I began this story some time ago as a side project to Shards of Memory, but it dried up due to multiple reasons. But I still like the concept and my creative juices are freed up, so I'm giving it another shot. Please give me feedback because I want to know you guys are interested in me continuing it, and this time I could use the motivation to keep going. Enjoy!
"We've looked down every street twice, there's no sign of them. Orders sir?" Rod frowned and brushed aside spiked brown hair to tap his earpiece, a burst of static from the radio buzzing his ear. He told Veld they needed new equipment, but Shinra wouldn't pay, all the spare funding was devoted to the science or urban divisions. After a moment the line cleared up enough for Rod to make out his commander's voice.
"Move on to Sector 1, we'll send Orlana and her team in after you for a second sweep just to be sure. Keep sweeping fast and wide, don't give them time to move around. We've locked down the gates, so they won't be leaving the city. They can't run forever. Find them."
"Understood." Rod turned and gestured to the five Shinra infantrymen standing at attention behind him. He'd told Veld that the normal Shinra security were too brute for this sort of operation, they needed to be stealthy and fast. With their training and funding, the five men Veld had sent with him to secure Sector 8 were far from either. But they were all he had, and Veld had made a good point – though they individually were perfect for the job at hand, the Turks didn't have enough manpower to search on their own. Stealth and speed were not the only requirements, their reach had to be wide as well, and the Turks were too small for that.
"We're heading to Sector 6 now, Orlana will sweep in after us," he announced, waving the five forward. With a salute and a flip of their rifles into a more ready position, the Shinra guards followed the Turk down the street towards the iron gates separating the sectors. The city's plates and the trains connecting them to the slums below had only gone up the previous month, construction on the outer wall and streets were still progressing. As a result steel girders, piles of gravel, and various other stacks of building materials littered the area. There were any number of places for them to hide.
"I'm tired of cleaning up after Hojo's messes. We're Turks, not janitors. If he can't keep his specimens under control it shouldn't just be shunted off to us." Rod thought, running a hand through his hair. But then this wasn't a normal matter, not some escaped animal or rogue assistant selling information to an anti-Shinra group. The escapees from the tower were given top priority, the order to recapture them coming direct from President Shinra himself. Officially, none of them were told why they were searching for these two specifically, just given a visual description and assigned a sector to search. But Rod had heard the rumors drifting around on his way out of the Shinra building. If they were right, then maybe the five troops behind him weren't enough.
As the six moved down the street, a darkened shadow moved in an alleyway. A dark red hood lifted, and bright green eyes gazed out over the street. Leaning out to watch them leave, the woman pulled back into the alley and let out a sigh of relief.
"Are they gone mama?" The woman looked down at the girl holding onto her skirt and forced a smile for her sake.
"For now, sweetheart," she said, kneeling and putting her arms around the girl. "Come on, we need to keep moving." She hefted her up against her chest and stood. "And remember what I said."
"Be quiet and run if you tell me to," the girl recited, wrapping her small arms around her mother's neck and leaning her head against her shoulder. The woman took a breath and patted her daughter on the back of the head.
"That's right sweetheart," she sighed. With her free hand she pulled the dark red cloak over her shoulders tighter and headed deeper into the alley, looking for an alternate way to the next sector. The Sector 8 trains had shut down when they had escaped, and if they tried to flee down the highways they'd be stuck out in the open, easy targets. With the Shinra men sent onto Sector 1, there was only one other place to go if they wanted to find a way out.
"Mama," the girl whimpered. The woman looked down at her, the child's bright green eyes reminding her of her own. "You're scared." The woman swallowed and nodded.
"I know, I know…it'll be alright Aerith, just hold on to me," she whispered, turning and briskly walking down the alley, trying to keep her footsteps silent. Aerith pulled herself up slightly and watched the pavement behind them bounce in time with her mother's footsteps.
"I don't care if I die getting out…they won't have her. They can't."
"Remember, Hojo wants them taken alive, so shoot to incapacitate, not to kill," Orlana ordered, turning to the grunts behind her. Long blond hair tossed over her shoulder and a hand on her hip, she ignored a lecherous muttering from the one grunt and focused on their briefing. There'd be time to arrange disciplinary action for him later. "Rod's already been through here, we're sweeping just in case he missed them, so make it fast but thorough, likely nothing but we can't slack on the off chance they're here. Once we're done here we'll head back to Sector 7 and meet up with Harrison's group for further orders. Understood?"
"Yes ma'am!" the grunts said in unison, splitting up to head down to the streets. Orlana looked up at the brightly lit LED display over the metal gate behind her, the words "SECTOR 7 – JOULIARD BOULIVARD" scrolling along in bright red lights.
The order had come to shut down the trains in Sector 8 and close off the highways to try and keep them contained in the one location, but the Turks and the guards under their command had been at the search for an hour now and there was no sign of either of them. They had likely slipped into another sector, and if they had then there was no way to tell where they could be, they could even have gotten below the plate by now. President Shinra said they were planning to lockdown the gates between sectors, but for whatever reason he was taking his time doing it. The mayors of the old cities that had been compressed into what Shinra had named Midgar still tried to pull their weight around him, unaware they were mere figureheads now. They were probably the cause of the delay, Shinra ruled the area in practice but the red tape of politics still made trouble for them.
"Ifalna…where are you?" Orlana muttered under her breath, turning back and moving down the street. Behind her, Ifalna cautiously peeked her head out from the alley, watching the Turk move away. She waited until Orlana turned a corner, and then slowly stepped out into the street, keeping close to a pile of red bricks. Looking around, Ilfana's eyes looked at the Sector 7 gate, seemingly miles away. The trains might still be running there, and even if they weren't the tunnels probably hadn't been sealed yet. That was the way out they needed, if they could make it to the slums below the plate they would be safe for the time being. The people down there hated Shinra, there had to be someone down there willing to help them hide until they could escape the town for good. It was their only chance.
"Be very quiet," Ifalna whispered to the girl in her arms. Aerith moved her head against her mother's shoulder to show she heard, and Ifalna moved swiftly and quietly to the gate to the next sector, slipping into an alleyway to catch her breath for a second. Ilfana looked around the side, and the coast was clear, neither guard nor Turk was in sight.
"We're going to make it…we're going to make it…" she chanted in her head, trying to convince herself. Ilfana raised a hand to the back of Aerith's head and began to step towards the gate. Then, the loudspeakers on either side of the gate blared to life.
"WARNING, SECTOR LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS. CLEAR THE GATE."
Ifalna's head snapped up to see the three massive steel gates overhead begin to descend, red sirens spinning in-between them. She gasped and ran forward, her shoes pounding on the asphalt. Behind her, Orlana turned back from the street at the sound of the loudspeaker and gasped at the sight of the fluttering red cloak heading through the gate. She gave chase, snapping a hand to her earpiece.
"Veld, they're heading into Sector 7 off sector 8!" she screamed into her headpiece, running towards the gate. "Halt the lockdown now, they're gonna get through!"
"The order will never make it in time!" Veld shouted back. Orlana let out a growl and picked up the pace, running towards the slowly descending gates. She skidded to a halt as the gates stopped their descent with a loud thund, a crunching of gears signalling they were locking into place. Orlana slammed a fist into the steel and made a face. "Harrison's in that sector, he'll take care of it," Veld said through the earpiece. Orlana let out a breath and stepped back.
"That trigger-happy bastard better remember protocol this time," she said, speaking more to herself than to Veld.
"That was too close," Ifalna thought, stepping backwards down the street away from the closed gate behind her. Had she waited a few seconds more to break for the gate, it should have shut before her eyes and left her to the mercy of the Turks searching for her. Trying to calm her heart, the Cetra turned and looked around. The Shinra ordered clearing of the streets was still in effect, so there was no one around in Sector 7 either. Ifalna stepped down an alley and moved quickly, the distant sound of footsteps growing louder. For sure they knew she was close to the gate, she had to get away as quickly as she could. Stopping when the alley met a wall, she turned left and stepped back onto the streets.
"There!" Ifalna's eyes lit up at the sight of a bridge over a set of train tracks just further down the block. Train tracks that lead below the plate and to safety. "We're almost safe sweetheart. Almost there." Ifalna ran towards the bridge, looking over the railings lining the edges for some ladder down to the tracks. Finally, she spotted one on the far side of the bridge. With a genuine smile, Ifalna ran across the bridge and set Aerith down. "We're here, just a bit further," she said. Ifalna turned to place a foot on the first rung leading down to the tracks, and stilled at the sound of a metallic click only a few feet away.
"That'll be far enough, Ifalna," a voice called out. Ifalna turned her head to see another Turk emerge from the shadows across the street, a pistol aimed at her. "Nice little chase you lead us on. Not often someone manages to evade the Turks this long," the man said, smiling. He lifted his other hand to his earpiece. "Veld, its Harrison. I got her, she's at Kactar Bridge in Sector 7." Harrison turned his attention back to Ifalna. "This is gonna mean a promotion for me, maybe. Come on, Ifalna," he gestured her forward with the gun. "Let's go."
"I'm not going anywhere," Ifalna replied, shaking her head. This was the only chance they had been given in the seven years they had been held captive, everything had clicked as if pre-ordained by fate. Security was lax due to a company holiday, the experimentation she was about to be forced into was shut down due to a blown circuit, and it was time for the evening shift change as they tried to contact maintenance but failed. She had incapacitated the lone researcher and his bodyguard, feigning illness to grab the latter's gun and knock him unconscious before shooting the researcher in the knee to prevent pursuit. Grabbing her daughter from her holding cell in the chamber, she had slipped down the tower's stairwell and into the streets. Shinra would learn from this mistake, there would be more guards, more surveillance, stricter scheduling. A chance like this would never, ever come again.
"Now now, make this easy on us both," Harrison said. "Don't make me shoot you in front of your kid, really."
"You won't kill me," Ifalna said, smiling bitterly. "I'm too valuable to Shinra. If I die because of you, they'd sooner fire than promote you."
"Yeah. But hey, I said shoot you, not kill," Harrison reminded. With a pull of the trigger, the pistol fired. Ifalna cried out and fell forward to her knees as the bullet imbedded itself in her left shoulder. Aerith fell from her grasp and onto her back, Ifalna clutching her shoulder.
"Mama!" Aerith cried, reaching up to the wound. Ifalna glared up at Harrison, blood gushing from below her hand.
"See, that's exactly what I didn't want, listen to her, she's terrified now," Harrison lectured. There was a sound behind him as five Shinra troops filed in behind him. "Told ya we Turks didn't need the help. I got her all on my own," Harrison said.
"I'm not yours yet," Ifalna replied, forcing herself to her feet, stumbling slightly. Her cloak slipped off her shoulders to the ground. "I'd sooner die than go back to that hell. Shinra will never understand the true value of the things I could teach you. All you care about is money and power, and I'm not going to help you get it. Neither is she." A distant sound reached Ifalna's ears, and her eyes darted down.
"Yeah yeah yeah, nice speech but hey, no where else to go. Really, I'm out of patience." Harrison wiggled his pistol a bit. "Let's go, last warning." Ifalna made a face and knelt down to pick up Aerith. "There we go, see? Relax, it won't be any worse than before at least."
"It couldn't possibly be worse than before," Ifalna thought. "Aerith?"
"Yeah?" Aerith replied, looking up at her mother. Ifalna looked down at her and forced another smile.
"Hold on to me as tight as you can. And do not let go," she said sternly. Aerith's hands wrapped around her neck and clutched the back of Ifalan's blouse. The Cetra held her head high and spun around, the tips of her shoes poking over the edge of the bridge. The sound in the distance was louder now, loud enough for her to estimate a good time for her final gambit.
"Ifalna, don't do anything stupid," Harrison warned, suddenly nervous. Ifalna waited, took a deep breath, and jumped. "NO!" Harrison ran forward as Ifalna leaped, the train below passing under the bridge as her feet kicked air. Iflana landed on her back, rolling against something sharp, and reached on a hand. She found a handhold and gripped it tightly, her other hand supporting Aerith still clutched against her chest. Harrison watched her vanish down the tunnel from atop the bridge and screamed out a curse.
"Veld, she got onto a train to the slums!" he shouted, pressing a hand to his earpiece.
"Mama?" Aerith lifted her head to look at her mother, red and yellow bands of light flashing over them in the darkness as the train rode down the rails. "Are you okay?" Ifalna grimaced at the feel of blood seeping out of her shoulder and the wounds carved into her back and right leg by whatever she had landed on when she had jumped.
"I'm fine sweetheart," she lied, breathing deeply. "I'm fine…" "As long as I can get her to safety, that's all that matters. Just a bit longer…" Ifalna turned her head to see the tunnel end, and the train began riding down a long spiral into the slums below the plate. Ifalna hadn't seen them with her own eyes but knew the stories. The slums were a den for thievery, anti-Shinra sentiment and shady activities. But compared to the plate, it was the safer half of the city for them now. Somewhere here, they could get help. Surely someone would be able…
"Aerith, when the train stops we're going to climb down, okay?" she asked, her voice barely audible over the train's roar. Aerith nodded, and Ifalna turned her head back to watch the slums looming slower with every second. There was a gentle thud as the train moved to level ground, and Ifalna felt it slow down. With a slow groan and a creak, the train stopped at the station. Ifalna let go of Aerith and stood up, moving towards the ladder at the end of the car. She climbed down, her leg screaming at her with every step. She stepped onto solid ground and stumbled forwards two steps, collapsing against the lamppost on the platform. Aerith scurried down the ladder after her and ran to her mother's side.
"I'm…fine," Ifalna forced out. "Run, go. I'll catch up."
"I can't leave you!" Aerith protested, her eyes wide.
"Aerith, listen to me!" Ifalna shouted. "Go…don't let them catch you…" Ifalna leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "Just run…"
"Mama!" Aerith screamed, grabbing her shirt. "You have to come too, you said we'd go see daddy together, remember?" Ifalna forced an eye open and licked her lips.
A shadow fell over them, and both females lifted their heads. A helicopter flew overhead, a young man in a Turk uniform leaning out the side.
"No…please no…" Ifalna begged, slowly shaking her head. She began to push herself to her feet, then fell back down in a cry of pain. Blood was now visible on her left thigh, having run down from her back. The man leapt down to the platform at the helicopter flew lower, landing a distance away in a clearing among the rubble.
"This is Tseng, we've got them," the man said into his earpiece.
"Good, keep them in sight this time, we don't want them running away again," Veld replied. Tseng looked over at Ifalna, breathing heavily and holding her shoulder.
"I don't think that'll be a problem this time sir," he answered. Aerith looked up at him as he stepped closer and knelt down. "Ifalna…why?" Tseng whispered. "You should have known you never would have succeeded, even if they wanted you alive they would kill you before letting you go."
"I did know," Ifalna nodded, tears forming in her eyes. "But I had to try."
"Even if I couldn't make it…I had to hope she could." Tseng looked down at Aerith, who was looking back and forth between the two of them in confusion.
"We'll get you back to headquarters as soon as possible," he assured her, watching as two Shinra guards emerged from the helicopter with a stretcher. "If we save you…I guess there's always next time."
"Not for me there won't be," Ifalna whispered, closing her eyes. The guards set the stretcher down and lifted Ifalna onto it. Aerith's eyes went wide at the pool of blood on the ground, and she grabbed Ifalna's hand as they began to pull the stretcher up.
"What about the child?" one of the guards asked, looking down at Aerith. Aerith looked up at her mother, head rolled away from her, and turned and ran.
"Aerith!" Tseng ran after her, the young girl surprisingly quick. Behind him one of the guards pulled a pistol from his belt. A blast of yellow energy shot from it and hit a pile of rubble in front of Aerith, a field of electricity sparking into the air on impact. She stopped and hesitated, and Tseng caught up to her. The girl cried out and struggled but was unable to free herself as Tseng clutched her to his shoulder, arms holding her in place. He stood up, ignoring Aerith's small fists pounding on his chest.
"Was that necessary?" he asked as he came back. The guards had the ramp to the helicopter down and were loading Ilfana into the cargo hold.
"Just a distraction sir, I wouldn't have hit her," the guard replied.
"For your sake it's fortunate you didn't, we have orders from the Science Department to capture them alive," Tseng said coldly. He stepped into the helicopter as the ramp closed, and slid the door shut. Aerith pushed against Tseng's shoulder to free herself and he let her go, there was nowhere left to run now. Aerith slipped between the seats and ran to her mother's side.
"Mama!" she called out, grabbing her hand.
"She's lost a lot of blood, she's slipping in and out of consciousness," one guard said, tearing Ilfana's shirt at the shoulder to expose a bloody, messy bullet wound. Gauze was pressed into it, quickly staining red. Ilfana's eyelids were fluttering, her mouth slightly open. "We've got to get her to medical now or we're going to lose her."
"Whoever banged her up like this is in for an earful, the dumb bastard," the second muttered.
"Try and mind your language around the child," Tseng said over his shoulder.
"Then keep her up there with you," the guard snapped back.
"Aerith?" Ilfana whispered, her head turning to see her daughter.
"I'm here Mama," Aerith answered, her eyes tearing up.
"Mama loves you, sweetheart, remember that," Ilfana said. "I…I hope…" her lips continued moving, but Aerith was unable to hear her over the sounds around them, even when she put her head to her mother's lips. She was so intent on listening she hadn't noticed Ilfana's hand had gone limp in hers.
"What is the state of the two samples?"
"The mother has died, Professor Hojo, she lost too much blood in the escape. If the doctors had been able to attend to her on-site she could possibly have lived, but they didn't get her back here in time." Hojo's assistant adjusted her dark brown bangs as her superior received the news. Hojo was never in a particularly good mood, but it was easy to see he was angry now. Or at least, what passed for angry with him, she wasn't sure Hojo ever raised his voice above its usual drone.
"I see…a regrettable loss, very regrettable," Hojo mused, looking over the clipboard of notes in his hand. "And the child?"
"Alive and in medical being checked out, sir. She's physically fine, so far, but is quite frightened with everything that has happened," the assistant said.
"As well she should be," Hojo agreed. "Her mother nearly got them both killed today. At least we recovered the child, but…the loss of the mother will practically halt our research." Hojo found what he was looking for in the reports. Harrison had been the shooter during the search for the Cetra. Well, that was one less paycheck Veld would be signing each week.
"But the child is a Cetra too, isn't she sir?" the assistant asked. "Surely the research can continue with her."
"No, she's far too young to withstand the experiments without permanent damage, and at this age her powers won't be fully developed yet anyway. Even if they were, remember she's only half Cetra, she has only half the power of her mother," Hojo said, turning to a stack of papers on his desk and scanning the top one. "No no, we can't use her, not yet at least. It'll be years, maybe a decade before the Cetra research can continue. She's useless as a subject, at least for the immediate future."
"President Shinra said she's to be kept here under our observation sir."
"Yes, that old fool doesn't understand what he's asking," Hojo grumbled. He stood and clasped his hands behind his back, pacing behind the desk. "I've no use for her yet, any experiments we could try on her now would be too powerful for her to survive. And that's besides the fact that even if…hmmm…well…" Hojo trailed off, mumbling to himself. His assistant let him. Whatever dark train of thought was beginning to wind through Hojo's brain, she didn't care to know. There was a knock at the door, and Hojo turned an eye to it. "What?" he snapped. The door slid open to reveal an older man with greying hair. "Ah, Dr. Jackson. What news?"
"Professor Hojo," Dr. Jackson nodded. "I thought you might want to see the field reports from Wutai. This is the third major skirmish since the war began, and-"
"I don't see how I should care about some silly war, I have more urgent matters that require my attention," Hojo interrupted. Dr. Jackson smiled and held out a clipboard, adjusting his glasses with the other hand. Hojo took it and read over it. "Are these reports accurate?" he asked, looking up at him.
"Indeed they are sir. Sephiroth single-handedly defeated an entire platoon of Wutai troops in direct combat without incurring any injuries," Dr. Jackson nodded, his smile widening. "His abilities in the field are exceeding anything he has shown in training, even beyond our most promising simulations. The other SOLDIER units are also reporting impressive performances, though none as good as Sephiroth's."
"Of course they aren't. Thank you for this information, it's an unexpected pick-me-up in an otherwise frustrating day," Hojo smiled, handing back the clipboard. "Be sure to pass this information along to Hollander, be sure he understands this proves my experiment is the successful one."
"Yes sir," Dr. Jackson nodded, leaving the room. Hojo sat back down at his desk and clasped his hands in front of his face. Underneath his fingers, he slowly smiled.
"Ah, sir?" his assistant prompted. "What shall I tell President Shinra about the Cetra? If she's of no use to us then-"
"On the contrary." Hojo interrupted, chuckling slightly. "I have just thought of a use for her. Quite simple really, and rather brilliant, I should have thought of this back when we first captured her and the mother."
"Sir?" his assistant asked, confused.
"How long has the mother been dead?"
"Time of death was just under an hour and a half ago, sir."
"Acceptable. And the girl, she's six, isn't she?"
"Hm, a bit older than I'd prefer, but…yes, that still ought to work well enough." Hojo leaned back and thought over his idea. Simple but brilliant, he silently chided himself for not thinking of it immediately. By all accounts it should have been something that ought to have come to him fairly quickly. But, better later than never.
"If we're going to have to keep that girl around for another ten years, we may as well get at least a bit of usage out of her."