Welcome to Gongaga
Cloud floored the accelerator, causing the back wheels of the sand buggy to whir in futility and send long plumes of pale yellow sand skyward. When he eased off the gas, the buggy settled down to the ground, lower than it had been before.
"Way to go, Spike. You just dug us in deeper," Barrett groused.
Cloud slumped in the driver's seat and answered testily, "Hey, Dio told me this thing could drive over anything! I don't know why it can't get out of this sand."
"Maybe we'd get moving if Barrett got out and pushed," Cait Sith chimed in.
"Maybe we'd get moving if we stuffed a cat under the wheel for traction."
"Uh, Barrett," Tifa corrected, "That's cat litter. You put cat litter under a wheel for traction."
Barrett folded his arms and dared anyone else to question if he had meant something other than cat. He had no takers. Red XIII, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that his species was of the feline genus, curled up in a corner and instantly regretted it. Evidence of Yuffie's latest bout with motion sickness seeped into his fur.
A snarl from Red brought a meek apology from the ninja girl, who quickly resumed her standard travel pose of keeled over on the floor with her head between her knees. Even though they weren't actually moving, the close confines of the vehicle added a touch of claustrophobia that escalated her sickness at an exponential rate.
"How about we all get out and push?" Aeris suggested cheerfully, possibly because she knew Cloud would never let her participate in manual labor.
"Sounds like a plan," Cloud said. "But Aeris, you stay in here. We might need you to steer."
The pushers exited the buggy in a rush. The sooner they got unstuck, the sooner they would be on their way. Plus, Yuffie was giving the air inside a not so fresh feeling. Aeris slid into the driver's seat and made sure to keep the door hatch open -- for better communication with the others, of course. As Red disembarked, he caught the Cetra girl making an enthusiastic arm pumping motion, leading him to believe she was craftier than advertised.
Ten "heave!"s and an equal number of "ho!"s only succeeded in rocking the vehicle back and forth.
Cloud flopped onto the sand in exhaustion. "Looks like we won't be making it to that town on the map anytime soon."
"Uh, yeah. Looks like," Cait Sith said. For a stuffed cat riding a mechanical moogle, he looked awfully worried about that.
[SHINRA FIELD REPORT]
[FIELD AGENT: Elena]
[DATE/TIME: May 2, XXXX / 17:00 hours]
[MISSION STATUS: Upon the advice of our source, I have tracked, along with my fellow Turks Reno and Rude, the members of the group called AVALANCHE to the small town of Gongaga. Reno and Rude are engaged in the gathering of intelligence]
Elena looked at the paper and frowned. Gathering of intelligence or intelligence gathering? Which sounded more official? Or was the proposition of having Reno's name in the same sentence with the word intelligence too paradoxical?
Elena tittered at her private joke. Reno was an effective Turk, to be sure, but he couldn't follow standard procedures for anything. The report she was filling out, for example. Rude was the senior Turk; he should be the one doing it. But as soon as they arrived, Reno had commandeered Rude for an excursion into town while they left her behind with the comment that since she liked red tape so much, she was welcome to it.
She had fumed. Shouting out the paragraph and subsection that clearly delineated Rude's duty as they walked away hadn't persuaded them in the least! They had abandoned her, dismissed her as anal-retentive rookie. Which she was, but that extra attention to detail she gave was what had made her valedictorian of her class and that honor commanded respect didn't it?
She thought she had something there. Reno felt threatened by her intelligence. Some men just can't take a woman smarter than them. That was his problem. Not all men were like that, though. Tseng appreciated her efforts. He told her so, once. And he offered her helpful pointers, unlike her other partners' sarcastic abuses. It was a small wonder a man like Tseng had risen to the top of the organization.
Screw Reno! Screw Rude!she thought. They were just flunkies anyway. If the boss believed in her, that was good enough. Returning to her report, another name attached itself to the verb "screw" and a big, satisfied smile spread across her face as she wrote…
It should be noted that most of what she wrote was germane to the mission. But to the Shinra employee who eventually read the report, it seemed like she described things like the "twigs", "mounds", "berries", "logs" and "hard, hard earth" that comprised the geography of Gongaga with a bit too much verve.
"Yeah. Okay. Where's the rest?"
"This is it, Reno."
"We only walked around for fifteen minutes. There has to be more to this town than five houses and a graveyard."
"Excluding the ruined Mako reactor, I counted twelve permanent residences, seven temporary residences, two commercial facilities and the community sanitation center."
Rude jerked his head in the direction of two small shacks that stood at edge of town.
Reno ran a hand through his rich, red locks. "What the fuck are those things supposed to be?"
"Outhouses? Are you shitting me?" It was understood that no pun was intended. Reno was not the punning sort.
Rude nodded no. He was not shitting Reno.
"These people had a Mako reactor and yet they're still squatting over a hole in the ground?"
Rude nodded yes. That was how outhouses worked.
"Fucking hell. No wonder nobody lives here." A very dark, disturbing thought came to Reno. "Uh, if those losers don't show soon and we're stuck here for awhile, we're not going to have to…" He couldn't bring himself to say it.
"It'll be an experience, Reno. You can tell your grandkids about how it used to be in the old days."
"Yeah, 'cause there's nothing little kids like more than hearing stories about how grandpa used to take a dump."
Reno stalked off in disgust. Underneath his sunglasses, Rude gave the shacks another look. Yes, it would be an experience. It just wouldn't be one he personally wanted to go through, despite his cool reassurances to Reno.
Fortunately, Rude was a man of control. A few hours meant nothing to him. If it dragged on longer than that, Rude was also a fast runner. That house on the coast was just a few miles away. It was big, it looked fairly modern and most importantly, there weren't any tiny, ramshackle buildings with crescent moons carved on the door anywhere near it.
[AVALANCHE has yet to appear. We have surveyed the town and mapped all locations of entrance and egress. I can only concluded our targets have been delayed. We will continue to monitor the town. Currently, we are attempting to acquire supplies. We are meeting resistance.]
"How the fuck could they be closed?! It's six o'clock. Six fucking o'clock!"
"You heard the shopkeeper, Reno. That's a late hour for a town like this," Rude replied, eternally calm.
Reno continued to curse the town, becoming a virtual thesaurus for the words "backwater" and "rubes" in the process.
Elena ignored the ranting. She had her own, fully stocked supply kit. If Reno had just gotten his act together beforehand, they wouldn't even be in a situation where they would need to get into a shop. She patted the black leather case containing the recommended items in their recommended quantities. This might be the perfect opportunity to teach Reno an invaluable lesson on the importance of preparation. She could just picture one of local beasts singing Reno into a toad while she hovered in the background waving a Maiden's Kiss that she would not use until someone ribbitted that he would start following regulations.
Her reverie was interrupted by more grumbling. It came from Reno's stomach. He was almost afraid to ask. "Let me guess, all the restaurants in town close at three in the afternoon?"
"Restaurant, Reno," Rude explained. "There is no plural." He pointed out the small business, which, coming as a shock to no one, had a closed sign hanging in the window.
[We've completed reconnaissance. Progress was rapid as no one would answer their doors.]
"You know," Reno speculated, "if everyone goes to bed by six-thirty, shouldn't this town be a lot more populated?"
"The high median age of the town inhabitants coupled with lack of medical facilities to treat disease prevents this town from expanding its population naturally through a steady birthrate and artificially through attracting immigration," Rude recited.
"Thank you, Mr. Trivia," Reno sing-songed in response, not sounding thankful at all. Under his breath, he added, "Or should I say Elena."
Elena's excellent hearing caught the barb, but her professional demeanor dismissed it. Whining wasn't going to get the job done and, despite AVALANCHE's continuing no-show status, they still had a job to do. "Perhaps we should review our strategy one more time. It never hurts to be prepared." She tossed a glare Reno's way, hoping to start that particular lesson a little early.
"Really, Elena?" Reno smiled facetiously. "I would think having a big, pointy stick up your ass about following regs might be a tad on the painful side, don't you?"
Rude deliberately avoided getting involved in the subsequent squabble between the forces of order and chaos. Childish bickering was not his thing. Instead, his attention was on a small monster that had wandered near the border of the town. Its lack of colorful plumage signified it was not of the poisonous, toad-changing variety. Though Reno had been the one to complain of hunger, Rude wasn't immune to the need for a good dinner. He fingered the fire materia embedded on the protective bracer hidden beneath his navy blue blazer.
Medium or well done?,he pondered. Before a choice could be made, an indignant squawk from Elena sent the animal scurrying into the bushes. Rude had had enough of this. "If you two could have just kept your damn mouths shut, I could have gotten us some food. But you had to fight, so it got scared off."
"What are you talking about, Rude? Did somebody from that restaurant come out here?" Reno had been born, raised and trained in the confines of Midgar. There were two or three restaurants on every street there. Sometimes, as was the case for an especially pervasive coffee shop, there was more than one of the same restaurant. Hunting for him was tracking down a fugitive from Shinra.
But Elena had come from Kalm, a substantially less developed town than the sprawling mega-city that spawned Reno. And though it was light-years ahead of Gongaga, the denizens of Kalm had to rely on the occasional piece of free-range game to fill their stomachs. Elena surveyed the twitching bush that concealed the prey. A fire spell would ignite the surrounding dry grass and likely overcook the beast. Thunder might blow the thing apart, ice would freeze it and make it impossible to cook right away and earth might crush it.
Confuse it is then.She thought cagily. Let it stay there spinning in circles while I just waltz up and catch it.
Reno and Rude would be so impressed.
And they would have been too, if the damned creature hadn't had a reflect spell securely in place. Elena caught the glint of the protective shield just as the light of her spell left her fingertips but it was far too late by then. All she could do was dive out of the rebounding spell's way.
Well, maybe she could have warned Reno too. Rude had managed to dodge, but the red-haired Turk was swathed in the aura of the spell. He staggered around woozily as it began to take effect.
Elena and Rude regrouped, ready with a Remedy or a quick smack to Reno's head to snap him out of it.
"Where am I?" Reno asked dreamily. "Who are you two dapperly dressed people? My, what a quaint little village I'm in! All the lush greenery and rustic homes, it's just so cozy! Ah, I could breathe in this fresh air forever!"
"In Bahamut's name, Elena! How fucking strong did you make that spell?" Rude demanded.
"Spells always get stronger when they're reflected," she answered timidly.
"Why hello there, Mr. Tree! Aren't you big and leafy!"
Rude shook his head in revulsion. "I'm not wasting a Remedy on this. And if he keeps rambling on like that, I'm gonna need to hit him."
"Listen to the birds. Chirp! Chirp! Chirp! Such happy birds!"
Elena gave her assent. "Make it quick. Please."
So it was that Reno never got to fully express his appreciation for the life giving light of Mr. Sun or the enchanting glow of Mr. Sun's cousin, Mistress Moon. Rude's fist to his face cut him off short at the part about rays of pure, golden love.
[AVALANCHE has yet to appear. Rude and I spent the night on watch to no avail. Reno is…recovering from an incident.]
Reno awoke on the cold Gongaga ground with a black eye and a throbbing cheek. He wasn't sure how they got that way, but he was pretty sure he didn't want to know either. Elena and Rude regarded him sleepily.
"Still not here, huh?"
"No, Reno," Elena said. "And honestly, their tardiness is starting to annoy me." Elena rose and stretched her tired muscles. "You two can watch out for them. I'm going to check out the restaurant."
Reno was surprised to see Elena willingly leave her post, but didn't make a single joke at her expense. Whoever had hit him had hit him damn hard and he was too groggy to take the risk that it had been Elena. He did ask her to bring back a bagel or two. Rude muttered his doubts as to if this town even had bagels.
It was clear Rude was ready to nod off, so Reno took it upon himself to get a conversation going. He wasn't going to pull guard duty alone. With Elena safely away, he felt free to address a topic that had been popping up in his thoughts since that day on the Sector 7 pillar.
"So, Rude, those AVALANCHE chicks…Which one do you like?"