Chapter One-Hundred-Thirty - End Game
Barret was dripping sweat and panting when he finally hauled himself over the edge of the weather deck. "If it turns out we gotta go back down there an' fight Sephiroth again ya can count me out."
"No way, Sephiroth's dead." Yuffie looked around, noting the doubt start to appear on her friends' faces. "He is dead, right? We're alive, so he's gotta be dead."
Zack rubbed the back of his neck. "He was almost dead when I lost consciousness."
"He's dead." Cloud refused to meet any of the curious stares he received. "I saw him dissolve into the Lifestream."
"Guess that's $#%& that." Cid opened the hatch to complete chaos.
Deckhands and mechanics ran around in what seemed to be barely contained panic. One with an obvious head wound dripping down the side of his face stumbled toward the engine room until he noticed Cid and the others storming down the stairs. Then he shifted direction until he was within saluting distance.
"Captain! We've lost both stern propellers and most of the lift propellers forward of the weather deck."
Cid barely got through running through his stock of profanities when Stella swooped in.
"What's going on here? You! You are supposed to be in the infirmary! In fact, all of you should be in the infirmary! Move! Now!"
"This man's got a job to do!"
"He's got a concussion!"
Yuffie jumped up near the back of the group. "We've got materia!"
"That's nice, dear. I still insist that all of you march straight to the infirmary so I can make sure you aren't about to fall over dead."
Cloud stepped forward first. Eventually, everyone else followed his lead. Even Cid.
Zack fell in step next to Cloud. "Hey, sorry we couldn't find Ultima."
"I don't think I was supposed to keep it, anyway."
"Uh, if you say so."
They didn't have a chance for more conversation, or to reach the infirmary. A distant roar quickly became a deafening thunder as the airship bucked and tumbled. Zack caught Stella before she could fall to the deck. He heard metal scream behind him and turned to see Cloud, green faced and glassy eyed, with his hands embedded in the bulkhead to steady himself.
A little behind Cloud, Cid could be heard swearing off toward the control room.
Zack's attention snapped back to Stella. "Huh?"
She tried to pull herself along the still reeling hallway. "That idiot is going to get himself killed. You," she pointed at Zack, "come with me. I may need help dragging him back. The rest of you get to the infirmary. Aerith, there should be a bottle of tranquilizers in the cabinet next to the sink for Cloud and anyone else who needs it. Hopefully, nothings broken."
Zack shrugged and looked back at his team. "You heard the lady."
Most of the crew still in the control room were either unconscious or trying to pull their wounded shipmates away from anything that might move. Not an easy task when the deck wouldn't stay horizontal. Cid had to pull himself along the floor toward the flight wheel. He swore under his breath, trying to reach for a pull-lever marked 'Emergency.' He didn't know what it would do, but now seemed as good a time as any to find out.
Deep inside the engine room a previously unused set of gears ground into place. Hydraulic clamps along the outside hull burst open, releasing the remaining propellers. Jet ports folded out and roared to life.
"Yeeeh-haw! Someone get me the name of the engineer who made these modifications so I can shake his hand!" Cid wobbled for a moment as he stood up. He pulled the wheel hard to starboard out of the glaring white mass that had swept them up out of the crater. "Holy's been takin' it's #^$% time, can't let it beat us to Midgar now!"
Those still conscious cheered their captain on.
By the time they reached Midgar the rest of the team had been declared fit to stand and were doing so in the control room. Everyone except Yuffie, who had tried to chug an entire liter of tranquilizer while Stella's back was turned. She was currently flirting with a toilet.
They just barely made it ahead of Holy.
The spell spread out in a shield of liquid light between Meteor and Midgar. At first Meteor seemed to stop. Then, like a pebble tossed into a pond in slow motion, it pushed through. The light turned red and dark. Sand blew up in huge clouds around the walls of the city.
Barret slammed his fist onto the railing separating them from the main view-port. "Wait a damn minute! What's gonna happen to Midgar? We can't let this happen!"
"We've done everything we could." Kunsel tried to look stoic even though his face turned pale.
Nanaki padded forward. "It's too late for Holy. Trying to stop Meteor is only having the opposite effect." He shook his head. "Forget Midgar. We have to worry about the entire planet."
"Hey!" Zack stood tall with his fists at his waist. "We're not giving up yet. Right now we have to focus on what we can do, and that's getting as many people as possible out of Midgar."
Cait twitched in Aerith's arms. "I had everyone take shelter in the slums. There may still be some on the plate, though."
"That's a start, at least. Let's talk to Reeve and see if we can coordinate with ShinRa's emergency response crew. The people in the slums will have to be moved, probably to Kalm."
"Consider it done." Reeve's voice crackled from Cait's speakers. "I believe Reno and Rude are currently looking for the president, but Elena's with me and I'm sure she'd be able to persuade the search and rescue teams into taking some unconventional volunteers."
They spent the rest of the time between landing and arriving in Midgar planning the evacuation.
Cooperation between AVALANCHE (Kunsel still insisted that they needed a new name, and everyone except Barret agreed) and ShinRa turned out to be extremely relative. Search And Rescue was mostly interested in helping ShinRa employees who hadn't resigned. They didn't want or plan to go near the slums, though they also weren't going to stop AVALANCHE from doing anything they wanted down there.
Vincent and Yuffie volunteered to stay above plate to keep an eye on things. Yuffie stated outright that she didn't trust ShinRa to make sure their own family members got to safety. While he didn't say as much, everyone guessed that Vincent had similar thoughts.
Stella set up triage near the Highwind, just outside the storm zone. Cid and Cait were aboard to manage communications, Cait couldn't do much else in his condition, and make sure they had a quick escape ready if needed.
Everyone else went to the slums. They started in Sector 6, but it turned out that after Corneo disappeared fighting had broken out over who got to run things. Between that and Meteor Sector 6 had emptied days ago. A little talking and arguing at the playground later they decided to split up. Aerith and Zack took Sector 5 because they were familiar with the people there. Tifa and Cloud took Sector 4, which left Barret, Nanaki, and Kunsel with Sector 3.
The streets of Sector 5 were eerily quiet. Aerith rubbed her arms. "I know I should be glad that so many people left, but it feels strange to find everything so empty."
"Yeah. I know what you mean. Let's head toward the church. Even if no one's there it'll be nice to see, right?"
Even before opening the door, Zack could hear several voices inside. As soon as he stepped inside a boy he almost didn't recognize broke from the knot of kids near the altar to run to him.
"Zack! You gotta save her! She's been down there an hour and we don't know what to do!"
"Hey, slow down... Cole?" Zack took a second to run his hand over Cole's head. The kid almost came up to his chin now. "Who's where?"
"Marie! She was playing with some of the little kids out back when the old rocket started to fall. The kids were able to get out in time but she's stuck under the rocket! We tried to dig her out but..."
"It's okay." Zack looked back at Aerith. "Mind looking after the kids while I take a look?"
Aerith smiled. "Not at all."
Zack nodded and gripped Cole's shoulder. "Don't worry."
So as not to make the other kids even more anxious, Zack kept his pace to a walk until he closed the door to what used to be the back room of the church. There was even less of it than the last time he was there. He jumped down next to the wreckage of an old rocket prototype. He could hear Marie whimpering somewhere underneath.
"Marie? Can you hear me?" He got down on his knees so he could look under the rocket. Not that he could see much other than a lot of dark.
"Zack. I'm going to get you out. Can you move at all?"
"A little. My foot's stuck and there's not much room."
"I think I see you. Hang on. I'm going to try from the other side." Zack backed up a few steps so he had room to jump. As he cleared the rocket he flipped so he landed on his feet among the rotten boards and masonry on the other side. It took him a moment of arm flailing to make sure he wouldn't fall on his butt.
"I'm here. Just hold still and let me know if anything moves where it isn't supposed to, okay?"
Zack searched the bottom edge until he found a spot where he could get most of a shoulder underneath. With his feet sinking into sand and dry rot, he pushed up as hard as he could. The rusted derelict groaned in protest of every inch. Zack had to reposition his feet several times, but he refused to let go.
Zack froze. "What's slipping? Can you see?"
"There's a pole or something loose in here. It fell a little and dropped a lot of dead crickets on me!"
"I'm going to start pushing again. Let me know if it starts moving."
This time he heard the unmistakable sound of metal on metal before Marie shouted.
Zack repositioned his feet again. "Where is the pole in relation to you?"
"Right over my head. Maybe more toward my neck."
"Great." He didn't know how long he could squat in one place with a couple tons of metal sitting on his shoulder. "Can you move out from under it?"
"Um..." He heard a lot of shuffling. "AH! OW! OW!"
"What! What happened?"
"My foot! I-I-I think it's bleeding!"
"Hold still! Move just your head and shoulders out from under the pole as much as possible. Put your hands over your head and neck. You got it?"
"You in position?"
He heard her sniffle. "Yeah."
"Okay. I'm going start moving the rocket again. Hold really still." Zack closed his eyes and prayed to whoever might be listening that he could save her. Then he put all his strength into one big push. Both the rocket and his body protested, loudly, but he kept it up until he could stand and roll the main mass of metal away from Marie.
"Wooo!" Zack collapsed next to the little girl, who was still curled up with her hands over her head. He could see a rusted piece of joint welding sticking out the side of one shoe. "That... could have been worse. Hey." He reached over and ruffled her hair. "This is probably going to hurt a bit, but I'm going to take you to a really nice lady who can fix that foot up."
She nodded but otherwise didn't move.
Zack took a couple more deep breaths before talking his limbs into moving again. Marie squeaked at being picked up, but otherwise held her pain in like a real trooper. She did try to meld with Zack's shirt when he started jumping up to the door, though.
Aerith instantly pulled Marie out of Zack's grip and started tending to her wounds, which extended beyond the piece of metal in her foot. "We should get all of these kids to Stella. At the very least they need a hot meal. Most of them were orphans."
"Were?" Zack cocked his head and grinned. "I take it you adopted them?"
"Hmm. For now, anyway. Do you mind?"
Zack pulled the nearest boy into a headlock. "Not at all! Just so long as they don't try lifting my wallet."
"They won't." Cole smirked. "I already warned them that you're a pathetic mark."
"Is this... really necessary?" Moving something even as large as a fridge/freezer normally wouldn't be a problem, but Cloud was having trouble breathing with all the ammonia fumes. He didn't want to think about what would drive cats to use carpeting as a regular litter box.
Behind him the old woman fused with the few resident cats tame, or sick, enough to hold bare-handed. "Of course it's necessary. Some of my precious babies are in there."
Cloud nearly dropped the fridge. "Wait. What?"
"Well, I couldn't bury them. And I'm certainly not going to let them be crushed by some giant rock if there's any way around it."
"Dead cats." He felt the room spin for a moment. "You want me to save dead cats."
"You understand, don't you? They're my babies. My family. I can't leave my family behind."
He understood. He also wanted to get away from that mad house held together with hairballs and fleas.
Tifa barely got within five yards of the house when a badly mangled fridge flew through the doorway. Followed soon after by a rotund woman screaming obscenities. By the time Tifa ran the rest of the way there Cloud had stumbled out, completely ignoring the words and rocks being thrown at him.
"Cloud, what happened?"
He shook his head. "Not here. Probably should see Stella. Might have fleas. Or distemper."
"What?" A look back at the old woman, who was now crooning to the freezer compartment, told Tifa that she probably didn't want to know.
By the time the three search teams met up at the gate between Sector 3 and Sector 2 Cloud regretted leaving the crazy old woman behind. He tried to go back until Kunsel pointed out that it would take time that could be spent helping people who wanted saving.
Zack could tell that Cloud still felt guilty about it, so he pulled out his two-way radio. "How about I call Yuffie and have her and Vincent come down to deal with her? I bet Yuffie at least will appreciate the break from dealing with ShinRa."
Cloud nodded so Zack held down the call button. "Yuffie, Vincent, come in."
"Hey. We've got a stubborn case in Sector 4 that I want you and Yuffie to handle."
Silence for several moment. "There is something I must attend to here first."
"Sure. No sweat. I'll give you the coordinates."
The rest of the evacuation went relatively smoothly. Only the growing howl of the wind and groaning of the plates above served as grim reminders that they were running out of time. Night had fallen by the time they all returned to the Highwind with the last refugees.
Aerith looked up at Holy and Meteor still pushing against each other. "It's not enough."
Zack looked up from unpacking some supplies they found just in time to see Aerith run back toward Sector 5. "Hey! Where are you going?"
"To the church! There's something I have to try."
Zack suddenly scooped her up, running at full speed. "Then I'm going with you."
Stella pulled the thermometer out of Cloud's mouth. "Hmm... 101.3... A little high even for SOLDIER, but unless you start having other symptoms I wouldn't worry too much." She held up her hand before Cloud could open his mouth. "And feeling dizzy while exposed to that much ammonia does not count. I'm honestly surprised anyone could live in there. You also don't have to worry about fleas. Lice, maybe, but not fleas."
Cloud nodded, somewhat relieved. The feeling was short lived as Kunsel stuck his head in through the tent-flap.
"Have either of you seen Zack or Aerith?"
"Not since they brought an entire army of children through here, no."
"They were helping load supplies when I last saw them."
Kunsel stepped all the way in. "Same here. I tried calling them but they aren't answering their cells or their radios."
"They may want some privacy, then." Stella washed and put away her examination tools. "After all, if Holy can't stop Meteor there isn't much else to do."
Cloud cocked his head. "Something's moving." He left the tent followed by Kunsel.
Near the edge of the triage camp they saw Tifa waving them over.
"Guys! You have to see this!" She pointed to the northern horizon where a faint light shone.
Kunsel squinted. "That... looks like a mako flare."
Cloud pointed east. "There's another one."
Two more appeared much closer. Soon, ribbons of Lifestream twisted across the sky toward Midgar.
"It's so bea...aaah!"
The ground buckled under them. Cloud caught Tifa as she stumbled. Behind them people screamed.
A column of roaring Lifestream erupted from near the center of the camp. The wind tore apart the tents that had been spared direct exposure.
Cloud didn't know what to do, yet still found himself running to help. "Get everyone on board!" Somewhere to his right he heard children crying. He turned and ran.
Tifa helped a man with a broken leg hobble toward the service ramp. Kunsel started directing traffic, but then stared at the column of Lifestream.
He shook his head. "We were in there. Just a couple minutes ago."
Morning dawned with no Meteor hanging over Midgar. Aerith and Zack all but danced on their way back to camp.
Or what was left of it. Broken crates, shattered glass, torn canvas, overturned rock, and bodies. So many bodies.
"What happened?" Aerith ran to the first body and gasped. Black sludge coated the man's face and dripped out of his mouth.
"Aerith?" Nanaki appeared from behind a recently exposed boulder. "Zack. Where have you been?"
Zack held Aerith to him and frowned at the accusatory tone. "We were at Aerith's Church finding a way to save the planet. What happened here?"
"The planet was saved. In the process, Lifestream broke through the ground killing many people. We are still looking for survivors. Cloud and Kunsel left to search for you."
"No!" Aerith shook in Zack's arms. "This isn't what I wanted! I didn't want anyone to die! Not like this. No. No. No."
"How many survivors have you found so far?"
Nanaki's ears drooped. "Maybe half of those we brought here. Tifa, Barret, Vincent, Cid, Yuffie, Cait Sith, Cloud, and Kunsel are alive."
Zack started rubbing circles along Aerith back, his face hard. "And Stella?"
Nanaki shook his head. "She was within the area flooded with Lifestream. No one survived."
Aerith's cries renewed. Zack looked up at the clear blue sky that had just moments before seemed so full of promise. "This isn't how I thought saving the world would be."
The end! Not exactly. The end of this story. There will be a sequel, but I can't make any promises as to when it will start. Certainly hope this is satisfactory. The original game made the appearance of the Lifestream seem so peaceful and grand while the One The Way To A Smile novellas showed us a rather grim side effect. I wanted to combine the two images here.