands full with her.

Cloud realized he remembered the name of her instructor – after all these years. He smiled to himself. Of all the things to remember clearly…

The door was open – not ajar – wide open. His eyes passed through the doorway and he checked to see if anyone was outside, coming in, or trying to exit.

When he saw no commotion his dreary mind cast on to checking the corners of the room.

Nothing in the corners. They were safe.

He realized consciously that the door was open.

He sprang to his feet and his vision bleached with dizziness. He ran out of the cell and into the hallway.

'I'm still asleep,' he thought, and instantly was grateful that he wasn't dreaming about the past.

The other cell doors were closed. The hallway turned abruptly to the left after a few doors.

The guard was slumped in the elbow of the hallway.

Cloud landed back in his body.

'I'm not asleep.'

He rushed to the MP.

He wasn't just dead – he had been sliced in two, and with a razor thin instrument that hadn't even tapered the edges of the clothing. Whatever had struck this blow, it had been sharp, and lightning fast.

Already Cloud's mind was racing to the most horrifying possible explanations – the worst of which filled him with a hot panic.

He needed to wake up Tifa.

He ran back into the room and up to her cot. He almost didn't want to do it – she looked so at peace in her sleep.

"Tifa." He could tell it was working – she frowned. It needed to be done. "Wake up. Something's happened."

She sat up and her hands curled into fists. When she looked around, they stay curled. Her eyes landed on the open doorway. "Cloud!" she shouted at it. "What's happening?"

"Something," was what Cloud had as a response. "You'd better take a look outside."

She swung her long legs off the cot and got to her feet in a single sweeping motion – she was out the door before Cloud had time to finish admiring her dexterity.

He followed her back to the corpse. She started to reach out a hand – as if she were to pull back his mask and see who was underneath.

Cloud wondered why she would do that. What good would it do?

Her hand stopped mid-air, as if Tifa had the same realization concurrently. The hand twitched again, as if going to touch the wound, but she drew it back after a moment.

She didn't mind kneeling in the blood.

"I wonder what happened," she asked.

Getting over Tifa to reach for the MP would be tricky. He advised, "He should have the key on him."

Tifa found the ring of cards at the man's hip. Cloud found the key – an old fashioned brass key – and a hole in the door to Aeris's cell.

It was an odd feeling, using a real key. Somehow, the machinery hissed and the door to the cell slid open.

Tifa rushed in – Aeris was sitting on the floor against the wall. The cot was empty.

Cloud took the keys and checked the other cells.

One contained their weapons, his pauldron, and five materia orbs – one more than they had brought to Shinra Headquarters. Cloud made a mental tally of their materia ('…lightning, ice, fire, regen…what else?') and then shook his head. He was wasting valuable time. He equipped himself and moved on.

Aeris was kneeling at the body

The cell across from their weaponry held Barret half-drooping off of the cot and Red XIII curled in the corner.

"Barret," Cloud announced, and both of them jumped. "Red XIII… come with me. Something's wrong."

"How'd you get in?" Barret grumbled. Then, more alert, "Why's the door open?"

Cloud could let them figure it out. He went back to the body.

The neat slice of the kill wasn't unnerving him any less now that the others were with him. If anything, their presence removed any doubts he had about being awake, and that wasn't helping in the slightest.

"The hell's goin' on!?" Barret bellowed upon seeing the body.

Red XIII's eye followed the slice through the MP – and then to the walls. Cloud recognized deductive thinking in the beast – Red XIII was working out the scene the same way Cloud had. The cut was perfectly matched on either side of the corpse. No blood on the walls meant that the wound didn't splatter.

"No human could have done this," Red XIII remarked.

Cloud was trying not to agree. The alternative was worse.

Red XIII twisted his head back and up to look at Cloud. "I'll go on ahead," he offered.

"I'll go on ahead with you," Cloud replied.

"Uhm…" Barret stopped them. "Go on ahead outta this building, you mean?"

Cloud paused. "Don't you want to find out who did this?"

"Did what?" Barret shoved the corpse with his foot. "Someone killed the guard an' set us free. This is strictly speakin' the best thing that could have happened to us. Let's find out who it is after we're outta here, so we can thank 'em."

Cloud shook his head. "I worked for Shinra. You don't just barge into the Shinra Headquarters."

Barret shrugged. "Well… we did."

Cloud thought. 'Hey. We did.'

Tifa stepped out of the blood. "We got locked in a cell before we could kill anybody. Whoever did this isn't in a cell. Which means that whatever is happening is happening now. We can't leave."

"That," Aeris smiled. "Is just about the most reckless thing I have ever heard. I'm in."

Barret harrumphed at Red XIII. "Lead the way, then."

"I have your bullets," Cloud tossed them to Barret. "And your materia." He gave Tifa her fire materia, and Aeris the regen materia.

"I believe you have mine as well," Red XIII asked.

Cloud plucked the spare materia out of his pouch. "Yes." He wasn't sure he believed it. The beast could use magic. "How?"

"How did I keep it hidden?" Red XIII asked. "I made it my priority until our escape. I'll say no more about it." The beast began down the hallway, and Cloud paced beside him, purposefully forfeiting a subtle lead to the beast. He was distracted by his thoughts. He scanned every open door they passed – empty offices. No signs of struggles.

"A body," Red XIII said plainly. "Up ahead at the intersection."

They rushed forward. The woman was in plain office clothes, a long grey skirt and tie. She had been cut from the left shoulder down through the heart, but the wound was so thin only the blood made it apparent.

Cloud knelt by her and looked at her face for a while. The sounds of the others coming up at a dash pounded in his ears.

He looked at the corner she was crumpled on – the wall had been gashed as well.

Cloud saw a poster for a staff party stained with coffee. 'I remember that.' He tried to map out where they were in the building. His mental compass aligned. 'I know where we are,' he confirmed.

When the others arrived at the body, a silence fell over the intersection.

"Hey," Barret finally said. "Sorry I was so whatever before."

"That's okay," Cloud replied. He didn't blame him – this one wasn't wearing a mask.

"So, where we goin' Cloud?"

He could only think of one place to go – one place to check – down the corridor leading west. He wanted desperately for Red XIII to have reasons for going down any of the other corridors.

Red XIII gave Cloud a look, and headed west with some speed.

Cloud cursed inside his head.

Some of the lights were flickering, and some were broken – they had been slashed in the same fashion.

It wasn't long before they found the next body, a crumpled man in a brown suit holding half of a clipboard.

They could see two more bodies from there.

The open offices weren't empty anymore – they were filled with dead workers and broken chairs. Blood screeched along the walls in thin straight lines.

Red XIII did not slow down, and neither did Cloud. They passed some boxes on the floor labelled:

Cactuar Needles

Corel – Search Crown – Caps

Corel – Search Crown – Stalks

They sped up until they could no longer stop themselves and eased into a run.

They slowed near the mouth of the chamber, but Cloud entered without a pause. He only stopped when he reached Jenova's dome.

It wasn't just broken – it had been punched open. Cloud couldn't tell if someone broke in, or if…

The floor was soaked in blood, with a thick veneer of viscous oil.

As Cloud stepped towards the opening, the fluids around his feet mixed and swirled.

His headache grew.

The light was off inside of the dome. Cloud made sure he could feel the weight of the Buster Sword on his back before he looked further in.

He looked into the black pit. His eyes caught no movement.

"Jenova Specimen," Red XIII walked gingerly over the wet floor. "I never saw Hojo do anything with this dome but look at it. He would look at it often."

Red XIII stepped up to the hole in the dome and looked inside. Cloud's eyes had just about adjusted.

Jenova was gone – snapped wires hung loosely from the ceiling. The bottom of the sphere was coated in blood and mako – the dim source of the light that allowed Cloud to survey the scene.

"It's gone," Cloud shook his head.

Red XIII remarked, "You have the finest eyesight I have encountered outside of myself."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"You should."

The blood trailed out of the oily spill from the Jenova dome. A long, drying river led through the stacks of boxes towards the Personnel Lift.

"It looks like it went up," Cloud pointed at the lift. He felt stupid saying it to Red XIII.

A red-drenched trail led them through an exit at the back of the amphitheatre. The glass cell had been closed again.

Tifa kept a closer heel as they continued down the hallway. They passed a corpse every few seconds.

A scorch mark marred the doorway to the staircase. The blood led up. Cloud followed.

The receptionist on the 69th floor had been cut at the waist. Scattered around the floor were pieces of roboguards and the bodies of countless MPs. Some had been cut, others burned.

Cloud tried to quell his thoughts by swallowing.

The blood led up one of the staircases to the 70th Floor.

They all shared the impulse. They broke into a sprint.

The stairs were slippery under Cloud's boots – the blood here was still fresh. Ahead, Red XIII leapt over a body sprawled on the staircase.

Cloud leapt over it with the same ease, and arrived at the top.

He ran over the streak of blood towards the desk.

President Shinra was leaning forward in his chair so that his arms and head were sprawled upon his desk. The sword was still pinning him to the desk, and rose from his back like a flagpole.

"He's dead," Barret was eerily calm. "The leader of Shinra Inc. is dead."

Tifa walked around the desk. Her eyes were on it too. "This sword…" she said. "This sword…"

The Masamune

"Sephiroth's!" Cloud confirmed.

The longest silence yet swallowed the next moment.

"…Sephiroth is alive?" Tifa's voice was frozen over.

Cloud steeled himself to speak again. "…Looks like it. Only Sephiroth can use that sword."

"Who cares who did it!?" Barret broke the quiet solemnity. "This is the end of the Shinra! This is huge!"

Something shuffled behind one of the columns near the desk. There was something alive on this floor.

Cloud's hands ripped the Buster Sword from his back with a force that snapped the magnet painfully.

"Show yourself!" Cloud shouted at the column.

A squat man in a thatched suit peered out from behind the column – he had a dollop of white hair on his head. "Uh!" he cried when he saw them, and started to flee.

Barret and Cloud were on him, and he tried to dodge even when Barret trained his gun-arm on him. Barret didn't fire – he pounced on the man.

Cloud recognized him – he was another bigwig. Palmer. He had seen his picture in the papers years ago. Something to do with space.

"P-p-please, don't kill me!" Palmer wept.

"What happened?" Cloud grabbed him by the upper arm.

"Se…" he started. "Sephiroth. Sephiroth came."

Cloud's heart stopped, but that didn't slow him down. "Did you see him? Did you see Sephiroth?"

"Yeah, I saw him! I saw him with my own eyes!"

Palmer was frightened enough. He wasn't faking.

"Did you hear his voice?" Cloud asked.

Palmer nodded violently, and tears bubbled out of his eyes. "He spoke to Shinra before he… something about not letting us have the Promised Land."

"So," Tifa thought. "Does that mean that the Promised Land really exists and that Sephiroth's here to save it from Shinra?"

Barret smiled. "So he's a good guy after all!"

"Save the Promised Land?" Cloud asked. "A good guy? It's not that simple." He knew him. "Sephiroth's mission is different."

The trail of blood ended at Shinra. 'Where did he go?'

Palmer wrenched himself out of Barret's grip and bolted for the door that led to the helipad. Cloud chased him through the door – the wind whipped his clothes and hair.

It was deafeningly loud outside. A helicopter was easing down onto the tarmac.

"Rufus!" Barret burst out of the building. "Shit! I forgot about him!"

Cloud hadn't – it was one of the reasons he wasn't celebrating Shinra's death. Rufus Shinra was the son of the late President, the acting Vice President, and as of now the highest shareholder in the company.

Everything was effectively his.

Tseng opened the door from the inside, but Rufus strode out before it was open, touching down with the helicopter – a lean, long-legged man with his father's eyes and a sweep of orange hair. Otherwise Cloud would never have guessed the relation.

Following Rufus out of the helicopter was a huge black feline – waist-high at least, and with a whip-like tentacle slithering out behind its head. It was some coerl-kin, Cloud marvelled that Rufus had managed to train a beast that wild – unless they had been raised together.

Palmer shrieked something to Rufus – Cloud couldn't hear it over the propeller. Rufus's double-breasted white coat flapped at his calves. Cloud saw a shotgun underneath the coat.

Rufus nodded at Palmer and Tseng helped the executive into the helicopter.

Rufus made a circle motion with his hands, and the helicopter took off. Cloud watched it lift above the top of the building and fly in a slow, curving arc – encircling them by a wide radius.

It was quiet enough for Rufus to be heard. "It's a little hard to believe, isn't it?" he asked. "Sephiroth. Really?"

Cloud nodded.

The black cat was dutifully standing by Rufus's side. Rufus kept his eyes on them. "Who are you?"

The presentiment he had felt with Aeris in Wall Market simmered underneath his eyeballs again. Whatever came out of his mouth next would decide everything from here on out.

He took his time replying – he was overwhelmed. There were too many options available. There was subtlety needed. He had never had this much power before. It felt like poison in his blood. 'You're not a wizard, Cloud,' he told himself. 'Leave the thinking for the wizards.'

He went with the truth. "I'm Cloud. Ex-SOLDIER, First Class."

That felt better.

"I'm from AVALANCHE!" Barret announced happily.

Cloud realized that Barret would have said it either way, without pausing, and a wave of admiration washed over him.

"Me too," Tifa confirmed.

Aeris simply said, "A flower seller."

Red XIII simply said, "A specimen."

Rufus regarded them with a strange smirk, as if he were waiting for a punchline. "What a crew," he remarked.

Cloud smiled inside – in that moment, he'd been thinking the same thing.

Rufus paused a moment to scratch the head of his – Cloud was ready to call it a panther – and introduced himself. "I'm Rufus Shinra. The President of Shinra Incorporated. You'll be seeing quite a few changes in how the company is run from now on. Progress is come."

"Yeahh," Barret groaned. "I heard all about you. All about your policies on army funding, mako reactors, an' education. You're about as progressive as Heidegger is a peacenick."

Rufus took a step. "Peace is a plague. It is an economically unstable state of social infirmity where innovation goes to die. But… so is war, in the end. I intend to do something else. Fear – in small frequent doses – creates the most advantageous population of any size. Comparitively speaking my father was a spendthrift – full of idealistic fantasy. His global stupor under the guise of peace was not profitable. So it's as of now done."

"That," Red XIII paused. "Makes economic sense, in the short term, but the moral dilemma is staggering. And this is all running under the twin assumptions that your resources are infinite and that the people won't rise up against you."

"Hey!" Barret realized. "This guy's with us! Right?"

Red XIII paid him no mind. "Mister President, are you willing to take either risk?"

"Well," Rufus shrugged. "The people rose up anyway."

The helicopter made a swooping pass behind Rufus, but he signalled them again and it began another circle.

The propellers created a temporary barrier of sound between Rufus and them.

He was worried about Aeris – if Rufus learned her true nature, this conversation would start to go very differently. He needed it to go exactly one way for them all to make it out alive.

Cloud put a hand on Barret's shoulder. He spoke lowly. "Get outta this building with Aeris."

"What?"

"I'll explain later. Barret, this is the real crisis for the Planet."

"The hell's that supposed to mean?"

"I'll tell you later, just take my word for it. Now. I'll follow after I take care of him."

The sound of the helicopter faded and the wind rose above it. Cloud took his hand off of Barret and stepped away.

Rufus looked at them as if their conversation were about to continue.

Barret took a quick inhale.

Tifa twitched in realization.

He launched in front of Aeris and brought his gun-arm up. She sprang forward and twin flames ignited the air above her open hands. She threw the fire onto the ground before them and a wall of flame burst from the asphalt and shielded them from sight.

Cloud dodged away from the wall, but the light hurt his eyes. 'Fire… How does Tifa bear it?'

Everyone but Cloud ran back towards the building. He took a step forward. Rufus watched their activities with a surprising calm.

Cloud didn't reach for the sword just yet.

When the last flames curled into ash, Rufus dusted off his coat. "Was that necessary?"