Chapter 1 - The edge of darkness
The world was in an ever shifting state of flux, it shifted and changed in a heartbeat. For the last thirty years the change had led people to see the world as a dark place, full of malice and misery. For these disillusioned souls there had to be a pinnacle, a place that mirrored the reality, that their planet was nothing more than a ball of congealing corruption.
The western continent housed that very place, it was a city of the future, a civilisation that surpassed every achievement mankind had placed under its belt. Midgar was the crowning glory of the new god, a secular corporation named Shinra. Unlike every other settlement, this metal monstrosity had two levels. It was the ultimate oppression against those who had nothing and the ultimate worship of those who had everything.
Many angry young singers would croon bitter songs of how heaven and hell was not an afterlife, but an eternity of suffering or bliss within the boundaries of Midgar. Truth to tell, it was a world that thrived on chaos and domination. On the upper plate everything a person could want laid in wait. With nothing besides the corporation's headquarters dwarfing their horizons, the people of the upper tier gorged themselves on cleaner air and basked in the glory of the sunrise and sunset. Their homes were made from bricks and slates, functioning drains drawing rainwaters away. More than this, their streets were not clouded with fighting members of public.
In the lower levels, life was much more of a challenge. Midgar's lower city was where razor sharp wit and brutal savagery were needed to survive. Few kind hearts were offered to strangers here, indeed, many of the gangs saw the word stranger as a euphemism for enemy. Fearful citizens cowered together, huddled in their shanty houses. Pitiful dwellings forged from road signs, rusted drain pipes and other clutter that the people found within the streets. In the movies whenever a disaster occurred, people always scuttled from the rubble to fight amongst themselves for survival... Midgar was the opposite, the people needed no disaster, they needed no excuses. With nothing else of worth left in the city, the people played for keeps.
It was this bitter reality that had forced the group to embark on their most ambitious subversion of the masters. Most people had fought amongst themselves, or tried futile attacks on the ruling government and subsequently executed. None of the groups before them had been so unified, so driven to pull off the daring and calculating ploys. Avalanche had made their name in the aftermath of the Wutai war. If Shinra had believed that defeating the eastern warriors had earned them dominance. Then the Genesis crisis had forced them to be wary of danger at their own doors.
Avalanche had seized upon it, launching attacks on the Shinra's biggest events. Corporate dinners, parades, big openings. Each time they had left their mark, drawing minimal bloodshed but leaving their mark upon the rulers. As the group lay quietly on the train, their eyes fell upon the new recruit. They might have felt unified when the mission was briefed out, but since then, the group's eyes kept darting askance, drinking in the image of the warrior.
He was striking, his head sported a blonde mane that had been drawn into unruly spikes. From a distance he looked like some biker pin-up that teenage girls would drool all over. The wind sweeping the hair about in a random manner. But if his hair stole the limelight, then the figure's eyes drank souls. They were a very deep blue, but at the edge was a twinge of green. It was as if the man had a streak of supernatural energy coursing along his pupils.
The figure was definitely out of place on the mission, Avalanche were the sworn enemy of Shinra, but the recruit was garbed in a classic uniform reserved for the first rankers in the deadly Soldier army. A lush mesh jumpsuit that was a fusion of black and purple, despite the lighter shade, it actually was more difficult to see. The armour easily able to fade into the background in the dark. A pair of heavy shoulder pads were strapped in place, thick spikes jutting from them.
On the stranger's back was a weapon that really struck a chord. The sword was styled in a similar way to an ancient broadsword. Its blade easily forty-two inches long, and at least three inches thick. One had to wonder if the swordsman chopped through his opponents or merely clubbed them to death.
"Station approaching!" One of the activists yelled suddenly. "About one mile left before we slow for station one!"
"Awright, everyone be ready!" The leader called, ducking swiftly into a recess on top of the train. The Soldier warrior simply shrugged and lay down, opting to say nothing.
For three minutes the bumpy ride continued before a hideous screeching sound excreted from the rails beneath. A final puff of energy twinged steam was spewed from the front locomotive before all activity ceased. Silently the group prepared their assault, eyeing up the two guards who patrolled the platform. The leader threw his left arm up and instantly his two pointmen began the assault.
The first to attack sported a dark green outfit that ended just below his knees, carefully tucked into a pair of brown boots. The red bandana that held the rough mane of black hair in place; fluttered in the light breeze. Silently he slid up to the edge of the platform, hidden in the space between the rails and the undertray of the carriage. He waited patiently for the first guard to walk on by before he leapt up from the blind spot.
The thick baton in his right hand smashed against the centre of the guard's skull, a sickening sound filled the air as it began to dislodge from the tip of his spine. Dazed and confused the man staggered around, only for the fighter to thrash the club into his windpipe. Desperately the guard attempted to breathe, his mouth sucking frantically at the air, hoping to draw oxygen into his lungs. The terrorist turned his back as the man's face turned purple around the visible jawline, before he collapsed into a heap, the suffocation complete.
Behind the man came the sound of a clicking, instantly he froze as he felt the barrel of the gun being pointed at his back from a distance. Silently he cursed himself for a fool, he should have hauled the guard down to the rails, rather than leave himself open for a capture at the other end. Slowly he sank to his knees, placed his hands on his head and interlocked the fingers.
As the guard slithered along the platform she silently appeared from the crawl space between each car. Unlike her comrade the armour she wore was a dull grey, designed to slip into the surroundings of machinery and industrious workmanship. Her long brown hair was held back by a thick red bandana, while a long set of strands fluttered uncontrollably at the sides of her head.
Her brown eyes were trained on the enemy, the thick metal armlets guarding her wrists shone as the light of a nearby streetlamp kissed them delicately. Her palms clutched tightly at a pair of knives, their silvered blades reversed so that they pointed towards her own body. Stealthily she followed her target, her movements silently mirroring that of her quarry. As the careless man reached for his belt to retrieve a pair of handcuffs, she pounced. Quickly turning her knives the other way around, the blades stopping barely an inch from the guard's throat. The figure gave a yelp of terror before the edges ripped through his jugular, spraying blood across her ally's back.
"You could have made him mess up the platform instead of me!" The man protested as he clambered back to his feet.
"And you better look out when in a fight!" Their leader called, "these lot ain't jus' some raw cadets."
"You don't have to worry about Soldier." A voice called, the group turned around before watching the new recruit leap from the train in a flamboyant somersault. "It's not likely that Shinra will have them patrolling the reactors."
"That's cuz all the others are distractin' them suckers! The big fight in sector 2 is all that they's be caring about!"
The former Soldier nodded silently. "It's only a good ploy if we are quick enough to exploit it."
The leader's eyes narrowed. "Jus' becuz you were once a Soldier don't make you leader. But you're right, we's better move out!" Ahead of him the group darted for the edge of the platform, leaving the man alone.
As they departed the figure realised that he didn't even know their names, it summed up all his feelings for the mission ahead. This was not some battle that he would gleefully live and die for, not like anything he had been involved with for the conglomerate. There was an irony in that one of their former elite had turned traitor, he doubted that his fellow warriors would ever be driven by anything other than a wish for his death.
Silently he walked upon the first corpse and roughly searched through the pockets of the uniform, swiftly pocketing a couple of tiny curative items. Disappointingly they had possessed no money to pilfer or weapons that were of any use. Giving up the search of the body he made for the exit when a light that hung from the platform roof sounded. He cursed and realised that the general alarm had gone off.
Angrily he darted free of the platform and turned back to face the archway that led directly onto the platform of Sector 1. A pair of guards ran along the platform, the signal box that had housed them stood on the horizon and the Soldier grinned, they had been more intelligent than he anticpated. Carefully he slid against the wall, out of sight of the entrance door. Quickly he drew in a deep breath and held it. His heart beat slowed, and the silence grew.
The guards fell for the ruse and rushed free and onto the street. Comically they looked on ahead, confused, when the sound of metal cutting the air caught their attention. It proved too late, the huge glave completed a semi-circular arc, both heads falling to the cobbled road outside the station. Cooly their killer glanced back and saw that the station had fallen into silence, with no other guards in sight. Smoothly he threw the sword over his shoulder, the two holes in the blade anchored by the magnetic orbs that had been fashioned into the back of his suit.
With no threat of attack, the figure drank in the image of sector 1. Like all other parts of Midgar, it was an imposing vision, colossal girders sprang up from deep beneath the cobbled roads and concrete pathways that ran parallel at their side. While a deep ringing sound tolled in the distance, a constant banging, as if ten thousand iron mongers smelted simultaneously. The sky, normally so vibrant and light, was hazy and muzzled, the mako driven smog being what drowned the northern part of the metropolis.
"Huh?" The green clothed terrorist called as he turned to face the warrior, the sound of his thick boots rousing him from the daydream he had fallen into. "So you're the new guy eh?" He joked, offering out his hand. The former Soldier ignored it. "Heh... You're really serious about things aren't you? Don't say too much. We don't even know your name."
"Cloud." The figure replied cuttingly, with no hint of comradeship.
"Cloud eh? Well my name's Biggs, that there is..."
"Do me a favour." Cloud began, "save your breath. I don't care what your names are, I am here for this mission, after that I am done."
"Hey man! What kind of attitude is that? Want some quick cash before you go back to Soldier?" Biggs instantly felt fear as the words echoed from his mouth.
Cloud's eyes narrowed. "If I were going to go back to Soldier, you'd either be dead, or shackled to the back of a truck being dragged to the Shinra tower. Now, if you want to keep your tongue, stop it wagging."
Ahead, the woman fighter turned her head to him. "Let's save the brawling for the inside of that reactor right? Getting the mission done is what matters isn't it?"
"Save your breath Jessie, guy isn't worth it."
The woman threw her gaze back at the small computer screen that she had been transfixed on, the ambivalence throwing her nerves all over the place. Cloud kept his eyes focused on the huge iron gate that stood between the high concrete walls of the reactor. It reminded him of a prison, he pictured the vast entrance opening up and truckloads of shackled inmates being flung into their cramped cells.
Despite the gate, the reactor lacked the fearful image that an ancient prison had, though it certainly matched it for size. The main cooling tower rose way above his head, as his neck craned further backwards in a vain attempt to view the tip, he gave up once at full stretch and guessed the height to be at least two hundred feet.
"Where's Wedge?" Jessie asked suddenly.
Biggs chuckled. "How could you misplace a fat git like him?" Jessie rolled her eyes, while Cloud simply ignored the whole conversation. He was beginning to feel like the mission would be a disaster, having been the only one to cut off a rear assault, he now found two of the main techs joking in the street about one of their own. "Heh... Well anyway, you know what he does best right? He's up on the roof of the train station, scanning the distance."
Before Cloud could ponder that move, the leader stormed into view from the right hand road. As the figure was surrounded by the light of the lamps, Cloud found himself taking a long look at the man. Unlike many of the populace, the figure was dark skinned, a stubbly beard formed along the line of his chin. While his hair had been cut razor sharp in the style of a marine. The figure's biceps bulged with the veins visible to the naked eye. It was as if he had eaten steroids for breakfast.
As unusual a look that was, it was not the thing that made the man so eye catching. Not even the rough clothes, a sleevless brown bomber jacket and thick green khaki trousers combo with thick platform boots, was what dragged Cloud's eyes to the man. It was his right arm, where normally a fist hung, was instead a gigantic gatling gun. A long belt coiled repeatedly around his body, feeding the slugs into his arm. It was an awesome and terrifying sight.
"What the hell did I tell you lot?" He screamed suddenly. "Stupid idiots are gonna get us busted! Don' move in a large group!"
Jessie blushed. "I am still trying to figure out the way in, the gate lock is easy with my ice breakers, but that floor is the problem." She announced, pointing at an illuminated square that covered almost the entire pavement directly in front of the gate.
"Wha's that all abou'?"
"That's a security hot plate Barret, Soldier boy Cloud would know more about it." Biggs sniped suddenly.
"How abou' it?" Barret asked swiftly, "why's it so important?"
"You enjoy fighting an army?" Cloud asked in retaliation. "Like the idea of battling the Shinra guards, Turks and Soldier in one fell swoop? Well if you do, step right up. That plate is connected to a security line that is priority 1-A. I remember when some drunk clot staggered onto one at four in the morning. You've never seen so many pissed off members of the militia."
Barret snarled. "Then how we gonna ge' 'round it?"
Cloud smiled. "Find a way to get the breaker into the slot without touching the pad. While you sort that, I am going to check on your wide boy." Quickly he slipped away from the street.
The wind howled as it was streamed over the many folds and creases in the metals that formed the edge of the buildings in the sector. The figure was terrified at the sound and the dark felt crushing to him. But he shook his head and focused, his sight trained down the scope of his rifle. Cloud almost burst out laughing as he saw the man, he could not have been any less convincing a sniper.
He wore an ill fitting yellow armour that exposed flabs of flesh around his waistline. A thick leather belt had been strapped over one shoulder and looped through the other side, a trio of grenades hanging from one section. While numerous clips for the rifle were statue still on his main belt that doubled as the way of keeping the denim trousers from falling down. Even the western bandana looked ridiculous.
"What you see?" Cloud asked as he slipped beside the man.
Wedge yelped in surprise before pointing to the distant spire. "There's a guard watching from there, he's got full vision."
"Let me look." Cloud commanded, staring through the sight and at the glass tower on the horizon. A solitary man sat with his feet on a console that was wedged against the circular glass. Numerous dials, switches and buttons appeared to blip constantly. The figure's eyes were fixed on a wall of monitors that had been set just above the console.
"Knocking him off is not the problem, just got to be sure that if we do, the movement on the ground is held off enough to prevent me getting locked out."
Cloud eyed the man, knowing that they wouldn't have much longer than fifteen seconds. Too little time to get the man down safely should the card and shooting be synchronised.
"Can you get down in twenty seconds or less?" Wedge nodded at Cloud's question. "Then knock him off, once you shoot knock this to the street." The Soldier placed an empty vial on the lip of the roof. "Don't wait up, as soon as this is moved, you run for the gate. Do not miss the cut!" Wedge focused his attention to the forhcoming shot, he did not see the man leave.
"...He's not one of us, the guy will betray us!" Biggs protested.
Barret shrugged. "The guy's no' done it so far. Son of a bitch might later, but we's gotta keep the train goin'! Plus she gave the guy a good report, we can trust her."
Cloud walked from the stairwell that led to the roof knowing who the topic of conversation was. He didn't care, all he wanted was for this farce to be over so he could pick up the next mission somewhere else. Calmly he walked over to the trio and stood before them.
"Your sniper is set, once he has taken the shot he'll drop a vial from the roof, when it hits the floor we open the gate." Cloud cut in conversationally.
"I ain't gonna tell you again! You might be some big Soldier man, but I am the leader!" Barret barked, "this missions' goin' my way, if you don' like it then fuck off! But you's gonna kiss goodbye to your money."
Cloud's eyes narrowed. "I am not interested in your leader nonsense, I care only for this mission's success. Now if you want to wind up in a prison cell as a failure then be my guest and carry on your macho approach. But unlike you, I know these reactors and the best ways in."
"Awright then, you give us your big plan!" Barret ordered.
Cloud shrugged. "If you want. The plate is too sensitive to simply cover and walk on. Now Barret, you and I are both pretty strong so I reckon we hoist Jessie up using a rope looped over streetlamp. Biggs then pushes her like a pendulumn until she is close enough to card slot, at which point she thrusts it home, opening the gate."
Silence ruled before everyone began to laugh, Cloud stood motionless as the crew lost all their focus. He had had enough, the whole thing was a complete nonsense, if they wanted to be brash then they would, but he wouldn't be part of it. Silently he turned his heels and walked back towards the station, knowing that if he followed the lines, he'd reach the inner plate and a way out.
A thick arm planted on his collar and turned him around, his eyes stared straight into Barret's. His face devoid of the humour that had been there just seconds earlier, by his side the two aides stood stock still. Not knowing if the pressure of the situation was about to blow up worse than the reactor would.
"You walkin' out? Gonna jus' leave us to go right along alone? Who'd you think that you're dealin' with! Avalanche ain't about being an army, but about sticking it to those bastards!"
"Are you done?" Cloud asked coldly. "You want this mission to work? Then you think serious or you fail."
Barret snarled. "Listen! We ain't gonna jus' be like the Shinra! We want to take them down. You in or you out?"
"You going to listen to a simple and effective plan or laugh your way to jail?" Cloud countered bitterly.
"Enough, let's bury this." Jessie cut in suddenly, "the plan actually sounds ok. We laughed because someone as military bound as you would be able to come up with something so childish. It caught us out."
"I served in Wutai, simple but effective, it won us the war." Cloud responded, "strike while the iron's hot, you in?"
Barret smiled and reached for the pack. "Let's get this party started!" He announced, before raising his right fist into the air.
Wedge lay tight on the rooftop, his eyes intently staring at the distance. A dot formed in the centre of the scope, trained on where the bullet would go through. Below he watched Barret raise his left arm, the signal for the mission to go green. Calmly he made short rasping breaths, his heart rate quickening as he envisioned the aftermath of the shot.
Shaking the cobwebs from his mind, he placed his chunky finger on the trigger and prepared to fire. The tiny airstream that was spewed from the fan underneath the barrel faded to the right by about one degree. Cooly he calculated the shot in his mind, knowing that he'd have only a split second to shoot again should the first slug fail to find the target.
Refusing to be cowed by thoughts of failure, he pulled the trigger and felt the weapon recoil under his armpit. Though the barrel spewed no sound as the slug flew from inside. Wedge kept his eyes on the enemy and watched as the target was punched backwards, a hole in the centre of his skull. Wedge felt exultant as he rose to his feet, yet a sudden downer came upon him, this was only the beginning. Cooly he kicked the vial off the edge of the roof and rushed down to join the others.
Cloud listened intently and as soon as the shattering glass inched through his ear drums he barked for the plan to start. Barret had been elected as the anchor, the rope coiled tightly around the back of his waist and he crouched at an angle of forty-five degrees. Directly in front of him Cloud mirrored the position and they each began to pull backwards. Jessie slowly inched from the floor, gesturing for them to continue the movement with her arms.
Cloud watched her constantly, knowing that shortly the pair would have the difficult task of keeping her at one constant height while the rope was subjected to swinging forces and extra weight. One slip from either of them, and that plate would be sending its distress call throughout Midgar. He refused to let the thought unsettle him and suddenly he anchored his legs in one place, tightly holding the rope still.
Biggs wasted no time and took three running steps towards his hanging ally before pushing at her behind with both hands. Jessie swung for a few feet before coming back towards him. Carefully Biggs braced his palms in place to control the backswing, before helping the pendulumn motion go forward again. Four times the move was repeated before Jessie felt confident enough to go ahead. Cooly she wrapped her palm around a jutting iron bar and held her position above the card slot. Swiftly she pulled out the transparent card and slotted it home, a green light surrounded the panel and the gas pistons sounded, triggering the door process.
Beneath Jessie the panel light died and instantly the rope slackened, letting her down. Quickly Avalanche gathered their movements and rushed through the opening. Cloud began to count seconds as he stood at the gap and looked to the street beyond. From the stairwell Wedge appeared and desperately tried to run. His bulky frame rendering his efforts far slower than any of the others.
At the side of the walls the gas pistons sounded again and the gears began to warm up. Wedge grunted and rushed as hard as he could, his feet pounding over the darkened security. Suddenly he flung himself into the air and skidded on his belly across the threshold. As he came to a halt against a metal pipe, the gears ground into life and the gate closed behind them.
"Well for better or worse we are inside." Cloud orated.
"Yeah and we's not gonna just go out the same way we came in. Wedge, use that stuff of Jessie's and get the main gate to sector 8 open. We are goin' to take the rail route to sector 7. Everyone else follow me!" Swiftly Avalanche ran towards the cooling tower and the reactor's main entrance.
If the tower had seemed imposing to Cloud at the very entrance, up close he truly understood the nature of the beast. At surface level the tower stretched for over two hundred feet into the air. But below Cloud was chilled by how deep the reactor was, even though he had been inside before, it still caused fear to bubble through him. His eyes stopped trying to digest the image of the tower once it got past the service levels between the plates. The distance was too much to take in.
As he attempted to draw his vision back from the edge, his pupils drank in the hypnotic display of lights from the ground below. A black curtain of darkness had draped across the scene, with distant lights from houses and streets in the slums punctuating it, as if they were stars in the sky above. Cloud felt dizzy at the thought of falling into it.
He forced himself to look back up to the mission ahead, aside from Wedge, the others had turned and gone into the reactor. As a location, the Shinra had thought of everything. With Midgar being split into eight sectors there was always going to be space between them on the upper levels, so the rulers had filled the gaps with the reactors. The only means of getting to them was a bridge that crossed between the sectors, while another formed a t-shape that led to the reactor itself.
Cloud swiftly rushed along the bridge at the centre and through the main doors, instantly feeling the environment change. Where there had been a subtle breeze and a delicate sense of being high above the world. Here, the air felt dense and hot, it pressed against him harshly. Ignoring the sensation, Cloud walked along the concrete corridor and up the small set of stairs. The rest of the group stood waiting impatiently at the top.
"You keep preaching about being quick, then take forever." Biggs snorted.
"We's not got time for that. This place's gonna explode when we through with it!" Barret countered.
"Which is something I've been meaning to ask, how're we going to pull that off? A reactor this size would require an explosive the likes of which haven't been seen since the war."
Jessie smiled at the former Soldier. "It would if all you wanted to do was drop a bomb here and run away. We're a little more intelligent than that; this whole tower has dozens of air ducts that take pressure away from the cooling tower. Strap a bomb to a panel inside that and it'll explode, the flash launching a chain reaction that will feed through the entire thing."
Cloud nodded. "Not a bad plan, but where do we pull that off?"
"Jessie knows all abou' it," Barret waved the comment away, "meantime we gotta do this! The planet is full of mako energy, the people use it everyday. Thanks to these bloodsuckers all the energy is being stolen from our world!" Barret preached suddenly.
Cloud shook his head; he would have never pictured Barret to be some kind of preacher, and the suddenness of the action was excessive. "I didn't sign up for this to get some lecture. Let's hurry."
Barret's face flushed crimson. "Tha's it! Your ass' coming with me from now on!"
Cloud felt like falling into laughter; this whole mission was beginning to collapse at every single turn. But with the figure hanging by his side from this point on, it might finally shut the man up. With everyone prepared for the mission ahead, Cloud took point and walked to a huge sliding gate that stood at the end of the corridor.
Before he had the chance to think about how the mechanism worked, Jessie slipped by his side and inserted another of her transparent cards into a slot. Seconds later the sound of grinding gears filled the air, before the doors began to slide backwards.
Beyond the gate was a sinister looking industrial morass. The floor had changed from greyed concrete to a criss crossing form of wired mesh that appeared fragile. Only as he saw that many thick bars the braced them, did Cloud understand how no one had ever fallen through to the mako pools many metres below them.
A line of lights also navigated the mesh flooring, numerous cables that glowed red, green and blue all coiled about one another. While on the walls, the logos and hazard signs reflected the rainbow of colour back at him.
"You never been inside a reactor before?" Barret asked, as the figure gingerly led the way.
Cloud nodded. "Many times; just not for a long while."
Barret seemed to take in his words before he shook them off, changing the subject abruptly. "We need to get down the lift. From there, we go on further."
Silence filled the air as the pair began the walk through the open level of the reactor. The echoes of his footsteps disturbed Cloud; it suggested that the place was totally empty and he didn't entirely trust it. One doesn't just get away with knocking off your main man; no doubt, somewhere inside this mechanical maze, another set of men were waiting.
Suddenly a klaxon sounded, as if to prove Cloud's silent theory right. Directly in front of them, he saw the narrow line of light within the thick elevator door fill with shadow. Swiftly he darted forward, the sword swiftly detaching from his magnetic sheath and flashing into the air. At his movement, the others had also followed suit.
A loud pinging sound filled the air and the doors opened. No one advance at first, until a wall of slugs was peppered from rifles that lay on the ground. Cloud reacted quickly; he dove to his left and executed a roll that carried him back to his feet behind a pillar. Calmly he thought through the moves he had before rushing round the right hand side of the pillar and into the sanctuary of another directly ahead.
Barret looked on as the Soldier drew the unit's attention to him. With the distraction in place he ducked behind a thick pipe and carefully aimed his arm through a small gap in between the thick pipe that granted him cover, and a tiny steam pipe set above it. Anger forced him to lock the muscles of his biceps in place. When he was ready, he planted his left hand underneath the gatling gun and forced the two trigger studs inwards.
With their minds focused on taking out the former Shinra warrior, none of the guards saw the danger until it was too late. One man took three shots on his right leg, the shin, kneecaps and thigh all punctured by slugs. He screamed and fell to his back, while confused comrades spun around and fired blind, their own bullets clashing with the pipe. None saw the black man lying on his stomach, cowering low to avoid any of them drilling through the cover and into his body.
A repeated sound of banging disturbed them and they turned to see the grenade bounce towards them. As the guards saw their lives flash before them, one brave comrade threw his gun aside and dived atop the grenade. His body blown into three pieces when the volatile object exploded, shielding his fellow infantrymen from the danger.
Despite the second chance, they were all too shocked to take the lifeline that had been offered them. From their left, the former Soldier emerged and attacked, the giant glave colliding with the temple of one man, causing brains and blood to explode across the lift. A figure tried to use his rifle as club, but the wooden butt was smashed against the heavy blade. Cloud responded by head butting the figure, before thrusting his own weapon through the enemy's chest.
Behind him the other two members entered the fray. Jessie coolly twirling her blades through the air, their edges slicing sinew and chopping through flesh. Two guards fell to her deadly dancing style, before the brash Biggs followed up with some ferocious clubbing. His baton smashed one man's temple like a hollow egg, before he backhanded the weapon across the last guard's face, sending him sprawling from the elevator and straight into the gunfire from Barret's arm.
As the silence descended once again, Cloud cleaned his sword and then swirled it into the magnetic sheath on his back. The others gathered their breath before they too sheathed what weapons they had.
"That tells me we'd better hurry." Cloud suggested.
"No time to fuck around, Biggs; keep you' eyes on the doors back there." Barret snapped when Biggs had been about to retort. "Jessie, you's comin' along with the big guys." Nothing else was spoken, the trio darted onto the elevator, and towards the lower levels...
The girl could not recall how many nights she had spent walking through the cobbled streets of the upper city. Though she smiled as she felt the basket under her arm; it had taken her a long time to figure it out, but for the last three years she had been able to fill the slums with flowers, which had proceeded to her moving the business to the upper plate.
A sense of melancholy filled her suddenly as she thought of the flower cart that had started the whole plan. An insane desire to walk through the dust and danger, spreading love and peace to a world that didn't understand it, that didn't want to embrace it. Despite her wish for a huge cart that she could ride around on, she had never been able to raise the cash to make it reality.
But she still felt happy, despite it all; the flowers were always a seller due to their rarity in the dark city. It was a name she had coined herself, though she seldom ever spoke it. Unlike every other person in the metropolis, she always felt eyes looking upon her from the shadows. An inner instinct always let her sense danger before it arrived, and she could not explain the mystery behind it, only that it was there and that she had always been grateful of it.
Yet tonight, the instinct had done something different, as she had walked along the alleyway between sector eight train station and the town square, she felt no danger tonight, but instead she felt an inner calm; a sense that if she stayed right where she was, that things would work out in her favour.
Her eyes were suddenly drawn to the open door that jutted from a nearby building. Inside she saw a swirling energy and it dazzled her as though looking into it was like searching through the depths of the pool beyond life for some world beyond. But the lights made no sense and she pulled away with some difficulty. Opting to stand in the centre of the square, her basket openly swayed under her arm.
Barret had slid against the back of the elevator, and took in shallow breaths, while Cloud stood looking through the glass at the reactor outside. The buildings were imposing, easily reaching down for eight miles and further, though he knew this was just the feed pipes that syphoned the energy from the planet. The actual walkways were likely to comprise no more than one mile at a push.
"As I wuz sayin'" Barret began suddenly, "the planet's slowly being eaten alive. All these machines just suck it dry."
"It's not my problem." Cloud answered in a bored tone.
"The planet's dyin' Cloud! Can't you see that?" The burly man pleaded.
Cloud shrugged his shoulders. "Getting out of here before the roboguards come is all I see. The Place'll be swarming if we aren't careful."
Barret raised his fist and snorted, Cloud ignored him; he neither needed nor wanted the man's approval. On the other side of the elevator, Jessie focused on the console that controlled it, no doubt keeping her distance from the storm that brewed behind her...
Barret was gobsmacked at the size of the world about them as the trio stepped off the elevator. To the untrained eye it seemed to continue forever, with the level they stood on being nothing but an entry to a never ending descent. The huge squared area resembled a helipad, though a small refinery lab stood at the end, with huge rails surrounding the perimeter to prevent anyone falling over the edge.
Beyond the square area was a huge chute that descended down into a huge pit that was full of white fluid; a by-product of the energy refining process. While the many rails and girders strained against each other, they somehow spread the tonnes of weight and stopped an eventual collapse of the whole structure.
Cloud warily took point, with the other two members transfixed on the sheer scale of the reactor, he wanted to be sure that they didn't blindly fall into a trap. So the Soldier carefully set foot on the first step of the stairwell that was directly to the right of the lift. Quietly and swiftly he made his way down the sixteen steps until he reached a middle level. Part of him felt like he was within a multi-storey car park; the low roofing and constant presence of stone pillars almost had him looking for a space to slip into.
The figure shrugged off the distraction quickly; checking behind him to ensure that the pair had not wandered away. Steadily the group advanced across the central level and onto another set of iron stairs, though this time they spiralled around the square tower. As Cloud reached the end of the first set and was ready to turn he instantly halted the advance and reached into his sidepack.
"Hey punk what d'ya think ya doin'?" Barret asked aggressively.
Cloud signalled for silence. "We haven't seen any guards yet, and blind corners make a good place for an ambush. Sit back and keep quiet."
He pulled clear a small mirror that was no more than two centimetres in height. Carefully he dropped to his knees and angled the object so that its reflective side could reveal what waited around the corner. Tilting it three times, he took note of the inverted image of the environment before the mirror. He cursed silently before dropping back to the pair behind him,
"What's up?" Jessie asked.
"They were ready for something like this, I'll give them that." Cloud cursed before explaining, "at the bottom of the stairwell's a large perimeter; maybe about twenty four metres across. After that there's a narrow bridge that leads through a gate into the next area. That square's loaded with at least twelve men from the Shinra guard." Cloud replied.
"They'll see us comin' if we jus' bust on in!" Barret snorted in disgust.
Cloud nodded. "I agree, so we'll need to distract them somehow. If we can get something to fall behind them and make them focus on the stairwell behind them, we can launch a surprise assault from the front."
"How are we going to do that? We don't have a rocket launcher or anything long range that can affect everyone." Jessie protested.
Cloud pulled two grenades from his pack. "Trust me; it'll work. You two wait here; once the explosion goes off, start the attack. I'll back you up straight after." The man darted from the startled pair before he could be forced to listen to Barret's indignant protests; if they liked it or not, the plan was in motion.
It hadn't taken long for Cloud to rush back up the central level, threading two long pieces of string into the pins of the grenade. Carefully he secured the knots, making sure that he did not set the charges off by mistake and, once he was ready, he lay on his belly, sighting the line of the guardsmen. From up top he could make much more sense of the plan that Shinra had implemented.
The twelve men had formed in a perpendicular line that was angled in a slight v shape towards the centre. He silently approved of the idea; it granted them a cleaner run at an avenue of escape should the enemy somehow manage to overcome the onslaught of sheer numbers. A smile filled his lips as he lowered the grenade arm towards the floor; the only flaw in the plan was that they hadn't seen this coming.
Cloud rolled the grenades over the edge and each length of string began to unravel from within his palm. He watched the thread swirl repeatedly and the balls shrink before a small amount remained. Jerking back his arm and closing the fist, Cloud felt the initial resistance before the pins popped clear.
Three seconds later they exploded, his lengths had been off and the detonation had occurred over the heads of the unit. While they were shaken, they had not been scattered as he'd hoped. Thinking fast, Cloud leapt over the railing and entered freefall, landing on top of a thick lighting rack that coursed repeatedly above the square below. Crouching as low as he could, he turned his eyes to the assault, and waited for an opportunity...
As the explosion rocked through the air, Barret immediately took advantage of the guards' distraction; he ran at full pelt around the corner stairwell with his right arm raised and left palm locked beneath the huge gun. As he pushed the trigger studs into the casing he flailed the arm about repeatedly - he had judged the distance to great for clever aiming.
The burst of gunfire had successfully dislodged the confidence of the Shinra line, and their reprisal took a long ten seconds to begin. Both Barret and Jessie had been granted ample time to reach the foot of the stairs. The young computer geek launched one grenade through the air before diving behind a thick mako fuel drum. She crouched low and listened as the metal casing sang repeatedly at the gunfire.
The grenade sent a light explosion into the air, shrapnel being flung at the line in its wake. Despite the desperate power behind the throw, the projectile had not gained enough ground to draw blood. Barret, throwing all caution to the winds, simply ran straight for the centre of the line. His gatling gun spewing slugs out like he were the dense clouds thrashing rain at a defenceless town in a hurricane.
A brave guard ran out to meet him, his gun set to auto-fire. Barret looked on as he fired three shots before stopping and then another burst beginning half a second later. The stop-start approach might have seemed less deadly than a raging torrent of bullets, but the extra accuracy and timing proved that it didn't take an entire clip for someone to be deadly.
One slug hit Barret in the right shoulder and instinctively he was flung backwards. The gun spraying the ground with its last shots before the spiralling stopped. The black warrior skidded for four feet before he rolled and lay flat on his back, staring at the roof above.
The guard confidently made his way forward, the rifle aimed towards the stricken warrior. A grinding sound of metal on metal caused him to stop and attempt to find the source. From above Cloud landed, his huge glave entering at the left collarbone and driving down into the heart. Placing a thick boot on the corpse's back, he kicked the body away.
The Soldier spun on his heel to face the eleven remaining fighters. Angrily he ran forward and thrust his sword through another guard's chest, catching him before the shock wore off. To his right Cloud saw one guard aim to uppercut him with the butt of his rifle and he swung away, retaliating with a right hook that shattered the figure's jaw.
From behind a burst of slugs filled the air and two guards were punched from their feet, holes in their chest and head. With the centre and left side covered, guards filed instinctively to the right, hoping to get some space and regain the initiative. None of them had seen the advance of Jessie, who had broke cover during Barret's onslaught. One guard had his eyes trained on Cloud and felt, rather than saw, the blade of her knife puncture through his jugular from behind.
Shocked comrades looked on as she pulled the blades clear and shoved the corpse forward. The dead weight forced the men off balance and further back. Jessis did not waste the chance and dived at the first guard in her path, tearing his throat out with both of the blades in her hands.
The terrified guards made an attempt to flee along the bridge and into the next zone of the reactor, but Cloud didn't give them the chance. His giant sword cleaving through two men at once before he chased down the lead guard and lunged through him from behind. The leader slumped forward on the blade and coughed blood. Before Cloud dragged the weapon back through the entry wound and the sentry slid onto the floor before him.
The trio turned back to the square, checking for any other guards that had either slipped through their assault or arrived as back up. But none had appeared, the reactor had fallen silent again - save for the distant humming of turbines and constant gurgling or mako fluid from the complex pipework. All three nodded their heads at each other before rushing along the bridge, determined to finish what they had started.
If the walk across the bridges between the sectors and the reactor had presented a dizzying view to Cloud's eyes; then what he saw within the next area of the reactor made him feel like he was on the edge of reality. The network of pathways and stairs had been replaced by a convoluted network of pipes that conjoined with one another in a pattern that stretched onwards into infinity. Each small inner network forming a square from four individual sections of tubular metal. The reactor pipes were wide, each being at least four foot across. The trio comfortably walked along them in single file.
"Sheesh! Why's anyone gonna do this shit to ge' to work?" Barret moaned from the rear of the group.
"This is the back door way in." Jessie chuckled suddenly, "we've already had fights on elevators."
"Yeah she's right." Cloud cut in, "don't forget this is going to be the heart of the Shinra reactor. They'll have put the tighest security in place, practically no hacker can get around retinal scans and such like."
The group carefully negotiated one network of pipes in the direction of a huge girder, at the end of which was a ladder that descended for approximately forty feet. Cloud took point and got to the rungs, beginning a controlled descent. Above, the others followed, save for Jessie.
"Go on ahead, I'll keep watch from up here." She called at his unasked question, Cloud simply shrugged and moved on.
As he stepped off the ladder, the Soldier took in a deep breath and calmly walked to the centre of the walkway. Ahead he could see part of the colossal cooling tower, up close he realised that it must have been at least one hundred feet in diameter. He didn't even begin to guess what the circumference would be.
Due to the incredible size of the cooling tower, the Shinra had carefully designed the area before it. A narrow pathway some ten feet wide connected the tower with their side of the reactor. Before a large squared area fanned out from it in front of the tower. Evidently they wanted to minimise damage caused by any potential explosive fallout.
The pair walked along the route and were shocked at how unmanned the area was. Cloud hd deliberately avoided looking at the abyss beneath the bridge, he had seen enough bottomless pits so far. Barret thought it was christmas, his gatling gun snarling for the chance to punch through armour. Cloud had felt differently, everything about the entry into the reactor had been too easy. While the orchestrated attack involving the fight in sector two would have cleared some security traffic from the site; there had been three enemy engagements up to this point, surely the situation should have been red flagged by Shinra by now?
He was about to ponder this further when Barret suddenly strode away from him and leant back on a railing at the edge of the platform. Puzzled by this, Cloud walked two further paces before the burly man stared straight at him.
"That thing there mus' be what Jessie wuz goin' on abou'. We's gotta get the bomb set in there somehow, get to it!" The leader huskily called to him.
"What was that?" Cloud asked in reprisal. "You're the leader here, aren't you sure you want to set the bomb? If this is done wrong then everything we've done will be for nothing!"
Barret slammed his fists together. "Jus' do it! I's gonna watch from back 'ere to make sure you don' try to pull nothin'!"
Cloud shrugged his shoulders. "All right, be my guest; if that's how you want it."
He swiftly pulled the rucksack from the ground where Barret left it and made his advance to the foot of the cooling tower. Suddenly a chilling sensation walked through his body, as if an apparition had crossed his path. Stopping, he heard a voice creep from the depths of his mind. The words malignant and hypnotic.
"Be careful!" The voice spat viscously, "this isn't just a reactor!"
From the corner of his eyes the world began to change, it was like when someone set paper on fire, the corners curling as if flames had taken hold of his vision. The edge of his view bubbled violently before he saw a wall of red light. Tiered pods began to stack up, panicked, Cloud forced his mind to focus on the world ahead. Drinking in the image of the wide cooling tower of reactor number one. After a moment the baffling view departed, and his eyes saw the world normally once more.
"W'a's up?" Barret asked, "you gotta set the bomb!"
Cloud shook his head. "It's nothing, just a few nerves." Before the man could grill him about how a former Soldier would feel nervous about sucha routine mission, Cloud began to set the bomb. The base of the tower had a large grilled door and Cloud swiftly pulled it open. He got an image of an old wood fire in his mind as he did so. Ignoring the past images the warrior inputted the data for the explosion. Just as he made to complete the setting, a huge klaxon sounded and Cloud pulled away.
"Head's up! Looks like we got some company!" Barret yelled, pulling his gatling gun into position.
Cloud walked to the centre of the platform and stood back to back with the leader. Instinct had led him to the defensive move, with the pair able to view all areas of the battlefield. In the distance a sound of scuttling movement crashed over them like a wave. It was as if insects were rushing from an inner hive. At first they believed that an entire platoon of men had been dispatched to face them.
But as the noise reached feverpitch both men broke formation and rushed back towards the narrow bridge. A loud thud sounded from above and the pair watched as the single enemy jumped down to the platform before the cooling tower. In essence the creature was a gigantic robot guard, the shape reminiscent of a scorpion.
Eight hydraulic legs formed an arched shape at a height of around nine metres, while above it a huge red armoured exoskeleton stood for another twelve metres. The head was triangular and reminded Cloud of a beetle. Its shape oval at the front while it rolled back to form the point of an armoured spine on the rear of the enemy.
Barret's vision was arrested by the magnificent weapons that adorned the robot's arms. They had been fashioned in the vein of old rifles, the barrels easily five metres in length with the tips ridged to grant better accuracy. The arsenal was completed by a tail formed from interlocking links of metal that curled to a height of twenty metres.
Suddenly the enemy attacked, the hydraulic limbs carrying it over to the pair in a heartbeat. They each scattered as two of the metal legs stabbed at the floor of the platform. Their points puncturing through the thick concrete like it was made of rice paper. Cloud retaliated by leaping into the air and pulling off a single swipe at the joint of one leg. His blade dented the armour, while the tip scraped along a shaft the pumped mako to the underbelly.
The robot instantly levelled both firearms and used a blinding pair of swirling lasers to outline its target. Cloud did not wait for the attack and simply ran towards the scorpion. Unbelievably the machine was able to recalibrate its aim without further use of the lasers. The storm of slugs smashing at the foundations as if they meteorites. Cloud did not look back at the holes they had left in their wake.
With the enemy distracted Barret took adavantage and aimed at the cranium of the robot. His gatling gun threw bullets at the target and a constant sound of metal ringing on metal shattered the noise of the robot's attack on Cloud. Barret ground his teeth together and kept up the assault, aiming to deliver some cover for the punk he had chosen to fight by his side.
Cloud took the offer and darted through the back of the machine. Instantly he jumped onto the back of a leg joint and used it to propel himself higher. The scorpion read the sneak attack and swished its tail furiously. Cloud stabbed his blade into the back of the machine and hung from the handle. With agility Barret had never before seen, the warrior swung his weight around the blade and used the sword as a gymnast's bar.
Suddenly, Cloud leapt upwards, dragging the sword with him. The speed of the assault had rendered the machine unable to read the move and Cloud drove home his blade, the sword going through the machines throat and into some core circuitry. An electric shock flung the Solder from the enemy's back and into the cooling tower.
Barret watched as the machine shook violently on the spot, as if it were helpless. He smiled girmly and aimed once again, this time placing the gatling gun on full auto, the bullets screaming from the six barrels at a speed quicker than the eye could register. The metal storm rang out across the reactor, holes and dents forming all around the head of the robot.
Cloud shook the cobwebs from his mind and looked on as Barret continued his assault on the machine at the centre of the platform. Suddenly the tail of the creature shot into the air, curving like a bow that was ready to release an arrow. Still the scorpion stood still, not attacking the human beneath it.
The Soldier's bewilderment turned to horror as he saw the mako energy flow up from the core of the machine. It was preparing some form of attack, evidently powered by the energy that the reactor was syphoning. Cloud desperately called to the tribal warrior, but the blood had gone to man's head, and he did not respond.
Anger replaced the concern that Cloud, adrenaline coursing through him like quicksilver. Kicking his legs into the air at a sixty degree angle, Cloud jumped up to a standing position without using his hands. Swiftly he rushed at the man and grabbed his tunic, Barret looked confused, before Cloud shocked him further. The veins of the Soldier's arms bulged before and Barret felt himself being dragged away from the battle.
Furious, the leader launched a headbutt at his aggressor, which drew blood from the blond figure, though it did not stop him dragging the man clear. Suddenly; Barret was dropped by Cloud, safe underneath the belly of the beast. He was about to attack Cloud again when a blinding flash of light filled the scene and the pair watched a one foot wide energy beam shoot from above and be dragged across the platform in a semi-circular fashion.
The mako driven light formed a scar that was a foot wide and the pattern was like the aftermath of a farmer who had chopped his scythe through a field full of wheat. Barret looked at the eyes of the Soldier and saw that they glowed more fiercely than before. He shivered as Cloud silently walked past him and once again vaulted onto the back of the enemy.
This time he did not hold back, the forty-two inch blade repeatedly hacking at the armour, shafts and wires; like Cloud was a butcher smashing through meat. Barret ran from underneath the robot and saw the gap appear within the exoskeleton, without a second's thought he began to shoot. The slugs piercing through the exterior and into the core circuitry.
Cloud gasped as he saw the main mako shaft before him, he thrust his sword into the exposed armour and shattered the tube. Blue fluid sloshing from within like he had just smashed an hourglass. Sparks were spat from the armour and Cloud vaulted clear, landing roughly besides Barret. The robot staggered before toppling from the ledge. Neither pair looked down as the machine's explosion rocked the depths of the reactor.
For two minutes the pair gathered their breath, stabilising themselves from the adrenaline that still flowed uncontrolled in their bodies. Eventually Cloud returned to the iron door within the tower, a flashing red light telling him the bomb was armed and ready. Barret nodded at him and he pressed the button in deep, as he did so a beeping sound came from the leaders watch.
"We's got jus' ten minutes, so let's fucking go!" Barret roared and began to run along the ledge.
From the pipework above the platform Jessie had watched all of the action unfold. She partly wished that Biggs had been able to see it, the guy would have been forced to eat all his words regarding Cloud. Ahead of her some blood streaks were still fresh on the pipes from where she had fought off a small unit of guards; who had appeared from nowhere. Though she knew that what she had pulled off would pale compared to the battle waged by Barret and Cloud.
"Hey girl!" The burly man called as he leapt off the ladder and onto the pipe. "You see the big guy at work?"
She chuckled and nodded. "It was impressive."
"Yeah, shame that running down our escape clock isn't." Cloud cut in suddenly.
"Jeez jus' piss all over my parade eh punk?" Barret snorted.
"You want to blow the reactor? That parts done, you want to escape? That isn't, so unless you want to get burned to a crisp, you'll move it!" Cloud roared in reprisal. For a second none spoke before Barret silently nodded. "Then go!" Cloud ordered and the trio slipped over the pipes and back to the main access point.
As the elevator slammed to the top floor Barret shouted at the top of his voice for everyone to get the doors open. Cloud led the trio on, he ignored the incessant calling of the time by Barret as best he could. Swiftly they ran down the stairs and onto the t-shaped bridge.
Cloud was almost at the gate when he heard Jessie go down, cursing angrily he scooped her onto his shoulder and dove for the exit. Behind him he heard a mass of minor chain explosions, before a tremor shook the bridge and the pair spiralled into the rest of Avalanche.
The Soldier turned his head and drank in the image of the reactor. Huge fissures had formed in the outside column, while many gargantuan slabs of concrete and metal had broken free and smashed towards the slums below, tearing through some of the circular foundation of the upper plate as it went. The open top of the tower spewed a flame instead of mako smog. The heat warping some of the girders that surrounded it.
On the horizon a repeated sound of helicopter rotor blades smote the booming echo of the bomb. Instantly Avalanche darted through the gate and down a subsiduary tunnel that led them away from the main sector checkpoints. The group had no idea if the helicopters were for fighting the fires or securing the perimeter. Either way, their mission had succeeded, now they had to get out of the strike zone without being captured. Cloud knew this wouldn't be easy but silently followed the lead of the group, this was where their supposed water tight preparation would be fully tested...