XXII

CHAPTER XXII

CLANDESTINE AGENDAS

Rufus Shinra closed his eyes as the coastal breeze tossed the blonde locks from his face, deeply inhaling the salty aroma of the sea beyond the second floor balcony of his father's old Presidential retreat. The freshness of the Grangalan Peninsula air was uplifting - far from the thick, polluted Mako haze that surrounded Midgar - and pleasant as it made its way to his lungs. With a satisfied sigh, he looked up again, listening to the swaying palm trees and the foaming waves as they lapped gently against the white sands of the private beach. Only a small arc of the sun remained atop the glittering ocean, painting the horizon a wonderful crimson as it gradually vanished below the world. Behind him, there came a sudden knock on the mahogany door of the study, causing Dark Nation to sit up curiously on his rug, the pointed black ears of the guard hound tall and attentive.

"Come in," called Rufus, refastening the buttons of his shirt and bidding the evening farewell as he readied himself to go back to work.

He turned to see Reeve enter, dressed in a tasteful navy suit, his hair dark and sleek in the dim light. Stepping from the terrace into the grand chamber, the President offered his subordinate a welcoming smile. Of all the Executive members his late father had appointed to represent the respective departments within the Company, Reeve Tuesti was the only one whom he shared his admiration for.

Director of Urban Development, Reeve had repeatedly shown unrivalled support for Rufus over the years. His tutelage in economics and civil engineering had been of great value, eclipsed only by his personal backing when President Shinra had exiled his son for his so-called betrayal as Corporate Officer. He was a man whom Rufus held much confidence in and, having learned in the past of his rare ability as an Inspire, had recently charged Reeve with an important task. Crossing the pinewood flooring to the twin brown-and-cream striped sofas at the centre of the room, Rufus motioned for Reeve to join him.

"Thank you, Mr. President," he accepted politely as he sat opposite, placing his notes on the low coffee table between them. "What can I do for you?"

"I'd like an update on our fiscal situation."

"The market has responded well to your Mako tax freezes, sir," replied Reeve. "Shipping reports from the harbour here indicate the highest stock turnover in months. The restoration effort in Midgar is also now underway."

"And how is your assignment coming along?" enquired Rufus, leaning forward with interest.

"First stage is complete," he said, stroking his goatee. "Everything appears to be going to plan."

"What about the modifications I asked for?"

"Scarlet assures me that her division has enhanced the previous design, and that the alterations have proven fully functional under test conditions."

"And in the field?" posed Rufus.

"There has yet to be any circumstance where they would be required," conceded Reeve.

"This is an operation I will be keeping a close eye on," Rufus told him, casting his gaze towards the bay window as the shadows of twilight began to creep over the ceiling. "Do not let me down."

"Yes, sir, I-" Reeve cut off as the door crashed open, Heidegger's bulging gut emerging ahead of him.

"Imbecile!" snarled Rufus furiously as the Director of Public Safety Maintenance strode into the study. "How many times do I have to tell you to knock before you enter?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. President," he wheezed, breathing heavily through his bushy beard, "but a matter has arisen which you requested to be informed of immediately."

"Well?" frowned Rufus.

"I have just received contact from Tseng," answered Heidegger. Rufus shot to his feet as he heard the Chief of Turks' name, an excited chill racing down his spine; it had been more than a month since Tseng and his men had been set their mission.

Have they finally accomplished it?

"And?" Rufus demanded expectantly, somehow knowing that Heidegger's next words were exactly what he wanted to hear.

"He thinks he may have discovered where Sephiroth is headed."

"Are the Turks in pursuit?"

"Yes, sir," nodded the obese general. "However, Scarlet has set another simultaneous assignment…"

Yuffie, the mysterious treasure hunter, had been an enigma from the moment she was recruited into the party. What little information had been coaxed from this mischievous sixteen-year-old seemed to come in the form of riddles and half-truths. She was not altogether hostile, however; she had simply proven a challenge to be around in what had been almost two days since ambushing the others at the edge of Frog Forest.

The Ninja hailed from the town of Wutai, on the far eastern Continent by the same name. A historical settlement that had once been the seat of a wealthy and prominent Empire, it was little more than a tourist resort nowadays; a grim and constant reminder of the Shinra Corporation's supremacy. When the War ended, Yuffie had not yet reached ten, but every word she spoke of it was laden with the bitterness of her country's surrender to the Company and their elite SOLDIERs.

"The Emperor was a fool," she had sulked, holding Cait Sith tight to her chest and cuddling him like a doll. "So were his Five Mighty Gods. Shinra took our pride, and we jus' let 'em."

It was the first time the group had witnessed her arrogance falter, but she quickly composed herself and changed the subject to something trivial. Her new companions were thereafter bombarded with childish fervour and stories - mainly of stealing from village markets, hitching a free ride across the ocean on the Kelvin, and even a temporary job as a shop assistant in Costa del Sol - until, one by one, they stopped listening. Even the merry demeanour of the black and white cat had begun to wane, and he escaped the barrage by curling up and sleeping on the forehead of his toysaurus. His own patience wearing thin, Cloud had tried to concentrate as hard as possible on the dirt road before the Buggy, for the Gongaga Rainforest had grown tricky to navigate.

A once-celebrated spectacle of nature, this tropical woodland had until recent times been virtually untouched for thousands of years. Broken beams of deepening daylight pierced the uppermost canopy of gold and emerald that towered well over one-hundred feet above, speckled in parts by a host of multi-coloured orchids. Many of the immense trees here were mainly branchless as they raced skywards to drink in the warm rays of the sun, while the limbs of others entwined as their buttressed roots battled to soak nutrients from the dew-drenched soil.

The vegetation had been dense upon the party's entry to Frog Forest the previous morning, wild and intrusive, but this had significantly lessened as they progressed deeper into the vast terrain. As with most environments that boasted such an abundance of flora and fauna, it had eventually succumbed to the corruption and disease of Shinra, Inc. and their Mako-draining facilities, and the consequences were readily evident.

Their journey that afternoon had taken them far into the heart of the jungle, towards one of the wonders of the Planet: Diablo's Rock. The scaling ochre cliffs of the gargantuan inselberg rose abruptly beyond the distant treetops, spotted in places with thick groves and cascading crystal waterfalls. Its thirty-mile-long plateaued summit marked the southeastern boundaries of the verdant landscape, famed for its breathtaking beauty of jagged karsts and its uncommon crescent shape as seen from the air.

Silver wisps of frail chimney smoke floated into the cloudless heavens from within a partially concealed ridge close to the peak of the bluffs, revealing to the weary driver the location of the hillside village of Gongaga. It was the first real trace of civilisation since they had departed Kimaira's home - there had been no other cars on the makeshift highway - and they needed to refuel, though the damaged gauge provided no real warning of that.

This region is where Dio told us Sephiroth was going, Cloud pondered as he peered distractedly at the elevated hamlet. Is it there we'll find him? Is it there the nightmare ends? We better be prepared for-

"What the hell?" he cursed as the Buggy jerked suddenly, wrenching the steering handle from his grasp.

The rough shift returned him mercilessly from his wandering mind, forcing him to regain his bearings and fight for control in an eventful few seconds. A deafening crunch resounded throughout the vehicle as its eight heavy wheels tore awkwardly across the dried carcass of a fallen log, violently shuddering the suspension and sending Cait Sith tumbling to the floor. Red XIII woke from his slumber with a startled grunt, the entire cabin engulfed by a droning proximity alarm.

"What happened?" Tifa called worriedly from the passenger seat behind him, her alert eyes lifting instantly from the handful of Materia spheres on her lap.

"Nothing," mumbled Cloud, silently scolding himself as he appeased the bleeping panel. He momentarily flicked his gaze to the grimy wing mirror as the image of a shattered trunk on the road flashed across its reflection. "Didn't see…and…"

He trailed off as the view of the Buggy's surroundings seized his focus again, and slowly absorbed the backdrop. Overcome by his damning thoughts of Sephiroth, he had failed to notice the rapid deterioration in plant life around them. The foliage aside the track had lost its rich and sparkling curtain of leaves and blossoming flowers, instead replaced by a fragmented assembly of deathly grey and warped trees. Though the earth still bore a great number of shrubs and tentacle-like roots, many had withered and become fruitless.

"Godsdamn…" exhaled Barret, his brows furrowing as he observed the disturbing scenery.

"The forest has wasted away," Aerith explained solemnly, pressing her palm on the window as if reaching out to help cure the sickness of the woodland. "The ecosystem is at terrible risk. It's trying to revive itself."

"An' it's all Shinra's fault," he reacted heatedly, slamming his gun-arm against the wall in loathing.

"All they wanna do is fill their own pockets," growled Yuffie. "It doesn't matter to them how special or how sacred the area is."

"Well said, kid," Barret nodded, an appreciative grin forming on his lips as he patted her on the back. "Maybe there's hope for you yet."

"Whoa, take it easy, gramps!" spluttered Yuffie, almost toppling from her chair.

Tifa let out a stifled laugh as the giant held up his hand in apology, smiling at the girl with reluctant fondness; the memory of their initial encounter on the trek to Junon was hastily fading. Unfastening the buckle across her stomach, she lightly tossed the Materia orbs back into the chest at her feet, and joined Cloud at the driving terminals up front.

"So, how are you feeling?" she asked in a hushed voice as she sank into the seat beside him, glancing cautiously over her shoulder for any sign of eavesdropping. Yuffie had begun to taunt Barret; Aerith continued to stare out of the window, absently stroking the fiery strands of mane that ran between Red XIII's ears; Cait Sith had clambered onto a nearby chair, but now seemed in meditation. None of them were paying her any heed.

"What do you mean?" grunted Cloud.

"You know what I mean," she replied flatly, carefully studying his expression. "It's not like you to lose awareness. You were thinking about him, weren't you?"

"It doesn't matter."

"It does matter, Cloud," she quietly protested. "I can see it affecting you. Every day that you keep it inside is one more step towards sending you insane. I want you to talk to me. I want you to let me help you."

"I don't need any help," he retorted sternly. "I'm fine."

"Why won't you trust me?" pried Tifa, discouraged. "Did SOLDIER teach you to be like this?"

"Teach me to be like what?"

"Cold…detached…call it what you will," she sighed in frustration. "You don't have to be that way all the time. I just hope you're being stubborn; I hope Shinra haven't turned you into some kind of machine."

"Sometimes that's the best way to survive," he said indifferently.

"Only when you're a SOLDIER," Tifa answered, shaking her head. Opening her mouth to further her argument, she unexpectedly leaned onto the dashboard, squinting beyond the three-dimensional mapping holograph on the windscreen and the haze of dust ahead. "Huh…?"

There was a fork in the road, their trail winding east through what remained of the clustered trees in the direction of Diablo's Rock. Another smaller track veered due south, declining from sight a short way from the split. The woodland vanished as the topography began downwards, the crooked bodies of wrinkled bark parting like drapes aside the path, leaving only a horizon of brilliant azure that ascended from a far-off ocean of leafy green canopies. A strange mist hung low in the air, wavering ghostlike above the terrain where the rainforest was most desolate.

As the Buggy rumbled forwards, Cloud could make out an aged signpost on the left of the junction to read 'Gongaga, 7 miles'; the alternative destination was indistinguishable beneath the black paint that had been smeared across its surface. His pulse quickened as he recognised how close they had come to the village. Preparing to nudge the acceleration paddle as they approached the fork, his attention fixed on following the eastbound road, he winced as Tifa's elbow suddenly cracked him on the ribs.

"Hey!" he moaned in confusion as she wrestled the steering from him, triggering the brake and causing the tyres to screech as they skidded inelegantly to a halt. Yuffie hissed in disapproval as they were jolted painfully, her bone armguard thumping against her breast. "Tifa, what are you doing?"

"Didn't you see it?" she gasped, her tone unusually tense. She leapt from her seat and darted for the vehicle's side door.

"Tifa?" stammered Barret as she hit the release and jumped down onto the dirt path, sprinting off.

Swearing in annoyance, Cloud scrambled up and stormed after her, disdain for the unpredictable actions welling inside him. Twigs and dead plants crunched underfoot as he dropped to the trail, and dozens of nesting birds immediately took flight. A sticky, uncomfortable hotness and a cacophony of noise enveloped him; an invisible legion of buzzing insects and croaking reptiles gave spirit to an environment that had until now appeared to have none. He marched purposefully towards his childhood friend who waited by the bent signpost, perfectly still and gazing out over the crest to the south.

"Tifa!" he snapped furiously as he neared her. "Tifa?"

"Cloud, look…" she responded softly.

Shifting his focus from her for a brief second, Cloud felt his legs grow heavy, his irritation receding as he realised the cause of her behaviour. An unsettling landscape expanded before them: a crater of barren desert that did not belong amid this once-fertile country. At the heart of the sunken basin was an abandoned Mako Reactor, wretched and destroyed, its outer walls unfurled like a hatched egg. Nothing stirred in the vicinity of the vile building, as if the creatures of the jungle were afraid of this toxic site.

Sunlight glinted atop the twisted limbs of iron and steel that surrounded the facility, casting rigid and unnatural shapes on the sickly earth. Its crumbling and rusting exterior was severely disjointed, remnants of an explosion that had wiped out much of the area's vegetation, scattering jagged shards and serrated panels of gnarled metal. The wind echoed eerily as it shuffled over the parched sands, bringing with it the stench of Mako; the harsh vapours burned their nostrils as they breathed.

"A ruined Reactor," Cloud muttered as he surveyed the forsaken complex. "That's why this place is so bleak."

"The trees will come back," Aerith said in a gentle voice behind them; she was assured rather than hopeful. "As will all the animals and the birds that lived here."

The pair turned to see her kneeling by a patch of shrivelled tulips, their limp petals curled and brown. She was caressing the wilted stems with her fingertips, praying in silence, just as she had done that morning in the Sector5 church when Cloud had come crashing through the ceiling. With a tiny tremble, the tulips began to accept her healing touch, regaining their strength. Tifa gaped in awe as they flowered to reveal a magnificent array of indigos and violets, while the soil around them became fresh and healthy, slowly spreading out in a network of vitality.

"Can…can it all be cured?" Tifa posed doubtfully.

"It will take a long time," replied Aerith, smiling warmly as she stood, "but the forest will bloom again. All it needs is a little push-"

"What's goin' on?" Barret shouted from the Buggy, offering a hand to help Yuffie from the hatch. Rolling his eyes at her obstinate refusal, he made his way to the trio, the others at his heels. "Did I hear y'all say there's a Reactor up ahead?"

"What's left of it," nodded Cloud.

"I think we should check it out," said Tifa.

"Huh?" Cloud frowned. "Why?"

"We might find something useful down there," she insisted. "I vote we investigate."

"I'll second that," chimed Yuffie, her features gleaming in anticipation. With a spring in her step, she dashed between Cloud and Barret, and raced off down the hill towards the facility. "See you losers at the Reactor."

"Yuffie, wait!" yelled Cloud, hastily scanning the bordering treeline of the crater for any hints of suspicious movement. "Shit!"

"Now what we gonnae do?" Cait Sith gulped as he peered up at his comrades from his miniature height; the toysaurus had remained in the vehicle, as had the directing megaphone - his so-called Battle Trumpet.

"I guess we've no option but to go after her," Tifa beamed victoriously. "Come on."

"Maybe I should stay here, folks?" said Cait Sith nervously. "My bodyguard isnae too good on this kinda terrain."

"You may ride on me if you wish," Red XIII proposed, his manner less than enthusiastic but genuine all the same.

"Okay, yer on," the cat affirmed grudgingly. "But, I've got a bad feelin' about this…"

The descent was long and arduous, the party slogging across the arid wasteland without hurry. Yuffie's swift and light feet had already taken her within the Reactor's domain before the rest of them had traversed even half the stretch of ashen plain. The depression formed a perfect sphere around the derelict complex, with a radius of approximately two miles and a ringed perimeter of contorted trees.

The broad face and lush summit of Diablo's Rock was wholly visible from their position, its base a short distance from the eastern limits of the crater. Cloud spotted another thin trail leading from the site into the denser groves that spanned from the inselberg, eventually snaking its way among the bulky karsts of the cliffside to the secluded village. He made a mental note as they progressed, and caught Aerith repeatedly glancing to Gongaga as if she was apprehensive about visiting the hamlet.

With an overwhelming sensation that they were more exposed than they ought to be, Cloud ordered the company to quicken the pace. Sweat poured down their cheeks as they reached the scaling outer walls of the Reactor, the late afternoon sun beating through the hovering Mako fumes. Aerith collapsed with relief in the shadows of the tall shredded gateway, panting for oxygen and digging her fingers into the cool dry earth.

"I definitely never would have passed the SOLDIER exam," she joked, blowing the fringe from her eyes.

"Nor I," agreed Red XIII, relaxing on his belly while Cait Sith hopped off.

"Don't forget we still gotta go back," Barret reminded the duo, "so don't be gettin' lazy."

"Let's go," said Cloud, ensuring the Buster Sword was easily available. "Stay vigilant, and keep a look out for Yuffie."

Stepping over the mutilated steel mesh gate that drooped feebly before them, the Shinra Diamond on its front badly charred, they entered the compound. What had been a wide hallway of cold stone flooring flanked by lofty tiled partitions extended from the portal towards the centre of the building, now enclosed only by towering piles of scrap metal and brick foundations. Warily advancing through the facility, they could make out old office rooms hidden amongst the rubble, the shattered monitors of control panels staring blankly back at them. Machine parts were strewn precariously atop one another, thick globules of oil oozing from inside; to Cloud, this mass of debris resembled Midgar's Slums.

Coming to a junction at the end of the corridor, the group found both adjoining passages to be blocked off by the wreckage, leaving only a narrow gap between two crushed containers to guide them further into the core. A nearby elevator shaft to the lower levels seemed to have caved in on itself, but the wispy smog of pale jade gas that continued to rise from the small hollow suggested it would be unwise to venture into the bowels of the complex. Beyond the storage capsules of processed Mako and the chunky segment of wall that still stood encasing the hub, they saw the charcoaled remnants of the industrial furnace; the apex of the giant cylinder had blown completely off.

Utilising his size to carefully slip between the bulbous containers and explore, Cait Sith soon beckoned the others to proceed with caution. Large pipes of corroding iron hung from the internal framework like crucified prisoners, creaking and groaning as the mild breeze slithered over their weakened joints. Sheets of corrugated metal rattled underfoot as they crept, alert to the instability of the structure, until they were able to edge through the slim fissure at the bottom of the wall.

The party were met with a spacious area that was once the extraction room at the height of the Reactor itself, where the harmful scum filtered from the liquid Mako was eradicated in the incinerator. Many of the cranes and instruments that resided there had been ripped from their supports in the explosion, tearing large fragments of the surrounding fortifications with them. The scraped paint of black and yellow biohazard warnings was still detectable on the concrete slabs, exactly like those in the Midgar facilities. The chamber was empty but for a few heaps of junk, and an enormous distorted roboguard from Shinra Inc.'s Department of Weapons Development that was apparently a former sentinel.

Striding across the expanse, Cloud briefly investigated the leaking cauldron of the industrial furnace. The bolts fastening the solid plates of its body together had melted into the seams, and long cracks had materialised on its surface, with faint traces of Mako trickling down its rusted shell. Walking towards the rear of the incinerator, he discovered a square hatch on the side of the cylinder. Curious, he gripped the handle, but suddenly paused.

"Cloud?" called Barret, his bearded face bearing a concerned expression; he had obviously heard it too.

The fluttering was growing increasingly louder with each elapsing moment, the sound becoming a powerful drone as it drew closer. Gazing above the missing portions of the buttressed wall in the direction of Gongaga, Cloud watched the shape of a black B09 helicopter appear from the pinnacle Diablo's Rock, glimmering in the sunlight as it sped across the sky. It swooped low over the forest, gradually descending as it approached the crater.

"Shit!" he swore, speedily and thoroughly assessing the layout of the extraction room.

"What is it?" Cait Sith squeaked in panic.

"It's the Shinra!" bellowed Cloud.

"But, there's no way out of here," cried Aerith, clinging onto Tifa's arm. She let out an anxious whimper as the aircraft prepared to touch down in the desert not far from the entrance of the compound. "What're we going to do?"

"Improvise," said Cloud as he hauled the Buster Sword from the magnet on his back, and clenched his jaw.

Chief Tseng held a hand to his brow as he heaved the sliding door of the helicopter aside, shielding his eyes from the swirling dust as they set jerkily down fifty feet from the twisted gateway of the Mako Reactor. The deafening whir of the rotary blades reverberated throughout the cabin, temporarily cutting off his communication from Director Scarlet as he tossed his headset onto the padded seat at the rear of the craft. He swiftly scouted the landscape as his lengthy dark hair lashed his cheeks, his acute vision prudently analysing the desolate sand dunes, and turned to give the Head of Weapons Development a satisfied nod.

Scarlet rose from her chair with elegance, smoothing the creases from her fitted cerise gown. As always, she had chosen to dress in an inappropriate fashion for the occasion, clad in the figure-hugging frock and matching heeled shoes, her golden locks falling across her bare shoulders of purest white skin. Although aware of her radiant beauty, Tseng found no attraction to the woman; he was forever conscious of her egotistical and ruthless personality, and the eagerness she had shown only months before to annihilate the Turks and everything he believed in.

"Will you be so kind as to help a lady to the ground?" she asked, stroking Tseng's arm seductively as he moved to alight from the B09.

"Of course, ma'am," Tseng answered politely, unfazed by her manipulative routine, dropping from the opening and presenting his palm. She took it immediately, and effortlessly joined him with a single purposeful stride.

"Perhaps I didn't need any help after all," she mused, a fleeting hint of derision in her tone. "Now, lead the way."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, biting his tongue as he retrieved his portable terminal from the pocket of his black uniform jacket. Within seconds, he located the digital blueprints file of the facility's interior, and was able to display it on the screen of the device. The detailed plan revealed a general corridor that commenced at the atrium of the main entrance and terminated a short way from their destination at the heart of the complex. Slipping the cellphone back into his pocket, he began through the gate. "Follow me."

A slight melancholy settled upon Tseng as he trudged between the climbing mounds of serrated steel and shattered brick; his thoughts were burdened by the memories of a time that seemed so long ago, but had only recently come to pass. While he had not visited Gongaga since the aftermath of the accident, the village held a special meaning to him. Images of an old friend flashed in his mind, of the warming stories he would tell of his childhood in this hillside home.

Why did things have to turn out this way?

Ignoring his guilt as they arrived at the junction the blueprints had indicated, Tseng started along the channel to the right. Studying the ruins for a means to progress on to what remained of the extraction room, they reached a slender trail that dissected the wreckage and wound between a pair of dilapidated Mako capsules to the outer shell of the Reactor head. With a sharp glance about him, he saw a dead end beyond an unusable elevator, and promptly concluded their options had been reduced to one.

The brief glimpse of the destroyed lift shaft and toxic gases seeping from it made Tseng think of Balto and Rafe's mission to this place one year before; his fellow Turks had all but sealed off the dangerous depths of the building, trapping one of Fuhito's Ravens inside. The recollection of old comrades triggered another bout of unease, for the truth of their fate had been kept a strictly protected secret from the woman he escorted.

"Well?" snorted Scarlet impatiently.

"This…uh…" Tseng stammered, clearing his throat, silently cursing himself for allowing his concentration to drift, "this is the only way forward."

"Is it secure?" frowned Scarlet, scrutinising the haphazard structure.

"It would appear so," Tseng replied confidently. "What you're looking for is just ahead."

With a sceptical grunt, Scarlet gestured for Tseng to continue. The frail pathway brought them to a broad chamber encircled by high but crumbling walls, much of which had toppled to the floor and left as piles of rubble around the decaying legs of what mechanical cranes were still upright. As expected, the tall cylindrical furnace was situated at the core of the extraction room, its rotting exterior stained with the stagnant substances it bore.

The Turk rolled his eyes as Scarlet barged brusquely past him, stomping towards the incinerator. Quickly inspecting a slot at its rear, she yanked the cover plate off with a horrendous screech, and plunged her hand inside. Traipsing after her, Tseng could not help but feel contempt for the trivial task of accompanying such an obnoxious individual to the abandoned compound.

I bet Chief Veld never had to do anything like this when he was in charge, he grumbled inwardly, but, to complete the assignment without question is the duty of a Turk.

Peering up as he wandered across the dusty slabs, he saw the shimmering reflection of the sun bouncing off the metallic crimson coat of a crumpled Guard Scorpion. He resisted a sardonic smirk, recalling his previous meeting with a similar model to the dated techno-soldier during a raid by the G-Army on Junon; a single bullet to its operating circuit had caused Hollander's weapon to malfunction that day. A shrill moan from Scarlet returned his attention to the incinerator, and he watched with suppressed pleasure as she withdrew her arm from the hollow, her bare skin dripping with black grease.

"What a waste of my time," she hissed in frustration, snatching a tissue from inside her bra and wiping the oily matter. "This is no good either. You only get useless Materia from useless Reactors. This place is a total failure."

"What exactly is it you are looking for, ma'am?" probed Tseng, arching an eyebrow as Scarlet stuffed the smeared tissue into his palm before fumbling for a new one.

"A unique type of power source: Huge Materia," she explained absently, proceeding to fiddle with her cleavage. "The Company artificially produced it a few years prior to the War, so it was only ever installed at some of the later facilities built around the world. Huge Materia is special because it's far denser than ordinary Materia, and thus contains a great deal more energy."

"Sounds exciting," Tseng said flatly.

"If I could harness the energy of the Huge Materia, I could create the ultimate weapon," Scarlet vowed, her features filling with passion. "Imagine it: a roboguard stronger than any opponent. Fools like AVALANCHE would never dream of taking on Shinra, Inc…not with the Proud Clod at our command."

"I just can't wait, ma'am."

"With Hojo gone, my division has been allocated a bigger budget," she grinned greedily.

"I envy them."

"Even so," scoffed Scarlet, slamming the square hatch shut, "if we were to perfect the Proud Clod, could that idiot Heidegger even use it?"

"I-"

"Oh, sorry," she cackled, offering a dismissive wave, "I keep forgetting the General Affairs Department is under Heidegger's rule nowadays."

"It's alright, ma'am," responded Tseng, his hatred of the man permitting the comment to be disregarded. "So, how do you plan on gathering the Huge Materia?"

"Unfortunately, the President has only granted me access to the Materia currently out of commission," Scarlet said scornfully. "I need you and your cohorts to be on the lookout for any Reactors whose Mako extraction system is not in use or functioning at a minimum level."

"I'll do what I can," acknowledged Tseng, "but Director Heidegger has made it clear that he wants our primary objective to be pursuing and capturing Sephiroth."

"And how is that going for you?" asked Scarlet.

"Sephiroth did come this way," he answered despondently, sensing her accusing stare pierce through him, "but our intelligence has it that he is no longer in the region; he has already headed west."

"West?" Scarlet murmured thoughtfully. "You don't suppose he's going back there do you?"

"That's our best estimate," Tseng nodded. "He is hunting something called Black Materia."

"That's original," she shrugged. "Have you alerted the President?"

"Yes, President Rufus ordered that we update him as soon as we discovered the SOLDIER's general location."

"He's not a SOLDIER anymore," Scarlet reminded him. "He is an expert killing machine with no master. That makes him a threat."

"Nevertheless, the President's flying out from Costa del Sol as we speak."

"Then, shouldn't you-"

"Wait!" Tseng instructed, instinctively seizing his handgun from its belt holster and springing to shield the Executive. "Be quiet!"

The motion had been nothing more than a flicker, and the noise lower than a muffled whisper, but he was certain of a presence behind the decapitated frame of the Guard Scorpion. The massive tail of the roboguard hung in the air as if suspended by invisible strings, but its razor stinger seemed as formidable as that of the live robot he had faced. All was still as he squinted at the rusting monster, his pistol armed and ready, but he was convinced that someone or something was lingering in the shadows of its armoured torso.

Holding out a hand as a signal for Scarlet to stay where she was, he crept slowly across the stone ground, his steady aim fixed on the giant arthropod. His mind was focused, searching, listening. He felt the breeze whip through his sleek hair as he closed in on the techno-soldier, billowing the strands at his back. He would soon be upon it; thirty feet; twenty feet; ten feet.

Suddenly, there came a terrible eruption of clanging steel from the opposite side of the area. Tseng spun hastily, raising his weapon in the direction of a fin-like segment of chimney, only to see a small flock of gulls take to the sky from a rod that had given way beneath their perched weight. Their frightened shrieks followed them as they fled the scene, disappearing high above the crater.

"Are you quite finished?" snarled Director Scarlet, pressing her fists to her hips in irritation. "There was no reason for you to be so tense. They were godsdamn birds!"

"It's for your own safety, ma'am," Tseng retorted calmly. "It's my job to-"

"Enough of this!" she snapped, turning her nose up at him as she began marching furiously towards the exit. "I'll be sure to add this to my report. Heidegger is always complaining about the worthlessness of the Turks, and I doubt I need to jog your memory of my personal opinions. Now, come, I have to get back to base and feed Kactuar before he runs off again."

"But…" growled Tseng, gritting his teeth and allowing himself one last suspicious glance at the Guard Scorpion. "Yes, ma'am. Right away, ma'am…"

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